"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."
When those words scrolled across the screen on Memorial Day weekend of 1977... everything changed! Cinema changed. Popular culture changed. And yes, the world of toys changed. Kenner, a young upstart toy company was granted the license to make toys from the film "Star Wars", and action figures as we know them today were born.
Kenner did something that had never been done before; they produced a line of 3 3/4 "action figures". Up until this point the standard was either 12" (G.I. Joe) or 7" (Mego) figures. But at this new size, Kenner discovered they could also make accessories, such as ships and playsets, to scale. Kids ate these 3 3/4" figures up, wanting to recreate and re-live every facet of the "Star Wars" saga.
THE EARLY BIRD KIT
In 1977, Kenner did not have a single "Star Wars" action figure produced in time to distribute by Christmas - threatening to miss out on the growing phenomenon and those precious holiday dollars. In a daring move, Kenner sold an "early bird" certificate package with an order card that could be redeemed for four of the figures when they were ready. The early bird kit also contained a cardboard fold-out which showed the first 12 figures.
These "early bird" figures (comprised of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2 and Chewbacca) were the first figures produced and mailed to customers who were patient enough to wait. While the Princess Leia and R2-D2 are the same as the figures released later, the Luke Skywalker had what is known as a "double-telescoping" lightsaber. (The lightsaber accessory extended further from his hand than the regular, later release.) This "double-telescoping" Luke Skywalker figure is still one of the most sought after figures out there and commands around $225 on the secondary market.
While, the Chewbacca figure is no different than the regular, later release, the weapon that he came with in the early bird kit (known as his bowcaster) can be differentiated from later issue bowcasters by the green hue of its plastic. It commands about $35 on the secondary market today.
THE "STAR WARS" LINE OF FIGURES
By 1978 Kenner began to roll out figures. They first released 12 figures based on core characters. Most came with accessories such as blasters, lightsabers, capes etc. The figures were sealed inside a plastic bubble an affixed to a cardboard card. Collectors refer to this as a "carded" figure. The backs of the cardboard cards (known as "cardbacks") depicted the 12 characters and are called "12 backs".
These earliest releases are extremely rare to still find carded and command very high dollars on the secondary market. The 12 figures and their current carded values are:
- Luke Skywalker (with lightsaber) - $850
- Princess Leia (with cape and blaster) - $800
- Han Solo (with blaster) $1,000
- C-3PO - $350
- R2-D2 - $400
- Stormtrooper (with blaster) - $400
- Ben "Obi-Wan" Kenobi (with cape and lightsaber) - $800
- Darth Vader (with cape and lightsaber) - $900
- Chewbacca (with bowcaster) - $375
- Jawa (with cape and blaster) - $285
- Sand People aka Tusken Raider (with gaffi stick) - $450
- Death Squad Commander (with blaster) - $375
As more figures were released during 1979, the cardbacks were changed to depict 20 or 21 characters (known as "20 backs" and "21 backs" respectively.) These are generally worth less than "12 backs" on the market today, but are prized pieces nonetheless.
For instance, let's take Darth Vader as an example:
- Darth Vader - Loose (no packaging): $12
Darth Vader - 12 back: $900
Darth Vader - 20 or 21 back: $325
All told, 21 figures were released from the original 1977 film. As well as those mentioned above, the others and their current values on 20 or 21 back cards are:
- Death Star Droid - $250
- Greedo (with blaster) - $300
- Hammerhead (with blaster) - $280
- Luke Skywalker (X-Wing Pilot uniform) (with blaster) - $310
- Power Droid - $200
- R5-D4 - $350
- Snaggletooth (with blaster) - $180
- Walrusman (with blaster) - $300
- Boba Fett (with blaster) - $1,800
Interestingly, many of the figures themselves have "variations" (slight differences in the paint applications, molds etc.). Luke Skywalker can come with blonde hair, light brown hair or dark brown hair. Such variations cause slight differences in value on the market today. But there remains one highly sought after variation on the Jawa figure. Originally, the Jawa was packed with a plastic, vinyl cape, but due to production issues, that cape was replaced by a cloth one. The vinyl caped Jawa now fetches around $3,500 on a "12 back" card! Wow!
Also, there are two versions of the Snaggletooth character. The "regular" release is a shorter figure, wearing a red uniform. But as part of a Sears exclusive playset, Kenner later released a "blue" version of Snaggletooth which is the full 3 3/4". Even though this figure never came on a cardback, it fetches several hundred dollars on the secondary market today due to scarcity.
Finally, Boba Fett was the reason the "20 back" became a "21 back". Offered later in the run due to production issues with his rocket pack (it originally fired a red rocket but had to be recalled due to the choking hazard it presented toward children,) the cardbacks added him as a figure. Boba Fett on a "20 back" or "21 back" fetches about $1800 on the secondary market today!
"THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK" LINE OF FIGURES
These 21 characters from "Star Wars" were re-released as the "Star Wars" sequels - "The Empire Strikes Back" (ESB) and "The Return of the Jedi" (ROTJ) - opened in theaters over the coming years. These subsequent releases are generally easier to locate, and their secondary market reflects that:
- Darth Vader ESB: $120
- Darth Vader ROTJ: $45
"The Empire Strikes Back" brought 29 new action figures, along with re-releases of the originals. Many of the core characters were resculpted in costumes from the new film. Once again as waves of figures were released the cardbacks changed the number of characters depicted. The ESB has:
- 21 backs
- 31 backs
- 32 backs
- 41 backs
- 45 backs
- 47 backs
- 48 backs
The 29 ESB figures and their current prices are:
- Lando Calrissian (with cape and blaster) - $75
- Princess Leia (Bespin Gown) (with cape and blaster) - $185-$205
- Imperial Stormtrooper (Hoth gear) (with cape and blaster) - $150
- Han Solo (Hoth gear) (with blaster) - $100
- Luke Skywalker (Bespin fatigues) (with blaster and lightsaber) - $250
- Rebel Soldier (Hoth gear) - (with blaster) - $80
- Bespin Security Guard (Caucasian) (with blaster) - $75
- Bespin Security Guard (African American) (with blaster) - $65
- Bossk (with blaster) - $145
- FX-7 - $80
- IG-88 (with blasters) - $265
- 2-1B ( with medical staff) - $100
- Yoda (with gimer stick, belt, cloak and snake) - $290-$350
- Ugnaught (with toolbag and apron) - $90
- Dengar (with blaster) - $110
- Lobot (with blaster) - $70
- Han Solo (Bespin outfit) (with blaster) - $180
- Princess Leia (Hoth outfit) (with blaster) - $175
- Imperial Commander (with blaster) - $100
- AT-AT Driver (with blaster) - $110
- Rebel Commander (with blaster) - $140
- C-3PO (w/ removable limbs) (with backpack) - $90
- Luke Skywalker (Hoth fatigues) (with blaster) - $130
- AT-AT Commander (with blaster) - $95
- Cloud Car Pilot (with blaster and commlink) - $130
- TIE Fighter Pilot (with blaster) - $120
- Zuckuss (with blaster) - $125
- R2-D2 (with sensorscope) - $120
- 4-LOM (with blaster) - $300
Again, there were plenty of variations for fans and collectors. The Bespin Security Guard came as both a caucasian figure and an African-American figure. Yoda came with an orange snake accessory or a brown snake accessory. Also, some figures came with different background photos on the front of the card.
THE "RETURN OF THE JEDI" LINE OF FIGURES
With the release of "The Return of the Jedi" in 1983, 31 more figures were released. Yet again, more cardbacks were created as figures were released. ROTJ has:
- 48 backs
- 65 backs
- 77 backs
- 79 backs
Along with their current prices, they are:
- Luke Skywalker (Jedi Knight robes) (with cloak, blaster and lightsaber) - $95-$175
- Princess Leia (in Boussh disguise) (with rifle and helmet) - $60
- Nien Nunb (with blaster) - $65
- Emperor's Royal Guard (with cloak and pike) - $60
- Ree-Yees (with blaster) - $40
- Lando Calrissian (Skiff guard disguise) (with vibro axe and helmet) - $42
- Chief Chirpa (with staff and hood) - $40
- Klaatu (with vibro axe and skirt) - $50
- Rebel Commando (with rifle) - $50
- Biker Scout (with blaster) - $85
- Gamorrean Guard (with axe) - $40
- Logray (with staff, pouch and headgear) - $65
- Squid Head (with blaster, skirt, cape and belt) - $45
- Admiral Ackbar (with staff) - $45
- General Madine (with staff) - $38
- Bib Fortuna (with staff, cloak and belt) - $50
- Weequay (with vibro axe) - $36
- Klaatu (Skiff Guard) (with force pike) - $45
- Nikto (with battle staff) - $35
- Prune Face (with rifle and cloak) - $38
- AT-ST Driver (with blaster) - $35
- B-Wing Pilot (with blaster) - $45
- 8D8 - $42
- Teebo (with headgear, axe and horn) - $40
- Wicket Warrick (with spear and hood) - $45
- Rancor Keeper (with vibroblade and hood) - $29
- Emperor (with walking stick) - $80
- Han Solo (Trench Coat) (with blaster and trench coat) - $45
- Princess Leia (Poncho) - (with blaster, helmet, poncho and belt) - $55
- Paploo (with staff and hood) - $65
- Lumat (with bow, quiver and hood) - $65
Once again, there are numerous variations with many of these figures. While most have little affect on current value, one exception is the Luke Skywalker (Jedi Knight robes) which was released with a green or a blue lightsaber. The blue lightsaber commands $175 today on a ROTJ card, while the green one commands $95 on that same card.
Also of note, Kenner released a boxed set consisting of three figures who performed as a musical band in Jabba the Hutt's palace during a key scene in ROTJ. They are Sy Snootles, Max Rebo and Droopy McCool. All came with musical accessories and fetch about $150 in their original ROTJ box.
