Thursday, 31 December 2015

Transformers - Spotlight: Optimus Prime

This is basically the tipping point from IDW having a convoluted universe to it becoming a case of "for fuck's sake, Simon ".

Set directly after Escalation it isn't even particularly revealing about Optimus himself, though there's a certain admirable quality to such a character thinking exactly as he talks. Shame it's probably unintended but at least Furman doesn't revive the self-doubting version of the character from the later stages of the Marvel G1 book. 

This issue is actually about further setup for the Ark-1 plot opened in Spotlight Nightbeat. It's difficult to evaluate this in hindsight, given that we know now how badly that would turn out but it's certainly not as interesting as it should be and definitely something that could have waited six months while other threads were tied up. It's also the start of mainline plots bleeding into the Spotlights, making them less character pieces and more an overflow system for the "core" plots.  

Really this is more about Furman "doing" the combiners than a story about Optimus. It's one of several IDW issues to just grind to a halt while the writer lays out his theories about how some eighties toy gimmick or another works in his universe. It might not have been so bad if the answer wasn't always "an evil scientist did it and it resulted in a nutter". 

In this case six Decepticons were merged by Ark-1 crew member Jhiaxus so they could combine into super powerful moron Monstructor. And that's a fumble there - while Monstructor is pleasingly esoteric and largely unused he's made up of six nobodies whose scant previous appearances have shown them to also be morons. They include guys called Slog and Birdbrain, for God's sake. And yet we're meant to empathise with Prime being appalled at their fate armed with only this. What would have worked better would have been to use an extant team, Autobots for preference. With the Technobots off the table by dint of being in Stormbringer, the Protectobots might have been a nice choice and, given their fate, more resonance. 

Similarly, the revelation that Nova Prime was a shady character doesn't carry any sort of punch because there's never been much telling us he wasn't. To be honest, what with The War Within and Megatron: Origin both making it clear the Autobots were corrupt and complacent before Optimus showed up and "Evil" Prime being such a common theme in various toylines it'd probably be more of a surprise if he hadn't been a prick. 

Both problems tie in with this incessant need to bring more revelations and twists into a universe creaking under enough weight already. Build Nova Prime up into some lost paragon over the next year, feed in some flashback characterisation for Wildfly and company somewhere and the issue would work a lot better. Once again the big concepts aren't bad but it's Furman's indecent hurry to rush them onto the page that jars. 

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Transformers - Spotlight: Ramjet

The one significant legacy of the crossover with the Avengers (which I have not and will not be reading as those things are always a terrible waste of all concerned ) was that Ramjet was left on Earth and clearly not part of main writer Simon Furman's plans. Thus the crossover's writer Stuart Moore was basically given a Spotlight to write the guy back out.

The original Ramjet was probably the stupidest of the trio lamentably known as the Coneheads, best summed up by his name being not a reference to the crude engine design but his habit of trying to charge everything with his nosecone in either mode. Moore alloys this minuscule intelligence with a stratospheric ambition and the result is a joy. The page where Ramjet explains his insane, incomprehensible and utterly unfeasible "nonlinear" plan for universal domination and shows complete ignorance of his abilities and resources is worth the price of admission alone. 

And it's not alone, because this comic is hilarious. As in on purpose hilarious. There's the Mini-Constructicons, Ramjet's trio of jive talking minions who make fart jokes. There's Harrison, his barely literate facsimile helper. There's his boasting attempt to recruit an obviously contemptuous Skywarp - yep, even Skywarp thinks Ramjet is an idiot. 

Despite his misplaced arrogance and pettiness it's actually a bit hard not to feel a little sorry for Ramjet when his planning is cut short by Megatron turning up to - wordlessly and effortlessly - kill him. It's clear that Megatron knew his plans from the start and - due to one of the better uses of overlapping with the main storyline - seems to use crushing the ersatz traitor as physical therapy after his humiliation in Brasnya rather than because he actually considers him a threat.

The end result is a funny, clever take on the perennial idea of a Decepticon plotter trying to overthrow the leader, and one that actually adds to Megatron - imagine if he'd done this to Starscream at the end of Infiltration, though.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Transformers - Escalation

My memory of Escalation from my initial read was of a flawed but entertaining step in the right direction after the troubled Infiltration, with the main plot only really faltering when Devastation began. I was wrong; Escalation is such a disaster it's hard to know where to start.

Maybe with the good bits; it won't take long. I think every Autobot involved gets some sort of show-off moment and their characterisations generally ring true, though I'm not sure where Bumblebee's gone. I think that might be about it really. 

