Friday, 21 April 2017

Comic Review: Transformers - Chaos


I am not a professional comic writer, or even an amateur one. However, I have a salient tip for any writer out there - if you're hurriedly compacting two-plus years of storylines from multiple linked series in four issues compacted and compressed from a planned mini-series to clear the decks ahead of a relaunch event do not, I repeat do not call it Chaos. Thankfully for anyone looking for a cheap shot at Costa (and there was never any shortage both in terms of opportunity and opportunists) it's pretty chaotic. While James Roberts is involved his role seems largely to be doctoring a bit of the dialogue and making sure the characters he's eyeing for successor series More Than Meets the Eye get guided through (note the sudden assignment of whacky funster status to Swerve, just a teaser for the mint banter we'll be subjected soon) and the rest is pure Costa - by which I mean a succession of promising developments executed poorly and quickly before he shuffles on to his next brainwave.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Comic Review: Northstar


If you put Simon Furman in charge of the sun it would stop coming up in 12 months' time. The man has been cancelled more times than a software update and in 1994, a year when mutants were so hot there was a Bishop solo series, he managed to get a mutant title canned. Alright, it was Alpha Flight and no-one had cared since Johnny Byrne stopped working on it but still, he got a Marvel mutant ongoing cancelled in the mid-nineties. Emerging from this feat was a four-part Northstar mini-series, presumably the company opting to test the character out as a viable solo spin-off and standing out a little due to the smart matching cover design philosophy. Jean-Paul had always been one of the less generic members of Alpha Flight, though as an arrogant speedy mutant he might have stood out a bit better if the company didn't already have Quicksilver doing most of that stuff. Of course, at this point Northstar had gone beyond Flying Canadian Quicksilver thanks to being outed as homosexual a couple of years before, becoming Flying Canadian Gay Quicksilver.

Comic Review: Transformers - Police Action


With the "Chaos" event folded into the main ongoing at late notice and with planned co-writers Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning joining Don Figueroa in fucking off Mike Costa was left juggling much of the closing days of the IDW ongoing, now stepped up fully to bi-monthly. He used alternate issues to tidy up the remnants of the Earth-based story threads which probably pissed a lot of readers off at the time, which is always a plus. Costa was probably used to fans' utter impatience with anything he did at this point and for once didn't buckle; it's strange how James Roberts is deified for taking a year to answer perceived flaws in his stories and yet Costa's versions of Spike and Prowl had morons apoplectic every month, desperate to have every little frame explained to them immediately. Arguably the difference was Costa tried to supplicate these idiots and cater to them. Or that Roberts is a dyed in the wool Transformers fan who spends most of his time talking about Transformers to people who like Transformers whereas Costa was a jobbing writer who'd rather have been writing X-Men or something and saw the title as a means to an end. But Transformers fans would never be so fickle and shallow; it wasn't like they spent years trying to have Bob Budiansky shot for not writing dark epics about Unicron or anything mental like that.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Comic Review: Tokyo Storm Warning


Between contracts in 2003 Warren Ellis went through a brief phase of trying to write a 3-issue mini-series for every Wildstorm sub-imprint going; Red was probably the best known. For Cliffhanger - which mainly handled J Scott Campbell's Danger Girl - he crafted Tokyo Storm Warning, concerning a spate of giant monsters attacking Tokyo, faced by giant mystical robots. It's a clear homage to both the kaiju movies that most famously bequeathed Godzilla and super robot anime series. Ellis, robots, monsters and the pencils of James Raiz, who proved his pedigree for this sort of thing on Dreamwave's Transformers Armada - what could possibly go wrong? Quite a bit, actually.

Comic Digital Archive - The Spider

Devised to cash in on the encroaching Silver Age dazzle bleeding across the Atlantic, The Spider is still the crown jewel in IPC Fleetway's pantheon of very British heroes. His antics, printed in the weekly Lion, took place in America (primarily the fictional Croy) but there the similarity with the likes of Spider-Man ended. Of uncertain origin (he just appears, even his species is never really confirmed or denied) the character even started off as a villain, a common theme for strips of the period - The Steel Claw started the same way. Immediately he picked up the services of crooked scientist Professor Pelham and dumb safecracker Roy Ordini, who would be the faces of the army of crime he recruited to help carry out his schemes from a castle overlooking the city.

Comic Review: Transformers - Chaos Theory


The supreme irony of IDW finally taking the plunge into making a single Transformers ongoing only for it to be even more fractured continues in the fifth collection of the series. IDW had by now realised that Mike Costa wasn't really hitting the right notes with either the fandom or the by this stage non-existent casual readers the title had accrued and began looking at bringing in another writer alongside the handful, the original plan being for Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning to join the three or four different Mike Costas in writing the book. After contributing the dodgy "Infestation" and weird "Heart of Darkness", the first building blocks for the planned "Chaos" event storyline, yet another IDW saga that would make sure the world of Transformers would never be the same or whatever. They then fucked off to do something else and instead the job went to James Roberts, then just the popular mortal writer of Last Stand of the Wreckers and yet to be cocooned in a sycophantic social media echo chamber.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Comic Digital Archive - Robot Archie

The old British weeklies have always had their totems, their mascots, their ever-presents - 2000AD has Tharg, The Beano had Dennis the Menace, Valiant had Captain Hurricane, Eagle had Dan Dare and so on. For Lion, it was Robot Archie. Created by George Cowan and artist Ted Kearnon as the Jungle Robot the character lasted the first six months of Lion before disappearing for five years but from 1957 to the end of the title in 1974 he was always there.

