Bill Campbell, genius
By Mark Voger, author
“Holly Jolly: Celebrating Christmas Past in Pop Culture”
Never mind the “why” — you don’t wanna get me started — but recently, I had to purchase, paint and glue “Steel Pluckers,” a 2006 reissue of a 1965 model kit from the Hawk Model Co., home of the “Weird-Ohs” line of kits. The two Steel Pluckers figures were designed by the late, great Bill Campbell, who created the Weird-Ohs. Campbell, who died in 2017, illustrated the Pluckers box art.
Above is probably Campbell’s most famous creation: the manic, veiny-eyeballed drag racer Digger from the Weird-Ohs line. Building the Steel Pluckers has given me a new appreciation for Campbell’s work. When I was a kid, I thought the Weird-Ohs were a ripoff of the Rat Fink from Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. I now think of them as important art that absolutely stands on its own merit. Sure, there are similarities, but the Weird-Ohs were supercool (“radical,” as we used to say); they made social commentary; and they captured the rebellion that was brewing in the ’60s while somehow simultaneously commercializing it. For children.
Above is Campbell’s box art for the Steel Pluckers, one of four kits in Hawk’s music-related “Frantics” line (a Weird-Ohs spinoff). As you can see, it’s very different from Roth, and very much a comment on another 1960s phenomenon, the Beatles. The two musicians’ attitude, hairstyles and especially their “Beatle boots” just scream the Fab Four. (Note that on the ground is a page of sheet music titled “I Want to Hold Your Nose.” It’s the only thing on the box art that isn’t part of the model kit itself.)
Campbell wrote an interesting account of how he created the Weird-Ohs on OldModelKits.com. He mentions the Frantics line in passing and explains why Digger, the debut Weird-Oh kit, did not resemble the box art, while later Hawk models did. (When I spoke with artist James Bama, who painted the gorgeous box art for the Aurora Plastics Corp.’s monster model kits, Bama mentioned that early on, parents complained when the finished models didn’t look like the box art. So this is a “thing.”)
I have to say that in the case of the Pluckers, the finished models really do reflect Campbell’s box art. This is kind of amazing, considering that Campbell’s style is so wild and loose and cartoony. However, I did have some problems glueing the kit together. (More on that later.)
Above is the guitar player in the duo. To keep the two figures straight in my head, I named them “Bud and Lou.” So above is Bud after I painted-and-glued him, but before I attached him to the base. (Yes, my painting looks like it was done by an 8-year-old. Yes, I did no sanding or smoothing of the seams. Yes, I’m no modeler. I guess I’ll never be an entrant in the Chiller Theatre Model, Toy & Film Expo’s modeling competition.)
Above is Lou. Anyway, I started noticing something odd as I began glueing the figures. Pardon me if I’m using the wrong terms, but the molds (or dies?) are not what I’d call precise. Pegs on the hands and boots don’t fit snugly in the, um, holes. You have to kind of force them. Also, there’s no “one” way to glue them in; they can swivel. (With the Aurora monster models, there was only “one” way to glue most things, as permitted by the shapes of the, um, pegs and holes. I’ve always called Aurora models “well engineered.” For example, the Mummy’s tattered hanging bandages appear random on the successfully completed kit, but said bandages must be exactly in place. Am I making sense?)
Back to the Pluckers kit: This wiggle room, I feared, would surely play havoc when it was time to glue the instruments onto the figures, or the figures onto the base. I got a tiny bit panicky. So I watched some videos of (experienced) modelers putting together Hawk kits. These guys didn’t seem to have any of the problems I was having. I googled “Hawk Weird-Oh models don’t fit well,” and found nothing useful.
Above are the guitar, amplifier and banjo from the Steel Pluckers kit. Anyway, I noticed that one of the modelers in the videos, a gentleman named Mike Fifer, runs a hobby shop in New Mexico. I emailed him for guidance. His succinct reply made all the difference, and gave me the confidence to get this thing done. He wrote: “Hawk was always known for not too good of a fit, but that is why it is modeling. You will get it together.”
It’s funny how Mike said “that is why it is modeling.” One time in the ’80s, I bought some glow-in-the-dark reissues of the Aurora monster kits. I told the hobby-shop guy that I didn’t want them to glow; I wanted to paint them, like I did when I was a kid. He told me I’d have to prime the kits with white spray-paint beforehand. I asked, “How many coats?” He answered, “At least two.” I said, “Aw, nuts.” I’ll never forget his reply: “That’s why it’s called a hobby.”
So I did what I had to do. I glued the instruments to the figures any way I could, while still trying to make them seem to be strumming and forming chords on the frets … then I glued the figures to the base one at a time … then, for support, I kind of glued them to each other a bit … and after that, I glued on the props such as the microphone stands, the amp, the Coke bottles and the bottle caps.
A week later, I was re-reading Campbell’s article about the genesis of the Weird-Ohs. In talking about the “Silly Surfers” line of kits (another Weird-Oh spinoff), Campbell alluded to problems very similiar to the ones I had with the Steel Pluckers. Wrote the artist: “Have you ever tried to assembly any of the Surfers? Because of the haste to get them to market, even more shortcuts had to be taken. … The result was a far-from-easy model to assemble. I know, because I put them together for a friend. Getting the parts to align without pins was quite a task.”
Reading those words, again, felt like vindication. It wasn’t just me. I wasn’t going mad.
Above is the finished kit. The painting is terrible and I practically covered it in glue, but it’s done. When I look at it, I get a happy feeling, like I’m 8 again. And I really needed to do it for this graphic I’m working on. (There will be some Photoshopping involved.)
Here are the Steel Pluckers on a shelf in my office, flanked by a Batman Pez and a Doc Magnus figure. (Speak of the devil — if you squint your eyes, you’ll see that behind Doc is my Aurora Mummy model with the “engineered” hanging bandages.)
For context, above are four shelves of memorabilia from my lifetime of collecting — in the grand scheme, it’s really a modest collection — with the Steel Pluckers circled.
Anyway, I just thought I’d share. Say it loud: Bill Campbell is a genius. Mark Cantrell‘s book about the artist (which I don’t own, but plan to some day) is “A Weird-Oh World: The Art of Bill Campell” from Schiffer Publishing. Campbell’s Wikipedia page is HERE.
Above is the video I watched by Mike Fifer, the hobby shop proprietor who sent me that message of encouragement. In the video, Mike shows you his finishes on the Weird-Oh kits “Huey’s Hut Rod” (a hillbilly in an outhouse-on-wheels with a moonshine jug and a corncob stickshift) and “Freddy Flameout” (a Digger-esque pilot with the requisite veiny eyeballs).
Above is another video I watched, an hpiguys Workshop build of the Weird-Oh kit “Leaky Boat Louie.” What can I say? I would never have the patience required to do such a good job on these.