A Matter of Control

So these days it seems like no one is totally happy with the companies that are making mainstream toys. If it’s not the price hikes, it’s the selection. Or the quality control. Or the shoulders are backward. Sure, sure, these problems are all annoying, especially in light of the price you pay for the toys these days.

Michael-Wolf-Toy-Story-1-650x436At the risk of sounding like every other “apologist jackass” out there, sometimes these things really are out of the control of the people in charge of shepherding the line from concept to manufacturing to store shelves. Things like parts missing from packages, or bad paint jobs, or bent legs are all factory related issues. And no matter how many samples you may check and sign off on at the end of the day you really have no idea how well the factory is going to follow your master samples or the checklists you devise to make sure all runs smoothly. Even having someone stationed in China doesn’t fix everything. When I was designing toys, I worked for small enough companies that I was often the one overseeing the process through the factory, even staying in China from time to time. Mistakes happen on every job, it’s just part of the process.

But the factory stuff at least gives you the opportunity to fix things. If you catch it early, most times collectors never have any idea about the daily problems that crop up. And for large runs, you can always make running changes to try and fix it as early as possible. But some of the things that collectors complain about are simply out of your control. And nowhere in the process is that lack of control more frustrating than in dealing with Licensors (or clients).  These people are the ones with the ultimate control of their properties, and they are the ones who dictate what you can and cannot make. Even more frustrating is that most of the time the people in charge of licensing are not creators or artists, but simply account people working their way up the ladder and happen to have stopped there. They don’t know the property, they don’t watch the cartoons/movies/tv shows. No, what they have is a style guide, which to them is THE BIBLE.

No joke! That style guide went through a long, complicated process designed to take thinking out of the equation. The licensing rep can be very pleasant, and fun to work with, and very smart, but if you want to deviate from the style guide or the approved corporate branding, then you have huge problems. Because they do not want to “color outside the lines”, because they a.) have no power to make those decisions, and b.) don’t know what they can and can’t do since they didn’t create the property. This whole drawn out preface leads me to what are arguably two of the biggest complaints with some toy lines out there today: character choice, and color choices.


When I was designing toys for Wendy’s, we didn’t often get opportunities to reward the toy geeks within the design team; most of what we worked on was aimed at 5-8 year olds, with licensees such as Maya & Miguel or Pokémon. We did get to make a really cool Mario action figure (with resealable card!) but even that was a battle, from having a card in the first place to adding a peg hole for verisimilitude. It was a success, though, so we kept wanting to do an assortment of nothing but carded figures for one month. Unfortunately, when the right properties came along, most of them already had other companies making action figures and we were blocked from doing it. (Eventually, Wendy’s requested that we finally make a full figure assortment…for Charlotte’s Web. Yes, we made carded figures of ducks, sheep, and spiders. Get the picture why this job is so hard, yet?)

But occasionally, a fun geek property would drop in our laps. And the year after it debuted, we got Teen Titans (Short note: we lobbied for the TT license probably a year before it debuted, but the execs thought it wouldn’t be a big hit. When we finally made the the price had gone up, of course). Being very aware of the Bandai line, we looked at ways that collectors might be able to integrate what we make with that toy line. Keep in mind, whatever we made had to be fun for little kids first and foremost. So we churned out the usual 100 or so concepts, took about 25 to color, and proceed to weed down to the final 4-5 toys from there. Now, anyone who collected the Teen Titans Bandai toys are sure to remember one fact about the line: They didn’t make the line 3.5″ SCALE, they made all the figures 3.5″ period. I’m not sure why; sometimes this is a function of contracts in splitting the license. In any case, those that wanted a Cyborg figure to be in scale with the rest of the TT kids were out of luck. Instead of the relative sizes matching the picture up above, this is what they got:

So that was a problem. Wendy’s to the rescue! One of the concepts we pushed and pushed was a Cyborg figure that was perfectly in scale with the Bandai Titans. I knew that collectors would buy them up, Cyborg Figurine ConceptAFi could have publicized the scale unity, win win all around. Now, since Bandai had the license for action figures, we couldn’t make a perfect representation. We could make a “figurine”, though. And after a bit of back and forth, we came to the agreement that as long as it had a base it would be considered a figurine, and not a figure. We would just make the base removable. 😉 Keep in mind that we only had less than $.50 to play with, so the only articulation would be in the arms, which would pump with the press of a button on his back. But standing on the shelf the idea was for him to fit in perfectly with the Teen Titans figures. The concept got pretty far down the chain, ending up in the near final mix, going all the way through costing and into engineering. But unfortunately, the licensor felt that Cyborg just wasn’t leading man material. It was decreed that we could use the whole group on toys, but any individual character could only be Robin, who parents would recognize. So adios, Cyborg.

That wasn’t the end of our problems, though. And it brings me to the second complaint fans make: color choices. Specifically, this was a huge problem throughout the life of the Justice League Unlimited line.  And it has a very simple answer. The WB style guides have color callouts, showing the Pantone number for each color used on every character and prop. It also has specified callouts for the paint chips and plastic used for merchandise. And here is where we get back to the licensing reps not wanting to deviate from the guide. The callouts for the plastics only use one color for each section of a character’s costume, since you don’t paint shadows and highlights on a toy like you would on a drawing. But the guide chose the shadow color as the base color for the plastic! So all of the colors are too dark. To make matters worse, one of the first steps you do is send the factory the Pantone numbers, they send back paint chips that match, and the studio approves those paint chip so the paint/plastic can be ordered. This process happens every month with many different licensors, so it’s just a well-oiled process. In general, why would you ever question the style guide or licensor that they might be wrong BEFORE you see any of the toys? The answer is, you don’t. You’re busy with all the other projects on your plate.

So when we couldn’t make Cyborg, we went ahead with a Robin spinner (that had a really neat 3D Teen Titans logo with a magnet inside!) You push the sculpted logo near the figure (which also has a magnet inside) and it’s pushed away as it spins wildly. Fun. Everything went according to plan until we received the final painted sample. At that point he ceased to be referred to internally as “Robin” and instead became “Sunburn Robin” to everyone involved.

All of his colors were way too dark. The yellow of his costume could barely be seen against the red. So we had a problem. To compound matters, the figure was 100% approved. You don’t mess with anything that is approved, as approvals are always a pain. And look at this from an exec’s point of view: the studio is happy, the client is happy, the toy will be gone in a month anyway. Why open a can of worms just to have to pay for more paint, delay production a bit, and possibly cause bad blood with the licensor by giving them more paperwork? To their credit, after we argued a bit and brought in the Bandai Robin to prove our point we were able to go back to the licensor to request a new color palette (props to lead creatives Greg Leibert & Brian Sandlin for really fighting that fight). And that’s when things got weird. For whatever reason, WB was convinced that the colors were too dark. But they said we could only change two of them. I have no idea why. Maybe that was the cost limit for new paint? Who knows. We ended up choosing the go bright with the yellow and skin colors as those were the ones that really stood out. But it still was not “right”. (And we couldn’t afford the paint apps to make the inside of the cape yellow or his grey boot tips, in case you were wondering).

And if it had been an action figure, no collector would have said “Well, they got some of the colors right, I’ll give them that”. They would have screamed bloody murder that the other colors were wrong. And I can’t argue that. But no one saw the fight to get it to that point. The rest was simply out of our control.


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    Great job and a very enjoyable read. I’d love to be able to see the entire process from idea to final figure sometime.

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    nice article always figured some things are out of the control of the ones who make the toys mostly the ones who grant the license for their property to be made and always thought you toy designers had a bible or guide the licensor made you follow for characters including their looks . or maybe like wb designes given of how they want dc characters to look but can not believe some one thought the so called sunburned robin was fine enough to produce.

