Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Review: The Marvel Comics Transformers continuity (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Comics)

On November 20th, 2008, I posted my very first review to this blog, the first issue of the US G1 Marvel Comics run of Transformers.  Now, more than two and a half years later, it's over, finished!  Yup, it's the END of the ROAD for this series of posts.  I've gone through every issue, all the mini-series and crossovers and even the collections, and looked at what made them good and what made them bad.  I've tried to be objective, to frame my comments in a historic perspective, and to share my own recollections and experiences with the books.  Hopefully you feel that I've succeeded to some degree.

So, now, looking back, the question becomes: what do I think of the series as a whole, and how did it touch me? Well, it started back around early 1985.  Eight years old, I was shopping at a Pathmark grocery store with my mother.  That Pathmark was a kind of low-end, dingy grocery store and I didn't particularly care for it.  By then I was already really into Transformers from the cartoon and from the toys, so when I saw the comic in the magazine section of this store I knew I had to have it.  It was #5, The New Order, and it was almost too intense for me.  Don't get me wrong, I liked it, but it was so dark!  I also had the sense that there was much backstory I was missing, and I didn't really like that.

My next Transformers comic was a three-pack of comics, #13-15, sold at Toys R Us.  I liked these a little more.  They seemed more like the stuff I was watching on TV.  They weren't as engaging as number 5, but they were more familiar.

I don't remember exactly where I got my next comic, G.I. Joe and the Transformers #1.  It might have been Toys R Us, not positive on that.  Watching the shows, it was clear (to me) that they must take place in the same universe.  After all, they had similar voices, like Cobra Commander and Starscream, and the music was nigh-on identical.  One of my buddies who was into G.I. Joe also claimed that some Joe characters showed up in an episode, but I was skeptical.  (I shouldn't have been - he was probably referring to the Oktober Guard, guesting in the episode Prime Target.)  This issue left me flat, though.  I'm not sure what I was expecting, but this wasn't it.  Bumblebee went down too easily, and there was too much of a Joe focus for my tastes.

I was off the Transformers comics for a good long while at this point.  Playing over at a buddies house, he mentioned that he had a Transformers comic.  It was issue #47, Club Con.  I asked to read it, and I was confronted with "I'm Starscream.  Fly me!"  What???  And then the whole story is about some chick?  No, thank you, not for me.  I remember liking that Starscream was in it, though.  The stars of the previous books I had read were more obscure than the guys I really liked.  Also, Starscream was pretty much dead (well, undead) by that point in the cartoon, so it was interesting for me to see that the comics and the cartoon were in two different universes.  I think I finally got that by this point.

The next one is the one that really did it for me, though.  July or so of 1990, Transformers were on life support.  By now I was 14, and wasn't really outgrowing Transformers though there were some hints from peers and family members that maybe I should.  Still, they'd kind of moved on without me.  There weren't any new shows on TV, and the toys had been shockingly bad for a while.  I remember looking at Monster Pretenders in some kind of small toy store while on vacation somewhere, perhaps Reno, and thinking to myself how chintzy they were.

So, there I was, just done with some kind of church activity and waiting for a ride from my parents to go home.  Standing around in front of a church, especially when you weren't really religious, isn't super fun, so I walked across the street to a drug store where I had once or twice absconded with a Playboy magazine.  (I wasn't a bad kid, I was just embarrassed.)  I was standing by a rack of comics, looking to see if the shopkeeper was distracted when I saw a Transformers comic, issue #69 to be precise.  (Haha, 69 and I was eying the girlie magazines!)  I guess I'd probably seen other Transformers comics occasionally, but the cover really caught my eye.  Optimus?  Galvatron?  UNICRON!?  Grimlock, Starscream, Shockwave, Ravage?  I know these guys!  They weren't weird Pretenders or tiny micromasters.  I flipped through a page or two and I was hooked.  I paid for it (See?  Not a bad kid.) and brought it home and read it two or three times.

