Why “Man of Iron” May Be the Best Transformers Story Ever Told, Part 2

Continued from Monday.

As the second chapter begins, Sammy wakes from a dream and walks onto his roof, where he sees an extraterrestrial craft pass overhead. It’s a creepy sequence, and it has far more in common with stories of UFOs than it has with most Transformers stories.

from "Man of Iron," page 13

Sammy then sees a Decepticon jet parked in his yard, and we wonder if it’s been there throughout this sequence, or why Sammy hasn’t noticed it before. In the next panel, we then see Sammy sleeping in his bed, although it’s is now outside.

The Autobot Mirage then walks through the town, towering over its buildings. He’s first seen in silhouette, which makes him seem more threatening. Like Jazz in the end of the first chapter, Mirage doesn’t speak. He lumbers through the town. As he does, a panel shows Sammy talking in his sleep, apparently telling Mirage to get away. This would seem to suggest that Sammy’s dreaming all of this, but why would he be dreaming himself asleep in his dream?

We then see Mirage outside Sammy’s house. It’s a legitimately frightening moment, in which we realize this alien is coming for Sammy. Next, we see Mirage peering into Sammy’s window. This echoes Sammy’s earlier face-to-face meeting with Jazz. Mirage says, “Sammy…” — and it’s hard not to read this as a whisper, or like the sound of the wind. It’s actually the first time a Transformer has spoken in the story. Ambiance is everything here, and the story (thanks in large part to Ridgway’s art) pulls this off as very few comics do.

Sammy wakes up and shouts, but his bed begins to float. It’s like a scarier version of Little Nemo in Slumberland. As Sammy grips his blanket, he seems to be pulled out through the open window, as if there’s a gravity pulling him towards the Transformers, and he can’t escape. His room is in chaos, with objects flying around — including a piece of paper with a crudely drawn robot on it, holding a torch and breathing fire, while battling knights at the local castle. The drawing floats through the window, and it’s gripped by a robotic hand — a disembodied one, due to the panel border.

Sammy’s parents, responding to the commotion, find their son’s door locked. Forcing it open, they find Sammy in bed, although it’s in disarray. The window’s open and paper is flying around. Sammy’s father goes to close the window… and his face freezes in shock. Outside, Mirage exits the house’s yard, then walks off.

from "Man of Iron," page 17In his capacity as the castle’s curator, Sammy’s father arrives at the castle and finds the military busy there. Scanning the hill in search of the “unexploded bomb” dropped by the jet, the military’s found “a very large object.” Asked how large, we’re told it’s about the size of an ocean liner. There’s a palpable sense of life having come unglued in this small town, and yet the story’s only approached the Transformers tangentially.

At the end of the second chapter, Sammy sees Jazz, in car mode, on the street. Sammy’s thought balloons recognize the car as a Porsche — a sign of the power of branding, but also a convincing reason for a young boy, interested in cars, to be enticed. He notices that the car has no rear-view mirror, nor side mirrors (or “driving mirror” and “wing mirrors,” as Sammy’s thoughts put it). This is presumably because the Autobots drive themselves and don’t require mirrors to see behind them, but Parkhouse doesn’t seem to know (at this early stage of Transformers history) that the entire point of the Autobots assuming the form of human cars was to hide. It’s not their natural forms, and leaving off mirrors defeats the purpose. Still, it’s a clever idea, suggesting that something’s wrong — not just different but wrong — with this car.

Looking inside the car, Sammy sees that there’s no speedometer. What’s actually depicted is a completely alien control panel, in lieu of a dash. Again, this might go against the entire idea of “robots in disguise,” but it’s a cool idea that the Transformers’ vehicle forms would seem somehow off, somehow alien. (Of course, the steering wheel is on the car’s right, in the British fashion, which goes against the traditional depiction of the Transformers. It’s not impossible that Jazz’s vehicle form were redesigned for the Autobots’ visit to England, although depictions of the Transformers have often ignored how easy it would probably be for the Transformers to make such modifications.)

Adding to the sequence’s eerie feeling, Sammy finds his drawing of a fire-breathing robot in the car’s back seat. Presumably, Mirage has given it to Jazz, but its presence connects Jazz to Sammy’s spooky dream.

Next, the car door swings open by itself, and the car says, “Get in, Sammy!” It calls him by name. Jazz reassures Sammy that “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” But the Autobots’ creepiness doesn’t end here. Jazz sounds like a creepy man when he tries to convince Sammy to get inside: “Why not? It’s a nice day… and you’re on holiday.” Sammy explains his mother told him “not to take lifts from strangers.” Continuing his impression of a creepy man, Jazz asserts that he’s not a stranger. “Why not just sit for a while in the front seat?” Jazz asks. “Just pretend you’re driving…” Sammy gets in, and he enjoys pretending he’s driving a Porsche. Jazz asks a question about the “men at the castle,” and Sammy answers.

