Saturday, July 28, 2012

“It Was A Good Kit In Its Day, But…”

If this remark is applied to, say, the big Airfix 1:24th scale planes which have been surpassed by Trumpeter’s ambitious range, it’s perhaps accurate enough (though, I’ve heard it said that there are so many quibbles with the latter’s big Mustang that Airfix’s, for all its age, is still the better build!), but is this remark always pertinent?

In an age of fierce competition for the hobby dollar among scores, hundreds, of manufacturers at all points on the spectrum from the mega-corps/gods of injection moulding right down to the smallest garage outfit turning out etched brass and poured resin, it might seem axiomatic that every product from every firm offers itself as a target for mimicry and a standard to be outdone. In many cases, the latter is not hard, and the offerings that were state of the art half a century ago have by and large become collectors’ items, never to be built, merely hoarded and passed from hand to hand as the historical artefacts they have become. But I have my doubts as to whether that is always going to hold true.

This is because “good” is a relative term. One person’s good is another’s over-thought, over-engineered or over-priced. One need only look at Dragon’s introduction of everything from Magic Tracks to the SmartKit range to see the truth of this, because Dragon’s early policy of “never use one part where five will do” might have delivered high parts counts, allowed sophisticated detail accuracy on the limitations of the state of the art twenty years ago, and constituted a different approach than their chief competitor, but it also had its drawbacks. For every builder who patted him or herself on the back for defeating the Dragon challenge and eagerly tackling the next, another let that next kit lie a year or two, or permanently, or at best opened the next kit with curses readily at lip and ready to denounce over-engineering just as surely as others would extend the same consideration to compromised accuracy. Dragon SmartKits are an attempt to satisfy both positions, and a fairly successful one.

So we might say that the old Dragon Imperial Series kits were ‘good kits in their day” but they have been superseded. That does not mean they change hands for a song. The same goes for the Tamiya retool program from the early 90s onward: these second-generation moulds for Tigers and Panthers may be dismissed as obsolete but they continue to ride the shelves at very substantial prices, $70 or more in Australia, and while the hobby as a whole is a luxury one, that is a fair wedge of money to dismiss lightly. And of course, there are those of us who find a great deal of enjoyment in Tamiya’s previous generation of toolings, many of which remain available at around half the cost of the retools, and which, with care and artistry, some extras and scratchbuilding, can still look very attractive on the shelf.

It may come down to the old equation of “horses for courses.” How much accuracy to you demand? How much is it practical for you to pay? Are you a “rivet counter” whose yardstick for the worth of a product extends to accuracy on the most minute scale, basically to the limits of resolution of human vision? Or are you looking primarily for experience, to build your skills in construction and painting, so any kit which does not set you back too much and delivers a reasonably attractive 3D canvas on which to exercise is just fine? These are opposite ends of the spectrum, and reality usually falls between the extremes, but one wonders where one would file the case of taking an old classic kit and applying the most sophisticated skills might fall? There are plenty of kits designed in the last forty years which, with good research, patience and skill, and modern finishing supplies and paints, can return very attractive results. A little scratchbuilding goes a long way, and a few AM parts adjusted/modified for older subjects can upgrade a potential “clunker” until it sits proudly next to a kit generations younger. Sure, it took a lot more work to get it there, but isn’t that at least partially the point to it all, learning how to be craftsmen, engineers in miniature, making something, not just whacking it together?

I would point to Shep Payne’s incredible dioramas for Monogram in the early-mid 1970s. Kits in those days were a lot less sophisticated than they became in later years, and the Monogram range from the period has indeed been superseded in quality and accuracy more or less universally. But those dioramas are works of art that incorporate far more than the kits: they have theme, design, concept, execution and scratchbuilt detailing par excellence that raise them out of the ordinary. As a consequence, their day will never be done, they are a completed entity in their own right and will continue to inspire and teach the art of the diorama.

Those for whom the cutting edge is all there is we might term “kit snobs.” They’re like “wine snobs,” for whom the price and a product’s standing with other snobs are the important factors. The sort who buys the most expensive and up to date offerings, then throws away half the pieces and replaces them with even more expensive aftermarket add-ons because only with these things can their models be sooo much better. Whether that’s better than anyone else’s or simply better than their skills can deliver without the virtual “oxygen support” of the AM industry is another matter. Twenty years ago Tony Greenland was working with first generation Tamiya, Italeri and even older kits and, though he describes himself in his book as simply a competent technician, not a true artist, the models in his Panzer collection are some of the most perfect examples of the miniature art I can possibly cite. Yes he used etch, resin, whitemetal, the works, he was also a brilliant scratchbuilder and adventurous artisan whose models, though based in many cases on toolings now getting on for forty years old, stand up for visual impact and engagement, I believe, against any of the new stuff. The point I’m making is this: the skill of the craftsman is what counts, not the fanciness of the kit or the weight of extras.

So next time someone points to a kit and says “it was okay in its day,” take it with a grain of the proverbial. There’s too much one-up-man-ship and too many points of view for any statement to be an absolute, and there may be total gems from decades ago waiting for the touch of a true artisan to bring them to life. After all, if the yardstick for what makes a kit worthwhile is how little the company has left the hobbyist to do, the hobby is in trouble because the better the kit the less incentive there is for the modeller to become a craftsman. We can all be experts if all it takes to turn out a masterpiece is a few dabs of glue. Personally, I like a modicum of challenge… But not like early Dragon!