An action figure is a small toy person or other entity, usually made of plastic, that can move body parts in order to be put in various poses. Action figures first became prominent in the United States in the late 1970s/early 1980s, when toy lines were released such as Star Wars, including nearly every on-screen character from the Star Wars trilogy, the 3 + 3/4 inch G.I. Joe figures, and the company Mego's many lines of toys based on comic books/superheros, television series, and movies. Also influential in the early 1980s were several lines imported from Japan, including Micronauts (Microman in Japan), Transformers (Mostly Japanese Microchange and Diaclone toys at first), and Shogun Warriors (composed of toys of several "Chogokin", or "super alloy" robot characters, though that term usually applies to the diecast metal toys and not the Jumbo Machinders).

If your friend likes or collects action figures, and you call them dolls, he'll probably get mad at you (I say "he" because men are generally touchier about "feminine" words like doll, and because most female action figure collectors probably get enough static over it from the stereotype-minded that they could shrug off someone calling them dolls, if it bothered them at all).

As a general rule, if you can dress it up, it's a doll, unless it has a gun. If it has stereotypically feminine imagery (by which I mean pink, other bright pastel colors, flowers and cutesy things, to the exclusion of all else), it's also a doll. If it has a gun or looks like it could kill something, it's an action figure.

Of course, the above is hopelessly sexist, as much in line as it is with most people's thinking. It also fits with what toy companies will term an action figure or a doll, as it fits with their typical "girls' toys are this, and boys' toys are this, and there's no variation or in-between" marketing.

More useful is a more thoughtful, less physical definition, like the one put forth by Michael Crawford, of mwctoys.com*. He defines an action figure as a toy designed to allow children to emulate adult actions - therefore, the likes of a G.I. Joe, a Transformer, and a Lego man are all action figures, as they are designed to allow children to reenact such actions as defending the free world from terrorists, destroying one's fellow space robots to conquer the galaxy, and building one's own car out of giant bricks. Regardless of the realism of these actions, they are unquestionably adult tasks, and so these are action figures. By Crawford's definition, Barbie is also an action figure, as she enables children to recreate a whole panapoly of adult actions. That's fine by me, I own some 12" (though "1/6 scale" sounds so much more mature :P) military and character figures, and if any particular Barbie would go well with them, I'd buy it.

Anyway, Crawford seeks to distinguish between role-playing themed toys like Barbie/conventionally-defined action figures/etc and things like baby dolls, which are intended as a simulation not of an adult but a child - a child the intended owner's age or younger, to be taken care of. Things like the American Girl dolls, as high-quality a product as they may be, are not action figures because they do not represent a possible future or fantasy of adulthood for the child, but a fantasy of the current time, an alternate childhood for the owner to imagine (American Girl dolls, continuing this example, are a line of characters which each represent a young girl living in a particular era in the United States' history.). This definition leaves behind entirely the idea of "dress-up" as a criterion for action-figure-hood. After all, even some WWF figures have removable/replacable clothes.

Now, the above applies just fine to action figures marketed as children's toys, but what of those targeted to adult collectors? It's just as easy to tell the action figures from the dolls, because generally they follow the same delineations as those for children. But collectors' dolls and figures are usually more expensive, higher quality in terms of detail, sculpting, paint operations and realistic use of materials like cloth, and more fragile. Still, one can tell the plastic film characters in action poses from the porcelain dolls in fancy outfits. Generally, action figures targeted at adults aim for more adult subject matter - licensed likenesses from television, movies, sports or popular music, and subsets of the same that would not be appropriate for children's toys, such as horror movies and the recently infamous line of Playboy Playmate action figures. Also, adult-collector figure lines often have an original concept behind them, which, though their subject matter and aesthetics may be interesting, would not sell well to children because of the lack of playability, or lack of a cartoon tie-in. In contrast, collectors' dolls largely stick to the look and subject matter of children's dolls, pushing their artistry and craftsmanship as the main selling point, rather than their likeness or subject.

