Though Simon Furman was the one to first utilize and highlight holomatter avatars, it wasn’t until James Roberts’ Transformers More Than Meets The Eye that the franchise truly tapped into what the fans wanted from them. Holomatter Avatars are the kind of thing that runs rampant in fan work because it allows us to externalize and literalize the inherent appeal of Transformers: not just that they’re robots but that they’re feeling robots and robots in disguise. That anonymity contrasts with the task of getting to know these bots and giving them a new way to disguise themselves while expressing their personalities into new and tangible ways is something that has appealed to fans for a long, long time. So perhaps it’s not surprising that this issue – prominently featuring a slew of Holomatter Avatars, old and new – is meta as all get out.
Swerve is dying and the only way to save him is to follow him into a world of sit-coms. It seems Swerve’s consumption of all human media a few issues back wasn’t just a way for James Roberts to quickly praise Dan Harmon, but also set up for a lengthy praise of the sit-com format. Roberts’ appreciation for the form is readily evident, from Jerry the Comedian and Father Ted across the hall to the frequent chronological jumps to references to individual episodes of Community. Attentive readers, will even recognize the bots’ apartment as the set from Friends.
Roberts is positively gleeful in his writing, taking the opportunity to challenge preconceptions of sit-coms, lampshade the stranger elements of his own stories, and poke fun at reader complaints, the absurd and the acknowledged alike. In places that glee definitely does cross over into self-indulgence. Many moons ago, Roberts gave Rung’s holoavatar the name Mary Sue. The choice was a similarly ambiguous mixture of admission and rebuttal, but never has it been more clear that the crew are all voices in Roberts’ head than here. It’s hard not to think that Swerve in particular is serving as Roberts’ mouthpiece this issue, especially during lines like, “Sitcoms and quests… They’re not that different when you think about it. And I think about it a lot.” Ted the sarcastic priest is an appropriate stock character for this issue as Roberts and his characters seemingly confess their sins to the audience, unable to do so, even now, without the mask of humor, like a Hulu-watching Jean-Baptiste Clamence. It’s actually kind of intimate, kind of nice, but the connection between Roberts and his characters ends up putting him a little too much at the center of the story, if only by proxy.
Not all readers will be able to take such a hefty serving of meta-commentary and the lines between incorporating complaints, brushing them off, and awkwardly apologizing are not quite clear enough to avoid distracting from the story. It likely doesn’t help the case that the last issue of the series was a similarly crazy indulgence on Roberts’ part and that the series hasn’t been as episodic as the last three months since at least the beginning of its second year, if ever.
Still, I’d argue that these issues, in their way, still highlight what an intelligent writer Roberts is, because this is a fun and well crafted story, despite its faults. While the sitcom comparison hasn’t passed anyone by, least of all Roberts himself, nearly all of his stories are surprisingly effectively mysteries. And not just in the way that all stories are mysteries, like classically structured, particularly engaging mysteries. Roberts excels at writing fairly constructed and extremely fun detective stories for serial fiction and this one is no exception. Right from the (chronological) beginning, the wheels are turning, asking how a planet could be chasing our heroes, a moment that demonstrates the symbiotic relationship between humor and mystery. The ticking clock, find a college to prevent his own death is the stuff of grade-A pulp and Roberts cleverly breaks the solution down into numerous steps, only to be fully ascended once the crucial clues are assembled in order. Admittedly, this strategy occasionally clashes with the sheer amount of ideas and dialogue, but Roberts somehow fits it all with only a low-level confusion resulting.
And, of course, it’s not just how much or how well a writer packs concepts into a story, but what they chose to include and that’s a definite win. In addition to some wild concepts and great beats in the course of rescuing Swerve, we also get some lovely moments with other bits of the crew. Megatron, rather tellingly for this issue, almost intrudes on this story, appearing alongside but never quite in the same scene as Rodimus. His interactions with Nightbeat and Nautica feel odd for this issue, but they’re masterfully economical and demonstrate the ease, or at least apparent ease, with which these characters spring from Roberts’ imagination. I could seriously write a short essay on Human Megs’ two pages, and just might below if I can find the time. As if that weren’t enough, there are also some really lovely scenes with personal favorite First Aid, whose characterization somehow benefits from having to leave the title. The first and most significant of these exchanges is between First Aid and Tailgate, and I can’t read the beginning of his phone call with Lightspeed without smiling, hinting that she’ll be growing on me before long as well.
