There's "More Than Meets the Eye" in Roberts' "Transformers"

This May, writer James Roberts presents two "Transformers" stories from IDW Publishing, "Transformers Spotlight: Hoist" drawn by Agustin Padilla and "Transformers: More than Meets the Eye" #17, kicking off the "Remain in Light" storyline drawn by Alex Milne. Earlier this month "Transformers Spotlight: Trailcutter" was released with art by Matt Frank.

Roberts has been busy carving out his own corner of IDW's Transformers Universe after orchestrating the popular "Death of Optimus Prime" storyline with co-writer John Barber. After that story's success, Roberts launched the popular ongoing series "Transformers: More than Meets the Eye" alongside Barber's own "Transformers: Robots in Disguise."

Roberts spoke with CBR News about his upcoming "Transformers" titles, dishing details on what goes down in "Spotlight: Hoist" and "Trailcutter," as well as expanding on the "Remain in Light" story and the next "Transformers" event, "Dark Cybertron."

CBR News: James, what's the gist of "Transformers Spotlight: Hoist" and "Transformers Spotlight: Trailcutter?"

James Roberts: "Spotlight: Trailcutter" is basically "Transformers" meets "Home Alone." Trailcutter is part of the crew of the Lost Light, an Autobot starship looking for the legendary Knights of Cybertron. Best known (to fans and to his fellow Autobots) for his ability to project force fields, he feels pigeonholed and underappreciated. Then one day he finds himself having to singlehandedly fend off a Decepticon boarding party -- even though his fellow crewmembers are still on board. It's a sitcom in space; a fast, fun done-in-one with art by the incomparable Matt "Godzilla" Frank.

"Spotlight: Hoist" is almost like a "Transformers" equivalent of a bottle episode, with four characters confined to one location -- except in this instance, a metaphorical clock ticks in the background, counting down the seconds to their (surely inevitable) deaths. Agustin Padilla handles art duties and he absolutely nails it.

How did you get involved with these one-shots?

I write "Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye," and my editor John Barber writes "Robots in Disguise," and as all of the latest "Spotlights" focus on characters who have appeared in either book, it made sense for us to write most of these one-shots. I say 'most' -- super-suave Nick Roche, my co-conspirator on "Last Stand of the Wreckers," wrote and drew "Spotlight: Megatron."

You don't need to have read the two ongoings to pick up and enjoy "Spotlight: Hoist" or "Spotlight: Trailcutter." One of the strengths of the "Spotlight" format is accessibility: you can focus on a single character and tell a complete story with a beginning, middle and end. The reader doesn't need to have done any research beforehand, and I don't have to worry about keeping other narrative plates spinning in terms of progressing the story arc in "MTMTE."

Do the events of "Spotlight: Hoist" and "Trailcutter" play out in "More than Meets the Eye?"

OK, I'm going to contradict myself here, but yes, both "Hoist" and "Trailcutter" are firmly rooted in the "MTMTE" 'universe', taking place between issues #5 and #6. I'm still not saying you have to have read "MTMTE" (which of course you should do anyway, just for fun), but it was important to me that everything locked together. Consequently, "MTMTE" readers will find certain lines of dialog have extra resonance.

To further undermine my earlier statement about the "Spotlights" being entirely self-contained and standalone, "Trailbreaker" and "Hoist" overlap -- there's a scene in one of the books that connects the two. Again, you can enjoy them individually, but reading them side-by-side completes the experience.

Thus far in your career you've mostly worked exclusively on "Transformers" comics. What do you love so much about these characters and this universe?

You might as well ask, "What is it you love about telling stories?" or "What is it you love about fiction?" because the Transformers Universe is capable of accommodating almost any plot, any narrative, any genre. That's what I love about working within it.

Today's "Transformers" stories are emphatically not just about giant mechanical beings thumping each other. Yes, they're grounded in a science fiction setting, but like the most stimulating science fiction they explore things like racial identity, politics, religion and mortality (or in this case, immortality). Yes, they still feature giant mechanical people thumping each other. See? You can have the best of all worlds.

I also love that the storyline is allowed to progress. Often, comics are forced to press the reset button, even if it's only every few years; but with the Transformers Universe, everything changes all the time. For example, the war recently ended (in "The Death of Optimus Prime," published in 2011) and now both sides are adjusting to postwar life.

At the heart of the Transformers Universe -- like all grand fictional universes -- are the characters themselves. The cleverest, most artfully constructed plot means nothing unless the reader feels something for the characters who are living that story. Here, again, the Transformers Universe is an embarrassment of riches: within the pages of "More Than Meets The Eye" and "Robots in Disguise" you'll find characters of every type, interacting in ways that are true to life.

