There’s nothing out there.

Every U.S. president since Eisenhower has been denying any credence to the thousands of reported flying-saucer sightings, and the cultural elite have been saying the same about the Midwest¿there’s nothing culturally redeeming to be found outside the coastal creative capitals. Period.

Well, we know that one or the other is wrong.

“It’s almost as much the attitude as it is the location¿the farming and that kind of thing,” says Ohio resident Chris Carter. A native of West Virginia, Carter spent a good part of the 80s in California working for various skateboard companies. In 1990, he moved to Dayton to start one of his own: “Dayton itself is not a super mecca for culture, but between Cincinnati and Columbus there’s literally anything you’d ever want to see or do. Nothing’s that far, and there’s really not much traffic.”

Ohio native Mike Hill also spent a good part of the 80s in California working in the screen shop and art department at a popular skateboard company. In 1990 he packed up and moved back to Dayton to start one of his own. “People here just kinda are what they are,” he says of his fellow Daytonians. “It’s good and bad¿kind of a backward mentality.” Hill appreciates the unpolished honesty of Ohio’s industrial suburbs. “It just seems real,” he says.

In California, Carter and Hill worked together at G&S, managing the company’s skateboard division. G&S was of one of the oldest brands on the market, having made skateboards since the 60s, yet the company entrusted Carter and Hill with creating a new direction for the brand. With a team that included Neil Blender, Chris Miller, Steve Claar, Willy Santos, Rob Boyce, and Doug Smith (among others), the two managed to modernize a brand anchored in skate history.

“We saw that we were doing this thing as if it were our own,” says Hill. “But we were making a product for G&S. We were just young and really devoted, and we felt that if we were gonna be devoted, we might as well do it for ourselves.”

“They were really willing to work with us, so it was a real opportunity,” says Carter, explaining that his time in California working for Tracker and G&S was as much an education as his years as a business-administration major at Marshall University in West Virginia: “The people at Tracker are my friends to this day¿nicest people in the world. But you want to do more, you want to evolve.”

The success of upstart companies like World Industries and H-Street provided the inspiration, and Carter and Hill had all the experience and ideas they needed. What they lacked, however, was start-up capital.

In the fall of 1990 they joined Jimmy George of CS Skates Distribution to launch Alien Workshop¿a company that literally broke from the California mold, planting itself far from skateboarding’s industrial beltway, and creating a new direction that many others would follow.

They also relied on some close friends for inspiration and input. Neil Blender made the move from California to work with Carter and Hill; the company’s first pro rider, he gave the brand immediate credibility, and also produced several illustrations for board graphics and ads. “We were all really close friends,” says Carter. “The three of us would talk about everything, and we always enjoyed the time we spent together. It wasn’t even really like work¿we were so stoked to do it. We were just inspired beyond belief to do our own thing¿that was our driving force.”

One of their greatest challenges was to decide what to call their own thing. In the late 80s, another good friend of Carter’s and Hill’s had introduced them to the strange ideas circulating on pre-Internet electronic bulletin boards (BBS) and short-wave radio¿rumors of government conspiracy, top-secret projects, and, of course, extraterrestrials. “He told us that the stealth bomber had purportedly been built in the 40s in alien workshops using alien techlogy,” says Carter. “Mike, Neil, and I sat around for days trying to come up with names. We all seemed to think that was the most ridiculous but imaginative thing you could ever name a company. An alien workshop¿what is it?”

Alien Workshop¿the company¿was established in a makeshift office space in the back of the CS Skates warehouse. Its initial line of products (primarily decks), lacked the technology invested in the stealth bomber, but managed to attract the same sort of curiosity. The brand had potential¿even in the limited market of the time¿but still wasn’t reaching many dealers. “Jimmy had an exclusive distribution deal when we were working with him,” says Carter. “He helped us get started with what little money we had.”

Eventually George was bought out and the two expanded their distribution through independent suppliers like Eastern Skateboard Supply. They also hired good friend and skateboard-sales veteran Joe Bowers to open a direct line to shops. “We finally had a guy on the phone all day making marketing contacts,” says Carter. “And he knew just about every retailer in the United States. He’d visited most of them, in fact.”

