Thursday, April 15, 2010

Review: Marvel G1 #50: Dark Star

Dark Star (what, seriously, it's a giant-sized 50th issue and NOW we're dropping the exclamation point?) is the fiftieth issue of the US G1 Marvel Comics run of Transformers.  It's brought to us by the creative collaboration of Bob Budiansky as writer, José Delbo as penciler, David Hunt as inker, Nel Yomtov as colorist and Rick Parker as letterer.  José Delbo also drew the cover.

The cover is appropriately epic.  An enormous, glowing Starscream dominates the landscape, standing over the Earth and cackling with energy.  He's seemingly electrifying Autobot and Decepticon alike.  This is one of those times where the block coloring really works, as it keeps the focus squarely on Starscream.  It's a shame that Delbo's interpretation of Starscream has but one ear (based on the perspective of the character model,) but it's really a terrific image.  One's first instinct is to interpret the cover symbolically, but that impulse may be premature. Starscream Triumphant! it proclaims, which is somewhat redundant but does help to balance things out a bit.  Also of note, Fortress Maximus has vanished from the Marvel box in the corner.  He's been replaced by Optimus Prime. I suppose it is appropriate, he hasn't had much to do recently and never had the same kind of presence as old Optimus.

The issue itself is quite strong, living up to the promise of the cover and then some. It opens with a two-page prologue, showing the Underbase fly through space accompanied by Budiansky's bombastic prose.  "Somewhere out there, in the void, in the infinite night, shines a single, terrible light -- a blinding, piercing, viscous shaft bound together by the very secrets of creation itself ... for within its shimmering folds are the blueprints for life ... and for death." Well done!The visuals are no less impressive, and depict the massive power of the Underbase destroying a planet by grazing its atmosphere and overloading a sun by plunging into its heart.  Wow!

The book itself opens properly on page three, calling itself Chapter One.  It picks up shortly after the last book left off, with poor Buster Witwicky dying in the ice.  The Aerialbots, logical scouts for the Autobots, find him and summon the rest of the Autobots. Meanwhile, the Decepticons have put aside their differences to get Ratbat's ship in working order.  It's not exactly clear why it isn't flight-ready already.  Perhaps some sabotage from Starscream? Lingering effects from Grimlock's sword-throw back in issue 41?  However, the coming of the Autobots gets their attention, and they soon abandon their repairs to do battle with their hated enemies. We get a spectacular battle, ending with Fort Max trying to keep Ratbat from drinking his fuel. Thus ends part one. We've gotten plenty of action , some great and dynamic artwork, and the resolution of Buster's arctic cliffhanger.  So far, so good.

Chapter two opens aboard Scorponok's tragically unnamed ship. Starscream gives a lovely soliloquy, once again confirming this as one of Budiansky's crowning achievements in his Transformers tenure.  The art doesn't let down the script, either.  Delbo's details, enhanced by the starkness of Hunt's inking and the some lovely colors by Yomtov make this one of my favorite individual panels in all of Transformers.  The power of the Underbase is just as evident here as it was in the prologue, it's just a lot more subtle.  Meanwhile, the carnage on Earth continues, only to be interrupted when Buster is knocked free from his medical unit on Fort Max.  He spells out to Ratbat exactly why the Autobots are here, which prompts a cease-fire by both sides.  Soon Autobot and Decepticon alike are working to get the tropical island space ship ready to fly, to prevent Starscream from seizing the Underbase.  Ratbat reiterates that the Underbase is his, prompting Prime to repeat his warning that it might bring madness ... or death.  Are you sensing a theme here?

In seemingly no-time, the Decepticon base launches.  It arrives seconds after Starscream begins to bathe in the glow of the Underbase.  "Fill me with your unholy power," he cries, but is thwarted by a cannon blast from the bizarre Decepticon ship. Oddly, Optimus Prime was manning the cannons, prompting accolades from Scorponok, Blaster and Ratbat.  Oooookay, moving on. Prime is worried that even the brief exposure Starscream experienced might be enough to make him more of a threat than they realize, which is confirmed moments later when Starscream grabs Scorponok's ship and violently smashes it into the tropical base.  "Starscream has awakened!" This is a short chapter, but it gets the job done.  The Autobots and Decepticons have a satisfying team-up, but it's too little, too late. I love the destruction wrought on both Decepticon vessels, all at the same time. The Decepticons of Earth have literally and figuratively collided with the Decepticons of Nebulos, and neither side has come out well for it.

