January is a big month for the “Transformers” franchise at IDW Publishing. Following the conclusion of the ongoing series in December and the “Death of Optimus Prime” one-shot, the new ongoing “Transformers: Robots in Disguise” debuted January 11 and “Transformers: More than Meets the Eye,” also ongoing, drops next Wednesday, January 25. Sandwiched between these two major releases is another hotly anticipated comic, “Transformers: Autocracy” by writers Chris Metzen and Flint Dille with artist Livio Ramondelli. Metzen is the Vice President of Creative Development at Blizzard Entertainment, where he has worked extensively on the “World of Warcraft” and “Starcraft” franchises, while Dille, also currently enmeshed in the video game industry, has major “Transformers” cred as one of the writers on the original 1980s cartoon, now referred to as G1. Ramondelli, of course, is fresh off the “Chaos” story arc that wrapped up the previous “Transformers” ongoing series. “Autocracy” will roll out in twelve biweekly issues of eight pages each, priced at $.99 through popular digital comics outlets Comixology and iVerse Comics+, IDW’s mobile apps, and at read.idwpublishing.com.
Comic Book Resources spoke with the creative team about “Autocracy,” its place within the greater “Transformers” mythos, and publishing direct to digital.
While Metzen and Dille might have a lot on their plates in the gaming world, both writers said they couldn’t pass up a chance to work on “Transformers.” “I met [IDW editor] Scott Dunbier a few years ago through a mutual friend, John Nee, formerly of Wildstorm,” Metzen told CBR News. “Scott and I talked a lot about comics and I blabbered on about my love of all things ‘Transformers.’ He offered me a chance to jump in the ‘Transformers’ pool, but at the time, I needed to make sure it wouldn’t over-complicate my day job. It wasn’t until I pitched my ideas to Flint that it all started really coming together. He seemed to really like what I had cooked up and (thankfully) agreed to be my co-pilot on this thing. We met with (then) IDW editor Andy Schmidt — and I guess the rest was history (pardon the pun).”
“Is there anybody who ever met anybody where John Nee didn’t introduce them?” Dille joked. “Yeah, I was kind of amazed by how open and helpful Andy was. He really nurtured us along. Then he passed the torch to John [Barber] and he caught it. Hopefully not on the lit end.”
If his Blizzard credentials weren’t enough, Metzen does have previous experience in comics, having written a short story for Tokyopop’s “Starcraft” manga and overseeing Wildstorm’s “World of Warcraft” comics. “I’m a life-long comics fan. I’ve been reading comics pretty much every week since I was twelve (give or take a year or so during high school). I always dreamed of creating comics and being part of that world,” he said. “I’ve had some good experience practically and editorially with the ‘Warcraft’ book we did with Wildstorm, and the Tokyopop short for ‘Starcraft’ was fun to write. But crafting something like ‘Autocracy’ was something I’ve yearned to do since I was a kid.”
“Autocracy” will be presented in a series of twelve 8-page biweekly issues, a format which might call for a different storytelling style than the usual block of twenty or so pages per episode. “I’d say the format definitely forces you to think tightly and economically about what you’re trying to show and say. We need to focus on the most pertinent ideas and beats of the story because there simply isn’t space to chase ideas down rabbit-trails,” Metzen said. “In a way, the restriction’s been really awesome insofar as it’s helped us keep things super tight and super focused. It’s all about keeping the story moving forward at a brisk pace.
“In a weird way, it’s a lot like writing for video games — you have to keep people focused on the action and get your ideas across in a very tight amount of time. In that way, it’s been a fairly comfortable process for me,” he added.
The shorter format also determined to some extent which characters receive the spotlight, and how much attention could be given to the supporting cast. “In terms of character screen-time, we had a lot of discussion about character equity and familiarity. We wanted to invest in characters that people knew well — and would have the most resonance,” Metzen said. “I think, for both Flint and I, it’s the G1 characters we were most interested in focusing on anyway — so again, the restriction kinda helped.”
“Chris is right. When you’ve only got 8 pages, there’s not a lot of time to have your characters stand around contemplating their radiators,” Dille said. “You get on with it. Let the action tell the story. You have to leverage what readers already know about the characters. Unlike Chris, I have a spotty knowledge of ‘Transformers’ since G1. I’ve tried to keep my innocence here and am trying to do a story that is accessible to ‘TF’ TV and Movie fans.”
“I think Flint and Chris have really made each chapter feel like a fulfilling part of a larger story,” artist Ramondelli added. “I think these chapters definitely move, they’ve got a momentum to them but at the same time I think they are packed full of story.
“In terms of character screen time, I’ve been amazed at how much time we’ve actually been able to give the major characters. A challenge can be ensuring that certain pivotal characters (like Optimus Prime, for example) get a dramatic revealing shot in every chapter without sacrificing other story elements. But certainly once the story is finished, I can’t think of any of our major characters who won’t feel like they had prominent screen time.”
The other interesting aspect, format-wise, is that these comics will be born-digital, without the availability of a print edition at present. Metzen said this delivery system makes sense both for the creators and for the story they’re telling. “More and more people are getting excited about digital content through their mobile devices. I’ve been reading a lot of comics digitally lately,” Metzen said. “Flint and I have both been working in the digital field for a long time, so I think going digital straight out the gate felt ‘right’ for us. A natural jump.”
“One thing I like about digital is the idea that we can treat it like a record album or an app,” Dille added. “If we want to remaster something, update, include more content, like interviews or the trailer, we can. We can link. It’s a malleable format. Digital helps realize my transmedia theory that nothing is ever really done. In theory, we could add to the story, tell a side story or a backstory and yet leave the original story intact. It’s really exciting.”
