Alter Nation Action Figures by Panda Mony Toy Brands
Interview with Ryan Magnon and Curtis Andersen
Welcome back dear friends and readers to the second installment of Indie Toy Showcase. If you missed the first one with Bobby Vala of Action Force, you can check it out here. For this installment I am very happy to bring you Alter Nation, a line of Figures from Ryan Magnon, Lynn Rosenblum, Peter Santaw, and Curtis Andersen. Today I will be interviewing Ryan and Curtis, two very accomplished gentlemen who were gracious enough to grant me a bit of their time.
Last December I was browsing through youtube and I came across one of Pixel Dan’s Videos. In the video he was reviewing this awesome looking set of action figures. They were the Alter Nation Toys from Panda Mony Toy Brands. This toy line blew me away. The figures are very reminiscent of the original 1980’s line of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Figures, but they had their own twists as well. I will link you to Dan’s review as I feel it’s best to get a look at these guys in action.
Don’t they look amazing? The ones I like most are SHAM, a Humanoid Chameleon that reminds me of Baxter Stockman, and DAART, the giant Poison Dart Frog. Dart Frogs are super cool looking and deadly. Also, Dart could be short for Dartanian/ D’Artagnan, which simultaneously gives me a ton of ideas and reminds me of Season 3 Episode 16 of TMNT, The Four Musketurtles by Doug Molitor. That was a crazy fun episode.
Not only does each of the figures come with a Mini Comic, as you saw in the video, but, there is a full sized comic published by Dark Horse for the Alter Nation Brand. It is pretty awesome. You can read a digital copy of the comic on the dark horse website.
That should be enough of me digressing, but before we get started I want to say thank you to Ryan and Curtis and ask you, my dear friends and readers to check out the Panda Mony Toy website, as well as the awesome Alter Nation miniseries on Youtube.
JOHN: Ryan, Curtis, thank you for agreeing to the interview, It’s great to be able to discus Panda Mony Toys & your totally awesome line of Alter Nation Figures with you. These figures really take me to when I was a kid, playing with my TMNT figures in between episodes and issues, making up my own stories with the characters. I’m sure I’m not the only one your toys have made or will make feel that way. The miniseries also takes me way back. I love how each of the episodes has a message or moral. I think it’s something that kids today are not getting enough of.
RYAN: Thanks! We agree. Kids today don’t deserve their grandparents’ hand-me-downs! They deserve new fresh brands with thoughtful character development and philosophical considerations of ethics rather than propaganda, and of course we are better than anyone else to bring that message to kids because many of the adults of today are very busy fighting important battles on Twitter to make sure strangers know who’s wrong. We on the other hand don’t even know which Book in question has a Face nor the proper measurement of mass when dealing with an Insta.
CURTIS: Thank you, that was definitely the vibe we were going for.
JOHN: Before we get into Panda Mony Toy Brands and Alter Nation, [may] you please tell us a bit about yourselves? Ryan I know you have dabbled a bit in programming, economics, science, technology, art, and animation, you’re also a dad, and have used bits of all that you have learned from each of those things into starting and operating Panda Mony Toys. Curtis you are an actor, having played roles like Kirby on Saved by The Bell The New Class, and Gordie on Sabrina The Teenage Witch. You’ve also done some voice over work on various animated shows, correct? And you provide the voice for Albert VII on the Alter Nation Mini Series, is that how you and Ryan met?
RYAN: That’s true, I’m a Jack of All Trades which, supposedly is better than being a master of any number of trades between zero and one.
I was never able to answer that question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I get curious about everything eventually, especially when I see how I can apply it to my aspirations. It comes from wanting to experience everything in life that I can before I’m called back to that great fire and brimstone in the sky.
Lucky for me, most businesses are divided up into a lot of different disciplines. I think I’m able to get a cursory understanding of things quickly and make decisions about what to do or whom to hire with approximately 10% less ignorance than the average person.
