Action Figures for Adults Who Won't Grow Up

When you're strolling down the toy aisles this holiday season, don't forget to pick up something for the grown-up in your life who refuses to grow up.

A small but successful portion of the toy industry is targeting "kids" aged 15-40 who don't see anything wrong with collecting toys.

"I know what kind of fun I had as a kid. Why wouldn't it be fun now?" said Jason Vilmenay, a 27-year-old biology student and avid toy collector.

Jason is one of thousands of adult toy collectors in the United States who passionately collect a new, more adult breed of action figures.

These aren't the same generic, plastic playthings many of us remember from our youth.

Instead, some manufacturers are creating pop culture statuettes based on popular movies, television shows, musicians -- and of course superheroes -- to take a bite out of an action figure market that generated sales of $1.2 billion last year, according to the NPD Group, an organization that tracks toy industry data.

The level of craftsmanship, along with pop culture characters like Austin Powers and Kermit the Frog, are meant to say as much about the action figure as they do the buyer.

'More Power to Them'

With a wife, a 2-year-old daughter, a full-time job and a full roster of college classes, Vilmenay doesn't have a lot of time to relax.

Toys, he says, give him the freedom to goof off a little -- at least when his homework's done.

"As serious as I have to be in my career and school, that's the thing that keeps me from getting too serious," said Vilmenay. "There should be a little part of everyone that never grows up."

Vilmenay, boasts a collection of European car models, giant robots and an abundance of action figures that litter his Long Island, N.Y., home.

His 26-year-old wife, Jessica, is tolerant of her husband's hobby, but would prefer it if his interests took up a little less space.

"Of course they bother me," she said. "We had to buy shelves and he bought a display case -- and I'm always finding little guns and legs all over the house!"

But, Jessica says, aside from the occasional nuisance, she doesn't see anything wrong with it.

"Personally, I don't have the mindset to play with toys," she said, "but if he can -- if anyone can -- more power to them."

'It's Just Stuff'

One of the better known players in the adult action figure business is famed comic-book artist Todd McFarlane.

McFarlane says that for most people the word "toy" conjures up images of children playing with dolls.

But for people who "get it," he says, it's just another way to express one's individuality.

"It basically says: This is who I am to the world," said McFarlane. "It's your hair color and your clothes and the TV programs you watch."

McFarlane uses the example of one worker passing by the desk of another worker who has decorated his cubicle with a Dana Scully action figure, the character played by Gillian Anderson on "The X-Files."

"They walk by your cubicle and they turn and they go, 'is that Scully from the 'X-Files'? There's a little bit of a sheepish moment and you go 'Yeah' and they say 'Oh, I love that show'," he said. "And you're off to a conversation. I don't think the conversation is 'Hey, why the heck you got a Scully? What are you -- a geek?"

McFarlane likes to refer to the figures he makes -- and just about anything else people buy that's related to pop culture -- as "stuff."

"It's just stuff. It's just pop culture stuff," he said. "It's stuff that says 'I like a little of this and I like a little of that', you know? No big deal."

McFarlane is probably best known for his hit comic-book "Spawn," which was made into an animated television series for HBO and a movie for New Line Cinema. "Spawn" is the dark tale of a government assassin who, after being killed, is sent to Hell and makes a deal with the devil to command Hell's armies in exchange for a chance to see his wife again.

The comic book's title character has been re-created and re-imagined by the action figure wizards at McFarlane Toys scores of times.

McFarlane launched his toy business back in 1994 because none of the companies making action figures from the "Spawn" comics met his high standards.

The company built a reputation as the gold standard for adult-oriented action figures, and has now expanded its toy-making business beyond "Spawn," winning licenses from Major League Baseball, "The Matrix" films and other major properties.

"The same people that were buying these toys as kids never stopped," said Gareb Shamus, publisher of Wizard: The Comics Magazine and ToyFare: The Toy Magazine.

And mainstream manufacturers have taken note of the adult market. "Hasbro and Mattel are doing it with some collectible series of figures," Shamus said.

The entry of Hasbro and Mattel -- considered the two giants of the action figure industry -- is more evidence of just how stiff competition is for adult toy dollars.

Still, smaller companies like Palisades Toys and Mezco Toyz are jockeying for sales amongst the industry's adult clientele. Palisades produces action figures based on properties like "The Muppet Show," "Alien" and "Predator"; Mezco lists Al Pacino in "Scarface" among its products.

An Artistic Connection

Palisades' president and chief executive officer, Mark Horn, says it's important to make an "emotional connection" with the consumer. "That's really what our business is about."

Horn remembers a statuette his company made of the title character from the 1987 movie "Predator." The designers chose a specific crouching pose for the extraterrestrial creature -- and hit the nail on the head in terms of making a connection with "Predator" fans.

"If you like 'Predator,' there's no way you can look at that and not think it's totally amazing," he said. "If you don't, then you probably weren't the intended audience anyway."

For buyers like Vilmenay, the emotional connection he has with the figures he collects isn't simply a nostalgic one, but an artistic one as well.

"To me they're a form of art," he said. "The attention to detail and the creativity. I would say they're not too far off from sculpture or what's considered 'proper' art."

Palisades Toys believes so strongly that its figures are art that it promotes the figures' creators on the product's packaging.

On the packaging of every figure Palisades produces is a list of credits, similar to those at the end of a movie, where the forces behind the figure are recognized.

"We list the art director, sculptors, artists, everybody," said Horn. "We're making commercial art. It's commercial art because it's being sold, but it is art nonetheless."

For Jessica Vilmenay, who often finds herself crawling around on her hands and knees picking up various appendages from aliens, monsters and medieval heroes, art might not be the right word.

"In some cases I can see them as art," she said. "But for me, most of the time, they're just a nuisance!"