Saturday, 13 May 2017

Comic Review: Transformers - More Than Meets the Eye, Volume 5


Despite everyone hating Chaos - including writer Mike Costa probably, what with him hating everything - IDW decided that a big gigantic event was what everyone really wanted from Transformers comics and thus did decree that the crew of the Lost Light return from whatever the fuck they were doing and link up with everyone else on for their planned Dark Cybertron storyline. More Than Meets the Eye, which had been just fine pottering off into space thank you very much, was spared the build-up work (handled by John Barber's Cybertron-based Robots in Disguise) but had to get its' house in order - there were even rumours early on that the book would either be cancelled or retooled. While it didn't really come close it meant that Roberts clearly decided to fast-track a couple of plot threads to be addressed before the crossover.

[Spoilers Follow]

The main subject addressed are the mysterious gaps in Skids' memories and what exactly he was doing when he stumbled across the Lost Light back in the opening volume with his 'invisible' gun and his droid adversaries. Skids has been one of the more tolerable regulars of the series so far; he's something of a Mary Sue, with a wide degree of skills plus considerably better perception and intelligence than basically everyone despite his memory gaps but after that business with the gun he's largely managed to avoid becoming a walking recurring joke unlike the rest of the cast.

A black ops mission was an obvious explanation for his past but the actual unfolding of it is very nicely done, with some big concepts once again, fun jargon and the revelation (but not really a revelation at all really) that Prowl's behind everything like Mr Sinister with a lightbar on his back. Unlike the stupidity of Prowl somehow convincing someone to take a meticulously rebuilt Phase Sixer along on a journey away from Prowl and his shit because they were fed up with Prowl and his shit this one actually works. Well, apart from the introduction of Getaway - who immediately gets a funny vocal tic that allows that twat Swerve to do a joke. Yaaaaay.

While the five-part "Remain in the Light" story solves the questions about Skids' backstory it's as much the focus for Ultra Magnus, left dying after getting run through by Overlord. Magnus had been largely seen as a serious-minded space cop since the days of Simon Furman (remember him?) with a varying degree of flex in his attitude. Then More Than Meets the Eye came along and reduced him to a one-dimensional anal retentive obsessed with small print and an outlet for some of the title's shittier non-Swerve jokes, culminating in a cringe-inducing skit about how the crew had to make him smile - something he apparently hadn't done for years despite doing it in Last Stand of the Wreckers. But what is MTMTE other than an excuse to junk any pre-existing characterisation in favour of limp jokes? Der Verfasser has spoken, this is Magnus now, if you don't like it fuck off because eight thousand people like it enough to buy it in multiple formats, like a David Sylvian album.

Of course, nothing happens in MTMTE that isn't eventually, painstakingly, painfully working its' way towards some "You ain't my muvva, Kat!" revelation and Roberts totally had an explanation for bowdlerising Ultra Magnus. Totally, and not at all in response to some minor fan criticism (which, as we will discover further down, is not something Our Humble Fabulist is particularly fond of). No, to be fair I believe that he had this one scribbled down somewhere but a mixture of the momentary pause in unbroken adulation and the possibility that he wouldn't be allowed to play with the same toys after Dark Cybertron caused it to be moved up the order.

The trick is that Ultra Magnus is a suit of armour (fun fact - the original Ultra Magnus toy was armour for a smaller robot; not a lot of people know that and the idea of using it for cheap drama in a Transformers comic has never been done), a catspaw of Tyrest that's been occupied by many Autobots over the years, hence how his personality jumps around all the time like it didn't before More Than Meets the Eye. Inside since the series started has been comically diminutive Minimus Ambus (Minimus, because he's small - noyce!) has been playing the part but it turns out his extreme pedantry has been down to a nervous breakdown due to the end of the war. Crikey.

Crikey indeed. And there are only several problems with this tacky grandstanding retcon. Firstly, Magnus was never really tied into the war per se since we've seen him, being some cross between a secret agent and a military policeman. The thirty-odd IDW comics published since Chaos - not to mention the similar amount between that event and the war-ending-sort-of All Hail Megatron - have shown that while there might be an official state of peace there's no shortage of Scorponok-esque mad Decepticon schemers for a comic a desk-plaque toting space cop to chase down. Secondly basically no-one notices his personality shift aside from a couple of throwaway lines; this could be hand-waved as no-one really knowing him but the problem is it's been a running joke for The Funny Ones to list various fussy incidents both seen and unseen, all acting like this is normal for Magnus, and no-one actually questions why such a legendary Autobot is suddenly obsessed with this stuff.

But then you have to suppose this is de rigeur for Magnuses (Magni?) since Tyrest started the wheeze. A flashback actually shows his personality shifting as presumably different people piloted the armour; this is a problem because the vast majority of Transformers are ancient so this can't be lost in the mists of time. While Magnus' IDW history is spotty as are many others it's a fair assumption he spent a lot of time in the Autobot ranks alongside a lot of other big guns to get his exalted reputation and yet the likes of Optimus and Prowl never noticed any personality shift? More damning is Tyrest's method - the armour is rigged to teleport back to his base when the occupant dies, wherein a successor steps in and the torch is passed. So for a period of however long the armour vanishes, which considering again the longevity of the species and the handful of details we're told usually involves some big act of heroism rather than conking out in front of a fire reading a book (or whatever's Latin for conking out in front of a fire reading a book). And yet the first people to ever notice the armour disappearing and asking questions are the idiots onboard the Lost Light. It's like The Truman Show - the illusion has worked perfectly up to now but suddenly breaks down because otherwise there's no story.

