Friday, April 3, 2009

Review: Marvel UK #44: "Crisis of Command! (Part 3)"

Mike Collins returned to bring “Crisis of Command!” to its conclusion and Geoff Senior bowed out of pencilling duties in favour of John Stokes. Gina Hart continued the colouring job from part 2 and Mike Scott and Ian Rimmer continued in their duties of letterer and editor respectively.

The cover for this issue was by Jeff Anderson and it’s a good image. A clearly battle-damaged Optimus Prime is on his knees before the trio of Seeker jets. The characters don’t have quite the detail of the interior art, but they are very nicely textured. There is, if you like closely, a somewhat dodgy perspective problem on Prime’s chest where one of his windows looks smaller than the other and I can’t work out why Starscream isn’t looking at Prime, but overall it’s a pretty well done cover, although the words “Jet Trap!” in bright red are entirely unnecessary and add nothing whatsoever.

The issue opens with a single page splash of Optimus Prime and the rest of the Autobots. Prime vows revenge for the torture of Bumblebee and looks more resolute than we have seen him in a long time. The other Autobots still appear to be stunned by the horrific gesture, but Prime is already decided on a course of action.

Laserbeak tells Prime that if he wants to see the rest of “the pathetic Autobot” he must go to the Decepticon base alone. Prowl tries to shoot Laserbeak down and the rest of the Autobots advocate forming a crack squad and hitting the base hard, but Prime vetoes it - it is his responsibility.

The next page is mostly one of those studio-mandated flashbacks that simply retell the previous two issues, but it ends with Prime deciding that everything that has happened is his fault for not seeing through Ravage’s plan and for Bumblebee deciding to take such a rash action as to follow him alone. Prime must atone for it by rescuing Bumblebee alone.

The scene changes to the Decepticon’s “Fortress Sinister” - it is unclear as to whether this an overly poetic way of saying “sinister fortress” or if the Decepticons had actually named their base “Sinister”. It doesn’t really matter because “sinister” it most certainly is! Bumblebee, one-armed, of course, is suspended, helpless, by a web of green cables and machinery while Soundwave gloats to Starscream about his plan working “He will come” he says, confidently.

And come Prime does. We see him driving through the desert as Rumble and Laserbeak maintain a lookout. Rumble strikes first, shaking the ground and forcing Prime into robot mode. Prime guesses that Rumble will try to finish him off the same way and punches the little Decepticon out while he is winding up for another pile-driver attack. Before he can get steady, the Autobot leader is struck by a cacophonous sonic-boom from Thundercracker. Reeling, he is unable to avoid a blaster shot from Skywarp that hits him in the shoulder and flattens him.

“Pathetic!” says Thundercracker, “This is the inspirational leader of the Autobots?”
“Was” answers Starscream, before flying in and announcing himself as “the leader-killer.” This is typical Starscream, arriving to take the glory after the work has been done by the other Decepticons, but in this case it won’t go well for him. He declares himself “the natural leader” having defeated Prime but the Autobot has not quite checked out yet. Flashing back to the very beginning of his leadership he remembers what makes him different from the Decepticons: he is not a warrior by choice, but he is a leader by destiny. He rises to his feet and tackles the three Seekers in close combat.

He dispatches Thundercracker and Skywarp with one punch each and then, facing Starscream, taunts the Decepticon. “So kill me!” he shouts, and Starscream’s stammered challenge fails to convince, as Prime attacks in a berserker fury, dismantling Starscream’s wings and weapons with a single titanic blow. “Starscream could never be a leader” the omnipresent narrator informs us “he has not the spark of command, the mark of destiny! Optimus has all this, and more!” This is overlaid on a panel of Prime laying Starscream low and is a very effective cathartic moment for Prime and the reader, who has been rooting for him to reclaim his proper status for this whole story arc.

Laserbeak, in an unfortunate piece of timing, left to tell Soundwave of Prime’s defeat just before Starscream delivered to the coup de grâce. Thus the de-facto Decepticon leader is still celebrating his “victory” by taunting Bumblebee as the Autobot leader announces his presence by casually tossing Starscream’s battered gun to Soundwave. With the simple statement “I am here...” he dispatches Soundwave with a shot and punches out Laserbeak, then, ignoring Bumblebee’s protestations, he resolves to rescue the little Autobot rather than finish off the Decepticons. Getting Bumblebee to safety is more important.

Later, gathering the Autobots together, Prime announces that Starscream taught him a lesson about leadership. That being a leader is more than being “an engine of annihilation”. He points out that it is compassion for humanity that puts them above the Decepticons and that the matrix will not be perverted. There will be no dedicated Autobot warriors and Prime has so thoroughly regained his presence as a leader that there will be no debate. The Autobots are once more of an accord.

I thoroughly enjoyed this issue. A favourite character getting back into their stride and taking on all opposition is an easy route to emotional engagement with the reader, but just because its easy doesn’t mean it doesn’t have merit. Prime’s journey from broken and dispirited to world-beating and confident is a cracking read and this issue in particular flashes by because it is almost all action.

Prime’s actions come from quite a dark place, emotionally, and note that the colouring reflects this effectively - bathing his departure in portentous red light. The first page might be a show of resolute defiance, but he is really motivated primarily by guilt over his perceived failings. It would be a stretch too far to say that Prime is going off to die, but he is clearly dangerously unconcerned for his own safety and his full frontal assault on the Decepticon base could have ended very badly for both him and Bumblebee. It is only after hearing Starscream’s self-aggrandising ramblings that he becomes a leader again, rather than just someone looking for a fight because he can’t face his comrades.