John Barber said it very well: "The 'Transformers' comics are about people. Metal people, sure -- and metal people whose problems frequently involve the fate of the world being at stake -- but they're relatable people with real emotions acting like people act."

What's been going on lately in "More Than Meets the Eye?"

Oh, it's all kicking off. For people out there who are unfamiliar with the set-up: the Transformers' war has ended. An Autobot named Rodimus finds a ship, the Lost Light, and leads a crew of oddballs and misfits on a galaxy spanning quest in search of the legendary Knights of Cybertron.

Like all quests, it's taken a number of diversions. So far, the crew has faced all sorts of threats, from mechanical parasites who feed on sentience, to viruses spread by changing from one mode to another, to Decepticons who can kill you by whispering in your ear. They've encountered rogue medics, memory surgeons and soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Amongst all of that, they've taken exams, played pranks on each other, told stories, made bets, argued about grammar and, against all odds, become the "Transformers" equivalent of a (very dysfunctional) family.

What's "MTMTE's" "Remain in Light" storyline about?

We're 16 issues in and many of the storylines and subplots are coming to a head. "Remain in Light" is a five-part epic kicking off with issue #17 and moves the story up several gears. Rodimus and his crew, far from home, meet someone who has the means and the inclination to wipe out their entire race. So far, "More Than Meets The Eye" has preferred to tell short, focused stories, most of them one or two parts long. In so doing, we've very deliberately explored the core characters and their backstories. This is where all that pays off and we go, well, we go widescreen. Everything rests on the actions, past and present, of these awkward, wayward Autobots.

What other projects do you have coming up? Any plans for non-"Transformers" books in the near future?

My plans for "More Than Meets The Eye" stretch far into the future. Coming later this year is the first proper crossover event since John and I started writing the two ongoings. It's huge, involving hundreds of characters and -- like the end of the war -- it marks another turning point in the Transformers Universe.

Outside of "Transformers" I have a few irons in the fire but I'm afraid to go into details in case I jinx things. It's early days with those. We'll see how things pan out. In the meantime, like John, I'll continue in my efforts to persuade people that "Transformers" can hold its own against any other fictional universe.

You keep brining him up -- what's your relationship like with John Barber?

John and I first met in 2011, when -- fresh from the success of the "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" comics -- he was asked to write "Robots in Disguise." He and I co-wrote the "Death of Optimus Prime" one-shot before he was recruited by IDW as an editor, and working together like that was great. It was important for both of us that before the writer/editor relationship was established we collaborated just as two writers, getting a feel for how the other person approaches a story.

I remember John telling me he was succeeding Andy Schmidt as editor of the "Transformers" and "G.I. Joe" comics, and I remember being immensely, immensely relieved. I knew Andy was leaving and I was worried, because you never know how these things are going to pan out, that Andy would be replaced by someone who had a completely different take on "Transformers," and who potentially would want to dig up all the groundwork that I had done for "MTMTE" -- I was worried about forging a new relationship with a new editor. I'm very selfish.

I'm not saying John didn't -- and doesn't -- have his own take on how the "TF" books should read, and on how the saga should unfold, of course he does, but he was, to me, a 'known quantity.' Thanks to "Death of Optimus Prime" I knew him as a writer, and I knew he was a genuinely lovely bloke. When he told me he was my new editor I thought, "Things are going to turn out okay."

So anyway, by the time John became editor he and I had mapped out what at the time was literally Year One of each of our titles -- the first 12 issues. We both knew where we were going. Under John's watch 'Year One' expanded to about 16 issues. I remember John and I working out which characters were going to be in which book beyond the core casts. There was a bit of haggling, but no fisticuffs.

The point is after only a few weeks into John's reign as editor, we both knew in some detail what would happen in the two ongoings, who would be in the two ongoings and where there would be (oblique) connections and references. The only curveball was the decision to publish two "Transformers Annuals," one for each title, and then it was like the "Death of Optimus Prime" again, because we wanted to work on a sort of crossover story.

None of the above is to say John just leaves me alone and I hand in a script once every few weeks and that's that. He puts his editor cap firmly on and critiques and advises and directs, and thank goodness he does, because "MTMTE" is all the better for it. I have every respect for him and his grasp of what makes a good comic, but I also rate him as a fantastic writer. He's going to read this and think I'm sucking up to him just because he has the power to force me to write an issue of "MTMTE" comprised entirely of wordless double splash pages.

One last thing: things are coming full circle as John and I are collaborating -- I'm talking plot and script -- on the next huge "Transformers" event: "Dark Cybertron." It all kicks off in the autumn, with the countdown starting in May.

"Transformers Spotlight: Hoist" and "Transformers: More than Meets the Eye" #17 are out this May from IDW Publishing. "Transformers Spotlight: Trailcutter" is available now.

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