Hasbro’s toy brand Transformers turned thirty last year. Children around the world have been hearing the Transformers’ story for decades, passed on by cartoons, comics, movies, and toys. It’s always the same, more or less. An alien race of transforming robots is at war, divided into two factions:
the villainous Decepticons, led by Megatron, and the heroic Autobots under Optimus Prime. Their battle takes them across the stars to Earth, where they use their abilities to disguise themselves as everyday vehicles.
Things are a little different these days, at least in some corners of the galaxy. In 2012, publisher IDW revamped its Transformers comics. Senior editor John Barber and his team replaced the central conceit of a never-ending interplanetary war with an uneasy peace between Autobots and Decepticons. IDW’s offering is diverse, sophisticated, and provocative. It has ranged from the political drama Robots in Disguise to Tom Scioli’s psychedelic Transformers vs G.I. Joe and the offbeat space opera More
Than Meets The Eye.
The latter has been the standout success of IDW’s relaunch. More Than Meets The Eye follows the misfits and rejects who crew a spaceship called the Lost Light. You’re as likely to find them hanging out in their ship’s bar, or getting together to watch movies, as going into battle against the forces of evil.
The Lost Light‘s quest for a group of long-lost, possibly mythic Transformers gives structure to a series of meandering escapades. We see a universe where “good versus evil” has been muddied by collateral damage, war criminals, and robots on both sides who are sick of fighting. You needn’t fear grim and gritty storytelling, though. Writer James Roberts wears ensemble comedy influences like Community and Arrested Development on his sleeve, and More Than Meets The Eye is never afraid to poke fun at the daftness of the Transformers’ adventures.
Aboard the Lost Light, Transformers who never had much of a role in the 1980s get their moment in the spotlight. It reveals them to be a lonely, flawed bunch. Ship’s bartender Swerve hides his insecurity with a steady patter. Tailgate, a pint-sized newcomer, invents an illustrious past for himself when he encounters the crew for the first time. And fearsome warrior Ultra Magnus becomes a laughing stock when the peacetime lull turns him into an obsessive pedant.
The jokes are great, but they also illustrate the ties that bind these troubled souls: camaraderie, rivalry, friendship, and even romantic love. Thirty years ago, Transformers stories rarely discussed why these
giant alien robots were male, or whether Transformers had relationships. Roberts’ focus on character turns this haziness about gender and intimacy into a selling point for his series.
After some awkwardness about the origins of Arcee, who was once the only female character–the Autobots’ answer to Smurfette?–IDW’s current comics have finally gotten the hang of female robots, through the wise, simple move of acknowledging their existence and treating them as equals within the Transformers’ world.
More Than Meets The Eye also gives us same-sex couples. The arbitrary gendering of most Transformers as male becomes the leaping-off point for a warm, inclusive take on intimacy and identity. These robots turn out to have a concept analogous to “significant other”, the conjunx endura. The very first characters to say “I love you” to one another in the Transformers franchise are male robots in a loving relationship.
Taking such aspects of the original Transformers premise and turning them to his advantage is Roberts’ greatest achievement in this series. The current storyline satirises political oppression in a way which would probably only work in the context of the Transformers universe. These characters can be physically battered and altered, pried apart and rebuilt, much as children play with their toys at home. When a brave robot conspires against a corrupt government, his conjunx endura, Dominus, has his face replaced with a video screen, able to communicate only by displaying text.
Because Roberts is writing a comic based on toy robots, he’s able to imagine a mutilation of bodies and consciousness which would be impossible in realist literature, yet speaks directly to contemporary anxieties about everything from government surveillance to pop-up ads and spam emails. In using the comics form this way, he’s aided by the series’ capable artists. They include Alex Milne and Nick Roche, both of whom wring every ounce of expression and humour from mechanical faces and bodies.
All this pathos and comedy might sound light-years away from Michael Bay’s blockbusters, but I have hope that More Than Meets The Eye will influence other Transformers media. This isn’t just a smart, fun story told with Hasbro’s characters; it provides a kind of testing ground for the larger brand. Transformers has long comprised a shifting set of continuities that speak to one another. Michael Bay’s movies draw on comics by British writer Simon Furman; James Roberts began his Transformers career writing fanfiction. Already you can see More Than Meets The Eye spreading its funny, bittersweet vibe to neighbouring properties. The second season of John Barber’s own IDW comic, simply titled, The Transformers, has developed a Roberts-y sense of humour, with former Decepticon Thundercracker set on making it as a Hollywood screenwriter.
The unexpected delights and challenges of these new comics remind us how to find the best in big-brand media. Where once good straightforwardly fought evil, Transformers stories now raise more questions, more laughs, and more tears. They demonstrate to a generation who grew up on tales of heroic Autobots and evil Decepticons that these childhood icons are also rich enough to speak of loss, grief, thwarted dreams, the desire to do good in an imperfect world, and, most importantly, of love. They resist life’s dull tyrannies with wonder and wit. They make Transformers a story worth passing on to a new generation of readers.
See more of Matt’s work at www.matthewfinch.me. Screen Editor alex is busy exploring the mysterious ways of the Great Western Spookymonkey and will be back next month!