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John's Action Figure Column 05/18/97


     I see action figures in the darnedest places.
     I'm not talking about hallucinated Pink Ranger elephants,
demented daydream visions of Spawn offshoots populating the
fringes of a distracted mind -- I mean I see figures all over the
place.  In real life!
     Tracey asked me yesterday how many collectors I thought
there were, ballpark figure, round numbers, just a guess.  It's
funny, because it's the kind of measure you'd think we all would
carry unconsciously in our minds.  I mean, baseball fans have a
clear idea that there are a good 60,000 hardy souls who'll come
out at the drop of a bat in most major cities to see even a
halfway-decent bunch of overpaid expectorators vie for momentary
ascendancy on the diamond; rock fans can get a clear sense that
for any particular band, there are X fans willing to actually
leave their speakers and living room behind and pay vastly
inflated prices for tickets and beer to listen to the music get
played live! in crowded, dingy, seedy environments -- whether
there are 500 people or 100,000 people, you get an instant and
visceral idea of the size of the audience.
     Even comic book fans can make pilgrimages to various instant
Meccas and find themselves gathered among hordes of like-minded
followers of the blue, red, yellow and black, and attendance
figures, admittedly somewhat inflated through any of several
hazes, commercial, alcoholic, fanatic, etc., can easily be
obtained from the show promoters.
     Our action figure passion flowers much more privately.  Oh,
sure, you can hang out at Kaybee or Walmart and find a few like-
feathered birds any day, or go to any number of toy shows in
almost every state of the Union and find fellow enthusiasts by
the dozens, but I think anyone would agree that those events and
those turnouts don't really reflect the fan base for figures.  I
certainly don't go to every local show -- and unlike comics, or
any number of other hobby passions, there really isn't a single
signature "monster" con for toys, or action figures, at which we
could begin to number at least the most zealous of our flock. 
And of my collecting friends, I'd say at most maybe a third --
tops -- will actually have the time and wherewithal to attend
even the larger local shows.
     Sure, one could begin to extrapolate the fan base from
numbers like that, but for one thing, I just don't think toy
shows pull in representative numbers of action figure collectors;
for another, I think there are better ways to skin this
particular (numerical) feline.  (Why would anyone _want_ to skin
a cat, by the way?  They can't make very good eatin', their pelts
are known nowhere for insulation or even decorative
there really that much of a market for traditional tennis racket
strings in this age of miracle fibers?  Never mind....)

     As a starting point, Tracey suggested -- in response to her
own question, which we both began to realize might well have been
predominantly rhetorical -- just multiplying out the number of
'net figure collectors from rtaf to get a handle on the larger
fan base.  I saw two problems with this.  One, I've never really
had a precise sense of how many of us there are out there.  Er,
in here.  I mean, I've hazarded a guess or two in my time,
pegging -- so to speak -- the count at anywhere between 250 and
1,500, but between lurkers and virtual transients, the ubiquitous
and the profiteering, it's really hard to, uh, figure just how
many people frequent rtaf.  Oh, sure, we could probably sort and
count the number of posters over a sample period (uh, you could
-- I haven't the patience), but even that would only count the
subgroup of figurers who take the trouble to actually post. 
Surely there must be others who are merely coming along for the
     And the second obstacle to this path to the counting is that
I have _no_ idea how our numbers on
relate to the larger presence of collectors out in the non-
electronic world.  Would you multiply by 50?  100?  10,000?
     Appealing though the extrapolation may otherwise have been
in terms of convenience and simplicity, given these imprecisions
I just didn't think it would generate the numbers we needed with
any real accuracy.

