ONE of the best things about manga and anime is the openness to doing stories which run parallel to the main story. They even have a great term for it: side stories. These in-continuity tales enable creators to fit in characters and plotlines that would be obscured by the weight of the main narrative.
And that’s exactly what we’ve got with the new “Transformers: Punishment” one-shot. This extra-sized one-shot is actually a print version of a comic book originally created for the interactive Madefire platform. Reading it, it’s hard to believe this wasn’t originally scheduled for a release from IDW Publishing considering how good it is.
Fans of writer John Barber and artist Livio Ramondelli will get a thrill because they get an extra helping of the two this month. “Punishment” is the kind of side story you get when the characters aren’t all trying to save planets.
That being said, this is still Optimus Prime’s show. In “Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye” and “The Transformers,” Prime bids the Autobots farewell seemingly on a lark to go back to Cybertron. He doesn’t tell anyone why he’s going back right now, only that he must and that he will be back.
“Punishment” details what happens on his trip to Cybertron. The book begins with the death of three Decepticons—Wilder, Treadshot and Brisko—at the hands of an unknown assailant. This is apparently not an isolated incident, and Cybertron’s supreme leader Starscream soon arrives on the scene with Decepticon detective Barricade at his side. There’s someone killing Decepticons in what is called a Decepticon ghetto.
That’s where Prime comes in, as he is concerned by the killings even if they—or maybe precisely because—the victims are all Decepticons. He is helped by city speaker Windblade (nice to see her in titles other than her own), and is both helped and impeded by the bull-headed Dinbots minus Grimlock. Slug in particular is quite the douche. When Prime tries to question the Firecons about the crimes, he is attacked and has to be rescued by Starscream.
Right after, three more Decepticons are killed, execution-style: Ransack, Stratotronic and Heavy Barrel. The theory is that it all has to do with engex bootlegging, and the clues lead them to a run down Decepticon bar run by Gutcruncher. Gutcruncher isn’t happy to see the Autobots in a ‘Con area, but Prime discovers an unlikely drinker at the bar, the Autobot triplechanger Sandstorm. The former Wrecker rejects Prime, indicating he’s had his fill of war.
Prime becomes frustrated but then Windblade reminds him of why they’re here: “The rule of law applies equally to every Cybertronian.” Then, Gutcruncher’s bar is razed to the ground.
Prime begins to find new suspects. First, it’s the Firecons—but it soon turns out they’re innocent if irritating. Then he begins to suspect the Dinobots, who push back. The problem, of course, is that the Dinobots say they didn’t do the deed—but they don’t mind the death of Decepticons. “Once we were warriors,” Prime thinks. “Now we are people, and must behave as such. And a leader… a leader must know the difference.”
As Prime wrestles with the Dinobots, Starscream in contrast wants to destroy the entire Decepticon ghetto just because he can and it’s convenient. A noble Barricade refuses: “I’m a cop. I sided with a united Cybertron because I believe in it. There’s a reason I still wear the Decepticon sigil.”
Then, Prime finally figures out who is it that’s been murdering Decepticons. (SPOILERS)
It turns out to be the bitter, wounded Sandstorm. After all the horror he witnessed as a Wrecker, he can’t let the Decepticons live in peace, as wretched that state of living may be. It turns out that the Decepticons he’s been killing were all soldiers in the great Autobot-Decepticon conflict, and were guilty of war crimes like massacring entire races. Other Wreckers (Sandstorm names Skram and Fireball) had already been destroying Decepticon-controlled worlds out of vengeance.
Now Sandstorm was waging his own war. The triplechanger fights back, of course, but Prime easily subdues him and sends him to prison.
In a very quick conclusion, Prime reveals to Windblade why he had come to this particular place. It was the anniversary of the day he received the now-inert Autobot Matrix of Leadership. It means something to him, now more than ever.
That’s quite a bit of story for a one-shot, and it is certainly a good one, dark and gray, where the Decepticons aren’t necessarily bad and the Autobots aren’t exactly paragons of virtue. It may be the best thing we’ve seen from Barber, who shows he can shine on a story that’s gritty and focused unlike the busy work being done in his “Transformers” title that’s transitioning into the upcoming Combiner Wars arc.
“Punishment” is basically a detective story, and it’s fascinating to see Prime be such a bad one, and Barricade be a great one. The characterizations are spot-on. Prime is well-intentioned if occasionally bumbling (he gets better at the end), Windblade the endless optimist and the Dinobots are very much very Dinobot-y.
Even better are the characterizations of the Decepticons. It’s rare to see so many ‘Cons receive full backstories except for Starscream, who it has to be said, is perfectly practical and conniving. The victims are all marginalized crazies—Sparkstalker in particular. But the best one is Barricade. Introduced in the movies as the evil police car, Barricade here is shown as a decent, dedicated officer of the law who just happens to wear a Decepticon badge.
And for the perp? Sandstorm has never received any kind of traction in the comic books, always being shown as part of the Wreckers (either on the left or on the right, never in the middle) either attacking something or escorting someone. This is the most attention he’s ever received even if it is for being a scarred murderer with a warped sense of justice. It’s also nice to see his Generations iteration—the hovercraft and dune buggy one—get so much exposure.
One other nice thing about “Punishment” is its usage of so many obscure Transformer characters. The victims are all previously created characters but slightly modified. Brisko is a Headmaster trainer, Treadshot is a Universe baddie (not the Action Master), Wilder is a Junior Headmaster trainer, Ransack is a ‘Con jet (not the Deluxe Insecticon), Heavy Barrel is a Mini-Con, and the most interesting is Stratotronic, who is apparently the robot mode of the jet that Action Master Gutcruncher (who’s here, too) used to ride around. Even the Autobots are real, save for Fireball. So Barber uses the Cybertronian directory very thoroughly.
It has to be said that this is the best art we’ve ever seen from Ramondelli. His work tends to become murky and the robots indistinguishable from one another. Not here. Look at his Prime. Everything is clear and sharp, yet still very Ramondellish. This should serve as proof that Ramondelli can work with more of the trademark Transformer style while still employing his own flourishes. It would be great to see more of this kind of work from him.
“Transformers: Punishment” is a perfect one-shot about a textured, dark side story in Optimus Prime’s experience, yet is far more than just the Optimus Prime show.
Next: Transformers Drift Empire of Stone # 3!