Some thoughts on the Marvel TF comics

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Warcry
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Some thoughts on the Marvel TF comics

Post by Warcry » Mon Aug 12, 2019 10:41 pm

Apologies in advance...this is probably going to get wordy. :) I just felt like writing all of this down after all the reading I did.

Inspired by our friend dalek's frankly amazing retrospective on the UK book, I set myself the task of reading the entire Marvel run in one go. About a quarter of the way through I realized why I'd never done it before, and overall it took me about a year, but I'm glad I did! This is the first time I've ever considered the book as a solid whole instead of in bite-sized chunks, and I'm really surprised by how much it changed my perspective on...well, almost all of it.

First of all, I appreciate Bob Budiansky a lot more now than I did before. The man catches a lot of flak in the fandom, and in my opinion most of it is undeserved. I think that people tend to look back on his stories retrospectively, sneer down their noses and say "that's not what Transformers stories are supposed to be". There's a bit less of that now than there was a decade and a half ago, when the fandom was more or less split between cartoon fans and Furmanites, but the narrative still lingers.

But that's silly. First of all, it's entirely unfair to look at work from the early years of the franchise and judge it against a standard that didn't exist yet. And second of all, as the IDW universe showed us...Transformers can be so much more than identikit Saturday morning cartoon fare or po-faced space opera. And I think that's something that Budiansky was showing people right from the beginning. Because when he wrote the Transformers for Marvel, he wasn't writing "proper Transformers comics". He was writing 80s Marvel comics that happened to have Transformers in them. The sometimes downright bizarre adventures that he created are things that wouldn't have been out of place in most of Marvel's superhero fare in that decade, and after having read a lot of 80s superhero books recently I found myself enjoying the Budiansky issues a lot more than I'd expected.

That isn't to say there wasn't some dreck. Prime committing suicide over a video game will never not be dumb, and by the time the Pretenders came around it was pretty clear that he was done with the whole thing. But on the whole...honestly, there was a good stretch of time where I was enjoying the US books far more than the contemporary UK stuff.

And speaking of segues, how about that UK stuff, huh? Well, for one thing, Simon Furman seems to view his first year or so's output as something of an old shame. And I, honestly, can't imagine why. I loved the early (pre-Galvatron) UK stuff. It was weird and wonderful, and it really fleshed out the early-years characters in a way what the US book simply didn't have the pages for. Soundwave in particular was a gem here, compared to the total non-entity he was in the US (if I hadn't recently read Out of Time and seen him chatting away after Mindwipe brainwashed him, you probably coiuld have convinced me that he'd never spoken in the US books at all). And of course the Dinobots were fantastic too.

I was surprised to find that I adored the late-run black and white stuff too. Now, I completely understand why the UK crowd don't -- these strips represent the slow death of homegrown content, and of the book as a whole. And the format of the book in the days when these were being published was just idiotic. The US stories were basically unreadable broken up into five-page chunks, and even this stuff got hard to follow...I quickly gave up trying to hop between the two and just read all the black-and-whites together, then went back and read all the US issues properly after that. But taken on their own merits, there is a ton to like here. In a way, it represented the comics (and Furman) going back to their roots, telling smaller-scale stories that served to shed light on a ton of characters that hadn't gotten much love in the US book. Including more great work with Soundwave, some attention for the totally-overlooked Sunstreaker and Tracks...and of course, my guy Spinister. The fact that it's impossible to fit into the main timeline honestly matters a lot less to me now that I've seen much worse nonsense happening in much more carefully-edited comics.

What I didn't like so much was the Galvatron/future stuff. It started off poorly (Target:2006 had piles of ridiculous plot holes), continued poorly (becoming a thinly-veiled backdoor pilot for Death's Head for about a year, guest-starring the Transformers in their own book) and ended poorly (Time Wars is obviously a mess and the less said about Space Pirates the better) without ever coming close to paying off the narrative arc of any of it's main protagonists. Death's Head obviously falls right out of the universe, Ultra Magnus never appears again after beating up some gladiators in an unrelated side-quest (both of these felt like an RPG campaign having to be hastily rewritten by the GM after two of the players dropped out half way through), and Rodimus never proves to himself that he's a worthy Prime. There were definitely a lot of good moments along the way, so I understand why the folks who grew up with these stories have such good memories of them. But taken as a whole, it's hard for me to call the overarching storyline anything but a failure.

