Reinventing the Cog:

A Conversation with The Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye’s James Roberts – Part Two

Ok, so I have something of a confession to make. This interview in its original conception was a single piece and was meant to have been published quite some time ago. James had originally hoped to have the interview published in time for the publication of issue #28 of MTMTE way back in April.

Sadly, that target came and went. I don’t think James had banked on me asking so many questions and to such great depth and detail. True I could have sent James the entire list of questions but I felt that would make the conversation static, less natural. You might think the interview is quite lengthy as it stands, however initially there were far more questions. Thankfully James’ answers were so detailed he actually answered a few questions before I had even asked them.

What, with all this dithering, am I confessing you may ask? Well basically Sequart announced their Transformers Week. What better time than to publish the interview I thought. Realistically though, even with a few questions left, I couldn’t put that pressure on James, especially with convention season on the horizon.

So with Interviewee and editorial consent I snipped our conversation in half, and the rest, as they say, is (hopefully) in your internet history.

So yes. Part two. Here we kind of move away from your generic creator interview, and talk about the specific standout qualities of MTMTE. If I were to have but one regret from the interview it would be not asking James about his and IDW’s ideas of gender amongst the denizens of Cybertron. Particularly the recent exploration of female Transformers, with Chromia, Wingblade and Nautica joining the up till now sole female Cybertronian Arcee.

MTMTE #28 - Roberts, Milne, Burcham, Long.

That said we at least celebrate the beauty that is Chromedome and Rewind. For convenience sake in the interview I categorized them as gay, because it seems we generally conceive of a majority of Cybertronians as essentially male. However (this is where I would have loved to have discussed gender) Cybertronians are, or were until recently, in essence genderless. Arcee, was essentially a non-consensual gender (re)assignment at the hands of Straxus. Cybertronians, with their altogether unique means of reproduction and existence of perpetual warfare, it seems found binary gender function outside their nature of being.

However that is a question that was never asked because as James points out it doesn’t matter how you perceive gender or sexuality. The core of Chromedome and Rewind is they are a good and genuine couple.  Which conveniently is right where part two of the interview picks up…

DAVID WHITTAKER: It would be an injustice not to talk about Chromedome and Rewind the first official “gay” couple in Transformers fiction. Also one of the sweetest couples, not only in Transformers, but in fiction in general. That’s a pretty bold move. How would you rate the reaction to this? Positive or negative?

JAMES ROBERTS: One of the sweetest couples in fiction? It’s nice of you to say that – thanks. I didn’t set out to make them sweet, just real. They were like a married couple – perhaps I should say a good married couple. Transformers being long-lived beings, they’ve clearly been in each other’s company for thousands and thousands of years, they know each other inside out, and they still have a love for each other. Their relationship evolved organically, albeit entirely behind the scenes, as I spent a year plotting and re-plotting the first 16 or so issues of MTMTE. I didn’t set out with the aim of having a Transformers couple on board ship. Chromedome and Rewind were going to be best friends (and it’s worth remembering that even having two characters who are best friends is (or was) a rarity in TF fiction), but as I wrote their scenes together I realized that there was a tenderness and tactility that took their relationship into a different dimension. So by the time I came to properly write issue 1, and they made their debut in Prowl’s office, they were a proper couple.

I didn’t think anyone at IDW or Hasbro would have a problem with the two of them being demonstrably close, and having a deep affection for each other, because everyone wanted the TF comic universe to be taken in new directions; and Hasbro in particular wanted John Barber and I to explore the more ‘human’ side of the characters. And I’ve never had a problem with Transformers loving each other because – and it really is a simple argument – if they can hate each other (and a four million year long civil war is ample evidence of hate), they can experience the opposite emotion. All that said, the Chromedome/Rewind relationship stepped up a gear – and moved fully into the open – with issue #16, when Rewind tells Chromedome (not for the first time, but it’s the first time we’ve seen it on the page) that he loves him. I was conscious that this was really nailing certain colors to the mast, and I was ready to make a case for those three words to stay in the script. But both John and Michael Kelly at Hasbro were incredibly supportive and encouraging, and the declaration of love survived the editing process. The reaction to the first Transformers gay couple was amazing – overwhelmingly positive. To be honest, I thought most people would be pretty cool with it, because most people are sensible and decent, but it was still encouraging to see. Hooray for Transformers fans.

