WHEN it comes to their “toys“, boys can be super sensitive.
I should know, having received an earful by one for saying the wrong thing.
All I asked my friend was if he ever took his Black Widow (a character from Marvel comics) toy out to play with him.
For a full 15 minutes then on, I was at the mercy of his incredulous lecture. “You don‘t play with it! You buy it, keep it as original as possible and admire its beauty,“ he chastises, adding: “And it‘s called an action figure. Not a toy.“
And thanks to that “important“ lesson, Ethan Tang and I managed to get off on the right foot during our interview.
"Most people will raise their eyebrows too when I tell them my hobby,“ he says, chuckling, after I recounted my experience with my action figure-collector friend.
“But I guess it‘s because many people don‘t know that most action figure collectors are between the ages of 30 and 50 years old, not children. So we‘re definitely not playing with toys!“
This affable Penangite is the founder of ToyPanic, a specialty shop that sells all sorts of action figures sourced from around the world.
However, what makes him different from other millions of entrepreneurs out there is his successful creation and production of the country‘s first-ever action figure line, JackalX.
He‘s aided by his best mate and co-founder Aaron Leow with the running of ToyPanic‘s store in Prangin Mall, JackalX‘s creation, and managing their websites.
The military-inspired action figure christened Sergeant John Reese is his first-ever creation.
The character assumes the role of a decorated war veteran from the Human Resistance Force. The storyboard behind the character fuses science fiction and history, and there are plenty of plots involving alien invasions, humanoids taking over the world, and Germany not losing World War Two. It‘s a world that comes alive with this 12-inch (31cm) figurine.
Action figures are highly sought-after collector‘s items and available in several sizes: 1/18, 1/12, 1/6 and 1/4 scales (that‘s 4, 6, 12 and 18 inches respectively).
Most of these action figures, if not all, are made in-line with comic, cartoon or movie characters.
You may call it a marketing ploy but there‘s no denying that collectors will pay big money for each action figure model and more so if it comes in limited quantities.
To a person who doesn‘t know the value of such an item, it may seem like a waste of money when compared to, say, collecting rare watches.
Although almost in his 40s, the Penangite isn‘t ashamed to admit that he‘s more than happy to spend money on these so called “toys“.
“Everyone has different inclinations. For example, to a car enthusiast, spending thousands on their car‘s upgrade and accessories wouldn‘t be a problem, while I wouldn‘t do so. I feel my money is better spent on my action figures instead. I‘m sure there are many who disagree,“ says Tang.
EYE ON INVESTMENT
A quick browse through ToyPanic‘s website unearths a fabulous range of action figures ranging above the RM500 mark.
From the long list, my eyes settle on the Belle and Beast Cosbaby Collectible set but the hefty price tag of RM148 leaves me duly crestfallen.
“These action figures can be regarded as somewhat of a luxury but there‘s no describing the sheer joy of owning one,“ admits Tang.
Coming from a poor family where money was used to put food on the table when he was younger, the nearest he came to that indescribable sense of joy was during those times when he visited the local supermarket and managed to lay his hand on the packaging box and admire the art inside.
To be able to own them now without being whipped by his parents for spending unnecessary money is like a dream come true.
That said, forking out large sums to own these figurines isn‘t such a futile exercise because they do have a resell value.
It‘s seen as a mid-term investment for some, with special edition items fetching a 100 per cent profit on eBay.
“When I was about 9 or 10 years old, I bought my very first action figure from the Macross anime at a cost of RM9.90, a big sum back then.
It was a robot that could transform into an aircraft. To avoid detection from my mother, I‘d play with it when she was out working during the day. Eventually, I threw it away at an abandoned field beside my parents‘ house so I wouldn‘t get caught. That was my biggest regret because I could‘ve sold it for a few hundred ringgit today!“ exclaims Tang.
A FORM OF ART
What makes these action figures so fascinating that collectors think nothing of paying an arm or a leg for them? I muse aloud.
A pause and Tang replies: “We see action figures as an art form. If you break them down, you‘ll notice that a lot of effort have been put into making them. The initial conceptual art, the idea, the design, the meticulous paint job, the mechanical elements and, of course, the intricate engineering solutions are just a few of the fundamental properties that make up an action figure.
“When all these work in perfect unison, you get an action figure worth collecting and over time, its collectible value will increase.“
The journey to produce Sergeant John Reese took the duo 16 months — from conceptualisation right to the first prototype.
“Here, in Malaysia, no one had done it before so we had no reference. There weren‘t any YouTube tutorials or training classes on how to make an action figure too! So, with zero experience, we embarked on this project. It was trial and error all the way but we were motivated to continue,“ shares Tang.
Utilising Tang‘s degree in electrical engineering and his seven years of experience as Intel‘s product engineer, coupled with a large dose of passion, they dived head first into the deep sea of action figure making.
Along the way, they sought assistance from local freelance designers who helped put ideas into drawing and later into 3D digital renderings. The first prototype was 3D printed and required patience when the time came to paint the prototype. Once they were satisfied, it was sent to a factory in China to be properly produced.
The next four months saw them preparing the action figure for worldwide pre-order with professional photoshoots organised so that the figurine could be featured on their website.
Excitedly, Tang says: “Now, we‘re about five months away from delivering our first action figure to our collectors!“
PUSHING THE LIMITS
The challenges in making something so unique and precise were aplenty. But ultimately, concedes Tang, their biggest challenge was time.
“I started the JackalX project at the same time I set up ToyPanic. I had to juggle between retail and creation but I loved every minute of it.“
The other challenge was money. “We tried to get funding but weren‘t successful. Most investors prefer tech startups but that didn‘t discourage us. Instead, it became our motivation to prove our critics wrong. So, Leow took up a mortgage on his home for the capital startup, while I took a second refinancing on my existing mortgage,“ confides Tang.
“But if this whole thing goes south, we‘ll probably be chopped to pieces by our wives as they will have to sleep on the streets!“ jokes Tang.
I pose Tang a final question before ending our session: Who do you think deserves to be given an action figure this Christmas and what would it be?
Without hesitation, he answers: “My wife. And it‘ll be the Wonder Woman action figure that‘s triple wrapped in paper decorated with stars.“
He adds: “It represents the‚ ‘Wonder’ of achievement of both ToyPanic and JackalX. My wife‘s undying support and encouragement during the tough times, coupled with her strength, brightens me up whenever I feel that all hope is lost.“
For more information, visit www.jackalx.com/www.toypanic.com