Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The Last Knight Voyager Megatron - Pictorial Review

 - Ben Watson

The Last Knight hits theatres this week and whether you've booked your tickets and are eagerly awaiting it or not, one thing seems to ring true among fans this time around: Megatron's new design is pretty damn slick. Honestly, I didn't echo this sentiment at first. He looks like a LOTR baddie or a Dark Souls boss more than a Transformer but the figure looked to be something well worth getting my hands on and certainly worth getting behind a lens. 

A Leader version also exists which furnishes the inexplicably reborn Decepticon leader with his new tusky faceplate and some flame effect parts along with a generally sleeker alt mode but I much prefer my leaders to not be Leaders. Voyager is enough size for me - and enough expense; because the very first thing to mention about any TLK toys is sadly the price. Every size class now costs roughly what the one above it used to. I.e. Deluxes are now Voyager money. But thankfully Voyagers don't feel as ludicrously overpriced. I've been paying roughly £30 for them for years through online dealerships so it's not much skin off my nose but I can well see how it might be for most. Good thing then, that Megatron delivers and for the first figure of a new movie design, that's no small feat. 

Starting in robot mode as everything does these days, Megatron is a very decent action figure before any conversion comes into it. Every joint is afforded a wide range of motion while actually for the most part being exceptionally tight. The current standard suite of articulation for Generations style figures is present, so sadly no wrists or waist swivel but this is more than made up for with a double ball jointed neck and ankle tilts that go as deep as you could ever possibly want them to. For once this point of articulation is a transformation joint - clever. All of this allows you to make the most of Megatron's imposing feudalistic form and imbues a great deal of character. 

Gimmickry is clearly minimal in a line focused only on accurately portraying on-screen designs but (depending on what you count as gimmicks) Megatron isn't totally devoid of fun touches. Firstly he wields his big new axe-sword / sharp pendulum thing. I have no idea how the describe this top-heavy weapon but it looks weighty and destructive in his grip and feels like a perfectly brutal blade for him to counter Optimus' robo-Excalibur with. This can also be stored on his back but lies just out of reach for him to pose as if he's grabbing for it. 

For the first time movie Megatron also wields his cannon mounted on his right arm. I hesitate to habitually drop the words "fusion cannon" because judging by trailers and the inferences of the Leader version it appears much more incendiary in nature. It sits on his arm in the right place and looks suitably alien - a little Gigeresque actually - and can fold up and retract to the underside of his arm. This motion is really for transformation but it can allow you to create the sense of him extending it for battle - a dynamic from the movies I've always enjoyed.

Perhaps the best touch of Megatron's robot mode however is his light piping. It feels like ages since this was a regular thing and while it's relatively difficult to get to glow, it works so well for Megatron's beady rage rubies. This also provides a very effective hint of colour against his mostly monochrome metallic bod. I can understand the feel they're trying to evoke with the layers of black armour but it does leave Megatron feeling particularly visually uninteresting without good lighting. At least the dull gold accents prevent the deco from being completely dim but there are also some not-so-easily seen silver washed sections to create a touch of depth. 

Transformation is quite entertaining, especially considering the fact Megatron essentially goes from an entirely rounded robot to a purely flat-edged jet. Very little of either mode can be seen in the other and honestly it just leaves me feeling like each was made by a different concept team. Megatron appears to use magic to transform because while you can spot jet sections on the figure, the CG model just has nothing that goes any way to resembling vehicle kibble. This is a personal gripe of mine over the newer movie designs; at least before you could see roughly how they transformed and what into but now, pfft, no chance mate. All this aside, Megatron's new jet mode is certainly distinctive. Echoing some shapes of his 2007 alien form but appearing to be made out of earthen jet sections arranged in a sci-fi way, it almost feels like Megatron. Honestly I keep seeing Beast Machines Jetstorm in its suggestion of a face in the translucent cockpit... But good detail abounds to (for once) give you a sense of a Cybertronian mode that isn't just visual BS. I really hope we get a mildly good look at this mode in the film because if nothing else, it feels kinetic and I'd really like to know why those blue thrusters appear to be facing the wrong way... 

