I don’t really want to talk about the film, as the wounds it inflicted on my mind and on my soul are still too fresh. Seeing it did send me on a bit of a Transformers jag though, and I re-watched the admittedly not-very-good 1986 Transformers: The Movie
(although, credit where credit’s due, the opening two-minute scene, in which Unicron floats between the red and blue suns to devour a planet full of robots, is a better bit of film-making than anything in either of the two live-action flicks), and I then turned to my longboxes to re-read some of the Transformers comics I had acquired during the toy-turned-multimedia franchise’s early 21st century resurgence in popularity.
To my (mild) surprise, these comics weren’t very good.
By “these comics” I’m referring to the Dreamwave Productions ones, some of which I really liked when they first came out. These consisted of two “G1” miniseries, followed by a short-lived G1 ongoing. There were others that I had bought and read—a miniseries sub-titled The War Within and the Armada series based on the terrible cartoon with an extremely cool line of toys—but I didn’t care for them the first time around, so I had no desire to reread them.
Actually, all of the Dreamwave books were apparently pretty bad. The ongoing and second mini were deathly dull, full of far too many panels like this. The first series wasn’t great or anything, but it held up okay. Of course, it was powered exclusively by nostalgia—it was all the toys I grew up playing with, all the robots I spent the half-hour before G.I.Joe came on at 4:30 p.m. watching after my grade school day had ended, back and appearing in a medium I now prefer to toy or cartoon. The premise of the book was even that the Transformer robots from the ‘80s, having long lain dormant and assumed destroyed and lost, had returned to renew their war.
I knew that IDW had since acquired the license for the comics, but I hadn’t been reading their books at all (In addition to having gotten my fill via Dreamwave’s books, IDW’s were too highly-priced for me). I had read their initial Infiltration miniseries in a black-and-white digest while sitting in a bookstore a few years back, and liked that well enough. I sought out what was available at the library, and got another IDW collection, this one entitled Transformers: Stormbringer. It was by Simon Furman and Don Figueroa, and dealt with the origins of the Transformers race war, and how they came to planet earth in this new, IDW continuity.
I suppose it was an okay read, but it really struck me how weird it was that it was basically just a sci-fi, space opera type of story that just so happened to be branded as a Transformers series. The characters were all robots, and they shared the (often super-silly) names with the various toys, and, on occasion, a few of them did transform, but, for the most part, there was nothing in the story that necessitated it being about transforming robots.
Maybe that sort of seriousness is what some people liked about it—I understand that Furman and Figueroa are pretty popular among Transfans—but it struck me as kind of pointless. If you’ve got the Transformers license and are telling stories about giant robots defined by their ability to transform into vehicles, and your story could just as easily be told with a cast of humans or talking space baboons or fungus people instead, well, you’re not really making the most of things, are you?
I’m open to reading more IDW Transformer comics (provided I don’t have to pay for ‘em), but I was pretty disappointed that while they were a bit better than the Dreamwave ones (and thousands of times better than the live action movies), they still weren’t very good.
So what are the good Transformers comics? Surely there must be some, right? I mean, they’ve been publishing them for over 20 years now, they can’t all be bad, right?
I naturally assumed that the best Transformers comics must be the original Marvel ones then. That would explain why the comics license has remained active; the originals must have been so good that they left fond memories with a whole generation of readers, still eager to continue the experience.
As I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t really read comics growing up, usually only when relatives brought some home from the drugstore along with a filled prescription when I was home from school sick or something. I had only read one Marvel Transformer comic before, #17, of which all I really remembered was that the cover was pretty terrifying and that it was set on Cybertron and featured Blaster, the lame, Autobot version of Soundwave (I don’t know if it was just me or what, but with the exception of the Dinobots, I kind of hated all the Autobots—none of them were really anywhere nearly as cool as their Decepticon enemies, either in their designs, or voices or characters).
I was thus very excited to find a handful of old, battered, yellowed Marvel Transformer comics in the large comics collection recently bequeathed to me. Now I would discover whether Marvel’s were indeed the good stuff or not (Although recent evidence has emerged on the Internet that they probably weren't).
Well, six issues later, I’ve discovered that these comics aren’t very good either. I daresay they may be better than the other ones I’ve read though, at least in so much as that they were mostly done-in-one, easy-ish to follow and many of them at least had something to with the Transformers being unique lifeforms and/or revolve around Transformers issues of race wars, civil war and being unwelcome visitors on planet earth. The bulk of the Dreamwave and IDW comics I recently read, on the other hand, dealt with religious cults among the Transformers for some reason.
This has, by the way, all been an incredibly long-winded way of saying that I’m going to spend some time over the next few weeks or months taking a closer look at Marvel’s Transformers via these back issues, since I might as well try to make some use out of them.
So, first up is 1986’s Transformers #44, which contains “The Cosmic Carnival” by writer Bob Budiansky, penciler Frank Springer and inker Danny Bulanadi.
The cover certainly looks promising, containing as it does a robot beast fighting a reptilian monster on top a speeding semi truck while a robot on a motorcycle speeds straight into the truck’s grill. Also, explosions.
