Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Action Figures

In this article, we take a more in depth look into a subject close to the hearts of many: the action figure. Where did they come from, how did they get here, and what do they want?!

First off, what exactly is an action figure? According to the hivemind's collective intelligence, Wikipedia...

"An action figure is a poseable character figurine, made of plastic or other materials, and often based upon characters from a film, comic book, video game, or television program. These action figures are usually marketed toward boys and adult collectors."

GI Joe

The Beginning: A New Toy is Born

The action figure as we know it today was born in 1964, with the release of Hasbro's 11.5" tall, G.I. Joe. Not only was America's movable fighting man the first commercially successfully toy of it's type for boys, it's also the origin of the market-defining term, Action Figure. Hasbro realised early on the scope for their idea, but they also had the wisdom to avoid the term 'doll'. In-fact, the term 'action figure' was adopted at Hasbro so strongly that anyone on the G.I. Joe project using the 'D'-word was fined on the spot.

Hasbro set standards from the outset with G.I. Joe that still define action figures today, including the introduction of multiple characters belonging to the same series, as well as a wide range of accessories, both included and separately purchasable. These additions allowed children to act out an unending stream of different scenarios, increasing the longevity of the toy and, no doubt, adding to collectible value today.

The Golden-Era: Mego And Kenner

In 1971, U.S. toy company, Mego (pronounced mee-go) released their competitor for the G.I. Joe action figure market, Action Jackson. New company President, Martin Abrahms, spotted an opening in the market for a competitive toy, realising that G.I. Joe was a premium product with a premium price-tag, making him unaffordable to many children/parents.

Action Jackson was 8" tall as apposed to G.I. Joe's 11.5", with less complex construction, making the toy cheaper to produce and allowing Mego to sell him at a price considerably more attainable for most people.

The real genius stroke that cemented Mego as a pillar of toy history came in 1974, with the decision to produce a range of action figures under the banner "World's Greatest Superheroes" (WGSH). Initially securing the licences for DC comic figures, and later, Marvel, the WGSH line proved incredibly popular and they are still highly desirable and nostalgic toys for many collectors today.

The master stroke for Mego was the use of the same 8" Action Jackson body for almost all of the characters, simply changing heads and costumes as necessary for new figures. This, of course, reduced production costs drastically but also had the added benefit of an insurance system; if a new figure was released unsuccessfully they could be recalled and 're-dressed' into different figures, protecting a portion of the investment.

The success of Mego's WGSH line also saw the company devise packaging systems that are still used today. When the initial run of DC based figures hit shelves in 1974 they were sold in a printed cardboard box, which resulted in a lot of damaged stock as children were opening boxes to get a look at the figures before purchasing them. This led to both the window boxand and blister card designs as means of protecting the toy and the packaging, while still allowing the contents to be inspected by an excited young buyer.

Mego Toys

Mego's downfall began with what would be the next chapter in the story of the action figure. When Mego failed to anticipate the potential of new science fiction movie franchise, Star Wars, small time company, Kenner, got their chance for a bite at the action figure cherry. It's fair to say that Mego never really recovered from the loss of Star Wars, resulting in some possibly reckless rights purchases for a great number of ultimately unsuccessful sci-fi movies. Mego ultimately closed its doors in 1982, officially going under in 1983.

The Kenner Star Wars figures were incredibly popular with children. Today they are among the most collectible toys in history, with boxed, mint examples of rarer characters selling for thousands. So why were these figures so desirable during the late 1970s and 80s, and why do they continue to demand ever increasing prices today?

First and foremost, Kenner struggled to produce enough figures to meet the enormous and unexpected public demand. Before Star Wars A New Hope, toys and figures were simply not made to coincide with a movies release. Manufacturers typically preferred to wait until a movie had proved itself popular before entering into the time consuming and incredibly expensive process of designing, prototyping, producing and distributing products, a process that could take well over a year.

With the unprecedented success of the first instalment of the most successful sci-fi franchise in history, toys simply could not be produced quickly enough. This prompted Kenner to release a (highly successful) cardboard display stand, the Early Bird Certificate Page. The box contained nothing but a few stickers and a form that could be filled out and sent off to, hopefully, ensure being one of the first to receive the toys when they were finally released. The knock on, present day effect of these supply issues means that some figures are incredibly rare, and that has had a very real impact on collectability, particularly for collectors looking for pristine or boxed examples.

