What Is An Action Figure?

What Is An Action Figure?
By Colin Dorman

The modern day Action Figure is very different to the traditional figure of my boyhood memories. Back then we had two basic types, the GI Joe and Action Man.

However if you look around today day there are thousands of different "action figures" available. There are movie figures, wrestling figures, anime, cartoons, TV, pop stars and even Playboy have a line of "Adult Collectible" Centerfold action figures ( please note that these are NOT dolls ;-) ).

It seems over the last 20-30 years the "hobby" has grown up along with us, the first generation of children who played with the original "action figures".

The Early Days

Do you remember as a child spending many happy hours locked away in your room with your GI Joe or Action Man?Suddenly your bedroom was transformed into another world, a world of vast mountainous terrain, deserts, rivers and seas.

Your bed was suddenly a huge, insurmountable range of mountains ideal for your snipers to lie in wait for an advancing platoon of Germans. Drawers and cupboards became fortresses, lookout towers, or high mountains.

Mats and carpets became seas, lakes, rivers or deserts. A land of danger, intrigue and mystery. Maybe you were lost behind enemy lines, desperately trying to find your way home. Or you were on a secret mission to steal the plans of a new secret your enemy has designed.Or you had to rescue captured pilots who had to ditch from their fallen plane behind enemy lines.

Whatever the situation it was you against them.

Of course by you I mean your GI JOE.

And you'd stay would quite happily, lost in your own world.

That is until suddenly that shrill cry would ring in your ears.

Summoning you back to reality.

And begrudgingly you'd leave your world it to trudge down the stairs, torn away from your heroics for....


The First GI Joe

The very first action figure, GI Joe, was introduced in 1964 by Hasbro.

The phrase "action figure" was a clever piece of marketing coined in order to make this new "doll" for boys marketable.

After all, would you play with a doll?

No way. Dolls are for girls.

But a kick ass action figure?


The GI Joe became an instant hit and was hugely successful in the US and Hasbro soon realized that there was a huge International market waiting to be exploited for this new doll and so it was licensed to other companies thus opening up new markets and ensuring its global popularity and place in the history books.

These early GI Joes were pretty basic but they were poseable. The arms and legs were held together with elastic inside and you could move the arms, legs and head, you could change their uniforms and clothes quite easily. The local toy shop had shelves of accessories for your GI Joe, everything from food rations to an amoured tank and all kinds of uniforms and armoury. You'd hoard your money for months to buy the newest and latest accessory for your figure.

I saved for months for my first tank.

Do you remember when the introduction of "real hair"?

And then there were the "eagle eyes" that moved!

But best of all was when they introduced the talking Action Man.

Wow, now that was cool.

Hasbro made many attempts to introduce non-military figures but these never really caught on.

There were soccer, cricket and rugby figures as well as World Cup figures released in England.

The GI Joe and Action Man remained the standard "boy's doll" or action figure for many years and remained popular with boys through to the mid seventies, and are still popular now, although (unfortunately) they've undergone some political correctness. Some of these earlier figures have become much sought after by collectors, particularly the non-military figures that, due to their lack of popularity were only produced in small quantities, can be worth a lot of money particularly if in mint condition.

Over the decades sadly their image has been toned down to conform to modern standards and regulations and as a result their military background has now become part of a bygone era. Today's figure is a married new man who has had to become more "politically correct" in order to appeal to a wider audience.

The Beginnings of the Hobby

The advent of Star Wars a decade later really took the market by storm though.

Until then action figures had been fairly much confined to the pre-teen boys market, but all that was to change. With the huge success of Star Wars the Kenner action figures based on the movie flew off shop shelves as quickly as stores could fill them. As a result Kenner just couldn't keep up with the massive demand which came as a complete surprise as no-one had expected the film to be the huge success it was and nothing akin to this had ever been witnessed before.

This resulted in a shortage of the figures and they began to become scarce, particularly the Darth Vader and Han Solo figures. As the demand grew and showed no signs slowing their value began to sky rocket as the secondary market for them exploded. This was especially true for the low production figures that were made for promotional purposes or the specialty markets.

And so the collectible action figure market was born.

Later, in the 1980'S, felled by the burgeoning popularity of Japanese Manga and Anime characters particularly the Transformers the hobby became more mainstream and new companies catering for this increasingly popular hobby began spring up targeting the collectors market. Some of the earlier star wars figures can now fetch hundreds or even thousands of $$'s at auction.

The collectors market is now massive with most movies, TV programs, cartoons, sports and even pop stars having a line of action figures produced based on its characters. One of the more popular of these companies over the past decade has been Mc Farlane's Toys, a company founded by Todd McFarlane the creator of the Spawn character and comic book.

McFarlane's have gained a reputation for excellent quality sculpting and meticulous attention to detail setting the benchmark by which many other figure companies are now judged.

The range of figures available now is limitless with anything from Lord of the Rings figures to WWE Wrestling figures being produced. In fact in Hollywood you're not considered to be famous or a "superstar" unless you've had a figure produced.

Colin Dorman

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