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Comics & Games Retailer

The Model World

By Oliver Chin

In the hobbyist's universe, midway between the realms of toys and comics, lies the world of models. As a kid I still remember assembling my hand-me-down Lionel train out of the box on the living room carpet, and painstakingly gluing together a Flying Tiger fighter plane from a maze of olive green plastic parts.

But over the past thirty years, this world has grown beyond railroads and patience testing kits, and become more diversified, niche-oriented and commercial. The model toy industry has become a bigger business than ever before as enthusiasts seek more sophisticated, lifelike, and action-oriented collectibles. Though comics and games retailers may view this as a tangential market, they have seen the rise in products and sell-through of superhero trophy busts, statues, and articulated figurines. So think of models as a step in the direction of reality instead of fantasy, and then you can appreciate their widespread appeal. Here is a brief primer on the state of the business today, with an interview with the company Dragon Models USA.

Scaling Down and Selling Up

What do the movies The Fast and Furious, Saving Private Ryan, and Runaway Train have in common? They all inspired boomlets in the model business, as manufactures tried to give hobbyists similarly satisfying cars, tanks, and trains.

The definition of a scale model is that it is a proportionate representation of an object. Usually the copy is smaller than the original. In engineering it is often used as an inexpensive prototype to test the design and performance of an actual size item. In the hobby market, the scale model is miniature replica of a vehicle or person, but true in appearance with limited functionality. Fractions are used to indicate the reduced size ratios, and some standards are 1/32, 1/35, 1/48, 1/72 and 1/76.

Fueled by the passions for street racing, NASCAR, monster trucks, and old-fashioned tinkering, radio controlled vehicles (R/C) have become a popular pastime. Powered by electrical motors and batteries or combustible engines and liquid gas (called "nitro"), R/C cars, planes, boats, and trains are controlled remotely by radios. Joystick styles range from the one-handed "pistol grip" or the two-handed "paddle" that enable the user to change their craft's direction and speed, or extra features such as lights or sound. In either case, the radio transmits a carrier wave that is picked up by a receiver in the vehicle. Like a walkie-talkie, the signal is on a specific frequency that allows other "contestants" to direct their vehicles on other channels. Signals are transmitted on AM, FM, and now PCM (Pulse-Coded Modulation).

Dragon Fire

One of the many entrants in this increasingly competitive field is Dragon Models USA, which is a domestic wholesale arm of a Hong Kong based manufacturer. Founded in 1987, the parent corporation has released hundreds of products, many under the brand Revell/Monogram in America. In the past decade, it has branched out into five main lines: action figures (1/6, 1/18 scale with dioramas), die cast models (historic and contemporary airplanes, armored vehicles, and ships; 1/72, 1/400, 1/1250), R/C vehicles, collectible miniatures (1/24, 1/35, 1/444), and plastic model kits.

Based in California's City of Industry (www.dragonmodelsusa.com), Liam Cusack from Dragon's marketing department said that their main industry challenge "is the fact that the consumer is becoming more detail-oriented and at the same time more price conscious. We are constantly coming up with new manufacturing processes in order to increase our level of detail and keep the cost down." Therefore, Cusack affirmed that the company's primary goal was for their products to "have as much detail as possible, while still being affordable to the average hobby consumer."

As far as their bread and butter go, "Typically some of our best selling items have been WWII German action figures," noted Cusack. In contrast to superhero toys that feature just articulation, Dragon's 250 soldiers (1/6) literally have a name, rank and serial number. From a range of nations, time periods, and battle zones, each is fully outfitted in period cloth fatigues, and equipped with an array of packs, pistols, rifles, and supplies. Ready to rumble, these officers and enlisted men, spanning World War II's infantry to Operation Iraqi Freedom's Special Operations, carry dog tags of $45.00 MSRP.

Recently, Dragon produced R/C military vehicles with a model slant. Called "Micro X Tech," these $50 tanks range from German Tigers to American M1A1 Abrams at 1/72 scale. Regarding other key licensing relationships in the future, Cusack said, "The comic industry is a recent area of expansion for us. We currently work with Scott Campbell on the Danger Girl series."

Convening Collectors

At an intersection of hobby niches, Dragon will attend a spate of upcoming shows. On the radio controlled front is RCX on April 23-25, 2004 at the Anaheim Convention Center in California. Here Air Age Media, a publisher of R/C magazines, teams up with a producer of custom auto shows to feature stunt tracks, indoor fly zones, water raceways, a robot wars in steel cages.

Next comes Dragon's own Weekend of Heroes on June 25-27, 2004 at California's Ontario Convention Center. Sponsoring its own convention near its headquarters, the company has gotten the participation of scale model groups such as the AMPS (Armor Modeling & Preservation Society), IPMS (International Plastic Modeler's Society) and LAMS (Los Angeles Miniaturists Society). And rounding out the year is Hobby Vision on October 7-10, 2004 at the Sands Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. Covering a rainbow of products from R/C, railroads, electronic toys, die cast, action figures, it attracts national retailers and international manufacturers.

So, contrary to conventional wisdom, this land of fun and games is not just for kids anymore. Adults with a license to drive, spend freely, and act like children are the target audience for model makers. In that way, these customers are not much different than comicdom's own, and their need for speed and hankering for combat is definitely worth paying attention to.


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