Are you tired of not being able to slice the tip of your finger off with those pathetic plastic claws attached to your favorite Wolverine figure? Got you down that those dull, rounded off spikes on your Ghost Rider figure don't pose enough of a risk when playing with it? Fear not. Jin Saotome has you covered!
For almost a decade, Jin Saotome's Dangerous Toys, under the direct helm of John Mallamas, has been producing one of a kind, fantastic, and at times, dangerous to play with custom figures. From your favorite comic book characters, to your favorite cartoon and video game characters, John has pretty much covered all those bases.
John was kind enough to talk to us about his fantastic custom toys, and to share his knowledge of the action figure world - as well as some interesting insights to the industry that we never knew about.
THE TOY BOX: Thank you so much for taking the time and giving us the opportunity to speak with you about your custom toys. We’re fairly new to your site as viewers, but have to say, we’re really impressed with your high quality designs, and fantastic attention to detail.
JIN SAOTOME: Hey, thank you for having me! I'm always up for the opportunity to share about the hobby of making custom action figures.
THE TOY BOX: Jin Saotome's Dangerous Toys, that’s a mouthful. Where did you come up with that name?
JIN SAOTOME: It's a two part deal. I ended up with the nickname Jin after playing the character at all the Marvel vs Capcom arcade tournaments back where I grew up. People went from saying, "Hey, here comes John," to, "Hey, here comes Jin," and it stuck. I chose Dangerous Toys because my original purpose for creating the site was to show people how to attach steel claws on to their Wolverine figures and sharp spikes onto Ghost Rider. Thus making them dangerous toys.
THE TOY BOX: So you’re a gamer? Us too. What are some of your favorite games or systems/consoles of choice?
JIN SAOTOME: I grew up on Street Fighter Turbo and have been a big fan of the 2D fighters ever since. Marvel Superheroes: War of the Gems, X-Men: Children of the Atom, and the Vs. series they brought my two passions comic and gaming together in one neat little package. Then Marvel Vs. Capcom one and two hit, quickly becoming my favorite games still to this day. But, I also play all of the Final Fantasy, Mega Man, and Halo series. Currently all I have is a 360 and enjoy the games it has to offer.
THE TOY BOX: How long has Jin Saotome’s Dangerous Toys been on the web?
JIN SAOTOME: The earliest file on my site is dated 2003 so at least 9 years. I may have hosted my custom Star Wars characters for my friend's RPG's before that however.
THE TOY BOX: Customizing toys can take a great deal of time. Is this a hobby, or a career?
JIN SAOTOME: It started as a hobby and branched off into a mini-business I guess you could say. I'm not sure I could ever look at customizing as a career, but I do know people who got their foot in the door at companies who started as customizers. So it can definitely lead to a career down the road with a larger corporation. It's really hard to survive on just making customs for a living. I'd advise people to just keep customizing as a hobby unless you're absolutely sure you can support your budget with it. Have a backup job!
THE TOY BOX: Can you tell us about your work with ToyFare, and how that got started?
JIN SAOTOME: It started a while back when people could submit photos of their customs in ToyFare, in fact my very first Toyfare custom was a 'Cyber Jawa' I submitted that they featured in their Homemade Heroes. After seeing my custom get featured I sent them a CD with images of my best customs at the time and the editor asked me to create a Kingdom Come Bat Sentry for a special feature. They ended up liking it so much that they had me do future customs for their Wishlist and Customizing 101 articles. Unfortunately ToyFare is no more but I had a blast working for them and have those pages framed.
THE TOY BOX: Obviously you can reach a larger audience as a sculptor and designer for companies such as Hasbro, Mattel, etc. But, is it safe to say there is more “glory” and personal recognition in customizing than being part of the corporate world of toy design?
JIN SAOTOME: There's a trade off from what I can tell. As a customizer you have a lot more freedom and can reach a lot of different people by covering multiple genres with your work appearing all over the internet. But it appears that all stops when you work for a toy company that has non-disclosure policies, brand loyalty clauses, and overall no public display of what you do. That's one thing I think should be changed. I couldn't tell you who sculpted most of my Hasbro figures. And while NECA lists their sculptors on the package I can't find anything online about many of them or get a feel of how passionate they are. There's a couple sculptors that have blogs but aren't really allowed to promote the work they do because it's licensed to whoever they're working for. I feel companies like Hasbro could reach a lot more collectors if they got them excited from a fan's point of view, not just as a business entity. Get their sculptors and designers out there talking about what they're doing and promote their product from a personal aspect as well.
