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Sunday, January 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Move over, Hello Kitty: New characters are taking over the kingdom of cute

Seattle Times staff reporter

More pop art


The Children's Museum, 305 Harrison Street, Seattle presents "Jump to Japan: Discovering Culture through Popular Art,"

Saturday through June 6.

Admission is $7.50 for adults and children, $6.50 for grandparents and over 55. Free for children under age 1.

Information, (206) 441-1768 or www.thechildrensmuseum.org

They've invaded the kingdom of cute.

Little girls with big 'tudes, little boys who like to be rude, monkeys that deejay and pandas that fly — they're taking over notebooks, knee socks, T-shirts, flip-flops, not to mention shelf space at trendy stores.

Hello Kitty might want to watch her back.

But don't mistake this generation of animated creations as being anything like their innocent predecessors. They're raging mad, hopelessly vain, moody, ditzy, even sort of goth.

The little girl with jet-black hair, blunt bangs, ghostly pale skin and Elvira eyes? That's Emily the Strange. She's a troublemaker and, with the exception of her cats, a loner.

The round face with huge, dazed eyes and a flipped out bouffant 'do? Meet Oopsy-Daisy. Everything she does, she does somehow wrong. She's seen on trading cards and shirts saying, "Oopsy Tipsy — Too Many" and "Ouchy, Love Hurts."

"These are definitely the product of our time and place ... our attitude toward what's hip and edgy," said Maki Tamura, a Seattle-based visual artist whose Hello Kitty installation, "Vignette," appeared as part of a Seattle Asian Art Museum exhibit a year ago. "I think more so than Hello Kitty, they seem to have a close connection with subcultures ... (being) the alternative option for people who cannot see themselves in the things that are already available."

Created in 1974 by Japanese designer Ikuko Shimizu, Hello Kitty dominated the cute market once it arrived in the United States in 1976. Two designers and a host of other Kitty-world characters later, the famous, mouthless cat has grown from being a little girl's toy to a kitschy fashion symbol flaunted by Paris and Nicky Hilton (they're all about the purses and pearl-entangled necklaces).

Following the mid-'70s Kitty surge, Sanrio's My Melody and Little Twin Stars gained popularity in the U.S., as did Strawberry Shortcake, Care Bears and the more recent Powerpuff Girls and Paul Frank. Often, the characters started out as images on merchandise and grew into cartoons, movies or comics.

Now, the newest generation of designers and their creations are subverting cuteness with an edgy/bizarre aesthetic. But with so many newcomers, not to mention elusive story lines that barely let consumers in on what they're buying, it's hard to keep track of who's who. So here's our guide to today's popular personalities.

Oopsy-Daisy

The preteen Oopsy lives in a "Tragic World" of mistakes. If she's not accidentally scratching a record, she's accidentally saying a bad word or blithely committing other faux pas.

"But it doesn't break her spirit," said creator Brian Brooks, of Oakland, Calif., who created the character in 1999. "She doesn't know any better."

Oopsy started out on clothes and now appears on books, trading cards, toys, accessories and on www.oopsy-daisy.com, which features free e-cards and Tragic Sad Libs.

Her friend Princess Pretty loves hearts and kisses, and has a disposable Mercedes. Pretty's shirts say "I forgot to care" and "thank god I'm not ugly." Sidney, Oopsy's green-haired "punker" friend, thinks "everything sucks." N.E.R.D.Y. Neville (he has dots between the letters of his name because he wanted deeper meaning to his moniker — but only he knows what that is) pulls out his teeth because he has a crush on the tooth fairy. Gora-X is a little girl who's dead but doesn't know it. Then there's Super Zero.

"He's not really a hero, he's not really anything," said Brooks. "He likes to fight the power by throwing batteries away."

Oopsy products are available at Borders, Barnes & Noble, some Spencer's Gift stores and some Claire's Boutiques.

Bon Bon

It started with the hair. San Francisco artist Noel Tolentino three years ago drew a circle, two dots for eyes and then a severe black bob with straight bangs.

"I thought it was a good little haircut," the 32-year-old said. "It was basically enough to tell me what her world was about."

Enter Bon Bon. She's Japanese-French, lives in London, wears white go-go boots, berets and ultra-mod, ultra-fantastic '60s fashions. She was born on a jet and jet-sets, naturally, to Paris, Milan and San Francisco to shop.

Bon Bon debuted on T-shirts but now also graces address books, a Fashion Journal, hoodies, totes and more. They're available at Barnes & Noble, Borders, Urban Outfitters, the Virgin Megastore and at www.bonbon-a-go-go.com.

"She even has a presence on Friendster.com," Tolentino said. "She's connected to different mod scenes around the country."

It's Happy Bunny

It's pink, it's smiley, it's cuddly. It's anything but G-rated.

Created by Detroit's Jim Benton, this genderless bunny is cruel and self-centered.

"I think Happy Bunny sort of represents the things that we're thinking even though we have a big smile on our face," said Benton, also the author of the Franny K. Stein children's book series. "I get a lot of e-mail from customers — what they all say is, 'It's Happy Bunny is totally me!' "

Its milder messages, on camisoles, steering wheel covers, fuzzy bedroom slippers and more, include "It's All About Me/Deal With It" and "It's Cute How You Think I'm Listening."

