Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Oaken's Twelve: WIP it good!

Well, the Premiere is well underway, and it's time to stop stalling and put up an indication of how things are going. So here goes:

I tell you, at this size and in two dimensions, they look... okay. There's lots to do, though, and well before any bases begin to be added. Still, the base colours are there, I've added the names to most so I don't forget who I'm painting (you'd never have that problem with the GW line, which incidentally, can be found in humbling detail here) and, well, I don't think I've seen the end of my Green Stuff. But hey, back in the room, boys!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Oaken's Twelve: Rankin Bass's Twelve

Only three days to go now. Wellington, branding itself as "The Middle of Middle-Earth" is awash with Hobbit advertising, with toys, window displays, banners and all manner of hoardings proclaiming the up and coming world premiere. No pressure then. In less than seven days all previous versions of The Hobbit's company of Dwarves will be that weaker in influence, so before everything closes in for good, here's a last chance to see the most recent version of The Hobbit done as a feature-length film:

Rankin Bass' 1977 animated TV movie is mostly an unknown quantity to me, but what I have seen I've been surprised to discover I don't mind and in places quite like. Mood-wise it's different from the forthcoming trilogy of course, but it's also distinct from the feel of the book. Most importantly to me, though, where it is faithful is in the portrayal of the Dwarves - or their hoods and colours at least. It's cartoonish, to a fault - Fili and Kili are so young they're babyish, and you should see what they did with Gollum, but you can't blame it for having its own aesthetic. I could hope to have the same continuity of character in my models. So here they are, and let Wednesday's premiere roll on...

Friday, November 23, 2012

So We Meet Again, Time Lord...

It's the 23rd of November, and Doctor Who is 49.

Happy Birthday, Doctor. You've been a part of my life now for thirty-three years, and with you I have experienced childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Through you I have made and lost and remade friends, met some brilliant and interesting people, developed critical faculties, a writing and illustrating style (two of those, if I'm honest), created a fanzine and been professionally published, paid and pulped. If I were to be cut in two you'd be in there, somewhere. Perhaps not right at the core, but running a wavy line almost my length, occasionally nearing the centre.

Occasionally of course you've reached the outer of me too, Doctor, because like most things in life I've drifted in and out of love for you. I was a late adopter, mainly due to my parents (and as a parent now I applaud them for their common sense), and then just into my teens watched all of the classic series I could manage without dodging school, study, sunshine and friends. You've never really been that essential you see. And being a 'mature fan' of the series I have the added and slightly ironic experience of being at the height of my fan enthusiasm during the years you weren't on the telly at all - the years from 1990 through to 2004 (with a significant interruption in 1996) to which fandom refers as 'The Wilderness Years'. When you returned in 2005 I was excited, trepidatious, and stoical when I quickly realised you weren't my show anymore, and that was an okay thing, because it looked like you were being made by my generation of fans and had found a new, massive audience. You were in safe hands. But I never really warmed to you in the same way. And that's okay, too.

The great thing about being a Doctor Who fan of a certain age at this point in time is that all of the series' history (except the bits that got destroyed by misguided institutional archiving policy, of course) is open to me. And the Doctor's past - the bits now branded 'The Classic Series' are still where it's at for me.I quite like Matt Smith, I occasionally miss David Tennant, and I barely got to know Christopher Eccleston's Time Lord, but collectively and for reasons beyond some of my fathoming I've found this new stuff doesn't hold a candle to the range and breadth of the early years, which, thanks be praised, lives on as full cast audio dramas, in many cases better, wittier, and more adventurous than their small screen versions.

The new TV stuff? I can almost do without. One day I probably will; it's healthy living and as noted above, I have past form. What endures is the more important to me - the friends, the contacts, and the side interests to where being a fan of the original series took me. So cheers and many happy returns, Doctor Who. You've been, if nothing else, a good mixer.

