Articulation - what's it really good for?  UNH! 
Posted 11/01/00

One of the great debates of the action figure world is over articulation - do you need it?  How much?  What's more important, sculpting or joints?  Can you have both or do you have to forfeit one for the other?

These great philosophical questions have been plaguing toy collectors for years.  Until the last decade or so, it wasn't much of an issue, but as the popularity of certain lines has increased, along with their 'statue' qualities, there has been backlash among certain factions.

First, let's talk some definitions.  The picture below of the upper body of a super articulated Soldiers of the World figure shows a variety of types of points of articulation that we'll be discussing.

A point of articulation occurs when the joint can move along an axis.  Therefore, the cut joint at the bicep of this figure is one point of articulation - the arm turns through one axis.  On the other hand, the ball joint at the shoulder is two points of articulation - the arm can move both forward and back and up and down.  The combination of the cut joint and ball joint at the neck provides three points of articulation, allowing the head to move forward and back, side to side, and completely around.  And finally, the elbow on this figure is one of the latest innovations in joints, a 'double' joint.  There is a debate as to whether this increases articulation or not.  From our other examples, you can see that it doesn't increase the number of axis that the arm moves through - it's still just forward and back.  But it does increase the range of that motion, allowing the arm to take many more poses, and it does have two joints combined into one.  So some folks still consider it one point of articulation (an improvement on that one point, but still one point) while others call it two.  I'll be calling these joints two, to differentiate them from a standard elbow joint.

Most 12" figures today employ innovative designs and tons of articulation.

Combinations of these cut joints, ball joints and double joints add up to a figures overall articulation.  We've seen the history of figure's go from articulated to less articulated to almost statues, and now it's starting to swing back.

During the 1960's, the market was pretty much divided between three lines: Captain Action, G.I. Joe and Marx figures.  All 12" scale, these were fairly articulated, from a minimum of 11 points to around 20.  These figures provided tremendous play value, with terrific playsets and accessories, and kids of this generation have many fond memories, not the least of which is due to their articulation.  But sculpting wasn't crucial, and these joints didn't effect the overall look of the figures.

The 1970's brought new lines, most of them much smaller than the 12" scale.  Of those, Megos were the largest.  These 8" figures usually had 17-19 points.  Like most of their 12" predecessors, they had cloth outfits to cover these joints, making looks less of a problem.  But also during the 70's the birth of the 3 3/4" figure occurred, and with it, the start of far less articulation.  Suddenly, the standard dropped drastically to 5 points, and while kids still loved it, it was the beginning of a trend.

You could make the argument that the small size of these figures forced the manufacturers to have fewer points of articulation.  But then Hasbro debuted the G.I. Joe, Real American Hero figures.  While small in stature, these figures were graced with ball jointed shoulders and articulated knees and elbows, something not present in other small figures.  While the joints were less esthetically pleasing, the line was a tremendous hit with kids.

The beginning of the end - Kenner's Star Wars figures brought new heights of inarticulation.

But the rest of the 80's lines settled around the 5 point standard.  Even lines considered some of the greatest, like the Super Powers line (also by Kenner) usually had 7 points.  The damage was done - fewer points of articulation meant cheaper production costs, and manufacturers weren't blind to this advantage.

By the 90's, Kenner was absorbed by Hasbro, and Hasbro allowed Kenner's production folks to take over the reins on all their smaller lines.  The terrific RAH Joes of the 80's became the larger and yet less articulated G.I. Joe Extreme of the 90's.  Even though it seemed impossible, Star Wars figures became less and less articulated, often nothing more than a statue with a couple shoulder joints.  And the company that had the greatest effect on figures in the 90's, McFarlane Toys, lead the charge into weird, useless articulation but fantastic sculpting.

I'd like to point out one line that fought the trend - Playmates Star Trek.  While most other lines were lucky to have 5 points, this Star Trek line was one of the most articulated lines under 6" ever produced.

While most lines of the 90's were short on joints, Playmates continued to produce highly poseable figures with their Star Trek line.

McFarlane Toys pushed the envelope with their larger, much more attractive figures.  Often at least 7"-9" in size, but still only with 5 or 7 USEFUL points of articulation (articulated hair, beards, and other odd items don't count), these toys were extremely successful with collectors.  For the first time in the history of action figures, collectors started having an effect on the manufacturers of toys.  Their numbers were sufficient for toy makers to pay attention to their desires, and with the success of McFarlane Toys, other companies rushed to increase the size of their figures, decrease the articulation, and increase the sculpt quality.

The lack of articulation in these figures was blamed on esthetics.  If you added joints, it would ruin the sculpt.  Both McFarlane and Moore Action Collectibles held this opinion, and many collectors agree.  It's undeniably true that sculpts like we've seen with Where The Wild Things Are and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are truly amazing.  But many collectors feel that if they are nothing more than statues, and don't deserve to be called action figures.

Angel, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer by Moore Action Collectibles.  With only neck, shoulder and elbow joints, he's as close to a statue as you can get.

So where are we today?  Collectors now expect the best sculpting quality available.  It's no longer accepted that it's enough, and they are looking for other advancements.  Several companies are answering the call for greater articulation, both in large and small scales.  One of the leaders is Dragon Models.  Their 12" figures were the first to sport the double joints shown earlier, at both the elbows and knees.  The other 12" manufacturers have followed suit, and it's quickly becoming the standard.

Toybiz Famous Covers figures have also shown the advantages of great articulation.  These figures sport a couple dozen points, and the variety and style are well loved by today's collectors.  However, both these 9" figures and the 12" style have cloth outfits, once again making most joints hidden.  Does that mean that you have to trade articulation for great sculpting?

Sideshow Toys is producing great sculpts, and hidden joints.  There's 11 points of articulation on this figure.

Two companies are showing that's not true.  One of those companies is Sideshow Toys.  They've been producing a line of 9" sculpted figures based on the original Universal Monsters.  Through the use of well hidden joints, they've managed to add articulation but still provide fantastic sculpting.  Every series produced so far has sold extremely well, and the success of the company has been based on these terrific figures.

Just recently, 21st Century, best known for their 12" military figures, started producing a 3 3/4" line of military action figures.  Called XD (for extreme detail), these figures sport unique articulation, and have up to 14 points on a tiny, yet tremendously sculpted figure.  They are accompanied by great vehicles and playsets.  The question still remains as to how these will be received by collectors, but it certainly has raised the bar on articulation and sculpting in a small scale.

Innovations like these are improving the articulation of figures, while still producing amazing detail and attractiveness.  Finding new ways of providing the excellent detail we've come to expect, but providing greater articulation and play value is the challenge of both new and old toy companies today.

21st Century's eXtreme Detail figures are trying to revitalize the 3 3/4" military market.

If you have any suggestions or comments, feel free to drop me a line!

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