“When I was a kid, toy manufacturers believed female action figures were not the priority. They thought these were only for girls, who already had their Barbies, so they left it at that,” claims Ogie Cruz, 45, an avid collector since 2004 of toys based on the female superheroes of Marvel and DC Comics.
“But, now, the collector base is increasing. Professionals like lawyers and doctors are shelling out money for the latest female action figure.”
Action figures first appeared in 1964 to fill the toy market for boys because girls then already had their Barbie dolls. Toy company Hasbro created the first action figures inspired by the 1945 movie The Story of G.I. Joe. The G.I. Joe action figure measured 11.5 inches. The first female action figure was actually a nurse from this line.
It wasn't until the late 70s that the first female action figure based on a popular movie character would emerge. Princess Leia of Star Wars, released in the late 70s, holds that distinction. In the 80s came action figure lines based on Saturday morning cartoons like She-Ra of Masters of the Universe, Cheetara of Thundercats, and Wonder Woman from Super Powers Collection. Collectors started surfacing in the late 80s, buying action figures in their original packaging and keeping them in mint condition for display.
Nowadays, a female action figure costs between PHP 500 to PHP 6,000, depending on its size (it may span to six inches), points of articulation, paint job, and materials used. Female action figures have obviously become a strong fascination, especially for men who spend on the characters that they have fallen "in love" with in a TV show, a video game, a movie, or a comic book. Indeed, the rise in fandom for empowered female characters like The Hunger Games' Katniss, X-Men's Phoenix, The Avengers' Black Widow, Tomb Raider's Lara Croft, and the magical girls of the 9os anime Sailor Moon is making toy companies bring girl power to the shelves.
The rationale behind the craze for female action figures is the stuff of pop psychology. Objectification, perhaps? Fetishism? Or simply nostalgia, a reminder of the qualities these characters have that have stuck with them through the years.
"Personally, the character Phoenix, also known as Jean Grey, has become my favorite female superhero since I watched the X-Men: Animated Series in the 9os. What I admire about these female characters is that they are not the stereotypical damsels in distress. They can kick asses on their own, and are strong-willed, powerful, but can be gentle at the same time," shares toy collector and customizer Myke dela Paz.
"You learn to appreciate strong women as characters. I began to try and read titles like Supergirl and Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers version) after I collected female action figures. I also began to empathize with the adversities women creators and collectors face in a male-dominated and male-oriented hobby," adds Mon Vergel de Dios, collector of superhero action figures
Those who read comics also tend to be completists when it comes to their toy collecting, with manufacturers coming out with product lines like Marvel Legends and stoking collectors into anticipating the next character from the comics to be released as an action figure.
"But female action figures are still rare in cases or sets of series boxes," Dela Paz stresses. "They get sold out in regular stores in no time, and (are) eventually seen in specialty stores with much higher prices."
Collecting female action figures from Japan can also be challenging because of the "limited edition" trap and the "For Japan residents only" clause.
"Prices are manageable but the preorder dates hurt my wallet a lot," says Kenneth "Max Gunther" Octavo, collector of toys based on female-led anime series like Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, and Magic Knight Rayearth. "I once spent a hefty amount of cash in gaming centers just to get a set of five figures of Magic Knight Rayearth."
To keep up with new releases, collectors check previews and announcements during toy conventions and get updates via the Facebook pages of hobby and comic book specialty stores such as DK Collectibles, Kramer: Toy Warden, TK, and TrU. These stores usually post items for preorder. The catch is, preorders may be more expensive than waiting for the toys to pop up at standard retail prices in Toy Kingdom and Toys "R" Us. Some who purchase their action figures during trips to Japan and the US resell them on eBay at up to three times their original price.
"Another challenge is to get to the store before a hoarder buys all of the stock," says Cruz. These hoarders usually post images of their haul online and then resell for a profit.
The previous decade saw the popularity of superhero films and TV shows flourish; hence, the rise in even more action figures like Guardians of the Galaxy's Gamora; the Avengers' Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, and Captain Marvel; Batman characters Catwoman and Harley Quinn; and Justice League's Wonder Woman and Black Canary. Among gamers, favorite picks are Tomb Raider's Lara Croft, Final Fantasy's Yuna, and Street Fighter's Chun-Li. For otakus or enthusiasts of manga, anime, and tokusatsu (special effects) shows, Naruto's Sakura, Ruruoni Kenshin's Kamiya Kaoru, and Lupin the Third's Fujiko, as well as action figures from Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura are on their shopping list.
