As I've stated in a previous review (for Transformers: Megatron Origin (Transformers (Idw))), I don't read many of the Transformers comic books, mostly sticking with the titles that interest me or become available at our library. The concept of "Hearts of Steel," however, intrigued me enough that I gave in and purchased a copy. Steampunk Transformers? Giant robots duking it out in the late 1800s instead of the modern day? John Henry and Mark Twain joining the fight against the Decepticons? How could I not like this?
Upon finishing the comic I am left... mixed in feeling. On the one hand, it's a great concept with good artwork. On the other hand, it feels badly mishandled and rushed, with an ending that leaves me feeling as if the story was left unfinished.
"Hearts of Steel," as stated beforehand, is an alternate universe continuity that has the Transformers waking up in the late 19th century instead of the modern day. As such, our favorite giant robots don't turn into cars or planes, but trains, steam drills, ironclad warships, and old-fashioned (if somewhat anachronistic) flying machines. On the heroes' side, Bumblebee ventures out of hiding to befriend railroad worker John Henry... while on the villian's side, a down-on-his-luck inventor has a chance encounter with Shockwave and becomes the Decepticons' unwitting pawn. Soon it becomes a race against time as Bumblebee, Henry, the young inventor, and Mark Twain (yes, THAT Mark Twain) struggle to stop the Decepticons, led by Starscream and a greedy railroad tycoon, from reaching New York City and launching a takeover.
The comic's greatest strength is the artwork. I LOVE the new designs for some of our favorite characters -- who knew Transformers would look so good rendered in steampunk manner? Starscream and Shockwave in particular look fantastic in their new designs, with the former looking almost bat-like in appearance and the latter decked out like a Civil-War-era ironclad warship. The Autobots look good as well, each outfitted to turn into a locomotive or train car. We also get tantalizing glimpses of how Optimus Prime and Megatron might have looked in this new universe in a "bonus feature" section in the back of the book, which shows concept art and design sheets for many of the characters. And the entire look of the book feels "old-timey," with gray and sepia tones that give the entire thing an aged feel that fits the story.
Sadly, the book feels like "style over substance," with great art but a substandard story to go with it. Character development goes out the window in favor of confusing chase scenes and overcomplicated intrigue, and at times it feels as if there are pages missing as the plot jumps from one scene to another with little transition. The climax in particular feels rushed and ridiculous -- shouldn't the Decepticons, whose greatest strength was their ability to fly, have a better way of getting to New York City than by train? (Evidently the book's ending WAS rushed, as the comic was cancelled and had to be squeezed into four issues instead of the planned six... and sadly this shows.) And of the Transformer characters, only Bumblebee, Starscream, and Shockwave get any sort of characterization -- everyone else is just for show, it feels.
Also, don't go into this book expecting to see steampunk Optimus Prime and Megatron in action -- we only get one glimpse of an in-stasis Optimus Prime, and Megatron is only mentioned in passing. We see potential designs for both characters in the back of the book, but that's it. And frankly, that left me feeling rather cheated.
The binding of the book also bears merit -- it fell apart after a few months. IDW comics in general seem to have weak binding, and I wish they would address this issue. Some of us actually read our comics...
I can't complain too much, I suppose -- the art is pretty to look at, and it was awesome seeing old-fashioned, steampunk looks to some of my favorite Transformers. That, and Mark Twain fights Ravage at one point. And it's as ridiculously cool as it sounds.
All in all, this wasn't a terrible comic, but it's probably only one that will interest hardcore Transformer fans. A newcomer to the franchise will most likely be lost reading this, though I'm sure they'll still appreciate the character designs.
P.S. Hasbro, where's our Hearts of Steel toys? You're missing the boat here...