The Transformed Man, Act 9: Last Stand of the Wreckers
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 head back to last days of the war for an assault on a robot space prison!
Transformers: Last Stand of the Wreckers
Ever since I started writing about Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye, people have been telling me that I ought to go back and check out Last Stand of the Wreckers, a collaboration between artist Nick Roche and writer James Roberts that marked Roberts' first work on Transformers. It's not a book that was originally included in the Humble Bundle sale where I picked up the rest of what I've been writing about, but since there is literally nothing I would rather see after last week's column than Overlord catching a beating of extremely savage proportions --- and since the last volume of Robots In Disguise had a pretty great cliffhanger that'll keep for another week --- I thought now might be the time.
So yes: I paid full price for this thing. That's how much I've been enjoying these comics.
Anyway, now that I've read it, I can see why people were recommending it so much. It's not just the book that got Roberts the job on MTMTE, it also lays a lot of groundwork for what he'd do a couple years later. I honestly don't think there's a single arc that I've read so far that doesn't reference this story in some way. The most obvious, of course, was Fortress Maximus going on a shooting spree after being remind of the years he spent being tortured in Garrus-9, but there's other stuff in there, too, like last week's appearance of Verity Carlo and her relationship with Ultra Magnus.
But the big one is Overlord.
Under Cold Blue Stars did a pretty great job of presenting Overlord as something genuinely terrifying and relentlessly sadistic, but it's still a story where his reputation is preceding him. Ultra Magnus even says at one point that he wishes he'd gone to Garrus-9 to finish Overlord off there, a direct reference to this story. That idea alone, that I was going to see at least a part of what made everyone so afraid of him, was a pretty solid hook for the story, and it delivered.
More than anything else, this is a comic that shows that while Transformers might be built around the appeal of robots who are People Just Like Us, Overlord is a monster. I understand now why seeing him chained up in the Lost Light's basement was such a big reveal. He's a nightmare, the character who shows up and makes you nervous about who's going to survive. He's the robot equivalent of that scene in Gotham Central where the Joker just walks up to the police station and everyone loses their minds in a panic. Also, he can turn into a tank and a plane, which seems a little unfair, all things considered.
That said, I will admit that I didn't enjoy this story quite as much as I thought I was going to. Don't get me wrong, I liked it a whole lot, and I appreciate the tight focus of telling a single story, as opposed to the multiple mini-arcs that we get with each volume of MTMTE and Robots in Disguise. I do, however, think that this is a story that probably resonates more if you know who literally any of these characters are going into it.
I imagine it's a similar experience to reading Suicide Squad without knowing who Deadshot and Captain Boomerang are. They get a whole lot of character development in there, and it's still going to be a good story, but having that touchstone helps. Which brings us to the story.
Three years ago, with the war still raging across the galaxy, the Decepticons launched an attack on Garrus-9, a prison built by the Autobots to house both Decepticon POWs and Autobot criminals, and they're winning. Which is about when Overlord shows up, takes command, and promptly drives everything straight to Hell.
At the time, Overlord is a deserter from the Decepticons, but he still certainly hates Autobots enough that he spends the next three years turning the entire prison into a horrific charnel house. There are pit fights, torture chambers, and we see him hunting Autobots for sport. The thing is, he doesn't seem to be all that keen on the Decepticons, either. We see him killing one for needing to be rescued during the hunt, and the pit fights aren't just among the Autobot prisoners, they're Autobots and Decepticons both:
Incidentally, until I looked it up, I wasn't sure if "Borehole" was that guy's name or just robot swearing. Sadly, it's the former.
From the first issue, Overlord isn't just ruthless, he's ruthless in a way that goes beyond the interests of the war. He's a particularly self-serving brand of sadistic, he just wants to make things as bad as they can possibly be for everyone. Which is where the Wreckers come in.
After I finished the story, I called up my writing partner who loves the Transformers, Chad Bowers, and got a crash course in the Wreckers: Who They Are and How They Came To Be.
