Praxis

Mimetic fandom and one-sixth-scale action figures

Victoria Godwin

Prairie View A&M University, Prairie View, Texas, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Within material practices that emphasize reproduction, customizers often extrapolate, creating new material to fill in gaps. Bricolage transforms mass-produced items into individualized creative works by improving the perceived accuracy of licensed merchandise or by recycling and repurposing items to achieve realistic and imaginative results. Customization's material fan practices reproduce items in order to create transformative narratives. After duplicating a beloved fan object's definitive appearance, clothing, and/or accessories in one-sixth scale, customizers often pose and photograph action figures in recreations of iconic scenes. Other images and photostories use miniature reproductions of material objects to rework existing media texts and characters or to tell completely original narratives. Images also disrupt and deconstruct the valorization of accuracy. Living rooms, pets, and other aspects of everyday life intrude into photographs of accurately reproduced items and characters. Figures in photostories may be made to break character. Such transformative moments call attention to the toys' status as toys and to the constructed nature of poses, dioramas, and narratives.

[0.2] Keyword—Action figure customization; Affirmational fandom; Bricolage; Material culture; Material fan practices

Godwin, Victoria. 2015. "Mimetic Fandom and One-sixth-scale Action Figures." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 20. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2015.0686.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Matt Hills (2010) highlights a tendency within academic studies to privilege texts over material culture and transformational over affirmational fan practices. Text-based fan fiction and image-based fan vids fit more comfortably within academic fan studies paradigms, and thus they receive more scholarly attention than costuming, prop replica building, model building, action figure customization, or other material fan practices. Textual practices supposedly demonstrate agency because fans "'transform' a media product via their creativity" (2010). Yet within fan fiction's transformative efforts, authors still receive praise for accurately replicating characters' speech, personality, and habits. Furthermore, some fan fiction performs affirmational functions, reinforcing existing narratives, gender norms, and so forth.

[1.2] For Hills, "obsession_inc's…analysis of affirmational fandom defines it strongly against its transformational other." Affirmational fans are "sanctioned" because they "restate the source material…affirmational activities supposedly reinforce the official author's power and control over their own works" (Hills 2014, ¶2.1). In general, sanctioned affirmational fandom supposedly "is culturally privileged" because it does not challenge "forms of industrial power—whereas nonsanctioned, transformational fandom is disempowered and marginalized, and thus deserves academic attention and valorization" (2014, ¶2.2). Henry Jenkins explains "the now widely accepted distinction between 'affirmational' and 'transformational' fandom is increasingly problematic," especially as a result of its representation of supposed "gender distinctions" and "either or choice" (2014, 101). Hills (2014) espouses mimetic fandom as a more productive option than this binary because mimetic fandom includes aspects of both affirmational and transformational fandom, deconstructing any supposed binaries or hierarchies between the two.

[1.3] Customization of one-sixth-scale action figures (which include, but are not limited to, GI Joe and Action Man) offers a means to explore mimetic fandom. A wide variety of fan texts inspire these multidimensional projects, often simultaneously: film, television, books, comic books, video games, anime, manga, the histories and mythologies of various cultures, and many others (Godwin 2014). There is a complex interrelationship with fashion dolls, in which "fans of one-sixth scale action figures attempt to distance their fan objects from dolls and fashion even as they simultaneously blur these supposed boundaries by incorporating both within their own fandom" via "custom costumes, head swaps and similar fan practices" (Godwin 2015, 119, 131). Briefly, Barbie influenced the creation, naming, and scale of such items. Hasbro borrowed Mattel's "razor–razor blade" concept, wherein additional merchandise supplements a basic item. GI Joe's first prototype was carved from a Ken doll. Hasbro dubbed GI Joe an "action figure" to avoid the word "doll" (Michlig 1998, 31, 32, 28, 38, 27). The term spread to other so-called boys' toys, including one-eighth-scale superheroes from Mego or the immensely popular 3¾-inch Star Wars toys. Most scholarly discussion of action figures involves such smaller-scale toys, which usually remain under 6 inches in height.

