Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Iván's Gallery: Gairyū

What is happening? Ark Addendum on a Monday? Iván's Gallery on a Tuesday? HAVE I LOST MY MIND? (Quite possibly, I've been operating on very little sleep for the past few days and am a little buggy.) In any event, the incomparable Iván continues his exploration of the Dinoforce. This week, he brings us Gairyū. Here is what he has to say about him:

A redeco of the Pretender Monster Bristleback, Gairyu transforms into a spiked quadruped. He can also form either arm to the team's combined mode Dinoking. He comes with an armored dinosaur shell that he can fit into.

Decepticon Dinoforce warrior Gairyu becomes a stampeding ankylosaurus when bonded with his Pretender shell. Like most of the Dinoforce, Gairyu is both innocent and stupid.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Ark Addendum - Terror! The Six Shadows

AH! Curse missed opportunities. A couple of weeks back, guest-blogger supreme Brian did an excellent review of Terror! The Six Shadows, a episode of Takara's Headmasters series. It turns out, I have a page of models from that episode. Now, it's not a great page of models, but still, worth sharing I think.

The man and woman on horseback (horses not included) were pretty random models for me to find. The ninja that Daniel describes to Chromedome, though, is pretty cool. He only gets a few seconds of airtime, but here it is.

(Have no fear, Iván's Gallery will be back tomorrow with more of the Dinoforce! I promise to be more vigilant in the future to look for opportunities for synergistic model posting. For instance, I've got some models for Cybertron Is in Grave Danger that I'll be posting next week.)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Transformers: Headmasters – "Planet Cybertron Is In Grave Danger, Part One"

Zarak: Lord Galvatron, will you complete the plan at all costs?
Galvatron: Do you always have to be against me?
Zarak: There's no guarantee the miracle alloy can be created. It's irrational to steal it from Cybertron.
Galvatron: Are you telling me what to do?
Zarak: No, but I don't want to make sacrifices in vain.
Galvatron: I decide if it's in vain! Get ready!

The first multi-episode arc since the series opener arrives in form of quite a game-changer, if one incorporates its story elements into the overall fabric of the animated G1 mythos. At least the writers graciously decided not reveal the ending of the episode in its very title as they often do!

The opening narration explains how peace currently reigns on Cybertron while in its depths Vector Sigma makes an alarming discovery of its own. We see its own factory begin to create something new and then find that Soundblaster and his cassettes, Rumble, Ravage and Buzzsaw, have been spying on Vector Sigma during all of this. Soundblaster reports back to Galvatron that the "mother computer" has developed Cybertonuron, a substance even stronger than Cybertronium. As expected, Galvatron has dreams of using this new compound to fashion a weapon which will lay waste to the Autobots (seen in static shots of him with a giant sword). Almost simultaneously, Twincast learns of this element as well and alerts Rodimus.

This spurns the plot in motion, carried forward by the idea presented in "Four Warriors From Outer Space" how Vector Sigma is a neutral force in the world of the Transformers, maintaining a balance between good and evil by letting both gain the same knowledge. We see Zarak, though still kept in the shadows at this point, question Galvatron's plan, wondering if the "miracle alloy" can actually be created. However, the Decepticon leader cannot be swayed and sends the Predacons to Cybertron as an advance team. Meanwhile, Zarak speaks with his Headmasters, noting he is unsure about this plan and for them to be mindful of getting involved. This ongoing subplot of pitting Zarak and Galvatron against each other is one of the more engaging aspects of this series, as the viewer gets the sense that Zarak could gain leadership at any time and thus only feigns allegiance until ready.

There are two other nice subplots in this episode, one which highlights Chromedome's propensity for rash action, without consideration. It is first commented on for the purpose of a laugh, but later by Fort Max, who tries to caution Chromedome against being so hot-headed, as the young Headmaster rushes off to Earth. The other subplot is Sixshot warning Zarak that he will be exiled by Galvatron, if the latter does indeed gain control of the Cybertonuron. It solidifies this unstable element within the Decepticon ranks consisting of these outsiders from Planet Master, who wish to not be counted among the loyal troops, but rather seen as independent. In the previous episode, the Decepticon Headmasters simply refused to help Cyclonus and Scourge at all in investigating the six mysterious shadows on Earth, even though it did simply turn out to be Sixshot.

Galvatron briefly visits Earth to retrieve the Stunticons and Combaticons, then proceeds with his assault on Cybertron. Interestingly, Fort Max and Rodimus have a similar discussion to what we heard from Zarak and Galvatron, disagreeing about the feasibility of this alloy and advising against sending in troops. Zarak and Fort Max both seem to be two sides of the same coin, both outsiders on their respective sides and thus able to express a more objective view of the conflict. It again presents the "new guard vs. old guard" aspect of this series, as those who have been removed from the war for millions of years are now able to question it from a different perspective and eventually steer it in new directions.

The siege on Cybertron continues, complete with combiners in conflict, although the animation is not quite up to par as seen in the similar sequence in "Four Warriors from Outer Space", with too many static shots as opposed to actual animated movement. After arriving with Fort Max, Rodimus and Galvatron fight, but Rodimus is overpowered. Before dealing the finishing strike, Galvatron is alerted by Soundblaster that the equation for the alloy has been completed and Vector Sigma will start production any moment.

Meanwhile, the Headmasters are all locked in combat with each other, after Chromedome again proved his impetuous behavior by rushing from Earth to Cybertron (along with Hardhead) before anyone else. Fort Max wants to evacuate Rodimus, now buried under rubble by Galvatron, while the rest of the planet is engaged in battle. The last moments of the episode focus on Zarak, who is now skulking in the depths of Cybertron. His concern is not so much gaining control of the Cybertonuron as it is the possibility the Decepticons will lose this battle and the Autobots will become invincible with the alloy in their possession. He calls his Headmaster team away from the battle and lets them know this, deciding that his only option is to destroy both Vector Sigma and the planet itself. He assigns Mindwipe, Skullcruncher and Weirdwolf with placing three explosive devices, though Zarak promises they will time to escape.

Next time we find out if Zarak's terrible plan succeeds!

Review: Marvel UK #43: "Crisis of Command! (Part 2)"

Writing duties for the second part of “Crisis of Command!” passed from Mike Collins to James Hill, who previously scripted “Christmas Breaker!” - a not especially classic story. Geoff senior continued with the art, Gina Hart took back colouring duties from Steve Whitaker, the lettering was still by Mike Scott and Ian Rimmer continued to edit.

The cover is by John Ridgway and it shows a battered looking Bumblebee crouched in the desert, as several Decepticons point their guns at him from off-panel. “Ooops!” he says, and the viewer is forced to agree. It’s a good cover that effectively conveys the fact that Bumblebee will be in jeopardy this issue. Bumblebee is pleasingly on-model, at least facially. His feet are ridiculously small considering his alternate mode and he couldn’t possibly transform, but mechanical fidelity was never a big priority for the Marvel comic and the cover is a good dramatic piece. Bumblebee’s facial expression is particularly effective, demonstrating the wisdom of dispensing with the clunky toy model.

The issue opens with a splash page of Bumblebee, in vehicle mode, blasting through the desert. “It’s hopeless...” he says, “I’ve failed!” It turns out that he is looking for Ravage, after his escape last issue. Bee Transforms and, despite his despair, uses his infra-red vision to scan the landscape - actually finding the errant Decepticon!

Upon sighting his quarry, Bumblebee’s mind flashes back to the bit of the story we’ve missed so far. He noticed Ravage’s cell empty by chance and ran to tell Optimus Prime about it. He found Prime discussing tactical options with Prowl, who was advocating an all-out strike against the Decepticons. Prime was reluctant, but when Bumblebee interrupted with the news of the escape he uttered a despairing “Oh no” and asked Prowl what he should do. Prowl advocated sending Hound and Mirage; after all, they caught Ravage once. Bumblebee, however, was dismayed to see Prime so indecisive and elected to pursue Ravage by himself in order to try to prove the value of the “more conciliatory Autobots” rather than the more warlike Prowl and his suggestions to use the Creation Matrix for warfare.

