Human After All: Representation of People in IDW’s Transformers

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As demonstrated in my last piece, the Cybertronians in the IDW Transformers books aren’t too different from people from the good old planet Earth. They have politics, they have religion- just as the Transformers are effectively human beings in metal skin, their society is ours coated in chrome allegory.

A crazed Arcee in her Spotlight issue. Art by Alex Milne, colors by Josh Perez and Kris CarterI’ll start our analysis of representation in the universe with a look at how it treats the minority group that makes up about fifty percent of the human race; female Transformers. The record in the IDW continuity for robot women is rough. Although there were fembots in the Megatron Origin miniseries, it was originally scripted by Eric Holmes for the Dreamwave era of comics years prior, and aspects of it did not mesh with Simon Furman’s plans for the universe. Furman, essentially the Chris Claremont of Transformers, was the architect of the second half of Marvel’s run that was brought back for Dreamwave and eventually IDW, does not appear to entertain the idea of Transformers being gendered. The only canonically prominent female Transformer in the IDW continuity, Arcee, was only made female by the mad scientist Jhiaxus attempting to add gender to the Cybertronian race.

Above right: a crazed Arcee in her Spotlight issue. Art by Alex Milne, colors by Josh Perez and Kris Carter.

 

Arcee kicking Decepticon aft in Robots in Disguise #11. Writing by John Barber, art by Guido Guidi, colors by Priscilla Tramontano, letters by Shawn Lee.The fact that all Transformers had bulky forms and  referred to each other  by male pronouns made the idea that they were an exclusively agender race hard to swallow. That Arcee was driven mad by the sensation of being gendered female, and gained lipstick and a slender form from the experience is not a pleasant factoid, and raised many an eyebrow. Mercifully, the story has not been referred to directly in either More than Meets the Eye or Robots in Disguise — the latter title is where Arcee has been appearing most often.

Above: Arcee kicking Decepticon aft in Robots in Disguise #11. Writing by John Barber, art by Guido Guidi, colors by Priscilla Tramontano, letters by Shawn Lee.

Mairghread Scott, writer of the Windblade miniseries, would state that she felt that the story of a genderless being given gender was interesting and valid in a vacuum — but that it was not in a vacuum. Female Transformers fans were represented by a sole example in IDW, and Arcee’s origin prevented new female Transformers from showing up for many years until a solution was devised. In 2013, new female Transformers were introduced in the Dark Cybertron event: Nautica, Chromia, and Windblade.

The Retailer Incentive cover for MTMTE #26. Art by Alex Milne, colors by Josh Perez.

The Retailer Incentive cover for MTMTE #26. Art by Alex Milne, colors by Josh Perez.

Windblade was the winner of a fan vote to create a new character, wherein multiple aspects were voted upon — including gender. Chromia is a classic Autobot from the 80s cartoon, like Arcee, that turned from blue fembot to a Tron style lightcycle.  Nautica’s a purple bibliophilic engineer made up from whole cloth by James Roberts when he was informed that he couldn’t add Chromia to the crew of  the Lost Light in More than Meets the Eye. The trio of characters helped out during the Dark Cybertron crisis, and while their appearance was confusing to cast members within the story, that they answered to female pronouns was quickly glossed over. When the setting has robots that turn into cities and space sharks that fought in a multi-million year long Great War, pronouns aren’t especially a huge deal — a point made succinctly by Mairghread Scott.

The origin of these three was eventually revealed in the Windblade series, and almost completely glossed over there, as well. The Titans, enormous Transformers that count Metroplex among their number, could turn into spaceships and colonized the galaxy while carrying hot spots- generators of sparks to be harvested and put into bodies, making new life. The Titan Caminus landed on a world that would be named after itself, and the new Transformer life would adapt over time to allow for female Camieans to exist.The origin of the female Transformers in IDW. Writing by Mairghread Scott, Art by Sarah Stone, Lettering by Chris Mowry.

