December 9, 2012


The Ultimate Action Figure Collection
by Stephen J Sansweet
352 pages, Titan Books

Review by Pat Black

I was less than one year old when the original Star Wars movie was released. Like most children born from the mid-seventies to the early eighties, I clamoured… I begged… for the toys.

I can’t think of anything that’s had a similar influence on popular culture. People will always flock to Shakespeare, but they wouldn’t recognise the theme tune to King Lear from the opening chord. No popular comedy characters have had a sex fantasy about their missus dressing up as Ophelia, and so far as I know you can’t pick up any Macbeth action figures (complete with bloody dagger accessory).

Ah, the action figures. What a moment it was when you were confronted with the wall of wee Star Wars men at John Menzies, and had the agony of choosing one. My eyes only light up like that these days when I see a good row of single malts, but it’s good to know the kernel of that excitement is still there. I had about fifty Star Wars men, all bought for me by an indulgent mother and older sisters between 1979 and 1984 or so, and they were my favourite toys. He-Man and the Transformers arrived during this period, and I was right in the target age group for them. But while I had one or two of those guys I was never quite bothered about them in the same way. I wasn’t really a faddish child – I kind of stuck with Star Wars. I am alarmingly faithful at times. Take a little taste of Action Man, Pat! Go on, have a Go-Bot! No thank you, I would say. I am off to stage a fist-fight between Admiral Ackbar and the B-Wing pilot - they don’t get on so well.

StarWars: The Ultimate Action Figure Collection is the bible, so far as these wee men go. With a photo and some commentary attached to each figure, it covers the original run of toys in 1978, through all the different models, accessories and iterations, as well as all the characters connected to video games, novels, add-ons and everything else over the years. In strict alphabetical order, from 2-1B to Zuckuss.

We get the first run of figures - Luke Skywalker with his yellow lightsabre, R2D2 with his clicky head, Princess Leia with her crazy bagel bunches – alongside the guys we know through the movies, as well as plenty we’ve never heard of.

You may know of the rare, valuable ones. The original Boba Fett toy featured a firing rocket launcher that was withdrawn for obvious safety reasons. You might have lost an eye, but if you still have that 3.5in bit of plastic complete with projectile, you can expect a big payday. There’s Snaggletooth, painted totally differently to how he appeared in the first Star Wars, for maybe a split second of footage. There’s a Jawa with a plastic cape… all known to change hands between collectors for a fortune.

My favourites in this book are the ones that get weird. You can get a burns effect Darth Vader with his severed arm and legs, from Revenge of the Sith; you can get Luke Skywalker playing with his spaceship model from when we first meet him in Star Wars. Or posing with a giant thighbone, as seen during his fight with the Rancor monster. Or indeed posing in his pants, like when he’s in that healing bath-thing in Empire. You can get the little Ewok baby in a basket from Return of the Jedi. And of course, you get many different models of Princess Leia in her spangly boobs bikini. The original term for such little objects of adoration in ancient cultures was “fetish”, appropriately enough.

How about the dude who gets choked by Vader at the Death Star board meeting? You can recreate that scene in the comfort of your own home. You can treat your young ones, or yourself, to a Han-Solo-being-tortured-on-Bespin playset; or set up a pretend Mos Eisley Cantina with that grumpy bastard who says “We don’t serve their kind here”… And look! That guy with a chin like a glans! The little robot Chewbacca growls at on the Death Star! The blue guy in Jabba’s house band that looks like a couch! They’re all here.

Perhaps the weirdest is the Darth Vader figure with a removable faceplate, revealing Luke Skywalker’s face, from the hallucination scene in Empire… But then again, there have been several George Lucas action figures. Sometimes he’s a Stormtrooper with a removable helmet, sometimes he’s a Jedi. Is he in a plaid shirt with a clapperboard? Probably.

It’s almost exhausting, going through the pages. Everyone, but everyone, who has been in these films - from the level of a glove puppet carbuncle glimpsed in the corner of Jabba’s palace up to giant turdbeasts - has their own action figure. Porkins is in there – I discover his first name is Jek. The bloke who says, “TK421 – why aren’t you at your post?” He’s in there. The guy who screams just before his spaceship crashes in Return of the Jedi; he’s got his own action figure too. He’s probably got an entire line of expanded universe novels written with him as the central character. This guy appeared in about two and a half seconds’ worth of footage – you could count it in film frames. Did the actor get image rights? Does he show up at signing events at fan conventions?

