Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Audio: The Adventures of the Gobots - Meltdown at the Museum!

Another dose of ceaseless excitement as Dr Braxis and the Renegades have nothing better to do than cause shenanigans at a waxworks museum. Oh, and this one also features the potted intro to the human characters which means it probably should have gone first.


Comic Review: Heroes Reborn Part 10 - Heroes Reunited

PUBLISHER: MARVEL, 1997
WRITERS: JIM LEE, BRANDON CHOI, WALT SIMONSON, JEPH LOEB
ARTISTS: RON LIM, BRETT BOOTH, MICHAEL RYAN, ANTHONY WYNN, ED BENES, TERRY SHOEMAKER, MIKE MILLER, JOE BENNETT

Much of the second half of the Heroes Reborn titles (especially Fantastic Four) were given over to the build-up to the arrival of Galactus and the twelfth issue of the four titles, all 48 pagers, covered this in "Heroes Reunited". As the name suggested this saw the Fantastic Four, the Avengers and the various supporting characters from Iron Man and Captain America all muck in against the big purple planet eater. The odd thing is, though, that it's an anti-crossover in a way - each title effectively has its' own crack.

In the first three instances the heroes lose, the sole survivor being a time-jumping Victor von Doom who works out what's needed by trial and error. It's an interesting approach for sure, and in Fantastic Four #12 at least has some shock value as people start dying. After that it gets a bit predictable and the Avengers & Iron Man instalments especially feel like treading water now the format's been blown but the creative teams all take some pleasure in killing off everyone else's characters early doors (the Fantastic Four getting ICBM'd about a quarter of the way through the Avengers #12 is the peak).

The non-central cast only really get a workout in their own books - the Inhumans are only really seen in Fantastic Four (and then briefly, certainly not enough to justify the time wasted introducing them), the full Avengers roster (including a repaired Vision) only gets much to do in their own book, Iron Man #12 is the only one to pretend that the Hulkbusters are in on this and Captain America #12 is the only one to bring Falcon and Bucky into things.

The final issue featured Doom's time travel equipment damaged, making the fourth attempt all or nothing. Convenient, that. After a promising start the finale is weak, the Silver Surfer being persuaded to fight against Galactus entirely by Bucky being stupid and then defeating him fairly easily before some wrap-up stuff for Cap's solo storylines, making for an underwhelming conclusion.

While it's a marked improvement on Industrial Revolution it's another weak crossover, this time due to a botched format experiment that isn't without promise but only works once rather than the three times it's actually used. It ensures that the last real event of the Heroes Reborn universe is as much of a failure as everything else.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Comic Review: Heroes Reborn, Part 9: Captain America #7-11

PUBLISHER: MARVEL, 1997
WRITER:
JAMES ROBINSON

ARTIST: JOE PHILLIPS, TRAVIS CHAREST, AL RIO, JOE BENNETT

While the second halves of Fantastic Four, The Avengers and Iron Man declining in quality, albeit only slightly for the latter, the surprise of the second half of Captain America is a drastic improvement even with a dodgy ending. The key factor is not only the binning of Rob Liefield but also the brief stint of the excellent James Robinson. He came on board when the title was reassigned to Wildstorm and purposefully takes Cap out of the mass of jangled plotlines and on a bike ride to get back in touch with the country. It's an old device that won't be to the taste of anyone who doesn't like Captain America comics anyway but it brings it more in line with Mark Waid's pre-Onslaught work.

Naturally rather than getting to meet the backbone of America he runs into racial supremacy group Sons of the Serpent. Thus follows a few issues of subterfuge and commando raids with Cap being unflappable, firm and principled but not a flt platitude-spouting poser like in the Loeb/Liefield material, with some sharp dialogue and crisp, clean art from Joe Bennett.

However, someone must have told Robinson there were some regulations that required stuffing up any perfectly sensible story. Nick Fury is rapidly revealed to be the head of the Serpent Society, except that he's really not, it's an L.M.D. and the real thing has been in a cell on the Helicarrier since long before the start of the series. This seems to be a response to a belief that Nick wouldn't have done some of the incredibly dicey stuff he does in the series, once again filing any edges that set the Heroes Reborn version out from the Marvel Universe version right off. And it plain doesn't make any sense either, as the real Fury immediately knows everything that's happened since his imprisonment.

Add in a belated appearance by Sam Wilson as the Falcon and Rikki Barnes' rarely-glimpsed Bucky and the last couple of issues are a same. As for the rest while its not bad it falls into the same trap as the good segments of Fantastic Four and Iron Man, in that it's not significantly better than any old run on their normal comics anyway.

Minifigures: The Avengers, Part 3

The Avengers carried on through the sixties and seventies with new members added; similar to the first roster of additions the recruits were a mix of established guest characters from other titles and new creations especially for the book. We're still in cream Avengers territory, however, and the next batch of characters can make a fair claim for actual fame and popularity.

