Written by: James Roberts
Art by: Alex Milne
Colors by: Joana Lafuente
Letters by Shawn Lee
IDW Publishing, August 2011
If you had told me 25 years ago that I would one day be reading a Transformers comic about senatorial politics, I would have said, “What’s senatorial politics?!”
It’s been a looonng time since I read a Transformers comic, but Transformers was one of the things that really got me into comics back in 1986 when I was 11/12 years old. I loved the cartoon and craved more, so a comic with even more Transformers adventures was a dream come true.
I came into this comic with what I knew from 1986 and found the “Story So Far” on the inside front cover to be confusing from the opening sentence: “Megatron has surrendered, and is locked in a cell on board Omega Supreme as the Autobots race to Cybertron to confront Galvatron and his army.” (Note: If reading this sentence alone gives you a headache, then this is NOT the comic for you.)
Wait a second. In the Transformers animated movie, Megatron was killed and then rebuilt and renamed Galvatron. So how…?
Anyway, I think there are a few things you need to get right with a Transformers comic. 1) The robots have to look good and “on model.” You can’t skimp on the details. I would say that MUCH of the appeal of Transformers is in the robot design itself. 2) And, you have to remember that the robots all have individual personalities. So you don’t need to shoehorn in human characters for the audience to relate to — a critical failure of understanding of the live-action movie.
So how does the IDW iteration hold up?
I have to say this comic is pretty goddamn slick. Marvel’s Transformers series was a junky tie-in to a junky TV show printed on crappy paper. This comic is glossy with attractive, well-staged art. The robots are gorgeous and well served by modern printing and coloring processes.
As for the story, let give you a bit of the plot. The comic flashes back and forth between the past and the present. With Decepticon leader Megatron captured, it is up to Autobot leader Optimus Prime to decide whether he will get life imprisonment or the death sentence. Recalling his life back on Cybertron before The War, Optimus remembers being impressed by Megatron’s pacifist politics (at the time) and his stand against senatorial corruption, which inspires Optimus to confront the Senate himself.
There are no humans in this comic. The dialog is smart. The Transformers just sound like real people if they were caught in the same political and moral dilemmas. (They even use standard word balloons for the robots’ dialog instead of the “robotic” rectangular sparking ones that Marvel used.)
And yet, they almost take it too far in that the Transformers are basically just proxies for Americans. Transformer news broadcasts on the planet Cybertron from millions of years ago look identical to American news broadcasts on Earth today! I mean, wouldn’t they just network information to each other’s brains or something?
And then there’s the senate business. Senate politics was not interesting in the Star Wars prequels, and it’s not interesting here. When a Transformers leader is attacked by terrorists, one Senator declares:
We will not sit idly by while terrorists try to undermine our way of life… We protect the populace by clamping down… and if the clampdown means that the general populace must forgo some of their freedoms, well, it is but a small price to pay for their safety.
Oy vey! I remember once reading an interview with a Star Trek producer in the 90s, where he advised hopeful writers (I’m paraphrasing), “Don’t try to be topical. You won’t see an episode with Worf cloning a sheep next week.” It was too damn obvious in Star Wars, and it’s too damn obvious here.
But that’s all actually kind of minor in the grander scheme of this issue. It’s distracting, but not overwhelming.
Previously, Pat Lee’s Dreamwave Productions revived the Transformers comic in 2002. The Transformers were no longer really in the public consciousness, but those kids who grew up with them were now earning money, feeling nostalgic, and ready to blow their disposable incomes on back issues, old toys, and new comics. (I read one issue.)
We are now past the 20-year-cycle peak of nostalgia. Creators have more room to play with the Transformers franchise since it is no longer a slave to the stupidity of the ’80s cartoon or the irrational nostalgia of 10 years ago. It is hardly a toy or TV tie-in anymore. And the readers are probably older as well, so the creators can approach the whole enterprise more intelligently and from different angles. They are able to attempt to make sense of the various bonkers concepts of the Transformers universe, and make better use of them too. I never thought I would read a Transformers comic that was so concerned with ethics and moral conundrums.
I think the Transformers franchise is really best served in comics form where it now has the freedom to do this, and where it is now more visually attractive than in any other medium (except for the Transformations themselves, which really only work in animation and can take up too much visual space on paper). Really very impressive. I may buy more just for the pretty pictures.
Kumar Sivasubramanian is the writer of Weird Crime Theater.