Q&A: Big Figures, Big Articulation, and Old Figures from Gear to Eternity

By Adam Pawlus — Sunday, August 11, 2013


1. Why the "feast or famine" approach to articulation? While I love, for example, Darth Vader VC #93, I don't see why Hasbro has to go all the way back to 5 POA to get reasonably-priced Darth Vader figures regularly into stores and widely available. I loved and also collected GI Joe from 1982-1987. Did you collect ARAH? Why can't "swivel arm" battle grip style be a "compromise" between modern fan expectations and Kenner-esque figures? Is there no in-between?

(I don't mind 5 POA, for the record)

Depending on who you ask (and when) you'll probably hear something different. The most frequent thing I hear from multiple companies is that children are not concerned about excess articulation - however when I was a kid, under 10, I remember lots of people saying how much they preferred G.I. Joe because they had knees, elbows, and other moving parts. (For the record, as a kid, I was more concerned with characters than execution. I wanted Luke more than Duke, period.)

There's certainly a round of diminishing returns in the middle, because really, what is in the middle? We've seen the line evolve from 5 joints in 1978-1985 to 6 joints in 1995 to roughly 10 joints (on some figures) in 1999 which progressed steadily to as many as 14 joints in 2003. And during that time - I was writing this column at Rebelscum and Yakface around then - people would not stop complaining until 14 joints became "normal." What would "the in-between" even be? Knees, but no elbows? Elbows and knees, but no ankles or wrists? Depending on where the point of motion goes, stability is effected and you may need one kind of joint to compensate for the other. 5-jointed figures stand well (with exceptions) but I remember a few figures with ankles (and no knees) or knees (and no ankles) that tended to topple over more.

We have had a few stopgap Darth Vaders over the years - the 1998 Removable Helmet version is a personal favorite, with 8 joints and a great sculpt. The first "authentic" Star Wars Darth Vader in 1999 had a then-whopping 10 joints, but I don't necessarily know that I would consider it a success - it was just another figure on the pile, even if it was an improvement in terms of pieces that move.

As the saying goes "form follows function," and the question I'd like to throw back at you is what exactly do we want from our figures? I ask people this but nobody seems to want to discuss it. Is it more important that your figure stand upright, or that it be able to assume literally any pose you can think of? Is it more important that it look good packaged, or that it does something fun once you open it? An action figure has to have a purpose beyond merely being an object you pay for and curate, be it in your home or a storage space that you also pay for. Is it merely a symbol, or a plaything, or what? Why is it there? What does it need to do for you? Why are you buying more of them?

With Mattel's Green Lantern movie line, we saw an interesting split in how toys were marketed and I think it was the right direction. While it underperformed, it did show the evidence of thought as to which toys were for which audience. For the adult collector, you had higher-end $13-$15 6-inch action figures loaded with detail and articulation. For the kid, you had a lightly-articulated 3 3/4-inch action figure at a lower price point - around $7-$9, I believe it was. Not all customers are created equal - the cheaper toy for kids may be a disposable plaything, an object a parent buys to simply get the kid to be happy for a few hours.

The adult collector always demands improvement - in my (as of August 1) 18 years of writing about this hobby on the internet for you folks, I don't believe I've ever seen anything released without a string of complaints - so it makes sense that you may not want a "one size fits all" approach, which is what we got for Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Significant portions of both lines were designed with action features which collectors (read: people that found my my email address) often found objectionable. Me, I was endlessly delighted by features like magnets and a big burst on the box that reads "Wookiee Rage!"

For years, Hasbro treated the evolution of 3 3/4-inch as its own separate entity - since 1995 it seemed there would always be a line of numerous characters that would suit the needs of everybody, and I actually quite liked that. If I didn't like a Luke figure, it was a safe bet it would get redesigned later. Today, though, we're seeing Hasbro experimenting and the real question here is just how that will change things for future TV and movie lines. Cheap $6 figures, cheaper $11 2-packs, almost comically expensive $11 single Black Series figures, and rather stunning 6-inch figures at $20 are all competing for the kind of audience that bought The Power of the Force (POTF2) line back in 1995. There's no way everything will survive without changes - seeing how kids, collectors, and returning fans react could result in all sorts of changes and it's entirely possible that the 3 3/4-inch format is not done evolving. For the first time ever, the 6-inch Black Series Sandtrooper brings the swivel arm to Star Wars. Clearly, someone over there is asking just what we should all be expecting from our future toy purchases now.



2. Why does Hasbro (of late) ignore or under serve the concerns of OT fans? Or am I over-reacting? Being too biased (yes)? I have no problems with lots and lots of product variety for fans of all ages and preferences, but I feel (aside from *some* but not all Vintage moves since 2010) that those who love Kenner-era characters / OT figures don't get a lot to buy from the company.

