Shining in the Storm: An Interview with Nick Minarik from Gundam Planet

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nick Minarik, one of the minds behind Gundam Planet, an online and offline store in New Jersey dedicated to selling Gunpla, or Gundam plastic models that fans can build themselves. They even hold workshps at their store! Gundam Planet’s been serving New Jersey and New York anime fans for over 5 years now, and I wanted to highlight everything he and the company have been doing to promote a love of Japanese popular culture. You can find out more about Gundam Planet at their official site and their YouTube page.

Waku Waku +NYC: Hi, Nick! Could you tell us about yourself and Gundam Planet?

Nick: Well as for myself, I went to college in Vermont and was the first writing major at my school (Castleton State), and as part of the program I had to take part in an internship. I’ve been a big Gundam fan since the early 2000’s and I had recently been browsing the GP website and noticing a lot of errors in spelling and grammar, but it was otherwise a beautiful site. I approached them to set up an unpaid internship that would essentially have me edit the entire site’s contents, and they were very receptive to the idea, and that’s how I got my start.

As for GP itself, the website was started in 2010 by the owner (who’s a web design genius) with a focus on clean, well-presented contents. I started the internship in 2012, so they had already been pretty well established by the time I came around.

Waku Waku +NYC: Wow, three years now! Are you still an “intern” or has your title grown, seeing as you’ve done so much to improve the site overall.

Nick: Haha yeah, they’ve been nice enough not to kick me out by now! In 2013 the old manager had to go back to Japan, and since I’d become familiar with the systems and inventory, the owner asked me to step up and take over as manager.

Waku Waku +NYC: Good to see your passion’s paid off! So, how did Gundam Planet get started in the first place, and what inspired GP to provide workshops for customers?

Nick: Well the owner realized that Gundam was a growing niche in the US, so he decided to make that the focus of his own website. He develops websites for many clients as part of his IT consulting business, but this was his first that he directly controlled from concept to completion and beyond. Basically, he had a really good eye for what was becoming popular at the time.

Waku Waku +NYC: Based on what you’ve said, I assume the owner (shall he remain anonymous or can we talk about him by name?) is also a huge fan of Gundam.

Nick: I’m not actually next to him right now so I can’t get his opinion on that, but I kind of like keeping the mystery alive regardless. “The Owner” has a nice ring to it. And strangely, not really! He’s a big fan of classic super robot anime shows from the 60s, 70s and 80s like Mazinger Z and Grendizer, but the rest of us at the store are definitely the Gundam fanatics. We do all the freaking out over Gundam for him!

Waku Waku +NYC: I’ll have to ask him all about his favorite mecha series if I ever get the chance!

Something you mentioned sounds intriguing, specifically Gundam’s growing fanbase. Gundam has always had a devoted fanbase, but its success in the US has been…uneven to say the least. Around 2010 and maybe even before that, what do you think has been the key to bringing in new fans to Gundam and indeed Gunpla? And for that matter, what’s changed since the days of Mark Simmons’ Gundam.com, Toonami airings of Gundam Wing, and more?

Nick: All great questions, I’ll try to do them justice. What I’ve noticed is that the key to new Gundam fans is that they “rediscover” it. For so many people my age (mid 20s), we were introduced to it when Gundam Wing aired on Toonami in 2000. Back then, there was a Bandai America division that released North America specific Gundam toys and figures that you would see in Walmart and Toys R Us, and it was all very accessible and affordable. Of course 8-12 year old kids are going to love action figures of these amazing robots that we’d never seen before, so we all got really hyped on them.

Not too long after it all started though, Bandai America stopped making any Gundam anything, so they all stopped being available very suddenly. That’s when some of us “fell out” of the fan base, because even though we still loved it, we had no way to come by it.

Then in recent years, the internet has become so vast and filled with content, all of us who remembered liking Gundam found some way to go back and revisit it and get into it again. Gundam Planet is a great example of a store that capitalized on the returning interest, because it made available something that had been unavailable to us for a little while.

Waku Waku +NYC: Mecha in general has been somewhat neglected in geek fandom beyond general references such as Voltron.

Nick: You’re right, all of us here get so annoyed of hearing “Oh that looks like Transformers!”

