Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Transformers #1

The first issue of IDW's Transformers comic series is released today. You might be forgiven for thinking that this is a swift cash-in on the staggering success of the two recent (utterly shit) movies. But you'd be wrong! Believe it or not, Transformers #1 (the '1st BLOCKBUSTER ISSUE') is just the latest issue in a continuity that has been running for over four years. Welcome to the wonderful world of comics. If you think that's bizarre, try following Peter David's X Factor. October: issue 50. November: no issue. December: issue 200!

In this case, the reason for the 'issue 1' label is partly because the story is now under he helm of a new writer/editor/artist team and partly because this is the first time IDW are officially publishing an ongoing monthly Transformers comic. Everything they've put out up until now was in the form of mini-series of four, five, six or twelve issues and individual one-shots. A major mistake that, I imagine, cost them a chunk of their readership, was never making it clear within the comics what order they should be read in. Characters from spotlight issues would turn up in the fifth issue of one of the mini-series, carrying with them plot threads you didn't know existed if you hadn't been buying everything under the TF banner. Just to make things even more confusing, they were simultaneously republishing the back-catalogues of Dreamwave and Marvel's stints on the property.

This comic, written by Mike Costa, is an attempt to continue where the previous series, All Hail Megatron, left off, at the same point as providing a fresh 'starting point' for new readers. In the latter respect, it works quite well. Everything you need to know is spun out rapidly over the first few pages. It's the near future, and two years ago, a race of warring robots, with the ability to disguise themselves as vehicles, turned up and trashed the planet. Now we (the human race) are hunting down the survivors of the battle, good and bad. The baddies (who lost the fight) are short on energy supplies and regularly captured. The goodies are better at hiding, but are ticked off at their leader, who insists on remaining on Earth in the misguided belief that those baddies that escaped the planet will come back and attack again.

And really, that's all you need to know. There's shades of District 9 in its depiction of how we react to unwelcome visitors from outer space and the issue sets up a bit of a leadership struggle within the ranks of the alien robots. There's killing, a rescue mission, and some crisp dialogue.

Unfortunately, the art is a mixed bag. Don Figueroa is a fan-favourite Transformers artist whose attention to detail is always impressive. He's trying out a new style here that leaves the robot's bodies looking generally over-fussy, while their faces throw up more District 9 comparisons. There are expressions of anger, despair and fear going on somewhere in the middle of these spiky, toothy, emaciated visages, but it's often hard to make them out, especially when the default setting is a sort of gurn. At the very least though, it's not as bad as the movie models and these Transformers are colour-coded so you can tell them apart.

As a follower of IDW's Transformers series over the past few years, the issue is a little more troublesome. Optimus Prime, the Autobot leader, has taken a nosedive from being a competent, spiritually vigorous military commander coordinating a galaxy-wide war effort to an indecisive wet lettuce, seemingly marooned on a single planet by his own choice. His lieutenant, Prowl, has gone from an edgy, frustrated and strictly by-the-book officer to, on this evidence, a generic hothead (a plotline about him manipulating another high-ranking character has been put on the backburner). The Decepticons, as I understood it, have been ravaging countless worlds, yet here the Autobots talk as if a single skirmish on Earth defeated them.

This is, however, a much better 'soft reboot' for the series than the last one, All Hail Megatron, a twelve issue series that either forgot, or rode roughshod over many previously established details and didn't even make much sense on its own logic. What hurt even more in that case was that the previous few story arcs had all been written by Simon Furman, a legend of Transformers fiction, and it was his convincing reimagining of the concept for the 21st century that got me reading these comics again. All Hail Megatron, for reasons not entirely clear, did nasty things to Furman's better established characters and returned the series to a cousin of the 80s cartoon, replete with giant Dolby cassette tapes and construction vehicles the size of buildings.

Any fan of Transformers knows that the comics are where the characters live, breathe and die (and die a lot) while the movies and cartoons generally muck about with product placement and kid-appeal characters. If the comics are going strong, the brand is going strong. On present evidence, this new direction could go either way. Even if it goes the wrong way, IDW have made a rare and significant discovery in the form of super-talented writer/artist Nick Roche, who begins a new mini-series, called Last Stand of the Wreckers, in January. There's no question in my mind that that, at least, will be worth picking up.

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