Interview: Barber & Zama Talk OPTIMUS PRIME

You may have heard of this Transformer. He’s a bit obscure, but I’m thinking you may know him. Some of you might know him as Orion Pax, but he’s been going by Optimus Prime for awhile and has built a bit of notoriety.

That’s right, all kidding aside, Optimus Prime’s ongoing solo series will be unleashed tomorrow! We got to pepper writer John Barber and artist Kei Zama with questions about this big launch and what the scoop is regarding Optimus Prime and where this solo series will take the iconic character.

Aaron Long: Coming out of Revolution, where is Optimus Prime at mentally? What is his state as a leader? 

John Barber: Well, to back up further—going into Revolution, Optimus had the feeling that he was the only one who could protect the Earth, which he was going to do whether Earth wants his help or not. By the end of Revolution—not to give anything away—it becomes clear to Optimus that Earth has its own ability to protect itself. Not that they don’t still need him, but that there are other forces operating on his scale.

The events of Revolution—beyond looking, at first, like it was Optimus’ fault—were only solvable by the combined efforts of G.I. Joe, Rom, M.A.S.K., the Micronauts, Action Man, Optimus and his team, and Windblade from Till All Are One… so Optimus’ overall goal of pulling Earth out of its isolationist space, into the galactic community—that remains. But he’s come to realize he can’t do it unilaterally. He’s got to work with Earth… which isn’t something he’s ever really had to do. The Autobots didn’t have allies in the war against the Decepticons—at his best, he was always acting independently, in terms of command.

Kei Zama’s art perfectly captures his state of mind now. Her art is aggressive and powerful, but she’s still able to draw out the emotions of these mechanical characters. There’s a lot of psychological drama, a lot of politicking—plus out-and-out fighting—and she’s able to get this on the page in a really striking and dynamic way. And combined with Josh Burcham’s stunning coloring… the word I think of when I’m looking at this book—which is appropriate to where Prime is coming from—is uncompromising. This comic looks and reads like nothing else out there. Which is the way it ought to be—Optimus Prime is one of the best, most unique characters in the history of fiction.

AL: In this series Optimus is brining Earth into the larger universe. What’s the rationale there? 

JB: Over the course of Cybertron’s history with Earth, they’ve taken part in invasions—secret and overt—and have generally been manipulating the history of the planet, just about forever. Optimus has tried to stop these invasions; he’s tried to help maintain a peaceful sovereignty on Earth; he’s tried leaving our world alone—and none of it ever worked.

So he’s come to the conclusion that trying to shield Earth from the realities of life in this galaxy is futile, and probably not in its best interest. Optimus has been, since 1984, sort of a father figure to a lot of fans—a parental force. Well, he’s starting to realize a paternalistic attitude toward a diverse world like Earth isn’t necessarily the best thing to have. His first stab at elevating Earth was a “I know what’s best for you” move. He’s learning, and hopefully changing.

From Optimus Prime #1, art by Kei Zama and Josh Burcham

AL: Will this title be involved heavily with the other Transformers titles or will Optimus be in his own corner, for lack of a better term, for awhile? 

JB: A little of both. I talk to James Roberts—who writes Lost Light—all the time; I’ll send him emails asking him how he thinks some technical thing works, or if something (concept or character) is going to come back later on in Lost Light or if there’s room to play with it. But Lost Light is sort of off on its own, for the most part. There are echoes of the series in each, I think. Like it was back when we started with More Than Meets the Eye and Robots In Disguise.

There’s more direct links with Till All Are One—I’ll talk to writer Mairghread Scott about timelines, and what’s happening to our characters. We share several characters—Starscream is an important figure in both series. Optimus Prime is set on Earth, but with a Space Bridge, the two worlds are easily accessible. You don’t need to be reading both series to follow either one, but everything fits together if you do. Optimus Prime makes a trip to Cybertron in issue 3, and it reflects what’s happening in Till All Are One. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Optimus or some of the other characters in his book show up in TAAO.

AL: Based on the cover I can assume Optimus won’t be alone in this series. Can you discuss who will be working with and/or against him in the series? 

JB: There’s a big supporting cast. He’s still got a team on Earth—Soundwave is at his side, and we really see what’s going on psychologically betweem them in issue 3. Optimus blackmailed Soundwave to join him back before Revolution, but Soundwave has essentially come over to Optimus’ side pretty completely. How strong the bond is, how deep the trust between Autobot and Decepticon can be, is a big question. There’s a flashback story going on through the first six issues that goes back to Pre-War Cybertron, and we see how Soundwave and Optimus (then called Orion Pax) first met… and how deep the trust and mistrust goes.

Arcee is on Optimus’ side, but she’s a little wary of what he’s doing. She’s been around a long time, and she’s seen a lot of stuff happen, and is worried about Optimus overstepping the boundaries of right and wrong; but she’s really struggling to see if there is a real boundary between those things.

