Thursday 30 August 2012

Good Scot/Bad Scot: A Retrospective of McFarlane's Conan, Part One

While I certainly have a great number of Conan-related piece of paraphernalia interned in my household, I'm not what you'd call a Conan collector: I just buy what I like, rather than feel compelled to get the whole set, as it were.  I have many of the reprints of the Marvel comics that adapt the stories, but I didn't see much point in going beyond the Roy Thomas run: likewise, I have thus felt no need to liberate the Conan the Adventurer action figures from whatever warehouse they're currently collecting dust in.

I was going to make an exception for the McFarlane Conans.  You can't exactly call these action figures on account of the preposterous lack of articulation: "action" figures would be something of a misnomer.  Even the Battlechargers had more freedom of movement.  However, one doesn't buy these to enact fun little battles: one buys them to display, like you would a sculpture.  It just happens to have some variety in accessories and trinkets available.  It's a nice idea, all the same.

However, the more I looked at the McFarlanes, the louder Bad Scot started to grumble.

See, McFarlane was very specific in what they were setting out to do, as you can read on their website:

Inspired by the Hyborian legends as originally written by creator Robert E. Howard, this line of figures represents several characters from the Conan mythos, each accompanied by a written legend.

Inspired by the Hyborian legends as originally written by creator Robert E. Howard. Such a bold mission statement: no reference to the comics, pastiches, cartoons, or films.  Only Robert E. Howard himself.  This line of figures represents several characters from the Conan mythos.  So you'd think in conjunction with the former line, that this series was going to be characters from the original stories. Going by the first lineup, you'd be mistaken.

So our first figure, naturally, is Conan himself.

One hero towers above all others in the Hyborian world. Black-haired, sullen-eyed, with gigantic melancholies, this is Conan. Barbarian, thief, pirate, raider, mercenary, hero --- but above all, a Cimmerian!

Conan was born amid the carnage of battle as his tribe fought off a Vanir raiding party. The territory claimed by his clan lay in the northwest of Cimmeria, and although he is a purebred Cimmerian, Conan is also of mixed blood. His grandfather was from a southern tribe but was exiled by his people due to a blood-feud, eventually finding refuge in the north. Having taken part in many raids into the Hyborian nations before his exile, he told tales of these softer countries to a young Conan, who vowed to one day see these storied realms for himself.

The son of a village blacksmith in the grim gray hills of Cimmeria, Conan honed his strength and prowess by hunting the wild mountain beasts and competing with the other boys in his tribe. At age 15, already standing 6 feet and weighing 180 pounds though still not fully grown, Conan received his baptism of battle as part of a host of Cimmerian clans that attacked the garrison settlement of Venarium, an Aquilonian outpost encroaching on Cimmerian lands.

I could quibble about the omission of "gigantic mirth" in the blurb and the idea of his grandfather being exiled as opposed to having been driven out (perhaps hair-splitting, but I think there's a distinction) but the rest is solid.  If I have a criticism other than the lack of full armour coverage, it's that Conan's face reminds me an awful lot of Robert de Niro.  On the other hand, he's also somewhat reminiscent of Gabriel Byrne.  I guess it balances out.  It really is a very excellent figure all round.

It's pretty impressive, all things considered. The figure itself is well-done, and is very close to Conan as he appeared in "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" (probably the inspiration) and "Queen of the Black Coast." All it needs is ring-mail on the arms and legs, and a broad shagreen belt. What's doubly impressive is how Celtic everything is: Conan's sword is classic anthropomorphic Celtic short sword, the two brooches holding his cape are quintessential La Tene, and the Frazetta-esque (natch) helm has some nice designs too.

The next one is... less good.

In the year following the destruction of Venarium, Conan made his first journey beyond his homeland. He spent some months among a tribe of the Aesir, fighting the Vanir --- and it was during one of these clashes that he slew Heimdul, father of Skifell.

Tired of the crowded cities in the south, teeming with people of politics and the trivial trappings of civilization, Conan longs to see the vast snow-covered expanses of his native north. Now his quest has brought him into the mountainous borderlands between the Vanir and Aesir.

Back again in the lands where he was born, Conan now must face the son of his long-forgotten enemy.

Aaaand here we go with the pastichery.  It's like people just can't help it: it's as if there simply isn't enough in Howard's stories to fire their imagination, and they need to add in their own stuff.  The "vast snow-covered expanses" sure doesn't sound like Cimmeria to me, rather, it sounds like Asgard or Vanaheim, a confusion which is all too common. I don't need to tell you what I think of this Conan "longing" for his homeland balderdash which is antithetical to Conan's feelings about his homeland.  I don't know who in blazes this Skifell is, but I'm assuming Heimdul is the Vanir from "The Frost-Giant's Daughter."  We'll get to this later.  Also, don't the last two lines contradict each other?  Is he in the mountainous borderlands between Asgard and Vanaheim, or the lands where he was born?  Are they conflating Asgard, Vanaheim and Cimmeria as one big pan-Nordic-Gaelic-Barbaric place, which is definitely not what Howard had in mind despite misinterpretations by Hyborians? Or are they implying that Conan wasn't actually born in Cimmeria at all, which doesn't make sense since they clearly say he was born in a battle involving a Vanir raiding party?  Crom almighty.