In fact, I got so into it that I begged for a trip to the comic shop, which I'd mostly only used to rent bootleg anime videos.  Sure enough, issue #70 was on the stand and that was even better.  I bugged them, calling practically every day till issue #71 came out.  (At some point they took the time to explain that Wednesdays was when new books come in, so that's the day I should call.)  The quality was just so damn good that my obsessiveness started to kick in, and I began to look for back issues.  I bought some from my friend who had showed me Club Con, but he didn't have that many.  In the days before eBay, hunting a comic collection meant driving around to all the local comic shops.  Fortunately, this was 1990 and comic shops were everywhere.  Before the end of the run, I had tracked down every single issue and devoured them.  This included Universe, Headmasters, and the Joe crossover, but not the Movie adaptation.  I didn't see the point.

Speaking of Universe, I loved those books.  I absolutely loved them.  I'd make lists of which characters had profiles published since, and when I got a new backissue I'd eagerly flip to the back to see which new characters were examined this week.  It's safe to say that this is where my love of animation models got started.

But back to the main story!  The new comics revitalized the dying embers of my love for Transformers.  Suddenly they were all I could talk about again.  Oh, how crushed I was when I found out the comic was ending.  By now I was back in stores, buying new figures again, even trying to track down old figures.  Again, pre-eBay.  If I thought comics were tricky, they were nothing compared to toys.  I looked through penny saver magazines and did garage sales and would scour dealer rooms in conventions, because I had quickly exhausted what meager supplies the local comic shops had.  Yes, the figures were a LOT cheaper than they are now, though of course some of that is just that they were only 6 years old and not 26 years old.  But they were impossible to find!  I remember tearing my room apart looking for old catalogs just so I'd know who to search for, and being thrilled when some guy in a magazine posted that he had all the Predacons for sale. 

My interest sustained itself, mostly by my own force of will, and then in 1993 something wondrous happened.  My good buddy Bill, co-author of many of my books, was working in a comic shop and he told me that G.I. Joe that month had Megatron in it.  Guh?  Really?  It was hard for me to know if he was serious, though, since the issue was polybagged.  (Polybagging, something I do NOT miss from the early 90s.)  But then the next month, Megatron was right on the cover.  Transformers were back, baby!

I also remember, around this time, my parents being very disappointed when my friends burst into the house excited that Transformers were back in stores.  They were hoping to keep that a secret so that I could have an amazing Christmas.  That might be the last time that my folks knew something about Transformers before I did.

The second G.I. Joe crossover, which I absolutely loved, soon gave way to   Transformers, Generation Two. It was written by Furman, whom I'd come to love, but what was up with the art?  I was definitely a Wildman man at the time, not a Senior man, but this art seemed completely orthogonal to what had come before.  I wanted to love it, I really did, but at best I tolerated it hoping it would get better.  With time, I came to appreciate the art and enjoy the story, but when G2 ended a scant year later I was far from devastated.  Maybe wistful is a better word.  Mostly I had hoped it would recapture the magic that was #69-80, and it didn't quite do that.  By now, though, it was 1994.  I was at college, and naturally I'd brought some Transformers with me.  It wasn't long before I discovered alt.toys.transformers, and I could finally chat with like-minded individuals about my passion.  

So, what did Transformers comics do for me?  I think it's fair to say that they nurtured and eventually ignited the lingering flames of passion for these metal titans that began in childhood and stayed with me to this day.  The cartoon was fun, but the comic was EPIC.  For a long time, there were only two real visions of Transformers in the fandom, and I was definitely in the minority comic camp. 

(Since then, of course, I've come to embrace the multiverse.  To this day, though, I think it was incredibly shrewd of guys like Bob Forward and Larry DiTillio to ambiguously place Beast Wars in the future of BOTH continuities.  Alienated no one and definitely helped convince me that Beast Wars had some merit.)

Absent picking up #69 that fateful day, I'd probably not be writing this article today, and would instead be posting on a Battlestar Galactica or a Babylon 5 forum.  (Not that I never do those things, they just don't consume all that much of my time.)  Transformers comics helped me fine and develop both rich friendships in the community and an extremely satisfying second career as a writer.  They moved me so that I took a 10 hour bus ride up to Rochester, New York in 1997 to meet Simon Furman and Andrew Wildman, which was one of the highlights of my year.

