Collecting Action Figures

Action Figures 1960s - 2000s

Back to front, left to right: 1960s Johnny West, 1970s G.I. Joe Adventure Team, 2000s Dr. McCoy, 1970s Mego Capt. Kirk, and a c. 1990s-2000s Klingon. Note: action figure villains and aliens are harder to come by than main characters.
Back to front, left to right: 1960s Johnny West, 1970s G.I. Joe Adventure Team, 2000s Dr. McCoy, 1970s Mego Capt. Kirk, and a c. 1990s-2000s Klingon. Note: action figure villains and aliens are harder to come by than main characters.

Recapturing Childhood and Imagination

The summer of 2009 has begun with a series of blockbuster movies based on TV series, comic books, and previous films, including Wolverine; Transformers, Terminator, and Star Trek. Each and every one of these is popular with boys and men and each is guaranteed to produce a slew of action figures for these boys and men ... okay, and girls and women as well. Some will be purchased by kids as playthings; others will be purchased by collectors to be placed on display shelves ... either still sealed in the original box or liberated and posed depending on the temperament of the collector.

With the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers aging and becoming nostalgic, these groups are seeking to recapture the carefree days of youth and are turning to action figure collecting as well, although the figures they are purchasing are considerably older and not as easily ... or cheaply ... obtained. I came to this realization when I saw a 1960s G.I. Joe in the Mercury Astronaut spacesuit, complete with Mercury space capsule, on display in an antique shop. After I got over the sting of seeing a toy from my own childhood in an antique shop, I decided to check on the asking price to see if I could recapture a much loved toy of my misspent youth. The price for the set was $600! I blurted out something unkind and realized recapturing my youth just wasn't in the cards that day.

Saying you wish to recapture your youth, here's what you need to know. Action figures are molded, posable plastic figurines designed to be played with by children ... and adult collectors ... even though they'll insist they are merely posing the figures for display. These figures, with varying degrees of flexibility given to them by the number of movable joints they have, are designed to be played with together with other toys (figures, accessories, and vehicles for example) in situations limited only by a child's imagination and the laws of physics. Most of these action figures were and are designed as toys for boys. They are constructed for rough and tumble play, making it a challenge to find popular models in good condition. Toy makers made it quite clear when first introduced that these toys were not dolls but action figures and that it was good and healthy for your young man to want them, to outfit them, and to play with them alone or with other like-minded boys. My own son and his friends would take their action figures out into the front yard for adventures in a large pine bush that lasted for hours. Toy makers tried to expand the market to include girls, but despite providing a series of impressive heroines, the results were limited at best ... not dissimilar to a few of my HubPages.

Action figures vary in size and the number of articulated joints they contain. Figures range from a tall 12" (early figures were most often of this height, including the 1960s and 1970s G.I. Joes, Johnny West, Captain Action, etc.) to 8" and 3 3/4" tall figures such as later G.I. Joes (the basis of the 2009 movie) and the wide ranging Star Wars action figures.

The first action figures, from whence all the rest evolved, were first created and introduced to the public by Hasbro in 1964. It was the aforementioned 12" tall fighting man of action called G.I. Joe, who quickly became the gold standard for action figure heroes and villains. Joe was followed quickly by various figures from a number of firms, including Johnny West, Captain Action, Major Matt Mason, a variety of space aliens, and Japanese figures (including in the 1980s the much-loved Transformers). Since they have been introduced, action figures have continued to be staple products of toy companies to this day.

During the 1970s, action figures began their descent from 12” to 8” to 3 ¾” small. Mego Corporation, a powerhouse in 1970s action figures, began the descent in earnest with their Comic Action Heroes/Pocket Super Heroes line. Mego declared kids could have more figures for less money and that large numbers of play sets and vehicles could be sold right along with them to rake in the savings off the figure sales.

Kenner appreciated this approach and created their endless line of Star Wars figures in the below 5” scale with greatly limited articulation. While the original Joe had 14 movable joints (points of articulation at neck, waist, shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees, and ankles … and some modern figures may have 24 points or more to please adult collectors more than kids), the Star Wars figures were limited to five points with stiff knees, elbows, ankles, and wrists. Hasbro went farther into the small with their recreated line of G.I. Joes in the 3 ¾” size. However, the new Joes had more articulation points than their contemporaries.

Moving into the 1980s, adult collectors began to recapture their youth by collecting action figures of the 1960s and 1970s. Also, the Star Wars figures were calling to adults as well as to kids. At this point, super hero figures entered the fray, further strengthening the adult collecting market… “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” All these new figures were small and inexpensive, fitting any odd corner or shelf, and providing gratification at a much lower cost. A new hobby had arrived.

When the action figure market was cooling in the late 1980s, Kenner dropped the Star Wars line and turned to the Caped Crusader for help. Tim Burton’s Batman, with brooding visage and removable cape, became the next big thing in small figures. Kenner would return to Star Wars in 1995, this time with more intricate sculpting of figures and more complete paint jobs in the 3 ¾” size. This move was aimed straight at the adult collectors, although boys didn’t turn up their noses at the more sophisticated look. By the late 1990s, figures were once again offered in all sizes from 3 ¾” to 12” in height and were modeled after popular TV shows and movies. Hasbro began offering modern remakes of the original, classic G.I. Joes for frustrated collectors who would not pay $600+ for original figures and sets. Several other companies followed suit, providing replicas of Captain Action figures and sets and the Fighting Knights, among others. These offering were pleasing but fairly short-lived.

If you decide to collect action figures of any sort or size, there are a few things you should know. Condition is paramount to the figure, whether it is out of the box or still sealed in the original packaging. If mint in the box, the container should be undamaged, complete, and in pristine shape, that is without tears, bent or crushed parts, or water stains. Avoid the temptation to remove the price tag from the box. All that will be accomplished in the attempt is that you will damage the packaging.

Loose action figures are a more complex proposition. A loose figure in great condition is probably a figure that was never or rarely played with by a kid. It will have no flaws or damage, will have all the small and easily lost accessories, and will not be faded from time spent in the sun (in fact action figures and vampires have something in common … they should be kept out of the sun—action figures fade in sunlight over time). While this figure is nearly mythical in real life (except for modern figures just purchased from the store, removed from the box, and placed on the display shelf), it is the gold standard to aim for.

A few reference books on hand to provide further details are a worthwhile investment if you care to pursue this hobby seriously. There are some classic books by John Marshall and Jeffrey B. Snyder worth checking out as is the more recent D.C. Action Figures Archives. Good luck and happy hunting.

Comments 2 comments

Duane Siskey 2 years ago

Nice piece. Lots of good advice!

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J.S. Brooks 2 years ago Author

Thanks Duane. Happy collecting!

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