Barber and Roberts Build "Transformers" Civilization

After numerous miniseries, the conquest of Earth in "All Hail Megatron," and thirty issues of an ongoing series, the aeons-long war between the Autobots and Decepticons came to end in 2011, as the noble Autobots comprehensively defeated their foes and pledged to restart life and civilization on their desolate home world of Cybertron. Following a one-shot titled "The Death of Optimus Prime," which in fact showed the 'bot once known as Orion Pax relinquishing his leadership title, IDW Publishing launched two new ongoing series, "Transformers: Robots in Disguise" by John Barber and Andrew Griffith and "Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye" by James Roberts and Alex Milne. The former is set on Cybertron, depicting the struggle to rebuild a functioning society, while the latter is set in space, as Rodimus and a crew of volunteers search for the legendary Knights of Cybertron, whom he believes can usher in a new golden age.

Now, with four issues of each series now on sale -- plus eight issues of the direct-to-digital "Autocracy," revealing the history of the war -- CBR News spoke with Barber and Roberts about their books and what's coming up next.

With the war between Autobots and Decepticons finally ended after millenia of conflict, Roberts and Barber are able to shift focus onto other aspects of Transformers civilization. Both "More than Meets the Eye" and "Robots in Disguise" are currently building out the culture of the Cybertronians, not only through the return of the non-affiliated 'bots (derisively called NAILs, or Non-Affiliated Indigenous Lifeforms, by the former warring factions) but also through the exploration of other previously unseen groups. In "More than Meets the Eye" #4, for example, readers meet two "Genericons," adherents of an anti-transformation zealot sect.

"Looking beyond the Autobots and Decepticons was something I always intended to do, and will continue doing," Roberts said. "I think digging deeper into Cybertronian society adds color and spice to the larger TF universe, and encourages you to reappraise the Autobots and Decepticons. That's happening across in 'Robots in Disguise,' too, with the arrival of the neutrals, or non-affiliated Cybertronians. For years, the Cybertronian race seemed to be comprised solely of Autobots and Decepticons, but of course those are just rival military factions; there's a lot of mileage in exploring the make-up of the rest of the population.

Roberts added that, just as the unaligned Transformers are offended to be called "NAILs," the anti-alt-mode Cybertronians have a more prestigious name for themselves, as well. "The term 'genericon' is a pejorative coined by the Autobots -- it describes low-ranking Decepticon cannon fodder," the writer told CBR. "The Militant Monoform Movement or Triple M is an anti-mode-changing religious sect; they have their transformation cogs surgically removed as a sign of their faith. They've been mentioned a few times and will play a bigger role as time goes on. We'll be meeting other weird and wonderful groups as the series progresses.

"The Triple M is something I'm especially excited about. I'm fascinated by the act of changing modes, insofar as it shapes the Cybertronians culturally, i.e. by the way in which having two (or more) bodies impacts on a race," he continued. "Thus far we've had a character change himself to death as an act of political protest (the equivalent of Tibetan monks self-immolating), we've had one character chide another for having a useless alt mode, we've explored how it's considered impolite for one Cybertronian to ask another what he turns into, and in the latest issue we've learned more about Triple M and their rejection of the whole thing.

"So while some issues don't have much in the way of characters actually changing modes, the deeper socio-cultural impact of changing is a constant subtext."

Another vantage point through which Roberts is able to explore Transformers society is through the perspective of Tailgate, whose story is heartbreaking -- he spent six million years buried beneath Cybertron, missing the war between Autobots and Decepticons, and when he emerges to join the crew of the Lost Light he thinks he's found a place with the Decepticons, only to be shown that they're monsters. "In some respects Tailgate is the new reader surrogate; the entry point into the mad postwar world of Autobots and Decepticons. He missed the war entirely and has a lot of catching up to do," Roberts said. "As we've seen, he's having trouble working out his place. And being the friendly, trusting sort, he's vulnerable to manipulation -- whether the people doing the manipulating realize it or not.

"Since accidentally joining the crew of the Lost Light he's been stuck in mid-mode-change, naively declared his intention to become a Decepticon, had the horrors of the Cybertronian civil war compressed into a ten second stream of nightmare images beamed directly into his brain, and been viciously attacked by Cyclonus, his only true contemporary," Roberts said. "He's having a torrid time of it, and he kind of ricochets around from one rash decision to the next. What's he hoping for? He just wants to belong, and to figure out where he fits in. His story is far from over."

As Roberts takes Rodimus' crew to Transformers outposts throughout the universe, under Barber's pen the situation back home on Cybertron is starting to take an interesting shape, as well. Bumblebee, representing the victorious Autobots, has attempted to form a government, but despite his best efforts has rapidly lost control of the situation. "Prior to this series, Bumblebee had been appointed leader of the Autobots -- but he never had much of a chance to exercise any real authority, because Optimus Prime was always there. When Prime abdicated in the 'Death of Optimus Prime' one-shot, and Rodimus took a huge group of Autobots into space and into the 'More Than Meets the Eye' series, Bee was really left in the position of authority -- I mean, he took the reins, but he did it out of a sense that 'somebody has to' and he wouldn't want to put anybody in that position," Barber said.

