IDW’s “Phase Two” Era Transformers series launched with a one-shot entitled “The Death of Optimus Prime”. And, while the character’s metaphorical death technically ended during the “Dark Cybertron” event, Earth’s most respected short-nose was a relatively light presence in combined one-hundred and fourteen plus issues of RiD and MTMTE, especially compared to nearly every other incarnation of the franchise. But, as both series rebrand this week, it is clear that that time is over. Optimus Prime is here. And it’s good.
Though it may assume a bit of familiarity with the history of IDW’s Cybertron, Optimus Prime #1 earns that increasingly common number at the end of its title. Readers of The Transformers will pick it up without missing a beat, but the latest Prime of Cybertron’s brooding ruminations provide a solid thematic introduction to the character and the situation he finds himself in. With his annexation of Earth into the Council of Worlds underway but refusing to resolve, Prime finds himself caught in the calm before a storm of his own making. John Barber clearly puts the character in the spotlight while acknowledging not only the presence of the support cast from The Transformers, but their necessity in a series about a commander. Optimus, as his flashbacks remind us, was always more comfortable as a follower than a leader and the tension he feels playing ruler or diplomat is a big part of the issue’s success.
Compared to Barber’s Transformers run, the cast of Optimus Prime feel more casual. As Prime tenses under the weight of always doing what’s right, the rest of the cast relaxes. The humor and drama flow more naturally, individually and together, and, despite the stated focus on Prime, the book feels more able to give each character a moment to shine than in its previous incarnation. It feels a bit as though Barber has been freed by the unveiling of the Hasbro Shared Universe and his step down from his role as senior editor. Whatever the reason, Optimus Prime #1 feels much more thoughtful and artistically confident than the vast majority of Robots in Disguise.
It helps a lot that Barber draws on very real issues and anxieties to sell the drama of the issue and does so without trivializing them or veering too close to the truth. Prime’s recollections of early-war Cybertron aren’t political masterworks, but they convey a lot of emotion about police brutality, complicity, and how the noble respond to an unjust state in a small amount of space.
The biggest problem of the issue is probably how repetitive it is. Much of Prime’s inner monologue doubles back over itself, effectively allowing Barber to use a single point as a transition into several new ideas. Often times these reuses follow long or visually interesting breaks in narration, betting on the likelihood that the pause will obscure some of the weaker transitions. But while I recognize the artistic weaknesses of this device, I have to say that I don’t terribly mind it in this instance. Despite what my english teacher might say, the most important effect of the repetitions for me is realism. The churning, redundant rhythm of Prime’s narration is very familiar to me and aids a sense of both relatability and perfectionism.
Regardless of where you fall on that element, the parallel stories playing out are rather nice foils. Instead of simply mirroring eachother, they provide opposite views of the Autobot leader’s reactions to imperfect worlds. The issue definitely supports Prime as a real hero, but it’s unapologetic in its depiction of two situations where his strength and morality are not enough. One of my favorite elements of the series is the ambiguity surrounding Prime’s mentions of the Tyrest Accords. The letter of that law is clear to anyone who’s been following these comics, but Prime’s sudden concern about Earth’s violations offers no clue whether it’s grounded in fact, paranoia, or self-delusion.
Another large part of this issue’s air of auteurship is the art. Kei Zama is a new name, but one I expect to hear more from now. Zama is a fantastic, not to mention clearly experienced, choice to draw a Transformers comic. Her style is strikingly distinct, but it still positively breathes Transformers. With apparent influence from Alex Milne, Marvel’s Generation 2, Transformers UK, and even the Gen 1 and Beast Wars package art, Zama’s style channels the intensity of the 90s anti-hero craze without its laughable excess. The result is a comic that eschews the clean simplicity of the Gen 1 aesthetic in favor of a harsher, almost rustier, edge that combines Transformers spirit, punk rock aggression, and an artist’s restraint into a very unique looking giant robot book.
One thing that immediately stands out, however briefly, is the quality of humans in this book. No one is good at drawing everything and it should come as little surprise that artists that specialize in mecha and kaiju often demonstrate less polish when drawing humans. Rather impressively for a new face on the professional scene, Zama obviously doesn’t see the reason to put one over the other, delivering humans and Cybertronians with equal gusto.
At times some of the ink work bleeds a little too much and the look might be too much for some readers, but, in a franchise that’s seen no small number of talented artists at IDW, it’s striking to see such a new and confidant take on the characters. Zama’s sense of motion and her gentle connections between panels make the issue easy to read as well as fun to look at.
The balance is further aided by longtime Transformers colorist Josh Burcham, who keeps the series in touch with its primary colored roots while adapting to the new vibe of this series. The use of pale blue and white does a lot to give this issue an particular identity as does the frequent use of ben-day dots.
The former Robots in Disguise was an underrated comic, but one with a deserved reputation as a workhorse for the brand. Optimus Prime brings John Barber’s skills as a writer to a comic with a much stronger artistic identity. Well handled questions of political morality and an ambiguous sense of who has the greater good in mind make for a strong continuation of the Transformers story while Barber and Zama provide a welcoming, if not necessarily easy, point of entry for new readers. With a striking look and thoughtful characters, Optimus Prime #1 is a pretty fantastic debut and one that deserves a look from fans and new readers alike.