The PopCult Toybox
Longtime readers of PopCult know that I am a collector of toys, primarily action figures and predominantly action figures that are twelve inches tall (roughly), like the original GI Joe, Marx’s Johnny West and Captain Action. For years I’ve been predicting a mass-market resurgence of this scale (1/6) of action figure, even with evidence of the decline of action figures as a toy for kids over-all.
Before we get into this, let me vent a little: There are “experts” in the collecting world who insist on calling 12″ figures “dolls.” They usually have some arbitrary, self-serving definition, like “anything over eight inches tall is a doll” or “any figure with removable clothing is a doll, not an action figure.” These people are either willfully or woefully ignorant, and their opinions are not to be taken seriously.
The fact is, all action figures are dolls. They are “dolls for boys.” The term was invented to get away from the stigma of the word “doll” as a girl’s toy, so that toy companies could sell figural representations of the human form to parents as an appropriate plaything for their boys.
“Action Figure” was coined by Hasbro to make GI Joe more palatable to parents than simply “Barbie for boys” (Which, to be fair, it basically was). Any doll made for a boy is an action figure. Got it? Now, in our increasingly gender-neutral times, they are making action figures for girls. Those should be called “action figures.” As a simple sign of respect, you should call it whatever the person to whom it is important wants to call it. Now that we have the terminology settled, let’s talk about size.
Action figures have been made in a variety of sizes for decades now. Those size preferences tend to go through cycles. The 12″ size, exemplified by GI Joe, was dominant for much of the 1960s and into the 1970s. The success of MEGO in the mid-1970s produced a flood of eight-inch tall action figures. When Kenner’s Star Wars toys (that’s one to the left) finally made it to stores in 1978, the die was cast for 3 3/4″ figures to rule for most of the next decade.
It’s not a hard and fast rule. Most of the time there are multiple sizes and scales of action figures spread across the action figure aisles at toy stores. Since the late 1980s, several different scales have co-existed at the same time, but there always seems to be at least one dominant scale.
In the early 1990s, after most people thought that 12″ action figures would never return due to the cost of producing a figure that big, Hasbro turned a one-off fluke, a commemorative 12″ figure of one of the new smaller-scale GI Joes, Duke, into a successful line called “GI Joe Hall of Fame.”
The actual figure (seen right) was crap. He was barely-posable and didn’t stand on his own very well. However, the high quality of the uniforms and headsculpts combined with the return of a fondly-remembered size clicked with the public who demanded more, and before long Hasbro was looking at improving the body and relaunching the line. This coincided with the decline of the Real American Hero GI Joe line, which after 12 mostly successful years, was reaching a point of diminishing returns.
Other toy companies noticed the success of Hasbro’s GI Joe Hall of Fame line. In-Time Productions, a Chinese company, started selling barely-articulated 12″ figures under the name “Rapid Deployment Force” in department stores in the US. Hasbro expanded their offerings with a slightly-improved body design as GI Joe’s 30th Anniversary figures in 1994, and Action Man, a year later.
In 1996 Hasbro, under their Kenner division, introduced the GI Joe Classic Collection (seen left), with a vastly-improved body design, and–this is important– no connection to the Real American Hero concept. The Hall of Fame line consisted of scaled-up versions of the popular individual characters from the small-scale GI Joe universe that was used to revive the name in 1981. The Classic Collection took GI Joe back to his “everyman” roots as a military action figure with no set storyline.
The Classic Collection was a huge success for Hasbro for about four years. 21st Century Toys jumped into the fray with their own “Utimate Soldier” line of uniforms, vehicles, and eventually figures, created in the same scale.
Blue Box International inflitrated some mainstream retailers and In-Time Productions mutated into Formative International, who took their low-budget “Soldiers of the World” line from being a cheap knock-off in the beginning, to becoming a state-of-the-art action figure and uniform line just before they got out of the business. Another company, selling their figures under the “Power Team” and “World Peacekeepers” brands, also progressed from making knockoffs of GI Joe to selling super-articulated, detailed figures.
The period of 1996 to around 2002 was a new golden age for large-scale action figure collectors. High-end collector’s figures began to be introduced as companies like Dragon Models. Sideshow Toys and Hot toys got into the 12″ market, and today we have several companies that produce high-end, ultra-detailed 1/6 scale figures ranging from $150 to $400 dollars, in limited quantities.
But in the mainstream market, the tides turned and, once again, 12″ action figures fell out of favor. The resurgence of Star Wars toys meant a resurgence of 3 3/4″ action figures. Marvel and DC made the 6-inch size popular while other companies worked in a variety of different scales. For the most part, 12″ action figures (with the exception of the annual appearance of the World Peacekeepers line at Big Lots around Christmas) were missing from mass-market retail shelves. Hasbro made a few attempt to place GI Joe product on shelves, but after the failure of the GI Joe 40th Anniversary line 2004, retailers were not interested.
Adult collectors were still well-served by the high-end collector’s market, but mass-market shelves were, for the most part, dedicated to smaller scale action figures. Hobbyists on a budget found themselves under-served, and turned to other means to get their 1/6 scale “fix.” Luckily there was so much product floating around from the late 1990s heyday, that many collectors found themselves able to snap up great items at a fraction of its original cost. Still, it wasn’t the same as walking into Toys R Us and perusing the fabled “Green Aisle.”
Three years ago this all changed again. Hasbro introduced a new line of 12″ figures, produced on the cheap with limited articulation. They released Marvel and Star Wars figures, and collectors (and your PopCulteer) thought they were garbage and mocked them as a bad idea. We were particularly snarky and felt they were destined for failure. To the right you see one of the first Titan figures, a figure I dubbed “Depressed Iron Man.”
However, kids and parents loved these figures. They were priced low, were big, brightly-colored and easy to carry around, and the lack of easily-breakable joints and accessories made them easy to keep track of. Despite the conventional wisdom of collectors (and your PopCulteer), these toys, particularly the Marvel Titan Series, became THE big success story in action figures over the last three years.
In short order, Bandai released a low-articulation line of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Mattel jumped into the fray, first with a series of WWE action figures, then later with a line of DC Comics figures. Blue Box International even resurfaced after an absence of many years with a line of “Wild Adventure” sportsman figures, which can be found now at Cabelas.
For all those years that I’ve been saying that we can expect a resurgence of 12″ action figures any year now– as kids who grew up in the 1990s reach the age where their nostalgia will combine with new purchasing power and the need to choose toys for their own children– I did not realize that the cycle was already in place.
These crappy Marvel Titan figures and their many imitators are serving the same purpose as the GI Joe Hall of Fame line did. They are showing that 12″ figures can once again find a spot on mass-market retail shelves. Recently Hasbro began releasing a series of upgraded 12″ figures at higher price-points with better articulation and more detail. More toy companies are getting into the 1/6 scale action figure business.
Hasbro has licensed Action Man to a new company in the UK, and the first Action Man 50th Anniversary figures will be available in the US soon from Cotswold Collectibles. Mattel is releasing 12″ HALO figures, some of which have impressive articulation.
We could very well be at the beginning of the next cycle of 12″ action figures dominating the mass-market shelves again. And that’s going to be fun to watch.
PopCult Note: With this post, The PopCult Toybox will return on a mostly-weekly basis. Thanks for being patient while we took time off to deal with medical stuff and the launch of The AIR.