Furman's step into the US book started off a bit shakily too. A part of the problem is that he was dropped in smack dab in the middle of the Micromaster-shilling, right at the tail end of Hasbro giving a shit about the comic as a toy-selling vehicle. So he was forced to build his plot around a bunch of characters that he clearly couldn't give two shits about. Acting like people should care about Megatron (who's never been much more than a joke in the US book) was probably a questionable choice too. Things did get better once the Classics Pretenders joined the fold though, since he clearly actually wanted to be writing about those four.

Things carried on in much the same way for most of the first year. Matrix Quest was very hot and cold, coinciding with whether each individual issue starred Furman's favourites or not. Nightbeat or Grimlock? You're golden. Longtooth or Dogfight? Run for the hills! Rhythms of Darkness was an enjoyable alt-future cliche-storm, at least, but the book doesn't actually get reliably good until the Megatron/Ratchet fusion pops out of Unspace. The last year was pretty golden, though.

And, of course, G2. It's insane and ridiculous and so deliriously 90s that you'd almost have to think that the creative team were leaning into the XTREEM to have a laugh at the trends that were going on in the industry at the time. Though with the way Furman treats this series as an old shame nowadays, maybe he actually did think this was what all the young, hip 90s kids wanted to read?

Of course, while G2 manages to be a really good story about Prime, Megatron (finally making him genuinely cool in the Marvel TF-verse), Starscream and Grimlock, it was also quite possibly the worst toy-advertising comic ever made. Almost no one (Sideswipe and Prime are the only ones that readily come to mind...I certainly didn't spy a purple Ramjet or technicolour Combaticons) had their G2 colours, and most of the characters in the G2 toyline were pushed to the background in favour of guys like Hot Rod, Kup, Soundwave or the like. Which, again, I loved...but Hasbro probably didn't, and it probably contributed to the book getting axed after 12 issues.

Which brings me to my last thought about Furman. These days, you'll hear people say that his greatest weakness as a writer is that he can't end a story properly. I don't think that's true. He's certainly had some big failures in that department (Time Wars, Revelations), but also some big successes (On The Edge of Extinction, A Rage in Heaven). No, his greatest weakness is, and has always been, a complete and utter inability (or unwillingness) to put any thought into how he writes any characters bar his handful of stars.

When Budiansky created the characters for the franchise, he did it knowing full well that he'd never be able to give most of them the attention they'd need to become fully fleshed-out characters. So he made sure that they would be memorable for kids even if all he ever did with them were a few lines as they stood in the background. A lot of the time they sounded silly, sure, but he did a really good job of making sure that even scrubs like Weirdwolf or Sinnertwin or Hardhead often had their own unique "voice" when they briefly got to do something.

Compared to that standard, it's hard not to find Furman wanting. His main characters have a lot of depth, but everyone else just sounds like...well, like an identikit Furman backgrounder. No one sounds unique (Weirdwolf talks like Yoda no longer does :( ) So Needlenose or a Battlecharger or Ruckus or one of the dumb Firecons will spout off with long-winded eloquent speeches when the plot requires, or someone like Spinister will temporarily become a quippy goon when Furman wants to include some snappy combat banter. That sort of thing wasn't anywhere near as noticeable when I read his stuff piecemeal, but taken all in one dose it really stands out. I never cared about the background cast in Furman's books the way I did in Budiansky's, even though objectively they gave them about the same amount of stuff to do. It's hard to get upset when background characters get Furmanated because I know I won't miss them -- another flat spearcarrier will be spouting identical lines next issue.

But overall, I definitely really enjoyed reading it all! Aside from a few of the black-and-white UK issues I don't think any of it was new to me, but it had been a long time since I'd read most of it. I think that let me look on it with new eyes, a bit, and I was surprised by what I found. Surprised by how much I enjoyed the stuff I wasn't expecting to, and also I guess surprised by how I enjoyed some other stuff less than I'd expected. But overall, I think it compares favourably to most of the other 80s books I've read extensively.

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Cyberstrike nTo
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Re: Some thoughts on the Marvel TF comics

Post by Cyberstrike nTo » Tue Aug 13, 2019 8:15 pm

I think Furman's biggest weakness is that for modern comics he can't write for TPB, which for better or worse is how many people read paper comics now of days. He writes some great one-shots or 25+ issues epics but when was starting up IDW's original TF comics. I think the continuing mini-series format and all of the various Spotlights made it hard to keep track for people like me to what was going on and while I personally don't like the continuing mini-series format because it IMHO you can only do 2 storylines in each series (an "A" plot that is the main story and a "B" plot that this is the set up for the next series) strangely I've only read 2 series that did right John Byrne's Next Men and Noble Causes (which later became an ongoing series and was better as an ongoing series).

