More Than Meets the Eye: My Life With The Transformers (Part III: It Never Ends…!)
I remember being told that maybe, just maybe, Marvel would be getting the licence again. That excited me, although I was also disappointed, because I thought that story had ended, and a new one was still ongoing. In the end, of course, it wasn’t Marvel, it was IDW. Who the hell were IDW?
When Dreamwave lost the licence to create Transformers comics, I was unaware of their, ahem, controversial behaviour. All I knew is, once again, the Transformers I loved had stopped, and that was rubbish. And yet, here we were, the comic back from the dead - again - with a brand new publisher I’d never of - again - and the storyline being rebooted from scratch - again. My disappointment of never knowing how the Dreamwave run was supposed to end was mitigated, however, by the news that Marvel-era mastermind Simon Furman was once again taking the reins. Clearly, this was not going to be your daddy’s Autobot.
When the first issue of Infiltration hit the stands in 2005, it took me completely by surprise. Not only was it a brand new continuity, it threw away all the conventions of old Transformers that I had taken for granted over the last twenty years. There was no Ark crash, no four million year sleep; in fact, at first, there was no Megatron or Optimus Prime. A low-key, cloak-and-dagger approach to the franchise, mixing up characters and giving us, in essence, a whole new mythology. The characters looked different - the artwork, by EJ Su, was fantastic, full of chunky metal limbs, visible joints and rivets, exposed piping and recognisable transformations. It’s been called “Ultimate Transformers" in the past, echoing Marvel’s Ultimate line of comics that offered more contemporary stories with a slightly more real-world edge. It was a revelation.
Furman layered a dense and intricate web of stories across several mini-series and one-shot Spotlight issues, telling a tale of a twisted and corrupt former Prime, venturing from a paranormal Dead Universe to conquer our own. It was simultaneously grounded and serious, yet also other-worldly, fantastical, and melodramatic. Furman’s writing remained as bombastic as it used to, but was shorn of his trademark “Furmanisms”; his prose was slightly less purple, and it suited the new setting, leading to some of the greatest writing of his Transformers career.
Furman’s run in the IDW-verse produced some of the greatest Transformers stories ever, and - in my humble opinion - the ultimate Optimus-Megatron smackdown in Escalation issue 5 (an enhanced Megatron nearly kills Prime - go read it, it’s a cracker). This run defined the entire IDW-verse, creating a slightly more serious, deeper, broader, and richer world - a world were the Transformers themselves weren’t defined solely by Cybertron, were free to explore the galaxy and battle threats other than each other. Coupled with Eric Holmes’ flawed but compelling early-years tale Megatron Origin, the stage was set for a brand new galaxy-spanning conflict, with far more nuanced and three-dimensional characters than we’d ever seen before. This was a world in which Prime was willing to abandon Earth - just another planet in an intergalactic battlefield - in order to return to Cybertron and face a threat he perceived as more dangerous. It was a darker, grittier ‘verse, but at the same time, one that maintained a sense of fun and adventure. It also had, in the shapes of Verity Carlo, Hunter O’Nion, and Jimmy Pink, the best human cast ever to grace a Transformers story.
Despite all this, I guess Furman’s stories didn’t sell as well as IDW hoped, because the universe was given a soft reboot in the All Hail Megatron maxi-series by Shane McCarthy, which was followed by a new ongoing Transformers series by Mike Costa. This particular era of IDW was not to my taste, and I shan’t dwell on it too much - too many of the concepts that I had fallen in love with (to say nothing of the characters) were marginalised or outright discarded, and that left a bad taste in the mouth. But this period did produce some of the greatest Transformers comics of all time, primarily by Nick Roche and James Roberts: Everything in its Right Place carried on from Roche’s Spotlight: Kup, bringing the old Autobot warhorse bang up to date, and creating a fascinating, multi-faceted, conniving version of Prowl; and the team paired up again to produce Last Stand of the Wreckers, a violent, chaotic, and genuinely moving comic in which several loveable characters died vicious and pointless deaths, and which also introduced one of IDW’s breakout stars in the sublimely evil Overlord. Roberts, who had written a fan-fiction Transformers novel before becoming an official TF writer, took hold of the franchise and didn’t let go. Following on from his work with Roche, he wrote a two-part story in the ongoing, set in Cybertron’s past and detailing the early interactions of Optimus (then known as Orion Pax) and Megatron. Chaos Theory - as the story was called - was rich with intrigue and drama, offering us a whole new take on the characters’ origins, and showed us a Cybertronian society that reflected our own. This was the moment when Transformers took a quantum leap, shifting from space opera into something much deeper: allegorical science fiction.
