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Nov 16, 2018

Interview: James Groman Joins DC Artists Alley

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[The force of nature that is James Groman is the next featured artist for the DC Artists Alley line.  He’s been given artistic license to re-imagine Batman, Joker, Two-Face and Killer Croc. Vinyl Pulse recently had the pleasure of talking to James about the project and his thoughts on creating these wild new takes on the classic DC characters.]

Q: Hi James. You’ve had an impressive career from your work on Mad Balls to Care Bears and more recently a growing line of Art Toys. Can you give us the 30-second description of what you do?

I’m an “Independent Contractor”, which is a fancy term for freelance artist. I actually wear a number of hats under that title, which can include concept and design of collectable or toy products for major toy companies and smaller boutique businesses. I also create my own IP concepts for entertainment, videogames and other licensed applications.

Oh, and I teach a couple classes in character design at Cleveland Institute of Art.

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Q: Congratulations on your four upcoming DC Artists Alley vinyl art Toys! I remember staring at the screen in disbelief for quite a while at the designs, a bit dumbfounded. How did you get involved in the series? Were you able to choose which characters to interpret?

I hope dumbfounded in a good way…

I met Jim Fletcher, Executive Creative Director at DC Collectibles, at last year’s Five Points Festival, fresh off of winning Toy of the Year at the Designer Toy Awards for King Korpse, a large vinyl figure I produced with Hiroto Ohkubo at Instinctoy. Jim loved King Korpse and got a KK T-Shirt. He mentioned that it would be great for me to collaborate on something with the folks at DC Collectibles, and the newly launched DC Artists Alley line made for the perfect chance to do so.

At first, we were talking about Swamp Thing, The Demon, Solomon Grundy, etc. Things that seemed to fall within my proverbial wheelhouse. But I did hear that Jim was thinking that perhaps that was too easy, or too expected. DC soon settled on having me do my versions of Batman, The Joker, Two-Face and Killer Croc. I think I was even more thrilled about this opportunity. I’ve spoken many times about my lack of affection for costumed heroes, but Batman has always been one of my favorite characters.

 

Q: Was it hard to resist the urge to tell everyone you know that you were reinterpreting four DC characters?

Oh, hell yes. In fact, I told a select few of my friends…people I knew understood the need for confidentiality on such things.

And my wife. And my kids. And my mom. Oh crap! Everybody knew!!

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Q: How did you approach the design of the DC character toys? What considerations came from designing multiple toys for the line?

First off, I researched what had already been done with the characters. I wanted to design Batman and his rogues gallery in a way no one has ever seen before. I soon found that after 80 or so years of comics, TV and movies, this was a very tall order. I watched countless artist and creator interviews on YouTube, all discussing their runs on the BATMAN comics. At what point have you lost the character entirely? At what point is it no longer…Batman? How far could I go before I was tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail?

Basically, my concept was simple. It is, more or less, just an excuse to mutate and monster-ize the denizens of Gotham City. Once I could get my audience to swallow the idea of the Batman family mutating into radioactive asymmetric monstrosities, designing the characters would be icing on the cake.

My concept involved The Joker attempting to launch a radioactive  isotope into the atmosphere, thus exposing the entire planet to a continuous storm of radioactive waste that would result in the mutation of every living creature on the planet. Batman, in a struggle to thwart the missile, must make a choice. Detonate it within the confines of Gotham City, or let it be launched into the stratosphere and affect the entire planet. He chooses to save the world, at the cost of the city that he has sworn to protect.

The resulting explosion of radioactive fallout envelopes Gotham City in a cloud of the mutating pathogen. From here we have a kind of Escape from New York scenario, where the city is barricaded off from the rest of the world. Everything in Gotham City, both hero and villain, has morphed into ungodly and horrible creatures.

 

Q: Three of the four designs are totally wild—Batman, Killer Croc,and ... Joker! Let’s focus on Joker. Where did your inspirations come for what might be described as Joker: Deconstructed?

