Brian Torney: Don't Call Them "Kidults!"

by Brian Torney | 18 Apr 2024

Industry Commentary, Op-Ed


Don’t call them “Kidults!” As if it were a good thing, NPD Group proclaimed in 2022 that toys and games for “Kidults” represented at least 25% of US-based toy sales. “Wow,” they said, “and it’s also the biggest source of growth for the industry!” Nearly every major toymaker had already noticed the trend and leaned into adult fans and collectors. Whereas once toymakers like Hasbro and Mattel scoffed at their basement-dwelling adult consumers, suddenly those geeks, ready to plunk down their hard-earned cash for a dopamine hit of pure plastic nostalgia, were the belles of the toy ball.


But how did this happen? What are the implications for the future of the toy industry? And who are these rageful fans who, often belligerently, power industry growth like Sith or Supervillains?


For starters, understand that NPD included kids over 12-years-old in their “Kidult” totals, which seems a bit preposterous considering that 12 and 13-year-olds behave more like kids than adults. But even separating the once prosperous youth market (that powered massive 1990s successes likeFurby, VideoNow, and HitClips), adult fandom is not monolithic. Instead, recognize that toy fandom includes nostalgic gamers, action figure collectors, and casual collectors, just for starters. These groups are distinct but sometimes overlap with other sectors of fandom, like comic book readers, film and TV nuts, trading card collectors, cosplayers, and sci-fi / fantasy enthusiasts. I want to focus on action figure collectors and a little on the nebulous, behemoth casual collectors.


The adult connoisseur of mass-market plastic playthings weighs prioritization of their other fandoms, such as comics and entertainment, against their driving desire to acquire toys (chiefly action figures and relevant accessories) that resonate with their coveted nostalgia and perhaps those other fandoms.


The hunt, acquisition, accumulation and display are often principally important aspects of the collector’s journey. Of varying importance to these collectors are unboxing and play (be it in-hand fidget or actual make-believe). Some fans unbox their toys for posing and display (Openers), but others are “Mint-on-Card” or “Mint-in-Box” collectors who arrange their collections spine-out like books or even pegged like toy store shelves. Collectors who do open their action figures typically exhibit fidget and posing play, sometimes referring to a great figure as “Hand Candy.” Assume that the extent of actual play with these toys ends with posed display on the collector’s shelves. If they do still enjoy a good romping adventure on the bedspread or carpet with their tiny armies, adult collectors tend to keep it to themselves.


Action figure collectors generally see the “Golden Age” of their favorite toys as harkening to the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s. Here are a few key historical moments that might have been formative for collectors:


