Friday, May 29, 2009

Review: Marvel G.I. Joe and the Transformers #1

September of 1986 featured not one, not two, not even three but a whopping FOUR transformers comics released. The movie adaptation and the Universe profile books (#2 of each) have already been covered, which brings us to Blood on the Tracks (note the shocking lack of an exclamation point), the first of the four issue miniseries. Newcomer Michael Higgins wrote the issue, with the familiar Herb Trimpe providing pencils. Inks were by Vince Colletta, colors by Nel Yomtov and letters by Joe Rosen. Herb Trimpe also drew the cover.

And an excellent cover it was. Bumblebee, a fan favorite, is blown apart by the Joe team, guns blazing. It makes the mini-series seem like a must-have, at least for Transformers fans. The lack of a background puts the emphasis squarely on the characters, and the explosion effect and bullet holes just look terrific. One looks at this cover and asks, how could such a thing happen?

Unfortunately, the answer is 'quite slowly', with a number of plot holes along the way. General Hawk and a senator drive past a throng of protesters to see the technological macguffin of the series, Power Station Alpha. PSA is a mobile transforming solar/nuclear power plant, which immediately raises the question 'why'? It seems that the senator, Barbara Larkin, is the patron saint of the project. She's also got a bit of chemistry with Hawk. Not everyone is marveling at the technological wonder, though; some people are concerned that it could fall into the wrong hands. Amongst the concerned, one Optimus Prime. He's worried about the threat posed by Megatron (issue #23 is referenced as the reason why ... maybe the Battlechargers DID write out a challenge to Optimus Prime amidst their vandalism spree) and so dispatches Bumblebee to observe.

The Decepticons aren't the only threat to the station - the Dreadnoks decide to try to seize it themselves, though the unexpected presence of the Joe team thwarts them. Their attempt gives Megatron ideas though - why not have Bombshell take control of PSA with his cerebro shells? Bombshell plants a cerebro shell into a human, and then has him walk in front of the station, forcing Bumblebee to break cover. It was almost the perfect plan, except that he inexplicably circles around Bumblebee and alerts the Autobot to his presence. Bumblebee radios for backup, prompting prime to dispatch the (presumably newly rebuilt, following their ordeal at Circuit Breaker's hands) Aerialbots. Still, break cover Bumblebee does, which saves the boy's life, but prompts some panicky humans to blow him to smithereens even as Bombshell enters the station. With Bumblebee in pieces, five jets converge, combine, and inform the humans that they've come for their ally.

I want to like this book, I really do. The Joe team feels like a much more natural element for the Transformers to interact with than the Marvel superheroes ever did. Still, it just doesn't hold together. Why build a giant flying nuclear/solar power station? What's the advantage? It's relatively cheap to move energy around on the grid, so unless they're thinking of this as some kind of military thing, I don't get it. Even then, one would think that it'd be bristling with weapons, and it isn't. The Joe team blowing up Bumblebee after he clearly saved the boys life didn't ring true either. Trimpe's art is better than usual - I think having all those humans to draw helped give him some new energy. It could also be a different sort of script than he's used too ... nothing like Bumblebee's windshield-face will ever show up in any of his work on the main book. The little attempts at continuity are nice, but backfire a bit - the miniseries becomes almost necessary instead of merely nice to have. For a necessary part of the narrative thread, it's disappointing.

Blood on the Tracks (still no exclamation) was reprinted in a collected volume with a nice new Andy Wildman cover, but that volume has since fallen out of print. As it's one of the weaker Transformers tales, this isn't a great tragedy.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Review: Marvel UK #60: "Robot Buster!" (Part 2)"

“Robot Buster!” Part 2, in Issue 60 picks up, somewhat inevitably, from Part 1 in issue 59. Simon Furman concluded the story he began and Barry Kitson continued to provide the pencils. He received no “Plot Idea By.” credit here, so perhaps he just came up with the “Buster in a robot suit” premise, and not the battle with Shockwave. Or perhaps it was simply a mistake. Kitson must have been in a hurry for this issue, because the inking was done by Tim Perkins. Newcomer T.M. Cooks added the rather differently styled colours. Anne Halfacree lettered, and Ian Rimmer edited the story.

The cover was also by Barry Kitson and is not especially successful. It depicts Shockwave holding Buster up to his single malevolent eye and pointing his gun-hand as though about to terminate the human. Unfortunately, although this message is conveyed fairly efficiently, a closer look at the cover reveals its shortcomings. I do not complain about the inconsistency of Transformer scale outside of a fairly generous range because I would be at it forever and it would swiftly become pointless, I do object to bad proportions, and Shockwave suffers greatly here. His head is FAR too large compared to the hand that holds Buster. It looks like it would cover his entire shoulder area and would, of course, look ridiculous if the viewer could see the entirety of Shockwave. The other problem is that the colouring just isn’t that attractive. Shockwave is uniformly purple, which can’t be helped or altered, but there had to be a better choice than just sticking him on a featureless orange background. Neither colour is particularly appealing, and the fact that they are the only two used in abundance makes this a somewhat plain and ugly cover.

The issue opens with a six panel page that I am really fond of. It is an effective demonstration of what a skilled writer can do in the medium of comics that cannot be achieved in either a novel or a motion picture. Furman shows us Buster trying several strategies against Shockwave that all fail, indicating the passage of a fair amount of time in six simple, effective panels, with minimalist (for Furman) captions. Take a look.

(One could nitpick that we don’t see how Buster escaped from Shockwave’s looming presence in the Part 1 cliff-hanger, but the suit has weapons, he obviously escaped - it works for me, and is a very common trope in media that encourage cliff-hangers, such as comics or television.)

We are then treated to a fairly excellent splash page of Shockwave striding from some flames shouting that all Buster can do is delay the inevitable. He still has a surprisingly large cranium, but it’s not quite as obnoxious as the cover image and his distinctive cyclopean eye blazes with menace (It occurs at this point that the orange on the cover might have been intended to represent the fire in this moment, but if it was, it doesn’t work, and Kitson couldn’t be bothered to draw any actual flames, so he does not get off the hook here).

Buster’s robot suit is down and trying to back away from the advancing Decepticon as Shockwave continues to rant. There is a nice use of ellipsis by Furman as Shockwave says “It has been... enjoyable watching you struggle,” as though he either struggles with identifying emotions or feels (ha!) wrong expressing them. This is an excellent little character touch, since we all know that Shockwave, as Vulcan-like as he is, feels all these emotions, but tries to hide them behind a screen of logic. His control always slips in moments like this, however, moments of either triumph or despair.

Buster, trying desperately to get away, hits upon the plan of hurling sand into Shockwave’s singular optic. This strategy is surprisingly effective, and the Decepticon goes reeling backwards in pain, blasting blindly at Buster’s approximate location. While Shockwave flails about, Buster uses this time to recall exactly how he got into this mess, for those readers who did not buy his adventure the previous week - we’re all familiar with it, however, so back to the present! Oh no, wait, Shockwave’s blindness has also set him ruminating, about being buried in the swamp and blasting out of it. Now we’re done...

Buster has, of course, made good his escape, and Shockwave briefly debates the efficiency of pursuit, but he has well and truly lost his cool now, and resolves to continue.

Elsewhere, Buster (in the suit) sits on a rock as dawn breaks. He reasons that although he ought to keep out of Shockwave’s way as much as possible, if he can tinker with the suit and channel all of it’s power through one gigantic blast, it might be enough to bring the Decepticon down, if necessary.

Shockwave is still randomly blasting and yelling for Buster. Unfortunately for the human, despite his fervent hopes, Shockwave does eventually catch up with him. Buster puts on a brave face, challenging Shockwave to face him “robot to robot.” As the Decepticon leaps down at Buster, the human unleashes his super-charged energy blast. Shockwave is blasted backwards and the suit is totalled. Buster goes sprawling from the twisted, smoking wreckage. Sadly, Shockwave is barely even stunned, and he immediately snatches the vulnerable human up in his gigantic hand.

