Wait, come back! I promise this doesn’t involve Mark Wahlberg hate-chugging a Bud Light.
I have a friend whom I’d turned onto IDW Publishing’s Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye a few weeks ago, and she immediately began recommending it to her other friends. While writing this article, I asked her how she was wording these recommendations, and she responded, “Oh man, I just started this great comic, aliens on a big old mission after this huge war ends and they Voyager themselves and the characters are amazing and it’s funny and heartbreaking and…. it’s Transformers.”
That last part tends to be where most people lose interest.
Seven years and four Michael Bay movies have created something of a cultural antipathy for the Transformers brand. Despite the over-saturation of the films, I still have great fondness for the franchise. I love the old 1984 cartoon especially, though usually in the vein of “Let’s get drunk and watch the one where they travel back in time to Camelot and Starscream makes bombs out of bird shit” or “Let’s get drunk and watch the one where Seaspray turns into a mermaid… for love” (The show is nonsense and it is beautiful and I love it).
However, despite being a lifelong shameless apologist of all things Transformers and Michael Bay, even I wouldn’t push them on unsuspecting neophytes as good. Cracked out? Sure. Fun? Usually. But good? As in, “Hi, fellow normal adult, I read a good thing that I think you’d enjoy and I am recommending it to you”? That’s a hard push, even for me.
2014 was the year that I got caught up on IDW’s current Transformers run, including the two current monthly ongoing series, More Than Meets The Eye, its sister title Robots in Disguise (recently rebranded simply The Transformers), and the Windblade mini-series (we’ll talk about Windblade another day.) For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on More Than Meets The Eye, written by James Roberts and with art (mostly) by Alex Milne. And here, to my surprise, was the adult-skewing, accessible Transformers fiction that was good. No gritty reboot syndrome, just Robots! In! Spaaaaace! Here was everything the movies should have been—and no one outside of the fanbase was reading it.
I was surprised also how few year-end lists MTMTE made for 2014, because the people who read the comic really, really like it. And honestly I think in large part it’s brand bias; many potential readers who might enjoy the series probably aren’t giving it a look because, well, Transformers. And morbidly fascinated though I may be with the Michael Bay oeuvre, I really, deeply despise the argument that “it’s not supposed to be good.” I hear that one a lot.
But any premise is potentially worthwhile in the right hands, if, that is, you can get past the “Transformers” hump.
The year is… near future-ish. The war-without-end between the Autobots and the Decepticons ends abruptly when, at the end of many confusing plot points, an uninhabitable Cybertron is made inhabitable again. Unfortunately, Cybertron is kind of a shithole with no cities, infrastructure, or government. The impulsive and egotistical Rodimus (né Hot Rod), possibly the bro-iest robot ever, is convinced that the best way to fix the situation is to set out on a quest aboard his ship, the Lost Light, to find the legendary “Knights of Cybertron,” who, if not able to repair Cybertron, might find their race a better place to live.
After rounding up a couple hundred of (mostly) Autobots, an accidental space jump throws the them to some undetermined point in deep space. Thus begins a Star Trek: Voyager-esque journey, with Our Heroes cut off from Cybertron but still pursuing their original quest anyway. It is worth noting that as of issue #36, Our Heroes have still made just about zero progress on this quest.
Though I’m sure this quest will come to some fruition some day, as with all good adventure stories it is not the destination so much as the journey and the characters you’re on the ride with—the hodgepodge crew of the Lost Light are about as well-rounded, dysfunctional and identifiable group of nigh-immortal alien robots that turn into vehicles as you’re going to find.
World Building/Character Development in an Established Universe
Playing with concepts that are already set in stone and being creative within a strict rubric can either be awkward to behold (the live action films are a good example) or an interesting challenge. And let’s not kid ourselves—the only reason any of this exists is to sell toys. But moreover, in working with an established brand, we find the comics trying to take characters with names like “Spinister” and “Chromedome” and make them work in an honest-to-god narrative without driving off a meta cliff. But Roberts takes such joy in building a complex world that it’s hard not to buy into it, little things such as, for instance, off-handed explanations for why these guys even call themselves Decepticons in the first place.
This also isn’t a new take on characters you’re already familiar with; most of the characters you probably won’t have heard of unless you’re already a fan of the franchise, or you have a really, really good memory. You might remember the captain and second-in-command, Rodimus (sans “Prime”—shockingly Optimus is still alive in this continuity) and Ultra Magnus from the 1984 movie, and also nominal third-in-command Drift, who you may remember from last year’s Age of Extinction. (He’s the one in the film who looks like a samurai and calls Optimus Prime “sensei.” Yep. Transformers!)
The Kirk/Spock/McCoy trio is given a fun re-examination with these three; Rodimus’s careless impulsiveness is a massive character flaw that sometimes costs lives, Ultra Magnus’s obsession with rules and regulation puts an insurmountable emotional barrier between him and the rest of the crew, and Drift’s emotionality is rooted more than anything in his newfound religiosity (his dynamic with the hardline atheist Ratchet is fabulous.) Somehow none of this is annoying.
