Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Bish's Review: Marvel UK #133 "Headhunt" Part 1

Headhunt Part 1 was written by the ubiquitous Simon Furman, pencilled by Dan Reed, lettered by Richard Starkings and coloured by Steve White.

The frankly excellent cover was by a fellow called Dave Gibbons who worked on an eighties superhero comic called Watchmen. It contrasts rather sharply with Dan Reed's more "organic" style within the actual pages, but, well, look at it. I don't need to tell you why it's good.

We find ourselves on the planet Scarvix in the far-future time of 2007. In an office, within a twisted example of alien architecture we find Blot, a Decepticon with a proposition. He is trying to talk a mostly hidden figure into taking a job.

It's quite obvious if you know your previous comics that this hidden mechanoid is Death's Head, especially as he replies with the iconic "Yes" at the end of his sentences and reacts "poorly" when Blot calls him a mercenary. Blot wants Death's Head to take revenge on Rodimus Prime because the Autobot leader cheated him out of getting any money from the Galvatron job but the ever pragmatic Death's Head doesn't believe in revenge and will only do the deed for profit, which Blot eventually agrees to - 10,000 shanix, naturally.

The title splash is of Death's Head in all his glory, which suffers a bit if you already know it's him and is drawn by Dan Reed, who can't quite match Geoff Senior's iconic version.

A week later, on Cybertron, Rodimus Prime agrees to once again check the state of Autobase's trench fortifications. He is troubled by inaction, by the stalemate that the war has ground down to. In this future the sides are evenly matched and engagements are indecisive.

He fills in some gaps in his history for us by reminiscing about his time as Hot Rod, especially his Targetmaster partnership with Firebolt. His anguish at the memory of Firebolt's death on Earth is palpable.

Meanwhile, at the Decepticon stronghold, Cyclonus and Scourge are incensed that Shockwave has hired Death's Head to assasinate Rodimus rather than tasking them with it. There is obvious tension within the Decepticon command, as Scourge and Cyclonus have a huge superiority complex about being forged by Unicron, whereas Shockwave distrusts them because of it. They invoke Galvatron's name but it falls flat, as he is currently messing about in Earth's past.

They will not be deterred however, and Cyclonus determines that they will take Prime out first and so claim leadership of the Decepticons. Shockwave's contemptuous laughter, spilling out even over an exterior panel of the fortress, shows what he thinks of their chances. It takes a lot to make Shockwave laugh.

While patrolling the heavily armed trench emplacements Rodimus is concerned by a sudden noise. He is momentarily distracted and when he turns around his two Autobot guards are gone. Death's Head stands on a high parapet and lobs something at the Autobot leader.

Rodimus leaps out of the way just in time but is surprised when the object doesn't explode. The surprise turns to horror as it turns out to be the head of one of his bodyguards. Death's Head slams down in front of him and professes his disappointment that Rodimus is not a more elusive prey.

He continues to chastise Rodimus' lack of preparation and challenge as he knocks the Autobot leader around with little effort. The only thing that stops him is the trench floor giving way as the two of them crash down into the sewer tunnels that run under Autobase. Death's Head is unfazed apart from a whistful sense of disappointment at losing his favourite axe.

Unfortunately for Rodimus the "freelance peacekeeping agent" has several other weapons and the "titanium shot blaster" is his tool of choice. After assuring the Autobot leader that this is all "just business" he points and shoots. There is a massive explosion and ... a cliffhanger!

Furman turns in an excellent issue here packed with great ideas and setup. If, like me, you're excited by the possibility of a parallel narrative set in the future of the movie that we can visit from time to time it's nice to see this fleshed out. Shockwave in power is logical, given Galvatron is insane and Megatron is both insane and missing in action in the eighties portion of the storyline and it makes sense that Scourge and Cyclonus don't really fit in with the normal Decepticons.

Furman gets to play with a more war-torn setting here because there are no humans around and the gloves are completely off. Unfortunately it seems that when the gloves come off, the Autobots and Decepticons can't do much more than jab ineffectually at each other, and Cybertron appears to be settling in for another punishing few millenia of total war. Furman and Reed sell this with imagery obviously inspired by the First World War - trench emplacements so tough that neither side (except Death's Head) can hope to penetrate them. It's a bleak idea for a children's comic, but subtle enough to pass by without upsetting anyone.

Similarly bleak, but also inspired is the apparent death of Firebolt. We don't know how he died and we don't need to know, but it's a good indication that things have changed for the characters in the period between the "present day" comics and the "future" and lends a bit of weight to Rodimus Prime's fight. This was a good choice because the reader was, at this point, only just getting used to the Headmasters and Targetmasters and killing one off, even retroactively, would have sent a powerful message, especially as this is an organic, who cannot be rebuilt. Organics hardly ever died "on-screen" in these comics.

