The Autobots are dispersed across the galaxy and an ancient prophecy is looming to come to fruition...Dark Cybertron is near. Taking place in both of IDW's Transformers Robots In Disguise and More Than Meets The Eye, the Dark Cybertron event will bring the two factions of Autobots together, but at what price?
Newsarama recently spoke to the Dark Cybertron event architects John Barber and James Roberts as they delve into some of what has been going on with the Transformers leading up to the event starting next month with Dark Cybertron #1 and rotating between both Transformers titles until the finale in March. We got all the secrets that Hasbro and IDW would let loose, and have a sneak peek inside the special first issue.
Newsarama: So, John and James, between Robots In Disguise and More Than Meets The Eye, you've got the bots kind of scattered all over the place, will the events of Dark Cybertron bring them all together?
John Barber: The setup has been that Rodimus has been leading a group of Autobots (well, mostly Autobots) on a starship, the Lost Light, in search of the legendary Knights of Cybertron. Meanwhile Bumblebee tried to forge a new government on Cybertron, but failed, letting Starscream take over the planet. While that was going on, Optimus Prime—now calling himself Orion Pax—has gone off into space and hooked up with a couple other Autobots.
So, yeah—they are pretty spread out, and Dark Cybertron will start to draw them together. Shockwave’s got a plan, and it’s a big plan, and it encompasses a lot of the universe. The Lost Light gets drawn into one part of the plan, and everybody on Cybertron gets pulled another way… right away, Orion Pax hooks up with the Lost Light crew and he and Rodimus team up to go into a dark dimension called the Dead Universe that’s as horrifying as it sounds.
James Roberts: In the nigh-on 30 years since Transformers began, there have never been two ongoing Transformers comic books running side by side, focusing on different sets of characters in different parts of the same universe. And so this is our first opportunity to indulge in some proper crossover action.
In the past, with big Transformers stories, the sense of occasion has come exclusively from the size of the threat. In the case of Dark Cybertron, yes, the threat is big—the threat is massive, in fact—but in addition to that, you get the thrill of seeing characters from separate storylines mix it up with each other. In a way, it's the Transformers version of the Avengers movie after 50 issues spent building up our respective casts.
Barber: The first issue—with absolutely stunning art by Phil Jimenez and Andrew Griffith (and a prelude by Brendan Cahill!)—has everybody, and sets up who's where and why. So if you're not up to speed, don’t worry—Dark Cybertron #1 will get you there.
Nrama: You guys have certainly added depth to certain characters and their lore. Shockwave's origin in Robots In Disguise was incredibly haunting. When doing something like that, what is the working relationship with Hasbro like?
Barber: Well, artist Livio Ramondelli and I did the Shockwave origin issue in Robots In Disguise—but James and artist Alex Milne had really set that up. The idea of the twist of Shockwave’s origin—not to give too much away for anybody who hasn’t read it, but the idea that he wasn’t always an emotionless, one-eyed, gun-handed Decepticon—was James’. He’d set the scene with that going all the way back to the “Chaos Theory” story he wrote a few years ago.
If I remember right, the idea had been floated from the inception of More Than Meets The Eye, but James actually pitched it to Hasbro while we were out there in the Hasbro offices. It was members of the Transformers brand team, Hasbro’s Director, Global Publishing Michael Kelly, Phil Jimenez, me… everybody really went for it. I don't think the character really had been given an origin story before—and definitely not one that added that kind of depth. And in terms of working relationship, everybody there loves adding depth to the characters. Everybody in the room is a huge fan of these characters. That's why we do what we do.
Roberts: The aim, of course, is to do something new and surprising and satisfying with the characters whilst staying true to who they are. That can be difficult with the better-known characters, who tend to have a lot of their personal history accounted for. Shockwave was an exception—a surprising exception, in a way, because there’s always been something about his cold, logical, methodical personality which somehow, on some level, made him seem utterly immutable—like he'd always been like this.
I suppose Shockwave was the first More Than Meets The Eye/Robots In Disguise crossover—a subtle crossover, I suppose, because in More Than Meets The Eye you didn’t know you were reading a story about Shockwave (a Robots In Disguise mainstay) until the last page.
Nrama: Dreadwing has returned from the dead recently, why him of all characters? Does he have a big part to play?
