Last modified: Sunday, March 10, 2002 10:51 AM

Sideshow Toy's recent flurry of Toy Fair 2002 product announcements have stirred up a lot of excitement for what's in store. Not only are they planning to release figures from Hogan's Heroes and the James Bond flicks, but they're also delving into an historic era of swords line, as well as continuing with their "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" line. I was intrigued last year when Sideshow Toy announced their figures from the Monty Python "Holy Grail" flick: Not because of the Monty Python angle, but because of the medieval angle (Hey I like their comedy, but not to the point where I do their routines in public places... Nih!). Collectors' choices have been few for figures of that genre: Cotswold and Marx Toys... (Resaurus (R.I.P.) was gonna do an intricate Italian knight once upon a time, but backed out after some bottom-line analysis I suspect.) Cotswold's stuff is incredible-- handmade real metal armour, but at a couple hundred bucks it's not affordable for many collectors (like me--too many other things to buy...). The Marx Toys plastic knights are nicely detailed, loaded with tons of pieces and weapons, and reasonably priced. My disappointment would be that they've got just one "model" that they reissue in different colors. Another option-- making your own knight --is probably more work than most folks would want to do. So Sideshow Toy added to the variety-- even if it isn't plate armour-- at an Everyman's price.

Well, sort of... One of the reasons I didn't order the figures when they were announced was that they were only available for preordering in sets-- all five figures for around $150. I'm wary of preordering anything, and I sure wasn't going to sink that much money into five figures I hadn't seen in person. If you decide you don't like their approach, you've got five examples of it, a thinner wallet, and less real estate. I wasn't convinced that they could pull it off, despite how their pictures looked. Fortunately, that seems to have changed and places like Sun Coast Video and War Toys (now out of stock) sold the figures individually. But they're not the easiest figures to find. I bought three to satisfy my curiosity: King Arthur, Sir Galahad, and Sir Bedevere (Though I intended to get only two, Arthur wasn't available at the time). So the number of figures which I bought was three and three was the number of figures which I bought. Not two or four, but three. No more, no less. (Although two was the number of figures which I had intended to buy.) Yeah, yeah...

A big challenge in the production of a medieval figure is how to render the chainmail convincingly. Obviously, no toymaker hoping to sell ten thousand units quickly is going to use real handmade chainmail. That stuff is expensive-- I suspect that it can't be made by machine in the same way that fabric can be woven. A single butcher's glove can cost close to a hundred bucks, which can buy you a whole lot of shrubbery. Even with real chainmail, the scale difference takes some suspension of belief; the smallest links I've seen were on a tiny turn-of-the-century handmade Italian purse that cost $2000+ (for gold), and you'd have a hard time justifying hacking that up for a custom figure. But metal is metal-- it has a distinctive look and drape. When you simulate it with foil woven fabrics, you run the risk of creating malodorous fromage, which requires a more radical kind of suspension of disbelief and pinching your nostrils tightly closed.

Sideshow's, butcher's glove (3.5mm), antique (4mm), antique (2mm)

Actually, Sideshow Toy's is pretty good. The weave is a much better simulation of it than what BBI used in their figure, "Shadow". Its texture detail is similar to the loose woven polishing cloth that I thought was a fair approximation in some of my medieval customizing efforts. The big difference is the shiny foil, which creates a high contrast with the black stretchy fabric it's woven into. Together, they create the illusion of scale detail-- tiny shiny things and the black shadowy stuff in between. It's not entirely convincing though: It's an exaggerated stylized representation, a blunt indicator that this novelty fabric isn't just regular fabric. Real chainmail wouldn't be quite so uniform, bright, clean and shiny. Not surprisingly, the drape isn't very realistic either. For the arms and legs, it's not a big deal, but the coif and shoulders piece looks kinda strange with the maile not reacting properly to gravity. To be fair, it's actually a moot point-- I don't think Monty Python used real chainmail in their costuming anyway (except Arthur's coif), so Sideshow Toy's version is probably as accurate as it needs to be. Anyway, the chainmail is a 2-piece suit: pants with feet and a pullover top. Unfortunately, only the arms of the top are made of the faux chainmail and the body is made of a plain gray stretchy material. This was probably done to save money, but you can't rule out the possibility that it may be startlingly faithful to the movie.