As for the story itself, it's difficult not to love Death's Head, especially when he is in full stalking mode. One might imagine that he would very much like to get his own back on Rodimus Prime but it is a great detail that without a profit motive he just won't do it. Furman effortlessly sets up clashes that will clearly have repercussions in who knows how many future issues? Obviously Death's Head vs Rodimus Prime would have been a decent story to tell, but we also have the possibility of Death's Head vs Scourge and Cyclonus, Scourge and Cyclonus vs Rodimus Prime, Scourge and Cyclonus vs Shockwave and any combination of the above. Even from this opening, this is shaping up to a be a twist-packed story and the dour, guilt-ridden Rodimus is a fitting hero for this bleak future world.

Dan Reed's art is... well it's wobbly, isn't it? I mean that in the sense that it literally is wobbly: Everything has organic looking edges and moves in whichever way serves Reed's agenda in that particular panel. I also, unfortunately mean it in the rather more colloquial sense of wobbly meaning "uneven". Reed has some excellent panels - although it's only small, I enjoy Shockwave on his throne, and I love his very VERY busy depictions of Cybertron, which seem reasonable for a metallic world that must have been turned to scrap a thousand times over. However, some of his linework is downright bizarre, and contorts the characters in very unnatural ways. Check out, for example, this panel of Hot Rod and Firebolt, where Hot Rod is doing the splits for no reason whatsoever.

The colouring is mostly fine, but Reed's work is rather difficult to colour particularly well as there are details lines all over the place and there is more block colouring for background characters than I like. Unfortunately I think this is something I'm going to have to get used to as the book continues.

Headhunt kicks off in a very promising way. I can't wait to see where this leads. It was available in the Titan collection Legacy Of Unicron, the title of which should give you some clues. Again, out of print but available here. And if you fancy checking out that Gibbons chap's work beyond Transformers, you could do worse than this.

Part 2, coming soon but fans of Death's Head (and insightful reviewing) should come back tomorrow for another installment in our pal Chuffer's series on the "freelance peacekeeping agent's" solo book.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Ark Addendum - Boeing 747

As promised, this week's Ark Addendum fetures some more airplanes.  From the same episode, we have an unused model for a Boeing 747.  Since this is a jumbo jet proper, it would have made the title (Kidnapping!? The Targeted Jumbo Jet) more accurate.  I wonder if they switched because of how high up the cockpit is in this aircraft, which would have made the action sequence when Cab and Shuta save the pilot awkward.  Probably I'm overthinking it though.  Regardless, they're rather nice designs.  Of course, after the future tech of 2006/2010, this seems like a step backwards.  However, Masterforce takes place probably somewhere around 2020 or so, and odds are good that, in the real world, 747s will still be in our skies in eight years.

Next week I'll finish it out with the crew from this episode.  Then, maybe some G1 stuff.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Star Wars at the LA Zoo!

So, last week I reported that they were holding a Star Wars day at the zoo.  Jason Jacobs, the PR Director at the zoo who may also be the D.C. superhero Jungle Jason, gave me a pass and took me behind the scenes at this fun event, so I figured I'd share my experiences here.

It was a blisteringly hot August day in the valley.  The sun was shining, and there was nary a cloud in the sky.   Parking was difficult, but persistance paid off and soon I was heading on into the Los Angeles Zoo.

Once inside, Jason took me to the staging area, where the various talented folks got ready to brave the heat to dazzle their fans.
R2-D2, beneath the dome.  This contraption would roll around, beeping and chirping and generally delighting children of all ages.

Two nice villainous costumes. I've always loved the imperial officer uniform especially.  Perhaps that's because it's such a simple costume.

A Tuscan Raider, or Sand Person.  Actually, that's considered a racially insensitive term these days.  Native Tatooininan I believe is the better term.  I got to ride around on a cart with this bad-boy on the way to the elephants, where zoo educators talked about the similarities between elephants and bantha.

Lovely flamingo shot here!

People, hundreds if not thousands, lined up for some photos.

Star Wars car!  Seems like it should have a vanity plate, though, no?

More animals!  Hey, we're at the zoo, gotta check out some animals as well as some sci-fi, right?

Owner of the aforementioned car, and administrator of the trivia contest.

It's a packed house to see the DVD Extra on creatures in Star Wars, and maybe win some prizes.

A happy winner of a Wookie voice changer.