Being a dad though is my proudest achievement because I can finally prove that not all women find me repulsive, despite what my middle school gym teacher claimed to the entire student body in 1994. A lot of times people my age like to claim that they’re kids at heart. I didn’t really realize that was more than just liking cartoons until I became a dad. Playing with my daughter takes me back to a time where imagination ruled and you had a capacity for play that no mere adult could ever hope to attain. She actually has helped me come up with a number of toy ideas since I started this company, however, for legal purposes, I have to claim that these ideas are the sole property of Panda Mony Toy Brands, LLC, all rights reserved, in case she tries to sue me for royalties.
CURTIS: Ryan and I met through a mutual friend in the toy industry, but yes I’ve been an actor and independent producer for a very long time. It ended up being a very good fit!
JOHN: How did Panda Mony Toy Brands and Alter Nation get their start?
RYAN: You know, we started Panda Mony because we had a lot of great ideas for new entertainment franchises. I would’ve been just as happy to make them films, cartoons, comics, or video games, but with the advent of modern software, I felt those markets were oversaturated with great, independent content. We settled on toys because there were so many great entertainment franchises when we were kids that were new and which completely dominated DC and Marvel products. Toys like Transformers, Masters of the Universe, Voltron, MASK and Thundercats and, yup, TMNT were huge hits back then that made us all say ‘Spider-Who?’ Even GI Joe had to rebrand into Real American Hero to keep up!
Somewhere down the line gen-xers grew up and decided just to remake the things that gave them the warm fuzzies they had when they were kids instead of being actual artists and putting their own creativity up for judgment. Producers have, of course, enabled this. In their brilliant wisdom they’ve decided that original or new is risky even though a large number of superhero films and sequels flop taking their merchandise manufacturers with them. The great franchises of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s that they keep remaking now were built on producers believing in artists instead of licenses. Yes, it’s a risk for us to try and start a completely new entertainment brand, but we’d rather gamble on our own creativity and save licensing costs than gamble on some dumb old dead horse a mega conglomerate owns anyway.
Now, we knew this company mission could work, despite the naysayers, not only because it worked when we were kids, but because it still works! Spin Master and MGA Entertainment in particular have been making great, successful original content for decades. When we started this company, we studied how they did it and applied their strategy to our content.
JOHN: How did you come up with the names Panda Mony Toys and Alter Nation?
RYAN: I saw the company itself as a creative work intended to give the finger to the naysayers, the stuffed suits, the pearl-clutchers, and the status quo. Basically, the people who say “you can’t do that!” because of their own sense of propriety or importance which may or may not be warranted, which in most cases, is a “may not be.”
So, we wanted a name that said we’re wacky or risk takers and just generally eccentric. We had a few names and I ran them past some friends to see what they liked and Panda Mony (a play on Pandemonium if it’s not obvious), resonated and allowed us to make a Panda a company mascot that continues to confuse people to this very day since they think the mascot is the toy… Which it is not… Not yet, anyway.
Alter Nation’s name on the other hand has a more rocky history. We originally wanted to call the brand GM Delta after the original name for the team of heroes at the center. Our patent attorney informed us that General Motors would probably have a problem with this. This was very annoying to us not only because it meant we needed to come up with new names quickly, but also because we felt hurt that GM might threaten us after we were kind enough to loan them billions of dollars back in twenty-ought-eight.
So it was back to the drawing board. As a team, we all submitted ideas and we put them in an excel sheet, voted on our favorites, and ranked our top 10. Our attorney took ‘em to check for trademark viability and Alter Nation was the winner in that process.
CURTIS: It was like Spielberg and the shark from Jaws -- hurdles kept getting thrown our way, but forced us to be more creative and, in the end, get us to a better result.
JOHN: RYAN, Apart [for] the Junior Focus Group, how were the some characters and story conceptualized? Curtis, How did you [chose] or find Albert VII’s Voice?
