PUBLISHER: IDW (2011)
WRITERS: MIKE COSTA, JAMES ROBERTS
ARTISTS: GUIDO GUIDI, ALEX MILNE
The supreme irony of IDW finally taking the plunge into making a single Transformers ongoing only for it to be even more fractured continues in the fifth collection of the series. IDW had by now realised that Mike Costa wasn't really hitting the right notes with either the fandom or the by this stage non-existent casual readers the title had accrued and began looking at bringing in another writer alongside the handful, the original plan being for Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning to join the three or four different Mike Costas in writing the book. After contributing the dodgy "Infestation" and weird "Heart of Darkness", the first building blocks for the planned "Chaos" event storyline, yet another IDW saga that would make sure the world of Transformers would never be the same or whatever. They then fucked off to do something else and instead the job went to James Roberts, then just the popular mortal writer of Last Stand of the Wreckers and yet to be cocooned in a sycophantic social media echo chamber.
The big plan was to step the ongoing up to bi-monthly with each writer following a plot thread - Costa on Earth and Roberts on Cybertron - in the lead-up to Chaos. First through there was time for one more tangent for Costa on his own first as he catches back up with Rodimus floating in space for a painfully overlong story that sees him catch back up with Wheelie and then journey to Cybertron, collecting Ironhide and Sunstreaker after a run-in with Galvatron and then heading back to Earth to link up with the Autobots there. Basically it's an indulgent piece of joining dots that feels both rushed and dull at the same time; far too much time is spent reestablishing Wheelie, a loose thread that had no real need to be picked back up, and then the important stuff is brushed over in the third part, which splits the storyline literally in two in a fashion which is hopefully intentionally portentous. It does at least acknowledge both the shit deal Bumblebee's had so far as Autobot leader and that Spike's prick behaviour is the result of a two-year long game but the actual issue isn't well-handled, frustrating after forty-odd pages of funny aliens and Wheelie. It's like Costa read "Heart of Darkness" and thought he should do something completely the tonal opposite of the series to date as well.
The other split thread concerns Optimus Prime, still doing most of the actual Autobot leading, pack up a bunch of characters onto part of Omega Supreme and heading to Cybertron to confront Galvatron, with the slight complication that a captive, cocky and powerful Megatron is still captive onboard. With the Bumblebee/Skywatch stuff stowed until the Police Action trade the main focus is on Prime dropping in for a chat with Megatron to pass the time and the result is a tour-de-force for both characters. Roberts is the writer and he shows his penchant for clever cribbing here, almost entirely based on the major works of Alan Moore - the set-up of the arch enemies having a bullshit-free chat is from The Killing Joke, Megatron's passionate justification of fascism is paraphrased from David Susan and the superficially throwaway mentions of tantalising history scattered through the flashbacks owe more than a little to the initial world building of Watchmen. This is a man who has something mapped out, a first for IDW. The two fallen leaders make for a fascinating political discussion and both get their characters zeroed in after five years of fractious, sensation-driven characterisation, Roberts being more concerned with how they should have been written rather than the tedious business of how they actually have been.
Along the way we get our first real look at prewar Optimus Prime, or Orion Pax; I've always hated the name but there's little other realistic choice and it works well enough . His deputies Springarm and Wheelarch, while obvious cannon fodder due to their generic names, are nicely realised and Megatron's early political life is well-handled as Roberts continues the selection box approach to IDW's past material (to be fair, Megatron and his basic story arc weren't the problem with Megatron Origin). It's also fantastic to see Optimus Prime given a well-rounded character full of self-doubt without him becoming a moping bore. The whole verbal bout fleshes out the history of the war full-stop, filling it with actual important-sounding flashpoints and not pretending some scuffle on Earth is the meat of the war. The only slight fault is the need to have various Autobots pop up outside to add dippy banter, which was presumably to keep things chirpy but only undercuts the tension and scale of the discussion.
As a book the title story just about justifies the thing and is certainly both a crucial touchstone for anything going forward and an actual genuine jump-on point as it basically boils Optimus Prime and Megatron down to pure archetype and fleshes them out once again. Costa's "Space Opera" is more forgettable even on his own terms but then you don't have to actually read it or anything.