As a collector of toys, I gravitate towards things that are gross and monstrous. The toys I loved as a child were always the bad guys or the creatures with snarling faces and multiple eyes. Cobra over G.I.Joe, Deceptacons over Autobots, and I always wanted the Mutores to triumph over the Earth Corps, because then we'd live in a monster utopia where everyone looked cool and ate trash. One thing I never considered as a kid was who the hell was designing these things. It also never occurred to me that one person could cross over. Like if anything, Mattel had three creepy dudes locked in a basement that just worked on their stuff. As an adult (now an illustrator myself) I've done research as to who's broken brain spews this sweet stuff out. One name that I kept running into was James Groman. An amazing illustrator, James has been designing toys for 20 years and worked on my favorite line of all time, Madballs. He was kind enough to answer a few questions via email (please excuse the robotic tone of my questions) and add some insight into the world of monster faced balls.
BLARGHHH-Let's start with a simple introduction..
GROMAN-James Groman is the name. I’ve been drawing, designing and sculpting toys and model kits for about 20 years now. I may be best known as a creator and contributing artist on toy lines like: Madballs, Blurpballs, Barnyard Commandoes, Stretch Armstrong, Star Wars, and a sculptor on model kits based on The Mummy, Star Wars, Sleepy Hollow, Godzilla and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I currently work as a Children’s’ Entertainment and Product developer for American Greetings Properties in Cleveland Ohio, as well as sculpt, paint and doodle monsters as personal projects and for gallery shows whenever time allows.
BLARGHHH-How did you get involved in illustration and toy design?
GROMAN-I have been drawing and sculpting since I was hatched. Back in the 60’s when I was growing up, we had what was called Super Saturdays, and Cartooniverse. All the programming on Saturday was virtually owned by the Hanna Barberra studios with shows like: The Herculoids, Space Ghost, Galaxy Trio, Dino Boy, Frankenstien Jr., Mighty Mightor et all. This was usually followed by a marathon of Saturday afternoon monster flicks on the Weekend Movie or Saturday Drive-in Theater. There I was introduced to most of the classic Universal Monsters, Ray Harryhausen, the awesome Hammer Studios films as well a parade of way-cool B-movie monsters. I would sit in the dark like a morlock, eyes glued to the television, sculpting and etching every monster, alien or dinosaur that came across the screen.
It ended up that practice makes perfect, or at least made me good enough to be able to attend The Cleveland Institute of Art. There I majored in illustration and Graphics and minored in Cinematography. I graduated with a BFA and moved into a career as an illustrator and sculptor for major toy product and model kit companies such as: American Greetings, Hasbro, Playskool, Ertl Collectables, Cap Toys/Oddzon, Wild Planet, Playing Mantis/Polar Lights and Geometric design to name a few.
BLARGHHH-It seems like you'd be a big Tales From the Crypt fan. Can you tell us some influences?
GROMAN-I love the old E.C. comics Tales From the Crypt, and have studied the artwork of many of the great artists that worked on that comic magazine. I also grew up reading later day magazines like Creepy, Eerie, Boris Karloff Presents, and the Marvel comics titles: Where Monsters Dwell, Where Creatures Roam, Werewolf by Night, Monster of Frankenstien, Tomb of Dracula and Man-Thing. Artists like: Frank Frazetta, Bernie Wrightson, William Stout, Dave Stevens, Mike Ploog, Alex Niño, Nestor Redondo, Esteban Maroto and Alex Toth were all very highly influential to me. Though many have told me that they can see a big influence on my work from the early adventure cartoons of Hanna Barberra that I mentioned before.
Also, as I mentioned before, I am a huge monster move fan, the original King Kong being my all-time favorite. Just a brilliant film on so many levels. Story, artistic vision, groundbreaking special effects, music and sound effects. I don’t think there has been any one film, (other than perhaps, the original Star Wars) which has influenced more artists and filmmakers than that 1933 classic.
