Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Hopeless Autograph Line

Right on the heels of the "Transformers Summer Fun" contest, the official Transformers Club Twitter account announced another photo contest, this one tied to the recently-finished San Diego Comic-Con.  Fans were asked to depict beast-mode Transformers in some Comic-Con related activity.  Here's my entry, with it's accompanying Tweet (click on the photo to enlarge so you can read the sign):

I don't wanna be the one to tell them that Mr. Welker doesn't attend conventions....
A word of explanation is necessary for those of you who are not pop culture fans. Frank Welker is arguably one of the most famous voice actors alive.  His career goes back more than 40 years, and according to Wikipedia, actually holds the record for combined US box-office gross of films featuring him (more than a billion dollars ahead of Samuel L. Jackson, the #2 holder).  Besides doing a lot of Transformers characters, Welker is well-known for voicing a plethora of animals in dozens of works.  Given the beast-emphasis of this contest, Welker was the obvious choice for an autograph gag, with one caveat: Welker is known for being a very private person who has (to the best of my knowledge) never made a convention appearance anywhere (there was a rumor that he'd expressed interest in BotCon, but so far such an appearance has not materialized).  This problem was dealt with by the caption, and thus the entry was sent to the club's Twitter account.

Although none of my photo contest entries proved to be winners, I hope that you've enjoyed them here.  These are fun little projects to do.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Donald Duck Skateboarding: The Evolution of an Image

The second picture that I entered in last week's "Transformers Summer Fun" contest was this one of Donald Duck skating down a ramp at the park.  Although the skateboard accessory that comes with this toy made it an obvious choice for depicting a Transformer in a summer activity, I actually had to go through several phases before I was able to settle on this picture as one worthy of submitting to the contest.

My original idea was to have Donald surfboarding.  I was already unsure of how I would create a sufficient wave to convey the image of surfing, but I never really even got that far.  Since the figure doesn't float upright especially well (or at all!), I had to hold the toy with my fingers, and it was quickly obvious that this ruined the shot.  I later experimented with holding the toy up with fishing wire, but this made it difficult to keep the figure facing the direction I wanted for the shot.  I ultimately gave up on water-based poses entirely.

Establishing that Donald was stuck to terrestrial skateboarding, there was still the question of setting up the shot.  I attempted several angles, including overhead shots, on multiple surfaces, but all of the shots still seemed too static to be interesting.  I needed to convey a sense of motion.

Finally, while at the local park, I stumbled upon a small staircase with sloped sides.  The slope was slight enough that I could fit Donald on the curve without having the toy just roll off, and then I could shoot the toy at an upward angle to create the sense that Donald was skating down the ramp.  I still found myself going back and forth between the image I sent for the contest and this one, which is undeniably centered more precisely than the other.  I ultimately went with the image with Donald at the top of the frame, feeling that the lines of the ramp, perhaps aided by the line of Donald's shadow, conveyed the sense of direction and movement down the ramp that I was looking for.

All in all, I was pleased with the result, but this still isn't my favorite image of those I submitted.  That honor actually goes to the one my brother Nick created with Photoshop.  It depicts Optimus Prime playing a game of volleyball with his fellow Autobots.  Although it didn't win the contest, either (I don't think they really wanted Photoshopped entries), it has gotten a lot of positive feedback on DeviantART.

Friday, July 22, 2011

On Comics, Continuity, and Change

Yesterday, the folks at IDW publishing officially announced that they will be picking up the classic Marvel comics Transformers continuity, starting with an "issue 80 1/2" in Spring 2012.  Obviously, I'm thrilled with this news, and the irony that I find myself looking to buy any comic books so shortly after Wednesday's post is not lost on me.  But if anything could get me to do it, this is definitely it.