  • 1964 – Hasbro introduces the first “action figure” G.I. Joe, which stood nearly 12-inches in height and featured removable clothing and accessories.
  • 1971 – Mego Corporation licensed superhero characters from Marvel and DC Comics to manufacture 8-inch posable action figures that included removable clothing and accessories.
  • 1973 – A global oil supply crisis, including an embargo against the United States, forced cost-cutting toymakers to resort to smaller-scaled action figures, such as the soon-dominant 3.75-inch scale.
  • 1974 – Microman (later Micronauts) becomes the first major action figure line scaled at 3.75-inches.
  • 1976 – Kenner acquires the license to produce Star Wars action figures and vehicles, soon obtaining market dominance as Star Wars and its sequels populate toy shelves with 3.75-inch figures, playsets, and vehicles to fill out every kid’s dream galaxy.
  • 1982 – Mattel launched its buff 5-inch He-Man and Masters of the Universe toy line, upending the status quo in the action figure aisle. Product quickly sold out and my older brother had to settle for Tarzan repainted with yellow hair that Christmas.
  • 1982 – Hasbro relaunched G.I. Joe as G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, now in the collectible 3.75-inch scale, accompanied by an animated TV series and Marvel comic book.
  • 1984 – Hasbro combined two Japanese toy brands from Takara into Transformers, which prospered thanks to a Marvel comic book and animated TV series.
  • 1984 – Star Wars toymaker Kenner overtook Mego as the licensor of popular DC Comics characters Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and the Super Friends with the popular Super Powers Collection of 3.75-inch action figures.
  • 1984 – Mattel lost out on their bid for the DC Comics rights but accepted Marvel’s Spider-Man, Captain America, Wolverine, and Iron Man as a consolation prize. While the toys didn’t sell, Marvel scored a big hit with their tie-in Secret Wars comic book series.
  • 1984 – LJN tag teamed with Titan Sports to produce 8-inch rubber figures of World Wrestling Federation (WWF) Superstars like Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, The Ultimate Warrior, and Macho Man Randy Savage.
  • 1985 – LJN, previously the makers of the unsuccessful Advanced Dungeons & Dragons toy line, produced Thundercats, which was accompanied by an edgy animated TV series by Rankin-Bass Animated Entertainment. Similar entrants SilverHawks and BraveStarr fared little better in the crowded marketplace.
  • 1985 – Following two animated series and a successful Star Wars: Power of the Forceline, Kenner and Lucasfilm discontinued producing Star Wars action figures. Demand only grew. The aftermarket value of classic Star Wars toys skyrocketed. Fans craved new movies and, failing that, new toys.
  • 1986 – Ghostbusters action figures hit shelves not thanks to the Bill Murrey theatrical comedy film, but the animated TV series The Real Ghostbusters.
  • 1987 – Mattel launched Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future and accompanying entertainment content. Despite its failure, the line is remembered for integrating cause and effect between VHS entertainment and Captain Power vehicles.
  • 1988 – Playmates Toys scored an unexpected hit with their line of 4-inch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures, coinciding with a popular animated TV series of the same name.
  • 1988 – Kenner introduced Starting Lineup, 4-inch action figures based on stars from baseball, hockey, football, basketball, boxing, soccer and golf.
  • 1990 – After a false start in 1989 with ToyBiz, Warner Bros. and DC Comics’ cinematic powerhouse Batman started a long run with Kenner (later acquired by Tonka, then Hasbro) in their 4-inch Dark Knight Collection. Soon the caped crusader would find himself decked out in ever-crazier situational bat gear like Slalom Racer Batman, Anti-Virus Batman, Neural Claw Batman, Fist Fury Batman, Piranha Blade Batman, Land Strike Batman, Battle Board Batman, Laser Batman, and Fractal Armor Batman.
  • 1990 – Hasbro briefly cancelled its Transformers toy line, at least in the United States. Two years later, it was back!
  • 1990 – When LJN closed its toy division, Hasbro manufactured 3-inch WWF figures with action features. The new scale allowed for greater collectability and a wrestling ring playset.
  • 1990 – Galoob, famous for Micro Machines, produced a line of 8-inch World Championship Wrestling (WCW) figures. Then a lesser-known brand, WCW product performed poorly, and the line was quickly cancelled.
  • 1991 – Marvel’s top-selling X-Men comic book made the jump to action figures courtesy of ToyBiz. These 5-inch scale action figures surged in sales once Fox Kids premiered their X-Men: The Animated Series TV show. Having debuted in 1963, X-Men comics gifted ToyBiz an endless supply of heroes and villains. Still, fan-favorite Wolverine joined Batman in some truly zany costumes like Space Wolverine, Monster Armor Wolverine, Stealth Wolverine, Robot Wolverine, Space Rider Wolverine, and Hydro Blast Wolverine to make sure the character was present in virtually every series of action figures.
