On IDW’s Transformers: The Robot Politique

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The IDW Transformers books are smarter than comics about transforming toy robots that shoot lasers at each other have any right to be. It helps that their creative teams aren’t content to just follow a comic writing schema along the lines of “introduce new faction member who is going to be on the shelves in a few months, have them defeat the members of the opposite faction soundly, repeat when appropriate.” No, the characters, and I do mean characters, of More than Meets the Eye, Robots in Disguise, and Windblade have motives beyond show up and shoot.

The writing teams are key to this, so let’s take a look at who is responsible for some of the most consistently acclaimed science fiction comics that aren’t published by the Big Two or Image, and how it’s done.

James Roberts, the English writer of More than Meets the Eye, used to work in the welfare system for the United Kingdom. To paraphrase Roberts’ own words from a Q&A on the IDW forums, he’s interested in politics because of his time spent working with politicians. More than Meets the Eye’s name, taken from the 1984 Transformers cartoon’s theme song, is appropriatethe quest of an estimated three hundred quirky Autobots on board the Lost Light, a spaceship traveling around the galaxy to look for the legendary Knights of Cybertron so they can bring the planet back to its Golden Age, isn’t the only thing going on in the series.

The lost light

The Lost Light from More than Meets the Eye #2 (writer: James Roberts; artist: Alex Milne; colorist: Josh Burcham).

James Roberts uses his opportunity as the writer for one of the two main ongoings under the Transformers imprint to establish culture and history for Transformers. There’s way more to them beyond two factions fighting an endless Great War that spans millions of years. The Great War has ended under Roberts’ pen, alongside his writing compatriot John Barber (the scribe of Robots in Disguise and editor of More than Meets the Eye). Although Autobots and Decepticons still exist, and there is still conflict between the factions, a proper universal smashup is no longer occurring.

Now that the Great War is over, James Roberts looks at how the War started through flashbacks and what happens next now that it’s done with. To whit, how Megatron became a tyrannical and genocidal despot and whether or not anyone can come back from that. Drawing on writing previous to More Than Meets the Eye, specifically the Chaos Theory two-parter in Mike Costa’s ongoing, Roberts reinforces Megatron’s pre-war background; he was a miner who wanted something more out of life and wrote treatises against a corrupt Senate that instituted functionism and apartheid based on manners of construction.

Functionism created a caste system where the alternate mode a given Transformer possessed at creation determined their lot in life. The less common the alternate mode, the more upward mobility a Transformer had. For a time, there was even a large “disposable class” consisting of Cybertronians that turned into devices such as memory sticks. Meanwhile, the distinction of construction that led to apartheid was the difference between being forged or being constructed cold; although the exact details spoil Roberts’ five part Remain in Light story, the important thing to take away from it is that Transformers that were forged (their sparks mined from the core of the planet of Cybertron and its two moons) were considered superior to Transformers constructed cold (their sparks allegedly created by siphoning off energy from forged Transformers’ sparks). Those constructed cold were referred to as “knockoffs,” a derogatory slur. Even though Megatron was forged, he loathed all forms of oppression and spoke out against it through non-violence.

This is where Megatron’s story takes a turn. Fearing what would happen if Megatron succeeded in convincing others with his words, the Senate sent a goon to kill Megatron while he was imprisoned under false pretenses. This assassination attempt was foiled by a young Orion Pax, a police officer that would one day become Optimus Prime. After stopping the attack, Orion explained to Megatron that he read the miner’s samizdat and told him to keep up the good work. However, Megatron was convinced that day that non-violence was not a viable option. Events played out as they did, and he successfully overthrew the Senate by either assassinating nearly every Senator or winning them over to his side, the Decepticonsthose who were deceived by the Senate.

Megatron- The Transformers #22

Megatron in The Transformers #22 (writer: James Roberts; artist: Alex Milne; colorist: Joana Lafuente).

Orion Pax, meanwhile, founded the Autobots based on Megatron’s principles. Although Hasbro mandated that Optimus Prime come up with the name Autobots in practice, they would not exist without the thoughts and writing of Megatron in the IDW continuity. Before Megatron could rise up and take on the Senate, a battered Orion Pax broke into their assembly and spoke out against them, stating that while the Cybertronian race was considered by other races to be automatons, they could one day yet be autonomous and free. In this speech, Orion asked the Senate three questions that Megatron posed: 1) In whose interests do you exercise your power? 2) To whom are you accountable? 3) How can we get rid of you? These three questions were derived from the socialist politician Tony Benn’s five questions of power.

