Sunday, 26 February 2017

Stranger Week Bonus Day – POP! Television: Demogorgon (Stranger Things)

The most visible threat of Stranger Things was the Monster, better known as the Demogorgon. A number of Lovecraftian elements are present in the show, but the Demogorgon’s design is where we probably see the most influence shining through. H.R. Giger and Silent Hill's hands are also evident, though there’s far less bio-mechanoid/Freudian sexuality than either of those influences typically showcases. Stalking through both the real world and the Upside Down, numerous characters fell victim to its claws and teeth-lined face.  

At present, we don’t actually know a great deal about the creature; there’s been a wide array of fan theories, but for me the jury remains out until such time as future season/s of the show provide more information. The Duffer Brothers themselves have likened it to the shark from Jaws, rather than being a sentient being, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what…unfolds…

The POP depicts the Demogorgon with its “face” fully flared out, ready to attack. It somewhat resembles a carnivorous flower, and it’s also pentacle-shaped – this is likely a reference to the demonic origins of Demogorgon in Dungeons & Dragons, which in turn drew its name from a rather vague (and unrelated) figure in Christian demonology*. Modern research seems to suggest that the whole concept was likely based on a misinterpretation of the word “Demiurge”, a figure in Gnostic belief. But here we start to move into occult waters that are well out of my depth.

The scale is not quite right. Looking at screencaps, the Demogorgon is substantially larger than a human, but nowhere near big enough to warrant a 6” POP. They’ve gone bigger in the past with figures like Cthulhu, but on this occasion I think the reduced scale still works fine. He’s wildly different in style to the other figures in the series – which would ordinarily be a criticism but makes sense in light of the way the character is depicted on the show.   

There’s also a chase version of the Demogorgon, and it’s a good example of an ideal chase figure i.e. it adds something cool to the collection, but it’s not essential to own in order to consider the collection complete (Eleven’s chase POP is a bad one for this very reason). The chase version depicts the Demogorgon with a closed face, somewhat resembling a clenched fist, a nurse from Silent Hill or a butt. It’s okay…but the regular version is definitely the cooler one.   

If you enjoyed Stranger Things but don’t want to go all-in on the line, Demogorgon and Eleven are the obvious figures to pick up. The sculpt is good, the paint is fine (the teeth on the "petals" is a bit sloppy) – and while I wouldn’t go so far to say the Demogorgon has quite reached iconic status yet, it’s a very cool creature design and will look great on the shelf alongside other movie monsters. I can't wait to see what Season 2 throws at the protagonists!  

*Though they got it a little off if they wanted to convey this; the upright pentacle that we see on the Demogorgon's head has typically been seen as a symbol of good. It's the inverted one that's meant to convey darkness or evil. Hence why neo-pagans tend to wear upright ones and metal bands tend to use inverted ones. The upright one has even been used as a Christian symbol at various times, though your local church is unlikely to have one on prominent display.  

Friday, 24 February 2017

Stranger Week Day 7 -- POP! Television: Eleven (Stranger Things)

Weird girl with magical powers who can’t communicate properly with those around her. This is a well-worn trope across all genres of weird fiction, and it’s one that tends to drive me up the wall. I’ve never been totally clear on why it bugs me so much, either; perhaps because it tends to be played for crappy comic relief and/or heavy-handed social commentary on how sometimes what we see as cultural norms are actually a bit strange AND HAD YOU EVER THOUGHT ABOUT THAT??!?!?*

But I didn’t dislike Eleven at all. Millie Bobby Brown had quite a central role as part of Stranger Things, and she pulled it off admirably. Eleven was rather different from some of her cinematic forbears in that the producers opted to play her in a relatively understated fashion – and for the most part, convincing – as opposed to exaggerating everything into an opportunity for “hilarity”. There are some funny moments, but they’re never break the wider tone of the show.

As might be expected, Eleven is depicted with a shaved head, dirty face, bloody nose and a pack of Eggo Waffles. She’s also wearing the clothes that she gets from Mike’s house (was it meant to be Nancy’s old clothes, or just from a dress-up box? I don’t remember), even down to the calculator watch. So this POP isn’t based on any specific scene; it’s more of an aggregation of several elements of the character, though you could argue that it’s from right near the end when she fights the Demogorgon.

