Tom Franck: An Army of Jumbo Machinders.
Regardless of what toy you collect there are always the "Grandmaster collectors". You know the guys/gals whose collections you drool over. The collection that has items you didn't know existed. This should be the person to emulate, the person to aspire to, sadly they always end up being assholes. You know the type of "My collection is better than everyone's so I know more than everyone". Tom Franck is NOT one of those collectors.
About two years ago I started collecting Shogun Warriors and their Japanese forefathers, Jumbo Machinders and was amazed to find the total lack of information on them in English. I did however find an article in a small Asian-American culture magazine called Giant Robot. The article was an interview with Tom Franck, an American collector that had over 70 of them. I was shocked. 70? Damn. That's arguably the largest collection I have ever heard of. After reading the article I was sure that Tom would be a real prick.
Not long afterward I started an e-mail list for Jumbo Machinder collectors. The list was geared toward the small time collector that did not have endless amounts of cash to throw at their collections. Sort of a budget minded group that specialized in cheaper bootlegs and restoration as a way of collecting. Months passed and the list grew. We tossed around questions with different members answering them, each willing to share his knowledge. I started to notice that a guy by the handle of "jmachinder" was answering many of them, but more importantly he was doing so without ever coming off as "mister-know-it-all". I started paying attention and found that he signed his e-mail as "Tom". A few e-mails later I was amazed to find that our own "jmachinder" was the Tom Franck I had read about.
Tom is very easy going and has a wonderfully "mater-of-fact" writing style that makes it a joy to read his articles at Cool Japanese Toys. In the time I have known him, we have both made discoveries of previously unknown jumbos and even discoveries based on some know jumbos. Tom has always gone out of his way to answer questions and treats each "Newbe" with kindness and respect.
Tom was kind enough to answer my questions.
ZPB: What started your collection? What was the first JM you acquired?
TF: Like many, I had Shogun Warriors and Micronauts as a kid. When you're a child, a lot of rumors get started about entries in a toy line that you haven't seen in any toy aisles. I remember one kid saying he had all these GI Joes that a friend of mine (who was a GI Joe nut) had never heard of.
When asked to see them, the kid would claim that they were in his attic and they couldn't be retrieved because there were wasps up there - year round wasps that seemed to circle these alleged GI Joes while Christmas decorations and air conditioners were brought to and from the same attic without the similar fears. Most toylines have these rumors of extended entries, (Flash Mego, Star Wars Star Destroyer, etc.) but just like you could never "get to the mountains" in Battlezone, they were just wishful thinking, but justified wishful thinking. Kids cling to rumors like this because it would be the coolest thing in the world if the toys that we collected religiously had a vast, extended family that we didn't know about. The thing with Japanese toys, at least for kids growing up in the US, is that these rumors were completely true. What was available to us was indeed just the tip of the iceberg. Some kid who claimed to have a cousin with a Shogun that "wasn't one of the six you got" was probably telling the truth. Japanese toys were able to withstand the threat of wasps. I think a lot of Americans who grew up in the 70s and collect Japanese toys today had their own magic moment.
Where they individually made the paradigm-shifting discovery that there was more out there. A lot more. For me, it was a commercial for Twix candybars.
A kid was alone in his room doing homework. Suddenly, a Twix bar burst through the wall, accompanied by blinding white light and powerful wind, illustrating the power of the new taste of Twix. As the room filled with light, I noticed two of the "big Shogun Warriors" on a shelf and one of them was Grandizer. I watched TV continuously until the commercial appeared again, just to make sure I wasn't crazy. Although I had no idea how vast the extended Shogun family was, I was determined to find out. My first non-Shogun Jumbo Machinder was Daikengo, which I purchased while I was in high school from a dealer in Texas for $75.
ZPB: I had heard that you suggest starting your collection with the rarer, harder to find items rather then common ones. Why?
TF: Most collectors don't have an infinite amount of money. You can't buy every item you see. I recently went to an exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The works were from the collection of the Broads, this rich couple that made their fortune in real estate. Although the pieces themselves were wonderful to look at, I found myself also drawn to reading through the book that accompanied the exhibition. In it, the Broads discussed their attitudes and philosophies toward collecting art. It was fascinating to see how much these ideas translated to toy collecting. One of Mr. Broad's biggest regrets was that he wasn't willing to fork over the big bucks for some pieces that he felt he should have. Although he probably had (a lot) more money than his fellow bidders, he bowed out of some auctions early and it seemed to bother him later.
With Jumbos (or any massive toy collecting undertaking), one must decide what one wants and what the best strategy is in acquiring those items. If one is indeed going to collect all Jumbo Machinders in the best condition possible, you can either take the approach of starting to get as many as you can or starting to get the toughest ones you can.
