Oct 15, 2012

Transformers, Time Travel and Non-Linear Comics.

 ...And that's why I really didn't enjoy Transformers: Robots in Disguise #10.

Cover by Casey Coller
But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself, aren't I? Maybe we should start at the start.

Comics are, by their very nature, a non-linear experience. I know, this seems silly to say... don't you read them through in a completely linear fashion? Don't you start at panel A, read left to right, down to panel F, then start again on the next page? Maybe... but because comics are a physical object you interact with, the reader can turn back and forth in the comic... skip parts, move around at his leisure, and just generally read things out of order if the reader so chooses.

You've never done that? You've never read a comic for the second of third time and decided to read the good bits first then go back and fill in the other bits later? Well I certainly have. Comics and other interactive media offer that kind of reading experience (a movie shown in a cinema, a play, an opera, a concert, these sorts of things are completely unchangingly linear). So it's not surprising that a lot of writers over the years have experimented with creating comics that are meant to be read in a non-linear fashion.

Comics that take advantage of the fact that the reader can turn back and forth and move in and out of the page as he so chooses in comics.

Comics like Transformers: Robots in Disguise #10.

But I guess I've gotten a little out of order again. Today we're going to be doing a comparative review. We're going to be looking at three different comics that have taken three different approaches at creating a non-linear time travel story with the goal of unravelling why Robots in Disguise #10 was so frustrating, and how it didn't work. Which I suppose means we've put our conclusion at our introduction, but I think that's fine in this case.

Transformers: Robots In Disguise, drawn by Livio Ramondelli and written by John Barber is one of those comics that's trying to do something admirable. It's trying to be a comic that challenges the reader and tells a story in a non-linear fashion that encourages the reader to engage with the comic multiple times and to get a richer experience as you re-read it.

In fact writer John Barber deliberately re-wrote the script after reading Watchmen, using Watchmen's non-linear storytelling aspects as a starting point for his own story. That seems like a pretty good starting point, right? After all there's a tonne of moving back and forth through time in that story -- especially with Dr. Manhattan.

Caption boxes that explain the different time
periods we're looking at? Amazing!

But there's a big difference between Transformers RiD #10 and Watchmen (well, there's lot, but there's only one I'm looking at just at the moment) and that's the fact that it was drawn by Dave Gibbons. Livio Ramondelli is no Dave Gibbons.

One of the duties of a comic book art is to be readable. The artist's job is to bridge the gap between the written intent of a story and the reader's interpretation. We call this storytelling. Dave Gibbons is a master of storytelling. He controls the panel, and everything in each and every panel is absolutely clear and eminently readable. That makes him a perfect choice for a non-linear story, because he knows how to make the reader see what he wants. Livio Ramondelli is, rather unfortunately, not a master of a storytelling.

I... what am I even looking at here?

Ramondelli's art is confusing, muddy and often lacking in essential details. I will admit upfront that I don't like Ramondelli's art at all. I think a comic artist whose first priority isn't storytelling is failing at his job. Storytelling may be Ramondelli's first priority -- but it doesn't read that way on the page to me. His art is difficult to read, and a good comic artist should never be difficult to read.

(I'll have to explain this in further detail at a  later date, because there are artists who create difficult or abstract works, that still have very good storytelling. Jack Kirby springs immediately to mind.)

I guess that this point we should probably stop criticising RiD #10 and maybe look at a couple of comics who did this whole non-linear time travel story thing really well. I give you Fantastic Four #352 (written and drawn by Walter Simonson,):

This  is one of the best issues of Fantastic Four ever. It's an intriguing piece of comic storytelling. You read the comic in a linear fashion, following a story starring Susan Richards, Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm that keeps getting intersected by a battle between Doctor Doom and Reed Richards. Then you get to the letters page and you see this blurb (which was upside down in the original issue. I've turned it right side up so you can read it):

Suddenly everything becomes clear. The story made okay sense the first time through, but the Reed and Doom stuff was a bit confusing. Second time through you range all over the pages, even reading the comic cover as part of the story, before coming to the same conclusion point as your original read through, but now with new clarity.

It's an amazing and clever use of the comic medium. Most of all, though, it provides you a mechanism for understanding the progression of the story and drawing towards the conclusion.

The second comic I'd like to show you is The Ren and Stimpy Show Special #3, Masters of Time and Space (written by Dan Slott and drawn by Mike Kazaleh).

Sorry about the condition of my copy.

