Review: Transformers: Dark Cybertron Vol. 1 trade paperback (IDW Publishing)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

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

The Transformers: Dark Cybertron crossover is not an event that could have happened before, or even soon after, the launch of the two ongoing titles. Each book was able to feed on years of previously set-up clues to slowly inch More Than Meets the Eye and Robots In Disguise towards James Roberts and John Barber’s desired point. This is especially clear in hindsight when it comes to Robots In Disguise, which treaded water after its Volume 4 trade while Roberts delivered the fantastic “Remain In Light” arc in More. That’s not to say that Robots didn’t matter in the meantime; Barber gave us insights into the minds of Starscream, Soundwave, and Shockwave while the main Autobot and Decepticon forces were exiled to the wildernesses of Cybertron. “Syndromica” also finally concluded and hinted at Shockwave’s overall plan.

The writers slowly reveal that scheme over the course of the twelve issues, first disguising it as a plot to resurrect Nova Prime and Galvatron from the Dead Universe, antagonists who had key parts in Simon Furman’s stories and the old ongoing. It’s drawn by Infinite Crisis penciller Phil Jimenez as his first work on the Transformers franchise. It’s almost unfair to call this a decoy plan as it’s one of the three main plots to which the writers cut back and forth for the first three quarters of the crossover. The other two plots see the crew of the Lost Light search for Metroplex while the remnants of Cybertron must fight against the Necrotitan, an undead robot the size of a city. Barber and Roberts try to imitate the way mini-series tie into major events while using only two titles. All of this is done with the tactic of changing artists for each plotline, which works ... sort of.

The Dead Universe plotline is the best of the three initial plotlines, reuniting Orion Pax with Rodimus and adds Cyclonus and Hardhead -- who fought each other in the past -- as foils both to each other and to the Autobot leaders. Along the way, they encounter Kup and Nightbeat, both thought dead for quite some time in this continuity. A key death in this storyline in part six marks the cliffhanger of the first trade, but it’s not quite dramatic enough to feel like the book’s halfway mark. All of this is illustrated by Livio Raimondelli, whose moody and stylistic art is fitting for a story set on a planet of death.

The other two plotlines are out of balance, and this is a spot where I think Barber and Roberts could have moved things around for story-building and clarity purposes. The Lost Light crew spend almost an entire issue having a nearly pointless aquatic battle, and another getting lost in a Scooby Doo-style chase in a complicated hallway. This is all to build up tension before the big introduction of the female Transformers led by Windblade. On Cybertron, Starscream has too many scenes in which he’s portrayed as a scheming yet failing politician, unable to deal with a death plague spread by the Necrotitan. Amongst the victims of the plague are the Constructicons, who are important later on as they must merge with Prowl to form Devastator. Their sickness is not really mentioned before it is cured, and the odd couple set-up of a bunch of Decepticon goons hero-worshipping an arrogant Autobot is funny when it’s shown in later issues.

What really should have happened was to have one plotline per title, with a mini-series for the Dead Universe plot and more things for the More cast to do. It all finally comes together in part nine as the Necrotitan and Metroplex finally meet in battle and the casts of the two ongoings come together. There’s some great tension built as Shockwave sets off his big plans while the Autobots celebrate their apparent victory, with various minor bits, like the supposed friendship between Robots’s Blurr and More’s Swerve, finally paying off. While James Raiz did a capable job on the Metroplex plotline, Atilio Rojo was not as well-received by the fandom, so many were relieved when regular series artists Alex Milne and Andrew Griffith returned to work on the story after finishing the Dark Prelude artwork.

Another fan-favorite, Brendan Cahill, draws the final chapter as Shockwave’s plan is finally unveiled: the various ores he’s seeded across the universe allow him to warp the nature of time and space now that they’ve been combined and proportioned correctly. As some readers have pointed out, this is essentially the plot of Infinity Gauntlet, making Shockwave the Thanos of the Transformers. This is not a slam on the quality of the story; I personally didn’t make the connection when I first read Dark Cybertron. If anything, the decoy opening plots made the story seem like the more recent Infinity; plus, if you’re going to crib plot elements from a previous crossover, you might as well crib from the best.

In the end, Transformers: Dark Cybertron could have been better had certain things changed, like IDW’s insistence on folding “Syndromica” into Robots or a switch in the artists, but despite my complaints, I still recommend reading it. The changes brought by the story have been better for the franchise on the whole. Introducing the female Transformers led to the Windblade mini-series and upcoming ongoing, which has revamped many long-held concepts. While the move to Earth in Robots has been disappointing and my faith in John Barber is starting to wane, there’s enough to look forward to. The biggest winner is More, which picks up on the astonishing ending of Dark Cybertron and runs with it as the Lost Light takes on its new captain.

But that’s still a few weeks away. Next week, I'll return to the ever-impressive current Deadpool title as Wade Wilson takes on SHIELD.
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