Thursday, March 17, 2011

Review: Marvel G2 #1 - War Without End!

In May of 1991, the final issue of the Transformers comic from Marvel came out.  The universe wept.  But all was not lost!  A scant year and a half later, September of 1993, Transformers: Generation 2 #1 hit comic shops and newstands.  Even better, veteran scribe Simon Furman returned to writing duties. Art is by newcomer Derek Yaniger, with colors by Sarra Mossoff (goodbye, Nel Yomtov, you had a good run) and letters by Richard Starkings (with Gaushell).  The cover is by Yaniger as well.

The cover, available both with and foil, as was in vogue in 1993, is a pretty slick piece of work.  We get a tight close-up on Optimus Prime's face, with a smoking gun held up to it as if he's just fired.  There are a few bullets lodged in his helmet, and oil and fluids leak down.  "THIS is NOT your father's AUTOBOT." it states, borrowing from the classic Oldsmobile slogan.  Of course, in 1993, most kids father's wouldn't HAVE Autobots, but it gets the message across.  (Nowadays, though, that statement could be pretty accurate.  How many eight-year-olds have dads who played with Transformers?  A lot, I'd reckon.)  We also get our first hints of the new art style, though one still image can't really convey that.  It's an effective cover, though, violent, bold, setting itself apart from what went before enough that maybe you wouldn't be too daunted to pick up this book.

We open "many billions of light years from our galaxy..."  (Science geek interlude - the Andromeda Galaxy, the closest proper galaxy to us, is 2.5 MILLION light years away.  The most distant galaxy that we've observed is about 13 billion light years away, and the Hubble didn't spot that till just this year.  That means that some of the action in this issue takes place pretty much on the other side of the universe from us.)  Some new robots with an unfamiliar design are aboard a ship, and we learn that one of their outposts has been attacked, with no survivors. Their report segues into...

...a nice two page VERTICAL splash page.  Once again, we find that the book takes bold artistic choices.  It seems that some of our old pals the Autobots are responsible, and looking more bad-ass than ever before.  Sideswipe, in particular, looks amazing with his spiked wheels and his massive guns and swords.  There is an uncomfortable moment when a robot tries to surrender to hound, only to get shot in the back by Blades.  Hound himself almost gets fragged by a nasty looking robot whose vehicle mode is some kind of steamroller-tank, but the arrival of Grimlock (in Dino-mode... looks like Nucleon is no longer an issue) saves him.  The Dinobots help rally the troops and we see what they were fighting for, some blueskinned aliens who look almost as scared of the Autobots as they were of the enemy robots.

In true comic-book fashion, the fight serves as the backdrop to a philisophical argument between Blades and Hound.  Hound points out that the Autobots were almost as violent as those they were fighting, but Blades retorts that Hound is weak, claiming that the 'surrendering' robot was about to turn on him.  I've always liked this kind of confrontation.  Comic books can do it so well, and Furman does not disappoint.  Grimlock ends the argument, calling for an end to the infighting since, after all, they're all Autobots...

AUTOBOTS!  Remember, that was all told via a framing story, from what we now learn are Decepticons.  Their leader, Commander Jhiaxus (a pun off of Furman's prediction for the fate of the book... 'Gee, axe us!') explains to his subordinate Rook what Autobots even are... throwbacks, anachronisms.  He intends to "Bring them screaming into the present day!"  An intriguing notion, one that will be further explored.

Cut to Optimus Prime, having an apocalyptic dream which ends in him turning to dust.  While I'm not sure it was intended this way, it feels finally like familiar territory.  Everything that had gone before, these new dispassionate Decepticons, the incredibly savage Autobots, this all feels very new.  Not necessarily bad, but new.  But Optimus dreaming about the end of everything?  Yeah, we've seen this before.  When he snaps back to the present, he, Hot Rod, and Kup are all on 'a dead planet in the butt end of the galaxy,' which means that Jhiaxius was VERY far away from where we are now.  They've been summoned by Grimlock, but they don't yet know why.  He does feel that he needs to gather up his 'scattered Autobot army,' in light of his recent premonitions. 

