The Transformed Man, Act 13: Dark Prelude
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, it's the last stop before Dark Cybertron as Swerve continues to be better than everyone.
Transformers Spotlight: Dark Prelude
Story: James Roberts (Orion Pax, Trailcutter, Hoist), John Barber (Thundercracker, Bumblebee), Nick Roche (Megatron)
Art: Steve Kurth and Juan Castro (Orion Pax), Chee (Thundercracker), Nick Roche (Megatron), David Daza (Bumblebee), Matt Frank (Trailcutter), Agustin Padilla (Hoist)
Colors: J. Aburtov and Graphikslava (Orion Pax), Ronda Pattison (Thundercracker), Len O'Grady (Megatron), Zac Atkinson (Bumblebee), Thomas Deer (Trailcutter) and Joana Lafuente (Hoist)
Letters: Shawn Lee
We're just about to hit the big Dark Cybertron crossover between Robots in Disguise and More Than Meets The Eye, and I'm gonna be real with you for a second here, folks: I am not quite sure what exactly is going on. Don't get me wrong, I have read and enjoyed every issue of both books so far, but we're at the point now where we've got Metrotitans, robot wasps, space bridges, combiners, King Starscream and a bunch of other words that I would not have been using three months ago.
I'm sure it'll all make sense when we get there, but just to make sure, I went ahead and picked up Dark Prelude, marking the second time I've paid full price for a Transformers story since this little experiment began. Several readers recommended it as being a necessary piece of the puzzle, six seemingly unrelated Transformers Spotlight one-shots that apparently lay a lot of the groundwork for what we're going to get in the crossover --- hence the title.
First up, Roberts, Kurth and Castro's Orion Pax:
Pax, for those of you just joining us, is the robot cop who eventually became Optimus Prime, and based on what I've heard, I have the sneaking suspicion that this story is almost entirely based around explaining why there was a story set before the war where Pax just looked like regular ol' Optimus Prime instead of the era-specific (and visibly mouthed) design that he'd been given elsewhere. The explanation: He was given a new body for a very specific mission involving a hostage exchange with the Decepticons.
Even though it feels like it's rooted in continuity bookkeeping, it's still pretty fun, and I'm surprised at how much I'm liking Optimus Prime as a character. Maybe it's just the color scheme, but he actually feels like he's got a little bit of Superman in him --- or at least as much Superman as one can have while being a truck that shoots people with a giant gun, but you know what I mean. He comes off as someone who genuinely wants to save everyone and make things better for the entire world, but got forced into this massive conflict where there's no other way out but to fight, and it makes for a really interesting character.
I've said it before, but until I read these comics, my only experience with Optimus Prime as a character was seeing a really terrible movie where he shot a firetruck voiced by Leonard Nimoy in the back of the head as he was crawling away and then declared that he was doing it for freedom!
This version of Pax, on the other hand, is a lot more concerned with trying to help people without just slaughtering them because they're wearing a purple badge instead of a red one.
The story introduces us --- well, me --- to two concepts that are going to be showing up again over the course of the Prelude stories. First, Alpha Trion, a robot so old that he has stuck what appears to be a bedsheet to his face to simulate having a long gray beard.
I don't know why that's even more ridiculous than Minimus Ambus having a metal mustache welded to his face, but it definitely is. It's adorable. Anyway, Trion is an ancient philosopher and explorer who once palled around with Metroplex, and he's the real target of the "hostage exchange," because Megatron is attempting to hunt down Metrotitans and harvest their space bridge technology.
The second big element is the Rust Spot, a massive and actively hostile region of Cybertron that's basically a D&D challenge suitable for a party of 10th-level Autobots. It's literally corrosive and defies navigation systems, but it's also riddled with underground tunnels perfect for enemy lairs, and I can't imagine that we won't be seeing it again in the future, if Bumblebee and Co. are still wandering around Cybertron after their exile after Dark Cybertron finishes.
The second story, Barber and Chee's Thundercracker, picks up the thread of the Decepticons hunting down the Metrotitans that'll run through the rest of the book:
It's a pretty simple story about Thundercracker, a Decepticon with a conscience who seems like he joined up for the ideology of self-determination and rebellion against the fascist, classist government under the Senate, only to find himself surrounded by endless cruelty with no way to get out. And really, that's pretty much it. A nice character piece, but, well, I don't quite feel moved to run out and track down a Thundercracker action figure, no matter how much fun it is to say his truly goofy name.
After that is Roche's Megatron, which is less about Megatron himself and more about just how much that dude hates Starscream. Just hates him so much.
Oddly enough, I'm coming away from these stories feeling the exact opposite ways about Megatron and Optimus, in that the more I see of Megatron, the less I enjoy him as a character.
