The Transformed Man, Act 24: The One Where They Go To Earth
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.
Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye #40 - 43
Welcome to the final installment of The Transformed Man. With this set of issues, I'm all caught up, and while I've said it before, the joke of that title turned out to be a pretty accurate representation of what happened over the course of the last 24 columns. I've gone from not caring about the franchise at all to being the kind of person who has Cyclonus and Tailgate on his desk and may --- may --- take a couple of breaks during the work day to make them kiss.
Admittedly, I still have a little trouble telling these robots apart, and I'm not quite at the point where I want to go back to that original Marvel series, but as far as the current run of Transformers books are concerned, I am all in --- especially when it comes to More Than Meets The Eye. You might have already guessed it, but I rearranged my alternating schedule back around the time of Combiner Wars so that I could make sure to save these four issues for last.
And it turns out that we're going out on some good ones. There's no definitive through-line for these stories. Instead, in typical MTMTE fashion, they're tying up loose ends and setting the stage for what's to come later --- when they're not doing their level best to shatter the fourth wall, I mean.
First up is "The Permanent Revolution," where we catch up with our terrifying friends from the Decepticon Justice Division for an issue that is all over the map in terms of tone. It starts with one of their typically horrific murders --- this time of a former Decepticon who has started to worship Sparkeaters --- and then briefly becomes a workplace comedy about all of these shockingly violent killers getting demerits and having to present their Personal Improvement Plans at their annual performance review. And then, if that wasn't enough to give you tonal whiplash, it ends with them recruiting a whole bunch of other Decepticons so that they can just straight up go to war with the Autobots.
The thing is, it actually really works. The shift in tone underscores that for Tarn and the DJD, the horrific has become mundane, and their ritual executions are just another piece of the job for them --- a job that they certainly enjoy, but a job nonetheless. When we finally get their reaction to Megatron defecting, renouncing the Decepticons (using the words of Optimus Prime, no less), we see a shift into something that's truly ominous and threatening, something that promises to be on a scale that we haven't seen yet.
And since we actually have seen them murder everyone on the Lost LIght before (or, you know, their quantum duplicates, same thing), that's pretty horrifying.
This is also the issue where the last veneer of subtlety was brushed away from the DJD. Back when they were first introduced, several readers made sure to mention that they --- and Megatron --- were loosely based on communism in the Soviet Union, and if that hasn't been made clear by now, this is the point where Roberts and Hayato are darn near shouting it from the rooftops. There's the ruthless stamping out of a religion that literally has one member, and if that wasn't enough, the issue's title is a straight up Karl Marx quote.
And what's good about that is, even with the influence right there on their robotic sleeves, it never feels like it's co-opting something. It's an influence, not an allegory, and that makes a big difference in making something work within its own universe.
After that, it's back to the Lost Light for the trial of Brainstorm, secret time-traveling Decepticon spy:
It turns out that Brainstorm was only kind of a Decepticon, a double agent who was playing both sides to get the resources that he needed to build his time machine. Since he wasn't the version who got the entire crew killed --- there's those quantum duplicates again --- and since it's hard to put someone on trial for being a Decepticon when Megatron is the co-captain of the ship, he gets off, although the time machine is set to be destroyed.
From there, it turns into a surprisingly moving little story about Ratchet planning to leave the ship, but having trouble figuring out how to say goodbye until he sets about solving a couple of minor mysteries, like Ultra Magnus's missing datapad. It turns out that Ten, the bouncer at Swerve's who used to be one of Tyrest's Legislators --- the robots who, as one reader put it, only speak in crimes --- has been quietly building action figures of his favorite members of the crew and leaving them as gifts.
And what's better: his faves are also my faves.
If you'd told me a year ago that I would be getting all misty-eyed when a toy robot builds a bunch of little toy robots to show the other toy robots that they're friends... well, I probably would've believed you if you'd phrased it like that. If you'd said they were Transformers, though, I would've laughed you out of the building.
The next two issues, "The Sensuous Frame" and "The Frail Gaze" are the ones where things start to get weird, because it's the one that just straight up becomes an issue of Phonogram. No, seriously: By the end of the issue, they are literally having a dance party set to Belle and Sebastian and Dexy's Midnight Runners.
