Sunday, September 30, 2007

Floundering

Here's a quick update on what's happening on the arty side of my world. The recent house move has provided me, for the first time in 18 years, with some studio space. I have immediately filled it with clutter naturally. But that's the way I like to work. I like to be surrounded by things that inspire me ... from sculptures by John Coppinger, to urban vinyl from James Jarvis, my many books and all kinds of strange memorabilia.

It's also allowed me to return to oil painting, a medium I never mastered at school. I hated oils. As artist icon Roger Dean once described it, 'it's like floundering around in a swamp'. How I agreed with him. But, I decided, I must have a go again. So, after an absence of some 30 years, I dug out the Linseed Oil and brushes and had a go.

I'll confess to being quite pleased with the results so far. I decided to work with simple figures until I get the hang of this 'painting with mud' business. So I returned to a concept I first developed for a business that my wife Dawn launched a few years ago - the kid in the red boots.

These are not finished of course but do give a taste of what I'm up to. I'm rather enjoying myself, I have to say. There's something quite relaxing about the slowness of oils. And I always liked the smell.

I've also posted a photo of me and one of my Party Animals sculpts. There will be a set of three, cast in super-fine plaster and handpainted. I should get the moulds made soon and start selling in mid 2008.

It's all go isn't it?

For love of Vinyl

I’ve just bought myself a Kaiju. Its name is Usagi-Gon and it’s been designed by Frank Kozik who is best known for his Mongers. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Urban Vinyl - the alternative side of action figure collecting.

Action figures have grown hugely in popularity in recent years. The larger comic shop chains like Forbidden Planet seem to have more figures than comics on display these days. The whole thing started in Japan (where else) but really took root in the west with George Lucas and his Star Wars figures. Until then, us boys (and let’s face it, it is mostly boys that collect figures although the number of female collectors grows ever larger) had had to make do with Action Man, the more exotic US import Major Matt Mason and those strange little HO/OO (1/72 scale) Airfix armies that you could buy and never paint properly because they were made of shiny polythene plastic. But then along came Kenner with its groundbreaking 3.75 inch Han Solos and Darth Vaders and there was a shift away from single figures with multiple costumes and props towards smaller figures that could be bought as part of a greater collection. In time, Kenner was swallowed by industry giant Hasbro, who still produce Star Wars figures to this day. The six films have generated US $4.3 billion at the box office and US $2.8 billion in video and DVD sales. But the merchandise surrounding the films (according to Lucasfilms) has generated a staggering US $9 billion, a major proportion of which is made up of action figures.

These days, figures seem to fall into four main categories: firstly there are the bona fide toy figures that are designed to be played with. They usually feature articulated joints and have associated props and vehicles. The Hasbro Star Wars figures fall into this category as do figures from the Batman, Simpsons, Dr Who, Family Guy and other franchises.

The second category is what I would call the ‘display figure’ as the sculpting is usually of a much higher quality and the figures are less easy to play with. Todd McFarlane’s company McFarlane Toys has been a major player in this area insisting on fine detail and good likenesses over articulation. Recent examples include figures from TV series Lost and 24, and the band Kiss.

The third category is best described as fine art. These are fixed sculptures, full figures, dioramas or busts, with a high degree of detail and quality and are intended entirely for display.

The fourth category is Urban Vinyl, a term that was coined by action figure aficionado Adrian Faulkner to describe a very particular kind of collector’s figure.

Part toy, part artwork, the Urban Vinyl figure is a limited edition sculpture created by an artist and cast in vinyl or resin. They are normally made in small production runs and – here’s a defining characteristic - they don’t tie in with any TV show or film or comic (unless it’s an indie comic or book produced by the same artist). If anything, they are often anti-establishment and the word ‘urban’ denotes that they have some synergy with modern street culture. The figures are a kind of 3D graffiti. Consequently, you will not find Urban Vinyl in the catalogues of companies like McFarlane or Hasbro.

As Faulkner says himself, ‘Urban Vinyl is all about Style. Sculpting is about how well something has been translated from design to 3D Model (i.e. how much does that Tomb Raider figure look like Angelina Jolie?). Style is what happens before that. If Sculpting is about the transposition from source material to figure (the process of creating something from the design), then style is about the creation of that source material or the creation of the design.’

Urban Vinyl appeals to people who value style and design over designer labels and franchises; the same sorts of people who seek out new art, new music and new clothing styles. In the same way that a small group of East Village kids created a resurgence in Hush Puppy shoes in the mid-1990s simply because they were so non-mainstream, so Urban Vinyl has made the action figure stylish. And contemporary.