So, there you have it!  Lots of crowds, lots of fun, many animals last Saturday.  If you had a chance to hop on down, drop a comment and let me know how it turned out.  (Thanks to Bill for his awesome photography skills.)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Root Beer 1 - Frostie

A few weeks back I got myself ten things of gourmet root beer, and promised to share some thoughts on them.  The other day, I had the chance to sit down, watch me some Torchwood and enjoy myself the first of my many splendored beverages.  This week was Frostie Root Beer.

Frostie Root Beer has been around since 1939, though it has changed ownership several times since then.  I had high hopes for this, the first of my Root Beer excursions.  Alas, I was a bit disappointed.  It certainly had more bite than most mass-market brands, which I appreciated.  But there was a slight but distinct chemical aftertaste that belied the small-town image that the bottle conjures.  It was also sweeter than I prefer my root beer.  I'd say that, for a micro-brewery, it was only about a C+.  Side by side with , say, A&W, it's pretty comparable. 

Note: I like A&W quite a lot, it's my default mass-market root beer.  Keep in mind, though, it's about a third the price of this beverage. 

I imbibed this drink with a lovely meal of veal parmigiana, a goat cheese and raisin salad, some steamed vegetables, and two kinds of garlic bread accompanied by some extra virgin olive oil for dipping.  I think the root beer was a good choice to accompany the meal, though if you're a wine aficionado you might disagree.  It went particularly well when washing down the bread.

The entertainment for the meal was episode 8 of Torchwood: Miracle Day.  I'm enjoying the series quite a lot, and guest star John de Lancie all but stole the show.  The ending was a bit odd - dramatic, but not really a cliffhanger.  I assume next week, the penultimate episode of the season, will end on something a bit bigger. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Death’s Head Review: Issue #6 – Sudden Impact!

Issue 6 sees another new art team: Liam Sharp on pencils, Paul Marshall on inks and Louise Cassell on colours. Remaining the same are writer Simon Furman, letterer Annie H and editor Richard Starkings.

The cover is another by Bryan Hitch and Mark Farmer, a head-to-head between Death’s Head and the grimacing Colonel Mayhem from last issue’s teaser. They face off against the backdrop of the stars-and-stripes: “This means War!”, “’Fraid I’m a conscientious objector, yes?” It’s a nice looking cover, although it does spoil the punchline at the end of the issue, so they really ought to have thought of an alternative gag.

We begin in a military facility in the Arizona desert, the splash page being the formidable Mayhem charging forward, bayonet-first and roaring. The caption reads that “Whoever once wrote that ‘soldiers disguise fair nature with hard favour’d rage’ clearly had little real understanding of the military mind!”. This is accompanied by a caption identifying the ‘whoever’ as Shakespeare and calling the writer a philistine. It may just have been Furman shooting down his own statement, but I’d like to think was Furman and Starkings having some fun here.

Mayhem’s bayonet imbeds into a wall, an inch away from one of his soldiers. He is playing the role of relentless drill-instructor, bawling at his troop for being ‘worthless and weak’. We see the full ‘Sudden Impact’ team, a very motely cross between paramilitaries and comic superheroes. A General arrives and briefs Mayhem on their next covert mission, as a number of more-conventional soldiers start to harass Sudden Impact. One word from their colonel, and the team springs into action, effortlessly defeating the soldiers. Mayhem declares them ready for action.

In a compound outside Los Angeles, we see the target of the mission: a man named Gowse is being held the protective custody of Marshal Vek and his armed police. Gowse is a key witness against a politician named Carson, for an enquiry held by Senator Letterman. It was Letterman that hired Death’s Head, who is also present to guard the witness. Vek is unimpressed with the bounty hunter, who returns the favour by comparing his own morality to a policeman who is dictated to by politicians.

Their argument is interrupted by the attack of Sudden Impact. Despite Vek’s confidence, we are shown scenes of the paramilitaries overwhelming the police, “not so much a battle … as a slaughter!” (I’m sure I’ve read that enough times for it to qualify as a Furmanism). The witness panics, as Death’s Head calmly breaks out the chess set.

The scene jumps to the politician Carson’s office, where the aforementioned General is assuring Carson of his team’s success. Carson has apparently been loaning out the armed forces to other countries and needs to silence his ex-employee Gowse. He steps out of shadow to reveal a fixed grin and massive pompadour to declare, “This country needs me!”

Downtown L.A., in Death’s Head offices, Spratt is approaching a ringing phone with trepidation. His caution is justified when his hand is pecked by Keepsake’s old vulture, who is clearly vying for the role of sidekick. Spratt’s anger is lost to shock when the caller asks for “Death’s Head … my darling?”

