Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye, Volume 9 by James Roberts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
James Roberts knows how to make monsters. What makes this series great though, and what keeps it feeling fresh after almost fifty issues, is where the monsters come from. We’ve had four million years of warfare between sentient robots who can form their bodies into vehicles and weapons, so there’s a lot of history to draw on, and Roberts mines it deep. But he doesn’t pull his monsters from where you would expect: treacherous Decepticons against heroic Autobots. His monsters come from all sides, from every angle, keeping you constantly guessing. And many of them are genuinely frightening, often in ways you don’t expect.
If you’ve been following this series for a while (or even my blog, where I’ve reviewed each volume so far), it shouldn’t be a surprise that Roberts revels in switching things up and making battle lines grey and messy. In this volume though, it seems to come through even stronger. Of course, re-branding (literally) Megatron as an Autobot several issues back, and following through with what this meant internally for the former murderous dictator, was a very big thing. But this volume asks the question, apart from the titans like Megatron, what do swaps like this and the weirdness of a new peace after millions of years of hatred mean for the little guys? In this volume we get two sides of the coin: we get the return of our favorite Decepticon misfits being heroic and even empathic, and we get Autobots plotting treachery to do what they think needs to be done to bring Megatron to justice.
Let’s take the Decepticons first: along with the Decepticon Justice Division (the series’ primary true “bad guys”), early on we were teased with the Scavengers, a crew of pathetic soldiers made up of the rejects from the bottom of your toy drawer. Early on they met up with a damaged Grimlock and were introduced to a ship full of creepy mysteries. Since then these characters have been shelved for much of the series. Their return in this issue gives a look at what the peace has meant for the average Decepticon. Roberts uses his characteristic skill to bring this group together, making them seem real as a team, even as they tackle issues like human (okay, sentient robotic) trafficking and the psychological wounds of war with a (usually) light touch that doesn’t trivialize the fact that Roberts is tackling big issues with giant battling robots. The first two chapters in this volume give us a self-contained episode that returns us to these characters and sets them on a new trajectory, while simultaneously opening up an old mystery that Roberts has been dropping clues about for a while.
On the other side of the sigil, we get conspiracy and manipulation by Autobots who want Megatron to get his due. Roberts thrives creating heroes out of assumed villains and vice versa, and the work of portraying rotten Autobots is believable and chilling. In addition to this though, we get another genuine monster, and here it’s simply wonderful to see the sort of creatures Roberts can fashion to haunt the universe he’s created and the mecha-physiology he’s devised for the Transformers. (At the same time though, the precedents set here are going to make certain things pretty easy: now that we know it’s possible to access memories by sight and transmit thoughts and data directly from brain to brain, this opens up a host of shortcuts for a deus ex machina any time a plot point needs to be resolved.)
I’m the worst kind of fan though: one who takes the content and the characters quite seriously. The kind of guy who is the first to maintain that comic books can be literature but has to keep reminding himself that they’re also magazines. That is, More Than Meets the Eye, as much as I’d like it to be, is not a self-contained graphic novel. It’s a serialized comic, which means in some ways it still functions as a magazine, selling advertising (though I don’t see those in the trade volumes I get) and keeping readers pulled along. It means it’s constantly raveling, winding on, with additional twists, turns, and scope of characters added layer upon layer.
For the most part this is fine, especially when it has to do with the plot. It starts to feel like a soap opera though when these additional tangles and coils have to do with relationships between characters. They are giant fighting robots. Yes, they have pathos and depth now and time for exploring what peace means. Four million years of warfare probably didn’t leave much time for love, but I really don’t want it now.
I’m also pretty spoiled by Alex Milne’s artwork, enough that I tend to throw a fit if he doesn’t do the majority of the issues in a volume. In this one he does only the first two, but the artists who do the other issues actually do a pretty fantastic job, with the exception of a few awkward panels here and there. They’re not Milne, and they don’t bring his depth and detail, but the artwork here does not detract from the story as it did in a few early issues when Milne stepped away.
In all, this series is still going places and doing incredible things with my favorite characters. The next volume (volume 10!) will include the fiftieth issue of the series, and Amazon has the drop date listed as right around my birthday.
They know me, guys . . .