Reinventing the Cog:

A Conversation with The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye’s James Roberts

Many might think Transformers comics are glorified toy catalogues at best. However, to Transformers fans old and young, the toys are but one facet or tool for the indulgence of the imagination in creative and playful daydreams. Transformers fiction done right is another. Just what constitutes Transformers fiction done right is an ongoing debate in the fandom. The overall consensus, however, seems to be that More Than Meets The Eye (often  abbreviated as MTMTE) is Transformers fiction done right.

And then some.

You see, More Than Meets The Eye is more than just a comic, it’s a sitcom, a soap opera, and a space mystery in printed form. It’s also contentious, introducing and exploring such divisive ideas as faith, same-sex relationships, gender, and many other things you wouldn’t expect from a comic based on a war toy.

Finally it’s a modern multimedia experience  incorporating the various platforms of social media as well. James Roberts and other members of IDW’s Transformers team regularly interact with fans and one another on Twitter, which incidentally is how this interview came about. Typing the comics title in to Tumblr only adds to that experience, and then of course MTMTE has its own soundtrack and in-universe fanzine. The strength and voracity of its ever-growing fandom would appear to be the story of a subculture within a pre-existing subculture. A sub-subculture? I know, I know. To some I’m possibly not doing too well at counterarguing the idea that Transformers are either too niche or too vanilla to warrant a discussion or exploration here on Sequart. Let me then just show you one of the humorous asides James drops into his intricately complex and yet delightfully simple narratives.

How smart is that? To get that joke requires the kind of smarts many a Sequart contributor and reader has, or rather jokes like that tickle something in us we all share while others simply stare and go ‘Huh?’. To write such a joke takes someone who shares that ticklish spot with us and has a mind that, in my humble opinion, is worthy of our interest.  That said, it’s not just the jokes that make More Than Meets The Eye worthy of our attention. As you’ll hopefully learn from this interview, it’s the sheer scope of not only James’s but the entire team’s creativity that results in something that is not only infinitely rewarding but also infinitely re-readable.

Some people reading this interview may well be in a similar situation to the one I found myself in just before the interview began. I had avidly and voraciously collected and read IDW’s Transformers since the title was launched way back in 2005. After Simon Furman’s rebooting of the franchise wrapped after nearly three years, I wondered where this fresh new interpretation of a childhood obsession would go next? At the same time, the outstanding (and in my opinion woefully underrated) Transformers Animated was being broadcast. The year before had seen the release of the first live action Transformers movie. With a sequel on the way that would possibly feature Furman’s iconic character, the Fallen, the future looked bright. So much refreshing revisionism everywhere, surely nothing could go wrong?

Sadly, for me and a few others at least, the bubble burst. Revenge of The Fallen didn’t quite live up to expectation. Transformers Animated was cancelled,  and though in retrospect it fares better, at the time – and in light of the other events – IDW’s All Hail Megatron series seemed to lack the maturity and scope that Furman had infused. I was literally heartbroken and vowed that not a single toy, comic, or movie would ever pass before my eyes again.

Many years passed, and through frequenting the TFWiki group on Facebook, I began hearing good things about the direction the comics had taken, in particular More Than Meets The Eye. So I took a chance and digitally procured the first few issues and, liking what I read, got hold of a few more, and then a few more, and then a few more after that, until I had caught up with what is commonly described among the fandom as season one, in its entirety. While I waited for my trade paperbacks to arrive, I took to Twitter to let the man who had redeemed my childhood dreams know just what he had done and how grateful I was.

In all of that joy and gratitude, Dear Reader, this interview was born.

What follows then is the first part of a conversation arranged over Twitter and then conducted via email over the course of several months. The only things I have edited out are mistakes, over indulgences, or glaring informalities on my part.  Throughout and outside of our correspondence, James was more than cordial despite his busy schedule, something for which I was, and continue to be, very grateful.

