Panda Mony was founded by Ryan Magnon with the intention of making a new, original kids’ brands. The toy company’s first toy line, Alter Nation, which Vice President of Content Curtis Andersen helped develop, gives kids the opportunity to discover brand-new characters instead of the same familiar faces their parents (and in some cases grandparents) played with. The brand evokes nostalgia but still gives modern kids something totally unique, while providing modern adults with a new type of collectible.
Since 2018, Alter Nation has turned into a full-fledged multimedia extravaganza of videos, books, and of course, awesome toys. We sat down with Magnon and Anderson over video call to discuss Alter Nation, Panda Mony’s future plans, and how the company is looking to reshape the toy aisle.
The Pop Insider: How did you guys find each other and make your way into the toy world? Let’s get a little bit of backstory!
Ryan Magnon: I’ve always had a really strong passion for developing characters and stories with those characters. Prior to doing this, I was programming video games and even helping with the development of some mobile apps for entertainment. I branched out on my own into the toy space because video games, comics, and cartoons were very competitive and there was a lot of great content out there.
Conversely, what was happening in action figures was a lot of just beating a license to death and bringing in as many obscure licenses as they could. As a fan, it’s great. But if you’re looking at things from the perspective of a kid, it was kind of like your granddad’s characters. Why wasn’t anything new being made? So that was the foundation and then I started getting all of the market research done and talking to kids to see what they like.
While we were doing that we needed to develop a story and once we did realize Alter Nation was kind of a fan-favorite of kids, a mutual friend of Curtis and I introduced us. He had some great short stories and I needed somebody that was going to be able to just develop the lore. He had a story about time travel that I really liked, and I’m a big Back to the Future fan, so that’s how we connected. I think Curtis really liked it. First, because he’s a huge fan of all sorts of things and like an encyclopedia of geekdom and he’s been in entertainment for so long that it just worked out well.
Curtis Andersen: Tinder is a weird animal — no I’m just kidding. [Ryan] essentially got all of the high points. Like when I first found out about Panda Mony, and its existence, it was neat to hear that somebody was trying to make something new for kids and it really connected with me.
When we were growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s there were always things being tried. There was always something new in the action figure aisle and it stimulated our imaginations. I go back and I can think of the times when I played with He-Man, I played with MASK toys, and when the Japanese imports first started coming over here in ‘83 or ‘84, I got a Dougram H8. I didn’t understand the stories that were coming out of Japan because this was before the anime explosion, but a giant robot was pretty cool! I was able to use my imagination to fill in the blanks and create my own thing.
RM: One of the first things you and I connected on was, “Well, remember when there were just toys, all you got was the package to give you the story.”
CA: The idea of being part of something that was trying to re-engage the imagination of kids from the ground floor was something I was really excited about. You don’t just get a hunk of plastic that may or may not have a feature to it, you also get the world that those characters live in, and a chance to be able to spring forward and create your own adventures for those characters.
RM: We try to put our hearts into everything we do and we always try to see what we could do to make this more entertaining.
PI: Why is originality and fresh content so key to the Alter Nation brand as a whole?
RM: There are a few reasons. Every time a product has a license there’s an extra cost, there are royalties, there are minimum guarantees. We would rather give that straight to the customer.
Second, it was kind of a launching point for our own intellectual property. We were really concerned that this licensing extravaganza was just going to crash at some point and we didn’t want to be steamrolled by that.
CA: I think what makes us different and allows us to say with authenticity that we are coming from an original place is that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants and we’re learning from the mistakes of previous generations of toys. We’re able to use modern engineering and modern articulation, so the things that frustrated us as kids won’t frustrate this next group of kids as they’re playing with our toys.
So yes, we have action features on everything. However, we don’t let that interfere with the poseability and playability of the toys in a general sense. Because that was something I hated when I was a kid. There’d be an action feature and the toy would only be the gimmick and that was it. So instead, now it’s there, but it supports the play of the toy as opposed to being the only function of the toy. That’s something we hope to carry on not just with this brand but every one.
PI: Do you feel like not having a well-known license makes the deck stacked against you, or is it a strength?
RM: A little of both. I’m thinking that eventually people are going to say they’ve seen enough Ninja Turtle reboots or something, so that eventually they’re going to say, “what’s new out there?”
CA: I feel like it might be a little like inside baseball but when it comes down to it. We’re a small company, which means we can be really nimble and we can make changes the way we want to. Generating our own IP puts us in the most advantageous state because we can really pivot whichever way we need to. I have a genuine affection for the characters we’ve created, but my cynical mind can say ‘Hey TMNT lovers, I’ve got something that will appeal to you,’ while at the same time I can say ‘Hey kids, we’ve got something new for you.’
