Thursday, January 22, 2015

Transformers: The Budiansky Years (Part 3)

I find it hard to believe youre as cold and heartless as your race thinks we Autobots are.
-Skids to Donny Finkleberg, Transformers #22

I used to resent Optimus Prime.

He was too perfect. Mighty warrior. Wise philosopher. Skilled diplomat. All-around goody-two shoes.

How could anyone live up to that? And if they could, how could that kind of person even be interesting?

I was a cynical kid.

Modern Transformers comics play up the war between the Autobots and Decepticons. They also go deeper into the politics of the war--the influences that shaped it, the characters that ignited it, the way it came to be.

What they dont do, at least not to the same extent as Budiansky did, is emphasize the practical difference between the two sides.

Autobots believe in preserving and defending life. Decepticons believe in conquering it.

Autobots will even stop in mid-battle to protect human and other lives. Avoiding human casualties proves to be the undoing of Skids in #19 (Command Performances!"). In issue #16 ("Plight of the Bumblebee!"), Bumblebee even prioritized helping humans over saving fellow Autobot Jetfire--a sharp contrast to modern Transfomers comics where Bumblebee describes the risks to three humans who are exploring the Decepticon base below as acceptable losses (Transformers: Infiltration, #4).

In Issue #24 ("Afterdeath!") of the 80s comic book, while conducting a battle in a video game world, Optimus Prime would rather be destroyed than put even virtual lives at risk. Its a decision that seemed idealistic, stupid, and nonsensical at the time, especially since his suicidal adherence to his own code of conduct endangers REAL lives since he was essentially taking himself out of the picture and thus giving the Decepticons an enormous advantage.

Meanwhile, in the 2014 movie  Transformers: Age of Extinction movie, Optimus Prime intends to kill the humans that are hunting Transformers.

You've come a long way, baby.

Part of the change--at least in the comics-- is that the audience for Transformers comics has aged. But I also think our attitude towards civilian casualties has changed in the decades since the Transformers first came on the scene. We view them as a regrettable, but necessary part of modern war, assuming we even think of them at all.

I am so used to the current worldview that I didnt even notice how my attitude changed until I reread the 80s comics and realized how often Budianskys Autobots were putting the protection of life ahead of strategic advantage.

It wasa sobering realization.

Optimus Primes credo is Freedom is the Right of All Sentient Beings”…an odd amalgam of Reagan-era American jingoism (The right to be free) and the Buddhist bodhisattva vows (To liberate all sentient beings).

Red, white (okay, silver), and blue coloring aside, I like to think of Optimus as having at least one giant steel foot the latter camp. Compassion is often described as one of his core traits, which is central to Mahayana Buddhism. Enlightened beings are also credited with discernment and wisdom, which Optimus possessed in abundance (Letting himself getting blown up over a videogame notwithstanding). They are also sometimes describe as having extraordinary powers although our Autobodhisattva would be the first endowed with the ability to remake his body into the form of an eighteen-wheeler.

And of course, there is the core of the Bodhisattva vows, to remain on Earth, forsaking Nirvana for oneself until all beings are liberated from the suffering brought about by the Three Poisons.  Optimus Prime also chooses to take up the mantle of Earths suffering, fighting to defend the planet.

If were going to go all-in on Transformers and Buddhist iconography, we can even make a case for each of Budianskys first three Decepticon leaders embodying one of the Three Poisons--Greed (power-hungry Megatron), Ignorance (Shockwave and his cold indifference), and Fear (the miserly Ratbat).

Move over Pali canon, theres some new sutras in town. One of them is about a car wash that hypnotizes people.

Its all happening, baby.

There are things to criticize about Bob Budianskys Transfomers comics. Some of them were childish (Sky Lynx taking kids to a space carnival). Some of the premises were cheesy (The mind-controlling car wash, although lets face it, Stephen King would make hay with something like that.). And the less said about Brick Springstern’ the better.

But his focus on characters personal stories, the way human and robot change each other, and a dedication to the natural conflict between those fighting to preserve life and those indifferent to them makes for much richer reading than one might first guess.

