Growing up, beyond my brother, I didn’t know anyone else that read comics. In middle school, I got my comics from drugstores and bookstores. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I started going to comic book stores, well, a comic book store. In this pre-Internet time, there was only one I knew about. Reading comics had become sort of a private thing for me. Even in the late 90s there were still considered juvenile. Perhaps out of some pang of shame, I never socialized with anyone I saw at these shops. But there was also a certain intimacy to buying this small, collectible object and taking it home to read.
It wasn’t until after college that I started introducing and sharing comics with my friends, most of who were not comic book readers. A conversation with an aspiring writer, after she read a comic for the first time, revealed that she read all the dialogue bubbles and narration boxes first, and then looked at the artwork. This helped her figure out what order she should read the sequence of panels. But the pages that she found challenging, I read with ease. It never occurred to me that comics utilized a learned language and my years of reading had allowed me to navigate experimental, and sometimes nonlinear, panel layouts.
When I started making my own comics, this conversation stayed with me. I decided to use the placement of text in my page compositions to lead the reader’s eye through the panel art in sequential order. Often, I have been able to draw a single, curving line through the page to illustrate the path one’s gaze would take.
Last night I attended The NY Comics & Picture-Story Symposium, which took place at Parsons The New School. Abigail Zitin, Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ and the 2014–15 Carol G. Lederer Postdoctoral Fellow at the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women at Brown University, spoke about William Hogarth and his book, The Analysis of Beauty.
William Hogarth (1697-1764) was an English painter, printmaker, pictorial satirist, social critic and editorial cartoonist. The Analysis of Beauty presents Hogarth’s theories of visual beauty and grace in a way that made such ideas accessible to the common man of his time, rather than just the elite. Unfortunately, the book is hampered by a constant acknowledgement of the author’s own insecurities concerning his talents and skill, which made Hogarth’s writing open to criticism and ridicule.
Hogarth has a number of notable theories, but the serpentine line, describing an S-shaped curved line appearing within an object, as the boundary line of an object, or as a virtual boundary line formed by the composition of several objects, struck a particular cord with me. To Hogarth, this S-shaped line signifies liveliness and activity and excites the attention of the viewer, contrasting straight lines, parallel lines, or right-angled intersecting lines, which signify stasis, death, or inanimate objects.
Hogarth was a self-made man of humble beginnings who, given his professional choices in life, probably had experiences similar to the criticism and acceptance of the 1980s and 90s comic book artist. As a comic book maker, I am self-taught. I learn by doing. And it’s humbling to be reminded that the ideas and techniques that I am exploring today were being explored, and defined, back in 1753.
Transformers: Prime was on the Hub Network from 2010 through 2013. The entire show and the TV movie, Predacons Rising, are all available for instant download on Netflix. If you haven’t seen it, and but were a fan of any of the earlier animated or live-action version of Transformers, you will love this show. Given how much I dislike the live-action Transformers movies, I was surprised that Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the screenwriters of the first two, developed this series and were also executive producers. Made for kids 8 and older, it’s fun, smart and slick enough that adults will enjoy it as well.
There are many references to previous Transformers continuities in Transformers: Prime, while also introducing many new ideas as well. For example, the origin of the character Unicon is referential, but his introduction and interaction with the Transformers in this series is new. Transformers: Prime‘s cast builds off or the versions of characters made popular by the television series Transformers: Animated and the live-action movies, while again introducing some new, and unique variations. Here is a selection of the series’ robot cast:
There is the movie-inspired Bumblebee. Unfortunately, like in the live-action movies, he doesn’t speak, but instead of soundbites a la his radio, he communicates through blips and beeps. It’s never explained, but the other Transformers and only one particular human have no problem understanding him. but the audience, like every other human character, has no idea what he is saying. This Bumblebee has unresolved feelings about the loss of his voice. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really fit the otherwise admirable character, and instead seems petty compared to similar losses and the deaths suffered by his team. This could be chalked up to Bumblebee being the youngest of the group, but it didn’t gel with how the show dealt with issues of maturity through an exploration of decision-making.