Back in the present, and back in the Ark, Prime himself is wondering whether he is letting Prowl influence him too much. Bumblebee’s absence is noted when it becomes apparent that he never told Hound and Mirage about Ravage’s escape. Prime, noting that Bumblebee could never have tracked Ravage if he did not want him to, realises that the little Autobot is being led into a trap! Prime’s explanation of this is in captions over panels showing Bumblebee following Ravage into a narrow canyon, giving us a nice display of the sort of story-telling that comics excel at. Bumblebee runs headfirst into Soundwave, along with Rumble, Frenzy, Laserbeak, Ravage (of course), Skywarp and Thundercracker. This is a really excellent tableau from Geoff Senior and Soundwave looks like he was born to lead. Bumblebee tries to run, but is stopped by a powerful missile attack from Laserbeak, knocked down, and seemingly, out. Skywarp seems unimpressed by Soundwave’s efficiency, however, noting that the only Autobot to fall into the trap is “the weakest, most insignificant” of them. Bumblebee flails out with a punch, but he is woefully incapable of harming the powerful Decepticon, and Skywarp slams him to the floor once more. As Bumblebee lies there, Soundwave reveals his actual plan - to give Bumblebee’s life in trade for Optimus Prime’s!

Obviously, Bumblebee, courageous little Autobot that he is, can’t let this happen! He transforms suddenly, somehow knocking the surrounding Decepticons out of the way and starts tearing away into the desert. He gets almost nowhere, however, before the hitherto unseen Starscream lands in front of him and menaces him into stopping.

The other Autobots are worried. Search parties have reported back and say that Bumblebee is nowhere to be found. Just then, Windcharger announces that the Ark’s sensors have picked up an Autobot distress signal, heading for the Ark at speed! The Autobots rush outside to find Laserbeak flying overhead. The birdlike Decepticon drops an elongated object and flies off. Prowl fears it is a bomb, but it soon becomes clear that for Bumblebee, the truth is even worse - it is, in a great dramatic moment, revealed to be his arm, torn off at the shoulder.

This is a fast and exciting issue and, amazingly, does not suffer at all from the change in writer. It is perhaps slightly uncharitable for me to suggest that might be because neither Collins nor Hill have a particularly unique or inspired writing style. They are efficient rather than spectacular, but the plot moves at a brisk pace and all the important beats are given their appropriate focus. The story has, by necessity, shifted towards a more action-packed focus in this part, which is a bit of a shame for the script, because it lacks the arresting ethical dilemma of part one. Although it is still interesting to see that Bumblebee cares so much that the Creation Matrix not be misused that he feels he has to prove himself, and by extension, those Autobots with his point of view, to Prime, in order to stop him from swinging towards Prowl’s ideas. I would have liked a little more exploration of just why Prowl’s ideas are so abhorrent, but that might have been beating a dead horse. It isn’t the most original story - Bumblebee is in trouble - the Decepticons are using hostage tactics in order to try to get at Optimus Prime, but there isn’t really anything wrong with it, everyone acts within what we know of their characters and Prime’s descent into second-guessing himself is very believable. Equally believable is the way he takes charge when he realises Bumblebee is missing - he is still Optimus Prime, after all, a few setbacks or no.

Senior’s art continues to be good - he even manages to make a Volkswagen driving through the desert into an exciting enough subject for a full-page splash. The action is much clearer this time and you really feel for poor old Bumblebee as the Decepticons knock him about. The standout panel for me is the aforementioned tableau of Decepticons - Ravage looks especially fierce, but the reveal of Bumblebee’s smoking severed arm comes in a close second. Hart continues to be the gold standard for other colourists of the UK book, giving the robots a convincing metallic sheen and not once forgetting which Seeker jet is which.

There’s not much more to say about this issue, because, by its nature, its Part 2 of a three part story - all set up for the conclusion, but, with only twelve more pages to show Bumblebee’s rescue from the Decepticons, its set to be an exciting finish.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Review: Marvel G1 #17 - The Smelting Pool!

The Smelting Pool! is the seventeenth issue of the US G1 Marvel comics run on Transformers. Bob Budiansky returns to writing duties after his one-issue break, as does the rest of the creative staff from issue #15. That would be Don Perlin pencils, supported by Keith Williams inks and Nel Yomtov coloring. Janice Chiang letters Bob's words and sound effects. Herb Trimpe drew the cover.

Overall it's quite a nice cover. Blaster plunges head-first into a bubbling pool, filled with Transformers in various states of decomposition. Up high, a few shadowy figures look on under a Decepticon banner. "Meanwhile, back on Cybertron... into the smelting pool!" it tells us, and for once the words are quite necessary. After all, we don't know this Autobot from Alpha Trion, but letting us know right away that this is a different planet helps contextualize the image. Also, we haven't seen Cybertron since issue 1, so the promise of more is intriguing. Yomtov colored blaster mostly white and pink, and set the rest of the image in reds and yellows. The contrast between the cool colors and the warm colors was a good choice. The pool looks suitably deadly, and of course the idea of the hero falling into a deadly pool (acid, lava, snakes, whatever) is a pretty classic adventure trope.

The issue itself lives up to the potential of the cover. Right from the first page, we're promised a big adventure. The first words of the issue inform us that this is Return to Cybertron Part 1, already guarantee us a multi-part story. The opening splash isn't quite, since Perlin sneaks in an establishing shot in the upper left corner, embedded in the rest of the image. Bob's prose jumps quickly from regal to bleak in his narration, and the rest of the image goes heavy on the bleak. Decepticon war machines hunt civilians, who look suitably pathetic. The black and purple sky and devastated metallic buildings help pull us into the desolate sphere that is the homeworld to the Transformers.

As the issue progresses, we get into the story. The Decepticons see these wasted neutrals, called Empties, as an unnecessary drain on the planet's dwindling resources, and so harvest them for spare parts. Enter the Autobot anti-hero, Blaster. He's waiting for someone called Scrounge, a malfunctioning glitch of an Autobot who is late for their rendezvous. Upon seeing the Decepticon attack on an Empty, he reluctantly steps in and save the day. However, when the Empty tries to thank him, he brushes him off, having no time for the 'rusty hides of robo-wretches.' In a mere three pages, Bob manages to establish Blaster as a bad-ass fighter who will reluctantly do the right things. For the rest of Bob's run, Blaster would continue shine as one of the more interesting characters. I find this interpertation to be much more compelling than the wisecracking goofball that the Sunbow cartoon gave us.

Meanwhile, another new character is getting some good characterization: Scrounge. Of course, Scrounge is not a toy character, but there is a decent chance that a kid reading this issue back in 1986 wouldn't know that. Scrounge transforms to a very alien vehicle, a single mobile wheel. He's also got a special spy arm, with wire-guided audio and video receptors built into his fingers. It seems that he's been tracking a missing neutralist scientist who specializes in interdimensional engineering, and his investigation has taken him to Darkmount, the Decepticon's local stronghold. It is especially important to him that he find the scientist, because he wants to be viewed as a worthy member of the Autobot team. He manages to overhear and record a coded transmission, one that Decepticon Shrapnel seems to think is extremely important. In his eagerness to retreat, though, he trips an alarm. He gets captured, but not before radioing Blaster that he has profoundly important intelligence.

Blaster is disturbed by Scrounge's absence. He heads back to the Aubobase to get a search party going, though commander Perceptor doesn't think it's worth it. When Blaster decides to go anyway, the minibots rally around him, and so Perceptor bows to the inevitable and sanctions the search. It's an awkward scene, partially because I have a hard time envisioning Perceptor in the role of a resistance leader. One nice aspect - the Decepticon fortress is massive and out in the open, but the Autobot headquarters is cramped and hidden.

And speaking of the Decepticon fortress, page 9 is a beautiful splash page of the interior of said fortress. For the first time, we're shown the smelting pool, a horrific place where empties are melted alive. Perlin's art is fantastically brutal, and Budiansky's words play up the horror. Scrounge doesn't end up here yet, though, since he is first to be interrogated by Decepticon leader Straxus. It doesn't take long for Straxus, lord high governor of Polyhex and comic-original character, to decide that whatever Scrounge knows won't matter after he's dead. And thus, Scrounge is sentenced to die in the pools, though not before Straxus rips off his special arm. One really feels for the little Autobot, losing the one thing that he had any pride in.

When the Autobots discover where Scrounge is, they all decide to give up. All except Blaster, that is. He grabs his electro-disruptor and marches right into Darkmount. It doesn't take him long to get cornered, but before he is pushed into the pit, Sharpnel again decides that Straxus must see this Autobot. Straxus, who's busy supervising some sort of vast construction project (great art again by Perlin), is getting tired of the constant interruptions, and knocks Shrapnel aside. Blaster is quickly thrown into the pit . . . which is what he wanted all along. He locates Scrounge, and pulls him out, but the poor little guy has mostly melted away. He insists that Blaster take the data he's recorded before wriggling free of his would-be savior's grip. Blaster helplessly watches his friend go under, before exiting the pool with the help of Powerglide and the other minibots, who didn't abandon him after all.

