Spoiler-Free Review: Optimus Prime #21

Issue #21 of Optimus Prime is out tomorrow, bringing “The Falling” – the long-awaited culmination of Onyx Prime’s plans – to its climax. Read on for our (mostly) spoiler-free review!

Optimus Prime #21

Writer: John Barber | Line-Artists: Kei Zama, Sara Pitre-Durocher, Livio Ramondelli

Colorists: Josh Burcham, Livio Ramondelli | Letterer: Tom B. Long

Jo: The first thing readers are likely to notice in Optimus Prime #21 is the art. Rather than the Yaniger-esque art of main artist Kei Zama or fan-fave fill-in Sara Pitre-Durocher, the first few pages of this issue are drawn and coloured by the controversial Livio Ramondelli. So, Callum, how did you feel about this particular artistic change?
Callum: It’s… jarring. Even if, like me, you don’t mind Ramondelli’s divisive art style, it’s in such sharp contrast to the Zama and Pitre-Durocher work that had thus far been consistently used for The Falling’s present-day sequences, and as the art switches back and forth between those three artists during this issue, it feels a little like the comic book equivalent of a novel arbitrarily changing typefaces every few pages. It takes you out of the story – at least for me.

Absolutely. In a title that’s been noted for the consistency and quality of its look, abruptly dropping in a different, completely murky artstyle really does a number on your ability to enjoy the story as a whole. Ironically enough, I actually thought that Ramondelli’s art worked fantastically for the scenes set within Infraspace – if IDW had known in advance that they’d have to bring him in as a fill-in, they should have used him on those scenes in issues #19-20 just for the sake of consistency! (Not to mention that that might have freed up some of Zama or Pitre-Durocher’s artwork for the “real-world” pages in this issue…)
Oh, definitely. Fill-in art is a fact of life in comics, but it doesn’t always have to do the story a disservice if it’s used in a pre-considered way. It’s unfortunate that this concluding part of the arc, one with a significant quantity of story concepts for the reader to unpack, ended up with this kind of ‘distraction’.
Despite that abundance of story ideas, however, the end of The Falling isn’t quite as final as we’d perhaps been expecting. As Shockwave said at the start of issue #18, “this is merely the prelude to the finale.” What did you think about how this issue tied off this seven-part arc, Jo?
I was pretty surprised, yeah! I was expecting – as I assume were a lot of other people – that this issue would basically, if not entirely, end with everything in place ready for Unicron #0 – Optimus and Bumblebee hanging around again, Unicron eating Cliffjumper and Velocitron, Rom calling for help, and what have you – and it really shook my expectations that not all of that is in place yet. Apparently, next issue will be that “transition”, even though it’s also supposedly the start of Optimus Prime’s final arc, concerning the Colonist Crew and events on Earth. It also played with my expectations of how it would end in other ways – for example, elements that we both expected to be involved with Bumblebee’s resurrection have yet to make an appearance.
At this point, I’ll note that this issue does cover all the somewhat spoilery details included in Unicron #1 – if you’ve been waiting to read that issue, you’ll be good to go after Optimus Prime #21 – although it seems there will be a bit more connective tissue in issue #22. But yeah, in general, Optimus Prime #21 presents a far more open, bleak conclusion to this story arc than I think anyone expected.
This issue also represents one of John Barber’s periodic trips into the realm of high-concept plotting – exemplified by stories such as his early Robots in Disguise issue “Syndromica (2)” – and the reader would definitely be forgiven if they require more than one read to fully wrap their head around some of the ideas presented in the pages of this comic. Those looking for a casual read might find this to be to the book’s detriment, but for the invested reader, the confident ambition of the plotting is very rewarding, and provides ample material to keep your brain ticking over long after you’ve put down the issue!

As well as the true ambition of Shockwave’s great plan coming into clarity – and explaining certain loose ends, such as the 2017 Transformers annual – this issue doesn’t skimp on character-based storytelling. Some of it is great – Arcee’s arc takes a twist that will doubtless set the fandom on fire, and I genuinely like some of Shockwave’s lesser, more emotional reasons for doing what he does… but I can’t deny that some of it leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I’d been hoping that Starscream’s subplot in The Falling was some new development, rather than pure regression, but I’m not a fan at all of the way it plays out.
It’s an understandable sentiment, especially coming off the back of issue #19, which had seemed to leave the character open to newer directions, but equally, it’s become clear that Starscream’s arc through The Falling is ultimately just a stepping stone prior to a lead role in the Unicron mini-series. That’s where I’m now hoping to see Barber bring this character – who has been a key part of the writer’s stories since the very beginning – through a more conclusive journey that leaves him somewhere different to where he started over six years ago.

Yeah, I have no doubt that it’s in service to his planned role in Unicron, and it does form a nice part of Shockwave’s fascinating ultimate goals – but at the same time, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth that one of the best-received parts of Till All Are One is being essentially overwritten, and I have to wonder how necessary it was.
One other character who feels notable is our narrator, Pyra Magna. While she doesn’t get as much development as the other characters, her narration gives us a nice insight into her thoughts – and reminds us that, despite the fandom’s widespread distaste for her “bitchy” attitude, she does have legitimate reasons to dislike and distrust Optimus as much as she does. The issue’s conclusion, as well, makes manifest her reluctant alliance with Optimus in a surprising but appropriate way.
It’s definitely nice to get some time inside Pyra Magna’s head, since her semi-antagonistic role in this series has often seen in her positioned as more of an outsider compared to other core cast members. I do hope that there’s time in Unicron to bring her character journey to an end in a satisfactory way.
Overall, I thought this issue was an enjoyable conclusion to The Falling, albeit one that defied a lot of my expectations. It’s not a light read, with some story beats leaving the reader with a fair amount to unpack for themselves, but that’s something I, at least, have always enjoyed from Barber. The key flaw ends up being the art – whilst each individual artist does a good job in isolation, it doesn’t quite synthesise into a coherent whole.
As with too many of the issues with the comics in the post-Revolution landscape, this is an issue that can’t be pinned on the artists or the writer – it’s on editorial, and the decisions they made to assign pages in a way that unfortunately throws off the reading experience. Despite that, it’s a strong finish, even if it’s a lot more open-ended than I expected – all that means is that I’m even more excited for the next issue!

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