DEFINING YOUR TERMS (Well, MY terms)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....) START AT THE TOP 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). ROOTS -- AND BRANCHES 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. IT'S BETTER TO ARTICULATE THAN NEVER 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 along....) THE POSE IS THE THING 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. HOW FAR BACK DO WE GO? 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 rec.toys.misc 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 stuff. WHERE DO THE DARNED THINGS COME FROM? 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 include: 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: http://www.playmatestoys.com 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. URL: http://www.spawn.com 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. SIZE -- YES, IT MATTERS 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). PICTURES WORTH EVEN MORE THAN WORDS 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!) IN CONCLUSION (FINALLY) 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!
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