Review: Transformers: Robots in Disguise Vol. 3 trade paperback (IDW Publishing)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at Hell Yeah '80s Marvel!]

The third volume of Transformers: Robots in Disguise has an odd beginning, since it starts with the second part of the “Syndromica” story. There was really no other place to put it due to how the series’ continuity works unless they waited to release a separate “Syndromica” trade, which would not sit well with fans. As a result, you might want to re-read the first part of “Syndromica” to get back into the groove of the journey of Orion Pax (formerly Optimus Prime) and his ragtag crew. Then get ready to lose the groove completely as writer John Barber jumps through time in a uniquely-told tale.

Sometimes, when stories are told in anachronic order, it feels like it’s done that way just because the author wanted to do it. This is why some of the recent issues of Hawkeye have become rather tedious. Barber, on the other hand, tells the story out of order because Pax and company are on a planet which shifts through time; it’s the result of a scheme by the mad scientist Jhiaxus, his protégé Shockwave, and the brutal warrior Bludgeon. Because of the selection of characters, the storyline feels like a tribute to Simon Furman, whose removal from the majority of IDW’s titles threw the comics franchise into chaos for a few years. Livio Raimondelli uses careful staging and repeated yet altered panels to keep the timeline somewhat accessible, splitting it into a few different, identifiable “eras." Raimondelli’s Orion Pax has gigantic antennae, perhaps a callback to Derek Yaniger’s art in Transformers: Generation 2.

Due to the odd make-up of this trade’s issues, there’s quite a bit of art-shifting, but the change from Raimondelli to Guido Guidi is one of my favorite moments. The book goes from painted work to a note-for-note recreation of the first issue of Marvel’s The Transformers, to the point that it might be mistaken for a reprint until Nova Prime appears at the bottom. Having Guidi do these flashbacks in the annuals for RID and More Than Meets the Eye was a stroke of genius, as it ties both books to the earliest days of the franchise. The flashbacks in this annual retell some of the ground covered in Furman’s multiple mini-series, though a few of those events were only told through dialogue.

One useful repetition comes in the form of the origin of Monstructor, the first combiner. I always liked Simon Furman’s idea of using the last full (albeit tiny) combiner of the original toyline as the first combiner in IDW’s continuity, and Monstructor’s creation and his feud with Omega Supreme were established in Spotlight: Optimus Prime. That issue came out in 2007, and so much has been revealed about Cybertron’s past, present, and future that it was time for this chapter to be updated. For instance, in a scene set on Cybertron in the distant past, we see Tailgate from MTMTE, who wouldn’t be established as an ancient Cybertronian until long after Spotlight: Optimus Prime. John Barber is a continuity nut, and his books are full of patches for continuity errors.

The flashback pages are interwoven with Prowl, Starscream, Metalhawk, and others investigating the mysterious arrival of a Metrotitan. This was the same Metroplex-esque giant who served as a literal deus ex machina in the MTMTE annual, and he performs a similar act on a different scale in this story. To the surprise of all involved, Starscream is proclaimed as the one who will unite Cybertron, although the Metrotitan particularly uses the word “conqueror." The political future of Cybertron is still the focus of RID, and it’s allowed the former “second bananas” of the Autobots and Decepticons to take center stage. Brendan Cahill draws the modern portions of the annual, and his art is very close to that of Andrew Griffith, the series’ usual artist.

One thing that both RID and MTMTE have in common is that Barber and MTMTE writer James Roberts enjoy playing the long game. What seem like continuity errors often end up as clues to the true mystery, leading to a strong re-read value. As of this review, Barber’s first major arc has been executed, and in retrospect, the seeds are really laid in issue #11 with an attack on Omega Supreme and the retaliation against Shockwave, Soundwave, and the other main Decepticons. Prowl calls for their capture and has Arcee destroy their headquarters, making it look like the Decepticons have blown themselves up. This is vaguely in character for Prowl ... until Arcee starts stabbing Decepticons on Prowl's order. It makes sense with a huge reveal in the next volume, but this "long-story" tactic has stretched the patience of some in the Transformers fandom.

If you want to see an impressive art transformation, issue #11 is also drawn by Guido Guidi ... in a completely different style from the flashbacks in the annuals. A lot of this can be credited to different inkers and colorists, since much of the appeal of the flashbacks comes from the block coloring. The figures in issue #11 stand taller and are far more detailed, and it’s all stylistically appropriate in both issues. It always amazes me when artists can do this; it’s the art equivalent of having a multi-octave singing range.

While Transformers: Robots in Disguise Vol. 3 doesn’t have the level of fan support that MTMTE tends to attract, it’s still one of the best Transformers titles. Volume 3 is an odd collection in that it appears to be a bit of a rip-off at $17 for three issues. However, the annual is double-length, and you’ll probably end up reading “Syndromica” multiple times to get it (I certainly did). This volume is a crucial stop on the road to the “Dark Cybertron" crossover.

For my next review: it’s a book that could cost $20 or $93 depending on how you buy it and how much room you have on your toy shelf.
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