Friday, January 30, 2009

Review: Marvel UK #29 "Decepticon Dam-Busters Part 1"

Decepticon Dam-Busters! Part 1

First, a note on continuity: This story picks up directly from the end of Marvel US #8, the latter half of which became Marvel UK #28. This was the first time that a UK originated story fit squarely in with the continuity of the slower US book. It is possible to go back to “Man of Iron!”, “The Enemy Within!” and “Raiders of the Last Ark!” and place them as having happened somewhere within the initial four-issue mini-series, but its an exercise in futility to try to make them have any meaningful part in the mythos. To break up a reading of US #1-4 with these throwaway UK stories would be disjointed and ruin both sagas. From UK #29 onwards, however, the UK material, for the most part, only adds to the enjoyment of the US book, and Simon Furman generally does an excellent job of keeping the continuity straight.

“Decepticon Dam-Busters” was written by Simon Furman, illustrated by John Stokes, coloured by Steve Whitaker, lettered by Richard Starkings and edited by Ian Rimmer. The cover was by John Ridgway of “Man of Iron!” fame.

Ridgway’s cover is an excellent piece that I am going to have trouble reviewing. A mean and moody looking Optimus Prime and Megatron duel with medieval weaponry atop a dam. It appears that we’re finally starting to see the animation models in use for the UK comic, as both characters look more as we would expect them to, although Prime’s faceplate still remains as it has in every UK story thus far, resolutely blue, rather than the more famililar grey. Unfortunately, the version of this cover that I am reviewing is badly worn, and I can’t see all the detail I would like to. I get the impression that it was not originally as dark as this scan suggests but I could be wrong there. I am, however, pleased that for the first time since “Man of Iron!” we are provided with a cover that wasn’t simply pinched from the interior art, and by a different artist, no less. I feel blessed. Ridgway has interpreted Prime’s axe and Megatron’s morning-star as physical weapons, rather than made of energy - as they are in the other versions of this encounter, but I feel that that adds, rather than detracts from the drama of the duel. Unfortunately it is rather marred by a long out of date panel where a free Cadbury’s wildlife bar was affixed. The cute deer is decidedly out of place. The overall cover design has changed as well. The previous UK cover images were squashed beneath black bars containing the title of the comic. This is now better integrated into the image as a whole, and there’s a little picture of Optimus Prime in truck mode above the issue number and date. So there we are, I think its probably a great cover, but I would love to look at a better version. If anyone has one, I’d be grateful if you dropped me a line.

After all that about continuity, I’m going to have to take a step back here. While the story fits in as I said, it is hardly essential reading for a US fan, as it consists of a story told to the Dinobots as Ratchet moves from from place to place, after meeting them in the previous issue. The actual meat of the story, the battle for Sherman Dam, would, once again, have to have taken place at some point during the miniseries, so its an improvement, but we’re not quite there yet.

The story begins with a human encountering a rather docile Grimlock after dismissing news footage of the Dinobots fighting Megatron as a hoax. The man is understandably terrified but Grimlock is merely curious. There’s some fun banter as the Dinobots discuss their disappointment in the dominant species of Earth. Sludge says that he wonders what happened to the dinosaurs, because they were much better. Ratchet arrives and the man thinks he is saved, then freaks out as the ambulance transforms and tries to apologise to him. Sighing, “oh dear,” Ratchet think its time he had a word with the Dinobots. He tells them to keep a low profile among the humans, because they are scared of them. The Dinobots are confused by this. Swoop can understand them being frightened of Decepticons, but the Autobots are on the side of the humans. Ratchet says that humans find it difficult to tell the difference and begins to tell a story to illustrate this for the Dinobots.

Ratchet’s account is of a struggle between the Autobots and Decepticons over a source of electrical power known as Sherman Dam. The Decepticons plan to send a tidal wave rushing through the hydro-electric power plant that the dam houses and refine fuel from the resulting massive power surge. This will destroy the dam in the process and flood a human town, but of course, the Decepticons do not care about that. Rumble descend to the river-bed to shake things up and start the wave, while the other Decepticons attack the power station. The Autobots arrive to save the day, but things look bleak. Hound goes after Rumble, the other Autobots take on the Decepticons at the power station and Prime meets Megatron on the dam itself, for a duel to the finish. Optimus Prime holds his own for a while, until Rumble bests Hound, knocking him clean out of the water with his pile drivers. Distracted - Prime fails to block a strike from Megatron that sends him plunging from the dam. “Who’s scrap now?!” crows Megatron as the caption promises a “WAVE OF DESTRUCTION!” Things are not looking good.

I like this script quite a lot, although it is very obvious filler. Not only is it a flashback episode designed to get characters from one place they have to be, (because of the US issues) to another place they have to be (because of future US issues) but it is also ripped-off wholesale from another Transformers story that was already fully a year old at the date of publication. The battle for Sherman Dam is, of course, taken from the second ever episode of the Transformers cartoon by Sunbow, “More Than Meets The Eye Part 2”.

Furman adds to it a bit, of course, because a comic, especially a comic from 1985, requires considerably more dialogue than a cartoon show. I like seeing Megatron in full megalomaniac tyrant mode, calling Rumble his “Perfect pile driving powerhouse”, and speechifying to the powerless humans about his nefarious plans. Prime is on top form as well, you can practically hear Peter Cullen as he says “Lets stop this maniac!” which is excellent, because that isn’t actually a line from the show. When Prime and Megatron meet on top of that dam, its brilliant. We get three panels of Megatron replacing his hand with an energy flail as the two square off. I prefer the dialogue from the show a little better - its the usual fight banter in both versions, but the show has Megatron ranting: “Everything I touch is food for my hunger! My hunger for POWER!” which is so deliciously over the top that Furman should have written it. The fight ends in the same way in both versions as well, with Prime being knocked off the dam, just after telling Megatron “You’re for the scrapheap!” Both versions play this as something of a cliffhanger as well, although I question this, yes Prime was technically defeated, but look at him, he’s huge and metal, a brief swim won’t do him any harm, although Megatron still seems pleased.

The present day portion of the comic is efficient enough, and I like the Dinobots as characters, although Grimlock has not yet obtained his speech impediment. We will have to wait until the next part to see why Ratchet thinks that telling this story is relevant, but that is hardly the point, as the dam battle is the real story here.

The art in this issue is superlative. Stokes does a terrific job and there is a nice mix of toy and cartoon influence on display. The Dinobots appear to be directly from their toys and the first appearance of Grimlock could have walked right off my shelf, but Ratchet has his cartoon or US comic appearance and to my mind, hasn’t looked this good before. Megatron has lost some of the weird proportions associated with his toy and is essentially a recoloured version of his cartoon model. He looks amazing bursting through the wall of the power station. The rendering of everyone’s favourite Optimus Prime/Megatron face off could have used a splash page or two, but space was understandably limited, even now the page count is back up to eleven. At least the use of the animation models allows the artist to give us some dynamic fight poses. Stokes also renders excellent humans, which could easily be forgotten amongst all the robots, although of course your average comic artists draws more humans than he does robots (just). Whitaker’s colours are kind of dark, I don’t think I like them quite as much as I like Hart’s, but his style works very well with Stokes’ detailed inking and creates a very impressive overall effect. For the first time since “Man of Iron!”, every page is in colour, and its about damn time!

So that’s it, this issue is basically just a fight, and a fight we’ve seen before, but I love it regardless. That’s three continuities this battle has shown up in, the G1 cartoon, the G1 comic, and the later Dreamwave comic, “The War Within.” It seems to be a touchstone of Transformers lore and certainly the two leaders facing off with their own distinct weapon has a certain iconic, Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader aesthetic about it. So, completely throwaway, even though it is in continuity, but I’m still glad they did it.

This comic was reprinted in “Collected Comics #5” and The 1993 Winter Special. The cover for “Collected Comics #5” is here, because its by Geoff Senior, and I love it - more on this when I reach the stories he actually drew.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Review: Marvel G1 #9 - Dis-Integrated Circuits!

