Monthly Archives: April 2017

The Ninja and the Dragon

We have my six-year-old son to thank for the fact that this is a whole diorama and not just a model dragon.

You see, as I was in the process of building it, he asked what I was making. Having just assembled that red and gold curve that forms the sinuous belly of the beast, and not having built the Ninjago Ninja of Fire his own dragon in a while, I replied “a fire dragon”.

However, as I built I found myself radically altering the orientation of that curved section from what I had expected, so that the dragon was to be posed standing upright. Upright is not a good orientation for a dragon that’s expected to support a rider, so I of course didn’t build it to seat one.

I finished the dragon model and showed it to my son. “I meed to change it a little,” he says, takes it out of my hands and removes a small piece of the back so that Kai can sit on it.

Not what I had in mind, son. Great thinking, but I don’t think this dragon’s supposed to have a rider.

After he went off to do something else I undid his well-meaning modification and thought about it. “Well, maybe it can’t seat a rider, but there’s no reason I can’t include Kai in the scene,” I mused, and posed the Fire Ninja on a rocklike element facing the dragon.

The composition, almost accidental as it was, struck me as a good one with great potential. “I can work with this,” I thought.

Now, normally any background scenery I build is something of an afterthought. Just enough to give the impression of some surroundings against the underside of a chessboard that I use as a photography backdrop. I’ve only really tumbled to the potential of scenery to add dimension and emphasis to a model fairly recently, and I rarely think initially in terms of a whole scene. In that sense I still build like a kid or a TFOL, I suppose. AFOL techniques, but all the focus is on the vehicle or creature. The household’s LEGO brick collection is such that it’s difficult to put together a really good SNOTwork base in a reasonable colour palette without rainbow inclusions, so my instinct is normally to go with the limited background option.

But in this case, I knew I had to do better. This had too much potential to skimp on.

Tan is both a good colour that works as landscape and a colour we have a halfway decent selection of 1xwhatever bricks in. It also goes well with a variety of other colours like dark tan, grey and brown to add just enough visual interest to be engaging without detracting from the diorama’s main focus, the encounter between the ninja and the dragon.

Add a small temple or shrine, because Eastern dragons guard temples the way Western ones guard treasure, and some foliage because my skills need work, and there it is.

What struck me most and triggered the whole diorama idea was the ambiguity of the composition. Is the dragon an adversary barring the ninja’s way to the temple, or a wise counsel instructing the ninja, or something else entirely? Is that even Kai, or is it just a generic ninja who likes to trim his mask with red? All of this is possible.

There’s a story here, and for once I’m deliberately not telling it. It would ruin the diorama to tie down its meaning.

This Bird’s No Longer Flightless!

The Penguin is probably my favourite Batman villain. The perennially-popular Joker normally hogs all the attention, and there’s something to be said for the deranged-clown sick humour of Batman’s usual archnemesis, but I’ve always preferred the Penguin. I love his umbrella-wielding outcast-in-a-tuxedo bending of ritzy chic, and the naturalist in me grooves to his avian and nautical theme.

If the Batman franchise is a journey through insanity and psychosis, then most of the major villains can be thought of as emblematic of different psychological or emotional influences. Scarecrow, obviously, is the power of fear. Two-Face represents multiple personality disorder, and Joker is just psychotically deranged randomness.

In this schema, Penguin probably represents rejection. It may be telling that I find him such a great villain. He’s the one I can almost relate to. Hmm…

It seems that the Penguin doesn’t get a lot of love from the LEGO Group. Joker appears in multiple sets along with his more recent (I think) sidekick addition Harley Quinn; Catwoman gets her motorcycles; Bane is all over the place. Mr. Freeze, Killer Croc and Poison Ivy all get face time. Even the Riddler gets more attention. No love for the poor Penguin.

While this is sort of ironically apt, it’s kind of disheartening for us Penguin fans who do LEGO. Even worse is the lack of imagination exhibited by most Penguin-including sets. The LEGO Batman Movie “Batcave Break-in” set is pretty typical in this regard: the Penguin drives an armed giant rubber duck. This seems to be LEGO Penguin’s hardware-of-choice, which is nearly inexcusable because really, Penguin has almost as much LEGO set potential as Batman himself. I mean, kudos to them for “The Penguin’s Arctic Roller”, which shows more imagination (as well as the disastrous misapprehension that penguins are Arctic birds), but even then I haven’t seen it in a store. Nobody loves the Penguin.

Time to rectify that situation while I’m in Batman mode? You bet!

Enter the Penguin Flyer.

Batman has his Batwing, and Joker has been known to use balloons, but just because he’s named after a flightless bird, there’s no reason the Penguin can’t take to the skies. This bird’s no longer flightless!

