Why is old LEGO so much better than new LEGO?

Although LEGO is more popular than ever, the company seems to have lost the imaginative spirit that once made it great.


While visiting a LEGO store in a shopping mall over the Christmas holidays, I had the chance to browse the latest offerings from the world renown toy manufacturer that had played such an important part in my childhood. Enamoured with the classic set designs of the 1980s, I walked through the store with money to burn, eager to find something which could provide me with an afternoon’s entertainment during the holiday festivities. Nevertheless, with an entire store dedicated to the latest LEGO products, I couldn’t find a single item that could charm me in the same way as those classic sets from my early youth. Somehow the magic had disappeared, replaced with lacklustre design concepts that lacked depth, charm and originality. I left the store having purchased a LEGO key chain as a gift for someone else, wondering to myself, what had changed? How had this beloved privately traded toy company, having been responsible for creating thousands of hours of inspiration in my youth, been unable to produce one new product I found interesting?


Perhaps I set my standards too high; after all, the classic space LEGO sets from the 1980s are arguably among the greatest children’s toys ever produced. Their inherent innocence, harbingers of an optimistic future of smiling spacemen focused on the exploration of space and desert planets, was an unusual combination of futurism, internationalism and engineering, almost as if LEGO had stumbled upon a universal toy that might one day even entertain aliens from other worlds. The wordless instructions and simple English titles combined with the silent, desert landscapes of deep space on the box beckoned to an idealistic and utopian vision of the future where happiness and peace between humans had been achieved.


Interestingly, there were no weapons in early LEGO. The most violent piece was what looked like a double pronged laser shooter, which, nevertheless, retained a virtuous ambiguity: was it for shooting other spaceships or simply for vaporizing passing asteroids? Unlike later LEGO, these sets seemed to be focused on space exploration and resource extraction, rather than pursuing space criminals like the later, short-lived Space Police theme. Thematically, the earlier LEGO represented a more enlightened humanity where everyone was on the same team. Today there are robbers, and various other criminals, not to mention highly individualized characters based on stale creations like Jar Jar Binks.


In recent years space LEGO has been replaced by the Star Wars license. Previously happy spacemen are now unsmiling “clone troopers”, violently firing lethal weapons at their enemies. The previous special blue spaceman has been replaced with laser cannon firing “Mandolarians” (left), who far from representing an optimistic and peaceful internationalism, resemble Orwellian gestapo-like goons for the New World Order. In the bottom left-hand corner of the Star Wars sets, a figure can be seen menacingly pointing guns at the viewer. Worse, the sets themselves lack the creativity and imaginations of their earlier predecessors. Almost all the new designs are riddled with special pieces that have limited use outside of their preassigned function. One gets the impression that the designers in the 1980s only introduced new pieces after extended and lengthy debate, so few were they in number, and when they did, it was an exciting, carefully thought out addition that led to more possibilities, not less, as I’d argue is the case with many of the newer pieces.


Further the sets themselves are based on preassigned narratives from the movies they represent rather than creating a more general springboard from which children can imagine stories from -- the more detailed the scene or license, the less work is required from children’s imaginations. This lack of creative engagement is further evident on the back of the boxes, which used to show how completely different objects and scenes could be built using the same contents of the box. Today, that’s been replaced by photographs of the main set from different angles, or the picture of another set in the series. A space that was once used as an example of the potential of one’s imagination has now been replaced with cheap advertising.


It seems nearly impossible that the same leadership is in charge of both the old and new. The old designs are stylish and timeless, toys of true genius and masterpieces of design; whereas, today’s LEGO sets are hardly distinguishable from action figures, with the exception that they can be taken apart and reassembled. Sadly, this is not an exercise in nostalgia, but rather another symptom of a larger trend in the West that shows a general degeneration of innocence and creativity in cultural products, whether it be pop music, visual art, movies, cartoons, comics, or even LEGO building blocks. Ironically, many of these classic LEGO sets are available on eBay at premium prices, so I think it’s important cultural producers remind themselves: thing don’t need to be this way. Quality will sell.


Hollywood Zombies Part of Rich American Tradition

Topps' Hollywood Zombies trading cards show America is still capable of making a classic.


2007's landmark release of Topps' Hollywood Zombies trading cards is a remarkable addition to a unique American tradition that includes EC Comics, MAD Magazine and Wacky Packages. The cards are fascinating not only because they parody our Pop culture, but because they summon timeless themes of celebrity and death in a horrific and humourous mix. The painted images of decomposing celebrities and the thoughtful write-ups on the back combine to create truly entertaining experiences, which are Pop culture phenomena in and of themselves.

