Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 1 Episode 11--The Brood

"Go back and tell Winfield to watch! Tell him Matthew Marcus knew how to die." 

The Brood is the eleventh episode of Exo-Squad, continuing the Into the Heart of Darkness episode. Marcus leads the fleet to Earth, on the way imploring those who resisted the mutiny to join him in the fight. Winfield gives his blessing, apparently going so far as to swear loyalty to his subordinate. The Neo Sapien Mars and Earth fleets attack simultaneously, allowing the fleet to be outflanked and destroyed. Marcus chooses to go down with the ship rather than leave his bridge. Meanwhile, the distraction of the decisive space engagement of the war gives Marsh's people enough breathing room to patch their Frames while DeLeon and Marsala locate the brood center. Marsala disables Alec and sounds the alarm, demanding to speak to Phaeton and warning of the plot to destroy the brood center.

What Works: Almost everything. Let's start with the visual storytelling. There are many clever touches this episode. Space battles can be hard to visualize, so the use of a splitscreen with different areas of space quickly visually communicates the idea that indeed the Exo Fleet is surrounded. 

Continuing with the storytelling, the battle quickly goes from bad to worse. The bridge on fire, falling debris, sparking wires all quickly and effectively tell you that the good guys aren't winning this one.

The fleet action provides a good excuse as to why Marsh is able to keep his people alive for as long as he does. It makes sense that the Neos would focus on the space fleet. This also means that the Exo Fleet had the potential for a brilliant diversion, inserting a squad to destroy a high-value target and then taking a run at another planet. 

The squad is understandable and justifiably tense. Nara and Bronsky bicker over a screwdriver while attempting to get their craft working again. It makes sense, JT only sees three options: attempt to flee and most likely get killed; hole up on Mars and most likely starve; go down in a blaze of glory. Unsurprisingly, they choose the latter. 

JT worked out Marcus' role in their predicament very quickly, for all the good it did him. I also like DeLeon's comms e-frame repeating "no such mission in progress" to him. It slightly bothered me how easily Marsh accepted Marcus' story, so him figuring it out quickly mitigates that. 

The brood chamber is a regular creepy science-fiction horror show, with fully-formed Neo Sapiens liquefied due to defective gene pairs, ominous vats, and more great visual storytelling. It helps sell the horror of Phaeton brewing up enough Neos to replace every terran in the solar system.

Marsala's betrayal of DeLeon (and, by extension, the squad) packed a whollup, pun intended. He's been a stalwart member of the team since the beginning, so this really feels like a WTF moment. Especially given how he behaved last episode about returing to Mars, you can accept at least the possibility of betrayal. I love that punch, and how Alec seems to hang in the air for half a beat too long. It lets you linger in the moment and share in Alex's stunned confusion.

Back to the fleet, Marcus' obsession and refusal to leave the bridge give depth to the character. Yes, he's an asshole, and yes, he's a traitor, but he tries desperately to go down swinging. He was doing what he thought best for humanity, even if he was tragically misguided. The confrontation with Takagi was powerful and a great ending for the character. (But see below.)

Maggie Weston sure is pretty. I love the closeup of her eyes. Normally Nara is kind of the cute one, but you get the sense that under her greasemonkey exterior Maggie is quite the looker. 

The show continues to use body language in ways that are dazzlingly effective for television animation. Winfield comforting Takagi and helping him come to try to make the best of a terrible situation is a nice, and subtle, character moment. Also see Maggie's reaction at Takagi, going from despair to surprise to joy in seconds. (And I love how Kaz misreades the situation and starts to get a little handsy. Like I said, she's a looker!)
What Doesn't: The title. The plight of Able Squad on Mars is firmly the B-plot of the episode. Last episode was more ambiguous, with the attention equally shared between the two plots. Plus, the word "abandoned" kind of works for the mutiny too, with Marcus figuratively abandoning Winfield and his strategy. 

This doesn't exactly NOT work, but the Neo Sapien spearcarrier that delivers the news of the Exo Fleet's sortie to Earth is rather... grandiose, no? With his distinctive markings and costume, you'd almost think there was a toy of him or something. In actuality, he doesn't even get a name. I suppose it was just a character designer having fun. Kinda neat.  

Winfield was too soft for my taste. I can't see him sending Takagi back to retrieve Marcus, especially given that the man has (Winfield believes) effectively murdered Able squad. 