The story isn't quite over. There is the obligatory fight scene as the Autobots escape. While at first I was a bit bored of this, since Scrounge's death was the real emotional climax of the issue, the fight serves to showcase Blaster's grief. He pulls out some tubing feeding the smelting pit and sprays the Decepticons with molten metal, driving them off. Even after he drives them off he continues to impotently spray the deadly liquid into the air, shouting at his retreating adversaries until Powerglide swoops down and pulls him away. It brings the story back to Scrounge by dealing with Blaster's grief without hitting us over the head with it - extraordinarily well done.

The denouement is brief. The message that Scrounge grabbed was of course Soundwave's transmission from issue #10. The Decepticons are preparing to conquer an energy-rich planet called Earth, but there is an obstacle - a group of Autobots led by Optimus Prime. And thus did Scrounge revitalize the Autobot movement, for not only did he give them facts . . . he gave them hope. The last panel is Blaster silently mourning his friend.

This is one of my favorite Transformers tales. It's set against the backdrop of a dystopian alien landscape, full of bizarre architecture and strange language. Though it took the comic far longer to get back to Cybertron than it took the cartoon, it was well worth the wait. The very first episode after the pilot featured a barren Cybertron, apparently empty of everyone but Shockwave. This Cybertron is a nightmare of hidden Autobot resistance cells, decrepit civilians and arrogant Decepticon overlords. Overall, I find this vision much more compelling.

It's not just the setting, though. It's bittersweet, a tale of sacrifice and friendship and grief and hope. We learn a lot about two Autobots, one who lives, one who dies. That character focus serves the story well, for when we see the horrific results of the Smelting Pool on someone we've come to root for, the real evil of the Decepticons is hammered home. There are also some intriguing plot points, including the missing scientist and the massive (but barely remarked upon) construction project that Straxus is overseeing. The intertwined answer to both of these questions will be offered in the next issue, which is promised to be "The cosmic conclusion of Return to Cybertron -- The Bridge to Nowhere!"

The Smelting Pool! kicks off IDW Publishing Classic Transformers Volume 2 collection, on sale now.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Zob's Thoughts on Transformers Universe Hot Shot

Regrettably, the current Transformers: Universe toy line is drawing to a close, with no new toys on the horizon and only a handful of redeco toys yet to be released. As this is is the 25th anniversary of the Transformers brand, Hasbro has stated that they wish to pay tribute to all the different toy lines throughout the years. (Despite this, it seems there will be no homages to Machine Wars or Animorphs, but I digress.) In any event, the obvious character to represent Transformers: Armada was Hot Shot. He was the natural choice; Hot Shot was Optimus Prime's star pupil, being groomed for command and swinging around the powerful Star Saber sword like an Autobot version of Luke Skywalker. I'm not sure we needed an updated version of a character so recently added to the Transformers mythos, though—particularly when the new toy lacks so much of the charm and enjoyability of the original.

Several of the Armada toys were fantasy designs that weren't intended to represent real-life vehicles. The original Hot Shot toy from 2002 is approximately the shape and profile of an Audi TT Roadster, with numerous concessions made for the sake of the toy's gimmicks (and to sidestep licensing fees, since Hasbro wouldn't enter into regular licensing agreements with automobile manufacturers until the advent of the Alternators line in 2003). The new Hot Shot is much more streamlined, resembling the Audi TT more closely (despite still being an unlicensed toy design), with an exposed engine that's nicely understated this time and a swept back, more aerodynamic spoiler. The new toy has translucent front and rear windows, clear plastic headlights, and silver hubcaps that are far more normal-looking than the bright red ones on the first toy. He measures at only four and a half inches in length, though—the original toy was a full inch longer.

Unfortunately, the new toy has very little in the way of value-added gimmicks. The original Hot Shot was designed to interact with his Mini-Con partner, Jolt, which plugged securely into the back of his car mode; folding the helicopter blades down provided Hot Shot with a propeller-driven flight mode. Also, plugging Hot Shot's engine block in place—with or without the Mini-Con attached to it—activated Hot Shot's spring-loaded driving claws, which popped out of his front spoiler. The new version of Hot Shot actually does have the driving claws, though they're not spring-loaded and not mentioned in the instructions. They actually look like claws, too, complete with articulated pincers (the ones on the old toy looked more like chainsaws). The new Hot Shot also interacts with a Mini-Con partner; the updated edition of Jolt is designed to rest rather loosely inside the rather unfortunate gap that looks to have been carved out of Hot Shot's rear windshield and spoiler. The rotor blades won't fold down in this position, though (the new Jolt has a completely different design and transformation). Hot Shot does have a peg on his trunk that's also designed to accommodate Jolt, but it's probably not meant to be used in this mode, since you have to mount the helicopter either sideways or upside-down, and it looks completely ridiculous (if you're going to mount an tiny little helicopter to the back of your car, it really does need to be facing forwards).

Hot Shot's updated transformation is frustrating and needlessly complex. Transformers: Armada wasn't just a toy line; it was also a design philosophy. Hasbro had just finished selling Robots in Disguise, a Japanese-engineered toy line filled with tricky robot designs that simply weren't appropriate for small children. They needed toys that were easier for their target audience to figure out, which is why so many of the Armada toys were designed with fewer articulated parts. The old Hot Shot was one of the simplest and most intuitive toys in the Armada line—flip the doors open, twist the hood, and swing out the windshield and Hot Shot was ready for battle in seconds. The new toy, by contrast, just seems overly sophisticated for its own sake. It's got about 44 moving parts, about twice as many as the original toy, and the transformation essentially consists of turning the entire car mode inside-out. You can tell some effort was made to minimize the kibble effect, like the clever way the windshield halves slide into his legs, but the toy has so many snap-on parts that it's almost impossible to transform him without a roof panel or a leg accidentally popping off. Also, getting him back into car mode is a challenge in and of itself, with lots of panels that you have to massage into place to get them to fit just right—a design element that turned many fans off about the highly complex Alternators toys.

As a robot, Hot Shot ends up at a little over five inches in height, about the same as the original toy. All the essential elements are there—he still looks like a robotic race car driver, with a head shaped like a racing helmet and chest components that strongly resemble a five-point harness. One of the most obvious differences between the two designs is that the new Hot Shot is built to much more humanoid proportions, lacking the enormous ungainly backpack of the original. He's fully articulated at the head and shoulders this time, with about 25 useful working joints in all. This time, his rear fenders are independently positionable instead of being permanently mounted to his back (and head), but the huge spoiler chunks on his shoulders still tend to interfere with them. (They're mounted on swiveling pegs so there are several options on how to arrange them, but they're still awkward and get in the way in the same way that Transmetal Cybershark/Sky-Byte's shoulder pads did.) He comes equipped with a translucent blue visor that flips down, just like the original toy.
Unfortunately, the new Hot Shot just doesn't have the play value of the original version. The old toy was designed with a number of fun gimmicks, like a missile launcher formed from his rear axle that could flip up, rotate 90 degrees, and fire a projectile (actually the aforementioned red-colored hubcap) when you plugged his Mini-Con in place. His engine block also doubled as either a shield he wore on his chest or a dual-barreled weapon that he could wear on his shoulder. The new Hot Shot has no spring-loaded features, completely lacking a Mini-Con activated gimmick—and worse yet, he has no weapons of any kind! (It seems that somebody forgot to consider Hot Shot's compatibility with other toys, which was also a staple of the Armada line. The new Hot Shot has holes in his fists, but they're too small to hold the Star Saber sword. There are also undocumented peg holes on either side of his forearms, but again, they won't work with other Armada accessories. Furthermore, the toy's pegs aren't the right shape to accommodate any other Mini-Cons except for the one that came in the package with him—I tried plugging in the original Jolt and it wouldn't fit.)

The new Jolt isn't all that dissimilar to the original version (he still looks a lot like G1 Powerglide in robot mode), although the updated Mini-Con is smaller, with tiny little rotor blades that seem surprisingly fragile. This time, the legs swing down from underneath the fuselage, with the entire front end of the helicopter ending up on Jolt's back. He lacks the articulated knees of the original version, but this time his elbows can bend, so I suppose it's a trade-off. His lower arms just snap in place, though, so they pop off too easily—he's not nearly as well-constructed as the Nightstick accessory for the new version of Cyclonus. One major design flaw of this tiny toy is that it is, quite simply, incapable of standing upright. Due to the weight of his backpack, you have to lean him way over to get him to balance. (The new Jolt lacks the "M" symbol that adored all of the Mini-Cons from the original toy line—with the exception of those who were heralds of Unicron.)