They might not be what we think Transformers should be about. But the storytelling is solid. And once you realize what youre looking at, theyre far from boring.

(*) There was a monk who got turned into a fox though. So its not like there isnt SOME precedent.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Transformers: The Budiansky Years (Part 2)

These robots are prone to highly imitative behavior when exposed to humans.
-Circuit Breaker, Transformers #23 (Decepticon Graffiti)

The first panel of Bob Budianskys first Transformers issue (#5) shows us a full page panel of a black and white episode of the Honeymooners. The next page Is another single-page panel that shows the Honeymooners episode is playing on just one of a number of televisions, each tuned to a different channel. In addition to the black and white sitcom, we see news brodcasts, game shows, and sports broadcasts. And standing before the screens watchingthe cyclopean Decepticon commander Shockwave.

Very illuminating, he says.

In these opening two panels on these opening two pages, Budiansky introduces us to a theme that he will return to again and again--the effect of the humans and Transformers on each others worlds and worldviews.

Humans have been part of the Transformers story from the beginning. The Witwickys--staples of both the comics and the cartoon--were introduced before Budiansky began writing and continued to be a part of it after he left.

But Budiansky added many more characters of his own creation. Billionaire energy industrialist GB Blackrock and Josie Beller are introduced in #5 (via one of the televisions Shockwave is watching). Blackrock becomes an ally of the Autobots while Beller turns into the vengeful Circuit-Breaker.

.Selfish and neurotic comic book writer Donny Finkelberg is introduced in Issue #15 and slowly undergoes a change of heart from self-centered, self-loathing and greedy to making a gesture of altruism at personal cost to himself at the end of Issue #23.

Other human characters enter the comic and disappear as quickly as they appear. Like many of the Transformers themselves, human characters burst into the story for an issue or two and then vanish from the book--and unlike the Transformers they dont even get the benefit of the occasional one or two panel cameo appearance in the background of crowd or battle scenes. If G.B. Blackrock is the human equivalent of Grimlock, Blaster, or Bumblebee then characters like Ricky Vasquez (Issue #21, ) are Gears or Huffer (*)

But although their encounters with the Transformers are brief, their lives are changed from their contact with the Cybertronians.

Theres Joey Slick (Shooting Star! Issue #13) who goes from loser to losing himself while becoming rich and then finding himself and his own inner courage, thanks to the unwillingand unwittinghelp of Megatron.

Theres hot headed Jake Dalrymple (Issues #19 and 20) who pursues Skids after the Autobot scrapes his car. Dalrymples interference ends up in Skids near destruction at the hands of Ravage but in the end (after finally listening to his girlfriend Frannie), Dalrymple courageously rams the Decepticon with his car, saving Skids and Charlene.

Issue #20 also features Small town-girl Charlene  (not to be confused with research assistant Charlie from Issues #29-30 who helps Blaster and Goldbug overcome the Scraplets) who ends up having a star-crossed, if chaste romance with Skids (although the panels where she washes him in his vehicle mode are suggestive --its not a Whitesnake video, but its pretty close for a kids comic book).

And the change goes both ways. The Transformers are also shaped by their encounters with the humans.

From trucker Bomber Bill (Issue #10, The Next Best Thing To Being There!) to rock star Brick Springstern (Issue #14, Rock and Roll-Out!) to dishonest used car salesman Big Steve (Issue #32, Used Autobots),  the Transformers and humans are agents of change in one anothers lives.

We mostly see these two-way relations with the Autobots, but the Decepticons are not immune. Megatron is duly impressed by Joey Slicks courage in Shooting Star, while  in less noble fashion, The Battlechargers Runabout and Runamuck are inspired by the sight of a misbehaving child to abandon their assigned mission in favor of a cross country vandalism spree defacing American national monuments (Issue #23, Decepticon Graffiti.)

In Budianskys world, Transformers and humans are continuously surprising each other. In each other they find things to admire, things that are disappointing, and things that inspire them. Organic or robot, each of them gains a new perspective on their world from their time spent in the world of the other.

In short, they transform one another.

