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

Continued from Wednesday.

As the final chapter of “Man of Iron” begins, the British military has unearthed a portion of the side of the buried spacecraft. It’s now clear that the hill in question formed over the craft; its shape has defined the hill, the contours of the land. That’s how long it’s been there. And on the ship’s exposed hull, we see an ancient and tattered Autobot symbol.

In another indicator of how early this story is set, the military thinks the craft may be extraterrestrial, with no reference to the presence of the Transformers — as if that’s not yet public knowledge.

Then there’s a rumbling, as if from an earthquake, and a square portion of the ground lifts up, on the top of the craft… exposing the Man of Iron, the Autobot that Sammy drew. Using a pistol, it attacks a military vehicle — perhaps uncharacteristic for an Autobot, but another sign of how alien he is from Earth culture. It may also reflect past conflicts with humans, if Sammy’s drawings reflect an actual violent encounter during the Medieval period.

from "Man of Iron," page 37One of the Decepticon jets arrives, in robot form, and blasts the Man of Iron. Here again, the violence of this story — and the damage it does to the Transformers — remains realistic and heightened, relative to later Transformers stories. The Decepticon’s blast severs the Man of Iron’s right leg at the knee.

The Decepticon fires again, blasting the Man of Iron down. Another blast tears the Man of Iron apart.

It’s a shocking — and upsetting — development. This is the first time we’ve actually seen the Man of Iron, and the Decepticon appears and kills the Autobot on a single page. This may also be seen as reflecting the brutal realism of the story’s violence; in real-world armed conflicts, death can come quickly and without giving the wounded any opportunity for last-minute speeches or heroics. But this sudden death is also sad, because we’ve been made to understand that the Man of Iron has been there at least for centuries. He’s an undiscovered mystery of human history, and he’s killed without a second thought. It’s a little like if the Loch Ness Monster were discovered — and then gunned down.

The fact that the Decepticon (like so many Transformers in this story) doesn’t speak only cements the evil of the deed. This is the Decepticon’s mission, and he doesn’t need to talk or to gloat. He’s just there to kill.

The story then cuts to the Autobots’ shuttlecraft, flying low to the ground along a road. It lowers a ramp, allowing Jazz to roll out onto the street in his car form. Sammy’s inside, but he jumps clear before Jazz rolls over a hill and slams into the Decepticon who killed the Man of Iron. Meanwhile, a group of Decepticons, including Laserbeak, divebombs the Autobot shuttlecraft, but manned guns emerge from its hull, and it blasts the Decepticons (or at least Laserbeak). On the ground, Jazz has transformed, and he fires a rocket into the air, hitting one of the Decepticon jets, who’s flying in his robot form.

We’re then treated to a single large panel, depicting the battle from overhead and focused on the Autobot shuttlecraft. It’s a pretty glorious panel, with various Decepticons blasting the shuttle, as Autobots blast back from its hull. And the battle occurs over the English countryside, successfully conveying a sense of rural community emeshed in the Transformers’ war. The captions underline this impression:

The castle of Stansham once again bore witness to the sight and sound of battle…

A flaming, wheeling dance of destruction.

There’s a sense of Biblical conflict here, and we see a Decepticon jet apparently crash into the castle, reminding us that this historic building has been placed in jeopardy.

from "Man of Iron," page 42And then the Decepticons flee.

It’s amazing to think that the entire conflict, from when Jazz hits the Decepticon to when the Decepticons flee, takes up only two pages — out of a 44-page story. It would have been easy, especially given the decompressed nature of the story, to have taken an extra chapter to depict the fight, in order to give some sense of a wild climax. To some extent, this is part of the larger problem that this final chapter feels rushed, and not simply in this two-page sequence. But the speed of the battle also works for the story, which is about Sammy, ambiance, and alien encounters more than Autobot-Decepticon battle. There’s an awful lot of conflict in this chapter, but all of it’s rapid. Even in the wild, climactic battle, the specifics of the fight aren’t as important as the juxtaposition between it and this rural community.

What we’re reading is less about seeing specific Transformers fight it out and more about the impression of a wild extraterrestrial battle in the skies over this town — a battle this community can’t understand and certainly can’t influence.

In another sign that this is an early story, Optimus Prime uses the violence as an illustration of how they can’t simply leave Earth to the Decepticons — as if this were even in question, or even as if this were the Autobots’ plan until things escalated.

Optimus Prime adds that they cannot leave the rescue ship intact — presumably, to avoid it falling into Decepticon hands… but also possibly to avoid it falling into human hands.

With Optimus set to destroy the ship, we cut to a chamber inside it, where we see that another Autobot resides. Captions tell us that the Man of Iron was simply his attendant and that he was the ship’s navigator. He seems to be in a sort of slumber, or suspended animation, and we’re told that, “In his long, slow, machine world, a million years were as fleeting seconds. Human history had passed over him.” It’s an indication of temporal relativity, to accent the story’s focus on cultural relativity, on the alien nature of the Transformers.

