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Uncovering the Origin of Action Figures: What Was the First Action Figure?

May 20, 2024
What Was the First Action Figure
Action figures have captivated the imaginations of children and collectors alike for over half a century, but have you ever wondered, what was the first action figure? In this deep dive into the history of action figures, we’ll uncover the origins of these beloved toys and journey through the innovation, rivalry, and market shifts that have shaped the industry as we know it today.

Key Takeaways

  • G.I. Joe sparked the creation of action figures in 1964, introducing four branches and inspiring other toy companies to create their own lines.
  • Early comic book-inspired action figures gained significant popularity in the 1960s and 70s, with Marvel Legends and DC Multiverse leading innovation today.
  • The oil supply crisis of the 1970s led to smaller more cost effective toys that allowed for greater customization options, paving way for specialty toy companies catering to specific interests & demographics

The Birth of Action Figures: G.I. Joe

What Was the First Action Figure

Hasbro unveiled the G.I. Joe toy line in 1964, marking the creation of the first action figure. Designed as a more flexible alternative to dolls, G.I. Joe figures allowed for greater “action” and dynamic play, capturing the attention of young boys across America. The original G.I. Joe line was extremely popular and well-liked. It earned its rightful place in the Toy Hall of Fame in 2004.

Hasbro launched the G.I. Joe line as a response to Mattel’s Barbie dolls’ popularity, targeting boys with changeable clothes and accessories for their action figures. This innovative approach to play would lay the foundation for future action figure lines, including Star Wars action figures, superhero action figures, and modern collectible action figures.

The Four Branches: Action Soldier, Action Sailor, Action Pilot, and Action Marine

The original G.I. Joe line branched into four categories, each representing a different US Armed Forces sector:

  • Action Soldier (Army)
  • Action Sailor (Navy)
  • Action Pilot (Air Force)
  • Action Marine (Marine Corps)

Each branch featured unique uniforms and gear, allowing children to engage in imaginative play as they enacted adventures and missions with their G.I. Joe figures.

The concept of these four branches was groundbreaking in the action figure world, as they provided a diverse range of characters and play scenarios. The success of the G.I. Joe line would inspire numerous other toy companies to create action figure lines with similar themes, further solidifying the importance of military-themed figures in the action figure market.

The Term “Action Figure”

In 1964, Hasbro introduced the term “action figure” to distinguish the G.I. Joe action figure from dolls and make it more appealing to a male audience. This strategic marketing decision was instrumental in the widespread adoption of action figures among young boys and laid the groundwork for the massive growth of the action figure industry.

Today, the term “action figure” is synonymous with a vast array of toys representing characters from comic books, movies, and various other forms of media.

Early Comic Book-Inspired Action Figures

Early Comic Book-Inspired Action Figures

Comic book-inspired action figures gained popularity during the 1960s and 1970s, with toy companies recognizing the potential of producing figures based on popular comic characters. Among the earliest comic-inspired lines were Ideal’s short-lived Comic Heroines and Mego Corp’s more successful World’s Greatest Super Heroes.

Ideal’s Comic Heroines line featured 12 1/2” dolls of iconic characters like:

  • Wonder Woman
  • Supergirl
  • Batgirl
  • Mera

Despite the popularity of these characters, the line was ultimately discontinued due to lack of demand. On the other hand, Mego Corp’s World’s Greatest Super Heroes held a strong presence in the market during the early 1970s, carving a path for future comic-inspired action figure lines.

The Rise and Fall of Ideal’s Comic Heroines

The Comic Heroines line, produced by Ideal, was innovative for its time, featuring female superheroes like:

  • Wonder Woman
  • Supergirl
  • Batgirl
  • Mera

This was a significant development in a market dominated by male action figures. Unfortunately, the line was short-lived, as insufficient patronage led to its cancellation.

