Monday, June 29, 2009

Remembering the Man in the Mirror

Like most people, I was stunned to learn that Michael Jackson passed away last week. Unlike other celebrities (like Farrah Fawcett, who died the same day), I'd had no indication that his health was even in decline. Of course, I'd not even been following his career enough to know that he was trying to stage a comeback tour in the coming year, so it would definitely be a stretch to say I was a huge fan. Still, I came of age in a time where Michael Jackson's music was inescapable. Too young to have direct memories of his tenure as the lead singer (albeit youngest!) of the "Jackson Five," I became aware of Michael Jackson right at the time when he was redefining his own career as his own person.

In the summer of 1988, just before I entered high school, I attended my very first Montreat Youth Conference. Toward the end of the week, they always have a Variety Show, and I performed Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," which I had learned the previous spring in choir. I really should never have done that. I had no background music to play, and none of my friends who knew the song could play instruments, so I did the whole thing a cappella. Also, the song was a bit too high for my comfortable voice range (Jackson is known for a rather high singing voice, whereas my voice has been in the low bass range since I entered my teens). In fact, my voice actually cracked as I tried to hit the high note at the end of the second verse, right in front of an audience of over 1000 people! There was no point in trying to hide it (especially a cappella!), so I basically made a face acknowledging the mistake, and then finished the song. The song was actually well-received, and I got a few compliments for handling the voice-crack the way I did. Still, if I'd had to do it over again, I probably would have let someone else have the slot.

I've often mused about the fact that performers often sing (and even write) songs that don't consistently match their own lives. Someone will sing a song about eternal love, yet have multiple marriages and divorces, for example. There will always be some controversy over Michael Jackson's life, especially the last decade or so of it. There's that incident several years ago where he dangled his baby son from a balcony before reporters, for example, and there will probably always be some question about whether or not Jackson had a problem with pedophilia. In light of these kinds of oddities, "Man in the Mirror" may well be one of those songs that was "just something to perform" that "sounded good," even if the real meaning of it (making a change in one's self in order to make a difference in the world) didn't fully enter into Jackson's being.

But, recognizing the way in which Jackson did take control of his life, not only terms of redefining himself for his solo musical career, but in other ways (both good and bad), I have to imagine that there was at least a part of "Man in the Mirror" that reflected Jackson pretty deeply. I get the impression that he wanted to make the world a better, happier place, and even if he didn't always know the right way to go about it, he got out there and made the effort. His choices were his own, and good or bad, he made them himself. Perhaps that's the best that can be said of any of us.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Brakedown GTS

We've discussed enough Transformers toys by now that the issue of repaints (or, perhaps more properly, redecos) should be no surprise to the long-time reader. Repaints are just a fact of life for Transformers, as Hasbro seeks to maximize its investment in designing and creating molds by issuing toys from these molds in different colors. It has become increasingly commonplace to expect that a mold created for a line will be reused at least once before the line itself is even finished, let alone later for a separate line such as the original Universe line, which consisted entirely of repaints.

Unlike many repaints, which are often designated as new characters (or given the names of characters from long before), Brakedown GTS (released in 2006) is simply an "upgraded" form of the original Brakedown from the 2005 Cybertron line. I can't tell what "GTS" is intended to mean within the context of the Transformers story, but my best guess is "Gran Tourismo Sport." GT often refers to "Gran Tourismo" on a number of high-performance vehicles in the real world, and I've found at least one instance where the full "GTS" is used, and it apparently means "Gran Tourismo Sport" there, so there you go. It's a bit flimsy, but it's the best I've got.

Anyway, one of the particularly interesting features of Brakedown GTS is that although it's "just" an upgrade for an existing character within the Cybertron line, the toy is also an homage to a Generation One character, namely Kup (who we discussed in a "younger" form just recently). This may make more sense if I point out that Brakedown was an "old guy" character in Cybertron (complete with facial hair to drive this point home!), and Kup's G1 personality could also be almost entirely summed up as "the old guy." In fact, there are indications that the powers-that-be at Hasbro were considering calling this toy "Kup" at one point, before deciding to keep Brakedown's name attached to it. This has led to more than one fan deciding to place this toy in their "Classics" collections as "Classics Kup," although I prefer to keep Brakedown with the Cybertron toys as intended. The colors may say "Kup," but there really isn't much else about the mold that does. Yeah, Brakedown's an "old guy," but even Kup didn't have facial hair!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Justice and Sacrifice

EbayAs I've mentioned in the past, I try to keep my Transformers budget manageable by selling extra toys online from time to time, and I've certainly been doing that quite a bit since BotCon 2009, which while an enjoyable experience, was also an expensive one. I've become a big fan of using the United States Postal Service's feature for printing out postage on my computer, which PayPal makes especially convenient.

A situation came up recently that got me thinking about ethical and theological issues that have little to do with shipping toys, per se. The situation itself was fairly straightforward: someone who had bought one of my toys had apparently not updated his mailing address on PayPal properly. I have always made it a policy that, whenever I use Priority Mail for shipping, I send an e-mail with the tracking information (which is provided free when you print your postage from your computer) to the buyer. This particular buyer quickly informed me that the address in that e-mail was out-of-date, but it was already too late, since I had already paid for the postage and shipped it out. The package returned to me as "refused" a few days later.