But, when they do find a female action figure of their favorite character, quality is not always guaranteed.
"Panget `yung paint applications or masyadong payat `yung figure. It's hard to look at a badly painted Emma Frost or Jean Grey when comic book artists draw them beautifully," says De Dios.
This is where toy customizers come in. These specialists work on improving and enhancing the beauty of the figures. Dela Paz, for one, single handedly modifies action figures by re-sculpting and repainting the toys, particularly to give the faces a more realistic look and make the torso proportional to the rest of the body. The entire process usually takes two days. He accepts commissions via his Facebook page and has clients from abroad.
"As an artist who does toy customization, there are so many female characters that have not been made into action figures, and most of the ones produced are not as beautiful or attractive for my own taste. I take steps into modifying and improving the existing female action figures, and custom create the ones that have not been made yet," he shares.
Rates for toy customization depend on the intricacies of the project, but improvements on heads of six-inch female figures alone cost PHP 400. Collectors preserve their compendia like museum pieces. Some buy plastic containers with separate sections for each figure. Each slot is cushioned by bubble wrap to protect the figure from bumps and scratches. Other collectors store their prized possessions in resealable plastic bags placed in tightly sealed plastic containers with desiccant pouches to absorb moisture and prevent the figures from becoming sticky when held.
When putting figures on display, most collectors prefer glass cabinets. Some create dioramas with their action figures set in dynamic poses with the help of pressure-sensitive adhesive. "When posing and moving them, I take extra care in gently moving the parts so that the paint or accessories are not damaged. I occasionally wash them gently with liquid dishwashing soap to remove accumulated grease and dust using soft foam once every two months," Dela Paz shares.
Click on the image below for slideshow
Rogue, gifted with the mutant ability to steal someone’s power and memory through touch. Her superhuman strength and flight, she owes to a close encounter with Ms. Marvel (now popularly known as Captain Marvel).
Former villainesses turned X-Men, Emma Frost and Magik.
Ororo Munroe ak.a. Storm, the weather goddess. 5 Jubilee, who can shoot fireworks through her hands and once the youngest member of the X-Men.
Amidala in her Foreign Residence dress, worn during her stay in Coruscant that followed the Invasion of Naboo.
Amidala in her Coruscant Apartment robe and Shiraya fan head dress with beads and glass filaments, sported in her meeting with Naboo’s Senator.
Amidala in her Naboo Victory Celebration Parade dress, which she wore after the defeat of the Trade Federation.
Amidala wore this Hoth outfit during their stay in their rebel base in the Ice planet of Hoth.
This Bespin gown was given by Lando Calrissian, when she retreated to the cloud city of Bespin after escaping Hoth.
When Leia failed in her rescue attempt of Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt, she was enslaved and forced to wear this skimpy outfit, which turned out to be an iconic outfit.
Scarlet Witch and the Black Widow of the Avengers.
Kitty Pryde a.k.a. Shadowcat and Rachel Grey, mutant best friends who now teach younger mutants to control their powers.
Characters from Akazukin Chacha: Marin, Chacha, Dorothy, and Orin.
Characters from Magic Knight Rayearth: Umi Ryuuzaki, Hikaru Shidou, Fuu Hououji, and Mokona.
Tamashii Nations: Proplica – Cutie moon rod, Sailor Moon’s weapon.
BanDai Japan 1995 - Crisis Moon Compact and Kaleidomoon scope, both Sailor Moon’s magical items.
Simply put, female action figures are for viewing, rather than being hidden in toy chests.
Like all other collectors, toy collectors are thrilled to grow their stash. Events such as the Philippine Toys, Hobbies, and Collectibles Convention (Toycon), the International Tokyo Toy Show in Japan, and the American International Toy Fair in the US draw collectors into displaying their toys. These events are highly anticipated—it's where they buy, sell, and converse about their obsessions with fellow fans.
"Whenever you see your collection growing, it gives you a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction," says Rene Fernandez, collector of figures of the Batman character Harley Quinn.
The responsibilities that come with collecting female action figure likewise make us aware of how we should budget our time and money."
Galupo collects female action figures for his daughter to enjoy. "I don't want her to think that her brother is the only one who gets the coolest figures. Instead of Barbies, I'll be giving her Wonder Woman and Danger Girl action figures when she is old enough to take care of it. I want her to see that women can also get into action and be adventurous."
Photographs by Pat Mateo
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 18 2014.