Rudy Panucci On Pop Culture

The PopCult Toybox: Are we entering dark days for action figures?

GI Joe, the first action figure

It shouldn’t come as any shock to longtime readers of PopCult that I am a toy collector, concentrating mostly on action figures. I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment out of my hobby over the years. Part of the appeal is recapturing my childhood, only with an adult’s budget, and part of it is simply a life-long fondness for the toys and an appreciation of the work that goes into them.

However, I fear for the future of my hobby. I don’t think action figures will ever go away completely, but I can see warning signs that the action figure as we know it might be evolving from a toy for kids into a collectible for adults. This sort of thing happened to comic books, and I have a bad feeling that it might be happening again. This could just be part of the boom/bust cycle of childbirth playing havoc with the toy industry, but it shows signs of being a more permanent shift.

I suppose we should start with a little history. The first modern action figure was GI Joe, introduced 49 years ago. This product was conceived as a sort of Barbie for boys, with the idea that boys would get one figure, then spend tons of money outfitting him with all sort of cool military gear, sold separately, of course. This “razor and blades” concept was how Hasbro managed to convince retailers to take a chance on what was essentially a fashion doll for boys.

Q: Are we not dolls? A: We are ACTION FIGURES!

Barbie had turned the concept of dolls for girls on its head five years earlier, taking dolls from the world of baby dolls into what was essentially a paper doll in three dimensions. GI Joe similarly revolutionized the boys toys segment of the toy industry by evolving the idea of toy soldiers into a more dynamic set of play patterns.

From humble beginnings…Luke Skywalker in action figure form.

While GI Joe faded as the dominant action figure by the mid-1970s, his place was taken by licensed action figures like the MEGO superheroes, Kenner’s Six Million Dollar Man and eventually Star Wars. As oil prices rose and toy companies looked for ways to cut costs, the size of the figures shrank, and at different times action figures ranging in size from 3 3/4″ to a foot tall ranked among the top-selling action figures.

Star Wars was the game-changer. For one thing, it showed what a cash-cow licensing a phenomon like a beloved movie can be, and it also showed that smaller figures could sell just as well, if not better than the GI Joe-sized figures of the previous decade. After Star Wars, almost every major action figure was tied into a movie or TV show. When GI Joe returned from five-years of dormancy, it was as a 3 3/4″ action figure with a TV cartoon and comic book to bolster visibility.

They sold millions of these things back in the day.

However, over the last decade there have been way more action figures that flopped, even with movie or TV tie-ins, than have succeeded. Action figure sales are about half what they were fifteen years ago, at the hobby’s peak.

It’s not just action figures based on movie flops that have failed at retail. Figure sales based on the recent spate of hit Marvel Comics movies are stagnant. Retailers are turning away any product based on Marvel heroes (except for Spider-man) until they can dump their excess inventory. You can still walk into the toy sections of major retailers and find action figures based on movies that are two or three years old. Hasbro blamed poor sales of their Avengers action figures on the fact that shelves were still packed with figures based on the movies, Thor, Captain America and Iron Man 2.

This is a Skylander figure

After watching how my nephews play with toys, I have a bad feeling that recent generations of kids aren’t going to have much of an attraction to action figures at all. The only successful action figure launch in the last five years has been Skylanders.

If you’re not familiar, Skylanders is a video game where action figures come with codes that allow them to interact with the on-screen action. It’s a concept that had been pitched by many people to the major toy companies for years. They didn’t listen. Hasbro repeatedly turned down ideas that would combine GI Joe with a first-person-shooter video game that would interact with action figures in exactly the way Skylanders figures do.

The nephews, playing with their toys

When I first laid my eyes on an iPad, I said, “This is a great toy.” People thought I was putting the product down (I sort of have a history of looking dimly at Apple products), but that was not meant as an insult. I immediately saw the appeal to kids.

Recently when I babysat two of my nephews, one seven years old and one two years old, I was struck by how they were glued to their touch screen devices. The seven-year-old explained iPad Minecraft to me while the two-year-old watched Elmo videos on YouTube. They weren’t really interested in action figures at all unless they were Skylanders.

Sadly, when Hasbro tried to cash in on the iPad craze, the best they could come up with were classic board games like Monopoly and Life, where you use your iPad to take the place of dice or the spinner. Activision came up with Skylanders, and rather than farm out production of the figures to Hasbro or Mattel, they just made and distributed them by themselves. Skylanders has been the top-selling action figure line by far for the last two years.

All the kids want to play with Lemmy, from Motorhead!

The idea of action figures becoming adjuncts to video games does not give me cause to worry. What bothers me is that it seems like toy companies are abandoning children in favor of an adult audience. You’d be amazed at how many action figures don’t even pretend to have any appeal to kids.

This has been going on for a couple of decades now. Rabid collectors aged into adulthood and by the 1990s nostalgia was driving a pretty good chunk of the action figure market. Toy companies reissued and revived their classic action figures. The 12″ GI Joe made a major comeback and had a run that lasted as long as his original incarnation.

The Kurt Cobain action figure…shotgun sold separately. Note: does NOT smell like teen spirit.

Smaller companies popped up and created new figures aimed at the aging comic book collector audience. The major companies even dabbled in adult collectibles. While this has caused a lot of really wonderful action figures to be made, it’s also driven the retail cost of figures up and it’s shifted the target audience to an older crowd.

