For the past twenty years, there hasn’t once been a drought of new Star Wars toys. Before that, though? Things were rough!
Kenner’s original action figure line (the toys us older folks grew up with) ended in 1985. For the next several years, there wasn’t much at all. Collectors grabbed at whatever small dishes were available, like those little metal figures that were sold as part of the Star Wars roleplaying game. Some of us even took to the classified sections in sci-fi rags, searching for dealers to sell us increasingly ancient toys.
For fans, these were desperate times! The retail world had largely forgotten Star Wars, but we sure didn’t. To us, those movies and that universe were as relevant as ever, and there was nothing we wanted on our shelves more than Star Wars junk.
…which brings me to today’s topic. Many of you have likely seen those old Star Wars Bend-Ems figures at one point or another, but unless you were a collector in the early ‘90s, you couldn’t possibly understand why they were so important.
Made by JusToys, the 1993 arrival of Star Wars Bend-Ems seemed nothing short of miraculous. New Star Wars figures! New Star Wars figures that were actually available in stores!
Looking at them today, they admittedly pale in comparison to “real” action figures, which are naturally more detailed. In 1993, nobody cared. We were just so happy to see the Star Wars logo in toy stores again.
Best of all, while similar “bendy figures” usually amounted to little more than goofy caricatures, JusToys really poured their souls into these. You could tie them into pretzel knots, yes, but they still passed as real action figures in a pinch — and especially in an era when no other Star Wars figures were being made!
The line began with only the most popular characters represented, like Luke, Leia and Vader. But with success came growth, and it wasn’t long before we had everyone from Bib Fortuna to Admiral Ackbar to choose from. Not counting variations, there were twenty different figures in the set!
I cannot possibly overstate the warm fuzzies that came with walking into KB Toys and seeing a new Boba Fett figure for sale. With the prequels and even the special editions still very far off, these figures were gifts from the heavens.
By 1995, Kenner — by then under the Hasbro umbrella — “restarted” the traditional action figure line, which in a sense is the same series you see in stores today. In the process, JusToys’ Bend-Ems quickly lost much of their appeal.
Since the figures were produced in such an enormous volume — and since their popularity plummeted so suddenly — they’ve remained cheap and easy finds on the secondary market. Carded figures rarely cost more than a few dollars, and you can buy collections of “loose” figures for a virtual song.
The fact that they’ve remained so cheap even after more than twenty years tells me that to really understand the appeal of Star Wars Bend-Ems… you kinda had to be there.
It’s worth noting that this article only captures the broad strokes. The fact that there were new Star Wars figures was the hook, but hardcore collectors found even more reasons to be excited about the line, from the inclusion of limited edition trading cards, to scarcer variations of the more common figures. (For instance, lucky hunters may have found a rare “silver leg” C-3PO among all of the purely-golden figures.)
In effect, you could’ve collected all of the figures two times over and still found reasons to keep buying them, thanks to variations as minor as which other figures were pictured on the card-backs. Heck, fans even went wild for incorrectly packaged figures — like those that were accidentally carded upside-down. That may sound silly, but it was a perfect tribute to being a Star Wars collector: You were never really done.
If you’d like to learn more about Star Wars Bend-Ems, I’ll point you to this terrific fansite, which details every figure and every possible variation.