Remember those old Kenner ‘Star Wars’ action figures? The tiny, four-inch poseable figures that sold nearly 300 million units in the late 70s and 80s?
Now, picture those, but instead of Darth Vader and Princess Leia, it’s Mason Ramsey, the yodeling Wal-Mart kid, or a legless Lt. Dan from ‘Forest Gump’ – or maybe even a tiny Folgers can containing Donnie’s ashes from ‘The Big Lebowski.’
That might sound like an incredibly poor marketing decision, but, according to artist and toymaker Dano Brown, that’s kind of the point.
"When I make the toys, I like to imagine someone on the internet coming across it, not knowing who I am, not knowing anything about the bootleg scene, and just being like, why the fuck would anybody want this action figure?" he told Civilized.
Brown, 36, has been making toys for three years now, but it’s not his first creative endeavor. While working full-time as laborer, loading trailers in a local warehouse, Brown has always done art on the side, including t-shirt design and custom patches. The toys are just his first major success.
After gaining more than 43k followers on Instagram, having his work displayed in art galleries and being featured everywhere from Vice to Forbes, Brown has effectively made it to the top rung of the bootleg toy industry.
"I actually make a lot more money with the art stuff than I do at my job," he said. "but that’s only been going on for a little bit, so I’m not really ready to let go of it just yet."
It has, however, allowed him to cut down his hours. Brown now spends four days a week working on his craft. While not formally trained in art or construction, he was able to develop his own process through trial and error, and with a little help from others in the toy-making community.
"I’m just kind of an obsessive person," he said. "I keep working away at things until I know my shit."
Unlike mainstream toys, or even other bootlegs, Brown tends to eschew casts and molds in favor of individually sculpting each figure, expertly Frankenstein-ing existing toy pieces together to create a unique, hand-crafted object.
"Every time I have an idea or a commission, I hit the internet to research it," he said. "I save a bunch of pictures in my camera roll, and then I riffle through my pieces. If they aren’t there, I go to eBay."
That's rarely a concern, though. Thanks to the generosity of his online fans, Brown now has boxes of toys he is able to draw from.
"At this point, I have a catalogue of toy parts in my head. Someone will show me a picture of something they want, and almost immediately I know what kind of pieces I can use for that."
It’s not just a matter of reassembling parts, though. Brown will melt, and carve and repaint parts, often finding creative ways to repurpose pieces to better service his idea. Their unique nature makes copyright concerns a non-issue.
"Most of the time, I’m making only one or two of each figure," he said. "The only time I had anything close to a copyright problem was when I put a Bob Ross figure on eBay. The site asked me to take it down, and I said fine. I lost out on some money, but I still got the online attention for it."
Initially, Brown’s big goal was to be featured in an art gallery. But that achievement has come and gone, and while he intends to do more shows down the line, he finds that is just as satisfying making things for a receptive online audience.
Besides, his viral success has gained him a steady stream of commission work, including requests from notable names like 'Rick and Morty' creator Justin Roiland and SNL’s Bobby Moynihan, both of whom messaged him directly over Instagram.
"I have no idea how anyone finds me, and a lot of times I even ask people, and they never have an answer," he said. "My stuff has just become part of the nebulous culture of the internet."
He often finds that each new toy opens him up to whole new subsection of online fandom.
"That’s how I got involved in the hip-hop world, which is kind of foreign to me," he said. "I did a couple rappers, and then that kind of spread around."
Consequently, Brown will sometimes find that he’s receiving an influx of commission requests for media properties he’s unfamiliar with, or that he isn’t a fan of. Luckily, requests have been coming steadily enough that he’s able to pick and choose, and he’s comfortable saying no.
"Justin Roiland had some of the most twisted ideas I’d ever heard," Brown recalled. "He asked me to do Leonardo DiCaprio as Arnie Grape, a mentally challenged character. I was cool with that, and so I did it, and it came out well, and people seemed to like it. Then he came back with some Schindler’s List figures he wanted me to make, and I was like, yeah…that’s a little too edgy for me."
While the commissions keep him busy, he still tries, whenever possible, to make toys that follow his own whims – which can be just as profitable in their own right. After completing a toy, he will post to eBay for a starting price of $0.99, then watch the price spike over the next few days. One figure, a toy based on the ‘Chappelle's Show’ character Tyrone Biggums, ultimately went for $1,300 dollars in this fashion.
Brown said it's hard to tell which toys are going to catch on with people, and he’s not particularly surprised to see that some of the most obscure, strange toys he makes are often the most successful.
"If it’s funny and cool to me, I’m just going to make it, and see how it goes," he said. "The ones that are the most popular are usually the ones that are just bizarre. People have a real appetite for absurdity."
Turning Nostalgia into an Art
Brown said he was never much of a “sit down and play kind of kid” growing up, but he has always been a collector at heart.
"When I was younger, I was super, super into G.I. Joes, but I almost never touched them," he said. "I just liked having them…which is a lot like I am now."
He has been described online as a "shelf collector," an assessment he believes to be fairly accurate, freely admitting that he hardly ever plays the games that make up his considerable Nintendo collection. For Brown, it’s always been the art of the thing, the nostalgia factor, that gives these objects their value.
Knowing this, would it bother him to learn that someone had removed one of his toys from its custom packaging and played with it?
"No, it wouldn’t bother me," he told Civilized, unconvincingly. "I would just hope that it didn’t break. They’re put together, put in a package, and I think they’d hold up, but I really don’t know."
"Ultimately, I hope they don’t open them, but I guess it’s theirs to do what they want with," he said, finally.
In fact, for Brown, the packaging is actually half of the fun – nearly as important to him as the toys themselves.
"That was the part I was comfortable doing even before I started working on the toys," he said. "I’ve always messed around on Photoshop, and had a passion for vintage design, especially from the 80s."
A child of the 80s, Brown says that particular time and aesthetic loom large in his mind, and inform his approach to all of his toys.
"I think the idea of having a toy, which you immediately associate with a childhood, and connecting it with something that has nothing to do with children, there something subversive about it," he said. "I think that’s what grabs people."
Nostalgia is big business online, it not only fuels the success of Brown’s toys, but accounts for the rise of more mainstream merch success like "Funko POP!" toys (which Brown calls a “trap” for collectors), as well as the changing media landscape that markets familiar franchises to both children and adults.
After comic book legend Stan Lee died back in November, ‘Real Time’ host Bill Maher made some controversial comments suggesting that adult fascination with pop culture has infantilized a generation, making them less interested in the things that really matter, like politics, civil rights and climate change. Brown saw this point but was quick to dismiss it.
"It’s great that people are able to stay in touch with the things that mean something to them," he said. "The world just forces you to let go of your childhood, and if you can let go of little, physical things that let you hold onto that, it’s great, so long as you don’t get carried away."
"As for me," he added. "I totally get carried away."
All photos submitted by Dano Brown.