Imagination takes form: Collectible action figures prove popular through the decades

Collecting toys has gone through some dramatic changes, but the premise of collecting remains the same—holding onto something from childhood that brings a smile to your face every time you see it. Gone are the investment days of the 1990s. If you collect now, during a challenging economy and high gas prices, you’re doing it as a passion and not as a get-rich-quick scheme. And that’s what toys are all about, a piece of nostalgia that can grow into a fascination that fills rooms in houses and provides endless stories for relatives and visitors.

The 1960s

The production of action figures in the United States can be traced back to the nascent origins of Hasbro’s G.I. Joe, “America’s Moveable Fighting Man,” in early 1964. Hoping to build on the overwhelming success of Mattel’s Barbie doll (launched in 1959), Hasbro was approached by a designer who concocted the idea of crafting a foot-tall, fully articulated, military-themed toy soldier to American boys.

Hasbro loved the idea, and developed what would be called the G.I. Joe line, and thus the 11 1/2-inch toy was born. G.I. Joe was a huge hit for Hasbro, who labeled the toy an “action figure” in order to differentiate and dissociate it from Barbie and other female fashion dolls on the market, knowing full well that young boys would not play with dolls.

Due to the success of G.I. Joe, other companies entered into the action figure market. Realizing that poseable male action figures tapped into a heretofore-unknown aspect of a young boy’s imagination, A.C. Gilbert, Marx, and Ideal also forayed into the field. As a result, boys were treated to new action figures based on James Bond, Secret Agent (A.C. Gilbert, 1965), D.C. Comics and Marvel Comics super hero costumes for Captain Action (Ideal, 1966-68), and Western heroes and knights in Marx’s Best of the West (1965-75) and Noble Knights (1968) lines, respectively.

The 1970s

The ’70s saw action figure companies building on the strong foundation of the 1960’s. Clever designers and executives realized that licensing popular characters from motion pictures and television could lead to huge revenues. A leader in the push for the use of licensed toy properties is the now defunct but legendary Mego Corporation (1971-1983), a ’70s business juggernaut that captured a wealth of different film and TV licenses. An abbreviated list of Mego’s licenses reads like a summation of ’70s popular culture: C.H.I.P.S., Planet of the Apes, The Black Hole, Captain & Tennille, The Love Boat, Dukes of Hazzard, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, James Bond, KISS, and a wealth of others. Perhaps Mego’s most famous product was the company’s Official World’s Greatest Super Heroes (1972-1978), which are, to this day considered to be some of the most popular and desirable of all comic book action figures. Expect prices of Mint on Card and Mint in Box Mego figures (particularly the aforementioned super heroes) to be extraordinarily high.

Although Mego’s Micronauts (1976-1980) and Comic Action Heroes (1975-1978) were among the very first 3 3/4-inch action figures, Kenner’s stellar line of Star Wars figures, vehicles, creatures, and playsets took America by storm in 1977. Star Wars revolutionized play for a whole generation of American children with this new scale of action figures, and the franchise’s success spans three decades. 

With the triumph of the Star Wars line, toy manufacturers began looking at action figures in a new light, understanding the wealth of possibilities that could be explored in this new 3 3/4-inch format. What once was a shoebox full of 2-inch tall hard-plastic little green army men in the 1950s, in the 1970s became a colorful carrying case chock full of 4-inch tall, fully poseable, distinctly different characters with a slew of different weapons and accessories.