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    Wow, you DIDN’T like the sunburn Robin?…I was fighting to keep that one!!
    And, Jason, I thought you would have all the Charolottes Web “action figures” (hahahahaha) hanging in your cube!??…no??
    Nice article. …and I should mention that it was always good having a SUPER toy fan among us “toy fans”….you made a big difference in our office and in the quality of our toys…we missed you when you left. (sad face emoticon here)

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    I just bought a set of these for my son for Christmas. I new he’d love the communicator clock, but alas, the batteries were dead…. and there was no way to open the dang thing to replace the batteries. So, if you felt like someone was cursing your name at some point near Christmas, that was me down in the studio with an x-acto trying to pry open the dang thing. No luck, but I didn’t lose a finger from the x-acto, so that’s nice. The activity book/postcards/thingy was very well done!
    I work in licensed illustration/product design… so I feel your pain.

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    Thanks for the great article, ToyOtter! I always read about this process, but I never saw such an easy to follow and concise version of the process before. Now, what I don’t understand is this: Since the same problems always pop up in the toymaking process, why can’t any company put reliable and simple safeguards in place to help prevent it? Also(and this is a general gripe of mine) Why are certain job positions filled with persons who have no clue? Buyers for Walmart/Target/TRU who wouldn’t know Cyborg from the Terminator, or like you mentioned above, those persons who fell into their job positions but have no idea, feel, or personal interest in the characters they are working with.

    It seems quite counterintuitive to not have someone in those positions who actually knows the characters. Mattel’s ToyGuru, for example, knows his DCU.

    Anyway, great article! Thanks!

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    “At the risk of sounding like every other apologist jackass out there”???

    Are you kidding?

    As the number one Mattel apologist site on the internet, I can’t believe you’d draw attention to that.

    The credibility of this site is already compromised (and I’m being very, very kind). We know you want to keep the freebies coming, but really, wake up and smell the coffee – ToyGuru may have the best intentions in the world, but his work (and even moreso, his communications to fans) has been (& continues to be unprofessional and borderline appalling).

    This guys is in charge of a line directed at fans, but problems are consistent, and many things were never addressed – like the figure-warping poses & elastics after 20 WAVES of DCU. Stuff doesn’t show up at the warehouse and they only know about the problem DAYS (not weeks) before? Digital River sucks and it never gets addtessed? Stupid Q & A’s with nothing but softball questions and empty replies? Scott jamming horrible character choices (clearly at his sole discretion) into lines that are sold at retail (Green Lantern #1,999,876,439 anyone? Black Vulcan? Scott’s own MOTU design from the 80’s that no one cares about?).

    I keep hearing about how Mattel is a great place to work – it must be if you’re Scott – apparently he has pictures of someone up the foodchain mounting a goat – because any sane organization that was looking to be profitable would’ve fired his ass after so many ongoing failures. I cannot believe Mattel has any in-house PR, because no sane publicist would let Scott issue the rants he does without at least PROOFREADING them. But maybe they are just looking to give Scott enough rope to hang himself – lord knows there are few Scott fans among the people I speak to at Mattel HQ – and fewer in the field.

    A good product manager knows his product AND his market – he doesn’t just waste company money to satisfy his own whims, sales be damned. And the subscription results are showing that the “fans” that used to think he was doing them a favor have seen the emperor has no clothes. When will Mattel realize it?

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    THANK YOU! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

    I really and truly enjoyed this article that explained how the inner workings of the manufacturing of toys. I feel vindicated!

    Very enjoyable and entertaining tale. Thanks so much!

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    I really think most fans dont understand the style guides (as an avid collector of those)- youd be amazed at some of the stuff in there that doesnt come close to matching the final product- the difference in shadows are a really big deal– but even in merchandising–say for cartoon network– there were established rules of overlapping characters– you couldnt feature all the scooby characters on one shirt (at least with the cartoon network checkboard on it ) Same with rules for JLU and BTAS– THere are notes in the style guide that Wonder Woman or Hawkgirl can never be featured on merchandise by themselves…

  • ToyOtter

    Greg – I miss designing toys more than you can ever know (and miss all our little group just as much!)

    Thanks for the great comments everyone.