BLARGHHH-Pick your favorite Universal Monster.
GROMAN-That would have to be the Gillman from Creature from the Black Lagoon. One of the all-time great monster designs ever created for motion pictures. I was lucky enough to be selected to sculpt the Gill-man for Geometric models official licensed model kit of the character a few years ago. If they only knew I would have done it for free…
And though the choice of the Gill-man as my favorite seemed to come to me rather quickly, it did not. I am also a huge admirer of make-up master Jack Pierce’s incredible Frankenstein Monster that has gone on to define the character.
GROMAN-I love the werewolf make-up used in Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf. What I always enjoyed about the Hammer Studios horror films was as much as they followed Universal’s lead on atmosphere and drama, they always brought something new to the proverbial table. And that could be said of the awesome Victorian style werewolf played in that film by Oliver Reed.
BLARGHHH-I love the werewolf make up in that too but Christopher Lee as Dracula will always be my favorite. I prefer him to Lugosi. Speaking of monsters (clever segue huh?), you worked on a comic called Buce N Gar after school. Was it self-published?
GROMAN-Buce & Gar (now spelled Boose & Gar) was published by my friend Robert Kraus with his company RAK Graphics. We traveled the country doing comic book shows and promoting B&G to the comic-buying public for a number of years back in the early 1990’s. This was a very enjoyable time of my life, talking to all the people who loved the books and the characters across the U.S. I recently ran into a guy in California that used to buy Buce & Gar when he was a kid. I happily handed him the new, collected edition of the books that I recently self-published. It made my day.
BLARGHHH-That's awesome! The new edition was a long time in the making. An entire issue was lost right?
GROMAN-Actually, it was the final 7 pages of the entire 100 page, 5-issue story arc. It was lost at the printers along with two full color pieces of cover art. Broke my heart. Years later Bob Krause showed up at my studio with an envelope he found with my lost pages. I was so happy that I published the complete 5 issue run as a collected volume, which is available through KaBlam comic publishers and my website. Though it was done early in my career, I think it is still a fun read.
BLARGHHH-Then your first toy job was at American Greetings right out of college?
GROMAN-Yup. I always fancied myself doing paperback book covers, comics and film design while attending school, but being hired by American Greetings product development division set me on the path of a career in toy design. Never saw it coming, but it’s kept a roof over my family’s head ever since.
BLARGHHH-Can you tell us the origins of the Madball line? Any significant predecessors?
GROMAN-I was originally hired at AG because my style seemed to be a good fit for the work being done on Madballs and a couple action figure lines they were working on. The idea of Madballs seemed to come from a toy concept based on Hot Potato. Some designers at AG started drawing the toy potatoes with goofy faces on them. This seemed to click with everyone, and before long the concept had jettisoned it’s hot potato origins and evolved into the horrendous monstrosities that we have come to know and love. Most of the artists working on the balls at that time were quite talented illustrators who drew from their knowledge of E.C. comics, Eerie and Creepy horror comics with a wink to Big Daddy Roth. You see, AG is mostly known or cute and cuddly critters like Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake and Holly Hobby, so working on something as irreverently horrific like Madballs was a form of therapy for some of us.
BLARGHHH-You worked on BOTH lines of Madballs (80's and 00's). What was your involvement with the 80's line?
GROMAN-I came in after most of wave 1, 2 and 3 had been designed. What I was recruited for was to work on the lesser-known Madballs action figure line. This I dove into with reckless abandoned. I designed a couple of the wave 1 figures, and almost all of wave 2.
BLARGHHH-Who were the other designers involved?
GROMAN-Madballs concepts and designs came from many different people. Some of the ideas came from art directors who never put a pencil to paper, but still were instrumental in their inception. Many of them are still very good friends of mine to this day. The artists were James Elliott, Mark Spangler, Vint Gonsor and Tom Kuebler. Kuebs is a well known sculptor these days, and you can find some of his amazing work on his website: www.tskuebler.com/
Other folks who were instrumental in the creation of the balls were George Chanter and Ralph Shafer. All of us were part of the American Greetings division called Those Characters From Cleveland who was responsible for many of AG’s most memorable characters.
