The Customs Of Our People: Inside The World Of Custom Action Figure Design
On a brisk afternoon in January, a collective of custom action figure creators banded together to present their works to a captive audience in a tiny gallery in Manhattan. An art show on a weekend is nothing new for the Meatpacking district, but it's rare for the likes of Aragorn, Wolverine, Mr. Freeze and the Mario Brothers to be the stars of the show.
The custom creation side of the hobby has been around almost as long as action figures have been in existence. In recent years, however, the do-it-yourself-ers that were once relegated to sharing their work on forums and chat rooms have found a larger audience thanks to the advent of better social networks and sharing options on the Internet. The rise to prominence of Instagram and Tumblr have given these artists a way to share their unique takes on familiar faces or even wholly original creations with more people than ever.
Still, seeing something online is one thing; seeing it in person is another entirely. The Elvis1976 And Friends art show offered a chance to see the intricacies of many of these one-of-a-kind sixth-scale figures, as well as giving the artists a place to talk about their passions and processes.
"The idea of the Elvis1976 And Friends custom figure show was to bring a new audience to these types of figures. I promoted it as an art show. I wanted people to see it as pieces of art and not toys," says Eric Rodriguez, organizer of the event, whose own creations were also on display under the Punch Customs banner. Prior to focusing solely on crafting his own creations, Rodriguez ran Red Planet Toys, an online retailer frequented by other 1/6 scale customizers. "I sold parts and box figures," Rodriguez says. "I did that for quite a few years and then I got into making customs. Because they're time consuming and I wanted to focus on that, I closed Red Planet."
A quick pan around the room showcases the artists Rodriguez tapped to help make the show happen. Elvis1976 is the main attraction (his name is in the title of show, after all), but others like Gee Whiz Customs, Dorgmal Snow, Winson Ma, Zuno and ZebraTen also populate the room with dozens of characters and creatures fashioned by hand. While each of the artists has a distinct style all their own, the abundance of movie, comic and video game characters on display showed more than a few shared interests.
"I love every subject," says Elvis1976, whose real name is Sebastien Bontemps. "I love movies, comics books and I like musicians. So I try to do themes that are really close to my heart. I loved Lord of the Rings. I like to make figures with intricate details. When you see a movie, or a character, it's something that's interesting and I want to build it."
Dressed head-to-toe in denim adorned with the signature patches of the Black Label Society, Bontemps cuts a strong and meticulous figure. Like his creations on display, nothing, not even a single hair, is out of place. However intimidating he may seem from across the room, his eyes light up with excitement the moment he begins discussing his work.
Bontemps walks me through his pieces on display, from a Gimli, complete with a braided beard made from synthetic hair, to his magnificently armored Batman from Arkham Origins, elaborating on the process of each.
"I try to take every figure forward with new steps," says Bontemps. "I try to make it evolve into something more intricate. I love details. To me, the more details, the more realistic the figures look." He enlists help when he needs it, mentioning he's teamed with other customizers on projects, as well as his loved ones, when the need arise.
"There are some things I cannot make, like all the clothing," Bontemps explains. "I cannot do everything. So I do what I can, and then I ask people to help me with other stuff. Even my girlfriend has helped me with the tailoring with the clothing, even my mother helps me. It's a big family going on. But I try to do as much as I can myself. You learn every time you make a new figure."
Looking over his comic-based figures, there's a gritty realism present. Though Wolverine and Captain America still look fantastical and heroic, the real clothing and weathering gives them presence most figures based on their likenesses miss. That's all part of Bontemps' style and vision for what he can bring to these pieces to set them apart from the norm. "What I like the most is giving the figures my own vision of the characters," Bontemps says, picking out Captain America as an example. "I don't like to stick with something too accurate. I like to give my own things; that's why it looks like a mishmash of everything."
In walking around the room, I notice the Batman in Bontemps' display was remarkably similar to one across the room at another artist's table. One of Bontemps' collaborators, Gee Whiz Customs, was also appearing at the show. Headed up by Bleau Aquino, Gee Whiz doesn't just make custom figures, it also makes kits so consumers can put their own spins on these limited items. The Arkham Origins Batman was just one of the handful on site that Bontemps had given his own personal touch.
Hiding behind a pair of Oakleys, Bleau is the most soft-spoken and concise of the artists exhibiting their wares. Unlike Elvis1976 and Punch Customs, Aquino's Gee Whiz Customs doesn't just limit its figures to one-offs. Many of the figures on display are part of kits developed by GWC's sculpting team for would-be toy makers to develop on their own. One such figure is a striking rendition of the CW's The Flash.
"For the Flash, the head sculpt all the way down to the shoes, even the logo emblems, were all sculpted by Gee Whiz," Aquino says. "But we're selling these as kits so people can buy from us the head, the jacket, the pants, the boots - it's going to come unpainted. So it will require some painting and weathering.
"If you get a full figure Flash--this was painted by Elvis--this will turn out to be $1,000 to get the whole figure. But if you're just going to get the kit, you'll get the kit for $500, unpainted and unweathered. You just have to do some basic stuff like get a paintbrush and do the actual painting."
Gee Whiz's table is filled with more pop culture icons, from Mario and Luigi to Robin Williams' Popeye, as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze and Tom Welling's Superman. Despite the familiarity of the faces on display, it's fair to say consumers haven't seen these representations before.
"We would rather produce figures that have no retail equivalent," Aquino says of his assortment. "Something unproduced. It doesn't make any sense to do remake something that's already available on the market."
This is particularly true of the Mario Brothers, who've been brought to life in countless ways before, but mostly with the video game versions in mind. Gee Whiz's versions have a much more realistic bent. On close inspection, the costuming isn't elaborate (what overalls and t-shirt are?), but the tailoring makes such simple designs stand out.
