Category Archives: Photography

A Real American Book! 2017 in Review

Sometimes I get antsy when people ask “How’s the book going?” or “Is there an end in sight?” So much happens behind the scenes that I don’t write about here, but it would be untoward to go around flapping my arms and pre-emptively yelling “I think about my book every day!” Part of why I write these Years-in-Review is to offer some proof.

In addition to teaching, much dust was kicked up above and below my comic book store this year, taking up time and energy. Good news! The building won’t fall over now. There’s also that “Project X” I mentioned a year ago in the ’16 Review, connected to a guy I interviewed for the book in ’07 and followed up with last year. I still won’t yet tell you what it is — sorry — but it’s still tangentially related to G.I. Joe.

Since the end of January last year (I count my book years from February to January rather than the standard calendar January to December so as to include my school’s winter break), I…

-Wrote and posted four blog articles here. Not great, but that’s more than last year.

-Phone-talked with editor Nick on his notes for Chapters 16 and 17. Probably some others I can’t track.

-Realized that 12 would have to be broken in two, making it 12 and 13, and turning 13 into 14 and 14 into 15 and 15 into 16 and 16 into 17. Chapter 17 got pushed ahead to become 19, and Chapter X became, finally, Chapter 18.

-Designer Liz sent back layouts for 13 and 14 (which will easily get tweaked to become 14 and 15). Designer Liz also sent a first pass at Chapter 17, which is quite close to a final draft.

-Extended my honeymoon by two days (wotta wife!) so I could find G.I. Joe treasure in Santa Monica and in Simi Valley, California. These are important for Chapters 8 and 16.

Traveled to Orlando, Florida for the official 2017 G.I. Joe Convention.

-Traveled to Providence, RI for HASCON 2017. (That blog post is a third-done. Sorry, it is on my to-do list!)

-Secured the original art to an(other!!!!!) unpublished G.I. Joe story. Such a tease.

-Bought a few toys on ebay for photoshoots. I own many Joe figures, but honestly, sometimes I just can’t find the one I’ve owned since the ’80s — is it in my basement? is it in that box over there? — and there’s a chance it’s missing an accessory. So yes, I’ve re-bought a few toys I already own. Also, a few mint-sealed ones I don’t.

Executed one new photoshoot with photographer Tim. (Maybe I’ll just call him by his last name, since I’m already the Tim of this story. Marshall. Executed one new photoshoot with photographer Marshall.) That makes photoshoot #16, for those of you keeping count. I can vaguely see needing another in the spring, but like this one, it’ll be straight forward “product” photography of a figure in front of a blank color or a mint-sealed one in front of same. I try not to do too much of this since, book-design-wise, it lacks flair, but sometimes it’s necessary. As the book develops, chapters start to tell me they need something, like “Oh, I’m writing about Tiger Force and Night Force for a paragraph, but I’m only showing some Tiger Force logo concept sketches. Maybe I need to show a figure or vehicle. Okay, in package, or out?” That kind of thing. I’ll need another photoshoot in the spring for the one or two things we didn’t get, plus some stuff that needs to be added into early chapters that now need rewrites.

-Conducted four new interviews. One was with a fan who attended the ’94 convention, another who knows much of the history of Joe fandom in the ’80s and ’90s, a duo who were significantly involved in the 30th Salute, and a film director involved around ’95. This is all material for Chapters 15 and 18.

-Sent follow-up questions to about eight previous interviewees. Got back some details and photos.

-Met Christopher Irving. Good guy to know. He, like me, teaches at a university.

-Interfaced with Dan Klingensmith. His books and my books cover some similar ground, but also diverge in significant ways. We chatted by phone recently, and he did me a favor in exchange for a favor I had done him. (Dan did a great job with HASCON, one of the points I’ll make in the HASCON review blog post.)

-Dealer/fan Drew Haggerty lent me some treasure that will aid Chapters 11 and 12.

-Bought some art. Fancy. Quiet-like.

-Considered, collated, wrote, and sent to Designer Liz a massive email (2300 words) of notes on Chapters 11, 14, 15, and 17. This took days. This was the culmination of the entire year, actually, but more locally, the culmination of Winter Break, when there’s no school and holidays are over and I can focus.

-Contributed to Andrew Farago‘s book Totally Awesome: The Greatest Cartoons of the Eighties. Well, I contributed to this a year or so back, but the book was published this year, so a bit of my collection of Joe, Transformers, DuckTales, and Real Ghostbusters art is now on display, and Mr. Farago and his editor, Chris Prince, kindly gave me some extra credit at the back of the book. If you bought Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Visual History in 2014, you are already familiar with Farago’s work.

