The Transformed Man, Act 8: Under Cold Blue Stars
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, things get way too real and I catch a whole lot of feelings about these stupid robots.
Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye vol. 4
Story: James Roberts
Art: Alex Milne, Brendan Cahill, Guido Guidi, Agustin Padilla, Atilio Rojo, Brian Shearer, John Wycough, Juan castro, Marc Deering, Phyllis Novin, Jose Aviles
Colors: Josh Burcham, Joana Lafuente, Josh Perez
Letters: Tom B. Long
Editor: John Barber
This is one of the best comic books I've ever read.
I don't mean that it's my favorite Transformers story --- that honor would probably go to "Shadowplay" and its incredibly fun robot-filled mashup of Law & Order and National Treasure --- and I don't even mean that this it's the best arc of Transformers. I mean that if you asked me to tell you about comics that were crafted so well, with characters so realized and engaging that they hit me like a ton of bricks on an emotional level and made me jealous of how smoothly they were put together, this one would be on the same list as Suicide Squad, Justice League International and that issue of Thor where Skurge stands alone at Gjallerbru.
Because this is the story that took me from not caring about the Transformers at all to literally crying over Chromedome and Rewind in the span of about two months.
Admittedly, I am a notoriously easy mark when it comes to comic books that make me cry. You can't even mention the end of Grant Morrison and Howard Porter's JLA to me without me getting that familiar quiver in my lip, and it wasn't that long ago that I almost started bawling about the death of a minor character in GI Joe, but that's a little different, if only because I have decades of experience with those characters. Two months ago in this very column, I described Chromedome by saying, "I know literally nothing about this guy," and now I know so much about him that reading this story wrecked me harder than any piece of fiction has in a good long while.
And it all starts with slapstick sight gags.
The lead story in this volume is all about the crew of the Lost Light taking on a group of Decepticons that have taken over the capital city of a nearby planet after possibly kidnapping the robotic mystics they were looking for in the last arc. As you might expect, everything goes horribly wrong, and while the Autobots win, a bunch of them are left injured, including Rewind and Cyclonus.
It's at this point that we start to find out a little more about Chromedome and Rewind's relationship. They've been in the background for the past few arcs, and while they've been presented as something that sure did feel like feel like an old married couple, particularly with Rewind's nagging concern over Chromedome's addiction to injecting, it also seemed ambiguous enough that you could pretty easily file it under "best friends" or even "long-time comrades." These are, after all, robots who just fought a war that lasted four million years, so one imagines that creates a whole lot of pretty strong bonds.
When Rewind's injured and First Aid refers to Chromedome as his "Conjunx Endura," however, the subtext makes the full jump to text.
One thing that's really great about this is that Roberts has First Aid define "Conjunx Endura" as "significant other." Short of "husband" and "wife," two words that could arguably not mean a whole lot to a race of robots that seem to not have much of a concept of gender, let alone a gender binary (more on that later), that's a term that has zero ambiguity. It's not "partner," and given Roberts' tendency to write with a British accent, it's not "mate" ether. "Conjunx" is literally the Latin word for "spouse," and they even go on to introduce a different phrase for best friends, "Amica Endura," so that there's no doubt at all about what Chromedome and Rewind are to each other. They're married.
To be honest, that was a little surprising. I've gotten to the point where I've realized that the whole gimmick of this book is that the Transformers are, for all intents and purposes, People Who Just Happen To Be Robots rather than the other way around, but still. I had never considered that they would --- or even could --- form romantic relationships, especially given that it's a comic where the entire cast is at least coded as male, if only because they all use he/him pronouns. Though there have been advances, I think we're all still used to comics (and all media, really) ignoring the possibility of same-sex relationships even among casts where we're only presented with one gender. The usual tactic has always been subtext, hints and innuendo, so seeing it spelled out as explicitly as possible is a pretty welcome change --- and not one I was expecting from the Transformers.
It's worth noting that Rewind and Chromedome aren't presented as unique in this regard, either --- the same issue ends with Tailgate and Cyclonus, who have had a pretty uneasy relationship and seem to have been brought together almost entirely by virtue of being relics from Cybertrons' pre-war era, starting in on a similar relationship with each other.
The focus on ideas about gender and the Transformers' understanding of it continues into the next arc, too, when everyone gets to go on shore leave at a planet with the hilariously on-the-nose name of Hedonia --- and in case you were worried that this wouldn't be self-aware, there's also a reference to "Cuddlex, in the Benevlon sector." There's a bit that references the idea that 4,000,000 years of war have given the Transformers a bad reputation throughout the galaxy, and in this case it involves certain sectors of the planet being inhospitable to robots. So instead, they have to send in their "Holomatter Avatars," solid holograms that, according to Brainstorm, are made to more accurately reflect their inner psyches.
