This is The Original Golden Age Black Terror vs. Killer Robot, a miniature based on an old comic cover from the late 1940s. This article will describe how I got this hand painted, limited edition resin statuette produced in China and how you can do the same with your own figures.
Last year I started Goldenagefigurines.com to produce a figurine of Fletcher Hanks's Stardust the Super Wizard, a cult comics character featured in Paul Karasik's excellent I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!, published by Fantagraphics. I was an average guy with a love of mid-twentieth century comics and no prior experience in producing collectibles; I have been learning the business as I go along and I'm now on my third figurine with a masochistic desire to produce more. This article is a cautionary tale for other artists and entrepreneurs bold and foolish enough to follow a similar path.
What Should I Make?
The collectibles market is very crowded and competitive, so it is important to find a niche that is underserved. Like many industries, it took a hit during the 2008 financial crisis and has never fully recovered, at least at the lower end; consequently, there are a lot of nice collectibles out there chasing a diminished number of dollars. I think it takes blind optimism, misplaced confidence, and the willingness to risk at least five grand to dip your toe in this market; prepare to commit a lot more if you want to make a serious go of it. You can raise money by running a crowdfunding campaign, saving money from your miserable day job, shaking down your rich uncle, participating in risky medical experiments, etc. For crowdfunding, I suggest carefully examining my original Kickstarter campaign and doing everything opposite of what I did.
I chose the Golden Age of Comics as a niche because few other companies were doing much with it despite its small but devoted following. Like any pop cultural product, there is a lot of dross in the old comics hosted on such sites as DigitalComicMuseum.com; however, there are also a few weird gems that may deserve commemoration in plastic. Another important point is that public domain characters from this period require no expensive licensing to produce; for your first figure, you probably want something that won't bankrupt you if you misjudge the market and produce a flop. That being said, you will probably sell a lot more if you do buy a license and produce collectibles based on something more widely known, such as a movie, TV series or video game. It really depends on your appetite for risk and willingness to set fire to bales of money.
For my latest piece, I knew I wanted to produce a figurine of The Black Terror, whose modest popularity is primarily due to his eye-catching costume, which is generally more exciting than the stories he appeared in. (He does have the distinction of having been inked by a young Frank Frazetta, however). I also wanted to base the sculpt on one of his more dynamic covers, so I presented my customers with a variety of options selected from a cover gallery on the wonderful Grand Comics Database. The winner was the ironically titled Exciting Comics No. 45 published in March 1946 by Standard Publications, drawn by the great Alex Schomburg, a legendary cover artist of the period:
An alternative to existing properties is a character of your own design, i.e., a designer toy. These are typically done in vinyl but are also produced in resin, especially if you are making less than 1,000 pieces. If you have cultivated social media and developed a following, you can ask your fans to fill out a survey to gauge the level of interest in a possible figure; it's probably best if you give them a choice of 4-5 candidates, as your favorite character often doesn't match that of your audience. (At least mine doesn't – for me, the more esoteric and obscure the character, the better). At this point, some basic color renderings of what your have in mind is sufficient. You can create a survey with many different tools, such as SurveyMonkey, Google Forms, or PollDaddy, among others. Leave it up for at least a month and perhaps offer an incentive in the form of a discount code to those who bother to complete the survey. It is pretty easy to manipulate online surveys, so you should take the results with a grain of salt; for me, they've been relatively accurate, though I generally add 25% to the results for those who are not on my mailing list and are late to discover the figure.
If you have at least 150 potential customers (120 survey participants + 30 possible future customers), you can proceed with a figure, as there are at least a few good factories in China willing to produce numbers this low. However, be aware that you will be spreading the prototype and molding costs over very few units, resulting in a high per unit cost. You will almost certainly have to sell these direct, as your margins will not be sufficient to provide the 50-60% discount demanded by a distributor.