Monday, April 28, 2014

Big Bot Books: The Transformers 30th Anniversary Collection HC

This is the first installment of Big Bot Books, a series of pretty comprehensive articles which will look at the very specialized books related to the Transformers toy line and comic book continuity, but are not new individual issues belonging to ongoing series. We begin with the 2013 “The Transformers 30th Anniversary Collection!”

While 2014 represents the grand 30th anniversary of Hasbro’s Transformers toyline, it also represents the epic 30th anniversary of the Transformers Generation 1 comic book continuity, which began in 1984 with Marvel Comics and continues today with IDW Publishing.

What better way to commemorate those three decades of graphic adventures than with a hardcover highlighting that entire progression of transformative panel sequences?

That’s exactly what IDW did with their “The Transformers 30th Anniversary Collection” hardcover, which came out early last year in anticipation of the coming event.

This full-color, 304-page behemoth is literally a Perceptor-quality survey of the mainstream Transformers comic books that displays the evolution of both the concept and the books through the years. Between these surprisingly unassuming covers are a combiner team-sized 14 issues of significant issues in the different series. Aside from trying to provide a kind of shifting overall narrative of the property, the book also offers a taste of the distinctive flavor of each specific series. Take note thought that the “30th Anniversary Collection” skips the convention-exclusive stories such as “Wings” and “Shattered Glass.” This volume is all about the “official” TF storylines.

No proper anniversary collection would be complete with the progenitor of it all: Marvel Comics “The Transformers” # 1 (limited series) written by Bill Mantlo (Marvel’s toy adaptor supreme—he also introduced Parker Bros.’ ROM Spaceknight and Mego’s Micronauts) and Ralph Macchio with art by Frank Springer, published in 1984. Notably released before the Sunbow TV cartoon premiered, this is an exposition-heavy issue that introduces the Autobot-Decepticon war to the world through a grittier, inkline-heavy style than later incarnations. Note that the TFs are shown to be physically much more faithful to their actual toys (yes, the Diaclone-based Ironhide and Ratchet have no heads) and much of the coloring is wildly off. Still, it’s an energetic, straightforward introduction, and I remember being convinced by this exact issue to not only collect the comics but the toys as well. (This was my first TF comic book just as my first TF toy was the G1 Skydive—Takara version. Those Styrofoam boxes were awesome).

Next comes “The Transformers” # 17, written by Bud Budiansky, art by Don Perlin published in 1986. I have mentioned before on this blog that this is my favorite issue from the original series so I am gratified to see it included in this collection. This Cybertron-set adventure involving Blaster’s moody search for the unfortunate Autobot spy Scrounge and Decepticon general Straxus’ attempt to build a space bridge exemplify the best elements of the off-world G1 stories.

The 30th Anniversary Collection wonderfully includes two key issues from the strictly non-continuity but still close-enough world of Marvel UK’s Transformers books. The first is Marvel UK’s “The Transformers (UK) Annual 1986” by Simon Furman and Geoff Senior (a team that would wind up doing much of the creation with the TF comics’ continuation).

The second Marvel UK story here is “The Transformers (UK)” # 86, also by Furman and Senior, published in 1986. This story is better known as the start of the iconic “Target: 2006” story arc, but which should probably be known as “The Greatest Ultra Magnus Story Ever Written.” Having a soft spot for the Duly Appointed Enforcer of the Tyrest Accord, I enjoyed these earlier tales where Magnus is depicted more as the unshakeable soldier that he is supposed to be rather than the dull, ironic source of jokes he later becomes. Like most of the Marvel UK run, there’s a painted-like feel to this story that’s very appealing. This is also a particular violent story, which is the perfect set up for the next story in the collection. Welcome to the dark 1990s. Marvel “Transformers Generation 2” # 4-5, written by Furman and penciled by Andrew Wildman (he, too, would draw a lot of TF tales going forward), published in 1990 captures the chaotic abandon the series seemed to absorb after the end of the original Marvel series. To be honest, I’m quite surprised this issue is here, but as we will see with the later stories, the “30th Anniversary Collection” is more inclusive than exclusive.

Thus the TFs featured here were those present near the end of the G1 toyline (Bludgeon and his fellow Pretenders) and those that heralded the G2 line (the first tank Megatron). In that sense, it’s a fitting farewell to that continuity because the next stories are a universe away from all that.

Let’s admit it, Dreamwave’s reinvention of the Transformers was key to the revival of the property in the 2000s. Pat Lee’s anime-style, sleekly exaggerated redesign remains the default style for many Trans-fans during the first half of this decade. Before the movies, this was what TFs were supposed to look like. “The Transformers” # 0 written by Chris Sarracini with art by Pat Lee introduced the Dreamwave G1 continuity, and it is surprising to remember that at the line’ start, there were very few robots and a lot of humans. That changed, of course, as the Dreamwave G1 continuity went on, taking us to more obscure, human-less territory.

Perhaps the most ambitious and effective of these was “The Transformers: The War Within. This was Furman (again, this guy) with the guy who came to symbolize TFs after Pat Lee—Filipino-American artist Don Figueroa. This mini-series, set four million years before the current TF story, hints at the origins of several characters (Orion Pax becomes Optimus Prime). The story included in this collection, # 6, was published in 2003 and capped the first great battle between Prime’s Autobots and Megatron’s Decepticons. The best thing, aside from Furman’s sneaky plot, is that everybody had rocking Cybertronian alt modes! Though I loved virtually every thing that Figueroa drew, the combined sets of Cybertronian redesigns from “The War Within” plus its sequels “The War Within: The Dark Ages” (that series also had designs by the aforementioned Andrew Wildman) and “The War Within: The Age of Wrath” (sadly unfinished) probably represent the apex of Figueroa’s TF design work. And they're amazing.