The young (most characters) tend to be brash and impulsive, and the elder (Optimus Prime and Megatron (surprisingly)) patient and methodical.
Bulkhead is a newer character made popular by Transformers: Animated, in my mind, fulfilling the role of characters like Brawn and Ironhide from the original series. With more heart than brains, Bulkhead is a blue collar worker that was drafted into the war and often thinks with his fists. A number of Autobots are paired with humans they are responsible for protecting. Bulkhead becomes the unprepared and unlikely parental figure. While his design is similar to that on Transformers: Animated, this relationship allows for a richer characterization.
Arcee, one of the few female Transformers, was introduced in the 1986 The Transformers: The Movie. Originally a pink car, this Arcee adopts elements from the martial artist motorcycle version of Prowl in Transformers: Animated. On Transformers: Prime, Arcee is a steely, seasoned soldier, hesitant to form any new social bonds after losing her two previous partners in combat. While her nemesis is, unfortunately, the only other female Transformer in the series, I was impressed with her overall characterization.
Optimus Prime, voiced by the original series’ voice actor Peter Cullen, is everything you would want and expect from this paternal giant. Even though the design of the character is heavy inspired by the live-action movie version, gone is the whiny, temperamental characterization.
In the first season, Optimus Prime kept uttering the phrase, “Maximum overdrive,” while driving into battle. It was awkward the first time, and thankfully, after a number of times, the battle cry (?) was dropped.
Ratchet is a character from the original series, but this crotchety, old field medic has more in common with his namesake from Transformers: Animated. Weathered by experience, Ratchet provides a lot of dry humor and some nice reflective moments.
Rather than go through the rest of the lineup, I’m going to focus on the design and characterization of three of the Decepticons.
Megatron, voiced by the original series’ voice actor Frank Welker, stems from the original characterization, but is much more formidable and threatening. The design is a nice balance between the live-action movie and the original toy. In the original series, Megatron reminded me of a foolish, mustache-twirling bad guy whose evil plots were always thwarted by the end of each episode. On this show, he is a brilliant tyrant driven by the conviction of his beliefs. Scary.
Soundwave introduces a brand new concept for the character. In the original ’84 cartoon, and toy, Soundwave somehow scaled down and transformed into a cassette tape player, like a Walkman. He also had multiple minions that turned into cassette tapes and would eject from his chest cavity. These characters included the panther Ravage, the bird of prey Laserbeak, and others. On Transformers: Prime, Soundwave transforms into an unmanned aerial drone. His chest plate detaches and flies around in the shape of an alien bird/plane (Laserbeak), but is more of an extension of Soundwave instead of being its own independent character.
In the original series, Soundwave had the most iconic voice on the show, also performed by Frank Welker. But on Transformers: Prime, the character only utters one classic line in one episode. As Megatron’s head of communications, security, surveillance, etc. Soundwave sees and hears all. When this stoic character doesn’t communicate via gestures and body language, he simply plays back recorded dialogue, often using one’s own words against him.
A mirrored visor covers Soundwave’s entire face. This is used as a display screen to share information, but this wonderful facade keeps the character creeping and mysterious. Loyal and subservient, Soundwave is Megatron’s greatest ally. When drawn into direct combat, Soundwave proves more than capable, but often relies on premeditated strategy to support Megatron’s agenda.
This version of starscream is everything that I remember from the original 1984 cartoon, but is much more sophisticated. His ambitions and his tenuous relationship with Megatron are explored in full, to the point where one might sympathize with how Starscream really is his own worst enemy. Design-wise, he takes more from Transformers: Animated than any other previous version. His proportions are elongated and his motion is wonderfully expressive.
