Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Ark Addendum - Transforms for Soundwave and Laserbeak

Continuing the theme begun two weeks ago, the detailed transformations for Laserbeak and Soundwave!

Soundwave's transform I've actually already published.  It showed up in Transformers: The Complete Ark  (order it today!)  It was tiny, thumbnail size, but nevertheless it was there.  I thought it was worth a closer look though, so here we go.

Because we'd seen it already, I coupled it with the Laserbeak transformation.  That one is brand new, though it's so simple that I didn't think it warranted its own page.

Don't forget to pick up Timelines #6, out a couple of weeks ago.  16 pages of AllSpark-infused Almanacky goodness!  I'll be in Burbank on 12/10 to promote it, see Emerald Knights for details.  I hope to see you there.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Death’s Head Review: Death’s Head II – The Wild Hunt #3: Outlaws!

The third instalment of the Death’s Head II limited series kept the same creative line-up: story by Dan Abnett; pencils by Liam Sharp; inks by Andy Lanning; letters by Peri Godbold; colours by Helen Stone; and the editor was John Freeman.

The front cover competes with the previous issue for non-action. Minion and Tuck – a feisty redhead wearing a skimpy costume, some large tattoos and a number of blades – are posing in a forest, doing nothing but looking directly ahead with grim expressions. Minion is wearing a medieval tunic and bearskin cloak which, considering he doesn’t need to wear clothes, looks like a terrible disguise or a strange affectation. The captions tell us “On the run in the far future … Death’s Head and Tuck are partners in crime”. As we don’t know who Tuck is, and the swords and trees don’t look too futuristic, this doesn’t add much.

As with last issue, the back cover has a better idea, but a worse execution. Minion is off-centre and awkwardly posed, duelling swords with a muscled opponent who is almost standing behind him. Tuck and Dr Necker (one of whom we don’t yet know, the other we wouldn’t recognise) are in the background, and the caption promises, “Swords, sorcery and big guns!”. The image looks like an interior panel and looks like some speech balloons have been removed.

The story begins in 3442AD on the forest planet of Lionheart. An unseen narrator explains how a caravan train (drawn by dinosaur beasts, rather than horses) is travelling warily though the forest. As feared, they are attacked by swashbuckling bandits led by Minion – who is calling himself The Hood.

Inside one of the wagons, a group of nuns suddenly produce weapons to “Lock and load – and blow those stinking robot outlaws apart!” (none of them actually have guns – which we learn are prohibited on Lionheart – but I guess the gag took precedence over story consistency). The Mother Superior gets the drop on Minion, but is stabbed in the back by another nun, who throws off her wimple to reveal Tuck in disguise. She has been tracking The Hood for months and wants to join the band.

In the aftermath of the battle, Tuck gives her reasons for joining with some heavy exposition: the King of Lionheart is fighting a crusade light years away, while the corrupt authority exploits the people to enrich themselves. ‘The Hood’ and his band are the only ones fighting back. Minion explains that his band of cybernetic outlaws are united by the laws that forbid artificial sentients, not by any high ideals. Tuck reveals that she is also artificial – a replicated organic – and deserving of a place in the band (forgetting that she wanted to join for a cause that Minion doesn’t apparently believe in). Minion gruffly relents.

Back in 2020, Spratt – now sporting a broken nose – and Baron Strucker V are working to repair the original Death’s Head. Strucker notes that the damage was too extensive to be repaired by 2020 technology (which does explain why the technically-able Spratt would need extra help). Spratt also notices that Strucker’s tools are sorcerous ingredients, so the Baron clearly has a non-scientific solution in mind.

Returning to 3442 and the citadel of Lord High Protector Roderick, an indolent, boastful noblemen. Roderick is flirting with his harem when he hears news of The Hood’s recent attack. He gives orders to fetch ‘Major Oak and the Huscarls’ before returning his attention to one of the woman. She removes her veil to reveal “Lady Evelyn Clarice Necker of Aym”, dressed in a Princess Leia slave girl costume, and continues her odd running gag about sharing a name with Roderick’s mother.

In the outlaw’s camp, Minion and Tuck share a fireside moment as he recaps the past two issues. He has been in Lionheart for a year and, contradicting his earlier cynicism, claims to be enjoying the life of a popular hero.

The peace is broken by the sudden attack of Major Oak, the muscled opponent from the back cover, and his Huscarls. As the Merry Men are slaughtered, Necker and Roderick watch from the sidelines. Necker discreetly changes back into her A.I.M. uniform and knocks Roderick unconscious.

