Sunday, February 28, 2010

Transformers: Headmasters – "Explosion on Mars! Maximus Is In Danger!"

Weirdwolf: Destroy Mars?
Mindwipe: Interesting...
Zarak: We have stored the plasma energy generated in the destruction of Cybertron. We'll use this energy to destroy it. Soundblaster, explain the details.
Soundblaster: Yes, sir. Firstly, we set the necessary amount of plasma bombs below the surface. Then we drop bombs to explode simultaneously at its north and south poles. This triggers off the plasma bombs which have been set in advance. All this super-energy generated by Mars' destruction will be ours.

An episode whose title includes TWO exclamations points has got to be a winner, right? Well, it does open with a big bang as we watch what appears to be Mars erupting in fierce explosions, but it turns out to be a simulation presented to the combined Decepticon forces, for their education on Zarak's latest and greatest plan. The recent "happy accident" of Cybertron's destruction created enough free plasma energy to be collected and used by Zarak in bombs to destroy the planet Mars. This new cataclysm will produce another huge outpouring of plasma energy into the solar system for the Decepticons to utilize. In addition, Zarak promises his troops that he will deal with the threat of Fortress' new massive transform. His own super-sized transtector is waiting in the shadows, almost ready to be revealed!

Meanwhile on Mars, coincidentally, Spike, Daniel, Wheelie and the Trainbots are surveying the planet in hopes to eventually terraform it into a second Earth. Suddenly, they detect an explosion near the south pole and head out to investigate in two teams. Daniel and Wheelie spy two Terrocons, Hun-grrr and Rippersnapper, reporting this to Spike who immediately contacts Autobot HQ on Athenia. The Headmasters are dispatched to help and Fortress also contacts Ultra Magnus on Earth to scramble more reinforcements. However, Trypticon and Sixshot launch a surprise attack on Autobot City, engaging the Technobots and Metroplex in combat.

Back on Mars, Chromedome and the Headmasters arrive, meeting with Spike and the Trainbots who are battling the Predacons. They decide to send the Trainbots to retrieve Daniel and Wheelie, based on where their last transmission originated, but unbeknownst to them, the unlucky pair have just been captured by the Terrorcons. While imprisoned, Daniel and Wheelie learn that the Deceps are planning to destroy Mars, which understandably has them both panicked, especially Daniel as it the resulting debris could devastate the surface on Earth.

On Earth, Trypticon and Sixshot are still battling Computron and Metroplex to prevent them from helping out on Mars. I must point at this juncture that the animation in this sequence and others in the episode is really very fluid, detailed and commendable, on par with what was seen in the opening three-parter. It has been discussed elsewhere that the animation in this series takes a dip during its midsection and then bounces back for its last third and this installment is most certainly in the well-animated group.

On Athenia, Fortress is very concerned about these developments, but hesitates on heading out. He must suspect at this point that he will again be targeted by Zarak, whether directly or indirectly, as in the previous Peruvian volcano and man-eating plant incidents. We then cut to Daniel and Wheelie, still held captive by the Terrorcons and wondering how they can communicate with Spike and the others. Daniel remembers that the Autobot symbol on his exo-suit has an emergency beacon. He convinces Wheelie to fight him in order to tear off the symbol and destroy it, which activates the beacon.

Daniel: Wheelie...
Wheelie: Hm?
Daniel: Pretend to fight me and tear the symbol off my chest.
Wheelie: A fight?
Daniel: Sh! Keep your voice down. They'll hear you.
Rippersnapper: Eh? What's all that noise?
Daniel: Oi, you!
Wheelie: You...!
Rippersnapper: Have they fallen out?
Sinnertwin: It breaks the boredom. Let's see who wins.
Wheelie: You're not even an Autobot yet you wear that symbol!

Thanks to this, Spike, Chromedome and the others quickly locate and rescue Daniel and Wheelie. Fortress, now arriving on Mars, is informed and advises all except the Headmasters to leave Mars immediately, since they do not know the coordinates of the bomb placements. Fortress assures Daniel that the planet will be saved and can one day be as green as Earth.

The Decepticon Headmasters show up as usual to face down Chromedome and his team. During the battle, there is a humorous bit where Mindwipe mistakenly hypnotizes Skullcruncher, who then easily reveals the location of the bombs. Chromedome and the Headmasters speed to the coordinates, but instead are ambushed by a battery of blazing lasers. Under fire, they cry out to Fortress for help. He hesitates, still waiting for the exact balance of neural and physical energy before drawing the Master Sword, but he is soon motivated by the screams of fellow Autobots.

As Fortress emerges from his battleship, ready for action and at that exact moment, Zarak commands his troops, hidden nearby, to fire plasma energy at the valiant Autobot Commander. The power of the Master Sword cancels out the plasma energy, but in the process is completely drained. Fortress is unable to complete his massive transformation and falls backwards to his battleship. Thus ends this episode, as we wait to find out whether the destruction of Mars will actually occur.

There is lots of mounting tension to be found in this installment, helped by the multi-pronged action happening on Mars, Earth, Athenia and Charr. As I noted earlier, the animation featured is quite fluid and detailed, lending a great kinetic feel to action sequences on both Earth and Mars. The skirmish between Metroplex and Trypticon, plus the heavy presence of Terrorcons, gives it a decidedly US G1 third season feel, which is always welcomed by me. Following Zarak's successful plot to destroy Cybertron, his new plan to have Mars meet a similar fate carries greater weight than just an empty threat. There will be no bargaining or negotiating with Zarak. He simply needs that plasma energy and will collect it by whatever means necessary.

The idea of our solar system without Mars is a pretty bold concept as well and I was unsure whether or not the show producers would follow through. After Cybertron's demise, the stakes were raised and nothing seems sacred!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Wreckers Awareness Week!

Exciting times over in IDW Transformers-land!  Last Stand of the Wreckers went ahead and sold out its first issue, an impressive feat thanks to the terrific writing and wonderful artwork of the creative staff.  Issue #2 is on sale now, and who knows, maybe it'll sell out too.

My fellow TF-Scribe Nick Roche has declared this week to be Wreckers Awareness Week, so I figured I'd do my bit.  Here's a new poster I made with some of the character models for cast members showing up in LSotW #2.  So, head on over to your local comic book shop and try to find a copy post-haste!  If you love Transformers, you'll be glad you did.  Learn more about Wreckers Awareness Week over at Nick Roche Is a Bad Man, Nick's blog.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Review: Marvel G1 #46: Ca$h and Car-Nage!

Ca$h and Car-Nage! is the forth-sixth issue of the US G1 Marvel run of Transformers. It was once again written by Bob Budiansky, who has entered his final year with the book.  José Delbo once again graduates to full-on penciler, with Danny Bulandi as his inker.  Colors, as always, are by Nel Yomtov, and letters are still by Bill Oakley.  The cover is a Frank Springer.

It's a fairly uninspired cover.  It attempts to capture the slightly unusual feel of the book, but fails. A rather tough looking human on a spiky motorcycle weilds a spiked flail against an oddly formless Transformer, seen from behind.  This puts the focus firmly on the human, who might be terrified or might just be really pissed off.  From the context of the book, he's the latter, though the cover doesn't make that clear.  Certainly a metal chain won't be of much use against a Transformer, so this hardly seems like a fair fight.  "The Sparkabots battle the Roadjammers!" we're promised, which doesn't mean too much to us since we don't know who either group is. 

The issue opens with four bountyhunters going about their business and getting recruited by the Z Foundation, a group dedicated to the destruction of Automatons.  Burn-Out is recruited from a carnival, where he brings his own shotgun to a robot-shooting gallery and impresses the presenter.  Roadhog, our cover character, destroys a robot-themed car at a demolition derby.  Skunge and Felix, two short fellows (maybe midgets, the story isn't 100% clear on that) bring in a pair of criminals and are pointed to the Z Foundation by the local police.  These pages are actually rather well done, with each page telling a brief story and ending with the bounty hunter in question in the lower right of the page, intrigued.  Structurally it's well done, and quickly introduces us to our protagonists.

