The Transformed Man, Act 3: The Autonomy Lesson
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 Cybertronian Provisional Government gears up to rebuild society. So basically it's House of Cards if Kevin Spacey could turn into a truck.
Transformers: Robots In Disguise v.1: The Autonomy Lesson
Before I dig into what happens in this story, a note about the title: According to the Humble Bundle copy I got, this one is just called "Robots in Disguise v.1," and unlike its More Than Meets The Eye counterpart, each issue has a different title. That said, I'm pretty sure that Barber calling his first issue "The Autonomy Lesson" in a tribute to Alan Moore's first (well, technically second) issue of Swamp Thing, and also having it make perfect sense in the context of the story he's telling is the single best thing about this comic. And that's saying something.
So here's where Robots In Disguise kicks off: After returning to Cybertron and winning the four million year war against the Decepticons, the Transformers have split into two groups. One, led by Rodimus Prime, has departed for deep space on the good ship Lost Light, while the other, led by Bumblebee, is staying on the planet trying to rebuild their society from the ashes of a war that was so horrible that the planet itself has turned against them and is trying to blow them up.
Robots In Disguise follows Bumblebee's crew, focusing on the three groups vying for power on the rebuilt Cybertron: the Autobots, led by Bumblebee after Optimus Prime decided to cruise off into deep space blasting whatever the Cybertronian equivalent of Foghat is, the Decepticons, led by Ratbat, and the NAILs (a slightly roboracist term for Non-Alligned Indigenous Lifeforms coined by slightly roboracist robocop Prowl), led by an airplane named Metalhawk.
If that sounds a little complicated, it's because it is, and this particular web of political intrigue is only going to get more tangled from here. The NAILs aren't too keen on the Autobots, who are in no uncertain terms an occupying military force, keeping control of the planet. And if that wasn't bad enough, it's all being exacerbated by the rumor going around that it was Bumblebee who gave the order to blow up the Lost Light and kill all of his friends --- and by "rumor," I mean "something that Metalhawk is literally telling everyone all the time as soon as they arrive on the planet."
Metalhawk, as we will learn, is a pretty huge jerk.
Complicating matters even further are the Decepticons, who have been press-ganged into acting as a police force in order to keep the NAILs from erupting into a full-on revolt. Considering that even the theme song to the cartoon refers to the "evil forces of the Decepticons," you can probably see the problem with this plan.
So here's our major players for this arc:
- Bumblebee - Basically the Ray Stantz of the Autobots, somehow left in charge when all the people who could turn into trucks left the planet.
- Prowl - A police officer, which I know because before he goes back to his Cybertronian form, he has the words "HIGHWAY PATROL" written on his arms. Not gonna lie, I was kind of hoping he would keep that despite being on a planet with a distinct lack of highways.
- Ironhide - Is written like he has a southern accent, which makes me wonder if there are arguments between transforming pickup trucks about which cyberbarbecue sauce is mecha-best.
- Arcee - THE JAM.
- Wheeljack - Did you know "racecar" spelled backwards is "racecar?"
- Ratbat - Leader of the Decepticons, who appears to be a purple robot bat. As someone new to the franchise, I can assure you that this raises an awful lot of questions that I'm not really sure I want the answers to.
- Starscream - Sounds awfully familiar.
- Metalhawk - Jerk.
As it turns out, getting a bunch of evil robots who just lost a war to roust civilians means that they tend to be pretty brutal, even when they have explosive chips planted in their heads to keep them in line. Which is why Horri-Bull --- there is a robot in this comic named Horri-Bull and they made him a cop --- ends up getting his head exploded when he won't stop beating on a civilian.
Bumblebee stepping up to crack down on the Decepticops doesn't sit well with the rest of the bad guys, who are already pretty rankled from having to live in the barrel of a giant gun with chips in their head that a) can be exploded by a little yellow Volkswagen and b) keep them from transforming, which seems like it should be a pretty huge deal for a race that's defined even in its name by having mutable forms. There's one Decepticon, however, that can still use his powers just fine: Skywarp, whose ability to teleport means that he's helping Ratbat plan an assassination at the memorial service for the presumed-dead crew of the Lost Light.