The problem is that Furman has plainly been hurt by the moderate reception to Infiltration and just throws everything he can think of at the story without outright alienating the people who did like it. There's government plants, facsimile constructs, internal friction, robot fights, foreshadowing of more villains, Spotlight follow ups and more thrown in. There are also fake outs, contrivances, obvious gestures and plain idiocy. 
Handling things in turn, the human trio of Verity,  Hunter and a still personality free Jimmy (no, reminding us he's a mechanic doesn't count ). At the start of the mini they're being packed off and while only the naive would expect this to be followed through the way they're kept in the mix is disappointing - would the Machination really factor Hunter, found by coincidence in Sunstreaker when he was captured, into their plans in such a last minute fashion? It's another one of those kids' comic moments when in the real world Furman is occasionally trying to capture they'd have guinea pigs for the Headmaster process all worked out and leave the kid to fry in the fake Lamborghini. 

Verity manages the feat of being even more obnoxious and whiny than in the first arc and while she and Jimmy get to show a little resourcefulness in locating the Machinations front garage really the contrived need to again send them in to investigate while a pair of Autobots watch on is not only repetitive but is another Saturday morning cartoon trope, moving the series further away from serious sci-fi aspirations. 

Another comes from the silly antics at the Russian border. Firstly Russia borders the obviously made-up state of Brasnya now; it's an obvious Chechnya analogue and you have to wonder why it's been renamed - is Chechnya a key market for IDW? Were they worried they'd be sued? Saturday morning cartoon, might as well have used Carbombya for all it does for the mood. Anyway, there's an insane moment where Megatron changes his alt-mode to a handgun and gets his cloned minion to fire him at an oil pipeline - why not get Blitzwing to do it, or said minion to set explosives? Because then there would be no energy signature for the Autobots to somehow magically monitor, that's why. Saturday morning cartoon. 

Sure, there are some hints that Ore-15 has brought out some arrogance in Megatron and that he might be having trouble letting go of direct control of the Earth operation, so this might be deliberate. If it is,  it's really not a welcome development to have him continuing the rapid character decay from the end of Infiltration. The rest of the Decepticons here make little impression, being largely thugs with a special skill each, which is the downside of having most of the big guns tied up elsewhere. It's perhaps as simple as the Infiltration Protocols working better as an abstract principle rather than actually being carried out. The idea of Decepticons unbalancing countries and agitating disputes falls down a bit when it involves a group of them zapping over to commit simple sabotage. 

The Machination, apart from being the same old tired group trying to use alien tech for their own ends (wonder how that'll work out for them? Well, right?) are dumb, something which spreads to the Autobots - both the abduction of Sunstreaker and the lockup fight with Jazz and Wheeljack make the Autobots look stupid rather than the Machination look fearsome. 

The appearance of Hot Rod, Nightbeat and Hardhead on Earth meanwhile really feels like a sop to the fans rather than a genuine attempt to mix up the status quo. All three are respectably used but it just feels a bit forced that Prime calls in reinforcements while leaving three Autobots back at base to have their own adventures. Optimus himself naturally manages to die for a few pages,  and while Furman doesn't insult us by dragging it out for long it hardly yells brave new world, something not helped by a succession of cheap devices - twice characters have to escape exploding buildings against the clock while too much of the plot hinges on coincidental timing.

E. J. Su's art is something of a disappointment; it might just be coming off the back of Nick Roche, but it's all very unimaginative and staid. There's just no real feeling to any of it, with the action scenes being particularly flat and unexciting. The wintry setting and muddled choreography (what are the soldiers doing for most of this?) do him few favours but it's a very adequate,  perfunctory job with the use of patterned backgrounds in the Optimus/Megatron fight looking more like a timesaving measure than a bold stylistic choice. In short,  it doesn't look like E. J. enjoyed drawing this at all.

Furman for his part still doesn't seem to have learnt that having this many plot threads covered concurrently actually slows the pace and undermines any excitement. Even when read as a single block Escalation inches along in  a frustrating, stuttering fashion and the decision to add even more to the mix with the pretentious interludes foreshadowing the involvement of Scorponok and Skywatch in the main plot is downright worrying. 

Oh, and Optimus asking Ironhide to recap the plot of the first issue at the start of the second even though he knows exactly what's happened? Fucking. Hell.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Transformers - Spotlight: Kup

Spotlight: Kup was an early experiment for IDW in several ways. The most obvious is the break given to Nick Roche, handed an issue to write and draw as well as two characters to properly play with. It's actually surprisingly big of Furman to let a possible future competitor effectively determine the long term fate of a character who has always been a bit of a favourite from the Marvel days.

