Exclusive Q & A with Mark Bellomo, author of the Ultimate Guide to G.I. Joe

Anyone who has been a G.I. Joe fan for any length of time knows the name Mark Bellomo, mostly from his Ultimate Guide to G.I. Joe book.  Well, now he’s produced a Second Edition with countless improvements and additions to the content, and I highly recommend it.  In fact, it gets pretty much my highest recommendation for any Joe fan.  Even as someone who is really into the Anniversary stuff, seventeen bucks is a tiny investment for a great look “behind the curtain” of the hobby, as well as just the reference images themselves.  Buy it.  Now.

I’ve been lucky enough to know Mark for a long time, and the effort he puts into these books is impressive to say the least.  He was also kind enough to spend some time answering my pesky questions, and I’ve supplied the exclusive interview below.

GeneralsJoes: I vividly recall acquiring a Claymore file card and blueprints for the COBRA Missile Command Center from you in the late 90’s…how does somebody go from that to being the author of the definitive reference guide for 3 ¾” G.I. Joe figures? I’d imagine it was a long and arduous process?

Mark W. Bellomo: In grad school I tried to turn every academic paper into a formal conference paper—then I’d try to flip every conference paper (that I could) into a publication within an academic journal. It didn’t happen often. Maybe once or twice. But I used THESE few writing samples as fodder to send to larger textbook companies (Thomson [now Cenage] Learning, Bedford St. Martin’s, etc.) in order to get freelance work writing instructional apparatus for composition/rhetoric textbooks. I used THESE writing samples to get work at ToyFare, Lee’s AFN & TR, and Tomart’s. Next, I used THESE minor feature articles, market reports, and blurbs (along with a sixty-page MS Word document cataloging all my action figure lines and a 120+ page document cataloging my comic books) to convince Toy Shop magazine to hire me as their Action Figure columnist (two columns a month for four years). Because of my strong relationship with Toy Shop, my EIC at the time (ca. 2004)—Tom Bartch—asked me to write my very first toy book: the 1st edition of The Ultimate Guide to G.I. Joe. Then four more books.

GJ: Was there a particular point that something just “clicked” and you knew what you wanted to do, and what the next step you wanted to take in your hobby was?

MWB: I believe the first impetus for the original Joe book was due to talking with Derryl DePriest on the old alt.gijoe.80’s [sic] newsgroup. Right around the time Hasbro hired him from out of the private sector, I was speaking with Derryl and told him I was thinking about writing a book similar to his 12” Joe book—but for the 3 ¾” line. He said: “There’s a market for it.” I thought about it, drafted a proposal, proved a market demand to Krause, and ta-da…

GJ: I can only imagine the number of hurdles, legal and otherwise, there were to getting a book of this nature published. What were the greatest challenges you faced in the production and publishing of this book?

MWB: Space and critics. SPACE: How do you condense—what? 350+ figures and 250+ vehicles and accessories (variants included) into 304 pages including an introduction—and make it a price guide as well? CRITICS: One thing that I realized at an early stage in publishing articles on action figures in this “blogging/everyone’s a celebrity” culture is that EVERYONE IS A CRITIC. I think more important than realizing that everyone is a critic is that everyone believes they are ENTITLED to be a critic in 2009 (and they may be correct here) where info on any toy line can be accessed almost instantly. With my guides, I try to be as accommodating as possible to as many people as possible. Although you can’t please ALL of the people all of the time, you can TRY to please the largest AMOUNT of people as possible. Most of the time.

GJ: With the advent of the 25th Anniversary line and the upcoming Rise of COBRA film, the landscape of the fandom has changed dramatically over the past 3 years. What are the most notable differences you’ve seen from your personal point of view?

MWB: I noticed that at the turn of the century, most members of online collectors’ communities were males aged 25-35 who grew up with their particular favorite toy line. In 2009, almost a decade later, I see more 2nd and 3rd generation collectors–as BOTH forum members, moderators, and as bloggers. Many of these collectors did not grow up with their respective toy lines like many 1st generation collectors like myself; they didn’t watch the original Joe cartoon as it aired after school; they didn’t read the original Marvel Comic of the 1980’s. They’re twenty-something or teenagers just (or recently just) arriving at the hobby, and I welcome them with open arms. Sadly, there are quite a few oldschool collectors who consider our hobby to be exclusive—they bemoan these “newbies” as they come into “their” hobby. But what’s wrong with some new blood? Discouraging new collectors because you possess some sort of secret knowledge is foolish. It’s counterproductive because licensed properties such as G.I. Joe, Star Wars, Transformers, and Masters of the Universe REQUIRE new blood to rejuvenate, sustain, and drive retail sales. It’s also nice to get a fresh perspective on things from a new generation of collectors. Find me ten eighteen-year old G.I. Joe collectors who are devoted fans of the Arashikage ninja clan, and you’ll witness a smile plastered onto my face.

