Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
April 2010

Transform and roll dirty, Autothugs.

Transformers: All Hail Megatron vols. 1 & 2

I have a confession to make. And I know that Uncle Orson isn't paying for therapy here, and neither is your internet bill, but just give me a moment and I swear you won't miss it.

I have been diagnosed recently with an incurable malady:

Fanboy Rage.

I quote from the DSM, volume X2:

"Fanboy Rage typically strikes what appear to be well-adjusted fellows in their thirties who remain a bit too connected to their childhood obsessions. It begins with the departure of a favorite writer or artist from a comics title, the commencement of a 'new direction' for the comic, or Spider-Man selling his marriage to the devil.

"The afflicted will turn away from significant others, children and jobs to troll internet message boards day and night, leaving comments like, 'You don't know what you're doing to Jello-Man, you hedonists!'"

Doctor, is there any hope?

You see, as a kid, my favorite comic was Transformers, written by a fellow named Simon Furman, who was convinced, or deluded, that he could make this monthly toy advertisement into a Really Great Comic. To do so, he deepened the characters, upped the action, combined Ratchet and Megatron into a two-headed zombie, made the sacred Autobot Matrix an evil monster, had a giant robot eat a planet, and generally blew stuff up, including my little mind.

When the original comic was cancelled, Furman had to kibosh his storylines, leaving numerous plot lines wide open. I was heartbroken. It was an especially deep kind of trauma, since, you know, nobody really died or was hurt.

Fast forward to 2008. The New Nostalgia had revived everything 80s except maybe the Rock Lords. The aforementioned Simon Furman had been writing, for two years, a new version of the Transformers for fledgling company IDW. My inner 10-year old giggled in glee. After a somewhat rocky start (see my previous review of Infiltration) the comics were now hitting an operatic buildup of Wagnerian proportions.

The only problem was that IDW, instead of releasing an ongoing series, had chopped up Furman's story into a bunch of miniseries, often with half-year gaps between them, and a semimonthly support series, Transformers: Spotlight. It was really confusing to the new reader, and sales reflected that.

I got all the connections between the stories. But then, I also have a Rancor monster and Optimus Prime on my desk, posed so they look like they're fighting.

Yes, I have known the love of a woman. No, I didn't have to pay her. Why do you ask?

Anyway . . .

Mid-2008, IDW announced a new series by a new writer, All Hail Megatron. New writer Shane McCarthy had never touched the Transformers -- or much of anything else -- but suddenly Furman's stories were getting squeezed into a teeny four-issue conclusion, so IDW could promote McCarthy's All Hail Megatron like New Coke, hoping this would be that longed-for Jumping-On-Point-For-New-Fans.

The Fanboy Rage took over. I physically and virtually protested such actions, grumbling to all who would listen to me, including my wife, who almost looked up that football player she used to date.

Because deep inside, me, a little boy had seen his favorite comic, a Transformers story by Simon Furman, get cancelled . . . again.

Wah.

Seriously now: nothing is worse than a good story with a crap ending, except knowing that the ending would have been better but for inter-company politics. I hate licensed comics for this reason, and yet I continue to buy them because, well, my inner 11-year-old loves Spider-Man and Transformers.

Nobody is born a critic. At eleven years of age, all I knew was that a story could sweep me away like Lord of the Rings or it could leave me cold. There was no in-between.

But one can only indulge the inner child for so long before it is time to face the demons. Thus I am going to do my best to review All Hail Megatron without bias. The DSM recommends this as "one potential treatment that many shy away from."

I know, I know. Epic and heroic, isn't it? I'm amazing. Let's see if I can do it without fracturing my psyche. Here we go. I'm holding the comic. I'm reading the comic. I'm not ripping the comic . . .

All Hail Megatron starts with a good loud bang. The Decepticons roll right up in New York City and transform, declaring to the inhabitants of the city, "Human creatures of Earth, we come in peace. Hahaha!" Then they blow everyone up.

