The Transformed Man, Act 16: Chaos Theory
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, we're heading back to 2011 for "Chaos Theory" and the first meeting of Optimus Prime and Megatron!
Chaos Theory (Transformers #22 - 23)
Story: James Roberts
Art: Alex Milne
Colors: Joana Lafuente
Letters: Shawn Lee
Editor: Andy Schmidt
Before we continue on with the post-Dark Cybertron stories in Robots in Disguise, More Than Meets The Eye and the first Windblade miniseries --- something I'm extremely eager to get to so I can find out whether or not I made a good decision when I bought my first Transformer --- a lot of readers suggested that I go back and check out "Chaos Theory."
It's easy to see why. When we left off in current continuity, Megatron had finally realized that maybe running around turning yourself into a tank and trying to murder Transformer Superman for four million years isn't a great way to win hearts and minds, and decided to officially become an Autobot by picking up Bumblebee's badge and claiming it for himself.
Just so we're clear on this, literally being the losing general of a 4,000,000-year war that ruined the reputation of your entire race across the galaxy and resulted in countless deaths and genuinely atrocious war crimes still doesn't make you as bad at being a leader as Bumblebee.
Anyway, Megatron's going to stick around for a while in MTMTE, which is one of the reasons Chaos Theory is so important despite being a two-issue fill-in in the middle of someone else's run: It's written by MTMTE writer James Roberts, drawn by Alex Milne, and tells the story of Optimus Prime's first meeting with Megatron.
I've mentioned before that Megatron The Evil Villain is a character that I'm not really all that excited about, but Megatron The Pacifist Revolutionary Whose Rise As A Brutal Tyrant Is Actually His Tragic Fall is one that I'm way more interested in reading about, especially when he's contrasted with Optimus Prime. The idea that these are two characters who used to be friends, who believed the same things about their corrupt society and had the same desire to change things, but ended up just hating each other for millions of years is actually a pretty good hook. And that's what this story delivers on more than anything else.
The narrative is split between two periods, the present day --- well, the "present day" of four years ago, but you get the idea --- where Megatron has been captured by the Autobots, and a flashback to the days before the war when Megatron was a miner spending his off days writing manifestos.
The hook of the present-day storyline is that Megatron's capture means that he can stand trial for war crimes, which means that Optimus, as the leader of the prosecution, will have to choose between whether to push for life imprisonment or death. Eventually, at the end of the story, Optimus will allow Megatron to choose his own fate, and he chooses death. Spoiler Warning, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it's not quite going to stick.
As much as the hook of the story is built around that first meeting, the way that their interaction plays out in these scenes is really, really great. I'll admit to being a sucker for a scene where two old enemies put it all aside and talk about their long history as equals, and the way that Roberts builds it through the dialogue of all the times they've tried to kill each other is note perfect. Pair it with Milne's contrast between showing all these brutal battles, the kind that I've gotten used to over the past few months of these robots just tearing each other to pieces, and the shots of them sitting across from each other in that small, stark room trying to have a conversation, and you've got something that's not just great, but really feels like a smart treatment of the history of the characters.
But as the story goes on, that moment of mutual respect is incredibly fleeting, and Megatron goes back to just needling Optimus over and over, increasingly pushing him with his complete and utter lack of remorse --- the same remorse that he'd eventually show at the end of Dark Cybertron.
It's that whole "you made me, I made you!" thing that people always want to do with Batman and the Joker, except, you know, not terrible.
In the end, Megatron pushes Optimus far enough that he throws the switch that fries Megatron with electricity, something that would've killed him if Omega Supreme (within whom everyone seems to be hanging out for the duration of the story) hadn't cut off the current, and then feels really bad about it for the rest of the story.
In the past, as is so often the case, literally everything gets started with Rung.
Back during "Shadowplay," Rewind (RIP) mentioned that Rung had been present for every major event in Cybertronian history, and this has to be the moment that establishes that as the long-running gag that it is. Not only is Rung there for the moment that sparks Megatron's turn from non-violent protest to interplanetary conquest, he's the actual inciting incident. Or at least part of it.
When a couple of bots who are up to no good start making trouble in the neighborhood, they end up throwing an unconscious Rung into the table where Megatron is getting a drink with his fellow miner Impactor (later of the Wreckers), Impactor finally snaps and starts a brawl that ends up seeing the aggressive bots crippled and both Impactor and Megatron arrested.
And that's where things start to get intense.
It turns out that the two robots who were hassling Rung were cadets, and Cybertron's cops are more than willing to write off a few "accidents" when it comes time to arrest the lower classes --- and if the victim of the "accident" just happens to be a loud voice agitating for change, that works out just fine for the people in power. But what complicates matters --- for me at least --- is that the officer planning on killing his (innocent) suspect is Whirl, who will go on to be one of the more entertainingly violent Autobots in MTMTE.
