The Suckadelic Era
The Sucklord: the hardest-working dirtbag in toyland.
Photographs by Dustin Fenstermacher
You're an Asshole for Reading This.
That's the first thing the Sucklord would want you to know. The second would be that the Sucklord's an asshole, too, but you might have already assumed that. The third might be that when the designer-toy world's biggest jerkbag had his own two-week retrospective in a pop-up Chelsea gallery this past January, this was the artist's statement handwritten on the wall:
BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH
BLAH BLAH FUCK YOU BLAH BLAH
BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH
BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH, ETC. . .
THE SUPER SUCKLORD, 1-11-11
The show's title was You're an Asshole for Buying This. Still, the Sucklord sold many pieces.
The Sucklord's credit card says "Suckadelic." His trading-card sets are marketed as "Suckpax." The West Village woman who gave him life proudly introduces herself as "the Suckmom." Probably the only bit of Sucklore the pop-culture entrepreneur doesn't want you to know is that underneath all the dumb bravado, the Sucklord actually seems like a pretty good guy.
The Sucklord is 42-year-old Morgan Phillips, a lifelong Star Wars fan and unrepentant toy geek who lived with his mother until he was 36. For most of his adulthood, lucrative employment evaded the native New Yorker: The insurance company where his mother worked wouldn't hire him for the mail room; for three years after art school in Oregon, the P.S. 41 graduate set up mannequins at Canal Jeans and earned $7 an hour. None of this made his romantic life ideal. He didn't lose his virginity until he was 21; in 2004, he filmed the premiere episode of the short-lived VH1 series Can't Get a Date (2006), where the host interrogated the man-boy about a full urine bottle he kept beside his bed. (He refused to empty it because, as he told his mother off-camera, one day, it would be valuable.)
But over the past five years, Morgan Phillips has completely flipped the script. By bootlegging toys as the Sucklord—a side of his personality Morgan describes the same way Larry David talks about his Curb Your Enthusiasm counterpart—he looms large in the lowbrow-art realm as a fast-talking showman who crudely fabricates "illegal" toys, dons a purple leisure suit for public appearances, and arrives at comic-cons with a scantily clad bevy of Asian women. His work has sold in Christie's auctions. His limited-edition pieces, which outright mock the very act of toy collecting, usually sell out in a day, regarded among the very consumers hes mocking as souvenirs of his cartoon-provocateur persona. ("It's like going to see a movie and leaving with a prop," is how one online defender explained.) He has a very cute girlfriend. And somehow next month, the Sucklord has amusingly talked his way into being a contestant on the second season of Bravo's faux-tony Work of Art: The Search for the Next Great Artist, the gallery world's Top Chef, which Sarah Jessica Parker co-produces.
"He will either win the whole thing or lose gloriously," pronounces Paul Budnitz, founder of toy boutique Kidrobot, who has never seen the cable show and doesn't watch television but knows who we're dealing with here. "Either way, it's a great victory for him."
Earlier this year, New York magazine's culture blog, Vulture, asked Sarah Jessica Parker, after this season's shooting had started, if she foresaw any breakout characters. She laughed. "Um, I suspect there might be one."
The Sucklords contract keeps him mum about specifics, but the intermingling of urbane wine-party critiques and a guy whos interpretation of fine art is Boba Fett crucified on an X-Wing Fighter should be quite something. "I'm just not quite sophisticated enough to fit into the fine-art world," he admits, "but I'm not dumb and derivative enough to totally blend in with the toy world."
For example, at a 2008 custom-toy show of blank Bart Simpson Qee dolls that organizers asked artists to design, Sucklord put Bart in a jar of piss and submitted it as Piss Bart. Almost nobody got the Andres Serrano reference— the toy-nerd people thought it was supposed to be formaldehyde. "I'm sort of an oddity in the toy world, he concurs. There are some people who worship me like a God and other people who can't see past the crappy exterior and think I might be a hack. And I might be a hack." And that might entirely be the point.