Barber: Dreadwing was around in our comics—he was briefly in the DRIFT limited series, if I recall correctly. But he was currently just one of the tons of Decepticons trying to forge a post-war life on Cybertron. I knew he was going to get a new toy, and Shockwave needed an assistant on Cybertron, so I recruited Dreadwing. When he died—briefly, in the present-day part of the Shockwave origin issue of Robots In Disguise —it was Shockwave testing the effects of “Ore-14,” the resurrection ore that Shockwave had created. Dreadwing was the guy with Shockwave, so Shockwave killed him to make sure the ore would bring him back. Which it did.
Roberts: “Why him of all characters?” is a great question in the context of the Transformers Universe. The Generation 1 Era—1984 to 1995—saw the introduction, across various media, of literally hundreds of Autobots and Decepticons, and virtually every one of them will be a favorite to someone out there. I’m sure there are people who have been demanding more Dreadwing since IDW started making Transformers comics in 2005.
Barber: I kind of like using characters that are sort of random. James has a more extensive background, I think it’s fair to say, in the classic semi-obscure characters, but I like throwing in a character that isn't a household name among non-Transformers fans. And I liked that there was a toy coming out that would have one of our comics packed in with it, of course!
James: I think that’s another exciting thing about the Dark Cybertron story: I don’t think a larger and more diverse cast of Autobots and Decepticons has ever been assembled. And that’s not a case of throwing lots of random names into the mix for the sake of it—the Robots In Disguise and More Than Meets The Eye casts are already pretty sprawling in and of themselves, and it was just a case welding them together in weird and wonderful ways. That said, John and I are always careful, I think, not to presume that readers have read the last 200 Transformers comics. As John says, everything you need is in Dark Cybertron #1.
Nrama: As you mentioned, Optimus Prime now goes back to his Cybertronian name of Orion Pax, what was the motivation for him to almost demote himself?
Barber: When the two current ongoings started, the war on Cybertron ended, and the civilians that had abandoned the world started coming home. And they had lost track of the “who was right” aspect of the several-million-years-long war. They saw Optimus Prime, not as a hero, but as a war leader.
And Optimus… well, he IS a hero. He realized his being there was divisive. He stepped down as leader; abdicated his throne to advance the peace process.
Roberts: Over the last couple of years we’ve dropped in on Prime/Pax from time to time, and he’s been as good as his word: when he said he was leaving Cybertron, he meant it. He’s not a Prime, he doesn’t carry the Matrix, he doesn’t presume to command anybody. He’s just an Autobot in deep space, with a small gang of friends and followers, staying well away from his home planet and hoping that Bumblebee and Rodimus—the two people he left in charge—have steered the Cybertronian race towards an enduring peace.
Nrama: Jhiaxus is a name that's been dropped a few times. Can you tell us a bit about him and his role in Dark Cybertron?
Barber: Jhiaxus was Shockwave’s teacher—he was the greatest scientist of Cybertron’s so-called “Golden Age” and was responsible for some of the grandest (and most terrifying) technological advancements the Cybertronians have ever seen. He created the first combiner, for instance—which went crazy and tried to kill everybody. Then Jhiaxus spent a few million years in a place called The Dead Universe, returning once or twice to try to destroy our universe. He’s not the most… stable guy you'll meet.
But in the intervening eons, the student has become the master—Shockwave’s cold logic has taken control of Jhiaxus mad-scientist-ness—and together they're launching a gambit that will fuse the Dead Universe with Cybertron's “Golden Age”—which was only really golden for some Cybertronians—and bring to fruition a hidden prophecy called “Dark Cybertron.”
Which sounds a little ominous to pretty much anybody that isn’t Jhiaxus or Shockwave.
Nrama: You have Arcee feeling sort of out of place here. For somebody who was considered an Autobot mainstay, you put her at a crossroads. What was it about Arcee that made you want to do that to her?
Barber: Well, the version of Arcee in the comics that IDW’s been publishing has been considerably different from “classic” Arcee. She’s very dangerous, very deadly, and more than a little unhinged.
There are parts of her character, as established in the comics, that I liked, and parts that I found troubling. She’s been one of my favorite characters to write because I’ve always known where she was going as a character, and giving her an emotional crossroads is part of that growth.
The question she faced is “does she belong with these Autobots.” Her answer, at the onset of Dark Cybertron, is “yes”—but not everybody’s going to accept her. And she’s not really been presented as particularly eager to win people over to her side, so I think that will create some tension.
Nrama: The Matrix of Leadership bounced around for a little while. Are there plans for it to find a permanent host during Dark Cybertron?
Barber: Spoiler alert for More Than Meets The Eye #21, here!
