Born with a fondness for fantasy and an appetite for adventure, Kevin Stark, 50, has been playing withand drawingaction figures ever since he got a hand-me-down G.I. Joe from his brother in 1965.
"I've always been a sucker for a superhero with a cape," says Stark, an artist and toy designer in Pauls Valley, Okla. (pop. 6,256). "I love the myths, the stories, all the things that superheroes embody."
Stark began amassing his 11,000-strong action-figure army shortly before he started designing the flexible toys 20 years ago. Now he loves sharing his collection of superheroes and villains, movie monsters and cartoon characters with fellow fanatics at The Toy & Action Figure Museum in Pauls Valley.
Surrounded by a room brimming with Supermans and Wonder Womans, Power Rangers and Transformers, Stark marvels at the details and workmanship of action figures from the last five decades.
"Each one is a work of art," an admiring Stark says of the multiple jaws and elongated skull of the menacing monster in the movie Alien. "Some guy sits and sculpts all these details and turns it into a toy. It's sculpture for the masses."
Long before he appreciated their artistry, though, Stark liked playing with the toys. "I got a job when I was 10 as a paper boy for the Pauls Valley Daily Democrat so I could buy G.I. Joes," he says. "I'd make capes for my G.I. Joes from old T-shirts and glued on cardboard wings. I was actually making my own superhero action figures before I ever collected them."
Introduced in 1964, G.I. Joe was America's original action figure, a toy category created by Hasbro to market "America's movable fighting man." "They couldn't call it a doll and sell it to fathers and boys," Stark says.
The first action figures didn't exhibit much action, though. "They were pretty basic and stiff," Stark says. "Now, they can go up on their toes, move their fingers, and sit down and cross their legs."
As a toy designer, Stark draws action figures in different poses, and sculptors use his sketches to bring to life the Simpsons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Toxic Crusaders and Coneheads, along with his own 79-year-old superhero, Geezer.
The artist began his collection in earnest about 20 years ago, scouting flea markets for Aquaman and Green Lantern, the Joker and the Penguin, and visiting toy stores to buy the newest crime-fighting characters and their nemesis.
"He started by filling the top of a cabinet in the back room of his art studio," recalls his wife, Linda, 62. Faster than Flash, the collection grew. Action figures marched across two tables and onto shelves lining the walls of the main room.
"I said, 'OK, that's got to stop. Art is what's paying the bills,'" Linda says.
As word of Stark's colossal collection spread, people stopped by his office to get a glimpse. "I'd get strangers knocking at my door to see my toys," he recalls.
Today, the action-figure ensemble is exhibited in a former department store building that community volunteers helped transform into The Toy & Action Figure Museum in 2005. Whenever Stark needs a break from work, he walks a block to the museum and plays with Batman and Robin in a room-size Bat Cave filled with Batmobiles and memorabilia from lunchboxes to soap dishes. Nearby, hundreds of G.I. Joes re-create battle scenes from World War II.
The toys especially delight baby boomers. Often, men in their 40s fly into Oklahoma City, rent a car and drive to Pauls Valley to see the super-sized action figure collection.
"They get so excited," says Della Wilson, 44, director of the Pauls Valley Chamber of Commerce and former museum director. "They'll see something and say, 'Oh, I blew that up or tore that up or buried it.'"
Stark's favorite museum exhibit is a replica of an obsessed collector's bedroom inundated with He-Man and the Hulk; Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader; Barbie, Spider-Man and thousands of other action figures, many in their original packages.
"Periodically, I try to talk myself into not collecting," he says, "but then a new toy line comes out and I just have to have it."