IDW’s ‘Transformers’ Shows Off Multiple Modes in Issue #16

by Noah Sharma

Not to let my biases show, but you can tell a lot about a Transformers story by how well it handles its Starscream. That’s why the first dozen episodes of Beast Wars are solid but things start to get really good right about the time the writers figure out their Starscream is Tarantulas, not Terrorsaur. It’s also seen in Transformers: Animated and Transformers: Prime being tremendous additions to the brand while the simultaneously released live-action movies are…abominations…… IDW did right by Starscream a couple of different ways in their lengthy stewardship of the brand and this week he comes to the fore again.

Cover A by Corin Howell

 

Having slunk around the edges of the book for a while, Starscream really gets a chance to shine in Transformers #16. Smug, incisive, and cautious, he manages to walk the line between understandable and overprepared very well. As an independent operator, seemingly out for no one but himself, he feels natural playing all sides against the other, but he’s not so capable as to strain credulity. Crucially, and to the book’s credit, Starscream gives weight and importance to the political maneuvering and backstabbing that it’s been trying to build up. Even his slithering commentary—which may serve a greater purpose but, currently, just seems to be odious for its own sake—works nicely.

Starscream’s competency also gives us something else: a notable chink in Megatron’s armor plating. After seeing just how brutal, focused, and full on Triumph of the Will Megs could get last issue, seeing him miscalculate so distinctly in regards to Orion Pax is not only a nice wrinkle but a surprisingly effective character moment. This Megatron appeals to a sense of Cybertronian entitlement and greatness quickly summon up totalitarian nationalist movements. There’s no doubt that this Megatron is not so sympathetic as the social justice poet of James Roberts‘ vision or even the leader of the slave revolt in Megatron: Origin. As such there’s a lot of weight in humanizing Megatron in this way and “The Change in Your Nature, Part Four” takes quiet advantage of this shift to make Megatron, the most active character, our viewpoint for the issue. It’s a move that really helps the series, showing us a fall from grace with the coding of a heist story.

Interior art by Beth McGuire-Smith and Josh Burcham

It feels like the situation that Brian Ruckley has been crafting on Cybertron is slowly coming to a head and it’s beginning to bear fruit. This series has been a tad on the listless side, occasionally jolting awake for significant events, but it finally feels like the general state of things has reached the point where anyone playing the game needs to have a plan. We see this with Megatron, Nautica, Starscream, Elita, and even Heretech this month. We’re reaching the point where, despite the system’s best efforts to insulate the status quo, reactions have become necessary and seeing the balance between Megatron’s plans and the other players’ reactions makes this one of the best issues of the series to date.

I honestly could have stood for a little more of this revitalized politicking, but it’s probably wise that the slight majority of this issue is given over to an Ascenticon black ops mission.

I don’t know if I had noticed it before but the revived Transformers has been a comparatively stern comic–especially judged against its predecessors, as it often is. That’s part of what makes this second half of the book such a breath of fresh air. It’s admittedly a bit strange to find our humor in some of the Rise’s most proficient killers but it’s hard to deny that these radical Decepticons-to-be have a charm and a flare that this series has sorely needed. In fact, to digress a tiny bit, I think it’s the clearer personality, both in moments of drama and levity, that really make this issue work. These inhabitants of Cybertron have certainly lacked the exaggerated personalities of their back of the box counterparts and giving a little bit of that back freshens up Ruckley’s voice and allows the reader into his web of lies and terrorism.

Interior art by Anna Malkova and Joana Lafuente

Back to the Risers though, they benefit greatly from the panel time allotted to them. From Flamewar’s hyperactive enthusiasm to Skystalker’s overdue hesitance to Blackjack’s cool under pressure action hero bravado, there’s a lot of personality to be found here, enough to hope that some of these bots come to the fore. It can be a little claustrophobic in its most active moments, what with all of these personalities jostling around, but a careful read should be enough to clear any of it up. Even some bots that don’t even appear come out of things better off, with some great allusions to two of Shockwave’s top scientists making me eager to hear from them and even more curious who their unfortunate lab partner might be.

The action of the scene is also notably sturdy, with a clear plan, engaging complications, and a massive final page reveal that should put a little bit of fear into any reader of IDW’s past comics. Overall there’s just a slickness to this whole sequence that feels like Ruckley’s really conveyed what he was aiming for.

Now, while I don’t want to deny this issue any of its due praise, it does feel unfortunately relevant to mention how much of my commentary is made with previous issues in mind. I would happily say that this is a solidly good comic and easily among the best issues of the series, however a big part of its appeal is how much it corrects previous mistakes. This feels like what the series has meant to be, which sadly implies that what preceded it was not. Still, as a huge fan of this franchise and one appreciative of what Ruckley seems to be trying to do with this reboot, I acknowledge this but choose to focus on how good the characters and actions of this issue are.

