Wednesday, 6 May 2009

All Hail Megatron - Overview

All Hail Megatron is easily the greatest thing to come from IDW publishing, nay any of the big comic publishers in the past few years. Whilst DC and Marvel have tried - and failed - to capture reader interest with sprawling, ugly events, IDW have effortlessly published a tome that I feel will still be held in high regard in years to come.

The premise of All Hail Megatron is deceptively simple - the Decepticons have conquered the planet Earth and are now at a loose end, whilst the Autobots are trapped on Cybertron and unable to interact with their foes. This is the status quo for 10 of the 12 issues of the series and creates a tense atmosphere as these two sides both deal with the boredom and ennui that their lives have become.

It was designed as a 'soft reboot', a jumping on point for new readers, and it does this job admirably. The writer Shane McCarthy, fresh from the success of redeveloping DC's The Riddler as a metrosexual gangster (a change sadly not kept on by any of the subsequent writers) carefully crafted the series so that swathes of continuity could be ignored, freeing the new reader from needing to have read the past comics since they no longer mattered or happened as we read them. Of course, there were still delicious nuggets for longer term readers to enjoy, such as the previous series being integral to understanding the motivations of several characters; and the shocking revelation that Cybertron was indeed still a radioactive wasteland, the Autobots having hidden from the reader the incredible pain being on their homeworld caused to their bodies from the radiation for six issues. The new reader would have some exciting holes in the narrative to delightfully puzzle over, and the experienced reader would have the joy of guessing which parts of IDW's previous Transformer comics were still canonical.

A good industry comparison would be to the X-Men comics. Grant Morrison's run on X-Men, like Simon Furman's on Transformers, is often thought of as well-regarded by fans. But such a scope of original and new ideas can become wearing on the readership, and like Marvel before them, IDW realised this. Most readers do not seek anything new, instead they wish to recapture their childhood and need the nostalgia. Dreamwave successfully captured this under the guiding hand of Pat Lee, and it is this triumphant return to the old tropes that makes AHM so successful. Chuck Austin took over from Grant Morrison directly on the X-Men comic, and set about returning the book to its classic setup, removing many of the new ideas Morrison had inserted and instead replacing them with the same tried-and-trusted stories that had made the franchise so successful. Like Austin before him, McCarthy looked at what the IDW canon had become, and removed the story and character aspects that were not part of the 'nostalgic' pure view of Transformers, crystallising what made the original cartoon so good and ensuring that the franchise does not move forward and erroneously develop from this point of perfection.

It also strikes me to be similar to Jeph Loeb's blockbuster work on Marvel's Ultimates line. He took a line that had strayed too far from its roots, returning it to the 'classic' Marvel feel and removing the unwelcome additional ideas and development added to the characters and settings. In this way, the pleasant, nostalgic glow of reading something familiar is returned to the reader.

One thing in particular that AHM did fantastically well was the Swarm, which menaced the Autobots during their stay on Cybertron. Like the classic hordes of zombies upon which they were based, the Swarm was said to number 3000 deadly beasts, all on the look-out to kill our heroes. Lesser writers may have tried to play up this danger, or show the reader how terrifying the swarm was. To its credit, AHM does not stray down this path. Instead the menace of the Swarm is conveyed not by what they do, but what they don't do. We hardly ever see more than a few on panel at a time. When they do appear they are killed swiftly and easily, and they never harm any of the main characters or place them in any danger.

But they might have!

It has been said that the scariest thing is not what the eye sees, but what it doesn't see, and All Hail Megatron is a feast for the non-seeing eye. The Swarm are terrifying and dangerous because we never see them be terrifying and dangerous. But they could be! Just as off-camera violence can be scarier than on-screen gore fests, so the swarm's terror is conveyed by the lack of terror they outwardly present. We don't know what they are capable of because they never show us, which makes the mind race with myriad possibilities.

How can you speak of the swarm without speaking of Sunstreaker of course? The Swarm never killed anyone (but they could have!) but Sunstreaker chose to sacrifice himself bravely by blowing up a bridge. It does not matter that there was a second bridge the reader did not know about, or that the idea of placing a detonator and then shooting it with one special gun was flawed. In fact I would argue that it makes Sunstreaker's death the more poignant. His noble sacrifice was reduced to a meaningless death, which suits the terror and chaos that is war.

Sunstreaker's motivation was also one of the most fascinating things about this maxi-series. For most of the issues he is simply /there/ glimpsed in the background, just another soldier. He is so mysterious and enthralling that he does not get any dialogue or attention drawn to him at all until the issue before he is revealed as the big traitor. "Who is this mech?" we thought, "what is his story?". Then he gets one page to talk about not having a head and reveals that he is the traitor and kills himself. For those new to the series using AHM as its intended jumping on point, there is only one solution - he is insane and evil. Discovering such a well loved Autobot was in fact insane and evil was hard on many fans, but again the very randomness of this reflects the randomness that is war.

Of course, for those of us who were long term readers, we get an even deeper look into Sunstreaker. We know what he has gone through, we know of his adventures with the humans and the friendship he shared with some of them - who would have known that this friendship hid a murderous sociopathic rage which had him begging Starscream to commit genocide on every single human being! Even the careful reader would not have been able to see this amazing twist coming until it was there!

The arrival of Omega Supreme was another fantastic addition, a literal deus ex machina. The gods themselves had deemed that the action needed to move off Cybertron, and so Omega appeared out of thin air, picking up a signal that we were told was impossible to have left Cybertron. In a particularly brilliant twist, Omega Supreme last appeared in the IDW comics around 3 times larger than Prime. Here he is the size of a city, and crushes an army beneath his feet. This was certainly a twist no-one saw coming, and Prime gets to demonstrate his unflappable cool by simply bidding welcome and then climbing inside the now gigantic body of his friend to fly off to Earth.

