A regularly updated blog about my vintage Kenner Star Wars toy collection. Some stuff that I've recently acquired; some stuff that I've had since I was a kid. Some rare, some common, but all sharing the warmth, charm and character of the "first generation" of Star Wars toys - the ones we played with as kids in the late '70s and early '80s.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Book Review: The Ultimate Guide to Vintage Star Wars Action Figures

Let's get this out of the way right at the start: Kellerman this ain't.

Mark Bellomo has produced a slick, colourful introductory survey covering Kenner vintage Star Wars toys from 1977-85. The book covers action figures (both "mini-" and "large-size"), creatures, ships, playsets, and even coins. Droids and Ewoks toys are also covered in this slick, weighty 272-page softcover tome.
The content is displayed in "catalog" format. Each toy is taken in turn with ample clear photography, mainly of the figure/toy only, without box or packaging (Obi-Wan above notwithstanding). Some major identified variations are also pictured. Ships and playsets are photographed from several angles and excellent detail provided regarding their component parts. There is a "price range" quoted for each item, but the book is certainly not intended to be an accurate price guide. The text, however, concentrates on "in-Universe" information, telling us in (sometimes excruciating) detail about the background of the character or object and how it fits in the Star Wars universe canon.

Not only Trilogy information is mined, oh no. We get lots of details from the prequels and Expanded Universe stuff too. For example, did you know that Greedo's father, "Greedo the Elder", was also a bounty hunter? Me neither. It's an interesting factoid I suppose, but it's only marginally relevant to the original Trilogy and even less relevant to the toy line.

However, some of these factoids, even when toy-related, are just plain incorrect. For example, it's actor Sebastian Shaw whose face was used as a model for the Anakin Skywalker head sculpt - not David Prowse's mug!


I suppose it was inevitable that a mass-market oriented book about the toys would cross-over into a discussion about the Universe. There's only so much you can say about a mini-action figure that might be interesting to a casual reader. For example, discussion of cardbacks is limited to stating that the first issue are called "12-backs" because of the number of figures pictured on the cardback. "20/21B", same thing. But Bellomo states that beyond this, cardbacks are only referred to as "ESB", "ROTJ", or "POTF". Tell that to somebody who's looking for a 4-LOM on 47-back offerless ESB card ;-) Although to be fair, each character's debut cardback is referenced in its entry.

Okay, so I guess we know why the book is jam-packed full of information about the Star Wars universe - it's to fill the whitespace. Which is fine - if you're interested in the Expanded Universe.

Bellomo's writing style is also... complicated. Here's a quote that's typical, from the entry on the Droids ATL Interceptor:

"Utilized by the Fromm Family of Crime (a.k.a. the Fromm Gang) around 15 BBY, the spacecraft is used by the Fromms (see Droids, Sise Fromm and Tig Fromm) as an interceptor (see INT-4 and TIE Interceptor) where the ship functions to protect their weapons satellite, the Trigon One, and to subjugate and terrorize the inhabitants of the backwater Mid Rim world known as Ingo: specifically, R2-D2, C-3PO, and their masters, Thall Joben and Jord Dusat, along with their ally, Kea Moll (see their individual entries)."

Whew! How about:

"The ship was used by the Fromm Gang around 15BBY to protect the Trigon One (their weapons satellite) and to subjugate and terrorize the inhabitants of Ingo, a backwater Mid Rim planet."

The author also uses the same hyberbolic adjectives again and again... "impossibly rare," "incredibly expensive," every playset and vehicle's parts are noted as being "removable/easily lost"... it just gets a bit same-y.

Those are some examples of how the book might have benefited from more aggressive editing. Another example is a very confusing discussion at the beginning of the book about the terms "MIB" (mint in box) and "MISB" (mint in sealed box). Explanations are given of these terms, then Bellomo introduces the terms "MIP" (mint in package) and "MISP" (mint in sealed package), which have essentially the same meanings as MIB and MISB. Why?? It's incongruous and a waste of space, especially when some figure collecting basics like COO are not even referenced.

However, Bellomo can be commended in producing a worthwhile introductory text for vintage enthusiasts. If you're looking for a guide to what accessories come with what figure, or identification of some major variations, or just want to look at pretty pictures of vintage toys, then this is your book. It's comprehensive as far as it goes, covering all the vintage figures (plus Ewoks and Droids) plus creatures, ships, and even coins. It's all here, in colour, in one volume. The identification of the parts that come with each vehicle and playset is an invaluable reference. And the photos are spectacular!

But as reference for more advanced collectors and fans, there are things lacking. A major deficit, in my view, is the lack of information on cardback variations and more fundamentally, on packaging at all. Kenner's package design is one of the toy elements that's most attractive to collectors and enthusiasts and some pictures or reference on that would certainly be welcomed by the collecting community. This is especially relevant in light of recent developments in the world of reproductions - not only repro cardbacks, but reproductions of boxes and even inserts! I suspect that a major reason for this omission is that the toys pictured in the book are all from Bellomo's personal collection, and he may not personally own boxed versions of the toys - or maybe, like my own collection, his boxes aren't all in a condition that's "ready for prime time" ;-) However, if the book had included photography of cardbacks, packaging and boxes, there wouldn't be the need for all of the extraneous Universe information to fill the book.

I can understand the concentration on loose toys, and that's great. But even in accepting this focus, the lack of any information, or even any mention, of COO information as regards the figures is a significant deficit.

Collectors will love to use this book for parts reference to ships and playsets, and as an accessories/weapons guide for figures. The toy photography is also exquisite. But don't expect any meaningful discussion of packaging or cardbacks, figure variations or COO information. You may also find the excessive discussion of the Expanded Universe and Bellomo's florid prose distracting.

I guess in the end, the book is just a bit confused as to its purpose. Is it a collector's reference? Or is it a fan reference to character backgrounds and the "history" of the Star Wars universe? As it happens, it's a bit of both (almost more the latter than the former), and as such will likely have an increased mainstream appeal. I certainly recommend it for eye candy alone, especially at the price. However, this also means, unfortunately, that we still await the ultimate collector reference. Roll on Kellerman Second Edition!
 Verdict: Recommended for what it is, especially at the price.

The Ultimate Guide to Vintage Star Wars Toys by Mark Bellomo
Krause Publications
$17.70 from Amazon.com

EDIT: This review was mentioned on the Star Wars Collectors' Archive podcast (the Vintage Pod/'Chive Cast) episode 59. Tune in around 1:24 to hear for yourself :-)

1 comment:

  1. Nice review! I picked up this book to help me fill in the missing pieces to my loose vintage collection. The photographs and layout has been very helpful. I like it better than Sansweet's Action Figure Archive.