With “Combiner Wars” over and Transformers: Windblade investigating the other Cybertronian colonies, the problems of Cybertron are finally fair game for The Transformers again. As in last month’s issue, John Barber shines a spotlight on a pair of bots on opposites sides of the war, providing a nice little character study and another fascinating dive into the political philosophies of Cybertron.

This issue very much feels like a return to what John Barber is best at. Perhaps it’s his work as an editor or maybe it’s just the way he is, but Barber has made a name for himself as a writer largely based on his ability to find meaningful connections and their logical conclusions in story beats. The result is a universe that feels connected. At times Barber can trick you into thinking that these ideas aren’t even really his, just how Cybertron is and that naturalism is a great boon for the series.

While he’s been a continual presence in The Transformers/Robots in Disguise, this issue represents a huge step up for Needlenose. An obscure 1988 Targetmaster never released in Japan and known almost exclusively for his background presence during the “Matrix Quest” arc and a single Transformers U.K. spotlight issue, Needlenose has suddenly become not only a major player in the Transformers universe, but one of my favorite characters in this series. Like Soundwave, Needlenose proves a devoted follower of the Decepticon cause and one that can be hard to rebuke at times. Though his views are not given full credulity by the narrative, Needlenose undoubtedly has the spark of truth in his words. You want to root for this guy and there’s a moment in his tale that will positively break the heart of any longtime reader.

Perhaps the most amazing part of Barber’s story is the strength with which he conveys the lack of moral judgement this issue places on the Autobot and Decepticon ideologies.  Hardly ‘the Autobots [waging] their battles to destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons,’ both sides not only desire peace despite their steadfast belief in the necessity of the war, but also possess a wide range of good and evil and kind of dickish. For any honest interest the former Decepticon had in the struggle of the lower classes, we know that Tracks’ concerns about Needlenose’s new friends are entirely justified, Horri-Bull was not a nice guy. To be honest, neither is Needlenose, for any understandable grievances isn’t either. Likewise, while his Autobot insignia and vocal affection for his brother paint Tracks as the good guy, his utter disregard for the feelings of those around him and respect for Mirage’s “upbringing” remind us what kind of bot he is.

It is interesting, because we acknowledge that the Decepticons are largely correct but ultimately wrong in practice. Walking the line between refuting unnecessary violence and indulging the self-satisfying illusion of progressivism is always an awkward act in stories such as this, but Barber does a particularly excellent job of giving both sides credibility. One of the great, early moments of this series was an exchange where Ironhide explained the meaning of the vision he received at the conclusion of the previous Transformers ongoing. “Winning,” he tells the Dinobots, “It turns out to be the same thing as losing in the end”. We see that idea again here. Though the Decepticon dream of a Cybertron free of functionism and an intrenched class system has come to fruition, Needlenose points out that, if we define the the pre-conditions of the war as an unequal, religious society that venerates the linage of Primes, things have really not changed at all. It’s all a matter of perspective and those minute differences of perspective make all the difference. It’s hard to argue with Needlenose’s opinion that handing out cookies for basic decency is unhelpful, but in doing so he dismisses one of the clearest paths towards his goals. This issue reminds us that this is not a case of two philosophies at odds, but two loose, but powerful, groupings of philosophies among a rapidly increasing number. Every one of these bots potentially has their own fascinating and personal views and, given the right circumstances, any one of them could be the next Orion Pax or Megatron of Tarn.

And, as if that weren’t enough, Needlenose and Tracks aren’t the only ones in the spotlight this month. In fact, the narration belongs to Arcee, who actually feels like a stronger character than usual, despite Barber’s continued emphasis on her. Arcee proves a wise choice for a focal character, able to step between storylines and connect them naturally. We also get some more great moments with Starscream and a very special guest star. Heavy, it seems, is the head that wears the crown, and it’s all the more fascinating to see Starscream struggle for the incredible skill with which he’s continued to manipulate multiple factions in Transformers: Windblade and “Combiner Wars”. One of the key elements of Barber’s take on Starscream is his complicated relationship with the truth. “I don’t think, to Starscream, a lie and the truth have any difference. I don’t think he thinks of them as being different things,” he told me during an interview last year. Well, if Starscream is incapable of distinguishing between truth and fiction, this is the natural next step.

The art of this title looks as though it might be evolving, or at least trying something a little new. There’s a fluidity of line and color this month that feels both sharper and slightly more cartoony. It seems like this is likely a bit of experimentation on the part of Andrew Griffith, but it’s actually quite hard to say. Either way, I definitely want to mention Josh Perez, the colorist, who subtly but distinctly makes his presence known. From the warm, red glow of a Decepticon bar to the vitality in the icy blue of an Autobot’s optic to the simple illusions that help give the bots texture, Perez is bringing his A-game.

Andrew Griffith’s body language is also a great benefit to the series. While there are points in this book, and even more so throughout the Transformers franchise, where the protagonists’ origins as simple geometric shapes are apparent, there is a humanity and expressiveness in how Griffith poses his actors.

A(n incredibly dorky) Thought:

  • Ok, show of hands: when Needlenose denies that Horri-Bull is his Conjunx Endura, do you think they weren’t together yet, do you think he was in denial, do you think he was lying to Tracks, do you think it was a platonic love? I personally like to think that they both loved the other but hadn’t told eachother yet. Do you have another theory?

Grade

B+

Conclusion

For the second month in a row, John Barber turns out a winning story, full of clever realpolitik and abundant heart. In a single issue, Barber not only establishes a new status quo for Starscream and significantly deepens the intrigue behind Arcee’s meetings with Galvatron, but turns a virtual nobody into a character destined to have fans for as long as this issue’s remembered. This issue isn’t flashy, but it’s solidly constructed with more than enough for the mind and heart. Definitely the strongest issue of The Transformers this year.