The shame of it all is that the rest of the story is good, bordering on great. If you could somehow disentangle this rather desperate attempt to justify Magnus' personality from the plot - and plain ol' nervous breakdown without him being part of a lineage might have worked at least as well; it really seems like Roberts had the loose idea of making Magnus a dynasty and hate-fucked it into the universe even though it made no logical sense - then it would probably be one of the better MTMTE storylines. For a start there's an actual story with actual implications beyond more boring, telegraphed revelations about the main cast's dreary personality issues - Tyrest with a returning Pharma and Star Saber (making for a twisted opposite trio for Rodimus, Ratchet and the departed Drift), the kill-switch, the wonderfully simple fate of the Circle of Light; it's all fabulous. Of course there are a couple of fake-outs - notably the survival of Minimus - but less than in previous outings and generally the storytelling unfolds nicely.

Best of all after 18 months there's actually a whole cavalcade of character development. Skids and Magnus get their storylines resolved or at least redirected; Ratchet again clashes with arch-enemy Pharma; Cyclonus and Whirl make some ground (the latter nails a fine moment late on but for once is actually justified on the away team); even Rodimus begins to stop being a walking punch line. Tailgate has stuff happen to him but remains a wide-eyed woobie, though he makes a decent foil-slash-motivational device for Cyclonus so pass and Rung once again gets a workout. Swerve of course is a little twat and manages to act as chaff for the whole Minimus rubbish by becoming even more of a twat as Roberts caves to the fans and gives him a gun that's as funny as the Minibot himself, though he's slightly less cancerous than in some other arcs - or at least drowned out by stuff that's actually good, it's hard to tell. It's the usual Swerve's doing a joke, Swerve's doing a joke, everbody quiet because Swerve's doing a joke stuff.

After this though Roberts spoils it all with an issue intended to be packed with Skids' toy and thus act as effectively a promo for the series while also possibly serving as an epitaph for the series while also not really tying to much else while also keeping clear of yet-to-be-written issues as it was made earlier. That's a lot of alsos, so given the book's belief that it's a TV series a sort of outtake compilation based on the documentary Rewind was filming before his death is actually a decent approach. Like the Spotlights Roberts wrote for the Trailcutter & Hoist Generations figures this means a reversion to the early style where lots of characters pop up to do their schtick and remain in their holding pattern around a dumb main plot. 

In this case it's all played for lulz as Thunder Clash arrives onboard, the big joke being that he's this amazing famous super-Autobot who everyone but Rodimus loves - Ace Rimmer, basically, but because Roberts likes Red Dwarf it's a homage and not blatant, clunking plagiarism. Of course it's part of an ongoing universe so the news that the amazing Thunder Clash is loved by everyone but has never been mentioned by anyone before - jokes, right? Even though it's not funny we'll go with it being top jokes, otherwise we'll get a five part arc about how he was really Searchlight all along but wearing a suit because of the DJD or somesuch toss. So please, let's just pretend it's funny enough to justify being just a zany gag and move on.

Amazingly this isn't the worst part of the issue. The device is that Rewind's film is being used by Skids to try and recruit the surviving members of the Circle of Light to join their quest, because getting his memories back have made Skids a dumb fuck who thinks this collection of jokes that weren't funny enough for original issues (yes, less funny than that twat Swerve and his Hilarious Gun) would be a great recruitment tool. And the boring old stuffy Circle of Light think so too, at which point any doubt that Skids is Roberts' robosona evaporate as the Autobot launches into a spectacularly precious little rant about how anyone who criticises More Than Meets the Eye - sorry, the Lost Light's quest - just isn't getting it and should fuck off - sorry, join up with Thunder Clash. It's an almost breathtaking throwing of toys out of the pram; firstly, MTMTE is and was a very well reviewed title - Roberts' Twitter account and willingness to converse with his readers has left him with a cult of several thousand people who would actually kill themselves if he told them to so that a few grumbles made it past his filter threw him into this sort of hissy fit points to a writer with a surprisingly thin skin. Secondly even if we were to ignore that and say MTMTE had received harsh reviews I've read many, many comics that have been slated - Chuck Austen's run on Uncanny X-Men with its' broad similarities to MTMTE (absurd and idiosyncratic retcons, bloated cast, reduction of long-established characters to a single repeated trait, Mary Sues, stapling banal everyday soap opera elements to a fantastical premise), which was hated by everyone who read it is an obvious comparison - I don't think I've ever seen a writer reduced to such a playground rant, especially in-comic. It's two fingers up, a sign that Roberts will continue to tailor the title to sycophants rather than even entertaining constructive criticism.

It leaves a bad taste in the mouth as the end of the 'first season' of More Than Meets the Eye and has made me personally think less of Roberts as a person as well as a writer. It's a shame as without that issue the "Remain in the Light" arc would have made for a solid, if occasionally flawed, story with lots of superb moments and some highly enjoyable threads. You do have to wonder if, like they should have done with Furman, IDW yanking on the leash actually benefited the title and who knows what might have transpired if the timescale towards Dark Cybertron had been known longer. As it is it's hard to give an unqualified recommend.

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