Generation Plastic: The Evolution of the Action-Figure

Pop culture in 2016 is at an all-time high with movies, television shows and multiple miscellaneous themed products ranging from party supplies to full scale statues in high demand, with fans of all ages. “The Force” has awakened, once again revitalizing the Star Wars franchise, while both Marvel and DC Comics continue pumping out new movies & media to support their mainstay characters. Images of Darth Vader, BB-8, The Avengers, Batman, X-men And Superman are literally everywhere you look throughout the web & social media, in addition to product placement at every possible level of retail. Yet, as you zip-up your Batman Masked-hoodie, slip on your Star Wars themed-Vans Sneakers, eating a bag of Avengers Doritos, let’s not forget the most popular product associated with all pop-culture franchises: The Action Figure. As a kid growing up in the 70's & 80's, action figures were a big part of my childhood and probably for many reading this as well. These little plastic men provided kids (ok, and adults) an innovative and imaginative way to role play with all of the fresh, new characters that were debuting in comics, cartoons and movies.

But what IS an action figure? Where did they come from? Aren't they just dolls? Any why is your your husband, wife, boyfriend or girlfriend buying so many of them? To truly understand how & why the Action Figure has become such a large part of the Pop-Culture phenomenon, means travelling back to the Golden Age of toys, back to the beginning. A long time ago, in a corporate boardroom far, far away..the evolution of the toy world was about to take place....

The term “action figure” was created by Hasbro in 1964 to market the GI Joe franchise to boys, in the same manner that Barbie had been presented to girls. While sharing some core similarities with a Barbie doll, as far as removable clothing, accessories and articulated body parts, action figures were a way to reach the younger male demographic, giving them their own toys to fantasy roleplay with. GI Joe figures were 12 inches tall, equipped with multiple accessories such as guns, knives, sheaths, holsters, helmets and everything you’d need to take your troops into battle. With an accompanying array of vehicles and themed playsets, boys of all ages were now delving into new adventures daily, wherever their imaginations could take them. In 1971, the action figure craze continued as Mego Toys launched their “Worlds Greatest Heroes” line, licensing and producing both Marvel and DC comic book superhero action figures, which would be unheard of today. Mego’s approach was a bit different, as they focused on 2 different scales: a 3” tall molded plastic figure with 5 basic points of articulation and an 8” line that followed the GI Joe formula, with added articulation, removable cloth uniforms, accessories and playsets. As a kid growing up in the 70’s & 80’s, some of my favorite childhood moments were spent with Mego Toys, including the Hall of Justice 3” scale playset, to the 4’ high “Wayne Foundation” that came equipped with an elevator and 4 separate floors. Many a battle was had back then, “crossing the streams” as it were, with both Marvel & DC characters fighting side-by-side. At one, point, my cousins “Jill” doll from the Mego “Charlie’s Angel’s” line may have spent a night or 2 in the Penthouse of the Wayne Foundation. Ah, the care-free 70’s.

As awesome as it was to have all of your favorite Superheroes in action figure form, there was a new “force” to be reckoned with, debuting that would impact the world of merchandising, product licensing and pop-culture beyond comprehension. In May of 1977 George Lucas inadvertently revolutionized and pioneered the film industry with the classic release of Star Wars. While the Star Wars franchise has set unprecedented box office records with the 7 films released to date, it also revolutionized the manner in which products would be licensed and marketed in the future. Lucas negotiated licensing on every imaginable product including Bedding, Curtains, Clothing, Party Favors, Books, Food and even toiletries. Star Wars had it’s own disco themed record (an ancient, round plastic disc that created sound), underwear and even shaving cream (Crazy Foam!). And of course, Star Wars took the toy industry to a whole new level with its line of Action Figures. The line would begin with Kenner and continue on with Hasbro, with literally THOUSANDS of different figures & vehicles released over the last 39 years and counting. Words cannot describe the childhood glee upon discovering a new figure for even the most obscure character at the local Two-Guys, Bradlee’s or National’s Store. (yes, I am old and from NJ).