Back at the compound, a humbled Vek staggers back, his forces defeated. Mid-chess game, Death’s Head responds to Vek’s accusations of idleness by claiming he was hired as a last line of defence. He gets his chance to show this as two members of Sudden Impact burst through the window.

They promptly get thrown back out of the window, which begins half a dozen pages of pure action. In ones and twos, Sudden Impact attack Death’s Head, who beats them without much problem, pausing only to quip an appropriate pun.

The fight is interrupted with a quick scene jump to Death’s Head’s employers: Senator Letterman and his police chief, who prove to be no more scrupulous than Carson. Letterman wants troops pulled from riot control to reinforce protection on his star witness, “as far as I’m concerned, once he’s voted, the average resettlement citizen is expendable!”

Back to the battle, Death’s Head’s finale is to stop a massive armoured vehicle from running him over. In a previously-unknown show of strength, he lifts the vehicle over his head and throws it at Mayhem. Though captured and with a blade to his throat, the colonel nonetheless claims victory. In Death’s Head’s haste to mow down the Sudden Impact team, he missed one team member called ‘Nitro’, whose talent is to explode spectacularly. The compound goes up in smoke, and so does the witness.

As usual, when his contract is nullified, Death’s Head ceases killing. He lets Mayhem live (despite Vek’s protests) and rejects his offer of recruitment. Killing for a cause, and being a paid a pittance, goes against everything he stands for. “Call me a conscientious objector, yes?”

The epilogue continues the storyline that began in Issue 4. Former employer Dead Cert has heard that his rival, The Undertaker, has employed a bounty hunter to kill Death’s Head and avenge the loss of Plaguedog. Dead Cert is engaging another bounty hunter, the diminutive Short Fuse, to thwart this plan – not by keeping him alive, but by killing Death’s Head first!

And so ends what was basically an issue-long brawl with Death’s Head and a team of expendables. If the last issue was homage to detective fiction, this one is certainly in the big-muscles / big-guns style that was fashionable at the time. It’s fun to read – but only as a change of pace, to see what Death’s Head can do when he’s truly off-the-leash. If every issue was like it, it would quickly become stale.

Sudden Impact are enjoyable for what they are: one-dimensional, colourful antagonists. Mayhem is a good leader and slightly more developed as a character. He seems to be genuinely patriotic, which is strange considering the obviously-corrupt nature of his missions. There is scope for a ‘mercenary vs soldier’ morality comparison with Death’s Head, much like with Dragon, though the character doesn't return to explore this.

As a story that exists purely to get the two sides fighting, the motives could have been made clearer. Both sides are rotten politicians, which could be the cynical point Furman’s is making, but it makes them indistinct. Even worse (and I’m assuming it’s an editing mistake), Lek refers to the ‘Minister’ (which is Carson’s title) as his employer, when he means Senator Letterman. Nothing terribly confusing, but the two asides add little enough anyway.

In fact, the narrative itself is so thin there is room, not only for the epilogue, but an additional aside to Spratt and the vulture – this is foreshadowing a point for the Death’s Head graphic novel, so is possibly introduced a little too early, especially as it is not touched upon for the next two issues.

Perhaps there is so little opportunity for story because the nature of the job puts Death’s Head on the defensive. He cannot hunt, ambush or investigate as he usually does – he is simply a hired gun, and so can only knock down the targets put in front of him. As I said, this is entertaining for an issue, but not a direction I’d want to see permanently.

Though he acquits himself well against his opponents, this particular case is a rare example of failure for Death’s Head. I like that Furman makes him fallible, and also sets up a scenario where the protagonist can succeed, and still lose (much better than the chronometer-excuse from Issue 2). It’s also a nice payoff for pedantic readers like me, who meticulously tick-off characters as they are removed from battle scenes.

Removing the characters makes for something of a bloodbath. It’s entirely in-keeping with the tone of the series, but still a little shocking that Death’s Head actually kills all the Sudden Impact team. While some could be explained away as comic-book concussions, others are quite clearly thrown from high windows, crushed under walls and hit with missiles. Their deaths are explicitly referred to by Mayhem, and it puts the title closer to the darker ‘2000AD’ style of comics, rather than the child-friendly Hasbro franchise titles.

Story aside, this issue is all about the action and Liam Sharp was a good choice for this edition. His style seems to favour muscles and guns and he does a fine job on the explosions and gunshots. The designs for Sudden Impact are nice and memorable too (with some fairly eccentric choices for elite soldiers, even in 8162). I’m less keen on his rendering of Death’s Head himself: the metallic skin has gone from basic anatomy to bodybuilder levels of physique – even his neck seems elongated and over-developed. Of course, Sharp will get his chance to interpret the character in his own way, as he went on to create Death’s Head II.

