Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Greetings friends and strangers,

I am the enigmatic Rob-in-hood. I am here to take you on the journey of a world yet to be fully realized: the video game Star Wars: The Old Republic.

From what I have played thus far, it is a truly outstanding game. The opening cinematic is very outstanding as it starts off in a starport above a planet and shows a couple of jedi masters escorting a smuggler to a cell after he was caught trying to smuggle ancient sith artifacts. After one of the jedi feels something bad in the force, a huge fleet of ships come out of hyper space and begin firing on the starport. Right away, two sith warriors board the starport and attack the jedi in a very acrobatic fight. In the end, one of the jedi masters must flee while the other sacrifices himself. It’s a very beautiful cinematic, but beautiful cinematics are industry standard now. The cool thing about this game is that when you choose an allegiance, you are treated to another beautiful cinematic which highlights the strengths of whichever side you have just chosen. Again, the cinematics in this game are just icing. Fortunately, the game itself makes the icing look lame.

After choosing your class (4 on each side) and race (4 or 5 options within each class), you can customize your look. Now, I have to say that this was one of the coolest features I had seen from a new MMO in a while. While there are MMOs that allow you some changes made to your body type, few give you the option of making your character overweight. While that is not exactly a selling point, it was one of those ‘hahaha, that’s cool!’ moments. Now, if you’re going through the character creation process, I highly recommend you make a character that looks good. Most times when playing any MMO, you create a character and give little heed to his facial features. Some people get really into it, but for the most part, it’s something you can ignore completely. With SWTOR, however, if you created an ugly character during character creation, you will be looking at and suffering through your ugly character through every in game cut scene. Take from my experience … after 5 levels of watching an ugly character talk for you, you will regret not taking an extra few minutes to make him more to your liking.

After character creation is finished and you have a character you can stand to look at, you are treated by the lip curling sound of trumpets blaring as the wall scroll appears from the bottom of your screen and begins to relay to you the story of your character and his role in the world. You immediately are thrust into a grand storyline, depending upon your class, and all written directly towards the class. For example, smugglers start out with dropping off a cargo shipment and their ship ends up getting stolen. Bounty hunters are told one thing when they start … become notorious. Imperial troopers are on an infiltration mission. All class quests are very appropriate.

For the purposes of this review, I shall be relaying the tales of Robear, Imperial Agent. I started off on the planet of Hutta, a planet obviously run by the Hutt clans, and I am to infiltrate their clan and suggest they take up arms against the Republic. The game play is fairly standard to most any other MMO. Attack with enemies with powers, loot bodies, rinse, repeat. It’s a very familiar system. The main driving force in this game is the storyline. BioWare built this game around being a story-driven MMO and they excel in spades. Any quest you pick up is not a simple “quest giver tells you to kill 50 rats”, but is instead a treat of an interactive experience. Getting a quest puts you and whoever else is in your party into a cut scene where you can make decisions for what you respond to the NCP with. If they say “I’m injured and hurt”, you can call them a coward or you can offer to help them. Your responses don’t affect your quest (that I’ve seen), but they can affect your companion’s relationship with you, though, during the first 8 levels, that is irrelevant. There is a system in place that gives you light side and dark side points for your responses, but your light side and dark side points only affect social items and titles.

All in all, from what I’ve seen thus far, the game is well made, fresh, and extremely fun to play. It brings the addiction back into the MMO experience. And just so we’re clear, this is only the first part of my review. More to come next week!

For all those who are now enticed to purchase the game, you can order it here: Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Something something 'dark side'

Greetings to the intrawebs!

I am Rob-in-Hood, enigmatic ruler of my chair and lord of my pants. I have been carefully selected from the very short and diminishing list of people who Jim has not yet chosen to destroy to bring you all news and knowledge of a new game that has enter the video game market: Star Wars: The Old Republic.

I am a fan of the Star Wars franchise, though I don't think I am a diehard Star Wars fan. Video gaming is a passion of mine, however, so hopefully my experiences with other games will allow me to shed light on this new game and give an accurate portrayal.

My postings will begin this Wednesday, December the 28th. See you all then!

-=rob in hood=-

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Ark Addendum - Phoenix's Transform

Hello, intrepid Transfans.  This week's Ark Addendum was inspired by last week's offering.  It seems like a while since I've done an extended Masterforce Transformation sequence, so here one is.  Naturally, I chose Phoenix.

As usual, the designers did a kick-ass job with this, lots of motion and excitement.  Note how many of the models break from the panel.  They just can't be contained.  I also like the speed lines in the final panel. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Death’s Head Review: What If #54: What if Minion Had Not Killed Death’s Head?

The final appearance of Death’s Head (for a dozen years, at least) came in the pages of the ‘What If’ series. The old creative team is reunited – Simon Furman writer and Geoff Senior artist – with Janice Chiang letters, Sarra Mossoff colourist and Rob Tokar editor.

The cover, also by Senior, is big and brash: an over-muscled Minion goes toe-to-toe with a spikey-armoured Death’s Head. Beneath them are items from fallen Marvel heroes: Captain America’s shield and War Machine’s helmet. The caption asks, “What If … Death’s Head I had lived”, which does the job, although I would have added a question mark, and using a big, thick Roman numeral does immediately make you assume it means “Death Head II” (which makes no sense).

It’s a strong image – both protagonists are tearing into each other – although nothing like as gory as some of the Death’s Head II covers. Minion’s blade looks to be doing no more than surface damage to Death’s Head’s face, while the mechanoid’s fist appears to be punching into pink jelly, rather than flesh. Death’s Head’s legs are also bent at an impossible angle, just to fit them into the frame.

Manhattan 2020. In film-noir style, Dr Necker is walking through a dark, rain-streaked alley in a hat and trenchcoat. She rendezvous with Spratt, who introduces her to Death’s Head, rebuilt after his near-death at the hands of Minion. We are treated to a full splash page of the mechanoid’s third uniform, which mostly consists of enormous arms, extra guns and lots more spikey bits. His head is unchanged and looks quite small atop this titanic construction.

Necker reveals that Minion has (somehow) become a liability for A.I.M. and offers him the chance for revenge. Though angry at Necker for setting Minion after him, Death’s Head is prepared to listen – but not for free. As Spratt reminds him, there’s no profit in vengeance.