All in all, Megatron delivers a really interesting new design that at least has some kind of character driven aesthetic. The layers of armour give a real sense of kineticism which is really the only objective of any movie design. To be able to imagine how the plates overlap and segment as the robot moves  - possibly as they would on-screen - is a testament to this design. Of course whether this figure carries over the presence of Megatron as seen in the movie remains to be seen, especially when this is the first attempt at the design (remember how awkward that first AOE Optimus was) but something about it makes me feel confident that they've done a good job here. Even with the deeply weird jet mode.

The Last Knight aside, this is a very competent and very unique new rendition of the Emperor of Destruction and I'd heartily recommend it. I struggle to think of anything else in my collection that evokes quite the same sense of restrained malice - certainly not another Megatron figure. Time will tell how strongly this design is received compared to each of Megatron's previous incarnations as he does seem landed with the disadvantage of a new look in every appearance. Will he finally get a break and be allowed to seem as constantly iconic as Optimus? I'd like to be hopeful, but somehow I doubt it. Maybe he needs to be just a touch more #Refined...

Follow Ben on Twitter @Waspshot23

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Spinout Chest Fix from Printformers

 - Dorian MacQuarrie

Shortly after posting my article on Omnigonix Spinout I received some pieces in the post which aim to fix one of the more glaring issues on Spinout, the chest connection. 

Beyond all the QC issues the connection between the roof of the car and the neck assembly prevents any real handling of Spinout without having to constantly readjust and reconnect said neck assembly to said car roof. It may hold for a second or two but look at it the wrong way and pop, it's come undone. 

Thankfully there is a piece available from Printformers which rectifies this and boy oh boy, what a case of rectifying it is! 

Arriving in a quaint little brown box, these 3D printed pieces replace two silver neck panels, allowing for a much, much, much stronger connection. The pieces bare (bear?) carry the telltale granulation of a 3D printed piece but the black hides this well enough. It would be nice to have a more polished piece but their function far outweighs their aesthetics in this case and I quite like the black neck piece as opposed to the stock silver. 

Installation is super easy as everything is held on via a single pin and parts can be easily slid off/on as needed.

The result? A much stronger connection that can withstand handling and posing. The connection is strong enough to bear the weight of the whole figure, which yes, might not be such a grand statement but it is a remarkable step up from how the figure was out of the box. 

If you're interested in buying a set for yourself (and I highly recommend that you do) head on over to Printformers' Facebook page where you can see this and more examples of his great work.

Also check out this video for installation and further commentary from the designer of the pieces. 

Until next time, keep it #Refined

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Defining the work of Geoff Senior. Part 1/3

- Leigh Gregurke

The team of Senior and Furman is perhaps a big reason why Transformers fiction and art has the credibility and reputation it does now. Its hard to find a working artist who doesn't call on Geoff Senior as an inspiration or love and his work could be seen as defining the visual style of so many now prevalent characters.

What makes Senior so great though? I've always valued his work even from a young age. I would skip other artists at times but never a Senior Issue, never. Now with a more trained eye and understanding of the craft I want to look back and unpack exactly what he did that pulled me into a story with such effect. Over three parts I hope to break down and unpack Senior starting with composition and cause and effect.

Marvel Comics

I wanted to begin with something I think most people know, Target 2006 Part 8. An issue devoted entirely to a fight between two emergent behemoths of the fiction. Furman uses Medias Res (starting in the middle of the story or action) driving the viewer straight into the work. Senior assists and places us immediately into a dangerous and exciting position visually. The action is angled directly towards and heading past us, the curving lines of the road and the smoke cutting into the gutters, the panel borders themselves cut at the tops showing motion and direction, everything angles towards the centre of the page, defining our focus while the by-standing cars career from its unstoppable path.

The sense of chaos reads immediately and we see the cars careering off the road letting us know the reckless and dangerous nature of the chase venturing to the wrong side of the road. The low shot gives us the underbelly of the Magnus truck mode, the smoke and grit sell the desperation and energy. Both Magnus and the other cars motion remind me of Frank Miller and Sean Gordon Murphy in the way they often depict cars almost airborne in speed, out of control and no longer chained to the surface. I will cover Senior's mark making, spotting of blacks and anchoring lines in a later article but I want to highlight the way Senior uses solid black shapes to show Magnus's cab, it adds tremendous weight and visual priority to the contrasting white of the cab against the stark background.