Ramondelli, who is more accustomed than his creative partners to the print format, agreed. “I think it’s a natural fit for both Flint and Chris to be involved in this kind of medium. Certainly Chris has shown in his career an amazing ability to balance a great story with the most up to date technology in terms of delivering it,” he said. “Both of these guys are totally committed to the story first, and our hope is that the digital format will allow it to reach not just the core readers, but people who might not venture into a comic shop.”
That accessibility for fans of Blizzard’s games or of Dille’s early “Transformers” work was another draw for the writers, both Metzen and Dille told CBR. “I’ve always pushed print comics as hard as I could to folks I thought would be receptive,” Metzen said. Hopefully this new digital wave of content will help show more and more people what they’ve been (possibly) missing out on.”
“Gamers are an incredibly nimble lot,” Dille added. “They’re used to digital stuff. They always want to go deeper. I think they ought to like it.”
As to the story itself, “Autocracy” takes place early in the war between Autobots and Decepticons, before Optimus Prime and Megatron had risen to their respective stations as the leaders of their tribes. Even so, “Autocracy” will show these two Cybertronians were pivotal forces in their planet’s history. “This series focuses on Orion Pax, who will ‘one day’ become the Optimus Prime we all know and love. It also focuses on Megatron who’s at the start of his own violent career,” Metzen said. “Building on previous IDW storylines (like ‘Chaos Theory’ and ‘Megatron: Origin’), ‘Autocracy’ shows these two titans at times in their lives before they became the characters we all grew up with. It shows how violent events and their own personal choices shaped the mighty leaders they would one day become. You could say that ‘Autocracy’ is the tale of how the war between the Autobots and Decepticons truly began.”
“The thing I like about this story is that we get to glimpse a time even more ancient than when this story begins,” Dille said. “And we’re going to see a couple of things we never expected to see. We’re also introducing some new characters.”
“It essentially takes place a few ‘years’ after the events of ‘Megatron:Origin,'” Metzen said, giving more background on the series’ setting. “The Decepticons have spread terror and dissension across the world, and the government has become a lot colder and ruthless in how it responds to this rising threat. Orion, essentially a good cop — who even stood up against the government decrying its corruption — has also become a little hardened and embittered by the seemingly unwinnable war against terror.
“I’d say the issue of Orion’s ‘heart’ — and his fight to maintain a sense of hope and optimism for the future of his people — is the core theme of ‘Autocracy,'” Metzen continued. “How does this hard-edged ‘policeman’ become the super-heroic leader we all grew up with in the ’80s? That’s something we’re very interested in pursuing.”
“But let’s be honest. This is Orion’s low point,” Dille said. “There’s not a good side he can go to. There are just different kinds of bad. There’s tyranny, anarchy and general malevolence. Its hard to be an angel in that world. Especially when you have a hole in your chest. In short, we’re in a world that needs an Optimus Prime. Okay, I’ll spill it. He’s going to come out of this story very different than he went into it. Frankly, one of the cool things about doing this story is that it answers some questions that have been rolling around in my head for a long time.”
While the modern Megatron is clearly the main villain of “Transformers” — he spent thirteen issues conquering and devastating Earth in “All Hail Megatron,” and perpetrated no small number of devious dealings in the ongoing series — at the time of “Autocracy” he is something different; he is a revolutionary, possibly a terrorist, but the morality is less clear cut. “As the story gets underway, it’s clear that Megatron and his lackeys have become public enemy number one. The government sees them as subversive terrorists, while many in the broader population see them as heroic revolutionaries,” Metzen said. “Remember at this time, the government itself is seen and a bit harsh on the common citizens.
“As always with Megatron, the core to him is the balance between his revolutionary ideals (which may be spot-on) and his tendency towards enacting them through brutality,” he continued. “Sometimes fighting fire with fire burns everything you were fighting for in the first place! Guys like Orion Pax just hate that kinda thing.”
“Orion’s dilemma is what to do when there are things worse than Megatron out there,” Dille added.
Given the series’ title, CBR News asked Metzen and Dille to elaborate on the structure of Cybertronian society at this point in “Transformers” history, and whether it operates as an autocracy, either effectively or literally. “As seen in ‘Chaos Theory,’ Cybertron was ruled by the Senate, with the Primes acting as ‘generals’ or ‘top cops.’ We know from IDW continuity that the Senate was assassinated by Soundwave at some point prior to the events of ‘Autocracy’ — which allowed more power to go to the ruling Prime,” Metzen said. “As ‘Autocracy’ begins, we see the current Prime, Zeta, has taken the reins of power. And he just may be more monstrous than any Decepticon…”
“Zeta is an interesting character,” Dille said. “He’s the kind of a leader you get when you’ll do anything to preserve the status quo. One day, we’d love to do the story of Zeta’s rise to power. He’s an interesting guy in his own right.”
In the throes of war, with even the heroes taking a more hardline stance, Metzen said the tone might be a shock to the system for some fans. “I’d warn readers right up-front that this tale does start off a little dark,” he said. “The war against the Decepticons’ terror has pushed everyone to their limits — especially Orion Pax. But it’s in these times where true heroes discover who they really are — and how far they’ll go to safeguard others.
“Readers may initially wonder, ‘Where’s the Optimus Prime I remember?’ Our response is: ‘He’s coming.‘”
“The thing readers have to remember is that this isn’t Optimus Prime. This is Orion Pax,” Dille said. “I’ve always thought of the Optimus we knew in G1 as being a little bit like John Wayne in ‘The Searchers.’ Peter Cullen’s voice captured it perfectly. Gravitas. There was a sense of having actually ‘peered into the abyss’ to him. ‘Autocracy’ gives us a glimpse into the abyss. And, a glimpse of the shining city on the acropolis, too.”
“Transformers: Autocracy” #1 is on sale now via Comixology, Comics+, and IDW’s mobile apps.