Thursday, April 30, 2009

Review: Marvel G1 #22 - Heavy Traffic!

Heavy Traffic! is the twenty second issue of the Marvel US G1 Transformers series. The creative line-up is mostly unchanged from the prior issue. Bob Budiansky wrote the tale, penciled by Don Perlin. Ian Akin & Brian Garvey again provide inks, with colors as always by Nel Yomtov. Lettering duties passed to Hans IV, and Herb Trimpe again draws the cover.

Well ... most of the cover. This issue was part of the Marvel 25th anniversary celebration. You can see some other covers here. Keeping in this spirit, Trimpe drew a head shot of a Transformer - in this case, a toy-inspired Menasor. While Menasor is the villain of the book, probably Optimus Prime would have been the better choice. I'm also not keen on the vaguely toy-inspired drawing - I'd have preferred something closer to the character model. Overall, not particularly inspiring on its own, though in the historic context it's understandable.

The book itself opens by addressing an ongoing question - just what happened to Blaster and team after issue #18. The title page is a splash, Circuit Breaker and Walter Barnett watching a video of the Autobots in question clumsily interacting with the local police vehicles. Circuit Breaker, unsurprisingly, interprets their actions as hostile. Barnett is a bit more open minded. As the book proceeds, we witness a R.A.A.T. (Rapid Anti-robot Assault Team) attack on the unsuspecting 'bots, culminating in their deactivation. It's an impressive show of force, all told. So impressive that Barnett is here to deliver to Josie a bonus check. However, she takes to the bonus only slightly better than she takes to the idea that perhaps the robots were non-hostile; she's not in this for the money. It's an effective opening sequence, reintroducing us to Circuit-Breaker while tying up some loose ends. It also introduces the theme of the issue, the things that people will do for money.

And speaking of loose ends, last issue Bombshell was seen hitching a ride on Silverbolt. Now, inside the ark, he watches Ratchet tend to Optimus Prime's wound, sustained in issue #19. He manages to slip a cerebro shell into the wound, but is only able to monitor Prime's thoughts. Prime's thoughts are, at the moment, focused on Donny Finkleberg's claim of 7 errant Autobots. They're still skeptical and want him to help find the missing robots. Donny isn't much interested ... until Skids takes his $25,000 cashier's check, earned for dressing up as Robot-Master. Oh, and while Donny's wallet is out, Bombshell sneaks in a homing beacon. Thus, outfitted with a special fuel sensor, Skids and a reluctant Donny head out. Wheeljack wonders aloud if the human can be trusted, prompting a prescient Prime to observe that until he gets a better offer, they can. It's a somewhat clumsy sequence, really. The Autobots have no real reason to need Donny along. It's true that he's not very trustworthy, but he did risk quite a lot to come and tell them of their companions. Their actions here just seem thuggish. They also allowed Bombshell to track them and ultimately disrupt the mission, so it wound up as extremely counterproductive on multiple levels.

But for now, Optimus is getting ready to Matrix the hell out of the Aerialbots. After their abysmal performance last issue, their minds have been completely wiped. Hang on. Let me repeat that. Their minds have been completely wiped, to the point where they need the life-giving properties of the matrix, presumably for the second time. Even Silverbolt, who had his programming completed, was effectively murdered by his commander. Once again, the way the Autobots value human life above their own appears bizarre and twisted. What kind of a species would have such self-loathing?

Ahem. Anyway, as Optimus transmits the matrix into the Aerialbots, Megatron takes advantage of the cerebro shell to clone the signal, giving life to the Stunticons. The dialogue makes it seem as if Megatron might actually be in possession of the Matrix at this point, though if that was the case it probably wouldn't have been necessary to have wiped Silverbolt's mind. We would later learn that the Matrix is a physical object, when Furman introduces that retcon much later in the series, so Megatron couldn't have gotten more than a good jolt of Matrix energy.

The fuel sensor built by Wheeljack functions well. Even in a heavy downpour, Skids makes progress. Donny, though, continues to complain, with money frequently coming up. Skids can't quite seem to believe that Donny has no other concerns than money, but the unemployed Finkeberg can't think of too many. They are interrupted when a traffic accident puts a driver in harms way. Skids breaks cover to remove some electrical wires, despite Donny's protests. I'll point out that Skids was willing to delay his mission to help a random human, and that there are ultimately dire consequences.

When the rescued motorist speaks to a local reporter, R.A.A.T. gets interested. Barnett thinks that perhaps they have been too quick to judge, but Josie just sees another target. Megatron, though, doesn't like the idea of positive publicity for the Autobots, and so dispatches the Stunticons. Soundwave asks if Megatron plans to destroy Skids, but Megatron is in full-on supervillain mode and has a plan that's 'far worse'. It does seem odd to me how concerned Megatron has become with public perception. This is the same mech that, in issue #4, strode confidently out of his fortress and dared the US Army to do their worst, emerging unscathed from their assault.

Hours later, Donny needs some rest, and Skids could use some shut-optic too. After showing Donny his on/off switch (whaaaa?), the pair power down for the night. That morning, there are a number of suspicious looking vehicles parked next to Skids when Donny turns him back on. Unfortunately for him, the Stunticons have picked up his scent. When they get caught in traffic, the Stunticons make their move. They begin rampaging through traffic, knocking earth vehicles aside with abandon and must certainly cause quite a few injuries, possibly some fatalities. Skids tells Donny to hide while he radios for backup.

Before the Autobots can put in an appearance, R.A.A.T. shows up. They attempt the same sort of attack that worked well on the Cybertronian Autobots, but Motormaster quickly counter atttacks. Circuit-Breaker enters the battle, desirous of drawing fire away from her men. She blasts two of the Stunticons, before getting BOKed by a truck. Donny displays some rare selflessness to run over to her to see if she's okay. When she his, he observes that they must be paying her a ton of money to go toe-to-servo with Transformers. Money, though, has nothing to do with her motivation.

As the Stunticons close in on Skids, improbably still stuck in traffic, the Aerialbots arrive and join the battle. Josie calls for backup, prompting Donny to protest - he understands that the Aerialbots are here to help. The newly arrived Barnett thinks that perhaps Donny's on to something ... until the Stunticons surround Skids and loudly proclaim their intent to protect him with their lives! It's all Circuit-Breaker needs to confirm her worldview, and she hurls herself into battle with abandon. For both teams have united, and the first genuine Gestalt battle of the Marvel continuity is under way. Highway entrance ramps shatter and cars are hurled like rocks before they begin grappling with each other. Thus distracted, neither notice Josie levitating up to Silverbolts head until she empties her atomic battery, stunning Superion for long enough for Menasor to blast him point-blank in the chest; the mighty Autobot falls. It's a pretty kick-ass fight, with some great Perlin art and some bombastic Budiansky prose.

Menasor roars with triumph, but he hasn't forgotten Circuit-Breaker's attack on his components. He prepares to finish off the fleshling, but Barnett orders an evacuation. Channeling the spirit of Errol Flynn, he pulls the falling Circuit-Breaker out of harms way while dangling from a helicopter. It's so far out there that I don't even know if I love it or hate it ... I'm leaning towards the former.

Skids, meanwhile, grabs Donny and takes the opportunity to make haste away from this scene. Oddly, it's Donny who protests this, as Superion is just lying helpless. Skids points out that his instructions were explicit - the mission comes first. Alas, Skids, if you'd remembered that a day earlier and let that motorist fend for herself, none of this would have happened. Again, though, Autobots in the Marvel continuity demonstrate an almost pathological need to save human life while not valuing their own at all.