Soon the four of them are squabbling in New York City, at the Z Foundation headquarters.  The arrival of three suits with alphabet names stops them.  They are informed that there are two factions of Transformers, both of which are equally dangerous.  The Z Foundation will pay a bounty of $50,000 per robot, which seems to be the going rate established by the probably-defunct III.  They are given three jammers, devices capable of neutralizing a Transformer completely, and sent upstate to capture three Autobots.  After the newly-christened Roadjammers leave, the three inform the head of the foundation, Mr. Z, that everything is proceeding.  He initiates 'phase two.'

Dozens of light-years away on Cybertron, inside a Decepticon prison camp, six Autobots languish.  Three Firecons with terrible character models show up and have three of them come forward.  When they resist, we get a brief and lopsided battle.  The Autobots are reenergized and rearmed, then sent to Earth via the Space Bridge.  It seems that they were sent right to where the Roadjammers were looking for them.  Hmmmm ......

Using their technological toys, Roadhog easily subdues Sizzle.  Skunge knocks out Backstreet, but not before the Autobot informs him that he JUST arrived, sent by the Decepticons.  Fizzle tries to reason with his pursuer, but unfortunately for him it's the furious Burn-Out he needs to deal with.  The human shatters the Autobot's windshield with a shotgun blast, then chucks the jammer into the Autobot's passenger area.  This scene is more than a little awesome.

Afterward, the Roadjammers compare notes.  Felix, the real thinker of the group, is suspicious of events.  Somehow they come to the conclusion that Mr. K, Mr. L and Mr. B are colluding with the Decepticons ... without Mr. Z knowing about it.  It's a bit contrived, but they head back to the Foundation to try to trip up the trio.  Inside the Foundation's garage they find three headless bodies.  For, of course, Mr. L is Lokos, Mr. B is Brisko, and Mr. K is Kreb, three (Neublan?) Headmasters.  They're in for a surprise when they connect to their bodies, though .... Felix has split the frequency of each jammer, enabling them to jam not three but SIX Transformers. 

The handsome and powerful Mr. Z. shows up, impressed with their ingenuity.  But rather than try to trick them, he reveals himself to be Scorponok, and demands that they hand over the Jammers.  When they refuse, he commands Scorponok, somehow hidden in the garage, to attack them.  Felix has one more surprise for him, though.  He can operate the jammed robots by remote control.  We get a nice battle scene of six mindless Transformers assaulting Scorponok from all sides.  Soon, the mighty Scorponok lies in ruins, and Zarak has no choice but to reluctantly anti-jam all participants.  The newly freed Autobots swiftly help the Roadjammers get to safety.

The Autobots had an ulterior motive, though.  They wanted to collect the jammer devices.  As they Roll Out, into the sunset, the roadjammers bemoan their loss of $150,000.  Felix, though, has one more trick up his sleeve.  He's already started to reverse-engineer the devices, and realizes that the Z Foundation isn't the only game in town.  Once he's finished, the Roadjammers will be back in business!

This is an odd little underrated tale.  Though this issue introduces a grand total of TWELVE Transformers, the real focus of the book is on the Roadjammers.  The three main Autobot victims get a bit of characterization, but the Decepticon Headmasters, the Firecons, and the other three Autobot prisoners get nothing.  The Roadjammers, on the other hand, get oodles of characterization.  We see each of them before they're forged into a team, then the birth pangs of their meeting, and finally them growing to respect and trust each other.  Burn-Out has an awesome design to him, but all of them are cool.  Making Skunge and Felix short in stature was a good choice, as was having Skunge as a third member with brawn instead of brains.  I also rather like the idea that Felix can keep pulling rabbits out of his hat to surprise Autobot and Decepticon alike.  One of the unfortunate aspects of the end of Bob's tenure as writer on Transformers is that they never got to return.  He was so good at recurring characters that I can only assume we'd have gotten a book-ended Roadjammers story eventually.  Simon Furman, of course, took the story in a much more cosmic direction that didn't have much of a place for this rather cool little team.  If you like humans, this is a pretty good issue.  If you think it should be TRUK NOT SQUISHIE, then this one probably isn't for you.

Delbo's art continues to be solid, with the occasional flash of something very clever.  I like his damaged Scorponok quite a lot, and most of his other original designs.  The three alphabet flunkies look suitably smarmy, and I already commented on how much I like Burn-Out's victory over Fizzle.  I can't even blame him too much for his terrible terrible Firecons.  After all, that really is what their model looks like.  Now, whomever drew those models .... you're ALLOWED to take some liberties with the toys.  Those guys could have been very cool, not weird square little boxes.  Ah, well. 

Next month, it's a vacation at Club Con, with sun, sand, surf and the savage Seacons!  Nice alteration there, Bob!  It doesn't sound like much of an arc issue, but of course as the opening chapter to The Underbase Saga, it kind of is.  Ca$h and Car-Nage! was recently reprinted as the last part of IDW's  Classic Transformers Volume 3, on sale now.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Doctor Who: Russell T. Davies and The Time War (Part 1)

This began life as a review of the recent two-part Doctor Who Christmas special: "The End Of Time" but, as the late, great Professor Tolkien once wrote in the foreword to something or other, "the tale grew in the telling" and I realised that I didn't really care about the specific story beats of the episode but more how it fit into a more general canvas.

"The End Of Time" is not the last episode of Doctor Who. In fact, the show begins anew in the spring, after a year away with just the occasional special to tide us over. However, in many ways this can be treated as a series ending story. The main character, The Doctor, has died and regenerated. It'll still be The Doctor but the change is the point. Matt Smith (Doctor Eleven) will not be the exact same character as David Tennant (Doctor Ten) was.

Looking at those numbers, ten and eleven you can see just what a big deal this is to a lot of people. Doctor Who was first broadcast (an hour late because of President Kennedy's assassination)on November 23rd 1963 and it starred William Hartnell as the very first incarnation of The Doctor. The show was broadcast continually until 1989 when it was originally cancelled. This was not a bad thing, in hindsight, although I very much enjoy that era of Who, the ratings were falling and the production quality could not match up to other series on the air, especially the much more modern seeming Star Trek: The Next Generation. The series lay dormant, apart from an abortive attempt at an American funded revival in 1996 as a TV movie. It featured a great Doctor (Paul McGann) but a very poor and confusing story, so it never went to series.

Massive history and cultural impact aside our story really begins with the first episode of the newest incarnation. It first aired on March 26th 2005 to rave reviews (some of us had seen it a week earlier as a leaked version on the internet, but hey, I watched it on TV as well, so the ratings didn't suffer). In hindsight "Rose" isn't a particularly good story compared to those that came after but it featured so much to take in for new fans and old ones that it scarcely mattered. It does a nice job of introducing The Doctor and his world for a new generation while also letting the old fans know just how much had changed in the time Who had been away. The new writer and "show runner" Russell T. Davies (something of a critical darling after his niche, but successful, drama series "Queer As Folk") had not let the show rest on its laurels.

The first thing that fans noticed was that the stories were faster-paced with more action and much better production values. The music was a little manic and the dialogue very quick. The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) looked much more up to date with his short hair and leather jacket, and he spoke like an intelligent working-class Northern bloke, rather than with the received pronunciation of the past:

ROSE TYLER: If you're an alien how come you sound like you're from the North.
THE DOCTOR: Lots of planets have a north.

A good many critics also suggested that Rose (the new companion for The Doctor) was an innovation too as an intelligent, active participant in the adventures rather than a screaming damsel in distress, but the old series had already had quite a few highly capable female companions: Leela, Romana, Ace, to name but a few. What Davies did do, however, was to introduce us to Rose's family. The adventures might have been galactic and time-hopping, but they always had a human side, which was definitely lacking previously.

