I write a column here called Tradewaiting where I highlight collections and trades that I loved or might go overlooked. Being a huge fan of IDW’s previous Transformers comics I naturally considered doing a write up about the new incarnation of The Transformers when the trade dropped. However, it never came. Despite breaking cleanly into two arcs, “The World In Your Eyes” and “The Cracks Beneath Your Feet”, IDW has chosen to collect the first twelve issues into a single book. That means we’re one issue away from the end of the beginning and those titular cracks are starting to form beneath Megatron particularly.
Brian Ruckley has obviously wanted this series to feel real and timely, but it hasn’t always felt immediate in the way he hoped. However, there’s something to this issue’s standoff between Security and the Ascenticons as the latter try desperately to hold onto (the somewhat ironically namedc Barricade). The shock of the Ascenticons suddenly refusing the government feels real and far-reaching. It’s obvious that this was always an option and now its one that the movement has no choice but to make, but it’s the tense, reverberating surprise of another norm being shattered that halts Cybertron in its tracks. I love how obvious the Ascenticons are about it all; they’re not making any statement or even a wise move for themselves by refusing to cooperate, they just can’t let him go without implicating themselves. It’s transparent and shameless and, still, not only does Cybertron twist into knots to avoid laying blame, but Soundwave is able to spin it into a win for the cause! The feeling that this is simultaneously a seismic moment that will change Cybertron and a situation that Megatron can actually slide his way out of keeps a feeling of pressure on the whole story and finally gives this book the real-world, news cycle feeling that it’s been seemingly reaching for since issue #1.
With the Ascenticons in the hands of Soundwave, the more militant Rise under the command of Shockwave, and both under increasing scrutiny, Megatron is growing frustrated with his distance from outright command. The future dictator has slowly revealed his true colors to the audience. A far cry from the oppressed, grassroots folk hero of the previous IDW timeline, this Megatron seems to be an — admittedly, thoughtful and charismatic — ideologue, a true believer in his own privilege as a Cybertronian who will do anything but hurt the image that will return his people to their unfettered supremacy amongst the stars. Admittedly, his rant to Soundwave can be a little hard to follow, or at least to put fully into context, but little things, like his awareness of what it means to kill a child — seemingly not because he wouldn’t for the cause, but because it’s horrific to his constituents and wasteful to him, mark him as a character that has been considered and still has room to grow, but, while he makes his gains not by doing what others could not but by doing it well, he still doesn’t approach magnificent bastard territory this month.
The biggest problem I’ve had with this book is that it feels distant. Don’t mistake me, I think that the decision to present characters as realistically malleable people in familiar roles rather than once again finding ways to justify the iconic personas we know is an interesting and valid choice, however, it has often deprived the characters of a hook. The characters react to things in different ways and you can tell what’s in their nature and what isn’t, but their voices feel samey no matter how many quirks or foibles they’re given because you’re not quite getting enough of their sparks. Megatron, Orion, Bumblebee: they’re all refractions of the same stressed and fearful concept. It both accurately represents how Cybertronians think of themselves as cogs in a single machine and betrays the characters’ similar position in Ruckley’s drive towards world building.
There are some notable exceptions. Sixshot’s grumbling gives him an instant boost of murderous character, Starscream chews scenery like any bearer of the name should (even if it feels slightly weird to see the character defined by his underdog ambition start out in a position of such power), and Sentinel Prime kind of steals his brief scene. I know that Sentinel is probably supposed to seem short-sighted and totalitarian, but his directness makes him a unique and enjoyable character, not to mention that, for all the ways that it makes he and Megatron similar, it feels like his approach to the Gordian Knot that Cybertron has become might actually be the clearest view of what Cybertron is becoming, for better or likely worse.
Honestly, the issue could probably lose a page to a page and a half of its fight scene and give a bit of its time over to smaller character moments or little highlights that attach us to places, people, and things emotionally. Basically, the back half of the issue is spinning its wheels just a little bit, because it knows that the fight and the speech that follows are the big moments to end the issue on. That’s kind of fair, but if it doesn’t make this a bad comic, I can’t say that it’s the mark of an especially good one either. There’s a lot of wasted opportunity hanging around the solid moments, which legitimately are very good and some of the series’ best yet.