Now, because the incorrect address was not my fault, I feel that I probably would have been justified in asking the buyer to pay for the extra shipping costs that I incurred in reshipping the package to the correct address. Yet, I did not feel "right" in doing so, and ultimately ate those costs. This raised a couple of related questions: Why should I do such a thing? What's the right thing to do in such a situation, anyway?

I often write, both here and elsewhere, about caring for "justice." But it occurred to me that justice was not the thing I cared about most in this situation. If it was, I should have required the buyer to pay for the extra shipping costs. Perhaps I just didn't want to "cause trouble"? It's possible, although it occurs to me that I often don't mind raising some tempers when I stand up for what I think is right in other situations.

I then considered the possibility that I might have a higher value on "self-sacrifice" than I do on "justice" in this situation. This is certainly a Christian virtue, but I'm not sure how far that works either. I certainly do wish that others would "self-sacrifice" more often than they do, but if I start to tell them what sacrifices they should make (and sometimes, I'm embarrassed to say, I do), then it's not really self-sacrifice, is it? Nor am I always willing to make such sacrifices myself. The question then becomes: "what's the limit?" If the toy I was selling was only $5, I'd have been actively losing money on the sale by paying to have it shipped again. As it was, I wasn't making as much as I'd hoped, but I could afford to take the hit.

I tend to bristle a bit at folks who take on a holier-than-thou attitude when it comes to issues of sacrifice. Often, they seem to accuse people of only making sacrifices when it's convenient to do so (making the sacrifice not much of a sacrifice at all). They do have a point, if perhaps they overstate it, but people make "inconvenient" sacrifices all the time. There's nothing particularly noble about my decision to pay for the reshipment, but neither was it not an inconvenience. Rather, it was simply not so much of an inconvenience that I felt that I couldn't bear it. But what if is was too much? Would I be deserving of criticism just because I have boundaries enough to not do something that crosses over from being "sacrificial" to being actively "harmful" (I'm not sure that's the right word, but for the sake of argument let's call spending more money on shipping merchandise than what was paid for it in the first place a kind of "harm"), or is that a strong enough standard? How much money should I have to lose before I would be legitimately exempt from criticism for not being "sacrificial" enough?

I think this applies elsewhere, too. There's a lot of debate within politics, for example, about the issue of taxes. Not only "should they" or "shouldn't they" be raised (for example), but who will bear the burden of the increase. Raise taxes on the wealthiest, some argue, and job creation suffers, which in turn hurts the entire economy (I apologize for this vast oversimplification). Raise taxes on the middle class or the poor, on the other hand, and you ask people to make a sacrifice that may not only be inconvenient, but may well be "too much to bear," and potentially even suicidal. But what's "too much"?

Heavy thoughts coming from a pretty simple situation, but I guess that it really is the "everyday stuff of life" that is most appropriate for applying one's ideals. I'd welcome other thoughts on the issue.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Pandemic

If you've been keeping in touch with the news lately, you probably heard a couple of weeks ago that the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that the spread of the H1N1 virus (commonly called "swine flu") is now considered a "pandemic." This is the first time this kind of declaration has been made of an influenza virus since 1968. That is to say, the first time in my lifetime, and probably the same for most of you reading this blog.

Now, I don't know about you, but for me the word "pandemic," conjures up some pretty scary thoughts. I think of stories of the bubonic plague, with unstoppable suffering and death happening to people at every turn. Health officials are quick to remind us that an illness is considered "pandemic" not on the basis of how deadly it is, but on the basis of how readily it is transmitted. And although deaths certainly have already been observed due to H1N1, most reports indicate that it is no more serious for most people than most cases of the flu. WHO also suggests that "[n]o previous pandemic has been detected so early or watched so closely, in real-time, right at the very beginning," which has to be a good thing. I'm a big fan of getting clear and honest information, and definitely do find that the information on H1N1 is mostly reassuring.

Obviously, such reassurance is not an excuse to not be careful. Upon the advice of my co-workers, I've picked up some of that alcohol-based hand sanitizer which I keep on hand at my desk all the time (although I'm still not clear on how effective such is against viruses. I understand how it's effective against bacteria far better). I'm fortunate enough to work right across the hall from the men's bathroom, which makes washing up convenient and easy. And I was coughing into my sleeve (instead of my hands) before it was popular.

I definitely consider it a cliché to mention that God can use times like this, when there are things running outside of our control, to remind us to depend on God rather than on our own abilities. It's a cliché not because I don't believe it (I actually do), but because it gets said so often, indeed to the point of annoyance. Also, when people say stuff like that, it often sounds like God is punishing people who depend too heavily on themselves. I know that almost no one would actually come out and say so (and those that would, I try to avoid, anyway), but the reasoning often seems to run like this:
  1. Person depended too much on self
  2. Something bad happened to that person, therefore
  3. God punished that person for depending too much on self
I reject that kind of reasoning categorically. Still, for those who have faith, being reminded that God is in control of the things we just can't can be a comfort, and that remains true even if (and, indeed, when) bad things happen to us. As it says in the beginning of the final confession in the PC(USA) Book of Confessions (A Brief Statement of Faith), "In life and in death we belong to God." Nothing, certainly not "swine flu," can change that!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Heatwave (and Nexus Prime/Nexus Maximus)

I'm about to write a sentence that neither I, nor anyone who knows me even a little bit, ever thought I'd have to write at the beginning of a blog entry.

