Know who's really into action figures these days? Adults.

A foot-tall Man of Steel action figure at Forbidden Planet in NYC. The figure was made by Sideshow Collectables, which has close ties to Hollywood studios.

Alex Heinke sculpts the face of Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight for NECA's new line of action figures.

Artists working at NECA (National Entertainment Collectables Association).

Forbidden Planet is a comic book store in New York. It sells high-end action figures – perfect likenesses of movie or comic book characters.  Some of the costumes are even hand-sewn.

Bernardo Silver is a loyal customer who just bought a figure from the movie "Man of Steel". This foot-tall replica of Superman was $220. How many does he own?

"Difficult question," Bernardo says, as he adds it up. "Like 50."

So he’s spent over $11,000 on superheroes. The funny thing is, adults are rediscovering action figures just when kids are being lured away by digital games.

Some of these fancy toys are handcrafted. Alex Heinke works for a company called the National Entertainment Collectibles Association (NECA), where he sculpts on a big table full of wax and paint. 

"I’m working on the Heath Ledger Joker from "The Dark Knight", he explains.

The company appeals to adults with nostalgia brands from movies like "Alien," "Terminator", and "Predator". It doesn’t sell just at boutique comic book stores. Randy Falk is the director of product development.

"There’s one whole aisle now in pretty much every Toys R Us that’s for the adult collector, or mature collector," says Randy Falk, NECA's director of product development.  "Where most of the toys are either labeled 17 and up -- or, at the very least, 14 and up."

NECA found success in the mid-range.  Its figures are 7 inches tall and sell for about $18 a pop. And size matters, because companies bid for rights to sell characters at different sizes.

In Los Angeles, Sideshow Collectibles focuses on figures that are a foot tall or bigger. They cost anywhere from $200 to $700. Its warehouse can barely keep them in stock.

"We’re shipping approximately 600 packages a day," says Grez Anzalone, who runs the company.  

Anzalone started out making smaller, cheaper figures. Going high end was a big risk.

"We thought we could see the future a little bit,” Anzalone says, "and we thought that if we made it that we would find the fan base."

Two thirds of Sideshow Collectibles' customers are now overseas. But catering to obsessive fans worldwide has a downside. 

"You know, there are fans that understand the way Darth Vader looks in an almost mathematical sort of way," explains creative director Tom Gilliland, "and if your math doesn’t add up – it breaks the fantasy, it breaks the illusion for them."

Luckily, Sideshow employs artists like Earl Ellis. He used to make handmade special effects back when Hollywood needed them.

"I’m trying to get out of that because it’s pretty much a dying industry,” Ellis says. “Everything’s digital. Like I worked on Tim Burton’s "Planet of the Apes", and by the time they did the remake, the latest one, there’s not a hair suit in it."

But there are only so many variations you can do on Darth Vader or Iron Man. That’s why Sideshow Collectibles is developing its own original characters – another risk it hopes will pay off.

About the author

Eric Molinsky is an independent radio reporter.

Alex Heinke sculpts the face of Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight for NECA's new line of action figures.

Artists working at NECA (National Entertainment Collectables Association).

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...