The origin of the female Transformers in IDW. Writing by Mairghread Scott, Art by Sarah Stone, Lettering by Chris Mowry. Click for full page

Nautica, Windblade, and Chromia were all shown to be Camieans, and other, generic female Camieans showed up as well. This entire explanation occurred in a few panels. The narrative makes a bigger deal out of the characters being alien Transformers than them being female Transformers. In Robots in Disguise, Arcee and Prowl muse over why Arcee didn’t feel different about the existence of others, and Prowl suggests that it’s because they’re as different from Arcee as they are from other Cybertronians due to their origin. Starscream acts distrustful of Windblade in the third issue of her miniseries because she’s from Caminus, calling her an alien in place of her name. There are a couple of jokes regarding their pronouns being confusing to the debatably genderless Cybertronian race, but otherwise, the momentous addition of female Transformers to the narrative is left to speak for itself and not treated with enormous pomp and circumstance. What gender means to them hasn’t truly been addressed in narrative because of this — but outside the narrative, James Roberts confirmed that there could be Transformers that willingly choose to be addressed by female pronouns that were not created like Arcee, nor born the equivalent of cisgender women like Windblade, Chromia, and Nautica.

The first appearance of Nautica and Chromia in 2013 within the pages of Robots in Disguise featured the first time any of the IDW Transformers comics passed the Bechdel Test since 2006.  Although the Bechdel Test has been criticized for lacking depth and is itself not the only requirement for having a compelling narrative or an acceptable portrayal of female characters, it’s a laughably easy criterion to meet that somehow does not get met by countless pieces of popular media. That it was met so swiftly after the introduction of new female characters is itself, unfortunately, notable.

Pronouns and actual physical bodies were not the only demonstrations of representation of humanity among Transformers-kind. A piece of technology, holomatter generators, allowed for Transformers to put their willpower into a hard light hologram structure. Before More than Meets the Eye, Transformers would just pick their holomatter avatar. This resulted in a variety of different avatars- though mostly white and male, the Transformer Jazz chose a black male for his avatar, and Bumblebee used a woman that looked like Lindsay Lohan. Simon Furman would state that this was a joke based on the fact that Bumblebee turned into a Volkswagen Beetle, and Lindsay Lohan appeared in Herbie Fully Loaded — a movie with a sentient Volkswagen.

In More than Meets the Eye, the holomatter avatars were modified to be reflective of the user’s personalities. Although the Duly Appointed Enforcer of the Tyrest Accord, Ultra Magnus, had a Hispanic female holomatter avatar, Magnus chose to use a holomatter avatar of his friend Verity Carlo rather than utilizing one that revealed his inner self. Of the other holomatter avatars shown, only one was explicitly female, and all others were white.

From left to right; The holomatter avatars of Rewind, Swerve, Rung, Skids, and Whirl in More than Meets the Eye #13. Pencils by Guido Guidi Inks: John Wycough, Juan Castro, Guido Guidi and Marc Deering, Colorists:Josh Burcham and Joana Lafuente.

From left to right; The holomatter avatars of Rewind, Swerve, Rung, Skids, and Whirl in More than Meets the Eye #13. Pencils by Guido Guidi, inks: John Wycough, Juan Castro, Guido Guidi and Marc Deering, Colorists: Josh Burcham and Joana Lafuente.

James Roberts would state after the fact that the character Cyclonus possessed an unseen female avatar, and when asked about it on Twitter, stated that Tailgate’s avatar (a literal infant with a pacifier) could be female, as well. A teaser for the start of the second “season” of More than Meets the Eye labelled Tailgate as The Ingenue –– an explicitly gendered word referring to a young girl who is naive. Tailgate has been portrayed as someone who’s easily influenced by the acts and words of others, and has yet to meet any female Transformers due to being offline while the Dark Cybertron event raged. When Tailgate does finally meet Nautica on the Lost Light, expect big things.

Edit: As of More Than Meets the Eye #31, released on Wednesday, July 9th (at which point this essay was being edited, unfortunately not by MTMTE readers),  Tailgate and Nautica shared the same escape pod with nineteen others, but the discussion of gender was not broached. However, it was revealed that Nautica possessed Estriol in her spark- one of the three main estrogen hormones produced by humans.
Tailgate's teaser. Art by Alex Milne, colors by Joana Lafuente.
Left: Tailgate’s teaser. Art by Alex Milne, colors by Joana Lafuente.