Collins’ script is pretty good, although tends towards the bombastic in a less tongue-in-cheek way than Furman does. A “horde of Autobots”, really? Do Autobots come in hordes? Still, I very much like the journey that Prime goes on from issues 1 to 3 and the fact that Prowl was used as an antagonistic viewpoint. In fact, quite apart from the interesting moral dilemma it brings up about creating warrior Autobots, this story was probably released at about the right time. It is something of a plot hole to acknowledge that Prime contains the Creation Matrix and never have him use it to help out the Autobots. Now, with this story, we know why, and its a well thought out reason of ethics.

That said, I do have some problems with the logic of the story. It makes Soundwave into almost as much of a moustache-twirling incompetent as Starscream is. I find it hard to believe that he would not have been there to make sure Prime was dead from the initial ambush and Prime’s ability to take on all comers and win does strain credibility if the reader is feeling churlish. Admittedly, the Decepticons suffer very badly from overconfidence in this issue, which is part of Prime’s realisation of what being a leader truly means, but they really don’t come across as the threat they maybe should. Nevertheless, the Decepticons are almost beside the point in this story - they merely act as the catalyst for Prime coming back into his own, and they serve that function well enough. It is Prime’s issue, and he thoroughly owns it.

The change in artist from parts 1 and 2 is definitely noticeable and I was initially rather put off by Stokes’ work, which is considerably more toy-based than Senior’s. However, by about the midpoint of the issue my attitude began to change. Stokes puts a great deal of detail into his characters, especially Optimus Prime and the sequence where he defeats the Seekers is truly excellent - Hart’s colouring really helps to sell it as well. I still don’t really like the use of the toy design for Soundwave’s head, especially after two issues of him looking different, and Bumblebee’s little horns always look strangely large when Stokes draws them (and Hart makes a rare colouring error by colouring a horn the same as the background equipment, rather than Bumblebee’s yellow). I could say more about the art, but the important thing is that it tells the story well and there are not any glaring errors. I don’t personally like it as much as Senior’s but Stokes is still one of my favourite Transformers UK artists so far, and I was a big fan of his work on “Decepticon Dam-Busters!”

Overall, “Crisis of Command!” was a very good story for the UK book to use to expand upon the US material. It effectively and maturely explores the emotional fallout from some of the more Earth-shattering events of the US book and explains a question that fans must surely have been asking, while also telling an emotionally satisfying and exciting story. There are minor logic complaints, and the somewhat mongrelised nature its creation is unfortunate, but there is nothing that hurts the experience too badly. One of my favourite UK stories so far. It is difficult to get hold of, but if you can, then I heartily recommend that you do so.

This story was only reprinted in Collected Comics #8 in Spring 1988.

Next I will review “Icarus Theory!” a story some people have actually read!


Caleb Barber said...

From the dialogue you mentioned, I agree that SoundWave was out of character- otherwise it sounds like a well written straight forward story. Everyone acts as you would imagine they would & the resolution is satisfying. My theory on why Prime is able to overcome them 'so easily' is not that he's more powerful (individually speaking, he is) but that he's simply more self aware. I think the format the story takes fits the mold of Optimus Prime's character perfectly.

Excellent review!

D.M said...

This part features weirdest looking Bumblebee ever.

BTW, what's up with that?
Did Marvel gave model sheets to only few artists?

Bishbot said...

The thing that I don't quite get, D.M, is that Bumblebee is _sort of_ on model in some ways. I mean - Stokes must have known what the cartoon model looked like - because he clearly isn't using the toy for reference - he has just super-deformed Bumblebee for some reason. His Bumblebee was like this on "Decepticon Dam-Busters!" as well.

Thank you Caleb, and yes, I think your reading of Prime's victory is correct. I didn't want to dwell too much on questions of who should be able to beat who in what situation, because that isn't the point of the issue. The point is Prime's self-realisation, and the Decepticons are little more than a plot device to allow it - although I also like the slightly alternate reading that Prime perhaps doesn't expect to win - but as I said in the review, that might be reaching too far.

Anonymous said...

I had a problem with the part where Prime decides to forgo the Autobots's help and rescue Bumblebee on his own, AGAINST AN ARMY OF DECEPTICONS. He was lucky to be alive. The Decepticons were clearly written to be incompetent and under-powered in order for Prime to live. I feel it is a writing cop-out.

While I admire that Prime was willing to take responsibility for his mistakes, he does need to assess the situation realistically and accept the Autobots's help in resuing Bumblebee. I feel Prime made a selfish choice.

D.M said...

"While I admire that Prime was willing to take responsibility for his mistakes, he does need to assess the situation realistically and accept the Autobots's help in resuing Bumblebee. I feel Prime made a selfish choice."

Indeed. But it's hardly selfish.

Bishbot said...

You can read it as selfish: arguably he puts Bumblebee at greater risk because he cannot deal with losing anyone else under his command.

D.M said...

"You can read it as selfish: arguably he puts Bumblebee at greater risk because he cannot deal with losing anyone else under his command."

Not quite. He doesnt want to jeopardize more lives.

It's far more tacticly flawed than selfish.

Bishbot said...

Selfish still works as a reading of it. If Prime goes it alone, he doesn't have to concern himself with the guilt he'd feel by putting more lives at risk, despite that being the more sensible tactical option.

It's selfish because it might put Bumblebee at risk and it might deprive the Autobots of a great leader, just because Prime couldn't deal with the fact that his decisions put others at risk.

He is literally putting his own sense of self-worth, and his personal demons above his intrinsic value to the Autobot cause - selfish.