We are treated to a panel that almost certainly become the cover. At first glance it looks identical, and depicts the same moment, but Shockwave is actually completely different, with a smaller (better) head, and his gun in a different place. However, Buster is dangling in exactly the same position, and one was clearly traced to create the other. The Decepticon pontificates, as they tend to, about giving Buster a swift death, but, unfortunately for him, time has run out. A band of Autobots led by Optimus Prime arrive at the top of the cliff and tell Shockwave to stop. Prime offers Buster’s life in exchange for Shockwave’s, citing logic as the reason that the Decepticon should agree, which he does, dumping the human unceremoniously onto the ground.

Shockwave tries to save some face by waffling about Prime’s charred and blackened corpse, the next time they meet, but he has been beaten and knows it. Then Prime turns to Buster and asks if Buster sees what Prime meant when he told him not to use the suit, that the danger only gets greater the more one gets involved. Buster, shaken and bruised, agrees with this and formally resigns from the ranks of the Autobots, even as Shockwave, elsewhere, plans to use the Autobots’ fondness for Buster against them! “Were he capable of emotion, he might feel pity for Buster Witwicky!”

“Robot Buster!” is by no means a classic story. It is entirely throwaway, adding little to the overall tapestry and taking little away. That said, it has no ambitions above that, and as such, succeeds pretty effectively at the level it tries to achieve. I really enjoy the kind of cat and mouse chase that Furman brings us in Part 2. It is especially fun to see Shockwave, not bested but at least frustrated several times by this insignificant human, and to see his icy logical cool crack under the pressure. I have doubts that mere sand would be enough to blind Shockwave’s formidable optic sensor, and kind of wish Buster had come up with something a bit more interesting, but the chase is mostly pretty exciting.

The dénouement is a mixed bag. On the one hand, Prime’s appeal to Shockwave’s sense of logic is pitch-perfect and works much more effectively than outnumbering him in a straight fire-fight would have done, on the other, the fact that Buster learns his lesson does not strike me as believable. Prime seems to think that Buster’s ordeal with Shockwave is more than enough to prove that he is right and the robot suit was a fundamentally bad idea, and Buster is all too ready to go along with it. What both of them fail to realise is that Buster survived against Shockwave, arguably the most powerful single Decepticon currently on Earth, over a period of several hours, and even caused him damage and frustration into the bargain. The suit was clearly designed, in Part 1, to provide Buster with protection and a recourse if he were ever to find himself in a fight with the Decepticons, and in this it has obviously proved it’s value. Let it never be forgotten that Buster finds himself in the middle of giant robot fights all the time, suit or no suit, so where would the harm be in keeping it by as an option? At no point did Ratchet or Wheeljack suggest that it would be capable of going toe-to-toe with Shockwave, and Buster never intended to try, circumstances simply ran away from him. It is entirely believable that Buster, shaken by the night’s events, would throw in the towel and give up the suit, but Prime claiming that Buster involving himself simply increased his personal danger is unfortunately completely missing the point. Prime’s pathological, almost suicidal need to protect humans from harm is one of his defining characteristics, and speaks volumes of his guilt at bringing the war to Earth, so it is also believable that this would cause him to make the wrong decision, and I would like to think that was the point, but that is to read far too much into this ending. Furman’s message here is clearly that Prime was right all along, Buster has learnt his lesson, and I simply do not find that to be an accurate interpretation of the events he has written up to this moment.

Kitson’s art continues to excel (poor front cover aside) and I very much enjoy the Shockwave from the flames splash page. Unfortunately I cannot say that I am a fan of the colour stylings of T.M. Cooks. Admittedly, compared to the US book, the colouring is still more or less superior, simply because of the lack of errors, and sparing use of blocking, but it is much closer in style, utilising flatter, matt colours rather than the more painterly technique of the previous UK colourists.

All in all, “Robot Buster!” is by no means an essential piece of Transformers reading, but it is a largely inoffensive one with a few pretty cool moments, and it leads-in, along with some of the upcoming stories, to the second of Furman’s giant epics: “Second Generation!”

This issue was reprinted in Collected Comics #9 in 1988 and, a bit more relevantly, was also reprinted as part of Titan Books trade paperback  Transformers: Second Generation in 2005, still available from Amazon.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Zob's Thoughts on Transformers: The Veiled Threat

As of this writing, Revenge of the Fallen is still a month away from its theatrical debut, and the toys are still several days away from their official street date launch. Like a junkie in need of a fix, I've been jonesing for something—anything—new and Transformers-related to help curb my insatiable hunger pangs. Transformers: The Veiled Threat by Alan Dean Foster is a little bit like a plate of potato skins loaded with cheese and bacon bits. It's not at all a requirement to enjoy your dining experience, but it's something satisfying to gobble up while you're waiting for the main course.

This is a prequel to Revenge of the Fallen, which means it takes place in the interim between the first and second movies. Some knowledge of the movie universe is required to fully enjoy the story, since there are numerous references sprinkled about to events from the first film, like the dissolution of the Sector Seven agency, the battle at Mission City, and Bumblebee's adventures with Sam Witwicky (neither of whom appear in the prequel novel, incidentally, probably because it would interfere with the events of Revenge of the Fallen). In addition to multiple novels in the sci-fi genre, Alan Dean Foster was also the author of the novelizations of both the 2007 Transformers novelization as well as the Revenge of the Fallen adaptation, so he's had some experience playing around with the Transformers characters and the universe they inhabit.

The tricky thing about prequel stories is that they have to fit within the existing framework of a larger story. This is something of a double-edged sword since the prospect can be both a lot of fun and also very frustrating—for both the author and the readers. It's a bit like another revenge-themed story called Star Wars: Episode III—we know going into the movie that Anakin Skywalker's going to become Darth Vader. There's no way around it—it's not like George Lucas was going to pull a fast one and go, "Surprise! It's really Padmé Amidala under the mask!" There's a saying, though, that it's not the destination that's important, but the journey. Watching Anakin's descent to the Dark Side is what's compelling, even if we already know what happens to him. The same sort of mindset, then, is required for The Veiled Threat. We already know, essentially, what the end result of the prequel novel will be (i.e., nothing that disrupts the status quo) so the question is whether or not the journey itself is enjoyable, even if we're fully aware in advance of where we'll end up.

The story revolves around the activities of NEST, the joint human-Autobot organization that replaced the defunct Sector Seven and which is charged with the location and eventual defeat of the hidden Decepticons on Earth. To that end, they've recruited Captain Lennox and Master Sargeant Epps from the first movie as well as newcomers Kami Ishihara, a robotics expert, and Petr Andronov, a specialist in artificial intelligence. They're working on locating Starscream, aware that he's recruited new Decepticons in the absence of Megatron but are having difficulty pinpointing his whereabouts. Eventually, they discover that the Decepticons are secretly targeting unguarded energy reserves, theorizing that they may be collecting enough raw power to restore Megatron's depleted life force. Very, very late in the game (starting on page 238 of the 281-page book) we also learn that a human criminal named Bruno Carerra has forged an alliance with Starscream in an attempt to capture and destroy Optimus Prime, but his participation seems like an afterthought, and both he and his plan are quickly dispensed with.

Autobots like Optimus Prime and Ironhide take center stage, but there are also new characters like Knockout, an impetuous young motorcycle (who will also be available as a Hasbro toy) and Salvage (a Hasbro toy from the 2007 off-screen toy assortment) and Beachbreak, who turns into a Jet Ski (an invention of the author's who only appears so there can be Autobot casualties that don't affect the existing movie cast). It's implied that Starscream, meanwhile, is pulling some strings from behind the scenes—he's mentioned frequently throughout the book as the de facto leader of the Decepticons, but he doesn't actually get involved until the end. Most of the other Decepticons who appear are generic baddies who only show up so they can get destroyed, boasting names like Macerator and Ruination and Trample, though our old friend Barricade does make a cameo at the end. There's also a sub-plot involving ex-agent Simmons, formerly of Sector Seven, experimenting on the disembodied head of Frenzy, which he snuck off with following the events of the first movie, retreating to his basement in the hopes of discovering how he ticks. I was half-hoping to see some of the new characters from the second movie in action, but none of the new Autobots (Arcee, Mudflap, Skids) or Decepticons (Soundwave, Ravage, the Constructicons) appear in the prequel.

