Review: Transformers – More Than Meets the Eye #55

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Transformers-More-than-meets-the-eye-55

Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye is an ensemble buddy comedy about robots messing around in space. It is also a heartbreaking look at the aftermath of a four-million-year war. Issue 55 wraps up the “Dying of the Light” arc, so it’s light on laughs and heavy on the aftermath.

It’s strange to start writing about a series so close to its end – or its rebirth. There are two issues of More Than Meets the Eye left, then a special, then a new #1 in December as the title becomes Transformers: Lost Light. Still, I feel compelled. I caught up with this series a month ago, and I can’t stop talking about it. Texting my friend who got me into it is not enough.

A story has to be pretty great for me to let it keep hurting me like this.

Alex Milne’s art is utterly spectacular, as usual. In this issue he created three wordless panels that broke a thousand hearts. Three panels of facial expression and body language that I will not forget for the rest of my life. He draws the best faces and explosions and Joana Lafuente’s colors bring them to life with fire and flowers and energon.

With Milne’s art comes James Roberts’ words and plots. His style is Community meets Game of Thrones with robots in space. I’m in love with all the characters and worried all the time. This issue’s title is “Do Not Go Gentle,” and it delivers character development and satisfaction and agony.

Some fans loved this issue, others found it underwhelming and strange. I can understand both perspectives because two very different stories with conflicting themes are layered on top of each other here. It took me a little while to reconcile it all, but the more I think about it the more it works.

Mechanically we have a lot of carefully-positioned interlocking maguffins. Cleverly foreshadowed odds and ends lead to ingenious technobabble payoffs. It’s a master class in technical sci-fi plotting as everything slots neatly into place.

Emotionally, it’s the opposite. This is a story about how people can change their minds – change their wants, needs, and priorities. It’s about how strength can come from allowing oneself to react to new realities. Time and emotion can twist a principled stance into a small-minded obsession. When a lifetime of arrogant certainty crumbles, all the planning in the world can’t help you figure out what you actually want.

That’s why this issue felt slightly uneven when I first read it. And there are a handful of pages of near the end that feel a bit rushed – a burst of exposition that clicks together the last pieces of the mechanical plot puzzle after the emotional payoff is over. I blame the strict page limits of the monthly format. This issue had too many things on its ‘to do’ list relative to its page count, but everything on that list absolutely had to be taken care of by the end of this arc. They did a good job with the pages they had.

There are plenty of other places on the internet where you can read more relatively spoiler-light praise for this issue – but they don’t talk about getting hurt. Because talking about getting hurt means talking about life and death and other spoilers.

I’m about to wander into that territory. Here’s an unrelated image from the brilliant fanartist herzspalter to give you a chance to retreat if you want to read the issue first.

herzspalter - Rodimus - Thanks for traveling with me

Thanks for traveling with me.

Still with me? Issue 55 spoilers start now.

So some bad guys died, but they weren’t my kind of bad guys. They weren’t remorseful or lonely or shades of almost-redeemable. They were arrogant monsters and torturers, the biggest bads in the series so far. More brutal than all of Decepticon high command. More dangerous than a universe literally made of death.

The Decepticon Justice Division died quickly and their lives and identities were brushed aside by the narrative. Some people felt this was anticlimactic. I don’t agree, but I understand.

If you missed a piece I can imagine all the delicate machinery grinding to a halt. That meticulous plot setup I mentioned earlier provided the means to kill them, an elaborate and improbable weapon of great power. The theme of emotional change provided the reason for their death. When they were a unified group driven by a clear and terrible purpose, they were unstoppable. Then that focus narrowed and became small, petty and personal. They became vulnerable. Their opponent was a bot with no direction and nothing to lose, which gave him room to maneuver and made him unpredictable.

I don’t think there’s a fight in the world that could have lived up to the legend of the DJD. They were known for the carnage they left behind, not for epic battles. They were a pure destructive force, and it seems fitting that they would be felled by something equally singular.

Both parts of this puzzle needed to work for the ending to work. You had to respect the mechanics and grok the themes. If the machinations seemed too contrived or the emotions didn’t ring true it’d be hard to swallow these giants of evil falling in a matter of moments.

It would have been different if Megatron had gotten the end he planned for himself; if he’d destroyed the DJD at the cost of his life and died a Decepticon. But the entire point of this issue is that you never know what you might want next. Times change, people change. You can either open yourself up to new possibilities or double down and narrow your focus until you can’t see anything at all. One moment Megatron was certain he wanted to die a Decepticon and the next he realized that maybe he could want something else.

So he takes Rodimus’s hand, even though down that path lies uncertainty and ambiguity and pain. You know, life.

If it had ended there I would have stood up and applauded – ten out of ten. Hooray, now don’t worry about dangling plot threads or narrative cohesion, just roll the credits. But you can’t have the last issue of a series called “The Dying of the Light” without one final good-guy death. I’d hoped that somehow nobody had to die, that the crushing tragedy of Issue 54 would be enough. But no, Cyclonus had it right way back in issue 17.

