So I’ve been toying with the idea of writing some kind of article on IDW’s The Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Season 2 for some time. Following on from the runaway success that was the first iteration, the series was shaken up in a big way with new characters, new focus and stories dealing with more directly human elements than I think any other aspect of the franchise. This led to the series being (relatively) more heavily critiqued than the previous and I’d be dishonest not to say that there weren’t some elements I personally might change, if I had a magic time briefcase. But I don’t and overall I think the comic remains the standard bearer for excellence in non-mainstream comic books (with its sister series The Transformers [nee Robots In Disguise] setting a solid standard for political drama and lunatic old people). That said there’s not much I can say about this series as a whole that hasn’t already been said. What I can do is discuss what I consider to be possibly the greatest character success in the history of The Transformers, the development of and conclusion to the character arc of Megatron, Autobot captain. So let’s talk robo-Lenin, his shaky beginnings and what makes him arguably one of the strongest and most successful villain to anti-hero transitions of recent years.
A Voyage Upon Rough Seas
Insert Evil Villain Dialogue No. 34
From the outset it was rough going. Megatron was introduced in Infiltration, the first of four mini-series by robot guru Simon Furman. This era was notable for its serious and semi-realistic approach to…alien robots who turn into guns, and for a much stronger emphasis on plot over character development. While everyone suffered a little in what is in my opinion a flawed but crucial exercise in deep world building, Megatron took it on the chin more than most. His introduction in the final issues of Infiltration was a fairly bland affair, serving to shake things up while laying the ground work for the conflict for further stories. Megatron himself was a plot device with a fairly one dimensional “Cobra Commander in G.I. Joe Revolution” approach to things. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t exactly hooking me. As the next mini-series Escalation kicked off, Megatron began a slow slip into his role as fairly unimportant threat and/or screaming lunatic. In a world where the dead were rising to encompass the entire universe and artificial juggernauts leveled planets, a guy with a grasp of military protocol who wastes the ultimate fuel source on allowing himself to become teeny tiny is something of an underwhelming threat. It says a lot that by the fourth Furman series, Megatron had stopped being a major factor in the story, with his team on Earth disappearing from the pages as the focus moved to space. It was a rocky start yet in this era was also the laying of the foundation for the Megatron we know today.
Obligatory Game of Thrones reference.
Eric Holmes, talented writer and avid Grant Morrison cosplayer, was hired by Dreamwave (then license holder for Transformers) to produce a 6 issue mini-series that told of how Megatron went from gladiator to warlord. Unfortunately, Dreamwave had a few awkward quirks (theft, non-payment of debts, tax evasion, nothing big) and the series was never produced. In 2007, as IDW continued to focus on building its new universe, Eric was given a second chance to get his series published under the name of Megatron: Origin. The finished product was trimmed down to 4 issues and is noteworthy for introducing readers to the art work of Alex Milne, someday Transformers mega star and a man capable of killing a grizzly with his bare hands. While the series was problematic, in no small part due to the editing required to fit it into the smaller format, it laid the ground work for Megatron as a sympathetic figure. Introduced as a simple miner who’s accidental killing of a guard set him on a path of revolution, it was the kindest portrayal of the character at the time. Sadly, the formatting issues resulted in a more rushed experience then was hoped and the series has a somewhat mixed reputation (one-time editor Andy Schmidt and writer Mike Costa suggested exorcising it from the canon entirely).
Suuuuuure Megatron, suuuuure.
Megatron’s next great adventure was in the somewhat misleadingly titled maxiseries All Hail Megatron, which told of an Earth under Megatron’s literally iron boot. The series opened with the quite fascinating concept that Megatron had never properly planned for a victory and now had a few hundred psychopaths running around murdering people for no good reason. Unfortunately, the series spent very little time focusing on the hailing of Megatron, instead killing random military people and having Ironhide punch everyone within a hundred miles. The final issues, regarded by some as a triumph and by me as a travesty, threw out a massive “AH HA!” as Megatron was in fact in a super awesome genius who actively WANTED Starscream to prove his worth by murdering him and taking control. For me this was a face palming back pedaling that by the end had re-established a fairly boring status quo of Megatron being right and Starscream being wrong. The series ended with Megatron getting shot in the face by future colossal unbearable asshat Spike Witwicky and being presumed dead.
Now that’s an awkward first date.
