I was going to write a long article back in December 2015 demonstrating why The Force Awakens is just a remix of Star Wars, as Star Wars was a remix of what had come before (kind of the snake eating its tail). But once the movie was released I realized that I was far from the only one making that observation, and the title graphic that I had made already told the whole story, so that was the article. Had I written it, though it would have leaned heavily on Kirby Ferguson’s brilliant “Everything Is A Remix” series (hence the borrowed title). Happily, Ferguson himself has now weighed in on this very topic!
When the new Superman movie by DC Comics/Warner Brothers/Christopher Nolan/Zack Snyder, “Man of Steel”, was released in 2013 I felt about it the way many comic fans felt about it: the movie was nice to look at, but it sure wasn’t Superman. The Superman I know wasn’t humorless. He protected the people. And he surely didn’t kill anyone, no matter the reason why! My Superman was bright, colorful, and happy. He was the “big blue boy scout” that rescued kittens from trees and fooled his friends by wearing a simple pair of glasses. This movie did not do that character justice at all. And in the years since it was released Man of Steel has become a hotly debated film among those that liked it and those that thought it fell short. But recently a few things have happened that have allowed me to view it in a new light, one that ends up being much more favorable to this depiction of Clark Kent. And so this is my attempt to reevaluate the movie, and compare it to both the source material and figure out its place in today’s cinematic landscape.
Now, although I didn’t love Man of Steel, I didn’t hate it. I just found it very wrong-headed. I have had friends who have defended it from day one, but I could never quite seem to understand their point of view. But a few months ago I watched it again for the first time since seeing it in the theater, this time with my mother who enjoys all sorts of genre films. And not having the baggage of knowing the comic backstories, or clear memories of the Richard Donner/ Christopher Reeve movie from 1978, she enjoyed it quite a bit. And seeing her enjoyment made enjoy it a bit more, too. And it raised some questions in my brain that have bubbled up sporadically since then; why did this movie seem to be a rorschach test for those watching it? Which brings us to this past month, which saw the release of the full trailer for the next film in WB’s DC Comics cycle: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Not a sequel to Man of Steel, but instead a continuation of a larger story, the trailer seems to confirm that many of the events people had trouble with in the earlier film would actually be addressed. And might even retroactively color the first film, having shown some of those same events again from a new perspective. And finally, I watched the very thorough documentary “The Death of Superman Lives”, which gives an exhaustive look at what might have been had the Tim Burton/Nicolas Cage Superman movie been made in 1998.
All of these things led me to rewatch Man of Steel again today. And it was almost like seeing it for the first time: I noticed many things that on first viewing didn’t register. So here we go! But first, two things: one, I can’t discuss this without tons of spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie go watch it and come back. And two, I can’t believe that the interpretation of the film that I’m going to detail and all of the events in it were not very purposefully put there by director Zack Snyder and the rest of the DC braintrust. I don’t believe any of it was an accident, even if it’s not clearly spelled out.
I started writing a recap here but it’s so convoluted I’ll instead point you to this one if you need a refresher on the plot. In general, the major complaint is that based on his behavior in this film, this IS NOT Superman. And for the most part, they’re right! He is not “Superman”. He is Clark Kent. Even though this is incredibly self-evident, even though the filmmakers said this over and over, it really did not sink in for me until this viewing: “Superman” is not in this movie until the very end. This is not a film about the character you love from the comics, it isn’t a follow-up to any incarnation you’ve seen before. It’s right there in the title: MAN of Steel. It’s a story about how a man finds himself. He never calls himself Superman and in fact no one addresses him as “Superman” directly. This entire movie is the lead up to him becoming “Superman” and all that entails. You may think I’m just playing with semantics here but read on. It’s almost become tradition that every reboot begins with a retelling of the hero’s origin story. At first glance, Man of Steel is no different. But I would call this almost a coming of age movie over an origin story. True, we see scenes of Clark Kent exploring his powers, growing up, and his first formative “adventure”. But we really don’t see him “get” his powers. The movie is set mostly in present day with a grown Clark who has not yet taken on any of the trappings of a superhero. And the flashbacks scattered throughout the film are there to explain his mind and motivations, not his powers.
One thing everyone can agree on is that Man of Steel is a reboot. But I haven’t seen it mentioned what it’s a reboot of, which is the very idea of a cinematic Superman. It’s funny to think of it, but Batman has been nothing but a reboot of the character every time he has appeared in movies and on TV. From the Adam West version to Batman ’89 to The Animated Series to Schumacher’s day-glo insanity to Nolan’s hyper real Batman Trilogy, every incarnation of the character has been a new one and not based directly on the comics in almost any way. These movies take TONS of liberties with every facet of the character and villains and audience never bat an eye. Ironically, the upcoming Ben Affleck version 1 Interestingly, it looks like Affleck has taken over much of the reigns in how Batman will be portrayed from now on, not Snyder. looks to be the most faithful version to the comics that we’ve seen yet. (Side-note: I know many people will claim that Batman: The Animated Series was faithful to the comics, but it’s only faithful in distilling the spirit of the character rather than any specifics in look or plot from any specific comic timeframe). But every version of Superman so far actually takes it’s cues from the Golden and Silver age comics. It can be argued that Lois and Clark is more like the 1980s comics, but only in that Clark isn’t portrayed as a wimp. (Smallville isn’t like any of the previous incarnations, true, but then, he’s not “Superman” in that one either, is he?) And the end-all, be-all for Superman in the public consciousness is Donner’s Superman: The Motion Picture.
So the basics that people have in mind when they think of Superman have been re-enforced over and over for decades, and when that basic idea is confronted with something new people tended to react by claiming that “they got it wrong”. And again, I’ll point out that I was also in that camp! But the reality is that in comics Superman has been reinvented time and time again. Unlike Spider-Man, or Batman, Superman’s powers actually evolved over time. His origin changed over and over (and over and over again to this day!) Sure, the core idea always survived: Krypton explodes, baby rockets to Earth, grows up to be Superman, meets Lois Lane. But that’s it. His parents, occupation, powers, childhood…most of the details have changed over time. And that core is what Man of Steel has kept, leaving the rest of the details to be filled in anew.
What muddies the water a bit is that writers Zack Snyder and David Goyer are too in love with comics history to resist putting in multiple nods to the past and repurposing elements, rather than creating new ones. So it can indeed be interpreted as “getting it wrong” when you make “Jimmy Olsen” into “Jenny Olsen”, but it’s only wrong if it was meant to be Jimmy Olsen in the first place. These nods run the gamut of classic stories, from a brief shout-out to The Dark Knight Returns (don’t worry fans, Snyder is just getting started with that book) to bits from Birthright, Superman: Earth One, and various other tales, the one story that really informs this new reboot is the one big reboot of comic Superman: John Byrne’s 1986 The Man Of Steel mini-series and subsequent comic run. People forget that John Byrne’s reboot not only removed the convoluted history of the character, but was a shift in how Superman was portrayed and perceived by the populace of the DC universe. In a drastic change from the staid Boy Scout that came before, Byrne kept Superman’s moral compass but made significant modifications to everything else: He is now the sole survivor of Krypton, which has become a sterile, science based society that “grows” their children, Clark’s parents were now alive, he reveled in the use of his powers as Clark Kent, he didn’t become Superman until adulthood (his years as Superboy were wiped away entirely), the rocket that brought him to Earth still exists, he is less powerful, Lex Luthor is a powerful businessman instead of a scientist, Jor-El appears to Clark in adulthood as an interactive hologram to tell him where he comes from, and most importantly, Superman will face a genocidal General Zod that can only be stopped by killing him.
You can see the elements that Goyer and Snyder picked up for their version of Man of Steel. (Here’s a detailed rundown of the comic influences.) But they made one major deviation, one thing that would shape the entire film, and the continuity going forward: their Jonathan and Martha Kent WERE NOT like any incarnation of the adopted parents of Superman we had ever seen. This change is what is going to shape the movie. This is why he is only “Clark Kent” in the movie, and not “Superman”. It’s pretty much a constant throughout the history of the character that states Superman is the “boy scout” that he is because of his good upbringing in the heartland of America. It’s why there was an uproar a few years back when he seemed to renounce his American citizenship in the comics. What Man of Steel posits is that in a grounded telling of this tale, Jonathan & Martha Kent would be terrified of what would happen to their boy if people found out about him in this day of YouTube and Social Media. So the underlying lesson they impart to Clark isn’t “be a hero”, it’s “be scared”. I know, I know. That’s NOT what Jonathan Kent would do!! Except Jonathan Kent is an old man. He died when Clark was a child. He was a passerby that turned the baby over to an orphanage. He’s the one who designed Superman’s “S-Shield”. Actually, there is no one “Jonathan Kent”, there are only many versions of that character throughout the years. And this is just the latest one.
It’s a bold choice, though. I think part of why this was so poorly received is that too much of the Kents’ motivations are left as subtext instead of text. We don’t know what they are thinking, as most of their scenes are interaction with Clark due to the flashback structure of the film. This is really a fault of the entire film: there is something to be said for “show, not tell”, but when it’s not artfully done you need to make sure the idea comes across. Too much of the movie is spent detailing Zod’s motivation instead of Clark, not to mention many of the other characters. There are hardly any conversations in the film between two characters that are not exposition or counterpoints to an action scene. A scene between Jonathan and Martha debating whether or not they are doing the right thing in treating Clark like veal would go a long way to rationalizing their choices (and you can even have little Clark eavesdropping if you need to justify the inclusion in a flashback). These kind of connection scenes are sorely missed throughout the movie. And it’s pretty clear that Jonathan might never have told Clark where they found him; he only does so in reaction to Clark asking more or less if God was punishing him.
As is, their decision turns the character of Clark away from every traditional telling of his origin. He grows up apparently friendless, with his knee-jerk reaction to walk away from any conflict. He’s wandering aimlessly, trying to figure out where he fits in. This would be a good place for another scene of characterization; if we saw him at least keeping a journal during this time it would make the abrupt transition to reporter later easier to swallow. (Side-note: this type of thing is often described as making the movie more “realistic”, but the fact is that there is nothing remotely realistic about any genre film. I prefer saying that it’s a grounded or serious choice, instead.) So the entire movie is not “Superman’s first adventure”, but instead Clark’s journey to get to a place where he becomes Superman. He is not perfect. He is not the “boy scout” yet. He steals clothes, destroys property. He is saving people, but mainly because he’s in the right place at the right time. Most Superman origins show his reveal to the world because he’s making a dramatic save in public (helicopter, plane, space shuttle), but in Man of Steel he is called out into the open by the villain and has no choice.
His relationship to Krypton is interesting, too. The entire time he’s growing up, he’s an outsider. Even if he’s not sure he’s an actual alien, he surely isn’t fully human. When he finds the buried ship and learns his origins from Jor-El is about the part in the movie that you start see him smile from time to time. And then he meets Lois and makes a friend. The argument that “Superman” wouldn’t cause so much destruction and not try to protect people is true as these events seem to be what creates Superman in this reality. Without Jonathan guiding him to do these things, Clark hasn’t quite figured it out yet. And it’s obvious that while he loves his parents, he’s also been secretly hoping to find his “real parents” the entire time. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the turning point of him not really being in the game until Zod threatens his mother. I think it solidifies and clarifies in his mind that he is choosing Earth, not the thing he thought he had been searching for his whole life. Again, these ideas are all under the surface. I wish they had given the script another pass. But there are interesting ideas in there. And they drop hints of a larger history: the empty life pod on the ancient Kryptonian ship, Jor-El’s helper robots that are straight out of Byrne’s comics, and Superman’s relationship with the military, which we’ve never really seen before.
One of the most interesting things is that the traditional version of Jonathan Kent IS in this movie: it’s Jor-El. Jor-El is the one who has hopes and aspirations of Kal as a hero for Earth. He’s the one who tells Kal to protect them, and to be a better ideal. He gives Kal his iconic uniform. Goyer and Snyder even lift some of Jor-El’s speeches verbatim from the comics. And it’s through Jor-El’s interaction with Clark and his sacrifices that show Clark how to be that hero. Looked at it another way, for the first half of the movie Clark is a literal alien on Earth, but in the last half (after Jor-El shows him how to leave Zod’s ship) he embraces his humanity and starts on the journey to fulfilling his destiny as a hero. One thing that opened my eyes to this interpretation was watching Jon Schnepp’s fascinating doc on the aborted “Superman Lives”. Much is made over Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage’s view of Superman as the ultimate outsider, one who feels like an alien all the time. While not as extreme as Cage’s performance would have been, Cavill’s traditional look overshadows this characterization in Man of Steel. We see “Superman” so feel the disconnect. But imagine Nic Cage in the same role as written, and it becomes clearer. With Cavill, instead of quirky we get taciturn. But he is still removed from humanity until pushed by Zod and embraced by Lois. By the end of the movie, he’s learning and adapting to his new role. He doesn’t prevent the mass destruction that happens because he’s trying to figure out what to do. He’s not yet Superman, but he’s getting there. Watching the trailers for Batman v. Superman, you can see he’s wrestling with the repercussions, too.
Now, even with this new point of view, the movie is far from perfect. There are million tiny things to nitpick, but others have done that better than I will. And Goyer and Snyder tend to want to have their cake and eat it too; nowhere is this more evident than the closing scenes of Clark magically being given a job at the Daily Planet when we’ve never seen any evidence that he’s a writer or that he even went to college. In the comics and earlier films, his job as a reporter many exists to get him close to Lois. But she knows who he is in Man of Steel (another deviation that I completely agree with), so there is no real reason to place him there. Not to mention there is no way that the Planet would have already been rebuilt or that Metropolis’ streets would be cleaned up. It’s these little lapses that make the big ones harder to ignore. And Man of Steel has two really big missteps: Jonathan Kent’s demise and the Killing of Zod.
On the face of it, I don’t have a problem with the idea of either event. But the execution is botched so much that it threatens to derail Clark’s characterization and is part of what had led to the outcry against the movie. Jonathan Kent dying is nothing new. In fact, Donner’s 1978 movie set the bar for this, with an elegant script and performance by Glenn Ford that hammered home both the concept that Clark needs to be bigger than himself and than he is not a God, and can’t save everyone. But the ludicrous concept of a tornado appearing on a sunny day, exactly over their location, with the “Dog Ex Machina” keeping Jonathan at the car is just a convoluted mess. It definitely feels like Snyder’s enthusiasm for spectacle overweighed the dramatic potential. A better scenario would have been Pa Kent getting in a simple car wreck with Clark in the car and a crowd of people around. Then he could use his dying breath to forbid Clark lifting the car off him and getting him to the hospital. It would prove the same point and have a greater emotional impact. But as is in the film it is too unrealistic a scenario and one that it wouldn’t even take super powers to solve!
