Reinventing the Superhero: Julie Kerwin Talks ‘IAmElemental’ and Empowerment for Girls
The great thing about Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites is the ability for creators to fill a void with a product or project they're incredibly passionate about. More and more, we're seeing niche action figure and collectible creators turn to this method to get their ideas out there. It's a hard road to commercial success at retail, but if you can reach out directly to your audience, there's a chance you'll make some headway towards bigger things and wider availability.
Seeing a hole in the action figure market for not just female characters, but female characters more representative of real women, IAmElemental campaigned to bring such a series to life. After a successful round of crowdfunding in 2014, the company released its first line-up, Courage, this year. We caught up with Julie Kerwin, chief 'elemental' officer at IamElemental, at New York Comic Con to talk about the line, where it's headed, and whether or not it can succeed in a crowded market.
ComicsAlliance: What does IAmElemental mean? There are some periodic table elements like Courage and Wisdom, so how does that play into the line?
Julie Kerwin: We set out to do three things. The first was to create a figure with a healthier breast-to-hip ratio, we call it "less hooters, more heroine." The second was reinventing the superhero myth. In the IAmElemental universe, you are the superhero and these figures are the personification of your powers. We took the periodic table, we wiped it clean, and we created the elements of power to fill out the chart with courage, wisdom, bravery and creativity.
We launched on Kickstarter with our first series, which we call the Courage series, and featured the seven building blocks of courage. Every figure represents a power --- Bravery, Energy, Honesty, Industry, Enthusiasm, Persistence and Fear. We had a $35,000 ask, which was filled in 48 hours. We ended up raising $163,000 from Kickstarter, largely driven by the collector community. We were also named one of Time's top 25 inventions of 2014.
Third and most important, was to be really forward thinking in our design and engineering. They joke that I slept with the Pantone book, but we really tried to have fun with color palette. The articulation and the engineering was of the utmost importance because it needed a great play factor or there's no point. We also follow every series of seven figures with a six-inch core power, so we have our new Courage figure, and I'm really proud of her.
CA: Within the figure design itself, why was it so important to create an entire line of female figures, and how are you diversifying the line within itself to make each figure stand out?
JK: The reason was this conversation we had about how Spider-Man appeals to a boy of four and a man of 40. When this idea was conceived a few years ago, we were on the forefront of this notion of women and girls being interested in the same kind of experience. That was part of what was happening. The other was this notion of they hyper-sexualization of the female figure in the industry. We weren't saying there were no female action figures, we were arguing the female figures were not a healthy representation in terms of putting them in the hands of a child to play with, girls and boys.
I have two boys, and I think it's equally important that boys are given a strong healthy female figure to play with, too. We're not saying we're exclusive. I'll say to that point, I get emails from the collector community about how they love what we're doing and that the message is great. I think even there, there's an understanding we're talking about a message of empowerment, and we're talking about being your best self. All the superpowers you need are already inside of you. We're doing two things here; we're transmitting a message but we're also trying to make a kick-ass toy. That's our goal, and that's what we've accomplished.
In terms of differentiation in the series, each series has a muse and a new color palette. We say real heroes walk among us, and Joan of Arc is the muse for the first series. The Courage series, which we call the red series, and Wisdom, which we'll reveal at Toy Fair, is the blue series. Wisdom also has a new muse and a new aesthetic. It's still a seven figure line, and it still has the same body type, but because she's a completely new muse, it'll be a whole new look.
CA: In reinventing the mythos around these muses and characters, and aside from kids playing with these figures and creating their own narratives, what's the baseline narrative you've created for this line?
JK: We gave every figure her power. We describe what all these things are, but we also gave each a corresponding superpower. Bravery can create a force field around herself and others. Persistence can push through any object. We tried to do that as a jumping-off point for storytelling. I've gotten emails from kids with their own stories, or wonderful stop-motion animation videos and comic book stories from people, so there is an idea of story creation involved in this.
One of our few criticisms early on in the collector community was the fact that we didn't have a backstory and how important it was to have one. I understand that completely. I have every Star Wars figure known to man in my house, and I love that and Harry Potter and more, however there is still not a lot of story where women are the ones saving the day. We really wanted kids to be the active agents in the creation of the story, so that they're putting themselves there.
Having said that, we recognize the potential. We have had a lot of conversations in the last year about what we could do with it, but it would really have to fit within the brand.
CA: While you have the figures on full display here at the booth, you also have some t-shirts and greeting cards with original art, too. How far-reaching do you want to take the brand beyond the figures?
