Q&A: Best Figures, Star Wars and Smoke, and New Sneak Preview Toys

By Adam Pawlus — Sunday, July 5, 2015

1. This time my question deals with 3.75 inch Star Wars action figures smelling of smoke. I recently acquired a group of 14 figures that reek of smoke. I imagine you might have dealt with this before and wondered if you had the "perfect" remedy for permanently removing even the most nastiest of smoke smell.

While I generally advocate doing your best not to buy these figures, or to complain to the seller for not having informed you about such a defect, sometimes you can't do a thing about it. I'm an advocate for not smoking mostly because a) jerks throw their butts in my lawn rocks, and b) anything that takes money away from my toy habit is bad. I'm less Mr. Virtue than Mr. This Tastes Bad and I Can Spend This On Robots and/or Big Black records.

I do, at times, buy figures online with various foul smells. Rarely does any smell last more than a few months, but the interim can be unpleasant. Allowing the figure to air out in an open space (out of the sun, for crying out loud) is most important but I've heard of another alternative that I haven't tried myself yet. Many have spoke the praises of an empty canister, a toy, and a couple of charcoal briquettes serving to help leech out the smoke or other foul smells. I've also heard similar things with baking soda, but more people seem to be pro-charcoal.

My various gnarly smelling figures - with odors I can't place - tend to smell better with time. I bought a Masters of the Universe Classics Man-At-Arms that had an utterly horrible stench I couldn't quite place. He's sat on my fireplace since buying him a few years ago and as of tonight, he's not so bad. I picked up some old vinyl toys and after I cleaned them up with a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser (and aired them out on top of a bookcase for a few weeks) the smoke smell is almost completely gone. I can still detect traces of the odor, but it's greatly diminished - it's not recognizable as I walk by.

I should note, so far I've never had to deal with Star Wars figures in my own collection that smelled bad. I had worked in an establishment which had purchased a smokey collection in the 1990s and how we dealt with that is offering a much lower price to the seller - after all, you can't sell a toy what smells of ash any more than you can't trust a man what's made of gas.



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2. Hey, Adam! Am I correct in saying that 2015 will be the first time since before 1977/78 that Hasbro(and previously Kenner) isn't releasing a sneak preview action figure for a new Star Wars film? I guess you can count the SDCC First Order Stormtrooper to be one, but I personally don't. Thanks!...

We have had Sneak Preview figures in some capacity for every movie save the first, and also The Clone Wars TV show via a mail-away Captain Rex. Attack of the Clones was the first movie to not have a mail-in offer leading up to the film (or after it, if you'll recall the non-use of the Jedi Master Points) and Revenge of the Sith followed AOTC's lead with a "sneak preview wave." Personally, I think that's the way to go. You may not know this, but mail-in offers serve a strong marketing purpose. It's not just getting a new figure in your hands, but the goal is to use it as a stealthy way to convince kids to buy toys they don't want. Usually this is disguised well with a big selection of figures and relatively lax requirements. After all, all Kenner asked from you was a handful of cardboard proofs of purchase in an envelope, and with time they asked a few dollars for shipping and eventually that creeped up to enough money to pay for the figure's full wholesale price.

Mattel, on the other hand, has offers that are downright draconian. There was a mail-in Moss Man figure for Masters of the Universe in the early 2000s which required you buy 3 figures from one store on a single transaction so you could send in the same receipt along with 3 cut-out UPCs and five dollars. At the time, almost every store was down to variants of He-Man or maybe Skeletor - figures collectors not only already had, but didn't want more of. Similar deals exist today for Hot Wheels, requiring the purchase of numerous figures plus a cash amount higher than the cost of a car to pay for a single premium vehicle. So while you may say that the SDCC preview Stormtrooper doesn't count, I'd say it at the very least benefits greatly from not being less painful to the consumer - even if it is playing hard-to-get. After all, we do expect the toy to be repacked in the main line in a new box, precisely like the mail-ins of 1978-1984.

In this case, the Stormtrooper also serves a marketing purpose - it's drawing attention to an event where, we expect, the world will finally get a glimpse at the surprisingly well-disguised product line. Granted with the huge number of official reveals thus far, the secrecy surrounding Hasbro's action figures imposed by (we assume) Disney is not only draconian, but quite silly. We know about Han, Chewie, Kylo Ren, and many others - so why not take advantage with timed reveals to make fans go berserk every couple of weeks, instead of dropping the entire announcement at a convention where it could get lost among other announcements?




