An action figure is a poseable character figurine, made of plastic or other materials, and often based upon characters from a film, comic book, video game, or television program. These action figures are usually marketed toward boys and adult collectors.
It has been argued that action figures which represent traditional masculine traits and are closely associated with the public sphere are particularly popular with boys. While most commonly marketed as a children's toy, the action figure has gained wide acceptance as an adult collector item. In such a case, the item may be produced and designed on the assumption it will be bought solely for display.
The term "action figure" was first coined by Hasbro in 1964, to market their G.I. Joe figure to boys who would not play with dolls. (A similar toy named Johnny Hero was introduced by Rosko Industries for Sears in 1965, but was known as a "Boy's Doll" since the term action figure had not gained widespread usage at that point). G.I. Joe was initially a military-themed 11.5-inch figure proposed by marketing and toy idea-man Stan Weston. It featured changeable clothes with various uniforms to suit different purposes.
In a move that would create global popularity for this type of toy, Hasbro also licensed the product to companies in other markets. These different licensees had a combination of uniforms and accessories that were usually identical to the ones manufactured for the US market by Hasbro, along with some sets that were unique to the local market. The Japanese had at least two examples where a Hasbro licensee also issued sublicenses for related products. For example, Palitoy (in the UK) issued a sublicense to Tsukuda, a company in Japan, to manufacture and sell Palitoy's Action Man accessories in the Japanese market. Takara also issued a sublicense to Medicom for the manufacture of action figures.
Takara, still under license by Hasbro to make and sell G.I. Joe toys in Japan, also manufactured an action figure incorporating the licensed GI Joe torso for Henshin Cyborg-1, using transparent plastic revealing cyborg innards, and a chrome head and cyborg feet. During the oil supply crisis of the 1970s, like many other manufacturers of action figures, Takara was struggling with the costs associated with making the large 11 ½ inch figures, So, a smaller version of the cyborg toy was developed, standing at 3-3/4 inches high, and was first sold in 1974 as Microman. The Microman line was also novel in its use of interchangeable parts. This laid the foundation for both the smaller action figure size and the transforming robot toy. Takara began producing characters in the Microman line with increasingly robotic features, including Robotman, a 12" robot with room for a Microman pilot, and Mini-Robotman, a 3-3/4" version of Robotman. These toys also featured interchangeable parts, with emphasis placed on the transformation and combination of the characters.
In 1971, Mego began licensing and making American Marvel and DC comic book superhero figures, which had highly successful sales and are considered highly collectible by many adults today. They eventually brought the Microman toy line to the United States as the Micronauts, but Mego eventually lost control of the market after losing the license to produce Star Wars toys to Kenner in 1976. The widespread success of Kenner's Star Wars 3-3/4" toy line made the newer, smaller size the industry standard. Instead of a single character with outfits that changed for different applications, toy lines included teams of characters with special functions. Led by Star Wars-themed sales, collectible action figures quickly became a multi-million dollar secondary business for movie studios.
The 1980s spawned all sorts of popular action figure lines, many based on cartoon series', which were one of the largest marketing tools for toy companies. Some of the most successful to come about were Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, Thundercats, and Super Powers Collection, to name just a few. Early in the decade, the burgeoning popularity of Japanese robot anime such as Gundam also encouraged Takara to reinvent the Microman line as the Micro Robots, moving from the cyborg action figure concept to the concept of the living robot. This led to the Micro Change line of toys: objects that could "transform" into robots. In 1984, Hasbro licensed Micro Change and another Takara line, the Diaclone transforming cars, and combined them in the US as the Transformers, spawning a still-continuing family of animated cartoons.
As the '80s were ending, more and more collectors started to surface, buying up the toys to keep in their original packaging for display purposes and for future collectability. This led to flooding of the action figure toy market. One of the most popular action figure lines of the late '80s and early '90s, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures were produced in such high quantities that the value for most figures would never be higher than a few dollars. In the mid-1990s, a new Star Wars figure line had surfaced and Spawn figures flooded the toy store shelves, proving action figures were not just for kids anymore. Beginning in 1997, ToyFare magazine would become a popular read for mature collectors in providing news and embracing nostalgia with a comedic twist. And with the gaining popularity of the Internet, websites such as Toy News International would soon offer information on upcoming collectible figures and merchandise.
It was during this time that popular characters were increasingly getting specialized costume and variant figures. Batman quickly became most notorious for this (i.e. Arctic Batman, Piranha Blade Batman, Neon Armor Batman). Rather than individual characters, these variants would make up the bulk of many action figure lines and often make use of the old figure and accessory molds. Glow-in-the-dark figures and accessories also became popular in the early '90s with lines like Toxic Crusaders and Swamp Thing.
