Thursday, July 30, 2015

Kid's Stuff, Part V: Transformers Movie Prequel (Target complimentary)

Near the top of the food chain when it comes to toy tie-ins.

There is a hierarchy of children’s marketing successes. Right near the top of that heap sits Transformers. In its right hand is an ancient battle-hardened toy army men. In its left hand sit a mound of fuzzy imaginary animals with limited vocabulary. But near the pinnacle is a spot reserved for the Transformers, robots who are in disguise as other cool toys.

Released by Hasbro in 1984, no one could have expected the Transformers to still be hot property 39 years later. It was a pretty cool idea and all, cars and planes that turned into giant robots, but who knew the idea would fire the imaginations of so many youngsters. I suppose Hasbro had hopes, of course.

To cross promote the do-gooder Autobots and their nemesis, the evil Decepticons, Hasbro followed the same formula that had made the relaunch of G.I. Joe such a success two years before: cross promotion with a TV series and comic books. The books based on the product were so enduring that they survived multiple publisher changes and several relaunches of the product line with completely new characters. The TV show had a similar lifeline, eventually getting a big screen movie in animated form in 1986 and four live action films with the first released back in 2007. Truly Hasbro struck golden robot Heaven.

There are plenty of fan sites dedicated to Transformers, but HERE and HERE are two of the best I've seen.

Why did Transformers survive the test of time when so many other worthy candidates didn’t? I believe it is due to two factors. First is successful branding and cross selling. Hasbro never abandoned the brand name. It continued to promote transformers through various channels, investing in the product long term even when some ventures didn't pay dividends. The 1986 movie was a critical and financial flop, yet Hasbro kept right on with other Transformer projects, shirts and games. The payoff in this long-term strategy was a highly successful brand image that is still creates sales.

Secondly, the product was never allowed to get stale. So kids didn’t care about the car/trucks/planes into robots? Swell. We introduce a line of dinosaurs and insects that turn into robots. Or a set of construction equipment. Or we make a blaster gun game out them. And a set of underwear and Halloween costumes. Basically Hasbro kept reinventing ways to sell Transformers the same way Madonna reinvents herself every few years. And that constant innovation while staying near the core brand image has created a marketable product that will continue on, perhaps indefinitely.

Do I really have to explain what is the premise of this popular series? Do I have to tell you that the good Autobots and the evil Decepticons are alien machines who have brought their age-old battle to Earth? Who hasn’t heard about how the robots took on disguises to wage their battles in secret? And even though it’s sometimes called Energon or a Space Bridge or the Matrix of Leadership or the Allspark, there’s always a “Macguffin” that both sides of this war want desperately, so conflict is assured.

So where does all this leave us in the Complementary Movie Prequel book from Target? It leaves us before the start of Michael Bay’s first live action Transformers movie, without much story that can actually take place that won't seal the tissue thin plot of the big screen epic’s thunder. Bay played fast and loose with Transformer history, keeping some things and discarding others. Yes, the cars still turn into robots, but there’s been some issue with the Transformer that is the focus of this issue: Bumblebee.

Seems Bumblebee was a VW bug in the original cartoon/comics and now he’s a beat up Camaro. While I can understand the argument that being a Camaro makes this character “cooler” than he was previously and more edgy, I just can’t bring myself to care one way or another about the change. What I can care about is how this story develops. Even though it’s only ten pages in length, there’s a certain element missing that stands out like a sore thumb. Let’s see if you can figure out what it is.

Here’s Bumblebee describing what he’s looking for. In this case, it’s the Allspark, a mystical powersource that was torn from the heart of the planet Cybertron and sent hurtling into space to keep it from the greedy clutches of the evil Descepticon Megatron. Then Bumblebee recounts how he’s on a recon mission searching Earth for its presence.

Bumblebee has a lead on where it might be too. His one lead is an ancestor of the Witwicky family discovered the Allspark’s whereabouts way back in 1897. Using his wireless computer hacking skills, Bumblebee hacks the medical records while his engine is idling in the parking lot.
And therein lies a big part of this preview’s problem: lack of Transformers. By Transformers, I mean pictures of giant robots. Bumblebee the giant robot finally makes an appearance on page NINE of this ten page preview. By that time we’ve watched him drive around for eight fricking pages. It’s like an extended commercial for beat up Camaros.

But wait, there is worse coming: Government types are instantly alerted to his hacking and send in a strike team to capture him. It’s almost like they are prepared for him as they rush him with black ops vans and Apache helicopters. And that’s when it happens…

That tenuous link between storytelling and product placement becomes transparent. He just happens to pass by a semi pulling a truck with Target’s logo on it. And the book is a freebee given away by Target stores. What. A. Coincidence! To be honest, it’s hard to really be bothered by this. I mean the whole Transformer universe is built on using a story to sell robot toys. It’s not like product placement is bad in all cases…

Uh…and it’s not like the Target folks are canvassing the book with ads for their stores.

Well, at least it doesn’t affect your reading of the story…

Alright! Stop now. That goes over the line. No more of this Target! Or I swear I’m not going to spend any time at all ogling those four pages of Transformers toy ads you also included.