There is also an unusual repetition in the one-page asides: both Carson and Dead Cert begin in shadow, then lean forward to reveal their full identify in the final frame. This makes sense with Dead Cert – who has been hidden in shadow previously, and is revealed as an anthropomorphic horse – but to do exactly the same with Carson, for no good reason, seems sloppy.

Next week: Random violence reigns as two bounty hunters compete to kill Death’s Head in “Shot By Both Sides”

Death’s Head #6 was republished in ‘Death’s Head Volume 1

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Ark Addendum - Boeing 757 and The AllSpark Almanac returns!

Good News, Everyone!  It's time for another Ark Addendum!  (Oh, by the way, thanks to Geewunling over at the TF Wiki, these are now much better organized over there.  Check out his hard work.)  Today's Addendum, and theme I'll explore for the next couple of weeks, is the Airplane models from the third episode of Masterforce, Kidnapping!? The Targeted Jumbo Jet.  The Destron baddies captured airplane-loads of people to turn them into the Destroids, a zombie-like force.  Creepy stuff!  This is the model for Mont Port Air Flight 308.

Oh, but I've got other, bigger news.  When I found out that the theme of this year's BotCon toys and comic would be Animated, I wasted no time pestering Fun Publications about the idea of another AllSpark Almanac.  After all, I've covered 3 seasons of the show, why not season 3.5?  As it turns out, FP and Hasbro were both enthusiastically behind the idea, so this November you can look forward to a bit more Almanac.  The AllSpark Almanac Addendum will be included as an extra in this year's Timelines comic, The Stunti-Con Job.  You'll get sixteen more pages covering the main characters introduced in season 3.5, plus some other neat extras.  And, who knows, if sales are strong enough, maybe I'll be able to find a venue for even more Almanac content.  Go out, get your local comicbook shop to order a copy or two, and enjoy rich, creamy, almanacky goodness!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Bish's Review: Marvel UK #132 "Kup's Story!"

Kup's Story! was written by Simon Furman, pencilled by Dan Reed, coloured by Steve White and Lettered by Anne Halfacree. Although the story is set in the past, the backup story in the comic was the first part of the Headmasters saga so that's where we are if you're used to following along with only the US half of the continuity. We've just been through the Scraplet saga and the Carwash Of Doom!

The cover was also by Dan Reed and is quite a nice piece in his inimitable style. It more resembles a particularly detailed comic panel than a display piece and probably won't be anyone's first pick to mount on their wall but it neatly outlines what the story is about and has some great detail on the alien hand crushing Hot Rod, as well as good colouring to show off Hot Rod's painted body and the alien's slick skin (or maybe metal).

The caption tells us that we are several hundred years ago, in deep space. We see Kup, on the bridge of a small spaceship, sitting dejectedly while the ongoing captions explain that after millions of years of warfare, veterans lose their fighting edge. The Autobots' custom is to give these individuals a spaceship and cast them adrift to while away their remaining years alone.

We flash back to Kup's glory days, destroying Decepticons and daring white-knuckle escapes, but are told that eventually the battles blurred together and Kup found he could not keep up any longer. He accepted exile, rather than putting his fellow Autobots at risk by continuing to fight alongeside them.

He pours himself a drink and is in the middle of toasting the oncoming end of his life (we get the impression he does that a lot) when the ship is shaken by an explosion and we see a transport being pursued by two wobbly organic looking alien ships.

Kup determines that the pursuing vessels are toying with the transport and this gets his dander up! He starts making plans to intervene before his confidence goes again and, worrying he'll only make matters worse, decides that it's not his fight.

He can't convince himself though. In only two panels time, an ugly alien claw is poised over a firing button before an explosion tears him, and the ship's cockpit apart. Kup punches the air in victory as the confidence comes flooding back. Only for a second though, as nausea overwhelms him and he slumps. His battle-fatigue is still part of him and it will take more than this brief victory to overcome it.

He receives a message from the transport, it's pilot asking to come aboad. Kup doesn't want company but has no real choice in the matter as the ship is breaking up.

The pilot turns out to be Hot Rod, who doesn't yet know Kup personally but is delighted to meet a fellow Autobot. He says he was on a scouting mission with Blurr when the Tyroxians attacked them and captured Blurr. Kup says that he cannot help beyond taking Hot Rod to Cybertron. He is retired - an ex-Autobot.

As Kup relaxes, and broods, on his own in the ship he is surprised to hear a proximity alarm. Hot Rod has changed the ship's course and brought it into orbit of the planet Tyroxia! He has landed on the planet's surface and gone off on a solo-mission to rescue Blurr.

