My rating: 5 of 5 stars
How do you take an 80s toy franchise and make legitimate science fiction storytelling out of it? I’ll give you a hint: it has nothing to do with Michael Bay.
The Transformers are an interesting phenomenon. On the one hand, they represent the point in time when the boundary between making cartoons and selling toys finally broke down completely, and they were the opening salvo in what for many of us was a childhood filled with half-hour toy advertisements thinly disguised as entertainment. On the other hand, in the hands of the right writers they had the makings of truly epic science fiction: sentient robots who had been fighting a war for six million years and whose very bodies were shaped into vehicles and weapons. (The original animated movie was somewhere in the middle: a feature length toy advertisement with a plot only a seven-year-old could–and did–love, it was for many of us the first introduction to gorgeous Japanese animation and its potential for bringing giant robots to life.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, it is in the comic book medium– which seems especially suited for walking the line between outright commercialization and original storytelling– that the Transformers as credible science fiction have best found their niche. This happened originally in the final arch of the original Marvel run back in the 90s, written by Simon Furman and pencilled by Andy Wildman. Furman and Wildman together created an interpretation of the Autobots and Decepticons in which the corrosion of millennia of war was evident, and they gave an additional space operatic depth by a mythological explanation of the Transformers’ origins and position as guardians against the embodiment of Chaos. It worked (for too short a time), and I’ve dutifully passed on the Titan Book reprints of these runs on to my own kids.
Since then I’ve obligingly checked out the various reincarnations of the franchise, most often with the waste of time and money. (Come on, they’re giant transforming robots? How much depth do you really expect?) When I learned that IDW had split their Transformers run into two separate ongoing series a couple years ago, I figured the first collected volume of each might make appropriate Christmas gifts for my twin sons. I’d have to read them first, of course, so I flipped a coin and ordered volume one of More Than Meets the Eye. I quickly realized that a) this wasn’t a series for kids (or at least not for kids as young as my kids are), and b) this was what I had been waiting for since Furman and Wildman.
I’ve waxed eloquent on the merit of this series in my reviews of the previous four volumes, so I’ll try to keep my comments here constrained to the fifth and latest installment. All along, Roberts has been laying track to some epic conclusions but more importantly taking the time to build characters and backstory along the way. Milne’s artwork and eye for detail takes it up another notch. (Have you ever considered how difficult it must be to convey emotions on a robotic visage lacking nose, mouth, and other characteristic facial features?) My major (and really only) complaint with the series so far was the fact that Milne left the helm for the artwork of a few issues in volume four. It’s not that I don’t mind a different artist, but some of those who were drawing for issues in that volume simply weren’t up to the task of communicating the scenes and moods Roberts was creating.
I’ve tried to express the shear delight of this series before: imagine all your childhood friends getting together on a spaceship and going off to have adventures. In some sense, that’s all there is to it. On another level though, Roberts is writing science fiction in the best tradition, and doing it well. Remember, these are nearly-immortal robots who have known nothing but millennia of warfare. Exploring issues like what peace means to lifeforms whose very bodies are weapons, answering questions about mortality and origins, looking at what relationships might develop among a species that lacks gender– and doing it all with pathos and humor. This is what you can expect with this series.
Volume five in no way disappoints and even more encouragingly avoids two of the greatest dangers that often begin to afflict a series once it’s been going on for a while. The first danger with any continuing series is that subsequent issues will simply continue to string the reader along by adding mystery to mystery and refusing to provide any real resolutions. (Think the first few volumes of The Unwritten, or, from what I understand, the entire series of Lost.) Enough of this and you start to suspect that maybe the writer isn’t actually planning on resolving anything or maybe doesn’t have a plan at all. Maybe (horror!) they’re more interested in you purchasing the next issue than telling a great story. I started to get that dreaded feeling with the end of volume four, especially related to the fate of Ultra Magnus. An additional twist? And there was still so much that hadn’t yet been explained!
But in volume five there are answers, and we go places. The quest takes a major step forward. The fate of Ultra Magnus is explained, but more importantly the mystery of Skids’ immediate past, which had been lingering since the first volume, is resolved. New characters are introduced and some old ones are dispatched. The volume consists of a five-issue story arch in which our heroes discover a lost moon of Cybertron and defeat a character we’ve only heard alluded to in the past plus an additional one-shot character piece that gives nice breathing space before the series goes off to play in a big IDW crossover for a while. The writing and the art is as solid as I’ve come to expect.
The second danger of a continuing series is that certain (i.e. main) characters become more or less untouchable by default, so there’s eventually a lack of tension. You know the main characters are going to make it, no matter how grim things look. The redshirts are not. The best writers of course push this convention as far as the franchise (and it is, after all, a franchise) will allow, at times even turning it on its head. They make you care about redshirts, and then kill them (which happens in this volume). Or they “kill” a main character, but in a way you don’t expect (which is what happens to Ultra Magnus but doesn’t feel like a throwaway because it fundamentally alters the way you think about the character).
