Hasbro! Kenner! Mattel! You know them! They’re those companies that made My Little Pony, G.I. Joe, He-Man, Star Wars, Barbie, and any and every movie tie-in toy. Police Academy toys?? YEAH, actually I DO want that — THANKS, KENNER! I don’t know what Food Fighters are, but they look rad and there’s a whole pile of them in the Toys-R-Us clearance bin – GOOD JOB, MATTEL! My Buddy? That looks terrifying — THANKS, HASBRO! These companies are responsible for the childhood ephemera of now grown generations, navigating the world with Master of the Universe lore as much of a part of their DNA as cytosine, guanine, adenine, or even thymine. Those generations are now creating their own toy culture, influenced by not only pop culture nostalgia, but by the mashup cultures of hip hop and graffiti, it’s a kind of self-aware folk art for Star Wars fans. Is it any wonder that our DIY modern world of online cooking blogs, YouTube how-to videos, 3D printers, and Pinterest boards would foster a designer toy culture? They even give themselves playful pseudonyms and have their own lingo — a kitbash is a mix and match of different parts from various figures to create a wholly new toy, and the words bootleg or knock-off are often used affectionately.
The variety found among these artist is surprisingly wide: Paul Kaiju’s colorful creatures look like beautiful inhabitants of Toho’s Monster Island, Sucklord’s deep dive into pop culture yeilds Miss Cleo figures and toys based on Tinder profiles for Sleestacks, and Retroband’s tightly designed resin figures are a feast for horror fans.
The story of Killer Bootlegs is analogous for any of the successes found in the designer toy subculture, growing from a one-off art project to a noted brand, collaborating with the larger Super7 company to create wholly original figures for a growing market. This interview was conducted over the phone with Killer Bootlegs founder Peter Goral answering from his Rockford, Ill home.
Diabolique: Let’s get right to it, what do you have going on for December? Are there any products you want to plug?
Killer Bootlegs: Yeah, I might be doing a mini painted version of my character Draco Knuckleduster. A miniature version of my vinyl figure, so instead of being 5 ½ “ tall it’s 2 ½ “ or 3” tall, all hand painted with a die cut card.
Diabolique: That sounds cool, I like that character a lot. What’s the inspiration for that one?
Killer Bootlegs: He’s kind of like a Vader-esque psychedelic space wizard. You know?
Diabolique: He looks rad. Frequently you’ll do straight forward characters like Kenny Powers or Larry David, and sometimes you’ll do mash-ups like R2D2 with a Warhol soup can, but some of the characters seem brand new. I don’t have as deep a knowledge on the sci-fi and comic book reference points. Sometimes I look at them and wonder if it’s a totally original creature, or is this some sort of anime or Dr. Who character that I don’t know about.
Killer Bootlegs: Unless it’s a real person like Hunter S. Thompson or Larry David or Kenny Powers, or a mashup, then generally all the things I make are just made up. I guess the idea is to eventually sell only my characters, develop a world based on things I’ve created. That’s the hardest thing to accomplish, to get people to feed into what YOU like, something YOU’VE created. Of course they’re going to like two things mashed together that they already like, or a show or a TV star or a movie, but to get people to like something that has no reference point that’s solely your creation, that’s the hardest thing to do.
Diabolique: Well, I like your original creations the most. I like things that are a little off, bootleg toys from other countries, ripoffs of more famous characters. Are those inspirations for you?
Killer Bootlegs: That was the whole idea with Phantom Starkiller and Draco Knuckleduster, that little universe I’ve created. I wanted to do what George Lucas did, but through my own mind. What George Lucas did was say “I’m going to use Greek mythology, and the Bible” and all the things he used to build his archetypes, but I grew up in the 80s, so I’m going to use Star Wars, Disney cartoons, Saturday morning cartoons, other sci-fi movies, psychedelic rock, and all the weird things I like to create my own thing. Throw ‘em all in a blender and see what comes out. That’s how Phantom Starkiller evolved, just taking elements like Skeletor, the Horned King from The Black Cauldron (1985), or Darth Vader, and giving him a laser sword and a skeleton face, just mashing up all these things that I like. Then giving him a unique Saturday morning cartoon color scheme, coming up with a crazy backstory where he’s a prisoner that escaped, whatever wild stuff I think up. And to have people respond is just amazing. To have a company like Super7 take a chance and invest money in producing a toy for me and marketing it and everything they’ve done, then to see the toys sell out, and to see people talking about it all over the world. It’s amazing. It’s awesome.
