Wednesday, October 2, 2013

More Than Meets The Eye and how it stands out from other TF comics

Here's another rambler, gushing about the MTMTE series.

I promised a "review" of More Than Meets The Eye. But did I review the series in the LAST post? I just wanted to post a quick update that I was going to write something long and tangenty about the series, and instead I wrote something long and tangently basically praising the series as something special to the Transformers comics and storytelling brand. Because it's a BRAND, and as a BRAND stories about it are going to have limitations. They're going to have editors and copyright holders standing over them saying "no, you can't do that, we have toys to make" and whathaveyou. And that goes for REGULAR superhero comics too, because if you know anything about the history of comic book publishing and the REGULAR content that drives the industry, superhero comics done by committee represent BRANDS just as much as constantly re-booted stories about iconic fictional robots do.

So I will just sum up how we got More Than Meets The Eye. IDW got the license from Hasbro after Dreamwave, the previous publisher of the Transformers property, went bankrupt. The story of Dreamwave going bankrupt is far more interesting than any of the comics they published. IDW's run began with a series of miniseries, drawn by many of the artists who had given the TFs the dynamic style in the Dreamwave comics, and written by Simon Furman, a writer who had taken the TF property at Marvel Comics when the TV show was long gone and used the declining interest in the property as free reign to create stories the fandom still revere.

The IDW relaunch? Um, I would say slow paced. The art may have improved from the late 80's but the story...we didn't get Optimus Prime until issue 6 of the first series. Not that there wasn't some good stuff, but I'm personally indifferent to the Phase books that must have been testing everyone's patience. Plotwise, we are basically introduced to an already-unfolded cloak&dagger style fight between Prime's squad and Megatron's cronies, with a story in the background about another universe that has zilch to do with Transformers creeping into their world. And like I said, no Optimus Prime until issue 6.

And like I said, it must have tested everyone's patience. Furman stepped back and penned a few more interconnected one-shots (thanks for the SIDESWIPE special, he's nowhere near a focus IN HIS OWN SPECIAL) as many writers and artists teamed up for All Hail Megatron, an action packed blitz on the Earth as the Decepticons just throw the remaining phases out the door and just take over Earth in a matter of days. Pretty wild. Of course, it's still not issues later until the Autobots can even get off their butts to do anything about it, or even for themselves. There's some seeds (Kup's CY-GAR) (and yes, it's called a CY-GAR) but it's telling that the four "coda" issues, retconning who was where, what happened to this bot or how did that bot get there...and what a CY-GAR is...had more to do with advancing whatever the mythos of the Autobots and Decepticons.

As this was transitioning to the "ongoing," the just plainly titled "Transformers" series written by Mike Costa and featuring some questioning style choices by the art team, IDW put out a few miniseries, like "Maximum Dinobots," wrapping up the loose ends of Furman's stories, a four issue origin tale for Drift, because a toy would be coming out soon so why not, and Last Stand Of The Wreckers, another big fight to the death between that violent group of get-er-done Autobots against a maniacal Decepticon who wanted to let Megatron know who was boss.

I avoided this series. Because I don't care for the Wreckers. In the 80's comics, they were the elite team made up of the Jumpstarters and Deluxe Autobots (Whirl, Roadbuster)...who were never featured in the cartoon. So here's a supergroup of guys who didn't get a shot and don't seem to match up with any of the other Transformers except maybe for Jetfire and even then that's a stretch. So the elite Wrecker team gets their own mini. Whatever, not interested. My fellow TF fans raved about it though. This James Roberts guy, cowriter of four of the five issues, was generating a lot of buzz. And I noticed quite a different energy for the few issues he helped write in the ongoing. The series, I noticed after I finally downloaded it on Comixology, had a quick pace to it, a lot of actions, and some harsh repercussions...and alluded to so much clearly made up history, but did so as references, not backstory. Naming names but not having to give the damn origin story over and over for it. It was just casual conversation. There was a LOT of conversation. And it was great dialogue.

Roberts helped write the last big battle in the ongoing, and like the two issues (Chaos Theory) he helped write before Chaos, he managed to set up a LOT of backstory, not just for characters that were already established, but for the world of Cybertron that we had ignored because we  were vaguely alerted to it in the beginning of IDW's reboot. And this contribution (give some credit to Costa here, fans), this backstory behind the barely-explained rules the Transformers abided by, was integrated so well with the planet ending battle the series was building up to.

I was one of the few who genuinely enjoyed the ongoing, but I bet Costa was feeling some pressure in engaging in what basically was the THIRD reboot by the publisher (3 books of a six phase plan? start over. Big 12 issue battle? start over...) that still had to retain the continuity. A lot of fans rejected the uber-robotic detailed style (I wasn't a fan either). Give them their cartoon-bots already! Roberts' involvement (if it were just him) stepped it up: embrace their fictional history. It weighs on them and has given them a four million year old war. Explore it!

