Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Comic Review - Transformers: Generation 2 - the UK series


1994 and Transformers was back for Generation 2. Except in the UK, where it had never gone away. While the last of the various Micromasters and Actionmasters that made up the final underwhelming American series of what is now known as Generation 1 was being clearanced across the Atlantic European toystores were stiĺl receiving fresh product, ranging from new moulds to botched Japanese imports to unused prototypes, most of which have cropped up in James Roberts' work since. It was an odd period with Europe getting cool stuff like Overlord, the Turbomasters and two thirds of Breastforce without Breastmasters or even names.

The 1994 Marvel Transformers
Winter Special, which probably
came out right before G2 #1.
It meant when G2 did roll around Hasbro's British wing was at a bit of a loss as to what to do with it, the first batch of figures initially coming out as simply the latest wave of the original line. However once it became clear their American cohorts were putting money into relaunching the line with media support in the former of a new comic and obnoxiously edited episodes of the eighties they decided to switch to the new branding. The cartoon was effectively lost in the British television system of the time (little space on the four terrestrial channels and satellite having a tiny penetration) so it was down to the comic. The local branch of Marvel had handled it in the eighties until cancellation in 1992 after 332 issues, largely due to running out of material to run when the American book was axed. Since then they'd slung out a few low profile specials, right up until 1994. However the UK branch was by then hurtling towards destruction after overreaching themselves trying to convince people to like a stable of poor titles like Death's Head II and Motormouth & Killpower and had no time for the thing.

The first issue of Marvel
USA's G2 comic.
Hasbro looked elsewhere and threw in their lot with Fleetway, who had long ruled the British comic scene from King's Reach Tower alongside DC Thompson with their arsenal of weeklies like Eagle, Lion, Valiant, Battle and 2000AD. Many of these had gone - ironically as licenced titles like Transformers had eaten into the market - but Tharg was still overseeing things in 2000AD and The Beano remained a huge seller. Hasbro ensured they would have the rights to Marvel USA's new original material and with a monthly format chosen it all seemed simple.

Title just rolls off your tongue.
But it wasn't as a chunk of the early material was deemed unusable. This is occasionally blamed on the violent content but while Fleetway's eventual material showed they were pitching at a younger audience than the Marvel book across the ocean but as they later ran arguably the series' goriest moment (Red Alert getting shot down to his skeleton) it probably wasn't. More of a concern was that Hasbro had very sensibly asked Marvel to ease the Transformers back into print via a guest-spot in their still-running licenced G.I.Joe, to the distress of Joe fans who felt the appearance of the robots undermined the realism of their comic about ninjas and a terrorist organisation who were ignored by America's huge conventional military.

The end of Marvel UK's efforts to
push G.I.Joe - The Action Force.
Problem was that despite repeated efforts including three rebrands and a Marvel comic which included many of the same staff (and Grant Morrison) that had made Transformers such a success G.I.Joe had simply never caught on in the UK. Marvel tried a weekly then a monthly and then making the strip a back-up in Transformers itself, all to apathetic and occasionally hostile readers; it was dropped after G.I.Joe #74 was reprinted in Transformers #305, followed by a special which briefly tied up the Cobra civil war plot; the Transformers crossover ran through #133-142 and in the intervening sixty issues a mixture of Hasbro's demands and Larry Hama's dreary soap opera about how awesome Snake-Eyes is rendered it unrecognisable.

Hot Spot versus Cobra in the
American material.
It's actually debatable how much harm just ignoring the crossover issues and running the Transformers material would actually have been; G.I.Joe and Cobra's role in the actual Transformers issues is fairly minimal and a text box could probably have explained things briefly - that Megatron and Starscream had reappeared on Earth, destroyed the Autobot team sent to stop them and were now facing off against G.I.Joe would have handled things. That the first issue of the American title didn't actually include any references to the crossover would even have meant they wouldn't have had to launch with something fudged like that anyway.

Regardless, Fleetway decided to launch with some original material to lead into the reprints which were planned to make up the bulk of the title. The 24-page large format comic was priced at £1.50, with between half and two-thirds of the issue being strip and the rest made up of profiles, feature pages and the odd advert here and there, meaning that in theory there was the best part of two years' worth of material from the US book. However, to smooth the launch the first two issues contained new strips intended to dovetail into the reprints while working around the G.I.Joe crossover.

