Friday, September 18, 2015

TRANSFORMERS #0 - #6

"PRIME DIRECTIVE"*
Written by Chris Sarracini | Pencils by Pat Lee
Inks by Rob Armstrong w/Erik Sander & Ferdinand Poblete
Backgrounds by Edwin Garcia | Letters by Dreamer Design | Flats by Kenny Li
Colors by TheRealT!, Ramil Sunga, Gary Yeung, Alan Wang, Shaun Curtis,
Rob Ruffalo, Stuart Ng, Angelo Tsang, Juan Malera, Matt Cossin, Pat Lee, Talent Pun
Graphic Design: Paul Villafuerte & Kevin Lee | Edits by Matt Moylan

The Plot: Several years after the Transformers' arrival on Earth, the Autobots defeated the Decepticons and attempted to return to Cybertron aboard the Ark II, along with a human expeditionary force. But The Ark II exploded after takeoff and all aboard were presumed destroyed or killed.

Three years after the Ark II's destruction, a mercenary named Lazarus has located a number of Transformers and reprogrammed them, intending to auction them off to the world's mercenaries as weapons. But the U.S. military has a Transformer of their own, Optimus Prime. Enlisting Spike Witwicky's help, the U.S.'s General Hallo awakens Optimus Prime. Prime gathers a small number of Autobots from the Ark II's undersea crash site to fight Lazarus at his arctic base. But instead, Megatron breaks free of the mercenary's control, restores his Decepticon followers, and renews his plans to conquer the Earth, this time by using a virus to transform it into a replica of Cybertron. The Decepticons escape the arctic, leaving the Autobots to face Megatron's virus.

Optimus and a handful of Autobots pursue the Decepticons (whose ranks are bolstered by the traitorous Dinobot Commander Grimlock) to San Francisco while the remaining Autobots stay behind to fight the virus. Spike, meanwhile, is taken away by General Hallo, who it turns out was actually in league with Lazarus at one time. As the Autobots and Decepticons fight it out in the City by the Bay, Hallo orders a nuclear strike against them. Superion sacrifices himself to save the city and Hallo is gunned down by the president's men. In the arctic, Wheeljack also sacrifices himself to stop Megatron's virus. The Decepticons escape San Francisco in the chaos and Grimlock departs as well, choosing to walk his own path away from the Autobots.

G1 References: The entire series is set in some semblance of the original Generation One continuity from the eighties. Little is made explicit about the past, but we know that at some point the Autobots and Decepticons crashed on Earth just as they did back in 1984, and that their war continued here for some time until the Ark II incident.

Possibly the main difference between this story and the original continuity (besides the human casualties and collateral damage, which I'll discuss below) is that, for the most part, the only Autobots and Decepticons on Earth are the class of 1984 -- the original Transformers. In the original G1 stories -- both cartoons and comics -- that group was eventually joined by other Transformers. On TV, they usually popped up with no explanation while in the comics they were either activated on Earth or sent there from Cyberton. Here, the only Transformers present besides the original 1984 group (and here I use "1984" to mean the characters from the TV show's first season, not the actual first product year) are the Aerialbots. Their presence among this group is unexplained, but it's likely simply a behind-the-scenes reason: the story needed an Autobot gestalt to fight Devastator.

Other references to Generation One include Spike having a son named Daniel (as seen on TV) and a brother named Buster (from the comics; Buster is mentioned but not seen in this series). Beyond that it's minor things like Optimus Prime being equipped with the Autobot Matrix of Leadership and Spike's father being nicknamed "Sparkplug". But, as these comics proceed, the Generation One references and homages will become deeper and more explicit.

It's also worth mentioning a handful of continuity errors to be found here. As noted, all the Autobots present are the group from 1984, but there are a couple scenes where Red Alert, a 1985 character, can be spotted. Apparently this was a mistake on the part of Pat Lee, who drew Sideswipe into two different locations (the arctic and San Francisco), which forced a post-production change. The simplest fix was to redraw the second Sideswipe as Red Alert, a character who shared Sideswipe's mold in the original toyline. However subsequent issues will make clear that this is continuity glitch and nothing more, and Red Alert was not actually present on Earth at any point during or prior to this story. Additionally, in a flashback among the defeated Decepticons, we see Blitzwing and the Insecticon, Kickback. Later stories will reveal that these, too, are mistakes.

(I actually don't mind these errors, egregious as they are. They remind me of the original cartoon's occasional accidental use of incorrect character models and/or color schemes.)

