Marc Alan Fishman: What Makes A Great Action Figure?

Green Lantern

As I stared blankly past my blank-canvas-of-a-computer-screen this evening (and yeah, I totally know you’re reading this Saturday morning…), my eyes have rested on my still-mint-in-package Kyle Rayner Action Figure. It’s his post-crab-mask, post-Jim-Lee, pre-New-52 costume. He sits in line with representatives of all the Lantern spectrum – Saint Walker, Atrocitus, Larfleeze, Sinestro, and Indigo. Whoops, never did buy that Star Sapphire figure, did I? Oh well.

There was a time, in what I’d wish was the not-too-distant past (it is, I did the math, ouch), where my toys would not find their final resting place on a half-mantle, still sealed in clamshells. They would be free-air action figures, posed in intricate dioramas, depicting my favorite scenes from books past. And slightly before that time (yes, so, I’m really starting to feel old), these same action figures would sit in a toy chest, ready to do combat on the coffee table, and zip around the basement. No worries, Batman can fly too. He installed rockets in his boots. Which is why there are holes in the heels.

Action figures have come a good long way since the 80s (when I’m personally professing the true boon began). The Transformers – once blocky and spindly in the same breath – are now multiple lines deep, featuring both highly intricate sculpts as well as animated-inspired designs offered in the same shelf-space. And where we comic fans might pray for a chase rogue packed deep in the line of a Batman or Superman series, now we’re getting B, C, and D listers being sold en masse. And where the action figures of yesteryear were either choked with articulation points (G.I. Joe) or confined to four or five (Batman: The Animated Series), now, we have offering from each pole and everything in between. And accessories? What was once a series of mono-color swords or missiles, is now a litany of swapable heads, hands, guns, and pieces of other figures.

And what of those Build-A-Figures? Pure marketing genius. How better to force kids and their grown-up counterparts to part with errant assets for otherwise unwanted figures in a line? Well, pack in that much-needed torso of the Anti-Monitor or Galactus, and suddenly the demand for Batroc the Leaper or G’nort goes through the roof.

If I’m allowed to kvetch for a second though, allow me now to digress. With the mass of plastic übermenches choking the aisles of the local department stores, there still seems to be a few big gaping holes left to plug. As usual, the girls aren’t getting as much attention as the boys. We’ve come a long way from just the pink aisle for the girls – packed tightly with 17 variants of the same white Barbie (sorry, Michael Davis) – but there still seems to be the stigma of corporate focus groups when it comes to complete diversity via toy lines. Look no further than The Avengers movie tie-ins, where Black Widow can’t even seem to negotiate a spot on the damned packaging, let alone get a figure to call her own. Where or how little girls are supposed to get their ass-kicking in, I don’t know. Maybe release a pink Thor and call it a day?

Girl-power aside, I’m also surprised that there’s no push of the ole’ action playset anymore. Back in my day a kid coveted those gargantuan homes for their action figures to pummel one-another on. To be totally fair? I only went over to Kyle’s house (Kyle Gnepper, of Unshaven Comics infamy) because I’d heard he’d had the Technodrome. Bastard never let me see it up close either. Suffice to say, perhaps it’s because of the price point or production woes, but when there’s 19 different Hulkbusters all coming to the collectible shelves near you… why isn’t there a half blown-up Triskelion awaiting the kiddies under the Hanukkah bush? Digression over.

So, what of my titular question? What makes a great action figure? Here’s the truth: imagination. Nothing more. No accessory too detailed, sculpt too perfect, or pitch-perfect point-of-articulation mean a hill of beans without the very life-force of a toy. Toys breed creativity for those willing to cut open their clamshells.

Now, if you’ll excuse me… I need to act out a better ending to Geoff John’s War of Light.