Japanese Monsters & Collecting Toys: Super7’s Brian Flynn Interviewed
Last year, Brian Flynn and I got to talking about kaiju toys. It seemed no matter what people (including me) wrote about Super7’s products, we were never quite on the mark. Flynn’s been collecting toys for over 20 years, and his San Francisco toy shop will soon celebrate its 9th anniversary. Brian Flynn is a toy collector, toy designer, toy retailer, toy manufacturer, ‘toy punk,’ and good sport through ‘tough’ talk about collecting toys. This interview comprises conversations he and I had in 2010 over the span of a few months in writing and in person.
JB: Super7 toys, among Western collectors, are pretty much considered to be “kaiju”. I know you think this falls short of the truth.
BF: Even though we’re the “the kaiju guys,” if you look at the products we manufacture, we don’t make “kaiju.” We aren’t making toys in 1960 and 1970. We’re making toys today, so we take our inspiration from classic kaiju toys and reinterpret it for the current day. 2009 was: Gorilla Biscuits, Ooze Bat, Mongolion, Mummy Boy, Mummy Gator, Hollis Price, Steven the Bat, Vampire Rose, Partyball, Dokuwashi SD resin, Milton, Fenton, etc. None of these are Ultraman, Godzilla or retro figures; they’re current figures. The mental island we’ve made for ourselves is hard for anyone to break out of, and hard for others to see past when looking at our products. We are in between scenes, trying to make our own scene and our own identity, so that twenty years from now, people will look back on what we made and think it was unique to the time, and not a rehash of someone else’s idea.
One of the reasons I like “art toys” is because many of the artists came out of the same subcultures that I did. So when an artists make a reference, I get it, and I like getting it. It’s a nice feeling to “get” art. On the other hand, I can look at the Ooze Bat and think, well this is kind of cool-looking, but what exactly am I looking at and what’s this “Hawaii Colorway” all about? I think people struggle with “getting” your toys.
I think in some ways people overthink it. Sometimes, it just looks cool. Ooze Bat is cool, and has nothing to do with traditional kaiju. It’s designed after an obscure 1970s U.S. monster toy called the Ooze-It. It was filled with slime, and when you squeezed it, it oozed out of the plugs. Chanmen from Gargamel loves this toy and used it as his inspiration for designing the Ooze Bat. The only Japanese influence (besides the fact that Chanmen is Japanese) is that it’s in the fight figure scale.
The Hawaii colorway is a reference to the ultra rare Hawaii variant Hedorah figure. (Hedorah the smog monster, a Godzilla kaiju.) There was a very rare version of this figure exported to Hawaii that was a pink vinyl with black, orange, red, silver and metallic green sprays. It is one of the most sought after kaiju figures, as Hedorah is a popular character, and the sculpt and colors are so unique, dynamic and unlike anything else. When someone refers generically to a toy as a “Hawaii version,” they mean painted to mimic the Hawaii Hedorah.
Aha! So there IS a kaiju reference in there (by way of the colorway). Brief me on the anthropology of the common kaiju collector.
The thing with the “Kaiju/Super7” scene is that most of our collectors are much older than other places, and most have been into collecting for many, many years. This isn’t the first thing they’ve collected, and it’s not the last. They collect for themselves, and aren’t really motivated by peer recognition. Because of this, a lot of them aren’t out there engaging in more of the social aspects of the hobby. They would collect toys even if it was only four other people in the world who cared about this stuff. I think that’s a very different point of view [from other types of collectors].
On the flipside, there are a lot of new kids. This is a tricky spot. Most of them are excited about everything, and their general excitement/hyperactivity makes most of the long term collectors want to say “Just settle down and cool off, you are driving me crazy! I don’t need to talk about toys 24 hours a day!” This phase lasts around 6 months until they feel like they’ve got a handle on the scene in a larger sense, and they realize that the world won’t end tomorrow after the latest toy release.
Kaiju collectors are very nice, but they aren’t kids, so they have stuff to do. This is a very social scene, but it’s not a giant clubhouse. They buy what they like and aren’t really concerned whether you like it or not, as no one else they know in their daily lives will ever care about this stuff.
You and I have talked before about toys as toys versus toys as art. Sum up Super7’s philosophy on this.
We make toys, not statues. If you’re going to make a toy, then it needs to function as a toy. How do the parts move? What is the interaction? What is the play value? Taking a “character” or idea, and just turning it into 3D is a waste. This is 90% of the non-platform toys out there: someone so in love with their idea, that they didn’t change it to fit the medium. It just sits there on the shelf, doing nothing, staring blankly back at you.
My example is: “Van Gogh’s Starry Night is a great painting and a shitty coffee mug.” You need to understand what makes a toy a toy, and design it to that standard. Making things in 3D is not making a toy.
