Where do you draw the line? Artist and illustrator Joe Allard on art, toys and collectibles

Joe Allard
Joe Allard: we’ve been trying to set this up for soooooooooo long… We were nearly there a while ago, and then we had Covid. But here we are; thanks for making time!

No problem! Thanks for inviting me. And yes, it’s been a long time coming! You are the most patient fella…

Well, I’m glad someone thinks so! I’ll give you a list of people to call later; see if you can change some minds. Meanwhile, it’s hard to know where to start with you! As a man of many talents, how do you like to be described?
Creator of Rare Antiquities. I’m kidding! Sort of… Often I just say artist and leave it at that, but that’s a bit general. In a professional situation I introduce myself as a designer, sometimes more specifically a toy designer, although that is also not entirely accurate as these days I’m doing more collectibles than toys, as well as many packaging illustrations.

Yes, you’re a hard man to pigeonhole. It seems you moved from one dream job to another though… You used to be a comic book artist for Marvel? Tell us about that!
Yes! My first professional gig as an artist was as a digital colourist on comic books for Marvel and Malibu Comics. Growing up, comic books and movies were really my main passions. I wanted to be either Steven Spielberg or Todd McFarlane.

Joe Allard
Arguably best known for creating Spawn?

One and the same! And since becoming a comic-book penciller seemed slightly more attainable, I put my attention towards that first. In high school and early college, I sent of many sample pages to the editors at Marvel and DC Comics trying to get a penciling gig, to to at least get their feedback so I could get better. My second year of college I applied for an internship at Malibu Comics just to see if I could get my foot in the door.

This is wonderfully old school – any luck?
Well… I was offered a paid gig in the mail room! I took it, though, and proceeded to plot my triumphant rise to professional penciller. See kids, the stories are true, you really can start in the mail room!

Is this true? Is this really how you got your break?
Yes! I started out stuffing comic books in envelopes and mailing them to contest winners. Eventually, I was promoted to shipping manger. I was so stoked to have a desk and a phone extension. Along the way Marvel bought the company and started to beef up the colouring department, which was pretty state of the art at the time – and one of the first to start using Photoshop to colour comics. I applied for one of the jobs, and took the required colouring test.

Joe Allard
But this is without any Photoshop experience?

Right. Even so, I was able to translate my traditional colour and painting skills to digital rather well and was fortunate enough to be offered a spot in the colouring department. I really consider my time there an extension of college as I learned a lot while on the job. The colouring department was a really good group of people who helped me grow a lot as an artist. Many are still great friends today.

Terrific. All good things, though… How did it come to an end?
Once Marvel purchased Malibu, they slowly started to shut things down. First the bullpen illustrators and inkers, then the editors. After a while it was just us left in the colouring department. They kept us running for a few years, and I got to colour Marvel classics from Spidey, to X-Men and more. Some were some killer; some terrible. Eventually they shut us down as well, and sent our jobs to studios out of the country.

This is just to save costs, presumably?
Something about being able to pay the artists less because they didn’t pay income tax over there! Ireland was one of the places that opened a colouring studio and took most of our work away. I remember I was colouring a Captain America trading card for Fleer at the time, and when we heard the rumours, I recoloured and changed him to Captain Ireland and put copies up around the office in protest. We were not happy to say the least, but business is business I guess and it ended up being a blessing in disguise for me.

Joe Allard
Because it led you to the toy industry?

Right. Once word came down that they were shutting down the colouring department, everyone started looking for relevant jobs. That pretty much meant animation and background painting… I soon realised that it was going to be tough to land a gig with so many of us looking for the same jobs and started to consider other options. One of the colourists that had already been let go was awesome enough to give me a heads-up about a job opening at a gift company nearby called Applause.

Rrrrright. A company not without difficulties, but at that time…
At that time I only knew of them for making plush animals and such, but I learned they were making Star Wars and Marvel gifts, and collectibles as well. That sounded awesome. I figured working there meant I’d still get to draw my favourite Marvel and Star Wars characters, AND they’ll be made into actual toys and gifts! Why didn’t I consider this career before was baffling. Nowadays, there are degrees in toy design at many colleges, but when I was young, I didn’t even realise that was a job I could go after.

Well, let’s talk about that. Growing up, did you play with toys and games?
Did I ever. I was a HUGE toy kid growing up. I was always either playing with my action figures or drawing pictures. Massive amounts of Star Wars, GI Joe, Masters of the Universe, M.A.S.K. – you name it, I played with it at some point.

Joe Allard
And what about design? Did you appreciate design back then?

I definitely appreciated design as a kid playing and drawing my own stuff. I started drawing really early, so it was always part of my memories. I didn’t understand why I liked one thing and not another, or why something looked good one way, for example, but I always had an opinion on it. I used to stare at the GI Joe packaging for hours. The paintings on the figures and the vehicle boxes were so captivating.

