Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Comic Review - Transformers: Generation 2 - the UK series


1994 and Transformers was back for Generation 2. Except in the UK, where it had never gone away. While the last of the various Micromasters and Actionmasters that made up the final underwhelming American series of what is now known as Generation 1 was being clearanced across the Atlantic European toystores were stiĺl receiving fresh product, ranging from new moulds to botched Japanese imports to unused prototypes, most of which have cropped up in James Roberts' work since. It was an odd period with Europe getting cool stuff like Overlord, the Turbomasters and two thirds of Breastforce without Breastmasters or even names.

The 1994 Marvel Transformers
Winter Special, which probably
came out right before G2 #1.
It meant when G2 did roll around Hasbro's British wing was at a bit of a loss as to what to do with it, the first batch of figures initially coming out as simply the latest wave of the original line. However once it became clear their American cohorts were putting money into relaunching the line with media support in the former of a new comic and obnoxiously edited episodes of the eighties they decided to switch to the new branding. The cartoon was effectively lost in the British television system of the time (little space on the four terrestrial channels and satellite having a tiny penetration) so it was down to the comic. The local branch of Marvel had handled it in the eighties until cancellation in 1992 after 332 issues, largely due to running out of material to run when the American book was axed. Since then they'd slung out a few low profile specials, right up until 1994. However the UK branch was by then hurtling towards destruction after overreaching themselves trying to convince people to like a stable of poor titles like Death's Head II and Motormouth & Killpower and had no time for the thing.

The first issue of Marvel
USA's G2 comic.
Hasbro looked elsewhere and threw in their lot with Fleetway, who had long ruled the British comic scene from King's Reach Tower alongside DC Thompson with their arsenal of weeklies like Eagle, Lion, Valiant, Battle and 2000AD. Many of these had gone - ironically as licenced titles like Transformers had eaten into the market - but Tharg was still overseeing things in 2000AD and The Beano remained a huge seller. Hasbro ensured they would have the rights to Marvel USA's new original material and with a monthly format chosen it all seemed simple.

Title just rolls off your tongue.
But it wasn't as a chunk of the early material was deemed unusable. This is occasionally blamed on the violent content but while Fleetway's eventual material showed they were pitching at a younger audience than the Marvel book across the ocean but as they later ran arguably the series' goriest moment (Red Alert getting shot down to his skeleton) it probably wasn't. More of a concern was that Hasbro had very sensibly asked Marvel to ease the Transformers back into print via a guest-spot in their still-running licenced G.I.Joe, to the distress of Joe fans who felt the appearance of the robots undermined the realism of their comic about ninjas and a terrorist organisation who were ignored by America's huge conventional military.

The end of Marvel UK's efforts to
push G.I.Joe - The Action Force.
Problem was that despite repeated efforts including three rebrands and a Marvel comic which included many of the same staff (and Grant Morrison) that had made Transformers such a success G.I.Joe had simply never caught on in the UK. Marvel tried a weekly then a monthly and then making the strip a back-up in Transformers itself, all to apathetic and occasionally hostile readers; it was dropped after G.I.Joe #74 was reprinted in Transformers #305, followed by a special which briefly tied up the Cobra civil war plot; the Transformers crossover ran through #133-142 and in the intervening sixty issues a mixture of Hasbro's demands and Larry Hama's dreary soap opera about how awesome Snake-Eyes is rendered it unrecognisable.

Hot Spot versus Cobra in the
American material.
It's actually debatable how much harm just ignoring the crossover issues and running the Transformers material would actually have been; G.I.Joe and Cobra's role in the actual Transformers issues is fairly minimal and a text box could probably have explained things briefly - that Megatron and Starscream had reappeared on Earth, destroyed the Autobot team sent to stop them and were now facing off against G.I.Joe would have handled things. That the first issue of the American title didn't actually include any references to the crossover would even have meant they wouldn't have had to launch with something fudged like that anyway.

Regardless, Fleetway decided to launch with some original material to lead into the reprints which were planned to make up the bulk of the title. The 24-page large format comic was priced at £1.50, with between half and two-thirds of the issue being strip and the rest made up of profiles, feature pages and the odd advert here and there, meaning that in theory there was the best part of two years' worth of material from the US book. However, to smooth the launch the first two issues contained new strips intended to dovetail into the reprints while working around the G.I.Joe crossover.