THE TOY BOX: We found it humorous that you started out your customizing at age five with your mother’s fingernail polish. Has customizing been a part of your life since those early years, or is it something you left behind, and came back to in later years?
JIN SAOTOME: Ever since I was allowed to play with chemicals and tools I've been customizing. It's followed me through my life and various other jobs I've held, the selling aspect of it helping to keep me afloat sometimes. Only since 2006 was I able to focus on it as my main source of income. Everything up until that was practice, heck I'm still learning!
THE TOY BOX: It sounds like you had the dream job of a lot of 16 year old males working at a comic store. Were you a big fan of comic books at that the time, or was it something you started to gain interest in as you worked there?
JIN SAOTOME: As a child I learned my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and X-men figures were based on comics and I became a fan of them. I've actually worked at three different comic shops and one Sci-fi store helping fuel my knowledge of the characters I make customs of. It definitely helps to have had that knowledge of comics, both old and current to help with creating the right look for a custom.
THE TOY BOX: We’re huge fans of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! What are some of your favorite comic books and comic book characters?
JIN SAOTOME: Mirage and Archie's TMNT comics! I had the whole series and even the role-playing guides as they featured the same art. Unfortunately I've had to sell a lot of my collection years ago and no longer have them. But I remember Armaggon and War, always wishing they would be made into action figures. Hey, maybe I should take those projects on, hmmm.. As for other comics I read a variety of ones online and follow certain story arcs. Kingdom come was always one of my favorite stories and the DC Vertigo Sandman series with Dream and the Endless blew me away with the writing. While I like DC's stories Marvel's characters appeal to me more than DC's. All the X-men, Cyclops and Magneto in particular stand out as some of my favorite characters. Then we get into the animal-themed Spiderman rogue's gallery.
THE TOY BOX: You’ve touched on a wide variety of custom figures; Transformers, G.I. Joe, He-Man, video games, Star Wars, comic books, etc. Could you narrow down any one particular line that is your favorite?
JIN SAOTOME: I'd have to say 6" scale Marvel Legends. I love that scale and for me it allows the perfect mix of articulation, paint work, and design. Have you ever tried to paint an iris, pupil, and reflective dot on a GI Joe figure? Yikes that's hard. Alternately making cloth uniforms and buying the base bodies for 12" figures can get really expensive. I find that 6" is a perfect half-way point. It also allows you to mix video games and movie characters in with those lines.
THE TOY BOX: When approaching your projects, do you strictly use pre-made parts and accessories, or do you design and sculpt your own?
JIN SAOTOME: While I do both, though my real love is 'Frankensteining' a figure by using parts from multiple other existing figures. It's like looking at a puzzle and watching each piece come together to fit. Sometimes I'll see a figure with an accessory or body part and buy it just for that, basing my entire custom around that one part. However there comes many a time where a part or feature simply doesn't exist and I'll need to sculpt it using Aves Apoxie Sculpt. And in turn I'll find brand new uses for things like drink stirrers and hot glue to use as my raw materials. Did you know wired wedding ribbon makes great posable scarves? It's amazing what's out there.
THE TOY BOX: On average, how much time does one figure take you?
JIN SAOTOME: Usually 4-5 days is required for me to create a 6" custom figure with sculpting, a full paint job, and some sort of custom built accessory. That's allowing time to find the parts that match, build the figure, sculpt what is needed, paint it, and let it cure overnight so you can move it again. Mind you I'm working 8+ hours a day and on multiple projects at once. When I have to let sculpt harden or paint cure I move to something else. But really it all depends on how much effort, time, and detail you want to put into something. From two days to create a Deadpool figure to one month to make a 14" tall Bat Sentry, it's all up to the customizer. Most folks have other jobs so they can't devote an entire day's work to a custom.
THE TOY BOX: From what we’ve heard, painting can make or break any great custom job. Can you tell us about some of the techniques, styles, and brands of paint you use in your work?
JIN SAOTOME: TONS OF DRYBRUSHING! Hah no, I kid. While drybrushing, often called 'highlighting' can play a big part in a custom there's a couple of techniques I find to be the most useful. One is the paint-wash where you dilute a darker paint and let it run into the crevices to create a shadow effect. Another is the paint wipe, completely covering a basecoat with another color and then wiping just the surface clean to get a gradient effect. And of course highlighting/drybrushing where you briskly run a nearly paintless brush across the surface so that paint only adheres to tips and edges. My favorite brands of paints that stick to bare plastic would be Testors Model Master Acrylic and Formula P3. Make sure not to use enamel on soft plastic or it will stay tacky forever, slowly dissolving the plastic over time! Tamiya spray lacquer is my choice to basecoat hard plastic Transformers.
