Comic book website Bleeding Cool has sat down with fan-favorite Transformers writer James Roberts for a lengthy interview. In it, he gives details about the early days of his writing, about his involvement with Transformers, provides some commentary for what has happened in Transformers: More than Meets the Eye thus far, and even gives a few teases for what’s in store in the comic’s second season. The latter of course means that this interview does contain some possible SPOILERS for future events.
Check it out after the jump, then discuss in the thread! Richard Caldwell: James, can you remember the very first piece of fiction that possessed you, whether book, comic or film? Does it still hold a place of high regard for you?
James Roberts: This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. As a child, my dad would read me Enid Blyton stories. I don’t know how well-known Ms Blyton is in America, but she was an incredibly prolific English children’s author in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. She invented Noddy, the Famous Five, the Secret Seven and the Wishing Chair.
Now even as a kid, when your critical faculties are relatively unsophisticated (although thinking about it, you probably give a more honest reaction to a story when you’re little), you could tell that Ms Blyton stuck to pretty much the same formula: plucky kids get into scrapes, discover a secret island/mine/castle/cave/passage, and foil smugglers. And the writing is flat and perfunctory. But even so, two of her books, The Island of Adventure and The Secret Island, really took hold of me, and I remember asking my dad to read more than his usual two chapters so I could find out what happened next. ‘The Secret Island’ was particularly gripping to a six year old, and at the risk of reading too much into it after the event, it made me think about suspense and structure in storytelling: the setup, the spark, the period of calm, the complication, the resolution. It’s a good book, and it’s only now, in fact-checking elements of this answer, that I’ve discovered that it was originally published as a serial, a bit like an ongoing comic…
The first book I remember reading myself and becoming obsessed with was Mr Magus is Coming for You by Gene Kemp, which was published in 1986. I’d have been nine or ten. It starts off as an everyday adventure story set in suburbia, but (spoiler alert!) morphs into science-fiction/fantasy when the otherworldly nature of the titular character is revealed. Much more than Blyton’s books, it made me think about character in fiction. Kemp’s four protagonists are very clearly defined — actually, they’re exaggerated characters, but that’s okay. They all undergo very significant and clearly signposted transformations throughout the course of the book.
After Blyton and Kemp, we have Simon Furman. I started collecting the UK Transformers comic in late ’86 and was properly obsessed, absolutely caught up in Furman’s rich, long-form storytelling. It was TFUK more than anything that got me interested in storytelling; it served as my gateway into British comics (TFUK begat Death’s Head, Dragon’s Claws, 2000AD, Crisis, Revolver et al) and science-fiction generally. Simon’s stories still hold up well today.
RC: I should hope that if any non-creator deserved a post-creation co-creator credit it would be Furman on Transformers.
JR: Yeah, as far as I’m concerned the Holy Trinity—in terms of establishing, enriching and/or rejuvenating the TF Universe—is Bob Budiansky, Simon Furman and Bob Forward/Larry DiTillio (the story editors of the Beast Wars series). Okay, so Bob and Larry count as two people, but that would ruin my Trinity.
RC: I think while the toys, animation and films have their audiences, the comics involve less of a wait time between new material seeing light, so he’s held down the fort for the property in many ways- and went much further in breathing so many more dimensions into the Transformers universe.
JR:I think that’s because comics—good SF comics in particular—burn through new ideas. A good, strong, compelling SF hook can carry a multi-million dollar movie or a 500-page novel, or it can carry a 22 page comic. And if it’s the latter, you need another good idea a month later. I look back over the first 22 issues of More Than Meets The Eye (which I’m calling Season 1), and I probably squeezed too many new ideas and concepts in there… although maybe that’s one of the things people like about the series.
RC: I understand you were a fan long before your own name began appearing in the credit boxes, but was it Transformers specifically that really prompted your efforts to write, or had you gone the traditional route with university and the like?
JR: I was a fan when G1 was out, yes. Bit of a latecomer, though: I was ten in 1986 when I started collecting the toys and buying the UK comic. I wrote stories before I became a TF fan, although inevitably my love for the characters and concepts informed a lot of what I wrote in my formative years. I even edited a fanzine, Transtext, in my mid-teens, wherein I published both my own material and stories submitted by other fans.
I think what my love of Transformers did was encourage me to write science-fiction to the exclusion of all else, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing. I have since corrected that, but most of the fiction I wrote during my teenage years had a science-fiction bent.
RC: And your Eugenesis novel- as massive an undertaking as that was, did you ever see it as “fan-fiction”, or as a professional are you looking for ways to sneak aspects of the work into canon?
