In some critical circles, giving in to nostalgia ranks among the worst artistic crimes. It’s the easy, cynical solution to a creative dilemma – instead of creating new characters and situations and taking the risk that the audience might not follow you, just give them a steady diet of what they already know and collect the receipts. The audience is complicit in this too, for not demanding more from their entertainment.
Is there any reason Ed Falco’s The Family Corleone exists except to remind people that they once liked Mario Puzo’s novels (or, more likely, brilliant movies based on his novels)? A remake of Total Recall twenty years after the fact seems unnecessary, but what about The Amazing Spider-Man, a relaunch of a successful movie franchise that’s barely a decade old? Redeveloping already beloved stories and concepts turns the audience into a de facto marketing team, and can turn the excitement and anticipation of a new movie or book into more of an inevitability, or obligation.
But there are ways to do nostalgia properly, to use it as a creative tool rather than a crutch for flailing ideas. Cartoonist Jeffrey Brown’s Incredible Change-Bots Vols. 1 and 2 are an effective counterpoint to summer blockbuster nostalgia, specifically the Transformers film franchise. In two graphic novels (though that’s probably generous labeling – they’re really more a series of gag strips assembled into a pretty loose narrative) Brown explores his Transformers fandom through affectionate parody. He doesn’t shy away from pointing out the absurdities of the Transformers cartoons, but rather than mock the audience for once loving something so ridiculous, he instead makes that absurdity part of the fun of returning to the property. His take on the past is not to slavishly recreate it, or set it up as an easy punch line, but rather to look at it with different eyes and find new value.
Vol.1 follows the plot of the first three episodes of the cartoon pretty closely. The planet ElectroCyberCircuitron is populated by two rival forces, the Awesomebots and the Fantasticons (stand-ins for the Autobots and Decepticons), whose centuries-long warfare has depleted the planet’s energy resources and sent both factions in search of a new home.They crash-land on Earth, naturally, and continue the same old battles as before. The characters are still robots who carry giant guns and transfor… er, “incredible change” into vehicles and other objects, and their names are even more on the nose than the originals – the Awesomebots leader, Big Rig, becomes a big rig, and the ever chipper Balls is a golf cart who befriends Jimmy, the Awesomebots’ human sidekick.
My personal favorite is the Fantasticon Microwave, who turns into exactly what you’d expect and houses two smaller robots, Soupy and Popper. Readers familiar with the Transformers will catch the reference to Soundwave, but even the uninitiated can appreciate a tiny robot that turns into a bag of popcorn. It’s light humor, but that’s largely why the book works – all the jokes about 30-minute toy commercials and frivolous consumption have been made, so Brown can relax and luxuriate in the rich comic material afforded him by the premise.
That said, Brown is still somewhat critical of the endless battling and pointless aggression in Transformers cartoons, and he frames that critique by contrasting laser gun battles with democratic processes – in fact, the battle that ends up ruining ElectroCyberCircuitron begins when the Fantasticons win an election and the Awesomebots “protest” by attacking their headquarters. Throughout both volumes the battles never end well or resolve anything (much like the original cartoons.) The adult Brown is not as enamored with the fighting as his younger self, but still finds the highly pitched drama of it all amusing and so transfers it from guns and fists to in-fighting, temper tantrums, and votes.
Brown tweaks the source material even further in Volume 2, which opens with Shootertron, leader of the Fantasticons, waking up in a field, unable to recall who he is or how he got there. He’s adopted by a kindly old couple who treat him like a son, and allow him to recreate an identity. Brown is riffing on the Clark Kent/Superman story, but that’s secondary to Shootertron’s existential despair and his eventual transformation into an archetypal American teenager (who happens to be a giant, murderous robot).
This is familiar territory for Brown, whose largely autobiographical previous work, like Unlikely and Funny Misshapen Body, explores awkwardness and uncertainty in shorter vignettes. Having already had his fun with the conventions in the first volume, Brown now brings the obsession of his youth into his present, literally transforming the Transformers into a Jeffrey Brown comic. It’s a sophisticated move that few nostalgic acts can manage, and reveals, if any further proof was needed, that Incredible Change-Bots is a labor of love for the cartoonist.
Naturally, Shootertron recovers his memories (with the help of the military, who want to use him as a weapon), the Awesomebots and remaining Fantasticons return, and the story culminates in a big battle and a twist ending that broaches the ultimate Transformers taboo. Even in Brown’s world these characters can only transcend their natures for solong.
Lately I’ve been watching old episodes of The Transformerson Netflix, engaging in the exact behavior I condemned in the first paragraph. I’m reenacting the Saturday morning ritual of my childhood while moving ever closer to my 30s, and I can’t help but feel isolated and a little sad as I watch Optimus Prime try desperately to tame the rambunctious Dinobots. It doesn’t matter how many others are watching and reliving along with me; the older we get, the narrower the communal experience of Transformers becomes. I’m not going to buy a new Dinobot action figure, and the one I had when I was four (Slag, to be exact) is sealed in a box, tucked away in my parents’ attic. All I’m doing is building memories out of memories.
In Incredible Change-Bots, Jeffrey Brown proves that you can create something new with those memories, and that sometimes it’s okay to find that box of old toys in the attic and, piece by piece, remember how they work.