Most Transformers fans around the world, whether lifelong diehards like myself or more recent converts from material like IDW's uniformly excellent Transformers comics or the current Transformers: Robots In Disguise cartoon, will tell you that the live-action movies are either the worst thing to happen in the franchise's history or a handful of good core ideas, interesting (albeit occasionally racist) character designs, and undeniably incredible special effects buried under the direction of Michael Bay. Bay, in turn, is a genuine auteur (in the "has a distinctive style" sense of the word) who appears to have no affinity for the Transformers, other than as a vehicle to further his undeniable skill with CGI and action and further his glorification of the US military and fetishization of women.
Along with many other fans, I've come around to the latter position as I've grown up alongside these movies and realized that, yeah, there's a ton of issues with this series as a whole. That said, it's had an undeniable impact on how action films are made and, again, even with all the uncomfortable aspects about them, they're still highly compelling both as films and as a unique version of the Transformers mythos. But just what that version of the mythos IS is, again, buried under all the spectacle and offensiveness.
RELATED REVIEW: Transformers: The Last Knight Is a Michael Bay Clusterflick
With the release this past weekend of Transformers: The Last Knight -- which CBR's Kristy Puchko beautifully described as an enjoyable enough "clusterflick," and I found to be twenty minutes of exciting action and a hilarious butler robot and 100+ minutes of over-edited nonsense and a plot so convoluted Wikipedia couldn't help me make sense of it -- I realized it was time to dig into the many myriad prequels, sequels, interquels and adaptations IDW Publishing released for the first three Transformers films, and see how they told the story of the "Bayformers" (to use a fan term).
IDW had been publishing Transformers comics for two years when it kicked things off with 2007's Transformers: Movie Prequel, a four-issue miniseries setting up the immediate backstory to the first film. Written by the granddaddy of Transformers writers Simon Furman from a story by Furman and IDW editor-in-chief Chris Ryall, with art by longtime TF artist and toy designer Don Figueroa, letters by Robbie Robbins and colors by Mark Bristow and Josh Burcham (longtime Transformers colorist), it shows events leading directly up to the first movie, and it's a solid little effort that sets up three trends that reoccur in these comics: the designs and looks of the Bayformers make cohesive visual sense, all the robots have actual personality, and all the military stuff is interesting and compelling instead of nonsensical and boring.
That was followed by Transformers: The Official Movie Adaptation, written by Kris Oprisko, drawn by Alex Milne (who went on to draw the majority of More Than Meets The Eye) and colored by Josh Perez and Lisa Moore. Released weekly in the month up to the first film's 4th of July weekend release, the story's short length means it's much more condensed than the movie. While there's the occasional rushed-looking panel, again, it's its more coherent visuals make for more comprehensible story beats. Plus, seeing as how this is based on an earlier version of the script, there's no scene of Bumblebee peeing oil on John Turturro. So, y'know, small favors.
Milne and Perez remained on art duties for an immediate comics sequel to the movie, The Reign of Starscream, written and lettered by Chris Mowry (who would continue in these capacities for many subsequent Bayformers comics) with a writing assist from Ryall. Picking up on the first film's end reveal that Decepticon second-in-command Starscream survived the climatic battle, Reign sees him trying to rally other Decepticons under him, on both Earth and Mars. Here, Milne's art is still clear, but Perez's slightly muddled coloring, coupled with the overall busyness of the Bayformers designs, makes some portions hard to read. The load of new characters introduced -- many of them, like subsequent movie-verse comics, didn't appear onscreen, but did get toys -- is neat, but their names are said so rarely, it's hard to recall who's who. Still, there's a funny bit where Starscream takes an army guy hostage before he leaves for Mars, but since he doesn't know anything about human physiology, he flies too fast and the guy's head explodes.
When the PR machine for Revenge of the Fallen geared up, naturally, more comics were made. This is actually when most of IDW's Bayformers comics were produced because Revenge of the Fallen, as the wonderful TFWiki documents, had literally a gabillion tie-ins. Most of these were written and lettered by Chris Mowry, whose scripts drove home the sheer alien single-mindedness with which the TFs were created in this continuity -- they were created as servants for the first Thirteen Transformers, who in turn had no purpose but to feed the Allspark energy from destroying suns.
They also explain and reinforce the bonds that the military guys in NEST (played by Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson and others, in the films) and the Autobots grow to share. While the gung-ho attitude toward killing Optimus and co. is still kinda annoying, Mowry, Milne and Perez reinforce just why it exists in the prequel miniseries Transformers: Alliance. That story -- detailing the formation of NEST, plots by Starscream, Soundwave and new Decepticon Wreckage and the arrival of cool Autobots that you only see for like two minutes in Revenge -- introduces another recurring theme in these comics: That the Autobots, having done nothing but fight for millions of years, are too traumatized to adapt to any other way of life, so they throw themselves wholeheartedly into destruction for the good of their new home (which ties into the reading of these films as pro-military power fantasy).
