Turn The Screw: John Barber, James Roberts, And Mairghread Scott On The New Post-‘Revolution’ Transformers [SDCC 2016]
For those of us who have been waiting thirty years for MASK, Transformers, GI Joe and a handful of other Hasbro properties to be thrown into the same universe, but it raises a lot of questions about what it's going to mean for the books that have been around for a while once the big Revolution event happens. For the Transformers especially, the franchise at the center of the action, there are a lot of questions about how it all ties together.
Now, with IDW revealing their post-Revolution plans at San Diego Comic-Con, we've got some answers from Optimus Prime writer John Barber, Transformers: Lost Light writer James Roberts, and Transformers: Til All Are One writer Mairghread Scott. Read on for their thoughts on integrating their complicated history into a new universe, the metaphors behind Cybertronian politics, and whether Roberts feels bad for making me cry about Chromedome and Rewind.
ComicsAlliance: Since it's the one that's set on Earth, it seems like the post-Revolution combined universe is probably going to affect your book more than the others. How do you go about integrating the history of the Transformers on Earth into all of those disparate stories?
John Barber: In a macro sense, the GI Joe comic hasn’t really delved into the deep history of Earth and of the universe the way Transformers has, so there’s not a whole lot of back-time that’s irreconcilable. There were big Earth-shattering events that have happened in Transformers, and to a lesser degree, in GI Joe, so maybe there’s some squinting that needs to be done to make it all fit, but… I mean, we don’t name-check real-world tragedies in the comics with a great regularity. That doesn’t mean those tragedies didn’t happen, or wouldn’t have impacted the characters, it just doesn’t necessarily come up in the midst of a story focused on tracking down Tomax or Galvatron or whatever.
To me, there are two really big plusses that outweigh any of the incongruities:
One: I am really happy that the GI Joe stories laid out over the years still “happened.” I know that sounds silly, and when I’m reading a comic I really love, like [Ed] Brubaker and [Sean] Phillips’ Sleeper, and the universe that comic occurred in no longer has new comics set in it… it doesn’t bother me at the moment of re-reading Sleeper, but there’s a little pang that that universe is gone. I’m happy that these characters still remember Chuckles from the Cobra series.
Two: I really like that the Earth Optimus Prime is in is a rich and thriving place where there are other stories with big conceptual weight; where GI Joe and MASK and Rom and the Micronauts and Action Man all have histories and futures and impact the present and can interact or not interact as works for any given story. I like that this is about Optimus Prime on a living Earth — not him in a world designed to react to Transformers stories.
But, I don’t know. That sounds real stuffy. Kei Zama and I are just really excited to get into some action-packed, emotionally-centered stories about Optimus, and the people (metal and flesh) around him.
CA: From reading Transformers, it seems like diving into the continuity of the stories is something you enjoy, so was that a challenge to figure out how to do it on such a large scale?
JB: I think there’s fun stuff to be mined from the existing stories — I like the idea that all this is one big tapestry. You don’t have to read all of it, but it all fits together. I think it’s really fun to look at this world at a macro level and see how all these pieces can play against each other, to create a world that is complex and interesting, so our characters’ actions and emotions can really play out.
And yeah — it’s a fun challenge to look around and figure out how these characters could fit together, and what elements from different stories can come in… what little hint in a Fred Van Lente/Steve Kurth GI Joe might grow to be a big story for Optimus Prime to deal with, or where Action Man might have played a role behind the scenes of the Simon Furman/E.J. Su Transformers, or some crazy-cool idea Chuck Dixon came up with could show up again.
CA: With Ore-13 being such a big part of major Transformers stories like "Dark Cybertron," is this something that's been planned for the past few years, or did it just line up that way as something that could be mixed into the larger universe?
JB: That’s a complicated one to answer… Ore-13 is why the Transformers are on Earth. Ore-13 is on Earth because Shockwave put it there. Shockwave put it there (on Earth specifically) because, it seems, Galvatron (inadvertently) crashed the Enigma of Combination on Earth — the Enigma is a super-ancient Cybertronian relic.
So, what that all means is, going forth from "All Hail Optimus," Ore-13 was playing a role. Revolution sort of focuses that a little tighter, and it made sense to highlight it thematically because it was something Simon and E.J. planted right from the beginning of Transformers comics at IDW, which was the beginning of IDW’s relationship with Hasbro.
So, it’s not like we did "Dark Cybertron" knowing inevitably that three years later we’d have Revolution, but the function of Ore-13 didn’t really change that much.
CA: Since you're just coming off of thirteen issues of Transformers vs. GI Joe with Tom Scioli, can we expect anything on the scale of the crossover we saw in that book, with planet-sized Transformers and massive invasions?