Urban Vinyl is eclectic, quirky and highly collectible but it’s not always cheap. While you can pick up a new figure for anything between £10 to £40, the limited number of each figure soon starts to hike the price. On e-bay at this very moment, there is a full set of James Jarvis’s rarest figures, the Office Stereotypes – seven small vinyl figures each approximately 8-10cms tall – going for a staggering £200. His similarly-sized World of Pain series policeman figure is on offer at a mere £45 – and that’s the starting price. Meanwhile, if you want one of Gary Baseman’s Dunces figures, expect to fork out at least £50 each … if you can find them (limited to 500 and there are six in the set).

Most collectible of all are the early figures of Michael Lau, the granddaddy of Urban Vinyl. Lau is a Hong Kong-based artist who, in 1996, was asked to design an album cover for the band Anidoze. Instead of a painting, he created an action figure. He followed up with an exhibition of GI Joe figures that he’d customised by putting them into Hip-hop street gear. Lau’s work struck a chord with urban artists. Here was a new medium; contemporary sculpture building upon tradition but using 20th century throwaway materials and modern designer chic. Urban Vinyl was born.

Another major milestone in the rise of UV was when Kidrobot, who have gone on to become a major player in the UV market, produced the Dunny; a small, generic, rabbit-shaped blank figure that could be customised; in other words, a 3D canvas for artists to work with. Invented by Kidrobot director Paul Budnitz and artist Tristan Eaton, the Dunny has now become the most widespread of all UV figures with over 200 different variants to collect, and all designed by different artists. After the Dunny came the more humanoid Munny and Trexi, the aerosol-headed Fatcap and the Quee, which can be a bear, a cat or, a rabbit or, more oddly, an anthropomorphic egg.

Meanwhile, artists started to create their own brands: Gary Baseman released his Fire Water Bunny and Dunces series; David Horvath created his immensely popular Uglydolls; IWG took familiar animals and armed them with rocket launchers and machine guns. And Tokidoki’s Moofia series featured milk cartons. And as more and more artists entered the arena, the world of Urban Vinyl became ever more bizarre and more intriguing. But that’s one of the joys of Urban Vinyl - there is no corporacy. No range looks like any other, being driven entirely by the artist’s vision rather than commercial or media pressures.
British designers have now successfully entered the UV scene, most notably James Jarvis. Jarvis creates quirky little figures with potato-shaped heads that inhabit their own ‘potato-headed multiverse’ - his words, not mine. His first figures were designed as promotional items for the Silas clothing range. But soon they’d become extremely collectible and led to him forming his own company, Amos Toys. His In Crowd figures come in themed sets of six or seven figures. One recent set, his Young Ruffians, is a perfect snapshot of the ASBO generation with their hoodies and puffa jackets, gold hoop earrings, mobile phones, white trainers and bling.


Another Brit who will soon be joining the fray is Nottingham-based ‘King of Doodling’ Jon Burgerman who tells me that he will be releasing a set of Heroes of Burgertown figures in 2008. Burgerman’s unique style has been employed on projects for Sony PlayStation, The Sydney Morning Herald, fashion label Miss Sixty and rock band Metallica, and he’s exhibited all over the world, including at the prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Here’s a sneak preview of two of the prototypes for his series.

And I can’t leave this section without mentioning influential comic artist Jamie Hewlett. Having come from an urban art background, it’s interesting to see that he’s now producing vinyl toys of his Gorillaz characters. Manufactured by Kidrobot, these figures successfully straddle the line between true UV and commercial franchise

Another thing that makes UV figures both collectible and cool is the underground nature of their sale and distribution. You won’t find these figures in Argos or Asda. You have to seek them out in secluded little lifestyle shops like Playlounge. Situated in London’s Beak Street, just off Regent Street and a Quee’s throw from Carnaby Street, this tiny shop is always stocked with the latest figures. The fact that the stock changes so often is testament to the popularity of UV and the rarity of the limited edition figures. Another option is to buy online and, here in the UK, companies like Bugvinyl, Octane 3, Funkyzilla, Tokyo Toy Store and Nasty Vinyl usually stock a great range. Even Forbidden Planet has started stocking a few items. There are always hundreds of figures on e-bay too. But who buys this stuff?

Basically, anyone with a desire for style over branding, and quirkiness over conformity. Artists buy them for the aesthetics. Students buy them as mascots. Creatives buy them, as do advertisers and marketing people. In the Channel 4 comedy The IT Crowd we saw a basement office littered with figures like Kaz’s Smoking Cat and Dave Cooper’s Pip and Norton.