The comic is about exactly what its title tells us it is. The nature of that transfomation thoughwell, sometimes thats about more than meets the eye.

(*) Which still puts them a step above Windcharger or Trailbreaker.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Transformers:The Budiansky Years (Part 1)

Given that that Ive written a whole slew of fictional counselling sessions with them, its probably no surprise Im a fan of the Transformers. Ive loved them since I was a kid.

What might be surprising is that in spite of the fact I collected the Marvel comics run from #1 into the early thirties, for the most part, I often found those comics boring.

Too much people. Not enough giant robots fighting.

The writer on most of those comics was a fellow named Bob Budiansky, Budiansky created the backstories and names for most of the Transformers and took over writing duties on the comic starting with Issue #5. Years later, another writer, Simon Furman, took over the book. Furmans run on the Transformers is considered a high point of the series. Most modern Transformers comics are still built on the foundation laid by Simon Furman: galactic scale warfare, tribal politics, the meaning of leadership, forays into mysticism and religion, and a Cybertronian-centric narrative.

But revisiting those Budiansky issues recently, I have a new appreciation for his stories. They were different from what I wanted at the time, but rereading he first thirty or so issues of his run on Transformers I notice three recurring points of focus: smaller-scale personal stories, the interaction between humans and Transformers, and an emphasis on morality.

Although Transfomers is ostensibly about a multi-million year old, galaxy-spanning robot war, Budiansky tended to use the war as a setting for his stories rather than as the story itself. Most of his best stories featured only one or two protagonists struggling with a specific problem or limitation.

Sometimes he would do this by isolating characters.

For example, from issue #5 to Issue #8 when he rediscovers the Dinobots (*), Ratchet is the ONLY Autobot character in the comic, the rest having been incapacitated since Issue #4. Its hard to have story about a war between giant robot armies when one of the armies has only ONE member, and a medic, at that.

But the story is not about the galactic war. It is about Ratchet finding a way to rescue his friends in the face of insurmountable odds and his own self-doubtand defeating Megatron, the mightiest of Decepticons in the process (**).

In a similar fashion, Bumblebee is isolated (although by choice, feeling he is a liability to the group)  in Issue #16. Skids is the only Autobot in Issue #20 (Showdown!) and Ravage the only Decepticon to make a physical appearance (although Megatron shows up in a dream sequence). In issue #13 (Shooting Star!), Megatron is the lone Transformer to appear, and he is locked in gun mode for most of the issue--the protagonist of the story is a human, turning the Transformers into side characters in their own comic.

Even when there are numerous characters in the story, the emotional arc often centers around just one or two characters. A number of Autobots are in on the action in issue #10, but the storys emotional arc(and climactic moment) revolves around Huffer and his homesickness.

Similarly, issues #17 and 18 introduce us to a number of new Autobots and Decepticons who are fighting on Cybertron, but the war is not the story. The war is the setting. The story is the story of Blaster, an Autobot defying orders to first rescue, then avenge his friend Scrounge, an Autobot labelled as useless, but who ends up both discovering crucial information and dying courageously for the Autobot cause.

The Decepticons, as the villains, tend to get less in the way of personal treatment, but Budiansky does attempt to make the Decepticon leaders distinct from one another:

Shockwave, Megatrons rival for command of the Decepticons, is coldly logical, a strong contrast to the more hot-blooded Megatron. Meanwhile one of the most unique of the Decepticon high command is the (by Transformer standards) diminutive Ratbat, whose leadership style is more in keeping with a penny-pinching bureaucrat than a bloodthirsty conqueror (***).

Even Megatron, whose personality for the most part is indistinguishable from countless other villainous would-be despots, has his moments. Issue #25 is focused around Megatrons inability to accept the death of Optimus Prime in the previous issue. Whether the denial is brought about by a twisted form of grief at the loss of the foe that has defined his existence for four million years or the blow to Megatrons ego that it was a human and not the Decepticon leader who killed Prime, the result adds an interesting, if unexpected, layer of depth to a previously one-dimensional character.

I love the way story reveals character now. But back in 1986 I wanted to see more robots, more fighting, and More Than Meets The Eye.