WHITTAKER: I’ve used that argument myself; if they can experience hatred and camaraderie they can surely experience other emotions. You do find the odd negative reaction online. Thankfully those kinds of views do seem in the minority or don’t hold up in the long run even before the threads are deleted. If I can I’d like to segue this into talking about the pacing. It was at least two issues after Overlord’s rampage before the shock, tragedy, and cost of it all hit me. That isn’t a criticism by the way. For me this is another of the series’ appeals. The reader is almost made to feel that denial stage of the grieving process. The action never ends, even the supposed down time is an opportunity for characterization and comedy. And yet there is a greater subtlety at play. The nonstop laughs allow us to really take in the serious moments of reflection or tragedy.

ROBERTS: You’re absolutely right in that the down time is fertile ground for both characterization and comedy, and the two often go hand in hand. I’m pretty obsessed with making sure that every speech balloon in every panel on every page matters: it has to further the story (in a way that’s immediately or eventually apparent) or consolidate character. Every line has to earn its place in the script, and my desire to at least try and tell complex, engaging, well-rounded stories means there’s no room for slack or imprecise language. As an aside, there’s a constant tension between writing dialog that imparts a lot of information, and dialog that sounds realistic. Exposition versus naturalism. That’s something you have to worry about in a monthly comic book far more than you do in a novel. You’ve got 22 pages to play with, and that’s that.

WHITTAKER: Knowing you go through that kind of stringent screening of dialogue lends, at least from this reader’s perspective, the characters a certain charming honesty. They seem like real entities rather than just mouthpieces for certain ideas and opinions or to appear simply as catalysts for narrative.

ROBERTS: Thanks! A lot of MTMTE stories are quite high-concept, or if not high-concept then high-density in terms of the plot and the number of things happening at any one time. And because you’re limited to 22 pages and a certain number of panels per page, you only have so much space to convey ideas and information. I try, sometimes successfully, to smuggle exposition into natural-sounding dialog.

MTMTE #8 Roberts, Milne, Burcham, Lee.

I’ve become more confident in how to impart information, and in how good readers are at filling in gaps when you hold stuff back. You can structure a conversation between two characters in such a way that the reader comes in halfway through and discerns the thrust of what’s been said; and then you can dance around a bit and use ‘hard info’ sparingly, but the tone and pace of the conversation, and the order in which certain details are revealed, can lend everything a realistic bounce and ensure that what needs to be established has been established.

WHITTAKER: With the actual characters themselves, particularly through dialogue, you take established qualities and amplify them to an almost comical effect. Ultra Magnus for example.

ROBERTS: Well, you’ve got my number there. With some characters – my detractors would say most – I quite deliberately turn things up to 11. It’s almost a sitcom-style of writing. You’ve got limited space to work in (22 pages/22 minutes), so find the essence of a character, exaggerate it, and find ways to regularly reinforce those core characteristics in as organic a way as possible, as often as possible — at least in the early days, when you want a character to be distinct and to make their mark. I don’t know if this theory holds – let’s see how I feel by the end of this sentence – but often, character traits are played up and amplified over the course of a series (TV sitcom, comic, whatever), but if anything I try – in most cases! – to tone things down. Go in hard, play up the extremes of someone’s personality, then, once that’s well-established, ease off the throttle a bit. Or maybe I’m overthinking it and deluding myself.

MTMTE #5 Roberts, Milne, Burcham, Mowry

Oh, and to an extent, at least, the Magnus thing had a serious undertone – his obsessive observance of the rules was his way of coping with the postwar environment.

WHITTAKER: However other characters you seem to throw the reader a curveball and take them somewhere completely unexpected. Skids never really appealed to me until I read MTMTE. Where does inspiration for this come from? Toy bios? Past conceptions? Or just completely out of the blue?

ROBERTS: I look for two things when deciding who should be in MTMTE. If a pre-existing Generation 1 character has a quirky/interesting character aspect that hasn’t to date been properly explored, I’ll take them and have some fun. But ‘blank canvas’ characters are also valuable. If you can find a recognizable TF character who hasn’t been used before, like Skids, grab them! They won’t have a backstory – and you can build their past as you go. And MTMTE, especially in the early days, was as much about what the characters did as it was about what they were doing now, so I was after people without baggage. Oh – there’s a third category of character: when you need someone with a specific skill set and no pre-existing character fits the bill. That’s how Rung (the Lost Light’s psychiatrist) came about.

