It’s a story as old as time, or at least 1984- warring factions of a robotic alien race get stranded on Earth. But it’s time for another reboot of this story, this time written and drawn by Daniel Warren Johnson so you know that it’s going to include action and wrestling. But if you’ve read other things from Johnson like Wonder Woman: Dead Earth, Do A Powerbomb, or Space Mullets, you also know that you can expect some heart and gut punches from his storytelling. His new Transformers #1 (spun out from some Robert Kirkman book or another) moves at a breakneck pace, establishing characters and conflicts that more hint at where his comic is going than pave any new ground for these more-than-meets-the-eye characters.
This issue functions not as a reimagining of the Transformers story but as a reestablishing of it. There are the familiar elements of Autobots versus Decepticons, of the survivors of this far-off war being revived on Earth to continue their fighting, and of regular humans being drawn into these battles. Whether it’s been in comics or movies before this, these are the standard elements of a Transformers story— the price of admission that any creator has to pay. Johnson steps up excitedly to take his shot at this narrative championship belt, knowing the beats he has to hit to satisfy either some vocal fandom and/or corporate overseers. There’s little room for deviation or originality here; this is far from some great reconceptualization of this robotic story. If you squint enough, this looks like the same story we’ve always gotten, just with a new paint job.
Johnson layers in a few surprises, a few unique notes that hint at some grander story possible here. The first page alone, recalling the opening of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman, tries to tell a big backstory in just a handful of wordless panels. It’s big, ambitious storytelling that’s exciting to see in this comic because it promises what we’re going to see more of in this comic and this series. It is the kind of big swing that you want and expect from Johnson when he’s got an audience like this series is going to get.
After that one-page recap/introduction, Johnson pulls back from the big story, focusing on a father and a son who have experienced trauma in their past. The old man spends his day drinking to forget a tragedy while his son Spike tries to figure out how to tell his father that he wants to go to school at Berkeley. Even in this big, cosmic story, there is still room for this human to balance out the robot-on-robot action. This is a move out of the Bill Mantlo manual for writing books based on toys. Look at his Rom or his Micronauts and there was always a more personal story being told amid a much larger and fantastical canvas. He did it in his Incredible Hulk run as well- finding a grounded human perspective in these stories about monsters and aliens.
This story about a boy wanting to leave home is then contrasted against the story of a race who has lost their home and cannot go back. Spike and his friend Carly, who’s having her struggles figuring out how to leave home, discover an ancient spaceship buried in a mountain. Making their way inside the spaceship, they find the inert bodies of the Transformers. Also making that discovery is one of the aliens’ own, Jetfire, who has found his people after his own time of being lost. He was on a quest to find an energy quest for his people but after he left, the Transformers fell into a civil war, with warriors from both sides being on this ship. As he revives them, he unknowingly revives their war and fighting.
With that, here comes part of the problem with stories about giant robots— how do you make them anything other than the mechanical constructs they are? Whether they change into semi trucks, fighter planes, or a boom-box, these big, bulky creatures are just that. Johnson struggles with making them something other than the inanimate toys that they’re based on, with body parts becoming indistinguishable in battle. There’s a point where one of the good robots (Optimus Prime) is wrestling with one of the bad robots (Starscream) that should play perfectly to Johnson’s interests and strengths. His last comic was all about wrestling. But the fight falls flat because the big move (after several rereads, you can figure out that it’s a backward bodyslam) just becomes a jumble of shapes and lines that don’t mean anything. It should be this cool and fun moment but it instead reads as confusing and weak.
But there are still some intriguing moments between the robots here, mostly fueled by Jetfire’s disorientation at the moment. His relationship with these fighting sides, his mission that took him away before the big conflict, and his guilt for not being able to do more feel like a story in and of itself. It’s a given that at some point this series is going to have to explore the events that led up to this issue and Jeftire’s perspective of events would be fascinating, far more fascinating than alien robots just punching and shooting each other.
Daniel Warren Johnson’s Transformers #1 is built on promise and potential. It ends up being more intriguing than it is good which isn’t a bad thing for a first issue. It gives you reasons to check out the next issue. Johnson puts so much into this issue, showing all of these conflicts, both personal and alien, that maps out where this story could go. Hopefully this series will be able to live up to that potential.