Format innovations aside Davies had also worked out a new backstory for fans to puzzle over. Specifically - The Time War.

This, to my mind, is the single best aspect that Davies brought the character. We gradually find out that The Doctor is the last of his kind (the godlike Timelords). That they had fought a bitter war across the cosmos and throughout history with their arch-enemies, the murderous cyborg race known as the Daleks. Something The Doctor had done had ended the war and destroyed all of the Daleks at once, but in doing so he had also condemned the Timelords to destruction.

This was a brilliant and elegant move. For a new viewer, this is who The Doctor was to them, a damaged, guilty, survivor of the destruction of his race. Not only a survivor, but their slayer. For all his sense of fun Eccleston's Ninth Doctor was a broken man. The Doctor had always had a difficult (to say the least) relationship with his people, but they had always been a constant in his adventures and now they were gone. The Daleks were also a constant, renowned as The Doctor's biggest and most frequent foe, but no-one seriously considered that the Daleks wouldn't be back at some point in this series, the Timelords were much more likely to stay dead.

Fans like nothing better than a nice juicy backstory to debate endlessly and The Time War has been a rich vein to mine. Speculation suggested that it might have had its roots in the older series, with The Doctor being sent on a mission by his people to terminate the Daleks at the point of their creation in the excellent story "Genesis Of The Daleks". This was confirmed by Russell T Davies and the whole thing took on a sinister aspect. The Timelords fired the first shot in the war but The Doctor could not see genocide through and let the Daleks survive. Was the war his fault? Was it the fault of the Timelords? Or were they right that the Daleks were just too dangerous to live. We didn't really get an answer to that one in Genesis, but it sets the tone fairly well.

The other most signficant Time War event in that show takes place in the Sylvestor McCoy (Seventh Doctor) story, "Remembrance Of The Daleks". The Doctor uses a Timelord superweapon the Hand Of Omega to wipe out the Dalek homeworld, Skaro. The Seventh Doctor was a scary man if you got in his way - in fact, he shares a lot of traits with the Tenth Doctor, who we'll come to soon enough - and he committed genocide without blinking.

THE DOCTOR: Do you think I would let you have control of the hand of Omega?
DAVROS: Do not do this. I beg of you!
THE DOCTOR: Nothing can stop it now.
DAVROS: Have pity on me!
THE DOCTOR: I have pity for you. Goodbye Davros. It hasn't been pleasant.

The first episode that proved that Russell T Davies' new version of Who could really do serious, adult drama was the sixth. Up to that point we'd had menacing shop-window dummies, wacky aliens gathering to watch the end of the Earth, Victorian zombies, and (a low point) a race of farting intergalactic con-artists: The Slitheen. It is with "Dalek" that the Time War was once again brought into sharp relief as we see just how completely this experience has changed The Doctor. Back when he was young, only four regenerations into his life-span, he found the concept of exterminating an entire race, even The Daleks, to be unthinkable, now, five incarnations and hundreds of years of war later, we witness his utter horror that one of his enemies could have survived the holocaust that wiped out his own people:

THE DOCTOR: Your race is dead. You all burned, all of you, ten million ships on fire, the entire Dalek race wiped out in one second.
DALEK: You lie!
THE DOCTOR: I watched it happen. I made it happen!

This exchange - it goes on from there, but I can't do justice to Christopher Eccleston's phenonemal performance by simply quoting it - This exchange is riddled with guilt, both of the genocidal kind and the survivors kind. The Doctor goes back and forth from terror to hatred to self-loathing in the space of about five minutes and over the course of the episode we even see him coming to terms with the idea that this one particular Dalek might be worthy of survival.

It certainly is not a total reach to directly link Dalek with Genesis Of The Daleks but what of Remembrance? Certainly it must be remembered that these individual regenerations are essentially different men but there must be some continuity, surely? The Doctor retains his memories, and all of his incarnations share certain personality traits: curiosity, a sense of fun, a basic sense of morality and the kind of self-importance that can only come from belonging to a race known throughout the galaxy as The Lords Of Time.

What we have in Genesis is a man who has never faced a no-win scenario. Up to this point the Doctor has always chosen the morally correct path and it has never failed him. He has killed, in self-defence, or the defence of others, but he cannot bring himself to kill pre-emptively. His suggestion that the universe needs the Daleks in order to bring about alliances between races in co-operation against them is fudging the issue, and does not stand up to scrutiny. The Fourth Doctor essentially passes the buck. He cannot bring himself to make a decision this big and passes it off as a question of morality.

The Seventh Doctor, on the other hand, is arrogant enough to take on the mantle of supreme moral arbiter. He has judged the Daleks and found them wanting so he has no qualms about destroying their homeworld even as their leader pleads with him. If the Time War is even being fought at this point (and it's a time war, so it really must be) then The Doctor's part in it can only have just been beginning. These are the actions of a man utterly convinced he is on the morally correct, winning side.

The Ninth Doctor's shell-shocked character comes directly from the fact that even something as huge as the destruction of Skaro does not alter the outcome of the war. The Doctor is used to solving problems with a quip and a flick of his sonic screwdriver. He destroyed the Dalek homeworld in an instant and it didn't make the slightest bit of difference. The conflict continued and increased in bitterness and insanity and The Doctor went from roving adventurer to out and out soldier.

Of course I have no way of knowing if Russell T Davies went into this much consideration of The Doctor's previous adventures when he came up with his Time War hook for the new series but he is certainly a big enough fan of both series not to have discounted them entirely. Before risking destroying one of the BBC's most venerable franchises I have no doubt that he would have thoroughly done his research. In any case, this is a man who had a life-size Dalek decorating the front room of his house long before he got the chance to work on the show.

There is a lot more to say. I have barely scratched the surface of the Time War and it's contined significance in the new series. I hope this slightly stream-of-consciousness geek out has entertained you enough that you will return for Part 2. Coming soon.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Iván's Gallery: BlackZarak

Well, it's been a little while, but this week Iván's Gallery returns with a lovely BlackZarka he's been working on for some time.  Here's what he has to say about it, and his absence:

Hi again! I regret having been offline for so long .. but first the work and sometimes health ... prevented me from drawing for a while... apparently, I suffered a nerve problem that made me sleep are the two arms ... so .. I could not do anything, and had a terrible pulse. I'm still not quite right ... but at least I can draw a little.
but I think it s glad to see what Jim and I bring you today.


We could talk much about this character... Zarak, repaint of Scorpnok, in Japanese Masterforce Tv. But, yeah, Zarak is an important characters in the series, houses the spirit of Devil-Z, Decepticon evil entity, it is possible that even more than Megatron. I always looked at Devil-Z as an antithesis of the autobot matrix. Masterforce really believe that it could make a great series, probably the best on transformers, and certainly a great comic, in all senses.

But, let's focus on Zarak, the truth is that the colors I like but the men of Scorponok, but the head design that I think is best. Reminiscent of a samurai helmet, logical, if we came from. But it is a pity that this very expensive toy ... (About 600 to 1500 dollars) was only sold in Japan. Besides .. always annoyed me a lot to Fortress / Grand Maximus was much higher than when it is assumed that Scorponok / Zarak was his antithesis .... is at a distinct disadvantage, not fair.

As also it is a shame that people unaware of both the Japanese Transformers universe, so .. we encourage Jim and IDW to edit a MTMTE book about Japanese characters.  We read, I hope soon.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Ark Addendum - Sixshot's Transformation (part 1)

Where does the time go?  It's already time for another Ark Addendum? Crazy!  I've been swamped with AllSpark Almanac II work (man, I'm so psyched about this book!) so haven't had as much time to devote to other areas as I sometimes do.  Still, I had this piece good to go, so I figured I'd share it.  It's Sixshot's transformation ... 40% of it, anyway.  This is the car and the wolf, each transforming to robot mode.  I figured with Brian's ongoing Headmaster reviews, it was apropos.