Comic Review: Transformers - Infestation


In 2005 zombies were pretty damn hot in comics thanks to Marvel Zombies and with typical decisiveness IDW decided they wanted a bit of that several years later when it was all very much played out with Zombies v Robots, written by that twat Chris Ryall. In 2011 it was decided to use this as a springboard for IDW's cross-company "Infestation" event, which used their in-house titles CVO: Covert Vampire Operations and Zombies v Robots to launch zombies at their licenced properties, meaning a big crossover between Transformers, Star Trek, G.I.Joe and Ghostbusters that absolutely no-one reading those titles wanted to see. Handling this were Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, just ahead of writing "Heart of Darkness" but published at more or less the same time (and taking place at around the three-quarters mark of that series). The full crossover included a two-part Infestation series then several cadet series which I will not be reading under any circumstances, apart from the two-issue Transformers - Infestation mini.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Comic Digital Archive: The Robo Machines


As anyone who's a long-term reader will know this has long been my little pet love. The Robo Machines comic ran for two arcs in the 1980s version of Eagle and remained pretty obscure until only a few years ago. I certainly hadn't found much information until I hunted down the old issues and found it to be not all that bad at all and scanned it to inflict on other people. Since then someone's done better scans, which is all good. What would be lovely would be a proper TPB reprint as the original comics were on newsprint but sadly with a fragmented rights situation  - the Gobots trademarks co-opted for Robo Machine are possessed by Hasbro, the likenesses for the Robo Machines by Bandai and the actual comics by IPC/Fleetway - this seems unlikely. While the latter have shown a willingness to work with fans on reprints, such as for Doomlord and Leopard of Lime Street, the involvement of two rival toy giants would be a stumbling block.

Comic Review: Transformers - Heart of Darkness


For the umpteenth time IDW began to realise that their Transformers comics and their writers weren't actually going down too well and a rescue mission was needed. The solution to the ongoing's issues was to parachute in chair-sharing duo Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, who were sort-of the British Jeph Loeb in that they simply survived in the industry for a couple of decades and were arbitrarily elected as hot for a little while because no-one else was really doing much new either. Dan of course had cut his teeth writing out scripts for Simon Furman on the old British Transformers weekly before pairing up with John Tomlinson for the aggressively awful Knights of Pendragon series. His later partnership with Lanning had yielded runs on Guardians of the Galaxy and Nova for Marvel and Legion of Superheroes for DC, which was enough for IDW's online shills to act like Kurt Busiek had rocked up. They turned on them soon enough naturally as both are still just that bit too famous to do conventions but anyway, onwards. The pair first handled IDW's idiotic Infestation crossover before getting a four-issue follow-up mini named "Hearts of Darkness", with the plan being then that they work with Costa on the ongoing. How all three would squeeze on a chair I don't know.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Comic Review: Knights of Pendragon - Once and Future


As discussed elsewhere, the late eighties and early nineties were a time of give and take for comic fans. The give was that Watchmen, DKR, Deadline and Zenith had made the idea of grown-ups buying comics seem strangely normal; the take was that we had to call the things graphic novels and that everyone writing for the things suddenly thought they were Alan fucking Moore. Marvel UK rarely needed much of an excuse to overreach themselves and after finally begrudgingly admitting no-one liked Dragon's Claws, Death's Head or The Sleeze Brothers their next attempt to be a proper publisher came in the form of Knights of Pendragon

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Comic Review: Transformers - Revenge of the Decepticons

PUBLISHER: IDW (2010-2011)

Mike Costa's schizophrenia continues in the third batch of ongoing issues, consisting of a prelude-style one shot and then a five-part story. The real story though is again IDW's lack of editorial direction and forward planning; just like the Dead Furmanverse and All Hail Megatron the ongoing is set into that pattern of a bold new direction that didn't go down too well and then furious backpedalling when the fresh stuff failed to find the expected crossover audience, instead forcing pandering to the fandom in order to keep the numbers up. The main events of the first year's issues were that the war was over, that Megatron was out of the picture, that Optimus Prime had abdicated and that Bumblebee was the leader of the Autobots. Basically all of these things are undone in deed if not word.

Comic Review: Robo Machine featuring the Gobots Annual 1987

By 1986 Gobots was winding down in America, with the TV series moving to syndication and the toyline running out of new toys and getting squeezed out by Transformers in a shrinking market after the 1985 boom. In the UK the market was slightly less cut-throat as the simple difficulty of transatlantic business at the time meant fewer of the fly-by-night lines which had boomed briefly had made it across to Britain. Robo Machine had never been a gigantic seller in the UK and thus had less distance to fall, continuing to chug along happily in the #2 spot a long way behind Transformers; the line would only really stop when it ran out of figures, even managing to get Fossilsaurus and Dancougar roped in towards the end. Meanwhile at Egmont House World Distributors had paid for a licence as they were going to use it; for their second Gobots annual in 1986 World Distributors had a challenge; they'd set the bar very low the first time around - could even they go lower?

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Comics: Vulcan

The format of Vulcan gives it a fair claim to the title of the the greatest British comic of all time, despite being a reprint book. Throughout the sixties especially IPC Fleetway had experimented with fantastical stories more in line with the American industry, albeit the majority employing a peculiarly British slant to the concept. However they never really muscled aside the war and football stories which made up the backbone if the weeklies and gradually moved out of print, defiant innings from 'Robot Archie' (effectively a mascot for Lion) and the Steel Claw (who got a sequel strip, 'Return of the Claw' in Valiant) notwithstanding. It took until the seventies for superheroes to take much of a grip in the UK, when Marvel set up a British division and launched the Mighty World of Marvel, soon followed by Spider-Man Weekly Comics, The Superheroes, The Titans and The Mighty Avengers as the industry briefly boomed. Fleetway took note and responded, merging their library of existing strips into a single fantasy/superhero title - the original Magnificent Seven being 'The Steel Claw', 'The Spider', 'The Trigan Empire', 'Kelly's Eye', 'Mytek the Mighty', 'Saber - King of the Jungle' and 'Robot Archie' - made up the arsenal of Vulcan, edited by Geoff Kemp.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Comic Review: Transformers - Ironhide


IDW's first attempt at a solo 'spin-off' mini-series Bumblebee suffered from a catastrophic piece of mistiming, choosing a character who was too entrenched in the ongoing plot and at exactly the wrong time. Aside from which it wasn't all that bad; the problem with the Spotlight format had always been that it's fairly easy for any writer worth their salt to focus on one character and give them a bit more focus than might be allowed in a bigger arc, leaving them to come out the other side a richer character. The problem was always the plot - whether to keep it self-contained and end up with something inconsequential or whether to link it into something bigger and just be left with a regular issue with narration boxes.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Comics: Machine Men Mini-Comics

