Saturday, August 15, 2009

"We are Decepticons—The dominant, unbowed, the bastion. That should be enough."

The Transformers: Infiltration trade collects IDW's first effort at Transformers comics after they acquired the license from Hasbro. As such, it's the publisher's attempts to reboot the Transformers franchise, essentially starting over from scratch, while keeping many of the names and general designs familiar from the original toy line and original cartoon series.

Interestingly, IDW went turned to long-time Transformers writer Simon Furman, who wrote for both Marvel and DreamWave during their time as the license holders. At first, that may seem a little like asking Chris Claremont to reimagine the X-Men from the ground up for a whole new generation (which, come to think of it, Marvel seems to do about twice a year now anyway). But as Furman himself points out in his introduction to the trade paperback collection, while he may have been heavily involved with various iterations of the giant robots before, he's always been working off of someone else's blueprint, he's never had the opportunity to kick off one of these things himself.

So how'd he do?

Well, look, this is still a Transformers comic, a licensed comic book meant to exploit lingering nostalgia in grown-up men for the toy line they played with as children, toys they were half brain-washed into loving because they watched an exciting 22-minute animated commercial for the toys five afternoons a week. I don't think that necessarily means you can't have great Transformers comics that constitute genuine works of literature, but it does mean that's hardly very likely to ever happen.

This isn't even an attempt in that direction.

Rather, it's an attempt to make Transformers comics that reflect the sophistication of today's comic book audience in the ways that, say, Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker's Daredevil comics were told vs. the way Stan Lee or Denny O'Neil were told, you know?

It is quite interesting to see how Furman decides to address some of the challenges inherent in the basic Transformers story of a) There's this alien planet full of robots embroiled in a civil war, b) they come to earth, c) they can totally turn into cars and jets.

Furman definitely goes a long way towards making some sense out of the Transformers' raison d' etre—you know, the whole turning into cars and jets thing. Apparently the evil Decepticons infiltrate different planets, disguised as vehicles and suchlike, while the heroic Autobots do likewise in an attempt to monitor the Decepticons, and work to thwart their attempts at conquering the world. Okay, cool, that explains the transforming anyway.

Furman actually takes it refreshingly far, with the various robots being as reluctant to show themselves as possible, and even generating holograms of people driving them to keep up the illusion that they're real. It's not until page 40 or so that we see a Transformer in robot form at all, which actually works toward building suspense, not despite the fact that almost every reader knows exactly what's coming, but because of it. That is, because you know that that ambulance is a good guy robot and that red, white and blue jet is a bad guy one, and you know their names, you're just waiting for the inevitable to happen.

A problem all of the Transformers stories—cartoons, comics, those goddam live-action movies—have faced is how to balance the focus between robot characters and human beings.

As a kid, I didn't care about the humans one bit; as an adult, I realize you need at least some humans around, if only to provide scale and setting to the Transformers’ stories. (I mentioned in my original post on Transformers comics that some of the comics I had read seemed like generic space opera types of stories that just so happened to have toys I played with growing up in the starring roles, and the fact that a robot that turns into a truck named Optimus Prime was the lead didn't much matter; the same story could be told if the lead were a giant green bulldog named Hamlet Jackson.)

Furman gives us some human characters here—teen runaway Verity, alien enthusiast and conspiracy theorist Hunter O’Nion and mechanic Jimmy Pink—and they are pretty generic types, introduced in a contrite, uninteresting manner. But even if Furman seems to be simply going through the motions with these characters, at least he realizes that human drama in a Transformers story is only necessary in so much that it gives readers a point of reference for the robot drama. (This I think is one of the main problems with Michael Bay's movies, even though I doubt he or his bosses will agree anything's wrong with movies that rake in that much money—Shia LaBeouf running away from giant robots is infinitely more interesting than whether or not he'll ever be able to tell his way-out-of-his-league girlfriend he's lucky even talks to him he loves her, or if his mother will be able to cope with empty nest syndrome when Shia goes off to college. I think there are other movies that handle that sort of thing much better, Bay).

The story itself isn't all that much different than that of the movies though—some humans stumble into involvement in the Tranformers' covert war on Earth, and thus need to run around and experience car chases, avoid explosions and endure occasional expositon—but the maguffins are less ludicrous, and the tensions stronger. Ratchet (the ambulance) is one of a small group of Autobots led by Prowl (the police car) on Earth, observing the Decepticon cell, which is acting kinda weird. Unbeknowest to the Autobots, there was a split among the Decepticons, with Starscream leading the rest of the earthbound team into betraying Megatron.

Once the humans are introduced to the various characters, and they clash, Megatron returns, kicks the shit out of Starscream and his fellow rebel Decepticons, and takes control again. It ends with a cliffhanger, with Optimus Prime not appearing until the very last page—his appearance is meant to signal the seriousness of the situation. Like, this was something that Bumblebee and company could handle on their own, at least until Megatron showed up. And now it's on! Not a bad way to end a miniseries and/or the trade collecting it, particularly if you want to sell the next one.

So I appreciated the cursory thought put into the premise here, and the slow build-up. Furman apparently expects to be telling this story a while, so didn't feel the need to rush the set-up any. I also liked the fact that the focus was on someone other than Optiums Prime. That dude just bores the shit out of me, and always has, but he's so often the focus of Tranformers stories. I suppose it's the fact that his whole personality just boils down to The Hero, which makes him a lot less intersting than all the villains and many of the other Autobots. (I had the same problem with the G.I.Joe cartoon; Duke and Flint were never as intersting as the mute ninja with the pet wolf or comedy duos like Shipwreck and his sarcastic talking parrot or Alpine and his mildly retarded friend Bazooka).

Now, let's talk art. This book is drawn by E.J. Su, and while it's serviceable, it's not that great. This is the second time I read this story, having first read it a couple of years ago in a black-and-white, digest-sized, manga-like format. I think that served Su's art quite well. Sure, Transformers without color seems a bit…wrong, I guess (Without color, how can you tell Starscream from Thundercracker and Skywarp, or Bumblebee from Cliffjumper?), but it accentuated the whole robots-in-disguise thing, and Su's manga-influenced humans looked more natural in the format than they do here, big and in color.

There's a sparseness of detail to Su's work which the size and color of this standard, Western super-comics format only draws negative attention to.

While he's not so hot with the humans, settings and backgrounds, he does draw good Transformers, having put some real thought into how they might work (dude draws great robot hands!) and making them all look very close to their original cartoon appearance, but freshened up with little, newer details, particularly in the joints and moving parts. I think his Megatron may be the biggest departure, being a tank with big treads along parts of him. (Me, I always liked the idea of Megatron being actual gun-sized, and that'swhy he was so evil—like, he suffered from an extreme form of Napolean complex, brought on by the fact that his enemies were all twenty to forty fee tall, while he was only, like, twelve inches high.)

All in all, this isn't a bad Transformers story. Although given how bad Transformers stories can be (i.e. Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen), "not bad" is, relative to others, “one of the best,” I guess.


Josue said...

Hamlet Jackson: More than meets the eye

LurkerWithout said...

Its been a while since I've read the IDW stuff, but IIRC Megatron DOES turn into the handgun as well in the second series. They even give some pseudoscience to explain the size changing...

LiamKav said...

Yeah. The reason he looks different here is that he hasn't adopted an Earth alternative mode yet. By biggest annoyance with the original cartoon was how the characters has alien vehicle forms at first, but their robot modes were the same. Starscream turns into a triangular flying thingie, but his robot mode has F-14 wings on the back? Hmm,

Of course, Megatron's original cartoon/Marvel robot mode clearly can't transform into ANYTHING anyway.

A Hero said...

I haven't read this series, but the fact that it focuses on characters like Ratchet and Prowl.

Ratchet has always been a favorite of mine ever since the Marvel series where he was the last Autobot standing. Prowl will always have a place in my heart because he is the first transformer I ever owned.

So obviously, I am probably somewhat biased towards those characters.

bwmedia said...

The second series starts just before this one ends, with Optimus Prime back on what's left of Cybertron. The biggest problem I've had with Furman's run is that from here on there are numerous storylines he's running all at once.

-Transformers on Earth
-the "Stormbringer" incident and it's fallout
-the "dead universe"
-Scorponok and his Machination
-the Sector Seven knockoffs "Skywatch" and their battle with the Machination
-Shockwave and the Dinobots
-the evil human clones the Decepticons made (and Furman uses to IMO take a shot at Republicans) that later get dropped after Ramjet's Spotlight issue

It just becomes too much in one lump sum, which is why I liked Shane McCarthy's All Hail Megatron storyline (the current Codas not as much). Just a good old fashioned space war.

metronome35 said...