THE TOY BOX: You say that in the past you wanted to change the world with your customs. What changes did you have in mind, and have you seen any of those changes evolve into the medium since?
JIN SAOTOME: Well it was more that I hoped that I could change the toy industry, and their approach to action figures. But that was before I learned that creating an action figure in a company takes an insane amount of steps from start to finish and they really have a tough time just getting something painting the right color back from China. It's a wonder our figures look as good as they do now with all the legal hoops they have to jump through. Customizers don't have those restrictions. Our 'base of operations' is right here in our garage, not overseas and we can make Wolverine's claws as sharp as we like. Since then I've switched gears and want to teach people to customize to improve the figures on their end, not try and convince the toy companies to change. The changes I've noticed are more and more people enjoying the hobby and less complaining about an off-the-shelf figure because people can fix it themselves!
THE TOY BOX: If you had complete control of the action figure universe as we know it, where would you see the hobby go in the future?
JIN SAOTOME: Well let's start at the root of it first, retail bought action figures. I'd have every toy company cancel their contracts overseas and have them start making toys in the USA. The bulk of all delays, logistical problems, and headaches of making action figures is that it's all done in China. You don't have a hands-on look at your product until it's already spent 2 months floating across the ocean on a giant barge. Imagine if you could have design input in hours. Make running changes, communicate efficiently, and have product shipped out the month you create it. I realize that's all but a pipe dream now but it would be so much easier to customize figures if we could have the companies create amazing figures in the first place, made in the USA where we they could have direct control. Did you know there are zero current action figure lines made in the USA? From GI Joe to DC, it's all made in China.
THE TOY BOX: The subject of exporting all of our goods and services out of the Country is a touchy one. Though we didn’t know just how large of an extent that had reached in the world of action figures. In your experience, is this the major contributing factor when it comes to delayed toys not being on store shelves?
JIN SAOTOME: Since I don't work in the industry directly I really couldn't officially nail that down as the cause. But talking to so many people in so many of the different companies, it appears to be. The back-and-forth tweaking and the communication problems of trying to explain what needs to be fixed. Running changes, color/paint issues, you have to wait months to get the final product in your hands and by then most of the product already needs to have been made. Ever heard the term 'spinning meat' on a figure? It's when there's an extra cut joint with no purpose like in the Toybiz Professor X's legs or Hasbro's Symbiote Spiderman. Points of articulation cost money, not just in tooling but in the time it takes for a machine to spit that extra part out and cool down for the next one. Then more time for a worker to assemble that unneeded joint. Closer ties with a factory would keep that from happening and it would a lot easier to call them up and say "Stop the machines! That's the wrong size Wolverine head!" because a rep could have the finished item in days, not months.
THE TOY BOX: Since you’re a customizer of toys, you obviously support many toy lines by buying figures to scavenge for parts, but are there any lines you collect, and don’t tweak or change?
JIN SAOTOME: Actually? All of them. I don't keep any of my own customs, it's just satisfying to know I've successfully made a character. Instead I collect factory figures and enjoy them for what they represent, a collection of individual's ideas and talents. Someone had to sculpt that body, a team had to decide on the paint scheme, another team to pull it all together, etc. That takes an amazing amount of time, effort...and love. Nobody gets 'stuck making toys' to my knowledge. You have to have a real interest and pursue a job in the action figure industry. To honor the visionary companies like SOTA toys, Mezco, Toy Biz, Palisades that provide the raw materials for us to use in our customs I proudly display and enjoy their unaltered figures. Occasionally I'll keep a custom for an extended period of time but when a company gets around to making that character I'll keep theirs and sell my custom one so someone else can enjoy it.
THE TOY BOX: Word of mouth is crucial for your average entrepreneur. Other than your website, where can we find your work - Have you ever been involved with the comic and toy convention community?
JIN SAOTOME: The internet is an amazing word-of-mouth machine and there are so many figure forums out there for both general and specific lines you could spend all day showing off your work on them. The FigureRealm.com is a place where someone without a site can host a gallery of their work and receive comments. Internet aside, while I was living in California I was invited to attend the annual San Diego Comic Cons as a professional so long as I was available to answer questions or show up at panels. That was a real treat! I got to talk to all the great guys at the Mattel, Mezco, and Hasbro booths among others and make some great friends within the industry. From there I branched out doing odd projects for various companies and just having a good time helping them out however I could. Now that I'm in Tennessee I plan on hitting the various Botcons and Joecons that pop up nearby.
