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.


Anonymous said...

As great an arc as this issue kicks off, the death of Firebolt is by far the most interesting bit. For starters, British readers saw this before reprints of any American stories that called him "Sparks", right? That was most likely an early name of Bob's that Hasbro rejected, yet to UK audiences it would seem like an even sloppier mistake after seeing a story with the correct toy name (although the one time Hot Rod shoots him, the effect is more a shower of sparks than a bolt of fire).

The other interesting thing about that name is that an early G.I.Joe ep features a comm. specialist named Sparks who never appears again, making one wonder if that was also an early name/design for Breaker (I don't remember if he looked like Breaker's animation model; is there a Joe wiki that might clear that up?) He'd simply have never showed up again, yet Flint Dille worked him into a season 2 ep that explained he quit the Joes and got work at a radio station. I like to think that Sealab 2021's Sparks was an homage to both the TF and Joe characters, or was that name actually used in Sealab 2020?

One also gets the feeling that Furman really disliked the -master gimmicks, and felt confident that they would be a passing fad. That move speaks of the same confidence that would lead him to craft his own origin for the Transformers in #150, or did he get 'permission' from Hasbro and Bob on that one?

And yet, we don't get any details on how Firebolt died, which strikes me as rather clever; if an edict came down that Nebulon partners had to survive into the future, he'd have been free to tell the actual story of his "death" wherein Hot Rod merely thought he died, the sort of error-fixing that often led him to craft his more inspired tales. Much like how explaining what Cyclonus and Scourge were doing in Headmasters #4 as Targetmasters ended up shaping the course of the UK comic from Legacy of Unicron until the color ran out, no?


Eugene said...

Headhunt is a great little story. The following issue with the all-out sewer combat is awesome.

This issue, however, finally places Roddy in the cartoon's 'Whiny, imcompetent, unconfident leader' role, whereas during the Wanted Galvatron saga, he was, while a more complex, ruthless character than Optimus, still an authoritative, commanding figure. And strong too, putting up a very close fight against Galvatron. (better than Magnus, in fact).

From Headhunt on Rodimus loses that authoritativeness, competence and power to an extent. He remains whiny as long as he appears, and is pretty damn weak too, getting easily defeated by Death's Head and Galvatron , and being put on the run by Cyclonus and Scourge.

Bishbot said...

Hey Bumblevivisector (what a name!)

I think the death of Firebolt is even cleverer than that. You're not wrong, of course, but as I said in my review (or meant, anyway) I think the actual cleverness lies in the story potential of not knowing, not just so Furman could rewrite it if he needed to, but more because it's a much richer universe if we don't know each and every thing that happened and why. That's one of the reasons a twenty-year time gap is a great idea, because it shifts the status quo and lets us experience something new without having to rigorously explain everything. That said, I'm sure Furman could have retconned the death, and done it well, were he called to do so and yes, Scourge and Cyclonus' Hasbro-mandated time-shifting shenanigans will be a big deal before too much longer.

Eugene - I think you're being a little unfair to Rodimus here. As far as we have seen him in this story he has been off-balance, sure, but that's understandable, Death's Head is a wildcard that's hard to account for and a lot of Rodimus' introspection is no different from Furman's take on Optimus Prime, who is far from the confident leader that he might project outwardly.

That said, while I have read this arc before, a long time ago, I am, deliberately reading it only at review pace so I can review the issues as a reader would have read them, so I might still end up agreeing with you!

Chuffer said...

Thanks for the plug, Bishbot. I thought ‘Headhunt’ was one of the best future stories – if memory serves it was the only one not to be an epic of several issues, and a shame there weren’t more like it. Perhaps Furman felt a future story always needed a big event to justify it, in this case, Death’s Head’s return would have been enough to satisfy the audience (I remember him winning ‘Best Supporting Character’ in a readers’ poll).

Incidentally, Scarvix is the same robot world where Death’s Head had his office in Issue 1 of his own series (which came after this, but it’s a nice link). It’s also described as the ‘grease filter of the galaxy’, making Blot a good choice as envoy.

I agree about the death of Firebolt (a curious Harry Potter coincidence there, having the same accessory name as the ‘chosen one’ Hot Rod) – making the reader feel there is so much going on in the universe, and the characters’ stories don’t just begin or end within the pages of the comic.

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

Firebolt was also called "Sparks" in the Ladybird books published around this time, suggesting that it was a name in the Hasbro material sent to licencees and they either made a mistake or changed their minds late in the day. Most of the name and colouring differences from the toys are almost certainly down to the stories being created without examples of the finished product & packaging sitting on the creators' desks.

