The 1980s were a fantastic time to grow up in as a child in Australia; there were a wide variety of cartoons on offer that helped to engage the imagination. Not only were Saturday mornings a veritable cornucopia of adventure and wonder but the ABC offered more exotic fare such as Battle of the Planets, Starblazers and Astroboy – a first taste of anime. Yet there was always one show that demanded my attention, one series that promised to be more than meets the eye.
As much as I enjoyed the series as a child, it was clearly just a toy advertisement hidden by a pretty shallow narrative of one lot of giant robots fighting another lot of giant robots for reasons so simplistic that it was actually ludicrous at times. Other Transformers series came and went from Beast Wars (1996), Robots in Disguise (2015), Armada (2002), Rescue Bots (2012), Prime (2010) and so on. Yet none of these successfully world built enough to allow the franchise to mature from simplistic good vs. evil episodes to a setting that actually gave you pause and forced you to reflect.
Then came the Transformers titles from IDW in 2005.
Note: The following contains spoilers for the entire IDW run. It will also generally follow the IDW Collections for suggested reading order.
IDW took a brave choice when they began the relaunch of the Transformers under their banner; they decided fairly quickly to end the war that had for so long defined what the franchise was all about. Without that open conflict IDW were effectively forced to investigate an area that so many other takes on the franchise had relegated to the back-burner: personalities and character motivations.
Character Growth and Change
Perhaps the greatest example of this is what they did with Megatron. In the 1980s Megatron was the typical cartoon bad guy, the one with the comically overcomplicated plans, who gloated and then retreated in every episode. His motivations were never clear, he was just evil because the story needed a villain. The very start of IDWs Transformers Universe change all this; we quickly learn of Megatron’s origins as a down trodden and abused miner, how he wrote against the policies of the hopelessly corrupt government, his sacrifices for his wounded friend and how all that led to him leading a movement that sought to bring justice for all Cybertronians, to bring down the corrupt and to stop the literal social engineering that was taking place. The militant and brutal response from the Senate turned Megatron into what he became, as exemplified by the jailed Megatron’s visit from Whirl.
His goals, as opposed to those in the original series, were suddenly noble to the extent where Orion Pax (the police officer who would later become Optimus Prime) directly worked with him to bring down Zeta Prime. Megatron would go on to lead the Decepticons for millions of years, pillaging and conquering (even conquering Earth in All Hail Megatron) until he goes through events that completely changes his philosophy to the point where he becomes an Autobot. As ludicrous as it may seem without the context of the story in question, it makes perfect sense. This growth in character is exemplified when, at one point after Megatron switches sides, he gains the opportunity to talk to an Orion Pax from two million years in the past; when they were still friends and did not have the animosity of the war between them. His regret is almost tangible, his sorrow at his past choices genuine but accepting of his current path and its consequences.
Hot Rod is initially shown at the dawn of the Great War as a well-meaning rebel but one who has a massive ego and carelessness. He serves through the war as an Autobot soldier without any real distinction and that only starts to change when he has an encounter on Earth with Scorponok; he is soundly beaten and humbled. Later, after the war has ended, he leads a quest on the Lost Light to seek out the Knights of Cybertron (who may or may not exist), captaining a crew and changing his name to Rodimus. He is, in many ways, a terrible leader and is clearly in it for his own glory and gratification as demonstrated through creating an award named after himself, having a spaceship made in his own image and so on. The crew later held a ballot to see if he should remain as captain and though Rodimus’ position remains secure, a large minority vote against him – a precursor to what happens later with Getaway’s mutiny. It is that mutiny and betrayal by so many Autobots that really changes Rodimus, as signified by his choice to change his paint job (to a purple motif, reminiscent of the Decepticons) and his more vengeful attitude. He finally tracks down Getaway but both risks his life to save the murderous mutineer and forgives him, his dark visage burned away to reveal the bright original colours underneath. It is at this point Rodimus has clearly matured and might finally be heading towards being a Prime.
