January 23, 2011

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Incredible Change-Bots

Written by Jeffrey Brown
Illustrated by Jeffrey Brown
Top Shelf

Once upon a time, there was a planet of robots who lived under one ruler. When a democratic transfer of power is questioned, the planet devolves into war. Wrecking their planet, the robots free to find another place to carry on the fight. That planet? Earth.

Now these morphing machines threaten all of humanity in their unending quest to win. Can anyone survive the onslaught of the Incredible Change-Bots?

I can't believe how long it took me to get around to this one, given how much I used to like the old Transformers cartoons and also how much I like Jeffrey Brown. Since I knew a sequel was coming out soon, I figured it was time to get this one off the shelf. My only regret is that I didn't do it sooner.

Brown's story is part loving tribute to the toys of our childhoods (he and I are close enough in age to share what was marketed to us in our formative years), part merciless skewering. I expected a parody of course, but I had no idea that Brown was so good at satire and being witheringly sarcastic at times within his writing. From his decision to make the Optimus Prime analog a jerk who actually causes more problems than he solves to hitting just about every cliche over the head (a dawn attack, a love affair that makes no sense and comes out of nowhere, an ending that clearly sets up future stories and so on), Brown crafts a tale that fires on all cylinders--so to speak.

The jokes begin early and often. Brown's names for the vehicles are just about worth the price of admission alone. Stinky is a garbage truck. Eject is a giant cassette player. Siren is a cop car. Shootertron has a big gun. My personal favorite is Microwave, a spy who can shoot a mini-robot named after popcorn. Are any of these really that far out of place from the original Transformers?

From there, the story takes a twisted version of the original Transformers pilot and lands the robots on earth. In this case, the Change-Bots basically blew up their old world ("That sucks," they remark in classic Brown deadpan) and travel together until a religious conflict fractures an uneasy peace. On earth, they face the dual problem of energy needs and desire to beat the crap out of each other, and that drives most of the comedy and satire for the rest of the book.

One of the things that makes this book work so well is that none of the robots are heroic. In fact, they're all a bunch of jerks, not unlike the superhero parody created by James Kochalka, SuperF***ers. They look down on each other, make withering remarks, and seem more interested in personal gain than in doing anything that would help their cause. The whole war starts because of petty jealousy, and those squabbles continue here on earth.

The other neat part is how many little things Brown gets right. There's the pair of low-class humans who are the one side's only friend. Meanwhile, the Army makes deals with the "evil" robots, complete with diabolical weapons and amazing technology. There's a bit of death, a bit of life, and sentimental moments that are immediately turned into comedy, because this is a satire, not a serious story.

What makes the book work however is that Brown doesn't just sling it together as a series of jokes or sketches, as we see in most parodies. Instead, this book has an actual plot, with ebbs and flows. There is a backbone on which the jokes are placed, and that makes all the difference. The gags are all the better because they blend in with the plot, rather than stopping the plot dead to do something funny. That's the difference between a good parody and a bad one. Good parodies can survive on their own as a story. Incredible Change-Bots does this perfectly.

Brown's artwork here is nowhere near as good as he's become over the years. The human characters look particularly primitive, and the background scenes are often just a few scribbles. He tries harder on the robots, but even those aren't going to win any art awards. (I can't wait to read the new book, which will be drawn with Brown's more practiced hand. It's clear he works hard to be a better cartoonist.) Still, Brown manages to get several good visuals into the story, such as the Army General doing the evil finger waggle or giving the robots enough facial expression to show fear, anger, or sarcasm. He also does a really nice job with the action scenes, which feel about as fluid as you can get when dealing with robots. You can tell Brown read a lot of Marvel comics, because his angles are always askew, which helps with the feel of movement. I also liked the coloring job, which is nice and garish, just like the Transformers cartoons were.

Incredible Change-Bots is a great parody of a toy beloved of all those who were at child for at least part of the 1980s. I never got the ones I wanted (the toys were too expensive), and I have no idea if Brown had them, either. Regardless, he's captured the wonder and magic of the idea and completely blown it to pieces with irony. I wouldn't have it any other way, and neither should you. Do yourself a favor, child of the80s---get a copy of Incredible Change Bots before the new one comes out. You'll be glad you did.