More Than Meets The Eye: An Interview With 'Transformers' Writer James Roberts
I’ve been a massive Transformers fan since I was a kid, and that’s a difficult thing to be. You have a few toys, and you have the old cartoon. But the old cartoon isn’t…I mean it’s not good. Let’s just put that out there. There were Marvel comics but I didn’t know they existed until I was in high school, and at that point I was doing my best to blend in with the kids in school that didn’t like Transformers to varying degrees of success:
Me blending, circa 2000.
By the time I was comfortable being a kid that really, really likes robots that turn into stuff again we had the Michael Bay movies and those just weren’t a nice thing to do to ANYONE.
Aww come on man.
And then, a few years later, publisher IDW decided to do something brand new with their Transformers franchise: they ended the unending war between the Autobots and Decepticons and explored robot life in (very shaky) peacetime through two books: Robots in Disguise, and More Than Meets The Eye.
While both books are fantastic, MTMTE is, without hyperbole, the best sci-fi comic being published today. It’s the fun of Firefly but then every now and then Nathan Fillion says ‘hey let’s get really dense with our theology, nerds’ and I can’t sing its praises enough. Writer James Roberts was well known to hardcore Transformers fans before picking up this gig as a popular fanfiction writer, whose credits include a massive and beautifully nerdy tome called Transformers: Eugenesis. Eventually he was hired to assist with writing duties for a miniseries called Last Stand of the Wreckers, which at its core is a Transformers Seven Samurai story.
Several years ago he launched Transformers: MTMTE, in which a hot headed Autobot leader stuffs a crew of Transformer D-listers into a ship called The Lost Light on an impossible quest to find a Transformers King Arthur myth. I’ve always loved this franchise, but Roberts took it to new heights: for the first time these characters were making me think, react, cry, and laugh.
I got to talk to James today about his process, interacting with fans, and also I think I flirted a bit. Share and enjoy.
James! Let’s make like it’s the late 90’s and CHAT.
I’m here (at last)! I have a cup of tea to hand, so I’m prepared. I’m pleased you want to hear me drone on.
I might be wrong on this, but after EL James, is it safe to say you’re the most successful fanfic author of all time?
God, that’s a good opening question. Hmm. The thing is, I’m not sure I know how many other professional writers started off writing stories about the things they liked — I suspect a lot of them did. And to qualify as a fanfic writer, do you have to have your stories published? Or do they just have to be read by other people? Does it count if you just wrote stories in your school jotter?
It fascinates me that writers who used to write stories about their favorite characters are given a fanfic tag, while artists rarely, if ever, are …
I was just thinking about that, too! (Comic artist) Don Figueroa probably isn’t considered a ‘fan artist’ but (the Transformers fan comic) Macromasters was where I first heard of him.
I imagine a huge proportion of professional comics artists drew their favorite characters when they were young …
I am a little sensitive about fanfic… not because I’m ashamed of it. There’s great fanfic out there! But in my experience an association with fanfic is almost always mentioned to a professional writer in a vaguely accusatory way — like it’s a shameful secret, or as if it somehow invalidates your current work. It also leaves you open — again, in my experience — to accusations of fanservice.
I’m sure a lot of the Doctor Who writers who helped resurrect it in 2005, being fans of the show when they were young, wrote fanfic.
It’s also worth noting that, school notebook or not, Eugenesis was clearly written by a guy on a mission. I mean, ‘fanfiction’ doesn’t do it justice, really. Did you have any sense that Eugenesis was a career building block, or were you writing for you and that was fulfilling enough?
Eugenesis was intended as the apotheosis of my fanfic ‘career.’ It was going to be the last thing I wrote — a crowning achievement, and a way of getting everything out of my system. I published that, unofficially, and in a not-for-profit capacity, in 2001 — I only wrote one more fanfic after that, I think. Anyway, I was part of a network of likeminded UK Transformers fans and we’d write stories that continued the Marvel UK/US Transformers Universe — we were very disciplined, we made sure our stories worked within the same continuity. So I knew Eugen would have an audience. I didn’t intend for it to be a bridge leading to anything professional. I wasn’t intent on becoming a comic writer — more a prose writer, if anything, and even then a 500-page Transformers novel isn’t the best way to woo the editors at Faber and Faber.
But I took the actual writing extremely seriously. Writing Eugen and the stories that preceded it (I wrote some comic strips for the Transmasters UK flagship fanzine, “Continued Generation 2”) — I didn’t approach them as if they were unofficial and therefore inferior. I gave them my all!