In Australia the Machine Robo line was imported as Machine Men, distributed by Bandai Australia. Like the European version and unlike the American Machine Men line the toys sold well enough that Bandai opted to keep the original branding, even after Gobots took off. Indeed, uniquely the cartoon was even retitled Challenge of the Machine Men to fit in with the toys. To help promote the figures, Bandai Australia did provide catalogues that included short comic strips.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Minifigures - Red Robin

Red Robin has been the identity of three different characters, all former Robins. The character debuted in Alex Ross' acclaimed Kingdom Come as an identity of Dick Grayson, the original Robin, with the costume clearly a mash-up of mentor Batman and his own. The design was striking enough to make it to regular continuity (or as regular as DC's continuity gets) as a guise for former Robin and current Red Hood Jason Todd whenever he was being overtly heroic before he eventually went nuts and spoilt it all. The identity then made it to the third Robin, Tim Drake - and that's who I'm saying this one is for ultimate line-up line-upability.

Comic Review: Transformers - International Incident


All comic writers have bad ideas. The trick is to realise them as such. The second batch of issues from Mike Costa's unsubtitled ongoing series are an odd bunch. The man has no quality control; not since Bob Budiasnky's second year on the old Marvel title (after which he was obviously trying to get fired) has a writer on Transformers had so many good ideas and so many bad ideas blended with a total inability to realise which is which. The result is bordering on schizophrenia and results in a wildly uneven ride. 

Comic Review: Thunderbolt Jaxon


Wildstorm/DC brought up the rights to the fabled comic wing of IPC/Fleetway in 2005 and promised a selection of new material and reprints (the main hitch in the latter being the absence and poor condition of most physical masters). The opening gambit was Albion, written by Leah Moore and John Reppion and maybe read or spellchecked or vaguely acknowledged by Alan Moore. This was a hugely clumsy attempt to "do a Watchmen" for the characters but while it was nice to see so many characters back in print after decades on the sidelines and it was nowhere near the desecration of the infamous 2000AD Holiday Special it's generally considered impolite to mention the whole thing now. Phase two was a pair of spin-off five part miniseries "from the world of Albion!" largely chosen by casting around for British Invasion creators who had fond memories and asking them if they wanted to write anything. Dave Gibbons answered the call and chose Thunderbolt Jaxon, but there were two major catches - he didn't want to draw it and apparently he didn't want to write about Thunderbolt Jaxon either. Jaxon was never quite in Fleetway's first echelon, mainly being limited to Comet and Knockout rather than the A-list and his big moment might well have been a whiny death in Grant Morrison's Zenith. He was left out of Albion and you get the impression it wasn't so much to keep him free for this mini but because the writers didn't know who he was.

Comic Review: X-Men - X-Tinction Agenda


This is it, the progenitor, the prototype, the big daddy - the first real mutant crossover, the harbinger of "X-Cutioner's Song", "Fatal Attractions", "Age of Apocalypse" and "Onslaught". Marvel's mutant titles had done events before, starting with "Fall of the Mutants" in 1988 and "Inferno" the following year but for those each title had remained relatively self-contained. But 1990's "X-Tinction Agenda" featured a full flow of three issues of the three books with a constantly shifting cast; if you didn't buy all nine issues involved you would not have a clue what was happening and while each title would subtly focus ever so slightly on the home team it was only as part of an ongoing plot.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Comic Review: Transformers - Last Stand of the Wreckers


It's fair to say that in 2010 people were fed up with IDW. Simon Furman had been given unprecedented control and freedom when the publisher got the licence at the fag-end of 2005 and squandered it with a meandering three-year pile-up of dreadful storylines. Replacing him with Shane McCarthy upset the deluded who felt Furman's work was ever going to go anywhere and then upset the people who were up for a change when his All Hail Megatron arc rapidly went from being stupid fun to stupid stupid, and then successor Mike Costa's tenure got off to a very wobbly start. Something was needed to get the fans onside; the result was the recalling of fan-turned writer-artist Nick Roche, whose debut on Spotlight - Kup had been one of the few universally acclaimed pieces of output since IDW picked the licence up. Roche then roped in fellow Transmasters alumni James Roberts to help out on the script, to focus entirely on the Wreckers.

Minifigures - Firestar

Firestar has led an odd life; at the time she was a rarity in being a Marvel character who didn't debut in the comics. Initially eighties cartoon Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends was meant to feature Iceman and the Human Torch as Peter Parker's superpowered fellow students but Marvel had already hawked the Fantastic Four to a rival network and Johnny was dropped. However, someone really wanted to keep the "ice and fire" thing for his buddies even if a collision in a fight would take them both out (a situation put forward in one of those jokey one-pagers they did at the end of some issues of What If...) and instead of rounding up an extant pyrotechnic (to be fair off the top of my head I can't think of any others from the period apart from Pyro, Jim Hammond and Sunfire, who were too evil, dead and Asian for early eighties network cartoons, though Shiro did get a guest appearance) devised Angelica Jones, a.k.a. Firestar.

Toy Review: Grind Rod / Masterpiece Rollbar (KO version)

I've long had a genuine unironic love of the Throttlebots; they were the only team I was able to complete as a child, the toys were good simple fun (and could zip for miles when new) and their profiles had great potential even if they tended to be "Goldbug's mates" in the various media. So the prospect of third party toys for them was salivating but at £60-80 a throw out of my reach as I try not to spend such amounts since becoming a parent. Step in the backbone of my toy collection, Chinese bootleggers (in this case Weijiang) and the inestimable Denyer, who sent me the oversized knock-off version of Grind Rod (i.e. Rollbar, the team's sort-of leader depending on what Goldbug was up to).

