Modeling Monsters, Part Three

This is the third in a series of posts on a new project of mine exploring movie-monster fandom and “kid culture” in the U.S. from the early 1960s onward. My focus will be less on monster movies themselves than on the objects that circulated around and constituted the films’ public — and personal — presence: model kits, toys, games, and other paraphernalia. Approaching media culture through its object practices, I argue, reveals a dynamic space of production in which texts, images, and objects translate and transform one another in flows of commodities, collectibles, and creativity. [Previous posts can be found here.]

The line of monster models put out by Aurora starting in 1962 were not, of course, the first figure kits; neither were they the first scale plastic models. As Thomas Graham notes in his collectors’ guide Aurora Model Kits, the company’s first foray into the world of scale model kits was in 1952, with a line of airplanes. Other kits released by Aurora in its first decade of operation included automobiles, boats, submarines, tanks, and missiles. These subjects shared a set of qualities: they were based not on fictional, licensed properties but on existing real-world referents; not on organic, living beings (with the exception of figure kits, which I will discuss below) but on mechanical vessels; and, though they comprised a range of historical periods from antique cars (the WWI-era Stutz Bearcat) to the latest in mid-century aerospace experimentation (the Ryan X-13 Vertijet), favored transport technology and armaments from the two major global military conflicts.

This focus was unsurprising, given the circumstances of plastic kits’ emergence as a popular pastime in the U.S. after the end of World War II. The enormous social and economic changes following 1945 included a radical expansion of products geared to recreation, as factories and workforces were repurposed to drive an affluent North American economy (and a culture of advertising emerged in parallel to foment the necessary appetites). This prosperity played out simultaneously on two levels, one for parents and one for children; as Graham describes it, “Veterans from World War II and Korea resumed their lives, moving to the suburban world of ranch style homes with new Chevies, Fords and Studebakers parked in the car ports. Their kids rode bicycles, shot Daisy air rifles, watched Sky King on TV, listened to 45 rpm records, and read comic books. And they made model airplanes.” (5) As goods proliferated across the spheres of youth and adulthood, the toys of the former scaled down to cheaper, playable size the luxury items of the latter: cars in the garage were mirrored by model autos inside the house. Yet the objects of childhood supplied by mass culture also distorted and amplified the world of adults, condensing primal drives and half-repressed memories in material form: science-fiction serials, air-rifle weapons, and most of all the replication of wartime air- and seacraft in miniature suggest that children of the Baby Boom were awash not just in the detritus of overproductive industry but the solidified, visualized dreams — and nightmares — of the preceding generation.

In Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America, Steven M. Gelber situates the postwar explosion of plastic kits against a longer history of crafting and collecting that dates from the late nineteenth century, when social and economic changes in the workplace led to a colonization of domestic space and time by the recognized and hence legitimized world of handicrafts. “Before about 1880 a hobby was a dangerous obsession,” he writes. “After that date it became a productive use of free time.” (3) For Gelber, the paradox of such activities is that they reproduce the attributes of labor, such as regimented time and the creation of commodities, in a domain that should ideally be distinct from, and uncorrupted by, such labor.

Hobbies are a contradiction; they take work and turn it into leisure, and take leisure and turn it into work. Like work, hobbies require specialized knowledge and skills to produce a product that has marketplace value (even if there is no thought of selling it). … Hobbies occupy the borderland that is beyond play but not yet employment. More than any other form of recreational activity, hobbies challenge the easy bifurcation of life’s activities into work and leisure. (23)

Hobbies, in this view, have the ideological effect of industrializing the home, and reconfiguring domestic subjects as subjects of domestic labor — bringing what might otherwise be an unruly and disobedient space into line with the values and beliefs of modern capitalist society. This essentially disciplinary function did not preclude the very real pleasures that could be obtained from, for example, sewing, stamp collecting, or needlepoint. In addition, hobbies could represent complex negotations with the economy, as when items of furniture built at home replaced those that would otherwise have been purchased at stores, or when, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, hobbies took on new ameliorative significance as an inexpensive way to fill the working hours denied to the unemployed. Finally, hobbies remixed gendered identities and skill sets in unusual ways, as women explored newly authorized forms of creative expression and men adapted to more domestic roles.