Fortunately for Superion, we learn via radio that Menasor withdrew shortly thereafter, apparently satisfied with having discredited Skids. Donny doesn't rate his chances for seeing this mission through, and despairs of getting his $25,000 back. He insists that they stop for another rest, and Skids eventually gives in. Once inside the motel, he Donny slinks over to a payphone and contacts Barnett. "How much for a sleeping Autobot," he asks, and is surpised to hear that the going rate is $50,000. A better offer ... poor Skids.

Alas, this was another relatively weak outing. There are some parts that work great, especially the clash of the titans. But many things don't work. The monetary theme doesn't really resonate in a book about alien robots fighting a civil war. The mind-wiped Aerialbots and then the casual way in which Skids abandons Superion seem extremely un-heroic. Autobots with off switches seems extraordinarily silly; if Autobots need rest, surely they have timers and motion sensors. Megatron's plan to discredit the Autobots seems unnecessary - why not just take the easy out and destroy Skids, or let him find the missing Autobots and then ambush them. I can't even blame Donny for betraying Skids - he went to them in good faith to help them, and they kidnapped him and stole a fortune from him to ensure his cooperation. Perlins art is pretty cool, and plays especially well in battle. Also, Circuit-Breaker is a treat to look at. Ultimately, though, it's not enough to make this more than a perfunctory outing.

Next issue, we're promised "Skids' fate revealed! Plus, Introducint the Riotous Runamuck and Runabout in Decepticon Graffiti!" I don't find myself caring much about Skids - I've already resigned myself to him being in R.A.A.T. captivity, but the ruckus promised sounds fun.

Heavy Traffic! is not available from IDW publishing, due to the appearance of the Marvel-owned character Circuit-Breaker. It is collected in the Titan collection, Transformers: Showdown.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Zob's Toy Review Poll

What types of toy reviews would my regular readers enjoy seeing me focus on in the future?

a) Reviews of regular Transformers toys currently on the market
b) Retro reviews of older toys
c) Reviews of Transformers-related merchandise (Robot Heroes, Mighty Muggs, etc.)

Thanks for your feedback!


Zob's Thoughts on Transformers Universe Darkwind

Hasbro has paid tribute to plenty of lesser-known characters from the Transformers mythos. Though it's arguable that the core characters from 1984-85 will remain the most popular and recognizable of bunch, we've also gotten plenty of homages in recent years to other toys from all over the board—Micromasters, Action Masters, and even characters exclusive to Japan that many American fans have never heard of. One of the final toys from Transformers Universe is Darkwind, with a "d," a toy based on a Decepticon Powermaster from 1988 named Darkwing, with a "g." The fact that Darkwing never appeared in the American cartoon series, and was a minor player in the comic book at best, does in no way makes this substantially awesome homage any less appealing. (Note that, during the course of this review, I will use the name "Darkwing" when referring to the original character and toy, and the name "Darkwind" when I'm specifically talking about the new Transformers Universe toy.)

By the fifth year of the original Transformers toy line, the standalone concept of a robot that could change into a vehicle was in and of itself no longer a novelty, so—with rival toy companies like Tonka and Bandai no longer producing competing robot toys of their own—Hasbro had been experimenting with alternate gimmicks to keep the toy line fresh and interesting. 1987 saw the introduction of Headmasters and Targetmasters, robots who were paired with humanoid partners (which, ironically, was a concept Hasbro had initially rejected, despite the Diaclone toys being designed for it). Powermasters were a variation on this concept, but instead of transforming into the robot's head or weapon, their Nebulan partners changed into their vehicle-mode engines. Affixing the engines quite literally unlocked each robot's power, tripping a spring-loaded trigger than enabled the toys to transform. Darkwing and his cohort Dreadwind also had the additional gimmick of being able to combine with each other in jet mode to form a super jet configuration called Dreadwing, a portmanteau of the two Decepticon names. Incidentally, the combined mode was erroneously referred to once in Marvel Comics as Darkwind, so there actually is a canonical precedent, of sorts, for this character's new name. (Hasbro can't use the original trademark—not, as you might suspect, because of the Disney cartoon show called Darkwing Duck, but rather because of the more recent Mage Knights miniature figure called the Darkwing Zombie.)

Most of the time, I'm averse to Hasbro's approach towards redeco toys. More often than not, they tend to take toys that were specifically designed to represent a particular character, churn them out in a different color scheme, and assign to it the name of some other character with some superficial physical resemblance to the original toy. Taking the Transformers Universe version of Powerglide, for example, and coloring it purple didn't suddenly make it the perfect homage to Micromaster Stormcloud. It just looked like Powerglide in the wrong colors. It was for this reason that when I first heard that Silverbolt was going to get a redeco, I cringed at the thought of the toy representing anyone other than Silverbolt. It was such a perfect update for the Aerialbot leader that I didn't see how the toy could ever work as any other character. Once I saw how beautiful the toy was, though, I was more than willing to drive 17 miles to the nearest Toys "R" Us and fork over $29.99 for it. (Hey, it beats paying overinflated eBay prices.)

Where the original Darkwing was a Panavia Tornado combat jet, the new iteration of the character is something of a vehicular Fuzor (it kind of looks like an XB-70 Valkyrie that's going trick-or-treating as a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber). Perhaps due to characters being reinvented and recycled endlessly over the years, I've grown accustomed to characters changing the make and model of the vehicles they turn into, so this particular change doesn't bother me. (I mean, hey. At least this isn't Alternators Darkwing. He's still a jet.) The color scheme captures the look and feel of the original character very nicely—predominantly a muted grey with dark purple wings, light blue rudders, and gold lightning bolts that nicely emulate the factory stickers on the original toy. The only thing missing is the Decepticon symbols on either wing, but they kind of interfered with the lightning bolts on the original toy in the first place, so I can't complain. The only thing I would have done differently, really, would be to make the canopy windows turquoise to more closely match the original toy, but the purple windows still look pretty good. The toy has the same electronics package as Silverbolt, making an aerial swooshing sound, the sound of a jet takeoff (accompanied by flashing red LED bulbs in the engines), and the sound of machine gun fire (along with the flashing of the red LED bulbs embedded in the guns near the cockpit). While the toy is identical in shape to Silverbolt, the fact that both characters are sharing a new, different jet mode works to their benefit. If the new toy had been based on a supersonic transport, like the original 1986 version of Silverbolt, it would have been very difficult to envision the toy as any other character.

Even though this toy wasn't specifically designed with Powermaster Darkwing in mind, it actually works really well for the character. Both Silverbolt and Darkwing, though very different toys, share the basic design philosophy of changing from a plane with lots of suspiciously robotic undercarriage parts into a robot with a jet for a backpack. Darkwing was unique in that his upper torso actually twisted sideways during transformation, but the essence of his construction is still retained in the new version. Darkwing came with two weapons that mounted to his fists in vehicle mode (his arms were tucked away under the wings), a look you can also replicate with the updated toy (even though he only comes with one handheld weapon). Obviously, there's no Powermaster engine accessory this time, but we know that Darkwing was a perfectly functional Decepticon before he ever partnered up with Throttle, and it's pretty much a given that getting a Nebulan partner is temporary at best (after all, Transformers live for millions of years), so it's certainly not difficult to imagine that this is either a pre-Powermaster version of Darkwing, or an iteration of the character after Throttle died of old age or gastrointestinal distress or whatever. (Besides, the concept of a jet plane with a hot rod engine is pretty silly when you get right down to it.)

