The Transformed Man, Act 12: Shockwaves
I've never liked the Transformers. The franchise didn't get its hooks into me as a kid, and while I've tried to give it a shot as an adult, it never really clicked. But now, with a recommendation from almost everyone I know and a well-timed Humble Bundle sale that left me with three years worth (and counting) of IDW's More Than Meets The Eye and Robots In Disguise comics, I'm going on a quest to see if these comics can turn me from someone who has never cared at all about Optimus Prime into someone who uses words like "Cybertron" and "alt-mode" with alarming regularity. And Primus help me, it's working.
This week, them Wave boys are in a heap of trouble as we head towards Dark Cybertron!
Transformers: Robots In Disguise Vol. 5
Story: John Barber
Art: Livio Ramondelli, Atilio Rojo, Dheeraj Verma and Andrew Griffith
Colors: Priscilla Tramontano and Joana Lafuente
Letters: Tom B. Long, Chris Mowry and Shawn Lee
Editor: Carlos Guzman
Before we get into the meat of this week's comics, an update on how I have reached the next phase in my transformation into someone who really, really likes these stupid robots: Between the last column and this one, I actually bought one of the toys.
Wait, that's not true. I bought more than one of the toys.
The first one was actually an impulse buy at a convention --- there was a Wheeljack that I was going to get as a tribute to the three most important words in the Cybertronian language and how they were all shot in the head execution style at the end of the last arc, but when I went back to see if I could talk the guy down on the price, it had sold.
I ended up picking up Windblade instead even though I haven't read a comic with her, mainly because I liked her design and the idea that, when given the choice, the fans used the opportunity to vote on a new figure to take a step towards correcting the franchise's gender imbalance. Then, a few days later, I bought Tailgate, because Tailgate is my fave.
Then, just today, I found out that the current toy line actually includes a Transformers/GI Joe crossover figure: Decepticon Viper, a transforming Cobra Rattler airplane that's meant to look like a robotic version of Wild Weasel. Of course I bought it, and to be honest, I'm a little upset that none of you thought to tell me that it existed.
I'm not mad, just... disappointed.
(Also there's an Ultra Magnus that comes with a tiny little Minimus Ambus and oh my God this is my life now)
Anyway, onto the comics, and to be honest, this week's selection feels a little strange. It's the last arc of Robots In Disguise before the Dark Cybertron crossover with More Than Meets The Eye, and I think a lot of it comes from the way that the end of the last arc, with Starscream literally murdering his only friend, putting on a crown and taking control of the planet, would've been the natural endpoint of the "season."
A reader mentioned that it was a matter of scheduling, with RiD being put into a holding pattern while MTMTE got to its own endpoint and the big reveals for Magnus and Rodimus, but these six issues don't entirely feel like filler, either. They certainly seem protracted and a little slower than the usual arc --- it's built mostly around flashbacks and focused character pieces, and the the current timeline only progresses by exactly one day over the course of the arc --- but there's a lot that gets set up here, too.
The central character this time around is Shockwave, both in Cybertron's distant past and in what he's doing in the present. He's a really interesting character, and the stories here fill in the gaps around what Roberts and Milne showed us in "Shadowplay," the flashback story from MTMTE that ended with the big reveal (for me, anyway) that Optimus Prime and Shockwave used to be pals before the war.
That idea alone is pretty interesting, and it's made Shockwave one of the more compelling villains of the series --- not quite as charming as Pharma, as genuinely terrifying as Overlord or as over-the-top capital-E Eeeeevil as Megatron, you understand, but fascinating in his own way. With the other villains, it's easy to pin down what their motivations are; even Pharma, the Transforming robot equivalent of the Joker, is at least nominally interested in proving himself to be the best robo-doctor around.
Shockwave, on the other hand, feels like he has motives that we can't really understand. He doesn't seem particularly dedicated to the Decepticon cause, and unlike his mentor Jhiaxus, also a major player in this arc, it's not really something that quite falls under the heading of "mad science," either.
Instead, he's marked by nothing quite so much as being cold. He's without emotions, without compassion, operating purely on what he describes, rather charitably it seems, as logic. It's something that goes along with his appearance, the simple lit-up hexagon in place of a more expressive, humanoid head, a face that's literally incapable of displaying emotion.
The two things are actually linked, too. The "Empurata" procedure has been mentioned before --- again, in "Shadowplay" --- but if you missed it back then, it's a punishment that involved quite literally tearing off a criminal's head and hands and replacing them with the faceless heads and a pair of simple claws, as both a physical punishment and a mark for everyone who sees them. In Shockwave's case, a betrayal of Cybertron's corrupt senate led them to not only subject him to that procedure, but to operate on his brain as well, removing any compassion that he might once have had.
This, in turn, is what led him to begin experimenting, both with the idea of building the Decepticons a Combiner, and with the Ores.
In case you missed the discussion of Monstructor, Devastator and Superion last time, a Combiner is basically the most toyetic concept in an entire franchise that is literally made entirely of toys: It's a giant transforming robot made of smaller but still pretty big transforming robots that link up into one, and it's always been treated as a pretty big deal. Barber has gone out of his way to write them as these ultimate weapons, and the idea of trying to create and control one wasn't just the driving force behind Megatron's master plan, it's also been something at the core of the entire story. And considering that the current comics and toys both have the words "COMBINER WARS" on them in big letters, I'm guessing that's going to continue for the foreseeable future.
The Ores, however, have been the focus of the story every time we've been away from Cybertron: Thirteen weird little McGuffins planted on different planets, each one with a different effect. One caused an entire world to freeze, another disrupted time --- it's some real Infinity Gems stuff, and this time around, we learn that there's a super-secret fourteenth ore. And this one can, you know, bring people back from the dead.
