Action figures are a fan's best friend. A squadron of Star Trek, Star Wars and comic book figures on your desk is the next best thing to having Darth Vader and Worf physically present in your cubicle to distract you from the horror of being trapped at work.
Maybe that's why the action figure industry is so huge, with billions of dollars in sales. But action figures weren't always quite so cool or as plentiful, and your desk would have been sad. When did action figures actually become awesome? We talked to some experts, in order to find out.
Top image: Tío Javi on Flickr.
So what are the things that make action figures awesome? In our book, there are a few things. 1) Being based on a cool movie, TV show, comic, or epic character. 2) Having lots of different figures so you can have them interact. 3) Having loads of cool accessories. 4) Being cool looking, and not obviously cheaply made.
To me, the first cool action figures were the Mego Star Trek figures, introduced in 1974 to take advantage of the rise of Trek's popularity in syndication. They weren't all that durable - I think I broke the knee joints of three or four Captain Kirk figures, leaving a small army of Kirk amputees to sit around the Enterprise bridge while the one intact Kirk went on away missions with Spock and McCoy. (Side note: Did you know Kirk's skin color got darker with each succeeding revision of the Trek figures?) But they were hella cool, and you could get a Mugatu action figure.
But the action figure story actually begins a decade before those Star Trek toys. Everyone agrees the first action figure was G.I. Joe, who was introduced in 1964 as a "male Barbie" to appeal to boys. The term "action figure" was coined to disguise the fact that it was basically a doll. According to Sharon Scott, author of Toys and American Culture: An Encyclopedia:
Don Levine of Hasbro was actively seeking a boys' toy that could equal the success Barbie was having in the girls' market. When an independent licensing agent named Stan Weston proposed the idea of the articulated soldier, Levine immediately snatched up the idea and began developing the product.
And G.I. Joe, in his early incarnations, was basically just a toy soldier, similar to the toy soldiers that had been mass-produced in the 1930s and earlier. The main differences according to Scott, were:
He had moving parts and a changeable wardrobe and could be outfitted to serve in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Unlike the toy soldiers of the 30s and 40s who moved in companies and brigades, G.I. Joe is a one-man army that has the backup support of a small, but well equipped team.
Plus Joe was similar to Barbie in that the figure was cheap, but the endless accessories were expensive.
And according to John "Toyzilla" Marshall, author of Action Figures of the 1960s, Collecting Monster Toys and Comic Book Hero Toys, G.I. Joe actually had four different distinct figures, and outfits included "a scuba suit for the sailor, a flight suit for the Pilot, etc."
Joe didn't get "Kung-Fu Grip" until 1974. He didn't go into outer space until the late 1960s, when opposition to the Vietnam War was dampening demand for military toys. He didn't meet space aliens until the mid-1970s. The G.I. Joe we know today, with Cobra and Destro and Snake Eyes, was a 1980s thing.
Action Fact: According to Scott, the most valuable early action figure is the G.I. Joe prototype, which sold for $200,000 to Stephen Geppi in 2003, and now resides at Geppi's Entertainment Museum in Baltimore.
But for a line of action figures that included an assortment of "characters, allies, and adversaries," you had to wait for Best of the West from Louis Marx & Company in 1965, says Marshall. Marx, according to Scott, was the first toymaker to realize that the more figures you released in a particular line, the more products you could move. Soon other action figure makers were following suit.
What are the crappiest and cheapest early action figures? According to Marshall:
Oh, there are so many. The Astro-Apes, Doctor Kromedome, Action Mike, Buddy Charlie… But all of them are of interest for one reason or another beyond their actual quality. There's one that stands out, though. Believe it or not, in 1975, Hasbro actually made their own GI Joe knockoff line to steal the thunder of GI Joe knockoffs such as Mister Action and Fighting Yank. It was called the Defenders, and the basic figure had five points of articulation (neck, shoulders, and hips) and was made out of cheap blow-molded (hollow) plastic. Many of the larger Defenders accessories barely made it to market back then, and ironically are some of the most sought-after items by many GI Joe collectors today.
The first licensed action figures
But the first action figure based on a TV or movie property was probably James Bond, which was introduced soon after G.I. Joe.
Gilbert released their James Bond and Man from Uncle figures as part of the spy craze merchandising in 1965. Captain Action arrived with the superhero craze of 1966. That's actually why GI Joe outlasted them into the 70s, because the GI Joe line was all-inclusive enough to add a few elements of a craze, without being all about the craze. For example, Mattel had a line of astronaut figures called Major Matt Mason, which fizzled as the heat from the moon landing cooled, GI Joe simply dropped their astronaut-related accessories and kept right on rolling.
