WRITER: JOHN BARBER
ARTIST: ANDREW GRIFFITH
Over the first 11 issues of Robots in Disguise John Barber had gleefully shaken the beer cans of Cybertron - the actual planet is hostile, Bumblebee's in charge of an increasingly-hated Autobots, Prowl seems to be carrying out the assassination of various technically peaceful Decepticons with the aid of Arcee, Starscream is gaining ground as leading candidate for success in the promised democratic elections, Metalhawk and thus the former neutrals are very much falling into Starscream's orbit, the Decepticons largely seem to be resisting much in the way of integration with a planned plot by Shockwave being foiled by Prowl at the cost of the Autobot's serious injury, Omega Supreme is bombed and finally Megatron staggers out of the wasteland. It's all at bursting point; the only problem is that Hasbro were at the time trotting out the largely dire Combiner Wars line and decided they wanted it featured in the comics. More Than Meets the Eye largely dodged it, with Robots in Disguise taking one for the team. And Barber decided this was exactly the time for Iacon to explode.
The following five issues that bring the opening phase of Robots in Disguise to an end are breathless stuff. So much happens that by simple law of averages some of it isn't so good but it's certainly a fun, breathless read. It all starts with a neat double-bluff as Megatron is a shambling mess of no threat in himself, though his mere presence pushes the bulk of the Decepticons - with their only high-ranking survivor Starscream seen as a turncoat working with their enemies - into further unrest. It's a bit of a shame that we get the dick surrender move Megatron used so recently during Mike Costa's run again but here it's barely dwelled on, the reasons easy to fathom as the demobbed Decepticons go on the riot, opposed by a revived Prowl - kitted out and promising to show Wheeljack the next stage of his plan.
From there on it's a series of fine revelations as much is revealed to be the work of a long game from Megatron - Prowl has been under his control via Bombshell and the planet's problems were of his creation. The former is a wonderfully done masterstroke, hugely benefiting from Prowl's flexible moral centre - because the string of killings he had been involved with (the majority revealed to have been staged) could have been something he might have done under his own control. It's also smart enough to not simply be a mere cop-out as while Prowl has previously operated in various grey areas you'd think he'd have been less clumsy. The double-page spread revealing the contents of the Black Room - Shockwave, Soundwave, Bombshell, the Constructicons and the rest alongside Prowl and a captive Wheeljack is a master cliffhanger.
Equally well-handled is Starscream, refusing to get involved in another of Megatron's schemes and aghast that the Decepticons will damage his own agenda with their attempts. He gets some of the finest writing he's ever received during this section, interacting brilliantly with Megatron and everyone else while cannily articulating his historically-validated evaluation that something will always stop the Decepticons. Of course by the end of it he's then revealed to be entirely on his own side though again his exact motives are still open - his betrayal of Metalhawk, a genuine friend, is a shocking personal moment for anyone who believed he was fully on the side of good but can also be rationalised as for the greater good of Cybertron rather than mere opportunism for personal power.
The actual Decepticon plot provides some solid action, something much needed in IDW's material of late and it's generally good, solid fun with shifting balances of power throughout including some nice character moments in among the violence. Arcee and Dirge both have their presences made public in amongst it all while Ironhide and the Dinobots get to ride in and turn the tide, which is neat. Some of the carnage is undone immediately and some no doubt will be soon after but it makes for solid, visceral action as both sides try to out-trump each other. Given the lampshade Starscream hangs on the Decepticons' perpetual defeated status there's even a chance things won't go the Autobots way before a clever little booby trap laid by Wheeljack (executed by the controlled Prowl in a callous, offhand fashion) provides a smart stop to Megatron.
For a story named Combiner Wars there actually aren't many combiners, though both provide the story's weaker moments. Adding the controlled Prowl to the Constructicons to allow forming Devastator is an interesting one; from a technical point of view it's a clear nod to the toyline but also a fresh look at the basic concept - really there's no reason in the franchise's fiction why only set team members can combine and having others modified makes a degree of sense to avoid a whole giant robot being inaccessible because a human shoots one of the members. However, the visual of Devastator with a giant Prowl head looks daft and the Autobot's personality resurfacing to overcome the Decepticon is so obvious it's surprising Barber actually uses it. The other featured is Superion; he's probably the weakest element of the whole book, or at least his creation is. The idea that the Aerialbots could evolve under any circumstances to form a combiner however dire their situation and replicate technology that took insanee geniuses like Jhiaxus and Shockwave so long to master works better as a loose abstract concept than an actual plot point. In Barber's defence it's possibly the only halfway reasonable one that could be given for such a rapid appearance, perhaps with Hasbro breathing down his neck eager for Superion to show. But it really is terrible.
Perhaps though it stands out because the rest of Combiner Wars is so good, bringing off much of Barber's seeding and intrigue with considerable panache, a few surprises and some sharp characterisation to boot. The only worry is that the writer's played too many of his cards and will have to start building plots once again; that and it's getting more than a little miserable watching Bumblebee and the Autobots getting the shit end of the stick, so the new exile set-up is hardly promising. But for now there's this, an enjoyable smackdown robot fight like the sort Simon Furman used to dish up before his mysterious disappearance up his own bottom. Enjoy it while you can.