Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Building Chronicle: A Critical Consideration of LEGO's "Bionicle" Series - Building Through On Hiatus

No that the series has been particularly punctual anyway, but I'm going to take a break from the Bionicle building for a bit. My thoughts and interests are going in other directions at the moment, so rather than force myself to build through, I'd rather wait until I'm back in the mood to have interesting things to say. Probably should have done this a while ago. I will continue the series, eventually.

Thanks for reading along thus far, and have a look at some of the other collections I write about.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Building Chronicle: A Critical Consideration of LEGO's "Bionicle" Series - Building Through part 5.1 - 2005

Welcome Back!

It's time to get this show on the road again, and not solely because I'm tired of having the 2005 models on my shelves.

(Though I am dying to build some of the 2006 stuff)

We'll start off today looking at the Visorak. Though they're called spiders, these creatures don't really conform to our definition of arachnids. Even counting their pincers, they've only got 6 legs. However, we're not talking about creatures from our reality, but from that of Bionicle, so spiders they are.

The Visorak represent a nice change for the villains of the series in the six sets offered. Though ostensibly clones, there are subtle variances in the builds and in the pieces used that give each one a bit more character than their Vahki predecessors. Also, these sets reintroduce the original brighter colours of the first three years into the series, which brightens up what had become a very dark series of toys. Of course, the darkness of the colour scheme matches nicely the darkness of the story at this point - the Metru Nui series is a grim one.

What 2005 really provides for us is a remarkable amount of combiner models. Not only are there combiners included in the instruction booklets, but canonical models were also made available in the Lego magazine and on the website. While some of the combiners suffer a bit from that problem of the earlier ones, in that they look like they've been cobbled together from other sets, some actually look like they could have been marketed, official sets. Let's have a look at some of the Visorak combiners.

The Kahgarak is an elite Visorak, built from the blue and white sets commercially released. It plays a part in the novel series, and of all of the Visorak sets (with the exception of the Zivon), it's the only one that actually had eight legs, and can therefore be considered a spider in both Bionicle lore and our own natural science. The Gate Guardian, on the other hand, goes quite a different route, and though it incorporated elements from the Visorak sets, its look is decidedly un-spiderlike. If I'm to be honest, when I build this set, it reminds me of something from the Beatles' Yellow Submarine film. A little awkward, slightly ridiculous-looking, but ferocious with those pincers nonetheless.

The Chute Lurker and the Venom Flyer, though they share a number of characteristics with the Visorak, are actually considered separate species in the Bionicle lore. Both are affiliated with the Visorak, and are used for particular purposes by the horde, but are not Visorak proper. As these creatures were all created by members of the Brotherhood of Makuta, we could perhaps consider the similarities to be aesthetic choices made by a particular member. The creation of the Visorak is credited to Makuta Chirox (who we'll meet in 2008), so perhaps these other creatures were also created by him. I quite like the idea of an aesthetic that distinguishes particular branches of the Rahi, rather than an evolutionary path.

The last of the smaller Visorak combiners is the Parakrekks. Unlike the previous combiners, this one represents a creature that menaced a Toa team many years in the past, and though there are supposedly still surviving members of the species, it seems they have very little really to do with the Visorak and their concomitant creatures. As such, it's the combiner that bears the least resemblance to its constituent parts, and looks more like one of the titan sets, really.

Last, but certainly not least, we have the Zivon, a combiner of all six Visorak sets. It's a bit wobbly, hence my inclusion of a stand beneath the model. In-story, this is a creature that terrorizes the Visorak, and lives in a shadow-filled realm from which it is only seldom summoned. As with a couple of the aforementioned combiners, this set is not to scale with the Toa Hordika, Visorak, or titan sets from the same year, but is instead a smaller version of a monstrous creature. Perhaps one day I'll attempt a properly-scaled model of the Zivon, if I can determine what that scale might be.

Next time, we'll have a look at the Hordika and the Rahaga, the heroes of this particular part of the series. Though one of the Hordika acts in a less-than-heroic fashion, and the Rahaga are far more than they seem.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Trouble of Recycling Toys

It will come as no surprise to many of you that I am a thrifter. One of my great pleasures in life is spending an hour carefully going through the book section at Goodwill, or the toy section at Value Village, agog at the bizarre, bizarre artifacts that greet my eyes.