So what’s left?

I need to transcribe (read: get transcribed) an interview and track down one person to incorporate some changes into Chapter 12. When that first draft is done, I can send it to Editor Nick. I’m close to locking text on Chapter 16. I’m close to a first draft of 18, which is all about so-and-so and hope to get one more interview, and 19, which is all about GI Joe Extreme. I’m waiting on two interviews. Chapter 20, sort of the end of the book, is just a notion in my mind. I’ve never written anything for it, and there isn’t even an empty Word document named “Chapter 20” on my hard drive. 2018 will need one more photoshoot, but probably get two more. Then I need to compare Chapters 1 through 10 with 11 through 20 and make sure the two halves of the book are balanced, which they right now decidedly are not. Then I need to revise 1 through 10 and incorporate some of the interviews I got in the last five years that haven’t been incorporated. Then Designer Liz tweaks those chapters for text changes and art additions. Then I’m done.

I usually end these blog posts with a question to encourage comments below, but I’ll just sign off by stating that this year felt great for the book, and a lot of things came together.


Filed under Behind the Scenes, Book Behind the Scenes, Photography, Writing Process

Photoshoot #16

Much of writing my book involves the undramatic and non-photogenic act of sitting at my computer, there typing, or re-reading something, or googling something, or cross referencing something. Me, chair, monitor, frown. Far more camera-ready are the occasional photoshoots I have at Glad Works in Rhode Island. An entire room is devoted to cyc backdrops and lights and such. (Well, half an entire room. The other is filled with things once important to an office but now occasionally useful as backdrops for toy photography.)

New photographer Tim Marshall has been with GW for six months, so I wanted to start him off with something straightforward. Two weeks back, for my book’s 16th photo session, I brought one loose 1988 Joe, and ten or so mint-sealed ones for what we call “product” photography — shooting an object to look like what it is, without embellishment. No story or fantasy, just a toy with a color as a backdrop. The primary challenge here is lighting it such that the various contours and curves of the plastic bubble on the package don’t feature too much glare. If it’s a loose action figure, there’s not even that.

I’ve tried not to do too much of this kind of shoot. One can easily see toys both loose and MISB on ebay, yojoe, and in various collector publications, so I don’t want to reinvent the wheel and show my readers things they’re already familiar with. But now and then my book needs to just reacquaint you with where packaging stands in the timeline of 1980 to 2000, or right next to an anecdote about a specific toy, so we should just see that toy and not some development artwork or memo. Instead, I’ve tried to focus on pre-production and behind-the-scenes artwork and photography, or when it is time to show just-a-toy, to show that toy in some kind of fantasy setting. (We don’t get carried away, and there are fans out there shooting at practically professional levels, making wonders with Joes and members of the Rebel Alliance and such at the real beach and in real blades of grass.) But I’m happy with the handful of “fantasy” shoots we’ve done, and it’s certainly less stressful to just capture a toy on a table, inside, with colored paper behind it:

That green box is something I drew in Photoshop, sorry. Not yet ready to reveal what we shot, but I will say it and the rest were to replace some placeholder images I’d pulled off ebay for chapters 4, 12, 13, and 14, a mint-sealed figure eventually for Chapter 18, and two licensed products for when I go back and revise and beef up Chapters 2 and 5.

Photoshoots are bursts of book-adrenaline, visceral examples of accomplishing something. And then a few weeks later I get a contact sheet, another box checked off that lets me send notes to Liz for what images go with what text. Tim Marshall handled everything with ease, and we chatted about low budget film, toy marketing, and, well, G.I. Joe.

Welcome aboard, Tim Marshall.

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A Real American Book! 2016 in Review

A Real American Book! Year In Review 2016

It’s been another year, so here’s an update on my progress since the last Year in Review. As always, teaching and retailing take up much of the week, so writing happens mostly over vacations.

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A Real American Book! 2015 in Review

A Real American Book! Year In Review 2015

It felt good, a year ago, to put into words all that went into writing this G.I. Joe book, so I’m doing it again. Many things repeat from last year, and a few things are new. And there is — good news — some progress.

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A Real American Book! 2014 in Review

Tim Finn GI Joe book

Running this blog is strange. It’s great to be able to have a place to post images that won’t fit in the book that I’m writing, but there’s still a nebulous disconnect that I can’t shake — only a handful of people have seen the book-so-far, and maybe everyone else abstractly figures I’ll never finish or never quite started.

