Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Marvel Unbound - The Transformers: Classic, Volume 1

You can hear an audio version of this blog entry in the latest episode of the Marvel Noise podcast (sadly, no, I do not sing the Springsteen knockoffs) and join the conversation in the "Marvel Unbound" thread on the Marvel Noise forum.

Much to my friend Aaron's dismay, I was never a big fan of Transformers. As far as Marvel/Hasbro partnership franchises went, I was strictly a G.I. Joe kind of guy. In fact, until I picked up IDW's trade paperback reprints of the Marvel comics, I don't think I'd ever read a Transformers book before. So The Transformers: Classic, Volume 1 seemed like a great place to start.

I saw last summer's Michael Bay blockbuster movie based on the franchise. It was big, loud, dumb fun that I completely enjoyed. And my son loves the Transformers Animated television show on Cartoon Network, and the Easter Bunny brought him volume one of the digest-sized trade paperback based on that series. (I have watched a few episodes with him, and I like the art, but the stories aren't as strong as the new Spectacular Spider-Man series on Kids' WB!/The CW4Kids.)

As someone with only the same residual Transformers knowledge that any other fan of pop culture would have picked up over the last 23 years, I still enjoyed The Transformers: Classic, Volume 1, and didn't feel awkward just jumping right in. Coming of age in the '80s, I'm sure, has something to do with it. I appreciated the nostalgia in the same way I envision someone who was a huge Transformers fan back in the day might view the trade paperbacks of Marvel's G.I. Joe run. There are elements of storytelling convention that were inherent and indelible to the era that provided a familiarity to the book that made me feel right at home.

Although it grew into a very successful 80-issue ongoing series with far-reaching and complicated back-stories and spin-offs, the franchise began as a four-issue limited series in 1984. This solid, enjoyable foundation laid the groundwork for all kinds of '80s cheese -- from the dialog to the renderings. But it's all good.

The first half of this collection was thoroughly entertaining, providing a good basis for the Transformers legend by exploring the Autobots' and Decepticons' origins and establishing the Autobots' human allies and major players. Along with the original limited series, the Dinobots are introduced in issue #8, another issue I really enjoyed.

The last half of the collection is a real hoot. Issue #13 is a unique stand-alone story about a low-level hoodlum who stumbles on Megatron in his gun form (something I never understood in any of the Transformers mythos -- Decepticons transforming into weapons and how the logically get around), uses it to try and get ahead, and learns a lesson in the process.

The laughably thinly-veiled pseudo-Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the center of issue #14 cracked me up! It seems Bruce (here named "Brick") and the band (operating under the nom de plume "The Tenth Avenue Band") are putting on a show at Municipal Stadium, and the Decepticons see that as an opportunity to capture massive amounts of sound energy to convert to fuel. Brick's last name alternates between "Springstern" to "Springhorn," but the Clarence Clemons look-alike is referred to by his well-know real-life nickname, "The Big Man," throughout.

Marvel pulled out all the stops in coming up with songs for Brick: The lyrics to "Dancing in the Dark" become "Can't start a fire without a light / Even if we're just dancing in the night." Brilliant! "Born to Run" is rejiggered into "'Cause humps like us / Baby, we were born to ride!" And "Born in the U.S.A." gets remade into the instant classic... "Booorn in America." Genius.

Issue #15 has a great cover-on-cover art and a goofy storyline to go along with it. Comic book writer Donny Finkleberg (seriously!) is hired by the government to play the role of Robot Master (no, really, I'm serious!). The reasoning is that the public is freaking out about all these giant robot battles taking place around them, so the government believes that if they can put a single face on the problem then it will help the public deal with their fear and anxiety. Surprisingly, after doing some extra-curricular reading on the series, it seems Donny's role continues through much of the second year of the title. What's even more interesting, though, is that this quasi-featured character is regularly -- and prominently -- shown smoking cigarettes.

There are some quirks to the storytelling and the art sometimes felt disjointed. There were eight different pencilers across these first 16 issues, which leads to some drastic physical changes in some of the characters. Buster Witwicky somehow transforms from a high-school kid to a rather mature-looking young adult between issues #6 and #7. And G.B. Blackrock shifts from having a "Tony Stark"-type look to a more awkward Patrick Duffy kind of sheen. It's disconcerting, to the point that after the changes in appearance took place I often found myself flipping back and forth to earlier issues to compare them through the rest of the read.

It's obvious that, unlike Dark Horse's Star Wars: A Long Time Ago... reprint collections of Marvel's original series, IDW didn't restore or recolor any of these Transformers issues. But instead of detracting from the experience, it adds to the quaint nostalgia of the compilation. IDW also scores with the overall presentation. There are a couple issues that feature Marvel characters and, because of licensing, were unable to be reprinted here. But instead of excising those two issues altogether, IDW has provided cover shots and multi-page written summaries of the issues (#3 and #9) so you don't miss out entirely.

In all, The Transformers: Classic, Volume 1 is a quirky, fun read that I enjoyed, and because of the cliffhanger ending in issue #16, I'm actually looking forward to picking up Volume 2 at some point down the road.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Daredevil: The Honu Without Fear!

We were over at Diane and Ivan's this weekend for our godson's birthday party, and my parents were there too. At one point, my mom and dad, Ivan, and I were all out at a picnic table in the backyard, enjoying the spectacular view of Lake Erie. Somehow we ended up talking about the local comic book shop, Comic Heaven. Brian Michael Bendis is good friends with Jim, the owner, and the shop used to be a frequent hangout of Bendis'. Ivan was explaining who Brian Michael Bendis is to my mom and ended up in a long, winding description of Daredevil -- both the character and the book. While in the middle of this word sketch he's laying on my mom, he turns to her and asks, "You know what ninjas are, right?" And my mom perfectly deadpans, "Yeah, they're turtles."