Thursday, October 13, 2011

Bish's Review: Marvel UK #145 "Stargazing"

The first new UK originated issue after the saga of Used Autobots, Child's Play and Spacehikers!, Stargazing was written by Simon Furman. The pencils were provided, unmistakeably, by Jeff Anderson and inked by Stephen Baskerville. Euan Peters managed the colouring and Annie Halfacree the lettering.

The cover is by Barry Kitson and although there's not a lot wrong with it it just isn't very exciting, although it is tempting to take Starscream's comment as a sly dig at the issue in general.

We find Starscream, fresh from the stasis pod he was locked in at the end of Target: 2006 standing in a snowy landscape and reminiscing about Cybertron. He goes through fond memories of wrecking Autobots on his homeworld and seems to be so homesick that he's ready to give up all his ambitions of taking over the Decepticons and leave Earth behind for good.

He is interrupted by a geeky looking (and insanely brave) human male who turns up and asks if Starscream is a Transformer. Luckily Starscream is so depressed that he cannot even be bothered to squash such an irritation and actually lets it engage him in conversation. It seems that this (still unnamed) human is really keen on Christmas and is determined to let the ambulatory warplane that he has stumbled upon know about it.

Despite himself, Starscream accesses his own datafile on Christmas and reels off the basic facts. The human is horrified to hear it in such clinical terms (genuinely horrified - he really bloody loves Christmas !) and tells Starscream that the Decepticon doesn't understand Christmas at all.

Starscream is understandably peeved at this (who wouldn't be?) and, picking the human up in one giant hand tells him to buzz off. The human seems to get the message and says that he will go home. The mention of the word "home" sets off Starscream's nostalgia circuits again and his anger is replaced, once again, by depression.

Realising that the human (who must have a death wish) has not departed, Starscream is confused. The human has detected Starscream's sadness and tells him that he'd be a lot happier if he just saw what Christmas is all about.

Starscream, for reasons that I doubt even Simon could Furman explain, transforms to jet-mode and agrees to give it a try. He stuffs the human into his cockpit. The suggestion is that they fly around for a while and try to find some people giving presents to one another - hardly compelling to Starscream.

The human tries to explain that the act of giving is the best feeling of all, which is the complete antithesis of the Decepticon philosophy. As they debate these points, they spot a bus that is stuck in a snow drift below them.

Starscream lands and the bus turns out to be full of old people. The human urges Starscream to help them but the Decepticon isn't sure what he'd get out of it. While they're discussing this a police car races up and transforms into Streetwise who blasts Starscream.

They tustle for a couple of pages before a break in the brawl gives the (insane) human a chance to admonish Streetwise for attacking Starscream! Starscream, for his part, decides to help the humans out of the snow drift.

Streetwise is totally confused by this and does not seem to buy the human's explanation that it's because it's Christmas, but then, that is his explanation for everything. Streetwise takes off to escort the bus to its destination, leaving the human with Starscream.

The human, for his part, is elated that Starscream has discovered the spirit of giving but the Decepticon assures him that he only saved the bus in order to humiliate an Autobot.

The human FINALLY gets the message that Decepticons don't do Christmas and turns away, wishing Starscream a sarcastic and disappointed "Merry Christmas."

As he walks away, something completely inexplicable strikes Starscream and he turns back, with a big smile, and wishes the human a sincere "Merry Christmas kid!"

What. A. Crock.

Ahem... sorry. I'll try again. Stargazing is very possibly the single worst issue of the Transformers UK comic that I have ever read. To A Power Unknown is arguably worse, but that was written by random people and stuffed into an annual to make up the pagecount. Only the most obsessive fan would care about its status in canon. Stargazing however, got an entire issue of the main book and is unquestionably canon, despite not making any sense.

Stargazing very much has the feel of an obligatory issue in two ways. For one thing, it came out at Christmas, and Marvel UK policy (I assume) dictated that there must be a festive issue, despite the fact that they were usually awful. For another, Furman had left Starscream in stasis following the events of Target: 2006 but he was about to be used in the US book and therefore had to be returned to functionality. Presumably given that he was about to go into Legacy Of Unicron, which has no place for Starscream's return, Furman decided to kill two birds with one stone, with bizarre results.

The concept of an evil or misguided character learning about the magic of Christmas is hardly a new one. Charles Dickens made a pretty good stab at it and, perhaps more relevantly, a previous Christmas story, Christmas Breaker did almost the exact same thing with Circuit Breaker. It's not easy to do it without being twee, however (and Christmas Breaker is fairly terrible, just not as bad as this one). The problem here is that Circuit Breaker is a mentally ill human character who has a good chance at redemption. Starscream is a ruthlessly evil alien robot. He isn't even liked or trusted by his fellow world-conquering death machines and that's not because he's too nice or anything. It's because he's a backstabbing low-life who wants power for its own sake and has no loyalty to anyone or anything.