Calm down, Bad Scot.

Ach, fine. Anyway, if the first Conan figure of the line showed a pretty decent representation of Howard's Conan, then the second Conan figure manages to give us the pop-culture misrepresentation.  Clad in nothing but a loincloth despite being in a freezing environment - check.  Animal-tooth necklace - check.  Headband from the 1982 film - check.  Armband on one arm - check.  No hairy chest or scars - check.  All he's missing is the fur nappy and the Atlantean Sword.  As such, I'm not a fan of the figure.  It's nicely sculpted and detailed, don't get me wrong, but it isn't my cup of tea.

Still, even though it's the pop-culture Conan, it's a good pop-culture Conan: rugged and massive without being a bodybuilder, it doesn't have Arnold's face, he has black hair and blue eyes (something even Sideshow Collectibles had a problem with), and it's a dynamic, dramatic pose. Really, just take off those faulds and shinguards - why would you only wear armour on your shins and hips as opposed to your head and chest? - and forget he's supposed to be in the icy north. There you have it, a pretty good Black Kingdom Adventurer-period Conan.

Now we get to Skifell.  Oh, Mitra, that Skifell...

Skifell's father was a Vanir Tribe Chieftain slain on the battlefield by one Conan, a Cimmerian, more than 25 winters ago. Though still beardless, this youth's combat exploits were widely spoken of, for he was said to be a prodigious battler, wielding a war-blade like death itself. Since that day, Skifell, has been seeking to avenge his father. A mountain of a Vanir, with both fire in his hair and heart, he is a fearsome fighter and hardened ruler of his folk. When the Cimmerian returned north on a quest away from his glory in faraway lands, tales both old and new spread like snow flakes in a blizzard. Now Skifell has caught up with the man he knows as Conan, Heimdulslayer!

Who in blazes is Skifell?  Which part of the Conan mythos does he occupy? Certainly he doesn't appear in any of the Robert E. Howard stories they're supposedly mining for adaptation into figure form. Maybe he's a beloved character from the larger Conan franchise, a compatriot of Fafnir or Snagg? So, for an explanation, we find that McFarlane has made him up. All those Robert E. Howard characters ripe for adaptation into kickass action figures, but they aren't enough for the visionaries at McFarlane. Harrumph.

Also problematic is that this series is explicitly set "more than 25 years" after "The Frost-Giant's Daughter," which they place in the year after Venarium, making Conan 16 then, and making the Conan in this series at least 41. Think about how profoundly wrong this is.

Conan was about forty when he seized the crown of Aquilonia, and was about forty-four or forty-five at the time of "The Hour of the Dragon."
 - Robert E. Howard, Letter to P.S. Miller, 10th March 1936

Tired of the crowded cities in the south, teeming with people of politics and the trivial trappings of civilization, Conan longs to see the vast snow-covered expanses of his native north. Now his quest has brought him into the mountainous borderlands between the Vanir and Aesir.
 - the blurb on McFarlane's "Conan the Destroyer"

McFarlane is essentially having Conan quit Aquilonia just after he achieved one of his lifelong ambitions? Leaving the kingdom on its own, with still-sore barons and princes squabbling and conspiring against him and his supporters? No wonder Conan's been the target of assassination attempts so often, the guy's a complete flake! Now The Return of Conan, Conan of Aquilonia, Conan of the Isles - basically every King Conan story not written by Howard - make sense...

But anyway, the figure itself: despite Howard consistently having his Vanir clad in metal armour and horned helms, young Skifell here has foregone all that in favour of fighting shirtless. In Vanaheim.  Naked warriors from cold climates are not unheard of, but when they went into battle naked, they went all out: the most they'd wear is a wolf or bear pelt around their head, or a helmet, with a big shield for protection (if they aren't hauling a big two-handed weapon). Skifell's a Hipster-Berserker: he likes the idea of fighting naked, but not the reality of having your nethers exposed and chilled. I could've respected McFarlane if they at least went the full Monty, but something tells me they didn't even begin to entertain that idea.

About the best thing I can say about this piece is it's very well done, particularly the whirlwind pose. It's a very good "fantasy Viking" type figure, maybe even fantasy Celt given his sweet moustache. The axes are very nice, still a bit big for "realism," but not the stylised excess you see on some of the later Savage Sword covers.

But if you thought Skifell was stupid, then get a load of Svadun!

