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‘Collect Them All!’ A History of the Action Figure: Part 1

by James Burrell (02/21/13).

The collectibles-based arm of DC Comics, DC Direct, has produced several Silver Age 1960s-styled two-pack figure sets, including Batman and Robin.

Action figures—those small, poseable, usually plastic representations of various comic-book superheroes, professional sports figures and film, television and video game characters—are among the toy industry’s best-selling products. A walk through any Toys R Us or department store’s toy section will reveal at least a couple well-stocked aisles filled with scores of Star Wars, World Wrestling Entertainment, UFC, Batman and Spider-Man action figures, as well as numerous accessories like vehicles, playsets and carry cases made for use with them.

However, despite being merchandised as children’s toys, many action figures are also purchased by adults. Many of these grown-up consumers buy them as collectables or display pieces because they respond favorably to the character being rendered or because they have a fondness or sense of nostalgia for the property or franchise involved. Others just simply appreciate the craftsmanship that has gone into making them.

Adding to increased sales of action figures is the usually large number of offerings available for each line—a fact that is prominently advertised on packaging along with slogans instructing consumers to “collect them all!”

Though the majority of action figures are marketed towards boys, there have been numerous instances where product lines have been aimed at both genders or specifically boys or girls.

In this first installment of a two-part series, we will take a look at the history of action figures, from its earliest days up to the current generation of action-themed toys.

The appeal of action figures is not a new phenomenon; in fact, they have been a popular category of toys for more than 50 years. The very first toy to be marketed as an “action figure” was G.I. Joe, introduced in 1964 by Hasbro, which was known then under its original name, Hassenfeld Brothers, Inc.

The company, which had achieved earlier success with its Mr. Potato Head toy, reasoned that boys would not play with the military-themed line if called “dolls” in marketing material and came up with the term “action figure” to describe the 11 1/2-inch toys. The line’s original assortment consisted of four offerings: Action Soldier, Action Pilot, Action Marine and Action Sailor, meant to represent the United States Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy, respectively. Each figure came complete with such authentic-looking miniature fatigues, zippered flight suits, work shirts, pants and caps, as well as plastic boots and accessories like guns and dog tags. The figures were available in different versions of hair and eye colors.

G.I. Joe is considered to be the toy industry’s first action-figure line. This ad comes from a vintage 1964 Hasbro trade catalogue.

Advertised as “America’s movable fighting man,” G.I. Joe figures were touted as having 21 movable parts (now commonly referred to as “points of articulation”) and were groundbreaking in their design in that they were able to hold weapons and be placed in and maintain various poses—something that earlier hard plastic figurines could never do.

With Hasbro marketing the line to both boys and their fathers, G.I. Joe was a tremendous success, and additional figures and outfit sets would soon be added to the line, including an African American soldier in 1965 and, surprisingly given the company’s previous stance, a nurse in 1967.

By the late 1960s, however, increasing disenchantment with the Vietnam War led Hasbro to move the line away from its military-themed origins and into the realm of civilian adventurer, and by 1970 it was rebranded as The G.I. Joe Adventure Team. The figures, which would be produced until 1976, would now be packaged with outfits intended for exotic jungle and desert locales and given such features as a “kung-fu grip” and flocked hair and beards.

Seeing the huge success of the G.I. Joe line, New York–based toy manufacturer Louis Marx and Company attempted to attract some business by launching its own series of military-themed figures in the mid-1960s. The line, called Stony Smith, did not feature fabric clothing like G.I. Joe figures but did come with helmets and weapons. However, lackluster interest in the toys led Marx to abandon the line and try a western-themed action-figure series instead. In 1965, the company’s Best of the West line was unveiled to an enthusiastic response.

Standing 12 inches in height, Marx eschewed fabric outfits for these figures in favor of pieces of soft plastic clothing such as vests, neckerchiefs and chaps. The toys also came with numerous accessories like hats, pistols, rifles and holsters. The main figure in the series was a heroic cowboy character named Johnny West, with other figures consisting of his wife, Jane West, and their children; Native Americans Chief Cherokee, Geronimo and Fighting Eagle; the villainous Sam Cobra; General Custer and the lawman, Sheriff Garrett.

In 1965, toy company Louis Marx and Co. unveiled its Best of the West line, which stayed in production for 10 years.

The toys were a consistently strong seller and were in production for a decade, during which time numerous horses, a covered wagon, teepees and a ranch playset were also released.

Also making their way to store shelves in 1965 were 12-inch figures of secret agent extraordinaire, James Bond, featuring an excellent likeness of star Sean Connery, and the villainous Oddjob from the film Goldfinger. Made by the A.C. Gilbert Company, both figures were outfitted with fabric costumes, came packaged with various accessories and sported action features like “pistol firing” effect for Bond and “karate-chopping” and “derby-throwing” action for Oddjob.

