STORY WRITTEN BY DUTCH GODSHALK
@dutchgodshalk on Twitter
When asked to explain what his office in Red Bank, NJ, looks like, self-described “popculturist” Robert Bruce takes a deep breath, chuckles, and says, “It’s a mess.”
“I probably have 100,000 toys within 1,000 square feet,” he says. All around him, piled up on the floor or populating various shelves, are comic books, newspapers, vinyl Japanese figurines, more than a thousand political pins, and enough collectible toys to send any kid (or kid-at-heart) into fits of joy.
For Bruce, 52, who is an on-air expert for AMC’s “Comic Book Men” and a featured guest at the upcoming Great Philadelphia Comic Con, collecting toys isn’t just a passion. It’s his life’s work. And while the piles of comics and action figures around his office might seem like the marks of a typical hoarder, Bruce says there’s actually some method to the madness.
“People think I’m a hoarder, but I’m just really into the research and minutia of toys, so I kind of go overboard,” says Bruce, who studied art history at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. “It’s history. I like to study it. If I had been into paleontology [my office] would be filled with broken bones. But I’m a toy collector. I’m a popculturist,” which is a term he says he coined himself.
Bruce, whose father owned an antique toy store, has been collecting everything from vintage Star Wars toys to rare Batman comics for roughly 30 years. Flea markets are his hunting ground, he says, and he estimates he’s attended more than 800 conventions all over the country since 1975.
He refers to flea markets as “one of the last vestiges of pure Americana,” and approaches toy collecting not as a businessman but as an archaeologist. The history and humanity associated with a toy is more precious to him than its dollar value, he says.
“It’s never been for me a dollar thing. It’s always about what something is and how it applies to the psyche of the modern culture,” he says. “You can be a successful collector and not have to be greedy and take advantage of people. I’m a true believer in karma.”
It seems Bruce has stored up plenty of good karma, too, considering he became a primetime TV star pretty much through blind luck. His role in “Comic Book Men,” which documents the daily happenings at a comic shop in Red Bank, “came out of left field,” he says.
The shop, which filmmaker Kevin Smith opened nearly 20 years ago and named Jay & Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, is within walking distance of Bruce’s office. “I’d been friends with the Stash [employees] since they opened the store,” stopping in daily to appraise comics and other collectibles, he says.
One day, the employees at The Stash called Bruce up and asked him to audition for a spot on their new reality series: “I went down there and sat in front of a camera. They wanted me to talk for 15 minutes, but I talked for 55 minutes.” After that, he began making frequent appearances on the show (now in its fifth season) and is currently credited as a consulting producer.
Due to his exposure on AMC, now when Bruce shows up to speak and give appraisals at conventions like the Great Philly Comic Con, he enjoys some celebrity among his peers.
“Who would have thought that a nerd, a geek, the second seat on the chess team in high school, would propel into being a quasi-star?” he says in disbelief.
“But stardom is really when you get paid to do what you like to do and you get to share it with the rest of the world,” he adds. “For me, that’s more important than anything.”
For more information about “Comic Book Men,” visit amc.com/shows/comic-book-men. And to learn more about Robert Bruce, visit his Facebook page, www.facebook.com/popculturizm.