Plastic Power! Action Figures Through the Years (1970s-1980s)

Up until the early seventies, action figures were basically Barbie dolls for boys; there wasn’t much separating a Ken doll from GI Joe besides their wardrobe.  So, boys primarily played with those cheap green army men and made do.

Then, Batman and other superhero figures started appearing on the shelves, and it wasn’t long before Star Wars unleashed the Kraken – a tidal wave of action figures from all manner of movies and TV shows flooded the market.  Generation Xer’s ate them up and begged for more.

Let’s have a walk through some old catalogs, taking it year by year from the early seventies through the eighties, and look at the various action figure offerings through the decades. Enjoy.

1973

Like I said, there wasn’t much separating Barbie dolls from action figures back then – just more furry facial hair and different shirts.

1975

In 1975, the figures still had that “doll look”, but I’d say this year was a big leap forward, at least for your average seventies kid.  I had the Shazam figure and played the hell out of it.  You can’t underestimate what a big break this was from the tired old army-themed figures.

Certainly non-military figures had been around.  But if you had to put a date on it: the Summer ’74  was the year the action figure came into its own.   Planet of the Apes, Star Trek and DC superheroes suddenly started winding up in the grubby hands of seventies kids like myself, and a new world was opened up.

What seventies kid didn’t idolize Evel Knievel?  The man was a real-life superhero.

Big Jim and Big Jack are sporting some skimpy star-spangled tighty-whities; did they not come with actual clothing?

1976

Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive… We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better… stronger…. faster.

That Hall of Justice needs a makeover; I don’t remember it looking so pitiful.

1977

They really merchandised The Six Million Dollar Man to hell and back.  I had the figure, and also the lunch box.  Alas, I did not have the CB headset.

Ah, the Micronauts.  I had one or two figures myself.  The toys actually had their start in Japan a few years earlier, and were licensed by Mego in 1976.

If you go back and watch a Starsky & Hutch episode you’ll find it clearly wasn’t targeted to kids.  This was a very grown-up show; it’s incomprehensible that seventies kids (including myself) embraced it, and had the action figures and lunch boxes.  Take note of the “Huggy Bear” action figure  – Starsky and Hutch’s pimp informant.

Looks like Isis has been added to the product line.  I religiously watched the Saturday morning show, hopelessly in love with Joanna Cameron.

1978-1979

Star Wars has arrived, and all hell breaks loose in the action figure world.

Mego was offered the Star Wars deal, but refused (what were they thinking?).  So, Kenner picked it up, but were woefully unprepared for the demand.  The movie was released in May of 1977, but it wasn’t until 1978 that they were widely available – even then, they were in short supply.  In 1978 Kenner sold 40 million units, making 100 million dollars in revenue.

Micronauts still going strong… but not for long.  Mego would file for bankruptcy in three years (1982).

 

1980

The Empire Strikes Back is released, and the Star Wars merch continues to sell unabated. Even figures like IG-88 (the gangly robot above) who only appear on film for a few seconds become treasured, sought-after items.

Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and Battlestar Galactica were a poor substitute for Star Wars merch, but the demand for sci-fi action figures was nothing short of rabid and there was plenty of room in the market.

1981

Yoda: “A lot of money Kenner will make. Strong in their bank account The Force is. Hmm.”

Meanwhile, the company that turned down the Star Wars deal, Mego, is about to declare bankruptcy.

1983

So, as the last Star Wars movie is released (until it is resurrected decades later), the toy line begins to wind down.  While nothing could ever fill this void, another very different line of action figures explodes on the scene without benefit of even being linked to a movie franchise…

1984

Like Mego, Mattel had also declined on the Star Wars.  In 1981 they were desperately trying to claw their way back into the market.  With Masters of the Universe they finally hit the right cord with youngsters in the early eighties.  Eventually there would be a flood of MOU merch (comic books, Saturday morning cartoons, a Dolph Lundgren movie, etc.), but initially it was just an imaginative action figure line with no mass media connection.

We’ve seen DC lead the market in the action figure biz.  It’s about time that Marvel gets with the program.

I’m not sure this Hall of Justice is much better than the one from 1976.

1985

Admittedly, I’m a bit out of my element at this point.  I was too old to be interested in Sectaurs toys in 1985.  However, I can definitely see that we’ve come a long way from Starsky & Hutch action figures!

1986

It looks like the action figure market is once again reaching a new benchmark.  There are just so many product lines at this point: Thundercats, Transformers, MOU, Ghostbusters, Rambo…  the days of being stuck with a bag full of plastic army men and a furry headed GI Joe are long, long gone.  There’s an endless buffet of action figure choices on the shelves…

1987

And so, this is where we get off the action figure train.  It’s been a fun ride traveling from GI Joe and Captain Kirk, then arriving at He-Man and Mr. T.  Cheers.