The death of the Resolute 
Watch for: While Marcus is stubbornly refusing to call the retreat, he commands that if the Resolute is going down it's taking the Neo Sapien flagship with it. S2 will introduce the Olympus Mons II, so it would appear that he succeeded.

Phaeton continues to disrespect Typhonus, half-explaining himself while walking away from his own battle minister. 

Overall: It's no accident that there are so many more positives than negatives listed. This is a fantastic episode. It pays off almost a full season of character development for Marcus, subverts the season of development Marsala has received, and given more humanity to Takagi, Weston, and Winfield. The mutiny plotline is exciting and, combined with the brood chamber, chilling in its implications for the human race. (Had the show ended at S1, it would have implied a pretty darned bleak ending with only a faint glimmer of hope.) The brood plotline is still all setup, but combined with Marsala's betrayal promises to be an emotionally engaging one. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 1 Episode 10--Abandoned

"I know the only thing standing between Phaeton and his total subjugation of the human race is this fleet!" 

The tenth episode of Exo-Squad, kicking off the "Into the Heart of Darkness" storyline, is Abandoned. It's been three months since the GRAF shield was disabled, and Marcus is concerned (not unreasonably) that the Neos may get it operational again and their window for liberation will slam shut. Winfield judges that the fleet can't achieve victory in its present condition and won't commit it until it can. Marcus send Able Squad on a one-way mission to Mars, then stages a mutiny. He seizes control and commits the fleet to launch for Earth the next day. Meanwhile, Able Squad discovers supplies for a massive new brood of Neo Sapiens, potentially billions. With them already holding the upper hand militarily, Alex surmises that they're not soldiers, they're workers, and that the complete extermination of the human race can't be far behind.

What Works: The mutiny plotline is compelling. Yet again, humans prove to be their own worst enemy. I love the bit of Winfield trying to direct things, unaware that the officers on the bridge with him are already being held at gunpoint. That's focus.

The suicide mission Marcus sends the squad on happens to turn up a new Neo Sapien brood center. This smacks of coincidence, and yet... Phaeton is such an egomaniac that OF COURSE he'd build SOMETHING at Olympus Mons. I'm slightly skeptical that Marsh would buy Marcus' line of bull so readily, but Marcus IS Marsh's superior officer. I think I'll choose to accept it.

Marsh now has a picture of Alice Noretti in his e-frame. That's really a very nice little touch. 

Able Squad's battle over Mars is pretty tough. The gang seems to have a legitimately hard time penetrating Neo Sapien air space. The Neos on the ground even muse that for a single squad to attack the planet is suicide. Of course, our heroes win and with no casualties, so it's not THAT tough, but the show does a good job of selling us on the difficulty. E-frames are damaged and there's some genuine tension as they attempt to not get shot out of the sky.

So, too, is the fight in the brood chemical plant ("Storehouse 17", which implies that this is just the tip of the iceberg) no cakewalk. The squad pulls out all the stops to get in, blow it up, and get out. It's a great moment when they think they're home free and the ship that's supposed to take them home is gone.

Body language continues to be a strength of the series. Marcus recruits Furlough to his side by grousing about Winfield and assembling a rifle, glancing down furtively at the weapon at strategic points in the conversation.
The obligatory character moment for the episode is Marsala learning to play poker with the gang. As expected, he's a fast study. Though I find it absurd that he's never even heard the word "bluffing" before. This contrasts nicely when Marsala freaks out a bit over being back on Mars. Nara attempts to console him, saying she knows what it's like to come home "under these circumstances". He rejects her outreach. "Not these circumstances." It's nice continuity for her and nice character development for him.

I like the Majesty of Phaeton's "Martian Whitehouse." It's certainly an imposing structure

What Doesn't: This is a nit, but the Last Time segment spends a lot of time summarizing last episode when literally the only thing that's relevant to this episode is that the GRAF shield was disabled. A Previously showing the tension between Marcus and Winfield would have made more sense.

I know we're supposed to be rooting for Winfield here, but I actually don't think his strategy of digging in and repairing the fleet makes much sense as presented. The Neo Sapiens posses the industrial capacity of three worlds. In secret they were able to launch a fleet that, at the very least, rivaled the Exo Fleet. Surely, even a slave economy can be outputing more ships per month than Winfield could hope to patch up. Spending time building a base on Io doesn't seem like a wise investment of resources. Perhaps Winfield is digging in for the long haul, but we don't really know for sure.

