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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Force in Focus: Star Wars Action Figures Wave 1

There is arguably no film more directly tied to its merchandise in the eyes of fans and the general pubic than Star Wars, and no licensed toy line has had a bigger impact on the history of toys than the Star Wars figures. The success of Star Wars toys led to countless film properties in the 80s and the 90 churning out tie-in toy lines to varying degrees of success and relevance, while the Star Wars toys also ushered in the age of the 3.75 inch action figure, which the revamped GI Joe, amongst other, would adopt to massive success in the Real American hero line.

The first wave of action figures released as part of the initial Star Wars line consisted of R2-D2, Chewbacca, Luke Skywalker (Farm Boy/Tatooine), Princess Leia, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, Han Solo, C-3PO, and Stormtrooper, with the Death Squad/Star Destroyer Commander, Jawa, and Tusken Raider/Sand People added on to the first wave in the wake of the line's quick popularity.

Somewhat famously, Kenner (the initial maker of Star Wars action figures) underestimated the popularity of Star Wars, and didn't have any product ready for the holiday season of 1977 (which in itself boggles the mind, given how nowadays new figures are released well in advance of the film they're supporting; if Star Wars hadn't been a huge hit, what would have been the point of having action figures out sometime in 1978?). In order to meet the demand, they essentially sold a promise, in the form of the "early bird certificate", comprised of a cardboard backdrop and a coupon that could be mailed in to Kenner in exchange for four figures. As a result, hundreds of thousands of kids received for Christmas in 1977 the promise that they'd eventually get toys sometime later (Kenner limited the Early Bird packages to 500,00; in the first year of release, they would go on to sell over 40,000,000 figures overall).


From a modern perspective, the figures are fairly basic. Only five points of articulation: upper leg, shoulders, and a fully rotating head (GI Joe would break the ground on knee, elbow and waist movement within a few years of this initial line, and also increase the range of motion for the upper legs). The sculpting is fairly basic in terms of likenesses (nobody would accuse Han's figure of looking like Harrison Ford, for example), but the rest of the figure's body is fairly detailed, and for the most part, the iconic looks of the characters' on film are recreated as well as possible given the technology at the time.

Also, even in the earliest days of the line, the figures have a lot of extra playability added to them. In addition to the packed-in accessories (usually a blaster of some kind that the figure could wield, another innovation that GI Joe would expand on and arguably perfect), there were things like the vinyl (and occasionally, soft-goods) capes on figures like Princess Leia and Darth Vader, which gave them a little added texture and visual distinction, and "action features" in the form of Luke, Vader and Obi-Wan's extendable lightsabers, which could be extended and retracted from their right hands. Though most of the detail on Artoo's body's came in the form of a sticker, turning his "head" made a clicking sound vaguely reminiscient of some of his movie sound effects, and both his upper dome and all of C-3P0 were vac-metallized, giving them a shiny, robotic look (which, at the time, was nothing to sneeze at).

While I was without a doubt both an action figure junky and a devout Star Wars fan as a kid, being born in 1981 the Star Wars toys were just a bit before the time in which I'd be old enough to have some say in what kinds of toys I wanted. Any Star Wars figures still on the shelves when I would have been making purchase decisions would likely have been from the "Power of the Force" line, which closed out the initial release of Star Wars figures following Return of the Jedi, and/or loose figures picked up at garage sales or thrift stores. So as much as I WANTED more Star Wars figures, because I was a huge fan of both the movies and action figures in general, by the mid- to late-80s, Star Wars was entering its hibernation period, and as a result I was much more of a He-Man/Transformers/GI Joe (and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, though that eventually became much more of my younger brother's toy line than mine) kid than a Star Wars kid, at least in terms of action figures.

As a result, I never had a lot of the classic figures from early in the line, except for the ones that got repackaged and re-released as part of a later movie's release. My Luke, Han and Leia  figures, for example, were all from later films (specifically Jedi Luke, Carbonite Han and Endor Leia, from Jedi and/or the Power of the Force line). Of this initial wave, I had a Darth Vader (though, as he was perpetually re-carded throughout the line, I doubt I had a specifically Star Wars Darth Vader), as well as a Stormtrooper (another re-carded figure; mine was acquired at a garage sale, so I have no idea which release he was part of) and a Tusken Raider (sans the plastic cape, another garage sale find). I also had an Obi-Wan figure, though with his plastic cape intact, suggesting I purchased it carded from a store instead of loose. Obi-Wan was another figure who received multiple releases, making it unlikely mine was from the initial wave either.