I think what immediately sells me on the desperation and consequence of this page is the action's visceral intent. Galvatron's hand clutching the shattered roof is both for his own survival but an act of incredible violence. Senior acknowledges the importance of alternate modes in Transformers lore and utilises their physical options for action. Creating a sense of chase in this issue pulls in some of the terror of films of the era that I loved, the relentless pursuit in Westworld and Terminator but also the speed and danger of the chase from Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA.

Marvel Comics

The page following carries the same intent and utilises a bit of a Senior trademark: the wide flat horizontal shot. In this instance it both acts as an establishing shot giving us a sense of scale but it also acts like a metronome and gives us the beat of the page. Sequential art at its best engages a pace and rhythm to assist the viewer and connect art with a sense of speed. Starting from the left and ending on the right of the page the top horizontal panel provides us a certain constant as the panels following all echo its action and we are reminded always of the situation. The final 2 panels even sit in the in same format as the top panel however zoomed in giving us the detail required to tell the change in situation. Cause and effect exists at the heart of good visual storytelling, the viewer must understand an action and its response. Senior I think delivers action so well in that we see always an act of something happens, therefore another thing happens, there never feels a jump or leap that we struggle to read or understand.

Marvel Comics

The final page, the climax of the tremendous back and forth struggle ends much like the story began with a now iconic image. Immediately the first two panels establish the emotion and brevity, the consequences of chaos and aggression. The flames all burn to the right providing direction, the following image echoes that direction with trademark Senior impact and we again see the panel borders affected by the action. Galvatron's stance is one of power, exaggeration and dominance and he strides almost out of the panel itself with generous foreshortening on show reminiscent of the great Jack Kirby handling a Captain America Punch. The shape contrasts are perhaps exaggerated more than ever here, Magnus's squared lines against the strong curved form of Galvatron. Almost centrally his cannon attracts the eye as it feels pointed towards the viewer demonstrating menace and dread with its black-hole like emptiness once again echoing the importance of the viewers eye from the opening page. The choice to obscure Magnus's face and instead focus on his reaching hand is a powerful one and it reads as desperation and defeat and allows Galvatron all the spotlight.

Marvel Comics. Jeff Anderson

I want to make it clear right now that I am always loathe to compare artists. I would rather find the strengths and promote what I love about artists and it's a rare occasion when I will pit them against each other but I wanted to include this page from the following issue by Jeff Anderson just to show how incredible Senior is. Anderson is a classic UK mainstay and I really enjoy his work. The above image reads well and gives us the required information but contrast the two. Anderson places the characters in the same plane and has the viewer at a similar eye level. Galvatron's dominance reads but the sense of scale, the contrast in power, the triumph and destruction is subdued and perhaps lacks the intensity that Senior utilised by having the scene have a sense of depth and placing the viewer directly in its way.

I remember reading advice from the brilliant John Romita Snr on having your figures feel heroic, allowing yourself to exaggerate foreshortening and make them look as they are lunging out of the page. When I think of action and cause and effect in sequential work that I love I find myself drawn to that style, whether it is Geoff Senior or other luminaries such as Romita's son who carved his own reputation as one of the greats here on Daredevil with Anne Nocenti or Walt Simonson on wonderfully indulgent and bizarre Robocop vs Terminator collaborating with Frank Miller.

Marvel comics. John Romita Jnr
Dark Horse Comics. Walt Simonson

Geoff Senior throughout his run on Transformers and other works consistently told excellent, clear and engaging stories visually. I knew when I was young, even when I sped read through some of the issues what was going on, he depicted action like no other artist. I cannot see characters such as Rodimus, Scourge, Goldbug, Thunderwing, Death's Head and of course Galvatron and Ultra Magnus without his vision and style defining them.
In part two I will cover Senior's mark making, quality of line and spotting of blacks.

What are some of your favourite Geoff Senior scenes? Let us know.

Until next time, keep it #Refined

Follow Leigh Gregurke @ambushthem

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

In Defence of Omnigonix Spinout

 - Dorian MacQuarrie

Omnigonix Spinout is a fantastic toy. 