[1.4] Existing studies of material fan practices such as prop replica building and cosplay (Gilligan 2012; Joseph-Witham 1996; Hills 2010) offer useful insights because one-sixth-scale customizers recreate and embellish media experiences by replicating props, costumes, characters, and environments in miniature. They also use such recreations to make their own variations and interpretations recognizable. For example, one-sixth-scale steampunk versions of Stanley and Livingstone (sampol 2011) and of Gepetto and Pinocchio (zebraten 2011) parallel cosplayers creating steampunk versions of familiar characters. Accurate recreations of familiar elements ground original characters in specific locations, times, or story worlds. For example, miniature tatami mats and paper screens visually signal a Japanese setting. Clothing and props also indicate whether original characters are Jedi, wizards, or other character types living in historical, modern, or futuristic eras. In addition to participating in multiple existing narrative worlds, customizers also invent new ones via material culture, as evidenced by photostories. Photostories are an example of fannish fiction, "original narratives produced by fans incorporating frequently multi-dimensional genres, tropes and so forth popular with fans. However, unlike fan fiction, fannish fiction is not defined by or dependent upon existing mass media texts, characters, narratives or worlds" (Godwin 2014, 112).

[1.5] Jason Bainbridge (2010) uses GI Joe as an early example of transmedia storytelling and action figures in general as emblematic of media convergence. Action figures unify affirmational and transformational story telling via "structured narratives and free-ranging play" (839). Dan Fleming (1996) and Jonathan Gray (2010) discuss mass-produced toys that both reproduce popular culture artifacts and enable transformative play within established universes. For Gray, "Toys contribute to the storyworld, offering audiences the prospect of stepping into that world and contributing to it" (2010, 187–88). Bob Rehak's (2013) "object practices" include model building, collecting, and customizing (whether from scratch or by modifying existing material) of a variety of material artifacts. Although he focuses on model building and garage kits, many of his observations can be applied to one-sixth-scale customized action figures. For example, even as each object "deriv[es] value from the degree to which it captures the subject's distinctive iconography" (2013, 42), Rehak emphasizes the simultaneous "multivalent potential of object practices—material 'mash-ups' in which characters and settings were reconfigured into novel situations" (34). Affirmational impulses facilitate transformative play. Each relies on the other instead of existing as separate or even opposed types of fan activities.

[1.6] One-sixth-scale customization challenges problematic divisions of fandom into either affirmational or transformational, thus illustrating the usefulness of mimetic fandom. No matter how much they seem to be mere reproductions of characters and items seen on screen, the existence of customizations challenges rather than affirms producers' power. These customizations are not sanctioned, as evidenced by a cease-and-desist order Showtime sent to a customizer offering accurate reproductions of clothing from one of their television series (Kato.E 2011). This also could have been an attempt to eliminate potential competition because Triad Toys has a license to make official one-sixth-scale merchandise for that series, although none has yet materialized over the years. Life-size prop replica builders can experience similar concerns.

[1.7] Hills describes how "by positioning mimetic fandom as concerned with reproduction, and by nailing down the original…the productivity of mimetic fandom is thus contained and foreclosed" by fan studies (2014, ¶3.2). Hills claims mimesis also involves understanding and duplicating production processes. One-sixth-scale customizing cannot always use the same materials and methods as life-size recreations, forcing customizers to modify patterns, instructions, and techniques for one-sixth scale. Such modifications require the comprehension and creative alteration of multiple techniques or the invention of new ones. For example, sewing a tubelike sleeve into a round armhole would be a nightmare in one-sixth scale, so seamstresses often sew flat instead.

[1.8] One-sixth-scale customization expresses mimetic fandom in its use of bricolage in pursuit of accurate reproductions of props, characters, and so forth. Bricolage, as Claude Lévi-Strauss ([1962] 1966) has famously noted, involves subcultural groups making do by combining existing cultural materials to meet their own needs. Because one-sixth-scale versions of beloved fan objects or even ordinary everyday items do not always exist, customizers create desired items via bricolage, adapting commodities to different uses in different contexts. Bricolage transforms mass-produced items into individualized creative works, whether improving the perceived accuracy of licensed merchandise, or recycling and repurposing unrelated items in a quest for ever more realistic and imaginative results. Customization's material fan practices reproduce items in order to create transformative projects and narratives such as photostories. Furthermore, even within material practices that emphasize reproduction, fans often extrapolate, creating new material to fill in gaps. Fans mark these differences, privileging screen-accurate work in contrast to academics' emphasis on transformative efforts. This emphasis on realism and accuracy explains previous academic devaluation of material fan practices such as replicating props or costumes as mere imitation.

