If you’ve been following this series, you knew something was coming this month. Next issue we check in on the Scavengers after a thirty-some odd issue absence and last time we had an upbeat, if actually kind of heavy, holoavatar adventure. Longtime readers know not to trust that kind of set up, but I wonder if any of them expected a call back to that same Scavengers story in the form of the enigmatic Necrobot.
Well expected or not, that’s what’s caught our famously attention deficient crew’s eye today. Though the surviving data from Agent 113’s, likely final, communique is a little bit convenient and many readers might be distressed at the quickness with which the cast puts that plotline aside, this issue is built to please. I mean that in the best and worst ways. There’s no denying that this issue provides exactly what this series is best-loved for. The dialogue is crisp and funny, the emotions of the characters heartfelt and considered, and the new developments are exceptionally tantalizing. At the same time however, you can see the strings being pulled behind the scenes a little more than is normal for this title. The Necrobot’s modus operandi is explained, for instance, with just a little too much of the attention placed on the effect and not quite enough on the mechanism, which is thoroughly hand-waved. Likewise, both artist and writer feel like they’re just a tad too conscious of the audience.
Even so, the dialogue in this issue is sharp as it’s ever been. You’d be forgiven for describing Rodimus’ character as a modern narcissist convinced that he’s a future legend, especially of late, but then an issue like this comes along and reminds you that, as often as not, Rodimus actually has the style to back it up. Whether its acting as a successful and responsible captain for the mission, delivering brilliant retorts, or even convincing others of his oft mentioned Matrix-affinity, Rodimus is on top of his game this month.
The opening scenes are non-stop fun and, while that kind of continues, once the crew sets down, Roberts turns an eye on two favorite members and delivers some rewarding character work. You see, Nightbeat believes that the Necrobot holds the answers to one of his most pressing mysteries, while Rewind figures that if he’s logged the death of every Cybertronian, the Necrobot must know if his old flame, Dominus Ambus, is still alive. There’s obviously the potential for drama when Rewind has a new Conjunx, but that doesn’t stop the two of them from being absolutely adorable and earning some more of the overwhelming love that’s thrown their way. I will say that one of the crucial moments of their plot thread feels a little overwritten, a little too florid, but it’s a relatively minor issue and I’ve already seen the positive response from fans.
The Necrobot, or at least the Transformer we’ve been calling the Necrobot, proves another great addition to this title. I don’t want to say too much, because part of the joy is discovering the truth for yourself, but I sincerely hope we see more of him. In fact, I almost demand it because, while he’s interesting, his arc is incomplete, which leads him to a moment that will either be disappointing or essential once the series explains what it was going for with it.
Speaking of great moments, there’s no discussing this issue without saying that the ending is fantastic. I’ve spoken a lot about Roberts as a writer of mysteries and a layer of clues, but while his authorial sleight of hand may be a tad weak in regards to the main story, the epilogue reminds how masterful it can be, not to mention how affecting he can make giant fighting robot stories.
One thing that I found especially interesting about this issue was the amount of information communicated outside of the narrative proper. “The Not Knowing” is just generally a good title, but it does a great job of coloring the reader’s perceptions of this particular issue, which allows Roberts to fit his entire narrative into one issue. This series also has some of the best recap pages in mainstream comics, which is odd, as they’re literally the same single image over a white background spouting untenably long monologues. Nonetheless, this issue’s does a great job of setting the scene, cracking a few jokes, and crucially refocusing the viewer on the undertone of horror and loss that serves as the backdrop of this series.
Guest artist Hayato Sakamoto’s manga-inspired stylings remain energetic and expressive. There’s something nice about cutting through the illusions and having such a clear visual shorthand for the character’s to communicate through. By now close-ups of Rodimus waggling his exhaust pipe are probably all over tumblr, but I, at least, knew instantly how Roddy should read his lines. The issue is full of such examples, with something as simple as Megatron’s “Well said” becoming a favorite moment thanks to the clarity and excitement of Sakamoto’s art.
But while Sakamoto’s strengths are easy to see, there are many weaknesses. Perhaps the most obvious to me was his depiction of mouths. It mattered less in issue #39, where we mostly dealt with the exuberant Nickel and the guarded expressions of Tarn, but, when dealing with characters in between those extremes, Sakamoto’s mouths frequently feel overly boxy and simplistic. Sakamoto is great at working with a specific range of emotions. Joy, desperation, cold indifference, these things look wonderful. Sakamoto manages to do some great things with the Necrobot’s design. However, when we venture outside of that set of expressions things can start to waver. There are a number of scenes where the emotion is just lightly dulled by Sakamoto’s art. Characters feel like they’re trying to visually tell you what they’re feeling rather than actually feeling it. It’s not a huge problem in the overall scope of the story, but it’s an issue that’s particularly noticeable in critical dramatic beats. The final sequence or Rewind’s chat with Ultra Magnus leave off on beautiful and open ended beats, but Sakamoto doesn’t quite deliver. Likewise a key panel of Chromedome and Rewind screams that the characters are in love, but it feels very much like the young love of courtship rather than a serious moment of reassurance between two partners.
But while I think that Sakamoto’s storytelling was stronger in his last issue, you can’t really impugn his skill at drawing transformers. All of the characters feel natural in their metal skin and look human without losing the fact that these are mechanical beings.
A Spoilery Thought:
- I suppose on some level we all knew that Agent 113 was the previous Vos, after all the idea of any of the modern DJD members being an Autobot plant seems highly at odds with what we’ve seen. Especially considering some of the theories I’ve seen about 113’s identity it was all but inevitable, but I have to say that I’m almost disappointed. Not that this won’t lead to some excellent stories, I’m almost certain it will, but imagine the dramatic potential if one of Tarn’s current crew was a spy. Imagine if Vos or Tesarus had turned out to be an Autobot. Imagine if one day they’d have to reckon with whether or not what they did, even just what we’ve watched them do, was worth the good it did the Autobot cause.
“The Not Knowing” is an issue of soaring heights and well meaning missteps, but the former more than outweigh the later. You can occasionally sense the gears turning behind the scenes, but James Roberts is as funny as he’s ever been and remains a master of the poignant, self-contained issue. The character work in this issue is absolutely stunning and longtime readers will love and fear turning each page. Hayato Sakamoto once again proves a skillful artist of all things Transformers, though I think that this issue didn’t play to his strengths and there are some storytelling issues that weaken the effect. It’s a tad less even than many of Robert’s previous issues, but Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye #44 is a great example of what we love about this series.