This new toy's transformation is actually closer to Darkwing than it is to Silverbolt, fittingly enough. The original Darkwing also had the entire nosecone section fold over onto his back—the main difference being that here, you don't have to worry about accidentally breaking off the hook designed to lock the transformation if his engine isn't mounted in place. There's so much symmetry between the two toys—the way his heel struts support his legs, the folding dual rudders on his back as a robot—that if I didn't know better, I'd say this toy was designed with Darkwing in mind. It's possible to look at the robot form and just see an off-colored Silverbolt, of course, but unlike a lot of redeco toys that simply do not make sense, the robot-mode styling isn't at all out-of-place for Darkwing. The only thing that's completely un-Darkwingish about the toy is the wings mounted to the shoulders, since the original toy had more rounded arms that more closely evoked human musculature. Sliding the robot head up or down triggers the same transformation sound effects as Silverbolt. ( Darkwind has purple eyes—this explains the purple cockpit, since they're molded from the same translucent plastic—but they flash red when the transforming sound is active.)
What astounds me even more about his robot mode, though, is how perfectly the color scheme comes together. Hasbro had to cheat just a little and paint some of the parts that weren't molded the correct colors, like Darkwind's feet and forearms, but surprisingly few changes were needed. The only colors that seem out of place at all are the landing gears that fold up into the tops of his shoulders (I'm sure Hasbro would have painted them if they could, but they're molded out of a tricky thermoset plastic that they tend to avoid painting because of its tensile properties). Whoever came up with the paint deco scheme for this toy really did their homework—he's even got silver paint on his abdomen and knees as well as gold and red panels on his pelvis that nicely mimic the consumer-applied stickers on the 1988 toy. (When a limited-edition store exclusive is handled with such care, and yet general-release toys like Universe Smokescreen or Dinobot are botched so badly, it makes me wonder where Hasbro's priorities are sometimes.) The biography on the back of the package is perfect, too—it really plays up Darkwind's dark, dreary attitude towards life. They got all his stats right, too. The projectile that launches from his weapon is identified on the package as a "firing kinetic blast," a reference to the twin laser-guided electro-kinetic blasters carried by the original toy.

Darkwing's G1 toy was produced after the final season of the original cartoon series, so he never appeared on TV (aside from toy commercials). His counterpart from Japan, named Hydra, did appear in the Super God Masterforce cartoon, albeit in a different color scheme. Darkwing played a somewhat bigger role in Marvel Comics, notably in issue #42, the Powermasters showcase story that introduced Powermaster Optimus Prime. He also got an amusing scene near the end of the comic in which, while discussing with Dreadwind the merits and pitfalls of an allegiance with the Autobots, he gets to watch the symbolism of a giant Autobot symbol crashing down on Dreadwind's head. Darkwing later gets destroyed by Megatron in TRANSFORMERS: GENERATION 2, only to be revived in a new form that suspiciously resembles the G2 toy that Hasbro named Dreadwing.

My guess is that most people being to one of two schools of thought. Either they owned the 1988 original toy and liked the character, in which case I do recommend seeking the toy out for a reasonable price (don't go the eBay route)—or else they never owned Darkwing and don't have any particular attachment to the character, in which case the new toy is largely meaningless to them. (That's kind of how I feel about the new version of Countdown, actually.) Darkwing isn't an iconic Transformer by any means—he wouldn't even make my list of 100 most important characters—but the new toy really is an exceptional homage and I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ark Addendum - Bullhorn Transform

I do so like a nice bit of synergy. This week, for The Ark Addendum, I thought I'd bring you Bullhorn's transformation, in honor of Iván terrific piece from yesterday.

As far as the character goes, Bullhorn has never really excited my imagination. Cancer has one of the better arcs in Masterforce, and Wilder as the leader of the Destron Headmaster Junior trio naturally gets a decent amount of screen time. Bullhorn, though, is more-or-less just a dumb thug. His American counterpart, Horri-Bull (love the name), never gets much love either. So, it's nice for me to see him get some real personality in Iván's art. I'm looking forward to seeing that Mosaic.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Iván's Gallery: Bullhorn

What an awesome way to start the week for me - a fantastically passionate rendition of Bullhorn, from Masterforce, by artist extraordinaire Iván. Here is what he has to say about the piece in his own words:

I always had a keen interest in human masterforce characters. I believe we could make a good story with them, maybe something like astonishing x-men, for example, a serious and adult story that would please the public and not just the transformers fans.
A good example would be Bullhorn, a silly character and very limited in the original series, but there are several points of view and I think it could have many possibilities, like the other characters in Masterforce.

I personally am a little tired of Optimus vs. Megatron, bla bla bla, always the same, their personalities are already known to all and can not contribute much more to the topic.
With Masterforce we have a new universe, and closer to our reality, with concepts never seen. Bullhorn has always been seen as a fierce enemy, maybe evil, but .... ? Why? He is human, why did he want the destruction of his own race?
I think that to penetrate his mind and reach the same conclusion that this character did is very interesting. I may do so at some future mosaic.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Review: Marvel UK #47: "Dinobot Hunt! (Part 1)"

The first part of “Dinobot Hunt!” was written by Simon Furman and drawn by Will Simpson, with colouring by Stuart Place and lettering by Annie Halfacree. It was edited, as ever, by Ian Rimmer.

The cover was by David Lloyd and is a collage of the four unaccounted for Dinobots, in dinosaur mode, looking suitably angry. The individual characters are well drawn, but I am not really a fan of the overall effect. I appreciate that the idea is to show that the Dinobots are scattered, which is why there has to be a “Dinobot Hunt” but I would have much preferred a single cover image. The background colour is very dark, as well, which makes the whole thing seem a little bit boring and thrown together, although it has to be said that this image I have here is not of the best quality, and the full-sized paper cover is probably more effective.

The issue itself opens with a group of soldiers in the Black Rock desert in Nevada. They are tracking an unknown power-source in the midst of a sandstorm - riding on little hovering platforms, which would be a bit incongruous in 2009, let alone 1986. They discover a set of pentagonal golden plates sticking out of the sand and try to gain access to the buried structure they are attached by means of a laser saw (these are some seriously tooled up guys).

Of course, these plates turn out to belong to Snarl, in stegosaurus mode, who is less than happy about this turn of events. He erupts from the sand in a very exciting splash page, that also contains the title bar. The soldiers are knocked flying and scattered all over the place. We experience this attack from the more intimate point of view of an unnamed soldier who ends up very close to the rampaging Dinobot. As he awaits death, he recalls his wife and child as Snarl’s foot descends... He is saved by a laser-blast from off-panel. He looks for the identity of his saviour and, when he sees a giant blue and white robot striding through the swirls of sand, disbelieves the evidence of his own eyes and concludes that it must be...

A MIRAGE! Trust me, that is a Furman original pun, not my own, and it’s a good one. Specifically he is saved by the trio of Mirage, Trailbreaker and Brawn, who are looking for Snarl. We get a view through the Dinobot’s eyes, who sees them all as blocks of huge dark pixels against a background of red, white and yellow. If this is how Dinobots always see, it’s surprising that they can ever tell Autobot from Decepticon, but no matter, it’s a pretty cool image. While the three Autobots try to pin him in, Snarl takes the initiative and charges Mirage, knocking him down and escaping into the storm.

