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. 

Friday, 22 January 2016

Comic Review - Transformers: The Movie

When Transformers The Movie was released at the end of 1986 Marvel were in a bit of a bind. Monthly comic writer Bob Budiansky was still pottering away with stories set in the present day, but Marvel naturally wanted some trickle down from the film's expected gigantic box office (ahem) and also to stave off requests from readers asking when the new characters would be showing up in the comic.

The obvious answer was a limited series adaptation. These were often good for the coffers anyway - home entertainment was still in its' infancy, so a comic or novel version was often the best way for most kids to relive a film once it had disappeared from the cinema. With Budiansky busy on the monthly and other duties the task of adapting Ron Freidman's script fell to Ralph Macchio, an experienced Marvel staffer who isn't the same guy who played The Karate Kid. He was given three 22-page issues to tell the story and a fairly advanced but not final copy of the script to work with. 

It's difficult to tell what's down to the different demands and abilities, what was from the draft script and what was just changed on a whim by Macchio, but notable differences in the comic version of events include:
  • Unicron shrouding his targets in corrosive mist before devouring them, while Kranix actually transforms while fleeing Lithone.
  • Ironhide's sacrificial lamb crew of first year stalwarts are given slight dignity due to the entire Decepticon army only sneaking up on them due to an asteroid storm obscuring the shuttle's radar.
  • Megatron beats Optimus Prime in the fight without Hot Rod's help, though he still uses a discarded handgun after begging for mercy.
  • The Matrix is passed to Ultra Magnus without being caught by Hot Rod first.
  • Ultra Magnus is drawn and quartered by the Sweeps; a few delusional lunatics still claim this made it into the theatrical cut but was swiftly withdrawn and replaced by Magnus getting blown up. While that's idiotic (how would the final death be animated so quickly as to not break the film's brief cinema run?) it does seem to have still been in there for the cast recording sessions as it fits better with Robert Stack's drawn out reading than being shot.
There are myriad design changes too - not only is everyone in their 'comic' colour schemes (so grey Galvatron, black helmeted Megatron, all red Ironhide and so on) but some of the designs are different - the Matrix is a green angled cube thing with no handles.

The comic's most fatal flaw is built in, however. All of the things that turn TF:TM from a noisy violent toy commercial - the slick animation, the Vince diCola score, Peter Cullen's vocal performance - into a nostalgic piece of light show wallpaper - are impossible to replicate in a comic. Don Perlin's work is adequate if rushed in places but it's on a hiding to nothing in trying to reproduce the film's moments of visual splendour. 

Really these days with myriad DVD releases available for pence on ebay it's only really a curio for fans who want to see a few ideas that didn't make the script and laugh at some of the clumsier moments - there's an expository paragraph of dialogue handed to Sludge of all characters that has to be read to be believed. 

The storyline was all but ignored by the rest of Marvel's American output. Budiansky has admitted he has little affection for the movie cast (something that can be seen in their unusually poor Universe profiles) and neither they nor the future would feature in the monthly for some time. At Hasbro's behest Optimus Prime and Megatron were written out but their replacements were Grimlock and Ratbat while the stories stayed set in the present; presumably the adaptation was enough to keep Hasbro happy in terms . 

Hot Rod, Kup, Blurr, Cyclonus and Scourge would eventually show up as Targetmasters a year down the line but Ultra Magnus, Rodimus Prime, Wreck-Gar, Galvatron and the Quintessons would have to wait until the monthly comic fell behind schedule and cartoon episode "The Big Broadcast of 2006" was adapted, again by Macchio and again terribly - even allowing for how poor the actual episode was. A second fill-in adapting "Dweller in the Depths" was thankfully not needed, but Galvatron would eventually resurface as a major supporting character soon after Simon Furman took over from Budiansky. 

Furman liked the film as soon as he saw it and soon realised the relative freedom the future offered him for the Marvel UK comic. Thus, via the ambitious epic "Target: 2006" (the title giving away that, like Macchio, he was working from an early draft), the events of the film were incorporated into the British continuity as a springboard for seminal stories that eventually fleshed out things like the Matrix, the Quintessons and Unicron, culminating in Furman penning the first attempt at a Transformers origin story.

