It's been two years since he moved into the house at the end of the cul-de-sac, but Jeremy Madl is still a mystery to his neighbors in suburban Overland Park. From the windows of their neutral-colored houses with basketball goals in the driveways, they peer at him — a 30-something guy dashing out each morning to his white Toyota Scion XB, dressed like a teenager in baggy calf-grazing shorts, an ever-present baseball cap and shell-toed Adidas. Tattoos crawl out from beneath the sleeves of his T-shirts. His neighbors know he has kids and a wife. They know he must be employed somewhere.
The neighbors probably don't know that Madl is internationally famous. People in the United Kingdom ask for his autograph, factories in China await his command and fans on Internet forums analyze his work to predict his next move. Still, even some of Madl's biggest devotees wouldn't know him if he stood next to them in line at Target.
Lured by MySpace bulletins and blog posts, his admirers gathered at Phenom, the boutique streetwear store at 1521 Grand. There, one day last spring, a few giddy fans clutched red-and-white boxes of Madl's creations while he sat, amid shelves of Day-Glo sneakers, with a permanent marker, signing his name.
Madl makes toys.
His designs appear on molded hunks of PVC, manufactured in Hong Kong in limited batches and sold to collectors for $5 to $500 each.
Behind Madl hangs a print of one of his most recognizable characters, the Modern Hero: a leaping skeleton with a row of gold-capped teeth and wearing a chunky gold dollar-sign necklace, Mickey Mouse-style trousers and puffy white gloves, one hand gripping a fire-spewing spray-paint can. Scattered on the walls are prints of Madl's anthropomorphic monkeys, scary clowns and sulky kids with jackets pulled high and hats pulled low so that only their eyes are visible.
The toys sold at Phenom come in "blind" boxes, so there's some mystery as to which design a buyer will get. The side of the box shows all of a toy's possible patterns; numbers on the box indicate how many toys were made in each design, allowing the buyer to figure out how rare the toy is. Extremely limited runs of "chase" toys appear in each batch, and the laws of supply and demand apply: The rarest toys are the most valuable.
For the fans who have shown up to see him, Madl does something special: He tears into the wholesale boxes of 24 blind-boxed toys and, as if by magic, points out where the valuable chase toys are hidden.
Though these toys have the most potential to increase in value, true vinyl-toy fans won't sell.
This fall, Kid Robot, which might be the world's most famous designer-toy company, with hubs in New York and California, tapped Madl and 19 other artists to design paint schemes for toys in the company's fourth Dunny series, a line of 3-inch-tall toys with silhouettes that resemble cartoon rabbits.
Series Four debuted at the end of September. Phenom sold out of its entire allotment — four boxes of 24 Dunnys, 96 pieces in all, $7 per piece — in four days. One repeat buyer told Phenom owner Clint Miller that buying the toys was addictive, "like crack."
Toymakers such as Kid Robot bank on the compulsions that their products inspire.
At the beginning of October, Kid Robot flew Madl to Toronto for the grand opening of Circa, a five-story bar created by nightclub entrepreneur Peter Gatien. An entire floor is dedicated to Kid Robot's designs.
Madl says the designers in the crowd were the ones in jeans and T-shirts, conspicuous among the glam club kids and Armani-clad businessmen with their trophy girlfriends.