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They Might (Not) Be Giants

My grandfather, from my mom’s side, was a high-ranking officer in the Mexican army. He passed away when I was very young, perhaps eight. But I spent much time with my grandmother in their giant house. A house filled with army memorabilia and artifacts — from (non-live, I like to think) ammo, grenades and mortar shells to books, manuals, certificates and, my favorite, toys. The nicer, more valuable ones made out of tin were in a vitrine locked with a key. Seldom could I play with those. There was, however (and no matter how many we invariably lost), no shortage of plastic green army men that my brother and I could play with in the giant backyard that was, in our young minds, landscaped specifically to carry out epic battles of these massive armies of faceless, motionless, plastic toys.

As I grew up, my taste in bellicose toys — which my parents were happy to satisfy without worrying that I would turn into a mass murderer or serial killer, a lack which I eternally thank them for — evolved into the multiple-jointed G.I. Joe action figures during their 80s heyday. With their removable weaponry, backpacks and helmets and an endless array of fighting vehicles, I collected them with reckless abandon and played with with equal chutzpah in my backyard — by myself now or with my neighbor, as my brother was now older and wearing Z-Cavaricci pants. But, with the added realism of G.I. Joe, my battles became prescribed and repetitive, it was always G.I. Joe against Cobra, good versus evil. Their specificity did not allow for much interpretation and limited my imagination. In retrospect — and before I had read ten reasons why plastic army men are better than action figures [pop-up] — the plastic army men forced us to create story lines, we had to divide them in equal quantities and allocate ranks, battalion names and declare what they were fighting for — we were forced to assign meaning to them because, at least to us, they lacked any.

Vintage Ads for Toy Soldiers
Advertisements in comics from the late 1950s – early 60s.
[Click image for larger view]

These plastic toy soldiers — minimalist replicas of World War II soldiers’ uniforms, weapons and demeanor initially sold in the early 1950s by the bucketload — triggered no direct relationship to war for us, I was young enough to have no clear understanding of the two World Wars and I only learned of the Vietnam war much later when I sat with my brother as he watched Platoon. Still, they posed no threat. In their smallness and lack of detail — not to mention, that soldiers didn’t look like that anymore nor did they use bayonets — they were merely anonymous plastic figures upon which we could project our own adventures and imagination. Interestingly, this innocence and visual accuracy pinned to more than four decades has given the plastic army man an array of personalities: from lukewarm political message, to kid-friendly merchandise, to lowbrow humor.

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Army Men on the Streets, Photo by Fuzzy Gerdes
Photo © Fuzzy Gerdes.
In 2005, New York-based activist group, Mouths Wide Open, launched the Army Men Project. A call to bring soldiers back from Iraq. With raging support from people like Sallie Gratch in Evanston [PDF], thousands of green army men have been left throughout the nation, motionless and out of context, urging action.

War Bowl by Dominic Wilcox
Since 2002, British artist/designer Dominic Wilcox has been producing the War Bowl, a childhood-satisfying project (melting army men is way fun) that blends product design with a soft political message open for interpretation. And making your own is not as easy.

Unseen War Flickr Pool
Photo © Zach Hollandsworth.
On Flickr, a group photo pool under the guise of Unseen War, handles images of “the battles that toy Army men fight to keep the rest of the toy box safe.” While lighthearted in its purpose, some of the images in that pool are quite provocative of more serious consideration.

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Army Men in Toy Story
If one were to try to pinpoint the moment where army men became popular in the mainstream again, it would likely be the hugely successful 1995 Pixar movie, Toy Story and its 1999 sequel where they play tertiary roles at best, but to quite the popular acclaim. Disney followed Toy Story 2 with a spin-off children’s book, Disney’s Little Green Army Men.

Army Men Video Games
Circa 1998, the Army Men series of video games was released. First on PC, later on all the major consoles. With more than a dozen variations on the theme, new titles are being released with fervor.
[Click image for larger view]

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Saving Private Ryan meets frat boy humor. Blowing up army men with firecrackers is one of teenagers’ favorite pastimes, one that with YouTube has risen to an art form. More serious filmmakers also have their place in a kick-to-the-groin-fun world.