A 1999 study found that "the figures have grown much more muscular over time, with many contemporary figures far exceeding the muscularity of even the largest human bodybuilders" and that the changing cultural expectations reflected by those changes may contribute to body image disorders in both sexes.
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Today, the adult collector market for action figures is expanding with companies like McFarlane Toys, Palisades, and NECA. Said companies have given numerous movie characters, musicians, and athletes their very first highly detailed figures. These are commonly intended as statuesque display pieces rather than toys; however, child-oriented lines such as the Masters of the Universe revival and Justice League Unlimited still evoke adult collector followings as well. Comic book firms are also able to get figures of their characters produced, regardless of whether or not they appeared in movies or animated cartoons. Examples of companies that produce comic figures and merchandise almost exclusively include Toy Biz and DC Direct.
Adult-oriented figure lines are often exclusive to specific chain stores rather than mass retail. Popular lines often have figures available exclusively through mail-in offers and comic conventions, which raises their value significantly. Ploys such as packaging "errors" and "short-packed" figures have also been used by toy companies to increase collector interest.
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Modelling clay and various sculpting tools are used to create the prototype. The actual figure is molded from a plastic resin, such as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). This is a harder plastic used to form the main body. Softer plastics and nylon may be used for costume components including body suits, capes, and face masks. As a final decoration, acrylic paints of various colors may be used to decorate the figure. In addition, more elaborate toys may contain miniature electronic components that provide light and sound effects.
Once the character has been selected, the actual design process begins with sketches of the proposed figure. The next step is the creation of a clay prototype, but other materials such as wax can also be used for the prototype. This model is made by bending aluminum wires to form the backbone of the figure, known as an armature. The wire form includes the outline of the arms and legs posed in the general stance that the figure will assume. The sculptor then adds clay to the armature to give the basic weight and shape that is desired. The clay may be baked slightly during the prototyping process to harden it. Then, the sculptor uses various tools, such as a wire loop, to carve the clay and shape details on the figure.
After creating the basic form, the sculptor may choose to remove the arms and work on them separately for later attachment. This gives the sculptor more control and allows him to produce finer details on the prototype. Working with blunt tools, the sculptor shapes the body with as much detail as is desired. During this process, photo and sketch references are used to ensure the figure is as realistic as possible. Some sculptors may even use human models to guide their design work.
After the general body shape is complete, the sculptor adds the finer details, paying close attention to the eyes, nose, and mouth that give the figure its lifelike expression. The designer may attach a rough lump of clay on the main figure as a temporary head while the real head is sculpted on a separate armature. This allows the sculptor to finish the figure's facial expressions independently of the body. At this point, the finished head can be attached to the main armature and joined to the body with additional clay. Once the head is attached, the neck and hair are sculpted to properly fit to the figure. Then, depending on the design of the figure, the costume may be sculpted directly onto the body. However, if a cloth costume or uniform will be added later, the prototype is sculpted without any costume details. During this process, parts of the clay may be covered with aluminum foil to keep it from prematurely drying out. Once everything is completed, the entire figure is baked to harden the clay.
The sculpted prototype is then sent for approval to the manufacturer. Once all design details have been finalized, the prototype is used to make the molds that will form the plastic pieces for the mass-produced figure. The entire sculpting process may take about two weeks, depending on the skill and speed of the sculptor. This process may be repeated several times if revisions must be made to the figure. Several months are typically allowed for this design phase.
Characteristics and features
A common feature among action figures is body articulation, often referred to as points of articulation (POA) or joints. The most basic forms of articulation include one neck joint, two shoulder joints, and two hip joints. Beyond these, rotating wrists, bending knees, and a swiveling waist are also common. Various terms have come into practice such as a "cut" joint, frequently used to allow a basic head rotation at the neck or arm rotation at the shoulder. The "T" joint at a figure's hips commonly allows up to 180° of front-to-back leg rotation; although, this may vary. Ball joints often allow more liberal movement than a cut, such as the figure's head being able to tilt in addition to a cut's strict vertical rotation. Basic knee articulation often relies on what is considered a pin joint.
The amount and style of figure articulation used by toy designers have varied over the years. Two of the most popular figure lines of the 1980s, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and Masters of the Universe, contrasted one another greatly in articulation; the former included several points in their small, 3¾" scale while the bulkier latter remained minimal. Both, however, used methods involving rubber cords at the hips that are little used today. In the 2000s, Toy Biz's popular Marvel Legends line became known for its high rate of articulation, even boasting points at the abdomen, toes, and fingers.
While not all action figures include accessories, the additional items often prove essential to characters and their effectiveness as interactive toys. Typical 3¾" scale G.I. Joe figures include several intricately sculpted guns or hand weapons that can be fastened inside the figures' hands. Missile launchers are also commonplace in military and comic book figure lines and usually involve a spring-loaded mechanism. However, possibly due to safety concerns, this method saw a decline in the mid-1990s. Some figures, particularly of the Joker, have incorporated water-squirting weapons.