The 1980s

Although the 1970s ushered in a new format (and era) of action figure collecting, it wasn’t until the 1980s (and Ronald Reagan’s deregulation of children’s television) that licensed properties exploded into children’s toy rooms. The 1980s are considered by many collectors to be a renaissance for action figures, as Reagan’s deregulation allowed companies to provide children with—in essence—24-minute long animated toy commercials. These animated programs were so popular that they volleyed into syndication, some cable channels showing a block of toy cartoons for hours on end, every day of the week. As a result, the characters from these action figure lines of the ’80s permeated the American collective consciousness for an entire generation, and many toy lines that were born in the ’80s are still über popular to this day: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, Transformers, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Thundercats, Voltron, M.A.S.K., Dungeons & Dragons, The Real Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones, Robotech, She-Ra Princess of Power, the World Wrestling Federation, and those plucky Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Many casual fans don’t recognize what any conscientious collector of 1980s action figures knows: these ’80s toys are worth quite a bit of money in good condition, whether the toy is Mint Loose and Complete, or even better, Mint in Package (Mint in Box or Mint on Card). Of course, casual fans are well aware that “big” G.I. Joes (the 11 1/2-inch figures from 1964-1976) are worth a considerable amount of money, and that vintage Star Wars figures will command a good price at auction, but in recent years, even secondary and tertiary toy lines from the 1980s have caught steam (i.e. M.A.S.K., She-Ra Princess of Power, etc.).

The 1990s

With the introduction of many new super hero toy lines from novice toy maker Toy Biz (DC Super Heroes, Marvel Super Heroes, Batman, X-Men and Spider-Man), the 1990s started with a bang. Toy Biz would fizzle for a bit due to criticism of their poor sculpting, terrible action features, and inferior plastics, but the company would come back strong in the new millennium with their stunning Marvel Legends line (2002-present, with the license now owned by Hasbro).

New toy lines sprung up seemingly out of nowhere. Licensed properties were being utilized to the max, from the Aliens franchise to Austin Powers, from Playmate’s Star Trek: The Next Generation (among their many other Star Trek offerings) to Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas.

A few toy lines truly stand out from this decade. Todd MacFarlane’s line of expertly crafted Spawn (1994-present) action figures based on his No. 1 selling Image comic book, and Playmate’s revolutionary Simpsons (1999-2004) line of figures and playsets dominated toy shelves. With the vast amount of different product offered, it seemed that collectors couldn’t get enough of the wide variety. Unfortunately, the secondary market prices of many of these ’90s toys have declined. The action figure market, however, is based on the value of popular lines increasing across the board on the secondary market after eight to fifteen years have passed.  Hopefully, by 2010, we’ll see some modest price increases.

However, one action figure line from the 1990s that has heated up the secondary market recently is the (Mighty Morphin) Power Rangers by Bandai (1993-present). The first few years of Power Ranger toys, vehicles, accessories, and role-play devices have garnered quite a bit of attention from collectors surfing online auction sites and visiting collectible shops. High-grade samples sell very briskly. Keep your eye on Transformers: Beast Wars (1996-1999), and Hasbro’s and Jakks Pacific’s WWF/WWE figures (1990-1994, and 1997-present, respectively), as these have recently piqued collector interest.

Toys & Prices 2009
Toys & Prices 2009
Toys & Prices 2009, 16th Edition
By Tom Bartsch,
Contributing Editor    
Your price: $16.49

The 2000s

The new millennium produced many advances in action figure production: improved articulation (Star Wars, G.I. Joe), better paint applications and sculpting (McFarlane Toys), and even “Real Scan Technology” (World Wrestling Entertainment).  “Real Scan Technology” (pioneered by Jakks Pacific) allowed an actual human face to be scanned and grafted into the mold of an action figure. Only time will tell which of the many toy lines of the new millennium will be prized as collectibles, determined by supply-and-demand and the desire of passionate aficionados who control the secondary market.

2009 Trends

As always, there will be premiere pieces in the action figure world that attract the most attention by collectors: Mego’s Official World’s Greatest Super-Heroes’ Secret Identity Outfits, Ideal’s Super Queens, Captain Action outfits (Spider-Man, the Green Hornet, etc.), and vintage Star Wars figures will always be incredibly valuable, but many toy lines from the 1980s—even secondary or tertiary lines such as She-Ra and M.A.S.K.—are commanding premium prices as collectors finish other more common lines as G.I. Joe and Star Wars. Also, watch out for the attention that major motion pictures give action figure lines, notable films such as G.I. Joe, Transformers II: Rise of the Fallen, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and even the proposed Voltron and He-Man movies. The premiere pieces in these lines—usually the priciest toys—will consistently increase in value over time.