The ship that delivers Able Squad to Mars is really funky looking!

Watch for: Alec puts the moves on Maggie Weston. While she's got a bit of thing with Takagi in her near future, Alec and Maggie will develop a deeper relationship in season 2.

In the more immediate future, we'll get some payoff about the two vows Marsala mentions to steel himself. 

We also see Phaeton physically assert his dominance over Typhonus. Typhonus won't stand for this treatment for very long.

Overall: Another very strong episode, both on its own and especially for what it portends. Obviously this one was mostly set-up, but the episode still offers a fair share of action and drama. The Marcus/Winfield tension is ratcheted to 11 and getting ready to pay off. Marsala's loyalties are, for the first time, genuinely called into question, albeit subtly. The Weston/Takagi relationship is about to start moving into interesting places. Great stuff!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 1 Episode 9--Sabotage

"I've seen people sell their souls for a crust of bread while they waited for Exo Fleet to help, while the Neos killed my family!"

The ninth episode of Exo-Squad, and the conclusion to the Veil of Doom plotline, is Sabotage. Nara finds the Venutian resistance at the Snake Tree, but they've gone to do their trade. She gives them what food she has and races to the rescue. The Neos had no intention of making good on the trade anyway, and the resistance escapes after a brief firefight. They capture Algernon and convince him to work with Exo-Fleet, in time to save the fleet from the fully armed and operational GRAF shield. The Neo fleet surrounding Venus is crushed, the civilians of Venus are evacuated, and the resistance gets enough food to keep them going for at least a little while.

What works: Venus feels like a real place. I like things like The Snake Tree and The Spires of Selene and Port Russell (GRAF shield location.)

Algernon continues to be a great character. I love his reason for defecting. "I offered my inventions to Exo Fleet, they said they were 'too expensive.'" I can totally buy that. He cares nothing for their "petty wars" and just wants to do his science, but after he's barred from his own lab even he can read the writing on the wall.

I rather like the visuals of the Neo Sapien stormtroopers. The bayonets affixed to their arms are neat, and the gas masks give them an ominously de-humanized (de-neoized?) look. They also imply that the Neos (or possibly the Exo Fleet) regularly use gas attacks, though this isn't a promise the series will deliver on. We've seen them before but they feature especially prominently in this episode. I had been hoping for action figures of them, possibly in the Jump Trooper line. There were canceled prototypes for Winfield (possibly young Winfield) and jetpack James Burns, so this wasn't an unreasonable hope. Alas, the toy line never really excelled.

Starving Venutions continue the trend of a very, very dark series. Sure, they're evacuated and/or fed in the end, but the visuals pull no punches with skin-and-bone kids with distended bellies. It makes one forgiving of a resistance willing to trade allies for food.

The show continues to educate. Marsh quotes Napoleon. "An army travels on its stomach."
The space battle is very cool. It's clear, both from dialog and from visuals, that this is actually a pretty minor skirmish. Still, the visuals are dynamic, and the tactical situation easy to follow. I especially like the ominous exchange between members of Able Squad, to the effect of "they're running!" "No, they're regrouping." "Then why aren't they attacking?" Why, that would be because of...

The GRAF shield. It's finally seen in its full glory here, crushing a couple of damaged Exo Frigates before Algernon corrupts the targeting system and wipes out the Neo Sapien Venutian Fleet. I love little touches like watching cans of food popping on the Resolute before the shield is redirected. Also, points to Draconis for being overly literal: "the Exo Fleet shall be crushed."

Marsh and DeLeon are STILL out of uniform, three episodes and running. That's some nicely consistent wardrobe there.

Finally, after getting outmaneuvered and outclassed for eight episodes, it's nice to see a big solid win for the forces of light. Algernon taken back to Exo Fleet, the Venutian civies evacuated, the Venutian resistance able to eat, a Neo Fleet wrecked, and GRAF taken out of commission.

What doesn't: Marcus continues to grate on me. "I thought YOU said Venus was lightly defended" he whines, and yet next episode he's spoiling for a fight. The character is just too broad for me.