The company also released figures for the 60s action TV shows The Man from U.N.C.L.E.and Honey West.

In 1966, the Ideal Toy Company marketed its Captain Action line. A blue-and-black costumed action figure that resembled a type of space-age airline pilot. The toy was designed for use with separately sold outfit sets, including masks, costumes and numerous accessories that would enable it to be changed into such comic-book, television and pulp-magazine characters as Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Aquaman, Lone Ranger, Tonto, Green Hornet, Buck Rogers and the Phantom. A blue-skinned villain character, Dr. Evil, was also released, as was a young sidekick figure, Action Boy, along with accompanying costume sets like Robin, the Boy Wonder; Superboy and Aqualad. A boat-like vehicle called the Silver Streak and several weapons and accessory sets were also produced.

Ideal also released a now extremely rare line of four female superheroes in 1967 called Super Queens. Consisting of Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Supergirl, and Aquaman’s wife, Mera, the series was a poor seller at the time, as figures based on female characters were traditionally not popular with boys, resulting in fewer of them being produced. They are now highly desirable by collectors today.

Coming into the 1970s, the action figure landscape would be dominated by companies like Mego Corporation, Kenner and Mattel. First established in the 1950s as a manufacturer of dime-store novelties, Mego released an 8-inch line of posable action figures called Action Jackson, which were more or less a smaller-scaled alternative to Hasbro’s G.I. Joe Adventure Team. This line was sold with accessory sets, and eventually Mego purchased the rights to create toys based on comic-book superheroes, films and popular television programs of the day.

Licensing both DC and Marvel characters to produce its “World’s Greatest Super Heroes!” action-figure line, the company released in 1972 its first four highly articulated figures: Batman, Superman, Aquaman and Robin. Featuring highly detailed head sculpts and dressed in colorful, high-quality fabric outfits, the toys were an incredible hit for the company, and by 1977, Mego would be marketing nearly three dozen different 8-inch superhero and villain characters, as well as a plethora of vehicles and playsets.

One reason for the toy manufacturer’s great success was its use of generic bodies with interchangeable heads. Merely switching heads and costumes could create completely different figures, which helped ensure that production costs were kept low,

In addition to its superhero figures, Mego also achieved tremendous success with toys derived from the 1939 classic, The Wizard of Oz, the 1960s TV series Star Trek and the Planet of the Apes film and television show. The company also produced figures based on 70s TV programs like The Waltons, Happy Days, CHiPs and Starsky and Hutch, not to mention various monsters, knights, pirates and sports figures like superstar boxer Muhammad Ali and football phenomenon Joe Namath.

Mego was one of the most prolific producers of action figures during the 1970s. Star Trek, Planet of the Apes and superheroes couldn’t save the company from bankruptcy.

In 1976, Mego unveiled one of its most unusual lines, Micronauts, which was a set of figures and vehicles whose designs had been imported from a previously released Japanese toy line named Microman. These could be connected with one another to make other toys. The futuristic-looking figures stood 3 3/4-inch tall, with many possessing chrome-painted heads and limbs made from see-through colored plastic. The late 1970s would also see the company release 12-inch figures based on the popular Wonder Woman TV series starring Lynda Carter; the Christopher Reeve blockbuster Superman: The Movie and other superhero characters like Batman, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk and Captain America.

Despite its successful business acumen, Mego made an ill-fated decision when it turned down an offer in 1976 to manufacture toys for an upcoming film titled Star Wars. Cincinnati-based Kenner Products, a company well known for its Easy-Bake Ovens, would instead end up with the license to create action figures, vehicles and playsets for the film. Of course, Star Wars would go on to become one of the biggest box-office hits of all time.

The higher price of plastic due to the ongoing oil crisis of the 1970s and the introduction of Kenner’s incredibly successful Star Wars product line would combine to cause a significant loss of revenue for Mego.

In an effort to bounce back financially, Mego purchased licenses for a number of science-fiction-themed TV and movie properties that it hoped would be hits, such as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the James Bond entry Moonraker and Disney’s The Black Hole. Unfortunately for the company, none of these lines approached the success of Kenner’s Star Wars toys, and in 1982 the company was forced to file for bankruptcy. A year later, Mego Corporation was out of business.

In my next installment of this series, we’ll take a look at the post-Mego years, dominated by Kenner and Star Wars, through the era of sports and movie figures of the modern day.

James Burrell writes about film, pop culture and collectibles for a variety of publications and online sites, including Rue Morgue and Canuxploitation! A life-long collector of vintage science-fiction, fantasy and monster-themed toys and movie memorabilia, he resides in Toronto, Canada.

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