Bringing the Golden Age to Collectors
It seems like, in the past few years, the Golden Age superheroes have become more and more popular. It might be because of their public domain status that more independent creators can use them and bring them to a wider audience. For some this might be the time when the iron is hottest and the striking is just right.
‘I think nostalgia goes in cycles’ says Jared Zichek, entrepreneur and sole driving force behind Golden Age Figurines. ‘I believe the first major revival of interest in the Golden Age of Comics occurred with Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes, published in 1965. It has waxed and waned ever since, though I think there is less interest now than there was back in the 1960s, as the Golden Age is becoming ever more distant. I mean, it is 58 years ago, assuming the final year of the period was 1956. Then again, dinosaurs are still popular, and they died out 65 million years ago! So, there will probably always be a dedicated subculture that appreciates this period of comics history.’
Jared, a 38 year old freelance 3D artist living in La Jolla, California became interested in creating a second stream of income back in 2012. It was around this time that 3D printing came onto his radar screen and he started to develop his first product. Inspired by his collection of Eaglemoss figurines, he believed there to be a niche for Golden Age superheroes, even though the collectibles market had taken a hit during the 2008 financial crisis. ‘There are currently a lot of nice collectibles out there chasing a diminished number of dollars, at least at the low end,’ Jared explains.
This may be true of the States in general, but there has been significant interest in his figurines in Scandinavia, maybe because places like Sweden, Denmark and Norway have not been hit by the recession and collecting figures has just now begun to be popular.
Choice of Source
Jared was introduced to Golden Age heroes in the early 2000s while chatting in various Yahoo groups, as was the custom at the time, where people were actively sharing scans of old comics. ‘It was very exciting, as I had never seen any of this material before.’ He also discovered a site called Golden Age Heroes and Zeroes by Copper, which has an incredible array of illustrations of these colorful, forgotten characters. In addition he cites the books I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! and You Shall Die by Your Own Evil Creation! as the inspiration for his two first figurines, Fletcher Hanks’ Stardust and Fantomah. Jared would like to sculpt more characters from Hanks’ catalogue, since he is a personal favorite amongst Golden Age creators. ‘Hanks had an amazing imagination, even if he wasn’t the most technically accomplished artist.’
Even so, super heroes aren’t Jared’s first love, as he actually prefers vintage science-fiction over superheroes, though he asserts that the latter has always been more popular in American comics. So when it came time to produce his own line of figurines, Golden Age superheroes were an obvious choice, a niche largely untapped by other companies despite its small but devoted following. ‘There is a lot of top notch art and interesting character designs scattered throughout the vast amount of comics produced in this period (the Golden Age),’ Jared explains, ‘though you have to separate the wheat from the chaff.’
In his article How to get a Figurine Produced in China and Not Lose Your Shirt, published 25th August 2014, he reiterates this notion: ‘Like any pop culture product, there is a lot of dross in the old comics hosted on such sites as DigitalComicMuseum.com; however, there are also a few weird gems that may deserve commemoration in plastic.’ The upside is that these characters don’t come with any expensive licensing costs attached to them. With this established, it was time for sculpting and production. Jared explains the process he currently goes through like this:
‘First I do a survey of my existing customers, giving them a variety of characters to choose from. I then pick the most popular one, and start collecting a lot of reference images, eventually narrowing it down to a particular story a character has appeared in. There are often noticeable inconsistencies in the way a character is portrayed from story to story, sometimes within a single story; the most common inconsistency is with the coloring. So, you have to decide which version of the character you want to portray, if you want to produce color variations, etc. I then sculpt the character digitally using an old version of Softimage XSI and Sculptris, a free sculpting app. I do my best to try to capture the artist’s original style, though it can be hard to translate a 2D design to 3D; what looks good in the former doesn’t necessarily look good in the latter. A classic example of this is Mickey Mouse’s ears. Once finished, the digital file is sent to a 3D printing company where a prototype is made. The finished prototype is sent to a factory in China where it is molded and produced in quantity, usually between 150-300 pieces. I determine the production runs based on the survey and gut instinct.
When dealing with the factory, you have to provide a production guide with everything clearly explained, especially the paint application. You also have to provide artwork for the packaging. There is a lot of email back and forth with the factory, which I do mostly in the evenings due to the time difference. After 4-6 weeks, I receive the finished figurines by airmail. I inspect them for damage or errors, setting aside any problematic figures, then send the rest out to my customers. It can take a good week to get all the pre-orders out, even with help from my family. The shipping aspect is the least enjoyable part of the business but it’s critical that it’s done carefully and promptly, as customers are often anxious to receive their figurines ASAP.’
Keeping at it
It took some time for Jared to acquire the skills and experience to get to this point, and one of the hurdles he overcame was a failed 2012 Kickstarter campaign to produce Stardust, his first figure. Today, Jared regards his Kickstarter campaign as a cautionary tale and invites people to study it as example of what not to do. ‘While it is humbling to fail publicly, it is also one of the most effective ways of learning. Fail fast, fail early and fail often is the motto of many technology startups, and I think it applies to my field as well,’ he states. He recognized the errors he made and had the intestinal fortitude to bounce back from it. ‘I decided to resculpt the figure and have it produced in resin instead of lead, reducing the cost.’ With unwavering confidence in the customer base for his figurine, he soldiered on: ‘I scraped together money from illustration jobs and my savings; I’ve only started to eke out a profit on the Stardust figure quite recently.’