The dynamic between the robotic Autobots and the human characters on Transformers: Prime is reminiscent of that in the movie The Iron Giant. Primarily, there are three children and one adult who are drawn into the conflict between the Autobots and Decepticons. These four humans have very distinct personalities, that offer an array of reactions and relationships with the alien robots.
There are many moments where the audience is made to really feel the difference in scale between the humans and the Transformers, from both points of view. But compared to the overall cinematography, the transformations from robot to vehicle feel like a cheat, as characters pop from one form into the other. In the original hand-drawn, cell-animated ’84 series, there was a multiple step process that was displayed, and each character’s transformation was recognizably unique. It would have been better to let the audience feel more of the awe of watching something recognizable distort and unfold into something unexpected. Also the pace that they transform seems to contradict their size.
While the show is animated in 3D, the details are minimized to hint at a more 2D graphic look without resorting to flat colors and outlines like in the upcoming series Transformers Robots in Disguise, which aesthetically looks like a step backwards. I loved the use of color and the stylized textures rendered on Transformers: Prime. Take a look for yourself. Here’s the first 5 minutes from Episode 1, Season 1.
However I feel about the Transformer film franchise, I do appreciate the work that ILM produced.
This first video, posted by John Nemesis edits together, in chronological order, all the transformation scenes in the first 3 Michael Bay Transformer movies. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not there is an evolution, or perhaps the opposite, to the cinematography.
This next video, posted by UltraDangerLord, edits together the actions scenes from the same three movies, but not in chronological order.
ILM did a great job establishing a sense of scale and realism. While the scenes in these two videos are chaotic, and no less so in their original context, the robots are a marvel to watch.
When I first heard that Steven Spielberg was producing a live-action version of Transformers, it didn’t bother me that it was being directed by Micheal Bay. I was just excited that this movie was getting made. But when the film came out, I hated it. In his director’s commentary on the movie, Bay said that Spielberg wasn’t involved during any point of the production. Which was too bad, because Spielberg’s sense of awe and emotional connectivity was severely lacking. Even though I couldn’t stand the writing or the direction in this movie franchise, which just got worse with each subsequent outing, I have to admit that the character design and rendering provided by ILM in the 2007 film was pretty cool. So lets take a look at some 2007 robot designs and see what made them so great.
The original Transformer toys, in their robot forms, had pretty unusual proportions, and many lacked any kind of articulation, but their vehicle modes looked great. Given the technology and engineering of the time, this was the trade-off. But I loved that in their robot forms, you could still tell what they turned into. In my mind, that was what made the robot identifiable as a Transformer.
In the 2007 movie, there was a lot of diversity in the shapes and proportions of each robot, which seemed directly related to what form they took as a vehicle. This meant that they all moved differently, transformed differently, and such things added personality to each character’s limited screen time. As a fan, I was happy to see the truck’s cab form the chest of Optimus Prime to echo his original design, while everything else seemed completely different. This character had truly, and thoroughly been adapted to modern times.
However, by the fourth 2014 movie, the robots were redesigned for a more streamlined, humanoid form. The original designs were literally dismissed on screen, as if the filmmakers expected us to think the new designs were better because they said so. But they are nowhere near as iconic as those from 2007 and will easily be forgotten.
If you’re not familiar with the original 1984 toyline and cartoon, a sprawling cast of characters was whittled down and combined for more recent iterations. This 2007 movie version of Bumblebee, who originally turned into a Volkswagen Beetle, adopted the sports car and robot form of such characters as Prowl, Bluestreak, etc. I didn’t mind this consolidation as those guys always seemed cooler, and that’s what the toymakers (Hasbro) and filmmakers (Dreamworks) wanted Bumblebee to be: cool.
Here are some other 2007 Transformer robot designs that I think are pretty inspiring. Again, what I think is cool about them is how each one has a distorted humanoid shape that is almost alien, which make sense, because they are aliens, but clearly relates to the vehicle form they also take.