THIS RETROSPECTIVE CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR ‘TRANSFORMERS: MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE’ AND ‘TRANSFORMERS: LOST LIGHT’.
by Eric Garneau. “This ship is a refuge for the emotionally inarticulate. Oh, people talk all the time. They just don’t say very much. They’re too worried about people knowing how they feel. Too worried about being found out.”
Over the course of 82 issues, author James Roberts and an army of artistic talent created a sitcom road trip about trauma and family starring my favorite childhood toys where the ultimate villain is a council of theocratic fascists who want to violently impose their will on the universe. And it was pretty much perfect.
I don’t know if Roberts supernaturally augured the rising tide of global right-wing populism when the first issue of Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye was published in January 2012, but there’s something very profoundly pointed about using an internationally recognized corporate brand to tell a story about coping with postwar trauma while battling envigored fundamentalists. And, on a personal level, I find it deeply moving to see my favorite toys used to tell a story about wandering souls forming a nontraditional family, with all the love and tragedy that entails. Did you know Transformers could do that? James Roberts did, and he scripted one of the best ongoing comics series I’ve ever read.
To explain: More Than Meets the Eye and its following series, Lost Light, examines what happens when a four-million-year war just… ends. As the smoke clears, a group of unsatisfied personae led by Rodimus (née-Hot Rod; just think Judd Nelson), not knowing how to react to peacetime, leave their planet to search the stars for the lost progenitors of their race, the Knights of Cybertron, who, it’s said, have discovered a Cyberutopia. These refugees want in.
This sounds more morose than it should, especially for such a funny book (I always elevator pitch it as “Battlestar Galactica meets Community”), but trauma really is the key to unlocking More Than Meets the Eye and its follow-up Lost Light, which published its final issue on November 7th. Roberts & co. took a cast full of unknown and underdeveloped Transformers characters and brought them together as a family by exploring some serious hang-ups and issues — you’d have them too if you’d just wrapped a four million year conflict. As that quote above, from medic and resident Grumpy Old Man Ratchet indicates, one of the side effects of that trauma is that characters aren’t very good at communicating.
But hey, that’s why we’ve got music.
Roberts is one of those magnificent comics writers who gives his readers a soundtrack to supplement his book emotionally. And indeed, his soundtrack helps us access the internal states of his characters more intimately than in any prior Transformers story.
But what’s so, so telling here is that the songs comprising the MTMTE/LL soundtrack (of which a full list can be found by combing the Transformers Wiki) completely break from Transformers music of the past. When you think about the sounds that accompany these robots — if you think about it at all — you probably call to mind glammed-up, synthastic ‘80s heavy metal. And with great reason — the 1986 animated movie more or less exists to support its soundtrack; composer Vince DiCola (along with rock acts like Stan Bush, Spectre General, Lion, and even “Weird Al” Yankovic) is essentially the star of the film. And that makes sense, really. There’s something about the loud, angular, yet bright textures of glam metal that feels like the aesthetic partner to cool-ass robots fighting a multi-million-year war.
But, again, the war is over. And so it is that Roberts eschews the cocksure posturing of heavy metal for a more introspective, sensitive look at our beloved robots in disguise. Scan the list of artists in Roberts’ stable and you’d be hard-pressed to find a guitar solo among them, but you’d sure find a lot of thoughtful indie pop: Ben Folds, Sufjan Stevens, the Shins. These are the songs that define Roberts’ Transformers, helping us look inward and discover the riches of this fantastic comic book.
With Lost Light coming to an end, after investing in these characters every month for almost seven years, I knew I had to do something to commemorate its closing. And so I’ve done something I’m reasonably okay at — I made a mixtape. What follows is a heavily truncated MTMTE/LL playlist highlighting some of my very favorite moments from the series. When I’m sad and miss my robot buddies, I’ll put this playlist on. Then I’ll still be sad, but at least I’ll have the journey.
1. Okkervil River – “Lost Coastlines” (series theme song)
From go we know that the music of MTMTE/LL will take us on a wholly different kind of Transformers journey. Instead of ominous synth and electric guitar, this series’ soundtrack kicks off with strumming acoustic and banjo. This song about unsteady adventurers as performed by one of the most baldly emotive indie bands of the last decade sets the perfect tone for Roberts’ series. “The ship’s deck now sags as we pace beneath flags black and battered.”
2. Gene – “For the Dead” (MTMTE Annual 2012)
The 2012 MTMTE annual, hitting about eight months into the series, is the first issue that really begins to tackle the more cosmic themes of Roberts’ run, complete with a Jack Kirby-styled supposed origin story for the Transformers’ gods provided by Guido Guidi (which we’ll later learn is one part rubbish, one part very telling). But as so usually happens in this book, it’s the little character moments that really sing, such as lovable goof/depressed bartender Swerve’s chat with Ore, the doomed Duobot who doesn’t know his body’s been fused to the ship’s engine. The self-doubting Swerve takes it upon himself to keep Ore company during the last moments of his life, and the two talk about peace, tragedy, and God in an incredibly touching moment that encapsulates this series’ thoughtful look at being a survivor. So, this one’s for the dead.