My Thoughts: These aren't your daddy's Tranformers, kids. Or, if you're a child of the eighties, these ain't the Transformers you grew up with. These Transformers cause destruction and carnage wherever they go. Yeah! They step on humans and demolish cities and it's so kewl because that's what we all wished they did when we were little, playing with our toys, right?

Ugh.

This sort of thing could almost be excusable if it was done by someone who came to the TRANSFORMERS franchise later in life, who had no fond memories of the cartoons and comics (I'm looking at you, Michael Bay). But the Dreamwave gang, back in the early 00s, had presumably grown up with the Transformers. So naturally they decided the Transformers had to grow up with them, and we needed to see the "consequences" of their war. So the series includes angry soliloquies from Spike about how he can't deal with this anymore, how the Transformers caused mass death and destruction all over the Earth but the Autobots were too busy with their war effort to notice. And of course we get to see some of that destruction during the climactic fight in San Francisco, as buildings topple left and right when Devastator enters the fray.

Look -- I don't mind if the Transformers grow up a bit. The original cartoon, while I still like it, was very simplistic. There would be nothing wrong with writing new comics in a "layered" fashion -- give them more mature storylines and characterizations for the adults who grew up with the characters. Heck, the original TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE was more mature than the episodes which came before it, showing several beloved characters dying in battle (and scarring a generation of small children including myself). But that's not what Sarracini and Lee have done here. They've simply thrown a bunch of glorified violence into the series because, in their minds, giant robot fights should involve some hardcore carnage.

And, yeah -- in the real world that's true. One would be naive to believe some human death didn't occur off-camera when the Deceptions raided power plants and such in the original TV show. But this is a fantasy world. Good versus Evil, Right versus Wrong. It's not mean to reflect what would actually happen if gigantic robots came to Earth fighting each other. I guarantee that if we were really visited by Transformers in 1984, our civilization would not have still existed by 2002.

But what really bothers me here is Spike's implication that the Autobots caused some of this damage themselves. Indirectly, I'm sure -- they were always sworn to protect Earth and humanity from the Decepticons. But the problem is, once the Autobots are shown to accidentally kill even one human, they become just as bad as the Deceptions. In Marvel comics, there's a school of thought that Hulk has somehow never taken a single human life in any of his rampages. This is completely ridiculous on its surface, but it can't be any other way. If the Hulk were shown to kill so much a single innocent, then the character is tainted and there's no justifiable reason for Bruce Banner not to feed himself a bullet at the earliest possible opportunity. The same holds true for the Autobots.

The nice thing about this inaugural Dreamwave mini-series, though, is that it's pretty much completely ignored going forward. The continuity remains, but the bleak tone and excessive collateral damage will be discarded. Dreamwave made some questionable, terrible decisions during their brief time on this Earth, but disavowing "Prime Directive" was not one of those mistakes.

So besides my issues with the story's tone, what else is there to say about it? Well, it's not all bad. Lee's artwork is actually decent throughout most of the issues. At some point his Transformers would come to have weirdly bulbous balloonlike features, but that hasn't happened quite yet. He nails certain characters, such as Megatron and Starscream, almost perfectly, and his humans, while not always perfect, are mostly decently drawn.

If I have one complaint about Lee's artwork here, it's simply that he draws the characters as a weird hybrid of their toy selves and their Sunbow animation models. His Bumblebee has the chubby, cheerful face that the character had on TV, but his Mirage is drawn to resemble the toy's horribly designed and colored head. Ironhide, thankfully, is drawn to resemble his cartoon counterpart, but Jazz unfortunately is too, with his doors visible in robot mode like Prowl and Bluestreak. Look, I've said it before but it always bears repeating: the best way to draw Generation One Transformers is in the style of the Sunbow model sheets. This is not an opinion. It is fact. Anyone who believes otherwise is just flat-out wrong.

But regardless of the quality of Lee's art and the story's lovely colors, I just can't get past the tone of this thing. Is it that hard to understand that some of us, as adults, simply want to read updated, but otherwise unchanged versions, of the same stuff we enjoyed as kids? Or am I just a weird exception in that regard? I like entertainment targeted at me as a thirty-six year old, but I don't want the stuff I remember from my childhood to fall into that category. Let the Transformers retain their innocence and just give me a modern take on the cartoons I loved as a youngster. And, fortunately, that's just what will happen moving forward.


* Note: This story is not titled in the individual issues, which I read for the above post, but was called "Prime Directive" for trade paperback reprint purposes.

