“Creating Myths, Acting Them Out with Toys” – An interview with Brandon Barker

WorCovers  Attention conservation notice: this guy makes crazy fun toys and comics. I talked to him about bespoke action figures, comics and the pros and cons of nostalgia. (2564 words)

Brandon Barker is the man behind Warlords of Wor, a series of handmade limited-run toys coming out of Barker’s own ManOrMonster? Studios. Warlords of Wor celebrates 1980s fantasy barbarian action figures (think He-Man) right down to their awkward bodybuilder physiques, furry underpants and goofy names.

Figures released so far include the claw-handed Clawbber (“Two-fisted General of Justice!”), the evil scientist-turned-swamp-monster Bog-Nar (“Mutant Muck Menace!”) and the skull-headed albino gorilla Beastor-9 (“Twisted Abomination of Science!”).

In addition to the action figures, Brandon has released 5 minicomics featuring stories about the characters in the toy line. They’re fun little reads, great examples of shortform genre comic writing that pack a lot of plot and character in between action scenes and still leave time for a bunch of playful riffs on childrens’ activity books and the crazy ads you used to see in 1970s comic books.

What makes Warlords of Wor different from other retronostalgic offerings out there is that, while it’s following in the tradition of the toys and comics I loved as a kid (and still love), it never crosses the line into simple pastiche, mere mashup or thinly veiled fan fiction. They’re a great example of using tropes to tell new stories instead of slavishly referencing and remixing characters and stories that are already out there.

L-R: Bog-Nar the Mutant Muck Menace; Clawbber, Two-Fisted General of Justice; Beastor-9, Twisted Abomination of Science

L-R: Bog-Nar the Mutant Muck Menace; Clawbber, Two-Fisted General of Justice; Beastor-9, Twisted Abomination of Science

A little while back I got to swap some emails with Brandon, talking to him about how he got started making his own toys, how he negotiates the pitfalls of nostalgia and how he comes up with such cool and kooky names.

To start with, how did you get into making your own action figures?

I got interested in model kits when I was young, and I’ve always drawn and created in other ways, so building and customizing toys is something that developed very early for me.

“…it just takes a little DIY, punk rock spirit.”

I think the first “custom” toys I made were cyborg army men.  I would take green army men, cut off arms or legs, and glue on pieces of chrome model kit sprues (the plastic “trees” that model kit parts were attached to).  I would also repaint action figures to give them new, mission-specific outfits like night ops, desert camouflage, or arctic gear.

As an adult I decided I wanted to create my own comics and toy lines, so I just started doing it. The materials and resources are out there… it just takes a little DIY, punk rock spirit.

Can you briefly take us through what’s involved in designing and making your own action figures?

Sometimes it starts with a particular concept, others it’s just tinkering with parts and letting an idea form from that.

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From “Ghosts of Tohoco”. Art by Brian Level. Story by Brandon Barker & Eric Lemons.

Depending on the project requirements, I may have to retool the articulation, modify an existing set of parts, or sculpt new ones.  Once the prototype is finished, I make molds of the individual parts using silicone rubber, then cast them in resin. The plastic parts are then cleaned, assembled, painted, and packaged.

Who and what would you say are the biggest influences on Warlords of Wor?

Masters of the Universe is the spiritual ancestor of the story, and related knock-off lines (specifically Remco’s Warlord and Warrior Beasts) are major influences aesthetically, but Warlords of Wor is really a love letter to all the comics and cartoons and movies I grew up on.

It’s a big mashup of all the things I think are cool, from swamp monsters to laser sword swashbuckling to kung fu flicks… it’s all in there.

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From “Showdown at Silverhorse Saloon”. Art by Ryan Browne & Kelly Fitzpatrick. Story by Brandon Barker & Eric Lemons.

The Warlords of Wor comics and toys feature a big cast of characters. Did you come up with them all at once or did they each come to you in their own time?

Most of them were developed in the early stages of planning for the toys.  As the story grew, a few more characters were added, but the core group has always been the initial 8 that were created for the toy line.

There are still 4 Warlords of Wor figures planned, and 2-3 more mini comics.  Beyond that, there are many more ideas, including a second series of toys and mini comics.

At what point in the development of the toys and comics do you come up with the stories? 

The toy lineup and release order came first.  Then it was a matter of using the character details I had developed to flesh out a story that brought the characters together in a way that fit that projected release schedule.

We kind of hash out rough sketches of a story and refine them when it’s time to send the script to the artist.

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From “Siege On Innsmouth”. Art by Andy Belanger. Story by Brandon Barker & Eric Lemons.

The names of your characters are silly and fun, but also have a resonance to them. Is it a case of finding a good name after a toy is made, or do you ever have a name that makes you think “I’ve gotta make a toy for that!”?

With Warlords of Wor, it all starts with the name.  Everything else comes from that.  With other characters the toy often comes first, and the name is chosen to fit the final creation.

Are there any formulas you use to create a good name?

I do a lot of brainstorming, hitting the thesaurus to find synonyms, thinking about silly ways to contract a name or add a pseudo-Latin fragment to it.  It’s mostly just from a lifetime of absorbing genre fiction… taking a word or concept that fits the character and modifying that in some way.