This comic is a little less innovative in its use of non-linear storytelling than Fantastic Four #352 (or, let's be honest, Transformers RiD #10). It's a choose-your-own adventure story. That's pretty much it. It's a time travel story told as a choose-your-own adventure. Here, I'll let Ren and Stimpy explain it.

No, the crab thing never happens in the issue.
Now you might be able to guess where I'm going with this comparison, and you'd be right. The thing that makes Ren and Stimpy work so well as a  non-linear story is that the mechanism for reading the time travel is so clearly spelled out. It's a mechanism readers were probably familiar with before anyway, but it's also very clearly explained in the comic.

Transformers RiD #10... yeah... it doesn't have a very clear mechanism for how it's meant to be read. And that mechanism is never explained within its own pages. That's not to say it doesn't have a mechanism for telling what time period you're supposed to be in at any time. It does. Here take a look at the very first page of the book and see if you can work it out:

That thing in the last panel is a space ship. I think.

Still not sure? Well I'll let Livio Ramondelli explain it.
Each of the time periods had to look different, and so that meant a new lighting scheme for each one. This can be insanely tricky. I knew Pax and co. arrived in sunshine, and so I contrasted that with the kind of red, hellish light that the final battle takes place in. But in addition, there were other lighting schemes to consider: Pax fighting Bludgeon, as well as him encountering Turmoil, among others. I like the red lighting in the final battle, as I think it’s strikingly different from what has come before. And I think the extreme nature of it fits the crazy landscape. But the Turmoil scene is the one I wish I’d found a better lighting technique for. Ah well, you learn and move forward.
                                                                                                   --Livio Ramondelli

Okay... so red is the same timeline as the climax of the book, and yellow is the... present? But what about the second panel? It has green lighting... let's take a look at this next page. Maybe it'll make more sense if we have more to work with...

That thing in the last panel is a space ship. I think.

Okay, so nearly this entire page is green -- except for one with, what, purple lighting, and one with yellow... does that mean green is the present? Or is green specifically this one time period on the Autobot ship? Then why was the first panel on the first page yellow? Isn't it from the same time period as this page?

Oh and the purple panel? Well actually it turns out that's a closeup of something from a yellow panel. Here, take a look at page 3:

There's two space ships in that first panel. I think.

Yeaaaahhh... I'm not sure this mechanism for telling the time periods apart is nearly clear enough guys. Especially when the art itself isn't very clear anyway. I much prefer Simonson's number-based system. It turns out that (for some reason) numbers are much easier to understand than vague lighting.

Now don't get me wrong. I got the general gist of this comic on the first read-through. It's pretty simple actually. The plot goes a little something like this: Optimus Prime and his crew are chasing Jhiaxus and his crew. They intercept a Decepticon signal but it's actually Reflector. Optimus follows Reflector down to a planet called LV-117 and tries to claim Reflector's ship, but Jhiaxus arrives and takes the ship before Optimus and his men can stop him. That's it.

It's all made complicated because actually the three groups arrive at various different points in the timeline, and some of them are cast adrift in time and space. So they (and we as readers) experience these events in a non-linear fashion.

It's really good that the story is so simplistic because the time travel mechanic is certainly not very clearly explained, or given very consistent rules. It's made even more difficult to understand because of things like this:

A Quintesson ship?
I thought it was Astrotrain!

See this? This is a Quintesson ship that Wheelie owned at one point. It's where the entire final battle of this issue takes place. The final battle is also the only place where this ship appears. Oh, you didn't realise it was a Quintesson ship? Well maybe that's because you don't own IDW's The Transformers #19. I don't -- it's one of a handful of gaps in my IDW TF collection. So I had no idea what this ship was, or when this piece of the timeline was set.

Because this time-travel non-linear comic isn't self-contained.

Fantastic Four #352? Pretty much totally self-contained. Ren and Stimpy's time travel special? Completely self-contained. But not this issue, it indulges in constant specific references to other Transformers comics without once explaining those references! (Heck the springboard for this issue's creation was fixing a continuity error where Reflector appeared in two different conflicting stories!) That my friends is a really bastard thing to do to your readers. I sure hope you have a working knowledge of Spotlight: Wheelie, Transformers #19 and heck, all the issues of RiD leading up to this one. Because Barber sure as heck isn't going to bring you up to speed on anything.

You're just expected to know.

I like John Barber's writing generally but would it kill him to recap something or explain details for the reader? There's only one real recap of previous events in the issue and it's the interior front-cover blurb:

It's a good thing it's there too. Without that reminder that Turmoil and Reflector's ships are one-and-the-same the entire plotline becomes even more confusing. It's unfortunate that those sorts of vital plot details aren't in the story itself, but at least it's there somewhere. Just hope you don't want to follow any of the other call backs, like Wheelie's time-hopping, though.

