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You Say You Want a Revolution: IDW’s Transformers, and Micronauts, and ROM

Remember when you were a little kid and you and your friends all got together with your favorite toys and action figures, and you’d just make up games on the spot, vying back and forth with one another for who got to tell the story, which character did what, how this car came in and blew up that robot, etc., etc. – all the while explaining to one another why they were doing what they were doing, what it all meant?

Well IDW’s recently concluded Revolution crossover event, now available in a trade paperback collection, feels a whole lot like that. It’s no wonder. With no less than six Hasbro property titles in the mix, with the teams of IDW’s popular Transformers and G.I. Joe titles leading the way, the one thing this project is not lacking in is characters. Or cars. Or robots. Or explosions.

IDW launched the reboot of ROM: Space Knight last fall, to general acclaim. It’s a beloved character, from the classic 80’s Marvel run, but given that Hasbro retained the property rights to the toy and the character, it’s not a book anyone expected to see again. So it was a big deal when Hasbro greenlit the new project, and the idea to bring ROM into the previously created shared universe that set G.I. Joe vs. The Transformers (in the now legendary crossover of the same name), must have been irresistible to IDW. From there it quickly snowballed.

Another recent relaunch of a new Micronauts book – also a Hasbro license, also a former Marvel classic run – introduced the next obvious question. Why not find a way to blend all of these storylines into one giant shared universe? Throw in a new revamp of Mobile Armored Strike Kommand – the boys and girls of M.A.S.K. – along with the unfortunately-named British action toy Action Man, and suddenly you’ve got one doozy of a world-building exercise on your hands.

And so, the creatives at IDW all showed up at the sandbox, toys and ideas at the ready, and jumped in with both feet. What came out of that melding of minds is a big ol’ mess of action, mystery, mayhem, mechanoids and magic. And the launch of something altogether new from the mix. Call it the Hasbroverse. Maybe the Hasbotron Universe. Call it a little crazy.

Look, it’s a big project. Calling it ambitious is probably an understatement. A foray into territory generally dominated by the big boys of Marvel and DC. With so many moving pieces, so many narratives to advance and tie together, it’s inevitable that some things will play better than others. Not everything works. At least not everything works really well. These are very different storylines, with very different elements to combine, and so yes, sometimes that comes across as forced or somewhat rushed.

But hey, these are the toys they have to work with.

And credit where credit is due – they pretty much pull it off. More than most efforts of this kind, the trick to enjoying this story arc is to hang in there until the larger picture comes into view. And if along the way things don’t seem to mesh or suit your fancy, just give it a chance. This is all about scale. Sometimes you need the advantage of a larger perspective to see the shape of a thing, and possibly what’s to come.

Case in point: I’ll be the first to admit, my first read of the ROM relaunch didn’t exactly grab me. Part of that is high expectations, and there’s no real way around that. These are big spaceboots to fill after all. The first four or five books of the new ROM: Space Knight title, also out currently in trade paperback, (with a collection of covers from industry names that makes the buy worthwhile on its own) is a lead-in to Revolution, and you’ll want to read it to be fully prepared for the crossover. It’s a fairly straightforward intro to the ROM mythos, in an updated version for today’s comic reader.

All the elements are there, ROM’s eternal quest, his space armor, his analyzer and neutralizer, the insidious danger of the Dire Wraiths, the spunky human companions. All classic ROM. But somehow, even with his grandly serious trademark speeches, this new ROM seems to be lacking a certain essential gravitas I associated with the old character.

At first I chalked it up to what felt like competing storytelling elements. Artist Dave Messina has been doing solid work for a while, but his style relies on heavy lines and he tends to strike his characters in poses.

The effect is slightly cartoonish and two-dimensional, and along with a newly designed, more segmented-looking armor, it makes ROM look more like a toy than ever.

That’s OK, if the intent of the book is to tell a golly wow wonder story for kids. But that is clearly not the intent of this book. This is a much more adult story. It quickly dives into themes of death and war, introducing the horrors of having one’s entire family body-snatched by alien monsters while simultaneously commenting on the serious impact of combat PTSD.

G.I. Joe makes an early cameo, but aside from the para-military, the U.S. military and law enforcement both feature prominently. ROM, when he enters the fray is both brutal and menacing. Overall it is rather dark. It’s an odd juxtaposition.

But really the story itself isn’t too much different from the original. In fact it’s strikingly similar. So there was something else amiss for me, and when I realized what it was – well, I won’t say I was happy about it. At the same time, it’s worth acknowledging that ROM authors Chris Ryall (also IDW’s creative director) and Christos Gage, likely have designs on ROM that have yet to fully develop. Their approach to the character is slightly different than Marvel’s, a fact that becomes even more apparent as his story arc sets up and plays into the Revolution crossover. And that’s reasonable. Every creator’s should bring their own mark to established projects. That said, this is not quite the ROM I knew and loved.

The original Marvel take on ROM’s character, like all of Marvel’s best characters, played heavily on the theme of ROM’s humanity, and specifically his desire to retain it. An alien space knight, ravaged by centuries of interstellar war with a vile race of galactic conquerers wholly corrupted by the practice of black magic, forever encased in armor that separates him from those he is sworn to protect, and a visage boxed off from any normal human expression or connection. Not only is that a brilliant hook, but it’s hard to find a better set-up for a character to forever fret about his own potential to become inhuman. And yet, despite that, like all the best heroes, ROM’s true humanity showed through constantly – in his nobility, his spirit, his devotion to his cause, his compassion.

