Action Figure: Toy Collector Matthew Casale

written by Bill Kopp

Most kids play with action figures. But not nearly as many collect them. Matthew J. Casale is notable in that regard: he's a grown-up toy collector, enthusiast and creator. The prime mover behind an annual event, *Assembly Required: The Asheville Designer Toy Expo, Casale brings his expertise to this unique pursuit. But it all really started years ago with his personal toy collection.

"My dad really started me on collecting toys in the '70s and '80s," says Casale. "He bought me Star Wars figures, G.I. Joe figures and everything that was coming out at the time." Casale believes that his father was every bit as excited about those miniature figures. "As a kid, I was just like, 'Give me toys! I'll take toys!" he laughs.

Casale's dad seems to have had a sense that there was something special about the complete packaging: he saved the boxes. "No other kids -- or kids' families -- did that," Casale emphasizes. "You just tore open the boxes and played with the toys; that was it." But not so in the Casale home. "My dad always hung the boxes up on the wall!" Casale often tells people that his childhood bedroom would be considered a pop culture museum today. He laughs again as he recalls a conversation he had as an adult with his dad. "You know what people hang on walls, Dad? They hang art!"

In fact the kind of figures Casale collects are art. "And designer toy culture is the appreciation of these things as an art," he explains. "These things were sculpted by somebody. They're artists; they painted them."

The 1980s in particular were a time when marketing directly to children was at its height. "And our young brains were zapped by those toy companies who were aiming directly for us," Casale says. Nonetheless, some of what was created in those days has lasting appeal, at least for some. Speaking of his generation, Casale admits, "We all eventually moved on, grew up, and did the responsible adult thing. We went to college, got married, had a family and then went and got a career or something. We put all that [toy] stuff behind us."

But then something happened. Casale says that around the turn of the century, "members of our generation stated coming into their own as artists." And new, more accessible media like two-part silicone resins became available to those artists. The companies that manufacture these toy-making tools make them "very user-friendly, with clear instructions," Casale says. So now in addition to collecting action figures, inspired by the best work of professionals, Casale makes his own.

"There are no classes on this stuff," he points out. Casale and his fellow collector-creators are all self-taught, sharing acquired knowledge in egalitarian fashion. His *Assembly Required event was created to celebrate and nurture this cultural phenomenon. But Casale admits that the concept is still unfamiliar to many. "I still get people walking into the event, looking around and asking, 'What is this all about?'" he says.

In response, Casale encourages newcomers to look around and find out. The *Assembly Required event is the local expression of a growing worldwide subculture. Casale says that larger events in California and New York helped get his kind of collecting on the map, and *Assembly Required builds on that popularity. "But when I created this event," he says, "I wanted to focus exclusively on independent artists."

Casale says that two of the most sought-after types of action figures among collectors are designer and bootleg toys. In collector parlance, bootlegs are knock-off toys, mass produced to capitalize upon the success of something else. "Like 'Dark Invader,'" Casale suggests with a laugh. "It was definitely a knockoff of Darth Vader."

Designer toys are custom-created, often in very limited numbers. "We can put things into a mold, take a head from one figure and the legs and arms from another," Casale says. "We can create our own character, and call it something different." He proudly shows off a favorite, Mr. T. Rex. Created by an artist calling himself Lab Monkey Number 9, it's a ferocious dinosaur, but with the head of a popular '80s real-life pop culture icon.

Casale readily admits that much of the value in his collection is intrinsic. It gives him pleasure. "It's a very expensive hobby," he admits, noting that his wife is "very, very supportive; she gets it." And he has already passed down his love of this peculiar art form to his own son. Showing off figure molds that his boy has made, Casale beams, "I even bring him into my studio to work with me."

Back to Lifestyle and Culture Main Menu