Waku Waku +NYC: Do you think there are a lot of fans of giant robot and science fiction anime, a silent but powerful fan base that needs sites like Gundam Planet?

Nick: Well that comes back to the internet again, where these fan bases are no longer silent and are actually finding places to congregate and share their passion for the subject and kind of consult each other on the best places to find what they’re looking for.

Waku Waku +NYC: I remember the Gundam fandom used to be like that too! It seems like history repeats itself with new generations, just like in Turn A Gundam.

Nick: Ahhh, you did your research!

Waku Waku +NYC:  A lifetime’s worth!

Nick: (You could have also gone with the Endless Waltz of history ;))

Waku Waku +NYC: What would you say is the appeal of Gundam models and Gunpla?

Nick: Basically, Gunpla is Bandai’s line of incredibly high-quality model kits of mobile suits found throughout the Gundam universe. They’re all pre-colored and snap together without glue, so it’s very accessible and you really get a fully functional action figure when you’re done building!

Imagine you’re watching this show and you see this amazing robot, and that appeals to something inside all of us that makes us go, “Man, I want that thing” in some form. The fact that Bandai is making so many of these robots available in a physical form that’s enjoyable to build is a large part of its appeal.

The designs of the suits and the technology of the models themselves are also 100% unique. There’s really nothing else like it in terms of how much the hobby is determined by your own level of commitment!

Waku Waku +NYC: How much time have you devoted to building Gundam models?

Nick: Uh I’d be kind of scared to actually evaluate that number

Waku Waku +NYC: So you’d call yourself pretty hardcore then

Nick: Recently it’s been less, because surprisingly, working at GP gives you much less time to build models. But overall, definitely the high hundreds of hours

Waku Waku +NYC: As someone who’s built models but never really painted them or anything, the dedication of Gunpla builders is amazing to me. I still have a poor unfinished Master Grade Master Gundam somewhere!

Nick: I don’t paint anything either, and that’s what I mean by the hobby being determined by you. You and I don’t paint but so many people do. Some people barely put any time into cleaning up the plastic, some people remove seam lines, it’s really incredible.

Waku Waku +NYC: Do you find that there has been any significant changes in the Gundam fandom in the NY/NJ area, both from your perspective growing up in the area, and from seeing Gundam Planet grow?

Nick: Well strangely, no one close to me ever had any interest in Gundam growing up, so I never had any idea that anyone really cared about it. So that makes answering that particular question hard from my perspective

And to be honest, I feel like the fandom has always been there. They just never knew it was so readily available to them now. We get so many customers who come into the store and say either “I can’t believe you guys are right here!” or “Man I used to love all this stuff!”

To me that’s indicative of the fact that everyone who used to love it still does and just hasn’t been able to find a way to come by it. Of course having a place like GP to take your friends when you’re into something like this will have a better chance of hooking them into it also, though.

Waku Waku +NYC: Do most of your customers come from the Wing generation or are they into the newer series, the 00s and SEEDs?

Nick: You nailed our three most consistent sellers with those series. Wing always has sticking power because of the nostalgia factor. People will always, always lose their minds over how amazing Heavyarms is no matter how old it is.

Waku Waku +NYC: Years ago I mentioned to a Japanese classmate that the top Gundam series at the time in the US were Wing and G, and he was amazed. It goes to show that Gundam Planet knows its audience

Nick: G Gundam is also a big one. People love it for the cheese factor.

That was another struggle for the owner, that he knew the Japanese market very well but not the NA market. That’s where I came in, with the perspective of a consumer that was also part of the target audience.

Waku Waku +NYC: What do you think about the recent anime Gundam Build Fighters and Gundam Build Fighters TRY? Have they brought more fans to Gunpla, and do you think those series are good ambassadors for Gunpla in general?

Nick: I liked them both, but they’re definitely not anywhere near my favorite series in the universe; however, I can definitely acknowledge that the idea from Bandai’s point of view is actually genius.

Build Fighters has definitely not only brought more people in, but also widened the appeal of the show. A lot of Gundam series (08th MS Team, War in the Pocket, etc.) are really heavy, really serious affairs that don’t really give younger viewers a chance. The more fun-loving approach is something that parents can feel comfortable introducing to their kids, or older siblings can show younger siblings. Plus, it was streamed for free on YouTube with subs in all languages, so literally anyone could watch it.