Was IDW aware of your work when you were brought on to help out with Last Stand of the Wreckers? Was there a feeling out process there when you were brought on with Nick Roche? Like, was Roche constantly like ‘guys this is THE guy just trust me” to a skeptical IDW?
I don’t know if he lobbied for me as aggressively as that — you’d have to ask him — but he was definitely responsible for putting my name in their heads — specifically Chris Ryall and Andy Schmidt. I was invited to pitch some ideas in 2009, if not late 2008, and nothing came of that. And then Nick was asked to write and drew Last Stand of the Wreckers, and when he was offered a hand on the writing side, purely because doing everything but the coloring on a five issue mini-series represents a huge workload and the clock was ticking, he mentioned me. And for that I’m very grateful.
It’s those small gestures that can lead to some very wonderful things.
Yeah, and I’m seeing more and more TF fans get breaks on the comics, albeit mainly — if not exclusively — on the art side. It’s lovely.
People very rarely believe me when I say how many Transformers fans are female. And now, not only is there is very vocal female base, but you’ve got the first female Transformers writer and all female creative team on Transformers: Windblade. These might not be James Roberts caused events, but I assume you all live in a house together and discuss these things.
My sense is that there’s always been more than a small minority of female fans, but until relatively recently their voices have not been heard. Social media has changed the way people share, discuss and promote their interests, and made it easier for networks to be built and for people to take notice, and I think that’s partly why — finally — we’re getting a more balanced fandom, gender-wise. I attend quite a few conventions and there’s one in the UK, AutoAssembly, and for their sins the organizers have me back year after year. I was a guest in 2010, after Wreckers, and a guest last month, and during the intervening period the male/female attendance has shifted enormously. I mean, seriously — it almost feels 50/50.
Windblade has proven incredibly popular, yes, and there are more female TFs by the month. There’s still a long way to go, and if we could do things again I think we’d aim for a more balanced spread of genders, but …
That’s a 30 year franchise hole to dig out of, though, and for a franchise that is literally about characters that have difficulty changing as a species. Fans get so curmudgeonly I was pleasantly surprised they took to Windblade.
I know, I know. Mairghread’s really expanding the universe, with John Barber’s encouragement, and it’s opening up all sorts of possibilities. Don’t forget that fans were responsible for Windblade — she was created as the result of a fan poll.
You’ve all been able to do A LOT of world building, which has honestly got to be the dream: “I get to take my favorite thing and kind of do it my way?”
For someone like me, world building is the dream — as a fan of TFs growing up, the bits I loved most weren’t necessarily the action sequences, but the little details, often buried in the story or handled in a throwaway manner, which gave you an insight into the society in which the characters lived, or their history: place names, dates, interpersonal relationships, customs and traditions, currency etc. It enriched the universe, gave it more weight, made people take it more seriously, and created opportunities to expand on concepts in future.
And there it is! That love of the details is the crux why I love your book. My pitch for your book when I want friends to read it is that it’s the details that a Trekkie needs meets the fun and heart that a Whovian or a Firefly fan needs. Also I apologize that most of my questions are ‘defend this reason why I think you’re great.’
I’m flattered! Being compared to any of those franchises is praise indeed. But yeah, I definitely believe in giving readers their money’s worth and treating them with respect, i.e. assuming that they’ll pick up on the tiny things, the apparently inconsequential things, and either log them mentally for future reference or turn them over in their mind and consider how they might change what’s going before, or progress a certain subplot, or cast new light on a particular character. I don’t like to be spoon-fed, and I don’t think I’m unique. And, you know, the fan experience — if we can generalize for a moment - is often one which involves close reading and group speculation. I mean heck, look at Outpost Gallifrey (as was) — or TF sites, for that matter. Lots of passionate people comparing notes. Brilliant.
You are a ‘long game’ writer, and very big on planting seeds. How often are you planting seeds in a story knowing where they’ll go, and how often are you like ‘well that seems fun, maybe it becomes a thing later?’
Almost always the former. Everything is — and usually needs to be — meticulously thought through, not least because readers will very quickly detect when you’re winging it. I mean, I’m separating the big story arcs — the season arcs, in MTMTE parlance — from the smaller, quirkier, character-based stuff that develops more organically, like Tailgate getting a hoverboard from Back to the Future 2 after the events in “Elegant Chaos,” or Tailgate (again) thinking Whirl is called something else. The running gags assert themselves naturally; all the plot-y stuff is almost always exhaustively mapped out beforehand. Having said all that, the risk is always that if you plant seeds TOO far ahead, the comic will get cancelled and you won’t get a chance to watch them germinate. That risk isn’t as great now (famous last words).