So we could say it is even easier to distinguish between action figures and dolls at the collectors' level than at the childrens' level. The question is, at what point does an adult-collector-targeted action figure become a plastic statue? There is a growing trend among companies like McFarlane Toys, N2 Toys, Mezco, and Art Asylum towards increasing detail and realism at the cost of articulation - Stan Winston Creations' "Realm of the Claw" figures, despite a better-than-average amount of joints, reportedly cannot stand up without their display bases, and seem to have been designed that way. Also, resin statues and mini-busts have become more popular among action figure collectors, so much that they've gotten coverage in toy collecting publications such as ToyFare.

Some companies are pushing back against the tide of statuesque action figures. McFarlane has recently put a surprising amount of articulation in several of its figure lines, and increased their durability, especially in the joints. Mezco seeks a compromise between appearence and posability that's better for both sides than McFarlane's old standard. The articulation and durability of child-targeted action figures that are also popular among collectors, such as many of Hasbro's, Bandai's, and Toy Biz's offerings, also does not disappoint. But though these products and practices are a good thing for action figure collectors who see a clear difference between their beloved figures and statues, they do not help to make the line between any clearer, as articulation becomes less of a concern for many companies and some collectors demand great sculpting and paint jobs at any cost.

Action figures versus statues, articulation versus detail - these arguments cause much controversy among collectors today, and it doesn't look like it'll get better anytime soon. Come on, guys, they're just toys - don't you care about playing with them? How can one collect children's toys and yet seem to have forgotten what it's like to be a kid?



*In the article "Action Figure Or Doll", December 19, 2001.
http://www.mwctoys.com/FEATURE_121901.htm
Thanks, Mike!

Chapter One: Fresh Loin Air

Clayton woke up face down, wearing one boot and no trousers. It was dark. His abdomen pressed lightly against a smooth wooden floor. He sighed. He was pretty sure this had happened to him before.

Clayton sat up carefully and took inventory. He had his shirt, scarf, and gun belt, but his holsters were empty. He patted his hands around and managed to find his hat. What else? He had his legendary courage, his stamina, and his wits—but his memory wasn’t close to what it needed to be. And, of course, he had one boot. He pulled that off and stood up. His knees grated a bit, as if there was sand in them.

Well, first thing first, where was he, and was there danger?

A dim slip of light came from somewhere to his left. He made his way gingerly forward, placing his feet carefully in the darkness. One foot brushed a hard sphere, perhaps about the size of his fist. It rolled away to his right, striking something with a clack like glass. Clayton knelt and felt around carefully to that side. He found two spheres. He set them inside his boot, which he hefted left-handed. Now he had a weapon, of sorts.

He reached the dim light without incident. It was a crack between a massive pillar and a door, albeit a door nine or ten times his height. He put his shoulder to it and shoved. It swung open ponderously, enough to let him slip out.

Clayton stared. The huge room beyond was a riot of colour and shapes. It took a moment for him to orient himself. The room was in scale with the door, which meant….

A low moan from his left interrupted the thought. He spun into a low crouch. Slumped against the nearby wall was a heavily muscled man with tattooed arms, dressed completely in black. Black gloves, boots, pants, and a scant shirt that was more blacksmith’s apron than a proper garment. Goatee, long lank hair. Clearly an outlaw, but no immediate threat, especially the way his lower right leg bent in an unnatural direction. The man met Clayton’s eye and nodded amiably. “Clayt,” he grunted. Clayton’s state of undress did not seem to alarm, offend, or even surprise him.

A memory came to Clayton like the wisp of a dream.

The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed. Ahead was a crumbling mesa that looked like someone had upended a giant pail. The man climbed rapidly to the top, massive shoulders straining and boots digging into the crumbling sides. Clayton opened his mouth to speak.

"Give it up, or you’re a dead man!" The sound of his own voice startled him. Childish in pitch and without the clarity of diction that Clayton thought was proper. The outlaw sneered down at him. "Come’n git me, lawman!" he replied, in the same squeaky tones.