Unlike the previous prequel novel, Ghosts of Yesterday, the second prequel is structured more like the first movie, focusing predominantly on the humans of the story, with the Transformers serving as secondary characters. There are very few scenes with the Autobots or Decepticons interacting amongst themselves, which I find unfortunate. Given the considerable lack of characterization for the robots in the first movie, the first prequel novel really helped to flesh out the characters (particularly the Decepticons and their compelling struggles for dominance in the hierarchy). Once again, Megatron remains absent during the events of the story, though he's alluded to several times—the Decepticons outwardly acknowledge and accept that he's dead, though it's hinted that the energy they have been collecting from various sources throughout the world will eventually lead to his ressurection. The late, lamented Jazz gets a mention or two, and Sam Witwicky's absence is also briefly expounded upon (he passed up several government positions in order to attend college, which of course sets things up for the next movie).

The Autobots are painted as sympathetic heroes, disguising themselves as Earth vehicles mostly for the benefit of the human population, who—outside of the NEST organization, at least—have some difficulty coping with their alien robotic nature. They regard the human race as quaint and primitive, but feel bound to protect them, despite the fact that this puts them at a strategic disadvantage at least twice in the story. The Decepticons, meanwhile, live up to their name in a grand and glorious way, concocting elaborate schemes designed to mislead the Autobots as to their true objectives, often with lethal results. (This is not to say they're depicted as stereotypical villains. The funniest scene in the novel is when two of the Decepticons start doing an unwitting impression of the Goofy Gophers from the old Warner Brothers cartoons.) Also, it's suggested that there are actually a couple of Decepticon factions operating—that there's a second group who is not loyal to Starscream and that they are the ones attempting to ressurect Megatron.

There are a handful of interesting details in the book regarding Transformer physiology and culture, many of which have been borrowed from earlier canon, intentionally or not. We learn that the Autobots routinely eat scrap metal in order for their bodies to fashion it into ammunition for their built-in armaments. This is not an entirely new concept to Transformers—the two-headed Terrorcon leader, Hun-Gurrr, was known for gobbling up raw materials with one mouth and spitting it back out in the form of crude missiles from the other mouth. Applying this concept to the Transformer race as a whole is somewhat unsettling, but at least it explains why these guys never seem to run out of ammo. The concept of the holographic facsimile drivers, as seen in the first movie, is further explored here. This is revealed to be the one detail of their earthly disguises that the Autobots need help with, as evidenced by Knockout's painfully stereotypical Rebel Without a Cause-inspired rider.

As a rabid fanboy, I have to admit that there are a handful of minor details that bothered me. The novel places heavy emphasis on the fact that in their vehicle modes, Transformers are completely indistinguishable from manmade machines, noting that they duplicate their vehicles of choice right down to the manufacturer's logo. This clearly can't be the case, since we know that many of the movie characters have Autobot and Decepticon insignias (like Prime and Ratchet and Barricade) that obviously aren't part of the original design. Also, at one point there's a reference to Starscream's wings turning into his feet. (At least a passing familiarity with his on-screen film appearance would reveal that this is clearly not the case.) Also, the appearance of Longarm as an Autobot in this story raises some interesting questions, since the Hasbro toy named Longarm was based on the non-living tow truck that Mikaela drove in the first movie. Does this retroactively mean that Longarm was "really" in the first movie? (Remarkably, he survives to the end of the story, which is a rarity for off-screen characters in this book.)

Overall, the prequel novel is good for a quick, fun romp in the Transformers movie universe, but it does little to establish important plot points or lend useful characterization to the on-screen characters (probably the Transformer who gets the most attention is Knockout—while he will be available as a Hasbro toy, but won't be appearing in the movie proper). Buy it if you've got six bucks burning a hole in your pocket and can't wait for the movie to come out, but otherwise I advise sitting patiently with your napkin in your lap. The main course will be brought to your table in due time.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Ark Addendum - Heavy Metal War

I HAVE BOTCON FEVER! This is a mildly contagious condition wherein one becomes obsessive about the upcoming Transformers convention, this year located conveniently within half an hour of my abode. Last night I spent many hours enjoyable hanging out with M Sipher, Trent Troop, Monzo & Derrick Wyatt and showing the out-of-towners a teeny tiny bit of Los Angeles. Good times!

In any event, since Iván was kind enough to draw some awesome Heavy Metal Wars artwork, I figured I'd do an Ark Addendum for that episode. To me, the real stand-out model here is the Rectifer Machine, able to give Megatron the powers of all the other Decepticons. Watching him trounce Optimus Prime with flashes of light, cluster bombs, teleportation, sonic booms and earthquakes was pretty bitchin'!

Let's see ... waiting final approval on The AllSpark Almanac, so hopefully that's finally officially done very soon. Built a new index for the combined Ark volumes, to make everything easy to find. Generally, very full of Transformers love this week!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Iván's gallery: Heavy Metal Wars

Happy Memorial Day to all my US readers! What better way to celebrate than with new Transformers artwork? (Hmmm, let's see ... barbecue, beach party, beer, and those are just the Bs! Ah, well, be that as it may ... ) Anyway, I hope that you're enjoying yourselves. It being Monday and all, it's time for another edition of Iván's gallery. This week, Iván brings us Heavy Metal Wars. Here's what he has to say about it:

I have always remembered the chapter HEAVY METAL WAR, with hon.
The Constructicons I have always liked, especially with their very striking color. Furthermore, we must not forget that it was the first gestalt ...
On the other side are the Dinobots, dinosaurs and robots ... that's a great combination!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Zob's Lolcat of the Week

(An explanation: If you're not familiar with the lolcats internet meme, I strongly suggest you visit as soon as possible. Of course, being the crazy fanboy that I am, I figured if it's funny with cats, it's even more funny with Transformers who turn into cats. I'll be doing a whole series of these images, created courtesy of the lolcat builder on


Review: Marvel UK #59: "Robot Buster!" (Part 1)"

Transformers UK 51 - 58 reprinted the US issues 13 - 16, so 59 is the next one to feature a UK originated story: “Robot Buster” Part 1. The script was written, as ever, by Simon Furman although the idea for the story is attributed to the artist, Barry Kitson. The colours were by newcomer, Josie Firmin, the letters by Annie Halfacree and the editing was handled by Ian Rimmer. The cover was by Geoff Senior and is, therefore, pretty good.

It depicts a very pained looking Frenzy (he’s blue, after all) trying to push himself up from the ground. A new robotic figure stands over him, Buster’s battle armour! In all it’s clashingly-coloured glory! The tiny figure of Buster can be seen in a glass bubble of the head section, and the suit looks powerful enough to have given Frenzy a kicking. Slightly disappointing is some kind of red warning circle is situated behind the characters in lieu of a proper background, but at least this emphasises the two figures themselves. Senior always gets a lot of expression into his Transformer faces, and although Buster’s suit doesn’t have a face, Frenzy’s anguished expression is brilliantly depicted. The suit is not exactly the same model as the one drawn by Kitson in the actual story pages, and Kitson’s probably makes a bit more sense from a scale perspective. No matter, Senior’s is still a great piece of artwork, that somehow manages to convey a serious desire to smash Frenzy to bits, despite not having a conventional way of expressing this.

The story cheats a little with it’s opening. We begin “in media res” with Optimus Prime hurtling down an Ark corridor as fast as his legs will carry him. “He is annoyed” we are told, and “curious”. It emerges that he is annoyed because he has received a message from Wheeljack and Ratchet to come and see something they have built when Prime thought they were working on other projects (including repairing the Autobots damaged in the Dinobot Hunt - continuity is awesome). Now, I can see that Prime will be a little ticked off by this, but his pose suggests a lot more drama than “he is curious” - and he should be used to having his orders interpreted a little “loosely” by now.

No matter, simultaneously to Prime’s over-reaction, we see Wheeljack and Ratchet discussing what they have built, they are clearly very pleased with themselves. Ratchet says “Are you ok in there?” and we see a purple hand, but we do not yet know who it belongs to.

