Saturday, January 7, 2012

Not Featuring Harlock: Simon Furman's "Space Pirates" and Post-Movie Transformers

The breadth of my interest in a fandom's material tends to decrease the longer I am in it: I go from devouring everything in sight to becoming entirely too choosy. Recently, I've come to very mildly regret almost entirely losing interest in the old Marvel Transformers comics. This, also spurred by receiving The Transformers Vault for Christmas, lead me to buy one of the many reprinted collections with my Christmas money, to see if they still held up.

I picked something from the Marvel UK run, which ran concurrently with the US Marvel comic but had many more issues as filler in between their stories, allowing for a more epic scope. Out of these, I chose the IDW Space Pirates book because it covers familiar territory.

My favourite G1 Transformers have almost entirely been (with the exception of Marvel Shockwave) the ones introduced in the animated Transformers movie. The third season of the cartoon did me a huge favour by making these characters the main cast for its period, but the Marvel Comics almost entirely avoided these characters in their main storyline. There was no overhaul like the cartoon series, in which one cast virtually replaced another. Rather, the comics just added more and more to the cast, with a chance of characters from any era putting in an appearance.  It might be due to more care in the writing, making the story progression more organic.

In the US, those TF:TM characters they did introduce were tertiary until Galvatron appeared late in the run as a major villain. The UK comics, however, had an alternate future universe that seemed heavily based off of the cartoon's season three. This universe frequently crossed over with the main continuity, but was rarely the subject of its own tales, and thus was secondary. At the same time, certain TF:TM characters did exist in the main continuity and showed up frequently, albeit in far different contexts.

At the time, I was hungry for anything featuring the TF:TM characters, and the Marvel UK material was a great way to get my fix. This was before reprinted collections, and I read these comics in small, almost illegible .jpgs off now-defunct websites. I enjoyed them very much, but at some point, I began to drift away from the comics, so that when the paperback collections were released by various publishers, I never picked them up.

I regret that a bit now, since I enjoyed reading Space Pirates, as well as the additional stories that were included in the volume to create some sense of sequence in IDW’s cherry-picked collections of UK series. . If I had more money I would gladly buy the rest of the UK collections, even those without my favourite characters in them. However, despite this enjoyment, Space Pirates and the other stories lack the emotional connection that would make me love these comics as much as G1 season three, even when the comics are better-written

The main problem is that while the plots are far and above the cartoon, Simon Furman's writing lacks a heart, of sorts. I can see some defining character traits, but a lot of the time, the Transformers seem terribly generic except for a few standouts. Their voices start to blend together, which is probably inevitable with such a large cast, but it does dampen the appeal. There's also large amounts of third-person dialogue and clunky exposition, making the comics seem less like a work that could stand on its own to non-Transformers fans who are less inclined to put up with the cheesiness.

Sometimes the characterization is disagreeable rather than dull. Cyclonus, appearing in one of the other stories in this volume, is the worst offender. He's a total moron, probably the most stupid character in the book. It's not just difference from the cartoon that's the problem—he'd read as insufferably dumb to a non-fan, too. One of the worst parts is when he lets slip a secret in a fit of anger, just a few panels after he was told not to.

Arcee in Space Pirates is a close runner-up, and since she's the only female Transformer in the cast, it makes Furman suspect in other ways. She deserts her post to go on a joyride, allowing the Quintessons to take over Autobot City, never gets a chance to fight as she is shot, used as bait, then limps around after Hot Rod while he does the important stuff. I never was all that fond of Arcee, and she could be as bad as this in the cartoon, but the comics is supposed to be better-written.

(Of course, what could you expect from the same writer who's taken multiple swipes at the concept of female Transformers and viewers who want to see them? Look at Prime's Rib and Spotlight: Arcee for examples)

I loved Shockwave in other Marvel comics, but here his "logical" personality is replaced by a more generic leadership. One could replace him with Megatron or several other of the comics' many Decepticon leaders, and little would change. Soundwave also talks like a normal character instead of his famous terse monotone, but doesn't get any new personality in return, except for a brief moment where he almost wants to reconcile with the Autobots after they team up against the Quintessons. Was anything ever really done with that? Springer, who is only seen in the main universe, is a generic hardass warrior without his quips or swagger. Scourge is presented as a more generic warrior-leader, obviously the brains of the outfit when Cyclonus is around, and he's kind of boring, too. It's not simply that they are different, but that the differing characterizations aren't that interesting.

When they appear, Cyclonus and Scourge are also working against Galvatron, to the point of wanting to kill him. I realize that Simon Furman is not obligated to stick to the cartoon's portrayal of the characters as Galvatron's loyal soldiers, but I do a mental pearl-clutch nonetheless. Scourge in the cartoon was a traitor once, so I could picture him doing something like this...but even so, it's not my thing.

This is a "Best of" series, so smaller, incidental stories are skipped over, though advertisements for these stories remain. Ideally a series of graphic novels collecting the entire UK run would be preferable, not just the "big" stories, though several complications make that difficult.

I've spent so much time ragging on the Space Pirates graphic novel, what's good about it? Well, all the things I complained of didn't entirely spoil the proceedings. I was still enjoying a comic that read like it could be a multi-part episode of the cartoon's third season, even hearing some of the character's lines in their cartoon voices (even if a few lines didn't sound like something they would say). Essentially, the Quintesson homeworld is in danger of being destroyed, and one of the planets they "scout" for re-colonization is Cybertron. Lead by General Ghyrick (one of those lobster-hands "executioner" type Quintessons), they attack Autobot City and Cybertron itself, hoping to overpower the Transformers and take  Cybertron.

The time rift that almost destroys the Quintesson planet is tied to the larger storyline, but it could easily have been replaced with another plot device. The continuity is obviously different, above all the fact that the planet suffered an entirely different fate in the TV series, but the connections are undeniable.

There is still something to be said for the plot being better than anything the cartoon produced at the time, and it still has some nods to individual characterization, such as Hot Rod's brief moment of self-doubt when he's about to die, or his hot-headedness as Rodimus Prime.

The additional stories I've spoken of, the ones leading into the next volume, are also entertaining, and would never pass for an episode of the cartoon for various reasons. It is nice to get some of the TF:TM Decepticons in this volume, too, though in a different story than the TF:TM Autobots.

I am judging too much based on the cartoon, and the comic is arguably better, but the cartoon is what's been rolling around inside my head for far longer, and I consider its portrayals to be the definitive versions of Rodimus Prime, Galvatron, et. al. This comic may be better-written, but it does not draw me in emotionally as the cartoon did.

As for the artwork, I mostly like it. I enjoy Dan Reed's unconventional Transformers art, and so on. My only complaint is the simplified new colour schemes for some characters: Particularly bad are Hot Rod coloured almost entirely in magenta and silver, and the bipedal types of Quintesson which are a uniform purple and green.

In short, the comics are long on plot, short on character. I can't let go of my attachment to the cartoon, but beyond that there are still things to pick apart. The Transformers comics have a cast of dozens, but as all the memories come flooding back, I can remember few characters that stand out or that I emotionally connected with. At the same time, the stories are gripping, and not completely devoid of emotional investment. I wouldn't be averse to acquiring more copies of the UK comics, though I would start with the ones starring the "future" characters and whatever the mainline Ultra Magnus gets up to.

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