Thursday, December 18, 2008

Review: Marvel G1 #5 – The New Order

The New Order is the fifth issue of the Transformers series from Marvel, and the first issue to be produced as part of the ongoing series. Bob Budiansky, who had been editing the mini-series, now takes over the writing duties. With just a few interludes, he will go on to write every issue from here until issue #55. Including the Headmasters limited series, that’s more than 50 issues of Transformers, giving him the longest run (in one continuity, anyway) of any Transformers writer in the US to date. Perhaps Furman will eclipse him at IDW. Budiansky, as many of you know, also wrote most of the names and bios of the G1 Transformers for Hasbro, so it’s not surprising how comfortable he would be with them. The art was by Alan Kupperberg, who would also do the next issue’s cover and the interior art for #43. Colors (as always) by Nel Yomtov, letters by Rick Parker, and edits by Jim Owsley. Mark Bright produced the cover . . .

…and what a cover he produced! A beautifully rendered Shockwave stands against a large cracked grey wall, his gun arm belching purple smoke. Under the logo ‘The Transformers’ he’s carved the words ‘ARE ALL DEAD.’ He seems to stair directly at the audience, his fist clenched, which combined with the interaction with the logo is tantamount to him breaking the fourth wall. One can’t help but wonder, am I next? This image is visually striking, probably the most iconic Transformers cover from the entire Marvel run. There will be several homages to it over the years. It would also be reproduced, without the various design elements I’m about to list, in the excellent Transformers: Genesis art book. As The Transformers is now an ongoing series, the tagline ‘MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE’ has been moved from below the logo to above it, where the # of the limited series used to go. A new drawing of Optimus Prime adorns the upper left hand box, not the character design of his from the first issue. It’s him holding a gun pointed skyward and looking down at the audience, and seems almost paternal. This drawing will adorn the Marvel box for some time yet to come. It seems to be a new drawing, not one that appears elsewhere in the series. As always, Spider-Man’s head appears in the lower left.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that this was the very first Transformers comic I’ve had the pleasure of reading. My mom picked it up for me in a supermarket while we were grocery shopping together. Also, I’ve met Bob Budiansky several times in the course of writing The Ark books and I’m immensely grateful to him for all his help. All this is a longwinded way of saying that I might not be entirely objective in this review.)

Plot and script: for the first time, the plot moves above solid to become compelling. Shockwave watches a medley of American television, becoming more and more convinced that Humanity is ripe for conquest. Bob cleverly sneaks in some exposition about millionair industrialist GB Blackrock's advanced oil platform and the cute and perky computer genius Josie Beller in the process. (She'd never again be this cute.) Shockwave then goes to go check up on the recuperating Decepticons, without even remaking on the many Autobot corpses hanging gruesomely from the ceiling. It’s a fantastic juxtaposition – by this point, the audience has grown to care about at least a few of the Autobots, most of whom are among the inactive. That they aren’t even worth a remark from Shockwave serves as a powerful reminder of just how bad things are. The Autobots are beneath his notice, somewhat ironic given that he is physically below them in this scene. Notably absent from the bodies is Optimus Prime.

The Decepticons, on the other hand, are doing well. Shockwave has repaired most of the cons, though Megatron is just now starting to revive. Hanging, helpless, from various life support cables, Megatron demands that he resume command. Shockwave calmly and patiently explains how little sense that makes, pointing out that the piles of dead Autobots were his doing, but the barely active Decepticons were made that way by Megatron. He then demands a report, another rhetorical trick to neatly sum-up the events of the mini-series without appearing heavy handed. Though Megatron outwardly accepts Shockwave’s new status as Commander, internally he is barely containing his fury. Little hesitancies before Megatron can utter the word ‘Commander’ nicely convey Megatron’s thought process. Also, Shockwave continues to treat the Autobots as barely worthy of though, casually blasting Sunstreaker in half as a warning to Megatron.

Meanwhile, back at the hospital, Ratchet and the paramedics have returned. We get a somewhat pointless comedic interlude where Buster and Ratchet converse and the paramedics try to figure out how an ambulance can talk. Ratchet IS worried, though, because his attempts to contact the Ark have thus far been unsuccessful. Buster convinces Ratchet that he should go with him to investigate, but first has to say goodbye to Sparkplug. Mirroring the dichotomy between Megatron’s outward humility and inner anger, Buster outwardly seems confident that he’ll just be saying goodbye, while internally he worries that his dad might not understand. He hesitantly opens the door, nervous to face his father, and with good cause. Sparkplug forbids him to spend more time with the Autobots, reasoning that a civil war between alien robots could be dangerous. His fears are well founded, for Buster would indeed eventually spend the better part of a year kidnapped by the Decepticons, but that is some time off. For now, Buster tearfully promises to do no more than say goodbye. It’s a powerful emotional moment between our two central human characters, and builds nicely off of what went before. After all, the Autobots accused Sparkplug of treason even though he had handed them the keys to victory, and Jazz had thrown a wall of flames in front of him. Sparkplug’s reaction seems only natural, whereas Buster is still caught up in the wonder of the situation.