More recently, Marvel Legends has popularized the "build-a-figure" concept. Each figure of a particular series includes a body part to a larger-scaled figure. This encourages the consumer to purchase every figure of the given series, in order to complete the larger figure. The concept has spread into Mattel's DC Universe Classics. Figures intended to appeal to the collector market commonly include a display base and/or pack-in comic book. In such cases accessories may be designed more for display than play.
Types of packaging
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Manufacturers have packaged their action figures in different ways throughout the years. Below is a list of different ways that action figures are packaged:
Window Box packaging Window box packages consist of a sturdy, but somewhat thin cardboard box that allows for easy stacking. The box has colorful artwork to draw one’s attention. The front of the box will have an area of the cardboard that is cut out and a thin piece of soft plastic then fills the cutout area. This ensures easy visibility of the action figure inside of the box. This type of packaging was used by companies such as Mego Corporation in the early 1970s until they switched to the Carded Bubble style of packaging in the mid to late 1970s. Window Box packaging is still used today, often for figures that measure 10" or taller in height.
Carded Bubble packaging Action figures are commonly packaged in a Carded Bubble type of packaging. This type of packaging consists of a sturdy piece of thin cardboard backing known as a "Card." The card is decorated with colorful artwork to draw consumer attention. The action figure is then placed on the card and a bubble made of clear plastic is then laid over the top of the action figure and glued to the card or attached in some other fashion. The figure is then clearly visible to consumers. Often the bubble will have several small, fitted compartments to hold the figure and its various accessories in place. The most famous example of this type of packaging is probably Kenner and Hasbro's packaging of Star Wars action figures from 1977 to today.
PVC packaging A more recent type of packaging that is common as of the 2000s decade is PVC packaging. With this type of packaging, the cardboard card is replaced by a clear PVC plastic backing. The front of the package is a different piece of PVC plastic that is molded to include a bubble that will house the action figure and all of its accessories. Any colorful artwork designed to help draw attention to the package will be printed on a thin piece of paper that is placed between these two pieces of PVC, or will be affixed in sticker form to the front piece of PVC. This type of packaging is popular today and can be seen being used by McFarlane Toys for their Movie Maniacs line of action figures beginning with Series V. Other companies that utilize this type of packaging are NECA/Reel Toys (National Entertainment Collectibles Association) with their Cult Classics and Pirates of the Caribbean line of figures, and Toy Biz with its Marvel Legends action figures, which included a comic book placed between the two PVC segments.
Tube packaging Another recent type of PVC packaging that is being used is a tube-shaped piece of PVC plastic that will surround the action figure. The tube may be cylindrical in shape, or more oval in shape. Artwork on the package are often in sticker form that is affixed to the outside of the PVC tube. This type of packaging can be seen used by Hasbro for their Star Wars Galactic Heroes line of figures.
Figures of the original Masters of the Universe line included many unique "action features": Battle Armor He-Man and Skeletor had rotating chest plates to represent varying degrees of damage; Leech featured suction cup limbs; Mantenna's eyes would pop out using a lever on his back; and Thunder Punch He-Man would thrust a punch and emit a loud bang from the ring cap in his backpack. Other features emphasized aesthetic rather than action, such as the flocked bodies of Grizzlor and Moss Man as well as the unique scents of the latter and Stinkor.
The success of the many Transformers lines has relied heavily on their signature feature of shifting from vehicle to robot. The popularity of this carried into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' Mutatin' series among others.
In 1987, Mattel introduced figures for the television series Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. The line boasted an interactive game where children could shoot at the TV screen. However, while an ambitious concept, it was not a long term success.
Glow-in-the-dark paint and plastic have been utilized in various figure collections, particularly those of the early '90s including Ninja Turtles, Swamp Thing, and Toxic Crusaders. Similarly, a color-changing feature has been demonstrated on some figures throughout the years. This concept involves dipping the character's head into cold water and revealing a temperature-sensitive paint. Examples include Kenner's Sky Escape Joker and Camouflage Swamp Thing, as well as Hasbro's Desert-Camo Sgt. Savage.
The majority of figures in Kenner's Super Powers Collection toted a punching action upon the squeezing together of their legs. In a more technically advanced method, the Ninja Turtles' Wacky Action series involved a wind-up gear that caused the motorized performance of certain actions like swimming legs or a rotating wrist. Two years prior also saw the release of Tyco's Dino-Riders, which featured battery powered, motorized dinosaurs.
- Toy Biz v. United States (2003), which determined that action figures of certain superheroes are legally toys, not dolls.
- Figma, a line of highly articulated action figures produced by Max Factory
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