At this setback, Mirage recalls the start of this mission, as he has to, in order to get the audience up to speed, but, unusually for one of these scenes, this one actually has mostly new material. It deals with the end of “The Icarus Theory” within the first couple of panels and then tells us the current situation. The Dinobots need rounding up, so Prime and Prowl have split the Autobots into four hunting parties in order to find them. We then get a quite interesting roundup of the various Dinobots’ tactical capabilities (or “techspecs” if you will - since that is where the data comes from). Mirage’s unit have lost Snarl, but when they radio Prowl to tell him this, he is able to pick up the Dinobot on the sensors of his shuttle.

The scene changes to a military base somewhere in the desert, one “so secret you won’t find it on any map, civilian or military.” and we get one of Furman’s familiar tropes, the dramatic flash-forward. He tells us that “in twenty-five minutes, this base will cease to exist.”

Inside the base, General Carl Thompson is woken by a blaring alarm. We find out that rather than being concerned, he is happy that his base is under attack, because he does not agree with his current assignment - developing a new and more devastating bomb. So convinced he is, of this conviction, that he actually smiles when he sees Snarl on the rampage, knowing that it will take nothing less than “a full nuclear strike” to stop the maddened robot. It has to be said, at this point, that while what Furman is saying about personal convictions clashing with orders makes a certain amount of sense, the idea that Thompson is happy that the people on his base are being menaced by a giant metal stegosaurus, makes him an officer with very strange priorities indeed.

Snarl is immediately attacked with everything the base can muster, and he shrugs it all off with ease, smashing through a heavily electrified fence and munching on a tank. Thompson’s standing orders state that he must not let the base’s secrets fall into enemy hands and so he orders an evacuation and primes the bomb for self-destruct. He knows the codes backwards because he has practised them for months, hoping for the day he would be able to blow up his own base - General Carl Thompson is a depressing man.

Snarl continues tearing the base apart as the Autobots observe from a cliff. They elect to allow the humans to finish evacuating before attacking the Dinobot again but before they can move in Snarl senses a change in the atmosphere as the ground shakes, static builds up, and he is enveloped in the centre of a noiseless explosion of a kind that the Autobots cannot identify.

Astoundingly, Snarl managed to survive, staggering out of the blast in robot mode, before collapsing. As the Autobots wonder what happened, General Thompson arrives and explains that the bomb was a kind of molecular disintegrator before thanking them for doing him a favour. The Autobots are understandably perplexed as we cut to...

Laserbeak perched unseen on a rock, recording all that transpires, before heading back to report to his master...

As the first part of a four-part story, this one is fairly standalone. It is really only about Snarl in the desert and in those terms it works pretty well. The action scenes are well done and Simpson’s art really captures the grittiness and confusion of combat in a sandstorm. The panel of our unnamed hero soldier hitting the ground in a tangle of limbs and sand is particularly good. It is not the most precise drawing of anatomy ever seen, but it has a drama and animation to it that really works, and is common throughout these pages. Of course, praise also has to go out to Stuart Place, who’s sand clouds certainly look suitably sandy and oppressive. I have always been a fan of huge monsters that lurk under the desert sand (“Dune”, “Tremors” and a dozen others) and Snarl fills in very well in this story. The confusion of the opening attack is the best part of this issue and one of the best parts of the whole of “Dinobot Hunt!”

The writing is perfectly serviceable. Furman has never phoned in a script and this one is interesting enough while getting the ball rolling on the “Dinobot Hunt!” Thompson is not especially convincing, as he seems extraordinarily detached from the situation and while you might share his political views, you have to wonder why he agreed to the assignment in the first place, and why he has not quit before now. Explanations for those questions are certainly possible, but not forthcoming here, and Thompson is reduced to a character with a very odd thought process - becoming a weak character who needs a decision like that taken out of his hands by an outside force, rather than strong one with strong convictions, which is what Furman was more likely aiming at. After all, people undoubtedly die in Snarl’s attack on the base, and Thompson is still glad, going as far as to thank the Autobots. Other than that though, the script itself is well written, and the decision to focus on an individual soldier during Snarl’s attack on the patrol is the best one in the issue, adding immeasurably to the atmosphere of the scene.

“Dinobot Hunt!” opens with a solid issue that efficiently sets up the situation and gives the audience a couple of effective and well-drawn action scenes. Snarl’s fury is truly awesome to behold, and lets us know the difficulty the Autobots will be in for with the other Dinobots and I eagerly await for next issue. One down, three to go.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Review: Marvel G1 #21 - Aerialbots over America!

Aerialbots over America! is the twenty-first story in the Marvel US G1 Transformers saga. Unsurprisingly, Bob Budiansky scribes the issue. Don Perlin returns to pencil the issue, with inks by Ian Akin and Brian Garvey, colors by Nel Yomtov and letters by Janice Chiange. Herb Trimpe drew the cover.

And it's quite a nice cover, some odd perspective issues aside. Thrust, Dirge and Ramjet crouch atop a concrete structure, firing up into the air. Swooping down at them are the five Aerialbots, also guns blazing. It's a nice visual, and plays around a bit with the idea of who's on the ground and who's in the air.

The issue itself doesn't quite live up to the promise of the cover. We begin with an unnecessary splash of the Vasquez family. Ricky is getting ready to go to work, leaving his wife and daughter behind, while bombshell watches ominously from a very small leaf. Soon Ricky has a cerebro-shell in his cranium and is taking a detour to meet up with Megatron and the other Insecticons. As the assistant chief engineer of Hoover Dam, he is integral to their plans. Bombshell demonstrates his control by having the hapless human lick his feet, which the other Insecticons heartily enjoy. Bob sneaks in some exposition from a park ranger about how useful the dam is in terms of water and power. With Megatron in hand, Ricky walks RIGHT PAST SECURITY and enters the control room, where he orders the dam turned off.

And thus begins the problem with this issue. The plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense. It seems that Bombshell engaged in a 3-day stakeout just to sneak Megatron into a control room. Also, I know that this issue is before the sensationalism of workplace violence, but a security guard allowing a man with an obviously visible handgun to walk by strains credulity.

Meanwhile, back at the Ark, Optimus is getting repaired from the injuries he suffered in #19 while Donny Finkleberg tells them about the Space Bridge and the arrival of seven new Autobots. The Autobots are understandably skeptical, given that this guy DID try to convince the world that they were evil, but dispatch Jetfire to investigate anyway. Such thoughts are driven from their processors, though, when news of the Hoover Dam situation reaches them. Optimus dispatches the Aerialbots, fruits of the stolen combiner technology, to deal with the situation. He does this even though they're not finished being programmed and haven't been tested.

Before long, the recently repaired space bridge disgorges the conehead jets, who take up position on top of the dam, silent sentries. But the real horror is an enormous drill that begins to bore into the wall of the dam. The Aerialbots attempt to stop this horror show by engaging in an exciting battle that does a good job of showcasing the abilities of both sides. Inside the control room, Ricky begins to fight back against Decepticon control when it's revealed that the plan is to steal all the water, turning the American southwest into a wasteland. Unfortunately, this is another moment that makes little sense. If all the Decepticons wanted was water, why not open up the spacebridge over an ocean? This massive subterfuge accomplishes nothing. The fact that the dam itself generates enormous quantities of energy doesn't seem to be a part of the equation at all.

Before the climax, though, we see Jetfire and Donny at the landing spot where Blaster and co were disgorged. With no Autobots in sight, Jetfire is skeptical, but when some Transformer fuel is found, he becomes convinced. Still, we are invited to wonder at just what has become of the missing Autobots.

