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Points of Articulation

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The Toy Alphabet of Cool

So, here's something just for fun - every day, we'll post some new cool toy thing for each letter of the alphabet. This is a really fun hobby, and we're going to give you 26 reminders of why that is. It doesn't need to be the best example for each letter, just an example. We weren't trying to start an argument about whether "this" F choice was better than "that" F choice: the only goal is to make sure that the F choice we chose was something cool about toys. And all 25 other letters, too. So without further ado, let's get started!

A is for...
...axes. Being, oversized ones. Like videogames, action figures can't get enough of their gigantic, realistically unholdable weapons. In the real world, it's hard enough to swing a regular axe into a tree or someone's chest (a la every plastic incarnation of Jason Voorhees) but, in the fantasy world of action figures, characters can have axes that are larger than their own body (He-Man) or even bigger (Spawn: The Dark Knight). That these would be impossible to swing doesn't matter - they look bad-ass, which is what we're all here for anyway!
B is for...
...lots and lots of freaking Batman. There's no collector worth his salt who is without them - if you're going to collect toys, you're going to end up with Bats, and you're going to end up with a lot. Why is that? Because as with most truly iconic characters, there are going to be a lot of toys, often outdoing the last, with different sculpts, different costumes, different articulation, different accessories, and you're going to want them. That DC Superheroes Batman is built and looks awesome - you want it! But that Bat Signal Batman comes with a working freaking Bat Signal! Who could pass up? What about that monsterously sweet movie Batmobile, the Tumbler, that somehow combines the Frank Miller Dark Knight Returns Bat-Tank with the classic Batmobile to make something truly special? You're going to need that bad boy, as well as a Batman to drive it! At times, this can be frustrating for a collector, and for his wallet, but the truth is that Batman is a fantastic character, a fascinating icon, and usually an exceptional toy.
C is for...
...customs. Whether it's postmodernism at work, imagination at play, or just getting fed up with our favourite character not having a figure of their own, from the moment there were toys there were customs (well, probably). Some are elaborate works of craft with new sculpted elements, completely redone paint jobs, and their own custom-made accessories, others are just a regular figure with a new cape or a different colour scheme, but they all share a single goal - giving a big "Up Yours" to whoever decided that what the world needs is another wave of Superman and Batman. Certain figures even have special value because of their potential use in customisation - a figure with no character-specific sculpted elements can sell out in droves as customisers buy it up to be the basis for their next masterpiece. And some of the most memorable toys of all time - He-Man's Modulok, the Star Wars Droid Factory, and every Lego set ever made - are made specifically to appeal to the customiser. Power to the people - who cares what The Man in his cushy office wants us to buy, we're the ones who decide what we play with.
D is for...
...decals. There was a time, not too long ago, when every large toy you bought also came with a sheet of stickers you had to apply yourself. Factory painting wasn't precise enough for fine detail work, so it fell to the consumer to finish the job at home - probably after assembling the big toy in the first place. You'd peel the sticker off the backing paper and, following the included map, carefully press the decal in place. Yes, as kids, most of us ended up putting the stickers on at ridiculously crooked angles, but it also made your toy your own. It gave your toys personality. Now that we're older we can put the stickers on with more precision, but there's still something pleasantly enjoyable about applying your own decals. These days it's mainly Lego that includes decals with its sets, but it's a part of the history of the hobby that's nice to leave in the past (mostly).
E is for...
...exclusives. Not every character is appropriate for a wide release. Whether it's size, or recognizability or any number of factors, sometimes the only way to get toys into the hands of the people who want them is as an exclusive. It can be something as simple as a clever repaint, or something as complex as an entirely new figure with no re-used parts; it can be sold at conventions, online or in a specific store. When they're done right, exclusives are a fun addition to your toy collection. When they're done wrong, however... well, that's a story for another time.
F is for...
...the Four Horsemen. They may not be the first popular, in-demand sculptors in the toy industry, but they are the first to make themselves known in the fan community. From their start with McFarlane Toys to their work for Mattel, the Four Horsemen have defined the look of modern toys. And by breaking out into their own studio, they also broke new ground: like the first comic creators who got their credits printed in the books, the Four Horsemen proved that the work-for-hire guys aren't disposable, and deserve to be treated with respect (lest they jump ship for a company that will).
G is for...
...GI Joe. There's no overstating the importance of GI Joe. As the very first action figure, the entire industry we love so much is built on the back of that 12" movable fighting man. From 1964 to the present, there's only been a single three-year gap (1979-1981) in which there was no GI Joe of any kind. The property has changed and evolved with the times, and is constantly being introduced to new generations of fans. Whether you like 12" figures, 3 3/4" Real American Heroes or the 8" Sigma 6, GI Joe is there.
H is for...
...Heinrad. This Japanese-only Transformer is a real oddball. He turns into a real animal most people have never heard of, and many of those who have heard of it think it's mythological. In honor of that, the toy can take both "natural" and "pretend" beast modes. Though he's at least somewhat a shellformer, and other parts of his transformation are remarkably straightforward, he still makes for a good-looking robot. Add to that the fact that he's also a working alarm clock, and you've got yourself a winner. Plus, he's the only Transformer with testicles.
