In talking about my reaction to the first issue of Skybound and Hasbro’s new Transformers comic book series recently, I likened it to the experience of reading the first issue of Marvel’s Transformers comic all the way back in 1984. (Spoilers: I’m old.)
I didn’t mean that in the sense that the two tell the same story — although, to some degree, they do; both show a group of crash-landed Transformers awaken on Earth and go their separate ways, with the need for fuel suddenly becoming an issue. (There are, of course, twists in the new version of the issue; creator Daniel Warren Johnson isn’t just doing a cover version of a favorite song here.) Instead, what I mean is how the comic left me feeling afterwards: excited about the possibilities of the story and the characters, excited to see more of the world, and just excited about Transformers in general. After close to 40 years, it’s a comic that made me a Transformers fan again.
Much of this is rooted in Johnson’s artwork, I confess; as anyone familiar with his work in projects like Wonder Woman: Dead Earth, Do A Powerbomb or Extremity would expect, there’s an almost visceral dynamism to the art in Transformers #1 that feels unusual after years of a cleaner, more clinical style in other Transformers titles. It’s cartoonish in the best ways, playing with the page and the laws of physics simultaneously — the characters look like toys, wonderfully, being both perpetually in motion and seemingly static — in such a way that the pages crackle with an energy and life that feels thrilling to read. It’s almost impossible not to look at the pages without feeling the crackle coming off them.
There’s a scene where the humans have to interact with a gun of one of the Transformers, to stay as spoiler-free as possible, and it’s an impressive feat of cartooning that manages not only to emphasize the scale of the robots, but also the weight of the gun; it’s a near-silent piece of world-building that manages to truly underscore how big these creatures really are.
More than that, though, is the excitement of the way in which Johnson anchors the book in easily recognizable emotional truths: there’s an interior weight to the reactions of Optimus Prime and Jetfire especially to the awakening of the Transformers on Earth, and their realization of how much time has passed since they last spoke that rings unusually true, despite it being only briefly mentioned — a melancholy that plays nicely against the whining petulance of Starscream, who plays to type as, bluntly, the most childlike and (intentionally) annoying character in the series.
And then there’s the humans: Spike, of course, but this Spike (and his dad, the drunken Sparkplug) has an emotional backstory that goes beyond the “small town boy dreams” of the original Buster and Spike from the 1980s incarnations; even before he gets mixed up with some Robots in Disguise, he’s a character you want good things for, and for happiness to find him… which makes it all the more dramatic when things start blowing up around him and he’s in fear for his life.
Spike, in a strange way, may be the perfect metaphor for the new Transformers series, based on the evidence of this first issue; he’s recognizable as what he used to be for the longterm fans, but he’s got more depth, he’s more interesting, and he’s better drawn (in a literal and metaphorical meaning). This, dear reader, is how you reboot a series.
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