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.