At first, customers might overlook them – small, plastic packages of unassuming action figures tacked up on a column in the middle of Square Books. On further examination, the action figures are actually “reaction figures,” a humorous homage to a few well-known (and not-so-well-known) Oxonians and writers.
Under the packages is an unassuming note, crediting Joe Tonos, also known as Father Joe, as the artist. Father Joe is the priest at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Oxford.
The reaction figures came to Square Books after Father Joe mentioned to manager Lyn Roberts he was “working on something special” for the store.
One subject of the reaction figures is Square Books employee – and bassist for Thacker Mountain Radio’s house band, the Yalobushwhackers – Slade Lewis.
According to Lewis, the reaction figures were delivered in a “really well-packaged” box to the Square Books doorstep a couple days before Christmas last year. Inside the box were various hand-painted and repurposed vintage action figures, made in the image of people like Oxford’s favorite son William Faulkner, writer Jim Harrison, Oxford entrepreneur Ron Shapiro and Lewis himself.
Lewis said he doesn’t mind being turned into an action figure. The doll itself is a repurposed 1970s Gene Simmons action figure, wearing Lewis’ signature plaid shirt and thick-rimmed glasses, with a few surprising elements as well, including an ax-shaped bass guitar and a T-shirt with Square Books owner Richard Howorth’s face across the front.
They have a funny sort of twist of the person they’re parodying. For example, William Faulkner’s action figure is “Bathing Suit Bill,” with a quote on the back of the box attributed to the notoriously bleak author that ends with “SO grab your friends and PARTY!”
“It’s pretty funny to me,” Lewis said. “Definitely a conversation piece for the customers.”
Ron Shapiro, a self-described “action hero” and Oxford businessman, said he is flattered to be featured in the collection.
“I always considered myself to be an action hero, and Father Joe must have seen me running out of a phone booth and off to save the world from fake news,” Shapiro said. “Look up and you’ll see me flying around. I’m flattered to be among his group. Father Joe is the real hero.”
While the reaction figures aren’t for sale, people still want to buy them. In fact, shoppers at Square Books aren’t even allowed to touch the packages, and they definitely aren’t allowed to take these limited edition figurines off the walls.
Mariel Spencer is a sophomore who attends mass at St. John’s every Sunday and described Father Joe as a more serious man when it comes to his professional persona.
“I’m surprised that he made them, because he doesn’t talk about his artwork at all,” Spencer said. “It seems like his silly side coming out, because at Mass, he seems more serious.”
Father Joe, the artist himself, isn’t particularly interested in taking credit. When reached for comment, he was fairly tight-lipped on the matter.
“Let’s just keep that shrouded in mystery,” he said.
This story was submitted to The Daily Mississippian from an advanced reporting class.