HISTORY OF ACTION FIGURES
by Ed Olomoff, World-Renowned Expert On The Subject and Author of
"The Captain Action Attraction" and
"G.I. Joe: There's No Business Like Joe Business"
(both currently out of print)
Have you ever held a
Mego Super Hero and wondered about the process that led
to such a miraculous object? Have you ever looked at one
of G.I. Joe's weapons and marveled at the intricate
detail that goes into these tiny armaments? Have you ever
wondered why Zzzax vibrates like that?
Yes, it's true. Action figures have a long and tangled history; a
history known to very few. In fact, many of the best-known toy
companies of today have spent millions of dollars in an
attempt to cover up the distasteful, horrific origins of
this industry we love so well. And it all started with a
doll called "Irma."
CHAPTER ONE: IRMA
Irma was the brainchild
of one Vernon G. LaFuselle, who worked for the Lucky Duck
Toy Company in the late 1930s. Lucky Duck was primarily a
producer of paper dolls, although they did branch out a
bit later on and were eventually driven out of business
in 1953 due to the unfortunate and unforeseen results of
their "Lucky Duck Chloroform Sponge Playset."
LaFuselle's job was to
devise new toys and new ways to market them. One day,
while having dinner at a friend's house, LaFuselle
noticed that his friend's daughter seemed particularly
frustrated with the set of Ulysses S. Grant paper dolls
she had recently received as a birthday gift.
"What's the matter,
Jenny?" LaFuselle is rumored to have said.
"It's the bleedin'
dolls! They been foldin' all over, they tears up all the
time, and I can't even make the bloomin' things stand
up!" Jenny replied in her apocryphal way.
LaFuselle pondered this
problem for several days, after which it occurred to him
that a two-dimensional doll might simply be too limited
-- and too fragile -- for realistic play. He decided to
create a three-dimensional doll, one that would be more
like the three-dimensional children to whom he hoped to
be able to sell millions of them.
Of course dolls had
existed for many years. However, very few of these had
been three-dimensional; many primitive cultures believed
that a three-dimensional doll would be a "false
idol" or a "pagan image." Others felt that
a three-dimensional doll would come to life in the middle
of the night and eat their kidneys.
But by 1938, many of
these fears had been overcome. LaFuselle recognized that
paper was not the answer; it was too susceptible to
tearing, burning, water damage, and a dozen other
terminal weaknesses. In an interview given shortly before
his death in 1985, LaFuselle told me:
"We knew for years
that paper was no good for doll-making. Generally, we
just ignored the complaints, though, because paper dolls
were cheap and easy to make. But then the kids just
stopped playing with them entirely. The last set we made
[this would have been the Moses Meets Attila The Hun set]
didn't sell at all. We knew we had to do something, so we
"Irma," a three-dimensional doll about 18
inches long. The first Irmas were made of marble,
chiseled out of solid blocks. "That was the material
that was the least like paper," LaFuselle
remembered. "Well, it was either that or oatmeal.
And the oatmeal dolls really didn't hold up too well
under stressful play. So we stuck with the marble."
It wasn't long before
Lucky Duck became aware that the marble Irma wasn't quite
the solution they had hoped for. For one thing, the doll
weighed nearly 80 pounds, meaning children couldn't pick
her up, much less carry her around. For another thing,
she was quite cold to the touch, something that startled
many of the children who came in contact with her.
Comments ranged from "She's real creepy!" to
"She's real weird!" to "Get her off my
So, LaFuselle went to
work on making a new Irma. After trying a number of
materials, including coal, macaroni, and foam, he finally
hit upon the idea of a wooden Irma. This solved the
weight problem; however, this gain was somewhat offset by
the fact that few children enjoyed the plethora of
slivers they inevitably acquired after playing with
wooden Irma for a few minutes.
In desperation, Lucky
Duck attempted to revive their faltering sales by issuing
a line of marble kitchen utensils with character
likenesses on the handles. This series included William
Henry Harrison, Button Gwinnett, and Jack the Ripper
(even though nobody actually knew what he looked like --
this was sheer speculation on Lucky Duck's part. In fact,
Jack's appearance on these utensils was remarkably
similar to that of William Henry Harrison). Needless to
say, this effort failed miserably.
The company was on the
verge of bankruptcy. It was the eleventh hour,
sudden-death overtime, the snow upon the lawn. All would
be saved or lost within the next few hours.
And then LaFuselle had
an idea. As he recounted years later:
"Well, then I got
to thinking that maybe Irma herself was the whole
problem. Maybe the kids just didn't like her. I mean, we
never gave her a personality or anything. How do you give
a personality to a hunk of marble? How many gargoyles do
you know that have any personality at all, let alone one
that makes kids want to buy 'em and dress 'em up in
swimsuits and whatnot? So then I start thinking that
maybe if she could MOVE a little bit, turn her head,
maybe bend at the elbow or something, then maybe kids
could have some fun with her. Oh sure, they'd still get
slivered to death, since she was still made of wood at
that point, but maybe they wouldn't feel the pain as much
if they could actually PLAY with her, you know?"
LaFuselle's idea was
soundly rejected by the higher-ups at Lucky Duck, who
thought the concept of a "movable doll" was
either the work of the Devil or some sort of futuristic,
impossible dream like television or Shredded Wheat. He
was fired shortly thereafter, and went on to a long and
successful career as a carnival clown. He is also
credited with the invention of the
"LaFusellemobile," which was actually a school
bus made entirely out of leather.
NEXT: Chapter Two: Ninety Billion Army Guys
Some observers argue that Lucky Duck was in
serious trouble long before this. The much-maligned
"Little Arsonist Kit" (1949) is often cited as
an example, as is the "Fun With Cyanide" (1951)
No one has ever bothered to ask why Jenny would speak in
this manner, inasmuch as she grew up in Trenton, New
Jersey. Due to my reverence for tradition, I will not ask
the question either.
There have been occasional reports to the effect that a
uranium Irma was constructed and test-marketed in parts
of Arizona and New Mexico. This is an exaggeration; there
were, in actuality, only a handful of prototype uranium
Irmas, and these were all donated to the war effort in
March of 1942.
Quality control being, as it were, a bit less stringent
in those days.