Barber & Roberts Plot the Future of IDW's Transformers Titles

Anyone who grew up with the classic "Transformers" cartoon -- now dubbed G1 by fans -- will be immediately familiar with the phrases "Robots in Disguise" and "More than Meets the Eye," as both featured prominently in the original show's theme song between mechanized chants of the cartoon's title. IDW Publishing, which has built its own comic book universe based on the G1 characters and designs, is bringing these catchphrases back into circulation as the titles of two new ongoing series launching in January, following the conclusion of the current ongoing series and the "Death of Optimus Prime" one-shot.

"Transformers: Robots in Disguise" is written by John Barber, who has previously written "Transformers" movie tie-in comics and who joined IDW as an editor in July, with art by Andrew Griffith; "Transformers: More than Meets the Eye" is written by "Last Stand of the Wreckers" scribe and co-writer of the current "Chaos" story arc James Roberts, with art by Nick Roche.

Comic Book Resources spoke with writers Barber and Roberts about their plans for each series and the dynamics of Cybertronian civilization moving forward.

CBR News: John and James, after the events of "Chaos," it looks like both series are heading into space, apparently severing ties to Earth. Does this mean we will we see new alt-mode designs for familiar characters, since they no longer need to disguise themselves as human vehicles, etc.?

John Barber: Oh, yeah. They'll be familiar looks, but the Transformers will adopt Cybertronian-leaning designs. Well, most of them. Certain dinosaur-esque Autobots might stay dinosaur-esque. But that's a little way down the road.

With the war between the Autobots and Decepticons seemingly over, will we see any characters shift allegiances?

Barber: A big theme in both "Robots in Disguise" and "More than Meets the Eye" is that it's pretty hard for old animosities will die down. The Autobots and Decepticons have been at war for a very, very long time, and these grudges die hard. But they are definitely forced to deal with each other in ways that we haven't seen before.

And as to whether allegiances will shift -- there will definitely be some unexpected partnerships. We'll be seeing characters forced to work together in ways that are not natural fits, and we'll see Starscream in particular find a niche for himself that nobody really expected.

James Roberts: I think one of the defining elements of Mike Costa's run was his treatment of Thundercracker, who became a sympathetic, multi-faceted character who essentially positioned himself between the Autobots and the Decepticons. After "Chaos" and the events in "The Death of Optimus Prime," the dividing lines between Autobot and Decepticon are more blurred, even if some characters find that easer to accept than others. With the return of Cybertron's civilian population, the two factions at the heart of the civil war are suddenly outnumbered -- and, in a sense, marginalized -- and that adds to the general sense that anything is possible. And John and I are determined to exploit that freedom.

Both series are meant to be jumping-on points for new readers. How would you pitch this series to someone who grew up with "Transformers" or watched the recent movies but has not been reading the IDW comics?

Roberts: In a single sentence: the new series are going to be bold and thrilling and funny and dark, the way the best comics should be.

"Transformers" has been around for over a quarter of a century, and in that time, there have been so many comics, cartoons, toy ranges and movies that it can be hard to keep track of what's what. For people on the outside looking in -- and I'm talking about people who saw the show as a kid, or had a few of the toys, or who saw the live action films and want to find out more -- it can be difficult to know where to start, certainly as far as the comics are concerned.

As much as I love the "Transformers" comics universe that IDW has been publishing, it can be difficult for someone to just dip into -- there's a feeling that you need to know your continuity to fully appreciate what's going on. Also, the sheer number of G1 characters, and the scale of the story -- this is an intergalactic war that raged for four million years -- can make it difficult for casual fans, or the simply curious, to find their bearings. With "Chaos" and "The Death of Optimus Prime," the TF comics universe is tidied up, ready for the next phase. I mean, yes, there are still threads left hanging, and not every question from the last six years has been answered, but there's a sense that everything is in its place, and the mechanics of the G1 universe are easily grasped: at the start of "MTMTE," which is the first of the two ongoing series to launch, everyone that matters is on Cybertron, and the story flows organically from that point on. 

While emphatically not a reboot, the new series do allow anyone with the remotest interest in massive alien robots to rediscover what they loved about "Transformers" in the first place.

Barber: You most definitely do not need a masters degree in "Transformers" to follow these series. I'm of the firm belief that every issue should be welcoming -- every comic is somebody's first, and I hate comics that are just frustrating or impenetrable. But these issue #1s are especially good points to come in. 

If you loved the series as a kid, if you had a blast at the movies, if you're one of the millions tuning in to see "Transformers: Prime" every week -- these are the series that will answer the questions you've always had gnawing at you. 

James, I'm not sure how much you'll be able to say, since "Chaos" is still ongoing, but what sends Rodimus on a quest for the Knights of Cybertron?

Roberts: There is a revelation in "Death of Optimus Prime" that surprises everyone, but Rodimus is perhaps even more surprised at how he responds to it. I can't say much more without giving the game away, but aside from Prime's fate -- which of course is the lynchpin of the story -- and the sudden arrival of the Cybertronian masses, there is a third big surprise buried in this story; and it is this surprise that sends Rodimus and his rather dysfunctional band of followers to the stars...

Who are these legendary Knights, then?

