One Foot In The Dead Universe: IU Talks to John Barber and James Roberts

Now that Dark Cybertron is well and underway, we here at Iacon Underground were fortunate enough to get to ask IDW writers John Barber and James Roberts some questions about the series so far and both Robots in Disguise and More Than Meets The Eye going forward!

IU: Thank you both so much for taking the time to talk to us! Now that we’re halfway into the event, what’s your favorite part of DARK CYBERTRON so far? What upcoming part of the series are you looking forward to finally seeing the light of day?

John: Well, we’re a little past halfway, but that’s my fault for not writing this quicker… it’s funny, because of the way this comic came together, that so much of it kinda crushes together in my head… it’s hard to remember what’s out, what’s done but not out, and what’s still in progress… Early on, I think the combination of Phil Jimenez and Andrew Griffith in issue 1 was really exciting to see. I’ve known Phil a little bit for a while, but never actually worked with him or even spent any real time talking to him before we started this comic—and it turned out we grew up really close by each other. And Andrew, I love working with. That first issue coming together was really cool.

As far as looking ahead—I think the last act of the story, the last third is really strong. Issue 9 is really crazy action, and I think James and I found a good rhythm to the writing there. And issue 10 is a lot of fun, there’s sort of a breath to take, before the end comes.

James: We’ve just signed off Part 9, and it was even more frenetic and action-packed than it seemed at the script stage. Andrew had the unenviable task of cramming about 50 characters over those 22 pages, and the majority of panels – I’ll say it again: the majority of panels – have about five people in. It’s testament to his artistry that he can make all that look natural and not cluttered.

I think Part 10 is going to be popular, particularly with those people who were anticipating a more traditional crossover where the two casts mix it up early on. MTMTE and RiD have always been defined, in part, by their separateness, by the two stories happening at arm’s length from each other, so John and I wanted to approach the reunification of the overall cast slowly — really build to it so that it forms part of the climax of the story. And really, issues nine through 12 are the climax. 88 pages of everything colliding.

Part 10 is also special because Alex Milne is back on pencils for. I’m flagging up that fact not to disparage the likes of Livio Ramondelli or James Riaz or Atilio Rojo, super-talents one and all, but because Alex makes his “comeback” in an issue of MTMTE, and for lots of people, MTMTE is Alex. So that just feels right. And, y’know, in Part 10 John and I had fun mixing up the casts and – really important, this – playing with some core post-CHAOS continuity. We get to reference and progress plots that began in the first 22 issues of the two ongoings.

So yeah, Part 10 I’m looking forward to (even if Parts 11 and 12 are the ones that will kick people in the guts); as for my favorite moment so far… Phil and Andrew drawing the Lost Light crew in Part 1. Seeing those pages take shape made the crossover seem real to me. Oh, and working with John over an extended period – as two writers, rather than writer and editor – has been fun, especially as we entered the final furlong and all the scenes started to blend. In a good way!

IU: It’s assumed John is writing the Cybertron scenes and James is writing the Lost Light scenes, but what about the Dead Universe? Is one of you focusing on that or do you alternate depending on who’s speaking? (A popular fan theory is that to write those scenes you go back and forth talking to each other in character like an online role-playing session.)

John: Early on, it was mostly us alternating scenes. Like, we both broke the story together, we both came up with the story and we both worked on the outline, but issue by issue it was sort of “James takes these pages and I take these other ones.” The Lost Light stuff was clearly James’ territory, and the stuff with Bumblebee and Starscream made the most sense to fall to me. But as the series progresses, we start handing things back and forth, and certain character interact with other characters where there’s a big overlap between the casts of ROBOTS IN DISGUISE and MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE. There are parts where one of us would write a page with some blank spots, and then the other would come in and fill those spots and maybe rewrite or change the whole page, and then the first would come back in and maybe change some other stuff here and there… There are a lot of drafts of the later issues, especially, because of that.

