Some people like pro football, so they pay attention to NFL players, and not just when the players are on the field. Same goes for fans of every other sport, or movies, books, daytime television … whatever. If something interests us we study it, and the people involved, with more enthusiasm than anything our social studies teachers could have dragged out of us.
I like model kits and have learned a lot about the people who make them. One fellow I’ve always wondered about is George Stephenson, founder and former owner of GEOmetric Design.[caption id="attachment_973" align="alignright" width="143" caption="Al Matrone now runs GEOmetric Design."][/caption]
GEO was one of the first big garage-kit companies I became aware of after re-entering the hobby in late 2001 and its models quickly captured my attention. They were wonderful, affordable kits sculpted by some of the most talented people in the hobby, including William Paquet, Mike Hill, Jeff Yagher, Joe Simon, Thomas Kuntz and Takayuki Takeya.
It didn’t take long to figure out George was the man who ran GEOmetric. It also didn’t take long to figure out George was quitting the business and slowly shutting down GEO.
Bad, bad news for this budding middle-aged hobbyist. It was a relief when Phoenix Comics owner Al Matrone made a deal to buy GEOmetric in 2003 and continue the company.
In the years since, I’ve crossed paths with many of the creative people involved in GEOmetric and have interviewed some of them for Resin the Barbarian. George … well, I briefly met him twice, once at Imagine-Nation Expo 2002, which I believe was the last hobby show he attended as GEO’s owner; and the second time at WonderFest 2005, where I found myself standing next to him in the dealers’ room. I took the opportunity to introduce myself before quickly running away for fear of being even more of a pest than I’m used to being.
Both occasions predated the creation of this blog, and so I couldn’t create an excuse to throw a bunch of fanboy questions at him. In the years since, it would have felt rude. The guy’s a judge in his day-to-day life, I had no business pestering him to talk about the hobby he departed years ago.
Imagine my delight upon hearing in 2009 that George Stephenson was returning to garage-kit production, and that his new company would be called Black Heart Enterprises.
GOODBYE GEOMETRIC, HELLO BLACK HEART
A brief confession is in order. An awful lot of what you’re about to read is the barest rewrite of an autobiography George put together himself. He’s a good writer and I know better than to mess it up just so I can say I did it myself.
George ran GEOmetric Design, Inc., from 1990 through 2003, when it the became the only American GK company to slush-mold vinyl kits in the United States.[caption id="" align="alignright" width="250" caption="Todd Powell's buildup of GEOmetric Design's vinyl Mummy kit, sculpted by William Paquet."][/caption]
“I sold GEO because I simply could not handle the load by myself anymore,” he wrote in an e-mail interview. “GEOmetric had always been my partner, Lynn Suilmann, and me handling all the art direction, licensing, molding, casting, packaging, shipping, you name it. Two guys! When things would get too heavy for us to handle, we had part-timers who helped out.
“In 1998, my partner wanted to resume his career in sales; he and his fiancée wanted the security of a regular paycheck. So, in 1997 or 1998, I bought him out. At the end of 1998, the hobby market was sagging, vinyl recasts of our kits were being sold all over Europe and Asia, AMT/ERTL went head to head with us on vinyl Trek kits, and our sales drooped.”
George was approached by St. Paul, Minn., to represent the city in housing matters and in human rights matters. “They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse and I went back to practicing law full-time. I naively believed I’d be able to convince the city that I could do that work part-time while I continued to run GEO. I nearly killed myself trying to do that.”
George hired a shop manager and an office manager to run the business on a day-to-day basis. The company cut back on producing new vinyl kits and turned more to resin busts, which were easier to produce than resin figure kits.
After three months, the city moved George to a position as special prosecutor for a particular part of St. Paul. Three months after that, the city made another offer he couldn’t refuse and appointed him chief prosecutor. “I supervised about 35 lawyers, investigators, law clerks and clerical staff. The money was great but it kept me from being as involved with GEO as I needed in order to keep the company viable.