16 comments:

  1. What a great idea for posts. I was born in '74 so got in early on this juggernaut. I was told Vader was my first action figure, my dad extracting him from a huge bin in '78. I had the opposite situation—all the movie waves but none of the POTF waves. Alas no double telescoping lightsabers, vinyl Jawas, blue Snaggletooths or rocket-firing Bobas amongst them.

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    1. Thanks! My plan is to pepper these in amongst the different "eras" of the comic series - so I'll do another one on the second wave of STAR WARS figures before the series hits the EMPIRE adaptation, etc.

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  2. I don’t recall hating that this line was sized at 3.75” — but sure hated that size becoming standard, as you note. More later!

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  3. I was born in '78, and was only four years old when JEDI hit theaters, so I missed Star Wars entirely the first time around. I had a friend in elementary school who had pretty much all the figures, and I thought the retractable lightsabers were cool, but I didn't understand anything about the characters themselves. By the time I saw STAR WARS, when I was about twelve, the toys were long gone from stores.

    As a result, I've never really been into Star Wars toys. When Hasbro brought Star Wars toys back in the nineties, I wound up with a few of those in the house, though they were ostensibly my brothers and even then, we didn't have very many of them. A few years ago I dabbled in CLONE WARS figures, since I really liked the translation of the show's stylized aesthetic to plastic format, but I only picked up a handful of the main characters(Obi-Wan, Anakin, Ahsoka, Yoda, Rex, Cody, Padme, Artoo, and Threepio).

    I guess for me, the licensed Star Wars experience is less about toys and more about the other offerings such as books and games.

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    1. I don't remember the first time I saw a Star Wars movie - I just remember having always known about them/watched them. I do remember the first time I saw EMPIRE (which is a story that may merit it's own post someday), and I'm pretty sure my parents took me along to a re-release showing of JEDI in either '85 or '86, but I was already familiar with the property by then. That's when I was living in Pennsylvania, so I would have been five or six.

      So at that point, I definitely WANTED more of the toys, but they just weren't as readily available as, say, He-Man, Transformers, or GI Joe (my three go-to action figures for most of my childhood).

      As I result, I was all-in when Kenner came back around to release new figures in 1995, partially because I was still a huge fan but also, at least at first, to makeup for the figures I never had as a child. So now I have bins upon bins of the latter day figures (and am still sporadically picking up the newer six inch Black series).

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  4. The lack of Star Wars merch led to my Luke Skywalker costume for Halloween 1977 — I had just turned 7 years old — consisting of a white karate gi and some plastic makeshift lightsaber.

    My beefs with the figures apart from the disappointing size (which I associated with Micronauts, whose point were that they were smaller than your normal action figures): (1) Lame, flimsy “capes” that were actually sleeveless coat things. Using that style for Obi-Wan’s made some sense since he wore robes, but Darth Vader’s and then Lando’s come Empire were just dumb. Plus that cheap plastic instead of cloth really sucked. (1) Weird lightsabers that slid out through the arms. On the one hand I appreciated that they could zoom out from the hand, but on the other I possessed mad, irrational hate for the little wicks at the end. Despite it being less true to the movies, I was much happier with the snap-in-hand lightsaber my Luke figure from Jedi had.

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    1. To be fair, when I threw a Star Wars-themed costume party for my 18th birthday, my costume was pretty much a karate gi and a lightsaber too. :)

      Being the big GI Joe guy that I am, the scale of these figures has always seemed "right" to me - even today, with so many lines (like Marvel Legends and Star Wars Black) going the six inch route for the increased poseability and sculpting benefits, I still consider 3.75 inch the default, against which everything else is either bigger than or smaller than.

      3.75 inch just seemed like the perfect combination of factors: the smaller size led to a lower price per figure (appealing to my collector mentality), but the size (especially w/GI Joe) didn't sacrifice articulation, while also being the perfect fit for use in vehicles (He-Man had vehicles the figures could ride in, but they were large (and thus more expensive) and the figures fit in kinda awkwardly).

      But I also missed out on Micronauts, so I never had that as a point of comparison.

      Totally agree on the lightsabers, though; I much prefer the later figures that just hold the lightsaber like a sword. Less awkward and more flexibility in play (ie the figure didn't always have to be using a lightsaber).

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    2. @Teebore: // my costume was pretty much a karate gi and a lightsaber too //

      I wasn’t really upset with the gi so much as the lack of lightsaber. Options were a plastic toy sword, a roll of flat-color wrapping paper, or some kind of long plastic tube; I’m pretty sure we went with the latter but I don’t remember exactly what was used and even though we have pictures of surrounding Halloweens I can’t recall ever seeing photos of that outfit.

