Back to the Future: 8-Bit Zombie
People reading this blog should know that I do love my bootleg toys. With mainstream toy companies pumping out merchandise left, right and centre I feel the bootleg / mashup scene still keeps it's appeal with their limited edition runs, hand finished products and fun references to vintage geekery.
I don't recall how I came across 8bit Zombie, but I am sure it must have been because I spotted the mighty Thrashor on one of the toy blogs I was frequenting. A skateboarding undead Masters of the Universe toy? Hell yes!
Plus his designs referenced all my favorite toys from the past, mixing skateboard graphics with vintage toy branding. Your Graphic Design career might have been influenced by adoring Dieter Rams, mine was by drooling over the typo and illustrations of GI Joe, MASK and Masters of the Universe toy packaging!
So from then on I stayed a loyal fan and especially loved the great patches and trucker hats with the printed brims. Plus all the goodies 8bz puts into each package he sends out like sweets, stickers and vintage trading cards shows how much this dude loves what he is doing!
I find such self initiated enterprises super inspiring, so it was time to have a little cross-atlantic chit chat with Mr 8bz himself...
Hey! Thanks for doing this interview!
8bz is still shrouded for me in mystery: Can you give some background to how the 8bz empire was created?
A little mystery is always a good thing! Long story short, I started my own screen printing biz about 8 or 9 years ago. The plan was to learn the ropes until I got good enough at printing tees to start selling my own designs on the side. And that’s pretty much how things went.
I knew right off the bat that 80’s pop-culture would be the theme I ran with for my brand. I’ve been obsessed with the 80’s my entire life, so it was a no brainer for me. Luckily, the brand started doing well enough that I was able to focus solely on that. Screen printing was a great experience but I’ve left that behind for the most part so I can give 8BZ my full attention. I feel super lucky to be where I am today and to have the most amazing fans that support what I do.
Can you talk a little about your approach and the first pieces you created?
My approach to most things is pretty simple. I’ve never had a problem with coming up with ideas for things, my brain is ALWAYS going. Although I wasn’t blessed with talent to bring my ideas to life, I’ve always been a very creative person. Many of the concepts I come up with are true “light bulb” moments. But I also spend a good deal of time hammering away at ideas in my head. As previously mentioned, nostalgia is my passion. So there’s no shortage of inspiration there. So for the most part my creative process is exploring subjects and themes I love, while also trying to put my own spin on them.
The very first pieces I created under the “8-bit ZOMBIE” name were hats. Printing under the brim got me a lot of attention in the beginning and was a great way to get my name out there and my foot in the door. I actually did do the art for the first hats myself. It was fun and very satisfying to truly create products, from start to finish, entirely by myself. But I learned fairly quickly that hiring people far more talented than myself, was going to be the way to go.
Making your ideas into product is not easy. What were the challenges you faced starting out?
I’d say one of the hardest things to figure out in the beginning was how to stick to a budget. Especially when you don’t have a way to move merch very quickly. The cost of producing products adds up FAST. It’s really easy for me to get excited about something and just dump a ton of money into a project without thinking about how long it's going to take me to make that money back. (This is STILL a problem for me, haha) But some of that is almost a necessity.
If you aren’t giving it your all and making the best possible stuff you can make, people aren’t going to take notice of what you’re doing. So, starting out, you kinda have to pay your dues and have to be willing to take hits on stuff until you really get your name out there. It’s not easy to put everything you have into a release, only to see lack-luster sales. It can be a really hard pill to swallow. But sticking with it and riding out the hard times is what separates the successful from the unsuccessful.
You have quite a wide range of pieces, from pins to shirts to toys: How do you come up with product ideas?
As mentioned, I’ve never had a problem coming up with ideas. The cogs in my brain are always turning. It’s one of those “blessing and a curse” type of deals. But in this line of work, it’s most definitely a big advantage. I’ve got more ideas than I can ever possibly use. And I often find the hardest thing for me is deciding which ideas to run with and which ones to leave on the shelf. (Not saying that all of my ideas are good ones, haha.)
I also rely a lot on the insights and opinions of my artist buds. I’ve been lucky to surround myself with some unbelievably talented people, who share the same passions that I do. Brainstorming and bouncing ideas off of them is one of my favorite things.
The artwork and packaging is always so crisp and on point: Are you working with designers or is it all you?