Reading back over this, this isn't so much an overview of the comics as an overview of how the comics have impacted me.  I think that's appropriate, I suppose I've mostly said what there is to say about the books.  However, I feel compelled to give at least a cursory overview.  In a nutshell, you've got about five big eras.  #1-12 kick things off, establishing the universe and generally being quite good.  #13-55, while varied, tend to explore similar themes with varying degrees of success.  By the end, though, it was clear that Bob was getting pretty bored of the universe and was ready to move on.  #56-80 brings in the space opera and generally kicks up the quality, especially if you like that kind of story.  And then there's G2, which was closer to 56-80 in scope but tonally very different.  It comes to over a hundred issues when you add in the ancillary books.  I think each era has its charms, and on the whole the tend to work well together.  Even G2 isn't quite so jarring with the Joe book bridging the gap.  100 issues is a lot for comics, so having tone shifts isn't inappropriate.

Most comic runs can't tell a single huge story with that many books, and Transformers doesn't try to.  Instead, the action comes in waves, with big issues like #12 or #41 or #50, but also may smaller issues peppered in-between. Sometimes they are build-up, sometimes they are stand alone, but it gives the overall story a nice rhythm.  Both Budiansky and Furman are quite good at establishing pace, and it helps the book stand the test of time. To me, it's no accident that a book originally slated to be a four issue mini-series would go eighty whopping issues, plus multiple mini-series and a sequel.

Final verdict time!  Transformers is not the best book you'll ever read.  There are some amazing runs out there, like Neil Gaiman's Sandman or the Peter David run on The Incredible Hulk or Chris Claremont's Uncanny X-Men.  However, it's a surprisingly solid story about giant robots from outer space who can look like cars or planes or mechanical dinosaurs or 20 foot tall guys in space suits.  Having two disparate visions, which helped torpedo the War of the Worlds series, here makes the whole stronger.  Bob's vision of car washes and car-thief supervillains and even pro-wrestlers provided a solid foundation, grounding the universe in a way that allows Simon's space epic to have all the more emotional resonance.  It remains one of the strongest single Transformers continuities out there, and should be required reading for any fan of Transformers: Generation One.



It's been an absolute pleasure reviewing these books with you.  I want to thank each and every person who took the time to post a comment or drop me an email about these reviews.  It was extremely gratifying to have a dialog going about my thoughts on these books.  I turn this space now over to my colleague Chuffer and look forward to his excellent Death's Head reviews.  

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Despite being a few years younger then yourself, I got into Marvel continuity much the same way, owning so few issues at the time they came out that I could count them on one hand (10-12, Headmasters 2, and 56), until I found #78 on one of my last BSA camping trips on Kelly's Island in Lake Erie (incidentally, could Animated Dinobot Island be loosely based on that real location? It has a huge glacial gorge not unlike that volcanic crater. Sorry, I haven't gotten around to reading the Allspark Alminac yet, shame on me...). Before that, I had the attitude that I just plain didn't read comics, but would occasionally check in to see what was going on in that universe, like many casual soap opera fans. "Savage Circle", however, made me realize that I'd been foolish to ignore this whole other universe in favor of blurry memories of the cartoon that I only saw about 2/3 of anyway, and I decided right then and there that I'd follow this continuity from now on, eager to see where these Furman and Wildman guys would take it next!

It had actually been on the racks a while, so I only had to wait a week and a half to find out.

Slag.

In addition to the news in #79's letters page crushing that newfound enthusiasm, I read that issue when I did to try and cheer myself up immediately after the visitation for the first death in my family: the grandma whose house I used to go to every weekend. I was 11, and my whole damn childhood just died in the space of 48 hours. '91 was one hell of a year.

And thus began, that summer, my great back issue hunt, parallel to yours. #39-60 in general took a few years (not sure if I knew how the Underbase Saga ended until after G2 came and went), but by the end of '91, I'd slammed a good 6 years of Marvel continuity into my brain in as many months, cementing my loyalty to it over the cartoon.

I used to think this made me an oddball amongst comic loyalists who must've followed it from the beginning, but your story makes me think that maybe reading the whole shebang in a short time after the show had been cancelled a few years makes that loyalty the strongest. When I rented TFTM in '92 for the first time since '88, the shuttle attack left me twice as shocked as when I saw it in the theater, simply because Ratchet's head was all screwed up: the REAL Ratchet, who'd gone through the wringer in a universe that forced him to suicidally go one-on-one against Megatron as often as Optimus, did not have a white helmet and black boomerang, but a red helmet and white boomerang. I mean, I'll always love the cartoon, but when the comics filled the void left by its cancellation deprived me of it for 6 years, certain elements of it were rendered wrong in my mind.

