Friday, January 15, 2010

More On Wizard Action Figures

A further search coughed up this picture of the wizard from Dragonriders of the Styx in full regalia, including his odd little metallic "crystal ball" (with a handle on the bottom). Apparently there was also a variant of this figure, done in black with grey accents, that was e-e-e-vill, of course.

Perhaps the oldest wizard action figure I have is the Gandalf that Knickerbocker put out as merchandising for the Ralph Bakshi version of The Lord of the Rings, back in the late '70's. We got the whole line-up (except for Sam, which we never found); if we had been more foresighted we would have bought extras and kept them mint-in-box as investments, as even loose figures of this line are commanding huge prices for old pieces of plastic. Gandalf got a lot of play in the old days, even though he was much larger than the 3 and 3/4" format of most of the action figures of the time. His body is constructed of a hollow shell, with articulation only at the shoulders; these days there is a hint of translucence around the beard, and the paint is peeling on his hands. Also, when my niece was three I let her play with some of my sturdier toys, and she surreptitiously chewed on the hatband of Gandalf's pointy hat.

A few years before Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings movies came out, the Toy Vault company started to run a line of Middle-Earth action figures. There were only eight figures (with variants), and the Jackson movies and their merchandising effectively knocked this line off the perch, but while it was going I got every one I could. This included three versions of Gandalf: a basic Gandalf the Grey, an "Unexpected Party" Gandalf in a fancy cloak, and a Gandalf the White. They all came with a pipe, pouch, pointy hat, sword and scabbard. The Gandalf the White's staff was different. Instead of looking like a gnarly hooked root like the other two, it was thin, twisted, black, and thorny, which I always thought was a peculiar design choice for a good wizard's staff.

And now I find that DC Universe/Justice League Unlimited has come out with a new action figure, named, simply, The Wizard. It is, in fact, Shazam, the centuries-old sorcerer who gives the young Billy Batson the power to turn into Captain Marvel whenever he repeats his mystic name. He is the image of wizardry pared down to it's most basic, iconic essentials: the robe, the long white beard, and a certain air of authoritative knowingness. It looks great, has nice flexible potential as far as play goes, and I want it.

In the world of action figure play, the wizard has an interesting niche. He may be an advisory figure, someone who gets the story going and offers advice but has little to doing with the actual working out of the action, or he is opposed on the opposite side by an equal or greater power, or he may be the power that the hero fights and must overcome at great odds. The reason for this is obvious: if his awesome powers are brought into play without opposition the story is over before it has begun. In a simple playing as in any greater imaginative undertaking, the wizard is an excellent stirrer of action.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wizardy Wednesday

I love wizards. I love action figures. I love wizard action figures! There is a plethora of good wizard action figures around today, thanks to marketing tie-ins with blockbuster movie franchises such as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, but there was a time, dear children, a dark and dubious time, when wizard toys were scarce on the ground, and what was there was of peculiar quality...

Take the wizard from the line Dragonriders of the Styx, shown in the first picture. He came with a snappy blue plastic coat (of the old original Kenner type) and a little wand with a star on it. With his conical hat and pointed shoes, he could hardly have been more iconic (or generic) of the old stereotypical image of the wizard, unless his beard and robes had been longer. One can see from a simple design point of view why they had to be as short as they are. Dragonriders was produced in a rather low, poor grade brittle plastic with weak joints, and my wizard was soon limping around with one leg.

A vast upgrade were the Dungeons and Dragons figures, Kelek (evil wizard, picture two) and Ringlerun (good wizard, picture three). Once again, they are designed around iconic principles, but the quality and details are vastly upgraded. They sport the staffs more commonly associated with wizards in the fantasy genre at the time, with Kelek's being sportingly detailed with dragons and demons in a sickly green hue and Ringlerun's being more simple and directly made of honest wood with a knob on the end. Kelek is dressed in Evil Black with that spiked collar that's been fashionable with villains since at least Ming the Merciless, with Ringlerun has the shiny, spangly White that all Good-alignment magic-users aspire to. Both still wear pointy shoes. One detail that always annoyed me, though, was that the good wizard had a light blond beard, which looked a little odd, but did help differentiate him from his opposite number.

