Action Figures!

Do you like action figures?  Collect them?  Did you play with them as a kid?  If so, what sort appeals to you?

Getting into the Action

Getting into the Action

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about action figures…  And that’s gotten me thinking about action figures and their connection to stories.

 Although I know some purists will differ, for the purposes of today’s Wander, I’m going to include figures that some might call “dolls” in the discussion.   Since, according to Wikipedia, the term “action figure” was first coined by Hasbro for their G.I. Joe line, and the early G.I. Joes were clearly dolls, just dolls meant for boys rather than girls, I think I’m on safe ground.  And, of course, figures of this sort pre-date Hasbro coining the term.  “Tin soldiers” filled the need long before plastics came along.  They were followed by any number of rubber and plastic figures.

As I see it, there are three general classes into which action figures fall: figures that are essentially illustrations of a specific character from comics, television, or movies; figures with some story, and figures without a backstory .

Dolls tied to specific television and movie characters go back a long way.  Their shapes have changed along with affordable materials, until today you may purchase a highly poseable representation of the character of your choice, complete with characteristic equipment.  Although still marketed to children, many adults collect these as well.  Indeed, there is a sub-market of high-priced figures meant for adults.

When I asked on Twitter why people collect action figures, Jas. Marshall replied: “As a talisman w/the traits of the character. Ex: I have a River Song figure from the ep where she made a Dalek beg for mercy.”

Jas. Marshall is in good company here.  The attachment to figures of potent characters as talismans probably began back in prehistory.  Often these would have been figures of gods or demigods but if, as Christopher Knowles persuasively argues in his book of the same title “our gods wear spandex,” then these action figures are part of a venerable tradition.

Figures with some story have also been around for a long time.  Barbie started out as a fashion doll, basically, a miniature model which girls could costume as they chose.  However, over time, Barbie acquired a sister (Skipper), a boyfriend (Ken), and various friends.  Even when I was a girl (a long, long time ago) there were books telling about their interactions.  These stories weren’t very detailed.  The one I remember had to do with what Barbie was going to wear to a picnic; the kicker was that after spending page after page trying on different outfits, Barbie arrives at the picnic to find that everyone is wearing the same dress.  Nonetheless, these slim books did give a sense of potential stories involving Barbie and her friends.

Today, of course, Barbie has moved into the class of figure with a full and detailed backstory, which is presented in movies, books, and comics.  She has a great deal of company in this.

One of the most fascinating evolutions related to action figures and story is the “Ever After High” line of dolls/action figures.  These dolls are supposed to be the descendants of various fairytale characters.  Some are happy to follow the tradition set by their parents.  Others want to break the mold and make their own stories.

Author Shannon Hale tells on her website how she (an already established author of YA and middle grade fiction) was approached to write the backstories for these characters, up to and including novels.  What’s fascinating about this to me is that these were dolls that hadn’t yet been released.  Other than alluding to traditional fairytales, they were not tie-ins to any existing story.  However, having a story in place was clearly meant to make them more compelling.

That’s rather cool.  I plan to read the first book in the series, because I want to find out more.

Providing a toy with a backstory is not unique, certainly.  However, a more common mechanism for getting the story out has been a cartoon series (Jem; He-Man and the Masters of the Universe) as the marketing tool of choice, not the old-fashioned, so often maligned book.

However, despite the mechanism being in place for promoting action figures as part of an existing story, there are plenty of figures that are provided with only the thinnest of stories: sometimes only a name and a few lines of text.  Some of the figures in today’s picture fall into that category.  The animal-warrior figures are from Papo and are listed in their catalog simply as “Mutant Lion” and “Mutant Tiger.”  Who mutated them, why they were mutated, and whether they are unique or part of a larger culture is left to the imagination of the owner.

The producers of the I Am Elemental figures go out of their way not to provide a backstory for their characters, even though in other ways these masked figures greatly resemble higher-end superhero action figures (which are usually tied to some comic franchise or other).  I Am Elemental’s website makes clear they are prompting a “play experience where girls are the creators of their own stories.”

Obviously, I have action figures, including the ones in the illustration.  Although I don’t have any that I’ve purchased because of their association with a favorite series or movie, I do own a couple.  For example, I have a blue-haired anime figure that Jim bought me, not because she was the heroine of Sakura Wars (which I’ve never seen), but because, at that time, the character I was playing in a friend’s RPG happened to have blue hair.   So, my figure is named Yunome Ame, not Sakura.