Alien Workshop was founded as an artistic hive that allowed Carter, Hill, and a cluster of close friends to imagine and realize their creative aspirations. Despite a talented team that initially consisted ofBlender, Steve Claar, Duane Pitre, Scott Conklin, Bo Turner, Thomas Morgan, and a young Dayton local named Rob Dyrdek, they wasted no time in abandoning the traditional promotional formulas¿action-photo ads and rip-off graphics¿and cloaked their operation in enigmatic intrigue.

The first Alien ads featured obscure and often blurry photographs that sometimes depicted aliens or references to paranormal phenomenon. Long before the idea of extra-terrestrial visitors became a pop-cultural gold mine, Alien Workshop had integrated its mystique into a line of structurally sound and graphically astonishing skateboard products. “There was a consistency with the Alien Workshop graphics,” says Hill. “We used some Neil Blender drawings and his cartoons in ads. I think it went maybe six ads before there was a skateboarder pictured. Most people would call and say, ‘What are you guys?’ They didn’t know it was a skateboard company. So we tried to take that approach instead of just putting a full-page-bleed skate photo and a logo in the ads.”

Meanwhile, out in California companies were busy testing the resolve of major corporations to protect their trademarks. “It seemed to be the peak of the knock-off graphics era where you take a 7¿Eleven logo and put your name underneath it,” says Hill. “I could never understand that, because if you had your own company, why wouldn’t you want to make your own images? I understand the ‘I’m a bad guy’ attitude behind it, but it seemed ridiculous to me.”

“Well, for starters it’s wrong,” says Carter, who had his own reasons for avoiding anything unoriginal. “It’s not right to steal. Period.”

Alien Workshop began to evolve a graphic language of its own that would convey messages as well as images, and steer clear of the West Coast trends that would prove short-lived. “I didn’t think that most of the stuff that was getting knocked off was that cool in the first place, so it didn’t become any cooler when you had a skateboard company’s name on it,” says Hill. “So we tried to make our own direction, and tried to make really simple graphics that were almost pictograms. I liked things to be a little simpler and bolder. I tried to make almost childish drawings, as far as the simplicity of them, but if you looked at it, there was something going on besides it just being a pictogram.”

Alien Workshop was founded on ideas and ideals. Carter and Hill have managed to elevate their brand to a marketing standard that few other companies have matched. The company’s graphics and imagery have remained fresh and innovative, but always distinctly Alien Workshop. “We had a lot of energy to make something that we thought would be perceived as interesting¿not just skateboard products, but ideas,” says Carter. “Doing it here in Ohio, the odds are against you. But at the same time, we knew that eventually it wouldn’t matter if we were in Timbuktu, that people would recognize it for what it is.”

For Carter and Hill, establishing Alien Workshop so far from their competitors has been a mixed blessing, but quickly earned the company a cult following among Midwest skaters who couldn’t identify with West Coast companies. “Early on a lot of people who wrote to us were into the fact that we were outside of California,” says Hill. “They felt that they could relate, or something¿that we dealt with the winter the same way they dealt with the winter.”

“They rallied behind us,” says Carter. “The fact that we weren’t a subsidiary also seemed to excite a lot of kids. The odds were against us: we were going up against the late 80s/early 90s giants, and right when we started our company, the economy went into the Gulf War recession, and the market just went south. I’m calling all these distributors, and they were saying, ‘Oh, I’m not buying any skateboards right now.’ Things had just gone flat internationally, and the economy was bad. It was a strange time, it was tough. With our limited start-up capital, it made it challenging in all ways.”

At the biannual Action Sports Retailer trade shows in California, the Alien Workshop booth has always drawn a similar reaction. “We would go there and other companies would see us as a total package,” says Hill. “When you’re out here all by yourself, you’re able to think about things in a different way, because being out here is different. The whole seed of trying to do something different than what everybody else is doing starts with the fact that you’re in Ohio.”