The art chores are split, fairly evenly, between Bethany McGuire-Smith and Anna Malkova, collaborating with long-time IDW Transformers colorists Josh Burcham and Joana Lafuente, respectively.

Malkova handles the latter half of the book and her simple but emotive characters pair well with Ruckley’s bombastic personalities Each member of the team reads clearly and with little flourishes to help flesh out their personalities. Yes, Slipstream and Shadowstriker both fit the stern, silent mold but little cues in their faces help sell the distinction between the cold and the furious. Likewise, Hyperdrive and Flamewar are used to great effect in the artwork, positively vibrating with excitement. Malkova really seems to get the heist energy of the sequence, balancing the rigid certainty of the plan against the unconstrainable energy of her cast’s foibles.

Interior art by Anna Malkova and Joana Lafuente

The one place where her work falls down a little bit is in the illusion of motion. There’s such clarity in what each bot is doing and wanting but they can feel a bit stiff. Perhaps the most notable examples come when the plan is interrupted, we get back to back panels of one bot reacting to being shot and another sliding out of the way, each a little awkward and the latter not feeling integrated into the scene. Thankfully these oddities are rare and a slight static feeling is not enough to derail the character of the issue.

Lafuente seems to be consciously reining in some of her more ostentatious trademarks, glowing eyes and gleaming bodies and the like, something that I feel is a detriment to her work overall. Though I miss these hallmarks of Lafuente’s coloring, one must admit that what we find here fits into this issue quite a bit better. And that’s not to say that the characteristic attention to lighting and reflection are gone entirely, Hyperdrive in particular gets to show off some of Lafeunte’s specialties quite nicely.

Interior art by Anna Malkova and Joana Lafuente

Contrast, especially with the backgrounds, is the name of the game. The beautiful, unobtrusive shades that surround the action are lovely and really pop when called upon. Most of the team contrast subtly, with complimentary cool colors, but that only makes the orange and yellow members more striking.

But while it’s down to personal preference which approach you prefer, I think that there is some objective merit in saying that McGuire-Smith is the most interesting member of the art team this week. Her thick inks and weighty lines give the early half of the book an unquestionably distinctive look that, if nothing else, is very striking. Some might not take to the style, but I, at least, really enjoyed it. I think its a great choice to utilize McGuire-Smith for Megatron’s section of the book, as the shadow under his visor is not only an aesthetically intriguing visual but a great representation of the weight and secrecy that the character seems to be increasingly burdened by.

The art feels very indebted to Alex Milne, taking his now iconic style and reinterpreting it through McGuire-Smith’s inking sensibility, with just a touch of Sarah Stone in the eyes and Burcham’s coloring. Such chunky bots could easily lose detail, but smaller lines appear as needed and there is a core thread of characterization that keeps sturdy from becoming blocky or lifeless.

Interior art by Beth McGuire-Smith and Josh Burcham

Burcham takes an interesting approach to the same concept as Lafuente in his handling of light and color. In the first pages we’re introduced to the characters in a vibrant, toyetic fashion, with brilliant, primary, often warm colors in focus, but soon these same figures step out of the way things were and the way things should be (represented by the increasingly obsolete Senate chambers) and into the cold reality that the rules have changed. This shroud hangs over Burcham and Mcguire-Smith’s pages, dragging the palette into the far end of the color spectrum and bringing out reds and indigos. Perhaps the most interesting choice here, at least one of the most noticeable, is the decision to render Megatron in a pale lavender color. It really isn’t so far off from his normal greys, but that very iconic set of colors makes it extremely easy to see that Megatron is cast in a purple (read: Decepticon) light. Particularly with the vibrant red and white eyes that Burcham gives the bot, it’s a surprisingly lovely deviation from the norm.

A little short of a year after the reboot, IDW’s second Transformers universe still feels beholden to the first. There’s a bashfulness in the series, at war with a frustration of living in its big brother’s shadow. Even after all this time the characters can feel distant and the plot languid. Transformers #16 remains burdened by the weight of its predecessors’ failures, but this is a strong example of how the series can banish that stagnant air hanging around it.

This is another key issue for the series, balancing politics and action while imbuing each with momentum and purpose. It continues and accelerates the series’ slow build towards the outbreak of war and the added emphasis on character helps the, admittedly very large, cast feel more meaningful to the audience. An inoffensive division of the art chores provides readers with two attractive takes on the subject material that, while not an overwhelming draw in either case, makes this an engaging read that’s easy on the eyes.

Though it doesn’t fully reverse the negative patterns of the series, this is one of the strongest installments yet, offering plenty to new fans and old stand-bys alike, while also ending on a promise that things are going to escalate. Effective use of Megatron and Starscream position the story just right and a handful of strange and expressive bots of lesser stature ensure that it cruises over the finish line. There’s still room to grow, but this is another issue that’s just what the series has needed.

Transformers #16 is currently available in comic shops from IDW Publishing.

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