James Roberts is without a doubt my favorite writer working in comics right now– not simply because he’s working with the legends of my childhood but because he’s not afraid to use those characters to do new, creative, compelling storytelling in the Transformers universe. I’ve expounded on his work here before, most recently earlier this week, where I explained that I’d posed Roberts and artist Alex Milne some questions on their work on the series and that they’d been gracious enough to respond. Milne’s responses are here, and Roberts’ are below:
Q: What’s it like writing inside a franchise universe? Are there narrative constraints you run up against? You’ve done some incredibly creative things with characters like Ultra Magnus and Megatron, but is there ever a frustration that at the end of the day certain things can’t change?
JR: I can’t speak for other writers working with other licensed characters, but there really are very few restrictions within IDW’s TF universe. Hasbro have the final say as to what goes out, but I’m confident that their vision for the G1 side of things is the same as IDW’s. It helps enormously – certainly in terms of the stories that I want to write – that Michael Kelly (Senior Director of Global Publishing at Hasbro, and the person who, after John [Barber, senior editor at IDW], signs off the scripts) has always been keen to humanise the TFs – to make them characterful.
It’s true that efforts are being made on both sides to make the comics complement the toys (see ‘Combiner Wars’ for example), but we’re in a good place right now in that the comics are starting to influence the toys. You mention Ultra Magnus. In Season 1 of MTMTE we learned that these days ‘Ultra Magnus’ is a title, inherited – along with a hulking suit of armour – by law enforcers. Currently the armour is worn by Minimus Ambus, someone I created and Alex designed for ‘Remain in Light’, the S1 finale. Now, in the last few months Hasbro have brought out a new version of Magnus and it’s very much the MTMTE version, complete with a Minimus figure.
And no, I’ve never felt frustrated that certain things can’t change. Quite the opposite: I genuinely believe that the IDW TF universe is one of the most unrestrictive, status-quo-avoiding, open-ended, ever-evolving universes in modern comics. Since John and I started on ‘Phase 2’, as it’s now called, the war has finished (and stayed finished), the Neutrals have returned, Starscream has become ruler of Cybertron, Bumblebee has died etc etc. The clock hasn’t been turned back and we’re not re-setting anything. It’s great.
Q: For those of us who aren’t following the series each month in the comic book but who get it for the first time in the trades, can you talk a bit about how those are packaged? Is it simply a new one every six issues or so, or is there intention behind how they’re divided?
JR: The latter. John and I structure the ‘seasons’ so that there’s a natural break point every five or six issues. That’s normally not too difficult. At the beginning of MTMTE and Robots in Disguise, he and I said – publicly, too, I think – that we wanted to tell more one- and two-part stories (which you didn’t really get much of, and still don’t get much of, in mainstream comics). Telling shorter tales makes it easier to group the stories into the trades.
Q: Help someone who’s fairly ignorant of the artistic process understand the relationship between art and narrative. Do the scripts go to Alex fairly finalized, or is it an iterative process? Has the artwork ever transformed the narrative, either in a particular instance or over the course of the series?
JR: I think Alex describes the process well. There are two ways of writing a script, generally speaking: ‘the Marvel method’ and ‘full script’. The former is when the writer breaks down the issue into scenes and describes each one in a few paragraphs; then the artists translates that into layouts and pencils, and the writer adds dialog at the end. With the exception of some Dark Cybertron issues, I’ve always preferred to write ‘full script’, which breaks down each page into panels and describes what’s in the panels, and writes dialog then. The whole package is passed to John, then Alex, and Alex works his magic. As he says, that can involve deviating from the panel descriptions. We trust each other enough that he can interpret moments a different way without prior discussion.
Q: Which character has surprised you most over the course of the series? Are there some you wish you could have spent more time with? (I’m thinking, for instance, of the abrupt departures of Red Alert, Fortress Maximus, and Drift.)
JR: I did think I’d do more with Red Alert in Season 1 but found I was struggling to line things up for him after his attempted suicide; that’s not to say I don’t want to ‘work’ with him again. Fort Max was never going to stick around because he was originally going to die at Overlord’s hands in #15, and then he was going to do something so beyond the pale it would have meant taking him off the board for a long, long time. Dropping him off on Luna 1, so to speak, was more about putting him in a holding position so I think more about how to use him.
Over the course of the series I’ve found myself more invested than I anticipated in the likes of Whirl, Magnus, Tailgate, Brainstorm and Nautica.
Q: I’m not going to ask the forbidden question of how much you had mapped out at the beginning of the series, but how seriously should we be taking the Necrobot’s list? And when are we going to see Misfire’s misfits again? (Free band name suggestion there.)
JR: Ah, well, the Necrobot list mystery has kind of been cleared up… but for the avoidance of doubt: the famous names on the list we saw at the end of #8 relate to the ‘copy’ characters who were killed on the duplicate Lost Light in issues #32 and #33.
The Scavengers return very, very shortly.
Q: Apart from making good art, telling good stories, and making fans very, very happy, what relevancy do giant transforming robots have today? Do you see your work as having significance outside the comics alone?
JR: We’re using giant transforming robots to tell all sorts of stories about life, love, death, illness, society, the government, faith, friendship and the rest. The best science fiction – the best fiction – holds a mirror up to the reader. It’s like Swerve says in #41: we valorise fiction because it tells us about ourselves. I’m not putting MTMTE up there with the best, but beyond the giant robots – or rather *through* the giant robots – we’re trying to tell the best stories we can; and the best stories touch a chord because you relate to them, or the characters in them.
Alex is right about TF comics – and licensed comics generally – getting a bit of a cold shoulder on the basis that, somehow, they’re not legitimate comics – which is patently absurd. But it’s changing! Attitudes are changing. People are far more open. We’re benefiting from a new generations of readers and critics who are more open and less dismissive, because good stories are good stories.
And, you know, MTMTE and RiD and Windblade sell well. In print form they’re rock solid, in digital they do VERY well. I can’t speak for the other titles because I only focus obsessively on MTMTE’s ‘rank’, but on Comixology the most recent issue hit #3 in the UK, #8 in the rest of Europe and #9 in the US. People are still checking it and sticking around.