You may not know them yet, but they'll be favorites soon Image courtesy of IDW Publishing
It's been a little embarrassing to be a Transformers fan lately. Michael Bay's movies keep making piles upon piles of money regardless of how viciously they're panned by critics. While the live-action movies, the first of which was released in 2007, have catapulted the 80s-icon Robots In Disguise into 21st-century pop culture stardom, they've also made the name synonymous with terrible writing, worse acting, unintelligible fight scenes and explosions at the expense of everything else. Is that really what we're fans of? IDW Publishing has been putting out comics about the Transformers since 2005, but only recently have they reached a quality not only above nearly every other Transformers show, comic or movie before them, but indeed over a lot of other comics on the shelves today. Nearly any writer or artist given duties on a Transformers series will tell you what big fans they've always been, but nobody owns it quite like writer James Roberts and artist Alex Milne on the currently-running Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye series. With the Transformers name so closely tied to bad storytelling, it's not surprising that “MTMTE” doesn't get the attention it deserves. The massive cast of colorful robot characters can also make things a little confusing for newer readers. There are no generic American West landscapes here, no token human characters for the reader to identify with. Roberts' fondness for obscure characters – no Optimus Prime here – doesn't help, as you're not going to see many characters you recognize from the movies or even late-night 80s cartoon reruns. It's not an easy series to get into. The payoff, however, is absolutely worth it. The story focuses on a group of Autobots who have left their home planet of Cybertron aboard a ship called the Lost Light in hopes of finding a mythical group known as the Knights of Cybertron. The cast is made up primarily of more obscure characters from Transformers history, but that's actually a benefit. Instead of telling the umpteenth story about how Optimus Prime feels about leadership, Roberts uses fourth-stringers like Swerve and Tailgate and makes you truly care about them. He does this primarily by showing how they care about each other. Friendships and rivalries, not running around shooting and blowing things up, are the foundations on which the series is built. Some of the most memorable scenes take place in the Lost Light's makeshift bar. Cyclonus and Whirl, a pair of warriors each damaged in his own way by a millennia of war, start a rivalry in the first issue that isn't properly resolved until the recently-released issue number 21, and that rivalry has repercussions beyond just the two of them. Rewind and Chromedome are the alien, asexual, agender equivalent of spouses, and Roberts introduces an official Cybertronian designation for that: “conjunx endura.” To add a dose of brilliance, their relationship has an underlying theme of memory, as Rewind is an obsessive archivist whose head-mounted camera is always recording and Chromedome is a “mnemosurgeon” who can change and erase memories (think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). The character choices are deliberate and inspired. No character beat is lost in the translation to Alex Milne's art, which somehow manages to make even robots, with only the vaguest approximation of a face, expressive. Most modern comics can be breezed through in a quick sitting, but MTMTE justifies pouring over every panel. Even background details may become vital plot points a few issues on. Colorist Josh Burcham gives the art a signature desaturated look that's helped define the series as well. Though it started out with no ambition higher than selling toys, Transformers as a concept has grown up with its fans. Creators like Roberts and Milne who grew up with those old cartoons and comics are now telling their own mature versions of those stories and using it as a platform to explore deeper themes. With such a great series born from the same source as those mindless blockbuster movies, this comic is truly – here it comes – more than meets the eye.