It's all very well to try and create a comic where the reader is required to work to understand it. That's fine. But you have to give them all the tools they need to make that tiny leap to comprehension. Fantastic Four #352 is confusing -- but it tells you explicitly on the cover that it's going to be confusing, then explains itself in the letters page and rewards the reader. Transformers RiD #10 expects the reader to decipher an inconsistent code of lighting, panel repetition and references to other comics.

I'm just lucky I have Chris McFeely over at the Transformers wiki to do the translation for me, otherwise I would only have a very surface comprehension of this issue. I certainly never would have understood the significance of the subplot with Prime meeting a native of LV-117 without the wiki to explain it. (It turns out Prime meets this alien who Wheelie met in Spotlight: Wheelie, then that guy gets killed, which fixes a continuity error.)

It's really unfortunate because I think I see what Barber was getting at here. He starts the issue simply, introducing the time travel mechanic in stages. It's meant to allow the reader to get used to how the comic is going to work, so that they can be actively deciphering it as things go along. It's sorta like a tutorial level in a computer game. But compare the three pages up above to the first two pages of Fantastic Four #352.

I love Doom's silver armour in this story.
In Fantastic Four #352 Walter Simonson very clearly lays out the rules for how things are going to work -- again, like setting up a tutorial for a computer game. He shows on this first two-page spread a sample of how the time travel is going to function with the clock in the bottom right corner, and all the time bursts around Reed and Doom. Even if you don't really understand how this is working yet, it's a strong, consistent beginning framework.

Transformers RiD #10 meanwhile seems to be deliberately obfuscating, deliberately trying to make it difficult to read. I don't think that's really the case -- I think all the people involved want you to be able to understand the story, but I just don't think they're up to the task. The issue just falls short, and rather than using simple, easy to understand mechanics tries things like panel repetitions and coloured lighting that are confusing and hard to follow.

You don't need complex storytelling mechanics to do clever and innovative things with a time travel story. The Ren and Stimpy story takes a mechanic that is super simplistic and uses it to create some amazing effects. One of my favourites is a time loop created by having page 46 end with "Turn to page 45" -- but page 45 just sends you on to page 46 again.

TF RiD #10 eskews some really simple things that would help make it make sense. Why isn't it self-contained? Why doesn't it use caption boxes? Watchmen used caption boxes extensively to explain the different time periods, and wasn't Watchmen meant to be one of the inspirations for this book? This is what John Barber said about it:

I wasn’t really happy with what I’d sent, and I was flipping through Watchmen that night—you know, like you do—when Livio emailed me and said he wouldn’t be starting for a few more days. I emailed back and told him to delete the script I’d sent. It was much more of a straightforward opening; more of a… I don’t know, a regular comic book. But I was looking at how Watchmen used the 9-panel grid, where it wasn’t just 9 panels in sequence; each panel also had relationships and echoes to previous panels and pages and it was all part of a big whole, and I wanted to try to use that structure to make the time-travel stuff work better…
                                                                                                    -- John Barber.

The complex parts of Watchmen are compelling and I can see why it's tempting to try and use them in your own story -- but I think Barber tried to take up those elements while neglecting the foundational and simple elements like caption boxes. Coupled with an artist who wasn't even remotely up to replicating the work of Dave Gibbons it's easy to see why RiD #10 failed so badly at what it was trying to achieve.

I guess that brings us back around to the conclusion again. In the end I found Transformers RiD #10 a frustrating experience. A story that could have been interesting came across as self-indulgent and self-important. It made unreasonable demands of the reader's comprehension and understanding, and wasn't nearly as clever as it desperately wanted to be. It's hard to hate the comic because it really did have good intentions. But I don't think I'd ever be able to actually like the issue.

If Barber attempts another issue like this I really hope he reads Fantastic Four #352 and the Ren and Stimpy Special #3 first.

--Andrew S.
(All the quotes in this article were taken from the Creators' commentary on Facebook. You can find them here:  https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.3...2938&type=1 It was a very useful resource.)


  1. Great commentary. I was considering drawing a time travel story of my own soon, and this will give me some things to consider.

  2. I'll admit, as soon as I saw the term "Non-Linear Comics," my first thought went to the Fantastic Four. One of my favorite comic runs ever.

    Even if there wasn't anything quite as trippy as Frog Thor.

    1. It depends where you put the Doom Retcon on the "Trippy" scale. Though I guess that's really a subject for another article.