Title: Transformers: Combiner Wars
Publisher: IDW Publishing
Writer: John Barber (Transformers) and Mairghread Scott (Windblade)
Artist: Livio Ramondelli (Transformers, Windblade #2), Sarah Stone (Windblade #1), and Marcelo Ferreira & Corin Howell (Windblade #3)
Inker: Corin Howell, Brian Shearer, and John Wycough (Additional inks, Windblade #3)
Colorist: Yamaishi (Coordination: Phase6) & Thomas Deer (Windblade #3)
Letterer: Tom B. Long
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. I try to avoid mentioning anything I see as a major twist or reveal, but I don’t guarantee it. Read at your own risk!
Combiner Wars is IDW’s latest major Transformers crossover event, taking place in the pages of Transformers #39-41 and the first three issues of the ongoing series Windblade. The main focus is Combiners, groups of Transformers who can fuse into one large, powerful Transformer. I’ll take this moment to remind readers that their mileage may vary with this book, as it is one of IDW’s licensed properties, and as such, is dependent on the comics’ continuity as well as the continuity of the property as a whole. For me, Combiner Wars is a very good story bookended by a bit of a shaky start and an uneven ending that nevertheless sets up an intriguing direction for the IDW comics going forward.
My main qualm with the first chapter of Combiner Wars is the loose feeling it has. There are a number of plot threads that need to be established, but there are so many that they don’t feel connected until the end. Optimus Prime has returned to Cybertron from Earth; a mass of former Decepticons have been placed on the outskirts of civilization; Starscream, the elected ruler of Cybertron, has obtained an artifact that allows him to create and control Combiners; and Caminus, the lost Cybertronian colony from which Windblade comes, newly connected to Cybertron by a space bridge portal, is facing a dire energy crisis that places their planet in danger of death. As I said, many plot threads, and it’s hard to see how they connect until the end of the issue. To the credit of both John Barber and Mairghread Scott, the pieces do fit together nicely from that point onward. I applaud the creative teams for creating such a cohesive, seamless story across two titles and teams.
Political intrigue has been a strength of the Robots in Disguise/More Than Meets the Eye era of the IDW comics since the beginning, and the machinations found in Combiner Wars continue the trend. Starscream wants to use his position as leader of Cybertron to make Caminus follow him, too. We’re introduced to Starscream’s secret police and his secret holding cells in an undisclosed location on Cybertron. He arranges for the Decepticon Combiner Menasor to attack Caminus so he can very publicly use the Autobot Combiner Superion to save them, which is a transparent way for Starscream to win the Camiens’ hearts and minds. Nearly everything Starscream does in Combiner Wars is underhanded and duplicitous, with contingencies and back doors aplenty. This tracks very well with Starscream’s history in the wider Transformers franchise and feels like a natural progression of his current arc, which has been immensely interesting as he gains more power. He will do absolutely anything to keep it. To contrast Starscream’s political power, Optimus Prime becomes a holy figure to the Camiens because their religion worships the original 13 Transformers, the 13 Primes, and Optimus carries their legacy. Even though Optimus is heroic, he is also a soldier. He will press any advantage he has, and he uses the Camiens’ respect to challenge Starscream’s footholds on Caminus.
The Combiners are handled very interestingly. They are frequently referred to with the pronoun “it” by other characters, with Windblade’s bodyguard Chromia referring to one of them as a “freak show.” Multiple times, Optimus insists that the Combiners are Cybertronian like the rest of them, not weapons, but he can’t avoid that they can be used as weapons, and incredibly powerful ones at that. They wreak impressive destruction as they battle, many times bigger than an individual Transformer. Devastator, for example, can hold Ironhide, a truck, in one hand. What’s more, the Combiners have individuality. Letterer Tom B. Long gives them color-coded dialogue, and for the most part, each one speaks differently. Menasor, like the Hulk, speaks slowly and threatens a lot of smashing. Superion can speak in full sentences, but refers to himself in the third person. This adds an interesting layer that hasn’t always been in the franchise. Historically, Combiners haven’t often spoken as themselves, single beings made up of a collective. The cartoon never explored what becoming a collective might actually mean for the component Transformers, which is something the IDW comics have always done in relation to the Combiners. It works as an extension of the themes that have previously come up about Combiners, primarily the discomfort most Transformers feel about them.
Of course, I would be remiss not to praise the art. Livio Ramondelli did the interiors for four of the six issues of Combiner Wars. One of the remaining two was drawn by Windblade miniseries alum Sarah Stone, and with the other by Marcelo Ferreira and Corin Howell. Ramondelli has done extensive work for the IDW comics. His figure work for the Transformers is blocky like the old toys, which is neat, but his color brings his images to life. It always sets a tone, usually a foreboding one. Ramondelli’s palettes are often subdued and show wear-and-tear stress marks, scratches, and dings on both the Transformers and their environments. Stone’s colors, in contrast, are bright and sunny, and her work is quite stylized. It’s recognizably hers, but the shift from Ramondelli isn’t so jarring. Ferreira and Howell also trend toward stylization. They turned in good work for Windblade #3, but I found something lacking. Maybe it’s because immediately after three successive issues of Ramondelli interiors, to find a different artist had done the climax issue was a pretty big shift. Sometimes I had a bit of a hard time figuring out what was happening on a given page, but Combiners are incredibly large and they’re getting into fistfights. I understand why rendering them might be difficult.
Transformers: Combiner Wars is another strong entry in a strong comic book line. Despite what felt like an inauspicious beginning, I was swept up again by Starscream’s plots and Optimus’ nobility. Readers of IDW’s Transformers offerings will not be disappointed.