James Roberts and the Transformers Renaissance

Let it be known from the outset that I have a deep and abiding love for the Transformers.  If not for them, I might never have gotten into comics in the first place way back in the mid-1980s.  So also let it be known from the outset that I know what I'm talking about when it comes to the Transformers comic book series, and thus, when I can't stop talking about how impressive and exciting James Roberts' writing on recent Cybertronian happenings, that means it's actually impressive and exciting. 

So much so that I reached out to him to discuss the brand new direction for IDW's Transformers property.  They've put the long-standing war between the Autobots and the Decepticons in the past, and they've introduced two new ongoing series to answer the very compelling question of "now what?"  On one hand, IDW Senior Editor John Barber is very deftly handling Transformers: Robots In Disguise, telling the tale of how hard it is to handle the post-war peace, especially with Bumblebee in charge (not to mention wisely killing off Horri-Bull, perhaps the worst-named character in the pantheon in the first issue), while on the other, Roberts is handling Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye, focusing on Rodimus Not Really A Prime and the crew of the Lost Light starship as they search for the fabled Knights of Cybertron and the promise they hold for bringing about a new golden age on their home planet.  This fresh start, along with crackling, character-driven dialog and a vibrant depth and breadth of plotting and sociopolitical wrangling, has served to make Transformers more relatable, realistic and dare I say new-reader-friendly than it's been since Marvel's original four-issue limited series in 1984.

And, incidentally, for those who prefer the warring factions to still be at war, there's a 12-issue digital-only series called Transformers: Autocracy, which builds on Roberts' work in Chaos Theory, and shows us the Decepticons as insurgents with perhaps a less evil mentality than you're used to seeing from them.

Roberts was very gracious and forthcoming in our email interview, and would like you all to know that Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye #2 will be in stores on February 15, so be sure to check that out.  If you want more incentive, read the interview below. 

Or, perhaps this excerpted quote will suffice:  Roberts refers to TF:MTMTE as "an unholy hybrid of Dark Star, Justice League International, Doctor Who and Arrested Development. Heck, you can throw in Magnolia and X-Files in there too. And Community, for that matter. Essentially, MTMTE is what happens when a superhero team book collides with a space opera sitcom."

You know you want to read that.


CraveOnline: It's very much obvious from your writing that you've been a fan of Transformers for quite some time.  Which was your first Transformers toy?  Do you remember how you came into the fandom in the first place?

James Roberts: I was a little late to the party, my first Transformer being Blitzwing in 1986. A couple of months later, the animated Movie was released in the UK, and a couple of months after that I began subscribing to the British Transformers comic. Whilst I loved the toys, it was the comic that sealed the deal. In 1991, I joined an unofficial Transformers fan club called Transmasters. The UK branch was comprised almost exclusively of comic fans, and once the comic folded we all began writing fan-fiction designed to further the Marvel storyline.


CraveOnline: How did you manage to move from Transfan to actual creator of canon?  

Roberts:  In 2001, I released (in an entirely not-for-profit capacity, I hasten to add) an unofficial Transformers novel. As far as I was concerned, because of its length and the nature of the story it told, it more or less marked the end of my fan-fiction days. But while I took a step back, other members of Transmasters UK – including the supremely talented Nick Roche – were going from strength to strength. Nick was a big fan of the novel as well as a good mate, and not long after he began drawing Transformers for IDW, he put in a good word for me. I submitted quite a few pitches – at least 10,000 – and, after a Dinobot origin story that seemed to almost happen (and maybe one day will), I got a call in 2009 inviting me to help Nick with Last Stand of the Wreckers. So yes, I owe that boy Roche a great deal.


After Wreckers, I was asked to lead on a project called War Stories, which would have been IDW's first digital-only Transformers series – we were looking at self-contained five-page stories set in the past, present and future. I sketched out the first 14 or so, only for the project to founder. Some of those stories have made it, in one form or another, into MTMTE.

CraveOnline:  Since you cite the original Marvel UK Transformers comics as a huge inspiration, you have to be excited about Simon Furman returning to his old Marvel run to give it a proper ending – although the fact that the UK comics ran a bit longer after the American run ended could mean that you got a much better conclusion than we did on this side of the pond.  What are your thoughts on that?

Roberts:  Is this a clever ploy to get me to write 10,000 words on the last days of Transformers UK? Because I've fallen for that before…


But yes, I am excited about Regeneration One, and to say any more would reduce this interview to a blur of crazed hyperbole. I was speaking to Simon last year and he was kind enough to hint at a few of the things he has up his sleeve. Suffice to say they were so mind-blowing I burst into tears, ripped up the scripts for the first few issues of MTMTE, rolled up my sleeves and thought, 'Okay, Furman. Round 2.'


