Friday, January 27, 2012

A Brief History of G.B. Blackrock - Part One

OK. So we've been told that the old Marvel Transformers comic continuity is being picked up again, starting with a Free Comic Book Day issue in May. The good folks at Comic Book Resources have released a preview that gives us a little more information. Obviously, this has generated some speculation about just what lies in store, and I've been following all of that with interest. But what really caught my attention was the fact that G.B. Blackrock was one of the characters "we can expect" to see featured in the new stories. Having used that name as my main Transformers-forum alias for many years now, and having gone to the trouble to create a custom figure of the character, Blackrock is obviously a character I'm pleased to see again. So, for the benefit of those who only know of Blackrock from the occasional mention of his name here on the blog, it's time to fill in Blackrock's story.

When we first see Blackrock in Transformers #5 (the first issue of the series as a full-fledged ongoing series, after the four issue limited series that introduced the franchise to the world), we don't actually "meet" him directly, but rather we catch him during an interview on a television broadcast being monitored by Shockwave, who defeated the Autobots in the surprise ending to the limited series a couple of months previously, and who is now consolidating his leadership of the Decepticons as the strongest of the few Transformers still functioning. Blackrock, introduced to the television audience as "the flamboyant multi-millionaire industrialist," is the owner of a large corporation that is about to open a new oil-drilling platform, and Shockwave is making plans to seize this facility for the Decepticons.

As it happens, this is simply the start of a fairly major story arc involving Blackrock. In the next issue, Shockwave attacks, and despite a fairly impressive array of self-defense weaponry that might be out of place on a real-world (as opposed to comic book) oil platform, Blackrock not only loses the platform, but its main designer, a young woman named Josie Beller, is severely injured. This image of a beaten Blackrock carrying Beller's unconscious body says it all.

I need to pause a moment here to reflect on the fact that, although Blackrock is generally depicted as a man who wears glasses to correct his vision, this is not at all clear from these first two issues, where all images of Blackrock depict him wearing sunglasses (if anything's on his face at all), which admittedly do add to the impression of Blackrock as a rich guy (Don't you know? Rich guys always wear sunglasses!). However, when we see Blackrock visiting the now-paralyzed Beller at the hospital in issue #7 (shortly after the Decepticons steal another of Blackrock's facilities), Blackrock's need for corrective lenses is finally made clear.

Also worth mentioning at this point is that Blackrock is only ever known by his initials, "G.B." The comic never gets around to revealing what the initials stand for. An interview with author Bob Budiansky revealed that Budiansky named Blackrock after a friend of his: one Gary Bennett Schwartz, and thus it could be assumed that "G.B." stands for "Gary Bennett." I prefer to consider this as a "fun fact," but not necessarily canonical information. When I assembled my Muppet last month, I did intentionally seek to approximate a Muppet form of Blackrock (actually, it's a double-homage, as others have rightly pointed out that it's a kind of "Mini Mark," as well). At the time I introduced the Muppet, I solicited suggestions for names. I have since settled on "Gary" as the name for the Muppet, so there you go.

I'll get back to detailing the history of G.B. Blackrock in a few days. Next up: Blackrock fights back!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Year of the Dragon: Let's Update Cryotek

CryotekI've been getting a lot of e-mails and notices informing me that it's Chinese New Year time, and that specifically this will be the year of the Dragon. I figure it's as good an opportunity as any to revisit one of my dragon-themed Transformers, and quickly realized that my old Cryotek entry had pretty lousy pictures, and that I could almost certainly do better.

I invite you to head back to the entry and see the new robot mode and dragon mode images (I confess that I didn't retake the "dragster" picture, which needed it less, anyway).

Friday, January 20, 2012

Transformers Feature: Gutcruncher with Reprolabels

This entry has been a long time in coming.