The most well known character in the current cast is Megatron, who’s only joined for the past nine or so issues, and, well, he’s an Autobot now. Not a “redeemed” Megatron, necessarily—this guy is tired, smothered by his own regrets, and he’s just so over it. But that doesn’t mean he might not be up to something. Characters like Optimus Prime and Prowl do pop up, but only in flashbacks or by reference. Ratchet, the CMO, is also a popular franchise mainstay, but most of the cast consists of more obscure or overlooked characters, giving Roberts (by his own admission) more of a carte blanche when it came to building characters.
There is action, yes, but the appeal for readers tends to be much more in character dynamic. It’s a pretty big cast—bartender and unstoppable mouth Swerve, lover of staring into the middle-distance Cyclonus and his innocent roommate/nascent fanboy, Tailgate, lover of briefcases Brainstorm and resident murderous psychopath Whirl (whom Cyclonus openly intends to kill, someday)—the list goes on, and your fondness for the characters will only hurt you when the series takes a slight, shall we say, Game of Thrones-y turn around issue #13.
Gender and Sexuality in a Genderless, Sexless World
One of the more problematic elements with Transformers from the get go, even if we go with the whole “male coded but genderless” thing, is that as a franchise it never questions the notion of “male as default.” It’s only with this series that we finally see someone starting to challenge this in a thoughtful way, especially with the idea of gender as a construct that can be completely separate from biological sex.
Especially in franchise fiction, characterization of female characters is often female-function-serving-thing first, character second (if we even get that much). This was definitely the case in almost all Transformers media up until really, really recently.
Nautica, a “quantum mechanic” and currently the lone female-coded bot on the Lost Light, joined the cast when Megatron did. I won’t do her a disservice by trying to describe her as a character, but despite her being “the only one” (the other three she-bots are in the other ongoing series), she’s great, I love her, and you love her, too. You just don’t know it yet.
It’s still a stark dearth of representation, but the current writers of the IDW books are doing a commendable job not having their female characters defined by their female-ness. But most remarkable to me on this subject is the fact that in this universe, despite the fact that there is a gender binary and female-coded characters, there are currently no “straight” couples, but there is a canon “gay” couple.
I said something about the relationship between Chromedome and Rewind on Facebook a few weeks ago (using the quotation marks because, as per IDW official decree, Cybertronians are all “genderless,” but when you’re dealing with a bunch of male-coded robots that use the “he” pronoun, let’s be real here.) A friend assumed that said “gay” couple would be handled with all of the deft sensitivity as the “black” robots in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Not an unfair assumption, even divorced from the Bay films. This was the proud franchise that brought us the “Socialist Democratic Federated Republic of Carbombya.”
While the relationship is text, it isn’t aggressive or political. Still, I have to wonder if there is a bit of political allegory, because when the issue of marriage-equivalent is brought up, it’s in a context of making life-or-death medical decisions for one’s partner.
I was surprised that the book even went there, let alone did it with such a deft hand that doesn’t feel unnatural or ham-fisted. There is a form of elective kinship in this universe that’s only just starting to be explored, along with gentle prodding at the constructed-ness of gender. It’s no wonder that the fanbase is becoming increasingly female, LGBT and non-binary. I find it odd to state that Transformers is developing new forms of inclusivity despite the established nature of the brand, but this is fast becoming a large part of the appeal for many readers.
These comics are, first and foremost, pop art designed both to appeal to a general audience and to sell a product (toys). It isn’t a perfect series by any stretch—much fun as it has with expanding upon the Transformers universe, it’s still constrained in many ways by the franchise (the lingering deficit of female characters is still a side-effect of the whole “based on toys” thing). It’s a bit hard to follow at times, despite being intended as a jumping-on book, and the stylistic, muted color palette for the first season makes it really difficult to tell the characters apart if you’re coming in blind, but these are nitpicks. At its core, it’s just fun.
I barely touched on the increasingly-infamous character mortality rate, and won’t go into detail, because spoilers. The book has developed something of a reputation for a high body count, but I don’t think that’s quite fair. It isn’t the volume body count so much as the gut-punch when it does happen, the false sense of security Roberts lulls you into with the fun, light tone only to pull the rug out when great harm (and often death) comes to characters you didn’t even realize you’d grown so attached to. That a goofy space adventure can take such effortless turns into explorations on life after war, loss, religion, purpose in society, caste systems, the list goes on- and franchise based on a 30-year-old line of toys or not, that’s just effective writing.
If the idea a Guardians of the Galaxy-style whimsical space adventure with a heavy undercurrent of Game of Thrones-style author sadism interests you, give it a go—you’ll both thank me and be really mad at me later. Before you know it, you’ll have joined the ever-biggening crew of MTMTE devotees. Gooble gobble, ‘Til all are one.
Lindsay hosts the web series “Nostalgia Chick” and “Booze Your Own Adventure” on YouTube and is co-founder of ChezApocalypse.com. If you want your timeline flooded with tweets about old cartoons, dog pictures and Michael Bay, you can follow her on Twitter.