Diana's storyline (and, indeed, Diana herself) ends here. She tries to grab Algernon and run, only to be captured and (presumably) executed. While this does push the plot forward, gives Algernon motivation to defect back to the side of humanity, it ultimately doesn't feel very satisfying. She earns a quasi-forgiveness from Marsh, but her main detractor DeLeon is silent on the issue. It feels like the writers had an interesting idea for a semi-understandable collaborator, but didn't quite know how to end it. Possibly a less noble ending might have played more real, or perhaps just a more ambiguous one.

Xenobius is a little too incompetent for my tastes. He seems genuinely unsure if he could even turn on the device. As Algernon quipped last episode, "I thought you alpha Neo Sapiens were supposed to be intelligent." Given that Neos are supposed to be smarter than Homos (snicker) anyway, the A-class should really be better than he is. (Alpha Neo Sapiens are an idea from the series bible that only ever gets flirted with, to my recollection.) Great emoting and body language for him, though.

This is a nit, but it appears that the episode ends with the Resolute unchallenged in orbit above Venus. It would have been nice for at least a perfunctory line of dialog explaining that they didn't have time to take advantage of this very strong tactical position. That or have them take a few potshots at Neo bases from orbit. The implication was that the Neo's control of space greatly facilitated their conquest of the Home Worlds. While I can easily imagine why that wouldn't be the case here, it'd have been nice to see it nodded to.

Watch for: Algernon and GRAF technology will both continue to play a role in S2, though we won't hear from them for the rest of S1. So will James and the Venutian resistance, though that's less of a surprise.

The lose of the Neo's Venutian space fleet will be important in S2 as well, though to my recollection that won't be spelled out.

Oh, and we will be seeing the Snake Tree one more time.

Overall: Basically a satisfying conclusion to a multi-episode arc. The emotional core of the happenings on Venus works. A few details don't, the biggest of which is the Diana plotline. It also continues the worldbuilding that makes this setting so compelling. By now we've got a pretty good idea of who Marsh, Burns, DeLeon, Marsala, and I suppose Bronsky are, and some decent hints as to the rest of Able Squad. Takagi and Weston will shine more in the next arc. I don't think we really get inside Torres' head until S2. And finally, this episode gives some real hope, a refreshing burst of optimism amid the bleakness that works surprisingly well.

Of course, the next arc takes that optimism and then stamps a four-toed boot on it! I'll be sticking around for it, naturally.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Secrets of the AllSpark Almanac Addenda

Summer of 2011... Animated had come and gone, and then Fun Publications went and did an awesome BotCon set featuring the Stunticons and a few other new Animated goodies. I even got asked to write a few of the tech specs for the lithograph. Pete Sinclair and I got to talking and one thing led to another and soon Bill and I had been tasked to write a 16 page AllSpark Almanac Addendum, featuring the events and characters and places of The Stunti-Con Job and Moving Violations. The big constraint was that they wanted about half of the pages devoted to covering BotCon itself, which we did in the style of the Part II, out-of-universe material.

They were pleased with our work, and agreed to give us a few pages in the club magazine itself to continue the theme. We did six more pages the next year, though it never was quite the right time to revisit the format... until now, that is!

Again, I'm going to ramble on about what sticks out in my mind, and pay special attention to any references not in Chris McFeely's Annotations.

The Stunti-Con Job

Page 1: The Stunticon sigils were a few unused bits that we had no other place for. Incidentally, they're maybe the only pieces of artwork (not counting pieces created by Bill and myself) to not find their way into The Complete AllSpark Almanac.

Getting David Kaye to write the foreword was a real coup. We'd already had the primary architects of the cartoon and toylines on, so getting the star to share his thoughts felt like coming home. It didn't hurt that he had such a long and interesting history with the brand. 

We always tried to integrate the logo with the covers. Here, we had no cover, but we liked the idea of Toxitron oozing the logo out, so that's what we went with. 

Page 2: Alpha Flux was, indeed, a reference to Gamma World, which I was playing with my good buddy Rob Pennington at the time.

Page 6: It was important to Bill and I that we summarize Moving Violations as well as The Stunti-Con Job. This has the curious effect of having a one-page summary for a two-page story.

Did anyone notice that the episode summary was taken directly from a panel in the comic itself? Depth Charge holds up a pad while chewing out Cheetor... we used that pad for the episode summary itself, complete with Depth Charge's fingers.

I was pretty impressed that Chris was able to identify the two Fringe episodes as the source of the number. I thought I'd buried that one rather well.

Cheetor's Badge was inspired by the packaging for his FP toy. It's really hard to read, but we did make an entire viable badge to go with it.