It's Happy Bunny products are sold at Hot Topic, Claire's Boutique, Spencer's Gifts, other specialty shops and at www.jimbenton.com.

Homestar Runner

Matt and Mike Chapman, creators of the online cartoon "Homestar Runner," discovered that one way to gain fans is to make fun of them.

Loved by college and high-school students, the toon's main character (Homestar Runner) is a captain-of-the-football-team type. His nemesis (Strong Bad) is the bully. A cast of other teens make for high-school adventures on www.homestarrunner.com.

Then there's the Teen Girl Squad — Strong Bad's independent cartoons, also on the Web site. Four teen divas (The Cheerleader, The Ugly One, What's Her Face and So and So) shop, get frozen yogurt and generally run on attitude overload.

The brothers, from Atlanta, created Homestar Runner in 1996 and posted the characters online in 2000. They don't advertise or sell merchandise in stores. They feature instead an online store with figurines, hoodies, other accessories and prefer to stay "sort of grass roots."

"We just want to make it a free cartoon for you to watch," Chapman said. "When we started this, we were doing this for ourselves ... and for white-collar people stuck in cubicles who like it too."

Yum Pop

Yum Pop is all about little animals as hip as they are sassy.

Created by Bon Bon's Tolentino, the world's high-energy star Funny Bunny loves sweetness (both in candy and in personality) and roller-skates. Her friends include DJ Biz Monkey, Teeter Totter Tiger, Fab 5 Froggy (he's a hip-hop emcee who loves break-dancing) and Ping Pong Panda.

"The panda's a strange one. It's kind of naughty in some ways, but it's more of a playful kind," Tolentino said. "Every now and then he'll appear with a red cape 'cause he'll fly around, and he loves to eat strawberries."

The designer first drew Funny Bunny in the mid-'90s for a line of stationery. What began as an artistic exercise in minimum lines grew, three years later, into a team of other characters who live now on www.yumpop.com. Site visitors can buy Yum Pop shirts, snowboards and accessories. E-cards are also available, for free. Offline, you can find the products at Mervyn's, Claire's Boutique and Kohl's.

Angry Little Girls

They're teeny and positively adorable, but tick off this peeved female squad and you've got one heck of an angry little comic.

Created by Los Angeles artist Lela Lee, the work stars an Angry Little Asian Girl (Kim, whose New Year's resolutions are "to not get so angry" and "to hate people less"). She's got a mean mom, disenchanted friends and a tendency to shake her little fists when she's mad.

Lee created the comic in 2000 as a response to the idea that little girls should always be quiet, obedient and sweet. She updates the strip weekly on www.angrylittlegirls.com. You can also find her T-shirts, mouse pads, mugs and e-cards at the online store.

Emily the Strange

She's 13, draped in black, creates monster friends called Zonsters in her Mind Lab and loves "just about anything you can do alone," said Rob Reger, creator of Emily the Strange.

A friend of Reger's initially drew the character more than 10 years ago, but Reger conceived Emily's dark identity with phrases that appear today on merchandise. She began as a design on shirts, stickers and skateboards and now dominates everything from socks to umbrellas and raincoats.

She's beloved by consumers looking for something not so wholesome and sweet. After all, Emily loves making trouble and seeking revenge.

But Reger says she's a "moral troublemaker" with reasons for being anti-cool.

"Emily just stands up for her right to be different," the 34-year-old Berkeley, Calif., resident said. "It is hard for someone who is so on their own to have others understand them."

Her products can be found at Hot Topic, Barnes & Noble, other specialty stores and www.emilystrange.com.

Gama-Go

What do you get when you mix three friends, vodka tonics and late-night fashion deconstruction?

Gama-Go, a San Francisco-based clothing/fashion line started almost three years ago by Chris Edmundson, Tim Biskup and Greg Long.

They combined the look of Japanese animation, fine art, modern art and what Edmundson calls their "ridiculous senses of humor." The line's popular Ninja Kitty looks something like the top half of Hello Kitty, plus a spacesuit and antennas. Space Bat resembles a thinner Ninja Kitty, with bat wings.

"We sell to people who are kind of geeky, but we also sell to people who are kind of high fashion," Edmundson said.

Gama-Go clothes and accessories, found at ultra-trendy spots like Fred Segal in California, can be found locally at Capitol Hill's Atlas Clothing, Belltown's Moda Express and Capitol Hill's Red Light. Or visit www.gama-go.com.

David & Goliath

Chances are, you've probably seen Todd — the company's trademark dazed little boy who suffers incessantly. If he's not having rocks thrown at him, he's the visual for such phrases as "boys are smelly" and "boys have cooties."

Creator Todd Goldman, a Belleair, Fla., resident, came up with his designs and started the clothing and accessory company David & Goliath three years ago.

Todd's friends include Trendy Wendy, Jack the Nerd, Eve L. (she's a troubled one) and Goodbye Kitty (a mordant spoof of Hello Kitty.) They appear on bed sheets, T-shirts, pajamas, bracelets, free e-cards and more than 500 accessories. Goldman also has a comic strip and cartoon in the works — an effort said to be "the Simpsons meets South Park meets Peanuts."

His products are sold at Hot Topic, Urban Outfitters and at www.davidandgoliathtees.com.

"The whole point, what we've tried to do here, is to make people laugh and to not take life so seriously," he said.

Young Chang: 206-748-5815 or ychang@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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