Suckadelic Enterprises is, according to brand mythology, headquartered in a "secret" Chinatown facility. This is a partly savvy attempt to cast the unlicensed pop-art-merch company as a kindred spirit among Canal Street's fake-purse matrons and San Gennaro pickpocket crews and Broadway sidewalk scammers. It's also partly because Morgan Phillips rents a Mott Street apartment and feels most at home in this vestigial old New York neighborhood, among fellow hustlers who treat transactions like challenges.
Morgan conceived "Suckadelic" on an acid trip; it's actually hard to believe the word's absent from the Urban Dictionary. "I consider sucking bad," he says. "But if it's Suckadelic, it's transformational sucking." As a brand name, the word is an insurance policy, a gimmick, a joke, a shorthand for the hackneyed phrase so bad, it's good. By calling it Suckadelic, you sort of lower your expectations: it might suck a little bit." Given that Suckadelic is a solo operationhe doesnt personally have a publicist, an agent (yet), a reliable intern, an assistant, or a rich social life, though he does have a girlfriend who likes helpingthe Sucklord doesnt have the resources, the time, or even necessarily the intention to make his figures flawless. "The quality is not the main thing; it's the energy, or the idea, or the spirit behind it, not the quality."
The Sucklab is a Chrystie Street studio, a rectangular prism of paint-splotched toy carnage that was once considered a part of Chinatown but is now, as he qualifies disgustedly, "fucking fancyland." One September Friday afternoon there, surrounded by tiny molds that look like mini Han Solos trapped in carbonite, the Sucklord is wearing a Slob Nation Army T-shirt and amplifying his narcissism. "What was I saying?" he asks after a momentary lapse, then smirks. "Something really brilliant?"
Besides his inflated-ego schtick, the Sucklord, a diminutive guy with a skullet-hawk haircut, is best known for kitbashing: He tears off appendages from vintage action figures, reproduces the parts he wants to reappropriate through resin casting, then reassembles the pieces and reinvents new characters. "I liken this to sampling in a way, where you take little bits and pieces, and you remix," he explains. Unlicensed mixing is how Suckadelic first started in 1998; Morgan spliced together a mix CD of sampled Star Wars dialogue laid over old-school breakbeats, hawked them at comic conventions, and ended up talking about the project on All Things Considered, which to this day, he considers his most highbrow compliment.
"He kept saying, 'George Lucas is going to come after me,'" the Suckmom remembers. "I said, 'You wish!'"
George Lucas never did bother. (Lucas Licensing did not respond to requests for comment.) Fortunate, because Star Wars villains are the primary source material for Sucklord's best-known work. The Sucklord, which is also the name of a signature action-figure character, is a geek-baller antihero who dons an all-gray Boba Fett mask, rocks a caped beryl-blue tracksuit, carries a boombox, and hangs a lightsaber from his belt. This is the costume the Sucklord tends to inhabit by default, sauntering around comic conventions.
The Boba Fett version of Sucklord is also the main character in the schlocky Suckadelic Web series, The Toy Lords of Chinatown, a '70s-sploitation New Jack City spoof in which toys are contraband instead of drugs. "In those videos, there are so many references to kung-fu movies and Japanese samurai films and to cheap toy ads we all saw as kids, and it's mixed in with street culture," says Budnitz, who not only sells Sucklord stuff in Kidrobot but also featured Sucklord pieces in his coffee-table designer-toy book, I Am Plastic, Too. "I think he's a fine artist: He appropriates all this different stuff from pop culture and mashes it together and comes up with something so strange and interesting and self-referential and brilliant."