RYAN: The characters started out as text! We had rough ideas of their powers and personality and we sought out a variety of different concept artists with a unique yet appealing style. These people came from places all around the world from South America to Eastern Russia. I needed something different from the art trends we keep seeing over and over. I just get burned out of trends faster than most people. I’m fickle. This is why I make a great producer! I’m below mediocre in my skill, but I know just enough to tear down people who are clearly more talented than me!
These talented people were then taken from their home countries or states and locked in a 3 by 5 cell that included not only running water and a bed, but also used, five-inch Cintiq. They delivered some phenomenal art and so we felt it was only fair to let them go. The kids then picked their favorite characters and story elements, and the rest, as they say, is “history so long as the Internet Archive continues to host mentions of obscure toy companies.”
CURTIS: I originally wrote Albert VII as a plucky prankster, but he couldn’t have access to the internet and modern media while he was growing up and being trained. So my head canon (which is actual canon I guess, since I end up writing most of it right now) is that he fell in love with The Three Stooges and The Marx Bros. and emulated them and their old New York/East Coast accent. He’s all slapstick and one-liners and those sound better with a bit of that accent, in my opinion.
JOHN: Can you tell us a bit about your creative process?
RYAN: I love talking about our creative process because I get so much guff from it from our marketing team and so much interest from the press we do. I took some lessons from some open course textbooks on product development and modified them to fit toy products and kids’ demographics. It starts with testing lots of different ideas and are very loosely defined and inexpensively developed. We get feedback from our core demographic on which the best are and how to improve them. We reduce the number of concepts based on the most popular and then give them more definition and development.
Prior to subsequent testing, we’re adding more concept art and story development. We seek out creators that can be both unique and appealing. When we hire them, we try to restrain our input to only give “big picture” and “must have” direction to the artist, while giving them a lot of otherwise unconstrained leeway to work out the details of execution. In the end the consumer is going to tell us they prefer creatively and we don’t want to hamstring our creatives with our own subjective biases.
We keep testing with feedback until we’re comfortable picking the one that seems the best according to the audience. Since developing IP is a big expenditure with a lot of risk, this method theoretically should reduce risk. At the very least, it keeps my ego out of it, which definitely reduces risk quite a lot!
JOHN: Tell me some of the toys you remember playing with as a kid.
RYAN: I remember every single brand I ever loved from age 5 and on, but I won’t go on and on about that since I’m sure your readers would purchase my upcoming autobiography to find out.
My first was GoBots. For whatever reason, I found GoBots far superior to Transformers as a kindergartner. Then came M.A.S.K., which if it got a decent reboot I would secretly watch while hypocritically decrying reboots. They had so many neat vehicles with fun gimmicks. Here’s an exclusive for you: Since Alter Nation is human-animal hybrids, it makes sense that their vehicles are two vehicles in one doesn’t it? Well if your readers buy enough figures, that might become a reality.
There were other really cool toy brands in-between like Battle Beasts, Supernaturals, and Skateboard Gang I really liked all kinds of stuff big and obscure, but then in 1988, I discovered the Ninja Turtles cartoon series and all bets were off. I loved how wacky it was in a time when everything action figure was very serious or militaristic. Of course, then everyone imitated that and the market was flooded with wacky, mutant superheroes.
CURTIS: I had all kinds of stuff growing up. Star Wars, A Real American Hero and He-Man were long time favorites, but around 7 years old I got into giant robots, like Dougram and Voltron and then Iron Man. Some of my favorite play memories are of my Secret Wars Iron Man battling my M.U.S.C.L.E. Men or Auger from Inhumanoids. I actually really advocate cross play with Alter Nation too. I think there’s a lot of fun to be had having Spider-Man guest star in your playtime with Daart against the forces of Sabotage.
JOHN: Fascinating guys. Let’s talk cartoons and comics! Do you remember some that you enjoyed as kids?
RYAN: Again, TMNT. As a kid, I would have slept on a bed of nails rather than get up early… Except when it came to watching TMNT. In its first couple seasons, it aired at some weird time like 5 or 6AM on, I think, NBC in L.A..
