Get into character

For a generation of artists brought up on a diet of comics, cartoons and sci-fi, the urge to create characters and their universes has proved irresistible, as Ric Blackshaw reports.

When I was a kid, one of the things I loved doing with my comics besides reading them over and over again was tracing the artwork in them. I was fascinated by the characters, how they looked and how they were developed. The Hulk was a personal favourite; I was a pretty weedy kid and I think the idea of being able to express my inner rage by trashing nearby cars and chucking bullies against walls really appealed to my feral imagination.

Comics have pretty much stayed with me throughout my life - I never really grew out of them like I was supposed to. I recount this to you now not as some geek confessional but by way of an explanation for today's burgeoning designer vinyl art toy scene and as a possible reason for the commercial importance of character design in mainstream popular culture, from advertising to pop up web icons. You see, I was far from alone in my childhood obsessions.

The 'kidults' are united
During the late 1990s, advertising companies and marketing strategists (that group so beloved of Bill Hicks) slowly began to pick up on the second wave of graffiti, the resurgence of skate culture and the new vogue for illustration. At the same time, a new emerging demographic was being identified that you could loosely call the 'kidults'. Unlike previous generations, this 25-40 age bracket was retaining its interests in youth culture, but with the added boon of having real disposable income. Traditionally, cartoon characters in western marketing were mainly used in conjunction with products that were aimed at kids - Frosties' Tony the Tiger, for instance - but shows like The Simpsons and Ren & Stimpy had already shown that cartoons could be a hit with adults.

My theory is that because all these adults continue to collect Star Wars toys and are still doing their knees in down the skate park, it's a logical conclusion that they would continue to respond to cartoon-like characters as part of marketing campaigns. So you had 3Mobile's violent panda adverts that had the look of 'art toys' like Kidrobot's Dunnys and, more recently, cult artist Pete Fowler being employed to make Kia car commercials. Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable to do a high budget car commercial as an animation. This is a classic example of a part of mainstream culture recognising the power of a cult movement in communicating to a mass audience.

So what of the underground scene that has proven such manna from heaven to so many ad executives. A scene that grew from the general milieu of comics, cartoons, sci-fi, graffiti and toys like Action Man and Lego, the stuff that dreams were made of during the 1980s when all these artists were growing up. This was certainly the breeding ground for a lot of today's character designers, but there are also some pioneering artists who can be said to have had a huge influence. One that stands out for me is Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth, a counterculture figure of the 1960s. His work and its influence on later artists can be traced to the present day.

The daddy of character design
Ed Roth was a pioneer of Hot Rod Kustom Kulture. Feted by the writer Tom Wolfe as the Dali of the scene, he combined his love of cars with a talent for caricature. Roth's most enduring work was a manic-looking, drooling, bloodshot-eyed character called Rat Fink. The story is that the character was designed as a kind of anti-Mickey Mouse. Rat Fink grew in popularity beyond Kustom Kulture, leading to a series of models of Roth's characters and cars being released by Revell, an early sign of things to come perhaps€¦ Conceptually, the Rat Fink character was a standalone icon. He didn't come from a comic book or a wider fantasy universe; he was the singular vision and design of one man. This is the key element of today's Urban Vinyl scene, the element that sets it apart from the more mainstream Action Figure scene, which is based on regular characters from comics and movies. The idea that a 'toy' figure can be a limited run of one artist or designer's standalone creation owes a lot to the pioneering work of Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth.

Stylistically, too, Roth and his Rat Fink have not been without influence. Something of Roth's manic energy can be seen, for example, in the work of Dalek, whose Space Monkey creation's bug-eyed, open-mouthed looks bring to mind Roth's creatures put through a cubist mangle. Dalek is a great example of how artists of his generation have re-interpreted and re-mixed the pop culture ephemera that surrounded them as they grew up. Like many artists that have found a home in this scene, Dalek cites quite vague childhood influences - "TV€¦ Comics€¦ Toys€¦ Snakes" - in his own words. When trying to describe how his Space Monkey characters came about or where they came from, he doesn't find it easy to pinpoint any one moment or origin point for their development.

"They just sort of happened," he explains. "They're an amalgamation of crap lodged in my head from various places, spewed out onto a wall." While being a natural progression, the move into toys wasn't planned, he explains: "The toy thing really came out of left field. The monkey was never envisioned as a 3D character, hence the early versions of it sucked. They're much better now though€¦ the Sony ones came out real good and the Toy2r Space Monkey Qee has a good shape and feel.

"I can see the attraction for people collecting this stuff," Dalek continues. "I was super into toys growing up and, when this whole thing started catching on, I think it gave folks an outlet for that. Also, it's another way to buy affordable art. Most toy designers are also artists€¦ it's pretty interesting that folks have turned themselves into mini brands essentially."