Starscream's homesickness is borderline out of character for him but I'll give it a grudging pass considering what comes later. I honestly don't really see this as something that would bother him overmuch, but I suppose we all have our unusual moods. Him having any patience whatsoever with a bothersome human is completely impossible, however.

Lets look at the scenario from another perspective: I like Christmas. You get to see your family, and eat a lot, and more importantly, Doctor Who is on, but I would find this nameless holiday cheerleader extraordinarily annoying, as, I'm sure would many other readers. Now, I admit this is difficult to prove, given the anonymity afforded by the internet, but I am actually an ordinary flesh and blood human, not a millenia old invader from the beyond the stars and I'm guessing most of you aren't either so really we should be on the side of the kindly human trying to persuade Starscream of the magic of our way of life. We're not though, are we? We're firmly with Starscream as he expresses his cynicism for holiday cheer.

I am not against shades of grey. I am not against an attempt to engender sympathy for an inherently irredeemable character but this issue is not that. The reader is sympathetic to Starscream but shouldn't be, because being irritated on Christmas Eve does not make up for the Decepticon's many crimes. If Furman had seriously wanted to turn Starscream to the path of good, then that would have been a valid approach (I believe something along those lines happened in The Unicron Trilogy) but he is not doing that. He is merely churning out a piece of fluff that happens to tick a couple of necessary storyline boxes, without having a tone or characterisation that feels consistent within that storyline.

So, that's bad, and then... AND THEN, Starscream loses our sympathy but not in the way he should - by blasting the human into a wet stain on the snow but by giving in and wishing him a MERRY CHRISTMAS! Starscream, he who goes by the motto, "Conquest is made of the ashes of one's enemies" has been charmed by the spirit of Christmas. I would maybe have accepted the fakeout ending - that Starscream only saves the bus to humiliate Streetwise. It would still have been stupid, but it's the kind of stupid that Transformers can occasionaly deal in and get away with, but this final line is, like Starscream himself, irredeemable.

There's art. Some of it isn't too bad. One of the panels of Starscream transforming is pretty awkward. The bus is a weird shape. Who cares? Deal with it.
The colouring is quite nice.
NEXT WEEK: We start off looking at the next epic storyline: Legacy Of Unicron. I'm excited. Admittedly after this issue I'd have been excited by another look at The Girl Who Loved Powerglide but this should be a step up from that.


Anonymous said...

In chronological terms this was the first TF Christmas Special I read as a kid (I'd only just got back into transformers that year and was in the process of collecting the back issues).

So it didn't seem quite as appalling to me as it was to the reviewer. Simply because I had no frame of reference as to starscream's character and motivation in terms of human customs and indifference there to.

I do however agree that it was cloyingly heavy handed in the TWEE factor. And yes, if it were me sitting in the snow feeling sorry for myself, some random bloke coming up to me and promising to show me what christmas is all about would be more creepy and uplifting.

I guess looking back as an adult you see the flaws in this one more blatantly. But what it highlighted more blatantly was how ridiculous it was to just leave Starscream trapped in a stasis pod in the first place.

While in terms of "the bigger picture" no one handled plot better than Furman, in terms of the nitty gritty, he tended to just pull stuff out of thin air, and occasionally it didn't work. This was one of those times.

I personally wouldn't rate this issue quite as badly as the reviewer does, but at the same time, it's not a classic TF story.

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

I guess Starscream's original stasis came about because the US comic was a little reluctant to show outright death, and then Target 2006 restored him to the status quo ante in case the US strip was going to make further use of him.

And that's what makes the story even more pointless - Furman may have got wind that Starscream was being revived but had already reconciled the two continuities and so could have easily left him in the stasis pod to be retrieved in Totalled, rather than this mess that necessitated art & letter edits on Totalled and Club 'Con. (It also creates another mess by revealing that the stasis pod was just left lying in a field and wasn't discovered for over a year. Who's sillier - the Unicron controlled Autobots who left it there, or the rest of the world for not noticing?)

Anonymous said...

I didn't get to read the Christmas specials until the Titan Second Generation trade, and this one stood out as my favorite. Maybe it's the only one that actually achieved "so stupid it's funny", but it didn't strike me as being as chiseled as Christmas Breaker, as "nothing" as The Gift (Jetfire), or as depressing as Cold Comfort.

Say Tim, is there any online collection of all the UK edits made to the American book? I can't find any on the TF Wiki, and I'd love to see what Skids got turned into. The only ones I've actually seen are both panels of Krunix in Headmasters #2.

While I certainly can't defend the continuity problems, I think I'll actually step up to bat for Starscream's...erm...character development here. In Target: 2006, he mentions being troubled by Galvatron using the Nemesis for target practice, since that might impede their ability to return to Cybertron, so the idea that he might be stuck on Earth longer than expected would be fresh in his mind. This might have led him to think that learning a bit about human psychology could be used to some long-term advantage, hence his willingness to play along with a deranged teenager willing to risk death in the fight against Grinchitude. His "change of heart" could just be one last attempt to see if he could mess with the kid's mind after finally getting through to him.