Dis-Integrated Circuits! is the ninth issue of the Marvel comics G1 Transformers series. It was written by Bob Budiansky. The book and the cover were penciled by Mike Manley, with inks by M. Hands, colors by Nel Yomtov and lettering by Rick Parker.

Manley's cover is uninspired, given how much potential the issue offered. Circuit-Breaker stands in the foreground, her right hand glowing with energy. She stands amid some rubble, but Starscream stands behind her, getting ready to grab her. Starscream might be standing on some dirt, or producing exhaust. The lines at his feet match the yellow in the sky perfectly, so it's a little hard to say. You're supposed to be concerned for her, but she's menacing enough in her face and stance that you're not quite sure who you're supposed to be rooting for. The text does little to help. "The lady's name is Circuit Breaker!", it says, "She's out to destroy all robots . . . that is, if Starscream doesn't get her first!" Overall, it captures the ambiguity of the situation, but that's not necessarily a good thing. It doesn't help that Starscream is rather poorly drawn, and that Circuit-Breaker, a woman wearing essentially tinfoil, is rather bland and unappealing. She should be oozing sex-appeal, danger and menace - what a waste. Unfortunately, IDW could not reprint this issue as part of their Generations series. I'd have loved to see Nick Roche's take on this cover.

The issue itself is a bit stronger, though not a good as #8 or #5. It opens on a full splash page of cars racing around a track. Blackrock is racing around a track that he owns, while one of his aids attempts to get his attention. Some military men stand about, but you don't necessarily notice them, it's really the racing cars that grab your eye. It's a very well rendered version of a race track, but doesn't really add much to the story. Blackrock screeches to a halt (again, nice lettering by Parker), only to have the army ask him not to demonstrate his robot-smashing superweapon in the name of patriotism. He refuses, then motors off to an important appointment.

The appointment is poor miss Josie Beller, still in a hospital. He holds her hand rather tenderly while relating the earlier incident. She has an expository flashback, before showing off her new levitation technology. Her fanaticism against robots is starting to show, though, and making G.B. uncomfortable. Though he's prepared to go to war with the robots, he doesn't like the idea of her on the front lines where she could potentially get hurt. Here Bob's character development is starting to pay off. He's been building up both of these characters since issue #5, and we're getting ready for the payoff. It's a fun style of storytelling, and Bob does it well.

Cut to the Autobots. They roll across the plains of Oregon, all of them restored to full working order by Ratchet. All, that is, except Sunstreaker (blasted in half by Shockwave in issue #5) and Optimus Prime. Optimus' head is still missing, and the rest of the 'bots surmise that it's probably at one of the two captured Decepticon installations. They're in no position to mount a rescue, though, since they are running on the fuel reserves left behind by the Decepticons and with no ready source of new fuel. Acting commander Prowl authorizes Jazz to go make a deal with Blackrock, protection for fuel, but sends Wheeljack with him as backup. There is some nice continuity in leaving Sunstreaker out of the roster - it helps to show that war has consequences. That said, the Autobots went from hanging slabs to being 90% operational between issue #8 and #9, and it feels awfully abrupt. Also, the Dinobots are nowhere to be seen. Furman will set a story in the gap that shows Prowl getting repaired and the Dinobots wandering off, and it really helps to sell the recovered Autobots. Alas, most US readers in the 80s would have to just accept that the story has jumped forward. Aside from that, the characterization is mixed. I like Prowl in command, and it's good to see Ratchet retaining a leadership role after all he's been through. The Jazz and Wheeljack bits feel much more perfuctory, though.

At the Blackrock Decepticon Aerospace plant, Starscream is scheming. He informs Shockave that the Autobots are back, and that Shockwave was remiss in not destroying Megatron. Shockwave is sanguine about the whole thing, though, since the Autobots pose little threat to his operation. It's nice to see old Screamer in action again, he's been barely insubordinate in this series so far. Frenzy bursts in, pissed. He's heard Blackrock on the radio, talking about a new robot-smashing weapon, and wants to attack it. Shockwave has no time for humans, but Starscream points out that morale is low and the risk is minimal. Old one-eye relents, and authorizes a strike. He then makes his way over to Optimus Prime's head, gloating about the Decepticons that Prime has helped to create. Prime, silently defiant, muses that with the Creation Matrix safely secreted away inside a human host there won't be any more new Decepticons. As always, Shockwave is wonderfully un-emotional. Any other Decepticon leader would fly into a fury at the repair of the Autobots, but Shockwave takes it in stride. Frenzy and Starscream get some good characterization as well.

Speaking of the Creation Matrix, we get a bit more from that subplot too. Buster is frantically trying to fix the cars in his dad's shop, since Sparkplug is still in the hospital. With no real aptitude for repair, Buster isn't making any headway. Suddenly, he has another flash, complete with levitating engine parts. This time, though, he sees how they all fit together, and repairs the problem with a mere thought. This plotline remains intriguing, another slow burn.

Finally, we get to the meat of the issue on page 10. Blackrock works in his office, late at night. A mysterious figure effortlessly enters the building and bypasses the security systems. It enters an elevator shaft and levitates up. Just as G.B. gets a phone call from the hospital stating that Josie is missing, she bursts into his office. You see her shadowy silhouette from behind as she apparently disrobes, and he nervously exclaims "Josie!". Turn the page to see a full page splash of, not Josie Beller, but Circuit Breaker. It's a great image, much better than the cover. She looks wild and dangerous and, yes, sexy. She demonstrates her newfound abilities to G.B., including levitation, energy blasts and the ability to access computer programs. She's eager to help him hunt the robots. He, though, won't risk further harm to her, and rejects her help. She is clearly sad at first, before her emotion crystallizes into anger. "You do what you want, Mr. Blackrock, I'll do what I want." It's a great reveal, dampened somewhat by the lackluster cover. Bob is using standard comic book tropes here, with the well intentioned but misguided supervillain idea, and it works.

The day day, Blackrock is preparing to demonstrate his new weapon, the Anti-Robot Photonic Cannon. Jazz shows up and kidnaps him, selling the merits of the Autobots as good guys. It's a clumsy scene, since Jazz doesn't come across as particularly trustworthy. Driving off a cliff and then catching G.B. before he falls isn't exactly a great way to demonstrate good intentions. Nevertheless, he seems convinced.

That's good, because our four main plot threads are about to come to a head. G.B. reveals his somewhat phallic cannon, but unfortunately it fizzles off impotently. Circuit Breaker has sabotaged it, using information gleaned from his computer systems the night before. I wonder if there was an intentional subtext of female vs male here, in the form of the giant male weapon emasculated by the undeniably female avatar. "Now", she says, "you'll have no choice but to say [she was] the real secret weapon you intended to use all along." Oddly, he thinks to himself that she's right, which doesn't really seem to track. They don't seem to be speaking privately, and there are reporters all around. You'd think they'd pick up on the fact that he out-and-out said she sabotaged his cannon and she agreed.

We don't get much time to dwell on such things before Starscream and Frenzy interrupt the proceedings. Jazz and Wheeljack reveal themselves and enter the battle. We're not treated to standard Autobot on Decepticon violence, though. Circuit Breaker makes herself felt as a powerful combatant, and she makes no distinction between Autobot and Decepticon despite Blackrock's entreaties. As the Decepticons retreat, she prepares to finish off the wounded Autobots, but Blackrock begs her to stop. She agrees, reluctantly, but declares them even, no debt on either side. As she exits into the smoke and fire, vowing that nothing he can say will stop him from destroying any more robots, he gets philosophical. She was the only opponent to emerge from the battle physically unscathed, but also the only one who truly lost. (This isn't quite true - a morale building exercise by the Decepticons turned into a retreat - but his point is still valid.)