Eleven was actually the first Stranger Things POP teased, back before they even had the license. What we got here is much the same as that initial prototype, which is impressive – it’s one of Funko’s more detailed POPs, both in terms of sculpt and paintwork. Obviously Netflix and the various other licensors were quite happy…but the cynic who used to work in advertising makes me think that Funko had the license for a lot longer than they let on, and the whole “these are prototypes” thing was just to build hype. Never mind either way; the final product is a good one.   

There is also a Chase version of Eleven, packed at a 1/6 ratio. It uses the same body sculpt, but has a different head sculpt – it’s Eleven after she gets her blonde wig and has her face cleaned up. And this brings me to a complaint. I don’t mind that Funko does Chases; but in four years of collecting, I have only ever encountered four or five in the wild. Traditionally, they’ve also tended to be paint variants – metallic, glow-in-the-dark, that kind of thing.

But in 2017, Funko is now bringing in sculpt-based chases, and that irritates me no end. Once upon a time, Funko would have simply released these two versions of the character separately, and people could simply pick and choose which one they wanted (probably both, in most cases) – now we don’t have that option. Though they’re ostensibly being packed at higher ratios than before, I can virtually guarantee that they are still going to be a huge pain in the ass to find. Given that I’m expecting (as I have noted numerous times on here) Season 2 versions of the characters to eventually be released, I’m probably not going to make much more of an effort to search out the Chase version. But Funko’s doing similar things across a number of their lines, and I don’t think it sets a very good precedent. Their Twin Peaks range has done something similar, in even more disappointing fashion -- an entire major character has been relegated to a Chase figure.       

Not counting the Chase, there are two other versions of Eleven at this stage and I suspect we’ll see more not too far down the track. There’s an Underwater version, with her “swimsuit” and helmet. Next month there’s an Emerald City Comicon exclusive – Upside Down Eleven, who’s in a two-pack with Upside Down Barb. It looks to be the Underwater sculpt without the helmet, so I’m sure customisers won’t have any issues creating their own.

Eleven is must-buy for fans of the series, and she seems to be the best-selling so far. Funko have done a bang-up job with this one, and here’s hoping we see this level of care and attention applied to some of their other ranges in future.

*One of my other pet peeve is when characters are described as “quirky” by their actors, screenwriters or directors. In our day-to-day lives, we do meet quirky people, and they’re often highly engaging and entertaining. But on film, “quirky” tends to be code for “the character has one or two oddball interests but is mostly just extremely irritating and will make you resent the time they spend onscreen”. 

Stranger Week Day 6 – POP! Television: Mike (Stranger Things)

Like many of its inspirations, Stranger Things is ostensibly for adults but is also eminently watchable by a younger audience. Sure, at a few points it’s violent or scary, but it’s hardly The Evil Dead.

While Mike’s not exactly the main character, he’s probably the closest thing the show has to an audience surrogate for its younger viewers. Fortunately, he’s got substantially more depth than most audience surrogates. The Duffer Brothers have obviously heeded their own childhood viewing as a warning about how terrible audience surrogates can be, as the ratio tends to skew about 10,000 Orkos to 1 Mike.

Mike’s POP shares quite  a good likeness to Finn Wolfhard, though Will’s is probably still the best overall. He’s equipped with his walkie-talkie (which would have made a good accessory for Lucas, too), which seems omnipresent throughout the series, and as with all of the Stranger Things POPs so far, the sculpting is well-executed and painted well. The only (possible) detail missing is a cut on the chin, though you could always add this yourself if you wanted.   

I’m in the middle of watching the series through again, partially in preparation for series 2, but also just to refresh my memory as I write these reviews. And on second viewing, I strongly suspect that Mike is at least partially based on Sam, John Francis Daley’s character from Freaks and Geeks. Though not identical, they look somewhat alike, dress similarly and are definitely on the same wavelength of interests, though Mike is considerably less dorky*. In an interesting example of things coming full circle, Finn Wolfhard has since been cast in the new version of Stephen King’s IT – which has also had its setting updated to the 1980s. I'm hoping he doesn't get too typecast in the long run!