In other words, we get to see the Transformers as humans for the first time in the series --- well, second if you count Ratchet's damaged avatar from the second arc --- and it goes about like you'd expect. Rung, the psychiatrist, is a professor-looking fellow, Swerve is a stocky party animal in a Hawaiian shirt, Tailgate is a literal tiny precious baby. And then you get to Ultra Magnus, the 'bot who never smiles, the Duly Appointed Enforcer of the Tyrest Accord, and you find out his psyche is most accurately reflected by a teenage girl who looks like the protagonist of a Pokémon game.
UPDATE: I've been informed that Magnus has actually based his avatar on a human friend of his from his time on Earth, Verity Carlo. Per the TF Wiki: "Something happened to Verity when she was a child, though, something that hurt her so badly that she refuses to form a serious bond with anyone or show any sign of fear. It's been with her so long that she abandoned several foster homes and (presumably) welcoming families when she was in her mid-teens. Because of that hurt Verity sees most people as marks, dupes or threats. Fear of getting hurt again keeps her moving when she maybe ought to settle down, and makes her abrasive and superior." It's pretty obvious why Magnus would identify with her so much, and once again, it's actually even more sad than I thought.
It's not really played as a big reveal, other than being a good-sized panel after a page turn, and it's never mentioned by any of the other characters. In fact, the only thing that does get mentioned reinforces the idea of the Transformers being only vaguely aware of gender as a concept. When everyone's talking about the names that go with their holomatter avatars, Rung mentions that his form doesn't really go with the name the program assigned to it: Mary Sue.
Aside from that bit of metacommentary, though, it's never addressed, which raises a lot of questions about how the Transformers treat gender, at least for someone who's only reading the books the way I am. I mean, I know Arcee exists --- and that we're getting closer to Windblade showing up in what I'm reading --- but that's about it. Everything else seems like it's pretty open to interpretation, and given that these are characters who are literally defined by having mutable forms, there's a whole lot of interpreting to do. Fortunately, my friend Charlotte recently wrote a little bit on the subject, and pointed me in the direction of this piece by Rachel Stevens, too. Both are well worth checking out.
Also, just for the record, nobody talks about Whirl's avatar, either.
Three other things of note happen in that story: The first is that Ultra Magnus gets drunk, which is amazing.
The second is that we find out that Tailgate isn't who he says he is --- and what's more, that Cyclonus creates a massive distraction to keep everyone else from finding out, too. It seems there's a reason that nobody went looking for him during his four million years stuck sleeping in a hole, and it's because he was, for lack of a better word, a nobody. He wasn't even supposed to be on the Ark, he was just there to clean up before it launched --- and that goes a long way towards explaining why he decided he wanted to be a Decepticon.
Pre-war society on Cybertron was ruled by what's always referred to as a "Functionist" society, which is basically a five-dollar word that means that whatever you can turn into determines your job and, with it, your life and social class. If you turn into a bulldozer, you're in construction, no matter what you wanted to do. There's a rigid class system in place --- a class system that kept Tailgate at the bottom --- which was, in the beginning, what the Decepticons were rebelling against. Poor, precious Tailgate has been lying this whole time, and almost got himself killed because he told everyone he was a Bomb Disposal expert.
The third thing is that Swerve gets way too real.
I thought that was going to be the most emotional I got reading this. But no. Then we got to Overlord.
I don't think I've mentioned Overlord that much in these columns, but the short version is that he's this giant, massively evil, completely indestructible Decepticon that's been hiding in the basement of the Lost Light ever since it launched --- and he's also the one who tortured Fortress Maximus when Max was a prisoner of war. When these issues roll around, we finally find out why he's there: Brainstorm and Drift brought him aboard on orders from Prowl in order to find out the secret of his invulnerability. And to do that, they need Chromedome.
See, Chromedome's a mnemosurgeon, who has the ability (and a set of needles that pop out of his fingers) to jack into someone's memories and experience, alter and erase them. That's the "injecting" that Rewind's so concerned about, because while he's very good at it, it's also very bad for him. The idea is that he can go into Overlord's memories and figure out just what it was that made him so powerful and invulnerable, so that the Autobots can make their own invulnerable super-warriors. There's actually a flashback to a conversation that Prowl and Chromedome have about the weird power imbalance, trying to figure out why the most powerful robots are always the bad guys.
The reason, of course, is that it makes for a better story if the heroes are outmatched, but, well, there's only so-much meta-commentary one story can have, you know?