And now we come to The Wizard's Magic line. I have never personally seen these, I only found them on eBay. They look cheap. They look splashy. They look like they were produced in a really quick, commercial way to cash in on the popularity of wizards lately. And I really really want them.

What's not to like? First of all, look at that original price. $1.99. These are toys produced to be played with, to be scuttled through grass and dropped from trees and smashed together, because no-one cares when they fall apart. Their design screams their purpose. The evil wizard, dressed all in black, with green skin and a bright red beard? The good wizard, stocky and genial, and confident enough to wear the mystic colors of pink and purple? You can tell he's good natured, he smokes a pipe! And look at those great accessories. The evil wizard has a smoking beaker, a book, a wand, and a broomstick; the good wizard has a staff (with a star on top!), a scroll, a sword, and a smoking pipe. I covet these grooblies for my collection; the price of the whole package is worth those alone.

The trouble with having action figures of such well-established characters as Gandalf or Dumbledore (and I know this from the days when I used to truly play with toys) is that what you know about them can limit what you do with them. Few can be as wise as Gandalf or as clever as Dumbledore, so, as far as play goes, they become background, or degenerate into fireball-throwing deus ex machina. These nameless, generic wizards have vast potential. One can create their back stories, develop their personalities, set their powers and limitations. Cheap and cheesy as they may seem, they are ripe for creative response.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Beyond Life: Bangsian Fantasy

I have always been something of an officious aficionado for the genre of Fantasy, so it came as something of a surprise to me to find a label that was new to me applied to a subdivision of that literature: Bangsian Fantasy, a term applied to stories taking place wholly or partially in the Afterlife, be it a heaven or hell or realm between. It takes this name from an early practitioner of this type of tale, John Kendrick Bangs, who published a book called A House-Boat on the Styx in 1895, and followed it up with three other books the same vein. It is almost the opposite of a ghost story, in that instead of the spirit returning to haunt the earth it travels in other worlds.

It's roots are far older than Bangs, of course: at the very beginning of Western literature we have Ulysses' and Aeneas' journeys to Hades; Dante's pilgrimage from the depths of Hell to the pinnacle of Heaven in the Middle Ages; the visions of Blake and Swedenborg opposing the growing materialism of the Industrial Age. The difference is that these were not written as Fantasy, though they provided blueprints: the ancient Greeks and Romans believed Hades was an inevitable part of reality, as Dante believed in the Christian vision; Blake and Swedenborg balance on a knife blade between vision and moral parable, with firm personal belief in what they say. Bangsian Fantasy is literature, and does not set itself up as a new revelation.

Books I have read in this genre include Inferno, by David Pournelle and Larry Niven, in which a science fiction writer follows in Dante's footsteps through Hell to escape through the bottom, guided by (spoiler alert!) Benito Mussolini; Jurgen, by James Branch Cabell, where Jurgen visits the Hell that the pride of his father has demanded to be created to punish his sins and the Heaven that was supplied to fulfill his grandmother's love; and Eric, by Terry Pratchett, where Rincewind visits and escapes from Hell and the machinations of it's new business-oriented Dark Lord. On the more didactic side, perhaps, are C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, where a busload of ghosts take a daytrip to Heaven, or Peter Kreeft's Between Heaven and Hell, where John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley (who all died on the same day) discuss their various beliefs in Limbo while awaiting final disposition. Even in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry has an episode where he meets the dead Dumbledore and a mewling remnant of Voldemort's soul in a state between life and death.

For some reason lately I've been seeing a lot of movies with this theme as well. Heaven Knows, Mr. Jordan. Bits of Ghost (tribute to the passing of Patrick Swayze). The Five People You Meet In Heaven (it was researching this movie that led me to the term). And of course What Dreams May Come, recently hilariously maligned on Family Guy. Of course with Peter Jackson's upcoming film of The Lovely Bones (in which a young girl observes from "Heaven" the effect her life and death had back on earth, and comes to terms with it) Bangsian Fantasy could very well be a handy-dandy critical tool to use to discuss it.

We have always been curious about what happens "once we have shuffled off this mortal coil," and it is this curiosity--and hope, and fear--that fuels our interest in Bangsian Fantasy.