Captions column by Drew
Buying comics for the library is a tricky thing. For one thing, we’re not buying for the collector. If you know Comics People, than I’m sure you have a friend who obsessively collects every Batman comic or possible X-Men tie-in. We don’t really buy for those readers as they bought the single issues, subscribed to the title, and have been pouring over the message boards to see what’s coming next.
Instead, we buy comics for the casual reader. “Hey, I just saw X-Men: Days of Future Past and would like to read more Wolverine!” “My daughter loves The Flash TV show – do you have any Flash comics?” “My friend keeps going on about how The Dark Knight Returns is the best thing ever. Do you have a copy?” The danger here, of course, is that you buy everything on a Top 10 list and leave the rest of the collection alone. Sure, the casual or new readers will be happy (up until they work their way through the collection) but the Comics People won’t find much joy on the shelves.
Which is a pity, because they’ve probably spent all their money on Batman/X-Men/Whatever Their Obsession is.
Just as we try to keep the shelves stocked with jumping on points for people new to comics, we try to keep a selection of comics for older readers. This creates a problem – it’s very easy to fall down the rabbit hole of obscure comics (especially if you’re a Silver Age sucker like me) and end up buying comics that only a few people would enjoy. We need to build a collection that appeals to all, so not only do the “non-standard” comics need to appeal to people who have read for years, but they also need to appeal to that new reader who went to the stacks to grab a Flash title and had something else catch their eye.
So what I’m trying to say is, I bought a lot of Transformers comics recently.
Hear me out.
First, the content is approachable (well, as approachable as any topic involving robots that turn into things) because of the entrenched nostalgia children of the 80s (like me) have for the old 30 minute commercials that passed as cartoons PLUS the modern, explosion-filled and sometimes seizure-inducing Michael Bay movies. It’s a pretty safe bet that a person walking up to the graphic novels shelves on the third floor has heard of Transformers.
Second, it’s not a cape comic. Superheroes are what people think of when they think of American comics. They have the greatest market share, the most representation in media, and the biggest back catalog. This isn’t a bad thing – it’s just how it’s been since the horror/crime comic panic of the 1950s. (Briefly, crime comics like Crime Does Not Pay and horror comics like Tales From the Crypt used to outsell superheroes. There was a huge “Think of the Children!” to-do in the 1950s that lead to the creation of the Comics Code which pretty much ruled out sex, violence, and assorted deviltry leaving only costumed heroes as viable subjects. Check out David Hajdu’s Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America for more) There are a lot of superhero comics out there that I’m pretty sure the long time reader has already read. There is less of a chance that the same reader would have read a non-cape comic. And as for the new reader? They’re in the lucky position that everything is new to them anyways, so they’re not bogged down by the cowled tradition.
Third, these books are actually good. I kept seeing these titles recommended online and in comic book stores. I admit I sort of tuned the existence of the Transformers out after the 2007 movie so this came as a bit of a shock to me.
“But do they still have robots that turn into jets and dinosaurs and toasters for some reason?” I’d ask fans of the series.
“Sure,” they’d reply, “But in this series they are actually characters, not product placement.”
“What, even Ratbat?”
“I think you mean Senator Ratbat.”
So I gave them a shot. IDW started a pair of new Transformers titles in 2012 which meant I had an easy jumping on point. The two titles, Robots in Disguise and More Than Meets the Eye, have six volumes each (so far) and I read ’em.
And they actually were pretty good.
Sure, you have the inherent silliness that is the whole Transformers concept: a bunch of alien robots who can turn into other stuff split between good guys and bad guys who have been fighting for millions of years. The authors, John Barber and James Roberts, turned a lot of that on its head, though, by ending the war between Autobots and Decepticons. Now two cultures that have been fighting for millions of years have to settle down and learn to work with each other and figure out their place in the universe.
More Than Meets the Eye is the more adventurous title of the two. I’ve heard it described as “imagine a Star Trek or Firefly episode where everyone can turn into cars” and that’s pretty apt. It focuses more on exploration, discovery, and adventure.
Robots In Disguise is more of a political potboiler. It takes place on Cybertron as the survivors of the war try to rebuild their civilization while dealing with the scars the war left behind. I never thought I’d care about a robot’s PTSD, but here we are.
I found both titles to be approachable. There’s been a lot of Transformer development in the comics over the years, but I never really felt lost. At times I did need to flip back to make sure the talking robot was who I thought it was, but that didn’t happen too often. Once I became more familiar with the characters, it was easier to follow along. I’d suggest starting with Volume 1 of each title, though, as there are plot threads running through each that would be confusing if you jumped on in the middle.
Old favorites from Optimus Prime and Megatron to Bumblebee and Starscream appear. There are a few new characters, but most of the core cast are familiar to the toys I remember arguing about when I was eight, though they often don’t act the way they used to on Saturday mornings.
As we move into Marvel Phase 23 and DC Catchup Movies 2-17 and Oh Yeah Spiderman’s Still a Thing? in the theaters over the next year, you might experience a bit of superhero fatigue. If you do, but still want adventure and intrigue featuring developed characters, give Transformers a try.