In part one, James and I discuss the usual things you’d expect from a creator interview. How the title came about, its art style and influences. However, my questions and, fortunately, James’s answers delve a little deeper into things, enriching the experience for pre-existing readers and hopefully whetting the appetite of some new ones. In part two, we’ll delve deeper into the creative process whilst also focusing on a couple of the title’s plethora of characters, in particular the same-sex coupling of Chromedome and Rewind and my personal obsession, Megatron.

DAVID WHITTAKER: Ok, so starting at the beginning how did the concept of More Than Meets The Eye come about? Had you had any plans for what became More Than Meets The Eye as you were working on cooperative projects such as Last Stand of The Wreckers or Chaos Theory? I ask this because you have seemingly innocuous characters, such as Rung or Whirl appearing in those tales, who go on to become major players. So to speak.

JAMES ROBERTS: Well, the series’ core concept – Rodimus heads off in search of the legendary Knights of Cybertron – was decided back in 2010 by either Andy Schmidt (John Barber’s predecessor as editor of IDW’s Transformers titles) or Mike Costa (who wrote IDW’s first ongoing Transformers title from 2009 to 2011) – maybe both of them. I think Mike came up with the idea of the Knights, although I was never given more than the name when I was asked to write More Than Meets The Eye. Anyway, back in 2010 IDW decided that from January 2012 Mike’s ongoing series would split into two titles, More Than Meets The Eye and Robots In Disguise. One title would follow Rodimus and Drift on their quest, the other would focus on Bumblebee trying to make a go of things on a devastated Cybertron. The Autobots would have fallen out – there would have been some kind of schism – and some characters would side with Rodimus, some with Bumblebee. At the time this game-plan was decided, no one knew what it was that would precipitate the schism, or which characters (beyond Drift) would side with the two Autobot figureheads. It was all really up in the air.

At the time all this was happening I was one of four writers – the others being Mike, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning – who together formed what Andy envisaged as a kind of Transformers brain trust tasked with ironing out some continuity issues and, more importantly / excitingly, shaping the direction of the future stories. As it turned out, Mike, Dan and Andy all decided to do other things – I don’t think it was anything I said. I co-plotted the climax to Mike’s ongoing series, Chaos, which set up the Death of Optimus Prime one-shot that I co-wrote with John Barber, who by that point had been brought on to write the Robots in Disguise ongoing. Because IDW were very organised about all this, I had a whole year to plan More Than Meets The Eye before it launched in January 2012. And it was while I was pulling all these ideas together that I developed a Megatron / Optimus origin story – a sort of Autobot / Decepticon ‘Year One’ – that I pitched to Andy. The result, Chaos Theory, was originally to have been a one shot but was eventually split into two parts and incorporated into Mike’s ongoing (issues #22 and #23). By the time I came to write it, I knew who was going to join Rodimus on his quest. I already wanted Rung to appear – he was a character I’d created for Last Stand of the Wreckers (he was a psychiatrist profiling the new Wreckers), but he’d never appeared on panel. I think it was actually at Andy’s suggestion that I turned Megatron’s jailer into someone who would appear in MTMTE. I chose Whirl. But using Rung and Whirl to make kind of preemptive guest appearances – you know, showing up before they become famous for doing anything – that was fun, and informed a lot of what came afterwards, in terms of how I parcelled out information about characters and maybe told their backstories in a non-linear, non-chronological fashion.

WHITTAKER: Not to denigrate your writing, which we will get to soon, but one appeal of the series is the art, the art team is definitely perfectly suited to the themes of the title.  I’m reminded of Transformers Animated.

ROBERTS: Yes, Alex Milne – who has drawn the vast majority of issues – is as much a part of MTMTE as I am. I’d always been a fan of his, and the first time we worked together was on Chaos Theory – and I was blown away. There’s a tremendous detail to his work – and an unerring sense of logic to his designs, in the sense that you can truly believe that if someone had to build these mechanical beings in real life, they would have these joints, these points of articulation. But at the same time, he brings these characters to life through their expressions and their body language. They’re not colorful technical drawings, they’re living, breathing (so to speak) people. Alex also takes the characters’ environment very seriously; he designs each new room or location as a set, and knows far better than I do where all the decks and rooms on the Lost Light are in relation to each other. Nick Roche also casts a long shadow over MTMTE, even though – so far – we’ve only been able to get him to draw two issues. I think because one of those was issue #1, so he’s responsible for a lot of the character design – I think that’s why Nick is synonymous with the title. Also, he draws one of the covers every month, so he’s always around. Nick is an absolute master when it comes to emotion – when he’s on art duties, my dialog is virtually redundant. The issue works as a silent film.