Waku Waku +NYC: Have the recent Gundam Unicorn and Gundam: Reconguista in G [G-Reco] anime had any success bringing in new customers? And what are your thoughts on each?

Nick: Gundam Unicorn is very heavily interwoven with the plots of the other Universal Century* timelines, so newcomers to Gundam would probably find themselves really confused at times in that OVA. Also, the hour running time of each episode could be a little long for some, even though the animation is absolutely gorgeous.

However, the suit designs being so incredible probably does have a large part in that particular line of kits’ popularity, although it’s hard to say what percentage of buyers comprise “new” customers.

G-Reco… as the manager of GP it’s bad form to bash any Gundam properties, but if I had to pick the biggest flop I’ve seen, that’s the one.

*The original timeline of the first Gundam anime, which over the decades has spawned many sequels and spin-offs that take place within the same universe.

Waku Waku +NYC: Are you excited about all of the Gundam series coming out on Blu-ray?

Nick: Absolutely! Japanese Blu-ray releases are absolute insanity that can actually run upwards of $300 depending on the series. Having domestic releases is going to be so amazing.

Waku Waku +NYC: I’d like to return to Gunpla for the next question: What’s one tip you’d give to beginners and experts alike when it comes to Gunpla?

Nick: I LOVE THIS QUESTION. Everyone who’s going to even think about touching a model kit needs a sharp curved blade on their hobby knife

I know people who have been building for years, and when I make them try a curved blade, they’re always surprised how much easier it is and how much cleaner the nubs on the kits look compared to a straight blade

Waku Waku +NYC: That’s great advice! I should try it myself.

Nick: We have a tutorial on our Youtube channel about that too 🙂

Waku Waku +NYC: Okay, so I have to ask you these questions: favorite Gundam series, favorite Mobile Suit?

Nick: 08th MS Team and the GM Sniper II White Dingo Custom, respectively.

Waku Waku +NYC: You have excellent taste!

Nick: White Dingoes for life.

Waku Waku +NYC: What in particular appeals to you about such a specific and some might say obscure suit?

Nick: Part of it is the attachment to the source material with the Dreamcast game Gundam Side Stories 0079: Rise from the Ashes. It’s one of the best (if not the best) Gundam games ever made and it was a really great localization. Plus, the design is just killer from the color to that crazy medium shield.

Plus how cool is a game that focuses on an elite Federation special forces unit based in Australia after the colony drop? I could go on for days.

Waku Waku +NYC: Especially with your interest in 08th MS Team and a gruntish suit like GM Sniper II, it seems like you enjoy the realistic side of Gundam. What do you think of Super Robots?

Nick: You nailed exactly why I don’t like super robot shows (Except Gurren Lagann). I just can’t really get behind the designs, as shallow as that is. I can understand the appeal but it’s just not for me

Waku Waku +NYC: Ever get into any fights with the boss?

Nick: Usually I leave him alone and he leaves me alone, but sometimes we have words. But like why does everything need to transform? Gosh!

Waku Waku +NYC: Last question! Do you have any shout outs?

Nick: We talking personal or on a business level? I could plug an awesome pizza place by me, haha.

Waku Waku +NYC: Anything you’d like!

Nick: Well I mean for me, this was all because of the amazing people in my life always supporting my passion for what a lot of people would call silly. My parents always helped me find Gundam stuff in the area (Gundam Invasion Tour anyone?), and when I joined the GP Team, the owner was very patient in dealing with my lack of experience in the field–I still haven’t had an ounce of business schooling. He and everyone else at GP are so wonderful, and we’re always helping each other grow as people and as a business.

We also appreciate all the opportunities to express ourselves given by people like you who seek us out and ask us the real questions, and we can’t thank you enough for that!

Waku Waku +NYC: Thank you for the interview, and I wish for continued success for you and Gundam Planet!

Waku Waku +NYC is a new Japanese pop culture festival in New York City dedicated to bringing together the worlds of Japanese food, fashion, video games, anime, manga, and more. Check us out this August 29-30 at the brand new Brooklyn Expo Center!

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