The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye made me cry. Yes, it’s about Transformers. No, the title is not a trick. A “sitcom, soap opera and space mystery,” in the words of Sequart Organization, the ongoing comic book series from Hasbro and IDW publishing has much more to do with relationships, mistakes and breaking its readers’ hearts than it does action or toys.
Written by James Roberts, a surprisingly fit man from England, More than Meets the Eye (commonly known as “MTMTE”) explores issues of love, loss, religion, war and prejudice in a world based around giant transforming robots from outer space.
What makes More than Meets the Eye different from other Transformers media is, at its simplest, that it’s not about war. The hallmark of Transformers, the eternal war between the heroic Autobots and evil Decepticons, is over. So what do war toys do in peacetime?
The premise of the series involves a band of Autobots setting off into space to find the legendary Knights of Cybertron, their ancient ancestors. But the thing is, the comic’s not really about that; in the words of one character, “all you do is argue, crack jokes, and get sidetracked doing pointless, silly things that only you find amusing!”
A lighthearted attitude seems ill-fitting for a franchise about cars and trucks that shoot each other, which is exactly what Roberts tries to dispel in his comic.
Roberts told Sequart Organization in an interview: “I was very keen to send that message out into the world because I don’t think the type of casual comic book readers we wanted to attract were aware that Transformers can do lighthearted, frothy stories (at this point I should add that the lightheartedness and froth was, of course, just a cover to disguise the drama and pain underneath).”
That’s what MTMTE does, see—it lures you in with witty dialogue and colorful characters then snaps your heart over its knee.
Unlike pretty much any other Transformers media out there, MTMTE is completely about characters. The quest backdrop of the series is visited once in a blue moon; roughly 99% of the comic is dedicated instead to developing its ensemble of characters and their relationships. To the joy of many fans, the characters are all robots. Human characters, who typically serve as reader surrogates, are entirely absent. In this comic, for all intents and purposes, the Transformers are the humans.
Most Transformers stories are stories that characters are inserted into; More than Meets the Eye starts with characters and makes stories around them.
Speaking on the comic’s themes with Sequart Organization, James Roberts said: “MTMTE is very much an emotional comic, with nearly all the stories being driven by the decisions characters make—and they’re usually bad decisions.”
He adds, “It’s an optimistic quest, and optimism is at the heart of the book. True, you might sometimes have to dig through layers of cynicism and even nihilism to get to it, but underpinning the broader story arc, as unfashionable as it may be, is that sense of hope.”
Two of the most central characters to the comic are a pair of robots Chromedome and Rewind, who have drawn much attention for being the first gay married Transformers in official publication.
Once again, Roberts bucks expectation in giving us, well, robots who love. “I’ve never had a problem with Transformers loving each other because—and it really is a simple argument—if they can hate each other (and a four million year long civil war is ample evidence of hate), they can experience the opposite emotion,” Roberts told Sequart.
Transformers comics are not a new invention—they’ve existed since the inception of the toyline in 1984, published by Marvel Comics as an exclusive miniseries whose success stretched it into an ongoing publication. For the most part, Transformers comics for the last 30 years have been pretty predictable: action-packed toy catalogs with hammy writing told to stories and art meant to sell the latest new plastic wonder on the shelves. Even media marketed towards an older nostalgia-based audience have been somewhat lackluster in their appeal. This all changed when Roberts took the wheel.
MTMTE “begins” somewhat before its official premiere, through an IDW-published miniseries called Last Stand of the Wreckers. The miniseries was originally planned to be both written and drawn by artist Nick Roche, but the workload proved too much; Roche suggested that IDW bring fellow childhood fan and close friend James Roberts, an aspiring writer, into the project.
The results were promising. Wreckers was critically acclaimed after years of lukewarm reception towards IDW’s Transformers offerings. The catalyst of success seemed to be Roberts, whose flair for dialogue and worldbuilding lent the IDW Transformers universe a gripping appeal.
Hoping to repeat the success of Wreckers, IDW hired James Roberts to be the series writer for one of two sister series. Originally planned to be titled Robots in Disguise, discussions over the themes of the comic led to a switching of the titles: More than Meets the Eye, it would be so appropriately dubbed.
MTMTE essentially starts from a clean slate, despite sitting atop nearly a decade of published material. The majority of its characters have had essentially no coverage in previous Transformers fiction, making them blank canvases for the rich, drip-fed character development that Roberts so loves to provide.
And that development builds up some characters that I promise you will come to know and love. In Roberts’ words, “most of us are a bit misshapen, personality wise; we’re scuffed around the edges and (even if it’s only deep down) we don’t think too much of ourselves. But we recognise that the world around us is more good than bad, we keep faith in other people, and we soldier on. And that’s the (probably cheesy) message at the heart of MTMTE.”