The first toy that I can remember caring about was an action figure. Rather, it was half of an action figure, because it was just a set of legs from a G.I. Joe action figure. I don’t know which character the full figure was supposed to be, or what happened to the torso. As a little boy, none of that mattered. Those legs were a trustworthy companion to my imagination. For reasons nobody in my family has ever fully understood but we can likely blame on TV, I named this half of an action figure “Sausage by Jones.” You know this all to be true because there’s no possible way I could be making this up.
Now I have a son of my own, and playing action figures with him has been a lot of fun. The action figure game has changed quite a bit from my childhood though in large part because kids aren’t the only target market these days. Check out the action figure announcements from SDCC and you’ll see what I mean.
At some point, a perfect storm came together and kids that loved actions figures became adults with disposable income and they were willing to part with that income to have some really cool action figures, and the market responded. Action figures started to have more impressive paint jobs and design, an increasing number of points of articulation, and bases to showcase the figure for maximum coolness. Adults don’t want to play with action figures, but they sure do want them to look cool. The figures showcased at SDCC sure do offer cool.
That “coolness” comes with a heftier price tag though. Cost can be used as a pretty effective dividing line when determining if an action figure is intended for kids or adults. Under ten bucks, probably meant for play. Approaching twenty or over, and it’s probably more to show off.
This divide has led to a few interesting innovations for kids and grownups that still want to play with their action figures, and it’s fun seeing how kids adapt the toys to their play. Using my son as a statistically reliable sample size of one, there are three innovations in the action figure world that show some promise in reminding everybody that playing with action figures is actually a pretty good time.
The first innovation that really caught on a few years ago was the Marvel Mashers set of action figures (Venom’s Masher is particularly cool). The idea behind the Mashers set is that the main body parts can all be swapped, which is a bit of a sneaky way to encourage people to buy more and more figures from the set to increase the number of possible combinations. My son also took action figures from this set and made some hilarious creations of his own, including an incredibly tall super villain that used nearly all of the leg pieces (take that, points of articulation!) and mini heroes with calves that connected directly to their hip joints.
A lot of the pricier action figures are quite a bit taller than the standard pocket sized 3 and ¾ inch action figures made for kids, and the second innovation of late is that kids now have their own tall action figure options that don’t break the bank. These figures are tall and slender, and don’t offer much in the way of movement, but do offer very clean, uncluttered representations of the characters. I’m no expert, but I believe the molds are hollow, making the figures light and easy. The size difference leads to some fun imagination; my son often uses the larger figures as a big, bad, final boss, and the larger heroes act as a rally point for the smaller figures as they battle against all of the bad guys to see who is toughest.
The third and final innovation isn’t really anything all that new, but is growing in popularity because it’s great for kids and their parents, and is affordable. More and more action figure sets are releasing a “vintage” series, that are pretty much identical to action figures of yore, right down to the packaging. Star Wars, Ninja Turtles, and the recently announced Marvel series have all capitalized on this trend, and really, it makes sense for everybody. Kids get to play with an action figure that’s meant for them, while parents get to relive their memories playing with their favorite action figures, except this time, they get to make new memories with their kids. There are a lot worse ways to spend $8.
Sometimes those memories live on. My son doesn’t have his own “Sausage by Jones,” but he’ll have his own story. One day he was playing action figures with my dad. My dad, picking up a character he didn’t recognize that wears flamboyantly colored boots and fur around his neck, didn’t know that the bad guy he was using was really Baron Zemo. My son had forgotten his name, and asked his papa what they should call the new bad guy.
“Disco Dave,” my dad said, thinking quickly. “His name is Disco Dave.”