UK G2 #1 splash page.
Simon Furman was apparently the writer for these two strips but this is somewhat questionable. Furman was of course writing the American book and had done transatlantic double duty before and was a logical choice. However he claimed they weren't his work on the convention circuit in the late nineties before saying otherwise in a TPB reprint of the American material and can sometimes be a little disingenuous or at least eager to please; if the earlier denial was in a context of deriding the two UK stories an off-the-cuff disowning would have got a laugh from the room while the later reclamation might have been to claim any reprint money or simple poor memory.

Optimus moping.
A more compelling case for Furman not being the author is that they make a hugely complicated job of bringing things up to speed. The natural thing for the writer to do would be to trim the US scripts down - eliminate G.I.Joe or simply turn them into generic army troopers and simplify the thread about the destruction of the Ark while reintroducing Megatron in his old body. When you consider out of the first three American issues Derek Yanniger's workrate problems meant there had already been two fill-in issues largely unrelated to the main plot - promo comic reprint "Ghosts" and Manny Galan-drawn "Distant Thunder"-remake "Primal Fear" the most obvious thing to do would have been to trim down the script for the first issue and then provide a bridge tidying up the Earth material ahead of the arrival of Bludgeon and the Warworld. However, a lot of the dialogue - especially Optimus' guilt-ridden recap of Earth's place in the war - does ring pretty true.

Tornado displaying deep complex
Decepticon characterisation.
Instead the writer came up with a totally different script. One possible factor is the behest of Hasbro; the G2 comic is moderately famous for not actually featuring many G2 toys for various reasons. Aside from Megatron - the new line's centrepiece - and a few revised colour schemes (some of which, such as those for Optimus Prime, Starscream, Grimlock and Jazz, are easy to pass without particularly noticing) there was only an occasional attempt to showcase new wares in the US comic. The UK material however throws in the Skyscorchers, the Stormtroopers, Rotor Force and the Laser Rods plus has everyone involved overtly in their G2 schemes - notably the Dinobots, only released in brightly coloured variants in the UK whereas the American book got away with the grey versions. This might suggest that the plot problems came from this mandate but really if they were going to redraw it there was little harm in simply substuting some of these guys for any other Decepticon muscle.

Watch out Prime, he's
got a new toy!
Whoever the author the art was unmistakably the work of Robin Smith, a 2000AD stalwart who had a couple of short spells on the Transformers UK weekly to his credit. His blocky designs aren't to all tastes but combined with some bright colours from Gill Whelan it's not bad if a bit bright and cheerful, especially compared to the sinews and fluids the American material was providing. Dated October 1994 (and probably out then, the UK industry never having got into the silliness the American one did), the first issue's story was called "War Without End" (exactly the same as the first issue of the American book to keep things nice and simple...) and concerned Bludgeon's troops - entirely made up of new G2 toys without chaps like Octopunch and Stranglehold - attacking Earth (he's worked his way to London) as in the US book to draw out Optimus Prime and nick the Matrix (that he's already got the new troops he would use it to activate in the US book is something best not to think about). The ploy works - Prime arrives with Sideswipe, Jazz and Skram - hoping to also meet up with Grimlock - and battle is joined before being swiftly interrupted by the new and improved Megatron just after Bludgeon's been decked. As well as lots of new toys mentioning their names and showing their gimmicks (Sideswipe's drawn with his huge water blaster on his car roof) there's time to shoehorn in Optimus' apocalyptic visions foreshadowing the Swarm; so far so good if a bit weird.

G2 #2 splash page.
The second issue strip was called "War Zone", which might sound unimaginative but at least hadn't been used on the American comic. It's basically a fight issue - Optimus versus Megatron's shiny new toy, Megatron versus Bludgeon's shiny new toy army (skullface himself keeps a lot profile after Optimus smacked him down in three frames) and then the shiny new Dinobots versus the Decepticons, and ends with the bad guys running off their separate ways. Which is odd, because it basically resets the Decepticons - Bludgeon still has the main army and the Warworld, Megatron is still skulking around Earth with Starscream. The logical thing would have been to have Megatron kill Bludgeon here and take command of the army. Grimlock meanwhile gives Optimus the update on the Cybertronian Empire, more or less compacting the events of the first issue into a few frames. Again while weird and not especially good there's nothing outright wrong with the issue in itself.