JB: Jeepers. Stuff got pretty big, there… I don’t know if there’s an imagination on Earth the size of Tom’s, no offense to me and everybody else. There’s some big stuff planned in Optimus Prime and everywhere, but there’s no sense trying to out-big the biggest story ever told.
CA: Will Thundercracker be shifting his writing efforts to writing military fantasy stories inspired by GI Joe, and would it help to get this storyline if I said please?
JB: Hm… that’s pretty good! Thundercracker filters his life through bad movies. The Transformers: Revolution issue is basically him caught up in White House Down (him along with Buster and Marissa Faireborn, that is). I kind of think of it like if Andy from Parks and Recreation actually became Star-Lord. But, I mean, Thundercracker is a deadly Decepticon Seeker. He’s a goofball when it comes to social interactions and writing, but he’s one of the most elite Transformers warriors around. So he does know his military stuff.
But yeah, seeing how he’d try to figure out what a human military thing means… that could be a lot of fun!
CA: Considering that More Than Meets The Eye has taken place almost entirely in the far reaches of space, will the restructuring of the post-Revolution universe affect your story, James? Will one of those side-quests take your crew to Earth at some point soon?
James Roberts: Well, MTMTE gets in on the action with a Revolution tie-in featuring the Scavengers, who are kind of the alternative main cast. That's an Earth-based story. Nick Roche and I are co-writing for the first time since 2010's Last Stand of the Wreckers, so even if we weren't getting an opportunity to pit the world's worst Decepticons against the likes of MASK and GI Joe, it would still feel like an event for us.
Post-Revolution, there are no plans for the main MTMTE cast to travel to Earth... but then that's unsurprising, considering the situation they find themselves in at the end of MTMTE #55, which marks the end of what we're calling the Season 2 finale, ‘The Dying of the Light.’
The post-Revolution universe is just that, though --- a universe. And there are opportunities, should I wish to take them, to play around in the new, enlarged sandpit even though, as you say, the Lost Light and its crew are far away from Earth.
CA: Why relaunch now? Up to this point, MTMTE has been built on the idea of paying off a complicated series of events and rewarding readers for paying attention --- even going back to stories like "Chaos Theory." Is giving readers this kind of clean break the sign of something more than just existing in a new universe?
JR: Why should MTMTE miss out on all the fun of a big, brash, heavily-promoted "new readers start here" mega-event? No, but seriously, it made sense for MTMTE to be renumbered alongside Transformers and to have a new issue one alongside all the other post-Revolution books.
But don't worry! I want to make it absolutely clear that the main MTMTE storyline is continuing. We're not sacrificing any of the backstory, nor fiddling with future plans. Transformers: Lost Light is MTMTE behind a different cover, referencing and building on and playing off five years of backstory.
The "clean break" isn't a clean break in the sense that it jettisons all that's come before. It's more a jumping on point --- and it's come about entirely naturally. As I say, we've just reached the end of "Season 2," which ran from issues #28 to #55 of MTMTE. Had Revolution not come about, we'd still have had the Titans Return crossover in issues #56 and #57, and then we'd have used #58 to launch Season 3.
I always use "season premieres" as an opportunity to grab new readers' attention --- I did it with #28, which started with a 'Six Months Later' caption and a scene featuring Megatron on a psychiatrist's couch. And for reasons that will become apparent, the situation we find ourselves in at the start of Season 3 makes for a perfect jumping on point. So nothing's been lost or sacrificed by taking on a new name and starting again from #1 --- the hope is that we'll attract new readers who have heard good things about MTMTE but who felt they'd missed the bus first time round.
CA: By my count, we now have three groups all searching for the Knights of Cybertron: Team Rodimus, the mutineers on the Lost Light, and Thunderclash. How are they going to be interacting in the future?
JR: Well, Thunderclash joined the Lost Light crew prior to the mutiny, so really we have two groups looking for the Knights --- two groups that we know about, anyway. And I have to say the mutineers, led by Getaway, are in a much, much better position than poor Rodimus and Co, who at the end of #55 have probably never been further from achieving their goal.
Season 3, as it plays out in the pages of Lost Light, is going to take everybody in some very strange directions. The quest for the Knights is going to much more at the forefront than it has been to date. There's an urgency about it now that perhaps wasn't there before. Different characters --- and I'd being careful not to give anything away, because who knows who we'll be focusing on in the future --- will find themselves weighing up their loyalties and their priorities as we start to turn our attention, in small but significant ways, to the end of the quest.
CA: I know that it's not an official part of the Hasbro universe, but let's be real here: Questing for lost knights definitely sounds like something that would happen in Dungeons & Dragons, and if there's one thing Faerûn needs, it's a robot that can turn into a tank. Any plans to play with different genres like you did with sitcoms on Swearth?