Comic Review: Dan Dare


There have been many attempts to bring Dan Dare up to date since the original strip in Eagle retired with its' protagonist in 1967. 2000AD tried a spikier revival when they launched in 1977 by bringing him out of suspended animation but it didn't go down well and the non-traditional elements were cranked back until it disappeared; a revival of Eagle in the eighties saw a more conventional story with the contrivance that this Dare was a descendant; more influenced by war comics this never quite took on either and reverted to a straight sequel featuring the original to no great effect. The next outing was Grant Morrison's heavy-handed but still striking Thatcherism satire Dare in Revolver, after which most of the rights' owners energies were in exploring TV and film in light of the weakness of the British comic industry, resulting in the single-season CGI cartoon Pilot of the Future. In print there was no significant new material until the licence was picked up by the recently-founded comic wing of Virgin Enterprises.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Minifigures - Sabretooth

Sabretooth originally debuted as a villain in Iron Fist and then spent several years as an occasional guest villain in various titles before creator Chris Claremont roped him into the Mutant Massacre storyline in Uncanny X-Men. Since then he's become inextrictably linked to the X-Men and Wolverine in particular, having a bully-style relationship and shared Weapon X origin with the latter. He was as such an early choice for a call-up to the films but was botched by being cast as a generic mook and played by a failed wrestler. Liev Schrieber was drafted in for the character's second big screen outing and while I won't hear a word against him it has to be said X-Men Origins - Wolverine was not a great movie.

Comic Review: Transformers - Bumblebee

PUBLISHER: IDW (2009-2010)

Post-All Hail Megatron it was clear someone at IDW thought Optimus Prime was mined out and things needed shaking up; the drastically increased profile of Bumblebee after two successful films made him an ideal candidate to take over the central focus and try and claw back some readers. The problem was Bumblebee had after a few initial appearances been largely neglected by both Simon Furman and Shane McCarthy, both of whom who had stuck to the late-Marvel-era characterisation of "yeah he's not as small and useless as he was but actually he's still small and useless in the grand scheme of things but just quieter and in it less". So some work had to be done and one of these decisions was to run a four-part mini-series alongside the new ongoing to beef up his case. Unfortunately IDW seems to have neglected to tell the two titles' respective creative teams until some way down the line.

Comic Review: Robo Machine featuring the Gobots Annual 1986


As touched upon elsewhere the various licences associated with the Gobots line were a mess and this was evident in few places that got the line more than the UK. In Britain the Machine Robo toys had been launched as Robo Machine around the same time as the short-lived American Machine Men line was on the shelves and by Bandai's European unit. When Tonka bought up the rights for the United States they didn't want them elsewhere and Bandai continued to distribute Robo Machine in Europe with moderate success. However, as Transformers arrived and Tonka's Gobots took off Bandai quickly realised that in the West being transforming vehicles wasn't as good as transforming vehicles that also had names and abilities and began applying the Gobots names to the figures (with the occasional change) while retaining the Robo Machine branding. Still with me?

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Comic Review: Union Jack - London Falling


Union Jack's first mini had somehow been released in 1998 and very welcome it was, with an added round of surprise coming from Ben Raab actually putting in a good shift on the script despite his form. However, after those three issues it was back to jobbing cameos for Joe Chapman (though an unsuccessful pitch would lead to Paul Grist's superb Jack Staff) until he turned up in as one of Allan Jacobsen's New Invaders alongside other long-established but semi-obscure characters such as US Agent, the original Human Torch and the Thin Man. While this only lasted nine issues it presumably put this four-issue series on the table to give the character another try-out.

Comic Review: Transformers - For All Mankind

PUBLISHER: IDW (2009-2010)

This is it, the most innovative and crucial piece of Transformers fiction since Bill Mantlo and Ralph Macchio sent that stuff about naturally occurring gears and pulleys creating sentient life off to the printers in 1984. Since then the story of the Transformers has been dominated above all by one thing - the civil war between the Autobots and the Decepticons. Whole stories have been hung on how perpetual and unavoidable this cycle is, a billion dollar film franchise hinges on the premise that the Decepticons are never quite beaten and naturally having two factions always battling is vital to selling toys, so it's never going to go away. Apart from here, where it does.

Comic Review: The Avengers - Under Siege


Marvel in the mid-1980s was not an innovative place, especially in the main titles where the status quo tended to be maintained. The Avengers had a constantly shifting roster but nothing ever really happened to the team exactly; against this backdrop the group of issues that make up the Under Siege TPB are quite innovative, dealing with a concerted attempt to destroy the team.

Comic Review: Spider-Man's Tangled Web, Volume 1


Spider-Man's Tangled Web was another part of Joe Quesada's attempt to court trendy, groovy writers from the likes of Vertigo to improve Marvel's flagging street cred, the idea being to make short anthology-style stories for the long-running character with a less conventional outlook. The creators wouldn't be bound by long runs and thus able to keep up their day jobs while the stories themselves wouldn't affect the more conventional adventures Spidey was still having in his other titles. 

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Minifigures - Ant-Man (Film Version)

As anyone who has heard me bang on will know I've yet to be entirely sold on Marvel's film output, seeing most of it as safety first franchise fodder, though to be fair the same could be said of a lot of their print output since the year dot so I could just be being an arsehole. Either way I enjoyed Ant-Man, forefronting a genuinely underrated character in an inventive film that had a bit of weight to it and actually made fine use of the title character's ability. Thankfully lots of other people also agreed and Scott Lang, Scott bloody Lang, a homeless wanderer who cribbed together guest showings with the Avengers and Fantastic 4 (before finally getting his own series after the film).

Minifigures - Power Man

 Luke Cage's story is much the same as that of frequent mucker Danny Rand, aside from the fact he got started a couple of years earlier to cash in on the blaxploitation fad. He was also a fair bit more racist as well, or at least not particularly well-written in terms of intelligence and vocabulary - it's more likely that he was being given what middle-aged white men thought was good street slang. This bit did get better and the character was shorn of his naff codename (which had never really caught on anyway) and given something of an update. Since then he's sported numerous looks, many using elements of the original design but others trying to reflect his more streetwise outlook by giving him normal clothes.

Comic Review: Death's Head, Volume Two

PUBLISHER: MARVEL UK (1989-1990), MARVEL (1991, 1993)

The second volume of Death's Head reprints basically plot an ongoing attempt to keep the character alive, a rag-tag punch of crossovers and guest appearances as all involved defiantly refuse to give up on the concept while continuing to unwittingly dilute it. Since landing his own ongoing series the capitalist killer had been calmed down considerably into a Saturday morning cartoon - you remember how in that nineties X-Men show where Wolverine would always be snarling about wanting to hack people up  but would always listen to Cyclops this time bub or someone would get lucky this time bub and those claws would only be used on robots and electric fences and whatever? That's solo series Death's Head - make an exception this time, yes? Hope heroics are not catching, yes? Let you live this time, yes? As such a series of guest appearances where he can't very well go around killing other established characters are hardly promising.