So when Costa's run ended, we were given TWO new series. This was strange considering that the comics market for the TF book may have not been all that great. Chaos was supposed to be a mini, a crossover from the mainbook resolving the events from the Heart Of Darkness (written by those Marvel cosmic comic pushers Abnett & Lanning). Heart Of Darkness was itself a continuation of the Dead Universe thread from Furman's run. Now, if you skipped on the Ironhide mini by Costa because the ongoing wasn't doing it for you, I can't say that I totally blame you: these comics are $4 each. That's a buck more than most mainstream books. The economy wasn't so great at the time. Underwhelmed by the trapped-on-Earth-where's-the-Decepticons? story, why do you need four issues for Ironhide? Well, YOU MISSED OUT. Like Last Stand, it was for the most part another action packed adventure, bringing up some old history (c'mon, if you weren't laughing at the smug, pompous Alpha Trion, you have no soul) and planting some seeds for the future (Cybertron, torn apart by the war and no longer habitable, was now fixed?). And planting these seeds was a great way to keep some of us interested in the other comic. That would be a sign of a good comic, right? But sales on Ironhide & Darkness weren't fantastic, I think to the point where IDW stopped with the Spotlight issues and integrated Chaos into the main book (and basically ending it).

So, what made them do two titles? Well, I'm guessing fandom was impressed with James Roberts, but no way in heck Hasbro was going to let that sort of indiscriminate carnage let loose on some fan favorites...that they'd like to make toys of. So new TF comics editor John Barber took on what is essentially the "main" book, the story of good vs. evil, Autobot Vs. Decepticon, Robots In Disguise. It continues on with many of the themes from Costa's run: Bumblebee's in charge, Prowl is making things happen, but the future is uncertain for them because Cybertron is now just as foreign to them as Earth was when it was no longer a place to "infiltrate" and "escalate." And like the human population who feared them, a whole new Cybertronian population was showing up at their doorstop, and regardless of who "won" the Chaos battle, these "NAILs" had a lot of questions about their home planet and the faction leaders, now missing, who tore it apart.

Even with different (and expanding) casts, the principals (in these books and through Robots In Disguise) and their roles stay the same. There's a few bots in charge, they issue orders, their decisions weigh on them and they confide in a few familiar faces while anyone else not making the decisions for good or usurping for evil fill a role at their leaders' request and then maybe you'll see them next issue. As is typical in TF comics (and superhero comics as well), the plot has a fight between good and evil, with a mystery as to how evil was able to antagonize good in the first place, and then just as it gets out of control for evil, they laugh maniacally and explain how control will be theirs because of this seed they planted (usually off panel) and good will chime in to fill in the gaps. And then good comes up with a plan within a page or so and evil is defeated at least for now but hold up the Nails are mad and etc. etc. etc. I'm being dismissive of what is still a pretty enjoyable comic, but that's what you're getting.

More Than Meets The Eye, the other ongoing title, is in fact more than meets the eye. I went there, but if you want to read something good, read the comic. You have to reread it, and pay attention. There is no antagonist. Or at least, you don't know who the antagonist is going to be. You know Megatron's going to show up in Robots In Disguise. But you don't know who is lurking in the basement of a ship you just bought to go fly off into space and find a cult of sword wielding maniacs who you can bring back to restore order to a planet that just tried to kill you. And you're trapped with 16 goofballs, nutjobs, and violent criminals who somehow got an Autobot badge instead of a Decepticon branding. Most of them are losers, the winners have nothing to show for it.

Hot Rod, now Rodimus, egged on by the fanatical Drift and accompanied by a wayward-feeling-but-still-uptight Ultra Magnus, decides to use the Matrix, abandoned by Optimus Prime, as a map and take it to find Drift's pals, the Circle Of Light, from his miniseries. Characters who were briefly described in other series (and in some cases never seen) make up the crew. Because they're D-listers (or A-listers from previous series who stopped being useful to the plot) James Roberts and (for most of the artwork) Alex Milne get a lot of free reign with the cast. And instead of killing them indiscriminately, he did his best to give these characters a chance to shine when interacting with Rodimus or whichever character you'd assume to be the protagonist. Every character can be the protagonist. Every character has something to say and something to do when the focus shifts away from whatever this plot is supposed to be.

I gave this book, thinking that they'd find and battle a turned-evil-Circle or something while discussing how awesome the Wreckers were, and then the book would be cancelled by issue five or something. Instead, the "it's the journey and not the destination" approach has worked wonders with a cast of characters that are now my favorite. Sometimes you love a D-lister because they're the underdog, sometimes it's because they're ridiculous. Swerve, Skids, Tailgate, Whirl, Rewind, Chromedome...the supporting characters that carry a lot of weight.

Sometimes I'm laughing my head off at basic comic relief; I gasp at the fate of a character I didn't think I'd care about; I search for the moment I swear I didn't see that they're discussing issues later and sure enough it was there. And I'm astounded by that cleverness, in the dialogue, in the presentation of relationships between the characters, in the humor, in the action, and in the little thing from issue 6 that lights their darkest hour in issue 21.

There's even a humorous "meet the crew" page in nearly every issue...and its placement right after the last page of a story can become a tragic part of the story.

But hey, as Mel Brooks said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die."

(That seeds & payoff breakdown is next!)

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