Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Did it matter where you lay once you were dead? On a dirty beach in California, or in a gleaming metal tomb on Cybertron?"

My weeks long quest to find the good Transformers comics—assuming that there must be some good Transformers comics based solely on the longevity of the franchise—has finally bore some fruit.

Among the titles the Columbus Metropolitan Library system carries is Transformers: Perchance To Dream, a 2006 black and white digest collection of old Marvel UK Transformers material from Titan Books.

Once again Simon Furman is doing the writing, and he works with seven different artists, including Staz Johnson (a familiar name form the late-nineties Bat-books), John Stokes (some Vertigo work) and several others I’m less familiar with (Jeff Anderson, Pete Knifton, Geoff Senior, Lee Sullivan and Andrew Wildman).

In a cast consisting of giant robots, the black and white art could be something of a drawback I suppose (I mentioned before that some Transformers look the exactly the same and are only distinguished by their coloring), but I think it works quite nicely here. In general, I prefer black and white reprints to older comics, as it’s a way around either straight reprinting the shoddier coloring of the era or having to recolor the work and thus changing it in a somewhat unwelcome manner.

And this black-and-white is true black-and-white; no grading or shading or gray tones, just black ink on white space.
I can only guess what function these stories played in the original comics, but I’m guessing by their super-short, five-page length that they must have been back-ups that ran with reprints of the American material…? (One of you will correct me if I’m totally wrong, right?)

That short length, and the fact that Furman’s stories are all surprisingly character-focused little vignettes, reminded me quite a bit of the back-ups that Chris Claremont wrote as back-ups for the old Classic X-Men reprints, the ones collected as X-Men: Vignettes (These, by the way, are about the only Chris Claremont X-Men comics I’ve really ever been able to enjoy, a results, I suspect, of not even attempting to read any of his X-Men work until I was at much too old an age to really identify with it).

Even the storylines that continue through multiple strips here tend to be stand-a-lone character pieces that somehow connect.

For example, the title story, which quotes Shakespeare extensively in the narration (my, but Marvel UK was classy!), consists of six, five-page chapters, but the first five each have a framing sequence wrapped around an individual Autobot’s dream of some adventure.

Each of those dreams characterizes the robot in question, and while that characterization isn’t anything too terribly deep, it is characterization. For example, Silverbolt, who turns into a plane, is afraid of heights, and is afraid his fellow Autobot planes will discover this secret shame of his when they all combine to form the giant robot Superion.

The truncated space makes that focus seem even sharper, as Furman never has the opportunity to waste much time or space in these stories, so they’re remarkably character-driven.

They also boast a sort of admirable try-anything approach, which gives this little collection an enjoyable unpredictability.

The title story, for example, features five Autobots having their dreams scanned by a time-traveling Galvatron in an attempt to control their minds, and also quotes Shakespeare and has a punchline-style, last-panel twist ending.

That’s followed by a Raymond Chandler parody called “The Big Shutdown” (see, robots don’t sleep, but they do get shutdown) narrated by Nightbeat, who transforms into a police car and is thus a detective, some more traditional robot space-war stories, and finally a two-parter about a newspaper reporter that both the Autobots and Decepticons are trying to spin for positive PR (the Autobots try granting him access and an interview; the Decepticons try shooting a mind-control thingee into his brain).

Like the other licensed comics featuring the Transformer characters I’ve read so far, I wouldn’t call this high literature or anything, and, end of the day, it’s still just an advertisement for a toy line, but damned if it isn’t a very good advertisement for a toy line, and one that features a more admirable level of craft in both the writing and the art than a lot of the other Transformers comics I’ve read thus far.

But then, I’ve still got some more to read yet…


Phillip said...

Pretty much every British comic I've ever seen has been six pages long. They come out weekly (like Freakangels!).

Douglas said...

What Phillip said, above. The British comics came out weekly. Sometimes they'd split the American comics up across two or three weeks but that left space to fill, so they got Simon Furman (who strides Transfandom like, uh, Omega Supreme) to write short filler material to keep fans tided over until more American material could be cranked out.

Furman faced lots of limitations: like, for example, he couldn't contradict the American stuff, and he had to write within five pages or so, and he had to sell lots and lots of toys, most of whom had very little going for them beyond one line or so of characterisation: take Nightbeat, from the story you just read, who is a blue car who is a detective. That's it. But from this he managed to write probably the best stories in the history of the franchise.

'The Big Shutdown' was the first TF comic I read, and I still love it: there's just something about a hardboiled detective who is ALSO A CAR that speaks to me.

Also? If you want 'quality Transformers', your best bet is probably the Beast Wars cartoon, but even with that it's the same: this just ISN'T A GOOD FRANCHISE. It survives because of a constant influx of six-year-olds who love toys and explosions, and a few die-hards with much the same desires. There's no real incentive to write anything except shiny, shiny mayhem.

Ty said...

I 2nd the motion by Douglas. Beast Wars had some pretty great story beats. Overall, not in the league of BTAS or Samurai Jack or Avatar, but Triple A minor league good stuff.

The resolution of the Dinobot in ep. Code of Hero, being given some choice plot points to wrap up, is something that blew my mind over a decade ago and I recommend as a underrated bit of pop culture that most people/fans overlooked. (Don't think it works without knowing the whole back story 1st though)
It commits grand larceny of a pretty popular Sci-Fi movie scene as well so it is standing on the shoulders of tall lads also.