3. Pelle Carlberg – “Pamplona” (MTMTE #13)
I’m always a sucker for “the team gets some R&R before everything changes”-type stories, which is exactly More Than Meets the Eye #13, as a group of bots head down to the planet Hedonia (lol) for a quiet, mostly lighthearted issue full of joviality. But this issue also introduces one of the book’s most touching and unlikely couples: the icy warrior from ancient Cybertron Cyclonus, and the barely-lived-at-all Tailgate, a waste disposal bot who knocked himself unconscious for the whole duration of the Cybertronian war and basically just woke up — but who doesn’t want to tell anybody. In this issue, Cyclonus creates a (violent) diversion to prevent the rest of the crew from learning the secret of Tailgate’s origin. Then, in a rare sign of softness from the ex-Decepticon, Cyclonus teaches Tailgate a song of Ancient Cybertron to help him remember where he came from. They certainly didn’t sing this Pelle Carlberg tune in continuity, but in my heart they did.
4. Morrissey – “The First of the Gang to Die” (MTMTE #15)
James Roberts really likes Morrissey, so when it came to compiling this playlist, I really had to pick my Moz shot. I think this is it, issue #15 of More Than Meets the Eye, in which finally some all-out Transformers action explodes as Overlord, a secret stowaway and one of the most powerful Decepticons ever, wreaks havoc on the crew of the Lost Light. This is where you’d expect some clanging guitars and rocking battle anthems, but no… this issue is wall-to-wall carnage and death, reminding us so well of the actual cost of violence. There’s lots of loss to go around here, but ultimately in my heart Moz is singing to Pipes, perhaps the only member of the Lost Light crew whose trauma manifests purely physically. “Got a bit sick and got a bit shot, but apart from that, yeah, having a pretty wonderful time” is Pipes’ last message home before Overlord flattens him out. We’re all a little bit Pipes.
5. Snow Patrol – “Run” (MTMTE #16)
Of course Pipes is far from the only casualty of Overlord’s rampage. Most heart-breakingly, the crew loses Rewind, a tiny archivist ‘bot and conjunx endura (basically, spouse) to the mnemosurgeon Chromedome. In this bleak scene from issue #16, we learn that Chromedome has a habit of loving easily because his expertise at manipulating memories means he can literally make himself forget about his partners, Eternal Sunshine-style. Here, his friend Brainstorm begs him just this once not to. You can literally hear the Snow Patrol ballad swell up (as if you had a choice).
6. Scott Walker – “The Old Man’s Back Again” (MTMTE #28/Megatron’s theme)
Now we skip ahead to “Season 2,” where the biggest, baddest bot of all, Megatron, joins the ship’s crew because, as he argues, only the Knights of Cybertron can truly stand in judgment of the scale of his crimes. Roberts’ take on Megatron gives us one of my all-time favorite comic book characters. Here we have a murderous monster searching for something like redemption or absolution, working with our heroes but fighting elements of his past that won’t go away. A former miner who believes that his life course shouldn’t be predetermined because he turns into a drill, Megatron also provides the focal point for the book’s class conflict, kind of a Bernie Sanders who turns full demagogue and has to deal with the fallout of his choices. Rather than pick one particular Megatron moment, I wanted to include what Roberts chose as his overall theme song. “I see a soldier, he’s standing in the rain / For him there’s no old man to walk behind / Devoured by his pain.”
7. Smog – “Teenage Spaceship” (MTMTE #33)
One of the greatest joys of MTMTE/LL is that, for however deeply human it gets, it never forgets that it’s also a story about fantastical sci-fi robots. And so, through a malfunction of the cosmically improbably quantum engines that power their ship, our heroes find themselves reunited with Rewind, but a slightly different version of Rewind who diverged from our crew’s timeline the moment their ship first left Cybertron in issue #1. If you don’t follow that, that’s okay. You can still appreciate the beauty of a wordless two-page spread from series artist Alex Milne, who shows two lovers feeling out each other and themselves in the aftermath of these unbelievable events. Something about the lonely wonderment of this Smog song complements the scene perfectly.
8. Julian Cope – “Elegant Chaos” (MTMTE #36)
The “Elegant Chaos” arc of MTMTE is, for me, one of the highest points of the series. Here, our heroes travel back in time to stop Brainstorm from murdering Megatron before he comes online, thus ensuring that Cybertron never sees its populist uprising and the Functionists, a theocratic faction that believe your alt mode determines your value, gain control of the planet (heads up: we’ll see the Functionists again). There are so many perfect moments in this run of issues, but the one I always return to is the cross-temporal “phone call” between past Optimus Prime (then called Orion Pax) and current-day Megatron. In a book about characters who literally change form all the time, we see Megatron ponder what that really means for him. To commemorate this moment, the titular song of the whole arc! And hey, just this once, since we’re back in time, you can have a little synth with your emo robots.
