For the last few years, IDW’s Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye has been one of the very best comics in print. And if you insist on the best specifically-Cybertronian comic, don’t worry, that’s IDW’s Transformers: Robots in Disguise.
Between them they’re brilliant for new readers, and have done more for fans of the continuity than every other medium managed over the last four million years. Though to be fair they spent most of that time asleep in a cave.
More Than Meets The Eye: True to the original and much faster moving
Both titles maintain a duality even more awesomely impossible than robots turning into fighter jets: they’re authentically Transformers, but they’re not gimmick series based entirely on shouty robots turning into vehicles to blast each other. They’re galaxy-spanning dramas juggling character development, comedy, and plot twists which make the Red Wedding look like a cute YouTube proposal, but which in retrospect were more intelligently foreshadowed than a patch of shade under a statue of one plus three.
IDW have helped Transformers escape the franchise fatigue which afflicts so many long-running properties by doing something most branded properties don’t: changing. Because changing is what Transformers do.
Their new lease on life springs from the beauty of peace and how it’s way, way more complicated than war. Yes, the multi-million year Autobot-Decepticon war has ended, and both sides are left stumbling around the wreckage with a cultural hangover asking “What do we do now?” After the simplicity of shooting each other they’re struggling to fit into a galaxy which only knows them for self-destructive civil war. Especially when all the neutral Cybertronians return. Yes, even among the giant race of robots with built-in guns, it turns out that killing each other for a thousand times several more thousand years isn’t normal.
Freed from the front lines of war all your favorite characters face an explosion of personal growth. The struggles of the Autobots and Decepticons are now infinitely more interesting when they aren’t constantly pitted against each other.
It turns out that even in cartoons war really was a waste of all the resources which could have been used to create a society, interesting character arcs, even romantic relationships, all of which are now flourishing. Optimus Prime struggles with being seen as the face of conflict. Starscream smarms his way to becoming President of Cybertron. Prowl refuses to stop fighting, and now that there are no sides anyone opposing him is an enemy. Dinobots stumble around picking fights because that’s the only thing they think they’re good at. And Megatron, wow. Megatron struggles to take responsibility for a heroic vision which went wrong beyond any mortal mind’s capacity to grasp.
It turns out that a shattered scattering of rogue robots is infinitely more dangerous than an easily identified army. In the old days the Autobots’ enemies would wear big labels, shout each others names as they attacked, they even used differently colored energy weapons so that everyone kept things clear.
It sounds strange to say but the lack of war has made things much more exciting. Which isn’t to say they don’t kick ass.They kick entire planets of ass, even if they have to load themselves onto an adventuring spaceship to find those planets first. Which they do. And it’s BRILLIANT.
They discover the city-sized Metroplex and explode idiots inside his chest cavity. They escape an entire dead universe to stop Shockwave’s singularly universe-destroying strategy. They change the course of a galactic war to win a drunken argument. They kick so many kinds of ass that they fought the law, and the law lost.
The characters are so well developed that for a while you knew exactly who one character is, what they want, care about, and remember all their funniest lines, but don’t know what they turn into. Which would have been unimaginable to my child self. Every character WAS “the truck” or “the police car”, and if we were extremely lucky that episode’s writer would have remembered whether it could fly or not.
If the Transformers were people complaining about gold instead of Energon these two comics would be bigger than Game of Thrones. Because they’re considerably better written. Here people die as plot points, not rating boosts, and despite being about a race of gigantic inorganic machines it’s got far more advanced sexual politics than anything you’ve seen on screen. This is a show based on big bloke-bots beating the oil out of each other and they’ve still fixed that to import female characters. Even though they had to invent a whole new planet to do it. Because that’s what you do when you’re writing a popular fiction series and it’s not the Dark Ages.
Some of the setups are sublime. It’s much easier to hide Chekov’s gun when you can transform it into a gun or a gag. Characters drop bombshells which don’t detonate for entire arcs because you thought the quick laugh was their entire payload. They’re made of metal but the humor is organic and genuinely funny. From one-liners which play with the fact people turn into things to those perfect jokes which take fifty-one issues of backstory to explain, which is why you can’t tell people why you’re laughing until you change color.
Geeks are enjoying a renaissance of all the properties we adored as we grew up. Sure, some are still cynical IP exploitation, but they’re worth it for series now being back-filled with devotion to detail by editors, artists, and writers who grew up loving them just as much as we did. In the old days we’d wonder “Why doesn’t Optimus just use his energy axe?” and the awful answer was “That episode’s writer didn’t know about it, didn’t care about it, and would sigh like an annoyed father if the kids ever bothered him by asking about it”.
But now even the original story is being retrofitted to kick ass. Cybertronian history is no longer an endless series of guerrilla engagements between armies who can’t shoot straight. It’s a thriving culture driven by political pressures which would make Ned Stark surrender. It turns out being able to transform into different things can create a classist society with some extraordinarily original religious factions. Megatron was a miner struggling against increasingly autocratic oppression. The Autobots worked to maintain order, which isn’t always the same as being right.
This vision of geeky glory is realised by beautiful art. Transformers artists work harder than anyone else in comics, and they keep cranking out exquisite art every month. The styles aren’t just slick, they’re superbly suited to the stories they tell. Robots in Disguise‘s shades and sophistication depict a world with all the dents and dirt of reality and an infinite pallete of shades.
More Than Meets The Eye‘s energetic cartoon style explodes off the page like the cartoon we only wish we’d been watching as children.
Both evoke more emotion from chunks of sheet metal than most people can get out of an organic orgy. Many of the characters don’t have mouths. Some don’t even have faces, just Shockwave-style lightbulbs, and they express more with mere geometric shapes than most manage with an entire language.
Soaring through all of More Than Meets The Eye is the genuine sense of joy. It’s fun to play with giant transforming robots. That’s why we made them in the first place! Even the serious stories hit harder because you’ve already laughed with these characters, you already care about them. It never pulls the “THIS IS SERIOUS” klaxon to tell you to care, or expecting you to give a damn just because it’s been demanded.
Likewise, Robots in Disguise is genuinely involved in what would happen if these impossible robots were forced to exist for longer than a firefight. It turns out that trying to exist as a society of shape-shifting robots famous only for continually killing each other is a bit of a challenge.
And the best bit? Everything I said about RiD applies to MTMTE, and vice-versa, and then they overlap and explode in universe-altering crossovers which actually change the ongoing stories in meaningful ways. Not the forced marketing opportunities which interrupt your regular broadcast like lightning: huge disruptive, flashy, and allegedly very powerful, but then vanishing without a trace.
Because these titles aren’t just by and for people who love the Transformers. They’re for anyone who loves comics.
IDW announced some changes to their Transformers line shortly after this article was written. Luckily, both James Roberts and John Barber will continue to steer the destinies of our favorite Autobots and Decepticons in new series afterIDW’s epic Revolution event concludes. Keep an eye out for Transformers: Lost Light, and Transformers: Optimus Prime!