Minion – his arm configured for a sword – duels with Major Oak and proves his superior fairly effortlessly. While Oak keeps coming back at him, Minion is relaxed enough to make fun of his dialogue. Oak gains a brief advantage and, in one of the issue’s good jokes, tells Minion to “Prepare to meet thy maker”. He is then shot in the back by Necker (who decided to violate the anti-technology laws in style, by brandishing an enormous gun).

The outlaws decimated and royals neutralised, Necker tries to reassert control over Minion’s programming. When that fails, she offers payment and they haggle for the space of a page (which is fairly laboured, but I guess the point was to show, in addition to his unparalleled fighting skills, what a hard negotiator Minion is). Tuck insists on coming along and all three time-jump away.

Moving to 2020, Spratt is horrified to see that Baron Strucker has merged his own body with the remains of Death’s Head, becoming a mechanical-sorcerous hybrid. He claims he will seek revenge on A.I.M. for spurning his family line. The terrified Spratt tries to run, but is killed with a mere spark from Strucker’s eye. Towering over Spratt’s corpse, Strucker quotes Revelation and re-names himself ‘Charnel’.

Minion, Tuck and Necker leap into A.I.M. headquarters, presumably some time later, as Charnel has already visited and killed everyone. The place is a grisly mess of skeletons, fused together with magic. Using the time tracker, Necker discovers that Charnel has gone back to 1992, where he will threaten the timeline and their very existence!

There were some exciting pages prior to this cliffhanger, but for me, the rest of the issue fell flat. Minion is thrown into a Robin Hood homage, and given a new sidekick, with no real reason for either. Playing around with different genres is fine, but not when the central character is so ill-defined. The story ends where it could have ended last issue: an independent Minion being coerced by Necker. And while the Charnel sub-plot was good, the whole issues feels like filler: written to meet the demands of a four-part series, when there was only enough story for three.

After allowing some leeway for his jumbled-up personalities, I’m still no closer to getting a handle on the Minion character. The ascendency of the Death’s Head personality – promised at the end of last issue – is nowhere to be seen. While prompted to action by good deeds and/or the promise of money, he doesn’t seem motivated much by either. In battle and at rest, everything is met with a smart-alec/tough-guy response which just makes it seem as if Minion is bored.

The addition of Tuck does little to open up Minion, as they don’t have any chemistry. Her hero-worship gives no edge to their relationship, and since Minion doesn’t seem to care either way, it also lacks the comedy of Death’s Head’s exasperation with Spratt. Maybe Tuck is going to turn out to be Charnel-kryptonite, justifying a whole issue to get her into the story (although since she’s usually depicted striking a pin-up stance, I’m guessing her reasons for inclusion are otherwise).

It’s not a good issue for Dr. Necker either. Adding a whole year to the story not only robs her quest of its desperate urgency, but makes her seem incompetent. With little to do but show up and hire Minion, Necker is reduced to cheesecake poses in Roderick’s harem. Her comment to Roderick that time-line archives were very precise about this period is an odd one: a) for someone trying to infiltrate the royal court, b) considering the date is over 1400 years after Necker’s own time and c) raises the question of, if she was so well-informed, why did it take a year to find Minion? I don’t think it has an explanation, other than Abnett couldn’t be bothered to make sense of it.

This seems to be a problem for whole of Lionheart. There’s nothing wrong with having a futuristic Robin Hood setting with cod-dialogue, but the writer has to take it seriously. I like a good pun (and even a bad one), but having a road that leads from ‘Finder’s Keep’ to ‘Loser’s Weep’ is just painful to read. Characters lapse from medieval-speak into “Give me a break” and “Pronto”; Minion makes a huge deal of mocking the expression “Beshrew me” – it feels like Abnett has created this world, wants us to buy into it, but then makes fun of it anyway.

Sharp’s artwork has gone back a step from last issue. Things are looking too dark and too detailed, as if it has been shrunk down from a larger format. For an issue filled with swordplay and swashbuckling actions, the depictions of action still need a lot more energy. Also, the dinosaur-steed are almost cartoonishly poor.

