‘Collect Them All!’ A History of the Action Figure, Part 2

This vintage 1978 Star Wars Luke Skywalker action figure with a double-telescoping light saber sold on eBay in 2012 for $6,999.

In my previous installment of this two-part series, I outlined the history of action figures previous to the mid-1970s, which was dominated my companies like Mego, Mattel and Ideal. In this piece, we pick up from that point to today.

When we last left our tale, Mego Corporation passed on the opportunity to manufacture action figures based on an upcoming science-fiction film, “Star Wars.” Cincinnati-based Kenner Products, known for toys like the Easy Bake Oven, would pick up the license. Mego eventually failed and went out of business, leaving Kenner as the reigning king of action figures.

Though it held the rights to produce toys for George Lucas’ space opera, “Star Wars,” Kenner—a company whose name would become synonymous with “Star Wars” itself—was caught off guard by the sudden and incredible demand for merchandise that the movie generated. With product still not ready in time for 1977’s Christmas season, the company attempted to appease consumers by selling a “special early-bird certificate package”—essentially a large envelope containing a cardboard display stand, stickers, a Space Club membership card and a mail-away certificate redeemable for the first four action figures to be produced: Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2 and Chewbacca.

The figures would be manufactured in 3 3/4-inch scale, and the lineup would soon grow to include such characters as Darth Vader, Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi, Han Solo, C-3PO, a Stormtrooper, a Jawa, the Death Star commander and several beings seen in the “Creature Cantina” scene: Hammerhead, Greedo, Walrus Man and Snaggletooth, the last initially produced in an incorrect scale and color for a Sears exclusive but later fixed when sold independently.

Kenner would revolutionize the toy industry with its line of Star Wars toys, with millions manufactured from 1978 to 1985.

The smaller 3 3/4-inch size would make the figures more affordable for consumers and permit them to be used with a large number of separately sold playsets like the Land of the Jawas, Droid Factory and Death Star Space Station; spacecraft, including the Land Speeder, X-Wing Fighter, Millennium Falcon and Imperial TIE Fighter and creatures like the Patrol Dewback.

The company would also put out a small line of larger-sized 12-inch figures, including one for “Star Wars’” newest and most mysterious character, Boba Fett. The figures came with fabric outfits and numerous accessories, but the higher price point would result in poor sales and plans for further releases were shelved by Kenner.

The company would go onto to produce numerous figures and other toys for the film’s sequels: 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back” and 1983’s “Return of the Jedi,” as well as two early 1980s animated TV series: “Droids” and “Ewoks.” A 1984 line, Power of the Force, went on to introduce several additional figures to the series. By 1985, Kenner had released more than 100 different action figures, and it is estimated that more than 300 million vintage-era “Star Wars” figures had been sold at that point.

In addition to its “Star Wars” line, Kenner had success in the 1970s with lines of toys based on TV shows “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “The Bionic Woman.” A 12-inch figure of Colonel Steve Austin, featuring a great likenesses of actor Lee Majors, was produced and included such features as a “bionic arm” and elastic “skin” that could rolled back to reveal bionic components underneath. In addition to a figure of Austin’s bionic love interest, Jamie Sommers, figures were also made of his employer, Oscar Goldman, and android nemeses like Bigfoot, Maskatron and Fembot.

The 3 3/4-inch scale used for Kenner’s “Star Wars” figures were adapted by other companies like Gabriel and Remco.

Mattel, the maker of the Barbie doll and one of the world’s most successful toy companies, also had a number of hit action figure lines throughout the 1970s, including its Big Jim series of adventure-themed 10-inch figures, plus vehicles and playsets; Shogun Warriors, colorful, Japanese-styled robots that were produced in both small 3-inch, and huge 23 1/2-inch-tall figures that came complete with spring-loaded “missiles;” and numerous figures and vehicles based on the 1979 sci-fi TV series “Battlestar Galactica” starring Lorne Greene.

The “Battlestar” line consisted of such offerings as 3 1/2-inch figures of Commander Adama, Lieutenant Starbuck, Captain Apollo and the villainous, robot-like Cylons; while spacecraft toys included the Colonial Viper and Cylon Raider.

The early 1980s saw several action-figure lines released. Remco Toys put out its series of beautifully sculpted Universal City Studios’ Mini Monsters in 1980, consisting of Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, Wolf Man, the Mummy, Creature and the Phantom of the Opera, along with a lab-table accessory and castle playset. Gabriel released a set of 3 3/4-inch-tall figures of the Lone Ranger, Tonto, villain Butch Cavendish, Buffalo Bill Cody and General George Custer from the 1981 film “The Legend of the Lone Ranger.”

In 1982, Hasbro would reintroduce its G.I. Joe figure line, albeit this time with a different product name and in a different size. Now called G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, the line was produced in the popular 3 3/4-inch scale and would become another huge hit for the toy company. In production until 1994, the line would lead to more than 500 different figures, plus scores of vehicles and playsets.

Mattel’s Masters of the Universe line proved to be extremely popular when it debuted in 1982.

Mattel would unveil what would become one of its most popular lines in 1982: Masters of the Universe. Featuring such characters as the heroic, blond haired warrior He-Man and his nemesis, the hooded, blue-skinned villain Skeletor, the figures broke from the popular 3 3/4-inch mold in that they stood approximately 5 1/2 inches in height and featured bent knees and twisting waists. 

The line was a fantastic hit with boys everywhere, with an animated TV show also airing during this time, which helped to create even more of a demand for the toys. Mattel released several waves of “Masters” figures over the next several years, including He-Man and Skeletor in “battle damaged armor.” Playsets like Castle Grayskull and Snake Mountain were also offered, as were animals the figures could ride on, such as He-Man’s green and yellow Battle Cat and Skeletor’s purple-hued Panthor.

