Chandler Spins a Tale of "Skrumps"

What is a Skrump? If you didn't catch their appearance in the back of Archaia's "Fraggle Rock" hardcover or haven't seen their collector vinyl toys, you can find out this April from Archaia when the Skrumps blast their way onto the printed page in their very own one-shot. Created by writer, illustrator and toy maker John Chandler, the Skrumps are new, colorful characters in the spirit of Muppets and Fraggles, who have adventures in the world of Skrumpland. A short story 2010's "Fraggle Rock" collection, "The Tale of the Bathtub Bandit," introduced a few Skrumps, but there are many, many more to come.

"I chose to do the Bathtub Bandit as the star of the last one because he was one of the original toys," creator John Chandler told CBR News. "For this one-shot, I used a character called the Mooch. He was one of the original characters as well, who came with the story about a Skrump who was the mooch of Skrumpland. The whole thing about Skrumps is that it's a universe of characters from Skrumpland who live in these little Skrump Shacks and they all have these weird personas. There's the Mooch, the Bathtub Bandit, Lazy Louie, who's the slacker and couch potato Skrump, Scratch Baxter, who owns the local diner [and is] grumpy and mean, Worried Willy, who's this real neurotic character -- I've got a universe of all these different characters who have specific identities."

The 32-page comic revolces around the Mooch, a Skrump who truly lives up to his namesake. "It's not because he's bad," Chandler explains. "That's just his persona and the way he's fallen into. He feels like he's a fun guy who's going to come in with a joke -- Mr. Personality -- he can slide by through being charming and funny and he doesn't have to pull his own weight. In the book, he's finding that maybe he's wrong and people don't dig him as much as he thought. Maybe his ways of taking on his world is wrong. As he's getting shot down by all these people he's trying to mooch off of, he thinks to himself that he has it all wrong. Maybe he's a loser and isn't what he thought he was. So, he decides he's going to change his ways. What he does is go to the local pet shop, and he wants to start giving back. At first, he's going to get these really cute characters that are really easy to take care of and are still taking, not giving, if you buy one, but he ends up falling into a situation where he decides he's going to take on this different type of a pet. It's all about him going through this adventure with this very unique pet creature that isn't what he initially thought he was going to get involved with. It's all about what happens when he adopts this completely outrageous nuisance of a pet.

"There's slapstick comedy in it, there are lots of colors, lots of funny jokes, lots of banter between the characters," he continued. "It's really cool. It's definitely a fun book. I'm excited for people to see it."

The Skrumps arrival in comics represents years upon years of work for Chandler, who gained prominence first as a toymaker. "I always used to talk about feeling like a farmer; I work really hard on getting the crops planted and then I have the harvest. It's sort of the same kind of thing. You make something, grow it and then you hope it comes out the way you want it to. Once it does, you can put it out there. It takes a long time, it's a lot of hard work, but once it's finished, you feel so excited about it. In 2004, when I released my first line of vinyl toys and characters, they came out just the way that I wanted to, everything from the quality of the books to the plastic and vinyl that was used for the characters. It was a real coincidence that at the exact moment I put out these toys was the exact moment there was an interest in these independent artist driven properties. All these artists were coming up at the same time as I was, and we all had our toys based on our own stuff. They called it Urban Vinyl, which sold at KidRobot and Toy Tokyo, which were these upper scale vinyl toy stores. That's what I was shooting for. When I was manufacturing it, I was going into details of how I wanted the toys to look, how they were made and the type of materials used. It all came from the first six toys."

According to Chandler, those first six Skrumps were the result of his imagination as a kid, collecting toys and reading Dr. Seuss. "I was a huge fan of Star Wars and Dr. Seuss and Muppets, and I was a lover of the storybooks, picture books and movies that had those fun collectors' universes with things that you could have that would be collectible and could lend itself to fantasy and creativity," said Chandler. "When 'Star Wars' came out when I was nine years old, it changed my life. Star Wars figures came out and my whole world just exploded. That's how I fell into creating these types of worlds like Skrumps, because when I would go into toy stores looking at these sorts of characters, and when I would go to bookstores looking for certain types of books that I had aside from Dr. Seuss and Charles Schultz, I was always looking for those things. When I was in my early twenties, I just started making books and writing/illustrating storybooks. Once I finished my first storybook, I was 23 and I had a whole book that was completed that I had written and illustrated with colored pencil."

For Chandler, that book was merely a starting point to a far greater universe. "After I was finished with a book, I had a character in it that was the star character and I wanted to have a toy from it. I sculpted a character out of Fimo clay based on the star of that little picture book that I had made. I had one book and one toy and right there, I was hooked. I realized that if I could do one, I could do two, and two turned into six," he said. "That was my first series of books -- six books with six characters who were all sculpted together, based on the book. I just was really excited about creating my own world and I just never stopped from that point. I just kept making them and had a whole world of sculpted characters based on the books. I had written and illustrated 23 storybooks and they were all completely bound. I went to Kinko's and had them made up. I lived at Kinko's in my twenties. I would literally spend all my free time crafting these books, using the color copiers and spending all my money on Xerox copies, laminating every single page -- it just became this big thing. That evolved into this whole thing called Skrumps."

