Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
June 2010

Oozing Fanboy Love Like The Oil Spill (Too Soon?)

Transformers: Last Stand of the Wreckers (IDW 2010), RASL vols. 1&2: The Drift, The Fire of St. George (Cartoon Books 2009 & 2010)

I love cookies. And if you took my love for cookies and squared it, you would have my love for dark chocolate cookies with white chocolate chips and almonds.

(They're pretty easy to make, too; you just add six or so squares of melted chocolate and an extra egg to your standard cookie recipe. Let the chocolate cool to a nice gooey consistency so it won't cook the eggs when you add it. Don't say Uncle Orson's site never taught you nothing.)

As my love of cookies is to dark chocolate cookies with white chocolate chips, so my love of comics is to Transformers comics. And like cookies, a bad batch of Transformers comics can really let me down. A good batch can make my month.

Last Stand of the Wreckers made my year.

I don't think that shows you my enthusiasm.

It MADE MY YEAR!!!!!!! (degenerates into making explosion sounds and that "kee-koo-koo-koo-kee" transforming noise) !!!!!

For a comic about giant transforming robots, Wreckers makes a great war movie, an action-packed yet thought-provoking story of sacrifice among a brave coterie of soldiers. Writer James Roberts and co-writer/artist Nick Roche write with vivid power about the archetypal best-of-the-best soldiers, the Wreckers, an elite Autobot squad who get sent in at the last resort when everything looks hopeless.

Megatron and Optimus Prime are nowhere to be found here. The best-known character is Kup, a grizzled old trooper from the animated 1986 movie. If you owned the toys of Ironfist, Pyro, Guzzle or Rotorstorm, there is a good chance that your mom got to the store after the Transformer section was picked over.

As with so many other franchise comics, the obscure characters allow the writers to truly up the stakes with real risks and real characterization for story's sake, not for the sake of selling toys.

The story goes thusly: Garrus-9, an Autobot-run prison, has been attacked and overtaken by a twisted Decepticon named Overlord. Overlord was Megatron's fallback psycho for years, a wild card mostly good for razing the battlefield. When Megatron tried to rein Overlord in, he broke ranks and took over Garrus-9, where he now pits Autobots and Decepticons against each other in no-holds-barred pit fights for his own amusement, waiting for Megatron to return and confront him for his atrocities.

Overlord is a horrifically sadistic villain, despite an uninspired toy design (oh, the pitfalls of being a generic Transformer). He giggles at a helpless Autobot's joke and then blows said Autobot's head off. He tosses the Autobot leader Fortress Maximus to a crowd of Decepticons with the instructions, "Just try not to kill him." He looms over the Wreckers' human crewmember, Verity, cackling "Look at you, all brittle bones and ligaments and red, red ventricles. I wonder what sound you'll make when I pop your seams?"

The Wreckers must liberate the Autobot captives, take out Overlord, and retrieve the mysterious MacGuffin called "Aequitas." We see the action through the eyes of four new recruits to the Wreckers -- cavalier Rotorstorm, taciturn Guzzle, glory-hound Pyro and Ironfist, who has a passion for Wreckers history and is basically Cybertron's biggest nerd.

One of several juicy mysteries in the series is why weak little Ironfist is even on the mission. Others include what Aequitas is, what crime the former Wrecker Impactor committed and what it has to do with Garrus-9, and of course, how many Wreckers will die infiltrating a heavily fortified prison.

The story is crammed with great moments both character and action-oriented, from the rookie robots' reaction to tough-as-nails human stowaway Verity Carlo ("You're so delicate and in need of our protection!") to when the robo-drill Twin Twist, attempting to make a way into prison cells, instead drills into a reactor core. The Garrus-9 chapters take us on a dizzying trip through a world gone mad, full of robot torture chambers, smelting pits, and hordes of Decepticons chasing our heroes, occasionally tearing them apart. True to the war movie style, our heroes go with brave or bravely ironic last words and spit in the face of death.

(Okay, so robots don't actually spit, but it's metaphorically true.)