Of course, there's a lot of risk in such an undertaking.  Not just for IDW, but for those of us who are fans, as well. As almost any Star Wars fan who saw The Phantom Menace will tell you, picking up a well-loved story after a huge gap can easily lead to huge disappointment. In regard to the Marvel Transformers comic, at least one fan has pointed out that some of what made that series work was the constant pressure from Hasbro to keep introducing new characters to keep up with the toys they were trying to sell, and that this caused the writers to create stories and personalities that would likely never have come to exist if they were simply left to their own devices. Any new Marvel-continuity continuation, no longer having that recipe of obligations, may not be able to reach the same creative heights as a result. Even so, since writer Simon Furman tells us that the plan is only to go as far as "issue 100" and then conclude, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

My recent reflections on DC Comics' efforts to reset their universes' continuity also has me thinking through some of the difficulties inherent in setting up a long-running fictional universe. Besides the obvious fact that "it isn't real," fiction is not like real life.  Fiction, essentially by definition, requires story. Now, we have stories in real life, of course.  To be a "story" does not require that something not be true. But our "real life stories" flow inevitably from the much more mundane events of our lives that preceded that tale we actually want to tell. A married couple may, for example, tell the story of how they first met, but they probably won't include the details of the job interview that put them in the job or city that facilitated that chance meeting, or how their father's job caused the whole family to move some 15 years earlier, thus putting one person in a context that would make meeting the other possible.

Once upon a time, comic book stories were essentially "done in one" efforts, with little attempt to retain continuity over a period of time. You could read any story at any time, even out of order, and generally have the exact same experience. Real life tends not to work that way, and increasingly over the past few decades, the more popular fictional universes have attempted to duplicate real life in this respect. Going back to the example of Clark Kent's marriage to Lois Lane, readers like me came to expect to see the important steps along the way. And just as importantly, we expect future stories to build upon the events of the past, and not to contradict them. If Superman's friend Bibbo opens a bar in one issue, we expect not to hear him say he disapproves of drinking alcoholic beverages in a later issue.

Keeping continuity helps build a believable fictional universe, but there are still two major differences between a fictional universe and a real one. The first is that fictional universes tend to be a lot more interesting than most of our lives. Most of us never have to save the universe from total annihilation, but it sometimes seems like Superman (or even Captain Kirk) have to do this every other week. This difference usually isn't too much of a problem. While the writers certainly want to watch it so that they don't stretch plausibility too far, we expect the stories to be interesting, or we won't buy them.

The other major difference is harder to overcome: most fictional characters don't age in relation to the number of events they experience. For many years now, DC has used a sliding "10 year scale" for the bulk of their superhero universe. That is, Superman has supposedly been operating in public for 10 years, and thus all of the experiences we've seen him do should fit in that span. But even if we just try to work in "the major points," it quickly becomes apparent that 10 years just isn't enough. And when one realizes that Superman stories have been published for more than 70 years now, the need for the occasional "reset" becomes readily apparent. You just can't keep a plausible fictional continuity going on that long if you insist on keeping Superman (let alone, say, Lois Lane and Perry White) at approximately the same age that entire time. Even if one grants that the events of, say, a story that it took a few months of comic issues to read actually took only a couple of weeks or so to play out, eventually you're going to have the characters be too old to keep telling the stories the writers want to tell.

So, there are basically two choices: decide that after a certain point, a character needs to be retired entirely (I can't imagine DC ever doing this willingly with Superman, although the ongoing court case with the families of Superman's creators may certainly cause trouble), or recognize that you'll have to drop the excess continuity baggage from time to time.  DC is choosing to do the latter, as did Star Trek with the new movie a couple of years ago.

With all that in mind, I'm very much looking forward to revisiting the Marvel Transformers universe next year, but am actually not too bothered that it seems that we'll only get about 20 issues or so before it is set to be retired at "issue 100." Right now, fans are eager for more from that continuity, but a pre-determined end will help ensure that when we have to say "good bye" to it again, it will leave on a high note.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The End of Superman's Marriage

Now, if you don't follow comic books, you may well be saying to yourself "Superman's married?" Yes, my friends, and he has been for nearly 15 years now. But ever since comic book fans learned that DC Comics would be making massive changes to their fictional universe, and resetting all of their titles (including the 900+ issue runs of Action Comics and Detective Comics) to "issue 1" in a couple of months, we've suspected that the marriage of Clark Kent to Lois Lane was one of the realities on the chopping block. Alas, it's been made official in the past few days. Superman's days as a married man are numbered.

