The Transformed Man, Act 2: Liars, A To D
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 worth (and counting) 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, the Transformers split into two groups, and Rodimus's crew encounters the ultimate in alien terror!
"Liars, A to D" (Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye vol. 1)
After the events of The Death of Optimus Prime, in which, as you may recall, Optimus Prime did not actually die but instead drove off into the cosmos in the spacefaring equivalent of a Camaro, blasting "Here I Go Again On My Own," the heroic Autobots have been split into two factions. One, led by Bumblebee, wants to stay on Cybertron and help rebuild their society after the four million years of war against the Decepticons, while the other, led by Rodimus Prime, wants to head off into space in search of the probably mythical Knights of Cybertron. With all that in place, two ongoing series were launched: Robots in Disguise and More Than Meets The Eye, each focusing on a separate group.
This week, we're focusing on the first arc of MTMTE, and folks, things do not get off to a very good start, mainly because as soon as Rodimus's ship, The Lost Light, leaves the atmosphere, it explodes, killing everyone aboard.
I have to admit, I was not expecting that, but it's certainly an effective ending for the story. Be here next week for the first arc of Robots in Disguise, where Bumblebee has to plan a pretty elaborate funeral.
Okay, okay, fine, that's not actually what happens. Even though it looks like the Lost Light explodes and vaporizes everyone aboard --- and even though that's what everyone on Cybertron is going to think for the foreseeable future --- it's not actually what happens. The explosion is actually the result of the Quantum Drive going off too early, blowing a hole in the hull and sending the Lost Light halfway across the galaxy, where they're cut off from communicating with the folks back home.
You know. Like Voyager.
So! Since the two groups are now completely separated --- for a while, at least --- it's time to talk about who we have on our crew:
- Rodimus Prime: Leader of the bunch. Fortunately has a very distinctive paint job that makes it easy to identify him, which is handy because I generally just have a 50/50 shot of picking these guys out of a lineup. You may remember him from a movie where comedy legend Eric Idle said a bunch of nonsense over a really great Weird Al song.
- Ultra Magnus: Now, at last, the Autobots' most prominent truck.
- Ratchet: Whose name is a lot more hilarious in 2015 than it was in 1984.
- Cyclonus: Formerly an evil airplane. I mean, he's still an airplane sometimes, he's just not evil anymore. I think.
- Chromedome: I know literally nothing about this guy.
- Drift: Synonymous with Swerve.
- Swerve: Synonymous with Drift.
- Brainstorm: Has a sinister secret, as evidenced by the fact that he boards the Lost Light with a briefcase handcuffed to his arm, which, considering he is a robot that turns into an airplane, is every bit as delightful as it sounds.
- Whirl: According to the variant cover where he's featured, Whirl "hates everyone." You'd think this would make him the easiest character for a Transformers skeptic like me to identify with, and you'd be right, if not for...
- Tailgate: Who literally overslept and missed a war that lasted four million years.
- Rung: The Autobots' psychiatrist, who is also the only one aside from Rodimus that I can identify on sight, probably because he's the comic relief. And also, somehow, my favorite?!
- Rewind: Okay, so this guy was originally a cassette tape, right? Was he still a tape in the 21st century or did he Transform into, like, a flash drive or something? Or did they take it a step further and figure out how to physically represent the idea of "cloud storage?" Oh dang, did he turn into a Netflix?!
There are a few others in the crew, but that's the main cast. The others really only matter in that there have to be some relatively unimportant characters to a) get sucked out the hull breach for maximum drama, b) be the ones responsible for sabotaging the Quantum Drive, and c) be murdered by the horrifying monster that literally tears out souls and eats them.
In retrospect, I probably should've led with that one.
In short, the first thing that happens in the series is that the crew of the Lost Light finds themselves in a remake of Alien but with robots, and somehow, it is every bit as good as that sounds. It's especially interesting for me, too, because it's where Roberts takes a little time to explain how the Transformers actually work in a way that combines the physical and metaphysical.
He (and Chromedome) refer to it as "Rossum's Trinity," a reference to Rossum's Universal Robots, the 1920 play by Karel Capek that introduced the word "robot" to the English language. For those of you keeping score at home, that's also why the roboticist in the Batman: The Animated Series episodes "Heart of Steel" and "His Silicon Soul" was named Carl Rossum --- whose company, incidentally, was called Cybertron. It's all one big circle. Anyway, the trinity in question are the three elements that make up a Transformer: the Brain Module, the Spark, and the Transformation Cog, and I love the idea that the elements that the Transformers think of as forming themselves are both modular and internal, because of course they would be. These are beings for whom physical form is by definition mutable, and even the Transformation Cog can be switched out to grant a new form, a nifty little explanation for how there can be different toys of the same character.
The bit about the Transformation Cog is also brought up earlier, when Ratchet, the Autobots' resident doctor (or... mechanic?) decides to go off into space when he's unable to save a protester who commits suicide by transforming over and over until his cog wears out.
As on-the-nose as it might've been, this bit was endlessly fascinating for me. I'd never considered that Transforming from a robot to a car was something that required physical effort, or that you could do it to the point of actually harming yourself. I mean, it makes sense that this would be the case --- my own experience with the Transformers prior to reading these comics involved trying to turn Optimus Prime into a friggin' fire truck and then having sore fingers for the rest of the week.
Anyway, as you might imagine, losing one of those three crucial components tends to be pretty horrifyingly fatal.
In the end, Rodimus is able to lure the Sparkeater down to the engine room, where they kill it by recreating the same accident that killed the saboteur who got them shunted across the better part of a galaxy: activating the Quantum Drive and phasing the monster into it.
All in all, it's a pretty good way to kick off the series. Roberts has some stellar dialogue and introduces some really great concepts right off the bat, and there's a lot of solid character work in here, too. Swerve discovering an "engex distillery" on the ship and deciding to open up a bar is a pretty great little touch, and Skids being willing to take risks because he can't remember who he really is gives him an instant character hook that I liked a lot. Same goes for Tailgate, the robot Rip van Winkle who slept through an entire war and then got stuck halfway when he tried to turn into a car. They're all pretty engaging despite my difficulty telling them apart, and really, starting your series with a zombie cannibal Transformer horror movie in space sets a pretty high bar for the rest of the series.
Act 2 Power Rankings:
- Rung: Somehow comes out of the first arc as my favorite, probably because he's the least evil psychiatrist in the history of comics. At least, for now. Also, as the comic relief, he gets smacked around more than Jim Rockford, which is pretty darn endearing.
- Skids: Can't remember his past and seems pretty okay with it, will also not put down his gun at all and seems to forget it's there, which are pretty interesting character traits.
- Tailgate: The Snorlax of the Transformers, without the part where he's also really strong and tough. So basically the Chris Sims of the Transformers.
- Rodimus Prime: Literally got three robots murdered by a zombie cannibal on his first day in charge, which is an even worse record for leadership than Cobra Commander.
- Rewind: I found out he doesn't turn into a Netflix, extremely disappointing.