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Spawn Series 22: The Viking Age
by Poe Ghostal

Get ready folks - while you will get a full and in-depth review of McFarlane Toys' new "Skullsplitter" figure (which I like very much), you're going to get a little history lesson first. If there's anything I can't stand, it's the careless use of historical names and places by pop culture.

Jorvak the Skullsplitter - named for his favorite deadly battle tactic - led a band of rogue warriors. Though foul-tempered, Jorvak had known Erik Bloodaxe since childhood, where they fought mock battles as children do. But childish taunts turned to deep hated when Erik stole the heart of a young woman and humiliated Jorvak before all the surrounding villages. Fleeing to the surrounding hills, Jorvak prayed for redemption. But legend says he prayed not to Odin, but to Loki, the god of mischief and deceit. Loki granted Jorvak's desire in a devil's pact: revenge on Bloodaxe in return for an eternity of service. When the deal was done, Jorvak became simply Skullsplitter, a being with the body of a man and a horned demon's head.

What a load of hogwash.

Let's go with the names first. Historically, the most salient name in the little tale above is Erik Bloodaxe, a real historical figure and Viking who is probably best known for his many raids on England (in fact, he was the ruler of York on two non-consecutive occasions). I'll go deeper into the history of Erik when I review the "Bloodaxe and Thunderhoof" deluxe set in a few weeks. For now, we'll focus on Skullsplitter here.

It's apparent the writer of the bio flipped through a few sources on Scandinavian medieval history, and maybe glanced at the Norse Myths section of the Encyclopedia Mythica. "Jorvak" seems to be some sort of corruption of Jorvik (pronounced YOR-vik), which is the name the Vikings gave to York (indeed, "York" is just an Anglicized version of "Jorvik").

"Skullsplitter," on the other hand, is one of those "Viking" names (not unlike Bloodaxe) that have entered the public consciousness over the centuries as being inherently Viking-related. For example, Robert E. Howard (creator of the Conan the Barbarian character) wrote several stories featuring a Viking named Wulfhere Hausakliufr ("Hausakliufr" being a form of the Norse word for "Skull-Splitter"). True to his name, Wulfhere cracked open more than a few heads as if they were rotten fruit with the aid of his flared battle-axe. Most people would probably assume this was normal behavior for a Viking, though in truth most seafaring Scandinavians during the early medieval period were as interested in trading and selling goods as they were with plunder and rapine.

Names like "Bloodaxe" and "Skullsplitter" were generally not the names people like Erik went by during their lives - just epithets that eclipsed their typically patronymic surnames. However, "Skullsplitter" is indeed attached to a historical figure - Thorfinn Hausakluif, the seventh Viking earl of Orkney (an island off the coast of Scotland that was the lucky recipient of a number of Viking rulers). Thorfinn's history is sketchy, but it seems he was quite the pirate before quitting the pillaging life and converting to Christianity in 1050 CE.

This action figure, obviously, has nothing whatsoever to do with Thorfinn Hausakluif; at the very least, assuming this mythology is centered around the historical Erik Bloodaxe, Thorfinn would be a good forty years or so away from his birth at the time of Erik's death in 954.

I won't comment on the careless tossing around of names like Odin and Loki - these mythological figures lost all credibility when they became secondary characters in the Marvel Comics universe. Sure, people like J.R.R. Tolkien fans and the makers of the videogame Rune have attempted to bring some respectability back to Norse mythology, but as long as the popular conception of Loki is a skinny guy in a green-and-yellow jester's outfit with feet, the Norse gods are going to have it tough.

But, believe it or not, the saga of this action figure's heritage does not end with simple historical blasphemy. Oh no. It seems Skullsplitter here was once Guy Dublanc, a villain from McFarlane's late comic Spawn: the Dark Ages. Anyone familiar with the comic will easily recognize Skullsplitter as Dublanc. Similarly, the Bloodaxe figure is clearly Lord Covenant, hero of the same comic. Apparently McFarlane started to put together a line based on the Dark Ages comic and then abandoned it, tossing in a few original characters and changing a few names. Voila! Spawn Series 22: The Viking Age.