HERCULES

Marvel weren't happy to settle for messing with Norse Gods and decided to have a crack at the Greek ones as well, though went for the Roman name. Despite attempts to do the whole Pantheon ol' Herc was the only one to really stick, starting off as a guest ally of Thor before joining up with the Avengers. He ended up as a bit of a loudmouthed buffoon for most of his run and the characterisation's always stuck; to be fair this has led to some decent stories which have more of an old-fashioned adventure feel to them. Occasional attempts to serious him up (a mid-nineties stint in the Avengers when he was clean-shaven, long haired and wore a t-shirt and trousers and looked not a million miles away from Kevin Sorbo for some odd reason) haven't stuck, meaning a regular reversion to Herc the Berk with his beauty sash and knee-high sandals. He's still well under the radar for films and merchandise however, and you can bet when he does show up he'll have a gritty redesign. So no official Minifigure yet then but Penzora has produced a fine custom capturing the key details of the costume, including the strappy sandals and the lion emblem on the chest. Like several with a partial mask he has to make do with a paint application instead of a physical piece but with the right hair it can work in this case. The only other oddness is the use of white legs with heavy painted details; again, I think this is a reflection of Penzora using only official Lego parts, so no plain flesh legs were available (for the record I think the bootleg Speedo Batman might have been the first Minifigure full-stop to use anything close; I've not actually researched that, though).

BLACK PANTHER

T'challa of course originally debuted in the pages of Fantastic Four but he's ended up here anyway despite never reaching a particularly gigantic amount of fame as an Avenger, though he's naturally a very important guy as the first mainstream black superhero - an a genius, monarch and cunning fighter rather than lumbering bruiser to boot. That's not bad for Stan Lee at all. Since then the character's maintained moderate visibility - his role as King of Wakanda means he can never stay with the Avengers or anyone else particularly long and despite much effort has never quite made it as a big-selling solo star. A well-received appearance in the Civil War film might have finally pushed him onto the A-list however. It also inspired an official Minifigure which naturally has been bootlegged; also out there are a couple of vintage versions - I'm not sure what they're based on, customs most likely. One has a disappointingly flat head but another has a removable helmet piece which is a little bulbous but does add some serious character; added to some useful detail work like the golden chain around the neck and the end result has just the right amount of Silver Age style to it. However, neither vintage version is particularly easy to find as bootleg figures go.

VISION

Though inspired visually by a forties Timely alien hero of the same name the Vision was another one of those things that makes me love the Avengers - created for the book (another o Hank Pym's experiments) and largely staying in place. he's another who was popular on the book but never really made much of a break-out despite some decent character arcs and some interesting powers. He did get to show up in Age of Ultron, however, and got an official Minifigure. This and its' bootleg seem to be the only version out there; it lacks the cleanness of the classic comic look but it's not a million miles off either and the big colours - green body, red head, yellow cloak - are spot-on and it makes it a decent one to settle on.

BLACK KNIGHT

Dane Whitman is another who spent much of his time with the team, taking over the extant Black Knight mantle from a couple of super-villains. He did get a weird Celtic angle that saw him make appearances with Captain Britain and the Knights of Pendragon and at once point flew a winged horse. An update replaced the Ebony Blade with an energy sword but he's dropped from visibility a bit since the nineties, running in second-tier teams like Heroes for Hire and Excalibur. His powers also lack much interest for Disney and he's another character whose representation is left down to the reliable Penzore. The deep blue scheme works nicely and there's some excellent detail that captures the keypoints of a costume that shifted around a lot over forty-odd years anyway. Even the helmet as a painted head comes off nicely, though I keep meaning to experiment with one of the physical pieces from the Rohan troops from the licenced Hobbit sets. the painted shield is a great piece, however.

BLACK WIDOW

Like T'challa, Natasha had been around for a while before she rocked up at Avengers Mansion as one of the goodies. She started out as an antagonist for Iron Man fresh from Soviet Russia before beginning to fall for Hawkeye's charms, giving her a bit of an in to join the team after a gradual coming over which saw dues paid with SHIELD, partnering Daredevil and joining The Champions. She was even briefly team leader. For the films she got to be a generic Joss Whedon action girl, a wisecracking Scarlett Johansson poured into a catsuit to stimulate perverts. The two official figures have leant towards the live action costume with its' silly blue accents but thankfully the bootleggers have done the classic yellow-belted jumpsuit worn for most of her comic adventures - though weirdly they've given her black hair. This is easily resolved, though the figure could do with something to represent the bracelets on her wrists.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Audio: The Adventures of the Gobots - "By Astrobeam to Gobotron!"

Thought lost, at least by me - the first of Tempo's awful audio cassette recordings of the awful stories in World Distributor's first Robo Machine Featuring Challenge of the Gobots Annual, a publication in the running for the worst book ever published. Watch out for the "not by the original artists" TV theme tune, it's the best bit. Bug Bite's not in it, someone just gets him confused with Psycho, it's just the least crap piece of art in the thing. I'm assuming it's all recorded okay, I can only get about 5-6 minutes into the thing. Enjoy! Well, I say enjoy...



Saturday, 25 February 2017

Comic - The Incredible Adventures of Janus Stark

Throughout the sixties and seventies British comics were never really at ease with superheroes, the big weeklies still all being about plucky fighter pilots and aristocratic footballers with an emphasis on some mooring in the real world. When they did try the strain resulted in some of the oddest heroes and villains seen in comic form, not to mention a great number of anti-heroes - the British Invasion of the eighties was as odd as it was because guys like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison had grown up with strangeness like The Spider and the House of Dolmann along with their issues of Batman.

One of the more popular curios was Janus Stark. Inhabiting the penny dreadful Victorian England, Janus was a near-inexplicably (there was some vague hand-waving about him having a flexible bone structure - British comics certainly didn't do origins, you read what was on the page and were happy with it) rubber-limbed escapologist who found fame in the music halls. Naturally he wasn't just a performing turn but a champion of the underdog who used his abilities to right wrongs and redress cruelty against fellow weirdos.

