Spoilers ahead for this week's Transformers #50.
With the American presidential election in full swing, Optimus Prime has announced his plans to annex the entire Earth in this week's Transformers #50 -- and as you can expect, the people living on Earth have something to say about that.
This week's milestone fiftieth issue saw the struggle between Autobots and Decepticons take on several new facets as factions have formed in both sides of the Transformers's struggle, as well as in Earth's response to Optimus Prime's actions.
Newsarama talked with series writer John Barber about this week's issue by him and artists Andrew Griffith and Casey Coller, getting an idea of what this new era of Transformers holds.
Newsarama: Transformers #50 was quite the issue – I’d argue one of the biggest in IDW’s history. How did it all come together?
John Barber: It started a while back... A couple storylines back. I was thinking about the future of the book as I was writing another issue, and then it kinda hit me—“All Hail Optimus.” It was a play on the “All Hail Megatron” story Shane McCarty and Guido Guidi did several years ago, but something about the name locked in on Optimus Prime’s trajectory and it all made sense and I sort of saw a whole future laid out of not only this initial six-issue story, but for a ways out from there, too.
One of the things with Optimus Prime is that he’s a good guy. Like, a really good, powerful, guy. So over the years, he'd sort of had doubt introduced to him in the IDW comic books, where he was a little more hesitating in his actions. As I was writing him, I started to realize he was maybe going down that direction again, and it seemed to me—as a character, from his point of view—he’d want to avoid that.
But at the same time, one of the looming questions has been “what does it mean to be Prime?” Starscream’s ruling Cybertron; Megatron’s an Autobot... Some people see him as a war leader, others see him as a messianic figure... Some ’bots are loyally on his side and will follow him anywhere, and others—old friends—start to doubt him.
So when Galvatron moves against Earth, this all comes to a head, and in an effort to protect the Earth, Optimus annexes our world into the Cybertronian Council of Worlds. In the process, he’s working to improve the life of people on this planet. It’s not “Dark Optimus,” he hasn’t gone evil—but his actions are certainly perceived as a threat by a lot of people. And they have a good point.
From there, Andrew Griffith and I made a big, action-packed story. There tends to be a lot of talking in this comic, you know, for a book about giant metal guys shooting at each other, but we wanted this one to have a giant, giant action set piece in Shanghai, at the construction site for an amusement park... Plus, Casey W. Coller jumped onboard to draw a 10-page follow-up story, delivering a double-sized, 40 page extravaganza.
Nrama: A lot happened in this issue, but the first thing I wanted to ask about is the People’s Liberation Army Mecha Force – they have their own piloted Transformers-type jet/robots, using some Cybertronian technology. What can you say about Zilong Qian and the Mecha Force?
Barber: One thing I wanted to do when we got to Earth was to make sure we stayed global in scale. I didn’t want everything to be in America. And China is a huge global superpower, and it’d be silly to not get that country involved. The Earth Defense Command in the Transformers title is nominally a global organization, but it is (and was intended to be) really an American-led group. So it made sense that China would have its own response, and in this world of globalization and international commerce, it made sense that Garrison Blackrock and his company, Onyx, might be involved.
The other big influence was my great friends Yuan Song and Dinna Wu flew me, Andrew Griffith, and Livio Ramondelli out to Beijing and Shanghai for some conventions last year, and we got to hand out with some really awesome Chinese Transformers fans—they publish the IDW comics there, plus with the Internet, everybody has access to everything. It was really cool to be there—I’d never been to China at all.
So Dinna helped with the naming, changing my awkward name I’d researched into a real name (which I hopefully didn’t screw up), and Andrew, Livio, and I went to the military museum in Beijing to research what the mecha might be.
With Qian, I wanted a genuine, heroic, military guy. He's out to do his duty and protect his planet. He’s a little aggressive against the Cybertronians, but with good reason. He’ll be around for a while, here—as you see in #50, the Chinese mecha is more advanced than what the E.D.C. has, and Qian’s brought in to liaise and be one of the top voices in the E.D.C., playing the role as the first line of defense against Optimus Prime.
Nrama: For readers who thought the whole issue would be Autobots vs. Galvatron and the Decepticons, Galvatron and his group left pretty early – leaving Optimus and the others to bear the brunt of the Mecha Force. What’s Galvatron’s game plan at this point?
Barber: Galvatron suffered a pretty big loss—this wasn’t his plan, losing big. But he does have access to the Onyx Interface, which—as we see in the end of # 50—lets him see all around the world. It's going to be difficult to sneak up on him. But he's still got to regroup. What his next play is... Well, we'll see that unfolding very soon!