    Jroug – freebies have nothing to do with anything. Mattel sends all the sites review copies. It doesn’t really impact what we write. However, unlike you, we do have a view inside a lot of these companies and we know what limitations they have to deal with. My article is strictly about the two events I was involved with in regards to licensors.

    Collectors who get so upset are going to have to realize at some point that Mattel is not, and never will be driven by a desire to pamper collectors over making money. They are not NECA. Collectors got lucky with Scott, but they don’t not look for the Scotts of the world when they hire. Does no one remember the dismal stretch of Mattel toys from 1988-2002? That corporate culture still exists. And if Hasbro hadn’t dropped the DC License, Mattel would still be making crap.

    Get over it.

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    Great article, thanks for the insight and cool insider pictures! You really gave me some good perspective on why so many “stupid” decisions can get made. It sounds like the most frustrating ones are caused by the people in power having no knowledge or passion for the project. I can understand how companies’ hands are tied now.

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    Toyotter: Why do you assume I have no insight into toy companies? I mention in the posting that I have spoken to people in El Segundo (to clarify, I’m talking about executives – in the office, not on the phone) and in the field (the salespeople who deal with major retailers) about Scott and while someone at Mattel obviously really likes him, my first hand experience is that there are plenty who don’t – they (and I) believe he’s a fanboy first and a brand manager second. Of course I expect Mattel to be after money, I’m just not sure Scott gets that until he is reminded by poor sales, no sub renewals, and never-ending complaints.

    Scott himself seems confused about if his lines are NECA or Mattel product – when he;s hyping them, they’re NECA – nimble and aimed at collectors; when he’s explaining how everything is SNAFU, they’re Mattel – handcuffed by corporate restrictions and licensors.

    Your article was fine and I’m sure readers appreciate first-hand insight into the process that they may not have themselves. I always enjoy when people share their specific horror stories – because we all have some. Commenting on Scott here may not have been the most appropriate venue, but my response was really driven by the ongoing “Mattel is wonderful” “Scott is great” message of the site and the glaringly obvious goal of the article as it follows right after Scott’s most recent apology/explantation.

    I can’t remember a stretch of Mattel toys (for boys anyway) that wasn’t dismal (maybe Major Matt Mason for the first couple of years?). I’ll give credit to their WWE team though – nice work there for the most part, and putting the DC product to shame. But if you want to credit Scott with their recent “accomplishments, I’ll have to disagree. Evolution in the toy marketplace was going to catch up with them eventually, or they were going to have to walk away from Boys. What has Mattel done that’s groundbreaking or even particularly good? It seems to me that everything they do in boys is rehashed from Hasbro, Toy Biz and Jakks.

    You say the freebies don’t impact the writing? Okay maybe they don’t, but there’s no denying the site absolutely has a Mattel-friendly, Scott-friendly bias.

    Anyway, happy to agree to disagree but “Get over it”? C’mon dude.

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    Very insightful read. I remember being thrilled when Mattel announced Booster Gold in the JLU line, but at the same time wondering why he was black and gold instead of blue and yellow. Some one at Mattel – I think he went by “Boy Wonder”, manager of JLU before Scott – explained to me that those were the ‘correct’ colors according to the style guide, so they had to follow them.

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    Nice Article! I thought Jesse Falcon did a great job of communicating some of what went on with Toy Biz and the Marvel Legends & Complementing lines, as best he could as a manager of the line and employee of the company. It didn’t always stop the wrath that came (and in the case of the pulled and then on the shelf Scarlet Witch, sometimes deserved), but I enjoyed his misspelled interaction with us customers and fans!

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    Jroug – Scott isn’t perfect, no one is, but I’d rather have a “fanboy” fighting for the DC figures and lines I want than some brand manager who can’t tell the difference between Batman and Superman.

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    Jason- fantastic column! EVERY figure collector ought to read this. There is just SO MUCH minutae that goes into getting toys like this made that most people never consider. As the saying goes, collectors “don’t know what they don’t know”. It’s great that you’re in a position to shed some light on these kind of things.

