Earlier this summer, G. I. Joe celebrated his 40th birthday. Joe and other action figures are a fond memory from my childhood. I never have come upon a satisfactory definition of "action figure," what makes an action figure different from a "doll." I know that the term was coined by the marketing team at Hasbro (short for Hassenfeld Brothers) because they feared that boys would not play with a "doll." As to the creation of Joe himself, there are two stories. One is that Stan Weston, a toy developer, went to Hasbro with the idea of poseable soldier toy. The second story is that Weston came to Don Levene, then Vice President of Marketing at Hasbro, with the idea of a poseable soldier toy based upon the show called The Lieutenant (the first show produced by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry). For whatever reason, nothing ever came of the tie in with The Lieutenant, although Hasbro went ahead with the idea of G. I. Joe, creating one of the most successful toys of all time.
In the wake of Joe's success came other action figures. One of the earliest was the line of Johnny West action figures put out by Marx. As the name implies, the Johnny West figures drew upon the popularity of Westerns at the time. Johnny West proved fairly successful, and the line ran in some form or another for over ten years. I can remember the Johnny West action figures quite well, as I had cousins and a neighbour who had nearly complete sets. In fact, they may have been the first action figures I ever played with.
I also remember Marx produced a line of medieval knight action figures called Noble Knights. There was Sir Brandon (the Blue knight), Sir Cedric (the Black knight), Sir Gordon (the Gold Knight), and Sir Stuart (the Silver knight). They even had a castle playset! They also produced Viking action figures: Erik the Viking and Odin the Viking (never mind that no Viking in ancient times would be named for a god...).
There was also Ideal's answer to G. I. Joe, Captain Action. Like G. I. Joe, the idea of Captain Action originated with Stan Weston. Captain Action could be changed into various heroes. Provided a boy had the proper costumes for the figure, Captain Action could be dressed as Aquaman, Batman, Buck Rogers, Captain America, Flash Gordon, The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger, The Phantom, Sgt. Fury, Spider-Man, Steve Canyon, or Tonto. Ideal added another action figure, Action Boy, who could be costumed as Aqualad, Robin, or Superboy. A villain was also added, Dr. Evil (not to be confused with the Austin Powers character of the same name...), although oddly enough Dr. Evil could not be dressed as different bad guys... Captain Action proved less than successful. The line was started in 1966 and then abruptly ended in 1968. That may be why I don't remember Captain Action at all. I would have been all of about five when the line ended.
I do remember Major Matt Mason, Mattel's entry into the action figure sweepstakes. Major Matt Mason was introduced in 1967 to capitalise on popularity of the American space programme at the time. Major Matt Mason was an astronaut. Naturally, there were a number of accessories available to him: a Space Sled, a Jet Pack, a Space Suit, a space station, and so on. Eventually, Mattel's "Man in Space" was joined by Sgt. Storm, Doug Davis, Jeff Long, and even an alien, Callisto. Given how many of my friends had Major Matt Mason figures, I would have thought the line was very popular, but it only lasted 3 years. In 1970 Mattel cancelled the line, I am guessing due to declining interest in the space programme at the time.
Regardless, my first action figure was one called "Action Jackson." This was the first action figure produced by Mego, later famous for successful lines of action figures based on superheroes, Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, and so on. There were a number of accessories and vehicles available for Action Jackson: a camper, a dune buggy, a foot locker, a helicopter, a horse, a jeep, a water scooter, and many more. There were also playsets, the Adventure Set, the Lost Continent, and so on. But despite the accessories, vehicles, and playsets, Action Jackson was a failure. Introduced in 1971, he was gone by 1973. Despite this, Action Jackson was one of my favourite toys as a child and I enjoyed many hours playing with him. As for Mego, they recovered quite nicely with the World's Greatest Superheroes line.
After Action Jackson, I got G. I. Joe and a score of Mego superheroes, as well as the Star Trek action figures. My brother got Big Jim, an action figure put out by Mattel. Big Jim didn't prove very successful, as Mattel kept changing his image. Originally the Big Jim line focused on athleticism and sports. The line then shifted to an emphasis on the outdoors and camping with the addition of a Big Josh figure (essentially Jim with a beard). Finally, they tried to make Big Jim a superhero. He was the leader of Big Jim's P.A.C.K. (Professional Agents/Crime Killers). Other figures in the P.A.C.K. line were Dr. Steel (a martial artist with a "steel" hand), The Whip (an expert with the whip and other weapons), and Warpath (a Native American who was expert with the bow). The line still failed to sell and was discontinued in 1977.
It wasn't very long after I was too old for toys that action figures essentially shrunk in size. G. I. Joe and the various Marx figures were about 12" high. Action Jackson and the other Mego figures were about 8". With Kenner's line of 3 3/4 inch Star Wars figures, no one wanted larger action figures any more. Perhaps because I grew up with the larger action figures, I always liked them better. But then when the Star Wars figures came out, I was too old to play with toys and it was out of my hands.
I suppose it is a cliche that men never outgrow their love of toys. At least it does hold true of myself. If I had the money I probably would collect them. And, probably, when no one was looking, I would even play them...