Comics

Transformers: Autocracy Trilogy – Comic Review

Written by Chris Metzen & Flint Dille; art by Livio Ramondelli

Once upon a time, Optimus Prime and Megatron stood side-by-side to take down one of the biggest threats to Cybertron’s long, frequently threatened existence. They punch! They shoot! They quip! It’s everything you wish you’d been brave enough to do with your toys as a youngster, sacrilege be damned.

That alone is a selling point of this hefty collected edition of the AutocracyMonstrosity and Primacy limited series, but that would be a disservice to the other 300+ pages of subterfuge, conflict and delicious reworkings of established lore.

To cover the plot details in very quick summaries, Autocracy charts the development of troubled Iacon enforcer Orion Pax into Autobot leader Optimus Prime, by way of tackling sociopathic despot Zeta Prime and the populist uprising led by cold-hearted revolutionary Megatron.

Prime battles political machinations within the corrupt ruling senate, leading to his forging a temporary alliance with Megatron to bring down Zeta. The treacherous despot has other plans, however, unveiling a terrifying energy weapon that drains the very energon from any ‘bot in its path. After his defeat, Megatron’s forces temporarily seize power before the reborn Optimus Prime leads a revolt of his own, battering Megatron and forcing his Decepticons to flee the planet.

While the narrow panels of Ramondelli’s artwork frequently squash these steel giants into uncomfortably restrictive layouts, Autocracy contains plenty of fist-pumping sequences and callbacks to satisfy any reader keen to see the untold story of Cybertron before the full-scale, millions of years of war between Autobot and Decepticon.

This all takes place before the warring sides arrived on Earth, so it’s old-school, retro-futuristic alt modes aplenty. Iconic moments from the very first comic and cartoon runs are faithfully homaged – particularly Prime and Megatron’s titanic final tussle – and while plot points such as Hot Rod’s reluctant bombing of an entire city jar considerably with the current iteration of the character (as seen in Lost Light), once things start exploding and the precarious house of cards collapses on both sides, things roll to a satisfying conclusion.

The significantly darker Monstrosity takes longer to get going, but builds along similar beats on its way to another titanic showdown – this time between literal titans. Thankfully, series co-writers Chris Metzen and Flint Dille maintain the consistency of quality across all three serials, and this helps keep the flow of storytelling from start to finish.

The story shifts between a weary Optimus trying to keep a fragile peace on Cybertron, Scorponok’s ruthless rise to lead the Decepticons and Megatron’s resurrection on the death world of Junkion. Again, we’re deliberately hitting beats from established continuity such as 1986’s Transformers: The Movie, but this is very much in the same mold as the reimagined Battlestar Galactica or even Star Wars: The Force Awakens. All of this has happened before, and will happen again. When Prime speaks to city-sized Titan Metroplex, seeking advice on his complex situation, the slumbering giant hints at a cyclical mythology that will doubtless be mined and explored in future tales.

The various moving parts take their time to coalesce, with Ramondelli’s art taking on a rain-slick, cyber-noir feel in accordance with the sombre tone and steady pace. Grimlock and the Dinobots are reinvented here as independent rogues hiding a terrible secret, and a reappearance of the Quintessons, Sharkticons and Junkions maintains the grim atmosphere of Megatron’s slow trudge back to power.

Comparisons can be drawn between this run and Simon Furman’s legendary The War Within series, which also focused on a pre-Great War Cybertron, but the ignominious end to Dreamwave’s time with the Transformers license sadly shunts all associated canon into the same black hole as the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Also, screw Pat Lee.

After Scorponok detonates a refinery, blowing a literal hole in Cybertron, the panicked populace start fleeing the planet in increasing numbers, while the Decepticons make a startling discovery – the sleeping Titan Trypticon, who Scorponok quickly sets loose on a rampage across the planet.

Things go full on kaiju at this point, with the Godzilla-esque Trypticon demolishing a large chunk of the planet before the combined efforts of the Autobots bring it down. It’s a welcome release of energy, punctuated by Megatron’s return and hugely satisfying disposal of Scorponok. Who is, let’s face it, kind of a dick anyway in this story.