BLARGHHH-Can you discuss your process in designing toys?
GROMAN-Most of the time my approach depends on the project on which I am working. It usually starts with a discussion on what the toy is, and what the expectations are for its features and aesthetic. How big is it? Does it have electronics? What is its price point at retail? I know, it doesn’t sound like that much fun,…but most of the time that is exactly what a toy designer needs to take into consideration when designing most toy product. The cool thing about Madballs was they really didn’t have a ‘demonstrable feature’ or mechanism. The main feature of Madballs was all-aesthetic. It was all about the unique, imaginative monstrous designs.
GROMAN-I don’t remember too many designs back in the eighties being too gross to be released. But I do remember having to cut back a bit on the red blood paint operations on the balls. We had to turn alot of the bloody deco into the green slime that has become synonymous with the line. But we do have a few designs in the new line that had to be pulled. One was a gangster riddled with bullet holes, and the other (not designed by me, I might add) involved a wonderful mouthful of maggots.
We did have one character whose name had to be changed for reasons that I think most of you will understand. His original name was Crack Head, and that is the name that appeared when he originally shipped in the 1980’s. Later product shipped with a small sticker over that name on the backer card. His new name had been changed to Bash Brain, which it remains to this day.
BLARGHHH-The one I have definitely has Crack Head stamped on the back. Aside from the balls themselves there was a ton of Madball merchandise. And MOUTHFUL OF MAGGOTS?! How much would it cost me to get that made? Oh god. Anyway, back to the questions: What was the weirdest related product you worked on?
GROMAN-Wow. Weren’t Madballs pretty weird themselves?
BLARGHHH-Haha, point taken.
GROMAN-Well, a lot of the other Madball product was designed by whatever licensee had picked up the license from American Greetings. But I will tell you the weirdest stuff I have seen are the countless Madball tattoos on various parts of the human anatomy people have sent me over the years.
And yes, I have considered getting one myself.
BLARGHHH-More in the 80's than now, Madballs had a fair share of imitators and bootlegs. What was it like seeing something you'd worked on be copied like that?
GROMAN-Well, most of us saw it as an educational experience. It taught us at American Greetings that we needed to be prepared to follow up a successful toy line like Madballs with new, fresh product. Because if your not prepared for success with new product ready to ship, you give all the rip-off companies a chance to line the shelves with copy-cat merchandise that waters down the market for your product.
GROMAN-All of us in the toy industry are constantly trying to find the next big trend in toys. Every once in a while you come across an empty space on the toy shelf that if you fill it, creates a whole new category in the marketplace. I’m not sure who is responsible for the wave of ‘gross-out’ products in the 1980’s, but I know that we at AG and TCFC are partially to blame. I suggest that it started with Garbage Pail Kids collector cards (who were continuing a tradition begun by the wonderfully infamous Mars Attacks cards), and we took it to the toy shelves.
GROMAN-Yes, I had the pleasure of being the sole designer of that line. But I must in good conscience remind everyone that an imaginative guy that goes by the name Rick Reising penned the names of the Blurp Balls characters. Rick still works with me here at American Greetings Properties, and has been instrumental in christening our new Madball characters with their perspective monikers as well.
I might mention that one of my favorite Blurp Ball characters was never made. He was an astronaut that fired a satellite from his mouth. His name was Up-Chuck Yeager.
BLARGHHH-You're blowing my mind here. Up-Chuck Yeager is maybe the funniest thing I've ever heard. Whose idea were Blurp Balls?
GROMAN-Once again, ‘success has many fathers, failure is an orphan’, so many different stories exist on the creation of Blurp Balls. I know that I was in the brainstorm at American Greetings that initiated the concept, and that its origins are quite bizarre. As I remember it, a young lady in our group brought a rubber monster prop she had bought in California to our meeting. For some strange reason we ended up putting a Madball into the creature’s mouth. When the critter’s soft rubber body was squeezed, the Madball shot across the room and launched the Blurp Balls toy line.