Created by Tom Tully, long-time writer for The Steel Claw and Kelly's Eye and later for The Robo Machines, with art from Argentine maestro Francisco Solano López, at that point in his career on the run from the Junta for his part in some satirical works, Janus started out having adventures in Smash!, where he had taken over from reprints of Fantastic Four (and was thus seen as something of a nod to Mr Fantastic) and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Cursitor Doom and His Sporting Lordship until the title folded in 1971. Janus was popular enough to actually survive the dreaded amalgamation that followed however, and continued in the pages of flagship book Valiant.

This strip comes from the 1977 Valiant Annual (though it was likely a reprint by then, the weekly had folded shortly before and Fleetway's M.O. was to use backlogs for the strip sections of the annuals by this stage) and features Stark going up against some not especially PC pirates during a trip to provide "our lads" in the Crimea with some much-needed amusement.


 
 

Friday, 24 February 2017

Comic Review: The Prisoner - Shattered Visage

WRITERS: DEAN MOTTER, MARK ASKWITH
ARTIST: DEAN MOTTER

The Prisoner was and is one of the all-time great TV shows, that simple. Transcendentally brilliant and a rare glimpse of genuine small-screen auteurism. As such any sort of remake or sequel is on a hiding to nothing, especially when the show's psychotic hardcore fandom comes into play. Quite why DC, always with a record of steering clear of property renting, decided to commission this four-issue sequel to such a beloved show isn't known, though it was possibly just to keep up work with designer and Mister X creator Motter, who was doing odd bits of work for them at the time. he was partnered with Askwith, owner of the Silver Snail comic shop and a superfan who'd also done occasional work for DC. The original four-issue series consisted of 48 page prestige instalments and was vetted by Patrick McGoohan himself.

It gets right into upsetting people by rapidly establishing that the notorious series finale "Fall Out" was a continuation of the drug-induced mental battle seen in penultimate episode "Once Upon a Time". Which, when you think about it, isn't a big problem. Firstly "Fall Out" is batshit crazy and it's not hard to imagine a lot of drugs were involved even with McGoohan's chaste reputation and secondly it was very clearly designed to kill the thing off, too nonsensical to answer questions but too sweeping to allow a follow-up. So really the only way to write a sequel is to work around it even if it seems joyless, and naturally this is a bit of a red flag to those who believe the TV show is tantamount to a gospel.

The basic premise, set at the time the comic was published in the late eighties, has some admirable innovations - Number Two (the Leo McKern version) has been imprisoned since the fall of the Village and published a tell-all memoir which has made the Village a hot commodity in the intel community once again. The Village has just one resident now, an aged, bearded Number Six who found the freedom to stay when everyone else evacuated. It's a neat immersion, superficially defeatist until we meet the man and find him undiminished. 

The intel plot works well and features some well-crafted new characters who fit nicely alongside the veterans, with main protagonist Alice Drake (there are several in-jokes as well as numerous references) engaging and intelligent after washing up in the Village and taken under Six's wing. Antagonist Thomas Drake also carries a lot of the narrative and does it well; the pair probably shade Six and Two in terms of page time which gives it a fitting sequel feel and gives their showings more power. What fun would a retread of the show have been anyway?

Motter & Askwith excel in the general presentation; the poster-like semi-abstract art, made with heavy photo-referencing, is unlike most comics seen at the time while the language is perfect. The spook stuff, full of titles and allusions, fits nicely with what we saw of the world of spies in the sixties show while everything Six and Two say can be heard in the voices of McGoohan and McKern. The plot is a little loose and towards the end seems in an indecent hurry after such a patient build-up and the book requires a couple of reads to really appreciate what's going on but it's worth it for the details which pop out a second time around.

It's not perfection and it's not to all tastes but Shattered Visage is a respectful follow-up. Whether you feel that the series needed any sort of follow-up is more the question; if you were happy with "Fall Out" and feel the show is sacrosanct it will do little to convince you otherwise. But as sequels go it';s likely to be as good as it gets.

Comic Review: U.S. War Machine 2.0

WRITER: CHUCK AUSTEN
ARTIST: CHRISTIAN MOORE

U.S. War Machine ended with the sequel hook of an armoured-up Tony Stark, backed by Happy Hogan and Beth Cabe, learning of SHIELD's War Machine unit and setting out to get his tech back. When the sequel came, though, it was to be a disaster.

Firstly Austen was busy writing an undeservedly huge chunk of the Marvel universe and certainly wouldn't be undertaking art duties. Not a problem, he was never more than a capable artist anyway. Only the man they got in was one Christian Moore; I've been unable to find out much else about Moore but given the results here it's not hard to see why. You see, U.S. War Machine V2.0 is computer rendered and not well. In fact, it's genuinely hard to think of an uglier comic. The tech isn't there, everyone has blank open mouths, there's no texture, explosions look silly and damaged flesh is represented by a weird dapple thing that actually makes it difficult to understand what's going on. It looks like the end result of a piece of software from a basic Windows 98 starter bundle.

The other problem is that it's only three issues and reads like this was a late choice. The opening two issues set up the confrontation and touch base with Rhodes & co while also putting a little more attention Stark's way and introducing this universe's version of Captain America (a recently promoted Bucky), Clint Barton and Sam Wilson. Stark and his gang arrive above the Helicarrier at the end and we're all prepared for a smackdown and then...