If you came here looking for something pornographic, you've come to the wrong place.

I'll explain why it became necessary to write that sentence in a bit. First, let's get down to the business of talking about Heatwave, the most recent Transformers Collectors' Club (TCC) incentive figure. Heatwave arrived in the mail just as BotCon was starting up, and I'd already committed to two straight weeks of BotCon-related material, so the Heatwave feature simply had to wait until now. Heatwave is a redeco of Energon Barricade, and transforms into a mobile weapons battery (not all that dissimilar from Flak, actually).

Like all of the other club incentive figures since 2005, Heatwave uses a considerable amount of clear plastic. I'm actually quite fond of this kind of plastic, in terms of making for attractive and unusual toys, but I have to admit that I'm beginning to be a bit concerned about comments that the clear plastic is more brittle and prone to breakage than the plastic used on most Transformers toys. I guess I'll just have to be careful.

Heatwave is final part of a club combiner figure, made of the five club incentive toys released so far. Unlike the other toys, which featured no remolding whatsoever, Heatwave was given a new remolded head for the combined form, which is called "Nexus Maximus," and this gets to why I had to include that disclaimer at the beginning of the article. When TCC was creating this figure, they had intended it to be given a name with "Prime" in it (possibly "Nexus Prime," for example), and they even included a "Prime" reference to the combiner a few years ago in the club comic story, which has been building up to the introduction of this character ever since 2005. But as with all Transformer names, TCC had to clear the name they wanted with Hasbro, and they had to submit several alternatives, in case their first choice didn't work out for whatever reason. At least one other name they submitted included the word "Maximus" (I think it was "Maximus Prime," but won't swear to that. We weren't allowed to audio record the forums at BotCon, where this information was revealed). Hasbro has apparently become rather protective of the "Prime" name these days (after all, Optimus Prime is their most iconic Transformers character), and they said, in essence, "Well, we see you've got this word, 'Nexus,' and this word, 'Maximus,' so we'll let you use 'Nexus Maximus' as the name of your character." What Hasbro apparently did not think to do was do a Google search on the name to see if anything unsavory would come up. Pretty much the same day that "Nexus Maximus" was revealed to the general public, it was pointed out that the top listing on Google for that term was not a Transformer, but rather was the kind of item you might find in a XXX store. Definitely not safe for work (and there's no way I'm gonna provide a link)! The damage was already done, and there was really nothing left to do but tell Transformers fans, "hype up 'Nexus Maximus' (the Transformers club character) all you can, so that it will show up at the top of the Google searches!" (Actually, it was implied at BotCon that Hasbro did do a Google search, but we were told that they routinely do such searches with the "SafeSearch" feature turned on. Even if this is true, such a search by definition would exclude any such "unsavory" matches, so I reassert that they therefore did not think to look for anything like that. Perhaps they do the searches to see about possible trademark conflicts? Honestly, I'm not sure why else they would do a search if not to see if the name identifies with something they don't want a Hasbro product identified with!)

Like all Energon-era combiners (from which all of these toys originate, in terms of the molds used), you can swap out the limbs in any configuration you want (or even replace a limb with another Energon combiner mold figure). The configuration above is actually not the one suggested by the instructions that come with Heatwave (which tells you where to put the limbs, but not actually how to transform the limbs into the "limb" configuration! If you're a member of the TCC, you can click this link--sign in first!--to see those instructions. It's not too hard, but if you've never done it before, you'll want to know how). Instead, I've opted to combine Nexus Maximus in the formation that the club comic depicted him in a couple of years ago, when the only hint we had as to the combiner formation was a crude "cave drawing" on an ancient wall (of course, that "cave drawing" uses the Barricade mold's original head, rather than the one created for Nexus Maximus). Call it "personal preference" if you want. I just like it better.

UPDATE:  As of September 27, 2009, it has been reported that the name of the combiner as featured in the Official Transformers Collectors Club comic is Nexus Prime, in keeping with the original intention.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Rest in Peace, Pushing Daisies

At the precise moment I started writing this, the story of the piemaker was 1 year, 8 months, 12 days, 11 hours, and 52 minutes old. Sadly, the final episode of Pushing Daisies ended 2 days, 9 hours, and 11 minutes ago. That such an amazing show was granted only such a short life is rather ironic, given that the central figure, the aforementioned piemaker, had the unique ability to bring the dead back to life with a touch.

The facts were these: Pushing Daisies premiered (in the United States) on October 3rd, 2007, as one of the most anticipated new television shows of the 2007-2008 season. Initial ratings were good, and the show seemed to be one of those rare shows to actually live up to its own hype. Pushing Daisies was granted an early renewal when the Writers' Strike of that year cut its first season down to a mere 9 episodes. The show then remained absent from our screens for most of the next year, until the second season finally began on October 1, 2008. Sadly, the long absence from public awareness proved too much for the tale of the piemaker, and ratings never approached their first season levels. Pushing Daisies was quietly pulled from the network schedule, disappearing around Christmastime with three episodes filmed, but never aired. Those three episodes were just as quietly shown in a Saturday-at-10:00 pm time-slot (dare I say, a "graveyard slot"?) over the past few weeks.