However, the limited series itself wasn't part of the main run. While the US material was reprinted as a key component of the UK weekly, the Movie mini-series was instead repackaged as the 1986 Winter Special, featuring good quality paper with card covers, retaining the large page format of the weekly. This was probably to get the same lucrative Christmas gift appeal of the British annuals,  though it might be that Marvel UK weren't overly impressed with it. There was a token attempt at editing all references to 2005 into 2006 but they missed one. Another Marvel attempt to cash in on the film came in the former of the obscure Transformers Poster Magazine, a large fold out of the superior British theatrical poster with a few miscellaneous facts on the back. Stuart Webb has covered this odd little trinket nicely on his Transformation blog. Despite the attention, TF:TM tanked on this side of the pond too.

By the end of the eighties VHS was more accessible and the tape was reissued a couple of times before the format was overtaken by DVD. Even the Movie was out on disc before the eighties nostalgia boom took off, meaning there was no demand for a reprint from Titan. IDW then decided to do their own adaptation of the film for no apparent reason, managing to come up with an even more pointless end result. 

As such, the 1986 mini is one of the few Transformers comics not to have been reprinted in recent times - and with good reason. However, for the morbidly curious here's a compendium containing 1/ scans of the US mini-series  (not by me and somewhat dated as I downloaded them somewhere around the turn of the century ) 2/ the UK Winter Special  (good resolution scans I did myself a couple of years ago) and 3/ the Poster Magazine (part of the same scanning project but less successful due to the physical size of the thing). 

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Comic Review - Marvel Boy

PUBLISHER: MARVEL, 2000 - 2001

Grant Morrison started his comic career at Marvel's UK branch on licenced titles like Doctor Who Monthly and Action Force before getting his teeth into things like Zenith, Animal Man and The Invisibles. It was something of a coup for new Marvel EIC Joe Quesada to get such a hip writer working for the company at the turn of the century and in return Morrison was given relative creative freedom to craft Marvel Boy

Issued under the more mature Marvel Knights banner (flying high at the time due to well-received darker series for the likes of Daredevil and The Punisher), the series shares only a name with the Atlas character. The premise in a simple glib line is instead "what if Captain Marvel really was pissed off when he got to Earth?". Instead of coming as a spy and finding he likes humanity, central character Noh-Varr is part of the crew of a science vessel shot down over Earth by an insanely wealthy maniac and opportunist who calls himself Midas. Only Noh-Varr and the ship's biological computer Plex survive the crash.

Noh-Varr promptly declares war on Earth in general and Midas in particular and it's no empty boast; bio-engineered with support from Plex and a buried Kree science vessel packed with exotic weaponry he's one angry and dangerous lad. What follows is a riotous cascade of innovative powers, technology and concepts. The imagination is almost incontinent.

Throughout the six issues the storyline is largely concerned with Midas, a fellow dressed in what looks to be the original Iron Man armour who wants the cosmic ray engine of Noh-Varr's ship to complete his quest to gain the elemental powers of the Fantastic Four. His main weapon is his messed-up daughter slash personal assassin Oubliette (Wikipedia it!), who quickly becomes fascinated with Noh-Varr. 

The only interaction with other Marvel Universe characters comes when Noh-Varr torches an obscenity onto the face of the planet, drawing the attention of Dum-Dum Duggan (I think Nick Fury was dead at the time) and SHIELD, but after the cloned supersoldiers they send in are defeated he's largely left in his own corner. The story manages to set itself firmly in the Marvel Universe without Captain America or someone turning up in a way that foreshadows Morrison's use of the X-Men mythos soon afterwards - he's more interested in the concepts and possibilities than actual events outside of the title, making the story fresh and independent. 

Only the issue revolving around the living corporation Hexus (a great idea that can't be done justice in 22 pages). Aside from that, this is a crucial, energetic and thought-provoking little series. It's also a great introduction to Morrison's style for anyone into typical superhero fare after a nice gateway into weirder comics.

Comic Review - The Official Gobots Magazine


Gobots was always seen as the poor cousin to Transformers and to some extent that was fair. If anyone wants to slander the overall quality of the toyline they can step outside and be administered a hiding courtesy of my man Perkins but as a franchise it was all over the place. The problem was that while Hasbro spent time working with Marvel on a set of character bios and a mythos for Transformers, Tonka - in their rush to get toys on shelves - just threw pun-based names on the figures and basically left it at that. Seriously, the first batch didn't even gave faction names, but were delineated as "Friendly Robot " or "Enemy Robot".