The one solid thread is the Strucker sub-plot. It’s a well-trodden irony, but I like that A.I.M. inadvertently created the very threat they tried to avoid. The depiction of Strucker/Charnel is very good – Sharp seems to improve when he’s being less literal – and the scene of death at A.I.M. is wonderfully macabre. His journey back to 1992 is a bit contrived – why would Charnel endanger his own creation when he could just go forward to conquer? But it does give the heroes something to chase after.

And finally, RIP Spratt. He wasn’t always my favourite sidekick (although, as this issue shows, there are worse options), but it was fun whenever he got under Death’s Head’s metallic skin to irritate him. The little scavenger deserved a better end.

Next week: an epic conclusion from an apocalyptic future! The Marvel superheroes take on Charnel in “2020 Vision”!

P.S. There's a great overview of the entire history of Death's Head in Starburst's interview with Simon Furman. I especially liked the letter of congratulation from Stan Lee after Issue 1 was released.

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.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Ark Addendum - Rumble's Transform and Cheetor's Badge

Well, that was exciting.  My first work published in comic form.  Transformers Timelines #6, with The AllSpark Almanac Addendum, out last week.  If your local comic store doesn't have one, you can order it from the Transformers Collectors' Club.  And don't forget, if you're in the SoCal area, huge TF signing on 12/10 at Emerald Knights in Burbank.  Lots of cool folks from IDW and TF Prime, plus Marty Isenberg, Bill Forster, and myself, will be in attendance. 

Already the intrepid Chris McFeely has published his Annotations from the same.  He did a pretty good job, but so far he hasn't cracked my C.O.C. code.  Will he prevail?  Only time will tell.  Here's something that he mostly got correct... at least what he was able to make out.  Look familiar?  Hint, hint!  We had fun making that, especially the seal. (BTW, McFeely, that's not a GPDC...)

But it's a new week, and that means that it's time for another Ark Addendum!  I figured I'd keep up the trend set last week and continue with some cassette transformations.  Last week was Ravage, so this week I'm doing Rumble.  Once again, this one comes from More than Meets the Eye, and is nicely dramatic.  It was a bit hard getting it all on the page, mostly because he went from a square to a horizontal rectangle to a vertical rectangle, but I managed.  Hope you enjoy one of my better unpublished pieces.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Bish's Review: Marvel UK #149 "The Legacy Of Unicron" Part 4

The Legacy Of Unicron! Part 4 was written by Simon Furman, drawn by Dan Reed, coloured by Steve White and lettered by Annie Halfacree.

The cover is by Jeff Anderson and I feel kind of bad for constantly trashing the covers from this period but it's another bad one. The perspective gives the sense that something exciting is happening but it's actually pretty hard to see what it is that Smokescreen is flying out of. As well as this, given how dramatic the moment that this cover depicts is in the proper issue, Smokescreen's speech balloon becomes doubly unfunny.

"SHAKK!" the Autobot shuttle that escaped Junk last issue is struck by multiple shots and starts a flaming descent. Smokescreen is at the helm, his panicked thoughts providing a good recap of the previous few issues and the events in between. He has been able to pilot the shuttle back to Cybertron with the badly injured Inferno in the medical bay but Scourge and Cyclonus, still under Unicron's mental control, have tracked him and critically damaged the ship.

The two Decepticons unleash a formidable barrage of missiles that Smokescreen only just manages to avoid at the last minute when he realises the engines have regained some power. It turns out that Inferno, while still in a very bad way, has managed to repair the engines and now takes up his position at the weapon controls, blasting at the Decepticons and forcing them to peel off.

Smokescreen is very concerned about his comrade's functionality but Inferno stoicly tells him that one of them has to survive to inform Rodimus Prime of the threat posed by Unicron. Unfortunately it turns out that the last hit from the Decepticons took out the landing gear and now the only possible landing is a crash. Smokescreen says he will try to control it as much as possible but the chances of survival are minimal. Inferno, realising the desperation of the situation, gets the drop on Smokescreen and hurls him from the shuttle as it hurtles past a tall building. Smokescreen bounces, dazed, but alive. Inferno manages to hold the shuttle steady for long enough to avoid the main Autobot army and angle it straight towards the Decepticons.

Smokescreen looks on pleadingly as the shuttle finally pitches towards the ground and detonates in a titanic fireball. Scourge and Cyclonus make the classic comic book mistake and decide "Nothing could have survived that." not noticing that Smokescreen was thrown clear before the explosion.