To be honest, though, I have my doubts that Kieron Gillen would ever go from the Smiths to Huey Lewis back to back. Someone oughtta ask that in an interview.
Anyway, the main plot concerns Thunderclash, the monumentally heroic Autobot hero who's been on the edge of death since before the series started, and how everyone's throwing him a "Pre-Wake" party so that he can attend his own funeral. This being the book that it is, though, things are complicated by the arrival of invisible "Personality Ticks" that can be poisoned by an overdose of charisma, and who spontaneously combust when Rodimus and Megatron show up at the same time.
The real meat of the story, though, is getting to meet Nautica's best friend from college, Firestar:
The awkwardness of the scene is amazingly cringeworthy, and it only gets more so when Nautica reveals that having a Best Friend is a really, really big deal on Caminus, to the point where not having one (or rejecting the one you have) can lead to being ostracized from society.
The way that plays out, with those ideas of insecurity and trying to catch up with the people you know from your school days, and how meeting up with them can make you feel like you're that same kid again, that you've lost all the progress and accomplishments that you've made in your life, is a fantastic bit of character work that I think a lot of readers can relate to. And that it ends the way that it does, not with Firestar and Nautica pitted against each other, but with each of them coming to a better understanding, is pretty great.
But then we get to #43, "The One Where They Go To Earth."
Ever since he blew his own face off, Swerve has taken a back seat to the bigger adventures that the Lost Light's crew have found themselves in. All we've really seen are bits, pieces and recap pages and the occasional reference to the fact that he's been mainlining the entire history of Earth's culture, with an emphasis on sitcoms.
When he's discovered in his room with evidence that he hasn't moved in months, though, it becomes apparent that the Swerve who's been serving drinks down at the bar was a holomatter avatar that he's been projecting while he stays at home, basically comatose and obsessing over Earth TV. When he gets so sick that his body starts to shut down, he ends up projecting an entire imaginary version of Earth, so the crew has to go get him back --- and to do that, they each take up their own Holomatter avatars.
The holomatter avatars are, incidentally, one of the most brilliant ideas in a book that's full of brilliant ideas. The whole hook of the series is that they're Just Regular People Who Happen To Be Robots, who go through the same sort of relatable things that we do, and while the artists (particularly Milne) do an amazing job with "humanizing" them, the Avatars are a great way to get all of that information across visually in a single panel.
It's a very sort of "fan-art" thing to do --- pretty much anything that involves non-human characters is going to spark a series of pieces where they're reimagined as humans --- but that's because it's fun and interesting to try figuring out what a person looks like based almost entirely off of their personality. It takes all of these things that we recognize as character traits and makes them work visually, and having the actual mechanics of the plot device being that it's not controlled consciously. It's what makes getting Scowling Victorian Lady Cyclonus and Actual '80s Karate Movie Character Rodimus (seen above with Detective Nightbeat and Friendly Engineer Nautica) so great.
And when you find out what Megatron looks like?
It's pretty, pretty great.
The whole issue is a solid little bit of storytelling, and it's the kind of thing that feels like the last diversion before everything gets really, really terrible for everyone involved. Not that MTMTE has ever really gotten away from diversions, but this is one of those stories where everything's lighthearted and fun, which ends with the kind of tear-jerking reveal that they're all best friends...
...which is basically the storytelling equivalent of telling someone to stand on a big red X under a suspiciously anvil-shaped shadow.
And since I'm hooked on this stuff enough to be sticking around, that big red X is exactly where I want to be.
Final Act Power Rankings:
- Tailgate - LITERALLY THE BEST TRANSFORMER AND I WILL BROOK NO ARGUMENT.
- Nautica - Was already one of my faves thanks to her magic wrench, but her encounter with her college friend was one of the most relatable moments in the entire series.
- Rodimus - The Marty McFly vest was one thing, but the headband is what did it.
- Megatron - Actual footage of Megatron looking at the Holomatter Avatar influenced by his psyche.
- Ratchet - Normally the #5 spot goes to someone that I didn't particularly like, but Ratchet's going here because he made me feel emotions, which we all know is unforgivable.