Masters of the Universe display at Cleveland State draws children of the '80s to its cases

photo Ashley Raburn, an instructional technology specialist at Cleveland State Community College, has brought in his collection of Masters of the Universe action figures to display in the college's library. The four cases contain individual figures, vehicles, playsets, cels, mini-comics, a storyboard and a lunch box.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- A Dr. Who action figure sits jauntily on the desk of his basement office. Beatles action figures perch on a shelf to his right in their original packaging. Monsters in bubble packs loom above him. A Dr. Who clocks ticks behind him.

Ashley Raburn, a Cleveland man with a master's degree and a job in educational technology, is a serious collector of some not-so-serious things.

"I've tried to stop it," he said. "It gets out of hand if you don't watch it."

Raburn's collections include toys from a number of popular and more obscure 1980s action-figure series, books, cartoon cels, comics and other items.

It's his Masters of the Universe action figures, though, that have caught people's attention since they've been arrayed in four display cases in the library at Cleveland State Community College.

Mary Evelyn Lynn, library director, said the collection has drawn more interest than any exhibit in recent history. She said families have even come in together, with older students pointing out to their children the collectible toys they have at home.

"It's been fun to watch," she said. "For one thing, we have a huge population of older students, and I think it's caught the attention of the age group."

Raburn, 30, instructional technology specialist at Cleveland State, said he was talking earlier this month with members of the library staff, where an exhibit was about to go off display. They asked if he knew of anything that might constitute an exhibit, and, picturing the boxes in which his collections were stored at home, he thought he might come up with something.

The 100-plus figures in the cases include toys he played with growing up, individual items and pieces of collections he's bought, and newer collectors series toys.

"[The Mattel toy series] was just always something I liked," Raburn said. "If I saw something [to add to it], I'd pick it up."

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The Masters of the Universe collection -- with He-Man as its hero -- appealed to him not only because he grew up with it but because it was a toy line of firsts.

It was that particular plastic toy line, Raburn said, that launched the massive 1980s production of action figures. In addition, he said, each character sported a distinguishing action feature. And it was one of the most copied series ever, he said.

"I love this line," he said. "It was an interesting time in pop culture."

However, Raburn said the creativity in naming the characters was a little lacking. For example, Bow's weapon was a bow, Buzz-Off was king of a bee-like species, Catra transformed into a panther, Frosta's hair was the color of frost and Mekaneck's neck extended.

His two favorites are He-Man and Battle Cat, "his trusted steed," he said. "There was just something about barbarians riding cats."

The line began production in 1981, the year Raburn was born. However, it is celebrating its official 30th anniversary this year.

The toys, in turn, spawned a cartoon, additional toy lines and a 1987 movie.

Chad Urbanovitch of said Masters of the Universe figures are usually collected more for sentimental value. Early figures, even with their weapons, are worth less than $15, he said. The latest set is an exception, he said, with their value around $40-$50 each, Urbanovitch said.

"While there are also those who collect Masters of the Universe figures still sealed in their original packages for quite a bit more," he said in an email statement, "nearly everyone I have run into in this hobby does it more for sentimental value than for an investment. Sometimes you make a few extra dollars along the way by buying and selling, but it's usually all just part of the fun."

The Masters of the Universe display in the college library includes four cases of items: Individual figures, vehicles, playsets, cels, mini-comics, a storyboard and a lunch box.

It took him and his wife four hours to set them up, Raburn said.

Among the toys displayed are several items from the 1980s She-Ra toy series, which was created to appeal to girls in the same way He-Man (her twin brother) appealed to boys.

Rather than the all-plastic He-Man figures, Raburn said, the She-Ra toys often had rooted hair and made use of fabric in their clothing. That -- and the more limited run of the She-Ra figures -- makes them a little harder to find.

The cels, from the animated series that spun off the toys, were purchased at conventions or collectors shows.

Raburn said he admires them as more than a piece of animation history.

"I like investing in art," he said.

Raburn, in addition to being a collector, is a prolific blogger and game reviewer. He also started the Tennessee Toy Collectors Association Facebook page.

"I'm an all-around nerd," he said.

Raburn's other collections -- Masters of the Universe and Dr. Who (a time-traveling alien on a British science fiction television show) are his largest -- include Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars comics, BraveStarr cels and toys, and M.A.S.K. toys.

Raburn's wife, he said, just wants him to keep the items cleaned up.

"She respects it," he said, "but I don't think she really gets it."

The collection in the Cleveland State library will be on display through February.

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