For such a complicated toy, the transformation schema is decidedly simple.  I suppose that six intricate transforms would be a bit beyond the engineering of the time.  (Though, Gigatron from Car Robots would pull off six fairly intricate modes, including a hand, pretty well.  I remain unconvinced by the extra four modes given to Devil Gigatron.)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Review: War of the Worlds, the series ep 17

Unto Us a Child Is Born is the seventeenth episode of War of the Worlds, the series.  It opens with an alien chemical weapons test gone awry, resulting in an alien soldier getting pursued by local authorities.  When he casts off the body he is inhabiting in favor of a new disguise, a very pregnant woman, things start to get interesting.  The alien is disoriented and unsure of what's happening, which is in fact the beginning of the birthing process.  Her compatriots rescue her from a hospital after the birth of an apparently healthy boy, which is when the real fun begins.

The alien is still too weak to change bodies, prompting a distress call to the Advocacy.  The Advocacy immediately recognizes the potential of this situation and sends them to retrieve the child.  This call also alerts the Blackwood Team, who realize something is up when they find the mutilated corpse of the baby's father.  The baby's accelerated growth is another big indicator. We then rack up an impressive, and gory, body count in the hospital as the alien soldiers attempt to retrieve the child, the alien mother attempts to reabsorb the child and become whole once again, and the Blackwood team attempts to study the child for their own purposes.  In the end, the alien soldiers slay the mother, the Blackwood team slays the other two soldiers, and the child ages to decrepitude, dies, and leaves behind a healthy human baby boy.  Suzanne spends a month testing it before releasing it to the grandparents, who happily drive off while spouting "To Life Immortal" in their native tongue.

The Good:  This episode could only be an episode of War of the Worlds.  You really couldn't transpose this script into any other series and make it work.  It explores the osmosis process by which aliens infiltrate human host bodies, answering the question of what would happen if one entered a pregnant body.  Tonally as well, few shows could pull off this level of gore and more-or-less make it work.  Kudos to them for examining a logical and necessary question raised by the premise of the series itself.

After the father finds out he has a healthy son, he excitedly passes out cigars to everyone around him ... including the two alien soldiers, waiting to collect their fellow.  Their reaction is beautifully confused. Also, the actor playing the father is wonderfully enthusiastic.  It makes his death all the more tragic.

The aliens are as horrible as ever.  When we see the alien mother, longing to be reunited with her child, we naturally assume that it's some kind of maternal instinct.  No, no, no!  It's a purely selfish reason, a desire to become whole once again.  Presumably a good fraction of the alien's cells crossed the placental barrier and merged with the child, explaining the alien's weakness and disorientation through most of the episode.  Kudos to Amber-Lea Weston for her acting here.  She pulls off stoned alien quite well, sharply contrasted to her good-natured pregnant human.

The alien mother's urgent insistence on accompanying her fellow soldiers despite her weakness, and the fact that humans can identify the body, causes uneasiness among her fellow soldiers.  Their cautious instinct proved correct when she's identified, and later when she attempts to subvert the will of the Advocates.  Without remorse, they chuck her off a stairwell, mirroring a scene where she did the same to a human.  Their reaction to their compatriot's mental state was all-around terrific, and offers good insight into inter-alien relations. It's also fun when the two decide not to wait for the third member during the chemical weapon test; they reason, somewhat selfishly, that he'll catch up to them. He didn't.

I also rather liked their initial attack on the shopping mall that sets things off.  I especially like the clumsy alien first bumbling into Weston's character, then dropping the case containing their chemical weapon, before finally kicking over a bucket of oil which leads to their discovery.  Nicely set up.  I also like how the toolbox is set to implode to keep it from prying human hands. 

Still on the aliens, it's good continuity to once again see a technique where they are able to telepathically extract information from a human by physical contact. In keeping with the tone of the episode, though, this time it results in a hole in the head, rather than lesions. 

It's nice to see Sergeant Coleman again.  It's always good for a show to expand it's repertoire of characters.

The dark ending, with the grandparents revealed as aliens, is perfectly in keeping with the overall mood of the series.  Who knows what evil the Advocacy will be able to perpetuate with this child?

The Bad:  There is a LOT of gore in this episode, even for this show.  I wonder exactly what motivated that.  I actually really like the brutality of this show, normally, but the premise of the episode was already so disturbing that to pile on the bodies seemed unnecessary.  It even earned the episode a Jeer from TV Guide, one that I can't even argue. The idea behind the episode was good enough that it didn't need to be padded out with all the death. 

Those mall security guards were pretty tough!  They're all armed with guns, and they deploy quite a few of them to try to catch the alien saboteur. It's a fine scene, but doesn't really hold up to scrutiny.  I loved the soldier hurling a bystander off the railing during the chase though, though!

The aliens should have changed bodies a lot more.  They infiltrated the hospital by killing paramedics and stealing their ambulance and uniform ... why not just take their faces and knowledge too?  Ditto, after they disguise themselves as doctors.  I understand that they didn't want to keep getting new actors, but it is a weakness.

The Blackwood team tries to secure the hospital, rather than moving the child to a secure location.  Now, eventually the child gets free and starts killing, which takes the matter out of their hands, but they should have at least come up with an excuse for staying in a place that the aliens were sure to attack.

Also, having a healthy human left behind feels like a cop-out.  Now, this is somewhat salvaged by the grisly fate that awaits said human child, but I don't think that payoff was worth the unlikeliness of that turn of events. 

The Ugly:  Now, normally here I pull out the worst of the worst, but this episode deserves a special treatment. In chronological order:

 #1: The father's death and corpse.

#2: The murder of the nurse by the halfbreed child.

#3: The child murdering one of Ironhorse's men.
#4: The alien child, aged a hundred years in a few hours. 

Honorable mentions to the corpse of the alien and the nurse with a hole in her head.  The sticky fingers of the alien as he withdraws from her mind are well done. Oh, and of course, the alien child itself is pretty hideous by the time it grows up. 

An observation neither good, bad nor ugly: this really isn't a Team Blackwood-focused episode.  That's not a flaw, since it was intentional and the episode works anyway, but there are non of the really juicy character bits that we normally get.  Those are, it seems, reserved for non-humans this time around.  I'd have like to have seen a bit more of their reaction to things, but not so much so that I feel the need to label this as a 'bad.' I also wonder if the V babies were an influence.

So, there you have it, probably the most infamous episode of the series and thus singled out for some special treatment.  Let me say that I genuinely like this episode.  While I believe the excessive gore is a flaw, and a big one, it's not enough to ruin what is a really interesting idea.  The charming acting all around, especially on the part of the alien trio, goes a long way. While this definitely isn't the best episode of War of the Worlds, in some ways it's a perfectly representative episode of the series.  From the gore to the dark humor to the interesting and unique premise to the "To Life Immortal" ending, this episode captures what the essence of what War of the Worlds is all about, warts and all.   War of the Worlds - The Complete First Season  is thankfully available on DVD, so you too can watch all these wonderfully horrible moments.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Coming soon to a theatre near you: Repo Men

I choose today to write about Repo Men, a science fiction film to be released on March 19th.  I had the good fortune to be in the audience of a test screening of this movie about a year ago, back when it was still being called Repossession Mambo, and became very excited.  As it turns out, I was able to strike up a bit of a correspondence with the director, one Miguel Sapochnik.  He answered some of my questions about the movie, his freshman effort, and I hope to be able to share some of those answers with you my readers in the near future. I do, however, have his blessing to share just a few of his quotes with you, which I hope will give some insight as to why if you're reading this you should definitely go see it. 

