Friday, August 28, 2015

Painting Pain: Darth Vader without the helmet

It's amazing what you can do with an X-Acto Knife and an unshakable faith in the Dark Side of the Force. Here's my most recent miniature conversion for Imperial Assault, the Star Wars skirmish game from Fantasy Flight: Darth Vader without his helmet. 

If there's anything scarier than Darth Vader in his mask, it's Darth Vader with the top down: the bruised eyes, the long unhealed wounds, and the skin pale as a moonscape. There is no better subject if you want a miniature as a portrait of a person in pain.

Darth Vader's wounds
The conversion was dead simple: I sliced off Darth's helmet just above the base of his triangular mouthpiece, and then lightly sanded the surface until it was even. Then I hunted around for a replacement head, eventually settling on a Warhammer 40K Space Marine Terminator Lord. This Terminator was appropriately bald and scowley. I cut off the bottom of the head so that when it was in place, it would give the impression of Vader's head sunk into the high collar of his suit.

The fun part was the painting. Vader's ruined face gave me a lot of room to mess around, especially all his vivid scars. I'm pleased with the way it turned out, insofar that his expression seems to change depending on his facing. Sometimes he looks evil and sullen, sometimes he looks evil and crafty, and sometimes he just looks plain evil.

Well, Fantasy Flight just released Twin Shadowsa new expansion for Imperial Assault featuring a Boba Fett. So stay tuned for more painted Star Wars action soon...

I hope you join the Dark Side soon.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Reading along with the Lord of the Rings: A Conspiracy Unmasked

Chapter 5 of The Fellowship of the Ring

In A Conspiracy Unmasked Tolkien reveals that Frodo's friends have been watching his strange doings with the wizard Gandalf. Merry, Pippin, Fredgar and Samwise, realizing that Frodo is burdened with a dangerous task, have decided that he will not face it alone. As Merry tells Frodo:
'You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin -- to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours  --closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo. Anyway: there it is. We know most of what Gandalf has told you. We know a good deal about the Ring. We are horribly afraid -- but we are coming with you: or following you like hounds.'
Here lies the emotional core of the first book of the trilogy, if not the entire trilogy itself: the forging of a fellowship in bonds of trust and mutual help. The first book is well named; as a reader, I care more about this fellowship than I do about any individual member of it. Frodo, Sam (and eventually Gandalf or Aragorn) are all sympathetic, but none of them are as important as the relationship that binds them. The fellowship holds a promise to both characters and readers alike: the notion that friendships can last, that even the worst troubles are best shared, and that we don't need to face the dark alone.

The tragedy, of course, revealed to any reader who bothers to scan the table of contents, is that the last chapter in this book is called The Breaking of the Fellowship. This bond of friendship will snap, and it will do so in ways precisely foretold in Chapter 5. Just as Frodo is depressed now at the thought of deceiving his friends and escaping the Shire alone, at the end of the book, he will make the gloomy decision that he must slip away by himself, as the rest of the fellowship founders around him. The remainder of the trilogy is as much a story about the ultimate reunion of the four hobbit friends as it is about the destruction of the One Ring. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Before leaving Chapter 5, I'd like to take a closer look at the odd man out in the fellowship of hobbit friends: Samwise Gamgee. Many commentators on The Lord of the Rings, including Tolkien himself, suggest that Sam will become the central character in the trilogy -- the character who best exemplifies Tolkien's recurrent theme:
The place in 'world-politics' of the unforeseen and unforeseeable acts of will, and deeds of virtue of the apparently small, ungreat, forgotten in the places of the Wise and Great (good as well as evil)... without the simple and ordinary the noble and heroic is meaningless. (Letter #131 to Milton Waldman, 1951)
And of course Sam's loyalty to Frodo is the one fragment of the fellowship that will remain intact throughout the whole War of the Ring. But at this point in the story, it's important to understand Sam's status. He is not Frodo's friend -- he is Frodo's servant.

Sam and his father "tend garden" for Frodo, and we're told that when Frodo pretended to move to Crickhollow, the pretense was that Sam was going too so that he could "do for Mr. Frodo and look after his bit of garden". It's easy to view Sam as naturally humble, long-suffering and faithful -- but it's important to realize that these traits are not unique to Sam. They are the typical qualities expected of a servant in the heyday of the English class system.

Samwise by Citadel Miniatures
In the wake of Downton Abbey and its ilk, there has been an uptick in interest in the culture of the servant class. Most of my knowledge on this topic derives from P.G. Wodehouse (his 1915 novel Something Fresh is surprisingly good at explaining the social hierarchy among the servants in a big house). For the purposes of The Lord of the Rings, one of the most revealing things to keep in mind is that servants were not permitted to offer their opinions to their betters. Servants (like Victorian children) were to be seen and not heard.