Seriously, there’s been a book written about everything you can possibly imagine, and about a whole bunch of things you can’t.

Thrifting is where you move up to a higher tax bracket, in some ways – from garage sale to thrift shop. I say this not to denigrate either practice. Let me be clear on that. This kind of shopping is essentially an environmental act. The garage sale represents an ideal – the buyer and the seller directly interact. While the very thought of that sends shivers down the spines of many, the thought of unmediated human interaction in an economic transaction, it has moments of great joy. Of conversation over shared interests, over histories of objects. Perhaps the garage sale represents an interesting point between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie of Marx. Exchange of manufactured goods without the mediation of rich.

In that case, the thrift shop, with its retail store and its higher prices, represents both a willingness to pay more for your environmental action (in that, you pay more money for what is essentially the same environmental action as a garage sale), and also your willingness to ignore to some extent the direst relation between even a relatively small corporate entity and environmental degradation. The fact of the Corporate Entity is directly to blame for many of the perils facing the planet. This is a part of the higher tax bracket I speak of. Being taxed isn’t always about money. Sometimes it can be about accountability.

When I go to thrift shops, I’m searching for a couple of things. Books and toys, most generally. A lot of the time, of late, I’m looking for manga and Bionicle chapterbooks. And Lego. Bionicle Lego. Lots, and lots, and lots of Bionicle Lego.

Part of my practice in collecting these toys is the careful sorting, upon initially tearing into a bag, of the Bionicle from the non-Bionicle. Once this is done, a further process separates the non-Bionicle I want to keep from the non-Bionicle I do not want to keep. Of the things I keep, they are sorted again into their own classifications (thus becoming non-Bionicle), and are then stored (or more often, left on the floor for a month and then stored) in their respective locations. The non-Bionicle that I do not want to keep goes through one further sort: things that I will take back and donate to a thrift shop, and things that I will not. Once a large enough pile of thrift shop-worthy items accrues, I take them there, and of course wander about for an hour or so, beginning the process anew.

Of course, the Bionicle I want to keep is itself sorted into components and then catalogued into the storage system I have that TAKES UP A WHOLE CORNER OF MY BASEMENT!!!!
(Please don’t ever mistake me for not understanding the pathological nature of collecting. I’m well aware.)

That other stuff goes into the recycling.

Today, a chilly November 18th, 2016, I took the recycling bin from my office out to the dumpster in our complex. There is a bar across the lid, sometimes, that gets locked in place, so you have to take each individual piece out of the recycling and place it into the receptacle. This keeps one from putting boxes in that aren’t broken down (which seems to vex recyclers for reasons that no one has ever quite made clear to me), I suppose, but it’s a pain in the ass on a cold Calgary morning, let me tell you. Thankfully, today, the lid was not locked down, so I lifted it and dumped the entire contents in, thus saving my already-chilly fingers some pain. As I tipped the contents of the bin into the dumpster, I saw those last parts, the non-Bionicle, non-kept, non-rethrifted pieces, the death of a number of toys.

This is how I came to think of it. 

In the critical exegesis to my Garage Saling Manifesto, I make an argument that the garage sale and the thrift shop represent an expansion on the spectrum of “value” that material objects are assigned in culture. Use value and exchange value give way in these settings to disposal value – once something has passed through the crucible of consumer culture, what is the least amount of capital that that thing can bring? There are, of course, different valences of this depending on where in the spectrum of the secondary markets you are buying, or selling, an item. Church Basement sales carry with them a whole other branch of ideological reasoning that inflects this reading. Used book or record shops are somewhere else on this spectrum, and bring with them their own concerns.

