TR Interview: Jeffrey Brown of "The Incredible Change-Bots"

By Chris Cummins in Comics
Wednesday, April 13, 2011 at 1:55 pm
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Jeffrey Brown first gained attention back in 2003 with his self-published graphic novel Clumsy, a heartfelt and at times painfully candid chronicling of a doomed long-distance relationship. The success of his debut allowed him to further explore the highs and lows of dating in the equally honest releases Unlikely, AEIOU: Any Easy Intimacy and Every Girl Is the End of the World for Me. But Brown is hardly a one-trick pony. His Bighead comic -- featuring the adventures of a remarkably unsuper-superhero -- and thematically linked Sulk minis proved he was equally skilled in handling humor as picking at old emotional wounds. The past couple of years have seen him releasing the memoirs Funny Misshapen Body and Little Things, the Undeleted Scenes collection as well as some cat-themed works, freelancing for mainstream comic companies (such as his memorable X-Men story in a recent installment of Marvel's Strange Tales) and making his animation debut with a Death Cab for Cutie video.

As far as most nerds are concerned though, his greatest triumph is the Transformers parody Incredible Change Bots. A nostalgia-drenched skewering of the robots in disguise, the book struck a chord with anyone who ever spent time with Optimus and company. Published by Top Shelf, the graphic novel chronicles what happens when the somewhat heroic Awesomebots (led by the uninspiring Big Rig) and the sorta evil Fantasticons (whose trigger happy leader is appropriately named Shootertron) from the planet Electronocybercircuitron crash on Earth. The adventures of the robots that are "more than just machines" continue in Incredible Change Bots Two, released in comic stores today -- you can read a preview of the book here. Meanwhile, Brown took some time to discuss what the future holds for the Change Bots as well as his own nerdy tendencies.

Chris: First off, let's get it out of the way. Are you an Autobots or Decepticons man?
Jeffrey Brown: I guess I was an Autobots fan. Although it's one of those weird things where I always had Insecticons, but I never had any Dinobots even though I grew up being really into dinosaurs. But I think I always played with my Insecticons as if they were Autobots. They were always the good guys (laughs).

Give Topless Robot readers the hard sell on Incredible Change Bots Two.
Incredible Change Bots Two finds Shootertron who, at the end of book one was left buried in rubble on Earth as the rest of the Change Bots headed back into space to wreak havoc somewhere else, awaken and have no idea who or what he is. He's adopted by a couple of elderly farmers who try to teach him right and wrong. Meanwhile the rest of the Change Bots end up crashing on Earth again. Although they had mended their fences and kind of pulled together and set aside differences they once again start fighting and bickering. War ensues.

How would you convince the sullen judgmental nerds who make up Topless Robot's readership to pick it up?
When you say it like that it sounds like such a tall order. I'm so bad at convincing sullen, judgmental people of anything. I think if you grew up with the original Transformers cartoon and are jaded by the Michael Bay movies you'll appreciate the humor and love of Transformers that is shown in Change Bots.

How did you initially conceive of the Incredible Change Bots?
It actually goes back to high school. I had the soundtrack to the original Transformers animated film with "The Touch" and I didn't hide that from my friends. And they were like "So what is that a tape of, an hour of 'chee-cho-che-cho-chee?'" The idea of having those sound effects was something that was funny and I would think about occasionally. Those chunky sound effects. So it was just a quick sketch in my sketch book. Then instead of calling it a Transformer I thought it would be funny to call it an Incredible Change Bot, and it would say "INCREDIBLE CHANGE" and show all these sound effects. So that was the initial genesis of doing a full on parody.

Why did you feel that the Transformers were a concept that was ripe for parody?
There's a lot of humor to be found in not just the Transformers in general -- the idea of robots that turn into vehicles -- but also specifically the '80s cartoons that I grew up with where the world was black and white in a weird way that didn't really make sense. A lot of times characters would have just these motivations that when you really sat back and looked at them you wondered "what are they thinking?" So I think both of those things hold a lot of material to be made fun of.