After tirelessly moving on and combing the internet, researching various 3D printing companies and factories, the production today stands at three releases: Stardust the Super Wizard, Fantomah, and The Black Terror vs. Killer Robot, all from the Golden Age of Comics. While Stardust and The Black Terror are still available in limited numbers, Fantomah is sold out, much to Jared’s surprise.
‘I actually cut the production run of that one (Fantomah) because my pre-orders were somewhat anemic; I regret it now, as I think I could have sold at least 50 more. You never know how a figurine will be received until it actually makes it to market.’
If anyone is interested in a second edition of Fantomah one can sign up here; it will be in a flying pose to set it apart from the first one.
Initially the plans were to produce a new figurine bi-monthly, but Jared now feels this was overly optimistic. ‘I seriously underestimated the amount of time and effort it takes just to bring one figurine to market, let alone releasing one every other month. The time it took to move the original Stardust inventory was also surprising, though sales have recently picked up and it is almost sold out.’
This is of course only the beginning for Jared and his one man company. There are various plans and ideas on the horizon, chiefly Spacehawk [a science fiction hero created by Basil Wolverton], which is being sculpted as you are reading this article. ‘I want him to be accompanied by Gorvak the Space Pirate, one of the first villains he faced’ Jared explains. Wolverton’s monsters are next on the list, such as the Brain Bat of Venus and the creature from his famous Nightmare World story. These will be followed by a female character, since Fantomah did so well. With these figures being in the immediate future and getting Spacehawk and Gorvak done the top priority, what are Jared’s long term plans?
‘I will be releasing a survey once the Spacehawk sculpt is finalized to gauge how many collectors are interested in a secondary line of figures in a larger scale, like 1/12, 1/10 or even 1/6 scale. I’ve had several customers ask me about this, so we’ll see if there is a market for it. My guess is that these would be limited edition, perhaps around 50, and would of course be more expensive than the current 1/21 scale figures.
I’m also contemplating the release of even more exclusive limited edition sculptures, in quantities of ten or less; these would depict very obscure characters or variations of more popular ones. The scale would probably be 1/6 or 1/10. The enabling technology for this is the Formlabs Form1+, which is the only available 3D printer I’m aware of with the right mix of quality and affordability to do this sort of thing. I would probably personally assemble, finish, and paint these by hand. Prices would reflect the scarcity and personal craftsmanship that went into the sculptures.
There are other semi-affordable high resolution 3D printers coming on the market like the Titan 1 and the XFAB, which could be game changers for niche artisans like me; I’m waiting to see how good they are before investing, however. I think leasing this equipment makes more sense than buying, given how rapidly the technology is evolving.’
Another personal favorite of Jared’s is The Blazing Skull by Timely Comics, the forerunner of Marvel Comics. Producing him would require the purchase of a license though, which is probably cost prohibitive for such an obscure character. Jared also would like to transform some of the classic pulp sci-fi covers of Frank R. Paul into miniature, as he has a soft spot for vintage sci-fi and fantasy art generally. When asked, Jared has also said that he wouldn’t mind partnering with someone who holds the license for a particular character.
‘I’m definitely interested in producing figures for others, whether it be creating the prototype or facilitating the entire production process. You can get a rough idea of the market size by conducting an online survey; the factory I currently work with requires a minimum order of 150 for a small figurine. If you can reach that, then you can get something made. However, you will have to sell the figures direct, as you will not be able to provide the 50-60% discount demanded by a distributor. Ideally, you will find something popular enough to warrant production of 500 units or more; then you can look at getting a distributor or having an online order fulfillment service pack and ship your products for you.’
As this article was being written, Bill Murphy of Fresh Monkey Fiction just had his Kickstarter project successfully funded, bringing even more Golden Age heroes to the toy market. There is also CKRTLAB Toys, which makes vinyl action figures of The American Crusader and Black Terror, as well as Dynamite Entertainment, which is famous for bringing old timey heroes back to the comic books —where they belong. There seems to be a movement among these companies to work together to inform and promote the heroes of yore. Jared says that there is an informal cross-promotion between certain creators, though a more official cooperation might eventually develop.
Whatever the future holds for Jared and his contemporaries, they are only hindered by their own creativity and drive. There is much to be said for his spirit and the excellent work that he does is proof enough; in speaking with him, he does have a lot of ideas, though he is quick to comment on this:
‘I should emphasize that just because I like something doesn’t mean I’ll be able to make a figurine/model of it anytime soon; I always underestimate how long these things take. I don’t want to come off as some sort of mythomaniac making impossible promises; I’m just saying that I like certain things and there is the possibility of them being made someday. The likelihood increases as the quality of 3D printing technology continues to improve and the cost continues to drop.
There will come a day when the price of a smooth, high resolution 3D printed model will match that of a resin cast garage kit; when that day comes, many creators like myself will be popping open the champagne. In the distant future, 3D printing may come to match the price and quality of mass produced injection molded items; one can scarcely imagine the near limitless diversity of products this will enable. Even the most utterly obscure pop cultural footnote will be capable of being turned into a physical object at an affordable price.’
If one is interested in ordering any of Jared’s figurines, please go to:
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Read his article on how to produce figurines:
and if you are interested in learning more about Golden Age heroes or Fletcher Hanks in particular check out:
Toe read this article as a PDF: GAF.1