Legends of Action Figure History: The People Who Revolutionized the Pop Culture Collectibles Industry

Casey Lau
9 min readJan 31, 2021

The Hyper Room podcast trilogy on the late 90s early 00s independent action figure companies that defined the art form.

It was a time of action figures, polyresin statues and super detailed sculpting and intricate packaging.

A time when Street Fighter, The Muppets and Star Trek were the biggest collectible brands outside of the corporate produced Star Wars and Batman lines.

Long gone is the time of an action figure having 5-point articulation like in the original Star Wars and 3.75" G.I. Joe lines, and introduced an era when anything on TV or any sci-fi or horror movie had a line of collectibles with numerous points of articulation and many types of variants from paint re-decos to the types of plastics they were cast in.

It’s ironic that it all came and went just before the beginning of the global popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As this wave was completely wiped out by 2007.

That year we saw Spider-Man 3 destroy the goodwill the first two installments brought and really did draw the curtain on a wave of nostalgia collectors that started with the absolute frenzy of the Star Wars Special Edition re-releases where George Lucas added new scenes and updated the special effects 20 years after the original “A New Hope” was released in 1997.

And then, only one year later the world was slowly rebuilt by a small film by a small studio with big dreams that would in a decade monopolize cinemas, televisions, computer and smartphone screens around the world.

That film was Iron Man starring Robert Downey Jr. in 2008 from Marvel Studios.

But keeping in mind that this era was not necessarily reliant on what was popular in the cinemas at the time. This was a time when The Muppet Show a TV show that originated in the mid-1970s had come back into style, video games like Street Fighter, Resident Evil and Final Fantasy VII were super popular and 70s and 80s properties like Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, Terminator, Predator, sat alongside The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix and anything stylish from Tim Burton.

This is but a small time capsule of the era of roughly 1997–2007, and one that meant a lot to me and the people growing up at this time who didn’t need Hugh Jackman to tell them that Wolverine was the coolest character ever.

So, please have a listen to these 3 podcasts recorded during the global pandemic of 2020 to encapsulate a very specific time in pop culture history, welcome to The Hyper Room’s Legends of Action Figure History.

These three podcasts compromising lengthy interviews with SOTA Toys, Palisades Toys and Art Asylum — from the 2000s made up the best of the independent action figure producers of the decade. They excelled in sculpting as influenced by McFarlane Toys but also the huge demand for more pop culture product — a lot of it evergreen from that time and 20 years prior and since.

The meteor that destroyed the entire market was a mix of e-commerce, retail mismanagement (including stores like Musicland , Suncoast Video, Sam Goody and Tower Records who all sold collectibles to try and save the dying business model of selling physical music and movies) and the slowness in these companies adopting an online strategy.

It was a time of change and one that defined “innovate of die!”

So in these 3 separate interview podcasts on my show The Hyper Room I talk to the founders of Palisades Toys, SOTA Toys and Art Asylum to discuss how they got into the business, the challenges of the time and the eventual collapse of the market.

It’s very similar what happened to comic books a few years earlier, but for different reasons, yet collectible toys, statues and action figure have bounced back with new players in the past few years stronger than before, unlike the comic book market which is still in a state of decline — proving that people rather purchase a Marvel ACTION FIGURE than a Marvel COMIC after seeing a Marvel MOVIE based on those comics. (This still puts me in awe of J.K. Rowling but I digress.)

Palisades Toys (1994–2006)

The first interview is with Mike Horn, the founder of Palisades Toys (The Hyper Room link here). On this page you can see some of the products he made from South Park, The Muppets, Resident Evil, Micronauts, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Resident Evil, Aqua Teen Hunger Force and other mega brands of the 2000s.

Select product produced by Palisades Toys

An excerpt of my interview with Mike Horn:

“The sort of examination in the toy business of: what’s a toy, what is it? You know, what’s this category? Action figures used to mean “boys five to eight” and now it means something different. And during that window, I was commissioned by Mattel to do a market report on the viability of collectible figures.

They had done a deal with Top Cow and they made Cyber Force action figures. And so they were just trying to figure out, okay, is this a real business? Is this something we should be putting our energy into? And I wish I still had the report.

And I’ll always remember: I was at a meeting and, if you’ve been to Mattel at their big building and El Segundo, I was on one of the upper floors, 30 floors up or something and in a big glass conference room. I mean, here I am, you know, I’m a 26 year old kid and I’ve commissioned this report.

My report said, yeah, there’s a business for catering to this adult collector. And I’ll always remember that in that meeting, the guy who was ahead of boys toys at the time, a guy by the name of Matt Bousquette, who later went on to become the president of Mattel. He said to me, you know, I agree there’s a business here, but it’s not a Mattel business. I mean, if I were you, I’d figure out a way to do it myself. That was kind of like the first step towards getting into, you know, wanting to be a manufacturer this time.”

