Thursday, 8 May 2014

Guest appearance omissions: Transformers #3

Today is the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Transformers. So let's take a look at the first time their path crossed with Spider-Man's...

For a particular group of fans, one of Spider-Man's best-known guest appearances was in the early issues of the original Marvel Transformers series. However it's very unlikely to ever appear in the Essentials, not least because a different company now hold the licence to the title property. But it has had several other reprints in this century, including Transformers: Beginnings from Titan Books a decade ago and more recently in the second edition of The Transformers Classics: Volume 1 from IDW Publishing.

(Unfortunately the vagaries of copyright and licensing have meant it hasn't always been possible to include it in Transformers reprint series. The Titan volume of about a decade ago had no problems, but IDW were initially unable to secure licences for Marvel-owned characters and so had to replace the issues with text summaries in their first edition.)

Back in 1984 the Transformers were a new toyline with Marvel the first to portray their adventures. A four-issue limited series was commissioned; however it proved so popular it rapidly converted to an ongoing series without even resetting the numbering and eventually ran for a total of eighty issues plus a few spin-off limited series. (Over here Marvel UK ran their own series, reprinting the US stories but in order to fill the faster schedule many new adventures were produced that weaved in and out of the continuity. There were also reprints of other Marvel series as "back-up strips"; one of these reprinted Amazing Spider-Man annual #19 albeit rebranded as Iron Man of 2020, reflecting the more prominent role of the guest star.) The third issue of the limited series saw a guest appearance to help boost the franchise's profile.

Transformers #3, written by Jim Salicrup and drawn by Frank Springer

(Although Salicrup is credited as the writer on this issue, by all accounts it was a very difficult series for writers to get to grips with, going through three writers in four issues and editor Bob Budiansky had to outline it all. When the ongoing series began he switched to become the regular credited writer; however he was effectively the uncredited co-writer of the earlier issues and deviser of much of the basic franchise mythology.)

This issue picks up on the kidnapping of human mechanic Sparkplug Witwicky by the evil Decepticons, who hope he can convert Earth fuel into a form the robots from Cybertron can use. Sparkplug is tortured into agreement. Meanwhile the presence of giant robots on Earth attracts the attention of both the army and the media, including Peter Parker. Changing into Spider-Man he discovers the heroic Autobot Gears who convinces him of the Autobots' good intentions. Spider-Man and the Autobots work together to first penetrate the military cordon around the Decepticons' fortress and then whilst the bulk of the Autobots create a diversionary attack, Spider-Man and Gears sneak into the fortress and take the remain Decepticons inside by surprise, rescuing Sparkplug. With a plane to catch, Spider-Man takes his leave as Gears reveals Megatron got what he wanted from Sparkplug...

On reflection this is one of the fastest paced issues of the original Transformers limited series, with the emphasis very much on action whether the battles between the Decepticons and the military or the Decepticons and the Autobots, or the desperate rescue mission. It's an odd choice to pick Gears as the Autobot Spider-Man spends most time with - true Gears is one of the few who can fly but he's also one of the smaller Autobots and not one of the strongest, making him an unlikely winner of the physical fights here, plus he's got a grumpy personality and a dislike of humans which doesn't make for the best of banter. Would it have been too much to use one of the more chatty Autobots like Bluestreak? Or for one-on-one physical combat a better choice for the rescue might have been Brawn. But the most logical choice overall would have been to have Spider-Man team up with the Autobots' leader, Optimus Prime. Gears and Spider-Man manage to overcome the Decepticons they encounter rather too easily for my liking, including encasing the Decepticon leader Megatron in webbing. This really does feel like a set of extremely unlikely victories, even if they do have surprise on their hands.

Spider-Man is written in classic form, though it's easy to envisage this story without his involvement. For this issue he was put back in his alien costume despite having relinquished it a few months earlier in his own titles - apparently this was to appease the Transformers' toy company Hasbro who were concerned about an appearance by a character whose toy was produced by a rival so they used the costume that the Mattel  Spider-Man Secret Wars toy didn't have. The need to win over Hasbro to include him probably explains why it's easy to imagine this story without his involvement. However he brings a sense of both fun and the wider Marvel universe to the series (and let's just ignore the continuity problems that Transformers would later brush over on this point). Spider-Man is also drawn well, but the Transformers suffer from a lot of art and colouring problems (yet another reason for a black & white reprint).

Broadly there are two ways to draw the Transformers - either as poseable versions of the toys or as stylised versions called "character models" devised for their fictional appearances that don't always resemble the toys too closely. This issue sees a big step towards the comics using the character models exclusively but some of the characters have been drawn or coloured using earlier versions of the models - Megatron's appearance on the cover is the most obvious example - and a few such as Frenzy and Rumble have moments when they look more like their toys. A lot of the characters are also drawn awkwardly with weird and variable proportions plus some over heavy inking. There are also many times when the colours are at variance with the most familiar versions even within the comics themselves, making it sometimes difficult to recognise which character is which. Just to add to the problems some of the characters would be consistently coloured with a different scheme from the toys and/or the cartoon - Ratchet, Skywarp, Soundwave, and Starscream are all noticeably off-colour sufficiently consistently in the issue for it to not be a colourist's error. Ratchet and Starscream would eventually switch to more familiar colours (although it took Starscream some years) but the other two would keep theirs, presumably because of the problems of printing black as a colour under Marvel US's system forcing a much greater use of blue than on the toys. And there's the earliest example of a background appearance of a character who shouldn't be there when Shockwave appears in a couple of panels.

Overall this is a good, if superfluous, Spider-Man appearance and a pretty fast paced Transformers story but it's rather let down by the poor rendering of most of the Transformers and the inability to keep the colours consistent on some of them.

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