The Transformed Man, Act 6: Shadowplay
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, Orion Pax is back in action and back in time!
Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Volume 3
Story: James Roberts
Art: Jimbo Salgado, Emil Cabaltierra, Guido Guidi, Alex Milne, Juan Castro and John Wycough
Colors: Juan Fernandez, Joana Lafuente and Josh Burcham
Letters: Chris Mowry and Shawn Lee
Editor: John Barber
One of the more interesting things about reading the Transformers comics the way I am --- switching back and forth between volumes of MTMTE and RID so that I don't miss anything on my way to the inevitable crossover --- is seeing how they've chosen to break up the stories for the paperbacks. I've written before about how dense these comics are, and they'll frequently knock out a story in one or two issues that feels like it took twice as long --- especially with MTMTE's focus on the crew of the Lost Light bouncing around from cannibals to zombies while trying to find out if their version of the Holy Grail transforms into a Subaru.
Really, though, the way that the stories are organized makes a lot of sense. Everything flows pretty well from issue to issue, sure, but there are themes that start to come through. Last week's issues, for instance, were bookended by the arrival and disappearance of the Decepticon time machine. This week, though, we've got a couple of stories that are about the past coming back to life --- figuratively and literally.
And it all starts in Ultra Magnus's mouth.
You may recall that Ultra Magnus is a particularly grumpy truck, and this is where we find out that he's so grumpy that, according to actual medical evidence, he has never smiled. I suppose four million years of war will do that to a person, especially if you have to deal with being everyone's second-favorite truck.
Anyway, the reason we're kicking off with weaponized smiles is that a bunch of killer nanites that were supposed to be dormant suddenly came back to life, which meant that a bunch of armed Transformers had to go full Inner Space and go shoot them with tiny, tiny guns inside Magnus's body. And in a testament to just how dense these stories actually are, it's a problem that was pretty neatly resolved in exactly four pages. Or at least, that part of it was. As it turns out, the nanites weren't the only things that woke up. Ore, who was killed when he was fused to the bulkhead by the Quantum Jump way back in MTMTE #1, is suddenly talking again, and a bunch of robots that went offline after the Quantum Jump are now trying to tear our their ears.
As it turns out, the whole situation is because they've finally arrived at the first leg of their journey, Crystal City, a colony founded by a religious sect that has information about how to find the Knights of Cybertron. Unfortunately, once they get there, the city itself has been destroyed, leaving only a Metrotitan - a giant robot even by the standards of the giant robots that I've finally gotten used to in the rest of the book:
Complicating matters even further is the arrival of the Galactic Council in a ship called the Benign Intervention.
One of the weird things about coming to the Transformers franchise now, through comics that are primarily set on Cybertron and on a ship full of robots, is that I'm not used to seeing them interact with aliens who aren't robots. It's always surprising when these comics bring up a larger universe full of other sentient races, even though I realize that the actual premise of the series was that they were robots who came to Earth and interacted with us. Either way, the Galactic Council is pretty great, and not just because they're twice as tall as the Transformers.
I love the idea of a universe that had to react to a massive section of the galaxy that had to react to the conflict between the Autobots and the Decepticons, and did so by basically forming a club solely for the purpose of telling them they couldn't join and keeping them from going anywhere they hadn't already been. It's great --- just as I'm getting used to the titanic scale of the war, Roberts throws in someone whose entire purpose is to say, "HEY, YOU ARE LITERALLY PEOPLE MADE OF GUNS WHO HAVE BEEN AT WAR FOR FOUR MILLION YEARS, AND THAT IS TERRIFYING FOR EVERYONE IN THE UNIVERSE WHO IS NOT COMPLETELY INSANE."
You have to admit that they make a good point.
While all that's going on, we also get a look at the creation story for the Transformers, which was something else I was really interested in. I mean, you hear them mention names like "Primus" and "Adaptus" all the time in these comics, but when your actual regular characters have names like "Ultra Magnus" and "Fortress Maximus," it's kind of hard to figure out which ones are supposed to be these ancient, mythical figures and which ones were named by the person at Hasbro (or Marvel) who was rolling their eyes at the dude at the next desk who came up with "Ratchet" and "Slag."
Plus, Guido Guidi pretty much draws them as giant Jack Kirby robot gods, and I am into that.
As a side note, it's kind of weird that Jack Kirby didn't really do any toy comics, isn't it? I mean, yes, he did Super Powers, but those were all pre-existing characters, and while he designed a bunch of toyetic stuff during his time at Ruby Spears --- my favorite being Roxy's Raiders, which was basically Indiana Jones if Indy was a lady who fought Nazis with the help of her circus pals --- most of that never made it into print. Meanwhile, Steve Ditko drew Micronauts, Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos and Power Rangers. He even did some Transformers stuff! Weird, right?