Suddenly, inexplicably Stark's Iron Men and SHIELD's War Machines are working together to stop a nuclear bomb set in London. Moore's backgrounds turn into abstract slabs of orange while Stark is rapidly shown up to be some kind of hesitant liberal peacenik before sacrificing himself to stop the bomb, his comatose brain being linked into the Avengers fantasy used to sedate Darkhawk. It all makes for a very random shift of focus from Jim to Tony and there are all sorts of other bizarre moments, like Doctor Doom turning up and immediately getting shot through the head by Barton with an arrow. It's almost like a deliberate salting of the Earth but could also just be really bad writing. It's in line with Austen's record for starting well on a title and then just adding characters and plot threads at random without ever doing anything in a satisfactory fashion.

So yes, if you read the first volume and enjoyed the frustration of that dangling cliffhanger is nothing compared to the frustration of reading the follow-up. There might be a certain morbid curiosity to seeing if Christian Moore''s art is as bad as I'm saying; I don't generally put frames in short comic reviews but I'm doing so now so you can see for yourself and not waste time.

Comic Review: Heroes Reborn Part 8 - Iron Man #7-11

PUBLISHER: MARVEL, 1997
WRITERS: SCOTT LOBDELL, JEPH LOEB, JIM LEE
ARTISTS: RYAN BENJAMIN, WHILCE PORTACIO 


The dash towards the end of Heroes Reborn produced some very poor comics but once again Iron Man came through relatively well due to the writers opting to concentrate on their own ideas instead of just cramming cameos in. Jeph Loeb does wash up as writer but he's largely working from Scott Lobdell's plotting and doesn't do too much harm while intermittent pages from Whilce Portacio not only add a little visual continuity but also mean it comes closest to keeping its' superstar artist.

This means that the issues we get aren't wasting time undermining previous work. There's a nice organic plot featuring the return of Rebel Reilly, the believed-dead original armour test pilot. He comes back initially as a catspaw of Hydra, who are working really for the Mandarin who in turn is really a front for Victor von Doom. It flows better than it sounds, trust me. There are inevitably heavy references to the main Marvel Universe, notably a trip through famous classics courtesy of von Doom's time travel equipment and references to how Rebel (created for the Heroes Reborn universe) always felt like he didn't belong. Uatu then turns up and says as much.

Pepper takes a relative back seat which is a shame, while Happy gets some panel time only to die almost immediately. Maybe; he's upgraded to alive out out of nowhere in the closing issues or no readily apparent reason. While it gets off relatively lightly for cast congestion there is a predictable return from the dead for Bruce Banner while Jasper Sitwell's torture of Doc Samson with gamma radiation turns the good doctor into the Abomination, though only for a few frames before some handwaved blood transfusion with Jennifer Walters leaves him as a ripped green-haired version of his human self and her as She-Hulk, the trio forming the Hulkbusters on the last page of #11.

In among all of this Tony Stark comes through quite well, as does von Doom. It is not a great comic, nothing compared to most of the title's back catalogue or much of what was to come. However there aren't a great many of occasions when you feel like punching yourself in the balls for reading it. 

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Comic Review: U.S. War Machine Vol.1

WRITER & ARTIST: CHUCK AUSTEN

Started up as one of Joe Quesada's attempts to bring Marvel back to health, the MAX imprint was, like Epic before it and Epic afterwards to produce more mature-orientated content. Much of this was based on out of continuity and on extant characters, especially from the darker edges of the universe - Nick Fury, the Punisher, the Black Widow, Blade. Generally it was standard establishment-cynical quasi-realism with lots of gore, swearing and the occasional gratuitous nipple. Aside from Brian Michael Bendis' Alias few of the earlier titles made much of an impression beyond getting called for their brattishness.

One relative success was U.S. War Machine, written by one Chuck Austen. Up to that point he had cut a somewhat eclectic path; he had been the first American artist on Alan Moore's heavyweight Miracleman for an issue or so before his work was destroyed by a flood at Eclipse's offices; after getting to do the covering frame sequence for the eighth issue (including a cameo for himself and the usual self promotion from Eclipse EiC and cartoon screechy feminist Cat Yronwoode) under birth name Chuck Beckum before being moved over for Rick Veitch. He then began working under his mother's name for several minor publishers, also writing and drawing porn comics and the adaptation of Disney's The Little Mermaid.

War Machine meanwhile had been span out of Iron Man after a heavily-armed black and silver suit had gone down well with readers. Long-time supporting character Jim Rhodes had performed one of his cover stints in the suit so when Tony Stark and the red & gold returned made a natural subject for a solo series. War Machine was hot as Hell for about 12 months before the concept ran out of steam, an alien armour upgrade being one of the last throws of the dice before Rhodes quit superhero work (i.e. got cancelled) and returned to Iron Man's supporting cast. He's since come back into vogue with the films, though.

Austen's concept has the War Machine as a prototype product developed by Stark but kept for his bodyguard only after he and Rhodes get involved in a disastrous test run in Latveria. This Stark baulks at the idea of his tech being used in bloodshed; Rhodes stays on as one of the bodyguards along with Happy Hogan and Bethany Cabe until he's fired for summarily executing an AIM soldier live on TV after the terrorist executes a hostage.