Not what you would expect to hear about a release known for terrible quality control, questionable material choices plus a few design issues thrown in for good measure. If you can look past those issues though, glaring as they are, you may just see the wonderful design that lies at the core of Spinout. As the first release from a new third party company, Spinout could have been one of the most successful attempts at recreating the Hasui style of Masterpiece Transformers but whether it was cost cutting measures, head office meddling in the manufacturing process or if rumours are to be believed, sabotage at the factory level, Omnigonix was unable to deliver a Masterpiece build quality. 

The reveal of MP-39 Sunstreaker has set the fandom alight with anticipation of this once unlikely release from the Masterpiece line. It has also set eBay and selling forums alight with a wave of Sunsurges at bargain prices. Not so much with Spinout. Be it because he differs so drastically from the cartoon focused MP-39 and Sunsurge or maybe it's the storied journey the toy went through from conception to release, Spinout seems to be keeping his place as a Sunstreaker representation on many Masterpiece shelves. 

This isn't the first time I've written about Spinout on this blog and it won't be the last as I'll be sure to write a comparison piece between Spinout and MP Sunstreaker when he's finally released. He is just one of those figures that captivates and I'm not alone in this regard, you need only head over to the Spinout thread on TFW2005 to see how much fanaticism this toy has garnered. 

Early adopters of the toy went on a journey, from supporting a new designer working on a project through the thrilling highs of revealed concepts and audience participation in voting for head sculpts to the abject lows of the final reveal and the tragic story of how a spectacular design was rendered into a thoroughly unspectacular form. This investment of time and interest has held sway over the many collectors who push past the flaws seen in the toy, resulting in a supportive community who are more than happy to help with fixes and tips to get the most out of your Spinout. 

Even with the known flaws, Spinout still looks amazing and I don't just mean a swell looking bot, I mean absolutely, drop dead gorgeous amazing. From the toy focused detailing of the real car hood making the real robot chest to the clean, kibble free back to the feet, oh those damn feet! Spinout is the quintessential representation of a Masterpiece Sunstreaker for my tastes. He is more in line with the early Hasui cars than a 3PMP has any right to be. For someone like myself who is not a fan of the current cartoon focus of the MP line Spinout is a breath of fresh air and allows me to have the classic duo of Sideswipe and Sunstreaker in a matching aesthetic.

Car roof for a chest? Check. Car hood feet? Check.

Yes Spinout's downfall comes from the poor build quality, be it indeed because of factory sabotage, head office meddling in the manufacturing process or just the inexperience of a new third party company, but there is still a great toy under all that mess.

The best way I could describe the experience for those who have never handled the toy is similar to that of a middle to high quality KO or maybe that of an early test-shot, or at least what I imagine an early test shot would feel like (I've only handled final test shots in my limited experience). Everything is there, the toy works as a transforming car-robot-man but the fit and finish is lacking. Details from the initial designs removed as cost cutting measures, poor quality plastics used for armatures and transformation joints and a general feeling that Spinout needed a few more passes through the manufacturing process before he was ready for release have taken what could have been a A+ release into a risky purchase. 

"Put up your dukes!"

My Spinout could be considered a "good" sample, with slightly loose joints and the ever present issue of wheels popping off. I've heard horror stories of figures literally crumbling away and parts missing upon opening which makes it difficult to defend Spinout and put forward why I think it's such a great toy. 

As ridiculous as it may seem you need to divorce the QC issues from toy itself. The toy is fantastic and mine is fairly well built and very much in line with the early releases of the third party scene. The quality controls and materials used in the manufacturing of the toy are the real culprit and the reason why your experience with Spinout may be disappointing. That's a bit mad to say as of course so much of a toy is the build quality but I struggle to think of another example where a terrific design was so severely hamstrung with a poor build and in a way Spinout stands alone in this very niche, particular bracket. 

LamBros forever

Even with a pre-order down for MP-39, Spinout will still have pride of place in my collection. As the only offer of a toy focused Masterpiece Sunstreaker he looks marvelous next to the early MP Autobot cars and is a more fitting partner for Sideswipe than Sunsurge or even the official release. If you can find one for a good price (oddly difficult these days) roll the dice and take the gamble, you may be pleasantly surprised. 

