Many millions of years ago, on the distant metal planet of
Cybertron, life existed - but not life as we know it today.
Intelligent robots, capable of transforming their bodies into
vehicles and weapons inhabited the cities - the heroic Autobots
and the evil Decepticons, locked in a civil war for dominance of
the planet, which eventually drained it's once-rich sources of
energy. And so these Transformers came to Earth...
In the 80's, you couldn't escape the Robots in Disguise - toys, cartoons, comics, a movie, books, lunchboxes, bed sheets, oral care stations... they were everywhere. Few things have reached the dizzying heights of popularity that Transformers attained its peak. And now, they're back, courtesy of the comparatively lesser-known comics company, Dreamwave Productions, in a six-issue miniseries that revives the classic Transformers for today.
The miniseries is not directly connected to any of the previous continuities that have existed in Transformers (and there have been several of them), but it draws heavily on the cartoon series, with a few references to the comic. Together, the Autobots and humans defeat the Decepticons, and plan to return them to Cybertron aboard their new spaceship, the Ark II. But the Ark II explodes in mid-flight, and the Transformers are all thought destroyed... but now, as the comic begins, one year on, we find that it not quite true. The enigmatic terrorist, Lazarus, has found and taken control of several Transformers, and sells their services to the highest bidder. The US government, represented by General Hallo, recruits the Autobots' old friend, Spike Witwicky, to help them reactivate Optimus Prime, who in turn restores a small number of Autobots. Lazarus's plan, meanwhile, has been shattered by Megatron, who breaks free of his control and, enraged at having been a human's puppet, revives the other Decepticons, immediately beginning a plan to transform Earth into a new Cybertron with a metallic virus that begins to spread across the globe. A missile strike by the two-faced Hallo almost deactivates them all, but virus ironically saves them by containing the blast. Then, Megatron initiates a massive attack on San Francisco, and Optimus Prime and the Autobots must combat him, his Decepticons, the virus and the twisted machinations of the deranged Hallo, in an attempt to save the Earth - even if it means their own extinction.
Chris Sarracini undertook a big, risky job in writing "Transformers: Generation One." Even before the series was released, it was already weighed down by one, big thing - Transformers fans' preconceptions of what it should be like. And unfortunately, it did not live up to many of them.
Sarracini noted from the start that this miniseries would have a darker edge to it, as it was being written for the older fans. This was slightly misguided - it would appear he believed that since we Transformers fans have grown up, Transformers should grow up with us. The tale he spins is indeed fairly "adult" and gritty, but at the same time, is painfully clichéd. Almost every "twist" can be predicted some distance away - "government conspiracy" stories have run their course now, after the X-Files made them so popular. But, when you get down to it, the writing is no worse than several (and certainly superior to many) episodes of the G1 cartoon. I have no issues about the slow start - one must look at it as a complete story told over six issues, not as six separate stories. It's like a movie. You don't plunge straight into the action, you need time to set it up. Still, the point is this - hardcore Transformers fans didn't want "adult and gritty," because it's not what Transformers is about. However, casual fans buying the comic due to fond childhood memories were not as set in their ways about such things, and the story appealed to them.
Chris's text, however, has a very irritating over-use of bold type, and he has entirely too many instances of things such as "!?!" which are fine in moderation, but when there's at least a half-dozen uses on every page, it just looks... well, stupid.
Characterisation is not particularly evenly spread in the book - most of the Autobots and Decepticons speak generic "heroic" and "evil" talk. General Hallo has all the markings of your typical turncoat - it's the final issue before he's dealt any decent characterisation, however, and even then he comes off as a simple imitation of the general from "Doctor Strangelove" (and, curiously, my brother noted he was a lot like a character I created in a fanfiction I wrote, "Ascension," who was never intended to resemble the general from the aforementioned movie). Lazarus, meanwhile, is a giant bundle of villain clichés wrapped into one (meaningless philosophical talk, meaningless scar, meaningless motives) - and he's not even the real villain of the piece, which would be a nice twist if readers had actually cared about either him or Hallo. Spike, on the other hand, has been advanced from what we knew of him in the cartoon - he's older now, wiser, and knows that you can't always rely on heroes after all, but everything he's learned from Optimus Prime comes right back to the surface when he has to fight back.
A big crime in the characterisation department is the unforgivable under-use of Starscream, Megatron's scheming lieutenant. In all previous continuities (even the Beast Wars TV series, where he made a brief appearance), Starscream is the devious traitor, always working to overthrow his leader. But there is none of that here - Screamer gets very little panel-time, speaks very little even when he does, and follows orders without so much as an unpleasant remark.
In a similar vein, Sarracini's handling of Grimlock, the Dinobot commander, is off. Here, we see Grimlock abandon the Autobots and side with the Decepticons, disillusioned with Prime's cause after being controlled by the very beings he has so often fought to save. Now, I could definitely see Grimlock - or indeed, any Autobot - feeling this way. What I could NOT see, however, is Grimlock siding with Megatron, in any way, shape or form. Sure, he may not like Prime that much - but if there is one thing in all the universe that he likes less, it's the Decepticons. While it may wash with casual fans who remember Grimlock as "the one who didn't like to follow orders," hardcore fans simply - and quite rightly - didn't accept this part of the story.