Worth noting- only seven personality driven holomatter avatars were shown “onscreen” from a cast of over two hundred on the Lost Light alone. The selection of avatars does not indicate that all of the Transformers’ inner voices are white, or mostly male. Roberts has stated in interviews that he does not think of the characters in his head of having spoken voices, though he has also stated that he tries to write them as if he were translating them into English from their native language- there are many British accent jokes in More than Meets the Eye.

Racial representation with giant shape shifting robots is a dicey proposition. The character of Drift used to turn into a Japanese drift racing car with katakana on his sides on Earth, and was given stereotypical traits of stoicism and sword wielding before MTMTE allowed him to be portrayed as a cheerful and spiritual optimist. Windblade wears red and white kumadori facepaint — the colors of heroes in kabuki theatre. She also wields a sword, and has a helmet based on the onna-bugeisha warrior women of the upper class in Japanese history.

The concept art for Windblade, copyright Hasbro, 2013

The concept art for Windblade vs her appearance in her miniseries. Former: art copyright Hasbro, latter: writing by Mairghread Scott, art by Sarah Stone, lettering by Chris Mowry.

The facepaint would be explained in story with the idea that those who could communicate with the Titan Caminus, called Cityspeakers, made their faces look like his in homage. Her weapon of choice, as revealed in the third issue of Windblade, showed that Camieans preferred melee weapons over wasteful ranged weapons. Outside of the story, Windblade’s design elements were created by Hasbro, not the fan vote. Mairghread Scott had to come up with a justification for the character’s design elements in story when she had not yet visited Earth.

Racial oppression is also brought up in the IDW continuity — as mentioned before, apartheid based on manner of construction was common at one point in the society of Cybertronians. Forged bots were treated better than those constructed cold. Other examples of bigotry based on difference included events during the “Clampdown”- a period of severe oppression by the Senate on Cybertron. Those with an accent indicating them to be from the City-State of Tarn were treated quite poorly during the Clampdown — Megatron hailed from Tarn.

Those with common alternate modes were not given the same privileges as those who had rare things that they could turn into. Those who can’t transform are treated as though they’re disabled, and members of the Militant Monoform Movement that voluntarily removed their transformation cogs were regarded in disgust. Bestial Transformers like Ravage were treated little better than animals, even though they were just as intelligent as humanoid Cybertronians.

Megatron and Soundwave discussing the latter's friends in Robots in Disguise #22. Writing by John Barber, art by Livio Ramondelli, lettering by Shawn Lee.
Megatron and Soundwave discussing the latter’s friends in Robots in Disguise #22. Writing by John Barber, art by Livio Ramondelli, lettering by Shawn Lee.

“Outliers”, those with abilities that did not reflect their alternate mode, were shunned by the Senate.

The introduction of the Outliers in MTMTE #11. Writing by James Roberts, pencils by Alex Milne, inks by Juan Castro, Alex Milne and John Wycough, coloring by Josh Burcham, letters by Shawn Lee

The introduction of the Outliers in MTMTE #11. Writing by James Roberts, pencils by Alex Milne, inks by Juan Castro, Alex Milne and John Wycough, coloring by Josh Burcham, letters by Shawn Lee.

The Decepticon Soundwave’s psychic outlier powers overwhelmed him and made him an outsider- Ravage, a possible outlier himself, helped him focus his talents.

Something that has been handled phenomenally well is the representation of same-sex romance in the IDW continuity. Although they lack sex as we know it, the Transformers do not lack romance, and engage in asexual relationships like many human people. Partners are called Conjunx Endura- Conjunx is Latin for spouse, while endura is clearly derived from enduring. The concept is effectively gay space robot marriage.

Chromedome and Rewind in MTMTE #12. pencils by Brendan Cahill,  inks by Brian Shearer, colors by Josh Burcham.

Chromedome and Rewind in MTMTE #12. pencils by Brendan Cahill,  inks by Brian Shearer, colors by Josh Burcham.

