Action Figures Have Sex on our Computers: The Real Value of Toys
Issue #35, November 1997
Looking at my action figure, it occurred to me that that's not a bad way to face the world: gorgeous, heavily-armed, and distinctively masked.
— Amy Rambow, contemplating Cosmic Angela
Crowing in triumph, Elisabeth pulled a "Mars Attacks" Martian Spy Girl off its peg, hugging it briefly before tossing it in the basket on top of the others. After more than a year of searching, she'd given up on the idea of ever owning this particular action babe.
I am a sci-fi dweeb. I've admitted that in these pages before: I was the only girl in the comic book store as a teenager. I have more dialogue from Classic Trek episodes memorized (I can name that episode in 10 seconds or fewer) than song lyrics of the Rolling Stones. I can nitpick the temporal anomalies of the Terminator movies with the best of them. Stowed in my various bags, boxes and storage sheds, next to Chambers' History of the Elizabethan Stage and the OED, nestled between the shabbas candlesticks given to me by my grandmother and the videotapes of BBC Shakespeare and the occasional episode of the X-Files is an original mint printing of the X-Men issue entitled the Death of Phoenix and entire runs of DC Comics Sandman and The Question.
I am, you see, a collector.
A collector friend of ours told us about the Martian Spy Girl, with her interchangeable alien and human heads. I took one look at her, and my imagination was fired. This was one figure that I definitely wanted to own. I started looking for her the next day. I checked the displays in every toy store that we visited, without success. It wasn't until Jo and I visited a collector's store in Oakland, California, that I finally saw her. She was hanging on the wall above my head, and bore a $25 price sticker. I gulped at the cost and then wandered away to see what other goodies I could see in the store. I was still new to the game and couldn't justify paying dealer prices for a doll that had only just been released. In the end, Jo bought something, but I decided to leave the Martian Spy Girl on the wall. After all, the Mars Attacks toys were selling for $8 in the toy stores.
I never found another Martian Spy Girl, but I learned an important lesson in the realities of collecting female action figures. If you don't buy an action babe when you see her, even at more than double the retail price, there's a more than even chance that you will never own her.
A little bit further down the aisle, Elisabeth pulls Jo over to see. Amid the myriad male and alien Star Wars figures there hangs an entire row of "Slave Leia," the current impossible-to-find action babe. Dressed in the harem gear she wore when chained to Jabba the Hutt, this Leia is definitely more "babe-like" than the previous incarnations.
Slave Leia is a rare exception to the lesson I learned from the Martian Spy Girl experience. In recent weeks, both of us have hunted through hundreds of Star Wars figures in more than one city in two countries. The racks are filled to bursting with every different variation of alien available, all kinds of robots, enough Han Solos, Lando Calrissians, Luke Skywalkers and other human males to populate a small town, and the occasional Leia in white robes or Leia in an ugly brown uniform.
Jo has yet to see Slave Leia. I saw her once, shortly after she was released, in a comics and collectibles store in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Beneath the pegged rows of boys and aliens, Slave Leia was displayed on the counter, sealed into a clear plastic protector, and priced at $50. The store manager was more than happy to hand her over to me and let me examine her through the clear plastic, while he hovered and watched. Maybe he wanted to be sure I didn't stash her in my backpack. Anyway, my first thought was that she wasn't really anything special. Her left hand was noticeably bigger than her right. Still, the collector instinct kicked in, and I stood and stared at her indecisively for several minutes. The part of me that wanted to buy her arguing with the practical side that balked at the obscene amount of money the store was asking for an $8 action figure. In the end, I turned down the salesman's offer of a coin to flip, and handed Slave Leia back. I didn't want her badly enough to pay that kind of money. I noticed on my next trip to the store that someone had.
