Mar 25, 2013

Comic Comparison -- MTMTE #15 and Transformers #66.

Mmm. Visual metaphor.
So I finished reading a comic called Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye #15. It was the climax of an ongoing set of plot threads from the book, ending in a huge battle with a super-powerful Decepticon aboard an Autobot space ship.

More Than Meets The Eye is a great book -- especially if you're a hardcore Transformers fan.

So I was a little taken aback when I was reading the Allspark and found that reactions to the issue were far more mixed than is normal for MTMTE. So I went and read the issue again. The second time I started to notice a strange feeling; I'd read this story somewhere else.

So I read it again and it twigged. It's the Furman-ness. Simon Furman was a long-time writer on Transformers in the 1980s and a very big and obvious influence on MTMTE's writer James Roberts. But it was more than just stray scenes that were similar to the old days... it was... the whole issue.

More Than Meets the Eye #15 (Under Cold Blue Stars) was beat-for-beat a copy of Marvel's Generation 1 comic #66 (All Fall Down).

Big big spoilers follow guys, so if you haven't read these two comics yet do so, then come back here with them both in your lap and join me for a little journey of comparisons.

Before we get started I want to make very clear that this is not an attack article. I don't actually think James Roberts doing a pastiche (even if it's unintentional; I don't know) of a Furman comic is bad thing. Both Roberts and Furman had such radically different takes on the same basic material that it's actually really interesting and inspiring to read the two different takes side by side.

So let's do a little plot synopsis of all the shared story beats -- and this is where it gets really spoilery folks, so if you haven't read the comics in question this is your last chance to go back!

A terrifyingly powerful Decepticon has been let loose in the middle of an Autobot starship. He quickly kills an Autobot, and easily defeats the others around him. The alarm is sounded and he's attacked by a major hero, who for a moment appears to be defeating him, only to get the crap beaten out of him. A huge battle ensues until a sudden moment of psychological weakness (prompted by being talked down) exposes the super-power Decepticon. This allows an Autobot from his past, who'd been cut off from the action, to strike and defeat him -- casting him out into space, where he's exploded. At the end of the issue a great sacrifice has been made and three Autobots are seemingly dead!

Oh, and at the start of ONE of those issues there's a prologue about Unicron.

Now this is a biased synopsis, but the similarities between the two issues are pretty damned plain for anyone to see.

Ian Akin cover! Oooo! (Ewwww.)
What I'm interested in is the differences in execution. See, James Roberts might be really inspired by a lot of the storytelling tools, plotlines, characters and ideas of Simon Furman, but in the end he's a completely different kind of writer. Roberts doesn't care about action -- he cares about character drama. In fact he's very good at this, and it's been the driving force of his MTMTE run from the beginning. Simon Furman on the other hand is a writer of action, and a damned good one. I think I'd dare call him one of the best in the industry -- especially when working with Geoff Senior.

Geoff Senior was not, I'm sad to say, any sort of visible influence on Alex Milne. His art was influenced more obviously and directly by people like Pat Lee, Don Figueroa and (recently) Nick Roche. Geoff Senior I have adored as an artist since the first line of his art I ever saw. Milne on the other hand? I'll be honest, our relationship is rocky at best. When he debuted on Transformers: Energon I disliked him, by the time he was drawing Megatron: Origin he was hands down my least favourite Transformers artist. His characters were one-note, his storytelling clumsy and his grasp of space amatuerish at best. He'd have flashes of brilliance here and there (notably some bits of Reign of Starscream) but not enough to redeem him.

But then something happened. He got really good. Almost overnight he went from being my least favourite artist, to being the one Transformers artist working today I can't do without. When his name isn't on an issue of MTMTE I get disappointed. This change happened so suddenly it was like a punch to the back of the head... conversations with other TF fans about Alex Milne's art now seemed to be always prefaced by, "I can't believe I'm going to say this about Alex Milne, but..."

Well, that ends now for me. From now on I just am unabashedly his fan. He's great.

