This article goes into serious detail in examining the history of the Transformers in the IDW comics to explain the current status quo, and as such, spoils many plot twists. You have been warned.
The thing about the premise of the Transformers — robots that turn into other things — is that there is an astounding amount of story potential that can come from there. How do they transform? Why do they even bother turning into Earth vehicles? Who and what are they? Where do they come from? When those questions are answered, they become the base for the rest of the universe. When those questions get answered the real fun begins, and it’s where interesting ideas get created and executed.
The Cybertronians of IDW’s Transformers comic books possess fascinating anatomy unmatched by most other fictional alien species. They are living, albeit non-breathing, machines that change shape into an incredibly diverse spectrum of possible alternate modes. The key components of their designs are what’s referred to in the IDW continuity as Rossum’s Trinity. Rossum, a Cybertronian scientist that worked for the Decepticons, is named after the play Rossum’s Universal Robots, the origin of the word robot itself. IDW’s Rossum discovered that the transformation cog, the brain module, and the spark are the most important parts of the Transformers’ bodies. Damage to any of these can kill the otherwise functionally immortal Transformers… barring extenuating circumstances.
The transformation cog is what allows a Transformer to do what they’re named for. It can be pressured to perform instantaneous conversion, a process that allows a Cybertronian to change their shape nearly instantly. As established in the IDW comics, forcing instantaneous conversion too many times can burn out the transformation cog, in turn preventing a Transformer from being able to access their alternate mode. Transforming too many times can also lead to death, and following death a Transformer will change shape into their preferred form, if not already in that mode in a process known as rigor morphis. The act of transforming can be pleasurable, and there have been Transformers known to be addicted to the process- the Decepticon Justice Division leader Tarn comes to mind. Members of the Militant Monoform Movement surgically remove their t-cog to reject the deity Adaptus of the Guiding Hand.
As previously established, alternate modes determine hierarchy and class. Transformers that turn into objects such as memory sticks or projectors were considered disposable implements prior to the war, and prior to activism by the renaissance ‘bot Dominus Ambus. Alternate modes can be weapons or other militarized devices- the Decepticons developed a process to turn traitors into living bombs, or K-class Decepticons. When dropped from a height, they would automatically transform into their alternate mode and explode on impact.
The brain module is the host of a Transformer’s intelligence. Crush, damage, or destroy it, and the Cybertronian dies. Grievous head damage is common in IDW, but many miraculously survive it to the point of lampshading. So long as the brain module itself is fine, the skull or face protecting it can be demolished and the victim will keep on ticking. The brain module itself is susceptible to tampering in at least two ways. Mnemosurgery is a medical procedure that allows the surgeon to look at at a Transformer’s memories. Mnemosurgeons use needles, or, in the case of more sadistic surgeons, drills. They typically examine the memories of a dead Transformer by injecting their needles through the optics, while living Cybertronians undergo mnemosurgery at the base of the neck. Evidence of mnemosurgery can be seen under ultraviolet light, which reveals injection sites. Mnemosurgeons can also perform shadowplay- a process that fundamentally alters a Cybertronian’s personality.
The weakness of the brain module allowed for devices such as the I/D chip to be developed. The original device was known as a deterrence chip, the inhibitor/deterrence chip prevented any Transformer from transforming or using their built-in abilities. Created by Autobots after the war, it was implanted into Decepticons on Cybertron to stop them from misbehaving. If activated, the chip explodes, and the head of the Transformer explodes with it.
Related to the brain module is the Headmaster process. Using “binary-bonding,” an organic or mechanical partner is converted in such a manner that allows them to turn into a Cybertronian’s head. This allows them to share thoughts and think together, allowing for better planning. Galvatron, a renowned warrior from before the Golden Age of Cybertron’s history in IDW, and before either of the Great Wars, fought against Cybertronian Headmaster rebels in the first conflict. On Earth, humans were able to work with mechanical drone bodies with their own Headmaster armor thanks to the machinations of Scorponok. The Autobot Sunstreaker was surgically altered to be partnered with the human Hunter O’Nion, and it took invasive procedures to remove the link between them- otherwise, they would have slowly became one person as their memories and personalities melded together from their mental link.
The most important part of the Cybertonian’s anatomy is the spark. It is their life and soul, the source of their immortality. A ball of energy that rests in the laser core of a Transformer, it is truly what makes them alive. Sparks were either taken from Vector Sigma, the computer at the core of Cybertron, mined from Cybertron’s two moons, found in “hot spots,” which were wellsprings of life energy, or “constructed cold”.
Those that weren’t constructed cold had their bodies forged, and were generally considered to have a higher quality of construction. Forged Transformers had a chance to be a Point One Percenter- a misnomer of a name, considering the rarity was much higher than .01% of the Cybertronian species. They were the most powerful Transformers, indicated by green sparks as opposed to blue sparks. They were able to handle increased strain, such as bearing the Matrix of Leadership or wearing armor that augmented their superstructures. The brightness and vitality of a spark is indicated through a Transformer’s optics- the brighter the eyes, the more powerful they are.
