By Steve Morris
Most pieces written about IDW’s Transformers comics start with the writer pointing out that they were never traditionally a fan of the toys, shows or comics, and that they’re coming to read the comic completely cold, without knowing what they’re in for. Perhaps because of the hugely positive word of mouth around the comics since they relaunched in 2011, it seems like there’s been a lot of new readers trying Transformers – not interested in other comics around them, but purely walking into the store for the first time because they wanted to try Transformers.
I won’t say that I know nothing about the Transformers, because I had two quick, memorable training sessions from two of the best: Mairghread Scott, who helped prime me before I interviewed her about Windblade a few years ago, and Transformers legend Rachel Stevens. You can’t go wrong with those mentors and, much like going abroad after learning German years ago at secondary school; when I read Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye #1 I found that I’d retained far more than I thought I could’ve.
To whit: there used to be a war between two groups of giant robots which can transform into either a humanoid or vehicular form. On one side were the Autobots, who were the goodies and were led by a giant truck called Optimus Prime. On the other side were the Decepticons, who were the baddies and were led by some purple transformer whose name I forget. Something happened on their homeworld of Cybertron, however, and the war ended – with everybody ending up in some kind of tentative, but apparently lasting, peace. With the Transformers no longer having to spend all their time fighting each other, they got to try living their lives in a completely new way, and those new ways are where IDW’s 2011 relaunch starts.
With two books launched, each featuring a disparate team of random characters, the focus pulls away in two directions. MTMTE (as people call it because, phew, exhaustingly long title otherwise) follows a group of explorers who decide to go out into space on a quest to see if they can track down the long-lost founders of Cybertron, whilst the second title Robots in Disguise sticks with the characters who stick behind on the planet itself, navigating a difficult and roboty political landscape.
Issue #1 of the former series features all the characters at once, as the various near-identical Transformers decide if they want to go on the spaceship and explore, or stay behind and be led by some yellow Transformer called Bumblebee. The various squabbles and dismantlings help define a few of the characters immediately, which is handy because my robot-opposed eyes found it hard to separate any of the Transformers. The trick seems to be to pay attention to the eyebrows – a similar approach as required for identifying the members of Busted – and use both their mascara choices and forehead arrangements as a way of telling them apart.
I think what makes the issue so appealing for new readers (who are clearly being targeted here, as writer James Roberts makes clear in his essay at the back) is that it doesn’t set the world in stone. Rather, it harkens back to the idea of exploration and adventure, offering a universe rather than returning us to a Universe. A common mistake in comics is the idea that you have to stick to the familiar in order to bring in readers, when I think more often than not people want to see something new. By sticking a bunch of Transformers on a spaceship and blasting them off to the other end of the universe, the issue establishes that we don’t need to know continuity in order to get something from this story. We have familiar characters for long-term readers, but crucially we have a story with no anchor in the past: this is a series which deals in exploring for new stories.
Nothing’s going to change if you don’t leave the house, as proved by both the X-Men and the Avengers. Both sets of characters have spent the last few years sat in their own nostalgia, waiting for familiar faces to kick down their front door and cause problems. Here, though, the Transformers are heading out with a purpose and agenda, and the creative team try to set up each of the ‘bots with some kind of mystery or story hook. One of them has a mysterious suitcase chained to his hand, while several of them are outright stated to be untrustworthy and liable to mutiny. These characters may all be familiar to fans of the comics, but as a new reader I’m getting catered to because their story beats are being laid on the table, simply and honestly.
There are some clear cultural touchpoints here. Battlestar Galactica and Lost most notably, which are both stories which start with a random group of secret-carriers crash-piloting their spaceships through unknown and possibly hostile terrain. Game of Thrones, too, which similarly puts all the important characters together at the start before slowly separating them off into their individual narratives. MTMTE makes it easy for readers to see what’s going on here, and although we don’t know what the future is going to hold for the characters (or who half the characters are, let’s be fair) we can see the general direction that some of these stories are going to head in.
One character has apparently slept through the entire war, whilst there’s clear friction between two or three of the others. There is a strange voice message which plays at the end, where someone from the future warns the travellers of various dangers which are coming their way. We aren’t being told exactly what’s happening, but we’re definitely getting the path laid out. It’s effective, engaging storytelling, utilising past continuity whilst rendering it basically completely irrelevant to the story at hand. There’s not a single clue where Famous Character Optimus Prime has gone, but it doesn’t matter when there’s new stuff set out for the reader to investigate instead.
The issue ends with the team lost on a strange planet, their ship damaged and several members of the crew thrown out into space. The quest is immediately literally thrown off-course, and long-term readers are just as in the dark as first-time readers. That spirit of exploration infects not just the characters but the people buying the comic, as we now are invited to follow these lost robots as they try to get back on their mission to track down strange worlds and their long-lost ancestors. That’s a far more interesting prospect than seeing Optimus Prime yell at…. Megatron! That’s his name, glad I remembered that, for what must be the millionth time.
And so on they boldly go, where no robot has gone before. With them, they take all my friends who read comics, because everybody I know seems to have read and loved this series. What’s impressive is that I can see why – it’s basically one giant hook, which slowly wraps round you as you read the issue and gives you a hundred reasons why you should invest and let yourself get pulled in.
Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye #1
Written by James Roberts
Drawn by Nick Roche
Colours by Josh Burcham
Letters by Shawn Lee
Edited by John Barber
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.