Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bish's Review: Marvel UK #150 "The Legacy Of Unicron" Part 5

The Legacy Of Unicron! Part 5 was written by Simon Furman, pencilled by Jeff Anderson, inked by Steve Baskerville, coloured by Steve White and lettered by Annie Halfacree.

The cover was by Jerry Paris and John Burns and, being the one-hundred and fiftieth issue, is a little bit special in that it's a wraparound poster style cover. I have been a little disparaging about the quality of the covers for this particular story as I do not feel they really do justice to the issues themselves. This, however, is different. The image depicted is not one that is actually from the story, or any one story, but it is iconic. On the front cover we have Hot Rod, floating in mid-air opening the matrix of leadership and bathing the viewer in its otherworldly light. This is actually quite a strange version of Hot Rod. Not off-model, as such, but not the way he is usually depicted. It does make him look like a religious figure, however, which is in the aim of the cover.

The back cover is more traditional and in some ways more exciting - a terrific picture of Unicron tearing into Cybertron's crust with his mighty claws. There's not a lot to be said here except that it recalls the towering imagery of Transformers: The Movie perfectly and is a very memorable piece. For once, the text embellishments to the cover are welcome as they invite as to witness "The Origin Of The Transformers" which makes the issue appear to be out of the ordinary, even though it is only Part 5 of a six part story and is not any longer than usual. "Origin" has long been a powerful word in the comic book industry. This is something that has also crept into other media with the recent rash of prequels for popular films and books, but I would suggest that comic books, and especially comic book movies, really started the craze, as they habitually tell and retell the origin stories of their iconic characters. Either way, any comic book fan with a passing interest in Transformers would have immediately picked up that this would be a big and important issue, which the wraparound cover complements perfectly.

Luckily the story itself wasn't a let-down: As Death's Head begins his desperate gambit to attack Unicron inside his own mind we find Wreck-Gar, alive and well, in a cavern beneath Unicron's head. He has piled up a very impressive amount of explosives and is muttering to himself in Mission Impossible and Star Trek quotations about his plan to blow Unicron sky-high. He is slightly confused that Unicron has not noticed his incursion but decides that he must have something else on his mind.

As we all knew, he does! A rather concerned and out of his depth bounty hunter to be precise! Death's Head tumbles through a colourful mindscape, as multiple images of Unicron guffaw at his expense. This is once again a triumph of art where Death's Head is concerned as Anderson manages to make his expression almost comically surprised, despite the relative immobility of Death's Head's face. It is totally (hopefully Death's Head won't kill me for this), adorable.

Unicron cannot help but be impressed by Death's Head's strength of will but cannot help but tell him how useless the effort was. As Death's Head's sanity is being stripped away, Unicron alters his mental environment to make it a little easier on the bounty hunter. All the better to gloat at an enemy who can understand what you are saying. Unicron announces his intention to return Death's Head to his mortal body and destroy him on the physical plane. Death's Head, growing desperate, but relying on Unicron's overbearing arrogance, keeps him talking by questioning his nature. Unicron cannot resist talking about himself so prepares Death's Head for the ultimate tale: The Origin Of Unicron!

In the sort of scene transition favoured by Furman, Rodimus Prime, aboard a shuttle travelling to Junk, is also wishing that they knew more about Unicron. He recounts the few facts they do have - he came from nowhere, tried to destroy Cybertron, the Matrix stopped him - which is also a convenient recap of the salient points of Transformers: The Movie. Tempers are not entirely settled aboard the shuttle. Rodimus cannot quite get over the fact that Smokescreen left Wreck-Gar on Junk and Smokescreen himself is prepared to avenge the Junkion if he never does anything else. The atmosphere is tense as they hurtle towards the rematch with Unicron.

Death's Head, meanwhile, is being treated to a full narration of the metaphysics of the Transformers universe. It appears that Unicron first emerged as a direct reaction to life ("the lifestain" - great word choice here) spreading across the universe, but as he set out to destroy life as it spread Primus, Lord of The Light Gods appeared to challenge him and they fought. The cosmic collateral damage from this battle threatened to destroy the very life that Primus had set out to protect and so he decided to catch Unicron in a trap. Pretending to be defeated he led Unicron in a merry dance through the astral plane which culminated in them both being trapped inside asteroids.