What is up with using the term “sofubi”? I get the sense (via Skullbrain) that calling toys “art toys” is viewed as pretentious. Yet, to me, saying sofubi is a lot like going into the taquería and ordering a “burrrrrito.” (Roll the R’s for effect.)
Collectors use sofubi, as it’s the Japanese name for old toys. Sofubi means soft vinyl. If you’re looking for old monster toys in Japan, you are looking for Sofubi Kaiju. Sofubi is a catch-all term for vintage vinyl toys of any style. I think people just like the way it sounds. I don’t think it’s an affectation. It’s a happy word. It kinds of sounds like pink bubblegum when you say it.
Art Toys implies something slightly different. It implies the artist, but in a way, also means something new, and in many ways associated with toys they don’t directly collect, so they avoid it. People call any new toy an Art Toy, and many of them clearly are not.
So do you make art toys?
For me, I don’t really care for any of the terms. I make toys. I don’t feel any insecurity with that term, and I’m fine with using it. I don’t need to clarify it. I don’t make designer toys, art toys, or any weird variation of it. I simply make toys.
Actually, I find more people insecure about using the term “art” than I do with using the term “toys.” What’s wrong with being an artist?
Nothing’s wrong with being an artist, but I like toys, as I like the simplicity and innocence of it. I don’t need to gratify my ego and have my name on it. A six year old doesn’t need to know I designed Mummy Boy, they just need to know if they like the funny looking one-armed toy or not. As someone who has collected toys for 20+ years, that’s the goal for me: to make great toys. If you know who I am, that’s fine, but if you don’t, it’s okay with me.
What about your recent solo show, Only in Your Fondest Dreams [PDF]? Fiberglass sculptures, metalwork that recalls Murakami…is this not “art”?
Yes, but that was an art show; it wasn’t a toy show. If it was a toy show, I would have made sure to ramp up the interaction and play value much more. Instead it was filled with items designed to be sculptures. I heard a few snickers here and there that it was “Biskup-like,” but I think that is a cop-out from those who don’t know the design references (besides, he owns a few). If you look at what I make, the sculptures are designed to be pieces that accentuate your home: literally art housewares. My house is 100% mid-century modern, as that is the aesthetic I am drawn to. When you see photographs I’ve taken of the sculptures, they’re always framed up like housewares, clustered on furniture like vases or ceramics, and shown as a way to accentuate your life. I’m very specifically referencing things like Stig Lindberg and Gustavberg, Lefton Pixie jars, Laurel and Vignelli lamps, Catherine Holm, Huetschenreuther, etc. mixed with Japanese Kokeshi Dolls and Danish pepper grinders. These shapes and patterns were used for decades in an entire movement of arts and crafts people (mostly in Europe). I’m reinterpreting them in my way, combining them with my ghost characters and a sense of kawaii which comes from my Japanese toy influence. I’ve been making these sculptures since 2003. I have no problem with it being art and product at the same time. Product can be art. Art can be product. There is no line between art and product as long as it’s true to its particular medium.
JB: I know you’re not a fan of platform toys…
BF: Super7 doesn’t make, buy or sell platform toys. Unless you’re Medicom, you shouldn’t be doing this. The Be@rbrick is the first platform toy, the Qee is a fake Be@rbrick. Kidrobot’s first toy project ever on their own was to make an LA and SF series of Qees. Then KR pulled the project, and decided to come up with their own figure, which was the Dunny. A Dunny is a fake Qee. Everything from there is a knock off of a Dunny, so before you know it, you have ideas that are four, five six generations removed from the source and get more watered down and generic with every step. Look at a lot of the horrible platforms out there with as generic a shape as possible, and tell me if I am wrong.
If you’re going to spend all this money making a toy, why are you going to cop out and make a platform? You might as well say, “I don’t believe in my ideas enough to be unique, so I am hoping you will repurpose this into something better for me, and I can make some money along the way.” A platform toy is one half of one person’s idea that is then desperately covered up as hard as possible by a second person. You end up with half of one person’s idea, and half of another for a total of one incomplete idea.
Any great platform you have, you can look at and say “Wow, how much better would that have been if that person could have had free reign with the actual character design as well.” The end result is, now kids think the ultimate level of “making it” is to have someone make a platform toy of their own. This is the worst outcome. You should want to create the best toy possible, and create something new and unique, not another platform. I have no problem with people making white, unpainted versions of their toys for other people to paint, but if you design a toy to be an obsolete platform from the beginning, I am not interested. You will see with every toy we’ve ever made. They are their own toys: 100%.
What was the thinking behind the Neo-Kaiju project produced by STRANGEco?