This comic, like Furman's earlier work for IDW, is a good bit nastier than the stuff I got as a kid, in which only robots could die. The Decepticons lay waste to NYC, knocking buildings over and blowing away humans as if they were a bunch of leaves cluttering up the driveway. A squadron of fighter pilots meets the same fate, in a fairly cool sequence where one fighter pilot is horrified to see his prey transform and blow him up.

In chapter two, the loony Decepticon Frenzy wastes ground troops in Central Park, emitting an "infrasonic frequency that causes anything nearby to experience violent nightmares and extremely horrific delusions." The Decepticon gestalt Devastator smashes the Brooklyn Bridge and the Lincoln Tunnel. We are treated, courtesy of extraordinary artist Guido Guidi, to panoramic shots of aircraft carriers capsizing under Decepticon bombs and Air Force One wrecked on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Despite a few silly things (the fighter pilot shows a picture of his girl back home before he is crushed by Megatron -- doesn't he know that dooms him?) these first few chapters are pretty darn effective. The Decepticons waste New York and proceed to the rest of the world, trashing everything, everywhere. The only shot of the Autobots is a three-page silent sequence of them on Cybertron, standing over the gutted carcass of Optimus Prime, who has presumably been so gutted before the start of our story.

Guido Guidi's art really makes the carnage work. It's a very animated style and similar to almost anything you might see in one of the various TF cartoons, but he has a great sense of composition and action. The Decepticons really look huge in New York City, their transformations are suitably epic, and the planes dive and shatter like a war movie.

McCarthy's dialogue is . . . I hate to admit it . . . pretty good. Bumblebee and Wheeljack, doing recon around the wreck of their home planet Cybertron, have a fairly entertaining conversation in which Wheeljack blabbers on absentmindedly, "Well, if I had my equipment I could easily create a reactionary bonding polymer . . ." Bumblebee holds a hand up angrily. "Do you have your equipment, Wheeljack? Do you have any equipment?" Wheeljack quips, "Now you're being rude."

Simon Furman is, I'm ashamed to say, not the best at dialogue. (My inner 11-year-old hates me right now.)

Chapter Four returns us to the previously mentioned Autobots, who are sitting around on Cybertron, licking their wounds and avoiding a horde of zombie insect robots called the Swarm, by-products of Megatron's twisted genetic tinkering. At this point the story slows -- a lot -- so that the Autobots can talk. And talk. Through chapters four, five and six, little happens other than the Autobots talking, between hard-nosed Kup, wild card Jazz, bitter Ironhide and legislative Prowl. From all this conversation we learn only a few small things: 1) they were betrayed, 2) Ironhide thinks fellow Autobot Mirage is the traitor, 3) Megatron has the Autobot Matrix, the source of life and power for all Transformers.

Little else happens as well, as the Decepticons also sit around -- and talk! Megatron, Starscream, Thundercracker and Bombshell have a number of what I think are supposed to be meaningful confrontations in the wreckage of Jerusalem and Beijing, the destruction of which has happened offstage. From these we learn 1) Megatron is reveling in victory while Starscream thinks they are wasting time and 2) the other Decepticons don't like the Insecticons. They think they're freaks.

When you line it up, it doesn't seem like the stuff of three chapters, especially since it took three chapters to destroy the whole US military. More so, it feels long. In fact, I recognize this style of writing -- long passages of snappy, supposedly meaningful dialogue while very little happens, interspersed with gratuitous violence.

This is what Marvel kingpin writer Brian Michael Bendis does. His characters talk, and talk, and talk, with plenty of "ums" and "ahs," for pages upon pages.

So this is supposed to be the "edgy" stuff, folks. Not Your Father's Autobots. (That line was actually on a Transformers comic back in the 90s, and it still makes me giggle.)

It's not edgy. It's boring.

Sorry, Shane McCarthy. Your dialogue is good but it is not good enough to carry half a graphic novel.

By the end of the first graphic novel volume, All Hail Megatron has not told the reader what exactly happened to let the Decepticons beat the Autobots so thoroughly. Also at this point it's been six issues with no reference to what happened between the Transformers in Furman's run, other than a brief mentioned of "classified CIA information" to the curmudgeonly General Witwicky.

