Unlike Star Wars, there are numerous versions of Transformers and you don’t even have to factor in Michael Bay’s version! Marvel UK, Marvel US, Dreamwave, IDW – that’s four variants right there and there’s likely a few more still.
It is IDW’s reboot, started several years ago, with Simon Furman writing it, that has the most lessons to impart to Star Wars, if it but listens.
Furman’s arc re-imagined Transformers, with a multi-front galactic war being fought between the Autobots and Decepticons. No longer were they limited to Earth, no longer was it all set on one planet – though Earth did become a significant resource due to Shockwave’s age-old plotting. In this new structure both Megatron and Optimus Prime were generals, marshalling troops and resources on a galactic scale. Thus, when both take a hand in events on Earth, it is indeed A Big Deal™.
Furman’s choice of adversary was different too. Though Megatron was in the mix, the bigger adversaries were Prime’s imperialistic predecessor, Nova Prime and his lieutenants, Galvatron and Cyclonus, plus a mad scientist known as Jhiaxus. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, IDW lost confidence in Furman’s long-form arc and he had to wrap up in hurried fashion. In this respect, it shares much with Dark Horse’s Star Wars series and their abrupt finales. The successor arc post-Furman was called All Hail Megatron and was a noisier, louder and more bombastic tale and it quickly lost my interest.
What got me back? 2012 saw a new creative team take on the title and they decided to tell one story across two books. There would be Robots in Disguise and More Than Meets the Eye. One would be set on a restored Cybertron and the other on a ship on a quest for mythical beings. Both books quickly gained a reputation online for their quality, so I gambled on them. I was not disappointed. What was particularly satisfying was seeing that MTMTE picked up plot points from the author’s first Transformers story, Last Stand of the Wreckers. That was a very well-done but utterly brutal tale that was in desperate need of a follow-up to make it work better for me, cue the new book.
The genius move of this particular reinvention was that they ended the Autobot-Decepticon war! Who won? Neither! Instead what happened was Cybertron was restored and numerous robotic beings that had fled it due to the war, which subsequently wrecked it beyond the ability of either side to restore, returned. These Non-Aligned Indigenous Lifeforms, aka NAILS, wanted nothing to do with either side and outnumbered both of them. So it was that Optimus Prime abdicated power to Bumblebee, who took on the task of setting up a unification government between the three factions. Of course, with the likes of Starscream still active, that would be easier said than done.
Meanwhile, in response to Prime’s abdication and the end of the war, loudmouth Rodimus Prime declared he would seek the lost Knights of Cybertron, with the aim of restoring the status quo. The status quo? The status quo that was a galactic war that had raged for millions of years? In effect, the answer to the question of what happens to soldiers without a war is that they go looking for a new one!
What remains most impressive about this reinvention is the sustained delivery. Ongoing comics are notorious for declaring they will do X and then spend the next set of stories un-doing exactly that. In contrast, the war has not been resumed, instead new conflicts have arisen in the vacuum generated by the war’s end. At the same time, while RiD pursues the more political Cybertron story, MTMTE used the quest format to go off on a mad tangent all on its own!
MTMTE introduced readers to the most dysfunctional, psychologically wrecked and utterly bitchy bunch of robots ever! No one had ever read a Transformers story like it and it was great. What made it work was the off-kilter feel, yes, it might start off as madcap comedy, but then the crew encounters the Decepticon Justice Division and suddenly they’re being interrogated and tortured, limbs are getting torn off and it’s all very serious. Somehow Roberts keeps these polarized aspects in balance and the book works very well indeed.
Finally, the two writers went one step further by coordinating their stories so either could be read on its own, but reading both had benefits for the reader. Both books also built up to a big event story, Dark Cybertron, that practically functioned as a Season 1 finale. That story also linked way back to many of the concepts Furman set running, but with additions from the new stories. In doing that it sent a message to fans of that opening run that it had not been forgotten about, that it would not be quietly buried.
What does all this mean for the Star Wars reboot? First, it means there’s always something new that can be done. No one had ever considered the moves Furman, Roberts and Barber made on Transformers. Moving the story away from Earth for quite a bit and placing the spotlight on the robots, having said robots demonstrate some very distinct personalities and the conflicts that follow from that, what happens after the war is over – so many stories promise that one and never deliver on it… It was an emphatic rejection of the destructive cynicism that claims to have seen everything, that there’s nothing new left to see.
The lesson then for the new Star Wars from Transformers is: Go big or go home! No one ever cares about marketing that promised the Earth if the item being marketed actually went and did it. It is only when a product is flawed, sub-standard or out-right bad that marketing acquires a suspect stench, that it’s trying to polish a turd but can’t quite do it. Talk up the product by all means, but make sure the product is damn good first.
An MTMTE-style approach would have to be done carefully, but what if it was applied to politics? It’s fair to say, unless the author is James Luceno, if you say the word ‘politics’ to a SW fan their eyes’ll glaze over. What if there were politics sequences with some quite deadly one-liners being deployed? What if the approach was verbal combat with one-liners as the weaponry? There a MTMTE style could work wonders.
That said I don’t think SW is at the point Transformers was, where its main ideas are so played out that radical ideas become very welcome. I do think it is at a point of reinvention for a new era, so maybe Transformers can help it along.