Prime arrives, and is just warning Ratchet and Wheeljack that they better not be wasting their talents and his time (he really is quite angry in this issue) when he catches sight of their invention. “By the Argon Nebula!” he yells in surprise - in the middle of the laboratory stands a blue, red and purple (seriously, why?) robotic figure, but instead of a head, it has a glass bubble containing controls and a very happy Buster Witwicky. He says that he is reporting for duty. joking about taking on Starscream or Shockwave. Wheeljack, perhaps sensing that Prime won’t be as thrilled as Buster is, back-pedals a little for him, suggesting that the suit will be useful in the event of a Decepticon attack.

Optimus Prime, however, is less than impressed. “Have you all lost your minds?!” he rages, incredulously. Telling the Autobots that he can excuse Buster on the grounds of youth and inexperience but that they should know better, and that the suit needs to be destroyed, despite Wheeljack and Ratchet’s quite reasonable (to this reviewer at least) protestations that Buster is often in danger suit or no suit, and this might just help him when the time comes. Buster points out that Prime owes him, given that without him, the creation matrix would have been lost and the war with it and then tells Prime that if he won’t let him fight with the Autobots then... he stinks... which is a fairly lame way to end quite a logical tirade. Wheeljack and Ratchet recoil in horror at this insult (hilariously well drawn art at this point), but it seems to calm Prime down a little. He looks regretful (good expression work here from Kitson given that Prime doesn’t give an artist much to work with) and apologises to Buster, but says that the suit must still be destroyed.

After he leaves, Buster is still angry, and half-heartedly tries to ask Wheeljack and Ratchet to disobey orders, which they say they can’t do, although they do then agree to put off the dismantling until the next day. This is, of course, significant.

Later, Buster is angrily reclining (trust me, it makes sense) in a room that the script points out was especially prepared for him. It has a bed and a bookcase, and judging by the shadows, is basically the same size as a normal Earth bedroom, it definitely has a human sized door, so I have absolutely no idea what the Autobots used to use it for, before they had a human pet. This time, however, Buster is angry at himself for mouthing off and alienating the other Autobots, although from what we have seen, they really haven’t taken anything he has said personally. In order to put things right, Buster hits upon a plan! It’s quite an obvious plan - he is going to take the suit without permission, use it to do something useful against the Decepticons and thus prove his value to the Autobot cause. This is the sort of plan that unappreciated Autobots come up with all the time, and it always ends up with someone “learning a valuable lessson™” - in this case it will probably be Buster, and maybe, if there’s time, Optimus Prime, for being such a grouch. As Buster sneaks from his room, an absolutely colossal Autobot walks by - we only see his foot, but whoever he is, he’s massive. The human enters repair bay 2 and finds the suit...

Meanwhile, at the abandoned Decepticon fortress, Frenzy is carrying a lot of equipment and complaining. He is talking to a mysterious Decepticon, but the Decepticon’s hand is purple and he talks about logic, so it’s Shockwave. From a continuity perspective, it’s a little odd that Shockwave is in charge of Frenzy here, because in the US books it would appear that Megatron had control of most of the Decepticons at just about this point, but the Decepticons have been rather scattered, so it might just be nebulous enough to handwave away. Frenzy is very irritated that he has to hump this equipment for Shockwave, correctly determining that Shockwave’s actions derive from a fear of Megatron, rather than the logic that he claims.

As Frenzy grumbles, Buster looks on from a nearby outcrop. It turns out that the suit has limited flight capability that was able to bring him to the Decepticon fortress in record time. Buster has at least been fairly smart here, reasoning that as the base is abandoned, he might find something useful to take to Prime without putting himself in much danger. Circumstances (as well as narrative convention) are unfortunately against him. He spots Frenzy moving about and after the initial rush of fear, decides that this is the perfect opportunity to take a Decepticon prisoner!

Using the suit’s built in weaponry he shoots Frenzy square in the back, knocking him flat on his face. Buster’s hubris is short-lived, as Frenzy begins to get up, his eyes smouldering with rage at being bested by a mere human. He unleashes his trademark sonic energy, overloading the suit’s audio sensors, and nearly making Buster black out, as the suit staggers and falls. Buster manages to push a button at random, and activates a suit function that reflects Frenzy’s sonic attack back on himself, causing the Decepticon to shut down. Despite his victory, Buster decides that since it took an accident for him to defeat one of the least powerful Decepticons, it is probably time for him to quit. Unfortunately Shockwave appears behind him and has other ideas!

This was not an Earth-shattering issue, but I did enjoy it quite a lot. Optimus Prime has always been portrayed as something of a worrywart in the comics but he does take it to extremes here, although given recent events, and the tendency of his Autobots to go off-mission and get themselves seriously injured, his demeanour is somewhat understandable. Buster’s characterisation is very solid. It makes perfect sense that, after all he has been through, he would want to be able to fight the Decepticons directly, and it is natural that Wheeljack and Ratchet would want to help him, as they are both helpful Autobots, who enjoy an experiment. The story set-up is not exactly original. A character going against orders in order to prove himself is one of the classic set-ups for a Transformers story, and probably has a lot to do with why Prime is so anguished all the time. Furman’s writing is as deft as ever, although I still say the beginning is a cheat - look at Prime go! Running about in his own spaceship - hardly dignified. Special mention has to go to his description of the abandoned Decepticon fortress: “Like some gaunt, sinister, spectre, it paints itself black against the night sky... a lasting testament to the warped genius of it’s creator... Megatron!” That is absolutely classic Furman, and really ensures that Megatron’s presence looms large in a story that does not feature him at all.

Kitson’s artwork continues to be solid. There are no brilliant standout pieces, but he tells a story well and ensures that everyone remains more or less on-model. The slightly smaller scale of Buster’s suit as compared to the front cover makes more sense, as well, given that the puniness of humans is often exaggerated in these comics. As is often the case in these UK comics, Kitson’s grasp of human facial features is especially impressive, his Buster looks very lifelike. The colouring is decent as well - standard for the UK. There are no mistakes and care appears to have been taken over the detail, although the suit really is an abomination that Buster should probably be ashamed to have been seen out in.

Not the greatest issue ever, but the ending with Shockwave is certainly promising, and seeing how Buster deals with that most logical of Decepticons will be worth the price of admission to Part 2. Available from Amazon as a part of the Titan book Transformers: Second Generation.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Review: Marvel G1 Movie Adaptation

August of 1986 saw not one, not two but three Transformers comics published. Two I've reviewed already, #23 (Decepticon Graffiti!) and Transformers Universe #1 (as part of my review of the whole miniseries). That brings us to #3.

The summer of 1986 saw the release of the first Transformers Movie. Naturally, to capitalize on the publicity and interest surrounding it, there was a comic book adaptation. This three-issue miniseries was written (well, adapted) by Ralph Macchio, who also wrote the first issue of the Marvel Transformers G1 comic. Art is by Don Perlin, inks by Ian Akin & Brian Garvey, colors by Nel Yomtov, and letters by Janice Chiang. The editor of record was Bob Budiansky, ensuring that he was at least aware of the material to inform his run on the ongoing.

An aside: some 20 years later, Bob would revisit this material again when he scripted IDW's Transformers: The Animated Movie adaptation with the incomparable Don Figureroa. That one was much more faithful, featured beautiful art AND added a two-page spread showing the gestalts at The Ark during the battle for Autobot City. Well worth checking out.

But back to the matter at hand. I can't imagine that anyone reading this blog is unfamiliar with the story of The Transformers: The Movie. Still, it's worth highlighting some differences. With only 70 pages to work with, Macchio had to truncate many memorable sequences. The attack on Autobot city, the first confrontation between Kup, Hot Rod and the Sharkticons, the Junkion attack on the Autobots, the Autobots strugle against Unicron's internal defenses, the Decepticon attack on the shuttle, all excised or cut extremely short.

Some key characters got very little time to shine - Kup and Blurr were both reduced to mere background ciphers, with Blurr getting only one panel of dialogue. Prime and Megatron battled without interference from Hot Rod. Grimlock wound up with Kup and Hot Rod on Quintessa. Oh, and Galvatron goes out of his way to make sure all the Decepticons KNOW that he used to be Megatron in typical awkward-comic introductory style.