It got pretty organic. That was actually a lot of fun, even if it was a lot of work. There are key character parts for our books that we wrote the opposite of how you might expect. It gets a little harder to tell us apart, I think, as the series goes on. There’s definitely stuff where I don’t know who came up with what.

JR: That pretty much sums it up! Maybe after working on a 264-page story together you start to pick up each other’s mannerisms, not just in terms of dialog but in terms of prepping a scene and hitting certain character beats. Thinking about it, I would have been more apprehensive putting words in Starscream’s mouth, for example, at the start of all this than I would be now, and I’m guessing it’s the same for John.

IU: It’s no secret that DARK CYBERTRON is a very Hasbro-driven storyline, but they’ve also been giving IDW a lot of creative freedom lately. Was there anything they asked you to include for DARK CYBERTRON that took some particular creative acrobatics to work into the story? Did any of your suggestions influence the toys? Are we going to get a little plastic Rodpod or a big plastic Necrotitan? And – the question every hardcore fan wants to know – did you get any free toys?

John: Well, the original concept for the story was put together in Rhode Island by James, me, Phil Jimenez, Michael Kelly (Hasbro’s Director, Global Publishing) plus members of Hasbro’s TRANSFORMERS team—I’d like to single out Mark Weber for going above-and-beyond the call of duty at that initial meeting, and later. Andy Schmidt, who edited the TRANSFORMERS comics, and then went over to Hasbro—he was in those initial meetings. So there was never a thing of Hasbro dropping this on our lap. That summit had a lot of ideas and characters floating around. I’d been at a number of creative summits for big comic book events over the years, and Phil has worked on all kinds comics including drawing Infinite Crisis, one of the biggest comic book “event” comics of all. I hope I’m not speaking out of school here, but during at least one point, the ideas got pretty crazy and James and I were talking outside the main room, off by a bathroom in fact, and said he was getting a little… ah… nervous, or worried about the direction things were going.

And the funny thing was that I’d had that exact same reaction, years ago, about another creative retreat about another event, and I’d had the same moment of talking to somebody outside a bathroom about it. In my case, it was Mark Millar—and he told me not to worry, that these things settle down and the stuff that isn’t working will get tossed out. And he was right. So I told James about that—the way these summits work is like a brain working. There are all kinds of bananas ideas thrown around, and it gets whittled down to the actual story.

Anyway—knowing what characters were going to get DARK CYBERTRON issues packed in with their toys had some influence on certain characters that came in, but honestly the flow was going the other way, too, where the TRANSFORMERS team at Hasbro is reading the comics and is really getting influenced by the stuff we’re doing.

No idea on the specific characters you ask about becoming toys, though. And if I did know, I’d probably still have to say I didn’t…

James: Yes, I remember that bathroom conversation – although I’m surprised John recounted that and not what happened next, with the ninjas. Still, at least I’m now sharing an anecdote with Mark Millar…

But the conversation John’s recounting, yes, I remember we were at the white board stage of the meeting and – quite rightly, and very helpfully – everyone in the room was throwing ideas into the pot, and I was sitting there and my eyes were probably widening and my hands gripping the sides of the chair. Not because the ideas were bad – there were some fantastic ideas that day, and some frankly insane ones – but because after two years of beavering away at MTMTE in relative isolation, suddenly the book – and I’m sure this was the same for John and RID too – was being moved into Massive Event territory, something which is thrilling and exciting, but which involves a the involvement of many more creative people and therefore a lot more uncertainty as to where everything’s going to end up. Of course the good news is that John was right and the process settled down until only the strongest ideas survived. Darwinian spit-balling.

IU: With the solicits for each of your #28s coming up soon, are you willing to spill the beans yet on the cast shakeups? Was there anyone either of you had to bargain with the other for this time? Any big fights? Anyone you’re really looking forward to bringing front and center going forward?

