|Thought Experiments: Invasion of the Vynl Space Monkeys
by Therese Littleton
The Stylishly Strange World of Designer Toys
Science fiction and toys go together like peanut butter and jelly. But after decades of the same old sparking ray guns, wind-up robots, and squeezable “stress relief” gray alien heads, maybe it’s time to drop some new style into our toy chests.
We buy toys at least partly to advertise our love of the genre. Skiffy toys adorn our cubicles, dangle from our rear-view mirrors, and end up gathering dust in our basements. Some of us are bona-fide toy collectors, spending hefty chunks of cash on rare tin toys and hard-to-find action figures, preferably “mint in box.” I know one Star Wars collector who buys three of every new toyone to play with, one to sell on eBay later, and one to keep pristine in its packaging (presumably forever). Most of us aren’t quite that . . . intense . . . about our toys, but we do accumulate pieces of colorful, molded plastic nonetheless.
Since the SF community prides itself on being future-focused, why do we insist on preserving the stale relic toys of three years ago? It’s time for a toy update, my fellow fans.
These days, if the coolest thing you’ve got propped up on your computer monitor is a wind-up Robbie the Robot, you’re missing out on a toy revolution. It’s called “urban vinyl” and it’s the best thing to happen to collectable toys since George Lucas first heard the words “tie-in.” In 2004, Wired magazine called these hip new toys “action figures with street cred.” Urban vinyl toys are to yesterday’s playthings what DVDs are to videotapes.
In 1997, designer Michael Lau tricked out some old twelve-inch action figures, customizing them as streetwise hip-hop bad boys, and took them to a Hong Kong toy show. Artistically minded toy fans went crazy for the idea, and before long, specialty stores were pushing weird sets of highly collectableand sometimes very expensiveplastic or vinyl figurines, produced in small batches. The new scene had lots of overlap with graffiti art and hip-hop music, as well as with comics and science fiction.
Kitschy, cheap, and sold in limited quantities, these designer toys took up where Hello Kitty left off, but without the heavy dose of saccharine. Cool, collectable figures like Kubricks, Stikfas, and Qees (pronounced “keys”) displayed a new, clean, and very weird sense of artistic style. People started debating the merits of various plastic materials, painting techniques, and “sculpt to articulation” ratios, and a cult was born. Generation-X toy fans who were weaned on Star Wars toys and Micronautsbut who disdained action figures of modern films or comics as too fannishfound a new outlet for their obsessions.
Reality check: to non-SF fans, a grown-up toy collector represents the height of nerdiness, a person who has failed to mature, maybe even a social misfit. After all, who doesn’t snicker at the comic shop owner character on “The Simpsons,” a perfect example of the pedantic, minutiae-spouting collector type?
But the great thing about urban vinyl is that on a Venn diagram of science fiction, obsessive collection, and trendy style, this phenomenon exists at the intersection. Buy all the designer toys you want! Keep them mint in box, if you want. No one can really make fun of you, because that’s exactly what all the cool kids are doing, too, for a change.
What makes these toys “designer”?
Style, style, style.
As urban vinyl became more popular in the West, manufacturers sought out graphic designers, graffiti legends, and artists to come up with their own toys, either working from a template or starting from scratch. Indie comic artists Tim Biskup and Jim Woodring have lines of designer toys. So do graffiti and underground artists such as Quik, Lase NYC, Doze, and Dalek. Young artists are excited to be working in this new medium, and specialty toy manufacturers are equally eager to hire them.
(If you’re feeling lost or very, very old at this point in our tour of urban vinyl, take a deep breath and remind yourself that we’re just talking about toys here.)
Pop Art Meets Science Fiction
Toy2R, the company that makes Qees, is one designer toy outfit that provides artists with blank toy templates and lets them create custom paint jobs or accessories. The resulting one-of-a-kind toys are shown in pop culture galleries as the 3-D equivalent of a canvas or drawingsomething between a painting and a sculpture. Limited edition Qees are produced featuring favorite artists’ designs, and are snapped up by collectors. For artists, the templates provide a whole new way of expressing themselves, marketing their style, andmost importantlymaking a living doing what they love.
Dalek, also known as James Marshall, took his working name from the Doctor Who television series. His characters, including knife-wielding space monkeys, are available printed on posters, mousepads, shower curtains, and skateboard decks, or as vinyl toys <www.dalekart.com>. Dalek is a perfect example of the crossover between science fiction and designer toys.
Science fiction “just sort of creeps in,” he says. “The beauty of science fiction and where I draw most directly from it are its infinite possibilities. There are no limits . . . no finites. You can create your own worlds.”
Dalek’s space monkeys are strange and vaguely threatening aliens with disarming habits. His description of them sounds like something Philip K. Dick might have come up with:
“What are Space Monkeys? Where are they from? Are they born alive, or are they incubated in egg-like vessels? Why do they smirk at us as if they know something we don’t? Even when they are suffering from what would be moments of human weaknesslike a hole in the head or a recently amputated limbthey continue to smile and stare, assuring their control of the moment. Why do they always march to the left? Is there a mothership calling? Are their hearts situated on the left side of their bodies like ours? We can only guess.”
Like most science fiction fans, Dalek grew up with the genre firmly entrenched in his life. “My science fiction fixes come mostly in TV and movie form. When I was younger, I read a lot of X-Men comics. I liked the Avengers as well, and Daredevil. . . . I grew up watching Doctor Who, Twilight Zone, Star Trek, that kind of stuff. . . . Star Wars, of course.”
With urban vinyl toy names like “Futura Nosferatu,” “Mecha-Boy,” and “AXTRX,” it’s clear that science fiction is a huge source of inspiration in this new world of collectable fun.
