Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
February 2013

The Tale of A Transformer Who Turned Into A Moped, And How The Autobots Laughed, Only To Later Be Saved By Quick Pedaling.

Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye, Transformers: Robots in Disguise, Transformers: Autocracy

I like Transformers comics. I like them, methinks, too much.

Here's me when I read Transformers comics that I like:

"Duh . . . yay . . . Changing robots!"

Here's me when I read Transformers comics I don't like:

"Arg! Hulk smash! Hulk complain on Internet forums!"

Short version: through 2011, I was more of the second one, what with the smashing and complaining. 2012 was much better, for IDW Publishing recruited James Roberts. James is that rare creature, a fanfic writer made good. In the 90s he wrote a . . . wait for it . . . four-hundred-page novel about the Transformers.

Eugenesis, it is called, and it achieved no small fame among the fans once the Internet bloomed. You'd like it. Seriously. It ain't your average sticky fanfic. It's full of rich description and dialogue and keen characterization. So good that it was reviewed in an official publication of Harvard University, of all places.

In early 2012, James Roberts joined new editor/co-write John Barber for a couple of ongoing tales, More Than Meets The Eye and Robots In Disguise. And now, one year later, how do they hold up, you ask?

You always ask!

Both series started not with a clang, or whimper, but a cautious treaty as the Autobot/Decepticon war came to a close, we met a third faction of unaffiliated Cybertronians, and Optimus Prime abdicated in the interests of ongoing peace.

In More Than Meets The Eye, a disparate, idealistic group chose to leave the boiling politics of newly unified Cybertron and seek out the legendary Knights of Cybertron. Their ship is the Lost Light. Their crew includes a bonafide psychopath, Whirl, two ancient Transformers from before the war, Cyclonus and Tailgate, loudmouth Swerve, New Age-y former Decepticon Drift and their leader the cocky Rodimus Prime. Among others.

Unlike other iterations of the Transformers, where the "Prime" title descended to Rodimus, here it's a self-acquired title. He decided that he was a leader, and thus he got to be called Prime.

It's one of the great defining quirks of these characters. There is such joy in the thought James Roberts puts into Transformers. Most writers simply roll with the silliness of the premise. James world-builds and characterizes like an epic fantasy writer on a thousand-page opus.

Robot psychiatry! Getting high by switching modes, getting a disease by switching modes, and the difference between forged and cold-constructed Transformers (a justification for apartheid)! Not to mention the creepy Decepticon Justice Division, tasked with destroying those Decepticons who are deemed disloyal.

Roberts is as good at character as worldbuilding. He builds his stories like puzzles, with subplots, jokes, and character quirks subverting expectations until the moments when they all pull together, filling the story in. My favorite thus far took place in a robot hospital. A disease ravaged the inhabitants every time they transformed; Autobot doctor Ratchet came not only to answer a distress call, but to try and repair his eons-old broken hands. In two chapters he resolved the issue of the disease, the hands, and he sowed the seeds for a hostage crisis in a robo-therapist's office, religious doubt on the part of Drift when he encounters his mystical city, and and and . . .

If you are still skeptical of Transformers as high art, trust me, it far outdoes explosions, fart jokes and Megan Fox's boobs.

(No offense to those three, uh, four.)

Alex Milne's art is quirky and kinetic, easily matching the labyrinthine writing. Milne has long been a solid, but unimpressive artist, but now he has . . . erm, insert other transformation pun here. He creates spectacular action sequences in More Than Meets The Eye, including a wonderful heist when the Autobots steal their own Matrix from its safekeeping spot. The ship is alive with detail, as are the flashbacks to Cybertron.

Roberts has a weakness in his shiny steel chassis of literature, though -- he is wordy. There must be close to five hundred words on some pages of More Than Meets The Eye, and it's easy to see that some could be cut. This comic is packed with tiny tiny words everywhere.

When you buy the issues each month, as I do, it's not bad. You get a good, solid, meaty read for your $3.99. Better than a Starbucks latte. No burned rancid coffee taste.

But rereading the issues in a clump, or a trade paperback, can be a laborious experience.

Robots In Disguise, the sister title, is a lot more uneven than the generally great More Than Meets The Eye. Writer John Barber has some moments of absolute, jaw-dropping genius surprise, but for the most part his subplots, jokes and character quirks wander and vary and fail to tie together like the sister titles do.

Robots in Disguise follows the ongoing effort to create peace on Cybertron, between Autobots, led by Bumblebee, Decepticons, led by Starscream, and the Non-Affiliated Lifeforms, disparagingly called NAILs, led by Metalhawk. The NAILs don't like the other two sides of the war. They include a huge population of Cybertronian refugees, pacifists and plain old citizens.

