The Next Best Thing To Being There! is the tenth of the US Marvel Transformers comic series. Bob Budiansky once again wrote the comic. The art is by Richard Villamonte (pencils), Brad Joyce (inks), Nel Yomtov (colors) and Janice Chiang (letters). Villamonte also provided the cover.
And I'm afraid it's a rather lackluster cover, all things considered. Devastator stands among five Autobots, thrashing them. He blasts Ironhide with his cannon (from about 5 feet away), has knocked Prowl (it could be Bluestreak but the story makes it clear that it's Prowl) aside like a ragdoll and has apparently also clocked Bumblebee with the same motion. Hound is on his back and Huffer appears to be falling over. A blocky figure (again, the story will make it clear that it's Soundwave) is hooked up to . . . . something. We'll find out it's a satellite dish, but it looks kind of like a weird alien flower. "Dawn Of The DEVASTATOR!", the cover promises us. I want to be intrigued by who this new Decepticon giant is, but the art completely fails to draw me in. Maybe I'm just spoiled by so many great Devastator images that we'll get later on. The lettering on the cover, presumably Chiang's, is at least very nice.
Thankfully, the story inside is much stronger, though I continue to find Villamonte's artwork awkward. The issue begins inside the aerospace plant, as we see Shockwave and Optimus('s head) witnessing the birth of the next generation of Decepticons - the Constructicons! Shockwave seems genuinely pleased with himself, as well he should. He's just bolstered the Decepticon ranks by 60%. He also seems to think that Prime should be pleased, though he may be being deliberately antagonistic. It's at least possible that he has so little empathy that he'd genuinely think Prime would be pleased by being a 'parent' of sorts. Shockwave's laborious description of the process is a nice addition to the mythology, and Bob's script is at times exceedingly technical and wonderfully mystic. He really sells their creation with his prose. Prime, meanwhile, is filled with angst at having birthed this horror (rough beasts slouching off springs to mind). Villamonte's art compliments the minute details of this scene well. The payoff, the introduction of the six Constructicons, is cool, but I can't help but wish that they were more dynamically rendered and/or colored. The green against a yellow background doesn't make them stand out much.
Back at the Autobase, G.B. Blackrock is getting a tour of the plant. He can't help but think how valuable this tech could be to him, though his intentions are mostly good. He expresses concern for how the public would react to an alien robot civil war, and Prowl agrees. This seems like Bob's attempt to explain why Transformers remain relatively incognito, and it's not entirely convincing. Still, he manages to squeeze in some of the mandatory exposition well, while giving some nice characterization to Huffer (he's homesick) and some nice continuity (Sunstreaker is still being rebuilt). Bob then executes a smooth transition over to the Aerospace base via the scout Bumblebee. It seems that the Cons are attacking the encamped soldiers, though it's really a diversion to slip the Constructicons out of the base. Prowl directs Bumblebee to follow them, then sends reinforcements.
We then get a few pages of setup. Shockwave has moved on to his next project, an enormous and powerful aircraft called 'Jetfire'. Prime is secure in the knowledge that Jetfire won't be given life, for the Matrix was transferred to Buster. Cut to Buster, who's bringing Sparkplug home from the hospital. (6 issues in the hospital for a heart attack - probably fairly realistic, all told.) Sparkplug can't wait to get back to work, but is surprised and proud to find that Buster's fixed all the cars. He finally agrees to some rest, while Buster wonders how to explain his new found abilities to his dad. It's a brief interlude to keep some subplots ticking along, and functions as such.