Perhaps what’s most impressive about all of this is that, while you could point to these scenes as examples of what to cut if Roberts really wanted to include all of his meta-humor, but they’re actually both essential to the Swerve story in one way or another. In fact, the whole issue leads to a series of crescendos, climaxing in a mindblowingly well established pay off that almost certainly starts to set the stage for the second season finale.
The art has all the polish and economy that you’ve come to expect from the series. The Transformer scenes look great and, all throughout, Alex Milne’s knack for leaving just enough space to let the scene breath is on clear display. Especially out of its minimalist sci-fi setting, this book needs an artist who’s neither afraid to fill up the page nor unaware of when that just becomes daunting and, thankfully, Milne is it.
I will say that, like many artists with a particular talent for inhuman protagonists, Milne’s humans are not quite as strong, though even in this he distinguishes himself nicely. Still, there are definitely some places where the hard angles of Cybertronian design peak through, seemingly without intent. The most glaring – and, in fairness, the most likely intentional – is Megatron, who could not pass for human for even an instant, but Bluestreak and Skids are relatively common suspects as well.
- While his screentime is limited, Cyclonus earns his spot on the cover with a single exchange. The bot jokes like James Bond ordering a martini and I love it.
- I cannot tell you how much would love to be a fly on the wall for whatever meetings determine who gets what holomatter avatar, especially in regards to representation.
- Speaking of which, I overheard a discussion at work about whether or not Rewind’s avatar is too generic this week. I don’t feel strongly about the matter, but I do have to say that I’m honestly surprised he’s not just Abed.
- Seriously, that ending!
And, as promised, here’s that essay about Megatron. Those of you looking for the grade, feel free to skip on down and please accept my apologies for the awkwardness of the format.
Man, as silly as it is to dwell on such a tiny portion of this issue, I’m absolutely fascinated by Megatron’s role in this story. I mean there’s the obvious stuff like the Decepticon sigil on his cane or fact that he seems to have trouble even creating a convincing human avatar, but I’m much more interested in his fascination with the very concept of being, or appearing, human. Megatron obviously dwells on the ‘fragility’ of humans, an idea that, depending on how you read the first panel of his second human appearance, may include the aging process. If you think about it, that’s actually perfectly logical. I mean, Roberts’ first experience writing Megatron was partially a discussion of all the ways Optimus Prime has dealt him catastrophic damage, the Cybertronian anatomy is significantly more durable and, while the transformer life cycle is a beautiful fusion of the distinctly human and the demands of serialized storytelling, they do lack those portions of the human condition.
That’s interesting in itself, but it’s very surface. What makes it stand out to me so is the degree to which it connects to Megatron’s ongoing fascination with his own bodily autonomy. I mean, at its core, that’s what Decepticonism is all about, the right to your body and its connection to your right to self-determination. Megatron has changed bodies a couple of times before, but you can see his attachment to the concept in nearly everything Roberts has written. From his outrage that he trapped in gun mode in “Chaos” to his complaints about his new body to Ravage in “slaughterhouse” to his vaguely dysphoric struggle to comprehend his spark’s disconnect with his manual class body that shaped his ‘early’ life, the idea of a body is surprisingly crucial to Megatron. Even the fact that he hasn’t ever taken a holomatter avatar before speaks to the key issue of Megatron’s life, namely the fight to make a place for him, as he exists. To represent his psyche separate from his body or to alter it to suit his body, as in the case of shadowplay, is an essential betrayal of Megatron’s hardline Decepticon beliefs. On some level I see his willingness to do so for Swerve as an actual moment of significant growth for Megatron, or at least a moment where his retroactive confrontation with the choice of doing so forces him to acknowledge that his values aren’t what he thought they were.
Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye #43 is a very strange issue and that’s just the way it likes it. James Roberts takes an issue to explore a personal preoccupation, though some might argue that his desire not to ‘just’ produce a filler issue actually weighs it down. If you’re interested in some amusing meta-commentary or at least willing to abide a strange tangent from one of the best series on the market, you’ll find a mindbending and heartfelt little rescue mission with a fantastic finale, but it definitely doesn’t feel like the most necessary issue of the series. Still, much as Roberts is letting his inner Grant Morrison out this month, there’s no denying that he’s still an incredible talent and that even the most polarizing issues of MTMTE are some of the smartest and sharpest mainstream comics being published.