Drift is another welcome addition to the franchise, a brand-new character crafted by McCarthy himself and publicised as 'IDW's Wolverine'. He is a member of the elite Autobot Wreckers and one of the last Autobots surviving. He even garnered himself a one-shot comic before he'd even appeared in print, a sure sign of the character's enduring popularity. In many ways, Drift's unflappable ninja cool, his invincible persona and his dark, edgy bad-ass past edge him above the more mundane Autobots. His friends are constantly asking about where he is when he isn't on panel, reaffirming what a popular and well-liked character he is. In many ways, he is the IDW equivalent of Forerunner from the Countdown comics - a new character who can easily best the most established of fan-favourites, fighting with consummate honour and ninja skill. The roots of the Transformers story lies firmly in Japan, so it is fitting that Drift, the greatest of the Autobots, be Japanese, with skill, honour, and his giant sword which he may only draw in the most dire of circumstances. He deserves to be IDW's Wolverine, and I hope to see further spinoffs to examine his mysterious ninja past some more.

Starscream also comes across fantastically in this series. By the publication of All Hail Megatron, there had been three major Transformers series published by IDW, two of them revolving around Starscream betraying Megatron. Bravely McCarthy does the unexpected and focuses his story on Starscream betraying Megatron. Starscream betraying Megatron again is so obvious that it becomes unlikely and is thus unexpected when it happens and we, the reader, are left to revel in shock at the surprise.

Megatron's plan which sets the whole events in motion is sheer tactical genius, as promised by the solicitations. Some have accused his master plan - of tricking all 20 Autobots on Earth to walk into the desert without any backup and then shoot them, thus winning the war across the galaxy - to be simplistic. Not so. His genius has somehow forced the Autobots into making stupid mistake after stupid mistake, especially since previous IDW series showed the Autobots to come into the posession of the Magnificence, an object of supreme tactical use. Megatron's deceptively straightforward plan makes the Autobots act like simple fools and so be defeated.

A series entitled All Hail Megatron may fall into the trap of featuring the titular character. Not so - McCarthy realises that in order to build up the character of Megatron, he must be featured as little as possible. In several issues Megatron doesn't appear, and when he does there are only the smallest snippets of any characterisation. This builds up suspense for the reader - who is Megatron? What is he planning? What does he do? Thus when Starscream eventually unexpectedly betrays his leader, we, the reader, are left rooting for Megatron, wanting him to survive so we can learn more of this intriguing enigma.

McCarthy's powerful writing style is able to juggle a wealth of plot threads, leaving many of them tantalisingly unmentioned for issues at a time. We first learn the Autobots were defeated by the Decepticons and left on Cybertron on issue 1, but it is only by issue 7 that the mystery is finally solved, and Jazz informs us in a lengthy flashback that the Autobots were indeed defeated by the Decepticons and left on Cybertron. The human story is cunningly weaved into the narrative too, with many characters developed in the first few issues, but then vanishing, some to return around six issues later cunningly flitting back into the narrative.

Spike in himself is a well rounded character. He literally vanishes from the narrative in the early issues, sneaking back into the field in issue 9. As the reader forgot all about him, so did the Decepticons! Some exciting experimental meta-narrative there. And who could have failed to warm to him as he swaggered back into view, naked chest bared as he sewed his trousers closed and proceeded to sexily flirt with the female characters, before infiltrating a military establishment with such ease that it didn't even need to be shown on panel! Spike is also shown to be a fallible character, ignoring his special Transformer-killing weapon in lieu of a normal handgun and thus is defeated by the cassette Rumble. It is only though the actions of an angry black man with a rocket launcher that the Decepticon is felled. The message here is simple - the entire army of the world could not damage a single Decepticon, but the love of a father for his dead son gives one man the power to defeat them. As he so touchingly put it "this is for my son you bastard!"

McCarthy's distaste for the UN shows through clearly, in what is one of the books main political strokes. The Decepticons are shown to have destroyed a huge chunk of the planet, from America to Israel to Bejing. However the UN believes that by nuking New York, the Decepticons can be defeated. As readers we have seen the Decepticons effortlessly spreading across the globe and so the uselessness of the UN's resolution is laid bare - it is not the Decepticons they wish to attack, but America itself, using the invasion as a cover for their own insane desire to nuke New York!
This revelation is the cliffhanger to issue 6, but in a stroke of genius the exact same resolution is also the cliffhanger to issue 9. The aim is simple - to paint the UN as an inefficient, slow organisation. With the world in the grip of giant killer space robots they have not enacted a decision made in three issues, instead parroting the same lines again and again. Of course, when the attack does come, it is not with nuclear weapons but with an airstrike in the form of Eurofighters. Eurofighters are not nuclear bombers or missile batteries, especially when we have seen how easily the Decepticons destroy an air force - it demonstrates the complete ineptness of the UN and its political processes in a cunning satire.

As a whole then, All Hail Megatron deserves its reputation. The tale is crafted so that the reader empathises with the Autobots - we feel frustration along with them at their banishment to Cybertron and being locked out of the action. We feel confusion as to what is going on, as the Autobots do. We even feel for the Decepticons who aimlessly wander about Earth. Thankfully IDW have announced a sequel in the form of AHM: Coda, and that McCarthy will continue to lead the brand as head writer. The future looks certain.

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