Archive | September 2014

Movie Review: The Boxtrolls

Of the many different forms of animation available, one that is often the most awe-inspiring (but also the most time-consuming), is stop-motion.

Unlike the other styles that require pencils or pixels, stop-motion is fascinating because everything has to be created in three-dimensions. Figures, buildings, cars, plants, and many other things. But there is a major pain in the system. Each moving object has to be moved one frame at a time, and if you screw up…you have to go back to square one!

When it comes to Stop-Motion productions, almost no major studios want to sink lots of money into them. Most productions have come together for films like The Nightmare Before Christmas, or Frankenweenie, and then were disbanded.

…and then, there’s Laika. Located in Oregon, and founded by Phil Knight (founder and CEO of Nike, Inc), the studio first gained major attention in 2009, for the stop-motion production, Coraline. Though not a huge moneymaker by Hollywood’s standards, the studio proved it could tell a compelling story running a gamut of emotions, that one didn’t ordinarily see in animated features these days.

Their follow-up was the politically-incorrect horror/comedy, Paranorman. While not as profitable as Coraline, its message about bullying and daring to be different has earned it a small cult following since its release, and several of my friends talk very highly of it.

 When it came to the company’s third release, it would be a film that was in development around the same time as Coraline. An adaptation of Alan Snow’s book, Here Be Monsters, which eventually became known as, The Boxtrolls.

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After an infant is carried away by creatures known as boxtrolls in the town of Cheesebridge, a man named Snatcher calls upon the town’s head, Lord Portly Rind. Snatcher claims he can rid Cheesebridge of the boxtrolls, but asks in return, that he be made a member of the town’s governing board. Portly Rind agrees, but only on condition that Snatcher gets rid of all of them.

Over the next 10 years, Snatcher and his cronies attempt to capture all the boxtrolls. When one of them named Fish is caught, it us up to the baby-turned-boy-turned-boxtroll named Eggs, to try and rescue him.

The film’s boxtrolls could have just become stock one-line jokes in the same guise as Despicable Me’s minions, but the filmmakers manage to only focus on a select few, giving them their own personalities and cares. At times, they do sound like a cross between Gollum and Stitch, but there’s enough personality that I’m sure each person will come away liking various ones. Each boxtroll’s name comes from the item on its box, which helps us identify them in a fun way.

The lead character of the film  is Eggs, who was the opening scene’s baby, now raised by the boxtrolls. Growing up, the little boy becomes enthralled by both music, as well as the clockwork mechanisms and doodads that the boxtrolls work away on in their hideaway under Cheesebridge. Eggs’ relationship with Fish is a short-but-sweet bit, and the minutes with them together helps build our emotions when Eggs’ surrogate is taken from him.

The one human that Eggs has the most interaction with is Portly Rind’s daughter, Winnie. Though seemingly a curly-haired moppet, she is not as proper as her station entails. Instead of dresses or dolls, Winnie’s fascination is with the horrible stories people have told of the boxtrolls for years, making her a fun diversion from the norm of young female leads.

Winnie is probably the only human who is really the most likable of the entire town. Often ignored by her father, Lord Rind almost becomes a little deplorable in how he often ignores the words of his own daughter, or even considers much use in helping the small town in regards to urgent matters. I’m sure many will draw parallels between Cheesebridge’s decision-makers, and others in our own world.

In animation, we are sometimes enthralled by a theatrical villain, and the directors have certainly created a beautiful monstrosity in the character of Snatcher. His personality is so enthralling, that I found it hard not to admire his crooked teeth, or the rolling of his spindly fingers. The actor who plays him does such an incredible job blending his voice to the character that I don’t even want to tell you who he is (trust me on this…it’s an amazing surprise!).

The central theme of the film is one of identity, regarding ‘who’ one is, and/or ‘what’ one is. Dreamworks’ Mr Peabody and Sherman also dabbled in this theme earlier this year, but it feels that Laika‘s people have managed to make it more central to their story, and not as much of a shoehorned afterthought as Peabody had. There’s also a subplot regarding ‘belonging,’ and the question of: ‘how far are you willing to go?’