The killing of Zod is another thing that doesn’t make much sense as presented. I don’t have a problem with Superman killing in the right circumstance (although I don’t think they needed to shoehorn it into this movie) and there was a precedence in the comic (Side-note: in the comic his guilt was so extreme it drove Superman into multiple personalities and eventual exile in space). However, Clark kills Zod because he feels like he doesn’t have a choice since Zod won’t stop his rampage and is about to kill a family with his heat vision. That technically should follow his eyes, not his head. So (as many have said before) Clark shouldn’t be able to prevent the family’s death just by holding Zod’s head. But whatever. They also have a discussion in the middle of it, after apparently killing hundreds by knocking down half of Metropolis. So here’s where they try to play it both ways, and maybe this was by mandate of WB or Nolan, but as it’s shown in the movie, we never actually see Zod kill anyone. We DO see Clark snap his neck, though. Is it murder if they’re only thinking about a crime? This is what muddies the argument. Plainly put, Zod should have been shown killing that family. And another one, and another…SNAP! No discussion, just an agonized choice that had to be made. And it should be very clear that Clark is also making the choice that he will be the only Kryptonian, right after finally finding his people. Along those lines, we should have seen the consequences of that massive destruction. There is not a single body, and people are running away as the cars are being crushed by a “gravity wave”. Jenny Olsen should have died. Heck, it would have made a huge impact if Ma Kent had been killed by Zod, and shown Clark why he didn’t have any options. As is, Colonel Hardy and Dr. Hamilton might be dead, or might be in the Phantom Zone. The movie was pretty vague about all that.
All that said, I’m now on board with this DC cinematic universe. Man of Steel had some winning performances, and as far as look goes you’d be hard pressed to find a better Superman than Henry Cavill. One thing the movie was was consistent in its viewpoint, and Batman v. Superman only looks like more of the same. And I’m ok with that…now.
Or, to put it another way, when is green not the right green?
If you’ve bought action figures from Mattel over the past few years, you know that they have had some issues in the manufacturing of your favorite DC Comics characters. But the one that really puzzles me is how often the colors of the final product do not match the paint masters or even the designs as seen in the comics.
Sure, they are the right color, per se. But they are not the right value of that color. And this should be a very simple process: you get a paint master, you match each base color to a Pantone guide, you figure out which parts are molded plastic and which are painted, you send these numbers off to the factory in China, and eventually you should get back some color chips that show the actual plastic that will be used, and what the base plastic looks like painted. At this point you double check the samples against your original Pantone numbers AND the paint master. If they deviant, tweak them and send for new chips. This seems like a pain, but the manufacturing window is long enough that you should be able to handle at least 2-3 rounds of tweaks if necessary.But for some reason, what we see in the prototypes IS NOT what we get.
Case in point is the Superman/Brainiac 2-pack shown at NYCC 2011. The sculpts are great, but the green on the classic Brainiac (seen on the left) is waaaaaay too blue, and waaaay too dark. In all the original comics he was more of an olive shade of green. See the original comic cover at right, and my quick photoshop mockup above of what I think it should be (Note: this cover was Brainiac’s first appearance, and the only one where his boots were pink and not white). I just don’t understand going to the trouble of making these characters and not going all the way to get them right. Amazingly, Mattel actually made his boots and gloves white; their usual process is to treat all white costumes as grey for some reason. It’s a habit that is beyond frustrating, when there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the shade of grey or any purpose in not making the plastic at least off-white. Take a look at a sampling of Mattel DC characters next to a real white Hasbro Stormtrooper figure.
And speaking of color, check out the Superman on the right in the pic above, too. If they had to make yet another Superman (albeit one with short hair with the new body) why not adjust the color on him, too, and give us a classic Superman in the shade of blue that the old comics used? The shade of blue that Christopher Reeve wore in the Superman movies? The shade of blue that was used for the Super Powers Superman figure? You get the picture. Fans don’t want to feel screwed with rebuying the same character, so why not do everything you can to make it feel different?
How does something like this happen? I’ll tell you how: it’s the fallacy of memory. It’s when someone looks at an object and their memory tells them that it is correct because it has all of the right symbols, even if the details don’t match up. This happened throughout the licensing process, but it’s something that is incredibly frustrating to me, as at any point in the process any single person could stop it before it is too late to catch. And make no mistake, once it costs money to change something it’s too late. But before that stage, in the planning stage, in the design stage, in the approvals stage…it’s not too late. But we see these mistakes happen over and over, and not just with the colors. And not just Mattel, to be fair! But Mattel definitely is a repeat offender.
So why do people rely on their memory, rather than using detailed reference materials to guide them? Well, in the decade I spent in the manufacturing world I found the simplest answer to be that they just don’t realize that their memory isn’t exact. Take a look at the image at the top of this article of the many Superman iterations over the years. If someone not familiar with each version was to be shown these images separately over time, the most common response when asked about the details would be that “it’s Superman” and that they’re all more or less than same. And when you’re talking about the symbols that make up the character “Superman”, they aren’t wrong: they all have his dark hair, they’re all Caucasian, the suit is blue with red trunks, cape, and boots, they all have his “S-Shield” on his chest. But every single “S-Shield” is different, the blues are different values, the reds are too, the hairstyles are different and so on. But if you ignore the details and just get the symbols right, anyone would be able to tell you that it is Superman. And that’s the problem for pretty much any character that you haven’t actually studied: Our memory remembers the symbols, but not necessarily the actual representation. I’m going to be mentioning symbols a lot in this article, so click on the image at right to recognize the importance they play in culture. Note: you can do a lot with just symbols! 1
Getting back to Superman, you can see how getting the symbols right but not the details wasn’t an issue when a toy line might only have ONE Superman figure in it. The symbols were all you needed to worry about for a mom or kid to recognize the character. But as the collector base grew in the past two decades to be the main force pouring the sales, being faithful to the details and the symbols is now paramount. Case in point: Mattel continually recycled the same Superman figure without even a revised paint job, often pairing it with a new or revised character. This is fine for a child buying his first Superman figure, but for long time collectors it forced them into purchasing the same one over and over. Worst still, NOT purchasing it, leading to lost sales and consumer dissatisfaction. The easiest way to rectify the situation would be be to simply repaint the figure, chaining the details to match the different iterations that have existing throughput Superman’s 75 year history. If they could replace the head, that would be all to the better! But even with paint alone, all of the mock-ups below would be achievable. It’s just one more area where a little bit more time spent planning might have extended the life of the line even further.
To be honest, these issues would be minor if these figures were still selling for $6 or $7 each. But with the recession and the price of oil skyrocketing in the past ten years, the cost of one mass retail figure has reached the level that boutique toys are at, but without the commiserate jump in quality. In fact, quality seems to have gone downhill in the same timeframe, no doubt due to trying to keep the same profit margin in the face of decreased sales. It’s even worse when you couple the decline in quality with poor decisions on character choices that were made solely to recoup Mattel’s development costs at the expense of collectors. And that’s the kind of “tone deaf” decision making that makes me hate giving Mattel any money. Unlike the majority of toy companies in the past, most Mattel brand managers come from marketing/copywriting, and I think have almost no judgement for manufacturing at all. QC nightmares notwithstanding, it doesn’t seem like any figures ever get sent back for quality modifications, whether it be color correction, making things more on-model, or just getting details right. That they make collectors pre-buy subscriptions online since the fall of the retail lines is really disappointing as a collector.
As a case in point, The Watchmen subscription really, really made me angry. Based on the seminal comic series from 1985, collectors have been wanting a comic-based line of merchandise for nearly 30 years. And for what will most likely be the ONLY comic version we will ever get of these characters, Mattel really did a poor job. Again, I understand the constrictions of not having much budget (because Mattel sucks every drop of profit margin out of everything; NECA could do wonders with the same money. But I digress…), so the scale problems, reuse of existing bodies, etc. are all understandable. Less understandable (and this applies to all DC subs) are the expenses put toward packaging instead of the figures, but we know Mattel loves it’s packaging so that’s a losing battle.
Let me get some positives out of the way: at least they all have new heads. And Silk Spectre and Nite Owl are acceptable. The others, though, are total train wrecks when compared with the source material. Looking at the finished products, it comes back to “the fallacy of memory” when these were being created. And likewise, all of the people defending these must be going off their memory of what these characters look like. Because they don’t look like they’re supposed to. The bottom line is that memory is fine for symbols, but for the details you have to study actual reference materials and continuously compare your product to the source. No matter how sharp you think you are, your memory will fool you at every step of the way. Just look at that picture up there: you can easily tell who these characters are, sure. But for $35 each with shipping, these deserved to be a lot better than the knock-offs in dollar stores.
Before I get into specifics, I do want to address the defenders: I’ve had a few people tell me “I don’t have a problem with it” or “it looks fine to me”. I get that. But would you really choose the wrong version over one that was on-model? Because a good sculpt costs the same budget -wise as a bad sculpt. It just takes work on the Brand Manager’s part to make sure it’s right. And again, I think if you’re not used to having a critical eye on these things it’s easy to see the symbols of Rorschach (spots on mask, wearing fedora) and take that to mean that it matches your memory. And Watchmen of all things have a very specific style, by a singular artist (Dave Gibbons) who didn’t really deviate in how he drew them (unlike, say, Jim Lee who changes things from panel to panel). Note: I’m ignoring the recent “Before Watchmen” comic series, as it’s so new and so all over the map it doesn’t really impact most fans’ idea of what these guys look like.
So, Rorschach: again, his scale is off, but body re-use dictated that so it is what it is. But the head is the wrong shape entirely, the hat is completely off, and his facial pattern look to be made up by Mattel. I went through the whole trade and couldn’t find that pattern anywhere. It looks off from what Gibbons designed, and I get the feeling it outlines his nose with the negative space to make the tampo easier. It doesn’t help that each one I’ve seen has the tampo printing slightly off-center and crooked, a QC problem that could have been easily corrected when they got the first samples back from the factory. If you look at the above image, you can really see how incredibly off this is. I made a quick photoshop mockup of the production figure for comparison. As an aside, every place I’ve worked does these when we get pics of sculpts in, to make corrections and demonstrate what is off for the factory to correct. I have a feeling Mattel only does this for engineering, not aesthetics.
Dr. Manhattan has other issues. His head is basically a generic blue bald guy. Gibbons drew him as being an ideal physical from, so his face is quite muscular and angular. The 4H sculpt has softer features, and the geometry is fairly off, especially the eye area. But even so, I can accept what they sculpted more than I can Rorschach. But then Mattel did a tremendously bad job in manufacturing that sculpt; just look at how misshapen that head is! And to cap it off, the eye deco is even farther off than the 4H paint master AND it goes incredibly soft, not even fully covering painted areas. Couple that with the short stature, bad wrist molding (again, compare it to a shot of the 4H sculpt), and skinny neck, and Mattel really messed up what should have been the easiest figure to produce. (I included a shot of the never produced Tim Bruckner sculpt, to show that even that isn’t quite right, although the overall sculpts for those figures were very good in general.)
To me, this is the same thing as movie likenesses, but people get much more bent out of shape of a movie figure is off-model than a comic or animation figure, probably because their memory of Harrison Ford’s features is pretty strong (but unlike an actor their memory of a comic character is mostly based on those pesky symbols, not details. For example, this new movie Spider-Man costume is the first one to get the webs on his face right. But they were always in a similar pattern, so most people didn’t see them as “wrong”. Again, I digress… But it’s all relative. Most consumers would be more upset over a Han Solo or Batman ’66 likeness being off than a Robert Forster Black Hole figure. Or even a Luke vs Wedge figures. We’re just very familiar with certain actors. The new Brad Pitt World War Z figure is no worse than these Watchmen, but boy did everyone hone in on that likeness!
And that’s why it’s such a disappointment to be collecting Mattel toys. Nearly $30 a piece nets us figures that have lower quality than $10 retail figures. And a big chunk of the problems could be corrected for the same cost! Every place I’ve worked, the mantra was you don’t go home until it’s right. Yes, things do happen. But it’s so institutionalized at Mattel, and for the “biggest toy company in the world” it should be the exception, not the rule. But they are so driven by marketing and selling/branding rather than producing quality product it makes me insane. That thinking serves Barbie and Hot Wheels well, where the product lines are built on endless variations of the same thing but it’s murder for unique figures. Everything they do is built around a sales gimmick, not to mention the custom packaging for such un-custom figures. For toys on such a limited budget, I wonder what the cost is to go to an outside artist? Especially since all the artwork is on the back of the package, and it’s all pre-sold, so illustrations do nothing to entice purchase at shelf (which is the point of fun packaging!)
You might think at this point that I’m trying to make an example solely out of Mattel here. But the truth is that when your company gets to a certain size a lot of the attention to detail tends to fall away while looking at the bigger marketing picture. So now it’s Hasbro’s turn in the spotlight, specifically shining on their current “Star Wars Black” 6″ toy line. For this being the “ultimate” Star Wars line and all, it’s pretty tough not to be disappointed in a few of them, starting with R2D2. He’s just terrible, and for a character that is all hard geometry and has multiple perfect CG models floating around (not to mention the actual digital model from Lucasfilm!) it’s just stupid for his sculpt to be off at all. It must be said, however, at a lower price point than Mattel’s figures Hasbro gives us all-new sculpts and plenty of detail work. The intent is clearly there, it’s the execution that is off on some of these. And I’m only focusing on those that fall short; other figures like Boba Fett, Luke X-Wing, Stormtrooper, etc., are excellent.
Brief rundown of what irks me: Most importantly, the head is the wrong shape. It’s too bulbous. The body is slightly too squat. The “face” details have some issues, as the outer “eye” shape is off and too flat and the eye itself is too big and needs to be off center. A lot of the sculpted details are just a bit wrong (see the shapes of the body vents). The blue shapes on his torso are wrong and too small. Let’s take a look at a photo comparison:
Again, at a glance this looks like R2D2 should. But it’s almost like they went completely off of memory on this guy, albeit a decent enough memory. The parts are there, but all just off enough. His shoulders and legs are too thin, and a bit out of proportion. His ankles are way too thin (the side cylinders are too small and in the wrong place). Mine has one leg longer than the other, so he leans slightly (I stole Daniel’s pic for the comparison, so the one below is not mine). His feet are off model, and the inner feet pieces too small. I think that even though the blue parts are probably the correct color, on the actual prop they are metallic and show up much brighter in direct light and IMO could have been cheated to be lighter (or better yet, metallic paint!).
All of these things would be minor nitpicks that I could ignore if there was just a couple. But all together they annoy the heck out of me for something that was digitally sculpted and should have been near perfect. The head shape really bothers me most of all; I could ignore the rest if that was right. Well, that and the fact that he’s crazy small. Let’s take a look at how tall he should be in a still from the end of The Empire Strikes Back:
You can see he’s a pretty good size, about to Luke’s mid-chest. As you can see in the group shot up above, the Hasbro R2D2 barely comes up to Luke’s hips. Fortunately, unlike with the Mattel figures, if you put in a bit of work a lot of the problems can be solved. And even better, Bandai Japan actually is releasing model kits in the same scale as the Hasbro figures that are absolutely perfect (OK, R2’s feet are a bit too big, but still). The Japanese in general tend to put a lot more effort in their consumer products, and these are no different. The main drawback is that they are actual model kits and do take some time putting them together, along with painting them. And they are kind of light, being hollow and all. But the price isn’t too far off from the Hasbro figures. Check out the Hasbro R2 next to the Bandai one and a Bandai C-3P0, who has yet to be produced by Hasbro. (Side note: I painted the R2 kind of dirty as the only shots that he’s totally clean like the Hasbro version are at the very end of Star Wars. But the model comes in a clean state if one is so inclined.)
The figure that needed the most work (so far) is another one that makes you shake your head that they got so wrong: Darth Vader. It’s hard to know where to begin on how bad their Vader is: misshapen helmet/faceplate, overall bad proportions, silver chain attached to his cape, cape itself bad…it’s really a mess. Again, you can easily tell it’s Vader. But boy did they not pay attention to the details on this guy! To be fair, all three original movies (and the one prequel appearance) had different Vader costumes, with slight variations. Ostensibly, the Hasbro one is based of Return of the Jedi as it has a removable helmet and the tunic is tucked into the shoulders. But it as has a silver chain like the Star Wars costume. To fix this figure, I needed a lot more help than just building the Bandai model kit, which had an admittedly strange cape.
