By ROCCO T. THOMPSON
Launching this past February, ROCK BOTTOM NOVELTIES has already made a splash with their lovingly-crafted, retro-styled original monster masks. Dubbed “Super Masks,” these small-batch, collector-quality novelties are sculpted and designed by Aaron Lewis and Peter Infelise (as well as Oakland, CA-based artist, Skinner) in limited editions of one-hundred individually numbered units. As if that wasn’t cool enough, the masks are produced by the legendary Zagone Studios, a family-run factory that’s been pumping out masks since the 1970s and remains the sole company still manufacturing them in the U.S. We caught up with Lewis and Infelise to discuss their love of monsters, how the company got started, and what fans of their first three creature creations can expect in the coming year.
What made want to start Rock Bottom Novelties? How did Skinner get involved?
PI: The love of monster masks brought Aaron and I together. We met virtually through an online mask forum, then in person at the Maskfest convention, and then discovered that we lived only 45 minutes away from each other. The rest is history as they say (no one says that). We had tossed around the idea of starting a company together for a few years, and then during the pandemic, we finally began serious discussions and planning. We spent the entirety of 2020 planning and developing the business during the quarantine.
I have been a fan of Skinner’s work for awhile, and always thought that his illustrations would translate well as masks. Last summer I finally worked up the nerve to reach out to him. We had some prior communication on Instagram commenting on each other’s work, but to be honest, I was totally intimidated at first. What I didn’t realize is how cool, down-to-earth, and genuine of a human being that Skinner is. He is as gracious as he is talented, and it’s been a blast translating his creature designs into masks! His support has been invaluable.
AL: As Pete mentioned, it was masks and monsters that caused our paths to cross. In the past few years, we had gotten into a semi-regular schedule of hanging out and mask-making together, tossing crazy ideas back and forth while we’d work to keep each other amused and inspired. It was during one of these early creative sessions I tossed out the idea of starting ROCK BOTTOM NOVELTIES, a word-play homage to the old ’60s Topstone Rubber Toys Company. It would continue to pop up in our conversations from time to time but it was not anything we actually put our combined energy into working on… yet.
What do both of you bring to the table?
PI: We both bring several years of mask-making experience to the table with over 40 years of combined experience. I also have a professional background in graphic design, web, motion graphics. Coupled with a love for enormous header card designs, we have the largest header cards in the business! [Laughs] I really do love a good header card, as well as any chance to flex my motion design chops in a ROCK BOTTOM promo.
AL: What Pete said! Aside from sculpting, I have dabbled in some graphic design here and there but Pete is really a master when it comes to that.
You’re obviously “monster kids,” where does that love come from?
PI: Being a kid that grew up in the Chicagoland area, my love of monsters spawned from Saturday afternoons watching the Son of Svengoolie (now Svengoolie). Picking up my first issue of Famous Monsters magazine in 1982 sealed the deal for good. I’ve been hooked ever since.
AL: All the toys I remember playing with as a kid were somehow monster related – The Mighty Men & Monster Maker, The Vincent Price Shrunken Apple Head kit, The Thingmaker II, Gre-Gory the Bat, the Kenner Alien…all stuff I was playing with by the time I was 6 years old. In the summer of 1979 “Son of Svengoolie” started hosting weekly monster movies. I never had a chance!
Did you always want Zagone Studios to be involved in the process? How did you get them on board?
AL: I started sculpting for Zagone in November of 2019. One day it was mentioned that if I had anything of my own I wanted to produce, they would be open to doing that for me. That instantly got the gears in my mind spinning and I mentioned it to Pete the first chance I got. I believe it was at this point he said to me, “Let’s do the ROCK BOTTOM NOVELTIES idea” and we seriously turned our focus towards planning. Zagone has been great to work with and super receptive to our crazy ideas.
PI: Having Zagone Studios produce our work is a dream come true. [They’re] based about 6 miles from my house, and these were the masks for sale in all the Chicagoland area stores at Halloween time when we were growing up. So, we quite literally grew up admiring Zagone masks, which were called Be Something Studios masks back in the day. Aaron [sculpting] led to some conversations about having our work produced there. I still have to pinch myself when [I’m] at the factory, sculpting, or picking up masks or checking out a paint prototype. Seriously! It’s just another layer of crazy coolness that has come from us forming ROCK BOTTOM NOVELTIES.
What were the main sources of inspiration behind your first collection of Super Masks? Why were these three creatures the right ones to introduce Rock Bottom Novelties to the world?
PI: I knew I wanted to sculpt a zombie as my first contribution to the Super Mask line. Zombies are my personal favorite monster to sculpt, and they are typically strong sellers. I also had my eye on a few of Skinner’s zombie designs, and once I decided on one to sculpt, the Super Zombie mask was born!
AL: I thought we should have some kind of a classic assortment of crazy creatures. Pete and I came up with a list of 50 or 60 different mask names one night that we can draw inspiration from. It’s kind of funny – the very first mask idea I had – the one that inspired Pete to exclaim “Super Masks!”– hasn’t even been made yet.
Can you give us any hints about what’s coming down the pike for ROCK BOTTOM NOVELTIES?
PI: We have two more Super Masks in production at the factory as we speak. The Super Creep and the Super Space Wizard! We also have three completed Super Mask sculpts that we are planning to release in 2021 and are looking to firmly establish Super Masks as the craziest line of rubber monster masks that the world has ever known! In addition, we are going to launch a new line of toys, and some shlock novelty items as well. We will really be diversifying into all these areas in 2021.