Monday, Nov. 15, 2021 | 2 a.m.
Steve Johnston’s interest in amassing a hoard of toys and action figures began when he was young. What started as a small trading hobby at age 14 became his profession — he’s the toy expert on the Las Vegas-based reality television show “Pawn Stars.”
“It’s a bit of a brotherhood,” Johnston said. “What, for a long time, was kind of looked upon as being nerdy, wasn’t cool, nowadays it’s cool to be a nerd.”
Everyone has a favorite collection, and for Johnston it’s Hot Wheels, the miniature toy cars emblazoned with vivid colors and designs created by American toymaker Mattel. His initial draw to sports cards led him to Hot Wheels, which when he was younger, he bought and resold, driving up and down the West Coast looking for the hottest rides.
“The toy companies, the manufacturers, they’ve caught on,” said Johnston, who is the programming and marketing director for Unicon, the annual convention for fans of comics and toys in Las Vegas. “Now, the stuff that is revitalizing is the vintage-styling stuff that reminds people of what the older stuff was.”
The same is true for other collectors.
In Las Vegas, toy collectors frequent toy shops, comic book stores or local yard sales to add vintage items to their growing collections. At these locations, residents like Johnston have found a smattering of rare and eccentric objects while conversing with other fans — some who have become lifelong friends — about their favorite toys and comics.
For some, nostalgia is a key ingredient to their collecting habits, and the draw of fan culture goes back to their younger years. Las Vegan Miguel Orta collects comics and action figures, a fascination he procured from his childhood trips to the comic store with his father and has passed on to his 17-year-old daughter.
When Orta was 10, his father gave him a hardcover copy of DC Comics’ “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns,” written by Frank Miller and illustrated by Miller and Klaus Janson, with color by Lynn Varley. The cherished copy is still on his bookshelf, he said, and will eventually be imparted onto his eldest daughter, an earnest manga fan.
“It’s something that most of us connect with our kids with as well,” Orta said. “I think a good thing for all of us is capturing that spark.”
Ben Morse, a visiting lecturer at UNLV and former editorial director of digital media at Marvel Entertainment, is entrenched in pop culture and fan studies as part of his work and observations as a fan himself. Seeing fan bases evolve throughout his 10 years at Marvel, Morse said he eyes a sharp competitiveness between followers of major franchises.
He said this shift came both from longtime fans seeing their formerly niche characters on the big screen and increased online discussions of the films.
“Around the time ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ came out, and suddenly it was these obscure characters that only hardcore comic fans knew who they were, like Groot and Rocket, and suddenly everyone knows who these characters are. … I think there was an initial sense of, ‘Why are these people playing with my toys?’ from a lot of fans,” Morse said. “But I think over time, it’s developed into this cool thing, like, ‘I was reading about ‘Black Panther’ before ‘Black Panther’ was cool.’ ”
Morse said this competition carries over to collectors, too. But while new followers may engage with Marvel through movie premieres or online discussion, compiling novel toys for one’s reserves requires more time, he said — and it can often be more expensive.
“If you’re collecting, you’re spending money, and I think there’s some level of respect to that,” he said. “If people are cosplaying or talking online about something, I think there are still diehard fans who are like, ‘Mm, this is our thing.’ But the barrier of entry to collecting is, there is one. You need to pay a financial price.”
While competition may drive some fans apart, for Patrick Robinson — senior civil engineer for Clark County, who collects comics, toys, vinyl records and art prints — collecting has brought him closer to other fans.
When browsing for items to join his collection, Robinson frequents toy stores — such as Toy Shack in downtown Las Vegas and Rogue Toys (owned by Johnston) on South Rainbow Boulevard — or garage sales. He says being part of the collector community has led to some close friendships.
“I met three or four of my current best friends through those sales,” he said. “It was just the experience of talking to someone who grew up with the toys, and it’s those conversations that make the whole thing worthwhile.”