Until next time, keep it #Refined

Follow Dorian on Twitter @Vigadeath

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Under-engineering and Imagination

- Ben Watson

We live in a blessed time. Full articulation is now basically standard for all Transformers figures. Masterpiece and Generations updates allow you to handle the character designs you love and pose them as you might have always wished. But this was not always the way. In times past (and in certain corners of the present) Transformers were simply toys that changed shape, not slick robot action figures. Perhaps it could be said there was once a time when TFs were treated as a toy of their alt mode first and robot second. Nowadays robot is everything and there is an undeniable feel of a switch to them being treated as action figure first, especially as 90% of toys are now packaged in robot mode. Of course this is quite the opposite of a bad thing, but it gives me cause to explore the design mentality that once existed of toy over figure. These are two very different words and what I'm about to talk about are objectively bad action figures, but positively wonderful toys. Join me now as we extend the overhead rainbow of imagination and find treasure where others would see junk.

Toy Vs. Figure?
(We're doing subheadings now?) Let me first explain my above statement so you know the sense of the words as I'll be using them as we carry on. To toy collectors everywhere 'toy' and 'figure' (here shorthand for Action Figure) are perfectly interchangeable nouns to refer to the same things. But can you really call a robot that can only move its elbows an 'action figure'? You sure as hell can't pose it for artistic reference purposes. Likewise, is a slick super-posable vaguely fragile robot worthy of nothing less than pride-of-place display and aesthetic appreciation a 'toy'? On both counts, to me the answer is no. Clearly there's a vast blurred middle ground and I'm just using extremes to prove my point but I'll be sticking to this sentiment because what we're going to examine today are most certainly capital T toys and bring with them all the childlike magic that word entails. We're not skirting around the fact these things are made for kids by using a grown-up word like 'figure' here, no sir. 

In Times Long Past
Clearly the first such examples to fit this description are the Transformers of Generation 1. Nothing was made to be anything more than just a child's plaything. Good articulation came as a by-product and for the most part wasn't even attempted. You were buying a die-cast car that happened to have robot bits in. Yet the toys of this vintage still command interest and a huge amount of love from everyone who had their earlier years graced by them. Despite my equivalent being Beast Wars, the first line to give articulation and action figure status its due, I can still say I was met with stunted yet lovable toys thanks to Armada. I knew what good posability felt like and when I wasn't mildly irked by the lack of it in some of my favourite new toys, I loved them for all of their other qualities. Quick satisfying transformations, fun action features, strong silhouettes and bold design all combined to mean these bricks were rarely out of my hands. It seems when the aesthetic cannot be fully expressed this is made up for by the tactile. Toys are made to be played with, and play with them I did. Many a chunky solid bot from the years between 2002 to 2004 is now quite knackered, but back in those halcyon days they served their purpose - to fire my imagination. 

Redeeming Quality
Herein lies the rub, when toys are robbed of a physicality you wished was there, be it knees or firing cannons, (it's always knees with me) as a kid you made up for it with imagination. I may have been annoyed with toys that didn't do everything I wanted but it still didn't stop me from loving them and getting the most out of them. This even applies to toys outside of the TF remit - my first figure of Venom (not the Deluxe Insecticon) was painfully under-articulated but god do I love that thing. Each absent joint or even in some cases weapon were gaps to be filled through fantasy and drawing the thing in a state you wished it existed in. And it was good. This kind of engaging and enriching absence of abstraction is not to be found in many toys today. In a world where knees are standard, we have it made, yet somehow that spark to the tinder of the imagination, that ephemeral quality that puts the thing in your hands and in your thoughts far more often than on a shelf is almost entirely gone.

The State of Play Today
I may mourn the loss of that childhood value apportioned to every toy I was privileged to own and while I may be implying kids today can't feel it either, thankfully bad figures do still exist. But do believe me when I say I know 'bad' from 'bad'. The equivalent solid simple stuff to my beloved Armada today is sadly rather flimsy and dumb. Having lost my mind for about eight months and deciding to buy the One Step Changers from Age of Extinction, I thought I was subjecting myself to that pleasant funk of a toy that could be light years better but it just didn't add up. Sure there were some clever tricks on offer but they didn't feel complete. They weren't enough of anything. I'm not intending to ever touch the subsequent Robots In Disguise offerings like oversized Hyperchange Heroes or Crash Combiners (ok maybe my arm could be twisted for one of those) as straight off the bat you can see they're bad for no other reason than cost. The bad figures of my day were bad because they sacrificed in order to allow inventive gimmickry. The toys of today are exercises in cutting costs, using less plastic, less parts, even less packaging. 'Cos kids won't know better right? But perhaps all hope is not lost for the toy that knows it's good to be bad...

