This past weekend on Free Comic Book Day, IDW released Transformers: Unicron #0. This new comic serves as a preview for the Transformers: Unicron event that kicks off this July and sets up the end of the current line of Transformers comics, which have been spearheaded for years by writer John Barber.
Now IDW’s newly appointed Editor-in-Chief, Barber recently sat down with The Beat to prepare readers for what to expect. Barber also teases how his Optimus Prime ongoing series connects with Unicron while getting readers prepared for the end of this incredible era!
Alexander Jones: How do your new responsibilities as Editor-in-Chief effect your contributions to the Transformers franchise?
John Barber: My recent return to IDW as Editor-in-Chief won’t impact Unicron—I’m still writing the event (along with the Optimus Prime series) through to the end, and my excitement and commitment to this story could not be higher. But I’m also incredibly honored and excited to have the opportunity to take a guiding hand on where the Transformers comics from IDW and Hasbro go next—and on where we take all of IDW’s amazing comics. I’ve been at this job for about a week, and it’s been thrilling working with our partners. The future of IDW—and of comics—looks very, very bright. Unless a big metal planet eats the whole universe, but we’ll have to see how that goes.
Jones: How long will it take for readers to find out who or what Unicron is in the current Transformers Universe?
Barber: The big question driving the opening of the story is just that—what is Unicron, and why is it destroying Cybertron’s colonies? Well, that’s two questions, I guess. Bumblebee and Arcee see some stuff in issue 1 that leads them down a path of investigation, and by issue 3, we—the readers—pretty much have the answer.
Of course, one OTHER big question remains: “how do you stop Unicron?”
Jones: Have we seen the full cast going to take on the threat in the Free Comic Book Day issue? Is there any potential for more franchises or for the Transformers: Lost Light crew to join the battle?
Barber: No, we haven’t seen everybody in the Free Comic Book Day issue. The whole galaxy is involved, so we’ll see lots of people. They’ll be appearances by many, many Transformers, from big favorites to obscure characters. And along the way, we’ll definitely see some familiar non-Transformer faces.
But the emotional core is going to be centered around Optimus Prime, Windblade, Bumblebee, Arcee… and Starscream.
The Transformers: Lost Light crew have their own finale they’re sailing toward, so I can’t give anything away on that front. But—the Transformers: Lost Light writer James Roberts, the Transformers: Till All Are One writer Mairghread Scott, as well as the Transformers: Sins of the Wreckers writer/artist Nick Roche were all instrumental in developing the Unicron story over several epic phone calls.
Jones: Does Onyx Prime or the final couple issues from Optimus Prime have any sort of direct link with Transformers Unicron?
Barber: Yes, the Onyx Prime story in the Optimus Prime series directly ties into Unicron. Unicron is what Onyx has always been planning for many millions of years. And the final story arc of the Optimus Prime series is directly tied in, though it explores different things happening concurrently with Unicron. If you just want the big event story, Unicron (the series) will have everything you need—but the Optimus Prime series will fill in some details and conclude the story Kei Zama, Josh Burcham and I started in Optimus Prime #1.
Jones: Does the current political state of Cybertron tie-into the battle with Unicron?
Barber: The political state of Cybertron is absolutely a factor in the battle with Unicron. At this point, the war between Autobots and Decepticons has been over for a few years. Cybertron is populated by ex-soldiers plus a bunch of Cybertronians who left during the war to escape the endless fighting, PLUS Transformers who lived their whole lives on Cybertron’s colony worlds. In fact, one colonist, Windblade, is in charge of Cybertron after Starscream abdicated his leadership. Optimus Prime has been a war leader, so some Cybertronians mistrust him in peacetime—but others consider him to be a holy figure because he’s a Prime.
In the lead-up to Unicron, a lot of things the Cybertronians have taken for granted will be upended or called into question. The Transformers—the normal, average Cybertronian citizens—will be looking for answers… just as a giant carnivorous planet shows up with an appetite for metal worlds.
Jones: Why was Unicron chosen as the story to close out the current Transformers Universe?
Barber: Unicron is a really iconic piece of the Transformers mythos. If you’re old enough to have lived through the original Transformers cartoon in the 1980s, you remember what a massive, disruptive thing Unicron was in the movie. That movie was one of the most apocalyptic cartoons you were going to see as a kid in the 1980s—it was devastating watching those familiar characters die. And that’s intrinsically linked with Unicron—in my mind, at least—even though, as editor David Mariotte likes pointing out, Unicron didn’t really kill very many Transformers. He still ate whole planets!
Unicron is something we’ve thought about doing in the IDW universe for a long time but always held off. The time never felt right, and I think the chance to do something really big—something where genuinely anything can happen, and will—was a chance, really the first chance we’ve had, to do Unicron right.
Jones: What aspects does collaborator Alex Milne bring to the series?
Barber: Alex brings everything to the series. Alex is easily one of the best Transformers artists in history. He can wring so much life and emotion from the characters—even the ones without faces! His storytelling is clever, clear, and propulsive. He imbues the world with so much detail—when you first see a page by Alex, it is almost overwhelming. But when you start to focus in and look at it, you realize there aren’t any lines there just to look busy, or to show off. Alex takes this world very seriously, and he uses detail to make it feel as real to the reader as it does to him—to all of us working on the book.
One of the amazing things about Alex is how much he thinks things through. He won’t just draw a space station and make it look cool—he’ll figure out the logistics of running a station of that particular scale, with that particular purpose. AND it will look amazingly, impossibly cool. He won’t just draw a planet—he’ll figure out an entire ecosystem and draw that.
And he picked Sebastian Cheng (from Revolution and Revolutionaries) to handle the colors. Sebastian has been amazing; he and Alex work really closely to give this book the epic feel it needs. Sebastian is incredibly talented, and their work together is nothing short of breathtaking.
Also—I should mention how great letterer Tom Long is. He fits all my stuff in there and makes it look good, makes it look natural. Tom’s one of the best out there.
Jones: Now that the Universe as a whole is winding down, readers are pretty far past the idea opening the Transformers: Robots in Disguise in regards to the war being over. Will Unicron be a threat to unite Autobots and Decepticons or tie some of those themes back?
Barber: In a manner of speaking. One of the big themes has been the idea of old animosities simmering. The war is over, but resentment remains. And Cybertron’s history seems to be an endless cycle of war, followed by a golden age, followed by war. But these “golden ages” were never really that great—they were only “golden” for the people in power. Optimus Prime has been trying to build a post-war world—as has Windblade, and (in his own unique way) as has Starscream. But history suggests this will turn out badly.
One way or another, Unicron is going to break that cycle. So Unicron very, very much ties into those themes we’ve been weaving into the Transformers books for the past several years.
Jones: Who is a character fans aren’t paying attention too that will have a big role to play in Unicron?
Barber: Ooooh…. that’s a good question. Arcee definitely plays a big role, but you might have guessed that if you’ve been reading Optimus Prime. Many less-well-known characters will get a chance to shine.
Bumblebee just had a new lease on life but is immediately brought towards one of the worst battles in Transformers history, how will he handle the transition and the war?
His whole (first) life has been almost nothing but navigating one crisis to the next. The world is usually about to end. So he’ll keep a good sense of humor. But some of the stuff he learns—it’s enough to shake anybody to the core. That said, Bumblebee was really put through the wringer in the first couple years of my stories, and he’s in a stronger emotional spot now. He’s a tough little guy.
Jones: Is it difficult to navigate so many characters under one roof with the event storyline?
Barber: Yes, very. I mean, as jobs go—this definitely one of the best jobs in the history of planet Earth, so I don’t want sympathy. But compared to NOT navigating so many characters, yes, it is relatively difficult.
Jones: After going up against a large-scale threat in the form of Onyx Prime, does Unicron shake Optimus Prime’s resolve?
Barber: Optimus has been talking the talk of trying to resolve situations through means other than violence. He’s trying to be a better ’bot… but when a planet shows up ready to eat everything you love, I think going back to the old, violent, ways is understandable. The problem here is… that doesn’t work. That can’t work against a threat of this scale. I think Optimus always has that idea in his back pocket—”I’ll try to be good, be peaceful; but if things go bad there’s nothing I can’t destroy.” That’s not his preferred answer—don’t get me wrong—but he’s tough enough to go toe-to-toe with just about anybody.
Not Unicron, though. And yeah, that’s going to shake Optimus’ resolve.
Jones: Is there anything else readers should know about the series?
Barber: Unicron is big, it’s cataclysmic; it’s full of triumph and tragedy, heroes and villains and everybody in between. The art is truly magnificent, and it is scary and exhilarating to make the comic… I hope it feels that way when you read it.