Graphic Detail reviews a new graphic novel or trade paperback release each week.
A few weeks ago during our San Diego Comic-Con coverage, we were fortunate enough to talk with John Barber, editor and writer on IDW's line of Transformers comics. Mostly we spoke about the future of those books, but a new Transformers release this week asks us to look a bit into the past. Autocracy, a book-length collection of comics that previously were only available digitally, tells the story of an Autobot police officer named Orion Pax who, in his efforts to quell Decepticon insurgents, learns that the authority he works for may not be so great either. It's a story of realizing that war is never as cut-and-dried as it seems, and it's the story of a temperamental soldier coming to accept his destiny as the leader of an entire philosophical movement.
Oh yeah, if you didn't know, Orion Pax is Optimus Prime… before he became the leader of the Autobots.
They say you should never meet your heroes, and sometimes that's even true in a literary sense—knowing too much about a cool character can occasionally ruin him or her (think Darth Vader in the Star Wars prequels). For a minute, it looks like Autocracy might venture into that territory with the beloved Optimus Prime. When the book opens, Orion Pax is an angry soldier gleefully doling out painful punishment to Decepticon criminals. He's just been rebuilt for war, and he's ready to take his frustration out on anything that questions his authority. It's an uncompromising look at the early days a great hero, and it comes really close to just feeling wrong.
But the book knows how uncomfortable this is as well as its audience does. The first half of this story is all about getting Orion to question his place in the galaxy. Why does he blindly follow the orders of a government (the "Autocracy" in the title) that seems to increasingly be exploiting its citizens? Are the Decepticon insurgents really so bad?
Well, yes. Midway through the story, a change takes place—we won't spoil why, but an event involving Decepticon leader Megatron causes Orion Pax to take up the mantle of Optimus Prime he was always destined to have. Word of warning: if you think you know anybody's political allegiance or long-term plans in this book going in, well, don't necessarily think that.
Even when Autocracy's teasing us with unfamiliar ground, though, it moves along like the best action-packed Transformers stories do. That's likely due to co-writer Flint Dille, story editor on the original 1980s Transformers cartoon, whose work went a long way toward shaping these characters for decades to come. Old-school fans will be able to practically hear the cartoon voices in their heads.
Livio Ramondelli takes on art duties, bringing his all-digital style to the book. This gives everything an epic feel; the book ends up looking like a really nicely rendered video game. The only drawback is that in some scenes the digital coloring's a little too dark, making it hard to tell characters and shapes apart or to appreciate the finer details of the art. This has improved quite a bit from Ramondelli's previous Transformers work in the monthly comics—possibly that's due to the paper quality of this graphic novel—but it's still a minor issue at times.
Sometimes it's dangerous to meet your heroes, but sometimes it's really illuminating to see where they come from. Flint Dille, co-writer Chris Metzen, and Livio Ramondelli have put together an origin story for Optimus Prime that does the character we know justice while still finding new information to reveal about his growth. It's a good read that should make Transformers fans happy, and since it's set in the far past you don’t really need to be up on your current Transformers comics to enjoy this book… you just need to like things that are cool. B+