The narrative is picked up by Uatu the Watcher, who reveals this prologue to be a ‘What if’. He recaps the story of the Death’s Head II limited series, then speculates what would happen if Death’s Head had teleported away a split-second before Minion killed him.

In this universe, Minion forgets about the escaped Death’s Head and goes on to assimilate and kill his next target, Reed Richards. However, without Death’s Head’s body for Strucker to possess, there can be no Charnel, so Minion is left waiting for a threat that never materialises. Instead, Strucker lures Minion into a trap and possesses him instead. There follows a classic sci-fi monster-attack sequence where Minion/Charnel destroys an A.I.M. installation.

This brings us up-to-speed with the prologue: in a shipwrecked freighter that serves as an atmospheric office, Spratt is counting out Necker’s money as Death’s Head accepts the contract. He requests use of a time machine and a really big gun.

Travelling back to 1992, Death’s Head convinces the grief-stricken Fantastic Four Three to help him, since all that remains of Reed is now trapped in a killing machine. Using similar powers of persuasion, he recruits Captain America, War Machine, Luke Cage and Namor to his cause. Necker is impressed at gathering so much power for free, which Death’s Head attributes to his understanding of the ‘super-hero mentality’.

We jump straight into a full-on superhero dogpile on Charnel. They land some good hits on the creature (I especially like Sue Richards’ nasty method of creating a force-field inside Charnel’s body, then popping it), which concludes with Thing dropping a building on him.

Of course, this has only succeeded in making Charnel mad! Having adapted to the attacks, he fights back, killing the heroes in quick succession (once again, a special mention for his means of dispatching War Machine – a narrow blade configuration through the eye slits).

Death’s Head has so far remained on the sidelines, allowing the superheroes to sacrifice themselves, so Charnel is worn down (something Necker views with admiration). He now steps forward, toting a gun the size of a Buick, and blasts Charnel. He follows up with an attack that uses everything in his arsenal, including gouging Charnel with his tusks. Though outmatched, Death’s Head goads Charnel that he is too thuggish to access any of his 105 personalities to win the fight.

Charnel takes the bait and taps into Reed Richard’s intellect to ensure maximum suffering for Death’s Head. Before he can strike the final blow, he freezes, allowing the mechanoid to decapitate him. The escaping energies cause Charnel to spectacularly explode.

In a neat reversal, Death’s Head is left holding Minion’s skull. He explains to Necker and Spratt how he tricked Charnel into giving control to Reed Richards’ personality and ponders the nature of heroism, “Struggling against impossible odds, risking almost certain death to help those in trouble … I just hope it’s not catching, yes?”

It’s a fitting swan-song for the character. Death’s Head is allowed to show off his sardonic, cool, ruthless personality for the last time, as well as being granted a plausible victory against his nemesis, using cunning rather than brute force. And at the story’s end, he finds himself no wiser or nobler, with just a shrug for fallen comrades and an eye for the next paycheck.

Furman admitted that he found writing this to be a “deeply satisfying and cathartic experience”. Aside from sparing his creation at the expense of its successor, it does give him the chance to demonstrate how he would have written the all-superhero brawl against Charnel. Though hardly original, I liked the battle. There were some nicely inventive ways for the heroes to attack (and get killed) by the monster (compared with the fairly blunt methods used in 2020 Vision) and Death’s Head stays in character as a cynical manipulator. It could be argued that Minion is also in character as a superpowered machine that can’t be beaten by any other Marvel superhero, even some of the greatest, which may also have been Furman’s point.

Though clearly favouring Death’s Head, Furman does a good job of working with the established story: Strucker’s grudge against A.I.M. is maintained (and expanded upon, given we actually get to see Charnel destroy some installations in this version) and the inclusion of Reed Richards as target #106 is good continuity. It also makes for a satisfying twist: Death’s Head gives Reed’s personality control over Minion, just as Reed gave Death’s Head control over Minion in the ‘true’ story.

Senior’s artwork is very good, though a long way from his best and perhaps his art isn’t suited to the reduced colours of the US print. His depiction of movement and action is still great, however, so there is plenty to enjoy in the explosive, brutal slugfest against Charnel (although I wasn’t convinced by the squishy pink-gore of the cyborg’s insides). Charnel’s attack on the A.I.M. installation is also very well handled – single-frame depictions of the sudden assault that match the pace of the text and keep the attacker out of view until the final reveal.

Death’s Head’s new look is a parody of the fashion for big guns and big muscles, but Senior keeps the augmented mechanoid looking formidable, rather than ridiculous. Compared with the bloody and overly-detailed work of the Death’s Head II series, the artwork already seems to be out of step with its contemporaries, but it’s certainly no worse for that.

The What If #54 was republished ‘Death’s Head Volume 2’.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Ark Addendum - Phoenix's Truck

Listen up, true believers!  It's another installment of The Ark Addendum.  After four weeks of cassettes, I figured it's time to go back to Japan.  Trawling through my archives and what did I find but Phoenix's truck!

I enjoy the designs of Masterforce, as a rule, especially the props.  This one is kind of an odd one.  While Masterforce nominally took place in the future, most of the aesthetic seemed to draw from the present day.   This truck is a bit of an exception.  It seems like it would be home among the vehicles of someone like, I dunno, Victor Drath from S3's Only Human.  Enjoy!

BTW, the signing went very well.  I'll post up some photos in a bit.  It was great catching up with Mike, Livio, Marty, and some of the TF Prime folks. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Death’s Head Review: Doctor Who Monthly #173: Party Animals & The Incomplete Death’s Head #1-12

For this, I’m attempting the rather-ambitious goal of thirteen issues in one review. The Incomplete Death’s Head series was published around the launch of Death’s Head II. It reprinted most of the original mechanoid’s tales, and was given a framing story featuring Minion and Tuck.

The Doctor Who Monthly #173 was published two years earlier. It has practically nothing to do with Death’s Head, except for its puzzling inclusion in the ‘Death’s Head Volume 2’ collection. It only really makes sense when it was retroactively included in the framing story, which is why I include it here.