The big thing that hits you about the issue the most - especially on an in-context read through - is the remarkable density. Not just the lengthy internal dialogue of Kup but the sheer amount crammed into 22 pages. As well as the lengthy nightmarish scenes on Kup's planet there's a lot of good work for others on the recovery end - Prowl's scheming and politicking via communicator (moving him away from the jobsworth seen in Infiltration to a nuanced necessary bastard), Springer's bravado tempered by his doubts, an impassioned cry for sanity from Siren... If anyone suffers from a characterisation it's Kup himself as we only see him out of his metal skull. But then even that is handled well - we're shown what Kup means by even the straight-talking Springer being clearly passionate about his fate. It reminds me in a way of a particular issue of Captain America by Mark Waid, where the character was absent and his meaning was perfectly explained by his Avengers team-mates.

The actual situation Kup's stuck in is very inventive and brings with it a very interesting moral dilemma which is teased out perfectly by the script - the ethics of wasting Autobot lives in saving a half-dead Kup are debated but there's no pat resolution. While those killed in the story are sadly nameless and faceless (probably simply due to a lack of space), Outback - with form as a genial if minor character in past media - adds a little poignancy and black comedy as Kup alternates between joking with his remains and berating them. The added bonus here is that being very dead eliminates him from a possible future as a joke character, probably making him the best used of the '86 Minibots despite being half a corpse on a chair. There's a good resolution that makes fine use of Trailbreaker's special skill too.

Roche's art is also magnificent. He renders Kup's nightmares as sinewy viscera,  an approach only even half-tried before on the series by Derek Yaniger. It makes for as welcome a change as the writing does, a nice break from the usual clean lines and bright colours of most 21st century Transformers books. The skeletal Kup design is especially brilliant, a perfect way of illustrating age, decay and a determination to survive. Not that the stuff set in the real world isn't great either, with the emotion of the art matching the tense discussion. 

On the one hand it's perhaps harsh to compare this to Furman's concurrent work - the whole story is clearly a much-drafted labour of love from Roche, the work of someone not doing monthly franchise work as bread and butter, and it's just one issue anyway. However, Roche's love for the project shines through, and he takes the opportunity given to him with both hands. In short, up to this point this was the best thing IDW had put out - a state of affairs that would take a long time to change.


Saturday, 26 December 2015

Transformers - Spotlight: Nightbeat

Originally published second in the Spotlight running order, this is very much a mixed beast, all depending on what you're looking for.
If what you're after is a character piece this one delivers to a respectable extent. Nightbeat himself is engaging and well defined lead as an incorrigible semi-professional sleuth with an inability to resist a mystery; one habit Furman's writing had for IDW was that of cutting Marvel characterisations and pasting them into current work as reader shorthand. It's not hugely ethical but here it does no harm as the Marvel Nightbeat was superb and fits this universe and this story like a glove. The trick here is that you can't imagine this issue working anywhere near as well for any other character, so it's a thumbs up for the general scripting. 

The one downside in this regard is that it might have been nice to see Nightbeat have an adventure where he didn't walk into a trap and get turned into a sleeper agent first, but there we go. Rereading, it was also a bit of a shock that Nightbeat's brainwashing is so obvious when a vaguer handling might have brought a bit more suspense. Due to poor working memory of the following arcs I'm reluctant to lay into the convenience of Optimus Prime calling Nightbeat straight after his cranial modifications. 

The other thing to factor in to enjoyment of a spotlight is how it ties into the main book, and this can be a tricky one. You need a plot that stands on its own but at the same time it would feel like a waste if it was totally unrelated (cf. Wheelie, Mirage, Cliffjumper). The balance of this one is fine,  in that a couple of major threads are organically foreshadowed,  making the issue an effective standalone prelude. The only problem is with hindsight it's hard not to wince at the first mentions of the Ark-1 and the Dead Universe. 

Art duties are interestingly doled out to M. D. Bright, presumably on the strength of his cover for the fifth issue (...are all dead!) of the Marvel comic, though his CV includes well-regarded stints on Iron Man and The Green Lantern. It isn't a particularly great showing, sadly. While there are some good action dynamics -such as the chase sequence- too often the pencils look rushed and jumbled, and the style is a poor fit for digital colouring.

Overall this stands up as a respectable day in the sun for Nightbeat tethered to some unwelcome reminders of trouble ahead. While it largely does as promised on the cover the truth is the character's been done as well elsewhere and this outing only stirs memories of a continuity about to rapidly lose its way.

