Monthly Archives: July 2016

TF:MTMTE volume 9

Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye, Volume 9Transformers: 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 . . .

The Lightning Thief

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #1)The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I live in a reading house, a house walled up with books. It’s a gift and a blessing, especially on moments in the summer when I look up and everyone in the house is immersed in one, the boys sprawled out on the couches with hardcovers propped on their chests and legs dangling over the edge of the cushions.

My wife loves YA literature, so she was pleased with the twins started reading Rick Riordan’s series, which has been a favorite of hers for a while. I tend to pass up YA literature, but when my oldest finished The Lightning Thief, brought it downstairs, and somberly handed it to me and said, “Dad, you need to read this,” I obligingly put it in my pile.

I’ve read Harry Potter, and I assumed this would just be something along the same lines. And it was, to a degree. (For the record, by this point every literate member of my family was reading a different Riordan book. We had to visit the library for additional copies.) In lots of ways, I was struck by the similarities to Rowling’s world. There’s a kid with rough luck who is longing to know the truth about his parents (in Percy’s case his dad), a misfit who finally finds a place where he belongs and realizes he’s Actually Quite Important. There are similarities with the supporting cast as well: a trio of three best friends (the main character along with an intelligent girl and a loyal guy sidekick). A quest, a wise mentor, etc. etc.

Another big parallel is the setting. Rowling and Riordan both have tapped into places every kid would be familiar with. The settings lend themselves to episodic adventure. The center of the Harry Potter universe is of course a school that the characters return to each fall. Riordan reverses this: instead of the action taking place during the school year, it’s a summer camp where demigods spend their vacations training to fight monsters. In both cases Riordan and Rowling take something familiar, something kids can relate to, and use it as a springboard for the stories they’re going to tell.

What sets Riordan’s book apart from Rowling’s and makes me think I like it a bit more is that it draws on deeper wells than the Potter universe: in particular, Greek mythology. That’s obvious upon picking up the book, but it’s actually done with some cleverness for the level of a kid-reader. For one thing, Riordan doesn’t spell everything out explicitly. The reader who knows Greek mythology has a head start (and will almost instantly realize who Percy’s father actually is), but the one who doesn’t will learn a lot along the way and have a heavy motivation to learn more if they want to catch all the details of the story. (Seriously, any kids’ book in which the hero’s mentor is his Latin instructor and tells the hero to “Read the Iliad” is on the right track in my mind.) In some cases, yes, the modernizations of mythical motifs get a bit trite and repetitive, especially as the trio of main characters travel westward on their quest, stumbling from one set-piece to the next. But the underlying puzzle is compelling enough to push the narrative along.

With a book like this, it’s difficult to know whether you can complain about the descriptions, which– especially for the monsters– seem pretty shallow and vague. It’s hard to tell whether this is Riordan’s style or a mechanism for making a believable twelve-year-old boy narrator, someone who doesn’t slow down to give much descriptive detail.

A surprising strength of the book is the reverence with which the gods are treated. Riordan does a nuanced job of balancing their childishness and pettiness with respect for their raw power. It makes them more believable. You can imagine this is how they were actually treated in ancient Greece: forces to be respected but not necessarily emulated; aspects of nature that couldn’t really be trusted. Especially poignant is Percy’s ultimate encounter with his father. The angst of an abandoned kid looking for approval from a dad who is powerful but also aloof and satisfyingly alien. It somehow rings true, and it reminds me a little of Lewis’s treatment of Aslan (though with much less warmth and wisdom): he’s not a tame lion, after all.

The gods, Riordan manages to communicate, were not tame. Of course here they’re simplified (though perhaps they were then as well– larger than life caricatures of elemental forces) and in some cases even boring (especially the monsters), but Riordan brings them to life for a modern generation while at the same time being surprisingly (to me) true to their roots and their nature.