Douglas said...

I second Ty on Code of Hero, which was the first Beast Wars episode I saw (thanks to Shortpacked!, natch). It helps if you've had a fairly good grounding in TF thanks to the Transformers Wiki (a MASSIVE timekiller), but it's still one of the best pieces of kids' entertainment I've yet seen. General consensus in Transfandom (we probably need a better name) is that it's the best thing Transformers has ever done.

LiamKav said...

I quite like Animated, but in a different way. Beast Wars was serious and grown-up at the same time as being silly and for kids. Transformers Animated is arguably a more childish show, but it done with such fun and enthusiasm that it also becomes cool.

Incidently, both those shows had Megatrons who were about a billion times smarter and more competent than the original.

Anyway, as to the history: The UK published a Transformers comic weekly, reprinting the American work. It obviously ran out of material fairly quickly, so they started to write their own stuff in and around the US stories. Eventually, Simon Furman was writing pretty much all the UK stuff and was asked to replace Bob Budiansky on the US strip. At around this point, the UK strip switched from alternating US and UK stories and instead ran the US strip as a main feature, and then had a back up UK strip, also written by Furman. This was done in black and white due to rising costs and all that jazz.

Eventually, that was dropped and they just reprinted the US stuff. Which was being written and drawn by Brits, so it didn't really matter.

LiamKav said...

Also, Nightbeat was one of Furman's favourite characters, along with Grimlock.

Caleb said...

Thanks for all the info guys!

Furman faced lots of limitations...But from this he managed to write probably the best stories in the history of the franchise.

I think that's a large part of what I found admirable about this. I like seeing writers given challenges they have to work around, particularly if they manage to come up with gold. Or, if the challenges are severe enough, even if they come up with, um, bronze, it may steel seem like gold, given the degree of challenges they faced in doing so (Metaphors!).

That is, I think a lot of writers tend to do some of their better work when they have tight constraints and/or very engaged (and talented) editors.

For example, I think that's why Mark Millar's greatest comic book writing occurred when he was writing the Superman Adventures title for DC, and his worst work has come during the period in which he's so big he can do whatever the hell he wants.

If you want 'quality Transformers', your best bet is probably the Beast Wars cartoon

Beast Wars came around when I was, let's see, 18 or 19ish, so I'd completely outgrown Transformers, and had yet to have any real nostalgia for them yet either, so I missed that whole era.

I remember thinking it seemed profoundly wrong to me to have Transformers disguising themselves as animals, because leopards and panda bears seemed like much more limiting and unconvincing disguises than cars and planes.

Of course, Ravage, Laserbeak and the Dinobots were some of my favorite "G1" 'bots, so I'm not sure what I had against Beast Wars...

Douglas said...

Beast Wars came around when I was, let's see, 18 or 19ish, so I'd completely outgrown Transformers, and had yet to have any real nostalgia for them yet either, so I missed that whole era.

I grew out of Transformers JUST as Beast Wars was starting up, and didn't give them a second thought for the next ten years or so. But early this year, university was really getting to be hell, so I discovered that watching Worf (who is also a velociraptor) beat the hell out of a giant purple dinosaur was a GREAT way to relax.

I remember thinking it seemed profoundly wrong to me to have Transformers disguising themselves as animals, because leopards and panda bears seemed like much more limiting and unconvincing disguises than cars and planes.

Well, as always with Transformers, first they decided to sell the toys -- because, really, once you've seen one car Transformer you've seen them all, and animals hadn't really been explored yet -- and then asked the writers 'why?'

The in-show explanation is, um, radiation -- because the planet they're on is saturated with 'energon radiation' (reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!), and to adapt they need to turn into, uh, animals. Which they occasionally name-checked in the first season, until NEW toys that didn't look quite so much like animals needed to be sold and the whole thing was promptly forgotten.

Of course, this was later retconned -- they needed to turn into animals so that they could 'unify the organic and the technological'. But that was Transformers' counter-cultural period, full of dirty hippies and electronic music.

LiamKav said...

The other argument was that they were just taking the "robots in disguise" bit to the next (logical) level.

The CGI in Beast Wars is now quite primitive, but it has the same sort of effort put into it that Mainframe put into their other 90s shows. So characters "act" really well, no-one ever stands around rigidly in the background when they're not doing anything, etc.

Felicity Walker said...

Beast Wars was a huge disappointment for those of us who grew up on the original cartoon. The animation, the writing, the voice acting, all were inferior.

LiamKav said...

Or, alternatively, it wasn't.

You can have a different opinion, but you can't just say "everyone who grew up in the 80s hated Beast Wars". Because you'd be wrong, lots of people loved it. And it successfully relaunched the Transformers brand after it had stagnated throughout the 90s.

Anonymous said...

I grew up on the original Transformers cartoons and comics, and though when I first encountered Beast Wars I was less than enthusiastic about it, when I did eventually get round to giving it a chance I accepted it as far better than its predecessor rather quickly.

Keeping the cast small gave them more time to develop the characters more fully, and having proper story-arcs gave the series more of a sense of progression.
On top of that the humour was probably funnier, and the action was inarguably far better.