Back on Junk, Unicron is pleased at the outcome. He does really think that anyone can stop him at this point, but is glad that Rodimus does not yet know of his return. Death's Head, momentarily free of control or punishment, takes the opportunity to taunt the chaos bringer, knowing that it will incite a rant about Unicron's ultimate power. This turns out to be by way of an experiment for the bounty hunter who has noticed that when Unicron speaks out like this his mental control is at its weakest.

Death's Head keeps Unicron talking by asking him the purpose behind a time portal that has been erected nearby. Unicron explains that his errant minion, Galvatron, is still at large in Earth's past and when Unicron is completely rebuilt he will use the portal to pluck Galvatron from wherever he is and teach him that he cannot escape his master.

Back on Cybertron, Smokescreen's arrival has engendered a council of war. Rodimus is reluctant to leave Cybertron while the battle still rages but the others manage to persuade him that the matrix of leadership might be the only way to stop Unicron. Rodimus orders a shuttle prepared, he, Smokescreen, the Dinobots and Scattershot are heading for Junk!

On Junk, Death's Head grabs a gun and blazes away at nearby Junkions. Unicron immediately notices and starts his psychic punishment. This turns out to be all part of Death's Head's desperate plan. By concentrating very hard he is able to ride Unicron's psychic attack onto the astral plane where he hopes to be able to battle the dark lord himself!

Furman quite rightly keeps the action at a suitably blockbuster level for this issue. The extended sequence with the crashing shuttle is very effective because while it's a well-worn genre idea, it hasn't been overused in Transformers and makes a bit of a change from the straight-forward battle-action. Even in the few panels we see them together, we get a great sense of Inferno and Smokescreen as characters and Inferno's sacrifice is ultimately quite moving.

The emotional weight of Inferno's death aside, the biggest turning point of the story is Death's Head's invasion of Unicron's mind. It's as yet unknown as to how this will play out but it's a genuine twist in the tale. It has not exactly been telegraphed that this is something Death's Head might be able to do but it certainly doesn't seem implausible either. After all, the bounty hunter is extremely strong-willed and it makes sense that for Unicron to forcefully share his thoughts with others he must open his mind in some way.

In these eleven page issues Furman frequently demonstrates the skill to paint emotional and dramatic beats with only the bare minimum of exposition. This is something that appears to be missing somewhat from modern comicbook writing, and I'm not really just talking about Transformers. I'm not about to embark upon a rant about "writing for the trade" because a) it's been done a million times before and b) writing with a collection in mind is by no means always a bad thing. That said, I can't help but view an issue like this, where so many things happen and plots twist, in only eleven pages, as well as including an exciting, but not particularly plot-necessary crash sequence as something of a masterclass in how to write episodic fiction.

That is not to say that I think this is Furman's best Transformers work, although The Legacy Of Unicron! as a whole is up there, but it just strikes me as a good example of an issue where a lot changes in a few pages and the characters aren't let down by the speed of the plot moving around them. That is something to be noted and celebrated.

Reed's artwork doesn't quite reach the heights of the previous issue because there are fewer panels uniquely suited to his talents. One of his biggest problems is that he seems to really struggle with Death's Head's face and the bounty hunter seems comically malformed in one or two panels. One thing is clear - Dan Reed saw Predator the previous summer and it gave him some pretty clear ideas about what an alien bounty hunter should look like despite the original design for Death's Head predating that film (oh hey, look, an accidental pun!).

A great continuation, slightly marred but certainly not undone by lacklustre artwork, Jeff Anderson takes over next week. Lets see how he does.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Death’s Head Review: Death’s Head II – The Wild Hunt #2: Reed Richards Dies Tonight!

The Death’s Head II series continues: Dan Abnett, story; Liam Sharp, pencils; Andy Lanning, inks; Helen Stone, colours; Carolin Steeden and Peri Godbold, letters and a new editor in John Freeman.

The front cover is a close-up of Minion, seemingly frozen as green energy crackles off him. Behind him stands a grimacing Reed Richards, and behind him stands Dr Necker, warning that “He’s the Minion construct, Richards … I programmed him to kill you! Let him go, while you still can!”. It’s not much of a cover – everyone looks very static, as if they’re in a queue, and the addition of the Human Torch flying in the background looks like an afterthought. There also is the caption “Death’s Head fights for control of Minion’s mind”, which makes the cover busier than an average panel.