[1.9] Images replicating iconic poses, lighting, and other factors likewise express mimetic fandom. After duplicating a beloved fan object's definitive appearance, clothing, and/or accessories in one-sixth scale, customizers often pose and photograph action figures to highlight their extensive attention to detail or to recreate iconic scenes. However, other images and photostories use these miniature reproductions in order to rework existing media texts and characters or to present completely original narratives. Other fan images feature aspects of the real world that call attention to the small scale of customized projects and thus disrupt any illusion of perfect reproduction. Such fan images reinforce yet often simultaneously disrupt and deconstruct one-sixth-scale customization's valorization of accuracy. Mimetic fandom thus offers a more productive means of discussing material fan practices than existing dichotomies between affirmational and transformational fandom.

2. Bricolage in pursuit of accurate fan objects

[2.1] One-sixth-scale action figure customization, like other types of mimetic fandom, "is focused on the creation of highly screen-accurate prop replicas" (Hills 2014, ¶1.2), albeit in miniature. Customizers try to produce the best version of beloved popular fan objects. For some, this is a matter of bragging rights, or of being able to demonstrate skill. For some, it is an effort to create the most accurate reproduction of a favorite character. Some customizers revisit certain projects multiple times, refining small details that no one else notices but that they perceive as imperfections marring the work. For example, one fan's efforts to reproduce the robot from Fritz Lang's film Metropolis (1927) in one-sixth scale suffered a setback when reference images did not show certain angles. He specifically mentioned this lack in his updates. He celebrated when additional research finally uncovered images of the robot's back. He also scrapped work he had already completed, beginning afresh on a version that more accurately reproduced the original fan object (shadowcrane 2011). Like many fans, he preferred accurate recreation to his earlier extrapolations.

Robot from Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis. Rebuilt Robot from Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis after additional research.

Figures 1 and 2. Preferring accuracy over earlier extrapolations, shadowcrane (2011) scrapped work he had already completed (figure 1), beginning afresh when additional research uncovered images of the back of the robot from Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis (figure 2). [View larger image.] [View larger image.]

[2.2] Action figure customizers privilege realism. For example, Jun Ho Kim, also known as Zuno, emphasizes "life-like details" in attempts "to craft the most human-like skin…lifelike expression and posture, as if to emulate God's breathing of life into Adam, I seek to attain the complete analog" (2013b, 105, 2). Tutorials and progress reports emphasize accuracy, whether for one-sixth-scale clothing, diorama elements such as ancient Roman wells and muddy streets (Baltes 2009), or media props such as the TARDIS or sonic screwdriver from Doctor Who (1963–89, 1996, 2005–) (Huxter 2002). As in cosplay and prop replica building, photos accompany the text to explain the production process step by step, with comparisons to screen grabs of the item and reveal shots of the finished miniature action figure, diorama, prop, or clothing. Online, posters joke that customizers must own a shrink ray in order to achieve such a level of detail and accuracy. The highest praise a customized action figure can receive is that it looks real. In the documentary film Marwencol (2010), miniature artist Mark Hogancamp emphasizes how real everything is. Miniature guns can be loaded and cocked. Such realism helps him to get into the narrative. If mass-produced items disrupt this process, Hogancamp modifies them to better suit his needs. For example, in Marwencol, he drags a toy jeep for miles to make it look more weathered and realistic, and he even calculates how many equivalent miles an actual jeep would have driven in the real world. Action figure fans weather one-sixth-scale items to replicate their real-life counterparts more accurately. Soldiers' uniforms do not remain dress-parade pristine on patrol or in combat. Weathering reflects this reality. Much as replica prop builders try to reproduce screen-accurate versions (Hills 2010), so too do customizers try to imitate life-size counterparts as perfectly as possible in miniature. Both require creative transformation of mass-produced material goods by modifying them in ways unintended by their original producers.

Mark Hogancamp's weathered one-sixth scale jeep

Figure 3. Mark Hogancamp's weathered one-sixth scale jeep, a mass-produced item modified to better suit desires for accuracy and authenticity. Photo by Mark Hogancamp (2012), posted on an earlier version of the Marwencol Web site accessible via the Wayback Machine. [View larger image.]

