In 2012 IDW did a soft re-launch of its Transformers comic universe by ending the war between the Autobots (the mostly-good guys) and Decepticons (near-universally bad guys) came to an end. Then they picked up from that story with two ongoing comics. More than Meets the Eye (MtMtE) depicted a motley crew of Autobots on a spaceship searching for the mythical progenitors of the Transformer race. Robots in Disguise (RiD) stayed on the homeworld of Cybertron and depicted the fumbling attempts of Autobots, Decepticons, and neutrals to build a society together. Since, the two books have met with mainstream critical success, and in particular MtMtE has become a cult favorite. Very quickly it became a fandom-within-a-fandom, spawning memes, Tumblrs, new characters that are already being made into toys (in time-honored Hasbro tradition), and most importantly, new fans of all ages and backgrounds. What is noteworthy about these titles, first and foremost, is the writing. James Roberts helms MtMtE with a Joss Whedon-like zest for character, wordplay, and humor. He’s the only writer the franchise has ever had who consistently can make Transformers laugh-out-loud funny, or frightening, or like genuinely well-rounded people. John Barber writes Robots in Disguise and edits all of IDW’s Transformers books. He’s more of an ideas man than a great dialogue writer, and so he comes in for more criticism, but he has a truly encyclopedic knowledge of Transformers continuity, and has a knack for finding genuine inspiration in past material, from stuff others might ignore or retcon away. Between the two of them, they have brought Transformers comics to a new level, one that doesn’t hide behind intentional childishness, winking irony, or relentless action. This is writing that refuses to insult the intelligence of the characters or their readers. It was inevitable that the casts of these two books would meet back up eventually, but they took nearly two years. Fortuitously, the first big crossover “event” between the two books not only feels earned, but Hasbro and IDW were able to finagle things so that it could coincide with a big marketing push from the toy end of the business. The result, “Dark Cybertron,” is the equivalent of Marvel’s Secret Wars for the franchise, a blending of collectible figures and comics in a way that is unprecedented for Transformers. If you collect the Transformers toy assortments, you will get all of the “Dark Cybertron” issues for free, and the toys you purchase appear in those pages. Yet it transcends Secret Wars in that the event, while influenced by marketing concerns, does not appear to have been directly inspired by them. While the minor characters are chosen to represent new figures on shelves, the major characters are not, and the story earnestly follows through on long-seeded plot arcs, stretching all the way back to 2006 and the start of IDW’s Transformers continuity. And in a pleasant contrast to DC/Marvel events, the comparatively small universe of Transformers comics gives us only two ongoing series to follow to complete the 12 issues of “Dark Cybertron”, which are each a Roberts/Barber collaboration. The 26th issue of The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye is the 8th issue of “Dark Cybertron.” Appropriately, two-thirds of the way through the saga, the issue is a turning point. For the first time in the crossover we get a sense of rising and regrouping on the part of the good guys, and several slowly building plot threads snap taut. IDW and Hasbro laid the seeds of this story last year, with several issues sharing a B-plot about the ancient Titans, city-sized Transformers who fled their world long ago. The existing character Metroplex is an Autobot Titan but these issues established the existence of his many brothers, coveted and chased through the universe by both sides. As Dark Cybertron began Metroplex himself was long missing, Optimus Prime was in self-imposed exile, ex-Decepticon Starscream had just seized control of Cybertron, and the mysterious Decepticon Shockwave was revealed to be completing a covert agenda millions of years in the making. “Dark Cybertron” proper is the story of Shockwave’s plan coming to fruition. He summons a Titan to Cybertron, slays it, and resurrects it as an obedient zombie, Necrotitan. Then, he opens a bridge to the “Dead Universe,” where two horrific undead warlords are waiting: Nova Prime and Galvatron. “Dark Cybertron” is structured around three parallel attempts by the nominal good guys to stop them. Think the end of Return of the Jedi. Optimus Prime leads a small team into the Dead Universe in an attempt to destroy it. Ultra Magnus commands the crew of the Lost Light (from MtMtE) to find and re-activate Metroplex. And Bumblebee, Soundwave, Starscream, and even Megatron fight Shockwave’s Necrotitan on Cybertron. Each issue (released biweekly, in successive issues of MtMtE and RiD) advances all three plotlines. This three-thread structure is a major weakness of “Dark Cybertron”. With the advancement of each plot limited by the length of each book, whole issues can go by and feel frustratingly incremental. Despite the crossover pulling in hundreds of characters and plot threads dating to 2006, the early issues actually feel decompressed at times (the worst offender being Soundwave’s attack on Bumblebee which made no sense in- or out-of-universe). While the intricate plotting, a Barber trademark, is welcome, there is little room for Roberts to make best use of his character-building skills. Another overall issue with the writing is that valuable panel space is used on newly introduced minor characters, as part of the merchandising crossover. It’s fun to see the new Waspinator design get panel time, for instance, but his role in the plot is shoehorned and superfluous. Whatever weaknesses come from the arc’s “writing for the trade” approach thus far, however, are “transformed” into boons for the purposes of this issue. The Ewoks just toppled the walkers, the Star Destroyers are engaged, and Luke just picked up his lightsaber. Last issue’s cliffhanger led us deep inside a burnt-out Metroplex, with our heroes confronted by two female Transformers. This is noteworthy because it’s two more female Transformers than were previously thought to exist in IDW continuity. They take Ultra Magnus et al to their leader, another female named Windblade.