Mowry, Perez and artists Dan Khanna, Andrew Griffith, Figueroa and John Wycough's Transformers: Defiance arrived at the same time, a fun prequel that explains how Megatron came to be corrupted, and actually, clearly explains the nonsensical "sun harvesting machine inside a pyramid" bit from Revenge. Mowry and Furman also split scripting duties for a series of one-shots collected as Transformers: Tales of The Fallen -- with art by Carlos Magno and Milne and colors by Perez and Moose Baumann -- that give backstory to cool Autobots like Sideswipe, Jolt and Arcee (though Arcee being made a powerless victim of surgery, as she was in IDW's main TF continuity, rankles). Magno's art, like Milne, captures the fluid machinery of the films...but it also mimics the up-close camera angles that tend to obscure just who is who.
The four-issue adaptation of Revenge itself was scripted by Furman, drawn by Milne and Jon Davis-Hunt, and colored by Kris Carter and Perez and it's pretty damn impressive that what's widely considered to be the worst blockbuster film of the 21st century due to, among other things, heading into production without a finished script, can be salvaged by a comic adaptation, but that's Furman for you. The final film's stupid love story and 90% of the "humor" of the racist Autobot caricatures Skids and Mudflap is gone, replaced by a more classic Transformers vibe combined with Bayformers bombast, anchored by Davis-Hunt and Milne's art styles, which mesh really well when unified by Carter and Perez's crisp coloring.
Furman, along with Magno, Carter and additional colorist Andrew Dalhouse, worked on Transformers: Nefarious, an immediate sequel to Fallen focusing on the Autobots teaming up with Decepticon Soundwave and Theodore Gallaway, aka the annoying guy that got pushed out of a plane (with a parachute!) in the movie, to deal with a mysterious group called the Initiative that tries to recreate the AllSpark for their own ends. It's a bit of a retread of the first two films, but Carter and Dalhouse's colors are bright and clean, which help Magno's art shine. Furman, as happens a lot with this particular brand of comic, brings a lot of toy-only characters onboard with little introduction, so again, labels would help (and that's coming from someone who asked for a lesser-known version of Blurr to be painted on his bedroom wall as a child).
The final era of Bayformers comics for Dark of the Moon began with 2010's Transformers: Sector 7, a 5-issue mini that saw John Barber (current writer of Optimus Prime, and IDW's answer to Mark Gruenwald) come onboard as writer, and honestly, these are where the movieverse comics really move beyond merely improving upon their source material. Telling the backstory of the shadowy government organization from the first film and how they discovered Megatron frozen in the Arctic, Barber and his artistic cohorts (Joe Suitor, Chee Yang Ong, Lou Kang, Jon Davis-Hunt and colorists Andrew Crossley and David Aravera) tell probably the most compelling human story in TF lore, period. An impressive blend of both retconning the inconsistencies of the movies and comics into one timeline and the most compelling, least jingoistic take on the franchise's 'ancient aliens" conceit, this shows just how tragic keeping such a huge secret from the world can have on people, told with wonderful art that showcases each artist's particular strengths while having a unified look; I especially liked Suitor's stunning screentones, particularly the arctic scenes in the first issue.
Barber then tried an interesting experiment with Transformers: Foundation, a four-issue mini with Griffity and colorist Priscilla Tramantano that showed Optimus and Megatron's early days co-ruling Cybertron on the advisement of their mentor, Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy in Moon) and Megatron's subsequent fall from grace, framed around a climatic one-on-one showdown of the two ex-brothers shortly before the Allspark was launched into space. With chapters switching between Optimus and Megatron's POVs, this is an absolutely gripping read, albeit with a rushed ending.
Barber then brought Magno back onboard for Rising Storm, an immediate sequel to Nefarious which is all about the coldly logical Decepticon Shockwave arriving on Earth and kicking off a brutal onslaught of a comic that moves too fast for its own good -- proof, yet again, that Bayhem just doesn't really work on the page. Also, the muddy coloring by Aburtov and Graphikslava doesn't do Magno's art any favors.
Barber also penned what is to date the final IDW comic basedin the movie-verse, an adaptation of Dark of The Moon drawn by Jorge Jiminez Moreno, colored by Romulo Fajardo and Zac Anderson, and lettered by Chris Mowry and Shawn Lee. With Barber taking the extra step of making sure this lines up with Foundation, Rising Storm and Nefarious and all the character development therein, this has more weight than the movie does but the ending, as is onscreen, is still very abrupt. Moreno's art isn't bad but his manga-esque faces all sort of look the same and it gets a little Marvel Mangaverse-esque at times.
The reason there have been no Bayformers comics since 2011 (again, excepting the UK stuff), all comes down to an accidental spoiler. See, when the trade of the DOTM adaptation was thrown up for pre-order on Amazon, one of the preview pages showed Sentinel Prime's heel turn and his murder of Ironhide. Irritated, Bay requested that there be no more comics in order to prevent that happening again. Not wanting to kill the goose that lays the explosive eggs, Hasbro pulled the plug.
It's a shame, really. By far, these comics are a much more interesting and enjoyable take on the themes and look of the movies, similar to the excellent Transformers: Prime cartoon. For the most part, they had measured pacing, excellent, clear art and more substantial takes on all the characters, human and robot alike. And, believe me, after sitting through the cacophonous mess of The Last Knight, movieverse fans don't know how good they used to have it.