Ultra Magnus, Duly Appointed Enforcer of the Tyrest Accord and Lost Light Head of Security, is a difficult character to asses simply because he does not really exist. The real Ultra Magnus died long ago and Chief Justice Tyrest used his image to form a symbol of law and justice; inside is a Cybertronian who wears the Magnus armour. Ultra Magnus was respected by Autobot and Decepticon alike, even the Galactic Council, for his steadfastness and dedication to the law but what does someone charged with policing war crimes do when the war is done? He turned his attention to the minutiae of everyday life, assessing badge angles, ships rivets – anything to continue feeling important. Inside the armour the diminutive Minimus Ambus started to crack and was eventually relieved of his Enforcer role by Tyrest. He was ashamed to allow the other Autobots to see him for who he really was, afraid they would forget the physically imposing Ultra Magnus and judge him on his true self. It was only as the story continued that Minimus would gradually leave the Magnus armour more frequently, reveal his love of crooning and become closer to other Cybertronians. This self-confidence became stronger until such time as he felt comfortable being held up in his true form to put up ‘decorations’ by Megatron – the very same figure who had personally killed a previous Ultra Magnus.
The focus on character and away from being a shallow war story allows the examination of many themes. It would be more than possible to write a full PhD thesis around the themes in MTMTE/LL and I certainly do not have the time to address them all. Instead, a small selection to give you an idea of how surprisingly deep the narrative is should suffice. Though if you want one issue that goes a great way to analyse the main crew of the Lost Light, then it is impossible to go past More Than Meets the Eye #13 and #43where they use holomatter avatars that express their true personalities.
Character not Power
The setting is chock full of being who are physically powerful, from Phase Sixers such as Overlord and Sixshot, monstrous beings such as Thunderwing, city sized titans including Metroplex and Trypticon all the way up to planet sized entities like Unicron. While the abilities of these beings often serve to progress the plot, it is very rare indeed that the ability to create force fields or change into six different forms is the point. Indeed, it is the worth of a person’s character that counts and not what special ability they might possess. The Autobot Pipes spends his entire time on the Lost Light as a punching bag; he never wins a fight, he is infected with a wasting disease, gets shot and is eventually killed by Overlord. Yet it is Pipes, even as his bare spark is shrinking and leaking from the wreck of his body, who sounds the alarm regarding Overlord’s rampage – his ability to act even as he died saved the lives of at least dozens of his crew mates. Rewind is old, even for a Cybertronian, and his alt mode (a giant USB drive) is relatively useless to the point where he was once classified as a member of the disposable class. But Rewind was a major factor in Overlord’s defeat, it was Rewind who saved the ship when it encountered a destroyed copy of itself, it was Rewind who could tell history was being changed and it was Rewind who forced Deathsaurus to retreat on the Necrobot’s world. Tailgate, an Autobot so insignificant that everyone forgot about him for literally millions of years, took a remorseless ancient Cybertronian warrior and made him care. Swerve served as the heart of the Lost Light. Bumblebee, so often a joke, ruled Cybertron during one of its most chaotic periods and managed to hold the entire incredible mess together despite the machinations of Megatron, Shockwave, Starscream and so many others. Bumblebee led the Autobots out into the wilderness of the reborn Cybertron and, most importantly, was the one who showed Megatron the error of his ways through his noble choices and selfless actions.
Change and being stuck in the past
Another of the underlying themes of the IDW run is that those who do not change are doomed, a suitable lesson considering the franchise in question. The narrative often calls characters who are stuck in the past and it is always their undoing because they cannot adapt. Nova Prime is entrenched in the same goals before he encountered the Dead Universe, Galvatron does not change at all, despite his encounters with Earth and Soundwave’s attempted teachings. Sentinel Prime, once thought dead, returns and his inability to get his mind around the changed situation in the present leads to his inevitable demise. Yet, as demonstrated earlier, those who can change and adapt may face trials and danger but are able to come out of them better people. This is further evidence by Chromedome who had loved and lost a number of times throughout his life and each did he did lose someone he truly loved, he erased his own memories of that person. He hid from his own past, purposefully forgetting it to escape the pain, instead of using his experiences to become better and stronger. By trying to hide from the past, he became its slave even if he did not realise it. Yet Chromedome became better, learned of his past mistakes and refused to commit them again – he grew as a person and led a better life because of it. Over on the Decepticon side, we have the leader of the Decepticon Justice Division known as Tarn; a zealous devotee of Megatron who hunts down other Decepticons he believes do not fully live out the ideals of the cause. He cannot let go of the past and refuses to accept the news that Megatron has declared the war over, instead rationalising his internal conflict that it is suddenly Megatron who is wrong (Tarn then decides to hunt down his former mentor and leader).