Things also aren’t always the clearest. You might not be sure if there was friendly fire or tongue-in-cheek betrayal, or exactly how a character’s statement relates to their last, even if it makes general sense. Bumblebee does get very obvious the moment his true motivations are revealed to the audience, and that’s a weakness on its own, but it’s more disappointing that it’s hard to tell how much the other Ascenticons buy his charade.
Series regular artist Angel Hernandez handles a minority of the book this month, but still kindly receives top billing from IDW. Hernandez’s scenes are largely constrained to Ascenticon HQ and are among the issue’s most action packed. I’m not sure this was the best fit. Hernandez gives his bots a strange, geometric grandeur, but they’ve always been a little on the stiff side, both in motion and in their acting. There’s almost always a dead-eyed, unemotional simplicity to Hernandez’s Transformers that stifles his gifts. Characters standing at attention and characters racing towards an enemy both read a little awkwardly, like a snapshot that captures the strangest instant of a familiar movement. Despite this consistent problem, when things come together for Hernandez, you can tell why he’s on this book. A notable panel of Bumblebee’s counterattack, among a smattering of others, completely overcomes any feeling of stagnation, shows the best extremes of Hernandez’s work on the series, and gives plenty of space for Hernandez and his colorist (Josh Burcham, if my guess is correct, though the credits don’t give the same page breakdown to he and Joana Lafuente as they do the lineartists) to play off of eachother.
The rest of the book is the work of Anna Malkova, who takes a much lusher, animated approach to the characters that I personally connect to more. Use of light and blocking in these pages is strong and the characters, while undeniably more human than is factual, carry weight and emotion well. Malkova’s rendition of Optimus Prime is especially strong, giving him a cartoony energy to offset the stern, mysterious nature of his design. Yes, technically he’s still Orion Pax, but we all know that this is already Optimus, at least visually — I mean, it says Optimus Prime on the toy he’s based on. Speaking of that toy, the pronounced angles of the Siege Prime toy are used to great effect and there is a sense that Malkova is consciously playing to the strengths of the current Hasbro designs.
Megatron, on the other hand, looks a little odd to my eye, but not in a bad or inaccurate way. If you can separate this Megatron from similar looking comic incarnations of the past, you’ll find that there’s a lot to like. Emotion is no problem for Malkova, with Megs in particular getting some rather bestial expressions of anger alongside more restrained moments that play up the classic helmet design to full effect. These moments are a tad broad and inconsistent, but they’re fun and evocative. There are a couple more awkward moments, Chromia sinking into her own neck and Starscream’s sharp and pouty design becoming almost distracting at times both stand out. Nevertheless, some unevenness early in an artist’s career will never be remembered the way that the emotional and storytelling beats in their work will be and I think, by this metric, Malkova will do just fine.
IDW’s new incarnation of Cybertron has offered a layered and logically structured take on the Transformers, but it’s suffered from a lack of excitement in its art and writing. With issue #11, that starts to change. Anna Malkova’s art refutes these criticisms of the series’ aesthetic, while Angel Hernandez struggles with his usual issues, only to rise above them on a couple of key moments. The tension of this political thriller is finally starting to bear down and the characters are allowed to clash a bit allowing Ruckley to draw some more enjoyable drama from his cast.
It’s not a clean win for the series, much as I wish it were, but I do think that Transformers #11 is a win. The expanding cast is filled with interesting personalities that are beginning to feel more distinct and free to be themselves and the situation on Cybertron has aimed them all directly at one another, giving the upcoming final issue of the arc a definite sense of excitement, like a taut rubber band, ready to snap back. With the players arrayed and their true motives out in the open, Cybertron is finally ready to take its first real steps to war. Whether you’ve been loving the new direction or remained unconvinced, the penultimate issue of “The Cracks Beneath Your Feet” provides significant reason to keep an eye on the finale.
Transformers #11 is currently available in comic shops from IDW Publishing.