Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted before recent announcements at San Diego Comic-Con about the future of IDW’s Transformers line.
IDW’s Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye and Transformers: Robots in Disguise are some of the best comics I’ve ever read. Notice how I didn’t restrict that to just Transformers comics. Their combination of character, action, and epic storytelling mean they’re amazing comics even for people who don’t think giant robots who turn into hot rods are awesome. Assuming such a fictional person even exists.
We got a chance to talk with series writers John Barber and James Roberts about what went into making these books so special, and much more.
Den of Geek: Long-running franchises often struggle to find new challenges for their characters, but ending the Autobot/Decepticon war gave the Transformers an amazing new lease of life. What’s your favorite thing about the post-war continuity?
John Barber: I like the ambiguity of the situation. In a way, the heat is off and you can look and see that both sides had some valid points, and that the people fighting in the war had their own reasons, their own points of view.
I also like that, morally, if anybody “wins,” there’s peace. Like, that’s the goal. Not domination. I don’t mean to say that the Autobots were out for domination in the 1980s cartoon or comics, but I mean that literally being the goal… I think that’s nice to have. Playing that out, where the Autobots have won and domination can’t be the end goal and seeing what happens next, that remains interesting to me.
James Roberts: That the war is still over. Four years on and we’ve stuck to our guns, or lack thereof. No, but I do like how the Transformers story – the big story, the one that IDW’s been telling for over a decade now – rolls ever onward, always evolving, always building on what’s gone before. There’s never been a reset button or a return to the status quo.
From a storytelling perspective, ending the war has thrown up all sorts of possibilities. It’s given every single character, and there are many hundreds, a new lease of life – or the potential for one – because you get to explore how they adjust to peace, what their goals are (now that ‘defeating the enemy’ is off the table), and what they make of themselves and their one-time adversaries now that all the old certainties have been stripped away.
What’s your earliest memory of Transformers?
Barber: I remember my best friend Steve Pietraszek had a Diacron toy—they were the same molds as the original Transformers toys, but the Japanese company Takara was selling them in the US before they made a deal with Hasbro. I was blown away by the toy—it was what would later be Sunstreaker, but red. I followed Steve’s lead and got a couple Diacron toys.
Roberts: More Than Meets The Eye, funnily enough – that being the name, of course, of the three-parter that kicked off the original G1 TV series. Episodes from the series were split into five and shown from Monday to Friday during the summer holidays on a breakfast TV show called WACaday. I remember sitting in my pajamas, half paying attention, when the caption “FOUR MILLION YEARS LATER” appeared on screen and blew my eight-year-old mind.
I love the epic planetary politics of Robots in Disguise and the adventuring group of More Than Meets The Eye. In a sentence, how would you summarize the difference between Robots in Disguise and More Than Meets The Eye for new readers?
Barber: In Robots In Disguise, everybody’s kind of a jerk and they all have American accents; in More Than Meets The Eye they all are charmingly deprecating to one another and have British accents.
Robers: Robots in Disguise tells the big, sweeping stories that change the direction of the Transformers Universe: stakes are high, momentous decisions are made, actions have consequences, and the repercussions affect everyone else. More Than Meets The Eye is exactly the same, except none of the characters realize it.
James, you’ve given Megatron remarkable depth, both in his past and the series’ present. What has been the most challenging aspect of making one of fiction’s most absolute “evil villains” sympathetic?
Roberts: The problem with Megatron is that he has done such bad things, on literally a galactic scale, that it’s difficult to conceive of a situation taking place after his surrender that involves anything other than him being locked up for eternity or executed. It’s hard to imagine him being in a room with any Autobot without it descending into violence. I mean, he really has done so many terrible things – and he did them for FOUR MILLION YEARS. Who the hell would give him the time of day after that?
The key to winning the audience’s sympathy, if not the Autobots’, was to explore Megatron’s prewar life in depth – to find out what made him into a monster. And More Than Meets The Eye has spent a lot of time exploring how a political activist with an aversion to violence can be turned, by the State, essentially, into a mass murderer. We’ve learned that he endured an awful lot before resorting to violence, and that a lot of his grievances were legitimate.
