Star Wars Collecting Action
One Source of Further Info
Collecting the Star Wars Universe
Recently, cable has been running the Star Wars prequels over and over again. And, The Clone Wars have continued the enduring franchise exceeded in longevity only by Star Trek. With the economy remaining in the doldrums, we all want an escape. Tough times like this also provide a good time to collect Star Wars action figures and toys if you have the cash to do so. Collections can go cheap when people are cash strapped. Here's what you need to know to jump in.
In May 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope exploded across the big screen in a symphony of sound and light unlike anything audiences had ever seen. Fans went wild and cinematic history was made. Merchandising history was made as well. Never before had one film created such a demand for movie related products. Millions were clamoring for tangible souvenirs of the new universe they were coming to know and love. George Lucas and the captains of industry were all taken by surprise, left slack-jawed and flat-footed in that summer of ‘77. They scrambled to catch up with their adoring, demanding fans. As a result, today, the first Star Wars trilogy is complete, was revised for its twentieth anniversary celebration, the prequels have been produced, the Clone Wars battle on, and the captains of industry continue to do their best to cover the world in a mantle of Star Wars products. Fans all over the globe continue to collect these products, just as children (read future collectors) continue to play with them.
Pulled from among that galaxy of products and presented for your consideration are the objects of desire that inspire the vast majority of Star Wars collectors ... the toys. Furthermore, among those toys, the items that are by far the most sought after and which therefore receive top billing here are the 3 3/4” tall titans of the Star Wars collecting universe, the action figures.
Prior to its 1998 acquisition by Hasbro, one company was responsible, along with its planet-straddling affiliates, for the vast majority of the Star Wars toys available to collectors today. Kenner Products obtained the original license to manufacture toys, games, puzzles, and a few books prior to the release of the first film in 1977. In time, the resultant outpouring of product from the Kenner factories would far outstrip the rather limited expectations of the licenser -- George Lucas stated that all he expected from his merchandising rights were a few posters and T-shirts to lure more children to his film. Kenner’s management was in for a surprise or two of their own--chief among them was the shattering of their expectation that children would pick and choose among the action figures offered, seeking out favorite characters while leaving others dangling from toy store racks gathering dust. However, since Kenner’s diminutive heroes and villains were available for no more than two dollars each when they first appeared, kids everywhere realized that all the characters from Star Wars were theirs for the asking (nagging, cajoling, pestering, or whatever it took). Kids quickly bought all the figures and, like Oliver Twist, came back for more. Together, Kenner and everyone who purchased Kenner’s figures (children were not alone in their desire to acquire those figures) would change the look, and stature, of action figures for more than a decade to come.
Following Kenner, others toy manufacturers joined the fray. Chief among them over the last decade of the twentieth century was Galoob (another Hasbro acquisition-to-be), a company determined to “out-small” Kenner with their Star Wars Micro Machines offerings. Playsets and spaceships were this company’s forte. Action figures by Galoob are about the size of the smaller accessories that accompany Kenner’s figures. These truly tiny men and women of action were sold as part of a playset or as pilots for some ship-of-the-line. No other company even came close to the Star Wars toy output of these two firms. Over the years since, toys originated by these two firms continued to be produced under that all-encompassing Hasbro banner.
To get specific, action figures are molded, poseable plastic figurines designed for play. Action figures vary in size and in the number of articulated joints they contain. In Kenner’s 3 3/4” high Star Wars action figure line (while some figures may be taller or shorter, 3 3/4” was the general height designation for the series), figures generally have five point articulation. This means they move at the neck, shoulders and hip joints. Larger figures tend to have a greater number of joints, although this is not always the case. The 3 3/4” figures (and Galoob’s even smaller figures) also tend to have their clothing molded as part of the body while some of the larger figures have removable clothing.
Action figures of various sizes are packaged differently as well. The 12” and 8” figures generally are packaged and sold in boxes. The 3 3/4” tall figures most often appear on store shelves sealed against a decorated cardboard backing within a plastic bubble commonly, if unappetizingly, referred to as a “blister.” The package for the 3 3/4” figure is thus referred to as a “blister pack.”
