Friday, May 1, 2009

Review: Marvel UK #48: "Dinobot Hunt! (Part 2)"

Part 2 of “Dinobot Hunt!” was, of course, written by Simon Furman. The pencils were by Barry Kitson and the inks by newcomer Mark Griffiths. Jeff Anderson supplied the colour and the letters were provided by Annie Halfacree. The editor, was, as ever, Ian Rimmer.

The cover was by Jeff Anderson and depicts Sludge, in dinosaur mode, standing in a swamp, while being shot by blasters from off-panel. The caption reads “To slay the swamp thing!” which, strangely, does not seem to be a violation of DC’s copyright. The designs of all the Dinobots are excellent and Sludge is no exception, and a detailed depiction, such as this, is easily enough to carry a cover by itself. Personally I think that rather than adding action to the cover, the blaster beams and the text detract somewhat from a good picture of Sludge. He is closer to the cartoon model than we have usually seen in previous UK issues, and lacks the fiddly toy-based detail that I liked so much. Nonetheless, this is a great picture of Sludge, just done in a different style, and relevant to the story within, so I like it very much.

The issue opens with Prowl briefing another one of the Dinobot hunting teams, in this case led by Windcharger and consisting of Gears and Cliffjumper. Prowl tells them that they will be searching the swamps of Northern California and that this terrain makes their target most likely to be Sludge.

In one of these swamps, in Littlewood, California, two of the local humans are chatting on the porch of a wooden house. One man is telling the other that he saw a huge monster rear up out of the water and trudge away from him. He is interrupted by an unnamed giant robot, demanding to be told of the Dinobot. We see blue hands and feet that are probably blue, making Soundwave the most logical candidate. It is certainly no Autobot - as the humans attempt to escape, the building is destroyed in a massive explosion. The human survives the blast and is once again questioned. The narration is notable for it’s creepiness : “They leave eventually. The information is theirs. They were not gentle.”

Elsewhere, the three Autobots are squelching through the swampy water with Gears arguing about the fruitfulness of their mission. Not looking where he is going, he plunges waste-deep into the swamp and is rescued in a bit of slapstick by Windcharger’s magnetic powers. He comes flying out of the water too rapidly and both robots tumble to the ground, while Cliffjumper looks on, amused.

Meanwhile, we see Sludge, in dinosaur mode, standing docilely in a sunlit clearing. We are told that he is only capable of the most basic thoughts and reactions and does not realise that the vegetation that he is eating is useless for his maintenance. The vegetation is actually being fed to him by his newfound friend: a blonde human woman who is taking his picture with a very large camera. Through her thought balloons we learn that her name is Joy Meadows and that she is a news reporter. She communicates via radio with her partner, Rick, and tells him that she will continue to film Sludge, as he appears to trust her.

In another part of the swamp, the Decepticons’ search for the Dinobots has continued brutally. We see panels of destroyed houses, flaming wreckage, and humans lying dead in the water. Eventually they catch up with (and appear to kill) Joy Meadows’ news team, although she is not present. We do not see the actual Decepticons, apart from the occasional glimpse of an arm or leg, which really helps to sell the horror of their methods.

Presumably sometime later the Autobots find.... something.... which lets them know that they are also on the right track (I actually have no idea what’s going on at this point - it isn’t stated in dialogue and the panel holds no clues that I can see).

Anyway, before the Autobots can properly analyse whatever mysterious artefact they have discovered they come under attack from local law enforcement. Three boats filled with shotgun armed humans open fire on the Autobots, accusing them of causing the Decepticons‘ trail of destruction. Windcharger orders a retreat, and says that if they have to, they need to shoot at the boats, not the men. One of the police boats attempts to ram Gears and Cliffjumper reacts by using his “all-purpose glass-gun” to turn the man’s boat entirely into glass. The perspective here must be very skewed, and the boat very far away - either that or Cliffjumper is speaking extraordinarily fast, because he manages to make an entire, very laboured, speech about the human love for glass-bottomed boats before just shooting the thing.

The human threat averted, the Autobots spot blaster fire through the trees and run to investigate. We flash back to recent, previously unseen, events. The Decepticons, including Soundwave and a Constructicon that might be Scavenger have knocked out Joy Meadows (she could easily be dead - considering their conduct so far - but she comes back in later stories - so she isn’t). Sludge gets extremely angry at this turn of events and charges them, but they are able to wear him down with sustained blaster fire and he falls unconscious.

Back in the present, the Autobots find Sludge in that same state, and rush to his side to investigate. Cliffjumper is happy that someone seems to have done their job for them but Gears is, quite rightly, more cautious. Before any of them can react, however, they are all knocked offline by weapons’ fire. Soundwave waves his fist in triumph over the chassis of the fallen Autobots. “The Dinobot is ours. The Autobots are defeated.” he says, “Victory belongs to the Decepticons!”

The second part of “Dinobot Hunt!” is, to my mind, not as strong as the first, but does succeed in at least one area. It manages to make the Decepticons, led by Soundwave, actually frightening. The level of human carnage on display in his story is almost unprecedented in the Marvel book. While we are used to battles with humans in the crossfire who probably do die sometimes, this story actually shows you the bloody bodies and contrasts their frailness with the massive metallic fingers of the Decepticons. It is a very different approach from normal, and it works wonderfully. In fact the Decepticons aren't shown clearly until the very last panel, but they make their presence felt very evocatively throughout the entire issue.

