Q&A: Mail-In Figures, Toys vs. Collectibles, and Cleaning Dirty Figures

By Adam Pawlus — Sunday, April 13, 2014


1. I don't know how you can say that Star Wars figures post 90's are boring. The action features like the one for R5 D4 made fans so mad that the figure sat on the shelves for years in my local toy stores. Never in the movie did he split open and fire a missile, and don't get me started on the plastic connecting his legs. I have always disliked these features because they can ruin a perfectly good figure. Shocker, Mysterio, and the aforementioned Star Wars figures are nearly perfectly but now have levers and switches that ruin the aesthetic of the toy. Yes you may tell me that these are just toys, but an action feature will loose it's luster very quickly as it did for me when I was a child of the 80's. Modern sculpting and that "boring articulation" that you seem to despise are killing action features and I for one couldn't be happier.

I'm glad you asked this question, mostly because I think you misunderstand what I'm getting at. The short, snippy answer: after you review 3,000 or more action figures - and I have, from many lines - you look for things that are new and different, or at least different. Arctic Camo Darth Vader could be more interesting than anything from the movie costume. In 2014 I've got dozens of "different" movie Darth Vaders - anything new would be more interesting than another black armor version of a figure we've all bought several times with a new accessory. Since roughly 2007 most Hasbro Star Wars action figures are basically the same toy - a humanoid with a weapon, 10-14 points of articulation, and zero "toy features." Light-up eye ports, spring-loaded doo dads, buttons, and that sort of thing are largely uncommon. In 2005, I didn't much care for them - but in the 2002 line I found them to be magical. If all figures had action features, that would be disappointing - just like if all had 5 joints, or 14 joints, or were consistent to the point where there's really no difference. The original Kenner line had few figures that could perform any sort of function, to the point where my socks were indeed knocked off when I first found out EV-9D9 had an opening mouth.

I like everything - but these days I'd rather have a toy that has some actual personality to it beyond a jointed elbow. Don't get me wrong, I've got plenty "action feature" figures that are poorly executed too - but it's like anything. Why give leg articulation to a figure that can't sit? This has been a problem for many figures since super-articulation came to pass in 2000. Why limit a figure's articulation when its center of gravity makes it difficult to stand? This is true of many of those figures in 1995 - right when the line rebooted. Despite being wildly inaccurate, R5-D4 does indeed stand up - but he can't fit in Y-Wing sockets, and as such has to be appreciated on his own bizarre merits.

The 2002 Attack of the Clones action figure line feels old to many, and it's largely worthless - but take a good look at what Hasbro was trying out here. It's wildly experimental, and it was dirt cheap. You never knew what each $5 figure could do - you could find Jango Fett and Tusken Raider figures with magnets so you could cut off their heads. Some Darth Maul and Anakin Skywalker figures had dials that would allow them to slice their lightsabers. The Bespin Luke Skywalker figure had a bruised, expressive face and tons of articulation - plus a weather vane, a bacta tourniquet, a metal hilt lightsaber, a cut-off hand, and a button-activated lightsaber swinging action. Almost every figure in 2002 was interesting in that the articulation varied per the costume's needs, the accessories were surprising, the action features were hardly cookie cutter - take that first Anakin figure with the Force-powered lock pick box - it was astounding. They have problems fitting in vehicles, but as toys they certainly tried to be something different and for those of you who do more with your toys than pose them and shelve them, you might enjoy these. If you see action figures as being more important than a thing you can pose and leave on a shelf, they're wonderful. (And if you see figures as things you leave in boxes which in turn are placed an other boxes which go in storage spaces or garages, well, I don't really put any stock into that group's opinions beyond sculpts and packaging.)

Today, nearly every figure Hasbro does is expected to be a tiny costume replica - if it's anything less than a perfect representation with 14 points of articulation, some fans are upset. Somehow the "toy" aspect of these toys has been engineered out, courtesy of high fan expectations and Hasbro effectively turning their back to actively kids by sticking to a very small group of characters with a few scarce guest stars each year. Action features can ruin a perfectly good figure, but today we know the truth - if Hasbro ruins a figure, they're going to try again eventually. Remember how angry people were in 2003 when we got that utterly bizarre Death Star Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker with one of the ugliest faces in the history of the line? Well, Hasbro went back and did another one - and another one - and we're about due for another one. If you look at this line over time, you can tell that Hasbro was not afraid to try, try again when it came to this stuff.