“Then in 2001, I was appointed judge by Gov. Jesse Ventura (I’ll have to tell you the story about my hilarious judicial interview with Jesse). Anyway, I was handling felony trials (everything from drugs to murder) and I knew I couldn’t continue doing GEO. I started talking to AMT/ERTL, Polar Lights and Testors about purchasing GEO’s assets. But things were moving slowly.
“Phoenix Comics had been ordering a ton of kits from us each month and when Al heard I was looking to sell it, he contacted me and a deal eventually got done. He purchased GEO’s resin kits, busts, bases, and accessories. I still own the molds for all the vinyl kits.”[caption id="attachment_993" align="alignleft" width="373" caption="George Stephenson, left, and Mark Brokaw in the Earthbound Studios shop. Click the photo to read more about their history."][/caption]
His job and raising his children kept George too busy for garage kits, so he put away his hobby supplies and didn’t paint a kit for six years. “I figured I should stay away for a while to focus on being a judge, and to give Al’s GEOmetric a chance to get its legs under it. Then, last Christmas, my older daughter bought me a cool Santa Claus statue that was poorly painted; she asked me to paint it. I did and had such fun doing so that I got the itch again … the itch to not only paint but to produce something.
“I had periodically kept in touch with sculptor Joe Simon and with Earthbound’s Mark Brokaw. I started talking to them about my itch and we kicked ideas around for several weeks. If Joe had not been pumped about sculpting for me or if Brokaw had been unable to mold and cast for me, I would have left it alone. But, things just fell into place.”
George wanted something simple to mold and cast. He also wanted something different than what he had done with GEO. That ruled out 1/4 scale busts, 1/8 scale figures and microMANIA scale figures.[caption id="attachment_1010" align="alignright" width="164" caption="Mike Falcigno's Mummy. Photo from Falcignoart.com."][/caption]
“Then one day, I was rearranging my collection of wooden masks from Africa. I’ve collected them for years and have them displayed on the wall of my rec room. As I was arranging them on the wall, I thought it would be cool to have some monster masks mixed in with the African masks. I already had a Predator wall plaque and a Pumpkinhead face from the original Stan Winston molds but I wanted a few more monsters mixed in with the African art.
“I searched like crazy for pieces I wanted and came across Mike Falcigno’s 1:1 scale Mummy (which I think is a gorgeous piece, better than any photo I’ve seen of it). I talked him into selling me one with the back of the head flat. I got it, painted it, and had a ball! When I put it up on the wall, it looked so cool. Then it suddenly hit me. Let’s do 1:1 scale resin faces designed to hang on a wall.
“Joe Simon and I had worked together well and often when I owned GEO. So, he dug the idea and was pumped about doing something in 1:1 scale. Brokaw loved the idea, too, and was bummed that he hadn’t thought of it first. He was ready to take on another client and, since I had helped push him into starting Earthbound Studios back in the ’90s, he agreed to do the work for me.
“And so, Black Heart was born.”[caption id="attachment_1018" align="aligncenter" width="680" caption="The Thing from Another World is coming soon from Black Heart Enterprises. The wall-hanging piece was sculpted by Joe Simon and will be cast by Mark Brokaw's Earthbound Studios. Black Heart's next figure will be "one of the hobby's more popular characters," George says."][/caption]
SOME QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ABOUT BLACK HEART
Resin the Barbarian: I have always presumed GEOmetric Design got its name in part because your name is George. Why did you name your new company Black Heart?[caption id="attachment_999" align="alignright" width="300" caption="The T-800, painted by Steve Parke."][/caption]
George: Yes, my name was the basis for the name “GEOmetric”. Black Heart? Look at my face; I’m a black man. I wanted the company name to reflect that. More importantly, I thought I could have fun with slogans like “Black Is Beautiful”, “Black by Popular Demand”, and my girlfriend’s favorite, “Once You Go Black…” I gave a lot of thought to a logo and envisioned this freaky, evil-looking heart. So, the name Black Heart just felt right.
