Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Vinyl Impressions

Creating custom action figures can be exhilarating or exasperating. Some come together quickly with relative ease; others can take months or years with many fits and starts. The biggest problem comes when you take on more of a challenge than you are prepared to face.

By the winter of 2004, I had several customs under my belt and was eager to expand my horizons. For Christmas, I had made a custom figure of my brother wearing fisherman's gear. I even built a diorama of a wooded lakeside to showcase the figure. Although challenging, the whole project went relatively smoothly, so I convinced myself that I could make a figure of just about anyone. Around this time, my friend Jim Six had talked about how he thought it would be cool to have an action figure in his image. Our friend Kate even found someone online who made custom action figures from people's photographs, but the cost was pretty dear. Feeling rather expansive, I quietly set about to make a Jim Six action figure and spring it on everyone as a surprise once it was completed.

One thing that gave me confidence in the project was that Jim has such a distinctive look. He has a shaved head, sports a graying beard or goatee, wears glasses, and is prone to wear Hawaiian shirts and those khaki vests with all the pockets on them. He also has very specific interests such as writing and playing music on guitar, collecting knifes, and taking photos both professionally and as a hobby. All these elements formed the direction for the project.

Trouble was, where do I get a figure that looks like Jim? Facial hair can be painted on, but most action figures are not bald, and even if I found one that was, the facial features had to be correct. Many customizers make headsculpts from polyvinyl clay, but I was not that advanced. It was a quandary until one day, I was flipping through my Cotswold Collectibles catalog and spotted these figures by DiD. They were edgy looking guys wearing hip-hop clothes and one was bald with a goatee. I thought, "If I put glasses on him and painted his beard gray, he would look just like Jim!" I was off to the races.

Or at least, I was off. The figure came with blue jeans and sneakers, which were perfect for the custom, but I needed to clothe the upper part. I already had a khaki vest left over from my brother's fisherman custom, but I needed a Hawaiian shirt. Not just any Hawaiian shirt, but one that looked like something Jim would wear. Most of the shirts I found on eBay were made for Ken dolls and looked a bit...well, alternative lifestyle, let's say. Not anything I could see Jim wearing. After months of combing eBay, I found a huge lot of Ken clothes with three Hawaiian shirts which were truly exceptional. One in particular was perfect. I bid like crazy on that lot and thought I had it locked down when some woman sniped me at the last second. I was crestfallen, but I wasn't going to give up that easily. I e-mailed the winner and diplomatically asked her if she would be willing to part with those three shirts from the collection. I offered her half what she had paid for the entire lot, and she agreed, thankfully. It turned out, she was bidding on the lot to acquire just a few specific pieces from it herself. Within a couple of weeks, I had those Hawaiian shirts in hand.

Okay, with the figure clothed, the next step was developing the accessories. The eyeglasses were no problem since I had accumulated several different styles from my various action figure purchases. Since Jim was a newspaper man, I included a pencil and notepad that I already had in my stores along with various knives which I had gained from purchasing countless military figures. The guitar was a challenge. I wanted an acoustic guitar like the one Jim owned. While there were plenty of 1/6th scale electric guitars around, I couldn't for the life of me find an acoustic one. Then, just like with the shirts, an acoustic guitar surfaced on eBay amid another big lot of Barbie and Ken stuff. This time I would not be sniped, but I was beginning to wonder what I was going to do with all these pink high-heeled shoes and yellow make-up kits.

The guitar was your standard looking acoustic with a tan wood face and dark brown sides and back. Jim's Johnson guitar was black with white piping, so some careful painting was involved to transform the thing. Once that was done, however, I knew the only accessory left was the digital camera. I assumed his camera was one of those basic silver squares that most people carry around, but my wife Kathy informed me that he had a fancy one. Under the guise of camera shopping, Kathy asked Jim what brand and model camera he had so we could find images of it online. When I finally saw what it looked like, my heart sank. This was a complicated looking piece of equipment which I would have to fabricate from scratch. Breaking the camera down to each physical element, I scoured my collection of toy accessories and model kit extras to find bits of plastic that looked like each piece of the camera. Once I was reasonably satisfied with the pieces, I assembled the camera with model glue. The finished product was basically a caricature of the actual camera, as if it had morphed into a beefier, more stylized version of itself. Anyway, it had to do.

The final element was the box to put it in. Some customizers can fabricate original boxes that look just like the real thing but, again, I don't have the talent or the resources. Instead, I decided to create the original panels for the box on the computer, print them out on paper, and then glue the paper over an existing action figure box like decoupage. To save time and effort, I had to find an action figure box which was big enough to nicely display the figure and the accessories, but simple enough so that I didn't have to create complicated shapes to cover the dye cut of the box. I settled on a box containing Hugh Jackman as Van Helsing. To create the panels, I enlisted the help of my graphic designer wife. After describing my concept for the design and the text I wanted on the box, she set about creating the images in Photoshop.

I wanted the box to mimic the style of the G.I. Joe boxes of the time. Each member of the Joe team had some hokey origin on the back of the box, so I had to come up with a similar back story for Jim. Jim's origin said that he was found as an infant on the doorstep of a Tibetan monastery and raised by a renegade sect of monks, Jim Six learned their discipline that practiced universal harmony through music and a rare form of martial arts built around knife skills. As a teenager, the monastery was destroyed by Red Chinese soldiers. Barely escaping with his guitar and his knife collection, he ventured west to start a new life. He adopted a name based on the tag found around his neck as a child that only read "SIX." Now, as a mild-mannered columnist for a great metropolitan newspaper, he waged a private war against evil.

We had to carefully scale the panels to fit precisely over the existing box. Once everything was designed and printed out, I had to cut out the pieces and glue them on the box with decoupage glue. To provide a gloss finish to the whole box, several more layers of decoupage glue had to be painted on. The box alone took weeks to put together.

Once all the elements were finished, I had to secure the figure and the accessories in the box. I used twist ties to mount the figure to the backing board, but I wanted to create a retro feel as well by securing most of the accessories to the board with good old needle and thread. I knew, however, that the camera would never hold with just thread, so that was secured with velcro. My wife added an additional touch by creating a tiny CD case using the logo of Jim's old band.

The project was so complicated, it took far longer than I had expected. I had planned to give the figure to Jim during one of his annual music parties, but the darn thing was just not finished in time. I knew we were going to visit Jim and his wife again the following weekend, so I took a day off during the week just to assemble the finished product. By the time I was ready to present it to him, I was worried that the odd project would be met with bewilderment. When he saw it, however, he exploded with laughter and joy. He became so excited, in fact, that he began to turn purple and I feared that I would be responsible for his premature death. When Jim started breathing again, so did I. All the time and effort had indeed paid off.

Although the Jim Six action figure was a big success, I swore I never wanted to tackle another personalized action figure again. However, things changed...

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