Was this insight into fleshling behavior worth it? Well, Ratbat was willing to make Screamer manager of Club Con in spite of his reputation...

As for the oddness of casting Starscream as a sympathetic character: I know this is likely a moot point given how little exposure British children had to the Sunbow cartoon, but a lot of casual Transfans in my neck of the globe (Detroit-ish) consider him their favorite TF for that very reason. On TV, Starscream's role was the guy correctly pointing out the flaw in Megatron's dumb plan every other episode only to be ignored, making him someone that every single kid who felt no one listened to them could instantly identify with. Even though he was never a personal favorite of mine, and one thing that made me more loyal to the comics was the fact that he acted a bit differently (i.e. smart enough to just shut the f#@% up and bide his time), I can't quite divorce my view of any Starscream from that idea, so this story still works for me, at least as well as half the Earth Force stuff (though I imagine a lot of UK readers dismissed that as the equivalent of chibi-theater at the end of some manga; sorry if I brought that up way too early).

Now as to why this kid would be nuts enough to harass a Decepticon: the one annual I own ('89, pre Time Wars) has a text recap of past years framed as one Adam Reynolds reading off the computers left behind in Mt. Saint Hillary after Grimlock ordered the Ark back into space. Interesting that this includes events on Nebulos, as even if this was connected to updated files on the Ark, these systems should have been destroyed by the eruption in U.S. #38. Though post-dating Stargazing, it mentions that he'd previously accessed the Decepticons' backstory database by accident. Aside from being blonde, Adam looks a LOT like Starscream's young foil in this issue, so is it possible they're supposed to be the same obsessive boy? More pointless continuity has happened.


Tim Roll-Pickering said...

In reply to Bumblevivisector,

Of the UK edits, TF wiki has descriptions of some of them, but the only other one I'm aware of online is the change to Broadside in Totaled!/Totalled! (the title's spelling was also changed) which can be seen on Tfwiki here. Skids had a mixed record of being modified - he was blacked out in the crowd scene in Funeral for a Friend!, and modified in Totalled! to look like a generic (indeed Tfwiki says he looks a bit like Crosscut) but there are a few other crowd scenes around this time where both he and some of the Wreckers are left unmodified.

Interesting take on Starscream's character. As one of those British children who had such a limited exposure to the cartoon at the time I guess I've often found Starscream annoying and caricatured because I grew up on versions where the characterisations and relationship is tonally different - Megatron is more cautious & wiley in both the comic and the Ladybird books, whilst Starscream has huge naked ambition but also a pronounced tendency to shoot first and think later. Indeed on several occasions (especially in the Ladybird books) it's Starscream putting forward a half-baked plan and Megatron pointing out the flaws, though it's Soundwave and the narrator (and indirectly Optimus Prime) in Crisis of Command who spell out just why Starscream hasn't got what it takes to be a leader. (And of course the comics had alternative Decepticons leaders with far more credible claims such as Shockwave.)

As for Adam Reynolds, he originally appeared in In the Begining in the 1986 or 1987 annual when he accidentally hacked into the Decepticon history computer. I don't think they put too much thought into the state of Mount St Hilary or how the Autobot computer knew details of events on both Cybetron and Nebulos - they just wanted to impart as much key information as possible. Equally I'm not sure if the kid is meant to be Reynolds - the latter is seemingly older and the kid never mentions his quest to regain knowledge of the Transformers' conflict.

You raise an interesting point that highlight there's yet another big continuity error in this story - the kid's knowledge of the Transformers and complete lack of trepidation about approaching one seems rather at variance with the comic so far. Other stories show neither the widespread popular knowledge and Autobot celebrities seen in the cartoon nor the "robots in disguise" strictly adhered to by Ladybird. Instead the public at large are aware there are giant robots running around and often fighting, but don't know the details or the race and faction names, simply assuming all the robots are hostile threats - and several stories explicitly address this (e.g. Decepticon Dambusters) or show how attempts by the Autobots to correct the picture are thwarted by the Decepticons (e.g. In the National Interest). The idea that a human could know enough that Starscream is "a Transformer" but not realise the danger and instead voluntarily approach one is heavily at odds with this.

(Okay one could argue that the kid is part of a group of "robot spotters" who've noticed the robots and are comparing notes and theories to put together a full picture. There's a similar concept in modern versions of Doctor Who. But such a concept would need to be explicitly introduced to make it work.)

Anonymous said...

skids is the one that is most reported of the UK edits. again it was down to some daft inconsistency that necessitated numerous pointless edits.

skids was displaced by galvatron in fallen angel, I'm guessing this was done because the US comic had barely used him for several issues and therefore it was presumed he was dead or in stasis or whatever. the US then reintroduces him without any explanation, but since furman still has glavatron running around it's impossible to write skids back in.

he was eventually returned following time wars, but by that point it was clear neither book had any true connection to one another.