I’m a big fan of the Transformers Animated look, and I can see why you think there are similarities. With TF Animated, thanks in no small part to the wonderful Derek Wyatt, there’s an energy and dynamism – an emotional charge – to the character designs; and it’s the same for MTMTE. I think it helps, too, that MTMTE is very much an emotional comic, with nearly all the stories being driven by the decisions characters make – and they’re usually bad decisions. While we make sure the stories are thrilling and action packed and full of hazard and jeopardy and incident, events always unfold through the prism of character frailty – that’s frailty in the sense of people making poor decisions, or being susceptible to fear, anger, jealousy, irrationality… human frailty, but through Transformers. Anyway – if I can regain control of my point –  Alex and Nick (and Brendan Cahill and James Riaz, both of whom have tackled the crew of the Lost Light as part of the Dark Cybertron crossover) are amazingly adept at honing in on the emotional heart of the story and bringing that to the fore through their art. I love them all and I hope they stick around.

WHITTAKER: Going back to the writing and the comic’s sensibilities. Like TF Animated it has, to my mind, a similar if not greater sense of reverence, revision, foreshadowing and narrative yield. A real fanboy’s delight.

ROBERTS: First and foremost, MTMTE is supposed to be fun. ‘Fun’ doesn’t mean it has to be lighthearted all the time, and it doesn’t mean we can’t have moments of real horror. We can, at times, be bleak and shocking and terrifying. But underpinning it all – and acting as a sort of narrative rocket fuel – is a sense of adventure and – dare I say it, in these grim-dark times? – joy. The main crew are all emotionally damaged, but, by and large, they face the universe with a smile on their face – a crooked smile, a thin-lipped smile, a mad-eyed grin, whatever. But as awful as things get at times, they brush themselves down and hope for the best. Building a likeable (if flawed) cast is key to infusing the title with a sense of fun, I think. The whole point of the series – the fact that they’re heading off into the stars on a weird, potentially open-ended adventure – also helps keep things bright. It’s not like Rodimus has set out to hunt down the people who killed his race or anything like that. It’s not a revenge fantasy. And the set up (while allowing for lots of action-packed incidents, mysteries, heroism and derring-do) does not lend itself to endless stories about killing. No, in MTMTE world, the war’s ended (sort of) and the crew of the Lost Light are looking for the promised land, essentially. It’s an optimistic quest, and optimism is at the heart of the book. True, you might sometimes have to dig through layers of cynicism and even nihilism to get to it, but underpinning the broader story arc, as unfashionable as it may be, is that sense of hope. Most of us are a bit misshapen, personality wise; we’re scuffed around the edges and (even if it’s only deep down) we don’t think too much of ourselves. But we recognise that the world around us is more good than bad, we keep faith in other people, and we soldier on. And that’s the (probably cheesy) message at the heart of MTMTE, and what, I think, encourages readers to really connect with – and become concerned for the safety of – the likes of Rodimus and Tailgate and Swerve and Whirl.

Now, all that talk about MTMTE being fun suggests that the fun in question is derived entirely from the interactions of the crew or the adventures themselves. But I try – not saying I succeed, but I try – to make it fun on other levels, too. We do a lot of world-building in MTMTE. I’m addicted to it. Unless what you’re saying contradicts established continuity, I don’t think you can go wrong with bringing new information to the fore. Adding details to their multi-million year backstory or offering an insight into their society – all this enriches their universe and draws the reader in further. What’s also fun is being able to exploit – in the most positive way possible – the fact that this is a serialised story, and one which is presented in such a way as to encourage multiple re-readings; when you’re dealing with words and pictures on a page it’s much easier to access and re-appraise previous events or moments in the storyline. And this absolutely encourages foreshadowing as a narrative device – one that hopefully adds value to the story and to the experience of following it.