What I needed was a pro customizer: my buddy Joshua Izzo! He ended up slicing up an old Epic Force Darth Vader statue thing from the late 1990s and married parts of it to parts of the Hasbro figure. He made the hand interchangeable, fixed the cape, and then sculpted a whole bunch of detail like the tunic onto the figure. Add to that the Bandai kit head and paint the cape chain black and there you go! A close to perfect 6″ scale Darth Vader figure! And it only ended up costing around $60 and countless hours! Ha ha. Thank you, Hasbro. I also touched up the prequel Obi-Wan Kenobi figure with a robe from eBay and a scaled up head from Glassman that puts it in proportion to the body. I then gave it a much better paint job, although the older I get the harder it is to paint these tiny details. All in all, though, my revised figures make me much happier with the line and almost make me feel like I was designing toys again. I’d still rather all the toy companies just stop trusting their memories and start matching reference materials.
So in the nine years since the first installment of this post, the vintage comic strips reprints has absolutely exploded. I would never have imagined in 2006 that what I was calling “The Golden Age of Comic Strip” would REALLY be a gold age. Seriously, I don’t know how this will ever be surpassed, except that someday everything will be available digitally. But for the quality of the reprints that are being made now and the sheer quantity of titles, I don’t see how it could get better. Pretty much all of my personal grails have been addressed, and a lot of secondary ones are on the way. I mean, we’re on volume 25 of Peanuts! Volume 19 of Dick Tracy! Volume 14 of Mary Perkins, which wraps up over 20 years of continuity, just as that strip’s creator, the very talented Leonard Starr, died last week. It’s good that he was able to see such love for his work at that stage of his life. I’m happy I got to meet him briefly during a San Diego Comic Con a few years ago (as he was chatting with Ray Bradbury!) It would be even better if someone would reprint his run that revived Annie in the wake of the hit stage show. In any case, it’s not unusual now for comic strips to be back in the headlines. There is a Peanuts movie hitting the theaters soon (the first since Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown in 1980), the New Yorker is running articles about Gasoline Alley, you can go on a cruise with the top cartoonists of today, and there is a recent documentary that has hit Netflix and VOD about the gradual fall of the comic strip and newspapers in general, and what that means for the future of the medium.
Having begun as a successful Kickstarter campaign, this documentary, Stripped, is pretty good and for those who haven’t been following the industry very informative. Director Dave Kellett interviews over 70 people connected to the comic strip biz including most of the stars from the past 30 years. But there’s one “get” that is truly astounding, seeing as this person doesn’t general give interviews, talk to the public, or have his picture taken: Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes. I don’t think anyone who was alive during 1985-1995 needs to be told the hold that Calvin and Hobbes has on that generation. Or that Bill Watterson is considered a genius for the way he translated universal feelings about growing up into the adventures of a boy and his (stuffed?) tiger. But since his voluntary retirement in 1995, Watterson has been as reclusive as Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Salinger, not making any appearances, not giving any interviews, just generally staying away from any kind of limelight. He preferred to let his work speak for him, which it did indeed, being continually in print throughout the years. And a massive hardcover box set reprinting every single strip was produced in 2005 with a paperback version following in 2012. And that was it. For nearly 20 years only the strip remained to remind us of his genius.
Until now. Now, suddenly, Bill Watterson seems to be (relatively) everywhere. He is interviewed in that Stripped documentary, albeit in voice only. In fact, he apparently liked the documentary so much he drew the poster, his first published cartoon work in 19 years! He also drew the poster for the 2015 Angoulême International Comics Festival, although he wouldn’t be attending, even though it’s tradition having won the Grand Prix the previous year. And even stranger, but more exciting, he once again graced the newspaper comic pages! In an unannounced guest spot on Stephen Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine strip, Watterson drew the meat of a narrative sequence that lasted for a week last Summer. All of this activity is wildly out of the ordinary for the seldom seen artist but his most important recent appearance is that of a very long, very detailed interview with Jenny Robb of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum that has been published as a catalogue accompanying an exhibit of his work: Exploring Calvin And Hobbes: An Exhibition Catalogue. If you are a fan of Calvin and Hobbes at all, I highly recommend chasing down all of those links and especially the interview book itself.
Even if Mr. Watterson keeps up this welcome recent visibility, one thing you probably will still never see is any merchandise surrounding Calvin and Hobbes. Now, being that this site is mainly about the love of licensed merchandise, you might think that I would be disappointed by this, and possibly pursue that very American pastime of wanting more: more interviews, more cartoons, more Bill Watterson. But surprisingly, I don’t. That hasn’t always been the case. In fact, in the late 1980s I even tried sculpting Calvin and Hobbes myself, for my sister (who still owns these). I wanted merchandise, I wanted plush, I wanted t-shirts, I wanted toys. But Bill Watterson didn’t. Boy, he really didn’t. I’m going to digress here for a moment to reflect on Charles Schulz, a man who did not mind merchandise, or movies, or toys whatsoever. One big reason why he didn’t mind was that he trusted the company who was responsible for the majority of Peanuts products for over 40 years, a company called Determined Productions. While they are sadly no longer around, while Schulz was alive the took extremely good care of his creations. If you bought any Snoopy or Charlie Brown merchandise from the 1960s to the 1990s, odds are it was stamped Determined Prod. somewhere on it. They made books, they made plush, they made the Russell Stover figurines, for cryin’ out loud! And Charles Schulz trusted them quite a bit. I know this because it just so happens I worked for Determined for number of years, mainly designing toys for Wendy’s, but seeing a lot of the overall relationship with the Peanuts brand.
I bring this up because of a story that was told to me not long after I started working there. I was very curious about the history of the company and all the licenses they had worked with, and at one point Calvin and Hobbes came up. Now, this story may be apocryphal but this is how it was told to me, and knowing what we know about Bill Watterson I have no reason to doubt it. Supposedly when Calvin and Hobbes hit big in the late 1980s, Determined wanted to see if there was possibility of manufacturing some items based on the strip (at the time they were making merchandise from a lot of the popular characters of the day such as Felix the cat, Garfield, and Where the Wild Things Are). But they had no way of contacting Watterson directly, as he wasn’t returning correspondence sent to his syndicate. So they asked Charles Schulz to give an introduction, which he did, writing a letter extolling the care and craftsmanship that Determined gave to all of his characters. They created detailed prototypes of Calvin, Hobbes as a tiger, Hobbes as a stuffed toy, and Spaceman Spiff (which I was told were magnificent) and sent them off with Schulz recommendation. And then they heard nothing. Nothing at all for weeks. Until one day they received a package…that contained no correspondence of any kind, just the cut up remains of the plush prototypes. Thus ended their pursuit of that license.
I’ve thought about this story off and on over the years. The severe reaction to Determined’s overture intrigues me, and the older I get the more I realize that very few things in the world reman untainted or uncompromised. But this beloved comic strip has. And when you read the few times that Watterson has explained himself you see that it wasn’t an easy fight, that he had to battle over and over until he won the full rights to his creation that he was able to protect it fully. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy he’s peeked out for a bit and I’d welcome the occasional artwork, but I think now after 20 years since the end of Calvin and Hobbes I’ve come around to agreeing with his viewpoint. Calvin and Hobbes is a perfect creation; to try and extend it or make anything that takes it out of the realm of comic strip would change it. And not, I think, for the better. So let’s just leave it alone. No more websites about Calvin and Hobbes, no more “peeing bumper stickers”, no more documentaries about what the strip means to everyone. Let Peanuts have the big movies. I’ll be content occasionally taking one of those books off the shelf and letting my imagination take me to places that no movie ever could. Just like Bill Watterson wants it.
Here’s the thing: San Diego Comic Con is no longer about comics. Yes, I know this is not news. Many, many, many people have pointed out what a shame it is that movie, tv, and toys have taken over the con in the past decade. I am not necessarily one of those people: I enjoy the con more for the broader scope and the inclusion of hollywood. I especially like that SDCC has replaced Toy Fair as the place to celebrate collectors and unveil new toys for the year (although I really wish companies could figure out how to keep a lid on news better so there were more genuine surprises).
Fantagraphics has spent over two years negotiating with Disney over these reprints. And while Carl Barks’ and his Ducks comics are well-known and revered, a much smaller group of people is aware of the seminal work done by Gottfredson on Mickey Mouse. These strips are pretty much the last of the “greats” to be reprinted, in what is now the Golden Age for classic comic strip reprints. What is big about this news is that these strips have NEVER been reprinted uncut before, and many of them not at all. Think about that: for 70 years, Disney has let some of the best work featuring their flagship character go unseen. Can you imagine if Marvel had never reprinted the Ditko Spider-Man issues, except in compilations? Sure, many individual stories have been chopped up into comics over the years, but these stories were heavily edited, rewritten, and relettered.
While it remains to be seen if Disney can bring themselves to go through with a hands-off policy, Fantagraphics has the best shot ever to not only show these strips as they were originally seen (and from all accounts, Disney keeps excellent copies of everything in their morgue, so they’ll look better than anyone has seen them) but do so in a great presentation, judging by their treatment of Peanuts and Popeye among others. I’m just hoping that Disney sees that these are of historical value and let’s Fantagraphics reprint EVERYTHING, warts and all.
Now where are those Gottfredson Mouse & Friends toys?!?
Original Post –
If there is one thing I enjoy collecting more than toys, it has to be books. I like books in all shapes and sizes, but mostly concentrate on biographies, books on history, art, and films. But one genre is the most near and dear to my heart: compilations of classic comic strips.
But the one strip that really grabbed me (outside of Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey and Carl Bark’s Duck stories) was the absurdist fantasy world of E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre, aka Popeye (At one point, I thought I would even make the ‘definitive’ Popeye website!). Now, growing up with classic cartoons on tv every afternoon in the 70s had given me an already healthy appreciation of the spinach-eating sailor. But that Popeye was nowhere near as rich a character as the one to be found in the original run of comic strips. Sadly, what passed for Popeye in the comic pages of the day was a pale imitation of ‘gag-a-day’ strips done by Segar’s old assistant, Bud Sagendorf. And Popeye was by no means alone in this regard: Mickey, Moon Mullins, Barney Google (now Snuffy Smith) and others had all been reduced to simple comedy, eschewing more complicated continuities and abdication almost all storytelling to comic books and TV. Even those strips like Dick Tracy and Mary Worth that still continued to run longer storylines couldn’t hold a candle to their glory days. And don’t even get me started on the newspaper version of Spider-Man, where sometimes it took weeks for Peter Parker to walk out of his apartment door!
But it turned out that I was in luck! I was growing up at just the right time, as numerous publishers had seen fit to reprint selected titles from the Golden age of newspaper strips, most likely in response to Bill Blackbeard’s Smithsonian volume. Shel Dorf was reprinting numerous title with his Blackthorne label, Bill Blackbeard was covering Wash Tubbs & Easy (and an ill-fated attempt at reprinting the Gottfredson’s Mickeys), Another Rainbow was publishing a massive B&W Carl Bark’s Library, and Kitchen Sink was undertaking the first comprehensive reprinting of Li’l Abner, from 1934 to 1977! Even better, Fantagraphics begin publishing a magazine devoted to comics strips, Nemo, a selection of Little Orphan Annie books, and the jewel in the crown: The Complete E.C. Segar Popeye. I gobbled up all of these books and devoured them time and again. The intricacy of the art and the cinematic nature of the storytelling all left me lamenting the state of the modern comics page. But at least I had the reprints…for a time. By the early 90s a shift had taken place. Video games and “grim ‘n gritty’ comics were crowding out simpler fare, and by the middle of the decade even the last of the reprints had died out. Collections of classic strips would be all but forgotten. But there were a few signs of life: DC Comics had been publishing archives of Will Eisner’s Spirit since the late 90s, and in recent years both Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side debuted single volume collections that contained EVERY strips from each’s respective runs. But classic strips still had not gotten their due. Until 2004, that is. That’s when our old friends at Fantagraphics were able to fulfill a lifelong dream of theirs: comprehensively reprinting Charles Shultz’s Peanuts in chronological order (which amazingly had never been done). The sales of these initial volumes far exceeded expectations, leading to a new boom in reprints- not only are the old strips being rediscovered, but this time around (unlike in the 80s) they are being given the upscale designer treatment with heavy stock, handsome covers, and in some cases full color Sundays at the original publication sizes.
In the past year we’ve seen new editions of Buz Sawyer, Peanuts, Gasoline Alley, Dennis the Menace, Dick Tracy, Mary Perkins, Li’l Abner, Steve Canyon, and yes, Popeye, finally printed in a huge edition complete with color Sunday pages. And even more are coming in the future? Who knows. Even though I really would like to see someone tackle Annie and Moon Mullins, my biggest wish would be for Disney to recognize the market out there for a quality B&W reprinting of the Mickey Mouse strips in chronological order. They’ve never been reprinting unedited since publication. But with sequences like this they probably will never have the guts to release it. Which is why I blew a few hundred bucks last year on decent quality xeroxes of the fabled Comic Buch Club Germany portfolio. Still, I’d much rather have a nice clean official version. If these compilations continue to do well in the marketplace, I may yet get my wish someday. And they we might even see toys based on the classic Gottfredson Mouse and Barks Ducks! Oh, and if you really want a good look at the sorry state of today’s comic strips, why not give The Comics Curmudgeon a read?
Welcome to part three in my series of reminiscing about the old days of concepting for Star Wars items that never were made. Except some of these were actually made! Amazingly, this post is following the last one not even a year later, which is a lot better than the four year gap between part one and part two. Unfortunately, this installment isn’t quite as fascinating as those first two, from the stand point of seeing a lot of crazy concepts that may or may not blow your mind. But it might be fascinating from the standpoint of taking a look behind the curtain at the process these things go through on the way to store shelves. Go check out the first two installments here and here if your memory is hazy on the events that came before. And here’s a look at some rejected mini-figures that would have gone in bags of chips, and our abandoned Jabba beanbag.
Of course, I’m writing this in part because I have Star Wars on my mind with the news last week that Lucasfilm is being bought by the Walt Disney Company for 4 Billion dollars. Y’know, in normal conversation that sounds like some kind of hyperbole or crazy exaggeration. But no, they are paying $4 BILLION for all of George Lucas’ companies and legacies. I guess what I’m trying to say is: Disney, if you’re looking for ideas for merchandise to reclaim some of that investment… give me a call! But I digress. Ok, so when last we left our story, my team and I had just landed the job of making Life Size Star Wars characters to promote Episode One: The Phantom Menace in stores for Pepsi. While good news at the time, I would end up spending months living in China, staying in the factory every day overseeing many people as they made thousands of full size replica Jar Jars and Yodas in less time than an action figure normally takes to be manufactured and at the cost of a typical deluxe Hot Toys figure. And we did it! That’s a tale for part four of this series, though.