Machinders have a massive range of rarity. There are Machinders that appear (in good condition) on the market every month, every six months, once a year, once every other year, once every five years, once up to now, etc. If you tackle the "easy" ones first and pass on tougher ones as they come up, planning on getting them later, there is a good chance you'll be waiting a long time before you see them again. Moreover, with the absolute most rare items, you might never get another crack at them. If you tackle the rare ones first, the biggest pitfall is that you might miraculously come across a second specimen later, perhaps at a better price than the one you snatched up earlier. But at that point, you can simply buy it and either hold onto it or resell it. Since it's a rare piece, it shouldn't be a problem. Once you get "all" the "rare" pieces, you should have little difficulty in finding the "easier" ones. The thing with Japanese toys is that it has been very difficult to determine comparative rarity. This has become less of a problem with the ascendancy of the internet. Monitoring auction searches over a long period of time appears to be a very good indicator in this area. It's revealed some pieces not to be as "rare" as previously thought while underscoring the true scarcity of others.
I realize that this goes against the natural instincts of collecting. Normally, you just want to get your feet wet with small items. As your collection grows, you become more comfortable acquiring more prestigious items. With Jumbos, while that comfort may come in time, the tough pieces may not.
ZPB: Other then Jumbo Machinders, what toys do you collect?
TF: I'm attracted to a wide range of other Japanese toys. However, my non-Jumbo acquisitions are based strictly on what interests me at that moment. One criterion I judge figural toys by what I call the "army aesthetic." As a general rule, a toy looks better when it's placed next to similar toys - and the more, the merrier. With toys, the total is definitely greater than the sum of the parts. The success of the army aesthetic varies from toyline to toyline. A row of "Fist of the Northstar" action figures doesn't do a whole lot for me. Each one fails to really amplify the group. Their stances are too dynamic and the detail of the sculpts becomes lost. Each one looks like it's captured in time rather than just standing in attention in the present.
Jumbo Machinders are the absolute best in my book for realizing the army aesthetic. Their static pose and simple colorations make them ideal to place next to each other, even in large numbers. But their size is what puts them over the top. A room containing a line of Jumbo Machinders is a good room to walk into. You can't ignore their power or their unity.
The ironic thing is that this sensation was not experienced by most Japanese kids in the 70s. Japanese boys, by and large, didn't have a lot of Jumbos. It's my understanding that a vast majority of them only had a few and often played with them outdoors.
Right now, the world of plastic and vinyl robots has my attention. I think that part of the reason for that is they are still vastly unexplored. The world of diecast is a lot less mysterious than it was five years ago.
ZPB: What one JM would you love to add to your collection? What's your Holy Grail?
TF: Garada K7. I've certainly made no secrets about my desire for one. I spend six months forging as accurate a replica of the original as I could. Part of the process included hiring a special effects company to laser-scan the arms and legs of Guren Goosu C3 (which are identical to Garada's) and having them take the data and machine-sculpt the parts in wax. Some people have speculated that resting the replica on my toyshelf would decrease my desire to have an original one. Of course, the exact opposite is true. In doing this project, I'm certain that I've studied the pictures of the only known "real" Garada K7 more intensely than anyone else. I guess it's made me even more crazy for it.
Aside from K7, I'm about 85% certain that a God Mazinga Jumbo was made in 1985 and sold only at kiosk stands in certain areas in Japan. I've never seen a picture of it. It would become my holy grail if Garada suddenly wound up in my hands.
ZPB: You have one of the most extensive collections of Bootleg (unlicensed) JM's in the world. What are your feelings on the ethics of Bootleg JM's and Bootleg toys in general?
TF: That's a pretty big statement. I think it might be colored by the fact that I have one of the alternate-color Great Mazingas made in Hong Kong, which I know you've been looking for (Authors note: This Bootleg is my Holy Grail! Does anyone know the alarm code to Tom's house?). Whatever the term, "bootleg," "unlicensed," "knockoff" or just "foreign" there are probably a lot of these Jumbos made across the globe that we don't know about yet. Very recently, on the CoolJapaneseToys.com bulletin board, pictures were posted of Korean versions of Godsigma and Grandizer that I'd never seen before.
As a whole, these toys have a wide range of legitimacy. While I would like people to play by the rules of trademarks and likeness usage, whatever results in the most jumbos to collect is what I favor. In terms of what I like in these toys, the farther it is away from the original Popy Jumbos, the more appealing it is to me. If a company in a non-Japanese country made a Jumbo of a character not produced in Japan, it would be a lot more interesting to me than say a new GodMarz knockoff, based on the sculpt of the original.
ZPB: OK. So are you for or agents them? Trash or Treasure?
