The Transformers: Infiltration trade collects IDW's first effort at Transformers comics after they acquired the license from Hasbro. As such, it's the publisher's attempts to reboot the Transformers franchise, essentially starting over from scratch, while keeping many of the names and general designs familiar from the original toy line and original cartoon series.
Interestingly, IDW went turned to long-time Transformers writer Simon Furman, who wrote for both Marvel and DreamWave during their time as the license holders. At first, that may seem a little like asking Chris Claremont to reimagine the X-Men from the ground up for a whole new generation (which, come to think of it, Marvel seems to do about twice a year now anyway). But as Furman himself points out in his introduction to the trade paperback collection, while he may have been heavily involved with various iterations of the giant robots before, he's always been working off of someone else's blueprint, he's never had the opportunity to kick off one of these things himself.
So how'd he do?
Well, look, this is still a Transformers comic, a licensed comic book meant to exploit lingering nostalgia in grown-up men for the toy line they played with as children, toys they were half brain-washed into loving because they watched an exciting 22-minute animated commercial for the toys five afternoons a week. I don't think that necessarily means you can't have great Transformers comics that constitute genuine works of literature, but it does mean that's hardly very likely to ever happen.
This isn't even an attempt in that direction.
Rather, it's an attempt to make Transformers comics that reflect the sophistication of today's comic book audience in the ways that, say, Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker's Daredevil comics were told vs. the way Stan Lee or Denny O'Neil were told, you know?
It is quite interesting to see how Furman decides to address some of the challenges inherent in the basic Transformers story of a) There's this alien planet full of robots embroiled in a civil war, b) they come to earth, c) they can totally turn into cars and jets.
Furman definitely goes a long way towards making some sense out of the Transformers' raison d' etre—you know, the whole turning into cars and jets thing. Apparently the evil Decepticons infiltrate different planets, disguised as vehicles and suchlike, while the heroic Autobots do likewise in an attempt to monitor the Decepticons, and work to thwart their attempts at conquering the world. Okay, cool, that explains the transforming anyway.
Furman actually takes it refreshingly far, with the various robots being as reluctant to show themselves as possible, and even generating holograms of people driving them to keep up the illusion that they're real. It's not until page 40 or so that we see a Transformer in robot form at all, which actually works toward building suspense, not despite the fact that almost every reader knows exactly what's coming, but because of it. That is, because you know that that ambulance is a good guy robot and that red, white and blue jet is a bad guy one, and you know their names, you're just waiting for the inevitable to happen.
A problem all of the Transformers stories—cartoons, comics, those goddam live-action movies—have faced is how to balance the focus between robot characters and human beings.
As a kid, I didn't care about the humans one bit; as an adult, I realize you need at least some humans around, if only to provide scale and setting to the Transformers’ stories. (I mentioned in my original post on Transformers comics that some of the comics I had read seemed like generic space opera types of stories that just so happened to have toys I played with growing up in the starring roles, and the fact that a robot that turns into a truck named Optimus Prime was the lead didn't much matter; the same story could be told if the lead were a giant green bulldog named Hamlet Jackson.)
Furman gives us some human characters here—teen runaway Verity, alien enthusiast and conspiracy theorist Hunter O’Nion and mechanic Jimmy Pink—and they are pretty generic types, introduced in a contrite, uninteresting manner. But even if Furman seems to be simply going through the motions with these characters, at least he realizes that human drama in a Transformers story is only necessary in so much that it gives readers a point of reference for the robot drama. (This I think is one of the main problems with Michael Bay's movies, even though I doubt he or his bosses will agree anything's wrong with movies that rake in that much money—Shia LaBeouf running away from giant robots is infinitely more interesting than whether or not he'll ever be able to tell his way-out-of-his-league girlfriend he's lucky even talks to him he loves her, or if his mother will be able to cope with empty nest syndrome when Shia goes off to college. I think there are other movies that handle that sort of thing much better, Bay).
The story itself isn't all that much different than that of the movies though—some humans stumble into involvement in the Tranformers' covert war on Earth, and thus need to run around and experience car chases, avoid explosions and endure occasional expositon—but the maguffins are less ludicrous, and the tensions stronger. Ratchet (the ambulance) is one of a small group of Autobots led by Prowl (the police car) on Earth, observing the Decepticon cell, which is acting kinda weird. Unbeknowest to the Autobots, there was a split among the Decepticons, with Starscream leading the rest of the earthbound team into betraying Megatron.
Once the humans are introduced to the various characters, and they clash, Megatron returns, kicks the shit out of Starscream and his fellow rebel Decepticons, and takes control again. It ends with a cliffhanger, with Optimus Prime not appearing until the very last page—his appearance is meant to signal the seriousness of the situation. Like, this was something that Bumblebee and company could handle on their own, at least until Megatron showed up. And now it's on! Not a bad way to end a miniseries and/or the trade collecting it, particularly if you want to sell the next one.
So I appreciated the cursory thought put into the premise here, and the slow build-up. Furman apparently expects to be telling this story a while, so didn't feel the need to rush the set-up any. I also liked the fact that the focus was on someone other than Optiums Prime. That dude just bores the shit out of me, and always has, but he's so often the focus of Tranformers stories. I suppose it's the fact that his whole personality just boils down to The Hero, which makes him a lot less intersting than all the villains and many of the other Autobots. (I had the same problem with the G.I.Joe cartoon; Duke and Flint were never as intersting as the mute ninja with the pet wolf or comedy duos like Shipwreck and his sarcastic talking parrot or Alpine and his mildly retarded friend Bazooka).
Now, let's talk art. This book is drawn by E.J. Su, and while it's serviceable, it's not that great. This is the second time I read this story, having first read it a couple of years ago in a black-and-white, digest-sized, manga-like format. I think that served Su's art quite well. Sure, Transformers without color seems a bit…wrong, I guess (Without color, how can you tell Starscream from Thundercracker and Skywarp, or Bumblebee from Cliffjumper?), but it accentuated the whole robots-in-disguise thing, and Su's manga-influenced humans looked more natural in the format than they do here, big and in color.
There's a sparseness of detail to Su's work which the size and color of this standard, Western super-comics format only draws negative attention to.
While he's not so hot with the humans, settings and backgrounds, he does draw good Transformers, having put some real thought into how they might work (dude draws great robot hands!) and making them all look very close to their original cartoon appearance, but freshened up with little, newer details, particularly in the joints and moving parts. I think his Megatron may be the biggest departure, being a tank with big treads along parts of him. (Me, I always liked the idea of Megatron being actual gun-sized, and that'swhy he was so evil—like, he suffered from an extreme form of Napolean complex, brought on by the fact that his enemies were all twenty to forty fee tall, while he was only, like, twelve inches high.)
All in all, this isn't a bad Transformers story. Although given how bad Transformers stories can be (i.e. Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen), "not bad" is, relative to others, “one of the best,” I guess.