The design of the film continues on with the wonderful artistry by those at Laika. The world feels real, and even as exaggerated as the characters are, we can’t help but buy into their misshapen, and sometimes awkwardly-styled visages. These are not slick, lazy CGI creations that some cheaper computer films churn out. The director’s mentioned a number of influences in their stylings, with names such as Terry Gilliam, Charles Dickens,  and Jean Pierre-Juenet mentioned for inspiration.

One area where the film did falter a bit for me, was in the first 20 minutes. There’s quite a lot to digest in that time, and it’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle was scattered before our eyes a little too quickly. But what is most brilliant about how Laika functions as a studio, is that most of the time, they figure their audience is smart enough to solve the riddles laid before it. I will admit I solved some puzzles quicker than others, but there were still a few that made me do a double-take (which made the directors giddy when I told them which ones).

After it ended, I thought back of the different productions I had seen, and to me, The Boxtrolls feels very much like Aardman Animation’s film, Chicken Run. It’s not as deep as Laika’s previous productions, but it stays true to their daring to be different, while also tugging on your emotions in a way few films do.

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While PIXAR Animation Studios has been a poster child for an outside studio doing huge business, it feels a shame that because they have not brought in hundreds of millions of dollars, Laika has been short-changed by the entertainment media.

One of Laika’s strengths as a studio, is they do not rely on test screenings, or have a group of studio executives mandating if something is too scary, or may offend. At a screening I attended (courtesy of Aintitcoolnews !), I asked directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi (pictured above, talking with some fans after the screening!), if there were any parts of the film they had to wrestle with to keep from being cut, and miraculously, there was no deal-making. What you see on the screen, is their vision! As well, they do not stuff their production with A-list actors. The voices they’ve chosen actually sound like they are coming from the characters, and by the end of the film, I was surprised how none of my voice guesses was correct!

The two directors credited CEO and Chairman Travis Knight (Phil’s son) with helping make sure that Laika was run as a place where filmmakers could make the films they wanted to see. It also helps that Travis is an animator himself (having worked for Will Vinton Studios, and even animating on Coraline and Paranorman!), and one can certainly sense that he is a man who wants to be sure that all the hoops that Hollywood make you jump through, have been removed. It definitely helps to have a CEO who has had the experience.

The Boxtrolls is a film that I encourage anyone who is a lover of animation, or of films that give your emotions a marathon sprint, to go see. Seriously folks, please give your encouragement  and time to the folks at Laika. With many of us hoping for entertainment that bucks the safer animation that most big studios churn out nowadays, the studio is one of  the last bastions of hope, carrying on film making on American shores, that reminds us of the days when children’s films felt no fear in making the kiddies squirm in their seats.

At Comic-Con this past summer, CEO Travis Knight did mention that he would love to have the company do a hand-drawn feature film. Given how they are outside the groups of Hollywood yes men, I’d love to see what they could accomplish, unfettered, and artistically inclined. Bring it on, Laika!

Collectibles Review: Funko Pop! figures, Judge Doom, and Turbo

Almost 25 years separates the release of the films Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Wreck-It Ralph, but they both seem to have done a great job in capturing the essence of both the worlds of hand-drawn animation, and video games. As well, each one has given us characters that have stuck with us due to some rather amazing moments.

And, they each boast villains that are more than what they seem. The two in these films were so memorable, that I soon found myself having to buy their Funko POP figures, and weigh in on these villainous icons that have stuck with two different generations of Disney fanatics.

*Spoiler Alert: Each portion of the review will reveal secrets about each of these characters from the films they were in. If you wish to not find out these secrets, it’s best to watch these films first, and then come back to see what I have to say about these figures.*

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Judge Doom (from Who Framed Roger Rabbit)

Judge Doom (from Who Framed Roger Rabbit)

With an ominous bassoon and death knell from Alan Silvestri’s score, Eddie Valiant and audiences were introduced to the black-robed judge of Toontown. Not much was known about Doom, but there was something considerably off about this human judge who seemed all too willing to make an example out of a sentient toon shoe, to prove his methods of “justice.”

Eventually, it was revealed just why the judge was acting so strangely, when after being flattened by a steam roller, he was revealed to be the unknown toon who had killed Eddie Valiant’s brother Teddy, many years ago. Now red-eyed and demented, the judge intended to dip Roger and Jessica Rabbit, as well as finish off Eddie with an arsenal of toon props hidden in his right hand.

