Friday, January 27, 2012

Aquazone Breakfast News: 073

Sheriff's Wyatt pitch is suspiciously similar to the reality TV show "Storage Wars." I'm not a huge fan of reality TV generally, but both my fiancée and my roommate watch a lot of it, so I tend to see it regularly.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Unfinished Tales: Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin

I've mentioned more than once that I'm a big LEGO fan, and once-upon-a-time I had some rudimentary ambitions to illustrate a LEGO Silmarillion. This never got beyond a Brickshelf folder full of Silmarillion characters, one of which pictures now sits to the right as my profile picture. The recent news that LEGO will be making The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit sets has rekindled my desire to attempt some books-based, canonical MOCs, and I glanced backwards at the old Silmarillion project in finding some inspiration.

At this point, enter the fact that I am a semi-active member at the Barrow-downs, one of the web's best Tolkien-based discussion forums, even if it's a bit sleepy these days. We started a Chapter-by-Chapter discussion of Unfinished Tales. My ambition is thus to make a single LEGO illustration for each of the sections in the book as we read through it. We got through the first two tales before Christmas and should be returning from a holiday hiatus soon.

Thus, to catch myself up, I made a couple MOC-scenes this past week for the first two tales. I say "MOC-scene" because these are not full-fledged, 360 degree angle creations, but MOCs designed for a single illustrative moment. With these illustrations I have the very modest hopes of introducing one or two LEGO fans to the wider world of Middle-earth beyond The Lord of the Rings, and to hopefully help inspire builders (especially builders more talented than myself) to look there for some inspiration too.

Let's begin at the beginning then, by talking about what Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (to use the full title) are all about.

To put things simply, when J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973, most of what he had written about Middle-earth was incomplete, for which reason it was unpublished. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings had been around for four and two decades respectively, but everything else about Middle-earth, which predated both and encompassed a huge mythology, was incomplete.

J.R.R. Tolkien's son, Christopher, who followed in his footsteps as a scholar of Anglo-Saxon, was made his father's literary executor, and out of the mess of papers left behind by Tolkien Sr. was, with the help of Guy Gavriel Kay, able to draw together a single narrative of the main stuff of the mythology: The Silmarillion, published in 1977.

The thing is, though, that this still left many untold stories, some of which simply didn't fit into that part of Middle-earth's history, some of which were simply too incomplete, and some of which were both. Seeing their value as his father's executor and recognising the wide interest readers had shown in the rest of the stuff of Middle-earth, Christopher Tolkien put together Unfinished Tales as a collection of most of the more complete stories that were mostly compatible with the previously works.

The first section of the book is comprised of tales set during the First Age, or the same period of time covered by the the Silmarillion. There are two tales here, and the first of them is "Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin."

Actually... the title of the tale was original "Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin," but the unfinished nature of tale comes into effect with the fact that Tolkien ceased to work on the story right as Tuor, the main character, reached Gondolin. In a more abbreviated form, the tale of Tuor and Gondolin's fall is one of the constituent tales of the Silmarillion. It is also one of the oldest tales in the mythology, even arguably THE oldest, going back in its original form to Tolkien's time in the trenches of France during World War I.

To put the story as briefly as possible, Tuor son of Huor is a young Man (as opposed to an Elf, Dwarf, or Ork) whose father died during the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, when Morgoth, the Dark Enemy destroyed the good guy armies and took over most of Middle-earth. Tuor has been raised by fugitive Elves, was captured by evil men and made a thrall, and then escaped again. Then comes the scene I have pictured, as Tuor follows his destiny towards the Sea, where he is given a mission: go to the hidden city of Gondolin and convince the Elves there to leave the safety of their secret city, which is nearing the end of its time of safety.

In the picture I've posted, it is spring in the wilds of Hithlum, the northern lands where Tuor's people lived--a cold, cut-off-from-the-sea-by-mountains north country that I imagine to be a lot like the foothills in Alberta. Tuor's heart has been stirred to move after three years on the run, and while he is playing his harp, the spring bubbles over tempestuously. He will then follow the stream and eventually come to the sea, where he will receive his mission.

From a MOCing standpoint, the harp is worth mentioning. I'm not actually sure if I came up with the design myself, as I think I've seen someone else use the cuffs this way before. It was also a complete mess to try and pose, because there's no good way for a LEGO person to hold it.

Tuor himself is based on this picture, from my earlier, illustrate-the-Silmarillion character gallery:

As you can see, he's been updated a little, but still looks essentially the same. Tuor is known to be golden-haired, and because he is mistaken for an Elf a couple times, it seemed fair to make him clean-shaven. I thus stuck with the 1990s Iceplanet/Deputy Sheriff head you see here, but I took advantage of the new male hair in the blond (I got mine with the Series 3 Collectible Minifigs race car driver) to update him a little, and the hardy, former-thrall clothing he wears is right off the peasant from Mill Village Raid.

