Friday, April 22, 2016

Jewish Characters by Citadel Miniatures: good, bad and ugly

To celebrate Passover 2016, I want to examine an obscure corner of the hobby: the way Citadel miniatures portrayed Jewish characters during its Golden Age in the 1980's. Although this topic may be a little arcane, it opens the door to a larger and more interesting question: how Judaism, Jewish folklore and Jewish magic fit into fantasy worlds like Warhammer, D&D or Call of Cthulhu.

As far as I know, there are only 3 Citadel miniatures from the 1980's that clearly portray Jews... they are pictured above. One is a pretty good portrait, one is a little troubling (although it's hard to blame that on Citadel) and one is downright ugly. 

Let's look at each...

The "good" portrayal is The Kabbalist, a 1986 sculpt for Citadel's Gothic Horror Range, which provided characters and NPCs for the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game. I like this miniature because it mixes elements that are directly evoke an Orthodox Jew (a yarmulke, a prayer shawl, and a long beard) with some generic fantasy accouterments (a potion and a scroll). As a result of this mix, the miniature is recognizably Jewish without being a mere caricature.

Rabbi Cohen from White Dwarf #69
It's nifty that Citadel attempted to portray a Kabbalist at all. A Kabbalist is a practitioner of Jewish mysticism -- traditionally, the study of the Kabbalah was limited to Orthodox Rabbis, who believed that it could be dangerous to minds untrained in all the complexities of the Jewish law. In this sense, a Kabbalist fits in nicely into the world of Call of Cthulhu, since Kabbalah also involves arcane tomes, ancient knowledge, and the risk of insanity. 

Indeed, I believe this miniature is based on Rabbi Joshua Cohen, a non-player character from "The Surrey Enigma", a Call of Cthulhu adventure written by Marcus Rowland and published in White Dwarf #69 (Sept. 1985). 

This adventure requires the characters to seek the assistance of a group of Orthodox Jews who are hunting a Cthuloid menace lurking in an ancient barrow. Part of the drama in the adventure arises from the fact that the characters might mistake the mysterious Rabbi Cohen and his associates for cultists. Thus the success of the adventures hinges upon the characters learning a little about Kabbalah so that they can trust and be trusted by Cohen (who, as it happens, is a total badass).

Well, as my Passover present to the world, here's a link to the complete text of the Surrey Enigma.

The second miniature I want to look at is Phaygin (1984) from the preslotta C04 Thieves range. Originally, this miniature was called a "Cut Purse" in Citadel's October 1984 Flyer. However, in the Third Citadel Compendium (1985) he was renamed Phaygin. This is a clear reference to Faygin, the Jewish villain from Dickens' Oliver Twist (1839). And indeed, the miniature closely resembles Ron Moody's iconic portrayal of Fagin in the film version of Oliver! (1968).

Ron Moody as Fagin
Dickens described Fagin as a "a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair." Dickens hammered home the association between Fagin's depravity and his Jewishness by referring to him constantly as "the Jew" or "the old Jew" throughout the original version of the novel. Indeed, by my count, he called Fagin "the Jew" 319 times. Ugg. 

On the upside, when it was pointed out to Dickens that he had strayed into anti-Semitic waters, he did his best to make amends -- for example by re-editing Oliver Twist and later by creating the steadfast Jewish character of Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend (1865).

Although Fagin is an ugly character, he's one of the great thieves of literature, so I'm glad that Citadel created this portrait of him.

And that brings us to the last miniature: the Money Lender FS64 (1980). This preslotta miniature is from the earliest days of Citadel and was part of their "Fantasy Specials" Villagers range. This is one stone-cold racist miniature.

With his grotesque nose, slouch, heavy eyes and bag of gold, the Money Lender bears an uncanny resemblance to Nazi propaganda. Even his pose evokes one of the most famous of the Nazi's anti-Semitic posters, "The Eternal Jew". In both this poster and the miniature, the hunched figure holds coins in his outstretched right hand.


The image on the left is from an anti-semitic colouring book (if you look closely enough at the image, you can see that the colour was applied with a child's crayon.) The image on the right is the poster for the "Eternal Jew" art exhibition that we discussed above.

How did such a hideous miniature ever get released? I don't know. I very much doubt that anyone at Citadel in the early 1980's was intentionally hateful. However, it is evident that when they went to sculpt a "money lender" for their range of fantasy villagers, some depressing stereotypes dominated the work. And no one up the line of management caught this boner. No Matzah Ball Soup for you!

