First of all, don’t start—ever. Avoid this obsession at all costs and do something productive with your life while you still can.
All right, let’s do this.
I’ve been a toy collector for over a decade now. I started out with Star Wars: The Power of the Force figures in high school, which itself was a relaunch of the Power of the Force line from 1985.
I was an MOC collector, which means “mint on card,” and that was kind of terrible. The figures themselves didn’t seem worth opening, as the sculpts were run of the mill, and they lacked articulation, and I foolishly believed they would hold value if I kept them in the package. I learned later that for the most part, I couldn’t pay someone to take them off my hands and eventually sold them in a lot on eBay and donated the rest.
I thought I was done with the hobby as high school ended. At the time, when television shows on DVD were a new and exciting thing, I started reliving my nostalgic love of The Transformers franchise through those early DVD sets. As a gift, I received my first Transformer figure since I was a kid: Demolisher, from the then new Transformers: Armada line.
In hindsight, it was an unremarkable figure, but holy hell I loved it. I would endlessly fiddle with it at my computer desk, popping in the included Mini-Con figure into the driver’s seat when Demolisher was in tank mode, transforming it every few minutes. I was hooked.
I started collecting anything that struck my fancy, moving on to non-Transformers lines like Marvel Legends. But there was so much I didn’t know.
So I thought I’d give a quick guide for anyone interested in starting the hobby, some lines to look at it, pros and cons, and things I’ve learned along the way to help save you some time and money.
Tip #1: eBay Lots Are a Great Way to Build a Collection Fast
Toy scalpers are the norm these days, usually lining up in front of Toys R Us or other stores on shipment dates before the stores open, buying a box at a time, and then flipping their new inventory on eBay. It is endlessly frustrating for those of us that don’t have the time or the means to devote to it, but often, you can find people who are just dumping collections on eBay or message boards that sometimes slip under the radar.
My advice is to look for loose figure lot auctions, and try to sneak in when the price is low. You may get lucky! I’ve definitely scored on some before, though you may be getting a random grab bag, with some figures being incomplete or even broken, so buyer beware.
Tip #2: Your Local Comic Shop Will Save You Time, But Probably Not Money
Your LCS is often a great place to find figures that you may have trouble picking up in stores like Target or Toys R Us. Big Box stores tend to have a really hard time stocking things, for any number of reasons, from older figures warming pegs, to inventory simply not being there, and more.
It can be really frustrating when you’re “on the hunt” for a specific figure, and you see 10 of the same Batman figure warming the pegs week after week. But pop by your LCS and boom, that hard to find Black Widow toy is just sitting there, ready for you to buy.
The problem? It’s marked up considerably from the MSRP. There are a few reasons for this, one being that LCSs don’t really get the discounts that Big Box retailers do, or the same bulk in shipment, forcing them to mark up the toy to make any profit on the figure.
The other big one is that usually these are the toys that are short packed, sometimes 1 per case of 12, and thus rare. They often end up in said LCS from another collector, who could easily sell it elsewhere, but chooses to use that store for their own reasons. To entice them, the store pays them a little more for the toy, sometimes in credit, and marks it up similar to eBay or online prices in order to make a profit, since people are showing a willingness to spend that money online. It keeps customers in the store, and off of the Internet, which is a constant struggle for an LCS.
It can be frustrating, since it enables the scalping market a little bit, but paying the extra $10 or $15 can often save you the headaches of driving around aimlessly for something you may never find,(and is sometimes close to what you’d pay in shipping online anyway) and you are helping a local business, one that you might frequent regularly. Many LCSs have discount programs as well, so check around. It’s a great option to have in your back pocket.
LCSs often get lines that Big Box stores don’t, such as DC Icons, so keep that in mind too.
Tip #3: Beware the Toy Aisle Trolls
A term coined by toy reviewer and collector Poe Ghostal, this is something you will often encounter in Big Box chains, and is absolutely fucking maddening and will make you want to punch the world once you know to start looking for it.
Essentially, you have a person, let’s call them a “pissbaby scumbag” who will buy something like a Marvel Legends Spider-Man figure that comes with what’s called a Build-A-Figure piece, usually an arm or a leg, to build a much larger figure, let’s say, Rhino.