  • 1992 – Playmates Toys licensed the rights to create action figures based on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
  • 1993 – Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, cobbled from Japanese TV show stock footage by Saban, usurped attention from comic book heroes, turtles, and global enforcers thanks to Bandai’s successful action figures and transforming Megazord. Parents resorted to extreme means to acquire a Megazord in time for Christmas, sometimes lining up outside stores overnight.
  • 1993 – Kenner licensed the rights to make Jurassic Park toys including dinosaurs, humans, and vehicles.
  • 1994 – Ex-Marvel comic book illustrator Todd McFarlane parlayed his successful mature comic series Spawn into an exciting, edgy 5-inch action figure line known for sophisticated sculpts and violent, sexual imagery rather than articulation.
  • 1994 – After 13 years, Hasbro ended development of their 3.75-inch G.I. Joe toyline.
  • 1995 – Buoyed by Laserdisc and VHS releases of the original Star Wars trilogy, as well as the upcoming Special Editions, Kenner restarted their Star Wars Power of the Force action figure line, which has continued in various forms to the present.
  • 1995 – Hoping for a third lightning strike, Hasbro put its subsidiary Kenner in charge of the latest revamp of G.I. Joe, dubbed G.I. Joe Extreme, featuring 5-inch steroidal military men with big guns. Yay 90s!
  • 1996 – Jakks Pacific picked up the WWF license, creating WWF Superstars action figures in 6-inch scale.
  • 1998 – Recognizing the distinction between kids and fans, Warner Bros. launched DC Direct (later DC Collectibles) to bring short-run, high priced action figures to comic book and specialty stores.
  • 1998 – Tiny toymaker Funko debuted Wacky Wobblers. At first known for bobble heads and blind box vinyl toys, Funko would later challenge traditional toymakers for collectors’ hearts.
  • 1999 – Due to a resurgence in popularity for professional wrestling, ToyBiz released a vast array of new toys based on WCW stars. Though successful, the line was cut short when WWF acquired their competitor.
  • 2001 – McFarlane Toys followed up its successful Beatles, Movie Maniacs, and The Simpsons action figure lines with McFarlane Sports Picks. These statuesque figures with limited articulation proved toy collectors craved more than movie, TV and comic action figures.
  • 2001 – Peter Jackson’s Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring hit theaters, starting a tremendously popular film franchise. ToyBiz produced almost 300 6-inch action figures and accessories throughout the trilogy, allowing fans to fill out the pantheon Middle Earth.
  • 2002 – Following the successful 6-inch Spider-Man Classics action figure line, which incorporated sophisticated sculpture and over 30 points of articulation for maximum shelf presence, ToyBiz gave the entire Marvel Universe that treatment in Marvel Legends. Expressly targeting collectors, Marvel Legends continues today, now manufactured by Hasbro.
  • 2008 – Yet another attempted comeback for Mattel’s Masters of the Universe action figure line succeeded where others had not by relying on adult fans to fuel sales. The line eventually migrated to an online subscription business.
  • 2008 – Having picked up the rights to Batman, Superman and the rest of the DC Comics characters, Mattel hired Four Horsemen Studios to sculpt their new line of 6-inch superhero action figures, DC Universe Classics.
  • 2008 – Bandai started its S.H. Figuarts action figure line based on various American and Japanese properties, beginning with Kamen Rider. These high-end collectibles feature higher-quality engineering, sculpture and paint in exchange for price tags higher than $50. Specialty action figure makers Figma, NECA, MAFEX, Mezco, and Super 7 followed.
  • 2010 – Hasbro kept Star Wars fans happy through the continuation of the long-lived 3.75-inch action figure line that had previously been called The Original Trilogy Collection, The Saga Collection, and The Legacy Collection as Star Wars: The Vintage Collection.
  • 2010 – Funko POPs were revealed at San Diego Comic-Con, soon becoming the undisputed leader in casual figure collectibles. Whereas Marvel Legends, Star Wars: The Vintage Collection, and other mass-market toy brands focused deep on hardcore collectors, Funko excelled with infrequent buyers and obsessives alike.
  • 2010 – Now known as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), the former WWF brand migrated to Mattel.
  • 2013 – Following the trend set a decade earlier by Marvel Legends, Hasbro unveiled a line of 6-inch Star Wars action figure called The Black Series.
  • 2019 – Warner Bros. split their valuable DC Comics superhero license, giving Spin Master the “kids” portfolio while partnering with McFarlane Toys for 7-inch collector-targeted toys.
  • 2020 – G.I. Joe Classified Series, rebooted by Hasbro, gets the classic military heroes and their villainous foes Cobra in on the 6-inch fun.

