100 Creatives

Phoenix Designer Danny Neumann on the Enduring Allure of Star Wars and Why He's Obsessed with Action Figures

Every other year, New Times puts the spotlight on Phoenix's creative forces — painters, dancers, designers, and actors. Leading up to the release of Best of Phoenix, we're taking a closer look at 100 more. Welcome to the 2016 edition of 100 Creatives. Up today is 97. Danny Neumann.

Danny Neumann doesn't want to pick. 

"Star Wars," he says. "I mean, Napoleon Dynamite. Oh wait, Pee-wee's Big Adventure. No no, definitely Star Wars."

Turns out, naming just one movie as his favorite is too tough a call for the Phoenix-based pop culture-loving designer.

"I know it's predictable," the 43-year-old says of landing on George Lucas' space opera. "I rolled my own eyes. I want to be able to say something like Fellini's La Dolce Vita, but I'm not very sophisticated."

But Star Wars feels like the right answer — at least for the moment.

"You just have to understand that Star Wars isn't just a movie," Neumann says. "Kenner's line of action figures changed the game and defined childhoods. And since I firmly believe that we spend much of our adult lives trying to recapture the magic of childhood, I have to give the nod to that galaxy far, far away."

Neumann's ardor for figurines goes way beyond collecting. Nicknamed Cantina Dan, he's taken on the childhood dream job of "action figure anthropologist." It's a role he assumes once the "work bell rings" at Esser Design, where he's a senior designer. Then? Then it's time to get to work on his latest photo series.

"Last October, I began a one-photo-a-day-for-a-year project called 'At Home with the Super Neumanns,'" he says of his latest passion project. "It's sort’uv this glimpse into what everyday life is like for a super couple. Mr. and Mrs. Super Neumann are custom 3-and-3/4-inch action figures made from vintage G.I. Joe parts."

Neumann documents their tiny lives on Instagram, sharing marital spats, hunts for a lost TV remote, and family vacations. 

"They live in a modified Fisher Price dollhouse that I remember my sister having when she was a kid," Neumann says. "And now that I’m over two-thirds done with the project, they probably have more assets than I do in real life!" 

No. 225 of 365 They didn't have any other kites?

A photo posted by HOME WITH THE SUPER NEUMANNS (@thesuperneumanns) on

I came to Phoenix with a couple IKEA Bertby glass door wall cabinets, a few tubs of action figures, and a new lease on life.

I make art because I enjoy the process of bringing to life the ideas in my head. Also, because much of my art uses toys, it's a way for me to recapture glimpses of that unique mindspace children get into when they're playing. It's a super-creative zone that seems to get lost the older we get. When kids are fully engaged, the line between reality and fiction gets really blurred. Like, action figures and dolls essentially come to life. I get a kick out of trying to reproduce that dynamic with my photos.

I'm most productive first thing in the morning. My mind is clear, I've still got energy, and I'm just more positive when the sun is shining.

This may come as a surprise, but my inspiration wall is full of old toys and action figures. I love kitsch, and the nostalgia is strong with me! I’ve got a calendar from the photographer who did the product shots for all the original Star Wars figures. It's called "The Man Who Shot Luke Skywalker.” I always keep a book of Charles Spencer Anderson’s “Plastock” photos close by. I often reference Tom Forsythe's commentary regarding his legal victory over Mattel. Oh, and that letter the product marketing manager at the Campbell Soup Company sent to Andy Warhol wishing him success and good fortune. I mean, c’mon!

I've learned most from kids that haven't been beaten down by the rules yet. A book called How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. Colleagues who push for thoughtful solutions and conceptual thinking. Graphic-design guru Paul Rand, who taught me the value of the "incubation" phase of idea generation.

Good work should always tell a story.

The Phoenix creative scene could use more ... oh, I don't know, shade trees? I've never really felt like I'm a part of "the scene,” so I feel uncomfortable making any grand proclamations. I have, however, been the recipient of lots of support and encouragement and help by people who are pillars of the Phoenix creative scene and that experience has left me feeling pretty upbeat. I suppose what I'd want to see, like most everybody, is a growing up and maturing (did I just say that?) of the whole thing. Not just a drive towards more sophistication on the creative’s part but also more sincere interest and support from the community in general. And it’d definitely help if society could get itself out of this marathon wage-stagnation rut! Folks need to feel financially capable of buying a piece of art or attending a live performance every now and then.

The 2016 Creatives so far:

100. Nicole Olson
99. Andrew Pielage
98. Jessica Rowe