Also I think Furman was constantly introducing more and more and more stuff with the only the idea that it would pay off and by the time it was time to pay it off and IDW had flooded the market of all kinds of Transformers comics set in Beast Wars, The Live Action Movie Universe, and the then new G1 Universe that it kind got lost in the shuffle.

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Denyer
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Re: Some thoughts on the Marvel TF comics

Post by Denyer » Wed Aug 14, 2019 10:34 pm

Warcry wrote:I was surprised to find that I adored the late-run black and white stuff too. Now, I completely understand why the UK crowd don't
I do. It ends with a bit of a whimper, but I started on the comic at 268 (apart from a random issue 134 and whatever annuals, collected comics and stray issues could be had from shops, car boot sales, wet playtime boxes, etc). The art was done for black-and-white, and some of it looks lush: Senior in particular with the angles and hard blacks.

Humour, seriousness, arcs, throwaways, there's a bit of everything.
I appreciate Bob Budiansky a lot more now than I did before. The man catches a lot of flak in the fandom,
It's turned around as people have gotten older, and Bob's also interacted with the fandom for a while (I think the Movie adaptation can be laid squarely at IDW editorial). The greater part of the headline characters and some core concepts are his, and the profile A-Z and tech specs are a huge part of why I'm still a fan.
Time Wars is obviously a mess and the less said about Space Pirates the better [...] I understand why the folks who grew up with these stories have such good memories of them
The thing is I didn't... personally it was conveyed as annual text story recaps and tie-in strips, the poorly managed CC partial reprints, etc. Space Pirates has some highlights (that stark wall of corpses reveal and the Soundwave/Magnus alliance) and so does Time Wars even if the ending is a trite one-pager. Legacy of Unicron had that two-page sea of bodies and Smokescreen/Inferno, etc.
G2. It's insane and ridiculous and so deliriously 90s that you'd almost have to think that the creative team were leaning into the XTREEM to have a laugh at the trends that were going on in the industry at the time. Though with the way Furman treats this series as an old shame nowadays, maybe he actually did think this was what all the young, hip 90s kids wanted to read?
The way it's been ignored or disavowed is disappointing. Yaniger is every bit as defining as Senior to my mind (and it's great to see Zama pick up that torch with 2000AD mixed in) and even the rest of the art, taken in the context of production deadlines, is bold and effective. I like representative stuff such as Lobo: Infanticide or The Kindly Ones.

Storywise it's like that teaser led up to at the end of Infiltration -- had it continued, I doubt if the Liege Maximo would have quite paid off. But it was a hell of a year's worth of issues.

Furman had a great grasp of stringing together short stories of 5 or 10 pages into longer arcs (even G2 was split into stories per issue) and it's understandable characters do what they need to do to convey the plot in those circumstances. His writing style hasn't translated to so-called "modern" comics, except insofar as other people are doing it; eg Roberts got it ingrained at a formative stage that comics should be densely written (also polished and/or led down different paths by JLU and RD, of course). And TFs was clearly something that Furman invested more into than just a day job, having read some of his other Marvel UK output -- Thundercats and Action Force are light fare.

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Re: Some thoughts on the Marvel TF comics

Post by inflatable dalek » Thu Aug 15, 2019 7:24 am

At last I have inspired someone in a good way!

Furam's dialogue patterns (as opposed to the Furmanisms we all knew) really stand out in everything he did after Marvel where it fell even more into stock. The worst offenders being his IDW Bay comics where literally no one talks like a living person ever has. Especially Bumblebee, who uses eight syllable words in his inner monologue. And I know folk say "Give him some slack, they didn't have a huge amount of info on the film", but if the only thing you'd been told was "Michael Bay film" you'd come up with something closer than that.

I do kind of wish he'd shut up as well. So many younger fans actively hate him now for doubling down on his views of fembots and relationships, it's a shame. He's destroyed his own legacy.

(For my views on the Marvel comics themselves, buy my books!)

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Re: Some thoughts on the Marvel TF comics