Bringing us bang up to date, we have two ongoings now, More than Meets the Eye by Roberts (primarily with Alex Milne on art) and Robots in Disguise by John Barber (also the franchise’s editor; art primarily by Andrew Griffith). Running the risk of hyperbole, these are the two best books ever to sport the Transfomers name. Scratch that: in the entire history of Transformers, they represent a high-water mark. Simply put, nothing in Transformers history has ever been as good as the books IDW is putting out right now.
This is coming from someone who went to see Transformers: The Movie when he was four, remember.
The books deal with political intrigue and human drama; personal relationships and high-stakes action; subtle tragedy and bombastic emotion. More Than Meets the Eye in particular is a revelation: combining the twisty-turny plot machinations of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who with the bickering team dynamic of Joss Whedon’s Firefly and the inter-office drama, comedy and pathos of Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing, along with a smattering of British wit and wordplay worthy of Blackadder or Spaced, and yes I have just compared a Transformers book with pretty much the best TV shows ever produced. Rich in word-building, comic and tragic often within the same word bubble, bursting at the seams with memorable and adorable characters, and - frankly - bloody pretty too, it’s quite simply the best comic book I’ve ever read that doesn’t have Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne double-punching the devil. Massively expanding the scope of Transformers fiction, it offers compelling metaphors for our own world: Functionism, the Militant Monoform Movement, the Decepticon Justice Division, the origins of the Decepticons and the Autobots, Megatron’s autobiography, the concepts of conjunx endurae, the fact that the first season culminates in a battle with corrupt representatives of religion, medicine, and the law, the subtle dig at tuition fees and academy schools in the most recent issue… in fact, forget all that. That’s all icing on the cake. It’s good because it’s good: believable, relatable characters, who love each other and hate each other, sharing bon mots and barbed insults; a very human drama played out in space among giant robots that are also cars. I didn’t cry over Optimus Prime, but I felt a little speck of sentiment in my eye for Rewind.
Now, I’ve gone on and on about MTMTE because it’s my favourite comic - and really is something else - but that’s not to take anything away from RiD, which offers political intrigue, dramatic changes to the status quo, a long-form mystery filled with deception, giant stompy robots, and Jazz playing bass guitar whilst a floating robot shark recites poetry. In and of itself, it’s still a classic.
I feel a tiny bit ridiculous, singing the praises of IDW’s Transformers like this. Not because I’m embarrassed, God no: just because I feel I’m being so effusive as to come like I’m on the take or something. Let me be clear: as a life-long Transformers fan, I may be inclined to like Transformers a bit more than the next bloke, but this is really the best Transformers has ever been. No one’s paying me to say that, it’s just how I see it. I don’t care how good the current cartoons are, how cool the latest toy is, or how orange and sweaty the actors look in the latest movie; the Transformers comic is awesome. It’s the culmination of the franchise up to this point, and I feel incredibly lucky to be experiencing it right here, right now, in the franchise’s thirtieth year. It bodes well for the future, and suggests that we have decades of beautiful Transformers fiction ahead of us. So let’s raise a glass of engex to More Than Meets the Eye and Robots in Disguise, and to the next thirty years of Transformers.
And - hey - if you want more, I’ll talk your ear off about how my two-year-old daughter absolutely adores Rescue Bots. Say, James - how’s about Boulder joining the Lost Light?!