DRAGON'S TIMELINE MEDIEVALS

Last modified: Sunday, January 25, 2004 4:17 PM

 

THE RAMBLIN', PREAMBLIN' FIRST PART

Hey, another review! Having thought about this some more, I realize that I was hasty in dismissing reviews-- Doing reviews of stuff that other people have made is easier than making figures and writing about them. In either case, there's bound to be a whole lotta ramblin' goin' on, but that's just my style. The hard part is finding the money to buy stuff to review. (C'mon Lotto!)

Dragon figures... There was once a time when talk of Dragon figures, their advanced figure design, and mindblowing attention to detail permeated nearly everything in the 1/6th scale world. They were the new game in town, had arrived seemingly out of nowhere, and had blown the socks off of everything else out there-- even 21st Century Toys, who had previously blown the socks off of everything else out there (which wasn't saying much at the time-- basically funky Hasbro and Formative International's Soldiers of the World products). For a while, I bought multiples of each release, and impatiently awaited their next release. As a collector of WWII Germans dolls and as a beer drinker, I thought they were the best thing since microbrewerys.

Times change. Spurred by Dragon's success in setting the new standard, other companies like BBI and Sideshow Toy entered the market to feed at the trough, along with a host of smaller manufacturers like Yellow Submarine, Ignite and Dajoint-- each hoping to exploit some aspect of the newly christened Golden Age. Some chose specialized niches which hadn't been explored by Dragon, some chose to complement Dragon's offerings, and some chose to compete directly with Dragon on the basis of price. The result of all this is that there's been a mind-numbing assortment of high-quality 1/6th scale figures released since those early days and it's nearly impossible for the collector to keep up with all of it unless he has extremely deep pockets and lives in a warehouse. (In that case, the money would probably have been better spent seeking professional help for that teensy little "fulfillment problem"). These days, collectors usually find a niche or genre that they can afford to keep up with, and I assume, are more selective about what they buy (Clue: Homes with attached warehouses aren't selling like SUVs).

Even though Dragon still puts out figure sets that I previously would have bought in a heartbeat, I now only buy their sets when I feel they deal with an exceptionally interesting and different concept or subject matter that I'm interested in. I bought their premiere WWII "Soldat" release just to see how far they would take the concept of an outrageously decked-out figure. Sheesh... a razor blade, a church key, a love letter-- it's quite amazing to see how much extra and supporting detail stuff they include, stopping just short of including plastic dolly doo and used toilet paper.

Another reason I sample their products periodically is to see how they're doing stuff these days. A lot of time has passed since they stormed onto the market with their upscale level of detail. It's interesting to see whether and how they've changed, and their expansion into a new genre gives an opportunity to see how they employ their experience and expertise in a new context.

The context is of special interest to me. Medieval figures, and the more general "brass bras and jockstraps" genre have been my primary area of customizing interest for the last few years. To some extent, I retreated to this genre out of necessity-- Dragon's original WWII products made it difficult and ungratifying for me to continue with my interest in customizing in the WWII militaria genre. The availability of their superior product removed the reason for me bother-- it was easier to buy their kewl stuff, and it wasn't satisfying enough for me to make minor improvements to their stuff. Dragon has since branched out into other areas, expanding their coverage of a variety of military periods, law enforcement, and even into the non-military Apollo space program niche. Their efforts have almost always been top-notch, with the notable exception being their predilection for making homely female figures (ack!). Therefore, I view their expansion into this area with a wary eye, seeing it somewhat as an encroachment on formerly safe turf. I'm hoping that I don't get driven into making hard-core porno dolls.

This probably compromises my ability to take an objective perspective, uncolored by any personal agendas-- stuff which I believe is essential for a fair review. Certainly, I can recognize that Dragon's new territory is a great thing for the majority of collectors who have been clamoring for this kind of thing, and for those who want to be able to kitbash their version of a medieval figure. I'm concerned about appearing catty-- I'd sure hate for folks to think that I was being unduly critical for mentioning that opening the packaging was like taking a huge old bong hit of PVC vapor, for example.