For now, we’ll concern ourselves with what happened once I was back in the states, and The Phantom Menace was about to hit theaters. Pepsi was happy with our work, Lucasfilm was happy with our work (and we were now approved vendors!) and we had established good factory relationships. And even thought the movie was nearing release, there were still a lot of opportunities to extend the license with some of our current clients, along with others that already had part of the Star Wars license. And even though at this point we were nearing a year of being immersed in Star Wars every day, we still had enough enthusiasm to tackle a new challenge. The only obstacles now were being totally mentally drained when thinking about the movie (this only intensified after we actually SAW the movie; my thoughts on that experience also in a later blog) and that instead of having a blank canvas to work with, we would now be concepting for companies that made “home goods”. You know: Toothbrushes. Soap. Bandages. All things that scream, “we need Star Wars branding!” And, of course, they did!
You can tell at this point that we were stretching things. But when designing these types of functional products, you are faced with two things: one, that no matter what you design, they’re going to end up going with character toothbrushes because people in general are scared to try new things, and two, whatever you make needs to be functional, usable, and safe. So right off the bat you’re limited. But we had been working with these characters now for long enough to understand what we could and couldn’t get away with, and what made sense to propose. You’ll also notice that by now the great artists Kerry Gammill and Keith “Kez” Wilson were fully on the team and the quality of the art went up considerably. (Not that we had “bad” art before, but these guys are really good.) For whatever reason, we didn’t take anything to color for these concepts. Probably because we had established relationships with the companies, and they didn’t need to see the art as polished at the concept stage. I know there were at least one more batch of rough concepts that are not here (things like bath clings and Pod Racer soap-on-a-rope. If I ever find those pieces I’ll update this blog). And these are in no particular order. I know we didn’t pitch them all at once, but I can’t remember when we did what at this point. Just know they were pitched right before and/or right after the movie’s premiere in May 1999.
So with all of those ideas being presented, what did we end up making? Character toothbrushes! Yes, Colgate came back and asked for straightforward character sculpts. And we were happy to provide them! First, we did a series of character designs in color. Then, after some back and forth with both Colgate and Lucasfilm, we narrowed those down and refined the poses. R2D2 got dropped, Darth Vader was added, Anakin gained his helmet, and Yoda lost his vine cave. Interestingly, when it got down to the final mix we lost Amidala at the sculpting level, and Yoda got his vines back, as we ended up making the Empire Strikes Back version of Yoda, NOT the prequel one. Probably so that Darth Vader wasn’t the only original trilogy character. And while Darth Maul made it all the way to sculpt and paint master, he was dropped before they went into production. Looking back, I have absolutely no memory of why this happened. Maybe they thought he was too scary for kids to brush with? Or maybe with his bad teeth, he was a poor role model for good hygiene? The answer is lost to the ages. We ended up not making any of the bandage items, although Curad sure went all out with bandages.
Speaking of paint masters, here is a funny story of what happens during a normal production cycle (for you kids out there who wonder how your precious toys can have mistakes by the time they hit the store pegs). So the sculpts were being handled by a major design house who shall remain nameless (and let me state at the outset that they did wonderful work, and continue to do wonderful work to this day). Because of their relationship with Lucasfilm, they were able to handle all approvals as each piece was being made, which streamlines the process considerably. As long as we were kept in the loop (we were) then each item can be modified as it’s being worked on. So they four characters were completed, and painted, and approved. Everyone is happy. We send the masters off the China for the factory to start production. And then I get a call from the factory. They are puzzled, and somewhat agitated. Well, it turns out that the painter who painted our wonderful prototypes misread the specs. Instead of having 40 paint apps TOTAL, he thought we had a limit of 40 paint apps PER CHARACTER. And, of course, that is what they showed Lucasfilm for approvals. And now the factory is telling us that we do not have the budget to make these anywhere near so extravagant. So now I have to get on a call with our contact at Lucasfilm, with the painter, and explain as nicely as possible that those awesome toothbrushes they thought they were getting was more of an “April Fools!”
Luckily, this is where having good relationships really comes into play. Lucasfilm couldn’t have been nicer, considering the mishap. Looking at it from their point of view, it could have easily looked like we were trying to pull a “bait & switch”, and shown nicer product for approvals and then begged forgiveness once it was made and too later to fix (i.e., spend more money). And we all know, this happens more often that companies would care to admit. Still, looking at the original paint masters (on the left of each production sample below), it’s a shame we couldn’t get those extra paint apps. The other pictures are of carded samples, and one of the Darth Maul test shots along with durometer tests of Darth Vader and Yoda in translucent plastic. (Durometer measures the hardness of the plastic. You want it hard enough to be durable, but not brittle and easily shattered.)
So at this point, it’s nearing the end of the Summer 1999, Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace has broken some records and left general confusion amongst fandom. We are tired, but now we get the word that it’s time to think about the video release! These days, end of Summer would be far too late to be starting the design process as the average video window in mere months following the general release. 12 years again, however, we were still in the dusk of the age of VHS, and The Phantom Menace didn’t hit on home video until April 3rd, 2000. (The dvd release was still some time away). Two clients wanted us to work toward designing items that would celebrate the video and incent consumers to buy one (Really? Star Wars fans need encouragement to spend money on Star Wars? A very interesting theory.) Blockbuster wanted to explore something that could be packaged with the video if bought in-store. After batting around a number of concepts, many recycled from our earlier pitches to Pepsi, we landed on collector coins with a planet display case. This idea was based on the old Power of the Force coins; there was much internal debate over how close we should make them to the 1980s coins made by Kenner. Ultimately, Blockbuster wanted a higher perceived value so we went with real gold plated coins with a metallic base and a hologram in the lid (Ha ha! The 1990s were goofy!). This got as far was a working prototype being made, but the idea died there for more reasons I can’t remember. I also don’t remember if all of the coin prototype was original, or kit-bashing from existing pieces. It obviously owes a lot to the Kenner Planet Balls that were just being made for the action figure line. Blockbuster ended up just ordering a lot of life size Yodas to be store displays, minus the base that the Pepsi one had.
Speaking of Pepsi, they were the other client who wanted some sort of store display to herald the video release (along with chips and soda). After the very involved production of the life size characters, we all wanted something easier and cheaper, so it was decided that this would be a more traditional paper display that could go in Walmart or similar vendors. We designed a fair number of concepts, and then made full size mock-ups to make sure that they would work and figure out how large to make each one, and how it would actually interact with stacks of Pepsi cases. They ended up picking the Pit Droids fooling around with a TV over any of the main characters. Sure, why not? It would have a base wrap made up of junk from Watto’s junkyard, and we even were able to put a tiny motor behind it, so that they’re arms and legs moved. I’m not sure that I ever actually saw this display in stores, but that’s nothing unusual. I’ve designed a lot of chip, soda, and candy displays over the years and I’ve probably only seen 10% in stores, if that.
In any case, at this point I was all Star Wars’d out. Two straight years of messing with Jabbas and Pit Droids and Jar Jars sorely tested my love for the brand. Today, I’m much more at peace with the prequels and the Star Wars phenomenon in general, and am actually looking forward to see what Disney does with it all (Seriously, Mr. Iger, call me.) That’s just about it! Look for part four (the final chapter)…um…sometime before the new movie in 2015. And as always, huge props go out to my former buddies in the trenches, who came up with all this stuff and fought to get it made: Steve Ross, Mike Hawkins, Kerry Gammill, Keith Wilson, Laurie Brownlow, Mark Mears, Mike Flecker, Amy Wagner, Keith DeWaters, Mike Dethloff and Brad Weston.
So, with the big breaking news of Disney buying Lucasfilm, I’ve been in a Star Wars mood these past few days. I may just break down and write the next chapter of the “Unproduced Star Wars Concepts” saga. To be honest, it’s taken me so long to revisit it because this has been a very busy year at my day job. In fact, today is the first day I’ve had off in over two months! And of course, the concept of “not working” is alien to me now, so when a goofy mash-up idea popped into my head I immediately sat back down at the computer to flesh it out, instead of grabbing some much needed rest time.
Still, this was an enjoyable few hours creating what are more or less virtual customs. And no paint & sculpey mess that comes with the regular kind of customs! Anyway, it’s an odd idea, but a fairly self explanatory one. Hope everyone enjoys it.
*a few caveats: Yes, I know the second series should be The Legendary Super Powers Show, with Galactic Guardians being third. But I took a little artistic license based on what fit the respective logos better. Apologies to the anonymous cosplayers whose pics I snagged. If this is you, send me your name and I’ll credit you! (Plus keep an eye out for a cameo by our very own Danny Neumann as Plastic Man, plus Allen Hansard as Firestorm and Brian Parsley as Green Arrow!). And finally, I really hate to watermark these, but we all know they are going to go around the web without attribution immediately. Even worse, I don’t want folk selling these on ebay as custom cardbacks. If you want to put these on your website, feel free, but please link back toÂ this blog post so people can see where they came from.
Every time one of these big budget superhero movies is announced there is a process of fear that fans go through. Will it get a good director? Will they get the casting right? And what is the costume going to look like? This last bit has probably cause more anxiety and grief than any other element. Because the costume of the superhero defines them. In large part, it is what accounts for their popularity, as it is the instant visual hook that initially draws in the reader, garishly jumping out from the cover of a comic book.
It’s odd then that this is the one area where filmmakers keep getting the genre wrong. Over and over we see either wild departures from the comic look, or bad attempts to translates what works on the page into something that has no business existing in real life. And don’t get me started on Warner Bros., who can’t seem to figure out the genre at all if Christopher Nolan isn’t involved. Most of the attempts fall somewhere in between, though. The one studio that seems to have really been nailing it, though, is the one that actually owns the characters: Marvel. Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk have all been very true to the spirit of the character, if not the exact letter. And the Avengers movie looks to continue the trend, with a pretty faithful Ultimate Hawkeye outfit along with Black Widow. Except for one small thing: Captain America, the ostensible star of the picture.
In a movie filled with characters in black leather and military gear, Cap stands out. Not in a good way, though. His Avengers outfit has been described as everything from pajamas to bad cosplay. His World War II outfit, while not remotely “comic accurate”, was a very good design. It felt appropriate enough for the period and cut a really nice figure onscreen. (Personally, I liked his more realistic “temporary” outfit even better). And in that movie the filmmakers even pointed out how ludicrous a straightforward adaptation of a comic book outfit looks on screen. It’s crazy how similar his new costume looks to the “fake” one!
So why is that? What is the difference between the stand alone films and the Avengers? I mean, they definitely share the same producers and concept artists. But they don’t share the same directors. And in my opinion this is the make or break element shared by all of the superhero movies that work or don’t work.
Let’s start by stating the obvious: you need a strong director with a singular vision to shepherd these films through what is a very arduous process even when everything goes right. Sometimes you get lucky and an unorthodox choice really meshes with the material (Jon Faverau on Iron Man, Kenneth Branagh on Thor, Richard Donner on Superman) and sometimes you don’t (Gavin Hood on Wolverine, Martin Campbell on Green Lantern, anyone who isn’t Dick Donner on Superman). But this is what’s needed to just make a good film. To make a good superhero film that satisfies everyone, you need more than that. You need a good designer.
That doesn’t mean just the guy behind the scenes sketching out storyboards. You need a director who is a good designer in their own right or at least one who has a very strong sense of design and can guide the artists who are creating this world. Now, there are many fantastic directors who are not necessarily good designers but are good at surrounding themselves with talent. I would put Steven Spielberg in this category along with Christopher Nolan. They are very much defined by their shooting styles, not by the designs of what is on the screen. However, they are able to collaborate so well with the designers that their vision is carried out exactly how they want it. But the actual look of things varies from picture to picture.
This is not the case for directors who have a very strong sense of their own style and are most often artists in their own right. Think of Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Walt Disney, Orson Welles, Jim Cameron, Ridley Scott, David Fincher. The look of their films, and every element in them, are clearly the vision of one person. The one director who possibly straddles this line is also the one most responsible for bringing back fantasy design into motion pictures: George Lucas.
Lucas was himself an artist, but apparently one who stopped creating art early on in his career. He did have a singular vision, however, and he did recognize both talent and good, clear design. I want to point out here that the word “designer” is not interchangeable with “artist”. Today especially, you have phenomenal artists working in the film industry. The advent of digital tools has allowed concept art to be as close to photo real as ever and the ability to change, revise, and complete a design takes a fraction of the time it used to. But I think even a lot of directors get confused by the good art they see into thinking it is also good design.
It is fitting that as I was writing this I found out that Ralph McQuarrie had passed away. One of the most important reasons for the initial success of Star Wars was that the entire universe was a cornucopia of great design. Every ship, every environment, and nearly every character in the film was instantly iconic. Studios and licensors keep wanting each new blockbuster film to sell the amount of toys that Star Wars does, but even now there has yet to be any movie that offers such great designs as the original Star Wars films do. And much of that is due to a handful of people, chiefly among them Ralph McQuarrie (and if you don’t know who he is I urge you to click on that link and go look at his artwork) and Joe Johnston.
I think the Star Wars prequels were hurt by not having designers of the caliber of McQuarrie and Johnston working on them. Arguably, Lucas had a better group of artists this time around. But their designs didn’t have the same kind of impact. Don’t get me wrong, there were incredible designs throughout all three prequels. But that has more to do with George’s vision and less to do with the designers (one exception is Iain McCaig, designer of Darth Maul, Watto, and many of Padmé’s signature outfits). Nearly all of the creatures are perfunctory, the same for most of the alien designs. Where is the Darth Vader? The Chewbacca? The Bantha? So many characters in the original trilogy are on screen for just a few moments, but they live long in the memory due to their design genius. The same goes for the spaceships, and the set interiors.
The other big difference between the original trilogy and the prequel designs is that few of the designs were “final”when they left the artist’s pen. The initial direction was handed over to very specialized designers who they adapted the concepts into their own style as they were fully realized into the real world. The amazing sets and environments were finalized by Norman Reynolds. The creatures and makeup were handled by Stuart Freeborn (with the stop motion ones translated by Phil Tippet). The costumes were designed by military historian John Mollo. All of these elements were necessary to go from a good idea to a great design. Just look at what Freeborn brought to Yoda’s design, to state just one example. These days it is too easy to go straight from the very detailed artist comp straight to the actual creature/costume/prop. And I think something is lost in the lack of translation. Just because art is pretty does not make it good design. And coming full circle, the Captain America film was directed by Joe Johnston, who is responsible for the final design of Boba Fett, the AT-ATs, the Snowspeeder, and the movie Rocketeer. This guy understands what it takes to have design work for the character.
And if you don’t have a director who has that eye for design you are left with nothing to latch on to and take away as you think back to the movie later. This does not necessarily make for a bad film. I think J.J. Abrams is one of those who does not have a strong design sense. I defy you to remember the details of any of the creatures or ships in the latest Star Trek film. But I think the film itself was very enjoyable. It just didn’t sell any toys. And unfortunately, I think Joss Whedon falls in to this category as well. He is obviously a gifted writer and he knows how to clearly lay out set pieces and ensemble casts. But is there anything in his past films that stands out as iconic? I mean, Firefly is fun but the costumes were all derivative western/steampunk. The spaceships were instantly forgettable (contrast that with even McQuarrie & Johnston’s work in TV’s Battlestar Galactica, easily remembered 30 years later).
That Captain America’s costume went through testing and on to film looking like that is insane. Normally, I would be withholding judgement until seeing it on film, but it looks no less goofy in the trailers than it does in still pictures. I’m going to assume that up until the final stages his ears were showing, as all of the licensing art and even some of the toys still have his ears sticking out. But even minor corrections to this design would have grounded the character and integrated him better with the rest of the cast, instead of looking like he popped in from some 80s tv movie. Heck, it already looks better once it starts getting dirty and he loses the cowl. But it could be better from the get go. Check out the picture below to see a few of the changes I made in photoshop in about 20 minutes.