Both gods were rendered inert, almost powerless, but over millennia Unicron was slowly able to use his remaining strength to shape his asteroid prison into a version of his old body, so becoming the first Transformer, able to shift from planet to robot mode at will. However, Primus wasn't idle either, and also shaped his asteroid, not into a new body, but into a world that started to spawn its own life, robotic lifeforms who would one day challenge Unicron - the Transformers! Primus gifted them with his own life-force, the creation matrix, that could create new life as well as fight Unicron.

Unicron knew this and knew that if he were ever to consume Cybertron, he would need to secure the matrix first. Unfortunately the proxy he chose, Galvatron, proved too strong-willed and allowed Rodimus Prime to obtain the matrix and destroy Unicron's body. A spark of life remained and now, on Junk, Unicron is preparing his rebirth. He breaks off his story (although he had basically finished) as the Autobot shuttle screams into view and starts firing on his head. In order to deal with these "bothersome insects" he returns Death's Head to his physical body and starts firing on the Autobots using his powerful eye-beams.

He orders his minions to attack as well. The Junkions obey immediately but Death's Head is able to resist.

Meanwhile, below ground, Wreck-Gar has finished planting his explosives and prepares to leave the area, saying that it's "Goodnight from me, and goodnight from him", a catchphrase from British comedy duo, The Two Ronnies.

Unfortunately for Wreck-Gar, Unicron notices Death's Head levelling a weapon at him and blasts him at close range, smashing a hole in the ground and, unwittingly trapping Wreck-Gar beneath tons of falling rock, as the counter on the explosives continues to tick over...

"To be continued?" wonders Wreck-Gar. "In fact, to be concluded!" the "Next time" caption answers enthusiastically.

This is one of those issues (and one of those stories) that shape everything that comes afterwards. If you've been a Transformers fan for any length of time you're probably aware of the story of Unicron and Primus whether or not you've ever actually read these particular panels. Furman would recap, revisit and expand upon this story in his run on the US comic but the basics were laid down here.

The amount of creative control that Furman was allowed in this story is almost unthinkable when one considers the modern state of the Transformers brand. These days Hasbro has a gigantic, 400-page bible that encompasses all continuities and forms of media. All prospective creators who want to work within the Transformers framework are under close scrutiny to ensure the brand stays in the shape approved by the corporation. In theory, millions of dollars ride upon this tight control and it is necessary to stop maverick creators playing fast and loose with the characters and universe.

In the eighties, however, there was no official universe. There were official documents describing the characters but Unicron had no official comic book origin and the origin of the Transformers themselves was vague enough - "naturally occuring gears, levers and pulleys" - to be reinterpreted in a more interesting way. Pleasingly the comic was also allowed to be sufficiently divorced from the cartoon that Furman was not forced to use its explanation for Unicron's origin, as, to put it mildly, it lacks the majesty of the comic book version.

Nowadays the Transformers comic books are never really at the bleeding edge of official continuity but even if they were there is no chance that someone like Furman, working on his own little book - one that wasn't even going to be published in America, for Primus' sake - would be allowed to blaze a trail like this. Even though each comic book and each cartoon is officially in its own continuity, Hasbro would still very likely get nervous if a single creator laid down the law about something as fundamental as the origins of life in the Transformers universe. Witness, for example, the ultimate decision by Hasbro not to allow a comic book about the Original Thirteen Transformers to be published because they had not decided where they wanted to take that story yet. This stands in contrast to the eighties comics where it seems that Marvel would publish these stories before Hasbro had their say, which is why there were occasional differences in naming and colour-schemes between comics and newly released toys.

I am not necessarily coming out on one side or the other - I certainly understand why Transformers as a brand needs to be protected and nurtured. It is simply worth too much money for poor quality or contradictory story-telling to be allowed to harm the franchise without proper scrutiny (in theory - obviously everyone has their own opinion about what constitutes a good story). That said, without people like Furman sitting down at their desks (sometimes after the pub, if his stories at Auto Assembly are to be believed) and just thinking which cool stories could be told without having to run it past a committee, you probably wouldn't have an official continuity today, and it certainly wouldn't be the same shape.