As an aside, I saw someone on Twitter (@jamesmarch83, to give credit where it’s due) make a comparison between Tarn and toxic fandom and I have to admit that I find it valid. Tarn gate-keeps the Decepticon cause and cannot handle it when Megatron turns progressive/Autobot, he collects Megatron artefacts obsessively and acts like an immature fanboy much like Kylo Ren did with Darth Vader.
Character change, however, is often dependent on the ability of the creative team to have a vision of what they wish to accomplish and the ability to carry that plan out. This is where More Than Meets the Eye and Lost Light owe a lot of its success, the ability of James Roberts to have a narrative plan and stick to it. One of the foundations of the run has been James Roberts’ decision to engage in meaningful long form writing. In titles such as X-Men you can almost expect (indeed, it’s become something of a running joke) plot points to be introduced and then promptly forgotten. Essentially, no event is there without a purpose and will be referenced later one. In More Than Meets The Eye #3, the ship is endangered by a vile creature known as a Sparkeater that seeks to … well, eat the sparks of Cybertronians, preferring the brightest of sparks first. The brightest spark on board the Lost Light? Rung, an introverted model ship collector who has no physical agency at all. On a ship that contains powerful outliers such as Ultra Magnus, why would Rung’s spark burn the brightest? It was a mystery that was brushed aside until the very end of the series when it was revealed in Lost Light #22 that the diminutive non-threatening Rung was actually Primus. Primus: The creator of the Cybertronian race.
Moral Conflict and Ambiguity
This long form narrative allowed the examination of moral ambiguity and conflict, something of an old chestnut for the science fiction genre but one that is rarely visited in Transformers. As mentioned earlier, other versions of Megatron have been two dimensional villains of no discernible substance. Yet IDW managed to turn this tyrant to a figure worthy of respect … and even perhaps sympathy. Initially a wordsmith smuggling words of change from the mines where he laboured, Megatron was forged into a figure set to shake the galaxy based on his ideals of equality for all Cybertronians and tearing down the corrupt functionalist society.
At its core, this touched on the major ethical dilemma that Cybertron faced. The situation needed to change but what was the best path? Megatron’s aim for a swift but brutal revolution where he would see the corrupt senate pay the ultimate price for their transgressions, where violence would cauterise the wounds in Cybertronian society. It would be bloody, fatal for many but quick. Optimus, sharing Megatron’s goals but opposed to his methods, sought a much slower but peaceful change where it would be the will of Cybertron’s citizens that would lever the senate from power. This would be a much more gradual process but one lacking nearly as much bloodshed that Megatron’s path wished to utilise.
Revolution or reform? Peace through tyranny vs Peace through freedom.
Brainstorm’s scheme to travel back in time in order to kill Megatron before he was even fully constructed was very reminiscent of the old science fiction cliché ‘would you go back in time to kill Hitler’? Megatron was responsible for the deaths of trillions of beings, either directly or based on his orders. By the end of the last civil war, Megatron was truly a monster who had (as he himself later admitted) lost sight of his actual goals and gone incredibly too far. But that very same war was also responsible for so much good in return; many Cybertronians were Made To Order (M.T.Os) who simply would not exist if not for Megatron. As the subsequent issues go to some pains to showcase, if there was no Megatron then the Functionist Council seizes power and Cybertronian society becomes a place of nightmarish forced obsolescence, Orwellian surveillance and where the value of life is casually discarded. Just to muddy the waters further, that same story stresses that while life on Cybertron has gone to hell the rest of the Galaxy has been spared the ravages of the Autobot/Decepticon war. Earth would never be conquered by Megatron and never become part of the Cybertron Council of Worlds thanks to Optimus Prime.