First, drop the cowl if it can’t be one piece, and expose the neck (why is the toughest character the only one whose head is unexposed?). This takes away all that bunching fabric and gives him a cleaner profile. Add a thin chin strap to further define Chris Evans’ jawline. Use a heavier mesh fabric like the Navy Seals assault uniforms to give it more of a texture and some rigid shapes (you know, like Hawkeye has right next to him); it looks like he’s wearing some kind of rayon cloth. Lose those crappy silver highlights on the shoulders that do nothing but break the flow of his silhouette. And de-emphasize the overly sculpted star pin his chest. I also changed the shape of his underarm sections of white- they should be angled downward. At their current angle it makes his shoulder look tiny. Finally, the entire outfit is way too bright (and the helmet color doesn’t even match the rest of the costume!). A dark blue-black will still keep it looking patriotic but not in a clownish way. Desaturate the reds and give him normal gloves and boots while you’re at it.
And the film itself looks fantastic; I’ll be one of the first in line to see it. I have nothing but good feelings about the entertainment value I’ll get out of this. Look, it’s not like other comic fans haven’t fallen into the trap that Joss has. I get that he wants this to look as close to the comics as possible. But Captain America more than any other character doesn’t wear a costume. He wears a uniform. He is a soldier. All the design cues should be coming from the military, not the comics. And the leader of this motley group of heroes shouldn’t be wearing motley himself.
Update – 3/2015!
First the uniform for Cap in The Winter Soldier and now the latest upgrade for Avengers: Age of Ultron pretty much fixes everything I wrote about above! Way to go, Marvel!
So these days it seems like no one is totally happy with the companies that are making mainstream toys. If it’s not the price hikes, it’s the selection. Or the quality control. Or the shoulders are backward. Sure, sure, these problems are all annoying, especially in light of the price you pay for the toys these days.
At the risk of sounding like every other “apologist jackass” out there, sometimes these things really are out of the control of the people in charge of shepherding the line from concept to manufacturing to store shelves. Things like parts missing from packages, or bad paint jobs, or bent legs are all factory related issues. And no matter how many samples you may check and sign off on at the end of the day you really have no idea how well the factory is going to follow your master samples or the checklists you devise to make sure all runs smoothly. Even having someone stationed in China doesn’t fix everything. When I was designing toys, I worked for small enough companies that I was often the one overseeing the process through the factory, even staying in China from time to time. Mistakes happen on every job, it’s just part of the process.
But the factory stuff at least gives you the opportunity to fix things. If you catch it early, most times collectors never have any idea about the daily problems that crop up. And for large runs, you can always make running changes to try and fix it as early as possible. But some of the things that collectors complain about are simply out of your control. And nowhere in the process is that lack of control more frustrating than in dealing with Licensors (or clients).Â These people are the ones with the ultimate control of their properties, and they are the ones who dictate what you can and cannot make. Even more frustrating is that most of the time the people in charge of licensing are not creators or artists, but simply account people working their way up the ladder and happen to have stopped there. They don’t know the property, they don’t watch the cartoons/movies/tv shows. No, what they have is a style guide, which to them is THE BIBLE.
No joke! That style guide went through a long, complicated process designed to take thinking out of the equation. The licensing rep can be very pleasant, and fun to work with, and very smart, but if you want to deviate from the style guide or the approved corporate branding, then you have huge problems. Because they do not want to “color outside the lines”, because they a.) have no power to make those decisions, and b.) don’t know what they can and can’t do since they didn’t create the property. This whole drawn out preface leads me to what are arguably two of the biggest complaints with some toy lines out there today: character choice, and color choices.
But occasionally, a fun geek property would drop in our laps. And the year after it debuted, we got Teen Titans (Short note: we lobbied for the TT license probably a year before it debuted, but the execs thought it wouldn’t be a big hit. When we finally made the the price had gone up, of course). Being very aware of the Bandai line, we looked at ways that collectors might be able to integrate what we make with that toy line. Keep in mind, whatever we made had to be fun for little kids first and foremost. So we churned out the usual 100 or so concepts, took about 25 to color, and proceed to weed down to the final 4-5 toys from there. Now, anyone who collected the Teen Titans Bandai toys are sure to remember one fact about the line: They didn’t make the line 3.5″ SCALE, they made all the figures 3.5″ period. I’m not sure why; sometimes this is a function of contracts in splitting the license. In any case, those that wanted a Cyborg figure to be in scale with the rest of the TT kids were out of luck. Instead of the relative sizes matching the picture up above, this is what they got:
So that was a problem. Wendy’s to the rescue! One of the concepts we pushed and pushed was a Cyborg figure that was perfectly in scale with the Bandai Titans. I knew that collectors would buy them up, AFi could have publicized the scale unity, win win all around. Now, since Bandai had the license for action figures, we couldn’t make a perfect representation. We could make a “figurine”, though. And after a bit of back and forth, we came to the agreement that as long as it had a base it would be considered a figurine, and not a figure. We would just make the base removable. 😉 Keep in mind that we only had less than $.50 to play with, so the only articulation would be in the arms, which would pump with the press of a button on his back. But standing on the shelf the idea was for him to fit in perfectly with the Teen Titans figures. The concept got pretty far down the chain, ending up in the near final mix, going all the way through costing and into engineering. But unfortunately, the licensor felt that Cyborg just wasn’t leading man material. It was decreed that we could use the whole group on toys, but any individual character could only be Robin, who parents would recognize. So adios, Cyborg.
That wasn’t the end of our problems, though. And it brings me to the second complaint fans make: color choices. Specifically, this was a huge problem throughout the life of the Justice League Unlimited line.Â And it has a very simple answer. The WB style guides have color callouts, showing the Pantone number for each color used on every character and prop. It also has specified callouts for the paint chips and plastic used for merchandise. And here is where we get back to the licensing reps not wanting to deviate from the guide. The callouts for the plastics only use one color for each section of a character’s costume, since you don’t paint shadows and highlights on a toy like you would on a drawing. But the guide chose the shadow color as the base color for the plastic! So all of the colors are too dark. To make matters worse, one of the first steps you do is send the factory the Pantone numbers, they send back paint chips that match, and the studio approves those paint chip so the paint/plastic can be ordered. This process happens every month with many different licensors, so it’s just a well-oiled process. In general, why would you ever question the style guide or licensor that they might be wrong BEFORE you see any of the toys? The answer is, you don’t. You’re busy with all the other projects on your plate.
So when we couldn’t make Cyborg, we went ahead with a Robin spinner (that had a really neat 3D Teen Titans logo with a magnet inside!) You push the sculpted logo near the figure (which also has a magnet inside) and it’s pushed away as it spins wildly. Fun. Everything went according to plan until we received the final painted sample. At that point he ceased to be referred to internally as “Robin” and instead became “Sunburn Robin” to everyone involved.
All of his colors were way too dark. The yellow of his costume could barely be seen against the red. So we had a problem. To compound matters, the figure was 100% approved. You don’t mess with anything that is approved, as approvals are always a pain. And look at this from an exec’s point of view: the studio is happy, the client is happy, the toy will be gone in a month anyway. Why open a can of worms just to have to pay for more paint, delay production a bit, and possibly cause bad blood with the licensor by giving them more paperwork? To their credit, after we argued a bit and brought in the Bandai Robin to prove our point we were able to go back to the licensor to request a new color palette (props to lead creatives Greg Leibert & Brian Sandlin for really fighting that fight). And that’s when things got weird. For whatever reason, WB was convinced that the colors were too dark. But they said we could only change two of them. I have no idea why. Maybe that was the cost limit for new paint? Who knows. We ended up choosing the go bright with the yellow and skin colors as those were the ones that really stood out. But it still was not “right”. (And we couldn’t afford the paint apps to make the inside of the cape yellow or his grey boot tips, in case you were wondering).
And if it had been an action figure, no collector would have said “Well, they got some of the colors right, I’ll give them that”. They would have screamed bloody murder that the other colors were wrong. And I can’t argue that. But no one saw the fight to get it to that point. The rest was simply out of our control.
As the years have gone by and I’ve gotten older (and wiser?) I’ve come to notice that every time one of our “distinguished men of AFi” have posted pictures of their past childhood holiday toy pictures that something has been missing from my life: namely, and similar pictures of MY childhood Christmases filled with toys. For that matter, I really never had any pictures of much of my childhood, period, outside of the typical family portraits. Or so I thought. Last year while home for the holidays I made an off-hand remark to that effect to my mother, who then asked why didn’t I look in all the boxes of slides we had stored upstairs. Turns out that my parents DID take a tremendous amount of pictures, only they were almost all slide film and then put away once we stopped gathering around the ol’ Kodak Carousel. Since I was curious as to what slides we had, I took it upon myself to scan them all and convert them into nice digital files.
Well, over 6000 slides, 12 months, and many hundreds of hours later, I now know what is on all of those slides (and might I add they date back into the 1950s, well before I was around). And I still have around 2000 more slides to scan…unless they find even more boxes, which is a very distinct possibility. But within all of those pictures, I did find a number of great shots of what I received for Christmases past. I haven’t gotten into the 1980s yet, and if you had asked me before I scanned them what toys I received, I would have told you that I mainly got cars & planes, model trains, and a toy drum set until 1978. At that point my life was overtaken by Star Wars, (I even made my own xmas stocking shaped like Boba Fett’s leg, seen at right!) and I can’t really remember owning any other toys until I started collecting in earnest in college (well after throwing away everything I had in childhood).
What I wouldn’t have said I owed was any GI Joe toys. I do remember having the awesome Sea Wolf sub, and maybe a Joe with Kung-Fu grip, but I would have stopped there and said I didn’t play with the Joes. I would have been a damn liar. Turns out there is photographic proof that I indeed played with Joes. In fact, I owned a number of Adventure Team Joes, playsets and vehicles. And now that I’ve seen all these sets in their awesome packaging, I really, really wish I still owned them! Ah well. Take a look at the coolness below, along with some other early 1970s toys I wish I still owned, and a few other shots for a geeky childhood. I do still own that great Mickey Mouse head bank, along now with the other 3 characters they made. And as much as I claim to not like the Muppets, I apparently liked them enough back then to have a big-ass poster of Kermit and Fozzie on my wall. Anyway, enjoy the nostalgia!
On Thursday, July 21 2011, US Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down for the final time, returning from the last mission that the shuttle program will fly for the United States. The program and the shuttles themselves have been retired, cast aside due to a national lack of enthusiasm and a casualty of the ludicrous economic battles that pass for governance these days. But none of that matters to me when I think of the Space Shuttle.
First and foremost, to me it remains the last exciting moment of the US Space program that really touched people when I was growing up. Sure, the Mars rover and the various interstellar missions of the past 20 years have been interesting, but the Space Shuttle program was a continuance of that bright, shining age when it really looked as if the science fiction was being coming the science reality. It was totally conceivable that by the year 2000 we might have (small) colonies on the moon, or a floating city in space to replace Skylab.
In 1979 my dad was in the Air Force, working at Kelly AFB in San Antonio when it was announced that the newly christened Shuttle Columbia, the first shuttle to go into space, would be stopping at Kelly overnight to refuel on it’s way to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I was already excited about the shuttle, having seen the promos for the new James Bond movie, Moonraker, that was coming out that summer, so when dad woke me at 6am so we could drive across town to Kelly Field and watch it take off the news morning (on the back of a 747) I was beyond excited. I, of course loved Star Wars, and Buck Rogers, but this was REAL. I remember there were a lot of people who showed up to watch what was basically a big plane sit on a runaway, it an event that was closed to the public.
Afterwards, we went to a hobby shop (Hobbies Unlimited, in Universal City, Tx) where he bought me a small toy Space Shuttle. I remember keeping it sitting on my desk for quite some time, enamored by it’s unique shape and markings. Unlike previous spacecraft, the shuttle was a sleek, cool looking vehicle. I think it’s no coincidence that so many movies worked in the actual shuttle design instead of aping Star Wars when dealing with “non-fighter” craft. Unfortunately, we know how the rest of the story goes: I saw the Challenger disaster happen live on tv in my 11th grade art class. I remember how horrified and distraught my teachers were that one of their own was on that ship. And the Columbia herself came to rest back in Texas in 2003 in another horrific accident, although I was in California by then.
But with all that, when I think of the Space Shuttle my mind always goes back to that little toy one my dad bought me, and the long gone hobby shop where it was purchased. You can still find hobby shops, where you can buy model planes and trains, but they are becoming few and far between. Like Borders bookstores that are closing for good this month, and Circuit City, And Linen’s & Things, and all the mom & pop bookstores and variety stores before them, we are left with just one or two big box stores for each category now. The era of stores that catered to specialty items exist online, but it’s not the same. There is something to be said for riding your bike to the hobby shop for a model, then to the variety store (Winn’s? TG&Y?) for some action figures, then on to the drugstore for trading cards and a soda, ending up at the neighborhood used bookstore where the owner has a little side room filled with old comics and pulp paperbacks to leaf through. But those days are gone, and they’re not coming back. And now I fear the days of excitement over space exploration are joining them on the shelf marked “nostalgia”.
So it’s taken quite a bit longer than I planned on to get back to another installment of my unproduced Star Wars gems. But here at last is the untold story of the promotion that you never got to see, and what a doozy it is! A couple of caveats right off the bat: I did not actually have anything to do with this promotion. It was developed and presented by another marketing agency in the wake of the Star Wars Trilogy re-release in 1997 as a possible idea to launch the Prequels, in specific Episode I. So most of this is strictly going from my memory of how it was explained to me. And the bag illustration at right is just something I whipped up based on what it might have looked like. Cool?
So what was pitched was this: trading on the success of the Spirit of Obi-Wan, each bag of chips would have a mini-figure inside it. There would be 128 (!) different figures to collect, from Episode I and the Original Trilogy. Not only that, but there would be a handful of rare figures, and a possible mail-away display case for all of them. Talk about an incentive to buy chips! And you have to think back to how it was in 1998: still relatively little Star Wars product was out there, and you had a ravenous base of fans who were desperate for new items to collect! And these would hit months before the movie actually came out, so it didn’t rely on how well the movie was anyway. It really was the only time this program could have been pulled off and been a massive success (and anyone who doubts it would have been a success didn’t go through the pain that was the initial Hasbro Midnight Madness launch!) But Lucasfilm pulled way back on promotions for the next two films, so this was the one shot it had.
Ok, so if I didn’t work on this at all, how do I know about it? Well, my company was contacted to help out a bit on the toy aspect of it, and make some prototypes for the pitch itself. This was fun, if a bit frustrating as we couldn’t affect any details of the actual promotion, just what the figures might be. And that in itself was a challenge; to be fiscally viable, each figure could only cost a few cents! So much of the work we did was exploring the possibilities with such a limited budget.
We had Gentle Giant sculpt and cast a few sample figures. You can see how fragile these had made resin figures are; I don’t think any of the Luke’s lightsabers survived the first time we moved them around. One way to save money was to have limited paint on each one. To save even more, we could have them as only one color. We also experimented with themed materials, as seen below: Luke is a sandstone finish, Leia is pearlescent white, and Yoda is glow in the dark! Another possibility would be for each figure to have a flat back with a peg that would plug into a cardboard diorama that featured a background from the respective movie that the character is from. These dioramas could then be fitted into each other, making one long scene when all connected. The backs of the dioramas would have character/film information on them.
