Our Resident Transformers Skeptic Reviews the IDW Series in ‘The Transformed Man': Act 1: ‘The Death Of Optimus Prime’
I've never liked the Transformers. The franchise never really got its hooks into me when I was a kid, and while I've tried to give it a shot as an adult, it's never really clicked. But now, with the recommendations of almost everyone I know and a well-timed Humble Bundle sale, I've found myself in possession of three years (and counting) worth of IDW's More Than Meets The Eye and Robots In Disguise comics. I'm working my way through a story arc every week, and if I have to read about these robots, you're coming with me.
This week, it's The Death Of Optimus Prime, in which Optimus Prime does not actually die. Spoiler warning?
The Death Of Optimus Prime (One-Shot)
Since this week's installment of the Transformed Man is focusing on the one-shot that serves as a prelude to our two ongoing series, I thought it might be a good idea to spend a little time on what I know about the Transformers going into things. I mean, I haven't read the comics and when I reviewed the third movie, I had to ask if Bumblebee was like the Autobots' dog --- which I suspect was more because that movie sucks than anything else --- but I was a kid in the '80s, worked in a comic book store for six years and the current Transformers vs. GI Joe is one of my favorite comics, so I had to pick up something, right?
So here's a complete listing of literally everything I know about the Transformers:
- The Transformers are robots that can transform into vehicles. That one's a given.
- They are also aliens from a planet called Cybertron, where life evolved to be mechanical rather than organic, and where each robot has a "spark" that's basically their soul.
- The good guys are Autobots and the bad guys are Decepticons. I think the good guys generally turn into cars and the bad guys turn into planes, but that's just a vague rule of thumb and not anything that actually sticks.
- One of them was a tape deck, I have no idea who.
- The Autobots and Decepticons have been at war for four million years, because, to quote my writing partner Chad Bowers, "that's the number Archie Goodwin pulled out of his head."
- Megatron is the leader of the Decepticons and at one point was a green and purple tank, which I know because he showed up in an issue of GI Joe where he thought Destro's transforming castle was a Transformer. In a related story, Megatron does not seem very bright, as most people can tell sentient creatures from buildings fairly easily.
- You've got the touch. You've got the power. Yeah!
Annnnnd that's pretty much it. Which makes The Death of Optimus Prime a pretty weird place for me to jump on.
Don't get me wrong, this issue is obviously intended to be a starting point for new readers --- like I said, it's basically the zero issue that launches two new ongoing series - but it's also dropping readers into a pretty complicated situation, especially since it starts with a bizarre bit of time travel that initially seems like it's taken Optimus Prime millions of years into the future but turns out to have only been like three weeks.
The thing is, as weird as the details might be for someone who wasn't keeping up with the Transformers stories before this --- specifically the thirty years before this --- it's also a really compelling setup.
The basic idea is that after four million years of conflict, the war between the Decepticons and the Autobots is finally over. The details on exactly how it ended aren't really covered in the comic besides the knowledge that the Autobots won --- although I asked around and it seems to have involved a massive wave of zombie robots rising up from the ground, which I have to admit actually does sound pretty awesome --- but there are three major consequences that are forming the background of the book.
First, Cybertron itself has reverted into a primordial state, essentially destroying the entire civilization as a consequence of the war except for one remaining husk of a city. Second, all the Transformers who didn't want to fight and went into exile millions of years ago have returned, christened "NAILs" (Non-Affiliated Indigenous Lifeforms) by Prowl the Highway Patrol Car, and they're not at all happy with having their planet ruined by a war between two factions they were never a part of:
Third, and most important for the launch of More Than Meets The Eye, the Matrix --- which appears to be a big robot softball that determines who's the Prime --- has split in half and revealed a map that may have been left by the Knights of Cybertron, a legendary group of robots that left the planet to spread peace across the galaxy ten million years ago. Now, in a franchise where lifespans are measured in millions of years and where Optimus Prime has been around for at least four million himself, that seems like it'd be pretty easy to check out. I mean, yes, ten million years is an extremely long time, but in those terms, it's what, two and a half generations? That'd be like not being sure of something that happened in the '40s, if the '40s were occupied by robots that included dedicated archivists. Maybe 10,000,000 year-old robots weren't quite as durable as 4,000,000 year-old robots.
Either way, it works as an interesting setup. The NAILs, led by a dude named Metalhawk, want the Autobots and Decepticons gone so they can rebuild Cybertron in peace, to the point where they're protesting and burning Optimus Prime in effigy, which makes me wonder if the effigy can also transform into a truck:
Rodimus, who appears to be to Optimus Prime what I am to Batman, is fine with this, as he wants to leave to find the Knights of Cybertron, trading a war that he's won for a new quest that might amount to chasing nothing. Bumblebee, on the other hand, isn't willing to give up the planet that he's been fighting so long to regain, and wants to stay and work with the NAILs to form a new government and a new society, even though it's becoming increasingly clear that they don't want him. Things just keep getting more and more awful, with protests that get so violent that Bumblebee has to conscript the imprisoned Decepticons as a brutal police force to maintain the fragile "peace" and prevent an open rebellion that would get them right back to where they were four million years ago.
It's an incredibly compelling setup, full of different factions that are each pulling in a different direction and even a bunch of conflict within the factions, and at the center of it all is Optimus Prime, the de facto leader of the entire Cybertronian society, who, rather than being hailed as the conquering hero, also happens to be a living symbol of the war that destroyed their planet. So he leaves.
It's simultaneously hopefully naive for Optimus to think that he's the one thing causing all the trouble on the planet and also the only thing he really can do. He's a warrior who outlived his war, and has no place trying to win the peace, and that idea makes me really like Optimus, which was something I wasn't expecting at all. No offense, Transformers fans, but that dude always seemed to be super boring, and I like that his greatest act of sacrifice is self-exile, stepping aside to let the supporting cast take over. Which he does, handing Bumblebee and Rodimus each a half of the Matrix. For Bumblebee, this is a pretty symbolic passing of leadership, but for Rodimus, it's practical --- his half has the map that he'll be following with the rest of his crew as More Than Meets The Eye continues.
That, in case you haven't figured it out yet, is the "death" of Optimus Prime: He leaves, and in doing so is no longer "Optimus Prime," leader of the Transformers, he's just Orion Pax, dude with a very deep voice who is also sometimes a truck.
With that, our table is set for both More Than Meets The Eye and Robots In Disguise, and while I hate to admit that I've ever been wr- ... temporarily mistaken about anything, it's a great setup with a ton of potential. We'll see how it holds out as the series goes on.
Act 1 Power Rankings:
- Optimus Prime: Had the good sense to know when to leave.
- Rodimus: Had the good sense to know when to leave, but for a reason that does not involve good sense at all.
- Bumblebee: Not actually a dog?!
- Ultra Magnus: Is also a truck who seems to want to be the only truck around, and I think we can all sympathize with that feeling.
- Prowl: I'm not sure if robots can be racist, but "NAILs" is definitely robo-racist-adjace.
The Death of Optimus Prime is collected in print in Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Vol. 1.