Friday, 25 December 2015

Transformers - Stormbringer

At the time it came out Stormbringer showed that neither Simon Furman nor IDW truly believed in the brittle new world of Infiltration. The first of many idiotic editorial decisions from the serial licence renters,  this came out straight after Infiltration and was basically marketed as "no kids, robots on Cybertron,  epic old school action!" - i. e. nothing like the comic you've just stuck with for six months of your life. True, Infiltration lost something like 60% of its' readership (or some 20,000 in sales) across its' duration and received middling reviews but IDW can't have known this when Stormbringer was being made, which makes its' placement all the odder. As a safe opener to built up to the Earth-based stuff it'd work. As a sop to the fans after 12, 18 issues on Earth it'd work. Thrown out as it was it just seems like the ever-fickle company lost its' nerve even before Infiltration began publication

In short it's an insult to the writer,  the readership and the fictional universe. However,  the shameless attempt to play to Furman's strengths has the unexpected consequence of making the story actually fun - a word totally alien to the cod-serious world of Infiltration. It helps that,minor lip service to the ongoing Ore-15 thread aside, Stormbringer exists in a little bubble separate from much of the rest of IDW'S universe, that it actually functions as an action adventure in its own right instead of a forever broken promise of excitement like the rest of Furman's run. 

It was quite a surprise also to be reminded of how influential some of the ideas here are. The devastated uninhabitable Cybertron would be a staple of both the live action films and the Prime cartoon while - after some defiling of the team by shit BotCon merchandise and background stuffing from Dreamwave - the story also properly brings back the Wreckers. Not only are they in it but they're actually useful, so that's crucial groundwork for Last Stand of the Wreckers.

The plot covers what made Cybertron such a mess in the first place - Thunderwing tries to invent the Pretender shell,  makes an arse of it (definite Marvel influence there) and gets turned  into an insane killing machine meaning that every Transformer on the planet has to team up and stop him - via a present day resurrection overseen by emo Bludgeon and his cult of losers. It's a bit of a Furman greatest hits package with the role of Thunderwing reheated from "Matrix Quest", Bludgeon trying to revive a bastard is straight from "Another Time and Place" and the planet threatening superpower that requires a faction team-up is reminiscent of Unicron, but that's part of the charm. A reassuring sense of familiarity underpins Stormbringer, and you can feel how much more comfortable Furman is.

The cast are an interesting bunch on the whole - the Technobots get probably their best ever comic work here even if they're gently moved aside at the midpoint and Jetfire's mix of skills make him interesting; none of them would get any later chance to shine for IDW, but this is better than nothing. Optimus Prime is portentous and verbose but thankfully Furman seems to be past the worst of his phase of writing him as an emotional cripple while Springer and the Wreckers are entertainingly macho. What little we see of the Decepticons make a minor but positive impression, while Bludgeon's role is a nice throwback to his previous zealotry. Oh, and Searchlight getting to be Optimus' aide is cool too.

To add to the square fan appeal the story undoubtedly craves, Don Figueroa returns to art duties at a time when he was largely considered the finest working Transformers artist, having been one of the few to escape Dreamwave with an improved reputation. His work here is clean if unimaginative,  and therefore a perfect fit for the script. 

Stormbringer is not an excellent piece of work; it's safe, largely predictable and in its way is as frustrating for the lack of follow-up as the rest of the era. But at 88 pages of largely standalone consistently paced robot action it's entertaining in its own right and one of the highlights of Furman's stint.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Transformers - Infiltration

I'm not sure why I decided to re-read the IDW comics in chronological order but at this point it stops making much of a difference, because this is where the meat of the continuity begins. In a way it's a perfect preview of the company 'so output, being readable but avoidably flawed. After 20 years of dealing with the whims of others at Marvel and then Dreamwave, Simon Furman finally had a blank canvas to show us all how he could mould the Transformers from the ground up. What follows shows his talents off while exposing his weaknesses to an almost cruel degree.

What's good is the clear attempt to reasonably plot out the processes involved in Decepticons invading a planet, and how the Autobots would counter this while also establishing a perfectly good rationale for both factions to remain low-key and in disguise. The whole idea of the Infiltration Protocols is bluntly a writing masterstroke that is unequalled in the franchise's fiction, even topping the Cybertronian Empire pull-back of the Generation 2 comic.  

The players are also expertly chosen, the cast carefully blossoming from Ratchet (initially largely seen as an ambulance which communicates via a holomatter avatar) and the Battlechargers to a decent roster of favourites, enough of whom receive good characterisation to lay a workable foundation. The series' glacial pace is also less of a problem in a solid read-through, which - in either digital or trade form - is the only way anyone's read the story since 2006. And E J Su's art largely retains its punch; the clean Binaltech-influenced designs (which - it is easy to forget - preceded the similarly practical visual ethos of the Paramount films) are a delight and his kineticism is up to every challenge the script puts his way.