[2.3] Even amid fan emphasis on accuracy, "replicas can be customized, personalized, and stylized" (Hills 2014, ¶3.3). After all, mimetic fandom incorporates both "affirmational authenticity via the pursuit of screen-used looks" and "transformational agency via customization and stylization" (¶3.16), thus transcending and reconciling such problematic divisions. Although accuracy predominates, stylized head sculpts characterize some customized action figures and mass-produced merchandise, such as the Gangster's Kingdom line from Dam Toys. However, clothing and accessories on such figures often reproduce life-size versions, thus continuing the combination of transformative and affirmational elements prevalent in this fandom. Stylization is far more common among collectors and customizers of ball-jointed dolls and similar dolls, drawing on the aesthetics and subject matter of anime and manga. Even when one-sixth-scale action figure customizers do draw on such media texts, this fandom's preference for realism can influence projects. For example, instead of recreating the stylized aesthetics of anime and manga, one customizer's "side history" for the Ghost in the Shell franchise (beginning with manga first serialized in 1989 and continuing in additional media) is a transformative narrative using head sculpts and repaints that heighten human resemblances instead of recreating the official appearance of transplanted characters or forcing original characters into that same visual mold. The customizer notes, "Almost always I try to steer towards a more real life rendition instead of staying too close to anime style" (gaiagear 2006). A realistic aesthetic suits this fan's needs and interests. Instead of pursuing Hills's "screen-used looks," in such examples, both affirmational authenticity and transformational agency manifest in the selection and customization of head sculpts, wardrobe, weapons, and vehicles to resemble real-world versions. This perceived realism enables immersion within a customized version of a beloved story world. Thus, affirmational reproductions of items from the real world both support and are part of transformative elements in this project.

[2.4] Recreations of anime and manga characters are possible. Asian companies such as Obitsu and Volks offer highly articulated one-sixth-scale bodies, as well as heads in which the space allocated for the eyes and the shape and size of both nose and chin are appropriate for the "big eyes, small mouth" aesthetic of these media texts. However, those same structural features work against the extremely realistic look favored by most one-sixth-scale action figure customizers. In contrast, fashion doll heads offer more accurate proportions, unlike their bodies, which also suffer from limited articulation. Thus, Obitsu and Volks are some of the many body donors for "head swaps…Such hybrid creations draw upon the best features of both categories: action figures and fashion dolls. Yet they no longer belong exclusively to either" (Godwin 2015, 128). In this instance, fans make do by combining existing materials from different cultures to meet their own needs.

[2.5] Bricolage is one of the means by which fans use customization to pursue authenticity. For example, in order to reproduce objects, characters, or scenes, customizers modify mass-produced merchandise. Just as fans create popular culture from what they have available (Fiske 1992), so too do people use "mass-produced goods of consumer society" as "material forms to express individualism" (Thomas 2003, 133). Fan fiction and fan vids draw on mass media texts. All customized action figures start out as standardized mass-produced goods, sometimes based on mass media texts, but customizers' creativity and imagination transform this raw material into something visually and functionally different from every other item straight off store shelves.

[2.6] The pursuit of accuracy, whether of items from media texts or from everyday life, leads to creative output, learning or inventing new techniques to modify or to create desired items. Fans alter existing material to replicate items they want or need for certain projects. For example, if mass-produced plastic swords do not look realistic enough, customizers create their own swords by grinding broken metal tines from forks or rakes into blades, then assembling hilts and pommels from beads and other material originally intended to make jewelry. Trash becomes treasure. Action figure fans criticize Barbie and other fashion doll furniture and accessories for their unrealistic bright pink coloration. However, such criticisms typically accompany customizer posts on how to salvage these items by repainting them. Such bricolage produces new contradictory meanings, redefining mass-produced items as individualized creative works. Among fans' emphasis on naturalism and realism, seemingly appropriate for an affirmational fandom celebrating a text as it is, custom projects reveal how transformative practices help achieve such accurate recreations, thus highlighting the effectiveness of mimesis.

[2.7] Customizers modify existing products or create their own if they cannot find or afford desired items, or items of appropriate quality. Items' value comes not from their exchange value but from their use value as "bash fodder" for future projects. No matter how expensive or rare an item, tutorials note how to alter it to better suit customizers' needs and desires. Source material obviously includes mass-produced one-sixth-scale merchandise such as guns, helmets, goggles, and action figures. Yet customizers receive praise for using items in unexpected ways. For example, an alternate history rendering of Stanley and Livingstone repurposes limbs from a high-tech droid from the Star Wars franchise (1977–) to create steampunk prosthetics (sampol 2011). Guessing what items originally were is a popular game—one that displays forms of fan knowledge and thus cultural capital. One must be familiar with a wide array of merchandise from multiple franchises and manufacturers in order to identify original elements in their new customized context correctly.

An alternate history rendering of Stanley and Livingstone.

