I’ve known Mark Bellomo for almost 20 years. I met him when I was the editorial director at Krause Publications. The first book we worked on, The Ultimate Guide to G.I. Joe: 1982-1994, was published in May 2005. He is one of the nicest, most dedicated and forthright people I know. Bellomo is also a pain. And I mean that as a compliment.
Obsessed? Indeed. Meticulous? Good grief. Relentless? You have no idea. Bellomo is all that and more, making him the hardest working author I know. He’s also the most demanding – of himself.
Bellomo’s The Ultimate Guide to Vintage Transformers Action Figures, is a prime example of what makes him so darn good, and so maddening.
But first, I’ll share a book publishing secret: We stretch the truth. Trust me, we keep our hyperbole on the shelf right next to the dictionary. When describing books, words like “Ultimate” or “Definitive” or even “Bible” are tossed out like so much rice at a wedding. Oftentimes it’s a reach, but not with Bellomo.
The Transformers action figures book is incredible. If someone else had published it I would say the same. No hyperbole. Just fact. The book covers more than 300 Generation One Transformers from 1984-1990. It contains 1,000 color photos, individual biographies, history, values and so much more, all to make it an unprecedented reference to one of the hottest toy collecting areas on the market.
When you work on a Bellomo book, you are quickly submerged in minutia. I believe then book editor Kris Manty, who worked on a number of Bellomo’s manuscripts, kept a snorkel and a boatload of persistence and patience in her desk drawer. Bellomo brings it. And as editor of his work, you better hit the water paddling or you’re sure to be washed away in a tsunami of information.
The first thing Bellomo said to me when he saw an advance copy of the book was, “Poor Kris Manty.” He knew. He had sent her 40 pages of single-spaced corrections during the proofing stage. Manty made them all with hardly a grumble. The process is one of blood, sweat and tears – often shared by author and editor. But the results are impressive.
Krause Books, where Bellomo made his publishing home for years, was acquired by Penguin Random House, which then decided not to continue publishing titles in the collectible toy genre. Many of Bellomo's former titles were doomed to go out of print. But recently, The Nacelle Co., founded by producer and toy enthusiast Brian Volk-Weiss, announced it is entering the book business and will be resurrecting several of Bellomo's previous titles.
This is great news for all toy enthusiasts. To celebrate, we ask Mr. Peabody and Sherman to fire up the Wayback Machine to revisit a conversation I had with Bellomo about Transformers.
Paul Kennedy: More than three decades after they were released, Transformers action figures are wildly popular. What gives?
Mark Bellomo: Transformers are a global brand. You can overdub giant robots with any language. They defy culture. They transcend race. They’re split into two different factions: the Heroic Autobots and the Evil Decepticons.
Furthermore, to kids and collectors, there’s a bit of secret knowledge that comes with the brand. For a kid, being able to manipulate a robot and get it to turn into a truck or plane or weapon system — and your parent cannot … well, that’s a selling point right off the bat. The backstory of the War on Cybertron is fascinating as well. There’s a purity — and from that purity, a puissance — to the simplicity of the narrative and of the toy line, too.
PK: Do you remember your first encounter with Transformers? What was that like?
MB: At the age of 13 I had a few different jobs. I worked three different paper routes and had an hourly after-school job at a local drugstore. I’ve always worked multiple jobs to be able to afford the toys I wish to buy. I first saw a Transformer action figure — the Autobot Car Bluestreak — at a Fay’s drugstore in my hometown of Seneca Falls, New York, that was about three miles away from my house. I rode my bike there twice a week over some pretty dangerous bridges and roads to see if they had any new toys in stock.
I recall arriving at home, looking at the box’s artwork, then opening the toy, applying the many labels, then I practiced transforming the toy 10 or 20 times until I got the hang of it; until I could manipulate the transformation scheme without looking at the toy. Bluestreak was my first Transformer, and remains my favorite.
PK: Was there a moment that set you on this Transformers Quest?