In More than Meets the Eye, Roberts continues the analysis of pre-War Cybertronian society in the three part murder mystery Shadowplay. The second story of a planned trilogy, Shadowplay has Orion Pax and Transformers who would become crew members of the good ship Lost Light investigating the suspicious death of a Senator by Decepticons. It delves into the ceremonial nature of the Matrix of Leadership, a relic from the 1986 movie that remains used in fiction. What comes from this story are two shocking punishments by the Senate under their hidden Institute—empurata, an anagram of the Latin word meaning to amputate, and shadowplay, a mind alteration that completely changes how the brain module of a given Cybertronian works. Dissidents that protest the reign of the Senate or the corrupt Primes under their thumb receive either or both of these punishments.

Transformers Whirl

Whirl—an empurata victim and psychopath in More than Meets the Eye #12 (writer: James Roberts; penciller: Alex Milne; inker: Atilo Rojo; colorist: Josh Burcham; letterer: Tom B. Long).

Under the empurata surgical procedure, a Cybertronian’s head, hands, or feet are replaced with substitutes of the Senate’s choosing. Hands and feet are replaced with claws, while expressive faces are replaced with a cyclopic block that cannot communicate emotion. Although used to justify how certain Transformers have unconventional body types, empurata remains a horrific punishment.

John Barber, a former editor for Wolverine at Marvel, continues the story of Cybertronian society in the modern day through More than Meets the Eye’s concurrent sister series, Robots in Disguise. The Autobot Bumblebee, with help from other Autobots, tried to form a new government and society on Cybertron. Starscream, meanwhile, rejected the Decepticon cause because he felt that it lost its way. In addition, a third faction made their voices heard.

Given the rather dehumanizing nickname “NAILs” by the Autobot Prowl, an acronym for Non Aligned Indigenous Life-forms, these Transformers fled Cybertron when the Great War ruined their planet. They were able to return when the War ended and Optimus Prime used the Matrix of Leadership inside the core of the planet, rebooting Cybertron and draining the Matrix of all its power. When they returned, they were not happy to see that the planet was restored to a primordial state, with only the city of Iacon standing and an entire world to rebuild. The neutrals were represented by Metalhawk, an ex-Autobot who was disgusted by the Great War and deserted long before the present day.

The NAILs come home

The NAILs come home while Rodimus and Bumblebee watch in The Death of Optimus Prime (writers: James Roberts & John Barber; artist: Nick Roche; colorist: Josh Burcham).

Bumblebee, Prowl, Starscream, Metalhawk, and the oppressed remnants of the Decepticons all clashed politically, trying to manage elections for their government and maintaining the city while also trying to expand into the wilderness. The wilderness turned out to be the hiding place of Megatron, damaged during the final battle of the Great War, who wanted to destroy the new government with his Decepticons and replace it with his tyrannical reign.

To make a long story short, Megatron lost again, Bumblebee’s government fell, Metalhawk was killed by a certain ex-Decepticon, and Starscream took command of Cybertron and exiled both factions from the city. This loss officially ended the Great War for many, and it was cemented by the deaths of Shockwave and Bumblebee during the Dark Cybertron event. Megatron was able to see that he had lost his way and that violence had begotten yet more violence, which ultimately leads to the former miner declaring himself an Autobot. James Roberts has taken Megatron from Robots in Disguise and placed him on board the Lost Light in More than Meets the Eye, where he is leading a reluctant crew as we speak.

Megatron changes sides

Megatron changes sides in the Dark Cybertron Finale (writers: James Roberts & John Barber; penciler: Brendan Cahill; inker: Brian Shearer; colorist: Josh Perez; letterer: Tom B. Long).

James Roberts is using this chance to treat Megatron as a character study, to look at what happens to someone with good intentions who became a tyrant but then realized that they became exactly what they hated. The fact that Roberts has been able to write a convincing repentant, albeit still cruel, Megatron is a miracle in and of itself. This has been accomplished through his penning a non chronological narrative in which he interweaves the events of the present day with those of six months before to showcase Megatron’s trial for his crimes against the Cybertronian race and the greater galaxy.