 

THE STEWIN', REVIEWIN' SECOND PART

Dragon's licensing of the Timeline figures is proof that just about any media property is a prospective toy license, and perhaps someday someone will get around to doing Battle Beyond the Stars and Bobbie Joe and the Outlaw action figures (naked Wonder Woman, hubba, hubba). I can't say that from having seen the movie though, just from the reviews. Not that any of this is relevant: Dragon's armoured figures-- Arnaut and De Kere-- perhaps fare better if one isn't prejudiced by having actually seen the movie, in which case they're simply generic medieval warriors. (In my opinion, Ignite's decision to use a celebrity head on their knight seemed kinda hokey and worked against its presentation as historical costuming.) As such, this is new territory for Dragon and it gives us the opportunity to examine their approach, and compare that to the approaches that other manufacturers have taken.

As you can see, the dolls look great. They're very familiar with that "Dragon-esque" look (if that means anything to you). Although some features aren't quite as nice as those produced by other companies-- comparing the metal used in Ignite's figures to Dragon's plastic swords, knives and helmet, for example-- the overall appearance of Dragon's dolls is superior. The reason is because of their solution to the single most vexing problem of producing dolls of this genre: 1/6th scale chainmail.

Yet Another Comparison of 1/6th scale Chainmail Representations

(Measurements are accurate to approximately ±1/10 of a millimeter. This be some small-assed shit!)

 

(1) METAL RINGS:
2mm ID/2.5mm OD

(2) DRAGON CASTING:
1.6mm ID/2.6mm OD (measured ring at bottom of coif)

(3) MYLAR FABRIC: Sideshow Toy
(not see-through: metallic mylar appears as light blue in this pic)

(4) METAL RINGS:
3mm ID/4mm OD
(Common jump ring size)

Other companies have tried to replicate the look and feel of chainmail in 1/6th scale. Cotswold Collectibles tried first, using metal rings woven in an authentic chainmail pattern. While this takes care of the "feel" part, the oversized rings only partially satisfy the "look" part. Another drawback is the cost-- Even when assisted by machine and cheap labor, making chainmail is very labor intensive and therefore, relatively expensive.

Sideshow Toy (Monty Python figures) and Ignite (Roman Centurion) tried a different approach; fabric, woven with metallic mylar strips. The main benefit of this is that it's economical, easy to mass produce (with that cheap labor), doesn't restrict the figure's poseability, and suggests that the material is metal, woven in some kind of intricate pattern. The downside is that it really doesn't look or feel like chainmail (looks more like cheese), and it takes a heavy-handed suspension of disbelief to accept it.

Dragon's solution could have been predicted based on how they've solved other costuming challenges, like their WWII U.S. web belt and leggings (as seen in my "Dirty Dave" article of long ago-- Don't know if they still do it this way). Dragon's main strength seems to be in their intricate sculpting (my guess would be that in this case it's done via CAD/CAM) and their ability to cast the detail in plastic with an extremely high degree of precision, unmatched by other manufacturers. Therefore, it's not surprising that they chose to sculpt an authentically scaled chainmail pattern and cast it in flexible plastic. This is the most authentic looking 1/6th scale chainmail pattern produced to date, and is economical to mass produce (again with that cheap labor, heh heh), but as you might expect, doesn't really feel or act like chainmail.

The physical properties, or "feel" issue, for the most part, doesn't severely interfere with or detract from the posing of the doll. The chainmail sleeves on the arms and legs are cast very thin, so it doesn't restrict the limb's elbow or knee hinge (Arnaut) any more than real chainmail would. In addition, the material's folding and deformation from a flexed hinge doesn't look terribly unnatural, as it does when flexible plastic is used over a hard-limbed doll to hide the hinge and simulate skin.

The rubber coif is too light and stiff to simulate the drape and suppleness of a real metal coif, so Dragon provides two versions of the coif with Arnaut, one sculpted folded back, and one sculpted covering his head (you have to remove his hair for him to wear it). When the head is rotated, the entire thing rotates but it doesn't look too odd. The edge of Arnaut's full coif mantle only lifts slightly at the back when his head is tilted forwards or backwards (although this is really due to the limited neck tilt range of Dragon figures).

