Monday, 22 May 2017

Comic Review: Transformers - Dark Prelude

PUBLISHER: IDW (2012-2013)

Almost forgot this one. After 2009 the Spotlight series all but ceased apart from the release of Spotlight Prowl, issued entirely to placate the title's educationally subnormal fanbase, a group largely of adult age who will actually pay triple rates to get a toy a short while ahead of other people. Then in 2012 Hasbro decided actually they'd wade full-on into the comics (later collected as a prelude to the prelude to "Dark Cybertron") and reactivating the series for pack-in titles would avoid any weirdness like Crosscut popping up and talking about himself for three pages before fucking off into the crowd. Six new issues were slung out and with careful care wouldn't involve explaining largely obvious past events to thick shitheads or forgettable peripheral cast getting shunted off in Red Dwarf rip-offs. At all.

[Spoilers Follow]
[or would if anything unpredictable was involved]

First up it's Spotlight Orion Pax, by James Roberts. Seeming created solely to explain why the title character had one body in Spotlight Blurr and another in Autocracy and its sequels, Spotlight Orion Pax suffers from the occasional Spotlight blight of interesting backdrop to a poor story. In this case Orion gets sent on a bit of a nothing mission when we could be learning more of Cybertron under Zeta Prime. The presence of James Roberts as writer should help as he has done good work with prewar Orion before but here the character fails to gel with an overly jokey script which requires the lead to wander into an obvious trap despite openly wondering whether it's a trap; yes, he sort-of gets out of it but more through luck than genuine resourcefulness. The impression isn't of a naive eager officer with potential but a blundering idiot. Similarly off key is Roberts' disappointing smart mouth take on Nightbeat and the throwaway one dimensional Alpha Trion; both are largely sacrificed on the altar of cheap comic relief while there are regular detours into the more tired More Than Meets the Eye running jokes - someone can't remember Rung's name, how fucking funny is that? The most interesting thing on show is the ongoing minor mystery of IDW's take on Rack 'n' Ruin but even then not enough's learnt to make the story worthwhile. If it really bugged you that Orion Pax is shown to have two different character designs you'd be better off skipping IDW entirely - if the serial licence renters decide to throw out a Spotlight for every art discrepancy in their comics collecting the things will quickly become very expensive.

Then it's on to a look at Thundercracker from the pen of John Barber; there's a thread running through them as to the disappearance of the Titans and Alpha Trion, which is obviously more in line with Barber's inability to ignore dangling threads (Metroplex's mysterious mission seen in his own Spotlight and the spacebridge within Megatron's body during "Chaos") than Roberts' usual style of not giving a shit about anything he didn't write himself. One of the problems with the Spotlight format was that writers always struggled to balance telling an exciting story and getting inside the head of their subject, often falling between two stools. That happens here; Thundercracker is the star of the show but he's not really fleshed out beyond what we already know (uncertain of the Decepticon cause and some of the things done in its' name) and as such his epiphany at the end of the story falls a bit flat. It doesn't help that he has to share story space with a trio of scene-stealing Autobots in the form of Bumblebee, Nightbeat and Jetfire. They're all somewhat fun - especially Bumblebee showing early signs of leadership potential - but they contribute to the overall feeling of this being a story with Thundercracker in rather than a story all about Thundercracker.

Next up is Spotlight Megatron, which sees the welcome return of Nick Roche as both writer and artist. Roche was originally pencilled in to co-write and draw More Than Meets the Eye following the huge critical success of Last Stand of the Wreckers before the morons who run IDW decided they only wanted him on art duties and he promptly walked out. This, and its' possible impact on MTMTE, is IDW's biggest failure. Well, maybe - you could write a book on the stuff IDW have fucked up in their ten plus years as licence renter. Top five or ten, though. Anyway, they extended the olive branch by letting him triple-threat this Spotlight - or more likely were taking the piss, as it's basically an extended conversation between Megatron and Starscream set just after the former is rebuilt in "Chaos". While Roche has some nice sparky dialogue going on it's very much a retread of the Decepticon restating his credo as seen in "Chaos Theory" (which means chronologically he's doing a rehearsal here) while slapping Starscream around and dropping a few leaden explanations for some things which were minor plot discrepancies and other things which were obvious but not obvious enough for readers.

The Bumblebee installment by Barber is a companion piece to Megatron - once again retreading a character to explain problems with Chaos which really were less important than being able to tell what was happening or the certain knowledge none of its' events would remain undone. In this case we have Bumblebee realising for the 463rd time that, hey, he probably can lead the Autobots if he just Believes In Himself. And, y'know, gets a writer who makes some attempt to write him as a convincing leader; only problem is that while that was one of Mike Costa's faults it was hardly something Barber was adept at either. The return of Sanjay does little to dispell the feeling this is a compacted re-run of the character's solo series - with the primary reason seeming to be an explanation for why Menasor didn't turn up and start hitting people during "Chaos". Once again its' main acheivement is that writing a whole comic to combat a plot problem which most people didn't care about makes for a bad read.

The collection rounds off with a pair of Roberts works, fittingly enough the companion Spotlights for Trailcutter and his repaint Hoist. Both were crew members on the Lost Light, though someone probably had to check for Hoist, which meant Hasbro were actually stepping on the great creative vision, the fuckers. Amusingly Trailbreaker (he gets renamed Trailcutter a few pages in) initially seemed to line up as a main character in More Than Meets the Eye; the toy (and thus the Spotlight) was planned much in advance of a regular comic and it's interesting to speculate whether Roberts just started ignoring the character rather than have him as a hostage to a toy tie-in comic - the very idea! As usual outside influence means the Lost Light crew are in their banter-heavy default settings - Whirl's mad, Brainstorm's a mad scientist, Rodimus is insensitive - and the light, frothy script manages to reduce Trailcutter to a running joke about him being forcefield guy. There's not a lot wrong with the idea of a character being reduced to a joke and then used in a joke story apart from the particular one that Roberts' jokes aren't especially funny.

Still, you know what was funny, for six years at least anyway? Red Dwarf. He tries to keep it on the down-low but the BBC sitcom is one of the many things cannabalised and grafted to Roberts' work (but it isn't plagiarism, it's a homage) and Spotlight Hoist is basically just a mash-up of some of the handy sci-fi concepts that the show dabbled in. It does a passable job of giving him some sort of personality - and one that isn't just a single joke spread across 22 pages to boot - but really despite more vague hints about Titans it's all very inconsequential.

Which is basically the unintentional theme of the collection. The piffle about Titans would go on to be trudgingly explained in the "Dark Cybertron" books themselves meaning we're left with six rough character sketches that largely fail to throw any new light on their subjects; the only one that's not a recap is Hoist and the end result is that he's just an ambiable, solid Autobot - a rarity in Roberts' world for sure but in the wider universe not so much. Really you have to wonder about the basic logic in the concept - none of the Spotlights are really great adverts for the books and you'd think Hasbro's toy sales wouldn't hinge on the six thousand IDW readers coming back the other way.

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