I also wanted to see less of something in my Transformers comics.

That something was humans.

Well tackle that in Part 2

(*) Issue #8 also featured the Dinobots being beaten by two different opponents less than fifteen pages apart despite a five-to-one numerical advantage. Their next appearance was for two panels eleven issues later when they quit the Autobots and they didnt show up again until #27. Grimlock and Co. might be signature characters in Transformers comic book lore, but they got off to an underwhelming start to say the least.

(**) It also established a link between Ratchet and Megatron which would be revisited later in the series by Furman, a link that probably wouldnt have happened without Budianskys story. But its a brilliant storytelling juxtaposition. Optimus Prime and Megatron are ideological opposites, but they are both powerful warriors and leaders. Ratchet on the other hand is far lesss-powerful, charismatic, and lower in the command structure not to mention a medical officer and non-combatant. The difference between Autobot and Decepticon philosophies is not best embodied by the difference between Optimus Prime and Megatron. Its embodied in the difference between Megatron and RATCHET.

(***)When the Decepticons launch a successful surprise assault on the Autobots, Ratbat rejoices at the ambushs energy efficiency, exclaiming: What a banner day this will become in the annals of Decepticon fuel accounting! Its no Kneel before Zod, thats for sure.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Books: Christopher Buelhman

I picked up Christopher Buelhman's The Necromancers House on Monday. I read through one hundred pages in the bookstore.

By Saturday afternoon I had read all four of his books: The Necromancer's House, Those Across The River, Between Two Fires, and The Lesser Dead.

They're all great and all very different from one another thanks to the variety of settings he uses (The Lesser Dead is set in 1970s New York while Between Two Fires takes place in plague-ridden Darg Ages France) but the thing I wanted to rave about from a technical sense is how well Buelhman understands set-ups and pay-offs.

He is so good at exposition--at giving you exactly as much information as you need for where you are in the story. He doesnt give you so much that you see where things are going long before they get there.

But he doesnt hold things back or hide things either so that he can give you a SHOCKING TWIST that has you feeling cheated or flipping back through pages to find something that you missed.

Everything is right there on the page.

More Than Meets The Mind--Episode 13: Razorclaw (Decepticon)

RAZORCLAWIt was the most awesome battle Ive been privileged to be a part of. The denizens of Charon should be grateful.

Thats an interesting perspective.

Those that survived will be talking about that battle for the rest of their lives. Its the most significant thing that has ever happened to that backwater and the only thing it will be remembered for.

The survivors described it as the most hellish day of their lives.

The most hellish moment of their lives? It was glorious. It was the best thing that could ever have happened to them.

I dont---

Let me tell you about my day.

This morning, Starscream pulled me aside for a frank talk about the direction of the Decepticon cause  and to not-so-subtly gauge my level of support for his potential leadership.

Next, I had a meeting with Ratbat about Predakings energy expenditure. We came in well under-budget, and were summarily rewarded by having next cycles budget cut by fifteen percent since we obviously didnt need it.

Then  I spent three hours with Onslaught as he outlined his strategic plans for the defense of Fakkus--a planet, incidentally, that we cannot defend as it is not currently held by us and that we have no intention of capturing as it is in the middle of Autobot space and has a strategic value of exactly zero.

 Finally, Drag Strip approached me because Motormaster was--and I quote--mean to him. He said that as a Decepticon warrior, he should not be subject to bullying and asked about transferring from the Stunticons to the Predacons. When I told him that we were not seeking new additions, he told me he could defeat my current team with one arm missing.

What happened?

I tore off his arm and gave him the opportunity to prove it. Headstrong, Tantrum, and Rampage ripped him to pieces and Divebomb dropped the remains off Polyhex tower. It was the high point of my day.

I see.

Do you? Because now I have to attend a disciplinary review board convened for next week. Instead of thanking me for backing him up, Motormaster  lodged a formal complaint with Shockwave that I undermined him and exceeded my authority by disciplining troops under his command.

Charon was not hellish. Charon was beautiful.

Hell is middle management.