G2 #3 poster.
Where the title got really weird was when it picked up the US reprints, starting with the third issue. This re-ran "Devices and Desires" from US #4; the main storyline of Grimlock setting out for satisfaction on the Cybertronian Empire is a fair follow-up to the flashback in the previous issue and works alright as an introduction to Jhiaxus for British readers but the strip starts off by covering the apocalyptic visions Prime mentioned in the first issue; not an error per se but certainly redundant. 

G2 #4 cover.
The fourth issue was there things started to really strain - reprinting the first two "Tales of Earth" back-ups from US #4 & 5 (the two-strip format being the eventual solution to Yaniger's tardiness for the American book). The story deals with Bludgeon attacking Earth to draw out Optimus Prime so he can steal the Matrix but instead riling Megatron and getting killed. With naturally absolutely no mention of why he's doing this when he did it an issue ago with broadly similar results, or why he's suddenly hanging with the gang of late-line figures from the tail end of the Marvel comics rather than his new minions seen in the first two British issues. Oh, my. There's not even any attempt to modify the dialogue or anything and to readers at the time without the benefit of knowing the US storyline it must have been baffling and once again renders a key element of the UK original material utterly redundant. It makes you wonder if Fleetway were planning to do more in-house strips and the money ran out or if they simply thought the US material was going to be more episodic than it ended up being and just decided to grasp the nettle.

Apart from it being the end.
Either way the title wasn't grabbing readers and the fifth issue was published with the knowledge it would be the last. The strip was "The Power and the Glory", featuring Optimus Prime's spiritual journey into Cybertron which laid out assexual budding as a means of Transformers reproduction and introduces the Swarm, which at least doesn't create any new continuity errors. The defiant "NEVER THE END!" scrawled on some poor artwork (lifted from the first issue's poster) on the back page wasn't really fooling anyone; a greater legacy was the generous plug for Matt Dallas' nascent Transmasters UK fanclub on the inside front cover - the group's material would continue the story (from the US book, more widely read in the UK than its' eighties counterpart due to the rising ease of importing comics via specialty stores that had sprang up after the success of the likes of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns); among the many talented fan writers and artists affiliated with the group would be James Roberts and Nick Roche.

Issue #1 freebie stickers.
Aside from the strip the format of the comic was a bit of a mess. It featured gatefold covers and centre pages that folded out into two huge posters, allowing it to proclaim itself a Transformer as well, something made more plausible in the aftermath of Action Master Elites while the thing was padded out with profiles and the like heavily drawn from Hasbro material - though whether this was due to the boys at Newport insisting or Fleetway just slapping in free page fillers is a matter of debate. Notable features for the first issue included some appropriately tacky stickers with that gelled perfectly with early G2's brattish aesthetic ("JAZZ BAD COMPANY") and a toy checklist using the local names for the figures (including Sureshot and Archforce, the hurriedly-created identities for Combat Hero Optimus Prime and Megatron as they were released simultaneously with the larger versions, characters being released at the same time at different price points still being some time away as Hasbro didn't yet believe kids would buy two toys of the same character in such a short space of time) and a few exclusives - including the Sparkabot and Firecon repaints only Europe got and the Lightformers Ironfist and Deftwing, still running from the pre-G2 line.

Sideswipe profile from #4.
The second issue featured more cover-mounted stickers, this time with a Dinobot theme to go  with them appearing prominently in "War Zone", a 'board' game in lieu of a poster in the middle and an admittedly very cool competition to win all 47 G2 figures then available in the UK. The third scales it back due to the reprinted strip being longer than the indigenous stuff but had space for a an unimpressive letters page where vague hints were dropped that the cartoon might be shown but more interestingly openly tackled a question on how the UK material would blend with the American reprints; the reply would rapidly be proven to be false but it showed how times had changed since the Marvel UK book had long kept up the fiction that they produced all the material. The fourth issue was less interesting again, with only a vague wink that someone who wasn't Fleetway might be producing an annual (they were; Grandreams' eventual version turning out to be an abomination that deserves a post of its' own). The final issue was so ropey there wasn't even a proper cover, just a frame of internal art which some staffer had taken to with crayons, a poster clearly traced from other internal art and some readers' pictures.