Yours (for the mean-time)

Jet Simian.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Oaken's Twelve: Moria Cutaway

Perhaps it’s because of the stuttered way I first read The Lord of the Rings, or maybe it’s the Ralph Bakshi movie which left its retelling of the book unfinished, but for childhood and adolescent me the two big and most evocative episodes of the entire story take place within a pretty small geographic area: they are the battle of Helm’s Deep and the Fellowship’s travel through the Dwarven stronghold of Khazad-Dum, the Mines of Moria. Moria especially lingers long in my subconscious because for me, as much for many RPG players of my generation I’d say, it is the quintessential D&D set-up, a party of mixed races and classes groping their way through dark and long-abandoned tunnels rich in history, rumouring untold treasures and teeming with goblins, orcs and worse besides. Within and at the heart of the mines is the chamber of Mazarbul, the records of the various Dwarves who dwelled there, from the great Durin to – most excitingly – the ill-fated expedition of Balin son of Fundin. Its entries describing the gradual but certain annihilation of its last Dwarven residents is riveting stuff, especially in book form, and to lesser degrees with each movie version. What the movies do have that the book doesn’t of course is the visual element, and that’s where my interest was engaged once more, in seeing Moria recreated in Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring.
So here’s a model I made perhaps six or seven years ago while I was still painting GW miniatures and waiting for a decent release of dwarves to tackle. The tableau’s straight from the movie rather than the book, with Balin’s crypt surrounded by the detritus of battle, and the Book of Mazarbul stuck within the dead grip of, it’s assumed, its last chronicler Ori. Games Workshop did eventually provide their own version of this scene, though simplified and a little less cluttered, for their first plastic-only table-top scenario The Mines of Moria, In mine the scale is out a little – the tomb’s a bit too large, but that’s a movie concern rather than a book one anyway (there is no elevated sarcophagus in the book, just a space on the floor where the crypt lies, nor is Ori to be found.) If memory serves then Ori here is made from plastic scrap and green stuff, the model has a card base with model bits to decorate, and if the first appearance of some actually utilised Suburban Archaeology – the sarcophagus being a plastic box I’d found under our house in Dunedin, and a small sliver of rounded shield likely kept inside by whoever the ex-resident RPG player was at the time. The other item contained in the box is still in my Bitz Box and can be see here.

I think I might revisit this model in time, updating the colour of the cover stone (it should be whiter), re-doing the Book and furnishing the inside of the sarcophagus itself, maybe even attempting Balin lying in state. Games Workshop did actually tackle Balin in figure form for their LotR line – a trifle cheeky, perhaps, but theirs is the empowered King of Moria version rather than Ken Stott’s stooping genial version in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (great casting too, I think.) As indicated earlier, I rather think Adam Brown’s version of Ori in the same movie has been retrospectively modeled on the elements of this image, and fair enough. My version is, too, in a way, although quite a different thing from the cinematic Ori. Ah, poor Ori…

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Return of the King

News in the past fortnight that Arnold Schwarzenegger is to return to the role which made his name, that of Conan the Barbarian, prompted a fair amount of commentary on genre blogs and websites - most of it cautiously positive, if a little on the dismissive side. In 2014, the projected year of release for The Legend of Conan Arnold will be 67. Still, if anyone can fill the role that the first, best, Conan movie left us with of an aged king of the Cimmerians, it's Schwarzenegger - certainly it wasn't without trying, but was without success, that Jason Momoa tried last year. Ouch.

Which really just goes to say that Arnold invented the cinematic Conan, as separate from Robert E Howard's literary version as, say, Sean Connery's James Bond from Ian Fleming's. Howard's Conan is lithe, tall and muscular, but in a non-body building way; John Milius and Dino de Laurentis' version of the Barbarian is more about the bulk and the eye candy - the model for the Eighties cinematic barbarian. 
The barbarian was big in the Eighties, as much a reinvention of a previous movie type (the cowboy) as its other Eighties counterparts the 'road warrior', the ninja, and the cyborg. And it wasn't just movies, as the immediate appeal and recognition factor of the heavily-muscled, tanned and oiled Californian-style hero allowed the type to translate to other visual media - fantasy art, video games, album covers and videos, and of course comics. It may be that Milius' Conan was brought about in part by Marvel's line of Conan comics, but of course the baton was well and truly taken up by European titles like Metal Hurlant as well, and in the UK and in 2000AD Pat Mills too the Conan story and his Celtic roots in another direction again, combining the hero with those of Irish legend, Finn and Cuchulain to create Slaine.

Slaine was a genuine offshoot from Conan rather than a poor relation - Mills took great care in his appropriation of British and European folklore and legend, establishing his hero as a 'warped' warrior, capable of a battle frenzy that would transform him into an erupting, swollen, vicious monster in battle, reminiscent of Cuchulain himself. Here he is drawn by the great Mick McMahon, but through his life in the comic the titular hero would g on to be illustrated by some equally great names - Massimo Belardinelli, Glen Fabry, Dermot Power and most notably Simon Bisley, who would use the Seventies styles of Frank Frazetta and Casaro Renato (who produced the poster art for Conan the Barbarian) to nod back at his own influences. Like Conan, Slaine was never realised as a fully muscle-bound mountain of a man, but he sure as hell turned out that way, and arrived at around the same time as that type was being justly ridiculed by such  strips as Carl Critchlow's Thrud the Barbarian, first published in White Dwarf.