**I know Kenner only put out 12 figures in 1978, 17 in 1983, and 15 (17 new cards) during their original contract years, but of late it seems as if OT at retail will never happen in quantity again . . .

It both frustrates and disappoints me that fan members (LocalGotal on Yak Forums, for example) come up with better ideas, products, presentations, and the like when the master Star Wars toy license currently rests with a billion dollar toy corporation. Even with Vintage (2010-2012), I don't feel like they ever got close to meeting demand for OT product (too much Prequel and EU -- though people who love that are FINE and GREAT). What are your thoughts regarding my frustrations here?

Hasbro's needs change regularly, and the action figure market has changed significantly since the 1990s. In 1995, an estimated 250,000 or more of each figure could be what was sold - it's not unreasonable as numbered Star Trek figures at the same time constantly topped 100,000 units - but today it's a much more divided market. Back then, people just wanted Star Wars. Today, people argue if they want new figures, or remakes, or rereleases, or the same figures on Vintage cardbacks, or prequel figures, or cartoon figures, or video game figures, and so on. The audience for 3 3/4-inch figures is very different now, and a lot of people are (gasp) satisfied. After you pass 2,000 varieties, it is increasingly difficult to develop a line that can satisfy everybody and reruns are unexciting no matter the packaging.

Right now, Hasbro's in a position where Lucasfilm certainly nudged them toward embracing the prequels due to the aborted 3-D reissues - and we're suffering through the tail end of that product line which most certainly did not meet all ages and preferences. If anything, the Playskool line is pretty telling what Hasbro thinks kids want - lots of original trilogy, and a little bit of whatever's hot (prequel, Clone Wars, etc.) By not following its own example, we've seen a pretty iffy line over the last year.

Hasbro has multiple audiences to please - and believe it or not, you do have to make your licensor happy too. New Vintage introductions in 2012 were very close to 50/50 (not counting Expanded Universe) split between prequels and original trilogy, which leads me back to my recurring theme of "collectors are never happy." We're not. We always want more, and we're not very specific about making our complaints. For example, what is it that you'd like? What is it, specifically, that you want and can't get? Unless Hasbro decides to make tiny runs, odds are most collector demands nowadays will be harder to make stick - unless the line has a huge comeback, but I think we're beyond the point of Star Wars becoming the "Hot Wheels" of action figures.


3. With the interest and the apparent success of the retro Aliens figures do you think Hasbro would ever consider do something like this for Star Wars? Would you be interested (and the readers) in Hasbro making retro Star Wars figures of never released characters in the vintage kenner style? There were so many figures that could have been done like, Tarkin, Rebel fleet trooper, Wuher, Sand trooper, dagobah luke, stormtrooper Han etc). Put these on vintage cards and I think a whole new cross section of collectors would be engaged. I would pay $20 each for these and I sure collectors who only collect vintage star wars would jump on these too. What are your thoughts? Is this possible?

Hasbro has repeatedly said no, but "no" usually becomes "yes" when the market conditions make it worthwhile.

Super7's ALIEN figures are real, honest-to-goodness "lost toys" that were meant to be sold in 1979 before someone at Kenner was smart enough to think better of it. The number of known, sculpted, but unproduced Star Wars figures from this era is quite low and the majority of them are in an area that I personally love - Ewoks and Droids cartoon figures. Many of the rest are mock-ups or concept drawings. As such, "fake" vintage figures it's a unique challenge. How do you make something look authentic based on the needs on the era? How do you make an intentionally primitive figure?

Zica Toys' prototypes for the Six Million Dollar Man basically look right, minus the knee joints which were rather uncommon in that era. (Six Million Dollar Man was dead by 1978, correct me if I'm wrong but I think Kenner knee joints started showing up more around 1979.)

Getting the details just right is a tricky proposition because you're appealing to a very specific, nitpicky audience that probably numbers below 5,000. (I'm assuming.) It would engage a different segment, but also the same segment - and right now there are too many 3 3/4-inch segments that aren't bringing anything new to the table in terms of characters or costumes. It'll probably happen eventually, but like Six Million Dollar Man, probably past its expiration date.



4. 5 years we wait for the stupid blue plastic scanning box we were promised. as they stuck us with crappy non-movie base pieces the first go-round. And now it comes out as an exclusive for a dying retailer in TWO SETS, with redundant figures, the only new one being the officer whick is sold with the crap piece I didn't care about in the first place? Or is their a new head on the scanning tech with the vase piece that I already have 4 of also?

OK, so don't buy it. What do you people want from me?


