Transformers – Drift: Origins & Empires – Comic Review

Drift is a polarising figure in contemporary Transformers canon – is he a ‘stereotypical badass fan-created character with Japanese/ninja facets for maximum awesomeness’, as TFWiki claims, or a gently comic hippie who can also cleave fools in twain as realised by writer James Roberts in the Lost Light ongoing series?

As you make your way through Origins and Empires you’ll see that the answer is both – Drift has evolved considerably during his tenure on IDW Publishing, from an achingly cheesy gritty loner right through to a slightly batty spiritualist. This tracks with the evolution of the character within the continuity, too, from his early days as merciless Decepticon butcher Deadlock through a moral awakening and rebirth as samurai-influenced Drift.

Origins and Empires is 220 pages of the guy so you’ll have plenty of time to get to know his many idiosyncrasies, covering the Spotlight that first introduced him and the duo of four-part miniseries Transformers: Drift and Drift: Empire of Stone. The writer-artists team of McCarthy and Guidi is consistent across all three titles, lending vital visual and written continuity to a lengthy time period within one character’s existence.

The Spotlight story has Drift cross paths with Kup, here in his more entertaining cigar-chomping warrior guise, with Kup trying to uncover the mystery of the apparently factionless Cybertronian busy hacking up Decepticon soldiers like one of the good guys.They’re on the same mission – to free a clutch of Autobot prisoners from a Decepticon prison vessel – but as things go south Drift is outed by his former comrades as the infamous Deadlock.

It’s fast-paced, kinetic stuff as ‘bots are blasted to slag from all angles, a tone in keeping with the darker edge All Hail Megatron and the Autocracy Trilogy brought to IDW. It also follows the lead of Autocracy in terms of widening and exploring the backstory of the Transformers universe by discussing the existence of a third Cybertronian faction – abstainers from the Great War long thought extinct.

Drift chews his way through the story with gritted teeth, surviving a showdown with former comrade Turmoil and earning himself a spot on a new unit Kup is putting together. Classic origin story stuff, hitting all the usual beats – troubled past, thirst for redemption and even a Boss Fight to cap off the journey. Good stuff? Yeah, enjoyable enough. Nothing stellar but that’s more down to the volume of cliches Drift was saddled with in his early days than the story itself.

The next story covers the Drift miniseries and deep dives into his regeneration from Deadlock to Drift. And hoo boy, Deadlock was kind of a tool in every way possible. Again, tropes abound as we open with Deadlock snarling his way through an Autobot massacre designed to give him plenty of development room from dark to light, with a splash of disobedience for extra cruelty thrown in.

Captured by his own squad for executing a fellow soldier, Deadlock escapes and goes on the run, crashing on a distant planet and stumbling upon a hidden base while he thinks back to his pre-Decepticon life as a gutter rat, living rough on the streets of Cybertron – back when his name was Drift, confusingly.

The story pushes you hard to feel sympathy for him, in that disquieting way so much Western storytelling seeks to redeem the irredeemable, but just a few pages earlier we watched this guy shooting unarmed Autobots point blank in the face. Makes his situation a little hard to feel empathy for.

We rapidly tumble through Deadlock encountering Wing, a member of the Circle of Light – the hidden, factionless group of Cybertronians keeping out of the Great War – who obligingly rebuild his shattered body after Deadlock assists in breaking up a base of slave traders (and gets his butt flattened like a T-800 in a steelworks press for his troubles).

Hanging out in the Crystal City that the Circle call home, the newly-christened Drift bashes heads with ideaologic leader Dai Atlas, forced to defend his past as he attempts to see things the Circle’s way. Flashbacks show how Drift found his way into the Decepticons after encountering the same oppressive regime that lead Orion Pax to rebel against the Iacon leadership (which set him on the path to becoming Optimus Prime), becoming ‘Deadlock’ in the process.

Something these late-2000s IDW titles did an excellent job of is applying politics to the world of the Transformers, presenting Autobot and Decepticon as differing sides of the same problem rather than black and white, good vs. evil. The Autobots were working for corrupt, ruthless leaders which indirectly sparked the rebellion that gave rise to the Decepticons, and a great deal of panels have gone into exploring how this came about that allows readers to sympathise with both sides of the war. That’s no mean feat for a comic book about robots that turn into things.

Drift is almost blackmailed into selling out the Crystal City but sides with his new allies instead, courtesy of a moral epiphany that the Circle are the ones who understand his own internal struggle against the War. It builds to an expansive showdown between the outnumbered Circle warriors and a combined attacking force of Drift’s old Decepticon comrades and the vengeful slave traders, with several gloriously colourful pages evoking one-sided battles from classic Japanese cinema.

Again, it’s a familiar story – villain is swayed to the side of good and fights to defend it against his old unit – and even sneaks in an inspirational death to drive our various ‘bots’ motivations along. Ultimately, however, it cements Drift as a much more likeable character than the mess of cliches in Spotlight, even if his character needed further development to reach his final potential.

That fruits of that development can be appreciated fully in the final story, Empire of Stone, which catches up with Drift after his time aboard the Lost Light. He’s back to his old ways of rolling round the cosmos smacking Decepticons about, when he encounters Autobot medic Ratchet, on his own mission to bring Drift back to the Lost Light.

Before that, Drift gets dragged into a battle against the appallingly-named Gigatron, one of those overpowered, deluded pantomime villains the Transformers canon is littered with. Gigatron wants to bring an ancient stone army to life that Drift accidentally uncovered back in his Decepticon days, and after escaping custody Drfit is compelled to foil Gigatron’s plans, knowing first hand the power of the stone warriors.

More of the self-aware humour of James Roberts’ writing for Drift on Lost Light shines through in Shane McCarthy’s script throughout, almost calling out the stereotypical moral code Drift adheres to even in the face of logic and reason. The story of stopping Gigatron’s plans is basically the ‘B’ plot here – this is about Drift finding his way back to being part of a team again, something he thought lost.

After a spectacularly unsurprising heel turn by Gigatron’s lackey Hellbat to try and take control of the stone army, and an even less surprising ‘enemy of my enemy’ team up with Gigatron (who admittedly turns into an impressive two-headed dragon because Transformers), the last quarter of the story is an extended showdown in the temple housing the army. Plenty of backstabs and heroic moments, particularly by gradually-reforming Decepticon comedy foil Grit, leave Hellbat and Gigatron buried under rubble along with their army.

Allowing Drift a final moment to bemoan how his path keeps trying to push him to return to killing, Ratchet wins his case and Drift agrees to rejoin the Lost Light. A parting shot showing Grit abandoning his Decepticon insignia is a neat coda to the affair, a thematic parallel with the actions of the Resistance inspiring the galaxy during the events of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

If you can forgive the unoriginal base storylines, the character work here does an excellent job of highlighting Drift’s progression through several distinct personalities, and gives a lot of page time to each step. When he first debuted, Drift was met with heavy criticism, much like Windblade, but by sticking to him and working hard to find his true potential, the writers at IDW have given us a terrific character and one who is now a welcome addition to any title.

You won’t remember a lot of the detail of Origins and Empires after you finish it, but every time you see Drift you’ll understand the guy a whole heck of a lot better.

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