It’s a time of celebration for IDW’s Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye as it hits its 50th issue this week, especially for James Roberts. The fan-turned-comic writer has transformed Megatron from the evil leader of the Decepticons to a ‘bot trying to atone for his past, which is about to catch up with him... violently. We sat down with Roberts to discuss this new Megatron, the journey ahead, and what it’s like working on a series he’s loved since childhood.
io9: What’s the journey for you as a writer been like on More Than Meets The Eye over the last 50 issues?
James Roberts: I was a huge Transformers fan in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and when the British comic was cancelled in 1992 I joined a group of like-minded fans who, thinking that there was no chance of a revival (bear in mind this was back in the days when toy franchises died and stayed dead), wanted to keep the flame burning. So, exercising a kind of collective discipline that in hindsight was pretty remarkable, about 20 of us wrote shared universe fan fiction that moved the story forward.
In the late ‘90s I wrote an unofficial, book-length TF story called Eugenesis—which got reviewed by Harvard’s in-house newspaper, weirdly enough—and that was pretty much it as far as both my fan fiction days were concerned. It also marked the end, for a time, of my connection with Transformers. For the next 10 years I moved on to other things and lost touch with the Autobots and Decepticons. It was only when Nick Roche, a fellow traveller from those wilderness years in the mid-‘90s, got work with IDW, doing covers and then interiors, that I made an effort to get back up to speed.
Obviously it’s great to be given an opportunity to tell stories featuring characters that you loved growing up, and to add new layers to the mythos. When I think about MTMTE reaching issue 50, it’s not so much that I’m amazed that I’m writing a Transformers comic that’s lasted that long... it’s more that I’m writing an ongoing comic book that’s racked up that many issues. In 2016, that’s a rarity.
How did you feel hitting 50 issues? Did you want to celebrate or just move on to plotting out the book’s future?
Roberts: You have to do something special for the half century, certainly. That’s a comic book staple, isn’t it? Pulling out all the stops for 50, 75, 100. MTMTE is split into ‘seasons’—story arcs that last about 20, 25 issues—and the only question, back when I was planning season two, was whether issue 50 would mark the beginning or the end of the season finale. In the end, both John Barber—writer on MTMTE’s sister title, The Transformers—and I decided that we wanted our issue 50s to start a story, not end it. And that’s why, even though “The Dying of the Light” is written as a finale to the preceding 20 issues, you don’t need to have read all of them to get a sense of what’s going on. Issue 50 is a good jumping on point.
For those who might be unfamiliar with MTMTE, can you set up what’s been going on recently with the crew of the Lost Light recently?
Roberts: MTMTE is an ensemble book built around a rather open-ended quest. The Autobot/Decepticon war has ended and while Bumblebee strives to maintain peace on Cybertron, Rodimus gathers a crew of about 200 and leaves Cybertron aboard the Lost Light to search for the Knights of Cybertron, these mythical beings said to have been around when the Transformers’ homeworld was first created. The Knights are said to reside on Cyberutopia—essentially the Promised Land.
So over the last 49 issues we’ve followed a core cast of about 15—old favorites like Ultra Magnus, Ratchet and Cyclonus, plus new or previously obscure characters like Rung, Rewind, Swerve and Nautica—as they roamed the galaxy getting into scrapes, getting distracted, making mistakes and, gradually, coming to know and like each other a little more. Everyone in MTMTE is flawed, and they’re all trying to adjust to postwar life. The series itself is essentially a space opera sitcom with undercurrents of pathos, tragedy and horror.
One of the biggest elements of MTMTE has been the introduction and redemptive arc of Megatron. What’s it been like being able to delve into a character as iconic as he is?
Roberts: Oh, it’s been a joy. Megatron is second only to Optimus as the most iconic, recognizable Transformer, and to get an opportunity to take him in radically new directions and really get under his skin... I’ve loved it. The first Transformers story I wrote for IDW, back in 2011, was about Megatron and Optimus—how they met, what motivated them in the beginning, how the war had changed them—and so really my fascination with Megatron started then. Having him take center stage in MTMTE allowed me to build on elements introduced in that 2011 two-parter, this idea that he started off as a political activist and polemicist preaching radical non-violent action against the State.
