2012 will see the tenth anniversary of the modern Transformers comic. That's two years more than the original Marvel run lasted, albeit in that case published by just the one company successfully for all that time rather than destroying the one publisher and becoming something of a pathetic joke title at another.
It's fair to say that those ten years have had more of their share of lows than highs. Original publishers Dreamwave started out with the 80's nostalgia aided boost of the number one selling comic for the first few months of their original mini-series, but a succession of poorly received and frequently late stories saw sales plummet. The fact Dreamwave head honcho Pat Lee turned out to be a wheeler dealer who, when the company came to the point of bankruptcy, ran off with all the money and brought a Porsche rather than paying any of his staff ended their era on a sour note. Though from Lee's point of view being able to go home and count his money at night probably made up for being the but of fan jokes for years to come. And ironically despite now being poorly regarded many of the ideas introduced by Dreamwave have gone onto be hugely influential, especially their War Within stories, which most noticeable created the character of The Fallen as seen in the 2009 film.
First up, long time writer Simon Furman was “Moved On” before any of his long running story-arcs had been properly concluded, resulting in a messy and rushed two pronged wrap up that wasn't terribly satisfying and was deeply frustrating to those who had been patiently following the frequently sloth like pace. The New Direction was writer Shane McCarthy and All Hail Megatron, a 12 issue maxi-series that attempted to be a back to basics straightforward fresh jumping on point but that fumbled the ball badly. It even managed to get worse as it went on when, in a frantic attempt to placate upset older readers, the previously continuity light book suddenly started throwing in all sorts of desperate references that would have been off-putting to the theoretical new readers who were supposed to have jumped on board with this book.
All Hail Megatron wound up such a mess an extra four issues were added to the end to try and both deal with the many plot inconsistencies and lose ends and also promote the New New Direction, an ongoing comic by G.I Joe: Cobra writer Mike Costa. Costa's wrote two eleven page stories for All Hail Megatron Coda, and the second of these (about Giant Prick Spike Witwicky being a complete knob to some visiting diplomats trying to offer him an important job) was so atrociously written and drawn it became the point I gave up on Transformers comics. Due to the time delay in cancelling my comic orders I did end up with the first two issues of the Ongoing, and they met my low expectations easily. And for the next two years the only IDW title I brought was ode to the Marvel UK days that was Last Stand of the Wreckers, produced by the actually talented Nick Roche and James Roberts.
To celebrate his departure, the generally excellent Moonbase 2/Underbase Podcast conducted an interview with Costa that, to put it mildly has proved somewhat controversial. It can be listened to HERE, and taking up about half of the three hour podcast the rest of this feature can only really touch on some of the points raised, so it's well worth a listen for the context of what's to follow. And to be fair to Costa, in the flesh (ears?) he comes across as a lot less arrogant than a lot of what's to follow would suggest, mainly seeming hesitant and almost apologetic. How much of what he said is just the result of being demob happy and how much is from the heart remains to be seen, but enough of his comments on fans, writing, IDW and drama in general seemed so odd to me I've decided to have a closer look at some of them in order to deconstruct what, to me, are fairly poorly thought out straw-man arguments that could just as easily been used to make the opposite point if you were so inclined.
The big disturbing thing he claims is that he struggled to write for the titular characters due to not being able to get his head around the fact outer space robot people wouldn't really act like us in any way. Now that's a valid criticism to a certain extent, but if it's a conceit your not willing to make with this franchise then Transformers definitely isn't for you. And all the things he claims Transformers shouldn't be capable of which make good drama, relationships, the need for sustenance and sleep, are all things IDW have shown them doing in previous issues. Equally bizarre is his claim he can't think of any good reason why they'd actually transform, even when having to admit that previous writers over the years have managed to come up with a variety of explanations.
Now, despite acknowledging he didn't really understand the characters or have a very good handle on them, Costa is then baffled by many fans reacting to his stories in exactly the same way. He's happy to try and handwave the complaints by claiming “Transformers fans read Transformers comics, and only Transformers comics. They are isolated from the rest of the comic book world.”, meaning he doesn't consider their opinion of his comics informed enough. Now, again, that could be considered a fair point, though realistically as sales have fallen so it's more likely the audience consists more of general comic fans as well. However, it also works both ways, you could equally argue that people who enjoyed Costa's work only did so because they don't read enough comics to know better. Also, IDW have been more than happy to take advantage of the readers lack of industry knowledge in the past, trying to pass off putting out up to six covers an issue during the early days as perfectly normal when in reality that hasn't been standard for most books for quite some time.