The Cyber Battalion
Here is where we reach the seed of the idea for this article. Good bad toys that are new and let me feel that old feeling. In 2015 Hasbro suddenly unveiled a new subset of figures under the Generations brand without the customary toy fair or convention appearances and left a lot of people very intrigued and slightly confused. The Cyber Series would offer A-list characters in 'definitive' G1-esque guises to the younguns by virtue of being big and simple and cheap. The Battalion lot would turn out to be roughly voyager sized while the Commander class would be filled with massive Leader-plus sized versions of - what a surprise - Prime and Bee. Perhaps it was the lack of concrete info or satisfying in-hand pics or the fact you literally couldn't get them that lodged the idea of Cyber Battalions in my mind. Whatever the case I had to track them down and despite only being available in Asia and South America, I managed to get my hands on a few and simply fell in love. 

Only two out of the four I have are possessed of knees. Only two have any accessories. Yet they are all supremely solid (no awful 2012 era plastic here), decently painted, fun to transform and imbued with bold character. If you want a feel for them in your own head, imagine the build quality of the Combiner Wars Constructicons. Some joints are missing. Some complexity is missing. Plastic is smooth and inherently metallic (on Prime and Megatron) and you simply can't put them down despite all their flaws. Here are toys very clearly made to be played with. Generations offerings that are certainly not made to appeal to the pseudo-high-end collect and display market. Here are G1 updates for actual children to enjoy. Here is a Jetfire that isn't rickety and you don't have to shell out fifty bucks for. Here is a Prowl that looks like a police car you might have in your country. Here is an Optimus that does a better job of looking like a definitive G1 Prime than anything else in Generations. Here is a Megatron that, er... has painted wheels? Megatron is an odd one. But they all incite the urge to handle them, to convert them back and forth, to pit them against each other in plastic fisticuffs and even to leisurely pose the assortment of joints they have. Once again my imagination is fired and I want to sit and draw Jetfire in a pose he can't adopt and imagine how the working of his knees might look. In short, they're clearly bad action figures - certainly leagues below anything you might expect from the Generations pedigree - but because of that they're good toys. Not damn good without any gimmickry but pure; an expression of Transformers that hasn't existed in a long time, where the conversion of the thing isn't treated like a gimmick but it's the only one present. 

Attention Span
It's probably becoming more apparent to everyone but me that I like bad figures and I hope this is another step on the way to realising I have a problem. But if you're like me and see the value in static hulks of sturdy build, by all means please share with us your favourite objectively woeful action figures. Keep the flame of imagination alight with what these stunted robos can do in your head rather than in the real world. But mostly just stop fooling yourself that you're not a grown adult buying toys for kids. Shed the ego and dive in to unabashed love of that dumb thing made for eight-year-olds. You'll be more #Refined for it. Love and peace.

Follow Ben on Twitter @Waspshot23

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Comic Analysis: Optimus Prime. Kei Zama: The Power of Panel Layout

- Leigh Gregurke

Optimus Prime (2016) Art by Kei Zama, Written by John Barber , Colours by Josh Burcham , letters by Tom B. Long, edited by Carlos Guzman. Published by IDW.

I don't think I have ever been as excited to see an artist take on interior sequential duties on a book as I was when Kei Zama was announced on IDW's Optimus Prime. I was not deterred by yet another Prime focused book nor did it bother me that John Barber, whose arching political narratives I thought wouldn't sit well with Zama's brutal and aggressive line work, would be the writer. I was excited to see what one of the most talented and engaging young artists would create with a style so distinct and physical. Zama's artistic bandolier is brimming with tools ranging from the dynamic anchoring straight lines of Senior, the aggression and scowl of Yanniger, texturing and rendering in excess reminiscent of 90's McFarlane on Spider-man and the brutal stark contrast and compositional balance of Mike McMahon.