Barber: From what little we've heard so far, we know that they may or may not be real, and if they are real, they may hold the key to what made the so-called Golden Age of Cybertron work. They represent all that was noble and good about the Transformers, and Rodimus thinks they are a real group that has gone off-world ages ago. But the reality has become lost to the mists of time, even to the oldest Cybertronians. As to why now and why Rodimus wants to go where he wants to go... well, that's still a secret.

Roberts: I can say that if you put this question to a dozen of Rodimus' followers you'd get a dozen different replies, and that's part of the fun.

So, who does he have on his team?

Roberts: He has about half of the remaining Autobot army, plus some wild cards. You've seen Ratchet, Ultra Magnus and Drift on the variant covers for issue 1. Also on board are some classic G1 characters such as Blaster, Hound, Brawn, Huffer and Gears, plus some newer Autobots that have never had much attention. The series will focus on a core cast of about 10 -- it's essentially a team book -- "Transformers" does "Avengers" -- with other characters popping up now and again as the story demands it. And many of the stories spring from the particular characters we have on board -- the way they interest, the secrets they carry with them, their motivations for joining the crew. It's called "More Than Meets The Eye" for a reason. 

On the most recent press conference call, John said that these Transformers are trying to rebuild Cybertronian culture. Why do they have to leave Cybertron to accomplish this?

Roberts: Good question. The answer has to do with the legend of the Knights of Cybertron. 

Given that this team views their quest as so vital to Cybertron, is there some animosity between Rodimus' faction and Bumblebee's?

Roberts: Very much so. Before it got its final title, "The Death of Optimus Prime" was called "Schism."

Barber: And then, while we were still in the planning stages, Marvel announced an X-Men book with that title, so it was back to the drawing board...

Roberts: Rodimus feels passionately that he's what's best for the Cybertronian race, and he resents Bumblebee's reasons for wanting to stay behind. That animosity, which isn't all one-sided, will carry forward in a variety of ways. Given what lies in wait for Rodimus and his crew, he'll wish he'd stayed behind.

So, the other side of that question, then -- given the hard work of rebuilding, do Bumblebee's faction resent the actions of those leaving the planet?

Barber: Definitely. They both wanted to see Cybertronians united and they both are going to blame the other one -- and blame themselves, honestly -- about what's happening. That said -- this isn't like the clash between Autobots and Decepticons all over again. It's about differing goals; it's about what is the best way forward. Neither side is clear-cut right or wrong. You can pick your favorite side, but that doesn't mean you have to be rooting for the other guys to fail.

John, continuing on "Robots in Disguise," the first thing that might be interesting about this series is that Bumblebee once again is (nominally) in charge. Given the minor and major revolts last time, how and why does he take command now?

Barber: Well, Bumblebee never really had the opportunity to fully take control. Optimus Prime was always around -- even when he wasn't physically right there, his presence was still looming large. Circumstances after "Chaos" force Bee back into a hard leadership role. It comes down to him and Rodimus having an ideological conflict about the future of the Autobots. There really isn't anybody else willing to put themselves in the position Bumblebee puts himself in.

Bumblebee's one of the warmest Autobots -- some people see him as all-heart. But don't forget -- he's been a soldier in a war that's lasted longer than humans have existed. He's seen some tough things, and this series is going to force him to make some hard choices. Bumblebee's a good, honest 'bot who's put himself in a position of power because of a desire to do the right thing -- not out of a desire for power. Still, he's going to learn the divide between wanting to do the right thing and actually doing it. 

It sounds like Bee will also be leading the rebuilding of Cybertron, which is now home to a lot of non-affiliated Transformers. How do they perceive him? How does Bumblebee present himself to the public?

Barber: There's a lot of mistrust by the non-aligned Transformers. Some of them were once Decepticons, some were once Autobots and some left before they had to make that choice. So everybody comes at him in different ways. Some of these Transformers genuinely don't see the ideological difference between Autobot and Decepticon. They don't understand who did what, just that there was a war that lasted way too long and destroyed their world.

Bumblebee tries being everybody's friend, because that's how he sees the universe. He does want to make things better for everybody, and it's going to be a learning experience for him to realize that not everybody is going to agree with his methods. And what's worse, he's going to be confronted by some persuasive arguments against what he's doing.

Who does Bumblebee have on his team?

Barber: The core group is going to be Prowl, who's in charge of security; Ironhide, who's exploring the new frontiers of this world they find themselves on; and Wheeljack, who's in charge of building infrastructure and... well, he gets roped into a lot of tasks.

Prowl and Ironhide both have different, big secrets that will be revealed over the course of the first few issues.

Plus, there are a lot of other Autobots working with Bumblebee -- James and I know where everybody is at this point, so between the two series, you'll see a lot of fan-favorite characters.

The thing that starts to affect Bumblebee's team is the rising number of unaligned new arrivals that start pouring in. Every day brings more Cybertronians who don't necessarily have any sense of allegiance to Bumblebee -- or Rodimus, or Optimus Prime -- or the Autobot cause. So every day, Bee's grip is going to slip if he doesn't solidify his position. But he's Bumblebee -- he's a good guy, he's going to do the right thing -- it's just that he's going to learn that the right thing isn't always easy. Or clear-cut.

The "Chaos" story arc continues in "Transformers" #30, on sale November 16, and #31, December 14, before culminating in "The Death of Optimus Prime" one-shot December 28. "Transformers: Robots in Disguise" #1 and "Transformers: More than Meets the Eye" #1 launch January 11 and 25, respectively.

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