I actually find it rather interesting; if McFarlane can take these characters, change their names and cook up a new back story, why can't I? I think action figure collectors should reject messy, half-baked biographies and come up with their own stories. Forget the vaguely named "Skullsplitter": me, I've taken to calling this guy Lord Wilburforce Boglier, seventh earl of Orkney. No, wait, nevermind.

Complaints about the story aside, Skullsplitter is one heck of a great figure. Over the past few years McFarlane has taken some heavy criticism for the lack of articulation in their figures: "posable statues" was the byword for his work. To his credit (and those of his design team), Series 22 represents an impressive achievement in combining an incredible sculpt with a great deal of articulation. In fact, if I have any complaints, it's that it may have worked a bit too well. But more on that later.

First off, the packaging. Skullsplitter, like the rest of this line, comes in a huge blister pack. No more bubble-on-cardboard backing for McFarlane; everything now comes sealed in these huge plastic fortresses. You'll need either a knife or a pro wrestler to get the packaging open. This is great for the mint-on-card (MOC) collector - there's no cardboard to scratch or tear, or bend over time. These things will be perfect 500 years from now. Okay, well maybe the figure would have decayed a bit by then, but that card will just be starting to go.

Now the figure. Guy Dublanc - I mean, Thorfinn - I mean, Skullsplitter stands at 7⅞" tall (counting those curled horns). The sculpting is, in a word, incredible. The detail is amazing, from the smallest buckle to the tiniest link in his chainmail. In terms of historical accuracy, the clothing is a mess, of course - there's really not a single thing that's accurate, except maybe the "real fur" parts. Vikings wore very little metal and they certainly had nothing even approaching scalemail. They also didn't wear loincloths.

But these figures are more fantasy than reality, so I'm going to let the outfit slide, particularly since it's so incredibly detailed. The colors are generally dark, with good silver highlights on the armor. Skullsplitter is clearly one bad dude. I can't emphasize how stunning the sculpt is. Of course, it's what we've come to expect from McFarlane.

No, it wasn't the sculpt that really impressed me about Skullsplitter. It was the articulation. McFarlane Toys has always been able to jam a good number of joints into their figures, but "useful" articulation is often at a premium. After seeing the early prototype pictures of Skullsplitter, I figured he'd be the usual posable statue, though the ankle articulation did seem a bit unusual.

So here's the good news: Skullsplitter features 20 points of articulation, including: neck (balljoint), shoulders (double balljoint), biceps, forearms, wrists, midsection, hips (balljoint), thighs, knees, and ankles. That's seven balljoints, folks. Super-Posable Spider-Man can't even boast that. The result is a figure so articulated, his joints are actually a bit worrying; the ankles, in particular, can get a little loose, causing the figure to topple over if not properly balanced. But that hasn't been too much of a problem for me. The only real problem is that the shoulder joints are not quite hidden by the shoulder pads, so that in some positions the ugly black balljoints are clearly visible. Again, however, it's a tradeoff I'm willing to make for such a well-articulated toy.

As always, Skullsplitter is made from the stinky, vaguely rubbery plastic McFarlane has been using for years. Be careful when first twisting the joints; if any of them stick, don't force it. Toss him in the freezer for a few hours, then pull them out and gently try again.

Skullsplitter's accessories are simple: a sword, a shield, and two pairs of hands (for different poses and handgrips). The sword looks good in a number of positions, but the shield is a bit awkward and doesn't really fit right. Both, however, are wonderfully detailed; the sword features some script running along its length (another historical nitpick here: what the heck are those? They aren't Viking runes, that's for sure). It's really more of a Scottish two-handed sword than a Viking sword, but whatever. It looks cool and is made of a sturdy plastic.

As for the value...for about $10, you can't go wrong with this figure. He's big, articulated, well-sculpted, and relatively cheap.

About a year ago, I "turned my back" on McFarlane. I wanted toys, I said, things with articulation and bright colors. Of course, McFarlane knew I (and many, many other collectors) was a complete sucker for medieval-themed action figures, and so he enticed me back with Dark Ages. I'm glad he did. First off, all these He-Man action figures, while cool, were beginning to make me feel a little childish. Second and more importantly, this is one of the first McFarlane lines in a while that I feel compelled to call "toys." You hit a home run, Todd. Now give us 10 more Dark Ages lines... and I'll be happy.

-- 09/03/02

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