First on the table are the last three issues of his solo book, pinwheeling towards cancellation as readers got bored in their droves. The first actually sees the first run-out for the character not under the pen of Simon Furman; instead Steve Parkhouse gets the job, possibly because of his familiarity with guest star the Doctor. In fact, once you throw in Dogbolter hiring Death's Head to nobble the Doc and steal the TARDIS it feels more like a Doctor Who comic with Death's Head in. Death's Head claims his first name is Death and calls a robot 'son', which says a lot for Parkhouse's handle on the character. He's given a time machine jetpack thing and sent off to find the Doctor's not being written very impressively either, his combination of skills and interests leading him to opt to play a jester in a pantomime, literally. His comic was full of shit like that, though it rapidly turns into an escalating contest of crapness - Death's Head gets embarrassed busting into a ladies' changing room, the Doctor escapes him with the help of a bloke called Dave who lets him share a pantomime horse costume. I'm not sure if Parkhouse just hates the seventh Doctor and Death's Head or just the reader. Naturally Dogbolter tries to double-cross them with a bomb (the story is called "Time Bomb" so no points for rumbling that little twist before it thuds in two-thirds of the way through the issue) and the pair work together - naturally with Death's Head resisting the chance to get even with the Doctor and the Doctor handily dumping him on top of Four Freedoms Plaza. It might be the worst Death's Head comic ever but then there's a way to go yet.

The desperation continues in the ninth issue of Death's Head then as it's time for a crossover with the first dysfunctional family of comics. The good news, much needed after Art Wetherell's efforts on the last issue is that this one has an artist - with Dragon's Claws cancelled Geoff Senior is free. The finest of Marvel UK's cadre never really made it far beyond Transformers but really his dynamism here shows that it was the industry's loss as his geometric style is a great fit; his Thing and Mr Fantastic especially are superb. Furman's back on scripting duties and while that means less humiliation for everyone he can't come up with a better plot than "everyone fights until a common enemy comes along". This time it's the Baxter Building's security system that brings along the "we'll finish this when we're all safe by actually we won't and Ben's not going to smash Death's Head's face in and neither is Death's Head going to shoot Ben because he needs a time machine and that's the only reason he saves Franklin, yes? Some good dialogue and the aforementioned incredible art helps but it's basically exactly the same plot as every other crossover the character's in, a series of excuses for the character not to actually kill anyone.

More of the same follows when the time machine - thanks to last-minute tampering by Reed - sends him to 2020, where he gets embroiled in a scuffle with Arno Stark, the Iron Man of 2020 who - as discussed here - had a sizable UK following for weird reasons. The plot is so close to the previous issue it's amazing even Furman - the man who wrote Maximum Dinobots - has the gall to be so blatantly repetitive. Fight, fight, realise common enemy, sort common enemy out, bedgrudging respect, no-one dies, no imagination was harmed in the making of this comic. A slight twist comes when cascading sales led to the series ending, meaning a last-minute arrival for Spratt and Bigshot (from the first volume) to try and get the character to something approaching status quo ahead of the axe.

While Death's Head had died a death comics themselves were booming post-Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, which opened up an adult market. Marvel blamed the failure of Dragons' Claws and Death's Head on the book's US format being lost on British shelves (no, seriously) and, eyeing the success of the seminal Deadline and Fleetway's similar Crisis opted to make the character part of their own planned large-format grown up comic Strip. Like the others it mixed the serial anthology format that continued to dominate the weird UK market with stories for grown-ups; initially it featured the likes of Marshal Law and The Man from Cancer but midway through the run with the title dying (sensing a theme here?) and decided to up the ante by bringing back some better-known names, with Death's Head joining up in #13 (the Punisher would also sign up soon afterwards).

The result was "The Body in Question", a respectable return to form tying up some loose ends from the ongoing (including Spratt and Big Shot crashing in on Death's Head in 2020 and the teased stuff about Death's Head's apparent wife looking for him in 8162) and then exploring the character's origins. It's a little darker than the previous material both in that they actually let him kill someone without diffusing it with comedy and in the introspective nature; it might just be the best post-Transformers script the character's had, certainly. Best of all is the format, with all sixty pages of the serial beautifully drawn by Senior and with painted colours too.

Around this time the character made his debut in an American Marvel comic for the first time (his solo series had been released in the USA as an import but actual distribution was sketchy) in Fantastic Four #338, written and drawn by Walter Simonson. I'm sure Walt did do some good comics but everything of his I've read recently has been garbage and it might be that I'm thinking of Louise Simonson. Fair play though the art is striking but the issue is part of some Kang-related time travel madness that's already trying to fit Iron Man and Thor (because Simonson) into things so Death's Head's appearance as an agent of the Time Variance Authority isn't hugely substantial, though Simonson has a fair handle on his dialogue and he's no worse than he was in much of his solo series but it's not the character's finest moment either. Even more inessential is a third run-in with the Doctor at a birthday party in which Death's Head cameos in about three frames; you can admire the editor's exhaustive approach but the truth is the strip is as much about Captain Britain as it is about Death's Head.

Furman had by now crossed the Atlantic for most of his work and with Transformers clearly on the way to the knacker's yard was getting odd bits on other titles as well. Among these was a fill-in stint on the aggressively quirky Sensational She-Hulk. The first issue involves a plot where Jen ends up with a valuable vase and a local kingpin hires a hitman to - chortle - smash it rather than kill her. I know, it's zany. Such a remit brings out various quirky Z-listers like Plant-Man, the Whirlwind and Death's Head, handily zapped to the present day Marvel universe after his run-in with the Fantastic Four. Naturally after an initial fight they end up working together against the blah blah fucking blah. Released at the same time was a short, simple and none too original strip in Marvel Comics Presents depicting Death's Head on the run from a vengeful fellow freelance peacekeeping agent which touched on the same stuff as the first issue of his own series, clearly intended to strike a chord with American audiences. Seeing as this effectively ended the original Death's Head as a live character it can be considered to have failed.