The story ends on a surprising downbeat moment, with an unusually respectful Megatron allowing the battered Autobots to depart and lick their wounds. It’s the Empire Strikes Back point of the trilogy, with our heroes achieving a phyrric victory at best and the Decepticons needing only to wait for their next opportunity to attack.

All of which leads us to the supersized four-part Primacy, which charts the return of the Decepticons and a final struggle for the soul of Cybertron.

The artwork here takes on a cleaner, crisper style, perhaps to help balance the similar colour styles of the various Decepticon units Megatron gathers to his cause, an all-star ‘getting the band back together’ of the galaxy’s most lethal robots.

Again we have a concurrent, branched narrative – Prime’s rehabilitation leading him to encounter the last surviving Omega Sentinel, last seen under the command of Zeta Prime razing the planet to the ground. Megatron now shares a spark with the reborn Trypticon, taking to the stars in the Titan’s city mode to set up his grand assault.

And what a slam bang it is, as Metroplex struggles into his mighty robot form to duke it out with Trypticon, delivering an epic kerb stomp to the towering beast before a sneak attack (namely a missile-shaped spaceship impaling him mid-fight, which feels kinda rude) takes Metroplex out of the fight. The confined panels of Autocracy are jettisoned here in favour of glorious splash pages, managing to make the white and grey respective colour schemes of the Titans pop despite the otherwise drab palette.

There’s a defiant, tragic last stand quality to the Autobots’ attempt to hold off Megatron’s forces, with tactical plays at a scale these comics rarely have room to use. Beset by acid rain, a swarm of Sharkticons and cannibalistic Junkions, the ‘bots are whittled down under the relentless onslaught, and it’s exactly the kind of high-stakes drama any good battle should roll around in. You know your favourites will survive, but gosh darn it if it doesn’t look like hard work for them.

Victory for Megatron! Again! Well, briefly, before he realises Trypticon’s spark has been corrupted by Pentius, the Quintesson he encountered during the events of Monstrosity, threatening to start a wave of destruction that will ravage the universe if left unchecked.

The battle moves into its final stages, with the long-running friction between Grimlock and Hot Rod delivering a predictable but still pleasing team-up, and Grimlock delivering a bona fide one-liner boss fight kill that steals the whole show. That is, until Prime and Megatron face off again – Megatron desperately trying to purge Trypticon of Pentius’ spark – and drop energy weapons into their hands in a direct callback to their iconic battle in Transformers: The Movie. Maybe you need to be a child of the 80s to fully understand that, but if “One shall stand… one shall fall” doesn’t give you shivers then frankly I’m impressed you made it this deep into the review.

Optimus burns Pentius from Megatron with a quick blast of Matrix power, because he’s the kind of ‘bot who’d help out his nemesis if it was the Right Thing To Do, before laying out Megatron with his own pithy one-liner. Job done, Decepticons on the run, Cybertron safe and there’s no way this could possibly lead to another four million years of war OH WAIT THAT’S WHAT HAPPENS spoilers.

The Autocracy Trilogy, much like the recent Dark Cybertron or All Hail Megatron collections, works fantastically well as a consecutive run of stories. When delivered monthly it had plenty of room for crushing cliffhangers, particularly in the last third of the first two serials, but being able to flow seamlessly from page to page really hits home the mythic, gods and monsters heights of storytelling that great Transformers stories always aim for.

There are times when slavish attention to detail in ‘bot designs feels forced or anachronistic, or when the callbacks, homages and references feel like fan service instead of loving recollections, but the strength of storytelling makes these moments occasional nitpicks and no more than that.

If you want to add backstory to the characters you know and love, see plenty of devastating scraps between Transformers who often get overlooked, or yet another set of showdowns between Prime and Megatron somehow made to feel fresh and exciting, then the Autocracy Trilogy comes heartily recommended.

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