The alternate cover on the back is a better idea: Minion stands over Richards and bats away The Thing as he intones, “Subject 106 Reed Richards … prepare for assimilation!”. For readers familiar with the language of the first issue, it’s a powerful threat and even the obligatory caption – “Minion vs The Fantastic Four” – is more direct. However, it’s not as well-rendered as the front. Minion isn’t large or central enough, his multi-function arm looks a bit stubby, and Thing appears to be performing a jumping jack, rather than getting thumped. So a split decision for which is the best cover.

Inside, we begin with an atmospheric bit of narration: “New York 1992. Thousands of lost souls come to the city every day, driven by their own needs and desires.” An electrical bolt hits the street with a ‘Kzzzaak!’ and from the smoke appears “Minion. Four hundred pounds of laser-machines cybernetics. Three centimeters of aligmented molybdenum armor. Two megawatt high-yield plasma fusion weapon. One consuming obsession … Reed Richards dies tonight!” It’s a good opening and, intentionally or not, reminds me of Death’s Head’s arrival in 8162.

Moving to an upscale restaurant, Reed Richards is waiting for Sue to arrive as he is being attended by a classic French waiter (who looks similar to John Cleese playing a classic French waiter). He is joined by Dr Necker, carrying a large gun and wearing what appears to be a combat bikini and WWI gas mask. She introduces herself as Evelyn Necker, prompting an odd exchange whereby Reed mentions Evelyn was his mother’s name and Necker affirms that she is not his mother.

They are interrupted by arrival of Minion and Reed wonders if this robot is connected to Doom (prompting a ridiculously unnecessary footnote, explaining who Dr Doom is). Without hesitation, Necker opens fire until her gun is confiscated by Richards. He censures her for endangering innocents with a firefight and they both retreat from Minion’s attack (in a nice detail in the corner panel, a patron of the restaurant is wounded – justifying Reed’s stance and it’s not something that gets shown often in comic brawls).

Richards and Necker commandeer a taxi and flee. Minion charges after them, although the pavement slabs break under his acceleration and throw off his aim. In the cab, Necker explains that Minion is programmed to kill Richard and steal his intellect – and won’t stop until it does. She also reveals that Minion has been disobedient ever since he assimilated Death’s Head.

Interlude to the battle-damaged ruins of AIM headquarters, 2020. Posing as clean-up crew, Spratt is rescuing the ruins of the original Death’s Head. He conducts a silent (and quite moving) conversation with his deceased partner in the captions, then reveals he has a plan to resurrect him.

Back in New York 1992, the other members of the Fantastic Four have noticed the disturbance at the restaurant. The pursuit still ongoing, Necker lobs a grenade that knocks Minion off a bridge, but also shreds the taxi’s tyres, causing them to bail out of the resulting explosion.

Having arrived safely at the Four Freedoms Plaza, Reed deduces that Minion’s malfunctions are due to Death’s Head being a mechanoid. Instead of just downloading his instincts, as with his organic targets, Death’s Head downloaded himself entirely, and now his consciousness is battling Minion’s internal systems for control of the body. Believing that the Death’s Head of his acquaintance will be more amenable to reason, Reed’s solution is to help Death’s Head win that battle.The Thing shows up in the Fantasticar, then faces off with Minion to allow Reed and Necker to escape. The two trade a couple of punches, but Minion quickly proves superior and throws Ben off the bridge and onto a passing boat.

Outside the building, Minion appears behind Human Torch,unceremoniously punches him out, and gains entrance. He charges at Reed, who shoots him with a burst of tachyons. Minion topples, his neurons scrambled, and all his personalities begin to regroup.

As predicted, Death’s Head gets his act together first and causally states, “No-one needs to die, yes?” He wanders over to a computer and downloads the mainframe, effectively getting all of Reed Richards’ knowledge without killing him. “Fair exchange, yes? You save my consciousness, I save yours.” and with that, he time-jumps away.

Still trying to gain control over her project, Necker also time-jumps. The rest of the Fantastic Four arrive in time for a fairly unoriginal gag where Sue notices the lipstick from Necker’s good-luck kiss on Reed’s cheek.

Ending with ‘interlude two’ (more of an epilogue now, surely?), Spratt has teamed up with a cybernetics man named Baron Strucker the Fifth. Strucker immediately punches him in the face, then tells the unconscious Spratt that he will use Death’s Head’s body to have revenge on A.I.M.

This issue was a straightforward romp and fairly enjoyable. There is some nice characterisation, a fair bit of action and a good undercurrent developing. The main drawback is that very little of this seems to benefit the title character.