Over the years, Judge Doom has definitely fallen into that category of “1980’s nightmare fuel” for many of us who were children in that era.  Doom is definitely one of those creations that made me sink deep into my theater seat when I was 8.

When it comes to figural representations, Doom has only ever had a few made of him. A company named LJN  made several tie-in figures of Doom, one in bendy form, and another in action figure form.

Until Funko’s recent release, Doom had never been rendered without his hat and glasses on, and the Funko POP line has done a great job once again in their exaggerated depiction of a rarely-produced character.

This rendition of Doom is an amalgamation of different parts of his appearance in the film. The hair atop his head is a translucent vinyl, and the swirling red-and-white vortex of his eyes is a nice touch. I think it’s a good thing Funko didn’t include a mouth, as I think an open-mouthed grin with the Judge’s fake teeth would have made the figure a little more scary.

The Judge is realized here in his trademark black suit. One would assume they would have given him the toon buzz saw or anvil for his right hand, but instead, they have it clutching a POP version of the toon shoe he dips in the ACME Gag Factory. And just like in the film, the little guy here doesn’t quite know what is in store for him (they even made him smile!).

Doom is part of a 4-figure set from the film, with other characters including Roger Rabbit, Jessica Rabbit, and Smarty Weasel (because they couldn’t call him by his real name: Smart@$$). Sadly, Funko did not make a figure of Eddie Valiant, which I think would have been a great inclusion instead of the Weasel, since Eddie interacted with the other characters in one form or another throughout the film.

Doom’s retail price starts at $10.99, and should be showing up at local retailers very soon. Online, he and the other Roger Rabbit assortment have just been released to a number of outlets.

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Turbo (from Wreck-It-Ralph)

Turbo (from Wreck-It-Ralph)

2012 gave us a film that I feel was one of Walt Disney Feature Animation’s strongest releases yet: Wreck-It-Ralph. Not just a film about mashing together all kinds of old-school video game characters, director Jim Reardon instead decided to tell the story of an arcade bad guy who is tired of his “job” that has gone on for 30 years. His quest to try and become the good guy, eventually leads him to the arcade racing world of Sugar Rush, presided over by the uppity King Candy.

The unhinged King Candy it soon turned out, was a re-purposed racing contender from another arcade game named Turbo Time. Turbo was constantly attempting to always be the best, but when a new game called Road Blasters was introduced into the arcade, Turbo abandoned his game, and attempted to take over the hot new racing game. This just resulted in his messing up the game’s coding, and leading to both games being pulled, with Turbo supposedly perishing when he didn’t return to his.

Noone knows when it happened, but sometime in the 1990’s, Turbo found his way into the new arcade racing game Sugar Rush in Litwak’s Arcade. He then usurped the Candy Kingdom, and took the throne from Princess Vanellope Von Schweetz. Adopting the high-strung persona of King Candy, Turbo was master of his new domain, until Wreck-It-Ralph showed up, and helped Vanellope reclaim her kingdom.

Turbo’s appearance is definitely jarring when one sees him rendered in 3-dimensions in the game of Sugar Rush.  With his glowing yellow eyes and teeth, as well as light blue skin, he definitely seems to have a menacing persona, and one that does seem a little scary when one sees him. His reveal when I saw it in theaters, definitely made me flash back to the unmasking of Judge Doom.

In the fall of 2012, Funko released 4 POP renditions of Wreck-It-Ralph, Vanellope Von Schweetz, Fix-It-Felix, and King Candy. The demand for these figures soon caused them to sell out almost immediately, and Funko reissued them in the fall of 2013…but included a POP rendition of Turbo, the only figure made so far of this character.

Turbo’s size is definitely moreso on par with Vanellope, though this means that the bulk of his mass is in the shape of his helmeted head. Funko has also taken to putting a little more detail into his head than most other POP figures. His all-yellow eyes are rimmed slightly with some magenta, and his eyes have a dark outline around them. Of course, they definitely help add an air of eeriness to him.

Turbo also is one of the few POP figures that comes with a mouth. This one is full of crooked yellow teeth, all outlined in black as well.