Published concurrently with the two ongoings, Mairghread Scott, the first female writer of a Transformers comic, is looking at Cybertron under Starscream’s reign in the Windblade miniseries. A former writer of the Transformers Prime cartoon, Scott looks at what the treacherous Starscream would do to keep power now that he’s taken what he’s desired for millions of years. Attempted assassinations are not beneath the silver snake. At the same time, the valiant female Transformer Windblade tries to reconcile her duties of maintaining the Titan Metroplex while dealing with the sinister leader of the planet.  

Windblade

Windblade in Windblade #1 (writer: Mairghread Scott; artist: Sarah Stone).

Metroplex is one of a multitude of enormous Transformers, dwarfing even the largest combiner team. Damaged during the Dark Cybertron event while protecting Iacon from complete destruction, Metroplex remains in his alternate modea Cybertronian scaled city that provides shelter for the Transformers in lieu of the damaged Iacon. Being the only person able to speak to Metroplex, Windblade does her best to repair the Titan while trying to understand Starscream’s schemes and avoid dying in the process. Her bodyguard and fellow immigrant from the colony world of Caminus, Chromia, assists her to the best of her ability. As Caminus was sheltered from the Great War and lost contact with Cybertron, neither Windblade nor Chromia completely understand the status quo. This helps introduce new readers to the conflicts and themes of the universe by having Windblade learn just what kind of leader Starscream is.

Politics isn’t the only subject represented in the books, although fanaticism in that regard is arguably the focus. Megatron’s disciple and leader of the Decepticon Justice Division, Tarn, refuses to acknowledge that the war has ended until Megatron has brought the peace that he wrote about in the manifesto Towards Peace upon the galaxy. Other characters represent fanaticism in other spheres of influencethe mad judge Tyrest, the traitorous medic Pharma, and Star Saber (the robot who wished to initiate an atheist holocaust) were written by James Roberts to be three pillarslaw, medicine, and religionof a society perverted towards villainy. The last of the three is also touched on in the books.

Multiple creation myths and deities have been touched upon in the series with prophecies and visions playing a heavy part in the narrative. The Autobot Ironhide’s life, for instance, is irrevocably altered when he sees a vision of a future Cybertronian Empire that Shockwave attempted to bring about in Robots in Disguise and the Dark Cybertron crossover between the two ongoings. Meanwhile, Megatron is written to echo Marx through a statement from one of his early treatises“Religion is the engex of the masses”being quoted in the 2012 More than Meets the Eye annual issue. Megatron and the Decepticons are very clearly meant to reflect communism in some regard in the IDW books; the Russian word samizdat, for instance, is explicitly used in the series to refer to Megatron’s writings.

Roberts, Barber, and Scott have built upon the history of the Transformers to make something fresh and accessible to new readers while also rewarding old readers who may recognize concepts or characters from the existing thirty years of Transformers fiction. They use their opportunity to create something brand new to tell stories of heroism and conflict and of searching for answers and living with questions. Roberts, in particular, takes full advantage of the chance to critique oppressive government forces and responses to those forces, while Barber and Scott address infrastructure and political conflict, all using science fiction as a metaphor when appropriate. The Transformers are people, in spite of their size and their structure they are like us.  We can relate to their struggles and hope that the answers they find are satisfying, that their redemption and victories are things we too can achieve.

Side note: It is important to remember that the three writers here could not tell these stories alone, and in most cases, barring the occasional published prose story, they owe their successful execution of storytelling to their visual artistsline artists, inkers, colorists, and letterers. Creating comics is collaborative; I focus on the writing team simply due to length (it would be impossible to name all of the artists and what they accomplished in this piece without playing favorites or disregarding fill-in artists), but it is important to remember the many contributions of the vast Transformers art team in IDW’s stable.

Rachel Stevens is a transwoman living in Seattle, originally from Michigan. She loves science fiction, music, bright colors, and combinations thereof.  She spends entirely too much time reading on the internet and thinking about robots. She can be contacted via email.

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Rachel Stevens

Rachel Stevens is a transgender woman living in Washington, originally from Michigan. She loves science fiction, music, bright colors, and combinations thereof. She spends entirely too much time reading on the internet and thinking about robots.

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  4. Roberts is interestingly and explicitly exploring how a Cybertronian’s body influences every aspect of their life. Their social stratification is based on body type, their religion reflects their bodies and their beliefs about them, the functionist council forces people to take jobs deemed most appropriate for their physical form regardless of their personal interests or character.
    It’s turning the Transformers IDW comics into something more like real sci-fi rather than just war fantasy, and it makes sense that the MTMTE series is striking a chord with female fans in particular.

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