Monday, July 10, 2017

A Trip Down Memory Lane--Cybertronian Style

After talking about Transformers in April, there was another Comixology sale on Transformers comics and I decided to buy some of the 80s-90s ones that were in various collections.  Back in the 80s and early 90s there were actually 2 Transformers comics:  the US ones that I read and the ones published in the UK.  The UK version usually had half of a US issue and then an original segment and sometimes written material.

The Transformers Classics UK volumes 1-5 only contained the original British material, not the US stories.  It also didn't include the GI JOE (or Action Force as the Brits called it) stories that were included after the separate Action Force comic was cancelled.

The very first story was I think collected and published in the US as issue 22 or so.  It was a bit of culture shock as the art was completely different.  Whereas the US comic artists drew the characters like their animated TV versions, the artist in the UK drew the characters like their toy versions.  For some (especially Ironhide and Ratchet) this was pretty unfortunate as truth be told some of the toys looked pretty stupid.  It made it really a chore to plow through these early stories.

Really the first two volumes felt interminable.  It was just a struggle to get through them.  I think it started to pick up once the stories turned to the characters from the movie and afterwards.  When the writers write about Optimus Prime, Megatron, and the rest of the original characters it just never really felt RIGHT for some reason.  Maybe because I was thinking of the old US comics and cartoon show so once it got past that it was more of a fresh slate.

Unlike the US comic the movie characters like Hot Rod, Ultra Magnus, Springer, and Galvatron show up a lot more often in the "present day."  There are a number of issues that involve Galvatron traveling back in time and battling the 80s Autobots.  He and Ultra Magnus fight a number of times, usually with Galvatron coming out on top at first.  One of the big featured stories was "Target 2006" where Galvatron first comes to the "present" of 1988 after being defeated in the movie.  The arc for this story was like 10 parts and featured the "present" Autobots and the "future" Autobots all trying to stop Galvatron.

The UK comic also had a plot where Megatron and Optimus Prime are catapulted to Cybertron when they both supposedly "died" on Earth in the US comics.  Optimus Prime is nearly killed by his fellow Autobots before convincing them he isn't a Decepticon agent and then leads a comeback for the resistance.  Megatron is driven mad when the evil Lord Straxus, killed in issue 18 of the US series, tries to transfer his mind into Megatron's body.

An interesting character in the UK comics is Death's Head, a robotic bounty hunter who is first tasked by Rodimus Prime to track Galvatron down.  But then Rodimus has a change of heart, not wanting his enemy killed, and so tries to stop Death's Head from collecting.  It's one of the better plots from the UK comics.

Volume 5 ends with my favorite story of the lot.  It wasn't very long and is what you'd consider an Elseworlds tale.  It's 2025 and the Autobots have finally destroyed the last Decepticon--so they think.  Rodimus Prime decides it's time to step down and selects Springer as the new leader.  But a hidden Decepticon agent suggests Ultra Magnus should lead and that starts a whole new civil war--this time Autobot against Autobot.  It's a good story about the cyclical nature of war.  It ends with a great panel where Rodimus Prime is just kneeling between the warring sides, devastated by this new war that he inadvertently brought on.

There is a volume 6 but it's not available to buy yet.  I don't know if there's a volume 7 or not.  The UK comic actually lasted a few years longer than the US one and had more like 300 issues while the US comic only had 80.

Having read the UK ones, I decided to pick up some of the US ones too.  I bought volumes 4-7, which covered issues 39-80 and the Headmasters series.  I didn't really care for the earliest issues.  There was a "4 issue limited series" at the end of which all of the Autobots are seemingly killed by Shockwave.  Issues 5-12 then don't feature most of the characters.  Some lame human characters like Circuit Breaker and Robot Master were introduced along the way.  Probably the stand outs of those early ones were 17-18 that take place on Cybertron to deal with the Autobot resistance there.

Anyway, issue 39 is just before the resurrection of Optimus Prime, who "died" in issue 24.  It was the introduction of the "Powermasters" which made slightly more sense than the Headmasters and especially the Targetmasters who had little dudes turn into their heads or guns respectively.  The idea for the Headmasters was the Autobots decide to rip off their heads and give them to the human-like Nebulons to earn their trust.  Because that makes sense, right?  With the Powermasters they used the idea that the fuel on Nebulos was poisoned and thus the little dudes turned into power plants for the robots to help power them.  Still kind of dumb, but at least not quite as lame.

Then comes the "Underbase Saga" where an ancient Cybertronian database is floating through space.  Whoever taps its power will gain unimaginable power.  Unfortunately for everyone, that's the evil Starscream, who goes on a rampage in issue #50 that "kills" every Transformer who doesn't have Nebulonian technology or organic material, which of course left only the newest characters.