Chapter three opens with Starscream gloating. None of the occupants of the ships can get back to Earth, so he leaves them to rot in outer space.  One wonders why he doesn't simply destroy them all, but even he might blanch at the prospect of facing the combined forces of all Autobots and Decepticons at once.  He informs them that he'll subjugate the Earth, starting with the destruction of New York, Tokyo and Buenos Aires.  Off he flies, little realizing that Optimus Prime has kept the Ark nearby. They contemplate trying to hunt Starscream in space, but reject the notion on the grounds that they'll probably be unable to find him.  Instead, Ratbat proposes they split into three teams and ambush him in each of the cities he announced.  The commanders are to be Scorponok and Grimlock, Blaster and Ratbat, Soundwave and Optimus Prime.  At least, that's the theory. Optimus declines to participate, stating that he must see to Buster's safety instead, much to the disbelief of pretty much everybody.

We're then treated to twelve pages of non-stop action. First, we go to New York, where Blaster and Ratbat command. Ratbat lures Starscream out, acting as bait.  He's definitely no coward, that Ratbat, leading by example despite his relative low power-level.  Soon the Aerialbots, Jetfire, Jazz, Goldbug, and the Seacons and more are all out of commission.  Goldbug is a particularly tough blow, given how prominent he's been all along.  He won't stay dead very long, of course, but it's still rather shocking.  With their troops down for the count, Blaster hatches a desperate plan - knock Starscream off-balance and allow Ratbat to sink his fangs in. Ratbat seems prepared to go along with it ... until Blaster remarks that Starscream didn't absorb ALL the Underbase's power. Things click into place, and Ratbat flees.  Blaster, alas, takes one to the chest, and the star of so many of the early stories moves off-stage.  He, too, comes back, though unlike Goldbug he'll never be as prominent or as cool as he was in his early appearences.

Starscream, though, has gotten fed up with New York and decides to try out Tokyo.  Things progress in much the same way. The Throttlebots, Dinobots, Predacons, and the Decepticon Pretenders are all quickly blasted by Starscream. Only the latter group manage to remain standing after a blow from their over-powered adversary.  Scorponok, like Ratbat, realizes that Optimus is up to something and sneaks off.  Grimlock, though, is annihilated by friendly fire.

In Buenos Aries, we get another repeat.  This time, it's the Technobots, the Terrocons, the triple changers, and Omega Supreme. Omega gets a direct hit, but Starscream remarks that the titan may have destroyed him once, but that won't be happening again.   Soundwave, too, is disabled, and Fortress Maximus takes a hit.  However, things change course at this point.  Buster radios Fortress Maximus and mentions Optimus Prime.  Starscream realizes that the Autobot leader has been nowhere in any of these fights and takes off to see what he's up to.  Thus ends chapter three. It's not very deep, but sometimes just watching a slaughter can be a lot of fun. There's no other way to describe what we're witnessing here, either. Characters who have been prominent since the beginning are knocked about like yesterday's playthings. I suppose that's what they are.  It was shrewd of Budiansky to make organic components an insulation against Starscream's power, since most of the newer toys have some kind of organic link.  Thus, there's an in-universe reason why all of the season one through three guys are destroyed, but the newer toys manage to stick around.

On board the Ark, Optimus has launched the rocket that he's been preparing. Hi Q announces that it'll be intercepting the Underbase momentarily.  Unfortunately, Ratbat and Scorponok overhear this, and take it as undeniable evidence of Autobot trechery.  Ratbat announces that he's going to go and get it instead, which prompts Scorponok to unceremoniously shoot him in the back.  Thus exits from the stage the greatest leader the comic book Decepticons have known up to this point, a downfall of his own hubris. Scorponok also blasts Optimus Prime, then flies out to get the Underbase for himself.  Buster wakes up Hi Q, and with his engine in place Optimus Prime is back in action. He flies into space to prevent Scorponok from meeting the Underbase, rocketing both of them out of the way at the last second.  Scorponok curses him for a fool, noting that the Underbase will now reach the Earth and destroy it.

