Saturday, 19 March 2016

More Than Meets the Eye: Has the Lost Light Lost its Way?

Tarn talks people to death. Not that different from Swerve then.

When it began, More Than Meets the Eye seemingly went un-noticed by a lot of the fandom but as time went on it started carving out an increasingly influential niche for itself. The main Generations line of figures were starting to be influenced both in releases and appearances by the unusual quirky comic but then Dark Cybertron happened and gradually many readers have this feeling they can't quite put their finger on but it feels like the series has lost its teeth.

Season 1: The Cast
The Transformers comic had previously been fairly straight laced so moving characters from a 4 million year long war into a comedy series was fairly ambitious and novel but bizarrely worked. For the first time in many years, writer James Roberts had made the characters seem human and therefore very identifiable while turning some characters completely on their heads. Some fans were not happy with how their favourites were now portrayed as the main cast were almost caricatures of themselves with certain aspects of their personalities massively exaggerated. In the sitcom type setting of MTMTE it unquestionably worked. Rodimus - the arrogant one, Ultra Magnus - the stickler for rules, Ratchet - the grumpy doctor, Whirl - the homicidal maniac, Swerve - the talkative one, Cyclonus - the silent warrior and so on. The cast were easy to pigeon-hole and very easy to get on with.

In Jokes and References
Right from the get go there were clever subtle references to Transformers history and also to other materials including Brainstorm's ID having a tech spec on it, Tailgate's suitcase is a Micromaster trailer, the title of issue one being a Dexy's Midnight Runners song and Tailgate's introduction being a Red Dwarf lift. Subtle references are hard to pull off for a writer but Roberts did it very well and it felt like there were hidden gems for readers to discover along the way. One of the variant covers for issue 1 was a joke in itself - a recreation of the cover of Justice League International's first issue - a comic that rebooted the Justice League of America from a serious series into a comedy; a change that at the time wasn't met warmly but quickly won readers over. Sound familiar?

While the relationship between Chromedome and Rewind wasn't universally accepted, most fans were happy to see where this new idea could lead. Best of all, the relationship between the two was very real - there was jealousy, arguments, ex partners and not everything was great but the feelings the two held for each other helped them work through their problems.

Not All For Laughs
The end of issue 1 immediately brings some seriousness back to the proceedings and the introduction of Skids in issue 2 brought a new dimension into the series as suddenly we had a mystery on our hands combined with Skids' reference to 1984 - the year that Transformers were originally launched. The end of issue 2 introduces a horror aspect as, in Alien fashion, there's a hidden stowaway murdering the crew. In the space of one issue the series went from being a clever comedy to now having multiple storylines all from different genres; in other words - depth. This quirky series was branching out quickly.

This would continue as fairly often the crew of The Lost Light found themselves in horror stories but the humour would downplay the horror aspects, like the Ebola-esque Red Rust virus they encounter which causes Transformers to leak from their eyes until they eventually liquefy.

The introduction of The Decepticon Justice Division brought new characters and new horrors but immediately made stars of the DJD and the Decepticon Scavengers - Misfire, Krok, Crankcase, Flywheels and Spinister. Each issue almost made the reader want to go out and buy new versions of these characters so naturally the Generations toy line started to cater more to MTMTE readers with Whirl, Trailbreaker/Trailcutter, Hoist, Swerve, Tailgate, Brainstorm and Skids getting updated figures.

Seasons Change
Every single issue of the first 21 seemed important. The three issue Shadowplay story arc felt a little like it was a few gears down but the last issue made it suddenly the most important story we'd seen so far. The other thing that made each issue seem important was that these characters we loved could, and sometimes did, die without warning. Issue 22 provided a series finale that genuinely brought a tear to the eye of some readers.

Later issues though, although it was far more obvious in RID, seemed to be returning to a "hey readers this character is getting a toy soon so go buy it" format with some covers spotlighting characters who weren't even in the comic. Crosscut appears in one issue solely so it could be packed in with his then upcoming figure. While the early issues very much felt like James Roberts had control now it was starting to feel like the corporation were making some requests.

What do you mean you don't want an entire issue dedicated to a character that's completely irrelevant?

