Monday, February 14, 2011

Bish's Review: Marvel UK #100 "Distant Thunder!"

As befits the hundredth issue, Distant Thunder! was a full 19 pages instead of the usual 11. It takes the time to fill in some backstory and gives us a closer look at Optimus Prime and his personal philosophy.

It was written by Simon Furman, drawn by Will Simpson, inked by Tim Perkins, Lettered by Anne Halfacree, Coloured by Steve White and edited by Ian Rimmer.

It has a special anniversary wraparound cover, drawn by Alan Davis which does not depict anything to do with the issue itself but instead goes for a more iconic view of a typical Transformers conflict. I feel like the image of Optimus Prime knocking Megatron's fusion cannon aside while they clash in hand-to-hand combat is a much-repeated image. Where else have we seen it used? The cover is fairly spectacular and mostly speaks for itself, so take a look up-page.

Distant Thunder! begins where we left off: with Outback dying in Optimus Prime's arms and the Wreckers still on the hunt as they believe Prime to be a Decepticon spy. The little Autobot does not have much time left and Prime realises that with the Wreckers' search still going on he has little hope of recovery. To keep Outback's spirits up Optimus tells him a previously untold story in the Autobots' recent history: exactly what happened while the chronally displaced Transformers were sent to the other dimension by Galvatron's time-jumping.

Prime describes a world where cybernetic and organic technology mingles in a nightmare jungle of cables and wires. The inhabitants are simian in appearance but heavily augmented by various attachments and implants. The Autobots find themselves fighting a seemingly endless horde of these beings and are barely holding their own because they are reluctant to open fire. Prime is about to reconsider his no-killing philosophy when there is a colossal flash of light and a group of Decepticons appear. The Decepticons, of course, have no compunction about using lethal force and the tables are soon turned. This is portrayed in a scene that while tame by comparison to modern comic books is actually shockingly violent in a children's book from the 80's. There are multiple panels showing the monkey-things scorched, burnt or exploded to death. There is no blood, but plenty of burning fur and exploding circuitry. Prime is horrified and calls it a "charnel house" which certainly doesn't detract from the imagery - Check it out and make your own judgement:

Interestingly it is Shockwave, rather than any Autobot who first suggests an alliance to figure out how to get home. Prime is initially too caught up with rage at the Decepticons' casual approach to killing an unfamiliar species but is persuaded by the logic of the suggestion and tells Shockwave (and the reader) what has been happening before the Decepticons appeared:

It emerges that the Autobots have been here a while. They have made contact with the Cloran - a peace-loving faction of the monkey-things who begged the Autobots to help them stop an invasion by their neighbours - led by the vicious and evil Zenag. Zenag proposed a counter-offer. He has the machine that will take the Transformers home and is willing to give it to them in exchange for his invasion force being allowed to advance. Prime, of course, refused, which brought them to today's battle, but Shockwave is unimpressed by this solution and tells Prime he will deal with Zenag himself.

Prime tells him to stop because it was not simple principle that kept him from dealing with Zenag. There was also the matter that the evil being simple could not be trusted - much like the Decepticons. Here Prime begins to have suspicions about the scenario, but we do not yet know the specifics. Shockwave waves these concerns away and the Decepticons fly off to retrieve the device.

The Decepticons accept Zenag's offer and come back to finish off the Autobots so his army can pass. The ensuing battle looks like a massacre as Frenzy's sonics lay waste to all before him but as the Decepticons are savouring their victory, Ratchet springs a surprise attack and reveals that the Autobots, correctly guessing the Decepticon strategy, have shut down their audio sensors and are merely playing possum. The Decepticons are completely off-balance and easily vanquished. "Heck!, Heck!, Heck!" yells Frenzy, but you get the impression that if this had not been a kids' comic he would very much have liked to have said something stronger - this was before the days where there was an entire lexicon of censor-safe Transformers swears.

With the Decepticons defeated Prime once more tries to get Shockwave to listen to reason. It is Prime's theory that the plight of the Cloran is too close to being a complete retread of the Autobot - Decepticon war and that they are being manipulated somehow. As Shockwave is considering this Zenag appears and orders him to fight. Shockwave tells him that they are not slaves and that he should destroy the Autobots himself. Zenag is enraged and attacks Prime who tells him that he is unarmed and defenceless. The monkey-thing tosses Prime all over the place and looks close to killing him before he orders Shockwave to do it. Shockwave points out that this is illogical as Zenag has Prime at his mercy. Zenag tears a gash from Prime's side and tells him to fight back, but does not actually kill him. Prime comes close but ultimately holds firm and Zenag vanishes, even as he flails at the Autobot leader. The world fades away and is replaced by a black void, in which the Transformers are floating.