John: Well, you’ve seen the solicits now. The beans spilled in those solicits were beans we planned to spill… I think there’s at least one big “HUH?!?!” moment in the solicit for MTMTE that’s got people talking, and that question (“HOW?!?!”) will hopefully be with readers through the rest of DARK CYBERTRON.

With RID, there’s a big change in characters coming—depending on who survives DARK CYBERTRON, which I don’t want to spoil, some of the cast will be back and maybe some won’t. We’ll get some fresh characters in the mix, and a pretty interesting situation that brings our cast to Earth. Not that we’re abandoning CYBERTRON, of course—it’ll continue to play a big role in RID going forward, and the WINDBLADE series is picking up on what’s happening on the ground on CYBERTRON post-DARK CYBERTRON.

There were a couple characters James and I traded. There’s definitely some fan-favorites that haven’t had much screen time lately that are going to get highlighted in these runs. I don’t mean to be cryptic—the solicits gave away exactly what we wanted to give away at this point, and I don’t want to spoil anything… but there’ll be more clues dropped as we get closer to the issue 28s coming out.

James: MEGATRON on board the Lost Light and the AUTOBOTS, led by OPTIMUS, back on Earth. Two things we’ve been looking forward to telling the world since that meeting at Rhode Island.

To me, MEGATRON on the Lost Light feels utterly wrong – but wrong in a good way. Wrong in the best way. Even before DARK CYBERTRON, MTMTE was going to have a first and second “season” – a sense of curtain down, then curtain up — it’s just that there wouldn’t have been such a shake-up in-between. We were always going to move into Season 2 with a reshuffled cast and a focus on some characters who, thus far, had been denied the spotlight. There’s a TV show in the UK, or there was, called Skins, about the trials and tribulations of a group of mid- to late teenagers, and it was great, and to keep it fresh they dumped the entire cast after every other season, shipped in a new ensemble, and started all over again. It kept everyone on their toes – creators and viewers alike. And while with MTMTE we’re not being quite as drastic, it is time to set some new character arcs in motion and play with the status quo.

IU: There’s been a LOT of talk about Mairghread Scott’s upcoming WINDBLADE book. Is there anything she’s planning there that will affect your own respective series? Are there plans for much overlap between her series and the ongoings, and have either of you called dibs on the character after her own book ends?

John: WINDBLADE the character and WINDBLADE the comic book will both have a huge impact on the landscape of the TRANSFORMERS comics. Post DARK CYBERTRON, each of the series will continue to stand on their own, but events in one series will absolutely have repercussions on the other, and WINDBLADE is no exception. There are absolutely plans for her after the limited series, but you’ll have to wait and see. But the WINDBLADE series takes place in real-time with the two ongoings—it’s not a flashback or anything—and it’s right in the heart of the action.

IU: Are you planning more crossovers for the future, or are you happy to have your respective books to yourselves for a while?

John: I think we’re good for a while. I don’t think we’re eager to do another massive event like this, but we’ll continue to have little bits that carry over from one series to the others. DARK CYBERTRON was a big deal to us; we’d been apart for about two years, which—in comic book terms—is an eternity, so doing something really big to draw everything together and tell a huge-scale story was very appealing, but it’s not something we want to overdo.

James: We’re both very aware that repeating these events too often might affect the forward momentum of our books. That said, unlike “Year One” (or however we’re referring to the period of time between CHAOS and DARK CYBERTRON), when the two casts were cut adrift and unable to communicate, at least now they can keep in touch with each other. So there’s more scope for… I don’t know what you’d call it. Everyday crossovers. Ground-level crossovers. But fans of huge, tum-thumping, after-this-nothing-will-be-the-same epics needn’t despair: you can have those without yoking the two books together.

2 thoughts on “One Foot In The Dead Universe: IU Talks to John Barber and James Roberts

  1. Great interview! I’m excited for a return to Earth in RID, partly because I’m a fan of Transformers-among-humans type of stories and partly because I feel like it will be a greater contrast against the star-spanning MTMTE series.

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