Sunday, 7 May 2017

Comic Review: Transformers - More Than Meets the Eye, Volume 4

PUBLISHER: IDW (2012-2013)

There's a question deep in the heart of James Roberts' writing which boils down to one issue - is it worth short-term frustration for a long-term payoff? It's a difficult one; the quality of the payoff plays a big part but so does the nature of the frustration. Throughout the first three volumes (which amount to about a year's worth of comics, which is one Watchmen) it's been pretty clear that everyone we've seen far too much of is part of some grander plan and in the fourth collection things finally begin paying off. Partly. For some characters.

The first issue is a decent one, a more-or-less self-contained story about the events and consequences of a raid on a rabble of minor Decepticons. You certainly feel a lot of empathy with the gathered crew members champing at the bit for some action on the shuttle down to the planet. Naturally the narrative is a bit of an excuse for the usual gang to show off their trademark character traits, in case we've forgotten Whirl is dangerously unhinged or Swerve is a twat or whatever since the last issue but the structure is well-worked and the issue leads to a brilliant pay-off which says much more than any amount of witty banter could have done. It also begins to explore the full nature of the relationship of Chromedome and Rewind as lovers, whatever than means to Transformers - here presented as a significant other they want to spend all their time with.

This is both brave and cheap at the same time; while it's been well-seeded in previous issues with the pair's squabbling and is well-handled with no sensational announcements the whole concept is a bit of a cheat. Transformers form loving relationships with each other and have done for squillions of years but so far no-one's mentioned it ever happening before so it feels a little like the concept's suddenly appeared in the past few months, or that if it did exist it wasn't something anyone bothered talking about despite it largely defining Chromedome and Rewind as characters at this stage and all onboard the Lost Light being aware of it.

Such a good issue is then followed up by a serious contender for the series' worst yet as Roberts goes for the cheap shot of sending the regulars off to the pub, which might have been innovative if Warren Ellis hadn't spent most of the nineties sending everyone from every book he was put on to the pub. So we have unrestricted banter of mass destruction thanks to that twat Swerve, Ultra Magnus getting drunk (which is funny because he's so serious; imagine someone serious getting drunk and being funny, if you can picture such a crazy thing), lots of meta, LMDs which let us know what things from popular culture the writer likes because we were short of cues for that and lots of little things which are no doubt foreshadowing - the irony being that when he gets on with it as per the forefronting of Chromedome and Rewind the previous issue Roberts is a good enough writer to not really need much of it. In among this there's the strangely unsatisfying news that most of what Tailgate's told people of his role in the Ark-1 wasn't true. While the reader couldn't exactly guess it does feel predictable in terms of the small, naive, earnest robot not actually turning out to be anyone important but just another fucking woobie (giving Hubcap the title of Least Irritating 1986 Minibot, which he would hold until Nick Roche took one look at the universe and went "y'know, we need another woobie 1986 Minibot" for the dire Sins of the Wreckers), though Cyclonus' reaction is the saving grace of a bad issue.

The next two parts deal with the return of Overlord, kept chained up in the basement of the Lost Light due to a slightly weak conspiracy involving Prowl persuading bestest mate at the time Rodimus to take him along on the quest he was determined not to let him go on, with the Autobots also having found time to build him a new body exactly like his old one during the events of the previous three years what with all the resources they had living as hired vagrants on Earth, battling a super-powerful Megatron, fighting D-Void, living in the shattered remains of Iacon up to their necks in Decepticons and NAILs and so on. Never mind, though, as the rest of it is actually pretty good as Overlord gets released due to a moment's inattention from Chromedome during a mnemonic investigation and promptly goes on a rampage. 

Now I'm firmly of the opinion that IDW's offices should have been burnt down following the publication of Last Stand of the Wreckers #5 to prevent cheapening of the story but the actual return is well-handled, wisely taking a more claustrophobic, character-eye-view of the event that fits more with the tone of the series. Plus Overlord stamps running joke Pipes to death, though sadly he doesn't get as far as Whirl and Swerve. The battle itself is largely a device to shake things up on the ship, which is much needed as we get some movement for Fortress Maximus, Drift, Ultra Magnus, Chromedome and Rewind all of a sudden, not to mention the dangerous but charismatic Overlord himself. Rewind of course neatly solves his domestic issues with Chromedome by sacrificing himself, leading to a touching farewell.

The final issue in the collection deals with the aftermath as Magnus hovers at death's door after getting stabbed by Overlord. Roberts' usual quality flashbacks, dripping with tales we partly want to know and partly don't in case they disappoint, come into play nicely and hint that he might not have always been a comedy rulebook on legs. I mean, we knew that all ready because we'd read comics with Magnus in, some of them written by Roberts, but it's clear that the book's going somewhere with this - whether it will be somewhere that will justify the character being so irritating and the root of some of the series' worst comedy remains to be seen. Drift is also booted off in the direction of a second limited series while Rodimus gets called on being a dick by Rung. The real gem though is Chromedome's method of dealing with the loss of Rewind in a well-pitched conversation with Brainstorm, the latter dropping the gimmick for once. This falls into the same zone as the relationship as a whole by suggesting that Chromedome has had frequent partners and memory-wiped each, which is dramatically superb in the moment but raises the question of why he's the Liz Taylor of Cybertron and no-one else has even mentioned the concept before. Oh well.

Overall though while it's taken time More Than Meets the Eye has finally found some gears; in the shape of Pipes, Drift, Swerve, Tailgate and possibly Magnus some of the more irritating characters have either been written out or are surely turning the corner into becoming less irritating now their basic banter arcs are done, there have been no new cast members randomly added and stuff is actually happening, characters are actually developing. It's taken long enough, but it's here.

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