Also, this comic was probably created from early materials. Many early movie ideas and designs were used. Unicron dissolves planets with gas before consuming them, instead of mechanically breaking them apart. Spike has a different space suit design instead of his Exo-Suit. The planet Junkion is fitted with large rocket boosters, making Wreck-Gar's line about the Junkion planet being a 'sleek, sexy import with turbo handling' make a lot more sense. The character designs for most of the characters are earlier versions, many of which featured in The Ark book. The Matrix is a different design as well. Instead of running for a ship, Kranix himself transforms into a space ship. Rather than get shot down by Decepticons, the Quintessons themselves bring down Hot Rod's shuttle with some kind of giant mechanical claw. Ultra Magnus gets quartered by Sweeps with energy beams, an awesome scene. There is no battle for Decepticon leadership within Astrotrain. That's a good smattering of the differences, though by no means is it a comprehensive list.

It's interesting to think about the intended audience for this book, readers of the Marvel Transformers series. The idea of Optimus as a Matrix carrier is familiar to comic book readers, making this aspect of the plot somewhat less jarring. Of course, it wasn't thought of as something corporeal, but even that tracks well with Megatron's assertion that the Matrix died with Prime.

Overall, what can one expect from these three issues? Competent Perlin artwork, not much of which stands out. The story itself doesn't hang together much - the characters get shuttled from place to place in an almost random manner, without the frenetic energy that animation can provide. It doesn't really stand on its own.

So, is it worth checking out at all? I'd say yes, if only to get some insight into some early designs and concepts from the movie. Certain scenes and lines in the theatrical release make more sense when one keeps the earlier ideas represented by this book in mind. Why would Ultra Magnus break into pieces from laser bursts? The quartering makes more sense. Why would Wreck-Gar say the Junkion planet was a ship? Well, originally it was supposed to be.

But as a stand-alone comic read, I can't in good conscience recommend these issues. They actually have been collected together in the UK as a winter special with a card cover. I'd be interested in picking it up if I ever stumbled across it. They haven't been released in the US since their original publications.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Zob's Thoughts on Quint-01

I don't normally write reviews of unofficial products, but every once in a while something so phenomenal comes along that I simply have to share my thoughts about it—especially when it's so surprisingly well-made, particularly for an unlicensed toy.

The Quintessons, to this day, remain the most significant characters in the Transformers mythos who have been consistently ignored by Hasbro and TakaraTomy. Originally introduced in The Transformers: the Movie, they went on to become major players during the third season of the G1 cartoon—a major threat to the Autobots that rivaled even the Decepticons, and particularly dangerous due to their intimate knowledge of both parties since they were, in fact, the creators of all the Transformers on Cybertron. No official toys of the Quintessons from the movie were ever made, probably due to the simple fact that the characters don't transform, and as such may not have belonged within the Transformers toy line proper. Furthermore, they've never been approached even for the figure assortments that don't transform, like the Super Collection Figure line from Japan or the domestic Robot Heroes. (The closest thing we ever got was the Alpha Quintesson toy from Transformers: Energon, but it bears blessed little resemblance to anything from the animated film.)

When I discovered that Impossible Toys had actually produced a series of Quintesson-inspired figures, I was immediately skeptical. I've seen my fair share of poorly-designed kitbashes and garage kits over the years, and at first I wasn't expecting these to be any different. After all, I thought, if it's not an official Hasbro or TakaraTomy product, how good can it possibly be? Well, let me tell you that I've totally adjusted my way of thinking. When it comes to producing something like this, though, not having to worry about getting Hasbro's official stamp of approval can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it allows the freedom to fulfil a demand in the marketplace that the official sources refuse to address—and do so in a way that doesn't have to be bound by child safety regulations or fitting into a rigid price point structure. On the other hand, it also means that even when you're playing around with someone else's intellectual property, you can't use any official logos or trademarks without risking the threat of an infringement suit, which is why this product and its packaging is completely devoid of Hasbro-owned names (though you might recognize one of Neale Davidson's fonts that bears a striking resemblance to the logo of a toy line we all know and love). This beautiful collector piece is truly a work of art, and it has taken permanent residence on display with my assorted G1 reissues—right where it belongs.

The version of Quint-01 that I got came unassembled, packaged in a full-color, square-shaped box that's about four inches on all sides. It pictures artwork by Dan Khanna of BotCon fame as well as photos of the product itself. There's even a biography on the back that does a fairly good job of describing the role of these five-faced baddies without using a single proper noun (as fans who are all too familiar with the franchise, we fully understand the casual references to "robotic slaves" and their intent to "invade and colonize new worlds"). The bio also identifies each of the faces by name, taking its cue from the names Simon Furman assigned to them in the Transformers: Ultimate Guide. There are even numerical tech specs to go along with the brief profile, done up in the same style and color scheme as the official tech specs from the 1989 toy assortment. (I have to question some of the ratings—why would they have a Speed of nine when they can barely outrun Transformers on foot? Why would they have a Rank of only seven when they're the masters of the Transformer race? However, the packaging is just icing on the cake; the figure itself is what's really important here. The thing could be shipped in a plain brown box and it would still make me giddy.)

Inside the box, Quint-01 is resting comfortably in a vacuum-molded bubble, the exact same kind that come with the official carded toys. This helps to protect the toy during its (likely) overseas travels to you, and speaks favorably towards the professionalism of Impossible Toys that they would go to such lengths to carefully package their product. Quint-01 comes unassembled, with a two-piece clear energy base that snaps together easily and several antennae that are included in a little baggie, designed to fit in the top of his egg-shaped body. There are also two small three-volt watch batteries along with instructions on how to install them. That's right—this guy is also electronic! How cool is that? The Quint-01's faces actually hold its two body halves together; removing the faces allows the body to come apart and grant access to the battery cover. It's not as complicated as it sounds, though the instructions warn you to do this carefully so as not to accidentally pull the wiring out of its moorings—how thoughtful!

Fully assembled, Quint-01 stands about six inches in height, and is reasonably to scale with most of the 1986 toys that he would conceivably interact with in a display or diorama setting. (Galvatron still towers over him, but Galvatron towers over everybody.) He has four tentacles that are actually plastic-coated electrical wiring, which means they're poseable to a certain extent (they will also retract into his body if you like). Each of his five faces mounts on a peg of a specific size and shape that corresponds to the mount on the back of each mask, so there's no confusion over which face is supposed to go where. To activate the figure's electronic features, press the square-shaped button on the top, which is cleverly hidden amongst the circuit-like designs, and it will click like a ball-point pen to activate the LED light in the bottom of the figure, illuminating the translucent energy base. The light is bright enough that it does a nice job of lighting up the entire energy base, giving the illusion that Quint-01 is floating under his own power.

The quality of this thing is astounding. I am an avid collector with over 3600 pieces in my collection, so you can probably imagine that I know a thing or two about toys. I know shoddy workmanship when I see it—and there's none of that to be found here. The tolerances for all the parts that fit together are very good, which means nothing feels too loose, nor does anything feel like I'm putting stress on the plastic when I assemble it. Not only is the color scheme accurate, but the technical proficiency that is demonstrated through the application of these colors also deserves a mention. The individual faces weren't just painted with a hobby brush in somebody's basement—there's very slight evidence of overspray on some of the parts, which means the deco was applied using paint masks that were die-cut specifically for this production run. There are also mold release pin marks on the inside of each face, which means this figure was actually produced in a factory using a machine that spat the finished parts out of the die-cast molds with ejector pins. In short, even though this is an unlicensed bootleg, it was produced as though it were an official product. (Actually, let me amend that slightly. If this were an official Hasbro product, they'd likely have left off a few paint applications in order to cut costs, but there's no evidence of that whatsoever.)
Note: Click the image to the right to see an animated GIF showcasing all five faces of the Quint-01 figure!