"So I see him as being a good guy who's being forced to make tough decisions. When Metalhawk showed up, he became the de facto representative of all the new, neutral, non-Autobot/non-Decepticon arrivals," Barber continued. "And he sees the tough decisions Bee's making, and Metalhawk doesn't agree with them. Which is valid from a certain point of view, but at this stage we don't really know Metalhawk's motivations -- very deliberately, we're not getting to see what Metalhawk's thinking. Is he out for power or is he looking out for the interests of the other Cybertronians?

"Added to that, Starscream has managed to insinuate himself into the political sphere and ally himself -- to a degree -- with Metalhawk and the new arrivals. They don't know what Starscream has done in the past, the terrible things he's responsible for; so when Starscream calls for free elections, there's actually a chance that he'll be voted leader. So that's where we stand now: Starscream demanding general elections and Bumblebee horrified by that prospect -- even though he believes in the principle of elections."

Starscream has not only worked his way into a position of power in a ruling coalition, but also has begun spinning more intricate machinations in a manner that may recall some real-life coups d'etat. However, Barber said the intrigue was not meant to allude to any particular revolution. "There isn't a one-to-one analogy at work, but I want to have this Cybertron be a world that resonates with the real world," he said. "There are those resonances -- at least I hope there are -- but it isn't meant to recall one particular thing; more or a general mistrust of power. Like in 'Nineteen Eighty-Four,' the idea of power as an ends unto itself rather than a means to affect change, is what's in question."

Though Starscream may be the most obvious threat to Bumblebee's tenuous rule, the Autobot Prowl looks to be beginning his own insurrection. Curiously, the power dynamic in "Robots in Disguise" mirrors that seen in the digital-only series "Autocracy," which shows Megatron's rebellion against Zeta Prime's regime, which kicked off the millenia-long war. "This comes up more as the series progresses," Barber told CBR. "'Autocracy' is set millions of years ago, and you can read either it or 'Robots in Disguise' without needing to read the other, but these are the same characters. There's a bit with Blurr coming up, something my fantastic collaborator, 'RID' artist Andrew Griffith, suggested, that really pulls the two together. We kind of see Prowl's point of view on death of the tyrannical Zeta Prime -- as seen in 'Autocracy' -- and then we see Blurr's POV on how Prowl is starting to act that way.

"So, er... without trying to ruin too much, yeah, there are deliberate links between the two, but nothing that would get in the way if you're only reading one."

Barber also noted that, looking at the two series, "the present is almost an inverse of the past." "In 'Autocracy,' they're tearing down a corrupt power structure; in 'RID,' they're building a power structure. 'Will it be as corrupt?' is the question."

Coming up in "Robots in Disguise" #6 is the return of Orion Pax -- the Autobot formerly known as Optimus Prime -- who left Cybertron after the conclusion of the war. "Optimus Prime saw that, to the new arrivals, he was a symbol of the war -- they didn't really care about the differences between the Autobots and Decepticons; they just care about the destruction of the world, and of their friends," Barber said. So, with the Matrix broken in half, Prime took on his old identity of Orion Pax and left Cybertron.

"As we find him in issue #6, he's still deep in space, visiting some old friends that Transformers fans might recognize: Wheelie, Hardhead, and the lizard-alien Garnak. All of them had left Cybertron with some special cargo -- and recent events have led them to call for Orion's help," he continued. "Just because he's not Optimus Prime doesn't mean he's stopped fighting for rights of all sentient beings."

Also taking the stage in this issue is Shockwave, one of Megatron's deadliest lieutenants and a Decepticon known for playing the long game. "Orion steps into a plan that was enacted hundreds of thousands of years ago by Shockwave, and now is being brought to fruition," Barber said. "New readers will get to see more of the universe-wide cosmic side of the Transformers mythos -- and I think old readers will be stunned by some of what we're following up on. Issue #4 basically sets the stage for what happens in the next year of 'RID' -- and issue #6 lays the foundation for what comes after.

"'Autocracy' artist Livio Ramondeli is the guest artist on this issue -- and on its follow-up in issue #10 -- and he really knocked this issue out of the park," Barber added. "He has a background in landscape design for video games, and he really used those abilities to the fullest. Plus, he's amazing at everything he draws."

Following that, Turmoil comes to Cybertron in "RID" #7, representing a new challenge for the Autobots, Decepticons, and NAILs (or, rather, the unaffiliated). "When the presumed-dead Turmoil shows up on Cybertron in issue #7, it presents a new kind of question for Bumblebee and the others," Barber said. "Here's a Decepticon arriving -- one that nobody trusts. What do you do? Do you let him walk around until he does something wrong? Do you take him down for his past actions -- when everybody's got some shady activities in their past? Is he guilty of what he might do?

"So Wheeljack launches into his own investigation and what he uncovers... well, it wasn't what he expected to uncover."