GJ: Was this a greater “leap” than it was in 2002 when the infamous “New Sculpt” figures first starting making their appearance?

MWB: Whenever there’s a new effort being made to a long-lived franchise with a devoted fan following such as G.I. Joe (e.g. with a new major motion picture or animated series), there’s going to be a certain amount of resistance by the diehards. But I view the G.I. Joe franchise in 2009 as I did back in the 80’s. I’ve never admitted this in print before, but as a kid I didn’t like the Sunbow cartoon. I worshipped the more realistic Marvel comic book. Yet the Sunbow cartoon sold a heckuva lot of little plastic Joes. MUCH more than Larry Hama’s comic book did, as good as it was. Yet, if it weren’t for the Sunbow cartoon, the Marvel Comic wouldn’t have lasted past issue #75. The cartoon sustained the comic book. Apply this to G.I. Joe in 2009: as a license SPRAWLS—grows larger and larger—fans can pick and choose their degree of immersion in the fantasy; more specifically—which narratives OF the fantasy they can follow. If you’re a fan of the animated G.I. Joe Resolute, Hasbro’s gotcha covered. If you like the new film, Hasbro’s gotcha covered. If you long for the days of old, Hasbro’s 25th anniversary line’s gotcha covered (albeit in the next few months, not so much). Folks, Hasbro’s a BILLION dollar company—they’re hedging their bets, and ultimately they’re going to win.

They’re using the Star Wars line as a model: for oldschool Star Wars fans—The Legacy Collection. For newbies—The Clone Wars. And they’ve given us vintage stuff in recent years as well.

Let’s all take a step back and remember the dark, bleak days of 1999 and 2000. What did we have? About twenty figures made in two years time? We. Are. Privileged.

GJ: From your perspective, how do you view the increasing division amongst the fandom? The vintage purists vs. the “new sculpt” fans, vs. the “Anniversary” crowd? Will it ultimately be bad for the hobby, or do you not see any issues with it?

MWB: Divisiveness is GREAT for a hobby. Divisiveness among fans means that the fandom has grown large enough so that there now exists two camps (A and B) competing for the same market share. In my opinion, it is good for the GROWTH of the hobby because that means a company can put out a wider variety of product to satisfy both camps: “A” product for camp A and “B” product for camp B. Then there are idiots like myself who buy it all. Darned completionists.

GJ: Do you see that division impacting the success of your books?

MWB: Not really. But I haven’t thought about it too much. In fact, I hadn’t considered it until you mentioned it just now. Uhm… hmm. I would hope that the v1 Snake Eyes figure (1982) will always exist iconically (like a Platonic ideal form) in fans’ minds. The v1 Storm Shadow figure (1984) will also always exist iconically in fans’ minds. As will the v1 Scarlett, Bazooka, Duke, Spirit Iron-Knife, Dusty, Lady Jaye, etc. That iconic Hasbro product is included within my book. People from both (all?) camps should always have a soft spot in their hearts for the original Joe characters, right? Therefore, by the commutative property, the book should be a necessary reference for both camps, regardless of which TYPES of figures and vehicles they collect.

GJ: At the risk of political controversy, do you have any opinions, one way or the other, about the upcoming Rise of COBRA film?

MWB: Indeed I do.

GJ: Are you looking forward to it, or is it just kind of “there”?

MWB: I am going to see the finalized version of the film alone on opening night surrounded by as many members of the target demographic as possible (sorry to sound so clinical about this).

GJ: What were your thoughts on G.I. Joe: Resolute?

MWB: Another successful interpretation of iconic characters. Warren Ellis has a decidedly different vision from both Larry Hama and Buzz Dixon.

GJ: At what point did you move from the “fan” to the “business” side of things? Was it a hard transition?

MWB: I have never separated my fandom from my “business view” of collecting. I finish my various toy lines because the toys themselves are so freaking cool that I can’t help myself. I am compelled to finish these toy lines as a collector—it’s a compulsion; writing is secondary. It just so happens that I am a writer who pitches collectible books to justify my finishing these collections.