  • […] To find out what happened to Robin, and a few other priceless peeks behind the curtain, click on over to AFI. […]

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    Wow, what a great article, Jason! Really dug it. To put MY two cents in, I have a great story (one of many, from a looooong and maddening licensing process) regarding ‘Flash Gordon’, the movie, and King Features, the license holder. We scrambled to get our first items to market, and never got a folder of assets, with graphics and logos and such. Each conversation I’d have with KF, I’d notice that I’d get about 2 minutes in and as I’d mention the “1980 film” for about the third time, the person on the other end of the phone would say, “Oh, the MOVIE?? Oh, hmmm, I’m not sure…”, at which time I’d think we were in trouble again. So on about my 5th call to request assets, speaking to the ‘guy behind the guy’, can’t go any higher, same thing happens, only this time I get, “Oh yeah, sure, we have a style guide, absolutely”. I nearly dropped the phone, breathed a sigh of relief, and was assured a folder of graphics and assets for the movie would be emailed to me shortly. I eagerly checked my email later in the day, downloaded the folder, opened it up and found loads of character images, logos and backgrounds…all for the Alex Raymond ‘Flash Gordon’ comic strip. Once again, my beloved FG got swept under the rug and we were on our own. It all worked out because I pestered Universal enough and got 100s of on set and promo pics, but that’s another example of how we’re at the mercy of the license holder, and rarely do they seem to have as strong a grasp on the subject matter as we do. Frustrating isn’t even the word for it. Anyway, great info Jason!

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    Otterman! Reading this Rennes me that we REALLY need to get another Geek Night together. With some big life events spread out in 2012, I’m actively targeting a 2013 date, and im counting on you being involved!
    Bring the nachos.

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    Well done. I could read these types of stories continuously. The art of the true, online article seems to be on the wane in favor of communication in 140 character increments. Your voice comes through so clearly in this article that I can hear your voice in my head when I read it. Thanks for taking the time to write this up. Maybe I should find a place to guest blog and dig out some war stories from the toy industry days. 🙂

  • Jason Geyer

    Thanks, guys!

    Eric, thanks, your comments mean a lot to me. I really like writing these long-form things, I just wish I had the time to do more. I still can’t believe our time in the trenches together led us down our career paths…

  • jason geyer

    Just a heads up; I’m deleting any more comments by folks with Mattel vendettas. Take it somewhere else. I really don’t care what you think about AFi, or Mattel, or what’s going on with them. Start your own blog if you need to be heard, this ain’t the place for it.

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    I have zero vendetta against Mattel, Jason. It’s just there’s a difference between objective criticism and a biased critique. I’m just questioning the timing and tone of this article…

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    First off I liked the article; insights into the interworkings of the toy business are interesting and can only help the collector community. Who knew so much went into happy meal toys. Second, most of what I’m going to says applies to any toy company not just Mattel, I won’t pretend to be in love with Scott or Mattel, but I often buy their products and for the most part I’m satisfied. So you be the judge if it’s a “vendetta”. I don’t claim to be a toy insider or even know any, but I did work in plastics manufacturing for many years as an operator, a manager, and quality supervisor and auditor.

    While I’m sure there are many industry standards that aren’t universal some of what you wrote about the factory setting and the ability to control quality seem questionable and far removed for what I have seen. You made it sound like errors are not just unavoidable but unfixable. I personally have done onsite audits of thousands of parts; I have checked thousands under a microscope (literally) for defects in response to a customer complaint, chartered private jets (yes private jets at our expense) to fly a few hundred parts to a customer site to keep them running and seen production of multi-shot plastic injected parts with and without inserts run less than a 100 PPM (parts pre million) defect rate for months and a many run very low PPM for years.

    It seems like internal auditing (or the demand for) by toy companies is sub par. Does anyone have the right to expect any company to be prefect? No, but many companies including Mattel are demanding more from costumers (price, subscriptions, and support) this is demand for more is counter intuitive to the traditional customer/seller relationship, so it is no small wonder that we are having a hard time with it.

