Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Shrunken-Head Joe Action Figure

In 1998 my friend KW Monster created a character called Shrunken-Head Joe to star in a comic strip in the local free newspaper. Joe was a swinging singer/adventurer who traveled the world with his inexplicably hot girlfriend Gwen. Oh, and Joe just happened to have a shrunken head. I read it in the paper, became a big fan, contacted KW by email, and a friendship was born.

After our first collaboration, I decided to make a customized action figure of Shrunken-Head Joe for KW.

Read the rest (and see more photos) after the jump!

I scoured the action figure aisle, looking for a suitable figure for customization. This wasn't an easy task. Shrunken-Head Joe always wears a suit and tie. Most action figures are either soldiers or super heroes, so it wasn't easy finding one that was wearing a suit.  
I finally found a Joker figure wearing a sport coat, from a then-current Batman toy line. This was an odd looking figure with very wide shoulders and huge hands, that was just about perfect for Joe's distinctive look. It even came with a ridiculously oversize cartoony revolver that was just right.

I bought the figure and carefully removed him from the package. I was also planning on customizing the packaging for the figure, so I wanted to preserve it as much as possible.

Before I could start customizing, I had to prep the Joker figure. It had this weird action feature-- when you pressed down on the figure's head (I think, it's been a long time) the front and back of its large suit jacket popped off, revealing a smaller body inside holding money bags or something. So the first thing I did was glue the two halves of the body to the inner body. I didn't want Joe's body splitting in half every time you touched it.

I then removed the Joker's head, leaving a large hole in the neck area. Then came the first of the hard parts. The suit jacket required major renovation. The Joker was wearing a bow tie, so I carefully cut and sanded that away until it was gone. I sanded and reshaped the shirt collar as well. The original figure was also wearing a bright green vest, so I had to sand that off too. I then used Super Sculpey to sculpt a new tie for Joe. The original figure's jacket arched upward in the middle. Joe's suit was supposed to go straight across, so I had to sculpt a new suit bottom as well.

For the uninitiated, Super Sculpey is a flesh colored polymer clay that will remain soft and pliable forever until it's heated, when it then hardens into a sandable and paintable form. Normally you heat it by placing it in an oven. There was a problem though-- the newly sculpted tie was adhered to the action figures' body. I couldn't heat the Sculpey in the oven, or the body would melt. How to get around that little problem?

I finally hit upon the idea of placing the figure in the freezer, to temporarily harden the Sculpey. I then popped the tie off and placed it in the oven for a few minutes. Once it was cured and hardened I glued it to the front of Joe's shirt.

Next came the really hard part-- sculpting Joe's head. I won't bore you with all the gory details, but I remember I went through several versions before I got one I could live with. One problem was size-- no matter how small a blob of Sculpey I started with, the finished head would always be too large. Joe's supposed to have a shrunken head, after all. Another problem I had was with symmetry. I'd sculpt a perfect right ear, but would have trouble sculpting a matching left ear. I used a toothpick as my sculpting tool. Eventually after much trial and error I finally sculpted an acceptable head that resembled KW's drawings of Joe.

An aside: at the time I did all this sculpting, I did it without having to wear glasses. Back in 1998 I had no trouble sculpting an action figure's tiny head. Nowadays I would need to wear my glasses while looking through a lit magnifying glass to even see it! It's amazing how quickly your eyesight deteriorates with age.

Once I had the head and neck sculpted, I baked it in the oven to harden it. I then glued it to the body. I really wanted his head to be able to turn, but I was constrained by time and engineering know-how, and had to settle for an immobile head.

If you look at drawings of Joe, you'll see that his eyes and mouth are sewn shut with thread, in the manner of all good shrunken heads. I tried and tried to sculpt tiny threads on his eyelids and lips, but to no avail. I simply couldn't make Sculpey pieces that thin. I finally got the idea to take actual pieces of thread, dip them in Super Glue, and lay them over his eyes and mouth. I trimmed away the excess and it worked pretty well.

Joe also has a few strands of wispy hair sticking out of the top of his tiny scalp. For those, I took a glue gun, squirted out a blob of glue onto a piece of paper, then slowly pulled the glue gun away, leaving a thin strand of glue trailing after it. When the glue cooled and hardened, it looked like a properly scaled wisp of hair. I made a bunch of these wispy strands, 25 or 30 of them at least, and picked out 4 or 5 of the best looking ones. Then I glued them to the top of Joe's head.

With the sculpting done, it was time to start painting. I painted his suit and tie a nice flat black, and used glossy enamel on his shoes to give them a patent leather shine. I then painted his face a brownish color, and then applied a darker wash to help bring out all the details in the sculpt. I also painted the tiny threads and wispy hair black.

