Creative Interviews - Curt Hanks

Curt Hanks is an Illustrator/Designer who brings hilarious and classically pop culture infused toys and items to life for the Seattle based company Archie McPhee. He was gracious enough to be the first interview for this new section. I'd been a fan of his work for some time, having obsessed over the Office Cube line of action figures. Read on and enjoy! 

You've been working at Archie McPhee since 2000, how did you get your start there?

I’ve worked here longer than that, but I’ve been a designer here since 2000. I actually worked in the same building that Archie McPhee now occupies before they were there, in the shipping department of American Arts and Graphics, a (now-defunct) poster distributor, from 1989-1992. In 1996, I ran into the former-VP of that company, who was then the operations manager at Archie McPhee. They had just moved into the same building and were hiring. So I came to work in the same warehouse for a couple of years. I left for a short time, took a few design classes and taught myself some basic web design skills. I came back to McPhee in 1999 and, with these new skills, was able to move into the design department. Been here ever since. The running joke is that I came with the building.

When you have the need to create new things for McPhee, where do you get inspiration from?

It depends on the product, but we’re inspired by the things we love or just find amusing. Our team is made up of different personalities with diverse interests, but we all share a unique sense of humor. We love classic toys and novelties, cult movies and kitsch. Sometimes products are based on inside jokes that just make us laugh and we hope that there are at least a few other people out there that find them funny, too.

Over the years that you’ve been a professional artist, what have been some of the most enduring or important things you’ve learned?

Try not to overthink your project. As a perfectionist, it’s something that I continue to struggle with.

Is there a particular project of yours that you would identify as your favorite, or one that you are most proud of having had a hand in creating?

The Cubes and the Finger Monsters are very high on that list, but my favorite has to be the J.P. Patches line of toys. J.P. was our local television clown that aired in the morning and afternoon for 23 years. His brand of humor was a big influence on our generation here in Seattle. I designed his action figure, bobblehead and, later, a retro metal lunchbox, air fresheners and other items. Getting to meet him and design the products for him was a huge honor. It also  presented the opportunity for me to run his website,, and design and sell more officially licensed merchandise.
The character and show were created by the late Seattle children's entertainer Chris Wedes and ran for an amazing 12,000 episodes! [Right] Amazing action figure of JP Patches created by Curt Hanks.
Curt's work on the package design is wonderfully done, and reflects a true love and appreciation for the beloved television icon that lives on in the heart of many from the Seattle area, including Simpsons creator Matt Groening who used easter egg moments in many episodes as homages to JP.
One of my favorite things that’s ever come out of Archie McPhee was your creation of the Office Cubes line of figurines and playset cubicles. Was the origin of this idea based on any experiences in your career? I always wondered if the movie “Office Space” by director Mike Judge, had any inspiration on this toy line?

The Cubes were certainly inspired by Office Space, The Office (UK) and the tech boom that happened in Seattle around that time. Luckily, I’ve never worked in a “cubicle farm.” Archie McPhee is about as far away from that company culture as you can get.
The line that made me a fan of Curt's work, because of it's innovative and yet simplistic elegance in design and overall aesthetic that runs through all of the office humor found throughout the line of figurines and play environments.
The characters that visit the office like Sam the Delivery Man were great additions. Were there other ideas that never got produced that you would have liked to have seen created if the line had gone on?

Well, we got as far as Corporate Zombies, actual zombie Cube figures, so, as you can see, the possibilities are endless! We’re always looking at old products to see if they can be revived or if they were just before their time, so, you never know… maybe they’ll make a comeback. If so, I wouldn’t want to give away any ideas that we might still get a chance to make.

Are you a toy collector of any sort? If so, which ones over the years have been your favorites?

I am a big Star Wars collector. Mostly vintage toys, but I dabble in some modern stuff, art and limited edition designer toys. I like the weird stuff — bootlegs and unlicensed items.  There are a lot of other toy lines I would love to collect if I had infinite space to display them, but I try to stick to Star Wars.

You’ve been in the industry long enough to have seen the digital age really come into dominance, replacing the craftsmanship and sometimes laborious ways of paste up, rubylith, and a time when pop culture was only really accessible in limited ways. What is something you find that is a positive change in modern pop culture creation, and what is one of the challenges you’ve encountered?

I’ve worked professionally mostly within the digital age. Although, my early introduction to commercial design in school touched on a lot of the old practices, I’ve rarely had to use them. The biggest change I’ve seen is the speed at which we can produce a product. Computer processor speed has increased dramatically since I started, so there is less time spent rendering art and completing tasks. We're still limited to the time it takes to physically produce the products, but that is getting faster, as well.