Three years later, in 1985, Mattel attempted to attract a female demographic by creating a second line, Princess of Power, which introduced He-Man’s sister, She-Ra. The series consisted of predominantly female characters, and figures came with such features as combable hair and fabric accessories such as capes.

In 1983, Galoob would produce figures for 1981 cartoon series “Blackstar.” Though the program was no longer being produced, its fantasy elements had been similar to those of Masters of the Universe, which made it ideal choice to be made into a toy line. The 6-inch-tall figures, which included such characters as hero John Blackstar and the evil Overlord, came packaged with both glow-in-the dark swords and a second smaller, non-articulated PVC creature figure such as a trobbit or a demon. A large blue-and-white-colored Ice Castle playset was released, and later figures featured a “laser light” sparking effect.

Toy manufacturer LJN put out numerous action figures in the 80s. In 1983, they released a figure of the titular friendly alien from Steven Spielberg classic “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” complete with a mini Speak & Spell accessory.

Toy company LJN released figures based on early 1980s properties like “E.T.The Extra-Terrestrial” and the “V” television series.

In 1984, the company put out a 12-inch figure of a villainous Visitor from the TV series “V.” The figure came dressed in a red fabric military uniform and black boots and featured such accessories as a laser gun and removable human mask and sunglasses so children could “… unmask him and reveal the lizard creature!” 

Also released in 1984 was a successful line of wrestling toys called Wrestling Superstars. Non-traditional in design, the figures were constructed of solid rubber and were non-articulated. Offerings consisted of such stars as Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.

And in 1985, the company had another hit with its line of Thundercats toys. The 6-inch-tall action figures consisted of characters like Lion-O, Panthro, Cheetara, Tygra and the evil Mumm-Ra; vehicles like Thundertank and Thunderclaw and a playset called the Cats’ Lair.

Also hitting stores in 1984 were two series of superhero figures: Kenner’s DC Comics–based Super Powers line and Mattel’s Marvel Comics–themed Secret Wars toys. The Super Powers line featured such iconic heroes as Superman, Batman, Robin, the Flash, Wonder Woman, Hawkman and Green Lantern, as well as villains like the Joker, Penguin and Lex Luthor. Each of the highly detailed figures came with a “power action” feature—for example, the Superman figure delivered a punch when its legs were pressed together—and a mini comic book.

The Secret Wars figures, which were released in tandem with a comic book series published by Marvel, consisted of such characters as Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America and Wolverine and nemeses like Dr. Doom, Dr. Octopus and Magneto. The figures were packaged with lenticular shield accessories that revealed their secret identities.

Hasbro had yet another incredible hit in the mid-80s with its line of Transformers figures. Crafted from molds of previously released Japanese toys, the toys had the ability to “transform” from robots into vehicles or animals and back again. Numerous heroic robots—the Autobots—and antagonists—the Decepticons—were released over the course of the next five years, and the characters would be further immortalized in an animated TV series running from 1984 to 1987 and several recent big-budget feature films from director Michael Bay.

Throughout the 1990s, Playmates Toys marketed figures based on several “Star Trek” TV shows and feature films.

In 1988, Playmates Toys would make a name for itself when it launched its series of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures. Based on a comic book and animated TV series, the line was composed of the four pizza-eating, wisecracking heroic turtles: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael, as well as their martial-arts instructor and adoptive rat father, Splinter. The line also included a human friend, April O’Neil, and the villain Shredder.The line has been relaunched and updated numerous times over the years, and Playmates continues to manufacture assorted TMNT figures and vehicles to this day.At the end of the decade, another company, Toy Biz, would emerge to create scores of superhero toys for both DC Comics and Marvel. In 1989, the company would market figures, vehicles and playsets for the Tim Burton–directed “Batman” film starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson and would release numerous toys for a line called DC Comics Super Heroes.

In 1990, Toy Biz would unveil its Marvel Super Heroes line, which also included numerous figures, vehicles and a playset. Like the previously released Super Powers figures, all the figures in these lines featured various “action features,” but the quality of the sculpts were nowhere as detailed as the Kenner offerings. Toy Biz would later become part of Marvel and would be the official manufacturer of X-Men–themed figures throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s.

Companies like Bif Bang Pow! and Emce Toys continue to produce retro-styled action figures based on cult TV programs and films.

Over the past 20 years, action figures have continued to be one of the best-selling types of toys, with hits ranging from professional sports, like Kenner’s Starting Lineup series; to science-fiction, with Playmates “Star Trek: The Next Generation” line; to comic books, like McFarlane Toys’ “Spawn;” to horror and cult films McFarlane Toys’ Movie Maniacs series. Some properties, like “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” Batman, Spider-Man, TMNT and WWE, have been reintroduced to consumers in action-figure form several times over the years, sometimes by different companies and featuring modified character designs. 

The quality of action figures has continued to improve with time, with companies like McFarlane Toys, NECA, Sideshow Collectibles, DC Direct and Hot Toys putting out a wide array of figures in various sizes and price points and with incredible detail—some, with practically life-like features. At the same time, retro-minded companies like Bif Bang Pow! and Emce Toys have issued numerous 1970s Mego-styled figure lines for those collectors who prefer a more vintage design to the more realistic look of today’s figures.

Blockbuster movies, TV shows, comic books and sports entertainment continue to provide toy companies with the bulk of the fictional characters and, occasionally, real-life personalities rendered three-dimensionally in plastic. With that in mind, it’s safe to say that we’ll continue to see the release of action figures for many years to come.

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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