Thursday, December 11, 2008

Review: Marvel G1 #4: The Last Stand

The Last Stand is the fourth issue in the four part limited series that launched The Transformers as a Marvel comic book. Jim Salicrup still has sole writing credit – this will be the last issue he penned. The art lineup has been tweaked – Springer still furnished the pencils, though now inks are by Ian Akin and Brian Garvey, with letters by John Workman. Colors, as always, by Nel Yomtov. Bob Budiansky held the editorial reins. Mark Texeira created the cover.

The cover is dynamic and powerful. Optimus Prime, Huffer, Bluestreak and a visibly damaged Mirage are gathered in the lower-middle left of the page, and are completely surrounded by Decepticons hurtling towards them from all directions. Prime is shooting at them and nailing Soundwave in the chest, which pulls the eye up and to the right. “#4 IN A FOUR-ISSUE LIMITED SERIES” it proclaims even as it promises us “THE AUTOBOTS’ LAST STAND!” Megatron is again in the upper left, the same image as in #2, with a black Spider-Man head in the lower left corner. This cover promises an exciting conclusion and definitely manages to entice. Having Megatron in the bottom left is a slightly odd choice, though.

The plot is once again solid, though with some odd interludes. Picking up immediately from where #3 left off, the Buster disappointedly confronts Sparkplug for perfecting the fuel conversion process for the Decepticons. Though Sparkplug starts to try to explain himself, Huffer goes ballistic at the news and starts to advance on Sparkplug. Ironhide intervenes and the two Autobots nearly come to blows. While the Autobots degenerate into argument, Sparkplug and Buster decide to get the hell outta Dodge. The Autobots realize that their meal ticket, literally, is running out on them, so Jazz throws up a wall of flames between the humans and the exit. All this excitement proves too much for Sparkplugs’ old ticker, and he goes into cardiac arrest. The tension that was built up in issues 1 & 2 is back – the Autobots seem on the verge of panicking at the prospect of a fully energized adversary. Sparkplug’s heart attack is dramatic and unforeseen, and will have important ramifications later on.

We then inexplicably cut to ‘O’ watching the reaction to the robots on the news and Jessie watching people leave town. It seems like Springer is attempting to ground the conflict (as well as throw in some cheesecake, since Jessie and her friends are in leotards for their ballet class). It doesn’t add much, to the story. Meanwhile, back at the Ark, Sparkplug is loaded into Ratchet and driven to the hospital. On the way, he flashes back to his experiences as a POW in the Korean war, where he patches up trucks for the enemy. This flashback functions as a good thematic reminder of the events of the last issue. A bit too much time is spent on admitting Sparkplug to the hospital, though.

Then, yet another interlude – Megatron emerges from his fortress, fully energized, and challenges the US Army to ‘do their worst.’ Oddly, the army obliges with a 15 minute barrage that nevertheless leaves Megatron unscathed and the army wondering what to do next. It very effectively ups the stakes by firmly placing the Transformers an order of magnitude above humanity in terms of power level. Still, it feels like Salicrup is running out his pagecount. Inside the fortress, Megatron gets a damage report on his warriors from one of four unidentified Decepticons. Frenzy, Rumble, Skywarp and Soundwaver are ‘knocked out’, mostly by Gears and Spider-Man in the previous issue. Starscream laments that Megatron allowed Sparkplug to escape with the Autobots and notes that even now the Autobots might be fueling up, causing Megatron to add Starscream to the roster of the damaged. Still, he realizes that Starscream has a point and dispatches Ravage (for those keeping count, we’re down to 5 named Decepticons still functioning) to spy on the Ark.

Finally, our last side-excursion before returning to the main story. Huffer points out to Prime what Ratchet tried to say last issue. Shortly after landing, the Ark detected Cybertronian life in the Savage Land at Antarctica – Shockwave. At last we know what Megatron was referencing when he said that ‘one of his mightiest’ was missing. Recognizing a threat, the Ark dispatched the Dinobots. Unfortunately, that’s all the Autobots know. They did dispatch a probe to investigate further. Prime dismisses this information, deciding that it’s their fuel shortage that must take priority. Unfortunately, Ravage hears this and reports back to Megatron, who declares that the time has come for the end of the war. Even a repaired but cowed Starscream agrees.

And, 13 pages in, we’ve reached the battle that the cover promised. The Autobots plan is simple, but desperate. The fuel reserves are transferred from the weaker Autobots to their five best warriors – Optimus Prime, Huffer, Ironhide, Bluestreak and Mirage. As the process completes, the Decepticons come a knocking, challenging Prime to come out and face them. Correctly detecting a trap, Prime chooses to remain inside and have the ‘Cons come to him. And come they do. Despite the damage roster from before, all Decepticons but Soundwave (and the unnamed generics) participate in this battle. Ravage and Mirage reprise their conflict from issue #2. Mirage comes to realize that the Decepticons can’t be reasoned with, and the only way back to Cybertron is an Autobot victory. It’s a good conclusion to his character arc. Mid-battle, we’re teased by the Autobot probe in the Savage Land start to excavate, only to be crushed by a purple hand. The battle turns more desperate as Megatron takes two point-blank hits from Bluestreak without flinching. We again, briefly, flash elsewhere: Ratchet, still at the hospital, is commandeered by paramedics, while inside the hospital Sparkplug continues his flashback. He recalls being rescued and the glee as he imagines the enemy trucks he sabotaged careening over a cliff. This effectively foreshadows the battle’s conclusion.

