Review: Transformers: Windblade trade paperback (IDW Publishing)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

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

Ever since Transformers introduced female robots back in the episode “The Search for Alpha Trion” from the original series, their existence has posed a conundrum for writers. After a long time of pretty much just ignoring it, Simon Furman introduced Arcee into the IDW Transformers universe as a “regular” Cybertronian converted into a “female.” This launched quite the controversy about transgender awareness and even questioning the logic of gender amongst mechanical beings. (Furman even got involved but has since made peace.)

Thus the Camiens were introduced in Dark Cybertron: a splinter race of female Cybertronians who split off genetically eons ago and who are responsible for taking care of the city-sized Titan robots. Metroplex, the most famous of the Titans, ended up crashing to Cybertron’s surface and becoming the new major settlement. With him came Windblade the Cityspeaker, title character of Mairghread Scott's collected miniseries Transformers: Windblade.

[Review contains spoilers]

Just when you thought Windblade’s origins couldn’t get more convoluted, there’s also a serious marketing aspect to her. She was the result of an online fan poll held for the Transformers' 30th anniversary with a figure and mini-series guaranteed from the outset. When the results were announced, fans had an (unsurprisingly) mixed reaction, primarily due to the face design. I’ll admit that I’m not a big supporter of the kabuki make-up face they gave Windblade, but there’s a reason for it in the story as the race’s founder Caminus had similar face markings. The fandom was also wary because it reminded them of another Japan-inspired “soon-to-be-your-favorite” IDW Transformer with a heavy media push: Drift, who still has a large share of detractors. However, Windblade has since gained steady support thanks to the work of her mini-series’ co-creators.

Writer Scott's Transformers: Windblade sets up Windblade as a na├»ve but optimistic figure. There are moments where she feels like “Space Pollyanna,” such as after a group of bar patrons lay out the various sins of Starscream. With Optimus Prime away on Earth and the Lost Light co-commanded by the ex-Decepticon leader, Cybertron needs someone with an actual positive agenda. Scott avoids many of the “Mary Sue” traps that Drift fell into by making her a not a particularly great fighter; she’s fast, agile and has a sword, but that’s about it. Instead, she relies on this book’s other female Autobot, Chromia, the only one retained from the original cartoon series. As Windblade’s tough as nails bodyguard, she keeps her charge protected from the seediest elements of Cybertron, but unlike Windblade, Chromia hasn’t come to see Cybertron as a new home.

The Windblade mini-series had another way to keep fans invested: it follows through on some of the Cybertron-centric plotlines that Robots in Disguise dropped after its move to Earth. Starscream’s still in charge of the slow rebuilding process while Blurr and the patrons of his bar are key B-players, especially Waspinator. The universe’s chew-toy gets a standout moment in the second issue as Windblade and Chromia learn just how pitiful he is. In another carried-over plotline, Ironhide is now roaming the interiors of Metroplex after his vision of the future from the previous ongoing didn’t come true. This is a rare example of getting rid of an unwanted prophecy without forgetting it entirely, and it gives Ironhide a new character angle.

Speaking of Waspinator, there are a lot of seemingly random appearances by characters from other aspects of the franchise: Tankor from Beast Machines and Sky-Byte from Robots in Disguise (the 2001 anime) are other bar regulars, while Rattrap from Beast Wars is Starscream’s aide-de-camp. They’re all intended to be normal Cybertronians; this way, they can be given updated toys through Hasbro’s Generations line, which was pioneered by the Dark Prelude issues. It’s a very high level of toy-to-comic synchronicity that would work much better if Hasbro’s distribution wasn’t horrible. It’s also led to being able to predict upcoming comic book plot twists through the toy release schedule.

At the center of the mini-series is the mystery of an energy drainage within Metroplex and a bomber who tries to stop Windblade from investigating it. It’s blatantly set up to be Starscream, and even the alternate choice, Rattrap, doesn’t make much sense.

The bomber turns out to be Chromia. When I first read the story, this was very confusing and seemed like a lame twist, but it makes much more sense when you go for a second reading to look for clues. Her blurb on the “cast page” is, in big bold letters, "not from Cybertron," which foreshadows her motivation. The drainage is occurring because Chromia is shunting all the energy into Metroplex’s space bridge so that they can fly back to Caminus, away from the madness of Cybertron. This leads to the one controversial element that really is worth getting angry over: Windblade’s response is to lightly chastise Chromia and tell her to get back to work bettering Cybertron. This is a woman whose bombs killed people -- a fact repeated several times -- for a selfish motive that Windblade didn’t even agree with. This could be put down to Windblade having a different morality than humans; after all, “death” is relative to the Transformers, so it’s likely that the unnamed victims will be resurrected. But it’s an irksome ending to an otherwise good book.

Bolstering Scott’s writing is Sarah Stone, an ascended fan artist whose semi-painted work is simply gorgeous. She draws fantastic facial expressions and is able to keep the action moving despite the tendency for painted comics to feel “static.” Stone also knows how to make the female Transformers look feminine without adding too much gratuitous human anatomy. That’s important as Transformers: Windblade will return this year as an ongoing for the Combiner Wars crossover. It’s a story I eagerly await; Scott and Stone, much like More Than Meets the Eye’s Roberts and Milne, have turned toy robots into the subject of serious social debate.

Next week, it’s Duke and Optimus Prime meets ... Jack Kirby and Ed Piskor? Yeah, that describes how weird Transformers vs. GI Joe is.
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