Incidentally, as much as I wanted Dreamwave to succeed, the moment I saw that their G1 book depicted Ratchet with a cartoon-accurate head, I knew they were headed for calamity.

Sunbow's continuity may have had a more epic scope in certain ways, and it may have fleshed out most of the characters from the first 3 years a lot better, but Marvel made MY TF continuity, and no matter how many phases HasTak go through in which they'd just as soon ignore it (though they've thrown us some lovely bones with Straxus and Thunderwing lately) I will fight to keep its memory alive as best as I can, even if my efforts only amount to the tiniest fraction of what you've done on this blog.

-Bumblevivisector

Arkvander said...

It is always interesting to find out how a Transfan is created and your back story is no exception.

Like yourself I only had a peripheral interest in Transformers around the time #69-#80 were in stores. I happened upon #76 one day in a comic shop and was immediately hooked to the comic universe. It has taken me 20 years but I finally obtained the last issue in the series last November. It is truly a sprawling epic that no Transfan should ignore.

I'm glad that the comics helped inspire you to become who you are; without people like you the fiction that supports the brand and gives it life wouldn't be as rich or complete as it is today. Thanks for all you do for the community.

Bishbot said...

Looks like these comics were a big deal for a lot of us in our rediscovery of Transformers.

My hobbies and fandom would be complete different if, at the age of about 16, I hadn't been browsing graphic novels in the local library and picked up Primal Scream, quite by chance. I had no idea of the context, but I remembered Transformers from being a kid and thought it'd be some fun nostalgia. Of course it turns out that Primal Scream was EXACTLY the right book to randomly pick up because it's the start of the greatest story in Transformers history (and I'll fight anyone who disagrees), so I went straight into Matrix Quest and never looked back.

It really was an amazing coincidence though.

Salt-Man Z said...

My story is much the same. My first TF comic was #7 (and my brother's was #6), on vacation one time we got the #10-12 3-pack. Later my bro got #26 and I got HM #1. Then #35-36 came from somewhere. At a hardware story some time later, I chanced into #57. And then when I discovered Shinder's, I picked up #66, followed by every issue as they hit the stands (though I missed #69 at the time, and had to wait until Botcon '99 to finally track it down.) The first issue of my subscription, #72, arrived in the mail on my birthday, and with the help of my dad I was able to pick up almost all of the back issues (my dad would buy them all as we found them, and then I'd buy them off him as I earned the money.)

Anonymous said...

for me it was the UK continuity that got me into Transformers. The US stories (while holding the dominant power in terms of plot) just lacked something in terms of characterisation. Seen as one homogeneous whole I loved G1 comics, far more than the often silly TV show, but I've more of a soft spot for Furman and co.

Jimtron said...

It's funny how many of us have similar stories. Thanks Bumblevivisector, Arkvander, Salt-Man Z, Bishbot, & Anonymous for sharing.

John D said...

Yo Jimtron, I'm an avid reader from Scotland. It's been amazing reading reviews of these stories from an intelligent perspective. I recall when I first found this blog, on the way to a friends wedding 2 summers ago. Its been a fun part of my life since then. Perhaps you will get involved in the Marvel UK reviews?

I am just back from seeing Bayformers 3 at the cinema. A world away from the wealth of characterisation in the G1 comics - after watching the film my friends could only name Optimus Prime and Megatron. Even Ironhide and Starscream , who get a touch of personality (eg 5 lines each) - were lost upon them.

The only other comics I read are Judge Dredd and even then I am very out of date -I read my brothers 200 ADs from the 70s and 80s. However I have noted with interest your mentions of other arcs which better "The Unicron Saga". I may seek them out.

Auto Assembly 2011 unfortunately starts on my wedding day! However I think I may have to indulge myself and sign up for 2012. It would be great to buy you a pint (or 4) if you come over for it.

Lastly - the whole point of this I suppose was first memories of Transfomers. I am told I used to jump out of bed to see the cartoon on a Saturday morning, and I recall getting Collected Comics 1 - 4 and being enthralled. But my clearest memory of holding a comic and enjoying it comes just after I turned 6. It's Snarl v Sludge in the Dinobot Hunt. I fell out of Transfandom for most of my 20s, so it was great to find this image again. http://tfwiki.net/wiki/Dinobot_Hunt!

Cheers

John D.