A quick Google search for “bootleg toys” will call up a page of websites linking to articles about hideous knockoffs. Some of those articles are pretty fun and worthy of a read but only after you’ve read every article on Monkeys Fighting Robots. And only then.
The Real Bootleg Toys
Distributor DKE Toys gained attention for their upcoming NY Comi-Con figure known as Darth Trump (below). As the name implies, it’s a mashup of Republican Presidential candidate and star of a nightmarish version of The Truman Show in which we are all stuck in, Donald J. Trump, and comparatively the much more human villain Darth Vader. Collaborators Timebandits, Special Ed Toys, and MocJoes are three in a growing force of independent “bootleg” toy makers inspired by pop culture past and present.
The kind of bootleg toys I’m talking about are not knockoffs, but more like reboots that take a lot of creative license. Take for instance one of the earliest toys to make and earn mass attention called the “Gay Empire” which featured pink-armored stormtroopers. The creator of the Gay Empire, known as Sucklord, features a catalog of wild toys that are familiar but unique. A lot of Sucklord’s toys poke a lot of fun at the decades old Star Wars franchise. But Sucklord has a rather deep view on the whole thing “Star Wars serves as a universal language which can be utilized to say whatever you want.” Sucklord almost makes me want to stay awake through The Force Awakens.
It’s hard to pinpoint where this whole artistic industry of bootleg toys started. But it’s easy to know where it’s going when you look at the growing number of artists contributing to the culture and using the “universal language” of pop culture to say new things.
Creator Beau Greener of Credenda Studios is an avid toy fan “when the family goes on vacation, and we pass a toy store, I’m usually the one that wants to stop in and see what they have.” Then a few years ago Beau discovered people making custom toys on Instagram. Not soon after Beau added his spin on things like A Nightmare In Space (below) featuring a hideously detailed Freddy Krueger in Boba Fett’s armor. Freddy in the Star Wars universe might explain why the Prequels were a nightmare to so many people.
For DA Marx of Buzzard Guts, he wandered into the wild world of bootleg toys via Craigslist. Dain was a toy reseller and would end up with extra toys lying around that he could never sell. “I started customizing some things and selling those.” The more I did, the more I enjoyed it.” DA created Riot Scum (below), a punk band that exists somewhere in the Star Wars universe and is no doubt featured on a poster in Kylo Ren’s room.
The bootleg toy business is a busy place. Along with Credenda Studios and Buzzard Guts, other creators such as MocJoes, Retrobrand, Healymade, Killer Bootlegs, and Dollarslice Bootlegs are adding their unique vision to the long legacy of pop culture. Like any other, it’s an industry that competes for the dollars in consumers pockets, but for creators, it’s still very much centered around the artistry and pop culture passion.
Legal restraints do make it an interesting industry to play in for creators. Parody laws and fair use are constant issues swirling around everyone involved. For creators like Dain, it’s personal, and something that I think every geek can understand, “I was four years old when Star Wars came out, so I’ve had almost 40 years of that franchise being shoved down my throat. I feel like it’s kind of a part of me.” For most bootleg toy makers, keeping the quantity low makes it easy to avoid legal issues. Beau has heard of larger companies “flexing their muscles” but thinks they consider it a “waste of time and resources to go after a little guy that is just making a run of figures for a movie they love.”
Until Beau or Dain start making a few million dollars in merchandise, I don’t think Disney or anyone else will bother them much. It’s certainly not taking away from the gazillions The Force Awakens made and will continue to make. Bootleg toymakers are creating works of art that only add to the growing pop culture language.
Thanks to Beau Greener of Credenda Studios (Instagram: @CredendaStudios) and Dain Marx (Instagram: @DainMarxToys) of Buzzard Guts for their time in answering a few questions for this article.