History of the Action Figure, Part 2: Sometimes Less Really Does Mean More

History of the Action Figure, Part 2: Sometimes Less Really Does Mean More

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For “History of the Action Figure, Part 1,” which follows the “rise of the man-doll,” starting with Mattel and its industry originator G.I. Joe, head here.

Riding high on the enormous wave of success that came with its 7″ licensed lines of many an action figure, the Mego Corporation passed on a deal to license toys for the upcoming motion picture Star Wars. (Cue the groan heard ’round the world.)

Mego thought it would go bankrupt if it made toys for every “flash in the pan” sci-fi B movie that came along. Of course, keep in mind that it had an action figure line based on the television series The Waltons … seriously.

The Micronauts

Instead Mego focused its attention on a deal with the Japanese toy manufacturer Takara to bring its popular lucite 3.75″ fully articulated Microman action figure to the United States under the name “Micronauts.” (The smaller scale of this action figure was a direct result of the oil supply crisis of the 1970s, which increased the price of plastic and made it harder to produce the larger 12” action figure and be cost effective.) But this snafu on Mego’s part — focusing on Micronauts instead of Star Wars — was not apparent immediately, as the Micronauts action figure craze brought in more than $30 million at their peak.

Yet the massive impact the Star Wars phenomenon had on culture worldwide could not be denied. Kenner had gained the rights to the movie, and it was caught completely unprepared for the high demand of the Star Wars action figure. In response, Kenner instead sold an “Early Bird Certificate Package,” which included a certificate that could be mailed to Kenner and redeemed for four Star Wars action figures with a diorama display stand, some stickers and a Star Wars fan club membership card.

The original Star Wars action figures

Once Kenner was ready to offer the Star Wars action figures for direct sale in shops, the range had been augmented with eight more figures, bringing the total number in this initial release to 12. In 1978 and again in 1979, sales of Kenner’s Star Wars line reached 40 million units, accounting for a revenue of $100 million each year. And thus, action figure history was made again.

The 3.75″ scale thereafter became the new industry standard for action figures. The smaller size, fewer raw materials, less paint (or “deco,” the industry term) and less packaging (which meant cheaper shipping) all combined to create a smaller price point per unit. And that meant most kids could afford to use their own money (you know, allowance and/or birthday money) to buy themselves an action figure, which only served to increase their popularity.

Then Hasbro enters the mix.

Seeking a solid foothold in the 3.75″ action figure market but without a movie to tie into, Hasbro teamed up with publishing giant Marvel Comics. The result, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, launched in 1982.

Hasbro’s G.I. Joe action figures were now much smaller than the 1964 man-doll

This series of comic books was advertised on television, which was a comic book industry first. A seven-member paramilitary strike team was introduced that combated a terrorist organization named COBRA, and Hasbro released a corresponding line of action figures and vehicles (Yo Joe!).

These new G.I. Joe action figures were much-changed from the original G.I. Joe concept, which had seen a significant drop in popularity due to America’s attitude toward the Vietnam War. G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero breathed new life into a long-thought-dead property.

The Real American Hero comic book series and toy line were so successful that in 1983 Marvel Productions and Sunbow Productions co-produced the popular G.I. Joe cartoon series. This was new territory — a television show based on a toy line!

This opened a door … a big door. A door big enough for a muscle-bound, fur underwear-wearing, barbarian superhero to fit through.

And with that, our tale of the action figure is to-be-continued.

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