Other than that, the story isn’t particularly interesting and suffers considerably from being confusing. I have reread it several times, and I still cannot work out how the Autobots know where Sludge is. To begin with it appears that they are just searching random swampy locations with three minibots on foot. I know that the Autobots are super-advanced robots with all the sensor and tracking technology that implies, but I still think to actually find a Dinobot in this area was extraordinarily lucky. That, coupled with the (to me at least) completely inexplicable developments that lead them to actually finding Sludge, left me decidedly underwhelmed. Furman has cut corners here in order to showcase each Dinobot in his own issue and it shows in rather lax and arbitrary story-telling. Bringing in Joy Meadows for one page, then knocking her out, is also an odd approach, although she does recur in later stories, so her appearance does at least serve a purpose - just not one that is immediately apparent while reading this issue (or indeed the rest of “Dinobot Hunt!”)

Kitson’s pencilling is typically solid - I particularly like the scene with Joy and Sludge, who looks almost adorable in his placid state. The composition of the panels is also very good - really lending an air of despair to the Decepticons’ trail of woe and keeping them as the unseen threat lurking just off-panel. I think that having a separate inker really adds to this effect, as the inking is dark and sinister, and conveys the oppressive atmosphere of the swamp very well. This is added to very effectively by the colouring, which, typically for the UK book, is devoid of mistakes, and has a considerable depth to it.

Overall, I think that this issue has problems, but also does some things very well. It’s not bad enough to skip, but not good enough to look forward to reading. It’s just necessary to get the full effect of “Dinobot Hunt!” Slightly disappointing after last issue’s mostly strong opening.


Chuffer said...

I have to disagree – when I originally read it, this was my favourite chapter of 'Dinobot Hunt'.

I think the strength of the issue is a basic misdirection – the reader is meant to assume that the three mysterious robots are Gears, Cliffjumper and Windcharger (implying that they are not causing the damage on page 9 – just following a trail of devastation apparently caused by Sludge). Only in the last panel do we realise that it was Soundwave and co. all along (which makes sense of all the previous pages, just like the best mysteries).

Every time the Decepticon activities are portrayed, it leads directly into an Autobot activity which could, at a glance, have led directly from it (no coincidence that it was Soundwave's blue arms shown, the only colour that matches an Autobot – Gears, who if I recall correctly was next shown in a bad temper, mirroring the aggressive behaviour). This also explains the ‘We're getting somewhere at last.’ comment by Gears. It doesn't matter what they've found, we are just meant to assume that the Autobot trio have 'found what they were looking for.’ from the previous panel.

The presence of the Decepticons wasn't apparent to me at all (I was very young when I first read the issue, so maybe that explains why I accepted a more liner explanation of events) and the final page was a huge shock (I also wasn't used to reading kid's comics where the bad guys won so comprehensively). Maybe I am remembering it better than it was, but I did always love Furman's cliffhangers.

Really enjoying these reviews (both UK and US) - thanks!

Glyph said...

Chuffer got there first, but I fully agree. I was looking forward to seeing what you made of this chapter, so I was quite surprised that the intentional misdirection seemed to have been... well, entirely missed.

It's set up quite cleverly, too, and explains some of the seemingly arbitrary elements of the story: why send three minibots after the Dinobot who's been described as possibly 'the most dangerous of all'? Well, because it lets you put a hothead (Cliffjumper) and a grumpy git (Gears) in there - no coincidence that both of them have blue arms, which nicely hides the villain of the piece. Why send those three Decepticons in particular? Perhaps because they have some colours and shapes in the right place and their head sculpts (seen in silhouette on page 9, panel 6) are similar enough to the three Autobots that the casual reader wouldn't spot the difference two panels later.

Sure, it may be obvious to the astute fan that the carnage was completely out of character for the Autobots, however grumpy, but the reader is certainly meant to connect Gears' outburst with the opening scene, and so on. This is particularly true since the Decepticons haven't been seen in action yet (bar Laserbeak's spying) so we're not expecting them. Soundwave rocks. :)

And just because it wouldn't be right to ignore them, a couple of odd (for the UK comic) colouring errors: Skywarp coloured as Scavenger on page 11, and Soundwave's legs coloured white/grey with red detail on page 13.

SiD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Glyph said...

Forgot to say: I'm also really enjoying this trek back through the Marvel years. Thanks!

Bishbot said...

Thanks very much for the comments! I'm always glad to hear that someone is reading my ramblings. We're getting into stories that people have actually read now, so hopefully it's becoming a little more interesting.

While I don't disagree about the way the Autobots' and Decepticons' actions are arranged so one could conceivably lead into the other, I think Furman is using this more as a fun way to play with the structure of the comic, as he often likes to do, rather than an attempt to build genuine suspense that the minibots might have gone off the rails.

There might be some merit to structuring a story in such an ambiguous way - but not this one. This is Part 2 of a 4 part story, the parameters of which are already firmly in place. We have known these three Autobots for 48 issues now - this is definitely not the time to start questioning their allegiance.

To my mind, at least, Gears is just being Gears when they are in the swamp, and I really don't think that Furman would have made fun of his grumpy attitude by putting in that slapstick scene with Windcharger if he really wanted the audience to wonder if Gears might be a killer - the tonal shift is too abrupt to be credible.

Furman could have easily framed Sludge, but he chose not to, because he intentionally uses the plural in the captions that relate to the destruction of the humans.

So while I think the mirroring of the Autobot and Decepticon search parties was deliberate, I don't think it was to achieve the effect of misdirecting the reader - and if it was - I don't know why - because it doesn't work, or make much sense. It is true that a child, or someone with little prior knowledge of the characters could be fooled, but I think that to suggest that the trick was only targetted at some of the audience is, to my mind, moving the goalposts.

That's just my opinion, and of course there are multiple readings - I'm glad the issue worked better for some of you than it did for me!

Sean said...

I too agree with the previous commentators-i thought Furman was trying to fool us into thinking the 3 minibots were the culprits. While i never really thought they were, it was a clever juxtaposition