TMNT was the first thing I could really say I was a geek for. This came in handy since the kids wanted us to work on half-human, half-animal concepts and we needed to keep in mind how to differentiate from it. Speaking of TMNT, one thing about it I specifically remember getting mad at the fact that Splinter hated pizza in the cartoon but ate it in the movie and that he was a rat that got big in comics and film instead of being a man that became part rat like in the cartoon. And I was frustrated as a kid that they had all these neat toy characters that were hardly, if ever, mentioned in the cartoon. Sometimes they’d be featured in an Archie TMNT comic and I’d grab those, which were great by the way, but overall there were a lot of incongruities like that between a cartoon, film, toy, or comic back then… Not just with TMNT but most action figure brands. That made us as a company want to try harder to control inconsistencies between mediums whenever possible, but, again, without hampering our creatives too much.
I didn’t really get into Marvel and DC until I was a tween and X-Men, Batman TAS and Spider-Man came out. That was my launching point to follow the big sagas that happened with those characters in the comics. I liked the Death of Superman saga, mostly because I thought Doomsday was rad and Superman was lame. I remember liking the Spider-man symbiote sagas. I followed the clone saga and Onslaught sagas when they were out. I think I got out and moved to more indy comics after that because Marvel got confusing what with Avengers Reborn which I think ended and became Avengers Reassembled or Avengers Rebirthed or something. As an angsty brooding, teen, I got really into Chaos! Characters especially Purgatori.
I also really liked the MIB films and toons as a teen, loved the Megaman NT series, and obsessed over Batman Beyond.
I loved all the Nolan Batman films. After the first few years of MCU, Fox’s Marvel, and DCEU though, I got burned out of both DC and Marvel. I’ve seen too many mediocre and bad superhero films and I value my time and money too much. I don’t think I’ve watched one since the one where Thanos snapped his fingers. In my mind, that’s how the story ended. Half the universe died, Thanos won, the end… In fact, he took the DCEU with them somehow. Most of the comics I read now are from Dark Horse, IDW, or Aftershock. I follow a few of my favorite writers and artists wherever they go too.
CURTIS: For cartoons, it was GI Joe, He-Man, Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends, so many others… Thundarr the Barbarian! Almost forgot that one! Comics wise, I was a total Marvel Zombie. I still have a nearly complete Vol. 1 Iron Man collection in storage. Iron Man has been my jam since 1983.
JOHN: Whenever we have creators of your caliber on, I like to ask if you have any words of encouragement of advice for anyone who might be trying to get into acting, comics or toy design?
RYAN: Well, thank you! Not to toot my own horn, but I’ve become somewhat of an expert at being creative without making any money at it… Wait, that’s not how it’s meant to sound…
I think about your question a lot because I’ve met so many artists out there, very talented, but don’t necessarily think ahead about managing their own career. I hear the same story from other established artists talking about the people they know.
If your readers just want to get into comics or toy design, they just need to be great at their craft by practicing at it as much as they can. The competition is tough, so you have to be serious about it and put in the hours. Just getting in isn’t necessarily the key to a long-term career though. Take me for example! I was too lazy to put in the work to hone my talent and now I’m a producer.
There are very talented people out there who’ve been in the industry for decades struggling because experience and talent isn’t necessarily all a business wants. In Hollywood, it’s worse because the talent pool is huge and almost everyone is considered replaceable and producers are fickle about what’s hot or not.
Based on these observations, I’d encourage artists to think about a long term career either by learning how to produce their own work for profit or in art management. Both start by learning how to communicate and work as a team. Learn how to make friends with other artists who aren’t flakes. If you don’t have a lot of money to waste like I do, you don’t need it if you act like a Marxist and unite with other workers for the glory of the people. You may need to check with your local authorities to find out if it’s allowable to send those who are flakes to a gulag.