CraveOnline: With the two new ongoing series, not to mention the digital-only Autocracy title, how closely are you working with the other writers on world-building?  What's the working relationship like?


Roberts:  Well, John Barber and I would be comparing notes and swapping scripts even if he was 'just' the writer of Robots in Disguise, but given that he edits More Than Meets The Eye as well, there are plenty of opportunities to talk about who's doing what to whom, and when, and why. John and I both care about continuity and have a real interest in making sense of what has, at times, been a complicated branch of Transformers continuity.


I take enormous satisfaction from world-building, which I think can be done on a micro- and a macro- level: you can use a mini-series to introduce a hitherto unknown offshoot of the Cybertronian race, or you can have a character make a casual, passing reference to an event that's never been mentioned before. Both serve to further scope out the nature of the fictional universe. Through my stories — and I didn't set out to do this — I'm constructing a sort of 'unseen war' full of epic battles and events that are only ever alluded to — stuff like Simanzi and the Battle for Hell's Point. It's like the Time War in Doctor Who — maybe one day we'll witness these events; maybe they'll forever remain 'off-screen'.


Ultimately, I want every issue of MTMTE to reveal something new about IDW's Transformers Universe; more than that, about the Transformers themselves: their society, their biology, their beliefs. The mythology of the Transformers — by which I mean the concepts and the backstory and the characters — is so compelling, and it has the potential to grow and grow. And I genuinely believe that creators and fans can make the IDW Transformers Universe as rich and involved and rewarding as any other fictional universe. Hmm… it sounds like I'm being interviewed for a job that I've already been given. But I mean it!


Swerve in TF: MTMTE

Swerve makes us love him in just one panel of Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye #1 by James Roberts and Nick Roche

CraveOnline: How did you and John Barber divvy up the characters for your separate titles?  Did you draw straws, throw darts at names, or are you really a long-standing Swerve fan?


Roberts:  'Divvy' – good word. I threw darts at John until he let me have Swerve, yeah. And while I wasn't looking he swiped every character your casual Transformers fan has ever heard of. (Shakes fist at John)


A lot of the divvying had taken place before John and I came on board. Certainly some of the Robots in Disguise cast were already lined up (although I should stress that when John took over he started from scratch and cooked up a whole new storyline involving them). The only characters in the MTMTE pot, so to speak, were Rodimus and Drift. In fact that was the pitch I inherited: "Rodimus and Drift set off to find the Knights of Cybertron."


Optimus Prime was always going to be out of the picture. Prowl and Bumblebee were always going to be on Cybertron (because hey, I'll be honest with you, I'd have killed to get Prowl). I think John really wanted Ironhide – and of course most if not all of the Decepticons were going to be in RiD. Bluestreak was supposed to be on the Lost Light but I let him go because he's Andrew Griffith's favorite – see? I'm selfless.


I knew I wanted Ratchet (in fact, I think I may have traded Ratchet for Wheeljack) and Ultra Magnus. Alongside Rodimus and Drift, they were my Big Four. With them in place, I felt I could cast about for some lesser-known characters – the Autobots who had done very little in the IDW universe. It meant I could invent sprawling and shocking backstories for them all, and drip-feed readers details over long periods of time. In this respect, Skids was a great find — part of the classic 84/85 cast, but never before touched by IDW.


Because MTMTE began to take shape at the end of 2010 I was able when writing 'Chaos Theory' and co-plotting 'Chaos' to surreptitiously set up the Lost Light crew: when Whirl beat Megatron up in his cell in 'Chaos Theory' I knew he was destined to end up on the Lost Light; when Brainstorm and Chromedome showed up in 'Chaos', they too were pencilled in as part of the MTMTE cast. And this happened right up until 'Death of Optimus Prime', when we meet Rewind properly.


Incidentally, Swerve was never intended to be a main cast member. That changed when I started putting words in his mouth in issue 1. Now he's one of the characters who's most fun to write, and he has lots to say and do as the series progresses.


CraveOnline:  Going back to Last Stand of the Wreckers, which you co-wrote with Nick Roche.  What was the impetus for killing all those long-standing characters off?  Was it just a natural progression for a "suicide mission squad" like them to tell the story of what happens when their luck finally runs out?  How difficult is it to write death scenes for beloved Transformers characters since, given the cast of hundreds, chances are anyone who dies ain't comin' back?