We get a nice story-telling device here where Kup, unable to contain his admiration for the younger Autobot, imagines what he must be doing, while the other panels show that this is of course what is happening. Kup, much to his chagrin, comes to the conclusion that Hot Rod reminds him of his younger self.

True to Kup's predictions, Hot Rod has fallen afoul of a gigantic Tyroxian who is tossing him around like a rag-doll. Just as he is about to be taken offline for good, Kup bursts through the window, blaster blazing!

He takes the alien apart in short order, shouting his defiance to the universe! He does not even realise that battle is won until Hot Rod taps him on the shoulder.

Back on the ship, Hot Rod thanks Kup for the rescue and tells him that he can get back to his retirement. Of course, Kup won't have any of it, "Listen kid," he says, "if they're lettin' punks like you fight these days... The Autobot army needs all the help it can get!" Kup is back.

This story is good for a number of reasons. The first and perhaps most important is that it's another story from a time we don't really know much about. We always knew Kup was old, but it's great to see his first meeting with Hot Rod, and find out where their affectionately antagonistic relationship started. It's not really a surprise that he has a past as a risk-taker and hellraiser but Kup has always been a favourite character of mine so seeing him triumph over old-age is a nice emotional beat.

I also enjoy the sense of an expanded universe. We haven't seen a lot of different aliens in the Transformers yet and the Tyroxians are particularly alien, with their twisted bodies and indecipherable speech.

I think stories like this are important for another reason. Here Furman shows us that the serialised nature of a comic can lead to stories of varying lengths. There aren't many single-issue stories, because by their nature they have to be quick, simple, but worth telling, but by having them here and there, Furman demonstrates that it's fine to tell a story that is as long as it needs to be, a talent which is rather lost in this age of "writing for the trade".

Dan Reed's art is as idiosyncratic as ever. His organic style is quite a good choice for Kup because it's much easier to depict age in a more human-like face. I am not always the biggest fan of his action sequences as they do not always look natural, and Kup leaping through the window, I feel, suffers from this, with his shots going off in random directions. That said, the Tyroxians are fantastically horrible and look at the incredible level of detail on Kup slumped in his chair on the first page!

Kup's Story! is a good read all round and was reprinted in the Titan collection of City Of Fear which, while out of print, is still fairly easy to find.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Star Wars at the LA Zoo

This Saturday is Star Wars day at the LA Zoo!  From 10AM to 5PM, you can come down and meet Darth Vader, Stormtroopers, R2D2 and more.  There will also be previews of the upcoming release of Star Wars: The Complete Saga (Episodes I-VI) [Blu-ray] (order it today!) and a trivia contest.  If you're a native, and a fan of Star Wars, swing on by and check it out. ($14 adults, $9 children)

Friday, August 19, 2011

Bish's Review: Marvel UK #131 "Worlds Apart!" Part 2

Worlds Apart Part 2 was written by Simon Furman, drawn by Will Simpson, inked by Tim Perkins, lettered by Anne Halfacree and newcomer Nick Abadzis took over colouring.

The cover is by Lee Sullivan and depicts a very dramatic and relatively toy and show accurate Scorponok with Highbrow as his helpless prisoner. Perhaps the background could have used some detail but I really enjoy the energy in this image and the terror of Scorponok's enormous beast mode. The painted colouring is really beautiful as well, and is appreciated given that unlike on the earlier issues, this was no longer a guarantee.

The scale of the threat posed by Scorponok is illustrated in an excellent opening splash panel where his claw is almost the size of four Autobots put together! He proceeds to toss the Autobot Headmasters about while explaining the trap they have walked into.

The other Decepticons are blocking the exit so Hardhead uses his sidearm to destroy the cables keeping the Targetmasters imprisoned. This gives them the momentum they need to free the Nebulons that form their weapons, Peacemaker, Pinpointer and Spoilsport and even the odds!

Meanwhile, Scorponok has beat a tactical retreat with Highbrow clasped helplessly in his claw. He mocks the Autobot's inability to fight back while we get a glimpse of Highbrow's internal struggle. He is desperate to fight the Decepticon but Gort is terrified and won't respond.

Back at the fortress the Autobots are getting the upper hand but Chromedome realises that Highbrow is missing and sets off in pursuit.

Scorponok transforms to his towering robot mode and talks at Highbrow about how this situation has helped him understand the bonding process better, and how he now realises the importance of compatibility in the minds involved. He is about to slay Gort but Chromedome appears at the last minute and fires on the Decepticon, who responds by lobbing a huge boulder.