This issue featured a great idea but a merely good execution. We've watched this subplot grow for four issues before meeting Circuit Breaker. Her debut is satisfying, and it's nice to see some humans standing up to the Decepticons, even if they're somewhat obsessed. I wonder if the issue would have worked better absent Starscream and Frenzy - her sabatoging the cannon and then fighting the Autobots might have been more ironic. Also, G.B.'s acceptance of the Autobots as good guys was abrupt and I never quite bought it. It would have played better if it had been introduced earlier. Obviously, that was difficult with Ratchet being the only Autobots for four issues, but perhaps the Circuit Breaker introduction could have been delayed. Finally, the transition from the Autobots defeated to the Autobots as a force to be reckoned with was also abrupt, with a mere one page devoted to the final stages of recovery.

Manlay's art is quite nice. He uses jagged lines to good effect, especially during action sequences. There were some stand-out panels during the fight and a couple of awesome splash pages. (The race track page, while an odd choice, was quite dynamically rendered). Hands' does competant ink work, and has a very nice panel on the last page where he puts Jazz entirely in black while the Autobot stands next to an explosion. Yomtov has the usual coloring issues (I feel bad saying that), including an oddly white Optimus Prime body. That said, he had some nice effects, including Buster's Matrix episode, and Josie's transition from sorrow to resolve. Manlay's pencils, Hands' inks, and Yomtov's colors all really sell her emotional state. As usual, Parker's letters subtly emphasize all the right points.

Overall, a strong but not outstanding issue. We've added quite a lot to the mythos, and the art basically works, but a mediocre cover and some plot flubs hold it back a bit. Definitely worth a read or two.

Because IDW does not have the rights to Marvel-owned characters like Circuit Breaker, they did not reprint this issue. It is, however, available from UK-based Titan books in the collection Transformers, Vol. 2: New Order

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Zob's Thoughts on Transformers Universe Dinobot

Dinobot has always been a fan favorite, easily one of the most complex and fascinating characters in the entire Transformers mythos. It was his character treatment alone that elevated him to this status, giving an otherwise unremarkable first-year Beast Wars toy with a recycled name an entirely new significance. Now, there really wasn't anything seriously wrong with the original Dinobot toy, at least nothing that didn't also plague most of the other toys in the series (inaccurate beast forms with plenty of ventral robot kibble). However, since Mainframe took plenty of liberties with the character's design in CGI animation, fans have wanted a toy for over ten years now that more closely resembled Dinobot's depiction in the show. The new version of Dinobot is an attempt to create a toy that more closely adheres to the computer animation model that people associate with the character.

Beast Wars represented a changing of the guard for the Transformers toy line, reinventing the series from scratch and replacing Autobots and Decepticons who turned into cars and planes with Maximals and Predacons who all turned into lifelike animals. The line was also passed to the design team at Kenner, who at the time had also been awarded the licenses for movie toy likes like Star Wars and Jurassic Park. Their experience in creating toy dinosaurs really isn't apparent with the 1996 version of Dinobot, probably due to their relative inexperience in creating dinosaurs that could also transform into robots. Dinobot's original velociraptor mode was spoiled rather badly by the unavoidably obvious robot legs hanging from his underbelly, and no attempt at all was made to hide the robot feet protruding from the ends of them. His robot mode didn't have any major design flaws, but the halves of the opening helmet that formed his "mutant head" that were attached to his robot head were a bit distracting, and his toy had a featureless mask rather than the sinister, toothy scowl Dinobot wore in the show.

The new Dinobot is a much more well-proportioned raptor. Where the old Dinobot was fairly plump awkward, the new toy looks lean and vicious, with long, powerful legs and a long, sweeping tail. He shares a similar kibble problem with the old Dinobot, though, only this time it's his robot arms that are tucked into his chest, Transmetal Megatron style. It's not as ugly as the legs on the original Dinobot, but the obvious manner in which his robot-mode fingers protrude from his neck is bothersome. Some manner in which his arms could have folded into the cavity inside his chest, or perhaps tucked away between his raptor legs, would have looked a lot better. Sections of his robot legs are also plainly visible on the insides of his raptor legs, as are the robot feet tacked to his dinosaur heels, so it's not a completely convincing disguise. I suppose I should cut the designers some slack, since it's difficult to completely encapsulate one transformation inside another (I don't complain that the vehicle toys have visible robot parts when I turn the car upside-down).

His color scheme is way off, though. The original Dinobot toy had a pink skin tone with brown stripes, which was mercifully toned down to something more realistic for the animated series. The new toy almost goes too far in the opposite direction, cast almost entirely in a muddy greyish-brown color, accented by some lighter tan stripes. It's probably a realistic skin tone for a wide variety of reptillian creatures, but on Dinobot, specifically, it looks wrong. It's almost as if somebody accidentally swapped the color pallette for his skin tone and his stripes, which would look much better if they'd been switched around. In fact, between the muddy brown and the visible yellow robot parts, he reminds me more of Airazor than anything else.

Dinobot's transformation is strange and elaborate, and its ultimate aim seems to be to end up with a robot mode that's as closely styled after Dinobot's CGI model as possible. This time, the raptor's hind legs turn into the robot legs, while the robot arms are (mostly) hidden inside his body. In a clever twist, chunks of the raptor's upper legs actually shift down to his lower legs to give them some bulk, and they also conceal the rib-like designs that fold out to complete the appearance of his legs. The rest is about like the original Dinobot; his raptor head folds into his chest, while his tail pops off and separates into his weaponry.

This toy is certainly designed more accurately than, say, the new Cheetor. All told, his robot form has over 13 points of articulation, although the range of motion for his knees is extremely limited. His body proportions are very good, with almost no dinosaur kibble hanging off him (his raptor arms are hanging from the back of his shoulders, but they can be swung down to lay against his body so they don't protrude). His dinosaur head fits securely, lodged halfway within his chest, although due to a spring-loaded panel that's meant to close up for his beast form, it doesn't seem to sit quite as snugly inside his chest as it seems to be designed to. His head sculpt is excellent, and perfectly captures Dinobot's visage as rendered in CGI. A lightpipe design allows his robot eyes to glow when he's held up to a light source (this design element was actually included on the original Dinobot, but his eyes were inexplicably painted). Where the original Dinobot's raptor feet folded up into claws for his robot mode, the new toy has a separate set of claws for his robot mode, complete with show-accurate double thumbs. The toy also has more traditional robot fists that can rotate around from within his forearms, for those who prefer Dinobot to have more normal digital dexterity.

He actually needs at least one of these fists to hold his accessories; like the old Dinobot, his tail unfolds into his primary weapon. Instead of a spinning cyber-slash weapon the old toy was equipped with, the updated version has a translucent orangey-red missile launcher, with the missile bearing a suspicious resemblance to the sword carried by the original Dinobot. It's shorter and stubbier, though, due partly to the necessity of having to hide it in the tail for the beast mode, but also because half its length stows away inside the launcher, so that the guard is mounted about halfway up the sword's total length. Dinobot can carry the missile in his fist like a sword in either his regular robot fist or his clawed hand (in which it hangs rather loosely, but is still adequate for display purposes). The toy also has an interchangeable faction symbol; a panel on the top of his raptor head can rotate around to reveal either a red Maximal symbol or a purple Predacon symbol. This in itself is interesting, since the original Predacon symbol was actually yellow (Hasbro did change its color to purple later on, but they changed the Maximal symbol to green at the same time). It's more likely that somebody just went with these colors because they were the same colors for the Autobot and Decepticon symbols. Dinobot didn't actually have visible insignias in the Beast Wars cartoon, but it's still an interesting feature for the toy to have, and a nice acknowledgement that he did switch factions, and more than once. (According to his packaging, however, he's apparently a Decepticon.)

Interestingly, the new Dinobot has an undocumented feature that mirrors the old toy. Although not mentioned in the instructions, the original Dinobot had a peg hole on his tail weapon that was designed to connect to the peg on his back so that he could (presumably) store his cyber-slash weapon when he wasn't using it. The new Dinobot is also capable of storing his weapon, using the hook-shaped launcher trigger, which is designed to slide into the slot behind his head. It's not a very attractive look, but at least it's a place to put his accessories besides the bottom of a toy box.