Roberts:  As you say, Springer's team was going on a suicide mission and there had to be consequences. Nick and I made it our mission to make readers care so much about the D-listers that by the end you'd be rooting for them over the established characters. I will say this about the death scenes: we wanted to make them matter. We wanted them to be varied, to give the impression of finality, and to demonstrate, paradoxically, that Transformers are very hard to kill. Rotorstorm gets his head blown off; Ironfist's brain is punctured by a bullet; the Jumpstarters have their sparks extinguished. We didn't want cast members to die in a boring hail of bullets.


Last Stand of the Wreckers #3

The head-blowing-off of Rotorstorm definitely gives a sense of finality in Last Stand of the Wreckers #3, by Nick Roche, James Roberts and Guido Guidi.


CraveOnline:  Your two-part Chaos Theory story really blew my mind, with an amazing new origin story for the Autobots. The fact that their central philosophy is based on the writings of Megatron before he succumbed to violent anger is nothing short of astounding.  What was the genesis of that bold idea?


Roberts:  'Chaos Theory' started out as a one-shot – a Spotlight – that focused on Megatron. Part 1 is essentially that one-shot, with Megatron preaching non-violent direct action and Impactor taking a different view. The story gained a second part at the suggestion of Andy Schmidt, John's predecessor, who asked me to do an Optimus Prime equivalent. I knew early on that I wanted Optimus/Orion to single-handedly defeat some thugs attacking his place of work (that sequence was loosely inspired by A Brief History of Violence); the trip to the Senate came later. If I remember correctly, Hasbro were keen for it to be established that Optimus had coined the name Autobot. It was in talking to Andy about how we might work this in that the idea of Optimus citing Megatron as an inspiration came about.

CraveOnline:  How much input does Hasbro have with your creative direction?  Do they suggest full-on arcs, or just little spots here and there, like Optimus invents the term 'Autobots' and, I assume, 'change Hot Rod to Rodimus?' 

Roberts:  Hasbro are wonderfully receptive to IDW trying out new things, whilst at the same time knowing when it's necessary to remind us creatives what it is about Transformers that made then popular in the first place: they guard the purity of the central concepts. They take an active interest in everything from script to art to coloring, and they have the ultimate say-so as to what's acceptable within the comics – as well they might, given that they own the property – but they don't take an interventionist approach just for the sake of it.


Transformers: Chaos Theory

Transformers: Chaos Theory

Orion Pax addresses a corrupt Cybertronian Senate in Transformers #23: Chaos Theory by James Roberts and Alex Milne


CraveOnline:  The digital-only Autocracy miniseries seems to be building on the foundations you laid in 'Chaos Theory.'  Are Chris Metzen and Flint Dille coming to you for advice on how to add to your established world-build with their flashback story of the Decepticons as insurgents, or is John Barber well-versed enough in how you think that he can field any questions they might have for you?

Roberts:  The latter. I was chuffed to hear that the springboard for Autocracy would be 'Chaos Theory,' but John knows his Transformers well enough to field any questions. Autocracy started brilliantly and is going to get even brillianter. You can tell I'm a writer, yeah?

CraveOnline:  'The Death of Optimus Prime' was also a very interesting pseudo-bait-and-switch, taking the most familiar Transformers trope and spinning it on its ear, giving good ol' Orion Pax a happy ending where he gets to actually be himself instead of Impossibly Perfect Leadership Icon, pursuing his own interests.  Is that really the end for him as far as your stories go, or are there plans for Rodimus and his crew to happen upon him somewhere down the line?  There's certainly justifiable rationale for either choice.


Roberts:  I don't think anyone will be surprised if I say that Orion Pax will one day return. But then I could be lying.

CraveOnline:  The natural next question becomes 'who gets the rights to whatever the deal's going to be with Megatron?'  He's vanished, too, but he seemed to have a heroic last stand fighting D-Void, possibly bringing him full circle from his idealistic youth.  Is his story finished?  Is it necessary to put the two eternal faction figureheads out to pasture to get to the story of the rest of Cybertronian society?  How far do you think you'd have to progress with your stories before bringing someone like him back into the picture and not have it immediately regress back to the war stories?

Roberts:  Optimus Prime/Orion Pax and Megatron are the two pillars that hold the whole Transformers mythos aloft. They're such iconic characters that even their absence informs the direction of travel as far as the stories are concerned. So they're off screen, but the nature of their departure and/or the prospect of their return accounts for the motivations of virtually everybody else. The trick (as far as I'm concerned) is to not make them so impossibly powerful and perfect (or in Megatron's case, perfectly evil) that they (a) become two-dimensional; and (b) dominate every story that they're in. I think IDW have a good track record in avoiding this so far.