He's also critical of people who kept buying the comics despite not enjoying them, regarding them as buying just because they enjoyed hating it. Again, a potentially valid criticism, but one that I think misses the mark by a wide margin. As said, I kept buying the books for over a year after the wheels came off, but not out of enjoying the hating. Transformers comics have been a big part of my life for a quarter century, I'm an insanely large fan who survived the British comic spending three months on the bloody awful G.I. Joe crossover. Every issue of All Hail Megatron I brought was read with the hope the series would turn a corner, I wanted it to be good. The comic reviews I did at the time for Transformers Archive are basically a man watching his favourite puppy repeatedly getting run over by a car. And Costa's arrival was the driver coming out and stomping on the poor thing's mangled face. IDW took a title I'd previously have been prepared to give every chance too, and buggered it over a barrel so thoroughly it reached complete rock bottom and became unsalvagable. And that's the biggest shame of all.
But his ire doesn't stop with the fans. He actually has the cheek to blame IDW's failings on Dreamwave. With a straight face he talks about how the previous companies poor business tactics (many of which were actually carried over to IDW such as the aforementioned silly amount of covers) and frequently poor stories (written and drawn by many of the same people who've since worked for IDW) were the cause of the current books have never come close to troubling the top ten in the charts, let alone topping them. Now, whatever you think of Dreamwave (and personally I'm with Pat Lee on a Porsche being a better investment of money than paying “Brad Mick” for randomly recycling lines from the 1986 film) blaming IDW's current state on what they did six years ago is complete bollocks. IDW themselves have done just as much to alienate fans, as shown by the need for constant relaunches to try and stem the decline.
Costa even manages to show a basic misunderstanding of storytelling, saying he hates heavy use of flashbacks in any fiction because they're undramatic. Now, even ignoring the many, many films, TV shows, plays, books, and comics that that made great use of the format, consider the James Roberts written Chaos Theory in issues 22 and 23 of the Ongoing. Both parts are extensive flashbacks to Prime and Megatron's (for want of a better phrase) secret origins. And it was an immensely well received story, because it used the flashbacks to add layers to the characters, show where they came from and revealed some interesting new information about their pasts (such as Optimus accidentally setting Megatron on his path by encouraging his political opinions the first time they met). It adds to and enriches the entire IDW Universe in ways that none of their previous output has really managed so concisely and, despite plenty of nods to the past and in-jokes, isn't reliant on recycling old ideas from Marvel or the cartoon.
Though he may have been having a sly dig there, as his last issue, set ten million years into the future, turns all of IDW's stories into one big flashback. Perhaps he was saying everything was shite all along?
What the interview really shows though, is the problem with IDW remains the simply appalling editing. It was the editors who thought Megatron: Origin, a comic Dreamwave rejected, was a good idea, it was the editors who, when offered a six issue All Hail Megatron decided it should be 12 despite the lack of plot, it was the editors who kept flip flopping all over the place when faced with negative reader feedback. And it was the editors who not only hired Costa but kept him on the book for two years despite his self admitted inability to get fundamental parts of the Universe.
I'm optimistic about this new future, helped by the fact a week after the Costa interview James Roberts went on the same podcast and showed that, if nothing else, he can talk the talk. Lets just hope his talent is enough to override the sheer incompetence of everyone else he's working for, and this time next year I won't be ruing having spent any time on it. But even if it's brilliant, there's no excuse for the repeatedly poor and inept choices the company as a whole have been making since pretty much the moment they got the licence. Because as it stands now, the IDW Transformers Universe is pretty much a textbook example of how to create and establish a fictional Universe. And as nice as he may well be, and as much hand-waving as he does whilst pointing the finger at a lot of other people, Mike Costa has been a large part of the problem. He will not be missed, and lets hope the light at the end of the tunnel isn't a train.