The biggest problem by far, though, is his color scheme. Remember that other toy line that was also called Transformers Universe, the one that consisted of weirdly-colored toys like a purple Fuzor Silverbolt and a purple-and-orange Blackarachnia and stuff like that? Well, this Dinobot almost looks like he belongs in that toy line--like this was the crazy redeco that Hasbro came out with to distinguish it from the first version in normal colors. Dinobot's got a mustard yellow helmet, fists, upper legs, and feet, with purple coloring on his knees, ankles, and robot face. The toy's actual sculpt was a bullseye, but the color scheme completely shoots itself in the foot. I guess the yellow is supposed to represent Dinobot's gold coloring in the TV show, but the purple isn't even a vaguely close match for the blue that Dinobot's face should actually be. This is the sort of half-hearted research that really ruins what could have been a truly remarkable toy. The toy also seems to be missing some paint applications that it was clearly meant to have, most notably the shoulder pads for his robot mode (which are almost unnoticeable without paint to call attention to them).

Overall, I like this toy, and it's leaps and bounds better than the original Dinobot, but the poor choice of colors is such a glaring oversight that I can't believe this toy made it to the final approval stages. When a toy like this is specifically meant to represent a character from the past, you'd think it would be somebody's job to make sure it actually looks like that character.

AllSpark Almanac help

Normally on Tuesdays I try to share some behind-the-scenes production material. Unfortunately, today I'm hip-deep in AllSpark Almanac work, so that'll have to wait for next week. (I had some vague notions of throwing up some background models from Traitor, in honor of the gorgeous Mirage image from yesterday.)

In it's stead, I ask for some assistance. Anyone who's got Season 2 animated DVDs and the ability to take screengrabs, please drop me a line. I've got a request that I need some help with.

UPDATE: Thanks to Fort Max and Clawful, I'm all set!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Iván's Gallery: Mirage

It's Monday, which means that it's time for another installment of Iván's Gallery. This week Iván brings us Mirage. Here's what he has to say about it:

I think Mirage is a misunderstood character.
In general, the duality of the character I have never understood.
In the third chapter of the animation Mirage prevents the decepticons triumph,risks his life, so I can not see him as a traitor.
I do not understand why such treatment is given, I do not think that is a character that lends itself to that.I love having that ability to become invisible and I think it has great potential.
Certainly the toy as autobot, I think that has more aggressive design for all, especially in the face, that design was not as well represented in the animation series.
The new toy is more like its design in animation, but I think that is too thin, I stay with 1984.
But I always liked the toy, so I decided to draw that.
The controversial Spotlight of IDW ... I just do not convince, I think it was a good idea, poorly conducted. And now I have no clear role to play.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Review: Marvel UK #21 "Raiders of the Last Ark" Part 4

A bonus review today. The parts of this story are so short, and I’m bored with reviewing so few pages at a time, so you get this last part nearly a week early - lucky you.

The writing and art team are once again unchanged. We have Simon Furman finishing off his second Transformers saga and Mike Collins and Jeff Anderson bringing it to life. Gina Hart’s colouring adds an air of quality to four of its five pages.

While the cover is a distinct improvement over the last two - depicting an angry looking Megatron swathed in a mysterious black energy - its impact is slightly lessened when you open the book and find the exact same image on page one. Still, it makes Megatron look both evil and powerful, which is a good look for him.

Megatron and Optimus Prime begin the issue still held captive by Auntie, but while they wait, Megatron has a trick up his sleeve. “Incredible!” says Optimus, “He’s actually doing it! He’s tapping the energy of a black hole in space!” This dangerous manoeuvre might just get them free. While Megatron concentrates on this, Ravage and Windcharger (somehow) get into the chamber with Auntie. Windcharger, despite his diminutive size, manages to punch Guardian out. Ravage leaps and... collides with Auntie somehow in such a way that disables her. Free of her magnetic grasp, Megatron prepares to bring his as yet unused black hole power to bear on Optimus Prime but Windcharger manages to muster an extremely powerful magnetic field and hurl him through the ceiling of the Ark and into the sky. Windcharger collapses and the Decepticons retreat, but they leave an ominous message cut into an Ark bulkhead: “We’ll be back.”

I have to admit to being slightly disappointed by the conclusion to this saga. Having both Guardian and Auntie dealt with by the end of page two seems something of a copout, considering the menace they posed in the last issue. Guardian looked to be vastly larger and more powerful than Windcharger, but we don’t see how the little Autobot got the better of him. Similarly, it is very difficult to see exactly what Ravage manages to do to Auntie. Obviously he somehow damages her circuitry, but the art is not entirely clear as to how. Windcharger’s last desperate use of his magnetic power to expel Megatron before collapsing is good drama, undermined slightly by having him up on his feet again by the next panel. I can pretty much forgive Furman for all of this, however, when you consider that the whole story was only twenty-two pages, and he was supposed to deliver three cliff-hangers and a proper ending. It required some seriously truncated story-telling, that was not really apparent until the very end. The whole story is a brisk and enjoyable read, but ultimately lightweight, and of uncertain continuity. The note at the end seems to admit this - making a point of demonstrating that the next story will pick up from Issue #8, which is the end of the first US mini-series. This would have been very odd for the UK reader, who would surely have been wondering what had happened with Shockwave throughout these three unrelated stories. One item of note that I did like is the use of Megatron's black hole power. It was mentioned on his toy bio, and Furman did like to use it occasionaly as a weapon of last resort. I'm not sure exactly how one connects with a black hole in space, but its a concept I wholeheartedly approve of.

The art continued to be perfectly adequate to tell the story. I very much liked the image of Megatron used for the cover and Ravage’s leap through Auntie’s mouth is visually striking, if a little confusing. The lone black and white page, while still regrettable, has an excellent use of shadows by Jeff Anderson in order to create a very ominous tone. This is appropriate, because even though the next issue does not follow on from this, it does show the Autobots in a very bad way indeed.

These issues have never been reprinted, not even in the collected comics editions of the early nineties, and its difficult to care. Its a readable enough story, thanks to the skill of Simon Furman and Mike Collins, but it is ultimately very slight and disposable. It stands in sharp contrast to the chaotic events depicted in the US comic at the time. This is something of a shame, because I rather liked the character of Auntie, and having the Decepticons invade the Ark had potential for excellent drama. Unfortunately the comic was, at that time, bound by the whims of its cousin over the pond, and therefore this story was merely designed to fill in time, destined to be forgotten almost as soon as it was published.

Transformers: Headmasters – The Mystery of Planet Master

We now continue exploring the world of Takara's Transformers: Headmasters series with part two of its opening trilogy, "The Mystery of Planet Master". This episode includes the notable highlights of showcasing the history of the Headmasters as well as a fierce battle to the death between Soundwave and Blaster. The viewer is immediately dropped into the fray as soon as the credits are complete. Chromedome and his fellow Autobot Headmasters have arrived just in time on Cybertron, though they are still a mystery to everyone… everyone, that is, except Weidrdwolf, Skullcruncher and Mindwipe. The action continues, featuring more of the combiners, Jazz and even the Dinobots. Cybertron is soon saved and the Decepticons forced to retreat by the Autobot Headmasters, especially once the immense battleship which delivered Chromedome and his team lets loose a fury of laser fire against the Decepticons, all in a nicely animated sequence. However, before all this occurred, Optimus decided to descend into the depths of Cybertron to check on Vector Sigma.

In addition, it is revealed that Optimus has begun his journey towards Vector Sigma without the Matrix, which is in fact the wisdom that prevents the Decepticons from gaining control over the Transformers' master computer. The main thrust of the episode at this point is to find the Matrix and deliver it to Prime, the difficulty being that it is recharging at a secret location on Earth, one of several mysterious energy points on the planet. Hot Rod/Rodimus declares that he will lead the search and rescue Optimus, perhaps still feeling that while he not currently leader of the Autobots the task falls to him in Prime's absence. Of course, I am probably reading too much into this, but if a fan wanted to connect the dots from Transformers: The Movie to the episodes "The Burden Hardest to Bear" and "The Return of Optimus Prime", one could form an arc of Hot Rod's character wanting to return to the leadership role and still proving to himself and others that he is capable to handle it.

