Wanna see Friday the 13th slasher Jason Voorhees and all-the-rage mage Harry Potter in a fight to the death? As millions of enthusiasts already know, there's only one way (barring an unexpected Harry vs. Jason film): action figures.
Many of us had He-Man's Castle Greyskull as a toy when we were kids. We filled it with a strange assortment of characters: Catwoman Barbie hung out in the dungeon with Gremlins and Superman, all of them making fun of E.T. because he was short. Thing is, some action-figure collectors never really grew up. You'd be surprised how many eminent businesspeople keep limited-edition Justice League Adventures originals on their desks. And how many Christmas and Hanukkah lists are full of action-figure requests, spanning the spectrum from innocent Frosty the Snowman figures to the dark, S&M-themed Twisted Land of Oz line from Spawn creator Todd McFarlane?
As you might expect, the Internet is clogged with action figures new and old, at prices ranging from cheap to outrageousespecially at auction sites like eBay (www.ebay.com). But as Zanadu Comics manager John McDonald knows, what you see online isn't always what you get. "I think people prefer to be able to touch [the figure] and have it in their hands, and to know that if they pay $18, they've got what they want." Though comic-book shops like Zanadu (1307 N.E. 45th St., 206-632-0989; 1923 Third Ave., 206-443-1316) are excellent places to look for action figures, McDonald admits the variety of stores that carry these products has grown immensely. Establishments ranging from Toys "R" Us (Northgate Mall, 414 N.E. Northgate Way, 206-361-1101) to Hot Topic (206-624-7471), Electronics Boutique (206-467-9447), and Suncoast Motion Picture Co. (206-343-7491), all in Westlake Center (400 Pine St.), have jumped on the action-figure bandwagon. Stores like Zanadu compete by using secret weapons such as location (the University District store is adjacent to the Neptune Theater, which often shows movies inspired by comic books) and selection (McDonald cheerfully points out what he calls "the island of dead toys," a section of the store where old KISS figures and obscure Japanese superheroes go to dieor at least remain unsold).
As a holiday gift, an action figure can play one of two roles: fun-for-all-ages toy or sound investment. As McDonald observes, the latter route can be tricky. "Some people, maybe, will pick up two" figures, he says. "One to open and enjoy, and one to put away as a collector's item. But when you buy something to resell it like that, it's always a crapshootyou just don't know what you're getting." Hitting the jackpot as a collector is a rarity, he cautions. "You could buy 10 products, and one of them's valuablethat's great! You've made some money. But then you've lost money on the other nine."
The safest practice is what many collectors have been doing for years: choosing only the figures that have emotional value for them, often based on nostalgia. That's the philosophy of Scarecrow Video employee Ryan Danner, an avid collector of TV- inspired action figures. Danner, who owns "a few hundred figures," collects with his heart, not his head. "I'm 30, and kids my age that are collecting toys like to collect their past," he says. "So we're talking mostly '80s stuff. I did fork over the money to buy the new Castle Greyskull and six [action] figures, and Panthor and Cheetah, the things they ride on." The whole package cost around $200, but Danner is a He-Man fan, so price was no object.
According to McDonald, enduring "cult" figureslike Ash from Army of Darkness, or anything from a Tim Burton filmhave selling power that outlasts the fickle zeitgeist. It's the new stars of the action-figure world, however, that fetch the loftiest prices. The next big thing, he says, is a devil-horned superhero named Hellboy. Never heard of him? Don't worrythe underground comic has been around for years, but the feature film won't be released until next summer. Still, Hellboy action figures are already flying off the shelves. "The highest [price] we have for a figure is $60, in that range," McDonald says. "It was a Hellboy vinyl figure."
The average single figure, in contrast, will set you back between $15 and $17 at a brick-and-mortar store (eBay prices get as low as $1 per figure). Danner recommends browsing antique malls and thrift stores, as well as hitting the big-name shops. Above all, don't forget to include yourself when you're shopping for action figures this holiday season, McDonald suggests. "Some people will come in and say, 'This is my Christmas present,' and they'll pick up five action figures. And they'll say: 'This is for me. I planned on coming in and buying for somebody else, but I'm going to do it for me today.'"
Just make sure the cashier doesn't put Freddy Krueger and the Rugrats in the same bagthat could get messy.