The only complaints I might have are about the extremely delicate nature of the six antenna-spikes that fit on the top of the figure. They're made of hard ABS plastic and measure about a sixteenth of an inch in diameter, so you can imagine that they're quite brittle. I was unfortunate enough to accidentally drop the figure shortly after assembling him, and five out of the six spikes snapped in half. Being the resourceful fellow that I am, I fashioned replacements using sections of a paper clip that I cut to the right size, bent the ends slightly to get them to poke out at the right angle, and painted them silver to get the sheen to match. Of course, now the thing could be used as a deadly weapon because it's got needle-like metal prongs jutting out in all directions. Me, I would really have made the spikes out of a softer, less brittle plastic. Also, I've been very careful in this review to refer to this gorgeous collectible as a "figure," not a toy, because I really wouldn't recommend it for children of any age. That said, it's clearly not meant for kids in the first place—it's meant for kids-at-heart, like the people who are reading my reviews.

Although the five-faced Quintesson judge who presided over court trials in The Transformers: the Movie seems to be the creature that most readily springs to mind when the Quintessons are mentioned, there seem to be several different species that make up the collective Quintesson clan. Impossible Toys have done several other toys based on Quintesson characters, including Quint-02 (aka the Quintesson scientist named Inquirata, who appears in the episodes "The Killing Jar" and "Forever is a Long Time Coming"); the Quint-03 (the single-faced Quintesson leader); the Quint-04 (the executioner who throws the switch to drop defendants into the Sharkticon pits) and the Quint-05 (the bailiffs who escorted Kup and Hot Rod to their cell in the movie).
These are collector pieces and are not cheap. At the time of this writing, you can find them for around $40 or $50 on eBay (I got mine for a lot cheaper, but it came as part of a bulk deal with a couple of other figures). The Quint series has actually been discontinued by Impossible Toys, so right now the only place to get them is on the secondary market. They are gearing up to produce some larger and even more ambitious figures, though—and as a loyal customer, I eagerly anticipate their release. Look for reviews of some of their other products soon!


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Ark Addendum - Save the Little Girl!

I sent Hasbro some late revisions requested for The AllSpark Almanac - with luck, they'll like them and that project will be finally put to bed. In the meantime, work on The Complete Ark chugs along nicely. I should be done in a week or two, probably before BOTCON.

Oh, and how I'm looking forward to BOTCON. Though I've been to BOTCON every year since 1997, and have spoken on panels since 2007, this is the first time I'm listed in advance as a legitimate, bona-fide guest. There are 16 of my fellow IDW creators coming, so I'm not exactly sure what the panel situation will be like, but I expect to speak at at least one of them to answer questions about either of my upcoming books. I really hope to see as many of my readers as possible. Please, come up to me and introduce yourself, even if it's just to tell me how much I suck for not tracking down the fembots.

Anyway, this week's edition of The Ark Addendum is Save the Little Girl!, the 21st episode of Masterforce. I actually had some of the character designs for this episode show up in The Ark II, but I had even more that didn't make it in. Here we see the Destron base exterior, a clinic that the Destrons attack, and the boat that Cab and Minerva use to get to the island. Of the three of them, I think the boat is the neatest. I hope you enjoy!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Iván's Gallery: Mega

Well, in the process of putting together The Complete Ark, I've got some new Masterforce material that I'd love to include a bit of. In that spirit, another edition of Iván's gallery, this time Lady Mega. Here's what he has to say about her:

Masterforce that I usually do not have too much acceptance. Why ?!

I confess one thing, I'm sick of optimus and megatron. The transformers fan basically takes 25 years to live about this characters. Masterforce gives us the option to see and learn a new universe.
Lady Mega is one of the characters that attract me more of that world. Its design is outlandish, remember to witches in the movies or stories for children of the eighties. The truth is that I love the armor, maybe because it reminds me of Rom, great series, incomprehensibly neglected, drawn by Buscema.
The concept of medieval knight armor, like me, too. Great character, great personality, one of noble decepticon leader.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Review: Marvel UK #50: "Dinobot Hunt! (Part 4)"

Apologies for the lateness of this review. I am still trying to adjust to having something approaching a job.

The Dinobot Hunt concludes with a fourth part written by Simon Furman, pencilled by Barry Kitson, lettered by Annie Halfacree, coloured by Stuart Place and edited by Ian Rimmer. The superlative cover was by John Higgins, who went on to colour such little-known works as “Watchmen” and “The Killing Joke” for some hairy bloke called Alan Moore.

The cover in question shows Grimlock, our remaining free Dinobot, locked in mortal combat with Sludge, who has been a prisoner of the Decepticons since Part 2. Humans flee from the scene as the battle causes a gigantic explosion that leaves the Dinobots unmoved as they concentrate on tearing one another limb from limb. The toys have clearly been used here as the model for these characters. Grimlock has a hinge on the back of his neck where his dinosaur head folds back to reveal his robot head and the lump where the cockpit for the Diaclone pilot used to go is clearly visible. However, any awkwardness and stiffness associated with the toy models has been removed. Sludge in particular is battling in a very animated fashion, and the rather busy, circuit-covered surfaces of the toys have been smoothed to an attractive brushed-metal look, somewhere between the toys and the flat colours of the cartoon.

We open with scenes of despair and misery. Doonstown, a remote Canadian town, has been levelled. Survivors stare blank-eyed in shock from the burning remains. Over scenes of this devastation, complete with wrecked Autobots, we hear Sideswipe’s narrated report to Optimus Prime. Sideswipe wonders if his transmission got through to the Ark, as one of the Dinobots had chewed through the fuel line of the shuttle and blown him up. We see Prime’s shuttle, complete with Bumblebee and Ratchet, take off from the Ark and then see Sideswipe, looking very wrecked, near shutdown, in keeping with his shock appearance at the end of Part Three.

Over the page is a full title page splash of Grimlock and Sludge chewing on each other, and it’s magnificent. I don’t like it as much as the cover, which has more polished looking colouring, but this is a terrific, dynamic, visceral piece of art that really captures the violence of the encounter (complete with tiny flying human casualty).

Not really paying attention to the terrain, the two Dinobots go tumbling off a cliff and smash into a frozen lake, while Soundwave and Scavenger look on and talk about being impressed. Soundwave congratulates the Constructicon on a mysterious piece of equipment that he has built - this must have something to do with Sludge, who is now free. Scavenger says that he has rigged a “nasty surprise” for anyone who tries to tamper with it. At that moment, Skywarp returns and tells Soundwave that he has found a small oil rig to bolster the Decepticons’ fuel supplies. He has also spotted an Autobot shuttlecraft approaching, probably containing Optimus Prime (spoiler: it does contain Optimus Prime). Everything in Soundwave’s plan seems to be falling into place.

The Autobots land and Prime sends Bumblebee to investigate how Sludge comes to be in Canada when he should be in California. He then takes it upon himself to keep the Dinobots in the water (“Or... DIE in the attempt!), while waiting for Prowl’s arrival in another shuttle.

Bumblebee is busily scanning for energy readings. He has found a big one, but can’t figure out what it is. Then the notion hits him to use one of his “other eight senses.” He tries audio, filtering through the subsonic ranges and detects a blast of sub-sonic energy so strong and painful that it knocks him down. He configures his scanner (the P.E.T (portable energy trace) to find the source of the sonic, and is visibly shocked by what it detects.

Meanwhile, Prime is blasting at Grimlock and Sludge, forcing them to stay in the lake, where they are relatively harmless, except to each other. Prowl’s plan depends on them remaining put, but it all goes awry when Prime’s gun overheats, and explodes in his hands. We switch to Prowl, in the cockpit of his shuttle. He changes the shuttle’s electronics so that they are all transferred to the outer hull and points the ship in a collision course with the lake. Prowl leaps out just in time as the electrified shuttle smashes into the water and scrambles Grimlock’s circuits, knocking him unconscious. Unfortunately, the loss of Prime’s gun means that Sludge has got to shore and is unaffected by the crash.

We get a glimpse into Sludge’s simple thought processes. He wonders if, as Grimlock is defeated, he should lie down and rest, but suddenly he is gripped by intense agony, and driven into a rage, heading straight for Optimus Prime!

