Monday, 4 January 2016

Transformers - Devastation

It didn't have to be like this. Even after the horrors of Escalation there was a chance to carve a decent action adventure from the ruins, even if the brave new world and hard sci-fi of Infiltration was a distant memory. But Furman manages the not inconsiderable feat of making Devastation even worse than its predecessor. 

Sadly - and I apologise for sounding like a broken record, but keeps happening - it's the same old failing of too many plot threads choking the story,  though the latter isn't that good anyway. As well as the stuff left dangling on Earth - Megatron's Decepticons, Sunstreaker and Hunter's abduction by Scorponok and the Machination, Skynet and their pet cassettes,  Ironhide's fate,  the imminent arrival of Sixshot on Earth - yet more elements are drawn in from the Spotlights - the Reapers, Galvatron, Soundwave,  Sideswipe... Alan Moore wouldn't be able to pull this together in six issues, let alone Simon Furman. The difference is that Moore would never put himself in this position,  whereas this whole mess is the fault of Simon Furman and Simon Furman alone.

Overriding all of this even is instance after instance of bad writing - anti climactic climbdowns, villain decay, cheap drama, padding,  contrivances, obvious twists and plain outright stupidity abound.

Let's start with the two human organisations with their ominous epithets. The Machination rapidly become absurd and impossible to take seriously. Firstly there's their insistence on keeping Hunter alive - we're talking about an organisation that has enough state of the art tech to abduct an Autobot without being traced, infiltrate Decepticon bunkers and stay off the government's radar while doing so. They can mass produce and crew a platoon of Sunstreaker clones in the time it takes the Ark to track Ironhide,  so why do they need to brainwash some random kid as part of the operation? Slit the nerd's throat and chuck him in the furnace or something. It's one of the most obvious villain fails around, the sort of thing you get in a kids' comic where you're not allowed to off anyone.

And then they get worse. The aforementioned Sunstreaker clones go after Hot Rod and Wheeljack as part of some half-baked training exercise, revealing their presence and weaknesses to the Autobots in record time. Just to make sure when the pair are finally cornered the first thing the Machination agents do is separate from their powerful mech bodies to lecture the pair at from a worm's eye view while wearing deformed Sunstreaker faces. If it wasn't all so mercilessly serious you'd think you were being had. It is possibly the best yet explanation Western media has given for the Headmaster concept,  yes, but then all it needed to do for that was not feature any Autobots tearing their own heads off as a peace gesture and once again you have to wonder why Furman felt the need to examine that particular flawed idea all over again. 

And then it gets either worse (if you're still somehow taking this nonsense seriously) or better (if you're enjoying the total car crash this story is). As glimpsed in Escalation,  the Machination is a front for Scorponok - okay, fits his MO as seen in Spotlight: Ultra Magnus, though we're kind of reaching a saturation point for the number of Decepticons with different agendas springing out of the woodwork on Earth at the exact same time. With him being a head - presumably his escape in the Spotlight was a close one - the Sunstreaker bodies make sense there too. However,  when Scorponok does reappear (with Dante as his Headmaster because eighties) it's back in a copy of his Cybertronian body as obviously when you're pulling the strings from behind your human front operation the best thing to be is a gigantic green and purple robot scorpion. 

Skywatch, who sound like a cold-calling scam company, don't really do any better,  wheeling out that other crap villain standby of letting loose alien technology and then being surprised when they lose control of it. It was a tired development even before Dreamwave regrettably introduced it to Transformers seven scant years before this story, and it's not any more welcome here.  Amazingly their response to having Ravage and Laserbeak immediately bugger off to find Soundwave is to start thawing Grimlock out because... Furman really likes Grimlock. Really it's hard to see why, with so many thematic and narrative overlaps,  the Machination and SkyNet weren't merged into one storyline. Or just not used at all really - neither serve any purpose beyond rushing another batch of big names into the Earth theatre.

Sixshot manages to be even more of a disappointment. I can take him having some idiotic off switch because there was always going to be some stupid way of stopping him from killing everyone and seeing as Furman's only other ideas were likely to involve someone turning up Quickswitch or Metroplex in the hands of a shady Men In Black agency I'll settle. It's everything that goes before that's really bad.

In both the character's Spotlight and his briefing by Megatron he's portrayed as an unstoppable killing machine capable of wiping out worlds, yet here he doesn't kill a single Autobot  (and it's even inferred not a single human either). Instead the ultimate weapon, a guy who is built to kill swiftly and indiscriminately, plays cat and mouse with Ratchet until the rest of the Autobots turn up, at which point half a dozen Autobots who've just bailed out of an exploding spaceship into the sea keep him busy until, what do you know, he's recalled to face some other problem. Sum casualties from a Phase Sixer being mercilessly unleashed on an unexpecting, undermanned team of Autobots? Bumblebee gets shot but basically seems alright and Jazz loses an arm. The Autobots' orbital bounce teleport system does more damage by at least briefly killing Verity and Jimmy. Imagine the dramatic punch if - as much as I like the guy - he'd killed just Ratchet,  our guide and companion since Infiltration #1. But no, it's another cop out.

