PUBLISHER: IDW (2012)
WRITER: JOHN BARBER
ARTISTS: LIVIO RAMONDELLI, ANDREW GRIFFITH
It's one of the ironies that Simon Furman was given a clean slate and crammed it full of crowdpleasing rubbish whereas his largely more relevant successors have been expected to pander to Hasbro in a way not seen since the eighties. However, these interventions - a legacy of the boom since the live action movies hit overdrive - aren't always a bad thing and Hasbro's stipulation that both titles in mid-2012 feature Optimus Prime, written out in "The Publicity Stunt of Optimus Prime" some six months previously, actually brings out a welcome change for both titles.
For John Barber's Robots in Disguise it's a clean break from the intrigue on Cybertron, which benefits from simmering for a month. While the usual set-up has promise the intentional claustrophobia and noise level doesn't give much scope and to catch up with Orion Pax out in space is fun. Optimus' return was inevitable and this way we get to see him off in a non-intrusive story to gently seed a potential dovetailing with the main plot without upstaging anyone else. Once again Barber's love of tying up loose ends comes to the fore as he starts up a second plot thread revolving around the survival of Jhiaxus, guarded by Hardhead, Wheelie and Garnak. The story also receives art from the brilliant Livio Ramondelli; unlike Chaos he's played firmly to his strengths here and it adds to the freshness of the story. Despite his trademark inner narration Barber doesn't get inside Orion Pax's head much here but that's possibly for the best; a clean break and no more bloody moping.
The rest of the collection returns to the plot on Cybertron. The focus of each issue broadens out the cast but keeps the longer threads ticking over; the difference compared to More Than Meets the Eye is that this is done in a less interesting fashion with leaner writing allowing for more forward motion rather than incessant banter. The first consists of Wheeljack trying to infiltrate a newly-arrived (ex) Decepticon ship commanded by Turmoil with the revelation that the ship has a time machine onboard, a foreshadowing if ever one was seen. Barber has a nice handle on Wheeljack though and it's nice to see the guy back in the spotlight - while he's always been there or thereabouts apart from Earthforce and that time he was the only Autobot on the Ark with any astroballs while King Grimlock was in charge he's never had much focus. There's also some depth added to Metalhawk, who finally doesn't seem to be running on pure awkwardness.
The balance is made up of a two issues which deal with the landscape outside of the Iacon shanty town, using Ironhide and the Dinobots (minus Grimlock) out searching for the Aerialbots, who deserted previously. It's not one of his better works; Ironhide isn't as captivating as he was in Mike Costa's solo series and to be honest his harping on about his vision of a utopian future is as dumb as everyone else thinks it is. On top of that his interaction with the Dinobots is dire, like the lowest points of Sean McCarthy's tenure as all concerned point out to each other how hardcore they are. It's nice to see Sky Lynx though and the political plot ticks over with a growing focus on Bumblebee beyond him just bemoaning his lot.
It's the first part of the tie-in with the Combiner Wars toyline, which is a bit of a problem as IDW have always made a song and dance about combiners and have thoroughly painted themselves into a corner by making them so rare; while there's time in forthcoming issues for some sort of explanation it's hard not to sigh in anticipation of a convoluted explanation of what's moulded the Aerialbots into the shambling Superion that staggers onscreen. It's hard not to sympathise with Barber, dealing with Furman's long-standing prejudice against the concept ingrained on a base level in the IDW universe and then a toy company deciding that concept will be the centrepiece of their latest toyline.
The industry's inflexibility with trades makes this a more disjointed read than should probably be, or at least IDW's decision to limit it to four issues, meaning it's a standalone, a long game foundation and the first two parts of a story. It's a credit to Barber that there's any sort of readability in the collection really, though he's putting a lot of eggs into splitting up the storyline into various threads as opposed to pulling characters into the story.