Sunday, 17 June 2012

Transformers Armada Omnibus (Comicbook Review)

If you’re already a Transformers fan you probably already know the general opinion of Armada. If you’re not, the fandom views its overall quality as being mixed bordering upon dire. It was the first really big attempt to make a successful chapter in the franchise since Beast Machines went very wrong.  How wrong? Well long time comics writer Simon Furman, someone infamous for his high body counts in Transformers stories, famous for instantly asking “who can I kill?” upon joining the creative writing team to one series, and responsible for turning Unicron from mecha-Orson Welles into robo-Cthulhu; upon seeing Beast Machines effectively thought “this is a bit dark isn’t it?”
As you might imagine, Armada tried to correct this by going in almost completely the opposite direction. This ended up with it suffering under entirely new problems. Along with often poor animation, pacing and translation issues, it seemed to try to avoid being dark in as many ways as possible. For most of it anyway. The only reason it’s not regarded quite so badly as it deserves is that its follow up was far worse  in just about every respect, but surprisingly the comic adaptation is held in higher regard. Why? Well, for one thing one of the writers was the aforementioned Simon “kill ‘em all” Furman.
The story behind this one is more or less what you’d expect of any TF tale. Megatron forms the Decepticons, begins a revolt against the ruling leadership and proceeds to decimate Cybertron in a war until the heroes and villains end up on Earth for some reason. There are two slight differences this time:
The first is that Megatron’s reasons for this are not all that clear, sure he’s a power hungry nut job but he just seems to come out of nowhere and declare war on everything. It's a bit of a step down when you consider pretty much every modern version of him had some triggering motivation which seemed to have good intentions to begin with: Like the IDW series having him rebelling against a tyrannical government or War for Cybertron having him be a tank-transforming-Spartacus wanting to enact much needed changes to a stagnating society. In Armada all we get is suggestions of this: “I want power, Decepticons attack!” *boom*
The other difference is the presence of another secondary race on the planet separate from the much larger kind of robots: mini-cons. In the cartoon they were largely used as a toy selling gimmick, they could only communicate in bleeps, with most episodes focusing upon one side trying to get more than this other. Mostly because they could combine with them to form new upgrades, guns etc and were used more as equipment than anything else. This earned them the nickname Pokeformers amongst the fandom.
The comic actually made this treatment of them as a  plot point, using the idea of sentient beings being taken as weapons in a form of arms race to give the tale a grim theme. In it they were never originally intended to combine with other beings and were just smaller than average transformers, ones who could talk and were never intended to be used as combining weapons. When the Decepticons began their uprising, to give them an edge over the Autobot army, they began abducting them en-mass. Imprisoning them into Decepticon chop shops where they were forcibly experimented upon, taken apart and reassembled into living weapons. Using them as slave soldiers the Decepticons thoroughly curb-stomp the Autobots, dominate the planet taking thousands into slavery, and forcing the heroes to wage a guerrilla war from hidden bases. A running theme in the series became the fact the mini-cons far from happy about assisting either side and will often pursue their own agendas over the will of whoever they’re fused to.
Now, while this is a good setup in writing there was the first sign of the comic’s biggest flaw: It could prove to be frustratingly incoherent or feel like we’re only seeing a small fraction of a much bigger picture. Often things would happen without the comic explaining things or could outright contradict itself in a number of ways, even prior to changes in writers and artists. For example, one big complaint amongst readers is we only see the initial engagement between the ‘Bots and ‘Cons and it’s over in a few pages. That might not be bad were it not a fight between about ten characters in total, with no mention of any other battles or even signs of a prolonged conflict until much later on in the series. It just makes it look like four Decepticons were able to conquer an entire planet in a brief street skirmish and makes the whole thing look laughable.
This even extended to the art, with every single character being able to turn into human vehicles. Having them transform into something would be fine, but all of them can transform into vehicles which will not be invented for another four million years from a planet they’ve never heard of! The very first panel of the first issue shows a main character driving along as an Audi TT! It might look nice, but there’s small things like this which just keep throwing you off – The most erogenous example of this being the constantly changing designs of some of the more prominent mini-cons.
While these sorts of things would get better by the series’ end, they would continue to plague the comic throughout its run. The most frustrating part of all this is they could have so easily been avoided with just a much clearer direction behind them.
The series also suffered from a slow initial start. While the set up on Cybertron was dealt with quick enough along with the reason why the transformers would show up on Earth this time, it took five issues before everything was properly in place. The series only really started to get moving once Furman began detailing the comic’s story in place of the previous writer Chris Saraccini. Giving bolder more recognisable personalities to the characters, if not very complex ones, and spinning more engaging plots such as some of the mini-cons taking a more proactive role in rebelling. He even managed to make the inexplicably included pointless humans have some meaning to the story before thankfully side-lining them as the final arc began.
There’s unfortunately not much which can be said about the writing Furman did without giving away major spoilers, but he did make the effort to bring back a few fan favourites. Turning the comic in its final issues from a small scale isolated war into a reality threatening world shattering event worthy of a grand finale.
Transformers Armada is flawed. It contains interesting ideas but doesn’t really explore them enough, and while Optimus is as great as ever the other characters needed more focus. It was a series which needed more time to flesh out events and run for longer, giving more time to pace itself and avoiding the sudden shift in plotlines which takes place at the beginning of the final arc. Really, if nothing else it does contain some of the best artwork of the Armada characters out there and barring a few problems it is all incredibly well drawn, inked and coloured. The whole series has been collected as an omnibus, prices for which vary from £3.26 to around £20.00 but are available from for £13.29. An reasonable price for what you’re getting.
At the end of the day we’ve seen much worse from IDW in some of its collections and unlike most comics today this one was at least self-contained, so take that for what it is worth.
Transformers and all related characters and media are owned by Hasbro and IDW.

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