As in the previous installment, it is explained that Vector Sigma is accessible to both Autobots and Decepticons, impartial and able to maintain the balance on Cybertron by whatever means it sees fit. In some ways, this idea seems influenced by the role The Force plays in the "Star Wars" films, where it is not something which good or evil but instead a source which can tapped into by either side and utilized. It is wisdom in using this power that determines whether the outcome is to build or destroy, for light or dark. This is quite akin to much of Eastern philosophy, especially Buddhism, which expresses there needs to be a balance of both good and evil in the world, neither side could completely eradicate the other, but clear mind and clear thought can lead to right action. Now, as far as this episode is concerned, who knows what Optimus was thinking he could do to help Vector Sigma once he reaches it, without the Matrix!

Once the battle on Cybertron is over, there is a return to Athenia and during a fond reunion between Kup and Fortress, leader of the Headmasters, we learn the history of this new group. They had all been of a smaller group of Transformers on Cybertron and unable to play a role in the Great War. From the flashbacks, they look to have been similar to non-transforming drones, too weak to fight and thus they departed, eventually landing on Planet Master where they built a city for themselves. Over the millions of years they created larger bodies for themselves, called Transtectors, for which they would transform to form the head. The Transtectors could then change to vehicular alt forms. During the eons on Planet Master, one member, Zarak, decided to break off and form his own group, bent on domination and conquest, as well as studying strange forms of mysticism, leading to powers such as Mindwipe's hypnotism. Zarak and his followers set off, eventually teaming with the Decepticons, one can deduce during the year of peace between when the Hate plague was eradicated and the beginning of "Four Warriors from Outer Space".

Meanwhile, on Earth, the plan to search for the Matrix is uncovered by Soundwave and his cassettes. He and Blaster have a short scuffle, which Soundwave promises to finish later. Hot Rod, Jazz, Ultra Magnus and Blaster determine the five possible location where the Matrix could be stored. We see the Arialbots arrive in the desert to search, only to encounter the Stunticons. Hot Rod and Blaster speed on to the North Pole. Galvatron orders Soundwave to intercept them, giving he and Blaster a chance for a rematch. Soon, Superion and Menasaur also join the fray, plus the Predacons, who are thwarted in forming Predaking by Hot Rod in vehicle mode crashing directly between the five of them in midair. Great moment!

The combat between Soundwave and Blaster is brutal. They punch through each other's chest module, Soundwave loses an arm and they both perish by the end, with Soundwave actually exploding. Galvatron has been watching from Charr and is noticeably in anguish when he witnesses this, punctuated by the sight of Laserbeak flying away with Soundwave's head in his claws. Blaster's death is a sad moment for all, as it was being observed by the Autobots on Athenia. Back on Cybertron and unaware that the battle on the surface ended, Optimus is racing towards Vector Sigma, encountering defense systems on the way, similar to what was seen in the US series. He surprisingly is greeted by the ghost of Alpha Trion, who says he will help him reach his destination. On Earth, Hot Rod is on his own searching for the Matrix, while on Athenia Chromedome declares he will head to Earth to help out. Whether intentional or not, this episode ends with the dichotomy of the old and new Autobot leaders both alone on separate journeys, Optimus being assisted by the past in the shape of Alpha Trion and Hot Rod/Rodimus about to be helped by Autobots representing the future of the Tranformers.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Review: Marvel UK #19 and #20 "Raiders of The Last Ark!" Parts 2 and 3

Part 2

Simon Furman continues the story he began in Issue #18 and the art team remains unchanged as well. Pencils are by Collins and the inking is handled by Anderson. Gina Hart continues to supply colouring to the pages she is allowed to.

The cover is not enticing, to say the least. It depicts Auntie, taken from an interior panel (that panel is in black and white, whereas this is in colour, so at least there’s some added value there) while Megatron and Optimus Prime look on in shock. The problem is that neither of the Transformers seem to be really looking directly at Auntie, and, more grievously, the three characters are against an unbroken blue background. The figures of Prime and Megatron are lifted art as well, albeit also coloured anew, but the composition is so lacklustre that it is difficult to be pleased by this. The text promises us that Auntie is “A force to be reckoned with!” which is accurate, but does nothing either way to save this cover.

The issue opens with the battle still raging from last time. Optimus Prime reflects on how badly the fight is going when suddenly he remembers Auntie. So far they have only been using The Ark‘s basic computer functions, the AI still lies dormant. He retreats from the battle to see if he can get her online. Megatron, rightly guessing that Prime would not simply retreat, follows to stop whatever plan he must have. Optimus is able to repair Auntie just as Megatron appears and blasts the console that he is working on. Prime thinks he has failed as Megatron attacks, but their tussle is interrupted by a voice saying “I... function...” The holographic image of Auntie bursts into life as Megatron and Prime stand in shock. She tells the occupants of the Ark to cease their hostilities and activates some kind of magnetic power that forces them to stick to the bulkheads. Auntie then tells Optimus Prime and Megatron that she will hear both their cases and arbitrate between them. She ignores Prime’s entreaties that she was built by Autobots and that the Decepticons are evil. She refuses to believe that she was built by anyone and says “Let the trial begin...”

This was a very good second issue in a lot of ways. I love the twist that Auntie is not completely herself and is now a danger to everyone in The Ark. There isn’t really a lot that sparkles in the script, but there are only five pages and everyone is perfectly within character, Prime coming up with a desperate plan to save everyone and Megatron seeing awesome weapons around every corner. I feel there is something of a logical flaw in the idea that the Autobots hadn’t bothered trying to repair Auntie at some other point, before the Decepticons attacked. Considering that Prime says “She WAS the Ark.” and that she controlled all of The Ark’s internal defences you would have thought that she would have been more of a priority. With the battle abruptly ended, it will be interesting to see what Auntie is going to do next.

The art is more of the same from Collins and Anderson. They serve up competent toy-inspired Transformers who inhabit their environment in a believable enough way. Unfortunately their idea of the interior of the Ark is rather dull. I get the impression that they were tasked with creating a cavernous, alien, environment, but unfortunately their efforts to provide scale mostly end up in emptiness. In most panels the Ark is an anonymous blue background with the occasional grid line to suggest a bulkhead or two. There is a certain crystalline look to parts of the ship, particularly the chamber where Auntie appears, which is an interesting idea, but doesn’t really gel with the look of the Transformers, Cybertron, or other appearances of the ship. My favourite image is Auntie’s initial appearance, she is well designed, obviously feminine, but Cybertronian enough to be interesting. I also think that the rendering of the Autobots pinned to the wall by Auntie’s magnetic field is quite impressive, both for detail - no generic background robots here, and for colour - everyone is in their correct colours and there is no block colouring. Hart continues to impress.

Part 3

The creative team for this part is identical to the last.

This is a horrible cover. I’m not being hyperbolic, I actually hate it. It is a reproduced interior panel of Windcharger and Ravage being struck by Auntie’s electric field. Inside it works fine as an action panel, on the cover, blown up to entice a reader to pick the issue up, it is hopelessly lacking. Windcharger is small and cramped as he reels from the electrical charge, and Ravage is curiously out of scale and poorly detailed. His head and neck appear almost disembodied, in a contortion I’m not even sure he can manage. I appreciate that this is not a specially commissioned cover, but the issue itself contains at least two or three images that would have made better covers, the best of which probably being the hulking Guardian robot.