It's a very smart, very slick film that reminds me a bit of such science fiction classics as Robocop and Brazil.  It's a film that never condescends to its audience.  You can see the unrated version of the trailer, which is slightly NSFW.  The basic premise is that The Union has perfected artificial organs.  If you need a new heart, liver, whatever, you can get one, but you'll need to pay for it.  If you fail to pay, the repo men will literally seize their property, virtually always resulting in the death of the debtor.  The protagonists are a pair of repo men, an interesting choice to explore a pretty dismal vision of the future.

One aspect of the movie that struck me as particularly creative were the advertisements which peppered the film.  It was a great window into the environment that Remy & Jake, our main characters, inhabit.   

"We worked with an advertising  company called Goodness Manufacturing who treated us as a regular client and wrote a number of great ad scripts to really identify the world in which our movie would take place, from Union ads to local commercials for deodorant. It was about using the commercials to sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly reflect the state of this future world." -Miguel Sapochnik

Alas, Miguel informs me that these were cut from the final film, but you can find them by navigating around the official corporate website of The Union, which is itself a real hoot.

The timing of this movie couldn't be better.  With healthcare reform stalled in the legislature and the economy still on shaky ground, a movie that looks at a possible nth state of each can be deeply resonant. The societal job of science fiction, good science fiction at least, is to ask questions about where we're heading.  Given how long movies take to go from start to finish, that timing helps point to both the prescience of the original vision and perhaps a bit of luck on the side of the filmmakers.  

"Even one year ago I was worried that by the time the movie came out the real issues facing our global economy and this country's healthcare system would no longer hold the same currency. I could not have been more wrong." -Miguel Sapochnik

I hope all this doesn't come across as too corporate.  The truth is, I immediately fell in love with this movie.  I walked out of the theater after having been challenged as only a really well executed film can.  I don't want to go into an in-depth review of the film here, but suffice it to say  that the film was a very sharp, very dark examination of a real problem facing the world.  It's about as far from escapism as a movie can get.  If you liked Brazil, or Gattaca, or A Clockwork Orange, I urge you to go out and see the film on opening weekend.  It's the kind of film that's hard to market, so I hope to help get the word out a bit.  If you go see it and hate it, you can give me a punch on the arm at BotCon 2010.  I don't anticipate many lumps.

"My current thinking is that I believe that you create your own reality, but shit happens. This is not a contradiction, more a paradox. This movie is neither pessimistic nor optimistic. That is in the eye of the beholder." -Miguel Sapochnik

UPDATE: The interview is now live, so you can read it in full.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Review: Marvel G1 #45: Monstercon from Mars!

Monstercon from Mars! is the forty-fifth issue of the US G1 Marvel comics run of Transformers.  It was written by good old Bob Budiansky.  José Delbo and David Hunt once again use a breakdown and finisher style of art, with letters by Bill Oakley and colors, as always, by Nel Yomtov.  The cover is a Budiansky original.

And a rather fine cover it is, too.  Circuit Breaker battles Skullgrin at the Grand Canyon, while a pair of humans point at her by Skullgrin's feet.  Josie is looking as sexy as ever in her costume, and energy cackles from her hands and interferes with the Transformers logo.  Skullgrin's gun seems just a bit too small, a bit of perspective cheating in the name of composition.  And really, the composition is lovely, pulling the eye first to the lovely Ms. Beller and then to the gaping jaws of the Decepticon Pretender.  In fact, the only part of the cover that isn't pure win is the big arrow proclaiming "the return of Circuit Breaker!"  Um, yeah, I can see that.

The issue opens on an image of a rather attractive woman in a tunic being menaced by some sort of cyborg monster, while her lover Brick rushes to save her.  Or so things appear.  In actuality, they're filming a movie, and that quickly goes awry when the creepozoid goes on the fritz.  The director, Rollie Friendly, just oozes Hollywood smarm and arrogance, while the pretentious Jake Colton thumbs his nose at his costar, neophyte Carissa Carr.  The characters are broad, but that's ok.  One gets the sense that this is a one-off tale, and Bob doesn't have the time to develop them more fully. 

With at least three weeks of downtime, Rollie's agent tries to convince him that maybe giant robots would work well in his picture.  This idea is dispelled, though, when news footage of Sky Lynx returning the four human children shows an ugly crowd driving him away. Shown to the audience but not shown on film is Josie Beller, getting ready to engage Sky Lynx before the crowd drives him off.  Sky Lynx was a good choice for this role, since his natural egotism compels him to stick around longer than strictly necessary to answer questions and take some photos.  This is about as close as he'll get to his wonderful tv portrayal, and it's a nice character moment for him. 

Not to be discouraged, his publicist recommends Rollie investigate rumors of Big Foot sightings. Off he goes, with a camera crew and his two stars, to North Carolina.  While the National Guard doesn't want to let him through, a bit of green proves enough to get one of the locals to help him circumvent their roadblocks and soon the crew is face to face with none other than Skullgrin.  Incredibly, they manage to make peaceful contact with the monster, and he agrees to star in their film in exchange for fuel.  It seems his mission is to establish a fuel depot, and he's not above doing it honestly.  Actually, that's a very clever idea.  The Pretender shell is actually used in a logical manner, since a monster is just a curiosity but a robot is generally demonstrably bad in the minds of most humans in this continuity.

Skullgrin mania sweeps the country!  Really, who wouldn't want to see a real live monster, especially one that's comparatively friendly.   We get a nice montage of autographs, magazines, billboards and motorcades. But not everyone is convinced that Skullgrin is benign.  A blond woman in a wheelchair attends all of his public events, trying to figure out what his secret is.   

Others get a hint as to the danger hidden inside Skullgrin's monstrous exterior during a press conference.  When a barrage of pointed questions throws him off balance, he smashes his podium and starts to scatter the journalists.  Carissa manages to calm him down, in what Rollie aptly calls a "Beauty and the Beast" moment.

To avoid any possibly fatal future blunder, Rollie announces that the set will be closed until after the movie wraps.  The wheelchair-bound woman is reluctant to leave, but when security starts to push her, Carissa personally reassures her that she's not going to be missing much; they're off to the Grand Canyon soon.  Great work by Hunt on the close up of Circuit Breaker's face.  She looks wonderfully devious.  Black eyebrows, eh?  I guess it makes sense that she dyes her hair, it goes from blond to red with alarming regularity. 

Shooting indeed proceeds at the Grand Canyon.  While on a break, Skullgrin and Carissa bond.  When she makes a big deal out of stripping out of her costume and going back to her real name, Ethel Stankiewicz, Skullgrin decides to reveal himself as well.  Carissa is still taking it in when the watchful Circuit Breaker, who of course followed them to Arizona, engages the robot.  To make things worse for poor Skully, Carissa reveals that it was she who lead Circuit Breaker to him. Rollie, never one to miss a trick, orders Jake into the action and starts filming the altercation.  When the battle endangers Carissa's life, Skullgrin declines to save her ... until Circuit Breaker admits that she was blameless in the attack.  The apologetic Decepticon then rescues the damsel from the crumbling rocks.  Alas, this affords Josie the opportunity to blast old Skully.  But when Rollie offers her a king's ransom to finish the job on film, she blasts the camera and then inexplicably flies off, leaving Skullgrin wounded but alive.

This is a surprisingly good issue.  The premise is pretty silly, but it's executed so well that I'm willing to overlook that.  It's nice that we get a Decepticon protagonist.  While ultimately his objective isn't good for humanity, he's certainly managing to achieve his goals without anyone getting hurt.  While we've had human antagonists before, they've never been paired with a Decepticon 'hero', and it's a nice avenue to explore.  It's also great to see Circuit Breaker again.  Having a supervillain that shows up from time to time helps keep the book true to its comic book medium.  Alas, we won't see her again until midway through Furman's run on the book.  Structurally, this is a very slick tale.  We quickly move from story beat to story beat, with an appropriate balance of foreshadowing and surprises.  Notice that it's not just Skullgrin that's pretending to be something he's not ... Circuit Breaker, too, hides behind the facade of a poor crippled woman to get what she wants.