For Gelber, however, the rising popularity of kits in the postwar period was a less positive development. Citing a 1949 catalog for the hobby supplier American Handicrafts, Gelber notes the way in which kits — prepackaged sets of items for assembly into everything from pot holders and pottery to woven stools and Indian beads — “severely limited hobbyists’ creativity but greatly facilitated their productivity.” (262) Because one could only build a kit into its intended object, and because this process required nothing more than the following of instructions, kits represented a more blunt and dire industrialization of home spaces and subjects, turning hobbies — sometimes literally — into paint-by-numbers activities, “no more art than gluing together a plastic model was a craft.” (263)

The kit was the ultimate victory of the assembly line. Whereas craft amateurs had previously sought to preserve an appreciation for hand craftsmanship in the face of industrialization, kit hobbyists conceded production to the machine. They became the leisure-time equivalent of the apocryphal Ford worker who, as his last wish before retiring, requested permission to finish tightening the bolt he had been starting for the last thirty years. Kit assemblers did not dream of designing the product or forming its parts. It was enough that they could surpass the Ford worker’s wish and actually assemble the whole thing. Forty years of assembly line mentality had transformed the public’s understanding of personal agency from that of the artisan to that of a glorified factory worker. (262-263)

The worst thing about kits, in Gelber’s view, was that “the hobbyist did not have to engage the hobby at a higher level of abstraction.” DIY projects or handicrafts built from the ground up required a hobbyist to solve many problems ahead of time, exerting his or her individuality through the choice of object and materials, along with the tools and skills required. With kits, on the other hand, “There were no preliminary steps, no planning or organizing, no thinking about the process. In other words, the hobbyists did not have to engage the craft intellectually.” (262)

Gelber’s history of hobbies in America stops around 1950, at the dawn of the plastic-kit craze — a time that saw sales of plastic models grow from $44 million in 1945 to $300 million by 1953. His critical reading of the kit phenomenon brings up valid points: this transition to a new era both of industry and recreation marked a profound reconfiguration of longstanding, and much cherished, traditions. The same period saw the diminishment of certain knowledges and skills shared by a public base increasingly dependent on the prefabricated products of mass culture: manufacturing and distribution technologies that Bruno Latour, by way of Marx, has called “congealed labor.” And while, as we shall see, his derision of model-kit building as limited and artless pastime requiring no creative input from the assembler ignores the kinds of transformation, circulation, and sharing that would come to define object practices in 1960s horror fandom, it is easy to imagine the more generous readings that contemporary hobby culture, outside the scope of his book, might engender.

In the next installment, I will turn to the heyday of Aurora, from 1962-1977, and the line of monster kits that made it a success.

Works Cited

Gelber, Steven M. Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Graham, Thomas. Aurora Model Kits. 2nd Ed. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2006.

Modeling Monsters, Part Two

This is the second of a series of posts on a new project of mine exploring movie-monster fandom and “kid culture” in the U.S. from the early 1960s onward. My focus will be less on monster movies themselves than on the objects that circulated around and constituted the films’ public — and personal — presence: model kits, toys, games, and other paraphernalia. Approaching media culture through its object practices, I argue, reveals a dynamic space of production in which texts, images, and objects translate and transform one another in flows of commodities, collectibles, and creativity. [Previous posts can be found here.]

Although Famous Monsters of Filmland launched its first issue in 1958, the figure that grounds this study — the Aurora line of plastic model kits based on classic movie monsters — did not appear there until the middle of 1962. Up to that point, the magazine’s “Monster Mail Order” pages featured a collection of materials sharing a vaguely horrific theme: shrunken heads, monster hands and feet, talking skulls, dangling skeletons, and — usually set off on a page of its own, bordered in black — a line of rubber masks that included Screaming Skull; Witch; Vampire; Igor; and Werewolf. By Issue 3 (April 1959), “monster stationery” and 3D comics had been added; by Issue 5 (November 1959), horror movies themselves joined the lineup, with full-length and abridged versions of The Phantom of the Opera (1925), It Came from Outer Space (1953), and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) available for home viewing in 8mm and 16mm versions.