Barber added that "RID" #7 will feature yet another return to the "Transformers" universe. "My great friend Brendan Cahill is doing the art on this -- we haven't worked together for a while now, and it's great to get back into a comic with him. We actually did our first comic together, back in 1999 -- a self-published comic called 'Without a Past' that only made it one issue. We've worked together on a number of things since then, but it's great to get to do a Transformers comic together, after he did such an amazing job on the 'Police Action' storyline last year."

Meanwhile, in Roberts' "More than Meets the Eye," the crew of the Lost Light are currently facing the Red Rust contagion, a deadly outbreak with some similarities to the Hate Plague from the original cartoon. "By the end of part one of the Red Rust storyline, we've learned that you can carry the virus for days without realizing it, that medics seem to be unaffected, and that once you start the show symptoms you don't have long to live," Roberts told CBR. "When the virus is active it eats you from the inside and out, with your optics being particularly vulnerable -- hence reports of patients 'crying themselves to death.' It's a horrific way to die.

"The great thing about writing an 'Outbreak'-style two-parter is that can double as a 'bottle' story, where all the protagonists are trapped in a confined space and forced to rely on each other," Roberts added. "I liked the idea of a team of Autobot medics having to face down a threat, so Ratchet, First Aid, Ambulon and Pharma are all center stage. Add Drift (an ex-Decepticon), Pipes (an impulsive, first time off-worlder) and a vengeful Fortress Maximus to the mix -- not to mention the two aforementioned 'genericons' -- and you know that by the story's end lots of people will be dead, or betrayed, or both." The return of Fortress Maximus to active duty could spell trouble for the more volatile members of the Lost Light cast. "The Fortress Maximus of the original Marvel Comics run was so disillusioned he rejected the war and pretty much went AWOL. The Fort Max of the IDW universe was in charge of Garrus 9, the Autobot penitentiary, and is hard as nails," Roberts said of the two most defining takes on the character. "The last time we saw him was in 'Last Stand of the Wreckers,' when he was comprehensively beaten up by Overlord, who then amputated his limbs and used him as a living lock-pick. So yeah, he's had a tough time of it of late.

"And as for what's in store for him, that would be presuming he's going to survive the Red Rust plague..."

In addition to the threat of the Red Rust, several characters also mention a "Big Bang" or mysterious explosion, which seems to coincide with the contagion's outbreak. "The immediate fallout is in issue #5, when we learn what caused the explosion and how it ties to the Decepticon Justice Division," Roberts said. "After the scene-setting and build-up of tension in issue #4, issue #5 is all about pay-off: there are shocks and twists and all manner of major plot developments -- stuff that will reverberate far into future issues. Not only do issues four and five constitute the first 'MTMTE' two-parter, but they probably constitute the tightest, most densely-plotted 'Transformers' story I've written. The whole is constructed like a puzzle, and there's a revelation coming up that puts an entirely different spin on what you've seen so far."

Following the Red Rust arc, the Decepticon Justice Division escalates their mission, disregarding the armistice between former enemies. "The DJD are phenomenally hardcore: they methodically work their way down The List, on which appears the name of every Decepticon who has ever betrayed Megatron or the Decepticon cause: anyone who has run away, or switched sides, or in any way hindered the pursuit of Megatron's goals," Roberts told CBR. "They're given free rein to charge around the galaxy in pursuit of their prey, and they're allowed to use any means to terminate their target. The idea is that by executing the weaker elements of the Decepticon army in the most grossly appalling way possible, the rank and file stay loyal.

"They are incredibly dangerous to Decepticons and Autobots alike, there is some suspicion that they cannot actually be stopped by anyone, and they are set to become major players in the 'MTMTE' storyline," he continued. "Their current target will be named in issue #7 -- and he won't know what's hit him."

Looking forward to the rest of the two ongoing "Transformers" series' first year, Barber, who also edits IDW's Transformers line, teased some big developments in store. "How about: AUGUST IS DINOBOT MONTH! The Dinobots are back with a vengeance! This goes across all three Transformers comics: 'Robots in Disguise,' 'More Than Meets the Eye,' and 'Regeneration One,'" Barber told CBR, in the last case referring to the Simon Furman-penned continuation of the original Marvel continuity. "We haven't seen the Dinobots since 'Maximum Dinobots' and I've been itching to get to write them -- and Andrew's been wanting to draw them -- so we're pretty excited."

The Dinobots will be divvied up between the spacefaring "More Than Meets the Eye" and the Cybertron-bound "Robots in Disguise," Barber said. "Ironhide leads the Dinobots off to the Cybertronian wilderness and we finally get to see what the rest of the planet looks like -- and it's not exactly hospitable to the 'bots. That's the non-Grimlock Dinobots -- Grimlock is busy in 'More Than Meets the Eye' with James Roberts and Alex Milne tackling where he's been since his pointed absence in 'Last Stand of the Wreckers.'"

Following later in the summer will be annuals for both "RiD" and "MTMtE," which Barber said "connect together without the main characters actually meeting." "The story is called 'Primus' and it'll have some important reverberations down the line. As you might guess with a name like that."

"Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye" #5 arrives May 16, followed by "Robots in Disguise" #5 May 30; the digital-only "Autocracy" #9 is released May 9.

X-Men: Marvel's Fallen Angels Have a Favor To Ask

More in Comics