The New Era of Toy Collecting (& What Brands Need to Know)
We sat down with Luke Y. Thompson of Super Hero Hype to discuss what brands get right and wrong, and how adult toy collecting has changed over time
For Luke Y. Thompson, respected toy collectible reviewer and author at SuperHeroHype, the obsession with collecting toys began before he knew anything about resale value, sculpts, or even the characters behind the figurines.
Growing up in Ireland, Luke’s exposure to American pop culture was a little delayed, so he got his hands on an R2-D2 figure before the first Star Wars movie had even been released across the Atlantic. But the artwork and presentation were enough to capture his interest and let his imagination loose, driving him to create his own stories about a galaxy far, far away.
That interest expanded from Star Wars to Masters of the Universe, GI Joe and more. And despite ‘growing up,’ Luke has never grown out of his love of toy collectibles. Instead, his hobby has matured and deepened, inspired him creatively, and connected him with like-minded people around the world.
Brands — especially those in the collectible space — do best when they listen to their fans. And when it comes to understanding toy collectors, there’s no better brain to pick than Luke’s. Here’s what he has to say about the joys of collecting, how toymakers have impressed him most over the years, and what he wants brands (and the rest of the world) to know about the fandom that has defined his life.
There are tons of adult toy collectors, and the hobby is growing
Luke is in good company when it comes to loving toys. The global toy market is forecasted to reach $200 billion by 2032, with collectibles contributing $35 billion of that growth. And more than 19% of toy sales in the U.S. are to customers over the age of 18.
According to Luke, there are a few reasons for the hobby’s growth:
“So many of us middle-aged folk now grew up with toys, so there’s less bias [than previous generations]. But also, toys got better as I got older. If they hadn't, I might not have stayed with the hobby. But right about when I was in college, McFarlane showed up with Spawn figures. And those things were a level beyond the classic Star Wars figures.”
Plus, he says, brands’ target audience is shifting accordingly.
“You know, there aren't as many toys today made with play features. They're mostly made to look as good as possible. And that's because the collector audience is much older. Younger kids now are more into video games and less into action figures. So a huge section of the market is adult collectors.”
Collectible brands can follow a simple formula for success
There are plenty of toymakers out there — but only a small number that manage to incite passion from collectors. So what makes some more successful than others? Luke says there are two simple reasons.
One: hold the licenses fans care about.
“Ninja Turtles, whoever makes them, they're gonna do well. There are several different companies doing Ninja Turtles action figures right now. And more keep picking up aspects of the license Nickelodeon hasn't had covered with other contracts. So Ninja Turtles will always sell no matter what, Batman will always sell no matter what, WWE too.”
Two: offer high-quality, creative builds. In fact, Luke says, some toys are so cool that he’ll collect them regardless of whether he actually cares about the character itself.
“If you don't have [licenses for] Star Wars or WWE or 80s horror or Ninja Turtles or whatever, then you'd better have something that just stands out. The Four Horsemen put out an action figure of Jacob Marley from A Christmas Carol this year. And, you know, Jacob Marley is not necessarily a character everybody wants to own off the top of their head, but there is such craftsmanship in that figure with all the metal chains, and the screaming head, and the translucent parts, that you wanna own that figure — it doesn't matter what it's based on because it is that cool.”
Toys are art, and adult collectors are tired of being misunderstood
One thing Luke wants everyone to know: toys are art, and collectors are driven by aesthetics and appreciation for craftsmanship the same as fine art aficionados.
“I feel like a lot of times certain people, say art snobs, don't meet people where they are. They just say, you know, the stuff I appreciate is great. Yours isn't good. Yours is rubbish. Instead of nurturing that interest to expand that, broaden it. If I appreciate all these wonderfully sculpted, muscular warriors, and then I go to see the Terracotta Army in China or Michelangelo's David, you know, I can appreciate it. You get a kid to appreciate He-Men, they can appreciate Michelangelo's David.”
Plus, toys inspire Luke to indulge in his own artistic endeavors.
“One of the reasons I photograph these toys is I've always seen them as works of art, and I want other people to see them the way I do. I've always wanted people to see them as avatars of the imagination the way I see them.”
And Luke firmly believes that the sculptors behind his favorite toys deserve more credit — although he is happy to see more brands moving in that direction.
“I just like to show off the details on some of these sculpts. Some of the work these guys do is incredible and it's not recognized enough. Companies like McFarlane and NECA now credit the sculptors and, you know, the Four Horsemen kind of became celebrity sculptors in the toy world. Jerry Macaluso is another one. So you do have some known sculptors in the toy world, and I think perceptions are changing.”