My question these days is why would two lesbian feminists want a Slave Leia? She is everything I hated about Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. The figure is, in fact, total exploitation. Dressed in skimpy clothing, short packed, and only available at collector prices, she's everything about the entire enterprise of collecting female action figures that's annoying, all rolled into one. When Elisabeth and I found ourselves in a suburb of Seattle recently, we realized with a start that we had ceased being interested in our search for her and that our pawing through the stacks of Star Wars figures was mere habit, unsupported by any genuine enthusiasm. Senator Leia Organa is someone I might want to collect (even though I've always hated her hair), a character who might, like other action figures, both male and female, fire my imagination; the mere idea of Slave Leia bugs me and I don't want her on my wall.
As a teenager, I dreamed of She-Hulk and Wonder Woman, as if Diana Prince could save me when those around me who were supposed to failed. As an adult, I stick She-Hulk on my wall, next to a Jean Grey with transparent golden hair. They serve as part of a wallpaper chain around my living room.
When Elisabeth arrived, the collection became organized rather than random: Spawn figures here, all in a row; X-Men figures there next to Spiderman; Star Trek figures, however, are everywhere because that's where it all began for me: a Troi figure and a Dr. Crusher figure doing the nasty on top of my computer, along with an animated Catwoman and a Michelle Pfeiffer Catwoman getting intimate on a windowsill nearby.
Tasha Yar was the first female figure I actively sought out. She was quickly followed by Troi and Dr. Crusher because Star Trek was merchandising Next Generation figures and Next Generation, unlike The Original Series, has female characters. But I have to admit, of the early efforts, the best ones were boys: Picard, who really looked like Patrick Stewart; and Q, who looked like John de Lancie. The Q figure had a place of honor atop my computer for years, playing with a dildo in earnest mimic of the man himself, who had fondled a microphone atop a piano at Visions Con in Chicago a few years earlier. Q has recently been joined by a Picard in a red suit, acquired six months ago at collector prices and only just now ripped from his original packaging. He and Q now do for each other what Troi and Crusher and before the two Catwomen did. They tell me stories about their exploits and encourage me to write them down, in graphic detail.
Abandoning Jo where she sat on the floor amidst a pile of Star Trek figures (the stores packed the toys onto the pegs so closely together that it was almost impossible to riffle through them without knocking some off), Elisabeth wandered off down the aisle. At the very end, against the far wall, she spied a small door with a small black sign that read "Comics and Collectibles." A gentle shove on the door revealed a room the likes of which she had never seen before in a major toy store. The walls were decorated with floor to ceiling racks, some filled with comics, others with videos and the rest with action figures from comics, all of them marked at regular toy prices. Elisabeth pinched herself to make sure she wasn't dreaming, then shrugged. Even if this was a fantasy, she was going to enjoy it as long as it lasted and pick up as many Hellinas, Warrior Nuns and other hard to find babes as possible, in every color available.
It's the summer of 1992 and Batman Returns has just been released. I find myself in a mall in Eugene Oregon getting fitted for a tuxedo and decide to wander over to KayBee and get myself a Catwoman. What I discover startles me: penguins abound. On rack after rack, shelf after shelf, Danny DeVito's character is for sale ... piles and piles of them and not a Catwoman in sight. I'm naive about the nature of the business, so I rather reasonably request that someone check in back for me. I purchase my Catwoman (she comes with her own whip) and return to the tuxedo store a happy person.
As a holiday gift that year, I receive a full (Barbie-size) Catwoman doll wearing her very own Harley Davidson jacket.
This simple request — that someone check in back for a toy — is one I probably would never make now, knowing as I do that the reason that the store manager looked annoyed when the youngster returned from the back room carrying that figure for me was undoubtedly that he had pulled her from the short packed box and put her away to sell later at a substantially higher price than the retail tag that I paid.
I've grown cynical about toys.
The newest Catwoman doll is ugly beyond belief. I've never bothered to purchase her.