At the designer toy shop OKOK in Seattle, employee Max Field Wood-ring agrees that science fiction is a big source of design material, but in a more general sense. “You’d be hard pressed to find toys with a time travel theme, for instance,” he says. He shows me dozens of toys that would look really good lined up on any SF fan’s shelf.
There are the HazMapo figures, strange, big-headed guys in futuristic protective gear. The Neo-Kaiju resemble Japanese movie monsters, only cuter and weirder. Woodring tells me about a toy that sold out in less than a daya steampunk version of Godzilla’s 3-headed foe, King Ghidora. The toy brand Kubricks has a line of battlesuit toys called Maschinen Krieger, as well as cute spacemen and robot figures. The “Space Friends” toys are a set of adorable aliens with big mouths and goofy eyes. “Blitz” by KAWS is a funky rocket with feet and a face.
Some of the toys come in plastic capsules made for vending machines. Others are in “blind boxes,” and you can’t tell which one of a series you’re buying until you get home and tear open the package.
It’s as hard to describe these toys as it is to tell someone about a painting you like. The Neo-Kaiju series includes toys designed by five prominent artists, including Kathy Staico-Schorr and Todd Schorr. Kathy’s “Trilomonk” is a smiling gray monkey with a UFO-shaped head, riding on a giant trilobite. Todd’s “Steam Punk” looks like a spherical boiler on spindly legs, with three red-eyed snake heads and tattered devil wings. As lone pieces and as part of the Neo-Kaiju series, they strike a balance between irresistible playthings and visually arresting objets d’art.
Max Woodring explains why artist-designed toys fly off the shelves. “A comics fan might not buy a print from an artist, but they will buy a toy. Then they might learn about the artist and collect the rest of his or her toys.”
The main difference between designer toys and old-school collectable toys is that most urban vinyl designs aren’t based on any existing franchisethey’re all original. Sure, you can spend a fortune on eBay to get a classic Boba Fett action figure, but if you really want to make a statement, urban vinyl toys tell their own stories.
Many science-fictional designer toys use retro-SF elements in their design, from big bubble helmets to mechanized armor and strange antennae. But all of these elements are remixed in unpredictable ways. For example, I think Doze’s “TravelA” figures look like monstrous space-workers on their way to clock in at some asteroid mine.
Does all this leave the traditional action figure out in the cold? Not really. A visit to your local comic shop will reveal that there’s a whole separate vinyl toy world out there. Hyper-realistic busts of Captain Picard and The Matrix’s Neo are selling for fifty bucks alongside busty robot-girls from anime franchises and muscular fantasy heroes. McFarlane is one of the most prominent toy companies in the realistic comic and movie figure biz, and they make most of the collectable action figures for SF film and television franchises. The action figure business is booming, and big box stores such as Target and Toys R Us stock whole aisles with them.
Tie-in toys for big-budget movies can help make or break the budget, as George Lucas has proved time and time again. The market includes both collectors combing stores for one elusive toy, and casual purchasers. Even . . . (gasp) . . . kids. As traditional action figures get more and more detailed, requiring artists to hand-paint or sculpt their prototypes, the difference between traditional action figures and urban vinyl is starting to narrow.
While there may be some overlap in the collector’s market for traditional figures and designer toys, it’s hard to imagine anyone but a science fiction fan having a broad enough appetite for the fantastic to encompass both styles.
My first designer toy was a Qee keychain figure of a vaguely robotic teddy bear with a striped surfboard accessory, a gift from some friends who picked it up at Comic-Con in San Diego. Since then, I’ve been haunting OKOK and Schmancy, another designer toy shop in Seattle, looking for more. Schmancy holds monthly receptions where customers can meet up-and-coming artists while eating cupcakes and ogling the latest shipment of toys. If I have five bucks to spend, I can get a new toy for my cubicle, or a gift for a friend.
I have discovered, however, that not everyone appreciates the aesthetic of urban vinyl. One friend merely shrugged in confusion at the Kozik Smoking Bunny I got her, even though these items are in high demand among enthusiasts. Urban vinyl appeals to a special sort of person, a . . . weird sort of person.
Now that you’re interested, you’ll want a Qee of your own. The best places to find the hottest new designer toys are in Japan or Hong Kong, but if you can’t afford to have your toys shipped across the Pacific, urban vinyl specialty shops are popping up in major cities. With stores online and in New York, L.A., and San Francisco, designer toy headquarters in the United States is Kid Robot <www.kidrobot.com>.
In the UK, one of the top urban vinyl shops is Playlounge <www.playlounge.co.uk>, with both online and storefront presences. Plenty of web sites carry the toys, including Rotofugi <www.rotofugi.com>, My Plastic Heart <www.myplasticheart.com>, and Toy Tokyo <www.toytokyo.com>. Many of the online sources for the rarest of these toys have .jp domains, a clue that shipping is going to cost you a fortune.
One New York toy and design outfit, Sweatyfrog <www.sweatyfrog.com>, encourages would-be toy moguls to come up with their own urban vinyl creations. They’ll even help you find a producer in Hong Kong to bring your ideas to life. But before you run out and draw up plans for your own toys, be sure to read the FAQ. The cost of producing a one-thousand-piece vinyl toy run is estimated at about fifteen thousand dollars.
If you’re serious about collecting Asian toys, you could always do what my Star Wars-obsessed pal doesgo in with some other fanatics on your very own shipping container unit to fill up with rare toys in Hong Kong or Tokyo. It’ll cost you a bundle, but you’ll have all the latest urban vinyl before it hits the streets.
Just one word of advice: when you go down to the docks to get your container, it’s probably best not to tell the longshoremen that you’re looking for a big box of space monkeys.
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"Thought Experiments: Invasion of the Vynl Space Monkeys" by Therese Littleton, copyright © 2005, with permission of the author.