At the dam, the Aerialbots manage to drive off the Decepticon jets, then unite to attempt to destroy the bridge. Megatron orders Ricky to fire upon the Autobot gestalt, but the human hesitates. Meanwhile Superion sees a threat and moves to crush the human, but Silverbolt attempts to restrain the unfinished minds of the others. It's an interesting parallel, a devil on one shoulder, an angel on another. Ultimately Silverbolt disassembles Superion rather than allow Ricky to come to harm, abandoning struggle. Ricky, though, does one better. Bolstered by the presense of his daughter, he uses Megatron to destroy the drill and save the day. As the Decepticons retreat, Megatron is shocked that a human was able to shrug off Bombshell's control. Once again, Bob manages to bring humans to the forefront of the conflict and have them come out morally ahead of their Cybertronian counterparts.

Ricky is brought in for questing, though far more congenially than the situation warranted. The Aerialbots express their frustration at the battle, but Silverbolt assures them that they did something valuable - protecting human lives. Unbeknown to them, Bombshell is hitching a ride back to the Ark. This thread will have to wait, though, because we're taken to the hanger of the newly formed Rapid Anti-robot Assault Team, or R.A.A.T. We see a prone red and blue robot on a table, being operated on by some human mechanics. Their boss wants the face removed carefully - she's a perfectionist, you see. For turn the page and we're treated to a rather lovely splash ending; Circuit Breaker is building a trophy wall of Autobot faces. It's a great cliffhanger, and answers the question about what happened to the Cybertronian Autobots after issue #18.

Overall, I want to like this issue more than I actually do. The plotholes are just too glaring for me to ignore. The central conflict at the climax of the issue is interesting but doesn't resonate well for some reason. The art was enjoyable, but the ubiquitus coloring mistakes are actually starting to confuse the issue of who's who, given so many new characters. It's not one of the better issues. Next issue, we're promised the arrival of the Stunticons, the return of the Aerialbots, and a strike from Circuit Breaker. (All this -- and Donny Finkleberge, too!) It's amusing, but given the lackluster performance of the Aerialbots here, I'm not particularly enthused.

Aerialbots over America! can be purchased from IDW Publishing in  Classic Transformers Volume 2.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Zob's Thoughts on G1 Skids

During the second year of Transformers toys, there were a number of characters who—for one reason or another—weren't featured in the comic books or cartoon shows designed to promote the toys. All the toys licensed to Hasbro from Bandai, for example, were forbidden from appearing in the cartoon because Takara didn't want another toy company's products being advertised, explaining why we never saw the Deluxe Autobots or Deluxe Insecticons on the TV show (and also why Jetfire was at first heavily redesigned into the nearly unrecognizable Skyfire, and then later discarded altogether). The Jumpstarters, on the other hand, actually were Takara products, so theoretically there was no reason why they couldn't have been included—they even got official character models—and yet both Topspin and Twin Twist were ignored by the cartoon completely, and appeared domestically in Marvel Comics only as background characters. Another character who was virtually ignored was Skids. While it's true that he was included in both the comic book and Sunbow cartoon, his role was fleeting and he remains a largely forgettable Autobot. People still tend to dismiss him as a non-show character, lumping him together with the likes of Roadbuster or Chop Shop, and express surprise when they learn he actually showed up on TV. In a way, his brief taste of media exposure is even more tragic than the characters who didn't appear at all.

Like all the Autobot Cars from 1984-85, Skids originated from the Diaclone toy line in Japan. Interestingly, while Skids was a unique toy within the Transformers toy line, there were actually four different Diaclone toys in this style. The Diaclone version of the Honda City Turbo, characterized by the off-center hump in the hood to make room for the turbocharged engine, came in both blue and black. There was also a toy based on the Honda City R, which had a different head sculpt for the robot mode as well as a completely flat hood; it was sold in red as well as silver. The Hasbro toy instructions actually show the Honda City R model, complete with alternate face sculpt, suggesting that Hasbro was selling this as the Transformers version at one stage. (The silver version was eventually repurposed by Takara in 2002 and released as the eHobby exclusive character Crosscut.) In other words, if you thought the Bluestreak/Prowl/Smokescreen trio was a tad excessive, consider yourself lucky that you didn't have to buy this toy four times over to complete your Transformers collections! (Ironically, Skids was only available as a Transformer in Japan—the market that would most likely recognize and embrace his vehicle styling—as part of a limited edition gift pack with Sunstreaker and Buzzsaw.)

What's interesting about Skids is that even though a lot of people classify him as a second-year toy, he was actually released by Hasbro in late 1984, along with other toys like Shockwave and the Dinobots. Like all the other Japanese toys repurposed by Hasbro, Skids was theoretically ready and available for a domestic release at any time. In this case, however, his toy's production came too late for him to make his appearance in the cartoon pilot episode, or to be included in Marvel Comics as a member of the Ark's original crew. Skids didn't appear in the comic book until issue #14, lumped together with other second-year Autobot Cars like Hoist and Tracks, and he didn't show up in the cartoon until midway through the second season, when many of the 1985 toys were being introduced. Hasbro mandated to some degree which toys would be featured prominently in the cartoon show, specifying that they wanted a TV episode starring Blaster, another one for Omega Supreme, etc. The fact that Skids had already been released in 1984 may explain why he never got a showcase episode to his name—as far as Hasbro was concerned, he was already old news. (He was notably absent from the 1985 toy commercial that introduced other Autobot Cars like Grapple, Smokescreen, Red Alert, and Inferno.)

Skids transforms into a Honda City Turbo, a compact car that was popular on the Japanese market in the early 1980's, and to a lesser extent in Europe (where it was marketed as the Honda Jazz), but it was less familiar to consumers in the American marketplace. For this reason, numerous fans have frequently mistaken Skids for a minivan, despite the fact that Hasbro identifies him as a "race car" in his instruction booklet. (Even the artists at Marvel Comics portrayed him as particularly boxy and van-like, particularly during the aforementioned carwash scene.) In vehicle mode, the toy measures less than three and a half inches in length, officially making Skids the smallest toy in the entire Autobot Cars assortment. He's styled accurately to the real-life vehicle on which he's based, with details for added realism that include vacuum metalized headlights, tinted windows, opening driver and front passenger doors (which are designed to lock in place), and an opening hatchback. The Diaclone version of the toy came with a small foldaway scooter that stowed away in his rear compartment, just like the real Honda City Turbo. Hasbro got rid of the scooter accessory because it was designed for the Diaclone driver to ride, which they had also omitted from the domestic release. (Like most of the Transformers based on Diaclone toys, Skids has a seat to accomodate a driver figure, but you have to partially untransform him to gain access to it.) The wheels and tires on the toy, incidentally, are identical to those on the Sunstreaker toy.

Skids' transformation to robot mode is similar to that of Jazz, with the rear of the vehicle forming his legs and the front end serving as his chest. He's oddly tall and lanky as a robot, with unusually long legs and weirdly skinny arms that suffer from a lack of elbow articulation. At this early stage in transformable robot history, little effort was made to give the robots the same articulation we're so accustomed to in this day and age—back then, the fact that a car could even change into a robot in the first place was enough of a gimmick—so the only useful joints that Skids has are swiveling wrists and shoulders that can either pivot or rotate. (His lower legs can move individually, but they can only bend backwards at the knees.) You actually have a few options regarding how to position his arms; according to Hasbro, his front wheels belong on the outsides of his shoulders, but this ignores the hinge that allows his arms to swing up and out, giving him broader shoulders and more reasonable proportions (now his arms only come down to his knees, instead of his ankles!). Skids is fairly delicate in design, and older, well-loved units have a tendency to pop apart in bothersome places—pretty much anywhere he had a snap-together assembly—like the roof of the car, his head, his kneecaps, and at the waist. Thankfully, his windshield popping off isn't the result of the toy breaking, as it tends to be with more fragile toys like Prowl or Jazz.