Naturally this doesn't lend itself to the book being much more than a curio for those whose interests in Transformers comics' history is as high as that in the stories themselves. The original issues are rare but not quite as expensive and collectible as you'd think as fans are largely unwilling to spend much on such slipshod material, though the first two issues are one of the few vintage Transformers strips not to be reprinted anywhere else.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Comic Review - Transformers: All Hail Megatron Coda

Having already blundered with the format and possibly the content of All Hail Megatron in the first place IDW decided the best way to deal with the troubled Maxi-series was to extend it by four issues and throw out a series of semi-related short stories while re gearing for the upcoming ongoing series. Mostly this involved catering to whiny Simon Furman fans who were used to having every single dot painstakingly joined for them and undoing as much of Shane McCarthy's work as possible. In short the treatment of McCarthy and AHM underlines that the company would have been fine with whatever if they'd had a blockbuster on their hands but now that the disappointing figures were in they were suddenly all about respecting loyal readers. 

The problem is that most of these stories really didn't need to be told. The Denton Tipton story showing Perceptor's transformation is nicely done and probably one of the more worthy subjects but at the same time is indicative of IDW's habit of capitulating to the pedestrian intelligence of their readers. Within the context of AHM it's entirely plausible and obvious that Perceptor needed to tool up to survive in the current situation and did so, something Sean McCarthy showed amply in two frames. Here we have ten pages for the angry idiots who need everything drip fed. It looks nice and it reads nice but it's like a rogue Mosaic. 

Same with Nick Roche's return to Kup; despite continuing the excellent work on Prowl and formally introducing future cult leader and shipping devotee James Roberts it's just spinning out a story from the evident fact that Kup got better.

It's basically a grab bag of unnecessary epilogues and worrying previews. There's an unnerving start for incoming writer Mike Costa as he resets Megatron and Starscream  to exactly where they've always been and undoes one of the few positive progressive elements of AHM; the first try out for Don Figueroa's appalling live-action influenced art style, a pointless return for Simon Furman...

Basically this is four issues of marking time in the most banal fashion imaginable. And part of  that is an indictment of IDW's ever-slapdash handling of the franchise on an editorial level. But it's also a tacit condemnation of a readership and fandom incapable of filling in the blanks and pathologically afraid of change.


Friday, 13 May 2016

Comic Review - Wanted

After From Hell,  V for Vendetta and, well, any other Alan Moore adaptation, you get used to non-big two comic book movies sharing a title and not much else with the source material to the extent that some outright contradict the basic ethos (I'm looking at you, Comedian murder scene). I've not seen the Angelina Jolie vehicle Mark Millar's Top Cow mini Wanted inspired but in this case I'd be surprised if such fast and loose translation actually made it any worse.

The basic concept is fine and would layer be revisited in a more satisfactory fashion a few years later by Millar himself for the Wolverine storyline "Old Man Logan". The villains have put aside their differences, ganged up on the heroes and won. They now control the world through a semi secret alliance. So far so intriguing.

The problem is our protagonist, a put-upon lose who is unknowingly the son of a villain seemingly killed off in the opening pages. He's recruited and trained so he can take his place in the order and this means... lots of talking about how much crazy fun killing and raping with impunity is. It's basically how cool life is written by a 14-year old boy who spends too much time reading 4chan and masturbating to Max Hardcore pornography. Having a lecture on not being one of the sheeple on the nine to five by a middle-aged Scotsman who wrote for Sonic the Hedgehog is an amusing experience. 

That aside the plot is a mess; there's a coup within the society of villains that's nonsensically easy, and then our hero Wesley and his mentor Fox stage a counter-coup that's just as perfunctory. And then there's just about enough time for a return from the dead and one last sneer. All dressed in aggressive postmodernism blended with brattish coarseness.