Thank you! For the most part, I reply on my designers to create stuff for me. But I will sometimes work on packaging elements myself. And it’s often a collaboration as well. I can’t illustrate but I’ve been using photoshop for years and years. I do most of the graphic design work for the brand myself. And leave the illustrative work to the pros. I have an almost obsessive eye for detail, so package parodies and stuff like that are always fun projects for me. Recreating vintage packages or ads is always a blast and gives me a little creative outlet.
I am sure you are quite a collector yourself: What rocks your boat?
I collect all things 80’s. Everything and anything. I’m drawn to stuff with big, bold graphics & illustrations. Lunchboxes, TV trays, promotional material, etc. I can’t get enough of that stuff. But I’d say my biggest loves are Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, Real Ghostbusters, Mr. T, etc. My toy collection consists mainly of those things. I also collect NES games. Nintendo games were one of my first passions and were the first things I began to really collect. (Hence the “8-bit” in “8-bit Zombie”)
What do you think about the current indie toy / mashup scene. Are you guys connected or is everyone just doing their own thing?
I think, for the most part, it’s great. There’s some really amazing indie toys out there. I don’t really keep a close eye on most of it, or travel in any of those circles. But there are people out there making better toys than the big toy companies. It’s pretty amazing. What was once the domain of only the biggest companies in the world, is now being opened up to anyone with the creativity and determination give it a go. I won’t say I’m a big fan of a lot of the “Frankensteining” of figures that goes on in the “bootleg” toy scene.
Cutting the head off of one toy and gluing it onto another isn’t the most creative thing in the world. But there are some really amazing and creative mash-ups being made too. As with most things, it’s easy to tell the difference between the people who put thought, love and care into projects and those who don’t.
What do you think is generally the appeal of 80-90ties franchises compared to the toys we have today?
To me, it’s easy to see that toys of the past are vastly superior to toys today. The artwork, packaging and design of toy lines from the 80’s & 90’s were a thing of beauty. Over-the-top characters. Big, bold, bright packaging. And toy designs that were creative and FUN. All of it catered directly to kids and just oozed imagination and excitement. Compare that with toys on shelves today that are dull and generic looking. Package art that is muddy, uninspired and just plain boring. A good place to really see that contrast is the original TMNT line compared to the current cartoon & movie lines. The original toys were out of control on every level.
Just amazing. The new lines range from mediocre to painfully bad. Sculpts are hit & miss but often just “blah.” The worst part for me is the paint apps. (Or lack thereof) Often so bland and boring. It’s easy to see all the corners that were cut during production. But I think it all probably has to due with the fact that not as many kids play with action figures today.
Toys were IT back in the day. Every kid HAD to have them and it was BIG business. Today, kids attention is split between so many forms of entertainment. I’m sure toys don’t make anywhere near as much money as they used to. But, all that being said, I am seeing a resurgence of better toys lately. I don’t think we’ll ever see those glory days come back but I think companies are realizing that making better toys means making more money.
Any thoughts on the recent movie remakes?
For the most part, I‘m not into remakes, reboots, etc. Most of them are utter garbage and obvious cash-grabs. If the tone, spirit and love isn’t there, it’s just an insult to the original source material and the fans. Not saying there haven’t been any good remakes but it seems like the good ones are few and far between. I’d much rather see movie studios create original content, movies that will be this generations classics, rather than thoughtlessly rehash past classics just to earn a quick buck.
I am amazed they are still new MOTU pieces coming out, with Mattel remaking the whole toy line for the mature collector. What are your thoughts on that. Digging the new pieces or vintage all the way?
Totally love that Mattel is still making MOTU toys! I know there are people who are very critical of the line. But you can’t say that Mattel doesn’t know the worth of their property and isn’t trying hard to please fans. I think they’ve done a great job of paying tribute to the past, while updating and putting a fresh spin on everything. A fine example of how toys should be made and how a toy line should be kept alive.
I’m generally a vintage toy guy and can’t see myself seriously collecting new lines but I do have a He-Man and several of the Skeletors. There will always be a place on my shelves for new versions of those two.
I love the printed brims on the trucker hats. How did you come up with that?
Thanks again! Back when I first started screen printing I had seen some hats with printed brims. My first thoughts was “That’s awesome!” My second thought was “I can do that!” So I tried it out and became pretty obsessed with perfecting the technique. Took a few weeks (Or maybe it was months, hah) but I finally got it down to a science.
They are now the only 8BZ item that I still print myself. I used to do elaborate, multi-color prints but I keep things simple these days. I just don’t have the time to dedicate to printing that I used to. So now it’s just bold, one color prints. And I think that’s the better way to go anyway.