THE TOY BOX: Unlike a lot of customizer out there, you offer a great amount of your work to the public via Ebay auctions. Are there any specific “brands” of customs you have found that sell better then others?
JIN SAOTOME: If it has to do with Deadpool the piece will usually do great. For some reason everyone likes the Merc with a Mouth! I've gone so far as to make era-specific variations like Western, Crusader, Future, etc Deadpools all being received well. Deadpool in a mech? Sold. Deadpool on a scooter? Sold. The Steampunk genre seems to be a great hit with fans too. Comic characters that have been re-envisioned with gears, cogs, brass fitting and pistons sell really well as long as their powers/abilities are well thought out in the steam-era fashion. Transformers remains the most lucrative brand to customize and their collectors tend to pay the most for their customs. They can also be the most fickle. One misplaced faction symbol or unpainted tail light and you'll only get negative remarks and a low ending bid. You have to know what they like!
THE TOY BOX: On average, what do your pieces go for?
JIN SAOTOME: Unfortunately because I cover so many different lines for so long I no longer have an average. The character chosen matters in every line too and really makes the amount vary. Take 6" marvel Legends for example. One of my Cable customs sold for $250 while his partner Domino went all the way to $450. I didn't expect that. A good Gambit or Deadpool can bring up to $900, but Cyclops or Wolverine might only break $150. This is the risk of using Ebay, it's whatever that week's current interest is. However you can usually judge what's 'in' by seeing what new comic story arc is going on or what new video game is popular. So an average price of a Marvel Legends custom for me is around $250.
THE TOY BOX: Do you do direct customs for people? If so, what would be the average cost to have a one of a kind Jin Saotome action figure?
JIN SAOTOME: I really, really, REALLY try not to. I tell everyone I don't take commissions because in the past I've found once you take someone's money for a project they can change from a simple collector to a micromanaging controller. They may demand something that I think looks terrible on a figure, or suddenly want those Archangel wings with individually cut steel feathers that slide out on brass hinges. Then it's a drawn out email argument. What I prefer to do is create something and find a buyer for it through Ebay. That way I'm also not telling you what it's worth by setting a price, you're telling me how much it's worth to you by placing your bid. Not everyone can do this and for some commissions are their only real way of making money.
THE TOY BOX: So you’ve created these three figures; Machine Head, Grimwing and Pyre. Tell us about them – Their background story, the world they live in, and your overall inspiration for them.
JIN SAOTOME: Machine Head is something I came up with after wanting to incorporate a S.I.C. theme (super imaginative chogokin) into a 6" Marvel Legends format. It's set about 200 years in the future and focuses around a mega corporation that has successfully combined human biological, technological, and 'demological' sources to create a new species. The gateway to the otherwordly dimension they discovered gets stuck open and floods the earth with all sorts of magical energies twisting its design. A demi-being emerges from the gateway, Hellvore the Armed, and takes control of the corporation freeing the lab-created beings to act as his army on earth. One being however rejects his role and connects with his human side, fighting back to close the gateway...enter Machine Head. Grimwing and Pyre are just some of Hellvore's baddies set loose to stop Machine Head. As his name implies he has mechanical parts in his head but they appear to only be a part of something larger within him. I'd love to write the story out but haven't had time yet. So far it just exists as a storyline inside my head and in a couple of customs. I'll be making more however so keep an eye out.
THE TOY BOX: What future projects will you be tackling this year - Any specific toys, lines, genres – Any special events?
JIN SAOTOME: My Steampunk Marvel custom line needs more characters and I really need to keep practicing my scratchbuilding, weathering, and metallic painting. I want to do a Mad Max/Death Race series of Transformers so I'm looking for weaponized characters. But honestly I'm up for anything. I could have all sorts of plans but I'll see a hat, or maybe a robot's arms and think up a brand new direction of customs. Who knows! Just know that I'll keep making customs so long as you all keep enjoying them.
THE TOY BOX: Thank you for chatting with us. You’ve given us a whole new insight to the world of action figures that we never knew existed. We really appreciate your time.
JIN SAOTOME: Thanks for all the questions, it gives me insight into your readers. The Toy Box is on my blogger list so keep up the good work!
So where will Jin Saotome's Dangerous Toys go next? We'd love to see a real laser beam heat vision shooting Superman figure. One that could melt ice cubes from across the room. Or how about the villinaous Shocker (from the Spider-Man series) with an actual taser effect? We could be putting ideas into John's head that may not be wise, but hey, anything goes when designing "dangerous" toys!
Keep up the good work, John! We wish you the best for 2012 and beyond!
All photographs and logos used in this article are the property of Jin Saotome's Dangerous Toys. Used with permission.
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