Thursday, January 27, 2011

Review: Marvel G1 #80: End of the Road!

Well, this is it.  As the cover puts it, issue #80 in a four-issue limited series.  It's the End of the Road!, the final issue of the US G1 Marvel Comics run of Transformers.  It was brought to us (with lumps in throats, they assure us) by the same talented troupe that has done every issue since #70, with the exception of #75.  Simon Furman, scribe extraordinaire, was the writer.  The fluid and dynamic pencils were by Andrew Wildman.  The bold inks came from the pens of Stephen Baskerville.  Rick Parker lettered the issue, and Nel Yomtov colored it.  Rob Tokar was the editor.  The cover was also by Wildman.

It's a great cover, suitably epic.  Bludgeon prepares to execute Wheeljack, with flames and smoke all about.  But, in the background, lurks a shadowy figure... who could it be?  The design isn't particularly ambiguous, but then I suppose that any long-time fan must know that Optimus Prime would somehow come back.  Having him in shadows puts the focus squarely on Bludgeon, where it belongs.  Though his tenure of leadership has only just begun, between his design and his competence he's one of the most menacing 'Con leaders we've ever had.  The way he holds Wheeljack by his wires is positively frightening.  Wildman has really outdone himself.  In addition to the gag about how far they'd come, the title informs us that 'when all hope is gone... one shall rise!,' touting the issue as 'THE EPIC CONCLUSION!'  I rather like the way the phrases dance among the flames, and it makes sense to bill this as the final issue.  Anyone who had been following the book even casually would probably want to see how it ends. Oh, and by the way, Grimlock's gone from the Marvel box, with a Decepticon symbol taking its place.  This helps subtly reinforce the message that the cover is conveying, that the Decepticons might just win the day after all. 

The rather amazing opening page to the book does little to dispel that notion.  With so little time left in the story, things move along rather briskly.  Getaway is being hunted by Dreadwing, who blows him up rather handily, though not without nearly crashing into a canyon.  Bludgeon grouses about the rabble under his command, but then relents.  After all, they've pretty much won.  Only five Autobots remain, and his best men are tracking them down.  It's rather startling to see how far things have gone downhill since the last issue, almost jarringly so.  The stakes are high, which is good, but starting in media res like this almost telegraphs that this isn't the story of the Autobot's defeat, but something else.  After all, if the book were trying to tell the story of a last stand, it'd show it and not skip past it.  Perhaps I'm reading too much into it; after all, I don't think anyone really expected the book to end on a down note.

Those five Autobots, Kup, Prowl, Snarl, Blaster, and of course Grimlock, hide from their pursuers in some mud.  Prowl's complaining  let us know how we hit this point; Grimlock saw a Decepticon and led them into an ambush.  Prowl's almost-insubordination is interrupted when Blaster gets blasted to pieces by Octopunch; the Decepticons have tracked them down!  For the tactically shrewd Grimlock that we've come to know, this seems out of place.  Maybe Prowl's being an unreliable narrator?  Nah, not too likely. And I really don't care for this interpretation of Prowl, who is placed in the role of making Grimlock look good by comparison.  Overall, much of this scene feels clumsy, probably because the ending was so rushed.

Back to the initial battlefield, Bludgeon has found another live Autobot to slaughter.  Why, it's Wheeljack!  We've caught up to the cover.  His stint as executioner is interrupted by... no, not Optimus Prime, the Neo Knights!  They battle the 'Cons for a moment before the real star shows up.  Riding inside The Last Autobot's spaceship mode like a white knight on his steed, none other than Optimus Prime arrives to save the day!  He explains the details of his resurrection, and implores the Decepticons to cease this mindless struggle.  Bludgeon, though, is having none of it.  He's studied The Ultimate Warrior, and considers this whole line of reasoning to be blasphemy.  He orders a full on attack!  Prime makes a pretty grand entrance, and I must say Wildman draws his Action Master design awfully pretty.  No matter how bad things get, it's hard to imagine that Optimus Prime won't be able to put things right.  Bludgeon's newly minted religious fervor, on the other hand, seems to come from nowhere.  I'd have liked a bit more setup, or perhaps to just leave this plot element out all together. 

With Optimus getting dogpiled, the Knights implore The Last Autobot to help.  With shades of Primus' indifference, he seems to ignore them... but what he's actually doing is raising the fallen Autobots.  Optimus doesn't seem to need the help, shaking off his pursuers with so much panache that he makes it look easy. "Do you not understand, Decepticons," he asks.  "It's over -- finished!"  This mirrors almost exactly what Bludgeon said to Siren just a few pages earlier, a shrewd little trick.  Optimus is joined by the returning five Autobots, who have beaten their pursuers.  The Autobots and humans thus merrily do battle, even as their fallen comrades return to life.  We've somehow gone from total defeat to total victory in just a few pages, and yet it doesn't feel like a cheat.  Indeed, this triumph seems well deserved and hard fought, probably due to the 79 issues of build-up we've had.  It seems odd to say this, but there aren't all that many issues where we get a huge Autobot/Decepticon brawl. (Not Brawl.)  Certainly we haven't had any in quite a few issues, not since #67 by my reckoning, and that one was in an alternate timeline.  Thus, this triumphant rout of the Decepticons seems long overdue.