The idea was to make a great toy project with our friends, and it was co-made between us and STRANGEco. I came up with the idea, pulled it together, and then did all the design, packaging, etc. and they handled the manufacturing and distribution. All of the artists who were included collected Japanese toys in some capacity and were friends of ours. We asked them to take a traditional Japanese character and retweak it in their style. From there, they were then asked to create a new companion character to go with their first character to create a pair of figures from each artist. It was an incredibly popular set of toys and a lot of fun to make.
Right after the Neo-Kaiju project, we made a very deliberate twist away from using names as toy designers. We saw that everyone was doing the same thing, copying each other, trying to buy whoever was hot at the moment and acting like people were their “turf.” We decided then that we would just make Super7 toys, not So and So by Super7. It was important for us that we had our own identity, and you knew if it had our name on it, it was a quality toy. We have no problem telling you who designed the toy, but it’s still a Super7 toy, and it has to meet our standards. I don’t care how hot an artist is, if the idea is dumb, the toy will be dumb, and the most unknown person out there can have a genius idea and usually does.
Speaking of “turf,” care to clear up any rumors about Super7’s turf-tiff within the toy scene?
There were rumors that we had bought companies, that we had shut other companies down, all sorts of stuff. It’s pretty funny, except that often people get freaked out by rumors no matter how ridiculous and untrue.
Years back, before the Japanese kaiju scene had really taken off in Japan or the States, we had gone to Japan with a distribution deal for brands we liked and wanted to support here. We had already been dealing with most of these brands for years, and we felt like we were finally in a place that we could really start showcasing the figures to collectors in the U.S. in a bigger way. The main problem we were having at the time, was that brands were making very small runs of figures, which severely limited what we were able to bring back to the states. The manufacturers were nervous about making larger runs for fear of being stuck with product that they could not sell. Our offer was to make a guaranteed buy of figures, so that there was no risk for the manufacturer, allowing us to have products for sale in the States and guaranteeing income to the companies to use toward future projects.
Every manufacturer we talked to about it was on board with the plan. In the beginning, the arrangement worked out fine, and we started to increase run numbers with companies whose toys were in higher demand. Of course with demand comes competition, and as figures became more popular, more people came out of the woodwork to buy them. All of a sudden, larger runs were being sold at retail or to other shops at higher rates instead of us, leaving us with very little to sell of popular characters that we were subsidizing. Over time, this and many other factors strained relationships between many companies.
In all honesty, most of the smaller manufacturers that we were really excited about the increased distribution loved the idea of making bigger runs on a much more regular basis until they actually had to do it. Then their hobby company and passion became much more like work, and it didn’t take long for them to decide that maybe this wasn’t what they wanted to be doing after all. We still make figures with the manufacturers we like, most just don’t want to be “professional” toy manufacturers, which is why you only see infrequent releases from these companies still to this day.
Why doesn’t Super7 release edition sizes?
Early on, we told people what we made. Then, in 2004, we had a situation where we released 100 of one toy as a general release and 35 repainted for the Fanclub. We received 100 orders for the figure that was a run of 35 and 35 orders for the run of 100. The smaller run wasn’t as good of a colorway. When I told people they couldn’t have the low run version but they could have the regular version, many said: “If I can’t have the rare one, I don’t want any.” I realized many people were buying our toys for other reasons than liking the toys, so I quit telling people what we made. If you like our toys, buy it. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. It’s that simple. Because there is no manufactured rarity or hype, people just buy what they want. They don’t care if it’s rare or not; they’re buying for the right reasons. These are toys, not investments. If you want investments, go see Schwab.
Let’s talk about colorways. Some people might consider an “endless” array of colorways as much of a cheat as a platform toy.
When a figure has a planned, or set amount of recolors, it’s a bit more premeditated and expected. As an example, if you need to make 1000 total pieces, you make 200 in x, 200 in y, 200 in z, etc. When you just keep making it ad nauseum, or when people feel they’re getting fleeced or a figure is run into the ground, it becomes an issue. For us, we make a few colorways of each toy, and then gauge demand. Since the recolors are done by the artists themselves (not a shop exclusive, just a regular issue), they can make their own figures as often or infrequently as they like. Ultimately, we try to retire sculpts after some time, as I don’t want to cross the line and wear people out.
That said, when I like a toy, I try and get them all, that is just the way I am, so having another colorway is usually exciting. Also, for non-completists, it allows people to pick and choose colorways that they like. I actually try to keep people from being completists, and buy only what they like, but collectors are funny that way. We try to pace the recolors out so that there is time to chill out between releases so that you aren’t constantly chasing figures. That takes a lot of the sting out as well.