Anyway, the climax of the story involves a judicious use of the shrink ray and a narrow escape from the Galactic Council, along with a debate over whether or not the Transformers were created by gods or just evolved from "naturally occurring gears, levers and pulleys," which I think might be another one of those weird Archie Goodwin lines that everyone's been shrugging at for the past thirty years.
Once that's all wrapped up, we move into the other big story in this volume, Shadowplay.
You may recall that Rung, my favorite character in the first volume, spent the last arc being shot in the face and laying around in the medical bay (repair garage?) without a head. Kind of a bummer for all of us Rung fans out there, but the good news is that he somehow survived, and his pals have come up with a good way to help repair his brain: Telling a story and thus encouraging his neural network to reactivate and make some connections of his own as they go through a narrative.
This, by the way, is hilarious. "Telling stories can literally bring you back to life!" is the writerest writing ever written, to the point where I'm genuinely shocked that Grant Morrison didn't get there first.
Anyway, the story itself is an amazing combination of murder mystery, heist and political intrigue, set in the years before the big war, and it's exactly the kind of engaging world-building that I'm really loving in this book.
I'm far enough in that I think I have a pretty good handle on the nature of the Autobot/Decepticon War and how it happened --- basically, Cybertronian society was pretty fascist, corrupt and deterministic, assigning jobs and social classes based on what they could turn into; the Decepticons wanted to change things and then turned out to be led by actual supervillains; and then everybody killed everybody else for 40,000 centuries --- but seeing it from different perspectives and different times is really interesting. Roberts has a gift for working his way through this stuff without ever feeling like he's droning on about a history lesson, and this is a great example.
Also, for a book that's nominally based on the idea that Optimus Prime isn't around, he is all over this thing:
Prime --- known here as Orion Pax --- is the star of this story, and I was genuinely surprised at how much I liked him in it. I mean, keep in mind that my only real exposure to him before this was seeing a truly awful movie where he let thousands of people die in an attack on Chicago in order to teach them a lesson about not trusting evil robots, so you understand why I might not have been that impressed at first. This guy, though, is awesome, and I think that's a function of not having him around all the time. It's pretty clear that everyone either loves or fears Optimus with a passion based on which color badge they wear, but having people talk about him reverently and then giving an example of why he inspired such loyalty and fear does a whole lot more than just having him around all the time. He's presented as capable, dynamic, kind and, best of all, aware that he's living in a corrupt society and dedicated to trying to change it. There's a moment in this story, set long before the war, where he talks about how much he agrees with Megatron about what needs to change.
It's something that calls back to Tailgate in the previous arc. He missed the entire war and when he had it explained to him by an evil helicopter, he decided that he wanted to be a Decepticon. If you only hear about the philosophy, it sounds really good --- it's just all the stuff they did after that's the problem.
Anyway, the story's great. As soon as the murder mystery wraps up, it goes right into a completely bonkers sci-fi heist that involves Optimus and his crew teaming up Cybertron's version of the X-Men. Like, seriously: They live in a special school and all have unexplainable powers that make them difficult to classify, one of which is magnetism:
Sadly, we never get around to finding out what the robotic word for "gifted youngsters" is. Please tell me it's not something like "newforged."
There's a twist ending to the story, too. It's actually the one part of the story that left me a little cold, but I'll admit that it's not really the fault of the story itself as much as it's a function of the actual reveal being something that would be way more rewarding for long-time fans than someone who just started with this stuff.
It's set up pretty early and obviously in the story when Pax talks about how he has an ally in the senate and everyone goes as far out of their was as they can to not say his name until the last page. It turns out to be Shockwave, and while I know that there's a history between the two characters --- mainly because it comes up in Robots in Disguise and the "Syndromica" story that's going on there --- I have no connection at all to that.
Still, it's a nice function of the series that they can actually have a character having a conversation on panel, showing you his face and everything, and then reveal that Cybertronian law involved giving criminals weird new heads that look like the Geth from Mass Effect as a punishment for their crimes, especially when it ties into the part about crooks hijacking bodies and using them to get away with murder.
Either way, apparently it's a good enough story that it can cure decapitation, because Rung's back!
Act 6 Power Rankings:
- Tailgate - Officially takes the top spot by virtue of having no idea that Orion Pax and Optimus Prime were the same person. Basically I need someone to explain the Transformers to me as though I was Tailgate.
- Orion Pax - I guess I gotta go buy that action figure now, but that does raise a question: If everyone on Cybertron was given a job based on their alt-mode, how did he become a cop? Are trucks really tied into law enforcement in a way I don't know about?
- Rung - Spent most of the issue silently having his eyebrows mocked, but that's kind of endearing in its own way.
- Ultra Magnus - Seriously, I live in South Carolina and I haven't seen this many trucks in law enforcement. Is this a reverse Smokey and the Bandit thing?
- Rodimus Prime - Messed up Tailgate's initiation ceremony. UNFORGIVABLE.
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