MB: Whenever I unconsciously decide I like a toy line, then … I decide to purchase every single piece – action figure, accessory, creature, mail-away, playset, [in-package] promotional item, vehicle and weapon system for that line. The very day I bought my Autobot Bluestreak (I think I also picked up a MOC Windcharger that day, too), I knew that I would have to have every single piece from that brand. I finally finished collecting every piece from the Transformers, Generation One line (1984-1990) in 2004-05 in anticipation for writing my Transformers: Identification & Price Guide (released May 9, 2007) — which was essentially the first edition of The Ultimate Guide to Vintage Transformers.
PK: People have said writing a book is like giving birth — incredibly painful but amazingly rewarding. How would you describe it?
MB: All of the books I’ve ever written are time-consuming, unique experiences that demand a lot of ardent perseverance. For instance, it takes me about six full months to research the material for each guide I construct. I’ll give an example. One of the more difficult books I’ve ever written was my Totally Tubular ’80s Toys (2010). So then, from June 2009 until January 2010, I surrounded myself with every aspect of the 1980s. I watched endless ’80s movies: dramas, comedies, thrillers and action/adventures. I reviewed as many ’80s toy commercials as I could find on YouTube, from Chia Pet advertisements to clips of Jem and the Holograms. I viewed the many DVD boxed sets (and some antiquated VHS tapes) that were available at retail for every ’80s toy line in the book, from Centurions to The Dukes of Hazzard to Rambo and the Forces of Freedom. Most importantly, I checked every toy sample from every line of my collection to ensure that I had all of the toys’ various accessories required for the book’s photos; if a toy wasn’t complete … it wasn’t included. I know how obsessive this seems, but for me to misrepresent an accessory in any of my guides is inexcusable.
PK: How many toys do you have in your home on display? In storage? All-time favorite?
MB: I own roughly 65,000 action figures — but it’s been a few months since I’ve checked. All are in storage and none are on display. Three 15-by-20-foot storage spaces. Full basement. Full attic. Full third bedroom. Full dining room. Full garage (ground floor and attic).
My all-time favorite toy line is the one that encouraged me to enter the hobby of collecting: Mego’s [Official] World’s Greatest Super-Heroes toy line (1972-1982). I first began buying Mego’s super hero toys on the secondary market during my freshman year in high school using the money I made from my multiple jobs. To finish that toy line, I began utilizing the “Toy Box” ads (cold-calling collectible shops around the country) located in the back of Krause’s Toy Shop magazine. Little did I know that one day
I’d be a columnist in that publication and would be writing many different toy books for Krause. Serendipity. Kismet.
PK: What’s more important: an understanding wife or a secure storage locker?
MB: I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up, so I turned to toys and comics to fill that void. Thankfully, I’ve found a beautiful woman with whom I’ll spend the rest of my days. Luckily, she doesn’t mind the collectibles. I would gladly give up every single one of my 65,000 toys and 120,000 comic books for her. I think it’s Schubert who once said: “Happy is the man who finds a true friend, and far happier is he who finds that true friend in his wife.” My wife over my toys, hands down. No contest. Toys are things, and things can be replaced. True love cannot.
PK: What makes a toy great to collect?
MB: I’ve always enjoyed toy lines that are built around an established narrative. That way, you can act out the narrative with the action figures. Transformers and the struggle between Autobot and Decepticon both on Earth and in space. That’s a solid toy line that has a bevy of different mediums (cartoons, films, comic books, video games, etc.) you can imitate with creative play.
PK: Best advice for a toy collector?
MB: Collect what you like and DON’T DO IT FOR THE MONEY. Collect toys for the intrinsic value of the artifact itself — what it means to YOU. I like super heroes, so I collect super hero toys. I like Star Wars, so I collect Star Wars toys. I like Glamour Gals, so I collect Glamour Gals toys. I like Monster High dolls, so I collect Monster High toys. I collect toys from about 300 different toy lines, and am trying to finish every single one of them. Because I like action figures of all shapes and sizes. (But I particularly enjoy action figure playsets … The Adventures of Indiana Jones’ Well of the Souls, The Empire Strikes Back Imperial Attack Base, the Monster High Deadluxe High School Playset, etc., etc.)
Collect what you enjoy and then when you arrive home with the toy, open it up and play with it in order to unleash the toy’s potential: Make a connection with the artifact.
PK: How would you describe yourself as a kid? And now?
MB: As a kid, I was a dreamer. Currently, I’m a… practical idealist.