With hair as bright as the summer sun and eyes the color of the bluest sky, Svadun the Aesir Warrior was born with the rising of a bloody new moon, timber wolves howling throughout Nordheim as if possessed. The Gods must have granted her the gift of the Runes of Protection, for this Warrior woman is as quick in wit as she is with her blade -- and she was once saved from certain death by Conan the Cimmerian. Since then she has sworn an oath to save his life in return before journeying back to her beloved tribe in the deep mountain borderlands between Vanaheim and Asgard.

I've said before that I don't have anything against cheesecake in and of itself: when it's in a silly, fun, daft universe of cheesecake like Heavy Metal, Korgoth or other self-aware parodies, I say go for broke. But the Hyborian Age is not a parody universe. It is an inherently realistic one that's supposed to be our world in the distant past. Undoubtedly some things are exaggerated for dramatic effect, but only to the extent of your typical adventure tale at the very most, and obviously the supernatural elements are ambiguous to say the least.
When Robert E. Howard wrote warrior women, they were always clad in attire that made sense for the situation. Always. Without exception. Valeria and Helen Tavrel wore typical pirate gear. Conchita wore the same as her Pawnee braves. Tarala, Dark Agnes and Red Sonya wore mail byrnies.  They did not wear chainmail bikinis, brass lingerie or chastity belts. It's bad enough people think Howard created Red Sonja with the chainmail bikini, but when your toyline is claiming to be inspired by the Hyborian legends as originally written by creator Robert E. Howard, it kind of gives people the impression that Howard had anything to do with this.

Robert E. Howard did not have his warrior women dressed in metal underwear. He had more sense than that.  Did he have slave girls wearing brass breastplates and jingly jewelry? Yes, of course! Did he have them go out into battle dressed like that? No, of course not! Oh, and as if it needed to be pointed out: Svadun is not a character from any corner of the Conan mythos, and absolutely none of this is in any of the "Hyborian legends as originally written by creator Robert E. Howard."

Normally this is where I'd call in 8-year-old Aly, but being a very atypical 8-year-old he had no interest in ladies at that age, nor would he for several years - he was still largely obsessed with dinosaurs and viewed romance as a distraction from intellectual pursuits - so I'll just say that I'm sure plenty of folks will find something to appreciate in a three-quarters naked Viking warrior lady. I also note McFarlane showed incredible restraint in giving her a long wrap rather than the flimsy garments they've given other female figures.

But rejoice, as finally McFarlane decided to include a genuine bona-fide Howard creation that isn't Conan - Bêlit!

Bêlit was born in Asgalun, in the northern parts of Shem. Her father, king Atrahasis, taught her how to sail -- and to fight. In a few short years, Bêlit's skills were equal to that of any man, easily commanding the pirate ship The Tigress. On the night Stygian assassins killed her father (by orders from her uncle), Bêlit was reluctantly smuggled out of the city and away from a certain death.

Oh, mother of Mitra, again with the tragic origin story? Really? Bêlit isn't a superheroine, she's Bêlit, Queen of the Black Coast, Scourge of the Western Ocean, the Wildest She-Devil Unhanged! She isn't just a pirate captain, she's a force of nature, a being of almost supernatural power and terror. She isn't just another Zaporavo or Red Ortho, she isn't even another Valeria. By giving Bêlit a definite origin like this, you're removing a significant amount of her awe and mystery. Not to mention this origin story, like so many origin stories relating to Howard characters, is practically antithetical to what we do know of Bêlit's backstory. Heck, it even contradicts itself:  Bêlit apparently became the commander of the Tigress before her father was killed, and had to be "reluctantly smuggled out of the city" - so Bêlit was a pirate while she was still a princess? What?

Well, on the plus side, at least this looks like Bêlit - a rather overdressed Bêlit, but still recognizable as the wildest She-Devil unhanged. But again, they take the route of turning Bêlit into a warrior woman. This interpretation is not borne out by the text, because I think if Howard intended Bêlit to be a warrior woman, he would have her, you know, fight. Dark Agnes got in a fight; Red Sonja was introduced in the middle of a fight; Valeria's fighting prowess is described early on. There's never any description of Bêlit being involved in fights: the only armament she carries is a jewelled dagger. You'd think a warrior woman would carry a sword or spear, rather than a mere dagger.

Of course, they have to end on a high note, with a Fire Dragon. Whatever the hell that is.

The High Priests have nurtured the Son of Set for generations, raising it on blood, magic and virgin flesh. Thanks to the priests' care and training, this child of Set, this Fire Dragon, has grown to immense size and now possesses great intelligence and power. Its inhuman mystical abilities allow it a direct connection to Set himself, making even the High Priests tremble. The Fire Dragon is a perfect guardian for the hatching scaled ones, and for keeping the Cimmerian pirate imprisoned.