We cut to Bumblebee, and find out what he has been doing for the last few minutes. He discovered that the source of the mysterious sonic energy was an Autobot shuttlecraft (specifically the one that the Decepticons captured in Part 2). He found Cliffjumper, Windcharger and Gears captive within and, even worse, a Decepticon weapon called a “sonic lance” that was being used to enrage Sludge. Rather than simply turn it off, Bumblebee correctly reasoned that there would be a trap, and, after rescuing the Autobots, blew the shuttle up with a blast from his weapon.

The destruction of the sonic lance breaks it’s hold on Sludge and he falls unconscious. Ratchet has been tending the wounded Bluestreak, and he does not highly rate his chances of recovery.

The Decepticons are pleased. While the destruction of the shuttle means that Sludge is no longer under their control, they have managed to cause several Autobots to be severely damaged, and steal a significant quantity of fuel. Soundwave goes into full on supervillain mode again, ranting at the Autobots, “Your Dinobot Hunt is over! And once more it is the Decepticons who emerge triumphant!”

Soundwave’s broadcast must have been loud, because Prime hears it, but can do nothing about it. The issue ends on a very downbeat note as Prime realises that the Decepticons have won the day, and with so many wounded, the Autobots can do nothing about it.

“Dinobot Hunt!” ends with a bang and yet I find myself curiously unmoved. The only genuinely poor part of this story was Part Two, for reasons that I explained in my review, and Part Four was well written and exciting, with great action and a convincingly sombre ending - very unusual for this comic. With this in mind, I can’t quite pin down what I find so uninspiring about this story. On the surface it seems to have all the elements of a proper epic, and I can’t really fault the writing, or the art, at any point, but I just can’t summon up any enthusiasm for it.

Perhaps the problem is that the premise for the story is set out very early on and the whole thing is a little episodic, but then, once the Decepticons get involved, things get less predictable, and their plan does actually make a certain amount of sense, (although there is absolutely no reason why they wouldn’t have rendered the captured minibots irreparable).

So I apologise, I can’t explain why this story really doesn’t click with me. I think that objectively it is a perfectly decent Transformers story, even to the extent that it should be praised for doing some things extremely well, but as I reread it over and over in order to understand this review, I’ve come to realise that it will never be one of my favourites.

Nonetheless, it would be very remiss not to give the story praise where it is due: I think throughout the four parts, Furman really helps build the Dinobots up as an unstoppable force of nature that cannot be allowed to roam unchecked. In Part Four we really see this up close, as the small force of Autobots in Doonstown, which includes Optimus Prime (no slouch in combat) cannot hope to defeat Grimlock and Sludge without drastic measures from Prowl.

I think my problem is that no character really gets a time to really shine. It is ostensibly about the Dinobots, but they are mindless brutes throughout this story - plot devices rather than characters, and each part stars different Autobots, who just do what Autobots do - heroic things. Remember these are UK issues, only eleven pages each, so with this approach, each character has a bare minimum of "screen time". Ironically Part Two probably has the most exploration of it's central characters, and I find it to be fairly badly botched. Soundwave comes across as a capable leader of the Decepticons (he even has the ranting down) but does not get much time to really show us what he can do. In the end, what has changed? The Decepticons have some oil, the Autobots are defeated, but will be repaired, and, crucially, the Dinobots have been recaptured. Prime's dour mood is certainly justified, he was badly outmanoeuvred, but the reader is left with no real reason to think that the Autobots are really in any long-term trouble here.

In any case, vague criticisms aside, the art has been great throughout, and Part Four is especially good. I pretty much like any extended look at the Dinobots in dinosaur mode, and the fact that they are trying to chew each others’ faces off just makes it all the better. The panel where Soundwave waves his fist and loudly taunts Prime is also a great depiction of the character. Kitson knows what he is doing with the Transformers by this point and his style has definitely helped to make the UK book look different from it's US counterpart. Place's colouring is likewise very good and I am fairly sure that there are no mistakes in this one.

Anyone who has not read "Dinobot Hunt!" really ought to. I don't especially enjoy it, but you can't let that put you off, it's an objectively decent story and seems to be pretty popular. Luckily, it's not too hard to get hold off these days, you can find it in IDW's "  Transformers: Best of the UK - Dinobots " Trade Paperback, which is still readily available from Amazon and other merchants.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Review: Marvel G1 #23 - Decepticon Graffiti!

Decepticon Graffiti! is the twenty-third issue of the Marvel G1 ongoing Transformers series. The creative lineup is mostly unchanged from the last issue: Budiansky as writer, Perlin as penciler, Akine & Garvey on inks, and Yomtov on colors. Chiang returns to lettering duties after skipping an issue. Trimpe provides the cover.

It's a decent cover - the Battlechargers battling some humans by the Statue of Liberty, which has been defaced to say 'HUMANS ARE WIMPS' in sloppy handwriting. There's certainly nothing wrong with it, and it does cover an event depicted in the issue, but it fails to grab me much. It's not very dynamic. Possibly if we saw them just about to vandalize the statue, we'd have a bit more tension.

Once inside the issue, though, we're treated to a better than average tale. It begins with Circuit Breaker experimenting with Skid's brain, much to Finkleberg's chagrin. He thought they were going to interrogate and incarcerate Skids, not dissect him. Donny realizes how bad things have really gotten now, though; Circuit Breaker has captured 13 Transformers, all of them Autobots.

Megatron, meanwhile, seems to be degenerating for no apparent reason. After his triumph of leadership and logic in issue #19, now he seems sullen and more unreasonable than usual. (The UK would go out of their way to explain this with a failed Straxus mind-meld, which would itself be further retconned, but to the US reader the change in characterization is jarring.) He's summoned Runamuck and Runabout from Cybertron to deliver a challenge to Optimus Prime. When Soundwave points out that it'd be easy to do it via radio, he gets a face full of muffler for his troubles.

The Battlechargers, while not too bright, still realize that perhaps spending too much time with this tin-plated tyrant would not be good for their health, and decide to have some fun on Earth instead. When they observe a young boy put some graffiti on a wall, they become inspired. The pair begin following Noah and his family around, spraying Cybertronian letters all over the country. It's a silly plot, but the banter between Runamuck and Runabout sells it well. Bob seems to have so much fun writing them, it's surprising that he doesn't ever use them again after this issue.

R.A.A.T., of course, makes the connection and moves to stop the errant twosome. Though they arrive too late to save the Washington Monument, Noah and his folks make the connection between their vacation and the Decepticon attacks. Thus forewarned, R.A.A.T. moves to attack them at Philadelphia, the next stop on their itinerary. The battle does not go well, though. There are too many civilians around, which prompts R.A.A.T. to break off the attack. Most of R.A.A.T., anyway. Josie is too caught up in the battle, and her action put Noah in harm's way. When she realizes her error, she'd inured protecting Noah and ordered to get some rest.

Back at base, Donny and Josie commiserate at their relative ineffectualness. Donny keeps trying to convince her that the Autobots can help her, but she remains skeptical. Besides, she ruminates, even if she wanted their help, it'd take days to put them back together. Oddly, Donny has a preposterous plan that apparently is easier: linking them up to her suit. And so, we move to the awkward climax at the Statue of Liberty. Runamuck and Runabout have finally figured out why the Humans are merely baffled and not angry at their literary prowess: Humans don't read Cybertronian. Thus armed, they scrawl out another scathing insult: 'HUMANS ARE WIMPS'. It's especially funny, since they spent most of the issue going on about the subtly of their wit.

R.A.A.T. proves ineffectual, unsurprisingly. However, Circuit Breaker is here to save the day! While rebuilding some of the 13 Autobots would take too long, apparently it's easy enough to build an entirely new robot out of Autobot parts, and link Josie to the robot on what appears to be an enormous circuit board. It's not the most credible solution to the problem at hand. This amalgamated being manages to blast the Battlechargers into the Hudson River. (Incidentally, they would apparently remain their for several years, until Shockwave fishes them out to join his own army of Decepticons some time before issue #71.)