I don't really understand the whims of network decision-making, but I truly feel that ABC mishandled this show in light of the strike. The strike forced the show to go off-air prematurely. The network couldn't do anything about that. What they could do was publicity. Although there was indeed an advertising campaign for Pushing Daisies as it approached the beginning of its second season, I think the show would have done FAR better if that campaign was accompanied by broadcasting the season one episodes a second time in the couple of months immediately preceding the beginning of the second season, in order to re-introduce viewers to the storyline. Unfortunately, broadcast networks seem to be especially allergic to doing reruns in these days of internet accessibility, except for their very-highest-rated shows. One can certainly blame the 2007 Writers' Strike for doing the damage, but it was this resistance to airing reruns that, in my opinion, put the nail in the coffin.

Appropriately enough for a show about a person who could raise the dead, there remains the possibility of life after death for Pushing Daisies. Creator Bryan Fuller has worked out a deal with DC Comics to do a 12-issue Pushing Daisies comic book. I've found no word at this point as to when such a series would be available, and given the unpredictability of the comic book industry, it still might not happen at all. But I appreciate the effort made into making sure that the story of Pushing Daisies may not yet be entirely dead.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Knox Kids Celebration Sunday

I've had the privilege of serving with Knox Presbyterian Church's Christian Education Committee since the beginning of the year, and of teaching in the "Godly Play" Sunday School Program since before that. Although I'm notoriously bad about learning people's names and using them, I'm starting to get to know the children of Knox pretty well in these capacities. It was therefore a special joy to experience the "Knox Kids Celebration Sunday" at yesterday's worship gathering.

This was hardly the first "Youth Sunday" I've experienced. I've planned and participated in quite a few over the years as a youth, as a youth leader, and as a member of various congregations. But each one is always unique, and there were a few particular elements of yesterday's gathering that I thought were special.

One particularly prominent couple in our congregation brought their two youngest children to be baptized. Both children are in elementary school, and so aren't infants anymore, yet aren't as old as most children I've seen take the step of active membership (that's been around the age of 12, in my experience). While I'm familiar with the concepts behind both "infant baptism" and "believer's baptism" (and am quick to assert that all churches, even those that baptize infants, practice "believer's baptism," since there is always the need to baptize adults that come into the congregation not having been previously baptized), this situation didn't really fit either of those two molds entirely. I was impressed with how the pastor handled this situation liturgically, in that he asked the parents the standard questions used in an "infant baptism" service, but also asked questions of the children themselves as to their desire to follow Jesus. Also, each child was given a candle with instructions to light it each year on the anniversary of their baptism as a remembrance of what God has done for them (my wife tells me that her Episcopalian church does this with their young baptizees, too, but this is the first time I've seen this done in a Presbyterian Church).

Our church has a lot of young children of elementary and pre-school ages, but not very many junior or senior high students at this time. When I've participated in "Youth Sunday" events in the past, one of the high school students has traditionally been asked to give the sermon (sometimes called "reflection" when parishioners--or the students themselves!--are uncomfortable using "sermon" language). Although the part-time pastor in charge of Christian Education did say a few words, the focus really was on the young people as she shared the "pulpit" with several of them (two elementary aged, and one high schooler who has also been a "Godly Play" teacher), where they engaged in a pre-scripted question-and-answer time reflecting on the Scripture passage used for the day in a manner familiar to students of the "Godly Play" format. All three young people handled this time with tremendous poise and confidence, and I'm sure that their parents (who I know did a lot of work in helping their kids prepare for this event) are proud of them.

Of course, we did a number of other worship elements that might be expected in a "Youth Sunday"-type event. A young leader read the Call to Worship, another played the Offertory, a youth choir sang several appropriate songs (including the Jennifer Knapp version of Jesus Loves Me, which is a simply beautiful arrangement that I've loved for years), bibles were given to children graduating from 3rd grade and high school (and a prayer book given to our lone college graduate), and toward the end of the worship gathering, the church also took a moment to recognize those of us who had helped in teaching the children throughout the year, and we were given flowers. I'm not known for my green thumb (in fact, I recently accidentally killed a number of plants I was trying to grow while trying to instead kill the bugs that were starting an infestation). I hope that this plant lasts a little longer, as it really is quite pretty.

I don't like to talk too much about "enjoying" worship gatherings, as if to place the emphasis of worship on what I get out of it. Even so, I have to say that I really did enjoy this particular celebration. I hope that the children participating in it were also encouraged by the experience, and by the comments they no doubt received afterward. I'm hopeful that the intended message: that children aren't just "the future of the church," but they are in fact the church of today, was communicated to all who were present.

Friday, June 12, 2009

BotCon 2009 Exclusive Feature: Elita-1

The second figure in the "BotCon Anniversary Pack" (and the last of the thirteen figures released for BotCon 2009) is Elita-1. Elita-1 featured pretty heavily in the BotCon 2007 comic, "Games of Deception." In fact, she was given considerably more to do than several of the characters that were actually given toys at BotCon 2007, which annoyed more than a few fans. But I'll get to more of that in a moment.

Elita-1 is an homage to a Generation One character that wasn't actually given a transforming toy back in the original Generation One era, but who was introduced in the cartoon episode, "The Search for Alpha Trion," which introduced the concept of "female Autobots" to the Transformers franchise. BotCon Elita-1 is a straight repaint of Cybertron Thunderblast. Thunderblast actually wasn't all that popular a toy back in the Cybertron line (a classic example of the "shellformer" transformation, which tends to result in disappointing toys), but is one of few Transformers toys explicitly created to be a "female" character.

