The concept of an "action figure" was introduced in 1964, when G.I. Joe hit the market. Hasbro, the creators of G.I. Joe, saw the enormous success of Barbie, the 12-inch fashion doll launched by Mattel in 1959, and decided to create a toy with a similar play pattern for boys.

A large part of Barbie's success was the fact that girls would bring their dolls over to each other's homes and play dress up, which encouraged parents to buy more clothes, accessories, and playsets for the dolls. While Hasbro wanted to make a toy boys would play with in a similar way, they had to make sure it would not be thought of as a "doll." A team of toy designers set out to make a toy soldier that would be seen as a powerful, dignified man of action, an "action figure." They worked with the U.S. military to make accurate toy-weapon accessories that would excite young boys.

Debuting in 1964, the first G.I. Joes were 12 inches tall, with a deliberately generic face, featuring a single scar. The action figure was meant to represent the typical serviceman, and its name was taken from World War II slang—"Government Issue Joe." The toys were a hit, as Americans were still basking in the glow of World War II and growing anxious about the Cold War.

G.I. Joe accessory kits were sold for every branch of the military, and kids were able to bond with their elders, pretending to relive their role models' missions in the war, in battles fought on land, sea, and in the air. Encouraged by Hasbro to join its G.I. Joe Club, boys formed "Backyard Patrol" groups and generally rejected knockoffs like Fighting Yank, Action Buddy, and Our Fighting Man made by competitors.

By 1968, though, Joe’s' popularity was declining as the American public became more skeptical about the Vietnam War. In two short years, Hasbro launched a revamped spin on G.I. Joe. He was now retired from the military, sported a full fuzzy beard, and was a member of the "Adventure Team," which had a mission to combat global disasters. This new beast-fighting, artifact-protecting G.I. Joe was a big hit with kids.

In 1971, a young upstart, Martin B. Abrams, took over his father's rack-toy company, Mego. Inspired by the success of G.I. Joe, Abrams expanded the concept of the "action figure," producing plastic cowboys, cavemen, monsters, World War II heroes, Knights of the Round Table, hang-gliding daredevils, dinosaurs, and robots.

But Abrams perhaps made his biggest mark on the toy company by turning name-brand heroes of all stripes—celebrities and characters from television, movies, and comics that kids already idolized—into action figures. This involved many costly licensing deals that most toy makers had been too timid to risk in the past...

His first coup was to obtain the rights from both Marvel and DC Comics to make the action figures for their tremendously popular heroes, starting with Superman, Batman, Captain America, and Spider-Man in 1972. By 1977, Mego's "World's Greatest Super Hero" line featured 30 different superhero characters, including female superheroes and villains.

One of Mego's innovations, which protected the company from licensing failures, was its patented 8-inch jointed plastic bodies, with fully interchangeable parts. The price of plastic had risen considerably since the '60s, so these smaller action figures were cheaper to make. The standard bodies could be re-purposed for an infinite number of characters, which protected the company when a product failed. For example, when the "Planet of the Apes" TV show was canceled, Mego simply replaced the heads and the costumes on the unshipped characters and turned them into other action figures.

Mego made action figures for Muhammad Ali, Broadway Joe Namath, the rock band Kiss, "The Wizard of Oz," "Dr. Who," "Dukes of Hazzard," the "Flash Gordon" comics, "Zorro," "Dallas," "Happy Days," and many others. The company was also the first to develop what's known as "blister pack" or "bubble card" packaging. Instead of selling action figures in boxes with plastic windows, in 1976, Mego exclusively shipped cards attached to plastic bubbles holding the action figures.

For a while, Mego was the No. 6 company among all toy makers. Its 8-inch action figures were so popular that Hasbro tried to compete with them by putting out an 8-inch Super G.I. Joe in 1977.

But that year, Mego made a fatal mistake. The company rejected the licensing deal for a "space opera" being proposed by a little-known director named George Lucas. Instead, Kenner Products, maker of the 12-inch "Six Million Dollar Man," acquired the exclusive worldwide rights to the franchise's products, also proposed as a weekly television series, thinking that the toys would sell even if the movie flopped.