Clayton thought to draw his gun. Suddenly, a massive blue-and-orange cannon appeared at his side. With a quiet clack, a rocket burst from the muzzle and sped past the outlaw’s head. He tottered. The cannon juddered as it reloaded. A second shot followed, catching the outlaw square in the chest. He flew backwards off the mesa and vanished.

Clayton shook his head to dismiss the recollection. Then he pondered. He upended the boot. The spheres dropped out and rolled around, and a dusting of coarse sand emerged. Clayton frowned. He looked at the outlaw. “Deadman?” he asked. Another nod. “Where in heck are we?”

The outlaw shrugged, and then gestured to his leg. "Little help?" he rumbled in a far more suitable bass than the dream had given him. Clayton considered. He glanced around to assess the situation. Maybe thirty paces away, a ridiculously fat pig snuffled in a pile of cloth. Half a dozen brightly coloured vehicles were parked haphazardly further out in the room. Emergency and construction vehicles, he determined. He frowned. Either they were out of time and place, or he was….

Clayton’s eyes travelled up and the room snapped suddenly into scale. Either he was in a giant’s bedroom, or he was about eight inches tall. As soon as he’d thought it, he recognized the truth of the latter. Whatever place he was in, scale was anything but proportional. Clayton was briefly tempted to go back to the darkness and hide.

Still, first things first. A man needed help, and Clayton had a code. He stepped over to the outlaw and squatted, knees turned to the side to spare the man intimate details about his anatomy. He grasped the big black boot and shoved as the outlaw pulled on his own thigh. There was a loud snap and the lower leg came into proper alignment. The outlaw grunted.

"I don’t suppose you’ve seen my britches, or my guns?" Clayton asked. The man shook his head. "Most likely Outside," he replied. Clayton could hear the capital O. He nodded thanks. "Maybe I’ll just have a look-see here first," he said, raising his eyebrows to suggest he’d like to know if that wasn’t a good plan. "Keep an eye out for my duster, wouldja?" said the outlaw, shrugging. Clayton nodded again, reloaded the boot, and stood. "And watch out for the ninja," rumbled the outlaw. "He’s insane."

Great, Clayton thought. He considered his options. The bright yellow dump truck looked like a good bet. Boot in one hand, he ambled over and then hoisted himself into the hopper. The metal was cool on his thighs and buttocks as he rolled inside.

The hopper contained a sock the size of a sleeping bag, with a smell that made Clayton’s nose twitch. He skirted it and then lifted himself up onto the cab. The higher view did nothing to reduce the impression of chaos. The giant who lived here (a child, Clayton realized) lacked for nothing except self-discipline. Clayton scanned the room for ninjas. On the mammoth desk, a tiny monk with a freakishly large head battled a similarly distorted black-armoured knight, bashing each other with brightly coloured plastic rods. In a corner, a sextet of mismatched puppies wearing hats and vests yipped and jumped. But no ninjas, and no trousers, either.

Behind him came a muffled clang. He spun to see a muscular, red-and-black clad, masked figure lying face-down in the sock. “And Wade Wilson, from Regina Saskatchewan, sticks the landing!” said the newcomer, voice somewhat muffled by the cotton. The outlaw's ninja, Clayton assumed, based on the wide assortment of weaponry. If ninjas came from Canada, which Clayton very seriously doubted.

Clayton’s hand dipped to his empty holster. The ninja looked up at him. "If it isn’t the bad-ass lawman. Or make that the bare-ass lawman. Not to mention the square-ass lawman! Hah! They didn’t waste a lot of money on your sculpt, did they there, Tex? That’s why your balls are in your boot."

Clayton was startled by the profanity, and offended by the confusing insult. He leapt down into the hopper, prepared to take a swing with his weighted boot, but in an eye blink the ninja was up and had two swords at Clayton’s throat.

"Stand down, Tex," said the ninja. "I’m sure you’re a bit disoriented so I'mma gonna give you a chance here. You know where you are, or even what you are?"

Clayton shook his head minutely. "I do not," he allowed. "Somewhere strange." His eyes took in the giant-scale bunk bed nearby. He assumed the ninja had leapt down from it. "And enormous."

