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What is an "Action Figure?"  Sages have pondered this question
since time immemorial (well, at least since the mid-1960s, when
Hasbro began to refer to G.I. Joe as an "action figure" rather
than a doll, in an effort to increase their predominantly male,
pre-adolescent, guy-doll-buying consumer base).  No matter how
you try to define the term, you end up with myriad exceptions,
oddities and borderline cases (and somebody invariably ends up
disgruntled when their favorite toy gets excluded).  However, for
those who might have stumbled herein lacking any idea of what an
action figure is, a loose explanation is offered below.  (For
those who may have stumbled in lacking any idea of what a web
browser is, or of what the web is for that matter, I can only
suggest that you turn off your computer immediately and return to
the other boob tube -- it's probably a lot safer, too....)

By my lights, an action figure is an iconic plastic homunculus,
typically rendered as the miniaturized version of a character
from a comic book, animated cartoon, movie or even video game. 
Well, okay, to be fair, my lights dim sometimes -- action figures
don't *have* to be plastic; some are metal, some ("the horror,
the horror") are even soft and stuffed.  Heck, some of the best
are only hypothetical, yet-to-be-produced, but no less
captivating.  (Whenever a company starts making action figures,
collectors' imaginations inevitably and immediately leap to those
characters whose figures remain *unmade* -- ask a "Batman, The
Animated Series" figures fan which villains are her favorites from the
show, and you're likely to get an earful about the great foes that
aren't -- figures, that is).

Some historians claim that action figures date back to
prehistoric times (bit of a contradiction there, huh?  Well,
historians of prehistory don't make much; let's not begrudge them
what they can bluff their way into), and point to the cave
paintings at Lascaux in France as the world's first Spring Toy
Fair catalog.  Of course, these historians also tend to champion
Monty Python movies as documentaries.  I'm not so sure; I think
the images from southern France are the world's first restaurant
menu, and the films of those wacky Brits simply the funniest
fiction ever recorded -- but I digress.

The Action Figures we're talking about are a lot more recent,
dating as noted above from the 1960s forward.  Oh, sure, there
have been human-form toys for decades, even centuries, but just
accept "Action Figures" as a term of art for the present purposes
and go with the flow.  It'll make things a lot easier for both of
us.  Trust me.

Let's begin with a simple criterion:  action figures generally --
though not always, sigh -- have articulated limbs.  That is, the
figure's arms and legs are poseable, at least to some extent. 
(This does vary considerably from figure to figure, by
manufacturer, and even by design epoch).  Effective articulation
is one major thing that differentiates "Action Figures" from mere
figurines, or statuettes.  (Now, don't get excited, Mr. Oscar;
after all, you get a whole variety show in your stiff, gleaming,
immobile honor).

Action figures are most frequently designed for play, and thus
often include what have come to be referred to as "action
features" (convenient, huh) -- typically, "snapping-limb" punch
and/or kick action effects triggered by the press of a button, or
the twist of another of the figure's limbs, or built-in wells
with springs that fire little snub-nosed plastic projectiles.

So, does mere articulation make a doll an action figure?  There's
lots of room for disagreement on this topic.  For instance, I
tend not to think of Barbie dolls as action figures (but I
wouldn't go to war over the judgment).  To a great extent, action
figures are whatever you want them to be -- I see the term as
inclusive rather than exclusive.  Generally, though, when I speak
of "action figures," I mean figures based on characters that
derive from superhero comics, parodies thereof, or various action
and science-fiction movies (and/or television shows).  Yes, there
will always be instances from outside these categories, and
borderline cases, and anomalies, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. 
(You get your jollies nitpicking, do you?  Oh, just move

IMHO ("In my humble opinion," one of those cute little Internet-
junkie terms that saves a bit of typing and makes the repetitive
stress gurus happy), I believe that poseability is an important
characteristic of action figures.  And the measure of poseability
is generally taken to be the number of "points of articulation"
in a given figure -- each moveable joint being one point of
articulation.  I think it's accurate to say that the average
action figure has nine points of articulation -- moveable joints
at the neck (1), shoulders (2), elbows (2), hips (2), and knees
(2).  However, some (perhaps "many," and among the majors in the
industry the name "Kenner" would have to loom large -- even
gargantuan -- here) manufacturers produce lines with more limited
poseability, sometimes as little as four (shoulders, hips), two
(shoulders) or even none.  (At which point you're really talking
about a static figurine, and while it probably makes little
difference to a small child, the bigger kids out here prefer some
moveability, darn it!).