To his credit, Chris does some interesting work with Megatron and Optimus Prime. When we were younger, Megatron was the "big bad" to us - the yardstick of Saturday morning villainy. But as we grew older and more discerning (at least, MOST of us got more discerning), it became pretty obvious that Megatron was an ineffectual moron with laughable schemes that never worked. But Sarracini, in his scheme of "making Transformers grow up with us," succeeds in re-capturing at least a small portion of that feeling we had of Megatron when we were younger, actually making him a threatening, effective villain. At the same time, though, he doesn't quite seem to have all his marbles - in fact, at some times he is very reminiscent of his later incarnation, Galvatron, who was quite bonkers, and prone to the kind of cackles Megs lets rip in this series.
Optimus Prime, meanwhile, is, in some respects, not evolved from the cartoon at all. His simple, one-note "hero" personality is as intact as ever. But Sarracini takes us on a trip inside Prime's mind, and we see his views on war and sacrifice, teaching us why he is the way he is, and I for one found that particularly enjoyable.
Still, Sarracini has some grammar problems in his writing, and many fans were shocked and angered by the deaths of Wheeljack and Superion at the series' conclusion, which firmly thrust the comic out of continuity with anything else. I was happy to see the human anti-Transformer sentient get a look-in, as I don't think it's been dealt with to a great enough degree in the past - back then, it was simply a case of humans liking the Autobots and hating the Decepticons, but here Sarracini shows us the humans who hate all Transformers for bringing their war to Earth and endangering human life. I hope that in any future stories, this will get some focus. However, the philosophical aspect of good versus evil that Prime and Megatron embody is not exploited to it's fullest, which would improve the series, which, in general, reads like that simple action movie you've seen a hundred times before.
On the artwork side of things, the reaction of fans to the earliest art Dreamwave produced was almost unanimously good - because it honestly beats the pants off of anything that's been seen in a Transformers comic before, using a mixture of the original cartoon and comic designs created by Floro Dery in the 80's and the differing designs and appearances of the characters' old toys, with a little bit of Dreamwave zazz on top. However, after this initial awe, as the comic itself progressed, what is very nice art on the surface becomes less and less impressive as more and more problems with it become evident.
Gear yourself - I'm going to just list off my issues with Pat Lee's art now and be done with it. Ahem. He cannot draw in the anime style, he simply puts anime faces on normal US comic bodies - not to mention that all the faces look the same, and that they very rarely express emotion in a decent manner. His work is remarkably inconsistent. From page to page (and sometimes panel to panel), aspects of the Transformers change. The biggest culprit here is the miniscule lines and details on the surface of the robots, which wildly fluctuate, basically consisting of whatever the hell Lee feels like drawing at any given time (larger inconsistencies and deformations in the shape of the Transformers really start to kick in around issue #4). He is not very good at portraying mass and action, either - he is much better as a pin-up artist than a sequential one, as he tries to make each panel on the page look like a pin-up image in itself.
His layouts sometimes add a cinematic feel to the book, however, but many times there is the problem of distinction - it can be very hard to work out what's going on in certain panels. The book is also peppered with too many "talking head" pages, where the panels just flick past and characters do nothing more than talk. A comic book panel can be used to cover *any* period of time, but Dreamwave seems insistent of using them to handle one or two seconds, then jumping on - the effect is issues which are ultimately quite a short read where you feel more could have happened.
It is the colouring, you see, that is what makes people sit up and take notice - it's beautifully done, very smooth, and it does make you think "anime" - except for that one idiot, who can't remember to put the white stripes on Prime's arms in from page to page. The colouring is what blinds many fans - both casual and hardcore - to the flaws in Lee's pencils.
Colouring can be flawed at times as well, though - while the backgrounds (drawn by Edwin Garcia) are coloured almost as though they were painted, Lee's characters (pasted on top of Garcia's backgrounds) are cell-shaded, and the result can be very jarring, particularly when light sources in the two do not match. But all in all, the colouring is definitely the book's strongest point.
The comic is very gimmicky, too. Each issue shipped with two different covers, and contained within each issue is a mini poster - a different one with each different cover, totalling twelve in all, which combine to make one giant image. Seriously, Dreamwave, it's NOT the early 90's any more. I might be a comics collector, but I don't bother with this crap - I stick to one copy of each issue, thank you very much. Three more dollars for three different pages? It rather annoys me that so many Transfans have bought into what is just a cheap marketing gimmick.
Sarracini and Lee try hard, and it's clear that they do have a love for Transformers - and that there are lots of people out there who love them too, as many of the book's issues were the number one seller for their months. Taken on it's own, it's not bad, as comics go. Many of its flaws are probably invisible to those who are not serious Transfans, which is understandable. The flaws are more evident to Transfans, which is where the book falls down, as it was *written* for Transfans. It's sister title, "Transformers Armada," meanwhile, is written to appeal to the younger audience as well as the old, what with the new cartoon now on Cartoon Network - and Sarracini is doing a great job with that book. I am convinced, however, that that perception is at least in part a result of Transfans NOT having any preconceived notions of how it should be (plus the fact that the cartoon premiere was largely considered quite bad).
All in all, "Transformers: Generation One" is an interesting take on Transformers that is reminiscent of classic G1 with a mature, modern twist, which is ultimately damaged by its poor handling of established characters and very clichéd, "seen it all before" nature. Still, if you've got a mild interest, and are looking to spend a few notes and a kill a little time, TF:G1 won't strain your wallet or your brain. The trade paperback collecting all six issues of the miniseries, plus the pre-series preview, and an exclusive look at the upcoming second G1 series, will be available in November.
Rating: 3 out of 5