RtB: Do you envision Black Heart becoming as big as GEOmetric once was?
George: No, I won’t do another GEOmetric, at least not before I retire from the bench. GEO was never intended to be as big a deal as we became but the market supported that kind of enterprise in the ’90s. The hobby and GK markets won’t support a garage kit company on that scale right now. I like the idea of Black Heart remaining a small company doing limited numbers on high-quality kits. I’m thinking we will do no more than 100 of each kit we do; actually with some we’ll only do 50. When we hit that magic number, the kit will be done.
RtB: Will Joe Simon remain your primary sculptor, or do you plan to eventually work with other sculptors?
George: I have spoken to only one other sculptor about doing a sculpture for Black Heart. But right now, my plan is to have Joe Simon be my guy. I’ve worked with a lot of great sculptors during the last 20 years and have gotten excellent work from them. But working with Joe is so comfortable.[caption id="attachment_1020" align="alignleft" width="250" caption="Joe Simon will be Black Heart's primary sculptor."][/caption]
Joe started with me when I was doing GEOmetric. He interned with us and surprised me with how quickly he improved his sculpting. Today, I’d say Joe Simon is as good as anyone out there. Joe is fun to work with and we have such fun with the projects we do. He sends me progress photos every couple of days, we rap on the phone and by e-mail four or five times each week and he gets the project done on schedule. It is a pleasure working with him.
RtB: Am I correct in understanding that you will do the bulk of Black Heart’s work, with support from the other people mentioned on Black Heart’s home page?
George: That’s right. Joe will likely do all of the sculpting; Brokaw and Earthbound are slated to do the molding and casting. I research and write the profiles; Dave Fisher lays them out for me. I’ll tap guys like Steve Riojas, Steve Parke, David Fisher, Fred DiSanto, Joe Dunaway and John Allred to do buildup work for me and to contribute to our website T&A page.
RtB: Is there any chance you will return to producing vinyl kits?
George: I own all the molds for GEO’s vinyl kits. I don’t have the slush molding equipment needed to produce vinyl kits and don’t have the desire at this time to start that up again. I’m more likely to sell those molds to someone wanting to produce vinyl kits. I think it would be great, and could be profitable if someone did that. But, I do have a small quantity of each vinyl kit we produced. I plan to just sit on them for a while.
A BRIEF LOOK AT THE LIFE OF A GARAGE-KIT PIONEER
George Stephenson is 51 and lives in Maplewood, Minn. He has three children — a son named DJ, 16, and two daughters, Monica, 14, and Leigh, 12. His “significant other” is Claudia. He has served as a judge since 2001, appointed by former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.
His childhood hobbies did not include model kits.
“I was really into Aurora but not the model kits; I was VERY into the their HO scale slot cars. I did not build models as a kid. I also spent a lot of time and money on electric football. Electric football were the games with the little plastic football players that ran on a vibrating football set. The guys in my neighborhood were really into that and as a kid, I organized the EFL (Electric Football League) with about six or seven other kids who played each other on Saturdays and Sundays during the NFL season.[caption id="attachment_1003" align="alignleft" width="426" caption="Medusa, painted by George Stephenson."][/caption]
“Most people who remember that game talk about how frustrating it was to play the game with players running all over. But, we were so good at it that we could actually run plays, complete passes and kick field goals. We figured out how to ‘train’ or ‘program’ the players to run specific plays and we knew what we were doing. We also painted the players so their uniforms were more authentic than what would come with the game board.”
He collected comic books and saw the advertisements for Aurora monster models, which he thought looked cool. “I was a huge fan of most serious monster movies; my favorites were the classic monsters.
“But, I was not a fan of building model kits.”
In 1985, George was driving in St. Paul and discovered a hobby shop. He stopped in and saw a display of beautifully painted Aurora monsters.