Now where was I? Oh yeah, Bumblebee is searching for the Witwicky heir and being pursued by black ops agents. Looks like someone else is on his tale too.

Yup, Barricade is about to make life very painful for Bumblebee. Or at least it looks that way. Hard to tell since after eight pages of following around a car as it drove places, we’ve reached the end of the free preview. Sadly this would end up having a better plot than the four Bay Transformer movies it helped usher in. 

Target does mention that you can get the exclusive to Target actual movie prequel comic at Target. Oh and did I mention Target.

No matter, the Transformers are here to stay for a long, long time. I’m sure a slew of new (and better) Transformers comics will come with each new transformation.

(Oh, and for those who care: here are the undoctored photos from above. The semi one is real, the rest are kind of my reaction to that one panel.)

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Kid's Stuff, Part IV: MASK #1

“M-M-M-Mask, working overtime, fighting crime, FIGHTING CRIME!”

M.A.S.K. (which stands for Mobile Armored Strike Kommand) was a toy line produced by Kenner during the middle to late 80’s. It spawned two comic series by DC and a television show that lasted three seasons. The premise was to sell action figures with special helmets called “Masks” that allowed the user to perform special actions and pair them with a vehicle that transformed between two different shapes. Kind of a fusion of all the good things from the G.I. Joe and Transformer toys, M.A.S.K. must have seemed like a sure fire hit to the executives that launched the line. However, fate and a child's idea of a cool toy lineup is fickle and the M.A.S.K. brand didn’t fair that well, ending up on the scrap heap within three years.
I’ll admit to graduating from High School at the time the M.A.S.K. toys and cartoon came out, so I’m not real familiar with it. It has some very devoted fans, so there must have been some redeemable elements in the toys or the series. HERE is one fan’s site that covers the breadth of the M.A.S.K. experience.

The one thing about M.A.S.K. that I do find a bit silly was the Boulder Hill Playset. It’s essentially a gas station Transformer. You heard me right, it’s a gas station that changes into a secret M.A.S.K. base.

Now the idea of transforming toys has to be this: both things the toy transforms into have to be fun to play with. For the record, I’ve never asked for a toy gas station. Ever. All my cars ran on imaginary fusion engines and didn’t need any other fuel. So 50% of this particular M.A.S.K. toy is suddenly rendered inexcusably lame. The fact that the gas pumps and sign turn into laser guns saves it somewhat, but not by the margin it would need to earn my paper route money.

Other vehicles aren’t nearly so bad, but they suffer a bit when you compare them to Transformers or even Go Bots. A Camaro you can pretend flies because it has doors like a DeLorean doesn’t pack the same punch as a jet plane that can turn into a robot. If they are on the same shelf in the toy store, that Camaro car is going to lose. Even if it comes with an action figure with crazy-mad headgear. 

 And is it just me or does the Condor motorcycle/helicopter look kind of silly?

I’m not certain I’d trust that flimsy thing to hold my favorite action figure. M.A.S.K. needed all these “cool” transforming vehicles and powered crash helmets to fight their arch-nemesis V.E.N.O.M (the Vicious Evil Network Of Mayhem), who also had transforming vehicles. Possibly the best vehicle out of all of these was the main bad guy Miles Mayhem’s Switchblade, a helicopter/jet plane. Now that’s two toys that would make any boy happy.

Our four issue comic series doesn’t follow the M.A.S.K. TV show, but contains the same characters in new scenarios. The leader of M.A.S.K is Matt Trakker, and in the opening of issue one he’s been sent on an aircraft carrier to the North Atlantic to retrieve an experimental star wars satellite that has soft landed in the ocean. Appears that it became activated upon reentry, making approaching it a suicide mission.

I’m going to finish the Captain’s thoughts here:

“…he sure is the sexiest…er,, I’ve been on this boat too long!”

Matt takes the plunge and finds the malfunctioning piece of space junk resting at the bottom of the sea bed while it makes sushi of the surrounding aquatic life. If only he could get to that panel and punch in the abort code. Luckily he learned all the dance moves from Britney Spears’s “Toxic” video, so he’s got a good chance of making it.

And he makes it! Now if only he can type in the extremely long complex code that turns off the satellite’s death ray…

…or maybe just hit the power button and switch it off. I’ve never seen a complex death trap that was so easily defeated, but whatever. So Matt loads the satellite up in the trunk of his car and then surprises the sailors by driving right off the end of the ship. I guess the M.A.S.K. stuff isn’t super-super secret, just sort-of, kind-of maybe secret.
What Matt does next confirms that thought even more. He flies his secret flying car right up to the Boulder Hill Gas Station before landing. All the while telling himself how the “uninitiated” see it as just another gas station. Which sometimes has cars that turn into jet planes flying around it. Remember folks, it’s smart guys like Matt that are protecting our country from terrorists and evil doers. I’m pretty sure when they hand out the keys to the flying cars, they should add something about being discrete.

And true to form, the villains of this piece HAVE been watching. Prepare to meet Miles Mayhem and his two VENOM henchmen. Do you think that while growing up, Miles had any other choice than to become a villain? Look at that name and tell me you think he didn’t get picked on by the kids and teachers alike. The real villain in this story: any parent that would hang that moniker on their kid.