Notes on Elvish... so, I cracked the Maximal and Predacon languages from Beast Wars back in the late 90s and made Truetype fonts of them for free distribution. Apparently I was responding to some kind of genetic imperative, because my mom did basically the same thing with Tolkien's Elvish back in the 60s. (Minus the internet bits, of course. She didn't work at DARPA.)

Page 8-9: Unlike our previous hidden messages, I encoded a bunch in a brand new language, Cybertronian Optical Code. To play fair, I made it based on Morse code. To make it tricky, I introduced random variations in the curves so that it wouldn't be screamingly obvious. It worked; I had Chris stumped for months.

Trypticon Prison seemed like a good place to feature much of Derrick's new art that wasn't done in a completely finished style. Since the Mini-Cons tend the prison, this seemed like a good place to put them.

Marcelo's art is just gorgeous, isn't it? I had to do some Photoshop magic to make some empty cells for Cell Block 456.

Page 10-15: These pages are included in The Complete AllSpark Almanac, but in heavily revised form. The toys got integrated into the toy section and slightly expanded on. Much of the artwork was pulled out and made bigger. Minerva got shifted to Chapter 1. Some of the more generic BotCon material was cut, the rest was moved into a new chapter in Part II called Expanded Universe (alongside The Arrival, the game, and the Titan comic.) All in all, these pages were the most difficult to retool to make them feel like the rest of the book, but I think we achieved our objective.

Page 16: I love the unused tech-spec that teases Slipstream. Whomever put it together did a great job with the cardboard texture under the bio.

I think the chibi Dalek and Elephantor are adorable. It's hard to make a Dalek cute (and different enough from the real deal to fall under fair use / parody) but I think Bill managed. (These are not in The Complete AllSpark Almanac.)

We never quite lived up to our implied promise, to cover ALL of the new characters in depth. I'm proud to say that The Complete AllSpark Almanac rectifies this issue. They won't all get bios, but they'll all have at least as much as we managed for Manatronatee, a sentence or two and nice large character models.

Collectors' Club Issue 43

Page 1: Decimus Quadrillions came directly from Derrick's fertile imagination, his twitter account I believe.

Little Miss Firecracker wasn't supposed to be any kind of reference as far as I know.

I thought it was fun to play up the Flashpoint/Inferno similarities. I felt rather inspired by using his Action Master accessory in her bio.

Page 2: The string JW 39 864 715 is from one of the Saberhagen Berserker short stories. I don't remember which one.

The G2 Autobot symbol was NOT based on anything specific, but was just supposed to call to mind a sort of broadcast symbol.

B5 is indeed a reference to Babylon 5, but B4 was a reference too! Star Trek: Nemesis, to be specific.

Collectors' Club Issue 44

Page 1: These two pages got rearranged a bit in The Complete AllSpark Almanac, just because the aspect ratios were different and we had a bit of new material to work in. We also had extra space from not using the logo. it all worked out great, so I think you'll enjoy them.

Page 2: Don't read too much into the Poison Apple, it was just supposed to be Rainbow Dark's cutie mark.

Collectors' Club Issue 45

Page 1: Team Chaar is awesome! If we had to stop somewhere, this seemed like a good place to do it.

Page 2: Derrick was very keen to get Strika's boob-missiles into the canon. I wasn't sure Hasbro would go for it, and yet, here we are.

Bill has supplied the answers behind 69275754697 and 64672943. The first is a code from Freejack that Alex Furlong (Emelio Esteves' character -- love the name) gives to try to convince Vacendak (played by Mick Jagger of all people) that he's REALLY McCandless (Anthony Hopkins) in a new body. The code is rubbish, but Vacendak gives him a pass anyway. The actual code is shown here. 64672943 is a door code from the short story Patient Zero by Tananarive Due and published in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Eighteenth Annual Collection.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Secrets of the Almanac II Revealed!

A while back, Bill Forster and I did a series of posts called Secrets of the Almanac. We went behind-the-scenes on all of book 1 and about a quarter of book 2 and shared our thoughts. I figured, with The Complete AllSpark Almanac just a few weeks away, I'd pick up where we left off. I'll just ramble on about what I remember, and especially anything that Chris McFeely missed in his excellent (and flattering) Annotated Almanac II. By-the-by, here is Part One of Secret of the Almanac II, and here are parts one, two, three, and four of book 1.