Understanding this fact throws a new light on Sam. In the early stages of the hobbits' voyage, Sam's voice is heard only in its absence. This silence is easy to miss if you're not looking for it. Whereas Pippin or Merry are happy to complain, tease and chat with Frodo, Sam is usually silent. He doesn't sing in the bath, or scrap over another serving of mushrooms. If he does speak, he prefaces it with "begging your pardon". But this diffidence isn't inherent to Sam; after all, we know his speech changes entirely when speaking to men of his own class (like Sandyman and co. at The Green Dragon) where Sam is opinionated and voluble. 

All of this is to say, as the story progresses, we'll have to watch how Sam grows out of being more than a servant. What does he become?

To read on, here is my commentary on Chapter 6. Or you can find my commentary on Chapter 4 here.

[Image credit: Animation Still by Ralph Bakshi from The Lord of the Rings, 1978]

Monday, August 17, 2015

Painted Talisman Timescape Miniatures

Behold! I just finished painting the complete set of Talisman Timescape miniatures, beautifully sculpted by Trish Morrison and released by Citadel in 1988.

Talisman is a strange board game -- especially the classic version released by Games Workshop in the 1980's (aka the 1st and 2nd editions of Talisman). I don't think I properly understood Talisman until I read an essay written by Umberto Eco (the author of The Name of the Rose) about the movie Casablanca (the 1942 film with Humphrey Bogart). Random? Probably. But stay with me and I promise to post most more pictures of miniatures.

The essay is in Eco's book How to Travel with a Salmon (1995) and is itself titled "Casablanca, or, The Clichés Are Having a Ball". In it, Eco meditates on the incredible success of Casablanca. He writes that this success is surprising since the movie is riddled with hundreds of clichés: the faithful servant, the doomed lover, the redeemed drunkard, the hooker with a heart of gold... Normally, one or two clichés are enough to turn a good work of art into a bad one. But the beauty of Casablanca is that it boasts so many clichés that they reach a critical mass that pushes the movie beyond mere badness, transforming it into something immortal. As Eco writes:
Two cliches make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us. For we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion. Just as the height of pain may encounter sensual pleasure... so too the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime.
By piling on all these clichés culled from other stories and other movies, Casablanca allows us to relive all these prior experiences at once -- in one delightful, headlong rush.

And this is exactly what Talisman does. The beauty of the game is that it takes every single cliché, trope and archetype from the world of fantasy and crams it into one box. A princess? Check! Gaming against Death? Check! The Black Knight guarding a bridge? A life stealing rune sword? The Holy Grail? A dungeon crawl? A torture chamber?  A bare chested barbarian? Check! Check! Check! The end result is a game that exists in every fantasy world at the same time: partly Tolkien, partly Warhammer, partly historical, partly Moorcock, partly Robert E. Howard and partly the Bros. Grimm. Adding just one or two of these elements would make the game seem a little goofy. But throwing them all together? Well that's an act of genius.

And what I love about Timescape is that the lads at Games Workshop found a way to crank this bastard up to 11. After all, there's no reason to limit oneself to the realm of fantasy. Using the thin premise of an inter-dimensional portal bridging the world of Talisman with the future, Timescape opens up a universe of new possibilities. Why not throw in as many figures from science fiction as possible? Predators, Dune worms, Time-lords, Terminators all appear in thinly disguised forms. Add to them Warhammer 40K characters (Space Marines, Astropaths), generic sci-fi figures from central casting (The Scientist! The Space Pirate!) and (like a maraschino cherry on top) Indiana Jones.

The end result is a hot frothy mess of goodness. The fact that the game is hilariously unbalanced barely matters. Who doesn't want to send a Space Marine rampaging across the fields and woods of a fantasy world, armed with the Holy Lance and accompanied by a Poltergeist? Why not give your Samurai a jet pack and a power glove? Why not give the Chainsaw Warrior one last shot at glory?

H.R. Giger, H.G. Wells and Frank Herbert rock out.

I've certainly enjoyed the latest edition of Talisman published by Fantasy Flight Games. But after playing both the old Talisman and the new a number of times, I've realized that I prefer the original -- mainly because Fantasy Flight's version attempts to unify the look and feel of the game, adding game balance and smoothing out the rough edges so that it presents a somewhat cohesive world. This seems sensible. But screw sensibility with a spoon. It's precisely the chaotic mish-mash that makes Talisman so much fun, especially with the delirium of Timescape in the mix. As Eco would say, all the clichés are having a ball.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the pics!

