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WWE and the History of Action Figures

Updated on December 24, 2012

Waiting at an intersection on my bicycle, I saw a tiny leg by the side of the road. It was the scuffed, well-muscled, right leg of a plastic action figure, clad in grayish-blue 3/4-length pants and a high-top sneaker. Each day I saw the leg again, until I finally picked it up and put it in my pocket.

But whose leg was it? I asked my friend Earnest for help. An avid trader of action figures, he knew how to identify the owner of this leg. He looked at the shoe's sole and said, “This is a WWE 2010 figure. I think it's John Cena. I'm sure. I'm sure it's John Cena.”

Earnest was right. The leg looks to be from the Mattel WWE Wrestling Basic Best of 2010 John Cena Action Figure. It would take a paragraph to list the championships won by the real John Cena, who has the fourth highest number of combined days as WWE Champion, behind Bob Backlund, Hulk Hogan and Bruno Sammartino.

The real John Cena
The real John Cena | Source

A Doll for Boys

Action figures have been around for almost 50 years. The first one, G.I. Joe, was the idea of toy developer Stanley Weston, who is said to have been inspired by the Barbie Doll, which had been introduced in 1959. Weston approached the Hassenfeld Brothers Co. (now Hasbro) in Providence, R.I., which agreed to produce the toy under license. The toy's name came from a 1945 film, “The Story of G.I. Joe”. The G.I. Joe action figure came out in 1964. It was almost a foot tall, with 21 moving parts. Like a doll, it had changeable clothes.

Mego entered the business in 1971 with superhero figures from Marvel and DC comics. Mego had the license to produce Star Wars figures, but lost it to Kenner in 1976 due to an oversight. The oil crisis of the 1970s had led to smaller-sized figures, and Kenner's success with the smaller, 3-3/4-inch "Star Wars" figures made this the industry standard. Kenner pioneered sales of teams of figures with specialized functions instead of a single figure with multiple outfits. Movie studios soon developed a business in collectible action figures.

G.I. Joe soldiers on.
G.I. Joe soldiers on. | Source

Action Figures Become Collectible

The 1980s saw the marketing of many lines of action figures, often based on cartoon shows such as Masters of the Universe and ThunderCats. In the 1980s, adult collectors started to buy significant numbers of figures which they kept in the original packaging to maximize their value. The industry responded by flooding the market, bringing values down for franchises such as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”. Producers started to exploit this market by issuing alternate costumes and variants of figures, which was particularly notable in the “Batman” line.

Wrestling action figures date to 1984, when LJN produced a line of figures with no movable parts. In action-figure lingo, these are not articulated. The figures gained movable arms when Hasbro took over the line in 1990. JAKKS Pacific added 15 points of articulation and additional details when they obtained the rights to these figures in 1996, according to CNN. Mattel took over the line in January 2010, and has made the figures more lifelike than ever, even varying their sizes in proportion to real life.

These guys can mess you up.
These guys can mess you up. | Source

Action Figures Bulk Up

A 1999 study, Evolving Ideals of Male Body Image as Seen Through Action Toys (Pope, Olivardia, et al), noted that rather than becoming more realistic, action figures had bulked up considerably over the years. The study noted that the "Star Wars" characters Luke Skywalker and Han Solo had both “acquired the physiques of bodybuilders over the last 20 years.” They indicated that some action figures “display levels of muscularity far exceeding the outer limits of actual human attainment.” Barbie's boyfriend Ken was a notable exception to this trend.

These bulked-up action figures would seem to mimic the real people that play professional sports, as many athletes became puffed-up caricatures of themselves, thanks to anabolic steroids. Of course, people expect professional wrestlers to be puffed up. Who wants to see two beanpoles have at it in the ring? Ken, maybe.

Action Figure Prices

Wrestling is one of the largest categories of action figures, second only to “Star Wars” if you examine the number of figures of each kind on the DASH website. There are 4,168 wrestling figures and 4,507 Star Wars figures on the site at the time of writing. If you could buy them all for $25 each, the wrestling figures alone would set you back over $100.000.

You'd best bring your wallet—and perhaps a deep line of credit—if you want to get serious about collectible action figures. An About.com story, “Top 5 Most Valuable Star Wars Action Figures”, pegs the value of a 1978 “Telescoping Lightsaber” Darth Vader at $6,000. Perhaps you should start a bit lower on the totem pole with a $400 Blue Snaggletooth, another “Star Wars” figure from 1978.

Listverse says the most expensive toy soldier is a 1963 G.I. Joe prototype with a hand-stitched uniform, which sold for $200,000 in 2003. But that's not a regular production toy.

At the time of writing, eBay listed an autographed Terry Funk for $799.99. One of a limited edition of 20 Ultimate Warrior figures was listed at $1,999.99. Both were “Buy It Now” items with several offers. The highest price for a John Cena figure was $100.

I don't think that scuffed John Cena leg will fund my retirement.

Action Figure Animation

Here is a video animation of John Cena battling Randy Orton. Enjoy.

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