04 October 2016

Review: The Transformers Classics, Vol. 1 by Bob Budiansky et al.

Last year, I reviewed the components of IDW's Doctor Who Humble Bundle; IDW also has done a couple Transformers Humble Bundles, and I've downloaded the components of both of them and have been reading an issue a day over breakfast, on days where I don't have other comics to read. There are diverse range of comics on hand, and I'll be reviewing them in some semblance of continuity order, beginning with the first volume of the collected Generation One comics:

Comic PDF eBook, 315 pages
Published 2011 (contents: 1984-86)
Acquired August 2014
Read November 2015
The Transformers Classics, Vol. 1

Plots by Bill Mantlo, Jim Salicrup, Bob Budiansky
Scripts by Ralph Macchio, Jim Salicrup, Bob Budiansky
Pencils by Frank Springer, Alan Kupperberg, William Johnson, Ricardo Villamonte, Herb Trimpe, Don Perlin
Inks by Kim DeMulder, Ian Akin and Brian Garvey, Alan Kupperberg, Kyle Baker, Brad Joyce, Tom Palmer, Al Gordon
Letters by Michael Higgins, Rick Parker, Janice Chiang, John Workman, Diana Albers
Colors by Nelson Yomtov

I have a bit of a mixed relationship with The Transformers. I loved the two spin-offs of the original cartoon, Beast Wars and Beast Machines, both of which I followed devotedly in high school. But my attempts to return to the source material have done little for me: I don't care for any single episode of the original 1980s Transformers cartoon I have seen, aside from the 1986 film, which I like not so much for its quality, but for the sublimely unique experience that is watching it: toy robot advertisements meets mythological saga, featuring both Orson Welles and Weird Al. But I always like the idea of the Transformers-- how could you not?-- and with the cheapness of a Humble Bundle, I'm willing to give it another go.

Unfortunately, I think the opening volume of the 1980s Marvel Transformers comic betrays all the weaknesses of the format. While I think the Beast-era cartoons managed to put storytelling above toy-selling, this comic drowns in its toy-commercial roots, driven home by the giant panels where umpteen characters introduce themselves, their gimmicks, and potted explanations of their own personalities:
And, get this, this is only half of the spread! There are two whole pages of Autobots doing this, plus another whole page for the Decepticons earlier in the issue.
from The Transformers #1 (plot by Bill Mantlo, script by Ralph Macchio, art by Frank Springer & Kim DeMulder)

The worst part of it is that little of these introductions even matter! You never hear from most of these characters in any substantive way, and when you do, they're written completely generically-- the little bits of personality they deploy here never matter. This is probably unavoidable by the design of the comic; when you have eighteen good guy characters and eleven bad guy ones, and are constantly adding new ones as new toys come out, it becomes impossible for more than a handful of them, if that, to receive any kind of focus in a 22-page comic book!

The human characters are few and distinctive enough to pop, though not always for the best. There's a kid who's an obvious reader surrogate, "Buster" Witwicky, son of a mechanic but with no mechanical aptitude himself, but I find myself gravitating more toward his single father, "Sparkplug", a grizzled Vietnam vet who is scared by these strange alien robots but still has a heart of gold.

Surprisingly serious stuff, actually.
from The Transformers #4 (script by Jim Salicrup, art by Frank Springer and Ian Akin & Brian Garvey)

I also found myself liking Ratchet, the ambulance Transformer who is the Autobot's mechanic, but I think that might be because I imagined him voiced by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Jeff Combs, who voiced Ratchet in the 2010-13 cartoon Transformers: Prime.

Initially, the first four issues are written by three writers (Bill Mantlo, Ralph Macchio, and Jim Salicrup), but after that, the long-serving Bob Budiansky takes over. I've of two minds about Budiansky's work. He obviously doesn't want things to be stale. While on television, The Transformers was about Autobots led by Optimus Prime and Decepticons led by Megatron fighting an unchanging war, Budiansky is constantly adjusting the status quo. The logical Shockwave assumes control of the Decepticons, and manages to subdue and capture most of the Autobots. The Shockwave-Megatron throwdown is probably the best sequence in this whole volume, but other than that, the old status quo had so little time to bed in, that seeing the Autobots scattered and leaderless isn't all that effective an upset, and the Autobots don't end up with a whole lot of focus.

That said, this is a pretty great issue-ending image.
from The Transformers #5 (script by Bob Budiansky, art by Alan Kupperberg)

Budiansky likes to sprinkle in tales that put some focus on the human element, with mixed results; the trucker whose trailer is stolen by the Decepticons has some potential; the man who finds his life of crime enhanced by his possession of a Megatron locked into handgun mode is much more entertaining. So there's obviously potential here, but thus far I feel like Budiansky and his very varied artistic collaborators aren't really delivering on it.

(One last note of complaint: two issues here feature Marvel-owned characters, Spider-Man and Circuit Breaker, in issues #3 and #9. IDW actually did get the rights to reprint them in hard copy, which was, I believe, a first, but apparently not electronically. I understand that these things happen, but the e-book version of this collection doesn't explain their omission, just cutting from issue #2 to #4, and from page 55 to page 81, without a single comment!)

Next Week: Bob Budiansky does his best-ever work on The Transformers, in Classics, Vol. 2!

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