I will return to the range of products featured in FM’s advertising pages later, as part of a larger consideration of the magazine’s content and evolution. But for now I want to focus on an ad that appeared in Issue 18 (July 1962) for the first of what would become a long line of monster kits from Aurora:

Selling for a dollar (plus 35 cents postage and handling) from the newly-formed Captain Company, which operated out of FM’s original home base in Philadelphia, this figure differed from the other products advertised in the magazine in that it wore its DIY nature on its tattered, graveyard-smelling sleeve. A finished and painted version of the kit appears beside an exploded view of its parts, emphasizing rather than eliding the act of construction required to make it whole. Reflecting this, the ad copy trumpets:

YOU ASKED FOR IT — AND HERE IT IS: A COMPLETE KIT of molded styrene plastic to assemble the world’s most FAMOUS MONSTER — Frankenstein! A total of 25 separate pieces go into the making of this exciting, perfectly-scaled model kit by Aurora, quality manufacturer of scale model hobby sets. The FRANKENSTEIN MONSTER stands over 12-inches when assembled. You paint it yourself with quick-dry enamel, and when finished the menacing figure of the great monster appears to walk right off the GRAVESTONE base that is part of this kit.

Taken with the insistent second-person you, the conscious avowal of the kit’s “kit-ness” suggests that, from the start, the appeal of modeling monsters stemmed from its inherently involved and interactive quality: not just activity, but your activity was needed to bring this monster to life. The advertisement hailed readers of FM in a textual foreshadowing of the later “objectual” interpellation promised by the plastic kit itself. In addition, the agency of the reader-cum-builder blurs into that of the creature, which, though a static and nonarticulated figure in its final form, “appears to walk right off” its base. In all, this first appearance of an Aurora kit in FM embodies a nested series of felicitous symmetries, down to the choice of its subject: the Frankenstein Monster, which, in both the Mary Shelley novel that originated it and the 1931 film adaptation that supplied its most iconic rendering, was built from dead parts — an act of promethean “assembly” whose fulcrum is precisely the animate/inanimate divide.

The same principle, of course, could be said to underlie any plastic model kit, whose essence is that it comes in pieces requiring assembly by its owner. Model kits thus metaphorize the object practices of 1960s monster fandom, which similarly took the “pieces” offered by mass culture — in this case, the archive of Universal Studios’ classic horror-film output of the 1930s and 1940s — and transmuted them through a variety of activities into a variety of forms. Significantly, these activities and the forms to which they gave rise often involved movement along what I will call the dimensional axis of media fictions: from printed texts and two-dimensional imagery (both still and moving) into three-dimensional shapes and artifacts. The rubber masks, motorized banks, desktop dioramas, and clay figurines that replicated in the bedrooms and basements of FM readers manifested in material form the texts and images of horror movies and TV shows, enabling fans not just to buy and build, but handle and share, horror culture in tactile form. In turn, these objects often fed back into the production of new texts and images, for example the filming of amateur 8mm monster movies. All of these aspects of horror-media culture came together in Famous Monsters‘ readers, writers, editors, and vendors, and the play of texts and objects that bound and defined them.

In the next installment, I will look more closely at the history of model-kit building as it emerged from hobby, crafting, and collecting cultures in the first half of the twentieth century and, with the introduction of injection-molded plastic kits after World War II, became big business.

Modeling Monsters, Part One

This is the first of a series of posts on a new project of mine exploring movie-monster fandom and “kid culture” in the U.S. from the early 1960s onward. My focus will be less on monster movies themselves than on the objects that circulated around and constituted the films’ public — and personal — presence: model kits, toys, games, and other paraphernalia. Approaching media culture through its object practices, I argue, reveals a dynamic space of production in which texts, images, and objects translate and transform one another in flows of commodities, collectibles, and creativity.

In July 2010, a glossy publication appeared on newsstands, its cover adorned with a colorful Basil Gogos painting of Bela Lugosi in his iconic role of Count Dracula. Under Lugosi’s leering portrait run the words The Return of the World’s First Monster Fan Magazine! Inside, Publisher Philip Kim and Editor in Chief Michael Heisler’s introduction (titled, in punning fashion, “Opening Wounds”) frames the new magazine both as tribute to and continuation of Famous Monsters of Filmland, the long-running brainchild of professional horror fan and collector Forrest J. Ackerman. Ackerman, who died in 2008 at the age of 92, published Famous Monsters with James Warren from 1958 to 1983, after which the title passed controversially among several different hands before its official relaunch by Kim and Heisler.

After asserting Famous Monsters‘ role as “a conduit for undiscovered talent and future giants” that will “again touch fandom through treasures, events, and partnerships,” the introduction goes on to promise returning readers a few surprises. “We’ve got a Captain Company section that’s not quite like anything you’ve seen in FM before,” Heisler writes. The nearly audible wink in his words evidently refers to the fact that the closing pages of the magazine are dominated by a photo spread of sexily fanged, Goth-complexioned models, like something out of True Blood, along with a list of their apparel for sale: “Night of the Living Dead Fitted Women’s Tee,” “Famous Monsters Embroidered Fleece Full Zip Hoodie,” “Nosferatu Collage Fitted Tee.” The following page adds a few more items to the mix, from reproductions of 60s-era FM issues to commemorative coins, silk prints of Ackerman, and statues of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

These are not, of course, the only advertisements appearing in the relaunched FM: other ads sell DVDs of cult films, movie posters, lunch boxes, and license plates, promote tattoo parlors, and announce various upcoming film festivals and conventions, suggesting something of the rich commercial and subcultural networks that have always intersected in FM’s pages. But the tensions — as well as the similarities — between the “classical” and “rebooted” Famous Monsters of Filmland are particularly evident in the Captain Company display, for it was this mail-order business that launched with FM and dominated its advertising pages from its earliest days. Indeed, Captain Company’s content was so plentiful that it came to seem an equal partner in the magazine’s editorial content; articles celebrating the stop-motion artistry of Ray Harryhausen and the torturous makeup feats of Lon Chaney, Sr. blended osmotically with ads for model kits, buttons, posters, books, records, 8mm and 16mm films, and a variety of other commodities, so that the process of learning about and appreciating horror films, directors, actors, and special-effects stars was difficult to distinguish from the acquisition of horror-themed paraphernalia. And while the new Captain Company and its related partners in sales are perhaps “not quite like” their classical predecessors, both are predicated on the idea that, in fact, fandom of horror media has for several decades depended profoundly on the creation and circulation of objects as much as texts.

Film and television studies have tended to overlook or sideline the material life of media fictions, consigning such objects to the blighted category of the commercial tie-in: the cheap plastic toy designed to cash in on the Star Wars craze, the t-shirt emblazoned with Bella and Edward of the Twilight saga. Too often, the implication is that the owners of such objects are cultural dupes. Fan studies have made important interventions in the transformative texts that writers and vidders spark from the raw material of TV shows and movies, but pay less attention to the crafts and collectibles that frequently accompany this culture of creativity. An examination of Famous Monsters in its heyday — the early 1960s through the mid-1970s — offers an expanded picture of how that publication served as a central site for the distribution of material wares, while providing visual templates and discursive forums for the activities of construction, collection, and display that defined horror-film fandom during this period. Viewed longitudinally, the Baby Boom generation that came of age with Famous Monsters and other publications devoted to horror, science fiction, and fantasy helped to feed both the audience pool and the professional base responsible for the boom in blockbuster SF that dominated late-70s and early-80s cinema. Finally, the current market for collectible and constructible items, epitomized by statues of movie, TV, and comic-book characters, springs from generational roots in Famous Monsters‘ prime decades of operation.

This concludes my opening thoughts on the Modeling Monsters project. In the next installment, I will turn to the grounding figure of my study: the plastic model kit, in particular the Aurora line of classic movie monsters.

Works Cited

Kim, Philip and Michael Heisler. “Opening Wounds.” Famous Monsters of Filmland 251 (July 2010). 4.