There's also the matter of the profile on the back of Hot Shot's packaging, which pays lip service to his role as commander-in-training under Optimus Prime's tutelage, but also describes him as erratic and annoying and impossible to reason with—traits which never applied to Hot Shot as he was depicted. It's almost as if the biography was written by a fanboy who simply isn't a fan of Armada—a far cry from the unbiased profiles we've gotten in nearly every other instance. More bothersome than that, though, is that his profile also mentions that he's "obsessed with something called JaAm, which most Autobots think is some obscure fuel source." For those who don't know, the infamous "JaAm" parody was put together by Matt Marshall, a satire of the badly-written trilingual adventures of Hot Shot tangling with Armada Cyclonus. As originally depicted in the pack-in mini-comics that came with the first wave of toys, Hot Shot attempts to secure a canister filled with a green glowing liquid substance. In the parody version, Hot Shot is depicted as a mental case who spouts nonsensical drivel like "WhY mY sHoULdErs hUrT?" and "I LiK JaAm!" The original parody was cute, poking fun at the original toy's awkward robot design, but does a reference to it really belong on the official Hasbro toy packaging? Hot Shot never encountered anything called "JaAm" in any of the official cartoon episodes or comic books, so why turn the character's entire biography into a joke? Even the toy itself has the word "JAAM" stamped on its license plate. This sort of thing has been popping up more and more frequently lately and I've begun to feel as though Hasbro is about ready to break down the fourth wall with a wrecking ball.

I wouldn't say this toy is a total failure in the same way that the new Dinobot and Cheetor were, but it still has some glaring problems. It's certainly better proportioned this time, and I can't argue that the toy would look great on a display shelf, but somehow it lacks the qualities that made the original Hot Shot toy appealing. The first toy may have had his problems, like a helmet permanently stuck to his backpack and arms that only moved in one direction like a Duocon, but this is simply what Hot Shot was. He was meant to be a simple, brightly-colored toy with kid appeal. Coming up with a fragile, over-engineered version, seemingly targeted towards collectors, is like coming up with a cold-cast porcelain statue of Elmo from Sesame Street. If it's meant for kids, let it be designed for kids to play with! There's also the fact that while original Transformers characters like Hound or Ratchet have been around for 25 years now, Hot Shot is only seven years old. Today's toy technology really hasn't significantly improved in that period of time; surely there were other characters much more deserving of an update. At any rate, when you compare the new version of the character to the old, you're paying more money for a smaller toy with fewer features. In short, I don't recommend Hot Shot at all.

The AllSpark Almanac - Marcelo Matere Cover

Well, it looks like the cat is out of the bag. Amazon has updated their covers and their pagecounts, so I figured I'd go ahead and post the image here: Marcelelo Matere's beautiful cover. I think it's neat how the book title and names are integrated into the drawing.

Oh, and it's confirmed, 212 pages for this one, up from 208 for The Ark books. IDW, Cartoon Network and even Titan Magazines has been incredibly supportive of this project - we've been able to get all kinds of great material to fill our pagecount. I'm really looking forward to seeing this one on shelves.

The Allspark Almanac is available for preorder from Amazon.com.  Let's send a strong message that this kind of book is desired.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ark Addendum - Ginrai's Transformation

It's that time again, another installment of The Ark Addendum. This week, I was feeling Masterforcy! And so I bring you Ginrai's Transformation sequence.

I remain perpetually impressed with how cool most of these sequences are. Even just the establishing shot of him in truck mode, barreling along, is full of action and life. And the triangular panels, though no doubt in place because there are more than 8 steps, help break up the monotony of the normal grid pattern.

That said, I've always found it odd how faithful to the toy Ginrai's model is. Even as a kid, I always just assumed that the whole false front thing to the Powermaster Prime toy was to make Prime look more like his character model, not to indicate that he actually had a false torso in his chest somewhere. I'm reminded of the Gobots cartoon, where the cars would roll over a ditch where someone was hiding and they'd look up and see a gobot face in the undercarriage. Taking liberties with the toys isn't always a bad thing.

Hope you enjoy!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Iván's Gallery: Rairyū

A new week dawns! The first week of spring. And what says Spring more than . . . the Dinoforce? Yup, time for another installment of Iván's Gallery. Continuing his examination of the Dinoforce, this week is Rairyū. Here's what the artist has to say about him:

A redeco of the Pretender Monster Birdbrain, Rairyu transforms into a quadrupedal monster-thing. He can also form the middle torso to the team's combined mode Dinoking. He comes with an armored apatosaur outer "shell" that he can fit into
Rairyu is the idiot amongst a team of idiots. When he manages to form a coherent word it is cause for celebration. Oddly, he still doesn’t attract the criticism or ridicule of his teammate Kakuryu. Still he is a vital member of the Dinoforce if only because his absence would leave Dinoking with a weaker stomach than normal.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

End of an Era - Spoiler Free BSG

Well, that's it for Battlestar Galactica. It's been quite a ride. When I was first advised to check it out ('awesome mini-series, Jim, you gotta give it a try'), I was skeptical. So skeptical that I basically skipped it. It wasn't till after I heard a bunch of cool things about season 1 that I broke down, bought the DVDs and gave it a shot. Well, I'm glad I did. BSG offered terrific space opera, compelling characters and a surprising amount of fealty to some of the better ideas and concepts of the classic show.

The series finale was, well . . . hard to get into without too many specifics. A lot of the mysteries were answered. A lot more were touched upon, or merely left unresolved. At least one plot point that started just a few episodes ago was quietly forgotten. Overall, it wasn't a very cerebrally driven ending to the show. One character even acted quite out of character in order to serve the needs of the plot.

That said, the reason the head wasn't driving the show was because the heart was. Ultimately the emotional resonance was amazing. I didn't cry, but I did get a little misty-eyed at parts. Its message of cyclic conflict rings true to me. Oh, not the robot/human bit specifically, but it sure does seem like the same wars get fought again and again and again. All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again. And the very last minute or two went in an unexpected but quite clever direction. Perhaps worth a bit of hand waving.

Overall, (and please keep in mind that I've not yet fully digested the episode, let alone the series) this is a show about emotions. Vast, sweeping emotions, larger than the characters themselves. The plot was interesting, but ultimately secondary. Contrast it to some of my other favorite space-opera: Babylon 5 is all about plot; Farscape, character; Star Trek (TOS), friendship; Star Wars, adventure; Macross, love. These are all great topics, worthy of exploration. I'm glad I watched BSG, and look forward to watching it again, from the beginning, to see what I can pick up.

So say we all!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Review: Marvel UK #42: "Crisis of Command (Part 1)"

“Crisis Of Command!” followed directly on from “Christmas Breaker!” in the UK run and was a three part story running in issues #42, #43 and #44. Unusually the creative team was not consistent over the three issues. Mike Collins scripted Parts 1 and 3, while James Hill scripted part 2. Geoff Senior pencilled Parts 1 and 2, while John Stokes handled part 3. Part 1 was coloured by Steve Whitaker, while Parts 2 and 3 were coloured by Gina Hart. Mercifully, Mike Scott lettered all three issues and Ian Rimmer edited them.

Part 1

The cover for Part 1 was by Will Simpson and its something of a mixed bag. A very nicely rendered Ravage is front and centre, leaping straight at the viewer, with a cloud of energy and fire behind him - not very stealthy, but an effective attention grabber. The various Autobots stand around him, weapons drawn, in differing states of shock and are somewhat less successful. None of them are exactly on model. Prime is too burly with tiny arms, Prowl’s face is totally wrong, and Hound, lurking at the back, looks suspiciously like Megatron. The scene is coloured well, however, and Ravage is a sufficiently well-drawn highlight. The lettering reads “Ravage’s Resolution: Anarchy in The Ark!”- Resolution, because its the January issue, and its New Years, get it? It’s fairly lame, and the actual titular crisis in the Autobot command structure doesn’t come from Ravage in any case.

The issue opens with the Autobots arguing. Prowl wants Optimus Prime to “release the Creation Matrix” in order to “wipe out” the Decepticons. Jazz is opposed to such drastic tactics and Ratchet appeals to Prime for guidance as the leader sits in his throne-like chair, looking very grave indeed. Prime objects to the use of the Creation Matrix although Prowl’s plan appears to be tactically sound. He wants to use the Matrix to build a new breed of “Ultimate Autobots” who could destroy the Decepticons in a matter of days so Prime would “have [his] peace.” Jazz is disgusted by the idea of creating a race of warriors, and doesn’t think they have the fuel to power them, in any case. As the Autobots talk, we see a panel of Ravage sneaking through one of The Ark’s many corridors.