Rhodes is then recruited by SHIELD to head up their own team of reverse-engineered War Machines in the fight against AIM. What follows next is basically a Michael Bay style action film, with off the shelf characters, lots of violence and much macho. The team is made up of loose cannon Parnell, amiable hick Nathan, capable Shiva and Dum-Dum Duggan. Parnell is somewhat dicey, an angry man who refers to Rhodes as an Oreo in an uncomfortable moment that's a typically Austen near-the-knuckle thread that's just on the edge between frankness and insensitivity. His pregnant wife, an AIM hostage, adds a bit of drama. Nathan is wide-eyed whitebread who eventually makes friends with Larne while Shiva doesn't do much beyond being reliable and female, plus getting caught topless by Rhodes during her introduction. Generally though the book is less horny than a lot of Austen's  later Marvel work. Duggan meanwhile provides soldier talk and a little comic relief, customising his War Machine suit to have a bowler hat.

Nick Fury only really appears as a stern superior officer and Stark as an occasional presence dealing with the fallout of Rhodes' actions. Fun comes from cameos from MODOK, ousted and left skeletal by AIM and now a weird part of SHIELD's arsenal, Darkhawk as a captured insane alien kept sedated by a virtual program that convinces him he's part of the West Coast Avengers. AIM meanwhile are extended to genuine nastiness; the main plot involves SHIELD attempting to stop them using eugenic viruses designed to destroy all non-whites on the planet.

The art is also by Austen, and in black-and-white. Technically his work is fine if stiff, though the latter sometimes even works well, allowing for sudden bursts of violence. The lack of colour is more of a problem; it suits the story but the problem is that even after the team customise their suits it's not difficult to tell them apart.

Shortly after the first volume finished Austen was on hand to take over writing Uncanny X-Men after Ian Casey failed to gel, and after a moderately promising start went off the rails badly. Despite Quesada's inexplicable patience and decision to also give him the Avengers at the precise point everyone started hating his X-Men stuff. Austen rapidly took over Bill Jemas' role of industry joke with inexplicable influence at Marvel until he was finally fired.


It's a shame really because the first volume of U.S. War Machine is good,  if not great, suggesting a capable writer with the right briefing and right property. The Austen name has become so toxic this book is probably going to be forgotten but largely it's a fair actioner that benefits from a simplified universe and its' own unabashed bluntness.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Comic Review: Heroes Reborn Part 7 - The Avengers #7-11

PUBLISHER: MARVEL
WRITERS: JEPH LOEB, ROB LIEFIELD, WALTER SIMONSON
ARTISTS: IAN CHURCHILL, MICHAEL RYAN

The midpoint of Heroes Reborn saw Rob Liefield effectively booted off the titles due to a combination of a difficulty in keeping deadlines, disappointing sales and vitriolic critical reaction. The Avengers and Captain America were instead transferred across to Wildstorm. There was still some overhang - Avengers #7 featured a Liefield cover and storyline and was pencilled by Ian Churchill; the artistic improvement was immense while the script continued on from the Industrial Revolution, featuring the Avengers moving into a mansion provided by Tony Stark, who has also joined the team as Iron Man (though no-one knows who's inside the armour). It ends with the arrival of the Lethal Legion, joined by the previously-missing Scarlet Witch.

This was only a temporary fill-in through and the remaining issues were penned by good ol' Walt Simonson. Y'know, good old Walt. Like Scott Lobdell, Walt's no visionary but he's a reliable pair of hands, always good for 22 pages of solid superhero capers. Which makes it all the more baffling that the result is a disaster, an absolute mess that's probably the worst segment of Heroes Reborn. Naturally a prominent thread for Thor and Loki is to the expected from Simonson; what actually happens is the Thor we've been reading about for seven issues is revealed to not be 'our' Thor, who appears within the reactor on the ruins of Avengers Island.

The previous Thor is revealed to be the 'real' Thor from this world rather than ours or something and quickly becomes a bad guy, battles our Thor and then finds redemption and neatly dies. Loki meanwhile bombards Avengers Mansion with a succession of bad guys (the Lethal Legion and the Masters of Evil) all orchestrated as some batty plan by Loki, who swallows up the plot threads previously in place with the Enchantress, Ultron and Kang. There's a general neatening as Ant-Man returns; despite the fact Hank had used his shrinking particles for the first time and promptly gone missing inside the Vision his wife Jan immediately takes some and becomes the Wasp just to make things nice and neat, Wanda's rapidly revealed to have been a witless dupe and Hellcat gets tricked by Loki and trapped in a mirror for not being central cast.

While Loeb & Liefield's stint was far, far from good at least it had a coherent central core plot; this second half of the title is just a mess, a disorientating stream of redesigned characters, nonsensical twists and schizophrenic characterisation. Michael Ryan's art is capable enough with some interesting takes on classic characters (though his rapid conversion of Hellcat to a more conventional Tigra-esque look is perhaps a shame) but with this script it's all for nothing. A complete bloody shambles.

8 Gobots That Will Shut Your Whore Mouth

Gobots. We all know the jokes - K-Mart Transformers, stupid names, those ones with windshields for heads, the dodgy cartoon, Robot Chicken lol etc, etc and so on. But belatedly a lot of toy fans have grown up and realised there were diamonds in the rough of the line; it's helped that Hasbro have allowed some references to the series (the rights of which they brought up during a takeover of Tonka in the nineties) to begin to bleed back into Transformers, with several recoloured toys referencing Gobots with similar alt modes and there being the odd cameo of a character or two in various comics. But the line at its' best merits a genuine re-evaluation beyond just being another ancillary of the Transformers tentacle monster. Diecast parts and rubber tyres stayed central to the line for much of its' life, the base line of Machine Robo specialised in finding interesting ways of getting figures the size of the primitive Minibots into all variety of vehicles and often articulation was miles better, several featuring ball-joints more than a decade before they were seen regularly on Transformers. Not convinced? Here are eight figures that I feel showcase the line's merits; not the eight best Gobots ever as that would include a few pricey and/or imported toys. No, these are guys you can pick up secondhand on ebay for less than the price of those dreadful plastic Legends things that look like Happy Meal toys.


