THE WORKING STIFF – By Darren Garnick
“Politically incorrect toymaker thrives on gallows humor”
The Boston Herald — January 17, 2007
It’s been almost three weeks since Saddam’s noose debuted on YouTube –
and the global debate over execution etiquette is still reverberating
in the most unexpected places.
Like the toy box.
Herobuilders.com, the Connecticut-based manufacturer of terrorist and
dictator-themed action figures, typically times the release of its new
dolls to the latest international crisis. CEO Emil Vicale introduced
his $24.95 “Dope on a Rope” Hanging Saddam figure a few days after
Christmas and hours before the deposed Iraqi tyrant was killed. But
he likely never imagined the subsequent hoopla over souvenir snuff
videos that guards made with their cell phone cameras.
“We’ve run out of boxes. We’ve run out of everything,” says the
ecstatic Vicale. “Things have been absolutely insane around here!”
To label his product as “gallows humour,” as the Sunday Times of
London did, doesn’t take into account the toymaker’s full body of
work. Since the beginning of the Iraq War, he has immortalized
President Bush’s archnemesis in various stages of his career.
“Crackhead Saddam” features the dictator in sunglasses, a beret and
full military regalia. “Captured Saddam” is a snapshot of the
disheveled leader when he was found hiding in the infamous “spider
hole.” And completing the set, “Trial Saddam” chronicles cockier
leisure suit days lecturing his Iraqi judge and prosecutor.
Vicale says his political satire attracts “hundreds and hundreds” of
hate e-mails each year, joking that it’s “cool” he’s already gotten
his first death threat of 2007. “Emil Vicale,” a Brazilian e-mailer
writes, “you are dead!”
Brief, no-nonsense threats are the ones that Vicale forwards to the
FBI. Not the “meaningless diatribes” about “American imperialism” and
the “Great Satan.”
“You can’t make everyone happy with a political product,” he says.
“These people are insane to think I even care what they think.”
The Bronx-raised Vicale talks in a street-tough New York accent and
seems giddy when he’s rattling off insults about America’s sworn
enemies. “Barbaric” and “pathetic” are warm-ups for “the most
demented people in history.”
But as much as he enjoys mocking terrorists (he no longer sells a pink
tutu to “humiliate” his Osama bin Laden doll), Vicale is an even
stronger believer in action figure diversification. Customized
hand-sculpted wedding figures – think cake toppers with 23 points of
articulation – go for $1,000 per couple and $39.95 for each additional
figure. Herobuilders also caters to gay weddings and bachelorette
parties with anatomically correct “Big Joe” figures with “flex-action
Little Joes.” And his “Hotbox” female vampires, “the sexiest female
action figures in the world,” were recently featured in the B-movie,
A career industrial designer, Vicale launched “Herobuilders” a few
months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. He now employs 15
sculptors, designers and administrators and is looking to hire more
Sculptors earn $150 per head. His best artists carve up to 20 each week.
“Everybody is stressed. Our molding shop is three weeks behind,” he
says. “You can only push your workers so much.”
As for those death threats, well, let’s just call them another
Inspired by his “first round” of hate mail, Vicale also sells his own
brand of anti-terrorist clothing for people – not action figures.
“Black Star Ops” is a line of “reasonably priced covert tactical
clothing” meant for undercover agents as well as civilians working
high-risk assignments. The $39.95 shirts feature secret holster
pockets to conceal a gun or “comfortably carry a spare magazine or
canister of pepper spray.”
“I know I’m doing the right thing,” says Vicale, who cites fans in an
“unnamed five-sided building” in Washington, D.C. “That’s evident in
my bank account.”
Darren Garnick’s “Working Stiff” column runs every Wednesday in the
Boston Herald. Stories or rants from the workplace are welcomed at
heraldstiff (at) gmail.com.