As with Joyce, Mike is not the most fascinating design that we’ve ever seen Funko come up with, but he’s an essential part of the show; one of my favourite characters from it too. Eleven and the Demogorgon are the obvious pickups from the range for more casual fans, but Mike is a very close third.

*If you’ve never watched Freaks and Geeks you should definitely check it out – it was one of my favourite shows as a teen, and pushes a lot of those 80s nostalgia buttons in the same way that Stranger Things does.   

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Stranger Week Day 5 – POP! Television: Dustin (Stranger Things)

So today we’re looking at Dustin. Best friend to Lucas – featured in yesterday’s review – he initially comes off as the token dopey kid in the group, but it becomes apparent over the course of the series that he’s actually quite bright. Stranger Things is a very trope-heavy show that isn’t afraid to wear its influences on its sleeve, but it was entertaining to see the way it would subvert the viewer’s expectations in ways like that.    

Of all the Stranger Things POPs, Dustin’s likeness is probably the poorest; actor Gaten Matarzzo was born with a condition known as cleidocranial dysplasia, which affects the development of bones and teeth, and in turn gives him quite a distinctive look which doesn’t necessarily translate as some of the others into POP format.

But another part of it is that the POP just looks a little too neat and clean. Dustin gives off the vibe of being something of a sloppy kid; one who’s still dressing in clothes that most others his age would dismiss as being “kid’s stuff”, and that isn’t quite conveyed here. While I understand that more paint apps = higher production costs, the decision to go neat has left him looking like a 1980s take on Ash from Pokemon. I’m sure we’ll see this head turn up in a custom or two in the future.  

That said, the sculpting is well-executed. And he does come equipped with a compass, which is a nice touch given the key role that it plays in the story.  

Assuming that these figures sell well (by all indications they are) I strongly suspect that we’ll see a Season 2 take on Dustin somewhere down the line. While this isn’t a terrible POP by any means, I don’t think it quite captures the character. Hopefully the next version will rectify that. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Stranger Week Day 4 – POP! Television: Lucas (Stranger Things)

It’s become something of a trope for every show with supernatural elements to have a sceptical character, providing a counterbalance to the weird happenings around them. Sometimes they’re a genuine voice of reason; other times they’re excruciating to watch, as their scepticism in the setting of the series flies in the face of anything resembling commonsense. To provide an example (though Gillian Anderson was great in the role), Agent Scully’s scepticism in the face of all evidence to the contrary wore increasingly thin for the audience over the course of 9 seasons, two movies and a miniseries of The X-Files.

Fortunately, Lucas leans towards the former type of TV sceptic, rather than the latter. He’s the most overtly suspicious of Eleven, initially believing her to be a questionable influence (and asking all sorts of not entirely unreasonable questions about where she might have come from), and once outright accusing her of being a “monster”. But once convinced of her goodness and power, his resistance decreases – this is a much more plausible arc than Scully went through.

Like the Dustin and Mike POPs (reviews to come), Lucas is dressed in his pseudo-commando gear, from towards the end of Season 1. This is a good choice; while it was fair enough for Will to be decked out in his regular clothes, it would have been a little bit on the dull side to essentially have plainclothes versions of all of the main kids. Lucas is equipped with his binoculars (which would be virtually useless on the huge head size of a POP, a backpack and a Batman-style utility belt. Everything is nicely sculpted, and the paint is surprisingly well executed. 