Optimus Prime does not approve of Prowl’s plan, calling it a perversion of the Creation Matrix and wondering, quite reasonably, what sort of collateral damage would happen to the Earth were such a titanic battle to take place. He makes it clear that the discussion is over, but as the Autobots file out of the room, Sideswipe says that Prowl’s plan makes sense, and Hound agrees that Prime is being too pessimistic about the outcome, wondering, most tellingly, if he is fully himself after all he has recently been through. Ravage looks on, unseen, and muses about how interesting this all is.

The next page is all introspection from Prime. He is beginning to feel the weight of his responsibilities as leader and he recalls the various indignities heaped upon him and the Autobots recently - defeat from Shockwave, his head being taken and mind plundered, and finally his body being used to attack his own people. He wonders if he really is fit to command, and how much the other Autobots wonder this too. Ravage observes this - Prime’s words are in thought bubbles, so he presumably does not know the full context, but the Autobot leader’s dejectedness is easy to read from his slumped and defeated posture. Suddenly he crosses from shadow to light and alarms blare throughout the ship!

The Autobots immediately scramble to subdue the intruder but Ravage puts up an impressive display of force, managing to get past a great many Autobots before finally being cornered by Hound, out in the open desert, after Mirage distracts him with the old hologram trick. Ravage is bundled into an energy net (or maybe just a big net) and hauled away, while the Autobots tell Prime that they might disagree over methods, but they still want to stop the Decepticons. Prowl is concerned that Ravage knows that they are considering using the Creation Matrix, but Prime says its not for discussion in the open. Unfortunately, Laserbeak is lurking nearby and hears everything.

Meanwhile, the leaderless Decepticons are also arguing about their plans. Starscream says that Ravage should never have been sent in alone. Soundwave says that Megatron would have done the same thing, but Starscream has no time for Megatron, who is still missing. He suggests that with him in command, they could simply attack the Autobots, defeat them, and claim the Creation Matrix for themselves. Soundwave rages in reply that Starscream has no sense of strategy and is merely, in a nice turn of phrase, “a missile with a mouth.” He stresses the importance of knowing what the Autobots are planning and if they intend to use the Creation Matrix, pointing out that “there’s not a prison here or on Cybertron that can hold Ravage.” as the Decepticon in question uses his magnetic field powers to escape through the energy bars and slink off...

It is a pretty good first part. Collins has a decent handle on the characters, despite not having written them before. He has drawn a good many of the earlier stories though, which obviously helped. The plot is quite original and comes down to ideologies. Prime has always contained within him the potential to create robotic weapons of mass destruction that could, in theory, end the Autobots’ millennia-old struggle very rapidly. However, he believes strongly against using it. The collateral damage argument is fair enough, but does not provide the full picture, because presumably he could also have employed such a tactic on Cybertron, rather than Earth, and never did. Jazz is as disgusted by the idea as Prime is, and it would appear that the real issue here is the proper use of the Matrix. After all, Prime fights for peace; he openly states that he is not a warrior by choice, and it would appear that the idea of using the Matrix to create a race of dedicated warriors would be a step too far down that path for him. What isn’t explored, but struck me as part of the “against” argument is the fate of the “Ultimate Autobots”. What role could they possibly have in the peace that their creation would usher in and, in any case, surely there should be a serious moral objection to creating a race of beings simply to fight your battles for you. The Decepticons do it without a second thought, but the Autobots have to be better than that - they are volunteers, and they all had a choice. The Ultimate Autobots would not. It is interesting to compare this dilemma to the original Sunbow cartoon, where no-one had any objections to this sort of thing at all, and it happened as soon as some more toys came out. However, by contrast, the more recent episodes of “Transformers Animated” seem to suggest that the creation of the Omega Guardians was exactly the sort of thing that Prowl was advocating - and did result in peace in that universe, but at a considerable moral cost, characterised by the deeply caring Ratchet's impotent outrage at the idea.

The actual events of the issue are not as interesting as the moral dilemma at its core. We’ve seen Ravage infiltrate the Ark before and the battle is confused and brief, not managing to be exciting. There are moments of great characterisation though. Prowl says “and you will have your peace.” not including himself in the outcome. This demonstrates that, of all the Autobots, he considers himself to be a soldier first and foremost. He is concerned with winning the war, of course, but it would appear that is more because that is what he does, rather than the loftier goals of Optimus Prime and the more idealistic Autobots.

Prime begins to display his considerable capacity for self-doubt that Simon Furman would later frequently use to great effect and it is nice to see him in something other than the wise leader role. He has been through the wringer in recent stories and it is a very good use of the UK book as a supplement to the US one to explore the effects on his psyche a little further.

The Decepticons do not get left out. Starscream is, as always, about as subtle as a brick to the face, and Soundwave does not appear to take him seriously at all. Interestingly, Soundwave has not taken command, even though he is perfectly able to put Starscream in his place. He continues to carry out what he believes Megatron’s orders would have been and refers to Megatron and Shockwave as leadership material but not himself. Soundwave, probably unique among the Decepticons, has no personal ambition beyond doing his job and serving the cause, making him just the character to be utterly contemptuous of Starscream.

The script itself is a little unsubtle, recalling but not equalling Simon Furman’s uniquely self-aware style, but there is nothing genuinely bad about it, it just does the job, without sparkling, except maybe in Soundwave’s scene with Starscream.

Geoff Senior’s first work on Transformers is competent and fits in well with the style of the preceding issues but doesn’t blow me away as his later work would. He seems mostly concerned with making it look like the artists before him, which makes sense, but as his Transformers work progressed, Senior’s work becomes a lot more distinctive and dynamic, especially in action scenes. That said, there’s nothing wrong with the art here, and the design of the Ultimate Autobots is particularly well realised. I am also partial to the single, wordless, panel of Ravage's shadow intercut with the Autobots talking, indicating his sinister presence. The fight is confusing, but fairly perfunctory, and everyone is basically on model. These earlier issues, with Gina Hart’s colouring (and her style of colouring, even if it isn’t her) do differ in look considerably from the ones that Senior made his mark on, which is probably another reason why his debut doesn’t excite me as much as I thought it would.

A good issue, certainly much better than the likes of “Christmas Breaker!” or the annual stories and with an interesting moral quandary at its heart. Highly recommended so far. Reviews of Parts 2 and 3 will follow as soon as I can. Next Friday, if not before.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Review: Marvel G1 #16 - Plight of the Bumblebee!

Plight of the Bumblebee! is the sixteenth issue of the Marvel US G1 Transformers run. It is the first comic not written by Bob Budiansky since he started his run, with Len Kaminski taking the reins. Graham Nolan and Tom Morgan provided pencils and inks, respectively. As always, Nel Yomtov colored the artwork, and newcomer Bill Oakley did the lettering. If you're thinking that this is pretty much a completely new creative staff (Yomtov aside), you're right. As a consequence, this will feel like a bit of a filler issue. Providing a bit of continuity, Herb Trimpe provided the cover.

And it's a very strong cover at that. Bumblebee is pelted by weapon's fire from five Decepticons, with bullets ripping through his body. Some humans cower behind him, though his body doesn't provide much protection. Bumblebee emerged as an early star of the Marvel Transformers comic, featuring heavily in issues 1, 11 and 14, so to see him menaced like this is fairly powerful. "Bumblebee's Last Stand!", we're promised, and while that's a bit of poetic license, it certainly serves to entice. Note that a very similar cover will be revisited in the near future for G.I. Joe #1.

The book itself doesn't quite live up to the promise of the cover. It's hard for me to put my finger on why. I think it's the disconnect in the writing style. The opening splash page is quite nice - a wireframe outline of Bumblebee, clearly using the toy as reference, with a computerized datafile full of information about him. That said, it adds to the disconnected feeling, having such a different artistic style, even if only for one page. Oakley's lettering is very nice, looking suitably computerish. I wouldn't be surprised if he used a typewriter or a word processor for those parts of the text.

We then cut to Shockwave and cons, which oddly include Laserbeak and Buzzsaw, who just last issue were a part of Megatron's crew. Another oddity is that there are only two seekers present, Starscream and either Thundercracker or Skywarp. With Yomtov's coloring, I can't tell them apart. Further obfuscating things, the missing seeker's line in the issue is "Ah, fresh data! How exhilarating!" That doesn't sound like anything that anyone other than Shockwave or Prowl would utter, and further adds to the disconnected feeling. Shockwave's plan is to use an Electro-Calcinator module to take controle of Bumblebee's body. From there, THE FINAL OBLITERATION OF THE AUTOBOTS! (I love his panel, though I think Oakley could have gone a bit bigger on that last phrase). And so the Decepticons prepare to wait for the right moment.