What makes an action figure collector brand?


Notice that many of the above entry points into action figure collecting aren’t just big movie premieres or other pop culture moments. For generations of action figure fans, nostalgia stems from pop memories inexorably tied to expressions in toy form. Star Wars fans might have had to wait months for their first wave of action figures, but hungrily bought up rainchecks called Star Wars Early Bird Certificates, literal empty boxes promising future toys not yet manufactured. G.I. Joe, Transformers, Masters of the Universe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and X-Men toys all featured tie-in cartoons and comic books.


While toymakers strive to lure the adult fandoms of various entertainment brands, they would do well to recognize that brands indigenous to toys are frequently those most exciting to toy collectors. Enduring film series like Indiana Jones might have thrilled audiences, but few toy collectors crave new plastic executions of that beige archeologist; this despite Hasbro’s every attempt. Similarly, Hasbro launched a series of Dungeons & Dragons Retro action figures, timed to the theatrical release Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, but found that D&D fandom didn’t precisely overlap with action figure collectors. Those fans preferred character and creature executions that would fit well for tabletop in-game use. NECA and Super 7 picked up the license to produce 7-inch scale action figures for D&D, but those companies will have a lower threshold for success.


Older toymakers, like Hasbro and Mattel, plunge deep into their archives for dormant brands that might spark collector interest. ROM, Micronauts, Visionaries, Inhumanoids, Supernaturals, Computer Warriors, Food Fighters, M.U.S.C.L.E., Street Sharks, even Rock Lords have adamant, small fanbases. But those brands failed to catch on (or obtain staying power) in their initial incarnations. Can’t imagine “vault” brands as viable today? I’d agree but check out NECA’s successful line of adult fan-targeted action figures based on Disney’s Gargoyles, a short-lived 1994 animated TV series. In 2023, Hasbro’s Marvel Legends action figure line sparked positive fan attention when long-forgotten fantasy hero Crystar: The Crystal Warrior made an appearance in promotional materials for an upcoming action figure wave. Fans and the Hasbro team alike could be forgiven for asking “Cry-who?” Even enthusiasts who did recall the 1983 comic book series and its corresponding Remco toy line were surprised to learn Marvel owned the character, which hit market in toy form a year before the comic series appeared. Instead, the obscurity of the character made it a popular new entrant. Smaller toymakers are servicing small fanbases by making deluxe, high-price action figures. Super 7 produces $50+ action figures for Animaniacs, Toxic Crusaders, ThunderCats, and assorted Disney animated classics (some more successful than others).


Other small toy manufacturers are challenging industry leaders on quality and price point. In 2019, McFarlane Toys picked up the license to produce action figures for DC Comics characters as well as their film and television iterations. McFarlane’s DC Multiverse scored an award from NPD Group for bestselling action figure line of 2022. In truth, multiple competitors outsold DC Multiverse, but differing SKU strategies between companies accounted for the mix up. Still, McFarlane is highly competitive by offering fan-favorite characters with unique, intricate sculpts and generous deco jobs for price points lower than Hasbro and Mattel products. At time of writing, McFarlane collectors are unhappy with 2024 price increases for their favorite toy line. However, McFarlane still beats the competition on value for its lower price point. The Loyal Subjects BST AXN line offers up 5-inch posable figures for properties as disparate as Gremlins, KISS, The Lord of the Rings, and Naruto for lower prices as well.


Don’t count the big toy makers out. Hasbro and Mattel still lead the pack with big revenue-driving offerings gut-punching nostalgia…and wallets.


In February 2018 at New York Toy Fair, Hasbro upped the ante when they premiered a crowdfunding program, dubbed HasLab, and the first entrant, a gargantuan toy vehicle iteration of Jabba the Hutt’s Sail Barge from Star Wars: Return of The Jedi. Fans had long clambered for a scaled toy of the vehicle, but the halcyon days of oversized vehicles and playsets were long ago in a Toys “R” Us far, far away. Priced at $499.99, that plastic monstrosity measured over 4-feet in length, perfectly scaled to accommodate a multitude of Hasbro’s popular 3.75-inch Star Wars: The Vintage Collection action figures. Soon Hasbro extended HasLabs for other owned and licensed brands including Transformers, G.I. Joe, Marvel, Ghostbusters, even Sesame Street, while Mattel and others launched crowdfunding challenges for WWE, Hot Wheels, Jurassic Park, and Masters of the Universe. When funding closed on HasLab Marvel Legends Galactus in 2021, Hasbro reaped Almost $14 Million in revenue, likely one of the company’s bestselling toys of the year.


