Friday, February 27, 2009

Review: Marvel UK Annual 1986 (Part 1)

Since I am reviewing the UK material in chronological order, it is now time for the 1986 annual. Annuals in this form are largely a British concept: a larger book containing stories in either comic or text form as well as other articles, fact files and puzzles. They aren’t as popular with kids today as they used to be, but things like the Doctor Who annual are still big Christmas sellers. In the eighties, however, every property that was remotely popular with kids got a Christmas annual and Transformers was no exception.

(Chronological note - the annual was actually out for Christmas 1985, but the convention for annuals is to date them for the following year.)

I can’t actually review the text stories in the album, because I don’t have access to them, but the book contained two comic book stories that are worthy of comment:

Plague Of The Insecticons

The first, and by far the longest, at twenty pages, is “Plague Of The Insecticons,” which was written by Simon Furman, pencilled by Mike Collins, inked by Jeff Anderson, coloured by Gina Hart, lettered by Richard Starkings and edited by Sheila Cranna. These are some of my favourite creators of the UK book so far, so why is this story such a mess?

The story starts as Optimus Prime, Prowl and Warpath roll into Washington D.C. for a meeting with the president of the United States (his name is not given, but the art makes him look like Ronald Reagan). Before the talks can get underway, the Insecticons; Kickback, Bombshell and Shrapnel burst onto the scene and starting shooting up the area around the Whitehouse. To make matters worse, they’re calling for this destruction in the name of the Autobots! The Autobots had kept the meeting secret in order that the Decepticons not disrupt it, but unfortunately, the humans had reckoned without Soundwave’s considerable wire-tapping abilities.

As the Autobots fight back, it becomes clear that for some reason the Insecticons are not giving the battle their all. They pretend to submit to “Great Optimus” in order to ruin the Autobots’ good name. The Autobots are forced to retreat as the human military turns on them. As Prowl and Warpath streak back to the city, they find the Insecticons at the centre of an orgy of destruction. The Autobots transform to stop them. This served as a mini cliff-hanger in the annual, because the story was split into two parts.

Meanwhile, Prime has noticed that the Insecticons, despite their “potential for fast, decisive action” appear to be acting as though they are under duress. He theorises that they have not yet mastered their potential, and are being put through their paces by some outside force. His scanners pick up a signal, which he begins to track.

The battle is going fairly well for Prowl and Warpath, until Shrapnel gets in a lucky shot with a splinter grenade, taking Prowl down. This sends Warpath into a battle-rage, screaming curses at the Insecticons. Prime, still feeling guilty about leaving his comrades behind, realises that he can use deploy Roller to aid them. The little drone is still inside Prime’s trailer, which he had left on the Whitehouse lawn. It is a strain for Prime to keep track of the two parts of him at once but as Roller charges to the rescue, Prime continues to chase down the signal. At its source, he finds Ravage, guiding the Insecticons with a remote control. Just as Prime transforms to confront him, Ravage brings Bombshell back to him, to try to use his cerebro-shell on Optimus Prime!

Unfortunately for Ravage, at that exact moment, Roller, at the battle-site, is hit and apparently destroyed. The shock causes Prime to convulse, and he ducks involuntarily. Bombshell goes sailing over his head and collides with Ravage, accidentally hitting him with the cerebro-shell instead.

The Decepticons thus defeated, the Autobots leave Washington D.C. without explaining themselves, as Prime thinks they would not have been believed. The humans look over the wreckage of their struggle and the president decides that he must never make the mistake of trusting the Autobots again.

Well, sad to say, I really didn’t like “Plague of the Insecticons” at all. One thing that hurts it right off the bat is the fact that it cannot possibly be in continuity with the other Marvel comics. I don’t mean it stretches continuity in the way that some of the earlier UK stories do, I mean, it just doesn’t fit. The Insecticons and Warpath are introduced too early and via the wrong methods and the Transformers have been at least somewhat incognito, so there it would be extremely unlikely for the Autobots to be planning to meet Ronald Reagan.

Of course, a lack of continuity does not necessarily make for a bad story - a good idea can still be an entertaining read. Unfortunately, “Plague” fails to stand up by its own merits. It’s just too illogical and arbitrary. Why use Warpath when any already introduced Autobot would have done the job? Why does Megatron decide to use the newly protoformed Insecticons when they are so inexperienced they need to be remote-controlled by Ravage, using a signal that can be tracked? At first I thought that it was because Bombshell’s cerebro-shells would be part of the plot, but he doesn’t deploy them until right at the end, so any Decepticons would have done. Over-complicated plans are, admittedly, nothing new for Megatron, but this one seems especially pointless. Showing up in force would have handed him Optimus Prime on a plate. For that matter, what happens to the brain-dead Ravage and the Insecticons after the Autobot victory. We don’t see them retreat, but they clearly aren’t captured or destroyed. Why does Prime, who usually agonises about such things, decide not to try to explain himself to the humans at the end of the story?

I’m not usually one to attack plot-holes too severely. I am usually sympathetic to the difficulties of writing a long-running comic book that tries to remain in continuity with another version of itself from across the ocean, but “Plague Of The Insecticons” is lazy and deserves to be vilified. There are never any excuses for plot-holes within a single story, especially one spanning only a single issue, and this story has several glaring ones. If Furman wanted to free himself from the bounds of continuity for the annual, then fair enough, but he should have at least attempted to be internally consistent and to create an interesting story. Sadly he fails to do either and the whole thing smacks of something dashed off at the last minute to fulfil a contract. Are there things I like about the story? Yes, to be charitable, there are. I like the use of Roller, who gets forgotten far too often, and, plotting issues aside, Furman’s scripting is always worth reading, but overall, its not worth bothering with. You'd be much better off watching the similarly named Sunbow cartoon episode "A Plague of Insecticons" (there's actually more than three in that one).

The art most closely resembles that from “Raiders of the Last Ark” because it is the same art team. Its not bad, but the three stories since then have really raised the bar and this feels like a major step backwards, especially since the characters are, once more, very much based on their toys. I usually love Hart’s colouring, but for some reason it never quite works for me when she’s colouring Collins/Anderson work and Warpath is miscoloured a few times. The Insecticons are never their familiar, purple, black and metal colours, and instead have turned up in purple, black, red, and brown for reasons I don’t understand. They, however, do appear to be drawn using their animation models.

All in all, not a great story, but since its from an obscure publication, rather than a numbered, dated, issue of the regular comic book, its easy to ignore its place (or lack thereof) in the great scheme of things. Hopefully that will not be the case for the other story in this Annual: “And There Shall Come A Leader”

(Check back on sunday for the review of that one.)


Bishbot said...

Well if you can scan them, that'd be great - I probably won't review them (don't want to get too far behind Jim) so I wouldn't want you to waste your time typing them out. But if it wouldn't take you too long, I wouldn't mind reading them.

Anonymous said...

Text stories are available here:

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

If the publication schedule was anything like later years then I think it would have come out in August and have been prepared even earlier, so it really is contemporary to Raiders of the Last Ark rather than anything later.

The text stories have similar continuity problems - I suspect the culprit was Hasbro UK (or were they still Milton Bradley at this time?) flexing their muscles to demand some of the new toys be highlighted regardless of continuity. IMHO most of the weakest UK stories are precisely the ones when this happened.