Saturday, 29 April 2017

Comic Review: Transformers - Robots in Disguise, Volume 1


RiD was The Other Comic of IDW's relaunch, handling the workmanlike practicalities of a reborn Cybertron swarming with a mixture of refugees, demobbed soldiers and prisoners of a finished war. Writing was handled by John Barber, who had won minor acclaim on IDW's dying live action movie books through a mixture of respectable writing and an ability to patch gigantic continuity problems in a somewhat flowing fashion, making him just what the company needed. RiD is the book that for better or for worse continues on from Costa's meandering ongoing series with MTMTE more of an offshoot in narrative terms; the former is defined by Barber's admirable refusal to use things like the less than clear events of "Chaos" to reset any troublesome areas and instead write his way out of trouble.

The result is a promising political series that focuses on largely familiar faces from recent times. Barber collaborated heavily on moving Optimus Prime out of the title for the immediate future, instead opting to have the  serious go at making Bumblebee the leader of the Autobots in something other than name only. Many of the constants of the ongoing are similarly left in the book, notably Prowl, back largely to his old self as a result of his bitter interaction with Spike and Ironhide, a more chilled presence after his interaction with Alpha Trion. Their main problem beyond the hostile terrain is the vast influx of war refugees returning to Cybertron who left because of the fighting and see no real difference between Autobots and Decepticons - an interesting angle. While a few of these Non-Aligned Indigenous Lifeforms (a term coined by Prowl which catches on a tad too quickly) have some basic individuality (e.g. being based on some obscure previously unstoried toy) their main mouthpiece is Metalhawk, new to the continuity. Of the Decepticons the main focus is Starscream, all smooth platitudes as he claims to be seeking genuine representation of the defeated faction (kept in check with I/D chips and disastrously used as extra muscle by Prowl) in the new Cybertron.

These elements are all clearly in for a long burn; compared to Roberts' Gatling Gun approach Barber's largely focused on these characters and a handful of regular, broadly drawn support characters that at this stage largely serve as someone for each of the effective leads to talk about themselves to - for example, Arcee is kept as a secret troubleshooter by Prowl. Others get simpler personalities, like Sideswipe enjoying pushing NAILs around far too much or Blurr setting up a bar (in Maccadams, which survived the planet's reformatting), Swindle serving as a plot-convenient dealer, Ratbat briefly trying to assume Decepticon leadership or Bombshell as an insane conspirator.

This results in a lot hanging on the main thread with no immediate prospect of rotation away from the spotlight and the various leads are variable. Bumblebee is once again lost in the noise of the plotting underneath him and is reduced to reacting to each crock of shit he's left holding; by the end of this trade collecting the first five issues he's been Autobot leader for as good as three years in terms of issues and yet still basically nothing is known about him in this role because he's just bombarded and undermined. This might very well be a deliberate angle to bring out his trademark insecurity regarding his peers' respect to him but it's a long time for this to be inched out without any progress.

Prowl's plotting mega-bastard persona might be a hit with fans (at least when he's written by an 'in' writer) but Barber just doesn't get it right. Despite the huge potential for intrigue in the book's format the Autobot seems to be having conspiracies and secrets for the sake of it; while Barber does a good job of showing why he's reverted to this outlook he doesn't do as well in justifying why Prowl is so determined to manipulate everything other than because that's what Prowl does. Metalhawk is similarly botched; while the whole NAILs disliking Autobots and Decepticons equally is nice and giving them a mouthpiece of what is now Cybertron's largest demographic there are too many occasions when he just seems to be trying to get under Bumblebee's skin. Again, this could be a forthcoming thread - that he's using the situation to fuel political ambitions - but it doesn't really feel like it and he's more of a whining strawman, making him an irritating character to be involved.

Against these the resounding success is Starscream. Since Simon Furman returned to haunting the convention circuit and pushing dreadful webcomics the character's had only spasmodic development but as that development hasn't involved "hey he was a treacherous lieutenant in 1984 so there's no need to change that, is there?" we can take it. This latest attempt to refurbish such a tired character is great because the natural instinct of the reader is to think he's up to something but there's a serious chance that he's sincere to a significant degree. Barber gets the balance just right, meaning the character isn't just a straight subversion contradicting the "classic" Starscream for the sole purpose of contradiction but feels three-dimensional, fluid and unpredictable.

Like the first volume of More Than Meets the Eye this clips along fairly nicely if a little shapelessly and with some characters already wearing thin. Despite containing five issues it still feels less substantial, though it does have a more eventful plot, albeit one that's hovering on going in the wrong direction and just being the ongoing but set on Cybertron.

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