Page 19: Backing up slightly, Chris failed to identify the source of the number 65483-2483-32--It's from the show Flashforward, a case file that I parsed differently. This might have helped Chris with the source of a number on page 64. This starts the trend of most of what Chris missed; they were visual references that couldn't easily be googled. Note that this number is actually online now because some has transcribed the episode! I also accidentally used the number twice, because I used Chris' own annotations to help decide what I'd reference in the Addendum.

Page 64: The Yatter page! I tried to sell Bill on this idea and he was highly skeptical. He couldn't visualize it. So I went ahead and mocked it up and he got it immediately. I cannot read this page without laughing out loud, and it's rare that my own work can do that to me. The number 64 was also a reference to Flashforward, the 137 seconds they flashed to the future.

Page 76: The garage sale sign is lifted from Ghost World. I also thought it was funny how many dead dogs have accumulated in TF lore.

Page 80: The Astroscope graphic is the map from Time Bandits. I also was privately amused that the numbers of the months don't synch up properly, just as in the Gregorian calendar.

Page 88: I was lucky there was a model with Prowl with his arm in a sling. On the one hand, I didn't want to not include him. On the other, I hate reusing models. This saved me the trouble.

Page 89: I would love to have made the background image larger, perhaps the entire width of the page. But I also couldn't see giving these guys two pages. I had fun declaring that they were called Rock Lords.

Page 90: There was an awful lot of Space Bridge junk with models. I thought using them here was a rather elegant solution. It was also a slick way for me to get Swindle's chest model into the book.

Page 93: The box of the Ninja Gladiator game is strongly reminiscent of the old NEC game boxes. I kind of messed up when I declared the monster from Destro's castle to be named Ssslither, as there was ALREADY an Inhumanoid with that name. Whoops!

Page 98-99: I love that movie-Skids suffers the same fate as Marvel UK Skids, with a parasite attached to his head. I'm also rather fond of Bill's take on Astrotrain and Overlord. As noted, I drew heavily on my real-life knowledge of World War II, specifically the Pacific Theater, to plot our the events of the war. I had a tiny bit of help from Marty Isenberg on this one, specifically when I asked for help reconciling the ideas that the war was won by: 1) hiding the AllSpark; 2) building space bridges; 3) Project Omega. I love the visuals on these pages, they're overall probably my favorite bits of work by Bill.

Page 100-101: These were my "and the rest" pages. Shockwave I PROBABLY could have given a full page to in the new colors, though I'd have needed to update his bio. Otherwise there were these odd designs and not all that much room on the episode guide pages to showcase them. I love Derrick's Blackarachnia sans-helmet.

Page 106: Derrick drew all these guys up and I had no idea what to do with them. I hit on the idea that they might be advanced automatons, which seemed to resonate. Derrick DID have me take out a line about them not having sparks, wanting to keep his options open.

Page 112-113: The star map! This was a pain to put together. I also made a version where there isn't space for the gutter to use as a print. At one Auto Assembly Simon Furman attempted to buy one off me and I had to inform him that his money was no good with me and gave it to him.

McColamo was the planet from Spotlight Drift, which is referred to as a "free trade zone." I asked Shane if he had any thoughts as to names and he didn't, so I wound up naming it for the creative staff. (McCarthy, Coller, Lafuente, Mowry)

Did anyone notice that the Beast Wars Neo planets were strung out in episode order? I was trying to track the journey of the Gung-Ho. Note that there's an episode where they go back to the first planet and then start in a new direction, and that is also covered here. Also, Gaia was a nod to BW II/Neo, not The Foundation series. (Though it's a generic-enough name that they were all drawing from the same source material.)

I am also slightly disappointed that my attempts to merge the three Planet X that we'd previously encountered in Transformers lore didn't work. I didn't see any reason they couldn't all be aspects of the same place and wrote it accordingly.

There's a bit of info about the Morthrai system from War of the Worlds. I was attempting to, in my own mind at least, reconcile what we knew of them. We knew the planet was called Mor-Tax. We knew that the aliens in S1 called themselves Mor-Taxians and in S2 called themselves Morthren, from Morthrai, but they were supposed to be the same species. We knew they'd encountered the Quar-To before, but also that the nuclear explosions in Japan informed them for the first time that there was "life outside their system." I took those disparate facts and this is what I came up with.