This gets to another reason why Elita-1's inclusion in the BotCon 2007 story (again, even more prominently than characters that got toys at the time) is so controversial. "Games of Deception" was set in what has been called the "Classicverse," a continuity created by Fun Publications to feature the "Classics" line of toys in 2006. The "Classicverse" was not a continuation of the cartoon continuity, but rather of the original Marvel comics continuity as it appeared in the US (i.e., the UK-exclusive material that was created to mesh with the US stuff wasn't included), but only up to the end of the Generation One series (i.e., the material from the US Generation Two comic wasn't included either). The Marvel comics continuity is one of (surprisingly) very few continuities where it was explicitly stated that Transformers had no gender: "No men, no women... no mates!" (They are robots, and not biological organisms, after all.) Why go to the trouble of introducing a cartoon character (especially this cartoon character) into this continuity when this continuity explicitly says "female" Transformers don't exist (especially when you end up sidelining characters that were actually given toys at that convention in order to do so!)?

OK. Rant over. What's done is done, and despite Elita-1's ill-suitedness to the "Classicverse," fans have been asking for a proper transforming toy of the character for years (and, no, the movie-continuity repaint of Energon Arcee doesn't count), so a lot of folks were pretty excited to get this toy (and disappointed when it didn't happen in the year following BotCon 2007). Indeed, a lot of Transformers club members who've been asking for this figure and for Razorclaw for years now were furious when they learned that these figures would be BotCon 2009 exclusives. Hopefully the fact that enough were left after the convention to sell them in the club store has placated their anger.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

BotCon 2009 Exclusive Feature: Razorclaw

The third set of "BotCon souvenirs" has nothing to do with the "Wings of Honor" story whatsoever. It's called the "BotCon Anniversary Pack," in honor of the 25th Anniversary of the Transformers franchise and the 15th Anniversary of BotCon, which also happened to be the 5th BotCon put together by Fun Publications. Both of the figures in the set were featured in previous BotCon stories, although no figures were made of these characters at the time. Even back then, it was clear enough that the characters were patterned off of existing molds such that exclusive toys could be made, and there have been a significant number of fans asking for these figures. Razorclaw was featured in a cameo at the end of the BotCon 2006 story, "Dawn of Future's Past."

BotCon Razorclaw is a redeco of Cybertron Leobreaker, transforming into a mechanical lion, an homage to the original Razorclaw, one of the Generation One Predacons from 1986. BotCon Razorclaw's Tech Specs suggest that, as the Decepticons were facing defeat at the end of the war against the Autobots, Razorclaw forged a new team of Predacons to continue the fight. These new Predacons are intended to be the faction that was featured in the Beast Wars line. Razorclaw disappeared at about that time (apparently believed to be assassinated), only to re-emerge some time after the Beast Machines series (at the end of the "Dawn of Future's Past" story) vowing that the Maximals would "again tremble before (his) might." What happens next has never been told, and it's rather uncertain that this story ever will be finished, but at least fans finally have the toy they've been asking to get for about three years now, complete with the "post-Beast Machines" Predacon symbol created specifically for Razorclaw in that cameo.

Razorclaw has been given a remolded head, which completes the homage (unfortunately, mine's missing a couple of paint applications on one side of the head!). A few months before the convention, Hasbro released another repaint of Leobreaker with a remolded head, Leo Prime, causing fans to wonder (when rumors of a Razorclaw exclusive began to surface) whether Fun Publications would use the Leo Prime head (which has a number of general similarities to the original Razorclaw head, but which is clearly a "Prime" design), or "waste" the effort to create a "similar" head, as BotCon 2008 Blurr and the BotCon 2006 Arcee repaints Chromia and Flareup are often accused of having. Pete Sinclair made a comment online indicating that he didn't like the Leo Prime head for Razorclaw, but it wasn't revealed until the convention itself that Fun Publications actually didn't know Hasbro's intentions for Leo Prime at the point when plans for Razorclaw were being made. If they had, there would undoubtedly have been a lot pressure to use the Leo Prime head instead of one created specifically for Razorclaw, and Pete indicated being glad that they didn't have to make that decision, preferring the head created for Razorclaw quite a bit.

Razorclaw comes with a Cybertron-style "key," but this one is painted up with a "Golden Disk" pattern in a similar fashion to other figures in the BotCon 2006 set, and is therefore called a "Golden Disk" key. Plugging this key into Razorclaw's arms will activate spring-release claws.

Although the "BotCon Anniversary Pack" was a convention exclusive, Fun Publications made 2000 sets, and these did not all sell out before the end of the convention. Remaining sets can still be ordered from the Transformers Club Online Store for the same price as they were sold for at the convention itself (minus California's 9.25% sales tax, but plus shipping).

EXTRA: Members of the Fun Publications staff went to see a taping of The Price is Right when they were out here for the convention, and one them got called up on stage! The episode aired today, and you can catch it at CBS.com tonight, and for the next couple of weeks.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

BotCon 2009 Exclusive Feature: Skyquake

Skyquake is the second figure in the "Wings of Honor Villains" set. Like Thunderclash, Skyquake is an homage to a figure exclusive to the United Kingdom and Europe in 1992. Skyquake is the leader of the Decepticon group that attacks Kup and his "Elite Guard" colleagues in the "Wings of Honor" comic.

