Apr 18, 2016

Dreamwave's Transformers: Hypnotize

It Was All a Dream: Exploring Dreamwave's Transformers
Part 3: Hypnotize
Back Issue Ben
Ben Smith

Simon Furman may be the best Transformers comic book writer ever. So when upstart new company Dreamwave acquired the Transformers license in the early ‘00s, it was only natural to bring him onboard. (Budiansky gets the nod for me personally, but that is entirely due to childhood nostalgia.) Not wanting to tread the same ground covered by the flagship book (which was covered here last week) Furman decided to look far into the past of Cybertron, and chronicle the beginnings of this millennia-spanning civil war. Fan turned artist Don Figueroa got his first chance to work on the Transformers alongside Furman, and quickly became one of the best artists to ever work on the property. Together, they created one of the best Transformers comics in the history of the franchise, The War Within.

As I detailed in the previous weeks, the Transformers comics produced by Dreamwave represent a crucial point in my life (at least when it comes to my entertainment preferences). Dreamwave eventually went out of business, meaning there is no hope of digital releases of these outstanding comics, or new printings of the trade paperbacks (the old ones are long out of print and difficult to find). I couldn’t just let these comics be forgotten, so I have made it my mission to explore the best of them with my usual mix of blatant incompetence, questionable literacy, and a healthy dose of sarcasm.

Let the madness continue.

Written By: Simon Furman; Pencils and Inks By: Don Figueroa; Colors By: Dreamwave

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, Grimlock is in a derelict Cybertronian gladiatorial arena in the city of Kaon, when he is visited by Starscream, Thundercracker, and Skywarp. Starscream taunts him about being on the wrong team, and how he should join them on the Decepticons. Times have changed since they were all fighters in that arena, before the war began. Starscream continues to tease Grimlock, says they’re on a mission from Megatron to attack an Autobot command post in sector zero-six, and he can either warn the Autobots, or join them in destroying it.

(I like the idea of Grimlock as the loose cannon of the Transformers. The one always straddling the line between both the Autobots and Decepticons, always capable of stepping over to either side. Anything is better than Grimlock as the bumbling idiot of the Transformers, the “Screech,” if you will.)

(I like Figueroa’s redesigns of the Transformers. He did a good job imagining pre-Earth modes for the characters, but still recognizable as the Generation One models.)

Grimlock thinks back to those gladiator days, of Starscream taunting him then about not being inner circle material, about not willing to go for the kill inside the arena.

Present day, Starscream and the others arrive at the command post to find it abandoned. A message from Grimlock relays to Starscream that this isn’t like the arena, that he has a channel for his rage now. He may not like Optimus Prime, but he likes them even less.

With that, the place explodes.

Story: Simon Furman; Pencils: Don Figueroa; Inks: Elaine To, Don Figueroa; Colors: Rob Ruffolo

“Sentinel Prime is dead…”

In the Hub Capital of Iacon, Bluestreak relays the rumors of Megatron killing Sentinel Prime to Optimus. Optimus has already heard those rumors and more, and would prefer to just continue logging his data. (In this version, Optimus is an archivist. A statistician that collates data, creates columns and spreadsheets so that he can audit the sum total of war. Basically Optimus was an accountant for the military, just like I used to be.)

In the city of Altihex, Grimlock and a team of Autobots are taking heavy fire from a Decepticon assault team. They’re trying to hold the line and give the city time to finish evacuating. However, Grimlock is sick of withdrawing and retreating. He believes the Autobots need a military leader, not a thinker.

Inside the Chamber of the Ancients on Iacon, Optimus is notified that he has been selected as the next leader of the Autobots. Optimus believes there must be some mistake, that he is not qualified to lead. The council assures him that the Matrix has spoken. Optimus, having a personality dominated by data and facts, has his doubts about the mysticism of the Matrix.

(I have more than my share of doubts about spirituality, so I’d love to say this take on Optimus appeals to me a great deal, but a robot obsessed with math and data reminds me too much of our emotionless Editor-in-Chief here at the Cube. I’m so torn. Optimus Prime is my spirit animal. -Emotionless Editor-in-Chief)

Prowl and a group of Autobots stand in the smoldering ruins of Altihex, to attend a meeting called by Grimlock. Grimlock is tired of the old ways, of endless contemplation. If the council once again chooses the wrong Prime, this time they must seize his power, and his title, by force.

