Before I start gushing over the latest batch of kickass IDW Transformers comics, I will once again lay the groundwork for anybody on the fence about trying these books out. I realize that Transformers comics tend to have this weird stigma of being "lesser than," and the utter stupidity of Michael Bay's movies probably don't help matters. Let me present a brief history of Transformers comics, at least as far as a general "Generation One" feel goes, as those are the ones I've always followed since I was a young 'un. I want to bring everybody up to speed on these books so they can jump on.
1984 – 1991: Marvel Comics publishes The Transformers, originally intended as a four-issue limited series, but given the popularity of the concurrent animated series and the toyline that inspired it, Marvel kept it going. Bob Budiansky was the writer until issue #56, and his run has a lot of the unfortunate "introduce a bunch of new characters because they are also new toys we'd like to sell" mandates, but he also managed to do some cool things (issue #25, where Megatron goes insane because Optimus Prime is dead and he wasn't the one to kill him stands out as a great one) and have some weird fun with it (ahem… King Grimlock). These are the first comics I ever sought out and bought with my own money. These are the reason I'm here blathering about comic books today.
Marvel's Transformers #1: This is how dialogue was written when you had to introduce 40 characters in 4 issues.
While this is going on, a scribe named Simon Furman is also writing Transformers comics for Marvel UK, which tells stories in between the issues in the American series. Starting with #56, Furman's brought on to write the American series as well, bringing a new depth of characterization and drama to the proceedings, as well as an extensive mythology to the genesis of the Cybertronian species, culminating in a massive arc where the monster planet Unicron, a dark god to the Transformers, comes calling in #75. Artists Geoff Senior and Andrew Wildman also kick the dynamics up a few notches as well. Unfortunately, the initial TF popularity is on the wane, and the series is canceled prematurely with #80. The Marvel UK version runs much later, until #179.
1993 – 1994: Marvel publishes Transformers: Generation 2, a 12-issue series that coincides with Hasbro's attempts to repaint their old toy molds and sell them again – which doesn't work very well. Furman once again writes this, introducing a third faction of Cybertronians beyond Autobots and Decepticons – one led by the cold expansionist Jhiaxus, and that's a first taste of expanding beyond the traditional war between Prime's 'Bots and Megatron's 'Cons. Senior returns for some of the art, but a lot of it suffers under the unfortunate Manny Galan, and the revival is short-lived – although not bad.
2002 – 2004: An upstart company called Dreamwave starts a Transformers revival, with their own continuity and a much more modern style. The first arc, written by Chris Saccarini and drawn by Dreamwave president Pat Lee, was a huge success, and with new writers and artists, they continued to be. However, Dreamwave as a company was poorly managed and went bankrupt, and their Transformers stories ended abruptly after issue #10 with no proper resolution. Cue "Price is Right" loser music here.
2005 – present: IDW got the rights to Transformers, and they've been running with it ever since. Furman was brought back early on and did some cool things and some iffy things, and the publishing order has been a bit odd, with ongoing series with slightly different names happening in fits and starts, while also continuing stories with a lot of one-shot "Spotlight" issues to help showcase the massive cast of this property. You need Wikipedia to figure out the chronology. Things culminated in a big, messy and iffy event called "Chaos," written by Mike Costa, who has been vocal about not being able to get his head around Transformers as a concept.
HOWEVER, starting last year, IDW made a bold move post-Chaos by completely ending the war between the Autobots and Decepticons – well-worn territory – and asked the question "what happens next?" They got James Roberts, an avid TF fan who wrote his own unsanctioned TF novel (yes, yes, fan-fiction is always dangerous territory, but trust me, Roberts has the goods). He helped co-write a TF miniseries called Last Stand of the Wreckers, then a two-part piece of greatness called Chaos Theory, and finally capped off the old era of IDW books with the fantastic one-shot story The Death of Optimus Prime. That cleaned the slate and set the stage for what IDW is doing now – running two concurrent ongoing titles, and recently adding a completely seperate third one, giving Furman a chance to properly finish his original Marvel storylines with a book they're calling Transformers: Regeneration One. That one, however, is pretty strictly for the hardcore fans. The other two, I'm urging people to try. I really want to know if Transformers books are inevitably limited in their audience to those predisposed to them, or if they can win new readers with the sheer power of being fucking great.
The first one, helmed by Roberts, is called Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye. It follows Rodimus Prime and his volunteer crew on his ship called The Lost Light, who have set out in search of some ancient Cybertronian legends and have had nothing but catastrophes and hardships and ridiculous occurrences along the way. It is hands down the best Transformers comic that's ever been, and it's the book that makes me the happiest every month. Part of that is probably sentimentality, sure, as I've always had a soft spot for this particular branch of nerd-dom. However, it's mostly because his book is damn good. It's funny. It's dense with world-building and storytelling. It has incredibly engaging characters – a huge cast of them – and always functions on an epic scale. It had a super-sized 2012 Annual that came out a couple weeks ago that really started delving into the history of their species, and it should serve as a great jumping-on point.
The second one, headed up by IDW Editor-in-Chief John Barber, is called Transformers: Robots in Disguise, and if MTMTE didn't exist, I'd be trumpething THIS as the best TF book ever. It's focus is on the newly revitalized post-war Cybertron, and the political turmoil that comes with trying to manage the peace after four million years of war. Not only are Bumblebee's Autobots and Starscream's Decepticons struggling to figure out how to put aside their old animosities to work together without blindly trusting the other, but there are also huge factions of unaffiliated Cybertronians as well – not to mention some funky things going on as far as natural phenomena, too. They also bear the burden of believing that the crew of the Lost Light are all dead, having witnessed what they believed was the ship exploding shortly after it launched. RID is heavy and heady, full of intrigue and tension and flawed characters messing things up as much as they ever help matters out. It's not quite as hilariously entertaining as MTMTE can be, but it's still really good stuff.