Bumblebee did not want leadership of Cybertron after its rebirth but he gained it nonetheless. He faced a great number of near impossible decisions on how to keep a society of Autobots, Decepticons and NAILS (Non-Aligned Indigenous Life – Cybertronians who did not take a side) functioning as a cohesive society. He was constantly undermined by Prowl, Starscream and Metalhawk, while Megatron and Shockwave were playing a long game to seize control for themselves. Despite all of these pressures (and others there is no time to go over here) Bumblebee never let go of the most important things; he held the Autobot code close and made keeping every citizen of Cybertron as safe as he possibly could. Bumblebee’s dream eventually failed; he and the Autobots were cast out but he did so with his head held high for he knew that he had done his duty, had never compromised the most important facets of what he knew to be noble.
For much of the run, Optimus Prime maintained the same sense of undefeatable responsibility regardless of risk to himself. He actively defies the rule of the corrupt Senate and multiple previous Primes, even helping kill Zeta Prime. His greatest tests come after the war itself has ended; he renounces the title of Prime and places himself into exile as he sees himself as a symbol of the war. Later he risks everything in an attempt to bring Earth into the Cybertronian Council of Worlds, despite nightmarish visions of himself conquering Earth much like Megatron had done just a handful of years earlier. He did not care for himself and risk alienating himself completely from Cybertron in order to protect humanity from the threats being exposed to the Galaxy brought.
As noted above, Hot Rod was introduced as a selfish adventurer looking more for glory with the right thing being more of a side bonus. His growth was slow, especially during the initial part of his Lost Light captaincy, and his philosophy remains focused on his self-gratification and glory. There was growth, however, when he put his captaincy up for crew votes and that growth continued throughout the rest of MTMTE, culminating when he finally accepts Megatron, forgives the mutinous crew and risks his own life to save the psychopathic Getaway.
It should be noted, however, that More Than Meets the Eye gave us the flipside of responsibility in the form of Ultra Magnus. As alluded to earlier, Magnus struggled with his responsibilities once there was no need for a Duly Appointed Enforcer of the Tyrest Accord and he became almost consumed by policing every regulation that was left to him. He was an emotionless being that could not even (literally!) pronounce the word “fun”. Responsibility was his burden and he took it so seriously that he became damaged by it, as Chief Justice Tyrest pointed out later. As Magnus learned to open up and relax a little, he became happier and was able to find his proper role amongst his peers; gaining the admiration of Ten, respect of Megatron … and saying that ever so difficult word.
Ultra Magnus started to form relationships with others and that empowered him, gave him something truly meaningful to strive for. He learned a lesson that others on the Lost Light learned long ago. This focus on the importance of belonging and connectedness is first presented to the audience in the form of Chromedome and Rewind (great article by The Guardian here, for the sake of completeness). The two Autobots clearly loved each other, even if it did have the ghost of Dominus Ambus hanging over it, and they lived for each other – which made it all the more tragic when Rewind sacrificed himself to stop Overlord. The relationship was revived (due to crazy quantum hi-jinx) and eventually it was Rewind who had to choose between the life of his first love and that of Chromedome.
Back in the ancient days of Nova Prime, Cyclonus was a stoic and feared warrior. He was ruthless and detached in combat and was truly a fearsome opponent, he managed to survive the Ark-1’s journey to the Dead Universe and lived by a strict code of honour mixed with a strong pride of his heritage. Then there was Tailgate, a waste disposal ‘bot who never made it to the Ark-1 as he fell in a hole and no one even noticed. In the present day, Tailgate relied on Cyclonus for protection and support yet the warrior, at least initially, rejected Tailgate completely. There were times when the relationship seemed abusive yet Tailgate’s apparent death and subsequent return revealed what Cyclonus really felt. The once emotionless warrior was no longer just good for imposing destruction, he finally had something to live for and hold on to.