"Me, I always liked the idea of Megatron being actual gun-sized, and that'swhy he was so evil—like, he suffered from an extreme form of Napolean complex, brought on by the fact that his enemies were all twenty to forty feet tall"
Speaking of which, have you seen any of the old Marvel comics, Caleb, where the Decepticons are led by one of Soundwave's cassettes?
I didn't see much of that era myself, so I'm not sure if anything lie a Napoleon complex would be in effect there.

I think humans are fine in Transformers media. I think they come off better when the stories aren't about the humans per se, so much as about how the humans and Transformers interact with one another.
I have to admit though, most of the Transformers stories I enjoyed as a kid were probably the ones that didn't involve humans all that much.

Caleb said...

Speaking of which, have you seen any of the old Marvel comics, Caleb, where the Decepticons are led by one of Soundwave's cassettes?

Yeah, I have a couple where Ratbat seems to be the leader of the Decepticons (although Scroponok and Starscream are each scheming on him). I'll write about those issues eventually, but I don't have the ones where Ratbat took over, so it's awfully weird to just pick up a comic and all of a sudden the Decepticons are following a bat that can turn into a cassette tape. I didn't even know the animal ones could talk, let alone lead.

bwmedia said...

Actually, he only got the job because he was the senior Decepticon (instead of another of Soundwave's tapes like in the cartoon) when Shockwave was thought to have burned up on re-entry (his jets were damaged, and Budiansky probably meant for him to die there, but Furman brought him back and started writing him strange). In the comics, Ratbat was the Chief Fuel Auditor on Cybertron, and came to Earth because the Space Bridge was costing too much fuel.

LiamKav said...

It was awesome, actually. Instead of a big, power hungry maniac running the place, the Decepticons were led by an accountant.

bwmedia said...

And as much as comic Shockwave is my favorite Decepticon commander, Ratbat really did get the most done during his tenure. Scorponok, on the other hand, didn't do much, but blame that on Furman's constant whiny leaders who aren't Grimlock. Furman has other issues when it comes to Grimlock.

Emma said...

The main problem with how IDW handled this from herein on is that it's really, to all intents and purposes, an ongoing series, but with some issues focusing on particular character's back stories. For some reason, they tried to disguise it as a bunch of standalone miniseries, with the result that there's little to guide you as to the order you read them in.

The direct sequel to 'Infiltration' is 'Escalation'. However, before reading that, you really have to read 'Stormbringer', even though it's set roughly at the same time as Infiltration and is exactly the sort of 'robots in space' thing you marked out as generic. If you skip 'Stormbringer', the later story will get confusing because a lot ends up revolving around the enemy they defeat in that series.

You also need to read the Transformers: Spotlight series in conjunction with most of the series after this. They're mostly standalone stories about particular characters, but all contribute to the main plot. For example, if you don't read Spotlight: Shockwave, you'll wonder why the heck there's a subplot about digging up robot dinosaurs in Escalation. If you don't read Spotlight: Nightbeat, then the eventual fate of Nightbeat, should you follow it that far, will make no sense.

So, if you're going further, I'd say do it like this: Infiltration, Stormbringer, Spotlights vol 1, Escalation, Spotlights vol 2, Devastation, Spotlights vol 3, Revelation (also confusingly a 'Spotlights' series!) and finally Maximum Dinobots.

Do it like that, and with a bit of 'flashbacking' you get through most of Furman's plots, and lots of it is quite good - at times better than Infiltration, at times not as good.

After that, they did All Hail Megatron, and I'll be staggered if you don't find that something of a regression.

Spencer Ellsworth said...

Yeah, I love Furman's stuff, for all that it was presented in a confusing format. Infiltration and Stormbringer took a while to warm up, but the Spotlights were always great, great, great. And then Escalation was my favorite TF story since Furman's last run at Marvel years ago.

All Hail Megatron, for all that it was in a straight-up twelve-issue format, was all over the place in terms of quality and execution. You'd read a section that gave you hope, then read a section that was horribly cliched and cartoonish.