But even then the cost might have been too high for Frito-Lays’ tastes. If that were the case, we also had a back-up plan: two-dimensional characters that would be die-cut from styrene that could plug into “puzzle bases” that you could make a large display out of. The bottom of the bases would have added info about each character. The art would either be photos from the films or would be drawn by popular comic artists as almost 3-D trading cards. These samples were drawn by Art Nichols and myself (and I had to cut A LOT of these by hand the night before the presentation…not fun!)
So why did you never see these on store shelves? Well, unfortunately the simple answer is that back then it was hard to explain just how big the collector base had become. Frito-Lay executives thought that it didn’t have a big enough payoff apparently, and they went with an instant win game with a limited number of game pieces that had the same movie pics that everyone was using. But it had one million dollar winner, and they felt that was a bigger draw than a tiny plastic figure. But what they just couldn’t grasp was that the chance in millions to be that one winner was no going to drive you to buy more chips. But you would if you were trying to collect 128 different figures!!! Hasbro proved the viability of the mini-figure idea nearly 10 years later with their 2006 Star Wars Saga mini Hologram pack-ins (one of which is shown in some pics above for scale). We tried to explain to them why the collectibility aspect would sell more chips, even if it had less of a surface “wow” factor, but they didn’t get it. We talked about seeding in some gold Yodas that could be redeemed for an instant full collection OR $1000. And we even talked about posing online as a wealthy collector who offered $5000 to the first person who could put together a full set for him. 😉 Not sure if we could have gotten away with that one…
One other item that thought was unproduced were these Star Wars Marbles. But when I looked up the company making these, I found out that they apparently were released, maybe as a Canadian exclusive.
Anyway, what these are, are “Starbles“! Most aptly described as a cross between marbles and pogs, Starbles did not take the nation by storm and have barely been heard from since. I got this set from a vendor about 9 years ago and was told it was an unproduced production sample. Housed in a non-descript black case lined with foam, these 12 Star Wars Starbles are apparently the entire set, and are just pogs suspended inside a very large marble- one side has a character photo, the other side the Star Wars logo. All from the original trilogy, too.
I tried looking up the manufacturer, Marble Vision, but there is no info about them online. As there are absolutely none of these on eBay, and barely a mention or pictures anywhere on the web, I’m guessing that fans did not rush out seeking their own set of Starbles. More’s the pity, as I would have liked to see further sets such as Godzilla ’98 Starbles, and Wild Wild West Starbles. Ah, Starbles… we barely knew ye.
Ok, so I finally saw the Wachowski Bros’ Speed Racer the other day.
Holy. Cow. This was one of the most amazing movies I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure I know how else to describe it. It was, hands down, the best adaptation of a comic or cartoon to movie EVER.
Now, before I get tons of hate mail, let me explain what I mean. I do not mean that it was the best comic/cartoon based film I’ve ever seen. I do not mean it is the best film of it’s kind. In fact, I don’t even mean I liked it all that much. I did find it entertaining, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not a great movie.
What it is, though, is a great spectacle. You almost can’t take your eyes off of it. It is such a huge leap in the construction of these types of “green screen” spectaculars that I think it needs it’s own classification. It’s not really live action (although the actors are not modified). It definitely isn’t one of those zombie filled motion capture movies, and it certainly isn’t animated. But the entire thing is alive- the actors, the backgrounds, the cars. The way they treat the overall world the character’s inhabit outdoes video games. It really is something amazing. as it is totally like a cartoon (and a crazy cartoon at that) and yet everything has a very grounded feel, as if the cars all behave according to actual physics, if not the physics we must obey ourselves.
This is the movie that Dick Tracy wanted to be. And it is a perfect translation of the old Speed Racer cartoons: all of the conceits and touches are included, and the characters are spot on. The casting is great, and the plot is just fine as a logical distillation of the essence of Speed Racer. It’s the best adaptation because this IS the cartoon. All of it. The costumes haven’t been changed. The cars are the same. The dialogue and characterizations are amazingly intact (especially Spritle and Chim-Chim).
But Speed Racer just isn’t that much to hang a movie on. I know it has fans, but there isn’t much to the old cartoons that allow the universe to be fleshed out and to breathe with the importance that justifies this kind of a budget. I didn’t see it in theaters (although now that I have seen it I regret that mightily) but I knew s soon as it was announced that no one would see it in theaters, at least not enough people to make it a hit. The property has been revived many times in the past, and it never lasts long as cartoons or toys. And that’s a shame as I think this deserves to be seen.
What the Wachowski’s have done right here is number one to treat everything with the same weight they did the Matrix films. No matter how goofy the staging or the effects, no matter how unreal the camera moves or the races, all of the characters act as if they are doing very real, and very serious things. The actors never once wink at the audience or crack a smile toward the camera to let us know that they know it’s all one big joke. But they also updated what needed to be updated, all the while keeping in mind the spirit of the original. (Dick Tracy just tried to slavishly copy the comic designs and matched them with a truly garish color scheme, but threw out EVERYTHING that the actual comic strip was about.)
Sure, this is also pretty much what Chris Nolan did for the year’s biggest film (actually the decade’s biggest film): The Dark Knight. But it’s a lot easier to say you’re going to hire the top tier “serious” actors and put everyone is “real” clothes and then go dark. It’s amazingly tough to pull the same thing off in day glo colors and cartoon costumes. This actually isn’t a terribly new idea, but most people just don’t get it. The Godfather took gangster B-movies and treated them like top class A pictures. The characters in Jaws felt like real people, not like the crazy stereotypes of a Deep Blue Sea. And the reason no one has been able to recapture the feeling of Raiders of the Lost Ark (including the new installment of Indiana Jones) is that in Raiders the characters acted like real people in extraordinary circumstances.
Again, though, none of those were animated cartoons. I think the most amazing thinking about all this is that WB spent nearly $200 million bringing this to life. No matter how well made this was going to be, it was never going to bring in that kind of money. What I would do now if I was WB president Alan Horn, though, is send the Wachowskis a DVD of all the Fleischer Superman cartoons and tell them to run with a period film for the next Superman. Hire a solid writer to help them on the script, who knows what makes the character tick (Geoff Johns, perhaps or maybe Grant Morrison). And then get out of their way. Because the a Superman film with this kind of thinking behind it, and this level of cinematic mastery, could finally give us a REAL superhero film. Not a dark, “guy in leather” type thing we’ve been getting all this time, but a real comic come to life, that doesn’t mistake a comic for a cartoon.
I mean, I’m OK as far as it goes. I can get the job done or at least figure out what needs to be done. But when it comes to guys like Matt Cauley or Kerry Gammill or Dave Hudnut (all guys I know and worked with) there’s just no comparison. And I’m cool with that. To be honest I never wanted to be an artist; I’m self-taught in the sense that I doodled in the margins of my school papers, and taught myself how to paint just for fun in high school, but I was never one of those guys that just HAD to draw. The ones that spent hours practicing, or laboring over tiny details, or studying the great artists to figure out the secrets
Nope. I just did it until I got bored and then I’d rush through the rest to finish it. I didn’t want to grow up to be an artist, it was just a hobby. It relaxed me, and I wanted to keep it that way. Sadly, life decided that I would end up having no marketable skills and I somehow backed into a career as a designer, first of toys and now of promotions.
The good news is that I’m quite good at computer programs like photoshop and illustrator. With those, I don’t need to be a good artist, I can fake it. But it is somewhat of a regret that I never really learned how to draw well. Now that I’m in my late 30s new skills don’t come quite so easily anymore, and I sometimes really struggle to get something looking how I want it to. It was much harder when I was a toy designer, as my puny skills meant that while I designed a lot of stuff, someone else would do the final artwork. Oh, I was able to design some nice display pieces, but they were almost always not my style or done by committee (which is kind of the default in any graphic business these days). Still, I was able to put my stamp on things by slipping in the random otter or hyrax onto the item.
Once I moved to doing promotions for big companies I got a lot more freedom to design display pieces, but it was still directed by multiple people within the agency and the client. It was my art, but not necessarily what I would have done given free reign (but then, given free reign I wouldn’t be making ads, either!) But most of what I do serves the client, and not me, which is how it should be.
So what’s the point of this post, you ask? Well, I was in Wal-Mart the other day and for the first time I saw some of my own artwork, in my own style, there on some product! It turns out that a while back I was doing some design options for a pool chemical company. They wanted some pieces that would evoke “summer fun” and I presented the usual stuff- photo montages of kids playing in the water. But literally at the last minute, I decided to slip in an extra option that no one had asked for: just some very retro style kids on a stark graphic background. At that point, I was moved to a new account and handed that one over to another very capable designer and didn’t think much about it. Well, it turns out they liked my concept and ran with it!
Which leads me to the bittersweet part. I mentioned before how I wasn’t a great artist. But I can fake my way through an awful lot. I did those designs in about 25 minutes, with the thought that if they didn’t like them it was no sweat and I didn’t waste a lot of time but if they got chosen then I would redraw everything to be really nice and very tight. But everyone really liked the art as it was! So the only modification that got made was adding goggles to the dog. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not ashamed of these or anything. But here is my own artwork untouched by anyone else, finally on store shelves (more or less) and it’s the equivalent of a rough sketch! Ah well…
BTW, you can find these on the neck of some bottles of pool chemicals in Wal-Mart, just over from the toy section. It’s a fold-out brochure on how to treat your pool. Whee!
Before I post about more unseen Star Wars stuff, I thought I’d do a bit of follow-up to some that I’ve already shown. One of our biggest heartbreaks in designing stuff for Phantom Menace promotions was getting all the way to prototype on a big Jabba the Hutt beanbag, but having it rejected for cost/size issues.
Keep in mind when looking at this that it was just the initial attempt. We would have had a few more rounds of refinement to get it as close as we could. The one that got made was created by a domestic beanbag maker in the traditional manner, with a sort of textured fabric for Jabba’s “skin” and very simplistic vector graphics (created by Steve Ross, shown next to Jabba) printed on it for the details. Originally we tried to have the fabric airbrushed for a more realistic effect, but this proved to be too problematic to reproduce, and we had concerns about the durability in the long term. This was not our first attempt though.
I’m going to digress a bit here to explain why I am showing this “prototype”. A lot of times collectors complain about how paint jobs are off on toys, or they are off-model compared to the source, or the articulation has been put in wrong, or any number of things that they can’t understand how someone missed it. What they don’t realize is that many times these “mistakes” were not there in the original sculpts or paint masters supplied to the factories, but showed up during production itself. Due to the high costs involved and the strict timetables, if it was caught early enough there might be a running change. But most of the time these things are just let alone if it does not greatly impact the licensor or safety.
The reason for this is that the Chinese engineers and artisans do not see the source material as we see it, at least in my experience. This is the reason I had to actually go live in China and show them exactly what I wanted. I found that they were great at copying a 3D object to another 3D object, but couldn’t seem to make the connection between 2D art and a 3D object. They have fantastically talented sculptors and painters, but they need very detailed engineering blueprints, exploded views, and everything to be perfect in terms of measurements to create what you want. And even then the process needs to be refined a few times to correct for problems in translation. This is why you need line designers who really know what they’re doing, especially when the sculpting is being done at the factory level and not domestically.
So back to the Jabba Beanbag. While I was staying in China working on the Star Wars life-size characters I was also overseeing our other promo items that were in production, like the Star Wars bomber jacket, Lightsaber Flashlight, and assorted trinkets like watches, magnets, and puzzles. Once the Jabba Beanbag got the greenlight to go further, I sent our concept art to the factory to make an initial sample for costing. Their only instruction was to come as close to the concept art as possible (for these types of “never been done before” projects, it’s always good to see what they can do first, before trying to reinvent the wheel). We also included a lot of shots of Jabba from the movie for reference. When I went over to their offices the next week, this is what they showed me:
Yeah, that was my reaction, too. They seriously thought this matched the concept art very well. After a few more discussions, we realized that for this specific project it would probably be better to find a beanbag manufacturer and go from there. Even so, there were a lot of discussions and experiments to get us where we were at the picture at top. But hopefully this helps explain why you really need someone who knows what they are doing to daily communicate with the factories to make sure that they are on the right track. It’s not that the skill isn’t there, but the common viewpoint is sometimes lacking.
I have a few more really crazy examples that I’ll try to dig up, to further illustrate the point, this time with actual sculpts. As an added bonus, here is a picture I took when I was goofing around of our life-size Yoda sporting a pair of Jar Jar eyes. Makes him look kind of a like a Gremlin!
A couple of things about this Yoda; one of the cooler moments of my life was standing around Lucas Licensing at Skywalker Ranch with Karl Myers of Gentle Giant, right after we were given the surprise go-ahead to make Yoda based on the positive feedback from the Darth Maul and Jar Jar prototypes. We asked if they had any reference of his new Phantom Menace look and they walked into George’s office there, picked up the bronze casting of the new Gary Pollard sculpt that was made for George Lucas and Stuart Freeborn and handed it to us and said “why don’t you just cast this?” So our Yoda was basically an identical duplicate of the actual sculpt used for the puppet. Unfortunately, the puppet didn’t look too much like the classic Yoda (I always thought it looked kind of like Anthony Hopkins) and for the next two films they went back to a look closer to that of his first appearance. Our Yoda was also not really life-size: Pepsi thought that his real height (28″) didn’t have enough presence for an in-store display so we scaled it up to 36″, which created some headaches in trying to figure out new dimensions for his feet, cane, hands, clothes, etc. But it still came out neat enough for a mass produced item! And Lucas Licensing was awesome throughout the whole process (got to give props!).
So that’s the story!
Pictures cannot be used without express written permission.
Steve Ross, the designer of this beanbag, and I recently visitedGus Lopez’s houseand got to see the actual beanbag prototype for the first time in over 15 years! Fun was had by all.
So I started this year vowing to cut back on the toy buying. In fact, I had quit buying almost all together, thanks in part to it being so hard to find Mattel’s latest offerings and the fact that Hasbro has delayed the next batch of Marvel Legends for so long. In any case I wasn’t planning on starting any new lines. And then I went to see this:
And within a few days I had bought everything seen in the picture above!
Now, don’t get me wrong; I love Indiana Jones. It’s just that I hadn’t planned collecting any of these, really, especially after dropping the Star Wars line in 2001. I was narrowing the collection down to just the DCUC line and a few Marvel Legends that filled gaps in my nostalgia collection. Mainly because as I get older I care less about owning toys, and also the small fact of having 60+ boxes of action figures sealed away that i will probably never open or display every again.
But once I saw the film and then saw all the toys on sale the next day something deep within me snapped and before I knew it I was carrying them to the register and buying a good chunk of what was out there. It didn’t help that I had ordered the “Making of” book and the soundtrack the morning before I saw the film (the book is good, but not anywhere near as good as the great Making of Star Wars book they put out last year. Much of the info here is from the documentaries that were on the DVDs!)
I did plan on buying one or two figures and maybe the truck vehicle to repaint with a more detailed paint job. As it is, the deco work is one thing that is really bad about these figure. Hasbro claims to be fixing it, so we’ll see. Having come this far, I’ll at least pick up the main characters from Temple of Doom and Last Crusade, along with whatever major characters are left over from Raiders. But I don’t need 20 Indys, Mutts, or army builders. Maybe I’ll just paint them and put them all on eBay next year, I dunno. In any case, I already broke down and got the great Sideshow 12″ figure when it went on sale to go next to my Medicom Rocketeer and assortedreal lifecharacters, Generals, and Presidents. And now I have the new figures displayed on both sides of the vintage Kenner ones from 1982.