SPOONS


Spoons has a lot going for him. He's a forklift truck, a mode vintage Transformers never got round to despite numerous construction-based teams; when Hasbro did for the video game-based Movieverse figure Dirt Boss (later turned into a limp homage to Spoons by adding a little bit of orange) they couldn't get the toy to actually lift anything but Spoons has a simple but working mechanism. He also has some very neat engineering work to blend this into the legs, reassuringly chunky arms and tyres, a nice head design and some fun details like the flip-up seat.


DIVE-DIVE


One of Bandai's coolest recurring tricks in Machine Robo was making a tiny compact vehicle into a decent robot. There are several dramatic examples like Loco or Apollo Robo but the best is probably Dive-Dive. Realistic submarines are a difficult thing to turn into robots due to the narrow cigar shape and general lack of mass but Dive-Dive is not only a passable model of a nuclear sub but turns into a decently-proportioned robot due to some very inventive work around the hips and shoulders giving him a mass and profile you'd never guess at, while retaining key hull parts (such as the rear fins for feet) so it doesn't feel like you've just peeled a shell apart.


SCRATCH


Gobots wasn't a flop from the start; part of the line's decline was due to a simple lack of product as Bandai kept a more sedate pace with Machine Robo than Tonka did with the Western line. The American company tried several approaches to combat this, making a few playset-type items in house and later producing figures Bandai rejected at the prototype stage. One approach was commissioning brand new figures; five of these were released in 1985, unofficially (by me and I've yet to be told off by anyone important) known as the MRT series due to their modified codes. These had American vehicle modes, which explains Scratch's dull Ford Bronco alternate mode. However, under that flat grey exterior lurks a dynamo of a robot; the fun transformation includes a rotating waist and leg flip movement the feels 20 years ahead of its' time, result in a robot with ball-jointed arms, a freely rotating waist and movement at the hips and knees, all beautifully balanced and about the same size as bloody Seaspray.


ROYAL-T


While Hasbro were knocking out identical Seekers and later Aerialbots Bandai were putting the effort into robots who turned into jets; alternate modes were more accurate, transformations were different, robot modes didn't have backpacks made up of aircraft parts all squished up. Look at Royal-T; the colour scheme's off but that's a smashing replica of a Harrier at something like 1:144 scale. Put him alongside Slingshot, a box with some plane bits stuck on. Transform Royal T, revel in the splitting tail that turns around to form the legs, the neat way the cockpit nestles perfectly into the chest, the wings slipping unobtrusively onto the back. Fold Slingshot's parts away onto his back, stand him on the end and weep. Then take in Royal-T's majestic robot mode. Look at Slingshot and the way you wouldn't be able to guess what he turned into if you looked at him from dead-on. Smash the orange-headed bastard with a hammer.


SCOOTER


The - fair - hatred for Scooter due to the Gobots cartoon masks what a great toy he had. Firstly it's a scooter, a funny everyday vehicle HasTak would never have dared put out when they could do yet another bloody sportscar; it took them 10 years to do a motorcycle Transformer that wasn't terrible and when they did finally pluck up the courage to do a scooter the result was the appalling Mini-Con Sureshock. And it's a good scooter mode too, no face on the front or anything. There's another mass-displacement transformation into a tall, impressive robot that once again has ball-jointed shoulders and surprising presence.


CREEPY


Don't like cars and planes? More of a Beast Wars type? Deviant. No, obviously all lifestyle choices are acceptable in the 21st century and if your choice is ugly, ugly toys Gobots has you all covered there too thanks to the monster-style figures that were the bad guys in Japan; Vamp, Pincher and Scorp were the three most famous but they were topped by the later Creepy, who turns from a killer crab into a robot with killer crab claws for arms. Again articulation is great and he's all covered with mandibles and insect legs and lurid colours, all that freaky stuff.


WATER WALK

We've talked about how there are more than two ways to turn a plane into a robot - it's not just "put everything on the robot's back" or "knob the Macross Valkyrie design". A case in point is Water Walk, who transforms nothing like Royal-T or any other Gobot aircraft. His plane mode itself is a bit special as well, a neat seaplane, and it leads to some interesting work with the floats swinging down to become the legs and the wings partly containing the arms, with the rest forming neat coat-tails behind rather than an ugly mass of cluttered parts. Look how clean that robot mode is. You could own that if you could get over your brand myopia, you bloody spanner.

TURBO

Maybe you don't like complicated toys is all. Maybe you like the simplicity of Windcharger or Swindle or whatever. It's okay, it's okay. You want simple? Gobots can do simple, it can do simple till the cows come home, put slippers on and crack out a DVD box set. And it can do it without making the toys repulsive. Take Turbo - look at that car mode, it's so sleek it'd make Pininfarina cry, years ahead of the divine Ferrari F40. Three steps and you've got a neat, impressive robot without taxing yourself - all with chrome, diecast, rubber tyres and all that good stuff. Simple can be beautiful.


