It's been a while since we've spoken. How've you been? Not so great? Yeah, I know. A lot of us have been wondering basically what the hell happened to you since we met.
In January 2004, Wired ran an article called "The New Cubicle Commandos" that really resonated with me. You were mentioned in the story, which led me to visit you on Haight Street in San Francisco. Six years ago, the tiny Kidrobot shop was a cool place to go. Back then, you sold Qees, and I'd pick them up regularly. You had these glass cases in the middle of the shop, and the contents were like a mini museum. I chatted with Frank Kozik as he signed his first range of Labbits that year. He was grouchy. It was cramped. But it felt like something was happening. Something interesting...
I went to Kidrobot just once in 2009 as a favor for a friend. As I stood in line, catching whiffs of piss and patchouli, I felt embarrassed and out of place. I found one adult among the queue of kids, and he turned out to be a cool guy named Nate. He cracked me up with a comment about how he'd given away an all-over print Kidrobot shirt to a newly stylin' homeless dude. We were processed through an assembly line to meet the artist. Afterward, I told my friend, "You owe me."
How did this happen to you, Kidrobot? When did you become a punchline and a punching bag? If toy collecting was punk rock, you were Good Charlotte. On one particular forum, "Dunny" became a filtered swear word.
I guess our paths diverged in 2007 with Sketbots, and by 2008's Zoomies, we had gone our separate ways. Your toys--and there were a ton of them--looked like kids' toys with designer toy price tags. It wasn't until later that I learned you had been making these toys for children. Happy Meal toys effectively replaced Cubicle Commandos. But you didn't communicate this new direction to your fans. We all just assumed you had gone soft and were making crappy, commercial "collectible" toys.
You had an interesting 2008. There were high-end handbags and questionable clothing and overpriced jewelry. Though I could never help you with Peecols or your terrible case ratios, I did my best to defend the other stuff. I even proposed to my girlfriend with one of your Kozik rings. At the start of 2009, you were riding high with a Cartoon Network makeover, endorsements from Rosie O'Donnell and Martha Stewart and rumors of new stores. But things were already slipping. A warehouse error (where a fan received an entire case of Huck Gee
2009 was a rough year for you. You seemed to entirely forget about media relations and the niche who'd had your back. Instead, you showed off photos of celebrities in your shirts and namechecked hype blogs who'd given you cursory write-ups. You seemed to taunt us with the discrepancy between your "core contingency" and your new fame. Who were you, Kidrobot? We didn't know you anymore. There was that debacle with Taco Bell, but some folks thought maybe the "face off" was arranged. Afterall, Kidrobot is part of Wildbrain which is part of Disney which is partners with Yum Brands, the parent company of Taco Bell...
Next came a series of affronts to the retailers in our communities. As you evolved from local toy store to global brand, new neighborhood toy shops had entered the picture. You sold them your merchandise, but there were strings attached. There were different rules and varying stock for online and brick-and-mortar shops, and you made the selling of open boxes contractually forbidden. Rumors of acquisitions and monopolization began to circulate. Your own stores became distinctly unfriendly places, with inexperienced staff and apparently no ceiling on prices. Things had gone from bad to worse.
And yet, throughout all of this, you did occasionally release a good product. I've got all of the pieces you made with Jon Burgerman, and I was charmed when your #16 mascot picked up real punk records. When I spoke with artists, there was not so much as a single negative commentary about their working relationship with you. And that's more than I can say for many other toy companies. (I'm talking to you WheatyWheat and MINDstyle.)
Kidrobot, I know you're in a tough spot right now. Lots of people have lost their patience with you, and the scene is collectively waiting for you to do something, anything, to mitigate this public relations nightmare in which you appear to be firmly entrenched. Word around the watercooler says you're pushing the Return to Main Menu --> Restart Game button. Fingers are pointing to the mountains, with founder-turned-shareholder Paul Budnitz reassuming the reigns. Everybody deserves a second chance, even you Kidrobot. With all due empathy for the team you're leaving behind in New York, and full acknowledgment of past transgressions, I'm actually sort of rooting for you. This time, please remember the fans who buy your toys, the stores who sell them and the bloggers who write about them. And also: please bring the "art" back to art toys. Goodbye Kidrobot. Hope to see you rise again in 2010.
[Jeremy Brautman is a Bay Area-based writer and PR guy with a passion for pop culture and art toys. He has recently been called a "toy maven," a "truth talker," and a "bad ass." He lives with his wife, two cats and too many toys. You can find him on twitter. If you enjoyed this article, do him the favor of voting for him in the Shorty Awards as a Twitter Journalist. It would be a great honor, and if he happened to win, he wouldn't even have to wear elevator shoes to the Shorty ceremony.]