Thursday, 12 May 2016

Comic Review - Airboy

How to adapt a dated public domain character from a largely obsolete genre? Well, if you're James Robinson and Greg Hinkle you make a comic about how difficult it is to adapt Airboy. Airboy - as the gloriously catty dialogue covers - was a Golden Age pilot title produced by Hillman. Thirty years after they folded and the copyright lapsed serial cheapskates Eclipse picked him up and gave him to Chuck Dixon for a series that developed a solid following before the usual Eclipse nonsense of over saturation killed it.
The Image revival takes the odd for of co-starring semi-fictionalised versions of Robinson and Hinkle looking for inspiration through a drug fuelled bender. Robinson basically has a midlife crisis on the page, some stark self evaluation being laid out with Hinkle as a vaguely disapproving foil. Both get caught up in an orgy of debauchery before a shared drug hallucination sees Airboy pulled into their world,  much to his disgust.

The result is an unusual postmodern comic that's as much about its burnt out writer as about it's nominal star but strangely not in an obnoxious look-at-me way. It's not for all tastes and at times you do feel like you'd rather be reading something more straightforward but it is undeniably a  true original. 


Friday, 29 January 2016

Comic Review - Shogun Warriors

In 1972, inspired by imported Dinky toys based on Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds, the Japanese toy company Popy decided to put out a licensed figure of the anime character Mazinger Z. Unlike most Japanese toys of the period it eschewed tin in favour of a mix of diecast metal and ABS. It was so successful that Popy followed it up with a string of other super robots licensed from popular kids cartoons, the range becoming known as Chogokin after the fictional alloy Mazinger Z was constructed from.

The series was still going from strength to strength in the late seventies when American toy giant Mattel came across them after some success importing Godzilla toys and licensed a batch of figures from the line for their domestic market in late 1979. Various characters were licensed in three inch and five inch sizes, plus two-foot tall hollow vinyl robots from the Jumbo Machinder spin-off line. They named the line Shogun Warriors, but promoting the figures proved difficult. Tie-in media was still in its' infancy but the runaway success of Star Wars showed the potency of the concept. 

Licensing cartoons was basically impossible as it would involve buying in numerous series which would only feature one robot a time anyway, each Warrior being the star of their own cartoon in Japan (an anthology of some of the shows would appear in the eighties under the name Force Five, but this was entirely unrelated to the long gone toyline). Instead Mattel turned to Marvel Comics, who were already making Godzilla - King of the Monsters to support the company's merchandise. 

The same creative team of writer Doug Moench (creator of Moon Knight) and artist Herb Trimpe were assigned to the comic. However, as media rights had not been part of Mattel's deal with Popy, Marvel had to arrange these rights separately. For financial reasons they were limited to just three Shogun Warriors - Combattra (taken from Tadao Nagahama's Chodenji Robo Combattler V), Raydeen (from Brave Raideen) and Dangard Ace (of Leiji Matsumoto's Wakeusi Robo Danguard Ace). This made good sense for Mattel - Combattra was made up of five vehicles sold separately in US stores, while Raydeen and Dangard Ace had five inch figures featuring simple transformations, part of the Shogun Warriors 2-in-1 theme; Raideen had been first released in Japan in 1975 and was possibly the first production toy to possess such a feature and thus likely the first sold in America too.

Moench set about crafting a backstory for the robots to exist in the Marvel Universe (a given for most of the company's output at the time, including the Godzilla comic, their title based on Mego's Micronauts figures and the then-new series pushing Rom the Spaceknight for Parker Brothers). He came up with the idea of the Followers of the Light, a race of benevolent aliens who defended prehistoric Earth from the vicious Myandi in a conflict called the Great Chaos War. The Myandi, users of dark sorcery, were defeated and became dormant under a volcano in Asia (handily keeping them geographically clear of much of Marvel's other characters), with four Followers kept as guardians in the technologically advanced Himalayan Shogun Sanctuary, using suspended animation.

A volcanic eruption wakes the Myandi and their leader Maur-Kon, which in turn revives the Followers. While Maur-Kon sends the demonic monster Rok-Kon  (there are lots of hyphens in the series ) the Followers collect a trio of humans they have selected as pilots for the Shogun Warriors robots. Quite why none of the Followers can pilot the things or why they decided to wait until Maur-Kon attacks something before even contacting their prospective students are questions the comic valiantly ignores. The three selected are wiseguy American stunt driver Richard Carson, Japanese jet pilot Genji Odashu and Madagascan (no, really) oceanographer Ilongo Savage. None of them make much of an impression beyond Carson's need to make a smart remark every time anyone says anything and the sheer weirdness of Ilongo having such an interesting job while looking like a blaxploitation hangover and having such a preposterous name.