The framing story of The Incomplete Death’s Head was written by Dan Abnett, pencils by Simon Coleby, inking alternated between Simon Coleby and Neil Bushnell, lettering was either Annie Parkhouse or Gary Gilbert, colour David Leach, and the editor was John Freeman (also credited with the ‘plot’ for issue 1, so I guess this was his idea).

The cover to the first issue is by Liam Sharp and Hank Kanalz, and it’s quite a good one. Minion poses dramatically (behind him, Tuck just poses) and examines a glowing sphere that contains a portrait of Death’s Head. The real treat is that the sphere is a cut-out circle and the cover opens, like a pop-up book, to reveal the rest of Death’s Head facing many of his enemies: Mayhem, Big Shot, Plaguedog etc. Everyone is charging towards the mechanoid and, though I have my usual reservations about the way Sharp depicts movement, the whole image would make decent poster art.

The story begins with Minion and Tuck unexpectedly transported to a mysterious, hi-tech location. We later discover this is Maruthea – an ‘impossible’ space station in the centre of the space-time vortex. Quickly defeating the robot guardians, they discover they are in an archive dedicated to the original Death’s Head.

With one panel, the Pyra and Lupex origin is swiftly covered (the omission of the actual story is odd, but the high standard of that story’s artwork might have been ruined in this format) and move on to the next step: Death’s Head was stolen, programmed to be a bounty hunter, and set up in business where he ran into the unfortunate Tex.

Minion plugs himself into the archive to learn more, and a missing piece is added to the Death Head story: he was stolen again and sent to a parallel universe (i.e. The Transformers universe) where his size was considerably increased. To circumvent copyright, the computer screen shows a poor quality image of Death’s Head fighting an off-colour Galvatron. The story concludes that, during this robot war, Death’s Head was caught in the gravitational well of a collapsing planet and accelerated into the Crossroads of Time (not exactly matching the original story, but perhaps easier to explain in the limited space).

After viewing his adventures with The Doctor and Dragon’s Claws, Minion is intrigued to know more about Death Head, since without that dominant personality he would never have gained his own free will. He is suddenly blasted by electrical feedback and his mind is pulled into the cyberspace of the archive.

The consciousness of Minion then meets the consciousness of Death’s Head, which has materialised within cyberspace. Over the course of the series, they both review the past adventures of the freelance peacekeeping agent, peppered with moments of action (such as when the memory of Big Shot comes alive and attacks) to keep things interesting.

In the real world, Tuck is attacked by the creator of the archive: Hob. The diminutive robot valet survived the explosion of the Dogbolter Temporal Rocket, but his master went missing. Obsessed with finding Dogbolter, and rebuilt in mechanical-spider form, Hob created the archive to study Death’s Head (although he is ignorant of the Minion incarnation). His apparent hope is to trap Death’s Head and The Doctor, in the hope that they can be made to find his master.

As Hob has Tuck in his clutches, and Minion watches helplessly, the actual Death’s Head and The Doctor both arrive at Maruthea, which segues into the Doctor Who story ‘Party Animals’ (Gary Russell script, Mike Collins pencils, Steve Pini inks, Glib letters, John Freeman editor)...

The Seventh Doctor and Ace arrive at Maruthea to join the birthday party of a satyr named Bonjaxx. The party is a crowded scene of every character the artist can imagine (ranging from a Sontaran to Captain Britain to Star Trek’s Worf to Bart Simpson). The Doctor is told that someone is looking for him, and he wonders if it is Death’s Head, who is sat alone, drinking a cocktail with a little pink umbrella.

He is then met by another eccentrically-dressed chap with a female sidekick. They chat to each other, amiably and enigmatically, as a massive brawl erupts around them. After a comment about the First Law of Time, they step into their respective TARDIS’ and reveal the not-too-surprising truth that The Doctor has just met a past/future incarnation of himself.

And back to the framing story, Hob joins the brawl and faces off with Death’s Head. Watching from cyberspace, the virtual Death’s Head points out that his past self might actually be in danger, since causality means nothing in Maruthea.

With The Doctor gone, Minion fears that Hob will vent his frustration on Tuck. Death appreciates looking out for his partner, and admits that, given the chance, he would have tried to save Spratt (probably the nicest thing he’s said about his deceased sidekick). He offers to shunt the cyborg back into reality on the condition that he doesn’t let Hob kill him (presumably because he wants to save himself for the pleasure of being killed by Minion later on).

Minion leaps back into life and attacks Hob, severing the arm that held Tuck captive. He then teams up with the real Death’s Head and the pair make short work of blasting, then slicing, Hob into pieces.

In the aftermath, Death’s Head makes some quick deductions about the cyborg who moves like him and shares his name, and decides that Minion cannot be allowed to live. Before violence starts, Death’s Head is zapped and falls to the ground. The Doctor has returned to blast him, once again, with The Tissue Compression Eliminator (which has been modified into a Deus Ex Machina device, since it knocks Death’s Head unconscious and wipes his memories of the whole encounter).

Confronted by Minion, The Doctor confesses that he was the one who sent Death’s Head into The Transformers universe, trying to bring out his capacity for good by shaping his adventures. He was also the one who brought Minion and Tuck here, so they could conclude the unfinished business with Hob. Minion appreciates the save, but dislikes being manipulated, and so warns The Doctor against doing so again (and, continuing the theme of Minion being tougher than any other comic character, The Doctor meekly accepts). Minion and Tuck return to their own time, while The Doctor helps Death’s Head back to his feet.

As a way of reprinting the old Death’s Head titles (although I’m not sure I believe the promotional rhetoric that Death’s Head II was so amazingly popular that audiences demanded to know more about his namesake), this was nicely done. Like a compilation episode of a long-running sitcom, the framing story gave Minion a good little adventure, and even filled in some of the blanks of Death’s Head’s backstory.

Minion and Tuck still in ‘tough guy and sidekick’ mode, although space is limited to give them much more scope for character. Their initial wisecrack responses to the archive reports – commenting like Beavis & Butthead – get a little tired, but once danger kicks in, things improve. I like how some reprints are used to support an argument – such as the She-Hulk episode about time-travel – rather than have the characters passively watch them.

