Thursday, December 17, 2009

Review: Marvel G1 #38: Trial by Fire!

Trial by Fire! is the thirty-eighth issue of the US G1 Marvel comic.  It's written by Bob Budiansky and drawn by José Delbo.  Dave Hunt joins the crew as the primary inker of the book, which means that we're going to have some creative stability for a while.  Yomtov, as always, does the coloring, and Bill Oakley does the letters.  The cover is a Frank Springer.

The cover features a rather dramatic scene, with Fortress Maximus on some kind of natural bridge over what looks like lava or acid, shielding a human (Spike Witwicky, as it goes) from the sting of Scorponok.  Lord Zarak, too, blasts at the Autobot, which gives a  certain amount of symmetry to things that I find appealing.  Scorponok's claw looks positively massive!  One wouldn't want to run into him in a dark cave ... or even a brightly lit one.  The legs on Scorponok seem a little ornamental, but other than that it's a great image.  The Grimlock in the Marvel box has been replaced by the image of Fort Max removing his head - if the cover image alone wasn't enough to tell you, that element surely signals that the Headmasters and co are here to stay.

The issue opens on board the as-yet-unnamed Steelhaven.  Fortress Maximus is in the final stages of reconstruction.  He's being rebuilt to be twice as large and four times as powerful - a double headmaster who's head becomes the robot Cerebros, who is in turned headed by Galen.  When Chromedome questions the necessity of preparing for war like this, Galen briefly recounts the events of the Headmasters mini-series.  Perhaps it's the way he departed Nebulos, but Galen seems a lot colder than the last time we saw him.  Clearly his sacrifice weighs heavily on his broad shoulders.

Meanwhile, at the Witwicky garage, RAAT soldiers stand guard as emergency workers comb through the rubble.  A young man arrives home and blows past the police so that he can frantically dig through the rubble.  A hand on his shoulder interrupts him - it's his dad, Sparkplug, looking spry and cheerful somehow.  Maybe he's just glad to be alive?  Sparkplug fills Spike in on the events of #37, and Spike decides to take a look for Buster to make sure he's OK.    Spike drives to Mount St. Hilary and soon finds the discarded remains of the Autobot camp, along with a damaged toy car.  He briefly speculates that it might be Buster's, but rejects that idea and tosses poor Goldbug aside. 

With Earth in sight, the five Autobot headmasters head down to the planet to locate the source of the Autobot distress call.  They're surprised to find Earth teeming with intelligent life that resembles themselves, but Galen shows little image.  He's got tunnel vision for locating the other Autobots.  Having abandoned one culture, he's eager to embrace his new one.  Down to Earth the Headmasters, er, head, and soon Spike finds himself hiding from these massive steel titans.  He witnesses them locate Goldbug and display images of Goldbug's extremely lopsided battle with Ratbat and the abduction of Buster.  (For the record, that's two humans who looked like they may have been killed last issue but weren't. Also Goldbug. Ratbat is surprisingly soft.)  Brainstorm is gung-ho for a rescue, but Fortress Maximus wants to begin the search for the missing Autobots immediately.

This prompts Spike to come out of hiding.  His understanding is that the Autobots were the good guys, and he expects the Headmasters to act like it.  When Fort Max refuses, he accuses them of being cold and lifeless machines.  Galen shows Spike the error of his ways and indeed expresses sympathy for Spike's plight ... but no responsibility.  Technically, of course, Galen is right, but ironically in his eagerness to locate the Autobots of Earth he is behaving more like a Decepticon.  Spike is left in the cave, alone, while the Autobots leave to try to find Grimlock and co. 

Hours later, the Decepticon ship drops out of warp.  The landing platform of the ship is now the back of the ship, an error that sort of started in Headmasters #4.  Unlike the Autobot-allied Nebulons, who admired Earth's beauty, Zarak displays nothing but contempt for the world.  Down they go, and Spike quickly realizes that he's in trouble.  He hides from the Decepticons and decides that the Autobots, insensitive though they were, deserve a warning.  He repeats the distress call from Goldbug to summon them back, but is located by Scorponok for his troubles.  Spike feigns ignorance of the Autobots when questioned, and that abortive interrogation is quickly interrupted by the arrival of the Autobots.

We get a nice three pages of battle before Scorponok realizes that the newly rebuilt Fort Max is outclassing him.  He goes looking for an advantage and spies one ... the human Spike.  Max realizes that his adversary has left the battle and pursues. As the tunnels get narrower and narrower, the participants shed layer after layer of their protection until Zarak and Galen are grappling on a narrow ledge over lava, with Spike's fate in the balance.  Zarak outwits his foe by having Scorponok fire at the cave above Spike's head.  Galen shoves Spike out of the way but gets crushed for his trouble.  Scorponok is satisfied that with Maximus out of the picture, the battle is his.

Spike wonders at Galen's sacrifice, after his earlier indifference.  The Nebulon had come to an epiphany,though, that allowing even one innocent Earthen to die because of his arrival would violate all he stood for.  In a way, though, this means that Galen learned nothing.  His character arc looks very much like that of Optimus Prime - realizing that he's brought conflict to a world and feeling guilt about it, ultimately sacrificing himself.  The main difference is that Prime would come back, while Galen would not.  He had a chance to learn that he should have intervened even if it WASN'T his problem or his fault, making him the better man/bot.  Alas, it was not to be.

Galen urges Spike to take the helmet, so that his death was not in vain.  Soon the mechanized advance of Scorponok is blunted by the return of Fortress Maximus, now under the command of Spike.  Scorpnok orders a retreat, and the Autobots soon follow suit as the volcano erupts.  Highbrow mourns the loss of a true leader, even as Hardhead welcomes their new leader.  Spike wonders, incredulously, if they mean him.  They do, of course, for no good reason that I can think of except that his is the biggest toy.

It's a good issue, not quite a great one.  Galen seems to have taken a step backwards in terms of characterization.  I suppose it was to make his sacrifice somehow self-inflicted, but mightn't a purely selfless sacrifice had also worked?  The idea of Spike as the new leader is also completely out of left field.  I can accept him as the new head of Fort Max - the bonding has already started - but having Chromedome or Hardhead or Kup take command would have been a lot more sensible.  Perhaps later, after Spike had earned their trust, he could assume that mantle.   On the other hand, it's great to see the two plotlines integrated so relatively seamlessly, Ratbat's unexpected mercy aside.  The contrast between the Autobots and Decepticons in terms of their reaction to Earth was nice too.  The Delbo/Hunt art team seems to be working really well.  The first shot of Scorpnok on Earth is just a fantastic piece.  Some of that is that Scorponok is a really visually entertaining character in both modes.  He's go to many angles on him!  It definitely helps camouflage some of the weakness of the story.  Trial By Fire! is available for sale in  Classic Transformers Volume 3 .

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