On Monday, we began a conversation about blind box toys, and we started at the source: the toy companies. Kidrobot and MINDstyle both said that their fans enjoy the blind box experience. On Tuesday, we talked to the fans and reaction was split: with casual fans liking the fun experience and serious collectors experiencing the blind frustration. Wednesday’s topic was toy stores–largely in favor of blind boxes, but also presenting alternatives. That got me wondering: Do toy artists enjoy the blind box experience? Here are Doktor A, Joe Ledbetter, David Horvath, Jon Burgerman, MCA, Huck Gee, Sket One and Buff Monster (who have over 20 blind box series between them) on the topic.
Doktor A, whose toys hold their own among fine art at galleries, did not mince words: “I don’t like blind boxes at all. I don’t buy them. I wait for a series to have images up on forums and choose the ones I like. Then I hunt them down on eBay or from online stores which sell opened boxes. I don’t find blind boxes fun, just annoying.” Mechtorians fans can thank the artist for those window-boxed mini-Mechtorians. Doktor A went to MINDstyle with an RX for windows. BBs were contraindicated. As a result, collectors experienced no adverse side-effects like headaches or vomiting.
A man who needs no introduction in our toy scene agreed with the Dok: “I don’t mess around,” admits Joe Ledbetter. “As soon as a new series is released, I go onto eBay and buy a complete set. I have nearly the entire collection of Star Wars Kubricks.” (Incidentally, “I’m in the process of moving studios” is the “dog ate my homework” of the toy world. Joe was not alone in saying that his personal collection was temporarily in storage, when I asked if we could sneak a peek.)
Joe has contributed to quite a few original and platform blind box series and understands the frustration fans feel in trying to complete a set. “I can identify with fans that have lost patience with blind boxes,” he says. “That’s why I just go straight to eBay now. The next time I have the opportunity to do another blind box series, I’d love to do it similar to 100% Kubricks.” Joe’s Finders Keepers series was one of the last blind box series I bought blindly. I finished it up, along with his Toxic Swamp Qees, on eBay.
Not all artists love eBay though. David Horvath was battling jetlag when we talked, but he steers clear of what some people call “evilbay.” “Have you ever driven all the way to Target to buy Boba Fett, only to find a bunch of Aunt Berus?” asked Horvath. “I have. Have you ever decided to drive to the second closest Target to see if they have Boba Fett? Yeah I’ve done that, too. That’s a lot of gas! Well, unless you put on a red shirt and go into the back room, it’s probably cheaper in the long run to buy Boba Fett from the guy who bought ALL of them and posted ‘em on eBay. Not me though! I LOVE Aunt Beru!”
Horvath prefers to buy his toys from Japanese supermarkets. “I LOVE supermarket toys…or what are called confectionary toys. When you go to Sunkus or 7-11, the toy section there is crammed with super high quality toys. I always thought of the Uglydoll Action Figures as more belonging to that group than designer toys, which took blind boxes from Kubricks.”
The Kubrick Model
Speaking of Kubricks, JLED is an avid Star Wars Kubrick collector and cites the Kubrick model [which, depending on the series, may indicate the figure or type on the box exterior] as a good one. “Collectors love having a rare hard to get piece, and that shouldn’t go away,” Joe said. “But at least [with Kubricks] a casual buyer has a chance of having the satisfaction of collecting a full set, super rare figures withstanding. I think it’s a great middle ground.”
And speaking of middle ground…Character for character, UK doodler Jon Burgerman may be one of the most blind boxed artists out there. He’s added his touch to virtually every platform toy in existence, done an entire series of Magic of Color Qees for Toy2R (Burgermenos, which I bought on eBay) and an original mini-figure series with Kidrobot (Heroes of Burgertown, which I bought piece by piece from several open box stores). While the Heroes series presented 15 fun classic Burgerman characters, I wouldn’t describe buying them blind or chasing them down as a particularly fun experience. Jon was sympathetic and described the marketing strategy for Horvath’s Uglydoll Action Figures (discussed in part one of our story) as smart: “Give casual buyers what they want: a random fun quick hit…and give the obsessives what they want: a guaranteed complete series.”
I own a complete series of MCA’s No Music No Life Qees. I was amused to find out that the last blind box toy purchased by MCA, the creator of the Evil Apes, was a Kewpie Doll: “I bought ‘em for my daughter, so I really didn’t care which I got,” he said, adding, “even though the one wearing pink bunny ears woulda been cool, and I think I even bought a couple extra when I didn’t get the ol’ bunny ears! Damn blind boxes!”
Although he thinks it’s funny (and it is, kind of), it brings to mind the folks who compare the blind box experience to the Vegas experience. In MCA’s case, he didn’t care what he got, yet he kept buying more. The artist, who has done several blind box series with Toy2R, says he understands the thrill of them and he’d do another series if someone asked. “In theory, they are cool. I have always been a fan of hunting down some sort of ‘prized possession’…But on the other hand, most blind boxes go for $8 -$10, some even more, and I know that I don’t have as many extra Hamiltons in my wallet, nevermind the ol’P.Diddy Benjamin’s [these days]. If there is a little guy I want, I’d rather be able to just get him and not drop $30 or more trying to open him up in the dark.”