There’s a lot to love here (especially if you love giant transforming robots), but one of my favorite things about this series is the depth it brings to the character of Rodimus. I was never an Optimus Prime kid. Prime always seemed to me rather flat and over-idealized as a character. There’s not a lot to him besides 100% leadership and responsibility and seriousness all the time. Rodimus was different. If Optimus Prime was your dad, Rodimus was your cool older brother. He was the guy who stumbled into greatness and was never comfortable with the responsibility but craved the fame and glory. Roberts does great things with his character in this volume, balancing his headstrong immaturity with his responsibility to his crew. And all the while you know– or you know if your Tranformers mythos was highly influenced by the animated movie– that something is building. Rodimus is going to be central to something big, more than simply playing at being Captain Awesome (which he does quite well).
I’ve heard a rumor that this volume wraps up the first “season” of More than Meets the Eye and that Roberts has at total of five plotted out. I hope this is true, and I hope indeed that IDW knows what they have going on here and allow Roberts and Milne to keep up the good work. Because, come on? Making art and literature out of giant transforming space robots? That were originally toys cobbled together from two disparate Japanese toy lines and given a thin veneer of backstory to help them sell better? We need more of that kind of crazy.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Gene Wolfe won my undying devotion by being the author of the books that pushed me across the borderland from science fiction and fantasy to literature. (There’s no hard and fast border between the two. It’s a spectrum, but when you start reading Wolfe you realized you’ve definitely wandered– or plunged– into the literary side of this spectrum.) The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Peace, and all of the Sun books are enough to cement his reputation, and they remain among my all-time favorite books. Yet the man is still writing, and I’m still obligingly reading everything that comes from his pen or whatever word-processing software he uses. The Land Across, a standardly (for Wolfe) unclassifiable novel that straddles the boundary between crime mystery, international espionage thriller, and supernatural fantasy, is his latest.
I’ll be honest, some of his most recent stand-alone novels seem like they could be a bit inaccessible to someone not familiar with Wolfe and his tricks. I come to them with a predisposition to love the writing and the writer. Even so, I left An Evil Guest with a confused frown and The Sorcerer’s House with a wry sigh. I closed The Land Across with a perplexed grin. It was nowhere near (to me) as impenetrable as Castleview (for which I lack the Arthurian key). Of all Wolfe’s novels, the one of which it reminded me the most was There Are Doors, but with the soft alienness of a foreign country instead of a parallel dimension. (I also recall Doors as having lots of conversations in cafes, as does Land.)
On the surface, the plot is not straightforward at all. In fact, it’s bewilderingly complex. The main character, Grafton, wants to write a travel book about an unnamed and difficult-to-reach Eastern European country. While traveling there by train he gets picked up by the border patrol and arrested as a possible spy. Under a loose sort of house arrest, he agrees to rent a (probably) haunted house in which there is reputed to be treasure. He gets kidnapped by an underground revolutionary movement and eventually arrested again by the country’s secret police. When his cell-mate escapes, the secret police enlist Grafton to help track the man down. The escapee seems to know some magic, and a secret society of Satanists gets involved. Mysteries are solved. Long conversations are held in cafes. Women (who, married or not, seem to throw themselves at the narrator) are obligingly slept with. Grafton gets awarded a medal by the country’s dictator. Then he goes back to see if he can find the treasure in the haunted house.
If all that seems rather random and scattered, it is. But the genius of Wolfe’s writing is the way he makes it all seem natural. There are aspects of the supernatural and the surreal, but as with most of Wolfe’s writing these aspects are subtle and the bones of the story are the people and the conversations they have. Wolfe is the only writer I know who can create what seems like an action-packed novel but where most of the action is actually taking place in conversations over cafe tables. He is a master of relaying dialogue the way it actually occurs in conversations. People talk like real people in Wolfe’s novels, with all the logical leaps and half-understood or misunderstood transfers of information that this normally entails. The challenge is that Wolfe doesn’t put you in the narrator’s head, so you’re required to make the leaps and conclusions on your own. The narrator might throw you a clue, but for the most part he assumes you can keep up.
I was left, as I so often am after reading Wolfe, with the feeling that there was a lot more going on in the novel than I figured out. Even though, as far as Wolfe novels go, there was a fair degree of closure. There are lingering puzzles: the jarring and dream-like way in which Grafton was first taken off the train at the beginning of the novel, the unnamed lady he meets a few times and then exits the narrative with, and finally the ghostly figure of the Leader himself (as well as Vlad the Impaler) that haunts Grafton throughout the story. But these aren’t large enough or central enough that their mystery detracts from feeling as though I’ve understood the story at all. (Though, with Wolfe, you can’t get away from the feeling that he’s laughing at you because the real story, the secret story taking place in the sewers beneath or the back alleys behind the narrative hinges on solving these lingering mysteries.)
Wolfe’s novels should be read multiple times, ideally immediately after having finished it for the first time. But I am still a bit of a lazy reader, so I was pleased The Land Across did not immediately draw me into a story of tangential pathways and dizzying divergences like Abel’s quest in the Wizard Knight books. Indeed, once Grafton fell in with the secret police, the “case” of solving where his escaped cellmate was and finding the identity of the head of the secret Satanist cult formed a more or less consistent thread on which the novel rested. And this thread was, at least superficially, resolved.