A little less than five years ago, I announced the completion of my collection of American-released Action Master figures with the acquisition of Gutcruncher. I made that claim by the standard of having all of the actual figures themselves, even though I didn't then—and still don't to this day—actually have all of the accessories that came with each figure if one was to buy them at retail in the early 1990s. Although I was able to get all of the accessories for Gutcruncher when I procured the Gutcruncher figure, they came with none of the stickers applied. At the end of my original Gutcruncher post, I commented that I had contacted the folks at Reprolabels about getting a set of Gutcruncher labels made. Such a set was finally made available a few months ago, and I made sure to order my set!

Oddly enough, the Reprolabels set for Gutcruncher is not an exact replica of the original Gutcruncher set, as is the case with most of the G1 sets Reprolabels makes. Rather, the Gutcruncher set is among the "upgrade sets," which go beyond the G1 originals and provide different details (FYI, the Gutcruncher upgrade set is X18). In this case, metallic foil was used for certain details rather than the predominately red color scheme of the original stickers. While I'm still surprised to see an "upgrade" set created before a "regular" one, it's a minor complaint, and after waiting so many years, I wasn't going to quibble over minor details, and the metallic look really does work nicely on the "Stratotronic Jet."

Believe it or not, when I got Gutcruncher, I took the picture of the figure itself for the original blog entry, and put the Stratotronic Jet accessory in storage immediately thereafter, without ever having transformed it into the missile base with tank and drone. The pictures seen here represent the first-ever transformation of this toy that I've owned for nearly half a decade now!

Friday, January 13, 2012

"...More Guns Than a Tea Party Convention in AZ"

Believe it or not, this is not a political post, but a Transformers-related one. The quote comes from member "Banzai-Tron" (here's the full post), and was simply too good to ignore.

Unless you follow Transformers a lot (or you've already clicked the link), it's probably not obvious from the arsenal laid out in the picture to the left, but that quote was talking about the BigBadToyStore reissue of the Seacons.

Unlike the Transformers Collectors' Club version, which I featured a couple of years ago, this set closely (if not precisely) duplicates the color scheme of the original Seacons from 1988. But unlike the original 1988 US gift set (which failed to include Nautilator for some reason), this set has all six Seacons.

There's not really a lot of point in talking about the toy in too much detail, since you can easily get that information from what I said about TCC's version, but it's worth mentioning a bit about the history of this version. Visitors to BotCon 2010 saw the first indications of this reissue in one of the Hasbro display cases. The card in front of the displayed figure indicated that the set would be an exclusive, but didn't mention which venue, and suggested an "ARP" (Approximate Retail Price) of $49.99.

A short time later, it was learned that BigBadToyStore (BBTS) would be the North American distributor of this set, but that the price they would be charging was actually $59.99, a full $10 higher! Some of us (myself included) felt like this was a bit of a bait-and-switch, but it should be recognized that this isn't really BBTS's fault. The ARP is set by Hasbro before the toy is actually sold to retailers at all (most of us prefer the acronym MSRP, for "Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price," which more accurately conveys the intention of the ARP), and tends to assume a different retail model than what applies to small online toy stores such as BBTS. A Target or a Wal-Mart, for example, can charge a relatively low price for toys because they are diversified in what they offer to consumers. If toys aren't selling as well, they'll make money off of food, or clothes, or something else, enabling them to offer items at lower prices without too much risk. An online vendor such as BBTS, on the other hand, doesn't have the same kind of luxury. People come to them looking for toys, and only toys, and thus BBTS simply can't diversify as well. Moreover, a larger retail store can negotiate a lower price from Hasbro because they'll be buying a lot of toys, whereas an online store has smaller buying power, and thus less ability to negotiate a lower price from Hasbro. All this basically means that, when BBTS committed to buy a bunch of Seacon sets from Hasbro, they always knew that they'd have to charge that $59.99 price to consumers, and Hasbro's lower "ARP" came as much of a surprise to them as to anyone. (I should note that none of this even mentions shipping rates, which obviously aren't a factor for traditional retail, but which are added on to most online orders.)