13 comments:

  1. There is quite a lot I disagree with actually. in this review but I wont touch on those.
    ( Safe for maybe the art, which looks ridiculous. Is proportionally all wrong. Lee's story telling abilities are weak. characters just jump from one pin up pose to another. There is wasted space and Lee only drew in the foreground characters anyway. )

    I will mention what I agree on, and that is that this comic is tonally all wrong.
    This is quite clearly the cartoon continuity and the tone of the thing just doesn't gel with that continuity.
    It might have been abetter fit for the Marvel Comics which were on the whole somewhat more grown up.

    ...The early issues were anyway and when Furman writes them.
    Not when Budiansky starts injecting "humor" in to the stories or writes human dominated issues.
    Or the king Grimlock disaster, ...but I digress.
    The UK stories usually offset that debacle.

    The comics were usually more grim in nature, G2 for example really raised the stakes and went on a killing spree.
    If Prime Directive was a riff off that, the tone would fit.

    But this ? This is just a disaster. The best thing Dreamwave did was retconning it at the earliest opportunity and never speak of it ever again.
    But a lot of comic adaptions tried to "grow up" the cartoons of the 80's.
    Including Voltron and that infamous Thundercats mini series.
    Yeah, that one.

    I hope you haven't read the Hardwired novel, by Scott Ciencin though. That one is even more tonedeaf.
    Fleeting knowledge of the Transformers.
    Set in this continuity and far too much gratuitous sex and violence.

    I finished reading the book once and then never ever looked at it ever again.
    Those were not the Transformers I want to read about.

    The four live action movies have the same tone problem. They have no idea if they want to be serious or not and the "humor"is generally obnoxious and not funny.
    And the human characters are annoying.

    At least in the fourth movie, the humans and the so called humor are toned down.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As a kid, I didn't care much for Bob Budiansky's TRANSFORMERS, but when Simon Furman came on board, the book became an instant "must read" for me every month, though I was never a fan of Furman's bloodthirst, which was cranked up to 11 for GENERATION 2.

      As an adult, I've come to appreciate Budiansky's TRANSFORMERS a bit more. It's just that he happens to be telling stories about humans interacting with the Transformers, where most other versions are about the Transformers themselves. But I really liked Circuit Breaker, G.B. Blackrock, Walter Barnett, and even Donnie "Robot Master' Finkleberg.

      I know the THUNDERCATS mini you're talking about. It really bothered me, even moreso due to the fact that WildStorm's first mini was a fun, all-ages throwback to the original series with great Ed McGuinness artwork. Then we suddenly got this awful "grown up" take (though I liked the art there too, from Ed Benes -- it fit the story even though the story's tone was wrong).

      I did read HARDWIRED. It was awful. I didn't plan on picking up the second book in the trilogy, but when it came out, written by someone other than Ciencen, I bought it. I never read it, though, and I never got the third book.

      I agree on the movies. I actually enjoyed the first one for what it was, when I assume Hasbro kept a bit of a leash on Bay. But after it was a blockbuster and Bay received total creative control for the sequels, they got really bad, really fast.

      Delete
    2. I never cared much for Budiansky's later stories either, mostly because he started to play up the humor angle, and even as a kid I liked my Transformers serious.
      Or as serious as possible.
      I never minded Furman's bloodthirsty attitude to me as a kid, it showed that things were serious with real consequences. ( Something I generally disliked about the cartoon, zero consequences, probably why i like dark awakening so much. And thanks to the cartoon I just cant take Megatron seriously anymore. )

      It was cranked up to 11 in G2 though, mostly because of the EXTREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEME "edginess"of 90's comics and Furman was only afforded 12 issues, so he could do what he liked.
      and apparently he liked to destroy San Francisco.
      ( I always interpreted that Jhiaxus "only" destroyed San Francisco not the whole west coast, purely to spite Prime. )

      Circuit breaker is an interesting character, but like RAAT, she always attacked the Autobots and refused to acknowledge that there were two factions.

      Considering that both factions have very obvious signs and behave differently. ( One will kill, the others wont. ) It does paint them a bit as imbeciles, especially when in "Used Autobots" the Autobots are named checked as well, Autobots.
      At least Blackrock and Barnett were on the ball, sadly Barnett never got much of a send off.

      When Budiansky wasn't burned out or busying himself with funny "humor", his writing was there with the best of Furman.
      Especially "The New Order, The Best Of Two Evils Warrior School, Repeat Performance, The Smelting Pool, The Bridge To Nowhere and Gone But Not Forgotten". Which was a worthy send off for Megatron, as he descended in to delusional madness.
      ( Though "The Cosmic Carnival" is great fun. Budiansky has more hits then misses, but his misses are extremely bad. )
      I don't mind more adult stories with a serious tone, but that Thundercats mini was a bridge too far.
      We can have an adult themed story, with out going that far.
      And not all adults enjoy that sort material.
      The 2011 Thundercats series managed to do that just fine. It told a serious storyline with actual character growth, without going overboard.