CURTIS: There is nothing tougher than trying to “make it” as a creative in any sense. So many people think it’s all based on talent, but talent is taken for granted -- you are expected to be talented, if not VERY talented, before you ever get started. For my money you need to be persistent, consistent, and determined. Whatever your art, do something with it every day, keep learning, reach out to other creators you admire. There’s no one guaranteed way to succeed or make a living doing this and, honestly, the stats say a majority won’t have the wherewithal to see it through. But I also think it’s important to remember that it‘s ok if it doesn’t start paying the bill right away. The splash knowledge that you get from being a creative is extraordinarily useful in all kinds of jobs. Keep at it, don’t stop, and keep building your tool set.
JOHN: If someone wanted to produce a line of figures under [Banda] Mony Toy Brands, what would be the best way to go about that?
RYAN: We don’t take solicitations, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work together. What we’d like to do is find content partners to collaborate and co-produce with each producing their own products on a jointly-owned IP. We’d like to find a company or creator in kids video games or animation with a similar marketing capacity to Panda Mony to create a new brand using our blue mullet powers combined to build something more profitable together than individually.
READ THE DIGITAL COMIC ONLINE FROM DARK HORSE
CURTIS: Also, the company mission is to stimulate the imagination of children and encourage critical thinking, so it’s nice when a possible partnership can contribute to that.
JOHN: What would you say has been the most challenging part of getting a project like Alter Nation off the ground?
RYAN: It’s discouraging when people tell us something won’t work when we know we can. Like we’ve got Dark Horse as our comic licensee. When we started out, we couldn’t get smaller publishers to even talk to us. Same when we tried early on to get small animation studios to take a look. Now we’re having meetings with some of the big 5 Hollywood animation studios.
The reason I lambaste the entertainment industry so much is because they fancy themselves creative and having imagination, but when it comes down to it, a lot of people making decision are just handicapped by fear of failure and do the same stupid things over and over while discouraging anyone from going too far outside their arbitrary constraints. That’s not art and it’s probably not entertaining, even if it may find a home on A&E. It’s hard to blame these people. The entertainment industry gets more and more consolidated every year, while more and more people try to get in. If you get fired from one company, or just put too much creamer in the wrong guy’s coffee, your career could be sunk.
On top of that, too many companies listen to the Twitter hordes about how to tell a story or create a character. Maybe reboots and rehashes forever is our punishment for being arrogant armchair generals. In fact, even I say all this stuff without having ever been able to get hired in the Hollywood mainstream!
CURTIS: I recently visited a conference where there was a big discussion about franchises and when it comes down to it, only short sighted people think a root is without risk. Fear pushes people to go with what they know. For me, if we can get people past a fear like that, that’s the real win.
JOHN: What are your hopes for Panda Mony Toy Brands, Alter Nation, and the future?
RYAN: To make gobs of money! If we do that, we can make a completely different brand and more kick-ass toys. A more grandiose hope is that it inspires a renaissance in kid’s entertainment and completely annihilates the rehash industry.
CURTIS: And I want to have so much disposable company income that we can create an incubator for IP and develop things like the music industry did back in the late 60’s and 70’s -- find those things that are kinda’ there and then get them over the hump into outrageously successful.
RYAN: Good point! That too!
JOHN: Thanks for your time today, guys. Anything else you would like to share with us before we sign off?
RYAN: If you enjoyed this interview, please buy lots and lots of Alter Nation toys and you’ll hear more from me. If you thought this interview exposed me as pretentious or offensive and you’d like to see me shut up forever, you still need to buy lots of Alter Nation toys, but add a note on the special instructions portion telling Panda Mony to not let Ryan do anymore interviews. The more notes we get like that attached to orders, the more likely I’ll shut up.
CURTIS: Buy, watch and read Alter Nation. Also, hi Mom!
JOHN: Thank you gentlemen once again for being a part of Indie Toy Showcase. It was an honor and a blast! I We wish you the best of luck and hope for a very long life for Panda Mony Toys Brands and Alter Nation.
RYAN: Thanks, for letting us talk about ourselves, John!
CURTIS: Thank you! Any time.
READ THE DIGITAL COMIC ONLINE FROM DARK HORSE