From Optimus Prime #1, art by Kei Zama and Josh Burcham

Pyra Magna, who leads the team that combines into Victorion, is becoming more hostile toward Optimus—and really, with good reason. She’s a strong believer in the Primes, and in the meaning of the Matrix of Leadership, which Optimus holds but doesn’t believe is a holy object. Pyra thinks she should have the Matrix, and is disturbed by Optimus’ attitude toward it.

Plus we’ve got some other favorites, Aileron (who’s a new character we introduced in the Transformers series and who had a key role in Revolution), Jetfire, Sky Lynx, Jazz. And a new G.I. Joe team featuring some surprising characters will be on-scene in the first story. Plus, Thundercracker and his dog Buster are still out there somewhere.

One of the big new additions, though, are the Colonist Soldiers—these are Transformers from Cybertron’s colony worlds who are fiercely loyal to Optimus Prime, who see him as a True Prime, a sort of space messiah figure. They’ll follow him anywhere… and Pyra Magna, in particular, is disturbed by that.

AL: John, when you are writing dialogue for Optimus Prime, do you hear Peter Cullen’s voice? 

JB: It’s hard not to—I got to meet Peter in Shanghai this summer, which was pretty amazing. He was signing next to me, and we were in the same hotel, so Alex Milne, Sara Pitre-Durocher, James Raiz and I all got to talk to him a bit in the lobby while this adorable little kid was running around.

His voice is so iconic, for somebody my age it’s hard not to think of—I think if I can’t imagine Peter saying the line, the line isn’t right. But I sort of hear Avery Brooks a lot now, too.

AL: You’re certainly no stranger to Optimus Prime or the Transformers. Being that this is a solo title and not a large cast book like More Than Meets The Eye or Robots In Disguise, does your approach change at all? 

JB: Well, as you may have gathered, there’s still a large cast. What’s different is that all these figures are sort of dealing with what Optimus leaves in his wake. Optimus is such an important character in general—in Transformers, and in pop culture—that it’s hard to escape his orbit at all. This comic is as much about the effects of Optimus Prime as it is about him, himself.

That’s not to diminish the importance of the rest of the cast—this isn’t a case where Optimus Prime will be teaching lessons every issue. This is about Optimus Prime understanding he doesn’t have all the answers, and other people (metal or flesh people) maybe have insights he doesn’t—have perspectives and histories and lives completely distinct from his own experiences—and even after four million years of leading the Autobots, he’s got a lot to learn.

From Optimus Prime #1, art by Kei Zama and Josh Burcham

AL: Kei, you’re working with one of the most recognizable characters in pop culture with Optimus Prime. From a design perspective, can you discuss what elements of Prime’s look you are tweaking to make the design your own? 

Kei Zama: I’m so honored to be able to draw him. At the same time, I’m feeling pressure to draw a character that’s everyone’s hero.

I’m always trying to draw him to look “heavy.”

In actuality he has big heavy metal body but on top of that he has struggled from pre-war to the current era and is now carrying the future of the Earth and universe—I don’t express him emotionally so much, but try to give just a glimpse of his hidden emotions and aggression.

And I try to draw him as a warrior. Not just with Optimus Prime, though—I usually add many scratches, bullet wounds, and rust on everyone’s body.

AL: Can you discuss the process of giving each Transformer a visual personality? Is it a challenge at times to infuse them with emotion considering facial limitations or vehicle modes, etc.? 

KZ: I always think it’s difficult to express their emotions on their face, because head-parts or helmets often cover their features. Then I’m trying to express by gesture and lights/shadows/shadings, not only facial expressions.

I don’t think about alt-modes deeply. Instead of alt-mode, I try to add various personality on the robot mode. In Japan, a lot of robot characters are often drawn handsome or cool. I feel that’s boring, so I try to draw their appearance in various ways. For example, the colonists that entered in Optimus Prime #1 each have an individualistic design. There’s a cute boy, bad looking guy, tough girl, etc. Especially Gimlet, who’s my favorite!

AL: Any final words about Optimus Prime #1? 

JB: I think Kei, Josh, letterer Tom Long, editor Carlos Guzman, and I have really managed to make something unique here. Optimus Prime has such a distinct feel to it—there’s a lot that’s in every issue, a lot to unpack visually and in terms of story and character—and I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve come up with.

KZ: I’m so excited to release this issue! Working on a Transformers comic has been my lifelong dream. I’m still lacking a bit in experience, but am supported by good team—I really enjoyed creating this comic.

There’s an exciting story, and the art is a bit retro and rock—I hope everyone enjoys it!

Optimus Prime #1 is in stores and available digitally on December 14, 2016.

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