You wonder how far it goes. Will we soon get little figures of the crew as well as the cast? The make-up lady with a blowdryer? A sound guy with a boom mic and removable headphones? Ben Burtt, with his own push-button sound effects? Phil Tippett in his model shop, animating a miniature version of himself? Lawrence Kasdan at a little typewriter? A playset of a movie set with the movie set contained within? Don’t write it off. It’s bonkers. But people would buy them.

This book does not cover spaceship models – and these were the really big presents I adored at Christmas as a child; the Millennium Falcon, the AT-AT and the Scout Walker… cheers Santa! God, I was spoiled. “Poor boy from the wrong side of the tracks” story in tatters. But the world of Star Wars toys and merchandise must be difficult to reckon in full. While only covering the figures, from the stiff armed guys from 30-odd years ago to the sixteen-points-of-articulation fellows of today, the book is comprehensive.  

The book itself has a nice thread of humour running through it. The flyleaf features a row of Stormtrooper action figures doing the conga, with Darth Vader himself leading the way. The obscurity or bizarre nature of some of the toys is affectionately noted throughout by Sansweet.

It was one of history’s most astute business moves – or greatest business failures, from the point of view of big corporations – when George Lucas kept hold of the rights to the toys for his silly space opera. It wouldn’t surprise me if the toys made as much money as the movies themselves. It made him billions, and, whatever you think of George Lucas’ art, there’s no doubting that the man himself is the real deal. He is going the Carnegie route, giving his billions away. I heard a brilliant story about him donating land for social housing. I like the cut of his jib. But that’s for another blog post. This one is about the toys.

I still get them. A couple of years ago, in a bid to halt my sisters spending a fortune on me at Christmas as usual, I told them I would like R2D2 and Darth Vader as presents. I was being tongue-in-cheek, but duly got them. R2 makes beepy sounds at the touch of a button, now. Darth Vader came with a base which, I was delighted to note, was Ben Kenobi’s crumpled cloak, for stamping on. And so, a couple of years later, the tradition continues. My missus gets ready in the morning with Ewoks, robots and Jedi posing with their guns and lightsabres, watching from the top of the bedroom unit… Wait, that didn’t sound right.

It is the only concession to my utter immaturity. Even the games console has gone. Everything else in the house is muted, adult, pastel; sombre, even… Apart from Yoda’s corner.

Anyway, this year, I’ve asked for Han Solo and Princess Leia – but I’d be happy with anyone. Zuckuss, IG88… even the blue medical droid with the pluggy-in thing in his mouth (screen time, about five seconds), a figure whose edges and textures I can still feel in my hand. Let’s see what Santa has in his sack for Pat.

Star Wars is permanent, it seems. Soon the hype will get into gear for these new Disney-produced movies, and although we were all disappointed with the prequels, let’s not be silly about it. We’ll show up for the new ones. The original wide-eyed children who thrilled to Darth Vader, Yoda and the rest will be taking their children to see the new movies, and maybe at Christmastime, Santa will be leaving Millennium Falcons and lightsabres below the tree once again.

I’ll leave you with a story that tickles me. The first run of Star Wars men was so successful, the toy company basically ran out of materials. The demand was so high they couldn’t keep up. Kids were given promissory notes on Christmas morning! I’d have shoved that right up Santa’s sleigh, let me tell you.  

Anyway, for Return of the Jedi, it seems they over-estimated the demand – far too many toys were produced. Eventually, tonnes of unsold action figures were used as landfill for a building site somewhere in the UK. Think of all those Darth Vaders, Emperors, Yodas and Lando Calrissians, buried down there under the earth, while generations of real people live their real lives above them.

In a couple of hundred years, the houses that were built might not be there. But the Star Wars figures beneath them will. They’ll be unearthed, like Chinese terracotta warriors. And they’ll go on sale, and people will pay an utter fortune for them. 

Probably we should grow up, put away these little totems to childhood. But not any time soon.

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