While Mego had done it first, Kenner revolutionized the now legendary 3 ¾”scale Action figure concept with accompanying playsets & vehicles, that were released on a wider scale than any other line to date. The Star Wars franchise universally expanded the concept of Action Figures to fans of all ages, with unparalleled depth and detail, paving the way for other manufacturers and their licensed properties for decades to come. The late 70’s / early 80’s are considered the golden age for many toy collectors, as the Star Wars craze paved the way for other franchises including Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica, Planet of the Apes, Micronauts and The Black Hole. Between these new characters and the existing Comic Book Super Heroes, there was a plethora of Action Figures to collect in various scales ranging from 3” -14” until Mego finally bankrupted in 1982. As a kid, I remember beginning to gravitate more to the smaller scale figures, as the idea of having vehicles was more inviting than removable clothing. (They were NOT dolls dammit!)

By the early eighties while Star Wars continued to reign supreme as the iconic Action Figure property of that era, many new lines and brands were created Including Masters of the Universe, Transformers, Inhumanoids, Mask And the return and of GI Joe, in a smaller and more modernized scale and format. GI Joe and the Transformers were revolutionary both in concept and product design. This era is the second greatest in the history of Toy Collecting, as each of the major lines released contributed something very special & unique that would pave the way for the next generation to come. While GI Joe Figures were now in a smaller 3 ¾”format, all of the articulation and designs of their larger predecessors were present including the legendary “kung fu grip”. The rebirth of the brand expanded the depth of the Heroic roster, while also giving a face and name to its nemesis in "Cobra-the Enemy". This version of GI Joe was more modernized, adding a futuristic edge, working hand-in-hand with its Marvel Comic counterpart. The Transformers Was a US version of the Japanese Diaclone line, which saw Heroic Autobots battling the evil Decepticons with each robot Character capable of transforming to an alternate Vehicle or creature mode, hence the term “Robots in Disguise”. This era saw many changes to action figure concept including added points of articulation, more durable materials and even the use of die-cast metal. Cloth uniforms gave way to sculpted detailing, which provided a more realistic aesthetic, while further distancing it from comparisons to the traditional "doll". However, another more disturbing sign of the times was about to emerge (other than Cocaine, Mullets and Valley Girls) which was the parallel between the Toy Line and its Cartoon/Comic Counterpart. While the 80’s ushered in new, unique heroes, villains and storylines, it all came at a price. Hasbro & Mattel realized the money to be made with toy lines of these fresh new characters and concepts, which led to the creation of various new episodic cartoon series that would air every day, after school as well as new comic book titles. Anyone that grew up in the 80’s can sing along the theme songs of GI Joe, Transformers, MASK and Masters of the Universe and probably even quote their episodes verbatim. To this day, I still have an extensive library of collected comic books in Tarde Paperback form, in addition to boxed set collections of the se cartoon series. While I loved then, I watch some of the shows and read some of the books and wince at how poorly written and scripted they were. While both the cartoons and comics started out strong, they quickly became more about introducing the next wave of action figures, than actual character development. This was especially the case with GI Joe & Transformers, where characters would go from main characters one season, to background fodder the next, all driven by the next hot characters toys. This was right about the time I took a several year hiatus to focus on girls, girls and girls.

Around the early 90's there was a huge resurgence in the Comic Book industry, as Marvel & DC both began to make their characters and storylines edgier, to match a changing world-climate. The fun-loving, drug-ridden insanity of the 80’s gave way to a darker, more violent era in the 90’s where the US faced war overseas, inner-city gang violence and the rising epidemics of crack & AIDs. Comic writers realized the issue of relevance and need to adapt or perish, which resulted in a number of major changes from character deaths to entire reboots. Driven by the almighty dollar, all of these changes came at a price, which was usually a $4 exclusive, holofoil gateway variant cover designed to lure the reader to collect & keep each version mint as a “future investment”. This same marketing concept was being used with Sports Cards and was about to affect the Action Figure world as well. In the meantime, other third party publishing companies began to spin off from Marvel and DC leading to the creation of many new properties, one of which was Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. By this time, Toy Biz had taken over the Marvel license and had been producing action figures both in a 6 inch and 10 inch format. Mattel Had been focusing predominantly on Batman, releasing 6" figures of movie related characters. While the sculpting of both lines was solid for that time frame and available technology, a majority of the product had the same basic design and standard five points of articulation. There was usually also some form of gimmicky action feature, such as light-up parts, spring-loaded weapons or attack moves.