Having Minion speak with the cyberspace ‘ghost’ of Death’s Head was a nice touch. It’s interesting that Minion only took the mechanoid’s personality, not his memories, and it helps to give them different perspectives. And I still think that Abnett writes the first Death’s Head better than he does the second one.

Coleby’s artwork gets stronger as the series goes on. The initial line work is fairly thin and insipid to begin with, but does improve once Bushnell’s inks add some depth and atmosphere to the panels. Everyone has over-emphasised guns, muscles and blades, even by Minion’s standards, but that’s nothing new. I did like the nightmarish creation of Hob: a mechanical-spider with his little round head as an angry nodule on the end of his Alien-esque tongue.

Story-wise, it was a clever move of Abnett (or Freeman) to bring Hob back into the narrative, since Dogbolter was one of the more obvious loose threads of the series. Hob’s logic about capturing Death’s Head in order to find his master is a little skewed, but I’m happy to give him some crazy-robot leeway. It also gives a good reason to bring in The Doctor and the short story of Maruthea.

As for ‘Party Animals’, unless it figured into a large narrative about The Doctor’s future self (and I don’t think it did), I couldn’t really see the point. Aside from the glimpse of a future Doctor (and given they had free rein to create anything, a middle-age man in a dapper jacket is hardly original), there’s no drama or resolution in this story. The artwork is functional, although it tries too hard to capture Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred, and Collins clearly had fun in depicting a diverse range of characters.

Generally that story felt like a bit of end-of-term silliness , and only just manages to fit into the wider narrative. It’s surprising that this made it into the republished volume – since it’s hardly a Death’s Head tale – whereas the more significant framing story did not.

I’m also not convinced by the final reveal: that The Doctor has been manipulating Death’s Head’s life – as far back as sending him to hunt Transformers. Apart from its very implausibility, Death’s Head’s career has hardly been a positive one – that’s part of his appeal – and making him the puppet of The Doctor somehow undermines his story.

Next week: Furman’s revenge – as we visit a parallel universe that asks: What if Minion Had Not Killed Death’s Head?

The Doctor Who Monthly #173 was republished ‘Death’s Head Volume 2’.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Ark Addendum - Ratbat's Transform

OK, this week I finish up my cassette transformations.  I give you... Ratbat!  It's a simple transformation.  He basically unfolds, much like the toy.  The big difference is that his weapons pop out of his back, instead of being attached manually.

And one final reminder: we've got a book signing for The AllSpark Almanac Addendum this Saturday at Emerald Knights Comics & Games in Burbank.  1:00 PM on December 10th.

4116 W. Burbank Blvd
Burbank, CA 91505

Hope to see a bunch of you there.  A ton of folks from Transformers Prime will be there, as well as Mike Costa and Livio Ramondelli.  Plus, of course, Bill Forster, Marty Isenberg, and myself.  Join us, it'll be a blast.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Death’s Head Review: Death’s Head II – The Wild Hunt #4: 2020 Vision!

The fourth and final chapter of Death’s Head II – The Wild Hunt was created as follows: Dan Abnett, story; Liam Sharp, pencils; Andy Lanning and Liam Sharp, inks; Helen Stone, colours; Peri Godbold, letters; and John Freeman editor.

After some previously mediocre covers, this one is a treat. In a wraparound cover, the Charnel monster is fighting Minion, Tuck, Necker and an assortment of Marvel heroes. Charnel looks menacing (and recognisable as the original Deaths Head), the bursts of gunfire and magic give some vibrant colour to the image, and everyone is strongly portrayed. Even the caption, “The Final Battle!” adds to the drama.

A couple of complaints: some the combatants – notably Minion and Rhino – don’t seem to be facing their enemy. It could be argued that they’re manoeuvring or flanking, but it doesn’t look very dramatic. Another problem is that Liam Sharp elected not to draw Charnel’s legs, settling for a brief outline that is coloured the same as the background, and so makes him look like a floating torso.

We begin in ‘The New York Wasteland’ of 2020. Not the 2020 we saw last issue, but a new future that will come to pass with Charnel ascendant. Four of Earth’s heroes – Spider-Man, Daredevil, Dr Strange and the Punisher – have adapted to this tough world (mainly by adding lots of guns and pouches to their uniforms and, in Spider-Man’s case, growing a pony tail).

The Punisher’s War Journal narrates the captions: the defeat of Thor’s people by Charnel means they have no hope for victory. They are attacked by hordes of featureless demon-drones and then by Charnel himself – who is now in the form of a giant red spider-creature. Daredevil and Dr Strange are quickly killed, but Spider-Man manages to swipe a disc from Charnel’s chest before his is also slain. The Punisher is offered mercy if he returns the disc, but he flings it away to safety. In a rare moment of subdued storytelling, we see only a distant explosion with the caption: “Punisher’s War Journal ends.”

The disc is collected by former-villain Rhino and brought to the bunker of this era’s Avengers: Wolverine, She-Hulk, The Scarlet Witch and Captain America. Mister Fantastic, who has been trapped in a shapeless putty form, outlines the plan: the disc is a time-travel device and they will travel back to 1992, when Charnel first appeared and was at his weakest. The five remaining heroes time-jump and Reed wishes them luck.

In a New York shopping mall, 1992, Minion arrives with Tuck and Necker. They have armed themselves with a couple of enormous guns and, continuing the strange fashion decisions, Minion has exchanged his peasant tunic for a leather bolero jacket. Minion is being flippant about the impending confrontation with Charnel, which irritates Necker and causes Tuck to defend it as ‘just his way’.

Minion is suddenly attacked by the 2020 Wolverine, stabbing him through the stomach before he breaks off a claw against Minion’s multi-purpose arm (that would be his unbreakable claw – and it’s mentioned in the story that this Wolverine still has his adamantium). Wolverine seems merely bemused at this, and Captain America calls for a truce.

The protagonists soon compare notes, and conclude the quasi-Oedipal running gag that Dr. Evelyn Clarice Sarah Necker shares a middle name with Captain America’s mother. They realise they all want the same result, although the Avengers are fighting to end their future, while Minion is trying to protect his (and can’t see the appeal of their self-sacrifice).

