Friday, June 19, 2009
Review: Marvel UK #63-#65 "Second Generation!"
“Second Generation!” Part 1 was written by Simon Furman, drawn by John Stokes, coloured by Jane Firmin, lettered by Mike Scott and edited by Ian Rimmer.
Regular readers will remember that I promised to give the last story, “Devastation Derby!” the benefit of the doubt for it’s relative tedium if its set-up paid off in “Second Generation!” Does it? Let’s find out!
Ok. I will at least try to do this properly. Issue #63 opens badly with a terrible cover, showcasing Superion and Menasor from their packaging art of all things! Professionalism means that I should credit Richard Marcej for the original artwork, which is actually pretty good. However, swiping it for use on this cover is a definite low point, and the style fits very poorly from the normal look of the comic. The fact that there is a giant starburst containing the words: “The incredible new teams!” only serves to cement this cover’s position as the single worst one that I have reviewed to date. We all know that the Transformers fiction is designed to sell toys, but it’s usually a little more subtle about it. Dreadful.
The story opens in an enjoyable enough fashion with Buster in the throes of his nightmare from last issue. He is running from Shockwave, which is nice continuity, and must dodge through a field of skulls as metallic hands burst from the ground to clutch at his legs. The Autobots appear in order to save him but Shockwave blasts them into bits. He is about to finish Buster off when a mysterious giant robot appears (it’s Superion) and dismembers Shockwave with a single shot. Suddenly, just when Buster thinks he is safe, another huge robot (Menasor) lunges out of nowhere and takes down Superion. Superion fights back, and Buster tries to limp to safety, but is confronted by the incongruous sight of five military vehicles (one is a space shuttle, but it’s painted green). Inevitably at this point, they form one giant robot (Bruticus) and menace the human. “NOOOO!” screams Buster, and wakes up.
He is in the Ark, with Sparkplug telling him he is safe, and Optimus Prime looking on curiously, in a pose “borrowed” from “Prime Time” drawn by Herb Trimpe. Sparkplug is angry with the Autobots for making Buster a target by using him to house the Creation Matrix, if only temporarily. Prime acknowledges this and believes that Buster’s nightmares are a message.
Then we cut to see what the Decepticons are up to. After talking to Shockwave last issue, it turns out that Soundwave has now taken his news about Buster to Megatron (sporting an inexplicably green head-piece in this issue). Donny Finkleberg is still there, alive and surprisingly willing to argue with his captors, but Megatron ignores him and instructs Soundwave to let Shockwave decipher the matrix’s message and then bring it to him.
Back in the Ark, Buster talks with his dad about a suggestion the Autobots have made to mind link with Prime in order to work out the nightmares. Coincidently He thinks through a lot of the back story necessary to understand this story and then decides to agree.
Soundwave returns to Shockwave, who is angered by his absence, but mollifies him by telling him what the Autobots are planning. Shockwave has an ill-defined machine that will allow him to tap into Buster’s (and Prime’s) dream and observe from his laboratory. He prepares to activate it as the Autobots prepare the machinery necessary for the mind link.
Furman’s script is a solid “part 1 of 3” the imagery of Buster’s dream is an excellent marriage of writing and artwork. The red sand, bleached bone, and giant looming robots are an effective combination (Furman would have Optimus Prime revisit something similar much later during “Generation 2”). The eponymous special teams are built up in a nicely ominous fashion, appearing with no dialogue and fighting each other in a scarily business-like fashion. The real-world part of the story is less interesting, as it merely serves to set up the mind link which will obviously drive the action of Issue #64. The notion of Soundwave serving two masters is an intriguing one, and appropriate for the character. I enjoyed Megatron being crafty in order to get an advantage over Shockwave, but found Shockwave’s scary machine to OBSERVE Buster’s dream pretty underwhelming.
Stokes’ artwork is certainly an improvement over Simpson’s from “Devastation Derby!” although stealing from Herb Trimpe and other artists is definitely not on. Still, the aforementioned dream sequence is very effectively drawn, and a clear highlight of the last few issues. Buster looks a bit younger here than he is usually drawn, but all the Transformers are more or less on-model, although Megatron’s appearance still seems to confound artists who never seem to get it exactly right. The colouring is solid work, typical of a standard UK issue, with the only oddity being Megatron’s green helmet - I have no idea where that came from.
Part 2 was still scripted by Furman, but art duties were taken over by Barry Kitson and Tim Perkins and it is a little difficult to see where one begins and the other ends. The colouring was done by a mysterious fellow called “W&P” who might well be two people. Scott and Rimmer remained unchanged.
The cover was by Geoff Senior and is a HUGE improvement. Rather difficult to summarise, it features portraits of Buster and Optimus Prime sharing a vision of the Decepticon combiners Bruticus and Menasor forcing Defensor to the ground. Defensor looks somewhat evil and is in a very strange position, but it’s still a much more interesting effort than the previous issue. The caption tells us that it is “All in the mind!” which is accurate, but not, it should be noted, a good point to sell a story on.