In the older picture, Tuor has a blue torso, with a custom sticker based on the classic Star Wars Jedi torso. At the time, I was using minifig colour-schemes to show faction allegiances. Blue was used for the House of Fingolfin, one of the royal houses of the High Elves, whose vassals included Tuor's family. Tuor would also go on to serve Fingolfin's son Turgon, when he made it to Gondolin, where Turgon was king. However, since I no longer have the ambitions to illustrate the entire Silmarillion with its gigantic cast of characters, I no longer need to keep all the different factions straight, hence the blander, and more realistic torso.

Tune in soon for Tale II!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Favourite Minifigs: Black Falcon 2.0

With a hefty balance of VIP points accumulated, and a healthy number of giftcard LEGO Store dollars in Christmas presents, I headed out to the LEGO Store a couple weeks ago, and I came back with 10223 Kingdoms Joust, which was very exciting. This post will not go into that excellent, excellent set, but will only look at one of the minifigs--a minifig that caused immense excitement on Classic-Castle, because of his shield.

Yes, my friends, that is a Black Falcon.

The Black Falcons were, with the original Lion Knights, one of the two original factions of Legoland Castle (1984-1992). As such, they are more than qualified to be considered "Classic" Castle, the Yellow Castle notwithstanding. Unlike the Lions, which saw their heraldic reincarnated at least three times thereafter (four, if you're willing to count the Morcia lion), the Black Falcons never really returned (again, unless you count Morcia--but no one *I* know counts Jayko's Talonjay as a Black Falcon province). What is more, while most redone Lions featured new colour-schemes and completely revisited shield designs (for example, the red-blue-white Royal Knight lion head has little in common with the classic lion, beyond having a lion), the Black Falcon shield here is very obviously a take-away from the original black falcon shield.

The reverse-image falcon in black/white (silver, in heraldic terms) has been retooled slightly, but the family image is unmistakable, and for simple nostalgic reasons, its bearer is currently one of my favourite figs. He's been very slightly modified, with his original dark green plume replaced with a white one. In the set, the dark green plume helps make the knight match his dark green and black tent, which I assume is that colour to make it compatible with the current Lion Knights' rivals, the dark green-flavoured Dragon Knights. Indeed, my Dragon Knight from 7187 Escape from Dragon's Prison has already moved in and taken over the tent. This freed me up to give the Black Falcon a white plume. I considered giving him a dark blue plume, in honour of the blueness of the classic Black Falcons, but white seemed more appropriate.

It's also worth nothing that while the barding of the Black Falcon knight here lacks any specific Falcon heraldry, it is still the first "Black Falcon barding" the LEGO Company has made, and the lack of definite heraldry only makes it more generically useful.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Favourite Sets: 6598 Metro PD Station

I've blogged before about 6598 Metro PD Station, the flagship of Town's Rescue theme from 1996. In that post, I wrote about Metro PD as one of a couple of mid-1990s Police Stations that I wanted as a kid, but never got. It was "one that got away."

But no more! Thanks in no small part to this blog, my brother got me Metro PD for Christmas, and rather than finding myself disappointed with the set as over-hyped now that I'm an adult, it more than lived up to expectations.

Part of the attraction of Metro PD is that it comes with a full range of crime-fighting vehicles: air, sea, and land are all covered. The helicopter is on the smaller side, although it's rather standard for 1990s LEGO copters. I had 1782 Discovery Station and my brother had 6328 Helicopter Transport, both of which had similarly sized copters.

Particularly when compared with these helicopters of a more similar vintage, Metro PD's copter holds up well in terms of design, and it's mostly-black colour scheme is pretty badass. Unfortunately, however, the way the copter is put together is a little bit less stable than what I remember of Discovery Station's. Even though I haven't had it quite a month, and I haven't really played with it anywhere to the extent that I would as a kid, it's shattered on me a couple times.

By way of contrast, though, the boat is really solid. It has one police officer seemingly assigned to--one of the officers in vests with white arms, wearing a white cap, making him match exactly the two officers of 4012 Wave Cops, which came out the same year. It's a two-seat boat and an extra life jacket for whoever else rides along. In contrast to the helicopter, which still holds up well in design, though it is small, after all these years, the boat is quite blocky. My brother got 4641 Speed Boat for Christmas, and the differences between the two were striking. Although Speed Boat was only a one-man boat, it was large and powerful-looking and had rounded pieces. Next to it, this simply looked... clunky, though that was rather nostalgically attractive.