These purges became fairly commonplace in the last 30 issues of the US run.  First came Underbase and then the Matrix Quest, where the Autobots try to find the Creation Matrix only to discover it's turned evil, and then Unicron attacks in issue #75.  Finally a great many Autobots are killed in the final issue #80 before Optimus Prime returns (again) to save the day.

All these purges got to be kind of annoying.  Unless you liked one of the few characters to survive them all like Grimlock, at some point your favorite character was probably going to "die" or be decommissioned or whatever.  Still, in a toy comic it does become necessary to winnow out the old characters to focus on the ones on the store shelves.  The final issue was a little disappointing in that it's not even a double issue or anything.  In the span of like 20 pages, Optimus Prime comes back, beats up Decepticon leader Bludgeon, and the Decepticons just decide to go away.  The End?

The first 55 issues or so were written by Bob Budiansky who fans can thank for a lot of the Transformers canon.  Budiansky, according to notes in one of the volumes, created the file cards for most of the early toys.  The file cards provided a backstory for each character.  They were what made me like Jetfire and Grapple more than other toys and it's what gave us Optimus Prime's famous motto:  Freedom is the right of all sentient beings.  And Megatron's motto that could be Donald Trump's slogan:  Peace Through Tyranny.  While there were plenty of lame stories during Budiansky's run, he was certainly a vital part of the Transformers mythos.

The last 25 issues or so were written by Simon Furman, who also wrote most of the UK issues.  To a lesser extent than his compatriots like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, or Grant Morrison, Furman brought the more literate British style to the US comics.  In a way that was probably better as fans (like me) who had followed since the beginning were getting into their teens and thus hungrier for something a little more complex.  Only a little.  I mean it was never exactly Shakespeare.  Furman also took advantage of the opportunity to fold in some elements from the UK comics, like the mythology behind the creation of the Transformers and some characters like Autobot resistance leader Emirate Xaaron.  Like in the UK comics, he brought Galvatron to the present, only this one was from an alternate 2009 where only a handful of Autobots remained and their leader Rodimus Prime's corpse was chained between the remains of the World Trade Center, which reading that issue (#67) in 2017 is a little spooky.

The last 15 issues or so were drawn mostly by Andrew Wildman, who was not my favorite to put it mildly.  Wildman had this tendency to make Transformer faces too human, even incorporating spit or drool sometimes.  Naturally you want characters to have some expression but these are robots so they don't have facial muscles like we do.  But since this was the 90s I guess we're lucky he didn't draw the Autobots with huge muscles, ponytails, and soul patches like a lot of superheroes in the 90s.  (See anything drawn by Rob Liefeld.)

There was a continuation of sorts with the Generation 2 comic that lasted only 12 issues and took the purging of characters to new levels.  I'd reread that but they don't seem to have that on Comixology.

It was the end of that continuity for 20 years or so.  Then IDW, which publishes the current Transformers comics, decided to publish a continuation of the old US comic like they did with GI JOE.  And like GI JOE they brought back the same creative team, in this case Furman and Wildman.  At least Wildman's art wasn't quite as bad and with modern technology the colors and such were sharper than the old Marvel issues.  Wildman quit after about 10 issues and was replaced by better artist Guido Guidi for most of the issues though in the #0 issue especially they brought in some guest artists too.

The story of "Regeneration One" picks up 21 years later when the Autobots are living peacefully on Cybertron.  Though soon chaos is unleashed as the "Last Autobot" is killed, Megatron has raised a zombie army on a ravaged Earth, Scorponok is reborn, Bludgeon arrives with a Warworld, the more-evolved Jhiraxus and his empire pay a visit, and the dark Matrix is unleashed.  It's probably not the story that would have been had the US series continued but it did tie up some loose ends.  And it's one of the few times where Rodimus Prime isn't a whiny little bitch.  I did find it hard to believe Optimus Prime completely abandoned Earth, letting Megatron turn the place we know and love into a total hellscape.  The last few issues got a little metaphysical, but it was mostly a good wrap-up.

It was fun to revisit the old comics and read what was happening across the Pond.

4 comments:

  1. I recently bought the graphic novel, "My Friend Dahmer." It's the first graphic novel I've bought in some time. I'll have to let you know what I think. Usually when I start to make a foray back into a medium like this with an initial purchase, it means that there will be many more to come. So I'll be looking through your back blog for comic book recommendations as I'm mostly out of date on what's out there.

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  2. It's good to go down memory lane every now and then.

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  3. I really hated that Wildman guy's art...people bitch about the robots in the live action films, but they are way better than the crap that dude drew...also thought Furman was overrated but that's probably not a popular opinion among other fans.

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  4. You're right that it's fun reading old comics. Besides the dated references it's always nice to have hindsight on where the titles went later. Plus we find out what's happening across the pond.

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