Besides, “flying penguin” is fun to say.

Building a fighter jet that looks like a penguin strikes exactly the right note of dangerous silliness, and on a more practical note the penguin is at least as good a model for an aircraft as the bat. Take that, Batwing!

The rounded bubble canopy was picked for the slightly goofy, zany look of the LEGO Batman Movie’s hardware and because Penguin is like that. Even in more serious Batman movies, Penguin is the sort who arms giant rubber ducks. The 1966 Adam West/Burt Ward Batman movie got Penguin’s style perfectly with that wonderfully kitschy Penguin submarine. I was trying for much the same effect in an aircraft. Meaningless gears in the back for the clunky, outcast hardware look, and my first ever use of brick separators as a structural element. I picked them as simply being the right colour and roughly the right shape, but they actually work well. The Penguin is in the air!

And armed with two stud shooters, two flick missiles and a pair of light-calibre machine guns.

We don’t technically have a Penguin minifigure in this household (though I have a birthday coming up and I may treat myself to the Arctic Roller), so I’ve had to improvise. My version lacks his trademark tuxedo and monocle, but I got the top hat.

Really, Penguinware shouldn’t be limited to the armed rubber ducks I’ve seen time and time again. Anything Bats or Joker can do, Penguin ought to be able to do with more style. Penguinmobiles shaped like a cross between a limousine and a battleship. Rocket-propelled umbrella jetpacks. Secret floating polar headquarters disguised as an iceberg. And yes, Penguin boats and Penguin submarines and giant robot mechapenguins and zany underground mole-penguins…

Batmech 2: Robin is Jealous

“Why does Batman get all the cool stuff?”

“It’s not fair!” the Boy Wonder complains. “I’m the kid superhero, so why does Batman get all the toys?”

It’s true, Robin doesn’t often get specifically Robin-themed hardware. His purpose is to be Batman’s sidekick and anchor to reality in the “what is sanity anyway?” subtext of any good Batman incarnation. Canonically, he uses Batstuff.

A mech is usually a single-pilot vehicle, though, so if Batman’s in a Batmech there’s absolutely no reason why Robin shouldn’t get his own Robinmech. And really, it makes Batman look kind of weak if he’s in a whole mechsuit while Robin is doing the infinitely studlier unaided hand-to-hand fighting.

Plus, the concept of a Batmech and a Robinmech fighting side by side is so awesome I nearly wet myself.

“This is more like it!”

As befits Robin’s secondary status and junior age bracket, the Robinmech is shorter than the Batmech. It may be better armed, though; there’s a similar laser cannon primary weapon and a machine gun (this one mounted on the nose because Robin is still a minor and doesn’t need censorable weapon placements). And instead of the twin spring-loaded shooters on the Batmech’s shoulder, the Robinmech has a hand-mounted rotary stud shooter with six shots to the Batmech’s two.

The Robinmech’s red, yellow and green colour scheme makes a pleasing contrast to the light sink that is any piece of Batstuff, and I think the silver semiskeletal Bionicle limb elements work far better than the black I’ve normally used on such mechs.

As an aside, Robin’s name has always confused me. If he’s named after the bird, the American robin isn’t nearly so good a fit personality-wise as the European robin. And yet Dick Grayson is always portrayed as an American. Gotham is basically Chicago, after all, and there’s never any indication that Robin is a foreigner.

But if he’s not named after the bird, how did he come to pick “Robin”? Robin Hood? That Robin was an outlaw, for all he was a good guy. It doesn’t work with the Dynamic Duo’s alliance with Police Commissioner Gordon.

I’d kind of like it if he was named after the bird. It makes a sort of sense, especially the European one. Whereas the American robin is a seasonal songbird in the thrush family, relatively gentle despite being several sizes bigger than its transatlantic counterpart, the European robin is a tough, aggressive little bird. It is known to attack red things many times its own size, and gets called “the gardener’s friend” from its habit of preying on common pests. Feisty, tough little bird that preys on common pests? That works, you see.

But however he got his name (and he ain’t told me), I think Robin agrees. He needs his own toys.

Quick! To the Batmech!

Batman goes with LEGO like salsa goes with tortilla chips. Of all the superheroes in either the Marvel or the DC universes, Batman is probably the one that LEGOes best. Yes, I just enverbed the word “LEGO”. I mean that Batman is the hero that most readily lends himself to reproduction in LEGO set form.