We’re in a beneficial situation in that other larger companies have done a lot of the work to introduce kids to the play style that we have, and so we get to take advantage of the fact that we can just introduce something fresh that takes the best of the situation and presents it in the most positive light.
RM: If we were just licensing Batman, we would be very limited on what we can do with the toy. We’d have to follow their style guide, their dos and don’ts.
CA: We’re writing ours as we go along.
PI: The licensing industry is at a bit of a crossroads right now, with so many films and TV series on hold due to COVID-19. What do you guys think that allows for your brand?
RM: It’s insane with movies being prolonged and there’s just merchandise sitting in a warehouse somewhere.
CA: As much as COVID has impacted our business, it’s actually kind of opened an opportunity for us because we’re the same as any other unknown character right now but the difference is if they flip over the back of ours they can read everything they need to know. That’s not necessarily true for a lot of the products out there.
RM: We can put a lot of money into custom packaging where some of the other brands will just use the same packaging over and over.
PI: Why is it important to you guys to keep the action figures as kid-powered as possible, with simple play features?
RM: They’re not smart toys and things like that, there’s no WiFi connection. The main choice behind that was because when we were doing testing with kids, the recurring theme about why they like anthropomorphic animals — part animal, part human — was that they had animal abilities plus human characteristics. They were really into the powers of animals, so every step through the design process we were saying “What kind of abilities do animals have that humans don’t?,” and that’s how we came up with the gimmicks. Frogs and chameleons have these long tongues that stick to things — that’s why we put the tongue action on Sham. Of course, he changes color too, like a chameleon.
CA: It was also really important to the kids that they were authentic animal powers, they came from a place of reality. So you’re not going to see something like interdimensional demons popping out of something or anything like that. There’s nothing metaphysical about it. It is all based in reality — you know we stretched it a little bit — but it is based in reality.
As far as tactile movement, a big part of the mission for the toy brand in general and specifically for Alter Nation is that we want to engage the imaginations. It’s one thing to be able to present an idea, it’s another thing to be able to engage with that idea and recreate the things in your head and having things represented in your head right in front of you.
Having things where it’s not just pushing a button to make it go, but instead I’ve got to swing El Ray to make his tail slap or I’ve got to be active in the way the tongue lashes out of Sham’s mouth. It’s all part of that engagement to get that imagination really connected.
RM: They could just do it on their smartphone if they just wanted to see it. To be tactile is a different beast, you know. One other thing, I really like that a lot of other brands don’t mix materials a lot and I was really impressed with ourselves that we didn’t realize until halfway through the design like wait, we don’t have to use the same plastic all the way through, we can use a rubber for his tail and it will be more fish-like.
CA: That is something that a lot of people don’t realize about the Alter Nation line. Not having a licensing fee meant we pumped a lot of money into the actual figure so the amount of value and the amount of differentiation that you’re getting is on each figure — we don’t reuse parts.
Everything was tooled for each individual character so El Ray’s skin is slicker and shinier than our other characters. The matte finish on Sabotage is actually very different from the slimy skin on Daart and El Ray. We took a lot of pleasure in that just because it was something that excited us and it turns out we tend to have the same aesthetic likes as the average 6- to 11-year-old so that worked out.
PI: How has the overall process of breaking into the toy industry been for you guys?
RM: There are a lot more gatekeepers than I thought. Kids will look at [Alter Nation] and love it, but convincing a retailer to take the risk on it was the bigger surprise I think.
CA: One of the advantages that have come along with the international pandemic was that we were forced to be primarily online just because of the gatekeepers. We’re trying to do a very sensible rollout of the product. We were new and didn’t have a lot of sway to be like ‘put us on the target shelves’ so because of our slow rollout we were actually in the best kind of position to people not wanting to go outside. That’s kind of helped us to keep our ship right in this weather.
PI: You were at C2E2, did you have other convention plans this year, before all the cons were canceled and postponed?
CA: So many. This year was supposed to be a massive travel year for us. We were doing just about every popular event you could think of. The only one we weren’t scheduled for yet was Comic-Con International: San Diego and even then we intended to be there with Dark Horse Comics because of the release of They Hide Hybrids later this year. That was the plan this year. In person. In booth. With product. Here you go.
It was a pretty major pivot after C2E2.
RM: But we navigated it and put those funds into getting directly to consumers.I honestly did not expect this lockdown stuff to go down for as long as it has, and we had always said we’re going to presume every convention is on until they officially say it’s canceled, but we kept thinking about contingency plans. As more conventions got canceled that freed up more budget to put into contingency plans.