Windcharger and Ravage find that they are the only two Transformers unaffected by Auntie’s magnetic attack, due to their own magnetic powers (set up by Furman two issues ago). They reluctantly agree that it is in their best interests to team up for now. Ravage dodges laser fire from the Ark’s internal gun turrets, taking a hit on the paw, but not being seriously wounded. However, before they can react, both are struck unconscious when Auntie hits them with an electrical attack. Auntie’s trial of Megatron and Optimus Prime continues, with each trying to plead their case. Megatron’s, of course, is all lies. Optimus manages to persuade Megatron that Auntie has gone mad and will not spare either of them. Megatron says that he might be able to free them. It turns out that Ravage had managed to rapidly shut down his vital systems before he was shocked, avoiding the worst of the attack. He now has the dilemma of whether to revive Windcharger or not. He decides to, because he does not want to face Auntie alone. The two of them come up against an armoured door, and then turn, in shock, to see they are being faced down by an immense Guardian robot.

This script, while still short and to the point, had more interesting dialogue exchanges. Windcharger and Ravage make a good pair of unlikely allies, which is, of course, a traditionally good way to generate fun dialogue. I particularly enjoy their exchange just after Ravage revives Windcharger. Less successful is the dialogue between Optimus Prime, Megatron, and Auntie. Megatron comes across as unbelievably slow-witted. The idea that Megatron, the ruthless leader of a group called the DECEPticons would have to have the idea that Auntie might not be telling them the truth painstakingly explained to him by Optimus Prime is wholly out of character and awkward. While Windcharger falls unconscious there is a flashback sequence that takes up nearly a whole page which details how the story arrived at this point. Obviously this was an editorial decision to bring new readers up to speed. It is therefore, of course, excessively detailed and awkward, but that is forgivable, as many of the Marvel comics have similar sequences and they are easily skipped, however, I find it more irritating here than I normally do, because it takes up nearly a page when there are only six to go around.

Furman guides the story along briskly, obviously mindful of the lack of pages he has to work with. He ratchets up the tension fairly well, giving Ravage and Windcharger progressively more difficult threats to face, and Guardian’s appearance is a well-done cliff-hanger (albeit one that relies more on some impressive art as much as scripting).

My opinion of this team’s artwork has not fluctuated at all, although it is somewhat hard to determine exactly what has happened when Ravage accidentally gets struck by the Ark’s laser. This version of Windcharger is ugly and hard to relate to, but that is not the fault of the artist, and I love the use of shadows in the panel where he is injured, reflecting his fading consciousness and his mood as he worries that he has failed Optimus Prime. My favourite image of the lot is still the Guardian, who should have been on the cover, but once again I find myself complaining that the best artwork in the issue is in black and white. It is a crime that Guardian should have been spared the deft touch of Gina Hart’s inks.

Overall I’m enjoying this story the best out of the early UK stories I have read so far. Not everything has clicked yet, but the scripting is strong enough to carry the narrative and the art is certainly worth a look. Hopefully the final part will deliver a good pay-off.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Review: Marvel G1 #8 - Repeat Performance!

Repeat Performance! is the eighth issue of the US Marvel Transformers comic series. Bob Budianski wrote the script, with pencils by William Johnson, inks by Kyle Baker, colors by Nel Yomtov and letters by Rick Parker. The cover is by Mike Collins.

Mike Collins didn't do much Marvel comic work, but he actually did draw quite a lot of Transformers artwork including Ladybird books and UK comics. He also wrote 2/3rds of the UK comic story Crisis of Command!, which Bish will be reviewing before too long. It was the last major UK comics story not written by Simon Furman and is actually quite decent. Collins' cover here is quite nice. Grimlock, Slag and Sludge stand menacingly on a ledge in their dinosaur modes. They cast long shadows behind them, heightening their menace. They stand apart rather well from the rocky green background they stand on. "And now . . . the Dinobots!" we're promised. It's a terrific cover, and I certainly want to learn more about the Dinobots after seeing it. One tiny bit of serendipity is the three Dinobots chosen for this cover - these are the same three Dinobots who would be introduced first in the Sunbow cartoon, in S.O.S. Dinobots. As an unintended consequence, this image could work very well as a sort of poster for that episode. (Swoop and Snarl would be introduced in War of the Dinobots a few episodes later.)

The issue itself is also quite strong, suffering from none of the pacing problems that afflicted the previous issue. We open on a nice splash of Ratchet riding his Mobile Autobot Repair Bay (which doesn't seem to have anything to do with the little platform that comes with the toy, unfortunately) through The Savage Land. As he rides, he gets attacked by an ENORMOUS snake that is nevertheless no real threat to him. Ratchet is more curious about it than threatened by it, but can't spare the time to learn more. He reminisces about the events of the last few issues, which include some artwork of him arriving at The Savage Land. It's well done mandatory exposition that actually gives us something new even as it catches us up on the old happenings.

(The Savage Land is a longstanding part of the Marvel Universe, a tropical paradise hidden in Antarctica. Interestingly, there is a deeper tie to mainstream Marvel continuity than just the setting in the form of a note placing this story before Avengers #257, wherin the Avengers fight Terminus in . . . The Savage Land.)

A brief interlude - back at the Ark, Megatron has prepared Prime for transport. Shockwave notes that Megatron has adjusted well to taking orders stating that he had calculated only a 27.6% chance that he wouldn't have needed to destroy Megatron for insubordination. Megatron silently chafes, which is conveyed very well both through Johnson's pencils and Budiansky's words.

Back in the swamp, Ratchet uses his medbay to blast tar away, having detected a Cybertronian life form underneath the sticky viscous fluid. He uncovers Slag, then patches into his brain and watches Slag's memories. It's slightly surreal, watching ratchet watch Slag's thoughts, especially when we're watching Ratchet watch Slag watching his companions watch Shockwave on a viewscreen. Still, it's a cool origin for the Dinobots, and their three-page fight with Shockwave is both well rendered and well written. In a clever bit of writing, just as Ratchet figures out that Shockwave went into emergency system shutdown to conserve energy, Slag revives from the same. He's ornery with Ratchet, but quickly comes to accept Ratchet as an ally.

Meanwhile, the human plot advances. G.B. Blackrock and the U.S. Army are camped out outside of the conquered Aerospace plant, Blackrock giving an interview. Oddly, he's lost his mustache. Maybe he wanted to be clean shaven for his interview. When Shockwave approaches the plant, the Army opens fire on him. Shockwave's dialogue is particular inspired as he observes that human armament could never pierce his plating. Once inside, Shockwave reveals to Soundwave that he's already used the creation matrix to give life to six new Decepticons, and that the plant would provide the bodies for the new brains. Josie Beller watches all this from her hospital bed, crying with rage and frustration. Bob's been building on her for a while, and now we see that the micro-circuitry can make an exo-skeleton allowing her to move her paralyzed limbs. But it's not just overcoming her handicap that fills her thoughts, no. Revenge is also present in her mind.

Cut to the endgame. Megatron sits, bored and pensive. He has come to believe that Ratchet was a coward who would say anything to save his own life, and that letting the medic go was a mistake. However, his thoughts are interrupted when Ratchet calls him, having apparently fulfilled his part of their pact. Images of a defeated Shockwave are sent to Megatron, filling him with glee. Again, Johnson does a great job with expressions.

Ratchet drives to the mountaintop where he and Megatron agreed to meet. Megatron appears, but refuses to honor the pact. He chastises Ratchet for being too trusting, but is ironically ambushed by the waiting Dinobots. See, Ratchet figured that Megatron would brake the sacred Rite of Oneness, and so sent him images of a defeated Shockwave . . . from four million years in the past! (A repeat performance, if you will) However, even with the element of surprise, Megatron is a titanic foe. He manages to best the Dinobots in two excellent pages. Ratchet refuses to just stand there, and attempts a suicidal charge to push his adversary and himself off the mountain. Megatron doesn't budge a micron, though, and laughs at Ratchet's valor. He seems genuinely impressed, and states that it will be an honor to destroy a warrior as brave as Ratchet . . . BUT WAIT! Though Megatron absorbed the blow, the force was transmitted into the ledge he stood on, which cracks and falls. Megatron shifts to his gun mode to attempt to lessen the impact and vanishes into the snow below. The reviving Dinobots are eager to finish the job, but Ratchet cautions that repairing the other Autobots takes priority. Privately, he wonders if another encounter with Megatron would end as well for them, though he wisely doesn't vocalize those concerns. These Dinobots don't look like they'd shy away from a fight. The title is doubly appropriate, because the Dinobot/Megatron fight seems to echo the Dinobot/Shockwave fight, only this time with the addition of Ratchet turning the tide.