I find this fascinating: I don’t know anyone that was looking at that sort of thing so young…
Yes, and to that point I actually found the Star Wars card backs a bit boring because they were just photos from the films. G.I. Joe had these amazing dramatic illustrations that really screamed action and fun. They made me simultaneously want to both draw and play with my Joe figures. It still blows me away that today I’m illustrating the cart art for action figures from Super 7. A dream come true for sure!

Let’s talk about those. You recently did some extraordinary card art for Super7’s Transformers ReAction figures…
Man, talk about dream jobs. This has been such a pleasure and privilege to work on. As I say, I grew up mesmerized by GI Joe and other package art, so getting to contribute some of my own is pretty freaking amazing. I can’t thank Kyle and Josh and the fine folks at Super7 enough. When S7 came to me for the gig, they said they wanted it to look just like the original-generation cartoon but more rendered, more detailed, and in a retro kind of way. Something that might have been on a toy package in the 80s.

Joe Allard
Where did you start?

So I basically started by watching a bunch of Transformers cartoons – rough I know! But I was getting inspired; getting pose ideas. I took screenshots along the way of poses and angles that looked cool and worked off of those, trying to choose poses that captured the spirit of each character… Stoic Prime, or cocky Starscream. As for the rendering style, I really just tapped into my old 90’s comic book rendering skills. I figured that was pretty retro and also came naturally to me.

And with something like that, it seems to me that a lot of what you do is much more art than toy! At what point do toys become collectibles, though? And at what point do collectibles become art?
Well, I have a pretty basic line I can draw between toy and collectible. So on a literal point: if you can play with it, it’s a toy. If it has articulation or accessories, it’s a toy. If it’s a static statue or bust, that would be considered a collectible. That doesn’t mean a toy cannot also be a collectible, though. Anything can be a collectible really, if you collect it. So let’s take ReAction figures, for example…

Which, I should’ve said earlier, are like “wish-we-had” figures from Super 7…
Wish-we-had figures! Yes, that’s it. So… Are they a toy? Yes. They’re articulated and come with an accessory. You can play with them if you want to. Are they also a collectible? Absolutely. People often collect them for the packaging art, and don’t open the blister. That said… It’s ALL art in my opinion! It’s all been created with art, and can still be viewed as art.

Joe Allard
Makes absolute sense. I do sometimes wince when I see people ripping packing open with scarcely a second glance… It feels sacrilegious.

I guess that’s because – whether it’s a designer vinyl figure or a preschool toy, it’s all derived from artwork and can be viewed as artwork itself. It’s what I learned to call “Art for Industry”. So yes, it’s art. Creative people are putting their artistic talents to use, often with passion. But, you can’t deny it’s also, and mainly, for industry.

Right. The art is there, but it’s not the main point.
Right. It’s for profit first. It’s needs to generate profit in order to be considered successful. So much like life, it’s all of it and none of it at once. Deep, I know. Although I support collectors keeping items in the package if they choose, I’ve long had the feeling that they’re supposed to be played with.

And in terms of your creative process, can you walk us through it? How do you get the spark of an idea? Do you start with a doodle in a notebook? At what point do you sit down and sketch? At what point does that become data?
A notebook? You mean one of those things with paper? Ha, honestly I haven’t used paper in a while. Too long actually. If I doodle in a sketchbook, it’s for pleasure, which I don’t do enough of. If it’s work related, I’m all digital. Other than post-it notes all over my Mac screen so I don’t forget some ideas, it’s straight to the Cintiq to digitise my thoughts so to speak.

Joe Allard
You surprise me. I had you down as a renaissance man!

It’s just easier work flow. As far as the creative process, It’s depends on the job and many other factors, not the least of which are my mood. Sometimes there’s an instant spark as soon as a client tells me about a job and I get a flood of ideas. Most often though, I need to mediate on it. I let the client plant the seed in my mind, and then I let it grow naturally. As naturally as deadlines will allow that is!

I’ll often think about a project or an idea for days and days before I even doodle or sketch. Usually I’m working on one project, but thinking about the next one – or the next three depending on my workload. But that allows me to work out a lot of stuff in my head before I even start to draw. It also allows the ideas and inspiration to come naturally rather than be forced.

What’s the ideal situation, though?
In an ideal situation, I’ll have several projects – with fairly flexible deadlines – so that I can bounce between them depending on where the inspiration is sparking. Sometimes I’ll be working on one job, but thinking about another, and I’ll get that spark, I’ll get inspired on that other job, so I’ll stop what I’m working on and jump over to the other job. You gotta ride the lighting when it strikes. I can’t always work that way due to deadlines, but when I can it’s the best and keeps things fresh and fluid.