John: Optimus as conqueror of Earth! Awesome! How did that happen?
Barber: I’d viewed him as somebody who was introspective enough to worry about his actions, but in the heat of the moment bold enough to actually take action. That seemed to me to fit with what we’ve seen of him in the comics that came before me. And we’d seen stories where he’d been given time to be paralyzed by self-reflection, so I thought, what if he came through that—if we went through a couple stories of him being outmaneuvered by Prowl and we saw the doubt that grew from that, and the Optimus went to a place where he made a big, bold move to protect people.
It’s important to me that this doesn’t become “Dark Optimus.” He’s not out to hurt people—he’s not returning fire on humans, whatever humans do. He wants to protect Earth and he’s tried leaving it alone, he’s tried working with the governments, and now he’s taking its well-being into his own hands because he believes he can make the planet better.
James, I know you don’t decide this, but do you think there’s any chance of getting a Nautica toy? Because I really want to buy a Nautica toy.
Roberts: Me too. Who do we petition? Nautica, Rung, Pharma, Riptide… there are lots of More Than Meets The Eye-only characters I’d love to see immortalized in plastic. Maybe one day.
It looks like Transformers artists have to put in five times the work of any other artist just drawing the characters, and yours pack them full of emotion as well. John, what most impresses you about Andrew Griffith’s work?
Barber: I agree with you completely—Transformers are incredibly hard to draw, and these books are kind of punishing to the artists—so many characters, so much big action, and so much small character stuff, too. Andrew can do it all. I’m really lucky to get to work with him, and to know him.
And James, with Alex Milne?
Roberts: Where to start? For one thing, his sense of mechanical engineering is impeccable. So much thought goes into character design – you can look at anybody on the page and see how they’d transform in real life. He’s also exceptionally good at body language – he keeps finding new ways to have the crew to emote. And half the main cast don’t have faces, for goodness’ sake – they have visors and face plates, or, in the case of Whirl, a single yellow eye. Yet time and again, Alex manages to wring every last drop of emotion out of them.
I’m really very lucky. As well as Alex, the likes of Brendan Cahill, Atilio Rojo and Hayato Sakamoto regularly produce the most incredible visuals. And while Nick Roche has only drawn a couple of issues, designed many of the main characters. More Than Meets The Eye has also benefited immeasurably from two of the best colorists in the business, Josh Burcham and, latterly, Joana Lafuente.
50 comics! That’s pure brilliant. Not to hex it, but anything you can tell us about the next fifty?
Roberts: Well, “The Dying of the Light” serves as finale to what we’re calling Season 2, and ends with issue #55. Then there’s a two-part story which ties in with Titans Return, and then we barrel into Season 3 and begin working towards the end of the quest. Beyond #57 the stakes get higher, the adventures become larger in scale, and more mysteries are resolved. The Scavengers – a group of well meaning but chaotic Decepticons – are making a return, as are certain other characters who have been off-stage for a while. Over the last four years we’ve sort of created a More Than Meets The Eye universe within the larger IDW Transformers universe – that wasn’t a conscious plan, it’s just how things have evolved as a result of creating new recurring characters – and Season 3 will explore all aspects of that universe in greater depth.
Barber: Well, the “All Hail Optimus” arc ends with issue 55, but things absolutely do not return to normal at the end of it. There’s a big ending in #55, but the situation on Earth has been dramatically altered and Optimus’ plan continues… so there’ll be fallout from that in the next story, Titans Return (which will cross over with More Than Meets The Eye and Till All Are One in a different way than any of our previous crossovers), and then… well, then some bigger fallout.
Beyond that, in the big picture… there’s going to be more Optimus/Prowl, and a pretty big thing coming, that I think people won’t expect…
It’s really exciting to be this far in to a big run of comics like this!
After this interview was conducted, IDW announced some changes to their Transformers line. Luckily, both James Roberts and John Barber will continue to steer the destinies of our favorite Autobots and Decepticons in new series after IDW’s epic Revolution event concludes. Keep an eye out for Transformers: Lost Light, and Transformers: Optimus Prime!