Faster design time has made it possible to create products based on currently trending memes and fads. An example of that is the Runaway Monkey Air Freshener we did several years ago. It was based off of a photo of a pet monkey, dressed in a Shearling coat, that had escaped in an Ikea store. The photo was everywhere online at the time, so we acted quickly and put our version of it on an air freshener, since those only require printing and not actual mold making, etc. We were able to get it produced, shipped and in stores before people had forgotten about it, which is pretty amazing. The speed at which pop culture moves is incredible. Something can become a meme that is everywhere overnight, but, very quickly, the internet moves on to the next thing and it’s quickly forgotten.

If you had advice to give to emerging/upcoming artists wanting to work in the creative field, what sort of advice would you give?

Find what you love to do and what you are best at and perfect the skills needed to bring it to life. Find your niche.

As far as traditional art materials, what are some of your favorites to work with?

I work mostly in digital these days, so Adobe Illustrator is my software of choice. I’ve dabbled in sculpting and really enjoy working with clay. It’s so gratifying to work with your hands and create something physical.

We live in a time where the advent of an immense amount of creative people now have virtually unlimited reach via social media networks from Twitter and YouTube, to the just now emerging Instagram TV. Some artists believe that we live in a time of overexposure, that a lot of the curtain to the creative process has been pulled back to an almost detrimental effect. Do you feel that it's been more of a positive or negative change to have that sort of access for the general public to encounter exposure of an artist and their works with?

There are positives and negatives, but for the most part, I think it’s great! I love being able to follow and interact with my favorite artists on social media. That’s something that has never been an option at any point in history. It really personalizes them. They’re people just like us!

We’re in this age of instant feedback, though, and it has given the public this sense of entitlement.  When it gets to the point of the audience feeling like they can dictate what an artist creates, that’s where the problems start.

If you had to pick your favorite two movies, what would they be, and why?

Star Wars - I was 9 years old when it came out and there was just something magic about it all that made such a deep, lasting impression. I wanted to live in that galaxy. I wanted to be Han Solo. Obviously, I’m not alone here.
Shot from the Big Lebowski, a movie that I've yet to see. I honestly think I'm the last person that hasn't seen it.
The Big Lebowski - I’ve been a fan of the Coen brothers films since I saw Raising Arizona. This movie requires multiple viewing to appreciate the depth of the writing and humor in it. Even going into it as a Coen brothers fan, I left the first viewing unsure about it. But, after seeing it again (and again), I really started to pick up on the subtle nuances. I’ve even gone to a few Lebowski Fests.

Mac or PC preference? And why?

Mac. Because it’s better, duh. :)

When you're in the zone creatively, do you enjoy working with music or any kind of background noise going on, silence, or are you indifferent to the outside surrounding ambiance? I ask this because so many artists I know have almost, rituals of sorts, where they need music playing to drown out all but the creative incentive, or maybe they need to brew some coffee beforehand. Do any of those sorts of things  come into play for you in your studio/workday?

I prefer to work with music playing at home, but our work space isn’t conducive to having music on. Coffee is a given.

What artists, current or historical, had profound influences on you?

Most of my influences came about as a result of my love of Star Wars. I was drawing a little at a young age, but Star Wars unlocked my creativity.

As a young Star Wars fan, I discovered the work of concept artist Ralph McQuarrie right about the time I started drawing. He was first a technical illustrator for Boeing and was hired by George Lucas to create the look of what became Star Wars. He created these beautiful concept paintings that told amazing stories just in one piece. It was his work that Lucas used to sell Star Wars to the film studio.

Comics illustrator Al Williamson was a big influence. I would copy his style and make my own Star Wars comic books.

I’m a big fan of movie poster art. Drew Struzan is a master. Dave Dorman is great, too.

Non-Star Wars - I love lowbrow artists and pop surrealists — Mark Ryden, Marion Peck, Ron English and SHAG.  I also love a lot of toy art — Jason Freeny, Sucklord.

As a teenager, I was fascinated with Iron Maiden’s album covers by Derek Riggs. I would draw Eddie all the time. One time, I had in-house suspension at school and had to sit at a desk in a storage room all day. I beautifully recreated a whole Iron Maiden album cover on the desktop. It was a shame that the janitor had to clean it off.

As a toy designer, what sort of skills have you needed to bring to the table to help bring your ideas to life?