We then move into what is inarguably the roughest period for IDW. Following on from AHM , a new ongoing simply titled The Transformers was produced, with art by Don Figueroa and writing by Mike Costa. The series was poorly received with character writing and art being HEAVILY criticized. Things improved marginally in the second half but the series is infamous in the fandom. Megatron was reintroduced in issue 13, sporting a brand new anime mecha stealth bomber body (who’s use in the series turned out to be super dodgy) and having a plan. A big winding and deeply confusing plan. Turning humans against Optimus Prime seemingly because he could and allowing himself to be captured for…reasons (reasons that were only slightly explained in later issues and were pretty weak even then). It was not a strong return to form for him. His presence was felt in a positive way during the exquisite mini-series Last Stand of the Wreckers but it was not until the two parter Chaos Theory that we realised where this character could be taken in the right hands. Writer and long-time fan James Roberts, who co-wrote LSOTW with actual rock idol Nick Roche, wrote a story focusing primarily on something almost unheard of: Optimus Prime and Megatron sitting down for a real, in depth conversation. It was sublime. While I ultimately feel it was a more of a Prime story than a Megatron one, we were introduced to some wonderfully deep concepts. Megatron is re-imagined as an advocate of societal change in his pre-Origins days, publishing his writings on the need to replace a corrupt class based system and advocating the use of peaceful resistance. Falsely arrested in the middle of a bar brawl, Megatron is introduced to brutality and the first seeds of what was in his view the necessity of violent upheaval in civil re-organization were sowed. In the modern day we see Megatron as quite possibly the closest thing Optimus has to a soul mate, having left a strong impression on him when he was still named Orion Pax and serving as someone with the possibly deepest understanding of Prime in the modern day. Brilliantly we also see how far Megatron has fallen in his declaration that killing in itself has become the ends, not the means. It was a powerful piece of writing and one that set the stage for things to come.
The Second Phase
The old man’s back again.
With the end of Mike Costa’s run, new head editor John Barber joined James Roberts in writing a pair of complementing ongoings, Robots In Disguise set on a post-war unifying Cybertron and More Than Meets The Eye which focused on a group of Autobots who saw the new era as a chance to bring back the best of the old. Megatron was absent from the first year of the series, returning in fairly spectacular fashion in issue 12. What followed was a Machiavellian set of events wherein Megatron raised those Decepticons that would follow him in a bid to conquer once more. While it failed, the level of Megatron’s scheming would make Hercule Poirot struggle to keep up. As the two ongoings moved into a joint event entitled Dark Cybertron, Megatron received further focus in the standalone issue Spotlight: Megatron written by Nick Roche. The first story to truly see the world as Megatron does, it showed the level of manipulation he was capable of and the methods with which he used his fairly significant power to spur on the Decepticon cause (and beat Starscream. Always gotta beat Starscream). We saw the depth of his commitment and how much what he says and what he thinks are two very different things.
Dark Cybertron brought Megatron back to the fore, culminating in the biggest change and most significant character shift in the franchise’s history. Confronted by then Autobot leader Bumblebee with every dark reality of the road he had taken, he set his Decepticon allegiance aside and declared from this day forward he would stand with the united Cybertron as an Autobot. Once jaws were picked off the ground, we all strapped ourselves in for the ride ahead.
Regret, redemption and the tightrope.
I have the same relationship with my co-workers.
Season 2 of MTMTE had several running themes (screw you Getaway) but none dominated it so much as Megatron and his new outlook. Following a trial where he basically could have manipulated the jury into a not-guilty verdict and had them buy him lunch after, Megatron is assigned to be judged by the legendary Knights of Cybertron. The Knights were the end goal of MTMTE and so Megatron joined an erstwhile crew as co-captain alongside absolutely not a man-child Rodimus. Following him is Decepticon spy Ravage, sent to confirm where Megatron stands and then off him if he had turned. Ravage instead ended up as Megatron’s one ally in a sea of enemies. Despite being by far and away the most competent commander in the series, Megatron is greeted by hatred and distrust wherever he turns. Confronted not only with these attitudes but his own sad past (his journey to the dark side began many years before we believed with the forced abandonment of his mentor Terminus), the monsters he helped breed in the form of professional sadists and Megatron obsessives the Decepticon Justice Division and the lives he is responsible for taking, Megatron undergoes a transformation from despot to someone who has, in his own way found peace.
Well, I’m up for running away screaming.