I wrote the Joe books BECAUSE I am a rabid G.I. Joe fan. 90% of the toys in my G.I. Joe guide were purchased by me with paper route and odd-job $$$ as a kid at retail. I played (still play) with my toys and I write about them passionately because I LOVE THEM DEARLY. For instance, I’ finishing my vintage Star Wars line right now. Working on the Droids and Ewoks figures from ’85. I bought a Sise Fromm a few months back MOSC. I cut the bubble open ¾ the way around, took him out, played with him, posed him, and appreciated his robe’s aesthetics, etc. I love action figures.

GJ: Do you still consider yourself a fan, or is this primarily an enterprise?

MWB: See above. I am a RABID fan.

GJ: From what I’ve heard, you take great pride in the fact that everything featured in your books is from your personal collection. Is that indeed true? What kind of investment did that require in the production process?

MWB: Every piece in every collectible book I’ll EVER write comes from my personal collection. If it didn’t it would be like I was cheating. That’s only one man’s opinion, mind you. I know a few guys who beg and borrow to complete their guides… it’s easier that way. But how can you write about a toy in an educated manner if you can’t touch and manipulate the actual artifact?

GJ: What originally attracted you to G.I. Joe?

MWB: The comic book. Issue #1. Treasury edition. “Operation: Lady Doomsday” & “Hot Potato” were GREAT stuff. Bought it at a Kay-Bee toy store for ninety-nine cents on sale. The very next day I ran out and grabbed Short-Fuze and the VAMP with Clutch.

GJ: I count myself among the lucky few who has had some chances to interact with Larry Hama on a somewhat regular basis. What is it like working with him on these projects? Even after so much communication, does he still offer some insight or information you were not aware of?

MWB: Larry Hama is a genius. ‘Nuff said. Without him the Joe book would have FAR less impact. Every phone call and e-mail I’ve ever had with Larry has always afforded me with some new tidbit of information on the G.I. Joe universe or on life in general: he’s a sage. For instance, a few months back we were talking the early years of G.I. Joe and he brought up Carl Barks’ Donald Duck as an important influence on G.I. Joe. I incorporate this (and a majority of the info gleaned from this lengthy conversation) into the foreword to IDW’s G.I. Joe: The Best of Larry Hama.

GJ: When can I buy an art book with all of those awesome prints that adorn the pages of your book?

MWB: Heh. Not sure…

GJ: Through the editing process, I’m sure there is plenty of your books that ends up on the cutting room floor. What were some of the most painful “cuts” that you’ve had to make during the process of publishing these two volumes?

MWB: Painful is the perfect word to describe the 100,000+ words cut out of the 2nd edition of The Ultimate Guide. Just registered www.markbellomo.com a few days ago, and I’ll be posting almost all of the excised text along with an index for the new book and other information… on other toys lines (G1 TF, Star Wars, MOTU, Sectaurs, Battle Beasts, The Real Ghostbusters, and on and on…). I’ll keep you posted.

GJ: Regarding the “cuts” have you thought of a way to showcase some of the stuff there may not have been room for in the pages of your books?

MWB: See above.

GJ: In your opinion what was the most important improvement you had to make between Volumes 1 and 2?

MWB: The vehicle pictures. Although I possess opposable thumbs, I’m about as proficient with a camera as the controls of an F-14. Krause sent Kris Kandler—their in-house photog—out to New York to re-take all the vehicle and accessory pics. MUCH BETTER. Although the editing process was a bit scary toward the end… note the “smushing” of 1994 product and lack of index.

GJ: You’ve obviously been around the fandom for a while…what is your favorite era of G.I. Joe? Did you have a favorite run of years back in the 80’s and 90’s?

MWB: 1982-83 will always be my favorite years of G.I. Joe. My favorite single issue of the comic is #16: “Night Attack.”

GJ: Funny you should mention that.  Like you, the Treasury Edition was my first introduction to the G.I. Joe comic world, and the issue that hooked me was probably this issue as well.  Something about the Destro and Hawk fistfight on the back of the HISS just resonated.  Either that, or it was Torpedo running around Washington in his full wet suit!

Back to 2009…  regardless of your feelings about the film itself, from a fan point of view, what do you think about the toys Hasbro is releasing these days under the G.I. Joe brand name?

MWB: I love them. From a design standpoint, I never thought I’d see Hasbro put such consideration and care into Joe product. I credit Neal Hoffman for this. He LISTENS CAREFULLY to collectors’ opinions.