Monsterism evolution
One of the UK's leading character and toy designers, Pete Fowler, tells a similar story of childhood interests creeping back into his adult life:

"The whole monsters thing came to me slowly; they started appearing more and more in my sketch books. It's strange really; I loved monsters, ghosts, legends, myths, UFOs and suchlike as a kid but never really drew them. I think these creatures and stories were saved in my mind until later to be used as inspirational nutrients.

"The toy designing developed in a similar way," continues Fowler. "I've always liked toy figures and characters, and as a child I used to have Star Wars and Fisher-Price toys that were well played with. Then I started to collect toys later on in my 20s, usually from car boot sales and junk shops. I was still studying fine art when I began to make figures from Fimo. As I developed characters that were more and more human, I continued to model them in Fimo and, as my illustration career took off, I began developing larger-scale sculptures with the aesthetic of vinyl toys. I really enjoy the realisation from 2D to 3D and it has helped my character creation to think in three dimensions even when sketching."

Fowler has developed his world of Monsterism into a whole alternate universe but, like the characters themselves, it's something that developed gradually. It was the toy designing that began to bring the characters together.

Toy shopping
"The idea for a world was there but never fully developed and explored until the first toys were released," he explains. "I thought about each of the character's traits and personalities before then but it hadn't been written down. Since then, it has expanded into what it is now. The world takes on a life of its own, it starts to inform and influence itself, and new characters and situations are born from the edges of the previous creations." Character and toy design is now an ever-burgeoning industry. The success of Pete Fowler and also the huge impact of projects like Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn's Gorillaz pushed the scene into the mainstream. Many artists and designers who had been creating characters for their own personal enjoyment began to see opportunities for themselves. Mark James, the creator of the Card Boy figures, was one such artist who saw the opportunities opening up before him.

"I've always created characters, some as one-off pieces and some with background stories," begins James. "It was a personal thing I used to do - it still is in a way. As more artist toys started appearing (like those of Pete Fowler and James Jarvis), it became a more realistic idea, so I started approaching toy labels, trying to find out about the process and how to go about getting my work made. I wasn't really thinking about mass production, I just wanted to make a few pieces. Around that time I found myself working with Pete Fowler on some Super Furry Animals artwork; he was just in the process of setting up his Play Beast toy label so it all fell into place."

The popularity of this scene has led to the opening of specialist shops to cater for our ever-increasing desire for characters in our lives. One such spot is Playlounge, run by a very likeable chap called Aidan. Playlounge opened in 2002, born out of frustration with what Aidan perceived as a pretty staid retail scene.

"I grew up in Asia, so I already had a passion for the culture of collectable toys," he begins. "Asia has always had a very different perspective on comic book and toy culture, which tends to blend age boundaries, whereas in the West, there is still a general perception that comic books and toys are for children. The burgeoning interest in design-related collectable toys caught on fairly late in the UK".

As Aidan points out, there is a tendency in the mainstream to pick up on the cooler end of the market occupied by the likes of Michael Lau, KAWs and Futura, but there is a massive range of stuff that appeals to a far wider range of people than the 20-somethings who obsess about the latest Kubrick Star Wars set.

"We were very keen not to just focus on the obvious high-profile 'urban vinyl' products, but open out the culture and make it all inclusive of both gender and age," he explains. Plush toys make up a fairly large percentage of our product range and tend to cross the age and gender barriers most effectively. Products like the Ugly Doll series - by Sun-Min Kim and David Horvath - are some of our bestselling products for both dedicated collectors and parents buying for their children."

Going mainstream
Playlounge was conceived as an antidote to the increasingly bland, homogenised, shopping experience and it seems people from all walks of life, all ages and both sexes are responding to that - as are many young artists and designers in the UK. As Aidan says, we may have been late starters to this scene, but the artists coming through now are already looking like promising successors to UK pioneers like Fowler and Jarvis.

Will Ainley, who recently signed up with illustration agency Scrawl Collective, is a case in point. Armed with a demented sense of humour and a talent for captioned cartoons to rival those of Gary Larson, he has recently been developing his own series of characters called Monsters of Rock that look ripe for the vinyl toy market. Thanks to the vinyl toy scene, character design now has a natural home and commercial viability. What was a niche interest in a genre mainly based in Hong Kong and Japan has taken the West by storm. I think it's fitting that I should leave you with some prophetic words from Pete Fowler. "There is so much stuff out there now that it has definitely gone overground and perhaps turned into the modern version of the ornament. Perhaps they will be the future car-boot sale nick-nacks?" he says.

I can just see Monstrooper on the mantle next to my auntie's glass fish and thimble collection€¦