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Hail Mary - part 2

Posted by Dave Bull on June 17, 2012 [Permalink]

(continuing from yesterday's 'Hail Mary' post ...)

Perhaps the best way to tell you about our other 'last chance' attempt to keep the Mokuhankan 'cooperative' part of our business together is to outline the story as it happened ...

A few weeks ago I got an email from a young man in the US who works as an illustrator, mostly for children's books. He and I had some communication a few years ago, with the vague idea that he might perhaps produce an image for my work, but we were both too busy to push it forward and nothing came of it at the time.

This time he had a new - and interesting - idea. He was thinking about creating a series of illustrations based on a synthesis of traditional Japanese ukiyo-e style drawing and contemporary video game characters. His idea was that the images would look very traditional in style, but that on closer inspection the viewer would realize that these were re-workings of characters that they knew from video games.

He was approaching me to get some information on whether or not such illustrations could be made into actual woodblock prints, and if so, would I perhaps be interested in producing them. The idea was that he would collect information and prices, etc. on such things, and then put together a proposal that would be offered to the public through the famous Kickstarter website. If it then gathered enough supporters, it would go forward. If not, the idea would die at that point.

We talked quite a bit back and forth about his ideas, both via email and Skype, and although I was sure that the first part of his request was possible (to get prints made), I had to 'pass' on the second part. I felt that I simply had too much on my plate to become involved in yet another speculative venture. So I gave him an introduction to my friends at the Takumi workshop, and he began communication with them on his project.

But an interesting thing then happened. I told the ladies here - my printer trainees - about the conversations that I had had with the young man, and showed them one of the images that he had sent me as a sample; one that depicted a dramatization of a certain famous 'Italian plumber':

"Interesting!" "That's great ..."

... and ...

"Will we be making that? I sure hope so!"

And their reaction to those images - the instant 'appeal' that was there for them - set me thinking. Isn't this sort of thing exactly what the old ukiyo-e prints were about ... 'pop appeal'? Back then it wasn't video games of course, it was actors and courtesans, but at heart, it was the same concept - images showing people's favourite 'characters', and which put the viewer 'into the action' ... at the teahouse, or the kabuki theatre.

Well, the content of these images might make sense in that historical light, but what about the artistic value of making them as woodblock prints? Why bother, when his illustrations could just as easily be reproduced by mechanical means (as indeed, he was also planning)? This was less clear to me.

But he then produced a few more images:


And seeing this sort of thing, it wasn't just the ladies here in the workshop who were interested. As Dave here (who knows absolutely nothing about the game characters depicted) looked at these, his carving hand started to itch! Click for enlargements, and look at those lines! This guy - Jed Henry is his name by the way - is channelling Yoshitoshi right into his brush! (or stealing him blind - in true ukiyo-e tradition - whichever viewpoint you prefer).

So I got back in contact with Jed, and we began to discuss how I and my workshop might be involved. The Takumi workshop had given him some quotes on prints of a larger size - something beyond our ability to produce - but that left an opening for us, and I told Jed that we would be happy to try making some of these, if it could be done at something about the traditional ko-ban dimension (around 17.5cm x 22cm). He was happy to have this offer, because it gave him more options to offer the potential supporters of his Kickstarter project.

One problem from my point of view was that Jed wouldn't be ready to open his Kickstarter project until the beginning of August, but as I described in the previous post, we would be out of business by then. So I made him an offer: at my own risk I would make the print now - cut the blocks, and print a batch - without waiting to see whether or not the Kickstarter project would fly. If I could make an attractive print, and supplement that with photos of the process and some video clips for him to use in his promotion, surely this would help his project get off the ground.

So that's where we stand. As I write, I have the keyblock about half-way carved, and will try and finish it later this week after spending the next few days on my own storage case construction work (I have to varnish the most recent batch of 20 or so). The ladies will then get busy printing it while I return to work on the next print in my own 'Arts' series.