Charnel materialises – the Strucker/Death’s Head hybrid that destroyed A.I.M. – quickly clobbers the Scarlet Witch, kills She-Hulk and bats away Rhino. Minion faces him, and they both sense their connection with the original Death’s Head – before Charnel blasts him too.

Wolverine leaps in, then Captain America and then, walking from the fires like the liquid Terminator, Minion re-joins the fray. Necker retrieves Rhino, who sheds a tear for She-Hulk, and Tuck revives the Scarlet Witch, who hits Charnel with her hex power. Unexpectedly, Charnel drains her hex energy and uses it to transform himself into the unstoppable juggernaut of 2020. His awesome power is demonstrated as he effortlessly annihilates Captain America, Wolverine and Rhino.

In a desperate effort, Minion leaps at Charnel and attaches the 2020 time-travel disc next to the 1992 version already on Charnel’s chest. With one final hex bolt from the Scarlet Witch, both discs are activated – one set for prehistory, the other for the thirteenth century – and Charnel is torn apart. Minion claims to be an expert in dealing with split personalities.

With Charnel destroyed, the 2020 Scarlet Witch happily fades from existence. When Necker tries to take Minion home, he refuses, saying he doesn’t believe she ever intended to pay him, or that the future A.I.M. now has the means to do so. Angrily destroying her gun, he claims that the entire mess was her fault and she should consider the blood on her hands.

Stealing a truck, Minion and Tuck drive away, as the present-era Avengers and Fantastic Four arrive. In no mood to explain, Necker time-jumps away. The final page has Minion’s truck, pursued by a Quinjet, Fantasticar and what appears to be The Hulk, as he promises Tuck, “action, adventure and heinous intrigue – and that’s just on the subway. Whatever happens – I can promise it won’t be dull!”

And so ends the Death’s Head II limited series. Having lined up all the pieces in the previous issues, Abnett delivers a solid tale. The action was handled well, and that’s pretty much all there was for this story.

Taking the series as a whole, I was less impressed. The idea is a sound one: title character is created to battle an destructive evil force and, after a few turns in the road, eventually defeats him. As an introduction/origin story it could have worked very well, especially as the original Death’s Head (or at least parts of his body) are worked into the final battle.

The problem is that, after four issues, I am still no closer to know anything about Minion. In the first issue, he was a blank slate; and in the second issue, a blanker one. By the final two issues, there was no trace remaining of the Death’s Head personality, but nothing had replaced it. He haggles relentlessly over his fee in issue three, but seems uninterested in payment by issue four. He scorns the suicidal heroism of the 2020 Avengers, but then joins in anyway. Flippant wisecracks are fine as a trait, but every character needs a motivation beyond simply moving to the next page.

The way he defeats Charnel is neatly done (although the idea that Minion is an expert in ‘split personalities’ doesn’t bear close inspection) and the time-disc as a MacGuffin is well-played. It might have worked better if Charnel had been in his original form – and very obviously composed of two halves – but it’s a good ending (and conjures up the intriguing possibility that Death’s Head’s original body has been banished somewhere in prehistory…)

As I mentioned previously, the story arc of confronting and defeating Charnel more properly belongs to Necker. Although she takes a back-seat in this issue, and quickly departs the scene before we can properly register if she has learned anything, or is remotely upset at having lost her project.

Tuck actually manages to do less this issue than previously, and it’s made no clearer why Minion needs or values her as a sidekick. The one interesting point is when Tuck tells Necker that his attitude is ‘just his way’ – having a partner who can understand his jumbled personalities would be an asset, except we have no reason to believe that she knows Minion any better than Necker, or has any sway over him.

In terms of storytelling, the switch to an alternate future is unexpected (although less so than the Robin Hood planet). Alternate apocalyptic futures can be fun – everyone gets to look a bit meaner and be killed at random – and Abnett does well with it (although from a visual point of view, I’m not sure if ‘meaner’ translates to ‘add more pouches’).

Sharp’s artwork is probably the best it’s been so far – he seems to do leaping better than running, and the all-action nature suits his style. In terms of character design, both versions of Charnel are suitable horrific (I preferred the unholy hybrid original to the larger ‘alien queen’ version) and there’s plenty of gore, magic, gunfire, explosions and shattered scenery filling the pages. There is also a surprisingly touching display of emotion on Rhino’s face as he mourns She-Hulk.

Some of the character costumes are more questionable. Most of the future superheroes wear a vertical stripe from chest to crotch, which gives unity but does look peculiar and turns Captain America’s star into a comet. Rhino’s seems not to be wearing the all-over suit that gives him his powers (certainly his arms are bare) and everyone seems to be tattered and bandaged, in modified uniforms, except for the Scarlet Witch, who has a pristine version of her original costume.

Despite his healing factor, Wolverine is among those wearing bandages, and the scene where he breaks off a claw is an example of the writer trying a little too hard to make Minion the toughest-hero-of-them-all. Which, to me, sums up the whole problem with Death’s Head II.

Next week: Death’s Head meets Death’s Head II meets Doctor Who – I’ll be looking at the framing story of The Incomplete Death’s Head as it connects with the Doctor Who story ‘Party Animals’.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Ark Addendum - Transforms for Soundwave and Laserbeak

Continuing the theme begun two weeks ago, the detailed transformations for Laserbeak and Soundwave!

Soundwave's transform I've actually already published.  It showed up in Transformers: The Complete Ark  (order it today!)  It was tiny, thumbnail size, but nevertheless it was there.  I thought it was worth a closer look though, so here we go.

Because we'd seen it already, I coupled it with the Laserbeak transformation.  That one is brand new, though it's so simple that I didn't think it warranted its own page.

Don't forget to pick up Timelines #6, out a couple of weeks ago.  16 pages of AllSpark-infused Almanacky goodness!  I'll be in Burbank on 12/10 to promote it, see Emerald Knights for details.  I hope to see you there.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Death’s Head Review: Death’s Head II – The Wild Hunt #3: Outlaws!

The third instalment of the Death’s Head II limited series kept the same creative line-up: story by Dan Abnett; pencils by Liam Sharp; inks by Andy Lanning; letters by Peri Godbold; colours by Helen Stone; and the editor was John Freeman.

