Doug Glassman's special two-part "Trans-giving" Transformers review begins here.]
Though it’s technically a continuation from the main Transformers ongoing series, Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye is essentially the sequel to Last Stand of the Wreckers. They feature the same creative teams, the same approach to continuity, and the same combination of humor and horror. It’s important to note that while both series can be read on their own, More Than Meets The Eye comes before Robots In Disguise. This is made clear by the first story in this volume, “The Death of Optimus Prime.”
Initially published as a one-shot, “Death” summarizes the ending of the previous ongoing and sets up the new status quo. Optimus returns from one of his many temporary deaths to find a Cybertron in chaos. With the Decepticons defeated, the Autobots are facing a crisis over how to proceed. One group, led by Rodimus (formerly Hot Rod), still longs for adventure [from the Transformers movie, right? -- ed.]. They want to go off into space and find an ancient group of Autobots known as the Knights of Cybertron. The other faction, led by Bumblebee, wants to forge a new future on Cybertron’s burnt-out husk. Complicating this are the numerous non-combatant Cybertronians returning from exile.
The “death” in the title refers to how Prime solves this problem: he exiles himself, splitting the pieces of the Matrix of Leadership between Rodimus and Bumblebee. The King Solomon imagery of his solution is definitely intentional. He goes on to find a new future for himself under his old name of “Orion Pax.” This is a genius way to get Prime out of the way while leaving the door open for more adventures.
From here, the story follows Rodimus and his crew. More Than Meets The Eye has a massive ensemble cast made up of robots from all across the franchise. The lackadaisical Rodimus and super-serious Ultra Magnus are joined by Drift, a newcomer to the franchise who's somewhat unpopular among Transformers fans, but he's presented much better here by writer James Roberts as Rodimus’ assistant of sorts. There’s a wide array of scientists, including the cranky medic Ratchet, the studious Perceptor, the introspective Chromedome and the oddball weapons designer Brainstorm. An integral character -- and one of the very few not based on a toy -- is Rung, the psychiatrist for this crazy group of Transformers. He was initially created by Roberts for a non-canon Transformers novel, Eugenesis, but he was made canon in Last Stand of the Wreckers.
These are only some of the robots who are on the starship Lost Light before it apparently explodes, taking its occupants with it. They are instead flung across the universe by their advanced engines. As they travel, more characters get to shine, such as the annoying, business-minded Swerve. Two very notable minor characters are Cyclonus and Tailgate, both of whom are older than the Autobot/Decepticon conflict. While the former served Galvatron (who also isn’t a Decepticon in the IDW universe), the latter has been in stasis for six million years and decides to be a Decepticon, having no understanding of how evil they were. Cyclonus comes into conflict with Whirl, an ex-Wrecker who has gone berserk. The source of his madness is explained in a later volume, but for now, he’s a sarcastic death-seeker.
The sarcasm doesn’t end with Whirl. James Roberts is easily the funniest writer to ever pen a Transformers comic book, and he plays his characters off of each other beautifully. Every character has their own little quirk, like Ratchet’s old and malfunctioning hands, Drift’s overcompensation for his former Decepticon allegiance, and Swerve’s annoying need to be the first to make a smart remark. There’s a hysterical moment on every fourth page, such as Swerve assuring Rung that Whirl (who has just one optic sensor) is jealous of his eyebrows.
This is a tricky book for non-fans, much like Last Stand of the Wreckers was. Many of the references they make to other characters or places are homages to past adventures. Others, however, are things that Roberts made up, either as future plot points or to throw the reader off. The book likes to delve into the oddities of Transformer physiology, especially the idea of an alternate mode. It’s actually a very good point to bring up: since they’re not disguising themselves anymore, then why transform at all? Alternate modes are established to be incredibly important to Transformers. Their transformation cogs are internal organs, as important as their brain module and spark (a combination heart and soul).
There are two schools of Transformers artwork. The “American” school, influenced by the earlier artwork in the original series, is more concerned with making the robots look robotic, with blockier shapes and perfectly-thought-out alternate modes. Don Figueroa, the artist of Transformers: Stormbringer is one example. The “British” school owes more to Andy Wildman and Geoff Senior, the later artists, and they draw more cartoony figures who seem more like humans. Nick Roche and Alex Milne are both very much in the British school. Their characters have broad expressions, and the work overall seems more dynamic and animated. Mind you, neither school is better than the other. Roche and Milne are able to portray such a massive cast in an easy to follow way.
Like many IDW trades, Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Vol. 1 contains some nice extras, including a variant cover referencing the cover of Justice League International #1. In tone, story and artwork, this trade feels a bit like JLI. It’s a fun read, but it’s only the start. The next volume, along with sister title Robots In Disguise, takes the Transformers franchise to incredible new places.
Doug serves up a second helping of "Trans-giving" ... next week!