This left the door wide open for a young, pioneering entrepreneur named Todd McFarlane, who had burst on the scene with Image Comics and his Franchise character, Spawn. Spawn was unique in that he was an anti-hero, a former military man who had died and was battling the devil and his forces of evil for control of his soul, while at the same time protecting his wife and child. The comic was violent, gorier and edgier than anything else at the time, with a very dark story content. But MacFarlane did not stop at comics, as he raised the bar with his milestone production of Spawn action figures. McFarlane Toys quickly became a cult-classic amongst Collectors of ALL ages, as they offered superior design, sculpt, paint applications and character choices. In addition to Spawn, other characters and properties emerged such as The Maxx, Witchbade and Shadowhawk, all of which followed a darker, more graphic path then that of the Marvel and DC titles. While the battle for comic book supremacy in the 90’s is a story and topic for another day, one of the long-term, after-effects was the impact it had on action figures and toys in general. McFarlane Toys Had set a new standard in quality, while solidifying a new demographic in the adult-collector. There had always been an adult demographic within the Toy Collecting World albeit a small one, but that was about to change. While action figures had been considered a children's toy for years in the past, McFarlane’s new lines were definitely geared for the adult collector, as they paralleled the dark, graphic, more violent story content of their comic book counterparts with added element of sex appeal. Image really pushed the envelope by introducing more sexual undertones and visuals than either Marvel or DC and it carried over into the toy lines as well (Hence the Angela action figure “No Panties” variant). Mcfarlane began to work closer with actual comic shops, offering them exclusive action figure variants as purchasing incentives, in addition to distribution with brick & mortar retail outlets such as Walmart, Kmart and Target. Comic shops across the country began to see an increase in the sales of action figures in addition to comic books and sports cards, which had previously been their mainstay. The emergence of McFarlane Toys not only helped to solidify the Adult Collector Demographic, it also challenged rival manufacturers to raise the bar to meet the new standards in design, detail and construction of the conventional action figure product. However, as innovative as they were Mcfarlane Toys meteoric rise would not last, as they would become their own worst enemy. The constant release of repaints, reduction in articulation and growing number of quality control issues would soon begin alienating them with fans that had once been rabid for the product.

By this time in the mid 90’s GI Joe had fizzled out for Hasbro and was given limited releases every so often in both the 3 ¾”and 12” format. They continued with the successful Star Wars franchise, but were constantly releasing newer versions of the same characters, but with different gimmicks, as fans began to grow tired of rehashed, repackaged, repaints As Episode 1 The Phantom Menace had not yet been released, their return to the 12” format was successful in appealing to the adult collectors and also increased interaction with the larger brick and mortar retailers. In fact, I can still remember seeing the signs posted in the toy aisles at Target stores, which stated that “Customers would be limited to 1 of each item”, as adult collectors were now following the distribution chain and delivery schedules. As the World Wide Web began to grow, websites and online Collector Communities including ROC, began to allow the sharing of information, promoting networking & unity. But as with anything else, there are always those that seek to capitalize on a good thing, ruining for most others, which is how “Scalping” came to be. Scalping is the act of buying up as much of any given item(s) with the intent to sell at an unreasonably high price. In buying up all of said item in a region, you basically alter the supply, while artificially increasing the demand. It has always been a delicate subject as some see it as a crime, while others consider it capitalism. Again, this is a topic for another day and trust me, we’ll get there. Recognizing the opportunity to reach the adult collector demographic, Toy Biz created a new line of super articulated Action figures, based on Marvel characters, with an unparalleled level of sculpt, paint application, accessories and design, aptly titled " Marvel Legends". Marvel Legends took the term "action figure" to a whole new level, as some characters were equipped with over 25 points of individual articulation including fingers, toes, ab crunch, thighs swivels and double hinged elbows and knees, which had been unheard of In previously released lines. Each figure also came with a base or stand, as well as a comic book . Future editions of the line came with a separate ”Build A Figure” component, which allowed the collector to construct a completely unique character using the part included with each figure in the assortment. This feature enabled collectors to obtain figures of larger characters, such as Galactus, Apocalypse and a Sentinel, which would not have been feasible to produce in an individual manner, due to size and accompanying price point. I will never forget meeting Toybiz designers Jesse Falcon and Damon Née at the Toy Fair International trade show in New York, which is where the line was first unveiled and shown to the Press and Retail Buyers. I knew this was the beginning of something very special and would be a cornerstone in the hobby, in the same way that the original GI Joe, Mego Superheroes and Star Wars figure lines had done before. Being an Adult Toy Collector was no longer viewed as strange and it was not uncommon to bump into other fellow collectors in the aisle.