The mind link has begun. Buster and Prime share a vision of tumbling through space while being aware of an Earth power plant in trouble. The Decepticons want it, the Autobots want to protect it, we’re on familiar ground here, for Buster and Prime, and for the reader...
We are immediately shown a meeting of the Protectobots. They sound off in typical wordy comic-book fashion giving us their names in the third person. It turns out that they want to fight the Decepticons who are after the power plant. Hot-Spot cautions his four subordinates that they need to protect the humans first and foremost. “Wow, these guys are neat!” says Buster, and he doesn’t add “All five Protectobots sold seperately at your nearest Toys R Us” but he might as well have. Prime tells him that they are “more than neat” which is quite fun if you imagine it in Peter Cullen’s voice.
The Protectobots are concerned when they see a group of human vehicles heading for the power plant, but it soon becomes apparent that they’re Decepticons, specifically Stunticons. The Protectobots are surprisingly taken aback by the fact that the Stunticons can merge to form Menasor.
As Shockwave looks on he is very impressed, telling the Constructicons that Menasor is the ultimate progression of the Devastator prototype. He gets very excited about the prospects of this new weapon, before Soundwave draws his attention to the fact that the Protectobots have also combined, forming Defensor.
The two giant robots begin to scrap as Buster continues his commentary for the hard of thinking. Optimus notices that more Decepticons have rolled up to join the fight: The Combaticons! (although Vortex is mis-coloured as Blades). They’re complaining about missing Blast-Off, who it turns out is currently dodging the Aerialbots! This is a particularly amusing segment because Silverbot is at first unconcerned that there is a human space shuttle just flying about, until Air-Raid notices the Decepticon badge. The Combaticons finally form Bruticus and join the fight, prompting the Aerialbots to combine into Superion.
As he tries to shoot Superion Menasor actually talks to his own arm to tell it to shoot. Unfortunately he calls it Dead End, when that arm is actually Drag Strip. Drag Strip answers back, perhaps annoyed by Menasor’s mistake, and gives Superion time to dodge, causing Bruticus to be accidently shot in the back. As he falls, Defensor steps heavily on his head, splintering it.
Menasor tries to retreat, but Defensor causes and earthquake with his “stress-fracture cannon” and the combined robot falls into a huge pit. The message from the matrix is made clear when Superion picks up a distress call and they have to rush off to help Optimus Prime with something. And now, the most hilarious moment of the script (reproduced here for your entertainment). Hot Spot says “There’s never a moment’s rest when you belong to one of the...” And Buster and Prime wake up in unison and yell:
“SPECIAL TEAMS!” Toy-advertising camp at it’s highest.
Buster begins babbling about the Transformers he has seen but Prime is a little more rational, stating that they have undoubtedly seen the future of the Transformer race and for once have the drop on the Decepticons.
Unfortunately, little does Prime know that the Decepticons, both factions of them, are now perfectly aware of the special teams that lie in the (pretty near) future. Megatron correctly assumes that Shockwave has begun construction of the special teams and now determines to make Shockwave aware of his return, first hand!
Simply put, this is where the central premise of “Second Generation!” really starts to fall apart. The “it was all a dream” approach really hurts this issue. There is a considerable unreality to the combiner on combiner clashes (obviously, since it wasn’t real) and Buster and Prime’s interjections are cheesier than cheese itself. One of the problems is that the script can’t seem to decide whether the special teams shown are simply designs that the matrix suggests might come in handy or if this is a legitimate vision of an inevitable future. Still, the issue hints at possible consequences of this future glimpse. Shockwave is beavering away trying to build himself some new Decepticons and the Autobots hope to get Superion and Defensor online before the Decepticons know what has hit them. Surely this paves the way for a titanic clash of the combiners in the next issue? Spoiler: no it doesn’t.
I did enjoy most of the art in this issue. Prime and Buster floating through space is suitably surreal and probably my favourite image of the lot. I do not think enough care was taken to show us the sheer scale of these combined robots, and as such I am more underwhelmed by their clashes than I should be. Their proportions are just normal for Transformers, and without much background detail you don’t get a sense of their power, although the script would like us to feel it.
The creative team changes once again for the third and final part of “Second Generation!” While Furman still scripts, the redoubtable Jeff Anderson took over pencilling duties, the colours were handed to Tony Jozwiak and Anne Halfacree provided the letters. Ian Rimmer, however, continued in his capacity as editor.
The cover was by Robin Smith and is one third great and two-thirds terrible, which unfortunately renders it pretty bad overall. It features Megatron and Shockwave brawling over the Decepticon leadership while Donny Finkleberg makes a stupid comment in the foreground. We seem to have been spoiled for awesome depictions of Shockwave in recent issues, and this is yet another great one, although the more disingenuous fan would point out that Shockwave, having a big, flat, featureless face with one round eye is harder to mess up than a lot of characters. Megatron, unfortunately, appears to have been replaced by a gorilla with a loudspeaker in its mouth. I’m not sure what the gridlines are all about, but they look awful. He doesn’t look angry, he looks like he opened his mouth to speak and someone shoved something in there. That, and he is holding his fusion cannon extremely stiffly and is squatting in an odd fashion. The third problem is that Robotmaster is a really terrible looking character to put at the front of a cover featuring a clash that should be amazing, and him quipping “Seconds out. Round two!” is part of a very unfortunate trend on the UK covers to put stupid speech balloons on otherwise decent art (although at least this time it’s not ruining anything very good).