JK: Obviously global domination is the goal, right? We want to be a worldwide brand, but at our core are our action figures. I really want to stay true to that. I love designing them. It's the best part of my day when I'm getting to do design and creation. I spent a lot of time on it. Persistence doesn't just have a cape, she has a blue cape that's meant to look like a wave because of the notion that you get knocked down but you always get back up. Honesty has wings because, while yes, wings are awesome, the Persians taught their children how to ride a horse, shoot an arrow and tell the truth. We use the Persian wings in art as our inspiration for the wings. I call these our Hidden Mickeys. There's so much involved in this beyond how they end up.
In terms of the cards, this is a way for outreach. The cards are part of a breast cancer fund-raising initiative. We created a color palette with our Bravery with pink armor and teamed up with UNC's Lineberger Cancer Research Center because one of the breast cancer oncologists there is one of our very first customers. My mother lost her battle with breast cancer back in 1978. Bravery has a pink braid in her hair in her memory.
So I reached out to these wonderful female artists and I told them what we were doing, and I asked them to create an image of Bravery using whatever their interpretation was. Annie Wu did a wonderful picture, Brittney Williams came back with amazing stuff, and we ended up with series of greeting cards we package with a pink Bravery. All of the profits go towards cancer research.
The other thing we wanted to do, as crazy as this sounds, is I called the UN over the summer. I said, "I know this doesn't make a lot of sense to you, but I've created this wonderful action figure line all about empowerment for girls, and I want you to come to my booth." The UN has an initiative called He for She, and they're trying to collect 500,000 signatures from men who are committing to the concept of gender equality. And they actually agreed to come.
We've been here for four days, and not one man has turned us down in four days. It's actually been one of the most gratifying experiences of my life, certainly at Comic-Con. I think it really speaks volumes about who the collector community is. With all due respect to you as a press person, i sometimes feel that the media is stuck on one cliched story about who collects action figures and who's in the gamer community. It really doesn't match at all my experience in the industry.
CA: Were you surprised with how strong the reaction was within the community? Obviously you expected it to do well, but you get so many emails or signatures, did you expect the response to be that strong that quickly?
JK: I'm not surprised here at all. I feel grateful that I was proven right. Thank you, everyone. It makes me happy that I didn't bring the UN here under false pretenses. What has surprised me and really changed me too as a person, is the willingness to reach out to me. No matter what you're thinking, it takes time to actually sit down and send an email or make a phone call. That was one aspect of the business that I didn't have any inkling of when we launched.
For me, I was the creative. I came up with the concept and I live in a Hobbit hole typically speaking. I was not, and I'm still not, on social media beyond IAmElemental, so I live in my own little world. I didn't think about the response at the end of the day. the fact that so many people actually take time to reach out is so gratifying. That's been the surprise.
CA: Do you foresee any challenges at retail for the line?
JK: Absolutely. When we went to Toy Fair earlier this year, we had a million people telling us they could put us in Target. We're not going into Target. We're a privately-funded company, and we can't afford the high growth market. Because we don't have a backstory, we would get lost on a shelf. I readily admit that if you put my figures on a shelf next to Frozen, no one's going to buy it. We are reliant on word of mouth, and that's how we're growing. We desperately need brand awareness, but we don't have the marketing budget to create it. That's why we're here at NYCC, to help grow our brand.
It's been interesting to think about how we'll approach retail. We have wonderful distribution though BigBadToyStore, Diamond, and Entertainment Earth, and they've been wonderful. We're hoping to be able to grow through that because I think that will be key for us.
We also need some worldwide distribution. We've been popular in Britain and Australia, on a relative basis, but we're actively working on distribution in those continents. It'll be interesting to see because of what we're doing, I think that's going to be more our channel than big box stores. I'm thrilled and happy about that. It's a challenge to keep our volume numbers at a point where we can stay alive.
CA: You released Courage this year and have Wisdom on track for next year. Are you looking beyond 2016 at this point?
JK: We were in development for 18 months before we launched on Kickstarter, and I have the first seven series already outlined. The plan is hopefully to release annually. We're a small business though, so we can pivot. We thought we would retire the series after each year, but the response has been so wonderful it doesn't make sense. We're going to keep them in the marketplace as long as there's interest. Quite frankly, the mold costs in and of themselves keep me wanting to sell them. The notion is that annually we'll be launching the next series, and we have more than enough to go through seven years and beyond.
You can learn more about IAmElemental, the figures and other merchandise over at IAmElemental.com.