Plus, Luke feels that toys are starting to get more recognition for their important place in pop culture.
“I actually felt a great sense of victory when I went to the Comic-Con Museum this year. They had an exhibition on the history of cartoons and how Masters of the Universe was the first cartoon to be based on a toy brand. They had an exhibit cube with Castle Grayskull and all the figures. And I was like, see, these works of art are in a museum now.”
Toys inspire us in all sorts of ways
As Luke explained, adult collectors may not be as interested in playing with toys the same way they did when they were kids, but hobbyists can still engage with their figures in ways that are hands-on and imaginative. “Play” evolves over time.
“You know, when you used to take your toys out in the backyard, you'd imagine things and play out stories you'd come up with in your head — I'm trying to do the fancier version of that [with photography], capturing a moment in the camera and a sense of a character in the story, making it look as much like a character in a story as I can. I had a He-Man figure from Mondo with a clear sword. So I tried to light it to where the sun would be precisely behind the sword. So it looks like the sword's glowing and exuding power. And when I managed to capture that, I was so happy.”
And, Luke says, it’s important to note that toys don’t always recreate characters from existing comics, movies, or TV shows. There are plenty of examples that are the other way around — like Barbie and LEGO, toys can inspire art just as easily.
“If you were an original Masters of the Universe collector, those figures came out before there was ever any He-Man cartoon. I was into those toys before I ever saw the cartoon. And when I did, I was like, this is kind of silly compared to what I thought.”
How brands alienate fans
It’s common enough for adult toy collectors to feel misunderstood by society at large. But what really stings is when that feeling comes from the brands they follow. Luke describes the frustrations that have arisen from brands that just don’t seem to get what their followers care about.
“People were frustrated by the plastic-free packaging that some companies were doing, because you couldn't see the figure inside! My wife likes to leave things in the package. I persuaded her to take them out of the brown cardboard box, but still we have these things displayed on the shelf with the sleeve covering up the figure. So we can't even see the figure. It's not displayable.”
Pricing is another problem that can drive fans away, Luke says.
“Ever since the lockdown, prices have been on a steep rise. McFarlane's amazingly held to a $20 price point on some of their seven-inch figures. I don't know how long they can keep that up, but it's really impressive.”
Luke clarifies that fans understand prices must go up — but some brands handle it better than others, and fans can get behind it if it feels earned.
“Sometimes I understand they'll have to raise prices. Like, when it was clear that NECA was having to raise their prices, they switched from blister cards to window boxes. And I think that was their way of saying, ‘Hey, we're trying to throw in a little bit more value for the costs that have to go up.’ I see McFarlane doing that with some figures, where they'll make it a deluxe and all that comes with it.”
Fans respect when brands make products accessible
Purchasing limited-edition, highly-hyped toys is always a pain point when it comes to toy collecting. And sadly, Luke feels, some attempts to fix the problem have created their own hassles.
“You don't always know if that figure is going to be worth it when it shows up because you don't get to look at it first.”
Plus, Luke reminds brands to account for timing as well as purchasing processes.
“Mondo put one of their most in-demand characters for a San Diego Comic-Con exclusive on sale on the Wednesday that everyone was traveling to Comic-Con. It was like, ‘do you want us not to get this?’”
Finally… what’s Luke’s favorite toy?
After learning all about Luke’s views on collecting, we couldn’t resist digging into his own collection a bit. To our surprise, Luke didn’t hesitate at all when we asked him about his favorite toy.
“I have one of McFarlane's first Tortured Souls figures and it's autographed on the stomach by Clive Barker. So that's in a special case. Clive Barker signed that for me at his home, which I was visiting to interview him.”
Earn more loyalty from fans like Luke
As Luke shared with us, making fans happy goes beyond having the right licenses and cleverest sculpts. How brands sell and distribute products matters, too — and fans aren’t impressed with having to resort to an imperfect preorder system just to get their hands on the toys they want.
By teaming up with EQL and taking advantage of our infinitely scalable, bot-beating technology, brands can make buying collectible toys fair for everyone, which means making it fun again, too. Learn more about how we support some of the world’s top toy collectible brands like McFarlane, and what we can do for you.
About Luke Y. Thompson
Luke Y. Thompson has been a professional film critic since 1999, and part of the toy blogging community since the aughts. He was the first blogger to cover Comic-Con panel by panel for a major trade publication, and has several LA Press Club awards and honorable mentions, including one for reviewing fast food.