    There are unreasonable collectors a plenty but there are also collectors like me that simply have a hard time accepting some of the more questionable statements, and the logic that the more expensive and rare a toy gets the more accepting of errors collectors should be. The simple fact is that toy prices have risen at a rate much greater than inflation, which honestly is fine as long as the toy company is bringing their A game and lets face it many including Mattel are not.

    As to the bulk of the article that speaks to dealing with licenser licensee relationship I have no knowledge, but as a customer I shouldn’t have to your either going to give me what I want or I’ll spend my money elsewhere. And on that account it seems pretty telling that DCUC, Legends(I know this ones coming back), MOTU200x, Movie Maniacs, Ghostbusters, among others are gone, going or shrinking.

    Sorry so long. Last thing in my experience if you open up by saying I’m not trying to be blank, it usually means your going be or do blank.

    Thanks for a forum and please consider how you choose to limit the duologue.


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    I love how its valid to compare a toy that comes for free when you buy food to a collectors action figure. That’s like comparing Angry Birds a free app for phones to Call of Duty.

  • Jason Geyer

    Carl, I started this article 5 years ago. I have a few more old, but never finished features coming up. This was actually in response to all the JLU color complaints at the time.

    But even if this was about anything current with Mattel, so what? If I want to apologize for Mattel (I don’t) then I’ll come right out and do it. This is my site and you’re free to read it or not, but I’m under no obligation to give you a forum to attack me or my motives. And for the record, I don’t get anything free from Mattel, I don’t collect any of their products outside of various DCUC, and I’m just as frustrated by some of their decisions as anyone. But that’s not what this article was about, and the comments aren’t going to turn into the usual flame war.

    Tribsaint, I tried to be clear in the beginning of the article, but maybe I need to be clearer (I’m not being snarky, I literally mean this): it’s not that you can’t fix things at the factory. We made MILLIONS of fast food toys every month, with no recalls, breakage, paint errors, etc. But Mattel obviously has a priority for the profit margin over quality and satisfaction. This is OBVIOUS. People act like Scott or any brand manager just aren’t doing their job, but the truth is that the corporate culture at Mattel is designed for cranking out Barbie and Hot Wheels (both comparatively easy to manufacture) and not complex boy’s toys.

    Without Scott we would have never had MOTUC, Ghostbusters, and much of the DC characters we did. You would have had Infinite Heroes x 10 across the board. And without the 4 Horsemen you would have had even that. People just don’t realize that Mattel is not, and never will be, Toy Biz, Hasbro, Neca. They are not set up that way, they don’t want to be that way. This period in Mattel’s recent history is an anomaly. Even the original MOTU and Secret Wars were built around repaints and universal bodies.

    Anyway, let this be the end of the Mattel comments, OK?

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    I have to agree with you 100% Jason. Mattel’s current “incarnation” IS an anomaly, & I for one, amidst my own frustrations with Mattel, am glad to have Scott give us this atypical Mattel “incarnation”. I’ve said it before, & I’ll say it again; Once this whole “classics” era passes, those who bitched the most will be the ones crying at how good those times were.

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    Jason, thanks for the comment, I tho k you bring up a very interesting point about corporate cultures, I have seen them be the most uplifting currents in a work place and the undertow dragging a place down. And indeed If scott is swimming agianst the corporate culture it gives some creedance to carls claim of him being disliked. It’s a shame the way success and grow at a company become a cage that henders more than helps.

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    Sorry and think not tho k…and the comments were jroug not carls….Mattel is just the hot button issue of this period of collecting Todd got his and Jesse too….

  • Jason Geyer


    You’re totally right, it’s not fair.

    Fast food toys have internal mechanisms, a new assortment every month, millions of toy shipped to every city in America and most places internationally every month, on time, they have to deal with a new studio/license/property every month, they have far more stringent safety standards to match, higher oversight, and stricter engineering,and they have to do it all with a fraction of the costs of an action figure so you can get it free with your meal.

    It is completely not fair to hold action figures up to that high standard.

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