For those who don't follow comic books, I hasten to clarify that it's not that Lois and Clark are getting a divorce. Instead, DC is doing what Marvel did with Spider-Man a few years back: they're re-writing history in such a way that, after September, they never got married in the first place. 

I have to be honest, when DC made it clear a few months ago that they were effectively rebooting their entire franchise, I was annoyed at the fact that Action and Detective won't be given the chance to reach "1000" uninterrupted. But the records they already have will, I'm confident, never ever be broken, and maybe that's enough. And the proposed changes to Superman's uniform are significant, but nothing I have any great problem with (besides, the "red underwear on the outside" has been an item of ridicule for ages now). But to know that this particular facet of Superman's history for the past 15 years is about to be wiped away as if it never happened, this is a change that truly angers me.

I don't really want to make this into one of those "another assault on the institution of marriage" diatribes. I'm sure that some will read this move by the comics publisher in that light (much as some people did when Marvel vetoed the marriage of Peter Parker to Mary Jane Watson out of existence), and I'm not entirely sure that my opinion can be wholly separated from that kind of thinking. But it's not just that. I honestly was never all that invested in Spider-Man's marriage.  Marvel has never been a main source of my comic book interest (the 80's Transformers comic notwithstanding). Superman's marriage to Lois Lane held more of a symbolic value for me.

I suppose part of the reason for this has to do with a few quirks of timing. The most legendary "continuity reboot" of DC's history was, of course, Crisis on Infinite Earths back in 1985. I was 11 years old when, shortly after the series finished, Superman's then-nearly-50-year history was rewritten, and it seemed a good time to start paying attention. So I was able to witness Clark's engagement to Lois in 1990. I saw Clark reveal his secret identity as Superman to Lois (permanently for the first time ever in the "main" continuity, the upcoming reboot notwithstanding). I saw the relationship weather serious setbacks (not the least of which was Superman's death shortly after I started college in 1992, although of course he "got better"), yet survive them, until they finally got married in 1996, coincidentally around a time that I was recovering from a serious break-up of my own. Watching Clark Kent and Lois Lane tie the knot, if only fictionally, nonetheless helped me through my own relational difficulties, and it's hard to watch that event disappear.

Of course, DC needs to do whatever they can to keep people buying their comics, especially in this age of the decline of print publications, and my own experience demonstrates that such reboots can achieve this goal. And, let's be honest, I haven't actually bought any of DC's comics (or anybody else's, for that matter) in quite a few years. (For those who are wondering, that includes IDW's Transformers comics, which I stopped reading after the horrible All Hail Megatron) I do however, still have the issues of all those pivotal points in Superman's history for the past 20 years or so (not the entire line. Just those pivotal points), and although DC can change the history of their ongoing fictional universe, they can't take those old back issues away from me. At least that's something.

But it's still sad to see one of the most enduring marriages of comic book history (and, at only 15 years, that may be a commentary worth noting for another time) disappear.

Monday, July 18, 2011

How Action Master Thundercracker Spent His Summer Vacation

This past weekend, the BotCon Twitter account announced a photo contest to celebrate their 3000th follower, encouraging fans to submit a picture of their favorite Transformer in some summer activity.  Naturally, I had to make sure that at least one of my entries (we were allowed up to three) featured the recent BotCon Action Master Thundercracker.  The entry I chose to submit, featuring Thundercracker on a dirt bike (Energon High Wire, in fact), may be seen at left.

But I also took a series of other pictures of Thundercracker in various summer activities that I ultimately didn't send to the contest (I'll show off the other two pictures that made the cut, both of which feature other characters, at a later point).  My first thought was to take pictures of Thundercracker climbing a tree.  I took quite a few pictures with this concept, with Thundercracker at various stages of climbingSome actually look like he might be flying upward, which struck me as cheating (although the figure actually is supported by its hand and foot).  Not that Thundercracker would be opposed to cheating, of course, but I decided that it didn't convey the "summer activity" I was looking for.