Figure 4. An alternate history rendering of Stanley and Livingstone by sampol (2011) repurposes limbs from a high-tech droid from the Star Wars (1977–) franchise to create steampunk prosthetics that hint at adventures unseen during the lengthy journey to find Dr. Livingstone. [View larger image.]

[2.8] Customizers' creativity is not limited by official merchandise. They also excel at making do with items never intended for one-sixth-scale use. Customizers sometimes refer to such bricolage as developing a one-sixth eye. Halloween decorations are popular sources, as in a cemetery diorama built by Mick Baltes (2008). Male customizers joke about getting odd looks during visits to craft stores. Beads and other material originally intended to make jewelry form hilts and pommels for one-sixth-scale swords or barrels for steampunk guns. Hours of labor link hundreds of tiny jump rings into chain mail. Frequently other people's trash becomes customizers' treasures. Cut-down Styrofoam cups and bowls become roundels in the walls of the TARDIS (Huxter 2002, 2005). Yogurt lids become warriors' shields. Paint stirrers become wooden planks for walls and floors in pirate ships, medieval taverns, and so forth. Foam cups and balsa wood become beer kegs (kllysheros 2007). In a disposable consumer culture geared to throw away items to make room for new purchases, customizers reuse and recycle. However, they do not reduce. Work spaces regularly overflow with boxes and bins full of bits and pieces that might prove useful someday. Recycling and repurposing exercises customizers' creativity and imagination in a quest for ever more creative and realistic results. Bricolage helps the customizing subculture meet their needs to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary by combining together existing cultural materials to recreate characters, props, and dioramas or to create new ones. More importantly, such bricolage simultaneously creates new contradictory meanings, redefining uniform mass-produced items as individualized creative works.

An example of bricolage: foam cups and balsa wood become beer kegs in a tavern

Figure 5. An example of bricolage: foam cups and balsa wood become beer kegs in a tavern by kllysheros (2007). Paint stirrers become wooden planks on the floor and elsewhere. [View larger image.]

[2.9] Customizers appropriate mass media texts and use bricolage to repurpose mass-produced consumer goods, only to have their realistic transformations appropriated in turn by producers. Customizers emphasize realism and use it to justify their alteration of existing products. Collectors often purchase mass-produced figures, then pay customizers for more accurate head sculpts, repaints, outfits, or props. Such practices rework these fan objects to imitate other fan objects more closely. Manufacturers readily exploit this market, offering head sculpts, clothing, and accessories of ever-increasing realism, often to supplement merchandise produced by their competitors. For example, Hot Toys offers various characters and accessories from Batman Begins (2005) and subsequent films in that series. Collectors can create additional characters by purchasing merchandise from other companies. Pop Toys offers the Ninja Master set containing a head sculpt and clothing for Ra's al Ghul. Custom Studios sells sweaters for Alfred to wear because Hot Toys did not include any with their version of Bruce Wayne's butler. Alternatively, perceiving existing merchandise as not perfectly reproducing beloved fan objects, some customizers refuse to buy it, choosing instead to create their own versions. To counter such potential loss of income, manufacturers appropriate fans' emphasis on accuracy and highlight their products' attention to detail in their advertising. For example, promotional material for ACI Toy's Flamma the Gladiator specifically mentions visible pores, blood vessels, and other realistic elements (acitoys 2011). This provides yet another example of ways in which "fan works can no longer be understood as simply derivative of mainstream materials but must be understood as themselves open to appropriation and reworking by the media industries" (Jenkins 2006, 153).

[2.10] In order to compete with improved mass-produced merchandise, fan projects have to be even more accurate and realistic. It's like an arms race. With beginners' work less likely to be praised or noticed against the higher standards of mass-produced merchandise, official producers potentially could eliminate future competitors before they truly begin. A lack of praise within a fan community can discourage participation. Why share work online, or even produce projects, if they are ignored in favor of current big name fans or official licensed merchandise?

3. Iconic images: Accuracy and its disruption

[3.1] This arms race of realism continues within customizers' displays of their projects. The high production values of media texts exert pressures for customizers to duplicate dramatic lighting, high-resolution photography, and other factors. A dynamic pose evokes a sense of motion and action. Positioning an action figure in a diorama, or even on a stand with sufficient details to evoke specific terrain, furthers the sense of accuracy and immersion. A project's accuracy can be undermined by a failure to reproduce its original context. However, not every still image and photostory slavishly reproduces its initial inspiration.

Diorama scene from Breaking Bad, featuring Walter White in his underwear.