Meanwhile, over on Jed's Facebook page, a lot of excitement is building as he moves towards the opening of his Kickstarter project. There is no question at all that his project will succeed - in the sense that he will get a ton of orders for the relatively inexpensive posters of his designs (mechanically printed, of course). But just how many people will decide to spring for the substantially more expensive real woodblock print is completely unknown to both of us.

If there are enough such people - and we'll basically learn the answer on the opening day of the project, August 1st - Mokuhankan will then get paid for this batch of prints, and may even have work for potentially a year or so, as Jed is planning ten designs in the set. If there is only a dribble of orders, or none, then our Hail Mary pass will bounce on the ground, the whistle will blow, and I'll be headed back to a life working as a solo craftsman again.

Stay tuned!




Added by: Dave on June 17, 2012, 1:18 am

Further update: Jed and I are planning to hold a special Webcast this coming Wednesday (the 20th) at 9:00am Tokyo time (that's Tuesday evening (the 19th) for North America). I'll be working on the print, and will be joined (via Skype) by Jed, for a discussion of the project and to answer questions. Feel free to post questions for us here (or over on his Facebook page); we'll collect them and feature as many as we can during the Webcast.

[Update: the webcast recording is here.]

Added by: Albert A on June 17, 2012, 7:46 am

Well, at least one of your collectors is pretty excited about this project. I grew up with these characters! Not every image he has shown is fantastic, but the homage to Yoshitoshi and the reintegration of these nominally western characters* into the weird and wooly end of their creators' heritage is pretty great.

I suspect one of your hard tasks will be to find a way to show potential customers why they should pay more for the woodblock print. I expect you'll have no problem getting at least a few for the novelty, but that may not be enough to support your work on its own, or over the whole series. What are some hanga tricks you can pull out that a giclee print can't support? having one or two embossing impressions might be easy to show off, and I know from personal experience that they make an 'impression' on the viewer. If you can impress new customers the way you impressed me the day I opened my first Surimono print, you could make it!

(*An "Italian" plumber, a pink puffball who wanders around European fairytale castles, and a transylvanian vampire hunter)

Added by: Albert A on June 17, 2012, 7:59 am

Also, one word of caution about the Kickstarter: knowing how it stands on August 1 is /very/ optimistic. If Jed has done a good job of building an audience and preparing them, you might get a lot of results on day 1, but many KS projects build their commitments slowly over time, or start off slow before a sudden spike because someone's friend-of-a-friend linked to the project in surprisingly fertile ground. Kickstarter has been a godsend for many interesting projects out there, but there are tons of variables in how one goes and when you can actually gauge how well it goes.

Added by: Dave on June 17, 2012, 8:05 am

Not every image he has shown is fantastic ...

You mean the first ones Jed proposed for this series (Link, Megaman, etc.) Those are indeed not up to the standard of the newer ones, and he's on this - he'll be redoing them as soon as he gets a chance. He is getting better with each image in his set, and I'm anticipating that the first set of ten will - when they are ready - present a pretty unified body of work.

find a way to show potential customers why they should pay more for the woodblock print

This is one reason why I'm actually making this first one now, rather than waiting to see if the Kickstarter will fly. I think that by having the actual print on hand - carefully and accurately photographed - we'll be able to give people some sense of what they are about. And yes, as we move forward, using more of the easily palpable '3d' aspects of prints (karazuri, etc.) would certainly help too.

Thanks for the vote of confidence!

Added by: Dave on June 17, 2012, 8:09 am

August 1st ... optimistic

Yes, I suppose so. It's that he and I are looking at the huge amount of interest being shown on his Facebook community, and assuming that if 'none' of that translates into actual orders on the first day, it would be a very bad sign. But yes, of course we'll be following through as it moves forward. August 1st might be a champagne day, or it might not ... We can only wait and see!

Added by: Fumi Bull on June 17, 2012, 8:18 am

BEST IDEA EVER. I think this is the most I have ever been excited with your work. I think there is actually a large market for these prints unlike your other work which had a smaller market. And these prints will be first editions too. Such a refreshing change after all the years of you making reproductions. And thankfully you didn't attempt to draw these things yourself. (no offense, but you are a craftsman, not an artist) Collaboration with this artist/illustrator sounds like a match made in heaven.

