Review: Transformers: Robots in Disguise Vol. 4 trade paperback (IDW Publishing)

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

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

When I did the first “Transgiving” last year, I distinctly remember wondering how the then-newly begun arc of Robots In Disguise would fare in its review. Much like last week’s review of More Than Meets The Eye Vol. 4, Transformers: Robots in Disguise Vol. 4 is the culmination of over a year’s worth of issues, but it feels like it’s been far longer. Much of this is because at least two issues -- the “Syndromica” stories -- really should have been published as one-shots or their own miniseries. Even if you count issue #12 which opens this book as issue #10 of the “real” plotline, there’s still something off about the pacing.

John Barber finally evens out the pace a bit in this trade, wherein all five issues take place over the course of one night and in sequential order. It’s actually a relief to get some conventional storytelling for once; if I had to go through another “Syndromica” issue three trades in a row, I might have given up. Between Young Avengers, Hawkeye, and More Than Meets the Eye, many of my recent reviews have been of books which use unconventional storytelling. This wasn’t intentional; it just seems like many editors are allowing writers to indulge in experimental writing. The various subplots are allowed to catch up and interact so that all of the players on Cybertron can have an all-out war.

The previous trade ended with the miraculous return of Megatron, thought dead after the “Chaos” storyline of the old ongoing in which he fought the Deceptigod (a fusion of an evil galaxy and thousands of Decepticons . . . there’s a reason why people didn’t like the ongoing). Megatron is the one character in the IDW version of Transformers that’s never really seemed to click. He always seems to be too coldly distant and scheming; I remember him more from his manic portrayal in the cartoon. In another case of weird pacing, his defeat at the end of the trade, while clever, is dealt with too quickly, as if Barber wanted to go for a full six-issue story and had it cut back.

In exchange for an undeveloped Megatron, other characters have gotten far more exposure, including Starscream. The best plotline throughout RID has been his rise to glory now that his belittling tyrant of a leader is gone. Starscream spends a good amount of this volume in stunned and angry silence at getting his success whisked away from him right at the cusp of gaining elected leadership away from Bumblebee. There even seems to be a little glimmer of a legitimate desire for a peaceful Cybertron once he’s in charge. He commits a shocking murder at the end and it’s one of the few I think will stick despite the typical resilience of Transformers. Windsweeper, a minor late-'80s Triggercon, gets a character upgrade as Megatron’s chief cheerleader, and the vicious Turmoil finally gets a chance to do some damage on-panel rather than in flashback.

Starscream’s quest for leadership has always seemed like a more valid storyline than Bumblebee’s crumbling attempt to run Cybertron. The Decepticons have had numerous leaders, but with the Autobots, it’s always just a matter of time before Optimus Prime returns. That’s not to say Bumblebee hasn’t given it his best shot; I love his unimpressed reaction when Megatron claims that he should be treated as a wounded war hero. Bumblebee has also been undercut by Prowl, whose machinations come to the fore during Megatron’s reclaiming of the Decepticons. I partially wish that his apparent turn to evil had been stretched a little longer . . . but then again, it was easy enough to guess why it happened, so I’m glad the inevitable rescue wasn’t delayed.

Combiner technology becomes the focal point of RID yet again, this time involving the Constructicons. One member was killed several issues ago, making it seem like Devastator would never be formed again. They get around this by reformatting into the “four limbs and chest” set-up used by most combiners. There’s a new addition: a head formed by a brand new sixth member, whose identity I won’t spoil here. While I like Devastator’s fight against the feral Superion, I do wonder if Barber wanted to have a Dinobot combiner seeing that they were the ones to turn Superion to the side of good in the first place.

I’m at least one trade ahead in both Transformers titles whenever I do the quarterly TPB reviews. That makes it hard to avoid spoilers, especially since both books like to use later issues to explain away some of the inconsistencies of previous ones. Volume 5 of RID in particular is going to be a slog, with numerous retcon-filled issues. I would consider dropping this title after Transformers: Robots in Disguise Vol. 4 were it not for the strong ties between it and MTMTE; the “Dark Cybertron” crossover is already re-energizing both books. The pacing issue, I think, comes from Barber’s editorial duties. His approach sometimes feels like he can do whatever he wants in an issue as long as he can explain it away later. This works in the long run, but be exasperating month to month, especially in a franchise known for fickle fans.

Next week, we move away from the IDW titles and to a sequel to another robot-themed book I reviewed a long time ago ...
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