The pissbaby will take the figure home, replace it with something that looks similar, like an older Spider-Man figure, and then return it to the store, getting their money back, making off with sometimes both the figure and the BAF piece, leaving the store and the customer, you, screwed out of the figure you wanted.
It’s stealing, plain and simple, and it happens all the fucking time.
Here’s an example from Poe’s site.
How does this happen?
One, employee indifference, and lack of employee knowledge. Big box stores are absolutely inundated with returns, and the employees are usually underpaid and overworked, so when they see a toy come back with “a” Spider-Man in the box and the receipt, they aren’t going to question it, especially if it all looks the same to them.
Two, stores like Wal-Mart have an incredibly lax return policy, and often, the toy will probably sell anyway, so who cares what’s in the box?
I see this CONSTANTLY, and it drives me B-A-N-A-N-A-S. You can try to notify a supervisor at the returns department, and sometimes it solves the problem, sometimes it doesn’t. In my experience it isn’t worth the headache, but your mileage may vary. It also sucks for parents buying toys for their kids, who will inevitably get ripped off by this.
I bring this up, because when you’re first starting out, it’s really easy to miss and grab something that’s wrong without realizing, and by the time you’ve figured it out, when you try to return it, the store might not take it back, for ironically the same reason they shouldn’t have accepted it from the person before you in the first place.
So be careful, and pay attention to what’s listed as included on the box and make sure everything is inside. Don’t be afraid to check in the parking lot before you pull away.
Just like when you’re at a Wendy’s verifying that there’s no ketchup on your salad. The sooner you catch the problem, the better.
Tip #4 : Price Match!
Many people know that Toys R Us and Target have price matching programs. What those stores don’t always shout from the rafters, is that you don’t have to just price match with other retailers; you can also check their respective online stores, and sometimes get a better deal.
The dirty secret of TRU and Target is that they mark up their products in more affluent neighborhoods. So, at a Target in San Francisco, for example, a Marvel Legends figure will probably run you about $22.99-24.99. Outside of SF, in Concord for example, which is 45 minutes outside of the city, that same figure will probably run you the standard MSRP, which for a Marvel Legends is usually $19.99.
This is often the price that they have online, so all you have to do is pull that up, and they will honor it. But be sure that when you’re using your phone on the store’s website, that your “Store Location” is not the one you’re in. Sometimes it will auto tune and adjust the price to match your current location, leading you to think there is no discount.
But also look online for another price, and try to price match whenever possible. Always. Even if you’re only saving a few bucks, it can really add up when you’re collecting a full line.
Which brings me to the best part:
Lines to Consider: Pros and Cons
I won’t do a comprehensive list of what’s out there, because there’s so, so, so, much, but I’ll give you some of the greatest hits, and what to expect when collecting each line.
One of my favorite lines, and a really fun line to collect. Excellent sculpts, wonderful paint jobs, and while it can be a little pricey, it is consistent, and there’s a huge character assortment, especially with the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The packaging is also great, easily reassembled, if a little bland.
Case assortment can be a problem though, with some figures *cough* Black Widow *cough* being incredibly hard to find, while others, *cough* Hawkeye *cough* are so abundant your eyes will bleed purple H’s. Scalpers love this line, and they often learn the shipment dates, so good luck with that.
In Target, if you learn a figure’s DPCI number, you can have an employee scan for any stock. Be polite when asking for this, and be understanding if they aren’t able to “check the back” for more.
Pros: Huge Assortment of Characters, Consistent price points, High Quality Figures
Cons: Case-Assortment Can Be Skewed
Transformers (Any line)
My first love. There are so many variations of this line, but right now the big one is Combiner Wars, which is awesome. Kotaku’s Mike Fahey has been doing some excellent write-ups on it, which are well worth reading.
But fuck, these figures are really creeping up in price, some basic sized figures getting as high as $24.99, which really adds up, though for the most part, they can be easy to find. There’s an occasional rare one out there, especially if you’re trying to get all of the figures to build a Gestalt, like Superion, so your big robot might be limbless for a while.
It’s also a line in love with itself, as it LOVES calling back to old lines and referencing old characters and toys, so if throwbacks and nostalgia are your thing, a Transformers line is a great place to start.