Most Urban Vinyl is made in China and Japan where advances in 3D Printing (3DP) are allowing rapid prototyping from sketchpad to 3D computer model to physical object. 3DP works like an inkjet printer, using a travelling head to deposit a fine powder which is fixed with a water-based adhesive. Some machines use polymer resins (instead of powder) which harden in the air or are cured by Ultraviolet light. At present, the cost of these machines is prohibitive, but it’s not difficult to imagine a near future where artists will be able to create figures at home by simply ‘printing’ them out using 3DP. Blank figures like today’s Dunnys could be downloaded and personalised, decorated, swapped, and ‘printed’ in limited runs from home. So maybe one day I’ll be able to download my Kaiju (which, by the way, is Japanese for ‘weird beast’ or ‘monster’). And, by placing production directly in the hands of the artists, Urban Vinyl will have come full circle.

Sites to visit:

UK:
Bugvinyl

September - a month of abundance

September usually heralds the start of Autumn and the harvest. It is a time of abundance. And it certainly has been for me. Those of you poor, lost, lonely cyber-folk who occasionally stroll past this blog will know that I've been trying for some time now to find my niche; to work out how exactly to build a career based upon my passions and pretensions as an artist and writer. Yes, I've had the odd magazine or newspaper article published. Yes, I've illustrated a couple of books and fulfilled any number of arty jobs. But no, I don't have any kind of structured, concrete plan of work and I certainly don't earn enough from my passions to sustain a mortgage, relationship, two cars, two dogs and two cats. So this year I decided to buckle down and get my act together. I've spent 2007 working hard - sometimes alone, sometimes in partnership with like-minded chums - to develop several book and TV projects to the stage where they could be pitched to publishers and production teams. And then I set out to get myself an agent.

In my last post, I got positively tumescent about the fact that an agent had expressed an interest in me. Well, since then, two more emerged to stake their claim on my simple talent. What a glorious position to be in after all these years! Anyway, I met them all and eventually decided who to sign with. I now have an agent. It's all very exciting.

Obviously, I can't say too much here in what is a very public forum but it does now look as if one of my books will be published next year. And lest you think I've been jammy, spawny, lucky or fortuitous, let me say ... have I f*ck! I've worked for this!

I have a box file here in my study that I call my Big Black Box of Despair. It's where I file all of my rejection letters from publishers, art dealers and production companies. And looking back through it yesterday, I found my earliest rejection slip. It was typewritten and dated 1988. So having my first book published next year will mark the 20th anniversary of my first 'Thanks but no thanks' letter. Admittedly, I have had a full-time job these past 20 years. I haven't been a 40 hour week jobbing writer and artist starving in a garrett somewhere. But there are something like 60 or 70 rejection letters in the Despair Box. I've been trying.

So my advice to all of you passionate would-be authors and artists out there is ... keep going! Do what you do because you love it. Life is oh so very short and then you're dead a long time. If you love it enough, someone else will love it too. Don't be cynical and don't just think about the money. That shows through. Trust me.

Make as many contacts as you can. Share your work with others. Give it away if you have to. They say that what goes around comes around and I've found it to be very true. It was me volunteering free artwork to the Osteoporosis 2000 charity and the Talk like a Pirate Day fund-raising people that got me noticed by Scholastic Books (see earlier posts). It was by helping a friend to write some materials for the Save the Rhino charity that led to me attending Douglas Adams's first memorial lecture and meeting Stephen Fry who has been instrumental in championing my first book. And it was getting involved with yet another charity, A Voice for Moldova, to help a friend that got me a connection to author Tony Hawks. So share the love. Share your talent. Nothing spreads news of your ability better than kind word of mouth.

I've endeavoured to pass this philosophy onto my kids and I'd like to think that, in some small way, it's helped them to be successful. This joyous September has also seen the release of This Dying Hour's first EP (now available from i-tunes as well). That's my son Liam's band. And daughter Sarah has just passed her driving test on the first attempt. My other daughter Kerys also seems to have had a great month with what seems to be a happy new relationship and the arrival of a puppy to entertain and nibble on my two grandchildren.

So keep at it guys. Rejection letters are depressing - no denying that. Remember, I have 20 years' worth. But just keep trying. Keep improving your skills. Be passionate about what you do. Do it because you enjoy it and to Hell with whether anyone else cares. If they do, look at it as a bonus. If they're willing to pay you money, that's a bigger bonus. But don't do it just for that reason because you'll fail. Do it because it gives you pleasure because that, ladies and gents, is what separates us from all other life on this planet. We have evolved the ability to create and experience joy.

