The God of Small Things

Steve Kiwus's six-inch plastic universe

Noticing that the action-figure market seemed to be skewing older, a few years ago Kiwus and two partners started Modern Icons, which focused on figures like Rosie the Riveter and Betty Page instead of Spider-Man and Frodo. Whereas Kiwus's movie- and comic-book-based figures tended to be fairly faithful to their sources--he's famously adept at sculpting realistic hands and feet, and flowing hair and clothing--his Modern Icons work was slightly more cartoonish in style. It mostly featured big-breasted fantasy women in compromising pinup magazine poses.

Unfortunately, the line proved too racy for gift shops and Modern Icons folded after only a handful of figures. One protoype, however, still sits on a studio shelf: A buxom figurine based on Playboy magazine's "Little Annie Fanny."

 

Kiwus himself sounds almost incredulous when he tells the story of how he became an action-figure impresario. He was born on an air force base in California, although he grew up in the Twin Cities. "I was the artsy one in the family," he says. "My father is an aerospace engineer. My brother is an electrical engineer, and my other brother is an accountant. Where did I go wrong?

"Actually, I feel like I got the best of both worlds: The artsy thing, but there's an engineering head, too. That's what fits in so well with making toys. I mean, they're not just sculptures--they actually have to work. We recently did a Spider-Man that's going to crawl across the floor. Well, what I do is I have to figure out how that's going to happen."

Kiwus doesn't remember being particularly interested in comic books or in television as a child. His favorite thing, he says, was to mix up the parts of model car kits and then invent his own permutations. He thought he'd probably be an architect when he grew up.

Instead, Kiwus became a jeweler. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, he moved to New York City to attend the Parsons School of Design. In 1981, though, he came back for a summer internship at a now-defunct toy company called Lakeside Games, which produced board games like Aggravation and Barrel of Monkeys. A year later, Kiwus took a full-time job at Lakeside and designed his first toy, an accessory for the medieval-themed Crossbows & Catapults.

When Lakeside went under, Kiwus took a series of jobs at big East Coast toy companies. Commuting between New York and Minneapolis took its toll, though, and his first marriage, from which he has one daughter, eventually broke up. In 1986, tired of the corporate drudgery, Kiwus decided to set out on his own as a freelance sculptor. "When I started out, I was just faking it, making it up as I went along," he says.

It wasn't easy for a neophyte artist to break into the sometimes cutthroat toy business: When Kiwus was starting out, other artists wouldn't even share their secret recipes for sculpting wax. "Nobody would tell me what the formula was," he explains.

Kiwus goes to a toy chest to retrieve one of his first commissions: a three-inch-long plastic ice-cream cone. "I was doing a lot of stuff like this the first two years: accessories for dolls, just anything to pay the rent. Honestly, I don't know how I made it."

 

A couple of years ago, the buzz in the toy industry was that technology would soon put Kiwus, and all his fellow action-figure sculptors, out of business. Using a relatively new gizmo called a rapid prototype machine, toy companies could simply scan movie actors in costume and then pump out a 3-D image of them. Unlike Kiwus's sculptures, which often take two weeks to develop, these action figures could be produced instantly and would be flawless simulacra of the original.

Toy companies sometimes still use scanning to capture an actor's facial features. But executives quickly realized that Kiwus does more than churn out copies of Hollywood imagery. "I don't do reality," he explains. "I don't think I've ever done an accurate human sculpture. The trick to what I do is exaggerating things in the right way.

"It seems so obvious, but when I started doing this stuff, my big idea was, 'Hey, let's make the action figures look like the comic books.' Guys had always been posed generically, with their arms at their sides. And the company wanted to stay sort of neutral to get the articulation and the play-value. But if you arch the back a little, that gives it tension. If you pull some of the tendons in the hand, pull the fingers back a little, they look more tense. If you take a forearm or a thigh and give it a slight bend, that gives it tension."

As a demonstration, Kiwus pulls out a sample of his latest line, a series of figures from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Maybe anything as meticulously crafted as these are becomes art by default--whether they're destined to end up in a museum or in a Happy Meal. Kiwus allows himself just a flash of vanity: "I don't have any illusions that these things are great art," he says. "Most of them will just end up as landfill. But some of them will be around forever."

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