Zack Soto Talks Turning Toymaker With Trolls And Ghost Grunts [Interview]
Known in the world of comics as the publisher of Study Group Comics, creator of The Secret Voice and an all around fixture in not only Portland, Oregon's lively comic book community but also the small press at large, Zack Soto has recently extended his creative ambitions into the world of toys. Designing, sculpting, casting and painting limited runs of resin figures based on his own comic book creations is a labor of love. For as difficult as it is to get started in the comics world, it's even tougher to set out into the realm of plastic 3D characters. This week at New York Comic Con 2013, Soto is set to unveil his latest batch of resin Rock Trolls and Ghost Grunts. ComicsAlliance got in touch with the comic book and toy creator to learn more about the plastic-paved road that lead him to this year's show, and what he's got in store for 2014 and beyond.
ComicsAlliance: Tell me a little about your toy line. What went into your creative decisions for the sculpts, the casting medium, the colorways and the other elements that define these figures?
Zack Soto: I've always had the desire to make toys or toy-like objects, I think a lot of cartoonists do. Some people, like Chris Ware, Richard Corben or Seth make sculptures of their characters and settings for reference or fun. For me, it's a little bit of both. I can expand on my already existing story worlds by making toys of the characters that live there, and the toys themselves have already generated comics or story ideas, so it can go either way.
My initial thought was to make stuff related to my comic The Secret Voice, so the very first thing I finished was a generic Troll body with multiple heads and arms that swap out for variation's sake. As I was in the middle of making it, I started to feel a bit overwhelmed by the Troll and making joints and so on, so I started working on a mini figure, just a simple two part mold that would be fun and easy to make. That's where the Ghost Grunts came from. Because I'm me, making one mini figure sprung out into designing and working on a whole line of them that have their own unique setting and mythos, blah blah blah. So the scenario of the Ghost Grunts is a space/sci-fi world, as opposed to the more fantasy-based Secret Voice world.
The main factor is that making toys is, generally speaking, a pretty expensive endeavor. At some point, I saw enough people doing it that I started pricing it out and realized that resin casting is relatively affordable way to do things. Where I might need thousands to make a vinyl toy or maybe tens of thousands to make a complex action figure, I got the basic tools and materials to start resin casting for several hundred dollars.
As far as colors and stuff goes, I'm very much influenced by classic kaiju sofubi [soft vinyl] paint apps and I also draw a lot of inspiration from the current crop of customizers who do killer work. Generally speaking, looking to these things for inspiration was a lesson in being less focused on doing "realistic" colorways and instead bringing out the various features of a sculpt and that could mean doing a simple directional spray of color versus making sure the pants and shirt etc are a solid color, or the teeth are painted white. I tend to favor bright color combinations in my art anyway, so a lot of my toy painting so far has definitely embraced that.
CA: What's the response to your toys been like so far? Has it met your expectations?
ZS: People seem to dig them, I think? I'm still really in the beginning stages of both making the things and presenting them as a part of "my art" or whatever. I had them at SPX and that was the first time I had them on the table with me, next to all my books and prints and I was a little nervous about that. Some people were definitely confused, and some were very enthusiastic. The feedback I've gotten from toy people has been mostly pretty positive.
CA: What sparked your interest in making your own toys? Did it spring from your passion for comics or was it kind of a parallel interest?
ZS: Well, as a kid I had a million G.I .Joes, Star Wars, and MOTU [Masters of the Universe] figures, in addition to all kinds of weird bootleggy versions of the above. So that was an early touchstone. Back then I would mainly make my own playsets and such for them to play in, like a very unsafe Sarlacc pit made out of a coffee can w/nails in it that I buried in the backyard. In college I was focusing on printmaking and illustration, but I had a couple 3D classes including a ceramics class where our teacher had us make articulated figures out of clay. That was a really exciting project, I wish I knew where the things I made ended up because they were definitely weird little buggers. The first person I saw really making their own toys on a DIY level was John Pham, who made a cool resin version of one of his characters from EPOXY. He had them at SPX in like 2002 or something. I thought that seemed like such a cool thing, but it seemed really out of my reach for a while. I basically kept the idea bubbling in my head off and on for years, but the process was so mysterious to me and comics were already there for me, I just focused on that.