Figure 6. Dioramas can increase the sense of accuracy and immersion. Recreating iconic scenes or images, like this Breaking Bad (2008–13) diorama assembled by Wake of Destruction (2013), offers a way to freeze a text's action and make the immaterial cult text material. [View larger image.]

[3.2] Customized action figures offer fans a means to extend their entertainment experience from films, books, and many other media texts into their own hands. For Hills, in contrast to fan fiction and fan vids, prop replicas connect "the branded story world or hyperdiegesis and the fan's everyday life" and cross boundaries "from textuality to reality" (2014, ¶3.3). Rehak describes a related phenomenon. An advertisement promises a model that so accurately recreates its "iconic content" that it "would appear to 'walk right off' its base" (2013, 28). The story world enters the real world. Gilligan labels "bridging the gap between the virtual 'worlds' on screen and the lived material body" via material practices such as cosplay and collecting merchandise "tactile transmediality" (2012, 25). Wearing costumes or handling replica props such as light sabers from the Star Wars franchise or wands from the Harry Potter (1997–) franchise allows fans to enter media narratives vicariously. Not limited by "consumption practices of viewing or buying," transmedia narratives include "participatory practices in which the audience immerses themselves within the cinematic world, creating new meanings and pleasures beyond the" original media text (Gilligan 2012, 22). As such, they are transformative practices. Customized action figures likewise allow fans to enter media narratives, albeit in miniature. One-sixth-scale versions of props and characters also bring these story worlds into fans' homes, as the following examples illustrate.

[3.3] One customizer describes one-sixth-scale projects as creating "the perfect analog" and "a channel through which everyone…can…touch and possess to their satisfaction." His customized figures based on popular media characters like "the actor's autograph or an item from the movie set can even evoke a sense of exhilaration, as tangible objects help bridge our reality and the imaginary world. It is as if the characters are brought to life with our every touch…With utmost detail, I recreate the characters into tangible objects and draw them to our own reality." Collecting memorabilia strengthens "our emotional connections with those characters" (Kim 2013b, 2, 4). Creating one-sixth-scale versions and photographing those completed projects does too.

[3.4] Images of customized action figures reinforce the pursuit of screen-accurate reproductions. As with cosplay tableaux vivants (Duchesne 2005), it is important not only to recreate a beloved fan object's definitive appearance, clothing, and props in one-sixth scale but also to strike an accurate pose for it in a diorama. Customized action figures offer a way to freeze a text's action. They make the immaterial cult text material. Customizers pose their projects to recreate favorite or iconic scenes. For example, a change in lighting and additional props evoke the robot's transformation in Metropolis (shadowcrane 2011). Customizers use the visual vocabulary of the wide variety of fan texts that inspire them. They learn and use additional skills to showcase their figures even more effectively. Using dramatic lighting, or adding special effects such as glowing eyes, motion lines, or a nimbus of light around a superhero's or wizard's hands, helps figures look as much like definitive images from media texts as possible. Forced perspective and other photographic techniques also prove useful.

[3.5] Some customizers shoot in front of a green screen or blue screen. Photoshop or similar photo-editing software allows the insertion of more elaborate backgrounds if time, space, skill level, or financial resources do not allow for the material creation of multiple elaborate dioramas, like those Baltes built for Memento Mori (2010–12), a photostory he wrote and photographed. Digital manipulation of a figure is not considered customization, but it still occurs in photostories. For example, a character can sleep without the need to paint over highly detailed eyes for a single panel's worth of material. Some storytellers airbrush photographs to conceal joints and cut lines in order to make action figures look more lifelike. Cut lines below the chest or breasts, knee joints, elbow joints, and elsewhere increase a figure's articulation, and thus its ability to reproduce the range of human movement more accurately. However, they do not reproduce human appearance, thus marring realism even as they increase it. Manufacturers offer body stockings and nude hose to cover points of articulation and improve the accuracy of this one-sixth-scale reproduction of the human form. Visible joints throw some readers and viewers out of narratives, disrupting their pleasure and their suspension of disbelief.

[3.6] Although customizers do try to replicate iconic poses and scenes, far more often they create their own original images and stories, whether with all-new characters or alternative versions of familiar ones. Sometimes single images present original narratives. Photos of various figures evoke untold stories joined in media res. They seem to be screen grabs from films or television episodes never made. Stanley's weary posture hints at his lengthy journey to find Dr. Livingstone, albeit too late; Stanley's artificial arms and legs hint at adventures unseen, before or during this journey (sampol 2011). Steampunk versions of Gepetto and Pinocchio, reimagined as assassins, await their next victim on a cobbled street beneath a gas streetlamp (zebraten 2011). Digitally added sepia tones and scratches alter the original images to look more authentically Victorian, although the unmodified original images also appear in order to highlight the attention to detail involved in the project.