And so while it's always fun to rest them from time to time (because let's face it: there are literally hundreds of other Transformers characters who, given a chance to shine, could become fan favorites), but they'll always come back – and each time they do, the circumstances of their reappearance will make everything fresh. At the end of 'Death of Optimus Prime,' Optimus reflects on what would happen if Megatron were to reappear and Bumblebee and Metalhawk had succeeded in creating a stable government and a planet full of happy citizens. "Megatron is nothing without his followers," he says. Would the Megatron of 2012 or 2013 or 2015 be able to rally an army as he did against a corrupt Senate four million years ago?


Transformers: The Death of Optimus Prime

Optimus Prime leaves Cybertron for his own happy ending after the new peacetime society rejects him as a representative of warmongering in Transformers: The Death of Optimus Prime by James Roberts, John Barber and Nick Roche.

CraveOnline:  Now, with More Than Meets The Eye, even after you've proven your chops with sociopolitical wrangling that would be well suited to the Robots In Disguise setting, instead, you've got the more straight-forward adventure tale of a crew lost in space in search of fabled figures of history. How did you and John decide which one would handle which direction?


Roberts:  It was decided by Andy, prior to John's appointment as editor. The genesis of the two books is a little complicated in terms of who was lined up to write which one, and when, but I think it's worked out well.


I will say one thing, though: while MTMTE might at first glance appear to be a 'straightforward adventure tale', it's anything but. Trust me. Things are going to get very twisted, and very surprising, very soon. Like any good quest, there will be diversions and detours, some planned, some not.


CraveOnline: Come to think of it, there's a strong Battlestar Galactica vibe with the theme of MTMTE.  Are you a fan of that show?  If so, will there be some influence from BSG, or maybe an homage here and there?  Rodimus isn't exactly Adama, but Ultra Magnus could easily be a Saul Tigh.


Roberts:  I've seen enough of Battlestar Galactica to know that you're not talking about the original version…


At the end of issue 1, in an author's note-type piece, I rather boldly pitch MTMTE as an unholy hybrid of Dark Star, Justice League International, Doctor Who and Arrested Development. Heck, you can throw in Magnolia and X-Files in there too. And Community, for that matter. Essentially, MTMTE is what happens when a superhero team book collides with a space opera sitcom.    

CraveOnline:  Citing my favorite show 'Community' as a reference has really brightened my spark, so to speak.  What influences from Dan Harmon's show are you incorporating into Transformers?  I immediately had to re-read your first issue to look for parallels, so tell me if I'm wrong here:  Rodimus might be Jeff Winger with the speechmaking, Ultra Magnus is Shirley with the moralizing and Red Alert might be Britta the buzzkill (or vice versa), Tailgate might turn out to be Annie the worrywart, Whirl is obviously Chang, Rung even kinda looks like Dean Pelton… dare I hope Swerve and Rewind become Troy and Abed?  Or is Swerve Pierce, Tailgate is Troy, Magnus is the overly-officious Annie with a love-not-love relationship with Rodimus and… I'm thinking too hard about this, aren't I?


Roberts:  Hah! Possibly..! The main parallel between MTMTE and Community is that both focus on an ensemble cast with slightly larger-than-life personalities and a variety of quirks and rather endearing flaws. No one on board the Lost Light is perfect; they all have weak spots and blind spots — and rust spots, probably. Rodimus is brave but reckless. Magnus is aloof and officious, but genuinely cares for those around him. Ratchet is selfless but (these days) bad-tempered. Swerve is funny but can be cruel. Whirl is psychotic and… well, we'll have to wait and see if he has any redeeming features.

CraveOnline: On a completely personal-favorite note, I was really enjoying the way Thundercracker's character was developing, but I'm completely in favor of keeping the big space robots off of Earth and out in the rest of the universe, as seems to be the case here.  Do you happen to know if TC going to make his way back to Cybertron at any point, or is he going to continue to take his chances with the humans?  His particular viewpoint could be very interesting in Robots in Disguise – not your title, but I imagine you might likely be in the know anyway.

Roberts:  I might well be in the know, but if I say anything John will exact a terrible revenge. Suffice to say that Thundercracker is too good a character to waste.

CraveOnline:  I'd be remiss if I didn't take this rare opportunity to cast professionalism aside and engage in an absolute bit of self-indulgent fanboyism now and throw out a quick top-ten list of some of my favorite characters to see if there are any plans for them in any of these titles, or at least some status updates on them.  You don't have to give specifics, although fun teases might be nice.  Just a 'yes', 'no,' or 'that guy's dead, in case you forgot' will be fine.  We've already discussed Thundercracker, and poor ol' Topspin is dead (he would've loved the new terrain of Cybertron… *sniff*).