Another idea I had was to feature Thundercracker watching a ball game.  Unfortunately, there wasn't anyone actually playing, and various shots of Thundercracker sitting on bleachers just didn't seem very interesting.

Finally, I thought of what could arguably be the definitive summer pastime--just laying in the grass.  Ultimately, I still went with the "dirt bike" shot as being more interesting, but I really do like this picture, which I think conveys the sense of relaxation it was intended to rather nicely.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Transformers Feature: Animated Cheetor

With the Los Angeles area facing potential traffic mayhem this weekend, I tried to work through which Transformer I hadn't already featured (but which I had available) might be an appropriate match to the situation.  I decided that the recent Transformers club exclusive toy, Animated "TransTech" Cheetor, deserved some attention.  Of course, I doubt that Cheetor would be any better at handling a traffic jam than any other Transformer.  Indeed, he'd probably cause them more than most.

Cheetor uses the Animated Blurr mold, which itself is said to have been designed to pay homage to the Cheetor design that would have been part of the Transtech line that would have followed the Beast Machines franchise.  Of course, Transtech was cancelled, and the Robots in Disguise line was created (almost entirely using pre-existing molds) to give Hasbro a few years to come up with something new (with the Armada line).

Cheetor sports a remolded head, which itself has been a source of some controversy among fans, as it just doesn't convey the character (as seen in the two-dimensional images used to promote the toy) as well as might be hoped.  At least one factor that contributes to this is the lack of black outline around the eyes and "face mask."  If you were fortunate enough to be able to buy Cheetor at BotCon 2011 (and, unlike me, still had the toy with you when discovering the relevant booth in the dealer room), you could have had your Cheetor toy detailed by a skilled customizer using a magic marker, better conveying the Cheetor appearance that many fans were hoping that the figure would achieve.

As of the time of this writing, I'm still not entirely sure how many Cheetor toys were produced.  The folks behind the club have promised to reveal this number once the toys have sold out, but unlike G2 Ramjet (which was put up for pre-order at the same time as Cheetor), Cheetor is still available at the club store, so help a datasheet coordinator out and buy your Cheetor today!

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Transformers Drabble

Before BotCon, club member Jeysie posted a little contest over at the #TF-Timelines page at DeviantArt.  Basically, we were asked to write a "drabble" set in any Transformers Club-related universe.  For those that don't know, a "drabble" is a piece of fiction that is exactly 100 words long.  I've always been partial not only to the Marvel Comics Transformers universe, but to the Ratchet/Megatron storyline that featured so prominently there (here's just a sample), and since the club had done their "Classics" storyline in the future of that universe, I figured this little bit was fair game. 
Ratchet smiled.

Although he’d just caused the Ark’s engines to explode by diverting Starscream’s blast right into them, thus dooming them both to their deaths on the Earth below, he knew that he’d succeeded.

Somewhere else aboard the Ark, Megatron still lived. Ratchet could feel his presence, and his anger. Megatron would be destroyed when the Ark crashed, as well, and that was as it should be. Were Megatron allowed to remain on the now defenseless planet, devoid of any Autobot presence that might contain his evil, who knows what atrocities he might commit?

Now it was over.

Ratchet hoped.
As it happened, I was the only person to enter the contest, and thus I won 150 DeviantArt points by default. I'm still deciding what to do with them.  I'm considering using them towards getting a mug with this picture that I created for a different contest a few months back.  DeviantArt also has a lot of other Transformers-related art (to say nothing of non-TF stuff) from some extremely talented people.  I almost bought a print of this piece by Dan Khanna a while back, but found it wasn't available online.  Then, when I learned that he would have a stand at BotCon, I sought it out again while I was there, found it, and was able to buy it directly from him instead!  It now hangs proudly on my office wall.
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