Diabolique: That’s incredible. As far as that collaboration with Super7 goes, you come from a handmade background, sanding and painting and casting these toys all on your own, right?
Killer Bootlegs: For almost 10 years now.
Diabolique: So with the Super7 deal, are they producing them in a factory?
Killer Bootlegs: It’s in a factory right next door to where they make their Masters of the Universe and Misfits figures, my figures are made right alongside it.
Diabolique: It’s been almost 10 years, you were one of the first guys doing this sort of thing. I guess other than kids ripping apart their ninja turtles and mixing them up. Are you the first indie guy they’ve worked with?
Killer Bootlegs: Yeah, I didn’t go to school for this or anything, so everything I’ve learned is all trial and error and figuring it out on my own. Whether it was making molds and painting figures, I’d never done any of that. What it’s turned into is beyond a dream come true. I would say I’m the first air quotes indie guy that they’ve worked with. It’s not like I’m a toy designer for Hasbro outside of this. I’m sure they work with those guys in the industry. I’m just a dude, you know?
Diabolique: You don’t have a product design background?
Killer Bootlegs: Not at all, it’s all just hard work. They say there’s that 10,000 hours thing to become a master. I’ve been doing this almost 7 years full time where it’s my job. My whole life revolves around action figures – making action figures, selling action figures, designing action figures, all that.
Diabolique: Your kids probably love that, right?
Killer Bootlegs: Yeah, I guess so.
Diabolique: Or are they like “Dad’s into toys, we don’t like ‘em?”
Killer Bootlegs: My daughter, she’s 11, she’s kind of grown out of it where it’s not really the coolest thing in the world. She thinks it’s cool because her dad’s famous – which I’m NOT – but, in certain circles I am and she thinks that’s cool. I have a son who’s 7 and he thinks it’s cool as shit.
Diabolique: That’s great. You’ve done collaborations regularly in the past, though. What are some of those that have stuck out with you?
Killer Bootlegs: A longtime collaborator and friend of mine is Tyler Ham. His Instagram is @hamfx He used to work for Industrial Light and Magic; he worked on all kinds of movies, you know? The Star Wars movies in the ‘00s, special effects on some of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. We became friends when he worked at Lucasfilms and one day, out of the blue, I got an email from someone asking if I was willing to sell him something for the Lucasfilms Secret Santa that they do every year. I was like “holy shit!” I saw the @Lucasfilms on the email and I was like “holy crap, who’s this guy?”
Diabolique: Did you get a little worried? Like, “here come the lawyers,” right?
Killer Bootlegs: (laughs) Kind of! But it was all cool. It wound up that we became friends and started working together. We’ve worked on and off for the last 7 years or so and we’ve done tons of stuff together. Be it the Hammer Films Curse of the Werewolf figure, or the Alfred Hitchcock figure, he did the head sculpt on the Kenny Powers figure, we did the Rank and Bass Golem figure. We’ve done a lot of stuff together. There’s probably more when I sit back and think about it. He’s one of my favorite guys to work with.
Diabolique: What is the work breakdown on that collaboration?
Killer Bootlegs: For the Kenny Powers, Hitchcock, and Curse of the Werewolf he would do the head sculpt from scratch digitally, then send me the 3-D file, or a 3-D print of it, then I would take it from there. I would do the kitbash for the figure and sculpt whatever I need to, make the mold, do all the casting, painting, packaging. He would do what he specializes in, then I would do what I specialize in. The end results have always been really good.
Diabolique: I really love those. They’re part of why I chose to interview you. When I saw the Hitchcock and Curse of the Werewolf figures I thought I should reach out to you.