3. What is your favorite modern (1995 to now) Star Wars figure (3 3/4")? If you had to pick just ONE, which would it be? Not the measured and determined best one, not the one that is most important for some historical reason, but you're personal favorite from the past 20 years. And don't forget to tell us why.

This is what we call "filler."

Because of the fact that collectors have imposed their will over the line in ways that, I would argue, aren't necessarily productive the brand as a whole has been injured. In the last year we've seen Rebels figures either underproduced or overdemanded, and because of Hasbro's secretive numbers we won't know which. Collectors and kids will buy those, while The Black Series 3 3/4-inch line has received (arguably) slightly better distribution with better availability with slightly less interest in terms of flying off the shelves. I get more letters about the non-availability of Saga Legends and Mission Seires than Black Series - which means that kids are being left out. Which means we may not have a growing pool of buyers, which we actually very much do need.

Action figures for many are not unlike trading cards - it's a souvenir of a thing they enjoy. Hasbro has on occasion included interesting play features in Star Wars, but generally not for very long. Large feature-based lines in 2002-2003, 2005, 2008, and a little bit in 2012-2013 are about it. These things tended to test well and sell well too - "action" is an important part of "action feature," especially if you sell a kid a figure that is too wide or bulky to fit in a vehicle. It has to do something. And let's be honest - if articulation was the most important thing, LEGO figures would probably be revised to have more articulation by now and Hasbro's G.I. Joe line wouldn't be on hiatus. LEGO toys remain wildly successful despite being largely identical to what we had for over 30 years.

For this reason, I'm instead going to give you my recommendation to buy not as a collector, but as a toy fanatic and armchair toymaker. The 2002 #02-01 Anakin Skywalker Outland Peasant Disguise is an ugly figure, but an important one. Hasbro rarely reinvents the wheel, and when they try sometimes they come up short. This is one that both reaches for the stars and fails to get off the ground. It has an awkward pose and two notable action features. One, the first modern-era return of the "lightsaber lever" we had in the 1970s and 1980s - you can slide the weapon out of his arm. This is in and of itself only mildly interesting, but the figure also makes really good use of magnets and accessories in a way that Hasbro and as far as I know no other company has replicated before or since. His left palm has a magnet which can be used to Force-grab a blaster, which, again, is not necessarily magical What is magical is how it interacts with a crate accessory - it's locked by a magnet. The only way to open it is to wave his hand across the lock, as if he were using the Force, and it magically swings open so you can grab whatever you keep inside.

I've got thousands of action features, and things like knee joints and fancy ankles are absolutely nice to have. This particular Anakin outfit was remade as a better figure in the "Vintage" line, and as looks go it is superior - no questions. However, the ability to bring movie magic to toys - without electronics, to boot - is a challenge that is tough to pull off. Other figures in this line included magnets for grabbing droids, guns, and lightsabers but none of them used the Force in a magical way quite like this one. The closest use of this feature we ever saw was in the 2002 Playskool line in which Luke could use the Force to make the Wampa's eyes go back in its head. It's clever, but nowhere near as fascinating an interaction as Anakin unlocking a crate.

If I could put one figure on every designer's desk at Hasbro, this would be it. I've got a lot of shelves with a lot of figures on them, but what I really want are reasons to pick up the figure and take it off the shelf (beyond weak ankles causing them to fall down). Things like Anakin give us all an opportunity to see what could be in this or other lines, as figures can be used to unlock a door or activate a switch with their presence and no electronics or electricity required. There's a lot of potential in this idea, even if we're 13 years beyond it being viable as costs go.

I won't say that I know what's coming. (...or that I don't.) But I will say that as much as I love the 6-inch figures in their current incarnation, their fate is to stand around and look good on a shelf. They aren't fun. I like them but they do nothing. My Transformers do things. What I would love to see is a generation of kids enamored with action figures. Perhaps it will be a Skylanders-like integration with real Hasbro action figures into a real (read: not a shovelware iOS app, not Android, and certainly not Playmation) video game. Maybe there is something to be said with magnets or something to bring, as the genre is now called, toys to life in some meaningful way. This is what gets me to perk up these days. I've got over 50 different Darth Vader figures. Adding a second set of knee joints does me no good whatsoever. But a mechanism that uses magnets to "Force choke" Admiral Motti? OK, now I'm interested.