The issue opens with Donny Finkleberg commentating much as the cover suggests he might do. Soundwave looks really dejected with having to put up with his company, which is quite a nice image, and Ravage leers threateningly as Finkleberg’s “minder”. Strangely, he gives a shout out to his “camera crew” who isn’t imaginary, because we see him sitting some way away, despite the fact that the film crew were not originally captured by the Decepticons. It is difficult to say if the continuity error is Furman’s or Anderson’s, since the man does not have any lines and only appears in one panel. Furman could have intended the reference to simply be part of Finkleberg’s playing to a pretend crowd.
Shockwave and Megatron are already in mid-brawl at Megatron’s coal-mine base. For some reason there is an abandoned tank which gets thrown around. Soundwave is aghast at the primitive display he is forced to watch - he had hoped for a peaceful alliance that would have strengthened the Decepticons as a whole but blames the promise of “special teams” as the reason why this is no longer possible, presumably (and this is not in any way explained) because both leaders conclude that if they can monopolise these new super-weapons they will have no need for each other.
In the Ark the Autobots are observing but disinclined to act as no humans are in danger. Wheeljack has prepared blueprints for Superion as Prime hears an alarm in the medical bay. It turns out that the Dinobots have come out of their coma and seem to be back to their old, belligerent, selves.
Back to the Decepticons: Soundwave confesses his disappointment to Finkleberg, who offers him a cigarette in reply, to which Soundwave spits in disgust, with the very onomatopoeic “puttup!” sound, and no, Anderson has not drawn him a mouth for this panel. Soundwave then gets a great moment where he walks over to the battling leaders and tells them that if their enemies saw this display they would “die laughing.” For a brief moment, both Shockwave and Megatron are united in their disbelief that Soundwave would dare to criticise them so openly, and Soundwave uses this as his trump card, to point out that although their methods differ, they both want to wipe out the Autobots and so should try a temporary joint leadership, with the most successful leader eventually taking over.
With this agreed it is time to set up the next issue. The Autobots pick up a message from Earth to Cybertron of unknown provenance, but are confident that with the Dinobots back on their feet and with the secrets of special teams, they are now at any advantage. The best bit of the issue is illustrated here:
What a mess! It took four issues to set up the actually very intriguing mystery of “what is in Buster’s mind?” but it all comes to practically nought. Part 1 is wasted to set up for Part 2 which, as a dream sequence, is mostly pointless, and dramatically conflicted, but could, conceivably, have been redeemed by a Part 3 that made up for it all. Unfortunately the special teams theme is mostly abandoned for a several page scrap between Shockwave and Megatron and not a single combiner has been built by the time the last page is turned. I realise that at least this does help to explain where the idea for these new Transformers has come from, but “a message from the matrix” is the ultimate in plot-device cop-outs. At the very least Wheeljack or Shockwave could have made the intuitive leap, rather than the creation force just deciding that these exact robots will be built for some reason. I believe the term “deus ex machina” - “god from the machine“, is very overused these days, and often used incorrectly, but this is a case of “machinae ex deo” - “machines from god“, and it’s just as dramatically uninteresting, especially as they don’t even appear in the real world of the story!
So, what about the main plot of the third issue, since the combiner teams are apparently off the menu? Megatron vs Shockwave: the rematch, is a very poor second to their first shattering clashes and, although it’s comparative lameness does underscore Soundwave’s point about it’s futility quite effectively, it’s just not that interesting to read. Meanwhile, the Dinobots come out of their coma suffering no ill effects whatsoever, which is extraordinarily bizarre, since you would have thought there would have been a story in that somewhere, otherwise why do it?
Jeff Anderson draws very good Transformers and his artwork for Part 3 is much stronger than the story. I especially enjoy his Soundwave and he can actually draw a Megatron who looks like Megatron, which is surprisingly is quite a relief. Despite the introduction of yet another colourist, the colours remain strong and consistent with the previous too issues. Unlike the story, art-wise, I have no complaints.
And now: a theory. I am pretty convinced that Simon Furman knew he was writing a dog’s dinner when he turned this script in. He had been forced to shoehorn in the special teams against all story logic by Hasbro UK’s marketing division and I think the result of this is him kicking against the tracers, or at least just not caring very much, until he could get back to telling proper stories. I could be entirely wrong here, but I just think the extraordinarily unnatural “toy commercial” atmosphere of Part 2 is extremely unlike Furman’s other writing, and might even be intended as a parody. It showcases the combiners and their unique components almost TOO efficiently, and, to this optimistic fan of Simon Furman, it comes across as him winking at the audience. Either way, “Second Generation!” is a pretty pointless three issues of Transformers story, only managing to set things up the way they already were in the US book, without advancing any new UK plotlines.
However, if you DO want to check it out, the Titan reprint is still available on Amazon: Transformers: Second Generation.