Points of Articulation
The March of the Elephants
In 2006, the Four Horsmen did something new: they let fans decide what their next project should be. Round after round of voting, and the result was Xetheus, the Champion of Mynothecea. Xetheus was soon followed by six Mynothecean Warrior variants, and they were just as popular. The FANtastic Exclusive process was so successful, in fact, that the Horsemen repeated it in 2007. This time, though, things didn't go quite as smoothly.
It was just about a year ago - on May 22, 2007 - that the Horsemen revealed the name of the 2007 exclusive: Ramathorr, Captain of the Anitherian Guard. At the same time, they announced there were going to be eight variants, not just six. And just as in the previous year, the variants were sold as exclusives through various online stores and fansites. The eight were unveiled over the next few weeks, and on June 13, 2007, the first preorders went up, and the fans were on their way.
Well, almost. There was one small hiccup first. As in 2006, the Horsemen offered a single set of all the variants (the "Anitherian Nine" set) through their "Store Horsemen" site. This was limited to 100 sets, and available first to members of the FANtastic Exclusive message boards. Fair enough, right? Well, there was one more caveat: instead of being first come, first served, the Anitherian Nine set would be sold to members based on a combination of length of time as a board member, and number of posts. Not exactly the way I would have chosen to do things, but more fair than just rewarding people who could stay up late to place an order at midnight, right?
You'd think so, but man, the bitching and moaning that decision caused on the boards. I wrote a blog post about it, but the short version is, all weekend long almost every post on their board was someone whining about how "unfair" the process was, couched in language carefully designed to make the post seem magnanimous and selfless: oh, they didn't think it was unfair because they weren't getting a set - heavens no! They just felt bad for all their fellow boardmembers. You believe that, don't you? What a crock.
Anyway, on June 21, 2007, the Horsemen announced which members would be receiving the sets: all of them. After weeding out the fakes, there were still more than 100 orders, but not a ton more. So the Horsemen went to their partners, got enough extra figures to cover the difference, and everybody went home happy. How's that for customer service?
And then... things were quiet for a while. No big deal, we were used to waiting for pre-orders. But when some people started to get their toys, rumblings started. There was something wrong with them. They were poorly molded and badly assembled, with some samples literally falling apart in the packages. It was bad. The Four Horsemen said they were looking into it, and no more figures shipped.
It was December 2 before we heard anything more. Apparently the Four Horsmen had complained about their problems to the Hong Kong factory, SmartLife Productions, and the factory agreed to re-make a portion of the initial run to make up for the errors. No problem: there'd be a slight delay, but nothing too bad. And if it meant a better figure, well, who was going to complain? A month later, the factory emailed to say the production had been pushed back, because larger companies were demanding their product first. Being a small group, though, the Horsemen weren't really in a position to do anything about it, so they just had to grit their teeth and deal.
But it turned out that story was a lie. There may have been larger companies demanding their stuff, but that had nothing to do with the delay. Another month had gone by, now, and the Horsemen couldn't get a response from anyone at SmartLife. Eventually, someone at NECA told them what was up: the person at the factory the Horsemen were dealing with had been embezzeling funds, and the company had shut down production. Permanently. They'd sent samples of the new batch of figures, which looked great, but never bothered to start manufacturing the new run.
With the factory shut down for good, there was a solid chance that the Horsemen's investment would just go up in smoke. Steel molds aren't cheap, and it was entirely possible that the ones for Ramathorr and his friends would just be dumped in some Hong Kong warehouse with no record, never to be seen again. If the molds were gone, there was no hope of seeing these figures: they'd been paid for in advance, and the Horsemen couldn't very well ask everyone to pay twice for the FANtastic 2007 exclusives.
Luckily, having worked in the industry for so long, the Four Horsemen had friends who were watching out for them. NECA had been using the same factory, so they were in the same boat: their steel molds were stuck in an abandoned factory, with no promise that things were going to work out. But as a larger company, they had more leverage - they forced the factory to deliver their molds, and somehow worked it out so the Four Horsemen's molds were included, as well. In an industry filled with harsh competition, NECA decided to help another toymaker, rather than letting them twist in the wind. It's hard to imagine any other company doing it, that's for sure. On November 27, the new factory emailed the Horsemen to say the molds had arrived, and that they'd be scheduled for production ASAP.
They'd already lost a lot of the money they'd put in, and ended up having to pay some out of their own pockets, but the Four Horsemen were determined to make sure the fans got their exclusives. On January 16, 2008, the Horsemen gave everyone an update. The old factory, SmartLife Productions, had left the steel molds sitting around, uncovered and unoiled, so they'd started to rust: the molds would all need extensive cleaning before production could start. That meant everything from mild solvents to industrial blasting, but it also meant a longer delay: the cleaning would push the start of production back far enough that the factory would be closed for Chinese New Year - a two-week break - so production wouldn't start until mid-February, at the earliest.
Finally, Ramathorr and the rest of the Anitherian Nine were scheduled to be shipped out of the factory on March 20, 2008. It usually takes about three weeks to get a shipment from Hong Kong to the New York Ports, so the Horsemen were hopeful that they'd be able to take the finished figures with them to the New York Comic Con (April 18-20). Well, the day before the con, the boat was docked and waiting for US customs, but the Horsemen still had production samples to show off, and they were taking orders at the show.
By the beginning of May, they had most of the Anitherian Nine sets assembled and, after sending the cases to the exclusive vendors (a move which only one complete nitwit on their boards was stupid and selfish enough to throw a hissy fit about), started shipping the sets that had been paid for 11 months before. Mine was picked up by FedEx on May 5, and I had it the next evening.
It was a long, difficult trip for Ramathorr and his fellow Anitherians. But for the most part, everyone was remarkably patient while they waited for their toys. The Four Horsemen got screwed over pretty hard by the factory that was making the figures, but thanks to Joel, Tony and Randy at NECA, things worked out okay in the end. Despite the troubles they went through, the Four Horsemen are doing the FANtastic Exclusive thing again this year: hopefully this time, everything will go a bit more smoothly.