They all have disgusting green parasites attacked to their heads - parasites that seem to be withering and dying. Ratchet theorises that these creatures were feeding off of violent emotion and growing stronger as the Cloran scenario became more violent. Prime agrees but reveals a chilling coda to this theory as he shows that his side is still damaged. If these creatures obtain enough power they are able to actually manipulate reality. The truce was only called just in time...

The action cuts back to Prime and Outback on Cybertron and Optimus realises that his own story has given him the correct course of action. He surrenders to the Wreckers and begs them for Outback's life, calling him a "truly heroic Autobot". Prime does a bit of soul-searching here when he castigates himself, in front of the Wreckers, for fighting back against his fellow Autobots and dragging an innocent into his "personal war". He tells the Wreckers that he will not fight back but begs them for Outback's life. If his own death saves one more Autobot then it will not have been in vain.

Just then, Ultra Magnus appears with Emirate Xaaron. Apparently he has had suspicions that this might actually be the real Optimus Prime since observing him covertly last issue and fetched Xaaron to get his judgement. Xaaron wastes no time in embracing Optimus and welcoming him home.

It is a good place to end the hundredth issue - bringing the Earth Autobots and the Cybertron Autobots closer together and hopefully in a way that will change things for both of them.

As a landmark issue I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, one of the stories is pretty good, and pleasingly out of the ordinary. On the other, I feel that perhaps it is a little too incidental to fulfil this role and the framing device is much weaker.

Then again, there is no law that says that an anniversary issue must be groundbreaking and taken on its own merits there is a bit to like. We get another good look into the psyche of Optimus Prime and his overwhelming nobility in the face of impossible odds. The Decepticons are as nasty as ever but for once Shockwave actually lives up to his own hype and does the "logical" thing. Unlike in the framing story, the characterisation is rock solid and the story intriguing enough to be a decent page-turner. I am not convinced that Prime is given enough clues to come to the conclusion he does, but the same point would have been reached eventually, and something was bound to fall by the wayside a little in trying to tell two stories, even with an expanded pagecount.

I am a big fan of the illusionary world that is depicted here as the blending of the organic and the technological is always a good bet for effective (sometimes nightmarish) imagery. I was wondering at first why the parasites chose such a meld for their illusion since we had seen nothing like it before in the comic but perhaps it happened as a side-effect of mixing their own organic thoughts with those of the Transformers. One could also question why the illusion wasn't more complete - why didn't they simply pit Autobot and Decepticon against each other in a more recognisable scenario - but then, since we're not really given any information about their capabilities, this feels like nitpicking.

What does not feel quite so much like nitpicking, however, is the damage I feel that this storyline is doing to Optimus Prime's character. A lot of the following criticism is more about the previous two issues but taking these three as a whole I find there is much to say. I have no idea why Furman seems to be reiterating the idea that running away from Magnus' firing squad was somehow a weak thing to do. Yes it is unfortunate that Outback was injured in the process, but that was a random event - the sort of thing that happens in the sort of war that Optimus Prime is used to fighting. I understand his war-weariness, the guilt over the countless lives that have been lost while he survives, but while this makes him a believable and sympathetic character, it does not make him the great leader we are constantly told he is. Furman writes Prime's dilemma as either flee and leave Outback to his fate, or stay with him and wait for the end. The obvious third option: "stay with Outback and hope to get another chance to chat to the Wreckers later" only presents itself after Prime thinks back to his story. Are we really supposed to believe this is a real dilemma?

I am not against a storyline that puts such a character through the wringer and makes him question his decisions - that is good drama and it is always worth shaking these types of character up - the problem I have here is the idea that Prime did anything wrong during the firing squad escapade. He was unable to convince the Wreckers of his innocence so he ran, to hopefully convince them another day. That makes sense. Dying might have saved Outback's life but it would have been a colossal waste, both of Optimus Prime's life and possibly the entire Wreckers unit, and Ultra Magnus, if the truth ever got out.