We get treated to a bit of a recap of the G1 comic, in the form of an interesting splash page depicting many of the greatest threats the Autobots ever faced.  (While I mostly have warmed up to the artwork, I hate how stubby Shockwave is here.  It's an anatomical sin that Yanniger would occasionally fall prey to.)  Memory lane gets invaded by some more of the G2 Decepticons, prompting a quick battle.  With the enemies dispatched, Grimlock shows up and we see why Optimus was summoned here... a massive Decepticon installation. 

It seems that Grimlock's stumbled on something... big.  He's found seventeen Cybertrons all over the galaxy.  This planet the they're on now was a failed attempt to make one - Grimlock didn't expect there to still be guards.  Optimus quickly realizes that Bludgeon's little band couldn't possibly have anywhere close to the resources necessary to pull off a trick like this.  The problem is, in fact, a lot bigger than he's realized.

Indeed it is, Optimus, for at that moment Jhiaxus shows up with his starship, the not-yet-named Twilight.  I do rather love this scorpion-looking ship.  He blasts the Autobots from orbit, destroying their ships and bringing them aboard.  Soon Optimus and Grimlock stand before the second-generation Decepticon commander, who informs them calmly that he has chosen to not annihilate them from space but rather educate them as to the current state of Cybertronian affairs.

The war ended almost four million years ago.  Once Megatron was no longer in command of the Decepticons, a faction of them left the empty husk that was their world for greener (um... greyer?) pastures.  Only a 'token administrative presence' of 'small-minded tyrants' (cue picture of Straxus) was left behind.  DEstruction has become CONstruction.  Optimus, on some level, wants to believe it, but he just can't.  It's still all conquest and oppression.  Jhiaxus doesn't help his case much when he tries to clarify.  It's not so much that they hate other species, it's that lesser beings have no value to them.  If they can coexist with the Decepticons, great, if not, they're exterminated without malice.  In a way his cold indifference is far scarier than Megatron's anger ever was, because on some level it seems more realistic to me.  I have a hard time imagining an alien race showing up that just hates everything we stand for, but the idea that some hyper-advanced beings might bulldoze the Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass seems somehow more plausible. It's definitely an interesting direction to have taken the story, in any event.

(We also get a tiny, two-page interlude that lines up with the events of the G.I. Joe books.  The timing of the distress call might account for the rag-tag nature of the Autobots sent to stop Megatron.) 

In his cell, Optimus feels very small.  Grimlokck snaps him out of it, with violent rhetoric (accompanied, rather inexplicably, by a flashback to Buster facing off against Ratbat) and a violent prison break.  The Autobots, rather effortlessly it seems, shake off their bonds, arm themselves, cripple the ship, and make their way to the shuttles.  Jhiaxus seems almost melancholy that Optimus has chosen to continue to fight rather than join him in the current, glorious empire.  Still, he's planned ahead.  Pursuit craft have already been launched, so he's well positioned to track them back to their lair and destroy them all.  Hmmm.... I'd start by looking on Cybertron, were I you, Jhiaxus.  Ah, well.  Optimus Prime, apparently free, makes his way back home, only his nagging doubts persist.  He can't shake the feeling that whatever his dreams are trying to tell him isn't about Jhiaxus... something far worse is out there!

Well... wow!  It's a big issue, worthy of being a #1.  Clearly this is no mere continuation of the Generation One storyline.  Sure, it's in continuity, but that tale seems to have been told.  This story is suitably new and epic, and even plays off of the idea of a Generation Two.  While it's not definitively spelled out yet, it does seem like Jhiaxus and his crew are from a very different era than Optimus, Megatron, and their respective armies.  Their cold indifference seems as far removed from Megatron as Megatron is from Optimus.  Even now, it's clear that a confrontation between Megatron and Jhiaxius' minions is inevitable.

The more mature themes, especially the rather savage fury of the Autobots in battle, are also welcome.  It's clear that Furman is aiming at a slightly older audience than he's targeted in the past.  Some of that is probably the contemporary success of characters like The Punisher, but creatively it works and helps differentiate this book from what went before.  