But at some point, somewhere in the process, there has to come a time when the disposal value is zero, that the thing, whatever it is, ceases to have an identity as an economic entity attached to it, and is therefore no longer of use. When this happens, they are consigned back to the materials from which they rose – plastic. If, as Kansas says, we’re naught but dust in the wind, then these sad, broken, occasionally unidentifiable parts of toys are plastic on the heap. This act, too, is an environmental one for the thrifter/saler. You are tasked with making that decision, making that call for the end of this particular piece of the production process, and all that that process represents, for the cessation of its place in the structure of capital. And if you think of it that way, it’s a huge thing to do. One thinks, “This no longer has economic value, nor could it have economic value to anyone, therefore I shall terminate its existence, so that it can be changed back into something that does have economic value, a different something. The process of that change will damage the environment, but not as much as throwing it away, so I will accept my accountability in environmental degradation.” 

I did this today for a number of things. I thought it was worth thinking about.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Building Chronicle: A Critical Consideration of LEGO's "Bionicle" Series - Building Through part 4.2 - 2004

Okay, catch up time again. I feel a bit bad rushing through 2004, but I really want to get on with thinking through this series, and the 2004 line have been built and on my shelf for a long while now. Plus, 2005 has some really very cool combiners I'm eager to get to. Once again, I'll apologize for the cellphone picture quality, though this is a panorama, so that's kind of neat, right?

One of the earliest posts in this series was of Ultimate Dume, the large figure next to the lava lamp in this picture. He's one of my favourite builds in the series and provides a remarkable amount of poseability and articulation. He incorporates the three Titan sets from this wave, the first true titan sets, with the possible exception of 2003's Makuta. It was recently pointed out in fan circles that Makuta, considering his fundamental role in the series, only really receives proper sets in these early years. Ultimate Dume is his manifestation at the end of the first Metru Nui storyline.

A closer look, and we can see the Vahki, a robotic police force that kept the Matoran of Metru Nui working. It's a bit strange to me, this need for enforcement drones, but when one realizes that the Matoran exist within a vast robotic body (more on this in later years), perhaps the Vahki can be seen more as control programs, making sure that the smaller parts of the body accomplish their assigned tasks. To the far right of the picture is Turaga Dume and Nivawk, one of the titan sets that comprise Ultimate Dume. This version is meant to be yet another manifestation of Makuta, who took over Dume's form in the last years of Metru Nui. This ephemeral nature of Makuta is perhaps a clue as to why we don't see any other actual physical manifestations, though he does end up possessing numerous characters throughout the rest of the series. As Bionicle exists in a far simpler world, similar to that of superheroes, Makuta's actual possession of other entities, and his evil nature, make him easy to read as a metaphor for the evil that seems to be inseparable from sentient creatures.

Also of note in this picture are the Kranua and the Kraawa, combiner models using, respectively, the Vahki and the Toa Metru. As the parts comprising each figure type become less and less specialized over the course of the series 10-year run, the combiners we're given are more like sets themselves, rather than models cobbled together from other sets - the 2004 combiners suffer from this. 2005's combiners take a quantum leap forward in dealing with this, but the 2004 combiners definitely point toward a more nuanced idea about combiners from the Lego designers responsible for them.

The final bit of this year shows us the titan sets Nidhiki and Krekka, the combiner models Kralhi and Kraahu, and one of the first really complex models the instructions for which appeared in Lego Magazine, the Lohrak. The combiners are yet more robotic policing drones, and there's something really horrendously totalitarian about the idea of these massive robots keeping watch over the Matoran, who fill the roll in the series of the innocents that we're meant to sympathize with. Krekka and Nidhiki are servants of the possessed Turaga Dume during this story, Krekka being one of the most reviled sets because his build is so chaotic. I'd agree with that assessment, but I also recognize that it comes from a place of morphological symmetry which we human beings struggle with. Nidhiki is one of the most interesting characters in this series, and does much to add to the lore of Bionicle, as it is revealed that he was once a Toa who defected to a league of assassins known as The Dark Hunters (who we'll see a little bit next time), and was mutated into his current insectoid form.

And we'll finish 2004 there. A good year, full of innovations in both builds and story, and a real darkening of the plot, which only continues in the next story with the animalistic Hordika, and the almost-betrayal by one of the Toa Metru of his team.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Microcollections 2: Horror Role-Playing Games

One of my main collections is my archive of Lovecraft and Lovecraft-related stuff. I've been a fan of his writing almost as long as I've been a comics fan, which is to say most of my life. Part of that collection is my shelf of Call of Cthulhu role-playing game books. As I've picked up, bit by bit, CoC stuff over the years, I've also branched out, slightly, into other horror-related gaming titles. Mostly this is in an effort to find things I can apply to Cthulhu, but every now and again, I discover something really cool in and of itself.

