Not to dwell on the past but “Constructicons Rising”, the first story in IDW’s anthology series Transformers: Galaxies, didn’t live up to its potential. Creators spoke about how it would humanize the Constructicons–an underused but fan-favorite group, how it would speak to the power and danger of political anger, and show how six fundamentally good bots were left with nothing but the will to destroy, to devastate. Its ideas were good and horribly timely, but it fell short because (as with the Star Wars prequels) it didn’t actually show us that journey. Through its four issues, “Constructicons Rising” failed to show the desire to believe, leaving the pull towards nihilism without a counter balance. How lucky then that the next story, the ingeniously named “Wannabee”, succeeds in precisely this area.
Cliffjumper has been chosen to accompany ambassador Deathsaurus (of the Honshu Sauruses, no doubt) on a routine energon pickup on the planet Probat as his security detail. The odd thing is that Deathsaurus is drastically more experienced and more capable of defending the pair of them than Cliffjumper could ever be. It’s a puzzle until Cliffjumper discovers that the color-blind natives worship Bumblebee.
Cliffjumper is a classic Autobot. His bright red color scheme, hawkish personality, and enormous ordinance helped him stand out among the cast of the original Transformers cartoon. The trouble is, as most TF fans know, that Cliffjumper’s toy was a minor retool of the original Bumblebee mold and, for any wonderful character moments he’s had, nothing has managed to outshine this fact in defining the little red Autobot. So it’s terrific fun to acknowledge this little in-joke in a constructive way. There’s immediate appeal to Cliffjumper as a perfectly forgettable but well-meaning schmuck finally given a–in this case very figurative–moment in the sun. So we have that optimism. Now we need a devil’s advocate.
Thanks to being a mysterious Japanese exclusive character for years, Deathsaurus’ is a name that commands respect among Transformers fans but doesn’t have a clear personality attached to it. IDW’s previous efforts built upon a characterization from the Transformers: Victory manga focused on his compassion for his fellow Decepticons, but it’s 2020 and the time for such foibles seems to be behind us. Indeed, even though many fans encountered the Kaijubot first in James Roberts‘ definitive More Than Meets The Eye, this could easily prove to be the definitive English portrayal of Deathsaurus.
Deathsaurus proves an incredibly effective villain here, brutal in strength and persona, even on low grade energon. Writers Kate Leth and Cohen Edenfield give Deathsaurus just enough charisma to own every scene he’s part of, but not nearly enough to disguise how thoroughly monstrous he is. His simmering anger, unapologetic bigotry, and no-nonsense demeanor make him a delight to read even before the writers give him a tremendous little monologue that’s almost certainly the highlight of the issue. As the story goes on we see how secondary the business-like Cybertronian’s pragmatism is compared to his narcisism and blood-lust. Cliffjumper is something of a relatable everyman, but Deathsaurus positively shines as a truly nasty piece of work, awful in countless individual ways without falling into cartoonish villainy.
With our two perspectives in place, all that’s needed is a motivation and the Probats provide that rather nicely. Probat gets a brief and fairly subtle introduction that communicates a bunch about the world and its culture while also presenting a problem or two for Cliffjumper to solve. I’ve never been a huge fan of Transformers stories featuring additional alien races and I feel that the current line of comics has suffered for emphasizing alien diplomacy either more or less than it needs to, but that only makes it more apparent that this story is handling it right. We see anti-organic prejudice naturally integrated, demonstrate the shortcomings and frustrations of the Nominus Edict, and discover both a worthy motivation for an Autobot and a suitably slimy Watson for our Decepticon. If there’s anything to criticize about the worldbuilding, it’s only that this issue doesn’t speak terribly well of Bumblebee. I assume that the implication is that power corrupts, but one wonders if we’ll get any clarifications on how our favorite yellow bug put this government in power next issue.
There are some moments where things feel like they’re pulling in a few too many directions, but they’re never more than a panel or two from some sincere Probats or another visit with Deathsaurus to reinvest a lagging reader. It is odd to say that at least one page feels largely superfluous, but Leth and Edenfield, despite a chatty tone–or perhaps because of one, wisely keep scenes brief, most no longer than three pages.