So the book is amazing right? 

It's.....okay. There are times it doesn't read well visually and feels cluttered and confusing... and there are times it is excellent, genuinely excellent.

Is it possible I had expectations set too high? I did, no doubt. The transition from pin up style work; larger more expressive pieces to interiors is tough, especially I imagine the switch from bigger scale traditional tools to the challenge of fitting more information into smaller spaces in sequential work. Perhaps made even more difficult on a book paced with new character entrances, large ensembles, bountiful levels of speech and a fast paced narrative occurring in two time spaces. It is a super dense story. The art has some issues, there are pages that flow awkwardly or don't read clearly.

When it is good though, it is really good.

Zama deploys some of those tools mentioned to work within the tight spaces of the page, to create tension and demonstrate space or a lack thereof. I want to break down two of my favourite pages from issue two. The interrogation of Jetfire by Prowl, two pages, one room. 

Zama delivers two very traditional 9 panel layouts that stand out and add some formality and control in contrast to the chaos of the rest of the issue. The panel designs offer a direct relation of the controlled space, tight, rigid and barred.

Here the situation is intimate, two characters. The angles that we the viewer are given shift and rotate, the camera shows us the room and the interaction but it is not arbitrary, it reflects the movement of Prowl, stalking, circling, closing in... pacing. We feel Jetfire being trapped by not only Prowl but the space of the room and even the panel borders themselves. The third panel gives us the scope of the room from a birds eye creating a clever establishing shot that hints at a theme of surveillance and control, it shows us the track that Prowl patrols, circular around his mark. Rather than dropping the establishing shot first it lets us examine the situation and character relationship before revealing the battleground it takes place on.

Let's examine that page flow a bit deeper.....

The picture above, desaturated for ease of viewing has been marked with some of the key flow indicators. Beginning at the top left our eye follows the eye-lines of the two characters giving us a clear indicator of who controls the power in the situation, it starts us moving, Prowls eye-line as the controller is established as a direction point following through in the next panel and then again as we see him looking down over Jetfire and then again at him re-directing us to the bottom left panel. The motion here is sped-up masterfully and the use of speed lines show a switch in action, we are immediately pushed up following those directional ques again with the punch, our motion stops and the viewer feels the impact.

The second page uses the nine panels natural rhythm to change pace yet again. Notice how Prowl's extended hand appears on the last panel of the top section, then our eye moves slowly, recognizing a pause to Jetfire returning the gesture. By separating the two panels across sections it gives the reader a moment of pause, hinting at hesitation, consideration and thought. It may seem like a lot to read into the selection of two panels placements but consider how they would read if they existed next to each other, it would increase the pace of the two movements considerably.

Finally I wanted to touch the usage of visual cues to give the viewer an understanding of the space the characters inhabit. The blue dots in the image above highlight a series of background elements that occur on a number of panels. By including consistent details and in this instance very linear shapes that assist in page flow the viewer always a concrete idea of where the action takes place. While it seems like an obvious element to include, many sequential works struggle with it and don't read visually for it. Not native to comics this is something that can be seen in the film works of John McTiernan (Predator/Die Hard). A reason his action work is so timeless is the attention to detail in setting scenes and creating a map for the viewer to understand the relationship between the characters and their environments.

Zama's work on IDW's Optimus Prime has the flaws you might expect a new artist brings, it also has some craft years ahead of her experience in the industry. It delivers that raw and direct style those like myself have grown to love but as the series continues evidence is emerging of a great understanding of visual language and storytelling.

Kei Zama is an artist I am excited to watch grow; get on board now and be part of something exciting, support new and emerging artists that will shape the industry for years to come.

Read books, keep it #Refined

Follow Leigh on Twitter @ambushthem

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Masterpiece Disasterpiece

 - Dorian MacQuarrie

Cartoon accuracy, a phrase that sends shivers down my spine. 

The current incarnation of Takara's Masterpiece line flies the flag of cartoon accuracy and I would say that flag flies in the face of what has gone before. 