ROM was forever soliloquizing in absurdly stilted fashion about the dangers of his cause and his condition. But it worked, because we all knew that even as he railed against those dangers, it was precisely because he was so aware of them that he would always fight so hard to preserve his humanity. This theme is still front and center. After all Christos Gage is an old Marvel pro himself. He is hardly unmindful of the power of defining a hero through the character and the infallibility of one’s humanity. But clearly he and Ryall are going for something that has more with character development than character definition. This is more of a hero’s reclamation story.

To be fair, their ROM is hardly divorced from humanity. Not completely. But it seems pretty clear that this time around, his humanity has become, perhaps, somewhat more ravaged by his ordeals. That perhaps, the effect of his centuries long war has pushed it even further away than we might wish to see.

Indeed over the course of his own book, and the events of Revolution, ROM fairly ping-pongs about between issues of morality, brutality and the necessities of war. It’s a bit jarring actually, but the end result does clearly set him on course for a period of possible repentance. And it seems that the supporting characters of his own book, as well as new ones being introduced, are well-designed to act as foils for our Space Knight as this story unfolds. There’s a lot of potential going forward for this series, and that is good. I hope Ryall and Gage live up to the legacy. I’d like to see ROM claim with confidence once again the true, truly noble, spirit that those of us who grew up with him, know for certain beats within that armored breastplate.

In direct tonal contrast to all this sturm and angst, is the Micronauts reboot by Cullen Bunn and artist Max Dunbar.

The rules of the Microverse are different, and that’s a good thing.

It allows the opportunity for large-scale (sorry, micro-scale) space opera, combined with what is almost a pre-requisite for unfettered imagination.

Bunn takes full advantage of both.

In point of fact he seems remarkably well-suited for the Microverse, applying liberal splashes of the fantastic and the outright zany with the help of Dunbar’s clean lines and eye for action scenes, to paint the story of a Universe in peril, a ragtag group of questionable (micro)space-farers, with surprising connections to the Powers-that-Be and the tragic history of the micro-stellar war, who may very well (probably) hold the key to save all of reality.

Where that goes is hard to guess at, and while yes, old character fan-faves Arcturus Prime, Marionette and Bug have been necessary rebooted out of the picture, rest assured this new cast of Micronauts hangs together very nicely, and includes the gratifying return of Acoyear, Microtron and Biotron.

There is also the reintroduction of big baddy Baron Karza. Bunn takes the opportunity to create some interesting back story for the universal despot, one that actually paints him in a not-so-terrible light. That all goes out the window by the time their first story arc morphs into the Revolution storyline. And how that happens – well you’ll just have to read it. Suffice to say, Bunn does not hold back. His imagination roams freely, seemingly constrained only by good storytelling and an appreciation of the unique advantages of the laws of the Microverse.

So yes, in case you’re wondering, we do get to see Baron Karza in his full ‘energchanged’ centaur form. The whole book is wacky and wild, and completely ridiculous, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

Thankfully for everyone involved, John Barber knows a good thing when he sees it, and invited Mr. Bunn on board to help him plot and script the final Revolution story arc. He hardly needs it when it comes to dialogue. He pretty much has that nailed down. You can actually hear the Transformers speaking in full character mode, Optimus Prime in particular, and considering the incredible number of requirements in a script that uses next to no narrative explication, he does a deft job of keeping the action moving and more or less hanging together. It’s not an easy feat, given everything that’s going on. But that’s where the genius of this collaboration really pays off. There is a certain alchemy that comes into focus as one character line after another gets folded into the plot and each ensuing issue introduces new wrinkles and twists that gradually converge into something that actually, bizarrely, manages to fit into place. Mind you some of that merging is wholly unexpected. But that’s exactly the fun of this, and it’s clear at one point that Barber and Bunn just embrace it. It’s frankly chaos at points, but thankfully they have the benefit of artist Ficco Ossio’s bold and dynamic style, with an eye for detail that is absolutely essential in a big multi-team book like this. He is not only able to hold the demands of illustrating big, break-neck action sequences, he also manages the remarkable feat of keeping everything in scale.

And there is a LOT of scale. Think about it. It is almost a hallmark of the book by the end. I suspect it will continue to be going forward.

Even then, it’s almost too much. But it comes off. More than that, they do something that, at it’s core, whether they meant to or not, is actually quite brilliant. I won’t give away the particulars, but I will say that in the mad effort to throw together a jumble of disparate stories, styles, fantastic premises, and laws of physics, to create something entirely new, IDW ends up with something in Revolution that says something about the entire nature of comics storytelling with a blending of narrative elements and features that are uniquely represented by these character lines.

Mind you, it’s still crazy. But it’s wholly satisfying to see it in action, and watch it take shape. And if the end result is crowded and chaotic and a little messy, and reads a lot like a Michael Bay movie, a classic Marvel comic book, and a couple of Saturday morning cartoons all rolled up and mushed together with great big gobs of gleeful imagination, well … whaddayagonnado?

My advice: Roll with it. Particularly if any of these things sound good to you. C’mon over. Bring your friends. Jump on in to the sandbox. Things are getting interesting in the Hasbroverse. Pretty clearly, if the guys and gals at IDW have anything to say about it, it’s gonna be quite a ride.

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