Action figures and the adults who collect them

A growing industry caters to enthusiasts who prefer real people rather than superheroes
The truth about guys and dolls
Photograph by Colin O'Connor; IN Icons; Photo Illustration by Sarah MacKinnon

Jason Geyer is a 42-year-old man with an action figure collection. In the 1990s, he designed toys in California. At lunch, he would go out with co-workers to scour the stores for new finds. It was the hunt that gave him the bug.

But Geyer isn’t your typical collector. He seeks out a special kind of action figure—the inaction action figure. Rather than models of superheroes from video games and comic books, these figurines are replicas of human beings—think politicians, comedians, actors and businessmen. “Personally, I just thought it was funny to get action figures of real people who weren’t necessarily superhuman,” says Geyer. “They’re funny and they’re interesting. It’s really hard to find a person that fits a kind of pop-culture niche.”

The latest inaction action figure to cause a commotion among collectors is a $99 likeness of Apple’s late founder Steve Jobs. The 12-inch poseable doll looks eerily similar to the late tech guru, from the beard to the wedding band, and comes dressed in Jobs’s trademark black turtleneck, jeans and running shoes. But although production had begun on the inaction action figure and it was due to ship out in February, Hong Kong-based company In Icons announced this week that, due to “immense pressure” from lawyers representing Apple and the Jobs family, it was halting manufacture and promised to refund all pre-orders. Before the announcement, the dolls were being advertised on eBay for $135; afterwards, the online price skyrocketed to more than $3,500.

The Jobs figure joins other inaction heroes such as U.S. President Barack Obama, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the Three Stooges—even former prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald. Typically retailing for well over $50, such figures are clearly beyond the reach of the typical kid’s allowance. Instead, they’re snapped up by an eager community of collectors and enthusiasts, most of whom are in their 30s and 40s and grew up playing with Star Wars figurines and GI Joes. “There’s no way on Earth any of those would have been made 20 years ago,” says Geyer, co-founder of the Action Figure Insider website. “Nowadays, the whole industry caters to collectors.”

Kris Shantz noticed the trend emerge in the early 2000s. “Primarily, the inaction figures are driven by grown-ups,” says the co-founder of Toronto-based figure-maker Happy Worker. In 2004, the company released its first inaction figure, called Geekman, who features “oodles of brain power.” The company now creates figures for corporations like the Royal Bank.

Shantz believes inaction figures have evolved into an art form, with highly detailed dolls that are more statuettes than playthings. Often collectors seek out models of people with whom they feel a “visceral” connection. “Inaction figures are a part of that—that ability of grown-ups to show what they’re into, what they’re passionate about,” says Shantz.

Andrew Nafekh is passionate about Canadian history, something he picked up during his stint in the navy. So, in November 2003, the Pierrefonds, Que., resident and his wife started the Canadian Legends toy series by making a Sir John A. Macdonald figure (they added Sir Wilfrid Laurier and War of 1812 general Isaac Brock). Nafekh found most buyers were adult toy enthusiasts rather than the children he targeted in his business plan. “The real market for us were the collectors,” he says, adding that he now has 10,000 Canadian Legends figures in a warehouse.

Daniel Pickett, 40, editor-in-chief of the Action Figure Insider, which he co-founded with Geyer, describes himself as a “hard-core” collector with “easily more than 10,000” figures in his personal collection. Now that production has stopped on the Steve Jobs figure, Pickett isn’t surprised by the surging online prices. “Some people will call it a white whale in their collection,” he says. He, too, will have his eyes peeled for it. “There’s still something about going to the store, finding that figure on the peg, and going, ‘Oh my gosh, I finally got this guy.’ ” After all, for collectors like him, finding that rare creature is half the fun.