And Captain Action, the first superhero action figure, was profoundly weak. He was the all-purpose hero who could dress up as different licensed characters. Here's how Marshall explains it:
Captain Action was a slightly different take, as he was a character who dressed up like famous superheroes, as opposed to having a line of figures, each one of which was an individual superhero. But again, like GI Joe, you had the basic character (Captain Action) and sold-separately outfit sets for Batman, Spider-Man, etc. I love action figures but never liked Captain Action, because in his superhero costumes, he looks exactly like what he is - not Batman, but a guy wearing a Batman costume - and not a very good one, either. But in 1966, if you wanted a fully-poseable Batman in scale with your GI Joes, that was your option.
But the rarest, most valuable action figures of the 1960s that actually appeared on store shelves come from the Captain Action franchise, according to Marshall. They're the four DC Comics heroines "sold by Ideal in the late 60s as an offshoot of Captain Action. (Supergirl, Wonder Woman, Mera, and Batgirl.) Even in these hard times, they have retained their value, which is several thousand dollars for examples in unopened original boxed. And they are nigh-impossible to find loose and complete with all original parts."
The Rise and Fall of Mego
Really, the story of how action figures became awesome is the story of Mego, which produced the World's Greatest Superheroes toys in 1972 and the Star Trek toys in 1974. As Scott puts it, the World's Greatest Superheroes line "blew up the action figure scene."
The World's Greatest Superheroes toys, remarkably, included 33 characters from both major superhero publishers. Including Batman, Captain Marvel (Shazam), Captain America, Spider-Man, Hulk, Iron Man, and Wonder Woman.
Mego wasn't the first, but they basically showed the world what a commitment to a license could achieve. Licensed figures from Gilbert and Ideal did well but stuck to a handful of core characters. Mego saw the advantage of having, for example, not just Batman, Robin, Joker, and a Batmobile, but the marketability of Penguin, Riddler, Batgirl, a Batcopter, a Batcycle, a Batcave playset and incredibly even a playset of Bruce Wayne's Wayne Foundation building. They even had a Montgomery Ward's store exclusive [consisting] of Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, Clark Kent and Peter (Spider-Man) Parker.
And those Mego superhero toys have become ultra-rare, says Sharon Korbeck Verbeten, former editor of Toy Shop magazine and author of several books about toys and action figures:
The Mego superheroes are pretty rare, and hard to find in great shape. I came on as editor of Toy Shop in the mid 1990s, and even back then they were kind of the coveted action figures to find. Often, they weren't in their boxes if you found them, or you found them without their cape or accessories. I'm sure there's pretty active clubs still around, some online sites, certainly searching on eBay.
Mego struck gold by sticking to licensed properties. Mego became the first company to release action figures based on a movie series in 1973, with its Planet of the Apes figures. According to Scott, this toy line included "four plastic primates and one eight-inch astronaut" - and was so successful that Mego focused on movie- and TV-themed figures afterwards. Image via Tío Javi on Flickr.
The Star Trek figures are pure gold, and like the superhero figures they included a few playsets, including an Enterprise bridge, a Transporter, and a version of the temple of Vaal from "The Apple." There were three waves of Trek figures, including a ton of aliens and all of the main crewmembers. (But not Chekov, Sulu, Nurse Chapel or Yeoman Rand.) For total Trek nostalgia, check out the Mego Museum.
There were tons of imitators of Mego's action figures, but none as successful as the original, at least during Mego's heyday. Says Scott:
Mego's Martin Abrams recognized the value of exclusive rights contracts with entertainment companies. By signing contracts for popular characters, such as The World's Greatest Superhero's, Star Trek, and Planet of the Apes, Mego put many toy manufactures without popular media connections out of business during the 1970s.
Until Mego made one galactic mistake. George Lucas approached Mego with the action figure rights to his then-unreleased Star Wars movie. But the company declined, on the basis that it didn't want to invest in every "flash in the pan" media property. Plus Mego was already developing a huge new toy line based on the Japanese Micronauts figures.
After Mego said no to Star Wars, Kenner picked up the license instead, producing smaller, cheaper figures with dozens and dozens of characters. Kenner quickly started to dominate the action figure market. As Scott explains, Mego tried to compete by putting out tie-ins to other space-opera series like Buck Rogers and The Black Hole, but none of these toys were as popular as Star Wars figures.
Concludes Scott: "While many companies produced science fiction toys during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Kenner seemed to be the only one turning a profit. Mego declared bankruptcy in 1983."