      Then again, I seem to have numbered both of my points in the second paragraph (1), so maybe my head’s not right.

      For the first few rounds, at least, the only movement on the Star Wars figures was arms, head, and legs, whereas my beloved 8” and 12” World’s Greatest Super-Heroes figures from Mego, as well as the 8.5” and 12” G.I. Joe Adventure Team figures from Hasbro, had articulated head, arms, legs, elbows, knees, hands, and feet, and just much more going on, including the ability to change their clothes for mix-and-match creation of new characters. I can relate to the benefits of a lower price point and the purity of design that sculpted plastic figures like the Star Wars, Super Powers, and Secret Wars figures have, but if the action-figure genie were granting wishes I’d take a few boxes of the Captain Action line that I just missed out on over an entire collection of the newer stuff.

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  5. I was born in 1972, and watched the movie in the movie theater in 1977, so these toys bring me way back. I still have mine somewhere, but all the capes got torn off and a couple of the figures were accidentally decapitated.

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    1. The few figures I did have as a child, and still have, are not in great shape, either. They're still in one piece, but lack a lot of the accessories and are fairly beat up.

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  6. Does anyone know why Hasbro never made a Peter Cushing figure? It seems such a glaring omission.

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    1. My understanding, and I have no idea if this is accurate or just apocryphal, is that Tarkin was considered a "boring" figure - he's just an old guy who stands around talking, not one of the main heroes or a wacky alien or a troop builder.

      Then, by the time they got to the point in the line when they were willing to pump out any old figure under the Power of the Force banner, even super minor and supremely boring ones (I'm looking at you, Imperial Dignitary), they felt it was too many years removed from STAR WARS for the demand for a Tarkin figure to be there.

      They did eventually release Tarkin figures in the later line that launched in the mid 90s. There's been a few through the years since, and even the very first Tarkin figure, released relatively early in the new line's lifespan, has a pretty remarkable resemblance to Cushing in the sculpting.

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    2. @Teebore: // My understanding, and I have no idea if this is accurate or just apocryphal, is that Tarkin was considered a "boring" figure //

      I certainly wouldn’t have had any interest in a Tarkin figure as a kid. What interested me, beyond the most prominent characters, were neat aliens — Greedo, Hammerhead, and to a lesser extent Walrus Man from the first movie, and then from Empire Boba Fett, IG-88, and Bossk, even though I don’t know that beyond Boba Fett and Greedo any of them were named in the film itself.

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    3. I must have been a weird kid. It really bothered me that aliens that were on the screen for a split second got a figure, but major characters like Tarkin or Aunt Beru didn't get one. Hasbro weren't even consistent with the aliens they produced. Why wasn't the fella who got his arm chopped off in the cantina given a figure?

      Actually - thinking about it - I was a weird kid. I bought 19 separate stormtroopers - and not one bounty hunter.

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    4. I'm with you, Anonymous, on wanting the major but supposedly "boring" characters made into figures. I had all the Kenner Super Powers toys when I was young, even the mail-away Clark Kent, but what use was Clark without a Lois, Perry, and Jimmy? Why couldn't I have a Bruce Wayne figure, and an Alfred to go with him? Not to mention a Commissioner Gordon figure to give Batman cases!

      Years later, when Toy Biz had the Marvel rights and produced a billion different Spider-Man variants, all the villains, and a Peter Parker, I wondered why they weren't giving us figures of Jonah Jameson, Mary Jane, Robbie Robertson, Aunt May, etc. (They did eventually do those first two, though MJ was a repaint of the Invisible Woman from their Fantastic Four line).

      Toys of the heroes and villains were fun, but even when I was like six or seven years old, I felt my play experience was incomplete due to lack of supporting cast members! I would have gladly bought up (or asked my parents/Santa/etc. to buy up) all the civilians they might have offered, but apparently there weren't many kids with my mindset.

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  7. @Anonymous - I'm with you and Matt as well. I mean, Tarkin isn't just a random supporting character, he's essentially the main villain of the first movie! Definitely deserved his own figure.

    But I was a weird kid when it came to action figures in another way, too: I could never have toys of different scales interact with each other. So I never played with GI Joe and He-Man figures together. GI Joe (or Super Powers or Star Wars) could interact with some Transformers, since it was established on the cartoon that Transformers were bigger than humans. But if the figures were characters meant to be normal sized humans, they all had to be the same size to hang out together when I was playing with them.

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