Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
April 2008

More Than Eats Your Pie

Transformers: Infiltration, Stormbringer, Spotlight

The 80s are in the air. Leg warmers are back. So is Iran. And so are the greatest toys that ever filled a shoebox.

There's no better way to evoke serious childhood nostalgia for a late twenty- or early thirty-something than this sound: "Kee-koo-koo-koo-kee!" (Make sure to bring up a lot of saliva when you do it; otherwise it's not authentic.)

It brings back hours of running around our yards, holding up half-formed jet robots whose accessories were lost within minutes of opening the package. It brings back inserting the 1986 Transformers Movie every Friday night into the VCR, more reverent than we ever got at church. I can still recite most of the moving dialogue, like: "Nobody summons Megatron!" or: "Me Grimlock kick butt!"

With the coming of the recent live-action movie, Transformer-mania is making its rounds again. Most people don't know that the staying power of the Robots in Disguise isn't just due to nostalgia. A lot of it is rooted in the success of the Marvel comics from the 80s.

Back in those heady days of '84, when the American toy company Hasbro acquired the rights to some Japanese toy designs, they contacted editors at Marvel Comics to help them come up with names and personalities for the toys in the US. It was one Bob Budiansky, a humble editor, who invented such memorable names as "Optimus Prime" (roughly translates to "Best First") and "Megatron," not to mention "Starscream," "Grimlock," and "Laserbeak." Budiansky went on to pen a flock of Transformer stories in the comic and tried his valiant best to keep up with the new toys coming out by featuring them its pages.

Meanwhile, in the Motherland, Simon Furman, a British writer, wrote back-ups to Budiansky's stories in the UK reprints. The combination of Furman and Budiansky was so successful that for a while the Transformers comics, reprints published weekly with back-up stories, were the highest-selling comics in England. Eventually Budiansky burnt out and Furman took over both titles, US and UK.

And then . . . childhood obsession turned to ninja turtles, and the robots went to rust. It was a sad day in my house when the final issue, #80, crossed the door. I had a little memorial service, eulogy delivered in my best robot voice.

See, Bob Budiansky was good (you have to be to produce names like "Slag" and "Thundercracker"), but Simon Furman was a god. Furman penned the kind of stories that could leave an eight-year boy in braindead, drool-ridden wonder. There were metal-eating monsters on heavy-gravity planets, a robotic god buried at the center of the earth, and a war between two different timelines. A Simon Furman showdown meant faceplates ripped off, wires and gears scattered across the page, and occasionally a loser tossed into the atmosphere to burn up.

In 2005, when the Transformers license again went up for grabs, the fledgling comic company IDW no sooner grabbed it than they got Furman, and later Budiansky, on board to pen their Trannie tales.

So how do they compare? I can't exactly come at this from a neutral standpoint. I've been waiting for good Transformer comics since I was fourteen. At the same time, there's a lurking suspicion that I might be a bit too jaded to be entertained by shattered faceplates and robot gods . . .

Wait, no, I'm still fine with it.

But my tastes have gotten a little more refined, right? Or is Furman as good as he used to be? I open the first arc, Infiltration with hands quaking, a hopeful "kee-koo-koo-kee-kee" escaping my throat.

Furman's approach to Infiltration is taken from Marvel's approach with their "Ultimate" line. He uses familiar elements to any Transfan, but mixes them up and changes them. The characters are less predictable. Little Bumblebee, a yellow VW bug, has no problem talking about human lives as "acceptable losses." When Starscream attempts to betray Megatron on the side, Megs, instead of tolerating it as usual, blows a hole right through Starscream. Later Optimus Prime cold-bloodedly (or cold-circuitly) murders a human who has attempted to steal Autobot technology. These are not the generic good guys of the 80s. These are soldiers in a war who have been fighting for millennia, and they're refreshingly jaded.

One of the classic elements of the Transformer mythos -- that the robots crash-landed on earth and learned to transform to blend in -- is updated a bit. Now there's a better reason for their disguises. They are infiltrators.

The Decepticons, true to their name, work as undercover agents to create political anarchy and make it easier when they attack to strip a world, this time Earth, of resources.

The Autobots are here to stop them, but only Ratchet, the medic who changes into an ambulance, is idealistic enough to intervene and save human lives, which is where Infiltration starts.

Two drifters, having stolen the wrong palm computer from a Decepticon agent, are run down by a jet fighter. A hologram of a driver, with a fixed creepy smile, pulls up in an ambulance and says, "If you want to live, get in."

The humans are a bit of a slow beginning -- even when the humans in a TF story include Megan Fox, they're never quite as interesting as the robots -- but within a few pages, artist E.J. Su gives a spectacular shot of an F-22 running down the little VW bus our heroes are driving. In a few more pages he gives us a chase scene where the cars, jockeying for position, are as big and powerful as any battling superheroes, and a lot faster.

Su is an artist I didn't know I was waiting for on Transformers. His preliminary sketches in the back are nuts and bolts shots of robot arms and legs twisting and pivoting on different joints. Perhaps because of his expertise in technical drawing, the transformations are so alive you can hear the gears whirling and see the plates retracting. He makes the toy-oriented designs seem more realistic than the movie robots.

Su is also able to capture the sense of just how massive these characters are. In my favorite scene, one of the human drifters is moving through an abandoned Decepticon base, lit only by an eerie green light. She drops her walkie-talkie and Su treats us to a full-size shot of Megatron, taller than power lines and thick with weaponry sprouting from his body. Megatron takes a look down at the human character and then resumes what he's doing, as if he's seen a fly and can't be bothered to swat it.