Talisman Timescape Archaeologist, Citadel (sculpted by Trish Morrison, 1988)

Talisman Timescape Archaeologist

Talisman Timescape Astronaut, Citadel (sculpted by Trish Morrison, 1988)

Talisman Timescape Astronaut

Talisman Timescape Astropath, Citadel (sculpted by Trish Morrison, 1988)

Talisman Timescape Astropath

Talisman Timescape Chainsaw Warrior, Citadel (sculpted by Trish Morrison, 1988)

Talisman Timescape Chainsaw Warrior

Talisman Timescape Cyborg, Citadel (sculpted by Trish Morrison, 1988)

Talisman Timescape Cyborg

Talisman Timescape Scientist, Citadel (sculpted by Trish Morrison, 1988)

Talisman Timescape Scientist

Talisman Timescape Space Marine, Citadel (sculpted by Trish Morrison, 1988)

Talisman Timescape Space Marine

Talisman Timescape Space Pirate, Citadel (sculpted by Trish Morrison, 1988)

Talisman Timescape Space Pirate

Thanks for looking!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Reading along with the Lord of the Rings: A Short Cut to Mushrooms

Chapter 4 of The Fellowship of the Ring

Delay is one of the great themes in The Lord of the Rings. The forces of good are constantly struggling against the consequences of their own procrastination. This idea first comes to the fore in A Short Cut to Mushrooms, as the hobbits race to avoid the Black Riders chasing them across the Shire. After 17 years of delay (in between Chapter 1 and 2), followed by months of further dithering by Gandalf and then Frodo (in Chapter 2 and 3), the hobbits now find they don't have a moment to spare:
When they had struggled to the bottom of the bank, they found a stream running down from the hills behind in a deeply dug bank with steep slippery sides overhung with brambles...
Sam Gamgee looked back. Through an opening in the trees he caught a glimpse of the top of the green bank from which they had climbed down.
‘Look!’ he said, clutching Frodo by the arm. They all looked, and on the edge high above them they saw against the sky a horse standing. Beside it stooped a black figure.
This breathless chase just highlights the foolishness and waste of Frodo's delay throughout the long summer. But he, of course, is not the only one: throughout the book, we will learn that Gondor, Rohan, the Elves and the Ents have all squandered much needed hours and opportunities. The fact that at least some of their peril was avoidable lends to the entire trilogy a sense of tragedy. Although I generally like to avoid overly historical interpretations of Tolkien, I can't help but think that the high cost of delay would be particularly vivid for anyone who lived through the 1930's, when Britain wasted many chances in the lead up and initial stages of World War II.

In any case, I think the theme of delay is a powerful one because it's something that everyone can identify with. Not all of us have been chased by Black Riders, but we've all experienced the awful feeling of rushing to catch up after fruitless procrastination. In other words, this theme is another way that Tolkien bridges the gap between his world of high fantasy and the reader.

There's another aspect of Chapter 4 that I have to comment on: the remarkable character of Farmer Maggot. Just as this chapter introduces the theme of delay, it also introduces a pattern about how the Fellowship will acquire allies -- allies starting with Farmer Maggot. Such allies first appear hostile or at least dangerous (Maggot, for example, used to "beat" a young Frodo Baggins) until they are won over with diplomacy and goodwill. Once befriended, of course, these allies prove invaluable, usually ushering the heroes through their territory and on to the next adventure.

Maggot is one of my favourite characters because Tolkien merely hints at his hidden depths, leaving much to the reader's imagination:
‘Old Maggot is a shrewd fellow,’ said Merry. ‘A lot goes on behind his round face that does not come out in his talk. I’ve heard that he used to go into the Old Forest at one time, and he has the reputation of knowing a good many strange things...’
The best illustration of Maggot's strength of will is the fact that he's the only character in The Lord of the Rings who carries on anything like an actual conversation with a Ringwraith. And not just conversation -- Maggot virtually sasses Sauron's agent of terror when it comes looking for Frodo. The passage (as narrated by Maggot himself) is so rich, I can't help but quote it at length:
‘‘Good-day to you!’’ I says, going out to him. ‘‘This lane don’t lead anywhere, and wherever you may be going, your quickest way will be back to the road.’’ ... The black fellow sat quite still. 
‘ ‘‘I come from yonder,’’ he said, slow and stiff-like, pointing back west, over my fields, if you please. ‘‘Have you seen Baggins?’’ he asked in a queer voice, and bent down towards me. I could not see any face, for his hood fell down so low; and I felt a sort of shiver down my back. But I did not see why he should come riding over my land so bold. 
‘ ‘‘Be off!’’ I said. ‘‘There are no Bagginses here. You’re in the wrong part of the Shire. You had better go back west to Hobbiton – but you can go by road this time.’’ ‘ ‘‘Baggins has left,’’ he answered in a whisper. ‘‘He is coming. He is not far away. I wish to find him. If he passes will you tell me? I will come back with gold.’’  
‘ ‘‘No you won’t,’’ I said. ‘‘You’ll go back where you belong, double quick. I give you one minute before I call all my dogs.’’  
‘He gave a sort of hiss. It might have been laughing, and it might not. Then he spurred his great horse right at me, and I jumped out of the way only just in time. I called the dogs, but he swung off, and rode through the gate and up the lane towards the causeway like a bolt of thunder. What do you think of that?’
Well, I think pretty highly of it myself, Farmer Maggot. It sounds like you might be the bravest character in the whole trilogy.

To read on, here is my commentary on Chapter 5. Or you can find my commentary on Chapter 3 here.

[Image credit: The Brothers Hildebrandt "Farmer Maggot's Hospitality" Acrylic on Board (1978).]