Patrick Stinson, Deadshirt.net’s resident Transformers nut, reviews the ongoing comic from IDW, The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, to convince you that it is of anomalously good quality for a toy comic…and for comics in general.
“Under conditions of peace, the war-like attack themselves” –sign held by anonymous neutral Transformer
Every so often IDW—the reigning king of franchise tie-ins—gets the yen to revitalize their Transformers universe. IDW produces an original take on Transformers Generation One, analogous to the Ultimate Marvel universe. Transformers uses the 1984 toyline and associated profiles as inspiration for a sprawling space opera, wherein two factions of robots from the dead planet Cybertron fight a shadow war across the galaxy. The Autobots fight to protect the squishier organic races, including humans, from the predatory Decepticons. Optimus Prime, a messianic leader who wields the Matrix (a sort of Cybertronian Holy Grail), leads the Autobots, and the tyrant-gladiator Megatron leads the Decepticons. The Autobots and Decepticons have been brawling for millions of years, but they’ve also been vexed by zombie robots from another dimension, vengeful human paramilitary units, and criminals in their own ranks.
Several “soft reboots,” maintaining continuity but re-directing the storyline, have been attempted so far by IDW. Results have been mixed at best and periodically sowed bitterness among fans. But this reboot blew away the cynicism by hiring two superstar writers, John Barber and James Roberts. They co-write the issue I am reviewing, “The Death of Optimus Prime.” This one-shot splits the IDW’s ongoing book from one ongoing series to two, which still run concurrently today: More than Meets the Eye (MtMtE) and Robots in Disguise (RiD).
I’ll be reviewing MtMtE, but this is the place to start. New readers: what’s past is prologue. You want to get into Transformers comics? Start here. There will be references to past issues (frequently) but MtMtE and RiD are largely independent of each other and of the previous ongoing series, in story terms.
This issue must be evaluated on three merits. How good is it overall? How well does it succeed at hooking brand new readers? How well does it set up its spinoff series? Briefly, the answers are: very good; could do better; and brilliantly.
Perhaps most importantly, this is a fine issue. The art is by Nick Roche, who has a confident, cartoony, and expressive style with the Transformers, and produces some stunning backgrounds and textures here. We jump immediately into Optimus’ head, looking into his eyes and sharing his thoughts. Optimus is confused and alone in a desolate landscape that mixes the familiar with the strange—an apt metaphor for the readers themselves. His Grail, the Matrix of Leadership, is dark and dead. We join him on his trek towards civilization, and are just as lost as he when he finds it—only to be ignored, shunned, and scorned.
It seems that Optimus’ Matrix has revitalized the planet Cybertron. Now in a primordial state, the planet has summoned its inhabitants to return…all of them. Turns out that the Autobots and the Decepticons assumed that they had absorbed or killed all of the “Neutral” Transformers, but they were wrong. In fact, most of them had flown off to distant corners of the galaxy. Returned en masse, they outnumber the exhausted Autobots and Decepticons ten-to-one. Optimus’ troops have hardly any time for him because they are too busy defending their position as rulers of the planet…some with reason, others with force.
Optimus is soon insulted by a resentful Neutral, and then must rescue the fellow from two of his own Autobots. He must fight on two fronts, to save the body of a stranger and the souls of those closest to him. This little moment is packed with layers of significance, a Roberts hallmark. One of the troops Optimus confronts, Whirl, he shares significant personal history with. This isn’t necessary to understand the story but is a bonus that adds pathos and meaning. In addition, this scene sneaks in the motif of duality that recurs in the issue. One of these two Autobots is destined to join us in More than Meets the Eye, while the other will remain on Cybertron as a character in Robots in Disguise. Finally the Neutral’s own dialogue foreshadows the resolution of the issue; he belittles Optimus by calling him by his former name “Orion Pax.”
Spoiler alert, but the “death” at the end is a metaphorical one, and hardly less moving for it. Optimus already went out in a blaze of glory, yet he endures, tired and useless. The Autobots splinter before his eyes, and we see Optimus lose faith in each of his lieutenants. The hotheaded Rodimus and the earnest Bumblebee bicker while a mob of Neutrals closes in, until ever-ruthless Prowl uses the murderous Decepticons to crush the rioters. In a gesture to dispel the memory of war for all, Optimus renounces his title and, taking his old name Orion Pax, flies off alone into space. In a hauntingly beautiful panel, he solves the Rodimus/Bumblebee dispute in Solomonic fashion, giving each half of the empty Matrix. And then, selflessly—and yet also, as he notes, selfishly—Orion Pax sets down his burden. This is a unique, powerful story in Transformers canon, and proves that the universe can support dramatic storytelling without an explosion or a firefight every few pages.
As an entry point for new readers, this issue is less successful. Fortunately, a quick “Story So Far” gets one up to speed; all you need to understand before reading it is that there’s a hero called Optimus, he wields the Matrix, and his planet is Cybertron. But a few footnotes and references to previous material may prove intimidating. The title of the issue is too clever by half, referencing and subverting an old Transformers trope. When you get right down to it, if you’ve never heard of Optimus Prime, or don’t know a Decepticon from a doorknob, this is not the ideal issue to learn these things. But even the most basic knowledge of classic Transformers will allow you to appreciate this book fully, and if you lack even that, just hold on tight for now because the More than Meets the Eye series proper is too entertaining to skip for a little confusion.
As a start for MtMtE, this book is excellent and indispensible. IDW collected this issue in their first MtMtE trade, and for good reason. It sets up several characters and situations and more fundamentally, explains why Optimus Prime and Megatron don’t appear much in the series. And nothing sets up the stakes that the characters are fighting for better than this issue, which has some utterly chaotic and frightening panels of mass rioting.
I’m not going to give individual issues a numerical rating because this is tight-knit storytelling and I don’t recommend skipping anything. However I will say that this issue is to whet your appetite, not blow you away. It sets the stage going forward, but it’s pretty bland dialogue-wise compared to what we’re about to see in MtMtE. It may be a “one-shot,” but it’s a bridge from what was before (or alternatively, the expectations of the new reader) to what is to come. And as with nearly all work by James Roberts, it rewards repeated reads, particularly after sampling later issues.
Transformers Moment of Zen: The diminutive Ratbat, one of Soundwave’s “cassette tapes,” is attempting to assume leadership of the Decepticons in this issue. This will seem very strange to viewers of the cartoon, whose Ratbat was a screeching mute with no apparent initiative or intelligence. But in the classic Marvel comics Ratbat, a pedantic fuel efficiency expert, had the longest and arguably most successful tenure leading the Decepticons of any character.