Armagideon Time

I’ve recently been scanning eBay’s listings for reasonably priced copies of old Sears Wish Books. While there’s a excellent online depository of these holiday catalogs, it has a few unfortunate gaps which happen to align with areas of particular interest for me.

Besides, when it comes to this type of artifact, there’s no substitute for the weighty physicality of the genuine article…providing it wasn’t stored next to a quarter ton of used cat litter in a damp basement for three decades.

So far, I’ve managed to score copies of the 1980 and 1981 editions. Both were at the top of my want list because they spanned a very significant moment in kid-oriented consumer product — the post-Star Wars first flower of the Golden Age of Action figures, the Atari 2600’s shift from an expensive novelty to a must-have fixture for the rumpus room, and Dungeons & Dragons’ brief fad-driven surge into the mainstream.

I’ll probably take a deeper dive into this once the countdown ends, but I will say that I’ve been a little surprised by the shallowness of the inventory offered in these catalogs pages. When I was younger, their toy sections were the be-all, end-all of unbridled childhood greed, but the actual listings only represent a fraction of what was available on the aisles at the time. Entire lines are omitted or pared down to a single representative item, and broader trends compressed into an extremely narrow set of listings.

I’m sure a lot of it came down to supply chain politics, with Sears opting to prioritize favored vendors and in-house products for anything below the “a-list.” So Lego didn’t make the cut in either 1980 or 1981, but the Sears-branded “Brix Blox” got ample space to showcase its shameless knock-off product.

Likewise, the 1981 edition’s action figure section was limited to double-page spread of Star Wars toys followed by another page divided up between the Lone Ranger movie line, Clash of the Titans, and this hapless attempt to straddle two popcult epochs.

Today, Remco’s line of classic monster figures has gained an after-the-fact cult fandom, but the only examples I remember spotting in the wild at the time were a legless Frankenstein and armless Dracula buried at the bottom of some childhood peer’s toychest, biding their time until a hot date with an M-80 or half a can of lighter fluid.

It wasn’t until my college years that I saw the toys in their full off-model glory. For some reason I still haven’t been able to work out, Maura owned most (if not all) of the figures along with the carry case playset. It was just one of several early indicators that the lady was a keeper.

Recommended listening:

2 Responses to “Halloween Countdown: Day 5 – Like faking persuasion”

  1. Scholar-Gipsy

    I remember that Wish Book (I mean, I remember a lot of them), and the Remco monsters in particular. Oh, how I coveted them.

    I got the larger, 70s G.I. Joe-sized Dracula for Christmas in 1980 or ’81, and he was one of the prides of my childhood. But otherwise, the folks didn’t so much deliver on spooky toys for the holidays. (Okay, I also had the MEGO Wicked Witch of the West and her castle, both of which RULED.)

    The Sears Wish Books were one of my first exposures to the power of images in isolation: I built entire narratives and play patterns around just a cut-out image of toys from the Wish Book, just as a single illo in the AD&D Monster Manual could spark whole dungeons and adventures. Having the toy itself was heaven, but peeking in through the gates of paradise was often what I had to make do with, and so I did.

    Roleplaying games, with their conceptual abstraction based on art and text alone, were a natural next fixation for me.

    I’m not saying we’d ever be best pals or nothing, but one of the things I cherish about this blog is that it’s like reading about a parallel life lived less than an hour away. I’m within a year of your age, was born and grew up in a suburb of Worcester, and shared a similar love of way, way too many pop-cultural phenomena. It’s eerie, but in a good way, to read your missives from a literal and figurative right next door.

  2. Floyd Lawton

    Once again your blog reminds me of a toy I owned but had forgotten. I am only a few years younger than you and I dimly remember having that monsters playset. I think mine must have come from a yard sale, my dad was a big fan of them. I don’t remember having all the parts which leads me to believe mine was second hand.

    I agree with the comment above that the pictures inside the Wish Book frequently set the stage for how I interacted with the toys. I spent hours pouring over those pictures only a few of which ever made it down the holiday chimney.

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