When I was finished I sprayed the whole figure with Clear Coat to protect it. This is one part of the customization project I wish I could change. I used way, way too much Clear Coat on it. I should have lightly sprayed it once, twice at the most. Instead I slathered that stuff on it. Apparently my attitude was why use one coat when twelve will do? It's way too glossy, in my opinion, but it's too late to do anything about it now.

Once the figure was done it was time to tackle the packaging. I measured the original card back and then mocked up a custom one in Photoshop. I made the front and back of the card, filling it with text and info relevant to the Shrunken-Head Joe comic strip. I printed out the front and back and then glued them to the card. The "Seifco" company name is from KW's real name, and the dog in the logo is Lucy, his pet dachshund.

For the record, the back of the card reads:
Who is Shrunken-Head Joe? He's the fast talkin,' hard drivin,' guitar playin,' ladies man with the little noggin and the big adventures. Join Shrunken-Head Joe and his main squeeze Gwen as they sing and blast their way into danger, deciphering cryptic messages and battling the evil Big Head and his band of crooked henchmen. It's Shrunktastic! "Head" into adventure with Shrunken-Head Joe action figures and playsets!
There's also a list of the various Joe action figures from the (fictitious) line. Action figure lines, such as Batman, always have ridiculous variations (usually involving a ninja theme) in order to get you to buy more than one of the same figure. My favorites here are Galactic Armor Shrunken-Head Joe (with Star Sword, Raygun and Chest Bursting Alien Parasite) and Undersea Ninja Armor Shrunken-Head Joe (with Harpoon, Sword, Treasure Chest and Real Skin Shark). Trust me, the action figure collectors in the audience are rolling on the floor right now.

With the packaging completed, I carefully placed the customized Joe figure back in the plastic tray and stapled the plastic bubble onto the card back again. It looked pretty good, if I do say so myself.  

The only drawback was that the plastic bubble was still embossed with a large circular Bat symbol, betraying the figure's true origin. There wasn't much I could do about that though, and it wasn't all that noticeable as long as you didn't examine it too closely.

Like any artist, I suffered for my work. After I'd sprayed the figure with the clear coat, I went to bed. I lived in a small apartment at the time. It was summer and hot outside, so I had a fan in my bedroom. Unbeknownst to me, the fan sucked all the toxic fumes from my work area right into my bedroom and into my waiting nostrils.

The next day I had an excruciating headache and was inexplicably dizzy. A few days after that I began feeling tired and rundown. I began peeing much more frequently than normal and noticed there was blood in my urine! Not a lot, but enough to make me high-tail it to the emergency room, stat! Too much info? Probably, but it happened. Spoiler alert: I eventually recovered, but I am 100% convinced that breathing those toxic fumes all night was the cause of my health problems.

Once I'd recovered, I put the figure in a paper bag and presented it to KW. I handed him the bag and said, "Here, I found this at Toys R Us." He tentatively opened the bag, looked inside and exclaimed, "No! Oh no! OH NO!!!!" Hmm. That wasn't quite the reaction I was expecting. He pulled the customized figure out, looked at it and said, "Dang it, how did this happen?" Then I realized what was happening. He thought that some toy company had seen his Shrunken-Head Joe comic strip in our local free paper, stolen the character and produced a toy line based on it! Wow!

After a few more seconds, he began reading the package and realized it wasn't an actual product, but a custom. It now hangs on the wall of his drawing studio.

I bought a second Joker figure back in the day so that I could customize one for myself. Unfortunately it's still sitting somewhere in my house, forgotten and uncustomized. Considering I bought it in 1998, it's a pretty good bet I'm never going to get around to it.


  1. Me too ! Great story, great prank. A labor of love and friendship. This sounds exactly like a few of the things I have done (though not as awesomely detailed) Check out my Hungry Comix post:

    to see what I'm talk'n about.

  2. Hey bob, it's Gordon. You never showed this little gem. That is really cool. You are missing your true calling.

  3. KW: Which story? The custom action figure or the part about peeing blood?

    Lysdexicuss: Thanks! And well done on your customs!

    Anonymous (aka Gordon): Thanks. Customizing figures is too time consuming to do more than once every ten years.

  4. Wow! That is awesome, Bob!
    I enjoy your work, and KW's, and am a fan of shrunken Head Joe, which is hilarious. Nicely done! Amazing! Super Cool!
    And fun story, too!
    ...Now i know if I start to pee blood, it's probably just from the fumes you breathed...

  5. Michael Wurl: Thanks for all the compliments!

    I've been careful to only use Clear Coat and spray paints in well ventilated areas since that incident. So far no repeat occurances.


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