Nrama: And Soundwave has split off from Galvatron, while not aligning with Optimus. Can you tell us what Soundwave wants?
Barber: Soundwave's been working with humanity to build a space station--Sanctuary Station--in orbit around Jupiter's moon of Io. This was to be a haven for Decepticons seeking a peaceful life--really, any Cybertronian would be welcome... As long as they're not loyal to the Prime. That's the one thing Soundwave can't abide.
The idea is Earth has this substance called Ore-13, which is a long story, but the result here is Ore-13 can be converted into energon. So there's only a few places that have energon in the galaxy, and Earth is one of them, which makes it valuable real estate. In exchange for protection against the Autobots (who now include Megatron, who'd invaded Earth a few years ago and killed a lot of people), the Earth would give access to Ore-13 and the physical resources to build the station.
Soundwave was working with Galvatron, but he's just learned Galvatron had another plan--invading Earth and conquering... Well, everything. But Soundwave had been genuine. He'd really wanted to build a lasting relationship with Earth.
Now that's ruined -- first by Galvatron, then by Optimus. Soundwave's in between these two forces, looking for peace and equality and finding war again. He's not happy with that... And we'll see in Transformers #52 how things start to shake out.
Nrama: Getting back to the battle that took up much of Transformers #50, one of the casualties was Sterling – from a bolt by Mecha Force.
Barber: Yeah--Sterling died. He was Aileron's best friend, and the two of them had joined together for this grand adventure with a Prime. Now the cold reality hits Aileron. She's on Earth to save the humans, who just killed her best friend. Her reaction--everybody in Optimus' camp's reaction, really, but especially Aileron's reaction--is the crux of #51.
Aileron's sort of a fan of Prime, and of the legendary heroism of the Primes. She's found herself in the midst of this world, and now she's seeing the reality behind the legend.
Nrama: As the battle and the main story ended, the issue kicked into another gear with that dream sequence from Optimus. What can you say about that? Is it a premonition? Will some (or all) of it come true?
Barber: Some of Optimus's dream is literally true. Some is symbolic. Some is what he fears. Maybe some is leading him to what he needs to know. And a big part of it recalls an ancient prophesy from the days of the original Primes. Is it Optimus projecting himself onto this old tale? Or is it the prophecy asserting itself onto its object?
Again -- Optimus isn't doing this without consideration. I'd be more worried about him if he wasn't concerned he'd gone too far, or concerned that he might go too far. Maybe this is just a healthy subconscious. Maybe it's something darker.
Nrama: And also in this back story, readers witness the E.D.C. get called to the White House – in current times, not destroyed like in Optimus’s dream. There, Spike Witwicky is put back into service as the U.S.’s liaison to E.D.C. For those that may be just coming into the series with this issue, what’s the situation with Witwicky?
Barber: Spike, Spike, Spike. He was a naval officer in “All Hail Megatron” who helped turn the tide against the Cybertronians. His dad was in charge of the E.D.C. until Galvatron killed him. He’s waged a war against rogue Cybertronians, betrayed his Cybertronian allies, and lost a lot of friends along the way.
He’s a reckless action hero, and Director Faireborn of the E.D.C. hates him. But while he was running around killing rogue Cybertronians and fighting against Garrison Blackrock, he was irritating Faireborn—yet those actions proved to be in the best interest of humanity. So the President clears him of all crimes and puts him in as the American equivalent of Qian. He serves under Faireborn, but answers to the President.
Fans love to hate Spike. I hope they love to hate him. I want to make them love to hate him, not hate to hate him. But he’s a wild card in the human side. No “side” in this conflict is cleanly unified.
Nrama: And wrapping the issue all up, there’s a letter from you at the end. There, you called this issue “the end of the beginning.” At first I was concerned it might be a letter announcing you were stepping down from Transformers, but it looks to be anything but. What can fans look forward to coming up, big picture?
Barber: Well, I’m glad you weren’t ecstatic it sounded like I was leaving! [Laughs]
But what really comes next is all of the pieces of this series coming together. The politics of Cybertron, the ancient history of Earth and Cybertron, the relationship with Earth and its giant metal visitors. Optimus Prime, Starscream, Prowl, Arcee, Victorion—all those characters come together. Plus ghost-Bumblebee. Or hallucination-Bumblebee, whatever Starscream is seeing. Even poor dead Bumblebee has a role to play!