I've known for a while now that Whirl did something in his past that was bad enough to be sentenced to Empurata, the punishment that involves replacing a Transformer's head and hands with the big cyclopean flashlight-head and a pair of pincer claws, but I was surprised that you could go through that and end up still being a cop. I guess that's one of the pitfalls of the functionalist society, that they've sort of boxed themselves into a world where you have to let someone perform the task they were "made" for, even if that person isn't really cut out for the job.
The thing is, seeing Whirl like this, as a cop who's willing to beat a suspect to death in a pretty clear abuse of power, makes his later appearances a whole lot harder to enjoy. Even if you accept Whirl as essentially being the Deadpool of the Autobots, the same kind of ultraviolent, unhinged soldier who spouts comedy lines while he's mercilessly fighting his enemies, this scene gets a little too real for a book about talking cars. Or at least, that's how it feels looking back on it now.
But it does set up a pretty interesting change of causality. Maybe without Megatron, the war doesn't happen, so if Whirl had killed him here instead of being stopped by the new police captain who actually thought his way through the crime, none of the suffering and death of the next four million years takes place. And maybe if that captain hadn't encouraged him to keep up what he was doing, he wouldn't have taken the next step toward armed revolution.
And just who is that captain? No prizes for guessing it's our old pal Orion Pax.
If Megatron's tragedy is that he's an idealist who allowed his end to justify four million years of terrible means, then Optimus Prime's tragedy is that he always tries to do the right thing. The more he shows up in these stories, the more it becomes clear that he can't do anything else, it's just not in his nature. It's why he leaves Cybertron rather than stay to capitalize on his "success" in the war, and in the present-day timeline of this story, it's why he has to understand Megatron, why he offers to end the war with a handshake, and why he has to know that Megatron feels remorse --- and why it's so upsetting to him that he doesn't.
In this story, it's why he arrests Whirl for abuse of power and assaulting a prisoner, and why the Senate, who have employed Whirl for their own nefarious purposes, send a couple of heavies to talk him into letting it slide. When Pax remains incorruptible --- because of course he does, it wouldn't be a tragedy if he didn't --- they come back, breaking Whirl out of prison and killing all the officers under Pax's command while they're at it.
As for Whirl, in something that's as close to a moment of redemption as he's going to get in this story --- he claims that he never asked for it, and gives Pax what feels like a very sincere warning.
If the question is, "What is Orion Pax gonna do," then Roberts and Milne answer it in the most awesome way possible: Pax is going to pick Whirl up, drag him to the Senate, fight his way to the floor and deliver the speech that Megatron never got the chance to.
It's a really amazing scene, and again, it's Pax doing the right thing, railing against this corruption that's all around him and sticking up for the people who don't have the chance to stick up for themselves:
We also get the origin of the term "Autobot" in here, too. I've known for a while that in the IDW continuity, the Decepticons were named for one of Megatron's original treatises on the flaws of their functionalist society, Are You Being Deceived?, but here, we find out that "autobot" is something that those Decepticons call the robots who have accepted their fate, going through the motions like, well, automata.
It comes up earlier in the story, too, in the present-day section where Megatron says that Optimus would've been "just another autobot." Here, though, part of the speech involves Optimus reclaiming the term, declaring himself to be an autonomous robot capable of deciding his own fate, and claiming the term that would eventually define his faction in the war.
In the end, Optimus is dragged out of the senate, but he catches the eye of a new friend who, as we'll find out in "Shadowplay," turns out to be Shockwave, who has Optimus repaired complete with a compartment for the Matrix. That dude has some long-term plans.
Plans that, you know, probably did not include being shot in the face four million years later with both the Power of Friendship and the Power of Barely Contained Loathing.
Act 16 Power Rankings
- Rung - Listen, that Combiner Wars Arcee and her giant sword is great and all, but every San Diego that goes by without a Rung that turns into a very ornate stick is a missed opportunity for con exclusives.
- Optimus Prime - It's really tricky to pull of a character who always does the right thing for the right reasons and still ends up having to deal with all the negative consequences of that while still making him a character you want to read about, but here we are. I guess I'm a dude who's really into Optimus Prime now.
- Megatron - I'm still not sure how much I want to read about a Megatron who may or may not be attempting to (decepti-)con his way into another power grab, but these stories are exactly the kind of complex villainy I demand from villains who can turn into literal guns.
- Everyone Except Whirl
- Whirl - Maybe Cyclonus should've chucked him into that big ol' pit of lava a few issues back.