“With Warlords of Wor, it all starts with the name.”

What do you keep in mind when designing your toys and writing the comics so that they become something more than just a knockoff?

I try to stay away from design elements that are too obviously derivative, but still resonate and recall their references.  It’s not super formulaic, but there’s definitely a remix or mashup element to it that helps keep things fresh while still being familiar.

Lots of independent action figure makers tend to simply mash together or remix the toys of their youth. While some other toys of yours do take that approach, the Warlords of Wor toys are your own ideas, albeit clearly inspired by things like He-Man toys. What was it that made you want to go down the path of original concepts instead of the more usual riffing on existing concepts that seems to predominate with indie toy makers?

Warlords of Wor started as a story concept. The characters, their origins, the history, myths, and political structure or Wor… that was all laid out before I even knew what I was going to do with it.  It started as an idea for a coloring book and grew into something much larger.

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From “Pride of the Guerrilax!” Art by Tom Scioli. Story by Brandon Barker & Eric Lemons.

After I met indie toy makers Ben Spencer and Marty Hansen at the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo a few years ago I knew that I had to turn Warlords of Wor into a toy line.  It was never a matter of putting parts together and letting that process dictate the outcome, which is a very fun method that I use often in my other toy work.

“Stories connect a person to a toy and make a lasting bond that transcends the often disposable cycle of pop-culture mashup.”

This thing I had created called Warlords of Wor was the goal; the characters were already designed… I had to figure out a way to work in that direction.  I like a clever mashup every now and then, but my focus is always to tell stories with the toys I create, to conjure universes.  Stories connect a person to a toy and make a lasting bond that transcends the often disposable cycle of pop-culture mashup.

Do you think nostalgia inspires or stifles creativity?

Practically everything I do has a nostalgic flair to it.  Warlords of Wor is 100% inspired by other works that I’m fond of and connected to.  I think creators can sometimes rely too heavily on nostalgia and it can become a crutch, but it can be used to great effect in the right hands.

How do you reconcile the mindset you had when you were a kid playing with these kinds of toys and the adult mindset that’s needed to create things like action figures and comics?

I don’t see any difference, really.  I’m still creating stories, creating myths, acting them out with toys.

The stories in the minicomics are all credited to you and Eric Lemons. What’s your process of collaboration?

Usually Eric will put together a story outline, sometimes with my direction, others on his own, and then I’ll go into the script and add or refine the dialogue, tighten things up, and get it ready to send to the artist.

Where I created the main characters and most of their origins, Eric played a big part in plotting the stories and rounding out the adventures of the Warlords of Wor.  He’s been invaluable to the process.

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From “The Mutant Muck Menace!” Art by Cory Hamscher & Sean Forney. Story by Brandon Barker & Eric Lemons.

How did you find the artists who work on your comics with you? What was your process of working with them? Were you specifically looking for people who had the same nostalgias that you do?

All of the artists I’ve worked with I’ve found at comic conventions or online, I’ve been a fan of their previous comic work, or they’ve been recommended by another  artist.

The collaborative process varies from person to person… I try to be as accommodating as possible and let the artist work in the way that he or she is the most comfortable.

My main concern is that the artist have fun with the project.  When I’m trying to nail down an artist, it’s important that their style fits the needs of the story, not necessarily that we have similar interests… although that certainly helps!

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From “Siege On Innsmouth”. Art by JB Roe. Words by Brandon Barker. Click to embiggen

Each comic features a puzzle page and some fake ads reminiscent of the ads that appeared in 1970s comic books. Which one of these “extra features” is your favourite?

Tough question!  I had so much fun creating the puzzles and ads, but I think my favorite is from Siege on Innsmouth.  It’s a take on the “sell gifts to earn prizes” ads that were popular for decades in comics.  The prizes available are all nasty, villainous weapons and I just had a blast writing the descriptions for all of them… and JB Roe drew the heck out if it!

What are your future plans for Warlords of Wor?

There are still 4 Warlords of Wor figures planned, and 2-3 more mini comics.  Beyond that, there are many more ideas, including a second series of toys and mini comics.

I want to wrap up the last 4 figures and 2 or 3 comics in Series 1, for sure. I’ve got some really fun ideas for Series 2, and we’ve also been working on a pitch for a miniseries (possibly an ongoing comic series) as a standard size comic that would be a little more mature than the all-ages mini comics.

It would involve a complete overhaul of the series visually, updating the looks of the characters to move them a little further away from their furry-trunked predecessors, but still maintaining the core cast and heart of the sic-fi/fantasy adventure.

The Warlords of Wor minicomics are available for only $US10 (plus postage) from ManOrMonster? Studios. To find out more about Brandon’s toymaking escapades, check out the Warlords of Wor Facebook page and the ManOrMonster? online store.

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Poet. Author. Beard. Husband. Dad. Four chickens. Dog. Cat. I can sometimes fix my lawnmower.

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Posted in comics, i would like to recommend these people's writing, neopulp

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