Sunday, November 9, 2014

Death in the Family: More Than Meets The Eye # 34!

THIS is the last issue of IDW’s “Transformers: Robots in Disguise”—technically speaking. But it’s not going away, it’s just changing titles next month to just plain “The Transformers” # 35. Read into that what you will, but “TF: RID,” though well-written and well-illustrated, still somewhat remains overshadowed by its even-better-written and better-illustrated sibling title, “Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye.”

That is not helped by the fact that “TF:RID” is now jumping all over the place. Originally, the series seemed focused on the Earth-bound adventures of Optimus Prime and the remaining Autobots, but it’s since jumped back to life on a bittersweet Cybertron and then back to Earth now that the humans have aligned themselves with the Decepticons. But now, it’s going back in time with some surprising and defining back stories.

That’s a lot of moving parts and it speaks to writer John Barber’s ambition that he even dares to juggle so many ideas in one book. Last issue leads into this one, as Barber tells a tale from Cybertron’s history ten million years ago, one that speaks of a heretofore unknown alliance between the unstoppably barbarian Galvatron and the Autobot sage Alpha Trion. Trion tells Prime this story after they leave the Ark-7 in Earth’s lunar orbit without telling anyone where they’re going.

IT is to the credit of IDW Publishing that they did not put the single most shocking thing about “Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye” (“TF:MTMTE”) # 34 on any of the available covers. It lulls the reader into thinking this is just another issue of the series. But that is exactly what Ultra Magnus is warning the reader about on the main cover.

Of course, “TF: MTMTE” did not become the single best TF comic title today (and perhaps ever) without having the ability to pull of surprises, most of which we can chalk up to the talent and vision of writer James Roberts. This story strikes at a time when the current storyline’s momentum has reached a high point.

“Births, Deaths, and Interventions” features Roberts as the writer and Atilio Rojo stepping in for regular penciller Andrew Griffith. It happens at the same time as the events in the last few issues, focusing on what has happened to one of the groups of Autobots who had abandoned the time-lost Lost Light.

Bluestreak, Mainframe, First Aid and Trailcutter have arrived on the former lectureworld Ofsted XVII and they discover what appears to be the husk of a Cybertronian. First Aid suggest they donate their own Energon to revive the dormant ‘bot, but Mainframe and Bluestreak refuse. First Aid wants to go ahead anyway because he’s a doctor and Trailcutter, being Trailcutter, just wants to do the right thing. Then the robot says something in ancient Cybertronian: “Find, kill, cleanse.” Wait, where have we heard that before?

We then have a flashback millions of years ago when Megatron was still a very intelligent and, as yet, non-violent, miner with a gift for rhetoric. The suspicious Senate has sent their chief psychopathologist Froid (cute, if somewhat unsubtle) and the surgeon Trepan (hello, horrible medical pioneer) to, well, correct Megatron.

Megatron has been writing these subversive tracts and now we find out that crippled fellow miner Terminus (yes, the Terminus Megatron has been referring to) has been smuggling them out of Messatine. We get a glimpse of what Megatron has been writing, and then Megatron is disabled.

To his horror, First Aid discovers that the robot they are trying to revive is Vos, the pain-loving member of the dreaded Decepticon Justice Division, or DJD. He now refuses to save such a monster, but Traincutter, being Trailcutter, stills goes on to save Vos. Vos awakens—only to be blasted across the room by Trailcutter. First Aid goes off to fetch the others, and the weakened Trailcutter uses his forcefield to protect himself from the unconscious Vos. But he fails to see that, in the rubble behind him, another robot awakens. Eagle-eyed readers will recognize this member of the DJD: the merciless Kaon.

Back in time, Megatron awakens to find himself about to be mind-wiped by Trepan. “Protest is a form of sickness,” Trepan says, “I’m here to cure you.” Trepan is interrupted by the arrival of Rung, who wants to make sure there are no irregularities. But before Trepan can get back to his work, the planet’s Nucleon threatens to explode.

Bluestreak, First Aid and Mainframe return only to be met by the horrific sight of Kaon, still inside Traillcutter’s forcefield, pulling the transformation cog from a decapitated Trailcutter’s head, effectively killing Trailcutter. Like Vos, Kaon has been disabled, but fed off Trailcutter’s forcefield energy to resume functioning before he ambushed Trailcutter. Taking his prize (Trailcutter’s transformation cog, what members of the DJD do as a signature), Kaon radioes Helex and a teleportation beam takes him and Kaon away.

Blueastreak, First Aid and Mainframe are left in the chamber, bereft.

Back in time, the planet Messatine is being evacuated. Megatron rushes to find Terminus but the older miner is nowhere to be found. The only message left: “I’m sorry.”

In an undisclosed location in the present, an energy shimmer reveals the arrival of Brainstrom, whom we now know is the Decepticons’ traitorous agent among the Autobot ranks. Together with his trusty briefcase, he materializes and then ominously says: “Right, then… where to start?”

Just… wow. Roberts juggles the storylines as only he can do, with Rojo applying his own more-rounded look to the characters, doing well enough that we don’t wind up noticing Griffith’s absence. The bit with Megatron is a bit dry but historically important, especially considering Megatron’s current philosophical alliance with the Autobots. Roberts gifts Megatron a poet’s touch with statements like this:

“It is a prison full of willing prisoners, and not only are you a prisoner within the system, you are a prisoner within your own body. Whether you are born or made, forged or constructed cold, you are trapped inside your alt mode. The functionists built the lock and the Senate holds the key; but most of us are unaware we’re locked in.” It is all part of the continuing attempt by Roberts to present Megatron as a complex, compelling character and this bit with Terminus will surely play a big part in future flashbacks.

The big deal in this issue is the death of Trailcutter. There’s currently a big debate among devoted readers whether or not Trailcutter is actually dead, considering how much damage the TFs can take and still keep on kicking. But if you’ve been following “TF:MTMTE,” particularly the scenes where the Autobots discover clearly dead bodies in the wake of the DJD rampage, then you know that Trailcutter is truly dead.

This is a shocking, heartbreak twist. Trailcutter—formerly known as Trailbreaker before annoying trademark issues forced Hasbro to change his name—became a fan-favorite in “TF:MTMTE,” particularly when he was first depicted as a drunk before Megatron “redeemed” him and made him sober by messing around with Trailcutter’s fuel intake valve. The fact that he is one of the original TFs—indeed, one of the Ark crew which arrived on Earth, makes this death a significant one, especially following the recent death of Bumblebee.

Roberts had written one heck of an epitaph for Trailcutter, though, portraying him as a noble Autobot who would give his own Energon to save a dying enemy. His sudden death at the hands of a vicious terrorist—indeed, one that he also effectively saved from deactivation—stands proof of just how heroic Trailcutter is. His death is also juxtaposed with the arrival of the murderous, duplicitous Brainstorm. Only bad things can come of it. And imagine, all this happens basically as a mere cutaway from the main plot of the series. For all its amazing elements, “Births, Deaths, and Interventions” is a sidelight.

This is a brilliant, sad, surprising issue, the kind that can only come from James Roberts and “Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye.” RIP Trailcutter, 1984-2014, in comic book years.

Next time: The Transformers # 35!

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