I totally get it. In fact I rather like that line: you’ve got a ride the lightning when it strikes! So, now… Sometimes, toy companies come to you for something specific… I was looking at Mattel’s Parrot Pile Up, for example. There’s a blast from the past! What was your involvement with that?
Wow, yes; that’s an oldie. I used to do a bunch of work for the Mattel Games Department. Most of those jobs were similar – the internal games team would come up with an idea for a new game and hire me to do the concept art and pitch deck.

Joe Allard
This was before the idea was fully realised?

Usually, yes. In order to get approval to develop the game further, they’d need to create B-Sheets as they were called, or presentation boards, in order to show the bosses what the game would look and play like. For Parrot Pile Up, they needed the little parrot guy designed as well as the game pieces. This was just initial concept art, so it was cool to see how similar the final product looked to what I did.

Yes, that’s what caught my eye – that little guy IS your drawing! 
Normally, it doesn’t go that way. Often I don’t even recognise a game by the time it gets released: it’s gone though so many changes! This was an exception. I think the last game I worked on was the Pass the Gas game. I got to design some farts. Something I never thought I’d be doing, but had a blast.

Joe Allard
A blast! Okay… So you’re also known for creating busts. You’ve done everything from The Muppets, to Spider-Man and Deadpool for Diamond Select…

Yeah, those Legends in 3D busts I’ve been doing for Diamond and Gentle Giant have been such a great gig. Rarely does one designer get to design an entire line of collectibles. Super grateful to Chuck over at Diamond for this rare privilege. Apparently, they’re selling well as we keep expanding the line, and they keep giving me more to work on. I’ve done over two dozen of these so far and more on the way!

And what’s the design process for these?
The design process on these starts like many other projects, with knowing your subjects. I’m familiar with – and a fan of – most of the L3D busts I’ve designed, so it was fairly easy to tap into what I personally love about those characters and try to bring that out.

Joe Allard
Bring out the figure’s personality? What’s the secret of that?

Yes, it’s all about exposing the character. How do you convey that character’s personality in one expression? Or more often, due to their having a mask or helmet, how do you convey a character’s personality in just a head turn or tilt? You just want to get to the core of who the character is: is he a hero or villain, say? Is he stoic or cunning?

Right. In one static head pose…
Right. So for the bust itself I try to pick a pose that’s undeniably that character. It’s also important to me that it feels like it’s in motion. I’m not a big fan of perfectly symmetrical, forward-looking bust designs… Especially with masked or helmeted characters. You have to make it clear that there’s someone inside that armour, that it’s alive. One thing that really helps these L3D busts is the base…

Because they’re idiosyncratic?
Exactly. For each one, the base is made to be something personal to the character; something that has some meaning. That’s where a lot of my time is spent on these, coming up with and designing the base to be fun and interesting, rather than just a simple pedestal or something generic. That’s really one of the defining elements that sets these apart from most other busts.

Joe Allard
For which one achievement would you most like to be known?

Just one!? Yikes, So far… I guess maybe putting smiles on collectors’ faces when they connect with a piece I worked on. Sounds cheesy I know, but being a collector myself, it’s the best feeling when you find a piece you connect with in some way. Something you just have to own. It triggers an emotion or a memory, It reminds you of a favourite scene in a movie, or of a character you grew up admiring. If I can achieve that feeling in a collector, I feel I’ve done my job and the design was successful.

Well, Joe, I’m sad to say we need to start wrapping this up but I have two questions left. Before we finish, let me say it’s been well worth the wait: thank you so much for making time. But tell me this: if you were to write your autobiography, what would you call it?
Take It Out And Play With It!

Oh that’s great!
I’ve long said those words… In regards to toys especially and sometimes collectibles. As I say, I have respect for those who keep their collectibles in the packaging – it is, after all, art. However, being the toy-playing, action-figure loving guy that I am, anytime someone asks the question “Should they open it or not?”, my reply is always the same… Take it out and Play with it!

Love it. Finally, then, what’s the most interesting thing you have in your office or on your desk?
My cat, Onyx. She’s been my coworker and office mate for over sixteen years. She keeps me sane and grounded. That said, I know you’re looking for a less sappy toy or collectible answer, so I’ll give you this nugget…

Joe Allard

Actually, I was quite happy with the cat until you said nugget! So you can have two!
The most interesting thing actually on my desk right now is a little figure I designed that was incredibly close to getting released a few years back. It would’ve been a pretty fun and different type of platform figure with all sorts of potential. Unfortunately, at the eleventh hour things fell apart – and he never saw the light of day. I stare at this little guy every day hoping I’ll get to bring him to the world someday.

Brilliant! Wonderful. Thank you Joe; what a treat to speak with you.

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