Back at the Ark, Megatron seethes. He tries to find out where Shockwave’s been for the past four million years, though Shockwave is coy with the details. He reasons that Megatron might be tempted to replicate the circumstances that lead to his shutdown. The rest of the Decepticons are now operational, and are cleaning up Autobot corpses for use as spare parts. Megatron seems to get some genuine mirth out of the idea of Optimus Prime as a supply shed, though Shockwave takes it as yet another opportunity to chide Megatron. After all, it is only logical that Prime contains the Creation Matrix, and Shockwave means to have it to create a vast army of Decepticons. But for now, Shockave decides the time has come to begin the conquest of earth, and flies out of the base. This is the first time that the idea of a Matrix would be introduced, far predating the Movie. Of course, it’s a little different, since it’s presented as a computer program instead of a physical object. Eventually this discrepancy would be retconned away. It’s a novel idea, and quite necessary to accommodate the many new toys that Hasbro would soon mandate appear in the comics.

Ratchet and Buster return to the Ark, Buster explaining Earth driving customs to Ratchet. Ratchet seems amused by the concept of driving laws and politely asks the traffic signal to turn green quickly. He still doesn’t quite grasp that Earth machines are non-sentient. Ratchet is nervous, though Buster reassures him that all must be fine. Optimus is in command, and nobody can beat Optimus! It’s a sentiment that must have run particularly true to the core audience, kids. Indeed, we still haven’t seen Optimus but we know that he isn’t a pile of parts. Maybe he’ll be able to save everyone! Bob really sells the point, setting us up for the issue’s big ending.

Still cautious, Ratchet and Buster sneak up on the Ark. It’s a good thing they do, for Rumble and Frenzy stand guard! Realizing that the worst has happened, Ratchet prepares to sneak past them to ascertain the fate of his comrades. Buster makes the argument that he’d be the better choice, as he’s much smaller, and Ratchet relents. It’s not long before Buster discovers the bodies of the Autobots and panics. Shaken, he tells himself that Optimus HAS to be all right, but turning a corner he discovers . . . Optimus’s disembodied head! It’s held in place by multiple pylons, and an ominously humming machine with dozens of wires is connected to his cranium. ‘Buster Witwicky’ he softly moans, ‘you are the Autobots last hope . . .’


It’s a great ending to the book. Optimus, the undefeatable, is completely helpless. There is only one functioning Autobot. Even Megatron seems helpless before the might of Shockwave. Somehow things seem even more dire than they did at the end of the last issue. Bob did a terrific job with his first script, introducing a variety of new concepts, smoothly integrating exposition, setting up plot threads for the future and generally ratcheting (haha) up the tension. Impressive for an issue without a single fight scene.

Kupperberg’s art is quite strong and compliments Bob’s words well. There are no fewer than five splash pages, one of which is a two page spread, and most of them work wonderfully. It makes this book a slightly faster read than the previous books, though the tighter pacing helps. We open with a black and white visual taken from The Honeymooners, an odd choice that is particularly jarring after the events of the last issue. The choice works well, throwing the audience off balance before moving us into more familiar grounds. The second page is also a splash, Shockwave from behind watching television. One starts to get the sense of what he’s doing from this shot, contributing to his characterization as a thinker. The third splash page is the two page spread of Shockwave walking under Autobot corpses, and it answers the question that’s been building in the audience’s mind ever since last month – what happened to the Autobots. Iron hide, who’s just a one-armed torso on the end of a pole, is particularly horrific. Oil is leaking everywhere, showcasing Kupperberg’s inking prowess. In contrast, on the next page, the reenergized Decepticons are literally glowing with pep. The fourth splash page is the title page, with The New Order tangled among Megatron’s life support gear. Megatron looks suitably helpless next to the strutting Shockwave. The fifth splash page is Shockwave standing among Autobot corpses getting dragged off by the Decepticons now under his command. It’s well done, but perhaps unnecessary at this point.

Kuppberg does well with non-splash pages as well. Megatron’s trembling fist on page 9 underscores Megatron’s fury, whereas Shockwave blasts Sunstreaker apart as a warning with no hint of rage. Page 13, Buster’s confrontation with Sparkplug, is full of emotion, from the hesitancy with which buster opens the door, the paternal concern on Sparkplug’s face, the solemnity with which Sparkplug takes Buster’s hand into his own, or the grief that is evidenced by Buster’s tear. Powerful stuff. Shockwave also has a nice extended transformation sequence on page 17, something that Springer was never very comfortable portraying. The final page, Prime’s head, is also extremely upsetting, though here I can’t help but think that there was a missed opportunity for one more splash page. Buster hanging his hopes on Optimus would have been better placed on the previous page, since one can’t help but notice Prime’s head as soon as the page is turned.