There are certainly some parts of it that are a stretch.  It's hard to believe that Cybertron would have been abandoned so completely that the events of the G1 comic went completely unnoticed.  After all, if there were a diaspora of Decepticons, you'd expect for them to spread out from Cybertron at the center, not go to the other end of the Universe and work their way back.  Still, I rather like the idea that the four million year time gap actually means something, that significant events happened during the long twilight sleep on the Ark.  (An aside... doesn't Shockwave seem like the kind of bot that would have done VERY well among the G2 Decepticons?  I can't help but feel that there's a fanfic in there somewhere.)

Also, the prophetic dream thing that Optimus experiences... I've decided that I don't care for it.  We've seen a bit too much of it in the latter days of Generation One.  It worked there, with the cosmic threat that was Unicron.  Here, though, it feels like we're treading on old ground.  That might not be such an issue if the rest of the book weren't so darned new and fresh and interesting. As it is, though, it feels out of place.

The art style is different than anything we'd gotten in the 7 year run of Generation One.  It's grittier, more violent.  At the time I didn't care for it, but I've come to appreciate it for what it is.  It's also a slick move, creatively, as it helps distance G2 from the G1 book that went before. The more mature themes of the book go along well with this newer, more stylized, darker artwork.  Wires and weapons are everywhere, and mistings of ink make the whole work feel worn, used, even dirty.  There's definitely a war on here. 

It's not just the pencils.  The coloring and lettering is also pretty top notch.  Notice how the flashbacks are flushed green, making them pop out.  Also, pay attention to the lettering.  The robot speech bubbles all have little markings on the side, with squares for Autobots, triangles for Decepticons, and trapezoids for Dinotots.  That must have been a lot of work, but it's appreciated.

So, there you have it!  A mostly very very good tale, not without flaws but basically a creative success.  By recasting Optimus in the role of a resistance fighter, rather than a great general, the stakes are ratcheted up.  It's a book that clearly acknowledges what went before but is charting its own future.  I think this is one of the more ambitious bits of Transformers storytelling, and so far that ambition is paying off.  War Without End! finally brings us back to reprint territory.  It was included in the Titan collection   Transformers Dark Designs , which is out of print but pretty reasonable second hand through  If you loved G1, I'd highly recommend you check out the first half of Generation Two.


Hans said...

The foil cover als opened up to show an... interesting battle scene :)

I remember being overjoyed by this comic when I saw in in the stands. It felt very different and familiar at the same time, and I was very happy Simon was writing it. The colors were certainly a huge improvement as well (I guess Marvel used slightly different printing techniques this time around).

But yeah, the familiar Transformers in a completely new and different universe, it was glorious. I still think to this day that the 12 issues of G2 are the best Transformers comicbook story ever told.

I do like the dreams that Optimus was having, as it indicated the G2 Decepticons weren't the only (and most dangerous) threat the Autobots were facing. And to me, slightly familiar ground was welcome in this brave new world :)

Anonymous said...

I was never impressed with the art on this series. Bold, yes that would be one word for it. Disappointing, confusing, messy, those were the words I used (or at least the polite ones). Marvel had a fashion at the time for "distinctive" styles, Jea Lee, Rob Liefield and Todd Mcfarlane spring to mind.

Had this series snared Geof Senior or Andy Wildman for the run I may have been more impressed.

I was also unimpressed with the print run for this series. I managed to get maybe 3 issues out of the full run. Marvel fumbled the ball for me and I was not sorry to see this series get cancelled a second time.

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

The problem wasn't so much Marvel as the retailers. The series came out pretty much at the point when the industry started to implode and retailers became a lot more cautious in their orders, especially for new series. Consequently they were cutting back their orders each month regardless of whether they were selling out or not.

I was lucky to catch up on most of the early issues thanks to the odd copy getting into the back issue boxes, but issue #2 was a total nightmare to find and I didn't eventually obtain a copy until a decade later.

Salt-Man Z said...

Likewise, I was able to pick up all of the series as it came out except for issue #6, which took me a long time to track down.