Dendron Beta... I got nothing. I don't remember what I was referencing. I'm sure it was a pre-existing planet, because if it was supposed to be a name for someplace we'd already met I'd have given a clue. I might have included a typo. Perhaps it'll come to light at some point, or I'll remember. X2 I think might have just been a screw-up on my part, a vestigial remain from before I decided to try to merge the three disparate Planet Xs into one. But, if you like, call it a reference to the game Mega Man X2, because my original idea was to have X, X2, and X3 (with appropriate text nodding to both the TF and to Mega Man.) An idea that got lost in translation. Or maybe it's just a smudge on the screen.

Page 121: I did some extra drawing on the Arcee head model because I wanted her wires to run off the page. I think it came out rather seamlessly.

Page 123: Powered Convoy was another late-addition model from Derrick that I had no idea what to do with. I figured that, if he had the Magnus Hammer, he must be a Magnus. Javier Reys gave him a new head based on RID Ultra Magnus.

Page 124: Maccadam's, open, never shows up in the episode. I was surprised when going through the PSD file for it that there was a version that wasn't all boarded up. Javier did a commission that showed Omega Sentinels drinking on the rooftop of the building that came out rather nice.

Page 135: This was another case of having an awkward amount of material, in this case 1.5 pages of Burger Bot stuff. I thought the placemat was a rather playful solution. I messed up on the first female President of the US though, as there already was a canon one.

Page 137: I was happy to be able to acknowledge the hard work Chris put into annotating the first volume. Bill did a nice job on the script I thought.

Page 140: I like how aghast Kremzeek Prime looks at all his multi-colored knock-offs.

Page 144-147: We had TONS of Omega Sentinel models to play with, and were having a very difficult time presenting them all and making them look visually interesting. Bill came up with the idea of having this bit of the story told from Shockwave's perspective, and having the various filecards be callbacks to Transformers catalogs and bio cards of days yore. We since learned that some of the information here doesn't gel with what Derrick had in mind for the story, so look for the pages to be slightly recontextualized in the collected volume.

Page 154-155: Kurisama did an amazing job on these pages. Simply amazing. Oh, and did you notice, it's done up like a G.I. Joe blueprint from the 80s?

Page 158: I love that I had a reason to write the word "Khaaaaan" in the book.

Page 159: This was another image that I had no idea what to do with. I believe using it to break Part 1 from Part 2 was Bill's idea.

Page 161: Back when I was doing the first book we had a page with the transformation sequences of the Autobots. We didn't have Ratchet's sequence at the time and we had to use Starscream, which annoyed the hell outta me. I was happy to find it and be able to use it here.

Page 162-169: I have a funny story that I'm not allowed to tell in public about these pages. Get me a beer at a con sometime if you'd like to hear it.

Page 171-181: Most of the preproduction drawings that I had no idea how to use wound up here.

Page 182: I love the Sentinel Magnus design and wish we could have seen it Animated. Marcelo did it justice, at least, in The Stunti-Con Job.

Derrick made sure that we labeled the designs for the S4 Autobot line-up a "Hasbro concept illustration" because he hated them and didn't want people thinking they came from him.

Page 184-189: It's incredibly unusual for Hasbro to allow this kind of material to be published, and I remain humble and grateful that they chose the Almanacs as the right venue to share them with the fandom.

Page 190: The box art for Dirge and Cliffjumper were another case of having material and not being sure where to shoehorn it in. I thought it worked well in this context, though I wish we could have gotten them on the same page as the toys themselves.

Page 193: I love how Bill made the occasional toy head pop in from a corner, Grimlock in this instance.

Page 202-204: These pages are a bit out of date, aren't they?

Page 222: Ah, the infamous timeline. We'll address this in the collected volume as well. It came about because of a throw-away line in Blasts from the Past, about the Transformers being ten BILLION years old. Marty gave me some hints, "an unceasing cycle of ever-escalating war," and I ran with it.

There you go! I'll see if I can't go through the 22 or so pages of The AllSpark Almanac Addendum before the combined volume comes out.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Review: Exo-Squad Season 1 Episode 8--Scorched Venus

"Sometimes to keep the game going, you have to sacrifice a piece, or pieces."

