Thursday, September 17, 2009

Review: Marvel G1 #31: Buster Witwicky and the Car Wash of Doom

The thirty-first issue of the US Marvel G1 run of Transformers is the pulpishly-named Buster Witwicky and the Car Wash of Doom. It's a title so awesome that no exclamation mark was required. The creative lineup shifts around a bit from the steady run we'd been enjoying. Bob Budiansky is still, as always, the writer. Perlin is still on artistic duties, but only for breakdowns, with finishes by Jim Fern. Rick Parker provides lettering and Nel Yomtov is the colorist. Bob once again draws the cover.

It's a terrific cover. Buster is in Ratbat's claws, pushing him back in a desperate attempt to keep the mech's fangs away. In his fist he clutches a tire iron. Jessie, unfortunately a bit off somehow, clings to Buster, attempting to wrest him from Ratbat's grasp. Her dress is torn, though not immodestly. All of this takes place in a car wash, which is emphasized by the words "It's wet! It's wild! It's -- the CAR WASH of DOOM!" It's a campy masterpiece, much like the book that follows.

Inside the book, we start with a familiar site - the Decepticons attacking some fleshlings. Ramjet, Thrust, Vortex, Laserbeak and the Insecticons quickly rout the sailors on an oil tanker belonging to Blackrock. After an efficient capture, they set the sailors adrift and bring the ship back to the Decepticon's desert island headquarters. Shockwave is proud in his understated way; the whole thing was a demonstration for Ratbat's benefit. Unfortunately, the tanker is empty. Ratbat is understandably furious - Shockwave has expended 60,238.4 energy units for a net return of 23.4 energy units ... and that is assuming someone goes below deck and licks the walls clean. Ratbat suggests utilizing humans instead of Decepticons for greater efficiency. Shockwave advises against that idea, as humans are fundamentally illogical and unpredictable. However, Ratbat reveals that he already is.

The first four pages of the book function as something of a prelude to the main story. Ratbat, used quite effectively for the past few issues, has now been brought to Earth. He's also revealed that he has some sort of plan going on, a plan which will fill the rest of the book. We also get a glimpse into Shockwave's operations, alluded to back in #29 by Blackrock. It all works quite well from a narrative standpoint. Ratbat's humiliating imagery of licking the walls clean is a deft touch.

Back in Portland, Oregon, we peak in on S. Witwicky Auto Repair, which is now dominated by a huge Wash and Roll car wash structure next to it. It'd be quite innocent looking if the cover hadn't already primed us to expect something sinister from car washes. Buster and family haven't been seen since #12, at least, not in the US. He's been doing his best to stay away from the Cybertronian civil war. Business is booming, both at the pump and at the car wash, which keeps Buster from having much of a social life. He has to turn down his girlfriend's offer of a date so he can keep working the pumps. Incidentally, gas consumption is way up, and Sparkplug is busy filling his own tank up even though he just did that an hour ago ... but that's probably nothing to worry about.

All of the above paragraph was crammed into two pages. Budiansky's narrative here is very slick, giving us lots of exposition without making it feel forced. He even manages to remind us that Buster was a good friends to the Autobots way back when, for any readers who have joined since #12.

From here, the story shifts into gear. Blackrock gives a press conference, touting the record profits of his Wash & Roll franchise, and unveiling his Mark II car wash for all his franchisees. However, when the press leaves, so does Bkackrock's mind. We now see what was up with the hypno-chip in the last issue. When he pulls Ratbat from his pocket, the intrigue level ratchets up.

That night, Jessie swings by to visit Buster and suggests they give the car wash a spin. Buster reluctantly agrees, though he sits there not really looking at the lights or paying attention to the music like a petulant child ... at least, until Jessie starts making out with him. However, just when it starts getting good, her eyes pop open and she unexpectedly says she needs to leave. Buster thinks this suspicious and follows her for nearly an hour as she drives to a Blackrock oil refinery. There he apparently watches her fill up the tank and drive away, which seems more than odd to him. She ignores him, at least until he flashes her with his bright lights. However, this prompts the watchful Laserbeak to fire a few shots at him. At first he thinks that the 'Con remembers him from before, but he eventually realizes Laserbeak is merely trying to herd him over to the line of cars. Once on line, he realizes that it's a siphon, and not a pump. Jessie joins him in the car, and they prepare to go contact the Autobots when he notices his Dad entering the plant. Buster and Jessie climb up one of the tanks to at least get a good view of what is going on.

