Much More Than Meets The Eye

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This ship is a refuge for the emotionally inarticulate. Oh, people talk. People talk all the time. They just don't say very much. They're too worried about people knowing how they feel. Too worried about being found out. For better or worse, we're judged by what we do, and not what we say. And if it takes us a while to get around to doing something important, well... better late than never.

- Ratchet, a robot doctor

When's the last time you watched Transformers? I don't mean whatever the current iteration of the cartoon is currently on television, or the cinematic abortions that are the Michael Bay films. I mean the debuted on September 17th, 1984, party to highly variable animation quality week to week, practically unwatchable in 2015, TRANSFORMERS.

Don't let the history scare you, you'll catch on...

I know Kriss has cornered the market on ruining childhoods, but let me save you the $40 it would take to buy unlimited access to the series on Vimeo: time has done it no favors. There are 98 episodes, and approximately 92 of them are trash. But, ruined nostalgia doesn't change the aim of the original series: to sell toys, and lots of them.

OH THE TOYS.

I could talk for days about the toys: old ones, new ones, ones that are so expensive that I don't even look at them online because I recognize the slippery slope they would send me on would leave me selling comic knowledge for quarters on a street corner. By no means am I a cheap person, but even as a kid, buying a toy car made no sense when you could buy a toy car that ALSO turned into a gun wielding robot. THAT'S GOOD VALUE. Coupling an animated series with a toyline would come to be the standard for animated television shos, though most shows don't have an adjustable cast that would carry through many runs of toys; that's how you end up with Neural Claw Batman (no shit, that's an actual figure). Transformers hit the sweet spot; a toyline that would perpetually update, a television show to flesh out the characters on Saturday mornings, and a comic book that would start as a 4 issue mini series to eventually being the very best comic being printed today.

It's easy to see why you would be hesitant to believe me. Hell, I just spent almost 300 words explaining why the very concept of the series started as a naked money grab. But, the last few years have been a new day for Transformers fans. After being mishandled for years, the comic license landed at IDW Publishing in 2005, and would be guided by long-time Transformers scribe Simon Furman. He continued the stories of the age-old conflict between the "Heroic Autobots and Evil Decepticons" in this new continuity, but the real game changer came in 2012 when IDW did something that had never been done since 1984: they ended the war.

Things you learn reading Transformers

The story wasn't a far-flung future tale, or an elseworlds gambit; IDW let the creative teams end the war. From the ashes of a 4 million year war, the characters reflected the attitudes of the collective fans: what's next?

From those two simple words has sprung easily the most interesting Transformers comics in the 30 year history of the franchise and quite possibly the best monthly book on the planet right now. The prize jewel of the two series that sprung forth has been the James Roberts written More Than Meets The Eye, a series that IDW greenlit even though it flew in the face of past successful Transformers series in three very distinct ways:

1. No human characters. I'm sure that someone, somewhere enjoyed the performances Shia LeBouf and (insert underwear model that Michael Bay wanted to leer at on set for a few months) in each of the live action films, but humans interacting with Transformers has been a long running trope of the series. Used as an audience touchpoint, Roberts avoided needing a human to make the giant robots more relatable by making the giant robots more human and relatable. Crazy, right?

2. No Optimus Prime or Bumblebee. For years, Prime has been the ubiquitous face (and the revered Peter Cullen the voice) of Transformers. This new chapter begins with Prime renouncing his title as military leader of the Autobots, and effectively removing himself from the board. Bumblebee, who has been the kid-friendly, relatable mascot of the franchise since 1984, is off in MTMTE's sister book rebuilding Cybertron post-civil war in a tense, political drama.

3. No Decepticons to fight. One of the many (many) criticisms of the television series, and the franchise as a whole, is that the Transformers themselves were stagnent in their story telling. That a race of shape changing robots couldn't be flexible in their tales is ironic enough, but totally accurate. For years, Transformers lore felt like little more than shuffling from one Decepticon scheme to another, no matter who was leading the 'Cons at the time. From Megatron to Shockwave to Scorponok to Starscream to Thunderwing to Ratbat (that's right, they put a cassette in charge once. One of the ones who lives in Soundwave's chest. Right.) Different faces, same hairbrained schemes. Those days are gone.

Very cool Rodimus

Roberts is able to pull this off so handily because he is, put bluntly, one of us: a fan. He was one of the early members of the Transformers UK fanclub (TMUK), and produced scores of text stories and strips. His massive, fan-written unofficial novel Eugensis convinced folks that writing fan fiction might be a way into comics. FWIW, it usually isn't, but he's a really really really good writer. Just ask Jason Aaron, writer of Marvel's The Mighty Thor and Image's Southern Bastards and card carrying MTMTE fan.

Parlaying his talents and connections, Roberts helped co-write the critically acclaimed Last Stand of the Wreckers for IDW, and has brought his love for world building, literature-based puns and snappy dialogue to the mainstream. He's introduced fun concepts such as the Decepticon Justice Division, and a Galactic Council who hate Autobot and Decepticon alike, for the ruin they have spread across the universe in their war.

More Than Meets The Eye is a book about same sex relationships. And classism. And political survillance. And mental health issues. And time travel. And coping with disaster. And state-sanctioned control. And yes, giant robots that occasionally turn into trucks and tanks and planes. But more than anything, it's science fiction at it's highest and best; it allows us to hold a mirror to the problems and shortcomings of our own society, of ourselves, and answer the questions with a degree of distance

Issue 47 came out last week, and I found myself emotionally compromised by giant, transforming robots. Again. Because James Roberts has done something that only the greats do: he has taken something wholly impersonal (superheroes, sci fi, giant robots, etc) and made it resonate on a human level that no one can deny. As the race towards issue 50 starts in earnest next month, I implore you to seek out the first trade and give it a shot. Will there be more words than you expected? Definitely. Will there be references you miss? Undoubtedly. My advice is hold on for the ride, since something from issue 1 didn't make sense until over 3 years later.

If you're a fan of long term story telling, well rounded and evolving characters, art that makes your eyes sing and emotional throughlines that will make you question how much you can love a giant robot, give this book a shot. It is truly more than meets the eye.

(Also, if you think I didn't pay the $40 for the whole original cartoon run on Vimeo, you haven't been paying attention.)

RESOURCES:

The Transformed Man: New to Transformers? Hated them as a kid? So did Chris Sims of Comics Alliance, but he jumped on board with both More Than Meets The Eye and the sister book, Robots in Disguise, and read both series via trade. You can start at the beginning and ride along with him as he gives the franchsie a shot.

TFWiki: My go-to resource for all my nerdy needs. And trust me, I've read these issues alongside the corresponding wiki page occasionally, because even I miss some of the smallest details in these issues. I'm as shocked as you are.

Transformers Vol 5: Chaos Theory (Specifically, issues 22-23): From the previous ongoing series, get a taste of the history and nuance that Roberts would later bring to MTMTE with his first solo writing on Transformers.

Transformers: Last Stand of the Wreckers: After all that, do you still think Transformers are for kids? This 5-issue miniseries will alleviate you of that thought IMMEDIATELY. Co-written by James Roberts, this is Saving Private Ryan for giant robots.

Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Vol 1.: You're welcome.

Last page of issue 1. And the last of these mysteries pay off in issue 38. Again, you're welcome.

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