One end of the poseability spectrum lands us among figures in the
"super-poseable" category, typified by the rather appropriately
named "Super-Poseable Spider-Man," a 1995 Toy Biz release.  This
figure has joints at the neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, chest,
waist, hips, knees and ankles, for a whopping total of 15 points
of articulation, making for an enormous amount of flexibility. 
Why, this figure is capable of being posed in hundreds of
tortuous positions, which is fitting since as drawn in Marvel
Comics since 1962, Spider-Man is the leaping, swinging, tumbling,
and spinning avatar of contortionism.  Thus, this figure allows
one to mirror many of the classic Spider-Man poses.  (Now, as an
aside, in 1995 McFarlane Toys did produce a figure heralded with
the notation that it was "16 Points of Articulated Evil" -- the
infamous "Vertebreaker" -- but since that figure was a demon with
six arms, it hardly seems fair to include it in a discussion of
your basic, bilaterally-symmetric, garden-variety, humanform-
based action figs.)

Now, articulation does have its disadvantages.  Cosmetically
speaking, every moveable joint is perforce going to detract from
the verisimilitude of the figure.  It's much easier to make an
elbow look like an elbow when it doesn't have to have a pin and
axle in it.  Some joints conceal their underlying motility much
better than others, of course; having a neck that can turn almost
always looks natural -- if anything relating to a five-inch
mannikin can be said to be "natural."  Similarly, moveable wrists
and ankles can have their joints concealed quite cleverly. 
Knees, elbows, and even shoulders are often another story,
however.  So there is a plus-and-minus component to all this
poseability.  As John Caldwell once wrote, "you gotta take the
lemon with the meringue."  (I'm still trying to figure it out,
too, but it seems somehow wholly appropriate).

However, and especially of late, some action figures are being
manufactured with few or no articulated joints (and often little
or no action feature).  This end of the figure spectrum nears
what I consider the "figurine" pole, where you basically end up
with a plastic statuette with no moving parts or poseability. 
Often such figures are manufactured with bases into which the
feet are molded -- so they can stand.  With poseable figures,
theoretically at least, you can position the limbs to distribute
the weight and leave the figures balanced and standing erect
(sometimes this even works in practice!).  Since many collectors,
children and adults, play at least a little with their figures,
there seems to be more enthusiasm among the buying public for at
least somewhat-poseable figures than for those at the statuesque
end of things.  And since "enthusiasm" tends to translate as
"dollars spent on the infernal things," most manufacturers lately
are producing figures that can be posed and played with, at least
to some extent.

Arguably, if we include any ol' figurative representation of the
human form, action figures have been a part of children's toys
since, well, since there have been children.  Children love to
play with manipulable (and therefore controllable) representa-
tions of the world and the people around them, and such
representations, whether found-objects such as peculiarly shaped
rocks, or made-objects such as carved sticks or clay figures, are
universal to all human cultures.  (For exhaustive data on the
subject, see, uh, hmmmm.  Actually, I have no exhaustive data on
the subject.  For that matter, I have no data at all.  Heh heh. 
Call it a gut feeling, and let it go.  But it *does* sound
impressive, doesn't it?)

When I speak of action figures, however, I don't mean to include
all the various antecedents and cousins, spiritual siblings, etc. 
I mean figures of fairly recent vintage (the figures I discuss in
the column are all considered "new" -- produced
within the last five years), most (though not all) of which are
still currently available at retail.  Which is not to say that
there aren't thousands of other, older figures; there are.  I
just tend to collect -- and therefore discuss -- the recent

These days, the countries that design the bulk of the world's
action figures are the United States and Japan; most if not all
of the figures are molded and produced in China or Indonesia. 
Japanese figures tend to derive from manga and anime, the comics
and animated films of that island culture; the U.S. figures tend
to come from the aforementioned sources, comic books, cartoons,
and feature films, though there are exceptions -- there are
always exceptions -- and additions as well.

There are numerous companies that make action figures. These

ToyBiz -- manufactures the high-profile (and lucrative) Marvel
Comics concession -- X-Men and related lines; the Fantastic Four;
Iron Man (discontinued); the Hulk; the Ghost Rider; and
Spider-Man and related lines -- as well as Hercules figures
(based on the unaccountably popular live-action television
program).  Rumor has it that Toy Biz will be expanding their lines --
at the expense of some of the noted cancellations -- to include
more figures from the "Marvel Universe," based upon both comic
books and animated cartoon material.)

Playmates -- Star Trek (covering figures from the "original"
1960s television series as well as "The Next Generation," "Deep
Space Nine" and "Voyager"); WildC.A.T.s (based on the Image comic
book; this line may have been canceled); Earthworm Jim (based on
the video game); and the Savage Dragon (another Image Comics-
based line).  URL:

Kenner -- Star Wars; Batman (from the feature films, the animated
series and film, and a "Legends" line of weird and historical
variations that derives from the singular and byzantine
imaginations of Kenner marketing execs); Gargoyles; Superman -- the current
"Man of Steel" line as well as the forthcoming line based on a new
animated cartoon.