While we tend to divide them into the kind we buy and the ones we don't like, most of the rest of the world use different criteria for categorizing action figures. The most common is mass-produced for children of all ages from popular cartoons and movies. They are relatively inexpensive, when found in a toy store. The other is specifically aimed at the specialty market, and are figures from adult-oriented comics and graphic novels. These figures are only available through comic book and collectors stores, and are rarely sold at the manufacturer's suggested retail price. Many of the specialty figures are female. Most of them have figures to rival Barbie and wear even less clothing than their mass-market counterparts.
The Hellina line is a prime example of this phenomenon. Her tiny waist and oversize breasts, emphasized by barely-there straps that comprise the top half of her costume, are truly impressive, if a little unrealistic. So far, we have come across two versions of the Hellina figure, one in red and the other in white. Like so many other action figures, they are identical except for the colors used to paint their costumes and accessories. After all, if the collectors are willing to spend the money for Hellina, they will surely buy her in every color of the rainbow.
Bins at the end of each aisle were filled with older figures that were no longer produced, and Jo and Elisabeth had been unable to find them. They all had red stickers and were marked down by at least 50%. Maybe this trip to the toy store wasn't going to cost them quite as much as they thought.
The action figure market is a very strange thing. Many manufacturers claim that they make fewer of the females because there is no market for them. After all, they argue, most of the figures are bought by pre-adolescent boys who are far more interested in male figures with big guns and/or cool weapons than females with big tits and cool weapons. Why waste their time and money producing action babes, many of which will wind up being returned by the stores or sold off at reduced prices. This claim is patently untrue in college towns and big cities, where most of the collectors live. It is, however, often the case in small towns.
The regular 5" Xena doll is a case in point. Modelled after the character on the television show, and produced as part of the Hercules line of action figures, she is avidly sought after by both aficionados of the show and collectors. We had already picked up the only one available at our local toy store, when the pleading letters dropped into our e-mailboxes from fans on internet mailing lists asking for help finding one. One friend in Vancouver, British Columbia, bought a Xena doll in a comics and collectibles store, for a higher price of course. At the same time the manufacturer was claiming that Xena (like her Hercules counterpart) was not selling well; it discontinued some of their future production plans.
The manufacturer was not totally wrong though. While there were no Xenas to be found in larger cities, some smaller markets were glutted with them. One thing that our friends know about us is that when visiting a new place, we will want to go to at least one toy store. On a trip to Everett, Washington, earlier this year, the local Toys R Us had a sale bin full of action figures, including Xena dolls marked down to $2.99. We now have three Xena dolls in our collection.
Actually, we now only have two.
One of these Xenas spent the summer sitting on the ledge between my cubicle and the work station next door. Everyone in the office liked Xena: she was a hit who wandered around a corporate office but somehow always made it back to my desk. Xena is particularly fun because her clothes come off. When I finished the assignment that placed me in that office, I left Xena behind. My cellmate needed her far more than I did.
Did you know that Xena is She-Hulk's twin? Neither did I until I saw the 10" She-Hulk. Manufacturers started to "repaint" existing action figures as a way to save money in production and, one hopes, to keep the retail prices down. The same basic, unpainted plastic doll is often used for more than one character, especially among the earlier dolls.
So, the 10" Xena doll is repainted in different colors and,voila, a 10" She-Hulk is on the shelves for sale. Black Cat, from the Spiderman line, re-appeared recently with different color skin, clothes and hair as Tigra in a Marvel collection.
Some companies, like MacFarlane Toys, which produces the "Spawn" line, have taken the concept of repainting figures one step further. MacFarlane produces high quality figures which are highly sought after by collectors. They are well-known for the quality of the female figures they produce, in contrast to some manufacturers who knock off females as cheaply as possible. MacFarlane is also responsible for the repaint trend. Once the first run of a figure has been sold out, the next run is invariably painted in different colors. Most of them, like Widowmaker and Blood Queen, are available in two paint combinations. Others, like Tiffany, have three or four variations available. MacFarlane definitely had its finger on the pulse of the collector market when making this decision. We're well aware of the cold, financial reasoning behind this development, but have nonetheless purchased both the original and the repaints of most figures, including Tiffany, She-Spawn, Thresher, Blood Queen and Widowmaker.