(Of course, this apparent disposal of continuity is one of the things that induced Fanboy Rage in the first place. The Transformers fought each other across the surface of Earth through the first five volumes of Furman's Transformers Spotlight and the stories Infiltration, Stormbringer, Escalation, Devastation and Maximum Dinobots.) (If you actually do want to follow the stories, read the trades in that order and alternate Spotlight volumes, so it's Infiltration then Spotlight vol. 1 and so forth. See, not confusing at all . . .)

It all becomes clear once one picks up the second graphic novel of the series, collected issues 7-12. Because in chapter eight, a minor plot point from Furman's run is quite suddenly important enough that the entire series hinges on it. It is as if this series suddenly got over its teenagerhood and reached out to its predecessors.

Why do such a thing? Is this a jumping-on point for new readers or what? Why would IDW allow the first volume to have nothing to do with previous continuity and then make it important in the second volume?

To some fans, this seemed like a mid-series shift because of the Fanboy Rage over bad continuity. I don't think so. I think it is just because All Hail Megatron was written, like most comics today, with the Graphic Novel section of a bookstore in mind. Nowadays, one is in the minority if one is addicted enough to a certain comic to buy it in 22-page, stapled-together monthly installments. In the long run, the comic is cheaper in trade paperback format. There are no ads. There are cool extras like sketch art. Trade paperbacks are seriously the way to go, but one must wait six months between them.

Ideally, the new fan who read All Hail Megatron Volume 1 would then go out and buy some of the previous stories to catch up before they would read the second part six months later.

Allowing for that, though, it was still really stupid to waste so much time and ignore so much previous continuity in the first volume.

And thus things start to happen. Starting with chapter one of Volume 2, we get Super Flashback Syndrome and learn exactly how Prime got a big hole in his chest. Without too many spoilers, we learn that Sunstreaker, an Autobot who was vivisected by humans in Furman's Devastation story, knows more than he is telling. Action is constant, although the plot is still wobbly.

Stuff happens in Volume 2. As expected, there is sacrifice, epic battle, and Prime does indeed get up from the table eventually.

All Hail Megatron lurches toward its ending, between some brilliant action scenes, some truly predictable crap, and a literal deus ex machina as Super Huge Transformer Omega Supreme flies down out of the sky to save the Autobots from the Swarm.

(On Prime's resurrection: the first few times I read the story, I had no idea why Prime got better. I think McCarthy is hinting that it has something to do with the Matrix and Prime's lack thereof, but I have no idea still. He just stands up halfway through volume 2.)

And in the end, after the final battle in the ruins of New York between Autobot and Decepticon . . .

Meh, it could have been better.

I say that with all maturity and seriousness. The ending seems to have been more of a chance for Shane McCarthy to show off his Really Cool Dialogue between Optimus Prime and Megatron, but the climax, in which the humans actually get the best of the Decepticons, fizzles.

The 11-year-old may still hate All Hail Megatron for cancelling his favorite comic, but the 29-year-old shall say this:

It's good. In parts.

There is some delicious nastiness as the Decepticons waste the humans. There is a great scene with the Swarm on Cybertron as an Autobot sacrifices his life. The final battle between Megatron and Optimus is nice and epic. There are a few good character moments, even those between Starscream and Megatron that retread the same old subordinate cliché. The art is never less than amazing and often superlative.

However, there is the aforementioned page after page of Autobots sitting around on Cybertron bitching. There is the last-minute revival of Prime and the rescue of the Autobots by Omega Supreme. There are some rather pointless scenes focused around humans on Earth mounting a resistance. The one human who matters to the story is the Army jock Spike Witwicky, who is a truly despicable character. Blah.

Of course, All Hail Megatron could have been Watchmen and I would still be sad that it squeezed out my beloved Simon Furman stories. Comics nerds who read this column are nodding their heads in understanding. Non-comics nerds . . . have probably not gotten this far. If you have, here's a cookie.

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Well, have a pat on the shoulder, then. Pat pat. Learn from the tale of a man who loved his comics far too much.

I'll see you later -- the plastic Rancor's been on the offensive for a while and I think I'll have Optimus attack.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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