Thursday, November 20, 2008

Review: Marvel G1 #1

This is the first of what will eventually be a complete review of the Generation 1 (and eventually Generation 2) Marvel comics. Ralph Macchio (no, not THAT Ralph Macchio) and Bill Mantlo collaborate on the script, with Frank Springer, Kim DeMulder and Nel Yomtov producing the artwork. Lettering (and there is a LOT of lettering) was provided by Higgans E Parker, and the editor was Bob Budiansky. You'll hear much more about him later. The Eisner Award winning Bill Sienkiewicz, perhaps best known for the amazing Elektra: Assassin, provided the cover.

And a beautiful cover it is. While only loosely representative of the book's interior, Sienkiewicz has painted a visually striking image of an enormous and stylized Optimus Prime. He stands like a colossus amid a terrestrial highway system, crushing a Decepticon seeker jet. Even by Transformers standards, Prime is appropriately larger than life. Two concentric circles are behind him, drawing emphasis to him, perhaps representing an explosion or the sun. Laserbeak swoops in from the upper left, and a what appears to be the back of gears fires at him. Sparkplug and a very young Buster Witwicky are smiling in the background, emphasizing the human aspect of the conflict. Optimus Prime’s character model inhabits the Marvel box, notable if only because most of this issue was produced without the benefit of character models. #1 IN A FOUR-ISSUE LIMITED SERIES, it proudly proclaims, beckoning the reader to turn the page and discover what The Transformers are all about.

The meat of the story was somewhat less satisfying, suffering from too much ambition. A bit longer than a standard book at 25 pages, “The Transformers”, as the first issue was called, tries to pack in four objectives. 1: lay the foundation of the entire Autobot/Decepticon conflict. 2: introduce all thirty of the central characters (10 Decepticons, 18 Autobots and 2 humans) . 3: tell an interesting story. 4: set up the rest of the mini-series. 3 and 4 suffer from 1 and 2.

Bill Mantlo plotted out this issue. About half of the book sketches the origins of the Cybertronians as a species, the great war, the rise of Megatron and Optimus Prime, the fateful crash of The Ark on the Earth, and their revival by a volcanic eruption and reformatting into local vehicle forms. The story only begins in earnest in the second half of the book, when the Autobots send out a mission to make contact with the local life forms. As mechanical life themselves, the assume the dominant species to be automobiles, a mistake also made by Ford Prefect in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Decepticons attempt to disrupt this first contact, though during the battle Prowl correctly deduces that humans and not their machines are the dominant species. The issue ends with a dying Bumblebee revealing himself to the bookish Buster Witwicky and his father, the mechanic nicknamed Sparkplug. Because so much of the book is prelude, the pacing is rather odd. Overall, the plot is awkward but manages to lay a foundation upon which to grow from. It’s interesting how both of the major comic reboots (Dreamwave and IDW) do not attempt to address the origins of either the Cybertronian species or the Autobot/Decepticon conflict in their first issue. Dreamwave issue #1 (and #0) assume the audience is already familiar, which would not have been an option in 1984. IDW’s Infiltration #1 (and #0) do not assume familiarity, but instead heighten the mysterious and extraordinary nature of these extraterrestrials.

Ralph Macchio provided the script of this, and only this, issue. His vocabulary has a surreal quality about it, apropos for the subject matter. There is quite a lot of narration, especially in the first half of the book. He does less well when attempting to give voice to the 30 characters who inhabit the book. While Buster and Sparkplug each manage to have a distinct speech pattern, most of the various robots tend towards formal speech. Of course, this is exacerbated by the extremely awkward role-calls that constituted the entirety of many of the robots’ characterization. Many interesting ideas are brought up, some of which would be later retconned away. The idea that Cybertron was Saturn-sized was introduced, then quietly dropped. Technological life was said to have evolved from ‘naturally occurring gears, levers and pulleys’, an idea that would eventually be replaced with a much more celestial origin. The Autobots were introduced as the dominant species, though it wasn’t clear what exactly that made the Decepticons. Decepticons were shown rebuilding themselves to turn into weapons, then a few panels later the Autobots were casually told to be able to do the same thing. Other bits of foreshadowing would become important, particularly Megatron noting that ‘one of our mightiest is missing’.

Frank Springer, who penciled the entire four issue limited series along with a handful of later books, also had a difficult task. It is evident that he did not yet have access to all of the character models, as many of the robots are more based on the toys than on the Floro Dery designs that would later be used. Interestingly, he also used ancillary toy elements in other areas of the book. An artillery cannon on The Ark is modeled after Ironhide’s toy’s cannon, and when The Ark rebuilds the robots into Earth configurations the apparatus that does so is based on Optimus Prime’s trailer. Springer was also apparently using real cars as reference, as Bumblebee is drawn much closer to an actual Volkswagon Beetle than his superdeformed penny-racer style toy. During the first five pages of the book, Springer broadens the scope of the conflict by making up a wide variety of generic robots to do battle. The sense of scale is also confused, with most robots standing at approximately the same height. By the third issue these problems would be largely resolved, but they make for a jarring experience. While Kim DeMulder’s inks generally serve to enhance Springer’s work, Nel Yomtov’s unfortunate tendency to use block coloring whenever possible does little to clarify what can be at times confusing artwork. Parkers lettering stands out, if only because the square boxes with jagged corners used to denote robot speech stood out quite well from the more traditional round bubbles used for humans.