Even more dramatically demonstrative of the changes LEGO's Town scale has gone through was the jail van, particularly since I also got 4441 Police Dog Van for Christmas. Granted, there's roomed in the latter for the dogs, but even so it is a full order of magnitude smaller. Which isn't to say I disliked the older van... but it does feel *very* small.

That takes us out of the vehicles for the set--there are also two motorcycles, but while I love classic LEGO motorcycles, there is little to comment on with them--and back to the station proper.

Well, not quite.

As it happens, there are two separate baseplates in this set, each with their own building. Both baseplates have a dock on the side for the boat, which is presumably the means of transport between the two--hence the backseat and the extra life jacket. The smaller baseplate is a prison cell, with a tunnel already prepared for Jailbreak Joe to break out through.

And that brings us to the *real* Police Station. It's already been a fairly substantial set at this point, and there's still the crown jewel to look at. It's a good size, and had more going on in it than I expected. At the same time, however, it was a more juniorised build than most of the set. The large window pieces didn't bother me, but a lot of the structure is just 1x2x5 bricks. The final result is a well-designed playset that looks pretty good from the front. My main quibbles are the wobbly design caused by the post-brick constructions and the green "carpeting" brought on by the baseplate.

One of the most exciting parts of the police station, for me, was the evidence room at the top, which has a wanted poster... of one of the guys in 6563 Gator Landing. I posted about that set close to a year ago (see here) and I reflected there that these guys were probably supposed to be thieves or something of that nature--something that I'd never cottoned on to at all during my childhood. This poster would seem to confirm that suspicion.

Well, the poster could come from the captain's office too. The copy of the set my brother found did not include the instructions, which he printed off from an online copy instead. This was more than functional, but it means that I couldn't actually see the print on the poster when building the set. It's not a major problem, since it would only mean swapping the tiles. As you can see in the immediately foregoing picture, the alternative is a Jailbreak Joe wanted poster. It makes sense to me, though, that since he's already caught, that the one in the evidence room is the guy living large in the swamp.

Wanted posters aside, the captain's office is my favourite room in the station. This is partly because it's the most finished room in the station and partly because I really like the city map behind the captain's chair. It's an awesome design that I didn't know came with the set.

There are also a few nice details down in the reception area. I always wanted the keyboard and monitor pieces to the computer, and they tended to elude me over the years as a general rule. Now, of course, they're amusing to look back on a "old" technology.

I was also impressed with the coffee-maker. It's a very simple build, but it's strikingly effective, and even with all the new parts that have come out in the last sixteen years, it's not really in need of updating.

All told, I was still impressed with Metro PD Station after fifteen years of it being "one that got away" and even against the best contemporary sets it holds up fairly well, the main exception being the boat, and secondarily the van. It was a lot of fun to open a box and have a whole pile of old grey, and I really appreciated the overall smaller size of pieces. Even with the early-onset juniorisation of the station, there were a lot more pieces in the 1x1 plate range (including 1x1 plates themselves) than in more newer sets. It was an awesome Christmas.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Aquazone Breakfast News: 071

Yeah... the AqBN guys aren't going to the Dino theme. "Joe McFrank" is half of the single set I've got, and mustering what I have from the other dinosaur themes would not make it much better.

That said, the AqBN guys *are* going on the road... I'm just not sure yet where to. Tune in next week.

Also, yes: the photography today is terrible. This is what I get taking photos the day the comic is to be uploaded while not having a proper lightbox. Still, it's better to upload a crappy comic than no comic, and I think the plotting in this one works fairly well.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Minifigs: Fleshie Pirate Fixes

I've commented in the past about my general distaste for flesh-toned figs. They're one the more divisive issues in AFOL-dom, though both the gripers and fans have pretty much given up arguing about them, half a dozen years in. To only go by the very informal empirical example of comments I've read regarding the upcoming Lord of the Rings license, I think the fleshie-doubtful are of greater numbers than the fleshie-fans. Irrespective of numbers, however, I am one of the fleshie-doubtful crowd.

So what do I do, then, when I get a set with fleshies anyway? This will undoubtedly come up once the Lord of the Rings sets start coming out, since as Tolkien fan and a LEGO fan I will be practically required to buy them. It has also been an issue in the past, because while I've been able to give some themes a complete pass, such as Speed Racer, there have been some themes where this has not been the case. Pirates of the Caribbean is one such example.