Besides one easily overlooked plot convenience, the script holds together very well and, perhaps precisely because it comes from creators who are new to this version of the Transformers universe, it manages to play up the themes of this continuity with much greater ease than the main series, while still telling its own story.
And it’s fun! I’ve said before that one thing that the new Transformers universe has lacked is levity and this is a welcome medicine for that. The story remains in keeping with the earnest examination of Cybertronian culture we’ve seen in The Transformers, but everything has a tinge of not taking itself so seriously, with a fair number of moments being outright funny, and it goes a long way.
While I think it’s clear that I appreciated the writing, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have one of the most celebrated artists to touch the Transformers brand in years handling the visuals. To be honest, it’s kind of surprising to see Alex Milne return to official Transformers comics so soon, but between the continuing affection for him in the fandom, his blend of detail and personality, and some recent health problems for the prolific artist, I suppose it’s not entirely surprising. Regardless of the timing, you can’t argue with the results.
Joined by colorist and longtime collaborator Josh Perez, Milne does an impressive job of rendering this story. It really shows that Milne is a Transformers artist. Cybertronian characters are full of detail, from all manner of mechanical and joint designs to more theoretical concerns like Cliffjumper’s wheel tucking into his back, showing how thoughtfully Milne goes about his work. But Transformers aren’t mecha, they’re living beings and they lack the stiffness that a piloted vehicle would possess. Just looking at Cliffjumper you know how lightly he treads–both literally and with the fragile organics around him– while Deathsaurus roots himself to the ground in absolute resentment until the exact moment he’s free to be his true self once again.
It’s also notable that this is Milne drawing a two part story, rather than an ongoing or mini-series. The seeming result is a drastic increase in general detail, a quality that remains purely positive thanks to Milne’s characteristic mastery of tight compositions. There’s a lot going on in these panels, often reflecting the claustrophobic society of the Probat people, but it rarely, if ever, becomes difficult to understand.
Milne also draws Deathsaurus’ beast mode with such personality. The former Decepticon Emperor of Destruction has been, charitably, described as a “death chicken” more than once, but, while you won’t miss the avian qualities of the form, I doubt many would call him unintimidating in this appearance. It really is the difference between a 1970s tail-dragger and a modern carnosaur between the original toy and this version of the kaiju Transformer. Having instantly accomplished the necessary, Milne then goes for extra credit and makes Deathsaurus’ alt-mode not only frightening but devilishly wry and humorous as well.
The low light and logical lack of color in Probat culture could easily have posed a problem for the story, but Perez does a great job of using lighting to convey and clarify the Probat scenery before using the primary brightness of the Cybertronian visitors to contrast against it. There’s also intelligent use of negative space to break up the monochromatic settings of the issue and, like many Transformers colorists at IDW, the brightness of Cybertronian eyes comprise a crucial element of the issue’s look.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention one page of flashbacks. Beautifully rendered to bring out the pristine, ‘all-American’ glory of Cybertron’s post-war triumph, complete with faux-Ben Day dots, Perez gifts the issue some serious visual diversity, a tremendous comedic punch, and some great looking panels.
Though it is working towards much lower stakes than the main series, “Wannabee” is already one of the best stories of the IDW2-era so far. A compelling villain, thoughtful writing, an (forgive my language) organic relationship to series lore, and an art team that absolutely knows what needs to be prioritized and how to prioritize it makes for, not only a fantastic issue, but, actually, a great entry point to the new world of the Transformers. Is it perfect? No, but it’s shortcomings are few, swiftly moved passed, and easily forgotten, while it’s highlights are unique, lively, and terrific fun. Transformers Galaxies #5 is a home-run for everyone involved: for the writers, for the artists, certainly for IDW, and definitely for we fans.
Transformers: Galaxies #5 is currently available in comic shops from IDW Publishing.