By: James Roberts (writer), Atilio Rojo (art), Joana Lafuente (colors)
The Story: Was it Megatron? In the Rod-Pod? With the Fusion Cannon?
The Review: Remarking upon the main cast of Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye, one bot famously observed that, “as far as I can make out, all you do is argue, crack jokes, and get sidetracked doing pointless, silly things that only you find amusing!” It may hold a scant thirty issues and an annual against the full history of the Transfomers brand, but MTMTE has carved out a well-defined niche as a place where the brand can indulge its sense of humor, its talkative nature, and its love of narrative experimentation. If you need proof, look no further than More Than Meets The Eye #31.
“Twenty Plus One” is a classic bottle episode, a television term for a dialogue-heavy story that takes place in a single location with few guest stars or visual extravagances. The idea was pioneered and perfected by the original Star Trek in an attempt to stretch the budget for other, more effect heavy episodes. Despite their pragmatic origin, bottle episodes are frequently an opportunity for character-building and significant conflict thanks to the difficulty of holding audience attention and their similarity to staged theater. Thoroughly enamored with the trope, James Roberts conducts the issue like an old-time murder mystery, paranoia, prejudice, well-timed power outages, and all.
Stuffing twenty Autobots(?) into close quarters allows Roberts to call upon the myriad tones of MTMTE all in one issue. Fittingly, the best elements of this story are generally the highlights of the series: a blurred, honest line between comedy and drama; a complex but easily followed plot; razor-sharp dialogue; and a contemplative approach to the social and political aspects of being a Transformer being notable examples.
While finally getting something of an origin story for the Lost Light is a treat and the number of different scenarios Roberts is able to pull out of this situation is impressive, the core of the story is the mystery. Comics are a medium that is uniquely suited to the classic mystery, but, while there is no shortage of them, finding a truly great whodunit in comics can be difficult. Too often it seems that one size fits all when it comes to comic book mysteries or that writers are caught between blatant foreshadowing and apparent randomness. Here Roberts shows off his technical skill as a writer. Where many stories by very talented authors struggle to fit a coherent detective story into their twenty pages, Roberts manages to intertwine one with a series of engaging subplots by putting his trademark wordiness and love for the franchise to work for him. Indeed, the secret, if there can be said to be one, lies in misdirection. It’s not even so much that Roberts diverts attention, though he certainly does, it’s that he simply gives you so much to chew on. By the time you have the necessary clues, there have been so many dead ends offered that Roberts can easily outwit you while continuing to play fair.
The best thing about it all is that I seriously doubt that you can honestly call even half of the information gleaned red herrings. Especially once you see what Robert’s has been setting up with this issue, it seems likely that we’ll be hearing about seemingly innocuous details like Riptide’s trouble with the 10/8/3-Step Program, Swerve’s religiosity, or M.T.O.s again soon.
There is a cost to all that information. Roberts has to throw it all at you pretty fast in order to keep your mind moving. I give him credit for coming up with a pretty smart way of keeping track of the data and crew roster, but it’s another complicated addition to the story. There’s also no time to refresh the concepts of forged and constructed cold, nor many of the other terms that Roberts has coined. In short, it may be first story to follow the inaugural arc of MTMTE’s second season, but this is not a great jumping on point for a new reader, even longtime fans of the Transformers brand.
Atilio Rojo steps in for series regular Alex Milne this issue, bringing a slightly more traditional Transformers aesthetic with him. Rojo is another artist who seems gifted with the ability to imbue legible emotion into any Transformer face, no small feat when you’re dealing with designs as different as Nautica and Tailgate. James Roberts is also a notably chatty writer with a dense plotting style that doesn’t always agree with guest pencillers but Rojo makes it look easy. Even the most claustrophobic pages are easy to read thanks to Rojo’s balanced compositions and skill in communicating through body language.
Unfortunately, Rojo still has one problem with his art. Just as in his “Dark Cybertron” work, Rojo’s Transformers are overly Euclidian, composed of very basic three-dimensional shapes. Megatron is a notable example, his classic “bucket head” more of a sphere and visor combo in many panels. It’s not a universal problem, there are plenty of panels where this isn’t the case and a number where it isn’t distracting or problematic, but every here and there it will cause a panel to look off or a pose to appear stiff.
There is one other section of the issue that deserves mention and also is completely free of the aforementioned issues: the flashbacks. Brief as they are, the flashbacks get their own look. Between the flat, joyful art style; the fluid gutters; the muted, red-tinged colors, and the omnipresent inks, it honestly reminds somewhat of Francesco Francavilla.
A final word of praise goes to editor John Barber and IDW who traded advertizing real estate for a stronger and smarter issue. Κῦδος.
The Conclusion: “Twenty Plus One” is an unusual issue even for MTMTE, but in a deeply satisfying way. James Roberts crafts a compelling stand-alone mystery that simultaneously bridges the gap between story arcs and advances the personal plotlines of his ragtag crew of bots. Though a highly complex script, some minor artistic missteps, and an even quieter than usual plot might put some readers off, it’s another great issue and evidence that MTMTE’s second season is just ramping up.
- Nautica’s explanation of the quantum engines is just delightful. Especially as Roberts insists that he only realized the similarity to Hitchhiker’s Guide later, it’s a great example of the kinds of fun sci-fi this book is pumping out month after month. Conceptual heft, indeed.
- Despite his natural affinity for the Rod-Pod, Rodimus is not on board the ship this issue. It’s even weirder given that Rodimus was last seen leading Megatron by the hand. Very strange.
- As ever, Megatron is great under Roberts’ pen. I particularly love his response to Nightbeat: “No one has a right to know how a fellow Cybertronian was created. There’s a thin line between categorization and segregation, and I never want to see it crossed again.” It’s simultaneously heroic and unsettling all at once.
- It’s amazing how interesting Ammo has become to me, based purely on his corrodia gravis. What does it mean for an essentially immortal race to have what may well be a degenerative disease?
- For that matter, what’s Nautica’s outlier power? Did I miss that?
- Oh crud! There’s an ex-senator on Megatron’s ship!? That can’t go well, can it?
- Argh! This book turns me into such a nerd and I love it!
– Noah Sharma