     Another approach occurred to me.  Why not go the opposite
direction -- consider the numbers of _figures_ themselves, and
then jump from there to the size of the fan base.
     This makes a fair amount of sense.  Oh, sure, lots of people
collect more than one of some figures -- heck, some people
collect more than one of _all_ figures, and an even less hygienic
group is presumed to collect dozens upon dozens of certain
"priceless" figures for instant transubstantiation into ungodly
amounts of holy holy cash -- but even adjusting for those kind of
variations, the production numbers of the more popular figures
should provide a very appealing launch point for our estimate.
     And if you think about it, commercialism and capitalism
being what they are, the manufacturers are, theoretically at
least, in a position where it's in their great best interest to
try to prefigure the market's size as accurately as possible, so
that they can scale production to match (and hopefully saturate)
it.  Oh, sure, judging from some of their other production
decisions, we're talking about group minds that can add two and
two and get eleven as often as they get four, but even so, I
think the production runs are a terrific starting point for this
kind of measure.
     So.  This makes everything easy now, yes?
     Because, for the most part, and despite the occasional
practice of actually tattooing the figures themselves with
ascending numbers ('cause we collectors love that so much,
remember?  Pfagh, as if the 12,345th figure that rolled out of
the press is any more play-worthy, or admiration-worthy, than the
123,456th -- and if those numbers even _correspond_ to anything
like a figure's actual position in the production run, a fact
that has never been confirmed and which the Mother company of all
figure-numberers -- Playmates, and I have to say another noun
suggested itself to me before I decided to go with "company" --
has clearly screwed this up in the past), the manufacturers are
_very_ close-mouthed about their production numbers.

     Given that in most industries, crowing about "how many for
how much" is almost a pastime in itself, I'm not sure why.  Oh, I
could understand the smaller producers not wanting the lesser
scale of their operations to put off any potential new investors,
and, similarly, larger manufacturers might be chary about
revealing the decline of a particular line...and the more cynical
among us might seek to point out that, given the fact that many
of the manufacturers are delighted to foster the false belief
that every last lump of plastic they generate is going to emerge
over time as a precious and priceless "collectible," I can see it
being in that sub-interest to foster the belief that they make,
say, only 50 or 100 (or 1,701) of each figure.
     Of course, that's not the case (at least not most of the
time).  As benighted as most of the companies so often are, they
do understand that you can choke a market through insufficiency
as easily as you can drown it with overproduction.  Hence the
occasional gratifying reissue of things like cases of all-Xena
figures, for example.  And so again this "market driven" guidance
from without, a force that -- absent the perverse, self-serving
and coprophilic skewering dropped into the process by the no-
value-added-resellers -- would tend to connect the market rather
neatly to the output of the apparatus of production.
     So how many of these crazy figures do they _make_?
     Well, given the close-mouthedness of most of the major
players, I think we have only two avenues to explore.  One is
Todd McFarlane's McFarlane Toys, and the other is the already-
noted Playmates Toys' practice of numbering their individual
     In an interview back in August 1996 with "Action Figure
Scalping & Irresponsible Price Inflation" (oh, sorry, I guess the
actual title is "Action Figure News & Toy Review"), Todd
McFarlane spoke at some length about the McToys' production
model.  Though we have to remember he was speaking somewhat
casually, he tossed out numbers in the range of 600,000 (!) for
each figure series.  And though he did not expressly say so, I
have to assume that that number reflects the _total_ number of
figures in a particular assortment -- meaning McToys produces in
the range of 100,000 of each individual figure, based on a six-
to-an-assortment count, which admittedly varies at times.
     Similarly, if you go by the admittedly loose numeration
reflected in the six-digit numbers stamped into the tender feet
of Playmates' Star Trek toys, you get numbers that actually
aren't that far off from McToys runs (at least in the initial
Star Trek series; while some figures reputedly ran to the 3 or 5
hundred thousand, it's the same order of magnitude and a good
touchstone for our valuation), despite the fact that McFarlane is
an "upstart" company often referred to (by themselves and others)
as smaller-sized newcomers compared to the "old boys" like Kenner
and even Toy Biz (who admittedly aren't so "old," but are pretty
darned big in terms of production).

     Putting aside things like unsold peg-hangers and multiple
purchases (not to mention the fact that there are as many
different _kinds_ of collectors as there are different lines, and
different people), I don't think it's that far off to go with the
100,000 figure as a baseline.  While I have an unsubstantiated
sense that things like "Star Wars" figures sell considerably more
than that, there are lots of other lines that surely sell far
less.  And though it is after all only a ballpark figure, off by
perhaps as much as 50% in either direction, it's a good solid
start.  (And begging of course the other question of who is a
collector and who isn't -- not to be at all elitist, but is
someone with _one_ figure who bought it on a whim a collector? 
We'd probably all agree that she isn't...but where to draw the
line thereafter?  I'm not going to go off into this, but it is
worth thinking about)
     And when I think about the idea of 100,000 action figure
fans out there, 100,000 people across the world who, let's say,
buy at least ten figures a year, who might not buy a copy of
Tomart's Action Figure Digest but would certainly not pass up the
chance to leaf through one on a supermarket checkout line, who
stop short in the hustle and bustle of any given week to stare
delightedly at some particular figure, deriving therefrom a sense
of connectedness and warmth, however fleeting...well, 100,000
does not seem inordinately far off.
     And getting back to the path that led us in here, if we
nigh-arbitrarily assign rtaf a "population" of 1,000 people
(lurker-, poster-, seller- and even bypasser-inclusive), we can
instantly see some interesting numerical ramifications.  (As a
math teacher told me long, long ago in junior high school, if
you're the one setting up the examples, why not make the division
really simple?)  For one thing, even if you take the range of
collectors at 50,000-100,000, we can quickly see that rtaf
reflects something between 1 and 2 percent of the total.
     Now, that's not a bad sample, statistically speaking, when
you think that the grand and appalling parade of pop culture via
the television is basically ordered by something like 1,600
"families" every month -- one helluva lot less than 1% of the tv
watching population.  And it makes sense on that aforementioned
gut level -- the stuff I see being talked about on rtaf _does_
correspond pretty closely to what I see in the "outside world" of
TRUs and flea markets, toy shows and Targets, etc.

     Where is this all going, you might ask?  Well, nowhere,
really....what else is new?  <grin>
     This all arose as a response by Tracey to my delight at
finding -- of all things -- a Rotarr standing patiently and
proudly next to the cash register at the checkout line at our
neighborhood supermarket last night.  We had dashed out late last
night for an impromptu dinner, having spent the better part of
the afternoon languishing in the unusually high 90-plus degree
San Francisco heat, and were it not for the fact that pizza just
seemed too darned _hot_ to eat even after the sun had set and
evenings' cool begun to wrestle with daytime's lingering warmth,
we wouldn't have left the apartment at all.
     But we did, and, after amassing what we call a "snack" meal
(a little bit of this, some odds and ends from the deli counter,
chips, some fruit, and hey, lookit that banana cream pie!), we
waited patiently in the checkout line to pay and get on with it. 
And it was exactly at this point that Tracey leaned over and
pointed my gaze towards the next checkout stand.  "Isn't that a
Spawn figure?"
     Bless her heart, indeed it was.  "Bless your heart, Tracey -
- indeed it is!  It's a Rotarr, brand-new from Spawn 8!"  And
while it might not have been my first choice from Spawn 8, as we
started talking to the cashier about it, and I saw the sheer joy
in his eyes at his Rotarr figure, I realized yet again how
wonderful it is that beauty is indeed entrenched firmly in the
beholder's eye.  This fellow was just delighted by his odd little
homunculus, and so, by association, was I.  He had, it turned
out, just picked it up before his shift began that day, and no
sooner arrived at work than popped it free of its confining
bubble to stand guard over the register through the day's
     Like my experience a week or two back, discovering an action
figure on a San Francisco Muni bus, it was a delight to encounter
Rotarr at the grocery store.  More delightful than doing so at a
toy store, or in a friend's collection.  Maybe it's my underlying
underdog attitude about our hobby, whose glories go so
unrecognized by the general public, but it makes my day when I
spot a figure in some incongruous spot.  I'd love to see a BTAS
Joker sitting atop my dentist's shelf, a Han Solo in Carbonite
lingering on a post office counter, or a Water Wars Storm
dispensing air freshener on a cabbie's dashboard (not a bad idea,
     So here's to finding Spawn figures at hot dog stands!  Total
Justice in traffic court!  X-Men at the barber shop!  GI Joe's in
restaurants!  Cy-Boars at church socials!  Batman in bakeries! 
Power Rangers at the putt-putt green!  Aliens on the subway! 
(Hmmm, maybe that one's redundant....)  "Figures, figures,
     _Then_ maybe we'll have a better idea of how many action
figure lovers there really are....
Copyright (c) 1997 by John Gersten. All rights reserved.

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