How to Shop for an Action Figure Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How to Shop for an Action Figure

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An action figure is a small, usually plastic toy that is a miniature version of a superhero, television or film character or rock star, etc1. Action figures are generally marketed to the male sex. The female counterparts are known as 'dolls', and males tend to keep a good distance from the aisle in the store that displays these. Firstly, because it's embarrassing to be seen there and, secondly, because all the pink packaging can be damaging to male retinas.

Purchasing an action figure may seem like a trivial exercise, but it has come to be viewed by some as an art form, a never-ending search for the perfect toy. This search process will now be shared so that all who wish to get the fullest experience out of their puny plastic pals can do so with ease.

The Basics

The first things to consider when purchasing an action figure are, needless to say, fairly basic. They are the normal concerns that any consumer experiences when buying any kind of item. These things consist of:

  • Price
  • Size
  • Quality

Price and Size

When it comes to action figures, price is usually directly proportional to size. While it is also influenced by the quality of the figure and popularity of the character the figure portrays, these are often inconsequential factors in this area. Another is the amount of packaging used.

The size of most action figures falls within a range of five to seven inches, but other sizes can be found. GI Joe has made figures as small as four inches and as large as 12, and numerous other manufacturers have made figures as large as 18 inches. Popular Transformers figures have even gone above and beyond that. (Barbies have even gone as high as four feet tall!)

So, as long as you're just looking for something to combat your He-Man collection, a six- or seven-inch figure of comparable price will suit just fine. It may lack in some of the finer points of perfection, but it will serve its purpose.


Quality, as will be later discussed, can be a very complex consideration. When studying an action figure for quality, the main points to consider are as such:

  • Functionality
  • Articulation
  • Accuracy
  • Accessories/Features

For functionality, you need a figure with a decent number of joints, or, as commonly referred to in the world of action figures, 'points of articulation'. At a bare minimum, the shoulders, neck, and hip and legs should all have some kind of joint. Some figures will also have elbow and knee joints. Another thing to consider in this area is range of motion.

For articulation, pay special attention to the amount of detail in the figure. This includes both the level of paint detail and the sculpting detail of things such as clothes and muscles. In general, most action figures are about the same level of articulation, but there are a number of figure series that are known for a higher standard of articulation.

You need to check the accuracy of the figure as compared to the character the figure is portraying. Make sure the colours are correct and, if there is a face, that it is a good likeness. Faces on action figures are often not as well moulded as they could be and companies will often make alterations to characters when put into figure form. This often happens with Batman figures, where 'specialised' forms such as 'Freeze Batman' or 'Underwater Batman' are produced. The key is to know what you are looking for and not be tricked by gimmicks.

For accessories/features, you must be careful. This can be the most fun category to look for, but it can also be the worst of traps. These are things like spring-fired missiles, body attachments, interchangeable parts and weaponry. These can look neat, but be careful, because an excessive amount of such things can impede on the other attributes that contribute to quality. Also, these small parts can be a serious choking hazard. Packages will give an age recommendation, saying that it's probably not a good idea to give this to a child younger than three or four.

The Basic Choice

By following the basics of action figure-choosing you will, guaranteed, find yourself enjoying a satisfactory toy. The steps mentioned will help you to choose a figure of a good quality and allow your imagination to run wild. One final word on the basics: be as observant as possible. Obviously you cannot interact and use an action figure before you buy it, so study it while in its case as best you can. Look for seams and balls when trying to decipher where the joints are - and holes and strange clips for where accessories would attach, etc.

The Not-so-Basics

The basics are a good place to start and to find an action figure that meets your needs. Still, for the enthusiast whose lust for perfection seems insatiable, the basics are just not enough. It is for this person that the next section has been created. In it, greater detail will be given as to ways of picking out the perfect figure and specific things to watch out for so to get the most out of your toy.


For the extremist, more joints are better. Unfortunately, these can also cause problems if not done well. Often, an action figure with many joints might be put together in a lacklustre way and will not retain its position. It will go limp and immediately transform into an inaction figure2. Another thing to consider when considering joints is size. Many joints can often lead to a larger-sized figure, however, in some cases this can be a very good thing. An 18-inch Spider-Man figure was released featuring 67 joints, giving it an innumerable amount of positions. It was also one of the first figures to feature fully posable hands. The downside to this is that it made it difficult to use in conjunction with other action figures. Still, though it towers over them, from an artistic standpoint it is an excellent mannequin and can stand freely on its toes alone.

One other very important thing to consider about joints, as previously stated, is the range of motion. Be sure to watch out for things like fixed shoulder-pads, as they immediately hinder the arms from reaching upward. Finally, after opening your figure, if it seems to have a smaller range of motion than it should, do not fret. New figures almost always need to have the 'kinks' worked out of them. Spend some time rotating limbs and twisting joints before you really begin to use the figure. This can help prevent damage in the future.


Accessories are based on personal preference, but a few words of wisdom can be offered to help you make your decision.

As a general rule, unless the gun itself looks really impressive, spring-loaded missile launchers should not be a factor in your decision. The ammunition will get lost or broken and is rarely of any use when you are playing with your action figures. As a side note, accessories involving string or 'zip lines' are of equally little value and should not be considered as, due to their inherent nature, they become horrendously tangled no matter what precautionary measures are taken.

Attachments and interchangeable parts involve a basic trade-off3. While they can be very interesting and add a very dynamic quality to the action figure experience, they almost always hinder the all-important functionality. That is, certain joints either lose range of motion or are lost entirely. In this case, the most common loss of movement is in the elbows and knees. So it's important to carefully observe the good and bad aspects of the attachments and make a decision accordingly.

Extra Stuff

One series of Marvel toys features action figures accompanied by comic books. In general, these are very good to look for. The figures are often of a higher quality, and even if they are not fantastic you get your money's worth. Adding a comic book to accompany a figure is a sign that the company have put more effort into that specific line of figures than they might normally have. Other things that might be of a similar nature are things items such as trading cards or mini-CDs.

Models and Collectibles

If you are not really interested in playing with your action figures - for example, if you want them for display purposes only, or you don't even open the package, which will increase its value and collectibility in the future - then factors such as how many joints it has or how much fun they will be is not very relevant. For such cases, accuracy and articulation are the only concerns. Be sure that the figure is made well, posed to your satisfaction, and is of sufficient size.

Todd McFarlane, a well-known comic book artist and creator, is notorious for producing extremely articulate figures. He is best-known for the comic book character Spawn, but his studios have produced many other figures including life-like representations of the infamous rock group Motley Crue.

The Informed Purchase

Now that you have all the necessary information to buy an action figure that suits your needs best, you can go out and expand your collection with purpose. Consider the philosophy that 'there is no knowledge like empirical knowledge4'. Everything said here can be of great help, but until you go out and experience the process for yourself you cannot truly understand why all the considerations are necessary. Still, now that you are well informed and can no longer be roped into buying a product that does not meet your needs.

Happy shopping, and enjoy that wonderful new action figure smell!5

1There are even action figures of people such as Freud, Shakespeare, Einstein and Mozart.2Not to be confused with the Kevin Smith toy line of the same name.3When one good thing is sacrificed for another.4Something learned through your own experience.5It exists.

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