(For the record, yes the three J's working on MTMTE are much, much better at colouring than Nel Yomtov. For one they don't seem to be actively trying to ruin the art with their efforts.)

Okay, so now we've set the stage, let's get to the meat of this thing and actually do the comparisons.

Thunderwing and Overlord have invaded the Ark and the Lost Light respectively (one from without, one from within, but both basically using a "Trojan Horse" entry method). The first thing they do is kill someone. Let's take a look at the way Thunderwing pulls it off and the way Overlord does and see what that tells us about the artists and writers of these comics.

This is actually a composite of panels from two pages.
(Plus I might have fixed one of the many colouring errors...)

This is Landmine's entire 'arc' in the comic, four panels and he's dead.

For Pipes' death I think we'll just link to the comic preview on another website, and post a couple of choice panels here. Hopefully you're reading along with your own comics -- because we'll be trying not to post the ENTIRITY of both issues.

It's just such a completely different take isn't it? It's the same beat -- the big bad villain kills a minor (but familiar) character DEAD, just to show you how damned big and bad he is. But damn if the Pipes moment isn't filled with far more pathos. It's not better but it's more emotional.

Watching Pipes' message for Hubcap inter-spliced with his dying moments, it's a moment of pure raw emotion. The real key is when Roberts and Milne pull the sudden trick of changing from a 3rd person view, to a first person point of view as we stare up at Overlord from out of Pipes' eyes before they're crushed by Overlord's enormous foot. That moment is inescapable, and it draws us into the slow lingering death over the next few panels. This is comics storytelling at its best. Changing POV's is one of comics' greatest tools:

Okay, I love you Geoff Senior, but you never made
Thunderwing as terrifying as Overlord is here.
Landmine's death, while it's serving a very similar function in the story is just such a completely different kind of moment, dramatically. This is a pure shock moment. This moment works almost entirely because of how good an artist Senior is. The explosive impact of Thunderwing's attack, and the look of sheer horror on Landmine's face is something that has stayed with me since I first read this comic in 1990. (The subtle choice of making a Pretender the one to die lets Senior really sell the facial expression even more viscerally.) But there's no denying that this is an alienating moment. You're not supposed to be feeling Landmine's pain, you're supposed to be absolutely shocked by the violence of it.

I think both moments work equally well -- but immediately we're casting the drama vs. action approaches into strong relief. They're just trying to achieve such different things.

Okay, here's the moment where I'm going to have to point out the weakness of Roberts' preference for character-driven drama over pure high-octane action. It just doesn't work when he tries to do an action beat. Especially not when he specifically tries to steal one of Simon Furman's action beats. Here, take a look at this moment:

Ahh, the pages I've read the most complaints about...

Oh my god! What a powerful moment! Ultra Magnus fought hard and it seemed like, for a moment, he was holding his own! But then Overlord turned the tables on him and punished him for it!

Except it doesn't work.

It's hard not to know why, either. Because we've seen this moment done before. We've seen it done with Ultra Magnus before. (And Rodimus Prime, Optimus Prime, even Death's Head...) It's just one of Simon Furman's signature moments. Here, let's see it play out again with Optimus Prime and Thunderwing:

Probably my two favourite pages of action in Transformers, period.
There's just no comparison here. Prime gets his moment to really beat down on Thunderwing and he actually gets to be really badass here. For a moment it looks like he really will just beat the tar out of Thunderwing... and then he hesitates and he's lost. More than that, he's REALLY punished for it. For all that Ultra Magnus gets his spark stabbed out in the Milne pages, there's not the same level of physical, visceral punishment that Prime receives.

It's amazing how well Geoff Senior commands space here compared to Alex Milne. Both Prime and Magnus attack their quarry from behind -- but even though Milne uses a much more massive panel to do it, it just doesn't have the sheer bone-shattering (if you'll forgive the bad metaphor) impact of Senior's blows. And that's partly because of how much more cramped Milne's panels are. There's space in Senior's panels so that you can see the motion of the blows -- and feel the impact.