When I first got 4192 Fountain of Youth, I wasn't particularly sold on Blackbeard. I bought the set largely because I couldn't pass over the Barbarossa-as-Admiral minifig, wanting his incredible hat and torso for future classic-Pirate endeavours. As a general rule, this is the main reason for getting Pirates of the Caribbean sets for me, because the chief use of my fleshies is as an alternate Science-fiction faction.

The problem is, however, that Blackbeard's hat and beard looked to be pretty much useless, too specific to use with any other fig.

Then I realised that Blackbeard's head existed almost identically in yellow: the dwarf from the "Evil Dwarf" from the Series 5 Collectible minifigs. While this somewhat sadly means that my "Nikabrik" is no longer quite so evil as he once was, I now have a perfect yellow-toned Blackbeard who has gone from being a castaway extra minifigure in my collection to a favourite.

Barbarossa from 4181 Isla de Muerta was "solved" in a somewhat different way: instead of converting him to a yellow fig, I've converted him to a white fig, using the Barbarossa-skeleton head from the same set. I'm less sold on him as I am on Blackbeard, but a white-Pirate ghost/skeleton has more place in my regular Pirates world than a fleshie fig.

Meanwhile, my Barbarossa has taken on a business suit... but that's a post for another day.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

4441 Police Dog Van

One of the sets that I received for Christmas was part of the 2012 line-up of new City sets, though in this case "City" is a misnomer because the "Cops and Robbers" theme has in fact left the city and taken to the forests. This has been cause for excitement in portions of AFOL-dom because of the new bears found in a couple of sets, and because moving into "State Trooper" territory is one of most drastic moves that LEGO's police force has ever made.

As you can see, though, set 4441 Police Dog Van does not come with a bear. What id *does* come with is a "State Trooper/Sheriff/Not-Mountie" in a van with separate compartments for dogs and criminals (the dogs have a far more finished accommodation), a car for the criminal, and the entrance to an abandoned gold mine.

Of the three major components of the set, the gold mine is the least interesting, though the parts that comprise it are excellent and the bee/wasp's nest is a nice, albeit simple, touch. The dog van is better: a robust design with my first set of the new, larger tires for the now-classic wheel-well, and a good assortment of parts. The main problem with the van that I've noted is that, depending on the exact alignment of parts, opening the door to the dogs' compartment can pop off the roof over the driver.

That leaves the car, which I found to be a lot more fun than I expected from the pictures. If spaceships are swooshable, what are vehicles? I'm going to go with "vroomable," which is exactly what this car is. It's like a badass version of 8402 Sports Car, which I also own and find quite vroomable.

Unfortunately, the felon driving this presumably stolen car is a bit lacklustre; although I like the grey jacket-over-striped-prison shirt torso, one begins to run out of uses for criminals in striped shirts and tuques quickly, and after getting two in the Advent Calendar right before Christmas, I was doubly disinterested in him. Fortunately, it was easy to return his car to the dealership where another fig got a great deal, and the "State Trooper" fig is more than awesome enough to make up for him.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Grandfather's Tale, Chapter XII

It's pretty embarrassing to realise that it's been half a year almost since I last put up a new chapter of Grandfather's Tale, but it would have been even more embarrassing if it had taken longer. Hopefully, Chapter XIII will be finished relatively quickly, but in the meantime I suggest simply celebrating the fact that *this* one is up. (A link to the Brickshelf folder, once moderated.)

For those preferring deeplinks, here is the rest of the chapter:
02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15

Friday, January 6, 2012

Two Atlantis Sets: A Comparison

A few months ago, I had two Atlantis sets in my collection: 8057 Wreck Raider and 8073 Manta Warrior, for an aggregate total of three figs. When I had Lance Spears appear on Aquazone Breakfast News, I borrowed him from my brother. The situation has changed in the last couple months, however, and the two sets present a somewhat interesting contrast.

On the one hand, I got 8058 Guardian of the Deep for Christmas. This is a smaller-medium sized set, with one minifig ("Bobby Buoy") and an outrageously large shark that is apparently intended to be bionic (this might have been slightly more apparent in the following picture if I had applied the stickers).

Shortly before Christmas, however, I picked up 30042 "Mini Sub". Like "Guardian of the Deep," this set comes with one explorer minifig (in this case, I now have my very own Lance Spears), but where "Guardian of the Deep" has an enormous bionic shark, "Mini Sub" is a polybag with a... mini-sub.

What's interesting about comparing these two sets is what a different number of minifigs can make in evaluating sets. For a set the size of "Guardian of the Deep," one minifig seems a little sparse, while this is solidly expected of a polybag. The contrast between these two sets also emphasizes the importance of set-design. While "Mini Sub" isn't the most innovative design in LEGO's vault, it is a cute little set. Speaking as someone whose entire Aquazone collection is composed of "Mini Subs," this Atlantis set holds up with the best of them, and even uses a bit of snot in effecting its design. The giant shark, on the other hand... fills like filler.