When I was growing up, comic books were ubiquitous. Every kid read comics. Now the average comic book reader is a male in his late 30s. Very few kids actually get the chance to read comic books. Most that do are the children of comic book collectors. The hobby is a fraction of its former size. The entire industry sells fewer comic books in a year than the also-ran companies sold in a month back in the late 1960s. The price of comics has shot up faster than the rate of inflation to make up for smaller print runs/.

The Hot Toys Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd action figure, complete with scale blades and a working barber chair. Retail price, $299.99.

Action figures look poised to follow a similar path. There is no shortage of deluxe action figures that sell for over a hundred dollars. Some of the ultra-fancy figures from Japan top out at over three hundred dollars. Smaller, less-articulated figures still rarely sell for less than sixteen dollars these days. Even the Marvel-based figures aimed at kids sell for more than ten bucks for a 3 3/4″ figure.

At these prices, kids aren’t going to want to drop their allowance money on a figure that can’t even interact with a video game. If kids don’t grow up playing with action figures, they will never have any nostalgia for them.

This is what happened with comic books. Over the course of a couple of generations we went from having millions of comic book readers to having thousands. Current estimates are that there are around a quarter million die-hard comic book fans in the country. The industry is so desperate that they will throw 50-year-old readers under the bus so that they can pursue the 30-year-olds.

And the thirty-year-olds are the folks who got into comics reading early Image comics, which is why the current trend in comics is incomprehensible stories with awful dialogue and intricately-colored bad artwork.

The toy collector from Toy Story 2. Is this the future of our hobby? Well, to be honest, it’s pretty much our present, but it could still get worse.

This sort of shift is beginning to be mirrored with action figures. Hasbro has given up on 12″ GI Joe collectors, feeling that their nostalgia is no longer commercially viable. We are now seeing revivals of the action figure lines of the 1980s.

A walk down the action figure aisle these days shows a dearth of new, kid-friendly ideas, save for Skylanders. Everything else is some kind of licensed toy or a revival like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

This could all change with a baby boom, which couldn’t come soon enough after eleven years of declining birthrates, but we may be looking at a future where action figures will no longer be intended as toys for kids.

And if that’s the case, a little magic will be gone from the world. There’s nothing like the memories that a favorite toy can bring to a person’s life. I don’t know if an iPad will have that same kind of appeal.

 

4 Comments

  1. Iggy

    Your well considered post deserves a lot of respect and attention, despite your looking dimly on Apple products, you heretic ;P

    You nail it: lots of hobbies are fading as mobile technology and the attendant apps replace “make up your own story” toys.

    That was the magic: kids with GI Joes in the backlot, negotiating who would be the Japanese and who would be the US Marine Corps at Iwo Jima. Building a Monogram B-25 and running around with it, pretending to be Doolittle on the Tokyo raid. Riding our Sting-Rays to explore neighborhoods we were not supposed to visit. Or, with just a basketball on no parents present, playing a pick-up game.

    This is more than nostalgia. It’s a sapping of the creative play that builds strong and supple imaginations (academic reference: Lev Vygotsky’s studies of how kids play).

    It’s a Dark Age for imagination and creative play, not just for action figures. We’ve created a perfect storm: “forced fun” of kids’ sports leagues and fanatical parents, relentless self-improvement and grooming of the college-bound kids I teach, and all those electronics waiting to supply a story with only limited chances for outcomes (Mass Effect 3’s multiple endings are still scripted by the company, not kids).

    GI Joe helped me want to learn about WW II and then, in the 70s when he became a Post-Vietnam adventurer, about environmental issues.

  2. Mark Otnes

    What a great article! So well written! And sadly, it’s true. Fewer kids actually seem to “play” now, using their own imaginations to create and act out. Most appear content to simply sit and stare at a device. Kind of like the people in that ship in the movie, Wall-E. All of our action figures, props and dioramas just seem “quaint” and uninteresting to them. As you said, they will NOT grow up having nostalgia for them. And sadly, that will be that.

  3. Robert

    I enjoyed your informative article I do think small companies like Soldiers Story, Hot Toys and others have the right idea in doing small production runs of 1000 to 1500 runs of highly detailed 1/6 figures. Even though prices range from $125 to $300 you get a very detailed quality figure which I do not have no problem paying. I noticed w/these companies they do a preorder so they get an idea before hand how many they will sell.
    I do agree strongly mass produced action figures will soon be a thing of the past in a generation or 2 and true prices are getting higher but the molded action figures are far more articulated and detailed then when I was a kid w/the exception of Hasbro mass produced 12 inch figures these to me have the feel they are put together for a quick buck.

  4. Dan

    The model for boys’ play is definitely changing. Non-digital manipulatives are on the way out. I’m sad, but not surprised. Digital is just too seductive. It does all the imagining for us. Much of Skyrim is repetitive, brain dead actions. They call it an RPG and it might look like a fantasy game, but it’s really still lightyears from Dungeons and Dragons (which activated the most imagination I’ve ever seen in a passtime).

    I also see no passion for collecting, which is connected to toys and comics. There’s just no need anymore to hoard one’s sources of entertainment anymore. Forgot what happened in issue #37? You don’t need to dig out your old copy and reread it, just “Google” it and someone will tell you in seconds. I remember collecting the packaging of Star Wars toys just because I knew I’d want to see it again. The internet has erased that need. I just need to do an image search and I’ll get to see it all as often as I like. So my point is, this generation is functioning under an entirely new paradigm. Our needs and goals are not the same at all.

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