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By John Denning
August 06, 2006
Mego doll of Gene Simmons of KISS
© Mego Corporation
Our last couple of columns looked at the business of toys, from pre-fab collectables to the history of Marvel licensing. This latest column takes a look at how politics shapes our toys by changing the mold, literally.
Hombre de Accion
The original action figures from Hasbro of G.I. Joe were nationalistic in and of themselves. Joe's patriotism shifted from country to country, changing aliases with each market: G.I. Joe a.k.a Joe Super Temerario in Argentina a.k.a. Hombres de Accion in Uruguay. The toy's uniform often remained some combination of the sets available in the U.S., but there were the occasional region-specific accessories. Since the advent of little green army men, boy's toys were all about war, and G.I. Joe was war super-sized. The 11 1/2 inch figures gave action figures their first real push into popularity the world over.
It's not surprising, of course, that the next innovations came out of Japan. The country that would become the kings of micronization in the world of technology got started as early as the 1970's when the oil crisis forced Takara Co., who were licensed to produce G.I. Joe in Japan, to downsize. Takara got tired of making these costly giant American action figures, and set a new standard with 3 3/4 inch figures. While Mego was circumventing the problems of manufacturing costs with partially cloth figures and interchangeable torsos, Takara was building them better, stronger, faster. Driven by their ever-increasing robot obsession, the Japanese added clear cyborg limbs to their mini-G.I Joe, transforming him into Henshin Cyborg-1. This developed into the famous Microman line that one-upped the American market once again, making interchangeable parts not just for single figures, but for all figures, allowing buyers to freely exchange pieces any way they wanted to make their own Micromen.
While Mego never sank to Japan's 3 3/4 inch level, Kenner, who picked up the Star Wars license that Mego didn't, continued the trend in America. The massive success of Star Wars insured that while Kenner's mini-action figures didn't have the flexibility or detail of Microman, they had name recognition that couldn't be beat. Combine that with Lucas' desire to make a figure from every single character from the movies, no matter how insignificant, and Star Wars figures proliferated into the new standard of toys.
Luckily, it wasn't all about the little people in the 80's. This was the "Me Generation" and rampant consumption was the rule, including sucking up all the oil to make big toys cool once again. He-Man led the charge, combating the latest series of G.I. Joe (now being done in the 3 3/4 inch standard) with 6 inches of barbarian girth. Adding a wide range of now-famous gimmicks to different figures such as Mossman, Stinkman, and the extendable Mekaneck (theoretically making him more like 8 inches), the He-Man figures scored major points with kids just by being bigger than the rest.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles continued the line of bulky 6-inches, with increasing numbers of superhero figures maintaining the height standard while slimming down to more accurate proportions. Today, superhero toys have continued to maintain at 6-7 inches, along with McFarlane who pushed the expectations for detail at these sizes. The standard has held for a number of years now, but oil prices aren't getting any lower, and we're faced with a bigger, better oil crisis that's not going anywhere any time soon. Are toys going to shrink once again with rising costs?
Star Wars toys have continued in the 3 3/4 range since their inception, and new figures continue to be released. Side-by-side with a solid DC Direct figure, however, their age is showing. Toy lovers demand poseability and detail that is difficult to reach at those sizes. Marvel's Superhero Showdown figures, while packaged for a complete flop of a game, were cool toys in their own right. These were 3 3/4 inch figures with good detail designed for maximum poseability (something which the game was based on). Cheap, cool figures that meet consumer demands are possible and we could see them coming around the bend. For now, however, expect your favorite 6-inch characters to keep going up in price to cover costs and profit-mongering.
So politics can affect how we play with our toys above and beyond our Skeletors and Cobra Commanders secretly allying themselves with the latest Axis of Evil or Hitler clones. For those of you concerned about shrinkage ruining the scale in your collection, I suggest harkening back to those days in the sandbox when all the toys fought together without any height discrimination. The little green army men filled out the bulk of your forces while 3 3/4 inch G.I. Joe's lead the fight against the gargantuan 12 1/2 inch Gene Simmons of KISS, terrorizing the poor Barbie you stole from your sister. A little imagination can go a long way in bridging the size gap. In the meantime, love up those big, beautiful half-footers while you can.
Next week, we channel our inner old person and talk about "the good old days." We'll put classic franchises up against their next-generation revivals and see who comes out on top. Throw down with your two cents then, but remember, this site isn't licensed for gambling, so keep the wagers friendly. Until then, check out this week's reviews of giant-size action figures that even three dollars a gallon can't diminish. Keep posing, toy lovers.