Monday, November 24, 2008

All Hail Megatron

Update: IDW has linked to this post on their site, you can also see the first edition of this article here.

What do you call a cut of beef named after a civic club? Optimus Prime.

In 1985, the comic world was a heady place. Secret Wars was out, Watchmen and The ’Nam was about to be, and Wolverine and the Punisher culling out a fan base that would soon lead to their appearance in every Marvel title including Barbie and He-Man (just kidding—or am I?). And Transfromers the comic, which wasn’t bad, was selling right alongside the TV series building to the inevitable.

In 1985, the toasters were king: Go-bots, Voltron, and Transformers, with Transformers being probably the best and definitely the best opening montage and song. G.I. Joe (also a great opening) had huge fire fights with laser rifles that never hit anything, but then Transformers was up next and, because they were robots, they routinely got shot and blown apart—though always repaired.

And then it happened.

In 1986, Transformers: the Movie did the best and the worst thing it could do. It gave Optimus Prime a noble death and it traumatized an entire generation of kids (you cried; you know you did—we all did). They also killed a ton of main characters like Ironhide and Prowl, and, amazingly enough, improved the opening song. After that the Transformers took to the stars and only later did Prime return in at the end of the series’ run. Since then it seemed the Transformers (Generation I, the real Transformers) rarely seemed to return to the earth in anything worth watching or reading though there were a number of good tries.

While in the mid-80s the writing in comics suffered in some places, the art, marketing, and events were waxing until the excesses of the 90s turned many readers away. In hindsight, one of those excesses might have been the Marvel Universe series, which seemed like a good thing in the early 90s—we didn’t know about the Internet then—but was really just a character pic with a profile and a history. So, instead of ordering back issues or waiting for trades or looking it upon Wikipedia, we kids read Marvel Saga and Marvel Universe and Marvel Tales for about a buck an issue (25 cents if you got the beat up copies from the sales bin) to catch up on characters. These profiles included many Transformers and listed numerous powers that were extremely violent and terrifying and rarely came up in the Saturday morning cartoon.

But in the wake of the Michael Bay blockbuster, the Transformers are all over comics again, but in series not the easiest to just pick up and run with. Enter All Hail Megatron, and readers shying away from the transformers’ books since Optimus became one with the All-Spark (you know you cried, just be a man and admit it) get a well crafted adult book with all the punch of both movies. But what’s more, the terrifying power disclosed in the old Marvel Universe profiles is brought to bear.

For readers that don’t know what happened between the 80s and now All Hail Megatron side steps the problem by making it a reason to keep reading. Issue one starts with the on model, un-Michael Bay-ed, classic Decepticons doing what they did to Autobot City, only this time it’s New York City and humans are dying by the thousands. The black, gray, and red Megatron of the ’86 movie went from clownish to scary and actually successfully evil with a few cannon blasts, and that’s the Megatron that shows up in this issue to squash the humans like insects. It’s sort of like watching Skeletor behead the Sorceress and burn Castle Grayskull to the ground. The military response is flattened; in fact, Frenzy wipes out a large portion alone using the crazy powers not seen on TV. Any comic that makes a tape cassette robot look more horrific than the terminator is doing something right. Plus, there’s a Witwicky in it as part of a band of human survivors, a story arc that’s shades of Cloverfield, but this time in the subway we know what’s happening before the refugees as Astrotrain pulls into the station.

The old villains make grand appearances, one by one, invoking a sense of nostalgia and shock as your childhood characters commit genocide. Starscream shows up after blowing Air Force One out of the sky. And Megatron and Starscream have this father/son moment of praise and regret that actually develops their characters as tyrant and usurping champion—unbelievable, right?

So, where are the Autobots? In the most recent issue where we find the Autobots hiding and dying on Cybertron. Prime is apparently dead again (steady, fight the tears) but who knows, really? Ironhide is all in a huff about some betrayal: who’s the traitor? Jazz is keeping some secret project from the group. They’re at each other's throats when they stumble upon Hot Rod, who thinks they have come to rescue him. The writers sort of says, “you don’t know what’s happened, but keep reading because it’s all part of the mystery and charm,” which is arguably more fun than a caption reading “see Transformers Mangaverse vol. 17 and Beast-Wars #4—Ed.” Very Old Man Logan, very “how did this come to pass?” “What did they do to you,” which, incidentally, is exactly the cliffhanger line from the last issue of the Old Man Logan story arc, thus proving the effectiveness of starting inside the whale’s belly.

All Hail Megatron is an interesting series: characterization, good dialogue, action, “end of the world” level destruction, mysterious backstory, and a weird connection to the Saturday mornings of your childhood. Sure, it’s not Hamlet but for a Transformers comic the story’s got grit and surprise. Plus, any book that has the Decepticons decimating NYC and America in general, and then flips to the beleaguered Autobots is setting up a confrontation; perhaps a confrontation where, at the end of the battle, one shall stand and one shall fall? (You so cried when Optimus died).

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