Bend them, pose them, put them in prison

In the small world of action figures, bad guys sell better than they ought to

Pop Culture

August 04, 2002|By John Woestendiek | By John Woestendiek,Sun Staff

Charles Manson will be released on Aug. 15--- not the killer, but a posable, hand-painted plastic model thereof, the latest in Denver artist Dave Johnson's line of "serial killer" dolls.

Manson -- though technically he's a mass murderer, not a serial killer -- will join Johnson's existing action-figure lineup, which includes Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy.

Disgusting? Warped? Sick? Johnson, an extremely struggling artist until he started marketing the action figures last year, couldn't agree more.

"It's just extremely sad that I'm making money off of people's pain and loss," he said. "I try to excuse it by saying these people were already famous, but it's still just wrong.

"There's really no excuse."

The only one he offers is that he has become addicted since sales took off in March -- not so much to the money he's making, but to the success of his art.

"I'm an artist, and I've been in customer service and on an assembly line for the last 10 years. Now I'm selling my art for the first time," said Johnson, 32. "It's just hard to stop."

It started last year when one of Johnson's weirder co-workers at long-distance giant MCI, in passing, said he wished somebody made serial killer dolls. "I'm a sculptor," Johnson responded. "I could make you one."

He did -- of Ted Bundy. "I thought he was the only person in the world who would want this, but he showed it around and other people wanted it."

Then Johnson put one on eBay, and sold it for $160. So he put more on eBay, where he sold them until last May, when the online auction service announced -- amid pressure from victims rights advocates -- it would stop sponsoring the sale of "murderabilia."

Having been laid off from his MCI customer service job in January, Johnson formed his own company, Spectre Studios, started a Web site ( / spectrestudios) and has sold more than a thousand hand-cast figures, at $29.99 each.

Distribution of the Manson dolls will begin around Aug. 15, and Johnson is working on molds that will allow the Manson doll and others to be mass-produced by a manufacturer in China that contacted him earlier this year.

'A shameful business'

For now, Johnson makes all the dolls himself, sculpting a prototype in clay, and then making molds of the heads, arms, legs and torsos. After casting the molds, he reassembles, paints and packages them and takes them to the post office for delivery.

He would rather be making serious art, he says, but he has no time for that now.

His customers are a mix, Johnson said. Some are murderabilia fans; others are criminal justice professionals, from police officers to forensic scientists. Most see the product as an interesting, if bizarre, novelty or conversation piece.

Others see it as just plain wrong.

In his campaign against murderabilia, Andy Kahan of the Houston Crime Victims Assistance Division bought some of Johnson's action figures and used them as a visual aid at a conference in Colorado aimed at adopting legislation that prohibits incarcerated criminals from profiting from their crimes.

California, for example, has passed laws preventing criminals and third parties from profiting from the artwork, writings and mementos of criminals. A Texas law, while it doesn't outlaw such sales, requires that proceeds go to funds that compensate families of crime victims.

Johnson's action figures -- like serial killer trading cards, calendars and T-shirts that have been marketed over the years -- doesn't fall clearly under those laws.

The only thing he's guilty of, Johnson says, is bad taste.

"I'm not a fanatic, or even really intrigued by the things these guys did. It all just seems foul to me. This is a shameful business, no matter how you look at it, but I'm making a living as an artist and it's hard to give that up.

"My parents think it's reprehensible. They're just disgusted by it," added Johnson, who before his job at MCI worked on an assembly line in a factory that made medical devices such as blood separators and dialysis machines.

The Manson figure will be his fifth, in addition to Dahmer, Gacy (portrayed in a clown suit), Bundy and Ed Gein, on whom the character in the film Psycho is based. Johnson is considering adding Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper and "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez.

'Terrorist in Drag'

But there are lines he won't cross.

"I would probably draw the line at the Columbine kids, even though I get a lot of requests for them. It's just too close, and too new," said Johnson, who operates the business out of his home in a Denver suburb.

Nor would he produce an Osama bin Laden action figure, Johnson said. "That's just too fresh for me, really."

But not for Emil Vicale.

His Connecticut company, using computerized 3-D modeling, released its Osama bin Laden doll in March, originally as an afterthought.

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