So, you know. That's probably going to be important.
This is also where everything starts to come together with the Orion Pax story as well, although to be honest, these bits are still losing me a little in the process. Pax is hunting down Shockwave's ores out in space while Shockwave himself is dealing with that secret one hidden on Cybertron, and there's also a dude who turns into a giant robot wasp who can control Titans --- the really giant city-sized transforming robots --- and cause them to warp across space by... stinging them, I think? And also Pax can bring dead Titans back to life?
To be honest, as much as I like the series, these parts feel like they're dealing with stuff that I'm already supposed to know about from the history of the franchise. Admittedly, part of that's my fault for coming in at year 31 of the franchise, but still, even trying to just figure out the beats of what I just read feels a little shaky.
What saves it, though, is the character work, specifically with Pax himself.
He's kind of relentlessly heroic in a really enjoyable way, like the best possible way that "Superman but he's a robot truck with a gun" could possibly work out.
Rounding out our Shockwave-related content for this week is Soundwave --- I assume there's no relation --- an evil boombox who stars in a similar set of flashbacks chronicling his origin. Again, there's a lot of interesting stuff in here about how Soundwave is able to hear everything --- not just sounds, but things like honesty and anger. And on top of that, we get to see Megatron from the point of view of one of his most loyal supporters, and for the first time, it's actually pretty easy to see why people would bother following him for four million years.
The main focus of the story is the idea of contrasting Soundwave's unwavering loyalty to The Cause with Shockwave's cold, detached self-interest, and the interplay between them that makes the Decepticons such an interesting concept. Beyond that, though, there were two things that I really fixated on during this part of the story.
The first was that the robots that pop out of Soundwave's chest are consistently referred to as "cassettes." This, again, is a toy thing --- Soundwave was originally a transforming boombox that came with cassette tapes that turned into other robots, which, when you get right down to it, is a pretty great idea for a toy. The problem, such as it is, is that tape decks aren't really a common thing anymore, and as we learned from the absolute tragedy of Rewind not being a robot that turned into a Netflix, it's pretty difficult to make a toy that transforms from Robot Mode to The Concept Of Streaming Digital Audio Mode. Still, I like the dedication in the idea of just saying, "yep, they're cassette tapes, that is how it is and we all need to accept that."
Second, and probably more notable, is that Soundwave's head is exactly the head represented in the Decepticon symbol:
I'm not sure if that's intentional, or which came first, or if it's meant to represent Soundwave's loyalty to the Decepticons by showing that he actually modified his head to match their logo --- his design changes slightly over the course of the story as a visual cue to when each flashback is taking place - but it definitely jumped out at me. I mean, I have yet to see an Autobot who actually looks like their badge, and you'd think that if the Decepticon logo was going to look like anyone, it'd be Megatron. And yet, it's this guy. The tape deck.
Anyway, while all that's going on, we also get to see what happens to Bumblebee and his crew on their first day after being exiled from Iacon, the last city on the face of the planet. You might recall that after Starscream seized power by murdering his only friend, Metalhawk, and then telling everyone he died because of the endless fighting and wanted him to be in charge, he told everyone to either give up their affiliations or get out. The Autobots, being Autobots, mostly elected to bail, and things are not going well.
The big change from a visual standpoint is that Bumblebee gets a new design, and while I'm not quite keen on it, I'm also in the position of only actually having liked these characters for like two months, meaning that I cannot possibly justify being this attached to Bumblebee's old look.
More importantly, though, is Arcee. She's the focus of this portion of the story in a really cool way, and it's one that pushes exactly the right buttons for me as a reader. She's an emotionally distant outcast who's trying so hard to do right by the people around her and disappointing herself when it doesn't quite come together, and that's a character archetype that I'm a complete sucker for. It's a simple enough setup, just a basic idea of wanting to be happy and not being able to get there that goes directly to sympathy, but it's done really well here.
Both Transformers books that I've been reading for this column are based at least in part on the idea of these characters trying to recover from being in a war, and for Arcee, in this story, it's about the simplicity of combat and the complexity of human --- uh, robot --- interaction. For her, fighting's the easy part --- it's what she was made to do, she has two gigantic flaming swords, and "see bad guy, kill bad guy" is a pretty simple process to get your head around. Her struggle to find her place and her decision to join up officially by carving an Autobot symbol into her shoulder --- which, given the nature of the robots, comes off as a lot less like self-harm than it probably sounds --- is probably the best part of the book.
And oh hey, speaking of robots and their occasionally alarming resistance to damage, it turns out Wheeljack's not actually dead!
With that in place, everything's set up for Dark Cybertron. Well... Almost everything, but we'll get to that next week.
Act 12 Power Rankings:
- Arcee - Continues to be awesome, but with the added sadness of a Bioware character that they really want you to feel bad about.
- Wheeljack - Appeared on one page floating in Zordon's tube. Still rad.
- Shockwave - RiD's most compelling villain by far, although considering that his major challenger for that title is a cop who was secretly being controlled by a robot beetle, that might not be saying much.
- Orion Pax - Wait, so the Titan was dead and then he brought it back to life, or was it just sleeping before he woke it up and it got stabbed by the wasp guy, and then teleported, and he has his own ship that can teleport and just didn't tell anyone, and... Y'all this guy is way too complicated for a truck that wants to be nice to people.
- Bumblebee - Did exactly two things in this story, one of which was falling face-down into the dirt, thus representing the least harm he has done to anyone since this series started.