Repackaging the Archive (Part III): TMNT; or, the Cultural Logic of (Late-)Toys

So hopefully the nearness to my last post might be read as a sign that I will actually update this blog on occasion, combined w/ the fact that I feel very good (and still guilty) about getting whatever apologia I felt was necessary out of the way.

I suppose it is a curious case to write about one’s childhood, to mine that terrible well of rosy-colored (or not, as the case may be) memory.  Not only am I sure there is probably a glut of scholarship, theorization, and practical investment in the specific aporias which accompany this type of activity, the activity of creating significant nodes out of the past which not only seem to inform one another, but also to inform one’s present (of course), but I am also sure that the distinct lack of this type of writing in my own various practices immediately renders me simultaneously incapable of doing it (I have a general aversion to “Children’s Studies,” no reason), while being perhaps uniquely situated to offer something, even it be completely useless or lacking in value.  The reasons for this aversion, reticence, and honestly general glee, should perhaps be generally apparent even in a fairly uncomplicated notion of “archive.”  Archives require selection—what will get in and how?  Where does one draw the line for inclusion?  Does the term “hyperarchival,” one I have at the moment failed to define in this space, suggest some kind of infinite, meta-, or self-aware archive?  (I hesitate to suggest a too ready affinity w/ something like Baudrillard’s “hyperreal,” if for no other reason than I think boiling down the unthought-through (at the moment) neologism “hyperarchive” to something like “more of an archive than an archive,” is not only redu(ctive)/(ndant), but quite simply wrong.)  Or is it, in this case, that the whole point is to withdraw as many markers, boundaries, limits, or definitions upon what actually does get in?  This point/question demands further development, as I have long been invested in theorizing (or perhaps fantasizing) an archive w/o the dimension of selectivity, but perhaps the current entry may function as an entryway into how/what this might look (like).

So anyway, I’ve been meaning to write about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (hereafter TMNT) for quite some time, and honestly, at this point, I am unsure if any of my initial desire or reason to do so remains.  What does remain, is that I am going to write about them, which in-and-of-itself may be the important thing anyway.  The Turtles, created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1986, for the then quite small, independent comic book company Mirage Studios, were initially quite crude, beer-swilling, incredibly violent, sexy, well. . . mutant teenage turtles, who were named for Renaissance painters (and sculptors), and were, of course, very highly-trained ninjas.  Looking back at the first issues of the initial run of the comic, they barely resemble the cute, cuddly, Saturday morning cartoon characters, and their later live-action version, which was to become their familiar presentation.  Shredder was just a dude.  There was no (at least initially) intergalactic dimensional movement, no Krang, no other mutants.  This is probably general knowledge for most people my age, as the heights the TMNT reached during their heyday infected virtually everyone I knew, male and female.  (I distinctly remember arguments on the playground over who got to be which turtle.)  So I won’t bewail their history other than saying their popularity was pronounced, long-lasting—there are still TMNT stuff today, but I am far from nerdy enough to find it for inclusion here—and in some ways inexplicable; there was a whole rash of “ninja” related stuff when I was a kid, perhaps the best was the Ninja Gaiden series on the old NES.  This in-and-of-itself probably deserves and has had attention elsewhere, so I will refrain.  What specifically interests me about them, was and is the logic and my relationship to their toys.

I had a ridiculous amount of toys when I was a kid, which was probably the result of an overzealous imagination/desire, far too generous (or spoiling) parents, an ability to be immersed in worlds of what I thought then were my creation, but really just me reenacting the capitalist narratives I’d been presented w/ already, my general archival impulse manifesting itself at a ridiculously young age, a combination of all these, or something else, which I’d probably have to go to therapy to figure out.  Either way, I had a lot of toys, a lot of different types of toys, video games, books, board games.  I could entertain myself until the world ended w/ the amount of shit I had (none of which remains. . .), and honestly, probably didn’t need any of it for that end.  (I’ve realized now that most of the antagonism b/t my younger sister and myself ultimately resulted from her feeling left out.  I could entertain myself for hours w/o her, but she’d feel whatever it is little sisters feel [still figuring that one out], and hence: fights.)   Most importantly though, for my specific relationship w/ the Turtles, was that it was ultimately encyclopedic.  I somehow felt I couldn’t actually play w/ them as effectively unless I had every one (again, I was probably also a spoiled little shit).  For my unending gratitude, or anger over enabling which only a true addict can feel, my mother was more than willing to indulge this specific problem I had—i.e. one Christmas, when TMNT was still fairly new, I basically received the whole archive of every one that had been released until that point, even a lot of the vehicles and other accompanying shit.  I can’t say I look back fondly on my younger self which felt this genuine archival lack in his ability to play, in having the desire to fill that lack, as well as the means, but hell—I was immersed in an orgy of late-80s/early-90s consumer culture which I not only didn’t have the means/knowledge to critique or resist, but had no idea there was an alternative (which I’m still not sure of. . .).  This was the era of the $600 (or whatever) Neo-Geo, the Sega Genesis which released a Sega CD and Sega Saturn, and some other crap—which makes the thing look simply ludicrous—Virtual Boy, the TMNT stage show, Saved by the Bell, and a host of other ludicrous nonsense which I could list until the eternal return of Casey Jones.  (Note: the above hyperlinks are to videos by The Angry Video Game Nerd, who I find to be actually quite a perceptive and illuminating critic when it comes to this era, if a little crude.  Also see his review of the first TMNT game.  I thought I was wholly alone when I just couldn’t get past the third [or whatever] level in it as a kid; I thought it spoke to a general inability in myself, rather than realizing, as I should have and now very much do, that, for all practical purposes, that game was transcendentally impossible.)  In short, I did, for a short time anyway (more on this later) have access to the entire “published” archive that was TMNT toys, and some of them were quite rad.