Today, these figures are considered rare collectibles due to their limited production and subsequent cancellation. The rarity of the Ideal Comic Heroines line serves as a reminder of the early attempts to bring comic book characters to life through action figures and the challenges faced by toy companies during this era. In fact, most figures from this time period faced similar challenges.

Mego Corp’s Lasting Impact

The World’s Greatest Super Heroes line by Mego Corp, which showcased about 31 DC and Marvel characters, made a significant impact on the action figure industry. The line was highly sought after by fans and collectors alike, as it featured the world’s greatest superheroes. Mego’s innovative designs and interchangeable bodies established a benchmark in the industry.

Even after Mego Corp’s dissolution into bankruptcy in 1983, their action figures remain popular among collectors to this day. The lasting impact of Mego Corp’s World’s Greatest Super Heroes line highlights the importance of innovation and quality in the action figure market, as well as the enduring appeal of comic book characters in the world of toys.

The Toy Industry Evolves: Toy Biz, Kenner, and McFarlane Toys

As the action figure industry matured, Toy Biz, Kenner, and McFarlane Toys emerged as dominant forces, each contributing unique designs and innovations to the market. With a primary focus on comic book characters, these companies helped shape the action figure landscape we know today. Their highly detailed designs and attention to detail set them apart from their competitors, raising the bar for the quality and intricacy of action figure design.

The contributions of Toy Biz, Kenner, and McFarlane Toys not only pushed the boundaries for what was possible with action figures, but also paved the way for the modern collectible action figure market.

The Marvel and DC Comics Rivalry

The Marvel and DC Comics Rivalry

The competition between Marvel and DC Comics dates back to the Golden Age of Comic Book Action Figures, with each company striving to outdo the other in terms of quality and innovation. Toy Biz and Kenner fueled this rivalry by producing action figures for Marvel and DC Comics, respectively, during this era.

The competition between Marvel and DC Comics had a significant impact on the toy industry, resulting in the production of more creative and intricate action figures. This rivalry spurred the emergence of smaller action figures and the growth of specialty toy companies, forever changing the landscape of the action figure market.

McFarlane Toys’ Focus on Detail and Adult Collectors

Founded by Todd McFarlane, McFarlane Toys set out to revolutionize the action figure industry by focusing on highly detailed Spawn action figures aimed at adult collectors. This shift in focus to detail and adult collectors had a profound impact on the industry, raising the standard for action figure design and broadening the market.

By catering to the needs of adult collectors, McFarlane Toys pushed the boundaries of what was possible with action figure design, inspiring other toy companies to follow suit and create their own highly detailed figures for collectors. The influence of McFarlane Toys on the action figure industry is still evident today, as companies continue to prioritize detail and cater to the needs of adult collectors.

The Impact of Star Wars on Action Figures

The Impact of Star Wars on Action Figures

The action figure industry experienced a significant transformation with the release of Star Wars in 1977, triggering a transition to smaller action figures and generating a new wave of fans. Kenner Products, the original producer of Star Wars action figures, created 3 ¾-inch figures in response to the film’s release, which became a major success and set the standard for future action figures.

The success of Star Wars action figures not only revolutionized the toy industry, but also altered the way Hollywood produced blockbuster films, with many filmmakers recognizing the potential for merchandising and tie-in products. The effects of Star Wars on the action figure market continue to be felt today, as companies strive to create innovative and collectible figures based on popular franchises.

The Shift to Smaller Action Figures

The combination of Star Wars’ popularity and the oil supply crisis led to a shift in the action figure industry towards smaller and more cost-effective figures. The move to smaller action figures allowed manufacturers to reduce the amount of plastic used in their products during a time of plastic shortage, making them more affordable and easier to collect.

This shift in action figure design was not only a practical response to the oil supply crisis, but also a result of changing market trends and consumer preferences. Smaller action figures allowed for greater customization options and packaging convenience, leading to the rise of micro-robots, short packed figures, and other smaller collectibles in the market.