THE POWER OF THE FORCE LINE OF FIGURES
Finally, after all three films were released, in 1985 Kenner re-released some of the figures again, but they also made 15 new figures in a wave called "The Power of the Force" (POTF). These figures came on "92 backs" with their appropriate accessories, but they also came packed with an exclusive POTF coin. In all 62 different POTF coins exist, but many were only available via a mail-away proof-of-purchase redemption promotion. These are particularly difficult to locate these days.
By this time, "Star Wars" had somewhat run its course in immediate popularity amongst kids, and many of the POTF figures languished on store shelves. Because of that, many were discarded by stores or returned to Kenner. That has led these once less-desirable figures to be rarer on the secondary market today as evidenced by the secondary market. For instance, while Darth Vader fetches only about $45 on a ROTJ card, he fetches $185 on a POTF card. The 15 new figures for the POTF wave consisted of:
- Yak Face - $2,300
- EV-9D9 - $100
- R2-D2 (with pop-up lightsaber) - $185
- Han Solo (in carbonite) - $260
- Warok - $115
- Imperial Dignitary - $150
- Romba - $100
- Barada - $110
- Lando Calrissian (in General's uniform) - $145
- Anakin Skywalker - $3,800
- Luke Skywalker (in Stormtrooper armor) - $420
- Imperial Gunner - $150
- Luke Skywalker (with battle poncho) - $145
- A-Wing Pilot - $110
- Amanaman - $255
** Note: Most figures were also released on foreign cards in several countries. These cards often displayed text in three languages and are known as Tri-Logo cards. Generally, they are less sought after than U.S. carded pieces and their market values are lower.
During production, several figures were offered as mail-away redemptions in exchange for a certain number of proofs-of-purchase from other figures. Boba Fett, the Emperor, Nien Nunb, Bossk, 4-LOM, Admiral Ackbar and Anakin Skywalker were all mail-aways at one point or another. Kenner also conducted special mail-away offers for an "action collector's stand" and several display dioramas.
Collecting of these vintage figure falls into two categories - loose figure collecting and carded figure collecting. Loose figures are much more common today (since most kids ripped their figures open and played with them). As with any other collecting, the condition of the figures is of paramount importance.
Loose figures with tight joints, complete accessories and perfect paint applications obviously command much more on the secondary market than those with damage, defects or missing parts. Action figures are commonly "graded" (or judged) on a condition scale as follows:
- C-10 Gem Mint - No flaws.
- C-9 Mint - Near flawless.
- C-8 Excellent - No play wear. Tight joints.
- C-7 Very Fine - Very minor flaws and/or play wear.
- C-6 Fine - Noticable flaws and/or play wear.
- C-5 Very Good - Significant flaws and/or play wear. All accessories intact.
- C-4 Good - Heavy damage. Missing accessories.
- C-3 Poor - Totally destroyed. Parts missing
There are professional services (such as Action Figure Authority - AFA) which grade figures as well.
In carded collecting, grading is even more particular. The card, the plastic bubble and the figure itself are all graded. Any yellowing (caused by plastic degradation), denting or scratching of the bubble makes a figure less desirable. Cards that are torn, stained, bent etc are less desirable. Also, cards that did not have the small "punch-out" removed at the top to be hung on store shelves are considered most desirable. These are called "unpunched" and command a premium.
Collectors today preserve figures in various ways. Many place figures in special acrylic cases. Some use softer plastic cases often called "Star Cases" (named after the manufacturer) or clam shells. Professional services such as AFA offer various products as well, including professional options for protecting figures, including UV protected cases.
Some collecting terminology that you should know:
- LOOSE - Removed from package
- VHTF - Very Hard to Find
- NRFB - Never Removed From Box
- MIB - Mint in Box
- MIMB - Mint in Mint Box
- MIP - Mint in Package
- MIMP - Mint in Mint Package
- MINMP -Mint in Near Mint Package
- MOC - Mint on Card
- MONMC - Mint on Near Mint Card
- FS: Factory Sealed
I have merely scratched the surface to "Star Wars" action figure collecting. As well as these standard action figures, Kenner released many vehicles, playsets, creatures and mini-rigs for kids to play with over the life of the three films - not to mention a separate line of 12" figures.
Kenner also offered 3 3/4" action figure multi-packs which have become very scarce on the secondary market today. In 1983 Kenner attempted two brief lines (less than 20 figures total) of figures based on the "Star Wars" television shows - "Droids" and "Ewoks".
You might be asking why I call these figures "vintage" in my title? Well, in 1995, Hasbro (which purchased Kenner) began an entirely new, modern line of 3 3/4" "Star Wars" figures as popularity has once again soared with the latest three cinematic additions to the "Star Wars" franchise.
The most important thing to remember in collecting is - collect what you like. While scarcity and value are what drive the market, don't let dollar values guide your purchases. Some of my favorite figures are "common" figures. For me, "Star Wars" collecting began when I was three years old. When I look at the action figures from my childhood, I remember countless hours of fun playing with my father, siblings and friends. These toys will forever evoke the nostalgia of my youth, and for that... they are priceless. So have fun, enjoy collecting and... "May The Force Be With You!"