Don't waste it, eh?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Strip me!

Wow ... what a week.

Firstly, sales of the 2007 Tripwire Annual are very brisk, which is great news for my mate Joel who has grafted like a bastard to relaunch his excellent comics-film-TV interest magazine. Quite good news for me too as not only did I sub-edit the book, I also scripted a two-page Sherlock Holmes strip drawn by the inimitable and talented Mr James Murphy, which appears in the 'Stripwire' section of the annual. I recommend the book to you all, especially if you're into Heroes, The Simpsons, Judge Dredd or Hellboy as Joel has managed to score some pretty amazing interviews with creators and stars, notably Mr Springfield himself, Matt Groening.

It's also been a good week for me for other reasons. As yet, I'm unrepresented i.e. I don't have an agent. But seeing as how I've been so busy on various projects recently and some look like they're piqueing (is that a word?) the interest of publishers, I thought I'd better try. So I printed up a few pages of my drivel, wrote a covering letter and banged five packages off to five top-Johnny literary agents on Tuesday night.

And on Thursday morning I got a bite! Amazing! So I delivered the full manuscript of one of my books to them yesterday. I'll have a decision early next week so fingers, toes, eyes ... yes, even legs ... crossed please. It could turn out to be an amazing week.

Meanwhile, buy the Tripwire Annual. The more Joel sells, the more chance the magazine will be back on our shelves. And good thing too - Tripwire was, by far, the best magazine of its kind at one time but, sadly, without the financial backing it so richly deserved, it was forced to close. Help bring it back ... but get in there quick as the annual is a limited run.

Here are the links for Amazon and the Forbidden Planet online shop.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

My Brain Hurts ...


Odd things your brain cannot process #1 ...
In a moment, I want you to click on the image above. Wait for it! Read this first!
When the image comes up it should be animated and if you follow the moving dot with your eyes, the dots will all remain pink. However ... if you stare at the cross in the centre, something odd happens; the moving dot will become green. But there's more ...
Carry on staring and all of the pink dots will vanish, leaving just one moving green dot.
Confused? Not half as much as your optic nerves are!
OK, now you can click.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Welcome to the inside of my head

It's not everyone who can say that they've seen their own brain. But I have.

Just recently, I took part in some research for the National Society for Epilepsy. Sounds grand, eh? Actually, all I did was lie around inside an MRI scanner while the really clever people asked me questions and set me tasks. Meanwhile, the scanner photographed the activity (if any) occurring in my brain. I was a 'control sample' you see. By comparing my brain to those of people with epilepsy, it may reveal possible new strategies for reducing the number of incidents a person suffers.
The payoff was that I got to keep a bunch of photos. So here they are.
It's reassuring that there isn't a vast empty space there ...

The Future of Fat Boy Slim

The hardest part of any diet is leaving it.

When I passed my driving test, way back in 1980, the examiner said to me ‘Congratulations Mr Colgan. Now you start learning to drive’. And he was right. I no longer had someone in the passenger seat telling me what to do and rescuing me from my mistakes. I now had to experience driving different vehicles that were different heights, widths and engine sizes. The controls moved about the dashboard and no two cars had the same pedals. And to top it all, the weather changed with ridiculous regularity and I often found myself driving in unfamiliar places. It’s the reason why people have more accidents in their first year of driving than any other. According to RoSPA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents), the accident risk of a 17 year old novice driver reduces by 43% after their first year of driving experience.*

The same thing happens with ex-dieters. As soon as we tear up our ‘D’ plates and we’re allowed to eat whatever we want, we either eat like maniacs, eat the wrong things or fall back into bad habits. We’re in control once again and we like it. But then we find that we’ve put the weight back on and we’re faced with two choices – we can learn from our mistakes and fix them (which invariably means another diet), or we can think ‘sod it’ and watch that waistband expand.

However, there is a third way. You can change the way that you interact with food. As Einstein once famously said (or words to this effect), ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. Cream cakes don’t get any less fattening while you’re on a diet. Saturated fats don’t become a lot more healthy. If you leave your diet and go back to using food the same way that you did before, history will repeat itself and you’ll soon be able to hire yourself out as a bouncy castle again.

I am determined not to put my weight back on, absolutely determined. I'm enjoying the new, slimmer me. I like the fact that I feel healthy and happy. I like the fact that I can buy clothes that don’t resemble the tents at the Glastonbury festival. I like the fact that I don’t ache or snore or suffer the sensation of having a small volcano in my chest. I hated heartburn. And I really like the fact that, despite having a face fit for radio, I've actually experienced being 'checked out' by some ladies recently. Older ladies with very thick spectacle lenses, admittedly. And guide dogs. And tartan shopping bags with wheels. But a check out is a check out.