I think yes, there will be a LOT more market for the 'cheap printed' versions, like any art work out there, but there is always market for the 'originals'. Especially since a woodblock print wouldn't cost as much as, say an original of a painting where there could only be one of.

Can't wait to receive the first print! :)

Added by: Diane Cutter on June 17, 2012, 11:07 pm

Dave... Be sure to give us the link to the Kickstarter project when it lists on August 1. I know that I'll be interested in a 'real' print.

My son-in-law (a painter) successfully used Kickstarter and, like mentioned above, it didn't take off very fast at the start but did meet the project quota just before the expiration. It takes a bit of marketing. Don't be discouraged if the first couple of days are slow.

Added by: Barbara Mason on June 18, 2012, 4:03 am

Lots of comments and a great project...if everyone likes it on facebook, it will be a huge audience within a few days...he should also post it all over you tube...then we can link to it on our own facebook pages...this is how it will get around all the younger generation...social networking is everything.

Go Dave....

Added by: Dave on June 18, 2012, 8:02 am

he should also post it all over you tube

I'm sending Jed short video clips of the work as it progresses ... he'll be doing plenty of video as we get closer ...

Added by: Kalle on June 18, 2012, 5:01 pm

Rabbit out of a hat rather than a Hail Mary I think.

I do hope it goes well and there is a strong possibility that it will. After all the market for gaming magazines in worldwide (good place to send a news release) will be much higher than magazines devoted to woodblock printing. I played Asteroids a few times and moved on but know lots of younger folk who have a strong connection to consumer games.

You have correctly identified the need for an industry to be relevant to the times and the gamers and ex-gamers are a huge market place.

Oddly enough there is another market that is even bigger and more universal and this is the movie industry. Harder to do justice but having a range of Soapie villains, action heroes, femme fatale's and cult icons would mesh with the history of the prints in the past as popular culture, granted this would require very good artistry when depicting real people but....

My own basic linocut of Humphrey and Ingrid was well received by many.

The market may be large enough that limited edition prints will fetch higher prices than normal if auctioned when the awareness grows.

Added by: Dave on June 18, 2012, 5:20 pm

gaming magazines ...

Jed's been all over this; he has an interview in the current (next?) issue of Nintendo Power, which has a huge circulation - nearly half a million copies! And the story mentions us too ...

Added by: Marc Kahn on June 19, 2012, 12:47 am

Kalle brings up the issue of "limited editions". Are you willing to go there? Or is that still off limits?

Added by: Dave on June 19, 2012, 12:55 am

limited editions

None of the work I am doing for Jed will be limited editions (in the 'destroy the block' sense). I have priced this print to him on the assumption that further orders will be coming in for them (as sales warrant).

I can't guarantee that there will be further orders, so they may end up being 'limited' in the same way that my own prints are - only around xx copies get printed. But no, you can relax Marc, I'm not losing my mind and getting senile ... yet!

(As for the work that he may do with the Takumi workshop, that might perhaps be different I believe. They are quoting him prices that incorporate all carving costs, so those prints - if they come to pass - might end up being some kind of Limited Edition.)

Added by: RT on August 2, 2012, 3:18 am

I've been browsing through your websites for a few hours now, after pledging on Jed's Kickstarter, and I just wanted to say that I think you're an amazing, talented man and your works are so lovely. Good things will come, I am sure!

Added by: Melissa Mills on September 1, 2012, 7:11 pm

I just stumbled across your website today and let me tell you, I'm super excited that there's so much stuff to read.

That aside, I'm excited to hear about this latest project of yours and Jed's. Would this project be like your other ones where normal, poor people like me could purchase one a month? I have to admit, it'd be more then exciting to receive a modern image created with the old ways.

Anyways, I just wanted to say hello!

Added by: Dave on September 1, 2012, 7:17 pm

Melissa, Jed is not making these prints available via subscription (at least not at present), but is planning to put them all in his new online shop, which is now open ...


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