Toy vs Cartoon.......Round 1, FIGHT

There was a time, around 2012-2014 when we first saw the release of some Autobot cars that I could safely say the line would round off said Autobot cars whilst sprinkling in some big name Decepticons. The aesthetic was stable, a bit of cartoon, a dash of original toy, all through the lens of a well balanced design ethos to use modern technology in pursuit of interesting and iconic representations of the chosen characters. 

I was immensely pleased with the line and waited with baited breath until the day Takara announced their release of one of my favourite Autobot cars, that shining beacon of blue and hood-flames; Tracks. When the day finally came conflict was name of the game. It was Tracks, finally! But he looked sort of odd, a bit skinny and without his trademark black beam gun, not to mention his piddlesome overhead launchers. What was this odd figure Takara had released? 

The answer to that question can be summed up with two words. Cartoon accuracy. 

That paint though, ooft

Don't get me wrong, it's a wonderful toy and has steadily climbed the ranks to sit near the top of my favourite Masterpiece toys (before being knocked back down by his glossy black counterpart) but this figure marks the small step into cartoon accuracy and away from the balanced designs seen from the Hasui era cars. There was a missing "real" feel to the alt mode, gorgeous as it was and this definitely didn't feel like a Masterpiece Corvette Stingray but unequivocally a toy of that character from that 80s cartoon. 

And I get it, I really do, for a lot of people this is what they wanted all along, representations of the characters they watched growing up and had the line started off this way I would most likely feel very differently but it didn't. The relaunch of the Masterpiece Transformers line was not set up to faithfully recreate poorly drawn character models from thirty years ago. Granted I can't say what Takara had intended but from my point of view it was to give us iconic representations of G1 characters which would require the blending together of toy, cartoon and maybe some other more recent, better realised sources. 

I love the Masterpiece line but I feel it's going in a direction that leaves me cautious about future releases versus the halcyon days where every release would have me hitting that pre-order button like a maniac. My last article detailed the conflict I felt over MP Inferno, objectively amazing but subjectively unappealing and I blame cartoon accuracy. Simple and plain animation models were an exercise in cost cutting, not a well thought out aesthetic. To base a collector aimed toyline on these sort of images without some effort to refine or mature the designs is frankly, madness. 

Truly a Masterpiece......

Praise the detail 

Along with the eradication of fine details, another aspect of this adherence to the cartoon is the awkward proportions seen in some recent MP releases. Starting with the super-robo length legs of Inferno and Grapple then moving onto the emerging "big head syndrome" with the coneheads and Megatron, we are seeing an odd and in my opinion damaging effect of cartoon accuracy. But of course "it's just what I remember watching" so it's applauded and accepted gleefully. It's not like those character models had slightly larger heads to allow for easier detailing by the artists right? 

There was a time where I desperately wanted Takara to release MP Skids (another favourite of mine) but these days I'd rather see a few Third Party companies take a crack at the character so I can pick and choose what suits my tastes best. I can't knowingly say a toy that doesn't even exist won't be to my liking but unless the pendulum swings back to a balanced aesthetic it's likely I won't be too fond of any possible release of Masterpiece Skids from Takara. Which leads me on to one last grievance point concerning the Masterpiece line, will we even see MP Skids? Or Hound? Or Jazz!?

Can we hope to see the few final Autobot cars still missing from the roster and if we do, will they be so cartoon focused that they'll look out of place next to earlier releases as Inferno does next to the Hasui cars? This used to be a line I had faith in, that it would deliver winner after winner but now I feel alienated and divorced from what it's trying to do. Yes, this is all very melodramatic but it's disappointing and frustrating to see a line I once cherished turn away from the light and into the pit of horrors known as cartoon accuracy. There's a certain finality in knowing that I'll probably never have a perfect collection of Autobot Cars that strike right at the heart of both the characters they represent but also their Diaclone roots as transforming car-robots. 

More of this, less silly accessories

Before writing this article I wasn't sure what direction I wanted to take things, I thought through examination I could be very critical of the changes or maybe I could just add a personal touch and talk about my own experiences. I looked to my RRCo. colleagues for some input and when the position of Toy > Cartoon arose Dan was very forthright with his opinion......

"Those people are dumb and wrong"  - Dan

Oh well, until next time, keep it #Refined

Follow Dorian on Twitter @Vigadeath