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“The hunt, the challenge of trying to acquire the piece is just as valuable as the piece itself. Sometimes it takes years, if you’re able to at all, to get a piece. I try to be a completist,” Zakka shares, of collecting all the characters in a series (photos by Rae Huo).

Since the ’80s, dale cripps and zakka have been collecting toys. while one collector sets the stage, literally, for the myriad of whimsical items that he’s acquired over the years, another one takes comic book characters from page to shelf. While these two men are distinctly different, their worlds collide—at least when it comes to toys.

HERO WORSHIP

While many children grow up in fear of monsters lurking underneath their beds, the Hawai‘i-based artist Zakka actively sought them out, albeit in the pages of comic books he pored over at times he should have been fast asleep.

As a grownup, his passion for a 2-D world of imagination simply morphed into a 3-D one, as the monsters and superheroes of his childhood began to populate his home, in vinyl or plastic form. “It was a natural progression because I always liked comics, sci-fi and animation,” he said.

Today, hundreds of kaiju, or monster figures, represent just part of his extensive collection of vintage Japanese superhero and robot toys, and American action figures. The 3- to 9-inch toys form an impressive rainbow-colored army large enough to fill an 800-square-foot apartment, although Zakka lost count of their actual number years ago.

He started collecting toys in the 1980s, when there was a boom in action figures linked to popular TV shows, films and cartoons ranging from “Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles” to “Star Trek” and “Star Wars.”

At that point, the toys were readily available because most fast-food restaurants offered them as purchase incentives for children’s meals. “I’d just go to McDonald’s and ask which toy was in the Happy Meal,” he says. His hobby had not yet crossed over into the realm of obsession. Then one day, he picked up a Japanese vinyl doll at a swap meet, “and something clicked.”

It was a time when parents of children who had outgrown their toys started selling them off at swap meets and yard sales for a mere 50 cents or a dollar, and Zakka was hooked.

As a gifted illustrator with an eye for visual details, he says, “American toys were more realistically rendered, but I was very attracted by the way Japanese vinyl toys captured the essence of a character, with strong bursts of color. I liked the visuals first, the storyline was secondary.”

The Japanese toys had been produced since the 1970s, also based on that nation’s pop culture figures such as Godzilla, Kikaida and Ultraman, and he was happy to have discovered them before toy mania hit the mainstream.

Depending on the character and series, the vintage toys he scooped up inexpensively back then can command more than $1,500 today. He’s seen certain pieces sell for as much as $20,000 online.

Throughout, he always remained grounded in the real world. “I never got lost in alternate worlds and such. The illustrated world appealed to me mainly for the artwork that I had seen in comics, which eventually led to a career in the arts.”

His love for the visual isn’t limited to comic books, graphic novels and toys. For instance, he’s one of the few men who can spend hours window shopping.

“I’m intrigued by everything, women’s fashion, shoes, handbags, architecture, hardware stores. I can get lost in the things they have, including nuts and bolts, thinking I can make something out of them. I’m entertained by everything, so I’m not bored.”

Inspired by his collection, he made his own foray into the toy market in 2008, introducing a version of the maneki neko for the vinyl toy generation, a 7-inch cat named Miao, and its sidekick Mousubi, a musubi-shaped mouse. He also has drawing notebooks populated by monsters from his imagination, with the goal of unleashing his own toy monster on the public one day.

Although certain people approach toy collecting with an investor’s eye, Zakka isn’t one of them. “They’re a different animal,” he opines. “They think of it more as a business. I don’t know if they appreciate the toys beyond the profit aspect of it, whereas I feel happy looking at them, their color, shape, texture, their overall nature. It’s very therapeutic.”

A FLAIR FOR THE DIORAMIC

Dale Cripps didn’t get to see the 2014 film update of “Godzilla,” highlighted by the destruction of Waikiki, but he’s got his imagination, which he put to work envisioning a tabletop diorama of multiple Godzillas invading Waikiki, with the Hilton Hawaiian Village as entry point.

A toy collector since 1985, Cripps says, “I have about 10 or 12 different types of Godzillas now. Some are static; my favorite is one from the 1980s, made in China. It has a lot of features. It walks, its eyes light up, it roars menacingly, and when it opens its mouth, smoke comes out.”

He’s working with a neon specialist to have a tube inserted, so there is a laser beam effect when Godzilla opens his mouth.

For Cripps, the fun is all part of his attraction to toys. A jeweler by profession, he says an appreciation of vintage toys and jewelry, with their fine details, appeals to his discerning eye. “To me, appreciating the lithography on tin toys is the same as admiring the filigree work in fine jewelry and old European-cut diamonds,” Cripps says.

Dioramas incorporating his toys are his way of sharing his pastime, in hopes that they might feel the same level of excitement that compelled him to collect his first pieces, typically battery-operated toys that marked post-war Japan’s first forays into the world of technology.

Cripps had always enjoyed working with his hands, taking things apart to learn how they were made, and says the toymakers piqued his imagination and curiosity about the past.

Cripps says he’s created about five dioramas, and the most elaborate puts his antique Schoenhut Humpty Dumpty Circus toys on display. He’d been collecting the circus pieces since 1999, after finding a wooden donkey on eBay.

“I don’t know why I create the things I do. I only know I have to do it. I want people to smile. I want people to feel good when they look at this stuff.”

His toys inform his dioramas, and his next project is of a more serious nature, based on a historic detail that stuck in his memory.

“Few people remember that in the 1940s, Aloha Tower was painted in camouflage in case of an attack,” he shares, as he prepares to recreate the camouflaged tower via a period display commemorating December 7, when Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan—and the U.S.S. Arizona was lost.

And, he continues to add to his collections, saying he enjoys the thrill of the hunt, and that the relative ease of keeping toys also appeals to him.

“Working in the jewelry industry, everything has to be stored in a safe. Th ere’s a lot to worry about. With toys, I can just leave the pieces on a table where I can enjoy looking at them.”