Skids comes with three weapons, which is a bit overkill considering he only has two hands. Without holes in his fists to hold them, though, he remains one of the blesed few Transformers toys whose accessories clip to the sides of his arms, like Rumble/Frenzy or Shrapnel and Kickback. It's possible to equip him with all three weapons simultaneously by clipping his single-barreled gun to the front of his arm and his double-barreled gun to the side of his arm (indeed, the weapons seem designed to do just that), but Hasbro apparently didn't notice this since they instruct you to equip him with only two accessories at a time. Curiously, Skids is described in his TRANSFORMERS UNIVERSE profile as being equipped only with a twin electron blaster and a liquid nitrogen rifle, even though he's drawn with his rocket pod instead of his liquid nitrogen rifle. The rocket pod was designed to fire missiles, but Hasbro neutered the launcher for the domestic release and supplied a very weak spring.

Skids did manage to appear in two separate cartoon episodes, albeit very briefly. We first see him as part of an Autobot strike force who arrive to fend off the Insecticons in the episode "Quest for Survival," and shortly thereafter we see Hoist working on him in the aftermath of that encounter. When Spike reports the successful acquisition of a robotic insecticide designed to stop the Insecticons from devouring the Earth's crops, Skids utters a single remark, "Robotic insecticide?" in response. We also see him later in "Triple Takeover" as part of the group who infiltrated Blitzwing's football-stadium-turned-highway-maze and stop him from launching bombs into the city. "We'll stop him at the ten-yard line!" Skids promises in a completely different voice. Skids and the other Autobots present are thoroughly demolished by Blitzwing, and their remains are later rebuilt by Scrapper into a makeshift throne. (Skids is restored by the end of the episode, but quite frankly I can't blame the guy for venturing out into the field more often!) He was such a forgettable character that voice director Wally Burr must have forgotten that Michael Chain (Hoist, Powerglide) provided his voice in the first episode, because Dan Gilvezan (Bumblebee) was assigned to the character for his second appearance. It's notable that the animation model for Skids is clearly a second-year design, interpreting the toy far more faithfully than the first-year animation models.

Skids has a far more prominent role in Marvel Comics, and even got his own showcase story. In issue #19, Skids is damaged in combat and abandoned by the Autobots, so he spends the entirety of issue #20 masquerading as a normal car, pretending he belongs to Charlene the cashier cowboy. This issue features the infamous carwash scene that has gone down in history as one of the most pseudo-sexually charged moments in Transformers lore. In issue #101 of the British version of the comic, Skids is shunted into a temporal limbo as a result of Galvatron traveling from the future to the present day. Given that these events were not part of the U.S. story, this prompted the UK artists to redraw Skids, or remove him entirely, for scenes from subsequent U.S. issues that were reprinted in the UK in which the character appeared in the background.

It's possible the toy was never featured prominently in the media because the character simply wasn't very marketable. While characters like Sideswipe and Brawn were described in their tech specs as powerful warriors, and Bumblebee was a super-secret spy—all very exciting stuff to children—Skids had a tech specs function of "theoretician," a word most seven-to-twelve-year-old boys could barely pronounce, let alone understand what it meant. Essentially, Skids' job was to sit around and think about stuff. (One supposes that this was what he was doing behind the scenes, perhaps explaining why we didn't see more of him.) Speaking of his tech specs, there appears to be a rather significant typo in his biography. He's described as being able to travel at 560 mph, which is improbably fast for a ground vehicle (this nearly approaches the speed of sound), particularly when he only has a Speed rating of six on a 1-10 scale. In any event, there don't seem to have been any edicts from Hasbro specifically forbidding the use of the character, like the ones that were eventually put in place for Skyfire and Reflector, so one supposes the writers just didn't find him compelling enough to tell any stories about him.

It seems as though Hasbro may have been planning, at one point, to release the red Honda City R toy as Skids instead of the blue Honda City Turbo. The Hasbro instruction booklet for Skids actually shows the Honda City R model, with the alternate masked face used for the illustrations and the turbocharger hump notably absent. There's also a Find Your Fate, Jr. children's book that identifies Skids as a red car. Further evidence to support this theory is the fact that when Skids returned from his absence in the UK comic book, he was inexplicably drawn with the alternate head sculpt of the red Honda City R toy. Given the sheer number of different color schemes that some of the Diaclone toys were available in (SEE: Bluestreak), these types of mix-ups really aren't that surprising.

Skids has demonstrated considerable longevity, given his relative obscurity during the olden days. His original toy has been reissued in both Japan and America; the domestic reissue had its launcher mechanism gutted entirely, but aside from that is a faithful reproduction of the original. The character was also revisited for the Alternators toy line in which he was reimagined as the oh-so-boxy Scion xB (though the toy looks a little more like Ironhide to me than Skids). There will also be a character in the upcoming Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen film named Skids, though it's doubtful this is intended to be the same character. Likewise, the character's name has been used for the Robots in Disguise toy line (spelled Skid-Z) and Transformers: Armada (for one of the Mini-Cons).

Some people collect Transformers because they want to own physical likenesses of their favorite characters. For people like this, there's almost no point in even bothering with Skids. However, if you happen to enjoy Transformers because they're cleverly-designed toys and can appreciate the engineering that went into them, Skids is an interesting little toy surrounded by a surprising amount of history—and mystery.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Ark Addendum - The Master Builders

A break from Headmasters models this week, why not? This week, The Ark Addendum features The Master Builders. This is one of my favorite episodes, wherein Grapple designs a solar tower and is willing to trust the Constructicons to get it built. Of course, they betray him and attempt to use it to power the Decepticon warmachine, and he has to destroy his beautiful creation. It's a sad story, easy to relate to. It's also an episode with quite a few interesting models. I especially like the blueprints.

I hope you enjoy!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Iván's Gallery: Dinoforce

Happy Monday! It's time for another edition of Iván's Gallery. This week, Iván completes his seven week long exploration of the Dinoforce with ... The Dinoforce! Here is what he has to say about them:

Dinoking is the combination of all six Dinoforce warriors. With the bodies and minds of all six members combined into one he is the top Decepticon when it comes to mindless violence. He enhances the natural abilities of all the members of the force and adds a few of his own. Fortunately, he's a little more inteligent than the individual warriors, and pretty much keeps Dinoforce leader Goryu's personality.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Review: Marvel UK #46: "The Icarus Theory (Part 2)"

Part 2’s cover was by Jeff Anderson and it depicts Swoop getting the drop on Jazz and Wheeljack. The Dinobot is in Pteranodon mode, still obviously scarred from the destruction of Guardian and is attacking in a savage fury. The action on the cover is well portrayed - both Jazz and Wheeljack look sufficiently surprised and panicked, but the picture is a little dark and shadowy, which is odd because this fight takes place outside the Ark. The shadows are well drawn, however, and the characters look like themselves - although Jazz still has screw-holes in his shoulders.