Despite his impressive entrance, Minion is the adversary of the story, a problem to be overcome. He is single-minded in his pursuit of Reed, and his ‘scrambled programming’ means he only speaks in basic operating terms. The result is that he shows even less personality that in the previous issue.

The de-scrambling at the end of the issue does mean that Minion’s evolution is moving forward and that Death’s Head is now apparently in control. He is also far more formidable that his predecessor – dispatching Thing and Torch with ease (and while the Torch fight was funny, it was also a bit of a waste). Although since a character can always be as powerful as the writer needs him to be, that’s not so impressive as I found it to be in 1992 (and not being able to run on paving slabs seems something of a design flaw).

The story actually belongs to the more flawed Dr Necker, and is better for it. The “Come with me if you want to live” device is played out nicely between herself and Richards, two scientific minds working on a common problem, but with very different moral perspectives.

I enjoyed Necker’s rationale that, as he was from the past, Reed was ‘dead anyhow’, which justifies sending Minion back to assimilate him. Although, once again, the 2020 setting seems too close to the present for this – even if Reed had died in the intervening years, he would still have seemed like a ‘real’ person. But this amorality gives Necker some good contrast – while technically working for the villains, her dedication to preventing A.I.M.’s destruction is heroic. Her genius-level intelligence is balanced by a certain lack of foresight, meaning she is always improvising to avoid (or chase after) Minion, and it makes for a fun trip.

There are some inconsistencies with the story: it makes sense that Death’s Head’s robotic personality would scramble Minion’s programming, but why would chasing after Reed Richards be viewed as a malfunction – wasn’t he the next target on the list anyway? It’s explained that Death’s Head’s motivation is to hunt (which is only partly true, as The Body In Question made clear), but then Minion’s main drive is to assimilate, so this seems like splitting hairs.

Also, Necker wants Minion to obey her orders, but she also wanted him to assimilate Richards, so her concern for Reed’s survival is a bit inconsistent. It could be argued that she is prepared to forgo Richards’ assimilation in return for regaining control of Minion, but this never seems to be her motive. The story ends where it begins: with her chasing Minion through time.

The first interlude is well done – and it was nice continuity for Abnett to bring in Spratt. His plan to resurrect Death’s Head is intriguing, and actually quite moving (more so than most of his other appearances). The close-up of Spratt’s face shows a real sense of loss for his partner.

The closing interlude is more ham-fisted: it’s odd that Spratt needs a “good cybernetics man” when he himself rebuilt and improved Death’s Head the last time around. And since Baron Strucker V plans to have Spratt help him, punching him unconscious just so he can monologue his evil plan seems ridiculous melodramatic.

The artwork is an improvement this issue. The characters are all well-rendered, and there is now a consistent look for Necker. Sharp is easing up on overcrowding scenes with needless clutter, although there are still too many unnecessary scratchy lines for my taste. The rainstorm and various bursts of smoke and electricity are nicely atmospheric.

The biggest let down, once again, are the depictions of movement. All the characters have a tendency to look awkward, particularly when running, which is unfortunate in a chase story.

Next week: We meet Minion and his Merry Men as Death’s Head II turns “Outlaw!”

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Secrets of the Almanac II Part One

Hi! It's me Bill Forster. The other Almanac guy. Now that we have a new addition to the Almanacs coming out I thought I would share a few tales from the creation of the AllSpark Almanac II that have been banging around in my head. Let's see...Where to begin? Ah! Of course. The cover!

After hours of debate, several drawings and a couple of heated disagreements Jim and I settled on an idea for the cover of what was to be the second and FINAL AllSpark Almanac. Originally we played around with the idea of Sari and Bumblebee defacing Optimus’ trailer with graffiti, which would let us feature some fun encoded messages that the Almanacs have become known for. After some discussion we threw this idea in the trash compactor. I wouldn’t put it past BB, but Sari has more sense than that.

The second idea we had was a bit darker. We really liked it, but our editors weren’t keen. They felt it didn’t have the whimsy and lighthearted charm the cover of the first Almanac had. We needed to capture the mood. I’ll hold off on the details, on the theory that we may yet get to use it some day.

