Monday, February 17, 2020

Umber Hulk Smash!

Consider the Umber Hulk: an intelligent brute with a bizarre appearance and unusual special attack. In early versions of Dungeons and Dragons they were fairly tough monsters, showing up on lower level encounter tables alongside purple worms and vampires.

As I was prepping an encounter for my Out of the Abyss game, I realized I didn’t have an umber hulk figure that I really liked: although several have been produced over the years, none quite seemed to work for me. As it happened, on my next trip to the game store I spied a model that nearly fit the bill: a WizKids Umber Hulk, part of their D&D Nolzur’s Marvelous Miniatures line.

To prepare for painting the umber hulk I reviewed past depictions of this monster, which debuted all the way back in Greyhawk (1976):

Of shape somewhat similar to human, an Umber Hulk can be mistaken in the dark for something less deadly than it really is. Typically they are 8’ tall, 5’ wide, with heads resembling bushel baskets, and gaping maws flanked by pairs of exceedingly sharp mandibles. It travels about on two legs. If it is viewed squarely its four eyes cause confusion . . . Its claws are harder than iron, causing terrible damage when used as weapons, but they are used primarily by the beast for burrowing through rock . . . They prize highly human flesh.

Not much here for a color guide other than the name. The umber hulk’s strange appearance and lack of any obvious literary inspiration suggest that the monster may have, like the owlbear or bulette, been based on a dime store plastic toy, but Tony DiTerlizzi doubts this theory.

Although included in the Monster and Treasure Assortment (1977), the umber hulk didn’t make the Holmes Basic set, and thus wasn’t included in the subsequent Moldvay/Cook edition. But the umber hulk did appear in the AD&D Monster Manual (1977):

Umber hulks are black, shading to yellowish gray on the front. Their head is gray on top, and the mandibles are ivory colored. Because of their dark color they can easily be mistaken for some humanoid creature at 40’ or more distance.

You know what’s interesting about that description? There’s no mention of umber or a color resembling umber. I wonder if perhaps Gygax confused “umber” with “umbral”? In any case, he does amend the description in The Official Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Coloring Album (1979):

The umber hulk has deep reddish or blackish brown back, arms and legs, fading to a yellowish brown on chest and belly. Below a maroon ridge its large faceted eyes shine light blue, while the small central eyes are dark green. The monster’s mandibles and talons are gray-ivory, its teeth dingy yellow and its mouth yellow green.

Erol Otus certainly seemed to follow the description from the Monster Manual when he painted this striking version for the AD&D Monster Cards, Set 2 (1982):

Unfortunately Otus didn’t paint the rest of the monster. The problem with these early versions of the umber hulk was that the beetle-like head was usually placed on top of a pro-wrestler body.

Jim Holloway’s illustration for 2e Monstrous Compendium, Volume One (1989) does a good job of adding a suitable body: I really like the stocky, rhino-hide appearance, and Ral Partha had a nice miniature sculpted by Dennis Mize based on this art.

DiTerlizzi followed Holloway pretty closely when he illustrated the umber hulk for the Monstrous Manual (1993), but with one exception: he put little antennae on umber hulks. I loathe this development, which makes these murder machines look a little too cute and bug-like. Unfortunately, 3e would double down on the bug-like look for the Monster Manual (2000), and spindly, bug-like umber hulks would be carried into both 4e and 5e. Umber hulks were one of the few classic D&D monsters not released under the Open Game License, and as such never made it into the Pathfinder game.

At least three pre-painted umber hulk miniatures have been produced, for Harbinger D&D Miniatures (2003), Desert of Desolation D&D Miniatures (2007), and D&D Icons of the Realms: Monster Menagerie (2016). In addition, Gale Force 9 produced a resin collector’s edition sculpted by Clavilier Gregory. Unfortunately, all of these models are too thin and goofy for my liking.

The WizKids unpainted figure is a bit more substantial and hulky, with massive claws and enormous mandibles. This looks like an umber hulk that could actually burrow through rock! It’s got a nice, dramatic pose although the best angle is probably from below looking up at its face. I am not a big fan of the head, which is too small and bug-like for my taste, and I don’t like the weird eyes or antennae. I’d really like to see a return to a big, bushel-barrel type head with compound eyes.

But that criticism aside, this is still a fine sculpt that was a lot of fun to paint. I hadn’t had a chance to work on anything for several months, so this was a nice model to begin with. The primer coat seemed a bit lighter and there were fewer mold lines on my model, which was nice. I used the 1e Monster Manual, the AD&D Coloring Album, and the Otus painting as my primary guides for painting the figure. All-in-all, I was pretty happy with how the miniature came out.

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