The rest of the costuming is typically Sideshow Toy. Generally, the cloth goods on the figures I own (Frankie, Buffy, Spinal Tap and these) are adequate, but not too exciting. There's some reuse of items in these figure which saves Sideshow Toy some money (and again, is probably accurate for the movie's costuming-- the movie wasn't a high-budget production). The outer sheet-like smock is decorated with a printed pattern; the belt assembly is two belts fixed together: the fabric one cinches to the waist and the leatherette one holds the sword sheath lower on the hip. Simple plastic elbow armour attaches with elastic. The swords and shields are good, but unremarkable. As with most of their figures, certain accessories receive special treatment. Sir Galahad's lantern has a metal handle and opens; Sir Bedevere comes with the witch counterweight duck and King Arthur comes with the Holy Hand Grenade. The gloves are also very well done and the figures have different sculpts-- I don't know if that extends though the entire series though, but it's true for three of three. Sideshow Toy's strong suit is their excellent sculpting talent and their collection of licensed properties, both of which come together in the headsculpt. They consistently produce some of the best likenesses of media personalities, right down to their characteristic expressions. Of the three mentioned, Sir Galahad (Michael Palin) is the weakest likeness and has a goofy expression to boot. All in all, despite the middle-of-the-road quality, these are solid representations of the gang from that meandering and quirky movie, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail".

Most call it "kitbashing" but I think of it as redressing injustices...

Post Review Thoughts: With the product review done, I'd like to present some pointed observations and whinings of a more general nature, from the perspective of hands-on Joehead-- the kind of hobbyist who wishes all boxes were ugly so you didn't feel as guilty when you squashed and tossed 'em, and prefers that a figure be able to stand standless on it's own two Made-In-China feet.

Sideshow Toy occupies a special niche in this hobby. This comes from the type of figure they make, and from their background as a mass market producer who withdrew their 1:6 scale stuff after a brief stint in TRU. Their 1:6 stuff is now marketed as a special collectible, and appears to be doing very well. It's announced, available for preorder and distributed in limited quantities through online stores and specialty shops. When they first announced this change and presented it as a good thing for us, a lot of Joeheads howled. Perhaps they didn't know us very well? More likely, it was to put a better spin on a marketing necessity. 1:6 scale figures are expensive and the mass market doesn't support production of an endless variety in that figure format.

We all know that the magic aura of a self-christened "collectible" is pretty vaporous-- it's an effective marketing tool to stimulate demand. Unfortunately, in this case the "collectible" tag doesn't add anything special to the product to differentiate it, quality-wise, from what's available in other mass-market figure lines. It just indicates eclectic subject matter and small production runs. Stripped of the hype and the specific subject matter, the features and quality are pretty unremarkable and much like what you find on the shelves at TRU, where you'll also find other things that call themselves "collectible". Sure, they didn't invent this strategy and aren't the only ones doing it, but it contrasts with the effort that some other companies put into their figures to take advantage of distribution outside the mainstream. Those companies produce figures which are less appropriate for the mass market-- a higher price point, fragile detail, high part counts, and taboo things like SS-runes and risque themes. These confer a genuine collectibility which is independent of artificial limited availability. That's not to say that those companies don't play the collectibility game too or produce a few lowball figures, but the overall cachet of collectibility seems more deserved in their cases. It seems that there are companies which distribute this way because they have to, and companies which live with that but take advantage of the possibilities that this market offers.