Finally, a four panel epilogue. Josie Beller, in her hospital bed, is enjoying her regained mobility. But that's not all she's enjoying - she also blasts some medical equipment with a ray from her hands. She's ready to check out, and the text for next issue promises us that no machine is safe from: Circuit Breaker!

The artwork is really working well, now. It's a good creative team, with Johnson's pencils conveying both strong emotions and dynamic fights. Baker's inks are spot on. In particular, I thought they really helped sell the concept of the tar.

Overall it's a great issue. Ratchet's evolution, from medic to warrior, is complete, and he is no longer alone in his quest. We get some intriguing new developments, such as a newly mobile (and blasting) Josie Beller and the promise of six new Decepticons. Johnson's art really shines in this one. My lack of appreciation for his work in the prior issue probably stemmed more from a script that didn't really let him do either strong emotions or sweeping battles. Everything comes together to make a great read and a satisfying conclusion to the second story arc of The Transformers.

Repeat Performance! is available from IDW Publishing in this anthology: Classic Transformers Volume 1 (Transformers)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Zob's Thoughts on Transformers Universe Starscream

I was actually quite surprised to learn that the original Classics Starscream was going to be included in the new Transformers Universe series. I know he's a popular character, of course, but it seemed like a strange decision to include a repack of a two-year-old toy in the current assortment. Once I realized it wasn't a repack at all but a completely new redeco, it made perfect sense. I eagerly gobbled the new Starscream up as soon as I spotted it in the store.

Ever since the Beast Wars toys came out, with their amazing robot-mode articulation and liberal use of ball-and-socket joints, I had clamored for a new Starscream toy that used the same technology. I'm not sure exactly what it was about Starscream that I felt made him a good candidate to get an updated toy; maybe it was because he, himself, appeared on the Beast Wars show through the course of several episodes, or maybe it was just because he's always been a favorite character of mine and I felt he really deserved a decent toy in his likeness. In any event, when Hasbro finally released the Classics version of Starscream, it was a mixed blessing. I loved that Hasbro finally came up with a fully-articulated version of Starscream that turned into an F-15 jet, but while his colors were evocative of his original look to some degree, they just weren't what I had been hoping for. I understand that Hasbro has stated that they're going for realistic vehicle color schemes whenever possible (which serves to explain the disaster they call Transformers: Universe Powerglide), but a silver jet with red splashed on the wings and stabilizers with a blue stripe down the center doesn't look like Starscream to me. (If anything, it looks like G2 Windrazor.) Still, I appreciated the effort that went into the toy, and I was content to enjoy it while quietly suppressing my dislike of the color scheme.

Flash forward to two years later, and witness the culmination of a dream. The new Starscream is exactly the same toy, of course, but its color scheme is so vastly improved that it makes me wonder how anybody gave the first toy final approval to begin with. The original metallic silvery-grey color got swapped out for a lighter, vibrant shade of off-white. The muted crimson paint applications were replaced with a much more brilliant red color. The blue plastic used is approximately the same, perhaps a shade darker. While a lighter sky blue would have been more appropriate if the goal was to make a toy that represented Starscream as he appeared in the G1 cartoon, the color scheme does look good, and the dark blue creates a nice contrast. (Note: I've modified the weapons on my toy, pictured; the retail version has missiles the same length as the original toy.)

Even more than the choice of plastic colors, though, it's the paint applications on the new Starscream that really sets him apart from the old one. A much more faithful approach to his original look was taken this time, and he boasts the proper blue stabilizer fins and red air intakes in jet mode, as well as his distinctive red and silver wing deco. He's even got the upside-down Decepticon insignias on his wings this time, which the first toy was missing completely. Even his canopy glass was changed from yellow to orange in an attempt to make him look more like his G1 self. One flaw present on the original toy that was fixed with the new one was how the black color of his helmet, which makes up a chunk of the nosecone, was still visible even when he was in jet mode. On the new version, the sides of his helmet remain unpainted, so that the color contrast no longer spoils the illusion of his vehicle form. The only change I don't really care for is his weapons, which are now predominantly blue. They're pressed from the same molds as his fists and feet, so this is perhaps unavoidable; the first version avoided this look because nearly the entire upper half of each launcher was painted silver; the new toy could probably have benefited from a similar approach, but it's not a dealbreaker.

Considering this toy originally made its debut in 2006, the mold has already seen a lot of wear and tear. Aside from the original Starscream release, this mold has also been used for Ramjet, the Target exclusive Skywarp, the BotCon versions of Thundercracker and Thrust and Dirge, and more recently, Acid Storm; there's also the Henkei version of Starscream available in Japan. The point is that this mold is already starting to wear out, and there's evidence that the production mold has already been retooled in places to compensate for mold degradation. The mounts for the peg holes underneath his wings have been rounded off, and Starscream's feet no longer ratchet as you unfold them, and his arms no longer lock in place during transformation. Ridges have been added to the inside of the peg holes on his arms so that his weapons will fit more securely. The pegs connecting his legs together have been retooled as well, and his tail rudders have been modified so that they ratchet when you fold them. The copyright stamp on the inside of his leg has been updated to 2008. (Except for the ratcheting tail rudders, none of these changes are present on Acid Storm, the second-most recent iteration of this mold.)

This toy also seems to suffer from some quality control problems. The first Starscream I bought had a chunk of its stabilizer wing missing, straight out of the package. I got a second one with the intent of taking the first one back to the store, only to discover that the new one was missing the painted stripes on one of its wings. I had to open both toys and disassemble them just to put together one complete, unbroken unit. (Sometimes I think that I'm statistically destined to end up with more factory defects than most people, simply by merit of the fact that I buy so many toys. Twice in a row with the same exact figure is really pushing it, though.)

I remain hopeful that Hasbro will continue to produce this toy in different colors, representing additional characters. They haven't done a version of Sunstorm yet, for example, a fairly obscure character who seems to remain popular with fans. Hasbro has also said they haven't completely ruled out eventually doing retail versions of Thundercracker, Thrust, and Dirge if they are sufficiently different from the BotCon toys to help preserve their exclusivity. (TakaraTomy is also doing Henkei versions of Dirge and Thrust with completely new wing sculpts and slightly different color schemes.) I'd love to see Hasbro expand the line with additional unnamed background characters, like the Decepticon jet from "Five Faces of Darkness" part 4 who was given Onslaught's color scheme (I've named him Slaughterhouse; I would have no problem whatsoever with Hasbro using that name and making it official) or the rather feminine Decepticon jet who appears near the end of "More Than Meets the Eye" part 3 (Raksha gets credit for coining the name Twilight). I will continue to buy this toy every time a new version of it comes out, and I know I'm not the only one.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Ark Addendum - Megazarak Transform

In honor of both Iván's lovely Scorponok and the most excellent Maximum Dinobots, I thought I'd bring out some Scorponok / Megazarak content.