Steampunk versions of Gepetto and Pinocchio. Image altered by zebraten to look old-fashioned and aged.

Steampunk versions of Gepetto and Pinocchio.

Figure 7 and 8. Steampunk versions of Gepetto and Pinocchio by zebraten (2011), with one version (figure 7) of the image altered to look old-fashioned and aged. [View larger image.][View larger image.]

[3.7] Likewise, Frankenstein's monster interacts with realistic props and diorama elements that replicate life-size originals in miniature. Amid cemetery tombstones, he digs up a grave, removes a coffin, and holds a skull (Baltes 2008). Even the lighting and use of black-and-white photography replicate a Boris Karloff horror film. However, these same images create situations and meanings not available in the original novel or films. Baltes invokes the original black-and-white look of James Whale's iconic film 1931 Frankenstein, which starred Karloff, to produce his own transformative narrative of the monster contemplating the skull of someone less (or more) fortunate than himself—someone for whom death held no monstrous resurrection. As in Hills's (2014) discussion of mimetic fandom, and like customizers' bricolage, photostories combine customizers' supposedly affirmational pursuit of screen accuracy with transformative fan practices.

A diorama by Mick Baltes (2008) evokes the original black-and-white look of James Whale's 1931 film Frankenstein to produce his own transformative narrative as the monster contemplates the skull of someone for whom death held no monstrous resurrection. The cemetery diorama includes many repurposed and modified Halloween decorations.

Figure 9. A diorama by Mick Baltes (2008) evokes the original black-and-white look of James Whale's 1931 film Frankenstein to produce his own transformative narrative as the monster contemplates the skull of someone for whom death held no monstrous resurrection. The cemetery diorama includes many repurposed and modified Halloween decorations. [View larger image.]

[3.8] Photostories likewise illustrate how the concept of mimetic fandom offers more productive readings than supposed binaries between affirmational and transformative fan practices. Customization's material fan practices reproduce items, yet they do so in order to create transformative narratives, which in turn rely on those accurate elements. For example, for photostories featuring an incarnation of the Doctor he invented, Huxter replicates costume, sets, and props from Doctor Who such as the Doctor's costume, TARDIS, and sonic screwdriver. He even imitates the lighting and shot composition of an important scene. Yet his photostory, "The Second Key," rewrites the televised Key to Time sequence (season 16, 1978–79) not as a noble quest by a heroic figure but rather as a test to prove the Doctor's worth. He does so to address several problematic aspects of the original media texts that left him unsatisfied (Huxter 2005). This simultaneous fascination and frustration with a text characterizes fandom, prompting a simultaneous "desire to engage with it" and "drive to rewrite or remake it" (Jenkins 2006, 258). Photostories use miniature reproductions of material objects to rework existing media texts and characters. Customizers modify and create action figures, props, and clothing to suit their needs and desires better than mass-produced items and texts.

Still image from Doctor Who 'The Key to Time' (197879).

Original narrative 'The Second Key' created to solves the problematic aspects of the original Key of Time sequence.

Figure 10 and 11. Styrofoam cups become roundels in the TARDIS walls. For an incarnation of the Doctor he invented, Sean Huxter (2005) recreates costumes, sets, and props, as well as the lighting and shot composition of an important scene from Doctor Who's 1978–79 Key to Time sequence (figure 10) in order to address several problematic aspects of Doctor Who episodes that left him unsatisfied, leading him to create an original narrative, "The Second Key" (figure 11). [View larger image.][View larger image.]

[3.9] Images of customized projects also disrupt and deconstruct customizers' valorization of accuracy. Customizers intrude into the frame, using their fingers to give a sense of scale or holding items up for the camera. Faces appear, smiling next to the project. Pets investigate. Living rooms and other details of everyday life intrude into photographs. One customizer shows off reproductions of medieval armor and furniture, a computer printer on the same table. Also visible are what looks like exercise equipment and a doorway leading to another room (tomste 2011).

A knight in armor in a chair.

Ancient Roman Versus Predator.

Figure 12 and 13. Background details disrupt images of accurate reproductions even as they highlight the small scale of those projects (figure 12, a knight in armor in a chair, both created by tomste [2011]). Such seemingly artless images strip away the illusion and remind viewers that ultimately these are toys in ordinary homes (figure 13, Ancient Roman Versus Predator [author unknown]—in a living room near you!). [View larger image.][View larger image.]