Sideshow Toy is well known for doing a fabulous job of turning media characters into 1:6 figures. This is something a lot of Joeheads have wanted for a long time. While this isn't a new concept, Sideshow Toy's products have a unique feel, like a melding of two hobbies: garage kits and dolls. This probably has something to do with their garage kit connection-- Tom Gilliland (who I believe is their big honcho project designer) is well known in the world of garage kits for his mastery of the art. Most of the time this fusion works very well, but there are a few cases where the traditions of these two hobbies don't live well together. Garage kits are sculptures--static models whose fixed poses and expressions work together to recreate a scene; a frozen moment in time. Dolls are a more generic representation of the human figure; they're poseable so they can fit a wide variety of scenes. Putting a head with a frozen-in-time, single-use expression on a doll limits the types of situations where it can be posed convincingly. I think this is the feeling which many Joeheads express about 21C's Jacqueline figure's outstretched hand. It's a specialty pose which doesn't look appropriate in many situations. Sir Galahad has one of those goofy smiling faces which looks best in a group publicity photo. While very well sculpted, I can't see using it anywhere in my collection. The same goes for some of the Spinal Tap figures-- they look cool frozen in time as Spinal Tap. Period. I think most box-opening Joeheads prefer a little more versatility from figures. When I want statues frozen in action poses, I buy garage kits or smaller format figures. Apparently, Sideshow Toy doesn't fully understand the hands-on, kit-bashin' Joehead mentality. Or maybe they do, but have a different focus?

The reality is, Sideshow Toy's target consumer isn't the kitbashing Joehead: The media fan is. The figures look great, capture the essence of the characters they represent, are reasonably priced and probably satisfy most fans. They're marketed as collectibles and fans of the shows lap it up. Of course Joeheads benefit from this-- they're kewl-looking 1:6 figures and there's some kitbash potential (though not as much as there could be). Realistically, the line between fan and Joehead isn't that sharp... we're probably a bit of both. But as a picky aficionado of the 1:6 scale figure, I look for more than the facade of how well they represent the movie characters-- I appreciate quality and mixed media detail and am willing to plunk down extra bucks for it. Some reasonable improvements which would have made me happier: Sir Bedevere with a removeable helmet; Arthur with a removeable crown; A full coif for Sir Galahad. To market to fans comfortable with the all-in-one construction of smaller format action figures, Sideshow Toy didn't need to spend money on this, so they didn't. It does make you wonder how they'd approach producing a knight with plate armour... molded on armor? That seems to be a growing trend for 1:6 scale manufacturers-- we're seeing more figures with headsculpts that have masks and headgear molded on. Ostensibly, the benefit is a more "realistic" sculpture-centered figure (which happen to be cheaper to produce). Personally, I think this isn't as interesting as the traditional mixed media doll with removeable outfits. (Hasbro may have started this with their HOF Snake Eyes figure, and maybe 21C deserves the blame for propagating this, with their solid molded backpacks.) The times they are a-changin'... But I'd sure hate to see this trend overtake what has traditionally been one of the really neat and defining features of 12" dolls.

Finally, I should mention that one of the reasons I wanted these figures was to update my impressions of Sideshow Toy's base figure: I'd heard they'd improved them, and they seem to be proud enough of them to plan selling them buck-naked as artist's mannequins. When I got my first Sideshow Toy figure, I was gushingly enthusiastic and willing to overlook my Frankie's out-of-the-box busted waist as a rare fluke. As I acquired more of their figures, I became more disappointed about the quality and design of the figure. Acquiring a second one with this out-of-the-box affiction and unintentionally causing a third one to follow that path soured my assessment; this happened in conjunction with finding loose rotation joints and ankles, with the attendent difficulties in making the bastards stand. I think the glitz of all the articulation blinds some folks to the dirt: I'm sorry to say, but based on what I know about figures, these are not close to being the ideal figure... and that hasn't changed with my updated impression from these figures. It may seem like a quality control issue, but the figure's design may aggravate the QC problem. Without putting them through anything approaching a rigorous test, the Arthur figure came out-of-the-box with a floppy right arm at the shoulder joint. After removing Galahad's outfit and moving his right ankle a few times, it became noticibly looser than the left one. And then there are all those too-loose rotation joints. QC might not catch things like this because they're not outright broken-- as in, broken in pieces. They're just broken in functionality. I must say that this contrasts radically with the designing and engineering which has gone into the giant "Men of Honor" figure that I'm currently working on. Even though that's a much bigger figure with far less articulation, it was designed with lots of thought to the figure maintaining tight joints. I consider this kind of unseen quality to be very important, but the casual figure collector might not. And if your goal is to manufacture an affordable product for people who will probably display them in the box or impale them on stands, things like that don't matter much. They're mainly collectibles, right?