So what did I think of the movie? Well, the short answer is that I enjoyed it a lot while i was watching it. I found it pretty entertaining and I didn’t get bored. My parents happened to be visiting me that week, so I took them on opening day, and being children of the 1950s they enjoyed it a lot. And that made me like it probably more than I would have otherwise, having seen Raiders of the Lost Ark on opening weekend with my Mom 27 years ago.
But it could have been better. It is better than Temple of Doom (in my opinion), but suffers from the same problem: a good story, good set pieces, good action that is hampered by an inelegant script. Say what you will about Last Crusade, but the dialogue and character motivations are solid. Yes, I know some people don’t like the revised characterizations of Indy and Marcus Brody from Raiders, but within that story everyone behaves as logically as you could expect them to for a film of this type. For that matter, this is the same problem that the Star Wars prequels have. I can only imagine this is mainly a “George Lucas need an editor” issue. He’s a fantastic storyteller, but a pretty bad with dialogue and motivation.
So here are my thoughts about the film. SPOILERS AHEAD!!! Keep in mind that I did enjoy it quite a bit, and felt that Spielberg really nailed the era it is set in, and the overall look of the film, which fits in very well as a “lost” 80s movie in terms of pacing, editing, and lighting. I really loved all of the 50s elements: the hot rods, greasers, atomic age paranoia, and even the sci-fi angle. I didn’t mind the fact that the artifact in this film was extraterrestrial, and really liked Lucas’ idea of following the 50s “saucer men” conventions instead of the 30s serial ones. The music fit perfectly, with a hint of theremin even. Unfortunately, 50s sci-fi music was very atmospheric and not much for stirring character themes like the 30s scores of Rozsa and Steiner so there are very few memorable new cues from John Williams this go-round. I liked Shia’s character and acting well enough and of course loved that they brought back Marion instead of trying to introduce a new “girl” that would have to be either in Indy’s age range (icky?) or much younger (creepy!).
What I didn’t like are all the things that made it seem not like an Indiana Jones film. For one thing, all of the other films open with a segment that feels like it is the ending of a movie that we haven’t seen. This one picks up in the middle of an ongoing story all right, but is more or less a prologue to the movie we’re about to see. It also sets up a great “commie witchhunt” angle that is then completely dropped! Almost nothing that happens in the prologue pays off in a meaningful way later. In the first draft of the script (Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars) written waaay back in 1994 this sequence took place near the middle of the film. I would have rather seen a prologue that has nothing to do with this film, start with the Yale sequence and then have the Soviets grab Indy and Mutt and take them to Hanger 51. Everything else could proceed from there, with the FBI goons basically blacklisting him at that point.
It would also break up the film a bit more. One thing that bothered me even as I was watching was that not only did everything see to happen very easily without much hassle, but they traveled in a fairly linear manner: Mutt gives Indy a letter about South America, Indy figures out a code the Soviets couldn’t crack IN SECONDS they travel to Peru where he figures out where to go IN SECONDS they go to graveyard that doesn’t seem to be in the least bit hidden, are attacked by useless guardians (who are these guys?), find the skull immediately, and it continues like this for the rest of the film. It would at least seem a bit more challenging if they had traveled somewhere other than South America to find the conquistador, and THEN went to Peru. Of course, Temple of Doom suffers from this very same thing- too long in one place.
Speaking of plotlines that got dropped, why make such a big deal about Mutt bringing his bike to South America with them, and then never mentioning it again? Why bring up the human looking Mitchell-Hedges Crystal Skulls if they have no relevance to the plot or the alien skulls? Why do the Soviets get the alien from Hanger 51, yet not try to use its skull? How is it connected to the Akator aliens? Where does it go? What connection do the graveyard warriors have to Akator? What are they guarding, if not the skull? If they are guarding the skull, why? Again, too many things are brought up in the script with no payoff later. We never even see Indy and Marion really reunite, or Marion and Mutt reunite, it’s all like a sitcom reunion. And shouldn’t Oxley and Indy have some sort of reconciliation once Ox’s mind is right? Seriously, why does David Keopp have any kind of reputation? Frank Darabont’s unused draft had better action and motivations, but it wasn’t perfect, either.
I’ll skip complaining about the CGI, except to say my biggest objection to it was that it removed any feeling of danger and made a lot of locations feel like soundstages. In the first film, I was nervous about Indy hanging on to a truck. In the second, I marveled at him being on a rope bridge over a humongous chasm. In the third, he’s on a horse vs a tank. All of these felt like he was actually doing these things. In this film he goes over 3 giant waterfalls and is a little bit wet. No one in the CAR is even slightly sore! They drove off a cliff to get there! C’mon! The ants weren’t particularly scary, but it was a nice nod back to another 50s film, the Naked Jungle. I’d have rather George included a river boat sequence with crocodiles like the ones in the earlier “Saucer Men” draft and even the rejected script for the 3rd movie, Indiana Jones and the Monkey King. I guess Lucas just wanted to let Disney own that concept in their upcoming Jungle Cruise film.
I talked a bit earlier at how I liked Mutt and Marion. I thought that they, and Indy, and even Irina were fleshed out well enough for this film. Marion needed more to do, but all of them had nice moments and they felt like consistent characters. The rest of the Soviets were a waste (and why cast real Russian actors when only one of them had anything to do outside of shout and run?) Speaking of a waste, what is the point of Ray Winstone’s character at all? He doesn’t really effect the plot at all, and is given very little to do. And I understand that John Hurt is supposed to be akin to Treasure Island’s crazy Ben Gunn, but it would have been nice to see him have some resonance on any level with the audience. Even the characters in the film treat him more or last as a dog they found and are taking along for the ride.
And honestly, did we need all these great big-name actors? Indiana Jones is supposed to be a down & dirty serial, not an Oscar contender. Outside of Sean Connery (which was an in-joke that made sense) the other films didn’t have any acting heavyweights involved. Sure, they had great character actors, but not of the caliber of Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, Jim Broadbent, and John Hurt. Even Shia starred in freaking Transformers! I think the story would have been much better served without so many recognizable faces on the screen every five minutes. Even minor roles had me saying “hey look, it’s Charles Widmore from LOST! And the janitor from Scrubs!” and I don’t even watch much TV. This same thing was a detriment to the Star Wars prequels. Although I don’t want Lucas casting the parts if it gives us the Indiana Jones equivalent of Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christenson. *shudder*.
Anyway, I could go on and on, but I did enjoy it pretty well for what it is and am looking forward to seeing it again on DVD. Unlike Star Wars, which is one long story, the Indiana Jones films are relatively self contained and each one’s merits don’t necessarily effect the others. After all, these are meant to be the B movies of today, and for my money they’re still better than crap like Transformers or the Matrix sequels. I think they could even extend the franchise with Mutt for some fun 60s styled adventures and i don’t have a problems with that at all.
Man, that’s a lot of writing for no good reason! Check back in a couple of days for my long-awaited follow-up of more unseen Star Wars concepts!
Today’s toys have risen in quality in leaps and bounds over the toys of my youth. The sculpting is better, the molding is better, the packaging…can be better at times, and the articulation is in a whole other league. And for the most part, the painting is better. Well, sometimes, that is. For companies like McFarlane Toys and NECA, the paint applications is just wonderful most of the time. But for most of the mainstream majors, like Hasbro, Playmates, and Mattel (now that Toy Biz is out of the game) it seems like an afterthought.
In the late 90s Toy Biz was really one of the first major players to step up to the plate and deliver very detailed paint applications on their figures and more sophisticated paint washes to bring out the heightened sculpting details. Sure, the smaller guys were also experimenting with paint, but nothing like the leap Toy Biz made (even with their smaller figures), thanks to guys like Eddie Wires doing the paint masters (and also doing them for Palisades and Diamond, among others). For companies like McFarlane and DC Direct you had the Four Horsemen and Tim Bruckner really raising the bar with their painting prowess.
But for some reason, we hadn’t seen this trickle down to Hasbro, Playmates, Bandai or Mattel in their superhero lines. Sure, Mattel is now using some paint washes on the DCUC line, but as the Red Tornado can tell you, this is all still very much a work in progress (and one they are laboring hard to fix, I might add). Actually, the reason is quite clear: money. The time it takes to oversee every aspect of production costs money. The added paint operations cost money. The extra rounds of approvals to hash out a detailed process cost money. And for the big companies, this is not a cost that they want to bear. Which is sad.
Because they work and skill that go into making the toys is being sabotaged at the final step. Most folks think that painting is just slapping on some solid colors that matches the comics. Well, that match a style guide, at least. For some reason, most style guides don’t match the comics or animation very well, so the toys suffer right off the bat. But it’s not just filling in the lines with color. A good paint job can transform a sculpt like you wouldn’t believe, and a bad paint job can really mask the artistry of the sculptor. How many times do we see figures of famous actors and think the sculptor got the details wrong? More times than not, I wager. But it many cases, the sculpt is actually perfect. You just can’t tell because it’s covered in shoddy work.
Here are some really good examples of what paint can do: I found these across the web and I hope you go follow the links back to these artists’ work. It really is amazing. First up is Noel Cruz, who goes by Noeling. He repaints existing dolls as celebrities and original works. He treats each one as a 3D canvas, and what he does with the run of the mill dolls and paint is very good, but what he does with a specifically sculpted doll, like the Tonner ones, is nothing short of phenomenal. The pic to the right is a before and after of the same doll- a Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker. No sculpting is involved. Can you imagine if this was a production piece, even a high end one? Go check out his galleries to be even more amazed. The guy is seriously talented.
But sure, you’re saying. Those are expensive dolls, not production figures at 6 inches. True, true. But smaller figures can always use help, like Hasbro’s IronMonger figure from the new Iron Man movie line. MeguiarsEM on the Spawn Forums took this basically unpainted figure and gave it a quick dry brushed metal look that raises the bar considerably. It went from looking like a toy to a high end collectible. With only an easy paint job!
Ten years to be exact. That’s when I left the oil fields (where I was shooting industrial video) and entered the world of product design. I got really lucky, having made some contacts through Raving Toy Maniac when I was running it with Eric G. Myers, to somehow stumble into a new career despite having zero experience and minimal skills at the time. What I did have was a crazy passion for the toy industry. And I think my boss saw that, and took a chance on me.Â We were a small start-up agency at first, and chased every opportunity we could come across. Of course, I was happy to be designing crap for A Bug’s Life and Dairy Queen’s Arctic Extreme toys but if you had asked me what I really would like to be working on, super heroes or action figures would have topped my list.
Well, except for Star Wars, that is. In 1998 I was just about the biggest Star Wars nerd around. Not only was I writing about the toys for RTM and hitting Toy Fair and SDCC, but my new co-worker, Steve Ross, was just as big of a nerd as me. Every day at lunch we’d hit Target or TRU trying to find the latest and greatest that Kenner and Galoob had to offer. Our offices were decorated solid with Star Wars. It was always at the forefront of our minds. And then one day our CEO told us that Pepsi wanted us to pitch some ideas of what promotional merchandise they could do for Episode One.
To say we were excited is an understatement. However, there were a few problems. One, since we were not yet an approved vendor to Lucasfilm, we had to use the Original Trilogy to concept with as we couldn’t be shown anything from Episode One. Lucasfilm would review our concepts and let us know if anything could apply to the new movie (this was a painful process that involved discarding far more ideas than the ones that were kept). Two, it was only a year away from the release of Episode One, and most manufacturing lead times were anywhere from 18-12 months to get the product made and to stores. But beggars can’t be choosers, and we hit the ground running. All told, we cranked out well over 100 concepts that were taken to final art, and easily 300 that didn’t make it that far. No part of Star Wars was too small to think about, no character too minor. I’ve never had a situation before or since where someone said to take your favorite subject and do whatever you want with it. Nothing was too crazy or expensive to try.
We even tried to make a big Jabba the Hutt beanbag chair; one prototype was made and it sat in our conference room for many years. Now Gus Lopez owns it. Anyway, I’m not sure I’ve ever had more fun bouncing ideas back and forth where the conversations usually involved talking about how Darth Vader’s mouth had that cow-catcher looking mesh piece that really looked like it could be the door on a gumball machine. Or wondering it it was possible to build a real kid sized Land Speeder? Or thinking, wouldn’t it be cool to have a giant plush Wampa standing in your living room?
It was that last thought that led us to present a giant plush Wampa and a life-like shaggy Chewbacca to Lucasfilm in one batch of concepts. They weren’t so keen on Chewbacca, but they did have this new big sidekick named Jar Jar. And a cool new villain named Darth Maul. So, long story short, we ended up making four life size characters: Jar Jar, Maul, Yoda, and Watto. I got to go to Skywalker Ranch a few times, got to see The Phantom Menace early, and because we had to manufacture them all in half the time an action figure takes, I had to go live in China for a few months at the factory, teaching them how to paint Jar Jar’s ears just right. By the end of the thing, I was all Star Wars’d out!
So why is this post in the “Rejected!” category? Well, when I was unpacking some boxes after my recent move, I found a bunch of copies of our original concepts. Sadly, pretty much our entire creative team moved on not long after that but I think those guys were pound for pound pretty much the most talented folks I’ve ever worked with. So I want to give them their due by showing just a few of the nutty ideas that we pitched. I’ll probably have another round of these later, but these were really some of my favorites. And even ten years later, only a few of these ideas have shown up as products (You’d think someone else would have thought of them in all this time). We all touched every concept in some way, but the main guys who did these were Michael Hawkins, Steve Ross, me, and Kerry Gammill. And pretty much all of the really great ideas were by Steve Ross, who is probably the most creative person I’ll ever know. So without further ado…
Wow. I had no idea that this blog post of crazy Star Wars concepts would get picked up so fast and spread around the web. So welcome, new readers! Go check out the post on Mister Dog, you won’t regret it! And stick around next week for Toy Fair; we’ll have big pictures of lots of crap shown this year at the show in New York!
A few things I did want to clarify about the “Rejected” Star Wars concepts: “Rejected!” is the name of my ongoing series of unmade stuff. But not all of these were rejected by Lucasfilm. We don’t know how many of these were actually seen by Lucasfilm- they were presented to Pepsi first and then those concepts they liked were sent on to Lucas Licensing. So possibly a very small sample was shown to Lucasfilm. Also
That brings me to another point: most of what is shown are “Dealer Loaders”. Those items are offered to retailers (in this case to those stocking Pepsi) and function both as an incentive AND as a display. Once the display is no longer needed, the retailer can keep the item or raffle it off. So it wasn’t quite that we could make anything under the sun. It ideally should be a functional item that a non-Star Wars fan might want, but be cool enough to grab your attention in store. These would not be for sale at retail items. And keep in mind that these are all from 10 years ago when there wasn’t quite so much Star Wars stuff to be found.
Also, it seems the most frequent comment so far is that the Princess Leia headphones were taken from Mel Brooks’ “Spaceballs”. Maybe they were, I didn’t come up with that idea. Personally, I’ve never seen “Spaceballs”, so I had no idea (it came out when I was in high school, and I didn’t think the trailer was that funny so i never went to see it). But really, that is one of the most no brainer ideas shown. Again, I’m amazed that ALL of these haven’t been made by now. We came up with hundreds of concepts and this is just a small amount. Heck, why weren’t more of these in Mel’s movie? Anyway, as far as I know we came up with the idea independently from the film, “from a certain point of view”.
