More than meets the Beak: Barber Talks "Angry Birds Transformers"

Two of pop-cultures biggest hits will unexpectedly collide this November in IDW Publishing's "Angry Birds Transformers" #1 from writer John Barber and artist Marcelo Ferreira. Rovio's bird-flinging mobile game "Angry Birds" debuted in 2009 and has since been adapted into toys, candy, socks and more -- including an animated film coming in 2016. Hasbro's "Transformers" started as a toy line in 1984 before similarly spilling over into cartoons, beach towels, and other licensed products along with a blockbuster series of films directed by Michael Bay. IDW also currently publishes lines of comic books based around both "Angry Birds" and "Transformers," thus setting the stage for these two giant properties to crossover in a new four-issue limited series.

Barber, who also co-writes IDW's "Transformers vs. G.I. Joe" spoke with CBR News about his latest mash-up masterpiece, revealing how the two kids' cartoons clash, if the comic links to the upcoming "Angry Birds Transformers" mobile game and why his ongoing series "Transformers: Robots in Disguise" is about to ditch its subtitle.

CBR News: John, talk about a crazy combination! How did "Angry Birds Transformers" come about?

John Barber: "Angry Birds Transformers" came together between Hasbro and Rovio, who own Transformers and Angry Birds brands, respectively. Coincidentally, IDW Publishing works with both companies on "Transformers" and "Angry Birds" comics. I say coincidentally, but I mean, it's really because both Rovio and Hasbro are companies with great taste that know great comic book publishers.

Actually, there's a funny story -- IDW started doing the "Angry Birds" comics, and the idea came up to do goofy covers where the Angry Birds would cross over with other characters on variant covers. I edit the "Transformers" comics -- the ones I don't write, anyway -- so I emailed Hasbro to see if we could do a cover, and they told me "no." Then like a week later -- I don't remember how long, but really soon after -- I get a call that there's going to be "Angry Birds Transformers" video games, Telepods toys, the whole nine yards... and probably comics.

So, that's how we found out. And David Hedgecock, who works with Rovio on the "Angry Birds" books, he's the editor on this comic. He'd been reading my writing on "Transformers: Robots in Disguise" -- now "Transformers." So he asked if I'd write it. I'd just written this story called "Transformers: Punishment" with artist Livio Ramondelli, which was all about war crimes and retribution and murderers... and the idea of doing a story that was fun and happy and that I could show my kid -- that everybody could read -- that was very appealing to me.

Can you tell us what the first "Angry Birds Transformers" story is about?

It's an origin story. I actually team up with Livio Ramondelli again for the opening section. The Autobots and Decepticons are in a desperate battle for the AllSpark, and one thing leads to another and the AllSpark falls into a quantum tunnel -- you know what that's like -- and slams into Piggy Island, where the Pigs are battling the Angry Birds over their eggs.

The AllSpark starts messing with the island and changes the Pigs and the Birds into Cybertronian versions [of themselves] -- so Red becomes Optimus Prime Bird, but he doesn't just look like him. He starts thinking like Optimus Prime. So, like, Chuck is the fast yellow bird -- he changes into Bumblebee Bird, and [his] being brash and impetuous battles with the friendly nature of Bumblebee.

What's your core cast of for the book?

Issue #1 introduces us to Grimlock Bird and Bumblebee Bird on the Autobird side, and the Deceptihogs have Megatron Pig, Starscream Pig, and a bunch more. The other characters start showing up as it goes on. Arcee Bird, Heatwave Bird, Drift Bird... The Blues become Bluestreak bird -- they're the three tiny blue birds, and they're like Huey, Dewey, and Louie mixed with the Goonies. They're like sugar-shocked, hyper kids running off to have adventures. They set the story in motion as they try to track down the missing eggs after Chuck messes up their rescue.

It's really character-driven, which might be weird to say. The conflicts between the Angry Birds personalities and the Transformers personalities really push the story forward.

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How will this book compare in tone to your other Transformers team-up book "Transformers vs. G.I. Joe?"

Exactly the same.

No, there are more birds in this one... but not as many more as you'd expect, I guess. "Transformers vs. G.I. Joe" is its own beast. Tom Scioli and I work on the story together, but he's the one that puts it together. It's got to read like a Tom Scioli book, that's what that book is. "Angry Birds Transformers" is Marcelo Ferreira and me doing a comedy book. I write it, and he draws it -- the collaboration happens in the middle. The nature of us working together is different. I mean, both are great working relationships for me.

All that aside, the fundamental difference is "Transformers vs. G.I. Joe" has the Transformers meeting the G.I. Joe team, while "Angry Birds Transformers" mashes the characters up so you get amalgams of the heroes and villains. They're both pretty crazy comics, though. Very dense, but in different ways. "Angry Birds Transformers" is more of a comedy. They're both pretty good -- I mean, probably better than one might expect.