Oh, but Optimus was more shrewd than that.  Starscream, drawn by Buster's signal, has flown to orbit to investigate. He interposes himself between the Earth and the Underbase, absorbing all of its might.  Before their eyes, he mutates, growing larger and larger ... until he explodes, unable to contain the vast energies within him. As Optimus has been saying all along, too much power brings madness ... or death. In Starscream's case, it brought both.  Thus, we hit a satisfying conclusion to the tale that's been building for the past four issues.  All that's left is a brief denouement. Scorponok declares his intention to collect his casualties, and then their truce shall be ended. "Our battle for earth shall begin anew!"

It's another very strong offering. We get decent pay-off for the story that's been building, realistically, since issue 48.  Issue 47 really has very little to do thematically with anything else we've seen and functions more like a prelude than like an actual part of the story.  I suppose a four-part story seems more marketable than a three-part one. As it turns out, this will be the last apex of Budiansky's tenure on the book.  He'll write five more tales, but none of them will reach this level of narrative strength.

There's some great artwork, particularly on the coloring and inking side of things. There's so much energy and power about that techniques not normally seen in Transformers are employed, and it makes this issue stand apart visually from most of the others. 

Another element to this book, alluded to earlier, is the housecleaning. Clearly, Hasbro wanted the book to focus on newer characters and toys, so to add extra weight to the story many existing characters were killed.  For some of them, there's little impact. After all, Gears hasn't starred in an issue since #3, and the Technobots never did.  But for others, it's a big deal.  Ratbat's been a mainstay since #27, Blaster since #17, Goldbug née Bumblebee since the first issue. It's kind of sad to see them go. Of course, most of them will be back, though no Decepticon leader will ever be foolish enough to resurrect the popular and incisive Ratbat.  Most of the biggies get a little extra emphasis for their deaths, which is nice. 

Next month, we're promised Fortress Maximus vs. the Decepticon Pretender BEASTS!  This sounds a lot smaller than what we've just experienced, but then that's completely appropriate. Still, I find it hard to get excited by the prospect of more Pretenders.  We'll just have to see, won't we? Dark Star is included in IDW's  Classic Transformers Volume 4 and is well worth reading. Order your copy today!


Mark Baker-Wright said...

Ahhh, a true classic. I remember eagerly receiving my subscription copy in the then-characteristic brown-paper sleeve, pleased that despite the inflated cover price, I was still getting the then-standard less-than-$1.00-per-issue rate....

I miss those days....

Caleb Barber said...

I used to do the subscription thing, except I'd have issues never arrive- which meant someone somewhere was pilfering them.

After the old guard were replaced I had less interest in the series, but just the same a truly Epic issue.

Anonymous said...

I had a hard time accepting that the Underbase could destroy a planet by just touching it but not a Transformer like Starscream?

If the Underbase causes madness and death, why didn't Optimus Prime simply not allow Starscream to absorb all of it at the beginning instead of Starscream absorbing just a part and then absorbing THE REST later?

Jimtron said...

Those are good points, Anonymous. Hmmm ... maybe Starscream didn't originally intend to touch it himself? He seemed content to bath in its light, which might be safer. It was only after he'd been infected by its madness that he decided he needed the whole thing.

I mean, it's a bit fanwanky, but it might work.

Mark Baker-Wright said...

If the Underbase causes madness and death, why didn't Optimus Prime simply not allow Starscream to absorb all of it at the beginning instead of Starscream absorbing just a part and then absorbing THE REST later?

My response to this question. I was under the impression that Prime was trying to prevent Starscream from accessing the Underbase at all. (It wouldn't be the first time he acted to save an enemy's life) He quickly learns that he was too late. Having Starscream absorb the whole thing is plan B.