The Transformed Man, Act 20: Elegant Chaos
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 time travel, parallel universes, and we're perilously close to being all caught up with More Than Meets The Eye!
Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye vol. 7 (#34 - 38)
Story: James Roberts
Art: Alex Milne and Brian Shearer
Colors: Joana Lafuente
Letters: Tom B. Long
Editor: John Barber
One of the great things about More Than Meets The Eye is how quickly characters can become endearing and engaging once the story turns its attention to them. Take Trailcutter, for instance. A couple months ago, I had no idea who he was, but after that Spotlight issue in Dark Prelude and a few pages in the last volume that explored the idea of his insecurity and how it led him to spend his life looking for the bottom of a bottle of Engex until Megatron replaced his ability to get drunk with a new responsibility of being the Lost Light's chief of security, he quickly became a very interesting character. He's someone you can sympathize with, someone who, despite being an alien robot car who can project forcefields, is easy to relate to.
Which basically just means that he's another way for James Roberts and Alex Milne to make you feel sad inside.
There was actually a moment where I thought he might survive this because surely, surely there was no way that all that recent character development was only there to give me a case of the feelings, but no. Even for the Transformers, there's not a whole lot of coming back from the Decepticon Justice Division showing up and tearing your brain out and smashing it against a wall. And honestly? That's kind of great.
I've mentioned this before, but the DJD are phenomenal villains. They're vicious, genuinely terrifying and seemingly unstoppable, and best of all, they're used very, very sparingly. The most we've seen of them has been in the last arc, and even then, they weren't really around --- we just got to see their aftermath, in the form of a Lost Light where everyone on board up to and including Overlord had been viciously and sadistically murdered.
Even here, they only show up briefly --- and even then, it's only two of them --- but I love that it serves as a reminder that they're still out there, and that even Megatron publicly renouncing everything that he's done for the past four million years won't stop them. There's even a scene where the rest of the Autobots try to save what's left of Trailcutter by trying to tell them, and Kaon's response is basically just, "Haha, okay buddy, sure." It's the best kind of slow build, these moments of sheer terror that show you that they're still out there, and that you can never quite be sure that you're safe.
There's a part of me that genuinely hopes that MTMTE runs for like 200 issues and the crew never, ever gets a head-to-head confrontation with the DJD, and that they're always hanging over them, because I'm not really sure if there's any actual conflict that could ever be as satisfying and enjoyable to read as that nagging fear.
But really, they're a pretty small part of what happens in this story, and the rest of it is big.
As you might remember, one of the big reveals of Slaughterhouse was that Brainstorm, the Lost Light's resident mad scientist, was secretly a Decepticon, and that his omnipresent briefcase was actually the key component of a time machine. And now that he's found out, he's jumped back in time four million years. And, you know, if you had to guess what a secret Decepticon would do with a time machine once it was clear that they had truly and irrevocably lost the war, you'd probably come to the same conclusion that Megatron did:
Here's the thing, though: That's not actually the bad part.
The bad part is that whatever Brainstorm has done in the past is already working, creating an alternate history on Cybertron that's already overwriting Rewind's historical database, and while the crew of the Lost Light is currently unaffected, the new timeline is eventually going to overwrite the old one. Which, admittedly, is awfully close to the conflict that drove our last story.
To be honest, it does feel a little repetitive in spots, but I suspect that's by design, given how the story is bookended with Rewind, the sole survivor of his own alternate version of things. In fact, we open with Rewind and Chromedome dealing with the fallout from the fact that each of them watched the other die, and how it's not as easy as it might seem to get back to what passes for normal.
As for that alternate history, it's based around the idea that in the absence of a war, the Functionalists returned to power, imposing a strict social order. It's the same class system that Megatron was initially rebelling against, but magnified and taken to an even more dystopian extreme, to the point where certain classes of alt-mode are declared obsolete and "recalled" in a series of mass genocides.
When you consider that the actual history of the Transformers is a brutal civil war that lasted four million years and resulted in countless deaths, massacres and various atrocities, it's really hard to imagine any kind of alternate reality that would be worse. They're pretty much living in the worst-case scenario already, so actually creating a timeline that makes ours seem better by comparison without literally ending the universe seems like a pretty tough feat - and what makes it impressive is that Roberts and Milne actually manage to do it.
