Angel Zang, 37, of Wilkinsburg, is keeping her late husband V. Keith Zang's dream alive by making accurate 1/6-scale M1 Army helmets for G.I. Joes, the 31-year-old military action figure from Hasbro. Along with her family and friends, Zang has made 1,000 helmets (used in World War II through Vietnam) and sold them to Joe collectors since 1998 for $25 apiece (see www.sgt-zang.com). They are stamped from the original steel mix, sandblasted, primed and rimmed with metal foil, then an adjustable cloth chin strap with buckle and netting are added. Zang is still working on the proper liner. By day, she is a policy analyst for the county's Office of Children, Youth and Families.
You're probably the only student in the University of Pittsburgh's Executive MBA program who has 100 G.I. Joes, plus the Jeep, the helicopter, the space capsule and seemingly every weapon and uniform. How did this get started?
When my husband was 4, his dad had a car parts/toy store in Maryland. His dad would buy him more G.I. Joes all the time. He's like, "Dad, this is just like when you were in the war!" His dad is a crusty kind of guy; he was like, "Boy, our helmets were made of steel, not plastic." Keith told the story of how he was putting aluminum foil on the helmets to please his father. One day I brought him home a G.I. Joe still in the box from a yard sale. I paid $25 for it. He looked it up on the Internet and saw that it was worth $300 or so. So he was instantly hooked. He was always talking about those helmets. We met a guy who wrote a book about the M1 helmet; we got the plans from him. We really wanted to make them the exact same way they made them through the war eras. We had to change a few things to make sure [the G.I. Joes] didn't shelf-dive.
Who are your customers?
It turns out that there were conventions. They have really nice seminars about how to customize your G.I. Joes. They have photography contests and diorama contests. The G.I. Joe community is just an incredible support to me. And the great thing is, you don't see the helmets on eBay. People are keeping them. It's great to get pictures of people using the helmets. We've met people who have seen these helmets and have started to cry. People did everything in [the real] helmets. They sometimes had to use them as a bathroom. They took a bath in it. They shaved in it. They cooked in it. They got pretty attached to it.
Which era of G.I. Joes is the best?
The vintage ones are the best ones. [Keith's] favorite are the old painted-head ones. They were from '64 to '69. In 1970 they switched to the Adventure Team, with the beards. Collectors call them fuzzy heads.
Your Web site features "Joe art," including mud-smeared Joes posing with a captured Nazi flag.
Greg "Torch" Buck did those. He's a Navy fighter pilot commander. He's into history -- a lot of these kids are. They pick their favorite war. They pick either the painted heads or the fuzzy heads. They pick the tall ones or the short ones.
And the helmets are actually in a movie?
It's called Full Grown Men. It's [from] an indie-film label in San Francisco. It's like a coming-of-age movie about two guys; they get booted out by their wives, and they have to sell their G.I. Joes. I think they liked the slogan of our T-shirt: "Put a helmet on that soldier." In San Francisco that's even more fun. My newest slogan is going to be "Geek = Passion." I'm the busiest queen of the nerds.
Do you have competitors?
Other people make similar helmets, but they're not as accurate. I've had plenty of orders from Singapore. I worry about them knocking it off. But I know they're not going to make it cost-effective.
As a kid, did you have G.I. Joes?
Maybe a couple, because they could hold the Barbie babies where the Kens couldn't.
I'm not even sure where my G.I. Joes ended up.
What do they say? "Old soldiers never die; your mom just threw them out."