Career Pivot at 45: An Unexpected Journey Indeed

By Adam Crohn

I’ve been an artist my whole life. When I was about 7 and discovered comic books, I began emulating all the different ways Batman was drawn overlooking Gotham through my own sketches. I was constantly trying to recreate the crazy mess of Spider-Man’s webs as they tangled around him while he swung through NYC in the comics. I was very lucky to have parent’s that fed my toy addiction, be it with the smaller scale stuff (I didn’t have a Millennium Falcon or AT AT Walker), I had plenty of 3.75” action figures to go around. And when I couldn’t get a toy I wanted I’d make my own version of it out of cardboard, toothpicks, and even repurposed toys. I’d take them apart and reassemble them into a Frankensteined version of what I was looking for. I did that with phones a lot too for some reason.

I carried this interest in art through most of high school and added to my arsenal of abilities and mediums along the way. There was a span of time at the end of high school and through college where that part of me went into hibernation. I became a musician, discovered girls, and started working. I was going to school for all the wrong reasons, most of which were not mine, and I finally ended up getting my degree and a full-time job. Then some time in 2005 my brother gave me a few of my favorite issues of Fantastic Four from when we were kids, and almost overnight all those capes and cowls, spider webs, and tiny plastic visages broke free from the mental Darth Vader shaped carrying case I’d had them stored in over the years. I immediately was hooked again and felt this hunger to feed every corner of my artistic being that had been dormant all this time.

The Fantastic Four issue my brother got me

Right away I was drawing and building and taking apart and collecting again. It felt like I was eating 5 Peppermint Patties and simultaneously brushing my teeth while standing outside on a 24-degree Chicago winter day. I’m trying to say it was fresh! I was renewed in a way I wasn’t aware I needed to be.

I rode this wave for several years, mostly sustained by comics, drawing, and music. And then around mid-2010 I was randomly browsing toys on Google images and came across an action figure the likes of which I didn’t think could exist. It was of the DC/Milestone character, Icon. A kind of African American analogue of Superman. When I was a kid, his comics were mildly popular, but I was absolutely familiar with him. But this incarnation of Icon was more than iconic. I didn’t know what toy company had made him, or what year it was made in, but I needed it. After a few more clicks I realized that what I was looking at was a custom action figure made by the artist Loose Collector. I would later find out that Loose Collector was a moniker for an artist named Dave, who to this day is one of the greatest influences on me as an artist.

Icon figure by Loose Collector

The impact Dave’s work had on me that day started my journey into the realm of toy, character and concept design. The next day after seeing his Icon figure I went to my local comic shop, bought a Deadpool action figure, and took him home to repaint. It was my first attempt as an adult at customizing a toy and it was complete slop! But I put it on eBay anyway. A few days later it sold for about twice what I’d paid for it, and it suddenly hit me that people other than myself and my mom were interested in my art. And thus began what is now my own small business, AC Toy Design.

It’s been over a decade now that I’ve been drawing and designing, kit bashing and sculpting, painting and selling my own custom action figures and toys. I’ve had a decent amount of success with it. I’ve worked on some amazing projects (Quinten Tarrantino owns one of my pieces given to him by Eli Roth), and I’ve met and worked with some inspiring people. I’ve discovered a gracious and fun community, and cultivated my own corner within it. Along with the physical art side of ACTD, the experience has also given me the opportunity to hone my writing and creative voice, because as anyone who has ever attempted their own small business will tell you, the product is only half the work. Marketing your brand and selling yourself is an equal part. And I enjoy it. I’m good at it.

But now change is upon me.

I’ve reached a point where I’m not sure how much further I can push my art as a business in the form that it is currently in. If I was 35, I’d move into the digital world and try to get work as a freelance designer. But that is time I don’t have. I’m 45, and though that isn’t old by a long shot, reformatting my small business at this point, which if I’m honest is more of a glorified hobby (the pandemic made sure of that), might work or I might find myself 50 and having to make the changes I’m making right now. And that’s a bit scary. I will always have AC Toy Design at my side, fueling my soul, and helping me pay a few bills. But I’m at a point in my life where I need to be acting for the long term. And a steady paycheck would be nice too.

One of my biggest weaknesses is that I never really picked one of my many interests and committed 100% of myself to it and ran with it. I’ve always spread myself too thin over too much toast (or however Bilbo says it) and given too many things only part of my effort. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being overly modest or self-deprecating. I know that I’m a talented artist and creator, and I’ve produced some damn cool stuff over the years and had a lot of fun doing it. But I crave dependability and consistency now.

I’ve been writing for many years of my life, and as you can see, I’ve got some stuff to say. So, I had the crazy idea to become a writer. Yes, I might have some idealistic vision of what that means, wanting to be some less creepy version of Johnny Depp with corn stuck in his braces, emulating Stephen King from a quaint cabin in the woods. I’ll give you that. But I think it’s something that I can make happen. The writing, not the corn.

That said, I’m terrified. I haven’t had to be part of the “professional” working world ever, really. I went from my paper route to managing a baseball card shop to working in a mall at Kay Bee Toys through my childhood. I spent 13 years in the restaurant business during and after college, then became a personal trainer before I founded AC Toy Design. On “paper” I don’t look like much, and I’m realizing that how you unfold on paper is all that matters when you’re looking to work for someone else. I won’t get into complaining about how unfortunate that is, but it really is a sad set of values we’ve placed upon the work force in our country.

I’ve never had to have a resume. Over the last 9 months of 2022 I’ve had to cobble one together, filling it with too many buzzwords, cliches and hyperbole. I’ve rewritten it about 17 times trying to tailor it to represent someone I’m not for people I don’t know. I’ve created a LinkedIn profile that feels like I’m being forced to play with Facebook’s eviler brother. Which by the way, when did we become so dependent on such a non-functional, busy, and disingenuous social media platform for job hunting? I find it a bit absurd that a platform like LinkedIn is the industry standard for virtual career prospects. Streamlining comes to mind.

But what it comes down to is I have no idea what I’m doing, and I’m feeling a bit obsolete, from a certain point of view.

The upside of all of this? I’m writing more. Almost every day. I’m allocating my time better, which is huge, and who knows where that could take me. I’m also very excited about a career in writing. And I have no preference how that pays the bills as long as it does. Creative writing is my drive, but copywriting has been my go-to for the past few years. Add to the stack that I host and produce several podcasts, and with that comes a lot of writing. Scripts, copy, marketing and social media are all on my plate and I love doing it. And though I still need one for my own work, I’ve become a decent editor of other folks’ writing. So, there are options.

As for my art and design, it’s been one hell of a ride. Something I never thought would happen back when I was sitting in Mr. Dawkins’ seventh grade art class for the third time because I wanted an hour during the school day where I could just draw. Writing is an art, that goes without saying, but to me, physical art is something very different. It is so much of who I am, and I’m thankful for it and in love with it. I did think (and still hold hope in the back of my head and heart) that this was it and that I was going to make a long career out of the toy and character design business. And who knows where it will go from here. But something I’m sure of is that it will be a part of my life until the end.

“How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on when in your heart you begin to understand, there is no going back.” -JRR Tolkien

“Go forward” -Christopher Reeve

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