It is rare for any historical trend to be traceable to a single person, but in the world of action figures and collectibles there are two eras: before McFarlane and after McFarlane.
In 1994 superstar comics artist Todd McFarlane started McFarlane Toys. Using the profits from his successful work in comics he funded his dream, a toy company. He hired the best sculptors around and revolutionized the production process.
There was not much competition. At that time all the toys on the market were cheaply made and only the most generous observer could say that they resembled their inspirations. The Star Wars action figures of the 1980s are a great example of how moribund the industry was before 1994.
One of the largest problems was that, due to poor manufacturing techniques, it was nearly impossible to make a small piece of plastic in the likeness of a specific person’s face. The action figures of the 1980s and early 1990s were stuck with one or two faces for their entire lineup, simply because injection molded plastic could not be mass produced finely enough to get specific likenesses.
McFarlane changed all that. He adapted principles that had been learned in the fine art world, the miniature painting world, and the high pressure world of production comics. Drybrushing for highlights and glazes for deep shadows were developed. He sought out plastics manufacturers who would be willing to do the quality work that he required.
Most importantly, he limited the number of toys produced of each particular type. The best part was that his new system was so efficient that the average price did not rise. Instead, a new marketplace of premium grade collectible artistic figurines appeared. McFarlane is directly responsible for massively increasing the amount of money that people were willing to pay for an action figure. They were no longer collectible for their nostalgia value alone, but because they were art.
These benefits spread to all the corners of action figure manufacturing. Classic toys like bobbleheads found a new lease on life as the toy consumers multiplied and the techniques available to them increased. For the first time the industry had such depth that major plastics manufacturers would work with them to give them exactly what they needed, but small runs of specialty toys were still economically viable. Nostalgic favorites for generations, bobbleheads were usually made to resemble pop culture icons or prominent sports figures. The new technologies in the 90s combined with the enormous, affluent new customer base, meant that they could greatly expand their line of toys and improve their average level of quality.
The next revolution in premium grade collectible action figure products will certainly come from 3d printing. Bobbleheads.com will be leading the way in this, because they specialize in personalized bobbleheads for all purposes and occasions. 3d printing is becoming efficient and affordable, and it allows mass production of toys and other plastic goods in a way never before imagined. The possibilities are endless for personalized bobbleheads. Any shape that can be designed on a computer can be printed and painted. A bobblehead can be made as delicately as a flower or with as much mind-bending complexity as an M. C. Escher drawing. Thanks to the growing trend of sophisticated action figure collectors that toy manufacturers have inherited from Todd McFarlane, there will be an audience there to receive them..