One of the cool things about some 1980s toys was the inclusion of mini-comics with the blister-packed toys (Mattel’s Masters of the Universe had the best original ones). This was a practice that was reintroduced by Hasbro and Dreamwave with 2002’s “Transformers Armada: Mini Comic.” Written by Sarracini with art by another later TF fan favorite James Raiz, this somewhat child-friendly tale is short and obtuse, but effectively debuts these also child-friendly TFs (the Armada line certainly wasn’t the most striking toy line, design-wise) with their Mini-con gimmick. While I understand the need to include this comic for completists’ sake, it is by far the worst example here and many others would have been better represented here, particularly from Dreamwave’s archives (“The War Within: The Dark Ages” bringing The Fallen into the plot, or something from the excellent “More Than Meets The Eye” guidebooks. I may be biased, but I consider the two Dreamwave “MTMTE” guidebooks to be the best TF-related, non-graphic novel books of all time, not just the Dreamwave line; IDW actually re-issued them, but too bad they’re out of print. They will, of course, be the subjects of a future installment of Bot Books).

The abrupt end of the Dreamwave era put the status of the Transformers comics in limbo until a fledgling comics publishing company picked up the license. Chris Ryall’s Idea Design Works (IDW) re-imagined the TF concept by bringing to fore the humans-versus-Cybertronian conspiracy. This brave new world is represented here first with IDW’s “The Transformers: Infiltration” # 6, published in 2006, with a plot by Furman and art by Taiwanese penciller EJ Su. The series introduced the again-controversial IDW redesign, the TFs now angular, with extremely extended forms and faces. When you see it again for the first time (that contradiction is on purpose) it’s clear that the IDW was an acquired taste. At time went on, the pencillers refined the styles a bit and we also got a bit used to it.

That’s what you get with “The Transformers: All Hail Megatron” # 1, published in 2008, written by Shane McCarthy and penciled by Italian Guido Guidi, also an important TF artist in his own right. IDW decided to concentrate on the Decepticon conquest of Earth for a while. That’s also true for “The Transformers” # 4, published in 2010, written by Mike Costa and illustrated by Don Figueroa. There’s something almost hesitant here with Figueroa’s designs, like he’s trying to shift his Dreamwave style to the IDW house style.

As I mentioned before on this blog, the IDW continuity reached its new era of brilliance with daring, distinctive stuff like “The Transformers: Last Stand of the Wreckers” # 5, published in 2010, written by Nick Roche and James Roberts, with art by Roche. Roberts would later command the IDW TF universe to new heights and this limited series, full of strum und dram, obscure characters and much on-page violence, clearly ranks as one of the best TF stories of all time. The IDW comics have never been the same since.

The last two offerings of the “30th Anniversary Collection” are both representative of alternative universes for differing audiences. Whatever you feel about Michael Bay’s movies, it can’t be denied that those movies brought Transformers for a much larger, more contemporary audience, and that franchise is represented here by “The Transformers: The Reign of Starscream” # 1, published in 2008, written by Chris Mowry with art by the ever-reliable Alex Milne from Canada. Interestingly enough, this tale is actually canon for the movie continuity with the story swooping in and out of the events of the first Bay-directed film in 2007.

Intriguingly and perhaps a bit controversially, the “30th Anniversary Collection” ends with a TF franchise that’s even more divisive that the movie universe. “The Transformers Animated: The Arrival” # 3, published in 2008, written by Marty Isenberg and art by Boo, presents a surprisingly intimate and reader-friendly tale of Autobot medic Rachet dealing with a Decepticon named Oil Slick. That encounter that’s included in the Animated mythos, and the cute dimensions of the Animated designs are very much on display here. While I wasn’t completely happy with some of the Animated changes (Prowl as a ninja?), I liked the visual reinterpretations the same way I liked the Bruce Timm redesigns of the DC Universe characters in the “Justice League Unlimited” show. The numerous references to other TF properties are also great. The “Transformers Animated” show ran for three seasons before being unfortunately cancelled. While I welcome the focus back to G1-style toys, I miss the Animated series’ humor and actively disliked its predecessor, the stilted, CGI-made “Transformers: Prime.” While it’s right to include “Transformers Animated” in this volume, it’s kind of odd to end the collection with it.

That’s why it would probably have been better to include one of the current IDW TF G1 series as the “30th Anniversary Collection’s” concluding tale, a story from Roberts’ “Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye” or John Barber’s “Transformers: Robots in Disguise” That would be more relevant and also indicative of the current TF comic book series’ high level of quality. With the right creative cast and a willingness to take risks, Ryall’s company has gone very far with the TF license.

There’s also a lot of extra material here, notably interviews with Barber, Furman, Roberts, Flint Dille, Livio Ramondelli, Casey Collier, Shane McCarthy and Maighread Scott, who manage to talk about other interpretations of the TF property including the current two series. There are concept and guide sketches. There is a Foreword by Aaron Archer, ex-vice president of Transformer Design for Hasbro (isn’t that the coolest job title of all time?), an Introduction by Jim Sorenson, who is credited as the writer of the “30th Anniversary Collection,” and fittingly an Afterword by Simon Furman.

Because of its deluxe format, length and its glossy, full-color paper stock, IDW Publishing’s “The Transformers 30th Anniversary Collection” is quite expensive with a cover price of US$49.99 (about PhP2,225 at the current exchange rate; still sells it at a much-discounted US$31.61, or about PhP1,407) and is not easy to find after its initial appearance in comic book stores last year, but it is actually a very good deal and a wonderful reading experience for anyone who has followed the Transformers through the years.

I have come to savor this book and re-read it whenever I can. All hail 30 years of the Transformers!

No comments:

Post a Comment