But it's not just that. Notice how Senior consistently pulls the camera back to show you little details in the background that are going to become important to the visual narrative. Hey, there's a piece of machinery Prime's about to pick up and use as a weapon! There on the wall is a vent that becomes the physical trajectory that Thunderwing's blows move Optimus towards! He sets it all up so you understand the space we're moving through. The visual continuity is fantastic.

By comparison when Overlord stabs Ultra Magnus it's actually kind of a confusing moment. Where did that sword come from? I mean, he has it in the first panel on these two pages... but then he's not holding it later on, is he? But honestly the lack of visual continuity isn't the really big problem with this scene -- it's the focus on the wrong part of the drama. The exciting part isn't the moment where the good guy gets beaten -- the exciting moment is when you, as the reader, realise that the good guy is outmatched.

Here, let's watch Simon Furman and Geoff Senior boil this down to a mere four panels, in the previous issue (Transformers #65 Dark Creation).

I love the way Senior even sets up a little gag with the TV
screen falling on Thunderwing's head, here. Too bad about
the colouring and lettering concealing it.
Repurposing one of these moments to actually kill a character is a fair use. But Roberts and Milne seem to think that the actual moment where Magnus is stabbed is the most exciting part, and it's really not. It's a really failure by both of them to understand how to stage an action sequence. You can tell even they're not confident about their ability to pull it off -- otherwise why would we need a little insert panel of Rodimus telling us to take this moment as serious and dramatic?

The problem here isn't that they didn't have enough pages to show Ultra Magnus and Overlord's fight -- the problem is the difference between specialists in blistering action like Simon Furman and Geoff Senior, and specialists in exciting detailed character drama, like Alex Milne and James Roberts. How about before we go we take one last comparative look, and maybe even the score?

So here's the climax of both issues. If you haven't read these pages before then, well... you're a bloody idiot for reading this far. Maybe you should go out and buy both comics? You can get them easy enough, I'm sure. I own Marvel Transformers #66 in like eight different forms... and you can just go buy #15 of MTMTE on Comixology. So, you have no excuse, right?

So here's the climax of Marvel #66. Nightbeat, Siren and Hosehead harpooning Thunderwing and blowing him out of an airlock, then blowing him the hell up. It's like the ending of Alien on steroids:

Geoff Senior and Simon Furman, what a goddamn combination. Wow.

This is an amazing action sequence. The shot of the shuttle bay doors opening and sucking everything out is a testimony to Geoff Senior's skills at drawing mass and movement. (Oh and for those wondering, because they're dirt bags who didn't read the issue, yes, Nightbeat survives here and doesn't get sucked out the airlock.)

This, then... is the final two pages of MTMTE #15, completely without any more context.

That last page is just amazing. Roberts and Milne at their best.

The idea is almost identical -- the evil Decepticon is trapped, and jettisoned from the ship, then blown to smithereens. But this is a completely different kind of scene -- it's not an action scene, it's a scene of drama and tension. Overlord is a monster and Rewind is trapped in that box with him. Even if you know nothing about Chromedome's relationship to Rewind, these two pages are powerful enough to sell the emotions here.

(But if you don't know anything of their relationship, then didn't read the issue. God dammit, get out of here!)

Look at how frantically Chromedome moves. Look at how Milne uses his entire body to express utter despair in that final panel. This is blazingly good, wonderfully drawn comics. It makes the action-adventure approach of 1990 look decades old, (and badly coloured) by comparison. This is pure pathos.

There's no pathos in losing the Matrix. Simon Furman doesn't even try to get any out of the scene. In fact on the next page he even has Optimus Prime give a speech to the effect of, "Oh well, we blew up our god's soul, but life goes on." There's no question the events of this issue are going to have plot impacts -- but they don't really have strong emotional ones.

