?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.
You mentioned the Balls and Microwave vinyl figures. Were they ever officially released?
They were never officially released. It got to the point where they had been listed in Diamond. The prototypes were all designed and everything. It was all set to go into production and then the deal fell apart. It’s still something that might be possible down the road, especially now that I’ve got a second book coming out, and the first book will be coming back into print in the spring too. Maybe somewhere down the road we’ll get the resources together to make it happen.
One of the first things I was introduced to your work through was Death Cab for Cutie’s video for “Your Heart Is an Empty Room.” How did you get involved with them and what was that process like?
A friend introduced me to Aaron Stewart-Ahn who was one of the directors and is also friends with Nick Harmer who is the bassist for Death Cab. I met Aaron at San Diego Comic Con and we ended up hanging out through other mutual friends and really got along. He and Nick had already come up with the idea for Directions–the idea of having a low budget video for each song packaged as a DVD album. And so they just invited a ton of directors and illustrators, animators, different people whose work they liked to pitch videos. Everyone who was invited could pick one song and then write a summary of what the video would be. So I chose “Your Heart Is an Empty Room” and they picked my video. I also heard that not many people submitted for my song either. (Laughs) I don’t know how much that helped. It all worked out. I worked with an animator in California. It was kind of a tight schedule. I think it was October when they chose all the people who would be participating and signed the contracts and the videos had to be finished by January. So it was one of those times where I dropped everything else I was working on and really focused on that. I think for never having done it before and for what I was trying to do with it turned out pretty much how I envisioned.
When the first Change Bots book came out, there was a great animated trailer. Would you like to do an animated series with the characters?
I would love to have something like that happen. There’s been something kind of in the works that I guess I’m not supposed to talk about exactly. I don’t know if I can talk about it now. There’s a studio that was shopping it around. So far nothing concrete has happened but I would love for something like that to happen. I think the proposal that they were shopping was a slightly different take then what the books are. Like the toys I think there’s interest there, it just hasn’t reached the right critical point I guess.
If one were made, would you prefer it to run on Saturday mornings or on Adult Swim? Would you be involved with the writing of every episode or would you have a role where you oversaw things?
I go back and forth on that. I’ve tried to make the books a more all ages. I mean there’s lots of I guess innuendo but I’ve tried to stay away from anything explicitly adult with them. So I think I envision maybe something on the Cartoon Network, but not necessarily Adult Swim. But in as far as how involved, on the one hand I think I’d want to control it but on the other hand I think my interest is so much more making comics then taking on something like that which would be a pretty big undertaking. Not just in terms of me being able to do more Change Bots comic. But whatever other work I might want to do might get swallowed up by working on a show like that. I think I would be happiest if someone else was driving it and I could come in and write an episode once in awhile. That kind of level of involvement. And then also let the books be their own separate things. Not necessarily have a direct continuity between whatever the cartoon was and the book stuff.
How did you get involved contributing with Marvel’s Strange Tales?
I hadn’t been asked to contribute for the first series, which I was really disappointed with because it was my childhood dream to draw for Marvel Comics. But they had gone through I think four or five different editors, and by the time they got to Jody LeHeup who was the last editor the lineup was cemented. I know various people had suggested me to the editors at different points. It turned out there was a two-pager that the artist wasn’t going to be able to deliver in time for the third issue of the first series. I think a few people had kind of bugged the editor about me, saying if there’s a second volume to make sure they ask me. I guess Jody had seen some of my work, so he called me up and asked if I would be able to finish a two-page strip in time which I think gave me two weeks to do it, another one of those drop everything and finish this one thing really quick. So I said “of course” and when they did the second volume they asked me if I would do another four-pager.
Are there any other mainstream comic characters that you’d like to write for that you haven’t had the opportunity to yet?
Most of Marvel (laughs). Growing up, X-Men was far and away my favorite and I would love to do more X-Men stories. Fantastic Four was another favorite. Although I did the two-pager that’s just enough space to do a short gag with them. So I wouldn’t mind doing more with them, especially with The Thing. I loved Walt Simonson’s run on Thor and I’d like to do some Thor maybe. Those would be the top ones.
Recently you did a story for Fraggle Rock, would you be interested in doing any other smaller press indie work outside of your own material?
I wouldn’t mind doing a Hellboy story sometime. I don’t know, there’s so much out there. I wouldn’t mind doing something Star Wars someday either.
Your works have featured everything from a Dune drinking game to ruminations on Dungeons & Dragons, so is it safe to say that you consider yourself a nerd?
Yes. I mean I was in the theater at midnight to see Lord of the Rings; Dune is still amongst my favorite films. Being a parent has cut into the time and budget for some of that stuff. But I did recently buy some packs of Magic cards in hopes of getting a dragon because Oscar, my son, is really into dragons right now. So I dipped back into Magic. And I still read all the Warhammer 40,000 books. I guess another I wouldn’t mind doing is Warhammer 40,000 comics. Although Boom finished their license with them awhile back so I don’t know when that opportunity will arise. Yes, I’m definitely a big nerd.
Do you have any collecting habits — either that you are passing the torch to your son or picking up for yourself?
I try really hard to get away from my collecting tendencies. Just because it tends to eat up so much money and time. I do still buy hockey cards sometimes, and comics obviously. Last year my summer goals were to collect the Flex Mentallo series, which I did, and Secret Wars II along with all the crossover issues.
That’s a pretty big undertaking.
I managed to do it all at Wizard World Chicago. All in one show.
Thanks to Jeffrey Brown for his time and Leigh Walton at Top Shelf Productions for arranging the interview.
Chris Cummins is a pop culture writer and Archie comics historian who has contributed to The Robot's Voice, Den of Geek US, Philebrity, Geekadelphia, Uproxx, and Unicorn Booty. He is the co-producer and co-host of Nerd Nite Philadelphia, and is regularly involved in producing and hosting New York Super Week events. In 2014, Chris began Sci-Fi Explosion, a mix of live performance, trivia and funny clips celebrating the weirdest in science fiction that regularly travels around the United States. He wrote the introductions to the compilations Archie's Favorite Comics From The Vault and (with Paul Castiglia) Archie's Favorite High School Stories. You can find Chris on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.