I'll start with Chill, the books that are arranged at the bottom of the picture. These are from two different versions of the game, from two different gaming companies (and, if I'm not mistaken, another version is being released imminently). Chill, both versions, has a really cool aesthetic to the volumes, and plays more into the traditional horror genre, featuring werewolves, vampires, ghosts, and cryptids of various kinds. Also, this is from well before the White Wolf-inspired games of playing horror monsters as sympathetic characters, a boundary that defines this little collection, actually. I generally don't go in for the Anne Rice/Stephanie Meyer-style of horror game. I'm more interested in the interaction of "normal" people with the abnormal than with the abnormal as metaphor for the normal. The book at the back, Beyond the Supernatural, is of a similar ilk, and investigatory adventure into the weird.

De Profundis really ought to be a part of the Lovecraft collection, but it's got enough potential on its own to merit being thought about separately. It's a letter-writing RPG, intended to mimic the epistolary-style of some old pulp horror stories. One is meant to take on a persona, write letters on a typewriter, and engage in something called "psychodrama," that is, venturing out into the world but allowing yourself to see it through the lens of the character and narrative that you've taken on. I haven't managed a proper game of it yet, but I live in hope. In front of that is a game I'm relatively unfamiliar with. It's amongst the latest additions to this collection. Little Fears is a RPG that asks you to take on the role of small children and to fight the kinds of nightmares that such people have. I feel like it could be a really disturbing game, which may explain why I haven't given it a go yet.

Finally, Kult, arranged at the top right, is a game for which I actively seek out books. It plays with Gnostic Christian thinking, and is set in a city that is the archetype of all cities, inhabited by creatures who have been imprisoned by God, or gods. The system itself is a bit clunky, but I enjoy the background material so much that I don't mind. Kult is one of those games that I'd love to run, but that you would need a really serious group of gamers to pay. One day.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Building Chronicle: A Critical Consideration of LEGO's "Bionicle" Series - Building Through part 4.1 - 2004

Since I've dropped the ball a bit on this series, I'm going to play some quick catch up and do a two-parter on the beginning of the Metru Nui saga in 2004. As I write this, the Bionicle fan community is reeling from the news that Generation 2 is being cancelled. There's a lot of vitriol and criticism aimed toward Lego's handling of this new iteration of Bionicle, which I've come to understand is what fans do when they feel they've been wronged by a company or property. I get it, but I also think that the attitude that comes across of a company somehow owing something to the fans is a bit misguided. Yes, we buy and support their products, but these companies put the products out to make money, not to contribute somehow to culture, be it big or small. I'm happy to have had a bit more Bionicle, to have been given some new elements with which to build, and to have seen new interpretations of some of my favourite fictional characters.

One major criticism has been over the simplicity of the storyline, a criticism with which I fully agree. That said, at the end of the Netflix series Journey to One, we're introduced to a shadow realm within which Makuta is trapped, along with a number of Otokans, so I think that had the series continued, we would have seen some interesting cross-dimensional battle. And intimations of a coming Toa of Light were also pointing toward a more fleshed out storyline.

In Generation 1, 2004 is where the story really started to complexify. The revelation that the Turaga of Mata Nui had been Toa thousands upon thousands of years ago, in a city of great technological accomplishment to boot, began the movement of the series through its pseudo-fantasy beginnings and into a cool amalgam of fantasy and science fiction - an amalgam that I think I might equate, as I do with so much, with myth.

(Let me just apologize for the picture quality. I used my cell phone, and the lighting was a bit low.)