The won't have to wait long. In the Autobot headquarters, the good guys are watching the news, which talks about a robot battle yesterday, with an editorial note telling us to see last issue for details. It's a rather transparent attempt at continuity, which doesn't quite track given the events of I, Robot-Master!. Oddly, Jetfire is one of the Autobots performing repairs - I'm sure it's a result of an old script getting used as filler, but one would expect Hoist to be doing the repairs. Prime asks after Bumblebee, noting that the diminutive Autobot hasn't been around recently, and that it wouldn't bode well for the Autobot cause if one of their best operatives were to fall. Bumblebee is outside, looking in, and can't hear what they're saying. It's fairly clumsy, since we the audience hear the Bots through the glass even as bumblebee cannot. Still, on a symbolic level, it works, showing Bumblebee's perceived isolation from his teammates. The poor little guy, not knowing how valued he is, drives away to spend some time on his own.

Outside of town, Bumblebee sits in sorrow and envies the humans. They're so weak that they all need each other. This is an interesting perspective, probably worth exploring. After all, a Transformer can live on his own for millions of years. In a sense, they really don't need each other. Wonderfully expressive artwork by Nolan and Morgan, by the way. Alas, comics can't abide introspection for long, and Shockwave soon launches his attack. The vertical panels used to show the jets flying up are clever, a good choice. Soon Bumblebee is injured and running (well, rolling) for his life. In his injured state, he realizes that he can't outrun his pursuers, and so decides to hide in plain sight by powering down on a car lot. It works out, probably because Shockwave needs Bumblebee intact and can't just blow all the cars away. Still, the ever-logical Shockwave is nothing if not patient, and so opts to wait.

Once again, it won't take long. Later, that night (and, by the way, great inking and coloring by Morgan and Yomtov here, the same pencils look completely different at night), a couple of hoods break into the lot and decide to steal . . . a Volkswagen? At least Kaminski acknowledges how odd this is, by having the characters comment on it. (Their logic - no one will miss a Volkswagen - is pretty shaky.) Soon they're riding high, having manually overrided Bumblebee's primary motor functions. He's still injured, unable to talk and warn them that their actions might prompt a Decepticon response. That response takes a bit of time to come, though. First they joyride around town, riding on sidewalks and getting into races. Bumblebee, oddly, is glad to be useful to them and helps them with some extraterrestrial speed . . . until his motor conks out, anyway. One of the delinquents manages to do some repairs and reconnects his primary power supply, just in time for the Decepticons to attack!

Once again, Bumblebee is pursued by five flying weapons, though this time he has passengers on board to keep safe. Add to the mix the air force, pursuing the Cons, and the police, chasing after the speeding car, and you've got a recipe for wackiness. If I seem underwhelmed, it's because I am. We've moved away from introspection and into a silly chase. Cornered, Bumblebee Transforms and gets ready to make his stand . . . only to have his cyber-bacon saved by the late arrival of Jetfire. His savior gets shot down, and Bumblebee is forced to choose between saving his 'new friends' and helping Jetfire - he opts to pull the humans to safety. However, he's spared any consequences from this choice, as the arrival of a fleet of jets, police and Autobots prompts Shockwave to withdraw. Bumblebee, reassured that his colleagues value him, decides that he belongs with them and not with humans.

Yawn. There was a bit too much farce in this issue, that could have been a decent chapter in the Transformers saga otherwise. Bumblebee's angst seems to come from nowhere - in the past he's always been cheerful and almost cocky. His willingness to put some humans in danger to help other humans who just happen to be riding around inside of him seems odd. Even as a kid, this one seemed out of place to me. Off characterization combined with a throw-away plot yield a fairly forgettable chapter of the Transformers saga. There is some nice artwork here, and some potentially interesting concepts raised, but ultimately neither amount to much.

Plight of the Bumblebee! is the last story in the IDW anthology: Classic Transformers, Vol. 1, overall a strong volume that I'd recommend buying.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Zob's Thoughts on Transformers Universe Autobot Ratchet

These days there are certain redecos in the Transformers line that are pretty much inevitable. Whenever Hasbro designs a new Starscream toy, eventually it's produced in alternate colors so they can sell it as Thundercracker and Skywarp. They come out with a new version of Bumblebee, and all they have to do is color it red and they can resell it as Cliffjumper. The same tends to go for Ironhide and Ratchet—while the characters from the 2007 movie had separate and distinct designs, this is an anomaly. When the Transformers Universe version of Ironhide was released, it was only a matter of time before it was tarted up in new colors and sold as Ratchet—which not only helps Hasbro to recoup their production and tooling costs, but helps to complete the pair and creates a much-needed update for a popular character. (Not surprisingly, Ratchet has replaced Ironhide in the case assortment—so if you've still been waiting for a corrected version of Ironhide with silver paint on his face instead of the inexplicable blue that was used originally, you may be too late!)

What's interesting about the latest version of this character is that it appears to be a new incarnation of Marvel Comics Ratchet, at least if you go by the biography on the back of his packaging. There's the gratuitous reference to his love of partying, a holdover from his original tech specs which has never actually represented Ratchet in either the original comics or the cartoon—but there are also references to a "series of tragic encounters with Megatron" and being "distracted by his bad memories." If this is an updated version of the G1 character, then there's no way this is meant to describe the Ratchet from the original cartoon series. It was only in the pages of Marvel Comics that Ratchet was pitted against Megatron repeatedly (they were directly at odds in issue #8, issue #57, and #70), and his bad memories manifested themselves as nightmares in issue #56 (though this could also be, I will begrudgingly admit, a sideways reference to the completely unrelated character from Transformers: Animated who is also named Ratchet).

Ratchet is, of course, identical in design to Ironhide, the only differences being his color scheme (and different paint deco) and the addition of some ambulance roof lights and an alternate head sculpt. Ratchet is white everywhere that Ironhide was red (with the exception of some thermoset plastic parts that serve as connecting joints and remained the same color), and red everywhere that Ironhide was grey. The black parts remain the same. Ironhide was designed with a modular panel in mind that could be easily swapped out, ensuring Ratchet's roof lights could be added without making wholesale changes to the mold, though the V-shaped design (a bit like his forehead crest, actually) wasn't exactly what I'd been picturing. Ratchet's head design is an entirely new one, though it does share elements with Ironhide like the rounded audio receptors, a similar facial shape (Ratchet does have a more prominent chin guard) and the vestiges of a mohawk-like head crest, though Ratchet's isn't as pronounced as Ironhide's. The boomerang-shaped forehead crest that helped to complete Ratchet's distinct look in the original media is here, though due to design limitations it's somewhat small and understated here (it's got to be durable enough not to break off, and small enough to fit inside the opening in his upper torso when he transforms).

Ratchet brings to the table everything that Ironhide did—his ambulance form (which vaguely resembles the "Rescue Ratchet" version of the movie character) is a patchwork of puzzle piece-shaped panels, with unconvincing painted windows and divisions running through them at odd angles that all but ruin the lines of his vehicle mode, making it look as if he spends far more time running red lights than trying to initiate conversations with them. His transformation is nearly at an Alternators level of complexity, with numerous hinged panels and counter-intuitive steps, finally yielding a robot form that's adequate, but with surprisingly minimalist articulation (his elbows and knees bend less than 90 degrees, and his head cannot swivel all the way around). The dynamic way in which his ankles can bend makes up for this somewhat (he can still stand flat-footed even with his legs spread wide apart) but I would have been happier if the movement of his other joints had been given a wider range. Like Ironhide, it seems Ratchet is unable to complete his transformation fully to robot mode—a factory-issue toy cannot fully extend his head for robot mode, due to the way his internal assembly fits together. Leaving his rear wheels visible in robot mode rather than swinging the panels around into his backpack does help slightly, but the only way to allow the toy to raise his head completely is to actually whittle away at the plastic connector in his midsection so that the parts fit together more snugly. (My Ratchet seems to hold together poorly compared to Ironhide, popping apart at the waist every time I try to transform him.)

In addition to the alternate paint deco in vehicle mode, Ratchet also gets new paint operations on his shoulders that seems to be meant to evoke the plus-shaped crosses on the original character's animation design. Unfortuantely, the sculpt doesn't seem to accommodate it very well due to the raised details on his shoulders. The six large, plainly-visible screws on the front of his arms are still quite bothersome, too. Hasbro has been utilizing a clever technique with their Littlest Pet Shop toys wherein they assemble the toys with screws but then insert a plastic plug to close up the unsightly gap and help preserve the look of the toy. Surely they could start doing something similar with Transformers, because the visible screws totally ruin the fantasy of these being gigantic robots from outer space and remind the consumer all too well that these are tiny six-inch toys.