I is for...
...the internet. Toy collecting has changed wildly in the past decade or so, and we're not just talking the quality of sculpts or paint. Until the mid-'90s, there was no "collector community." We were all individual fans, alone and adrift in a giant sea. The only way you met anyone who shared your hobby was if you ran into them when you were checking out the aisles to see what was new. And oh yeah, you never knew what toys were coming out until they showed up on the shelf. Yes, things online get a bit snippy at times, but for every den of idiots like Fwoosh, there are smaller, friendlier places to hang out.
J is for...
...J-hooks. Anyone who's ever found the specific figure they want tucked all the way at the back of a peg should thank their lucky stars for j-hooks. It's such a simple, straightforward design, a little hook of cardboard or plastic that allows you to slide figures off the pegs sideways. They've been around since the mid-80s, at least (LJN was the first to use them on their WWF figures, then Kenner with its Starting Lineups), but it wasn't until the early '90s that they became standard on most toy packages. These days it's much odder to see a package that isn't a j-hook. And as an added bonus, it's completely done away with those "unpunched" scalpers.
K is for...
...Kobra Khan. He wasn't one of the cool henchmen, like Trap-Jaw or Evil Lyn. He was a Snakeman, and let's face it: they were dull. He had a head shaped like a concussed goldfish in order to allow it to squirt water mist. Now that we're old and cynical we look down on such ham-fisted action features, but let's take a moment to think back to happier, simpler times, when we didn't demand a sculpt that'd make Michelangelo weep, and a dozen different paint apps to get the shading on the scales just so, and enough articulation to put a yoga master to shame. Once upon a time, all it took to make us happy was filling up Kobra Khan's misshapen barrel torso with water and pushing down on his stupid-looking head to squirt "venomous" mist over our enemies. It was fun. And toys should be fun.
L is for...
...light-piping. It's a simple action feature: just mold a bit of your figure's head in translucent plastic, and when light passes behind (or above) him, his eyes will light up. Yes, it's possible to do this poorly (mold the entire head from clear plastic and then leave gaps in the paint; block the back so light can't get in sufficiently; choose a bad color for the translucent bits), but there's just something fun about covering and uncovering the back of the piece to make the character "blink." It definitely beats battery-powered eyes that mean the head is all but immobile. It's absolutely a low-tech solution, but it does what it's supposed to, and sometimes that's enough.
M is for...
...McFarlane. No, not the McFarlane Toys of today - a hollow shell struggling to grasp at its former glory - but the McFarlane Toys of the mid-to-late '90s. When he decided to license his creation, Spawn, Todd McFarlane met with representatives from all the major toy companies. Dissatisfied with the work they showed him and demanding a higher standard, he took the money Spawn had made him and started his own toy company. The modern age of the action figure is built almost entirely on that decision, as every company that wanted to gain notice in the boy's toys arena suddenly realized they'd have to step up their game. Bigger, more detailed, Todd's toys (the company actually started out as "Todd Toys" until Mattel made them change the name) changed everything. Marvel Legends, DCSH... heck, even modern Star Wars and GI Joe figures owe a huge debt to Todd McFarlane looking at what was in the toy aisle and saying "this isn't good enough."
N is for...
...new toy smell. Yes, that heady aroma that engulfs you when you first break into your toys' packaging. Much like "new car smell," the particular scent is hard to pin down, but you know it when you smell it. Actually a combination of volatile organic compounds (or VOCs) such as paint, glue, lubricants, residual solvents and even the decay of fresh plastic itself, New Toy Smell builds up inside the sealed packaging until you set it free. Sometimes it's just a mild aroma, other times it's a room-clearing blast of fumes, but you'll never know until you open the toy and breathe in.
O is for...
...original properties. Yes, we all love getting toys of our favorite comics, movies and tv shows, but sometimes it's great to just get a toy that doesn't tie in to anything. Original properties are typically the purview of small companies, like Mezco or McFarlane, but remember that when they started, the three biggest '80s toylines (GI Joe, Transformers and He-Man) were all original properties, too - in all those cases, the toys came first, and the cartoons came later. These days a big company doesn't want to take a risk on an untested idea, and a small company doesn't have the resources to get their original property into the general consciousness, but it's often worth giving these toys a try, if just so you have something other than a Batman or Spider-Man in your display.
P is for...
...playability. Displaying figures is fine and good, but who could argue that it's not cool when you can actually take a figure off its shelf and muck about with it somehow? Transformation, action features, spring-loaded weapons, even just pushing a Dalek around going "Ex-ter-mi-nate!" and making death-ray noises. Articulation is a wonderful treat, too - because the only thing better than a figure with a cool pose is a figure with a cool pose that you can then put in a different cool pose.
Q is for...