If I've got this right --- and apologies if I don't, I'm sure I'll hear about it --- they're essentially the Suicide Squad of the Transformers universe, a team of expendable characters created to pad out the UK comics, since the book over there was being published weekly and there wasn't enough of the original series to go around. Since the bigger characters like Optimus Prime and Bumblebee were busy in the main series, the Wreckers were sort of a clearing house for the oddballs of the franchise, like robots from other toy lines that Hasbro bought and incorporated into what they were already doing.
So three years after Overlord takes over the prison on G9, the Wreckers are sent in to storm the prison and liberate the surviving Autobots, if there are any. One assumes that killing Overlord would also be nice, but as we've seen, that's virtually impossible. Besides, they only find out about him while they're on the way there.
And that's pretty much when everyone realizes that there aren't going to be a whole lot of robots making it out of this story alive. Uh, spoiler warning.
So here's who we're working with:
- Springer - Commander of the Wreckers, presumably had a trashy daytime talk show before the War, before being replaced by Mor-E.
- Impactor - Former Wrecker who was imprisoned for war crimes, who rejoins the team after escaping the prison with the aid of a Decepticon who is 100% done with Overlord.
- Perceptor - A giant microscope, for when you want to see tiny things and also shoot them.
- Rotorstorm - A helicopter whose bravado masks a deep insecurity about his abilities.
- Guzzle - A soldier who turns into a tank, which is handy. Will be literally torn in half by Overlord and used to bludgeon Kup, and somehow survive that.
- Kup - I could not remember anything about this dude so I went to look him up on TFWiki and found that it's like 90% Grandpa Simpson quotes. Take that as you will.
- Pyro - Has a very specific deathwish. As a selfless hero who also turns into a truck, he envisions himself as being on the level of an Optimus Prime, and wants to die in a fitting manner, preferably alongside his hero while jumping dramatically away from an explosion. Seriously. That's not me joking, that's in the text. It's great. .
- Twin Twist and Topspin - The Tomax and Xamot of the Wreckers, two robots linked with a "shared spark" that allows them to share pain and will kill both of them if one of them dies.
- Verity Carlo - Tiny human Ultra Magnus, stows away on the mission.
And my personal favorite,
- Ironfist - A scientist and arms manufacturer who basically got on the team because he's the universe's most prominent writer of Wreckers fan-fiction.
Okay, maybe "fan-fiction" isn't the right word. What he actually does is file a bunch of Freedom of Information requests about the Wreckers' missions and then pieces them together to form a pretty popular narrative, writing under the anagrammatic pseudonym "Fisitron." He also invented brain-seeking bullets, has a very noticeable hole in his head, and has a lot of blackouts. These things are related.
One of the neat things about that roster is that, as I found out after the fact, a lot of these characters have never appeared in comics before --- or if they have, it's only been in very minor roles.
Anyway, in true Dirty Dozen/Suicide Squad fashion, things go wrong from the moment they touch down on Garrus-9. In order to get through the planet's force field, they have to go in two separate shuttles, which instantly becomes a lesson in that old RPG truism, never split the party. At best, you're halving your strength to deal with considerable opposition, and at worst...
Well, at worst you crash-land directly into Overlord's throne room, where he's been watching robots punch each other to death for the last three years.
The fight against Overlord goes downhill pretty hard from there. The team that managed to not crash land directly in front of a giant invincible bad guy who defeated a similarly giant good guy who had guns in his knees heads to the depths of the prison, only to find that Grimlock, who they were sent there to free, isn't even in his cell.
From there, they go looking for Aequitas, a supercomputer hidden in the depths of the prison that serves as the impartial judge and jury for trials, and therefore has a record of every single war crime that an Autobot on trial was convicted of or exonerated from. The Decepticons want the records to use as propaganda, and to that end, they've hooked the door up Fortress Maximus --- beaten, left comatose, and dismembered with even his eyes gouged out, but still resilient enough to not give them the password --- and are using his brain to try to pick the lock.
In the story where he comes back, Roberts and Roche aren't shy about showing us how vicious Overlord was to Fortress Maximus, but here, where we see what he's reduced to, it's terrifying and disturbing, and goes a long way towards explaining why he reacts the way he does when he finds out there are Decepticons on board the Lost Light.