The Navigator is described as being “alone in the darkness,” and he’s apparently the source of the signal the Autobots picked up — which he’s still beaming out.

On the top of the final page, we’re shown Jazz pointing his rocket launcher downward at the rescue ship. Painfully, the first caption tells us:

Jazz could know nothing of us. He only knew of his friendship with a small boy…

…and what could happen if his enemies prevailed.

He fires, obliterating the ship — and the Autobot slumbering within it.

The next panel shows Jazz in the same position before he fired, only now the rocket is gone from the smoking launcher, and where the craft was is smoking too. The caption is succinct: “Nothing remained.”

from "Man of Iron," page 44It’s true that the Navigator’s death is unnecessary. Presumably, the Autobots cannot read that he’s aboard, perhaps because of the Navigator’s suspended animation. But it’s surprising that they aren’t aware such systems exist, and that they didn’t bother to search the craft. Still, we wouldn’t have this complaint if the Navigator weren’t introduced, on the penultimate page. He’s there to die.

But in a story that dares to alienate us from the Autobots, this is the final alienation. The Autobots unknowingly kill one of their own. It’s a sad ending, but it’s also a sophisticated move to let us know something that the Autobots don’t.

The Navigator goes unmourned. He’s yet another victim of a conflict, in which even the good-guy Autobots are warriors following orders.

And war’s not a pretty thing. The Navigator’s death completely undercuts any sense of heroic victory, which is common not only to Transformers stories but to plenty of stories of super-powered conflict.

It’s possible that the Navigator’s death was intended to represent a lost opportunity for the Transformers to return home. This is supported by Optimus Prime’s comments about fleeing Earth, and by how he explains to Sammy that the Transformers “are stranded here on Earth.” That’s technically true, in the early Transformers stories: the Ark, the ship that brought the Transformers to Earth, is no longer capable of flight. But these stories aren’t preoccupied with the Transformers’ desire to return home. In this respect, “Man of Iron” might suggest a misunderstanding of the Transformers formula, or an alternate take on it. On the other hand, as an early Transformers story, these overtones suggest the freshness of the Autobots’ arrival and hint that they miss Cybertron, for which they seem nostalgic. The Navigator’s death might thus be taken as representative of the loss of the Transformers’ home.

But there’s a deeper way of interpreting the Navigator’s death. His ship was a rescue ship. And the Autobots destroy it. In doing so, they’re denying their own rescue. They’re committing to staying on Earth and continuing the war with the Decepticons there. There’s no escape from this war, and this story — certainly more than any other early Transformers story — illustrates how terrible this war can be and how quickly it can claim lives, including those of the Transformers.

The rest of the final page is a masterpiece of an ending. The story, which has enmeshed the Transformers into a historical context, telescopes itself into the future. And the story denies itself any of the platitudes, jokes, and easy constructions of meaning so common to pop-culture endings:

Instructions were issued by nameless authorities… trucks came… all traces of the craft and its final resting place were obliterated…

Summer came around again… the tourists descended, attracted by stories of U.F.O.s and mysterious sightings…

The found only an empty ruin, echoing with memories.

Autumn came… leaves fell… Sammy was a year older and a year wiser. He never saw Jazz again…

But on clear, sharp nights, when stars glittered like needles and the night winds rattled his window…

Then he slept a fitful, fearful sleep…

…And the Man of Iron walked once more through his dreams.

Of course, Sammy’s been the emotional center of the story from the beginning, so it’s fitting that the story should end with him, instead of the conventional focus on the more esoteric Transformers. The fact that “he never saw Jazz again” reflects the fate of so many children, who have been featured in Transformers stories, only to never appear again.

from "Man of Iron," page 44In the language of “stars glitter[ing] like needles,” we can see the sense of wonder that’s so much a part of science-fiction stories, including those of the Transformers. And in “the night winds rattl[ing] his window,” we can see the sense of fear and horror, the flipside of wonder that also accompanies the new. These are both a part of the “dreams,” the word on which the story ends, which is both a dream, in the positive sense, and a nightmare.

There’s a real sense that Sammy’s haunted here, cemented by the image of the dead Man of Iron over the sleeping Sammy in the final panel. Death pervades the ending, and not only in the death of the Navigator. Death is also there in the dead leaves of autumn. It’s there in “empty ruin” left by the rescue craft, which the tourists come to see.

But isn’t the appeal of historic sites, like Stansham Castle, an attraction to dead things? The story begins with this sense of history, and it ends with it too. Eventually, even the arrival of the alien Transformers must pass also into history, must be fitted into it — and perhaps alter it.

This is the perspective that “Man of Iron” provides.

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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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