The Transformed Man, Act 4: Life After The Big Bang
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, my favorite Autobot gets his head blown clean off, because of course he does. Uh... spoiler warning?
Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye v.2: Life After The Big Bang
Story: James Roberts
Art: Alex Milne and Nick Roche
Colors: Josh Burcham and Joana Lafuente
Letters: Shawn Lee and Chris Mowry
Editor: John Barber
One of the things that I really appreciate about these Transformers comics is just how much happens in them. There are times when it actually gets overwhelming for a new reader like me --- I've been blowing up David Willis's email with questions like "wait, is Fortress Maximus a place or a dude?" for the past couple weeks, because really, if you know the guy who owns the Transformers wiki, it's silly not to. At the same time, though, it means that I'm getting a whole lot of Transformers knowledge crammed directly into my head in a very short amount of time, and as someone who tends to obsess over minutiae, that's pretty rewarding.
This week we're rejoining the crew of the Lost Light as they continue the search for the Knights of Cybertron, except that that's not really what happens at all. The actual quest that Rodimus is leading everyone on is barely mentioned over the course of this arc, and really, there are only a few key scenes that actually take place on the ship itself. Instead, More Than Meets The Eye v.2 is mostly taken up with diversions of one kind or another, both in terms of where the characters are going and what the creators show us.
First up, it's a trip to Delphi, a medical facility "on the edges of DJD territory." As for just who they are, we'll get to that in a second. What matters now is that it's staffed by a bunch of talking ambulances led by Pharma, a doctor who carries a chainsaw, something that anyone who ever walked through the horror aisle in a video store in the early '90s will tell you is usually a sign of trouble.
And folks, that is exactly what they've got.
The Lost Light shows up when Swerve essentially gets an encoded message through the Cybertronian equivalent of Netflix (really) that turns out to be casualty statistics. It seems that Delphi has seen a sharp increase in the number of robots who died under the knife, ending up at an alarmingly high --- and alarmingly consistent --- 50%. When they arrive to check things out, though, things immediately get worse: There's an actual plague going on in the form of a virus called Red Rust, which causes Transformers to deteriorate and essentially bleed from their eyes until they can't do anything but shambling around infecting others.
So for those of you keeping score at home, that's how you follow up a story about a soul-eating cannibal robot monster: You just go straight to robot zombies.
Eventually, it turns out that Pharma was behind the whole thing, murdering the entire outpost as a cover for a sideline funneling pieces of dead Autobots to a Decepticon who eats Transformation Cogs.
It's a great little story that takes this generic idea that we've all seen before --- y'know, zombies and plagues and all that --- and does it in a way that's unique to the Transformers and how they're living in a galaxy that's been ravaged by centuries of endless war, turning them against each other in some truly terrifying ways. That's what I'm really coming to love about this series, that it strikes that perfect balance between interesting, universal hooks and situations that could only really apply to this specific group of characters, and pays off in ways that you don't expect because they're specifically built for transforming robots.
Take Ratchet, for instance. He's been slowly losing control of his hands --- and with them, his ability to perform robomedicine --- and can't replace them because of his belief that the precision that he requires is something that's inherent and can't be replicated by just swapping them out with replacements. When Drift sends Pharma to his apparent death by cutting his arms off as he's hanging from a ledge over a long, long fall, however...
...everything works out.
Like I said, it's a great story that crams a whole heck of a lot into two issues --- although it does lose a couple of points for involving a "vaccine" that can cure a disease that has already been contracted, but, y'know. Nobody's perfect.
This is also where we're reintroduced to Fortress Maximus, who is one of what I'm assuming are quite a few Transformers who are missing and presumed dead after four million years of galactic warfare. Death for Transformers, it seems, is about as permanent as it is in every other comic, and he's been recuperating on Delphi for quite a while before coming back online just in time to deal with a few Decepticons that picked the absolute wrong time to show up.
Unfortunately, the war has left Fortress Maximus with some scars that can't be healed by a robot doctor, no matter how great their hands are. I've poked around a little bit into the backstory of the series --- something that's almost impossible not to do, given Roberts' knack for world-building by dropping bits and pieces of a long history into conversations --- and it doesn't seem like he had a very good time. There's something called the Simanzi Massacre that gets referenced a few times as being both massive and terrible, and Fort Max was involved in that to the tune of personally killing a thousand Decepticons. That's going to wear on anyone, and on top of that is the whole thing where he's captured, tortured, and then beaten into a robocoma.
The end result of all this is that he ends up traumatized to the point where, once he joins the crew of the Lost Light, he ends up going on a shooting spree. He starts with Pipes, who managed to survive a two-issue zombie arc only to be killed while drinking at Swerve's bar, and then takes Whirl and Rung hostage in Rung's office, a tense situation that ends with Rung, who I have previously declared to be my favorite character in this book, getting his head blown off.
Amazingly, Rung survives, although being headless presents a bit of a problem even if you're a Transformer, and he's out of action for the rest of the arc. That's what's at the core of what happens to the crew of the Lost Light in this arc, but the major developments come from the introduction of the DJD --- the Decepticon Justice Division, a gang of exceptionally cruel Transformers who are in charge of hunting down and brutally murdering anyone who betrays the cause, which, considering the war is over and the Decepticons lost and (mostly) made peace with the Autobots, seems to be literally everyone except them.