UK G2 #1 splash page.
Simon Furman was apparently the writer for these two strips but this is somewhat questionable. Furman was of course writing the American book and had done transatlantic double duty before and was a logical choice. However he claimed they weren't his work on the convention circuit in the late nineties before saying otherwise in a TPB reprint of the American material and can sometimes be a little disingenuous or at least eager to please; if the earlier denial was in a context of deriding the two UK stories an off-the-cuff disowning would have got a laugh from the room while the later reclamation might have been to claim any reprint money or simple poor memory.

Optimus moping.
A more compelling case for Furman not being the author is that they make a hugely complicated job of bringing things up to speed. The natural thing for the writer to do would be to trim the US scripts down - eliminate G.I.Joe or simply turn them into generic army troopers and simplify the thread about the destruction of the Ark while reintroducing Megatron in his old body. When you consider out of the first three American issues Derek Yanniger's workrate problems meant there had already been two fill-in issues largely unrelated to the main plot - promo comic reprint "Ghosts" and Manny Galan-drawn "Distant Thunder"-remake "Primal Fear" the most obvious thing to do would have been to trim down the script for the first issue and then provide a bridge tidying up the Earth material ahead of the arrival of Bludgeon and the Warworld. However, a lot of the dialogue - especially Optimus' guilt-ridden recap of Earth's place in the war - does ring pretty true.

Tornado displaying deep complex
Decepticon characterisation.
Instead the writer came up with a totally different script. One possible factor is the behest of Hasbro; the G2 comic is moderately famous for not actually featuring many G2 toys for various reasons. Aside from Megatron - the new line's centrepiece - and a few revised colour schemes (some of which, such as those for Optimus Prime, Starscream, Grimlock and Jazz, are easy to pass without particularly noticing) there was only an occasional attempt to showcase new wares in the US comic. The UK material however throws in the Skyscorchers, the Stormtroopers, Rotor Force and the Laser Rods plus has everyone involved overtly in their G2 schemes - notably the Dinobots, only released in brightly coloured variants in the UK whereas the American book got away with the grey versions. This might suggest that the plot problems came from this mandate but really if they were going to redraw it there was little harm in simply substuting some of these guys for any other Decepticon muscle.

Watch out Prime, he's
got a new toy!
Whoever the author the art was unmistakably the work of Robin Smith, a 2000AD stalwart who had a couple of short spells on the Transformers UK weekly to his credit. His blocky designs aren't to all tastes but combined with some bright colours from Gill Whelan it's not bad if a bit bright and cheerful, especially compared to the sinews and fluids the American material was providing. Dated October 1994 (and probably out then, the UK industry never having got into the silliness the American one did), the first issue's story was called "War Without End" (exactly the same as the first issue of the American book to keep things nice and simple...) and concerned Bludgeon's troops - entirely made up of new G2 toys without chaps like Octopunch and Stranglehold - attacking Earth (he's worked his way to London) as in the US book to draw out Optimus Prime and nick the Matrix (that he's already got the new troops he would use it to activate in the US book is something best not to think about). The ploy works - Prime arrives with Sideswipe, Jazz and Skram - hoping to also meet up with Grimlock - and battle is joined before being swiftly interrupted by the new and improved Megatron just after Bludgeon's been decked. As well as lots of new toys mentioning their names and showing their gimmicks (Sideswipe's drawn with his huge water blaster on his car roof) there's time to shoehorn in Optimus' apocalyptic visions foreshadowing the Swarm; so far so good if a bit weird.

G2 #2 splash page.
The second issue strip was called "War Zone", which might sound unimaginative but at least hadn't been used on the American comic. It's basically a fight issue - Optimus versus Megatron's shiny new toy, Megatron versus Bludgeon's shiny new toy army (skullface himself keeps a lot profile after Optimus smacked him down in three frames) and then the shiny new Dinobots versus the Decepticons, and ends with the bad guys running off their separate ways. Which is odd, because it basically resets the Decepticons - Bludgeon still has the main army and the Warworld, Megatron is still skulking around Earth with Starscream. The logical thing would have been to have Megatron kill Bludgeon here and take command of the army. Grimlock meanwhile gives Optimus the update on the Cybertronian Empire, more or less compacting the events of the first issue into a few frames. Again while weird and not especially good there's nothing outright wrong with the issue in itself.