American toy collectors well remember Toys “R” Us aisles packed not just with rows and rows of action figures, but also giant boxes holding vehicles and playsets. Star Wars offered behemoth vehicles first, but the pinnacle of shelf presence hit in 1985. The G.I. Joe U.S.S. Flagg aircraft carrier playset measured almost 8-feet long. That’s the “holy crap” type of toy fans missed out on after Walmart, Target and Amazon became the leading toy sellers. Whereas traditional retailers balked at monolithic boxes and epic price tags, toymakers discovered the limitations of retailers’ mass-market appeal need not prevent such items from reaching a sizeable audience. The cottage business of fan-targeted online retailers like Entertainment Earth, Big Bad Toy Store, and Dork Side Toys blossomed to become a viable category. Manufacturers themselves got into the retail business as well with Hasbro Pulse, Mattel Creations, and McFarlane Toy Store.


Who is this fickle fan?


As any toy industry marketer might tell you after transitioning to a collector brand, the fan community can be prickly, enthusiastic, exclusionary, and sometimes downright demeaning. There are positive aspects to having an adult audience capable of publicly expressing their interests and commentary. A tide of excitement on message boards and social media, as well as at conventions and fan events, helps toymakers know that fans are out there, watching, listening, waiting for products that compel them. A quick survey of Facebook group members for various action figure brands shows that creative and business stewards from their respective toymakers are members, even if they interact in the groups infrequently. Many designers and marketers are fans themselves, making toys that spark their own nostalgic joy. But the relative closeness of toymakers to their fandoms can give outsized influence to vocal minority view points, or even amplify voices of fan negativity. Sometimes the knowledge that someone “in power” is watching seems to lead fans to aberrant online behavior, even threats.


At Hasbro and Marvel, the Marvel Legends team exhibits palpable love and devotion to the characters and toy line within their purview. Under their stewardship, the brand soared to new heights unimaginable during the early days when ToyBiz started making Marvel Legends action figures. But a single perceived mistake –a lack of accessories, an imprecise character visage, the “wrong” character chosen for a HasLab—could still provoke fan rage that spreads virally within the fanbase.


As example of fan rage, my marketing partner and I received various messages demanding our firing after launching Deadpool’s Head as a major 2020 Marvel Legends item. But, as we noted to our confused superiors, such negativity only extended to Hasbro Pulse and Marvel Legends social channels and groups. The multitudes of general Marvel Comics fans and Deadpool fans loved the offering and powered it to success. Likewise, the highly invested brand stewards for G.I. Joe Classified Series have received sometimes sexist and demeaning online harassment, somehow taking it all in stride, as their efforts led to unimpeded sales success.


It's important not to conflate vocal online fanaticism with the sentiments of the overall fanbase. Fandom is not monolithic. Online fans are, however, legion. A contrarian campaign by online collectors can foil the biggest of plans, including enormously expensive crowdfunding campaigns.


Often owing to vocal fan sentiment, not all Hasbro and Mattel crowdfunding efforts succeed. Hasbro launched a HasLab challenge to bring an impressive 18-inch Rancor action figure, scaled to fit with the popular Star Wars: The Black Series 6-inch action figures. Accidental leaks and an inauthentic launch announcement in the New York Times gave it a limping start. Fan enthusiasm declined even further due to a strong, negative social media reaction to the product’s quality, scale and price tag. As tweet after tweet and post after post attacked the product, interested fans watched funding totals drop, in real time. Suddenly, this super cool dream item ceased to be cool and dreamy. Hasbro faced similar perceived cost sentiment for their Marvel Legends HasLab Engine of Vengeance and Star Wars: The Black Series Reva Force FX Elite Lightsaber. Mattel Creations also failed to fund WWE Ultimate Edition WCW Monday Nitro Entrance Stage and Jurassic World: The Gates.


These missteps were costly. Both manufacturers likely completed development of their failed crowdfund projects prior to each’s untimely demise, leaving tooling as the primary remaining expense. But the greater impact was on perception within the fan community whose sour sentiments salted renewed, longtime resentment. Why are these people who don’t get us (the fans) making the toys? Why is this giant corporation trying to put me in debt with all these overpriced items? Why aren’t I in charge? Of course, Mattel and Hasbro staff their teams with die-hard aficionados driven far harder by their toy obsessions than by corporate margin requirements, but toy collectors often choose to malign those designers and marketers. Fans’ fixation on their beloved toys sometimes obscures the obvious truth that entire teams of specialists lovingly labor to bring these brands and items to life. Margin requirements aren’t directly in the hands of those individuals working on the brands. The employee might face the conundrum of their pet project’s outright cancellation or elimination of valuable elements to make cost. After all, these designers and marketers work for corporations. To paraphrase the fan-favorite, collector-friendly film Jurassic Park: You’ll never have control, that’s the illusion.