I don't really want to go straight to "oh, the Decepticons are Nazis," because a) it's the easiest and most reductive comparison that you could possibly make, and b) when you consider that this is, at its heart, a comic about toy robots punching each other on spaceships, it's pretty disrespectful to both the real world and the work that the creators are doing to give depth to the story, especially since that depth is frequently very funny and self-aware. There's more going on here than just someone sitting down and writing Robot Hitler, you know? That said, there's a reason that comparison's so easy. World War II does, after all, loom pretty large in pop culture, and those parallels are really easy to draw --- there's a reason the dudes in Star Wars are called "stormtroopers."
All of which is to say that the Decepticon Justice Division has more than a whiff of the SS about them.
Don't get me wrong, they're still very much capital-letter Playsets And Toys --- one of them even has a little chamber on his chest that you can put other Transformers into and melt them down, which sticks out as a toyetic action feature even in a book where literally everyone is a robot who can turn into a vehicle --- but Roberts, Milne and Roche give them a sinister and genuinely frightening quality that echoes a lot of that stuff without ever having to make a literal or heavy-handed comparison. It really comes through with Tarn, the terrifying leader of the DJD, who has the ability to literally talk people to death. Stop me if this starts to sound familiar, but he's awfully fond of quoting the ideological writing of his faction's leader, which propelled him to popularity before the war:
Tarn and the DJD end up targeting a group of scavengers who are plotting their return to Cybertron, and possibly defect, depending on who won the war. The scavengers are essentially the Kelly's Heroes of the Decepticons, except that instead of a cache of Nazi gold, they run across a spaceship shaped like a giant Decepticon logo that contains Grimlock, the most frustrating of all Transformers. I mean, really, if you could be a giant robot T-Rex, why would you ever not be a giant robot T-Rex? What is even the point of Transforming at that point?
Anyway, point is, they're terrifying.
It is amazing what you can get away with when your entire cast is made up of robots. Seriously, I was in a store earlier today that had this book shelved in the kids section next to Uncle Scrooge. Let me know if the Beagle Boys ever bust out whatever the hell that thing is.
These particular plot threads don't quite connect in this issue, but there is a thematic connection that comes from Tailgate, who you may remember as the Transformer that literally slept through a war that devastated his home planet and lasted for four million years. Since the crew of the Lost Light is split between Autobots and Decepticons, he feels like he should pick a side, and the person he goes to to find out which side he should pick is Cyclonus. In other words, he gets the story from the Decepticon point of view and decides that they had a pretty good point, something that doesn't sit well with the Autobots running the show. They decide on a history lesson.
This is another one of those things where Roberts decides to drop a whole bunch of world-building stuff by just listing off the names of events that I know nothing about --- this is another piece of the story where the Simanzi Massacre is mentioned, and it's also the point where he actually uses the word "pogrom," which is as far as he goes towards making those Nazi parallels explicit in the text --- and that's something that could easily feel boring. It's something that usually sticks out to me about bad fantasy novels, that there's so much talking about, like, the seven keys of Northfoot or how werewolves were outlawed at the Ninth Council of Staves or whatever, but here, it's presented in a way that's not only engaging, but makes me want to know more.
God help me, but these comics are so good that I want to know more about the history of Cybertron.
Oh, and it turns out Fortress Maximus is a place and a dude. Here's what Willis told me:
Fortress Maximus was a 2-foot tall toy that transformed from a guy into both a city and a battlestation, and the cartoon treated him as such. (also, his head transformed into a guy, and that guy's head also transformed into a guy) But when the original Marvel comics were told they had to put him in their stories, they decided to shrink him and just make him a normal Optimus Prime-sized character, because it's kind of difficult to write a city-sized dude as the leader of your group of car people. And as a result, the dude-sized version of Fortress Maximus became more popular. He had a personality, after all, while the cartoon's city-sized guy did not. (The cartoon gave screentime to his head-robot instead.) And so IDW's Fortress Maximus is kind of sprouted out of that development. Their Fortress Maximus is a normal sized guy who is not a city because not only is James Roberts from the UK where they grew up entirely on the Marvel stuff instead of the cartoon, but it's just damn easier to have him be a character in a story if he's not the size of New York. I think Fortress Maximus was put in charge of the prisons in IDW so that his name still sort of made sense.
Act 4 Power Rankings:
- Tailgate - Of my two favorites, he's the one who manages to get through this arc with his head intact, and yet I still have more sympathy for him.
- Ratchet - Well give the man a hand!
- Mighty Mega Puncher - I didn't mention this above because you should really see it for yourself, but I swear I will buy a toy of this guy if it exists. I'm not even close to kidding.
- Rodimus - Decided that the best solution to a problem was to cram four million years of war crimes into a Snapchat video and then beam it directly into someone's head. Making Bumblebee look pretty good by comparison.
- Fortress Maximus - Place or dude, man. Pick a side. And none of this tiny dude who lives in a big dude who is also a place stuff!