Grown Men dressed as Army Men
It takes a certain kind of man-child to dress and be painted as an army man, luckily there are quite a few.[Click image for larger view]

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Plastic army men are a rare breed of visual icon — almost like our good friend, the blackletter — that can ambiguously straddle between moods and motives without one extreme (cute Disney characters) negating the other (eerie protest figures). And in the hands of a graphic designer, a few of these extremes could be, literally and metaphorically, exploited: Oliver Munday, an upcoming graduate of Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) designed a typeface constructed from exploded and burned army men as a class project — one of only nine student winners in the 2007 STEP 100 annual. Following is our conversation about his project.

Fire in the Hall by Oliver Munday
Fire in the Hole by Oliver Munday.

AV: Can you explain your project, in a general sense?

OM: The class was “Experimental Type” taught by Bruce Willen and Nolen Strals of Post Typography, Baltimore. The assignment was to create a 3-Dimensional alphabet out of anything that we wanted. In the beginning I had absolutely no idea what to do, but I was leaning towards doing something with the human body/form, but it had been done quite a bit, and I was trying to think of an alphabet that no one had ever seen. Thinking about the human form led me to think about toys which led me to the army men. They were perfect for me because they are such a classic toy that many generations could relate and respond to them — I don’t think I was the only one who burned them when I was a kid, I was a bit of a pyro when I was a child, and I can remember burning them along with lots of other toys. I also liked the fact that through the humor of the alphabet that there is a serious/emotional side to the alphabet that a few would respond to, regarding the current state of the World. I was a little nervous that someone would take it personal or be offended by it, but everyone seemed to enjoy it. The main thing that I wanted was people to react to it, whether it was a laugh or a cry. It’s always nice when you see design affect someone on an emotional level.

AV: So you were not looking to make some sort of political statement from the start? You arrived to it through a design process. What were some of the other things you considered?

OM: For certain projects I like to make some sort of comment or statement, whether it’s political, social, etc… but with this project it was not like that from the get go. After thinking about the army men, the fact that there was a political message that could be communicated excited me, and I was curious to see what people’s reactions would be. I didn’t really consider much, I came to the idea of army men rather quickly. In some ways it probably was the state of war that the U.S. and the world was in that helped me arrive at the idea so quickly.

AV: How did you actually go about doing the full alphabet? Did you sketch it out first? Or did you just play with the army men and burn some limbs off?

OM: I didn’t do any sketching for this piece, I went straight into it, probably because the process of making it was so intriguing, plus it was a legitimate excuse to play with fire.

AV: There is something very powerful and primal in the actual, physical effect of a burned plastic army man. At some point did you think that this might just be too “graphic”?

OM: There is something very powerful about the figures themselves, the act of creating them was very primal. You can see the effects of the burning. You can really see the scorched edges, and the gradient of browns and greens from the flame, the details of burned plastic are pretty amazing.

After they were done and I looked at the lot of them, I was a little worried that they might be too graphic, I thought there might be some who were offended by it, but most of the time that’s the risk of pieces that make some sort of comment on politics, race, and other social issues. In the end no one spoke out about being offended, the feedback was pretty much all positive.

Fire in the Hole, Detail

Fire in the Hole, Detail

Fire in the Hole, Detail

Fire in the Hole, Detail

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It has been more than two decades since I played with plastic army men, pitting a swarm of them against another. It is encouraging to know that they still have many, giant battles with a myriad of imagined and unimagined enemies… Lucky for them, there is strength in numbers.

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ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 3145 FILED UNDER Discussion
PUBLISHED ON Mar.20.2007 BY Armin
WITH 18 COMMENTS
Comments
dan nadel’s comment is:

another silly article, armin.

On Mar.20.2007 at 09:40 AM
Dylan’s comment is:

Loved the article. Thanks for uploading this one, A. Well done.

On Mar.20.2007 at 09:45 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Thanks for the feedback Dan. Unless you have something useful or meaningful to add to this silly article or any more silly articles to come, I would encourage you to send these type of comments to me by e-mail instead.