WHITTAKER: Exactly. I think a lot of what you say about MTMTE can be said about TF Animated. There’s just a sort of added layer of enjoyment or appreciation. Both works stand on their own to the newcomer, but if the reader, to some degree, is informed, a literal mandala opens up before them. You spoke earlier of the think tank and ironing out continuity problems, having a year to plan MTMTE, and just now you spoke of world building and avoiding the trope of endless killing. Reading and re-reading MTMTE, I get a sense that you have a certain degree of knowledge of the IDW-verse prior to your work. Added to that a sense of foreshadowing of your own future narrative. I’m very much reminded of the way in which Furman, during his time, subtly built up the IDW-verse, which he had conceived in its entirety. Is this return to building a wider picture around seemingly innocuous events perhaps why he recently counted you amongst his figurative children?

ROBERTS: Okay, confession time. I wasn’t reading any Transformers comics when Dreamwave had the license, and when IDW took over in 2005 I was oblivious to their output until Nick Roche, a friend, told me he was drawing a one-shot about Shockwave. So I bought that and the two books that Nick wrote and drew, Spotlight: Kup in 2007 and an All Hail Megatron epilogue in 2009. And this is no disrespect to the creators or to IDW, but it wasn’t really until 2009 that I took the plunge and reacquainted myself with the whole of IDW TF Universe. So I discovered Simon’s fantastic mini-series and Spotlights – all his meticulous, far-reaching, world-building material – late in the day.

The IDW TF Universe can be divided into four distinct, creator-driven phases: Furman, McCarthy, Costa, and, most recently, Barber / Roberts. Shane McCarthy’s All Hail Megatron started off as a pretty hard reboot and became progressively softer as it went on. Mike Costa wrote nearly all of the first ongoing. Even then, the amount of G1 material that IDW had published was on the verge of outstripping the amount Marvel had put out in the ’80s, and there was a desire – and it was laudable, if difficult to achieve – to reinforce this idea that everything since Furman’s first issue for IDW in 2005 was part of the same huge story. And that’s where the ‘brain trust’ came from, and I think that’s why John in particular – and he’s amazing at this; much better than I am – took the opportunity to reconcile a lot of seemingly irreconcilable continuity issues (most of which had arisen during the hard / soft reboot). While I am a continuity nut, I’m much more comfortable with my own material. I’m not consciously trying to create a discreet ‘MTMTE Universe’ – my stuff exists firmly within the wider IDW TF Universe – but I do love telling complex, twisty, non-linear stories filled with flashbacks and foreshadowing, and I’m much more surefooted when exploring a narrative landscape I’ve created. I was beyond flattered when Simon – who is a childhood hero and an adult hero – described me, Nick, and Kieron Gillen (you may have heard of him) as his ‘children’. As kids, all three of us were raised on a steady diet of Transformers UK, a weekly comic that shaped the childhoods of literally hundreds of thousands of boys and girls in Britain and Ireland in the ’80s and early ’90s. I certainly have Simon to thank for my love of reading, and for making me realize that comics could tell huge, rolling, multi-year stories that used continuity to their advantage. While Simon was always a writer first and a fan second (and it’s debatable whether, at the time, he was even a fan), his TFUK stories were joyous – they read as if he loved the Autobots and Decepticons, and their world, as much as we did. He took them seriously and he never patronized his readers, and we recognised and respected that. Plus, you know, lots of fighting.

Continued in part two…

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hopepunk. Rapturist. Support worker. Writer. Firm believer that Chaos Magic is the Punk rock of the Paranormal and that Comic Books are our modern Grimoires. Dave views his contributing role to Sequart as the opportunity to nurture and hone his craft. All the while celebrating the comic medium and exploring it's interpretation and importance.

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