Yomtov’s coloring has more than the usual share of errors, but he also does some very cool effects. On page 17, he sets Shockwave against a yellow metaphoric explosion, selling the grandeur of his vision, and the glow that surrounds him in his gun mode on the same page is a nice visual emphasis on the coolness of the whole Transformation concept. Parker’s letters work very well too. Note the contrast in the size of Buster’s shout of ‘Optimus’ vs the weakness conveyed with the tiny, wavering letters for the weakened Optimus. It is odd, though, how the letters switch from square blocks to rounded blocks with a jagged leader line.

Overall, this is one of the very strongest offerings from the US Marvel Transformers series. The art and story play off of each other, the tension and the pacing are good, and many seeds for future plotlines are planted. One gets the sense the Bob has no shortage of ideas on where to take the series. We are promised ‘Megatron vs. Shockawve – TO THE DEATH!’ for next month, and after this issue you really want to see Shockwave get some comeuppance, even if it’s Megatron delivering it.

The Last Stand is available from IDW Publishing in this anthology: Classic Transformers Volume 1 (Transformers)


Mark Baker-Wright said...

I have to ask... when discussing the cover, you always mention that Spider-Man's head is in the lower-left. I'm not sure this really "counts" as part of the cover. In any event, if you didn't get a direct-market edition, this is where the UPC symbol goes, and so the Spidey-head isn't present on all copies.

Jimtron said...

Hmmm. It's a fair point. On the one hand, it is part of the experience. On the other hand, it's variable based on what edition you got. I'll mull it over.

Zobovor said...

I think it's funny that Josie Beller was introduced in Bob Budiansky's very first issue, even though Circuit Breaker herself wouldn't show up until issue #9. Obviously, somebody (either Budiansky or the Marvel editors) had enough faith in the concept of the Circuit Breaker character that they wanted her worked into the story as soon as possible. (And you're right... she was a cutie in her first appearance. Too bad it didn't last!)

Anonymous said...

"Kupperberg’s art is quite strong"

Eh? It's pretty poor. Some of the characters are drawn offmodel, bizzare proportions (look when Shockwave checks seekers recovery)... it's just poor.

Jimtron said...

Glad to have so many people commenting.

Agreed, Zob. Clearly they had concept and thought that it was something special. I like the gradual way in which her origin is presented to us, as an ongoing subplot.

We'll have to agree to disagree, D.M. While I'll grant that there is a certain awkwardness to the panel you point out, I find Kupperberg's storytelling prowess to be quite high. Certainly, he doesn't have the rendering talent of a, say, Don Figueroa, but he has a sense of balance and composition that makes up for it. I found little to criticize here.

Mark Baker-Wright said...

Just my two cents. I don't think it's fair to criticize an 80's comic artist for not displaying the attention to detail expected in a 21st century comic. If it can be demonstrated that Kupperberg was definitely worse at something than another artist of his time, that's one thing, but it seems to me that he was one of the better Marvel artists of the era.

Anonymous said...

"Just my two cents. I don't think it's fair to criticize an 80's comic artist for not displaying the attention to detail expected in a 21st century comic. If it can be demonstrated that Kupperberg was definitely worse at something than another artist of his time, that's one thing, but it seems to me that he was one of the better Marvel artists of the era."

I don't expect characters to be heavily detailed, but drawn properly.

And for that it IS more than fair to criticize an artist.

One of the better 80's Marvel artist? Maybe, havent seen much of his non-TF work, looked decent. But his TF issues, poor.

Look at issue 7 of Transformers. One of the best drawn TF comics ever.

monkeytoad said...

This was my first issue of Transformers too. I remember my best friend showing me the cover and I was like holy crap! I went back and bought the back 3 previous back issues, but never got #1.

I guess I have a reason to get the new Optimus Prime Resissue.

I like the art - especially the shot of shockwave walking below the hanging autobot corpses. Very tough angle and they look on model enough to me.


Anonymous said...

So glad you reviewed this issue as it's a real classic. Those two pages with the Autobots hanging from the ceiling is such a powerful image. No words are needed. By rights the story should suffer from the lack of Autobots - after all this is supposed to be a civil war between two roughly equal (in power) factions - but it so doesn't. If anything there's more drama than ever as Shockwave establishes his new order to the fury of Megatron and desperation of Ratchet. The cover is amazing too, and I would credit stories such as this for ensuring Transformers would run and run until the early 90s.

Anonymous said...

I have to ask... since the cover is painted by Mark D. Bright, does anyone know if it's the same artist as M.D. Bright who did Spotlight: Nightbeat for IDW some time ago?

Personally, I wasn't a big fan of Alan Kupperberg's art. I have an issue of Spider-man he did, and I wasn't very impressed there either. He also did Transformers 43 for those keeping count ('Big Broadcast of 2006' adaptation). IMO, there are much better (Marvel) artists still to come. William Johnson, Herb Trimpe, Perlin, Delbo, Wildman, Senior...


Jimtron said...

Oh, there are definitely better artists yet to come. Wildman is probably my personal favorite.

And yes, it's the same guy who would do Spotlight: Nightbeat many years later.