Today most 3 3/4-inch action figures with 14 points of articulation demand to be posed - once you open the toy, you find that sweet spot that keeps the ankles from toppling over, and it stands in place until you move it in your home or office. Simpler figures stand with minimal fiddling, and often the action feature gives you something to do when you're on hold on the phone, or fidgety. Fumbling around with R5-D4's wacky splitting body and crazy guns is a lot more fun than just admiring the job done well by Hasbro with its vintage 2011 version of the droid - less essential, sure, but I've got north of 50 different astromech droids so I like ones that can do different things. It would be preposterous for me to say that the super-articulated figures with (usually) improved likenesses are worthless, because it's not at all true. Most of these figures are good and have their place, but over the last several years I could write 90% of a Figure of the Day review without needing to touch the figure. I could tell you what it would be like just looking at it in the packaging - all I couldn't figure out was how it could stand, sit, or interact with accessories. It would have an action feature, nor would it beep, nor would it punch or kick or shoot. It would merely be, stripped of quirks and personality.

My interest in toys was also forged in the 1980s, were we saw big changes over the course of 10 years. "Kenner style" figures went out of fashion with G.I. Joe, robots required disguises, and He-Men had to punch and swing weapons in order to master the universe. Action figure sales are largely way down these days - there are fewer lines, fewer players, and supposedly fewer kids interested in our supposedly immortal hobby. And that's not even breeching the topic of availability - you need tenacity, skills, or a credit card to order your figures online these days.

Those "nearly perfect" figures are, to me, a losing proposition when you consider core characters - they keep getting closer and closer, but will never get there. (See: Hot Toys, Sideshow.) You'll pay more - they'll be a little bit better - but I still argue that the figures with big bonus weapons and coins of 2007 for $7 are better than the $11 reremakes of 2013 and 2014. I like toys - toys are fun today and fun tomorrow. Hasbro keeps trying to improve Darth Vader, and a tiny improvement in sculpt and maybe a 20% increased range of movement on a wrist or hip joint isn't exciting. But that light-up lightsaber Darth Vader from a couple of years ago? I had a lot of fun futzing with that one. Hasbro's doing quite well with Transformers, and that line is basically nothing but action features with super-articulation on the robots. You really need to have a line that succeeds in grabbing a wide audience, and Hasbro has been specializing more since 2010 - maybe it'll work, maybe not. I appreciate that there's a cheap line for kids and an expensive, bigger line for collectors - it'll turn some people off, but you've read my column. Nothing is so good that someone out there won't hate it.




2. Took your advice since the collecting landscape has been so bleak recently and have been completing a set of the original kenner sw line. Just finishing up with the last few needed figs and was getting ready to build a display from them. Some are in great shape from some awesome ebayers and don't need much love, but many are ones I have had (and played thoroughly with) since they were released and are in need of a good cleaning. Any suggestions on the best and safest way to clean them up?

On the whole, warm water and damp paper towels tend to do a pretty good job, depending on the grime or sticky stuff. I'd start there, and ramp up depending on the problems. A mild soap solution can help a lot, especially if you think the figures might be covered in snot, cooties, or dirt. Goo Gone can be good for some stains, but be careful - sometimes the harsher cleaning solutions can take paint with it. Try a dab of it on a small spot on the figure first, like the back, or the sole of the foot, before trying it somewhere more visible.

I pretty much stick to warm water and paper towels. I've used Mr. Clean Magic Erasers on some more rubbery toys (these do wonders on stained/marked rotocast vinyl or vintage Battle Beasts, for example) but there are lots of options depending on your stains.

I have heard many people say that you can put various toys in a dishwasher. I've never tried this so I wouldn't necessarily suggest doing it unless you have a sacrificial figure in case something goes wrong. Specifically, I've heard people do this with Playmobil and... uh... never you mind what the other kinds of toys were.

My other semi-related hot tip for you - if you're cleaning old vehicles, keep a cheapo Elmer's Glue Stick handy. Nothing, and I mean nothing works as good for re-attaching stickers that flake or curl up over time. It just costs you a few cents, and it works on new stickers too - my Metroplex labels kept popping up in spots, and this fixed it right up. I had a CAP-2 sticker sheet I got with a boxed sample in 1989 that had one label that I spent years trying to figure out before discovering the magic that is the glue stick. To this day, it's still sticking.


3. So, what is your opinion and/or inside info on Hasbro doing another mail-a-away Star Wars figure? I open all my figures and save the proof of purchase (POP) seals. I currently have tons just burning a hole in my pocket. They range from Clone Wars, Vintage & Saga Legends. Of course, the other question will be if Hasbro decides to allow previous POP's for a current mail-a-away figure. The last 2 Boba Fett figures were great!! So, I keep saving hoping they will be good for something. Maybe a mail-a-way Vlix? Now that would be cool!!