Financially speaking, collectors run the gamut from uber-wealthy, like actor and Dungeons & Dragons fan Joe Manganiello, to debt-laden odd-jobbers who might deliver your GrubHub order, and everyone in between. The hobby is an expensive one. It’s also a particularly addictive and compulsory one. Research on modern action figure collectors lurks mostly behind the curtains and firewalls of various toy manufacturers. One could be forgiven for expecting a rich body of quantitative data on these high-spending consumers, but most toymakers rely primarily on qualitative conversations, social media conversations, and internal (nerd) experts. Publicly available research typically concentrates on hording behavior, distinctly different from collecting. Earlier research, including a study and research compendium in Advances in Consumer Research (1988), directly linked collecting to attributes of addiction and compulsory behavior. The collector ritualistically acquires objects of little (or no) utilitarian value. “While feelings of well-being may increase as a result,” the study’s abstract says, “the addict's other interests narrow until they focus solely on the external object of the addiction.” Judging from the constant social media activity many collectors exhibit, the word “obsession” isn’t an exaggeration. “Association with other compulsive collectors further supports this feeling of positive addiction,” the study clarifies.


The altered states of consciousness produced through the collector's search and acquisition are commonly described as mood swings resembling the euphoria and depression induced by chemicals. Collectors frequently experience a holistic, autotelic sensation described as "flow" (Csikszentmihalyi 1975). The search process is clearly a thrill-seeking experience for many collectors, which may engender distress as well as eustress. Collectors often report feeling both a craving and a loss of control with respect to their acquisition habits, and occasionally experience negative consequences in other spheres of their personal and social activity as a result of their chronic collecting.


Though it has increasingly become nearly impossible to achieve, many toy collectors seek to be “completists”, intending to collect every action figure and product associated with their preferred toy lines. As example, I’ll use my personal toy obsession, Marvel Legends:


  • In 2002 a Marvel Legends action figure cost approximately $8.99 when purchased from a major mass market retailer. Only 19 Marvel Legends action figures (including rare variants) shipped that year so a fan could “complete” their set for less than $170.
  • In 2004, 35 Marvel Legends action figures and 2 box sets cost a fan around $450.
  • In 2007, now manufactured by Hasbro, 38 action figures, 3 exclusives, and 2 multi-packs cost $560.
  • In 2013, fans spent $710 on 30 action figures, 1 exclusive, and 1 multi-pack.
  • By 2018, fans could barely keep up: 93 individual action figures and an assortment of 25 multi-packs and exclusives totaled over $3,100.

Following the 2021 introduction of an annual HasLab crowdfunding campaign, starting with the towering 27-inch Sentinel robot from X-Men storylines, Marvel Legends collectors could expect an additional $199.99-399.99 added to their annual totals.


It would be disingenuous to call most collectors completists, but the hobby lends itself to endless consumption. It’s also true that a typical action figure collector doesn’t stop with one toy line. A Marvel Legends collector might also habitually purchase G.I. Joe Classified or Star Wars: The Black Series, or even Fortnite action figures. Dear marketer, there’s a better than slim chance your target consumer fills up storage closets with your product, all the while also buried in credit card debt.


It’s arguable that kids and more casual fans also fuel collector-focused action figure brands. Discussions with kids and teenagers tell us that they prefer the adult-targeted executions of their favorite characters over those targeted to their own age group, which are typically more cheaply produced. Parents purchase kid-targeted 12-inch or 3.75-inch action figures as affordable gifts, but kids clearly see the quality difference between $9.99-14.99 playthings and $24.99-49.99 collectibles. Still, younger consumers aren’t shelling out for new action figures at the cadence toymakers pump out new product, sharing UPC barcodes with other fans to enable their hunts, or lining up outside Target on a presumptive “drop” day.


If these fans are over-tapped, why do revenue numbers keep climbing?