Assuming that these figures sell well (by all indications they are) I strongly suspect that we’ll see Season 2 figures of the main guys somewhere down the line. Though Lucas and Dustin are unlikely to ever receive the same level of merchandising as Eleven, they’re still core characters and good additions to the collection.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Stranger Week Day 3 – POP! Television: Barb (Stranger Things)

Series 1 of Stranger Things was a show with many breakout elements, but Barb was arguably one of the biggest. Though she only appeared in a handful of episodes, she quickly became the Boba Fett of the series, inspiring a wide variety of tributes, including social media hashtags, fan art, cosplay, and even tattoos

Barb’s outfit was the most overtly 1980s-looking outfit of any of the main cast – big glasses, ruffled blouse, high waisted jeans and boots, accompanied by short but bouffant red hair. Not as gaudy as we tend to picture the 1980s, but definitely evoking an archetypal image of the terrible yearbook photo. The POP replicates it perfectly; whoever designed this put a lot of care into the look and feel of the figure.

Perhaps best of all, she’s decked out with a Trapper Keeper; though the reference is obscure to modern teens, Trapper Keepers were a somewhat higher-end take on the traditional book binder, and extremely popular in the 1980s, particularly in the USA. Produced in all manner of designs to appeal to guys and girls alike, the Trapper Keeper can be seen as a symbol of Barb’s relatively child-like nature – a stark contrast to friends like Nancy who are “maturing” at a rate that apparently leaves her intimidated and sometimes appalled.

At present, there's just one version of Barb available; the only other obvious version would feature exactly the same outfit but with a blue jacket over the top. But there's one on the way for Emerald City Comicon out next month -- an "Upside Down" two-pack which also features a different version of Eleven. The mold is the same, but the paintjob has the eerie green-grey look of the world of the Upside Down. My suggestion would be to get this one, and only get the exclusive if you're not paying aftermarket prices. I suspect it will be in very heavy demand. 

Barb is the first secondary character to be produced; though she has a fraction of the screen time, it’s fair to say that she’s far more popular than some of the more heavily-featured characters like Nancy or Jonathan. Some of these characters are likely to show up as POPs in future, but Barb’s inclusion really is indicative of how fandom can drive a franchise for good ends.  

But that popularity came at a price; in a (likely intentional) inversion of traditional horror film values, Barb gets killed off in spite of not participating in drinking, drugs or sex. But I suspect we’ll probably see her in Season 2 in form or another – maybe a flashback, or maybe as a resurrected Demogorgon-esque creature? The character’s popularity is probably too strong for her to be entirely gone.   

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Stranger Week Day 2 – POP! Television: Joyce (Stranger Things)

Here we are with Day 2 of Stranger Week, taking a look at Will’s mum – Joyce Byers.

Joyce is one of the series’ most depressing characters. She’s a single mother in precarious financial circumstances, and seemingly devoid of friends. Though the viewer is aware pretty early on that there are supernatural goings-on in the world of Stranger Things, the scenes with Joyce are still often ambiguous as to whether Will’s actually communicating with her or she’s just crazy. We believe Eleven can reach him, but it’s quite late in the piece that we get confirmation that Joyce could too.  
As with her son Will, Joyce’s design is a bit neither here nor there; this will be a recurring theme for most of the human characters, as they’re mostly meant to be ordinary people. However, when the figures are viewed as a whole, they work quite well together, creating a consistent world for the characters to inhabit.  

Joyce comes with the Christmas lights that she used to communicate with Will while he was trapped in the Upside Down – the only other accessory that would make much sense would be the burnt-out phone. The lights are all tangled up here though, and give no indication of which colours they’ll actually shine once they’re hung up on the wall. However, this is consistent with the scene Will makes them glow bright white – and if it bothers you, it’s an easy fix to customise.  

Winona Ryder has had her ups and downs over the years, which unfortunately has probably had a negative impact on her career trajectory. She was a huge star in the late 80s right up until around 2001 – and it’s only really been in the last few years that she’s started to re-emerge significantly into the public eye. But in some ways we should be grateful for this; were her profile a little higher, the producers behind Stranger Things might not have been able to get her for the role.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Stranger Week Day 1 – POP! Television: Will (Stranger Things)

Stranger Things was pretty much my favourite TV show last year. It was a great mix of 80s nostalgia, Stephen King and Steven Spielberg-esque influences and kid’s adventure stories, and for me it definitely rose above its influences to be its own thing.    

