It's a treat when the new issues of both of IDW's ongoing Transformers series come out on the same day, and it's fitting it happens on a holiday week where we celebrate what we're thankful for. One of the things for which I'm most appreciative are these two books – Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye and Transformers: Robots In Disguise. So much so that Iann Robinson put it on his thankful list just because of how much I trumpet these books on The Book Report podcast.
This week, the #11 issues of both books hit stores, and both of them gave us updates on one of the more enduring icons of the mythos – the one-eyed logic maven called Shockwave. RID shows us where he is now, while MTMTE gives us a stunning reinvention of his entire character – one that actually elicited an out-loud-to-nobody 'holy fuck' from my lips upon reaching the revelation. That sentence alone should warn you that Here There Be Spoylers.
MTMTE #11 gives us the conclusion to the "Shadowplay" arc, the title of which is taken from the term used to describe the "forbidden science" of brainwashing and essentially completely reprogramming people – in this case, what the corrupt pre-war Cybertronian Senate is secretly doing to political dissidents like the growing Decepticon movement and criminals of any sort in a place known as The Institute. This is an intense story of the old days by a bunch of Autobots aboard the Lost Light spaceship as an attempt at therapy for a nearly brain-dead friend named Rung – much like talking to a coma patient and hoping they hear you. It's a nice way to get an awesome flashback story mixed in with some progress on the current-day stuff.
When last we left Orion Pax (the action hero supercop who would one day become Optimus Prime), he had uncovered a nasty conspiracy with his compatriots – Mechaforensic Detectives Chromedome and Prowl, his partner Roller, his friend Ratchet and his mysterious secret ally in the Senate who remained frustratingly unnamed. The Decepticons at this point were mostly frustrated "manual class" workers tired of having their careers dicated by their alt-modes (a philosophy called "functionism"), and they rightly believed the Senate to be petty, untrustworthy tyrants. Their political pressure was strong enough to get Senator Proteus to appear to make them an offer to become a legitimate party in the system, but that was a front to get Decepticons to register and thus be targeted for capture and 'shadowplay.' That's not all – the Senate is also planning to set a massive bomb off in the middle of a public funeral for the fallen leader Nominus Prime (in the middle of his damn corpse, even, disguising it as The Matrix of Leadership) specifically to pin it on the Decepticons and proceed to dismantle that threat to their power. Thus, Pax and his crew had to hatch a plan to pull off a Matrix heist.
This is how densely James Roberts writes, and that's not even the whole of it. The level of care and talent brought to the Transformers with this series is unparalleled. In #11, what we get is a tense Mission: Impossible-style caper, the introduction of the concept of 'outliers' – a cool way to explain the quirk of the old character sheets where certain TFs had unique superpowers like magnetism and forcefields – and even a side story about Rodimus Prime dealing with the present-day suicide of one of his crew that's rather touching, although given the fact that it's Red Alert, who suffers from extreme paranoia, chances are this only LOOKS like a suicide.
The action movie angle ends as well as it could considering it's part of the rising action that leads to four million years of war – the bombing is prevented, but with dire consequences. While Pax and the gang are doing the Matrix-switch, the nastiest of senators, Sentinel Prime, has sent his goon Kroma to capture the rogue senator, and by the time Pax gets back (in true badass fashion) to try and save the day, the senator surrenders himself to avoid any further threat to Pax and his crew, knowing full well that he's going to be subjected to shadowplay as punishment for "flirting with agitators," among other things. What he didn't know was that he'd also have the ancient practice of "empurata" inflicted on him as well – a ritual in which criminals have their faces replaced with featureless masks and their hands replaced with some sort of less useful appendage. In the epilogue – unknown to the modern-day storytellers – we find out why this guy was unnamed for all this time. This emotional, colorful and ultimately noble senator is undergoing a "total personality inversion," and in the final splash page, we finally know his name. Senator Shockwave.
See, Shockwave was always one of the biggest names in the lore, but before now, he was never really a tragic character – he was the cold, unfeeling, brilliantly logical science machine one would expect ouf of an evil robot. He was more creepy than anything – that weird, glowing light instead of a face, the fact that he had one of his hands replaced with a gun. He had a cool look, but definitely a foreboding one. Now, the fact that all of that was a curse inflicted on a once gregarious and actively altruistic 'bot – even the fact that his new form is all purple is a smack in the face to the guy he was, always changing up his color scheme to fit his mood – makes us feel bad for Shockwave for the first time ever. Well… unless you count the G1 cartoon, where he was sort of a bumbling British goof.
