REMARKS 04/05/01 - 05/26/01

Last modified: Saturday, January 5, 2002 10:32 AM

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05/26/01- First off, if you like 'em Russ Meyer-ized, you must check this out: Ariella's House. Kinda hard to know what to say after that, huh? Huuuuuh??? A Volkian masterpiece, that's what I sez...

The Athena/Minerva project is finally about as done as it's gonna get. Yay! It was a gruelling project but I'm pleased with the way she turned out. And it's nice to have a clear vision at the start of a project for a change. What's next? I don't wanna even think about that (but you know that I have...) And since you asked, Dumbo and Slinky (our Elephant Nose fish and Black Knife fish, named by my wife) are doing very well. They get their daily dose of slimy black worms delivered to their mouths via a pipette (Dumbo is as blind and dumb as shit). The Cardinals didn't fare as well-- they've dropped like flies and been abducted by aliens though... The Ghost Shrimp like 'em... I mean, they really like them.

Customizing is a risky pastime. I can't believe that I missed the season finale of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" (@#$%#!!!) because I was so absorbed with grinding the damn sword. Arrrrgh. That's okay though... 'Tis the season of reruns and Sideshow Toy is reported to be shipping their plastic version of the heroine. I'm anxiously awaiting delivery of mine, and at least customizing won't screw with that!

Speaking of those guys, Sideshow Toy now has a page for their long-awaited Monty Python & the Holy Grail figures. These look interesting-- very much in the Sideshow Toy tradition of doing cult media properties with animated expressions and weird props. Their figures have some unique features, and they have great sculptors, but I haven't been overly impressed by their soft goods in the two of their figures that I presently own. They seem to do a minimalist's job on the outfits-- not at all the attention to detail of a manufacturer like Dragon. Of course, this keeps the price down. From the pics, the fabric chainmail is the biggest question mark... it looks like a novelty fabric with coarse texture approximating scale chainmail, with perhaps a bit of metallic polyester woven in. It's difficult to assess from photos: On King Arthur, it looks fairly realistic, but in the closeup of Lancelot's hood, it looks cheesy. You get a lot of fabric chainmail with these figures. It doesn't help that (at this time) you have to order all their figures to discover whether it's a convincing enough effect for your tastes. But theirs is a welcome inroad for that genre (in addition to Marx Toys' Noble Knights). It's considerably more accessible to folks who don't want to spend a wad on Cotswold's metal knights or make their own.

Which leads ever-so-cleverly to... Scott Baker's latest knight. CHECK IT OUT. It's friggin' incredible. Once you see real chainmail, it's hard to accept substitutes. This knight is detailed from the underwear out, and Scott shows you all of it, along with informative commentary. He's loosely teasing us with the promise of an armored horse, so be sure to pester him until he does it (but don't tell him that I said so).

Also... you probably know this already, but I'll tell you again: Ransome Chua has moved his site Frontline. He's done an excellent rendition of our favorite "Gladiator" dude in Roman General's garb, and is working on another from the same source. Congratulations and Happy Birthday, Ransome!

Of course, you've already checked out Francis Tavares' stuff, right? After publishing his Maximus Crowe project at his new non-WWII site, Paragon, he's back to his first love, WWII Arnhem with some incredible paratroopers (bunches of 'em!) at his main website, Battlefields. Have you ever noticed how he doesn't believe in doing things in a small way? Beautiful photography, as usual.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention another customizer who's distinguished himself by the quality of his work-- John Hays. He's fairly new to the scene, in the sense that he's now got a website. If you like Judge Dredd and customizing with a pop/superheroes bent, check it out...

Finally (and I don't know what this has to do with anything), I took a picture of the IntoyZ Minigun that I was unimpressed with last month in these remarks below. I guess one reason is that some people may want to see a picture of it because they're considering buying it. The other reason is that it's an issue of quality and expectations-- a very relevant subject in the world of customizing and collecting. If you publicly ask, "is it any good?", you might get a lot of varied opinions... just like anything else. That's not too terribly helpful, since our standards vary so much. Yes, it's a cool piece and it's (as far as I know) the only Minigun that you can buy. However, relative to the quality of topnotch stuff like Yellow Submarine's (whose ammo box is also in the pic), their piece is in an entirely different league. That's not to say that you or I are suckers because we bought and may like the piece-- but a comparative reference gives an idea of what you'd be getting, especially if you're buying it mail-order, sight-unseen. I had higher expectations when I bought the piece, based on public postings about InToys' stuff. I can't say whether this is a fair representation of InToys quality either... but it's just to remind you to assess opinions with a critical eye, especially those filled with gushing praise and no reference points. Anyone can buy stuff, and anyone can post an opinion. But for all you know, the person writing the review might be a Republican!