So, how do I keep the weight off? I’ve never particularly enjoyed sports, I don’t want to join a gym and I want to enjoy my food. So the answer seems to be that I will have to become a Scale-watcher. I will weigh myself with obsessive regularity and, if I find that some rogue pounds have crept back on, I will lose them before having any more treats. It's easier to lose three or four pounds than three or four stones. Portion sizes will also be smaller. There'll be no more second helpings. And I won't get hung up about leaving food on my plate when I'm full. Despite my late Gran's dire warnings, starving children in Africa will still be starving whether I eat those last four chips or not.

Like it or not, food is my drug of choice ... so now, and for the rest of my life, I need to keep my addiction in check. Watching the scales will be a pain ... but at least I can see them now!

And the future?

Nah ...

*For 18 year old drivers, the reduction is 40%, for 19 year olds 38% and for 25 year olds it’s around 25%. Source: Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents – www.rospa.com

Monday, September 03, 2007

Weight ... and Sea!

I've nearly reached my target! I am now just a few pounds away from losing the weight I set out to lose and I'm feeling great. But you know how it is ... it's always harder to see your own weight loss when it's a steady trickle of ounces and you see yourself all the time. Other people get the benefit of seeing you only periodically so the loss is more pronounced and dramatic.

But I did get a sense of that today when looking back through some photographs from earlier in the year. Back in February, I was up in West Kilbride in Scotland (see blog entry here) and took some quite nice shots of the Isle of Arran. Well, today I found those shots ... plus a pic of me in front of the sea crossing to Arran. And it's scary how big I was just seven months ago. You can barely see the island because of the fat bloke. But don't take my word for it ... here's a comparison:

Eek!

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Story of my life ... again

They say that there's no such thing as a truly original idea ... and there is some truth to that. The reason that you can't copyright an idea - only the application of an idea - is because no copyrighter can guarantee that the idea has never been thought of before. Just recently I was discussing this very issue with BBC Wales as they have had to invoke a policy of strict non-reading for submitted Dr Who scripts. Being such a popular show, the Beeb gets hundreds of submissions from would-be screenwriters. Problem is ... there are only so many ideas out there so if they turn a script down and then commission a script with a similar idea, the first author starts screaming 'Infamy! They've nicked my idea!' All of which means that none of the hundreds of packages recieved at BBC Wales gets opened any more - they just get returned to sender. It's all very sad as the greatest Dr Who story of all time may well be sitting, unread, in some mail out-tray in Cardiff even as I write this. But that's the way it is. Which brings me to this week's knock back ...

About 10 years ago, I wrote a novel called Apollo wears a vest which, without revealing too much of the plot, centred around the idea that the Gods of Olympus have fallen on hard times as no one believes in them any more and, therefore, their powers have waned. But while they are immortal, they are degenerating slowly - hence the book's title. Apollo now looks like Onslow from Keeping up appearances and Hera resembles your grandmother in a Wonder Woman outfit. I sent the book out to a couple of publishers in the late 1990s and elicited some mild interest but nothing positive.

So, imagine the huge gusting sighs emanating from my now slimmer body when I read this review this week ...

Gods behaving badly by Marie Phillips

'Gods Behaving Badly finds a motley crew of Olympians living together in considerable squalor in London, in a house they haven't maintained too well since they moved in back in 1665. With what little powers they have left they are like old royalty, full of themselves but barely scraping by. Artemis earns some money walking dogs, Aphrodite is doing phone sex, Eros has been born-again, and Dionysus runs a nightclub 'in a basement down a poorly-lit side street, popular with prostitutes and junkies, somewhere between Euston and King's Cross', called The Bacchanalia.'

Okay, so Marie Phillips hasn't written exactly the same novel as me, but the central idea is just similar enough that I now have to rip up a 120,000 word novel and start all over again.

Bugger.

This is the 4th or 5th time this has happened to me. I wrote a book about some people meeting via the Friends Reunited website who then get bumped off one by one. One is a police officer and he has to figure out who's doing it. I sent it off to an agent the day before Ben Elton released Past Mortem ... which has almost exactly the same plot. So, plenty more work for the shredder there ... and I won't mention my superhero living in suburbia novel that I wrote five years before My Hero appeared on BBC1.

Thing is ... I'm convinced that the books I wrote are more original than the ones that got published. But you'll never be able to judge that for yourselves, will you?

Sigh.