This is certainly not a factor when most people think of the Transformers, except for those who may be familiar with the origin story from the Marvel UK Comics series. Religion, just like our world, is a murky and messy topic for Cybertron – there are so many myths and legends and so much that has been lost to time that no one knows what really happened. No one is entirely sure if Primus actually existed, there is no evidence that he actually split himself into five beings that comprised the group known as The Guiding Hand: Mortilus (death), Solumus (wisdom), Primus (Light and life giver), Epistemus (knowledge) and Adaptus (transformation). What happened to the Guiding Hand is the stuff of conflicting legends, though most versions agree that Primus became Vector Sigma and the rest of the hand was turned into various artefacts (Solumnus into The Matrix, for instance). The direct inheritors of the Guiding Hand were the Knights of Cybertron, who Rodimus set off in the Lost Light to find.
In Lost Light #22, a being possessing Pharma and claiming to be Adaptus said that the Guiding Hand was still around but had merely forgotten who they were. Mortilus was the Necrobot, Solumus was Chief Justice Tyrest, Epistemus became the object known as The Magnificence, while the always unassuming Rung was Primus himself. At the time of this writing, it is unknown how true this claim is but it does speak of how myths (especially religious ones) work in our reality. Information creep sets in and details changes over time. Original documents and evidence are lost (if they ever existed) and so what was once thought to be true is relegated to being akin to fairy tales. In the flip side, it also comments on how humanity has a habit of taking mundane tales and making them larger than life on a fairly regular basis.
There is also commentary on religious zealotry on a number of fronts. Starting on a smaller scale you have the Cybertronian known as Star Sabre. Initially part of the Circle of Light group, Star Sabre was cast out after trying to convince his leader, Dai Atlas, that all atheist Cybertronians should be wiped out. His targets were always those that did not share his particular religious beliefs, such as the Autobots Defensor and Skids.
On a much larger scale and one Universe over, you had the Functionist Council who came to rule Cybertron because Megatron did not exist in that reality. They believed that Primus was all knowing and provided all, therefore only what Primus provided was needed. The Functionists used their interpretation of Primus’ teachings to relegate citizens to roles dependent solely on their alt-mode, eliminate ones they no longer thought of as useful enough and generally be twist and change their own beliefs to suit their personal goals. Most of this should sound familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of many contemporary religious structures.
Despite being effectively immortal, Cybertronians still general held the belief of some manner of afterlife that they commonly referred to as the ‘Afterspark’. At one point Optimus Prime thought himself there after he sacrificed himself to stop the creature known as D-Void, though he soon found such thoughts to be mistaken. Much later, when the crew of the Lost Light thought themselves doomed, Chromedome and Rewind stated they wanted “an intermutual funeral, please. Rewind and I would like to enter the Afterspark simultaneously.” Skip forward not all that long after and the non-mutinous members of the crew died and found themselves in a version of the Afterspark that was based on Cyclonus’ expectations; a giant floating Matrix and the Guiding Hand in all their glory. This proved to be a false setting, established by the medical station that revived them. Nonetheless, the shape of fictional Afterspark spoke volumes regarding how many Cybertronians must regard the possibility of life after death.
I have spoken a great deal on the world building and writing of the IDW Transformers run but I have yet to discuss the various styles of artwork found throughout its 13 year tenure (which is really impressive considering the first Marvel series went from 1984-1991 when Transformers popularity was at its zenith). There have been many artists who have worked at some point or another on the various Transformers series and, as such, there is no way I can do justice to them all. If anyone out there feels aggrieved at their omission then I apologise and can only offer the limited resources at my disposal. Instead, I would like to focus on the three artists who I think had the biggest impact on the narrative in no particular order.
Alex Milne is widely considered to be the quintessential MTMTE/LL artist, utilising a wonderful mix of technical detail and exaggeration to really bring the characters various (eccentric) personalities to life. In the example presented, note how the angle is used to first build up Ultra Magnus’ physical size and then ends up with him being both physically and intellectually humbled – with the almost cartoon quality of the eyes in panel 4 used to hammer home exactly what Magnus is feeling. The contrast between the crisp, mechanical lines and lively expressions helps sums up a great facet of the title; that it may be centred on a life and death conflict that has ramifications for the entire TF-verse … but it can also be full of entertaining hijinks.