The artwork as well is solid.  It's not as inspired as modern work, but there are some lovely shots of Skullgrin.  Hunt seems to relish the more organic feel of our main monster.  It's a bit of a shame he made Josie so butch, though.  The costume is sexy, but the short-cropped hair does nothing to accentuate that. 

Next month, "The bounty-hunting Roadjammers stalk the Autobots for -- "CASH and CAR-NAGE!"  Sounds ... like more of these non-arc sorties.  We'll see.  Because of Circuit Breaker's status as a Marvel-owned character, Monstercon from Mars! couldn't be reproduced in IDW's  Classic Transformers Volume 3 .  It is, however, available in Titan's Transformers: Maximum Force collection. Both are available from

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Transformers: Headmasters – "Head On, Fortress Maximus!"

Fortress: There it is.
Hardhead: Eh?
Fortress: The plant originates from the Planet Darhos. It's a carnivorous species.
Hardhead: A carnivorous plant from the Planet Darhos?
Chromedome: What's it doing on Earth?
Hardhead: Don't you see? It was brought by the Decepticons.
Chromedome: Oh...I see, yes. I was just thinking that, too.
Hardhead: Keep up!

As this episode begins, we find Fortress, Chromedome and their fellow Headmasters patrolling the galaxy and debating whether or not to attack the Decepticons while Galvatron is missing, presumed dead. Meanwhile on Earth, what seems to be an earthquake disturbing San Francisco actually reveals itself to be a giant man-eating plant. This aspect is soon confirmed as we see the green, tentacled mass devour manned helicopters and cop cars.

In response to this new bizarre threat, Ultra Magnus sends the Technobots, Trainbots and Arielbots to help, but once they arrive in San Francisco they are met by Bruticus and Menasor. This type of crisis followed by an ambush obviously is reminiscent of last episode's situation, so it must be that Zarak is behind it all. A pitched battle ensues, including one between Bruticus and Raiden, both wielding lightsaber-esque energy swords. Ultra Magnus watches from Autobot City and wonders if he should request reinforcements.

A quick transition to the Headmasters' battleship shows him in contact with them, after which Fortress realizes he might be familiar with this type of carnivorous plant. It originates from a planet called Darhos and had to have been placed purposely on Earth by the Decepticons, prompting Fortress to race towards Earth.

Strangely enough, the episode then turns to Athenia, as Daniel tends to his garden and Wheelie needles him about it. The plant Daniel states he brought from Earth has not yet broken forth from the ground, so he continues to tend to it. Suddenly something does burst from the soil, looking nothing like the picture on the seed package. We the viewer recognize it as a smaller version of the monstrous plant attacking San Francisco, but for Daniel and Wheelie it is a mystery.

We then rejoin the nicely animated action in an evacuated San Francisco, as the Autobot Headmasters arrive, jumping in to take down that plant and being taunted by the Decepticon Headmasters, newly on the scene as well. The plant itself even bursts forth from its concrete cocoon to stride through the city. On Athenia, Spike investigates their new denizen, which proceeds to chase them down and attack the base. He reaches the same conclusion about the plant's origin as Fortress and that Daniel was used to transport the seeds, as it were. During their transmissions, they lose contact with Fortress as his battleship is assaulted by the immense plant.

And so at the time when Fortress is being completely beaten, is when both Fortress Maximus and the Master Sword make their appearance, in a wonderfully animated sequence that will be used in subsequent episodes. Fortress is at first hesitant to draw forth the Master Sword but the peril is real and when he does, he and the massive battleship combine into the mighty Fortress Maximus, much to the surprise of the Decepticons, even Zarak, who watches from Chaar. The Japanese animated series have a well-known penchant for lengthy, elaborate transformation sequences, showcasing all sides of the character and each stage, which is then repeated when needed later. The only downside is that these can sometimes seem more like filler, when the time could be better spent on story and dialogue.

With the Master Sword in hand, Maximus easily dispatches of the monster plant. On Chaar, Zarak and Soundblaster are amazed, but Zarak is mostly unconcerned, still confident that his transtector under construction will be more than a match for Maximus. Meanwhile, on Athenia, the marauding plant seemed to share a link with its match on Earth and explodes as well.

Hardhead (to Fortress Maximus): Commander?
Fortress: Is everyone safe?
Highbrow: Very clever, Commander. You never told us you could grow so huge.
Fortress: Well, I did have my reasons. Let's get back to Athenia!

Even though this episode centers on another of Zarak's plots to distract the Autobots from his still unfinished transtector using a crisis on Earth, I think it holds up better than then previous episode involving the Peruvian volcano. There are some exciting action sequences in San Francisco with the combiners and Headmasters, recalling similar city-based action sequences found in season two of the US series. I can't explain the appearance of lightsabers for both Bruticus and Raiden, however, although a similar weapon showed up in Transformers: The Movie, used by Megatron. Let's just say they decided to add surprises to their personal arsenals!

The duplicate plant threat on Athenia works as good counterpoint, a miniature version of what occurs on Earth. Daniel's character shows some growth in his willingness to be accountable for what he perceives to be his mistake and take action by striking against the plant on Athenia. It's of course not an effective counterattack, I mean, he only carries a big stick and that thing eats children for breakfast, but regardless I much preferred this Daniel who shows some strength to the version that bawled in earlier episodes.

And we do finally witness Fortress Maximus revealed and in command. If I recall correctly, his transform sequences is repeated often later with little variation, but at least it's a fun one to watch!

Next time out, to quote Schwarzenegger, "Get your ass to Mars!"

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Ark Addendum - GoShooter's Transformation

Another week, another Ark Addendum.  Since Brian took a week off of his excellent Headmaster reviews, I figured I'd take the chance to break out some Masterforce models.  And what could be more Masterforce than the HeadOn Transformation of one GoShooter?

Once again, I'm struck by how dynamic these models are.  Keep in mind, these are not storyboards, nor are they designed for external consumption.  I'm sure that whomever drew this gorgeous sequence would be shocked to find out that it was being published some twenty-two years later.  Virtually every panel is a work of art unto itself, and the overall effect is of kinetic energy harnessed for reconfiguration.  This is what a transformation sequence is all about!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Review: War of the Worlds, the series ep 16

The Meek Shall Inherit is the sixteenth episode of War of the Worlds, the series.  Nominally, it's about an alien plot to disrupt the phone network, but it's more about Sylvia van Buren getting lost in the homeless scene in Portland. A homeless woman, Molly, witnesses one of her fellow street-people getting absorbed by an alien and goes a little crazy, eventually winding up in the same institution as Sylvia.  Together they break out and hitchhike back to Portland, drawn to the site of alien activity.  They live on the streets for a bit, in the cold, without food, until Molly gets caught by the aliens.  Armed with the knowledge that Sylvia can sense them and that she knows someone named Harrison Blackwood who opposes them, they try to catch Sylvia.  She gets away, and they halt their pursuit in favor of their primary objective, a power supply strong enough to allow them to destroy the phone network. 

Meanwhile, at the Cottage, Ironhorse has been putting together a small team, Omega Force, able to combat aliens.  Much of the episode focuses on this team getting built.  At the end, Harrison locates Sylvia and calls for backup.  Ironhorse's team takes out the alien trio before they can communicate with the Advocates or seize the power supply.  The end.

The Good:  As always, the producers tried to find interesting people for aliens to inhabit.  This time, it's a trio of bums.  While they are inconspicuous, they also have health issues that trip them up.

Sylvia is back, for just about the last time.  Her performance is more vivid this time out, probably because she isn't stuck in a room strapped to a bed.

It's nice that Ironhorse is training a team specifically to deal with aliens.  The show has played lip-service to the idea that the team can call on the resources of the US Government, now we're moving in that direction more firmly.  His team-building gave him a nice moment when Dr. McCullough informs him that the psych profile for the ideal candidate, which he thought was too demanding, was modeled on him.

