Tuesday, 21 March 2017

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.

Shane McCarthy's attempt at a populist blockbuster in All Hail Megatron had ended with the death of Megatron and the seeming victory of the Autobots; no big wow, the 2007 film ended much the same way. When an ongoing series, written by Mike Costa (then of minimal experience with a couple of minor WildStorm titles under his belt) it would be so, so easy to squirm out of this - Megatron's been killed so many times and besides which always had a network of competitors ready to jump into the void. Instead Costa decides to take the incredible decision to make the end of the war stick for an actual substantial amount of time; for the first time in 25 years of Transformers fiction there's no war. It is the most important, most seismic change in the franchise's media since that 1984 'limited' series.

Of course, like the nearly-unreadable mix of bad science and shifting character models Marvel started this whole business with, narrative bravery doesn't equate to great comics. The problem with Costa is that the basic shape isn't bad at all - the Autobots directionless and introspective, the Decepticons largely similar with even less shape, the humans behind a reconstituted Skywatch under New York hero Spike Witwicky subduing the lot of them because they want their planet back after debilitating warfare. There's potential in the set-up and occasionally it comes through into the finished material; Thundercracker's internal monologues are the high point but elsewhere it's a mess.

The crux of the problem is that there are quite simply no likable characters and that doesn't help get anyone on side for their sometimes weird actions. Optimus Prime, for example; the idea of him considering himself unfit for duty and taking a sabbatical has some merit, but the way it's done after a random death shortly after the end of a war that's claimed however many Autobots (well, none because IDW, but you know, some of them really looked like they died for a bit) seems arbitrary. It's always a problem when this sort of thing happens - for five years Optimus Prime has treated Ironhide much like he has any other Autobot. Such an event sending him into a spiral of self-doubt didn't work when Simon Furman picked Ratchet as a catalyst twenty years before and it doesn't work here either. The result is a return to the moping Prime seen in the tail end of Furman's Marvel run and it's not until you see such a characterisation back in print that you realise how little you've missed him.

The other Autobots given large roles are Rodimus (i.e. Hot Rod, with Costa coming up with a just about passable explanation to fudge Hasbro's desire to have the characters align with modified trademarks from the toyline), who's an impatient, divisive and unpleasant brat and Ultra Magnus, a pedantic, officious and uncaring enforcer. Both are plausible extensions of their rebel and cop characterisations for sure but neither are great company and really it's a relief whenever they leave the panel. Of the rest there's Bumblebee being vacuous and whiny and then a few smatterings of randoms, including Prowl being given a huge leap out of character which is then simply ignored for the rest of the arc in favour of him being Autobot Standing To The Left Of Bumblebee. There's always a certain amount of give in established characterisation when a book changes hands but Prowl's is very odd, pointlessly putting himself in danger against the basic tenets of his character as seen thus far, leading to the whole Ironhide getting killed thing and Prime's surrender. And then he just sort of fades into the background. 

Of the Decepticons there's more a sense of huddled masses to them which works nicely as a storytelling technique; aside from Thundercracker and Swindle they're just a bunch of unemployed thugs following any orders going in the resultant power vacuum. Swindle himself is well-characterised in full car salesman mode but really it is breathtaking even someone as dumb as Rodimus would believe his patter. Again it's a good idea but badly written and the Decepticons turning out to have selfish motivations even if they aren't up for a continuation of the war is so unsurprising that you wonder if it's misdirection. It's not. Spike's the other character to get some time and Costa's plainly writing him intentionally as a meathead but as writing reprehensible  characters seems to be his strength he does too good of a job and by the time Spike's meant to be more balanced in the later issues he's got some way to go.

The other issues are pace and geography. Everything happens very slowly, especially considering how obvious it is, with what feels like endless repetitive scenes in the Autobots' cave, Skywatch's base and expanses of desert. This limited universe means it feels like the Autobots have insisted on settin up right next to Skywatch with Omega Supreme around the corner. It's not even good looking thanks to Don Figueroa; always overrated at the best of times he opts for an odd look melding elements from the live action films and their unique design ethos which only works in live action films. Blended with endless gradiented deserts it sways between ugly and bland.

As a result such a brave new world gets a sluggish and disengaging start as the workable premise is fumbled by poor writing and the lack of anyone in particular to actually care about. With a stronger central protagonist, a better artist and a tougher editing process at the scripting stage this could have been a very good start but as it is the end result is a disappointment.

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