The chainmail tunic which covers the body is probably the least satisfactory. It looks like a sock with holes cut out for the neck and arms, and isn't intended to be removeable. It's a tight fit and would probably be impossible to dress the figure if the sleeves were cast as part of the chainmail tunic. In fact, the casting is assembled on the figure: After slipping the tube over the figure, the shoulders tabs are folded down and glued together and to the figure. The material is thin, but too thick to stretch easily to spread the legs apart, and therefore restricts posing more than real chainmail would. The chainmail's scale pattern looks great of course, although very little of the casting actually shows on the dolls-- mainly at the sides and at the bottom of the cloth tunic which covers it. Unfortunately it doesn't cover the torso/arm seam, so when the arms are raised, you see fleshy armpits. With De Kere, who has no shoulder armour, there's a gap which shows flesh unless the cloth tunic is very carefully placed to hide it. There's also a subtle construction oddity; based on what I've read and seen, Dragon's chainmail pattern is oriented "non-traditionally", with the rows running vertically instead of horizontally. (That's a bone for the anally-retentive types.)

Dragon's approach brings up the philosophy-of-dolls issue again: It's the old "toy versus model" thing. I've remarked in the past that in some ways, Dragon Models produced a more toy-like doll than 20th Century Toys does/did. In the old days, where 20CT might provide a solid rubber replica of a German cloth breadbag, painted using modeler's techniques, Dragon would provide a tailored cloth one that could be opened. This is a basic issue of our hobby: We want stuff to look realistic, but we also like the depth/interactivity/play-value that duplicating the construction and materials of real world objects allows. Almost all 1/6th hobbyists prefer that uniforms be made of cloth instead of sculpted plastic despite the fact that 1:1 cloth doesn't have the scale texture or drape that it should in 1/6th scale. It's close enough. Therefore, we should recognize that despite similarities and cross-fertilization, the conventions of this hobby are different from those of the related hobbies of scale modeling and garage kit building. It's not simply a matter of which approach is better; while there may be a superior approach which best approximates both the look and feel, oftentimes it's just a matter of personal preference.

It would be inaccurate to characterize Dragon as producing a toy-like product. While that may have been comparatively true in the past, their approach varies according to the particular item in question. Their overall "style" seems to place a primary emphasis on producing a realistic-looking doll with a relatively clean-cut look, but which retains as much play value as is possible or feasible. They seem to be willing to sacrifice in either direction when necessary, but ultimately it's dictated by the bottom line of their upper-mid level pricing. It seems to me, based on then-and-now samplings of Dragon's products, that they are becoming increasingly reliant upon flexible plastic castings to address a wider variety of modeling and production issues. This is evident, for example, in their decision to create cast belts instead of using authentic materials with working buckles and applied decorations. This may be due to the belief that a cast belt can better model the scale appearance of a properly fastened belt, although I suspect that the the bottom line plays a significant role-- a casting is far cheaper to produce. (To its credit, Dragon did use real functioning buckles and leather straps at the sides of the cloth tunics and on the armour.)

Aside from the overpowering smell of flexible plastic which wafts from the box when it's first opened, Dragon's heavy reliance on flexible plastics could potentially have even more unpleasant surprises further down the road. I don't mean to be alarmist, but based on experiences others have had as well as my own, flexible plastics left in contact with hard plastics (like styrene) may produce melt marks, remove paint, or cause discoloration. Flexible plastics are inherently less stable than hard plastics. Plasticizers which make plastic flexible may gradually leach out and react with other plastics. This may not happen at all, or perhaps happen over a period of years, or months (Dragon boots on Kubelwagen floorboard, KAR-98 in figure's hands), or perhaps even within days (Cool Girl's sunglasses). Unfortunately, the technology to prevent this doesn't seem to have improved since the days when Marx horses were regularly marred by their flexible plastic saddles. This isn't a widespread problem and it doesn't appear to happen most of the time, but if you care, it's wise to be cautious and check periodically-- I put wax paper between the boots and the Kubelwagen floorboard after I first noticed this problem.

Despite my cautious tone, the bottom line is that these are great looking renditions of medieval warriors. As display pieces, they truly stand out as being far more realistic when compared to Sideshow Toy's Monty Python figures and Ignite's Roman Centurion (I didn't buy their knight), and it's almost entirely due to the in-scale look of the chainmail. Although it's difficult to admit, I think that it gives real chainmail a run for its money. I've put the question to myself several times: "If I could have done my dolls either way-- using in-scale flexible plastic or oversized metal rings-- which would I have chosen?" The answer to that is a little complicated. The castings win on the scale appearance--and that counts for a lot-- but they're not metal and once you handle the figure, you can see and feel that they're a façade-- kinda like silicone-inflated boobs (to use an old analogy). The pattern of rings on the coif and bishop's mantle always stay perfectly aligned, unaffected by gravity. So the appearance is accurate in a micro sense-- frozen in an optimal position in an ideal and static world-- but not accurate in a macro sense, where things are more random and are affected by gravity and positioning. Therefore, it would be difficult to give up the tactile quality and properties of real chainmail for cast chainmail.