I rather like the effects when the phone system goes haywire, especially the exploding phone booth.  It reminded me a bit of Scanners, oddly.

The Bad:  The alien's plot is never really foiled.  Three soldiers failed to get a power supply that was unguarded in a truck yard.  What else is stopping them from trying again?  Also, an Advocate seemed skeptical of the plot, but surely the military value of disrupting communications should be obvious.  And, um, where was Ilse von Glatz, the female-voiced advocate?  Unless I miss my mark, this is one of only two S1 episode not to feature her.

Sadly, this story has very little unity.  The alien's main plot is barely acknowledged by our heroes - Norton suspects that his difficulties in reaching the pentagon's computer may be because of alien activity, but then we never hear more about it.  Sylvia and Molly's struggle is interesting but seems fairly unimportant.  Harrison and Suzanne's search for Sylvia is uninteresting and cliched, especially the bit with the helpful whore with the heart of gold.  Ironhorse's training feels like it could have gone in any episode.  Overall, it's just a collection of elements that don't gel.

The ending is, once again, very abrupt.  The Molly alien is shot by Sgt. Coleman, one of Omega Force, and that's it.  In fact, the entire episode has an odd pacing to it, with a total lack of urgency on both the heroes and the villains.  Only Harrison's search, boring though it was, seemed to have the emotional investment of the characters involved.

The Ugly:  Nothing worse than the cast-off remains of an alien host body after the unhealthiest of the bums absorbs Molly. 

And there you have it.  After six weeks of solid programming, we get a miss of the worst kind.  Rather than trying too hard and just failing to connect, it feels like no one much cared about this little orphan of an episode.  While that might be appropriate, thematically, for an episode that focuses on the homeless, it does not good television make.   War of the Worlds - The Complete First Season is available for purchase on DVD.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Better Off Ted - the best show that you're not watching

I did this last year with Pushing Daisies, and it didn't work.  But will that stop me? Absolutely not.

Better Off Ted is quite possibly the funniest sitcom on television today. I discovered it quite by accident; my TIVO grabbed the first minute of an episode after Scrubs and I happened not to turn it off.  Better Off Ted managed to grab me in literally the first 20 seconds. A man was giving a Powerpoint presentation in a board room, and he opened with this, juxtaposed against an image of a light bulb.
"In a recent study, people's desire to see things ranked third, right after hitting things and trying to have sex with things."
That pretty much sums up Better Off Ted's style of humor.  The large, 'evil' corporation Veridian Dynamics is the place of employment of all the main characters, who try to balance their morality, careers and personal lives with varying degrees of success. It's quick, witty, well acted, well paced and genuinely insightful.

Naturally the ratings are lousy. So, I'm doing what I can to get the word out.  Better Off Ted airs nominally Tuesdays on ABC at 9:30, though with the Lost juggernaut back who knows.  Program it into your DVRs, watch it for free on Hulu, or just check out some hilarious Veridian Dynamics commercials:

If you're already a fan, then check out the Save Better Off Ted website. If ever there was a show worthy of fan support, this one is it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Review: Marvel G1 #44: The Cosmic Carnival

The Cosmic Carnival (what, no exclamation deserved?) is the forty-forth issue of the US G1 Marvel Comics run of Transformers.  Bob Budiansky returns as writer after the out-of-continuity hiatus last month.  Frank Springer also returns to the book, billed as a 'guest penciler.'  Presumably that means the filler issue last month was due to artistic scheduling difficulties.  Danny Bulanadi is the 'guest inker.'  Nel Yomtov, as always, is the colorist, and the regular letterer, Bill Oakley, is also back.  The cover is by Frank Springer.

It's a fine cover.  Sky Lynx rides Optimus Prime in truck mode, while they fend off the attacks of a giant lizard, a fire-chucking trapeze artist and a rocket-powered motorcycle.  The composition is sharp, drawing the eye to the apex.  Sky Lynx's claw breaks into the logo a bit, which emphasizes it nicely.  "Cosmic Carnival!" it states proudly, and it certainly looks like there's a nice big brawl at an outer-space carnival.  While I'm still dubious of the premise, the cover does its best to sell the idea.

 The book opens with a lovely splash of the exterior of the carnival, a "rippling serpent of cold, pitted steel."  Like most carnivals, these are nomads, moving from one locale to the next with their menagerie of performers.  Pinpricks of light shoot out in all directions, carrying advertising.  The advert interrupts some exposition on board the Steelhaven, where Optimus brings his new Nebulan allies (and the audience) up to speed on what's been happening in the book. The advert itself is fantastic, a wonderful version of an alien carnival that's both shockingly familiar (dude fired out of a cannon through rings of fire ... someone juggling weird objects with their feet) and yet appropriately alien.  Kudos to Springer for an excellent job on this.  Some of the Autobots want to go, but most realize that getting to the Autobots stranded on the moon has to take priority.   At least, until the advert shows Sky Lynx, who hasn't been seen in the book since issue 36.  Intrigued, they change course.

Inside the show, we get to see lots of aliens, both inside and outside of booths.  Only Optimus and Goldbug attend, due to lack of funds.  I'm actually a little surprised that Bob was allowed to just focus on his existing characters rather than introducing some of the 1988 toys.  Weren't there Decepticon Clones that needed to be featured, or Sixshot or Doubledealer or someone? If he wasn't going to be hawking wares, then this feels like a bit of a waste of an open canvas. Then again, I've got jaded 2010 eyes.  Clearly Bob is using this opportunity to do some house cleaning and tie up some loose ends, namely Sky Lynx and the human kids he rescued.  The human kids are being held against their will in a cage, being promoted by another human named Berko, who sounds like he should be a Headmaster partner himself. When Goldbug tries to just reach in to save them, he gets a nasty shock and Berko takes them to see the owner of the carnival, Mr. Big Top.  

Mr. Big Top is actually awesome.  He's a giant tentacled monster with a giant cigar.  He speaks like a blue-collar thug, and he has a ready answer for all of Optimus' concerns.  It seems that Sky Lynx and the kids signed a contract and are here, if not quite willingly, at least legally. He ushers them out into the show, having blown them off but at least given them a couple of passes to the main show.  The main show is fantastic, with some great art from Springer in the three massive rings of performers.

Sky Lynx gets top billing, and his acrobatics are appropriately spectacular.  Optimus and Goldbug visit him after the show, and he relates how they saw an advert for the show and so stopped in.  They had no money and were asked to leave, but Sky Lynx agreed to perform to cover their admission.  Unfortunately, it looks like Big Top has no intention of ever letting them go, since both the kids and the Autobot have turned into star attractions. 

Prime and Goldbug go to say goodbye to the kids, but Prime turns things around by listening to Berko's story and offering to take him back to Earth.  Berko agrees, and comes up with probably the worst plan ever.  Optimus interrupts Sky Lynx's act by leaping into the ring, while Berko and Goldbug go to free the kids.  Optimus and Sky Lynx fight off the other performers and the crowd goes wild.  The egotistical Sky Lynx then insists that they take a bow.  It's the polite thing to do, after all. Big Top goes after Goldbug, who's full of humans.  He chucks the Volkswagen aside like a cheap toy, then grabs all his occupants (including the teddy bear Daisy) and threatens to rend them limb from limb.   A woozy Goldbug gets back on his wheels and accidentally knocks Big Top into the now vacant cage formerly occupied by the kids.  Berko locks him in and off they ride.  On board the Steelhaven, the Autobots pat each other on the back, while the multitude of strange-looking aliens mock the newest attraction of the Cosmic Carnival, Mr. Big Top.

This is a mixed issue.  On the one hand, it achieves everything it sets out to do.  Bob wants to show us an alien carnival, and he succeeds admirably. Springer's art in particular works very well with this kind of story.  We get more aliens in this story than in any ten episodes of the cartoon.  We also get some very nice generic robots, during the exposition phase of the book.  It's also nice to get closure on what was happening with the kids, though one would have just assumed that they made it back safely absent any future stories.  The characters were fun, much larger than life, and the structure was solid.