The mechanical drawing classes I took in high school have really come in handy when designing the technical aspects of toys. I think it takes a pretty good balance of left and right brain to do this job. There’s a lot more to designing an action figure from scratch than just what it looks like on the outside. You have to design how it goes together and how it is articulated.

What aspects of toy design have been the most challenging, yet ultimately rewarding for you?

The technical design aspects that I mention above. One of the best designs I’ve done was the Annie Oakley action figure. Annie was Wild West marksperson and one of the trick shots she was best known for was shooting a rifle backwards over her shoulder using a mirror. I had to design her articulation so that the figure could hold the rifle backwards and the mirror. And it worked! The figure didn’t sell well at all, but it was a great design!
[Left] Annie Oakley action figure. [Inset] Vintage photo of the real Annie. [Right] I actually found it for sale at the National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma after I saw two little girls buying two of them.
You've done a good number of website designs, including the current McPhee website. Was learning web site design, and aspects of UI/UX, SEO, all of that, something that from from a personal interest, a need to be a more flexible creative, or a mix of both?

Web design is one of the things that helped me get my foot in the door of our design department at McPhee. It’s something that I dabbled in for fun to create personal websites in the ‘90s and then did a few professional sites for freelance work. It’s certainly a good skill to have.

Have you been to comic/sci-fi conventions? If so, what have you thought about the amazing growth that has happened over the last 15 years?

Yes! I went to San Diego Comic Con back in 1997 and thought it was big then! Now I mostly stick to our local Emerald City Comic Con which has become pretty big the last few years. Rose City in Portland is also a great one.

I go to every Star Wars Celebration in the U.S.

People naturally want to be around others with the same interests. Our tribe. It’s validating to see our tribe getting bigger and bigger.

What is something that crosses your mind when you are creating the many cool things that you make for Archie McPhee?

Who would buy this? Which, coincidentally, happens to be the name of the book about the story of Archie McPhee. (Available here: Seriously, sometimes it seems like we’re just making these things to make ourselves laugh, but, most of the time, enough people get it to make it worth the time and money. Not always, though.

The finger monsters and finger tentacles make me wonder if you were a fan of old pulp serial sci fi movies, were you?

Yes, definitely. I’m always trying to get stuff like that made! In fact, I’ve just been working on a few new products that fit in that genre. Stay tuned...

Do you prefer Star Trek or Star Wars?

I think that question has probably already been answered. :) Star Trek was too intellectual for me at a young age and, after I saw Star Wars, the special effects and props of 1960s television couldn’t compare. Same with Doctor Who. The props were just so flimsy and homemade that it wasn’t believable. I grew to enjoy Trek later (I’m really enjoying Discovery!) but still can’t bring myself to watch Doctor Who.

Favorite dinosaur, and why?

Pterodactyl. Because they’re freakin’ awesome! Flying around with those creepy wings! Cool.

Do you enjoy museums? If so, which ones would you recommend or are your favorites?

I enjoy going to museums — art and historical. MoPop (formerly EMP, Experience Music Project) here in Seattle is a great mix of music, pop culture and sci-fi/fantasy. Rancho Obi-Wan in Petaluma, CA is a museum of the world’s largest Star Wars collection. I also love little kitschy museums.

Do you have a favorite newspaper comic strip and/or creator?

Ha! I’m probably one of the last people that actually still reads newspaper comics on a daily basis! I wouldn’t actually BUY a newspaper, but the company gets it delivered so I read it at lunch. I grew up on Peanuts and later Garfield (when it was still funny) and Bloom County. I’m happy that Berkley Breathed is doing Bloom County online again. You have to give credit to Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbs as one of the best ever.

Do you have a favorite comic book and/or creator?

As a kid, I didn’t read a lot of comics other than Marvel’s original Star Wars run, but I poured over every issue of that. There were a lot of different artists that worked on that run, but Al Williamson was my favorite.

As a teenager, I discovered underground comics like the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. In middle school we had to write a business letter to a company we liked. I wrote to Rip Off Press and they sent me back a whole stack of Freak Brothers comics! If my teachers only knew! ;)

Thanks so much for taking the time to be the first in my interview series Curt! I'm looking forward to what else you come up with there at Archie McPhee!

It's the Archie McPhee store!
If you'd like to find out more about Curt Hanks, please check out his website at, and if you're in search of some great fun pop culture creations in the Seattle area, you can find the store at: 1300 N. 45th St. Seattle, WA 98103

And you can always order online as well!

No comments:

Post a Comment