I don’t think recolors are the same as a platform, as usually an artist recolors his own toy, and releases it for his own reasons. It’s not someone else’s interpretation of the figure, and it’s not repurposed for someone else’s gain. It’s their toy. I color up my toys, and I release what I like, and what I want on my shelf. Josh [Herbolsheimer] colors up his toys, Le Merde colors up his. There is nothing false about that for me.
Outside of Super7 toys, care to call out anybody else in toyland (west and east) you think is having genius ideas?
There are a lot of people making good toys now, as there has always been. The problem now, is that you have to wade through much more junk to find it. From Japan, I think Gargamel is still on the top of their game, Secret Base is starting to rejuvinate their line again, Toygraph is making interesting toys, M1 always makes great stuff and Buster Call and Skull Toys are still making unique figures. Here in the states, I think FullyVisual is doing interesting crossovers to art and sculpture, Kaws is still doing good toys in almost every release, David Horvath and Sun Min Kim are always great and I love the new tin toys, Shawn and Shawnimals are great as he has been for years, and in a selfish way, I think we are making great stuff with the Grass Hut crew and Kathie [Olivas] and Brandt [Peters]. None of these people make toys that you can compare to other people. They make toys that look uniquely their own and aren’t afraid of being out there on the edge.
In your opinion, what’s wrong with the toy scene currently?
I just think that so many people have been introduced and indoctrinated to a scene that rewards copycat ideas, that the goals of new artists excited about toys have become more and more about trying to replicate what’s already been done instead of creating something new. I want to see people come up with ideas I haven’t seen before. The goal should be to reinvent the game, not hope that if you do something like someone else, you’ll be as popular as they are. It’s been a slow and steady decline as the lowest common denominator gets lower and lower. It comes back to being a responsible store owner and a responsible manufacturer. Educate your clients on what they should expect for their dollars, and don’t selling them junk because they don’t know better. It’s like feeding your kids junk food: it’s tasty, and you know they’ll eat it, but it doesn’t mean it’s good for them.
I’ve seen you publicly call out toys you think are weak or rip-offs. Does it not bother you that the (majority of) media who cover this scene can only muster up praise for even the crappiest toys?
Someone has to be critical here, and take a curatorial look at toys when offered, and not sell their customers junk. I realize lots of people worked hard to get their toy made, but it still doesn’t mean it’s a good toy. Being nice about everything is silly. Sometimes it simply isn’t what it should be. I have bad and unpopular ideas all the time, and I can guarantee I will have more. You have to be critical. Ideas are not precious. You’ll have another one, I promise. For every toy I make, I try to design 50+ ideas, and then hopefully one or two will be really great. The rest may be neat, but that doesn’t mean I need to make it. I’m not saying it’s okay to be an asshole either. You need to be constructive in your criticism in trying to build to something better. There are tons of toys that everyone keeps saying “that is so great, I would totally buy that” just to be nice, and then the person goes out and gets it made and can’t sell 5 of them. What good does that do the person who just shelled out their savings for something no one will buy? It would’ve been better for them to have had constructive criticism on how to make a better figure so that when they finally got it made, they could sell it and hopefully get to make another figure.
People are so worried about being friends and being nice that they forget to be responsible to their friends. There’s a difference between being able to extol the virtues of a toy and also break down the toy’s deficiencies versus just saying everything is great because you want to be a nice guy, or get a free toy, or whatever your motivation is. Please have an opinion or say it leaves you emotionless, but put a stake in the ground somewhere.
Got a solution?
Please remember, buying, making and collecting toys is supposed to be fun, and if you’re not having fun, you’re missing the point. The real solution is to buy what you like, and don’t buy what you don’t. If you miss something or can’t afford an older version, don’t worry about it, it’ll come around eventually, and there will be plenty of other great toys coming along soon enough. Be happy with what you have instead of upset at what you don’t have. Don’t collect for rarity or hype, collect for yourself. Collect what makes you happy. If you design toys, design the best toy you can within the limitations you have, turn those limitations into assets, and make something that makes people excited to buy your toy. Then, even if it fails, you’ll be happy with what you have and not care what anyone else thinks. Be true to yourself, and you’ll be fine. Also, be nice. Just because we don’t agree on something doesn’t mean we have to fight about it. If we all liked the same thing, it would be a horrible, boring place to be.
Obviously the Super Shogun Stormtrooper is our next big figure (literally and figuratively), which is super exciting. Between now and SDCC, we have five more characters of various styles coming out. I think we’ll be surprising people with some of these releases. There are some figure styles people haven’t seen yet which should be exciting. One of those sculpts will be in the 9-year Anniversary Lucky Bags on May 22nd, one will be in June, with the other three ready for SDCC. Additionally, we’re moving the store to Upper Haight in May, which should really open up our exposure for people who aren’t familiar with what we do. Beyond that, we’re just trying to have fun and make great toys the best we can make at the best price we can!