Bludgeon realizes that the tide has turned; he's lost the day.  He declares that honor demands the Decepticons go into exile following this defeat, but then orders his men to get back to the ships.  They'll live to fight another day.  Shrewd, Bludgeon!  Hot Rod wonders if it's really over, and Prowl, in his role as resident pessimist, wonders where to go now that Cybertron has self destructed.  Optimus Prime informs them that, thanks to the magic of The Last Autobot, Cybertron is reborn.  They will rebuild Klo, take the Neo Knights home, and then, finally return to a Cybertron free of the scourge of war.  The book ends with a picture of a healed Cybertron.  It's just the standard S3 cartoon model for Cybertron, but since the S1 model had enormous gashes and rends in the surface it serendipitously reinforces Prime's words.

And that's it.  The End.  Was it rushed?  Yeah, sadly, it was, though the book has finally crept back up to 22 pages, which we haven't seen since issue #55.  Furman had to up the stakes, then save the day, while tying up all remaining loose ends.  It's a big task, but he definitely managed to do it.  If it's not the most brilliant issue of Transformers ever, it's at least a worthy conclusion that allows the amazing issues of the past to have some meaning.  It's always annoying to watch a great show or read a great series of comics or novels, only to find out that it was canceled halfway through and that the characters will never get resolution.  That's absolutely not the case here, and if G2 never happened we'd still have been left with a great run, especially from issue #56 onward.  (I'm not knocking Bob, but his work was at its best when he was telling isolated tales, whereas Furman works best with a sweeping canvas.)   

If the story was a bit too packed for my taste, the art was anything but.  This issue was Wildman's best, filling the panels with a tremendous level of energy and movement and action.  There are so many stand-out sequences, like Optimus kicking Bludgeon or pounding Crankcase on the noggin, Bludgeon flying across the page to strike at Optimus, Grimlock impaling Fangry on his fist, Bludgeon's superstitious terror at seeing the return of Optimus Prime, and many, many more. 

At the end of the issue, in lieu of a letter page, Furman and Yomtov share three columns of their thoughts.  It's all very melancholy, right down to the little gag about "Next Issue."  Furman lets us know about how the sales figures were dwindling, despite the new levels of creative success the book was experiencing.  (Ironically, the levels that in 1991 warranted cancellation would in 2001 put Dreamwave on the map.)  Though Transformers was unlikely to ever come back (snicker) he hoped that the Neo Knights might return to the pages of Marvel comics.  (Hehehe.  Time makes fools of us all!)  Furman goes through the various creators who worked on the book, and ends up by saying somewhat prophetically "For me, personally, IT NEVER ENDS."  How right you were, Simon, how right  you were.

As Yomtov and Furman reflect back on the eighty issues and four mini-series, so too do I.  The four issue limited (purportedly) series kicked things off unevenly, though once Budiansky took the helm things steadied out a bit.  The drama of the alien civil war sometimes took a back-seat (see what I did there, with the car metaphor? eh?  eh?) to the fish-out-of-water aspects that Bob liked to explore, which lead to some nicely human stories.  Still, he was saddled with dozens of new characters to introduce over relatively short time-spans, and the book definitely suffered from that.  Sure, some characters like Ratchet, Blaster, Shockwave, and Fortress Maximus got to shine, but so many others were introduced, only to never again play an important part.

The tone of the book shifts dramatically once Furman takes over, as we focus more on the space opera aspect.  Suddenly, the characters are more than just soldiers, they're avatars of a god standing between the universe and eternal oblivion.  Fortuitiously, though, the shift in focus isn't too abrupt.  As it happens, one of Bob's last stories was set in space, and Furman's first tale heavily involves both humans and some old favorite characters.  It eases us into this new paradigm gradually.  We meet some new favorite characters, like Nightbeat and Bludgeon and Thunderwing, and pay renewed attention to the likes of Kup and Hot Rod and Scorponok. 

The book hits its emotional climax in #75, tying together many disparate threads.  This wouldn't have been a bad place to end things, but as it turns out we got five more issues, the decision to pull the plug being made after this issue was put to bed.  Thus, we get an epilogue, a chance to wrap up even more.  This hurts the climax in the last issue, since it'd be impossible to duplicate the stakes we saw when Unicron came to Cybertron, but overall is good for the pacing of the story.  It was  five months of denouement, more than most books get but in the scheme of an 80 issue run (plus G.I. Joe, plus Headmasters) it's actually just about right.  More serendipity.  