Despite being the kid that pretty much kicks off the events of Stranger Things, Will is actually more of a MacGuffin than a full-fledged character for most of Season One. Being trapped in the Upside Down for most of the series meant that he didn’t get a great deal of screentime, and there’s an awful lot we don’t know about him yet. Why was he able to survive in the Upside Down when everyone else seemed to get killed off? And what was with the things he was coughing up?    

Presumably these questions will be answered this October when Series 2 is released. But in the meantime, some of the first merchandise for the series has hit Australian stores, in the form of Funko POPs.  And given that Will’s disappearance kicks things off, I thought he’d be the best figure to look at first.

One of the things that Stranger Things did quite well was that it didn’t really parody the decade it was set in. Typically any show or movie set in the 80s is full of more neon and big hair than you can poke a Sony Walkman at. But Stranger Things painted a picture that’s probably more reflective of the truth of the era – the characters wear clothes that look dated to modern viewers, but not the garish outfits that have captivated popular imagination. This figure captures that vibe effectively, and special mention must go to its accurate rendition of the bowlcut – a haircut which has afflicted so many unfortunate kids over the decades, and continues to even to this day.

I can’t pretend that Will is the most visually interesting POP in my collection, but he works in the wider context of the series. There’s another version of available too – Upside Down Will, which is the same mold but painted in the gloomy, muted blue-grey shades of the mysterious dimension. It doesn’t seem to be out in Australia yet, but it’s been showing up in the US. I’ll probably pass on it myself, but it’s a good alternate version for diehards.  

I assume that there will be plenty more Stranger Things POPs in the works – with all the hype around the first series, and the second due on Halloween, Netflix is unlikely to let any potential merchandise sales slide. Will’s a solid figure, if not the most interesting design; it’ll be interesting to see what he looks like in Season 2.  

Thursday, 16 February 2017

POP! Movies: Conan the Barbarian -- Bloody and Warpaint Variants (PX Previews Exclusives)

Sigh…sometimes fandom can lead you down a foolish path.

I love Conan the Barbarian – both the original Robert E. Howard stories and the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. A friend showed me the film in late 2006 or early 2007 (the same friend who showed me The Beyond, actually) and it became an instant favourite. Shortly afterwards came the purchase of The Complete Conan Chronicles, a compilation of the original Robert E. Howard short stories from the 1930s. Rarely have I come across an author that I have enjoyed as much – I like to think he's influenced my own writing, though it may not be so evident on this blog. Howard died tragically young as the result of a self-inflicted gunshot, but his work left behind a legacy that has grown to encompass a multimedia empire – not to mention the many derivatives the character spawned in his wake.

So how has this fandom led me down a foolish path? Well, I have been hoping for a Conan POP since I started collecting back in 2013. And the basic figure was announced late last year as being available through Popcultcha – but the two you see in the pictures here were originally advertised as being exclusive to Entertainment Earth. Which in principle I didn’t mind, except that it meant they would cost me a whole bunch in postage…but I put in the order anyway, because I was worried that they wouldn't be released in Australia.

But to cut a long story short, these POPs did end up coming out in Australia (before they arrived from the US) and it was already too late to cancel the order. So these guys ended up costing me around double what they would have in Sydney, with the only distinction being the little “PX Previews Exclusive” sticker on each box. I'd understand if this was a convention exclusive or chase, but does anyone really care about this particular type of sticker? 

Overall, these figures are great. The sculpts are good, capturing the little details of the character nicely. But don’t be like me – learn from my experience and just buy them from your local retailer.  

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

POP! Movies – King Kong (Kong: Skull Island)

King Kong is one of the great cinematic monsters, arguably equal in stature to Godzilla. His appearances on film have tended to play it a lot straighter than his reptilian counterpart, but he’s still become a larger than life cliché unto himself.

Back in the bad old days of the early 90s, when we only had a handful of channels on free-to-air TV, the ABC would often play classic films late at night or early in the morning. And when I say “classic”, you should read “old and tedious” because most of them were obscure British period trash. Occasionally, though, they’d play a really good one – the original 1930s King Kong was one. As a kid who was fascinated by special effects, it was amazing viewing, and I became an instant fan of the character.  

