Though many manufacturers are driven by spiritual conviction, some design religious toys solely for humor, and there are others whose purpose is a bit more ambiguous--somewhere between a serious religious product and just plain kitsch. Consumers can find Jesus action figures, a character called Bibleman, Martin Luther bobbleheads, an Armor of God playset, Stripling Warriors and God Almighty figures fitted with an AK-47s.
The Pennsylvania-based Train Up a Child manufactured G.I. Joe- like figures of predominately Old Testament characters--all come in either "light-skin" or "dark-skin" versions. Train Up a Child offers a 10 characters including Jesus, Mary, Goliath and Solomon, among others.
Tom Flagler runs Toys From Heaven, which has a broader range of religious toys. Flagler has been in business for two years, and said word of mouth has produced a steady increase sales. "I really wanted to get into the children's hands something that I felt was morally right," Flagler said.
Flagler, a Roman Catholic from New York, said the idea for the company stemmed from seeing action figures at a toy store. One figure was a large-breasted, scantily-clad woman and the other allowed kids to chop the head off the figure and fake blood poured out. "That's not doing our children any good," he said.
While Toys From Heaven tries to appeal to Christian and Jewish consumers, Jan Van de Merwe has found success despite a smaller target audience. Van de Merwe, who used to design Star Wars and Batman toys for Kenner, owns Latter-Day Designs. The company manufactures Book of Mormon action figures is based in Cincinnati, but Van de Merwe is a Bountiful native.
He started the company in 1995 and has held steady at approximately 30,000 sales per year. He started with six figures, but is currently up to 16. Most of his sales come from the smaller vinyl figures, but there are 6-inch vinyl characters and pewter figurines. "We've kept the figures under $5," Van de Merwe said. "The biggest complaint is that people say, 'This is something that McDonald's gives away in a Happy Meal. Why does it cost five bucks?"
Though Van de Merwe is happy with sales, he is not getting rich. He runs the company from his home and connections from the toy industry help cut costs, but small runs of each figure are expensive. "I'm doing it full-time right now," Van de Merwe said. "This really doesn't pay the bills."
While Latter-Day Designs and Toys From Heaven are attempting to give parents alternative toy options, other companies use the religious platform for humor. The Jesus Christ Superstore has action figures that most closely resemble toys from other genres. The Store, as the managers call it, display action figures from a wide range of religions (Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism). According to the site, the action figures were part of a limited run for an exhibition. It appears the company has plans to manufacture more, but when, where and for how much is all unstated at this point.
The Store uses the motto: "Putting the fun back in fundamentalism and the laughter back in sectarian slaughter."
All the figures from The Store come with weapons with the exception of Allah--"He who may not be shown" has nothing in the package. But Jesus comes with "Ninja-Messiah throwing nails," Buddha includes a "Magnum 66 automatic Nirvana pistol" and wears an "Invincible Holy Orange Cape of Enlightenment" and Krishna totes a "laser-sighted automatic 'Ganesh-garnish' S&W with silencer."
Another tough-looking bunch comes from a more serious company, Thomas Nelson, Inc. The company produces Bibleman figures from the video series by the same name. Incidentally, Williams Aames (of "Eight is Enough" and "Charles in Charge" fame) plays Bibleman, who is "empowered by the limitless might of God's Word." He is "armed with the Sword of the Spirit, the Breastplate of Righteousness and the Helmet of Salvation, this caped Christian stands ready to battle evil and reveal his supersecrets to you."
It may not be a booming industry yet, but religious action figures are slowly finding their place next to Darth Vader and G.I. Joe.