A wonderful example of which is some very odd activity in the background of a bar scene in your first arc paying off ages later when Brainstorm is chased back in time. We discover that this odd background panel art is actually their time travel adventure.
Yes, we like to insert little visual details — literally background stuff — and not just set up future plots and revelations through the dialog. You’ve not given me a chance to sing Alex Milne’s praises yet, so at this juncture I will tell anyone who’s reading this that he’s one of the very best artists working in the industry today. MTMTE just wouldn’t be MTMTE without him. Nick Roche also played a big part in establishing the visual identity of the book, drawing issue 1 and designing a lot of the “Season 1” cast. I’ve been really fortunate in the people I’ve worked with, actually — Josh Burcham and Joana Lafuente, two extraordinary colorists, have between them coloured virtually every issue of MTMTE to date — maybe all of them, in fact — and they help define the tone and the ‘grammar’ of the book. And Brendan Cahill, Guido Guidi, James Raiz, Agustin Padilla, Hayato Sakamoto … they’re all achingly talented artists who have stepped in to draw an issue or two and absolutely killed it. They all seem to “get” the rather … off-beam nature of the book.
How much has your interest in politics shown through in your world building? Are there any particular political figures or world events that have been driving forces in your stories?
Wow, political question! WE’RE GOING THERE! Lemme think…
LETS DO THIS JAMES. I can’t spend this many issues reading about plots that revolve around evil Functionist governments and faltering senates and not ask, you know?
I’m very interested in politics, and unless you’ve been subjected to my Twitter feed I’m assuming that my interest comes across on the pages of MTMTE. Obviously, politics is a huge part of world building, and it matters not one jot (god, I’m giving you the Full English tonight) that we’re talking about giant metal aliens — politics in its broadest sense will feature in virtually every imagined alien society. And war! War is politics in extremis, and what is the Transformers story about if it’s not about a violent clash of ideologies? My first solo TF story explored the origin of Megatron and Optimus through an explicitly political lens, looking at how the world around them informed their beliefs, and how their beliefs led them down certain paths. And politics has informed virtually every aspect of the larger MTMTE story since the first issue, even if it’s the less overtly political of them two ongoings — John Barber’s Robots in Disguise (now simply “The Transformers”) was a cross between Game of Thrones and State of Play, certainly in its first few story arcs.
And when we explore dystopian futures — or, indeed, flashback to prewar Cybertron — we’re dealing with the raw matter of politics: dynamic, volatile forces that shape society: government brutality, oppression, surveillance, eugenics, the suppression of information, demagoguery, extremism, idealism, propaganda, the lot. But hey, we look at religion quite a bit, too, and morality. And there’s FIGHTING.
Season 2 is all about Megatron, and he’s essentially a socialist who took a wrong turn and embraced totalitarianism. A journey not without real-life parallels. Sadly.
But you NEED this foundation for the stuff that the cartoon theme song lyrics say happens to mean anything, so it’s so rewarding to work through it. And thank you for bringing us to Megatron! One thing that has struck me is with Megatron now playing on the side of the angels, he seems sort of overwhelmed by this, for lack of a better term, world of shit he’s sowed for years. At times it seems like it’s not even something he can process the amount of damage he’s done. Which, again, real-life parallels.
You put a mirror in front of the devil, and instead of having some dramatic morph into being a Paladin or something, the devil breaks down and isn’t even sure who is in that reflection. It’s really wonderful stuff.
Yeah, Megatron joined the cast in issue #28 — the start of Season 2 — and here we are, in issue #44, and he’s still trying to make sense of who he was, who he is, and how he should respond to his past. He’s not a talkative character, or a demonstrative one (in terms of affection or tactility), so a lot of what we’re learning about him is through quite small-scale, considered, reflective actions and reactions. We’re layering that stuff very deliberately, and taking it at quite a slow pace, because — to use your mirror analogy — he’s surrounded by the broken pieces of his life and he’s taking his time reassembling the shards, but he’s not sure what he’s going to have made by the end of the process. He’s afraid it will repel him.
One of my favorite things about your work is watching you play with pacing. The example that stands out most to me is Overlord’s arc. In a lot of comic books, this guy who was built up as a major big bad finally being freed would set up the next 6 issues worth of arcs, but you go with the ‘ripping the band aid off’ route.