“I had just finished three and a half years of law school while working full time; I was a single guy who was working as a prosecutor for the city. I had free time for the first time in years and disposable income. I thought it would be cool to build the Aurora Frankenstein kit. The shop owner said they didn’t have any but he pointed me to a couple of guys that he thought might be able to help me out, Terry Webb (now the publisher of Amazing Figure Modeler) and Terry Ingram (now one of the principals of Universal Monster Army). Through them I got connected with folks who sold me a Frankenstein. Had a ball painting it so I got the Mummy, then the Wolf Man and so on. That’s how I got started in this hobby.
“By the way, I still race slot cars and still own my electric football men.”
ANOTHER Q&A ABOUT GEORGE’S EXPERIENCES AS A KIT PRODUCER
RtB: What story or stories would you tell about the people, famous or not, you’ve met over the years thanks to your involvement with the hobby?
George: Woody Allen bought GEOmetric’s vinyl Pumpkinhead kit years ago. He didn’t get the comic book/instruction booklet that came with the kit and we had to send him one. That was pretty cool!
I was actually asked to be in the film “Galaxy Quest” with Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver. The producers wanted me to set up a GEOmetric Design booth and to be in the sci-fi convention scene in the movie. I passed on that because they wanted me to be out there for a week. I figured they’d cut up that scene anyway and I’d be bummed about spending that time out there and then not even get onscreen. That had happened to me before in a Japanese film. And, I was right; you could hardly make anything out in the convention scenes. But, at a pivotal moment toward the end of the movie, GEOmetric’s models are squarely on screen and recognizable in the bedroom of one of the film’s more hilarious characters. Now that was really cool!!!
RtB: You enjoy painting kits. Do you have a collection of built and unbuilt kits? If so, what are your favorites?
George: I have a bunch of kits. Twenty years and lots of trades for GEOmetric kits allowed me to compile quite a collection. I have lots of Japanese kits of American movie monsters, Billiken, Max Factory, Kaiyodo; I have lots of the popular resin kits from Yagher, Tom Kuntz, Steve West, Mike Parks, Bill Paquet, Mike Hill, kits from Janus Company, and others, too many to name.
I’ve assembled most of them but a lot are not painted and never will be. Not enough time in this life.
I have buildups of most of the GEO kits, and multiple buildups of many of them. My favorite kits to do are the kits GEO produced and the kits Black Heart is doing now. These are characters I dig, and the sculpts (most of them) were done just the way I wanted. So, of course, they are going to be my favorites.
Of the GEO resin kits, I think our Tremors is one of the cooler kits GEO did; I love that kit. Of the vinyl kits we did, I’d have to say our Alien and Predator kits are the coolest because they can each be built in multiple versions with all the accessories and customizing kits we produced for them. But, we also did some pretty cool Trek kits that really didn’t get a whole lot of notice. Our Locutus of Borg and our Ferengi were two that I really enjoyed building and painting.
RtB: What was the last kit you painted?
George: Black Heart’s Mr. Hyde is the last kit I finished. I painted a Medusa and a Mr. Hyde just before WonderFest. I was intimidated by a 1:1 scale model with that kind of detail. It took me a few days to feel comfortable painting Medusa. I started feeling that I was either rusty or the techniques I used on smaller scale stuff did not translate to 1:1 scale. I remember starting to get bummed and eventually panic started to set in.
Then all of a sudden, I stepped back and started to like how she was coming along and before I knew it, I was digging that larger scale and digging how Medusa was looking. After Medusa I did Hyde and that was sheer joy. What a fun buildup that was. Now I feel that 1:1 scale is easier than the smaller-scale stuff, more detail to paint so it is easier to make the model look good. Plus, the larger size allows an old man like me to see where the paint is supposed to go.
AN ISSUE OF GREAT INTEREST IN THE GK HOBBY
Licensing model kits is a subject of particular debate and controversy among people involved with the hobby. Here’s what George had to say about it.
