The Geek Tycoon
A rare collection results in one toy enthusiast’s rise, fall and – finally – salvation.
Shot on location at Shades of Grey Tattoo.
Photography by Curtis Comeau
It’s an impressive collection of rare and hard-to-find paraphernalia from many facets of nerd culture: Framed original artwork from comic books, a wide range of G.I. Joe action figures (in their original packaging), rare prototypes for toys and original packaging artwork. The collection features G.I. Joe toys that were exclusively released in Canada during the ’80s and some that were exclusively released in Mexico. There’s the world’s most comprehensive series of prototypes surrounding an obscure Star Wars character, Thall Joben, from the short-lived Droids cartoon.
It’s one that Shane Turgeon has amassed since the age of 13 and, according to him, it’s worth somewhere in the six-figure range (though for the security of his collection he won’t reveal the actual dollar value.) More importantly to Turgeon, his collection is the reason he leads the life he does today.
As an avid Star Wars fan (and heavily tattooed individual), he is the author of The Force in the Flesh: Star Wars Inspired Body Art – a coffee-table book published in 2007 which showcased Star Wars-inspired tattoo work from around the world. In 2012, he co-founded the Edmonton Comic & Entertainment Expo, the sister show to the popular Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo. He’s Canada’s only certified appraiser who specializes in comic books, toys and pop-culture paraphernalia. And, he owns and operates Shades of Grey Tattoo, which doubles as a comic book and collectibles store.
As far as secret origins go, Turgeon’s is unremarkable compared to the colourful adventures of the comic-book heroes of his childhood. There were no cosmic rays granting him special powers. He wasn’t rocketed to Earth from some strange and distant world. But, a long time ago, in a rural community a province away, a young Turgeon read the comic book stories of heroes and adventurers – and he was hooked.
“I grew up, quite literally, on the end of a dirt road in the middle-of-nowhere Saskatchewan, outside of a town called Paradise Hill,” says Turgeon. “I think there were 450 people in the town. I kind of fell into comic books at an early age, and really enjoyed reading comics, because there wasn’t really a lot to do out there.”
Upon moving to Edmonton at the age of 13, the pop-culture bug showed no sign of fading. “I really started collecting when I moved here. In those days, Comic Castle on Whyte was the mecca for comic books,” says Turgeon. “You would go in there and your mind was blown. ToyBiz put out its first line of Marvel action figures in 1990 and I began collecting them. I still played with my G.I. Joes occasionally, but pretty soon I was buying more of those and putting them on a shelf with my comic books. That was sort of the start of it.” Turgeon, exposed to a collectors’ market for the first time, found that he didn’t need to let go of childish things; he could simply put them on the shelf and think of them as investments.
Like most comic nerds, the young collector started with the basics: Comics and toys. But over the years, Turgeon followed his hobby into the convention circuit, learning the ins and outs of the collector market. He made friends in all the right places: A few people from Star Wars creator George Lucas’s Lucasfilm, some folks at the toy manufacturer, Hasbro, and other knowledgeable collectors from across the world.
With the guidance and help of others, Turgeon’s collection grew from widely available merchandise to rare specimens, full mint-condition sets and collectible pre-production pieces from toy runs. This taught him the value of community in the hobby, so, Turgeon decided that Edmonton needed a place where hobbyists could come together as well. In 2003, he launched the first annual Edmonton Collectible Toy and Comic Show.
“We didn’t really have anything like it before. It was this great place for collectors to come and meet other collectors and find the collectibles they were looking for,” says Brandon Best, another Edmonton hobbyist. “That’s probably the main difference between that show and the expo that’s going on now: It was collectible driven, where as now the expo is a more of a celebrity guest and pop-culture driven event.”
Over the course of the next 10 years, however, the show outgrew its humble beginnings. As of 2008, the show had moved to the Shaw Conference Centre and began to resemble the larger comic conventions in size as well as programming. Celebrity guests such as Star Trek: The Next Generation’s LeVar Burton and Daniel Logan – who played the young Boba Fett in the Star Wars prequels – made appearances and, by 2012, there was demand for a show that equaled the size of Calgary’s famous Comic & Entertainment Expo.