The mneumosurgeon Chromedome has had multiple Conjunx Endura partners before his most recent spouse, the archivist Rewind, including the Autobot Prowl. Prowl, a character that represses their emotions in favor of logic that ends up flipping tables out of anger anyway, is easily driven to rage and acts of spite when Chromedome’s relationship with Rewind is brought up. Rewind himself hates Prowl, and is very possessive of Chromedome. Despite this, Rewind’s first Conjunx Endura is the renaissance ‘bot Dominus Ambus, who went missing. Chromedome vowed to help Rewind find Dominus, though the thought of losing his partner alarmed him like nothing else. For his part, Rewind told Chromedome that he loved him — on panel.

Although representation of people has not been perfect in IDW, it’s been improving recently. Thirty years of progress, with the addition of women on the creative team, certainly helps. With luck, this upward trend will continue with the increase in writing and art quality.

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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About Author

Staff Writer. Rachel J Stevens is a transgender woman living in Seattle, 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.

5 Comments

    • Rachel Stevens on

      Absolutely! The way Roberts, Barber, Scott, and less recently Roche, portray the Autobots and Decepticons has actual depth. Prime isn’t a flawless leader, Megatron isn’t without reason to do what he does. You could actually do a reading of the series with Optimus Prime as an awful leader that sticks around because everyone tells him that he’s great, that he’s wonderful. The way he interacts with Megatron after the War finished up shows him as quite the bastard- and he’s not the only Autobot like that. Prowl, in particular, is a conniving so and so. The morality of the factions aren’t cut and dry. That’s not to say they make it impossible to root for the supposed good guys, quite the opposite. But you can’t look at the Autobots as flawless bastions of freedom, nor can you see the Decepticons as having baseless motivations. The ‘bots do some disquieting things in the name of ending the Great War and defeating the Decepticon cause. Robots in Disguise has some police state imagery with the Autobots running Iacon that you could look at in comparison to 2012 America, as well. I could have stood to write more about that in my previous piece, honestly- I didn’t do all of John Barber’s work justice.
      The very neat thing about the Transformers’ long life span and obscenely long lasting war is that you can track the progression of what it did to them as characters. It takes a toll, and turns two heroic types into morally compromised people that think they’re doing the right thing. Reading the actual series demonstrates that even better than I could describe, frankly.

      The current writers draw a lot from past work, there are a few works I’d recommend from before the ongoings and the Windblade miniseries.

      In particular, I’d say that Spotlight Kup, All Hail Megatron #15’s story by Nick Roche, Last Stand of the Wreckers (particularly the hardcover, lots of bonus content), and The Transformers #22 and #23 (Chaos Theory parts 1 and 2) written by James Roberts are worth looking at. Quite a few plot threads are established there. Afterwards, just checking out the More than Meets the Eye, Robots in Disguise, and Dark Prelude/Dark Cybertron trades should do you just fine (and Windblade, when its trade comes out). They do try to keep things accessible for new readers that know nothing about Transformers, and generally manage that, but it can help to have an idea of what happened before.

      If you want to read only one thing in the IDW continuity for your introduction, Windblade is a great start. Moving onto the rest from there is perfectly valid. There’s a lot of stuff TO read, but not much that you HAVE to read to understand what’s going on.

      • I love the transformers, when I was little I was very sick, my dad never handled his emotions well, to make me feel better he dumped a bag of these robots in my lap, I got better, and my love for these bots has only grown.
        I love what Idw has done with them. More then meets the eye alone makes me hopeful for what the future has in store for my beloved transformers ^^ but I have to ask, how do you feel about idw making megatron… understandable, that he was a good bot that went down the wrong path. As a kid megatron was a one deminsional characted, but in the last few years… I’ve come to feel bad for him.

        • Rachel Stevens on

          I think it’s a valid choice, if not the only one. I think it’s more interesting than him being one dimensional, even if potentially problematic considering his deeds as a villain. Roberts himself has stated that it’s easier to relate to a fictional character than an actual person that’s committed atrocities.

          Meanwhile, Barber and Scioli are rolling with Megatron as Darkseid in Transformers vs GI Joe, and that’s equally valid.

          • they touch on that in the last issue. this bit of dialogue
            “if you kill one autobot i can hate you, kill a billion is meaningless. its too big”
            it was the writers acknowledging what megatron did while answering why you can still belive in his redention. his sin was so big that we can inmaginated.