By the time Tonka got their cat together and linked up with Hanna Barbera to make the terrible but Stockholm Syndrome-inducing Challenge of the Gobots cartoon Transformers had overtaken it with barely a look back. The other half of Hasbro's media pincer was of course the exclamation mark-riddled monthly comic, and to that Gobots had no real equivalent. With Marvel working on Transformers and DC not doing that sort of thing comic rights were just another thing for Tonka to sell off to some hapless goober rather than part of the company's promotional arsenal.

The first attempt at a Gobots comic wasn't even really a Gobots comic, but is worth a brief mention anyway. Bandai retained European rights to the figures and sold the line there as Robo Machine; after seeing Tonka's initial success they inked a deal to copy the names and factions over and decided to promote the brand with help.from Fleetway. They put out a serial in the weekly Eagle comic written by veteran Tom Tully with a grittier tone than Transformers material of the time that still stands up well despite a hurried, inconclusive ending. 

In America however the licence fell to Telepictures. Don Welsh's company mainly handled television syndication packages but also had a small publishing arm which put out titles for other programmes they owned the rights to, such as The Muppet Show. When Challenge of the Gobots came under the former they decided to put out a title based on the show - The Official Gobots Magazine.

And it's certainly a magazine rather than an outright comic; the large format quarterly generally averaged five or six pages of actual Gobots content. As well as a five-page strip set in the Challenge of the Gobots continuity (if that isn't an oxymoron) the title was padded out with the same sort of stuff Sheila Cranna used to fill pages in the early days of the British Transformers comics - anything on file about sci-fi, robotics, computers and home electronics.

The first issue was put out for Winter '86 (probably an off-sale date), with - as for all the published issues - a painted cover by Paul Mangiat. Inside was the strip "The Blast of Doom", written by P. E. King (a quick Google seems to line up with a moderately successful children's book author of the period) and illustrated by one R. Reese - most likely Ralph Reese, who drew for Flash Gordon and National Lampoon but seems to have had an eclectic career. It's a trite little trip with Dr. Braxis coming up with a gun to kill Leader-1, who is lured into a trap when Pincher is able to kidnap Scooter and Nick (a.k.a. Team Fail) while popping out for ingredients to make a birthday cake for A.J; it makes the cartoon itself look like Evangelion or something.

Dated Spring 1986, the second issue's strip is called "Scooter's Mighty Magnet" and you can pretty much guess it all from there. The writer is Jay Itzkowitz, a staff writer at Telepictures (also working on their Muppets and Robo Force titles) and the art is by Paul Kirchner, another one with an unusual CV that included surrealist strip the bus for Heavy Metal and covers for Al Goldstein's porn tabloid Screw with He-Man and Thundercats. About the only thing of interest is a rare appearance from Creepy in with the Renegades.

Issue 3 (Summer 1986) had a cover falsely promising an appearance by Mr. Moto, but the strip ("The Wrath of the Mountain", written by King and illustrated by Kirchner) features the usual cartoon crowd of Leader-1/Turbo/Scooter versus Cy-Kill/Cop-Tur/Crasher, with the Renegades mining an energy source called Ultium from a sentient mountain (they even put a sign up). See if you can work out how that goes. The issue also featured the first of the "Ask Leader-1" pages, where readers (or staffers) quizzed the Guardian leader with a mixture of Gobot-related and general science questions; it's actually quite a sweet feature - I doubt anyone at Telepictures was aware of the UK Transformers comic's use of a character as letter answerer.

Tonka of course were also behind the Rock Lords toyline, which was part of Machine Robo in Japan but was pitched as a separate line in the West. However, their only well-known media appearance was a crossover with the Gobots for the flop Battle of the Rock Lords feature film. Accordingly, the strip in the fourth issue - both written and drawn by Kirchner - also has both groups in. Sadly it's not any good, being a lightweight take on the old Trojan horse thing, with the Rock Lords largely incidental muscle for both sides. 

The Winter 1987 edition proved to be the last - not surprisingly, as the cartoon had ended and the toyline itself was winding down. News was broken to subscribers with a paper cover around the magazine itself, cheerfully informing those who had paid for the sixth issue that they would be receiving a copy of The Kids' Official Statue of Liberty Magazine instead. Brutal. 

The main strip is again entirely by Kirchner and while it's the same simplistic story (named "A Spy Among Us") it's worthy of note for one reason - it's the only Gobots media to feature Super Couper and Clutch, not to mention the only thing to have Night Fright with the right name and colour scheme (his design was used for a green Renegade referred to as Blades in one episode of the cartoon). While Clutch doesn't do anything the lightweight plot focuses on Coups (as everyone calls him) and Night Fright gets to do a couple of bits. The issue also contains a one-page all-Kirchner strip named "Update from Quartex" which focuses entirely on the Rock Lords - and shows the other stories up by cramming a plot just as pat into a single page.