Post by Warcry » Thu Aug 15, 2019 8:03 pm

Cyberstrike nTo wrote:
Tue Aug 13, 2019 8:15 pm
I think Furman's biggest weakness is that for modern comics he can't write for TPB, which for better or worse is how many people read paper comics now of days.
I don't necessarily agree with that. Keep in mind that I haven't read his IDW output since it was relatively new (my big pile of early IDW trades is next on my to-read list, I think, now that I'm done Marvel), so I may be misremembering. But I think Infiltration and Stormbringer were good trade-sized stories, so he clearly can do it when he has to. But after that things really did become a bit of a mess, because Furman stopped writing for the trade and started writing as if he was working on an ongoing series, with all sorts of problems cropping up as the story he was trying to tell got shoved into an ill-fitting "miniseries and one-shots" set of boxes. Furman and the editors were both to blame for how badly his run fell apart towards the end. He should have known better, but equally, they never should have let him run wild like that.
Cyberstrike nTo wrote:
Tue Aug 13, 2019 8:15 pm
Also I think Furman was constantly introducing more and more and more stuff with the only the idea that it would pay off and by the time it was time to pay it off and IDW had flooded the market of all kinds of Transformers comics set in Beast Wars, The Live Action Movie Universe, and the then new G1 Universe that it kind got lost in the shuffle.
Honestly, I think this is what happened with him in the middle days of the UK book as well. Instead of telling the story that he had in front of him -- Galvatron running amok in the modern day, in the UK stuff; the Decepticons' infiltration protocol on Earth in IDW -- he kept introducing new elements, or getting diverted to totally different plots entirely. And then when outside situations no, let's be blunt -- when falling sales caused by people losing interest in a plot that wasn't going anywhere forced him to finally wrap things up, in both cases there wasn't nearly enough time to resolve things satisfactorily. So we got, in turns, Time Wars and Revelations/Maximum Dinobots.
Denyer wrote:
Wed Aug 14, 2019 10:34 pm
I do.
Sorry, bad phrasing on my part...I'd meant to say that it's not usually as well-regarded by most UK fans, not that no one over there liked it. :)
Denyer wrote:
Wed Aug 14, 2019 10:34 pm
The art was done for black-and-white, and some of it looks lush: Senior in particular with the angles and hard blacks.
I enjoyed the art a lot too. Senior's was probably the best of the bunch, and I say that as someone who's left cold by the man's earlier coloured work. But Wildman also got progressively better in black and white as time went on, and even the second-stringers turned in a lot of solid work.
Denyer wrote:
Wed Aug 14, 2019 10:34 pm
It's turned around as people have gotten older, and Bob's also interacted with the fandom for a while (I think the Movie adaptation can be laid squarely at IDW editorial). The greater part of the headline characters and some core concepts are his, and the profile A-Z and tech specs are a huge part of why I'm still a fan.
I totally agree. The bios he wrote were the biggest (or often only) chunk of fiction I had for most of the Transformer toys I owned as a kid, since most of them came out after the cartoon died and I didn't get into reading the comics until after Hasbro stopped caring about it, and Furman had stopped having to use the new toys as anything but crowd filler.

But I still hear a lot of people just kinda grudgingly give the man credit for all that as a preamble to dumping on the stories he wrote. And it's too bad, because probably more than 90% of his stories were perfectly enjoyable 80s superhero book fare. The tone is just so different from what people have come to expect that I think a lot of people reject it without actually giving it much of a chance. Heck, I did that too the first time I read his stories (back in the early 2000s when the site still hosted comic scans).
Denyer wrote:
Wed Aug 14, 2019 10:34 pm
Space Pirates has some highlights (that stark wall of corpses reveal and the Soundwave/Magnus alliance) and so does Time Wars even if the ending is a trite one-pager. Legacy of Unicron had that two-page sea of bodies and Smokescreen/Inferno, etc.
This is sort of what I meant. All of the stories from that era have moments to like. For example, I really enjoy the Magnus/Galvatron throwdown issue in Target: 2006 even though I'm not a fan of that arc as a whole. The Space Pirates moments you mention are a couple bright spots in another not-so-great plot. Dry Run is one of my favourite individual issues of the UK book. All the Death's Head-centric stories read well enough in isolation, etc... It's only when I put it all together and read it all in one big bunch that I realized how badly it all fit together, and how rudderless the entire gigantic story arc actually feels.

Back when I first read this stuff, kinda piecemeal through various scans as I could track them down, I'd have read something like Headhunt and said "That Death's Head guy is pretty cool!" Nowadays it's more like "That Death's Head guy was pretty cool...but they spent 150 pages telling stories about him in the Transformers book to big him up for his own series, and meanwhile Ultra Magnus never got any closure because Furman ran out of space for it". Or how the sheer sense of impending doom that Dry Run creates becomes a bit of a damp squib when you know that the payoff was a pile of limp nonsense fluffed up by senseless deaths for a bunch of third-string characters.
Denyer wrote:
Wed Aug 14, 2019 10:34 pm
Storywise it's like that teaser led up to at the end of Infiltration -- had it continued, I doubt if the Liege Maximo would have quite paid off. But it was a hell of a year's worth of issues.
A Rage in Heaven was a great ending because it managed to draw a neat line under things while still making you wonder what happens next. Truly the issue that launched a thousand fanfics!
Denyer wrote:
Wed Aug 14, 2019 10:34 pm
Furman had a great grasp of stringing together short stories of 5 or 10 pages into longer arcs (even G2 was split into stories per issue) and it's understandable characters do what they need to do to convey the plot in those circumstances.
I think just in general, the more constrained or "boxed in" the man was, the better the end result. Be it the tiny page count of the black-and-white stuff, the general "put all the toys back in the box at the end" ethos of the early UK stuff or the looming threat of cancellation that was his companion through his US Marvel and G2 runs, IMO his best stuff came when he didn't have total creative control and had to fit his story into a shape imposed from outside. When he's been given free reign (as in the middle years of the UK book, or his IDW run) he just seems to get caught in a cycle of perpetual buildup with no end in sight until the door gets slammed on him unexpectedly.