Their world has been transformed (sorry, pun machine is on autopilot) to a chaotic, wild place of shifting landscape and angry metal tentacles, penning all the robots up in one small city.

This series started out with fantastic promise. Autobot cop Prowl was caught in a game of wits behind the scenes with Decepticon schemer Ratbat. The conflict ended in a shower of um . . . metal shavings and oil, if not blood. And Starscream, the famous double-crosser of the Decepticons, stepped up to command the force just as Prowl sought to wipe them out.

Then . . . slow.

We got one kind of silly issue about Wheeljack, the Autobots' technician. We got a few more about Prowl's behind-the-scenes enforcement, which grew less and less believable as he covered up mass slaughters of Decepticons, perpetuated by the invincible assassin Arcee.

We got a lot of one-offs about minor characters, ignoring the machinations of the characters at the top, or the logistics of the crazy metal world.

A pretty good double-sized issue that finally brought us back to Starscream, who has been the most interesting character here.

Then, a hard-to-follow side story about Optimus Prime, following his muse through the galaxy (and time travel) like a post-divorce dad on a road trip.

In the end, it's been a year full of loose ends in this title. Frustrating loose ends, because the story material is so rich!

Instead of seeing the machinations of Starscream, Metalhawk and Bumblebee, the characters at the top, we get the shlubs. Some, like Prowl, have worn themselves out. Some, like Wheeljack, are fun, but their stories are time-wasters.

Two issues really blew me away out of the twelve released this year. Which is a shame, because Robots In Disguise has strength. It has great concepts. Wicked machinations between three factions. A wasted, mutated world. Long-warring enemies trying to make peace. It's got so much potential . . . and Barber chases down minor characters and irrelevant subplots.

There's a reason why Game of Thrones is mostly about royalty. Tyrion is at his best when he has real power as the Hand of the King. Same with Eddard Stark. Focus on the major players and this title would be far better. The shlubs, like Arya and Breanne in Game of Thrones are interesting, but only as they relate to the big gears the royalty turn.

Hopefully Barber can pull his writing together and move things forward. The series has great art from Andrew Griffith, who uses space and darkness without ever losing clarity. He always draws Bumblebee with a weird froggy face, but I have no complaints about his otherwise powerful art.

Transformers: Autocracy back-fills the story for both of these series. It's written to tell the story of a time when Optimus Prime was not a Prime, but a cop named Orion Pax, working under a corrupt Autobot Senate.

Autocracy is a more cartoony story than the other titles. Zeta Prime, the mad predecessor to Optimus, has gone further than the Decepticons in seeking to destroy Megatron's rebellion. Optimus is forced to choose between a bloody alliance with Megatron and his Autobot loyalties.

Superweapons, scenery chewing, pensive monologues on the nature of freedom . . . this is not quite the complex entertainment of More Than Meets The Eye or Robots in Disguise, but by the end I was enjoying it. It doesn't hold up to Roberts' stuff, but it is a fairly thrilling, if cartoony, adventure. This makes sense, for Flint Dille, the mastermind of the original TF series and the 1986 animated movie, writes Autocracy.

Yes, that animated movie.

With the hair metal and the gruesome death of Optimus and the big transforming planet voiced by Orson Welles.

Still way better than anything Michael Bay has dreamed.

My favorite part of Autocracy is the introduction of Hot Rod, later to be Rodimus, as the leader of a shantytown, a citizen caught in the middle of the war who never wanted to take sides. It was nice to see an origin for Hot Rod that doesn't have him as a young punk.

Two major complaints:

The art. Flint Dille is writing a TF comic and IDW doesn't tap Casey Coller or Don Figueroa, whose art looks like a deeper, richer version of the cartoon? Bad choice. Livio Ramondelli's painted art is dark and atmospheric, but action is hard to follow. Moody bits, like Zeta towering menacingly over the Senate, work. Action doesn't.

Then, the final showdown is a word-by-word recall of the 1986 movie. This the kind of wank that shows up in the most juvenile of Transformers fan fiction. Flint Dille and co-writer Chris Metzen should have been creative enough to come up with another defining battle. We've all seen earthshaking Megs/Prime faceoffs without having to retread animated material.

If you're a dabbler willing to try a new spin on the TFs, one for the thinking reader, try More Than Meets The Eye and Robots in Disguise. If you're looking for nostalgia, try Autocracy.

If you're a robot looking for mental help, try the Autobot psychiatrist Rung, once he recovers from . . . oh, I'm giving it away.

Let us take a moment to thank IDW for a year of great TF comics. Bust out the toys, sneak a root beer from Mom's hidden stash, and hole up in your room tossing around plastic and making that "kee-koo-koo-kee-kee" noise.

Next Issue: Adventure Time! Come on, grab your friends, with Jake the dog and Finn the human on paper, by Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics!

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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