Comic Cons across the country feature sprawling show floors with endless streams of cosplayers and fans in pop culture T-shirts, shuffling along between massive booths sponsored by entertainment behemoths. But somewhere, tucked in a faraway corner or convention center basement, diamonds in the rough sit alongside each other among long rows of six-foot tables and simple pop-up banners.
Artists Alley is home to hundreds of talented artists who sell unique prints and commission pieces to fans all over the world. These artistic greats not only create artwork found in popular comic books, but they also put their own unique spin on iconic characters, from Disney princesses to DC superheroes.
DC Collectibles is recognizing this talented group in a unique way, partnering with independent artists for unique designer collectibles.
“The motivation to create a line celebrating radical new artists stems from years of visiting cons and being impressed by the raw talent and artwork on display,” says Jim Fletcher, executive creative director, DC Collectibles, in a statement. “When we decided to launch DC Artists Alley, we approached visionaries we felt would best represent the line while bringing their own creative signature to our classic characters.”
The first line from artists Chris Uminga, HaiNaNu “Nooligan” Saulque, and Sho Murase debuted last year, and included limited-edition versions of Batman, the Joker, Poison Ivy, and more.
This year, DC Artists Alley is going in a few new directions with Chrissie Zullo, Joe Ledbetter, and James Groman.
Chrissie Zullo is a Connecticut-based artist who has been drawing since she can remember. Zullo created dreamy, whimsical iterations of Batgirl, Hawkgirl, Supergirl, and Wonder Woman for DC Collectibles. She says working with the DC team was “beyond a dream come true,” especially because of how much the DC characters mean to her. And seeing the figures for the first time was an experience unlike any other.
“I remember that the team had sent me photos of the 3-D sculpt and then photos of the prototypes, and I was blown away, but when I got to see them in person I was just in awe. The sculptor, Renee, just nailed it so well, and even captured really subtle things in my style. I think I was just fortunate to be paired with an amazing sculptor,” she says.
Like so many others, Zullo got her start at Artists Alley. “I signed up for my first Artists Alley table with my college classmate in our senior year. We split the table, brought prints of our artwork at the time, and showed our portfolios,” she says. “Since my first experience was so great, I was pretty much hooked from there!” Zullo counts New York Comic Con, Emerald City Comic Con, and Comic Con International: San Diego among her favorite cons to attend. “I love conventions that have a really diverse Artists Alley and feature artists that you might not normally see,” she explains.
Zullo’s designs are all about girl power, and these fierce females are infused with beauty and strength. “I wanted my girls to be fun, approachable, and confident, but still be a girl that can kick butt. I wanted to create something appropriate for any age, and hopefully something that is timeless.”
Joe Ledbetter is an artist, designer, and illustrator based in Los Angeles who cites skateboarding, ‘80s video games, and classic animation as his main sources of influence. Ledbetter created tough, yet campy versions of Batman, Penguin, Catwoman, and Robin for DC, each of which has distinct animal features, including accentuated wings, oversized claws, and massive fangs.
“The fangs are one of my favorite elements on the figure that serves a couple purposes. First off, it’s a design choice; I wanted to counterbalance the tall ears using similar shapes reflecting in the opposite direction. I’m also looking for ways to give my Batman more animal features to distinguish him from a human Batman, and when I think of bats, I think of vampire bats and fangs. The fangs also make him a bit tougher and more threatening,” Ledbetter explains.
Ledbetter started attending cons in 2003, and now has a robust portfolio of toys, prints, and more. In addition to creating toys based on popular brands such as the DC heroes and Jurassic Park dinosaurs, Ledbetter also creates his own original characters, such as Mr. Bunny and Fire-Cat. But he says creating toys based on existing brands is not all that different from his own characters. “With a licensed toy you obviously have parameters to your design (Batman must have the cowl, cape, logo, and color scheme), but that actually makes the work a bit easier. There is also a lot of research that goes into a licensed figure to be sure you are staying loyal to the brand, and also that you’re not doing something that’s been done before,” he says.
And then there’s James Groman: The monster man from Cleveland. Known for his outrageous designs for popular toys such as Madballs, Groman brings his signature style to Batman, Killer Croc, the Joker, and Two-Face—making popular DC villains look even more horrific than ever before.
Groman graduated from Cleveland Institute of Art in 1986 and has been designing toys ever since.
“I had been doing monster sculptures of my own designs for years, selling them as resin Garage Kits and collectibles. I tried sculpting a quick prototype for a toy concept I was pitching to my boss while working at American Greetings, and the folks there thought I was good enough to start sculpting toy patterns as part of my job,” Groman says.
Groman’s favorite fandoms are integral to his artistic style, making DC a perfect fit for the master toy creator. “My style is and always will be an amalgam of the many pop culture entertainment and publishing brands I’ve loved most of my life—science fiction, fantasy, and horror movies; comic books and graphic novels; and animated TV shows. I think that’s true of most any artist. Art we respond to and enjoy becomes part of our DNA, and we can’t help but want to re-experience that feeling again when executing our own artwork,” he says.
Groman has worked on many pop culture properties, including Godzilla, Ray Harryhausen, Star Wars, Transformers, Universal Monster movie characters, and of course, Batman.
Groman’s interpretation of Batman features a hunchback, a mouth full of sharp yellow teeth, and vibrant orange skin adorned with bulging, electric yellow veins. Groman said in his research, it was hard to find something that’s never been done with Batman and the DC villains. But he did discover that monsters like the ones he envisioned didn’t exist. “I felt that the mutation process I wanted to subject the hero of Gotham City to would result in a disproportionate and asymmetrical growth process. To me, that is true mutation. Not like the Hulk, who grows to his immense and powerful musculature evenly, perfectly. My characters needed to have an uncontrolled and irregular malformation that had not been applied to the characters in the Batman universe—growth and malformation that was out of control,” he explains.
Groman’s imagination soared beyond the appearance of the figures; he actually developed characters, considering how their mutations would affect their minds and behaviors, which is how he chose some of the accessory and costume details on his monstrous hero and villains.
Partnering with these artists, designers, and illustrators allows DC Collectibles to give fans completely unique and original portrayals of iconic DC characters to add to their collections. Each artist is encouraged to bring his or her original style into the figure designs, and the result is a completely surprising and delightful line of collectibles.
“I think Jim Fletcher and his team have done a wonderful job in trusting in these artists’ unique and individual visions being the very thing that helps make each and every part of this figure line different from each other,” Groman says.
From big-eyed beauties to ferocious animals and frightful monsters, the latest crop of DC Artists Alley collectibles has something for every type of superfan.
DC Artists Alley collectibles from Chrissie Zullo, Joe Ledbetter, and James Groman are available now for pre-order, and will release in October
This article was originally published in the Pop Insider’s Winter 2019 Issue No. 2, click here to read more!