Overlord was a tricky one, because — spoiler alert — we revealed that he was tied up in the basement, and then there was little we could do after that before setting him free. We had an issue where he and Chromedome had a back-and-forth, which led to his escape, and then … well, we could have had him rampage across the Lost Light for five issues, killing people, but we told that story in a single issue. Part of me wishes we’d spent more time on the fight, but I was worried about readers being bored (and there were other constraints relating to the sequencing of upcoming stories). It’s not that I’m against fight scenes, but I do dislike the amount of page-space they take up. You know, to show a fight properly — to give the artist space and to map out who’s where and who’s doing what — that takes up a lot of real estate, and MTMTE is a very character-driven, dialogue-driven series, and people respond well to the plots and the twists and the density of the stories, and extended fight sequences invariably make it harder to tell those type of stories — in my experience, anyway. There IS action, and there IS fighting, but I know that whenever we dwell on it, a lot of readers will bemoan that fact that the issue went by too fast.
Oh, it was absolutely your Red Wedding. I had to explain to my wife why I was sitting quietly in our room in the dark by explaining who Pipes is and why he has made me so, so sad.
I made a conscious decision from Day 1 with MTMTE to tell lots of (ostensibly) standalone, self-contained one-part stories — like old school comics — rather than write for the trade with five- and six-part “decompressed” story arcs. We save those for the season finales. I think that in 44 issues, and discounting the aforementioned season finales and the Dark Cybertron crossover with Robots in Disguise, we’ve only told a handful of two-parters and two three-parters. The rest have been done-in-ones.
But at the same time they feed into each other really well.
That’s very intentional. Actually, there’s probably only three or four “breaks” between issues where a few days/weeks could have passed ‘off panel’. Usually, one issue/cliffhanger feeds into the next. The first 10 or so issues of Season 2 all take place in a day or two …
I’m going to jump back to fan interaction, and save ‘dissecting each issue panel by panel with James’ for our second date. One of my favorite things about the book is that you share your writing playlists on Twitter. So if there was a MTMTE soundtrack released on vinyl, what’s on there?
Politics, now music? Do you want me to be up until 4am, talking at you?
I’m a hard man to walk away from, James Roberts.
MTMTE is soundtracked by a mixed bag of twee, mopey, hipster, indiepop bullshit - a description used by people who both love and hate the songs I choose. I think someone’s put a playlist on Spotify, compiling the two or three songs I post on Twitter ahead of every issue. There’s a list on the IDW forums, too. But to answer your question … “Lost Coastlines” by Okkervil River would definitely be on there, as would “Absent Friends” by the Divine Comedy. God. Some Morrissey, obviously. “Dreaming of You” by (The Real) Tuesday Weld. “Left to my own Devices” by the Pet Shop Boys. Something by the Mountain Goats, the Leisure Society, Emmy the Great… Oh, and Belle and Sebastian (a song of theirs found its way into issue #42, as you know).
A song about transforming alien robots.
And speaking of 42, as you continue to transition into questions so well, this is my last one: to me, you’re a clear Who showrunner candidate, or heir apparent to keep writing Hitchhiker’s Guide books, but I am not in charge of your life decisions. Do you have any dream projects that don’t involve transforming robots?
My god, if I was Who showrunner … I mean, that’s so obviously never going to happen ever, but just to imagine for one delirious second that it might … Yeah, that please. Series 11 okay for everyone? Let Steven and Peter finish their run and I’ll step in? Cool. Sorted. What else …
To be fair, when you were writing Eugenesis you probably assumed ‘definitive Transformers writer’ wasn’t going to happen.
I’d like to get back to prose, do some creator-owned comic stuff, write a children’s book and work on scripted TV drama. Or a sitcom. Wait, I don’t have to choose, do I? I can say YES PLEASE to all of that.
Please write children’s books. So into that.
In terms of existing characters and franchises and “products” … I’d kill to write a Death’s Head series, or a Red Dwarf comic.
I do miss Death’s Head being a Transformers character. James, thank you so, so much. Now, aside from demanding that Pincher show up in the comics, you are free.
Pincher … I think Pincher’s on board the Lost Light. Let me check the crew manifest… He’s there, yep. I put him on the list before issue 1 because I liked the toy.
He turns into a scorpion and uses chemistry to make crazy weapons. Give him his own book.
And with that I think we’re right back to fan fiction again.
The end is the beginning! Thanks again, James.