Friday, December 11, 2009

Review: Marvel G1 #37: Toy Soldiers!

Toy Soldiers! is the thirty-seventh issue of the US G1 Marvel ongoing Transformers series. Bob Budiansky continues to helm the ship as writer. Pencils are by José Delbo, inks by Akin & Garvey, Colors by Yomtov and Letters by Bill Oakley, who joins the book as its primary letterer after previously working on Plight of the Bumblebee!. The cover is also by Delbo.

The cover is solid. Buster Witwicky is front and center, running away from four of the Predacons in what is apparently a shopping mall. Three toy race cars zoom out in front of him. It's a well done cover - the composition is excellent and the rendering emphasizes the motion and the excitement. "Suburban Shootout!", it proclaims, and "Mayhem at the Mall!" The words don't hurt but don't add so much either. Yomtov's colors add to the strong composition, with a large red triangle of Predacons in the back and cooler colors running away from them (also as a triangle) in the front.

The issue itself opens with an image that is perhaps a bit redundant with the cover. The Predacons rampage through a chemical storage facility, making off with some liquid oxygen. In and of itself, it's a strong opening splash, but after looking at the cover it feels like a retread. The Constructicons, meanwhile, are absconding with some steel girders from a construction site. This might have been a better choice for the opening splash, but then I suppose that the Constructicons were almost four-year-old toys by this point.

This rise in Decepticon malfeasance has not gone unnoticed by the Government. I.I.I. is determined to combat the rise in robot terrorism, and they're drawing on one of the few advantages they have; six captive Autobots. Walter Barnett questions them again, and again is frustrated by their answers. They deny any knowledge of the attacks, and observe that the Autobots are doing an unusually bad job of keeping the Decepticons contained. Barnett again rejects the assertion that there are two warring camps of robots, much to the frustration of all involved. He has to cut the interrogation short when his family arrives. He was going to take his son to visit relatives, but he's worked too long. His son is a good sport about it, though, playing with his remote control cars. They're searched as they leave, with Barnett dwelling on his boss' assertion that tomorrow may be too late for further interrogations.

Walter soon finds out what Forsythe meant. His boss had delivered an ultimatum to the robots; cease the attacks or the captives are to be executed. The Decepticons waste no time in attacking, forcing I.I.I.'s hand. Barnett has finally come around to the realization that his captives have been telling the truth, but it's too late. Or ... is it? His son's toys give him an idea, and soon he's giving Goldbug and the others a proposition. Of course, this isn't the first time Barnett has drawn inspiration from son. Back in issue 15, it was his son's comic that gave him the idea of the Robot-Master character. It's a nice bit of character-continuity.

Mr. Forsythe solemnly presides over the execution of the six Autobots. One by one, they're crushed in a car-crusher, a fitting method for automobiles. Barnett heads out just as things finish up, walking out the door with a briefcase filled with cars ... and Autobots? Barnett has connected the tiny brain modules of the Autobots to his son's cars, allowing him to walk right out the door with them. Goldbug directs them to the home of the Witwickys, for only they would be allowed to openly approach the Ark. It's left unsaid, but presumably even Grimlock wouldn't be able to turn the long-time ally of the Autobots away without a very good reason.

At Triple-I headquarters, Forsythe is finally convinced of the error of his ways when the Predacons, under the command of Ratbat, strike. They're here to confirm the execution of the Autobots, whom Razorclaw helpfully calls the Decepticon's "sworn enemies." It seems a bit clumsy, really, given how savvy Ratbat normally is. Soon the fuel auditor determines that there are no brain modules, and they soon give chase.

Buster and Sparkplug work at their garage, Sparkplug excited at the prospect of a visit from his other son, Spike. Of course, we in the audience have never heard of this older brother who was away at college before, but then the Headmasters are going to be coming to Earth soon and one must get one's ducks in a row. Buster's upset about the execution of the Autobots, while Sparkplug is a bit more ambivalent. When Barnett pulls up with the Autobots in a briefcase, Sparkplug wastes no time giving Buster his blessing to go with him. After all, national security is at stake. Unfortunately, Goldbug is starting to get low on juice, so they decide to stop in a mall for batteries.

