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Carving heroes and villains from virtual clay

Joseph Menna has worked on everything from Jefferson to Batman to the world's biggest statue.

You can't call Joe Menna one-dimensional.

As a renowned sculptor, the South Jersey-raised University of the Arts grad is not only a 3-D kind of guy, he's also a triple threat.

As a staff artist at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, he's immortalized the likes of Washington, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt on U.S. dollar coins.

On his own time, he's crafted a second career – and national reputation – digitally sculpting action figures and collectible statues of famous fantasy characters, from Batman to Voldemort to Star Wars' Darth Maul turned part cyborg spider. Menna's been using virtual chisels for more than a decade, relying on 3-D printing long before it became a buzzword. He's done demos of digital sculpting at national conventions, like San Diego's Comic Con two years ago for DC Collectibles.

"I'm a lifelong card-carrying comics geek," said Menna, 44, who has tattoos that pay homage to Dr. Who, Silver Surfer and Star Wars.

Now he's helping make history, too. A campaign in India to build the world's largest statue commissioned him to create a design. His likeness of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who led hundreds of princely states to form the modern nation, is the working model for a 597-foot-tall colossus, part of a proposed $400 million complex in Gujarat, on the northwest coast of India. This Statue of Unity would be about twice height of the Statue of Liberty, taller than Philadelphia City Hall, including William Penn, and higher even than the Crazy Horse slowly being carved out of a mountain in South Dakota.

And the Asian statue's height doesn't even count its 60-foot-high base. Count that and the monument would be about two-thirds as tall as the Eiffel Tower.

You'll see Menna's design front and center on the website for the project. Whether it's the final vision remains to be seen. With the usual set of obstacles, from lawsuits to political objections to a need for massive donations, the project is far from written in stone – or, in this case, bronze-covered concrete-on-steel.

Coins and statues can foster national pride, but Menna's fantasy-world figures strike even more chords in the public imagination, firing up a full spectrum of reactions. You can't help but cringe at the creepiness of Joker, feel fear in the presence of Voldemort, be moved by the sultry slinkiness of Catwoman, and marvel at how such things can be created in a computer.

Slide Show: "A Gallery of Art by Digital Sculptor Joseph Menna"

Paradoxically, fantasy has long been fueled by realism – witness the scars, the veins, the bulging muscles, the textures of textiles of Menna's creations. The more vivid, the more beautiful the dream, the scarier the nightmare.

So it's not surprising to hear Menna say his enthusiasm for art grew from his love of comic books, sci-fi and fantasy while growing up in Blackwood, Camden County, where he graduated from Highland Regional High School.

After graduating from Philadelphia's University of the Arts in 1992, he got his master's at the New York Academy of Art in 1994.

Practice assignments from Valiant Comics made him think he had a shot at landing a penciling, or primary illustration, gig. But he decided to stick with sculpture, and went to study at Russia's prestigious Steiglitz academy, where students would shovel clay out of a dump truck and fill cast-iron tubs in classrooms.

Menna says that, for realism, the St. Petersburg school "was better than anything in the West," where abstract art was more in favor. He took his art career very seriously, striving to become a classical fine artist, another Michaelangelo, rather than a commercial one.

"You put Shakespeare in your crosshairs, and give it a shot," he said.

It's telling that he refers to "the guy who changed my life," Soviet-born artist and teacher Leonid Lehrman, as his "Obi-Wan Kenobi."

Menna met his wife at the Steiglitz academy. Julianna Menna, a painter with her own fantasy-world style, specializes in portraying grotesque characters in ornate dress. She's been building her own fan base, selling in galleries, like Arch Enemy Arts in Center City, and online. They're raising three children in Bordentown, Burlington County.

Slide show: "Fashionably Frightening: The Art of Julianna Menna"

Joe's Russian evolution, in turn, fit the digital revolution. Increasingly sophisticated design software – including types used to create Hollywood special effects – allowed Menna to incorporate finer and finer details.

In his study/studio, he points out how the Lucifer-like Mephisto he created for Marvel has an array of contorted faces on the back, reminiscent of Rodin's Gates of Hell. (See Parkway museum's original casting.)

Using programs like ZBrush and FreeForm, he can scratch, gouge, slice, smooth, stretch, bend, pad and do all sorts of other tricks, using dozens of virtual tools, turning an object to access it from any direction.

The experience isn't like digging hands into clay. "It's a completely different medium ... It's not like sculpting and it's not like drawing," Menna said.

Because collectible fantasy figures can sell for $200 and up, "there's a responsibility to make it everything it could possibly be for the fans," he said.

"I try to honor the legacy of the characters, what does the character represent to the fans, who were the artists that created the most iconic versions of these characters?" he said.

He can even incorporate joints that let action figures move.

Video: "Joseph Menna demonstrates digital sculpting"
Video:  "Joseph Menna talks about the digital sculpting world"

Such attention to detail has made Menna in demand by the likes of DC Collectibles, Bowen Designs, Gentle Giant, McFarlane Toys, Dark Horse Comics and Pop Culture Shock Collectibles.

"Joe is a very talented artist and well-respected sculptor in the industry," said Jim Fletcher, creative director at DC Collectibles. "We have used him on many diverse projects."

Once Menna's designs are finished, they're 3-D printed at Jason Wires Productions near Atlanta, where master copies are hand-painted to send to factories, usually overseas. There, copies are produced from molds and painted, packed and shipped. The collectibles are usually sold through catalogues, websites and speciality shops, like comics book stores.

Jason Wires, whose shop produces prototypes of everything from Thomas the Tank Engine to super-articulated action figures, says Menna is "absolutely top-tier. He's one of the best in the industry," and made his mark early in digital sculpting. "He beta-tested FreeForm ... he goes to conventions and does seminars on ZBrush," Wires said.

And the future's only going to get more digital, as 3-D printing keeps improving.

Five years ago, digital designs accounted for no more than 20 percent of the work Wires handled. Now it's at least 50 percent, he said. Clay could be a relic in another five years, Wires said.

"I think in the long run, any company that's not doing digital is making a huge mistake," he said, since virtual sculptures are getting cheaper to produce, while making it easier to revise features or change the scale.

The tech is improving so quickly, Wires said he's bought a new machine each of the past three years from companies like EnvisionTec and 3DSystems.

Such machines can print in 20 different materials, from plastics to metals, he said. The usual for action figures is a polymer acrylic.

Although 3-D printers are already available at stores like Staples for home use, Menna said the quality isn't close to what comes out of state-of-the art machines. At least not yet.

"They can produce something that has the amount of detail of Play-Doh, but for production you need the detail of fine marble," Menna said.

Video: "Digital sculptor Joseph Menna discusses 3-D printing"

To see more of Joseph Menna's creations, go to his Instagram page:

Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or