It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Dickens put it best in his famous Tale of Two Cities novel, although I doubt he imagined his quote would ever be applied to talking about the current state of toys. The truth is, however, that it’s a very fitting statement about the current state of collecting.

I was lamenting the other day about how their was a bit of a golden era around the turn of the century and the first few years after, where we were seeing nearly everything and anything get licensed toys. Often they were really high quality and amazing pieces, for downright dirt cheap prices. However, there was also a lot of issues with quality control, many toy companies made promises they couldn’t keep and as with every bubble, there came a bust.

Fast forward to the year 2011 and as we draw closer to the end of yet another chapter on the calendar, I can’t help but think we’re better off now than we’ve been in many years. Yes, we now lack many of the great little companies that once defined an era of excess, but at the same time there is no lack of product out there. It may be impossible to find, but it is being produced.

For the first half of the new millennium, especially from about 2006 until more recently, toy companies were afraid to take risks and many properties just languished. Now we’ve seen the revival of everything from Mego to Masters of the Universe, Doctor Who to the freaking Ghostbusters having a pretty impressive plethora of toys. We’re on the verge of having super poseable Godzilla figures and Gremlins are on the shelf once again for collectors.

Things are very much, good. With MOTUC we’ve seen that basically the sky is the limit (and apparently the sky is Ram Man and Castle Grayskull, but I digress) and nearly anything you can imagine is possibly being produced. Of course this comes with it’s own pratfalls, like the fact that many things are being made that folks perhaps wouldn’t even want or didn’t know they wanted until it was previewed… At the same time, legacies are being fulfilled. We’re getting the Fearless Photog. In a few days, I’m buying She-Ra’s pegasus. There’s no denying, it’s a good time to be a collector.

However it all comes at a price and that price is not just figurative, but literal. Although there is plenty of good, we’ve come to learn that this is the era of inflated price tags and online exclusives. Want that Christopher Reeve Superman? He’ll only run you $200. Granamyr is coming, but he’s going to be at least $80. Enjoy your import Kaiju and Doctor Who, but be prepared to have your wallet sufficiently abused in the process. We live in the online exclusive era, where fans are perhaps not forced, but prodded and pleaded to make their dollars count as votes.

From pre-orders to minimum subscription plans to collector’s clubs and even good ol’ fashioned importing, the computer is now the main marketplace for action figures. It seems like every other day we hear about some new property that’s either about to get off the ground or needs a certain number of pre-orders to do so. Retail is largely non-existent for the collector and while there are a few lines that do manage to flourish under the big box outlets, if they ever should falter, we know that they’ll like end up as high priced online collectibles. Every time a line like the WWE Legends even loses the slightest support at retail, it’s quickly shifted to an online store where prices and availability will vary greatly.

It makes it hard on the collector, especially the one who might previously be a cherry picker at retail. Certainly in some sense that’s no different than shopping at stores, but this new era has brought with it some unique conflicts for collectors. Do you sign up for the GI Joe subscription, lock yourself into a Mattel Ecto-1 club only to find the figures discounted later in a fire sale or do you learn to import from your Japanese hobby shop of choice? It’s tough to navigate and hard to decide what’s worth it. Often we’re forced to put our money up, or at least make a commitment before we ever even seen a working prototype, much less a final product.

So are we better now than we’ve ever been before? Are we the same? Are we worse off? I cannot say I have that answer. It’s hard to find too much to complain about (but we manage just fine) when I can look on my shelf and see every incarnation of the Doctor, Kamala and Kevin Von Erich (okay actually he’s not on my shelf, I can’t find him anywhere, but I pretend he’s there), super poseable Gamera, Peter Venkman and sight gag Gremlins. Things ARE good, but I suspect just how good, will vary depending on your own personal pocketbook, addictions and willingness to part with paper for plastic.

In the end I can only say that it’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times… But man, it sure is an interesting time. What’s your take on how things are these days? In the meantime, keep on collecting, because I know I will.

12 Responses to A Toy For Your Thoughts: Dickens and Toy Collecting

  • Bill White says:

    This IS a weird time for toy collecting, Newton! As you noted, the variety of character lines available are amazing, as are the prices. The thing I find frustrating is the lack of availability and being able to buy toys at retail chains. To get every figure you want (assuming you can afford it), you have to shop online. I for one like to look things over in person before I buy. I have many, many figures that I bought online that I would have passed on if I could have inspected them first.

    I also really dislike the whole "pre-order" thing. I did it for the Venture Bros. figures, because I saw them in New York, and they looked great. Any news, though, on whether they are actually getting made? The deadline has past, and no word. If they are canceling the line, let me know, so I can spend the $$$ I set aside for them someplace else!

  • Bill White says:

    Wow! A lot of typos in that last post. My bad. I am usually wicked excellent at writing and stuff.

  • Yeah I feel you on the preorder stuff. It's very hard to lock into something, especially sight unseen. I definitely miss being able to browse for most this stuff in stores.

    I believe that VBs have been delayed another month to see if they can get more preorders. I feel like BBP don't really want to take the chance on it, although I suspect if they actually did, they'd see good results. Many people still don't know to preorder, but once people had a few, future sales would happen because everyone would want them.