The 3 3/4” high Kenner Star Wars figures were designed for use with playsets, spaceships, and other accessories. Kenner’s 12” figures of Luke, Darth, and the gang (and now Hasbro’s Jar Jar, Darth Maul, and company) were too large to be conveniently equipped with playsets and spaceships. One thing most action figures do have in common though is that they come with a variety of small accessories that tend to disappear quickly once the figures are removed from their packaging.
Star Wars 3 3/4” high figures were redesigned from time-to-time. For example, the original Boba Fett never had a chance to leave the factory with his rocket launching backpack. Newly drafted federal legislation prohibited toys with tiny missiles to avoid injuring children. Advertising for the rocket firing Fett was retracted and the figure was sold with the rocket firmly glued in place and accompanied by an explanatory letter. R2-D2 received designer’s attentions after both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. After Empire, R2 came equipped with a retractable sensorscope and after Jedi, the sensorscope was replaced with a pop up lightsaber. C-3PO had trouble pulling himself together following Empire as his figure was redesigned with removable limbs and a carrying pack.
In 1985 the Kenner Star Wars action figure line had its last gasp for a time. Their final offerings were figures based on two animated children’s cartoon series, the Ewoks and Droids. A decade later, in 1995, the line was reintroduced with redesigned and/or repainted figures and accessories that appealed to children and adults alike. Added to the line were new figures from the Shadows of the Empire stories and from the re-released and improved Star Wars 20th Anniversary Special Edition Trilogy. Kenner also released a new line of 12” tall figures under the direction of a “New Ventures” division. These taller figures were very popular with collectors. Some of the most popular 12” figures included 14” tall creatures--such as the tauntaun and the wampa--in two packs (one figure and one creature per box). Under the Hasbro name, 12” figures based on The Phantom Menace included Obi Wan and Defense of Naboo Collector Two Pack: Qui-Gon Jinn & Queen Amidala among the heroes and Darth Maul and a Battle Droids for the villains.
With the more recent figures, from time to time Kenner changed the figure mix on display, removing a couple of the old war horses in favor of some new upstarts, and then returned those tried and true favorites later on. Kenner only removed figures from the line permanently when it was certain that the demand for that figure was filled. Now under Hasbro’s leadership, 4” tall figures were produced in abundance for the diverse heroes and villains introduced on May 19, 1999, with the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. As the prequels progressed, additional characters rolled out.
Aging computer chips found new homes in a wide variety of toys. For the release of The Phantom Menace, Hasbro introduced a new twist on their 4” figures, computer chip enhanced bases and a “Comm Tech” system. When the figure was placed on the system, it briefly spoke one of that character’s lines from the film. (I wonder if any of those still work?)
For 1997, Kenner added a line of more detailed figures into their mix, 5 1/2” and 6” high statuettes called the “Epic Force” collection. Each figure was permanently mounted on a revolving base in a single “dynamic” pose. A wheel on the base turned the figure, allowing it to be viewed from all sides without ever removing it from its large blister pack.
It was in the late 1970s that Kenner first released a line of 12” tall figures, sticking mostly to the movie’s core characters. Boba Fett and IG-88 were later added to the line. These figures are marked with the years 1978 and 1979. The 12” figures did not compete well with Kenner’s 3 3/4” tall line of figures and accessories and the company soon lost interest. As a result, these toys are scattered rather thin on the ground and are considered to be most collectible if you can find them.
Kenner began to release a new line of 12” figures in the mid-1990s. The figures bore dates from 1995 onward--although the first wave actually hit the marketplace in 1996. The aforementioned new division, New Ventures, handled this 12” line. Figures offered in the first wave included Darth Vader, Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
These New Venture division “Collectors Series” figures generally required no advertising on the company’s part, as they were certain to attract collectors with no more than a mention or two in specialty magazines. New Ventures also released a number of these figures as limited run exclusives. Each exclusive line appeared in only one particular store chain.
