Friday, March 21, 2014

Requiem for a Misguided Effort - Transformers: ReGeneration One

I've made no secret of the fact that, among the many versions of the Transformers franchise to come and go over the past 30 years, the 1980s Marvel Comic holds the most value for me, personally. To me, it remains the definitive version. The standard that other re-tellings of the struggle between the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons continue to be measured against. This is, no doubt, why I was so excited when I learned that IDW Publishing was continuing that continuity with the book that eventually become known as ReGeneration One, which ended its run with issue #100 earlier this week.

If you've gone back and re-read that link from 2011, you'll perhaps note that I tried to temper my enthusiasm. I knew, even then, that recapturing the essence of what made the first 80 issues of that series (that is, the ones published by Marvel, with IDW's effort starting with a free "issue #80.5" before properly picking up with "issue #81") would be difficult, even with Simon Furman (writer of the last 20-odd issues of the Marvel series) on board. Even so, I said at the time that I hoped that the series would "leave on a high note."

I'm sorry to say that this was emphatically not the case.

Some fans, apparently with a higher opinion of ReGeneration One than mine, have criticized those of us unhappy with the direction of ReGeneration One as being unhappy simply because this wasn't the story we wanted it to be. It's certainly true that it isn't. I think I speak for a significant number of fans when I say that I wanted to story to pick up more or less where issue #80 left off. But we also acknowledge that reports even before issue #80.5 came out made it clear that this simply wasn't what Furman wanted to do with the story. Instead, he brought the timeline up to the present day and suggested that most of the Transformers have been living quietly on Cybertron for the past 20+ years with no interaction with Earth or Nebulos (the main other worlds of Transformers franchise significance) at all. While there are certain elements of that premise that don't seem to make much internal sense (you mean the Autobots really never bothered to check up on Earth after dropping off the humans they had with them in issue #80?), these flaws would not have prevented ReGeneration One from being an engaging story on their own, and I reject the premise that those of us who went into this hoping for something different couldn't accept that Furman was simply telling a different story than we expected. Unexpected plot twists are often what make a story interesting!

We also accept that ReGeneration One could never have been exactly "what we would have gotten in 1991 if Marvel didn't cancel" because of work that Furman has done in the real world since then. Indeed, those of us who follow these things already know that Simon Furman used some of the ideas that he would have used on the Marvel comic, given the chance back then, on other stories he's written for other Transformers lines over the years, so it really wouldn't have made sense to do those stories again now. A conspicuous "time-jump" surely wasn't the only way forward, but for good or ill, it was the way that Furman chose. Again, I think most of us accepted that as reality, and moved on, still hoping for an enjoyable story.

So what went wrong?

I think that there are several factors. One of the most glaring, to me, was the pacing. In broad strokes, the 20(-ish) issues of ReGeneration One were broken into four story arcs, each containing (about) five issues. The first few of these issues would invariably move the action forward in only the most minimal way, while the last issue of each arc would rush to a (kinda sorta) conclusion. The pattern would then repeat with the next arc. When you're spending around $4 every month (not including tax!) for an issue, you want each issue to have some value on its own.

It might have been bearable if it felt like some of the "lack of movement" in those early-arc issues was because space was being devoted to character growth, but I never really felt it. Even Hot Rod (arguably the main character of ReGeneration One) didn't really feel like a real character so much as a plot device. Indeed, pretty much all of the characters felt more like props that existed simply to fill roles in the story Furman seemed to want to tell, no matter how poorly each "prop" really fit the role they were being made to play, or how inconsistent the portrayal may have been with pre-ReGeneration One events.

It is often said that good storytelling should "show, not tell." It's not just that comic books are a deeply visual medium, but that even when using words, those words should show the action happening, rather than just tell you that it happened. Yet, some of the most important "action" of ReGeneration One apparently took place off-page. Either it happened in the 20+ year gap between issues #80 and #81, or we were presented with seemingly inexplicable turns of events that were handwaved via some form of deus ex machina (sometimes in perhaps the most literal way possible). This really isn't what strong storytelling is supposed to look like.

I'm reminded of the old adage "be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it," but honestly, I don't think that I really did get what I wished for. Although I certainly did support the petition to pick up the Marvel continuity when IDW made it clear that it was actually a viable possibility, it's not like I'd spent a lot of energy pushing for it to happen beforehand, and I definitely didn't want the Marvel continuity to be continued in anything like this lackluster fashion. But, ultimately, ReGeneration One is only one attempt of several to continue the Marvel Comics continuity, so I can safely ignore it in favor of one of the others that have happened in years past. Note that I'm not suggesting that fans should hold out for some better continuation yet to come. While I probably wouldn't oppose such an effort, I think that the main lesson of ReGeneration One is that perhaps it's best to let our beloved Marvel continuity finally lay to rest, remembered nostalgically to be sure, and let future storytellers focus on the Transformers stories of the future.

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