Film Review: The Lego Batman Movie

USA, 2017, 104MINS
DIRECTOR: CHRIS McKAY
STARRING: WILL ARNETT, MICHAEL CERA, ROSARIO DAWSON, ZACH GALIFIANAKIS, RALPH FIENNES

Spun off from the genuinely excellent Lego Movie, The Lego Batman Movie had two major pitfalls to avoid - that the superb arrogant send-up of the Dark Knight that was so funny would support a whole film and that it would live up to the hype after the arsenal of trailers. The answers are affirmative. 

A quite brilliant take on Gotham City makes an excellent canvas, a city populated by every member of Batman's Rogues' Gallery worth a mention and a few that really aren't. The resulting plot is a respectable mix of moral fable and adventure story pitched firmly at the kids; grownups will guess the shape of the plot from the opening moments but that's not the point. 

The journey as Batman finds a new family is fun for adults because like its predecessor the film is genuinely and unrelentingly funny on so many levels, with everything from slapstick to weird in-jokes about casting in Tim Burton films and taking the piss out of Orca while also hanging a lampshade on Batman's seeming inability to keep crime in Gotham under control.

As well as Batman there's a funny take on ward Dick Grayson; if Batman is a ripe send-up of the Nolans/Frank Miller and the whole Dork Knight thing then Robin is straight out of the sixties TV series, all wide-eyed mindless optimism. Joining them are a proactive spiky Barbara Gordon, recast as mixed race and well voiced by Rosario Dawson (carefully avoiding retreading Wyldstyle) and a disapproving Alfred courtesy of Ralph Fiennes. 

The other side is led by Zach Galifianakis as a needy take on the Joker, who dumps his usual allies (aside from a mercifully rationed and deslutted Harley Quinn) in favour of.. well, I won't spoil it beyond guessing that Lego's Dimensions licence is the key to swinging the sort of crossover cast that would make anyone else weep with envy. None of the rest of the Batman villains don't get a gigantic amount to do but a surprising large number get a call out or little bit to do. Some serious research has gone into this whole area,  hence big screen debuts for the likes of Calendar Man, the Kabuki Twins and Gentlemen Ghost. Seriously, comic fans might want to see this twice as you'll spend the first time character spotting.

If there's a fault it's that for a film made entirely from (computer generated) Lego bricks Lego isn't actually hugely integral to the movie aside from a few visual jokes and a belated mention of teaching Robin Masterbuilding. It's a weird criticism though and I feel a bit Comic Book Guy now that I've said it. Maybe the closest thing to a real criticism is that it's not quite as fantastically transcendent and genuinely touching as The Lego Movie but then I've seen thousands of films and few are.

The Lego Batman Movie does utterly succeed on its own terms. There are no caveats here - it's not great for a kids film or a toy film or anything.  It's a riot of adventure and wit, with something for everyone who isn't dead and cold on the inside.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Comic Review: Heroes Reborn Part 6 - Fantastic Four #7-11

PUBLISHER: MARVEL, 1997
WRITERS: JIM LEE, BRANDON CHOI
ARTISTS: BRETT BOOTH, RON LIM

Post-'Industrial Revolution' it was clear the Heroes Reborn universe would be rejoining the main Marvel universe to some extent sooner rather than later; solid reasons why are hard to find from credible sources during a time of considerable upheaval for the House of Ideas. It might have been that new management felt such big properties should be in-house, that sales were disappointing, that the critical backlash had an effect,, that it was a short-term plan to generate publicity or none of those things or all of them.

The decision was made to have the last two issues of each Heroes Reborn title be a crossover, with the dangling possibility floated that the universe would be actually destroyed by Galactus. Thus there was effectively five issues of each to get from the state of affairs seen in the 'Industrial Revolution' crossover in the sixth issue of each to the 'Heroes Reunited' storyline in the twelfth.

This halfway point saw many of the creative teams reorganised; Fantastic Four would continue with storylines plotted by Wildstorm founder Jim Lee and writer Brandon Choi but Lee stopped contributing interior art. Brett Booth, best known for his work on the early issues of Stormwatch alongside Lee, comes in and does a decent replica job for a few issues before handing over to cosmic crossover specialist Ron Lim.

Plotwise it's the same breathless stream of introductions as the first chunk of issues but here it seems masochistic, like Wildstorm want to do their version of the Negative Zone (and Burstaar), the Inhumans (overkill as only Crystal was actually brought into the universe) and the Heralds of Galactus. None of this gets much development; the Negative Zone serves the narrative purpose of allowing a few fun flashbacks to earlier adventures (including mention of Franklin Richards) and showing the growing realisation of the characters that something is badly amiss with the universe. 

After that it's a rush off to Attilan to meet the Inhumans and another predictable "fight through misunderstanding then all become friends" story. Interspersed with all of this are introductions to three of the Heralds - Firelord, Plasma and Terrax, who turns up to fight the group and deliver official notice of Galactus' imminent arrival. All of which is overcomplication as the already-established Silver Surfer and maybe Terrax could have covered most of what they add to the plot advancement; they just take up pages. It might have made sense if Jim Lee was still drawing and wanted to put his stamp on the characters but as it is it's just bizarre; the Inhumans will also make minimal impact on the later crossover despite foreshadowing Galactus and you're left wondering why we need a remake of how they met the F4 at this juncture.

The Four themselves are reduced to a bunch of stock phrases with the odd bit of soap opera thrown in (Sue's inexplicably pregnant! Johnny and Crystal fall in love immediately) and by now there's basically no point in them being separate from their regular incarnations - Sue's business position or Johnny's casino antics aren't mentioned, for example. They're just the first family of superheroes like they were six months before.

