Friday, May 31, 2013

Finally Reading Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye

Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye has been on my radar since it launched. There was some definite buzz about it at the beginning, and I feel like every so often I still see a new review somewhere praising the book, so in the back of my mind I've been wanting to give it a try for a while. But I'm not much of a Transformers fan, historically, and there are so many other things to read, this particular title remained just outside of my reading list for more than a year. Yesterday, arriving a day late to pick up my new comics at my local shop, I noticed they were having a sale on all of their trade paperbacks. And, having read two different glowing reviews of issue #17 earlier in the day, I figured it was as good a time as any to grab the first volume of the series and see what I'd been missing.
     I admit, looking at the info for Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye volume 1, I was a bit skeptical. Containing only the prologue one-shot The Death of Optimus Prime plus the first three issues of the actual series, the slender trade paperback seemed like too little material to give me a proper introduction to the book. I was worried that I would get only the first inklings of what the series had to offer, but not enough of the deep and developed bits to stay invested. Those fears could not have been more unfounded, because by the time I'd finished The Death I was fully hooked on some Transformers goodness.
     Because this shit is incredibly dense. It only took one issue to grab me because that one issue had more plot and character work than some whole first arcs. Writers James Roberts and John Barber build a very full, lived-in world for their giant robots, and introduce some extremely interesting and difficult moral, political, and ethical problems into the mix. Now that the Autobots and Decepticons are done with their war, Cybertron is being repopulated by Transformers who have been living scattered throughout the cosmos. But this rebuilding of life on their home world is no simple or easy task, because the war has done a lot of damage and left behind a lot of anger. Also, there are still a bunch of Decepticons roaming around being wicked, and the Autobots aren't seen as heroes in the eyes of their fellow Transformers, either, because they're given equal blame for the war. Obviously, it's a tinderbox, and Roberts and Barber do a remarkably thorough job of exploring the many sticky wickets it creates in The Death of Optimus Prime. By the end of that issue, the Autobots are split into two camps. Some will stay behind in an effort to assist in the rebuilding of life on Cybertron, while another group, lead by the over-confident Rodimus, are going to venture into the depths of space on a quest to find the Knights of Cybertron. The Knights are mythological figures in Transformers lore, supposedly original Cybertronians who left ten million years ago to spread enlightenment throughout the universe. Rodimus' hope is that finding the Knights will help solve the problems on Cybertron, that they will have the wisdom and power to save the day.
     It is this semi-religious space journey that we follow in More Than Meets the Eye while its sister title (Robots in Disguise, of course) stays on Cybertron. Roberts and Barber also separate, with Barber writing RiD and Roberts getting to helm the space adventure of MTMtE. And as much as I'm fascinated by the doubtlessly tense and slow-going efforts on Cybertron, I'm glad I choose to follow Rodimus' crew as my introduction to this world. Roberts writes a damn fine space soap opera, and juggles his expansive cast with such skill I can hardly believe how many characters I've already met. Rodimus as the cocky and pigheaded leader is just the tip of the iceberg. Far more interesting are characters like Tailgate and Skids, whose backgrounds are still a tad mysterious but have strong and likable personalities already. Roberts finds brilliant and consistent comic relief in Swerve, an intriguing and patient mastermind villain in Cyclonus, and presents solid and well-worn friendships between characters like Rewind, Chromedome, and Ratchet. There's an incredible depth of humanity in these robots, each of them with their own distinct reasons for being on this journey, their own set of skills, and everybody's got some some subtle, personalized character flaws, as well. They are a varied crew with a lot of different dynamics at play between them, and it leads to some truly gripping drama.
     It's a talky series, but the dialogue never feels long-winded or unnatural or slow. The conversations carry the plots forward and/or advance the characters, so even though each issue has far more chatting than action, they still feel lively and exciting. A lot of that is Roberts, yes, but artists Nick Roche and Alex Milne are a major factor as well. The humanity expressed in the dialogue would be nothing if the art couldn't match its emotional level, but luckily, it always does. Despite being, you know, made of metal, the Transformers of this title are expressive in very subtle, detailed ways. Tiny facial cues and really carefully-drawn body language breathe life and personality into everyone. Even those characters who don't have proper faces. Also, of course, there is the sheer number of characters these artists are responsible for, each with a unique look and, more importantly, a unique way of carrying themselves. Rewind is light on his feet, Rodimus is chest out and head high, Ultra Magnus is intimidating and rock solid, Cyclonus slinks around. Again, they feel alive, more alive than any number of human characters in any number of other comicbooks.
     I already have the second trade paperback of More Than Meets the Eye, and I fully expect to whizz through it tonight and then be forced to go out and do more catching up this weekend. Chances are I'll even read Robots in Disguise before too long, because I'm itching to know how that side of the coin is developing. Also because, someday, I'd like to believe the two books will collide and all of the Transformers will be reunited again. Well, all those who make it out alive.
      I know so very little about Transformers continuity. The details of the Autobots' war with the Decepticons are beyond me, but it matters not at all. What's important is that there was a war, whatever the reasons for it, and now that it is over, the soldiers need something else to believe in and fight for. In this series, that means an epic adventure across space to find a mythological group of ancient robots. You can see the potential for things to get silly, but Roberts goes in the opposite direction, writing science fiction drama at its smartest and most dramatic. And it works, because he cares about his cast and so do his collaborators, which means that instead of just being robots that turn into things and kill each other, they're people we care about with complex motivations and goals. It is a refreshingly full, intelligent, and enjoyable comicbook, and one I'm extremely glad to have finally started reading, even if I am late to the game.

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