Miles is flying his combination helicopter/jet plane, one of the few toys worth having for both of its forms. He’s assisted today by Sly Rax on the Piranha combination motocycle/submarine. Sly is the smarter of Miles’s two henchmen. Miles other helper is agent Cliff Dagger, a cyclopean muscle-bound oaf who is only there for comic relief. He’s driving Jackhammer, a black Ford Bronco that sprouts a weapons platform and front mounted turrets. While that doesn’t really make it a different vehicle in my book, it does make it a pretty cool toy. It’s also something that O.J. wishes existed in real life.

Poor Cliff Dagger. The lunkhead does get some pretty good lines in later. As for the MASK team, they get wind of VENOM’s coming attack and rush off to energize their MASK helmets. Just in time too because look who’s pulling up to the pumps. They want something more than gas and it ain’t a free window cleaning or directions. Cliff gets a peek at the base transforming and apparently wets his pants.

You really have to feel for a man so mentally challenged that he can accept that what he’s driving can turn into a blasted tank on wheels, yet freaks at the first sight of something else doing the same thing. Cliff is my posterboy for rehabilitation. Anyone who is this big of a scaredy cat just needs some love to turn them around. Speaking of turning around, none of the VENOM troops do, so the gas station’s ice guns freeze them in place. Sly’s submarine does him zero good out here in the desert and Miles finds the boulder-shooting action of Boulder Hill too much for his helicopter.

Looks like he’s going to need to find a good helicopter/jetplane mechanic wherever he lands. Miles transforms to jetplane mode and flies away, while the other two agents chop their way out of the ice. And the brilliant minds of the M.A.S.K team allow all of them to get away. So they have a chance to capture two-thirds of the VENOM strike team while they are immobilized, but naw, they let them go. If you ask me, the Boulder Hill secret base is asking for someone to drive a load of fertilizer up to it with a fuse coming out the back. Maybe I’m over-analyzing a comic book based on a TV show about a line of kids toys. Or maybe this is just common sense talking.
But it’s all good, so long as Matt Trakker gets to take his son Scott and T-Bob to the amusement park on time. And everything is going along fine, even if the balloon vendor seems like a possible child sex offender, when suddenly Matt’s supersecret beeper goes off. He’s got to meet up with the rest of the M.A.S.K. team, so Scott is left in T-Bob’s care.

T-Bob the robot seems to have two modes also: Mode 1 - motorized scooter and Mode 2 - robotic baby-sitter. M.A.S.K should just patent that technology and bring about world peace by selling T-Bobs to parents around the globe. Appreciative parents might even help the M.A.S.K. force track down VENOM with all their new free time. I think they should really consider it.

Meanwhile, Matt contacts Duane Kennedy to find out what the red-priority alert is all about. Duane informs him that all the gold in Fort Knox has disappeared. So Matt feeds the information into his M.A.S.K. computer so it can analyze it and cross reference the M.A.S.K. team data file to select agents that are uniquely suited for this mission. And the highly sophisticated computer chooses…

…a toy designer, a garage-band rock guitarist and a pizza delivery boy. Let’s just say that they wouldn’t exactly be my first choice for solving the mystery of who stole all of Fort Knox’s gold. I might be inclined to invite two of them to my next house party, though. Especially if Brad can convince his bandmates to tag along and play a set and if Dusty supplies a few free large pepperoni pies. The team of “experts” assembles at Fort Knox. They are lead into the vault which is one of those “locked door” mysteries. The gold’s gone, but no evidence of how the crooks got it out.

I didn’t know that Fort Knox was made out of giant LEGO bricks. As it works out, I also am completely ignorant of the physical properties of concrete. The MASK team finds a giant hole that is covered by the concrete floor of the room. It leads to a tunneling device that VENOM has used to steal the gold. The explanation from the book is that VENOM poured a fast-drying form of floor covering as they exited with the gold.

Now think about this for a minute. How do you pour a floor over a hole without covering it up? Especially if you are in the hole while doing the pouring. And never mind the pouring for a minute, how do you get the concrete to form the same pattern as the rest of the floor above if you are UNDER it when you create the floor? Yah, this is pretty much the lamest “locked room” answer that anyone’s ever come up with. MASK finds VENOM and the lost gold, however they again miss their opportunity to capture any of them. Matt does note that Miles Mayhem isn’t present, which seems rather odd.

And that’s because Miles Mayhem is kidnapping Pete and T-Bob using the balloon Matt bought for them at the amusement park. Earlier in the issue we saw the same type of balloon being delivered to Duane Kennedy’s office, so it’s safe to say that he’ll get nabbed as well. All this leads up to a big “to be continued” cliffhanger for next issue.

M.A.S.K. was in syndication for three years and Kenner launched a second set of toys with a racing theme in the second year. The initial DC comics series was a four issue mini ran from 1986-1987 and is not to be confused with the mini comics that actually came with the toys. DC followed it with a ongoing series that lasted 9 issues and produced two annuals. After that, M-M-M-MASK suffered sales defeat and surrendered its shelf space to other toys and comics.