Minifigures - The Miracleman Family

Ah, Miracleman. The greatest comic of the eighties, possibly ever, before the collapse of publisher Eclipse started a rights fiasco which took the book out of publication for more than twenty years. Marvel finally secured the rights in 2009 and set out at undermining buyer confidence by releasing sealed hardcovers containing chintzy vintage material than did little to hide its' origins as a knock-off of the original Fawcett Captain Marvel rather than the seminal update but since 2013 the good stuff has gradually leaked back into print; at the time of writing the first genuine new material from the proper creative team is due in a couple of months. Naturally despite being back in print the series has little to offer Bob Iger in terms of limp CGI blockbusters and so there have been no official Lego Minifigures; however, expert customiser Penzora has tackled most of the principal players in the saga.

MIRACLEMAN

The main guy himself. The figure uses the 1980s updated costume with the neat stacked "MM" that would serve as part of the comic's logo and would later inspire a faintly daft story explaining how the character's clothes could change while he apparently spent the time between his old Miller & Sons adventures and the new strips in Dez Skinn's fantastic Warrior apparently in suspended animation. Elsewhere the paint apps are sharp and really pop out the details in what - with Garry Leach's refinements - was one of the best superhero costumes of the time, which still stands out nicely. There's been no detail skipped, including the distinctive studded collar and the red/yellow boots while the blonde slicked back hair tops the figure off nicely; I've played around with some yellow hairpieces for dot-printed accuracy but it looks too cartoony.

YOUNG MIRACLEMAN

Young Marvelman was the first attempt by Miller & Sons to add another character to their bow and his solo series lasted as long as the parent title. Alan Moore's version however was much more rarely glimpsed as he spent the majority of the English writer's material believed dead, only appearing in flashbacks (including a silent solo fill-in strip). Moore's successor Neil Gaiman brought him back across his first arc however and the character is a key player in the semi-published Silver Age. The custom is again a brilliant barrage of primary colours, complete with vintage logo (Young Miracleman's costume having not been updated) and the right mix of clear relation to Miracleman himself but just enough differences, like the larger collar and varied belt and boot designs.

KID MIRACLEMAN

The third addition to the Miller stories, Kid Marvelman had inverted fortunes to Young Marvelman. In the original material he only appeared in the Marvelman Family team book but comes the eighties he became the villain of the piece, having spend all the time Miracleman was an amnesiac and Young Miracleman an exploded thing using his abilities to build an empire. The first version is based on his original appearance, only glimpsed in flashbacks and then in internal conversations with alter-ego Johnny Bates, complete with the jaunty logo. Again the figure is well painted with variation in the template rather than just being a palette swap; my only slight quibble - and it's a pedantic impossible wish - is that while the adult version did occasionally wear this costume it'd have been cool to have a short-legged version as the fifties K.M. was always shown as considerably smaller and younger than his team-mates. However, Penzora prides themselves on printing only on official Lego parts and there have yet to be official yellow short legs; come to think of it the bootleggers don't seem to have made any either. Maybe one day Lego will use them (we could do with a Toad too) and the figure will get an update.

MIRACLEWOMAN

Introduced in the epic third arc "Olympus", Miraclewoman was technically an all-new Alan Moore creation, though the inspiration was clearly Mary Marvel, replaced by Fawcett with the male Kid Marvelman. Penzora once again gets the character's sleek costume, a female equivalent of Miracleman, absolutely perfectly, right down to the similar boots and eighties "MW" logo on the belt. The hair proved a bit of a challenge, however; the custom originally came with the trendy fringe piece in yellow. The problem is Avril's hair in the comic's was basically the same as Miracleman's with just a tad more length and texture to give an air of androgyny and as much visible overlap with her male counterpart as possible. I played around with a few different pieces before settling on the one pictured, which is maybe a touch too styled and voluminous but works nicely as a part of the display.

YOUNG NASTYMAN

A fifties villain from Young Marvelman, Young Nastyman was broadly analogous to Black Adam from the Captain Marvel series. In the eighties material he was barely glimpsed but still important, breaking loose after Emil Gargunza's abuse of the fictional universe used to keep his creations in check caused a mental breakdown and dying in Iceland combatting Miraclewoman. His figure is close to a palette swap with Young Miracleman but it works nicely and he still has his distinctive individual badge on the front and a nicely unhinged face. While Penzora's original figure had the same slicked-back hair as the Kid Miracleman figures I went for a more ruffled piece both for variety and to depict him in his only significant appearance as a dishevelled mess.

THE ADVERSARY

Kid Miracleman made a full return in the "Olympus" arc and famously killed London; while he started out in the same business suit he had worn in "A Dream of Flying" as it disintegrated is revealed a black version of his suit, corrupted by his total degeneration (the darkness having spread ominously as he gained strength inside the juvenile Bates' head). Like Miracleman's suit the style also changed to something more modern and the revised chest log and boot design are nicely replicated here on the striking figure.

JOHNNY BATES

This one is a simple home-made mashup; the eighties adult version of Kid Miracleman spent most of his time in his day job business attire from running Sunburst Electronics and keeping to it while he kicked Miracleman around London twice before it was burned off him battling Huey Moon and Aza Chorn. The Jonah Jameson figure provided a close enough if not spot-on version of the waistcoat and shirtsleeves, topped off with the same head and hair as the Penzora figure.