We delve into the jointed world of action figure articulation hitting historical highlights and examining the changing tastes of fans
Articulation, also known as points of articulation, is the ability for a figure to move and the amount of areas that allow that movement. Toys based on people or animals were formerly stiff and unmoving molded things or plush fabric pieces. Some articulation began to enter these toys with the baby dolls designed for girls but it took a while to come to the dolls, soon to be known as action figures, of boys. The conundrum here is that the amount of articulation in figures didn’t seem to grow progressively through time but instead has followed a back and forth game with the atheistic and art design intended for the figures.
In 1964, Hasbro coined the term action figure under the belief that that boys would not play with “dolls.” They made the term to work with their G.I. Joe: America’s Moveable Fighting Man figure. You can read more about that early Hasbro history here. That said, the 12” tall articulated figure was initially advertised to have twenty one points of articulation but actually only had nineteen. This is an incredible amount for the time and the quality of the materials including wire hooks, metal rivets and strong elastic are the reason why so many of these figures still exist up to this day. Conversely, the famous Kenner Star Wars Luke Skywalker figure had far less movement. The four inch tall figure, released by Kenner in 1977, had only five points of articulation; at both shoulders, both hips and the neck. However, the figure had a large number of aesthetic qualities that moved it away from the G.I. Joe legacy. It looked like the character from the movie and the actor who portrayed him, Mark Hamill (albeit with decidedly blonder hair). The costume was screen accurate and his light saber mind-blowingly extended from his arm to rise from his hand. That was as close to a special effect as we had seen in a child’s toy at that time.
The next two decades showed an expansion in the action figure concept in a number of key ways. These included the continuing struggle between articulation and aesthetics. There was also a rise of non-human characters including monsters, animal based creatures and robots. The Micronauts were a toy line based on the Japanese import Microman from the publisher Takara. The figures were licensed in the United States by the MEGO Corporation beginning in the mid 70s. The line is known for its high level of articulation compared to other similar figures of the time. One of the more unusual features of this toy line is that several of the figures were transparent, allowing the collector to view its inner workings. Many of the figures came with detachable and interchangeable parts. It also has the distinction of being one of the few toy properties that did not have an animated series attached to it.
A line of robots that seemed spawned in honor of its animated series and vice versa are the the Transformers. The fan favorite Bumblebee (who we tip a hat to in this article’s title) only had seven moving parts but those parts go specifically toward changing him into a very cool, VW Bug (not the tricked out Camaro seen in the films). The design of Bumblebee is perfectly suited to its operation as a vehicle. And while in the transformed robot form, the car elements, like the tires, are tucked away as to not impede its movement as a humanoid figure. The juggernaut Transformers would go on to dominate the field throughout the decade of the 80s.
The 80s also saw growth away from robots over to anthropomorphize animals. The Thundercats followed the noble cat like people of Third Earth as they battled the evil Mum-Ra. The action figures, while interesting visually, followed the basic design of the time in their articulation. In step with the somewhat standardized Masters of the Universe design, the arms and legs of Lion-O, the young prince of the Thundercats, are fixed in a bent position. Both hands have a claw like design that allows for the holding of weapons. The only articulate parts are at the hips, shoulders, neck and waist. The later articulation allows for the figure’s “action”, setting the stage for Lion-O to “swing” The Sword of Omens. The figure did have an interesting feature that was unrelated to its articulation. Alongside the Sword of Omens came the even more impressive Claw Shield that fit right over the figure’s hand. This shield included a function that, when an included “power ring” is pressed to Lion-O’s back, allowed his eyes will light up.
As cool as these functions are, they pale to the next pop culture powerhouse that is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The story, which many of you may know well, follows four mutated sewer turtles raised by an intelligent rat who were taught the ways of the ninja. While the characters started as a far more grim and gritty independent comic, it is the much more kid-friendly cartoon series that created the toy franchise. This was a move that the toy company Playmates insisted on before they would go ahead with that initial series of figures. The stunning design is the first thing that set these toys apart. The figure of Leonardo, my personal favorite just because of the name, is a beautifully sculpted figure that includes the folds in the joints of the toes, one of which is bent causing the heel to rise to give an action pose. It also possesses muscles and veins that are just popping out, giving the figure a sense of power. The pupil-less eyes hidden by the color specific bandanna, knee and elbow pads only add to the growling teeth set in defiance. His double swords are stored in the detachable body holster which makes for a stand out character in a franchise that still flourishes to this day.
No discussion of articulation would be complete without mentioning the Marvel Legends series of figures. The series became well known in the 2000s for its incredible amount of articulation. For example, the Beta Ray Bill figure from the 2006 M.O.D.O.K. series was an excellent example of not only the advanced amount of articulation but also an aesthetically well done figure. Bill is a member of the Korbinite race who was able to lift Thor’s hammer Mjolner and briefly possessed the powers of Thor before being gifted his own hammer, Stormbreaker. The figure had an incredible 32 points of articulation. These include bending at the chest, swivels at the waist and hips, bends at the wrist, hands ankles and feet and in the case of the “horse-faced” Beta Ray Bill, an articulated jaw. Aesthetically, the sculpted face is amazing in its detail, musculature and the impressive amount of teeth. The bare arms are fully textured as well as highly muscled and the costume is in every bit directly from Walt Simonson’s sketchbook.
In terms of aesthetics in figures though, no company can hold a candle to the McFarlane Toys Company. McFarlane Toys came out of creator Todd McFarlane’s dissatisfaction with Mattel’s inability to create Spawn figures to his specifications. This caused McFarlane to open his own company and walked him toward hiring amazing sculptors and toy makers. Those individuals would go on to create highly detailed models of characters from his own work and a still growing number of franchises across a variety of entertainment genres.
The degree of impressive detail has grown exponentially over the years and has become synonymous to the company itself. 2002’s Spawn: The Evolution two pack is a prime example of this phenomenon. One figure is the original 1994 Spawn series 1 design. It is a fairly basic hero figure with the normal amounts of articulation. It does have a few interesting design points including a several tier cape and a variety of spikes and sculpted on chains. The 2002 Series 15 figure is a rocket ride up the scale of figure design. The cape is an entity unto itself as it easily has fifteen layers to the original’s two or three. It even wraps around one of the arms of Spawn for dramatic posing. The chains and spikes have increased in complexity hang out and away from the body. The collar stands several inches above Spawn’s head. The paint job on the character, which was originally flat black, shows levels of wear and dirt while the formerly painted pouches on the leg are now raised and sculpted parts of the figure. An additional advantage over the initial figure is the inclusion of an amazingly designed base. It is rocky and skull covered and allows you to pose Spawn with one knee up and the cape seemingly flowing in the ever-present wind.
In today’s toys, articulation seems to have fallen by the wayside in some of the most popular collectibles and to a degree so has the heavily detailed aesthetic qualities. The Funko POP! series of collectibles tends to use the same overall design which has a limited amount of articulation and relies on just a few key details with hair and costume to give the figure its individuality. Looking at the broader world of figures driven to inarticulation, one of my personal favorites remains Kevin Smith’s Inaction Figures which quite literally have no articulations and are simply basic cartoon-like designs featuring characters from Clerks, Mallrats and other films in the View Askewniverse films.
As with so many things in pop culture though, interests wax and wane as do people’s opinions. So the battle between aesthetics and articulation has no clear winner this time. Well, except of course for those of us that love toys in all their forms!