So there we are, The Official Gobots Magazine - largely rubbish, noticed by few and remembered by less. I scanned all the comic strips back when I owned them; part of me wishes I'd done the magazines cover to cover despite the rest of it being terrible but there we go, the indecent amount of money I sold the things on for took the sting out of it.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Comic Review - Transformers: Maximum Dinobots


As IDW wanted Simon Furman far, far away from their main Transformers title but presumably still around to fuck up the movie tie-in stuff and the awful ReGeneration One he was allowed four Spotlights and the five-part Maximum Dinobots to finish off as many storylines as possible before the decks were more or less cleared for Shane McCarthy's All Hail Megatron relaunch. 

The template was simple - use one for the Earth-based stuff and the other for all the bits in space. The problem is that he got it wrong. Whereas the four part Revelations has more plot than a George R R Martin novel, the five part Maximum Dinobots is deathly dull and features pages and pages of padding. 

There's an interminable attempt to play to Skywatch's idiocy for intrigue when they once again unleash some captured Transformers which they then rapidly lose control over. Naturally the captivity of the other Dinobots was something that was going to be addressed sooner rather than later but at this stage at least having Grimlock break in and free them would have been a change. And as for giving one of their inept agents a bigger role in an attempt to address their idiocy - examining the issue only makes it even more glaringly dumb. And then it's all topped off by the organisation choosing to lob Shockwave out there. It beggars belief.

The Dinobots themselves are also poor. They drown in a sea of late-Marvel angst as Grimlock moans about betraying his team, Swoop moans about Grimlock betraying the team and The Other Three take turns at having a perfunctory line from time to time. If this is the crack team at their maximum it's obvious why no-one really missed them for aeons. Swoop especially is a pain - after a long history of being an interesting character in the Marvel material here he's a whiny stuck record. Nick Roche is a talented artist but his Beast Wars-influenced character models are a disaster with Swoop the worst culprit - allied to his bitching it's hard not to want to reach into the page and mash your thumbs into his stupid emo steampunk goggles in the hope you'll kill him or at least shut him up.

But then the comic isn't really about the Dinobots. It's more concerned with the Machination storyline which has been awful from the start and gets no better here. As with Skywatch there's an attempt at lampshading the absurdity of it all by having Scorponok spend what feels like 20 pages explaining his plans to Hot Rod (whose dramatic commando operation ends hilariously when he parks outside Scorponok's stupid factory and is promptly beaten to a pulp) in a fashion that's meant to be a spoof of badly written villainy but reads as badly written villainy.

Into all this Furman throws the Monsterbots for no good reason. Like the Dinobots they talk a good game, being bigged up by the script in a way that makes McCarthy's writing of Drift look subtle but do absolutely nothing necessary - like Cloudburst and company in Revelations, you lose any sympathy for the writer's compacted plans when he's throwing stuff like this in of his own volition. By the time Soundwave, Shockwave and Ultra Magnus have been worked in you're just numb to the contrivances and convolutions. 

Even worse is the last rushed gutless coda as it's revealed that basically everyone is fine - Sunstreaker's fine despite having a hole blown in him (are CR chambers the single worst idea in Transformers fiction or what?), Hot Rod is fine, Hunter is fine, Sludge is fine despite being picked at random for death in a sad attempt to ramp up the stakes and look here's Verity and Jimmy and Optimus and Ratchet and some crap jokes and let's make sure Furman's never given a gig like this again please.

Maximum Dinobots? Minimal Excitement.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Comic Review: Dare



Since the iconic Eagle character Dan Dare had been left behind by the industry in 1967 there had been two main revivals; firstly as the lead of 2000AD on launch before Judge Dredd and other brand new characters rapidly overtook it and then as the lead of the relaunched Eagle itself a couple of years later. Both had their own style quite different from the enjoyably cor-wow original but neither were as shocking as Grant Morrison's take at the start of the nineties.

The serial - simply titled Dare - debuted in the new and short-lived Revolver, a Fleetway title launched in 1990 to try and cash in on both the serious adult comic audience uncovered by Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns and the late eighties interest in the sixties in general and psychedelia in particular. The result only lasted a handful of issues before folding into Fleetway's other adult comic, Crisis, with the main legacy of Revolver being Peter Milligan's Rogan Gosh

The Dare strip was somewhat typical of the milieu of adult British comics of the period, dripping with heavy-handed but well meaning political allegory. Britain is under the yoke of unsubtle Thatcher parody Gloria Monday and her Unity party; Spacefleet has been privatised, the Treens have been subjugated and live on Earth as a hated underclass and a retired Dan Dare lives a life of empty privilege in London while people queue for food in the North. So this would be something of a bleak take, then.