So they decided to make a mutant Ajolote. What's most baffling: it's called a Fire Dragon.  A freaking Fire Dragon. They couldn't even make up a more interesting name than Fire Dragon? When they even call it a Son of Set in the blasted blurb!?! It's redundant to point out the fact Conan meeting a Son of Set - 'scuse me, "Fire Dragon" - before "The Hour of the Dragon" is a contradiction, but in fairness, the actual Son of Set is a very different creature.

... I got nothing. It's a cool dragon, but let's leave it back in the '80s, ok?

Tiny Barbarians

I guess the folks at McFarlane thought "you know all those awesome characters from the original stories that would make cool figures?  Yeah, never mind, let's just make up our own half-baked creations instead." This wouldn't smart nearly so much if their mission statement wasn't claiming to be inspired by the Hyborian legends as originally written by creator Robert E. Howard and that their figures represent several characters from the Conan mythos.  So it's pretty freakin' misleading to then go and make up no less than three original characters in a line of six figures - one of which is the same character, leading to that being three out of five characters.

Here's a thought, McFarlane: since you're obviously inspired by "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" and "Queen of the Black Coast," why didn't you just take characters from "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" and "Queen of the Black Coast"?  Eh?  Seriously, why the hell not?  You obviously don't have the slightest problem doing licenses instead of making up your own thing, and those stories are crammed with awesome ideas.

Even if you had some sort of weird mandate - let's say you need a line of six characters and one diorama/set piece, with at least one Conan figure, one sexy naked chick, one enemy warrior, one ally warrior, one monster, and two wild cards - you could've made entire lines based on "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" and "Queen of the Black Coast" separately. "The Frost Giant's Daughter" gives you Conan in Nordheimr armour, Atali for sexy naked chick, Heimdul for enemy warrior, Old Gorm for allied warrior, and the two Ice-Giants for monsters: you could swap the latter two for Horsa and Niord, or even Bragi and Wulfhere, to save the Ice-Giants for a diorama. "Queen of the Black Coast" gives you Conan in scarlet cloak and mercenary armour, Bêlit for sexy naked chick, N'Gora for allied warrior, a Stygian-Hyena for enemy warrior/monster, the Winged One as monster, and N'Yaga as an extra ally: the Zarkheba snake would make a great diorama. Seriously, that wasn't hard.

But instead, the iconic Atali was replaced by "Svadun," Heimdul was nixed in favour of "Skifell," and the cool monsters from both stories just weren't generic enough, so they went with a freaking Fire Dragon. Apparently, McFarlane had a change of heart, as the second series did indeed pick a story: The Hour of the Dragon. And astoundingly, they actually decided to adapt Robert E. Howard characters from that story into model form! What a novel idea, to make a line of figures that represent several characters from the Conan mythos, having been inspired by the Hyborian legends as originally written by creator Robert E. Howard! At least it only took them a second series, though even then, they manage to be a bit hit and miss.

Still can't believe they didn't go for the obvious with Atali and the Ice-Giants, though.


  1. The only one I own is the series 2 Conan on the throne of Aquilonia, which looks pretty good. He's obviously in the grip of gigantic melancholy in this one. I had to hide the helmet that comes with it though because my cat kept stealing it...

    1. I love the throne, but the figure itself wasn't my bag for various reasons. I did love that Conan's cheek was moulded slightly where he propped it on his fist, lovely touch.

  2. I only ever bought the ones I liked - the first Conan and then a couple from the next line in Hour of the Dragon series.

    1. I have the first Conan myself: the only others that were available were the Fire Dragon and Svadun, and I wasn't going to justify getting either of them.

  3. "Inspired" by the Hyborian legends as originally written by creator Robert E. Howard . . . key word being "inspired", of course. McFarlane did go down several dark alleys and punch several camels with this set. Even so, I like them, if for no other reason than they just look cool. Like David said, I only bought the ones I liked (8 out of however many they made between both sets).

  4. "Calm down, Bad Scot." I bursted into laughter.

    Ah. The curse of the origin story. If a character doesn't have on then come up with one! No, even better to make up a completely new character. Argh. It is possible to write a good backstory for many of the named characters in Conan yarns without resorting to pastichery. Character like Heimdul should be very even if he appears only briefly. No need to come up with Skifells and Svaduns.

    If I were the figure collecting type I wouldn't mind owning the first one. It looks great. The description is also good and quite accurate.

    1. All the figures are, technically speaking, excellently sculpted and made. But of course, the same could be said of a couple of Conan products...

  5. I've got this one - bought it for a couple of pounds in the local Forbidden Planet... And actually bought it because it's NOT Conan (so no quibbles over interpretation) but a cool-ass rather anonymous warrior (Pallantides, I know)... Because it's not Conan, takes the pressure off a bit, y'know.

    PS - the "prove you're not a robot" for commenting here is fiendish!!!