05/15/01- hsssssssss...sput...sput... Athena. It's a project without steam. There have been a few setbacks and disappointments (which I'll document in the project article), but that's not the full story. Recently, my energies have been distributed elsewhere; it's the aquarium and the a/v stuff that's to blame.

Aquariums are cool. I got the bug suddenly, decided that saltwater was too maintenance-intensive, and settled for a big tank of tropical fish. Of course, I bought weirdo finicky fish that require a specialized diet of live worms... But it's fun to watch the Elephant Nose sniff 'em out & snort 'em, then race around the tank. Some say that you aren't supposed to have two electricity-sensor fish in the same tank, but EN gets along fine with the peculiar Black Knife, despite some minor quibbling over territory. Even the tank doormats-- the Neons, Cardinals and Ghost Shrimp-- seem to coexist with these two larger fish. Aquariums are like a fireplace in that you can trance-out in front of them, but with the added attraction of observing behavior. Anyway, this also appeals to me because it's another way to create worlds (a living one in this case), and it looks rite purdy too...

Der receiver went kaput, so a new one was procured; new stuff can inspire a spending frenzy in which you mount an expensive and lengthy upgrading strike on multiple fronts (speakers, tv, cables, furniture, and hashing over all the different connection possibilities)... The remote control for the receiver is friggin' ridiculous: it looked fairly simple despite the backlit LCD, but the front set of buttons folds back to reveal a gazillion more underneath. Pressing a few buttons randomly brought up lists like "User1, User2, macro..." Damn. It came with its own manual, as big as the receiver's, and that's not a good sign. Do they really think that 95% of the customers are gonna spend two days studying an appliance manual? Get real. Even after you figure out all your remote controls, you're lucky if you can find a single one which controls most of the major functions of your equipment without too much hassle. Any you end up with 4 other redundant remote controls that do an even more half-assed job. It's easier to layout all your remotes on a ruler with velcro... if only they were a standard shape, with the battery compartments in the same place. Manufacturers should standardize that stuff and give up on the concept of "universal" remotes. Ah... the pitiful frustrations of the modern consumer...

And that's just the free time stuff; work is another story... So that's why Joes and Customizing have gone on the back burner. Besides, it's good to take breaks, since that takes the hard edge off of things that don't come out as well as you wish.

On the Joe front, the biggest recent news has got to be the acquisition of 21C Toys by Jakks Pacific (reported by Rudy Panucci in the Sandbox). And before that, it was Sideshow Toy's announcement that they wouldn't be producing for the mass market. In other words, signs of some decay in the infrastructure underlying this "Golden Age of Joe". I'd have to concur that all these developments aren't too surprising. 21C was the least diversified of the biggish mass-market players, with a mind-boggling product release schedule. Certainly, a lot of factors probably contributed to this development.

I think this hobby, like most hobbies, creates a kind of tunnel vision amongst the faithful and fanatical. That makes it difficult to realistically assess its place in the grand scheme of things. Because it's such neat stuff and we know so many people who are interested in it, it must be huge. In my opinion, that was one aspect of 21C's naïve misjudgments -- 21C's owners were interested the hobby, saw an opportunity there, and went after it like gangbusters. I think their interest in the hobby blinded them to some realities. And their pride blinded them to the possibility and impact of stiff competition... but blindness to such things is one of the hallmarks of being on a mission. How can a company do wrong if it produces a great, highly-detailed product for a reasonable price?

Initially, that was true as they struck at the soft, unconcerned underbelly of Hasbro. Joeheads everywhere loved the detail and the incredible value. Hasbro probably didn't care much, as they were well-diversified in other areas. But 21C was proud of their accomplishment, and mapped out their strategy to get all our Joe bucks. They wanted our loyalty, they wanted our bucks, so they listened to us (at first), and tried to give us exactly what we wanted. I think their cockiness and pride engaged them in a game of one-upmanship with Hasbro and inticed them into unwisely expending precious resources on a huge blitz of products (with a slim profit margin) to battle the mighty Hasbro. This created high expectation levels that they couldn't sustain when the belt-tightening eventually kicked in. Hosting a flashy, expensive convention (to outdo Hasbro's) probably didn't help much; particularly since the war for our dollars was already being joined by other scrappy companies. I believe that they got caught by surprise, war-weary, and unable to alter the course of some of their long-range plans.