Marvel UK, spearheaded by Paul Neary, however weren't giving up and despite their series of failures launched a whole line of new books in the US format with a full American distribution operation. The result was a plethora of sub-Image crap like Killpower & Motormouth and Warheads the character of Death's Head got killed off and given a radical overhaul as the even more generic Death's Head II. This was without the consent or involvement of Furman and ironically briefly found commercial success (partly due to an X-Men crossover in the early issues) before the whole idiotic idea collapsed in on itself to the extent that Marvel UK found effectively end when the surviving parts were sold to Panini. No material from this incarnation is included in the trade, thankfully, but this is the context for the book's endcap.

Largely left out of the whole Marvel UK disaster, Furman was in the process of prepping for Transformers Generation 2 and killing off Alpha Flight while also doing a couple of fill-ins on What If...?. For the third of his issues (#54) he reversed the events of the Death's Head II limited series - Death's Head survives his run-in with Minion and instead Reed Richards is killed. Minion is then taken over by Baron Strucker and becomes Charnal; the thing's inventor Carol Necker then hires Death's Head to take him down. Temporal antics and emotional blackmail lead to the rounding up of the remaining members of the Fantastic Four plus allies Namor, Luke Cage, Captain America and War Machine. The result is typical of the title with much preposterous death (Namor just pipping Rhodey to the title of most hilarious) but does see a decent take on Death's Head, arguably one that could never have worked in the real Marvel universe. Though to be fair one that could have worked in the UK subsection if Furman could ever actually kill anyone off.

It makes for a solid ending however and along with "The Body in Question" (probably the essential solo Death's Head comic) are worth reading. As for the rest, the initial Fantastic Four crossover and the Iron Man 2020 issues are workable but the rest is a mess; the problem with a comprehensive round-up like this is that Death's Head seems to be endlessly introduced to a reader who's halfway through a book about the guy while Furman's repetitive structure really does wear thin. Like the first collection it's as good a way as any of rounding up the character's adventures but the truth is the concept never received the storylines to bring it to fruition.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Minifigures - Iron Fist

Marvel were never adverse to cashing in on trends and Danny Rand's origin comes from the mid-seventies boom in all things kung-fu brought on by the emergence of Bruce Lee. Iron Fist was added to Master of Kung-Fu in the company's arsenal and became popular enough that when the inevitable decline came he was paired up with Luke Cage in Power Man and Iron Fist, where he was killed off in the final issue. Naturally he was resurrected (via the "it was a double" get-out, nice one nineties Marvel...) and has since been one of those characters that are popular but never quite big enough to properly support a series, though the huge current interest in all things Marvel that aren't actual comics means he's destined to get his own Netflix show soon.

One of the other places he found a home as a supporting character was the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon series, which was mined by Lego for sets. That version of the character, a teenager, received a Minifigure in the updated costume, which is a bit of a shame - the original seventies one was very much of its' era and had a bit of a variety to it; broken down to Lego form the guy just has a dragon on his chest, with even the wrapped head not really coming across very well. But then it's an Iron Fist figure from Lego so it would be harsh to complain overly.

The figure has been bootlegged but while most reproductions are fairly close the Iron Fist one suffered from a big problem when the lower half of his face was left unpainted, i.e. yellow. This meant that not only did the mask look weird but it really set off my OCD compared to the rest of the flesh-toned Marvel figures, leaving me with little choice but to actually pony up for the real thing. Bah.

Minifigures - Cyclops

Scott Summers has pretty much always played the straight man in the X-Men, the class swot, the guy saying "no, you can't do that, follow the rules". Still, if you read X-Men he's part of the furniture and not really a bad guy all things considered - or maybe as you get older you get more bored of Wolverine and just wish he'd shut up and listen for once.

He's suffered from the whole "X-Men not getting many official figures" thing, something I have mixed feelings on; it seems somewhat petty of Marvel to spite their fans along with their rivals and it's not like the likes of the last Fantastic 4 movie are much danger. The annoying thing is that Fox's X-Men series is showing no sign of losing profitability even if it is lurching around a bit; it's unlikely they'll let the licence lapse any time soon so what harm would it do them to have a few X-Men sets alongside the Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy anyway.

One of the few that have slipped out took the obvious Fox-spoiling theme of following the older comics and Cyclops did get an official figure, yet to be bootlegged. It follows the first version of the blue/yellow uniform he started wearing from the end of the Xavier's uniforms through to finally leaving the team and moving on to X-Factor. It's not the most exciting truth be told and leads to a relatively sparse figure; it's a shame the visor couldn't be given some definition to give him some sort of features and the painted torso applications are just lost against the dark blue. A shame but a useful figure to round out a vintage line-up.

Minifigures - The Trickster

Perhaps it's due to the TV series doing well but the Flash's Rogues seem to be disproportionately well-represented among Minifigures; maybe the title just had a habit of coining impressive meanies. The Trickster had two distinct incarnations - the original was James Jesse in 1960, who has also found minor web fame due to the underfunded 1990 series resulting in another trough in Mark Hamill's undistinguished thirty-odd years between Star Wars films. Jesse eventually went sort-of good and abandoned the identity, which was taken over by one Axel Walker. 

Both versions have appeared in the TV show but it was the younger newer version chosen for a Lego figure, also appeared in one the company's Justice League animated DVD films (again voiced by Hamill, never a man to turn down a cheque) and games. The Trickster figure hasn't actually been bootlegged and was only available cover-mounted on a Blu-Ray, which for those of dubious morals the likes of WeBuyBooks pay enough for without the toy to offset the idea of paying eight quid for a Minifigure.