Unfortunately for Chromedome, the rest of the crew, me, and anyone else who hasn't systematically destroyed their ability to feel emotions, things go very badly, very quickly. It turns out that the link that connects Overlord and Chromedome can work both ways if there's a shared memory, and when Chromedome lets it slip that he actually has met Overlord before, Overlord uses that to take control. He breaks out and traps Chromedome in the same temporal stasis field that was keeping him slowed down --- five seconds in the field equates to half an hour outside of it --- and leaves, promising that he's going to kill everyone on board.
Which is pretty much what he does.
It's fairly brutal, even by the standards of a comic that had a character blow his own face off and played it only slightly more seriously than Wile E. Coyote being hit with an anvil. There was a moment when I was reading this, for instance, that I realized Pipes hadn't actually been killed by Fortress Maximus like I originally thought. He's up and around and writing a letter to his friend back home on Cybertron, and I had an actual moment of being happy to see him. "Oh hey, it's Pipes! He's okay!"
Pipes is not okay. He dies on the next page, still thinking about the message he was trying to send to his friend. "Having a wonderful time. Bye."
I thought that was the most emotional I'd get reading this comic.
That's just the start of it. Ratchet gets thrashed, Rodimus gets beaten up, Ultra Magnus gets stabbed through the spark, and the only way the Autobots get an edge is through a post-hypnotic suggestion implanted by Chromedome when he was messing around in Overlord's brain. The plan is to get him back in his cell and detach it from the ship, leaving him drifting through space with the stasis field still active. The problem, though, is that the door is jammed and can only be closed from the inside, and it's only open wide enough for a smaller Transformer to get through. A Transformer like Rewind.
So Rewind gets into Overlord's cell, says goodbye to his Conjunx Endura, and slams the door shut as Chromedome is reaching for him. Chromedome loses an arm, but even worse, Rewind's trapped in there with a raging, virtually indestructible supervillan, which means that Chromedome can either let them drift off into space together, or make the choice to blow them both up with the ship's cannons.
I thought that would be the most emotional that I got reading this, too. Turns out this book was just getting started.
The days that follow find an official inquiry into why Overlord was on the ship that sees Drift excommunicated from the Autobots and exiled into space, Ultra Magnus laying on a slab in the medical bay with a shrinking spark and no way to save him, and a funeral for Rewind and the others who got killed. But it also finds Chromedome being strangely calm about the whole thing. And then you find out why.
Brainstorm visits Chromedome and starts talking about other robots, Mach, Pivot and Scattergun, robots that Chromedome doesn't recognize until Brainstorm explains that Rewind isn't Chromedome's first Conjunx Endura. The others were, too, before they died, and before Chromedome, the brilliant mnemosurgeon who has the ability to alter anyone's memories, even his own, made himself forget about them.
That's the thing about a war , let alone one that lasts for millions of years: It has a toll. There are losses, and with those losses comes that unimaginable pain and grief of losing someone that you love. For Chromedome, there was a choice, and it's a choice that anyone who's ever felt that has wished they could have: To just turn it off, to be able to forget it. And not only has Chromedome had this choice, he's made that choice before. And now he's going to do it again.
Chromedome's mnemosurgery occasionally comes off as a metaphor for addiction, and given how so much of it comes from Rewind telling him to "stop injecting" before he gets hurt, I have to assume that's on purpose. Brainstorm even mentions the intensity of Chromedome's personality, that when he falls for someone, he falls hard. He becomes addicted to them, dependent on them, and when they're taken away from him --- and in this case, when Rewind was taken away from him by something that was at least partially his fault --- it's too much to take. He falls back on another addiction, injecting himself to forget about it, killing the pain and then moving on to the next one.
And even though he promises that he won't do it this time, Brainstorm tells him that's what he says every time. But here, he leaves him with Rewind's last words, encoded on a data drive that he threw out of the cell right before it closed.
This is played beautifully and brilliantly. Rewind was, after all, an archivist with millions of years of footage stored in his brain, so even though he doesn't have time to give his last words, he's able to cut it together from others:
That was where I lost it. Specifically, when Optimus Prime told him to be brave and strong. That's when this comic book about cars that turn into robots broke my heart.
And when you realize that Rewind is using everyone else's words because he doesn't have time to say them himself, and when the only piece of footage that's actually of him, speaking directly to Chromedome, is this one?
Chromedome decides not to alter his memories.
Act 8 Power Rankings
- Chromedome and Rewind (tie) - a bloo a bloo a bloo bloo
- Whirl - Is there any way he could just be a one-eyed little girl with uzis all the time? Is there a figure of that I can buy to support this idea?
- Swerve - Knocks Tailgate out of the coveted Transformer-With-Whom-I-Most-Identify spot by getting a little too real.
- Ultra Magnus - I kind of skipped over this part, but I think he might have died four times in this comic?
- James Roberts - I will literally never forgive him for making me feel things about these damn robots.