With most Toy Fair coverage focusing on the big toyboxes (Hasbro, Mattel, Playmates), it is easy to lose sight of fact that hundreds of booths populate the Javits Center on Toy Fair weekend. The smallest of those booths often do not only represent a product. They stand for an idea. The strongest example of this comes out of Booth 5207 – the IAmElemental booth. I’ve been following IAmElemental since backing their Kickstarter campaign in 2014. Back then, the company proposed a wave of original, all-female, superhero action figures. Each figure would represent a different virtue, with the assortment, based on the virtue Courage, giving young girls an array of original role models. These figures could also act as unique avatars for young girls to enter the fantasy of play that is too often male-dominated. Action Figures + Feminist Activism = How Could I Resist?
Needless to say, the IAmElemental Kickstarter campaign was a resounding success, and CEO Julie Kerwin was in business. This year, three years after that campaign, Kerwin led her company to two Toy of the Year (TOTY) Award nominations – one for Rookie of the Year, and one for coveted Toy of the Year. (The Toy of the Year Award went to DC SuperHero Girls, Mattel’s line of female heroes that came out after IAmElemental, and, some would argue, as a direct result of IAmElemental‘s success.) The company has also recently released Wave 2 of IAmElemental action figures (which center around the virtue of Wisdom), which have hit both brick-and-mortar and online retailers. IAmElemental even utilizes the website shapeways.com to 3-D print new accessories for IAmElemental action figures.
I can’t mince words about this: IAmElemental represents the future of the action figure industry. They’ve shown that third-party creators (meaning people outside the toy juggernauts and movie powerhouses) can use social media and crowdfunding campaigns to make popular toys that not only create engaging play, but fill the social justice void left by decades of neglect for any element of toymaking that doesn’t strictly involve sales. They’ve proven, through sales data, that not only girls, but boys, will buy action figures of female characters, disproving the alleged “fact” that girls don’t buy action figures, and that boys don’t buy toys that represent women. They continue to use online marketing and 3-D printing to efficiently supplement their current characters and create new ones. And on top of all that, they embrace their fans by posting their art on their website and even using some of it in their marketing material.
So I can go to Mattel’s entire floor at the Javits Center. I can gaze at Playmates’ new designs from inside their walled-off fortress. I can walk all the way to the off-site showroom and sit down in the theatre Hasbro has rented for their demonstrations. All of that is very impressive. But that isn’t where toymaking truly happens. I’ll take Booth 5207 over all of that any day. Why? Because, in that small corner of that big convention center, a revolution is happening.
Jonathan Alexandratos is a playwright and essayist who writes about action figures and grief. In 2016, Jonathan did a longer interview with Julie Kerwin, available in his book, Articulating the Action Figure, out this May from McFarland. He and his Removable Helmet are on Twitter @jalexan.