The first three issues cover most of this backstory around the trio trying to stop Rok-Kon while also laying out the facilities and technology of Shogun Sanctuary in painstaking detail; regular lectures from the senior Follower Doctor Tambura break up the action with tedious results. However, the mix of American comic sensibilities with those of a Japanese cartoon are curious and not entirely without success with the sheer oddness creating an awkward, alien style little else of the period would manage.

The second arc sees Maur-Kon decide that pure sorcery can't match the Warriors. Instead he orders his techno-mages (why a man with no previous use for technology has techno-mages on hand is again something we're plainly not meant to ask about) to build a mechanical monster christened - in an explosion of imagination - the Mech-Monster. Interestingly this development contains another strong nod to super robot anime - the bad guys sending a succession of progressively more powerful robots or monsters against the heroes, a pattern that would be the clear inspiration for - eventually - Neon Genesis Evangelion and then Pacific Rim.

Anyway, Maur-Kon's obligatory treacherous lieutenant Magar believes his boss is wrong in abandoning sorcery and tries to destroy the Mech-Monster but only succeeds in somehow magically coating it before it sets out to fight the Shoguns. Partway through the fight Genji breaks off to investigate the volcano and gets herself and Combattra captured but then there's a huge anticlimax as Richard and Ilongo blow the Mech-Monster up easily and Maur-Kon's piloting of Combattra proves to be rubbish. The captured Shogun's head module is destroyed in the battle but thankfully Tambura just flies in with a spare. Ouch.

Next up is a brutal eight issue storyline where the trio go back to civilian life and face the consequences of being suddenly snatched - Carson gets the third degree from his stuntwoman girlfriend Deena, Ilongo's research programme is in disarray and Genji is put on trial because the prototype jet she was piloting went with her. On top of these rather dull personal issues the trio are targeted by a big villain and have to have their robot beamed to them - Raydeen drawing the robotic Cerebus and its reconfiguring head, Danguard Ace being challenged by Starbeast and Combattra getting The Hand of Five (all correctly guessing their opponent's name too). The problem is they're attacked sequentially so there are silly scenes where Richard and Deena are squabbling over a meal while apparently fully aware Genji is fighting for her life in Tokyo. 

The gang reassemble to divert a meteor away from Earth and discover a huge base hidden behind the moon. This contains Dr Demonicus, a Moench creation who had previously engineered monsters to bother Godzilla. He is swiftly revealed to be behind both the trio of attackers and the meteor but after a long build up the Shogun defeat his creatures (and a few more he had just hanging around his implausibly huge secret space station) with absolute ease, divert a second meteor and drop the mad doctor off with SHIELD (Dum Dum Duggan, who got a lot of limelight in Godzilla,  makes a cameo). This time the anticlimax is even worse because the story takes so long to get anywhere while also hinging on the Shogun simply triple-teaming each threat. Demonicus would later bother the Avengers (well, the West Coast ones) and get skin cancer. Nineties comics were like that.

There's then a quick fill-in issue from Steven Grant; this is typical of that sort of thing, an amiable intentionally inconsequential story where yakuza kidnap and replace Carson in an attempt to steal Raydeen. It does prove to be a little bit of a welcome break from Moench's overblown style, however. When the regular team return there's the first hint of trouble for the book when a mysterious being destroys Shogun Sanctuary and kills Dr Tambura and whoever the other three Followers were. Which is surprisingly brutal for a toy title at the time while also initiating a format change.  From now on the pilots have to hide the huge robots near their homes - this, along with the question of how they maintain the things, is quite implausible and it's probably for the best the title won't linger for too long.