Roberts:  You'd have to ask John; but if you were John, would you relegate him to background fodder?

CraveOnline:  Sureshot (the talented sharpshooter who only chose the Autobots because Prime gave him autonomy always seemed like a fascinating idea)?

Roberts:  He's on board the Lost Light – so far, things aren't going that well for him.

CraveOnline:  Cosmos?

Roberts:  Another Lost Light crew member, with an ace new body courtesy of Alex Milne.

CraveOnline:  Grimlock and the "Dynobots?"

Roberts:  Watch this space; in fact, watch several spaces…

CraveOnline:  Powerglide?

Roberts:  True fact: Tailgate's role in MTMTE was originally going to be filled by Powerglide, until the latter showed up in Chaos.

CraveOnline:  Metroplex  (his spotlight issue seemed to leave it wide open for the Lost Light crew to eventually find out what his deal is)?

Roberts:  I'm sure we've not seen the last of him.

CraveOnline:  Warpath?

Roberts:  On Cybertron, I believe.

CraveOnline: Trailbreaker (for the love of god, do something with him that doesn't involve a force field!)?

Roberts:  Trailbreaker is a recurring supporting character in MTMTE; he says something in issue six that made me laugh out loud – of course it remains to be seen if anyone else has the same reaction

CraveOnline:  Apeface  (why I hate the name Horri-Bull but love Apeface is beyond me)?

Roberts:  Apeface died in Death of Optimus Prime. Only kidding. As far as I know he's on Cybertron, no doubt struggling to cope with – everything.

CraveOnline:  Fireflight and the Aerialbots (the subfactions have never been particularly close in IDW's universe, it seems, what with the relative lack of gestalt action and one of the Constructicons being dead, so maybe splitting up the Aerialbots would happen – and Fireflight seems like a perfect choice for the Lost Light crew). 

Roberts:  Fireflight considered joining the Lost Light but was talked out of it by someone with a vested interest. There: we've used the interview to add a bit of in-universe detail.


Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye #1

How Ultra Magnus sees the world in Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye #1.

CraveOnline: We're only one issue in so far to both series, but it seems like both you and John have all sorts of fantastic ideas that really ground these characters in a reality that really feels true to their nature.  For the first time in years, it feels like these Transformers titles are ones you might actually be able to recommend to new readers as opposed to just longtime fans.  Is that a conscious effort on your part?  What steps do you take to try and clarify the Transformers mythos for people – or is it all in creating engaging characters and dialog first, and the mythos will follow?


Roberts:  To take your last question first, yes, absolutely, this is first and foremost about the characters. Get the characters right – make them believable, make them engaging, make the readers care about them – and everything else falls into place. I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say that the stories write themselves, but I do prefer stories to be character-driven: the events that happen, happen because characters make choices and decisions that, given their nature, they are bound to make. Actions have consequences, usually unintended (I'm looking at you, Prowl).


And while there's a lot of humor in MTMTE, most of it verbal, my intention is to make it all spring naturally from the interaction of the characters. I've taken out dialog where it feels false coming from the person saying it. I wouldn't have Ultra Magnus wisecracking his way through the issue, for example. (There, the humor derives from his absolute humorlessness.)


The crew of the Lost Light, very deliberately, are a bunch of misfits and eccentrics. Superficially, most of them are your archetypal Heroic Autobot, but scrape away the surface, scratch the veneer, and – just like in real life – the idiosyncrasies and peculiarities – the tics and quirks that differentiate you from the next person – become apparent. And if anything is going to scrape away that surface, it's postwar life. Peace can do strange things to you if all you've known for four million years is war. And that's where the setting is so helpful: these characters are forced to live together, and to an extent rely on each other, in a confined space.


To address your other question, both John and I would very much love non- or casual Transformers fans to take a chance with RiD and MTMTE. The core concepts are simple and strong; in terms of moving the stories along, the characters and the dialog and the action should do that. Basically, we're both excited about the new direction and want others to be as well. It's like when you discover a new band and you're trying to persuade your friends to listen.


As for clarifying the mythos, it's a case of 'These are the Autobots, these are the Decepticons, they're sort of at peace, see what happens next.' If we're doing our job properly, new readers should not feel alienated in the slightest. Just strap yourself in and see where the ride takes you.


James Roberts

James Roberts, proving that dashing gents who look sort of like Julian Sands can like Transformers, too.  So give 'em a try.