I love toys. Even more specifically, I love action figures. I always have. As a kid, I had more action figures than you can imagine. As a twenty-seven-year-old man I have...well...more action figures than you can imagine. As a kid, action figures were a way to let my creative young mind act out all kinds of amazing fantasies, from epic space battles to monsters attacking knights in a castle (remember, the Fisher Price Great Adventures line? The one that had pirates and knights and cowboys and monsters and stuff? No? Just me? Oh man, those were great toys! Seriously. I wish I still had those. Where was I? Oh yeah...) to super heroes saving the world. As an adult collector, I now view toys as art. Mass produced art, to be sure, but no more than movies, video games, TV shows, etc. After all, someone had to design that toy, sculpt it and make sure it came out perfect.
I tell you all this so that, when I begin to pontificate on the present state of toys, you know that it comes not only from a place of love, but from twenty-some-odd years of being around them, studying them, even making my own art with them (I have recently gotten into toy photography). I have watched toys change since the early nineties. I have seen them progress, reach amazing heights, and, more recently, regress. It's been interesting and, as a collector, often frustrating, to observe. What, exactly, have I observed? It's simple: toys (at least the main-stream ones as opposed to the ones manufactured for the collector's market [more on that later]) have reached a place in recent years where the quality simply does not live up to the price, or even to the quality of toys manufactured even a few short years ago.
I guess the best place to start this exploration is way back in 1989. I was only two, so I don't actually have any memories of toys from that time. What I do have, however, is later knowledge of the quality of toys from that time period. Observe:
That is the Batman figure produced by Toy Biz in conjunction with the release of 1989's Batman. It's one of the first action figures I ever owned, and definitely an early manifestation of my life-long obsession with Batman. He's a little worse for wear now (he has survived over twenty years, now, and got played with A LOT! I even remember his bat-rope belt breaking when I still had a crib, or maybe just a side-rail on my big-boy bed to keep me from rolling out. Which was it? Oh well. The point is, I was very upset!) but over all, he's still a good figure. Seven points of simple articulation (head, shoulders, hips and legs, all simple pivot-joints) and five inches tall, a pretty basic figure by later standards, but definitely the beginning of the amazing figures to come. (By the way, I'll be using Batman figures as points of reference a lot in this article simply because I own more of them than I do any other type of figure, most of them manufactured by different companies. But fear not, the points I make do apply to pretty much all figures across the board, with a few exceptions I'll discuss later. Still, I will try to use other characters from other companies when possible for posterity.)
Through the nineties, figures remained similar to this. Sculpts and paint jobs improved, to be sure, but the scale and articulation of most figures remained about the same (I refer you toys from Batman: The Animated Series, the Spider-Man cartoon, Star Wars toys and pretty much every movie tie-in line from that period, all of which can be viewed on the wonderful thing we call The Internet.) On top of that, these toys were reasonably priced. I can't really recall any exact prices, of course, it was quite some time ago, and an Internet search of original MSRPs on some of the lines I remember from that time turns up nothing, but the fact is, they weren't as pricey as they are now. However, as the century drew to a close, toys were on the brink of taking off into the pieces of play-worthy art we typically think of today)
The Golden Age
I tend to think of the late nineties and early two-thousands as the Golden Age of toys. At this time, toy artists like The Four Horsemen burst on to the scene and every-day companies like Hasbro, Toy Biz and Mattel were producing high quality, reasonably priced toys (maybe not as reasonable as those from the nineties, but everything goes up in price and these were definitely “good bang for your buck” pieces, so “reasonable” is a good word in this case.) One of my favorite lines of all time, the Spider-Man Classics line by Toy Biz (later the Spider-Man Origins line when the Marvel license passed from Toy Biz to Hasbro) was produced from 2000-2005. Other wonderful lines that began during this time: Marvel Legends by Toy Biz (and, as stated above, by Hasbro later), DC Universe Classics by Mattel, and several lines by McFarlane Toys (though they had been ahead of the “quality figure” game, having produced pretty great toys since their founding in 1994). All of these lines featured figures that were (generally) six-inches or so in height with several points of more realistic, complex articulation (if you aren't sure what complex articulation is, it's just when a joint on a toy can move in several directions on different planes as opposed to along a single plane. Think of the way your head or ankle or wrist swivels in just about any direction as opposed to just turning one way or the other.)
The great thing about these toys, beyond that the fact that they were of really high quality, is that you could walk into just about any place that sold toys and buy them. Some of the best figures I ever got were in Wal-Mart, Target, Toys R Us (I know, you're probably saying “but Matt, you can still get figures there!” and you're right, but you're also wrong. I'll get to that) even in stores you wouldn't think of like movie stores and drug stores. These weren't just simple toys being made for kids, these were toys being made for kids and for guys (and girls, I suppose. But let's face it, mostly guys) like me who had never grown out of loving toys. They were fun enough for kids, but beautiful and complex enough for adults, and all at a price that wouldn't break the bank! It truly was a golden age. Most of the toys I own come from that time. Even the movie tie-in toys from that time are awesome. Observe:
That's a figure released in 2002 to coincide with the release of the first Spider-Man film. Gorgeous, i'n't he? 32 points of articulation, six-inches high, super-detailed sculpt and, most importantly released at a decent price for any type of consumer, not just collectors. And, lest you think it was only Marvel getting good movie tie-ins in the very early 2000's, check out this figure:
That's the “basic” figure from the Batman Begins toy line in 2005. Not as good as the figures released for Spider-Man a few years earlier, but still a pretty good figure. Notice I use the term “basic.” That's because, about this time, toy lines began a trend that continues to this day: the division of toys into simple lines and collector's lines. It wasn't quite as bad then as it is now, but there was definitely a shift beginning. Even the Begins line had a “deluxe” figure (though, admittedly, one still available in any store that sold toys) that, well, okay, it was really that different from the basic figure at the time, but it was still a sign of things to come. In fact, if I think about it, Batman Begins was the last comic-book film that had a simple, available anywhere toy line that was for kids and adults alike. By the time The Dark Knight rolled around, the toys available for kids were pretty poor. I guess this is a good place for a segue.
