PUBLISHER: IDW (2012)
WRITER: JAMES ROBERTS
ARTISTS: JIMBO SALGADO, EMIL CABALTIERRA, GUIDO GUIDI, ALEX MILNE
Comic annuals are a funny thing usually; not the hardbacked volumes that result in so much shared cultural memories in the UK, but the American comic version - a double or triple length issue which had to come out alongside the monthly book and avoid clashing with the monthly issues it was ran alongside while having some sort of point. Quite why IDW decided to revive the format I don't know, though they were at least able to keep the writers on both even if the artists couldn't fit it into their schedules. The third MTMTE trade collects that title's annual and the three-part "Shadowplay" story that was James Roberts' solution to the Optimus Prime mandate received from Hasbro. Both show him at his strongest and weakest.
The annual starts off with possibly the nadir of the run (though I reserve the right to lower that if a character's killed off for drama and then replaced by an alternate universe version in a contrived plot to big up the DJD), a jokey subthread about miniaturised Autobots fighting parasites inside Ultra Magnus' mouth. We'll ignore the ongoing Flanderisation of Magnus for the purpose of cheap jokes designed to pander to the book's fanbase (roughly equal to the size of Southend United's) and Roberts' use of dumb lampshading to contrive that all his favourite characters are sent along for this sort of thing even if it's really stupid because lampshading justifies anything stupid - I mean, if someone says it's ridiculous to send Whirl on a mission it can't be criticised because the writer's criticised it himself, right? Genius. So yeah, we'll ignore that. The big problem is that it just isn't funny. I mean, it's funny if you just read Transformers comics and edit the Wiki and watch Transformers cartoons and buy Transformers toys but then if you're in that situation you'll laugh at anything because your life's a joke anyway. But you show this to a normal person and they're not going to laugh - a bit like Magnus, am I right? Banter! And this isn't a throwaway meta thing, this is like three or four pages.
The meat of the annual plot isn't actually that bad for the most part, with a decent mystery surrounding the fate of the Circle of Light that shows we've in for a long haul searching for the Knights of Cybertron. Yaaaay. It's nice to actually have some sort of moderate questing going on after the sidetracking to introduce all those extra characters the book so desperately and while the Lost Light continues its' ability to be totally and utterly lost in space but perennially running into Transformers at least the plot with the Titan is a change of pace and doesn't involve another character being added to the crew. There's some nice focus on Drift too, some sort of payoff for his fortune cookie characterisation and even some vague sign of that twat Swerve not just being a bantz dispenser. It turns out the reason Swerve is such a massive twat is because he's insecure - step aside Rorschach, make way Mark Grayson, take a hike Tyler Locke, clear a path Jesse Custer, we're dealing with one of the great comic characters here - an insecure guy who covers his insecurities by joking. Still, now that this has been acknowledged maybe Swerve will move back in the mix rather than continuing to be forefronted, eh?
Fuck no. The remaining three-parter is "Shadowplay", another tale delving into the history of the war on Cybertron, notably the growing role of Orion Pax as the senate's corruption steps into overdrive. It's a superb story full of great detective work (Chromedome and a callow Prowl make a fine pairing even if the latter gets far too much cheap ironic dialogue), fine detail and a wide range of big and small concepts about Cybertronian society, an angle Roberts can work like no other writer the franchise has ever had. It's brilliant and, despite the rough trajectory of the Senator's fate being clear through deduction, occasionally powerful, with Roberts still the best writer of Prime/Pax as well. The problem? It's got to be wrapped in zany banter. The framework of the characters telling their part in the tale to reawaken Rung is fairly solid even if it feels like a writing class exercise but there's a fundamental distrust of the readership's intelligence and attention span in there. Unlike Barber, Roberts isn't brave enough to trust his audience to remember what the characters were doing if a month or so goes by without that twat Swerve making a joke or Whirl saying something nuts or Skids being mysterious or whatever. It's all designed to retain that tumblr rebloggability.
So basically if Hasbro hadn't told Roberts to put Optimus Prime in the comic and if IDW hadn't wanted a one-shot self-contained story for the annual you'd be left with a bunch of boring comedy characters sat around exchanging weak jokes, reminding slower readers of their basic personality traits while they queue up for their big arc. So thank God for toy multinationals and cash-hungry comic publishers.