Trail who? That’s what the bearded chap in the shop said to me today as I purchased my issue. I remember Trailbreaker, he said. Good old Trailbreaker, with the forcefield. But not Trailcutter.
And that’s exactly how Trailcutter would like it to be. Because this is a story of a robot stuck in a rut. A robot with a very particular talent that seems to have eclipsed and obscured every other fact about him. Even bearded comic shop proprietors only remember him for his force field, rather than his ‘easy charm’ or ‘diverse range of recreational interests’. This does not make him happy.
After an unidentified large object penetrates the hull of their ship, the Lost Light, Trailbreaker, Highbrow, Chromedome and Brainstorm manage to seal and repair the damage, Trailbreaker using his trusty force field as per usual. Their captain, Rodimus, bestows medals carved in his own image to the trio of head-monikered robots but poor old Trailbreaker gets left out. Drinking himself into a stupor at the award party (I’m always amazed at how much boozing Hasbro lets happen in Transformers – amazed and happy) he catches the attentions of everyone’s favourite comedy-sociopath, Whirl, who takes it upon himself to sort out Trailbreaker’s life – starting with the name-change that so perplexed my salesman and gives the issue its name.
Making the name change part of the issue, indeed linking it directly to the issue’s theme of Trailbreaker’s low self-esteem, is a nice touch that I didn’t expect, to be honest. It probably would have been easier to ignore the whole issue since copyright problems regarding ‘generalised’ names have been plaguing Transformers for years, now, and us fans are used to it (Battle Ravage? Autobot Skids sounds like something brown and nasty…) but attention to detail has always been a hallmark of James Roberts‘ work – witness the multiple threads across many message boards theorising over the placement of a background element in a panel or the emphasis on a particular word in a speech balloon.
James Roberts, former Transmasters UK writer and currently writer on the best Transformers comic ever, More Than Meets the Eye, here delivers what is in effect a ‘missing issue’ of that series. However, unencumbered by story arcs or the need to tease a next issue, full reign is given to his talent for brisk and deft characterisation as well as the trademark humour that, for me, really seals the whole More Than Meets the Eye package. Some have complained that the comedy is laid on too thick, or that it detracts from the drama but personally I not only find it well-placed and deployed at hugely appropriate times*, but also that it rounds off the characters – these guys have been comrades-in-arms for over four million years. Humour, gallows or otherwise, is going to be on the agenda. How are you with your friends?
Whirl is probably both the finest exponent of this as well as a walking example. In a series full of big, great characters I sometimes wonder if he might be my favourite His attempts in this issue to imitate Trailbreaker’s (admittedly hilarious) ‘force-field’ face are a masterpiece of deadpan and he reveals a slightly softer side when he describes how confused Ultra Magnus makes him feel: “I hate him, but I also think he’s kind of amazing.” We also, in flashback form, finally get our first glimpse of Whirl’s nemesis, the famed Killmaster. We know this is Killmaster because he is holding his wand. Some have called for Whirl to get his own Spotlight but I’m quite happy for him to continue showing up like this, randomy berating, insulting and terrifying the various members of the Lost Light while he waits to hit something.
After falling asleep, Trailcutter wakes to find all of his comrades frozen in place, completely unresponsive. Before he can work out what’s happening he is attacked by two Decepticons (the rarely-spotted Deluxe Insecticons, in fact – luxury insect robots on a budget!). With his famous force field out of comission for some reason, he manages to subdue them with some quick thinking and a handy impression of a Decepticon, but soon discovers that the cargo hold is absolutely packed with the buggers. Heeding Whirl’s earlier advice about everything you need being in Brainstorm’s lab (Brainstorm – another comedy sociopath!) Trailcutter retrieves a device and makes his way there.
The end sequence, as Trailcutter faces down the Decepticons, scavengers on the trail of the Metrotitans (a thumb of which was the object that penetrated the Lost Light’s hull earlier) is textbook redemption stuff but just because you can see it coming doesn’t mean it isn’t great. Trailcutter puts his lesson from Whirl in psychological intimidation to good use, standing up to the crew of Decepticons, convincing them his force-field is still active by turning off the ship’s gravity, and then threatening to use said force-field to pop the sparks of each and every one of them. The fact that this last part is purely down to Trailcutter’s powers of suggestion, since he can’t physically fake it, is a true crowning moment of awesome for the poor beleaguered robot and he sends the Decepticons running off with their tails between their legs.
The crew restored (they had frozen due to a malfunction of one of Brainstorm’s ludicrous weapons), the last page sees Trailcutter happy at last, the recipient of one of Rodimus’s golden badges. But then his room-mate Hoist shows up bearing an enormous Rodimus-shaped golden plaque- it turns out everyone who was frozen received one for extreme bravery in the face of adversity.
Trailcutter, needless to say, is not happy.
Some might be tempted to dismiss this Spotlight as inconsequential, especially those keen to see the aftermath of Overlord’s rampage in the main series. Who cares about Trailbreaker anyway, when Magnus could be dead?
I care about Trailbreaker. Now, at least. One of the main strengths of More Than Meets the Eye has been the way it has taken minor, rarely-used characters like Whirl, Rewind (sniff!) and Brainstorm and actually given us a stake in their lives, an interest in how things turn out. This is the driving reason for people wanting to see the results of Overlord’s attack – because it affected characters we like. It seems unfair to grumble when we get an entire issue devoted to provoking exactly the same feeling for another little-used Autobot. Characterisation is never inconsequential, least of all in a brand that has chafed for too long under bland, standard heroic personalities or relied on vocal tics and accents to build a character.
The artist for this issue, Matt Frank, continues in the expressive, cartoony tradition of the series’ regular artist, Alex Milne, and gives us some chins that would make even Nick “Ferrero” Roche and the makers of Transformers Animated sit up and take note! It’s also a quiet relief that the art has come out so well, as previous issues with artists not so accustomed to the complexity of a James Roberts script haven’t been as lucky (I’m thinking of the annual here – great as it was, overall). There’s a few crowded panels but that tends to come with the territory these days, what with Transformers having such huge shoulders and lots of pointy bits.
Part of me almost longs for the days of the simplified Floro Dery designs – illogical as they were at least more than two Transformers could fit comfortably in one panel, as Jose Delbo would no doubt attest.
I could definitely go for a few more of these little peeks into life on the Lost Light away from the main regulars – there are two hundred-odd Transformers on board, after all – and it looks like I’ll be getting my wish because the next Spotlight, based on Hoist, will be linked to this one. Just what did Hoist do to earn his Rodimus wall-mounting? Which one of Brainstorm’s weapons will go wrong this time? Most importantly, who will Whirl life-coach next?
*I point to the latest issue of MTMTE where people felt Swerve’s ‘meta comments’ were a little out of place while the behemoth Overlord was tearing through bodies and bulkheads. I think facing down something like that is quite possibly the most necessary place to have a joke!