Larger considerations aside, this is a rattling good read. A fair bit is given over to the origin of Unicron, of course, which alters the pacing a little, but this is a good time to tell us, as it gives us more of a sense of Unicron as a character before the inevitable final confrontation in the next issue. A nice subtle indication for possible future storylines is given in the artwork for the Unicron origin scenes. While the god version of Unicron looks basically the same as the Transformer version, Primus has a helmet and wing designs on his back that are very reminiscent of a certain Rodimus Prime. Unfortunately this would never really pay off in this continuity, but it was obviously designed to play a part in future storylines. Perhaps this is something that Furman's imminent continuation of the Marvel comic universe will deal with.

Other than that, the angst between Smokescreen and Rodimus isn't especially compelling but it serves to demonstrate that times are dark indeed, while informing us that the Autobots are arriving on Junk with a little more than a simple scene change. Wreck-Gar is fun as always, spotting the references in his TV talk is a game for the reader in itself and they are cleverly used here. Death's Head keeps his own sense of identity while serving as the catalyst for Unicron's origin story. I love how defiant he remains, even when horribly out of his depth. My only slight gripe about his part of the story is that Furman does not set up a scenario where it is particularly necessary for Unicron to tell his story. It's a good story, and a good read, but even Death's Head's taunting does not seem enough for Unicron to tell him his entire origin. Unicron in Transformers: The Movie was arrogant, because of his awesome power, but he wasn't quite the blowhard that Furman writes him as in this story.

Anderson's artwork is generally of a very high standard. He goes for a much more, shall we say, traditional approach than Dan Reed and the characters are very much more recognisable as themselves from the cartoon and various character models. The issue has also been very carefully inked by Steve Baskerville, who would go on to ink most of the later US issues and this, combined with excellent colouring work from Steve White, lends the whole issue an air of quality.


Anonymous said...

totally agree with the summary of 80's canon versus modern TF lore. Hasbro seem to have taken the position (NOW) that Transformers is THERE'S and therefore only they get to decide what is official, but in the 80's Hasbro didn't have a clue about what should or should not be included. Because THEY DIDN'T CREATE the TRANSFORMERS. Just about every aspect of modern TF lore was made by cherry picking the best of the last 25 years worth of material.

It says a lot though, that plenty of what has been adopted came via the UK rather than the US. Take that crappy animated cartoon!

Anonymous said...

Er- opinions vary of course, but it is true even the show's staff took from the writers and creators some of the most creative ideas (like the Matrix for starters).

I always liked Simon Furman's Primus/Unicron origin over the show's version. It has a beautiful and mysterious symmetry to it. I never liked the idea that the Quintesons created the Transformers. The slave idea was interesting but the Quintesons were overblown conniving dolts. I just didn't buy it.

Anonymous said...

Well, if you put an Astro-Magnum to my head and make me choose just one origin, it'll be Furman's every time, but the cartoon's version has it's merits. It's history was a bit more ambiguous, thanks in large part to my fav ep Call of the Primitives (of course, Beast Machines did its darndest to undo that by laying out the most godawful origin of all, but that's another rant), and a little ambiguity makes the largest number of fans happy. Ex: if Hasbro never decrees who became Cyclonus (though Takara made that fatal error a few years back), then the Skywarp and Bombshell camps can both KNOW that they're right.

Also, if you love the idea of Diaclone=prehistory, it's easier to work more of its concepts into the 'toon universe since the Quints likely sold piloted mechs as military hardware before figuring out how to bring them to life with Vector Sigma.

That's why the greatest thing about TF fiction is that there's ALWAYS been a multiverse, and no one continuity is "right". I need to stop bitching about "fair-weather-Transfans", but it just irks me so much when someone says "G1 continuity" without a modifier, because I know full well they mean the cartoon and don't care that any comics ever existed. The fact that Hasbro has embraced Furman's vision rather than pander to the casual majority who never have and likely never will bother to read it speaks volumes for it's awesomeness.

One final thing: is this original issue significantly scarcer than other UK books due to kids back in the day actually stripping the cover to use as a poster? Because I'd never deface any of the original comics, but I want that on my wall, dammit! Or did milestone issues get higher print runs?