The front cover competes with the previous issue for non-action. Minion and Tuck – a feisty redhead wearing a skimpy costume, some large tattoos and a number of blades – are posing in a forest, doing nothing but looking directly ahead with grim expressions. Minion is wearing a medieval tunic and bearskin cloak which, considering he doesn’t need to wear clothes, looks like a terrible disguise or a strange affectation. The captions tell us “On the run in the far future … Death’s Head and Tuck are partners in crime”. As we don’t know who Tuck is, and the swords and trees don’t look too futuristic, this doesn’t add much.

As with last issue, the back cover has a better idea, but a worse execution. Minion is off-centre and awkwardly posed, duelling swords with a muscled opponent who is almost standing behind him. Tuck and Dr Necker (one of whom we don’t yet know, the other we wouldn’t recognise) are in the background, and the caption promises, “Swords, sorcery and big guns!”. The image looks like an interior panel and looks like some speech balloons have been removed.

The story begins in 3442AD on the forest planet of Lionheart. An unseen narrator explains how a caravan train (drawn by dinosaur beasts, rather than horses) is travelling warily though the forest. As feared, they are attacked by swashbuckling bandits led by Minion – who is calling himself The Hood.

Inside one of the wagons, a group of nuns suddenly produce weapons to “Lock and load – and blow those stinking robot outlaws apart!” (none of them actually have guns – which we learn are prohibited on Lionheart – but I guess the gag took precedence over story consistency). The Mother Superior gets the drop on Minion, but is stabbed in the back by another nun, who throws off her wimple to reveal Tuck in disguise. She has been tracking The Hood for months and wants to join the band.

In the aftermath of the battle, Tuck gives her reasons for joining with some heavy exposition: the King of Lionheart is fighting a crusade light years away, while the corrupt authority exploits the people to enrich themselves. ‘The Hood’ and his band are the only ones fighting back. Minion explains that his band of cybernetic outlaws are united by the laws that forbid artificial sentients, not by any high ideals. Tuck reveals that she is also artificial – a replicated organic – and deserving of a place in the band (forgetting that she wanted to join for a cause that Minion doesn’t apparently believe in). Minion gruffly relents.

Back in 2020, Spratt – now sporting a broken nose – and Baron Strucker V are working to repair the original Death’s Head. Strucker notes that the damage was too extensive to be repaired by 2020 technology (which does explain why the technically-able Spratt would need extra help). Spratt also notices that Strucker’s tools are sorcerous ingredients, so the Baron clearly has a non-scientific solution in mind.

Returning to 3442 and the citadel of Lord High Protector Roderick, an indolent, boastful noblemen. Roderick is flirting with his harem when he hears news of The Hood’s recent attack. He gives orders to fetch ‘Major Oak and the Huscarls’ before returning his attention to one of the woman. She removes her veil to reveal “Lady Evelyn Clarice Necker of Aym”, dressed in a Princess Leia slave girl costume, and continues her odd running gag about sharing a name with Roderick’s mother.

In the outlaw’s camp, Minion and Tuck share a fireside moment as he recaps the past two issues. He has been in Lionheart for a year and, contradicting his earlier cynicism, claims to be enjoying the life of a popular hero.

The peace is broken by the sudden attack of Major Oak, the muscled opponent from the back cover, and his Huscarls. As the Merry Men are slaughtered, Necker and Roderick watch from the sidelines. Necker discreetly changes back into her A.I.M. uniform and knocks Roderick unconscious.

Minion – his arm configured for a sword – duels with Major Oak and proves his superior fairly effortlessly. While Oak keeps coming back at him, Minion is relaxed enough to make fun of his dialogue. Oak gains a brief advantage and, in one of the issue’s good jokes, tells Minion to “Prepare to meet thy maker”. He is then shot in the back by Necker (who decided to violate the anti-technology laws in style, by brandishing an enormous gun).

The outlaws decimated and royals neutralised, Necker tries to reassert control over Minion’s programming. When that fails, she offers payment and they haggle for the space of a page (which is fairly laboured, but I guess the point was to show, in addition to his unparalleled fighting skills, what a hard negotiator Minion is). Tuck insists on coming along and all three time-jump away.

Moving to 2020, Spratt is horrified to see that Baron Strucker has merged his own body with the remains of Death’s Head, becoming a mechanical-sorcerous hybrid. He claims he will seek revenge on A.I.M. for spurning his family line. The terrified Spratt tries to run, but is killed with a mere spark from Strucker’s eye. Towering over Spratt’s corpse, Strucker quotes Revelation and re-names himself ‘Charnel’.

Minion, Tuck and Necker leap into A.I.M. headquarters, presumably some time later, as Charnel has already visited and killed everyone. The place is a grisly mess of skeletons, fused together with magic. Using the time tracker, Necker discovers that Charnel has gone back to 1992, where he will threaten the timeline and their very existence!

There were some exciting pages prior to this cliffhanger, but for me, the rest of the issue fell flat. Minion is thrown into a Robin Hood homage, and given a new sidekick, with no real reason for either. Playing around with different genres is fine, but not when the central character is so ill-defined. The story ends where it could have ended last issue: an independent Minion being coerced by Necker. And while the Charnel sub-plot was good, the whole issues feels like filler: written to meet the demands of a four-part series, when there was only enough story for three.

After allowing some leeway for his jumbled-up personalities, I’m still no closer to getting a handle on the Minion character. The ascendency of the Death’s Head personality – promised at the end of last issue – is nowhere to be seen. While prompted to action by good deeds and/or the promise of money, he doesn’t seem motivated much by either. In battle and at rest, everything is met with a smart-alec/tough-guy response which just makes it seem as if Minion is bored.

The addition of Tuck does little to open up Minion, as they don’t have any chemistry. Her hero-worship gives no edge to their relationship, and since Minion doesn’t seem to care either way, it also lacks the comedy of Death’s Head’s exasperation with Spratt. Maybe Tuck is going to turn out to be Charnel-kryptonite, justifying a whole issue to get her into the story (although since she’s usually depicted striking a pin-up stance, I’m guessing her reasons for inclusion are otherwise).