  • plannedbanter says:

    These companies know the demo to shoot for, and they are HEAVY internet users. So, diverting their product with smaller overhead on figures that generate little revenue makes more sense than they'd like. I would like a agreement from subscriptions that not only will they not RAISE the price, they will not lower it either. What's the incentive? Oh yea, none, since they cancelled the GB sub anyway. They are aware of how we think and behave, because collectors like us are now taking on larger roles at there companies. This is good and bad. Our habits have been secured, and our desire for EVERYTHING has been exploited in an ultimate way. And we continue the pattern of complain, buy, complain, buy. I seriously doubt the amount of collectors has dipped, on MOTUC for instance, but the need to buy multiples to sell to johnny-come-lately's has been sated. Mattel even admitted that making too many figures and re-releases dries the secondary market. WHAT?!?! That's nuts! Acknowledging that means the online retailers and ebay stores are bigger customers than we have noticed. Kids don't buy toys, they buy video games for the most part. WE are all that's left, and there is almost no middle man anymore, so we are more savvy to their practices than we were before. Because it's so close.

  • Ralph says:

    It's a really interesting time for sure. I'd love to see more stuff at retaqil, but I am thankful for the things we're getting via online. I'm hoping we'll lean back a little towards a few years ago, but somehow I think we're going to only go further to the online model.

  • Excellent points all around. It's truly amazing how well certain companies know the collector mentality and are able to exploit it. Yet, I am so weak…

  • I tend to agree. It seems like online is likely to grow stronger, although there is some hope with TRU expanding their collector aisle and such.

  • wesitron says:

    It's truly a weird time. The preorder thing is an odd sensation. I appreciate that I've got whatever it is locked in, but I rarely do it because I, like others have mentioned, like to see things in the aisle first. However things like Walking Dead and others are starting to command higher prices than ever at TRU. They ended up being something like 13 or 13.50 apiece from BBTS as opposed to the 18 or 19 at TRU.

    But at least they don't take your money without anything in return. It's really unsettling spending money at ThreeA, when the toy won't be in your hands for months and months. I recently realized that my 3A collection will almost double when my preorders finally start shipping. That's kind of a scary feeling.

  • wesitron says:

    The only thing I can hope for with online sales is that it will encourage the type of risk-taking that keeps this hobby fun. Who knows where the Japanese toy market would be without em? I used to wonder why nobody makes a Jubei toy from Ninja Scroll, until I realized that to Japanese collectors that's just some old movie. Because it was introduced to us in a limited way we sort fo revere it beyond its worth. Much the same for many anime or other Japanese entertainment properties. It's just nice to get the characters we love through online sales. I'm constantly pulled both ways. Lately I haven't been spending much at all on any kind of toys, but when I do I always would rather find it in the toy aisle. I love the creative atmosphere online sales perpetuates, but it'll never fully replace the shelf purchase for me. Half of the fun of being a collector is the constant frustration of failure and the brief hallelujah moment of success. Those times when you find one ray of sunshine in a week of rain and say "Fuck the rest of my stops. I'm heading home with this guy." Those are what I live for, man.

  • Yeah there is something to be said about the "thrill of the hunt" I suppose, although I am just as eager to replace that with a thrill of a package arrival. For me it's more about cost versus weighing how much I want to secure an item.

    I too find myself pulled in both directions!

  • DoctorKent says:

    Without writing a book, I feel like we are in a good time for collectors, albeit an expensive one.

    The prices of items have increased across the board and priced many people out of the hobby; a line like Gi Joe that could be a gateway into toys with a $3 figure has been replaced by an entry-level $7 figure.
    The economies of scale on that example have made me much more selective with my cash.
    In 1998, when figures were $5-$6 each on average for what I was collecting, I would buy a Khan to fight my Wolverine and Razor Ramon. For $30, you might be able to buy five figures at the local KB/Bradlees/Caldor. For MOTU Classics, that's one figure.
    Granted, the sculpting and paint quality is generally higher than a decade ago – but that comes with a fragility in modern figures that I never saw on a Kenner product. McFarlane figures I have broken while handling – 20 plus; Kenner figures I broke while playing with them – approximately 2.

    I think availability is better than back then, with eBay and online stores, but it came with a price. A literal price of shipping and premium pricing for every figure that isn't Luke, Duke, or Bumblebee.
    There are still scalpers, but I don't have to play their game at all. The trade-off is knowing that collecting a Marvel Universe line means you will eventually have to pay $30 for an Archangel.

    I think that we have made only modest gains in choices available to us. Once McFarlane broke the seal on weird licenses, every company that could get the capital together tried to find the next Spawn – come down to NJ for the next toy show and try not to choke on surplus Evil Ernies, Ultraforce, and Spawn. In 2000-ish, I was shocked when they said they would make Ash from AOD; now they announce a full Evil Dead 2 line and it's cool, but it was also inevitable. If collectors have the money for it, a company will make it.
    And the toys can be limited run for reals this time! I remember laughing at a Playmates Star Trek set that was limited to 500,000 way back when (classic Enterprise crew set?). It did not surprise me when it hit clearance. Today we can have Sideshow doing an edition of 300 figures and giving the 300 willing fans of (insert license here) what they want. Of course, the price is 10x higher for that limited run figure than your average similarly-scaled figure from retail, but we have to have our Christopher Reeve Superman, right?

    Sarcasm aside, I am happy in collecting today because I have the options I want. Something like Glyos allows me to have an original vision presented to me, without the endless hunting of a Star Wars; MOTU Classics dispenses with the hunt altogether and sends me a monthly fix each month; and the constant flow of licenses through NECA and Hot Toys means that I can assemble a 12 inch photo-realistic Avengers team or (at last!) make a display of Gremlins 2 characters. I just have to find a way to pay for it all.

  • stasiuwong says:

    At least with the direct club/preorder model, we aren't subject to being denied a product just because a major retailer doesn't show interest. Then manufacturers get a better sense of where to allocate resources and save up for more products down the pike that we, the consumer, actually want.

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