G2 #3 poster.
Where the title got really weird was when it picked up the US reprints, starting with the third issue. This re-ran "Devices and Desires" from US #4; the main storyline of Grimlock setting out for satisfaction on the Cybertronian Empire is a fair follow-up to the flashback in the previous issue and works alright as an introduction to Jhiaxus for British readers but the strip starts off by covering the apocalyptic visions Prime mentioned in the first issue; not an error per se but certainly redundant. 

G2 #4 cover.
The fourth issue was there things started to really strain - reprinting the first two "Tales of Earth" back-ups from US #4 & 5 (the two-strip format being the eventual solution to Yaniger's tardiness for the American book). The story deals with Bludgeon attacking Earth to draw out Optimus Prime so he can steal the Matrix but instead riling Megatron and getting killed. With naturally absolutely no mention of why he's doing this when he did it an issue ago with broadly similar results, or why he's suddenly hanging with the gang of late-line figures from the tail end of the Marvel comics rather than his new minions seen in the first two British issues. Oh, my. There's not even any attempt to modify the dialogue or anything and to readers at the time without the benefit of knowing the US storyline it must have been baffling and once again renders a key element of the UK original material utterly redundant. It makes you wonder if Fleetway were planning to do more in-house strips and the money ran out or if they simply thought the US material was going to be more episodic than it ended up being and just decided to grasp the nettle.

Apart from it being the end.
Either way the title wasn't grabbing readers and the fifth issue was published with the knowledge it would be the last. The strip was "The Power and the Glory", featuring Optimus Prime's spiritual journey into Cybertron which laid out assexual budding as a means of Transformers reproduction and introduces the Swarm, which at least doesn't create any new continuity errors. The defiant "NEVER THE END!" scrawled on some poor artwork (lifted from the first issue's poster) on the back page wasn't really fooling anyone; a greater legacy was the generous plug for Matt Dallas' nascent Transmasters UK fanclub on the inside front cover - the group's material would continue the story (from the US book, more widely read in the UK than its' eighties counterpart due to the rising ease of importing comics via specialty stores that had sprang up after the success of the likes of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns); among the many talented fan writers and artists affiliated with the group would be James Roberts and Nick Roche.

Issue #1 freebie stickers.
Aside from the strip the format of the comic was a bit of a mess. It featured gatefold covers and centre pages that folded out into two huge posters, allowing it to proclaim itself a Transformer as well, something made more plausible in the aftermath of Action Master Elites while the thing was padded out with profiles and the like heavily drawn from Hasbro material - though whether this was due to the boys at Newport insisting or Fleetway just slapping in free page fillers is a matter of debate. Notable features for the first issue included some appropriately tacky stickers with that gelled perfectly with early G2's brattish aesthetic ("JAZZ BAD COMPANY") and a toy checklist using the local names for the figures (including Sureshot and Archforce, the hurriedly-created identities for Combat Hero Optimus Prime and Megatron as they were released simultaneously with the larger versions, characters being released at the same time at different price points still being some time away as Hasbro didn't yet believe kids would buy two toys of the same character in such a short space of time) and a few exclusives - including the Sparkabot and Firecon repaints only Europe got and the Lightformers Ironfist and Deftwing, still running from the pre-G2 line.

Sideswipe profile from #4.
The second issue featured more cover-mounted stickers, this time with a Dinobot theme to go  with them appearing prominently in "War Zone", a 'board' game in lieu of a poster in the middle and an admittedly very cool competition to win all 47 G2 figures then available in the UK. The third scales it back due to the reprinted strip being longer than the indigenous stuff but had space for a an unimpressive letters page where vague hints were dropped that the cartoon might be shown but more interestingly openly tackled a question on how the UK material would blend with the American reprints; the reply would rapidly be proven to be false but it showed how times had changed since the Marvel UK book had long kept up the fiction that they produced all the material. The fourth issue was less interesting again, with only a vague wink that someone who wasn't Fleetway might be producing an annual (they were; Grandreams' eventual version turning out to be an abomination that deserves a post of its' own). The final issue was so ropey there wasn't even a proper cover, just a frame of internal art which some staffer had taken to with crayons, a poster clearly traced from other internal art and some readers' pictures.

Naturally this doesn't lend itself to the book being much more than a curio for those whose interests in Transformers comics' history is as high as that in the stories themselves. The original issues are rare but not quite as expensive and collectible as you'd think as fans are largely unwilling to spend much on such slipshod material, though the first two issues are one of the few vintage Transformers strips not to be reprinted anywhere else.