For kids who were first exposed to Transformers upon their 1984 debut, it was abundantly clear which side were the good guys and which were the baddies. The Autobots, led by the virtuous Optimus Prime, were heroes who would give their all to protect their new home planet of Earth and its human inhabitants. In contrast, the Decepticon forces were led by the evil Megatron, and cared little about any collateral damage that arose from their age-old feud with the Autobots.
Kids’ toy lines rarely concerned themselves with shades of gray, and this was particularly true in the case of the Transformers. Figures in the original toy line were branded as ‘Heroic Autobot’ or ‘Evil Decepticon,’ while the cartoon’s theme song declared “Autobots wage their battle to destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons.” As time progressed and the leadership of both sides repeatedly changed, this basic tenet remained true: At its heart, the Autobot/Decepticon conflict was one of good vs evil and heroes against villains. Characters on both sides may have became more well-rounded – thanks in no small part to Simon Furman’s immense contribution to Transformers comics – but the basic nature of the conflict seemed fixed.
Or so it seemed. But if lapsed fans delved into IDW’s current Transformers comics, they might be forgiven for reacting with some incredulity to what they found.
The Autobot/Decepticon war finally over; Megatron renouncing violence and donning an Autobot badge; Optimus Prime executing Galvatron and effectively annexing the Earth – the events portrayed in IDW’s comics over the last few years aren’t just for shock value or to generate outrage, they are a longer term examination of what it means not just to be an Autobot or Decepticon, but a citizen of Cybertron. The old badges and labels no longer apply in this brave new world. It speaks volumes for this new focus that the character whose actions are most easily defined as villainous in the current comics is Getaway, a ‘heroic Autobot.’
What has made this run of stories so fascinating is that with the end of the larger Autobot/Decepticon conflict, characters are finally getting the chance to define themselves as something other than fighters. For some, this means attempting to return to a way of life that they barely remember. For others it is about forging a new path, attempting to carve out a place for themselves in this new society. Starscream’s frequent attempts to gain leadership of the Decepticons may rarely have ended well for him, but his coronation as the ruler of Cybertron saw him cast in a new role; the backstabbing and intrigue of the political arena a perfect fit for him. And in his own way, Starscream does care about the wellbeing of both Autobot and Decepticon, even if that’s largely a pragmatic realization that what is good for Cybertron is also to his benefit.
The divide between Autobot and Decepticon was further blurred by the arrival of NAILs, or Non-Affiliated Indigenous Life-forms. After Cyberton was saved from the threat of D-Void, thousands of non-combatants returned to their homeworld for the first time in millions of years, and for this disparate mix of Cybertronians the ‘good guys’ in the conflict weren’t entirely clear. They returned to a Cybertron that had been devastated by millennia of war, and held both Autobot and Decepticon equally culpable. So great was their unrest that Optimus Prime voluntarily left Cybertron, knowing he would always be viewed by some as the living embodiment of a tremendously divisive conflict.
Prime’s self-exile foreshadowed the larger themes that took center stage when James Roberts and John Barber took the reigns of the ongoing titles. A recurring theme is not only whether characters want to change and are capable of it, but whether society will allow them to move beyond their familiar roles. We see this in Starscream trying to gain the population’s trust after a lifetime of betrayal and doubledealing. We see it in Optimus Prime’s attempt to lay down the burden of leadership and become Orion Pax once more. We see tentative attempts at cooperation and perhaps even friendship between some Autobots and Decepticons. And, most intriguingly of all, we see Megatron renounce violence and don the Autobot symbol of the deceased Bumblebee.
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