Review: Incredible Change-Bots Two graphic novel (Top Shelf Productions)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at Hell Yeah '80s Marvel!]

Since the 2007 publication of the original Incredible Change-Bots, the star of graphic novelist Jeffrey Brown has risen tremendously. His adorable Star Wars tie-in books, such as Darth Vader and Son, might end up serving as a gateway for new young fans to get into graphic novels. His take on the Transformers franchise is a bit less reverent than his Star Wars books, but that’s fine by me, because there’s more than enough material in my favorite franchise to be spoofed. Brown followed the first volume with Incredible Change-Bots Two a few years ago.

The first volume of Incredible Change-Bots ended with the evil leader Shootertron stranded on Earth after the others departed for Electronocybercircuitron. At the time, this seemed to be a riff on the fate of Megatron at the end of the first Transformers movie. Instead, Brown uses it to transition into a hilarious parody of Superman’s origins, a sequence made even funnier thanks to Man of Steel. Where the first book centered on Big Rig (the Optimus Prime equivalent), Shootertron is the clear main character here, and he’s arguably gotten more character development than any Megatron incarnation has since Beast Wars. The memory-impaired Shootertron actually has some poignant moments; for instance, when he transfor-- I mean, Incredible Changes in his sleep, he’s terrified over not being able to move, which is both funny and a little touching.

That’s not to say that the other characters get left out. After their ship crash-lands back on Earth due to some bad calculations, the union between the Awesomebots and Fantasticons is destroyed, and the war begins anew. The devious Wheeeee still can’t keep his plans to himself; it’s another situation that’s funnier in hindsight when you take into account the recent rise to power of his Transformers equivalent, Starscream. Jeffrey Brown beat IDW to the punch when it comes to official robot couples, but the relationship between Honkytonk and Siren isn’t nearly as solid as the one between Chromedome and Rewind. Just about everyone gets a great line or gag, and this, combined with some slightly improved character designs, helps differentiate them better than in the first book.

Brown spent most of his time in the first volume spoofing the cartoon and comic book tropes, but he gets to indulge in some toy jokes here, all of which are fantastic. The constant need to introduce new toys means that certain characters get new designs; one of them is Hoser the fire truck, who does nothing but mention that he’s been rebuilt. Big Rig gets a new car carrier trailer like the one which came with the Go-Bot Staks (who was one of the inspirations for Big Rig in the first place). Like all trailers of Optimus Primes, it gets used exactly once, although here the excuse is that the constantly-bickering robots transform inside it and break it. One character is perpetually referred to as “Battle-Damaged” as a spoof of toys marketed as such.

Many of the new characters are direct parodies of the toys introduced in the 1985-86 line-up of the original Transformers line. For instance, the Fantasticons break out their own version of the Insecticons with a great perspective joke. The Awesomebots retaliate with the Not-Dinobots. These have a great little inside joke in that they don’t appear to transform, but instead just have robot heads on top of their dinosaur heads. This is likely a reference to how rarely the Dinobots transformed on the old cartoon. The sudden appearance of Blaster’s tapes in the original animated Transformers movie is spoofed by Dejector, the Awesomebots’ response to the evil Eject. Even the gigantic city-bots make an appearance in the form of “Macrowave," the Fantasticons’ secret weapon. I’m surprised that there weren’t any combiner jokes, but there could be a whole volume written on that concept alone.

Brown has a distinctive “gag-a-day” style wherein every page feels like its own individual comic strip. This usually works well -- Darth Vader and Son in particular executes it beautifully -- but it can sometimes make the story feel choppy. The one exception is during the “Shootertron in Smallville” sequence, wherein the story seems to be much more cohesive. Since Brown works on numerous projects at a time, I can’t really blame him for writing like this. It also gives the story an episodic feel, much like watching an entire Transformers season as a marathon.

One benefit of a few years in between volumes is that Brown’s art style has improved. It’s still not at all what you’d expect a Transformers spoof would look like, with its oddly-shaped robots and slightly stumpy humans, but Brown’s lines are a little cleaner this time around and his color work has improved. There are some great artistic gags, such as the trajectory of the crashing ship clearly being drawn on a separate piece of graphing paper and different depictions of a sighted Awesomebot, including a missile-loaded one done by an artist with “his own imaginative ideas." One very cool panel-within-a-panel shows over a dozen Incredible-Changes; since this is a digest-sized book, it’s a very tiny detail. At the end is a parody of the “You’re reading this in the wrong direction” message often published in manga volumes.

Much in the way that Kurt Cobain claimed that Nirvana had made it because Weird Al parodied them, the existence of both volumes of Incredible Change-Bots makes the Transformers franchise feel more legitimate. It’s big and popular enough to warrant its own parody, and most Transformers fans enjoy the books since it’s clear that the parody is an affectionate one by a fellow fan. There’s no official announcement yet about a third volume, but it took four years between the first two volumes and it’s only been two years since this one was published, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s announced next year. I hope it does come to fruition, because Brown has hinted at a GI Joe vs. the Transformers parody ...

Next week: Doug Glassman attempts to review a video game comic book despite never owning a gaming system.
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