Lastly, I saw a comment somewhere saying that one of the concepts looked like it was from MAD magazine. Ironically, Steve Ross wrote & drew for MAD before he came to work for us, so it makes sense that it looked like that. He also was an FBI sketch artist, did lasers for KISS, was a roadie for ZZ Top, did 3D animation, was a stand-up comedian, and can tell you every President, vice-President and their wives off the top of his head. Seriously, the guy is crazy talented.
Ok, so I’m in the grocery store the other day and while I was walking down the aisle between the fine products from Campbell’s Soup Company and the displays of healthy Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups there was a sidecap rack with Little Golden Books on it. (Not to be confused with the German dog food brand, seen at right.)
Never one to pass by a literary opportunity, I glanced over at the rack and perused the title held within. What caught my eye was an intriguing tome labeled, “Mister Dog”. Even more intriguing was the fact that in 2008 there was a book marketed to children with a cover illustration of a dog smoking a pipe!
Now, I don’t know what was in Mister Dog’s pipe, but I do know what it felt like *I* had been smoking after reading this book. I’m not sure I can do the crazy, mixed-up world of Mister Dog justice, but suffice it to say that I bought that book then and there! The story generally follows the adventures of a dog that belonged to himself, with the challenging name of Crispin’s Crispian. Who is Crispin? Is the dog Crispin and “Crispian” is a term of endearment? Is it one of those weird cultural oddities, like “Carl’s Jr.” or “Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse”?
Anyway, the dog screws around, then meets a boy who is apparently a runaway. They go buy some food and take it back to the two-story doghouse, where they eat and go to sleep. The boy helps him clean the house. The dog almost never stops smoking. And was he chewing on his own hat? I wouldn’t put it past him, he is a dog. Seriously, it’s just some crazy-ass stuff. But don’t take my word for it, why not read this fine review. I wish Michael Bay would concentrate on classics to adapt like Mister Dog, rather than that Transformers crap.
The sad dénouement of all this was finding out that this was the last story of the author, Margaret Wise Brown. Ms. Brown was more famous as the writer of the wistful tale of nighttime ritual, “Goodnight, Moon”. But while on a promotional tour of Europe she fell ill and was hospitalized. After recuperating somewhat she tried to demonstrate her renewed health to her nurse by performing a high-kick, which triggered a sudden embolism that killed her on the spot. Oh, and she also owned a dog named “Crispin’s Crispian”, so I guess that explains that.
In addition to books and toys, I buy a lot of DVDs. Mainly old movies, because I’ve already discovered that they don’t always stay in print for long, and then command crazy insane prices on eBay once they’re out of print. Plus, the past few years have been great as far as the rarer films are concerned, with studios realizing that if they do a good job with restoring this stuff it will sell, and at a premium price.
Unfortunately, the marketing dept. in these studios seem to think that buyers need some kind of bribe to get them to purchase these sets (they also eschew good package art in favor of a lot of photoshopped crap, but that’s another topic). Hey, I can understand this; I’m in marketing myself and am sometimes involved in the same kind of inane “plussing up” of a product for no reason (forgive me for not naming specifics 😉 ). But above all else, these special offers should not interfere with the actual item being purchased.
Which leads me to today’s rant: the newly released Walt Disney Legacy series. This first series packages every last “True-Life Adventure” film in four stuffed volumes. On one hand now that Roy Disney is back in the fold the studio has done a truly fantastic job putting these together, with tons of extras, documentaries, and nice restorations of films that have too long been unavailable. And as far as I can tell it’s a pretty comprehensive package. On the other hand, the marketing dept. thinks that the films themselves are not enough, and takes the path of the tin outer cases they made for the ‘Walt Disney Treasures’ line on step further: the DVDs are loose inside a tin “film reel canister”!
The ‘Treasures’ tin cases at least could be removed and inside was a normal dvd case (otherwise when they are on a shelf you cannot tell what they are since there is no printing on the spine…if they fit on the shelf in the first place). But these new film reels can’t be put on a shelf without them rolling off, and you can’t tell what’s inside without picking each one up and looking at the front cover. Granted, the packaging is very handsome, but how on Earth do these things get decided without ever thinking about the purpose of the item and the functionality in a collection (since by and large it is the core Disney fans who are buying these limited sets)? This is the same mentality that leads to crazy figure packaging that makes it impossible to remove the darn figure (and jacks up the price) just because some designer thinks it looks cool. I’m looking at you, SDCC Solomon Grundy.
Anyway, this whole thing got me so aggravated that I made my own covers and bought some double dvd cases online. So everyone can now benefit from my frustrations- right-click on a cover below and choose “save as” to download a hi-res pdf of each cover that you can print out and use on your own dvds. All for free! (Caution: files are large!)
I’ve been a collector for as long as I can remember. When I was around three years old, I collected sticks. Yes, ordinary branches that had fallen from trees, which came in all sorts of varieties and limited editions. After that I picked up stuffed animals whenever I could, the more unusual the critter (plush skunks, possums, hyraxes…) the better. Once 1977 hit, though, my entire collecting focus changed. I think we all know what happened in the summer of 1977. From that moment on, my life became Star Wars- Star Wars cookie jars, Star Wars bedsheets, and of course Kenner Star Wars toys. I even started collecting comics by picking up the adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back and discovering Spider-Man on my trips to the comic shop. Once I hit Jr High School my fascination with toys faded away to be replaced by a fascination with girls. But I never stopped collecting, moving on to books, music, sticks…well, maybe not sticks again. Still, I never ceased to find things that once acquired would somehow turn out to be a collection eventually.
Of course, once I was firmly settled in college the toy bug bit again and has led me down the path of both hobby and career, with a little web pioneering thrown in along the way. And so it has gone over the past 10 years; it doesn’t take me long after dropping one collection to gain another one just as quickly. Since entering the promotional premium field I have been acutely interested in Advertising Icons. These are the mascots and slogan bearers of major companies past and present, who have entered the pop culture zeitgeist throughout the decades since the concept first gained traction in the 1930s. Thanks to the wonder of eBay it has become much easier to track down various advertising merchandise made to promote specific businesses, which was great since I wanted a collection for my office only- a collection that others in my field could appreciate a bit more than the usual Spawn figures in every artist’s cubeicle. The problem with collecting these is that with the vast differences in scale, material and quality between pieces is that it never quite felt like a coherent collection. And anyone who knows me knows that I value consistency above nearly all other factors in my collections. One look at the picture on the left will show you the depth of this problem that I faced. (As always, click on each image for a larger view.)
This all changed in 2001 when I happened into a collectible mall in Anaheim, CA. That’s when I saw a bobblehead of Count Chocula. Count Chocula! The figurehead of all the General Mills monster cereals! I was stunned. Now, let me explain that I was by no means a fan of bobbleheads. Truth be told, given a choice I would almost always choose an action figure or maybe a nice solid vinyl doll over the outsized “head on a spring” figurine. And yet…something inside me was awakened by this chance meeting with the good Count. I bought him without delay, and upon opening my new prize I saw the name Funko. A name that I, as informed as anyone in the toy business, had never heard before. This was going to take a bit of research. Such as going to the Funko.com website! Which I did.
What I found was the answer to all my ad icon collection prayers: a new company whose only mission in life was to bring fun to those who wanted something more out of the collecting experience. OK, maybe that’s getting a bit too grandiose. But it was obvious that these guys were following a different path than most of the other companies out there. A path lined with Wacky Wobblers as far as the eye could see.
Funko was started in 1998 by”Chairman of Fun” Mike Becker, who left his high tech job to pursue the dream of making an instant classic item: a “Wacky Wobbler” that was at once nostalgic and yet made with the latest production techniques for total fidelity to the source material. Using his life savings, Becker pursued a retro favorite license, Bob’s Big Boy, for his first Wacky Wobbler. Exceeding all expectations, the Big Boy Wobbler sold like hotcakes. Funko was off to a great start that only got better as word of mouth spread through the collecting community of this bold new line. Within a few short years Funko was entrenched as both the go-to company for top notch premiums and also the only company around who was willing to bring long neglected characters to life. You can read more about Funko’s history here and here. If it’s not obvious by now, then let me assure you dear reader, I love these things.
Just take a look at some of the pictures on this page. In 4 short years I’ve filled the nooks and crannies of my office with Wacky Wobblers. And not just ad icons at this point; over the years I’ve been suckered into picking up classic cartoon characters, too. Since Funko started making the Wobblers, many other companies have jumped on the bobblehead bandwagon. And while some of them, such as NECA and Bosley Bobbers have done some nice work, in my eyes no one can hold a candle to Funko. Let’s start with character selection. While most companies might go after a master license, and then bleed that license dry with variants, resculpts, and oversaturations, Funko takes a unique tack on acquiring license, usually for single characters only and in limited quantities. This keeps the costs down and allows them to put out up to 5 Wobblers a month in a good year. And the choices they have made so far are astounding (in a good way): who else would have not stopped with the main three General Mills monsters and made Fruit Brute and Yummy Mummy, whose cereals have been off the shelves for decades? When was the last time you saw Banana Splits merchandise? Or Speedy Alka-Seltzer? Funko has also made good use of the Hanna-Barbera license, making not only the given characters like the Flintstone and Jetsons, but mining the depths of my generations’ collective childhood to bring us the likes of Captain Caveman, Jabberjaw, and Squiddly Diddley?
The design and sculpting has been above par also, giving many of these characters the best representation they’ve ever had. And the quality of every Funko product is top notch- I never have had to worry about getting a bad paint job which makes it much easier to order these sight unseen through the many websites that sell them. On a side note, I heartily applaud Funko for going with plastic bobbers instead of the cheaper resin ones that most other companies make. Plastic just makes them feel more like “real” mass manufactured itmes, and helps tie them into the ad icons of years gone by. Too many times in the past I’ve been frustrated with the major toy companies who just don’t get it. Funko “gets it”, big time. As an example, one of the most fun aspects of the line is the packaging. Funko puts the time and effort into the design of these that no other company does; many packages mirror the product’s origin (i.e., Count Chocula’s looks like a cereal box) or otherwise make sense for each character. Yet each box still conforms to a general style and uniform shape, making a “mint in box” collection just as attractive as a loose one! They’ve also engineered a great new plastic insert that holds the Wobbler tightly in place with no chance of deformity in shipping, and without any of those darn twist-ties that collectors have grown to hate.
I have to admit that I’ve been lucky in discovering the line when I did. With most Wobblers limited to roughly 10-20,000 pieces this line sells through much faster than a mass market line would. Part of the reason for that is Mike Becker’s insistences on keeping the company small and dealing only with specialty markets. Which is smart, since a larger distribution base would necessitate much larger sales to cover costs. This way they are able to stay profitable and yet make a wide variety of characters each year. In addition to their basic line, Funko also makes custom Wobblers to anyone who wants them. This has led to some very hard to find Wobblers like the Empire Carpet Guy, Magic the Old Navy Dog, and the Outback Steakhouse Kangaroo. They also make a number of variants from time to time, less as a profit center and more as special items for the fans to hunt down. That Funko is extremely collector friendly has never been more evident than at last year’s San Diego Comic Con where they set up a mini supermarket with over 80 variants available with multiple specialty items for the fan base.
Although this article has focused on the Wacky Wobblers, I thought I should mention that Funko has been branching out over the past couple of years into new categories such as the rotocast hand puppets and Spastik Plastik vinyl figures. Who knows how long they’ll continue to make Wacky Wobblers, but with the wealth of material still out there, I’m hoping it will be for many, many years to come. We’ll be covering the Funko booth at this year’s San Diego Comic Con, so check back in a month or so to scope it out!
You can find these for sale at many online stores and many ebay sellers. The average price is $10 per wobbler, but once they are retired it goes up from there. You can also go hang out with the COF and fans in the forums at Funko Funatics. And here is a good checklist to see everything that Funko has made so far.
Like the previous entry on the BK Lord of the Rings figures, these were pitched to Burger King in 2001 as a tie-in to the then-airing X-Men Evolution cartoon.
The earlier idea of figure packs was such a hit internally, when the X-Men license rolled around it was thought that the perfect “never been done before” concept would be 14 two-packs(!), each containing hero and villain figures. This is the overall “beauty shot” of all the figures together – each figure would have it’s own unique action feature and the pairs would be somewhat appropriate to the characters, i.e. Professor X & Magneto, Wolverine & Sabretooth, etc.
Sadly, the powers that be at Burger King didn’t see the fun in making the “same old figure toys” and instead opted for a rival concept of static figurines that came with an interactive CD. This is something I would see over and over while designing toys; people who didn’t like toys making decisions regardless of kids or collectors or even sales. While Jack in the Box later made a nice set of Justice League figures, this would have been a nice chance to own a lot of the more obscure characters that never saw toy representation.
One note: some of the designs (Boom Boom, Wolfsbane, etc) were based off the comics and not the show due to only a list of names for the upcoming characters was provided to BK and not character art. These would have been corrected had the concept made it to production. Much of the art shown is the work of the great Jeff Parker, Michael Smith, and David Hudnut! For more unseen X-Men Evolution art, go check out designer Steve Gordon’s great website!
This will be an ongoing feature here at Ottertorials: ideas and concepts that never made it off the drawing board.
While many collectors are aware of certain toys and figures that never make it into production (especially concerning Star Wars toys) most people don’t realize that for every toy made, there are dozens if not hundreds of concepts generated and pitched only to be discarded. These discards literally could fill many books and often turn up online in many artists portfolios if you know where to look. From time to time I’m going to feature concepts that I think need further recognition.
Today we’ll look at one of my favorite unmade concepts: army builder fast food toys. In 2001 Burger King was going to make a big splash with their promotion for Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. For various behind the scenes reasons, the company pitching these toys needed a big win at Burger King, and saw LOTR as their opportunity to deliver a “never been done before” promotion. You see, how the process is usually done at a QSR (Quick Serve Restaurant, aka fast food) is that 2 or more companies are told what the license is going to be and then they both present their best ideas to Burger King in hopes of landing the program. This process is slightly different at every QSR (for example, at McDonald’s no matter who won the creative pitch, both companies would share manufacturing, which is where the money is) but at Burger King it was winner take all. If you don’t win, you don’t get the bucks for that month.
Ultimately, the pitch that won was for a 19 figure set, all with lights or sounds (or both) on bases that formed a giant ring with the “One Ring of Power” at the center. Once all were connected they would trigger each figure in successive order. The logistics behind this were insane and the cost was such that the company took a hit in its usual profit margin to deliver it. This is one reason why you won’t see such a complex set again, since Burger King didn’t pay much more for it than a normal promotion.
Anyway, on the way to hitting on the final “big idea” some of the artists pitched making sets of “Army Men” in internal meetings. These figures would be about 2.5″ tall and come in a bag containing four figures: one painted “hero” figure, and three secondary figures all molded in one color plastic. The plan was to have up to 15-20 different bags of figures, letting kids and collectors build massive armies of Elves, Orcs, and Dwarves to play with and display. Unfortunately, this is just the sort of idea that usually gets killed early on. While it would be a big hit in stores, it doesn’t have the “wow factor” to get past the non-collector execs at a QSR. To them, it can’t be a simple idea- it has to dazzle everyone on paper. And thus, you’ll likely never see this concept produced for any license. Here is some of the art produced for that failed pitch: