MindHut at Comic-Con: Transformers Editor/Writer John Barber Explains Why He Left Earth
It may sound hard to believe, but there are actually a few quiet places at the San Diego Comic-Con. IDW Publishing editor/writer/nice guy John Barber and I found one of these places Friday afternoon, ducking outside the sales floor to a mid-level balcony overlooking the (lovely) San Diego harbor and the (less lovely) convention center parking garage. There we chatted about the new direction of IDW's Transformers comics, and when I wasn't telling him how awesome they were I actually managed to get a few good questions out.
The MindHut: If you could tell our readers one thing to pitch your Transformers line, what is that thing?
John Barber: Our basic set-up is that the war is over, the Autobots have won, and now they have to win the peace. More Than Meets the Eye is about Rodimus leading a team out into space to find the heart of Cybetronian culture and try to rebuild its Golden Age, while Robots in Disguise is about Bumblebee trying to create a whole new world not tied into the past. All of us on the books work closely together to connect all the stories but make it so you can read any piece separately and still have a coherent piece of storytelling. We want you to see these characters as real people, even if they're made out of metal.
The MindHut: With your new series, you've kind of taken a more serious sci-fi/epic slant on things. What inspired you to do that versus the Earthbound stuff you did earlier?
John Barber: Andy Schmidt was the editor up until about a year ago, and he brought James (Roberts, writer on More Than Meets the Eye) and I in to do the series. Separately we each pitched our series. It wasn't me making that editorial decision, but it was me as a writer looking at what was going on. All the IDW stuff had been set on Earth, with the exception of Stormbringer and a lot of the one-shots, so we'd been on Earth for a really long time, and I think James and I both felt it would be fun to move away from that.
Both of us were attracted to the comics set off Earth. James read that stuff when he was a kid. The Transformers comics I read when I was a kid were the US ones, and they were pretty Earthbound, but years later when I started discovering Simon Furman's stuff, the issues where it was all just the Transformers in space, I loved it; they were so great.
The MindHut: There seems to be some influence from other successful pop culture sources in your new books: MTMTE is a little Battlestar Galactica, RiD is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine meets The West Wing. Was that done intentionally, or does it just kind of happen because those are good stories and you're trying to tell good stories?
John Barber: I'm a huge Deep Space Nine fan, so that's going to influence the writing. That's one of the things you can kind of pull out. Andrew (Griffith, artist on RiD) mentioned one time that it was a lot like Deadwood. I didn't think about that at all, but I love Deadwood, so I'm sure some of that is filtering in there a little bit. It wasn't like we sat down and picked out what pop culture things we wanted to do, but every once in awhile I do feel like MTMTE is The Next Generation and RiD is Deep Space Nine. I think James is a big Star Trek fan as well.
The MindHut: And he's got that humor in his book, too, which is like the Keith Giffen Justice League.
John Barber: Yeah. We're definitely influenced by stuff other than Transformers comics, although I think clearly in most cases we're influenced by those as well. But you have to pull in other things, you have to pull in your observations from real life. It isn't like we actually sat down and picked out specific things we wanted to do. It kind of filtered in as we were going.
The Warren Ellis/Tom Raney Stormwatch series was one of the big influences on me when I was first planning out how RiD was going to work. Stormwatch had existed for a long time, then they came on and started doing these single-issue stories. Each one would be about something: it might be about terrorism in the US, or Japanese suicide cults, and they'd focus on a certain character or set of characters, and by the end of that run all the pieces fell together and you realized there was a larger story going on, but none of the characters could see the whole thing. That's one of my all-time favorite superhero comics. So there's a little bit of that, but RiD functionally started working a lot differently; there's a lot more leading from one issue to the next than there is in Stormwatch.
The MindHut: I do like the done-in-one format, though, where you can pick up one issue and it's satisfying, but it feels like a part of a larger universe.
John Barber: Something James and I separately wanted to do was to try to add more stuff in each issue. For the most part, every issue is self-contained, but there are definitely subplots, there are definitely things that continue, there are definitely cliffhangers and things. We'll do two-parters. As much as I love the way Brian Michael Bendis writes comics, when that isn't done just right, you just feel like you're reading issues where nothing happens. A lot of people who emulated that style didn't have a lot of Brian's gifts. The pendulum swings both ways. We as a comics industry are going for things written for trades, but I think digital is the next big thing, and that means people picking up periodicals a lot of times. So maybe the rebirth of the periodical is something to think about. In a digital format, all of these issues are always going to be in print forever as single issues. That's not something we've had before. If you get intrigued by an issue of RiD and you're reading digitally, you can go back and buy every previous issue, or if you're reading in print you can go back and buy paperbacks.
The MindHut: It seems like you guys have really long-term plans for this new direction. The first issue of MTMTE kind of has a 52 chalkboard thing going on. I assume you'll be developing these stories for awhile?
John Barber: As long as you guys keep reading them!
The MindHut: How has the response been?
John Barber: Oh, it's been great. Sales are doing terrific. Honestly, Transformers fans have been hugely supportive. It's great to have fans who care so much about something. You can't argue with that. Even when somebody doesn't like something, it comes from loving the brand. By and large the fans really seem to dig what we're doing. I couldn't be happier with the response.
Maybe a year or two years ago, Transformers seemed like a harder sell to the mainstream comic book reader, but I think we've chipped away at that a little. We get some notices on some mainstream comic book sites. It's always weird for me that superhero fans have trouble with giant metal guys from space as opposed to dudes wearing tights and fighting crime. I love them both.
The MindHut: Let's say you went on for five years. Where would you like the books to be?
John Barber: In comic book terms, it's always hard to think that far ahead. When we look at the runs we really like, it's those nice long runs where you can really take your time and build a universe. At the same time, I think both of us are really going for broke every issue. Are we really going to have five years? It's hard to even wrap my mind around that, so we better make these first 12 issues really count.
The MindHut: Are there any upcoming plot points you can tease?
John Barber: RiD issue #10, Livio Ramondelli comes back for "Syndromica II," and we find out about Wheelie's world and what happened there.