GJ: I couldn’t agree more.  I’ve dealt with Neal a number of times at the conventions and Toy Fair, the man definitely listens to what the fandom wants.  He’s a great guy to have in our “court”.

Obviously many other folks have produced their own reference literature on G.I. Joe, however, to my knowledge, you are the first one to actually be published and sold mass-retail. What is the secret to your success?

MWB: Uhm… not sure. Work 28 hours a day? Look at what’s already out there and try to improve upon it. Take care of the people who take care of you. Be creative. Push for the most you can possibly get yet without being pushy. Make a book that you’d want to read yourself. Listen carefully to every comment that each collector makes.

GJ: Say, hypothetically, someone (like say the handsome webmaster of a particular G.I. Joe blog and news website) wanted to get into the business of writing about toys or the fandom for fun and profit…what would be the most logical first step?

MWB: There’s nothing hypothetical about it. Don’t talk about doing it: do it. The writers who don’t get published ask: “How do I get published? Who do I need to contact?” Telephone. Cold calls. Internet. E-mails. Call editors. Call up companies. Pitch projects. Pitch articles. At first, you can’t think about money–and don’t ask for it. That’ll come later. Write… to write. I remember the first time I published anything. I was presenting a short story at a literature conference. All of a sudden people were laughing during the presentation… I thought they were laughing AT me. In actuality, they were laughing AT the story. Apparently, they really liked it; I was stunned. At the end of my presentation, an editor came up to me and asked if he could have a copy to put in his next quarterly review. I was speechless. I worked on that piece for three solid months. To have someone recognize that it was a piece worthy of publication—whoa. I can still remember how that moment felt. Empowering. Elated. Euphoric. But I worked HARD to get to that spot. And I didn’t get there by THINKING about writing. I did it by writing. So, write.

GJ: What’s next on your plate? Do you have another volume of the Real American Hero in you, or are you fully involved with other toylines at this point?

MWB: Eep. I’ve got a February 1st deadline for a guide/coffee table book to 80’s toys. All the standards (G.I. Joe, Transformers, Star Wars, Masters of the Universe), plus Thundercats, Mego Super-Heroes, Cabbage Patch Kids, Battle Beasts, Rainbow Brite, M.A.S.K., Captain Power, Rubik’s Cube, Smurfs, etc. Then… a Star Wars guide I think. Next will come a 2nd edition of the Transformers book with TOTALLY re-shot photos. Following Transformers and pending a live-action MOTU film, probably a He-Man/She-Ra book. That’s the next 2 ½ years… and hopefully some comic books as well. IDW has to sustain the G.I. Joe license, right?

GJ: What’s the easiest way to get our hands on this latest edition of your guide?

MWB: It’s almost everywhere. Amazon’s the easiest, and it’s about $9.00 off cover price ($17.81). I’m very lucky right now… both the 1st edition, the 2nd edition, and the G1 Transformers book are selling very well.

GJ: Who’s a better quarterback, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning?

MWB: I have a New England Patriots tattoo on my chest; had it done seven years before their first Super Bowl win. My dad and I used to bond watching the Pats lose each and every Sunday afternoon with alarming regularity in the late-‘80’s/early ‘90’s. Stupid Dick MacPherson.

I’d like to offer my sincere thanks to Mark Bellomo for taking some time out of his hectic schedule to answer some questions.  His insight is refreshing and a great read, as is his latest book.  If you like what you’ve read here, or if you just want a comprehensive guide on G.I. Joe from 1982 – 1994, immediately go to Amazon.com and buy this book.  You will NOT regret it.

  • http://www.magnum6delta.com M6D

    I still have volume 1, but I might have to pick up this one as I really like the layout.

  • emike

    I have Volume 1 and love it. I just bought Volume 2 because I’m a Hama enthusiast and I can’t resist the thought of getting more of his insights into early Joedom. GH, nice interview!

  • http://geekcreek.livejournal.com/ Monte

    I haven’t collected Real American Hero figures in over a decade, but I bought the G.I. Joe guide for nostalgic purposes a year or two back, and it’s totally dog-eared; I love that dang book.

    If I wasn’t moving soon, I’d definitely upgrade to the second version.

  • http://www.johio.com Rock

    Always impressed with how much of a “nice guy” Mark comes across as. I wish he would have broke out of it a bit and slammed on peyton though when he had the chance! Go Pats!

  • cdf

    Mark what to you think the Rare WalMart file cards are worth today signed and unsigned and will they be listed in your book?