The idea is that they'll murder Bumblebee, pin it on the NAILs, and then rush the capital in the confusion and seize control of the government in the name of the Decepticons. It is, by any standard, a pretty terrible plan what with all the explosives in their heads and the fact that even divided, nobody wants a dude named "Ratbat" in charge, but I imagine the long-term political ramifications matter less to Bumblebee than keeping his head from sprouting a very large hole.
If I had a favorite Transformer before I started reading these comics, it was almost certainly Starscream, mostly because he was voiced by Chris Latta, better known (to me at least) as the voice of Cobra Commander. He's really great here, too --- he dives right into the political intrigue of the new Cybertron, selling out Ratbat and his plan by just walking up to the Autobots and telling them what's going on, an act that gets him blasted with lightning and put in jail for the night. It pays off, though, and after the assassination attempt is foiled, he slides right into the coalition government, essentially naming himself as the Decepticons' representative alongside Bumblebee and Metalhawk, and cheerfully helping himself to a third of Cyberton's political power.
This plan is, for the record, a million times better than Ratbat's, and makes him my favorite character in this series, too. Or it would, if not for Arcee.
The only thing I knew about Arcee going into this was that she was the lone woman in the cast of the '80s cartoon, and I wasn't really sure if she was going to show up here, since More Than Meets The Eye seems to be a straight up mechanical sausage fest. She does, though, and it turns out she's the Autobots' resident assassin, who goes full on broken arrow and kills Ratbat with a sword made of fire.
Arcee nominally works for Prowl as something of a secret enforcer --- I don't think she ever interacts with any other characters that she's not attempting to decapitate or set on fire over the course of the story --- but she seems pretty set on going against his orders when a more expedient solution, like decapitation or fire, presents itself. She's instantly compelling, too. Barber and Griffith do a great job of depicting a cast of characters who have just been through a war and all the weariness and old grudges that go along with it dealing with the pressure of trying to rebuild, but Arcee's one of the few who immediately comes off as someone dealing with the changes brought on by millions of years of committing acts of violence.
On the surface, she's the Autobots' Wolverine, but even in the few scenes we see here, it goes a bit deeper. That she spends so much of her time quietly observing things, literally looking down on them from above due to her habit of chilling out on walls, ninja style, gives her this disaffected and dissociated quality that makes her scary in a way that Starscream's ambition and Ratbat's cult-leader machinations don't get to, without ever pushing her in the direction of being a villain.
And those are all the pieces in place in the first volume. There's also a pretty neat story about a series of explosions that start off as a suspected terrorist attack and then swerve into full-on sci-fi territory in a really enjoyable way, but all of it revolves around the political situation on Cybertron. Well, that and poetry.
Going into these comics, I expected to like More Than Meets The Eye. That's the one most people were recommending, and a quippy, action-packed space adventure that kicks off with a zombie cannibal robot certainly seems like it's more directly up my alley than a political robot drama about talking Volkswagens. And yet, here we are, and I am fully into this.
It's not too surprising --- I'm a fan of what Barber's done on Transformers vs. GI Joe with Tom Scioli --- but if you'd told me six months ago that I'd be this stoked about finding out who was going to lead the postwar Cybertronian government, I'd probably still be laughing.
Act 3 Power Rankings:
- Arcee - In the immortal words of Dr. Clayton Forrester, "if violence isn't the answer, you're asking the wrong question."
- Starscream - If you imagine all of his dialogue in Chris Latta's raspy falsetto shrieking, this book gets a thousand times better.
- Bumblebee - Only directly responsible for one death in this story, which somehow manages to give him a better track record as a leader than Rodimus.
- Metalhawk - Jerk.
- Horri-Bull - Honestly what did they expect was going to happen here.