It’s taken four years and a name change, but this week John Barber’s The Transformers hits its fiftieth issue and it’s not wasting that opportunity. Though the road was slow at times, with this issue, it becomes clear just how much John Barber has been working up to this point. Like a Big Bang, the weight of this series’ twists and turns had compacted it into a single point that’s just exploded outward to form the new status quo of the series. All the major players are accounted for, but mentions of a number of smaller elements suggest that everything served a purpose.
In one of the best and worst choices for this issue, much of the action takes place over a rapidly shifting battle. The fighting provides some definite excitement and Barber proves adept at breaking it down into digestible chunks, however that can result in the action feeling a little mechanical and, here and there, you can still get lost, especially when Space Bridges are involved.
But while there are occasional issues with pacing, John Barber is on the top of his game when it comes to characterization. Optimus Prime is a character who often suffers from his own moral certainty, a fact that led IDW to focus his character arc on his self-doubt for over half a decade. So now Barber’s answer to this problem is flip the tables, returning Prime his own belief in himself, while pulling it out from under the reader. You can feel how aware Prime is of the narrow rope he’s walking, but, nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore the allure that these easy answers hold for him.
Despite the increased page count, the frantic story has resulted in many characters getting just a moment or two of attention. Nevertheless, many of them are wonderful as well. Starscream and Thundercracker remain hilarious and interesting, Wheeljack and Arcee both come through loud and clear, and Galvatron’s charm and limited resources keep the hit or miss character feeling fresh. Poor Soundwave’s development in this issue feels more than a little repetitive, but it also feels as though he’s finally been let out of stasis to live up to the fantastic writing he’s received of late.
And that’s perhaps the greatest strength of the issue. Transformers #50 flows through its own story organically, but, by its end, we have four to five separate and clearly defined factions to take us into the next fifty issues. Each one has reasons to root for them and distrust them, as well as a unique set of advantages in the coming battles.
Though issue #50 is hardly the jumping on point that #28 or #1 were, there’s enough explanation for a lapsed Transformers fan or a reader who’s unafraid to connect the dots to join up for this anniversary issue and, inside, they’ll find much of why this series is worth following. However, whether you’re a monthly subscriber or a curious newcomer, the hardest barrier to entry will likely be the $8.00 price tag. That’s a high bar to jump, but prospective readers will perhaps take comfort in knowing that that double-normal price tag gets you a full double-length issue, not two issues stuck together and not an issue plus some pages.
Andrew Griffith has been missing for a few months from this title, but it’s clear how much effort he put into this issue, The characters look great and they move and pose with energy and naturalism. Admittedly, any time a battle scene is unclear some of that falls on the artist, however, despite the issue’s trouble adapting to new locations, Griffith renders the battle crisply and without descending into a muddled frenzy, as he easily could have. It’s easy to pick out what’s happening in any corner of the battlefield, the sense of depth is particularly strong, and Griffith clearly spent at least a little bit of extra time and attention on his figures. The humans still aren’t quite as nice as the Cybertronians, but they’re greatly improved.
Casey Coller handles the backup strip. Oddly enough, it’s not his best work. The humans are strong but occasionally feel simplistic and the more human-like transformers can feel overly sharp. Even so, the storytelling is clear and the look of the piece really captures the aesthetic of the 1986 movie and its sleek linework.
The last twenty two issues really pay off here as the Transformers team pull it all together into an exciting and textured new status quo. The war may be heating up, but, in many ways, Transformers #50 is a return to the ‘politics as philosophy as warfare’ model that’s made this series such an engrossing read.This is a great example of an anniversary issue. Though the fighting restricts some of the specificity usually found in this series’ dialogue the trade for action, quick and identifiable character work, and dramatic plot progression is more than worth it. John Barber shows his skills as a writer and an editor, delivering a story that advances the characters and the world they live in and Andrew Griffith gets a chance to show what he can really do.