The pioneer of this sensationalistic, black humour style was EC Comics' Publisher William Gaines, whom inherited the EC comic book company after the sudden death of his father Max in 1947. Under Bill's stewardship, EC Comics changed its name from Educational Comics to Entertaining Comics, and, shortly thereafter, began publishing science fiction, horror, romance, war and crime comics, as well as the now iconic MAD Magazine. Due to the bold originality, gruesome stories and unusually detailed art, the company achieved a high degree of success in a relatively short time period, employing legendary comic artists such as Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Frank Frazetta and Graham Ingels. Whether it was supernatural, criminal or tragic, the comics often had an edge, which seemed to speak to a newer, younger, deliquent America.

So popular were the comics, that they were eventually subject to hearings before the US Congress, largely in response to the work of Dr. Fredric Wertham, who had been a fierce opponent of the stories of crime, violence and the supernatural in comic books. Wertham, a German psychiatrist living in America, published two papers in 1948 entitled "Horror in the Nursery" and "The Psychopathology of Comics," as well as the damning 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, all of which listed comic books as a major contributing factor in juvenile delinquency.

In response to increasing pressure, Gaines spearheaded a committee of publishers to restore the medium's reputation. This resulted in the establishment of the Comics Code Authority (CCA), which, ironically, Gaines refused to join, believeing it had become a vehicle of censorship. And he was right. The CCA acted as a self-censoring board for the comics industry that required all content be approved prior to publication in order to bare its stamp of approval. The CCA now had power to refuse any content it deemed improper, thereby killing the comic's distribution.

Sadly, it was not long before EC Comics went out of business, unable to survive the stringent conditions placed upon the company by the CCA. There's evidence that the board was directly biased against EC Comics as well, banning the words "weird," "terror" and "horror" from comic titles, which were present in the some of EC's best selling comics. Interestingly, MAD Magazine was not subject to the same restrictions that had been placed on the comic book medium because it was in the magazine format.

Another example of this tradition of American pop, black humour are Wacky Packages trading cards. First released by the Topps trading card company in 1967, the cards spoofed various American products with a fiendish spirit that leaned toward the creepy and weird. Nevertheless, the formula became an enormous success, briefly outselling the Topps Baseball card line in the 1970s. Like EC, the cards had beautiful artwork and smart puns, which appealed to kids and teenagers. This spirit has been a part of our Pop culture for over four decades, and arguably laid the groundwork for humour displayed in shows like Beavis and Butthead and The Simpsons.

In 2004, Topps relaunched the Wacky Packages series and have released a new edition every year since. Unfortunately, they don't seem of the same quality as the older series. Though, in February 2008, Topps will release the Wacky Packages Flashbacks series, featuring some of the more popular cards from years past.

Today, however, is the era of the Hollywood Zombies. These cards speak to our current trash tabloid, celebrity culture in a way that Wacky Packages can't, as their focus is on iconic personalities, rather than iconic products. The cards are brilliantly designed and the writing is hilarious. Like Wacky Packages, the images on the cards are painted, giving them a sense of depth and quality.

On the front, the image of a zombie celebrity covers the entire card with a small logo in the top corner and a scary version of the icon's name like "Oprah Winfreak" and "Melt Gibson" written on the bottom, The back of the card contains a parody of an American news outlet like "Entertainment Freakly" and "The Hollyweird Reporter," or a tabloid website like "TMZombie." A headline and a satirical, zombie inspired write-up fill out the back of the card. Another small but significant detail that makes the cards particularly contemporary is the placement of the website address on the back.

Admittedly, to buy Wacky packages these days is an exercise in nostalgia, but to buy the Hollywood Zombies cards -- this pokes fun at the very heart of our MSN culture, engaging with the looming icons in our collective minds the world over. And in this respect, the cards are subversive. There's something about Tom Ooze, flesh rotting, jumping up and down on a casket, or Paris Hellton walking straight out of hell onto the red carpet that speaks to today's individuals who are incessantly force fed our celebrity culture. Thanks to the Hollywood Zombies cards, the tables have been turned. We morbidly enjoy the decrepit celebrity corpses dangling in horror, bodies falling to pieces, after having been endlessly paraded in front of our eyes in grocery store lineups and the ever pervasive mass media.

Like EC and Wacky Packages, the Hollywood Zombies trading cards are quality. The ghoulish artwork is both risque in content and well crafted technically, while the writing cuts deep and is genuinely funny. Importantly, the cards are priced reasonably, retailing for about $2-3 for a pack of 7 cards. It's great to see a resurgence of a great American tradition that can be appreciated from Baghdad to Shanghai and the world over.