But what Sucklord has managed to do, while being entirely complicit in the toy world, is to make fun of the fantasies that have inspired his whole career. He prints "You're an Asshole for Buying This" on every Suckadelic product and names characters Spooky Booty, Cosmo Douche, and Space Chump. "Each one of these pieces is handmade," says Dov Kelemer, owner of West Coast DKE Toy Distributors. "The resin that he's poured, that he's designed, and the whole concept of the toy—the whole joke or gag—is that it's a toy that makes fun of all toys." For example, he mocks himself and every other hapless nerd who lived vicariously through sci-fi heroines with Another Bitch You Didn't Get to Fuck, a perfectly proportioned Barbarella-type figure sold backward. When you turn her around, she has the face of Star Wars monster General Grievous.
"His toys, at least to me, aren't that creative," says Toypinionated.com's Matthew Hisey, a San Diego resident with a 700-piece designer-toy collection. "But any inclination I've ever had to buy a piece of his was simply because I wanted to own a piece of his attitude. He is his own marketing machine. Everybody wants to be around him or look at the guy from afar—maybe they're scared to be around him because he's weird—but it's that that makes you want to buy his stuff."
Sucklord's all-time bestseller is the Gay Empire series, a Galactic army of pink Stormtroopers with pronounced bulges that was meant as a hammy rejection of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The Sucklord rechristened them Homotroopers, sealed them in a two-color blister pack with a rose-tinged Stormtrooper holding another from behind, and spoofed a complete set of Gay Empire characters on the back (Barney Frank, Peppermint Patty, Bert and Ernie, etc.) Gay Empire Attack!, a mounted series of 40 Homotroopers, was one of two pieces auctioned off for $1,250 at Christie's in June 2008. The other was a Star Wars AT-AT tagged like a delivery truck. (By contrast, in the same auction, a vintage 20-inch Alien doll spun off the 1979 Ridley Scott film, unopened in its original box, sold for $1,000.)
The Gay Empire is what first got the attention of retired rock-poster artist and designer-toy giant Frank Kozik. "Morgan comes off like a clown sometimes, right?" says Kozik recently over cheesecake. "But to me, he's really the purest form of American huckster artist. He's a raconteur, he's a wise guy, he's a P.T. Barnum. He has incredible charisma: He can put on a crappy homemade costume, and he can transform himself into this gigantic figure. I'm real fascinated by what he's doing." In Midtown for a Swatch-Kidrobot collaboration release, the graphic-artist heavyweight continues, unprompted. "He's producing these little crappy handmade objects that seem so wrong and so stupid, but they're actually kind of like super-important. There're infinite onion layers of meaning into his toys." The 800-pound toy-gorilla pauses. "Is this sycophantic enough?" He yells into the recorder, "Fuck you, Morgan; you owe me money!"
The Suckmom lives in a second-floor West 11th walk-up, where she has resided for 39 years, since the Suckbaby was three. It's a mid-September Sunday afternoon, a football game is muted on a big-screen television that had previously been tuned to Fox News. ("I'm a right-wing lunatic," she announced earlier over the phone.) The walls are aggressively bedecked with thumbtacked paintings and travel mementos, nearly every inch covered. If Jean Stapleton had been a West Village divorcee, she might have been something like the delightfully eccentric Suckmom, whose real name is Rosie.
With the exception of that five-year art-school stint, Morgan lived here until 2006. His childhood bedroom houses "every toy that his mother ever bought him," Suckmom says, narrating the apartment tour in the third person. The space is now used for storage, but relics of his fantasy life remain: Above where he slept, there's a Disney mirror adorned with Pinocchio characters and a sticker of rapper Lil' Kim with her legs spread. VHS tapes overwhelm a floor-to-ceiling bookcase; facing outward are early episodes of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Josie and the Pussycats. Tucked away among the boxes, one of which is labeled "GI JOE," is a Pac-Man board game and a dented Boba Fett helmet.
There's a wooden loft built into the room, which still bears ancient Star Wars stickers. It was too hot to sit up there, Rosie says, so Morgan put his mattress on the floor. "I couldn't believe that girls would actually sleep with him in here," his mother guffaws. "He lived in that pit until he was how old?" Thirty-six. "Thirty-six going on 12!" She shrugs. "It wasn't his fault. Rents are high, and he had his standards."