Superman’s powers are innate. Brickwise, he’s just Superman flying around. His villainous nemesis Lex Luthor is the one with all the cool toys, but it’s hard to generate a decent lineup of sets featuring Supes battling alone against a whole succession of villainous vehicles and mechsuits. Green Lantern can generate all kinds of cool green energy things, but it’s difficult to develop sets whose building potential is almost entirely in trans bright green. Also, Sinestro’s an annoying villain and has the same problem in trans yellow, and the Green Lantern movie was panned by critics. I enjoyed it, though.

In the Marvel universe, Iron Man is perhaps the most conceptually similar to Batman in that his powers come from his technological toys, but Iron Man’s toys are a near-infinite series of body armours, and those just require more minifigures.

I don’t think Marvel have a Batman-like major hero who builds themed vehicles and toys like Batman does. Spiderman doesn’t build Spidercopters and Spiderbikes (various toys including official LEGO notwithstanding). Captain America doesn’t build Patriotcycles and Ameritanks. The X-Men don’t build Xmechs and Mutantmobiles. It doesn’t happen.

Batman’s main drawback as far as LEGOfication is concerned is expressed so well by his LEGO Movie incarnation: “I only work in black. And occasionally really really really dark grey”. But even there, you have his faithful sidekick Robin providing some colour (when the Boy Wonder gets his own stuff, which isn’t often), and his archnemesis the Joker rocking the purple and green evil clown archetype. And of course, his villains are buildworthily creative. Joker builds stuff. Penguin has his umbrella- and seabird-themed hardware. Riddler isn’t averse to using zany gadgets. Even Catwoman rides a motorbike, as does Batman’s sometimes-sidekick and ally Batgirl.

Anyway, I decided that Batman needed a mech. A good one; the power suit from Batman versus Superman is ok-ish, but we can do better than that.

My Batmech is definitely a mech rather than a power suit, with a full-on cockpit at its heart.

For once I’ve built its feet rather than use the Hero Factory/Bionicle-esque dragon feet; they just look too organic and bestial for something Batman would build.

This mech includes a pair of Bat-arms that are perhaps a little short, though I’m not sure that building them a little bit longer in the forearm wouldn’t spoil the effect, plus the legs of course. Then mounted on the back I’ve added a massive Bat-laser cannon and a pair of spring-loaded shooters looking pleasingly like a Bat-missile pod.

After the main vehicle was built I decided that Batman needed a weapon that could shoot stuff on the ground. Hence the ventrally-mounted Bat-machine gun, which is rather unfortunately placed and might need to be censored.

The Bat-look is completed by the pair of ears atop the cockpit. They’re totally functionless and actually interfere with the firing arcs of the two primary weapons, but comic-book superheroes have never been long on practicality. Roll with it.

The Batmech completed, I’m struck by how the yellow highlights give the vehicle an awesome first-generation Blacktron appearance. Replace the cockpit with one in trans yellow and Bob’s your uncle.

With those ears, a repurposed Blacktron Batmech could have no other name than Anubis-class. Jackal-headed Egyptian god of death. Yeah, that’ll work.

A Sort of a Problem

I need to face the facts. The LEGO brick collection of our household is now at the point at which some sort of order and organisation is a necessity, not just a helpful aid to building.

I’ve tried before to impose some order on the collection with a system of Ziploc bags, but that didn’t work. The LEGO bricks are a household collection played with by not only me but two and sometimes all three of my children, the youngest of whom is six and who, when encountering a Ziploc bag full of windscreen elements, immediately tips it out to find the piece he needs. And then doesn’t put the rest back.

We have a limited system of the three drawers in one of these small plastic chests of drawers, one of which contains minifigures and accessories plus animals and plant parts, one of which contains wheels and things that go round, and one of which contains bar elements plus all the really tiny giblets and greebles that are smaller than a 1×2 tile. But those drawers are really the wrong shape for LEGO. They’re too deep to make good contained spaces in which you can really hunt down a particular element in that mixed a bag, and too mixed to make finding elements instantaneous even so, and they don’t make enough of a dent in the rest of the collection to achieve very much. We still spend far too long hunting down particular elements, and the noise of LEGO bricks tumbling against one another is one that punches my wife’s “something is breaking” button. And stands on it, usually.

I love my wife and I’d like to minimise her exposure to sounds that she finds grating while I pursue an activity I love and find relaxing. But I’m stumped. How can I organise our bricks, preferably without spending a fortune and acquiring DIY skills I don’t have making some sort of custom shelving?

I don’t mean what sorting system should we use. I’ll find a system that works for all of us and we’ll roll with it. Something based on element type and connectivity, I think. That’s the easy part.

I mean practically, what can I buy to serve as an organised repository of bricks that will make a dent in the mountain of unorganised elements, be accessible to a bright six-year-old, and cut down searching and clinking times to something a six-year-old can have patience with?