His pose is also one of menace. With his outstretched hands, it looks like he’s about to push someone off a cliff (or into oncoming traffic!). I originally thought that the size of his head would mean he’d easily fall over (his head is almost 2-3 times the size of his body!), but the squat pose they have Turbo in, helps make sure he’ll stay standing even with a minor shove.

Of course, like most interesting bad guys these days, Turbo has amassed a small following of fans online. Even so, Disney has not given the fandom of Wreck-It-Ralph much of anything with him on it. This makes Funko’s figure of him a must-have for those wanting something of the psychotic racer.

Originally retailing for $10.99, it’s rare to find Turbo in stores these days. Your best bet is to find him from online outlets like Amazon.com.

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When Funko originally started their POP line-up, I didn’t immediately spark to it, given the exaggerated stylings and limited facial features. However, the POP line has been instrumental in giving us numerous properties that one can display side-by-side. Aside from the LEGO brand getting multiple licensees, POP is one of the other places one can mash up all sorts of superheroes, pop-culture icons, and characters from TV and film.

The line’s ability to give us obscure characters like Judge Doom and Turbo, is also one reason why I have made several purchases from them. They have even made POP figures of such obscure characters as Edna Mode, Remy the Rat from Ratatouille, and Carl Fredricksen. One hopes there may be a few more obscure characters to come in the future (I’m sure some Tangled fans would love a figure of Mother Goethel!).

Retro Recaps: Roger Rabbit – The Resurrection of Judge Doom

If you were a kid in the late 80’s, chances are you saw 1988’s blockbuster film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

The film was Robert Zemeckis’ second big hit following Back to the Future in 1985, and it was in essence, a perfect storm of a film. With Steven Spielberg producing, the film noir homage also united characters from both The Walt Disney Studios and Warner Brothers, in a tour-de-force that many have never seen since.

It also ingrained in many of our young minds, one of the freakiest scenes of all. There was already something ominous about the stone-faced Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), but things got even stranger when he was flattened by a steamroller…and rose up, to become the screechy-voiced, red-eyed toon that was revealed to have killed Eddie Valiant’s brother, Teddy!

Of course, Doom soon met his own doom by way of his own Dip creation (a mixture of turpentine, acetone, and benzyne, or the stuff used to wash off old animation cels). With his demise, a happily-ever-after was in order as Eddie had avenged his brother’s death, and the fate of Toontown was revealed in Marvin Acme’s hidden will, bequeathing the property to the toons who resided there.

Roger would take hold of my young mind in a big way. I was enthralled by animated characters interacting in our world, giving in to the illusion the filmmakers had crafted. Roger would then be given a series of shorts, beginning with 1989’s Tummy Trouble, attached before the start of that year’s Disney summer release, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

Unknown to quite a few people, Disney had released a graphic novel some time before Tummy Trouble’s releaseThis was known as Roger Rabbit: The Resurrection of Judge Doom. I can still remember my parents balking at the $8.95 price tag for the piece, when they saw it in the local bookstore.

Luckily since then, I managed to finally read what this ‘mid-quel’ between the 1988 film and Tummy Trouble held. I decided to encapsulate it here, for those of you who may not have had the opportunity to see it.

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The comic starts off with Roger Rabbit and Jessica watching Frankenstein at a theatre in Toon Town, before a news reel starts up, telling of the recent death of Judge Doom. The reel then goes on to reveal more about the Judge’s true identity: a former toon actor named Baron Von Rotten!

JD2Known as “The Toon of a Thousand Faces,” Von Rotten was largely known for portraying all manner of villains in early cartoons. However, an accident on the set of a propaganda cartoon sent Von Rotten to the hospital. When he came out, many noticed that he would seldom drop the villainous personas he’d portray. As well, his eyes had taken on a reddish hue, which he soon hid behind dark glasses.

The footage then shows investigators looking into his elaborate mansion, which housed not only memorabilia from his many roles, but also his secret parlor wherein he’d turn into many of the parts he’d portray, along with a stolen Multiplane Camera system from an unnamed studio.

As the newsreel footage ends, a weasel in the rear of the theater sneaks out, and goes off to an undisclosed location. Meeting up with several other weasels, he tells of his grand plan to resurrect Judge Doom!