It’s not a good issue for Dr. Necker either. Adding a whole year to the story not only robs her quest of its desperate urgency, but makes her seem incompetent. With little to do but show up and hire Minion, Necker is reduced to cheesecake poses in Roderick’s harem. Her comment to Roderick that time-line archives were very precise about this period is an odd one: a) for someone trying to infiltrate the royal court, b) considering the date is over 1400 years after Necker’s own time and c) raises the question of, if she was so well-informed, why did it take a year to find Minion? I don’t think it has an explanation, other than Abnett couldn’t be bothered to make sense of it.

This seems to be a problem for whole of Lionheart. There’s nothing wrong with having a futuristic Robin Hood setting with cod-dialogue, but the writer has to take it seriously. I like a good pun (and even a bad one), but having a road that leads from ‘Finder’s Keep’ to ‘Loser’s Weep’ is just painful to read. Characters lapse from medieval-speak into “Give me a break” and “Pronto”; Minion makes a huge deal of mocking the expression “Beshrew me” – it feels like Abnett has created this world, wants us to buy into it, but then makes fun of it anyway.

Sharp’s artwork has gone back a step from last issue. Things are looking too dark and too detailed, as if it has been shrunk down from a larger format. For an issue filled with swordplay and swashbuckling actions, the depictions of action still need a lot more energy. Also, the dinosaur-steed are almost cartoonishly poor.

The one solid thread is the Strucker sub-plot. It’s a well-trodden irony, but I like that A.I.M. inadvertently created the very threat they tried to avoid. The depiction of Strucker/Charnel is very good – Sharp seems to improve when he’s being less literal – and the scene of death at A.I.M. is wonderfully macabre. His journey back to 1992 is a bit contrived – why would Charnel endanger his own creation when he could just go forward to conquer? But it does give the heroes something to chase after.

And finally, RIP Spratt. He wasn’t always my favourite sidekick (although, as this issue shows, there are worse options), but it was fun whenever he got under Death’s Head’s metallic skin to irritate him. The little scavenger deserved a better end.

Next week: an epic conclusion from an apocalyptic future! The Marvel superheroes take on Charnel in “2020 Vision”!

P.S. There's a great overview of the entire history of Death's Head in Starburst's interview with Simon Furman. I especially liked the letter of congratulation from Stan Lee after Issue 1 was released.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bish's Review: Marvel UK #150 "The Legacy Of Unicron" Part 5

The Legacy Of Unicron! Part 5 was written by Simon Furman, pencilled by Jeff Anderson, inked by Steve Baskerville, coloured by Steve White and lettered by Annie Halfacree.

The cover was by Jerry Paris and John Burns and, being the one-hundred and fiftieth issue, is a little bit special in that it's a wraparound poster style cover. I have been a little disparaging about the quality of the covers for this particular story as I do not feel they really do justice to the issues themselves. This, however, is different. The image depicted is not one that is actually from the story, or any one story, but it is iconic. On the front cover we have Hot Rod, floating in mid-air opening the matrix of leadership and bathing the viewer in its otherworldly light. This is actually quite a strange version of Hot Rod. Not off-model, as such, but not the way he is usually depicted. It does make him look like a religious figure, however, which is in the aim of the cover.

The back cover is more traditional and in some ways more exciting - a terrific picture of Unicron tearing into Cybertron's crust with his mighty claws. There's not a lot to be said here except that it recalls the towering imagery of Transformers: The Movie perfectly and is a very memorable piece. For once, the text embellishments to the cover are welcome as they invite as to witness "The Origin Of The Transformers" which makes the issue appear to be out of the ordinary, even though it is only Part 5 of a six part story and is not any longer than usual. "Origin" has long been a powerful word in the comic book industry. This is something that has also crept into other media with the recent rash of prequels for popular films and books, but I would suggest that comic books, and especially comic book movies, really started the craze, as they habitually tell and retell the origin stories of their iconic characters. Either way, any comic book fan with a passing interest in Transformers would have immediately picked up that this would be a big and important issue, which the wraparound cover complements perfectly.

Luckily the story itself wasn't a let-down: As Death's Head begins his desperate gambit to attack Unicron inside his own mind we find Wreck-Gar, alive and well, in a cavern beneath Unicron's head. He has piled up a very impressive amount of explosives and is muttering to himself in Mission Impossible and Star Trek quotations about his plan to blow Unicron sky-high. He is slightly confused that Unicron has not noticed his incursion but decides that he must have something else on his mind.

As we all knew, he does! A rather concerned and out of his depth bounty hunter to be precise! Death's Head tumbles through a colourful mindscape, as multiple images of Unicron guffaw at his expense. This is once again a triumph of art where Death's Head is concerned as Anderson manages to make his expression almost comically surprised, despite the relative immobility of Death's Head's face. It is totally (hopefully Death's Head won't kill me for this), adorable.

Unicron cannot help but be impressed by Death's Head's strength of will but cannot help but tell him how useless the effort was. As Death's Head's sanity is being stripped away, Unicron alters his mental environment to make it a little easier on the bounty hunter. All the better to gloat at an enemy who can understand what you are saying. Unicron announces his intention to return Death's Head to his mortal body and destroy him on the physical plane. Death's Head, growing desperate, but relying on Unicron's overbearing arrogance, keeps him talking by questioning his nature. Unicron cannot resist talking about himself so prepares Death's Head for the ultimate tale: The Origin Of Unicron!

In the sort of scene transition favoured by Furman, Rodimus Prime, aboard a shuttle travelling to Junk, is also wishing that they knew more about Unicron. He recounts the few facts they do have - he came from nowhere, tried to destroy Cybertron, the Matrix stopped him - which is also a convenient recap of the salient points of Transformers: The Movie. Tempers are not entirely settled aboard the shuttle. Rodimus cannot quite get over the fact that Smokescreen left Wreck-Gar on Junk and Smokescreen himself is prepared to avenge the Junkion if he never does anything else. The atmosphere is tense as they hurtle towards the rematch with Unicron.

Death's Head, meanwhile, is being treated to a full narration of the metaphysics of the Transformers universe. It appears that Unicron first emerged as a direct reaction to life ("the lifestain" - great word choice here) spreading across the universe, but as he set out to destroy life as it spread Primus, Lord of The Light Gods appeared to challenge him and they fought. The cosmic collateral damage from this battle threatened to destroy the very life that Primus had set out to protect and so he decided to catch Unicron in a trap. Pretending to be defeated he led Unicron in a merry dance through the astral plane which culminated in them both being trapped inside asteroids.