"All the clothes, even the denim, was all done by us," Aquino elaborates. "The denim came in a lighter shade so we had to dye the denim to get the right color. Even the little details, like trying to stitch a little Levi's [tag] in there... All the of fine details, even the belt, we did this. The only things that we didn't make are the tools, which we got online."
Like many of the custom figure makers, Gee Whiz uses parts from other figures to complete or enhance the final product. However, the unlikely actors that served as a base for Mario's and Luigi's heads are an example of the outside-the-box thinking that makes these works so special.
"The greatest challenge for me, because we didn't sculpt the heads from scratch, was finding the right existing heads to modify," Aquino says. "I got a [Enterbay] Mr. Bean head and we had some modifications in the cheeks, nose and put the mustache on it, put a hat on him so they look like Mario and -- I mean, this is how I envisioned how Mario would look like in real life.
Making my way around the room, it's clear there's a startling number of male figures on display, and a real dearth of female characters, original or not. While Dorgmal Snow has a decent roster of cyberpunk/techno-future women alongside the males, all of which look as if they've exploded from some combination of Dmitry Glukhovsky's Metro novels and Shadowrun, the other artists are almost exclusively working with males.
"Although now there are more female figures, at the beginning there weren't that many available," Rodriguez explains. "Companies just didn't make them. You'd get a female character every now and then if it was from a movie, but [you'd get] all the male characters." Considering many of the customizers are using the parts available, it makes sense. There are only so many characters a Hot Toys Black Widow body can work for, or even one of the few Sucker Punch characters released a few years ago. However, in addition to a lack of base body types to work with, Rodriguez took some responsibility with his own work.
"I just have a hard time working with them. There's not enough clothing available so unless you're hiring someone to make the clothing, you're kind of stuck," Rodriguez says. "[With Dorgmal] Snow, he's able to readjust the clothing to make it fit. It's a lot of men's clothing on the women, but he makes it work -- he makes his figures with baggy clothing -- so again, the size already works."
That said, the lack of women in Rodriguez's Punch Customs collection doesn't diminish the quality of the rest of his work one bit. There are a lot of military figures, with details pulled straight from history as far back as the Civil War, and Rodriguez is careful about ensuring accuracy.
"When it's the original, or something from an actual source like a military figure, you gotta stick to what it is or you will be called out on it," Rodriguez says. "If I make something wrong, I'll quickly get an email or a post saying that's not the right so and so... you have to stay true to what it is because they will call you out on it. But the great thing about it is, I learn at the same time."
Punch Customs does also dip into some fantasy with its figures as well, and Rodriguez has two distinct series he's developing based on The Walking Dead and Batman.
"I figured, The Walking Dead must be going on in other places outside Atlanta," Rodriguez says. "So I made my own characters in another county on the Pacific Northwest, and I have these characters and there are more coming. I've got my sheriff. I've got this figure who's sort of a -- he's my version of Daryl [Dixon]. There are other survivors. One of them is ex-military, one of them is a survivalist."
The figures are all well detailed, and have a very honest quality. You believe these people are coming from the kind of world Rodriguez is describing. Part of that comes from the ruggedness of the figures, but it's the little details that really sell the personalities of each figure. In addition to having wonderful accessories like utility backpacks, clothing and weapons, each has its own set of unique patches to add another element of depth.
"I work with One Sixth Scale King, and he does patches," Rodriguez says. "So if I have an idea for a patch, I'll send a picture. The patches on these figures, these are the patches on my own jacket, and I send him pictures and he makes this beautiful scaled versions."
The craftsmanship shows in tiny bursts of a Union Jack or a Rebel Alliance logo, or even in the sheriff's jacket with the Wahkiakum County branding. The backstories for these characters are apparent with just a cursory glimpse, and that's important for setting what could be considered plainclothes characters apart.
As for the Batman series Rodriguez is working on, he got the idea while watching the defunct Fox drama, Almost Human. In his alternate take on the future of Gotham, Rodriguez has Bruce Wayne ditching the cape and cowl, and taking a more street-level approach -- if that's even possible for a character like Batman. His partner is still a Grayson (Dick's grandson, to be exact), but this one is a detective in the Gotham City Police Department.
"I started thinking, Batman, he's older in the future, but I didn't want to make Batman," Rodriguez elaborates. "So I started putting the figure together, and I've been wanting to make a cybernetic arm for the longest time, so I popped it in there and just started adding parts." Yes, this Bruce Wayne has been battling crime for so long, he needs some cybernetic enhancements -- but it's not unlike things we've seen from takes on the character before.
Both Bruce and Grayson have a bit of a Matrix-y vibe, but you buy the story as it's being told. It's all in the details presented through the figures. Grayson wears clothes using a similar aesthetic to Nightwing's costume, through Bruce could be likened more to a Dark Knight Returns-esque interpretation. It's an interesting spin, and one Rodriguez hopes to continue expanding upon with some of Batman's more famous rogues.
Though not in attendance, the works from Winson Ma, ZebraTen and Zuno were all impressive in their own ways. It's not often you get to see a Constantine figure that perfectly captures the essence of the supernatural anti-hero the way ZebraTen's does. Likewise, Zuno's impressive Tobey Maguire Spider-Man diorama reminds me of the best moments of that franchise, rather than the awkward conclusion. Winson Ma's original line of Apexplorers showcases a tremendous amount of talent, and the influence of the Planet of the Apes series is both obvious and inspired.
All of the figures on display show off a side of the hobby I'd barely seen before, but became quickly enamored with. There are a lot more custom figure makers out there, too, that have yet to be seen by a wider audience. Perhaps they'll take part in exhibitions like this in the future. Rodriguez sure hopes so.
"I would love to make it an annual show," he says. "I want to make it bigger every year. God willing, next year there will be another show with more artists."