"Ha! That's what she said!" cackled the ninja. "Ah, Tex, what a straight man you are. And handsome, too. Such a shame that the toy manufacturer didn’t give you the goods," he continued, swinging one sword down to tap Clayton in the groin. "Still, you were one of the first, one of Jake’s faves back in the day."

Despite his dire situation, Clayton had another flash of memory.

He remembered being inside a plastic shell, clasped in an enormous hand, and then freed from the transparent coffin. "Wow!" cried a voice just a shade different from the one in the previous memory. "He’s awesome!" Sure enough, Clayton thought. We’re … action figures.

The dump truck hopper rocked minutely, breaking the momentary reverie. Clayton quickly responded to distract the ninja from what was looming up behind him. "You speak of the past. What happened?"

The ninja cackled again. "Don’t ask me, Tex, I wasn’t here yet. But I suppose that Jake lost interest. For a while he was into those space heroes." The ninja took the other sword away to gesture at the battling knight and monk. "Now he’s all about video games, girls, and superhero flicks. And of course, me! Teenage boys do love them some Deadpool." The ninja struck a dramatic pose.

Clayton seized the moment, stiff-arming 'Deadpool' the ninja, who staggered back a step. "Ooh, Tex, I’mma gonna carve me some fine mid-western flank steak for that." Deadpool raised his swords, but as he did so, powerful, tattooed arms snaked around Deadpool's upper arms. "Be afraid," hissed the outlaw into the ninja’s ear. "Be very afraid." The outlaw heaved, and both of Deadpool's arms popped bloodlessly free from their sockets. The outlaw threw them aside. Armless, Deadpool spun and kicked the outlaw in the crotch. The outlaw just stared at him. "Oh, had enough, eh?" Deadpool called, and laughed.

The outlaw grabbed the ninja and spun him upside down. "Ooh, the tombstone piledriver!" the ninja said to Clayton, apparently un-phased by this development. "It’s the Undertaker’s signature move!" The outlaw jumped, and then slammed the ninja hard into the hopper bed. The ninja's head popped off and rolled to Clayton's feet.

The head spoke to Clayton. "You win the day, Tex, but Jake and Sam are home. They'll be here soon. You're a-gonna wish that you had stayed in the closet, if you know what I mean." Clayton wondered if anyone ever knew what this chucklehead meant.

The outlaw walked over and drew back a boot. "Oh, fuck!" said the head.

"There is no shame in getting your ass kicked. Or your head," observed the outlaw, and then delivered. The ninja’s head sailed out of the dump truck, bounced off the pig, and disappeared from sight, cursing as it flew. "No good…wide right! called the head as it vanished.

The outlaw tapped a finger to his temple. Clayton nodded. He knelt and considered the body. The ninja suit was molded to the body, but there was a gun on a holster on the leg. Clayton reached to take it, but the outlaw shook his head. "No, that ain’t right," the big man said.

Before Clayton could ask why, the room’s main door slammed open, and Clayton collapsed as his consciousness faded away.

Chapter Two: So my dreams are more than real

Clayton dreamed, observing his own actions but disconnected from them. He was no longer in the giant bedroom, but in some other place. He seemed to be part of a posse that was assaulting a structure made of foam blocks in various primary colours. The leader of his team was some sort of futuristic policeman. Another man clad in red-and-gold armour was with them. The armoured man’s left arm was badly damaged, and his hand was missing. All three of them were currently immobile, seated awkwardly with their knees stiff and their legs splayed, behind the questionable cover provided by a massive sneaker. Still no britches, Clayton thought sadly. He willed his hand to use his hat to give him some privacy, to no effect.

Deadpool—apparently intact again—and the Undertaker peered out from gaps in the foam fortification. An unknown partner with green skin and the biggest muscles yet stood stock-still at the top of their structure. On Clayton’s team, the stony-faced future-cop rose stiffly and did an odd little dance, which Clayton understood meant he was about to speak. "Your move, creep!" he said, in the now-familiar juvenile tone, which must be Sam.

