James Jarvis started his toy empire nearly a decade ago with his Martin character, spawning a universe which collectors fell in love with. On the verge of releasing his latest comic-book project, he tells us his toy story.
The toy collecting world has been captivated by James Jarvis ever since the 1998 release of Martin - the first potato-headed ambassador to spring fully formed from his cartoon universe. Since then the cast of characters has expanded steadily, adding the likes of Lars, The Bearded Prophet and now the mysterious Mr Vortigern, all the while gaining a huge following.
Despite the obvious charm of his PVC pals, Jarvis is reluctant to wear the badge of character designer. Instead, citing a firm commitment to the principles of modernism, he roots the appeal of his creations in the consistency of the world they come from. "I'm a cartoonist," he says, "I like drawing little worlds, and the toys are just one manifestation of that."
After studying illustration, first at Brighton University and then at the Royal College of Arts, Jarvis started to look for illustration work. "The first thing I got was drawing adverts for Slam City Skates," he recalls. The London skateboard shop was just starting a clothing label called Holmes and, beginning a long-running relationship with fashion, James ended up creating graphics for them.
The next work that came along kept up the fashion theme: "Through Holmes I started being commissioned by The Face," he says. While this may sound like a great break, Jarvis had some reservations. "I found it weird doing commissioned illustration," he says. It wasn't so much artistic differences as a clash of world views: "I often had to draw my characters in situations I felt they wouldn't naturally be in." It does sound a bit compromising.
"I always felt the characters I drew in illustrations had an identity outside the commissioned work," says Jarvis. "So," quite naturally, "I started to think about what their cartoon reality should consist of." Eventually, these musings developed into the World of Pain comic book, but something momentous happened first.
The birth of plastic
In 1997, Jarvis began his collaboration with the fashion label Silas. At the same time, a Japanese friend suggested that he should turn his characters into toys, allowing them to step out of their coalescing cartoon universe into the real world. Silas and Jarvis pooled their resources and Martin was born - part potato, part Silas, all Jarvis.
"I was very excited," says Jarvis. "It was a new thing." Every inch the proud parent, Jarvis had no idea he was on the brink of something so big - how could he? "At the time, in 1997, nobody had really done that kind of thing on such a small scale," he says. It didn't stop him from dreaming though: "We got into toys with a vision: we wanted to become like Playmobil, to make toys which were cool but for a mass market."
Once Martin had established a bridgehead in the public psyche, Evil Martin and Bubba were unleashed. Next came the World of Pain comic book and the policeman toy. Asked how much of himself he puts into these characters, Jarvis replies: "I identify with my policeman's contempt for littering." Jarvis being a keen cyclist, he probably sees a lot of that.
"One of the things I like about making toys," says Jarvis, "is the industrial process of it." Although he's keen to point out that what he really does is draw, the toys add another dimension in more than one sense: "I like the distance it gives you from the human inconsistencies of drawing."
Despite being made of vinyl, Martin and his growing crowd of buddies have real character and that's what sets them apart. "We came from the world of fashion," explains Jarvis, "and a lot of people have clung to the exclusive side of that." Far from wanting the club to be sniffily exclusive, he points out, "Our stuff isn't that limited; it's quite accessible." But after all is said and done, this is the world of designer toys, a term Jarvis freely admits he "hates".
Jarvis is a man of the people. "I'm not interested in it being James Jarvis's Martin or whatever," he says. The ideal situation is one where the characters speak for themselves. "Like Tintin or Asterix," the childhood role models from which Martin and Co inherit their independence, "they have their own identity outside of their creators."
So comic books formed an important part of Jarvis's story, but in the European comic-book tradition: "I always found American comics a bit one-dimensional I suppose," he says. The likes of Asterix and Tintin had genuine stories, not the same story repeated ad nauseam. James takes his lead from this and draws inspiration from the world around him: "What I do comes from general culture."
Sucking up ambient details from pop culture, he says, "I just draw what I'm interested in at any particular moment. Sometimes I want to draw skateboarders, or policemen, or cavaliers." What makes the difference is the fact that these are wellconsidered, rounded characters, rounded to the point of minimalism. This is no accident: "I like to think my characters were designed with the ideals of modernism," states Jarvis.
The amount of personality Jarvis can squeeze out of such a limited palette is incredible. "I didn't want to draw people, but I wanted them to be able to reflect humanity," he says, and that they do. "I think they're more appealing than humans." And they are that too. The 'potato-headed multiverse' is a reality and Jarvis, along with his collaborators, is busy expanding it.
Jarvis has had collaborators along his way, notably Russell Waterman and Sofia Prantera from clothing label Silas. "They've been very inspirational," he confirms. "They showed how much you can achieve independently." So, having created the first four of his potato-headed pals for Silas, the trio set up Amos Toys.
This gave Jarvis a taste of freedom: "Starting Amos meant that I was no longer reliant on other people to generate work. I could commission myself." And commission he did, once he'd taken care of 'Juvenile Delinquents' for Sony's Time Capsule toy project. Things stepped up a gear in 2003 with the release of the first series of In-Crowd toys. Then came the Where is Silas? book.
In fact, it was starting to become a bit of a headache maintaining the purity of the various worlds his characters inhabited: "Are there cowboys in Lars' world?" asks Jarvis. "There must be because he wears cowboy boots. That means they have horses and stirrups. Do the horses have noses?" Only time will tell because right now, Jarvis and Russell Waterman ("He's like an editor") are finishing up work on the latest annex on the multi-verse Vortigern's Machine.
"I never set out to be a 'character designer'," Jarvis insists. "I've never ascribed any special value to something being a 'limited edition' or hard to find." In all probability, an attempt to be exclusive or cliquey wouldn't have been so wholeheartedly endorsed by the buying public. And Jarvis regularly expresses a love of accessible art, "like The Simpsons or Asterix. I think they're all the more vital for being popular, without being populist."
So what's the secret? Jarvis has no hesitation in answering that: "I love drawing, and everything springs from that font." The characters are a by-product of a kind: "I see myself as someone who draws. All the projects I work on come from drawing, be they illustration, comic strips or toys." The most simple piece of advice to anyone with a toy-shaped twinkle in their eye? "My tip would be: learn to draw everything."
What makes these toys so immediately engaging is the fact that they have a context. Even when they didn't have a proper world, they at least had some coded version of one, dredged up from Jarvis's subconscious. "I think the things which have longevity will be the things that have a bit of depth to them, that are part of a bigger picture."
And like any parent, this will have bitter-sweet consequences when the young ones finally fly the nest as Martin now has: "I don't feel like I designed him any more," says his concerned-sounding creator. He's grown up, moved on. "He's such a graphic figure, he comes from his own world now." Ah, they grow up so fast.