Cyclonus - Never Hope

This is where they hurt me. They killed Ravage. The best Decepticon, the one who embodied not just the movement’s viciousness and subterfuge but its underpinnings of found family and cooperation. This morally ambiguous sarcastic spy cat was the oldest and best friend of the two greatest Decepticon leaders and I loved him. In the past, Megatron has said that Starscream’s venal desire for power and control was the embodiment of Decepticon values – but we’ve seen how those impulses can collapse in on themselves. Ravage represents the positive ideal that was the foundation of the movement at its inception: those who are marginalized by society need to band together and take care of each other.

If he’s dead, what’s the point of being a Decepticon? What’s the point of anything anymore? What’s the point of fighting and living if you can’t protect your family?

Megatron returns wearing the mask of the bot who killed Ravage as a Decepticon badge. Ravage touches it with his paw and makes a last request.

Ravage - Don't Change Back

What does that mean, though? Is Ravage glad to see Megatron as a Decepticon again? Or does he want to make sure Megatron doesn’t go back to the unproductive destructiveness of late-stage Decepticonism that Tarn embodied?

It’s deliberately ambiguous. I checked.

If Ravage’s final request had been clear and actionable, it would have given Megatron direction and purpose again. Instead it leaves him with more questions, surrounded by autobots who he cannot trust to share his values.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, obviously. Megatron on the Lost Light was at peace with his own death. He didn’t trust himself. He was unwilling and unable to take decisive action. On the surface he was content with this funereal peace but part of him remained active, ensuring that he’d have resources if he found something to fight for. Maybe that’s why Ravage stayed: as long as Megatron was entertaining the possibility that his wants might change he could still be Megatron. There was still hope.

What if “Don’t change back” had nothing to do with the badge? Ravage had changed his own absolutist position, allying with the autobots to fight the DJD. He didn’t have to – he could have stayed at the base by Megatron’s side, relatively safe. Even if the DJD killed every autobot he could have hidden and survived – but he chose to fight. Seeing Ravage hurt was what made Megatron abandon his self-doubt and take action.

“Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn.”
Dylan Thomas

And burn he did. Megatron killed the entire DJD in moments simply because he’s smarter and better prepared and more flexible. All he needed was the will to fight for something. I think that’s the change Ravage didn’t want to see reverted.

‘Don’t change back’ can also mean ‘keep moving forward’.

But that’s just one possible interpretation, and we can’t know what Ravage really meant because he’s dead. They killed him and nothing is OK. The only person Megatron really trusted died because he was unwilling to fight and now he doesn’t even know how to properly honor his memory.

So Megatron gives in to pain and loss and decides to tear it all down and leave. His life has no clear direction other than away. Then someone calls his name and they are… well… they represent a direction. Towards.

It’s a fantastic ending that is slightly muddied by the need to explain how Megatron’s long-vanished friend and mentor Terminus could still be alive. The reveal feels rushed and that’s incredibly frustrating because it involves a use of time travel that I am constantly advocating for in every time-travel-related story.

I am notoriously opposed to mucking with the timeline. I hate that it screws with causality. But if you must use time travel, there’s one form that skirts the thornier parts of that issue: going back in time to save people who mysteriously disappeared and were never seen again, because at the very least that preserves motivational causality and makes it possible to create stable time loops and look there’s a reason I identify with Brainstorm, OK?

From there we go on to Rung and Nightbeat solving the cool mystery of the hollow planet that I really only cared about if it could somehow save Skids or Ravage but it can’t so what good is it now? The issue ends with a “oh no maybe everybody died” explosion cliffhanger that for me failed to compete with the earlier drama. The final page is saved by Milne’s perfect use of the Kirby crackle – I’m a sucker for that specific graphical depiction of epic forces in a mysterious universe.

To see a comic I love make good use of my favorite flavor of time travel and then bobble the landing is frustrating but I appreciate the limitations of the medium. It’s incredibly rare for a story to have not one but two time travel stories that leave me entirely satisfied with the state of causality. The degree of difficulty was insanely high and the execution overall good so the score for this issue is gonna be competitive.

I’m still going to have to dock them a few points for breaking my heart twice in two issues, though. Maybe one of those deaths was narratively necessary but not both. I just want to experience happiness, James. Damn you.

But what did I expect from an arc whose unifying theme was Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt? Roberts famously posts playlists for every issue and that was his choice for this entire arc.

I’ve mentally added a track of my own to the playlist for the finale. When Megatron sees Terminus step through the door a single phrase echoes in my mind.

“You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime you just might find you get what you need.”

Transformers: More than Meets the Eye Issue #55 – 8.5/10

I’ll be back next month, hopefully for some happier weather.

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