Tim Finn GI Joe book

Above: printouts of chapters 2 through 8, researched and written and edited and designed. The good news is that they’re finished, and were finished in 2011. The bad news is that in the past year I’ve learned more about several important moments in G.I. Joe history, and scanned or photographed some key pieces of G.I. Joe art, so chapters 2, 3, 6, and 8 need revisions. But the good news is that I learned those facts and saw those images, so the book will be more accurate, and more interesting.

Tim Finn LUCAD Hub Comics

The other bad news, I write half-jokingly, is that I still teach and I still own Hub Comics, so there are many days where there isn’t time to write. School vacations are wonderful, though. May and September are not — end of the semester, Free Comic Book Day, start of the semester, field trips, grades. This summer was to be a return to form, like the year or two before I bought a comic book store, when I seemingly wrote every day for weeks on end. Then, unexpectedly, my father died, which meant taking time off from writing. He was also one of my two editors. (And a very good writer.)

Dad Xmas 2010 TRU framed

In practice, however, not having him around to read and comment on each chapter doesn’t hurt the book. Other-editor Nick Nadel is up to the task of helping me whip this into shape. I’ve been leaning on Nick since 2001, or 1990, depending on how you count. I’ve posted this photo before on my website, but not here, so this is what it sometimes looks like when we get together twice a year.

Tim Finn Nick Nadel

But most of the time we’re on Skype, so imagine that same photo with a split screen down the middle and the New York City skyline behind Nick.

So what did I do this year, anyway?

-Started a Twitter for the book
-Added 23 posts to this blog
-Edited a G.I. Joe podcast (and recorded a second one, stay tuned).
-While in Los Angeles, met with two gents I’d interviewed years back and had coffee with a new interviewee
-Flew to Chicago so a knowledgeable fan could read chapters 1-10 and offer feedback
-Drove to Connecticut for an interview
-Drove to Rhode Island for a follow-up interview
-Trained to New York for an interview
-Telephoned New York for an interview
-Found four people online who had small but important contributions
-Wrote and edited and rewrote significant portions of chapters 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and X. Yes, there’s a “chapter X.”

(And all while teaching two classes, running a store, and hosting two art openings, two events, and four signings there. Phew!)

(Also, I’m cheating with that tally by including these first two weeks of 2015.)

And the interviews listed above represents a variety of contributors — toy alums, comics talent, animation people, and film folk. What didn’t work out? Unfortunately, three people politely declined to be interviewed, two more didn’t respond to requests, and there’s another person out there that I just can’t find. There are enough facts and recollections in the 190 interviews that I do have to reasonably fill in those gaps, but a few sentences here and there will be vague and a few points of view are under-represented. But the book is interesting, accurate, and fun.

What’s in store for 2015? I think I can…

-With my photographer visit a collector in Texas to shoot his collection, which will help me write chapter 15.
-Attend JoeCon 2015
-Finish chapters 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15.
-Figure out where chapter X goes, or if it needs to be broken into thirds and spread across chapters 13, 14, and 15.
-Send the finished text of chapters 9-13 to my book designer.
-Set up a shoot with my photographer for the picture that heads chapter 11.
-Start and finish writing chapters 16 and 17.

Which gets me pretty close to finishing.

That would leave my designer laying out chapters 14-17, and X, and another photoshoot or two. And getting the book published. Which is a long way of saying I think I can just about finish writing this in 2015. But getting it published is a whole other project, and at least a whole other blog post.

So now you now where I am. Please feel free to spread the word — Like A Real American Book! on Facebook, follow it on Twitter, and tell your friends and family that are interested in popular culture about this. Google “Tim Finn book” or my name and “gi joe.” That’s always welcome.


But I’d like to say thanks to three key people: To Gary Goggles-Head, for spending a weekend offering feedback, for keeping me in the loop, and for running the G.I. Joe discussion group on Facebook; to Clutch, for being this blog’s most dedicated commenter; and to TV writer/producer/editor/funny person Nick Nadel, for smoothing out the clunkiest of sentences.

Also a helmet-tip to Nate and JMM, who get the silver and bronze medals for commenting here at the blog, and all the interesting and patient fans in the aforementioned G.I. Joe discussion group on Facebook. I don’t often ask questions or chime in, but it’s great having access to such a knowledge base. And to those fans who occasionally send an e-mail saying “I’m really digging the blog, keep up the good work, can’t wait for the book!” That means a lot.

Back to writing for me.

Tim Finn gi joe


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Cobra Commander’s lost gun!

G.I. Joe photography by Wes Rollend

1982 Cobra Commander photo by Wes Rollend

I’m pretty sure this hasn’t surfaced previously.  Commonplace is Cobra Commander’s weird blow dryer/flashlight/laser pistol-thing.

G.I. Joe photography by Wes Rollend

1982 Cobra Commander photo by Wes Rollend

It came with his 1982 straight-arm figure, and the 1983 swivel-arm retool, and the 1984 mail-in hooded version of the character.  (Embarrassing trivia:  My brother and I never knew the gun fit into CC’s back!  I figured this out in 2008, meaning I should probably call off this whole book thing.)

G.I. Joe photography by Wes Rollend

1982 Cobra Commander photo by Wes Rollend

From 1981, here’s Greg Berndtson’s control art for the weapon in question.  This was drawn concurrently with Ron Rudat’s figure turnaround.

Cobra Commander 1982 laser pistol by Greg Berndtson 1

Cobra Commander 1982 laser pistol by Greg Berndtson view 2

And here’s Cobra Commander’s other weapon, the one that wasn’t ever produced and did not come packed with the Cobra Commander action figures!

Cobra Commander 1982 unproduced grenade gun by Greg Berndtson

Know of any other designed-but-scrapped weapons?




Filed under Book Behind the Scenes, Photography, Toys and Toy Art

G.I. Joe Book Photography – Duke and Spirit

G.I. Joe Duke and Spirit action figures MG0581

G.I. Joe toy photography by Andre Blais for Gladworks

Ace lensman Andre Blais came on board just a few weeks after I signed the contract for Gladworks to design my book, and part of the appeal was that he was (and is) in-house there.  So in one room there’s designer Liz Sousa at a Mac, and in another is Andre, with a cyc, pro lights and diffusion, tripods, and more.  (And a Mac.)  I’ll interview him soon for a future blog post.

The general idea for these photos came from the toy photography of Brian Malloy and Erik Hildebrandt in John Michlig‘s G.I. Joe: The Complete Story of America’s Favorite Man of Action.  (Regular readers will recognize that book as one of the two main inspirations for A Real American Book.)  There are only four “fantasy” shots in Michlig, where the reader point of view is in scale with the 12-inch Joes, but the toys themselves are set against the scale of the man-made world.  Rather than product shots, like a catalog displaying toys on a table top (even if the table top is a dressed set), I wanted story moments, like movie stills.

This was also practical.  I don’t want to reproduce too many visuals that are commonly available.  My book aims to continually show and tell unrevealed facts, anecdotes, and imagery.  But whole sections tell the history of people talking and making decisions, but people weren’t taking candid photos of co-workers at the office in 1982.  (Which may seem odd compared to today when every cell phone and music player is also a high resolution camera.)  If an interviewee recalls making the Snake-Eyes figure, an obvious pairing would be a photo of that figure, or a scan of a concept sketch.  But what if there’s no obvious pairing?  To break up stretches of history that have no clearly analogous visuals, the solution was to sprinkle in dramatic diorama-style toy photos.

For this photoshoot, I had only a vague idea of where (or why) an image of Duke and Spirit would go.  Maybe Chapter 4, when the narrative gets to the second and third waves of toys?  Sadly, nothing from this shoot made the final cut.  There are two reasons for that:  First, I had forgotten to bring Spirit’s belt.  I was worried that hardcore fans would dismiss the photo for not being fully accessorized, so I asked Andre to crop above Spirit’s waist, which really limited the composition.  Second, the chapter where this photo would go ultimately didn’t need a photo of two action figures in a “fantasy” setting, even if it’s a great photo.

G.I. Joe Duke and Spirit action figures, photo by Andre Blais - MG0590

G.I. Joe toy photography by Andre Blais for Gladworks

G.I. Joe Duke and Spirit action figure photo by Andre Blais - MG0590

G.I. Joe toy photography by Andre Blais for Gladworks

Note the difference in these two — how the golden light from the left adds dimension and warmth to Spirit’s hair, gun-holding arm, and torso.  It’s not in the first shot.  Here they are together for comparison:

G.I. Joe Duke and Spirit action figure photo by Andre Blais - MG0590

G.I. Joe toy photography by Andre Blais for Gladworks

A few weeks later we tried this shoot again, this time with the belt, but the magic was too difficult to recapture.

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