JR: I wrote Eugenesis in the late ’90s, when the original Transformers line – Generation 1- seemed dead and buried and I wanted to celebrate the richness of the fictional universe that had been built up between ’84 and ’92. It was an avowedly unofficial piece of work produced on a not-for-profit basis and so yes, it was absolutely fan-ficiton — but that didn’t mean that I approached it any less seriously than I would have done had it been official. You know, we could talk for hours about how fan-fiction is too often mocked and denigrated simply for being unofficial. Like most things in like, a lot of it is awful and some of it is great.
Anyway, Eugenesis was the apotheosis of all the TF short stories I’d written over the preceding 10 years, and it was pretty much the last TF story I wrote until I started on the TF books for IDW in 2009. I’ve deliberately tried to avoid recycling characters and concepts from the novel, mainly because I prefer to try out new things. That said, I’m conscious that the book had an exceptionally limited audience and came out over a decade ago, and so I’m not above using some of the stronger ideas in MTMTE if I think it’s for the good of the wider story. I should add that I’m talking about concepts rather then plots or character arcs or set pieces, or anything like that.
RC: Concepts like redemption itself? Redemption would seem like a heavy theme for something that began as a toyline as far as some might be concerned, yet it obviously seems to play a big part in MTMTE. Whirl was essentially a clockmaker who was mutilated by the corrupted peace time Government and basically became a psychotic killer who really should have been a Decepticon, but joined the Autobots. Cyclonus is historically a Decepticon, but you’ve turned him into an honourable soldier. What attracted you to these two characters? And is the fact that they are both trying to redeem themselves a reason why they work so well together?
JR: Yeah, it’s interesting – I never made a conscious effort to make redemption a theme for the first ‘season’. In fact, I made a point of not writing around themes at all. I prefer to let things develop organically. In my experience, deciding on a theme and working backwards makes for rather contrived and earnest stories.
With Cyclonus and Whirl, I wanted characters who were more Decepticon than Autobot, even if Cyclonus is non-affiliated and Whirl, as you say, is an Autobot (although it’s hinted that Optimus recruited him purely to ‘claim’ him before the Decepticons did). The Lost Light is crewed by decent- if flawed and wayward- Autobots, and I needed a few wild cards in there. Whirl is chaotic and violent, Cyclonus is calm and violent. I didn’t plan for them to have a vendetta until I re-wrote issue one and inserted their fight, and there was a spark that made me want to go back.
I was conscious when writing Cyclonus that I didn’t want him to be too much of the typical antihero. He needed to have and keep his rough edges. There’s a deliberately disturbing scene in issue #3 when he assaults the much smaller Tailgate in the privacy of their own hab suite, and although their relationship has changed a lot since then, he is still a person who is capable of doing that- of attacking people smaller and weaker than him. What he did was unforgivable, and he’s neither sought forgiveness or apologised for it, even though now he cares deeply for Tailgate.
With Whirl, the fun is in peeling back the layers and showing readers what makes someone like him tick. I don’t believe anyone is born bad, and I wanted to reveal, bit by bit, and not necessarily in chronological order, the events in Whirl’s life which defined him. He’s a tragic character, with reasons to be angry and to hate the world… but he’s reached the point where he probably doesn’t want to change, even if the war has ended and the world around him has changed in a way that makes it possible for him to step back from the anger he feels all the time. Like Cyclonus, he’s unapologetic about who he is.
RC: In the first issue of MTMTE Prowl received a message from the future listing all the things the crew of the Lost Light should avoid: don’t open the coffin, don’t let them take Skids, don’t go to Delphi and don’t look in the basement. These stories have all for the most part played out since. How far in advance are you coyly planning your work? And will we get a similar tease for stories yet to come?
JR: MTMTE #1 is mostly setup, as you’d expect. It’s designed as a grand pre-credits sequence in the tradition of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, with the camera sweeping in and shadowing a character or two and then veering off to focus on someone else. By the issue’s end the crew of the Lost Light has been assembled, the ship has taken off, there’s been an accident, and our heroes have been thrown into deep space. With the message from the future at the very end of issue 1, I wanted to show that what you’ve just read is merely the beginning of a huge, sprawling, multiyear quest stuffed full of action, adventure and intrigue – I wanted readers to feel confident that we knew where we was going, that everything was mapped out, and that it was worth them investing their time in this series.
Anyway, as I wrote Season 1, I had a lot of fun foreshadowing certain events and seeding little ideas that I knew would pay off in three, six, 12 issues’ time. And once fans got the measure of the series – once they picked up on the fact that nothing is throwaway and that every conversation/decision/event hints at, or triggers, something else – a lot of them sort of surrendered to the MTMTE experience and started subjecting each issue to a level of scrutiny that, hopefully, brings further rewards. And people seem to like going back to the start and re-reading the series because, in hindsight, they see certain scenes and exchanges of dialog in a different light.
