How could a Transformers comic book be so good?
When it comes to comic readership, I’m a bit of a lightweight. I dabble and dip into the occasional series, and do follow a couple of monthly titles. For the most part though, I will happily wait to hear about a good thing and then check it out than be on the vanguard, picking through the trash to find the treasure before anyone else.
Which is how I came to hear good things about IDW’s Transformers titles.
Before I get into that, I’m going to back up a bit. Last year, in a bid to find something new to watch on Netflix with my son, we tried Transformers Rescue Bots. He sort of thought it was okay but not great, so I switched gears and we checked out the old Transformers show from 1984. I never had cable when I was a kid, so my main exposure to the Transformers was repeated viewings of the 1986 movie on VHS, and my childhood chum Adam’s extensive (and I mean extensive!) Transformers toy collection. I figured it was high time I gave the show a fair shake, since it was such an iconic thing from my childhood that I missed out on.
Well, any of you who are familiar with the show are well aware that it’s a pretty clunky piece of work, essentially churned out to sell the Hasbro toys. But my son caught onto the groove pretty fast, and we blew through the first two seasons (a whopping 65 episodes) over the next couple of months. What the show, perhaps in spite of itself, managed to do pretty well was make characters out of these weird toys. They weren’t necessarily good characters, but there was actually a certain amount of personality that came through, and I could begin to understand how certain favorites would start to develop for kids (as a grown man watching the show, I got a big kick out of Wheeljack). The other neat thing was that there were a handful of strange relationships…namely, Starscream and his adversarial relationship with Megatron, and the weird, barely tolerant alliance between the Dinobots and the rest of the Autobots. And the cool thing? My son’s favorite characters are Starscream and Grimlock, with Optimus Prime topping them off. There’s an unhinged, probably unintentional charm to the show that may very well be why it has endeared itself to so many people.
Ultimately, this is kind of a long form way to say that James Roberts’ writing on the Transformers comic More Than Meets The Eye seems to have captured that weird, unhinged series of relationships quite well. Reading Roberts is kind of like watching the old cartoon, but with a great deal more skill and craft involved to create a clever narrative that is populated by some of the most complex, “human” characters I’ve ever encountered in a mainstream comic. If that old cartoon was created today with an eye for continuity and quality control, it may look something like More Than Meets The Eye is what I’m trying to say.
I won’t get into the plot too much, but the setting is a ship that is traveling through the galaxy on a quest, which is merely an excuse to set these “people” loose and develop alliances, friendships, and make discoveries along the way…in essence, what Roberts has done is create a brilliant ensemble piece of characters that come to life and behave in complex and realistic ways, albeit in outlandish adventures that involve giant transforming robots. It is so chock full of amazing characterizations that it is hard to pinpoint favorites…but a list of favorite characters is possible. Ultra Magnus, Tailgate, Chromedome, Cyclonus, and Whirl all raise to the top because they have such fierce characters that aren’t so much put through arcs as they are shown to have an ebb and flow very much akin to emotional, living people. Sometimes they learn, and sometimes they don’t, but they all have realistic or understandable reasons for their behavior (well, maybe not Whirl), and when bad things happen to them, you feel sympathy…and you just as frequently laugh because you’ve gotten to know them.
Keep in mind that I’m talking about a Transformers comic.
I think the keenest demonstration of this was the loss of one of the characters during a particularly shocking development in the series. I won’t get into specifics, but one of the Transformers fails to get reconciliation with a friend after a major crisis on board the ship occurs, and that friend dies. You feel it…and you miss the character for the rest of the series. Another example is the unexpected and slow-simmering friendship between two characters that doles out moments of tenderness with the slightest gesture, and then topped off by a very big gesture that saves a life. The moments are at times melodramatic, but they work so well within the story because there have been little moments and small progressions to earn the big ones. Seriously…Roberts has worked some magic voodoo, or just knows what he’s doing when it comes to crafting character-driven stories.
James Barber’s companion series Robots In Disguise is much more concerned with plot machinations than characters, and so on the whole I think it is a little less resonant for me. That isn’t to say his stories are poor…they’re fascinating in their own right, and he does manage some good moments here and there, but his writing is more about the story moving forward than about getting to know and love his characters.
So, what am I saying here? IDW is allowing its creative teams to make some great stories and characters, and I think that it is paying off tremendously. A licensed comic book title like Transformers shouldn’t be one of the most emotional and well written comics on the stands, but I challenge anyone to show me a comic that has more heart and skill than More Than Meets the Eye. It would be a tall order.