Like Beanie Babies, action figures were among the first collector’s items distributed through the secondary market of eBay and other online resellers. Today, many collectors purchase product beyond their own interest or collection with the intent to resell. Collectors call those opportunistic quick-turnaround resellers “scalpers”. A new item slowly making its way to store shelves might seem scarce at first because resellers scoop up early supplies. Fearing being left in the dust, some fans pay exorbitant scalper prices to be assured of acquisition. Some collectibles really are rare, but many available through mass market channels simply stagger to shelves over a period of time.


Crowdfunding projects offer a unique glimpse into the collector’s “business” mindset. Many fans “subsidize” their own purchase by purchasing additional units to turnover and sell on eBay. When you’re spending $300 on a toy, why not buy a few more as an investment? Early HasLab items do have a high aftermarket value. The Star Wars: The Vintage Collection Khetanna (Jabba’s Sail Barge) originally retailed for $499.99, but commands nearly $3,000 on eBay. However the more recent Marvel Legends Galactus, which retailed for $399.99, typically garners just $500. Overtime, HasLabs have attracted more backers, flooding the aftermarket with more product than the audience can absorb. Return on investment can no longer be expected. Hasbro Pulse took notice of the repeat purchase trend, allowing purchase of up to 5 per customer.


Here’s the real question for collector brands: how many people are actually collecting your brand, versus purchasing it for future resale? Does a G.I. Joe Classified collector really want 5 Assault Copter Dragonflies ($274.99) for their personal collection? Are McFarlane Toys’ DC Multiverse Wonder Woman action figures scarce, or are fans buying up multiples to try to get their Platinum variant? Are there as many collectors out there as there are toys to greet them? Is this just another bubble?


That’s tricky to ascertain, though I have my suspicions. For answers, I look to previous bubbles to find similarities and differences. Beanie Babies, trading cards, the dot-com boom…


The best comparison isn’t far removed from the action figure hobby. What do Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have in common? Like many toy brands, they didn’t start out as toys, movies, or TV shows; they started as comic books.


North American comic books started out through newsstand distribution. Industry leaders like DC Comics and Marvel provided copies of their comic book issues to newsstands. The newsstands then sold those comics. When remainders existed (as was typical), unsold inventory would be returned to the publisher, or later, documented and destroyed.


Publishers might produce 300,000 copies but only sell 100,000. A successful title sustained high enough sell through to withstand the financial burden of its higher print run.


That changed in the 1980s when comic book specialty stores began to pop up. Those stores had far lower foot traffic than newsstands but could more accurately predict their inventory needs. The direct market comic book distribution model slowly supplanted newsstand. No longer would extra copies be returnable. Retailers were stuck with the supply they ordered but could recoup expenses long term by reselling comic book “back issues” to fans who missed out. It was win-win for comic book retailers and publishers.


Until it wasn’t. The early 1990s saw increased innovation in comic books like the adjacent trading card business. New “1st issue” tactics demanded fans get in on the action early, least the comic become a collector’s item! Spoiler-proof bagged issues meant enthusiasts needed one copy to open and one to leave sealed. Hologram, chromium, embossed and variant covers bid readers make multiple purchases of ostensible the same product.


Touchstone story moments like The Death of Superman, beginning in Superman #75, had 6-million-unit print runs (and a resultant Kenner action figure line).


New title launches for existing popular properties like Spider-Man #1, X-Force #1, and X-Men #1 totaled 3 million, 5 million, and 8.2 million copies, respectively.


Publishers were ecstatic. So were retailers, at first.


Circa 1995, visiting a Graham Cracker Comics store in Naperville Illinois during a sale, I stumbled upon a room of long boxes marked as 25-cent comics. I thumbed through the first bin, then another, then another. Every single comic in those boxes was a copy of X-Men #1, published in 1991, still unsold four years later.


Many estimates venture that only 3 Million out of 8.2 million copies were ever purchased by comic fans. But even 3 million far exceeded the actual readership of X-Men comics. The purchases weren’t overwhelmingly readers, they were collectors hungry for an investment opportunity. 6 million people didn’t read The Death of Superman in Superman #75, most copies were hoarded away under the pretense of future value.


Price guides, such as Overstreet and Wizard Magazine, also played a role in the mirage of new comics value. Like Becketts in the struggling trading card industry, price guides weren’t just reporting valuations, so much as creating them.