That other problem he gets called away for is the Reapers, who have followed him to Earth in order to reiterate their offer and decide to do so by attacking the Decepticon base rather than going straight to him and asking because then there would be no need to call him off the Autobots. Really the group had already served the closest thing they had to a purpose has been served. Here they're just another contrivance, though they at least get to off Runabout and Runamuck before serving their always obvious real purpose of being killed off to show how tough someone else is - Galvatron finally getting the job of euthanising them. 

Megatron himself continues his slide from the calculating military commander seen in Infiltration to the moron seen in the original cartoon. Yes, the comic acknowledges how rubbish he is with another mini-rebellion in the ranks but it really is disappointing. At least we don't have a predictable revival of Starscream,  though. No, wait, I'm thinking of a different comic that's good. Well, at least Megatron punishes his troops for plotting behind his back for the second time in three arcs. No wait etc etc and so on.

The Autobots generally do better - their consistent individual characterisation is the closest thing to a plus point in this miniseries (yep, the best thing to say about Devastation is that Furman doesn't fuck up every single character featured), aside from welcome fill-in work from Nick Roche and Robby Musso for the middle issues, handling most of the action with an energy E J Su never managed. They're effectively a reader surrogate, hapless innocents with no real choice but to weather what appears to be a complete mental breakdown on the part of the writer with some sort of dignity. However, even they can't escape from the disaster without getting engulfed in the brain fade. Firstly there's a lamentable subplot where for some dumb reason the easiest way to rescue the deactivated Ironhide from being crushed at a scrapyard (as a blown up Autobot in car mode is indistinguishable from a blown up human car because it wasn't like the opposite was a plot point in Escalation or anything) against the clock is to have Hot Rod and Wheeljack drive there rather than use the orbital bounce. So basically the whole plot line is devised so they can run into the Machination. Best of all, after six issues of this repetitive dross Hardhead just beams down as they find Ironhide and tells them to get their shit together,  and the never in doubt rescue happens off-panel.

The reason for Hardhead dropping in is to let the pair know that the Autobots are abandoning Earth in order to follow up on the raid on Garrus-9. This is a poor move for two reasons - one, it's a disappointment on a dramatic level to see Optimus and the boys bug out at such an odd point in the narrative at a point where you'd rather they were tooling up for a do-or-die raid on the Decepticon bunker. Secondly, one of the undeniable strengths of the IDW material is giving the impression that the war is truly galactic rather than taking place on just Earth and Cybertron. But in this case it fails to convince - sure, someone needs to be pulled back to find out what's happened with Monstructor but Prime's crew are in the middle of a pitched battle on an alien planet at outright war with Transformers, a planet that's the current base of the Decepticon leader and (as far as the Autobots know) a Phase Sixer. Are the Wreckers or the post-movie guys Prime was hanging with before arriving on Earth really doing something even more important?

Amongst all of this there's even space for a quick bit of cheap drama when Verity and Jimmy are killed being beamed to the Autobots' spaceship; in typical style they go from being blue to getting resuscitated without brain damage, presumably (and why the Hell is Jazz letting Ratchet know the time they've been dead in "Earth minutes" anyway?). It's just such a random thing to be thrown in at that point, a shock frame and then a simple "no, wait, they're basically alright" resolution within a few pages. The same goes for Hound's team - including Sideswipe - getting called up as Earth reinforcements but then getting rerouted before they've even packed their bags.

In some sort of mitigation for Furman somewhere during the production of Devastation IDW took the long overdue decision to demote him to rhythm guitar and lined up Shane McCarthy as the main writer. This could possibly have compressed Devastation's narrative and forced a few late changes to be made to switch the focus, but this seems overly charitable and Furman's still throwing in random stuff in the last issue so simple bad writing is the most likely cause. There was probably some follow-up planned in terms of Earth, however, with Hot Rod and Sunstreaker/Hunter likely to be at the forefront of the resistance, but at the same time nothing in the past twenty-odd Furman-penned issues gives much hope that this would have been any good.

There's a chance that it might have gone better than Devastation, however. It really is an absorbingly bad comic; Escalation was crap, but it was just crap. This is a horribly readable, a comic so bad you keep turning the pages to see how much worse it's going to get, and it rarely disappoints. If Furman had known IDW were effectively binning him for McCarthy he couldn't have written a story more likely to destroy the readership and the title's continuity. This is an experienced writer self-destructing, tearing down 25 years of hard work on the title in a rabidly masochistic fashion.

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