The debut of Viz Media's "Uglydoll" comic as part of Free Comic Book Day this year marks a new direction for the franchise, which started out as plush dolls and then evolved into picture books and other media.
"We used the Viz comics to experiment a lot," said David Horvath, who co-created the line of plushies with his wife, Sun-Min Kim. "We allowed the artists to go off model, and the dolls are opening their mouths for the first time. With the picture books, we didn't want to push too much of the narrative on the fans." With the comics, though, the Uglydoll cast of characters engage in some real stories.
Artist Ian McGinty said that posed some unique challenges. "You are dealing with a line of 260 stuffed animals," he said. "They are very basic little guys. The only difference is this guy has one eye, this guy has two eyes -- there are tons of these little guys! That was the fun of it -- figuring out how certain characters might walk, or how would this guy talk to his friend? It was a fun thing overall.
"The world they inhabit is not like the world we inhabit," McGinty said, "so if they have a washing machine, it has to be an Uglydoll washing machine, not a human one."
The dolls, of course, aren't truly ugly; "quirky" would be a better description. Each one has a well defined character that goes beyond the usual plush-doll attributes of "cute," "friendly" or "sad." Wage, the original Uglydoll, wears an apron, works in a grocery store (which seems to be unaware of his existence) and tries hard to make things work. Uppy is both optimistic and opportunistic: "Uppy is sure of things," says the official product description. "He's sure that you guys would make the perfect team, and that your team should make its way down to the bakery to order something really super delicious. You handle the money part and Uppy is sure he can do all the eating. No worries." Mynus is so quiet that people think she's shy, but she is actually in deep thought most of the time, often anticipating people's needs in advance. And so it goes through a large cast of characters that are all recognizably in the same family but, like members of a real family, are all different. While other plush characters might merit an adjective or two of description, each Uglydoll gets a paragraph or more.
For a product with "ugly" in its name, Uglydoll had a mighty cute origin. The first spark came in 1996, on Horvath and Kim's first day of classes at the Parsons School of Design in New York City. "We were sitting next to each other drawing a nude model, and she drew it perfectly, but I drew it the way I had been drawing since I was five: Drawing the right pose but drawing a cute creature," Horvath said. "The teacher commented, 'That's ugly!' and I said, 'What does ugly mean? It means unique and different.' I was kind of being a smart aleck, saying there's no such thing as 'ugly;' 'ugly' is something we should embrace. We should shout the twists and turns and little things that make us who we are from the rooftops, not try to hide them. Then Sun-Min said 'That's pretty interesting.'"
Horvath and Kim soon realized they both wanted to tell stories through books and toys, "but we didn't want to work for a toy company," Horvath said. "We right away came up with this plan of making them on our own, which back then was kind of unheard of. Everybody in my school was studying hard so they could go work for a major toy company."
They didn't go beyond a vague idea, though, until after graduation, when Kim had to move back to her native Korea. Horvath wrote her a letter, saying, "I'll find a way to get this whole dream to work," and he signed it with a little character wearing an apron. "He's the guy at the bottom of the letter working hard to make it all happen," he said.
Kim's response was to sew a doll of the character, which was to become the basis for Uglydoll's first character, Wage. "That was the first time she tried to sew something, and she sent it to me as kind of a gift," said Horvath. "I showed it to my buddy Eric Nakamura, who owns the store and magazine Giant Robot. I said 'Look at what Sun-Min made.' He thought I was pitching him products and said, 'I'll take ten of those.' So I said 'OK, I'll bring those ten back.' It was a different time zone, so I hadn't even called Sun-Min to thank her. When I did, I said 'This is amazing. Thank you, and I need ten more.' Luckily she didn't yell at me. She made ten, we dropped them off at Giant Robot, and he kind of put them up on the shelf. By the time I got home that night, there was an e-mail from Eric saying 'Those are gone. I need more.'"
Horvath was surprised. Giant Robot featured items like art by Takashi Murakami, and he had planned to take some photos of his dolls alongside the other merchandise. Instead, they were selling as fast as Kim could make them. "Sun-Min was very excited, and she made 20 more," Horvath said. "Those sold out in two days. Then she made more, and we developed the whole universe quickly. Once we saw it, I realized this was what we were looking for, and we would express it through this plush vehicle first." After sewing 1,500 dolls, Kim gave Horvath an ultimatum: Move to factory production or give it up. The couple found a factory in Korea and began production of the dolls; they showed them off at a homemade booth at Toy Fair in New York in the early spring of 2003 and began selling them in design-oriented stores, such as museum stores and mom-and-pop toy shops.
From the beginning, Uglydolls were an all-ages product, appealing to both adults and children. "The whole point is telling you indirectly that 'ugly' is unique," Horvath said. "When you pick them up, some have three eyes or five legs or one eye -- they look so weird, but when you get closer they aren't weird, and when you hold them, they are very soft and huggable. Then you read the stories and you say, 'This one is my Uncle Bob.' 'This one is me.' So the completely crazy becomes the very familiar, the very relatable."
Horvath and Kim have a number of licensing deals for Uglydoll, and they have a production deal with Universal's Illumination Entertainment, the producer of "Despicable Me," to do an animated motion picture. Still, said Horvath, "The Viz comic book is the most exciting thing since we released the plush out of the gate."
That's because the comics have more story than ever before. Fans of Uglydolls often send photos of dolls at the dinner table or buckled into the back seat of their car, and Horvath didn't want to intrude on that. "In the beginning, the picture books were more a guide to the universe," he said. "Later we added stories, and now we feel everyone is ready for the actual narrative of these characters together and their actual adventures. That's why we are so excited. For the first time, you are getting a real fleshed-out story beyond the children's books -- which were never just for children anyway."
One reason Horvath was comfortable doing this with the comics was the creators were already familiar with Uglydolls. "What's so great about Viz, one of the parts of what made it such a pleasure to work with them, is the writers and illustrators grew up on it," he said. "We didn't have to convey much. When we saw the first drafts, we were like, 'Wow this is like the books but it's new!' They said, 'We grew up with these characters.' So these illustrators and writers for Viz, they knew exactly where to go. That was an incredible feeling for me, that we didn't have to give them much direction."
"I had always seen them," said McGinty, "and they were already in the vein of what I enjoy drawing, which is little goofy creatures. I used to play in a band, and people would bring them to shows and say 'Can you draw this for me?'" He started out using Uglydoll action figures as references for his drawings, but eventually gave that up. "It was actually hindering the way I drew them," McGinty said. "They weren't Uglydolls, they were action figures of Uglydolls, so I decided I will keep this stuff myself and use it for reference. When I did that, they became more bendy and rubbery. I became very familiar with them -- I can draw them from memory now."
McGinty also enjoyed filling his panels with characters and details. "I wanted to cram as much as possible into every single page," he said. "[Senior editor Traci Todd] and I were saying it would be cool if we could put the Uglyworm hidden in each panel, like in Richard Scarry. It was a challenge at first, but I look forward to it now."
The "Uglydoll" comic debuts with a six-page chapter, written by Travis Nichols and illustrated by McGinty and Philip Jacobson, in the "Viz Kids Comic Sampler," one of two comics Viz is releasing for Free Comic Book Day. The first volume of the graphic novel series goes on sale July 2. After that? "I'm just starting some early cover sketches for the fourth issue," said Horvath.
Viz Media's "Viz Kids Comic Sampler" containing the "Uglydoll Comics" short story is available today as part of Free Comic Book Day (May 4). Find a store near you that's participating in Free Comic Book Day with CBR's FindAComicShop.com!