TFWiki claims that some but not all of the US appearances of the character were relettered for the UK reprints to change Sparks to Firebolt. I haven't got the issues immediately to hand to check but this kind of fix was not unusual. It's a pity that the UK reprints of the US stories are generally unavailable to modern fans without tracking down the original issues - whilst commercially I doubt there'd be sufficient interest, they would make the combined run a little more coherent by including the modifications made to smooth things out.

Overall it's nice to see Furman developing the 2007 universe as much more than just a place of origin for extra characters to run around the present day timeline. However it the future and present started contradicting each other too much - and at this stage 2007 was presented as THE future with alternate timelines generally unmentioned. Optimus Prime's death (with a body, funeral & everything) in the present whilst having a key role in the future was already a point of confusion & contention on the letters pages, and Megatron's rapid resurrection may have in part been to offset the same problem.

Eugene said...

@Bishbot- Yeah, I may have been a little unfair to ole' Roddy. But in Space Pirates, we see just how much more effective he is as Hot Rod. Optimus may have self-doubt (which is good!), but his achievements vastly overshadow his lesser parts, allowing him to remain a shining beacon of leadership.

Rosimus appears to lack Optimus' physical strength and strength of personality,and thus may come off as a little too self-doubting, whiny and weak. But I guess he's still a pretty good leader as a whole.

Andros Tempest said...

Marvel (US) have always stated in time travel stories, dating back to the mid 80's, that time travel FROM or TO the future means travelling to an alternate universe, literally gaining knowledge of future events changes those events once you return to the past. The Avengers, X Men and Fantastic Four have frequently worked on this basis for time travel plots. Having read this in the pages of Secret Wars 2 (a title Furman edited) I always assumed the same was true of the TF time travel too, that while time in 2005 and 1985 moved forward at the same rate, events in one did not directly influence the other. Galvatron may have believed they did when he set in motion his plan to assassinate Unicron, but in reality it would have been the unicron of a different universe.

Of course if this was Furman's intent, he sort of forgot this when he wrote Time Wars, since the death of a future character triggered the time storm, I can't imagine Cyclonus dying before he was "born" would have made much difference really, it just probably meant that the transformer he displaced in the past would no longer return to replace him creating a mass imbalance.

Whatever, best not to look too deeply into these things I've found,

Chuffer said...

I’m pretty sure the UK time-travel stories were originally intended to be set in the same universe. In Target: 2006 Galvatron was fooled into thinking he had gone to a parallel universe, but actually hadn’t – according to the story’s logic, if he had succeeded, it would have destroyed the ‘same’ Unicron.

And it seemed the creative team were initially careful to keep the two time-zones consistent. I noted in Wanted: Dead or Alive, the only background Autobots depicted – Ultra Magnus, Bumblebee, Cliffjumper – were ones that had specifically survived the movie. I’m fairly sure the letters page answered a question about Goldbug by saying he was sure to be rebuilt as Bumblebee (which actually happened!), ready to take up his duties on Moonbase 2.

Of course, sticking to a pre-set starting position for 2006 would lead to creative stagnation of the present-day stories, so they started to ignore this (I remember being outraged at the Time Wars deaths of some Autobots who had appeared in future stories and who, to my 10-year-old mind, were ‘guaranteed’ survival until then). I’d say Furman started with the ‘alternate universe’ idea after Time Wars (the big time-rift would have been a plausible excuse for starting this), with at least two different futures of ‘Aspects of Evil’ and ‘Rhythms of Darkness’.

But like Andros Tempest, nowadays I tend to follow the Basil Exposition approach to time-travel stories: “I suggest you don't worry about those things and just enjoy yourself.”

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

Marvel US has actually been a lot more inconsistent on time travel than one might think. Mark Gruenwald certainly tried to set down the rule that time travel can't change history, it just creates an alternate timeline. However not all stories follow this - the biggest contrary case off the top of my head is the X-Men story Age of Apocalypse.

If I'm thinking of the right Secret Wars II story, it's actually one where Reed Richards stopped the Beyonder from killing Dr Doom on the basis that Doom had not yet been taken out of time to battle the Beyonder in the original Secret Wars series, and that even the all-powerful Beyonder may not be able to withstand the paradox. The story was from Fantastic Four #288.

At the time of Target 2006 it seems to follow the "Back to the Future rules" - time travel into the past alters history without spewing alternate timelines (forget the diagram Doc draws in the second movie) but make a drastic alteration that impacts on the circumstances of your own birth/creation and you fade out of existence. Had Galvatron's plan succeeded then the weapon would have become available in 2006; when he thought he'd destroyed Starscream he assumed that he was in an alternate past because he still existed.

I suspect Time Wars was intended to be a mini-Crisis type event that allowed for the ditching of a fixed future, especially with a wholesale massacre on the horizon of the present when many of those characters had been shown in the future.