In the grand scheme of things, the Joe market is just not that big. For a manufacturer, it's even smaller when the limited prospective bucks are distributed amongst an increasingly subdivided pie. Under those conditions, it doesn't make sense to indulge in expensive and risky projects. But 21C listened to us when we said we wanted big detailed vehicles at a decent price-- a terribly risky business proposition, given the fact that none of the far larger companies had done this before. Common sense warns us of the marketing problems-- distribution, cost and demand. True, some Joeheads are willing to spend a large chunk of change on a $200 Stuart, but many more live within a budget and instead buy something neat, but affordable-- perhaps a competitor's figure? Many die-hard Joeheads pinned their hopes on picking up a Stuart from the markdown bin. It's not good for a manufacturer when their customers rely on buying product after it's been marked down.

Sideshow Toy's decision to distribute their product outside the mass-market isn't surprising either. Despite how good a product they produce and how well it did in Toy Magazine reviews, the buyers for retail distribution chains make the decision based on their prediction of their customer's buying habits. They don't care whether you're donna buy it; they're interested in whether you represent a large enough body of consumers. While toy collectors may be a fanatical and vocal group, their numbers pale when compared to toy-buying parents with children.

21C and Sideshow Toy aren't dead. 21C is being picked up by Jakks Pacific, who will probably use their acquired assets to enhance their product lines; those products with a broader mass-market appeal. And Sideshow Toy isn't compromising anything-- they're just scaling back their production numbers and matching it with more appropriate distribution avenues. Sure, they'll probably be more expensive and not as convenient to acquire, but it doesn't make sense for them to overproduce so that we can benefit from the wonderful bargain-bin deals. Like all self-limiting evolutionary mechanisms, the Joe market is what it is-- We may see aberrant blips of quality and value due to the ambitions, quirks and inexperience of the producers, but eventually reality takes over and it stabilizes at the point where supply, demand and profitability meet.

04/18/01- Hey, Cleopatra is finally out on DVD, 4 hours of it, plus another 2 hours of documentary about the film that changed Hollywood. Can you say "Spectacle"?

She's baaaaaaak... Despite the way it may seem, I have been busy working on something... I just don't have anything to show for it yet, 'cept the virginal headsculpt that I've already shown, a long time ago. Yep, this stuff takes a long time, squeezing hobby time in around the regular work & sleep schedule. Rushing isn't a good idea. So... how much time? The last update here was Monday, April 9th; over a week ago. At that point I'd just begun to dissect the Barbra Underwire figure. Since then, putting in hours before and after work and a big block of time on the weekend. This was just to reconfigure an old figure, which you'd think would be a minor no-brainer. But it wasn't and she's still not done yet. All this is required before beginning any work on the costuming, which is where the vague concept of this project started. That's a deferred payoff somewhere down the road... (No, it's not supposed to be Chesty Morgan from the Fellini flick.)

In the meantime, I ordered and received the IntoyZ Minigun... you know, the gatling gun used in the movie, "Predator"? Sheesh, what a disappointment. I mean, it's not horrible or anything like that. It's so... ordinary. Yeah, the barrels turn, and the top trigger clicks. Whoopie. If you've been spoiled by any of the outstanding detail and working features of the Yellow Submarine stuff, you'll probably be likewise bummed. It reminds me of the vintage Hasbro stuff, and seems like an accessory which would be packaged with a figure, not an exotic aftermarket piece.

I had a similar reaction to the BBI Cy Girl, "Shadow", but for different reasons. Yes, she's a looker and it's a great figure, like all their others. That's sort of the problem for me-- it's not much of a thrill to accumulate variations on the same theme, relative to the thrill of customizing. Occasionally, a product will come out which is genuinely exciting by virtue of innovation or a new standard of Quality, and customizing goes on the back burner, temporarily. In this case, she was unboxed, briefly examined and shelved. For me, customizing is a far more involving experience than collecting.

