Giant Robots, Ninja Turtles, Monster Motors And More – Talking With Nick Roche
By Spencer Ellsworth
Nick Roche got his start as a comics artist at IDW Publishing, illustrating and soon writing the company's incarnation of Transformers. He's best known for the incredible Last Stand of the Wreckers (co-written with James Roberts), a sort of Saving Private Ryan with giant robots. He has also worked on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the creator-owned Monster Motors with MINIONS screenwriter Brian Lynch, and for Marvel, New Warriors and Death's Head (2014 incarnation).
Recently, he's been the house artist for British rock band, The Darkness, providing cover artwork for their album, Last Of Our Kind, and directing the music video for their single, 'Barbarian.' He has a reputation for shattering trousers with his artwork. We'll find out what that's about shortly.
Spencer Ellsworth: Last Stand of the Wreckers was really, to me, a great war movie—a one-in-a-million mission, green soldiers and hardened veterans, and a bittersweet ending steeped in the fog of war. Is Sins of the Wreckers along the same lines?
Nick Roche: Some of the soldiers actually WERE green. Some were brown. One was purple.
Sins of The Wreckers is actually quite different—more of a mystery. The head of Autobot Intelligence – and permanent thorn in the Wreckers' side – Prowl, has disappeared. According to an automated message triggered by his abduction,there's only one Autobot dogged enough that he trusts with his retrieval, and that's the leader of the Wreckers, Springer. The problem being… Springer is in a coma, and has been since the end of Last Stand Of The Wreckers. And those members of the team that survived the original series with their limbs (if not their psyches) intact, have scattered to the four winds.
Though an Autobot, Prowl is a pragmatic schemer – a 'Mechiavelli', [pun intended] who knows where all the bodies from the four million-plus years of war are buried. If he's missing, the delicate peace between the Autobots and the Decepticons could crumble, and the whole galaxy could learn that the "Heroic Autobots" have a very tenuous claim to their prefix.
Prowl's former right-hand woman, Arcee decides to take charge of the investigation, dragging Springer's mentor and grizzled old gruffamuffin, Kup, with her.
The series has a slow, creepy start to it; the opposite of the prison assault of Last Stand. It takes place in a desolate, snowy landscape, drawing old adversaries and new allies together to rescue someone who has screwed them and everyone else over for eons.
Basically, it's 'What If The A-Team Had To Rescue The Colonel They Were Running From'.
'In The Snow'.
SE: On that note, what attracts you to telling this kind of story? Certainly Transformers doesn't seem to lend itself to deep, thought-provoking stories. (We fans differ, but Michael Bay has kind of ruined things for the popular perception.)
NR: That's the thing, isn't it? It was almost 'cool' (whatever that means) for twenty minutes in 2007 to be into Transformers, or be associated with it. Three subsequent less-good films have sort of painted Transformers back into the corner I used to be found cowering in, mocked for my devotion as a "too-old" teenager. But there have ALWAYS been creators that brought their A+ game to it; Simon Furman on the original Marvel run, fleshing out plastic archetypes, adding depth and honour to one-note Hulks like Grimlock, plucking no-marks like Thunderwing and crafting them into creepy zealots, or creating characters like Impactor (star of Sins Of The Wreckers, named by Kieron Gillen as the #1 UK Comic Character), then causing a generation of little boys to weep manfully when he was killed—TWICE.
Currently James Roberts and John Barber on the two flagship titles from IDW, Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye and Transformers (formerly Robots In Disguise), are simultaneously laying mile-deep foundations and constructing star-scraping new elements to these thirty-plus year old characters. Shout-out to Mairghread Scott on the Windblade series, a female-centric Transformers title that feels creator-owned in its dedication.
The two main books are dragging in new readers—a staggering amount of them female, flying in the face of what some expect from the franchise—because of the writers' desire to craft good stories first and foremost. That's been my aim too, going all the way back to my first writing gig on Spotlight: Kup; Good comic first, good Transformers comic second. We can't give people any excuse to dismiss the work we do, so we write these characters like we own them. Why would a reader spend her hard-earned time and money on this universe if it didn't matter to the people who built it?
Characters are the main focus, especially in Wreckers. Whereas More Than Meets The Eye regularly deals with romantic (and same-sex… ish) love amid the space operatics, I've always been drawn to writing about it through my Kup stories, the first Wreckers, and even my Megatron one-shot. Love and loyalty are too universal to ignore, or think that you can't apply them to alien shape-changing robots—a concept no more daft than 'Underpants man from dead planet has come to save us all'—so ultimately, that's what this series is about. The loyalty and love the remaining Wreckers have for their comatose leader; the love Verity Carlo, our human protagonist had for her fallen friend, Ironfist; or even the love that someone could carry for a character like Prowl.
One of the most heartening comments I get from time to time is that Wreckers was not only some people's first Transformers comic, but it turned them onto comics in general. The Megatron one-shot I wrote was packaged with a Megatron toy, and sold across the planet. There's a huge chance that was some kid's first comic, so there's a huge responsibility to pull a reader in, and never let them leave the medium again.
There's something in these books, and this series, for everyone to enjoy. They just need to check their prejudices and look past the fact that the hero might turn into a car now and then.
SE: Last Stand of the Wreckers was also "a story about redshirts." Do you have a weakness for cannon fodder?
NR: I think it's a fondness for the underused, part of which stems from Simon Furman's ability to sell a shelf-warming toy like Carnivac—a bog-standard figure that Furman imbued with a cast-iron code of honour, turning from Decepticon to uneasy Autobot—with a few deft character beats. But mainly, it's because all the A-Listers are used elsewhere! And often, they have a convoluted history, or a waiting list of writers hoping to use them. By filling Wreckers with characters people have never heard of (and the team were always constructed from the odd, unloved toys going back to the 80s) it's like we're creating the characters fresh for the new reader. Simon's maxim when drafting the IDW Transformers universe was 'If it's been done before, don't do it again', meaning any character traits or relationships from earlier iterations of Transformers are off the table. Anything can happen now. And it's wonderful to have that freedom, doing what I want with characters like Hubcap and Stakeout, who I'm nearly certain weren't going to headline the next movie, or expected to outsell Force Awakens merch this Christmas.
SE: How does the final line of Last Stand, "life persists," set the stage for Sins?
NR: Man, that's my FAVOURITE question I've been asked about Sins to date! It's a HUGE part. In Last Stand, those words are written by Verity Carlo in her journal after watching the massacre of her comrades on an alien planet. What does 'Life Persists' mean for mechanical beings that live for millions of years compared to what it might mean for a human being— This human being in particular? Is that a code she can cling to to get her through tough times, or was it a naive thing crafted to offer her some comfort in a moment of loneliness?
NR: She's the match the ignites the plot. Sins is a direct sequel to Last Stand, and when last we saw Verity, she was holding a copy of the Aequitas Files, which was essentially Autobot War Crime logs. The Autobots are the good guys; they're not supposed to be involved in things like this, but that's not the case when Prowl is pulling the strings. She holds Prowl responsible for the death of her friend Ironfist, a Wrecker sent to retrieve that data in Last Stand, and, knowing what's contained on the data-drive, decides to contact Prowl with threats to make the contents public.
This is where the 'Wreckerleaks' strand comes into it; does the world need to know the secrets of those who claim to protect it? And what would someone do to ensure those secrets remain sealed…?
When we meet her in this series, she's alone, scared and not in great shape. She feels used and abandoned by the Autobots, so with nothing to lose, commits to honouring the memory of her fallen friend.
Artistically, it's great to be able to break up all the tech-y drawing with a more organic figure. She contextualises the Wreckers; They're only giant alien robots if there's someone smaller from another planet with them. Also, I sometimes feel that it's the lack of human identification figures in Transformers comics that scares away potential new readers, though the opposite can be true for longtime fans: after a few dud fleshy sidekicks, there's a strong preference for robo-centric tales, and I get that.
SE: What attracts you to the Wreckers in particular?
NR: Again, they're not massively tethered to huge Black Hole characters like Optimus Prime and Megatron, who pull all stories and events into them like forces of nature, and you know that very few changes that occur with them are permanent (Though Megatron has been an Autobot for nearly two years now…).
It feels like I've been given a proud little allotment to tend to as I see fit, while mechanised farming on an industrial scale draws in great yields in the land all around me. Sure, their produce is meticulously delivered to one and all, but have you tasted my aubergines? Plus, there's the conflict element. The Wreckers are a brash bunch of characters, too rough to fit into the Autobot rank and file, and all carry with them mountains of horrible historical trauma and psychological damage.
I'm making the most of the autonomy though. The various settings in Sins, primarily Nome, Alaska, is giving me great scope for set pieces, and I can guarantee at least one thing per issue you've never seen done before, and especially not in a Transformers comic. And collaborator/colourist Josh Burcham is just hitting career peaks of greatness here, and bringing the perfect atmosphere to this slower, more mysterious tale. We're leaning heavily on the 'odd.'
NR: We have the best of the IDW crop of Transformers artists—all the well-kept secrets and unsung heroes of the comics industry—handling a strand of variant covers. The loose theme there is 'Greatest Battles of The Wreckers' so those guys (and gals) get to depict classic iterations of the team's line-up. Announced so far on those covers are Alex Milne and Andrew Griffith, both trying to outdo each other, and make me look vaguely amateurish in the process. I've cashed in my blackmail chips outside of the robo-playground too, and have grabbed some friends with high indie-and-mainstream profiles to take a stab at a Wrecker of their choice. We have guys who you'd never associate with these characters bringing something that their fans, and readers of Transformers, won't expect: Declan Shalvey, Stephen Mooney and David Lafuente, with more over the coming months. It's a huge vote in favour of the book itself that this lot have come along to play.
SE: On another subject, you just did some art for The Darkness's album, which made its way into a motion comic video. Tell us about that.
NR: Happily! Like my adolescent Transformers loyalty, I have no problems proclaiming myself a fan of the band. As a frustrated show-off, their theatricality appealed to me, along with the music, intersecting with my love of vein-tensing cock rock, something the 1986 Transformers Movie soundtrack is wholly responsible for. I knew I had some down time before Sins was greenlit for production earlier in the year, so I fired them a tweet ahead of their upcoming album/tour in case they needed some merch designed. If they hadn't responded, I was going to do some creator-owned stuff. But they got back to me pretty swiftly once they'd seen my samples, and I ended up stepping in as their album artist when an earlier plan fell though.
The cover direction was all them; the painted look isn't a method I'd really worked in before, and the concept of the space pilot baby was locked in, so I just executed their idea basically. I had a lot more freedom on their motion-comic video for Barbarian, storyboarding the whole thing and working up the direction and gags.
As a bonus, I've become quite pally with them on a personal level. I have no idea what they were like in 2003, but at this point, they're all a bunch of unfailingly warm gents who've just looked after me in so many ways over the year. And Justin's a fan of my work! I got a text from him after he'd read Spotlight Kup telling me how upset he felt for the deranged old coot. I'm considering it fanmail. There's more to come from me with them too. And the new album's a genuine belter. Anthemic and melancholy. Like Sins Of The Wreckers.
SE: Will we see any more Monster Motors?
NR: One should never big up one product while trying to promote another, but Monster Motors (written by Brian Lynch, coloured by Len O' Grady) might be my favourite ever gig. As freeing as Wreckers is, nothing beats designing entire characters, vehicles and environments from scratch. The idea behind it is 'What if the Classic Monsters were now vehicles?' So you have a cobbled-together truck called Frankenride, driven by mechanic Vic Frankenstein, aided by his robot sidekick iGOR (intelligent Garage-Operated Robot) and monster hunter, Minivan Helsing as they thwart the hordes of gaz-sucking vampire car, Cadillacula. Brian wrote this year Minions movie, which is looking like it'll break even, so knows how to pitch an all-ages thrill ride that's part Dan Harmon, part Joe Dante, and part Pixar. Yes, there will be more Monster Motors in some form, and hopefully as a comic. Love it.
SE: In a sort of weird unpaid compliment, your designs have inspired a whole bunch of toys, including unauthorized third party Transformers, and even an official Hasbro figure, Springer. How does it feel to see your drawings in plastic?
NR: A thrill. An unexpected thrill. Before the IDW era, the comics had no effect on the toys; the medium was in thrall to the plans of Hasbro; we got their designs and used them. But Chris Ryall at IDW gave his creators autonomy with building the new universe, and the parent company – staffed by fans themselves – made the most of what the comics had done, and realised in genius feats of engineering with the work of artists like EJ Su, Don Figueroa, Alex Milne, and myself.
Their Springer figure is RIDICULOUS. It's his design from Last Stand Of The Wreckers, ripped from the pages, and reborn in solid plastic.
I like to design my Transformers to be characters first, with a look and physicality to them that says something about who they are. So maybe that's what's appealed to Hasbro and the other companies about my style. I'd love to get back to doing some actual design or production artwork for Hasbro again at some point, when the comic stuff isn't so hectic.
SE: Did you get free copies of the figures?
NR: Ah. Now. I've heard of SOME creators getting toys, but despite there being an Ultra Magnus, Brainstorm, Sandstorm, etc. based on some of my artwork, no freebies. Yet. But you go into it knowing its the deal. Work For Hire, and all that.
SE: How did you get a reputation for shattering trousers? Was this something that started when you were young?
NR: Ha! It's an phrase that's followed me since I used it to describe the feeling of receiving emails with scripts, praise and -sometimes- death threats from my idol, Simon Furman back when I started at IDW. He'd written my whole damn childhood; HE'S the guy that opened me up to comics in general, and engendered a love of reading. Simon was writing a comic for eight-year-olds, but treating them as equals, expanding minds and vocabularies in his wake. And the guy bleeds story; the purest comic-book scripts you'll ever read. An artist's dream. A trouser's nightmare.
SE: Finally, the most serious question of all: who would win in a fight between Grimlock and Cadillacula?
NR: Cadillacula possesses the ability to hypnotise other machine before drawing their lifeforce from them. He's an immortal genius. Grimlock is a badass, but he's Grimlock. And look at that delicious dino neck.
Now, if you're asking Cadillacula versus IMPACTOR….
Thanks, Nick! Sins of the Wreckers is out November 18th. We'll have to wait on word of a Monster Motors/Wreckers crossover.