What they see startles them. Blackrock and Ratbat sit at a podium, and Blackrock proceeds to explain to his gathered franchise owners how he was hypnotized and forced to produce Wash and Roll units based on the cargo sent over by Ratbat. (This is clumsy, since it's hardly necessary for their hypnotized franchise owners to know all this.) However, the hypnotic conditioning that forces humans to empty their fuel doesn't last very long, so a new version that's guaranteed to last forever is being introduced. Sparkplug is going to be the first customer. Buster can't let this happen - he sends Jessie for help, then blocks off the entrance with his car. When Ratbat pursues him, he flees the only place he can - into the car wash. Ratbat smashes up his car, and he tries desperately to defend himself with a tire iron while also keeping his eyes blocked. Jessie keeps him from having to pit his muscles against Ratbat's steel by driving in and rescuing him, but they still have to contend with the zombie franchise owners. Buster thinks quickly and hurls his tire iron into the neon sign, causing it to explode in a flash of light and break the conditioning. The workers rebel and Ratbat withdraws to a "healthier economic climate."

It's a great climax. Buster facing off against Ratbat, even though it's hopeless, is a fun and identifiable image. Who wouldn't want to interpose themselves between their loved ones and harm in so dramatic a fashion? Using light to break the hypnotic trance was set up early enough that it doesn't feel like a cheat. Since Buster actually uses the tire iron to effect the rescue it makes his grappling for it earlier have meaning, albeit in an unexpected fashion.

It's come time for the book to end. Blackrock and Sparkplug each thank Buster for saving them. Blackrock promises to both refund his franchise owners and use his leftover illicit profits to help the poor. Sparkplug assures Buster that he'll give him more time to have a social life, and Jessie and Buster resume their interrupted kiss.

The denouement is pretty good. Blackrock promising to help the poor comes off as a bit forced somehow, but picking up from the earlier kiss helps cement the story emotionally. This was Buster's journey, and he gets the hero's reward.

All told, a campy classic. It's one of only three US stories where no Autobots whatsoever appear (outside of brief flashbacks,) the others being #13 (Joey Slick) and #25 (Megatron's death, though he thought the Predacons were Autobots.) Like #13 before it, it gives the conflict a very human face. Buster was a particularly good choice for a story like this, since he got quite a lot of build-up and then hasn't been seen since. (In the US. He gets some play in the UK.) Of course, the upcoming Headmasters story was probably a factor when Bob decided to reintroduce the Witwicky family, but we'll get to that later. The artwork is decent but not spectacular, but the story is just good old-fashioned fun.

There is another dramatic trick going on here. Grimlock became Autobot leader in #27. #28 featured Blaster and Goldbuck carrying out his orders but facing off against humans, not Decepticons. They go AWOL, then face off against Decepticons on their own in #29 and #30. Now we see what the Decepticons have been up to, but we still don't know exactly what Grimlock and the main force of Autobots are doing. Apparently it doesn't involve curtailing Shockwave's Caribbean operation. It's a nice way to build up tension while keeping the story rolling along.

Finally, something I don't normally do. The IDW Generations series was reprinting old Marvel issues. #12 was this story and featured an absolutely gorgeous. It's a Nick Roche, one of my favorite Transformers artists and the illustrator of the cover for The Ark II, and Nick seems to be channeling Bruce Campbell here. It's just too damn good not to show.

Next week, Bob asks the question "How much is a four million-plus years old Transformer with several trillion miles on him worth? Find out in ... Used Autobots!" While it's clear that Bob is fascinated with juxtaposing car robots with traditional car elements like mechanics, car washes and now used car lots, perhaps two back-to-back stories with them is a bit much. Ah, well, we'll find out when we get there. Buster Witwicky and the Car Wash of Doom is available for purchase as part of IDW's Classic Transformers Volume 2 .


Mark Baker-Wright said...

It's nice to see a review that doesn't trash this story. Sure, it has it's failings (you rightly note the hypnotized Blackrock's explanation to a hypnotized audience), but it's nice to see this story given a modicum of respect for its sheer campy goodness.

LBD 'Nytetrayn' said...

I have to admit, I absolutely hated this story when I was a kid. And not for the usual reasons-- it was my third regular TF comic in, and there were no Autobots!

Since I was only getting one TF comic a month, this kind of upset me.

--LBD "Nytetrayn"