WHITTAKER: There also seems to be many pop subculture references in MTMTE, the most apparent being in the art. You have the cover that is an homage to the Justice League International with Rodimus as Guy Gardner or more recently Megatron as Guy Gardner. Then there is that single panel of Chromedome that made me think of the lie down, try not to cry meme. The cover artwork of Rodimus and Rung et al echoes Frank Frazetta, at least to me. Then there is Sergeant Pepper Cover. Is that a collaborative thing between you and the artists or all the artistic team?

ROBERTS: You have to be careful with ‘in universe’ pop culture references because we’re obviously dealing with an alien race who (with the exception of those Autobots and Decepticons who have spent time on Earth) have no knowledge of or connection to our culture. And in any case, pop culture references date quickly. As I think you intimate with your question, when MTMTE nods towards pop culture it tends to be with its visuals. The Justice League International cover has been homaged to death, I know, but we used it as the basis for issue 1′s cover because it had become pop-cultural shorthand for ‘this is a fun ensemble book that doesn’t take itself too seriously’ – and I was very keen to send that message out into the world because I don’t think the type of casual comic book readers we wanted to attract were aware that Transformers can do lighthearted, frothy stories (at this point I should add that the lightheartedness and froth was, of course, just a cover to disguise the drama and pain underneath).

Covers by Nick Roche with colours by Josh Burcham, Letters by Shawn Lee for #1 and Tom B. Long for #28.

Alex Milne’s cover to issue #20 was based on one of the theatrical posters for the movie Hard Boiled, and his cover to #21 was loosely based on the video to Radiohead’s ‘Just’. On those occasions I had a specific image in mind and used the movie poster and the music video as references.

MTMTE issues #20 and 21 cover art

MTMTE issues #20 and 21 cover art

The Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover, by Casey Coller and Joana Lafuente, was part of a series of covers that IDW put out that month based on iconic album covers. I chose Sgt Pepper but the Smiths’ Meat Is Murder and the Pet Shop Boys’ Actually were also contenders.

I listen to a lot of music (there’s an unofficial MTMTE soundtrack that I add to every month, posting tunes that on some level reflect the content of the latest issue), and music references do creep into the comic, either by way of the covers (see above) or the story titles. So far we’ve had Remain in Light (after a Talking Heads album), Under Cold Blue Stars (after a Josh Rouse song/album) and Cybertronian Homesick Blues (very proud of that one), and the ‘Liars, A to D’ arc in the first three issues takes a Dexys Midnight Runners song as its inspiration. There are other little music nods, too: in issue 13 I had a human character (actually a hologram) wear a Divine Comedy t-shirt (after the band, not the 14th century poem), and in issue 14 there was a character named Momus (after the Scottish musician, not the Greek god of mockery). I’m sure I’ve sneaked references to Morrissey lyrics into the script, as well.

WHITTAKER: Moving along if we may to current events? Megatron, at least the back story as conceived within the IDW verse by you and others, is a character that is hard not to empathize with. Origin posited him as somewhere between Fight Club’s Tyler Durden and Gladiator’s Maximus. Which was cool, but since then it could be argued you (and others) have built upon the spark, sorry, the soul of that character. Chaos Theory has Megatron initially advocating pacifism and espousing an analogue of the late Tony Benn’s Five Questions; a master stroke. Then of course we have the tidbits of Megatron’s history and philosophy dotted through MTMTE itself. With Megatron joining the Lost Light and with the preview revealing him interacting with Rung will we see any more of this exploration of not just who he is, but who he was and how he came to be?

Roberts: It should be impossible to make people feel sympathy for Megatron, given what he’s done. I’m talking about outside the comics – if this story was happening for real, in our world. Megatron’s responsible, directly and indirectly, for the deaths of literally billions of innocent people. It’s interesting – in real life, I can’t imagine what it would take for the wider world to show even a modicum of forgiveness and understanding towards a convicted mass murderer/despot/war criminal. I can’t think of mitigating circumstances compelling enough for the man on the street – much less the victims of said criminal – to say, ‘He’s not all bad.’ You could find out that the criminal suffered as a child, or started off on the road to his future crimes with the best of intentions, or whatever, but I doubt it would be enough to even partly rehabilitate him in the eyes of the public.