What's it like working with artists Marcelo Ferreira and Livio Ramondelli on this?

Great. I've done a ton of comics with Livio now and I really like working with him, even if it's only for a few pages. It's always fun to work with him. We're doing another Transformers story together literally as I type this.

Marcelo Ferreira drew a couple issues of "Black Dynamite" that I edited, and then we did a short "How to Ride a Dinobot" comic for Hasbro. I had a lot of fun working with Marcelo there, but this comic -- wow. I'm writing all this crazy stuff, a ton of goofy stuff going on at once, and Marcelo takes these gags and makes them shine. He's one of the funniest artists I've worked with. Comedy in comics is such a hard thing. Comedy is all about timing, and timing in comics is about layout and the character acting. There are amazing artists who just don't have that in their genes.

As a writer, you can throw in a funny line, or have juxtaposition of stuff that's comedic, and it can work. You can do funny dialog. But to really make comedy work -- not just action with a laugh, but actual comedy -- that's almost all in the drawing. And Marcelo just nails it. He finds the right rhythms, the right moments, the right ways to play up the scenes. It's really, really a delight to work with him... Marcelo is amazing, and so much of the fun of this comic is traceable directly to Marcelo.

Editor David Hedgecock said this will be one of the "most insane, over-the-top, character mash-ups" in history. Can you give us a taste of how you'll reach this level of insanity?

I drink a lot of coffee and never proofread. Pro tip!

No, that's not true. I mean, the coffee part is absolutely true. The thing with this is it's a bizarre mash-up to start with, but what's fun is that both "Angry Birds" and "Transformers" have distinct, fun characters. If you just put them together -- Transformers has a funny side, but a lot of time the battles are dire and the stakes are really high. The "Angry Birds" comics have shown that the Birds have crazy silly personalities. Throwing all that together is what makes this insane.

The goofy Angry Birds personalities mash up with the extremes of the Transformers' personalities. I mean, you have the heroics of Optimus Prime, the deviousness of Starscream, the brutality of Galvatron, the anger of Grimlock... stuck into funny Angry Birds gags. And then, on top of that, the stakes get raised to Transformers levels; this isn't good for Piggy Island. If the Autobirds and Deceptihogs can't get their acts together, their home's going to be destroyed.

You don't have to know these characters, by the way. If you love "Transformers," don't feel like you need to know the "Angry Birds" characters in order to enjoy this -- or vice versa. This is very friendly for new readers, and I think it will be fun if you like either Angry Birds or Transformers. I mean, I think it's fun even if you don't like either one, but I can see that being a hard sell.

Do the comic and the upcoming mobile game share any links beyond a title? Will your story be setting up or spinning out of the game's at all?

Well, the set-up is the same. You don't have to read the comic to play the game or the other way around. They scratch different itches, I think -- the game and comic. I didn't go into this thinking "this is a video game comic" or anything. I went into it thinking "this is a comic, let's make it a great one." If you like one, you might like the other; but the comic has to work as a comic first, I think.

What's going on with your other ongoing series "Robots in Disguise" and "Transformers vs. G.I. Joe" at the moment?

Well, "Transformers: Robots in Disguise" is actually changing its name to just "Transformers." There's a new "Transformers" animated series coming out next year, and it's called "Transformers: Robots in Disguise." We figured it'd be very confusing to have a comic with the same title, that isn't a direct tie-in. But the big story we're going into in "Transformers" #35 is "Days of Deception," which is thematically linked to "More Than Meets the Eye." [It's] not a crossover, but in both books a secret from the past comes crashing into the present to mess with our heroes' lives. "Transformers" has Prowl -- who's currently the head of the Constructicon combiner, Devastator -- hunting down a big secret on Earth... and the one human he has a grudge against: Spike Witwicky. Fan favorite Spike Witwicky.

"Transformers vs. G.I. Joe" #3 starts with a funeral for a G.I. Joe agent... and there are some uninvited and unappreciated guests that show up. Meanwhile, the G.I. Joe team has invaded Cybertron, and neither Autobot nor Decepticon is happy about these fleshy little people. And Scarlett and her team don't know what to make of the Cybertronians, either. There are metal dinosaurs and sharks and a [single] two-page spread that [contains] a six-issue mini-series worth of action.

Finally, do you play any of the "Angry Birds" mobile games?

I was a big player in the run-up to my wife's and my baby being born. Like almost all pastimes, it got cut into when I got a full-time job editing comics, freelance writing a bunch of comics at nights and on weekends, and then also having a tiny human child whose life you're responsible for and also who you want to spend some time with.

But "Angry Birds" is exactly the kind of game I play. I definitely will pop on the classic version of the game when I need to relax for a couple minutes. I'm not very good. I mean, I think I'm doing okay, but then I check my score against other players and... well, it puts me in my place.

"Angry Birds Transformers" #1 (of 4) is available this November from IDW Publishing.

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