Killer Bootlegs: As far as card art artists that I’ve worked with, there a guy named Wizardcleave (@wizrdcleave on Instagram) who’s a young up and coming artist with a real Skinner-esque style. We’ve worked together on a lot of stuff. I’ve worked with Alexis Zeritt (@aziritt), who’s a comic book artist of Space Riders (2015, Black Mask Studios) fame. He did all the illustrations for my Skate Decks and he’s done some packaging for me. A friend of mine, Zack Shereck (@zackshereck) is a local tattoo artist. We became friends when I went into the shop to get a tattoo one day and I saw a bunch of stickers at his workstation. Toy stickers for guys that I personally know. I was like, “who the hell’s station is THIS?” But Zack wasn’t there at the time. I asked, “how does this guy know all these people that I know?” A few days later I got an order through my website and it was this guy Zack and I saw that the address was the tattoo shop, so instead of sending it out I went in there and hand delivered it. I was like “hey, man, nice to meet you.” And since then we’ve become friends. He did the art for the Curse of the Werewolf figure, he did the card art for the Super7 Phantom Starkiller figure. So, I’ve collaborated with a lot of really talented illustrators and sculptors that I’m honored to work with.
Diabolique: When you started out, what were your goals?
Killer Bootlegs: When I was FIRST starting, I would do one-off, one of a kind kitbashes. Around ’06 or ’07, I was doing CRAZY mashups where it would be 20 or 25 pieces, whether it be the tiniest piece of a figure, and just make the crazy concoctions of things. I would try to mold some of them later and there was just too much going on, actually. I had no intention of selling them or making multiples of them. I didn’t even know that was a thing. I was just making these weird, one-off creations, using the techniques model makers use. Taking found objects and using them as needed, then as time went on I had to get simpler. I had to keep it as simple as possible. I was new to mold making.
As I was making those first ones I had no intention of selling them or doing anything with them. As I kept doing it, and kept doing it, friends of mine, my brother (who’s also an artist), would come over and see them and say “these are rad! What are you doing with these things? You should be in a gallery show that my friend is curating,” That sort of thing. Word got out locally that I was doing this weird action figure art and I would put them in gallery shows. Some of them would sell and some of them wouldn’t, but it came to where I had to make multiples so that I’d have one for myself. If one sold, I would redo that figure. It was always about having one for myself. I have a collection of maybe 200+ items and things that I’ve made, so whenever I make something, I keep the first one. The mindset was always that these things were for ME, it’s just a benefit that other people like the same shit that I do. It’s always what I want, or things that had never been made that I wish were made, or things no one had the balls to make. Who would make a Larry David figure? Nobody would think to do that ever. Or, maybe they’d think about it, but a company wouldn’t take the risk because there’s such a small percentage of the market that would want something like that, and the investment it would take to make something on a large scale wouldn’t justify it.
As social media happened, I was starting to post some of these weird, goofy things I was making online with no intention of selling them. It was just to show what I was doing, like how people take a picture of the food they made. There was NOT a scene of people making action figures with the intention of selling them. Now there’s guys out the gate, they make something and they already have a company name, a logo, a cardback with a backstory, they have all these ducks in a row to sell it. That wasn’t my goal when I started. It was just to post a picture of it. People started reposting them and retweeting them or whatever, and the legend of Killer Bootlegs grew and grew and grew. I found myself in this predicament where I HAD to learn how to make molds. I HAD to learn how to cast multiples, because people were wanting to buy them. I didn’t think that this would EVER in a MILLION YEARS happen where this would be my job and that this is where I’d be in life. I had NO IDEA that this would ever happen this way. I’m very fortunate that it did. Like I said, some guys out of the gate nowadays start with the intention of being a toymaker. I didn’t know this was a thing. I guess it WASN’T a thing back then. I helped make it a thing.
Diabolique: Do you have any 2019 plans you want to talk about?
Killer Bootlegs: We’ve got three more colorways for the Phantom Starkiller that are coming out. Two of them are hands down my favorite. The original orange color way is classic, but there’s one based on the Horned King from the Black Cauldron (1985), and there’s one based on the Lich King from Adventure Time (2010- ) that I think are awesome. Those are two thing that, back in 2011 when I was coming up with the character, were a kind of weird part of what I was doing. He’s kind of a Black Cauldron, meets Darth Vader, meets Skeletor kind of thing, so to bring it back full circle to make a color way that’s a tribute to those things is pretty cool. And it’s turned out fantastic. Then, I’ve got another figure with the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, and Draco Knuckleduster will come out later in the year.
Diabolique: Well, thanks, man. It’s really great to talk to you and it’s great to pick your brain. You’ve got a great story and I’m happy to share it with people.
Killer Bootlegs: Thanks, man.
To find out more about Killer Bootlegs, you can check out their website.