What collectors somehow failed to understand, as in so many bursting bubbles, was that comics from the 1930s and 1940s traded for high prices because they were actually rare. Yes, early issues of Action Comics (staring Superman) and Detective Comics (staring Batman) had high print runs in the 1930s, but very few samples survived to the present day. Comics, back then, were disposable, traded among friends and tossed in the trash by parents uneasy over their negative influences. Superman #75 would never be rare, not with legions of collectors keeping their copies sealed and protected.


Almost overnight, the comic book industry cratered. Numerous retailers closed their doors. Smaller publishers shuttered. Even Marvel Comics found itself bankrupt (Marvel also fell victim to its investments in trading cards, another bubble that burst during the 1994 Major League Baseball player strike). There were a variety of other cascading reasons the comic book collecting bubble burst, including an unwinnable distribution war between publishers that magnified costs for retailers, but inarguably publishers damaged themselves by shifting their attention from readers to fickle collectors who quickly learned comics were a dubious investment.


Today, a much smaller comic book industry exists, but survival was never certain after collectors fled and readers gave up on unreadable “collector’s editions.”


The overlap of comic book and action figure fans is hard to ignore, as are the similarities in audience behavior. Adult action figure fandom isn’t new, but over reliance on the small-but-mighty audience by toymakers eager for hits is fairly new. Care should be given to cultivate the audience, not inundate it.


Also of note: these action figure collectors might be a dying breed. There are many younger collectors, but today’s kids spend a shorter interval of their childhood playing with action figures. The prevalence of smartphones, tablets, and video game consoles provides ample disruption for traditional playthings. Whereas once upon a time kids’ best pastime was elaborate adventures or battles on their floor or bedspread, kids today have digital entertainment that does the imagining for them or provides a more focused avenue for their imaginations.


“My son totally skipped action figures,” a colleague recently told me, “I think someday he will be nostalgic for Minecraft or Lego, not Spider-Man.” Other family members and friends tell me that their kids loved action figures during toddler and preschool years, but promptly gave them up when they got personal access to a phone or tablet. I also heard lots of “no, he likes sports.”


The opposite predilections can also be found, of course. My cousin’s son, now 9-years-old, still plays with his Spider-Man action figures. And one friend from high school has three boys with well-used armies in their playroom. But I find myself wondering if new action figure collectors are being made or if kids today will instead look back fondly at Pokémon, Roblox, Funko Pop, or other experiences outside plastic figurines.


After all, the boom of adult collector product has taken over toy aisles that used to attract young boys. Movies, TV, and action figures keep drumming up old properties that resound with Gen X and Millennial nostalgia. Star Wars, Batman, He-Man…these characters don’t belong to kids, they belong to their fathers.


As a designer and fan, I see a distinct difference between the toys I buy for myself and those I create to astound and engage kids. I love working on items that I would want for my own collection, but it almost feels too easy. Like I’m making for myself while forgetting to engage the wellspring of youth that truly powers the industry.


Is it harder to sell toys for kids these days? Yep, and it isn’t helping that we’re making so many toys for ourselves that kids can’t find something for themselves in the toy aisle.


So, sure, let’s keep hitting that disgruntled collector audience for their indebted dollars, but let’s also redouble our efforts to engage kids with awe-inspiring toys, fantastic characters, and enriching worlds for their imaginations to foster.


There might not be any new toy collectors if we don’t spark kids today.



After over 17 years in the toy and game space, Brian Torney still aims to shock and surprise with each new concept, product or initiative introduced! In his previous design leadership role on Hasbro’s Spark R&D team, he focused on break frame, high tech, attention-getting innovation for key brands including Marvel, Furby, Play-Doh, Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons, My Little Pony, Power Rangers and more. Prior to Hasbro, he led Kunoichi and Other Door, two premiere design studios serving toy and kids entertainment clients including Nickelodeon, Mattel, Lego, Hasbro, McDonald’s, LeapFrog and more.


Recognized as a strategic thinker, unique storyteller, experienced technology-forward designer and visionary inventor, Brian combine those rare attributes in his quest to transform the toy industry to better match the imaginations of kids and fans around the world.

kidults collectors

Tait & Lily, Inventors of Betcha Can't!