(This is the Grimlock that was teased in those old Marvel comics, but that we ultimately never got. A capable military mind and unparalleled combatant, with a temper. His speech pattern masking an underestimated intelligence.)

Optimus seeks answers from the Keeper (a disembodied oracle of images and visions, apparently). He doesn’t understand why they fight for this world of Cybertron. For all its wonders, it is still only a world. (Optimus the accountant ponders if the possession of arbitrary land designations is worth fighting and dying over? As much as I can relate to that, he still loves math far too much. So, so torn.)

Later, back in the Chamber of Ancients, a ceremony takes place. Optimus is presented with the Matrix of Leadership and becomes, Optimus Prime.

A trio of Decepticons ambush the proceedings. Grimlock holds the others back, wishing to see what this new leader is made of. Apparently he’s made of sterner stuff than suspected, as he easily beats down and even melts the head off of one of his attackers.

Optimus Prime shrugs off their resulting praise, and with his first order as commander of the Autobots, he orders a planet-wide evacuation. Deep within Cybertron, the fearsome Megatron is ready to face this new Optimus Prime.

Story: Simon Furman; Pencils: Don Figueroa; Inks: Elaine To; Colors: Rob Ruffolo

“Alas, poor Xeon…”

In the Decepticon Fortress of Kolkular, Megatron reminisces about the former Emirate Xeon, now nothing more than a mutilated trophy head. It was Xeon’s acceptance of bribes that had been the beginning of Megatron’s rise to power.

Starscream questions if Megatron plans to do anything about the Autobots preparations for their evacuation of the planet. Megatron reminds Starscream that he is not around to do any thinking, and assures everyone that the Autobots aren’t going anywhere.

In Iacon, many of the Autobots question the decision to leave Cybertron, but are torn between their feelings and their oath of allegiance. Grimlock, most of all.

Back in Kolkular, Megatron has sent Starscream and the jets on an inconsequential mission to destroy a command post, so that he can check on the status of the Constructicon’s secret project renovating ancient planetary turbines deep beneath the surface of Cybertron.

Optimus Prime and Prowl privately debate the decision to leave Cybertron. Optimus believes that in his job as an archivist, all his data pointed to only one outcome from this war, the destruction of everything. Prowl argues that a decision like this can’t come from data, that it has to come from inside. (One of the many references to something involving “within” in this storyline. Deep within the planet of Cybertron… the war waging within each of the characters… It’s a little on the nose at times, but harmless enough.)

They are interrupted by a massive explosion nearby, rocking the surface of Cybertron. Elsewhere, Grimlock watches that same explosion, and heads towards it to investigate.

Below, Megatron addresses his trusted soldiers. The realization of all his plans are at hand. Going all the way back to the battles in the arenas, which masked the building of the Decepticon forces. The weak were winnowed out, leaving only the strong to eventually rise up and strike. But even the war is a distraction, to hide the work being done here, below the surface.

(I so very much love when the bad guy has a real evil plan dominated by executable strategies and intentional diversions. Complicated, but not so complicated that it’s unbelievable. I’m looking at you, The Dark Knight.)

Optimus Prime and his rescue team survey the site of the explosion. Somehow, Optimus just knows that this is the work of Megatron. That he did this to get his attention. Optimus heads below, alone, to investigate for himself. It doesn’t take long before he is under attack. First by Shrapnel, and then Ravage.

In Iacon, Jazz questions Prowl letting their leader investigate alone, but Optimus insisted that they continue with evacuation prep. They don’t get any time to debate it further, because a massive squadron of Decepticons led by Shockwave, attack Iacon.

(This is my kind of version of the history of the Transformers. Most prequels present the characters as basically the same as they are in the original stories, only younger. Obi-Wan is more of a badass in the prequels, but still has basically the same demeanor as the original trilogy. Optimus is one of the most charismatic leaders in all of fiction, known for his compassion and big beating robot heart, but here he’s riddled with doubts and dominated by spreadsheets. Megatron isn’t just blindly lashing out for power, but has a real plan hidden underneath every action.)

Story: Simon Furman; Pencils: Don Figueroa; Inks: Elaine To; Colors: Rob Ruffolo

“From day one, it’s been about pain…”

Starscream continues, “Its Megatron’s way of controlling us. The Arena, the Forge, the Branding Pit.”

(I like the way each issue has started from the perspective of an individual character. It’s not sustainable for a comic book like this, but it adds a nice personal touch for the beginning of each issue.)