      The real Ghostbusters series also managed to tackle serious subjects, with out becoming vulguar or preachy or pandering.

      I did pick up the second book after Hardwired. I got about halfway and started to lose interest.
      I had to force myself to get through Hardwired, which was ...most unpleasant.

      The first movie was okay. Impressive special effects, great music, but I never cared for the human characters or the "humor".
      and 2 and 3 just made all that worse.
      4 is better because the human characters are not totally unlikable, and the humor such as it is is toned down.
      But being the least worst of a series of 4 isn't exactly a badge of honor.

      Delete
    3. Hmm, you've reminded me that I really (for the most part) enjoyed the 2011 THUNDERCATS. I wish it had found enough of an audience to continue. Unless I'm mistaken, I read that the producers had a plan to end it after 52 episodes. One more season would've done that.

      As a resident of the Bay Area, I was especially sensitive to San Francisco being destroyed in G2 and then again in this mini-series. I'm surprised Michael Bay never trashed it in any of his movies too.

      As far as Circuit Breaker being dumb -- I can buy that she had trouble differentiating between Autobots and Decepticons due to the mental scars left by Shockwave's attack. In her mind, he was a robot and all robots are trouble. It would've been nice to see RAAT questioning her orders now and then, though.

      Delete
    4. The 2011 Thundercats series was actually quite good, despite my initial misgivings and they wear half shoes for some vauge reason.

      At least they managed to tell their story. A lot of cartoons never even get the opportunity to do that and ending on a cliffhanger would have been awfull.
      ( Did Jayce ever find his father in Jayce And The Wheeled Warriors ? And that series had 65 episodes ! )

      Bay seems to have it in for Chicago.
      And the IDW comics concentrated on thrashing New York ( I dont like AHM it has...issues. Prime is near dead and can't be repaired and in AHM 10 its pretty much: "Hai gaiz im okai !!11" And that's just one of its many problems. )
      Could the destruction of San Francisco in V1 be a throwback to G2 ?
      Considering the wink wink nudge nudge, lookit how much fanwank we can insert in these comics, nature of Dreamwave, I wouldn't be too surprised there.
      Hardwired also references v1 a lot from what I recall but its best to ignore that one.

      I can believe that about Circuit Breaker. I'm just frustrated she always ALWAYS targeted the Autobots.
      And the Decepticons twice in the comic run.

      Considering RAAT was stalking Blackrock gas stations, he might have gone "oi numpties the autobots are the good guys".
      Even if they didn't believe him the attitude between the two factions might have clued them in.
      RAAT was always a bit dissapointing

      Delete
    5. I think some cartoons weren't resolved on purpose. A lot of stuff back in the old days just did 65 episodes to reach the minimum for daily syndication, and left it open ended. It's almost the opposite of more recent stuff, where every season is designed to function as a series finale in case they aren't renewed. I'm thinking specifically of the JUSTICE LEAGUE and JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED cartoons when I say this, but the recent THUNDERCATS could be viewed that way as well -- it left loose ends, but in a pinch it could be considered a finale.

      Delete
  2. On the subject of this mini series, there are a few ....issues.
    Optimus Prime seems to be perpetually angry or non plussed.
    And most of his time he is shouting orders.
    Maybe Sarachini thought this was to convey him being a stern leader ?

    The virus is a bit ...vauge, IE how does it work and how is it self perpetuating anyway ?
    And better yet whats the whole point of it anyway ?
    Other then to riff of the key of vector sigma ( and Beast Machines, which did it better)

    Megatron's big plan is ludicrous and apparently hinges on a mad general to drop a bomb and then wake up before the Autobots and just leave them there, while he flees across the country.

    Superion throwing himself in to the path of the nuke is just ...stupid !
    He didn't had guns then ?
    Superion is made up of 5 aerialbots.
    They weren't able to shoot the nuke out of the sky ?
    And if not, they all had to die ? How about just one ?

    The tidal wave hitting San Francisco ( apparently Transformers writers have got it in for that place ) is ludicrous too.
    Because all it does is drop Optimus Prime on his ass.
    All the buildings are still in place and the fires are still burning ( !!! )

    This mini is up there with the movies and Hardwired it's just ...bad.