9. Belle and Sebastian – “Nobody’s Empire” (MTMTE #40)
In a rare moment of quiet, the aforementioned medic/grumpy old man Ratchet decides to leave the Lost Light to track down his buddy (who got unfairly blamed for releasing Overlord way back in issue #15), and in the process, he tries to figure out how to say goodbye to his friends without being all mopey about it. In doing so, he stumbles upon the quarters of the misfit-among-misfits Ten, a reprogrammed killing machine-turned-bouncer who can only say his name but who really, really wants to fit in with the crew. As Ratchet discovers in a heartwarming twist, Ten’s been making artwork of all his favorites on the ship (who, as it turns out, are mostly our favorites too). This was a really sweet reveal that is nicely soundtrack by a sweet indie pop ditty.
10. Gary Portnoy – “Cheers” Theme (MTMTE #43)
There’s stiff competition, but it’s possible that More Than Meets the Eye #43 is my favorite single comic issue of all time. Here, our depressed bartender Swerve literally retreats into himself, creating an entire holographic Earth based on sitcom tropes (he’s kind of obsessed). And so swarms of crewmates project human holomatter avatars onto that Earth and scour the sets of Friends, Community, It’s Always Sunny and more trying to save their friend. This is probably the most meta the series ever gets, but gosh, I love it. But then, my favorite episode of Community/maybe television history is “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” so.
11. Scott Walker – “Little Things (That Keep Us Together)” (MTMTE #53)
In the season 2 finale, our heroes find themselves surrounded by a reenergized group of Decepticon forces looking for revenge on their traitorous commander. Facing sure death at the hands of the Decepticon Justice Division (doesn’t it just sound terrifying?), Rodimus and crew huddle up one last time, and we get one of the most punchingly sweet lines of the series. “Thanks for travelling with me.” With that, Scott Walker makes his second appearance on our playlist with an appropriately named song about sticking it out against the odds.
12. Ben Folds Five – “Missing the War” (MTMTE #55)
Of course our heroes make it through the above assault, but not without casualties (because again, remember, violence has consequences). One of the most tragic is poor Ravage, the Decepticon kitty cat stowaway/pal to Megatron, who gets ripped in two by the Justice Division. As his spark fades, we cut away to another place, another book (MTMTE’s sister series simply called The Transformers), and we see Ravage’s ersatz father and protector, Soundwave, double over in anguish. This probably means nothing to people who don’t have a history with Transformers, but to fans, this is absolutely heartbreaking.
Now we’re in the third and final season of Roberts’ epic, and back on the Functionist Cybertron where our cast has found themselves waylaid yet again. Megatron, through no fault of his own, ends up stranded in this alternate timeline, but — reflecting the phone call he had with Optimus back in issue #36 — he gets a chance to do Revolution right this time. Appropriately, Roberts inverts the character’s classic motto: “Peace through empathy” indeed. To soundtrack the reawakened socialist, we’ve got an uptempo ditty that namechecks Woody Guthrie, of course. This machine kills fascists.
14. The Decemberists – “Sons and Daughters” (LL #21)
Of course in the end, the crew reaches their goal — kind of? — but one last challenge awaits. In this triumphant moment from the penultimate arc of the series, Rodimus finds his feet and truly unites his crew. Emotionally if not literally, our robots have come home.
15. Ben Folds – “Still Fighting It” (LL #24/Rung’s theme)
We haven’t talked about Rung yet. And that’s fitting, really, because no one can remember him — he can’t even really remember himself. It turns out that Rung is Primus, the progenitor of the Transformer race, and, in a twist on the origin story we got way back in the More Than Meets the Eye 2012 Annual, a war amongst the founding Cybertronians left everyone pretty much unable to recognize or recall him. In the end, Rung remembers who he is and what he does — his alt mode creates Matrixes, powerful artifacts full of energy that can defeat the worst bad guys. And so Rung makes 12 of these bad boys to disrupt the 12 pressure points on the Functionist Cybertron, which has literally come to life and is trying to wipe out the rest of the universe in a horrifying case of metaphor-turned-flesh. But in a last, heartbreaking act, Rung imbues his energy artifacts with a message. No comic panel has ever broken me like this one. In tribute to Rung, here’s his theme song, about a broken relationship between parent and child that hopefully one day can be mended.
16. Camera Obscura – “Let’s Get out of This Country” (“end credits”)
Revealed by Roberts on the day of the final issue’s release, the author noted that this is the song he always imagined playing out over the credits as our crew sailed off into the distance. I don’t know what to say about the series’ ending that doesn’t spoil the book/would make sense in a paragraph, so I’ll just say that, regardless of what “really” happened, this is a pretty fitting swan song. Welllll, except…
17. The Smiths – “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” (Eric’s bonus)
Okay, so this song didn’t make the official MTMTE/LL soundtrack, somehow. Its presence is definitely felt in the last issue, and its title ends up being kind of literally true. And, coupled with the three panels above, this is how I’ll remember my favorite robots (in the end, to be certain, I’m Swerve). Bringing it back to Moz all seems fitting anyway.
I hope that, wherever our friends find themselves now, they’ll have plenty more emotive indie rock to soundtrack their adventures.
To James and all his artistic collaborators: thanks for everything.
You can read more from Eric Garneau over at his Medium page.