The seekers narrowly escaped Grimlock’s trap (issue #0) thanks to Skywarp’s teleportation power. Skywarp, angry that Starscream tipped off Grimlock in the first place, wonders if Starscream has grown too fond of the pain.

(That is a pitch perfect encapsulation of Starscream’s characterization. Starscream is always questioning the plan, questioning his leadership, sometimes even his own allegiance. For him to be motivated by pain and suffering rings so true for me. Deep down, he knows Megatron is better than him. I love that line. I love it as much as I hate our EIC’s unbeating robot heart.)

Megatron contacts the team he tasked with capturing Optimus Prime. All his plans hinge on Megatron obtaining what Prime carries within. (See? Within…)

The deeper Optimus Prime goes, the more prominent the voices in his head become. The voices speak to him, and ask him why it is that he came down here alone. They answer for him. Within Optimus is a need, a need to understand, to grasp the meaning of this world before he abandons it. Optimus, of course, questions if these voices are even real, or are figments of his imagination. Either way, they warn him that Ravage is about to attack him from behind.

Shockwave and his army continue to lay waste to Iacon. (Shockwave has to be one of the more irrational loves of the Transformer lineup for me. He was little more than a flunky in the cartoon. In the comic he started out badass, then let Ratbat boss him around a little too much. Yet, I still love him. Is it because he’s a cold, calculated robot dominated by logic? No, I refuse that! It’s because he looks damn awesome. Yeah, that’s pretty much all it takes.)

Jazz, Bumblebee, and Prowl do their best to stem the oncoming tide from their command center. (Tracks cameo! Unfortunately his back is turned, sad face emoji.) Prowl suspects there’s more going on than this simple attack.

Optimus Prime easily dispatches Ravage. Starscream returns from his mission, sees everything that is going on, and questions if Megatron is purposefully keeping him in the dark. (Just as Starscream knows Megatron is better than him, Megatron is just as wary of giving Starscream too much power.)

Megatron explains how long ago, before all this began, he saw another side of Cybertron. The planet had once been mobile, a living Death Star (he didn’t say that, but he should have).

The engines he discovered deep within the planet were derelict, and any attempt to repair them would surely be detected, unless the powers-that-be were distracted. This war had always served as a mask to hide his bigger goals, in much the same way that this attack on Iacon serves to keep Optimus Prime isolated from the Autobots.

(See, he draws Optimus in, Optimus decides to go it alone, so Megatron sends an army of Decepticons to keep the Autobots busy. This is in the kind of sequence of events that makes logical sense. Once again, I’m looking at you, Ledger Joker.)

All that remains is an energy source powerful enough to fuel the repaired engines, the Matrix. Starscream laughs at his mention of the Matrix, believing that it is nothing more than a ceremonial bauble. Megatron is not pleased with this mockery, and lets him know it.

Prowl, still suspecting there’s more at play than the attack on Iacon, contacts Grimlock with a special mission for him and his team.

Meanwhile, Megatron’s team is not faring too well against Optimus Prime, and Prime taunts Megatron to come speak to him himself. Back below the surface, Optimus Prime and Megatron finally meet each other face to face for the first time. Megatron wants the Matrix, but Prime isn’t going to give it up willingly (and has already started to believe that its power is real).

However, before their battle can begin, Starscream emerges from his hiding place high above them.

“It’s about pain, Megatron,” he says, and then Starscream blasts the bridge out from under Optimus Prime and Megatron, sending them tumbling into the depths below.

(This very possibly could be Starscream’s first power play against Megatron. The first of many, as fans will know. After Skywarp’s comment, and his humiliation at the hands of Megatron, it would make sense that Starscream would be motivated to finally cross that line. All too often Starscream is depicted as a simple coward, which is certainly part of his personality, but that shouldn’t always be the case. His efforts to subvert Megatron as leader make no sense if he isn’t a capable and respected warrior in his own right.)

That was a long one this week, so I’ll close simply by stating that I’m glad The War Within is living up to my memory of it. I can confidently say it is one of the best Transformers comics I have ever read.

Starscream has betrayed Megatron. The Autobots are under attack. Optimus Prime and Megatron are falling to their doom. What is Grimlock’s secret mission? Will Megatron’s carefully calculated plans be engulfed when he develops a burning hatred of all things Optimus Prime? Will my love of accountant's that question the universe overcome my hatred of math and all those that value it?

Next week, the story continues.

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