The battle gets even more violent as Megatron blasts off Prime’s right arm, Huffer gets blasted by Laserbeak, Ironhide gets pinned down by enemy fire, and Buzzsaw tears through Mirage’s body with his diamond-hard beak. Prime pulls Ravage off of Ironhide, only to take a point-blank shot from Megatron’s fusion cannon. Victorious, Megatron lifts Prime’s shattered body above his head in triumph – only to see victory snatched from his grasp as the toxic fuel in his body causes him to double over in pain. The Autobots stand among their vanquished adversaries, damaged but alive. Prime begins to make his inevitable victory speech – but it is not to be. A huge explosion from above lays him low. Through the breach, Shockwave flies. He converts to his robot mode and declares his mission a success, with the Autobots no more. It’s a good conclusion, rapidly yanking us one way, then another. The Decepticon victory seems inevitable based on their fuel advantage, and is – until we learn that Sparkplug has poisoned their fuel. Then, we the audience settles in to the good-guy triumphant pattern that is so familiar, a well-set-up subplot rears its head and we face the Autobots defeated. “NOT the end…” it promises. Script-wise, Salicrup has definitely found his voice. Mirage, Prime, Starscream, Megatron, Ravage, Sparkplug and Huffer all manage to have a distinctive personalities. It seems a shame that he won’t have any further interaction with the franchise.

The art in this issue is a bit awkward but exciting. It helps that about half of the issue is one enormous battle, which plays to Springer’s strength. There are several good moments; Prime losing his arm, Sparkplug’s heart attack, Huffer confronting Ironhide, and the look on Megatron’s face after he survives the best that humanity can throw at him. Workman’s letters on that scene, as Megatron laughs, stand out as bold and powerful, very much working for the character. While this issue has the usual share of coloring issues, Yomtov does a good job in the Savage Land flashbacks, using a greenish tint to everything to set it apart from the main action.

Overall, a great conclusion to the limited series. Having the Autobots lose at the end was unexpected, and having Shockwave deliver the killing stroke was particularly effective. While it came out of left field, it was set up fairly well in retrospect. Having the human Sparkplug emerges as an unlikely hero is especially poignant, given the ineffective nature of a direct confrontation between humanity and the Decepticons. The series ends with all Autobots but Ratchet defeated, but at least we have the promise of more to come. We’ve been introduced to the Transformers, we’ve grown to care about them, and now we have to wonder how a lone medic might stand against the might of the Decepticon forces. I guess we’ll just have to keep reading.

The Last Stand is available from IDW Publishing in this anthology: Classic Transformers Volume 1 (Transformers)

8 comments:

B-W said...

I've always wondered (and still do) what this issue would have looked like if the decision was made not to continue past issue #4.

Some fans note an alternate last page, which does indeed exist, but I'm convinced that this was not the "original" ending, but was in fact done later. The effort taken to move Ratchet away from the battle, the build-up of the tale of Shockwave and the Dinobots, these remain totally unreferenced in that "alternate" page, and would make no sense to the story had everything ended with issue #4.

Jimtron said...

Hard to say. The Shockwave idea WAS alluded to in issues #1 and #3, though I suppose they could have quietly dropped it. Maybe Prime would be victorious, but they'd end with a teaser of Shockwave's hand crushing the probe? That would work pretty well.

I believe the extra page was from a UK collected version of issue #3 & 4, and they wanted to give some more closure. tfarchive.com has the alternate ending on their site.

Zobovor said...

Jim, if you look closely, at least one of the unnamed generics in this issue is in fact Reflector, making a rare comics appearance. (Obviously the Marvel artists were provided with models for all the characters, even the ones who weren't actively written into the comic!)

Also, to build on B-W's comment, I agree that the alternate final page was created after the fact. (I read somewhere that it was printed this way in the UK.) The new artwork looks to me like Akin and Garvey did it, so it was probably created while they were working on the comic (they did the inks for all the TRANSFORMERS UNIVERSE profiles).

Zob

B-W said...

My guess is that Issue #4 (if not even parts of issue #3! I don't know when the decision was made) would have been completely different, in order to properly wrap up the Shockwave reference in issue #1 (or give some other explanation for it. After all, Megatron doesn't mention Shockwave by name!).

D.M said...

"My guess is that Issue #4 (if not even parts of issue #3! I don't know when the decision was made) would have been completely different, in order to properly wrap up the Shockwave reference in issue #1 (or give some other explanation for it. After all, Megatron doesn't mention Shockwave by name!)."

Shockwave reference could have been added later. This preview panel with alternate text sort of prooves that there have been some changes done to issue 1:
http://tfarchive.com/comics/marvel/preview/?dgallery_show=./marvel_age_tf_2.jpg

Maybe Shockwave even appeared in issue 1 and was later cut out, replaced with new redrawn pages. Some of the characters, like Soundwave for example, switching from cartoon like designs to toy like designs may indicate art changes. On top of that, Shockwave makes an appearance in robot mode in issue 3.

In short, who knows how manny changes they've made. :P

B-W said...

For the Shockwave reference in issue #1 to have been added later, the decision to go beyond the original 4 issue limited series would have to have been made before the first issue was even available for sale!

That's not very plausible.

Jimtron said...

I'm not sure about that, Zobovor. If they are Reflector, Springer didn't base it on the character model at all. Possibly he had the toy for reference, but all of the other characters are on-model by issue four.

Sean said...

Sorry for commenting so late, but i just found your blog, and am reading all the interesting bits (the US & UK G1 reviews since i bought and still own all the issues (Canada is wonderful like that-i could find US & UK books as a kid)).

You know, even 30 years ago, i remember the cheesecake more than almost anything in the story (i thought the heavier girl was cute!)

But anyway, i truly loved seeing the Transformers in comic form as a kid! The stories to me came alive-especially for some reason the UK stories and issues 1-12 of the US stories (after that, the US version didn't have that spark)

Thanks for these reviews! And if you want to see all the US & UK covers, check out my flickr account (under the Transformers set)