But Turgeon was not in a place, either emotionally or financially, to grow the show any larger. In 2010 he had left his job as an assistant programming director for Super Channel to partner in opening Shades of Grey Tattoo. After 10 years working in television, the collector wanted to do something more in line with his interests. “Shane’s an entrepreneur,” says Best. “He gets a lot of ideas and visions for things centred on his passions, and then builds his life around them.”
The tattoo parlour would be no different. For years, Turgeon had worked with Lucasfilm to bring Star Wars tattoo programming to its conventions. In recognizing the overlap in the tattoo and pop culture market, he opened a store that would cater to both of those interests.
Unfortunately, by 2012, his debts were mounting and Turgeon struggled to keep the doors open, working a side-job as a bouncer and a full-time job at Toys “R” Us just to keep his head above water. Add to that a divorce, and Turgeon was living in his own “dark times.” He battled with depression and, unlike the colourful worlds of his cartoon heroes, there wasn’t a happy ending in sight. Turgeon was forced to re-evaluate what was important to him.
“I got to thinking,” says Turgeon, “that I am struggling to make the choice between ramen noodles and my mortgage, and here I am sitting on several thousand dollars worth of toys that I haven’t enjoyed or opened in four years.” He says, at that point, the decision wasn’t hard to make at all. “I just looked at the ball-and-chain that I had in my life and I figured that selling it would allow me to move on.” Turgeon then sold 75 per cent of his collection, and the money went towards his mortgage and his business. For most collectors, that would have been their darkest day but, for Turgeon, selling his collection allowed him the boost he needed to keep going.
With his personal and professional life taken care of, Turgeon could address Edmonton’s comic-con problem. Knowing his limitations, he reached out to Kandrix Foong, the founder and event director of the Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo (CCEE). The two had known each other for more than a decade. Turgeon had brought tattoo programming to the Calgary convention, and the two worked behind the scenes to ensure that their respective shows wouldn’t nab the other’s celebrity guests. “Shane is very level headed, which is cool. As fellow convention promoters, we always really wanted to help each other,” says Foong. “It just became a very natural progression for us to combine and bring what we brought for the Calgary Expo to Edmonton.”
By October 2012, Turgeon’s show folded into the CCEE, allowing for Festival City to have as high a profile comic convention as Calgary. Only in its second year, the 2013 expo reached attendance numbers near 26,000. (While a little over half of Calgary’s 50,000 expo attendees, the numbers are comparable to Calgary’s show only two years ago.) Turgeon now works as an event coordinator for the CCEE and as the co-founder of the ECEE. “For me, is the best of both worlds,” he says. “It was a really good move for me to become part of a larger group and I have learned a lot more that way.”
Turgeon is now taking that knowledge and looking ahead. With the presence of mind to know that a large consumer show doesn’t cater to the collectibles crowd, Turgeon is organizing a new convention. On Feb. 23, Turgeon will launch the Edmonton Collector Con – a show that brings him back to his roots. “It is a straight-up toy and comic book show with no celebrities, no knick knacks, no artists – just toys and comics,” says Turgeon.
Turgeon is also planning a sequel to Force in the Flesh to be released in 2015 and is currently developing a reality TV series called The Toy Traveler, which follows the collector as he travels across the world in search of rare pop-culture finds. While it was optioned for America’s SyFy network (a niche channel that targets the science fiction audience), the studio has since pulled out, leaving the eight-minute sizzle reel Turgeon filmed in Peru to be shopped around to other networks.
And as a collectibles expert, he’s flown to make television appearances – both in Canada and in the U.S. – on shows such as The Nerdist and Reelz Channel’s FanAddicts!
With a whirlwind of projects on the go, Turgeon is just happy to be doing what he loves – even if he had to sacrifice much of his prized possessions to do so. “At the end of the day,” says Turgeon, “my collection saved my life.