For all its edginess and shock tactics the story is surprisingly readable. The plot concerns the mysterious death of Jocelyn Peabody after a spell working off-world on the new Manna miracle superfood at a time when Dare's patriotic image is being exploited by the government, and leads to an uneasy reunion with an embittered Digby,  now a leading Northern freedom fighter. 

If the script is occasionally clumsy the story is worth reading for Rian Hughes' angular artwork, a propaganda postcard from a future dystopia. The art is at its' very best in some of the story's more striking juxtapositions, notably the militant secret police using Frank Hampson ray guns that cause Steve Dillon damage. Like the first couple of books of Zenith, this is very much a story of its' time and in a way it's as outdated now as the fifties stuff. However, it's still a diverting and entertaining piece of work.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Comic Review - Transformers: Revelation


Revelation was originally published as four Spotlights  (Cyclonus, Hardhead, Doubledealer and Sideswipe) but was really a hurried rewrite of Simon Furman's mooted Expansion mini-series; as all four run sequentially it makes more sense to review them as a whole than separately. For a start none are really genuine Spotlights; each title character gets a thread which goes some way to exploring their internal drive complete with the usual narration but each issue has a lot of other things going on which doesn't have any real connection to them.

In short, Furman across four issues makes a valiant stab at resolving two years of plotlines , and the result is a far from perfect story which somehow remains breathlessly enjoyable. Simple law of averages means it's impossible to like every single plot thread, with some getting too much space, some getting too little and some getting it just right. 

You do have to wonder why exactly the Spotlight format was used, however, as Furman clearly feels obliged to give the lion's share to the subject even if it is less attention than that received by, say, Wheelie or Ramjet on their big days out. It's probably the biggest flaw in the storyline - Cyclonus gets a role that would have worked better for Galvatron, the obvious payoff of Dealer is shown via a pace-sapping McGuffin quest and Sideswipe's personal realisation is oddly placed in the middle of a cross universe death struggle (which is beautifully illustrated by E J Su, signing off from Transformers in style). Quite why IDW didn't just pack it as a four issue mini I don't know, but then at an editorial level they've always been basically incompetent. Only Hardhead's chapter (helped by fantastic art from Nick Roche) feels particularly organic. 

Still, in among all of this there's payoff for myriad plot elements - Arcee quest for revenge, Nightbeat's lobotomy, the betrayal of Hot Rod's team, Jetfire and the Technobots' research into Thunderwing, Banzaitron's unit, Monstructor,  Sixshot,  Galvatron, Nemesis Prime - aside from the Earth -based stuff held over for Maximum Dinobots there's hardly a thread from the past few years that isn't resolved and most of the defining faces of the era make some sort of showing.
Some of the resolutions are clumsy and unsatisfying, and on occasion Furman makes a rod for his own back - you can give him the benefit of the doubt for the sudden appearance of Straxus and Grindcore as further heralds of Nemesis Prime as the former had a toy out around about then while the latter probably did and I just don't care (though their easy defeat at the hands of Sideswipe is a bit much ). 

But the Pretender stuff is handled poorly - the debut of Cloudburst, Landmine, Waverider and Groundbreaker mere pages before Jetfire's reworked Pretender tech is ready just feels silly, like Furman feels obliged to make the unloved eighties guys Pretenders out of sheer anal neatness and lack of imagination. It worked composing Bludgeon's cult out of eighties Pretenders but in the cramped confines of Revelations putting the Technobots in the suits would have been cleaner and more satisfying. Elsewhere, other characters - such as Sixshot and Monstructor - do just disappear in the press, their fates vaguely implied rather than outright tackled.

On the other hand some are done very well indeed - Hardhead executing Nightbeat in one simple frame is still one of the peak moments of IDW's entire output, an unexpected and clever solution to the problem that convincingly causes Jhiaxus' plan to begin unravelling. The takedown of Nemesis Prime is some of the best Optimus Prime writing Furman has done for some time. 

The phrase "a mixed bag " doesn't begin to cover it, but the flawed and frantic Revelations retains a curious readability that little else of Furman's IDW work possesses.