The Toy Biz Era, creation of the Marvel Legends line and recognition of the Adult-Collector demographic, meant that Mattel needed to rise to the occasion as well, which they did, b y bringing in the legendary design group known as “The Four Horsemen” to handle the sculpting of their "DC Superhero Classics" line. They began expanding the focus to include more than just the mainstay characters of Batman and Superman, following the recipe of Toy Biz success, increasing the quality of sculpt, paint applications and articulation. They also followed suit with the "Collect and Coinnect" feature that allowed a new character to be constructed of separate components packaged with each figure in the assortment. Both Toy Biz and Mattel also revitalized the “Chase Figure” craze, which meant a limited edition variant of a base character in an assortment was randomly short packed, making it harder to get and thus more valuable in the eyes of the collector. Thus, collectors would literally chase each other around, attempting to stay ahead by getting to a store, gaining access to a freshly stocked pallet, to get to the unopened case of figures, in the quest to get the Holy Grail short-packed, chase variant action figure.

While it sounds ridiculous (and it really was), I had a blast hunting in the wild for figures for my own collection and for my fellow “Brothers in Plastic”, the other members of our Collector Community, as well networked to help on another. It was truly a great time to be a pop culture enthusiast and action figure collector. If you had a specific Favorite Character from The DC, Marvel or Star Wars Universe there was a good chance you could locate and purchase an action figure in one form or another. The advent of the adult collecting demographic also led to the expansion Into the world of sports With McFarlane Toys “Starting Lineups” which offered Baseball, hockey, football And even NASCAR Athletes In the various Team uniforms they wore. The World Wrestling Federation/ WWE also entered the action figure market by signing a deal with Jakks Pacific to release the highly successful Classic Superstars line, which was a long-time dream for fans of professional wrestling and sports entertainment alike. And of course, with these new lines came just as many variants and chase figures to keep you on your toes and spending money.

The technology also improved, as some companies began to dabble with “real scan technology” which used computer scanning instead of relying on the actual talent of a sculptor, with mixed results. It was basically a 3d Printing Concept used to create the head sculpt of the figure. With all of these mainstream products and innovations available to the adult collector, another market began to emerge which was the premium format, higher end collectible product offered by companies such as Sideshow Toys, BBI, Hot Toys and others. Sideshow & Hot Toys will always have a place as some of the most innovative companies in the collectible world, but for the sake of this article, I am not including in the “Action Figure” category. Yes, these 12” or 1/6th scale versions have more articulation, better accessories, paint, sculpting and detail than anything at mass retail, but they also cost about 10 times more than the average Hasbro or Mattel Action Figure and can only be purchased online or at a Comic Shop. Again, the High End Collectible Market is a topic for another day.