On Mar.20.2007 at 09:49 AM
Bryony’s comment is:

This is one of the few projects where I think that sketching would have been detrimental to the project. Trying to mold burning plastic limbs into preconceived ideals could easily lead to a more constricted, albeit more cohesive “alphabet”. There is a rawness in the inconsistencies that I find very appealing, as if you slowly found the letters amidst a plastic army, post-explosion.

Are you planning on doing anything with the alphabet now that it is completed, being shared around, and has the potential to take on some of the meaning you were attracted to in the beginning?

On Mar.20.2007 at 01:46 PM
felix sockwell’s comment is:

Great 'ticle, Arm & Oliver

perhaps Bryony or Deb could
torch n Shave a few Barbie® dolls
in the name of all things Brittany.

Soldier on,
K Felix

On Mar.20.2007 at 03:32 PM
Tom’s comment is:

Wow! I have designed for a company that sells gear to Soldiers and Marines for the last 4 or 5 years. During that time I have kept an eye on the individuals of the US Military as a target market and all things military.(I don't mean that to sound callous) I have great respect for them - these men and women live a life most of us can never imagine.

But these letterforms are incredibly powerful. The combination of the familiar toy with the horror of reality could be used to show dramatic respect to those who have performed great sacrifices. Well done.

Great article Armin. I also like the photos of the Unseen War.

On Mar.20.2007 at 07:14 PM
nathalie’s comment is:

congrats, oliver! great interview. i remember first seeing these on the 3rd floor last year and thinking about how tremendous they were.

On Mar.20.2007 at 11:10 PM
Mark Notermann’s comment is:

The alphabet is visceral and profound without making a politicized statement. WOW. A testament to following the creative process without an agenda.

-------

Thanks for the background on the Army Man project. I snapped this pic in 2005

while in line for the roller coaster at the Mall of America (don't ask), and was wondering what the back story was. It was great entertainment to watch people's (slow) reaction to the message. I thought it a really successful protest piece because these figures have such innocent associations.


On Mar.21.2007 at 03:30 AM
marko’s comment is:

This reminds me of a Douglas Coupland figure project. here and here?

On Mar.21.2007 at 12:31 PM
Bill Klingensmith’s comment is:

This is a tough one to explain without getting to descriptive, but playing with plastic soldiers helps me deal with current issues and make personal statements. It started at Design Inquiry in 2004. Maybe when the war is over and my friends come home... I will publish more.

On Mar.21.2007 at 07:11 PM
Todd W.’s comment is:

The "Unseen War" Flickr group brought to mind David Levinthal's "Hitler Moves East" series, replicating the feel of war photography using 1/32 scale soldier figures. He went on to create several other series using combining miniatures (some toys) and macro photography.

On Mar.22.2007 at 11:53 AM
Joe Moran’s comment is:

For another perspective you should read what Bryan Anderson has to say.

He's a giant in my book.

Very Respectfully,

On Mar.28.2007 at 11:10 PM
Tom B’s comment is:

I've always found toy soldiers to be a bit disturbing. Especially given the enthusiasm kids seem to have for torturing and killing them.

Being a soldier is not a game.

I understand your point, Armin, about being too young to really understand the reality of war. But doesn't the fact that they are soldiers (despite their smallness and lack of detail) make you at all uneasy?

Wouldn't little plastic people (without the weapons and armour) be just as much fun to a kid? In fact, wouldn't this be more fun, as they could be used for a much wider range of imaginary scenarios.

Doesn't the strength of the projects you've showcased come from this sense of uneasiness. These aren't just anonymous plastic figures - they're representations of real people who put their lives in danger to keep us safe (and sometimes in situations that could have been avoided).

Do toy soldiers make us feel guilty for having had fun, without understanding what it meant.

I find it encouraging that people respond to little bits of melted plastic in such a sensitive, thoughtful way. It shows how our attitudes change and we develop as a culture. It's becoming inappropriate to make war into a game.

In a wierd way, the evolution of G.I. Joe from a soldier into some sort of camp orange-clad superhero shows the same moral progression.

