In a sense, action figures have been around just as long as other toys. Officially, the first action figure was GI Joe, produced in February, 1964 by Hasbro. Seen as Hasbro's answer to the popularity of Barbie dolls, with all her clothing and accessories, GI Joe was aimed at the male side of the market. Originally made in three versions, representing various branches of the military, GI Joe was an instant hit, an overnight success in fact, and has continued to sell by the millions in the more than four decades since then.
The term "action figure" was coined to avoid using the term "doll" for a toy which was aimed at boys. Marketed as a "moveable fighting man," the action figure was really nothing more than a new and improved version of the toy soldiers that boys have played with for centuries. Larger than most toy fighting men, and jointed to be posed in fighting postures, he gripped the imagination of a generation of boys and has never let go.
Due to the unpopularity of the War in Vietnam, GI Joe sales took a dip by 1970. He was reinvented in the seventies with the addition of several new but smaller-sized models, and an archenemy--a terrorist organization called Cobra. Since Cobra action figures were also sold, every kid could have whole battalions of troops to mount battles across floors and beds.
The Trend Continues:
In the late seventies, the Star Wars movies birthed a whole new series of action figures: Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and company. In the 1980's, cartoon characters like He-Man and his sister She-Ra appealed to both boys and girls. A full line of these characters--plus their sidekicks, friends, bad guys and castles--had all the kids begging their parents to spend money on action figures.
Since then, action figures have become commonplace and command their own section in any self-respecting toy-store. Many continue to be based on movies, such as Toy Story. A quick perusal of a local toy aisle will turn up not only GI Joe and the newest batch of Star Wars characters, but representatives of movies and cartoons on a global scale.
The newest development in the action figure scene is historical figures. These range from Beethoven and Mozart to Cleopatra and Edgar Allan Poe. One manufacturer specializes in historical figures of African-American folks, and hopes to add figures of different ethnicities, too. He works with teachers and parents to market the figures for learning and fun.
The Merits of Action Figures:
Action figures appeal to adults as much as kids, and in fact many of them are collectibles. Some are produced as collectibles; others are in demand because of their age. Both original GI Joes and the original Star Wars figures have been known to sell for big bucks at auctions and on e-bay.
Action figures have value besides their monetary worth. Toys that encourage imaginative play are good for kids. Running, jumping, rolling off beds or creeping through imaginary universes, kids are physically active while playing. Creativity is stimulated as they think up not only situations in which to place their characters, but plot twists and the final resolution as well. Who knows? These kids could grow up to write the next "Star Wars."
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