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Voltaire--not the philosophe but the toy-maker
By Paisley Hibou
Aurelio Voltaire Hernández—that's the opulent birth name of the dark cabaret musician whose stage name is just as beautifully old-fashioned: Voltaire. With credits in not only music, but publishing, comics, animation, and even toys, the former wunderkind got his start in show biz animating for Parker Brothers at age 17. Mixing drama with satire, the multi-talented creator has earned a loyal following since Projekt Records released his first album in 1998.
Now the Cuban immigrant with Jersey roots claims icon status in New York's goth scene. Voltaire's music deviates from mainstream goth by infusing the violins and cellos of European folk sounds with poppy vocals and often whimsical lyrics. But, again, this is a man who could not be content with making music alone. Today Voltaire still performs, but he also teaches stop-motion at School of Visual Arts in New York and continues unleashing a flurry of brain children onto the gothic scene.
In a recent interview with Quail Bell, Voltaire discussed the territory of his ever-expanding toyland:
Quail Bell: You're like a gothic Da Vinci. You make music, films, books, toys, and, most famously, mayhem. Let's focus on the toys!
As an animator and cartoonist, toys seem like a natural outlet for your creations. What were some of your favorite toys as a child? How have they inspired any of your toys, if at all?
Voltaire: I was always a fan of monsters so my favorite toys were mostly monster toys. I had some Universal Monsters action figures by MEGO that I was fond of when I was really little and I collected these little monster figurines from a breakfast cereal called Freakies. Later on I had a giant alien from H.R. Giger's “Alien,” and then of course I got into “Star Wars” action figures. But one of my earliest memories regarding toys was seeing this strange, spotted alien toy that was shrink-wrapped to a box of laundry detergent. Looking back, the monster looked a bit like Sy Snootles from “Return of the Jedi.” In any case, the only way to get this toy was to buy the detergent and my grandmother, whom I was with at the time, was having none of it (laughs). I'll never forget that blasted alien toy and I think that perhaps the elusive nature of it gave me a love and appreciation for obscure monster toys. The more obscure it is, especially if it's not tied to a big license, TV or film, the more mysterious and interesting it is to me.
QB: How would you define the art of toy design? Do you have a routine process?
V: To be frank, I don't have much choice when it comes to how I design toys. Most of the toys I've made have been in the world of what they call "designer vinyl" and on what they call "blank canvas" or "platform toys," which means that the shape already exists and different artists design their version of that toy.
For instance, a company like Toy2R from Hong Kong will make a vinyl figure of a bear and then they will give that same vinyl bear to a few different artists to design. Sometimes they give you
the actual vinyl toy, you paint on it and then it gets sent to a factory where it's duplicated and manufactured. But usually, what I get sent is a template in Illustrator format. It's an outline of the toy from the front, back and other sides. I can then print it out and draw on it, or do all of the designing in the computer. I usually do all of the designing in Photoshop.
QB: Talk to us about your Deady character. Who is he? What's his story?
V: Deady is actually the galaxy's greatest evil, a giant tentacled skull named Urkor Malravenus who escaped confinement on the cemetery planet of Necronus and is hiding in a little teddy bear here on Earth. But that wasn't revealed to me right away, mind you. His story developed slowly over time.
I think it was back in 2002 or so that I had signed a deal with a clothing company called Mighty Fine. The idea was that I'd provide them with T-shirt designs that they could sell to stores like Hot Topic. I did some designs of a cute but evil teddy bear with snarky slogans. One said, "Just because I'm adorable doesn't mean I won't rip your face off" or something like that. Another one said, "Deady loves kids…well done with a little barbecue sauce.”
Originally his name was Evil Teddy. But around that time Hot Topic had told me they wouldn't accept anything with the words "hell,” "devil" or "evil" in it due to growing complaints from parents in the heartland of America that felt Hot Topic was turning their children into devil worshipers (laughs)! I eventually came up with the name "Deady" and in the end I preferred it.
I get very attached to my characters so after drawing Deady a few times I started to think about who he was and where he came from, imagining all sorts of adventures he's had. I got the idea to make a Deady graphic novel series so that I could tell those stories. I ended up making four books, each with 48 pages of art and stories about Deady. They had incredible guest artists and writers in them including “Hellraiser” creator Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, Roman Dirge, Gris Grimly, James O'Barr, Tokidoki and many other incredibly talented people. And as you already know, it eventually spun off into a line of toys.
QB: What's your favorite toy you've designed and why?
V: I don't know that I could pick a favorite. I have lots of them! I like the Deady as "Stitch" from Lilo and Stitch that I made with Mindstyle a couple of years ago. It's a really good looking toy but mostly I like the idea that Disney made a Deady toy (laughs)!
I also feel really lucky to have been given an opportunity to make Hot Wheels cars. I designed a two-car set for the Japanese collector's market that included a Deady hearse and a Chi-chian Worm Wrangler truck. I can't say I ever imagined I'd get to design Hot Wheels cars!
I think my favorite toy is still out there waiting to get made. I have always wanted to make a Chi-chian action figure and I haven't given up hope of it happening some day.
QB: On your website, you mention having so many toy company "doors slammed" in your face. Could you talk about some of the trials and tribulations you encountered in your early days as a toy designer?
V: Long before I'd ever made a toy, I was making comic books. My first two comic book series were "Chi-chian" and "Oh My Goth!" and as you might imagine, they're both filled with colorful characters. Any artist who's ever grown up playing with action figures dreams of seeing their own characters become toys, and I was certainly no exception. I'd see Spiderman toys and Batman toys in stores and I'd think, hey, I create comic books, my characters could be made into toys, too!
