Monday, 15 May 2017

Comic Review: Transformers - Robots in Disguise, Volume 5


As covered in the More Than Meets the Eye Volume 5 review Hasbro and/or IDW decided both of the Transformers titles should reunite for the Dark Cybertron storyline and gave the writers a seemingly limited warning to get things in place for the crossover. For James Roberts this meant compressing things; for John Barber it made for a mixed blessing it would seem. On the one hand Robots in Disguise featured most of the franchise's traditional big guns and Cybertron itself and thus such an epic would dovetail fairly nicely into his book compared to the cast and crew of More Than Meets the Eye effectively having to abandon their central plot line. The problem was Barber had just blown out a whole ton of his own storylines and set up for a second phase of his Cybertronian political drama which then had to be tweaked to fit in with Dark Cybertron. The result was the six-part Dark Cybertron Prelude which was really more a collection of Spotlight-style one-shots while Barber tried to get all the pins in position for Dark Cybertron itself.

[Spoilers Follow]

The first concentrates on Shockwave, filling out the gap between "Shadowplay" and Spotlight: Shockwave while also summarising and smoothing out a character who's made sporadic appearances in IDW thus far, variously playing the role of mad scientist, technical genius, dutiful underling and ambitious long game player. The latter is pleasingly settled on and as usual Barber's ability to nail a character through narration and string fractured fiction together plays together well, though the issue - clearly setting Shockwave up as the next Big Threat - ends in a disappointing fashion. A magic zombie ore feels a bit tacky and doesn't bode well for the future.

The next issue largely catches up with Bumblebee and the Autobots, exiled to the Cybertronian exterior after Starscream and the neutrals took full command of Iacon. It's almost certain that Barber had some sort of plan for the exile that would take longer to unfold but with Dark Cybertron on the horizon all that's really left to do is for them to hang around and wait for the plot to start wile some tired storylines play out - Arcee's back being public knowledge but doesn't know anyone, Bumblebee (despite his 18th new body in the last couple of years) is still full of self doubt, the Dinobots are still pricks and the Constructicons are now paid up Prowl fanboys. Actually the last one's pretty funny.

The next catches up with Orion Pax's team of waifs and strays whose little subplot has involved chasing down loose ends left by Shockwave and teacher Jhiaxus and thus make an organic connection here - that and Big Event almost certainly means Optimus Prime front and centre. It's another join-the-dots episode really, more tidy and efficient than exciting. Penciller Dheeraj Verma joins that small strange club of brilliant Transformers artists who can't draw Transformers for shit (other members include Robin Smith and Rob Ruffolo); his work here is beautiful but he doesn't seem to have ever seen a picture of a Transformer before.

Then it's back to Iacon to see how Starscream is faring. Unsurprisingly getting exactly what he wanted isn't working for him as the philanthropic efforts of Scoop are threatening his popularity, he's gained an amoral underling in the form of Rattrap (yeah; there was a new toy out but everyone hated the Beast Wars comics - Waspinator meanwhile has already been roped in by Shockwave), his guilt over killing Metalhawk and the revelation that he has Wheeljack (whose head is much less exploded than it was when a Bombshell-controlled Prowl exploded it) in a CR chamber. Barber Starscream is good value as usual, though, especially as the format of the issue and situation in Iacon allows him to cut the crap.

Then it's on to a bit of a focus on Soundwave. Since Transformers began eating itself at the start of the century there's always been two approaches to doing Soundwave - to follow the taciturn emotionless lieutenant of the cartoon or the patient, ambitious incarnation seen in the comics. IDW, having the editorial control of a four-year old eating glue, have let their writers do whatever according to their whim and after Simon Furman's work he became more like the cartoon version under Shane McCarthy and Mike Costa. Barber does what Barber does and manages to make both versions gel, making the character a true believer in the central Decepticon cause who changes his approach to suit the long-term ideology. As often Barber makes Soundwave a persuasive narrator and coherent character at the expense of two issues which feels like an extended patch job on a tortured continuity while simultaneously prepping the bulk of the Decepticon army for Dark Cybertron.

It all makes for a trudge of a book; individually the stories aren't without merit. Barber has a good handle on the characters, an eye for using the abandoned or malformed plot threads of others for his own devices and of scene setting but his storytelling skills remain frustratingly linear in terms of methodically progressing through these five different focus points rather than running threads alongside each other for a more varied read. There's a certain lack of flair - it feels like at least half of the Prelude takes place in flashback and yet Barber seems unable to countenance catching up with Bumblebee and Soundwave or whatever in the same issue because they're geographically removed. You really have to wonder if this couldn't all be compacted down to an issue or two with some of the more flowery plot-grafting dropped.

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