Sneaking into the now-closed Maroon Cartoon studios, the  weasels manage to find a model sheet (used to show animators how to draw a character) of Doom in a dumpster. They then take the sheet to an ‘evil ink and paint lady,’ who traces and paints the figure of Doom onto an acetate cel.

The three then head to Doom’s mansion, and place the cel on the Multiplane Camera. Through the use of the camera, and a ‘freak electrical storm’ (shades of Frankenstein), Doom is resurrected! With his memory coming back to him, Doom is bent on revenge against Roger and Eddie Valiant. His first thoughts are to kill the wabbit, but then decides on another course of action.

The comic then cuts to Eddie Valiant, who it seems has made good on kicking his drinking habit…now finding his addiction in popping jelly beans. Eddie soon gets a letter from C.B. Maroon, the twin brother of R.K. Maroon, who if you recall, ended up being killed by Doom in the film. Through his brother’s will, C.B. has inherited the currently-shuttered Maroon Cartoon Studios. Just like R.K., C.B. also has something he wishes to have Eddie investigate.

Eddie soon meets C.B., who does resemble his deceased brother, except for the dark shades on his face. C.B. explains how he intends to put the studio back into production, though using a more limited-style of animation to save on costs. C.B. wants Roger back as one of the studio’s main attractions, but wants Eddie to investigate if Roger is okay to be rehired. It seems odd that Eddie would seem fit to re-investigate a rabbit he is now friends with, but then again, C.B. is offering him $500 for his report. As expected, Roger’s clean, and C.B. calls him in. This works out in Roger’s favor, as he hasn’t done any work since the studio originally shut down.

Roger eagerly accepts C.B.’s job offer, but is shocked when on the first day of production, C.B. claims that Roger’s fully-animated stylings are too animated, and over-the-top. Roger struggles to tone down his animation style (see right), but finds he can’t ‘simplify’ what he’s doing. This leads to C.B. terminating Roger’s contract, and kicking him out into the street.

The Toontown Tattler, after hearing about Roger’s termination, soon begins a field day with all sorts of negative Roger-related headlines, leading the rabbit to go to Eddie, asking him for help to clear his name (again!?).

Eddie then goes over more issues of the Tattler, and is surprised when he sees articles telling how C.B. has laid off all the rehired staff, and intends to sell off the studio! As well, a 30-gallon drum of paint thinner has also gone missing.

The next day at a press conference, C.B. explains that the toon stars they hired were ‘too animated,’ which kept the studio unable to work within its budget, which has prompted the sale of the studio and all its holdings.

Eddie’s perplexity at this turn of events continues to grow, when the Tattler tells how C.B. has sold the studio and its holdings for only $100, to a firm called The Wiesel Development Partnership.

Going to 2719 Hyperion Ave, Eddie manages to get past the weasel-guard out front, and goes to the small office of the company’s President, Mr Mood. Entering the office, he finds C.B. Maroon, sitting behind the desk. Eddie questions why Maroon would create another company to buy up one he already owns, as Maroon’s claims that he doesn’t…but will very soon. As his movements become wilder, Maroon reveals himself to be Judge Doom in disguise! He then tells how he intends to use the development company to purchase the studio, and raze it once the sale is finalized. The destruction of the studio he feels, will end Roger’s career, as well as many other toons’ as well.

Doom then has several of his weasel henchmen knock Valiant out, and place him in a film vault on the Maroon Studios property. Awakening in there, Eddie is surprised to come across the real C.B. Maroon, who is also incapacitated.

Back in Toontown, Roger tells Jessica that he hasn’t been able to get ahold of Eddie, and the two head to Valiant’s office…only to find it ransacked and in ruin! Jessica notices the Hyperion Ave address on the notepad, and the two find their way to the development company, and free Eddie and C.B.

With time running out, the group heads to Maroon Studios before noon hits…only to find Doom in disguise as C.B., has already signed the deed.

It is then that Eddie pulls out a cartoon squirt gun, spraying Doom and the weasels. The group simply assumes Valiant is playing some kind of joke…only for Eddie to reveal that what they were squirted with, was Dip (of which he found a barrel in the film vault where he and C.B. were kept hostage)! The weasels and Doom then melt before everyone’s eyes, trickling down the gutter of a nearby drain.