If you reread G2, it's like you can spy the exact moment where the man got the news that the book for sure wouldn't be renewed past issue 12 and everything shifted into overdrive. I don't think I'd have enjoyed it anywhere near as much if we'd gotten 20 or 30 issues trundling along at the same relaxed pace as #2-#5 had.
inflatable dalek wrote:
Thu Aug 15, 2019 7:24 am
Furam's dialogue patterns (as opposed to the Furmanisms we all knew) really stand out in everything he did after Marvel where it fell even more into stock. The worst offenders being his IDW Bay comics where literally no one talks like a living person ever has. Especially Bumblebee, who uses eight syllable words in his inner monologue. And I know folk say "Give him some slack, they didn't have a huge amount of info on the film", but if the only thing you'd been told was "Michael Bay film" you'd come up with something closer than that.
I haven't read any of his Bay comics, but I do know what you mean. Even in his Dreamwave and Infiltration days his characters were starting to sound more and more samey as the field of Transformers he cared enough about to give unique voices to started to shrink. I'm not at all surprised to hear how the Bayverse stuff turned out because I'm sure that entire cast fell into his "yeah, whatever" pile.

Speaking of Furmanisms, I'm pretty sure I spotted four occurrences of "It's over -- finished!" in US#80 alone. I'm not even going to try to count all the "What do you think you're playing at?"s or "Better to fight and die than live with the knowledge that I ran!"s that I saw in the US issues.
inflatable dalek wrote:
Thu Aug 15, 2019 7:24 am
I do kind of wish he'd shut up as well. So many younger fans actively hate him now for doubling down on his views of fembots and relationships, it's a shame. He's destroyed his own legacy.
What of it? Robots having genders is deeply silly and robots having romantic relationships is doubly silly. But it's a kind of silly that we've been stuck with since 1985 at the very latest and it's deeply ingrained in the franchise by now, so you'd think he'd have gotten over it a long time ago. I mean, it's not any more silly than robots talking like they're from the Deep South, robots that live for millions of years with no seeming changes to their personality or robots who just happened to find Earth vehicles that left them with the exact same alt-mode kibble as they had on Cybertron. And he's perfectly happy to roll with all of those things, so I don't get why robot gender is a bridge too far. But he's not actually wrong to call it for the nonsense that it is.

Well, not unless he's shouted something especially offensive into the ether in the last couple years that I've missed, anyway. I haven't really paid attention to the man since before ReGeneration One. Which IMO did more damage to his legacy than his odd personal opinions ever could.

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Re: Some thoughts on the Marvel TF comics

Post by Denyer » Thu Aug 15, 2019 8:45 pm

inflatable dalek wrote:
Thu Aug 15, 2019 7:24 am
So many younger fans actively hate him now for doubling down on his views of fembots and relationships, it's a shame. He's destroyed his own legacy.
Twitter's just a different kind of echo chamber to Facebook, and as much as MTMTE and to a lesser extent LL developed some audience beyond existing readers it's unlikely to be more than a blip in licensed fiction. Toys and comics wise there are now guaranteed nods to identifiably female characters, beast modes and combiners whilst there's a conviction it'll shift a percentage more units.
Warcry wrote:he's not actually wrong to call it for the nonsense that it is.
Eh, it's not as if it's difficult to add convincing rationales without resorting to hackneyed DNA/organic analogues -- Cybertronians mimic other cultures, including vehicles, fauna, accents (dubiously) and humanoid appearances and behaviours. Would be nice to see more of that for aliens that aren't basically humans, but then it'd be nice to see more aliens that aren't basically humans.
Warcry wrote:It's only when I put it all together and read it all in one big bunch
It's like multi-part classic Who, when binged it's evident how much of the plotting was reactive over a longer period of time.

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