This brings me to the offerings of this week. Transformers: Robots In Disguise Annual 2012 will the the first, and it's chock full of homage and awesome. It follows directly the events and revelations of the MTMTE Annual, even going so far as to feature the same sort of Guido Guidi art when telling tales set in the distant past. Not only does the art reflect the style from Marvel's old Transformers series right down to the square word balloons, but Barber gives us dialog to match.
Observe, compare and contrast.
TF: RID Annual 2012: These Heroes of the Golden Age turn out to be mostly psychotic assholes.
This may seem "strictly for the nerds," but I should think the stark contrast between the old-school style and the present-day art wouldn't escape even the eye untrained in Transformers lore. If it does, well, I've just pointed it out to you, so you can enjoy it more. If you are well-trained, though, it's quite a little nerdgasm.
The story in RID 2012 is two-fold. We follow the above cast of noble-sounding heroes of Cybertron's ancient history as they discover the fabled Crystal City, its massive solitary guardian Omega Supreme, and the much more massive and mightily mysterious "metrotitan" hidden within. Nova Prime and Omega Supreme work together to raise the Crystal City from its buried ruin to bring about the Golden Age of Cybertron after millenia of war, but it soon becomes apparent that when Nova Prime speaks of spreading freedom throughout the galaxy, he is speaking of freedom from "the tyranny of will." He's an expansionist gussying up conquest in more palatable terms, but rest assured, he is deluded as to his own self worth.
In the present day, we get inside the head of Metalhawk, the de facto leader and spokesperson for the "NAILs" – Non-Affiliated Indigenous Lifeforms, aka neutrals – for the first time as the Autobots uncover that same mysterious metrotitan has returned to the underground ruins of the Crystal City and is about to explode in some kind of crazy quantum madness. As abrasive and condescending as Metalhawk has been throughout this series, we see here that he does understand why the Autobots and Decepticons can't bring themselves to trust each other and that they are basically good people with very differing views on how the world should work. He, much like Omega Supreme, only seeks peace and prosperity, but the mechs around them always seem destined to go to war with each other in an endless cycle. The kicker comes as we bounce back and forth from the past to the present, where Omega tells us that only the presence of greatness can awaken a metrotitan, and then that greatness comes now in the form of Starscream, the most backstabby and manipulative of all the Decepticons.
What I love about this, besides the great art from both Guidi and modern-day artist Brendan Cahill, is that in having the metrotitan dub Starscream as "the conqueror… who will unite Cybertron's scattered warriors," Barber seems to be completely subverting the tired old "chosen one" trope. The metrotitans are of such historical significance that most folks there are going to treat it like God himself deemed Starscream the one destined to become president by divine right, but Metalhawk sticks on the word 'conqueror,' and at the end of the book, he commiserates with the modern-day Omega Supreme about whether or not they are a race of warlike oppressors that will never be able to help themselves. Like I said, RID is heady and heavy, but as you can see above, it's also plenty of fun.
And that brings us to Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye #9, which again involves flashbacks, but of a very different sort. It's back to the time established in Roberts' Chaos Theory story, wherein Optimus Prime was still known as Orion Pax, a highly respected police officer renowned for mouthing off to the Senate about their extreme levels of corruption. The premise is that, in the now, a bunch of Autobots have gathered around Swerve's bar to try and tell a collaborative story of recollections in order to try to jumpstart the neural connections in the damaged brain of Rung, hoping it will bring him back to full functionality. You've got Rewind the history nerd, Chromedome the brain expert, Ratchet the atheist doctor and Drift the spiritual samurai who likes to mess with Ratchet about his atheism, all playing hot potato with a tale about assassinations, addictions, autopsies and conspiracies at a time when the 'Decepticon' cause was nothing but a political movement. Also, there's a Go-Bot joke.
It's definitely riffing on Law & Order and the police procedural shows. You've got the unrelated-to-the-proceedings Nightbeat having a casual conversation with a friend (my only beef with Roberts is that he occasionally has a highly entertaining guy like this in his stories and forgets to mention his name) only to happen upon a dead body, you've got the forensics detectives of Chromedome and Prowl analyzing the crime scene, you've got Police Chief Pax kicking some ass, saving a drug addict and then dealing with some shaky legal questions and assassination theories with his secret contact in the Senate (another guy whose name I can't remember and which should have been restated here), and you've got another corpse showing up to indicate a serial killer. And that coincides with a big reveal at the end of a headless body found on the modern day Lost Light. Shenanigans! To Be Continued!
Once again, Roberts is consistently fantastic with dialog, making it funny and engaging and real, while also introducing all sorts of new concepts and ideas in his incredibly detailed world-building – in this case, "relinquishment clinics," where rich bots could have their brains switched into another's body and experience life as a race car instead of a truck. Things like that really help flesh out Cybertronian culture, and it's endlessly fascinating. Plus, as I always say, Alex Milne was born to draw Transformers.
Hopefully, this history lesson and copious gushing can get you started on your way to becoming a new-school Transformers fan, so long as you can put the Bayformers out of your mind. Which you should. Because they suck. But don't hold those movies against Transformers as a concept, or else you'll be missing out on some really, really cool comic books.
TRANSFORMERS: ROBOTS IN DISGUISE 2012 ANNUAL
TRANSFORMERS: MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE #9