Review: Transformers: Robots in Disguise Volume 1 trade paperback (IDW Publishing)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

[The second of Doug Glassman's special two-part "Trans-giving" Transformers reviews!]

There’s nothing simple when it comes to Transformers. For example, Robots in Disguise is not only a recent Transformers series from IDW, it's also the name of two different toy lines a decade apart. Like its companion IDW title, More Than Meets The Eye, the book’s name is derived from the franchise’s famous theme song. In the chaos at the end of IDW’s Transformers ongoing series, these two books take on an interesting concept: the war with the Decepticons is over, the Autobots have won in only the loosest sense, and it’s time for the giant robots to move on. What’s really impressive is how different the two titles are. While More Than Meets The Eye is a humor-filled action romp, Robots in Disguise is a political thriller.

John Barber is a rising star in the world of Transformers, made famous by his incredible ability to pull diverse threads together into one universe. Using nearly hundreds of stories from dozens of publications by two different publishers, he created a movie universe that actually makes sense. Compared to James Roberts, the writer of Last Stand of the Wreckers and More Than Meets The Eye, Barber is more interested in treating the characters as complex people. These are soldiers without a war, and that’s always a tense situation. It boils down to a triumvirate of Bumblebee, Starscream, and Metalhawk to lead the unified Transformers.

The first two in the triumvirate are indicative of the book’s casting. Where More Than Meets The Eye involves more obscure characters and toys raised from obscurity, Robots in Disguise stars the classic characters. The four covers for issue one bear this out, featuring the primary Autobot cast of Bumblebee, Wheeljack, Ironhide and Prowl. Bumblebee has lead the Autobots for quite some time now, and he’s still getting used to it, although he’s not as self-doubting or self-loathing as Rodimus Prime. Wheeljack is still quick on his feet, but it seems like his expertise is needed in twenty places at once in the crumbling “city.” Ironhide was recently resurrected and has taken solace in the wastes of Cybertron, which are now alive and trying to kill anyone who passes by.

Prowl immediately takes over the book by force of will. If you’ve ever watched the show or read the comic, you probably know that he’s the most serious of the Autobots. Well, now he’s actually in charge of more than twenty people, and his control issues have spiraled out of control. Opposing Prowl, and yet working with him all the same, is Starscream. With Optimus Prime and Megatron out of the picture, their two long-time second-in-commands have a very different working relationship. For instance, Starscream wins Prowl's trust in the face of a pending revolt by ... actually telling the truth. Even Starscream is shocked when this happens. They’re forced together by the rough living situation, which is not helped by a new, third "faction," the NAILS.

The NAILs -- Non-Aligned Indigenous Lifeforms -- are actually Cybertronians who never chose between the Autobots and Decepticons. This isn’t an entirely new concept for the franchise, but it’s the first time that it’s been done well, with both the Autobots and Decepticons coming off badly in comparison. In fact, NAIL is a slur used by both sides. Their leader is Metalhawk, formerly a Japanese-original character from Masterforce, and there’s something a little sinister about him. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading comics, it’s that no peaceful third faction is ever really peaceful. It makes me want to see what develops.

The Decepticons, who usually just get block characterizations as killers and schemers, are very well developed in Robots in Disguise. They’re stuck in a bad position: they have been given explosive identification chips which prevent them from transforming and will blow up their heads if they misbehave ... in theory [potential for a Transformers Suicide Squad? -- ed]. Whether these chips actually do their jobs is a main plot point, and it makes the Decepticons feel like an underclass. Of the Decepticons, perhaps the most pitiful is Dirge. He’s long been the franchise’s chew toy, dying horribly in most iterations, and he just barely makes it out alive here.

Perhaps the book’s greatest strength is that you don’t have to read what’s come before it. There are references to the previous ongoing series, but they’re mostly asides or explained in the text. However, some of the elements might confuse non-fans. For instance, when the Decepticons first appear, they’re led by Ratbat, one of Soundwave’s cassettes. Long-time readers will immediately accept this, as Ratbat has been a Decepticon leader since the 1980s and is actually a senator in a weak body. However, this isn’t explained until issue two, so new readers might not get why they’re following a bat. Similarly, when Arcee first appears, a new reader will think “Cool, I remember her from the movie,” but an IDW fan will think “Someone is going to die horribly,” as IDW’s Arcee is homicidally insane. Even Wheelie gets an oblique shout-out.

Both Transformers books have expansive casts, and artist Andrew Griffith covers their designs well. Some of the alternate modes are based off of action figures or video game models; this is especially apparent for Bumblebee, Starscream and Blurr. Griffith avoids the ever-present Transformers trap of “dull surprise”; although Prowl is always scowling, that’s just in-character for him. There are also some neat art Easter eggs. In a shot of the Aerialbots, for instance, Air Raid is shown with a form resembling a stealth fighter -- the form he took on in Generation 2. It can’t be a coincidence that Horri-Bull, a Headmaster, gets his head blown off.

Many comic book companies try to promote books as “a fresh new start,” and Robots in Disguise actually pulls it off. John Barber uses familiar characters in a new kind of story with lots of implications for the future. It even ends with one of the most famous Transformers phrases, but I’ll let you discover that when you read it.
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