"Star Wars" shocked the world on May 31, 1977, becoming an overnight sensation, the highest-grossing movie in history. The public clamored for action figures, which Kenner didn't even have ready to offer until after Christmas 1977, instead selling and "Early Bird Certificate Package," that promised the first four action figures—Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and R2-D2—when they were ready in early 1978.

Kenner designers initially considered making "Star Wars" action figures 12 inches tall like old G.I. Joes, but that plan was scrapped when they realized that Han Solo's spaceship, the Millennium Falcon, would have to be five feet in diameter. Taking all the giant vehicles and playsets into consideration, Kenner made the standard action figure even smaller, at 3 ¾ inches. In the process of scrambling to get the action figures out, designers scrapped the bendable knees and twisting waists of other action figures.

By the end of 1978, Kenner was selling 12 "Star Wars" action figures for $1.96 each, and sales reached more than 26 million. It turned out that kids didn't just want their favorite character, they wanted all of the characters—so Kenner kept churning them out as the sequels "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi" came out. By 1985, Kenner had released 93 of “Star Wars” figures, only one of which, Yak Face, is hard to find (it was only sold in Europe and Asia).

Kenner’s success with “Star Wars” was a serious blow to Mego, which never regained its foothold in the action-figure market. It tried desperately to capitalize on the renewed sci-fi craze, making action figures for "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," "The Black Hole," "Moonraker," and "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century." All were merchandising failures. In June of 1982, Mego filed for bankruptcy.

That same year, however, G.I. Joe made a comeback, taking its cues from "Star Wars." The new G.I. Joes were “Star Wars” height, and instead of being anonymous soldiers, these individual Joes had cool code names like Snake Eyes and Rock 'n Roll. There was even a female team member, Scarlett, and an enemy in a metallic mask, Cobra. This new spin on G.I. Joe flourished for 13 years.

"Star Wars" figurines, meanwhile, went out of production after 1985. However, interest in "Star Wars" surged again in 1994 when Lucas announced he would make a prequel trilogy to the first movies. Hasbro Lucasfilm, which had consumed Kenner, began reproducing 3 ¾-inch and 12-inch "Star Wars" action figures, vehicles, and playsets—this time, often sold to nostalgic adults. When the prequels were released between 1999 and 2005, even more characters were added to the "Star Wars" action-figure pantheon.

All action figures are most valuable when in mint, unplayed-with condition, still in their boxes or blister packs. Those actions figures, however, have experienced the least amount of imagination and fun.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood

Embrace your inner child on this website from the Victoria and Albert Museum, filled with high-quality images and i… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Star Wars Potf Final 15 Action Figure LotVintage 1977 Star Wars R2-d2 Action Figure On 12 Back Canadian Card.1983 Vintage Star Wars Rotj Boba Fett Figure Moc Kenner Vintage Transformers G1 Gold Euro Classics Complete Collection Mib Misb Mosc ClassicMasters Motu - Laser Power He-man - Moc / Mib - Sealed - New Original - No ReproVintage Star Wars Potf Nikto! Super Rare! Kenner 1985!!!Vintage Actionman 1970 Boxed FootballerGi Joe Mail In Starduster Sealed In Bag RareKenner 1983 Star Wars Rotj 65 Back Boba Fett Space Scene Moc Removable Cowl Batman * Mego 8" * 100% All Original * Mint In Box * Rare *Transformers 1984 G1 Optimus Prime In Original Box - Awesome ConditionToy Stamp & 1982 Kenner Star Wars Esb 47 Back Boba Fett Mint On Card Afa 80Transformer Diaclone Countach Lp 500s Sunstreaker Takara Trasformer '80 MibKaws 4ft Dissected CompanionSideshow Exclusive Star Wars Obi- Wan Ben Kenobi Mythos Polystone StatueCobra Terror Drome & Firebat (g.i. Joe Hasbro 1986 Playset) Excellent ConditionWwf Wwe Vintage Hasbro Wrestling Lot Complete Mint Nice Ring Wrestler 62 FiguresVintage Star Wars Boba Fett Esb 21 Back Afa 80 Nm #10760345Vintage Star Wars Potf Tri Logo "hoth Rescue" Playpack, Kenner 1984Transformers G1 Huge Lot 50+....... Plus Parts Lot!!!Vintage Star Wars Early Bird Double Telescoping Dt Luke Skywalker Leia Chewy R2Paul Kaiju Boss Carrion One Off & Trunk Topper Nycc 2010 Anraku Bemon NagnagnagCustom Skeleton Warrior Masters Of The Universe Classics 7" Action FigureMarvel Universe 99 Figures Galactus Sentinel Deadpool Wolverine Hulk LegendsGi Joe Arah Vintage Lot 150 + Plus Weapons Lot12" Custom Templar Knight On Horseback, Medieval Holy Warrior 1/6 Figure Ignite Gi Joe Cobra Custom Landing Pad Base Head Quarters One Of A Kind Vintage Mib G1 Transformers Decepticon Leader Megatron Walther P-38 Rare Star Wars Vintage Luke Poncho Potf Afa 85y (85/85/90) Unpunched MocVintage G.i.joe 1982-86 Lot 42pcs Straight Arm,mail-in Complete Very Rare Cobra Rare Canadian Original Kenner 1977 Star Wars 20 Back Darth Vader. HkTransformers Custom Masterpiece Mp11 Hotlink G1 Cartoon Colours & Flamethrower1:6 Scale Hot Toys Mms214 Iron Man 3 Starboost Mark Xxxix 39 Box Set In StockHot Toys Exclusive Predator Major Dutch Schaefer 1/6 Scale Figure Mms72Boba Fett Afa 70 21 Back Empire Strikes Back Unpunched CardedMarvel Legends Uncanny X-force Sdcc 2012 + Fantomex + Deadpool Mib Hasbro LotStar Wars Vintage Leia (bespin Gown) Esb 32 Back-b Afa 85y (80/85/85) Up MocG1 Transformers Trypticon 100% CompleteStar Wars Vintage Lobot Esb 41 Back-d Afa 80 (80/85/80) MocTransformers G1 1986 Series 3 Autobot Car Hot Rod Misb Afa 85 B-85; W-90; F-90!Transformers Masterpiece Mp-01 Convoy (optimus Prime) - MisbToy Stamp & 1982 Kenner Star Wars Esb 48 Back Yoda Mint On Unpunched Card Afa 85Kaws 4ft Companion Dissected Figure Medicom Original Fake Pushead Usugrow 4 FeetVintage Rare Gi Joe Action Soldier Combat Box Set No. 7540 With Accessories.Hot Toys Iron Man Mark Vii Avengers Loose Tony Stark 1/6 Sideshow ReadLot Of 28 Vintage Kenner Star Wars Loose Action Figures -1977- 1983Kid Robot Gorillaz Vinyl ToysToy Stamp & 1983 Kenner Star Wars Rotj Boba Fett Mint On Unpunched Card Afa 80Hot Toys Iron Man 2 Mark Vi Avengers Mark Vi Promo Conversion 1/6 Sideshow ReadDc Comics Batman Arkham City: Harley Quinn Statue (sdcc'14 Exclusive) UnisexMcfarlane Nfl 35 Dez Bryant Thanksgiving Variant Cl Chase Bronze - #88/1500Vintage Megator Masters Of The Universe Eternia Giant Tytus Heman Motu He ManPaw By Coarse Coarsetoys 2009 Sdcc Purple Spectrum Edition (limited - 1 Of 50!)Star Wars Vintage Toltoys Death Star Cardboard Playset Mib 1977 AustralianHot Toys Iron Man Mark Iv Mk4 Mms 123 1/6 Scale 12" Action Figure MibHuge Lot 68 Vtg Bandai Transformers Gobot Autobot Macau Takara Robot Parts 1980sVintage Star Wars C-3po Droids Cartoon Action FigureStar Wars 1985 Droids A-wing Pilot Sealed On Nice Card W/ Coin 93830 Case StoredStar Wars Vintage Toltoys Luke Skywalker 12in Mib 1977 AustralianHot Toys Ed 209 Robocop Sixth Scale Figure New Sealed Sound Effects Sideshow