On the other hand, most of the Autobots are trapped on the moon.  Ratbat has a working starship, and has significantly bolstered his ranks.  Scorponok also has a working starship, and has been shown to be setting up shop on Earth.  This story feels like a distraction from all of that. I don't begrudge Bob the opportunity to explore what an alien carnival might look like, though, as it's right up his alley and clearly everyone had a fun time putting it together.  Maybe I wouldn't mind so much if we didn't just have a horribly irrelevant filler issue.  Certainly issues 41 and 42 were momentous enough to warrant a breather.

Next issue, "Flash! Decepticon Skullgrin becomes Hollywood's latest movie star! 'Monstercon from Mars' premiers at a newstand near [me] in 30 days!"  It sounds like Bob is going to continue to explore the outskirts of the Transformers universe, rather than narrowing in on the core plot.  We'll see how that turns out.

Also, if you want the latest on The AllSpark Almanac II (preorder it today!) , the good folks at Radio Free Cybertron were kind enough to interview me on their last show.  Give it a listen, then let them know what you thought in the comments section.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Bish's Review: Marvel UK #88 "Target: 2006: Aftermath"

Issue #88 of the UK comic is a special that explores the aftermath of the events of Target: 2006. It was written by Simon Furman, pencilled by Will Simpson, inked by Tim Perkins, lettered by Richard Starkings, coloured by Gina Hart and edited by Ian Rimmer.

The cover was by Geoff Senior and it rocks! The three Autobot triple-changers brandish their weapons at the viewer and look ready to take on all-comers or die in the attempt. This is the sort of dynamism that has been missing from the some of the more "cut-and-paste" covers of the previous few issues and as such it really stands out. My only complaint was that since this issue is a summing up of where we are at the end of this massive story then a more general cover might have been more appropriate, as this only illustrates one of the plot threads. It's such a good image though that I do not really mind.

We start with the characters from the last issue standing around the wrecked space cannon. A narration in an ominously wobbly bubble talks of being content. We are then shown an iconic location for Transformers fans, the monitor-covered central brain of Unicron himself. He talks of how Galvatron is his puppet, how he escaped and time-travelled and, shockingly, how Unicron himself ensnared the minds of Blurr, Hot Rod and Kup and sent them after him. This is really just a narrative cheat that allowed Furman to use some of the movie characters without having to deal with the jump to 2006(or 5) but it serves a more important purpose in setting up Unicron as an incredibly powerful and manipulative big bad. This story was huge, but Unicron was merely a bit player. With a setup like this, the story he comes to the fore in is going to be a monster. The fact that he is narrating also helps to overcome the natural ennui of reading yet more of a recap. Ok, so we're just being put into the picture as to what has happened but it's by the dark God who orchestrated the whole thing!

Moving into a more normal storytelling style Ultra Magnus and the Earthbound Autobots exchange mutual congratulations and Ultra Magnus prepares to leave, although Operation Volcano has probably kicked off without him.

Back of Cybertron, the set-up for Volcano is complete. Emirate Xaaron gives a fake conference designed for Kickback to overhear and the Decepticons to attack in force, falling into a trap. This works perfectly, but as they prepare for the attack, there is a big worry among the Wreckers that Magnus will not make it.

Back on Earth, Laserbeak finally succeeds in digging Megatron out of the wreckage of Galvatron's base. He hauls himself angrily from his hole and says "I thirst Laserbeak... for revenge!" which is a line that just sounds like Frank Welker in your head no matter how many times you read it.

Meanwhile Ultra Magnus has to pass up a chance to meet Optimus Prime in order to catch his space bridge back to Cybertron and aid the Wreckers.

On Cybertron, the Decepticon attack is gearing up. We are introduced to a spiky fellow called Macabre (great name) who leads the assault. As the Decepticons approach the staging area, Impactor gives the order to "Wreck and rule!" but a spanner is about to be thrown into the works.

Before the Decepticons can strike Astrotrain arrives bearing a communicube from Megatron telling them to break off their attack and send the Insecticons to Earth, setting up the next US story "Aerialbots Over America". The only Decepticon who will risk ignoring Megatron is Macabre who sneaks up on the Autobot position with the intention of taking a sniper shot at Emirate Xaaron.

Just as he is firin, Impactor notices and shoves Xaaron out of the way, taking the full force of the blast in the head. Macabre is immediately blasted by Autobot fire from all around but it is too late for the Wrecker leader. As he lays dying, broken wires and scorched circuitry spilling from a hideous wound, he names Springer his successor and calls Xaaron a wily old buzzard, for the last time. It's a great exit for a new character that we've really come to know and care over the past few issues, even if you couldn't buy him as a toy.

We do end on a relatively high note, however, as, returning to the Ark, we find Optimus Prime is alive and well. He counts the cost of events: Jazz lobotomised, although making a recovery, Grapple and Trailbreaker down, possibly forever in the case of Trailbreaker and the psychological damage of staring death in the face. In the face of this, Prime says, it is even more important to pull together and keep fighting so that "The Autobots will prevail!"

Target: 2006 is capped off in such a way that prepares us for future events. Unicron playing a bigger role is obviously the major one. What reader isn't going to be excited by that prospect? Furman leaves this story in such a way that, date issues aside, it does not contradict the movie (still upcoming in the UK at this time) and although events will not ultimately play out in the comics in the same way they do in the movie it was still possible for a fan to read Target: 2006 then watch the movie and not feel a discontinuity. (While this is not technically the order of events, it would take a really dedicated fan to watch the movie up to the point that Galvatron should time jump, then pause it long enough to read eleven issues of comic book before finishing the thing off!)

Most pleasing, for me at least, is the clear implication that we are going to see more of the Cybertron characters after this storyline. With Impactor's death Furman is obviously setting up further adventures for Xaaron and the Wreckers. They have proven to be an engaging band of characters (even if composed of some of the ropier toys) and strike me as the most memorable part of this epic storyline, with the possible exception of the nigh-indestructible Galvatron.

Do I have any criticisms? Well, despite all the page-space given over to it, even in this issue, the problem of whether Ultra Magnus will get back to Cybertron becomes irrelevant when Volcano does not go off as planned. He is not even present at Impactor's side when the Wrecker leader dies. We had almost half an issue dedicated to finding out whether the triple-changers can fill Magnus' giant boots but they are not involved either. The personal drama of Impactor's sacrifice is, of course, more interesting than a big battle would have been but it's a little disappointing to not see Ultra Magnus or Springer making an impact on events, given all the set-up that has been expended on them.

This leads me to wonder how much of this Furman had planned. It would make sense that when it came down to him writing the Operation Volcano issue he suddenly came up with the perfect exit for Impactor and wrote that without giving as much regard for his buildup as maybe he could have.

The other problem with the story is that Optimus Prime's rundown of Galvatron deprivations is slightly anticlimactic, no doubt because of being forced to adhere to the stories already laid out in the US. We have a dramatic picture of a braindead Jazz but are told that he is getting better, and Grapple will be ok as well. Trailbreaker is touch and go, but who really cares about Trailbreaker?

Once again Will Simpson's art is subpar for the comic as a whole. I will not say it is a letdown because by now I expect it from him. I can't keep repeating just why I dislike his messy line work and weirdly contorted robot faces, but I will give a shout out to his version of Unicron, who seems to be able to move his outer ring around his main body rather than having it fixed in place, which I think actually looks pretty dynamic.

Either way, I cannot be too critical of the storyline that gave us Galvatron, Ultra Magnus, Emirate Xaaron and the Wreckers, slightly structural wobbles aside, and overall, Target: 2006 remains a shining beacon in Transformers storytelling and probably Furman's second best run on any comic to date.  IDW's trade of Transformers: Target: 2006 is available from