Although the Skrumps began as a hobby, Chandler kept them in mind even as he began to craft licensed toys as a professional. "Once I got to a certain point, I started a toy company and I was making toys for movies in my later twenties. I learned how to make toys professionally, doing toys for 'Rocky Horror Picture Show' and 'Cheech and Chong.' Once I had the understanding of how to make things and mass produce them, that was about the same time I got married. My wife knew about all the books I had written and she knew it was something I was really passionate about, and she said that I should really focus on putting it out. I thought it was time to make a move, because it was originally something that I was going to put out with a different toy company that I founded, and I thought it would be better at a certain point to just move forward and do it separately as just one toy company focused on one specific universe of characters and only publish the books and the vinyl toys, put them in a box and have them be the product. My wife said I should go for it, so we did."

What followed was a careful selection of Skrumps, chosen to release into the wild of local retailers. "We created the toy company called Splashdown Toys where I took six of the hundreds of characters I had created and I picked the six that I wanted to start the collectors' universe based on," Chandler said. "From there, that was when I wrote and illustrated a book for each character. There were six toys and one book to go with the character that was actually in the box. From that point, that was how I got them in the stores. People would ask what it was, if it was a movie, because people thought that if it was a toy it must be from a movie or a TV Show. It wasn't, it was something that we had made for the reason of getting it onto the market as a collector's toy. The toy was driven by the book. It wasn't an inanimate object, it was an actual starring character in the storybook, which goes back to Dr. Seuss and Charles Schultz and stuff that I grew up on. I wanted it to come from picture books. That was the genesis of it."

"When we got them in the stores, people would ask what it was. I would explain that they should buy the book. The stores were used to selling toys based on TV shows and stuff, but they said they'd try it," he continued. "They put them in the stores, and I created displays so that people could see the characters and feel the toys and such. Then, the toys started selling through in all the different toy stores we put Skrumps in and people were reordering. That's when an executive at Disney found us, and that executive told us that maybe we should go see some people at Henson to see what they thought. My wife and I went over to the Jim Henson Company to take an interview and talk about the Skrumps. They loved them and thought that they would be an amazing addition to their catalog of creations. As soon as I took my first meeting, here was about the same time that the Muppets were going over to Disney, so we had a position to start cultivating the Skrumps universe into movies and TV shows."

Now that he's at Henson, Chandler still finds ways to bring the Skrumps to the printed page -- whether it's through the upcoming Archaia one-shot or through more of his original storybooks. "Because I came from picture books and was always really primarily focused on building the property through books, I felt that was something that I had to keep doing," he said. "I kept on writing and illustrating books. From the day I got here, I was continuing the Skrumps storybooks. I wanted to publish more of the books and continue making the toys while we were creating movies and doing things in a higher form of animation. For me, the coolest things about making the books is that it's lower budget, I can do all the work myself and I can create products through the books. I never stopped doing that even though I was writing movies and doing things having to do with higher, more expensive and flashier animation, I always stayed true to the pen and the pad."

From there, it was a simple transition for Chandler to start heading into comics. "Lisa Henson, who is a big supporter of what I'm doing with this whole thing, said, 'Why don't you try to do this more in a comic style?'" Chandler recalled. "I thought that would be great. I worked on falling more into a comic book art style, formulating Skrumps for comics. I took about two years doing nothing but writing and illustrating comics. What I made was this giant, 220-page, 400-panel comic book that was a Skrumps themed comic that we haven't published at all. It's sitting in my office. That was the beginnings of taking the Skrumps into the comic world."

Although the Skrumps may have their roots in picture books, Chandler is very serious about bringing them into comics, having studied a number of his favorite artists to help him refine his work. "I spent all these days in the past couple of years focusing on nothing but making comics for Skrumps. I studied all these different people that I thought were brilliant, like Jeff Smith and Joann Sfar, Carl Barks and all the stuff he did with Donald Duck, Don Rosa, some of the other Disney artists I was reading about. One of the other comic book people I was amazed by was one of my heroes, Robert Crumb. I thought he was the most fascinating person I'd ever seen. That's part of the reason I started doing picture books, was that I though what he was doing in art was mesmerizing. I wanted to see what I could do. Robert Crumb was a huge inspiration for me and a role model, but I never did actual comics, I was doing picture books. When I did fall into doing comics later, I went back to Crumb and was definitely inspired by him."

With the Skrumps coming to comics, Chandler couldn't be happier, but he gets most of his satisfaction from others getting to share in his vision. "It's a huge dream come true, it's giant. I was lucky because it was always a gratifying experience to start a drawing and finish it and have that actual thing to keep as a souvenir," he said. "That's what kept me going through all these years of continuing to want to do it. To see this come to fruition is ginormously rewarding and there are a lot of great feelings of seeing that happen, no doubt about it. I'm very, very excited about the fact that I get to share this stuff with more and more people."

"The Skrumps" One-Shot hits shelves this March from Archaia.

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