Walk into the bedroom of any boy between the ages of about 4 and 12, and you will no doubt find at least one action figure that he counts among his favorite toys. For over five decades now, action figures have been one of the major emphases of toy companies as they try to beat out their competitors for parents' dollars. But these character toys are also now significant adult collectibles as well, especially for those men who want to recapture something of their childhood through buying the exact figures they had as kids or accurate replicas thereof.
The term action figure was first used by Hasbro Toys of Pawtucket, R.I., in the 1960s and 1970s to market their G.I. Joe line of action figures. Hasbro created G.I. Joe to appeal to young boys, and to their attempt was successful, to put it mildly. These toys were similar to girls' dolls in that each G.I. Joe was a specific individual that could be dressed in a variety of outfits. But the similarities to dolls ended there, for these outfits were military in style, and the G.I. Joe action figures also came with many accessories that mimicked the guns, backpacks, and other paraphernalia that soldiers carry on the battlefield. And unlike the toy soldiers of old, G.I. Joe was a poseable action figure with neck, arm, elbow, leg, knee joints and more that allowed kids to put each toy in many action poses. Boys ate these figures up, using them to recreate great battles in the back yard, bedroom, and anywhere else they could take these toys. In fact, ever since these plastic G.I. Joe figures were first introduced, boys and girls have used these toys to make up stories and exercise their imagination while they play.
Since the days of G.I. Joe, the basic concept of the action figure has remained the same, although there has been an increase in articulation points (joints) to allow for more poseability. The size of these toys, most of which have been made of plastic, has also varied. As an action figure, 12-inch was the height standard for G.I. Joe, but now there are many other sizes available as well in each of the different action figure lines. Star Wars action figures by Kenner were particularly influential in broadening the range of sizes for these toys. Their line of Star Wars toys that was introduced at the end of the 1970s to coincide with the release of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope featured action figures that were 33/4 inches in height. This size allowed for the creation of affordable vehicles and other accessories for the Star Wars toys, and both these figures and vehicles proved to be a hit. Hasbro took this size and vehicle concept and ran with it in the 1980s, reintroducing their G.I. Joe line as G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, a toy line that would go on for nearly fifteen years before it was cancelled in the early 1990s. The articulation or poseability of these toys was incredible, and the property made millions of dollars for Hasbro.
Though there are several other size standards for action figures, a third common size format is 5â6 inches, which was originally popularized in Mattel's He-Man and the Masters of the Universe series. This toy line was so popular that it spawned a companion line for girls, one of the few female action figure lines every produced. However, this line, She-Ra: Princess of Power, had only moderate success. It has become more popular in recent years with adult collectors, however. The properties of He-Man and She-Ra, which may both be subsumed under the Masters of the Universe Banner, were very significant for the way in which they allowed toy companies to create cartoon shows featuring their characters. Before He-Man, this practice was not allowed as the Federal Communications Commission felt that such shows were just rank commercial advertising and inappropriate for kids. In the early 1980s, the FCC loosened its regulations and many cartoon shows based on action figure lines followed.
Today, adult collectors form a substantial part of the market for action figures. Many old action figures in series that were cancelled decades ago are being reissued in their original form so that men can recapture their childhood. There are also lines being produced based on the originals but featuring updated articulation and higher production values. These high-end lines include such properties as Masters of the Universe Classics and various lines of Transformers action figures. The Transformers, a Hasbro line consisting of vehicles and animals that can change into robots and back, is actually one of the most popular of all the action figure lines, and several Transformers are designed with adult collectors in mind each year. Many of these collector lines include figures that are made up of at least some die-cast metal, which has been rare for every action figure line except the Transformers.
In addition to the aforementioned action figure lines, Ghostbusters, M.A.S.K., Thundercats, Voltron, and more are all significant properties that have had action figures. Few of these have as been popular with boys as Transformers, G.I. Joe, and Masters of the Universe, and it is often hard to find any action figure line popular with girls at all. Yet there are devoted female fans of these and other action figure toys. Whether girls have been fans of any of these properties or not, however, many of them have been fans of the television cartoons that have often accompanied these toy lines. Such cartoons remain daily fare for children all over the world, and they are a good way for toy companies to market their product. Many of these cartoons do have good moral lessons and compelling stories, so they should not be viewed merely as toy advertisements, which is the reason why they were outlawed before the FCC lifted its ban.
As long as boys and girls play with toys, it is all but certain that someone will make a line of action figures that most boys, and even some girls, will love. There seems to be no sign of any let up in the action figure market, and kids will continue to treasure these toys and all of the stories they can create with them far into the future.