And, believe me, if I saw the right figure from a favorite show, I wouldn’t hesitate to join Jas. Marshall in giving it shelf-space as a talisman.

That said, most of my figures have been purchased because of a sense that there’s a story there.  In some cases, the story has been written.  The pale-featured young woman on the horse in today’s illustration would become Blackrose in my short story “Hunting the Unicorn.”  A certain two-headed dragon given as a gift by a college friend would become Betwixt and Between in my first published novel Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls.

I rather like to think that someday I’ll find the right story to go with the Mutant Tiger and Mutant Lion.

So… Do you like action figures?  Collect them?  Did you play with them as a kid?  If so, what sort appeals to you?  Have any of them ever given you a story?

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7 Responses to “Action Figures!”

  1. Peter Says:

    Although I have one or two talismanic figures around, my love of action figures as a kid was with the “doll”-type figures (the original GI Joe and the like.)

    I loved them because they were tabula rasa – with a quick change of outfit they could be anybody, anywhere, so they were the players in whatever story I was creating, rather than the inspiration for it.

    Oh, and on a historical note, Barbie started life as a high-end German call girl, her reinvention as a clean-cut American fashion model came later.

    • chadmerkley Says:

      I had to go fact check your statement about Barbie’s origin (I can be a little OCD about these things). Wikipedia states that “Bild Lilli” was the inspiration for Barbie. She started as a cartoon character in a magazine, then was made into a doll. Bild Lilli was quite racy, but she was NOT a call girl. I don’t think Mattel’s people knew much about the character when they adapted the design.

      I’m actually slightly disappointed that your statement doesn’t check out. I was looking forward to using this to tease my sister about her Barbie collection.

      • Peter Says:

        “Call girl” may be a bit strong, but if you go to the source (you can find scans of some of the original cartoons online; being able to muddle along in German helps, but a lot of them make sense even if you can’t understand the text), Lili was definitely in the habit of trading her favours for “gifts” from well-to-do gentleman suitors, so…

        Definitely not a doll for children, although by the time Mattel coopted her apparently the manufacturer was starting to make some less risqué outfits based on public demand (I read an interview with her original creator a few years ago – very bitter man.)

  2. Paul Says:

    My childhood action figures go back even farther than Peter’s: little cowboys mounted bowlegged on plastic horses, etc. But I would use them to stage my own little scenarios in and out of Lincoln Logs structures on tabletops.

  3. Louis Robinson Says:

    Yep, GI Joe was a doll. We all knew it perfectly well.

    But you would never actually admit it: nothing was more socially-fatal than getting a rep for playing with dolls.

  4. Jas. Marshall 6 Says:

    As a kid, I had lots of media action figures. I had the Steve Austin/Six Million Dollar Man with the bionic eye you could look through; I had Planet of the Apes figures; I had Kirk and Bones; and of course I had the 12″ tall GI Joe with Kung Fu Grip and his Sea Wolf sub which sank like a rock in our bathtub. All gone now. The only one I remember seeing on television BEFORE I got the action figures was Steve Austin, so by necessity we were making up stories with them. All were multiple-point articulated and quite detailed. Then Star Wars came out with 2-3″ figures by the bucket load and nothing was ever the same again.

    Also useful for story building were the Matchbox and HotWheels cars we got (plus the occasional one from other companies). Race cars, ordinary production cars, construction vehicles, dump trucks and tanks and planes and crazy strange vehicles (this was long before the current crop of so many strange vehicles that you can’t even find a normal car any more). Combined with Legos (basic blocks, not specific sets), whole cities came alive.

    Now, though, the few toys I possess are all media-related and definitely talismanic, for various reasons, although I’d never thought of them as equivalent to figures of gods and demigods before. It’s an interesting idea. (What, then, to make of the Terminator endoskeleton in my small collection? An identifiable devil?)

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      I really like the car reminder. We used to play elaborate games with cars as characters using my brother’s Matchbox and Hotwheels and some plastic interlocking road panels.

      They had the advantage over dolls and action figures of being able to move on their own.

      Thanks for the memory…

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