...PS - Anakin #0201 is also totally worthless - about three to five dollars. If you have three dollars to spend, I strongly suggest using it to try this figure. Even if you utterly hate the sculpt, the mechanism will provide you with at least as much fun as you get from your average Happy Meal premium. It might get you thinking, and as one of the big features of toys is to inspire your imagination I assume that this could do wonders if people really played around with what you can make your toys do rather than how you can pose them.




And that may be all I have to say for this generation of toys. Well, not really - but come this week the pages of history will probably turn to the next chapter as the first new movie in a decade gets new movie toys. Expectations for the franchise - which was dwindling in box office take in 2002 (and especially 2008) - are through the roof, which may be bad for us all in the long run. We're in an era where a $100 million opening can be a failure, even is (and especially if) the truth is we may be getting new stories and films because of the incredibly lucrative licensing revenues. In short, people are counting on this new 2-hour toy commercial to be a big success.

When it came to The Phantom Menace, I wrote quite a bit about how that movie's success was almost irrelevant to the industry it concocted. The announcement of that film was not unlike the surge of mathematical ignorance one gets from buying a lottery ticket. A quick shot of hope gives way to how you're going to spend all that money - or in this case, how you'll love this movie for which you just bought $900 worth of toys. It's hope, it's faith, it's relentless optimism and the licensing business and marketing are more important than the anti-climax of the film itself. The film's success may be ultimately inconsequential if LEGO sells enough bricks, if Hasbro sells enough lightsabers, and Disney Infinity goes beyond.

Unlike Terminator, with its agreeable quasi-reboots every few years, Star Wars is trying its best to capture a level of imagination that the film market of 2015 may not be able to market. In 1977, the best things entertainment had to offer included Donny & Marie, Abba, Smokey and the Bandit, and the Atari VCS. Not only are those things quaint today, but technology has allowed you to make better things at home and distribute them wirelessly worldwide at minimal cost to you. As someone who was here and excitable during the 1984-1998 window, allow me to say to those of you who maybe weren't caught up in the wait for a new movie before: settle down. It'll be pretty good. But it won't and can't change your worldview, because you already saw Star Wars and you cant see it again for the first time. (Or, depending on your age, perhaps it was The Matrix or Terminator 2 or Avatar.)

When looking back on (as of this month) nearly 20 years worth of modern era toys, some of them mean more than others. With long lightsabers, you had to be there. With split-down-the-body droids with launching torpedoes, there's little else like them. And when it comes to the 1999 line of The Phantom Menace toys, many were retooled and improved rather quickly - they had no time to breathe, to be played with, to be the center of anyone's imagination. We live in an era without pack-in catalogs and Hasbro has quietly and slowly eradicated the back-of-the-package upsell on most of its action toy products. Marketing has lost some of its ubiquitous edge, and in its attempt to control all avenues of the action toy market Hasbro has completely snuffed out elements of toy marketing that caused some of us to go into collecting in the first place. If I didn't have the little booklet showing me what I once thought was the end of the line with Wicket, Teebo, Paploo, and Lumat I might not have been tempted to collect the other dozens of figures - or to later discover The Power of the Force collection and its similarly named 1995 relaunch.

Capturing our attention spans is not impossible, and I hope we see Hasbro put a little more effort into its brand and marketing it to the consumer. If not, the December release could be blown away like a tumbleweed after the Christmas clearance, disappearing as Hasbro markets "Avengers 2.5" toys under its Captain America: Civil War banner. Back when the 1980s toy brands were in vogue it was ideal to keep a toy in circulation for two years before discontinuing it. Today, entire lines come and go in mere months with little support past DVD release... and DVDs themselves largely becoming something of a dodo, too.

But that's not why we're here. We're here - and the business know we're here - because time forges ahead and our memory gets a little hazier each year. A Vaseline-smudge on the lens of our memory keeps us coming back to things like Star Wars, because what we know in our hearts - how great it is - may be invulnerable against new movies and comics which may or may not agree with that assessment. We're here because people are selling us little pieces of our youth, physical memories, often wrapped with a pill of obsessed completism. Generally speaking there is temporary relief from the reality that is collecting, or your job, or that rotten day you had when you pick up a new C-3PO figure who's going to have a new, differently colored arm. But he's your friend, you've known him for years, and he's coming by for another visit. Time is rarely kind, but the time we get to spend together - and it gets more and more fleeting as we go - that's really why we're all still here, isn't it?

--Adam Pawlus

Got questions? Email me with Q&A in the subject line now! I'll answer your questions as soon as time (or facts) permit.



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