'House of Cards, but with robots': Transformers comic books explore politics, gender and romance

While the most recent Transformers film was panned by critics, the current line of comic books by IDW Publishing has been pushing boundaries with female characters and same-sex romances.

Books by IDW Publishing have little in common with their corporate cousin's Hollywood movies

IDW Publishing's Transformers comics have reimagined fan-favourite characters and introduced many new ones to wide critical acclaim. (Sara Pitre-Durocher/IDW Publishing)

If you're only familiar with Michael Bay's critically maligned movies, you might be forgiven if you think the Transformers are in dire straits.

But in another corner of Hasbro's sprawling franchise, the line of comic books by IDW Publishing has broken down boundaries since they acquired the licence in 2005.

The flagship books Robots in Disguise and More Than Meets The Eye, written by John Barber and James Roberts, respectively, have their fair share of firefights, fisticuffs and explosive adventures. But they've also added an influx of female characters, Game of Thrones-level political intrigue, and even romance between male characters.

In December, Barber's and Roberts' series were relaunched and rebranded as Optimus Prime and Lost Light. Mairghread Scott's Till All Are One forms IDW's third pillar.

Optimus Prime and Megatron team up in IDW's 'Dark Cybertron' storyline. (Brendan Cahill/IDW Publishing)

As hundreds of Transformers fans converge this month on Mississauga, Ont., for the TFCon convention, CBC News spoke with Roberts, Barber and Scott about their takes on the Transformers .

Don't call her Fembot

With few exceptions, the vast majority of Transformers have been characterized as male.

But in a recent storyline, the Cybertronians made contact with the Camiens, a colony with both male and female Transformers. Till All Are One, which Scott describes as "House of Cards, but with robots," is usually written from Camien diplomat Windblade's point of view.

Fan favourite Starscream and newcomer Windblade are at the heart of the political machinations of Mairghread Scott's Windblade and Till All Are One comic books. (Sarah Stone/IDW Publishing)

"I think still in a lot of ways, gender doesn't mean a lot to Transformers. A lot of the traditional gender rules haven't been established in their world," says Scott. "It probably means less to you than the fact that they turn into a jet."

The writers' biggest challenge is figuring out how to explore gender in a race that has rarely encountered it while avoiding making the characters feel wholly alien to readers.

"If you took a hard-science-fiction look at a world of machine life that reproduces asexually, ideas like gender and sex would be either nonexistent or very, very different than our human understanding and background in those issues," says Barber.

"But Transformers stories exist in our human world, where we know Optimus Prime is male because people say 'he' and he sounds like (voice actor) Peter Cullen and whatnot. So there's gender in there whether it makes hard-science-fiction sense or not."

'Robot husbands'

They've also established the concept of Transformers romance with Conjunx Endura, or significant others. The Autobots Chromedome and Rewind were confirmed to be a couple in 2013, making them the first homosexual couple in Transformers fiction — in a society where that would be the norm.

The character Rewind, right, says 'I love you' to his partner Chromedome. (Agustin Padilla/IDW Publishing)
"Initially, you were invited to think of them as very good friends, and as the story progressed, as I became more confident in what I could and couldn't do, we became more explicit in establishing them as 'robot husbands,'" says Roberts. "And I'm pleased to say that everyone involved — IDW editorial and Hasbro — have run with it. And fans, most importantly, seemed to like it."

To Scott, Conjunx Endura allows her to examine what love and relationships look like when stretched beyond a human lifespan.

"If you're going to functionally live forever, what are you going to look for in a partner? What would you do for someone if you've shared the last million years sharing your most intimate life moments with them?" she says.

'Remarkable' creative freedom

Despite the Hollywood films making millions of dollars around the world (earning critics' ire along the way), one might assume the writers are constantly under pressure to incorporate elements from the big screen into their books.

When a new line of figures hits toy store shelves, Hasbro reaches out to IDW to include the characters in upcoming storylines. But Roberts says they're given "quite remarkable creative freedom" to decide how to incorporate them.

The most recent figures for Chromedome and Rewind share many design similarities with their comic book counterparts. (David Willis/Shortpacked.com)
"There are certain things that Hasbro will dictate that they do or do not want, but other than major things like 'Don't kill our main characters' or 'We really want to highlight this person,' they let us tell the stories that we want to tell," says Scott.

If anything, the cross-pollination goes in the opposite direction. Drift, the samurai-like Autobot, was created by IDW's Shane McCarthy in 2008, then appeared in the 2014 film Age of Extinction. And several toys in recent years have mirrored their comic book counterpart's design.

Diverse audiences

Although so many disaparate takes on the franchise exist simultaneously, don't expect any fights to break out at events like TFCon over which version of a favourite character is best, or which deviation most denigrates its legacy.

"One of the best things over the last couple of years going to conventions has been seeing a shift both in the age of fans and rebalancing in terms of gender," says Roberts.

Barber adds, "When I'm at a convention and fans come up, they're anywhere from their 50s or 60s to three or four. They're men and women and they're from all over the world."

Windblade (in black and red) and Chromia (in blue) are two of the major female characters recently introduced into the Transformers comics. (Corin Howell/IDW Publishing)

CBC film reviewer Eli Glasner had unbridled scorn for Transformers: The Last Knight, calling it a "cinematic slurry" and awarding it one out of five stars. But what about the comics? He checked out a few issues from IDW's offerings, and came away impressed.

"Compared to the films by Michael "Blow-Em Up" Bay, the best of the Transformers comic universe reads as the Anti-Transformers. [It's] a Bizarro-like realm where robots treat each other with respect and dignity, unshackled from stereotypes," says Glasner.

"Considering the new avalanche of movies are supposed to be inspired by the larger Transformers universe, it's a pity his writers haven't absorbed some of the comics' more progressive storylines. The artfully articulated connection between Chromedome and Rewind is much more powerful than Bay's camera leering at his actors in pin-up model poses."

About the Author

Jonathan Ore

Senior Writer

Jonathan Ore is the Senior Writer for CBC Radio Digital in Toronto. He's also covered arts & entertainment, technology and the video game industry for CBC News. You can find him on Twitter @Jon_Ore.