Art-Toys Ahoy! Innocence, Terror & the Unholy Manifestation of the Unforeseen Third Thing

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Kevin Ewing, “Moleman” 2014, a.k.a. “Five”, used by permission.

An item from an eBay auction I came across initiated a long, very intense email discussion with my brother, HWG (Hot Wheels Guy):

“I don’t get it,” I’d declared. “Why in hell would I seek to own this?” HWG proceeded to get me up to speed on his previous interest in this type of so-called fan art (where art-crafters juxtapose and appropriate parts and pieces from their favorite imagery) and the now very old craft of anime, originally a Japanese style but probably as early as the nineteen sixties when animated series such as Kimba the White Lion and Speed Racer were initially broadcast, established itself globally.

Anyway, clearly there is a market for this stuff, these figures – $300? – which is not huge but significant in its mythological reality, as it were: that is, there is one and it’s fully functional: awe, cosmology, sociology, pedagogical psychology is present. In my opinion it’s a weak functionality because the imagery, the art-craft itself is too childlike, too forced in its juxtaposition so that it mostly does not achieve metaphor. It rather gets stuck within whimsy, curiosity, arch inventiveness and a kind of off-putting (in my opinion) wimpy irreverence and childish wit. Of course it’s all one step away from kitsch – tacky, artistically naïve, soft-hearted imagery devoted to cuteness and gross lack of substance – and it knows this. It’s all part of the play of it – this vinyl toy culture is devoted to playing with images and the image of images as an end in itself. And to identify its childishness, as I see it, is not to regard it in exclusively pejorative terms. Art-craft, after all, continually seeks to reference the innocence, terror and intuitive subversion of childhood.

I availed myself of some online videos to further catch myself up on the vinyl toy business, both in its mass produced and art-toy iterations:

Certainly the art-toy culture is vibrant – plenty of creative zeal exists what with their conventions and the celebrity of many of the creators of this stuff. And there is some legitimate scholarship, as I’d describe it: there is a mature market and a mature, adult analysis of all this – there is legitimate connoisseurship. It’s not junk. It just mostly seems like junk to me. HWG refers to it as “a hunk of broom handle.” The camo, pseudo Mickey Mouse above is an example of how to take things too far, in my opinion. Yet, taking things too far is also part of it, right? It’s just that monetizing things is a different consideration. To walk past this in a gallery, say, I might scratch my head and mumble to myself, “Hmm, huh….” No rules, no expectations, nothing is sacred, it’s one duty of art-craft to shatter convention. So be it.

But is it mythologically functional? Mostly, as I said, very weakly and naively and best. I’ve been on about Nick Cave lately and damned if I didn’t get an email this morning informing me of some new Cave Things https://cavethings.com/ – his Dread Tiles series and the “Up Jumped the Devil” milk jug:

My subsequent email to HWG:

More of it. Nick in his mid-sixties, compelled to render dread, cuteness, dreadful cuteness and the tossed off doodle on the permanence and determined craft of a tile. All these so-called juxtapositions and subversions. But nick is the guy who said, “We are the broken metaphors of a cosmos that is beyond our comprehension.” This is closer to it. Me? I tend to regard these tiles as junky and of course they are intended to be so but I don’t see why I would need to own them. I would regard them in a gallery setting, “Oh, hmm, tossed off anime-ish riffing.” But the milk jug? OH YEAH THAT IS MYTHOLOGY. The goat as the devil and the drawing NOT a doodle but a clumsy spook fest. I HAVE considered owning that. But I’m just not good with curating THINGS. That’s your job.

But I wanted to ask: what’s the difference between the tiles and the milk jug images? I mean, I can see why these kids choose to regard the world as animated because it’s a little bit like a drug, or an intentionally twisted happiness. And I’ve noticed several generations now of appreciation for acute, wimpy irreverence. Wimpy humor. Wimpy music. Pink bear with bloody maw. wimpy. with a cavalier fright and horror. I get it. It’s mythic imagery but it’s not compelling. why not? I regard the world as mythologized, hence, I’m convinced I can recognize any iteration of myth. But clown-killer stuff is weak in the end. Horror as a genre is weak in this way yet it is a legitimate genre and Godzilla would march all over this area. Funny to me, then, that i think the plastic art-toy dude is right about the child’s perspective of this does that and that does this and then they’ll smash their toys together and rip their heads off. I believe this is active participation in the myths but unconsciously. ritual is the conscious version.