Carter points out that it made great business sense to start the company there, and continues to be an advantage over competitors in the somewhat erratic skateboard market: “The primary thing for us was being completely removed from the skateboard industry, and not having to feel the pressure from being in the mix of it. The other thing is that the cost of doing business here is so much cheaper. We couldn’t have afforded to be a stand-alone company in California. The costs are variable: when your business is good, shipping from California gets high; when business is slow, our overhead is always level. When business is good it costs you more here, but hopefully you’re making money. When it’s slow, your overhead is very reasonable.”

Carter knew that with his business acumen and Hill’s creative direction, Alien would eventually emerge from its humble beginnings. They shared a vision of a company that presented itself as an alternative to skaters andsuppliers. “So many skateboard companies at the time had the fuck-you attitude to the shops,” says Carter. “It was like, ‘You need our stuff, so buy it. If you want it, it’s here. If not … ‘ My goal was to be completely professional in customer service and working with distributors, and try to be honorable and not do anything offensive¿just do good business. I was like, ‘Shops are not into this. They don’t want to be bullied, brow-beaten, and manipulated.’”

As Alien Workshop began to gain a reputation farther out toward the coasts, Carter and Hill wasted no time in creating a video¿that magic product that seemed to open so many doors for so many companies. “When we started the company, the first thing we did was to buy a stat camera and a video camera, and we started making Memory Screen,” says Hill. From their filming and editing experience at G&S, he and Carter were eager to explore the vast potential of this medium that, at the time, was used for little more than documenting tricks. For Memory Screen, the Workshop crew combined skate footage with glimpses of Midwest life andistinctly Alien Workshop. “We had a lot of energy to make something that we thought would be perceived as interesting¿not just skateboard products, but ideas,” says Carter. “Doing it here in Ohio, the odds are against you. But at the same time, we knew that eventually it wouldn’t matter if we were in Timbuktu, that people would recognize it for what it is.”

For Carter and Hill, establishing Alien Workshop so far from their competitors has been a mixed blessing, but quickly earned the company a cult following among Midwest skaters who couldn’t identify with West Coast companies. “Early on a lot of people who wrote to us were into the fact that we were outside of California,” says Hill. “They felt that they could relate, or something¿that we dealt with the winter the same way they dealt with the winter.”

“They rallied behind us,” says Carter. “The fact that we weren’t a subsidiary also seemed to excite a lot of kids. The odds were against us: we were going up against the late 80s/early 90s giants, and right when we started our company, the economy went into the Gulf War recession, and the market just went south. I’m calling all these distributors, and they were saying, ‘Oh, I’m not buying any skateboards right now.’ Things had just gone flat internationally, and the economy was bad. It was a strange time, it was tough. With our limited start-up capital, it made it challenging in all ways.”

At the biannual Action Sports Retailer trade shows in California, the Alien Workshop booth has always drawn a similar reaction. “We would go there and other companies would see us as a total package,” says Hill. “When you’re out here all by yourself, you’re able to think about things in a different way, because being out here is different. The whole seed of trying to do something different than what everybody else is doing starts with the fact that you’re in Ohio.”

Carter points out that it made great business sense to start the company there, and continues to be an advantage over competitors in the somewhat erratic skateboard market: “The primary thing for us was being completely removed from the skateboard industry, and not having to feel the pressure from being in the mix of it. The other thing is that the cost of doing business here is so much cheaper. We couldn’t have afforded to be a stand-alone company in California. The costs are variable: when your business is good, shipping from California gets high; when business is slow, our overhead is always level. When business is good it costs you more here, but hopefully you’re making money. When it’s slow, your overhead is very reasonable.”

Carter knew that with his business acumen and Hill’s creative direction, Alien would eventually emerge from its humble beginnings. They shared a vision of a company that presented itself as an alternative to skaters andsuppliers. “So many skateboard companies at the time had the fuck-you attitude to the shops,” says Carter. “It was like, ‘You need our stuff, so buy it. If you want it, it’s here. If not … ‘ My goal was to be completely professional in customer service and working with distributors, and try to be honorable and not do anything offensive¿just do good business. I was like, ‘Shops are not into this. They don’t want to be bullied, brow-beaten, and manipulated.’”