Speaking of which, the cute little paint operations on these toys have got to stop. Some of the recent Transformers Universe toys have either served as vehicles for stating the obvious (Galvatron and Silverbolt with the numeral "25" stamped on them; oh, it isn't the original toy line's 25th anniversary this year, is it?) or reveling in the obscure (the tampograph on Onslaught that reads "MONZO 12782" is Hasbro's way of acknowledging a helpful fan by stamping his online handle and birth date on the toy) or have been decorated with vanity license plates with cute little messages (Sunstreaker's license plate reads "WE R 84," a thinly-veiled reference to the year Transformers made its debut; Ratchet's license plate says "H3L PU2," because as we all know, Autobots communicate in l33t speak). Am I the only one who doesn't want my toy collection slathered with inside jokes and self-referential graffiti? It's almost as if Transformers is turning into a parody of itself. (And don't even get me started on the new Hot Shot and the references in his toy biography to his obsession with JaAm. We no longer need the fandom to make a mockery of Transformers—Hasbro's officially doing it for us now!)

Quality control issues continue to plague the Transformers Universe toy line. Where Ratchet was designed to have relatively thin front wheels (necessary due to the design of his legs) and thicker rear wheels, the first toy I bought was misassembled with three skinny rear wheels and a single fat front wheel. This is the fourth toy from this series that I bought with problems right out of the packaging (the others being Silverstreak and two separate versions of Starscream)—and while I'm the first to admit that I'm statistically more likely than your average consumer to encounter a defective toy simply by merit of the fact that I buy so many of the darned things, four times in the course of a few months really is a bit excessive—particularly when Transformers Universe is the only Transformers toy line I've been regularly collecting. (For the past three years, I've also been faithfully buying Mattel's die-cast Cars from the Disney/Pixar film of the same name; guess how many of those I've had to return since 2006? Zero.)

All in all, I'm of two minds when it comes to Ratchet. The defective assembly soured my experience with this toy somewhat, and I really could have done without the silly joke on the license plate—but the allusions to the compelling comic book version of Ratchet were nice (the Marvel iteration of the character is far more interesting to me than the comparatively mild cartoon version), and despite this toy's inherent design flaws it's still a very good update for the character—particularly since the only other Ratchet toy I have on my display shelf is a gimpy little Diaclone-era toy with no head! With this in mind, the new Ratchet is by far superior to the G1 edition, despite all his many shortcomings, and that alone is reason enough to buy this toy.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ark Addendum - City of Steel

Another Tuesday, another edition of The Ark Addendum. This week I bring you: City of Steel! This always struck me as one of the sillier episodes of the original series, wherein Megatron attempts to turn New York into New Cybertron. That said, the whole King King thing at the end was pretty cool.

To me, the real stand-out part of the episode, design wise, was the Prime Gator. Unfortunately, I haven't come across that model. The backgrounds and the Energo-Scalpel are still pretty neat, though.

Hope you enjoy!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Iván's Gallery: Yokuryū

Well, it's Monday, so it's time for another edition of Iván's Gallery. This week, Iván brings us Yokuryū from the Dinoforce. Here's what he has to say about him:

A redeco of the Pretender Monster Wildfly, Yokuryu 's alternate mode's supposed to be a tengu (a "divine dog" from japanese tradition). He can also form Dinoking's arm. His pretender shell is a pterodactyl.

Yokuryu specializes in reconnaissance missions. He is able to glide swiftly into an area undetected and obtain top-secret information from a bird’s-eye view. His ability to fly swiftly without giving off a heavy energy signal makes him a valuable spy. Yokuryu is a cunning warrior as well as a talented spy. He is possibly the most intelligent member of the Dinoforce.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Transformers: Headmasters – "Terror of the Six Shadows!"

Cyclonus: I have an idea, Galvatron.
Galvatron: What are you waiting for? Tell me!
Cyclonus: We'll let him take Earth's energy,then we'll snatch it from him.
Galvatron: That sounds good.
Scourge: Let me handle it, Lord Galvatron. I'll do it!
Cyclonus: That's unfair. It's my idea.
Scourge: Wait!
Galvatron: Your talk bores me. Do it together if you're so keen.

Here we have an episode intending to highlight Sixshot and the Trainbots and yet is motivated by a plot that catches all characters, Autobots and Decepticons, in a moment of absolute witlessness.

The story opens in space, above Earth, with a shadowy ship approaching, then jumps to Japan, where the Trainbots are taking Daniel and Wheelie on a sight-seeing tour. Oddly, the narration informs us that Japan is the birthplace of the Trainbots and we're not provided any more elaboration on that point. One is left to wonder, is it simply their train bodies that were built in Japan while their sparks are originally from Cybertron, like the Combaticons? Are they perhaps not Transformers born and bred, but instead products of human engineering, meant to assist the Autobots? Since much of this episode occurs in Japan and the actual Trainbots never appeared in the US series or the toys on US shelves, I happen to think it was a shrewd inclusion by the writers to claim ownership of these specific characters, without much thought for how logical it might or might not be in the Transformers universe.

While in Japan, they witness a broadcast by a mysterious figure in shadows who threatens the country if not given all its energy. We soon learn that six countries in total have received this threat, but a different shadowy figure appeared to each of them. The Autobot Headmasters travel to Earth to help and Rodimus decides to investigate each country that is being blackmailed for its energy (Japan, USA, USSR, Canada, France and Britain). Meanwhile on Charr, Cyclonus and Scourge become angered that some mysterious third party is trying to wring energy from Earth and demand that Galvatron intervene. He refuses, so Cyclonus and Scourge decide they will let this shadowy menace take Earth's energy and then in turn steal it from him. Galvatron flippantly says that they can do what they want. Cyclonus and Scourge next ask for help from the Decepticon Headmasters, but are rebuffed and thus travel to Earth on their own.

There are attacks by the mysterious blackmailer in London and New York, causing extensive damage. Metroplex, Chromedome and his team attempt to confront this stranger but are too late each time. Later, the Trainbots return to Autobot HQ along with Daniel where an angry Chromedome insinuates that the Trainbots are not doing their part to protect Earth. There is an argument and stand-off, which Daniel unsuccessfully tries to halt. Instead he is told to be quiet and runs off. Chromedome and the Headmasters soon apologize and during this conversation, Daniel shows them a toy ninja throwing star, which he purchased while in Japan.

Daniel's explanation of ninjas and their tactics of subterfuge force Chromedome to recall a time on Planet Master, before they had built their giant transtector bodies, when they were under assault from a being who could split into six shapes and had similar abilities to the ninjas, as described by Daniel. This "ninja" killed Abel, a friend of Chomedome's, during that assault long ago, Chromedome deduces that whoever is blackmailing those six countries for their energy is the same person and probably the same "ninja" he encountered on Planet Master.

Soon an attack on Japan occurs and the Trainbots beg Rodimus to let them defend their homeland, despite Chromedome's protestations. Rodimus allows this. Galvatron orders Cyclonus and Scourge to take Typticon to Japan and keep the Trainbots out of the way. A battle ensues between these three forces, during which the shadowy threat, no longer in the shadows, simply appeares as Sixshot. Raiden, the combiner form of the Trainbots, is in over his head and so the Headmasters arrive for an assist, disabling Trypticon, routing Cyclonus and Scourge and eventually they Sixshot as well. When Sixshot splits into six forms, Raiden lets them all attack him directly so that the Headmasters have a clear shot to fire and hopefully hit the real Sixshot. They are successful and back on Charr, Cyclonus and Scourge are disciplined by Galvatron for ruining whatever secret plan he and Sixshot had concocted.

As I noted in earlier, I find that this is a weak episode in most every aspect. A sharp-eyed viewer would have immediately recognized each of the six shapes as those belonging to the alt forms of Sixshot, but no one in this episode makes that connection. Up until now in this series, Sixshot has remained on Earth and really only engaged the Autobots in the opening three-parter, where he did introduce himself and his alt forms to Ultra Magnus and his team during the battle so it's a little difficult to accept that even Magnus does not make the connection visually. He stands right next to Rodimus as they watch on the moniters Japan getting attacked by Sixshot, clearly visible, and yet no one identifies until much later, when Chromedome is pretty much in his face. A story such as this should have occurred earlier and perhaps been the actual introduction to Sixshot, as opposed to him being introduced in the series opener.

The most memorable parts of the episode is the confrontation between the Trainbots and the Headmasters, which advances Chromedome's character further, showing him to be arrogant and overconfident, seemingly thinking that no one can do the job better than he of protecting innocents and defeating the enemy. Obviously, he gets the job done, but he certainly ticks off those around him in the process! And then there is the mystery of the Trainbots I alluded to earlier, but unless this was explained in a manga at some point, we're left in the dark as to how Japan and not Cybertron is their place of origin.