This is the payoff to the “Fan-Built Bot” promotion from last year. Polls were posted on Hasbro.com of various traits, with the winners to inspire the creation of a new comic and toy character. This has nothing to do with the plot, but it does make me smile to see many traits I voted for–female, jet, bodyguard–as part of Windblade. She is the guardian of Metroplex’s brain module, and her striking Kabuki-inspired design leaves no doubt of the importance of her duty.
Perhaps unfortunately Windblade does not drive the events in this issue, overshadowed by chattier characters Ultra Magnus and Brainstorm. However, she does take a crucial step toward re-activating Metroplex. Her subordinates make a more amiable impression, and it’s remarkable in such a packed book that three MORE characters are so fresh and welcome. Maybe it’s just because IDW taking the “no girls allowed except Arcee” sign off their continuity is so LONG overdue.
Events elsewhere are equally compelling. Optimus and Nova’s running conflict through the Dead Universe has, appropriately, been lethal for some characters and has resurrected others: fan uber-favorites Nightbeat and Kup. This continuity rarely reverses death but this metaphorical journey into Hades has allowed IDW to correct what was in my opinion two very old mistakes. Nightbeat (a Sherlock-ian detective) got a delicious Cumberbatch-like speech a couple issues ago and in this one Kup tops him (and possibly everyone else in the whole series) with an Eastwood-worthy cranky boast. Our heroes spend the issue fleeing Nova Prime’s clutches, and in a quiet moment Rodimus, the cocky captain of the Lost Light, confesses his greatest failure of leadership to his only hero, Optimus. Optimus isn’t in a forgiving mood, leaving Rodimus desperate to atone. Since he’s such an impulsive character–with just the slightest hints of a death wish–it feels like this is leading to something big (and unpleasant) for Rodimus. And we close on the storyline that unaccountably has been the weak link of “Dark Cybertron”, the fight on Cybertron itself. The various feuding factions, each stung by defeat, finally set aside their differences and unite against the Necrotitan. It’s frustrating that it took this long, but that actually works to this issue’s benefit, since the characters feel stretched to the breaking point and like all other options are exhausted. Some of Roberts’ gentle fourth-wall shaking humor has trickled into the proceedings as well. Bumblebee finally takes charge after flailing impotently for 20+ issues, and Megatron experiences some welcome character development…his first in four million years. One source of frustration with the series, which does not abate here, is inconsistent art. Dark Cybertron #1 is an exception, setting the bar high with layouts by industry stalwart Phil Jiminez and pencils by veteran RiD artist Andrew Griffith. But after that, each plotline is picked up by a different art team. I must say that the rationale here is compelling–each team of heroes faces radically different circumstances. It is more carefully thought through than the “throw every artist we have at this thing before deadline” I’ve seen in some past comic crossovers. But the result is still that each issue has three violently clashing aesthetics. Even setting that aside, the art of “Dark Cybertron” is just serviceable rather than the excellence we’ve come to expect from standard issues of MtMtE and RiD. Drawing robots can be a very different skill than drawing people, and it’s a shame that the most experienced artists in IDW’s stable were not available for this project. The most veteran Transformers artist on the project is Livio Ramondelli, who has a very unique painterly style. His best panels are Gothic masterworks, with an Alex Ross feel. However, Ramondelli struggles with layouts, proportions, and faces. A good Ramondelli panel is almost beautiful enough to make you forget the four awkward ones before it. He is assigned to the “Dead Universe” storyline, which is a very savvy use of his talents (the Dead Universe is a surreal hellscape, and the main hero and villain wear faceplates). Unfortunately, his style is so unique that even at its best, it clashes the most violently with the other styles. The Metroplex story arc is handled by James Raiz. Raiz actually began working on MtMtE just before “Dark Cybertron”, so it was a good idea to keep him with the Lost Light. His work is full of shadow and detail, and he has the best grasp of layout and motion of all the artists on this project. The only critique I can suggest is that he’s an odd fit with the generally sprightly, wisecracking group of characters that he’s illustrating. His panels can sometimes also be a little crowded, with the shadows making it hard to distinguish characters from each other. The weakest and least experienced artist, Atilio Rojo, is given to the Cybertron storyline, which is a shame given that most of the really well-known Transformers are involved in this story. While he’s clearly talented, his inexperience with drawing Transformers tells, with great difficulty keeping his characters on-model, to scale, and well-proportioned. His action scenes are confusing and the Necrotitan, drawn almost exclusively by him, is bland and underdetailed. But it must be said, he draws the best facial expressions of any of the three, which for many scenes is a welcome gift.
This issue is pretty ideal for any fan of Transformers, or any comics fan, curious what the big Transformers event is all about. You need to be caught up on “Dark Cybertron” to understand everything that’s happening, but the payoff here is well worth it. And for regular readers who are getting fed up with the three-thread structure, the final panel of this issue appears to be blasting it to smithereens. With four issues left to pick up the pieces, the third act of “Dark Cybertron” is off to a compelling start.