Transformers Vol. 1Transformers Vol. 1 – Robots in Disguise

Writer & Artist: Daniel Warren Johnson 
Colorist: Mike Spicer
Letterer: Rus Wooton
Publisher: Image Comics – Skybound
Collects: Transformers #1-6
Publication Date: May 8, 2024

As part of Skybound’s Energon Universe, the Transformers have been rebooted once again, this time in the hands of all-star creator Daniel Warren Johnson. The relaunched book factors into other ongoing Skybound titles like G.I. Joe and Void Rivals, though the first six issues of this run collected here are primarily an updated origin, going back to some of the basics of the G1 era. 

Johnson writes and draws this reboot fresh off his creator owned success of Do a Power Bomb. Johnson maintains a very consistent voice and sensibility to his work, and Transformers Vol. 1 is no exception. Thus what separates this book from the previous Marvel comics iteration and the longstanding IDW era of the franchise is Johnson’s over the top fight scenes and pulp sci-fi sensibilities. As a fan of the IDW era, and various grim-gritty interpretations of Transformers, I appreciated Johnson’s ability to thread the usual violence and melancholy into a book that also features Optimus Prime doing a suplex on Starscream.

These fight sequences in Transformers Vol. 1 and Johnson’s art are the highlight of the run, taking his usual style of works like Beta Ray Bill or Murder Falcon and applying them to big boxy robots. There is certainly a challenge here as Johnson’s style of round shapes, sketchy line work and fluid movement seems at first to be at odds with the rigid, blocky robots. And to an extent, you can notice the difficulty of this transition early on where some of the subtle movements and hand gestures don’t land with the appropriate impact. However, Johnson quickly gets accustomed to this style and even if there are bumps in the road, you’ve never seen a Transformer move and fight quite like this.

Transformers Vol. 1

Each issue features moments of explosive action that more than justify revisiting the early days of the Cybertronian conflict. The aforementioned wrestling moves are a treat, but as are the sequences of violence and death that are complimented by Mike Spicer’s thoughtful color work. Moments of contemplation, like the discovery of the lifeless bots, are rendered with cool colors that bring out the best of Johnson’s line work. Rather than going for a realistic or hyper mechanical look, Spicer takes the core color scheme of the G1 cartoon and applies it to Johnson’s linework to bring out the sharpness and rich detail of each figure. Every bot is distinct and recognizable, and the colors are able to set the tone of the series of something closer to Battle Manga rather than allegorical hard Sci-Fi. 

Johnson does not retread the lore heavy and grounded take of Simon Furman or James Roberts, and instead balances his adult themes with a lighter tone. When the Decepticons land on Earth, there is not only rampant destruction, but also blood, and well defined emotional consequences. When we’re introduced to Spike, there’s more going on with his family life than some might be used to. While there’s plenty of fun to be had, Johnson is careful to give these emotional moments the weight they deserve.

Like previous incarnations of Transformers, the premise is still the Autobots and Decepticons at war in Transformers Vol. 1, far from their homeworld of Cybertron. However, there is a specific focus here on fuel and supplies. Both sides have faced heavy casualties in the line of battle and Energon is more important than ever to keep the bots alive and able. As the first 6 issues unfold, we see both sides making moves to secure adequate supplies of fuel, while at the same time making judgment calls about which bots to utilize and how to make the best use of their limited resources. 

Additionally, all the usual bots we’ve come to expect are not present during the opening act of this series. Bumblebee and Megatron are both absent in ways that lead to interesting consequences. Rather than playing into the old rivalry between Megatron and Starscream, here we open with Starscream simply being in charge and ill-equipped to lead the Decepticons. Starscream’s one of the most distinct voices in the entire franchise, and here Johnson does not reinvent the wheel with him but sticks to the familiar insecurity and hunger for power that fans of the franchise might be used to. What is interesting, however, is the contrast between Starscream and Optimus Prime.

After decades of “one shall stand, one shall fall” between Optimus and Megatron, it’s refreshing to see how a resource depleted Optimus treats his comrades and his own life, compared to Starscream. While Starscream’s motivations are not much more complicated than killing the autobots, there is infighting and betrayal that keeps the book interesting. Meanwhile, Optimus maintains a regality in the eyes of his friends and a gentle nature that’s enhanced by its contrast to the brutal Decepticons. The quiet moments where Optimus reckons with how Earth’s fragility compares to the harshness of Cybertron are among the best of the series so far.

Transformers Vol. 1

Optimus, and to a lesser extent Starscream, are the stars of the title so far, which leaves little time or room to explore the other bots. Jazz, in particular, gets a grand reintroduction to help Optimus in the heat of battle but the book plays like the audience should already know who Jazz is rather than giving us much to work with. The inability to focus on a wider cast is a consistent challenge with the Transformers line, which the IDW era compensated for with various “Spotlight” one-shots. While we’re in the early days of the Energon Universe, we don’t yet have an equivalent to that yet and I can’t help but feel like the first collection is only scratching at the surface, giving us a narrative we’re mostly used to by now. As the series progresses, I think Johnson’s sensibilities will help to more distinctly claw out a space for this new era that’s more narratively fulfilling. For now, however, we’re still waiting through much of the setup. 

Despite the thin plot and occasional art bumps, these first 6 issues of Transformers Vol. 1 are a great time. The style is exciting and unique within the history of the series, and Spicer makes for a great compliment to Johnson’s designs. The character work we do get, primarily for Optimus, Starscream, and Spike, is very good and sets up a few enticing mysteries and motivations. I had a smile on my face when I put the book down and that’s more than worth any growing pains the series has.

Verdict: Buy

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