Review: Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye Vol. 5 trade paperback (IDW Publishing)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

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

Sometimes it seems like the only reason IDW publishes the Transformers: Robots in Disguise comic is to have a traditional foundation for More Than Meets the Eye to bounce off of. As I’ve said before, toy tie-in comics are usually closer to fan-fiction, but MTMTE has been able to surpass any corporate limitations. Moreover, James Roberts has been able to do this while making references to lots of previous Transformers fiction and turning obscure toys into memorable characters. The last time anyone accomplished this was Simon Furman in Transformers: The War Within, which ended prematurely due to Dreamwave’s poor management and collapse. As a critical, financial and artistic success, Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Vol. 5 is an assurance that the same fate won’t befall this title.

This first trade-length arc of MTMTE was collected shortly after the similarly set-up Robots in Disguise Volume 4. While RID’s five issue arc took a straightforward route in bringing back Megatron and explaining Prowl’s odd decisions, MTMTE’s longest arc decided to go in an unexpected direction to answer many lingering questions. Drift’s exile, Rewind’s death, and Overlord’s attack (all in Volume 3) are all still fresh in the Lost Light crew’s minds. To add to their stress, Ultra Magnus’s corpse is missing, Tailgate has only days to live due to a strange disease, Chromedome is still pining for his dead conjunx endura, and no one still knows what Skids’s origins are. A wormhole leading to a long-lost moon seems like enough of an adventure to lift their spirits.

With Roberts and Alex Milne as the creative team, it’s only a matter of time before something goes horribly wrong, and this time it’s in the form of Chief Justice Tyrest. He’s just one example of a background detail becoming a major plot point; in this case, Ultra Magnus has been announcing himself as the “Duly Appointed Enforcer of the Tyrest Accord” since The Last Stand of the Wreckers. That previous storyline is referenced numerous times in this trade, as the Aequitas judging machine was a project of Tyrest as well. Unfortunately, Tyrest has gone insane after performing judgment on so many Autobots and seeing so much of the horrors of war, and after a religious epiphany, he’s decided to begin a crusade.

Tyrest’s victims in his insane quest tie into Roberts’ frequent additions to the biology and history of the Transformers. During the trials, Tyrest found that those whose sparks (life forces) were constructed cold -- that is, created from parts of other sparks -- were more likely to commit crimes than those whose sparks were forged -- that is, created naturally. By confusing correlation with causation, he’s created a killswitch to shut down all cold-constructed Transformers as his way to clean himself of guilt and enter the Transformer equivalent of Heaven. Roberts created many of these concepts in his fan fiction and they bring a nice complexity to the origins of the Transformers. The highlight of the storyline is a scene which rapidly shows the killswitch affecting characters all over IDW’s universe, from the Scavengers to Hardhead in the “Syndromica” storyline and, in one of the most heartwarming moments in Transformers history, Soundwave cradling a dying Ravage.

Much like the Guardians of the Galaxy film, James Roberts uses his characters to reveal the details of their world and make some jokes along the way. One of the best interplays is between Tailgate and Cyclonus. Formerly a servant of Galvatron and a resident of the Dead Universe, Cyclonus is so conflicted over his soon-to-end friendship with the last remnant of his time that he scratches his face to excise his anger. Meanwhile, Tailgate is the one to save the day thanks to his training by Ultra Magnus and gets repaid with a new life. Cyclonus also finally puts his long-standing troubles with Whirl aside as the two fight against thousands of giant golden robots together. (This doesn’t preclude Cyclonus from having a Scrubs-style imagine spot wherein he pushes Whirl into a massive smelting pool.)

Skids’s plot gets its resolution with the introduction of Getaway, his friend and spy partner. I’ve always liked Getaway’s design and escape artist function, and both prove useful in getting Skids to understand why he lost his memories and how it relates to Tyrest. I don’t want to spoil a lot about what happens with Ultra Magnus in this trade; Roberts had carefully laid clues that something was wrong with him, as his memory was occasionally shoddy and his obsessive-compulsive disorder was constantly rising. Ratchet’s arc pits him yet again against Pharma, his insane friend-turned-psychopath. His antics are too much even for Tyrest and what happens to him is likely to be revisited in the post-Dark Cybertron world.

This is all illustrated in Alex Milne’s kinetic, almost cartoonish style, which nevertheless boasts many fantastic character designs. Tyrest’s multi-pointed crown, flowing cape, and numerous self-inflicted wounds mark him as one of the most unique characters MTMTE has ever depicted. It helps that Milne isn’t beholden to any toys; instead, Hasbro has been making toys of his designs with great success. James Raiz draws the final issue specifically because his darker style is such a contrast to Milne’s; it’s a breather issue taking the form of Rewind’s rough cut documentary of life aboard the Lost Light. The film’s creation was seen in bits and pieces over the course of the series and the issue explains some otherwise unusual moments. It’s a poignant mix of remembrance and humor, with one of the subplots including a quest to figure out the mysterious alternate mode of the therapist Rung.

Issue 22 serves to close out the first “season” of MTMTE in Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye Vol. 5, as the next four issues are part of the Dark Cybertron crossover. Roberts and Milne haven’t lost their touch in the second season, but I’ll get to that in a few months. But next week, I'll jump back to Marvel to check in on Loki.
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