“The original GEOmetric Design produced licensed kits. A few kits we produced were of characters for whom copyrights and/or merchandising rights were not clear. All of our vinyl kits were licensed. But in the summer of ’98, Diamond Comic Distributors, one of GEOmetric’s largest and best distributors at the time, began selling vinyl bootlegs of two of our bestselling vinyl monster kits, Alien and Predator. They sold them all over Europe and wiped out our foreign sales (about 30 percent of our business) at a time when we were struggling like so many other sectors of the hobby market.
“I was contacted by a shop owner in France who had been buying our stuff from our French distributor. He sent me Diamond’s European catalog. But the kits Diamond was offering were vinyl recasts which they were selling for one-fourth of the wholesale price of our originals. Diamond knew they were bootlegs of our kits because they had also been selling our originals. Their catalogue used photos of the original GEO kits, photos from our own packaging.
“They not only wiped out our international sales of those two kits but greatly reduced the international demand for our other kits because, suddenly, folks felt GEOmetric’s originals were too expensive compared to the recasts.[caption id="" align="alignright" width="274" caption="The GEOmetric Design Romulan, painted by Todd Powell and now sitting on a former co-worker's desk. The kit is out of production."][/caption]
“I contacted the head of 20th Century Fox’s legal department. I told him what was up and said, ‘I have everything you need to stop the recasting,’ photos, catalogues, samples, and so on. But I was naive. When I told the studio guy where the recaster was located (Korea), he immediately said, ‘George, I can’t help you.’ He explained that the motion picture studios had found no protection or support in Korean courts for their copyrights. He said it did not make sense to pursue the recasters because ‘It’s just not cost-effective.’ I was bummed.
“We talked further. I asked what the studio would do about the American distributor selling the recasts all over Europe. I said, ‘They aren’t in Korea. Diamond Comic is in Baltimore.’ His response: ‘George, we aren’t going to go after every little shop that is carrying a couple of recasts of GEOmetric kits. It’s just not cost-effective.’
“I was pissed. I asked, ‘Then why did we pay you X dollars for the license?’
“He was surprised by the question and didn’t know how to answer it. I said, ‘While you are thinking about that, let me ask you another question: Why should I be concerned about you coming after me WHEN I don’t pay you another penny for royalties?’ He had no response to that either. We ended the conversation with no resolution to the problem.
“So, I never paid Fox another penny in royalties although we continued to sell AND ADVERTISE those two kits for nearly five years until I sold the company. I never heard from Fox again. I’m sure they figured coming after GEOmetric was not ‘cost-effective’. I should add that, at about the same time, the same thing happened with our Star Trek kits when they were bootlegged in vinyl by that same Korean company and in resin by a small company in the U.S. The studio did nothing to help us. I learned a valuable lesson: if the copyright holders (studios) don’t feel it is cost-effective to protect their licensees from recasters and distributors of recasts, they must not feel it is cost-effective to go after a small-time, low-profile GK producer.
“The studios know about garage kits. And for the most part they don’t care about the little bit of business we do because it doesn’t impact them. But if we get stupid and make it hard for them to ignore what we do, we are asking for trouble.
“I’ve heard rumors about who might be responsible for the recent wave of cease-and-desist letters from Universal Studios. I have difficulty believing that a handful of guys could get Universal fired up enough to do what they’ve done and chase down a dozen or more GK producers. My experience tells me that someone with a relationship with that studio, a company who is licensed or who is trying to negotiate a license with Universal, is more likely the instigator of that mess.
“I’m not pointing fingers at anyone and I’m not suggesting that anyone is right or wrong to have done so. That’s business. If some studio comes at me for doing an unlicensed kit, that’s my responsibility.
“My plan is to do kits that are in the public domain, or arguably in the public domain, kits whose copyright or merchandising rights are not certain (a lot more of those than most people know and you’d be surprised about what characters fall into that category), and then some that are copyrighted but whose copyright holders are not threatened by what little business we do.
“Whenever possible we’ll tie our kits to genre themes, and/or base them on classical literature, mythology, legends and genre archetypes.”