Mike Sutfin’s Devilman

Americans were officially introduced to Japanese creator Go Nagai‘s Devilman through Dark Image Entertainment‘s video re-release in 1993 and Verotik‘s comic book reprints in 1994, though fanmade translations had been circulating through niche events and small shops for years prior. But perhaps a bigger landmark event for English-speaking fans of the creation occured in 2002, when California-based artist Brian “Pushead” Schroeder introduced his wind-up toy-inspired Mecha-Terror series. Amid the wrapped mummy form of the Birdcatcher, the Doron Enmakun attired in a witch’s pointy hat, and the undead Santa Claus rendition known as Sanda Kuwait, there was a fourth Pushead designed addition to the line: a decayed interpretation of the Devilman character. And just over a decade later, he would revisit this licensed form for Secret Base‘s Devilman Artist Project, which included Pushead’s Cocobat Crunch version of the Go Nagai concept. Now, as 2017 rolls to an end, another is added to the exclusive list of Americans who have been allowed to reinterpret the Devilman form as Unbox Industries renders Mike Sutfin‘s depiction in vinyl.

A Brief History of Mike Sutfin

While Mike Sutfin‘s first printed work was in 1990, the then-high schooler creating cover art for metal band Epitaph‘s demo cassette, he generally cites 1996 as the date that his professional illustration career began. Working primarily in the realms of science-fiction and fantasy, Sutfin created imagery for a client roster that included Wizards of the Coast (Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering), Blizzard Entertainment (World of Warcraft), and Lucasfilm (Star Wars). After relocating from his native Illinois to California, Sutfin’s darkly alluring brushwork illustrations garnered him attention from and lasting relationships with several skateboard brands, including Black Label and DC Shoes. And around this same time, he was introduced to the designer toy movement.
“In 2007”, as Sutfin recalls, “Pushead facilitated a partnership between myself and the brilliant Japanese toymaker Rumble Monsters“, his hand-painted renditions of the brand’s newly released Bop Dragon form intended to be part of the Skeletal Carnival 3 event held at Super7‘s 2008 San Diego Comic-Con booth. Arriving “in a large box covered in Japanese postal markings”, Sutfin remembers the “incredible thrill” of opening it and the feeling of “endless possibilities for painting” that the contained Bop Dragon figures presented. “The next few months were a crash course boot camp in vinyl toy painting”, Sutfin states, referring to meeting Pushead at “a clandestine location in San Francisco” to receive guidance and be taught “a few of his unorthodox techniques” to help “avoid making beginner mistakes”. Sutfin admits that he “wasn’t overly familiar with the popular directions or trends in vinyl at this time”, so an “impromptu preview” was arranged in San Fransisco’s Japantown, with the artist bringing “two newly completed Bop Dragon figures” to show “around to a few trusted collectors who had gathered in a darkly lit restaurant”. Enthusiastically received by the collector’s present, that “positive response gave me a lot of energy to complete a lot more figures for debut at the Skeletal Carnival 3 event later in the year alongside Pushead & Usugrow.”
And while Sutfin would continue to hand-paint Bop Dragon figures and other vinyl forms, an opportunity would arise for the artist to explore his own design in the medium. “In 2009, I was contacted by Justin Kovalsky about doing a live interview for Toypunks 2, the second installment of an esteemed documentary series about Japanese toys and street fashion”, according to Sutfin. With the two talking regularly in preparation for the interview, Kovalsky revealed his newest endeavor, a designer toy production company named Reckless Toys. “I would go on to design a logo for Reckless Toys”, Sutfin states, “and eventually generate turnaround drawings for my original character, the MadBattleMan“. Depicting a skeletal warrior with a massive, spiked mace ball planted through its skull, the character’s brain, eyeball, and lower jaw safety pinned to his backside, the roughly 9-inch tall MadBattleMan debuted on July 21st, 2010 at Toy Tokyo‘s San Diego Comic-Con booth. Then, in 2012, it was evolved through a rodent-like alternate head that transformed the piece into RadBattleRat, the last new designer toy form to emerge from Sutfin’s imagination until this year’s Devilman interpretation.

