Action Figures… A Renaissance Boom?

By Toy Kennections (Ken)

In world history, the renaissance is known as a period in time that saw an evolution in artistry, critical thinking, and overall culture. Depending on who you ask, this period of our past lasted anywhere from two to three hundred years, and its innovative impacts are still felt in contemporary times.

Now, if you look at the date of today’s article, and hone in on action figures as both a hobby and an industry, it’s fair to say the philosophy of a renaissance can be applied here. Gone are the youthful days of just excitedly purchasing any colorful character in a toy aisle who you happened to recognize from your Saturday morning cartoon routine. Instead, an action figure’s articulation, accessories, overall proportions, sculpt accuracy, and even its packaging are routinely examined before a collector makes the decision to buy it or not.

It’s fair to say – our toys have evolved in complexity every bit as much as our tastes have evolved in terms of expectations.

Now, when did this renaissance era begin?

When did we stop unconditionally accepting the 1984 Kenner Super Powers figures as our only DC superhero toy option and begin inspecting every surface feature and paint application that Todd McFarlane releases?

When did we stop accepting the low articulation options on our G1 Transformers and suddenly begin expecting them to pose like athletic human begins?

When did we stop using our mind’s imagination to mix our smaller M.A.S.K. toys with our bulkier Masters of the Universe figures and began expecting a uniform scale across toy brands that are completely unaffiliated with one another?

Really… think… WHEN? I bet that date and time differs from one individual to another.

I suppose the early foundations of the Action Figure Renaissance can be traced back to 1994, when the aforementioned Todd McFarlane brought his existing Spawn character from the pages of Image Comics to become a playable, posable figure in toy stores. Having said that, while Spawn’s aesthetics and antihero theme certainly stood out amongst his peers, McFarlane branded articulation and styling was still in its infancy. In fact, the other toys in stores found adjacent to Spawn during this time period still largely carried the innocent, kiddy nature of the 1980s.

I would argue that the Action Figure Renaissance truly began in the early 2000s – see if you can follow my logic. The year 2002 would yield the inception of Marvel Legends, and with it, we’d see endless heroic and villainous characters with copious amounts of articulation. By that, I mean not just bendable knees and elbows, but fully rotatable shoulders, ankle joints, torso bends, waist movements, and more. When you went to a toy store and saw Marvel Legends on pegs, you legitimately had to stop and think whether these toys were meant for a child or an adult.

Remember, the early 2000s saw a period where we began to leave our more rebellious 1990s culture in the rear view mirror. Grunge music, while still popular and influential, saw less dominance by the early 2000s. By comparison, the antiheroes that rose to fame in the 1990s such as the previously mentioned Spawn, as well as Deadpool began being accepted as pop culture mainstays rather than feeling new and refreshing.

As the 2000s progressed, we’d also see a resurgence of our “big three” boys-targeted toy franchises of the 1980s. In a subsequent trifecta of years, Hasbro would release its Transformers Classics lineup of toys, with a follow-up of GI Joe’s 25th Anniversary line in 2007, and of course, Mattel with its own Masters of the Universe Classics by 2008.

The “Classics” moniker would continually be used. Case in point – Spider-Man Classics was released in parallel with the early Marvel Legends, and the Ninja Turtles would also use the Classics style branding years later in 2012.

While larger toy companies would make the business decision to rejuvenate existing toy brands, note that by the late 2000s, the lines between being a toy creator and a toy consumer began to become blurred.

Look no further than the countless upstart third-party Transformers companies that rose during this period: Fanstoys, Mastermind Creations, Fansproject… the list goes on and on, and continues to grow to this day. Now look at the toy collection shelves of modern Transformers fans, and you’ll see that the official releases by Hasbro and Takara are seamlessly mixed in with third party figures. It’s gotten to the point that some people may not know which figure is official and which is unofficial simply by looking at a shelf.

As we progressed through this Renaissance into the 2010s, the rise of unique intellectual properties began to make its way into the toy hobby as well. A massive gamechanger was the rise of Four Horsemen Studios. Having become famous as contracted designers and sculptors, then shifting to being a full-fledged toy manufacturer, their Mythic Legions toy line is as popular amongst niche collector circles as the more established toy brands with decades upon decades of history. The result now is that their own Legions Con is treated as a destination and annual meetup spot for collectors to congregate. Certainly, the ability to own such an IP and have a growing, widespread fandom is the ambition of many toymakers.

Fast forward to today, and we see one kickstarter campaign after another, as more aspiring creators hope to replicate the success of Four Horsemen Studios. You now have Animal Warriors of the Kingdom existing in a similar fantasy-genre, as well as several military and sci-fi toy lines in both 1/12 and 1/18 figure scale. There have also been situations where a popular social media personality becomes an author of their favorite brands, such as Pixel Dan writing “The Toys of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” book, or Carson Mataxis (3DJoes) producing several GI Joe publications.

All in all, the fan has become the creator, and the aspiring artist or author has simply become… the artist or author. Fans now have their own fans, and we live in an era where anyone can find anyone on social media.

Critical thinking is now expected, rather than being the exception. Complaints and compliments are spoken under the same breath. A toy can be bought and appreciated, while at the same time, the same consumer can hope for the next toy to be better. These are the signs of a Renaissance, as far as our hobby is concerned.

Perhaps some would find it more appropriate to refer to this era of action figure collecting as a “Golden Age.” While this could be correct in certain contexts, I would define a golden age as a peaceful era, where you have already reached the summit of what you are trying to achieve, and hope to stay there in perpetuity. In other words, you’re already at the top of the mountain, and don’t need to innovate or achieve something greater. All you want at this point is more of the same.

As such, I’d argue that my own youth (and your own may vary slightly) from the 1980s through early 1990s would be more properly classified as a “Golden Age.” It was a time when I didn’t question toy manufacturing choices, and I never saw an end to my Saturday morning or afterschool cartoon routines. I didn’t strive or aim for more, and was more than content playing with my toys endlessly for hours, be it on my own or with a friend in the living room.

Of course, today my eyes and my mind are trained to find flaws and hope for improvement in my toys. I constantly weigh whether the addition of double jointed knees and elbows, or butterfly joints are necessary if a figure’s aesthetics look good enough to stand on a shelf. I criticize something that’s slightly off in scale, and will roll my eyes at a poorly done face sculpt.

That said, I know I’m not alone in the pursuit of action figure perfection. Day in and day out, I notice the same balancing act of appreciation and criticism in my fellow collectors.

All in all, that’s the time we live in. High expectations, seemingly limitless options, and watching as each successive toy we buy helps us climb the ladder to a summit we’ll probably never reach. In the end, we enjoy it all the same, and will likely look back fondly on this period of our lives even if we can no longer accept our toys as being perfect.

But hey… it wouldn’t be a Renaissance if we weren’t constantly evolving, and hoping for more…

You can find more great content like this from Ken at his YouTube channel, Toy Kennections.