As Alien Workshop began to gain a reputation farther out toward the coasts, Carter and Hill wasted no time in creating a video¿that magic product that seemed to open so many doors for so many companies. “When we started the company, the first thing we did was to buy a stat camera and a video camera, and we started making Memory Screen,” says Hill. From their filming and editing experience at G&S, he and Carter were eager to explore the vast potential of this medium that, at the time, was used for little more than documenting tricks. For Memory Screen, the Workshop crew combined skate footage with glimpses of Midwest life and life forms. Many of the clips are slow-mo’d, looped, or distorted, and much of the video’s soundtrack was created by Neil Blender and a few musician friends to accompany the edited footage; other parts of the video, meanwhile, were edited to fit music they wanted to incorporate.

While its surreal audio and visual treatment failed to elevate the status of Alien Workshop’s team, it did inspire many skateboard video makers to move beyond the strict skateumentary style of the time. “We didn’t have many products to go with it, but we thought we were gonna get this pump from a video,” says Hill. “Some of our friends liked it, but as far as it having an impact on our sales, it didn’t do anything.”

Soon after the release of Memory Screen, Alien Workshop moved into a new building, hired Bowers, and bought a Mac for Hill, who had been creating graphics and layouts exclusively by hand. Memory Screen, in fact, was edited entirely on a linear system, meaning that all the effects were created manually, filmed, and simply sequenced on a fancy video deck. “To us, the whole thing about The Workshop is that it could be skateboarding combined with art,” says Hill. “But we didn’t think about it as art, we just thought that is what The Workshop is: skateboarding combined with imagery.”

By mid 1992 Alien Workshop was an independent entity, facing life on its own with considerable overhead, and for the first time it had a full line of products. One of its most popular images, the Believe graphic, was introduced in the fall as a T-shirt, and evolved into a deck graphic and embroidered logo that embellished everything from backpacks to baseball hats. “Our whole theory was that we were gonna have to pay for this embroidery tape, so we’d have to maximize it,” says Hill. “Every time we’d do a new embroidery for a hat, the thing would start getting run across the board. People took it like we were merchandising our stuff, and we were just trying to pay for our embroidery.”

By fall of the following year, Believe and the triple-alien Spectrum logo were The Workshop’s most recognizable graphics. The company’s expanded clothing line featured them, and the sudden mass-market infatuation with aliens and alien imagery catapulted the Dayton, Ohio Workshop into the limelight. By 1995, Alien Workshop’s biggest problem was its inability to supply the demand. “Nineteen-ninety-six was the pinnacle of that,” says Carter. “We started incredibly undercapitalized, and all of a sudden we had to finance all this growth. We didn’t borrow a dime, and just turned the money over; we worked a hell of a lot of hours, and didn’t see the light of day for years, literally.”

Carter was looking for a larger building where he could consolidate the inventory that was stuffed into rented containers in the company’s parking lot. He also needed more room for additional staff, but he was careful and took his time to find the right facility and the right people. “We lost sales by not being able to plan and evolve the company,” he says. “We could have done so much more had we had a little more staff and a little more space. We weren’t going to the bank to borrow. It’s a slow road to the financial stability and credibility that you need to do a lot. We didn’t want to put ourselves at huge risk financially, so we were very careful and very efficient not to overextend. We’ve seen a lot of companies in this industry go straight up, go straight down, and go bankrupt. We were never ones to expose ourselves to that, and I was really tight with everything monetarily to ensure that did not happen.”

The Workshop’s heydays of the mid 90s were frustrating for another reason; while Carter and Hill’s infatuation with conspiracy theories and secret government projects had spawned several graphic directions, they suddenly found their diverse library of visual products being defined by one or two images. “For a period there I think people just looked at us as ‘aliens are popular, these guys do aliens,’” says Hill. “From our end it was never that way. That was all part of evolving our look back then and what we were doing graphically.”

Soon