All of which is a preamble to me saying that when it came to plan Season 2 (which kicks off in April with issue #28, after Dark Cybertron finishes), I was even more determined to map out an intricate, multilayered, complex storyline, albeit once that is broken down into a series of one- and two-parters. If all goes to plan, ‘Season 2′ will climax- in a very, very big way- around the issue #50 mark.
There’s a risk to this, of course. You can take nothing for granted, especially in the world of comics, and who knows, maybe MTMTE will have to stop before it reaches the natural conclusion to Season 2. Accepting that that’s a possibility, I have a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ type back-up plan whereby I can wrap up the main plot in a handful of issues.
Will you get an in-universe tease for the Season 2 stories like at the end of issue #1? Nah. This time, I don’t want anybody knowing what’s around the corner.
RC: I think you and fellow scribe John Barber are writing rather intelligent sci-fi masquerading as Transformers comics. What won me over especially with the current TF titles is the stunning level of realism being explored. Not just in terms of the depthful characterizations and psychological drama and humor, but in the situations you both have constructed- from the notion of the pre-war government being corrupt to the arguably homosexual nature of the Chromedome/Rewind relationship. I’ve even heard an interesting argument that Bumblebee’s political struggles are analogous for the Obama administration in certain respects. Was realism a thing you and Barber wanted specifically to keep in the forefront to balance the intense science-fantasy, or was that just how things inadvertently worked out?
JR: Well I can’t speak for John as far as the Obama analogies go, but I know that neither he nor I feel constrained by writing Transformers stories. Quite the opposite, in fact. We’re talking about a sprawling SF universe populated with near-immortal mechanical beings who share a multiplicity of character traits with humans yet remain tantalisingly Other. There’s so much potential there, and everyone involved wants to take things in new directions and tell thrilling, funny, moving stories.
The best science fiction tells you something about yourself and the world you live in by making you look at big issues through new lenses- whether we’re talking about racism, oppression, the clash of ideologies, body horror, modes of government, slavery, medicine- and even gender, these days. I love exploring all of those things through More Than Meets The Eye, firstly because I want to tell thought-provoking stories (who doesn’t?), and secondly because I love world-building and exploring Cybertronian society and societal attitudes, past and present, is the best way of doing that.
As for the balance between realism and science-fantasy… I must admit I don’t consciously try to set one off against the other. But I will say that the characters are at the absolute heart of the book; most of my energy as a writer is spent on bringing them to life. Get the characters right- make people care about who’s on the page- and the rest will follow. If I was being reductionist, I’d say Character + High Concept SF + snark = MTMTE. I like to think that the book has a personality of its own, a unique one. People who get it REALLY get it.
RC: Are you the sort who needs a particular environment to get your writing knocked out- privacy, music and a computer, etc, or scraps of papers while trotting about town?
JR: I’m afraid I live and breathe the horrific stereotype of the writer camped at a table in the corner of the coffee shop, hunched over his notebook, inches away from a giant neon arrow and sign that that says, ‘Behold His Creativity’. Why the coffee shop works for me I don’t know, although I have read articles putting forward theories about how certain levels of ambient noise are conducive to creative thinking, so who knows. Maybe it’s just the coffee.
Anyway, yes, I write the first few drafts of any script in longhand because, while I can still go back and scribble and annotate and cross out, I’m not sucked into computer-enabled editing hell whereby I sit there and tinker with a sentence for three hours. Longhand, then endless redrafts on screen. The most satisfying moment for me comes near the end of the process, when you can print the whole thing off, return to the welcoming arms of the baristas, and edit the thing by hand.
Music… well, I could listen to music for ever, but I can’t listen to it whilst writing. Not any more. Music does play a part in the creative process, though: readers are used to me posting links to a selection of tracks that to my mind reflect and enhance the story in the latest issue. I think there’s a now playlist on YouTube.
RC: Now that you have stacked up a small fortune in Transformers comic book credits, have you gotten the itch to try writing comic books dealing with other properties, whether your own or commercial? Or is it Transformers all the way to the end?
JR: My love of comic books and of writing – and all forms of storytelling, including prose and scripting for film or TV – eclipses even my love for Transformers, so yes, I very much intend to try my hand at other things, other projects and properties, in due course. I enjoy science-fiction and superhero material as much as I do small-scale, kitchen sink, slice-of-life stuff, so I’m attracted to something that combines all of the above. The L Shaped Room meets Blade Runner, maybe.
RC: James, it has been a blast talking with you. One last thing though, will we ever find out what is in Brainstorm’s briefcase? Might it be the soul of Marsellus Wallace?
JR: It’s a straight question, it deserves a straight answer. And the answer is “yes”.
I like mysteries, I like slow builds, I like inviting speculation… but I also like answers, concrete and logical and sometimes even face-palm-y. So yes, the mystery of Brainstorm’s briefcase will be revealed. It will be opened, and there will be consequences… big, frightening, quest-defining consequences.