PI: Let’s talk about the animated episodes on YouTube: You guys went with a 2D animation style and short two-ish minute episodes. Why was this the route you chose?
RM: We wanted this to be a multimedia brand, and so we had the comics packed in with the toys that we developed ourselves, and the story develops from that into the web series, which then goes back into the Dark Horse comics. We wanted to lay the groundwork to be kind of like Star Wars, where it’s all canon, all the time, even if they are stand-alone adventures. There’s a lot of thought put into all of the content.
PI: You guys also have a comic out from Dark Horse. Why was Dark Horse the right partner for the series?
RM: I don’t take no for an answer, I don’t let other people be like, “No, you can’t approach them.” Anytime we go to a convention I just go around and talk to any exhibitors I like. With Dark Horse, I happened to run into Nick McWhorter and I was like ‘Hey I’ve got this brand what do you think?’ He genuinely really liked it and put us in touch with the right people over there and they came back to us — Curtis and I — and said this was one of the best pitches they’ve ever been given and this was quality stuff and that was the answer that Curtis liked.
CA: They found a creative team that understood licensing — so they understood that there would be restrictions that we would have to protect the brand — but also found a creative team that was as excited about creating new toys as we were about making them. We’ve got Tim Seeley as our writer, he’s also written for Batman comics, Nightwing comics, and He-Man, so he gets the toy integration. Mike Norton, who’s done Green Lantern, Justice League, and Battlepug which was his own thing. He really understands how to make an animal and a human really work together. They put a team together that wasn’t about burning it out. They found a group that wanted to take the story that we had done — the bible we’ve created for the background of the world — and then actually create stories that helped support all of that.
PI: Is there a stand-out favorite character among Alter Nation fans now?
CA: There are three standouts: Daart, Sham, and Sabotage.
RM: Sabotage is the No. 1 seller. I believe Sham is No. 2 right now. Daart used to be No. 1 but now he’s slid a little bit.
Sabotage has some really sick armor and people are buying it. Fans are buying it as much as they buy the other ones but there are people that just buy Sabotage to put in with their other power armor characters, like from Fall Out or whatever.
CA: I think one of the things we really enjoy about this is the same thing that we did when we were kids: cross play. These are going to work with any other 1:12 things, so if you’ve got Marvel Legends, you’ve got DC heroes, and things like that, there’s no reason they can’t fight Sabotage. Sabotage fits right in with that. You can use the characters however you’d like.
For TMNT we’ve seen reviewers that do Albert VII directly with their TMNT characters. It kind of depends on what you love and we’ve got something to appeal to it, which is kind of a happy accident, actually.
PI: Which of the characters is your personal favorite and why?
CA: I’m completely biased. Sabotage is mine but I helped develop Sabotage since the beginning. Albert VII, too, because I voice him in the cartoon.
RM: For me it used to be Sham, but I think it’s Albert VII too just because he comes with so much nice stuff and his figure is a lot of fun to play with. But Sham’s is a lot of fun to play with too.
CA: Then it was Quillroy right before that. Ryan kind of goes through the gambit, depending on where he’s at.
PI: Alter Nation has really been the focus since Panda Mony’s inception, but what’s next? What else can fans expect?
RM: We’re actually expanding from more than just action figures. We’re going to another category of toys, and again, the internet just opens up so much opportunity and there are so many interesting buying patterns that people have online that they’d never do through mail order or in-store. We’re trying to fill those customer’s needs. That’s about all I can say on that.
PI: Will these new products be part of the Alter Nation Brand?
RM: Nope. It’s a totally new brand that isn’t Alter Nation. We do have new characters for Alter Nation. I don’t want to give away anything with our new graphic novel, but you should probably check out that original graphic novel. They’re ready to go as soon as the economic situation clears up a bit, and we’ll pull the trigger on them. They’re all designed. They’re all tested. They’re all just ready to go. We just need the warehouse space.
CA: We don’t want Panda Mony toys to be a one trick panda. So we need to get out there with the next thing and show the world that we aren’t just one toy.
PI: Keeping with Pop Insider tradition, or last question for you is: What’s your all-time favorite fandom?
RM: Back to the Future for me.
CA: I’m a little bit more niche. Mine is Warhammer 40,000.
Panda Mony is bringing a fresh set of heroes to the toy box for kids with El Ray, Daart, Sabotage, and the rest of the Alter Nation squad. And while they may not be the heroes you’re most familiar with, they might just be the ones you’ve been waiting for. Alter Nation action figures are available now at store.pandamony.toys.