The cold construction process was believed to involve draining energy from pre-existing sparks, and many constructed cold Transformers were put into action during the Great War using leftover sparks, without education beyond how to fight.
It was revealed during the Remain in Light story arc that the Chief Justice and former Autobot Tyrest was an engineer under the pre-Great War Nova Prime, an expansionist that believed in the purity and superiority of the Cybertronian species. Nova Prime had Tyrest drain the Matrix of Leadership, also known as the Creation Matrix, of energy to create new sparks. During the Great War, there was a series of war crime trials held by the Autobots and presided over by Tyrest. All of the war criminals were constructed cold. He believed that he had sinned by using the Matrix as he was asked to by Nova Prime, abandoned the Autobots, and planned to kill his creations to pass onto Cyberutopia and find the Knights of Cybertron- believed to have created the Golden Age of the planet.
The Knights of Cybertron were the founders of the Cybertronian species, the first Transformers believed to be created by the pantheon known as the Guiding Hand.
In one version of the Cybertronian creation myth in the IDW-verse, the deity Primus split himself into five beings to fight his unnamed opposite. The five gods were Primus, god of light and life, Mortilus, god of death, Adaptus, god of transforming, Solomus, god of wisdom, and Epistemus, god of intelligence. After Primus’s opposite was defeated, the Hand warred among themselves. Mortilus died, and granted the Cybertronian species immortality through his demise. Adaptus was reduced to his transformation cog, granting the Cybertronian species the ability to change shape. Epistemus was stripped down to his brain module, giving the Cybertronian species intelligence. Solomus was believed to be the source of the Matrix of Leadership. Primus was supposedly turned into Vector Sigma, creating new life. Depending on the version of the myth believed, either the Guiding Hand themselves or the Knights of Cybertron transported themselves inside the colossal Metrotitans, carriers of hot spots that colonized other worlds that turned into cities/spaceships and produced various offshoots of the Cybertronian species, such as the titan and colony world of Caminus. The Metrotitans had such unique brain modules that Cityspeakers on Caminus had to train for their entire lives to interpret them when the Titans were damaged and unable to speak normally. Caminus also developed female Transformers due to divergence from the main Cybertronian species, which was previously considered agender in general (barring Arcee).
Thirteen tribes of Transformers would be created on Cybertron following the Knights, a reference to the thirteen original Transformers in other creation myths in the Transformers franchise- the source of their own gifts to the Cybertronian race, and equivalent to the Knights of Cybertron in other continuities.
Some of the Transformers created after the Knights, including Headmaster partners of the Nexus tribe, possessed bestial default robot modes that were looked down upon by many humanoid Transformers. Despite this, there are plenty of Cybertronians and Transformers that can turn into animal forms, including the Dinobots and Insecticons.
The lifeblood of Transformers-kind is Energon. Fuel, intoxicant, and vital source of energy all in one, the color of energon signifies different things. Transformers born on Cybertron bleed pink, while Camieans possess blue blood. Green Energon signifies sickness, such as the degenerative disease Cybercrosis. Engex is the equivalent to alcohol for Transformers, giving them symptoms akin to drunkenness due to an overcharge of fuel. A Transformer’s innermost energon is the energon that rests around their spark, their most powerful source of fuel. It can be salvaged from a deceased Transformer’s remains for an extremely powerful fuel source. A common ritual for Cybertronians is to remove a vial of innermost energon in tribute to a damaged loved one or friend. One Cybertronian had so many relationships, and erased his memory due to tragedy so many times, that he believed that he was born dry of innermost energon- not knowing that he expended it all due to his performing the ritual so many times.
Energy was a major concern during the Great War. Knowing that the planet would be drained dry, the Decepticon Shockwave traveled the galaxy to deposit ores to be harvested for fuel- the Regenesis project. He soon discovered that instead of developing into Energon, the ores had strange effects on the worlds they landed on. Making lemons out of lemonade, he developed a plan to use his fourteen ores to make Cybertron the sole planet in the universe, existing in all of time at once and rendering its inhabitants unable to die or lose energy, thereby creating the Dark Cybertron religious prophecy. His efforts using the ores siphoned energy from another universe, leading to an omnipresent threat that menaced all of existence called the Dead Universe. The Dead Universe would show up many times in IDW, possessing a malevolent will of its own with portals generated through vast amounts of death in an area. It would enslave Nova Prime and his crew, turning them against their own kind until defeated in both the Chaos and Dark Cybertron events.
Ore-1, a mineral with an effect on time, would be used to explain a continuity error in the IDW books. The Reflector trio of Spectro, Spyglass, and Viewfinder would show up alive and well in the year 2008, thousands if not millions of years after they were supposed to have died on the planet of LV-117. Shockwave’s quest for energy involved his lackeys searching the universe for the Ores and utilizing a ship that could travel through time. During the leadup to the Dark Cybertron event, the Reflector trio used this ship but ended up crashing onto LV-117 in the past, causing them to die as established previously.