Chromedome proceeds to give the lie to Scorponok's assertion, using his enhanced Headmaster skills to evade the giant Decepticon at every turn and hit back, while giving a lecture about how the differences in the two minds actually create a strong middle-ground.

Hearing this pep-talk, Highbrow rebonds with Gort and fires on Scorponok, sending him fleeing. Highbrow thanks Chromedome and reitterates what being a Headmaster is all about: celebrating the positive aspects of disparate personalities and using them as force for truth and justice. (or evil, in the case of the Decepticon Headmasters, but he doesn't say that).

A fun conclusion to the story that goes some way to explaining just why the Headmaster process was necessary. We get a lot of explanations in other versions of the story that essentially boil down to "working as one mind makes you more powerful" but it's never really shown.

The Targetmasters are generally depicted as simply having more powerful guns, which works thematically, if not very plausibly. However, to really show why you would want to willingly share your mind with another being the writer needs to go a bit further, and Chromedome's acrobatic takedown of Scorponok goes some way to demonstrate this. Of course, Scorponok is a Headmaster too, but perhaps him and Zarak are too similar? (for the two of you reading this who don't already know who Zarak is, he's Scorponok's Nebulan companion). I have always read this as two minds working in tandem to spot all the possible combat angles and options, more than one individual warrior would be able to process. This is certainly more plausible than the cartoon, which had the Nebulans explicitly pushing buttons and moving levers to get the Autobots to do things.

Eagle-eyed continuity hounds would have spotted Cyclonus and Scourge among the Decepticons on Nebulos. This doesn't actually matter for this story, as there is no indication of when it is supposed to take place. However, the US Headmasters miniseries (currently running as backup to this story, don't forget) explicitly took place in the '80s, yet these characters could not be left out as Hasbro had reissued them as Targetmasters. Furman went on to explain this in Legacy Of Unicron (review coming soon) but it would have seemed pretty bizarre at the time of release.

Another issue of decent art from Will Simpson. Nothing stands out overmuch but the action flows and the characters are on model. The colouring is on a par with the previous issue, and Abadzis repeats the same bizarre error of colouring Crosshairs like Sureshot and vice versa that White did, which leads me to believe there must have been some kind of behind the scenes snafu misinforming the two of them.

An enjoyable two-issue battle but nothing Nebulos-shattering. I would have liked much more examination of the Headmaster process but still enjoyed rereading this one. It was collected in the Titan collection called Transformers: Time Wars (Transformers (Titan Books Paperback)) (available for order) which is worth having, but not really for this story.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Death’s Head Review: Issue #5 – Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling!

Same creative team for Issue 5 – writer Simon Furman, letterer Annie H, colourist Nick Abadzis and editor Richard Starkings – except for we get another one-off artist: John Higgins (who most notably coloured for Watchmen and Batman: The Killing Joke)

I couldn’t find out who drew the cover, but he was clearly a fan of Conan the Barbarian. In homage to the classic pose, Death’s Head stands on a heap of gold, adoring damsel clinging to his leg and brandishing a vulture perch instead of a battleaxe. It’s a fun idea, though perhaps they could have carried it further by copying the original’s soft lines and sepia colours. I like the fact that, rather than a heap of vanquished enemies, Death’s Head considers a pile of cash to be ‘best in life’. The vulture and woman relate to the story, although not in any logical sense. By her outfit, the woman must be Bahlia, although she is completely different in appearance and attitude, so lots of artistic licence is at work here.

A spacecraft flies above in the ruined wastes outside Los Angeles. Within is Keepsake, an unwashed salvage man; Bahlia, his attractive and inexplicably-devoted companion; and a bad-tempered vulture that reminds Keepsake of his ex-wife. These characters originally appeared in Doctor Who Magazine 140, also by Furman and Higgins, where Keepsake is made a reluctant hero by The Doctor and wins the heart of Bahlia. The previous story isn’t required reading for this one, but it’s a nice expansion of the universe.

Supremely relaxed, Keepsake ignores the controls of the craft until Bahlia points out they have overshot the city. They crash land in the desert, and have to walk into town. Keepsake staggers on beneath the baking sun, despairing until Bahlia points out they have arrived, whereupon he immediately brightens up and saunters towards the nearest bar.

Meanwhile, in his Plaguedog-ravaged office, Death’s Head is being employed to find Keepsake by his vampish ex-wife, Thea. Though initially dismissive, at her mention of gold bullion, Death’s Head suddenly becomes very interested in marriage guidance.