We need to talk Thrashor! Now from the idea, the sculpt all the way to the packaging, this bad boy is killer. Can you talk us through how he came into existence?
Much like a real 80’s character, Thrashor has a pretty interesting, and somewhat strange origin story. It all started with the idea to do a MOTU themed tee. As mentioned, He-Man, Skeletor and the whole MOTU universe is one of my huge loves. But for this project, I wanted to create an original character. And the initial idea was to do a tee design of just an action figure. I took that idea to one of my best artist buds, Matt Skiff. He was just as excited about it as I was. So we started tossing ideas around. A punk/skater vibe was something we were both really excited to play with and that seemed to work really well within the MOTU theme.
But as I researched existing MOTU toys & characters, I realized just how much I loved the packaging too. That’s when I got the idea to incorporate the packaging into the actual tee design. Matt was on board and things took off. The design was a hit and would start us on the path to a whole series of “toy package parody” tees. Matt and I often joked about making Thrashor into a real toy but little did either of us know that in the near future, that very thing would happen!
I was lucky enough to get in touch with the fine folks at Shinbone Creative and they guided Thrashor from a 2D tee design into a real life, 3D toy. It’s one of my favorite 8BZ projects ever and remains one of the things I am most proud of. Being an 80’s kid and an 80’s toy collector, creating my very own action figure was definitely a dream come true.
Will Trashor get buddies in the foreseeable future?
The initial plan was to do that very thing. Seeing as I had a catalog of existing 80’s toy parody characters already built, it seemed like a no-brainer. Little did I know just how time consuming and costly making toys would end up being. Looking back, Thrashor almost feels like a fluke. So many stars aligned at just the right time for that toy to happen. And while it was an absolutely amazing experience, I don’t think I’d say it was a smash success. I’m not sure I have the audience to be able to produce and sell toys regularly.
People loved Thrashor but I don’t think they loved the price tag all that much, haha. Which is understandable. It’s just such a costly thing to get into. But I’m hoping the brand continues to grow in ways that will allow me to return to toys in the future. I’ll never give up on making toys. It’s my favorite thing ever.
A lot of people dream doing their own thing but never get going. Any advice for budding entrepreneurs?
Find your niche and make sure it’s something you are passionate about. I think that’s the biggest key. People start “clothing lines” based on trends or vague ideas. And those are the brands that fold like a house of cards once said trend is no longer cool. Have a solid idea of what your brand is all about and make sure it’s something unique, and that you love. If you build your brand on a foundation of themes that you are passionate about, everything else will be so much easier. Apart from that, just do it. That’s the hardest part. There will never be a perfect time to start something. You just have to jump in with both feet and go for it. No risk, no reward.
Did you actually finish any NES games using the power glove?
Nope! I didn’t even have one as a kid. And let’s face it, the Power Glove wasn’t the amazing controller it was advertised as. It looks totally rad and was the precursor to a lot of the technology we have today. But it was a lousy controller. I beat all my games with the standard NES game pad. Which, if you think about it, was actually probably the most influential controller ever made. Current video game systems still use that basic layout. (Albeit much more ergonomically designed, haha)
What can we expect from 8bz in the future?
Lots more rad stuff! Plenty of new shirts, more of the off-the-wall accessories you’ve come to expect (And hopefully some you won’t expect!) and I’m crossing my fingers on new toy projects. I’m currently working on my Halloween release and it’s shaping up to be a doozy! Keep your peepers peeled for that. Really excited!
Any shout outs?
Massive thank you to the artists that make my brand so rad and to all the people who support what I do!
Thanks for the interview!
8bz's 5 essential weird 80/90 pieces everybody should check out:
1. The Wizard - 1989
Pretty much 8BZ in a nutshell. The absolute height of the Nintendo craze captured on film.
The MOTU Slime Pit - 1987
Masters of the Universe, skulls, slime, what else could you ask for?
The Real Ghostbusters 1986 - 1991
Everyone knows this cartoon but not as many seem to remember how many genuinely creepy characters and moments the series has. A must watch.
My Pet Monster - 1986
A giant, plush, multi-colored monster with bright orange shackles. It’s even more over-the-top than it sounds. One of the craziest and raddest toys of the 80’s.
Goonies II - 1987
One of my favorite 80’s movies, on my favorite 80’s video game system. Win-win! It even features an 8-bit cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough.” That alone is worth the price of admission. A total nostalgia overload.