Best example of consciously rendered metaphor and symbol has to be Northwest Coast symbology. Especially Tlingit and Haida. The density of the 2-D entanglement and in the 1800’s the complete realization of the forms is incredible, to me. He is not iike the raven, the bear, the dogfish; he IS the raven, the bear, the dogfish. like many indigenous, they regarded animals as sometimes superior to humans and sometimes not; that we transform into animals and they into us. “I’m transforming.” Nick, like a kid, engages this stuff intuitively. he does not intellectualize it as far as I can tell. Or he intentionally takes a left turn instead. his art shows, his publications, his lyrics, he is literate but he does not DISCUSS, he is not a scholar of it. We all have our jobs.

What got me started on all this? Why did I research the vinyl toy business? Because I’m compelled to render Five as a vinyl art-toy someday. The cost for a minimum run of 2,000 toys at the only American vinyl toy manufacturer I could find, Symbiote https://www.symbiotestudios.com/plastic-toys , including the prototype cost begins at $25,000 or so. And something tells me that doesn’t completely cover it. Other factories mention the costs of the mold as something like $10K. So be it, it’s akin to any small business start-up, which is to say somehow it always ends up at a $25K investment. My failed food cart, that’s how much we lost. The novel, that’s how much it has cost so far. It is what it is, as they say and it takes money to make money and if it weren’t a sphincter-tightening risk then everybody would be doing it.

Crowdfunding? Perhaps. But effective crowd funding takes either a significant, preexisting marketing presence or connections that allow for developing one in advance of putting your hat in your hand. As HWG suggests, oftentimes these vinyl figures are requested by fans of a cartoon series, comic book series or film. A novel like mine that has sold a mere 100 copies? Yay, we want a vinyl version of Five! I’m thinking if the 85/15 rule holds true as it seems to with everything, it amounts to a projected market of fifteen buyers. And there are art-toys that are indeed one-offs or very low quantity handcrafted runs of ten, fifteen, twenty-five iterations. And while vinyl art-toys are the pinnacle because of the funky appearance the moveable arms and legs and heads there is the option of resin versions which supposedly cost a lot less to manufacture. So, we’ll see.

HWG agrees that Five, as a character, possesses all the desirable vinyl toy collectability attributes and I agree – the juxtaposition and appropriation are there and in my opinion, as the image was pure inspiration on behalf of HWG when he created it (he wasn’t consciously referencing vinyl toy culture seven or eight years ago when he first rendered the image) it remains fresh and authentic: it’s not bound to art-toy culture. Rather, it is fully functional mythology, at least to me, hence it empowered me to write an entire sci-fi series around it.

What about the idea of a Five art-toy, then? How to proceed? I discovered an example of what doing a one-off, personal use prototype involves: https://medium.com/@bhyde7/outsourcing-a-vinyl-toy-part-1-concept-and-prototyping-b7ba617bbe36. So, it’s not impossible and perhaps this guy would agree to spill the beans on who he used and how much it cost him if I asked.

Meanwhile, HWG has a gallery show scheduled at a university for next year, somewhere in Missouri, I think (it’s a reschedule from a cancelled show this year) and he’s thinking it’s an opportunity to carve or otherwise render a version of Five, either full-size (I imagine Five as up to Vixy’s chin, hence he stands no taller than five feet?) or miniaturized, we’ll see. And of course HWG is free to re-appropriate the image out of the context of Five; in other words, he can reclaim his original artwork for his own purposes, so that somebody might walk up to the sculpture, should it come to be, and say, “Is this Five from the Time Crime?” And HWG could legitimately respond, “Well, what do you think?” Because it may well be and then again, not. I’m convinced the cosmos has to be allowed to have its way with such images; that is, if they’re truly fully functional as mythologically potent symbols, as metaphors, they must be allowed to become what they are.

Art-toys ahoy! What do you think, dear reader? Perhaps some of you have enjoyed (or disliked) Time Crime. Do you have an opinion on a vinyl Five art-toy? If nothing else, it’s a fun thing, in my opinion – anything to do with Five is fun, despite his fraught nature. And whether an art-toy would nurture and perhaps expand the Time Crime tribe I don’t know. Or would Time Crime nurture and grow the HWG visual art-craft tribe? Perhaps both, perhaps neither. Meanwhile, inasmuch as I’ve drilled into things pretty deeply today, I don’t intend to overthink it, either. “Decide,” suggests Bob Fripp, “to undertake the inevitable.” Right on.

Update:

  • As the year comes to an end and the novel’s one year publishing anniversary looms at the end of January 2021, I made a point to decipher my Ingramspark sales (a little tricky compared to Amazon) and it turns out I’d been underestimating things: the hardcover and paperback have sold a combined 17 copies in the USA and 5 in the U.K. Yay!
  • The eBook is again for sale directly here on the website. Which is to say, I dumped my ecommerce vendor in favor of a Shopify version and e-sales are tested and operational. Not that anyone gives a shit. But, hey, I’ve priced the thing at a discounted $4.99, exclusive to the site.