Skyquake is an appropriate counterpart to Thunderclash in a number of ways. Not only were they both leaders in their original incarnations (a role which each has retained in the "Wings of Honor" story), and not only do both have rather loud color schemes, but both Skyquake's and Thunderclash's original toys were used to create Machine Wars figures. The original Skyquake's mold was used was used to create Machine Wars Starscream in 1997. It is perhaps therefore fitting that Skyquake was created from a Starscream mold (the Energon version, the same mold used by Leozack) this time around.

Since Skyquake does use the exact same mold as Leozack, Skyquake has all the same weapons and features, and there's not a lot of point in going over them again. It's become expected for Fun Publications to re-use at least one mold within the exclusives made for a given BotCon. 2005 saw Buzzclaw, Dirge, and the Virulent Clones. 2006 gave us Cheetor and Tigatron. 2007 had three Decepticon jets from the same basic mold (although each had a slight mold variation from each other). And last year's convention offered Jazz and Ricochet. Reusing molds in this way helps keep down costs, so that the convention can offer more exclusive toys without having to charge so much more than they already do. Granted, we've already gotten Scourge and the Sweeps this year, so perhaps yet another mold reuse was unnecessary, but I'm not really complaining.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

BotCon 2009 Exclusive Feature: Banzai-Tron

In addition to the box set and "attendee freebie," there are always a couple of "souvenir" sets of exclusive figures you can buy at BotCon, but which are not officially announced until the convention actually begins. At BotCon 2009, there were actually three sets. I mentioned one already--the Sweeps--when I featured Scourge. Banzai-Tron was one of the two figures in one of the other two sets. The set with Banzai-Tron was referred to at the convention as the "Wings of Honor Villains" set, since both figures in this set were Decepticons that featured in the BotCon 2009 comic story. We'll get to the other set in a couple of days.

Like most of the exclusive toys from BotCon 2009, Banzai-Tron is an homage to an existing character. In this case, the original Banzai-Tron was a 1990 Action Master. One of the "new" characters created for the Action Master line, Banzai-Tron not only didn't transform, but there weren't any signs of a definitive alternate mode on Banzai-Tron's Action Master figure, so while one could assume that Jackpot (for example) turned into some kind of van before becoming an Action Master, it was difficult to speculate with Banzai-Tron. Now, the mystery may be solved. Banzai-Tron turns into a boat! But is this what Banzai-Tron looked like immediately before becoming an Action Master? Who's to say?

Of course, BotCon Banzai-Tron is a repaint of a previously existing figure: Energon Mirage. Although no remolding was done to Mirage to create Banzai-Tron, it's a surprisingly good match. The head shares enough of Banzai-Tron's distinctive characteristics to clearly be the former (or is that future?) Action Master character with nothing more than a few paint applications.

Decepticons in the Energon line tended to feature pop-out weaponry, and so Banzai-Tron inherits this feature. Here you see Banzai-Tron's vehicle mode with the front missile launchers deployed. Another feature of the vehicle mode worth drawing attention to is the Cybertronian lettering on the side. This says "To the victor go the profits," which happens to be Action Master Banzai-Tron's Tech Specs quote. Unlike Legends Cosmos, where we just have to accept it on faith that the lettering on the toy actually spells Cosmos' name, the lettering on BotCon Banzai-Tron actually conforms to the Cybertronian alphabet created for AllSpark Wars, an online site (although it conforms to the "Autobot" variation rather than the "Decepticon" one). Gotta love that attention to detail!

Banzai-Tron's pop-out weaponry can be deployed in robot mode, too, although it makes the figure even more unwieldy than it already is to start with. In fact, that's my only real gripe with this toy. He's got a HUGE amount of vehicle kibble hanging on his back and his arms that makes playing with the toy awkward, at best. Still, the mere fact that an Action Master character who'd never had a vehicle mode before finally has one (although this isn't the first time this has happened) is a huge plus, and this toy is really worth picking up on the merits of that reason alone.

Monday, June 08, 2009

BotCon 2009 Exclusive Feature: Leozack

As an incentive to get people to actually come to BotCon, rather than just fork over the money for a non-attendee set or make arrangements to buy the figures on eBay, Fun Publications always includes one figure that is "free" with the main box set, but which is only given to people who actually attend the convention. This year, Leozack was that "attendee freebie." Leozack is an homage to a Japanese-only toy from 1989. 1989 Leozack was a member of the "Breastforce," which meant nothing more prurient than the fact that he had a breastplate that could transform into an animal (a lion, as perhaps indicated by Leozack's name) and then into a weapon. Kind of the "next evolution of Targetmaster," if you will.

BotCon Leozack avoids any of the potential of lascivious misunderstandings that has naturally arisen over the years via the concept of Transformers with removable breastplates (stop that! I mean it!) by making this toy a straight-up repaint of Energon Starscream.

That's not to say that Leozack doesn't have extra weapons. It's just that he comes with the same ones that came with Energon Starscream. Here, for example, we see how Leozack's wings can fold down to reveal missile launchers. Of course, by removing the very things that would keep Leozack in the air, I'm assuming that the designers intend this to be some kind of odd tank mode, or some such.