Ultimately, what surprises me about these three miniatures is that they exist at all -- and this gets to my larger point about the role of Jews in fantasy worlds. Jewish ideas of magic were extremely influential on Medieval and especially Renaissance occultists. Such ideas include: letters being intrinsically magical shapes/sounds (gemmatria) -- or that the living can be possessed by the spirit of the dead (a dybbuk) -- or that a sage can use true names to gain control over demons and angels -- or that a clay man can be animated by magic spells and come to life (the golem). From Western occultism, these tropes entered fantasy novels, role-playing games and even science fiction.

And yet Jewish people themselves are usually absent from these works. This can be usefully contrasted with some other groups, such as Arabs or Roma/Gypsies, both of whom are so common in fantasy worlds that they are almost stock characters. (And certainly Citadel produced lots of Arabs and Roma miniatures during the 1980's, like the Gypsy and the Saracen for the game Talisman.) Why are Jewish characters so rare? Is it a fear of falling into stereotypes?

What do you think?

Monday, April 18, 2016

Rebel Smuggler and Bantha Rider for Imperial Assault

The latest miniatures for Star Wars Imperial Assault are the Rebel Smuggler and the Bantha Rider. It took me a long time to paint these miniatures: the Bantha because it's such a huge miniature, and the Rebel Smuggler because he's filled with so much detail. Apparently smuggling requires a great deal of buckling, cabling, tubing, padding, quilting and layering.

I continue to have a love/hate relationship with Fantasy Flight Games' approach to rendering the Star Wars universe in miniature. The love part is easy: Imperial Assault is a fun game and the quality of the miniature sculpting is generally excellent. To take just one example, the Rebel Smuggler is in a dynamic pose, with lots of tension and energy. Although he's not an established character, he still has a recognizable Star Wars feeling to him.

But on the other hand, as a miniature painter and collector, Imperial Assault provides a somewhat unsatisfying experience. As I've noted before, the miniatures are rendered in a soft plastic that bends -- especially lightsabers, rifle barrels and large bases. I also find their pace of releasing miniatures to be maddening: after a year and a half on the market, the game has only 47 different sculptures. None of the major characters have alternative poses. And because of the time frame of the game (between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back) we may never see certain iconic characters like Obiwan or Grand Moff Tarkin. By way of contrast, when Games Workshop had the license for The Lord of the Rings for just one year between 1985 and 1986, they produced 190 individual sculpts, including dozens of variants.

The result is that I feel like I've got a great boardgame with excellent components -- but still no proper Star Wars wargame that let's the hobbyist in me get truly creative.

Well, I continue to try to expand the range of Star Wars miniatures in my own way -- by cutting off the heads of existing sculptures and substituting new ones. Here we see my tri-ocular Gran Rebel Scout. 

Speaking of conversions, thanks to everyone who helped to bid up the charity auction for Darth Vader. Congratulations to Mr. P.D. of Austria who won the auction!

And if you're a fan of Imperial Assault, don't forget to check out, who do an excellent podcast about the game every two weeks.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Force for Change - Star Wars Charity Auction

I've auctioning off one of my favourite miniatures for charity: my conversion of Darth Vader without his helmet for Star Wars Imperial Assault. I've never tried to sell one of my miniatures on eBay before... and indeed, I find the process of selling one of my babies nerve-wracking... but I was inspired by the most recent announcement video of the Force for Change charitable campaign. If you haven't watched it, it's quite funny:

EBay makes it easy to sell things for charity, so I hope to encourage other painters to to also get involved. There's a history of some great miniature-game-based charitable campaigns (The GoblinAid Cash for Kevin campaign springs to mind). In this case, I'm taking my cue from Force for Change and donating 100% of the proceeds of my auction to Unicef. My girlfriend and I read a terrifying article about child malnutrition in Yemen, and we were both sickened by some of the stories and images. Hopefully Unicef can help.

So if you have any inclination to own a unique Darth Vader miniature -- and to help Unicef -- I hope you'll check out the eBay listing. The auction ends April 16, 2016. Bidding starts at $1 big fat Canadian dollar. 

Here are more pictures:

And my favourite, a close-up of the back of his head wound:

You can also read about how I did the conversion in this post from last August. And if you're not yet sufficiently excited about Star Wars, then I suggest you check out the new trailer for Rogue One:

Thanks for stopping by! I hope you bid early and often!