At a truckstop a few hours away. Bomber Bill, a rough & tough, but friendly, trucker, has just pulled in. The waitress is happy to see him and wonders where he's been. 'On the road', he says, and looking forward to going home to his wife and kids. That might have to wait, though, for some ENORMOUS construction vehicles are casually scooping up the various trucks and rolling away. Most of the folks scatter, especially when the cafe is inadvertently destroyed, but Bomber Bill is determined to go home and needs ol' Bessie, his rig, to do it. He tracks them up a mountain on foot, until he sees a group of vehicles. Though he tries to flag hem down, they won't stop until he throws himself in front of the last one. It turns out to be Huffer, making the parallel between Bill and the homesick Huffer explicit. I usually find myself tuning out the attempts to humanize the war, but Bomber Bill is a vivid character. He could so easily have been a cliche, but instead comes across as an individual. I think Villamonte's art, which is so awkward on robots, helps. Clearly humans are more his forte. Soundwave and the Constructicons, meanwhile, have wasted no time. Using a deep space radio telescope and the raw materials they've stolen, they begin to build a transmitter able to reach Cybertron. Bob does a good job conveying each of the Constructicons' abilities here.
The Autobots arrive shortly thereafter. Prowl orders an immediate assault, as the Transdimensional Radiowave Scrambler looks complete. Soundwave, who's wired into the dish, orders the Constructicons to defend him by COMBINING! It should be an amazingly cool moment, but again the artwork doesn't do much to sell it. Bill runs to Bessie, thankfully intact, and tries to start her up. Huffer makes his way to the satellite, having been ordered to smash it. Devastator is confused by the situation, giving Huffer precious seconds. Alas, his desire to go home causes him to hesitate, giving Soundwave enough time to send forth a densely coded message. Ironhide pleads with Huffer to smash it, telling of the dangers to Earth. Huffer finally decides to act, but by now Devastator realizes which Autobot poses the greatest threat and savagely knocks him aside. Bomber Bill, though, doesn't cotton to Earth being threatened and uses his rig to sever Soundwave from the device. Soundwave prepares to kill Bill, but Huffer saves his new friend. Soundwave withdraws, his mission mostly accomplished, and the Autobots are in no condition to pursue. Visually, the fight is fairly dull, though the emotional content is powerful enough. Huffer's yearnings, established early, make him one of the more relateable Autobots from the comics. The fact that his wistfulness actually allowed the Decepticons to achieve victory makes his yearnings even more poignant.
The denouement is short but bittersweet. Bomber Bill observes that he and Huffer are the same, making unwise decisions for love of home. (Chasing murderous truck-rustlers probably wasn't too wise, after all.) Huffer points out a key difference - Bill can go home, Huffer can't. What Huffer and Bill fail to point out is that there is another critical difference. Bill set aside his yearning for home to protect his loved ones, risking life, limb and livlihood to attack the Decepticons. Huffer, faced with the same decision, failed to act. Meanwhile, Shockwave is ready to give life to Jetfire, but can't get the energy he needs from Prime's head. As G.B. Blackrock and Prowl listen in through a phone hookup, Shockwave casually points out that absent the Creation Matrix, there is no logical reason to keep Prime's head alive. It's a good cliffhanger, one that's been coming ever since issue #6. Next month, we're promised that JETFIRE is in the air!
Villamonte's artwork is inconsistent. He does ell with humans, and his Huffer closeups manage to convey quite a lot. He also does well with some setting elements, like the brain modules or the satellite dish. His fights, though, fail to excite me or arouse a sense of danger. Yomtovs colors simultaneously help and hinder. While he does effects well, like Buster's telekinesis or the signal to Cybertron, some of this basics are really off. One that leaps out is a Devastator-colored Ironhide. I do like Joyce's inks quite a lot, he gives great texture to the Constructicons and handles the night battle very well.
Overall, a mixed issue. Bob's script is quite strong. He gives us a conflict with some powerful emotions, resolves some plot elements and simultaneously introducing some ones. The art, though, doesn't bring it up to its full potential. The issue is more good than bad, though, and benefits from the plots that have been built up before. It's an important and interesting chapter in the Transformers saga, but it could have been a brilliant one.
The Next Best Thing To Being There! is available from IDW Publishing in this anthology: Classic Transformers Volume 1 (Transformers)