She moves to the living room. "Morgan's secretly a good guy," she says from the couch, where she will later announce that her adult son frequently used to masturbate. "Doesn't he try to be evil? Gimme a break."
Morgan William Phillips was born March 27, 1969. His father, an Englishman named Frank, loved sports cars, so his parents chose the child's first name in tribute to the long-nosed, two-seater British classic. (If he'd been a girl, he would've been named Portia, after a Porsche.) As Rosie tells it, the Sucklord was very determined to exist. "I gave my husband one shot at it," Rosie remembers fondly. "I didn't want to have a child—I am a child!" (They have since divorced; all along, Rosie knew she preferred women partners.) At the time, the married couple lived in a Christopher Street studio. She denied the pregnancy for four months, insisting that she had a cold and put on weight. "Nobody knew how long I'd been pregnant because I'd lied for so long," she says. In the delivery room, she refused to push more than once. Still, "the baby popped out like toast. Literally. Like, boing!" She laughs. "If we'd only held a toy out, he would have come out by himself."
Morgan's Star Wars fixation began when he was a boy, and Rosie was willing to indulge. He first saw the film with his father; the kid loved it so much, his mother escorted him back to see Star Wars in the theater 54 times. ("It was more like 25," Morgan corrects later.) George Lucas's creations even informed his idea of Christmas: His version of a yuletide scene, as he drew in markers on a plate Rosie still has on display, was two TIE Fighters shooting down a Christmas tree, the attack so powerful the ornaments flew off like deflated balloons. When The Empire Strikes Back came out in 1980, Rosie took her son and his classmates to the school-day premiere. When the movie was over, she instructed all the kids to crouch down on the floor—"being the sneaky mother that I am," she ducked, too—and they saw the film a second time.
The Sucklord origin story, at least the one Morgan tells, dates back to 1979. Elementary-school Morgan took a bar of soap, pressed in the figure of Greedo, the bounty hounter Han Solo blasts dead in the classic Star Wars Cantina scene, and then sharply poured in melted crayon wax to make a crude casting. Morgan's mom disputes this account. "He'd make toys out of shit!" she declares. "I kept him clean, but the minute it was there, Morgan was trying to make something out of it." Rosie has told this story to an interviewer before; her son was understandably mortified. "You heard it from me: The great Sucklord started making things from shit!"
The BROOKLYN BLOGGER behind ToyGrudge agrees. Last month, regarding Sucklords Super 'Lac Suckcar, a Fisher-Price Little People knockoff of a toy pimp in a plastic tail-finned Cadillac, the self-described designer/developer who goes by Frost posted, "This is an absolute and complete piece of shit," and added, "Next time I want a designer toy, I'll go shopping in my baby cousin's room. Or maybe some baby's diaper." The set's price tag was $125. "FUCK MAN! $125 for this? Really? Are you serious?"
All together now: You're an asshole for buying this. "On the surface, I have a very hostile attitude towards people who buy this shit," the Sucklord admits, gluing on a lizard leg in his studio. "I don't understand why you'd be so stupid as to pay $200 for this set. And I make fun of people for doing that. But! I really fucking appreciate it. I don't understand because I would never do it. I would never buy any of this shit. But other people buy it obsessively. And I feel like I have an obligation to keep them entertained."
Also, to pay rent. For example, today, he's assembling his most recent bootleg series, which he expects to reaffirm his "nerd bona fides." There's Ass-Master, a shirtless red warrior with a Stormtrooper head and a Viking helmet. There's Necromancer, a dead-whisperer inspired by Lord of the Rings antagonist Sauron, whom Morgan used to dress up as when he performed as a nerdcore hypeman for Hobbit-rapping duo Lord of the Rhymes. ("There're some people who look at this and think I'm some kind of hipster," scoffs the Sucklord. "I'm a real nerdy guy at the heart of it.") There's Grim-Fail, a green lizard-man whose anatomy is "an orgy of B-list figures from the '70s and '80s": His body is stolen from a Dragon Riders of the Styx figure ("another sort of shitty, sort of rip-off D&D line"), his arms from a Mego Green Goblin figure (the Sucklord has a Green Goblin tattoo on his left arm), his head comes from a Flash Gordon toy, and his hat was pilfered from a Buck Rogers guard. "Most people looking at that aren't gonna know that," he admits. "But the people who do know are gonna shit their pants."