More and more people seem to be "kitbashing" nowadays. The accepted definition seems to be: Creating a figure from clothing and accessories assembled from various sources. In the old days, we used to call that "dressing dolls" ;^), but I suppose that doesn't sound very manly. Sarcasm aside, this approach encourages you look at figure collecting from a "parts" perspective and the collectability of a figure loses its power. (You've got to get over the "Mint-In-Box" mentality before making that leap.) Increasingly, I've gotten away from that, as I feel a little funny about using stock stuff on my figures. It's not a deliberate snobbism, but I think it's a natural progression as you become more adept at the craft side: You want to feel the pride of creatorship for as much of the figure as you can. Nevertheless, as you look at store-bought figures less from the standpoint of kitbashing parts, you're more inclined to purchase them out of a collecting habit and leave them untouched. So it's like you come full circle; the collector and customizer aspects become more distinct, with the collecting side becoming almost like a duty that you don't get as much pleasure from. Very weird. (But I do unbox 'em.)

Totally off the subject: Macs rock. I'm a PC-owner but use both systems, and have recently had the pleasure of setting up a Mac G4 Server and iMacs for a computer lab... wow... talk about S-L-I-C-K! Nothing makes you feel more godlike than remotely watching and grabbing control of a workstation or locking the user out midsession while blanking out his screen with, "Game Over, Dude!". Power brings out the worst in us though, and should be tempered by wisdom. But if you've ever thought you had any privacy on a network, think again. The technology's out there and everything you do can be observed and logged. In addition to those pervasive surveillance cameras and locators which log how long you've spent in the john. It's 1984 all over again.

04/09/01- This looked so much like a National Geographic museum pic that I had to post it... It's not indicative of any real progress or direction. I'm just farting around in a low intensity mode, wondering what I'm gonna do with the gold plated mask.

Creation and destruction. Four inches below, unseen, is what's left of the former Ms. Barbra Underwire's body. Yah, I didn't like her so she had to go. In the end, hopefully something good will come out of the process.

The gun-tottin' bad gal genre is seriously in danger of becoming a boring cliché... Well, more of a cliché than it was before. It's a realization triggered by seeing Takara's plans to put five or six of their Stepford Babes in every household. Not that they're not cool-looking & all --at a hormonal level-- but the coolness of the Cool Girls concept is diminished by them being as abundant and common as Tribbles. As any fool kin plainly see. I think it's the nature of our modern market thing to bury us in so much good stuff that we get numb to it. In time, the wave subsides and we move on our next fad.

Thankfully, I know how to strip all this damn plating when that day arrives.

04/07/01- An early Saturday morning doodle. Not a particularly exciting sculpt, but it's the start of an idea. Doodling's a good time to let your mind wander and think about the specific ways that you might execute from that point and think generally a little bit farther into the future. The concept of what this might be is really vague; I don't have a complete picture in mind, only a few features that I'd like to try. Going into this, I have a fairly big backlog of ideas for different figures, but that only makes it more difficult because you have to choose.

I guess that's as non-specific as I should get at this time... If I were tell you what I might do, that would just be talk. Much better to let you see what actually develops. At this point, your guess is almost as good as mine.

04/05/01- More electroplating fun. Minx was ripe for this treatment, and now she's finally wearing a real metal bra. Woo hoo... my wife's, next! It was a lot of trouble to go through, but I try to convince myself that it was worth it. I don't think I'll redo the knights though-- there are just too many pieces and it would take forever. Did I mention that the work begins after you've electroformed the pieces?

I got caught up in the Gladiator spectacle midway through the "Generic Fantasy Warrior" project. Wow. What incredible costuming! I must say that it influenced some of the final look of that project, like changing the shoulder guards and the hairstyle, and fostering an interest in Roman stuff. I even bought "The Roman Legions Recreated in Colour Photographs" (Daniel Peterson), which may come in handy in the future. But ol' Studly ain't supposed to be Russell Crowe. That's a tempting project, but RC's become a popular subject of customizing lately, and the world doesn't need mine. Besides, I don't want a movie character in my little world of fantasy characters; that compromises ownership of the "world". It would be much better to use ideas from the movie's costuming and create my own characters. Sorry Russell.

