Thomas Wheeler (GI Trekker) Interview
Say what you will about Thomas Wheeler (aka GI Trekker) and his zealous opinions on toy collecting and the GI Joe brand, but he is the grandfather of GI Joe customizing. He paved the way for many of us who followed. We wanted to know what was behind the man that got this whole snowball rolling and inspired a hobby.
Being one of the first known customizers posting your work on Yo Joe, what got you to start customizing in the first place
G.I.Joe is easily the most versatile action figure to customize, as well as one of the easiest in one very important respect. The figures, with rare exception, can be readily disassembled into component parts, which makes repainting fairly easy, as well as mixing parts. I started getting some ideas for certain specialties, and having some leftover Joe parts around, it didn't take too long to start putting some together.
Was there anyone else that you can recall doing customs at the time or soon after you started? Or maybe someone you just bounced ideas off of?
I was pretty much doing it on my own. This is going to sound rather ridiculous these days, but it wasn't until 1991, when I became aware of a magazine called Tomart's Action Figure Digest, which also advertised one of the first G.I.Joe Conventions at the time, that I even theorized that there were that many adult collectors out there. I used to be slightly embarrassed to even walk into a toy store. These days, it's a whole industry unto itself.
You currently aren't doing customs or at least you aren't showing them anymore, why?
Sort of ran out of ideas, in a way. And honestly, G.I.Joe isn't what it used to be. Whatever spare parts I still have around here -- a lot of T-hooks and screws, especially -- I'd rather save to do repair work on existing figures should the need arise.
Most of your customs were comic book characters that never got a figure. If Hasbro stopped making figures tomorrow, what figure or figures would make you pick your paint and brush back up to customize?
Well, some of my customs were, but a lot were characters that I just came up with. I expanded the Oktober Guard considerably, came up with one new Dreadnok, and the Cobra Shadow-Vipers (a name a coined well before Hasbro used it), and several distinctive troopers for the Joes. Honestly, I'd be inclined to leave any comic characters up to Hasbro at this point, since I think some of the best figures they turned out in recent years were Kwinn and the complete Oktober Guard. I wouldn't mind seeing them do Cool Breeze, or even Pythona from the movie, but I'm not holding my breath. As for my own customs, I suppose it would just depend on if I came up with a really cool idea and had the parts for it at this point.
One of your most famous works is the multiple Star Brigade armorbots in just about every color pattern imaginable. Was having a lot of those the only factor that made you want to take on that project?
To a degree, yes. A couple of local toy stores clearanced those things out for about $10 apiece or less, as I recall, and I had the ideas. If you consider that the Armor-Bot, not unlike a G.I.Joe figure, could be spread out in component sections, and was mostly molded in white, as well, it made it quite easy to paint. There were two other factors, though. I had just recently purchased my first computer at the time, and designing the distinctive labels for those Armor-Bots wasn't a bad way to learn the graphics program. And on a very personal note, my father was dying at the time, and I think working on those Armor-Bots helped me keep my mind off of that, to a degree. There wasn't anything that could really be done for him, and he didn't want anybody around, so I was sort of left on my own, just waiting. Most of those Armor-Bots were all done within about a six-month time-frame, and I've only done one since then. I had this idea for a glow-in-the-dark Armor-Bot, but I was told by everybody that there was no such thing as glow-in-the-dark spray paint. Well, I eventually found some! Unfortunately, it doesn't look like much in regular daylight, and it's impossible to photograph "glowing". One other note: There's one Armor-Bot I've haven't done, that I still have an idea for -- and I still have one Armor-Bot left. It'd be a DREADNOK Armor-Bot. I just need to figure out how to install a grape soda dispenser in the cockpit. Of course, with this year's Convention exclusive, I suppose if I ever got going on this again, I'd have to round up two more for Bludd's Skull Squad and the COIL.
Is there any custom whether yours or someone else's that really sticks out in your mind and why?
One of my personal favorites is the one I did based on Major Chip Hazard from the movie "Small Soldiers". I got a huge kick out of that movie (even penned a sequel to it in my spare time), and I wish it had fared better in the theaters. I had the good fortune to visit Universal Studios when they were promoting the film, and they had costumed characters wandering the park, and even had a soundstage set aside to display the actual "toys" used to film the movie. It all seemed to be getting a superb response from the crowd. I realized that a certain combination of parts existed that could present a very effective G.I.Joe version. By the way, tell me that Voice FX Talking Duke from a couple of years ago isn't Major Hazard's first cousin or something...
If you could give one piece of advice to a beginning customizer, what would it be?
I always have one goal in mind when I'm doing a custom, and it would be the one piece of advice I would pass on -- try to make your custom look as much like a store-bought figure as possible. I want to be able to stand my customs alongside the rest of my collection, and have someone who, let's say has some knowledge of G.I.Joe but doesn't have the entire line-up memorized, look at my custom and the rest of the Joes and not be able to tell that one of them is a custom. I've seen some customs that are painted in this really heavy detail like figural model kits, and if that's what someone wants to do, fine -- but they don't blend with the rest of the crowd very well. My second piece of advice would be to never spray any sort of enamel-based clearcoat over acrylic-based paint. The result will be a mess comparable to getting chewing gum in your hair... The voice of unfortunate experience here...
What would you say the biggest change to customizing has been since you started?
Well, if that Destro Castle that I saw pictures of from the 2006 Convention is any indication, there's people involved in customizing Joes that can accomplish things I couldn't manage on my best day! Seriously, I think the customizing efforts have gotten a lot more impressive, and there are more people in the 3-3/4" hobby doing it. At the Conventions in the late '90's, most of the custom work was 12" oriented -- and very impressive. But at the 2004 Convention, the last one I attended, there was a ton of 3-3/4" stuff, and most of it was equally impressive, including a Crimson Guard Terror Drome, a Tiger Force HISS Tank, and more.
So let's say that you are trapped alone on a desert island with plenty of food and water. What two Joe figures and one vehicle would you want while you were there? Why?
The Aircraft Carrier and two Mega-Vipers. Get enough tree logs together and I could probably use the Carrier to float myself off the island, and those Mega-Vipers are bright enough that I doubt I'd need signal flares!
Is there anything you feel I've left out that you think people would like to know about you or the hobby?
Just this: I know sometimes I come across as incredibly harsh with regard to certain aspects of the hobby. And I never mean to insult any collectors, or any of the designers at Hasbro. But I sincerely believe that G.I.Joe warrants being held up to the highest possible standards across the board, because in the 80's, it set those standards in the first place. And while there have certainly been a generous number of very cool and very impressive action figure lines since that time, I don't believe any have matched G.I.Joe for sheer scope, quality, and concept, with the possible exception of Transformers, which I would put on an equal level. Sadly, I also believe that, after 1994, G.I.Joe has never quite been the same, and I doubt it ever will be. That doesn't mean that there hasn't been some cool stuff. There most certainly has. But for the most part, it just hasn't quite lived up to the original, and in several instances, was an insult to the name. And sometimes, the disappointment of that fact makes me a little mad, and that comes out in my posts.