Cast chainmail also has limitations which spring from the basic nature of its production. Apparently, it's very difficult to produce a fully closed, tapered shape (like a sleeve) without an obvious seamline. Unlike real chainmail that is knitted together with compensating rings, the cast representation produces a seam which resembles a tailored seam with converging rows. Straight joined edges with a perfectly parallel pattern fare only a little bit better; it's extremely difficult for the production method to get a clean, perfectly matched join that isn't recognizable as a seam.

Overall, castings aren't as versatile as real chainmail: the hauberk is approximated in separate arm and trunk sections because that's the only way it could be done. The two versions of the coif illustrates another aspect of that limitation. Castings could be characterized as a surface detail element with some full structural uses (the arms and legs). Real chainmail can function as a surface detail element, but also as a full and complete article of attire. Therefore, it's a little puzzling (but I'm not complaining) as to why Dragon bothered to create the entire body sock of cast chainmail when all they needed were a few strips joined to the cloth tunic, showing at the bottom and sides.

The sets have a few other points worth mentioning. There isn't much to say about the tailored goods-- the tunics are functional, although Arnaut's has an intricate pattern cut around the edge which looks like a potential fraying nightmare. Both sets come with hard plastic shields (not especially impressive-- painted brightly, with elastic hand straps) and flexible plastic belts for the sword and dagger. The sword and dagger aren't particularly impressive with unpainted black blades-- possibly there were concerns that paint might stick in the scabbard? (One of mine had what appears to be smeared overpaint from the handguard, as if the blades weren't intended to be seen.) The plate armour is mostly made of a rigid plastic and nicely sculpted. The Arnaut doll comes with the shoulder armour/pauldrons, rondels (?- the round things in front), gauntlet hands with separate fingers (flexible plastic), leg armour (2 section shin/greave + kneecap/poleyn-thigh/cuisse sections hinged together with pins) and shoes/sabatons (cast in flexible plastic). The De Kere doll lacks the pauldrons and rondels, has hands with simpler armour (with an oddly-angled fixed pose of limited versatility), and the shin armour is joined to the shoes as a flexible plastic boot. He comes with a rigid plastic helmet with a hinged visor (hair must be removed); a single cast rubber mantle is furnished (versus Arnaut's coif which is furnished in two "modes"). Arnaut's green rubber helmet is kinda silly-looking in my opinion, but probably faithful to what appears in the movie. The same goes for his necklace-- rubber was obviously chosen for production ease, since I don't think the movie would have featured a necklace with a permanent erection.

The headsculpts are good, although the finish on my Arnaut was weird, with girlish eye underliner and a coating of funky glossy varnish (his moustache is sweating?). Maybe that's faithful to the movie too??? (...as well as the fact that they don't have ears, and their hair is removeable?) Dragon's approach to the headwear again illustrates their reliance on flexible plastic castings-- in this case it was probably a combination of retaining the usual Dragon look of cast hair, the sculpted control over hairstyling, and the cost of production.

Overall, these are good figures for the price. I got mine at Toyboxer.com for the fair price of around $40 (good folks; they have decent shipping policies and ship quickly). That price fixes these sets at a mid level of detail, with a number of compromises made to keep the price down. Medieval armoured figures have the potential for a much greater depth of detail due to the opportunity for producing individually articulated pieces of armour and of using authentic materials (like metal). There's a point at which the price erodes demand, and Dragon is probably well aware that this is a much less popular niche of 1/6th scale collecting than WWII subject matter. I have no doubt that Dragon has the resources to produce the most awesome 1/6th scale replica of anything imaginable-- for a price. Fortunately for other manufacturers (and for niche customizers like myself), Dragon's resources are finite-- they wisely watch the bottom line and are shrewd about how they allocate them (as they cackle and plot new ways to crush BBI, nyuk nyuk).

--01/25/04