...Quentin Tarantino. Not only is he one of the most gifted filmmakers in popular culture today, but his films have spawned dozens of excellent action figures that we know and love. From that Mr. Blonde and Marvin Nash set where you could remove Marvin's ear, to the very nifty Bride vs. the Crazy 88s set from Kill Bill, in which the Crazy 88's limbs came off and shot fake blood out, to a gun-legged Rose McGowan, what's not to love? To go even further, how many film directors have even had action figures of themselves made for toylines based on their movies? Tarantino's got five. QT, we salute you!
R is for...
...removable helmets. Removable armor can be fun, when it's done well, but usally it's just clunky and in the way. A nice simple helmet or hat, though? A joy! Palisades played things smart with their Muppet line by attaching hats with magnets, but the piece could just be held on by friction and it would still be good. Removable helmets add great play value to a figure, particularly if they drastically change the look of the toy.
S is for...
...Star Wars. If GI Joe created the idea of an "action figure," Star Wars set the template for modern figures. The 3¾" scale, the Big Five in articulation, the blister card packaging with a picture of the character on the front and shots of the rest of the line on the back... it's all Star Wars. To say nothing of the rebooted line, which has been running non-stop since 1995 - four years before the first prequel came out and reignited the world's fascination with the universe far away.
T is for...
...tampographic printing. Decorations that would once have been applied via decals once you got the toy home are now printed directly on figure at the factory, saving us time and making sure things are always placed just where they're supposed to be. The process involves ink being picked up on a thick, soft pad that's then pressed against the body of the toy, transfering the design. The pad is soft enough to conform to the shape of the toy in a way a sticker never could, ensuring a crisp look.
U is for...
...Unicron. Who could have ever suspected that the hugest ever Transformer would make one of the biggest, most awesome toys ever? The planet-sized destroyer of worlds munched through the universe in Transformers The Movie and eventually found a home on many of our shelves - in the form of a gigantic-ass toy that not only looks awesome in robot mode, but transforms into a nice big munching planet, in an amazing feat of engineering. He also has action features out the wazoo, and comes with his own moon! Unicron is a fine example of why we collect toys in the first place - exciting, fun ingenuity that combines the awesome sculpting of statues and other similar art with tremendous playability and fun. Unicron is one of the best Transformers ever made, and deserves a place in everyone's collection.
V is for...
...versus. Action figures let us have the team-ups, crossovers, tie-ins and throwdowns we'd never get to see in any other medium. DC Comics may be purposely cock-blocking a Batman/Daredevil book, but thanks to ToyBiz and Mattel, you can make it yourself. Transformers vs. Jurassic Park? The Flash vs. Speed Racer? Andre the Giant vs. Sauron? Doctor Who meets Darth Vader? Never in a million years, except for on your toy shelf.
W is for...
...women. Superman? Wonder Woman. He-Man? She-Ra. Luke Skywalker? Princess Leia. For every male action figure slumming it on the shelves of Toys Я Us or suchlike, there's a woman who'd fill their boots just as well, and look a whole lot better doing it, too. So why aren't we up to here in little plastic heroines? Why did it take the better part of a decade to get an Arcee? Why are the girls in a series often short-packed? Or absent altogether? Why is there no such thing as a sportswoman figure? I'll tell you why: because toy manufacturers are in league with Martians, and they don't want anyone realising that Earth can be saved by kick-ass women. They want us all to believe that women are just Barbies, only useful for wearing dresses and mucking about with hairstyles, so that when our GI Joes and Batmen get wiped out by precision Martian bombardments on D-Day, we'll all just lose hope and surrender. So don't let them get away with it. Demand more female action figures. Because the war is coming.
X is for...
...Xevoz. There was just something infectuous about this Stikfas spin-off line. It's rare enough to see a big-name company taking a gamble on an original property these days, but the fact that Hasbro actually managed to get these into stores like Wal*Mart and TЯU is just stunning. You have to think that even some minimal advertising would have done wonders for these awesome toys: the first series was over-ordered, with some samples hanging on pegs until the line actually ended, but pretty much everyone who played with Xevoz fell in love with them and supported the line all the way through. If more people had known about them, the line might still be alive today.
Y is for...
...Yuffie. Yuffie? What the hell kind of name is Yuffie? Isn't that what furries do when they get horny? Maybe, but it's also one of the characters from Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children - you know, the one that's all about emo guys fighting each other, and dragons, and stuff? But that's not important, because Yuffie is just another in the long line of girls from anime and manga to be made into an action figure. Sure, there are those creepy "erotic" PVC statues if you're into that sort of thing, but plenty of anime has women who are capable fighters, and those make for some cool toys.
Z is for...
...ZIM! Mighty forerunner of the Irken Armada! Palisades was a great company, while they lasted, and their Invader Zim line was a prime example why. Take an obscure property with a rabid fanbase, deliver stunningly true sculpts of things that are difficult to translate, and make fans feel better about the high price by throwing in a ton of cool accessories. That was the Palisades way, and until they deviated from it, the company was riding high. Zim, like Palisades itself, ended too soon, but gave us a lot of wonderful goodies before it went.
So that's the alphabet. We hope you enjoyed it, and maybe learned something new you didn't know before. We'll probably do this again sometime, just with a different focus. If you have a suggestion for an Alphabet theme you'd like to see, let us know.


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