You can tell a lot about a fandom from the merchandise it supports (and vice versa), which is just one of the reasons why Chronicle Books’ new Star Wars: The Ultimate Action Figure Collection is such an oddly compelling book.
I’m not really an action figure kind of a guy; I get the attraction, but I also am not really that much of a collector in general, so I can’t justify spending the money on them in the first place knowing that they’d never really do anything other than hang out on a shelf and be looked at, occasionally. Nonetheless, there’s something weirdly compelling about Stephen J. Sansweet’s massive 352 page catalog of the many different Star Wars characters to have been immortalized in plastic across the last 30+ years (Many, if not all, being immortalized more than once). You get an idea of the rabidness of the fan base that would support almost sixty different versions of Han Solo, or demand that Nien Numb’s barely-seen counterpart Ten Numb (He’s in Return of The Jedi, apparently) gets more than one action figure. It’s simultaneously inspiring and terrifying.
You also get an idea of the evolution of toy technology, as figures get more points of articulation, likenesses get more… well, alike their inspirations (Let’s be honest, the original 1977 figures didn’t resemble any of the character at all; even Darth Vader’s figure was way too skinny), throughout the years. I admit to some small sense of jealousy that the ten year old boy I was when Return of The Jedi came out couldn’t have some of these figures (There are Luke Skywalkers that actually look like Luke!), although I’m sure my parents would’ve been relieved to not have to deal with quite so many figures being available as this book seems to suggest ended up being the case.
More than anything, the book underscores the way in which the fan market has been increasingly well-served as time goes by; what started as a mainstream movie tie-in has become more niche as it goes on, with figures created to celebrate particular moments in movies, as opposed to the character’s look in any particular installment. On the one hand, this may be a somewhat concerning development – After all, is niche really the way for these things to go? – but looked at another way, it can be seen as yet another sign that what used to be niche and fringe has become entirely mainstream… So much so that, not only do toy manufacturers cater to them, but so do mainstream book publishers with the publication of tomes that catalog the toys in such loving detail. Star Wars: The Ultimate Action Figure Collection is not only a clear labor of love for those involved, it’s also an unmistakable sign that – when it comes down to it – the nerds won the culture war.