Mail-in figures used to be a great way to encourage more purchases, with people buying dud figures to clear the shelves and make way for new stuff. It served as both marketing and as a way to help curate merchandise on the shelves, and we've seen various draconian rules employed on some mail-in offers since 2000... although Hasbro's are usually pretty relaxed. By employing Jedi Master Points in 2002 Hasbro forgot that fans were trained that these things had value in the 1980s, so by never really doing any significant offer with them they forget that this sort of thing is expected by people in our age group. Would you throw out currency? Of course not - and that's how we were bred to view a UPC on a figure package.

I'm scratching my head to think of a mail-away since that white Boba Fett - not even just for Star Wars, but in general. The mail-in offer was a part of American kid culture for decades. You could mail in for something on a cereal box, or as a premium when you bought Cocomalt or other products. It's rare to go to the store and see stickers telling you that you could send in for something - and in the 1980s, you could see it on My Little Pony, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Star Wars, M.A.S.K., and so on - it was standard operating procedure. Today it's a throwback, a gentle nod to days gone by. When I asked about the future of mail-ins to someone at Hasbro (I'm not being coy, but I can't remember who) I was told that it didn't make sense for them to do these, as the development costs were high, the profits were low, and they could just as easily sell it as a regular action figure.

Having said that, I figure we'll see some sort of preview figure for Episode VII. For the prequels, we got at least one "sneak peek" product for each move although only one, Mace Windu, was a mail-in offer back in 1998. It seems unlikely stores will be drowning in unsold action figures - shelves are quite bare now - so at this point I would assume saving your proofs-of-purchase is a waste of time and space on your part. It's not uncommon for Hasbro to request figures from specific assortments, but I can tell you it's also not uncommon for whoever fills the orders to just send you your figure as long as the check clears. (I have tested this theory many times.)




The bright side - if there is one - is that it seems Ross stores are getting more Hasbro clearance products as of last week. Not much in the way of Star Wars has been reported yet, but it does seem there's a bit of a dumping beginning there and Five Below stores, so do keep your eyes on the shelves. Since things are slow, you may have more opportunities to get things you've missed, potentially for less than some of us have paid by ordering online. It's a gamble, but depending on how you collect it may be better for your needs, even if you have to pay a premium to get a couple of pieces to finish your set.

Obviously it's another slow week - right now, the most exciting thing we have coming in the near future is wave 4 of the 6-inch figures. There are no new vehicles expected for a while, and strangely no word of interesting exclusive products. It seems Hasbro is pulling back on exclusive SKUs across the board, with fewer unique items for Marvel, Joe, even Transformers as of late. If you feel you're being slighted as a fan of George Lucas' space fantasy, just take heart that pretty much everybody is hurting a bit more this year. Right now feels like a very transitional time in the toy business again, not unlike the beginning of 2010 where, again, a lot of new products were going direct-to-clearance or flat-out not showing up outside the internet. New stuff could be hard to get (as always), which makes this sort of thing less of an oddity and more of the modern inevitability. The days of going to stores and finding a dozen or more different releases are ending, if you're lucky you might see four new guys on the pegs alongside a couple of stragglers.

So where does that leave you? Well, there are going to be new things - they may not be from Hasbro, they may not be aimed at older fans, and they may not be to your liking, but don't forget that things go in cycles and we once lived through an era with Bend-Em's and Applause products which we saw as new and exciting. From where I sit, I do not anticipate finding interesting new action figures at regular big box stores until at least June. That's not just Star Wars either - we've got new movie Transforemrs next month, and hopefully we'll start seeing more things trickle out. There's just not much new to buy, so if anyone's earnings are down in Q2 they certainly can't point to collectors. Besides, the new Dinobots will probably make up any loss.

On the personal front, fortune hath smiled upon me, for I hath found the UJ3RK5 record. If you're a hardcore Man or Astro-Man? or Servotron fan it's worth tracking down on YouTube or anywhere fine MP3s are pirated, as their 4-song 12-inch from roughly 1980 doesn't legally exist in post-vinyl formats so far as I can tell. This is where the songs "Eisenhower & the Hippies" and "Locator" came from, and I think all that exists from this band is this and two more songs on an album called Vancouver Complication. If you're the kind of person who followed up on bands like the Plastics, Luxo Champ, the Causey Way, or anything from early Wall of Vooodoo that isn't "Mexican Radio," add this to your playlist.

I was also fortunate enough to have Jodorowsky's Dune at a theater near me. It's a documentary about the aborted Dune movie which could have come out before Star Wars and involved a lot of the people who would go on to work on Alien as well as some amazing artists, musicians, and actors - if you have the chance to see it, check it out. It's rare that you get a look of an unproduced epic film, and I don't employ the overused term "epic" loosely - this would have been a magnificent failure or an epoch-changing film that could have resulted in a much different or at the very least more literate film industry.

--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.