The term “action figure” was, according to Wikipedia, coined by Hasbro in order to market its G.I. Joe product line in the middle 1960s. It was felt by the powers that be at Hasbro that the target market, little boys, would not play with something that could possibly be construed as a doll, and thus a re-branding was needed if the product was to succeed. G.I. Joe was, therefore, marketed as an action figure, and went on to sell millions of units over the last 40 years in countries all over the world.
G.I. Joe and his accessories still constitute an impressive 79 units in the current Hasbro catalogue, but his greater legacy lies in the torrent of action figures that have been released by other companies since Hasbro broke through the gender barrier with its doll for boys (there — I said it.) Any family’s toybox will show an assortment of these figures — usually maimed through enthusiastic play so that they are missing limbs or heads — comic book characters such as Spiderman or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, anime-inspired characters like those from the Gundam Wing franchise, or those drawn from films or television such as the Star Wars or Star Trek series.
And the appeal of action figures does not end along with childhood. For your nerdy Uncle Bill, who works in the computer industry, there is Geekman, or for that frazzled new mother, Super Mom. The figures from McFarlane Toys include depictions of Ozzy Osbourne, Elvis Presley, characters from the movie The Matrix and the television show The Simpsons, among others.
We have even seen, in the last few years, the advent of do-it-yourself action figures in the Bionicle series from the venerable Danish toymaker Lego. This piece of marketing genius combined the satisfying process of Lego-building with the excitement of action-figure play. The success of the Bionicle franchise is helped by a comic book back-story for the Bionicle warriors, combined with the idea of collectibility and mutability of the characters. Bionicle enthusiasts happily purchase and re-purchase pieces to add to their collections, as the cast of characters changes in the Bionicle story.
As collectibles, as playthings, as characters in stop-action movies (such as Bloody Snow, a three-minute gem worthy of Quentin Tarentino or Sam Peckinpah, but in fact written, produced, and animated using nothing but Playmobil figures by Sven van der Hart, a Dutch artist whose website is well worth a visit) these toys have proven themselves an indispensible part of creative play.