The result is made from simple extant parts but blessed with exemplary paint work, notably the well-detailed chequered trousers and the belt & straps from the torso carrying on to the figure's back. The result is simple but works; sadly there's very little in the Lego  inventory that works for his various humorous weaponry but the overall result is solid.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Comic Review: Iron Man 2020

PUBLISHER: MARVEL (1984-1986), MARVEL UK (1989), MARVEL (1993-1994, 2008-2009)

Got to love a rogue obscure character getting a trade. The most fun thing about Iron Man 2020 (the hope of this blog is to avoid the obvious, so don't expect much bantz about how this will be happening in three years time) is that somehow, somehow, despite being popular with fans the character's still been sparsely used. To fill this trade whichever magnificent sod decided to run this collection has had to chase through issues of Machine Man, Spider-Man annuals, a nineties one-shot no-one remembers and the Astonishing Tales webcomic and even then rope in a storyline from What If. This is some editor's labour of love and I salute them. Quite what makes Arno Stark so appealing is a difficult thing to put the finger on; he's sort-of a bad version of relative (their exact relation is fuzzy, not least as 2020 started looking like a perfectly viable date for Iron Man to still be running) Tony Stark but not in a particularly evil way exactly, he's just a mercenary and a corporate bastard. Sort of what Tony Stark would actually be like in the real world, without telegraphed alcoholism or Skrull replacements or anything to offer a bailout. 

The character debuted in a comic which isn't even really about him, Tom DeFalco's reworking of Machine Man. Arno shows up in the first issue briefly then armoured up at the end of the second before being the antagonist (at the behest of Sunset Bain) in the last couple of issues but it's not a problem because the mini-series itself is excellent, a much-underrated gem of the era for Marvel. Machine Man had been around for years as a crap Silver Age idea that the company tried to push for a couple of years before giving up on; here he's awoken in a dystopia proto-cyberpunk 2020 by the Midnight Wreckers, a group of rogue robot salvage outlaws making a credit or two against the oppressive corporate might of Baintronics. The 2000AD-tinged world was met with rounded characterisation and a revitalised Machine Man, whose push for his own rights as a sentient being were better framed than in the cheesy original. The story, ably illustrated by Herb Trimpe & Barry Windsor-Smith, might just be DeFalco's crowning moment and it's fantastic how fresh the universe feels. Against all this is Arno, whose arrogance and disdain leads to an epic defeat. It's not an auspicious debut in those terms but the character is interesting just as everyone else in the series is, fully rounded and with well-mapped motivations. Incredibly the series was barely followed up on, which perhaps adds to its' special feeling.

The arrogance and bullheadedness of Arno is brought into full force for his second appearance, as a guest villain in the 1986 Amazing Spider-Man Annual. The story was fairly simple as Stark travelled back in time to try and prevent the future destruction of Stark Industries (and the death of his wife and child) at the hands of a terrorist with one of his own advanced nukes to try and stop the bomber in his youth. Spider-Man spots the aforementioned attempts and Arno's mix of clumsy, unilateral methods lead to a misunderstanding, a battle and a you-guessed-it ending. What's fascinating is the amount of focus given to Arno; the symbiote-suited Spider-Man doesn't appear until the 16th page and even then isn't given much more to do than to react to the antagonist. The whole drive is from the Iron Man end even if it's Spider-Man's comic and era and if this wasn't part of a push for some sort of Iron Man 2020 solo series I'll eat three of my fingers. The result is further rounding out of a flawed but more or less decent man who lets his ambition and stubborn inability to explain himself to anyone get the better of him and it makes for a rather good story, livened up by a solid cross-town brawl.

The Machine Man mini had been ran as a back-up strip in Marvel UK's Transformers and, the British people being weird from even a young age, gave Arno such a cult following that the Spider-Man appearance was also printed in the UK when things like Armor Wars weren't. As such he was roped in for the final issue of the British arm's Death's Head series, written by Simon Furman and drawn by Bryan Hitch. The titular mechanoid and poor old Arno are set up by a thrill-seeking ultra-powerful society named the Dicemen to fight for entertainment though naturally after a bit of a dust-up they both realise they've been had and go out for vengeance. Arno actually comes out of the whole thing better than the star of the comic and it's another fun little stop on his weird ride.

A couple of cameos aside though he then spent another few years out of print before inexplicably surfacing in 1994 in his own 64-page graphic novel. No-one knows why. It's possible it was some old pitch or plan from the eighties someone turned up in a draw or something but I've just made that up so I'd be surprised. The prestige format one-shot was written by Walt Simonson and Bob Wiacek and concerns Arno being hired to rescue a businessman's hostage; the idea of the guy getting his own story with his own name up there on the cover is intoxicating but alas Simonson is as much of a dullard as ever and really you're reading any old Iron Man filler story set slightly in the future; the last-page revelation that an aged Tony is actually overseeing Arno's new career as a boring traditional hero rubber-stamps the character decay.

The one-shot went down so well that Arno disappeared for another decade or so before resurfacing in Marvel's webcomic revival of Astonishing Tales (later being selected for the print version as well). The writer was webcomic pioneer Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, courted by Marvel to give the format some cachet; considering he's British it's not too much of a reach to imagine the choice of character was influenced by those Transformers reprints once again. Whatever the reason Arno's back in proper morally questionable form fighting sky pirates and the result is good fun for the most part, though I'm not sure about Lou Kang's hunched up armour redesign (even if he's not dumb enough to remove the bevelled shoulders).

Finally to top things off there's a What If, or at least a bit of one. The issue, #53 from 1993, was a triple-header and it looks like being a deadline issue; all three were written by Furman and each featured a different crap artist. For the Iron Man 2020 segment it's Manny Galan, long known as a bit of a joke for his work on Transformers - Generation 2, where he worked like a maniac to pull back the title's backlog while trying to ape Derek Yaniger's style. Those were obviously circumstances that brought out the best in him as here his work looks like it's out of a colouring book, and not a particularly great one either, probably a Chinese bootleg with Unkillable Steel Fellow daubed on the front. It poises the question of what would have happened if Arno had been left in the present after his run-in with Spider-Man; it turns out he would have taken advantage of Tony Stark's disappearance a few years down the line, killed Jim Rhodes (who really should never do What Ifs as he dies ridiculously easily) and then got put in his place by Tony almost immediately before going on to be an abusive father who would vaguely do some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy thing because something similar happened in the Spider-Man comic and Furman thinks it's clever but doesn't really understand.

