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Action Figures for Twisted Minds (and Why We Love Them)

We interviewed Death by Toys creator Dan Polydoris
All Death by Toys photos courtesy of Dan Polydoris

After discovering Dan Polydoris’ remarkable Death by Toys Instagram account, my eye went directly to the figure called ”Watching Some Kid Almost Die on the ’80s Playground,” complete with one ”expendable kid,” face-planted against the hard earth, its leg bent in a direction where no healthy child’s leg should go. A photo of the playground’s familiar spinning roundabout – complete with useless metal handles – sits guiltily in the background. I shared the image immediately, and, just as quickly reveled in the catharsis of feeling understood, remembering the good old days of unsupervised, painful ”fun.” 

The tragedy of the sad ’80s kid is hardly the pinnacle of Polydoris’ irreverent nostalgia. It takes all forms, from the all-too familair ”Laying Awake At Night (thinking of some shit I said 4 years ago)” to ”The Fucking Asshole (at a Party with a Guitar).” Of the latter, Polydoris advises there’s only one solution: ”I think I read that if you encounter one of them, you should play dead until they leave,” he says. 

Polydoris’ penchant for the ”weird and absurd” has always been there, for as long as he can remember. ”Humor has always played a huge part [of] everything I do in life,” he says. Honoring his love of vintage toys and “all things ‘80s,” he constructed his first custom toys in 2013 – “straightforward tributes to retro video games” – creating old-school action figures to add to his collection.

About a year or two later, he began infusing his toys with some of his signature offbeat humor. ”I wasn’t sure people would go for it, but I was surprised that people seemed to enjoy them more than my straightforward toys,” he says. “So I just started letting my weirdo humor infect more of the toys I made, and eventually Death by Toys was ‘born’ in a way.”

And so began the Rorschach action-figure test Death by Toys consistently inspires. How does this action figure make you feel? Enraged? Appalled? Soothed and seen? What does my favorite broken ‘80s kid on the playground say about me?

“To me, it means you have good taste and appreciate the joy of seeing someone not respect a dangerous piece of equipment and then promptly eat shit,” analyzes Polydoris. “It also says that you braved the lawless wasteland of the old-school playground and survived to tell. So congrats to both of us for not becoming another pavement stain at the bottom of a rusty metal slide.”

As far as Polydoris is concerned, he admits that his toys reflect his personal psyche. ”I suppose if you look at everything I’ve made over the years, they definitely paint a picture of someone who deals with how shitty life is by laughing at it and finding the absurdity in it,” he says. “I guess if I didn’t do that I’d be even more miserable than I already am.”

And while he insists he doesn’t have one clear favorite – ”Maybe I’ve been doing this for too long and I’m now just a jaded asshole” – here he offers a top 10 for your anarchic pleasure.


Authentic Thoughts & Prayers

“I have a fondness for this ‘toy’ mostly because I have contempt for anyone who thinks thoughts and prayers do anything.”


Lying Awake at Night 

“This is something everyone relates to. And while I’m way better about it these days, this place still holds a place in my regret-filled heart.”


Your Cat Ignoring You

“No creature on Earth is better at testing the ego and patience of humans than a cat. This is my tribute to their disdain for our existence.”


Adam & Steve

“Bible bumpers and homophobes love bringing up these two fellas when condemning alternative lifestyles, so they seemed like they deserved their own action figures. “


Black Mold 

“A lot of us played with this stuff in our basements even if we didn’t know, so I figured why not give it the proper toy-release treatment? (And no, it’s not real black mold in the package.)”


Falling Asleep on a Pile of Clean Laundry

“While this idea seems to be a basic truth that tons of people relate to, I really just like this piece because I based the card back on a Crate & Barrel ad.”


Asshole with a Guitar at a Party

“Any party gets ruined by this universally-loathed character, which I guess makes this figure more of a super-villain toy.”


Fun with Electricity

“This lovely toy got me banned from posting on the Death by Toys Facebook page for years. Evidently, promoting lethal electrocution to children is frowned upon at that organization.”


Me Giving Up and Walking into the Ocean

“Making this was definitely a way to cope with my mom dying of cancer. I designed the card back while I was sitting in her hospital room, and that vivid memory makes this piece a bit more notable for me.”


‘80s Playground

“Honestly, I just think the image of some kid flying off a piece of dangerous playground equipment is funny. That’s the whole story.”