South Bay trio turns youthful pastime into a viable business venture
Childhood pastimes mold and shape us into the grown ups we eventually become. Most of us of course shed these youthful pursuits while assuming the mantle of adulthood and the realities of earning a livelihood. Local entrepreneurs John Kimpson, James Merrill and Michael A. Scott have nurtured these passions and endeavor to make them a reality through their startup Thingamajig Studios (https://thingamajigstudios.org).
The trials and tribulations of launching a new business are numerous, but in this situation are buttressed by the entrenched passions of its founders. They have generously provided Our Weekly a glimpse into the growth of their emerging company.
The South Bay that they grew up in was a fertile area for entertainment and pop culture talent. These include actress/singer Brandy and little brother Ray J, actress Tonya Banks (Little Women of L.A.), and R&B recording artists The Boys.
“Forest Whitaker (future Academy Award winner) would sometimes shop in the Carson mall which is now called the Southbay Pavilion,” Merrill recalls.
A prime source of inspiration for the budding storyteller was the Carson Twin Cinema, which employed a then unknown (future Academy Award-winner) Quentin Tarantino.
The Carson Twin Cinema frequented by Black and Samoan youngsters of the South Bay, was a prime example of a “grindhouse theater,” which populated the United States. Generally run down, they never showed first run films, instead focusing on two or three movies for the price of one, perfect for legions of working class kids on a Saturday afternoon. More importantly they provided a path for up and coming directors (Martin Scorsese, James Cameron) to gain entry into Hollywood, and provided inspiration for following generations like Tim Burton, who patronized the grindhouses of the San Fernando Valley.
Society has a penchant for labeling and stereotyping, and for Black youth it is especially easy for the outside world to lump them into the trinity of athlete, entertainer, or criminal. Of course, most Blacks do not fit into such easy categorization.
Fortunately Merrill was able to find kindred spirits early on.
“John and I met at age 12 through a mutual friend and became best friends. We lived on the same street but went to different schools,” he recalls.
“We spent a lot of time watching Kung Fu theater, going to movies, reading comic books, and going to comic book conventions in Los Angeles every month.”
Kimpson agrees. “We met on Halloween and he was wearing a karate outfit-and I love black belt theater Kung fu flicks-and I knew we were going to get along.”
Today, the proliferation of niche interests in Japanese animation (anime), science fiction, and so on has filtered to the top of public consciousness due to blockbuster box office success in the motion picture industry, the emergence of video gaming (which surpasses film revenues), and, of course, the Internet. Less rapid is the exposure of Black interest and participation in these areas.
Originally from Long Beach, Kimpson had what can only be called eclectic interests in his reading tastes. A regular devotee of reading the Bible, he has noted similarities in stories from this tome and passages found in the Koran, and Buddhist and Hindu texts. These influences eventually manifested themselves in the “Book Revelations” tale of Angels on Earth, being developed for release in 2022. Other interests include documentaries and television fare like Erich Von Däniken’s “Chariots of the Gods.”
Given these varied influences he doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a “Black Creator” since he appreciates all cultural influences.
In contrast to his business partners, Scott did not grow up in California. Raised in the “Bible Belt” of Memphis, Tenn., his church attendance meant memorization of scripture verses and arcane facts. This background not-withstanding, he dismisses the idea that his upbringing was radically different from his contemporaries born in the shadow of tinsel town. He notes that the same cartoons and entertainment fare was available to his generation regardless of geographic location.
This included the Blaxploitation movies that Hollywood marketed to urban neighborhoods in the 1970s and onward. Their content also impacted the fashions worn by Scott and his peers. These included big glasses, butterfly collars, loud colors, and especially platform shoes (known in the parlance of Memphis as “stacks”). He was fortunate enough to have an uncle, a musician active in the bustling blues and soul clubs of historic Beale Street, and he would sneak underage Scott in to absorb the cultural windfall in their midst.
A stint in the army at Fort Knox in the tank corps brought other, unexpected influences. Down time in the barracks meant a reprieve from the army’s M1 Abrams tanks and exposure to a strange game called Dungeons and Dragons. One of the earliest and possibly most popular entries in the role-playing game market, it’s impact continues to this day.
Since its inception it has stimulated the imagination, and storytelling of legions of creators in print, the visual arts, and the digital domain. For Scott, it meant self-realization since a major component of the game is the “construction” of individual characters (determining their strengths and weaknesses) before the actual competition.
“I actually liked creating the characters rather than playing the game,” he remembers.
Marriage, the search for gainful employment, and happenstance led him to the South Bay and an encounter of the nerdy kind, as Merrill notes.
“Mike and I met through another friend who lived across the street from me in Carson (by this time I had moved out of the house and was 22).”
“Mike and I also clicked on Sci fi and Fantasy audiobooks like Star Wars, Star Trek and Game of Thrones.”
Welcome to adulthood
Even nerds have to grow up, and these youthful pursuits were put on the backburner to make way for the establishment of family, and the responsibilities of adulthood. The interest in pop culture remained, and society progressed to the point where such pastimes are (somewhat) less stigmatized.
Well into adulthood, Kimpson admits a comic readership of 10 to 15 titles a week presently. Any random visit to a comic book store will reveal their patrons predominantly grown ups, and the random juvenile present is in the company of an adult.
As middle age and the Millennium converged, so did the Internet and a thing called social networking. Starting with the now-passé My Space, the trio were able to access kindred spirits regardless of geography, and made steps towards manifesting their dreams with a concern called Arena Comics. Creative, financial, and personal differences led to the dissolution of the partnership, and a second attempt was undertaken, this time under the mantle of Black Mask.
This too, was short-lived, but by 2005, they were ready to launch a third attempt. Sundays are usually spent juggling ideas, and someone, possibly John Kimpson, came up with as Merrill recalls “…a name that was catchy and fun.”
Scott added the tag line “Entertainment For Your Imagination!” Years later they’re offering up their first product “Me & Mr. Jones.” A collaborative effort by all three principals, it features the garish 1970s fashions mingled with splashes of anime, old school Saturday morning cartoons, and Sci Fi imagery that captivated their youth.
A visit to the website reveals this and a variety of stickers, tee shirts, tote bags, and other merchandise. Other projects in the works are “The Buffalo Squad,” it’s title lifted from the Black troops that roamed the western frontier, transported to a contemporary team of covert operatives; “Project Rage,” an interplanetary action saga with Afrocentric overtones with imagery by artist Robert Crump of Crumpsmash (https://www.instagram.com/crumpsmash/?hl=en); and narratives utilizing the imagery of artists Keithan Jones (https://www.kid-comics.com/kid-comics.html), and Robert Love (https://robertlovesart.com).
Funding for all these ambitious ideas is done in house, partially because of the difficulties in dealing with a financial apparatus indifferent to the aspirations of people of color, and the need to remain true to their own vision.
During the course of our interviews, stories popped up about talented independents who signed away their dreams, then vanished into the corporate wasteland.
Thingamajig avoided this through brainstorming sessions, patronage of book signings, conventions, festivals and mentoring by veterans in the field.
“There is much to be learned from lots of Black independent writers, artists and business professionals who have been in this game for a while,” notes Merrill.
These include the Black Comics Day at San Diego’s Malcolm X Library every February, and especially the multi-cultural arts event (also in February) for Black History Month known as WorldBeat Cultural Center (https://www.worldbeatcenter.org/).
That said, plans are in the works for forays into animation, and manufacturing toys and action figures.
“In 10 years we WILL be a company with multiple comic book titles that appeal to all races and cultures,” Merrill declares.
For future developments, check in periodically at https://thingamajigstudios.org.