Dark Cybertron
The massive Dark Cybertron crossover interrupted MTMTE and seemed to be a generally drawn out story that no one really wanted. Very little came of it other than the reset button being hit on the IDW Transformers universe as a whole. Sure it wasn't on a Marvel or DC level but now began Season 2 which was a bit of an issue in itself. You see, if you followed James Roberts on Twitter then you already knew that MTMTE and Robots in Disguise were intended to be divided into 24 issue seasons like a TV show but if you didn't then it was a bit alarming to have everything brought to an end and for both series to carry on with the roster of characters reshuffled. Just to make matters worse, someone up the chain had decided that crossovers/large events would be an annual thing and certain characters had to be removed halfway through season 2 to participate in The Combiner Wars. More outside interference.

Season 2
Season 2 began in issue 28 and with the reboot, issue 28 and 29 follow the first season as they establish the characters and introduce a horror element. By this point it had been 6 months of nothing and two issues which were trying to build lost momentum.

Towards the end of season 1 we were introduced to Windblade, Nautica and Chromia, three female Transformers who of course had high heels, breasts and shapely forms to indicate they were female. In fairness that's not a choice for the creative team as the designs have probably come from Hasbro. More on that in a future article.

But as new faces including Nautica joined the cast and old faces left, some major things started becoming more apparent. The clever references were starting to become more in your face, Roberts' political leanings were starting to emerge, the characters all started to blend into one and diversity seemed to be high on the agenda.

She also can change her flame colour cause, y'know women dye their hair all the time.

Nautica, it turned out also was in a relationship with another female Transformer, who also has a body featuring breasts, high heels and curves too. Gobots could teach Transformers a few things here. This relationship though was one of being best friends for life and female characters can't break up or it brings shame on them because they didn't try hard enough...or something.

Meanwhile the imaginatively titled Ofstead XVII allowed Roberts a soapbox to criticise the change in the British education system and voice his opinion of it as MTMTE seemed on times to become a party political broadcast rather than a comic about robots in space. Despite this Roberts still seems unable to write female characters without needing to request edits to the trade paperback collections to fix rather (unintentional) sexist writing.

Issue 33 continues to lumber along with some fairly dubious writing where everything magically goes back to normal except the certain things that inexplicably don't because we need them as plot devices for upcoming stories, but then the epilogue of this issue manages to remind us of why MTMTE was such a gripping read as Brainstorm finally opens his briefcase.

Issue 34 starts out as a disappointment as it doesn't pick up where the previous issue left off, instead relegating the end of the previous issue to a sub-plot. However as the issue goes on it truly was a return to form for the series and reminded us of how good it could be as it kept the reader absolutely gripped with a dread of what the next page may bring and is easily one of Roberts' best written pieces ever as he manages to make sign language terrifying. However it's short lived as we're on to a story arc which is possibly setting up a fairly obvious reveal but comes across as more wading through mud to find a diamond.


By the time we get to 'Personality Ticks" in #42 MTMTE is getting to be a painful read as that sense of urgency and importance has been replaced with constant references to Earth culture, dancing to 1980's songs and a thankfully deleted scene that would have involved Ultra Magnus stripping.

Issues 43 and 44 are more water treading though 43 is entertaining while 44 contains an incredibly powerful ending. After the edge of your seat issue 47 it's back to a familiar "sweep everything under the carpet in a few frames" handling of moving on. The two part Speak Memory seemed to have promise but had an ending that was a flat cliffhanger attempt. Once again this gets the usual brief mention and onwards in issue 50.

More Than Meets the Eye started out as a comic where things didn't necessarily make sense but as you read further on then parts of the puzzle fell into place and you somehow knew it would make sense. Now there isn't that feeling anymore and increasingly filler issues feel exactly like fillers instead of turning into critical parts of the Transformers universe like Shadowplay did.

As previously mentioned the season 2 cast seem devoid of distinguishable personalities. Actually who are the new season 2 cast? A how-do-you-write-Megatron-this-blandly-Megatron. Ravage. That Actionmaster and the other Actionmaster. Some Monsterbots who stand around a bit. Mirage who doesn't seem to be relevant. Bluestreak who seems to be indistinguishable from Nautica and Skids in terms of dialogue apart from when he's constantly making references to Earth. The a-little-bit-rapey-Getaway. Riptide who doesn't seem to do anything other than be the red shirt guy from Star Trek. So basically a bunch of characters who are making up the numbers and taking time away from the remaining season 1 cast that we like so much.