Well if the first Almanac was about the art and Sari and Bulkhead were painting the cover, then what was this Almanac about? The toys. For the first time Hasbro allowed an in depth look into the design and fabrication of its flagship property. We needed to focus that. A teenage Sari and Bumblebee seemed like the logical choice, but still there was some element missing. Ah, yes! Wreck Gar! I quickly sketched up a few stick figures and sitting around playing with their own toys. We had it. Marcello drew it up and did a great job, but he had left out something that Jim was keen to get in; Wreck-Gar playing with his own toy box. Marcello added it in, where some empty space that probably would have housed the logo went. This made us hunt for a place to put the name of the book. We settled on the toy boxes at the bottom.

Pg 7: In the first book we had drawings for both Derrick Wyatt and Marty Isenburg to accompany their intro and outro pages. This time around it was without question Matt Youngberg’s turn to give us his perspective. Only we didn’t have a caricature of him. I drew up and head shot for it. Somewhere along the lines Matt saw it and liked it, but insisted on coloring it himself. Who are we to argue? Matt Youngberg colored my drawing…that goes on the resume!

Pg 11: We kind of lucked out that there was a new Optimus Prime model to headline the Autobot chapter. Ideally your book always starts on Optimus.

Pg 12 – 13: Jim and I have some to makes certain “laws” pertaining to the Almanacs. For instance, Starscream is the only character allowed to talk about himself. Or Blitzwing always has three voices with three different distinctive fonts. With the Jetsetters we wanted something that made them stand out. In the first book we had a few pages where two characters got to narrate together. Jim wrote for Jetstorm and I provided the voice of Jetfire. That worked but looked awful on the page. Changing the color of the font gave it a dynamic look and made for easier reading. A new “law” is on the books.

Pg 20 - 21: If you believe it, I originally wrote about three more paragraphs on Rodimus. Jim edited it down to get it to fit o the page. His alt mode was drawn for the show but never used.

Pg 23: Javier Reyes drew up Hot Shot’s alt mode. Jim really wanted all of Rodimus’ team to have alt modes.

Pg 25: I hate Gradus. HE is just always a problem for me. I wrote about a dozen songs and we kept rejecting them before I came up with one that Jim and I both liked. I think I was inspired by the song Ultraman.

Pg 27: Jim and I split up the character pages to write. Sometimes what determines who writes for who is a matter of love. Jim always writes for Sentinel because Jim has a passion for the character. I wrote Starscream and the clones because I really love Screamer. Other times it’s the opposite. I just can’t write for a certain character or Jim has no interest in a particular bot. It gets divided. Though Jim’s writing chores are usually much more dense. Warpath ended up on my list. I had this idea that he and Flareup were an item. I wrote up his bio along side Flareup’s and it was like…4 pages. Jim pulled his hair out. “He’s sharing a page with Dug Base! There is no room for this!” I argued with him intensely until it was pointed out to me that I usually have the same argument when I am layout pages with his words. Warpath and Flareup were edited down. In retrospect, it reads a lot better now.

Dug Base was on my list. I had nothing! I couldn’t even figure out who was going to be providing the dialog. As almost a joke we decided on Wheelie. Jim came out the bio off the top of his head. “Perfect! Let’s use that! Keep me away from Grandus…and his repaints.”

Pg 31: Jim was thinking about G1 Pipes and Huffer and noticed that each of them has personalities based around Earth. He made a point of them NOT having these personalities in Animated, since they haven’t gotten to Earth yet. If they ever get to Earth, then they’ll start to act a lot more familiar.

Pgs 34-37: So Jim had expressed a disinterest in writing for what I have called the BumbleBots. The cameo characters with Bumblebee-esk vehicle modes. I jumped at it. Jim had it in his head that we would keep the images small and give only one line of dialog to each bot. I on the other hand went insane. Once again I wrote too much. A full page for each model. Jim and I butted heads and spent the evening yelling and shouting. The end result was a compromise. Imagine that! Two to three characters to a page with appropriate amount of dialog. I think the best rock bands in history are the ones with two musicians making outrageous demined only to compromise in the middle and create the best songs.

Glyph, Tap-Out, and Volks, I wrote up like they were having some high-school drama. The reason we talk about Tap-Out’s body transplant is because Derrick told us that this body type was post-war. Jim pointed out that Tap-Out has a bust at the Cyber Ninja Dojo, and said maybe he downgraded his body. Derrick signed off on it and there we go. Also, still on Tap-Out, each of these words is a legitimate alien word. Dentalla really does mean friend in Zentraedi. The Too doe nakotae is from War of the Worlds, the Series, which Jim is a big fan of. For some reason. It’s a terrible show. Jim did about 50 blog posts on it. I got to make fun of Klingons, who I hate.