GROMAN-Actually the thought processes were somewhat similar. Though we tried to brainstorm characters that inherently involved a kind of ‘side-kick’ character or prop that they might ‘blurp’ out. Like a cat and mouse, dinosaur and caveman, Baseball catcher and baseball, Vampire and heart, ect. And we also decided to pull back a bit on the gross out factor of the AG in comparison to their Madball cousins. I think we had been beginning to see a slight opposition at retail to toys that were too disgusting and gross in nature.
But I believe that we still were able to sneak a bit of that Madball disgustablity into the line.
GROMAN-It was magical. When I came back to American Greetings they had already started bringing back the Madballs line, so I dug in and battled to claim it as my own. I think my excitement an enthusiasm helped everyone believe that I was okay to be trusted with working on the designs for the Madballs brand, so I went to work. Other folks at AG Properties who were instrumental in the relaunch of the new Madballs product line were Jeffery Conrad, Anthony Davila, Rick Reising, and Judi Schuman.
BLARGHHH-So, I've seen photos of a third series of Madballs floating around on various blogs along with the design artwork. Are those ever happening?
GROMAN-The product line at Basic Fun toys (the company licensing and manufacturing the Madballs toys) is on hold at the moment. But artwork of the characters of which you speak has appeared on sticker sheets, greeting cards, wrapping paper, hats, shirts and other print product. I am hoping that they will be made into toy product as well. Truth be told, we have about 80 additional characters that are part of the Madballs brand that have never been seen by human eyes. Even I drew them while blindfolded.
GROMAN-Only for the moment, my friend. Only for the moment. They will eventually see the light of day if I have anything to say in the matter. As far as the King Kong and Godzilla designs, they are based on two of my favorite movie monsters. You all know that the original Horn Head Madball is loosely based on the way-cool Cyclops in Ray Harryhausen’s film 7th Voyage of Sinbad, don’t you? Well, now you do!
BLARGHHH-Did you have anything to do with those little European Madballs?
GROMAN-Actually, yes. That company chose a few of our lesser-known designs from the new set of 80 characters that were created last year. I had some help on those designs by some buddies of mine at AG. Artists Carlos Villagra and Saxton Moore. This licensee did a great job on the sculpts, too. If you can hunt those down, I would recommend it. They are awesome, and they squirt water too!
BLARGHHH-Yeah I love them! Will there be more?
GROMAN-As always, it will be based on the sales of the existing line. I sure hope they do more, because of the quality they obtained with their first wave of product. And as I said, we have about eighty more characters for them to choose from.
BLARGHHH-Please stop reminding me that there's 80 Madballs I can't have. What's in the future for you?
GROMAN-Well, at American Greetings we have a number of very cool entertainment projects that I am part of that will be on the air very soon. One of them is an amazing action adventure property with lots of creatures and sci fi hardware. I continue to work with all the incredibly creative folks at AG on the characters, vehicles and backgrounds for all the various shows we will be launching in the coming year!
I have recently got back into sculpting again with a new 23 inch tall resin figure called The Zombot Ghoul which I am producing and marketing on my blog. I have been contacted by a collectable company about a sculpting commission, and begun work on stories for a couple comic book companies. I have also just got copies from the printer of what I am calling ‘an illustrated screenplay’. It is a script I wrote a few years back that I have had published in book form with a number of highly detailed black and white illustrations. It is called ‘Monster Hunter’ and is also available in my blogstore.
I like being busy, and am somewhat schizophrenic. I love to draw, paint, sculpt and write, and try to do all of these on a regular basis. So if anyone is ever curious about what I am working on at any given time, just hop on over to www.jgroman.blogspot.com and find out. And leave a comment while your there. Always love hearing what people have to say about my work.