The trio is limited to 50 copies; he will sell them for $200 a bundle. It's absurd to think that the pile of tiny limbs spread out on newspapers potentially represents $10,000. The Sucklord knows this is ridiculous; he can't believe it either. That's why he sells broken toys. Like Rejects, figures thrown together from random toy body parts lying around this room. On September 1, 2011, the highest of eight eBay bidders paid $103.50 for his trash. "The bubble is purposefully dented on the top and the card is miscut," read the seller's description. "Sucklord wanted these to look crappy and did a good job of it too." Meanwhile, Attackers of the Missing Stuff, an Indiana Jones satire with a Boba Fett helmet, limited to 10, is currently for sale online with the asking price of $665.99. And then theres Lou C. Furr the Pimp, a terribly crappy resin figure made by someone named Ed Haskel and qualified on eBay as "not sucklord." That sold for $11.50.
"I always knew that out of all the people making designer toys, Morgan was going to come out of this the most famous," says Kelemer, who has the biggest collection of Sucklord stuff in existence. "Aside from KAWS"—a commercial artist whos collaborated with everyone from Kanye West to Kiehl's and is coincidentally a guest Work of Art judge this season—"and other artists I could count on one hand, to have a toy that came out for $30 that's now selling between $500 and $1,200? I have not seen anything else like that."
The Sucklord even has a parodist, the Schmucklord. (The Schmucklord's mission statement: "My clever plan is to make crap instead of good stuff but pretend like I done it on purpose! Clever.") Instead of getting defensive, the Sucklord reached out, asking the joker to scribble on trading cards that would become limited-edition. "I absorbed him," says the Sucklord. "Free labor."
Sucklord's most vocal hater, ToyGrudge's Frost (both his blogger pseudonym and his gamer tag), is excited for Work of Art's new season. "The guy is not an artist and maybe this series will help to show some of that," he types over e-mail. "All I can hope for is that this is the beginning of the end."
This is very unlikely. On Season Two's trailer, which hit the Internet in late August, the first thing you see, after the obligatory Brooklyn Bridge scene-setter, is the Sucklord punching a drywall sheet in army-fatigue cargo pants and a red hoodie. He appears in the minute-long trailer seven times, more than nearly any other contestant—or even Sarah Jessica Parker. "Confidence is very attractive in a man," confides 24-year-old castmate Lola, whom he had photographed topless except for suspenders. "Or a Sucklord." Soon we see him yelling, presumably at the judges, "I don't really give a [bleep]! I think this thing has balls."
Dismiss the Sucklord however you likeasshole, jerkbag, hack, huckster, genius, artist, provocateur, con manhe said it all first. The objects he makes are just tokens of such popular-American self-delusions and fictions. "Somehow I'm 42 years old, and I'm still living in a kid's fantasy," Sucklord says. "I'm able to make a living—sort of—not living in reality. The fact that you go to one of my things, and everybody's wearing masks, being cartoon versions of themselves. And it's almost real enough? It's like, we'll be sitting in a Chinese restaurant, eating with our masks on, acting like it's normal. And the fact that's my job? That's what this is really about: that I've sort of been able to project my fantasy world into reality and make it my reality. That's what the product really is. These things are really the merchandise that go along with the idea, the idea of living in a fucking comic book. Making your life into a comic book. Or making your life into fucking Star Wars. It's like, all these other drudges that go to work in an office and then buy Stormtrooper figures at Toys R Us? God bless them. But fuck that. Why should I do that when I can be that?"
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.