Eddie then introduces the real C.B. Maroon. With Doom’s false signature null and void, C.B. intends to take back control of the company, and continue on with what his brother R.K. Maroon did: making quality cartoons!

As the toons cheer, C.B. tells Roger and Baby Herman that he has an idea for a cartoon the two can star in, titled: Tummy Trouble!

The graphic novel then finishes with 11 pages, showcasing the animated short, in sequential art form.

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When it came to Judge Doom, he was one of those menacing characters that noone ever really gave a back story to in the films. He was this enigmatic character that seemed a little off-kilter in his mannerism and attitude (and there was always an unseen wind blowing at his wardrobe).

In commentary for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, writers Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman say that in an early draft, they envisioned Doom as being the hunter who killed Bambi’s mother. It would have made for a fun little animation in-joke, but overall, it probably was best left out. In the end, Doom became little more than a figure to keep the plot going. He also served to do what director Robert Zemeckis loved: taking historical fact and turning it into historical lunacy. This was evident in the film’s subplot of the dismantling of the Red Car Trolley Line, which was actually part of a grand scheme by the auto companies, to try and get people to buy and use more cars. Though in Roger Rabbit, it is Doom who has purchased the train line, and force people to take what his company Cloverleaf Industries will create: freeways! The cherry on top of the ridiculousness is Doom’s kooky idea of what they will be for people: “smooth, safe, fast. Traffic jams will be a thing of the past.”

For the comic reviewed here, writing duties fell to Bob Foster, with art by Dan Spiegle, and Todd Kurosawa.

On Foster’s blog page, he posted a 3-part piece, showing his early rough layouts. Originally, Bob saw Doom’s villainous personas to be those of famous old-time villains, like Peg-Leg Pete, and The Big Bad Wolf.

Foster also threw in some great inside gags. His original scripting told how Von Rotten got his start in a small animation studio in Kansas City in 1921…which is no doubt the Laugh-O-Grams studio that Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks worked together in founding, before Walt headed west.

Still, plenty of animation references made it in to the final product. Von Rotten’s title “The Toon of a Thousand Faces,” is a riff on Mel Blanc’s similar title, only Blanc was known for his voice work, which encompassed almost all of the Looney Tunes characters.

The address of Doom’s fake development company (2719 Hyperion Ave), is also the same as Walt Disney’s first studio location. The company would do work out of this location from 1925-1939, when the company moved to its current location at 2100 W Riverside Dr in Burbank, CA.

The gag about the imposter C.B. Maroon wanting Roger to simplify his animation style, is also a nod to the way animation became simplified in the 50’s. During that time, the stylings of the UPA (United Productions of America) became largely about abandoning the smooth and refined art style that had been prevalent before the war, in favor or simpler shapes and movement. Many of the cartoon studios during these years, would streamline their processes, including those like Warner Brothers.

This scheme of Doom’s isn’t that far off from the freeway gag in the 1988 film. Though in a sense, much of the plot of that film seems recycled for this one, with another race-against-time storyline to secure a will and save something deeply personal to the community of toon actors.

As well, Foster puts in an homage to one film that it seems every other animator or film fan homages sooner or later: Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. This is seen in how the newsreel footage is put together (called Toons on the March, a parody of the newsreel titled News on the March in Kane). Though a most-telling scene, is when the weasels make their way to Von Rotten Manor, its towering silhouette and single-lit room, harkens back to the opening image of Welles’ film.

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On a final note, Doom’s scary persona has rarely been captured in toy or figure form. He was part of a bendy figure set in 1988, with his dark robes, hat, and a detachable buzzard (a leftover bit from a previous script draft).

Luckily, thanks to the great guys at FunkoPop, Doom has gotten a second likfe, as part of their vinyl figure line…and this time, with his ‘burning red eyes’ staring right at you!

He also comes with that tuft of blonde hair atop his head, and in his gloved right hand…the toon shoe from one of his more ‘brutal executions.’

*If you’d like to see some more information from Bob Foster’s blog, regarding his information about working on the production, and early layouts for the comic, you can find them at the following links:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

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