It's a hell of an issue, and Alex Milne's artwork is damned fantastic as usual, capturing every moment, huge and miniscule, with beautiful, character-rich detail and some imaginative layout work. The Roberts/Milne team is the best thing to happen to Transformers comics – and dare I say Transformers canon itself – since it was invented. This stuff is just so packed to the gills with information, color, plot, dialogue, history and ideas of all sorts that I'm running out of superlatives.
What would have made this truly exceptional would be if Shockwave had done something really significantly cool or interesting in Robots In Disguise #11, to really play off of this MTMTE revelation. That's not to say nothing cool or interesting happens at all – far from it. But Shockwave's appearance here seems to offer little more than his getting punked out by Arcee.
RID #11 picks up in the aftermath of another reach into the past, with a fabled "metrotitan" of old apparently coming to life in the presence of Starscream and claiming he would be the "conqueror who will unite Cybertron's scattered warriors." Enough people saw this that it makes it seem like Starscream was divinely ordained to become president of the new Cybertronian government formed in the aftermath of the war. He's on a popularity surge, thriving in this new political environment in ways he never could in the conflict. This is where he shines – he's a manipulator, a maneuverer, he's about to find himself on top of the world and, as revealed in his inner monologue, at his core, he wants to actually help his world be its best – and as we've seen in MTMTE, the origins of the Decepticon cause weren't based in "evil." It was rebellion against oppression.
Then two things happen to shake that all up. One, not long after being rebuffed by the ancient, respected and giant Autobot Omega Supreme when he sought out corroboration of the metrotitan's decree, the big bot gets blown up nearly to death. That gets immediately blamed on the remaining Decepticons – a group Starscream has distanced himself from in the effort to solidify his political standing. Still, enough taint lingers that his career will be affected by it. Thus, he goes to hash things out with Shockwave, the current leader of the 'Cons, who has mostly been chilling out in hiding as far as we've seen so far in RID. Screamer yells at him a bit about not ruining things for the rest of the 'cons who've gone out and tried to rejoin society, and Shockwave does have a fairly cool bit of aloof sarcasm in response to this, but he just brushes it all off.
Thus, Starscream starts wheeling and dealing – reaching an agreement with one of his angriest detractors, the ruthless Autobot Prowl (who, as we saw in MTMTE #11, wasn't always that way). The result is that Prowl's even more ruthless hitwoman Arcee makes her way into the Decepticon camp and manages to take them all out, and blows the whole place to smithereens – covering up the fact that Prowl's taking Shockwave and the rest prisoner in some secret place called The Black Room. Sounds unnervingly like The Institute.
Yeah, John Barber's story does have echoes of "Shadowplay," as the last couple of issues of RID have hit on that theme of whether or not Cybertronians are doomed to repeat their destructive cycles. I just would have liked to have seen more awesome out of Shockwave, given the brain-breaking nature of the MTMTE revelation – but then again, he's been very cagey about everything, so there may well be more great Shockwave action on deck. And not for nothin', but Guido Guidi's artwork on RID #11 is also stellar. The splash page of Omega Supreme blowing up is darkly beautiful.
But there's one other development that has me somewhat worried – the second thing that happens to disturb Starscream's rise to power. It's another last-page reveal – a battered but unbroken Megatron appears for the first time since these two books began, emerging from the primordial Cybertron wilds carrying the decapitated heads with him. Up until now, the post-war theme has worked very well for these two books, and putting Optimus Prime out to pasture and letting him become Orion Pax again was a great move, and leaving Megatron off-stage gave the others plenty of time to shine. So much so that his return now feels a bit too soon. But hopefully, Barber's established the direction of this series well enough that he won't follow the quick and easy path back to war, but instead find a new and interesting way to integrate the icon into the new paradigm.
It COULD be awesome if done right, and there have been very few missteps since the launch of MTMTE and RID. So I remain cautiously optimistic for the latter, and wildly enthusiastic about the former.
TRANSFORMERS: MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE #11
TRANSFORMERS: ROBOTS IN DISGUISE #11