But that final page of MTMTE tells us we're going to be feeling the emotional (as well as the plot-driven) effects of this issue for some time to come... and that's definitely a triumph, it makes you desperately want to keep reading the comic.

I'll be honest the suggestion I keep seeing over and over again is this: "They should have done More Than Meets the Eye #15 as a double-sized issue." The idea is that there just wasn't enough room in 22 pages to wrap up all the lingering plotlines and still have the huge action setpieces people were looking forwards to.

Honestly, I find this suggestion laughable.

James Roberts is not a writer of action. He's just not. He's not even interested in action. He's the guy who wrote a scene where Drift and Ratchet face off against Overlord... then just skipped to the conclusion without showing us the in between. Because he doesn't give a crap about the punching bits. He wants the character bits.

Do I need to even say anything at this point?

I didn't enjoy MTMTE #15 as much as some of my friends. They were much more invested in the characters than I was, and so felt Eject's... I mean Rewind's death a lot more acutely than I did. As much as I like character moments I have to admit that a big reason why I'm into comics is for the punches.

But we're just not going to get that from James Roberts right now. I mean, maybe things will turn around. I started this article telling you how I was shocked by a radical change in artist Alex Milne's skills as a storyteller. I think he still has a long way to go -- but he's definitely come a very long way. And it almost seemed to happen over night. So who knows? Maybe down the track, after a few more issues, Mr. Roberts will give us the insanely awesome punching we've been craving?

Until then, I guess I'll have to keep reminding myself that he's in it for the pathos, and take the occasional cool fight scene when I can get it.

--Andrew S.
(And hopefully it'll be drawn by Alex Milne, because the three other artists to do MTMTE stories just aren't up to snuff.)


  1. I know! It's crazy how much I like Milne's artwork now. In the old days I'd be like, "Ugh, great, another Milne comic where everyone has a billion wings and pointy bits."

    But now I'm like "I'm going to read this five more times."

    Anyway you've made me sad because I remember how much I enjoy reading the 80s/90s comics and how little I enjoy Regen 1.

  2. It'd be easy to say too that Milne suddenly got good when he started apeing Roche's style, but that really isn't the case- I remember being pleasantly-impressed with his work on the ongoing under Costa and especially in Chaos Theory.

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  4. Milne is hands down my favourite TF artist at the moment. Somehow the things he took from Nick Roche combined with the things he was already improving on, to create something that was greater than the sum of its parts. Roche is fine -- but I think Milne is better.

    --Andrew S.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this post. You absolutely nailed my feelings on Milne, who has grown on me massively during the series. Overall though I have to admit I still prefer Roche - just take a look at his cover compared to Milne's and you can see why. Roche's is a far more subtle composition, but compelling and abstract enough to entice you into further investigation. Milne's in comparison is a simple reinterpretation of one of the (supposed) most dramatic scenes in the issue. For a start it's too busy (not enough negative space), so the focal point is off. Secondly it's too literal - there's nothing left to the imagination. Thirdly (and the reason why this cover is a huge misfire) is the spoiler-ish nature of the cover - it's actually more brutal then the same scene in the comic, so it completely sucks the drama out of Magnus's pseudo death.

    Anyway, mini-rant over - just another reason why I felt MTMTE issue #15 fell flat.


  6. Comic cover art is... in a lot of ways... a completely different kind of compositional form than interior comic book storytelling. For one thing it requires a composition that tells a complete, in-and-of-itself story. There are some MASTERS of comic art who still suck at covers -- so it's probably a bad comparison. (Heck, Jack Kirby was a great cover artist, but Steve Ditko? Not so much. And they hardly ever even LET Sal Buscema draw covers.)

    Comparing Roche and Milne's interiors... I dunno. I think at this stage they're about equally skilled storytelllers, so it's going to come down to personal preference.
    --Andrew S.

  7. I love your deconstruction of the two styles and how art and writing combine to bring different approaches to the same story beats. A fascinating and thoughtful analysis. Thanks!