The craft comes not only in the workmanship of his customized devices (which also include an oversized circuit-board on display at the Children's Museum of Maine, and old books hollowed out and reconfigured with knobs and audio jacks to modify whatever sound signals are sent through it), but in the artistic repurposing of concepts, characters, items — saving them from the literal and figurative dustbin. Richmond puts it more humbly: "Salvaging this sort of useless-to-everyone-else technology and making something compelling out of it."
There's definitely an element of play in this kind of pursuit. Christian Matzke of Brunswick likes the idea of "taking something extremely adult in material and making a child's toy out of it." It helps him — and others — to hang on (or perhaps rediscover) the childlike wonder and fantastical ideas of youth, which adults so easily lose as they grow up.
For example, he has built a "NosferatView," a vampire-spotting device that is based on established techniques for spotting vampires (perhaps it's not such a toy: "you have it on the shelf in case someone comes to your house who is pal and has sharp teeth," Matzke says). And he created a life-size time machine, complete with valves, dials, tubes, gauges, and everything else you might imagine such equipment requires.But while those appeal to the growing number of vampire/steampunk aficionados, he has also begun developing another small niche based, perhaps, more on nostalgia for the simplicity of childhood: making Lego scenes for bands. It started with a model he made of Laibach, a Slovenian band, of the band on stage (he customized the Lego figures' faces based on famous incidents, like the time the band's singer was hit in the face by a bottle thrown onstage, and bled while singing the rest of the show). "The band is buying it from me," Matzke says with surprise and pride.
Now he's at work on Lego dioramas of other bands, including Romanian electronic group NSK. While he prefers to create his own work and not derive it from others, Matzke admits that having a "built-in audience" can be an advantage when it comes to finding people who appreciate the effort.
It helps, too, when trying to make some money. Tristan Gallagher runs Fun Box Monster Emporium on Congress Street, selling action figures, games, accessories, and all sorts of nerdish ephemera, selling to those who share these types of interests. "It's about referencing stuff that you love," Gallagher says. He also makes T-shirts based on the Star Wars series, Nintendo videogames, and the occasional comic-book character (though he is careful to stay away from DC Comics characters, for fear of incurring the wrath of the phalanx of lawyers employed by DC parent Warner Bros.).
"Lucasfilm is very cool about making T-shirts, making artwork," he says. In fact, they almost use fans like Gallagher as product research. "If they like it, they'll take it," Gallagher laughs, describing how Lucasfilm will find a design and, rather than sending an attorney's nastygram, the company's staff do the design themselves and start selling it directly.
For fun or profit?
Uniqueness, it turns out, is crucial to this kind of work. Ben Bishop, a local creator of custom action figures, bases his decision on whether to make a custom toy in part on whether he thinks the companies that actually own the characters he builds would issue their own versions. If something is already on the market, or is about to be, Bishop will skip it. For him, it's not just the creative process — "I guess I just wanted toys that didn't exist," he says with a grin.