Roberts: The Matrix has had a rough time of it lately. At the end of the “Chaos” storyline—the last big Transformers comic event, back in 2011—the Matrix was drained, and split in two.
Optimus gave one half to each of his successors, Bumblebee and Rodimus. The half that Rodimus took with him when he left Cybertron contained the map he was using to find the Knights of Cybertron. Unfortunately, in the weeks leading up to Dark Cybertron, and in a story that climaxed in More Than Meets The Eye #21, Rodimus’ half of the Matrix was destroyed—it literally turned to dust.
All of which means that in Dark Cybertron, the Cybertronians are going to have to find ways to defeat some particularly dangerous, galaxy-level threats without the aid of their usual “get out of jail free” card.
Nrama: You have a slew of talent working with you on this event. Can you tell us about some of the names involved?
Barber: Phil Jimenez has done a couple comics here and there in the past, but Dark Cybertron should really put him on the map. No, seriously—Phil is maybe best known for… well, a million huge comics, including drawing Infinite Crisis, several X-Men series, Invisibles, Amazing Spider-Man, and for writing and drawing a really beloved run on Wonder Woman and an upcoming run on Savage Wolverine. I mean, he’s a big deal. One of my all-time favorite artists.
I was really thrilled to get to work with him, and to pair him with Transformers mainstay Andrew Griffith on Dark Cybertron #1. It’s a really amazing pairing of artists.
Brendan Cahill and Atilio Rojo are new-ish—they’ve both done a couple issues of ROBOTS IN DISGUISE. Atilio jumped in and is drawing a lot of the Cybertron sequences in the comic, while Brendan handles the prologue of issue 1. Atilio’s worked on a bunch of G.I. Joe comics, some Dungeons & Dragons—he’s really talented, and brings a grounded realism to the characters.
James Raiz—who’s no stranger to Transformers comics, having worked on TF comics off and on for over a decade. He drew Tokyo Storm Warning that Warren Ellis wrote, and a ton of other stuff at Marvel and DC (including a couple issues of Wonder Woman, to keep that theme going).
Robert Gill did some work for IDW some years ago, but he’s really reinvented himself and his art is going to stun people when they see it.
Plus we’ve got Transformers mainstays like the amazing Livio Ramondelli, Casey Coller on covers, Alex Milne, more Andrew Griffith… it’s a really great set of creators here.
Nrama: What are you most excited about for fans to see from Dark Cybertron?
Barber: The best thing, I think, is that it the story means something. It changes the universe that our characters operate in. By the end of Part 12, something’s shifted—for good. And that matters, because otherwise all the pain and drama and action that takes place in Parts 1 to 11 would have been nothing but a distraction from business as usual. Also, because this was the 30th anniversary story, we go for broke and do things that no one would expect.
As I’ve said before, the story is also fun because you get to mix-and-match the characters: Character A from Robots In Disguise, might share a scene or a subplot—or maybe, in some cases, just a single panel—with Character B from More Than Meets The Eye. As the story builds and the various threads start converging, you get more and more of these team-ups, and I hope readers get as much of a thrill out of the combined cast as I did. Hey, I’m a Transformers fan of old, and Dark Cybertron makes me feel like I did when I used to read the weekly Transformers comic in the UK and they’d have multi-part epics where all the big name characters from different timelines—Optimus, Galvatron, Ultra Magnus, etc.—were on the same page.
Barber: And if you’re coming at this from the other side—if you’re a fan of big-scale action with real characters that have real feelings—I think this comic will show you that the Transformers comics might be for you.
I’m excited to get to do a story this big, this far reaching, that pulls as much together as this does—while still reaching for the future. I think where we leave the characters at the end of this is really, really exciting.
Nrama: Okay guys, last question, just for fun, if you could transform into anything, what would it be and why?
Roberts: This is like a variation on the “what superpower” question! I’d want an alt mode that was as far removed from my robot mode as possible. A jet? A spaceship? Yeah, the latter. Either that or—no! I’d shrink into something, Ant Man style. Yeah, I’d turn into a robo-wasp or something.
I think there must be a lot of alt mode envy in the Transformers Universe. “You turn into a all-terrain vehicle, I turn into... a cassette player.”
Barber: I’d be a big metal dinosaur. That is the only correct answer to this question.
The lead-up to Dark Cybertron begins in October's More than Meets the Eye and Robots in Disguise #22, and begins in earnest with the Dark Cybertron #1 special in November 2013.