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By John Denning
September 16, 2006
© Ching and Co.
Action figures and comic books are inexorably linked, from the comic strip style advertising for the earliest figures to the current dominance of superhero-based figures in the collectable market. It should come as no surprise, then, that the independent comic scene has its parallel in the toy world as well. This week Out of the Box looks at the rise of pop art in action figures and the steady stream of vinyl oddities, each trying to outdo the rest in sheer obscurity.
But what makes an action figure art? To most, it seems to be a matter of creative focus. An action figure of Superman is commonly judged by two basic factors: the sculpt and the articulation. How much the figure looks like the Superman it was based on, whether it's Christopher Reeves or a particular artist's design, is a large part of its perceived quality while how many points of articulation it has becomes the counterbalance. Mainstream action figure collectors bicker over which factor is more important the same way Marvel and DC fans continue a rivalry unmatched since the Cola Wars.
Meanwhile, so-called urban vinyl, a term credited by action-figure.com's Adrian Faulkner, seeks to build action figures with different criteria. Originally, this was defined as a figure whose design was developed independent of other mediums. Existing outside prior context, an urban vinyl figure had to be approached in terms of personal style. When your audience starts to contemplate the meaning behind a figure's design, it takes on a greater aesthetic.
It started with Michael Lau, an advertising artist in Hong Kong. After making a number of original figures for himself and friends, Lau designed an album cover for the band Anidoze. Instead of a traditional image, Lau created a new action figure and took a photograph. From this figure, Lau expanded to his famous Gardenergala art exhibit: 101 12" figures representing Lau's view of a positive modern lifestyle, heavily influenced by hip-hop culture. This was the first widely recognized "action figures as art" series ever done and solidified Lau as the figurehead of the art form, like Osamu Tezuka as the godfather of Manga or Warhol founding the Pop Art movement.
Like the Great Divide between superhero comics and their independent cousins, it appears that only a small minority of collectors bridge the gap between mainstream action figures and urban vinyl. Mainstream action figure lovers look for close representations of a previous design, though the source material can range from movie stars to the accuracy of a 12" military figure uniform. Meanwhile, urban vinyl lovers are looking for a unique style that appeals to personal artistic taste, and rarely the two shall meet.
Since the establishment of the art form only ten years ago, however, a wide variation of figures spanning the range between style and function have cropped up, and the line between mainstream figures and art has blurred. Mezco's series of licensed figures for The Warriors and Miami Vice are an excellent example. While based on characters from TV and film, the figures are done in caricature, with misproportions for the head and hands. This has earned them some amount of abuse from traditionalists in the collector community, but it's undeniable Mezco has developed a personal style and the figures still sell to fans of the original characters.
Joining the gray area from the other side is Ching and Co.'s line of figures that focus on merging the Ching dynasty in China with modern hip-hop styling. The toys themselves have a more universal appeal thanks to the explosion of anime and manga in the U.S. while still remaining within designer Jason Choy's own created universe. If not for the high cost of urban vinyl figures due to low production runs (usually under 2000), Ching and Co could easily expand into a growing East/West fusion market with cartoons, comics, and breakfast cereals.
That's another distinction in urban vinyl, however. Art, by and large, is not produced for the masses. While in the broadest definition, art is everywhere, realistically the art world is populated by numerous overlapping subcultures and schools, like some monstrous Venn diagram. When it comes to a particular artist, their individual style courts a particular crowd that appreciates it. In this way, while urban vinyl increases in popularity, most artists have only a small circle of consumers compared to the mass-marketed Marvel Legends which are specifically geared towards a dual appeal to children and adults. This, combined with the perceived value of anything "art" and the rarity of each figure's low production, sets urban vinyl in the same price range as superhero busts and statues, limiting their accessibility.
Still, every rule in the realm of vinyl figures is quickly developing an exception, and costs for some vinyl figures are steadily decreasing. The adoption of the "fun box" idea from Japan (placing a series of random figures in unmarked boxes) has spread through both the mainstream and urban vinyl toy communities, and usually costs less than ten dollars. Urban vinyl benefits from this more easily than the action figure mainstream, however, because of its basis in the artist's style rather than a specific licensed character. If you buy a random fun box of Dead or Alive video game characters, chances are you have a least a couple figures in mind you'd much prefer over the rest. Without any guarantee of which one you'll get, you're less likely to fork over the cash. For urban vinyl, on the other hand, all the figures are based on the same overall concept, and if you're a fan of the artist's work, you're probably going to enjoy the figure no matter which one you get.
As urban vinyl continues to expand even beyond its own terminology (with figures neither urban nor vinyl), several lines such as Uglydolls have burst into the mainstream market and are rewriting what we can expect from collectable figures. Next week we'll look at a number of creator's worlds and the products that they spawn while showing the collectors out there why vinyl might be vital to their collection after all.