A Brief History of Go Nagai’s Devilman

From January to June of 1971, Japanese manga artist Go Nagai published his Demon Lord Dante series in Kodansha‘s Bokura Magazine. This story concerned a student, Ryo Utsugi, finding himself in the middle of a conflict between God and the devils after learning he is the reincarnation of the ancient demon Dante, the King of Devils, who was formerly Judas Iscariot in life. Ending prematurely due to the magazine’s discontinuation, Toei Animation approached Nagai about turning Demon Lord Dante into a television series, though the producers desired a more human-like anti-hero for the focus. The result of this request was Devilman, which was published in manga form through Kodansha’s Weekly Shōnen Magazine, starting barely a month before the anime series in 1972. Depicting a world wherein demons have the ability to possess humans as well as absorb other demons in order to evolve and become stronger, Devilman focused on Akira Fudo, a shy, gentle teenage boy who the demon Amon attempts to possess but can’t control, accidently creating Devilman in the process. Having the strength and power of the demon as well as the heart and soul of Akira, Devilman would protect humanity and battle the demonic hordes. And while there were various differences between the anime and manga renditions, the most obvious was Devilman’s face, which was depicted as more human in the television series and more bestial in the comic book.

Mike Sutfin’s Interpretation of Devilman

“I’m really fond of the original manga artwork and how Devilman was drawn during that era”, Sutfin states, referring to his choice of using the comic book’s so-called ‘dog face’ depiction for his turnaround sketches of the character. Created in 2015 to present to Nagai’s Dynamic Planning company for approval, Sutfin wanted “to maintain a few parallels with my favorite Devilman toys that came out in the ’70s but also address my own appreciation for detail and texture”. And the most apparent modification was to the wings, their traditionally smooth form transformed by the artist’s imagination into shapes bubbling with imagery. Inspired by a collector who once criticized Sutfin for lacking detail on the reverse side of his hand-painted forms, the artist wanted “to take advantage of every surface area” for this design. As for where the details on the wings emerged from, Sutfin recalls that they came to “mind naturally after re-reading the ’70s black-and-white manga as research”. But soon after these concept sketches were approved by Dynamic Planning, this tale took a strange detour.
Rob Jones, a brilliant art director at Mondo, had the idea to utilize the toy drawings and transform it into a [screen printed] poster”, remembers Sutfin. “Thinking this was a great idea, I doubled down and suggested a double-sided print featuring the back view turnaround sketch printed on the reverse side!” Measuring 18 × 24 inches apiece, these prints each featured nine colors on the front to capture their vibrancy, as well as the single-hued linework on the backside. Debuting in two limited edition versions at 2015’s MondoCon event in Austin, Texas, this public issuing of the design would predate the vinyl figure form by over two years.
“I have been pretty hands-off since we approved the sculpt”, Sutfin admits, the artist trusting Unbox Industries to perfectly capture his aesthetic and vision sculpturally. With the artist recognizing that interpreting his “design into 3D was definitely not a simple task”, even referring to his Devilman as an “unconventional figure”, the finished soft vinyl edition’s form was a sinisterly slouching shape just as Sutfin envisioned. And, perfectly following Sutfin’s concept illustrations, these roughly 12⅗-inch tall renditions are coated in sharply detailed eruptions of disturbing imagery across their atypical anatomy.
With the debut rendition being the traditional green coloration of the character, Sutfin announces that future renditions will include other “painted editions, hand-painted one-offs, and hopefully a couple extraordinary colorways”. As for further interpretations of creatures from Devilman’s universe, Sutfin admits that “I’m not sure [if] this idea has been spoken about within the walls of Unbox or Dynamic Planning, but I have seen speculation on social media and message boards. In 2017, I completed twelve different remarqued Devilman prints, each featuring a different character from the world of Go Nagai, so I already have a starting point for further toy designs given that opportunity General Zannin and Jinmen would be my top two choices.”

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