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Transformers - John C. Kirk

Nov. 12th, 2012

01:29 am - Transformers

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I was never really into Transformers when I was a kid: I never saw the cartoon series, read the comic, or had any of the toys. I did have a Robo Machines toy (same concept from a different company), and I read the last few installments of their strip in the Eagle.

I watched the Transformers animated film about 10 years ago, then bought a few of the comics: in particular, I picked up the UK reprints and some of the later volumes from the US series, all written by Simon Furman. These had a good reputation online, and I can see why, although I think perhaps that he went back to the well too many times with the same idea.

More recently, I've seen the 3 live action films. I liked them: they don't have much artistic merit, but there were things to enjoy in each one. Meanwhile, there have been various new animated series: I haven't seen any of these, but I get the impression that they keep rebooting, i.e. each new series starts with the robots coming to Earth and the Autobots fighting the Decepticons. There have also been various tie-in comics, but I haven't kept up with these. In fact, most of my awareness comes from reading Shortpacked!

However, IDW (a comics publisher) have done something quite interesting. Last year they printed a one-shot comic: "The Death of Optimus Prime". Death tends not to be permanent in comics, and that particularly applies to Transformers comics, but I don't think they'll reverse this any time soon. This then led to 2 new ongoing series: Transformers: Robots in Disguise and Transformers: More than Meets the Eye. The basic premise is that the war is over, and the Autobots won. So, all the Transformers have gone back to Cybertron, and they've sent out a signal to invite all the other Cybertronians home as well: this includes lots of "non-aligned" robots who left to avoid the civil war. I've spent the last couple of months catching up on both titles through Comixology.

In the context of the story, this war has literally lasted for millions of years. So, what happens next? Can they preserve the peace or will they just revert to their old enmities? Can soldiers adjust to peacetime, and will the civilian population accept them? At a more meta level, is there a market for this kind of story, or do readers just want the premise that they've been used to for the past 25 years? Meanwhile, there is still a "traditional" animated series with accompanying comic.

Looking at the live action films, one common complaint was "Too many squishy humans and not enough giant robots." That's not a problem here, because there are no humans around at all. There are a few alien species, but they're about the same size as the "standard" Transformers; there are also some really huge (city-sized) robots around. This does imply that humans are basically the midgets of the Transformers universe...

I now need to reveal minor spoilers.

In "The Death of Optimus Prime", the title is a bit of a metaphor. Basically, Optimus realised that he was doing more harm than good as the leader of the Autobots, since so many people resented him. So, he resigned, and reverted to his former name: Orion Pax. He then left Cybertron in his own spaceship to roam around on his own. Before he left, he split the Matrix of leadership in half and gave 1 piece each to Bumblebee and Rodimus (formerly Rodimus Prime, formerly Hot Rod).

Comparing the 2 new series to Star Trek, I'd say that "Robots in Disguise" is more like DS9 and "More than Meets the Eye" is more like Voyager. Basically, RiD shows the new society on Cybertron: Bumblebee is in charge of the provisional government, and he's formed a coalition with Starscream (a Decepticon) and Metalhawk (one of the non-aligned returnees). I don't think it's intended to refer to the current UK government, but this isn't quite what I'd expected from a Transformers comic!

Meanwhile, MtMtE is set on a starship, with a group of Transformers (led by Rodimus) who've gone off on a quest to find a (mythical?) lost city. Their hyperdrive blows up during the launch, so they got thrown way off course and everyone on Cybertron thinks that they're dead; this is a similar concept to Lost in Space. The crew have a mixture of former allegiances, so it's a bit like the Starfleet/Maquis thing in Voyager.

Of the 2 series, I definitely prefer MtMtE. Although I mentioned plot similarities above, in tone it's most like Stargate Atlantis, so it's a lot of fun to read. There are some serious aspects to it, but there are also a lot of funny lines. For instance, Rung (ship's counsellor) is being attacked, and he tries to reason with his attacker, asking what he wants. Someone else helpfully suggests: "He's jealous that your eyebrows let you express a wider range of emotions!" (Paraphrasing from memory.) Then there's Drift, a former Decepticon, who is deliberately and relentlessly cheerful. It's not exactly an act, because he's not trying to fool anyone; it's more that he's trying to re-invent himself, and tends to irritate the others in the process.

I started reading this series after I heard House to Astonish (a podcast review) episode 76. I strongly recommend listening to the relevant section of that (50m43s-1h02m30s), since it's very entertaining. For instance, they point out that Rewind was originally one of the Transformers who turned into an audio cassette. However, technology has moved on, so he now turns into a giant USB memory stick instead; some of his colleagues are dubious about the utility of this alt-mode.

I will admit that I have trouble keeping track of all the characters. They do have distinguishing features, but you need to be able to remember those features. MtMtE puts a page at the back of each issue showing headshots for all the key characters, although it might be better to put that at the start, along with the plot recap page. Also, now that they're no longer on Earth, several of the characters have changed design so that they turn into "native" (Cybertronian) vehicles, i.e. they don't look quite the same as they used to.

Like I said, I haven't read the previous comic that led into these 2 new series. I think I'm still keeping up ok, but I'm not sure how many of the plot points are new and how many are recapping things that I haven't read. In particular, there's a whole backstory involving the Senate (pre-war). That sounds a bit like the plot from the Star Wars prequels, but this is a bit more interesting. For instance, the Decepticons started out as rebels against the corrupt ruling body, and they chose their name to mean "You are being deceived". That makes more sense than "We're deceiving you", if they want people to take them seriously. Digressing, there's a great scene in Spike vs. Dracula where Spike's on a submarine during WW2. He's talking to a couple of other vampires, asks them a question, then says: "Not you. I'd have to be pretty sodding stupid to believe anything told to me by someone who calls himself the Prince of Lies, wouldn't I?" (I'm paraphrasing from memory again.) There's also a discussion in MtMtE about whether they can give their team a name that ends in "-cons": can they reclaim the term, now that the war is over, or do they have to be called "something-bots"?

Although these 2 comics are set in the same universe, there's no direct crossover between them; it's similar to when Buffy and Angel were on different networks, so they couldn't swap guest stars. That means that you can read either of them in isolation, and if you have any interest in the Transformers as a concept then these are well worth a look.