For the team that does land in Overlord's throne room, things go considerably worse.
At this point, the Autobots scramble to get the hell out of there, and Overlord gets on the PA to put a bounty on their heads, literally: Anyone who brings him the head of a Wrecker gets to leave. Things get pretty desperate, but the battle to survive against Overlord and the prisoners is not the only story going on.
There's a parallel narrative at work, focused on Impactor and how he wound up in the prison. There's a cover story that he was convicted of dealing low-grade drugs, and Ironfist suspects that he went in undercover for a mission. The truth, though, is that it was about what he did on Pova. It comes up very early on in the story, and eventually, we see the adventure the way that Ironfist tells it: The Wreckers' last battle against their Decepticon counterparts, Squadron X, who were captured after a daring move, and how Impactor was forced to kill them after they broke free:
And then later, you see what actually happened, and the real reason that Impactor was sent to prison: A massacre of unarmed, restrained enemies, in violation of a treaty, leading to Impactor being convicted after testifying that he had no regrets about what he did:
It goes from being a Robert Kanigher war comic to being a Garth Ennis war comic in the span of a single issue.
Eventually, though, after Pyro sacrifices himself to give the team a shot at escaping the Aequitas chamber, it all comes down to the surviving Wreckers --- Guzzle, Springer, Kup, Impactor, Ironfist and honorary robot Verity Carlo --- facing off against Overlord himself.
It's a brutal fight: Guzzle's torn in half, Springer gets his face ripped off, and even more harrowing, we find out that Overlord gave the order to kill all the remaining Autobot prisoners as soon as the Wreckers landed. It's set up with a sequence of panels that show up in a previous issue that pay off when we see what happened to those prisoners after the order was given:
I've read that Roberts and Roche purposefully ramped up the violence, because Transformers are notoriously resilient --- see above about Guzzle surviving a horizontal bisection --- and they didn't want to leave any doubt over whether someone was being killed or not. That's how you end up with stuff like the decapitated Autobot with his badge wrenched off and shoved in his mouth, and y'all, I don't even want to know what happened to those dudes in the middle.
It's during this fight --- the actual last stand --- that Springer gets hold of a chaingun that shoots explosive nanotech, and Overlord is finally taken down, reduced to a fiery ruin. That's when we found out exactly what it is that Overlord's been doing here, the reason that he's pushing things further and further, killing and destroying and leaving everything in ruin, even the people who are nominally on his side. He doesn't want to fight the Autobots, he doesn't even want to fight the Decepticons. He wants to know what it takes for Megatron to intervene. There's only one problem.
Of course, neither Overlord nor Megatron were quite as dead as they initially seemed, but that's comics for you. What matters is that everyone --- Autobots and Decepticons --- escapes from G9, and while Ironfist dies in the process, he delivers the records from Aequitas to Ultra Magnus and Prowl. The thing is, Ironfist was damaged from an injury sustained while he was inventing the brain-seeking bullets, which means the data, which now only exists on that one disk, may have been corrupted.
I say "may" because the story leaves that ambiguous. Magnus doesn't check, and Prowl, who has his own share of secrets and would rather that the records of war crimes committed by Autobots not come out anyway, is left alone with the data, and the choice of whether to destroy it or preserve it, if, in fact, it managed to survive the mission.
So basically, it's the end of Watchmen, but better. I mean, Watchmen didn't even have one robot that could turn into a car, this story's got like twenty of 'em.
Act 9 Power Rankings:
- Ironfist - Considering he's an actual transforming robot fanfic writer, I'm surprised I haven't heard about him before.
- Verity - She's a kid with a robot suit that goes to space! She's like Teen Tony! Y'all remember Teen Tony, right? Hashtag The Crossing!
- Pyro - His explanation of wanting to die alongside Prime while Prime told him he was a really cool guy isn't the best story someone has told about Optimus Prime in this comic, but it's close.
- Kup - Was beaten unconscious by pieces of his own teammate, which means he's literally a Wrecker who got wrecked with another Wrecker.
- Overlord - Eff this guy, man. Eff him straight to H.