The issue opens with a recap of the previous one. These pages are usually skippable if you know what has happened but Furman does at least try for an innovative style here - contrasting Swoop’s sacrifice during the battle with Guardian with Professor Morris’s professional frustration. The final two panels where we are told that Swoop “fell from grace” and Morris “found a way to fly” are a little over the top, but in a good way, and I certainly don’t begrudge Furman having fun with these tedious “story so far” segments.

Back in the present, we are presented a full-page splash of Swoop fighting Autobots in hand (wing?) to hand combat and looking sufficiently battle-scarred and savage. A little portrait of Morris hovers in the top left, reminding us that Swoop is still under the scientist’s control. In a cut-out panel at the bottom, Optimus Prime marvels as the Dinobot gets the drop on his comrades. Deciding that Swoop was always loyal, even if at times brash and arrogant, Prime correctly determines that he must be under enemy control and orders the Autobots to restrain him without using their weapons. A very oddly drawn version of Trailbreaker reacts by trying to grab Swoop, but he is smashed into the side of the mountain. Prime orders Hound and Huffer to give Swoop “the Autobot one-two.”

Back in his lab, Morris is overcome with the thrill of battle as he attempts to destroy the machines that he still assumes are automatons under the control of G.B. Blackrock. He seems to be going slightly mad, drunk on the idea that once he has destroyed these robots, no-one will ever push him around again. Hound, bravely standing in Swoop’s way, unleashes a bright flare that overloads the Dinobot’s optic sensors and, consequently, disorientates Professor Morris. Huffer follows this up by socking Swoop in the beak. The Dinobot falls to the ground and the Autobots pile on top of him, holding him down.

This gambit fails to pay off, however, as Swoop is able to brush the Autobots aside and ascend once again. Optimus looks on, wondering if the only way to stop Swoop will be to order his troops to kill him. This suggests an idea to Prime, who, presumably in his most authoritative voice, commands Swoop to Transform and land. This order seems to get through to Swoop, who, in his eagerness to disregard it, is able to break Morris’ mental hold, while Prime urges him to fight it.

The next page is an excellent splash of Swoop tearing out of the crater of Mount St Hillary with his robot mode face and Morris’ superimposed on the sky behind him, both screaming “MINE!”

Later, the Autobots drive down a highway, tracking Swoop’s signal. Hound asks Prime how he managed to get Swoop to listen to him and the Autobot leader reveals an interesting bit of back story: Prime used to be Swoop’s commanding officer in the Autobot “Elite Flying Corps” back on Cybertron, back when Swoop was named Divebomb. Swoop hated Prime with a passion and loathed following his orders and thus Prime reasoned that an order from a commander he hated might jolt him enough to regain control. It is interesting to see the seeds lain here for stories that would not happen for another couple of years. In “What’s In A Name?” from the 1988 annual, it becomes established that an unnamed Predacon stole Divebomb’s name after besting him in battle while still on Cybertron, forcing him to take a new name. It seems unlikely that Furman was planning such a storyline so far in advance, especially given that the Predacon toys were not out at the time of writing and they had not debuted in the cartoon. As such, it stands as a throwaway piece of writing that was most fortuitously placed.

Swoop catches up with Professor Morris and coldly tells him “You’re dead.” As Swoop prepares to terminate him, he babbles an explanation, that he thought the Autobots were Blackrock’s pawns, and then, finally, he accepts his fate, because he killed the security guard. Close-ups on Swoop’s face and eyes very effectively show the turmoil he is feeling. He wants revenge, but he cannot quite bring himself to kill this defenceless human.
As the Autobots pull up to the Roxxon facility Swoop comes outside and dumps Morris on the ground at their feet. Prime is amazed that a human could achieve such a feat (and who can blame him?) and Morris explains his reasons, and how the feeling of flying, of being in control of Swoop became too addictive to give up. “(I) like Icarus found that my wings were made of wax.” he says, bringing the title into its full meaning. Prime does not blame him for controlling Swoop, since he did so in ignorance, but tells him that any crimes he committed as Swoop must be punished according to Earth’s laws. Ratchet tells Swoop that he will repair his bodywork when they get back to the Ark, but, unexpectedly, Swoop lunges for him, transforms and launches himself skyward! Morris assures them that this is not his doing, but Prime tells him to use his machine to bring Swoop back. This is achieved successfully and the Autobots leave Morris to atone for his crimes - we see him smashing his machine as he awaits the authorities.

The next day, Ratchet has completed his analysis of Swoop and tells the Autobots that “his cybo-drendrons have burnt out.” having become corroded by spending millions of years submerged in a tar pit, causing him to lash out. Prime says that this is “terrible!” but Ratchet is not worried; he says the damage is reparable. Prime, however, points out that Swoop did not lie in that tar pit alone. Somewhere the other four Dinobots must have been similarly affected and now roam the countryside as a considerable threat to human life. “The war with the Decepticons can wait.” says Prime, “We must find the Dinobots!”

A great conclusion to a good little two-parter. Although the story he was absent for was still good, Furman is now back with a vengeance, generating an excellent story in “The Icarus Theory” while setting up his upcoming four-part epic: “Dinobot Hunt!” Anything about our characters’ lives on Cybertron is worth exploring and it was very interesting to see that Optimus Prime used to be Swoop’s direct commander (although it is unexplained how the extremely ground-based Prime got to be in charge of the “Elite Flying Corps”). The fact that Prime uses Swoop’s antipathy towards him to get him to fight is a good twist on the trope of an old commander bringing a former subordinate back into line (see “Rambo” among many others). Furman could have used the idea that Swoop respects Prime, but this is more innovative and just so much more Dinobot.

Morris’ fate is believable and human. His difficulty in letting go of Swoop is entirely believable: how incredible would it be to experience those things, and how hard would it be to give it up? The audience, like Prime, believes that he will submit to the authorities. He is not a criminal, but a scientist who made a mistake. The reader really feels bad for him at the end, having to smash his machine and then wait for the police, but at least he goes out with dignity.

Swoop not being able to kill the human who controlled him is very much in character. The Dinobots are savage warriors, but they are very honourable, and Morris is too pathetic an opponent for Swoop to simply execute him. Swoop’s slightly impotent rage is portrayed excellently by some brilliant line-work by Kitson and sparse scripting from Furman.

The art throughout is more than adequate, and very good in parts, although there are some odd moments. Where, for example, does the character model for Trailbreaker come from? It looks nothing like either the cartoon or the toy. he is the wrong shape, the wrong colour, and he doesn’t even have the distinctive silver parts on top of his head. Similarly, Optimus Prime is portrayed in his Earth form in the Cybertron flashback, which is disappointing. Other than that, however, Kitson does a decent job, and his splash pages are particularly arresting. There is little difference between Place’s colouring and Hart’s and this issue fits perfectly with the previous one, artwise.

So, basically, read this story:

Once again: it has been reprinted three times recently. Once in Titan’s excellent “Dinobot Hunt” collection (out of print), again in IDW’s “  Transformers: Best of the UK - Dinobots".

Next week: The Dinobot Hunt begins!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Review: Marvel UK #45: "The Icarus Theory (Part 1)"

Both parts of “The Icarus Theory” were scripted by Simon Furman and pencilled by Barry Kitson. Gina Hart coloured the first part and Stuart Place the second. Richard Starkings continued his lettering duties and Ian Rimmer edited.