Josie and Donny both get canned despite their sucess. It seems that, in order to secure their cooperation, they agreed to let ALL THIRTEEN Autobots go. While we the audience know that this is for the best, one wonders what Circuit Breaker could be thinking - how could defeating two robots intent on vandalism be worth letting 13 go? It's another weakness in the story. While Circuit Breaker swears vengeance on all robots, Donny is happy enough to go back to what's left of his life. He's still got $50K in his pocket, after all. But when he sees the Statue of Liberty will require $45 - 60K in repairs, he decided to finance the whole thing himself. Exit Donny, stage right.

This issue is a mixed bag. The Battlechargers are an absolute delight. They're fun, violent, whimsical, and genuinely seem to enjoy their time together. Their delusions of intelligence only add to the fun. Donny, on the other hand, completes his story arc here. His decision that his complicity in allowing the Statue of Liberty to become covered in graffiti warranted a forfeiture of his blood money shows that he has come a long way from the man who'd sell out humanity for a few more days of life. Still, it's hard to care much. The logical gaps in Circuit Breaker's decision making process are extremely hard to swallow. Noah is a fun kid, mirroring in some ways the Decepticons following him about. I like that he's wearing a Spider-Man shirt, which to my mind further distances Transformers continuity from the Marvel continuity proper. (Yes, I know, it's conceivable that someone in the Marvel Universe could wear a Spider-Man shirt, but I don't think that was the point.) I think the good outweighs the bad in this. The overall sense of fun makes the issue worth it.

Decepticon Graffiti! is not available from IDW Publishing, given the amount of Circuit Breaker in the issue. It is available from Titan Publishing, though, in the collection  Transformers: Showdown .

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Zob's Thoughts on the Transformers Decoys

By 1987, it appeared as though Hasbro had just about given up on the original characters who had helped to make Transformers a success, despite the fact that these familiar characters had carried the toy line for half of its then four-year life span—and were the stars of the cartoon series for two lucrative television seasons. With retail toy shelves now filled with the likes of Headmasters and Targetmasters, Hasbro took the opportunity to come up with a merchandising promotion for the smaller, carded toys available on the market, along the same lines as the Minispies that were sold a couple of years previously. Not surprisingly, they turned to Takara for products that had been produced for the Japanese market that might be useful for Hasbro to offer domestically—and they found just the thing. The Transformers Decoys, as they were called, paid tribute to the characters from 1984 and 1985—despite the fact that many of these characters had been killed off in both the cartoon and in Marvel Comics to make room for new, more exciting toys.

The Decoys were tiny figurines about one and three-quarter inches in height, cast from a flexible rubbery material. (Many kids probably mistook them for pencil erasers, even though they weren't actually designed with this in mind.) The Decoys came packaged with all of the carded Transformers from the 1987 offering, which includes the Throttlebots, the first toys to offer the promotion; repacks of the mini-vehicle Aerialbots, Stunticons, Combaticons, and Protectobots, who had been offered previously; and finally the small Technobots and Terrorcons that were released later that year. Given that there were only 30 toys available in this format, but that there were over 50 Decoys to collect, the only way to acquire a whole set was to buy multiples of some toys, or trade with your schoolyard pals for some Garbage Pail Kids cards or M.U.S.C.L.E. men. I was a big fan of the Decoys, personally, and I have fond memories of digging through the pegs at the toy store—not because I was searching for a particular Throttlebot, but because I was hunting for specific Decoys that came randomly packaged with them!

The Decoys had been previously developed by Takara, intending them for use as playing pieces for board games. To that end, they offered both a Cybertron (Autobot) collection and a Destron (Decepticon) collection that were sold as multi-packs with 22 characters apiece (plus an additional nine-figure set that included some of the leftover Autobots). Most of the toys from 1984-85 who also appeared on TV were represented as Decoys, with a few notable absences. Pretty much all the Autobots from that time period got a Decoy, but there were a handful that didn't make the final cut. Only five of the six Mini Autobots from 1984 got Decoys in their likeness (there is no Decoy of Gears), and none of the Mini Autobots from 1985 were included. Also, Skyfire was deliberately omitted (his toy was not sold as a Transformer in Japan); Omega Supreme also got left out. Meanwhile, the Decepticons were missing fully half their air force, since no Decoys were ever produced of Dirge, Ramjet, or Thrust. Also, while there were separate figures made for Starscream, Thundercracker, and Skywarp (whose Decoys are only visually distinguishable from each other by the way their arms are positioned), Rumble and Buzzsaw did not get their own figures (only Frenzy and Laserbeak did). Laserbeak, incidentally, is notable as the only character from the original Japanese series who did not make an appearance in America. Each Decoy was stamped with a collection number on his back, which corresponded to the order his name appeared on the back of the pack-in checklist. (A few Decoys actually had two separate numbers stamped on them because Takara had used a completely different numbering system prior to Hasbro's.)

The toys that came packaged with Decoys also included a mini-comic that explained the reason for the existence of the Decoys. The comic focuses on characters from The Transformers: the Movie, suggesting to me that it was developed in 1986 when the movie characters were still on the forefront of Hasbro's mind. The story, such as it is, involves Galvatron having stolen the Creation Matrix and the Autobots' plan to recover it by bombarding the Decepticons with an army of Autobot Decoys in order to secretly accomplish their objective. The mini-comic is infamous for referring to Ratchet as First Aid—probably because some editor realized that Ratchet had been killed during the events of The Transformers: the Movie and replaced his name with the name of one of the Protectobots who was still alive (and whose toy was still in stores). Indeed, the comic totally glosses over the fact that most of the characters actually available as Decoys were dead when this story supposedly took place. (Note that Ratchet/First Aid is holding a Decoy of Ultra Magnus, who was not available during this promotion.)

The appearance of the Decoys varied considerably. While some of them were sculpted to resemble the characters as they appeared in animation, others were based directly on the transformable toys. Still others ended up looking like a strange amalgam of both designs (the Decoy of Brawn, for example, has one regular fist and one giant claw). Megatron is particularly interesting, since he was given a sword accessory, as per the version of the toy sold in Japan, rather than his trademark fusion cannon. Also, little regard was given to the scale of the respective characters; the Decoy of Devastator was the same size as the individual Constructicons. The color scheme for the Decoys was fairly straightforward—Autobots were red, Decepticons were purple, representing the color of their faction symbols. Despite this, the Decepticon Decoys were also available in red early on in the production run. Despite being the "wrong" color, these Decoys are among the most valuable to collectors because of their rarity. Indeed, Decoys in general have become increasingly difficult to find these days. Due to their small size they were easy for kids to lose, and their rubbery construction meant they were fairly easy to damage. The proliferation of fan customizers, who enjoy painting them to more closely match the characters, also took a great many of them out of circulation from the secondary market (Dave Van Domelen gained notoriety for painting dozens of them for attendees of BotCon '97).

Additional versions of the Decoys were eventually produced in Japan, including Decoy versions of characters from The Transformers: the Movie like Rodimus Convoy (Rodimus Prime) and Galvatron, as well as extra-large Decoys representing the Scramble City combiners (Superion, Bruticus, Menasor, etc.) that were available in different colors like blue and yellow, but these were never sold in America.

The Decoys available in the USA were: Grimlock (#1), Snarl (#2), Swoop (#3), Sludge (#4), Slag (#5), Ratchet (#6), Ironhide (#7), Smokescreen (#8), Grapple (#9), Trailbreaker (#10), Sunstreaker (#11), Skids (#12), Jazz (#13), Inferno (#14), Tracks (#15), Red Alert (#16), Hound (#17), Sideswipe (#18), Prowl (#19), Mirage (#20), Hoist (#21), Wheeljack (#22), Bluestreak (#23), Brawn (#24), Windcharger (#25), Bumblebee (#26), Huffer (#27), Cliffjumper (#28), Blaster (#29), Perceptor (#30), Optimus Prime (#31), Megatron (#32), Skywarp (#33), Thundercracker (#34), Starscream (#35), Soundwave (#36), Blitzwing (#37), Astrotrain (#38), Kickback (#39), Shrapnel (#40), Bombshell (#41), Hook (#42), Scavenger (#43), Bonecrusher (#44), Long Haul (#45), Mixmaster (#46), Scrapper (#47), Devastator (#48), Ravage (#49), Frenzy (#50), Shockwave (#51), and Reflector (#52).