The Oil Supply Crisis and its Effects on Toys

The 1970s oil supply crisis, triggered by events like the Arab oil embargo, Iranian Revolution, and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, greatly impacted the toy industry, particularly in the production of action figures. The shortage of plastic, a key component in the production of action figures, led to the deterioration of some figures, including smaller versions of G.I. Joe.

As a result of the oil supply crisis, toy companies were forced to find innovative ways to reduce the amount of plastic used in their products, leading to the production of smaller action figures that were more cost-effective and easier to collect. The oil supply crisis not only drastically affected the action figure industry, but also served as a catalyst for change in the market, paving the way for the modern action figure landscape.

Modern Action Figures and Collectibles

The current action figure market boasts an unprecedented level of diversity and intricacy, featuring a wide range of modern action figures and collectibles to cater to various interests and demographics. Some popular lines include:

  • Marvel Legends
  • DC Multiverse
  • NECA
  • Mezco Toyz

There is no shortage of options for fans and collectors alike.

As the market continues to evolve, the demand for unique and highly detailed action figures grows, with companies pushing the boundaries of design and technology to create innovative and captivating products like cyborg toy for collectors around the world.

Marvel Legends and DC Multiverse

Hasbro’s Marvel Legends, and DC Multiverse, first produced by Mattel and later by McFarlane Toys, are two popular lines of modern action figures and collectibles that cater to both casual fans and serious collectors alike. Both lines are known for their unique sculpts and highly detailed designs, setting a new standard for action figure quality and intricacy.

As the popularity of comic book characters continues to grow, so too does the demand for high-quality action figures that accurately represent these iconic heroes and villains. Marvel Legends and DC Multiverse action figures appeal to fans of all ages, serving as a testament to the enduring appeal of comic book characters in the world of toys.

The Rise of Specialty Toy Companies

The emergence of specialty toy companies like NECA and Mezco Toyz in recent years has broadened the action figure market even further, offering collectors unique and highly detailed action figures not typically found in mass retail outlets. These companies focus on niche markets and often produce figures that cater to specific interests and demographics, providing collectors with a wider range of options to choose from.

The emergence of specialty toy companies highlights the growing demand for unique and intricately designed action figures, as collectors seek out exclusive and limited edition products that stand out from the mass-produced offerings of larger toy companies. As the action figure market continues to evolve, the influence of specialty toy companies is likely to grow, shaping the future of the industry and the collectibles that fans cherish.


From the inception of G.I. Joe to the impact of Star Wars and the rise of specialty toy companies, the history of action figures is a fascinating tale of innovation, rivalry, and market shifts. As we look to the future, the action figure industry will no doubt continue to evolve, driven by the passion of collectors and the creative vision of toy companies around the world. One thing is certain: the love for action figures and the characters they represent will endure for generations to come.

Frequently Asked Questions

Was G.I. Joe a toy or show first?

G.I. Joe was initially developed as a toy in 1964 by Hasbro, following the idea of inventor Stan Weston and inspired by rival company’s interest in creating a military doll.

What was the first movie based on a toy?

Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure! was the first toy-to-film movie, released in 1977. It follows two ragdolls on an adventure adapted from the 1924 novel “Raggedy Ann and Andy and the Camel with the Wrinkled Knees,” and had a budget of $4 million, grossing $1.35 million.

How did action figures start?

Action figures were born in the early 1960s when Don Levine, the vice president and director of marketing at Hasbro, had an epiphany to create a toy for boys based on a wooden artist’s mannequin. This led to the development of G.I. Joe, which was inspired by Dave Breger’s comic strip named “G.I. Joe” that was published in 1942 in a weekly military magazine called Yank.

What was the first action figure ever made?

G.I. Joe was the world’s first action figure, developed by Stanley Weston and licensed to Hasbro for $100,000. It included 21 moving parts, uniforms representing the four branches of the US Armed Forces, and miniature weapons and service manuals.

How did Star Wars impact the action figure industry?

Star Wars revolutionized the action figure industry, introducing smaller and more affordable figures that were easier to collect.