For a different opinion, I turned to Huck Gee, who has participated in several blind-box Dunny series for Kidrobot. Some of those production figures, which were packed blindly in a case of Dunnys with an $8 SRP, now sell for hundreds of dollars due to their rarity. His custom figures command even more. Huck and I talked about money last year, and he’s an honest, unabashed, forthcoming kind-of-a-guy. Here’s Huck on blind boxes: “Why on earth would I sell $100 blind box bootleg figures when I could’ve sold it straight up, out of the box, completely unveiled to my collectors/fans for $100, maybe more? Why the blind box…? For shits and giggles. To see how people reacted. To simply and blatantly sell a $100 blind box.”
Beyond whimsy, Huck likes blind boxes based on the longtime tradition of “Cracker Jacks, Frosted Flakes, Bazooka bubble gum, capsule toys, Kubricks, Qees, Dunnys, etc, etc, etc. That element of surprise has been around a long time. I wouldn’t want it any other way.” Huck also has a big heart for the little kids: “I’ve seen parents’ eyes light up when they found out what their son or daughter was buying…that they had no clue what they were getting, it was a surprise! The mom would get all excited and into it too.”
Sket One had kids on his mind, as well, and he looked at the topic through the eyes of his three daughters. “Some [blind boxes] are meant for kids, and other blind boxes (like keychains and zipper pulls) are not meant to be collected, but are for trade,” he said. He thinks blind boxes are good for the industry, and with a price point of about $10, they’re good for consumers too. He compared his mini-series, SketBots, to Kidrobot’s Zoomies: both were meant to be collected by kids, not connoisseurs of designer vinyl. [There are exceptions. Collector extraordinaire, Kirkland Jue blogged about the SketBots back in 2006, praising an open box store for making it possible for him to get the adult-appealing figures without the kid-friendly ones: “I really don’t know why anyone sells blind boxes. I hate those things. I mean I know why. I just think it’s lame,” he wrote. But more from Kirkland tomorrow!] SketBots remain one of the most affordable priced blind box figures, and the whole series (including a chase) can be scooped up at fan-friendly prices on eBay.
On the other side of the pricing lot, Buff Monster has a reserved parking space: “I read somewhere that my toys are the most expensive blind box toys. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, but I think its a funny distinction to have.” Buff was the most effusive in his love for blind box toys. “I buy plenty of blind box toys,” he said. “It’s part of the whole game. I like the experience of opening a little unidentified treasure. Every other product that you buy (clothes, toothpaste, beer), you know what is in the package before you buy it. That’s why you buy it. With blind box toys, at least you have a little bit of a surprise. Toys are supposed to be fun, right?”
There’s That Spectrum Again
Right! Fun. But fun occurs along a spectrum. Toys are fun by the simple fact that they are toys. Adding surprise to fun doesn’t always result in more fun. What if you went to a bar after a long day of work and the bartender gave you a blind boxed beer? Might be a sweet Belgian ale. Might be PBR. Might even be a “special” one like O’Douls….Still sound fun?
Uncertainty as a Lifestyle
What constitutes fun is a more psychological discussion than we’re here for; it speaks to personality type itself: “Just as security is (with regards to knowing that you have a place to stay, food to eat and are safe), we need the uncertain,” Buff suggests. “If you knew everything that was going to happen, you already knew how every meal would be eaten and how it would taste, if you already knew what every girl looked like naked, if you already knew what every band looked like live, there would be no reason to live. Uncertainty is key.” I think Buff has an interesting point on this. That’s why a spectrum of options are good.
While Buff concedes that a $30 price point on blind box toys might alienate the casual consumer, he thinks it’s relative for a limited run piece of art. I agree. Without art toys, many of us would not be able to own art. But when it comes to pricing, the majority of people who will drop that much (or more) on a blind box toy are already fans of the artist. Of all the things being debated in this story, no one really disputes this. In that sense, the toy companies, who set the prices, have the dedicated fans on lockdown.
Doktor A summed it up like this: “Blind boxes ghetto-ize the product. People who buy them have to have some knowledge about what’s in the boxes and what to expect in order to purchase. Window boxes are there for anyone who sees them to decide if they like the toy and purchase purely on that. No research needed. They don’t need to know anything about the art toy scene, the artists or the company. They can just enjoy the object.”
Enjoyment of the toy. Isn’t that what this is about? For Huck, Sket and Buff, enjoyment includes the blind box experience. For the Dok, Joe, David and MCA, they’d rather get the toys they want without the ones they don’t. As for Jon, in much the English way, he politely acknowledges both sides and insists he’s not an expert. Still with us? Good! Tune in tomorrow when we close this story with some of the biggest mouths in the business: toy bloggers.
[You’ve been reading a 5-part investigative series I originally wrote for ToyCyte over the course of a week in March of 2009. It’s being reprinted here in its entirety, including reader comments.]