But I’ve been a bad fan over the years. I’ve never watched the 1976 or 2004 film (though I’m told I’m doing myself a favour on both counts) and I probably haven’t seen the original since I was a little kid. Nonetheless, news of a King Kong Funko POP meant that I had another must-buy on my list, and my wife was kind enough to pick it up for Valentine’s Day* this year.   

This is based on Kong’s design from the new film, Kong: Skull Island, which I’m sure will be entertaining enough but probably take itself far too seriously and give us too much focus on the human characters. Still, the cast looks okay – and if nothing else it’s given us the tentative promise of a King Kong vs Godzilla movie in 2020, which should be tremendous fun.
As to the POP itself, given that Funko only recently made a giant gorilla, I’m surprised there isn’t a ton of reuse on display here. Molds aren’t cheap, after all. But the only thing that appears to be shared is the feet and even with them I’m not 100% certain.

Though only out for a few weeks, it seems to have been selling quite steadily. I’ll wager that very little of this has to do with the new movie coming out; rather, it’s probably just the fact that you can actually get a King Kong POP. I assume we’ll probably see it in a few different colourwaves, just as happened with Godzilla. As always, a glow in the dark one would be pretty fantastic, but I’m not even sure how they would try and justify that from an in-universe perspective. Maybe radiation made him grow, like Godzilla? Who knows -- I could see myself buying it anyway. 

At any rate, the final product looks pretty rad. Paint is fuzzy (shock!) but being able to have a giant gorilla crushing a helicopter in its hand makes this an essential purchase, even if you’ve never cared about King Kong in your life before. Overall? Fantastic addition to just about any POP collection, and a good jumping-on point if you don't have any.    

Rarr! RARR!

Sunday, 5 February 2017

POP! Movies – Ghostface (Scream)

Company: Funko
Year: 2014

Originally created as something of a tribute to a genre that had kind of gone out of vogue, Scream ended up being a big hit and spawned a franchise of its own. Directed by horror legend Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street), what the first Scream film got right was the balance of comedy and out-and-out horror. There’s plenty of knowing winks and nods (like Freddy the Janitor), but the film doesn’t skimp on the intensity or gore at any point. It’s not Cannibal Holocaust, but it’s more full-on than plenty of the films that inspired it. The film also owes a lot of its success to the smart screenplay from Kevin Williamson, who would go on to be quite a successful screenwriter…though he did pen another very successful slasher film that was arguably a Scream knockoff* in and of itself.

As a relatively modern horror icon, it’s no real surprise that Ghostface ended up getting released as one of the earlier horror movie figures under the POP! Movies banner. For whatever reason, the box lists the name as “Ghost Face” rather than “Ghostface”. Perhaps this is to do with trademarks surrounding Ghostface Killah, but that’s only a guess on my front.   

The sculpt is great fun; the mask is nicely rendered, and it does a good job of capturing the loose look of the costume. Ghostface has actually been portrayed by seven different actors (plus two others if you count the TV series), not to mention numerous stuntmen. However, the personality and actions remain reasonably consistent across the movies – and while the costume and mask do have some subtle differences across the films, it’s not as drastic as, say, Jason Voorhees. In POP format, one and done is fine on this occasion. 

There are some paint issues, but this is typical of the POP releases of the time. Most of him is cast in black, with some gloss areas -- these are fine. The issues come with the mask itself. Areas of white have been visibly touched up before it went into the box. I wouldn’t mind redoing this more cleanly in the future, but even when I was painting a lot of miniatures, I always struggled with painting white. It’s not ideal, but I’ll live.

Ghostface doesn’t seem to be vaulted, but he is increasingly unusual to spot out in the wild – if you’re a Scream fan and keen to get him, I’d pick him up soon. I’m hopeful that we also get a version of the Brandon James Ghostface from the TV series too; the first season was quite enjoyable, though it started to lose me in Season 2. He’s a fine addition to my ever-growing horror shelf, if not as well-executed (ha!) as some of his fellow horror-themed POPs.   

*I Know What You Did Last Summer