: Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.comPAUL'S VALLEY, Oklahoma — If you're a regular Wired.com reader, there's a good chance that collecting action figures topped the list of your future careers when you were a kid … and an adolescent. Let's face it, you'd still do it if you could. Well, Kevin Stark from Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, has done it.
Stark is a figurine collector and comic book artist who has become the Action Figure Museum curator. The museum has one of the largest action figure displays in the world, along with a Batman shrine, a superhero changing room and enough Transformers, G.I. Joes and He-Man figures to fill a grown man's bedroom in his mom's basement.
In 2000, Stark convinced the Pauls Valley City Council that the town needed a tourist attraction and the museum should be it. In 2005, it finally opened its doors. The museum seems a little out of place among Pauls Valley's other businesses: a gun store, a couple of gas stations, an insurance company or two. But if you love action figures, you'll find plenty to covet here.
: Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.comFigurines are among some of the oldest signs of human culture on the planet, but what we think of today as action figures began in 1964 with G.I. Joe.
With the market primed by Mattel's Barbie in 1959 and a pre-existing war-toy fascination, toy guru Stan Weston achieved the "moveable man of action" or the "fully articulated man." The first 12-inch-tall G.I. Joe had vehicles, interchangeable clothing and loads of accessories, and America couldn't get enough. Weston had struck gold.
The Adult Collector's Bedroom Diorama has more than 6,000 figures, none of which are glued down. That way, the exhibit is living and ever-changing.
: Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.comLiberal action figure fans may be chagrined to learn that many of their favorite toys would not exist today if not for Ronald Reagan. Under his watch the FCC removed restrictions implemented in the '70s banning children's shows that promoted a commercial product.
Suddenly shows like Transformers and He-Man emerged with accompanying lines of toys. Occasionally, broadcasters got a cut of the toy sales for scheduling certain shows. From 1977 to 1987, the percentage of toys on the market that were licensed from TV shows or movies jumped from 20 to 80 percent.
In 1988, Reagan vetoed the Children's Television Act, even though it passed Congress with overwhelming support. The bill would have reinstated some of the lost restrictions.
The museum's collection is so vast it doesn't fit into the building's impressive amount of display space. To make sure every toy gets its day in the spotlight, the exhibits rotate regularly.
: Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.comWorld War II's Pacific campaign exhibit, which uses 12-inch Hasbro and Dragon LTD figurines, is one of the special features at the museum.
: Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.comThe Kenner toy company was the first to make Star Wars-licensed toys in 1978. Even though they had the license before the release of the first Star Wars movie, their toys didn't appear on shelves until almost a year later. As sales started to drop toward the end of the '80s, Kenner stopped producing new Star Wars action figures in 1985.
Then, in 1995, kids who grew up on Star Wars started having kids of their own and a renewed interest in the toys percolated. Kenner began making new Star Wars toys, and was bought by Hasbro, who will hold the license until 2018.
Because of this 10-year lapse in production, the original "vintage" action figures are highly sought after and yield hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars on eBay.
Kids of all ages enjoy the Star Wars toy display case at the Action Figure Museum.
: Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.comAs comic books and graphic novels become serious works of literature today, and collectors are accepted into the mainstream, action figures have become art objects. This trend owes much to comic-artist-turned-mogul, Todd McFarlane. McFarlane spent some time at Marvel illustrating big names like The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man, even creating the wildly popular villain, Venom.
In 1992, McFarlane broke with Marvel to form Image Comics with six other artists. There he created the groundbreaking Spawn title, whose first issue sold a record 1.7 million copies. The darkness of the Spawn universe led to beautifully detailed and mature action figures in 1994 that awakened fans to the idea of an action figure as a work of art.
Local artist Kyle Windrix has a number of pieces on display at the museum, including this version of The Crow he carved for Neca Toys.
: Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.comBatman gets a room of his own at the museum, where visitors can see comics, figurines and posters.
: Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.comMike Brown helps his son Marshall, 7, get into a costume in the Super Room. Marshall chose a Spider-Man body with a Flash mask.
: Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.comVisitors can don their favorite superhero costumes in the Super Room and fly about the museum.
: Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.comIn this exhibit, the DC superheroes stand ready to defend the world from injustice. Or, at least against uncourageous stances.
: Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.comHe-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon packed the most bang for your frame rate back in the day, at times only requiring two per second to convey its awesomeness. But where the He-Man franchise really shone was in the sheer number of action figures it offered.
Here, The Masters show off their grotesquely defined muscles.
: Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.comIt's hard not to stand in awe at the wall of figurines. It's even harder to believe you are in the heart of Oklahoma.
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