Sunday, January 30, 2011

Transformers: The IDW Collection Volume 1 (comics)

Writers: Eric Holmes, Shane McCarthy, Simon Furman
Artists: Alex Milne, Casey Coller, E.J. Su, Nick Roche and others
Collects: Megatron Origin #1-4, Spotlight: Blur, Spotlight: Cliffjumper, Spotlight: Shockwave, Spotlight: Nightbeat, Spotlight: Hot Rod, Spotlight: Soundwave, Infiltration #0-6

This is only my second real foray into Transformers comics. Clearly they have fans - though they've never reached the heights of popularity that GI Joe did in the 80's, as far as I can see - but I've admittedly been a bit skeptical about it. I love the brand and have since I was a kid, but comics never struck me as a great fit for the Transformers.

The reason for that is because one of the key distinctive features of the Transformers has always been the transformation itself. Back when the toys first came out, it was what set them apart from the action figures of the day and to a young mind offered more play oppourtunities than the standard figure. In cartoons, it was still a major strength of the brand, because it was just cool to see them in motion, the transformations animated. For all the strengths of the comics medium, this is not something you can properly depict in detail without spending panel upon panel on the transformation itself. What's left are the characters themselves - and the allure of giant fighting robots - without one of the key features of the brand.

Luckily, I'm quickly finding myself convinced that's enough.

My first taste of the IDW continuity was the opening volume of All Hail Megatron, which takes place further down the line. I liked what I saw quite a bit, but instead of jumping right into the second volume, I figured I'd jump back to the beginning and read back up to that point. IDW had started putting together the big hardcovers, so damn, that's about as good an opening as any, right?

IDW started up their continuity in a rather unique way, one which is on full display in this volume. Instead of sticking with a lot of long story arcs, the bulk of the work is made up of one shot spotlight issues - each focusing on a different Transformer - sandwiched between two bigger stories that play out through the course of a miniseries. The spotlight issues are a great way to get to know the bot in question and while most of them generally begin and wrap in the course of the twenty two pages, the writers are slick in using the issues to set up numerous subplots, several of them feeding into the miniseries.

The result is a continuity that feels connected without being overpowering, which is a nice use of it as a tool instead of a crutch.

The opening story - the first of the two miniseries included here - is the IDW continuities official origin of Megatron. It's not quite the standard opening you might expect from this franchise. Megatron's a disgruntled miner in the midst of having his job ripped from him and his fellow miners by the Autobot government.

It's an interesting switch in that the Autobots, before the rise of the Decepticons, are portrayed as almost corrupt in the upper echelons, their government just as cold and uncaring as ours might be. For a time, it almost looks as though they're shooting to make Megatron sympathetic, even going so far as to show him shook up from his first kill. But that's not what they're going for; any sympathy for Megatron quickly melts away as he becomes increasingly ruthless, finding the killing easier and easier. Soon, he's become the evil tyrant we all know he is.

Speaking of Megatron, before I talk about anything else in the Origin, it's worth noting that this is not the mostly incompetent buffoon we know best from G1. Clearly, this is meant to be the Generation 1 Megatron, but by the end of the collections it's obvious IDW's version follows on the general trend since G1 of making the Megatrons far more dangerous and far better at what they do.

This is the first iteration I've seen of Generation 1 Megatron that was as vicious and competant as the Beast Wars Megatron - without the latters crippling arrogance - who has long been the gold standard. He may turn out to be even more ruthless than the BW counterpart; it's too early to tell, but if he continues in this vein he may just take the crown. Upon learning of Starscreams treachery, Megatron casually dispatches the cronies who followed him before completely trashing Starscream like it ain't no thing. This is not a Megatron to be trifled with; even BW Megatron had a bad habit of letting guys like Tarantulus and Terrorsaur hang around a bit too long.

Anyways, back to the mini itself. The writing is pretty good, but I think it's hurt by the art. Alex Milne isn't a stranger to the Transformers - he's done work on the Energon comic prior to Dreamwaves closure, as I understand - but while he draws some awesome looking robots, there are occasional storytelling hitches. There were instances in the course of the mini where it was difficult to figure out what was going on. I'm not entirely sure it's Milne's fault - much of my confusion seemed to result when the coloring messed up - but it's still disappointing.

After the Origins mini, the next third of the book is taken up by the spotlight one shots. They're all enjoyable and well written, setting up future plots while serving as enjoyable stories in their own right. A couple of them are written by Shane McCarthy, who I recognize as the writer of All Hail Megatron, but halfway through Simon Furman takes the reins, penning the rest of the material in the book.

It's a bit difficult to talk about the art for the one shots. There's literally a different artist for each one. So talking about each one would take all day. But what can be said is that it's uniformly good. No problems following them either, which is what hampered the Megatron Origin.

The last third or so of the book is the Infiltration mini, which seems to be the first "big" storyline of the continuity. I really enjoyed it. Humans are introduced here for the first time; I don't carry the disdain for human characters like some Transformers fans do, but the ones introduced here are probably the best bunch I've seen from the franchise as actual characters. Furman's got a good handle on everyone; I'd expect as much from a long time writer for the franchise, but I was still surprised, considering this was my first exposure to his work.

The brunt of the story picks up on plot threads introduced in the spotlight mini's; Starscream gets hold of some totally awesome energon and decides hey, now seems like a bitchin' time to betray Megatron and take over. Megatron doesn't really care for that, of course, so off he goes to give Starscream a stern talking to. Which, for this Megatron, involves creating giant holes in Transformers bodies and leaving them for scrap. Like I said, this Megatron doesn't screw around.

It's fitting that it closes out the volume, because it does so on a high note. This is probably my favorite of the volume. The writing is good and the art is great. It also sets up the future nicely and leaves me ready for volume two. IDW's Transformers work is pretty awesome, from what I'm seeing.

There's also an unusual risk taken with this continuity in that - Megatron aside - it doesn't focus on the better known Transformers much. Bumblebee isn't seen until Infiltration and Optimus Prime isn't seen at all aside from a cameo or two. Optimus in particular is the most surprising omission, since he's a principal character and arguably the face of the franchise. But it works; when he finally does show up, it feels kind of like a big moment, arguably the one we've been waiting for, and helps with that whole "looking forward to Volume 2" thing.

Overall, this is a very nice package. It's a handsome hardcover and while it's not, say, omnibus size, there's a decent amount of content here. Seventeen issues isn't anything to sneeze at and makes for a pretty thick hardcover. It feels substantial, really; and while I'm normally not a hardcover guy, this is the sort of package I could make exceptions for. Very good work in putting this together.

The Score: 8 out of 10

Seventeen issues of good writing and mostly good art in a beefy, well produced hardcover. As a whole package, this book earns its high mark. I look forward to where things go from here and most of my skepticism about Transformers comics is pretty much gone now. Hopefully the second volume is as good, if not better.

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