When writing both of the Incredible Change Bots books did you have specific elements of the Transformers that you wanted to spoof?
Not really. I think especially with the first book it was just kind of wanting to get at the general sense of '80s cartoons and undermining that idea of this world that's very black and white. So I just wanted to make neither side explicitly good or evil so much as self-interested, kind of bumbling through the world haphazardly more than maliciously. So for the first book that was the general goal to get at. Afterward I had done some small strips here and there and I really wanted to develop the characters (in the second book): The idea of Shootertron losing his memory and how much of his nature is shooting things and how much is learned.

Incredible Change Bots Two is very much the Shootertron show. While working on both books were there specific characters you enjoyed writing for?
In the first one Balls became a favorite. He was the character who ended up having the most of his own personality by the end of it. I like Honkytonk and Siren, and I've actually done some more with them after finishing the second book.

Can you talk about that?
For anyone who doesn't know, most of my work has been autobiographical and my first few books were all about relationships. So I took the Honky Tonk and Siren love story and combined that with my usual autobiographical relationship style of writing and came up with the story of how they first started dating, how they first broke up and the ups and downs of their relationship. Just as a short story.

Sort of like a Every Robot Is the End of the World for Me?
(laughs) It's actually called Young Rust. In the first book there was a fan club offer, and for each member that joined I did a 4 x 5" drawing of whatever character they wanted. But I ended up adding dialogue and text and trying to make each one a joke panel that could have fit into the original book. So I had 100 of those drawings. Then for awhile it was in the works to have vinyl figures of Balls and Microwave made up, and so I did a short comic for each of those characters. Then when the first book came out, did a comic for Wizard that ran and I did another one-page comic that ran actually in the last issue of Wizard, literally. There have been other odds and ends here and there I accumulated this collection of odds and ends. So rather than trying to fold Young Rust into another book I thought I could do that as a stand alone story that would be part of an odds and ends collection. My plan is that it would come out next year.

Will there also be a third Incredible Change Bots book?
I think there will be a third and possibly final book, although I don't want to rule anything out. I still haven't done any kind of parody or tribute to my other favorite toy growing up which is G.I. Joe. I had a bunch of ideas for a G.I. Joe parody and as I was finishing the second book and then doing some of the drawings and things for the compilation of odds and ends. I realized that I could very easily fold the G.I. Joe parody into the third Change Bots book. So it won't be too specifically G.I. Joe, but there will be a third book where the Change Bots are now living on Earth and fighting with each other and humans as well. I haven't quite figured out all the details yet. It would be down the road a couple of years before I get to that.

Did you put any Transformers Easter eggs into either of the books that fans should keep a keen eye for?
Not specifically. There are a couple lines that are references from the original cartoon, but I tried to not do it too much. I think part of it was wanting the Change Bots stuff to stand on its own and not be so dependent on being a Transformers parody. Not too insider. By the time I started writing the books my vast knowledge of Transformers was much reduced from when I was a kid and knew all the characters and all the cartoon episodes. I should say that the other inspiration behind the cartoons were the original comics. I searched dollar bins and whenever I'd see a Marvel Transformers comic I'd buy those.

How into the Transformers are you now as opposed to when you were younger?
Not nearly as much I have to admit. My son is four so I've been buying toys occasionally under the excuse that I need have research for the Change Bots books. But he's not old enough to handle the more complicated Transformers. I've seen the movies and we'll occasionally watch some of the cartoons but I don't really keep up with it too much.

When you were writing initially did you have any rejected names for the robots?
I tried name things they way they (Hasbro) named things. So I was coming up with really stupid and obvious names. A few of the names I actually had at first I had to rename because after doing extensive Internet searching I found some had been used before. The character Whee, the motorcycle, is named Whee because he was originally Wheelie. After writing out the whole book with him as Wheelie I found out there was a Transformer called Wheelie. So it was easily enough to change the "lie" into "ee."

Whee works so well for the character.
He's another character who I think might get a little bit more treatment in the third book.

The interview continues on the next page.

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