The works of JLed, as Joe Ledbetter‘s signature abbreviates his name, immediately began captivating people’s attention with their bold lines, vibrant colors, and dark humor, enough so that it became his full-time endeavor by the summer of 2004. With a style that was perfectly suited for incorporation into the then-burgeoning American designer toy movement, “by 2006 I had developed a great relationship with Kidrobot“, Ledbetter admits, referring to his inclusion in several of the company’s exhibitions as well as having factory-produced editions forthcoming from them. Though two of these vinyl renditions from that time would never be properly issued, the reasoning for their cancellation rarely talked about to this very day. That is, until now…

JLed’s Cold Turkey Labbit

For his Belly of the Beast exhibit at the Kidrobot Los Angeles location on September 22nd of 2005, Ledbetter displayed new paintings, prints, and hand-painted designer toys, including the above-pictured One Last Smoke piece. Built upon the base of a Frank Kozik designed Smorkin’ Labbit, a stylized depiction of a rabbit with a cigarette dangling from its lips, this roughly 10-inch long piece featured “my Mr. Bunny character who chopped off his own head to quit smoking”, illuminates Ledbetter, who further describes it as a “throwing the baby out with the bathwater type narrative”. As for the design’s evolution to factory-produced form, Ledbetter recalls that “it came up during a lunch with Paul Budnitz”, the Kidrobot founder having “remarked how fun that [One Last Smoke design] would be as a production piece”.
“For the production piece, however, I had to eliminate my Mr. Bunny character to prevent further lawsuits from another toy company”, states Ledbetter, eluding to Wheaty Wheat Studios and their legal dispute with Kidrobot that had delayed the Dunny Los Angeles Series until early 2006. Renaming the design the Cold Turkey Labbit, “I changed Mr. Bunny to a wolf”, Ledbetter explains, “and instead of self-mutilation, I had his little buddy do the decapitation”. In short, the concept “was to turn the whole smoking thing on its head and get this Labbit to quit smoking”, according to Ledbetter. “Admittedly, it became an odd piece. The bird and musical note are there simply to utilize the space available on the Labbit’s ears”.
Intended to be issued at San Diego Comic-Con on July 22nd, 2006, with a signing by Ledbetter and Kozik announced to support this design’s edition, there were last minute problems with the Cold Turkey Labbit. “A month or so before SDCC 2006”, Ledbetter remembers, “Kidrobot had sent me factory images of all the problems and issues they were having”, the vinyl base having been “too soft” which “caused poor registration” of the painted detail application. Ledbetter admits that “the artwork was a mess and nothing could be done to save the day”, though he does recall how there was a “fun but feeble attempt to fix a problem that couldn’t be fixed”: bandage-shaped stickers branded with ‘SDCC 2006’ were made to try “to cover up the bad spots”. But, as it turned out, “the factory images we saw a month earlier were ‘the good ones'”, recounts Ledbetter, with Kidrobot leaving the ultimate decision of the edition’s fate up to the artist. “It was a tough decision”, says Ledbetter, referring to canceling the release. While these remain, to the best of Ledbetter’s knowledge, “the first [Labbit] to be designed by an artist other than Kozik that went into production”, the majority of these pieces “were sent back to the factory to be melted down” with only a “few remaining [that] are floating around”.

JLed’s Caterpillar Dunny

For the Gallery1988 hosted Dunny Los Angeles Series Release Party on February 2nd, 2006, Ledbetter hand-painted one of Kidrobot’s rabbit-eared Dunny forms to be exhibited, titling the piece the Kittypillar Dunny. As Ledbetter recalls, this event “was important because the Kidrobot top brass had all flown in from New York”, and he even remembers “Paul [Budnitz] commenting that LA was the best place in the world at that moment for art and design”. And while Ledbetter’s feline-caterpillar hybrid creature resurfaced a month later as part of his Flight of the Navigator exhibition with Greg “Craola” Simkins, in the painting Mothball and the Caterpillars, JLed had been contacted in the interim by Kidrobot “to see if I was interested in replicating the custom Kittypillar Dunny into a production piece.”
Renamed the Caterpillar Dunny for its production rendition, Ledbetter muses regarding the name change that “maybe I was thinking the creature on the Dunny was an adult, so it is no longer a kittypillar but a caterpillar”. And while the artist can’t recall why the title was altered, he does know that “the Kittypillar was meant to be my first 8-inch Dunny design”. Unfortunately, like with the Cold Turkey Labbit, there were “production issues with this piece as well, in part because I was still learning production limitations and possibilities”. In an attempt to avoid the same issues with overly soft vinyl as before, “we used an ABS [hard plastic] 8-inch Dunny“, Ledbetter states, theoretically using the same molds as Zeitgeist Toys‘ chromed Too Many Cell Phones Dunny editions. “Anyway, there were still registration issues”, admits Ledbetter, “and, to be honest, I was never in love with the design, so we abandoned the project. But we did manage to get a few samples made”, adding that “I don’t know how many are floating around” but Ledbetter places the number at “maybe 3 or 4”.

While 2006 would see Ledbetter’s designs adorn the 3-inch tall version of the form in both the Dunny Los Angeles Series and Dunny Series 3 collections, it would be another two years before an 8-inch tall Dunny was issued with his art upon it. And, to date, no other factory-produced Labbit has been created with JLed’s aesthetic decorating its form.

For more information on JLed (Joe Ledbetter):
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