So what do we do with the fact that the Matoran and their protectors lived in an island city ten thousand years ago, a city located deep beneath the island of Mata Nui, and that they somehow were forced to migrate from that city to their far-less-technological island home? Coupled with that is the fact that not only were the village elders of Mata Nui Toa, but they were shepherded through their transition into Toa by an even older Toa, last surviving member of his own team. Four years into the story we begin to realize that there's so much more going on than simply a battle between Makuta and the Toa. These new/old Toa are far more unsure of themselves, and the shift of colour from the bright primary colours of the Toa Mata to the darker colours of the Toa Metru signals a shift in tone that resonates through the rest of the Generation 1 story. Even more interesting is that these Toa were originally Matoran, so we begin to question where exactly, or rather who exactly, the Toa Mata came from. The answer is not so simple. Further, these Toa are aware of the history of these heroes through a vast and proud history, and of the various factions around their world that oppose both the Toa and the Great Spirit, and who support the machinations of Makuta. Clearly by this point in the series' production, Lego had decided to let their creative team loose, and the team had jumped at the chance.

But what of the builds?

As I noted earlier, the Toa Metru are the first figures to allow for articulation of the head piece, giving us the ability to use that articulation to communicate emotion and attitude. It's a quantum leap forward for the toys. Not only this, but the arms now have elbow and knee joints, so action poses become a possibility - the toys are beginning their move from mechanical/Technic building to the portmanteau "craction" figures. We still have a gear system inside the Toa's bodies, which does make posing from the shoulders difficult, and it's a difficulty that was only ever solved by removing the gear systems altogether. Whether or not this was a good idea is something best left to individual opinion. The Matoran builds of this wave are only slightly better than those of the previous wave. They're not particularly wobbly like the 2003 Matoran, but they're also not particularly poseable, given the limited range of movement of their arms, legs, and heads. They are also only really nice to look at from the front. From behind, they are completely unfinished, which makes posing the characters in conversation with others a problem.

Off to the far right in that picture you see Toa Lhikan, last survivor of an older Toa team. His build is identical to the Toa Metru, and it's really his steed that is the interesting part of that set. The Kikanalo is a herd beast that roams the stone realm of Metru Nui, and represents one of the first non-Toa creatures to be given the same articulated treatment as the Toa themselves. This is the wave that introduces the Titan sets, which is where we'll pick things up next time.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Microcollections 1: Superhero Ephemera

As I consider my collections, the ways I go about organizing them, adding to them, and appreciating them, I also realize that the large collections (primarily my comics, Bionicle, and Lovecraft) are accompanied by smaller collections, some intentional and some completely arbitrary. I thought it would be fun to have a few brief looks at some of the smaller collections in my collection of collections.


First up, superhero stuff.

 While clearing up our storage room the other day, I opened up a box I had labeled "Superhero Ephemera." Inside were these little treasures. I used to have some of them in the spaces between my comic boxes, but having rearranged those shelves to optimize space, the ephemera was relegated to a box. However, a few weeks back we visited the very strange and awesome Miracle of America Museum in Montana, a place where knick knacks and stuff were just spread over a warehouse-sized space to celebrate the innovation of the American nation. I have a few more thoughts about that, but I'll save it for another post. Inspired by this, I made a little bit of space to display some of my knick knacks, superhero style. The accumulation of this little collection is a random process. Many of the little figures, mostly fast-food toys, are things that came in bags of Bionicle that I get from thrift shops. There's toys that come from Kinder Egg-style candies, inserts from Wizard magazine, lantern rings that were given away during the "Blackest Night" event. The black Spider-Man toy in the bottom left corner has been the subject of one of my Horror from the Dollar Bin posts, a naughty little toy if ever I've seen one. There's a couple in there, the Wolverine at the front and the similar Captain America at the back, that are actually pens. And then there's the Fleischer Superman cartoons, on video cassette. There's a belt buckle, little tiny reproductions of comics, bracelets, zipper pulls, little figurines. The day after I took this picture, I got a Super Grover figure in a bag of Bionicle parts. He graces the shelf now too.

A fairly important part of my dissertation is going to be looking at exactly this sort of intrusion into the material realm of these kinds of fictional characters. Toys and knick knacks like these make up a sort of mythic background radiation. We see them at flea markets, garage sales, McDonald's, and pay them little attention. But they are important manifestations of fiction into reality, and I think that's something that's worth thinking about.