Megatron - From tyrant to whiny teenager within 6 months
Looking back at that section above the plots that are the most interesting and/or gripping all feature season 1 cast heavily. Brainstorm's briefcase reveal, issue 34's Trailbreaker story, Swearth which all centres around Swerve and issue 45's Tailgate, Whirl and Cyclonus interplay. Meanwhile the one exception is a simple splash art dedicated to a season 2 character which pretty much confirms that we only actually care about the characters who were so well written in the first place as none of the season 2 cast have had much in the way of character development.

The regular use of British slang and unsubtle references to pop culture, pop music and politics increasingly detracts from the stories and pulls the reader out of the Transformer world and back into ours. Even issue 50 beats you round the head with it's 99% reference.

But Wait!
MTMTE is still a head above many other comics and the problems above aren't unique to MTMTE; any long running comic will prove difficult to keep fresh with the same writer. A great example of many of the above points is The Walking Dead which has also seen pop culture references creep in ("That escalated quickly"), it's creator's own political/philosophical opinion be thrown into the series and then thrown aggressively at his readers in the letter's page (Christian readers have no right to be offended by the introduction of a gay white man with long hair and beard named Jesus; they are intolerant bigots and shouldn't read the comic and God isn't real so there.) and ideas rehashed over and over. MTMTE isn't unique nor is it in any way the worst offender. If Roberts can save his Guardian politics for his own Twitter (and there's already plenty on there) and perhaps tone down the more obvious references to other media then we'd be headed in perhaps a more familiar direction.

As mentioned above, issue 50 has some very obvious real world references but there are a lot of incredibly subtle and clever references to Transformers history and MTMTE itself that you will not notice unless you read the wiki entry for it. Even Marvel UK Transformers in joke character Toaster puts in an appearance and there's a reference to not all second seasons being great; a lovely nod to the not so favourable reviews of MTMTE's second season.

Just as readers need to identify with and love or hate characters, so do writers and maybe it's time for another character reshuffle where Roberts can develop characters he enjoys again rather than having to write for mandated characters like Crosscut or Z listers that aren't going to factor into Hasbro's plans like that Actionmaster or the other Actionmaster as it's clear that he had a lot of affection for the original cast and that was infectious.

Even with female characters, while MTMTE doesn't always get it right how exactly are you supposed to introduce gender to robots and specify distinctions between the two without the odd gaffe? It's a sensitive subject and the masses of Twitter take offence to anything they possibly can. However Roberts could introduce transgender characters as we've already seen him write about Transformers having their alt modes or entire bodies changed in order to avoid Cyberton's old social caste system. Again it's probably very unfair to hold Roberts responsible for everything because there is going to be pressure from Hasbro coming down on him when it comes to characters' use, direction and the sensitivities that huge corporations with shareholders have to consider.

One thing that is nothing to do with the creative end of things is that most of us hopped on board MTMTE when it was already underway so we read 1-16 issues depending on when we starting picking it up. This meant that we were reading the story in large chunks which always makes any story more consistent than reading it in small monthly pieces as we currently do. A re-read of the entire season 2 knits a lot of weaker issues together and give a better view of the big picture. The whole of season 2 is a build to a showdown but the build of it has been a little too laid back to give the reader the impression it is looming. However issue 50 brings that confrontation to the doorstep and there's a lovely reveal about Megatron that makes the reader realise that maybe the criticism of how Megatron has been written was way too early and that we should have had a little faith.

Overall the 'problem' with More Than Meets the Eye is actually really very simple: James Roberts is easily one of the very best writers in the industry, he just happens to be writing about giant robots instead of zombies, men in underwear or squads of suicidal maniacs so his talent isn't as recognised as the heavyweights of comics. He set such an impossibly high bar with season 1 that no one, not even he himself could follow it. What we have now is a comic that was so incredible that current issues are not actually bad, they just pale next to what came before. Season 2 is that difficult second album - Use Your Illusion, Evil Empire, The Downward Spiral, More ABBA Gold.

Sure a lot of characters are generic but we do still have the A listers who matter and while the new guys (and girl) haven't stepped up, they still have the opportunity to do so especially with the mortality rate in the series and a potential reshuffle as we edge towards the end of season 2. Maybe they aren't intended to be main characters but are simply supporting cast who are intended to be more recognisable than extras. If another crossover is coming to tie into Titans Return then we can hope that Roberts is given those few crossover issues to reconnect himself with that Justice League International concept and lobby for characters he wants to move forward with so he can weave his magic again.

Either way, More Than Meets the Eye #50 is a milestone that shows that there's a plan in place and our patience is being rewarded, now we just need to wait for issue 51 to see how it plays out.

Just don't kill Swerve.