Then Sammy’s mother comes out, alarmed. Jazz slams his own door, trapping Sammy inside. It’s a mother’s nightmare, and Sammy’s mother shouts for her son to get out. He stares in alarm through the window at her, apparently unable to comply because Jazz has locked his doors — or perhaps lacks door handles on the inside, like the way he lacks mirrors! And then Jazz drives off with Sammy inside.

from "Man of Iron," page 22

It’s perhaps the ultimate illustration of how the story’s willing to depict the Autobots as alien and as threatening. But here, even the U.K. editors seem to have noticed that there may have been a problem, and a warning was added under the chapter’s final page, which was reprinted along with the rest of the story for its U.S. edition: “Remember: never accept lifts from strangers!”

But for anyone who complains that the Autobots aren’t depicted as friendly enough, it’s important to remember that “friendliness” is something measured in human terms. These Autobots have only recently arrived on Earth, and there’s a lot they still don’t understand. They’re aliens, and their sense of propriety isn’t going to be the same — especially given the exigencies of the situation — as our own.

This isn’t a story about Autobots battling Decepticons. It’s about how they and their conflict affect this small town, and these characters, in unexpected ways. And the feeling this creates for the reader is closer to that of Close Encounters of the Third Kind than the usual melodramatic robot battles. Indeed, there’s something distinctly Spielbergian about the story, right down to its focus on the human element and its willingness to tie the good guys to a child’s fear. And how cool is it to find a prolonged — and effective — dream sequence in a Transformers story?

Compared to U.S. stories, “Man of Iron” is willing to be what would later be called “decompressed.” At this point, we’re 22 pages — a full U.S. issue — into the story. Ostensibly, very little has happened. A couple bombs have been dropped, but mostly what they’ve done is scare people and lead them to discover that something large is buried there. Sammy’s been the focus, and the Transformers have barely spoken, let alone fought.

As chapter three begins, Jazz continues to talk with Sammy, whom the Autobot is effectively holding prisoner. Jazz explains that he was the robot he saw in the woods. In a little but nice gesture towards the Transformers’ alien origins, Jazz explains that his real name “is unpronounceable in your language.” Mirage and Trailbreaker, also in their car forms, join Jazz.

Next, we get the story’s first Autobot-Decepticon fight. The Decepticon jets spot the Autobots and attack. One blasts Trailbreaker, and it looks like a particularly savage hit. Trailbreaker transforms, and in a brutally effective image, we see him smoking, his face shielded in shadow. It’s a far more realistic depiction of Transformers violence than what’s since become conventional. Of course, this also underlines the threat to Sammy, who wouldn’t have survived such a hit, thus helping to raise the sequence’s stakes.

from "Man of Iron," page 26Mirage disappears (a trait seen on the TV show but not generally shown in the comic), and this spurs one Decepticon jet to crash into a bridge.

Another jet blasts at Jazz, but Sammy jerks the wheel, helping Jazz to dodge. It’s a bit absurd that Sammy, who’s never driven a car before, would be able to dodge better than Jazz, and we’re inclined to think that Sammy simply gets lucky. Still, at least it gives him semething to do, and it helps to sell the fantasy of encountering the Transformers, after the fear of the story’s first half.

Bluestreak then drives across an overpass, transforms, and uses a gun to take down the final Decepticon jet. The jet crashes to the ground, landing in a fiery wreck. Again, the story’s far more realistic and more brutal than what we’ve since become accustomed. While these vehicles are treated as alien Transformers, they’re also depicted as similarly fragile to Earth vehicles. They don’t shrug off blasts. Their metal tears apart, and they burn.

Finally, Jazz arrives at the Autobot camp — by which point, Sammy has fallen asleep. An Autobot craft is waiting, and it’s a curved vehicle like the one Sammy dreamed about — something at home in UFO stories but not in Transformers ones. Jazz explains the ship is only a “shuttlecraft.” A hatch opens, swinging outward along the curved surface of the craft, again like a UFO. And Optimus Prime emerges.

from "Man of Iron," page 31That’s how we first see Optimus Prime — like an alien, emerging from a UFO.

Sammy’s brought inside the craft, and we see him sitting on one of its giant seats. There’s a sense of realism here, of hard science fiction, which tends to think of little implications such as the size of alien seats. Okay, the seat isn’t really big enough — but the idea is there.

from "Man of Iron," page 32Jazz asks Sammy about the drawing, and the boy responds that it’s “been around the castle since historic times.” Sammy adds, “He’s sort of a legend.” The similarity between the large robot in the drawing looks like the Autobots, and Optimus Prime explains that, after arriving on Earth, they picked up a signal in their language from this small town. Optimus speculates that it was a “rescue craft” sent in search of the rest of them. Obviously, it’s what’s hidden beneath the hills that the military has discovered. When Sammy points this out, Optimus Prime is obviously concerned; he warns that, if the humans unearth the craft, the Decepticons will destroy it and the entire village around it.

It’s not clear why the Decepticons wouldn’t be able to track the craft as easily as the Autobots, or why they’d wait to unleash their fury until the humans discovered the ship. But it’s a cool idea that Cybertron would send a ship after its missing leadership. It’s part of the original Transformers story that the Ark was buried and largely inactive on Earth for millions of years, so there was plenty of time for another ship to arrive. This would seem to be an obvious idea, yet it’s one that’s rarely been used in Transformers lore.

Concluded this Friday.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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