Not that there was anything wrong with Thrud - quite the opposite  I loved Thrud from his tiny pea-head to his massive furry boots, his tiny intellect and Critchlow's sharp satire not only of fantasy literature but of the tropes of RPGs. Which sort of neatly brings us to the other Eighties phenomenono, the role playing game. Both Conan and Slaine got the treatment, though Slaine's came much later, and for a while many of the popular fantasy games seemed to begrudgingly attempt to incorporate the Barbarian (and the ninja, for their sins) as a playable class. I never thought it was a great fit, even if Dungeons and Dragons is based largely on trying to fit disparate element together before handing them over to players and DMs to try to establish some final cohesion. I think that outside their own games, the barbarians of the RPGs I played were better off either as NPCs in their own world, or actually in their own game. maybe it was the way we played them as teenagers, but in a popular sense at least there's the real risk of treating characters like Conan as being one-note, and that's maybe why they never hung around for long in the games.

And so too the barbarian of cinema, as much wish-fulfillment to a generation of awkward teens as their more physically-inclined peers. There's something quite universal about the likes of Conan, his place as a wanderer in an untamed world, that befits a cinematic treatment, and indeed a revival. And just as Clint Eastwood was able to return to the western to portray an aged gunslinger brought out of retirement for one final glorious battle, I hope that those behind The Legend of Conan, Arnold included, will be able to do the same.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Everybody Says 'Hallow'

Jack-o-Lantern, Opoho 1997
This morning out of my bus window I watched a young chap walking briskly to work pursued by, I assume, his lady friend teetering along with her arms outstretched, mouth all blood-spattered. Zombie love – ain’t it grand?

I quite like Halloween. Its gradual creep into the local festival calendar has been assured and bolstered by foreign pop culture (TV specials, mainly, it seems), and as a pop culture observance you could find worse things to obsess over. Far from the folklore trappings of All Souls Eve, or the superstition and belief of the dead walking for one evening, Halloween is incongruous fun. Certainly, that’s the spirit in which I attempted to take it in when I was a stripling young Simian, dressing up with the kids next door and visiting a grand total of two houses (each other’s, naturally) for enthusiastic – if not a little self-conscious, games like apple bobbing and pumpkin carving. So nerdy. I might have been one of the few kids in my class at primary school to go the whole hog, but yes, I carved the odd green crown pumpkin and even provided my bewildered classmates with a demonstration at school one year. Off and on over the years I’d have another crack at it, hardly refining my method, but enjoying it all the same, even after university days.

I have no great issue with Halloween in New Zealand, either. Speaking personally, it’s one of the few Celtic traditions which have survived in some form in the modern world, and even though it’s become commercialised and Americanised along the way, I don’t think either of those elements have damaged it the same way that, say, the commercialisation of Easter and Christmas have. Admittedly, seeing displays for Halloween booty jostling shoulders with Guy Fawkes Night gear and Christmas decorations at this time of the year is patently ridiculous, but it’s a small thing to live with, and it seems to me that the easier thing to do would be to elbow Guy Fawkes out of the picture entirely, or move the fireworks to Matariki when it really is cold, dark, bereft of holidays and we’d all appreciate a noisy night out. As a side note I like the slow import of Day of the Dead as well – a local Mexican bar is going all-out on it this Friday and in an impressive charm offensive Hell Pizza are embracing the day as well. It seems to me that Día de los Muertos allows us the opportunity to observe both the pagan and Christian aspects of this season. It’s a win-win.

Halloween in the Southern Hemisphere however makes me feel as though we actually got the better deal season-wise. Yes, the Samhain connection with the harvest cycle is lost, but in a modern sense warmer, lighter nights for kids to go trick or treating makes perfect sense. If someone could explain to our neighbourhood teens that trick or treating isn’t some form of intimidatory entitlement ritual then all the better. Jet Junior’s birthday is about a week out from Halloween, so I expect that as the years go by pirates and Wiggles may make way for Halloween-inspired birthday parties, and if they do I’ll be there armed and ready with a pumpkin and a knife, ready for the fun.