The cover to Part 1 was by Kev Hopgood and it depicts Optimus Prime, Prowl and Mirage under aerial bombardment by an enemy who occupies roughly the same space as the viewer, giving us a nicely unusual angle on a Transformers battle. Of course, as well as providing as with a visually interesting battle, this angle also effectively hides the identity of the character attacking the Autobots, which is crucial to the success of this story. If I had any complaints, I would say that the Autobots are a little smaller than they need to be, leaving a surprisingly large amount of empty space where there are no characters or explosions, but I appreciate the cover for the most part.

Part 1 opens with a man sitting on a rock fishing. He talks to himself, seething about some indignity that he has suffered. “Why don’t they listen?” he asks no-one in particular. The caption tells us that “there are no fish in Lake Dena.” The story flashes back to a day earlier. The fishing man is dressed in a white lab coat, clearly giving some kind of demonstration as he points to a large projection of Megatron in battle. “This is where the future lies!” he says. We are told that this is “Roxxon Oil’s Research and Development plant, Portland, Oregon.”

The fishing man continues his demonstration, using a picture of Shockwave as an illustration of advanced robotics. He says that the press think the robots that have been attacking Oregon are under the control of some foreign power, but that he believes that they are actually sent by G.B. Blackrock, Roxxon’s biggest rival. Throughout this impassioned speech, the people he is talking to smoke, glance around, and just do not appear interested. He makes an attempt to get them back on his side by saying “I know what you’re thinking, Old Morris off on the same old tack” but it is no good, that is exactly what they are thinking, and they will not listen, despite his hints that he knows exactly how Blackrock might control a robot army, using a “Neural Relay Link.” We become aware that he has built such a device, but that his superiors will not allow him to use it.

Back in the present, the fisherman we now know as Professor Morris continues to curse his employers, before (and remember, “there are NO fish in Lake Dena”) he gets a tug on his line. At this success we flash back once more to an impressive full-page depiction of Morris sitting in a complicated technological contraption - a large domed helmet covering his head. Two smaller cut-out panels demonstrate the purpose of this machine: Morris is able to project his thoughts into a robotic body and control it from this chair - here he is practising using a model “years out of date” on a dummy. Morris’s anger is palpable as he beats the dummy into pieces. Back in the present - Morris hauls on his line - the catch is clearly bigger and more significant than he had dreamed.

Five days later, in the Ark, Optimus Prime is visiting Bumblebee, who is still being repaired after being seriously damaged by the Decepticons in the previous issue. It is a well-written scene, where Bumblebee, obviously idealising Prime, apologises for getting himself into trouble, while Prime assures him that he too made mistakes, and they should serve as a valuable lesson. This is a nice piece of continuity, because it continues the character development of Prime and at least shows Bumblebee on the mend, which will explain why he doesn’t appear damaged in the next story to come from the United States.

The next page is an innovative arrangement of panels which I have reproduced in its entirety by way of explanation. As whichever robot body Morris has found in the lake flies uninhibited above a city, we see slivers of him sitting in his chair, feeling what it is like to soar in the air. We catch a glimpse of the front of the robot, a blue point with a prominent Autobot symbol.

Back at Roxxon, Morris, still in the neural relay chair, is surprised by a patrolling security guard. The guard accuses him of freelancing using Roxxon facilities without permission and tries to blackmail Morris. Suddenly, as Morris urgently thinks “no”, “No, NO”. the guard turns to see a metal claw heading straight for him. It catches him a blow on the head and his hat comes off in a gout of blood. Morris, stricken with guilt, kneels over the body and decides that he must turn himself in, but his desire for revenge comes upon him once before and he resolves to destroy Blackrock’s robots first.

In the Ark, Ironhide picks up an incoming airborne Transformer. It’s too small to be a Seeker jet and too big to be one of Soundwave’s tapes. The Autobots assume battle-readiness as Morris thinks to himself “Missiles away!” As the warheads detonate and the smoke clears the Autobots are thrown off balance as the last Transformer they expected to see comes screaming through the sky at them: Swoop, the Dinobot everyone thought had died when Guardian exploded (apparently above Lake Dena) is intact and attacking them!

I am a big fan of this story and the first part is predictably excellent. We see more of the humans than we have in the UK book for a long time and Professor Morris is a brilliantly realised character. When he first appears, muttering to himself about revenge, and drawn with a stereotypically evil pointy beard, the reader could easily be forgiven for thinking that we have been introduced to the villain of the piece. What becomes apparent, however, that certain anger-management issues aside, Morris is a basically decent, but misunderstood character, not to mention a brilliant scientist.

It is not hard to understand Morris’ frustration. He has managed, in the 1980s, to construct a machine for projecting his consciousness into a machine body. Such an achievement is staggering, and his bosses smoke their cigars and dismiss him utterly. He has already built the machine, why shouldn’t he use it, but they will not let him, even though he wants to use it to help their company, not for himself. Why a scientist attached to an oil-company has been given the time and funding to develop this technique is not really answered. He is there at the behest of “Roxxon-central” but you would think his research would be more oil-centric. Then again, perhaps the ability to drill for oil using disposable robotic bodies would improve safety and efficiency rates.

Morris is, of course, wrong about the Transformers being a conspiracy by G.B. Blackrock, but it is an understandable conclusion to draw. They are clearly inextricably linked with the other tycoon and Morris knows the technology to mentally control robots exists because he has developed it himself. With that data to hand, his conspiracy theory makes more sense than the real explanation of transforming cybernetic aliens.

The professor’s remorse at accidentally killing the security guard is palpable, thanks to some excellent line work by Kitson and that development of the story is surprisingly violent for “Transformers”. While the comics are not as death-free as the cartoon series, it is highly unusual to see a body lying in a pool of blood, as we do here, and while it is difficult not to feel extremely sorry for Swoop being made to attack his comrades, it must be remembered that as far as Morris knew, the Transformers are mindless drones, like the robot in his lab.

The level of technology on display is somewhat implausible, perhaps even more so than Circuit Breaker, but I can accept a bit of made up science for a decent story (although the idea of the very sophisticated robot in Morris’ lab being an “obsolete model” does make me laugh - we haven’t seen any human designed robots before - what are the non-obsolete models used for?).

Furman’s scripting is typically excellent and he uses flashbacks and repeated memes (“there are no fish in Lake Dena”) very effectively, creating a pleasingly dense narrative for only eleven pages. We really get a complete picture of his Professor Morris, who will continue to be important in more than just the coming conclusion. The reveal of Swoop is fairly well done, although it is pretty easy to see who it is from the image of his symbol and his claw, if you know your Transformers at all, and, of course, when he "died" there was no body which is comic-book shorthand for "still alive somewhere".

Kitson’s art is good, I particularly like his design for the “neural relay chair”. I am not especially impressed with any of his panels featuring the Autobots, but they are few in this issue, and he draws humans very well. The level of ignorance and frustration on display as Morris tries to explain himself to his superiors is very well realised and frequent shots of Morris’ glowering eyes underneath the hood of the chair really project his turbulent mood. Hart’s colouring is typically great, but I do not like Ironhide having a red face, it makes him look too plain and does not work anywhere near as well as the cartoon grey (but a lot better than the sticker on the toy).

This is a classic story and not at all hard to get hold of because it has been reprinted three times recently. Once in Titan’s excellent “Dinobot Hunt” collection (out of print), and again in IDW’s “  Transformers: Best of the UK - Dinobots" series, easily purchased.

Look out tomorrow for the review of the conclusion to this story, as an apology for slacking off of late.