The fact is, if the past 10 years or so have proven anything, it's that reissuing 20+ year-old Transformers is a very risky endeavor. They don't have the same universal appeal that modern toys have to both kids and adults. They pretty much depend on the nostalgia factor of those of us old enough to remember when the toys were available the first time around. This is part of why, when these toys are reissued at all, they're pretty much always exclusive to some store or another. Making fewer toys means a lower risk to Hasbro, although it also can mean a higher cost per unit. Also, the changes in toy-making technology don't always translate to lower production costs for toys designed in an earlier age. That's a combination of both lower overall sales and higher prices (compared to more modern toys of comparable size), and this isn't even getting into the online-vs-traditional issues of the previous paragraph.

This, of course, can also be a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. I still believe that the reason that the Toys R Us reissues of the early 2000's failed to sell better is because the prices were placed too high. BBTS has suffered from this problem, as well. Like Battle Unicorn before it, the Seacons reissue has since been discounted a number of times (currently at the originally suggested $49.99 price, interestingly enough), and I've little doubt that BBTS still has a ways to go before they'll finally sell out. Arranging for Hasbro to make exclusive toys is an expensive undertaking with pretty high risks, and it's actually remarkable that BBTS and stores like them make the attempt as often as they do. As such, I hope that my comments about them come off with the respect I intend for them, rather than scorn. Without fan-owned stores like BBTS fighting to provide toys that older collectors care about, these toys wouldn't exist at all.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Game Show Board Games: TV Scrabble

As the show itself regularly announced, "it's the crossword game you've played all your life, but never quite like this!" Scrabble has certainly not been the only game show to spin out of a popular pre-existing board game, but I daresay that it was one of the more successful, lasting for nearly six years in its original run (and earning a second run a few years later that admittedly only lasted a few months). Oddly enough, the game was changed so significantly from the original Scrabble that a separately-sold "TV" version was pretty much a necessity if one was to try to play this version at home. Just having a regular Scrabble set just wouldn't cut it.

I actually put off getting this game when it was originally on the market, because I just couldn't see how the game board I'd seen advertised, a red-filter affair of the type not uncommon in game show board games (I've already featured one example here on the blog with Jeopardy!), could possibly be used to emulate the feel of the show, which doesn't use any similar prop. Yet once I finally got this version off of an eBay auction several years ago and finally had a chance to look through the instructions, I found that it actually does so remarkably well.

The "game board" is actually a paper pad with approximation of the Scrabble board on each page, and the game card (once inserted in the red-filter frame) tells you what letter you're building off of and how many letters are in the word (and where the letter you're building from falls within that word). This is all very much like the game show, but the real genius is how the red-filter frame emulates the "tiles" of the show, by utilizing a two-step reveal process. Pick two tiles, and move the white tab down half-way to reveal the letters you can choose from. Then, once you've picked a letter to see if it's in the word, move the tab the rest of the way down to reveal either the numerical position of the letter, or a "stopper" asterisk letting you know that the letter isn't in the word and that you must forfeit your turn. The short-sentence "clues" to each word also emulate the excessively punny feel of the show quite nicely, and I'm especially impressed with how the board game evokes the "Scrabble Sprint" without a timer by turning it into a two-player buzz-in competitive round.

I actually had a chance to play this game with my nephews (both too young to have ever seen the show, of course, since its last new episode aired in 1993) this past weekend, and they seemed to enjoy it. I found that I only had a couple of minor quibbles. One involves the scoring mechanism. Although the "bonuses" for the colored spaces on the Scrabble board reflect the game rules reasonably well (although not completely, as this version differentiates between light and dark colored spaces, whereas the game show itself didn't), the number of points awarded for getting the word itself strikes me as somewhat inconsistent, and possibly even random. The second criticism is related, in that I found myself occasionally misreading the clues for how many letters were in a word, using the number intended for points rather than the number intended to tell me how long the word was. This led to some minor embarrassments, but thankfully my nephews were quite forgiving whenever this happened.
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