So, is it a book worth reading?  Parts of it, very much.  Some parts can safely be skipped, but surprisingly most issues have a gem of an interesting idea in there somewhere.  It's clear that, despite this being a toy book, the creators working on it endeavored to tell real stories that resonated with them, and therefor their audience.  On the whole, the good really does objectively outweigh the bad by quite a lot, and the build-up form issues #60 - #75 tell a nicely massive story.  Not until Furman's run on IDW will we get a Transformers comic story as ambitious as this one.  This saga touched me when I was a child, and rereading it as an adult it remains compelling, even when I consciously set aside the blinders of nostalgia.  To all involved in the making of this story, thank you for helping my imagination to soar.

End of the Road!, which is also (perhaps not coincidentally) the title of the last original UK comic, is available for purchase in IDW's Classic Transformers Vol. 6. It caps off a run on Transformers so classic, so definitive, that I don't think you can reasonably call yourself a fan of Transformers fiction if you haven't read it.  Next up, G.I. Joe?  Guh?  Stick around, we're far from done.


D.M said...

Reading the letters page... odd that Delbo was supposedly praised by the majority of fans while Geoff received criticism. O.o

Hans said...

Heh, G.I. Joe? Wasn't the title called Snake Eyes at that time....? ;)

I completely agree that the Marvel Transformers title is worth checking out, although if someone would ask me where to start, I'd probably point them to the Underbase saga, and continue from there, as that's shortly before Simon takes over.

But all in all, these final issues (the "Unicron saga") were absolutely fantastic, and although they are now 20 years old, they completely dwarf the direction that IDW is taking with Transformers today. Sad but true. And yes, I'm bringing this as fact, not just my opinion :)

Btw, Jim, it's Getaway on the splashpage (he's been "got", if I remember the joke correctly).

Can't wait to get to Generation 2! The comic certainly didn't stop being great here, I'd say :)

Jimtron said...

D.M. Senior's art is more ambitious than Delbo's, by far. I can see why fans might not have liked it, especially young ones. At the time, I didn't care for it at all.

Hans - Yeah, ok, G.I.*Joe Starring Snake-Eyes and Ninja Force, if you want to get technical. When I give the Marvel Comic series to people to read, I usually have them do 1-13, 17-18, The Headmasters and 35-36, 47-51, and 56 - 80. It gives you most of the important plot bits and a couple of good stand-alones as well. (Getaway is fixed - I knew that, don't know why my damn fingers typed Joyride.)

Mark Baker-Wright said...

While we're talking about the comparative merits of artists, it's worth noting that a lot of fans (I'm not one of them) really hate Wildman's work, which is admittedly a very "organic" style that may not "accurately" reflect what robotic beings should look like (tounges, teeth, etc), but captures emotion so dynamically that I seldom cared about such niggling details.

(Getting a bit ahead of ourselves, I'll express my disappointment that the one time Wildman came back in G2, he was relegated almost exclusively to GI Joe pages, and didn't really get to work on the TFs themselves. For shame!)

LBD 'Nytetrayn' said...

I loved the Furman/Wildman team so much, I wish we'd gotten more of it (War Within aside). I was so disappointed that Wildman wasn't really on for G2, and have always wondered why.

Anonymous said...

Which is your favourite issues in the MArvel run?

My favourites are:
6-8, 17-20, 23,31,and 78. Yes, #31 (Car Wash of Doom) is one of my favourite issues because the plot makes sense. Someone like Ratbat is looking for ways to gain fuel for the least expenditure. What better way to accomplish that than to get the humans to give fuel to the Decepticons?)

In the Marvel UK run, I liked Target 2006, and any story with Death's Head in it. I also liked the Ultra Magnus/Galvatron matchups.

Hans said...

My favourite single issues are #50 and #75 :)

As for the artists... I seem to remember (this takes Dutch letters into account as well as my general memories from the letter's pages in the US comic) that Wildman was extremely popular at the time. Todd MacFarlane was doing Spider-Man, and highly detailed, somewhat cartoony art was highly popular at the time. A lot of people were happy that Transformers got that artstyle as well I think (in any case, Stephen Baskerville was as much responisble for all that detail as Wildman was).

I think Delbo was popular because he had a very classic artstyle, little risk in it maybe, but everything always looked tip-top.

Senior... I believe people either loved his artstyle or hated it. When I saw it at first, I hated it. By the time issue #75 came around, I was okay with it. I LOVED what he did in the final issues of Generation 2 :)