Given how similar the plot of this issue is to the first episode of the television series, it is only natural to compare the two. More than Meets the Eye Part 1 is much more polished, though it is also somewhat less ambitious. The reasons for the war on Cybertron or indeed the existence of mechanical life is quickly glossed over, as compared to the more detailed and ultimately satisfying origin presented here. This issue fares less well when considering the introduction of characters. Characters and abilities were introduced gradually throughout the entire MtMtE three part mini series, instead of all at once, which helps MtMtE flow better. MtMtE also allows the Decepticons to come online first, and has their actions inadvertently precipitate the revival of the Autobots. This works better than the revival as presented here, with all robots coming simultaneously online. The introduction of human allies, though, works better in this issue. Buster and Sparkplug are set to save Bumblebee’s life, whereas Spike and Sparkplug are nothing but potential victims in MtMtE.

Overall, quite a rocky start to what would eventually be an 80 issue run, complete with four concurrent spin-offs and a subsequent 12 issue revival. While there are elements of what would eventually be the emotional core of the story, one has to dig deep to find them. Available from IDW Publishing in this anthology: Classic Transformers Volume 1 (Transformers)


Mark Baker-Wright said...

"How it all began...." Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I look forward to future installments!

Anonymous said...

I have always thought that Floro Dery wasn't brought aboard until the Movie, and that the initial character models used by Marvel and Sunbow were done by John Romita Sr. (or at least supervised by him).

Other than that, a very nice write-up - I might find myself checking this blog again and again! :)

Jimtron said...

It's hard for anyone not directly involved to know for certain. What is known is that Marvel helped develop the story. Bob Budiansky, in particular, was brought in for a second pass at many of the names and biographies. However, Floro Dery has stated that he was responsible for most of the design, including reworking some earlier Shōhei Kohara designs. This seems to track with the evidence available to us today: Dery is listed first among both the storyboarders and the modelers in the Generation 1 cartoon for seasons 1 and 2. If Romita had been involved with the designs, it is highly probable that his name would have appeared in the credits. Of course, it's possible that he was involved in some sort of work-for-hire capacity.

Thanks for dropping by! I hope to have you back (and commenting) often.

Anonymous said...

I've read that John Romita recently denied any involvement with Transformers, and that it was all rumours not based on any facts. I forgot where I read it though...
It is clear that Dery's character models were inked by Marvel artists for the comics (Ian Akin and Brian Garvey did the inks on the 4 Universe books from 1986).

-Hans Bakema

Anonymous said...

I'll admit, it was something I heard many, many years ago, and that was a long time before the fandom (that I knew of) had established contacts with key artists working on the various series.

Knowing Romita's position as Art Director at Marvel up 'till at least the early 90s (if not longer), it could very well be that he approved the designs, if nothing else than for use in the comicbook; it's been years since I read about it, but I think it was in a Marvel Age article at some point. I could be wrong, though. :)

I know it is probably all available in one of your books that I haven't been able to check out yet, but do you have any examples of the pre-Dery Shohei Kohara deigns? I think that could make for some interesting reading on your blog, if nothing else.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jim, I read about your blog over at IDW's message board and I think it's great to see you will have your own space for all that you want to cover. I know I emailed you about your two Ark volumes, but they are a welcome addition to any TF fan's library and I am happy to display my copies in my home.

It sounds pretty ambitious of you to review each and every issue of the Marvel series - let us know if you need help! :) I am sure if you are in a pinch any one of us would be happy to contribute a review for an issue. I still love to re-read the series when I can, I purchased the reprints from Titan Books a few years back. I almost always pick it back up during the Matrix quest, maybe because I feel that the back half of the Marvel series exceeded expectations in terms of character, scope and story at that time, when it was actually falling off the public radar. I can't wait to read your thoughts on the Furman-led run when you reach that point.

Good luck!

Jimtron said...

Hi, Brian. Thanks for the generous offer! Actually, one of my friends is set to regularly review the Marvel UK books. If you're interested in posting reviews to something else, maybe Dreamwave or IDW era books, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Send me an email if you're interested.

I'm a huge fan of both Bob Budiansky and Simon Furman, so I'm eagerly awaiting getting to their work.

Anonymous said...

Correction, Frank DID used Floro Derys designs (pre-final though). A proof can be found in Megatrons design for example, the trigger on Megatrons canon was Floros addition.

Previous, Koharas, design did not feature it:

And neither did toy prototype on which early Megatron was based on:

Jimtron said...

Good point, D.M., certainly some of the models WERE Dery designs. I think what I said was that not ALL of the models were finalized. Look at, say, Ratchet or Brawn.

Anonymous said...

John Romita Sr. wasn't involved in the designs at all - that was confusion based on the fact that he was credited as 'Art Director' for the Transformers Universe comics and for years that was all the fandom had to go by. Yes, the first-season character models were by Kohara and Dery adapted them (slightly) for animation purposes. For Season Two and Three Dery claims to have done everything himself, which I'm happy to believe (even though the guy's a raving self-aggrandising egomaniac.)

Anonymous said...

"Good point, D.M., certainly some of the models WERE Dery designs. I think what I said was that not ALL of the models were finalized. Look at, say, Ratchet or Brawn."

Sometimes I read too fast. :P

BTW, know anything about unaired G1 pilot? It's rumoured that the animation from issue 1 commercial:

was reused from the unaired pilot. Some bits in the production bible seems to support claim of such pilots existance:

"We suggest the main character be a fifteen-year-old boy modeled after SPIKE in the specials and /or EDDIE FAIRCHILD in the network presentation."


"(a la MATT CONROY in the network presentation)"

Though I guess "network presentation" could have been a guide rather than a 5 minute pilot. It's kind of confusing since pre production stuff is mixed with post production stuff, quite a messy production bible.