The Functionalist Dystopia is capital-C Creepy, and one of the best parts is that they figured out something that's even worse than Empurata, the procedure that leaves robots with claws for hands and expressionless, single-eyed heads. They just take it two steps further:
Another nice touch is that the backgrounds are littered with these 1984-meets-They Live propaganda signs, and while there are some with messages like "YOU ARE YOUR ALT MODE" and "TAKE PRIDE IN BEING A MEANS TO AN END," the one that's most common is "YOU ARE OUR EYES." So really, when the reveal comes that the Functionalists actually replace the eyes of Transformers returning from off-planet so that they can spy on the entire population, it makes for a pretty great payoff.
So to stop Brainstorm and keep all this from happening --- even though it's actually already happening, because Time Travel --- Rodimus assembles a crew to head back in time, including Chromedome, Rewind, Tailgate (bae), Cyclonus, Rung, and Whirl. Also, there's some boat there, I think, but as that boat has never made me cry, I'm having a little trouble remembering him.
Again, there's great stuff here. Rodimus finding Trailcutter in the past and trying to give him a warning so that he won't die --- violating his own rule about not altering the future --- is a great little twist of the knife, but the conversation between a pre-war Orion Pax and the post-war Megatron who's full of regrets and self-loathing is easily one of the highlights of the entire series:
That this book can have so much genuine emotion in a scene where two robots who turn into a truck and a tank talk to each other on a time phone is pretty much everything that's great about MTMTE. Also, Cyclonus finally apologizes for being physically abusive to Tailgate, moving us another small step closer to me being okay with their relationship.
Eventually, after some pretty amazing long-term payoffs that bring back scenes from both Chaos Theory and Shadowplay, recontextualizing them as pieces of the crew's journey back through time, they realize that they're not going back to moments where Brainstorm could kill Orion Pax. Instead, they're going back to the crucial moments in Megatron's history, revealing that he's the target, not Pax.
Eventually, they're able to talk Brainstorm down, and for him at least, it's a bit of an anticlimax. His status as a Secret Decepticon isn't really addressed at all, but it is revealed that he's not doing this so that Megatron can win, but so that he can prevent the entire war and all the suffering that it caused - including the death of the Transformer he loved. But while Brainstorm doesn't pull the trigger and kill Megatron, Rewind does.
This is one of the most fascinating bits of the story. See, when Rewind's database is finally completely overwritten, he's able to see all the differences between the Functionalist Universe and the main timeline, and it's clear that the Functionalist Universe is a pretty bad ending for Cybertron. Rewind himself is killed, and the entire society is brutal, restrictive, and genocidal. But it's also contained.
Without the war, they never spill out into the rest of the galaxy to spread those atrocities to other planets. It's actually an idea that makes me glad I read Earthfall last week --- there, it's mentioned that when the Transformers came to Earth, they ended up killing something like a billion humans. Magnify that by millions of years and all the times across both books that they've referenced planets and races that have been devastated by what they've done, and you can get an idea of how much the universe would be changed if they never left Cybertron.
And that's the big trick: They didn't actually create an alternate timeline that was worse than the main one, they just tricked us into believing it was because it's really only worse for the characters we like. If we look at their universe, the sheer numbers tell us that the world where our favorites suffer is the better world for literally everyone else. That's what Rewind realizes, and why he shoots Megatron right in the spark at his moment of creation.
In the end, though, it all works out. Whirl hates the Functionalists so much that he rebuilds Megatron using a spare spark that Brainstorm keeps on him for just such an occasion, and while that does feel like a bit of a copout, it would feel less so if not for pretty much everything that Brainstorm has done in the series up 'til now.
There's a snag, though, because of course there is: It seems that while Perceptor was screwing around with the time briefcase, he accidentally allowed for the existence of parallel universes, meaning that somewhere out there, the Functionalist Universe continues to exist, and that there's a vast conspiracy among its ruling cabal built around the one Transformer whose function cannot be determined: Rung.
Act 20 Power Rankings
- Megatron - I can't shake the feeling that I'm being suckered into another swerve (not to be confused with Swerve, who shows up in one panel to literally sing a Huey Lewis song) (not kidding), but Megatron's repentance and the idea of Optimus wholly believing in his writing at the start of things is one of the most compelling redemption arcs I've ever read.
- Tailgate - Gets some full-on sitcom banter with Cyclonus this time around, and that is what I am here for.
- Trailcutter - Given MTMTE's prolific and talented fan community, surely there's a music video out there about Pipes and Trailcutter set to Bone Thugs-n-Harmony's "Crossroads," right? Right.
- Rodimus - Failed so hard at saving Trailcutter that for a minute I honestly thought he was Bumblebee.
- Brainstorm - So... is... is that Decepticon stuff gonna come up again, or...?