Nick Roche has a similar style to that of Alex Milne and the two are essentially just as honoured by the fans as the other. There does not seem to be the facial exaggeration to the same degree that appears in Milne’s work but it is still just as expressive, often with more deadpan humour as opposed to straight comedy – note Cyclonus’ expression as he drops Tailgate, or a great panel where Ratchet hammers his own hand to loosen the joints.
Casey Coller seems to aim for an even more realistic/less exaggerated style than Roche does and it plays very well with stories that seek a more grounded tone. His lines are crisp and clear, resulting in a great opportunity to present the detail that is so prevalent in IDWs TF designs. Coller’s ability to depict vehicles and machinery is excellent, while his covers have uniformly been of a very strong quality. I have a fondness for how, as strangely specific it may sound, how Coller draws Optimus Prime’s head.
Livio Ramondelli did most of his Transformers work for stories that were set in the past, notably Autocracy, Monstrosity and Primacy. The art style is dark and murky, with details often left to the audience’s imagination which is very fitting since the narrative is so far in the past – where memory is no longer entirely reliable (unintentionally tying in to the importance of information creep mentioned in later issues of MTMTE/LL). The heavy use of darkness and shadow strengthens this sense of uncertainty and works well for these stories. That being said, I do not think such a style would work for contemporary tales, especially more adventure orientated ones such as found later in Lost Light.
Not a Perfect Run
One of the major problems regarding have a title based on a franchise owned by another party is that they often have some control in how that franchise is used in the published comics. This can be seen in IDWs Transformers in the number of crossovers/events that seem to have been shoehorned in, often interrupting narratives already in progress. Titans Return tied into the toy line of the same name, though IDW seemed to retain considerable say and avoided much of the storyline that was on the toy boxes (still, retcons such as Sentinel Prime surviving Megatron’s assault did not work well). The establishment of a ‘Hasbroverse’ that attempted to merge Transformers, GI Joe, Visionaries, ROM, Micronauts, Action Man and MASK did little but drag the Transformers down under the weight of other properties that no one really cared about.
Conclusion & Ending Thoughts
As someone who has loved the Transformers franchise since he was a child, I have to confess that the 2005-2018 IDW run of the franchise has become my favourite. It has captured everything that has made Transformers enjoyable … and then improved it. They took Megatron and, for the very first time, made him a character you can both empathise with and feel sympathy for. Bumblebee is given his chance to lead and never fails himself, even though the Autobots are exiled to the wilderness. It made you care about the sociopathic Whirl. It made you care about Cybertronians you probably never even head of before, such as Tailgate. It invited you in, walloped you over the head with mystery, pathos, comedy, absurdity and fun … and you enjoyed every moment of it. Even when it was so tragic it caused a lump in your throat.
At the time of writing this, there is only a month or two left until Unicron ends it all. There will be no more Scavengers, no more Wreckers. No more of Swerve’s hilarious recaps. No more scanning every panel to see what clues and hints Roberts and Milne had hidden away. No more Arcee finally coming to peace with herself. No more Prowl being a complete jerk. No more Brainstorm with his brilliant yet absurd weapons. It is not often I say this, I honestly can’t remember the last time that I did, but I will honestly be sad to see this grand adventure end.
One thing I do really appreciate about this journey (ugh, I hate it when that term is used in this manner) is that the fandom has been amazing – there is relatively no negative aspects of the IDW Transformers fandom despite me actively looking for it as part of the research for this piece. The recent gathering at the TFNation Convention in the UK was amazing by all accounts, attending by various creators of the comics (even musician Stan Bush of Touch and Dare fame). You know you have created a great work when even the most toxic elements of fandom can not find a foothold into it.
If you were turned off the idea of IDWs Transformers because you thought it would be mindless, characterless ‘Bayformers’ style nonsense, then I strongly encourage you to extend your horizons and see just how good this take on the franchise is.
‘Til all are one.