The History of the Action Figure

by Jon

History of the Action Figure and how it all started

Barbara Millicent Roberts as Barbie

In March 1959 Barbie was released by Mattel. I know what you’re thinking, Barbie isn’t an action figure, not even an action anything, but that set the chain of events. At the time, the girls’ market was being fulfilled, a new need was being created. So what about the boys?

That’s where Hasbro comes into scene. Stan Weston and Dan Levine (working as Hasbro’s creative director) developed a 12 inch action figure inspired by the 1945 movie called “The Story of G.I. Joe” and some French figures with Napoleonic clothing that already at the time had some articulation. The G.I. Joe was born.

First original G.I. Joe

As an action figure, the “G.I. Joe” was first introduced in February 1964 at a toy fair (probably much like the one going to happen in February) and it catered to the huge hungry boys market of the time (baby boomers). In 1966 its license was given to Palitoty, a UK based company that released the action figure under the name of Action Man. Other licenses followed suit into several other countries.

One of such these licenses was given to Takara, a Japanese toy company that went on to create a cyborg (action) figure based on the original Hasbro concept but with robotic parts. The standard size was still 12 inch, however, with the oil crysis (deja vu?) of the 1970′s Takara developed a smaller version at 3-3/4 inches and named it Microman, released in 1974. This allowed for further probing in the action figures size, which led to different sizes and other 12 inch figures with the ability to transform (like later released Transformers).

Back in the United States, the comics world were really starting to boom over the country. Companies were starting to make the association, and soon enough, Mego began licensing action figures for all these different comic book characters, starting in 1971, which were a major hit back then. They brought Takara’s Microman toy line to the US under the name Micronauts and all was well in Mego world, until they lost the Star Wars license to Kenner. The license was lost, not due to Mego not realizing the Star Wars franchise potential, but because the people who could sign the license were out of town. The Star Wars people then visited another company located in the same building (200 5th Ave. NY, NY). This company was Kenner.

Kenner Products snatched the Star Wars license, and in 1976 started selling the 3 3/4 inch Star Wars action figures.

Kenner's first Star Wars action figure line

More Kenner Star Wars action figures

In the 80′s, the need for action figures got bigger with all the cartoons that started appearing on TV. Shows like Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe and Thundercats captivated the imagination of young boys and further reinforced the physical need for the action figures of their favorite shows. The market was getting hungrier.

First generation of Transformers cartoons

In Japan cartoons, Gundam, cartoons featuring robots fighting, started getting a little too popular. This made Takara reinvent their Microman line into the then name Micro Robots. This further led into their Micro Change line, in which objects could turn into, or transform into robots. In the meantime, Hasbro picked the Micro Change line and another of Takara’s line, Diaclone (a transforming car line) and mixed it all together into the Transformers we know today, and brought this concept to the United States in 1984, issuing the whole cartoon episodes from then on.

Then, in the 90′s, with the appearance of Spawn’s action figures(from the comics) and another Star Wars line, it became clear the market wasn’t only for young boys. Older people were turning themselves into collectors either by accident or choice and more people were looking up toy magazines for more news on their chosen subject (how did they survived without the internets?). More and more lines started getting out at the time, some even flooded the market, as was the case of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turles action figures, that were in such high offer that each figure was only worth a couple of dollars in the collectible world. Comics continued their popularity and further incentivated sales of readers favorite comic book characters in action figures line all over the world.

From the 2000s on, and up to these days, there was a transition made into movies, where popular movies would have action figures of their own characters. And not only movies, but also musicians, athletes and other figures of importance in the media.

The Brave and the Bold action figures

Nowadays, toys and action figure lines are pretty well researched and nailed down by major companies, they even create errors in packaging and missing or different accessories to increase the rarity of some releases. They seem to go through their own categorizations of what the market should be for certain lines. The Brave and the Bold comes to mind, that’s not for kids only in my opinion, I shouldn’t need to listen to what an executive thinks I should buy or not.

Well, and there you have it. If you want or need to, you can read some more on Wikipedia for a comprehensive look on the action figure:

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  • drmego

    I can tell you the reason why MEGO did not make Star Wars – the people who could sign
    the deal were out of town so the Star Wars reps listed Kenner in the same building (200
    5th Ave. NY, NY) and signed a deal that day. MEGO never passed on Star Wars – it was
    snatched away.

    As 1/2 of EMCE Toys – the makers of the new mego-style toys – we hope one day to correct
    that mistake of history.

    “all was well, until they rejected, for unknow reasons, a license for a Star Wars line (that was dumb). From then on it was all downhill”

  • Jon the action figures buff

    I had no idea, and having read what I wrote I know it may sound a bit harsh and rude saying ” it was a bit dumb”. I'm sure anyone running a business is professional and smart enough to know how not to lose a good opportunity, I just didn't know the license was lost under those conditions.

    I think it's one of those what if moments that could have made things different nowadays. Who knows… I appreciate your insight on this one.

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  • chrispranger

    That's interesting to think that the birth of the manly action figure came as a direct result of Barbie's influence. It's also interesting how the cross-pollination between the US and Japan seemed to encourage growth in the industry at large. I suppose my question for you is whether you feel action figures should be collected in their cases or ripped from the box and played with 'til they break.

  • Jon the action figures buff

    I know how it sounds, Barbie the birth of the action figures? No way. However I think it played its role in the market and taught a thing or two to companies about creating needs, the same way one Japanese guy, a couple of decades ago, invented the Walkman, therefore inventing a need. Nobody asked for it, it just showed up in the market and people bought it.

    If you're a collector and you look at figures and statues as another form of investment then you probably would like to keep them in their boxes. Otherwise you can play with them, display them, I mean, you bought them, you should be doing whatever you feel you should be doing with them. I had a guy on one forum I'm in write that he used to play with his son with the G.I. Joe(s) he had. Others display them and show them to friends or just have them in a room, or get them into backgrounds for photo-shoots, there's plenty of ways people use them.

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  • stevekimballofde

    It was an honor of mine, when approached by Bruce Greenberg, author of several Lionel Train books, to write “Greenberg's Guide to Super Hero Toys” back in 1988. It was the very first action figure book of its ilg and continues to be a collector's item to this day, just because it was first! We covered, in color, all of the Captain Action series and were the very first to introduce the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (I still have the original “soft head” TMNT figures sent to me by Playmates™ during the reviewing process).

  • action figures

    Steve, thanks for posting, so you wrote the first action figure book… respect.

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