It’s also a toy line that’s been around since the 1980s, so if you’re going all in, good luck. I don’t envy you.
Pros: Nostalgia, Character assortment, Solid Toys
Cons: Price point, Figure Rarity, Sheer Back Log of Lines Maybe Off Putting for Completionists
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Any Line)
I recently started collecting the current line of TMNT figures from Playmates, based on their Nickelodeon cartoon of the same name, and it’s a fun line.
I’m mostly just sticking to the Fab-Four turtles, but one thing I love about this line is how easy the figures are to come by as well as the price point. Most figures will run you half what the other lines I mentioned will, and I’ve never had trouble finding a specific character or variation that I wanted.
While the line is mostly aimed at a younger audience, but it has a lot of fun throw backs to older collectors who were kids during the vintage line, which is pretty neat.
I recommend checking out the Youtube channel of Pixel Dan, as he has over 200 reviews of TMNT figures, to give you a good idea of what’s out there and what’s worth picking up.
The biggest downsides to this line, are a lack of articulation on figures, compared to the super pose-able Marvel Legends and similar lines, and a serious skimping of paint details on figures. Also not a line that you can really open the package up onand expect to keep it. Once it’s open, the packaging is usually done-zo.
One way that Playmates keeps the costs down is by limiting the amount of paint applications they choose to give their figures, as well as limiting the articulation on characters who aren’t the Turtles.
You can see it here on this Raphael figure.
*puts on glasses, voice Comic Book Guys up, insufferablness intensifies*
Look at the difference between the production shots and the final product. There’s a lot of sculpted detail, but it gets lost without the paint and there’s a lot missing, most notably on the weapons. It’s kind of a bummer. The price is right though, and if you’re into customizing, it’s not a difficult fix.
Pros: Price point, Huge & Easy to Find Character Assortment, Nostalgia
Cons: Lack of Paint Apps and Articulation is a Let Down
NECA, which stands for National Entertainment Collectibles Association, and is a horribly boring name that’s almost sinister sounding, is a fucking beautiful company that produces plastic ambrosia.
I’ve talked about them before, and I can’t stress enough how great their products are. I sound like a fucking mouth piece, I know, but it’s true. They produce beautifully sculpted and incredibly articulated figures that don’t skimp on the paint or the accessories for a reasonable price. It makes you wonder why others company aren’t doing the same.
Some of their stuff can get up there in cost, especially the convention stuff, and their selection of properties might not appeal to you, but I’d wager that they can make even characters you have no vested interest in compelling.
Their packaging is usually amazing and very often collector friendly, (meaning you can remove the figure with impunity and put it back in the box if you so choose), and their product is usually easy to find, provided you don’t wait too long.
If I had to give them some cons, quality control is sometimes an issue, and the character selection might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But even in regards to the QC, they have some amazing customer service.
I picked up their Christopher Reeve Superman figure, which is damn near perfect, (you can see it on the header image), though my first go had some brittle legs and it busted. When Toys R Us couldn’t help me with a return, NECA sent me a new figure in a week, without even asking for the broken one back. It was pretty wonderful, and they made me a customer for life.
Pros: Plastic Perfection, Joy
Cons: Character Selection, Occasional Quality Control
One final note: if you happen to come across any children in the toy aisle while you are looking for figures, or they grab one of the toys you are looking for, PLEASE don’t be that guy.
Let the kids shop. Don’t get in their way. Don’t be a dick to children. If you grab something a kid wants, hand it over. I’ve seen so many collectors be complete assholes to children in the toy aisle, and it’s ridiculous. If a parent looks confused or needs help, and asks you a question because they think you work there, (which happens), help them out too. After all, these are toys, and they are meant to be fun. Don’t deprive some kid of joy because you NEED to have that Disco Superman figure.
This is getting long, and I’m going to cut this off for now, but Part 2 will discuss some of the higher end lines you can collect, as well as some lines to avoid, and some fun vintage ones that are easy to collect for.
Got a suggestion that I left out? Collect a line you think others should start? Wanna talk toys in general? Wanna show off your collection? Leave a comment!
Poey Gordon is a freelance writer living in the Bay Area.
Follow him on Twitter at ThePoey for more about comics, Gilligan’s Island 2K1 fan fiction, or decades old Simpson’s quotes. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org