Infiltration, despite the spectacular art, is a bit hampered by its slow pace. In half a comic's space, Furman has been traditionally able to squeeze Wagnerian epics. Here there is no genuine giant robot action until well into the story, although Su's shots of vehicular homicide should be enough for any action junkie. The car chases get progressively more intense, including a memorable scene where one of the F-22's missiles comes within inches of Ratchet, but the moments in between feel slower and slower as the Autobots chide Ratchet for breaking protocol or discuss whether or not to call in reinforcements.

I hoped the comic would speed up by the end, but it retains the slow pace right until the ending. The main conflict -- that Starscream and his detachment of Decepticons are rebelling against their leadership and the humans, including Ratchet, are caught in the middle -- is rather small-time compared to the usual robot gods, firefights, and atmospheric burning that Furman gave us at Marvel. It's obvious that in Infiltration he's trying to write to a different tactic, one that has its good points but doesn't quite seem like him.

Luckily, IDW tried two more techniques to take off. (Alliteration!)

Stormbringer takes us back to the robot home planet of Cybertron. Perhaps a little gun-shy after complaints about "too many humans," the series was billed by IDW as "All Cybertron. All robots. No puny humans!"

In Stormbringer, Furman widens the lens bigtime and takes us out into space. Cybertron, the robots' home planet, has traditionally been portrayed as a war-torn battlefield where brave Autobots cling to life in the face of Decepticon hegemony.

Not so here. In Stormbringer, the inevitable has happened and Cybertron has become an empty wasteland. This was because of a threat so great that Autobots and Decepticons had to band together to fight it, a kind of Frankensteinformer named Thunderwing, who attempted to solve the TF energy crisis by using massive amounts of energy to bond his robotic system to organic elements.

Apparently robot mad scientists are also fallible. Thunderwing went crazy, and crazy and powerful made for some serious fighting. Godzilla-style, Thunderwing wasted the entire world of Cybertron before he was defeated.

Stormbringer is drawn by fan-favorite artist Don Figueroa, whose popularity on the TFs started when he drew and published his own fan comics during the first nostalgia wave of the early '00s.

Figueroa's style is much more animated than Su's, close the fluidity of the 1986 movie or the epic strokes of series like Neon Genesis: Evangelion. His Transformers are big shiny bots whose fists and feet and guns go flying off the page, sometimes at the expense of background detail. Figueroa branches out a bit in Stormbringer from his usual cartoony style, though; he laces the dark and brooding story with thick inks and dark clouds in the background.

This story is closer to traditional Furman fare. A group of Autobots detect an energy trace on Cybertron, when the planet has been a dead pile of radiation for decades. They find a doomsday cult of robots trying to resurrect Thunderwing, the Frankenformer, and directing him to destroy everything. Things escalate, as expected, until Optimus Prime and a crack team of Autobots arrive to stop the newly revived Thunderwing, with their only other option to nuke their home planet.

Unlike Infiltration, Stormbringer is a quick, action-packed read. The pages are packed with explosions, screams, robot eviscerations and snappy comebacks. The ending takes a bit of an anticlimactic turn, though, as Optimus Prime seemingly defeats the Frankenformer with a barrage of big vocabulary and a couple extra shots, reasoning that he can "overload it."

Personally, I'd much rather have seen the consequences of having to destroy their home to prevent a bigger threat. I'd love to see the weight on Prime of losing a crucial battle. It'd make for some great development in a character already portrayed as different from his classic incarnation.

I'd also like to see Figueroa draw an entire planet blowing up.

Both Infiltration and Stormbringer left me a little gun-shy. But no matter, because whatever they lacked, the Spotlight collection got back. In this age of graphic novels and collections, IDW took a risk by producing these one-off comics, each one focusing on a different Transformer.

It paid off. Like awesome.

The first story, about the ultra-logical Transformer Shockwave, is a shining example of the single-issue comic story. Within thirty-two pages, Shockwave sets an intergalactic plan in motion and is foiled by the Dinobots, portrayed less here as the stupid plodding idjits of the cartoon and more as a group of surly, brawling tough robots. Shockwave, caught in ultra-logic, is stunned by the fact that this group of robots have followed him across the galaxy merely to assuage wounded pride. It leads to a volcanic showdown where Shockwave's logic is overcome by hotheaded pride.

The stories roll out in self-contained glory. Autobot detective Nightbeat runs into a mystery he can't solve, while hothead Hot Rod puts his life on the line to spring a friend from prison. The Decepticon beserker Sixshot is offered a chance to join a nihilistic cult of death-worshippers, but must betray the Decepticons to do it, and Ultra Magnus, who enforces the robot equivalent of the Geneva accords, is forced to compromise his personal code to catch a particularly vile criminal.

Furman's tight, concise writing shines on the Spotlights in a way it can't in a longer form. Each character is drawn in quick, glorious detail, put in a crucible that forces them to question their deepest beliefs and face their deepest fears, whether Autobot or Decepticon. Though the art is not quite as breathtaking as Su's or Figueroa's, there are moments of glory, especially in newcomer Nick Roche's dynamic, movement-infused fight between Shockwave and the Dinobots.

I can finally put these down with a little tear in my eye and a robot voice, confident that the Transformers, and my childhood, are in good hands.

Brothers and sisters, just for Mr. Furman and all the talented people at IDW, say it with me one more time.

"Kee-koo-koo-kee-kee!"

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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