So yeah, it's a collection of highs and lows as such an eclectic grab-bag of sources would suggest but really the Machine Man story alone is worth the price, with the Spider-Man and Death's Head issues worthy inclusions as well. The less said about Simonson's effort the better but I suppose it being here means you're less likely to get fascinated by the better parts and go and spend money on the thing like a sucker. No bitterness. The revival feels odd in there with its' digital colouring but is a harmless little oddity while the presence of the What If is not only a testament to completism but means if you're reading the book in the bathroom there's some emergency toilet paper on hand. The character was more recently revived for Kang's Chronos Corps, so this makes a solid primer.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Comic Review: Death's Head, Volume One


Death's Head's history is intimately known to those who know and an obscurity to those who didn't. He was born out of one of Marvel UK's regular disastrous attempts to become a proper comic publisher rather than a repackager and licence handler; designed by Geoff Senior as a one-off infodump character for the weekly Transformers comic that was earning the arm's bread and butter, Simon Furman - the Tommy Wiseau of the British operation - decreed it to be of considerable potential. Death's Head was promoted to a full supporting role in the resulting story, getting to battle Galvatron, but not before a one-page strip ("High Noon Tex", included in this collection) was drawn by a pubescent Bryan Hitch and got into print in various publications to secure the copyright with Marvel rather than Transformers owners Hasbro. After his debut (which involved killing beloved child assocation character Bumblebee as soon as he materialised in the 20th century) the character was recalled for "Headhunt", where he stalked Rodimus Prime back in the Transformers' future timeline, with a third appearance in "Legacy of Unicron" seeing him shift firmly towards the role of anti-hero before being time-zapped out of the comic.

The character's fine design, cool array of equipment and memorable speech patterns and aversion to being described as a bounty hunter had made him a solid hit, especially in the eighties when everything was Wolverine this and Punisher that and Batman the other - double-hard bastards who were marginally less brutal than their quarry were the order of the day. Obviously pound signs were lighting up at Marvel UK with Furman clearly picturing Death's Head at the vanguard of a universe of titles likely all written by him in his increasing desperation to get away from writing about toys. The character was then sent on a brief hype tour of Marvel UK's other titles; first stop was in Doctor Who Monthly, then well into morphing from a bad comic to a factual magazine with a bad comic strip in it. "Crossroads in Time" deals with the seventh incarnation of the Doctor sorting out that Death's Head was forty feet tall, something that Death's Head has the good manners to never, ever, ever mention again despite the fact you'd think he'd be pretty pissed at being shrunk to 20% of his original height and then time-travelling him to 8162 and a guest appearance in Dragon's Claws.

The far-flung future setting was a necessary as no-one in the American offices read much of this stuff so setting anything in the present was continuity suicide. Dragon's Claws had ran for a colossal five issues at this point and was the vanguard of Marvel UK's new US-format titles; one of the better Rollerball rip-offs doing the rounds (certainly better than 2000AD's risible Mean Team) the comic benefited from a colourful array of enemies to obscure the generic nature of the team themselves, a conspiracy-laden plot and the always-dynamic pencils of Senior. The resulting guest appearance saw a brief few frames of teaming up before Death's Head was heavily damaged (with a wry nod to Monty Python and the Holy Grail) in time for a rebuild and a new costume for his own monthly.

The actual Death's Head comic gets off to a good start with a firm restating of the character's basic nature - a freelance peacekeeping agent whose only priorities are his bank balance and his self-preservation, who'll kill anyone for the credits without sentiment or scruples. Remember that, because you're about to get some major character decay. The problem is that Marvel UK's target audience were basically the same people who were buying Transformers and a more mature 2000AD-style direction just wasn't possible so about the first thing that comes off are all the edges; by the end of his second issue Death's Head has found numerous contrived reasons to not actually kill guest stars Dragon's Claws (now veterans of a colossal seven issues) and end up on the side of right against Scavenger's old muckers while also gaining a Rick Jones-style sidekick in the form of Spratt. Over the next few issues there's much of the mechanoid doth protest too much about how Death's Head doesn't appreciate Spratt being his partner, how he doesn't care about whether the human lives or dies or whatever but what do you know, the boy wonder's still there helping out and getting begrudging respect.

The third through seventh issues have something of a linking plot with Death's Head still in 8162 (but not crossing the paths of the cancelled Claws again) and coming up against a web of vaguely linked funny bad guys - horse-headed crimelord Dead Cert, diminutive inept hitman Shortfuse, drooling psycho competitor Bigshot, luckless thief Keepsake and his estranged wife Thea and mercenary nutter Mayhem with his hit-squad Sudden Impact. It's colourful and often funny but again often it's a contrived series of jumps to avoid Death's Head kill anyone Furman clearly has bookmarked for future use - however derivative - and to keep Spratt aboard (including his predictable killing of beastie Plaguedog and chameleonic fugitive Photofit). It's around this point that Hitch, already being courted by the American wing of the company, fell off the schedule, Death's Head being made at a time when monthly comics went out every month. The usually decent Lee Sullivan steps in first and proves somewhat miscast, especially with drawing the lead, before Liam Sharp and then John Higgins take a turn before Hitch returned for the seventh issue.

The seventh issue closes the first collection, being the last set entirely in 8162 ahead of some big crossover plans from issue eight onwards. It seems the character was already flagging; Dragon's Claws had been cancelled, an attempt to relaunch Action Force as a monthly had failed while neither Thundercats nor The Real Ghostbusters had really taken off and even the bulwark Transformers had a nervy moment (which ironically would be patched over by Death's Head reprints). The UK market just wasn't healthy enough to support American style comics, especially as imports were becoming cheaper and more widely found in the wake of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. And Death's Head suffers from a muddled pitch anyway; it's too colourful and silly to be of interest to many who read the latter but too dark - at least in its' marketing; unwittingly (hopefully) giving the guy the same name as a Nazi murder squad was not the best idea ever - for the kids, the title fell between two stools. What's collected in this first collection is far from without value as Death's head himself is ceaselessly entertaining but there really is a feeling of a sharp, vibrant character being homogenised at a rapid rate.