    ( i had to divide my message in two parts because apparently it was too long
    ..that a meta commentary blogspot ? )

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The virus is vague, true, but it's probably the only thing I really like about this series because it's such a G1 cartoon type of plot (influenced, as you note, by "The Key to Vector Sigma"). It's weird though, because we have this dark, "grown-up" Transformers series with death and carnage and conspiracies, and then there' suddenly this random weekday afternoon cartoon throwback thing in the middle of it all.

      I'm glad Brad Mick/James McDonough basically undid this mini one step at a time when he became writer.

      Delete
    2. It just shows ho uneven this series is and it has no idea what it wants to be.
      It wants to be all "grown up and dark and violent and gritty". But it also wants to be a throwback to the cartoon, which never was all these things. ( Save for Dark Awakening. )
      Quite frankly I'd rather watch the Key Of Vector Sigma two parter, then read this thing.

      In so far i know mad brick ...err Brad Mick, was two writers James McDonough and Adam Patyk
      ...Whatever happend to them anyway ?

      Delete
    3. I believe "Brad Mick" was just James McDonough using an assumed name. It just happened that right around the time he brought in his friend Adam Patyk to co-write with him, he dropped the pseudonym.

      I'm not sure what they're up to these days. Their entry on the Transformers Wiki says the've done some video game work since Dreamwave folded, but that seems to be it, and I don't know how up-to-date that info is anyway.

      I will discuss it much later when I get to the end of the G1 ongoing, but apparently McDonough was not well liked within the Dreamwave organization. Sounds like he might've been difficult to get along with.

      Delete
  3. I just can't get past the tone of this thing. Is it that hard to understand that some of us, as adults, simply want to read updated, but otherwise unchanged versions, of the same stuff we enjoyed as kids? Or am I just a weird exception in that regard?

    I'm right there with you, and I even extend that desire to comics (I'm a total pro "Hulk's never actually killed anyone during his rampages" person). I know the creators showing the "realistic" ramifications of superhero (or giant robot) battles think they're depicting realism, but all it does is take me out of the story, simply because the creators never extend that realism to show just how different the world would be as a result of all that carnage.

    I just think of 9/11, and (not to trivialize it) how much our society changed as a result of it. Then you watch something like Man of Steel and see the realistic depiction of what the battle between immensely superpowered individuals does, and I can no longer accept that the world of the movie could ever look anything like our world ever again, simply because the ramifications of all that destruction would bring out huge societal changes that future installments of the story won't bother to explore (in part because they're understandably not very entertaining).

    So while it might be more "realistic" to suggest that the Hulk has killed thousands in his various rampages, I really don't want to read a nuanced examination of what that means for the character and society, and since I doubt few creators want to write just a thing, either, it's better to just say "no one has died", as unrealistic as that may be.

    (As opposed to Man of Steel, which took it too far, I feel like the Avengers movies do a good job of balancing quasi-realistic destruction to show the magnitude of a threat without ruining the fun of a movie - New York got banged up, but not to a "pull you out of the movie" scale, the heroes were focused on saving people, and later movies/TV shows didn't brush past the ramifications of an event like that).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well said, and I agree with you on the realism thing. Simon Furman did a bit with this in REGENERATION ONE, totally annihilating the Earth in order to show what would've happened if the Decepticons had run unchecked, and I didn't like it there, either.

      But for me, more than the realism aspect, it's the scale of this sort of stuff. There is a certain level of fantasy/suspension of disbelief required when enjoying something like TRANSFORMERS, and the moment you begin to show too much carnage or destruction, that suspension is shattered. I would agree the same applies to the Hulk and to Galactus and Doctor Doom and anyone else.

      Actually, it's on a much smaller scale, but the thing I always think of is the Joker: it used to be he would escape from Arkham now and then and kill one or two people (if any) before Batman caught him and sent him back. His appearances were powerful and chilling, especially if he killed someone. Murder was an occasional tool he used, not his standard M.O.

      Nowadays, really ever since the eighties, it's a given that the Joker will escape a few times a year and go on a mass-murder spree every time he does. But that puts the scale of his threat all out of whack and at this point, a reader wonders why Batman doesn't just man up, set aside his vow not to kill, and put the clown out of everyone's misery once and for all. Nobody would blame him for it, and that's not how we should feel, but that's the corner DC has painted themselves into with the character.

      Delete
    2. Joker is a great example - I don't want Batman to kill, I think not killing is an important part of his character, but the bigger and more outrageous they make Joker's killing sprees, the more I'm taken out of the story, because realistically, at that point Batman (or SOMEONE) should just kill him. So by trying to be edgy and realistic ("Oh yeah, the Joker totally kills people! Look how edgy we are! This isn't Batman '66!") they instead just highlight how unrealistic the setup is, and damage the character in the process.

      Delete