Transformers #22

Transformers #22

B-

In Transformers #22 the twelve-issue “Chaos” event officially gets underway with part one of “Chaos Theory.” The Autobots rush the captive Megatron to Cybertron for trial by galactic war tribunal. If he’s found guilty, the malevolent warrior faces lifetime imprisonment or even death. Before he reaches his ultimate destination, though, Autobot leader Optimus Prime can’t resist the chance to have a final conversation or two with the adversary that’s plagued him for the past four million years.

Probably to the delight of many fans, Transformers #22 welcomes writer James Roberts to the ongoing series. His work was last on display as co-writer of the Last Stand of the Wreckers mini, a flat-out excellent book that still somehow ended up being overpraised by zealous Transformers fans (one commentator likened Roberts to the Transformers version of Kurosawa, which seems just a little bit ridiculous). Roberts has an especially strong eye for dense plot structure and sharp dialog. If I may make a similar (though more reasonable) comparison, Roberts strikes me as the Transformers version of Brian Michael Bendis. Transformers #22 is really wordy, which I think is a plus; it took me about three times as long to read this book as it would a normal 22-page comic, something I’m very happy about. These “conversation issues” are a hallmark of the Bendis style, one Roberts has adapted here quite well (although, to be precise, this issue features two conversations that intertwine  — one in the present between Megatron and Optimus, and one the past between Megatron and… well, a lot of people).

I think Roberts’ Bendis-ness hurts him, though, in dealing with some of these characters. One of the reasons Last Stand of the Wreckers worked so well is that it focused mostly on second-teir or below robots. The series’ point-of-view characters, in fact, were basically blank canvasses for Roberts (I believe they existed as toys but didn’t really have a personality in any accepted canon), which gave him free reign to make them as fallible and relatable as he wanted. That tendency works against him here when it comes to the most iconic of all Transformers characters, Optimus Prime. It bothers me to see Optimus stop his sentences to toss off asides and for him to get all melodramatic and whiny that some other Autobots listened in on his conversation with Megatron. I suspect Roberts is trying to humanize the great Autobot leader here, showing that current circumstances have removed his poise and put him on the level of any unstable soldier. If that’s the case, it doesn’t work for me. I think that, regardless of circumstances, Optimus needs to maintain a certain amount of dignity, which Roberts’ dialog doesn’t always convey.

I also want to get back to “humanizing.” About a third of Transformers #22 spends its time on ancient Cybertron, and as it turns out, ancient Cybertron is an awful lot like Earth. Yes, instead of flesh-and-blood people there are robots, but that’s about the only difference. Cybertron has police stations with captains that sit at desks and follow “hunches.” It has blue-collar robots who “get drunk,” so much so that they’re “five quarts of Energon to the wind.” In a present-tense sequence, Roberts even acknowledges that robots have “crotches” — Megatron yells to Prime, in a maybe-humorous line, that “you sliced me in two, from shoulder to crotch. Shoulder. To. Crotch.” Previous Transformers writer Shane McCarthy got a lot of (underserved) flack from fans; I think he came up with the most clever, subtle ways of presenting a robotic society as possessing unique differences from our own, even if many of its social structures were the same as on Earth (in one unforgettable line from Spotlight: Blurr, one starstruck Autobot says to another “can you believe he gets driven around?”). It really irks me any time science fiction tries to show us a different culture just by switching one word but keeping the language the same, so to speak (ex: “Energon” for “beer”); I just don’t buy that transforming robots sit around getting drunk and complaining about their jobs, or at least that it’s the most interesting thing we could be seeing them do.

On the other hand — and you’ll see I’m really conflicted about this issue — Roberts may be the best writer yet at conveying the massive scope of the Transformers’ war. This is a fight, we’re told, that’s lasted four million years. One gets the sense that when the property’s original creators came up with that number, they just thought it sounded cool. Roberts’ script, however, puts in an amazing effort at getting readers to really feel the length of that war. In that way, above all others, the conversation between Prime and Megatron is spellbinding. “I remember when whole centuries would pass without a single shot being fired. Both sides would spend millennia preparing for battles that would be over by nightfall” — this line pays testament to war as both endless and chaotic. We also learn that, because of their ceaseless destruction, “the rest of the universe shields its eyes in abject horror at what we’ve become.” That presents a fascinating dynamic. To humans (both within these stories and reading them), Transformers are larger-than-life warriors. To other species just as advanced (or moreso) than they, they’re a galactic plague, a nuisance race of in-fighters not worth attention.

For its several cloying faults, there’s only one word I can settle on to describe Transformers #22: epic. This book has weight to it, and the conversation at its heart, though it sometimes ventures into ridiculousness, in a way distills everything amazing and potent about the Transformers concept in 22 pages. James Roberts runs the risk of humanizing this story too much, possibly, but he certainly understands how to ground these aliens’ conflict in a way that lets readers really feel the weight behind it. As a result, this is my favorite book that I’ve had major problems with in a long time. I will say that on my second read-through, the things I first found annoying appeared less so. I’m not sure if many Transformers readers are really looking for a two-part story segment on political ideology, but man, this is good stuff.

Two more notes: art in this issue’s provided by Alex Milne, which is appropriate given that he drew the initial Megatron: Origin series on which this issue’s flashback segments are based. Though I don’t think any of the artists in IDW’s Transformers stable are anything less than great (okay, maybe just one), I feel Milne still manages to stand apart from the rest because of a keener attention to detail. He packs a lot of stuff into his panels, which I find an essential skill when you’re dealing with a book so dependant in geometric, mechanical designs. You could spend 20 minutes just staring at the opening two pages in Maccadam’s Oil House, trying to pick out all the different robots he’s drawn there.

Finally, a letter at the back of this comic indicates that it’s one of the last Transformers books to be edited by Andy Schmidt. I’ve said time and again on this site that I think IDW’s current Transformers direction, under Schmidt, has produced the strongest stories this property has seen in any medium. From his cosmic heroes reboot at Marvel through Transformers, Schmidt’s done amazing work in comics, and he now moves on to a position at Hasbro, where maybe he can use a little of his clear love for these characters to direct the property in a more hands-on way. Congrats, Andy, and thanks for all the fine books.

tags: alex milne, andy schmidt, james roberts, transformers

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