Review: Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye Vol. 4 trade paperback (IDW Publishing)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

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

As enjoyable as Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye is, it spent its first year not entirely sure of what story it wanted to tell. James Roberts used that time to introduce characters, set up plot points, and reveal numerous retcons about the years before the Great War and the rise of Optimus Prime and Megatron. The first two issues of Volume 4 work in a similar manner, but the story finally swerves into a massive climax with the reintroduction of Overlord, the villain of Last Stand of the Wreckers. It’s the first major change of status quo in the title and it unleashed a torrent of changes in the next arc and the franchise as a whole.

“Before & After,” the first story collected here, reestablishes the warrior credentials of the crew of the Lost Light. As the title implies, the story goes between the preparation for and aftermath of a raid on a Decepticon base. All of the wacky adventures in the previous issues might make you forget that many of the characters are some of the best Autobots ever fielded in battle. Ultra Magnus and Whirl, in particular, are heavily-mined for humor by James Roberts, and it’s refreshing to see that Roberts has enough respect for the characters to use them correctly. That’s not to say that the story is devoid of humor (pay close attention to the fate of Swerve’s face), but here, it’s used to reinforce a “war is hell” theme that the book doesn’t often concentrate on.

This is followed by “Cybertronian Homesick Blues,” in which the core characters go to a pleasure planet; the story also brings back some of the elements of earlier IDW Transformers stories. Simon Furman tended to emphasize the “in disguise” aspect of alternate mode and gave the Transformers holomatter projections (solid holograms) to interact with humans. All Hail Megatron and the later ongoings shredded any idea of the Transformers hiding on Earth, so the avatars weren't of much use. Here, the Transformers use them used to get into a robot-unfriendly bar; each avatar is specifically designed to echo the user’s personality. Whirl becomes a gun-wielding pre-teen girl with an eye-patch; Skids resembles the Eleventh Doctor, complete with psychic paper [now there's a crossover! -- ed]; and Ultra Magnus gets ... Verity Carlo, his old human friend.

“Cybertronian Homesick Blues” angered some Ultra Magnus fans by turning him into the butt of the joke yet again. He literally doesn’t know the word “relax” (confusing it with “reflex”), he gets drunk on high-grade fuel, and he has to be slammed onto the ground a few times to automatically transform him to hide amongst robot-hating locals. This is another one of those MTMTE moments which ends up being important in retrospect. Magnus’s boozing leads into a short prose story which reintroduces the Overlord plot. Moreover, when we learn all about Ultra Magnus’s origin in Volume 5, Magnus’s various quirks makes much more sense. Other funny moments include Cyclonus singing in the equivalent of J.R.R. Tolkein’s “Black Speech” (which sounds like he’s murdering his friend Tailgate) and Rewind’s avatar being a baby carried on Swerve’s back.

This is a good opportunity to talk about the relationship at the heart of More Than Meets the Eye, Chromedome and Rewind, for whom fans have affectionately dubbed MTMTE “Gay Robots in Space.” The idea of their romance was revealed gradually, and it’s brought out in the open with the introduction of the term “conjunx endura,” the Transformer equivalent of a romantic partnership. Sex has always been an awkward topic for the franchise as a whole; not only is there a massive gender imbalance, but sexuality often pops up in creepy ways in Japanese Transformers stories. Roberts thankfully doesn’t go into detail about how (or even if) they copulate -- the numerous explicit fan fic depictions of it don’t need reinforcing -- but the fact that two Transformers can experience true love helps flesh out the race beyond their often violent roots.

Violence, however, is always ready to break out in a Transformers story, and so it goes when Overlord makes his grand reappearance. An entire issue is given over to his origin, how he got on the Lost Light and how he escapes, but it’s done through a memory-sharing session between himself and Chromedome. Overlord would be a pitiable figure if he hadn’t been a psychopath before getting heavily upgraded by the Decepticons. Exactly how he got to the ship is a bit convoluted and involves a seemingly minor plot point -- mindwiping Prowl -- which will play a huge part in next week’s review of Robots In Disguise. I’m still not convinced about the need to rebuild him, but exactly how damaged he was at Last Stand is up for debate.

The massive fight in issue #15 is the main reason why I’m happy Roberts kept the Autobots’ battle skills up to snuff over previous issues. Everyone we’ve ever seen on the ship gets a crack at Overlord ... and not everyone survives. Roberts had been building up this arc on fan sites as an opportunity to kill numerous characters, and there’s at least one absolutely permanent death we can credit to Overlord. Most of the others are reversible with either a little or a lot of work, but the cheapness of death amongst the Transformers is just assumed at this point. The last issue collected deals with the aftermath and punishment of those involved with the Overlord conspiracy and sets up new cliffhangers.

Art-wise, the book is strong as ever, with tricks like using different artists for the “before” and “after” portions of issue #12 and having a crowd in Overlord’s memory being block-colored and faceless like a Marvel group shot. Tailgate defuses a bomb labeled with C-61, his Japanese ID number. It’s clear that Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye is by and for fans, but that doesn’t mean they skimp on the quality of the final project.

Next week, a turning point for Transformers: Robots in Disguise.
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