Recognizing Leozack's Japanese origins, the writers of this year's BotCon comic gave Leozack one of the most over-the-top personalities seen in a Transformer in recent years, as he displays a combination of Japanese anime stereotypes. For example, his Tech Spec bio card says that, due to the nature of his "experimental combat upgrades," Leozack actually has to shout out the nature of his weapons attacks before they can be activated.

Given the personality Leozack has been given, the ridiculously long sword he has (if you combine the two energon weapons that come with him, and really, they make more sense combined than not) makes perhaps even more sense on Leozack than it originally did with Energon Starscream. Here's a picture of Leozack with those energon weapons separated and his missile launchers deployed in robot mode, perhaps ready to employ his "Great Power Rocket Swarm Attack."

I've always argued that I often care more about the characterization behind the robots than the toys themselves, and by that standard, Leozack is a lot of fun. I hope the folks at Fun Publications can find more ways to use this character in the future.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

BotCon 2009 Exclusive Feature: Scourge

Of the five figures in the "Wings of Honor" box set, Scourge is the lone Decepticon. Yet, he doesn't interact with any of the other characters represented by the other toys at all (at least, not at the ages they were at when they looked like the toy we're being given) in the comic that comes with the set. Instead, Scourge is featured in a "framing story" that gives old-guy Kup a reason to remember his time as a young 'un. I find this to be more than a little strange.

Don't get me wrong, I'm actually a fan of the toy, which is a repaint of Cybertron Sideways. Although I know that not everyone agrees with me on this point, I actually think that the vehicle mode captures the essence of Scourge quite nicely. Granted, it's not a "flying soapdish" (as some have described the original Scourge's alternate mode), but if one accepts the idea that Scourge is somewhat of a vampire (he was created from the remains of dead Decepticons, after all. I confess that I'm not the first one to come across the "vampire" analogy), and one then remembers that this toy was also used for the recent Ratbat release, it all comes together.

All BotCon exclusives are repaints, and with the recent line of movie-related toys off-limits due to licensing issues, and the Animated line simply too recent to be viable for the long planning BotCon requires, and nearly all of the "Classics" molds used in previous conventions, Fun Publications had to use either Energon or Cybertron molds for pretty much every figure released at BotCon 2009. So, yet again, I have to mention that this mold comes with a "Cyber Key." Rather than causing a weapon to flip out, Scourge's "Cyber Key" causes an array of blades to pop out of Scourge's arm shield (the top of Scourge's vehicle mode, as seen here). Sadly, the faction changing gimmick created for Sideways (and used to nice effect on Ratbat) is eliminated entirely here. But there really wouldn't have been an appropriate way to use it, anyway.

In robot mode, we see that Scourge was given a remolded head appropriate to the character. It's a little small for Scourge's body, but it does capture the essence of the character quite nicely.

I wish that Scourge's character was featured more fully in the "Wings of Honor" comic. Not only does Scourge not feature in the flashback (which is appropriate, since Scourge is generally established as having been created by Unicron in the year 2005), he doesn't really do anything significant in the framing story besides having a weapon blow up in his face. Really, they could have given that job to anyone! Still, it gets us a pretty nice toy.

Actually, it got us several nice toys, at least for those lucky enough to pick up the Sweeps 3-pack. I was allowed to purchase a set when I went through the Thursday night line, but that set was already promised to someone else, and they sold out before I could get to the club store after limits were lifted on Saturday morning, so you'll just have to make do with this picture taken at the convention. The Sweeps use the exact same mold as Scourge, but unlike the original Generation One Sweeps, which were identical in all respects (save, perhaps, sentience) these Sweeps are given a lighter blue color scheme, with transparent yellow plastic where Scourge had red. It really works quite nicely. These are the hardest-to-find figures of BotCon 2009, at only 1000 sets, and eBay auctions have them selling at a fairly high price. If you're able to find one (assuming you find a seller who's actually selling them singly, rather than bundled as a 3-pack, which is surprisingly uncommon) for a decent price, I recommend grabbing it.

Friday, June 05, 2009

BotCon 2009 Exclusive Feature: Kup

Of the four "Elite Guard" Autobots featured in the five-toy "Wings of Honor" box set, Kup is by far the best-known. His character was introduced in the 1986 animated movie, and is probably most easily described as "that old-guy Autobot." Seriously, being ancient was Kup's major defining trait. His scenes with the Dinobots in that movie convey the idea of an old guy sitting in a rocking chair telling stories of "how things used to be" to the neighborhood kids.

One major benefit of having an old-guy Autobot is that it implies the presence of a familiar character in an unfamiliar time. You can tell a story of times gone by while retaining someone that readers will still be somewhat familiar with, just by saying that this story takes place when that old-guy character was young. And so, with "Wings of Honor," we get a story of the beginning of the Cybertronian Civil War, when the Decepticons were only just beginning to make themselves known as a threat. Indeed, the story hammers that point home by having Kup be the youngest member of his crew.

Because of my previously-stated ignorance of car makes and models, I have to take other people's word for it that Kup (who, like all convention exclusive toys, is a recolor of a previously created toy, Cybertron Red Alert in this case, but with a new "Kup" head) transforms into a modified Dodge Magnum, which of course isn't the type of vehicle one would expect on an alien from roughly 9 million years ago. This kind of thing has happened before, and it's best not to think about it too hard.