It opens with a splash page of a long, serpentine space ship, with beams of light shooting from its length at random intervals. Budiansky’s narration is actually pretty cool, so long as you remember to read it in the voice of the narrator of Transformers: The Movie, you know, the voice that says “It is the year 2005…” in the clip I linked to above:
From somewhere in deepest space it comes—A rippling serpent of cold, pitted steel. Its origin is unknown…its destination unclear. Only pinprick shafts of light disturb the dark monotony of its patchwork-plate skin…revealing nothing of their true purpose…or their sources.
It’s pretty purple, but no more purple than your average superhero comic of today that still employs narration.
“In a nearby sector, a far more familiar spacecraft continues its journey,” says the narrator on the next page, in a panel showing a spacecraft completely unfamiliar to me. Apparently, it is the Autobot starcruiser Steelhaven, traveling between Nebulos and Earth (Nebulos, by the way, was the name of the planet that the title character in IDW’s Stormbringer tried to destroy, I think).
Aboard the ship are Optimus Prime, Goldbug (who is apparently Bumblebee 2.0), some Autobots that don’t play any part in the story, and some humanoid natives of Nebulos, who underwent “the Powermaster process.”
One of them was actually named Lube. Oh, to be nine-years-old and not find the word “lube” completely hilarious!
Optimus is putting on a little holographic light show for the Nebulans about the sad state of affairs of the Transformers, while high-collared Nebulan HI Q gets in on the exposition game, when suddenly another holographic light show intrudes upon the ship.
It is an ad for a space circus (that’s what those lights from the ship on the first page were, ads being beamed from a space circus train), and the circus looks completely insane:
Seriously, take a good, long, hard look at some of the featured attractions. For example, one of them is an octopus riding a unicycle while balancing a gigantic dragon on a super long crutch/pole.
The Autobots are all WTF until they spot the Autobot Sky Lynx near the tail end of the ad. That’s him, the thing that looks like a cross between a pterodactyl and a space shuttle. He’s named Sky Lynx, even though space shuttles fly in space rather than the sky, and he doesn’t look anything remotely like a Lynx. You can tell he’s not a G1 Transformer based solely on his name.
Optimus decides to figure out what one of his warriors is doing performing in a circus when it should be working towards his ultimate goal of Decepticon genocide, so he and Goldbug pay the steep admission needed to investigate.
Among the cages and displays at the sideshow, they make an unexpected discovery:
When the children refuse to perform tricks for the crowd, their human keeper and carnival barker type Berko shoos the crowd away and scolds the children. The ‘bots try to free them, only to discover their cell is electrified.
Optimus demands to spake to the manager, so Berko introduces them to Mr. Big Top…
…seen here smoking a cigar that looks to be about the size of Optimus. Note the giant ashtray in the foreground.
Mr. Big Top informs them that the kids and Sky Lynx have all signed a contract and are here voluntarily as performers, and gives them passes for the show.
Optimus is still suspicious:
In fact, he thinks there’s “More than meets the eye” to the goings on at the circus.
Hmm, that sounds familiar. Where have I heard that before…
Mr. Big Top slithers into the spotlight in the center ring to introduce “the star of our show—that metallic master of aeral acrobatics—Sky Lynx!”
In pterodactyl form, S.L. swoops o ut of cage, and, in a very confusing panel, transforms into a weird, bestial form (a lynx, I guess?), jumps around a bit on some high platforms, and then dives toward the ground in lynx mode, only to transform into a space shuttle and glide safely to the ground.
Backstage, Optimus and Goldbug talk to S.L. and learn how he came to be here. He was apparently flying the children through space when they saw the ad for the circus and went to check it out. When Berko discovered that they had no money to pay admission, he struck a deal with them, wherein they exchange their services for admission.
But as long as they’ve been there, they haven’t been able to work off their debt, and the children are trapped in an electrified cage that will blow up if anyone but Berko tries to open it.
This is a comic book with an important moral for children: Never sign a contract until after you’ve read the fine print. Also, you might want to have your lawyer look it over first.
When Berko comes to break up all the chatting, Optimus and Goldbug ask him to release Sky Lynx and the children, and, unprompted, Berko launches into a flashback of his own, telling how he went from being a common earth hobo to Mr. Big Top’s right tentacle man:
Optimus Prime, master negotiator, manages to sway Berko with a simple one-sentence offer to give him a ride back to Earth:
They launch a plan. While Berko releases the children using his special electronic key and they all pile into Goldbug, Optimus turns into a semi and he and Sky Lynx have a page-long fight with the other circus performers:
The audience loves it!
Mr. Big Top isn’t about to let his star attraction drive away in a Volkswagen, however, and kicks Goldbug’s ass, and pulls the humans out of him.
I love how he holds the teddy bear in one of his tentacles too, as if he thinks it is one of his foes.
While Big Top is threatening his former employee, Goldbug puts himself in reverse and WHOMP, Mr. Big Top gets locked in the cage.
Together the Autobots, children and Berko return to the Autobot starship and they all head for earth, where the Autobots will resume their mission to exterminate the Decepticons, the children to reunite with their parents, and Berko to resume being a hobo, albeit now one in a spiffy purple costume.
Speaking of giant transforming robots, were you aware of the existence of these two films?
Suddenly the Go-Bots don't seem so bad anymore, do they?