Oh, and preferably not break the bank.

LEGO-brand storage bins are too highly-priced and small to deal with the scale of the collection. They’re also designed mostly to help parents regain enough floor space to get around and clean; they support the “big jumble of bricks” system of LEGO filing.

I’ve toyed with (and am still considering) the idea of one of those bolt organiser things that DIY enthusiasts use to sort their myriads of screws and nails and whatnot. It has quite a few advantages: small, transparent drawers designed to hold small items, readily expandable simply by buying another section, drawers rather than bags, which we’ve proved doesn’t work. But I look at some of the larger element types, especially rubber tyres, shell or windscreen elements and ship parts, and I have to wonder whether they make screw organisers with drawers big enough. The one example I have access to is my father-in-law’s screw and bolt tidy, and it only has drawers designed for screw-sized things.

Also, how expensive are these things? I need to look that up, because it’s looking like it’s a present for all of us. I get my bricks organised. My son and daughters get to find the brick they’re looking for easily. And my wife gets the endless noise of brick clattering against brick to cease for a bit.

I’m willing to spend some money in order to avoid carpentry, but I’m not in a high income bracket and I don’t have masses to spend. I need an off-the-shelf sorting system that has drawers rather than bags or boxes, is accessible to a six-year-old (nothing too tall, bulky or awkward), has visibility into the drawers from the exterior (my son is still learning to read, so written labels aren’t going to help him find things), has drawers that can be removed and put back by a bright but impatient six-year-old, and ideally can handle tiny elements like 1×1 round tiles and large elements like Star Wars planet sections with equal ease.

Really, a bolt tidy is the only option, isn’t it?

Or is it? Those things don’t come cheap, if I remember right, and they’re far more robust than I actually need. Is there another option? One that isn’t going to mean spending money on a huge markup generated by faddish hobbies like scrapbooking or cardmaking?

Ice Ice Baby

It’s the middle of April, and daytime temperatures in Texas are bouncing around the eighty-degree Fahrenheit mark, or closing in on thirty degrees Celsius and the sort of temperature only reached in Britain in the height of summer.

It must be time for another Ice Planet creation.

I started this model with the intention of using one of my new rubber caterpillar tracks to make a small skidoo-like vehicle. Skis in front, single track in back, room for a single scout driver, that sort of thing.

Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to make the single rear track work for anything remotely as slim as I wanted. Everything ended up being far fatter than I was looking to build. And it didn’t help that the ski steering column was a pretty substantial affair, either.

Shrugging in resigned desperation, I decided to double up the tracks and build a side-by-side double-wide version of the track section. This made a considerably larger vehicle than I was initially intending, but on the other hand it gave me the perfect excuse to mount a radar-guided twin plasma cannon in the back.

So it’s no longer the diminutive personal scout vehicle I anticipated building, but a heavy skidoo-mounted space defence cannon is a worthwhile addition to the Ice Planet folks’ vehicle inventory, and I rather like what I’ve built, so here it is.

Holy Retro Kitsch, Batman!

The tumbler seems to be the modern incarnation of the Batmobile, but although it’s highly capable as a vehicle it’s almost mind-numbingly ugly.

If there’s a Batmobile for the category of “so ugly it wins design awards”, the tumbler is it. I’m sorry, but it struggles to be the Batmobile to me.

Of course, my sense of style basically froze in 1989, but the tumbler’s all wrong for a comic-book superhero’s car that has such a pedigree and history as the Batmobile.

For a portion of my psyche, the old 1960s/1970s Adam West/Burt Ward Batmobile will always be the Batmobile.

Ok, with the firepower modern villains’ incarnations bring to the party our heroes need something a bit more bulletproof and less stealable, but that Batmobile fits the campy comicbook milieu perfectly. Long on style and short on practicality, but at the same time an actual driveable car. It’s one of the most iconic vehicles of all time, and due to my wife’s fandom of the kitschy old serial it’s a car my 6-year-old son also thinks of as a, if not the Batmobile.

So with my son having acquired a couple of LEGO Batman Movie sets including, among other figures, both Batman and Robin, the Batmobile I inatantly thought of reproducing was the classic retro one.

The front end isn’t fully accurate to the TV version, but it’s as close as I can get in bricks and my son’s happy with it. And best of all, it’s got room for both Batman and Robin, and the LEGO Batman Movie figures don’t look out of place.

Penguin was always my favourite villain, but we don’t have him yet. And he doesn’t really have any readily-buildable vehicles like the Batmobile. There’s never really been an official Penguinmobile, but maybe I could do a digital version of his submarine from the 1966 movie…