As with all Cybertron-era molds, Kup features a "Cyber Key" which unlocks some feature or another. In this case, the feature is a couple of flip-out rifles that can be deployed in either vehicle or robot mode (although, in my opinion, they work in vehicle mode much better!).

One potential pitfall of having to use already existing molds to re-create well-known characters for whom the mold was not originally intended is having to find some plausible explanation for why the new toy has a feature not previously associated with the character (or doesn't have a feature one expects the character to have). The Red Alert from the Cybertron continuity was one of those rare characters (like Shockwave) that had a gun instead of a fist at the end of one arm. Red Alert would use this arm to attach various tools and gadgets, totally in keeping with his role as a doctor. But up until now, Kup has always had two hands, so the writers decided to say that he had a previously-unattested "manufacturing glitch" whereby he could detach and re-attach joints at will. This explains why Kup can use the claw and the hammer (as seen below), but honestly it makes him seem more like a Junkion than I think the writers intended.

Between the vehicle mode and the missing hand, a lot of folks argue that Kup should have been given a different mold, or (if the mold had to be used) that a different character should have been used altogether. Perhaps. I'm not able to look into some crystal ball and say what possible options that might have been chosen would have worked better. I can just comment on the ideas that I'm actually presented with. For better or worse, this is what we got. Honestly, I don't think it's a perfect fit, but its certainly close enough that I can accept it.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

BotCon 2009 Exclusive Feature: Landshark

Not all of the figures in the "Wings of Honor" box set were homages to existing characters. Landshark is an all-new character. But, for those of you familiar with old Saturday Night Live sketches, you might guess that the name "Landshark" homages something else entirely. Rik Alvarez, who works behind the scenes with Hasbro and Fun Publications, wanted to do a character that homages comedian Chevy Chase, and as a result gave us a character with one of the most unusual origins ever seen in the Transformers franchise's 25-year history.

A repaint of Energon Landmine, Landshark is easily the largest toy in the box set. It doesn't exactly resemble any real-life Earth vehicle, but has elements of several different construction and/or demolition vehicles combined into one, with a missile launcher thrown in for good measure.

The vehicle actually splits apart into two components: a truck cab with plow and a tracked crane/missile vehicle. This tracked half can itself transform into a platform while the cab changes into Landshark's basic robot mode.

Being a heroic Autobot, one can safely assume that Landshark doesn't devour unsuspecting women like his SNL namesake (Decepticons might not be quite so safe...), but the character is seen in the "Wings of Honor" comic book (which comes with the box set) as having certain elements of Chevy Chase's trademark humor and his penchant for not always respecting authority. Since the Fun Publications folks promised us that they've got plans for more "Elite Guard" stories, we can perhaps expect to see this personality played up even more in the future.

Robot and platform can combine again to form Landshark's "brute mode" (borrowing the term from Landmine. I haven't actually seen it used anywhere for Landshark). I have to apologize for the dark picture, especially as his head is hard to see properly. The missile launcher and that crane really get in the way! The more prominent feature of this mode, however, the claws, are still pretty easy to see. According to Landshark's bio, these things enable him to "cling onto or climb up almost any structure." Does that make Landshark Spider-Man, too? I don't think Chevy Chase has ever played him!

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

BotCon 2009 Exclusive Feature: Flak

The five figures in the BotCon 2009 box set tried to balance out new figures with different kinds of homages. Whereas Thunderclash homages a toy that was exclusive to the United Kingdom, Flak is a new version of a Micromaster that was widely available in the United States in 1989. The original Flak was a member of the Micromaster Battle Patrol.

Like his Micromaster counterpart, BotCon 2009 Flak (a repaint of Cybertron Defense Scattorshot from 2006) turns into a mobile artillery system with multiple missile battery. Here you can see the two Flaks side-by-side for comparison. The two have rather different color schemes. It's sometimes said that an earlier CD Scattorshot repaint available in wide release, Overload, was created as a G1 Flak homage. It certainly has a color scheme that more closely reflects Flak's Micromaster form. It appears that when Fun Publications opted to do Flak, Overload wasn't yet on store shelves, but they learned of Hasbro's plans in time to at least ensure that the BotCon version didn't just look like a copy of the wide release toy.

Fun Publications went a step further than that, giving their version of Flak a remolded head that, although in different colors, is a clear homage to the original.

Often, when Fun Publications creates a toy that is clearly an homage to a Generation One character, it is intended to be the same character previously seen, but in a new body. The truth for Flak is a bit muddier. Besides the fact that the "Wings of Honor" story takes place millions of years before the stories we're more familiar with, the story--while definitely "cartoon-esque" (in the words of Pete Sinclair)--is not set in any particular continuity. So there's no clear reason to assume that this Flak becomes a Micromaster in a few million years, anymore than one would assume that any particular Generation One Optimus Prime should become Armada Optimus Prime. They're different continuities.

Being a repaint of a Cybertron figure, Flak comes with a "Cyber Key," which in this case has been painted to include an "Elite Guard" logo. Inserting this key into either of the batteries on Flak's arms opens it up to reveal additional weaponry. One presumes that Decepticons would just as soon not find themselves faced with Flak unless they're very well shielded!

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