Anonymous said...

I think the issue with the Hasbro connection is that back in the day, they were just a toy company. They relied heavily on Marvel to be the creative/marketing side of the partnership. And somewhere in the mix Sunbow got involved too, but mostly it was the various sides of Marvel. But as their various products have become more successful, Hasbro have brought on board more creative thinkers for marketing, to the point that they actually are capable of doing that stuff themselves.

but another reason for the paradigm shift from passive observers of their products, to active participants in building the lore, could be a shift in the very concept of the relationship between multi-media and product. Look at Star Wars as another example. There was not single voice at Lucas Arts directing plot for Marvel comics in the 70's and 80's, they could pretty much do what they wanted, but when they recognised that fans invest more into a coherent universe of characters, Lucas Arts took a much more hands on approach to not only characterisation and design, but plot as well. Very little published with the Star Wars name on it hasn't gone through the hands of Lucas himself these days (or so the legends go :))

My point is, toys sell better when they have a single coherent vision of the mythos as a marketing tool. And Hasbro have finally got that point, but rather than leave it to 3rd parties to direct that vision, they now seem to realise the burden of responsibility is theirs. Sadly this does handcuff creativity for some of the licensed material out there.

Anonymous said...


you were right first time, the milestone UK comics were the exact same price, UK readers just striped the covers off to make posters with them.

I think this was one of the issues I was forced to get in a collected comics special as the original back issue was unobtainable. Shame because I was just as interested in the back up stories as the Transformers stuff.



Tim Roll-Pickering said...

Except that Legacy never had a collected comics reprint. It did have a reprint in the weekly comic in the late 290s though.

(I remember a stress on that because I had the comic reserved at my local John Menzies but thanks to some cock-up or other the issue reprinting the second half of this one, with all the origin in it plus key developments in the other strips, somehow didn't end up in my folder and that week I couldn't get there to get one off the shelves as a back-up! For a few weeks I had a gap in my collection - then by the strangest coincidence I found a copy still on sale in a supermarket whilst doing the Christmas food shop.)

I wonder how many fans' approach to the "true" origin is coloured by which they encountered first? Certainly I've always found the Quintesson one silly and much preferred the Primus one - but I only discovered it many years after I'd experienced the Primus version in several forms, and the different ages when I discovered each may have been a factor.

Bishbot said...

Personally I'm not hugely bothered about which origin is "true". I think it depends which one works for the continuity it's in. I'd rather keep these things at least a little seperate. I like the idea of a multiverse, but I think ideas like Unicron being a "multiversal singularity" cause more continuity problems than they solve.

That said, I prefer the Primus and Unicron story to the Quintesson one because it's grander and makes more internal sense, but the cartoon continuity is a lot more lightweight than the comics. I'm sure that a skilled writer could rehabilitate the Quintesson origin and make it really compelling, and it's nice to have these different possibilities to discuss and revisit.

Anonymous said...

have to agree, arguing a "true" origin is going down the dark road of defining a "True fan" (a term I've discovered is only favoured by generation one TV series purists).

Coming from this as someone who got into the toys via the TV, the comic via the toys and back into the videos of the TV series via the comics years after the show had ceased to be aired on Television, I spent most of my time inventing and reinventing my own continuity, cherry picking elements from all of the above. Nothing for me is ever definitive, because we are discussing a fictional "multiverse", all of them are True, to their respective continuities.

The sole reason I favour the comics (British particularly) when nostalgically referencing G1 lore, is because of the issues I have with the way the other continuities were written. The US comic seemed flat and disinterested in including new toys in a sensible way, so often did it procrastinate on introducing ANY new elements, that they wound up being FORCED on the writer against their will. Resulting in sloppy, childish plots. The TV series had no continuity in my recollection, even within the same season writers constantly undid and contradicted each other's work.

Anonymous said...

I also agree because I think every fan finds different things to enjoy from the series.

The whole multiverse allows so called purists to either outright ignore what they hate or come up with their own pet theories (just as you said). In fact I think it's a pretty common thing to do.

Anyway, who's to say what a 'true fan' would be, how could you possibly benchmark that?