Though I may have been a bit spoiled, I truly did have a respect, almost a reverence for my toys.  I took extremely good care of them—usually had all the little annoying accessories w/ nothing missing, kept them housed and organized so no cross-cultural miscegenation would occur b/t worlds (wouldn’t want Optimus getting in w/ Dick Tracy, the lines of flight would shatter).  Furthermore, my mother would notice this, which probably didn’t hurt on the whole accumulation front.  But most importantly, I PLAYED w/ them.  Ad nauseam.  All of them.  I had a weird anthropomorphizing bent, where I would feel guilty (!) if I didn’t play w/ certain toys over a certain stretch of time; whether I thought they had feelings, or I was self-aware of simply how many I had and consequently could only justify the massiveness of accumulation by Catholic guilt play (again, therapy), they did not just sit there in boxes like they do for collectors (read: archivists) today.  I was always a bit thrown off by my friends’ lack of actually playing w/ their toys.  It just seemed like accumulation w/o the glorious release of true, fun play.

It would take me hours too.  I would invent these ludicrously complex narratives during play.  Usually they would be sketched from some initial conception of the field of the narrative, and then, once established, it would be permitted to take interesting, spontaneous, and at times disastrous turns.  There was always a battle royale, and everyone usually ended up dead.  They were practically Sophoclean.  I remember one time, over the course of weeks, I played out an entire scenario for Optimus Prime’s return from the dead, but I had to arrange all the political affiliations and betrayals which would occur, including the messianic ascendance of his son.  And I was like 7 when I did that.  These were not just objects to me, and I don’t think good/real toys ever are for those who really and truly play w/ them.  They were distinct, singular beings, often w/ a narrative history, whose object-status was put into play so as to facilitate the larger demands of the worlds I was constructing.  Perhaps my lack of any religious upbringing whatsoever necessitated, on some James Frazer-esque level, to reconstruct origin myths or whatever in play.  Or perhaps there is something inherently narrative about play, or vice versa.  Either way, the thing which sticks out to me so much about TMNT was the will toward total archival object possession so that this type of play could really take place.  There was never really a possibility w/ other toys—I arrived too late.  G.I. Joe had been around forever, and the Transformers was by then an impossible archival institution (and they were really expensive).  But w/ TMNT there was a brief, shining, early moment when one could actually—w/in the bounds of reason, sense, and a parent’s pocketbook I didn’t really understand—have all of them.

And I did.  For like one season.  See, the whole logic of action-figure toys, of Barbie, really any toy whatsoever, is that you can’t really be a successful toy company unless you are constantly making it impossible to own all of them.  (Of course there is a lot to say about desire, etc., here.)  A toy company that released a line like TMNT and, say, made thirty toys, and no more, would fail.   Esp. if the television show, live action movies, etc. were still being made.  This doesn’t even seem like a point to belabor very much, as it is banal to even be saying it.  But something about TMNT, for a short while, made it seem possible to do just this: own all of them, the entirety of the plastic archive.  Perhaps it was the fact that the four main characters all had exactly the same body mold—i.e. super cheap and easy to produce and get the “core” of the brand.  Perhaps there was something like treasure hunting: certain figures were quite a bit more rare than others, and finding them always felt like a coup.  Perhaps it was the fact that certain really rad looking toys appeared which had no correlative in the cartoon or comic.  Perhaps, after having read the really excellent comic (makes the cartoon look like what it was, for kids), and finding characters that had appeared there, and I knew who they were also felt like a coup.  Perhaps it was so many objets.  Whatever.  For that brief moment when it was possible to play w/ the entire archive—those are my most fond memories of toys.  The times when I, for lack of a better term, “knew what I was doing” w/ toys and play, even if I never could have articulated it.  W/ baseball cards, there is never even the possibility of total archival achievement.  Never.  W/ a new(ish) brand of toys, there was.  Plain and simple.  The logic of each is the same.  The archival play and archival jouissance is the same.  But one can never get at the totality of the archive of something like baseball cards.  To even do so would be to suspend what makes them enjoyable—their status as always partial archive, as always in need of supplement.

Of course the ending of this story is predictable.  Very shortly, TMNT kept releasing toys, and they got increasingly stupid, and in my young mind, unnecessary for addition to the archive.  (Sewer Surfing Michelangelo suggests itself.)  I think, and here my memory is hazy, that just the fact that my archive was “once” complete was enough to render the rest insignificant.  And then I grew up and forgot all this.  I think I eventually gave them all away to Goodwill (which I don’t regret in any way).  And probably ultimately sublimated on other things that could be archived: obscure power-violence, post-structural theory, reference books.  But never again will I have the complete archive of something, unless it be a single author, but even then. . . .  Nor do I really have that same desire anymore.  It is like, having achieved the complete archive of, well, at least something, one never really has to concern themselves w/ totality in the same way ever again.  You’ve seen the promised land, been there, cavorted through the trees for a while, and then realized there was an infinity beyond it, even though it was sufficient in-and-of-itself, so left, not looking back, but were able to retain a few fond memories, and perhaps even nostalgic, throw-back blog posts for a project you didn’t realize you were formulating, but now, after all these years, can accept.  Or perhaps I was just a sucker.

There will be more parts.  The archive will always be repackaged.  It is never total.

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