Ratbat and the Predacons have tracked the fuel trail to the garage, and when Sparkplug refuses to give up his son's location there is some fun off-screen action. Soon the Predacons have found the mall and the real fun starts. They merrily run through kiosks, pet stores, toy stores and more as they hunt the Autobots. Barnett drops the briefcase while dodging a blast from Razorclaw and then the Autobots zoom around the mall, deftly dodging their pursuers. Ratbat has zeroed in on Buster, who thwarted him once before back in issue #31. Buster is trying to help Goldbug, who's almost out of juice. Oddly, he doesn't seem so fuel-efficient now, though perhaps it's just that he's been talking the most. Ratbat pursues Buster into a Radio Shed (yuk yuk), which allows the ever-competent Barnett to trap the cassette with a metal grate. The agent then orders Buster to safety - he'll help the Autobots.

Buster realizes that he can help at least one Autobot - his old friend Bumblebee Goldbug. He's got batteries in his portable radio, improbably carried all this time. He pops them out (after accidentally opening the cassette door - can you see where this is going?) and soon Goldbug is A-OK again. The two of them run back to the pickup and head to the Ark, but they're surprised to find the cavern containing it empty. Goldbug uses some equipment left behind to send a distress call to Cybertron - the same one picked up in Headmasters #4 - at which point Ratbat comes back online! He hid himself in the open tape compartment, but was knocked offline when Buster threw it into the truck. Ratbat crushes Goldbug in his talons, and informs Buster that he is finished! The end!

It's another well-crafted Budiansky tale. From the unusual environments (this time, a shopping mall) to the consistent characters (Barnett's inspiration, Ratbat's desire for revenge) to the car-themed executions, this one has many of the elements that he liked to include in his stories. There's plenty of action, some serious like the opening, some whimsical like the climax. Triple-I shines again, for more-or-less the last time. Following Forsythe's realization, they won't be used as antagonists from this point forward. Even the title has a double-meaning. Not only are the Throttlebots literally toy soldiers by the end of the book, but the warriors of R.A.A.T. sure seem like toy soldiers, playing war games against a real army. Only Barnett seems to have the creativity to deal with them effectively, and some of that is borrowed from his son. I'm again forced to wonder if Barnett isn't a stand-in for Budiansky himself.

Not that there aren't any inconsistencies. Ratbat is clearly aware of the value of having the humans treat Autobots and Decepticons as equal threats, and so should have briefed the Predacons better. How hard would it have been to have them say that they were there to retrieve the bodies of honorable fallen comrades? There are some other issues with the ending that we won't find out about for a while, but apparently Ratbat just leaves Goldbug's body lying in the Ark cavern after going to all the trouble of tracking it down. Also, it would seem that Barnett and the Throttlebots were able to evade the Predacons off-camera. That's not impossible, but it's at least improbable.

Still, a fun and tightly-scripted book. Delbo's art is very on-model and his composition is consistent and effective, if uninspired. My concerns about it being too childish were for naught. Mildly recommended. Toy Soldiers! is available for sale in IDW's  Classic Transformers Volume 3 .

UPDATE: B-W has pointed out, quite rightly, that there the scene of Ratbat interrogating Sparkplug while hidden from the reader by the garage was terrific. Actually, I meant to point this out but it slipped my mind while I was putting the review together. His fate was left ambiguous in this issue, which was a very effective choice. Thanks for the reminder, B-W!


Mark Baker-Wright said...

I'm a bit surprised to not see more attention given to the scene where Ratbat threatens Sparkplug and ultimately destroys the garage. I remember reading this scene as a kid. For the first time in a US Transformers comic, I actually thought that the Decepticons had killed someone. Naturally, I was relieved to soon discover that this wasn't the case.

Anonymous said...

there is a scene in the Predacons attack in which a human soldier was shot in the back by Razorclaw's twin guns. By the way his eyes light up, the human looks like he did not survive. So, the Decepticons may have killed a human in this issue.

Mark Baker-Wright said...

Point taken. But Sparkplug wasn't just any "someone," which is more to the point....