MTMTE #7 - Roberts, Milne, Burcham, La Fuente, Lee.

And yet… in the world of fiction, things can be a little different. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they are, but it does raise interesting questions about why we’re quicker to forgive, if that’s the right word, when dealing with fictional characters. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that, in these types of stories, the villains are rarely painted as absolute monsters. I mean, they’re characters you love to hate, as the saying goes; you can’t feel unfettered hatred towards them otherwise it would, in all likelihood, put you off reading the stories. So yeah, even at his worst there was something about Megatron that made him interesting as a character, and therefore not someone who, as a reader, you genuinely loathed. After I was asked to write MTMTE I pitched IDW an idea for a Megatron story built around an issue-long conversation between him and Prime. Megatron was a prisoner and this was a chance for them to talk. I wanted to write that story because there was still a question mark over why Megatron did what he did; about what the Decepticons stood for; and about what their goals were, both originally and in the present day.

Transformers: Ongoing #22 - Roberts, Milne, Lafuente, Lee.

Megatron: Origin had explored how Megatron became Decepticon leader – and I really like Origin, it’s cracking – but I wanted to take time to explore Megatron’s philosophy. I wanted to make him a deeply political figure. It wasn’t Megatron’s skill in the gladiatorial arena that originally made him a force to be reckoned with, it was his mind; his words, not his fists. The pre-war Cybertronian authorities could have handled a thug, but a warrior philosopher? An intellectual driven by rage? That’s a different story.

Transformers: Ongoing #23 - Roberts, Milne, Lafuente, Lee.

So yes, with the Chaos Theory story in 2011 I wanted to show Megatron as having started off as a poetry-writing pacifist because it made the point, quickly and simply, that he wasn’t ‘born’ evil. It flagged up the fact that he had been on a journey – a huge one – which had turned him from someone who wanted to fight injustice with words, to someone who actively sought to subjugate ‘lesser’ races and turn whole planets into versions of his homeworld. But it turns out that journey isn’t over, and Season 2 of MTMTE is all about him – what he wants, what he’s afraid of, what he thinks of his actions over the last four million years.

WHITTAKER: I feel it is somewhat to this conversations detriment that I haven’t really asked about Dark Cybertron. But I can’t really talk about something I haven’t read. That isn’t a critique. As I said in my initial tweet I was just so wowed by Season One of MTMTE. However having read the finale I can safely say that I am looking forward to catching up with Dark Cybertron as much I anticipate Season Two of MTMTE. Ok, here is a Dark Cybertron themed question. How did it feel going back into a collaborative effort after so long flying solo?

ROBERTS: Oh, it was fun! John and I had worked together on Death of Optimus Prime which kicked off the Robots In Disguise and MTMTE ongoing, so this wasn’t entirely new territory. And John’s my editor on MTMTE, so he and I have always been in contact — we’ve each come to know how the other person approaches a story. For most of Dark Cybertron the RiD and MTMTE casts were kept apart from each other, and John would write the scenes featuring RiD characters while I would do the same for the MTMTE bits. The lines became more blurred as the story progressed, and by the time we reached Part 9, when the two casts were reunited, we were pretty much taking the DoOP approach whereby each of us would take a solo stab at a scene and then pass it to the other person to adjust/comment on.

WHITTAKER: James, it has been a genuine absolute pleasure, one that I still find hard to believe and will never forget. Both personally and on behalf of Sequart I thank you for your time and of course the insight you have given us.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Having spent his college years filling his head with the eccentricities reading The Invisibles would David Whittaker is perpetually amazed and grateful for the chance Sequart gave him. He views his contributing role as the opportunity to nurture and hone his craft while celebrating the comic medium and sharing it's interpretation and importance. To that end he ensures its endurance by sharing his love of this unique marriage of art and literature not only with anyone willing to read his work but also with his nine year old daughter and three year old nephew.

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this interview. MTMTE is one of my favorite books currently running. It’s good to see that James Roberts cares with these bots the same us fans do.

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