However, the series - and thus the whole continuity ahead of the soft reboot of Furman's effective removal from the title in 2008 - is flawed on a genetic level. The problem being that Furman is an epic plotter but a kids' comic writer. It's not even his dialogue for once, which aside from a couple of fumbles (Hunter phonetically spelling out his surname in a conversation when he's just said it out loud and thus phonetically anyway stands out as the only really dumb moment) is restrained and even largely maintains the intended mood in its functionality. No, it's the mental incapability to throw away the rulebook, a rulebook that - with a fresh sheet of paper and Hasbro in a "whatever, just give us money" mood - only existed in Furman's own limitations. 

The most evident problem are the three main human characters. I have no inherent problem with humans in Transformers fiction, and the idea that a major arc could take place on Earth without some interaction between species closes down many promising angles. The problem here is that all three are not only largely uninteresting but that they're basically child identification figures - like Spike and Sparkplug from the eighties cartoon, or Rad, Alexis and Carlos from Armada or something. In a comic surely aimed at nobody aged under 16 and conceptually tooled as a sleek, modern adult-orientated attempt to break free of previous comics' restrictions. That they're in their late teens or early twenties rather than at school makes little difference. 

The characters are as follows: spunky orphaned runaway Verity Carlo, who drifts from place to place thanks to her pickpocketing skills and tech savvy ; Hunter O'Nion, a nerdy conspiracy theory enthusiast and Jimmy Pink, whose character is that he's a mechanic and that he provides a flat neutral middleman in Verity and Hunter's discussions. Verity is largely inspired by Jubilee of X-Men fame, or at least the best known pre-Generation X version - attitude and repeated declarations of self-dependency proving lazy shorthand to show the reader that she's not your average comic bimbo, Hunter is Fox Mulder Junior, Jimmy is just there. Both indicate a writer who lost touch with the generation he's trying to write in about 1997.

To be fair the big problem with these three kids is that the debut arc ended up being the meat of their appearances. Lukewarm reaction saw Furman and/or IDW lose faith in them as major characters fairly quickly and not only would the second arc (Stormbringer) market itself on their absence but the third and fourth would write them out with only moderate decency.  That's not really Infiltration's fault exactly, but then the series has plenty of others.
If it can be summed up in one cheap shot it's that Furman talks the talk but can't walk the walk. There are several opportunities to show that this is a brave new comic where everything you know before is void, and they're all fumbled. Despite almost painful attempts to justify it in the story, we still have three kids snooping in a Decepticon base like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon. Even then there's a chance for a statement to be made - Bumblebee describes the intrepid trio as acceptable casualties and it's clear the Autobot doctrine on Earth means their lives are a minor priority weighed against the other six billion on the planet. But it's empty bravado - a last minute escape from a Decepticon air strike comes panels after a super sequence where Megatron spots Verity and instantly dismisses her as an insect not worth caring about. Killing off one of the humans - even third wheel Jimmy - would have been a fantastic way of declaring that all bets were off.

However, the poster child for such squandering is the Megatron/Starscream dynamic. The original comic had largely avoided the cartoon's stupidity by the pair rarely being front and centre at the same time for much of its' run. While their textbook relationship was revived for Generation 2 it had a fair bit of necessity to justify it, the odd wry lampshade hung on it and the inescapable factor of both being on the toy shelves. Here, Starscream - hyped up on the Ore-15 superfuel that provides such a good reason for setting the action on Earth - tries to draw Megatron into a showdown by repeatedly breaking his leader's cherished protocols. Megatron declares that he's had enough of all this treachery derailing the Decepticon cause and goes to put his house in order.

He shoots down the conspiring Skywarp and Blitzwing, then heads to Starscream's nest. There then follows a scene of minor genius as the Autobots look on while Megatron instantly cows Starscream's handful of followers before setting to work on the backstabber himself. There is then a brief but well drawn battle where Starscream proves no match for Megatron even with Ore-15. 

So there's Starscream the traitor, smashed to bits by the new no mercy Megatron. Fatality,  right? We're going to see this new no-nonsense Megatron brutally take out Starscream to show it's not the same old story... No, wait, he's still alive and Megatron is going decide what to do with him later. Which we already know is more likely to involve banishment to an asteroid than summary execution because Furman's still using the same old tired dynamic and is too scared to kill off a popular character early doors and scare the traditionalists. Instantly undermining any pretentions that this is a brave new universe or that this is finally a Megatron to be taken seriously.

Talk talked. Walk not walked.