So does a polybag trump a small-medium set worth 4-5 times as much? In this case, yes.

Aquazone Breakfast News: 070

Although Lucien's resolution may be to get him a Clutchers cap, I'm ambivalent about that myself. If I did get him one, it would be as a gag for the strip, and I'm not sure I'd let him keep it...

Meanwhile, I *am* tinkering with the strip in the New Year. This means, as always I'm afraid, shiftiness in image quality. I'm also toying with widening the template from 650 pixels to 700, but I'm not sure yet if I like that... we'll see.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011: A Year in Review

Inspired by this post on Gimme LEGO, and by the prevalence of "Year in Review" things in general that crop up at this time of year, I've decided to take a look at some of the things that were the best in my LEGO life of the past year.

LEGO Set of the Year:

There can be little doubt, I think, that the most amazing set I acquired in 2011 was Medieval Market Village. Released in 2008, this set is the almost-uncontested pinnacle of LEGO's Castle design thus far. Some of the Kingdoms sets of the past year went a long way towards incorporating some of the magic of Medieval Market Village into the more everyday sets of the theme, but this enhances rather than detracts from the Market Village's prestige.

So why was the Market Village my set of the year, rather than a 2011 set? Were the 2011 sets that bad? No, not at all; on the contrary, LEGO put out some amazing sets in 2011. The thing is, however, that 2011 was not a year about expanding out into new things in my collection, but of consolidating what I had. In the first few months of the year, I rebuilt a number of sets that hadn't been constructed since the Great Take-apart of 2004. In my trips to the LEGO store, I've focused more on smaller sets, mystery bags, and the pick-a-brick, with an eye towards increasing my liquid parts supply than to broaden my set horizon. Medieval Market Village was the only outstanding set that I got that I can say with a high degree of certainty will not be taken apart. This trend towards consolidation was increased in mid-summer when I had a number of minifigs stolen, and my Bricklink orders which had already been focused on finding parts to rebuild long-dismantled sets became additionally focused on replacing lost figs.

LEGO Theme of the Year:

Hands down, the Collectible Minifigs were my Theme of the Year. This was the second year LEGO had been releasing collections, and 2011 was nowhere near as frenzied as 2010 had been, when shortages of Series 1 and 2 led to mad scrambles by LEGO fans and exorbitant repurchase fees on Bricklink. By contrast, Series 3 through 5 were easy to find and remained present in stores for a generous amount of time. That said, however, I only bought two collectible minifigs in 2010, both off Bricklink, discouraged by the difficulty of finding them. In 2011, however, I caught the bug.

The Elf was the one who started it. When I picked him up in January, I was still in "old me" mode, which told me that I was only going to pick up one or two per release. The problem, if I may call it that, is that I did so well identifying him by feel that I wanted to do it again, and believe it or not that was the trick: I got hooked on the success of grabbing the one I wanted... and I've yet to disappoint myself. And the numbers are telling: a year ago I had 2 Collectible Minifigs and today I have 32.

LEGO Minifig of the Year:

This is the hardest category to pick yet... and turning to the Collectible Minifigs is, the last category notwithstanding, not going to provide the solution. As many Collectible Minifigs as I bought, none of them has definitively stood apart as the Minifig of the Year.

Instead, I'll recognise Lucien and Alex from Aquazone Breakfast News as the Minifigs of the Year, for the simple reason that 2011 was the year that my focus on Minifigs and their accoutrements took a significant step from the realm of game-play to the realm of storytelling. Grandfather's Tale, the year before, had already begun the process, but Aquazone Breakfast News took it a step further. More importantly, AqBN has been an ongoing commitment, and because of its weekly nature (daily, in December) was the most constant element in my LEGO life.

Other Thoughts...

2011 was a major shifting year for me. This blog was a large component of that shift, as the recognition of Lucien and Alex may already suggest. Also too, the new emphasis on consolidation, rather than expansion, has seen an increase in the time I spend on LEGO, rather than a decrease, as might be expected. Filling out the corners of my existing LEGO-verse and LEGO collection has been a more focused, and more attainable, goal than simply keeping up with each year's new round of themes.

2011 was also the year that I realised that my fiancée (girlfriend, at the start of last year) was not going to be a one-time LEGO purchaser, but that she had it in her to be a rather significant LEGO fan herself. I have yet to visit the Braintree LEGO Store without her, and she's spent probably as much money there as I have. So far, she's more of a collector, especially of the cooler licensed sets, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

And that was my LEGO 2011--what was yours?