Fast forward to a couple years ago, when I started working for my friend Bwana Spoons at his gallery/toy shop Grass Hut. Bwana makes his own toys in resin and vinyl, and he introduced me to a whole lot of amazing creators like Pico Pico, Paul Kaiju, Healey Made, LeMerde, MonstreHero, Arbito and others who were doing really interesting, idiosyncratic work in both resin and vinyl. It's one thing to like action figures or even kaiju toys, but to see stuff that really looked like a person made it... That was cool. It started to seem more attainable, like I could try to do something myself. I did a lot of research on the process, and luckily Bwana made himself available to me to ask him stupid questions and point out where I was messing up.
CA: Toys are an aspect of comic book shop that not every fan understands. Some consider it superficial and others consider it kind of an insider-y offshoot of the culture. Where do you think toys fit into the mix? Do you think they might even feed an interest in comics?
ZS: Well, I guess I have some of that same conflicted thing in me, because I have worked comics retail for so long. If I walk into a place that calls itself a comic book shop and they have more toys than comics, I usually get sorta bummed out. But toys definitely have their place, and people like to have fun. Toys are usually pretty fun!
There's so many different toy cultures that it's hard to have a blanket answer for "where do toys fit in," but for me.,. I'm an artist and I do comics and illustration and now I also do these weird handmade toys. I do a thing with the Ghost Grunts, and I'll do this with all my toys in the future, where I include a minicomic about the character in the header card, so you get a toy AND a comic. And you learn something about the character, if it's your first interaction with it (here's that comic). That gives you a chance to invest your imagination in the toy a little, to maybe build an attachment beyond "oh this looks neat." My inspiration for that was the old He-Man toys that came with minicomics, but I know some current toy makers have done similar things.
CA: What were some of the resources you used when it came time to make your own toys from scratch? What would you recommend to people new to the hobby?
ZS: There's a TON of information out there on the internet for people interested in this stuff. Just google "mold making" and "resin casting" tutorials and you'll be able to get a grasp on the process. The big thing I recommend is picking the book Pop Sculpture, it's written by a bunch of people who make action figures and statues for a living. It's got tons of practical information that is explained very clearly in language that's easy to understand. Beyond that, I spent a lot of time lurking on various toy forums, sometimes reading years worth of threads on DIY toy stuff and seeing what people were doing or figuring out. I also recommend LOOKING at a lot of toys, different kinds of stuff, and figuring out what you like and thinking about why you like it, what you like about it, etc. I have a Pinterest board that is just filled with toys and sculptural art that I especially liked when I came across it.
CA: Right now you're working in vinyl, but do you have aspirations to more complex toys like action figures?
ZS: I'm actually not working in vinyl yet. Just resin casting for now. I'm still very much a beginner at this, and plan on making a lot of little resin stuff, honing my skills/refining my approach/etc before I move to make a vinyl toy. That said, I'm definitely looking to go that route sometime down the road.
CA: What've you got on the horizon toy-wise that people can be on the lookout for?
ZS: I am making a Dr. Galapagos figure that's to scale with the Trolls, so they can fight, and as more issues of Secret Voice come out, there will probably be other figures to match. More Troll heads and arms, for variety. I've also got a bunch of designs for the mini figures that exist in the same world as the Ghost Grunts, so that's going to be an ongoing project. More, more, more. Maybe in a year I'll think about doing something in vinyl. Right now I just want to get better, more prolific, and balance this stuff with my comics output.
Coming up immediately, I'll be at NYCC in "the Block" at booth #204. I'm tabling with Bwana Spoons, Miles Nielsen of Munktiki/Yakimon, and Joseph Harmon. Those guys are all total ballers, and I feel really humbled that they're letting me hang with them. We'll all have crazy toys, prints, art and comics for sale and hopefully people will come by and check it out!