The 6-part season finale puts Megatron through hell, reminding him of the hatred others have for him (while at the same time showing that there are those who have come to accept him) and the dark obsession he has bred in his former followers. Ultimately he briefly allows himself to fall into the darkness for all the right reasons, destroying the DJD and very nearly himself. Sadly, the death of Ravage pushes him to an edge where Megatron may never step back from, only to be saved from himself by the return of Terminus (via time travel luggage). Megatron’s personal journey ends with a shot of him embracing his friend, simply saying “I lost my way” while an abandoned Decepticon emblem perhaps suggests the final release of his burden and his moving into the future not as the revolutionary leader but as Megatron the “man”.
A Million Little Edits
I’m not a fan of thought experiments but one that my interest in WWII history usually lets me indulge in is “What if Hitler was sorry?” If Adolf Hitler legitimately felt deep regret for his actions, could he make amends? Should he even be offered the opportunity? Does it dishonour the memory of the millions whose lives he is directly or indirectly responsible for taking not to put a bullet between his eyes in front of a crowd of thousands or should we judge people by the moral evolution or reawakenings they undergo more than their past? In the real world, we can never really examine that because of our political and moral sensibilities pretty much guarantee the outcome. But that’s why we have fiction. In fiction we can examine ideas like this and see the roads such an individual may have to take in order to become the person they realise they need to be. Now granted, Megatron is a lot more Lenin than Hitler but still.
I will also swing the axe at my execution and perform a disrespectful performance piece with my own corpse.
The serious problems I find when comics write redemption arcs is the general lack of real examination of the perspective of the former villain and the inevitable return to badness they will undergo, usually within a year or two. Magneto, often trotted out as the greatest supervillain/anti-hero of all time, backpedals so much I’ve simply grown to ignore any attempt at seriousness on the part of the most recent writer to re-invent him. Megatron on the other hand absolutely absorbed me. For one, in 30 years of fiction he had NEVER been shown as other than the tyrant leader, the one who would bring upon us all peace through tyranny. James and Nick together introduced the complexities behind it all but it was still the simple truth that Megatron was the bad guy. His choice to become an Autobot and his seeking to make some kind of amends was not only shocking, it opened up a realm of possibilities for a character whose recent treatments had added a sense of the outdated to him. This wasn’t just used to boost sales for a 6-month period, it was a genuine opportunity to see what happens when the abyss blinks.
I bet cats actually have to put up with a lot of this kind of thing.
Secondly, the tiredness and self-loathing Megatron wore on his sleeves was instantly compelling. Rather than his change being something that either other people noticed or he spent time justifying, Megatron came to see who he had become and the depth to which it had hurt not just others but himself. His manipulations never truly stopped, Megatron was too aware of how things could go wrong, until he was confronted with the ultimate image of the lives he had destroyed. Yet following this, in a stroke of genius, Megatron’s self-hatred is used as a drive to change himself and find peace among his new fellows rather than becoming something the character is bogged down in. He stopped being the 2-dimensional villain and became in my opinion the deepest character The Transformers has ever produced.
Also, due to time travel, Megatron is now his own aunt.
What the future holds for Megatron has yet to be revealed. Someday a writer may decide that the world needs a snarky bad guy again and re-work him into who he was before or some other new spin on an old record. I dread that day. I dread the crime that will be committed on that day. Yet, I am now for the first time truly hopeful that even if it’s only in this one medium, we have a truly redeemed Megatron and one that we can follow in various ways for years to come. Regardless, the mastery demonstrated by James Roberts in the writing of this character cannot be denied, nor the bravery of those people at IDW and Hasbro who took what might well have been the greatest risk since they casually murdered everyone’s robot daddy in 1986. Whatever the future holds, you the reader of this article owe it to yourself to read MTMTE and absorb Megatron. Not as a fan of comics or of Transformers but as a person who is themselves flawed and perhaps in need of being told that no matter how far you go down the wrong road, if you have the courage you can turn back. On that vein I leave you with the words of James Roberts and Megatron himself.
“We’re all ‘works in progress. We’re the sum of our experiences…even if we edit those experiences to suit. Selective memory, denial, post-justification…we re-write history – our own history – to keep us sane. To stop us giving up. Every day, we do it. Every day, little edits. Except sometimes…sometimes it’s not enough. Sometimes you look back on your life – on your life’s work – and you realize it’s unsalvageable. And if you’re brave enough – or desperate enough – you throw it all away and start again. On Luna-2 I threw it all away. And here, on this ship, I started again. A brand new autobiography. Same title, different words.”
All images the property of IDW Publishing.
This blog was originally posted on The Old Oilhouse. Be sure to check them out.