Ultimately, thanks to Ultra Magnus (and some convenient writing), Prime gets to have his cake and eat it anyway, as he convinces the Wreckers of his innocence and saves Outback's life, further undermining the pointlessness of this whole scenario. Although Furman frames this story as a great personal journey for Prime he ultimately gains nothing - no insight he did not already have. A better lesson for Optimus to learn would be that you can't save them all, not that it is better to take the easy way out than face having the death of another on his conscience. He is a leader - a general, for want of a better word, and although he should not ever forget the value of the lives under his command, his willingness to die pointlessly is more than a little troubling. It is not his "personal war" and he is not the only one fighting it. While he may call the shots more often than not he did not start the war and the burden of fighting belongs on all Autobots. To think otherwise is monomaniacal and extremely dangerous to the bigger picture.

Furman is clearly fond of this storytelling device. Not only do these parasites come back in later stories but he also reuses the entire "aliens which feed on hate" plot for his halloween special in Generation 2. Look for Jim's review of that in the coming weeks.

I was also struck by the similarity of the story (sans framing device) to a number of classic Star Trek episodes. It is basically Day Of The Dove, with a large slice of The Cage, and perhaps a pinch of Wolf In The Fold. The Generation 2 storyline is actually closer to Day Of The Dove than this is, but I'll mention it now in case Jim doesn't. I'm not going to criticise the story based on this. It's different enough not to be a rip-off (and in any case, Day Of The Dove ripped off Wolf In The Fold) but I'm fairly sure it's at least a homage (I'm sure there are other science fiction stories about beings that feed on negative emotions, but sometimes it felt like Trek did it every other week). I always like it when Transformers branches out into the space opera arena and this is certainly one of those times, giving the characters a credible alien threat to face other than each other.

Simpson's art, for once, is not really a source of complaint. It is still not my preferred style but I quite like his rendition of the techno-organic jungle and the Transformers, while still not exactly "on-model" do start to bear a stronger resemblance to their more conventional appearances. The colouring is typically solid, save for one panel on the second to last page where Prime's head is white for some reason. The speech bubbles in the illusionary realm are yellow, presumably as a clue that there is something wrong. This isn't remotely necessary and probably passes by unnoticed on first reading, but is a nice demonstration of a technique that can only be used in comic books.

This issue is a strange one. I really like the one-off story at its centre but strongly dislike the framing story, which has, for the last three issues, squandered a potentially exciting plot by smothering it in wrong-headed psychological trappings. This feels like an attempt to add depth but really just expose that Furman's approach to the Optimus Prime character, at least at this point in his Transformers run, is the wrong one to take. A thoroughly incorruptible character like Optimus Prime is a difficult character to make interesting and I feel that Furman has the germ of a good idea here, one he will expand upon much more successfully later in the book's run, especially in his US issues. Ultimately, however, he takes the wrong road and ends up undermining the character he sought to strengthen by making him seem self-absorbed and borderline suicidal.

Next week we are promised Fallen Angel! which means nothing to the new viewer but is very exciting if, like me, you know where we are headed. I'm looking forward to it!


John D said...

Great review.

I remember being quite taken with the dust up on the cover. Did the guy who drew that do much else on the comic? The only time in the whole run that we got an actual ruck even close to that was, I suppose, at the start of the Underbase saga.

I agree that this issue was a weird one and I remember the artwork in this issue being borderline repulsive (I was 7)! Probably Simpson's finest hour to be fair as he produced something that has stuck with me to this day.

The shift in artist from Senior in the previous issue to Simpson was also pretty jarring. As a 7 year old kid I remember thinking that the hug between Xaaron and Prime in the last panel had been drawn really awkwardly.

Lastly, re the swearing, I remember I used to live in fear of there being a "heck" on the cover in case my mum thought it was rude. Ha ha! Innocent days.

Bishbot said...

Thanks for the kind words. The cover artist, Alan Davis, has only done one other Transformers piece: the cover of the hardcover version of Titan's collection "Showdown"

I used to think "heck" was pretty rude as well although these days I'm always amazed that intent appears to mean nothing to censors as long as the actual words aren't said. I mean, in "Animated" we get Sentinel Prime's: "Don't just stand there with your pistons in your servos!" I don't disapprove, I think it's hilarious, but it seems very arbitrary.

Didn't really look that closely at the last panel but yeah - they look like two guys that don't really want to be hugging...

Anonymous said...

for me, of all the artists doing regular work for Transformers (and Marvel UK in general) Simpson's work was among the most unique. And while I can see why some people dislike it, I was a big fan. I first read this story in the "collected comics" edition that used to come out in the holidays so I got the whole prey saga together. I didn't think prime was as off as this review implies, in fact it was nice not to see the 2d version we were getting from the American version at the time.