On Apr.02.2007 at 08:17 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> But doesn't the fact that they are soldiers (despite their smallness and lack of detail) make you at all uneasy?

Tom, the short answer is no. I grew up playing cops and robbers with my brother and neighbors, we would shoot to kill. I played video games throughout my childhood and had no problem pulling out all the fatalities in Mortal Kombat or playing every shooting game released on Nintendo, PlayStation and Genesis. I watched Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, Three Kings, The Thin Red Line, Apocalypse Now, etc. without flinching. To feel any sensibility towards green plastic army men in contrast to all that would be hipocrisy. This does not mean that I'm a heartless bastard, but I like to think that I can differentiate between real life and imaginative play. And that at the same time, for better or worse, I have become a little desensitized to violence, but I actually think that is a trade of my generation.

Maybe your question was rhetoric, but I felt compelled to answer.

On Apr.03.2007 at 08:28 AM
Tom B’s comment is:

I'm not sure what to say.

Your response made me sad.

Talking of video games, I found the recent 'Medal of Honor' games (inspired by films such as Saving Private Ryan) very disturbing. The fantasy violence in Mortal Combat is one thing, but the Normandy landings were real events, where hundereds of real people lost their lives. And this is suppposed to be fun?

I suppose it isn't the violence per se that makes me feel uneasy - it's the trivialisation of real, serious matters.

Surely you feel something other than mild amusement at these projects. In your original post you say thing like 'some of the images in that pool are quite provocative of more serious consideration.', and you describe the ambiguity between 'cute Disney characters' and 'eerie protest figures'.

When I say that I find toy soldiers disturbing, I'm not claiming that they are dangerous (I don't think they turn kids into heartless bastards). But I do think they are insulting (both to real soldiers, and to the kids themselves).

Maybe I'm just a bit soft - but toy soldiers make me sad.

On Apr.03.2007 at 07:33 PM
jenn.suz.hoy’s comment is:

The beauty of the Green Army Men, and other outlets for fantastic violence is that it is just that - a constructive and harmless outlet for fantasies that most, if not all, children have. It is not making trivial something that is quite serious, but a healthy way to play out those fantasies that are taboo and inhuman in the real world.

I would be far more afraid of a world where we were restricted in play to act out what we know is violent. Play is one of the most effective forms of learning for humans and all other creatures. If we could not act out these fantasies in the safety of our backyards with plastic figurines, where would we?

On Apr.06.2007 at 12:49 PM
Justin Driscoll’s comment is:

I apologize for the lateness in response. I just found the article.

I disagree with Tom B. Our reactions to outside influences are not as heavily influenced by a culture as some would like to blame, but rather, our direct family members.

I am a US Service Member. I whole heartedly agree with the fact that war is not glamourous nor is it a game. It is a serious matter that must be undertaken with resolve, deliberation and prudence.

But, on the flip side to that, there is a sense of honor and pride that is instilled being a part of the armed services. A sense that is not taught nor is it encouraged. We do not want our heros to be violent, direct, tenacious or men of action. We want them to talk when talking will not work, to avoid violence when it is the last resort and to stand down when we must push forward.

To me, Medal of Honor was an incredible expierence. But, do I approach it as a game? Yes. Does that cause me to trivilize the event? No. Our reactions to outside influences are tempered by our parents, loved ones and friends.

If we demonize war, we will not take action when action is necessary. If we resepct war as an unfortunate, albeit occasionally necessary, event, then we will bring forth leaders that will responsibly take action when needed.

Let us not forget that war will always be in human nature. It has been since the dawn of time, and will be forever. By attempting to side step it, stifle it or out right avoiding it, we will only hurt ourselves in the end.

As for toys and violent movies/video games, that still stands within my argument above. While tragidies have occured, lets not forget the millions of kids that played Cops and Robbers, watched Saving Private Ryan right next to Black Hawk Down, and have played everything from Doom to Halo who have become normal, functioning members of society.

On Aug.09.2007 at 03:08 PM
sean Kevany’s comment is:

Why wont this article print on my computer? I collect all things toy soldiers and personal stories, blogs, etc are included when I discover them.

On Jun.24.2008 at 10:59 PM