5. As someone who opens their action figures, how do you keep track of which accessories go with which figure once they're loose? Heck, how do you keep track of which figure is which at that point. Wondering if you have a good inventory system, or maybe you don't even keep track. Thinking (dreading) of opening my stuff and looking for ideas. I used to be an opener myself until the amount of product got so out of control around 2000 or so. Seems easier to keep everything in the package, but they eat up a lot of space and are tough to display; meaning I really don't get to enjoy what I have anyway.

In my case, if two figures had the same weapon, I would store (or display) the figure with that weapon in-hand. I'd lay the other accessory at or near his feet, or in a box with other weapons from that display shelf. (Or stored in a tackle box or plastic bag.) No problems so far! You could also affix a yellow sticky note labeling them if you'd prefer.

If you're opening your figures to display, just make sure the weapons are touching (or near) the figure. If you store them, store them in a plastic baggie with the figure, or a cardboard box, or a tackle box. It's pretty easy to figure out a system that works, just try to avoid having any white figures touching any red plastic and you're going to be just fine.




I was reading BoingBoing on Saturday night while thinking about how to make a tirade here, and they did the job for me. Check out this quote: Head of DC Comics: "We don't publish comics for kids. We publish comics for 45-year-olds".

This is sort of the trajectory for licensed and character collectibles, with a few exceptions. Basically, anything you had and liked as a kid could very well eventually get to this level - kids don't read comics because in the 1980s, the market tried to make them more "mature" and "adult" and then began to price them accordingly. $1 isn't a stretch, $3 per issue kinda is. It happened to trading cards, and while Hasbro is now suddenly simultaneously pushing away from and toward it, it's going on with action figures too. Mattel's biggest push toward kid-friendly action figures is Max Steel, which I'm watching with great interest because it's rare that a property gets major, major pushes at retail while I sit here not giving a crap. Hasbro has now attempted to make cheaper Spider-Man, Wolverine, Avengers, and Star Wars figures for kids which I hope they realize also needs to be expanded to "collector" levels. $6 is good. $11 is not. I'm not going to buy any Avengers at $11 each, but at $6 each I'd probably buy every new villain they care to make.

One of my biggest concerns was always that kids get what they want - because if a kid can get a figure, that usually means distribution and pricing is good enough so that collectors can get it, too. (When is the last time you had a problem finding a non-convention exclusive, regular release, LEGO set? That really makes a big difference.) I'm sure some people love scarcity so there's a strong secondary market, but a scarce figure just means that's more money Hasbro isn't going to have in their own pocket.

Video games are going down a similar road - disposable iOS and Android games at a couple of bucks are doing some boffo business, while Nintendo (who still markets to kids) seems to be doing adequately depending on the year, and we're hearing companies like Square-Enix find their multi-million dollar titles selling just a few million copies complain that this is a failure. Making things a little cheaper and that appeal to a winder audience is probably a safer bet, while there's now a market for Grand Theft Auto there will probably also always be a market for more Mario and Donkey Kong, minus any age restrictions.

We're in an era so astonishingly jam-packed with licensed character stuff that the competition is overwhelming. What's worse, adult collectors have effectively robbed kids of aspects of their childhood - are you 10, and did you want an Ahsoka? Too damn bad, someone like me found it first. Did you want a figure for $5 with your allowance? Too damn bad, we demanded better articulation and now it's $8 or $10. Did you shrug, say "screw it," and move on to video games? Uh-oh. Because we needed you to subsidize this line for us.

I started "collecting" (as in, flea markets and antique shows) at a very young age so as a collector, I've always known that what I was doing was buying kid's toys. Not collectibles. Not plastic replicas for mature fans. They're toys. We lose sight of this a lot, and I think that both the fans and the companies (Hasbro, Mattel, etc.) are really trying hard to come up with a way to keep both groups happy and since we have so many options, none of them are really succeeding. And when you take a few steps back, you can see that a significant portion of our entertainment industry is based on marketing kid's properties to varying age groups - decreasingly kids - which is a shame as the kids were the ones that tended to really bring the money to the table in the 1980s.

By this time next year, I hope Hasbro expands its "5 points of articulation" program to include collector characters, because I believe they will most likely be very happy with the results. Kids may or may not buy a hypothetical cheap Mara Jade, but for $6 collectors probably will. The $6 Stormtrooper will probably be one of the hottest toys of the season, if you can find it. I love Marvel toys but buy very few of them off-sale because $8 or $10 is too much. But $6? $6 feels right. Bring on Mr. Fixit or Pepper Pots or Dr. Strange, because why wouldn't everybody want to collect a cheap line of a dozen or two Marvel guys per year?

--Adam Pawlus

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