To attract a more feminine clientele, Hasbro also released a series of dolls based on Queen Amidala as the millennium was drawing to a close in 1999. Among them were the Royal Elegance Fashion Doll, Hidden Majesty Fashion Doll, and Queen Amidala Senate Collector Doll. For young ladies more loyal to the original series, Hasbro also offered a Ceremonial Leia Collector Doll (but no Leia in slave girl outfit).
Playsets, Vehicles, and Accessories for Action Figures
Kenner playsets and vehicles really took advantage of all the possibilities presented by the small figures. Larger figures could never have been offered with either a multi-level complex such as the original Death Star playset or a complete Millennium Falcon. Both the size and expense would have been prohibitive. These playsets and vehicles are worth considerably more when they come complete with the box they were packed in and when that box is in good condition. New Ventures also produced Star Wars playsets for Kenner. In 1996 the New Ventures group released the Death Star Chasm and the Detention Block Escape. In 1999, under the Hasbro name, vehicles based on The Phantom Menace included Turbo Blast Podracers, Anakin’s Podracer Vehicle with Figure, Trade Federation Droid Fighter Vehicle with Figure, and playsets from the same film included the Throne Room Encounter Mini Scene and the Trade Federation Raid Mini Scene.
An armada of plastic and die-cast metal spaceships, transports, and vehicles were produced by Kenner during the twenty years from 1977-1997. Kenner’s die-cast metal vehicles were produced from 1978 to 1980. Although unable to interact with the 3 3/4” action figures Kenner offered, these 4” to 7” long vehicles and vessels are popular collectibles. These craft had some plastic and moveable components. The first four vehicles in the series were the Landspeeder, TIE Fighter, Darth Vader’s TIE Fighter, and the X-Wing Fighter. These carried the Star Wars logo on the packaging. Later additions to the line bore The Empire Strikes Back logo. The larger vehicles were packed in a 3” deep frame box, carded on a blister pack, and included the Millennium Falcon, Star Destroyer, TIE Bomber, and the Y-Wing. Smaller craft were secured in blister packs.
Galoob, a San Francisco based toy manufacturer, introduced its Micro Machines line in 1987. Over the years the line grew “immensely” (if you can say that about a teeny-tiny toy line). From 1994 onward, Galoob offered over seventy-five Star Wars toys under the Micro Machines label including some very popular Transforming Action Sets.
Galoob introduced its first two “Micro Machines Action Fleet” Star Wars playsets, Ice Planet Hoth and the Death Star, in 1996. The company added the Yavin Rebel base playset to its “Micro-verse” for Christmas 1997. In 1999, under the Hasbro label, Micro Machines Star Wars offerings based on The Phantom Menace include Subulba’s Podracer Die-Cast Vehicle, Republic Cruiser Die-Cast Vehicle, and the Galactic Dogfight Platform Action Set.
While I have focused on the older, collectibles here, today, you can collect all the new lines of figures, including 30th anniversary action figures, bobble heads, and highly detailed statues of some of the main characters. Clone Wars toys are also to be had. Of course, today, you also have all sorts of elaborate Lego Star Wars sets to collect, and amusing Lego Star Wars video games to play. This is great for children and for adult collectors just starting out. It's fast, fun, and inexpensive to start collecting with the new products.
Now, a word about values. Price guides can make for fascinating and beguiling reading. However, before deciding to attempt making a small fortune by speculating on Star Wars toys (remember when people tried that with Beanie Babies), it should be known that such a path is fraught with danger. There is no way to know with any certainty which items will be truly rare and desirable in years to come ... or even the day after tomorrow. Even a true rarity may not have much value in the future. It may simply have been a botched job, an ugly product nobody wanted when it was first produced and that nobody will ever want to collect.
Rather than getting stuck with a bunch of objects you thought would increase in value and did not -- objects you have come to despise but cannot get rid of -- it is much safer to collect the items you enjoy. Gather up the objects which bring you joy, that are personally exciting for you to track down, and that provide you with opportunities to meet like-minded individuals and strike up lasting friendships. If any of the items you collect happen to be valuable in years to come, that is an added bonus. Fortune hunting should not be your reason for collecting.
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