McFarlane Toys -- Spawn, Wetworks and Youngbloods (all based on
characters from Image comic books; the Youngbloods series has
recently been cancelled).  McFarlane also produces the occasional
figure based on other Image comic book characters (notably, their
recent Maxx figure) and also plans an upcoming line of wholly
original characters created by founder Todd McFarlane.

Bandai -- Power Rangers, Masked Rider, the Tick series (as much
as it chagrins me to include the former, the latter -- based on
the clever television cartoon of the same name -- demand Bandai's
inclusion on this list, if only to make a quick deprecation of
their decision to CANCEL this terrific, funny line).

This list is by no means exhaustive; there are many other
companies as well, larger and smaller than these, who produce
action figures.  These would include Disney, Mattel, Thinkway,
Trendmasters (their "Independence Day" figures, based on the
movie of the same name, are due any day now), Topps, Galoob
(noteworthy as well for their plentiful MicroMachines, miniature
tanks, cars, spaceships, etc.), among others.

Action figures come in many sizes.  Today, the most common scale
is probably the 5" figure.  However, some companies make smaller
figures, some make larger figures, and some make figures in
widely varying sizes.

Kenner's popular Star Wars "Power of the Force" figures, for
instance, are produced on a scale of about four inches (while the
difference between four and five inches may seem slight, it
actually makes for a markedly altered look and feel).

ToyBiz makes not only 5" Marvel Comics-based figures -- and 2.5"
metal figures which have lately been discontinued -- but also 10"
figures, all three sizes based on identical or at least very
similar molds.

McFarlane Toys, on the other hand, makes figures of widely
varying heights -- appropriate, since the characters themselves
vary considerably in relative stature -- on a scale ranging from
about five inches to about 14 inches, with the average coming in
somewhere around seven inches.

Playmates manufactures most of their Star Trek figures in a five-
inch range but also produces a line of nine-inch "deluxe" figures
(with cloth costumes instead of the plastic that reigns as dress
for nearly all other new figures these days); their WildC.A.T.s
figures, by contrast, were manufactured on a six-inch scale. 
Further, Playmates recently announced that they are going to be
making figures tied in to the next Star Trek movie on a six-inch
scale, making these figures inconsistent with all their other
small Star Trek figures (and revealing yet again that Playmates
has significant difficulties understanding their collector/fan
base, but that's another story).

I know, it's hard to believe that pictures could be mightier than
words (especially these lustrous pearls) but just in case after
all this you still aren't quite sure what we're talking about, and
given the fact that my scanner-less condition renders my page 
bereft of visuals, here are a few choice Internet links to sites
containing splendiferous and multivarious photographs, yes, actual
pictures, of numerous Action Figures:

Jason Geyer's Excellent Super-Powers Archive:
The Super Powers Figures Archive

Jason Geyer's Also Excellent "Batman The Animated Series" Figure
Archive (do you sense a pattern here?):
The BTAS Figure Archive

Eric Myers' Raving Toy Maniac Page(s) (Heck, it's so stuffed with
great toy stuff, there must be pictures there *somewhere*):
Raving Toy Maniac Page"

     (well, that's enough for a start -- take a gander and see!)

It bears repeating that there really is no accepted, universal
definition for "action figures."  To a great extent, the
appellation is in the mind of the beholder -- I have an exquisite
little statuette of the elephant-headed god Ganeesha made of
gorgeously-painted Ganges River clay beside my computer terminal,
and while I do not tend to think of this icon as an action
figure, well, why not?  You can't really nail the term down by
mere appearance, or use (I know lots of collectors who don't ever
actually play with their figures), or derivation, or cost, or
even material.

In fact, a recent proposal was made to create a Usenet newsgroup
exclusively for the discussion of action figures, and the
proponents of the group decided right from the start to not even
*try* to define the term, relying instead on the note that "any
attempt to form a particular definition would be an appropriate
topic for discussion on the new group."

As a child, I remember being on vacation one summer and finding a
big old key chain with one or two keys still on it; poising these
keys just so, I decided it was a powerful robot that could beat
any other beach creature that came near it -- shells, crab husks,
flotsam, what have you.  Technically, to my thinking, this was an
action figure as well.  I applaud the various manufacturers today
that are giving us such well-crafted, beautifully-appointed and
articulated figures that make the impossible task of defining
this term worth all the time and effort.

And so, on to the columns!
Copyright (c) 1996 by John Gersten. All rights reserved.

Comments? Drop me a line....

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