Next up is the first of a two-part episode which changes everything in the Takara Transformers universe!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

New Animated: TransWarped!

Animated premiered today with an AWESOME three-part episode. Picking up minutes after A Bridge Too Close, it answered a number of questions that the last episode brought up AND gave Megatron an evil new plan. I'm not going to go into an in-depth review just yet, but I wanted to share my excitement. Animated has been a terrific ride so far and shows no signs of slowing.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Review: Marvel UK #41: "Christmas Breaker!"

After a two-week absence for which I do not have a good excuse, its finally time to review the first seasonal offering from the British Transformers comic: “Christmas Breaker!”

The script was by - lets play this game again - guess who the script was by... ha, you’re wrong, it wasn’t Simon Furman, it was James Hill, who would go on to write a couple of small but significant Transformers stories, most notably the text story “State Games” in the 1987 annual. “Christmas Breaker!” was pencilled by Will Simpson, lettered by Richard Starkings, coloured by Gina Hart and edited by Ian Rimmer. The cover was by Mike Collins.

And a fun cover it is too. Its a big portrait of Optimus Prime, except he is wearing a red fur-lined cloak and is in the process of removing a big (really, really big, I suppose) fake beard and whiskers. “Merry Christmas everyone!” he exclaims jovially, and although I’m not usually a big fan of text on covers I forgive this one for its appropriateness and message of good cheer. It’s a good image of Prime. His faceplate is now resolutely silver and the metal of his head and face is buffed to a well-realised sheen. A simple cover, then, but effective for the season.

The story opens with a splash page of the Portland Chronicle newspaper being read by a woman with circuitry covering her hands. We only see her hands, and hear her exclamation: “Damn robots!” but it cannot be anyone but Circuit Breaker (the title is also a clue). The newspaper is reporting the stories of the workers from Blackrock’s aerospace plant that was freed from The Decepticons in “Prime Time!”, a US story that ran in the UK just before this issue. Circuit Breaker fumes about the story in a nicely done page that provides the mandatory background exposition, but shows it to us through the lens of her hatred of the Transformers and thus gives us an interestingly designed version of Soundwave with a hideous serrated mouth and hands made of grasping drill-bits. We are then treated to yet more exposition, retelling Circuit Breaker’s origin, which is less inventive in its arbitrariness, but equally necessary. “Do you hear me robots?!” Circuit Breaker rages at no-one in particular, “I was crippled by your senseless war... for that I’m going to KILL YOU ALL!”

Meanwhile, in The Ark, the Autobots, supervised by Buster, have built an enormous metal Christmas tree. Optimus Prime is in his Santa getup from the cover and it is a scene of good seasonal cheer, except for Prowl, who does not understand why they are spending their time in this way when they are at war. Bluestreak points out that they are indebted to Buster and therefore owe him some indulgences, and Prowl is forced to agree. Jazz asks Buster what the tree does and the human tells him that it doesn’t do anything but its a symbol of charity. Jazz says, in a rather specious piece of reasoning, that he’ll never understand humans, because they talk of charity yet Circuit Breaker is only interested in destruction. Obviously this is to keep Circuit Breaker tied to the Autobot part of the plot, and it was a good idea to use Jazz, because he was previously injured by her, but the idea of Jazz judging all humans by the example of one seems highly unlikely and contradictory to his nature. It isn’t, after all, as though all Transformers have the same goal and personality, even all Autobots or all Decepticons. So either Jazz is stupid, a racist, or he was more shaken up by Circuit Breaker’s attack than we knew. Jazz then tells Buster (and us), in the third page of exposition, about his battle with Circuit Breaker. As he finishes relating the story of his near-death experience, he is cut-off, unintentionally hilariously, by Buster, who remembers he promised to deliver Christmas presents. Jazz does not seem worried by Buster’s complete disregard for his emotional pain and offers to drive him. Buster tells him they have to go to a small town, just outside of Portland, called St Petersburg.

We are shown that St Petersburg is where Circuit Breaker is! She silently watches children play in the snow around a frozen lake until the ice cracks and a little girl falls in! Immediately she sheds her disguising coat and flies to her aid. She blasts the ice and hauls the child out of the water but her heart has stopped! Utilising a sound effect very familiar to fans of Battlestar Galactica, she restarts the girls heart with a bolt of electricity. The girl is soaking wet and lying on a frozen pond, but I guess we’ll gloss over that.

Despite her heroic rescue of the child, the other people around the pond don’t seem to realise that Circuit Breaker is no threat. They pelt her with debris and call her “freak” and “monster” in a scene that manages to make you feel for the plight of Josie Beller. Taunted from all sides by her own kind she hallucinates a sort of cross-between Shockwave and Soundwave lurking in the trees and blows it away before taking to the air.
Meanwhile, Jazz is driving along with Buster but doesn’t realise that the road has become treacherous until its too late. He wipes out spectacularly and transforms as Buster is flung clear. Circuit Breaker sees Jazz kneeling over the unconscious Buster and leaps to predictable conclusions, swooping in to attack. She kicks Jazz around for a bit, while he professes not to want to hurt her, but luckily Buster wakes in the nick of time and manages to stall Circuit Breaker by telling her the truth she doesn’t want to accept - that not all robots are destructive. Ultimately, it strikes midnight, Christmas Day begins, and Circuit Breaker is persuaded to stay her hand. She grants Jazz a second reprieve, but warns that there will not be a third, which rather undermines her wishing Buster a merry Christmas. Jazz thanks Buster for saving him, but Buster tells him that he was actually saved by Christmas, which Jazz concludes must be pretty special.

I quite enjoyed “Christmas Breaker!” That is not to say that its very good, it isn’t, but there are good things in it. I am quite the fan of Circuit Breaker and I enjoyed the fleshing out (oh-ho!) of her character in this issue. It doesn’t really tell us anything new. She hates robots, for a pretty understandable reason, and that hatred is driving her a little insane. Despite often being on the wrong side she is fundamentally a very sympathetic character and it is actually quite painful to see her own kind turn on her for being different, even after saving a child’s life. Yes, its a rather clumsy and obvious parallel to her own treatment of the Autobots, and no, she doesn’t appear to get the message, but its still quite an affecting sequence.

The rest of the issue is less successful. I like the idea of the Autobots trying to understand Christmas, it seems perfectly in character for them to do so, and Prowl’s humbug attitude is also very fitting (On a trivial note, Transformers wearing clothes are always funny: http://tfwiki.net/wiki/Transformer_clothing). Jazz vs. Circuit Breaker, round two, is not an especially exciting battle and can only win one way. We know that Jazz isn’t going to be wrecked in the Christmas story, and Circuit Breaker is certainly not going to ever be killed, or even harmed, by an Autobot, so the conclusion is inevitable. That and the co-incidence that Circuit Breaker happens to be passing when Jazz has a rare crash strains credibility almost to breaking point. The Christmas message is mandatory but still comes across as heavy-handed. If you can think of a story where Christmas saving the day doesn’t come across as heavy-handed then you’re a better man than me, so I can’t really lambast the triteness of this ending as much as it deserves. Three of twelve pages being devoted to exposition of previous issues is far too many, however.

Simpson’s art is pretty good. He is particularly comfortable drawing humans, and luckily this issue has plenty of them. His Circuit Breaker is, dare I say it, much more natural looking and attractive than she ever appeared in the US comic, although Gina Hart has inexplicably recoloured her hair as red. Simpson has also redesigned her costume to be even more brief than it was previously (go check, I’ll wait) - it doesn‘t even completely cover the soles of her feet, which seems excessive. One cannot help but feel for her in this snow-bound issue, although it would appear that her suit keeps her warm . His Transformers are not quite so impressive, but they get the job done. Jazz is clearly based on the animation model and his crash is quite well done, although the rain streaking down is a little heavy-handed and obscures more than it adds atmosphere. I think my favourite image is actually the nightmarish Soundwave from Circuit Breaker’s flashback. Hart’s colouring continues to be good, and, in truth, I’m running out of things to say about it. She doesn’t usually make mistakes (Circuit Breaker could easily have dyed her hair) and everything has a painted texture to it, which really sets the UK book apart, to my mind.

“Christmas Breaker!” is not a good story, and by no means an essential one, but its only twelve pages long and does provide a little extra insight into Josie Beller’s character which is no bad thing. Plus, its a Christmas story in a comic designed for children (Circuit Breaker’s costume apparently aside...) - so it feels like missing the point to criticise it too harshly.

"Christmas Breaker!" was reprinted in Collected Comics #11, also referred to as the 1988 Winter Special.