I've noted before that the absence of the two characters is one of the driving forces of the status quo in both books, and that as someone who started reading with only a pretty tangential knowledge of the franchise, that was something that was really exciting to me, and the books have really delivered on that promise. Yes, there might be a flashback story with Optimus or a big crossover where Megatron comes back to terrorize the last remnants of Cybertron, but those stories aren't really about them. The focus is always on Rodimus and the crew of the Lost Light, or on Bumblebee's desperate attempt to hold society together. They're not really the focus.
That said, I've had a pretty good time reading about Optimus every time he's shown up --- especially in Shadowplay --- but Megatron feels like diminishing returns. The weird thing is, I love it when people are talking about him, these bits and pieces of this charismatic force who had a good point at the start and then tore the galaxy apart for four million years in a search for power. He's great as this figure who looms over everything, this terrifying spectre of the war. When he's actually in the comic, though, he loses some of that mystery --- mystery that, in all honesty, is probably just there for me as someone who knew nothing about him going into the stories.
That's not a knock on Nick Roche here, or on what Barber and Griffith did in City On Fire. They're both perfectly fine and enjoyable stories, but after being legitimately terrified by Overlord and enjoyably creeped out by Pharma, Megatron just didn't land for me. There are still a lot of pretty great lines, though.
Dude is cold.
Next up is Barber and Daza's Bumblebee, and again, it's a pretty basic character piece about Bumblebee trying, and eventually succeeding, in this one isolated instance that will never be repeated, at living up to Optimus Prime's legacy as Autobot Leader.
One thing to note about this story is that it's set during the Transformers' time on Earth, and oh brother do I not like Bumblebee's Mustang design. Again, I feel really weird about being attached to particular character designs after such a short time reading these comics, but it turns out I like that guy a whole lot more when he's a little round car instead of a cool one. I mean, I get that when you turn into a hatchback, then everywhere you go you might get laughed at, but when he's that car, he's laid back! He's got an eight track, and a spare tire in the back seat (but that's flat).
After that, we've got Roberts and Frank's Trailcutter, and more than anything else in this book, it feels like a really great single-issue story from MTMTE.
The focus is, of course, on Trailcutter --- who changes his name from "Trailbreaker" for what I assure you are reasons completely unrelated to the difficulty of copyrighting a generic term --- a crew member on the Lost Light who's very upset about being defined solely by his ability to project force fields. In one of the ship's typical incidents that's a precise 50/50 mix of goofy and potentially tragic, the entire crew ends up frozen just as a Decepticon ship arrives to reclaim one of Metroplex's lost thumbs, and Trailcutter's the only one left who can still move --- but without the ability to use his force field.
It's a pretty great little adventure story, based on a really clever premise and featuring that perfect mix of comedy and danger that's made MTMTE such a great book. Back when the Chromedome/Rewind stuff went down and shredded my heart to confetti, I talked to a friend about how the book launched with a cover homage to the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire Justice League, and how much like that book it is thematically, with the screwball sitcom comedy that can suddenly give way to thrilling action and gut-punching emotional beats. This story, fortunately, is heavy on the first two, and it's well worth checking out.
The final entry is pretty similar in tone: Roberts and Padilla's Hoist. Really, though, the star of the show here is definitely Swerve, who takes a moment to explain his six greatest fears:
That line about Combiners is A+ material, not even kidding.
Swerve's sixth fear is Tarn, the head of the Decepticon Justice Division who can talk people to death, who just happens to be on this obscure and seemingly abandoned planet trying to murder everyone. Eventually, it turns out that the planet is protected by a "Phobia Shield" that brings everyone's worst fears to life.
You see where this is going, right?
This is where Hoist comes in. As everyone passes out due to injuries, their fears are replaced by someone else's, so he ends up having to knock out the rest of the crew of his mission so that he can be confronted with his own, relatively harmless fear: Being the sole survivor of a crash trapped, alone, on the Rust Spot.
And with that, the book comes full circle. So what do we have from all of these stories? The Rust Spot, Megatron's desire to rip space bridge technology out of Metroplex and the other Titans, a bunch of Decepticons who have hunted down Titans to that end, and Swerve basically being the best. With all that in place, hopefully Dark Cybertron will make a little more sense.
Act 13 Power Rankings:
- Swerve - May have officially become my favorite thanks to his appearance in Hoist's story, so I imagine he will be brutally murdered roughly four seconds into Dark Cybertron.
- Trailcutter - I predict Force Field Face will be the new theme for this fall's selfies.
- Orion Pax - As much as I think origins for stuff like, say, Barry Allen's Bowtie are silly and unnecessary, having Optimus Prime go on one mission with his face uncovered and get immediately stabbed in the mouth with a buzzaw blade is pretty great.
- Bumblebee - Always some Mustangs tryin' to ice skate uphill.
- Overmegasixwave - How did we get through this entire Combiner Wars line of toys without that guy showing up on the shelves, huh?