There's an issue where a kid finds Combatra's hiding place and takes off in the thing and then one where they fight another of the mysterious alien's robots that's notable for two reasons. Firstly the robot is called Megatron a good four years before Transformers existed. It's a real word so it might just be a coincidence but EiC at the time was Jim Shooter, who would later do some of the early work on Transformers before handing the project over to Bob Budiansky, and it's also more than likely that the latter read Shogun Warriors as a toy-based robot comic as part of his prep anyway. What's more of a coincidence is that Megatron clasps its' hands together to form a gun, as the live action version of the Decepticon leader would in the 2007 film.

The other is that this is all but the last appearance of Raydeen and Danguard Ace. Just before being defeated, Megatron issues a shitlist that includes SHIELD, Tony Stark and the Fantastic Four. Thus Richard, Ilongo and Genji jump in Combatra and fly to Four Freedoms, Plaza just in time to team up with Marvel's first family. It's clear by this stage that the comic was fishing for sales but it would seem that this was without success. After helping save the Baxter Building from another giant alien robot (during the fight Reed and Sue pilot the Combatra modules with ease - the F4 generally piss all over the Shoguns in the crossover) they all follow it into space where the aliens are revealed to be unwitting dupes of none other than Maur-Kon, who gets a page of "shit, last issue " exposition hurriedly claiming he was behind everything. It all makes for a limp final arc, especially as it's Sue Richards who discovers Maur-Kon. Several plot threads revolving around the key characters - such as Genji's court martial and Deena's jealousy - are left unfinished,  though I doubt many cared. 

Comic sales were probably only part of the reason for the cancellation. The toyline never really took off; prices were too high considering the high cost of importing the heavy diecast figures from Asia with sales too low to compensate. Also around the time the line was on the shelves an American kid managed to kill himself with a (Mattel-produced) Battlestar Galactica toy after firing the launcher down his throat. Rather than assigning this to Darwinism the American industry instead opted to introduce their choke tests restricting the size and power of springloaded toy launchers. The cost of reworking the figures was prohibitive. 

The comic and the toys stopped shipping at what seems to be about the same time, so it's likely Mattel pulled the plug. However, contemporaries Rom and The Micronauts would both continue for some years after their respective toys had disappeared, which would hint that Marvel were happy for it to stop (though the series' more complex licensing requirements would have made it harder to do so for Shogun Warriors).

A short while after the cancellation Moench landed a fill in issue of Fantastic Four and used it to effectively seal off the Warriors as a someone finds a fourth Warrior - the Samurai Killer, not based on any toy - among the ruins, and destroys the trio's robots. The pilots then go to the Four for help and the villain is beaten. Carson, Genji and Ilongo then decide heroing isn't for them and return to their normal lives with minimal ceremony. All three robots are only seen at ankle level or otherwise obscured, aren't named and even the title Shogun Warrior isn't mentioned, so it's clear the licence has already lapsed. It's quite sad in both ways that this was the swansong for three characters and their mechs that had been the stars of their own book for nearly two years. 

As an overall read the book has more negatives than positives. On the plus side the book doesn't actually make a bad fist of blending anime with comics, turning out big silly tokusatsu style brawls in the USA. The robots themselves come off well and Herb Trimpe's art is great at capturing their size and their oddball powers. The trio of leads also aren't bad when the title steers clear of soap opera too. On the downside, Moench's wacky fantasy backstory and the tiresome schoolteacher presence of the Followers drags the book down early on by breaking up the action. When they recede there's firstly the aforementioned soap opera and then the poorly planned format change; the Chaos War stuff is a poor origin the series never really recovers from and thus Moench paints himself into a corner straight away. Every storyline ends in an anti climactic fashion and there's never a feeling that any thing's been planned in terms of overall direction meaning there's little to savour after the comic's finished with; even the oddness of blending three different properties has been superceded by Banpresto's Super Robot Wars.

The rights issues mean Shogun Warriors has never been reprinted and this is unlikely to change unless Disney buy out the Japanese studios, and even then there's probably minimal demand. So you can decide for yourselves I've uploaded the run in a bundle. The scans are quite low quality and not mine - I did own the whole run and attempted high resolution scans but the general ageing of the comics meant they looked terrible and the endeavour simply wasn't worth the time.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Comic Review - Transformers: All Hail Megatron

PUBLISHER: IDW, 2008-2009

All Hail Megatron gets so much right. So, so much. Intended as a summer blockbuster to reconnect with the casual comic buyer,  long alienated by the rambling joyless mess Simon Furman had turned the book into AHM largely failed from both a commercial and critical point of view. 