SOTA Toys (2000–2009)

Jerry at the SOTA offices circa 1998? iMac gen 1 FTW!

The next interview is with the super imaginative right-guy-in-the-right-place that had the talent to back it up: Jerry Macaluso founder of SOTA Toys, Plastic Fantasy and Pop Culture Shock PCS (The Hyper Room link here) — he went from hit to hit and he is ready to get in to the game again. Hear his fascinating story on how he went from being an underage special effects artist for the Toxic Avenger movies to making action figures of Jenna Jameson and her friends in the Adult film industry to defining Street Fighter for an American audience, to making product for Angelina Jolie’s version of Tomb Raider (which Jerry got the license for because Angelina liked his Jenna Jameson figures) and Vin Diesel’s Chronicles of Riddick.

Select product produced by SOTA Toys

An excerpt of my interview with Jerry Macaluso:

“I thought effects was, was my life, but I enjoyed the toys thing more because there was a whimsy to it and I’m, I like whimsy. I’m more of a Jim Henson Creature Shop fan than I am a “Tom Savini Cut your head off.”

And as far as the effects stuff, I was mostly getting gory movies like Children of the Corn, Amityville Horror, worked on one of the Friday the 13th, one of the Elm Streets.

But, yeah, I didn’t enjoy that as much as making cool fantasy creatures from video games.

I was not a gamer at all in the nineties. I just liked the designs. I just thought the designs were cool. As a kid, I was a big, big Dark Crystal and Labyrinth fan and that kind of aesthetic appeals to me more.

The video games, even stuff that was, gory, you know, like Doom still had this kind of whimsical look to it, and it just really appealed to me. I never made a conscious decision to phase out effects and move all the way into toys. It just kind of, by the late nineties, there were so many projects, they were just coming in every day.”

Art Asylum (1996–2006)

Digger Mesch and Donna Costa née Soldano

Finally, the co-founders behind Art Asylum: Digger Mesch and Donna Costa (The Hyper Room link here). Digger based himself in Hong Kong where I was living as well, and introduced me to both Mike and Jerry as it was usually the entry point to do China-based factory production checks and for meetings and showroom tours during the Hong Kong Toy Fair in January advance of the New York Toy Fair held annually in February— he had been in the business the longest and was the most visible toy sculptor at the time. Art Asylum started as a design studio for other toy companies like Toy Biz and Playmates, before raising capital and becoming their own toy company in 2000. We start with their humble beginnings in pre-9/11 Brooklyn and being a bohemian artists haven to raising investment and getting licenses for Marvel, DC, Star Trek and even rapper Eminem! The two co-founders hadn’t been speaking to each other until recently so it was an opportune time to get them on the record to remember those days, that as you will hear, was the equivalent of a massively popular rock band rise to fame, to their breakup a short time later.

Select product produced by Art Asylum

An excerpt of my interview with Digger:

“I didn’t understand how to structure the business plan. You know, I understood how to go out and chase more money, that just leads to more slavery at the end of the day, you’re paying the bills, but you’re not really, you don’t own what you’re creating.

I became obsessive because we were getting blacklisted. I didn’t rub everybody the right way, as you might imagine with my personality and with the press that we got. A lot of the companies that we work for, were like, you know, you’re using our work to get press and I’m like, yeah, I just didn’t understand why that was a problem, but it scared a lot of people.

So Adam Unger was really the one that kind of brought together the Play Along investment deal that was successful. It took about a year for us to figure it out. Jay Foreman and Charlie Emby, very smart talented businessmen had created this company that started with Brittany Spears and that whole pop movement that came out in the nineties, you know, insane Backstreet Boys and a bunch of other bands that I really would love to forget — hard times for music, man.

But, that was that explosion just took over everything, but they were, you know, they were making really good money and I think that they wanted to get into the boys toys market. They saw the value. And so we became sort of like their, you know, sibling company, our showrooms were connected with a beautiful showroom up in New York that was in the Toy Building. And you know, this was high price real estate, like suddenly, you know, one day we were almost out of business and every day was going to be our last day. And then suddenly we had a giant showroom in New York.”

So you can find them on any podcatcher by searching “The Hyper Room” or you can just listen to them below:

The Hyper Room presents Palisades Toys: The Mike Horn Interview

The Hyper Room presents SOTA Toys: The Jerry Macaluso Interview

The Hyper Room presents Art Asylum: The Digger Mesch and Donna Costa Interview

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Casey Lau

thoughts on everything from startup ecosystems, conferences, anime, video games, comic books, digital entertainment to cats and ninjas.