So I went to some of the companies making action figures back then and proposed they make figures of my characters. Everybody I spoke to was super nice and they always seemed to think my comic book characters were very interesting but no one would ever want to sign the deal to make my toys. I was constantly being rejected and no one would ever tell me why.
I had to eventually learn on my own that making toys has nothing to do with how cool or interesting or beautiful your characters are. It only matters how many people are familiar with them! It can cost around a hundred thousand dollars to put an action figure into production. The metal mold or "tool" they make to cast the plastic can cost tens of thousands of dollars on its own.
So what characters are these companies going to make figures of? Characters like Chi-chian that only a few thousand people know about? That's a very risky business. Companies want to be assured that if they spend tens of thousands of dollars, there are going to be tens of thousands or more people poised to buy the figures they make. So they make figures of characters everyone knows, characters from Hollywood movies and characters that are household names that millions of people are familiar with, characters like Mickey Mouse and Superman and Bart Simpson and Darth Vader. It's a numbers game, plain and simple.
So the sad truth is that if you create a character and it's not in a blockbuster film or television show you can pretty much forget about seeing it developed into a plastic action figure. I had to learn that the hard way on my own because, sadly, people just won't tell you this to your face.
QB: Now for the positive: What sort of successes have you had with your toys?
V: Well, the really brilliant thing is that just as I was giving up hope of ever seeing my characters made into toys, there was an amazing development in the toy world. About a decade ago, some enterprising
artists in Hong Kong who had access to Chinese factories starting hiring the factories to make vinyl toys of their designs. These characters were not from video games or blockbuster movies, they were just straight from the artist's imaginations. Since the artists didn't have a lot of money, they couldn't make millions of the toys, just a couple hundred or so. This made these toys highly collectable and very sought after.
These artists in essence created a new toy market that some called "urban vinyl" or "designer vinyl.” Simply put, they were vinyl toys, designed by artists, made in very limited runs. Now suddenly an artist such as myself could get their characters turned into vinyl toys!
A few companies popped up that starting making designer vinyl toys. One of them is called Toy2R. They were making these little vinyl bears called "Qee.” I started seeing them at my shows hanging from fan's backpacks. I went to a store here in New York City called ToyTokyo and bought a few of them. Eventually, I emailed the company. I told them who I was and what I was doing. I said, you make vinyl bears, my character Deady is a bear…maybe we could make one together. And they agreed.
My first toy ever was a two and a half inch tall figure of Deady on a key chain made by Toy2R. That figure sold out almost immediately and the rest is history. I've now made over a dozen different Deady toys with Toy2R alone.
QB: Deady's already prompted bootleggers! If you could have a face-to-face conversation with bootleggers, what would you tell them?
V: Well, actually I have had a talk with some bootleggers in China who were churning out Deady bootlegs and what they told me was, "This not bootleg, we no make!" When I prodded further, they insisted that by Chinese law if the character is ten percent different, then it's not a bootleg. Then they pointed out to me that the eye on the Deady bootleg they were making was a little different than the original. It's just crazy! But I suppose it should come as no surprise.
There is a Disneyland in China that is completely unlicensed by Disney! They have a Mickey Mouse and a Donald Duck and all the same characters but their names are all just a little bit different, like Mikey Mouse and Donny Duck! (laughs). "It not bootleg! We no make!" (laughs).
The thing about bootlegs though, especially for a little known artist like myself, is that it's kind of flattering. Though I don't make any money from the bootlegs, it's still kind of cool knowing that there is enough interest in my characters that a factory in China would invest time and money to rip me off (laughs).
QB: You always seem to have new projects. What lies in your toy future?
V: I'm in full swing of what appears to be a "Deady and Fiends 5 Mini-Qee” series by Toy2r. We released a five-inch "Mini-Qee" figure of Deady called "Deady Big in Japan" back in the summer of 2011. We released three versions of this Japanese-inspired Deady figure. They each had different facial expressions and were called "Karate Kiai,” "Ronin Raspberry" and "Samurai Smirk.” Shortly thereafter, towards the end of summer we released an "Urkor Malravenus" five-inch Mini-Qee.
All of these toys came with a code to unlock a digital pet in the super popular online game "AdventureQuest Worlds,” where Deady and I appear as special guests every Friday the 13th. There are three Friday the 13ths in 2012 so I'm sure Deady and I will be very busy in that game.
The next round of Deady Mini-Qees from Toy2R appear to be a line of vinyl bunnies. There's a figure of "Deady Bunee" that we are presently working on that's simply Deady as a rabbit. But we are also working on a figure of "Sleezter Bunny,” one of Deady's rivals from the comic book series. I'm hoping to have the bunny figures out by Easter, of course.
I also really need to get a new Deady plush toy made. I could never keep those in stock when I had them!
QB: Lastly, what do you think makes toys so special?
V: Toys exist for the sole purpose of bringing us joy. Nothing makes a child happier than giving them a toy. They just completely light up. They feel a kind of intense, pure happiness most of us adults have forgotten how to feel. As we get older other things take the place of toys, things like money, sex, booze, success. But some part of us deep inside still remembers the joy we felt when playing with our favorite toys. I'm reminded of Citizen Cain's last word, "Rosebud.” People who can still connect with their inner child will always love toys.
P.S. Take them out of the box and play with them, dammit! (laughs)
Oh, and anyone interested in seeing more of the toys I've made, can see them at Voltaire.net/toy_gallery.