Right from the moment I picked it up, something seemed different about Transformers #46. Was it the the ominous type face on the arc title, the blank variant cover? It felt heavier, the paper sturdier. Was I imagining it?

Whatever the reason, my instincts proved accurate. As the march to issue #50 begins, things are starting to come together for this title. Transformers #46 provides readers a look at the where the vast majority of the title’s characters have ended up, and that’s definitely to its benefit. With characters like Prowl and Soundwave taking up so much of this series’ attentions, it’s been easy to forget how many great characters it has. Jazz, Sideswipe, Skywarp, Needlenose, Sky-Byte, and more all get moments to shine that rather tactfully establish their current situations while positioning them for greater things in the future.

Alongside these smaller names, John Barber provides some of his strongest writing for the major players. Galvatron and Soundwave have rarely been this interesting, the madness of King Starscream continues to light up the page, and Optimus Prime is the best he’s been since “Dark Cybertron”. Prime is a particularly interesting case, as – let’s face it – the Transformers brand has been struggling to justify their choice to create a Cyclops in a Wolverine world since as early as 1986. Optimus Primal’s unorthodox style of command, Peter Cullen’s weary delivery in Transformers: Prime, and the IDW incarnation’s discomfort with the Prime Legacy have all helped keep the character vital, but, while Optimus has seemed a little adrift ever since he conquered Nova Prime, Barber puts him back on course and reminds you why nearly every decent Cybertronian looks up to this bot.

Barber also moves G.B. Blackrock’s story forward but pulls back from the somewhat overwhelming campaign of last issue. Alpha Trion sums it up rather nicely when he describes Blackrock’s power as “tools of the Gods, wielded now by children.” It may be telling that even I recoiled a bit from placing Blackrock on such an impressive pedestal – the Transformer fandom has something of a complex relationship with their own species appearing in the franchise – but this balance seems to really work.

In short, this is an issue that really shows off Barber’s strengths, some of which have been suppressed for some time. Barber has always been famous for his ability to synthesize story beats and now even the strangest elements of the run are coming together seamlessly. It also helps that, as if finally allowed to play with his toys, Barber’s writing feels much more confident. The Decepticons, in particular, feel a lot more layered than usual. The cool lines are more substantive and the deep lines read better than usual.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. The opening scene between Optimus Prime and the Mistress of Flames is extremely leading, especially after hearing Barber talk about his plans for the series at NYCC. Likewise some of the world-building is a little unnatural, especially between Blackrock and Spike.

Andrew Griffith is off this month, so the art comes to us courtesy of Sara Pitre-Durocher, last seen on the Combiner Hunters one-shot. While we’ve seen her before, those familiar with her work from that issue or her work on the Transformers Legends mobile game may not recognize it. Without the distinctive coloring styles employed on those projects, Pitre-Durocher’s work looks very different, but debatably stronger. Pitre-Durocher also just seems to be a very plastic artist. Her work feels a little bit as though you combined most of the other IDW Transformers artists into some kind of wonderful art golem, with Andrew Griffith’s eye for structure, Corin Howell’s elastic cartooning, the sleekness of Alex Milne, and Casey Coller’s emotive strengths all present in varying moments. At the core though, Pitre-Durocher’s skill in conveying emotion through blocking and body language provide a through line, not only of this issue, but her work as a whole.

The one downside to the clearly multi-talented approach that makes this issue work so well is consistency. There’s no doubt that this issue’s finest panels are among the best that the ‘Phase 2’ Transformers comics have seen, but there are definitely a number of weaker ones as well. Certain characters don’t feel like they entirely exist within the same universe as the bots they’re talking to and slick, manga-esque drama scenes are just a panel away from a caricatured reaction that looks straight out of a Saturday Morning cartoon. It’s undoubtedly a distraction and, even if you’re not as down on some of the styles used as I am, I think you’ll have to admit that the contrast doesn’t serve the story.

Just the same, distractions can be powered through and this issue is beautiful enough to make you want to. Jazz’s page is a fantastic example of the storytelling power at play in this issue and Optimus Prime really benefits from the added character Pitre-Durocher gives him. The two strongest characters are, appropriately enough, probably Galvatron and Aileron. Even more appropriately, they couldn’t be more different in how they’re drawn. Pitre-Durocher’s Galvatron is all angles and points (and abs) but Aileron is short and warm and rounded. Each one looks great for their moment, even if Optimus Prime occasionally looks out of place next to the later, and the art is just enjoyable to read through.

Josh Perez seems an excellent partner for Pitre-Durocher. The colors of the issue help provide a continuity of aesthetics with Andrew Griffith’s work and within the issue itself. It also helps that, as ever, there’s great skill put into the lighting effects. I don’t know if there’s something about Transformers that encourages this or if the IDW editorial pool particularly values it but the coloring on these books is almost always strong and Perez’s attention to soft gradients and the light in a giant’s optic is as welcome here as ever.

Ex-RiD has always featured a more realistic coloring style than its sister title, but particularly having seen Pitre-Durocher’s work with other styles, it becomes apparent how much that’s an effect of Perez’s detail work rather than the actual number of colors and textures. It’s also interesting to see Perez keeping up with his artist, with different coloring aesthetics for each scene. This is especially noticeable in the final sequence, where Starscream and Bumblebee are rocking some gorgeously bold G1 inspired primaries.

Grade

B+

Conclusion

The first part of “Conquerors” is a decided success for The Transformers. Though objectively a bit of a survey, John Barber is not only writing a particularly interesting set of stories but he’s writing them more to the best of his ability. Aided by Sara Pitre-Durocher and Josh Perez, his ideas come through loud and clear and look beautiful while doing so.

There are some notable variances in the art and some occasionally awkward bits of exposition but more focused character work, dramatic plot twists, and some truly gorgeous panels make this a must read for fans of the franchise.