The eighth episode of Exo-Squad is titled Scorched Venus. Marsala commandeers the space tug and rescues Marsh and DeLeon, setting down on Venus. The civilians go off to fend for themselves, while Able Squad prepares to resume their mission by getting two rusting e-frames repaired. When the Neos attack, they're rescued by the Venutian resistance, who see them as bargaining chips and attempt to trade them to the Neos for food.

What works: Marsala's fight on the bridge is very well choreographed, with snappy dialog as well. I love him using his prehensile foot to hurl his opponent aside, and he gets in a nice Batman-esque punch to a guy attacking him from behind. As he knocks that guy out, he laments that "I did not wish for this to end in violence." Maybe not, but you sure did a good job with that violence. The show also acknowledges that piloting a space tug is not the same as piloting an e-frame, requiring him to familiarize himself with the controls.

When attempting to flee from the Neo attackers, the gang dives under water. I love the bullets whizzing through the water. Little touches like that help set this show apart.

Nara's homecoming is short but brutal. The place is destroyed, and her parents are both dead. Her collapse is understandable. She is also quick to grasp the significance of the graves--they were survived by her brother.

And speaking of her brother, we've seen him before but now we really get to meet him. The Venutian resistance has a nice frontier feel to them that's lacking in the Earth resistance. I love the jetpacks and cowboy hats.

I also love how quickly their rescue of Able Squad turns sour. At first, it seems like a cause of celebration, but once it becomes apparent that he intends to trade them for food, "three Exo Troopers for three months food," you realize their desperation. It's also rather grim that the Neos are attempting to simply starve out the humans. Grim and realistic, as armies have used this tactic against insurgencies since the dawn of war. Scorched Venus indeed. It's also rather a nice touch that he speaks in chess metaphors, when Nara earlier remarked how she used to play against him for hours.

Diana explains herself, that the whole reason she betrayed the resistance was based on Neo Sapien lies. This gets her very little forgiveness. "You change sides too easily," remarks Marsh. Later, when she's a sort-of prisoner of them, Marsala notes that they need to modify their newly repaired frames to carry two. DeLeon protests, and Marsh remarks that it's necessary unless someone plans to execute her. DeLeon's response, cut off by an attack, is understated but powerful. "Well, if you really mean that--" I can believe he'd execute her, and I wouldn't fault him for it. Indeed, he attempts to shoot her when she surrenders to the Neos, only to be thwarted by Marsala. Once she's in Neo hands, she manages to score an interview with Draconis. I love the way he physically dominates the conversation, and her reaction. This is a woman who has been the victim of violence before. Overall she remains a compelling character, and the responses she provokes are nuanced and real.

We finally meet Professor Algernon, the actual inventor of the GRAF shield, and he's a delight right from the get-go. He exudes arrogance, painting a picture that only he could see because "only I could possibly appreciate it." And yet, one gets the sense that he's also horribly naive. He threatens to out Xenobius, not realizing what a brutal thug Draconis is and how close he is to a firing squad at all times.

There are a number of nice character moments with our main crew, like J.T. and Marsala figuring out how a Neo Sapien could best perform a thumbs-up gesture, or Marsala saying that he's happy to see J.T.'s "ugly face" as well.

What doesn't: The fight between Able Squad and a Neo patrol feels perfunctory. This episode had enough action for me that tied directly into the plot, with the Marsala fight on the bridge and the resistance versus the Neos. This fight could be cut and nothing else in the episode gets lost.

This episode suffers from some pacing problems. To sell the cliffhanger from last episode, much time is devoted to the deportees falling into the sun, but there isn't all that much tension here. We know Marsala will rescue them so the jeopardy seems staged. Later on, the gang spends a great deal of screen time trying to get the old Neo e-frames operational, but as soon as they do they get blown up. It almost seems like killing time.

Watch for: Bronsky's snarky e-frame is a development that will get a little bit of payoff in the S1 finale, though ultimately that plotline is mostly shelved in S2.

Algernon will return in S2 to become an important character. He works well because of all the baggage they saddle themselves with in this plotline. I feel that if they were going to invent an Exo-Fleet science guy he'd have a very different personality, but by playing against type they actually achieved something more potent.

The snake tree where James tells Nara to go will also show up again.

Overall: This plotline remains compelling, though this episode has some structural flaws that we haven't seen before. For the first time I feel like one could cut out a good four-five minutes without losing much of substance. There's still much to recommend it, and taken as part of a four-episode block those flaws don't feel as damning. It's still solid, but a step down from the near perfection of last week.