Both gods were rendered inert, almost powerless, but over millennia Unicron was slowly able to use his remaining strength to shape his asteroid prison into a version of his old body, so becoming the first Transformer, able to shift from planet to robot mode at will. However, Primus wasn't idle either, and also shaped his asteroid, not into a new body, but into a world that started to spawn its own life, robotic lifeforms who would one day challenge Unicron - the Transformers! Primus gifted them with his own life-force, the creation matrix, that could create new life as well as fight Unicron.

Unicron knew this and knew that if he were ever to consume Cybertron, he would need to secure the matrix first. Unfortunately the proxy he chose, Galvatron, proved too strong-willed and allowed Rodimus Prime to obtain the matrix and destroy Unicron's body. A spark of life remained and now, on Junk, Unicron is preparing his rebirth. He breaks off his story (although he had basically finished) as the Autobot shuttle screams into view and starts firing on his head. In order to deal with these "bothersome insects" he returns Death's Head to his physical body and starts firing on the Autobots using his powerful eye-beams.

He orders his minions to attack as well. The Junkions obey immediately but Death's Head is able to resist.

Meanwhile, below ground, Wreck-Gar has finished planting his explosives and prepares to leave the area, saying that it's "Goodnight from me, and goodnight from him", a catchphrase from British comedy duo, The Two Ronnies.

Unfortunately for Wreck-Gar, Unicron notices Death's Head levelling a weapon at him and blasts him at close range, smashing a hole in the ground and, unwittingly trapping Wreck-Gar beneath tons of falling rock, as the counter on the explosives continues to tick over...

"To be continued?" wonders Wreck-Gar. "In fact, to be concluded!" the "Next time" caption answers enthusiastically.

This is one of those issues (and one of those stories) that shape everything that comes afterwards. If you've been a Transformers fan for any length of time you're probably aware of the story of Unicron and Primus whether or not you've ever actually read these particular panels. Furman would recap, revisit and expand upon this story in his run on the US comic but the basics were laid down here.

The amount of creative control that Furman was allowed in this story is almost unthinkable when one considers the modern state of the Transformers brand. These days Hasbro has a gigantic, 400-page bible that encompasses all continuities and forms of media. All prospective creators who want to work within the Transformers framework are under close scrutiny to ensure the brand stays in the shape approved by the corporation. In theory, millions of dollars ride upon this tight control and it is necessary to stop maverick creators playing fast and loose with the characters and universe.

In the eighties, however, there was no official universe. There were official documents describing the characters but Unicron had no official comic book origin and the origin of the Transformers themselves was vague enough - "naturally occuring gears, levers and pulleys" - to be reinterpreted in a more interesting way. Pleasingly the comic was also allowed to be sufficiently divorced from the cartoon that Furman was not forced to use its explanation for Unicron's origin, as, to put it mildly, it lacks the majesty of the comic book version.

Nowadays the Transformers comic books are never really at the bleeding edge of official continuity but even if they were there is no chance that someone like Furman, working on his own little book - one that wasn't even going to be published in America, for Primus' sake - would be allowed to blaze a trail like this. Even though each comic book and each cartoon is officially in its own continuity, Hasbro would still very likely get nervous if a single creator laid down the law about something as fundamental as the origins of life in the Transformers universe. Witness, for example, the ultimate decision by Hasbro not to allow a comic book about the Original Thirteen Transformers to be published because they had not decided where they wanted to take that story yet. This stands in contrast to the eighties comics where it seems that Marvel would publish these stories before Hasbro had their say, which is why there were occasional differences in naming and colour-schemes between comics and newly released toys.

I am not necessarily coming out on one side or the other - I certainly understand why Transformers as a brand needs to be protected and nurtured. It is simply worth too much money for poor quality or contradictory story-telling to be allowed to harm the franchise without proper scrutiny (in theory - obviously everyone has their own opinion about what constitutes a good story). That said, without people like Furman sitting down at their desks (sometimes after the pub, if his stories at Auto Assembly are to be believed) and just thinking which cool stories could be told without having to run it past a committee, you probably wouldn't have an official continuity today, and it certainly wouldn't be the same shape.

Larger considerations aside, this is a rattling good read. A fair bit is given over to the origin of Unicron, of course, which alters the pacing a little, but this is a good time to tell us, as it gives us more of a sense of Unicron as a character before the inevitable final confrontation in the next issue. A nice subtle indication for possible future storylines is given in the artwork for the Unicron origin scenes. While the god version of Unicron looks basically the same as the Transformer version, Primus has a helmet and wing designs on his back that are very reminiscent of a certain Rodimus Prime. Unfortunately this would never really pay off in this continuity, but it was obviously designed to play a part in future storylines. Perhaps this is something that Furman's imminent continuation of the Marvel comic universe will deal with.

Other than that, the angst between Smokescreen and Rodimus isn't especially compelling but it serves to demonstrate that times are dark indeed, while informing us that the Autobots are arriving on Junk with a little more than a simple scene change. Wreck-Gar is fun as always, spotting the references in his TV talk is a game for the reader in itself and they are cleverly used here. Death's Head keeps his own sense of identity while serving as the catalyst for Unicron's origin story. I love how defiant he remains, even when horribly out of his depth. My only slight gripe about his part of the story is that Furman does not set up a scenario where it is particularly necessary for Unicron to tell his story. It's a good story, and a good read, but even Death's Head's taunting does not seem enough for Unicron to tell him his entire origin. Unicron in Transformers: The Movie was arrogant, because of his awesome power, but he wasn't quite the blowhard that Furman writes him as in this story.

Anderson's artwork is generally of a very high standard. He goes for a much more, shall we say, traditional approach than Dan Reed and the characters are very much more recognisable as themselves from the cartoon and various character models. The issue has also been very carefully inked by Steve Baskerville, who would go on to ink most of the later US issues and this, combined with excellent colouring work from Steve White, lends the whole issue an air of quality.