One of the most striking things about the movie and the historical genre is the level of intricate decorative detail in both the weapons and outfits. Apparently, such frills weren't limited to high-ranking officers; I've read that common soldiers sometimes carried ornately decorated swords and knives, possibly as a way of carrying their wealth with them. This came as a surprise to me, since I'd assumed that generic warriors would be equipped very plainly. Hey, these were primitive people right? Surely not as clever and talented as us??? Hah! The lack of such decoration was one of my after-the-fact regrets about the GFW project (besides now disliking the helmet). Some of this can be fixed later, if I get re-motivated.

Decorative detail isn't exceptionally difficult to produce in a modelling medium like clay or putty. It just takes time. The difficulty is in rendering it in the proper materials. Metal doesn't sculpt like clay. And silver painted plastic doesn't look like metal. Electroforming is a partial solution to that, but some of the fine detail is lost in the polishing process. (You can't see this in the pic, but it's pretty impossible to polish in the small crevices of detail. They get filled with jeweler's rouge, fortunately hiding the electroformed granules.) I believe that the biggest challenge (and creative opportunity) facing customizers is to take the hobby beyond paint & plastic modelling, and use more authentic materials, transforming this from a toy hobby to an art hobby. Something like this: George Stuart's Historical Figures. Yowza!

RANT: THE STATE OF THE CUSTOMIZING BIZ Is small-time commercial customizing dead? If not, it's got an awfully weak pulse. What was once a dignified practice of selling complete figures and outfits has been reduced to selling parts and recasts of parts so that customers can finish their "kitbashes", made primarily from store-bought parts. This was a natural consequence of standard customizing practices and the entry of big manufacturers in the hobby. Small customizers are now left to fight over the table scraps.

One of the cornerstones of the smalltime customizing business model was that they would be able to capitalize on their unique subject matter and that which was not available from the large manufacturers. But most of us didn't want really unique-- we just wanted more variety. As the larger manufacturers introduced more variety to their lines, customer's desires were fullfilled, at low cost. The definition of "unique" got pushed further out into the periphery, where the demand -- mainly from the die-hards connoisseurs of esoterica -- is a far smaller market than the slightly unique stuff. It appears that the philosophy of producing what the big boys haven't already done leaves only scattered possibilities here & there. If it's something the manufacturers haven't already made, customers may be willing to wait until they do. Customizers pursuing these table scraps may be drawn to recasting parts from the manufacturers. Those who still produce something unique are holding their breath. So in a few short years we've witnessed the customizer as artist whittled down to parts seller. They're practically a non-entity in the current Joe scene.

It's not all that gloomy though. Some customizers quietly focus on a different angle-- providing parts, but of a higher quality than those produced by the manufacturers. Dave Tedesco of the Patch Hut caters to this market. Manufacturers simply don't want to invest in producing detail of that quality because it adds to the cost. Being a fairly low-cost item, they're an affordable after-market purchase for those who want better than off-the-shelf quality. Of course, this niche hasn't gone unnoticed by some mid-sized manufacturers: Yellow Submarine comes to mind.

It's a new day. Garage customizers simply cannot compete equally with the manufacturers on their terms of standard toy production: They can't cast as well, they're limited in the types of materials they can cast, and the cost is higher. It would seem that the way for customizers to regain their stature as artists is to focus on true craftsmanship, to employ unusual materials to produce in art-like quantities, and price their work accordingly. Lower demand would alleviate the production and delivery delays that frequently give customizers a bad name. If you can't produce for the market you've targeted, change your target market. Go upscale. This philosophy wouldn't fly well with the masses, but the masses can't be the target market. You have to wrestle with the big manufacturers for that market.

Consider Samurai armor: How would one go about recreating the incredible detail and colors of the ribbons? Molded plastic and paint would be a likely production solution for something to be sold at Target. Imagine the same thing done up with real thread and metal. No comparison. The practical route is required for production line stuff, but should customizers let those standards limit their vision? A customizer can't compete on those grounds. All the manufacturer has to do is recognize the demand, and the poor customizer is back looking for those table scraps.


Yeah, it's a way-out-there idea and I've touched on it before...It's easy to be a smug armchair quarterback when you're not in the game! If it came to pass, it wouldn't benefit me since I couldn't afford the stuff: I'm not in the target market for expensive art or jewelry either. But someone's gotta be, right? And wouldn't it be kewl to go to websites and see some outrageous top-dollar customized Joes?

Meanwhile, on the down-to-earth, boobs 'n' bullets plane, here's a link to's Tokyo Toy Fair coverage of Takara... you know, the ones who make the CY Girls?

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