I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how and why I collect. Whether it’s refining and focusing on specific items, trying to curb the urge to splurge on modern collectibles, or just simply questioning why I want to do it on a fundamental level. A good portion of this pondering has led me to question what is it exactly that I care about in the things that I collect. When breaking a piece down there are a number of aspects that add or detract from the collectability of the item. Is it vintage, what kind of shape is it in, is there any personal attachment of a similar item from my childhood, is it “worth” anything, is it rare or obscure, is there a pedigree to this particular item (e.g. did the piece come from a famous collection or was it owned by someone noteworthy), etc. Every one of these criteria have different levels of importance for every individual piece, and this is something that makes collecting a rich experience. Every piece has a story. But sometimes there are things that we just want. There’s a pull in the gut to pick something up and that desire can be so overriding that the collector, the curator of your museum of storied pieces, takes a backseat to convenience.
A few years ago, before I made the move from Atlanta to Baltimore, I took a tour of some of my favorite places knowing that I was probably never going to get the chance to visit them again. One of these was a great vintage toy store out in the middle of nowhere that I was always able to find some decent, cheap vintage toys. On one of these final trips I ended up picking up a cherished childhood Transformer, Afterburner from the Computron combiner set. The toy was still mint on card and included inside the package was a short comic and mail-away order form for a set of three figures, a mini-combiner set known as the Decepticon Reflector. Reflector, a toy made up of three robots that form into a single lens reflex camera, has forever been a piece that I’ve wanted to own. Of all the Transformers action figures my favorites have typically been ones that change into everyday objects. So Soundwave the tape deck, Blaster the Boombox, Perceptor the microscope or those rad Kronoform watches. The cars and jets are cool, but it’s harder to suspend one’s disbelief since none of these are to scare for obvious reasons, but the everyday items are usually pretty damn close (with the exception of Blaster of course.)
It was only ever available as a mail-away in the 80s, so it was kind of rare and I’ve never seen one in all my years of digging through antique and comic book stores. Though I never had the opportunity to get my hands on a Reflector, I always hoped that at some point the set would be reissued. Well, the other day I stumbled on an auction on eBay with a very affordable set of figures that were still mint in box. Something felt very wrong about the auction though. I knew that since the toy was a mail-away that the likelihood that Hasbro ever produced actual packing was highly unlikely (most mail-away toys come shipped in plain brown or white boxes and are sealed in plastic bags. On top of the packaging, the toy was shipping from China. Everything about this just screaming bootleg. But, offered with the Buy-It-Now option at $25 with free shipping it gave me pause. It made me rethink what it was exactly about my desire to own this figure that mattered. What is the “truth” of this toy for me?
It very quickly occurred to me that none of the typical criteria for collecting mattered with this piece. It isn’t a toy I had as a kid, vintage Reflectors in decent shape with all of the accessories command a fairly hefty price tag, and there are plenty of other pieces I’d rather buy in it’s place if I was going to spend that kind of money. But I still wanted it, and I was extremely curious about the quality of this bootleg toy. The seller seemed to be specializing in vintage, mint-in-box Transformer knock-offs that were all pretty affordable considering how much their “real” counterparts cost on the secondary market. Some of those knock-offs are toys that I used to own and that are pretty high up on my hunt list, and what if the quality was nice enough that I could own these pieces again? I decided to throw caution to the wind and buy the Reflector to test the waters. For $25 it’d at least be worth satiating my curiosity and I knew that I could at least get some use out of the experience.
Though it took a while to ship out, I received the bootleg Reflector in the mail this past week and I have to say that I’m pretty shocked at just how good the quality of this knock off really is. I was expecting a super flimsy box with poor printing and super cheap plastic reproductions of the figures and this couldn’t have been further from the truth. The box feels and looks like an honest to goodness vintage Hasbro product with heavy cardboard, great diecuts on the corners and crisp saturated package art. A lot of care was taken with the presentation from recreating the official tech specs, to including accurate correct English on all of the text. I’ve seen plenty of bootlegs at flea markets before, but they always have a ton of broken English and very poor packaging. The only detail that I noticed that was a bit off was the 1984 copyright/Trademark notice at the bottom of the package since this figure was released in 1986.
So, what about the toys themselves? Again, I was expecting super cheap, light weight plastic with absolutely no metal accents. And again, I was wrong on all counts. Not only did the figures have metal core pieces, but the plastic feels very much in line with similar toys I had as a kid. The paint is on par for 80s era Hasbro as well and not sloppy at all. The included stickers look accurate, are printed on nice foil paper and the figure even came with one of those old school heat sensitive stickers that you rub to uncover their Decepticon logo. In the world of bootlegs I’m pretty sure that is going way above and beyond!
It wasn’t until I transformed the figures and combined them to form the camera alt mode that I noticed some issues with the quality. There was a little bit of plastic flashing on the figures, a couple little extra bits of excess plastic that needed to be shaved off with a knife in order to make the pieces fit properly in place. But this is also an issue I’ve had with actual legitimate Transformers toys from Hasbro, so it was hardly that big of a deal overall.
All in all I am pretty stoked with this purchase. For only a little more than the original toy cost back in 1986 I was able to nab this piece for my collection. But this raises some interesting questions for me. Since this toy is a bootleg, shouldn’t I feel, well, bad? Granted, it’s not like I’m putting anyone out of work buy buying this since no one is officially manufacturing and selling legitimate re-issue Transformers like this, but isn’t there something inherently wrong about adding a bootleg like this to a collection? Sure, there are a lot of folks that almost exclusively collect knock-off toys, but it’s very rarely toys that are so accurate that it takes a master toy detective to tell the bootlegs from the originals. Most folks who collect knock-offs do so because they are so cheaply and horribly produced. The attraction is the sadness of the doppleganger, the deformity, the horribly flashing issues, the terrible paint and plastic color choices. With a replica bootleg like this though, the only draw is in acquiring seemingly legitimate pieces at bargain basement prices.
To be 100% honest, I’m pretty conflicted. Though I’m not trying to pass this off as a credible G1 Transformer toy, it’s certainly something I’d have to mention if I ever had a fellow collector over to the house. At the end of the day, I know that I want this toy on my toy shelf. Looking at it and playing with it makes me happy, so it has found a home in my collection. The question now becomes, how far down this rabbit hole do I allow myself to go. The eBay seller also has a really nice gift set of the complete Computron combiner toys. That’s an item that I would very much like to reclaim for the collection, but now I have to figure out what is essential about the piece. What is the “truth” of the piece. Do I stick to hunting down a vintage set, waiting until I find something I’m happy with at the best quality/price ratio? Or do I tic this one off the list and order an affordable bootleg from China?