[3.10] These background details disrupt the image and highlight the small scale of these projects. Such seemingly artless images strip away the illusion and remind viewers that ultimately these are toys in ordinary homes. Despite stringent efforts to attain and maintain realism, customizers still playfully have action figures break character in photostories, as with Baltes's (2010) behind-the-scenes features for Memento Mori, in which characters address readers directly. Such transformative moments call attention to the toys' status as toys and to the constructed nature of poses, dioramas, and narratives. Some images do this consciously, as when action figures know they are in packages shipped to other homes to interact with other collectors and their toys (Baltes 2010). It is doubtful that such self-awareness is deliberate in most images. Nonetheless, such images function as reminders of the extraordinary flights of imagination possible within ordinary homes, using mass-produced toys and narratives. The material practice of recreating characters, props, costumes, and other items in one-sixth scale liberates these items from their originating texts, bridging the gap between fan texts and the material world, from limited or liminal times and places (only while reading or watching a text, only while attending a convention) into constant contact (every day, in one's own home). Mass-produced toys based on mass media narratives enter fans' homes, where customization and play emphasize the interreliance of both reproduction from original texts and the transformation of toys to address individual meanings. Such mimetic fandom illustrates the interdependence of affirmational and transformational forms of fan creativity: each contributes to the creation and meaning of the other.

In 'The Subura Secret' (2010), a Mini Me version of author Mick Baltes breaks the fourth wall to address readers

Cartoon-like images entitled Tom's Adventures in Dunedin's ToyToyLand, in which the toy is aware of being mailed in a package.

Figure 14 and 15. In "The Subura Secret" (2010), a Mini Me version of author Mick Baltes breaks the fourth wall to address readers (figure 14), and Tom knows he has been mailed (figure 15). Such transformative moments call attention to the toys' status as toys and to the constructed nature of poses, dioramas, and narratives. [View larger image.] [View larger image.]

4. Conclusion

[4.1] Even when fans strive for the most accurate photographic portrayals of the most accurate one-sixth-scale reproductions, it is important to remember that there are multiple different but valid goals that motivate or inspire fan practices. For some, action figures offer an opportunity to practice their photography skills on models that rarely move, barring the occasional shelf dive. For others, photographs are a means to show off the fine detail in their work, such as a seamstress or tailor's inclusion of a lining in a garment, or a painter's inclusion of miniscule freckles or age spots. Turning garments to expose linings that typically remain invisible, or zooming in to reveal fine painted details, highlights customizers' attention to detail and the skill required to reproduce such details accurately in miniature. Some images deliberately are presented as art. For example, Jun Ho Kim self-published two books (2013a, 2013b) collecting images of customized action figures photographed in carefully constructed dioramas. The earlier version of the Marwencol Web site, available via the Wayback Machine, originally began as therapy, not art, yet its images wound up in an art gallery, a documentary about the project (2010), and a book (Hogancamp and Shellen 2015). In these contexts, viewers examine Marwencol's images for very different reasons and by very different criteria than those for which they originally were created.

[4.2] Scholarly analyses within fan studies emphasize transformative works but often overlook the interdependence of affirmational and transformational fan practices. Each depends on the other for meaning. Textual practices such as fan fiction or fan vids rely on accurate reproduction of characters' speech, personality, and habits. Affirmational authenticity, in the form of extremely accurate reproductions of props, characters, costumes, and scenes provides the foundation for transformative practices, images, and narratives via bricolage, still image vignettes, and photostories. In turn, those transformational practices would make no sense without their underlying affirmational support. Creating original characters or variations on familiar ones still requires recreations of clothing and props accurate enough to be recognized. Even if Jedi robes are orange or some other atypical color, the cut and fit still would need to recreate versions seen on screen closely enough to look right even as they look different.

[4.3] Mimetic fandom offers more productive means of examining material fan practices than a simplistic binary dismissing these efforts as either affirmational or transformative. As with transmedia narratives (Gilligan 2012), the original media text is merely a starting point, leading to individuals' own creative interactions with a narrative world via cosplay, prop replica building, action figure customization, and other material fan practices. One-sixth-scale action figure customization illustrates the blurred boundaries between fans' own emphasis on reproduction and scholars' emphasis on transformation, emphasizing the creativity inherent in mimetic fandom.

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