Taking a not-so-subtle cue from the likes of the Avengers and the X-Men, IDW has given the Transformers franchise a soft relaunch, splitting the series into two books. This first, sub-titled “More Than Meets the Eye”, follows the adventures of Rodimus and his band of acolytes as they head out into the stars searching for the semi-Legendary, possibly fictional Knights of Cybertron. It’s basically "Battlestar Galactica" meets the "Transformers."
And why not? It’s been a while since anything this radical was done with the franchise. We’ve seen endless permutations of Autobot versus Decepticon, but this story, set after a decisive Autobot victory, is plowing its own furrow. There are still Autobots and Decepticons around, but in this book, at least, they’re largely on the same side. Some can accept that. Others can’t.
It helps that despite the franchise being populated with many one-note and interchangeable characters, incoming writer James Roberts has decided to embrace the inherent difficulty of assembling a cast. Characters openly acknowledge having no familiarity with one another, popular animated favourites rub shoulders with obscure late-line additions, giving them equal voice. Everyone has a story to tell, and no-one is fodder. Amusingly, Rodimus’ crew largely consists of criminals, lunatics, and Ultra Magnus, a demi-fascist who’d happily execute them all. It’s a volatile mix to say the least.
And yet, it works surprisingly well. Not because it’s a nostalgic take on the franchise -- it isn’t -- but because it appropriates the inherent ridiculousness of the concept without patronizing its readers. We all know that a space-based melodrama starring transforming robots is a bizarre idea. Roberts seems able to joke around with the premise, without ever undermining it or making us feel that investing in these characters is pointless, which hasn’t always been the case in Transformers comics. The final page twist, a warning from the future that basically instructs the cast not to do everything they’ve just done, is a perfect example of that. It's inherently funny, but played straight enough to feel like genuine peril.
The art by Nick Roche is a similarly decent interpretation. It skews more towards the recent “Animated” style, rather than using the movie designs, but this gives greater leeway for a sleek, expressive look that isn’t muddied by too many minute details. The influence of 80s fan-favorite Transformers artist Andrew Wildman is clear in the faces and body language, while a few liberties taken with the mechanics allows sufficient emotion to be conveyed, even if the character doesn’t actually have a face (and some don’t).
If there’s any problem here, it’s that it takes a long time for the characters to begin their own story. We already know Rodimus is leaving, but much of the issue involves cast members from the other Transformers book trying to convince him to stay. There’s a pay-off at the end, but that means it feels a little more like a bridge between two stories than the start of new one. Even so, it’s the strongest Transformers launch for a long time. After years of trying hard and never quite pulling it off, IDW might finally have cracked it with this creative team. If you’re a Transformers fan who has repeatedly lapsed over the years (as I was) this is definitely the time to give it another try.