Megatron joined the crew (and became captain or co-captain, depending on whether you’re asking Megatron or Rodimus) in issue #28 of MTMTE, and his journey, the faltering steps he’s taken as he tries to put his Decepticon past behind him, has absolutely formed the spine of of Season 2. Everything that’s happened has been because of him, directly or indirectly.
In issue #50, Megatron confronts his past with the Decepticons rather literally. How will this affect his dynamic with the crew going forward?
Roberts: Well we’re into spoiler territory here, so I’ll choose my words carefully. But yes, the Decepticon Justice Division (the DJD) are the guys who hunt down and kill anyone who presents an internal threat to the Deception cause: deserters, turncoats, cowards, double agents. They’re sadistic, relentless, and preposterously violent—most of them turn into weapons of torture. Megatron conceived of the DJD and recruited their original line-up; they represent, certainly from his perspective as a reformed character, where the Decepticons went wrong. Where he went wrong.
As a whole, the issue paints a surprisingly grim future, rather than feeling celebratory. Was that a conscious decision?
Roberts: Yes, after such a long build-up—a confrontation between Megatron and the DJD has been on the cards for a couple of years now—I wanted to make the issue feel huge and significant and epic. There’s always a degree of humor in MTMTE, and in season two we’ve had some deliberately offbeat, lighthearted stories. But “The Dying of the Light” represents a tonal shift. While there are still some lighter moments, the stakes in this story are huge—for all the characters it’s literally a life-or-death situation—and the story needed to be ominous and portentous. A more somber tone also suits Megatron’s character arc. This is a repentant mass murderer who’s coming face to face with his worst creations, and the outcome will not be pleasant for anyone.
All that said, I did manage to find a way to reflect on the first four years of MTMTE. After the 31-page lead strip there’s a 10-pager called “No Guns, No Swords, No Briefcases,” which is set entirely in Swerve’s bar and which unashamedly celebrates pretty much every story we’ve told to date. I like to think it functions as a story in its own right, but it’s also a densely packed collection of Easter Eggs. Casual readers will enjoy it at face value; die-hard MTMTE fans will find many hidden treasures. It’s a love letter to the fandom and I had a blast writing it.
There’s a huge status quo change in this issue. Without getting into spoilers, how long have you been planning this moment?
Roberts: That’s the other thing about an issue 50, even one that launches a story rather than wraps one up. There needs to be a sucker-punch moment.
The change to the status quo that you’re talking about has always, always been on the cards. MTMTE is intricately plotted—every line matters, every story beat reverberates far into the future—and when I sat down in 2013 to work out how season two would unfold, I knew it would lead to this moment. The foreshadowing is there. I hope readers will revisit earlier issues after they’ve read #50 and, through fresh eyes, see the clues and the hints. More than that, I hope that certain plot elements will lend themselves to reappraisal. Things that made not have made sense will now make sense.
You’ve said in the past that you’ve written the final line of MTMTE already. Where do you see yourself going as a writer after this comes to a close?
Roberts: Rodimus and company are on a quest, and every quest has an ending. I’ve always known how, if not when, MTMTE will end, and I have a last line in mind. And it’s important that readers know that all this is leading someone. People can tell if you’re making it up as you go along.
After MTMTE, who knows? I don’t think I’d move on to more Transformers stories right away—in fact I may find I’ve used up all my best ideas and it’s time to move on. (All of this presumes, of course, that IDW wants me to stick around!) The Transformers script I’m working on right now is the75th, if you count the issues I co-write with Nick Roche and John Barber, and the last thing I want is to find myself running on empty in a few years’ time.
More broadly, I’m keen to work on some creator-owned material and to try my hand at storytelling outside of the comics medium, much though I love it.
Finally, looking back at your 50 issues so far, what’s been your favorite part of the process working on an ongoing series like this?
Roberts: Watching the MTMTE fandom grow and take shape, I think. No-one knew if the book was going to be successful—the first story arc was tailored to 12 issues just in case the whole thing tanked. But I like to think that pretty early on the book found its voice, and that it was a voice that resonated with people who were ready to get very invested in a bunch of sarcastic, mopey, affable, ridiculous and relatable losers.
Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye #50 hits comic stands tomorrow, March 9th.