In the struggle to stop the missile launch at the beginning of the story, Batman’s sidekick Robin is killed by The Joker. After the effects of the bomb had fried The Joker’s brain, he constructed a puppet of the Boy Wonder, using the boy’s skull as the puppet’s head. In The Joker’s mind, Robin is still alive, and has turned against Batman. Robin now advises the cackling Clown Prince of Crime on how to thwart the Caped Crusader.

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What was the balance between your personal reaction to the notorious villain and for lack of a better phrase, thoughts of incorporating a visual history of the character and his stories into the design?

Obviously, The Joker has always been the ying to Batman’s yang. In my mind, he is the lead villain in Batman’s considerable roster of bad guys. In the world I built, I thought Two-Face’s mutation would not just be a physical one, but that his mental faculties would also be enhanced. I pictured him at the top of the “new” villainous food- chain of Gotham City. The Joker’s mind is totally gone, relegating him to the role of a terrifying, roller-skating enforcer at the employ of the city’s new found Kingpin, Two-Face. He is Vader to Two-Face’s Grand Moff Tarkin.

 

Q: In addition to being an accomplished illustrator and designer, you are also a talented sculptor. Did you sculpt your DC Artist Alley figures? How does knowing that you will sculpt a toy affect your design process? Does it allow you to push the edge just a bit more?

With my schedule being a bit nuts at the time, the original thought was that I would only design the figures, not sculpt them. I am a detail guy and relished the thought of going nuts with the designs without any regard for the sculptor! (Other than the obvious need for them to stand without falling over). But I soon found myself falling in love with the designs and felt the need to take the entire project to fruition by doing the sculpts myself.

That being said, these are 7-inch figures, which is a lot smaller than I am used to working with. So, all along I was thinking of the designs being handed off to a real talented zBrush artist. I didn’t think I would have to be the one to interpret all my crazy details into a finished sculpt. In some ways I was relieved to think of the pieces being handled by someone else. That might have helped me ‘release the reigns’ a bit and take the designs as far as I did. When I came to the realization that it had to be me that did the final 3D work, I was a bit intimidated. But I can only blame myself!

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Q: From Rotten Rex to King Korpse, you’ve created quite a cast of visceral characters for a quickly expanding universe of original Art Toys. Did the experience of being freed to create toys directly from your imagination influence how you approached this decidedly “off model” project with the DC character?

I think my previous work influenced the folks at DC Collectibles, which in turn directly influenced me. Jim Fletcher loved King Korpse, and he wanted me to bring that particular aesthetic to the Batman family. If I had been approached to just do Batman I might have popped a heart valve trying to figure out what version I wanted to do. Jim had a vision that I totally bought into, and we pretty much saw it from the start. The only thing I did not want to do was go all-out Zombie. It’s been done multiple times with the character so we decided to go a bit more by way of mutation.

 

Q: Looking back on this project, what stands out to you? What was the hardest part of reinterpreting the characters? The most surprising?

What really stands out is the amount of freedom I was given for the design and execution of the characters. It was so refreshing! This line is one of the more artistically rewarding projects I have ever worked on.

That’s not to say we didn’t collaborate. My art director, Trevor Zammit, was with me every step of the way with awesome comments and suggestions, and sometimes just to keep parts manufacturable. Trevor is actually from the Cleveland area, and used to come by my old studio when he was a young designer/illustrator to show me his artwork.

The fact that he was now the point person I worked with at DC Collectibles was really exciting! Trevor is also a talented toy sculptor himself, and his insights on my pieces as they took shape was invaluable.

The hardest part? I guess it was once we kind of knew the direction we wanted to go, coming up with designs that we really liked was a bit tough. I tried a few versions of each character before we arrived where we did. I think we were tough on ourselves to arrive at something exceptional because of our respect for the characters and their legacy. Some fans might find that hard to believe once they see the designs!

But Batman’s DNA is still there. Even in his surreal mutated state, there is that dim, distant voice that struggles to remind him that he is still Gotham City’s hero. A monster struggling to retain his humanity. The trophies gathered on his utility belt are a clue that perhaps his struggles are not always successful.

My hope is that each figure tells a story. That is ultimately the goal. I think that the very best character designer’s goal is that very thing.

Posted by Jack @ 12:00 PM in Interviews | Permalink  | Comments (0) |

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