Another decision would prove pivotal in the toys success and, later, it's collectability; the Kenner figures were 3.75" tall, as opposed to the established 11-12" of toys like G.I. Joe and the 8" tall Mego toys. This not only made them much less expensive to produce and purchase, but a whole collection, including associated vehicles, could be kept on a single shelf or carried easily by a child to a friends house. Children now had a way to re-live their favourite moments from the movie and, more importantly, an industrious, young lawn-mower or paper-deliverer could save up and buy them themselves without the need to convince a money-strapped or sceptical parent.

kenner star wars

Despite the initial supply difficulties, the original Kenner Star Wars figures are still among the most successful toys ever sold with over a quarter of a billion being sold between 1978 and 1986

Transformers, The 1990s And The Present Day

mcfarlane spawn figure

In 1983, a sole European representative of Hasbro Toys attended Japan's Toy Expo, where he discovered Japanese manufacturer Takara's range of Diaclone (an amalgamation of 'diamond' and 'cyclone' transforming toys. Recognising the desirability of the toys, Hasbro brought the distribution rights to the moulds. The Transformers were born, along with one of the most collectible toy lines in history.

Hasbro were well aware of the importance of a backstory for their new find, so they turned to comic-book giant and masters of narrative, Marvel to flesh out their robotic world, ultimately building an animated series with characters that would last for generations.

This wasn't the first time the American and Japanese toy giants had worked together. In 1970, Takara obtained the license from Hasbro to produce the G.I. Joe figure in Japan. This led to an interesting collectible known as Henshin Cyborg-1, released in late 1972. Cyborg-1 featured the body of G.I. Joe, moulded in transparent plastic with visible mechanical parts inside.

Prior to the 1990s, action figures had largely been aesthetically quite simple, often having minimal sculpted or painted detail, instead relying on different colours of plastic. All that changed in 1994 when McFarlane Toys released their first wave of Spawn figures. The Spawn series (based on famed comic book artist, Todd McFarlanes own comic of the same name) progressively raised the bar for new action figures, with later toys regularly featuring much higher levels of detail in both the sculpt and paint than other company's offerings. The continued success of McFarlane Toys has seen their range grow drastically, covering a large portion of the TV and movie industry, and even a wide range of collectible sports related figures.

Manufacturers like the Nation Entertainment Collectibles Association or NECA Toys, now lead from the front with highly detailed, highly articulated action figures at moderate prices, affordable to most collectors. NECA have a mind-boggling number of licenses to produce from, including a great many retro and nostalgia franchises, like classic horror, sci-fi and action movies alongside current films and TV series and even music celebrities.

The scope of what could be achieved with a scale figure increased dramatically with the birth of Hong Kong based company, Hot Toys, in the year 2000. Initially focusing on sixth-scale military figures for the U.S. army, Hot Toys quickly moved on to produce popular characters from films and comic books.

Along with Sideshow Collectibles, Hot Toys continues to introduce new technology to the world of action figures, increasing detail and articulation year on year. Many figures also come with a range of accessories relevant to their character. These include weapons or props, necessitating a wide range of included interchangeable hand options and, in some cases, faces or even whole heads to allow for different poses and expressions.

Collecting action figures

Since the 1990 toy collecting (and collecting as a whole) has expanded rapidly as a hobby. What originated as a smaller group of people adding to their pre-existing-collections has now become a highly lucrative industry for both collectors and manufacturers alike.

Of course, nothing has had a bigger impact on collecting of any kind than the advent of online shopping and, particularly, the use of online auction sites. There are many choices for where to look for your toys, and it's pretty simple to get going, but are a few pieces of advice you will hear again and again from experienced figure collectors if you’re thinking of starting out yourself.

First of all, try to pin down what it is you like to collect. Maybe it's characters from a particular film franchise or comic book, or maybe it's a single character. Whatever you choose, its helpful to have a clear idea - many budding collectors lose interest after quickly accumulating a mish-mash of unrelated items.

batman collection

The second common piece of advice is to take your time and do your research, especially if you're looking at vintage collectibles. It's all too easy to be taken in by a well-written eBay description and spend a small fortune on a figure that you would have known isn't a big deal if you'd have found it a little further down the line.

The third piece of advice from us as collectors is to have fun. Many would-be collectors become disappointed when their predictions of potential future value turn out to be mistaken. Starting a collection as a financial investment is a risky proposition and many seasoned collectors still get it wrong. If you buy your figures principally because you enjoy them, then you will never be disappointed if their value doesn't skyrocket.

Finally, The Big Question- Open and Enjoy or Keep Them Boxed?

You might be surprised. Popular media tends to portray toy collectors as vigilant, militant box-hoarders, sneering at anyone crazy enough to tear away a card back or cut a blister-pack. In reality there are probably more collectors opening boxes and displaying and playing with toys than keeping mint toys safely under (original) wraps.

Openers may be more common than non-openers, but there is no doubt that almost any collectable's value drops pretty drastically once the desire to remove it from its packaging has been sated. Maybe the question is less about boxed or unboxed than it is about investment or enjoyment. Even that isn't cut and dry though; some people just really love unopened toys - you will have to try to find what works for you.

We hope you have enjoyed this article. If you have any comments about this or an article you would like to see in the future, please let us know using the comments box below. We would also love to hear about your favourite figures and collectibles, old or new, so don’t forget to share your stories, too!