How Transformers: Lost Light Subverts the Toxic Masculinity Rampant in the Mainstream Transformers Movies
What if I told you that a fantastic place to find a story that explores issues of social mobility, harmful political ideologies, love, loss, friendship, and faith is a run of Transformers comics? And then, when you stopped laughing, what if I told you I was serious?
The mechanical shape-shifting robot aliens first burst onto the scene as a line of toys, then they moved to TV, and now of course there’s the frustratingly long-lived Michael Bay movie franchise. No matter what form they’ve taken, the Transformers have never been a franchise that anyone would think of as a vehicle for anything resembling nuance. That is, until a writer named James Roberts came along.
Roberts’ Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye series first launched in 2012, and, for the benefit of new readers, was re-launched as Transformers: Lost Light this past December. The basic premise of the books is that the famous war between the Autobots and the Decepticons is over, and a group of ‘bots decide to take the opportunity to travel across the galaxy in search of the legendary (and perhaps mythical) Knights of Cybertron. As always happens in the best sci-fi adventures, chaos and hijinks ensue to distract our heroes from their lofty goal, and Roberts is happy to fill the pages with whip-smart wit that suggests the influence of fellow Brits like Wilde and Wodehouse.
On top of all the wacky sci-fi fun, Roberts explores the political implications of a society built on humanoid robots that change into some kind of vehicle or tool, and posits that perhaps there would be some tension between those who think one’s “alt-mode” function should determine one’s job and status and those who think otherwise. This leads him to draw some profound real-life metaphors about government sanctioned discrimination and even allows him to give the Decepticon leader Megatron something of a Marxist bent. Roberts takes a franchise where, like most products of pop culture, male is considered the default gender (yes, they are robots, but they use he/him pronouns and are coded as male) and reaches the reasonable conclusion that if everyone is a man, then homosexuality must be the cultural norm.
Meanwhile, in the movies, critics no longer feel compelled to entertain the pretense that the writing serves as anything more than a flimsy premise for grandiose CGI destruction. The very name “Michael Bay” has become synonymous with shameless product placement, virulent misogyny, not-so casual racism, and the gleeful debasement of the Coen brothers’ stable of actors. How can these two interpretations of the same property co-exist?
Roberts says in an interview with The Guardian that “[Transformers is] a mature franchise and it’s doing very well in various iterations. So Transformers can encompass different types of stories, in the same way a property like Batman does.” It’s not so much about commenting or criticizing Bay or the old TV show or the toys, it’s about using their success as a bolster to take the same characters and create something that appeals to an entirely different audience.
I didn’t grow up with Transformers and didn’t read comics beyond Calvin and Hobbes or the likes of Kate Beaton and Allie Brosh until I took a graphic novel course in graduate school. I came to More Than Meets The Eye after Lindsay Ellis wrote about it for Tor.com, and I still tend to take most of my comics recommendations from my fellow liberal arts educated, left-leaning, Zadie Smith and Elena Ferrante-reading, vintage-glasses wearing, writerly-type women. I still feel out of place in a comic shop and it feels even stranger to think of myself as part of the Transformers fanbase, but anyone who has googled “Whirl Transformers collectibles” as many times as I have must be in that group.
It’s easy to feel that kind of cognitive dissonance while loving these comics because they aren’t about subverting the franchise, not really. Their existence in a cultural and political landscape fraught with white supremacy and toxic masculinity is in itself subversive, but Roberts isn’t here for snobbery. He pokes fun—as an adult-skewing book that grew out of a series of 80’s era toys must—but you can feel his deep, genuine love for the franchise in every word. He doesn’t offer a counter to Bay’s work so much as take the liberty of ignoring it entirely. Why waste time saying what everyone has said over and over about those movies and the cultural landscape that feeds them when he could be making you cry over the romance between two coded-male alien robots named “Chromedome” and “Rewind”? And don’t even get me started on what goes on with “Cyclonus,” I still haven’t recovered.
More Than Meets The Eye and Lost Light use their medium to its fullest extent, celebrating what comics are capable of achieving as their own category of art. The plotlines are labyrinthine at the macro level yet easily digestible as you read issue by issue. They are not only a love letter to Transformers but to sci-fi adventure comics as a whole. They are deeply political themselves and yet they offer an escape from an increasingly political world.
Removing yourself from the wider political discourse has always been an act of privilege, but as the days (and sometimes just the hours) of 2017 tick by we’re all looking for a bit of refuge. Whether you go back to the beginning of More Than Meets The Eye or jump onto Lost Light, that’s exactly what you’ll find, but not by way of hermetically sealing yourself into a reality that makes no commentary on your own. It’s heartening to see a series that believes in its characters and universe as much as its readers. And it’s always a healthy check on your own sense of over-educated self-importance to remember that there is room in your brain for both The Cyborg Manifesto and Robots in Disguise.
(image via IDW)
Chelsea Ennen holds a master’s in Contemporary Literature, Theory, and Culture from King’s College London. Her writing has appeared on The Female Gaze, The Tempest, and HelloGiggles and she is a book critic for Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. She is the Entertainment Editor at The Tempest, and the Fiction Editor at the Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal. Follow her on Twitter (@ChelseaEnnen) for updates on her creative work and inane pop culture commentary.
—The Mary Sue has a strict comment policy that forbids, but is not limited to, personal insults toward anyone, hate speech, and trolling.—