For those who appreciate dolls and action figures, there’s an entire world of unique items to be bought, sold, and accumulated. Since the first Barbie doll was introduced in 1959, pose-able toy figurines have exploded onto the market, and today not only serve as icons of childhood wonder, but prove to be valuable products in their own right.
Action figures have been around since the 1960s. The phrase “action figure” was coined by Don Levine of Hasbro in 1964; Levine used the term to distinguish Hasbro’s G.I. Joe figures, intended for boys, from dolls, which were then seen as better suited to girls.
The aforementioned Levine, alongside Hasbro designer Stan Weston, invented the G.I. Joe line of action figures — likely some of the earliest, if not the first, toys of that kind. Early G.I. Joe figurines featured changeable clothes, and initially came in four types, representing the four branches of the U.S. military: Action Marine (Marines), Action Pilot (Air Force), Action Sailor (Navy), and Action Soldier (Army). Standing at 12 inches tall, the original G.I. Joe was such a success that, in 2004, it was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame.
In 1966, toy manufacturer Mattel introduced astronaut figurines through their Major Matt Mason line. Their suits based on NASA prototypes, these figures were released alongside miniature vehicles and playsets, which proved hugely attractive to kids.
Superhero action figures have proven to be particularly popular. First marketed in the early 1970s, a company called Mego dominated the market for superhero action figures until 1976.
Since the late 70s, figurines depicting film stars have also been popular. Star Wars was one of the film franchises to first see its characters depicted as figurines. Kenner, a small company around the time of the release of the original Star Wars (1977), landed on a gold mine when they decided to produce an original line of Star Wars action figures.
The 1970s also saw D.C. and Marvel superhero action figures surge in popularity, with characters like Wonder Woman, Batman, and Spider-Man hitting store shelves throughout America.
Action figures diversified after Hasbro decided to license G.I. Joe to international companies. The U.K.’s Palitoy, for instance, developed its own Action Man based on the G.I. Joe concept. Japanese company Takara also produced an action figure, called Henshin Cyborg-1, incorporating a G.I. Joe torso.
While G.I. Joe set the industry standard for foot-tall toys, an eight-inch stature came to dominate after Martin Abrams, head of Mego, decided to manufacture eight-inch D.C. and Marvel figurines in a line called The World’s Greatest Super Heroes. This shift was spurred in large part by the 1970s oil crisis, which saw a restriction in the availability of commodities, including the raw materials used to make toys.
While it’s difficult to pin down when action figures became collectible, it’s likely that they’ve been prized in this way since early on in their history.
Today, some of the most valuable collectible action figures include the original Kenner Star Wars figurines, as well as Star Wars figures produced by other companies in the 1970s and 80s. Large collections of action figures are regularly put up for sale on eBay, and some lots cost tens of thousands of dollars. The most valuable figurines are those that are, of course, sealed in their original packages, as well as those unique figures that were only part of a limited run.
“I think that rarity and demand definitely are factors that determine whether or not something is collectible,” wrote Valentine Chhann, toy connoisseur at New York City’s Forbidden Planet, in an e-mail correspondence. “Nostalgia provides value as well.”
I asked Chhann what sort of figures are the most rare and coveted.
“Typically vintage figures from the 70s and 80s, and now the 90s, seem to be highest in demand,” he replied. “Stuff like Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Mego, and Masters of the Universe, among others. I think as each generation of kids starts to get their own income, that plays a key role in what becomes collectible.”
Chhann explained that, when it comes to vintage toys and figures, rarity is key, and that what has made many of them rare is something one might not expect.
“The rarity factor plays into this because a lot of the vintage stuff isn't as common,” Chhann wrote. “Because, when these figures were coming out, the average toy collector — the kids — weren't thinking that these would be worth money someday, so they opened them up, loved them, played with them and often destroyed them.”
Chhann explained that sci-fi themed and superhero toys, as well as toys and figures with media tie-ins (figures based on characters from cartoons or movies, for instance), prove the most popular overall.
When asked about the history behind collectible action figures, Chhann replied that he “couldn't pinpoint a specific date.”
“But,” he wrote, “I would think sometime after Star Wars was when the collectors started to want memorabilia from the film and began the whole collect-them-all era. I would say nowadays people collect figures because of nostalgia for their childhoods.”
Who are the big players in today’s world of toys?
“Currently,” wrote Chhann, “I would say Mattel with their DC and WWE lines, Hasbro with Marvel, Star Wars and Transformers — plus Power Rangers and Playmates with their Ninja Turtles. Funko is also a fairly big company presently with their POP! vinyl line.”
All in all, action figures prove to be popular both as collectors’ items and as toys for children. Despite the fact that the world is immersed in video games, as well as countless other forms of entertainment, action figures continue to be prized.