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If you’ve seen the gorgeous dolls that the Tonner company makes of DC Comics’ characters (see left) you know the level of detail and work that is put into them. Today the folks at Tonner Doll talk about how they choose the characters they make into dolls and some of the work they do to make the dolls so perfect.
When DCWomenKickingAss.com asked us to do a blog post on how DC characters are selected to become Tonner Character Figures a few of us in the Tonner offices got pretty excited. It seemed like a chance to tell a story that isn’t talked about much. And believe it or not, some longtime employees were actually interested in the answer themselves, not knowing completely how this comes about. So, in a way, it was a bit of a company mystery to some of us. Robert Tonner has loved comic figures so much of his life - his passion so infused in the company - and we have been doing them for so long there was something of the sense that they kind of just “appear” - maybe how our fans experience this as well.
So setting out to uncover the answer we interviewed one of the most important people in the process, design director Joe Petrollese. Joe heads the design process on all the DC and Marvel Character figures; he has been with us for 9 years. When it comes to the translation of the DC design into the Tonner vision, the design decisions flow through Joe. He tells us that there is a lot of variability in just what factors help us decide what characters we are going to do, and when a figure is produced it probably comes out of a consideration of all of them. Roughly speaking they are:
At Tonner we get a lot of suggestions for what Character Figures and dolls we should do, as one might imagine, and there is a kind of composite sense that we develop out of these. Nothing as scientific as an actual vote total, it is much more like a conversation we are having with our devoted fans on Facebook, our new blog and in email such that an impression is left. Out of these suggestions when a character is being considered there is an awareness that others have been asking for it. This can be a deciding factor.
But market history and demand also plays a role. There are for instance perennial characters that Tonner re-envisions nearly every season. Wonder Woman being a prime example, has such strong demand there is little question that her’s is a history we want to continue. But in the selection process for new characters it actually can somewhat work in the reverse of this. When talking with Robert Tonner he emphasized that a big influence is whether a character has been represented at all. This was a strong factor in our recent SDCC release of Dark Phoenix in the Marvel line for instance. She has a passionate fan base, but is very infrequently represented in the commercial world. Because Tonner Doll likes to go where nobody has gone before, it is an aspect of why we have done so many female Character Figures. As Robert tells it, the male figures many times have been more commercially exposed, from everything to coffee mugs and t-shirts to statuettes. The female characters offer us a chance to do something original, something that simply does not exist.
Perhaps the biggest factor, and one that maybe fans might not think of right away, is feasibility. There is a design challenge that really sets Tonner Doll apart from almost everyone else, and that is quality and realism. The biggest consideration of course is that we do not make molded statuettes, so in order to produce an “authentic” interpretation of a character costume just how to pull it off becomes a serious focus. Can we capture the character in a cost effective but still true to the costume manner? We are not just pouring resin into molds. As many of you know, we are building figures from bodies and designing clothes for them with great emphasis on poseability, dress and hair. For all of our DC figures clothing is just that, real highly crafted clothing. This comes out of the strong history of fashion at Tonner Doll , as many of our collectors are inspired to actually go beyond our own creation with repaints and re-stylings. We hold the same standard for our comic Character Figures. They are just the beginning of the imagination. They are not meant to just sit there as-is on a shelf. Posing and expressively dressing them, configuring hair, putting them in new contexts is part of the Tonner adventure. A Tonner Character Figure is not frozen in time, and this imposes constraints upon just who we may choose to represent.
To illustrate the nature of the challenge Joe brought up our recent release of Starfire. This is an under-represented female character, just the kind of DC subject we would love to do. But the difficulty comes in figuring out if we can pull off this extraordinary outfit. As Joe told us, some people think that less clothing is easier than more, but actually it can be the opposite. It is one thing to draw a costume, and another to construct it. It has to first of all stay securely on. It has to be removable. It has to exude quality in the materials and details. And it all has to fall within a production budget. We think everyone will agree that we achieved our goals with her, but when considering if we were going to produce her in the first place all of this had to be assessed.
Above is one of several specific images DC would supply to us and from which Joe would make preliminary sketches, beginning with the basic question of materials and costume construction (below).
In a figure such as Starfire where the hair is an essential feature of her expressive powers and depiction, it is even more important to get it right. Again, this is one of the differences with Tonner above so many other market figures. We are known for the realism of our hair, and Starfire’s hair just flows. You begin to see the whole composition of a Tonner vision. In many regards a Tonner DC woman is a “version” of her just as a new illustrator presents a new version. While illustrators imagine her out of pen and ink, we do it with vinyl and cloth in the real world.
Once we figure out how feasible a character is and begin to assemble our design, a dialogue with DC occurs whereby what we propose is matched up against their own exact standards. Every Character Figure is different, so it is hard to generalize about this process, but it is safe to say that the end Tonner result meets with the DC Comics vision. There may be changes to the size or presence of some feature, a fabric or color or an emblem, but we always arrive at an essential agreement wherein both DC and Tonner Doll are being expressed.
Why So Many Female Characters?
This is one of the more interesting things that came to light when talking with Robert Tonner himself. As our relationship with DC developed over time it became evident to us that our female bodies were much further evolved than our male bodies, at least as far as superhero representation was concerned. Remember, in the beginning we were building a Character Figure from bodies and sculpts that we had developed through our fashion line. We struggled at first to come up with the appropriate male body that was acceptable to both DC and ourselves, but our early ability to handle a female superhero paved the way toward a continuing line of development that really has given the edge to innovations in our female heroes.
Robert enthusiastically talked about how research and development has just come out with more a suitably curvacious torso that is capable of an additional forward-and-back articulation (seen below) added to our already side to side movement, and more well-defined arms with changeable hands (future Character Figures will come with interchangeable hand gestures, such as a fist or open hand). This puts the female characters onto a new level all their own. To see just what Robert is talking about we visited with design assistant Melanie Morhous in the design room. Melanie has been with Tonner five years and specializes in hair, jewelery and finishing. She also has a first hand recollection of our body developments. Here she is showing off the new articulation (below)
It is precisely this new kind of expressiveness that Robert is always pursuing, and which makes him so happy with where we have come to in the female comic Character Figure. Our exploration of new techniques and materials is always about making the figure come alive, making each doll or figure the beginning place for the imagination. And in the comic line there has been a kind of genealogy that has given the females a head start. So in the overall sense this fundamental line of improvement also can influence our decision if we are going to produce a male or female comic figure.
But it is more than that perhaps, as Robert reflects upon what is different about female superheros. There is something about the female depiction that allows great freedom of expression, they seem more individualized than the men, more identifiable in a way that Robert himself finds hard to put a finger on.
"I love the superhero thing, I grew up on it. Its probably the nostalgia because I truly love the fantasy of it. It is everything, Fantasy, Science Fiction, the Good versus Evil stuff, whether it’s male or female. Actually though, I like the female characters almost more. You know, the men are so cutting, you can do more with the look of a female superhero for some reason. You can tell who it is…it is hard to explain. With Superman you can’t color outside the lines there. Superman has to look like this."
We come to full circle in our answer of the question. From our origins we have begun with fantasy and have long striven for originality in the service of the imagination. As we seek out new characters to represent we look for something that our fans - new and old - have wanted, something that maybe hasn’t been done before, a unique figure, but someone we can make in the real world. There is something about the female comic superhero that captures the imagination. For when you love a hero, the hero lives within you! It is the same with us.
I want to thank Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu of Tonner for putting this post together. You can see and read more about the Tonner dolls here. And you can follow them on Twitter at @tonnerdoll.