The basic idea of resetting the cast to all the big names and having Megatron straight up invade Earth is great. After the Reapers and the Dead Universe and Verity and all those moronic Men in Black operations readers were due some good wholesome smashy robot fun. It even follows on nicely from the Autobots abandoning Earth abruptly in Devastation while the protracted winding down of Furman's storylines largely involved putting all the familiar faces in the familiar places.
And the opening setup is great, with the Decepticons wreaking unchecked havoc in New York while the Autobots huddle on a habitable but inhospitable Cybertron, with Optimus Prime on life support after they were lured into a trap by an unknown traitor. There's some surprisingly adept characterisation in there as well, ranging from good takes on Ironhide and Cliffjumper to the first real progression of the Megatron/Starscream dynamic since, well, ever.

But right from the start there are problems. Firstly the series is straight up overlong. The plot would have been nice brainless popcorn fodder at six issues (which I recall it was originally pitched as); at twelve issues it's flabby and bloated. Most dispensable are the humans - while some idea of the natives' response and predicament was necessary the time and space given over to first downed F22 pilot Andy and then IDW's in-name-only arsehole version of Spike Witwicky not only sap the pace but in the case of the latter take away plausibility too.

Secondly McCarthy cheats somewhat on bringing further characters into things. The basic premise revolves around the Autobots having taken serious military reverses all over the universe. This takes a hit when the battered squad on Cybertron get an artificial pepping up due to Kup and a crew of guys the writer obviously thinks are the coolest ones just drop in and start showing off. Yes, Science Sniper Perceptor is cool but their arrival just feels like a cheap shot - and when Omega Supreme makes a timely reappearance suspense disappears as it becomes clear there's always going to be a cheap escape route. Kup  himself is also quite annoying - the Gunnery Sergeant Hartman impression wears thin quickly and rather than coming across as an inspiring living legend he's more of a grousing, bossy sod. 

Thirdly there's the odd relationship with past material where some of Furman's plots are worked on while others are brushed over or outright contradicted. The discontinuity is jarring due to never really knowing what's going to be ignored and what's going to be picked up as a plot point. A straight reboot was clearly the thing to do; quite why IDW opted to shackle the thing to Furman's messy overcomplicated output is one to ponder. 

Nothing really sums up the best and worst of All Hail Megatron than the sequence where Sunstreaker is revealed to be the traitor who sold the Autobots out. It's a surprise even though the misdirection afforded to suspecting Mirage is a bit obvious. It's brave - there's no cerebro-shell flaking, with only a little misleading from Starscream an Autobot betrayed his faction, partly through wanting an end to the war but largely to dick Earth over after having such a horrible time there. Which is an odd one as his treatment by the Machination was from Furman's material but then so apparently was some trite rehabilitation. We'll give that a pass as the Huntstreaker stuff was bilge, though. So let's digest this massive development. .. No, wait, he's just blown himself up in a dumb redemptive and somewhat pointless gesture and the whole thing is barely touched upon.

By the last two or three issues the thing is really all over the place, still full of padding but also glossing over loads of other things as it staggers to the finish line. Spike takes up pages and pages while he finds a supergun to shoot Megatron but at the same time Optimus Prime is revived, the Autobots hop onboard Omega Supreme  (in Sunbow mode rather than mystical Spotlight : Optimus Prime mode), fly to Earth in short order and... just beat up the Decepticons. No mention that only a short time ago they were broken husks starving on Cybertron. No big cool strategy, no plot device even. They just drop out of the sky over New York and take the Decepticons out. It is made a little easier by there only being a dozen or so Decepticons; the (possibly Hasbro-mandated) appearance of Dropshot aside, we're in pre-TF:TM territory here, which is odd when you consider who the Autobots have. It makes you wonder, ambush or not, how they managed to lose so badly in the first place. 

All Hail Megatron reads like a first draft of a potentially enjoyable comic. There are several good moments and in among the attempts at crowd pleasing there are a couple of genuinely fresh ideas that deserve more exploration in a better comic. But the finished material is badly paced, contradictory and ultimately frustrating.