The Regenesis project involving Shockwave’s ores was not the only development that the war prompted. Megatron’s quest for conquest had Shockwave at the epicenter of developments including the gestalt process. Shockwave’s teacher, Jhiaxus, once attempted to create a combiner that would meld six Cybertronian mind and bodies into one coherent and powerful form. It led to the mad Monstructor, driven insane by the process. Shockwave followed up on Jhiaxus’s experiments, leading to the creation of the Decepticon combiner Devastator. A nigh-mindless brute, Devastator was still capable of unleashing destruction like nothing else. Feared even moreso than he was in the Generation 1 cartoon, he personally toppled buildings during All Hail Megatron and terrified the populace of Earth.
Another development the war prompted was the infiltration protocol. Thousands of years ago, millions of years after the Great War started, Megatron developed a six phase method to destabilize and conquer alien planets. This method included cloning leaders and creating Decepticon controlled facsimile constructs in their place, adapting alternate modes to disguise themselves among the alien populace using the alien machines as altmodes, and the creation of the Phase Sixers for the complete eradication of life on the infiltrated planet. Phase Sixers were Point One Percenters on the Decepticon faction that had their superstructures augmented with Ununtrium, an indestructible mineral. Due to the immense power they possessed, the Phase Sixers had words implanted in their brains to disable them should they rebel. In addition, the Decepticon Justice Division, an organization made to execute traitors as examples to prevent dissidents, have a member with ununtrium coated blades that are able to cut through the skin of Phase Sixers.
Point One Percenters were not the only special members of the Transformers. Indeed, the outliers were the Cybertronian equivalents of mutants, possessing abilities that they were not intended to be created with. The Autobot Trailcutter, also known as Trailbreaker, has a forcefield even though he turns into a truck and was not built for a purpose that would necessitate it. Soundwave, the current leader of the Decepticons, has the ability of telepathy. The Functionist council hated outliers for not fitting in their roles in society.
On the side of the Autobots, engineers on the weapon station and satellite of Kimia created increasingly destructive and powerful weapons. The adorable nerd Ironfist, the creator of Optimus Prime’s ion cannon and worshiper of the elite team of Autobots known as the Wreckers, created “cerebro-centric bullets” that would hit the target’s head every single time. The Autobots Ethics Committee, a group that counted Trailbreaker among them, abhorred the development. Meanwhile, the mad genius Brainstorm who was invoked as a point of comparison for someone who would develop completely unreasonable weapons, invented things such as the Malevolent Counterintuitive Pathogen. It was stored within a briefcase and if opened, it would reveal whatever the opener least expected, then kill them. Opened once, it extinguished an entire sun.
The Great War led to countless atrocities so terrible that “relinquishment clinics,” former sources of body tourism for Transformers that temporarily wanted to try out different alternate modes (compare to the memory implants of Total Recall) and the hidden home of the brain altering Institute, would eventually turn into facilities that would serve as the homes for voluntary death procedures. Transformers are so hard to kill, they can’t kill themselves without help, and they turned to that as an option if they couldn’t leave the planet. Among the many catastrophic events of the war was the oft-referenced Simanzi Massacre. A battle so terrible it has never been actually depicted, various details describing it have come out. Half of the Cybertronian race was killed in that one event, and it led to damage to the planet itself so permanent that it took a forced reboot of Vector Sigma at Cybertron’s core by Optimus Prime countless years later to repair the planet to its original, primordial state at the end of the Chaos event. The process necessitated the use of the Matrix of Leadership, draining it completely dry of energy and splitting it in half. When divided, it was revealed that the Matrix was a map, possibly revealing the location of the Knights of Cybertron. Optimus gave the two halves to Bumblebee and Rodimus. Bumblebee chose to try to found a new society, while Rodimus chose to seek the Knights of Cybertron with a crew of his own. Rodimus’s efforts brought him and his fellow Transformers against Tyrest, and Rodimus was forced to use his half of the Matrix as a locus to prevent one of Tyrest’s devices from turning off every single spark constructed cold in the universe. When used this way, his half of the Matrix shattered into dust.
The Dark Cybertron event would lead to the demise of both Bumblebee and Shockwave, and Optimus would eventually place the remaining half of the Matrix where he first received it during the Great War. Rodimus found himself as the “co-captain” of the Lost Light with Megatron, who claimed to have reformed after what he’d been through.
The history of the IDW Transformers universe is so great, and so vast, that this comprehensive look only scratches the surface of what happened in the Great War beyond events relevant to the modern day’s comics. It is an incredible epic written by talented creators and illustrated by artists at the very least the equals of their partners in scribe. It can’t be captured in summary alone, and deserves the full attention of those who want to be transported into a world different from their own that nevertheless tells a story full of characters that the reader can find themselves relating to.
Helping you roll out: tips for new readers!
The easiest way for a reader to dip their toes into the universe would be with the Windblade miniseries, available either in singles on Comixology or in an upcoming trade paperback. However, it does take place two years into the relaunched (not rebooted) universe, and after the Dark Cybertron crossover. The best way to dive right in would be to read More than Meets the Eye and Robots in Disguise from the beginning — read the trade paperbacks in order, the first volume of MTMTE before the first volume of RID. The reader is rewarded with well crafted storytelling that relies on less continuity than most superhero comics.