Nick Roche and Guido Guidi's art is kinetic, loaded with surprises and great shots of Wreckers leaping through the air, punching out Decepticons, and dying in a splatter of engine parts and purple oil. The Autobot's faces are bright and expressive even when they are masked in the Optimus style and only readable by the eyes.

With the ending and the big reveal of the horrible truth of Aequitas, catharsis washed over me. I truly cared for these crappy toys. Wreckers is an example of how sometimes the medium doesn't matter, even if it's a licensed comic based on toys; sometimes a real, powerful story that says something about the human condition can emerge.

My only complaint is that the coloring by Josh Burcham chafes; it's just too bright and shiny for this moody series. A better colorist, like IDW's Liam Shalloo, would give this the moody bleakness it deserves.

As for RASL, a comic far, far away from the licensed world: in the early 90s, Jeff Smith's Bone was merely a black-and-white indie comic series from Cartoon Books, with no hint of how it would one day be colorized and mass marketed by Scholastic. It's strange to think that the cute, fun Bone was once considered "edgy" and "different" in a glut of superhero comics.

These days, Smith has been drawing RASL, an entirely different animal from Bone, and one that appears to be rather "edgy." If it is being sold to elementary-school-aged kids in twenty years, I'll be surprised. No doubt my own kids will have lots of questions for me after reading it.

RASL follows a fellow, the series' namesake, who appears to be a simple art thief. In the first chapter, with the help of a very strange get-up that looks like two big airplane engines and a tiki mask, he hops to an alternate world, steals an alternate Picasso and hides it, waiting for his rendezvous with his client back in his home world -- until he looks in a jukebox and sees a Bob Dylan album under a different name. He's gone to the wrong world.

A mysterious lizard-faced man shows up. Gunshots and a chase ensue across the rooftops of Tucson, Arizona. RASL runs, RASL hides and RASL fights back, all while providing us with the standard flashbacks.

It's a cool, mind-twisting beginning to what will prove to be a cool, mind-twisting series, if you can get over a few things.

For starters, there is fact that Jeff Smith of Bone is drawing this comic, which is most definitely a comic for adults. RASL visits his favorite prostitute and a strip club. He keeps running into parallel versions of his former girlfriend and best friend's wife in another life, and Smith is not shy about showing us what they get up to when her husband is not around.

RASL fits right into the currently dark comics world among series like 100 Bullets, Ex Machina and The Exterminators, but you can't come to it expecting Bone.

Another off-putter is how the character of RASL appears to be an enterprising thug, but flashbacks soon reveal that he was once a theoretical physicist studying the works of Nikolai Tesla, the fruit of which has somehow given him access to parallel worlds.

Most theoretical physicists don't seem like the type to be scaling buildings, cat-burgling and fistfighting, nor the type to be picking out a favorite prostitute. Although at one point Lizardface reveals that RASL is an anomaly among the millions of possible worlds. He subsumes each alternate version of himself as he travels between worlds. So I suppose it is possible that he ended up on a world where his alternate self was a thug and he absorbed the thug's personality. If that is what Smith is planning, I doff my alternate universe's cap to him, since hats never fit me in this world.

RASL does have the exuberant wonder of all Smith's work. Tiki masks and turbines! Long treks through the harsh desert! Lizard-faced secret agents! The pictures are alive with animated beauty that is only helped by the minimalist black and white.

At the same time, I can't help feeling a little bit disappointed. There are a lot of HBO comics out there. There aren't many Bones. Smith has become a treasury in the comics world: someone who can write comics that children genuinely love and that have just as much appeal to adults. Now he's cut off half his audience.

Can't blame the guy for trying to branch out, but I do long for something a little less "edgy."

Next issue: We return to Jack and Rapunzel, heroes of Rapunzel's Revenge, in Calamity Jack, a tale of beanstalks, zeppelins, enterprising giants, hat-loving pixies and most importantly, young love. Stay with us, miraculous pictographers! (It's a more distinguished, newfangled version of "true believers.")

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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