Searchlight! Yes, he is Batman. The reason for this is that Jim told me that Searchlight was one of his favorite characters, and that I should do him justice. Jim emphasized his array of scanners, which I interpreted as a utility belt. The rest came naturally.

Carrera’s voice and personality was modeled after our friend Ted Close. He was a guy who could eat 20 burgers at a sitting and never gain weight. He also was interested in being a sports caster, but had a scratchy voice.

The story Chase tells of Furao saving a ship is a real story that happened during WWII. It was on the USS Intrepid, where I served as Art Director. The rudder was disabled, so they made a makeshift sail to allow the ship to sail the direction they wanted it to go. It's the only aircraft carrier to ever sail.

We wrote in Jackpot as a buddy to Hubcap as a nod to our friends Greg and Trent.

Bumper’s bio is written by Searchlight. I was channeling Frank Miller’s Dark Knight when I wrote it. In my mind, Bumper is Robin. The line “I’ve seen things you ‘bots wouldn’t believe” was lifted from Blade Runner.

Pg 38. We had two fembots without names. Score! Blank canvas on which to write our ideas into the universe. We came up with two names, Lightbright and something else, and were really proud of them. Then Derrick told us that he’d already told Monzo that he could name them. He was going to name them after My Little Ponies. We liked the name Lickety-Split, but the other one didn’t feel very Transformersy to us. We all compromised on Lickety-Split and Lightbright. I think Derrick and Monzo liked that it was a reference to another Hasbro property.

Lightbright we had a hard time coming up with a personality and alt mode for. Eventually I came up with hovercraft. Dug Base is supposed to speak like an old 60s Japanese mega-robot.

Lickety-Split’s original personality didn’t work with the new name, so we rewrote it completely. Jim had fun making a nod to Buzz Lightyear, who of course already was a Transformer.

Pg 39: Jim borrowed foreign names for Transformers to name the species for Zaur and Ramhorn. I think we both had fun referencing some obscure songs from the various Tranformers albums over the years.

Pg 44: Fanzone’s car got wrecked a few times in the series. We kind of lampshaded that in this bio.

Pg 45: The size comparison charts were a lot of work! I’m glad I didn’t have to do them. Jim went through each episode and matched up the scales in Photoshop. He eventually had a PSD file for an image 8 inches tall and maybe 15 feet long. At 300 DPI, it was a massive file. He sliced it up and made this page.

Pg 46: There weren’t all that many prominent new ‘Cons this season. Wasp was the biggest, and got to headline the section. We mirrored the Blackarachnia page from the first Almanac here. I think it’s little touches like this that help the books feel like a single coherent entity.

Pg 49: Jim and I loved putting Furmanisms in Cyclonus’ mouth. It felt right to us.

Pg 50: Derrick told us that Cyclonus was created from Skywarp, so we had the line about Starscream’s self preservation algorithms being commented out. Did you guys pick up on that?

Pg 54: The Legion Tentacles was a kiss players reference. I don’t like people who get upset about them, so I enjoyed nodding to them.

Pg 55: We didn’t name the cerebro-shells. They were called that on the model sheet.

Pg 57: Jim hated covering up the Laserbeak guitar model with the Ratbat model. He likes to show every model from every angle, unobstructed. In this case, the power of the image was more important than seeing 7 lines drawn straight. If you really want to see the guitar without the Ratbat neck in front of it, here it is. As a result of our criss-cross, the shadow’s don’t line up. Oh, well.

That said, Jim cut off Ratbat’s rear wing from behind so that he could have the image bigger.

Pg 60: Jim loves GoBots, so he was very keen to make the Tux limo actually be Tux. He contacted a guy named Laurent who draws awesome GoBots Animated style. Derrick Wyatt provided the head! We called him Stretch, since we wanted him to actually wind up in the GoBots universe. I don’t remember why that is 17 quantum-string vibration levels distant, but it has something to do with each Universe Stream corresponding to vibrating quantum strings.

Flip Sides! Is she Rosanna? Who knows! They certainly look a lot alike.

61: Jim drew the head for Magnificus. Did you notice that the body is wider than Perceptor’s body, and his lens is longer?

Well thanks for joining me. That covers all the character bio pages from the second Almanac. At some point I will do a part two...but I might save that for when we have another book to promote. In the mean time, get out there and pick up your copy of The AllSpark Almanac Addendum.