TF: While I wouldn't personally advise anyone to infringe on copyright laws, as a collector, they aren't of much concern to me. Whether or not a toy has crossed the "t"s and dotted the "i"s in terms of licensing isn't as important to me as the aesthetics of the toy itself. It's not going to stop me from getting it. Is it wrong to break these laws? Yes. Am I glad that the breaking of such laws has resulted in a myriad of strange jumbos to collect? Of course. It makes the hobby more fascinating. Because a number of these types of toys may have skirted certain legalities, the sometimes had smaller runs and can be more difficult to find today. Moreover, knockoff Jumbos can be very wild in appearance.
ZPB: What was the most expensive JM that you have purchased? How much was it?
TF: Oh, you've got to understand how things have changed. In the middle of 1997, the fever of antique Japanese toys was at its peek. It was also a lot less clear what exactly was rare. I had an opportunity to get a Daikumaryu, which I'd never even seen in person before. However, it wasn't for sale. The owner had a short list of items that he would trade for. One of them was a rare tin Batman toy from the 60s. Coincidentally, I saw one of these Batman toys in an issue of "Toy Shop" the next week. It was for a mere $4,500. At that time, I just had the option of a screenplay exercised by Miramax, so I had some money. I bought the Batman toy and traded it for the Daikumaryu. In hindsight, it appears that if I had passed, another one would have presented itself at a slightly better price down the road. However, the one I got is complete, in very nice condition and has a good box. If I made a mistake it wasn't that I overspent on a rare item, but that I didn't have a good enough idea of the rarity of Daikumaryu. At the time, it was widely believed that Daikumaryu was more rare than the Grandizer Spacer. Now, I'd say the opposite was true.
I've come across plenty of bargains over the years as well so it all evens out.
ZPB: Given the fluctuation of collectable markets, are you concerned about the investment value of your collection?
TF: It is my plan to never sell my collection of Jumbo Machinders. Therefore, the only value that matters to me is of the ones that I don't have. If everyone in the world collectively decided tomorrow that Jumbo Machinders were worthless, I don't think it would affect me too much. First of all, these toys are rare. There are not a lot of them out there. If the Mona Lisa were deemed worthless, it wouldn't change the fact that only one person can own it. Tons of them wouldn't appear on the market simply because there's not a ton of them out there. Jumbo Machinders really need to be hunted down. The reason people hunt for them now and put them up on auction sites is because there's a market for them. If there weren't, people wouldn't be looking for them as actively.
ZPB: How many toy-buying trips have you made to Japan?
TF: Six. I haven't been in a long time. The trips became progressively less and less fruitful for me. And, in talking to people who made trips after I stopped going, it's not like I was hearing about all this great stuff that was available. The wealth of good toys at shops and conventions has apparently dried up to some extent. On the other hand, I only take those comments so seriously. When you're there, you're looking out for number one.
You only search for items on friends' want lists so much. I'm sure if I went again, I'd see stuff that excited me which was glossed over by the eyes of the people who said they saw "nothing great."
Moreover, the Internet has changed everything. People don't bring in items to sell to the stores and conventions the way they used to. They simply put them up on Yahoo, Japan, where you and I can essentially window shop from across the globe. A commission to Masato Shono (Japanese collector that will bid on and complete transactions for Americans for a small fee) is a lot cheaper than a plane ticket to Japan.
ZPB: What advise would you give someone who is just starting to collect vintage Japanese toys? Jumbo Machinders?
TF: Try and decide what and how you want to collect early on. It's easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cool Japanese toys out there. You see some people start out by trying to get as much as they can as quickly as they can. This means getting some toys in bad condition just to put on their shelf, which is fine. But later, you sometimes see these same people decide that condition is indeed important to them and watch them try and upgrade. It can be quite difficult to buy a bunch of non-rare toys in poor condition and try and resell them later.
Other times, you'll see people who decide to collect one thing full-force, then give it up completely in favor of something else. Just try and get stuff that you like. Figure out what's a reasonable price for items as much as you can. Completed auctions are a good reference for this, but be sure to look at more than one. One auction with a non-informed bidder can skew things quite a bit.
ZPB: What's your favorite Jumbo Machinder from your collection?
TF: I've often wondered if I was a child and I walked into a room filled with Jumbos and I knew nothing about them, which one I would say is my favorite.
It's possible I would pick Mekanda Robo. The gattling-gun- like missile launcher and shield spinners are easily the best gimmicks I've seen on any Jumbo. That said, I'm not a child and should select a favorite based on everything I know. For me, it's Guren Goosu C-3. Not only because he's probably the rarest one I have, but because I got him on my first trip to Japan in an exciting adventure and he was dirt cheap (40,000 Yen ($400 roughly). Also, I couldn't have made my Garada K7 forgery without him.
Remember great collections don't make for great collectors. In fact it's rare to find both. I count myself lucky to have seen pictures of Tom's collection and even luckier to have known Tom. - Brad