We learn that Keepsake and his old partner Colt discovered a shipment of sunken gold, and each took one-half of the treasure map as insurance. Thea and Keepsake planned to betray Colt, but Keepsake instead double-crossed his wife. Thea wants Death’s Head to recover her husband and both maps.

In a darkened bar, Keepsake and Bahlia are meeting with Colt, who has just been released from prison. The exchange of maps begins, until Colt pulls out a gun and his gang of hoods appear. Taking both maps, and Bahlia as hostage, Colt leaves Keepsake despondent.

He is quickly collared by Death’s Head, who has been conducting some amusing enquires around the seedy bars of LA. The mechanoid begins his interrogation by slamming Keepsake face-first into the wall. Thea arrives, having avoided being spotted by Colt outside (using the classic technique of planting an enormous kiss on the nearest stranger) and confirms that Keepsake has indeed been betrayed. Even so, she does gleefully instruct Death’s Head to give her husband one last bash, for old times’sake.

Now allies, Death’s Head, Thea and Keepsake stake out Colt’s coastal salvage operation. After Death’s Head plays peacemaker to some husband-and-wife squabbling, they devise a plan to get past his goons and onto the boat where Colt is holding both the gold and his hostage.

Her skirt now several inches higher, Thea distracts Colt’s waterfront guards enough for Death’s Head to rip through the pier from below and despatch two of them. A swift knee from Thea takes care of the third and they get into a speedboat to intercept Colt.

Their boat is quickly sunk by Colt’s gunfire – Death’s Head is forced to hold Thea above the water under threat of not getting paid – but Keepsake’s aircraft comes to the rescue. Meanwhile Death’s Head jets into the sky, then crashes down through the deck of Colt’s boat.

As Colt frantically patches the hole, Bahlia and the gold are winched up to Keepsake. Underwater, Death’s Head decapitates Colt’s divers, then blasts upwards, smashing his way through the newly-patched hole in Colt’s boat to join the others.

In Keepsake’s craft, Thea is leaning out of the hatch and loudly gloating at the sinking Colt. Keepsake quietly offers Death’s Head half the gold if he pushes Thea out. Pausing only to register shock – and then admiration – at Keepsake’s greedy duplicity, Death’s Head heaves Thea out into the sea.

They land in safety and start to divide the loot, Death’s Head reasons that he was promised half the gold by Thea, and half by Keepsake – and so departs with everything, including the vulture. Keepsake is left with Bahlia. Thea is still in Colt’s sinking boat, complaining loudly.

In the one-page teaser for next week, a military team are in Equador, entrenched, outnumbered and under heavy fire. Their commander gets a message recalling them for an urgent mission. He responds that, despite the odds, they’re unstoppable and will be home by teatime. And so, the toughest comic character ever to use the term ‘teatime’ leaps forward, guns blazing.

Despite the Conan-style cover, this issue is not Death’s Head in warrior-barbarian mode (we’ll get that next week). He’s back to being an investigator, which is proving a really good format for his style of dry humour, mercenary sentiments and occasional brutality. As much as it needs good opponents, I’d say the Death’s Head title also works best when he has good clients.

The story reads like a classic detective story: Death’s Head is the gumshoe, Thea the femme fatale, Keepsake the everyman grifter, Bahlia the pure-hearted dame and Colt the out-and-out villain. The ever-changing loyalties and double-crossing are entertaining, and it’s good to see Death’s Head in the mix with people even less scrupulous than himself.

Spratt is absent, but I didn’t even notice that on the first read. Indeed, the really fun relationship is between Death’s Head and his nagging employer, Thea. Resourceful and acidic, I think she would have made a much better foil for the mechanoid than the hero-worshipping Spratt.

Though this was his only work for the series, Higgins does great work with the art. The expressions on Keepsake and Thea are especially well done, and there are some nice visual jokes (such as drunken aliens in the bar) that stay the right side of silliness. Death’s Head is nicely rendered, although he strangely never appears too prominently, as if Higgins wasn’t confident or happy placing him centre-stage (whereas some of the supporting characters get half-page illustrations). With the various artists contributing to the series, it’s noticeable that Death’s Head is proving a strong enough character design to accommodate a number of styles.

After the human-centric artwork last issue, we get lots more weird characters filling the background, particularly during Death’s Head’s enquiries (a bar full of sloth-like creatures on the ceiling, a couple of alien street walkers that shake the mechanoid’s cool reserve with a solicitous whisper). The scenery also feels more authentic to the world of 8162: Los Angeles being a metropolis island in a barren landscape.

Next week: It’s all-out war as Death’s Head takes on “Sudden Impact!”

Death’s Head #5 was republished in ‘Death’s Head Volume 1