This is the extended transformation sequence for Megazarak, from scorpion to robot. Note the prominence given to the Zarak shield in the model. I love the dramatic katakana when he's finished, proudly proclaiming 'MEGAZARAK!!' Keep in mind that these were designed purely as internal reference documents, and yet the designs were so cool that the artist felt compelled to include this element.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Iván's Gallery: Scorponok / MegaZarak

It's Monday, so time for another installment of Iván's Gallery. To celebrate the most excellent Maximum Dinobots series, Iván brings us the mighty Scorponok! Here's what he has to say about it:

Scorponok ... Incredible character!
We can analyze it in two ways, on the one hand, we have the toy, highlighted by its size and color,
I always though that was a bit bothersome smaller fortress maximus, but , no problem.
Unlike many other toys transformers, scorponok was well supplied.
However, I believe that in the Marvel comics is where else take the character and power.
The saga of the submarine base, I especially liked, Well, I think this is the time I like the Marvel comics.
On the other hand we have the character in the place where animation is completely missed.
But later saw his remold called Lord Zarak, here if it was okay, he was a leader.
In this new era of IDW currently believe that the spirit of the character.
Anyway, I've always scorponok seen as one of the most prominent within the universe transfomer
Deserves a spotlight and a place of honor in the squadron decepticon,
only regret that there have been many different views along the history.
That´s all !!!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Transformers: Headmasters - "Four Warriors From The Sky"

Jim has graciously allowed others to contribute more content to his blog in the form of comic and toy reviews, so I asked about contributing reviews which will focus on episodes from the Takara-produced "Transformers: Headmasters" series. Obviously this series needs no introduction to fans who read and post here, but for the uninitiated this was created to follow season three of the US animated series, ignoring the three-part "Rebirth" storyline and instead continuing along for a Japanese-specific audience only the escalation of the Autobot-Decepticon war, once Scorponok, Fortress Maximus and the other Headmasters are added to the fray. Thanks to the subtitled DVD releases by Metrodome UK in 2005, fans in the States could finally dive into fresh animated adventures in the G1 universe and explore the 35-episode season, which I would like to do here, using the subtitled versions for reference as opposed to the infamous and awful Star TV dub.

As with Seasons One and Three in the US version, "Headmasters" opens with a multi-part arc, this one consisting of the episodes "Four Warriors From Outer Space", "The Mystery of Planet Master" and "Behold the Birth of Double Prime". The first installment wastes almost zero time before jumping into trouble. The viewer is informed that it is 2011, placing this one year after "The Return of Optimus Prime" as the Japanese-dubbed versions of the US show moved its third season to the year 2010. Galvatron, the Decepticon Headmasters, the Terrocons and Combaticons emerge from the old space bridge portal once manned by Shockwave during the first two seasons of the series. Galvatron announces he is after Vector Sigma, stating that it is equally available to both Autobots and Decepticons. In subsequent scenes we learn that Vector Sigma has been "malfunctioning" and destabilized since Optimus released the entirety of the Matrix energy to cure the Hate plague. Apparently during the ensuing year of peace, Galvatron no doubt bided his time and was perhaps now feeling bolstered by the off-screen introduction of the Headmasters into his ranks of Decepticons.

A full-on attack begins on Cybertron by the Decepticons, while Spike and Carly alert the new Autobot HQ on planet Athenia for reinforcements. Wreck-Gar, in what I think is his only appearance in this series, motivates Grimlock, his fellow Dinobots and the Technobots to counterattack in the meantime. I must make mention here of that fact that I happen to really enjoy many of the performances of the original Japanese cast and don't mind reading subtitles in the least. I know there are fan dubs out there and while I applaud their efforts, nothing can really replace a talented voice cast and both the US and Japanese series featured this in spades. Even the actor portraying Blurr manages to achieve the same speedy line delivery as we got from John Moshitta's portrayal in the 1986 movie and following third season episodes. Other standouts for me are the voices for Galvatron, Soundwave/Soundblaster, Zarak and Mindwipe.

On Athenia, Optimus receives Spike's message, consults with Hound, Jazz and Hot Rod about what might be happening with Vector Sigma and soon dispatches troops to both Cyberton and Earth. The conflict rages on Cybertron, we witness Mindwipe's ability to hypnotize others, unfortunately and humorously also including Skullcruncher. Spike confers with Kup and Arcee, positing a theory that there is no way to control Vector Sigma and in order to restore its own balance it allowed the Decepticons to easily invade Cybertron. Spike leaves for Athenia and we then jump to Earth, finding that it as well is under attack. City Commander Ultra Magnus naturally leads the Bots here against Soundwave, the Triple Changers and Sixshot. We even glimpse Sideswipe among the fray! Sixshot begins a confrontation with Magnus which culminates in a much later episode and shows a bit of dry humor when after providing his name to his foes, says directly "I've introduced myself… now die!".

We then join Daniel and Wheelie in a run-in with Trypticon, who unfortunately does not get a chance to actually squash them. Yes, the fact that Daniel and Wheelie have such a prominent role is probably the least-liked aspect of this series. Sometimes they can be just window-dressing, commenting on the action, other times they are central to an episode and there are a few occasions early on when Daniel exhibits behavior more akin to a four year old than someone who is ten (see "Approach of the Demon Meteorite"). It doesn't really ruin my fun in watching "Headmasters", but there are for sure several grating moments with both their characters, even though Daniel does mature a bit by the end. Anyway, the two elude Trypticon and eventually sneak their way to Cybertron while Metroplex and the Trainbots join the battle on Earth, in a sequence quite reminiscent of the earlier American episodes.

All the Autobot reinforcements, including Optimus and Jazz, reach Cybertron and retaliate against Galvatron's forces. Kup, Arcee, Blurr, Spike and Carly arrive safely on Athenia, greeted by Hot Rod and informed that Optimus is planning to "recalibrate" Vector Sigma. We learn here that he no longer has the Matrix, that it is in fact "recharging" in a secret location after being drained in "The Return of Optimus Prime". Kup then spots an approaching mysterious object on their sensors, prompting him to tell the tale of how some Transformers fled from the war on Cybertron 4 million years ago and wonders if the same tragedy will occur again. We get a flashback here which features cameos from Megatron and Starscream in battle before Spike chastises Kup for being stuck in the past and determines the mysterious object is actually a battleship. Kup's character is noticeably and unfortunately both softened and sidelined in this series, similar to what happens to Arcee.

Back on Cybertron, Daniel and Wheelie are discovered and sent back to Earth, followed by some wonderfully animated fights between combiners Superion and Abominus, Defensor and Devastator, something this series really reveled in. A brief scuffle between Galvatron and Optimus leads to him being saved by Springer and the Triple-changers, before he himself heads off to Vector Sigma. The Dinobots and Throttlebots are protecting the entrance to Vector Sigma, but are soon subdued by the Decepticon Headmasters, thanks to Mindwipe's hypnotism. I think that even with Grimlock's small role here, they still managed to capture the humor in his blissfully ignorant fighting attitude. However, just before Galvatron and his troops can invade further, they are halted by the appearance of the aforementioned strange battleship and a booming voice from its depths. Suddenly four Transformers emerge from the ship and confront the Decepticons. Weirdwolf immediately recognizes them, they announce themselves as Headmasters and the episode ends here with questions of how they know each other and how will the ensuing conflict unfold?

This series, while not without its own stand-alone episodes, in general displayed more of a serialized format than the US G1 series and this becomes one of its more successful aspects. Obviously, the tone and style are different than what we viewed here in the States from 1984-1987, but there are still many aspects that are continued from the original Sunbow-produced episodes. While I completely acknowledge how much heart and wisdom can be found in the "Masterforce" series, I might have to say that "Headmasters" is a guilty favorite. Being the old school G1 fan, it's hard to beat the thrill of seeing those bots in new stories, I love the free-wheeling action of the series, when you can have combiners in battle without them even being a focus of the episodes, something which really began in the US season three. There is a wealth of planet-hopping plots, also as seen in season three, a large cast of characters, great voice talents and some surprising losses displayed. I can somewhat understand the changes seen in Kup, Arcee and Magnus being sidelined as each subsequent season of the Transformers had this same thing happen (Season One bots sidelined for Season Two bots, who were in turn benched for the movie-era bots in Season Three, etc). And as will be detailed in subsequent reviews, there is much to enjoy about the backstory of the Headmasters as presented in "4 Million Year Old Veil", in terms of leaving Cybertron, crashing on Planet Master, the hardships and turmoil encountered and finally building bigger bodies for alt forms. Until next time!