Poe’s Point > An Appreciation of the Ball Jointed Neck

When I was a kid, most action figures had the same articulation: swivel joints at the neck, shoulders, and hips, and maybe a twist at the waist. That’s what you got with Star Wars, Masters of the Universe, Super Powers and Secret Wars, and later, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (though MOTU and the Turtles featured somewhat ball-jointed hips). Some lines were an exception; the 3 3/4″ G.I. Joe figures were heavily articulated, with the aforementioned articulation plus ball joints at the shoulders, head, waist, and hips, and swivels at the biceps in the later figures. But usually, you were stuck with the basic joints.
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that action figure makers–both those of the “collectible” market and those marketed toward children–started to realize the value of a single joint: the ball jointed neck.

(But first, a clarification. There are two basic types of “ball jointed” necks. There’s the “ball and socket” joint, in which an actual tiny ball plugs into a hole in the neck. This joint allows the figure to look in any direction and also tilt it’s head to the side, but depending on the joint, the ability to look up and down is often minimal. Then there’s the somewhat confusingly titled “ball joint,” which allows movement up and down and side to side, but no ability to tilt the head. While the ball and socket joints are my preferred type, ball joints are satisfactory–and a damn sight better than a basic swivel joint. But for the purposes of this article, I’ll refer to both interchangeably as “ball jointed necks.” I’d like to thank the Four Horsemen for helping me understand the difference.)

In researching this article (i.e., surfing the Web for an hour or so), I tried to determine what early toy lines exhibited a move toward standard ball jointed necks. McFarlane Toys is often the leader for innovation in the industry (or it used to be, anyway). But their first line to feature extensive neck articulation appears to have been Interlink 6 in 2001, the same year that Toy Biz’s Spider-Man Classics line debuted (see below). The main character in McFarlane’s next line that same year, Samurai Wars, featured a great ball jointed neck on the main “Samurai Spawn” character. The famous Tenth Anniversary Spawn also featured a ball jointed neck, but it would be a mistake to say that McFarlane went on to embrace this particular point of articulation. It shows up on occasion–for instance, it will presumably be featured on at least the Master Chief in their upcoming Halo 3 toys–but most McFarlane figures, including their recent “Animated” lines, still feature the ol’ swivel neck.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the first company to make widespread use of ball jointed necks was Toy Biz (now Marvel Toys). Toy Biz started out as a tiny toy company that made action figures for the ’89 Batman movie, using mostly older molds from Kenner’s Super Powers line. Later they picked up the Marvel license and over the course of the 1990s released hundreds of action figures based on such classic characters as Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, the Avengers and so forth. In 2001, Toy Biz made a big impact on the collector’s market with the release of their Spider-Man Classics line. The Spider-Man figure of that line featured a whopping 30+ points of articulation (though not all the figures in the line, particularly Venom, were so articulated). The success of SMC led to the creation of Marvel Legends, the super-articulated action figure line that continues to this day (though now produced by Hasbro, with mixed results–Toy Biz/Marvel Toys, meanwhile, moved on to Legendary Comic Book Heroes).

The runaway popularity of Marvel Legends with both collectors and kids appears to have influenced other toy companies in adding articulation to their lines. NECA, who for a while seemed dedicated to the same sculpt-over-articulation approach as McFarlane Toys, began making ball jointed necks standard on most of their figures about two or three years ago (and lately have been producing some figures, such as Kratos and the upcoming Ninja Turtles, with near-Marvel Legends articulation).

Another company to jump on the ball jointed neck bandwagon is DC Direct. I’m not sure you could say that they’re standard for DCD (who seem to keep a very close eye on production costs), but we’ve definitely seen it more frequently on their figures since around the time of the 2004 Batman “Hush” line.

After they picked up the Batman/Superman licenses, it took Mattel a few years to listen to the Four Horsemen’s arguments for more articulation. But now the DC Superheroes/DC Universe figures feature them standard.

What makes the ball jointed neck such an important development in action figure history? Of all the possible joints, I’d argue that it’s the most expressive. An action figure that can look up, down, and cock her head, as well as look from side to side, is much more expressive and interesting than the old eyes-forward standby. Superman can look up and forward while in a flying position; Batman can survey the city below from his perch on a gargoyle. Lieutenant Commander Data can tilt his head at yet another obscure human colloquialism.

I’m not the only one who finds the ball jointed neck to be the most sublime of articulation points. I asked Michael Crawford, owner of one of the most popular action figure review sites, what his thoughts were.

“Ball jointed necks–the belle of the articulation ball,” says Crawford. “There are several important joints on any figure of course, but once you have the basic arm and leg articulation, there is no other single joint that can add as much personality and reality to any pose as a great ball jointed neck. Without it, you can have tons of body articulation and still not get a truly realistic look. But with it, even a mediocre body can be given that special something that makes it unique.”

“As figures have gotten more and more articulated, it only made sense to make the switch from cut joints to ball joints wherever possible,” Crawford continues. “A ball jointed neck is something that can be done even in very small scales, something that’s not true with certain kinds of wrist, ankle or even knee joints. It’s no wonder that we’re seeing ball jointed necks in more and more figures.”

I can’t think of anything to add to that, so on that note, I’ll bring this Poe’s Point to a close. Thanks to Michael Crawford for his contribution to this piece, and be sure to visit his website at www.mwctoys.com, where he’ll soon be holding the first annual Poppies.

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  • I'm just a fan of super poseability. I remember playing with my Ninja Turtles and Aliens figures and wish for the GI Joe articulation but on a larger scale. Then the Spider-man and X-men animated series debuted and I wanted a fricken Super Poseable spidey. Sadly the most "extra articulation" I got was from my favorite Spidey figure the first Spider-Man 2099 figure. He had that keen ankle articulation that just made him the "bomb diggity"… also the web cape was also another fine little bit of detail that won me over.

    Alas it wasn't until I had hit college that figures started sporting the articulation that would have kept me from moving on to Video Games and the internet as my new obsessions. I remember my first MLs were Blade, Thor Series III, and Iron Man Series I. The Iron Man one was just the absolute greatest figure I've ever owned because he can take every pose I've seen him in from various posters, pin ups, and splash pages.

  • I'll talk about articulation a bit more in the giant DC Universe Classics review I have coming up. But like you, as a kid I loved getting more articulation on toys. It warms my heart that NECA's TMNT will have decent articulation (certainly better than the old–and current–Playmates figures).

  • I still lament not getting Raphael as a kid, but by the time I found one at Wal-Mart the figures were over 3 dollars and my parents were not gonna buy me anything over 3 dollars 'cause I lost some expensive Transformer (beachcomber) at K-Mart shortly before finding Raph.

  • It's worth pointing out Takara's influential Microman line had 10cm-tall action figures with ball-jointed necks back in the Seventies.

    (Not only that but they had ball-jointed wrist joints as well.)

  • @FM–That's very true. Japan has always been way ahead of us in toy design. Back in the early 1980s I had imported vinyl Bandai Godzilla figures with levels of detail that weren't seen in the American market until about ten years ago. They were certainly light years ahead of contemporary American offerings, like the Imperial Godzilla (which I also have a soft spot for).