JR: I doubt I'll do anything quite as meta as "The One Where They Go To Earth," but I do like the stories --- whether in MTMTE or Lost Light --- to feel distinct from each other, and dabbling in different genres keeps things varied. There are a couple of movie-inspired stories that I've had on the back burner for a while now, and I'm trying to find ways to work them organically into the new series. Same with the high-concept stuff --- finding new ways to tell stories, and to fully exploit the medium, is always fun.
CA: Do you feel any regret for making me cry about robots named "Chromedome" and "Rewind"?
JR: Ha! None whatsoever. I want you to cry about giant robots forever. Tears of sadness and joy. I want you to be so emotionally compromised after reading an issue that you can't even make sense of what you're feeling. My three word mission statement when it comes to the new series: turn the screw.
CA: Mairghread, you've mentioned before that the scope of the book grew to the point where calling it "Windblade" didn't make sense anymore. Was that something you'd originally intended when you shifted the focus onto the lost Cybertronian colonies, or was it an unexpected consequence of the story?
Mairghread Scott: Well, the situation on Cybertron right now is huge: Iacon is the only habitable city on the planet, and it's currently under the rule of Starscream, who is probably going insane. A half-dozen colony worlds have returned and these new immigrants are causing a lot of political instability. People from down-to-earth Ironhide to the deadly radical Onslaught are literally fighting for hearts and minds in the streets. Windblade is being blackmailed because of her best friend's actions, and no one can figure out where the heck Swindle is, despite him being dead!
That's way too big and fun a situation to see from one character's point of view. I'd always hoped to play in a larger sandbox and as soon as I knew Till All Are One would be an ongoing I knew we had to see these conflicts and characters from everyone's side. I want you to see that Onslaught is a brutal warmonger and a valiant warrior who refuses to be treated like a second-class citizen. Starscream is a paranoid dictator... except that several people are out to get him. And Windblade (who will always be at the heart of this) is rapidly approaching that fragile line where the ends no longer justify the means.
These are all amazing, complex situations, and our new title underscores that. Till All Are One is a book about the messiness of people from all walks of life, not just the story of one flawed heroine.
CA: Of all the characters that you've focused on --- Windblade, Chromia, and Starscream being the main ones --- I don't think anyone expected Swindle to be the most important character of the recent stories. How did you arrive at that decision?
MS: I saw a fan tweet that they just couldn't accept Swindle was dead after we shot him in Combiner Wars, and I thought, "Huh, I wonder if anyone on Cybertron would feel the same way?" After all, lots of Transformers have been hidden in secret prisons and survived way worse injuries. He could be alive... but who'd want to save him?
Thus began the infamous cry, "Swindle Lives!" How can you not love the idea that a low-life huckster nobody even liked has become the rallying point for an entire people (Decepticons) sick of being brutally oppressed and denied at every turn. Rightly or wrongly, Decepticons on Cybertron have suffered some extreme "collective punishment" and Swindle's "death" and seeming-abduction by Starscream was the breaking point. It could have been anyone, but it's Swindle.
Even better, the location of Swindle's body has become this big mystery for several of our main characters because there's no reason for anyone to steal him... unless he's not dead. Unless he could ruin everything. Doubt is a terrible thing and it's running rampant on Cybertron.
CA: Chronicling political machinations and culture clash through the medium of robots that turn into cars seems like a tricky proposition, but it's something that's been at the center of the Transformers books set on Cybertron for quite a while now. How do you approach it to make it work without seeming silly --- or at least, unintentionally silly?
MS: Science fiction has always been a place to talk about human issues that are a bit too touchy to explore with actual human characters. Police brutality, political and religious extremism, government corruption and overreach, bigotry, poverty, crime, these are all things our readers are confronted with every day. To act like Transformers, who are so like us, wouldn't face the same challenges is disingenuous to the characters. To act like our book is supposed to teach some kind of set morality to our readers is disingenuous to our readers.
Instead we're trying to build interesting, exciting stories that are real enough to feel like they matter without getting too bogged down in the 'realness' of any actual event. Turning into cars and planes is just as big a part of our characters as anything else. And it's fun! There's no reason to get rid of it just so we can feel "ripped from the headlines!"
That's why an artist like Sara Pitre-Durocher is so critical to TAAO. She brings a humanity to our characters that lets our readers decide for themselves what the "right thing" is. But she also draws amazing action that keeps you turning the page. We want you to get an exhilarating story in every issue of Transformers: Till All Are One. If after you put it down, you think back to it when something happens in real life, so much the better.