"Oh, it’s on, little bro!" replied a similar but older voice. "Hulk has line of sight. He throws a boulder." That latter voice was Jake, Clayton assumed. There was a rattling noise. "Seven! Miss!"

The helmeted cop leaned around the shoe and raised his gun. "Double whammy!" He then repeated himself in a stilted tone. "Double. Whammy." The rattle came again. "Mr. Pool: Seventeen! Hit! 'Taker: Two. Miss." No shots came, but Deadpool toppled stiffly back out of view like he’d been plunked anyway.

"Now Hulk smash puny Judge! Fifteen!" A green foam cylinder dropped onto the cop, flattening him. In response, the red-armoured man leapt into the air, diving towards the fortress. The rattle came once more. "Twenty! Critical hit!" The armoured man’s remaining fist hit the green monster’s jaw. "Grapple!" Jake shouted. Both combatants vanished from view.

The Undertaker abandoned his position, floating eerily forward to land atop the sneaker. "Lawman versus Deadman for all the marbles. Roll!" said Jake’s voice.

"Nine," said Sam sadly. "Thirteen!" cried Jake. Clayton desperately willed himself to run, but his body would not respond. His point of view rotated, and his last view was of the Undertaker’s boots as both brothers shouted "Tombstone!" and then the world went black once more.

Chapter Three: One day we will burn

It was dark again. Clayton rolled his neck carefully. No spinal injury, apparently. Then he remembered. "Oh, right. I’m made of plastic. Or am I?" he asked himself.

An unfamiliar male voice responded. "Well, that’s complicated, cowboy." he said. "As best as I can figure it, when both boys play with us, we’re regular action figures. But Jake’s brother Sam still has kid-magic, for lack of a more scientific term. He wants us to be real, and so we are. But it only works with Sam, but not when Jake’s watching us, because he doesn’t believe any longer."

Clayton frowned. "That sounds like a raw deal, Mr.…."

"Call me Tony. And yeah, more than you know. You were lost for a while, so you don’t know the latest. Jake's too old for us, so he's given us to his brother, Sam. And Sam's not very careful with us. Like, for example, right now."

"What’s happening now?"

"Well, it’s the night of the big Halloween bonfire, and you and me, we have a serious problem. Back on the fourth of July, Jake and Sam’s dad did a fireworks show. He always buys something called the 'Burning Schoolhouse.' Tradition, he says. And this year, Sam put my pal Steve and me inside it before the show started."

"Oh, shoot."

"Yes, indeed, cowboy. Now, a burning schoolhouse doesn't always catch fire. But this time it did, with me and Cap inside it. I survived, more or less, but Steve didn't make it."

"That’s what happened to the arm?"

"Yes. And now here I am again, because Jake's dad saved another 'schoolhouse' for the night of the Halloween bonfire and Sam thinks it's funny to have us inside."

"We’re…inside of it, right now."

"You bet. Sam's close enough for his magic to work, even though he can't see us. So we're awake and aware. But the bonfire's bright enough that Jake'll see us if we try to run. So we can't leave."

"What do we do?"

"Move away from the chimney end, down this way, and hope that this one doesn’t burn."

They shuffled to one end of their enclosure and sat together in the darkness. Eventually there were footsteps and a loud hiss.

"That’s the fuse, now, in a moment there will be quite a bit of noise…."

That there was. There was squealing and screaming, only a little of which came from Clayton, as the fireworks shot high in the air and sparks flew. It seemed to go on and on. Clayton could catch glimpses of the red-armoured man nearby as the sparks lit their prison. And then it was dark and silent again.

The 'schoolhouse' hadn’t burned. Clayton breathed a sigh of relief. Then he heard more footsteps.

"Can I, Dad? Please?"

"OK, Sammie, but be careful. Here, use this."

There was a pause, then a thump, and a flare of orange from the roof as it caught fire. Clayton recoiled in horror, tripped over Tony's leg, and fell. The last thing he saw was a congealed blob of blue plastic with a white star in it, as the heat washed over him and the flames roared down.


For Grisly Ghouls from Every Tomb: The 2016 Halloween Horrorquest

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