In 1963, Hasbro was the first toy company to use the word "Action Figure" to advertise their G.I. Joe actions figures to boys who of course weren't interested in playing with girly dolls. At first, the G.I. Joe figure was a military-themed doll of 11.5-inch in length and was suggested by Stan Weston, a marketing and toy inventor. The action figure featured clothes with different uniforms to suit multiple purposes. To create a worldwide popularity for this type of doll, Hasbro licensed the figure to companies in other countries & markets.
These other companies produced both clothes and accessories that were basically the same as the ones Hasbro made for the American market, together with clothes and uniforms that were specific to their own local market (think McDonalds).
In Japan there are at least two licensed toy companies which also issued sublicenses for similar products. Palitoy for instance issued Tsukuda a sublicense, so Tsukada could produce and sell accessories for the Action Man line. Medicom was issued by Takara for the production of action figures.
Takara produced an action figure for Henshin Cyborg-1, revealing the cyborg innards using transparent plastics, and cyborg feet and a head made of chrome. Like many other toy companies, Takara was having difficulties with the rising costs associated with making the 11.5" toy figures, during the oil crisis, so they decided to make a smaller version of the cyborg figure, standing at 3.75" high, and was first sold as Microman in 1974. The Microman line was also innovative in its use of interchangeable (body) parts. This laid the foundation for both the transforming toy robot and the smaller action figure. Takara began manufacturing different characters in the Microman line with more and more robotic functions & features. This line included Robotman, a 12" robot with room for a Microman pilot, and Mini-Robotman, a 3.75" version of the larger Robotman. These robotic figures also had interchangeable parts to emphasize the combination and transformation of the different characters.
In 1976 Mego brought the Microman line to the USA, branded as the Micronauts, but Mego eventually lost control of this market after losing the Star Wars toys license in 1976. The big success of Kenner's Star Wars 3.75" figure line made the newer, and smaller size the industry standard. Instead of one, single character with interchangeable outfits for different applications, action figure lines included whole teams of figures and characters with its own specialities. For movie studios, action figures instantly became a multi-million dollar secondary business.
In the early 1980s, the popularity of Japanese robot cartoons encouraged Takara to rebrand the Microman toy line as the 'Micro Robots', thus changing the cyborg action figure concept to the 'living robot' concept: objects that could "transform" into robots, the Micro Change line. Hasbro licensed Micro Change and, the Diaclone transforming cars in 1984, and combined them in the USA as the Transformers, spawning a family of animated cartoons, still-continuing to this day.
The 1980s spawned all sorts of action figure lines, many based on cartoon series' which were one of the largest marketing tools for toy companies. Some of the most popular to come about were Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, Thundercats and Super Powers, to name just a few. At the end of the 1980s, more and more collectors started buying up the toys to keep in their original boxed and packaging for display purposes and for future investments. This eventually led to an overflow of the action figure market. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, one of the most popular action figures of the late 1980s and early 1990s, were produced in incredible high quantities and the value for most Teenage toys would never extend a few bucks.
Today, comic book publishers are able to get (action) figures of their own characters produced, regardless of whether or not they appeared in cartoons or movies. One difference from the traditionally costumed characters was that all sorts of specialized costumes and variants ("Ice Batman") were being produced. Packaging "errors" and "short-packed" figures were ploys used by companies to increase collector interest even more... Currently, figures are made even for player-characters in video games, graphic novels and performers in adult movies, which are aimed towards a limited market of older consumers.
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What's it worth? Take a look at this Action Figure price guide: sold listings for a value indication.