What started for me as playing with Star Trek figures and then became playing with Star Trek figures who had tits has become an insurance nightmare. I have a large box at the foot of my bed marked "box o' babes" and that's only mildly a joke. In fact, that box is at the foot of my bed because its value so far exceeds the insurance on my current storage unit that I'd have to be a fool to leave that box unguarded.
Who would have thought that Dax, Kira, Uhura, Dr. Crusher, Troi, the orion slave girl — she's worth $50 now — would cease being toys and become valued for something other than their provision of pleasure?
Recently, I chanced to host my friends' son for the afternoon. Tim is twelve and lives his life in Star Wars land. He was fascinated with my wallpaper collection of action figures and, quite frankly, knew more about them than I did. Tim could and did tell me what the value of every figure I own is: Leia in white robes is worth $20 for instance, while Xena is only worth $8 (I didn't tell him about the Toys R Us in Everett, Washington, that had them for $2.99 because I'm convinced he would have wanted to go there immediately). A first run Cosmic Angela is worth $40 while a Tiffany repaint is only worth $25. After listening to his litany for a few hours, I found myself getting angry at Tim and tried to explain that I collect the toys because I like them, because I find pleasure in playing with them, and not because they're worth money. I attempted to teach him about use-value versus monetary value (ever think about that as applied to toys? I sure hadn't!) and to explain that what my Yoda provided for me in smiles by sitting atop my computer was worth far more than the $50 I could earn forhim had I left him in his original packaging.
I'm certain I wasn't successful. How could I be? He lives in a world where the man at the collector store is appalled to discover that I'd actually unpacked my Blood Queen (she's Queen of the Vampires and she has real hair and a red cape) and was having trouble making her stand up without leaning against something. Or a world where yet another friend, who had saved her Star Trek figures to give to her child,suddenly finds that she can't justify opening the packagesbecause they're worth too much money to give to a littleboy. Imagine that. Toys too valuable for a child to play with.
But we haven't stopped our search for Star Trek figures. We found Kira for a friend, at regular prices, and even found a set of Picard and Q talking figures, who speak in the actors' voices if we press a button on their backs. Q even says something disparaging about humans, which seems fitting somehow under the circumstances.
And the winner in this past weekend's immediately pre-Christmas rush on Toys R Us? How about the X-men figure Dazzler, another repaint of the Black Cat figure, who has a silver disco suit? Or the X-Factor figure Future Shard, with a punk haircut and a real hair braid that reaches her ankles? Or yet still, a large-size doll of Jean Luc Picard, purchased at close-to-retail price in a collector store, from a man who was selling KISS figures for five times their retail value, knew what he was selling us, and seemed pleased to be able to make two people happy.
My Xena doll is still in her package, hanging on the wall over the breakfast bar. Even though she's with other dolls from other series, she still seems lonely. So, when the Gabrielle doll is finally released by the manufacturer, I'll pick one up. Then, I'll pop Xena out of her plastic prison and let the two of them cavort on my desk. Maybe they'll tell me another Xena/Gabrielle story so I can keep my promise to a friend.
Still on my agenda? A large-sized Q doll, of course. If the five inch figures share interesting exploits and let me write them down, just imagine what the ten inch ones can tell me!
Jo Rittenhouse is currently biding her time in a home that has more toys in it than she ever imagined were possible in a home that had only adults in it. Her box o'babes didn't even warrant a strange look. She is currently asking herself the following question on a daily basis: is there life when you're done with graduate school? Jo can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elisabeth Hurst moved into a new apartment almost two months ago and, so far, all that has made it onto the walls is a row of action babes over the breakfast bar and the one that reminds her not to turn off the switch that controls the computer current. The Psylocke on her desk at the office hasn't yet seen fit to go for a walk around the floor, but everyone seems to like her, particularly the button on her back that makes her sword light up. Elisabeth can be reached via email at email@example.com.