After 3 decades of solid innovation and growth, the Toy Industry was about to take a long detour. Heading into the 2K era, Hasbro had continued with the Star Wars Franchise offering newer versions of the same characters along with newer Prequel additions. They also wound up acquiring the rights to the Marvel Legends Line. Mattel continued ahead with the DC Superhero Classics Line and had varied success with online subscriptions for their Masters of the Universe line. The US was still reeling from the events of 9/11, which had tremendous financial ramifications affecting Wall Street, Retail and the spending habits of the consumer. Disposable income items suffered greatly, as did brick & mortar stores, as they competed not only against each other but also against the online e-tailers, such as Amazon, Ebay and other cyber stores. Retailers such as Walmart & Target began to limit the lines they carried, in addition to greatly reducing the inventory volume. The overall economic climate and decrease in volume required manufacturers like Mattel and Hasbro to make immediate changes to allow them to keep their brands alive by focusing on their core demographic. The Increase in costs to manufacture and ship meant the necessity to raise the price of the product in order to maintain the profit level required to satisfy each Board of Directors and Shareholders. I remember speaking with a Hasbro executive at Toy Fair In New York prior to the release of Revenge of the Sith about the future of the action figure and changes that were to come. He explained to me that while the Adult Collector demographic had a louder voice, its buying power was nowhere near that of the core demographic, which caters to kids 4-12. The younger demographic is what now keeps lines like Star Wars alive and the parents are now the people spending the money, which means the product needs to be revamped in order to make it economically feasible for them to purchase. This meant reduction in articulation, accessories, gimmicks and packaging. The average Marvel Legends and DC superhero classic figure had gone from a price point of approximately $8 in Wave 1, to $14. With manufacturing costs increasing and sales volume dropping, this meant the end of some lines and a decrease in the release of others. Hasbro had began scaling back from 6 inch figures to the traditional 3 ¾”scale. Mattel followed suit by slowing the releases of 6” scale product and creating a 3 ¾”scale offering of their own. By now Hasbro had begun incorporating “super articulation” into their 3 ¾” Star Wars line, which was also suffering even with the release of the prequels.

Today, Pop culture is at an all-time high with both Marvel and DC franchise characters gaining more exposure than ever before. By 2017, we will have had 2 different actors portray Batman, 3 different actors portray Superman and a 3rd set of Star Wars prequels underway. In addition to Marvel, Disney has acquired the rights to the Star Wars franchise, as The Force Awakens has become the number one highest grossing film of all time. T shirts, party favors, Bumper stickers and of course, Action Figures are sold in every brick and mortar store and Online outlet. While you can even find Action Figures at your local CVS, Walgreen’s and Rite Aid Pharmacy, a majority of what you see at mass retail are what the adult collecting demographic call the "5POA" which stands for the basic five points of articulation. These are products specifically geared towards kids and are usually a lower price point. The 6” Action figure format has returned in a more limited basis with a slight decrease in articulation from their original Marvel Legends and DC superheroes counterparts, yet some still come with Build a figure pieces. After Several decades of maintaining the same 3 ¾” scale, Hasbro has released a 6” line Super articulated Figure line As a part of the successful, Higher end "black Series". There is actually strong rumor that the 3 ¾” line may be discontinued in the near future which would mark the end of a long standing tradition.

As a 45-year old man child that grew up in the 70's and 80's, I've been lucky enough to witness and partake in the evolution and growth of the Action Figure movement and creation of the adult collector demographic. It's a hobby that I've passed along to one of my kids and am happy to see her face when she enters my collection room, aptly titled the "Chamber of Plastic". The ROC was originally created as a means to join together and network other like-minded Adult Collectors With the same Passion For the hobby. Today, the ROC joins people together, period. While I still collect Action Figures, I am very selective about what I buy and maintain a strict discipline in which I sell an older, outdated version of a character if I purchase a better, superior version. These days, it’s about smarter spending, storage and selection. It’s getting tougher and tougher to find “ a better version” of any character these days and at some point, I will have sent my last paypal payment and received my final e-tailer delivery.

I hope that one day after my last “Plastic Therapy” session that something new, cool and exciting happens that changes the landscape of Action Figure collecting and that someone else picks up the timeline, where I’m leaving off.

One day, I hope my daughter or nephew will follow suit, continuing this story, sharing the history of the Action Figure, because in the end you're never too old to enjoy toys. Until that day comes, I'll see you in the aisles and on social media, where we are all young at heart.

Brian Steel

Submission 01/21/16

Brian E Santore

Realm of Collectors / ROC Media

Div. of Phoenix Marketing Corp