The Collector's Market and Toys Today
In 2008, toys began to get pretty complicated. Even though collector's lines from companies like DC Direct (begun in 1998) and Marvel Select (begun in 2002) had already been around for a while, they weren't yet a big force in the market until around this time. I, myself, hardly bought anything made by collector's companies/divisions, my hunger for great toys was easily sated by a trip to any regular store, as I have stated. But in 2008, I began to notice the change that still affects collecting today. When Iron Man came out, for example, the “basic” toys available were still pretty darn good. I don't actually own any, but I remember them pretty well, and have refreshed what I don't remember with pictures from the Internet.
On the other side of the fence, however, were the toys tied in to the release of The Dark Knight. I suppose, perhaps, that some of the difference in the toy lines can be attributed to the fact that while Iron Man was still a fairly family-friendly film, The Dark Knight was very much an adult-oriented film, not easily given to producing toys for children. Whatever the reason, there was a very noticeable split in toys for this film: the “basic” line (consisting of smaller scale, poorly sculpted, cartoonish, barely articulated figures) and the “movie masters” line (consisting of larger, more detailed, more articulated figures). The basic figures were so poor, in fact, that I only actually bought one, the Batman figure. I did, however, buy three of the “movie masters” figures (a line they would reintroduce again for The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel, both of which produced even poorer “basic” toy lines than The Dark Knight).
Seen here, for comparison's sake, are the figures for Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and, The Dark Knight Rises (from left to right). Pay extra attention to the figure from Rises because it is going to come into play:
Notice how, between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, the figure shrunk considerably down to a 3 ¾ inch figure with almost zero articulation. I wish I could say that this is something that was unique to the tie-ins for that movie, but I can't. Figures throughout the early 2010s all began to come in this size, be they Marvel or DC, tied in with a movie or not, with the once standard 5-6 inch figures almost disappearing completely, to be found only in more collectors-geared lines like Marvel's “Legends” and “Select” lines and in DC's “DC Collectibles” division. To add insult to injury, these figures began to cost much more than their quality would dictate, usually in the $8-$9 a figure range! Obviously part of this can be attributed to the rising cost of production (certainly, as we know, all petroleum-based products are at sky-high prices right now) but I think part of it also has to do with programming a culture to accept less for more, much like in many other walks of life. This also allows for the same companies to manufacture their collectible figures and market them for higher costs (find me a decent Marvel, DC, Predator, Alien, whatever figure that costs under $20, I dare you.) to the people who can afford them.
In a way, I can understand not giving kids the best figures on the market. Kids tend to break things. What does a kid care about articulation and paint jobs? While these things may be true over all, it's just not true of all kids. I still have a vast majority of my toys from when I was a young kid. I took good care of them. I loved them. I adored figures with more articulation because it meant I could put them in cooler poses and do more with them when I was playing. Of course you don't want to give a child a $25 DC Collectibles Batman figure because there is always the chance it will get broken or the paint scuffed up, but why can't that same child still have a good quality toy at a reasonable price like there used to be?
The good news is that it isn't all doom and gloom. There are still a few bastions of toy greatness amongst all the dreck in the toy aisles. The line I always leap to first these days when I think “great toys at good prices” is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toy line. Currently, there are dozens of really great figures tied in to Nickelodeon's most recent incarnation of the Heroes in a Half Shell. The quality of the current run of Turtles toys is just as good as the line released back in the '80s that went along with the original cartoon. They're a fantastic scale, reasonably articulated, wonderfully sculpted and artfully painted. They come with various accessories and are sturdily crafted. All for the low low price of (typically) $8.99! Just look at them!
Seen there are my animated series Raphael, my 2014 movie Raphael, and my 2014 movie Shredder (I know the movie got lambasted, but I actually enjoyed it and I thought the designs were pretty cool. Plus, the figures for the film are just as well made as the ones for the cartoon.)
And the Turtles aren't the only standouts. I'm not currently a wrestling fan, but I can't help, when I go to Toys R Us, but see the oodles and oodles of WWE figures on the racks. The company is huge right now amongst fans and the toys (in an interesting comparison to the Turtles figures) are of the same great quality they have been for over decade. No WWE fan will be disappointed by a trip to the toy store.
I don't know where toys will go from here. My hope is that they will take a shift back towards where they were in the '90s, but my guess is they will stay a pretty steady course from here on out. And while it will be hard on my wallet, it certainly won't deter me from continuing to grow my collection, and, hopefully, it won't deter future collectors, either.
Matt Spaulding is the co-host of the 2 Broke Geeks Podcast, available now on iTunes and on Twitter @2BGPod. He also currently loves toy photography and can be found displaying his works on Instagram at aceofknaves88.