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10 Questions with John Barber Senior Editor at IDW

DRKCYBRTRN01_cvrAA few months ago, IDW Publishing announced that they were doing an impressive marketing scheme, getting their new Transformers event, Transformers: Dark Cybertron in front of fans of Hasbro‘s Transformers toys. Dark Cybertron comic books will be included in select Generations action figure releases from Hasbro, following their initial release from IDW. This is the first time that an entire mega-event has been distributed in such a way.

This forward thinking plan caught my eye (1 paragraph out of the 10 paragraph press release) and I had to chat with some folks about this and what else we might expect.

In steps John Barber, a Senior Editor at IDW who talks about this initiative and more! Barber was kind enough to be peppered and our next individual for “10 Questions.”

Graphic Policy: You recently announced a cross-promotion that’ll see the first issue of IDW’s upcoming comic event Transformers: Dark Cybertron included in select Generations action figure releases from Hasbro. How did this promotion come about?

John Barber: We’ve already done a round of in-pack comics with Transformers—they’re in stores right now. The Dark Cybertron stuff will hit the toy shelves a little later. This program—getting the comics in with the toys—has been a goal of ours for a while. We really want to get comics into the hands of Transformers fans who might not be aware of the comics.

I know it’s something that IDW CEO Ted Adams has been very interested in. We’re all proud of the Transformers comics we do—and the interesting thing about Transformers is that, as popular as our comics are with Transformers fans, there are a TON of Transformers fans—more every day. Many of them just haven’t been exposed to comics—any comics—before.

So it seems ideal to get the comics in with the figures. The fans get a bonus with the toy; we get a chance to show the fans what our medium can do.

GP: Is this the first time a Transformers comic has been included with Transformers toys?

JB: Like I said, we’ve been working with Hasbro on this program for a little while. Prior to that, I think there were minicomics included with some Transformers toys in the 2000s, before IDW had the license. And we’ve done a few with gift sets and the like, here and there.

But the Dark Cybertron comics are the most extensive, extended program of including comics with the Transformers toys. The comics are full-sized 6.625” by 10.187” 22-page comics like you’d buy in the store. They’re not short stories, they’re not shrunk down, they’re not out-of-continuity stories. Which is exciting. I mean, smaller comics are cool, too—but there’s something neat about having a full-size, in-continuity comic inside a toy.

GP: Is there a chance we’ll see more of this? Possibly with digital comic codes included instead? Or for this to expand and see comics included in DVD or game releases?

JB: There’s definitely a chance we’ll see more of it. That’s probably all I can say at the moment. We’ve talked about other variations on the theme, like the digital codes. As it is now, in the comic, there’s a Comic Shop Locator icon in the comic, including their url and 800 number; and there’s an ad leading you to digital platforms—so a fan that gets one of these comics and wants to explore further can pick the road he or she wants to go down to read more comics.

GP: Any plans for figures to be released with a “Dark Cybertron” branding?

JB: The figures are going to be released as part of the Generations line, and will have our Dark Cybertron collaborator Phil Jimenez on the covers, but the figures won’t be specifically branded as Dark Cybertron. The comics interiors will have the same trade dress and titling as the for-sale-in-comic-book-stores versions, though. But these are the mainline Generations toy, not a smaller sub-set or something.

GP: Hasbro also does My Little Pony and G.I. Joe and IDW has a successful line of comics for both of the brands. Can we expect to see a similar promotion like this?

JB: We’ll have to wait and see. I think both Hasbro and IDW are very happy with how this partnership has been working on Transformers.

GP: From my observation, you don’t see a lot of cross-promotion like this. Out of all of the movies based on comics released, only one promoted comics to the audience on the screen through a website listed (though that website was a broken link). Why don’t we see that promotion more often?

JB: I didn’t see that promotion—I’m trying to guess what comic movie that was…

The hard answer to your question is that the benefits of that kind of promotion tend to be one-way. The movie doesn’t get anything from spending its resources promoting the comics; that promotion doesn’t generate more movie sales.

I think the Transformers in-pack comics are—sorry to sound corporate here—a really synergistic relationship. There’s an added value to the toys and we get a new set of eyes on our comics, which we think might lead somebody into falling in love with the medium. So everybody wins.

I think I know what you’re saying about cross-promotion, that it would be nice to see things that originate with comics kick back some eyes to the comics. But I think we can’t expect charity… A movie based on a novel doesn’t flash an Amazon link in the credits. And I don’t think that would do any good if it did.

I do think even when there isn’t a url—or, I guess, especially a broken url—flashing on-screen, there’s still a greater awareness of comic books from people seeing the movies, as compared to a few years ago. I don’t think anybody went and saw Avengers and wasn’t aware there were comics. Digital comics—like bookstores—will continue to make it easier for people that come onboard with a movie, or a brand like Transformers, to get a hold of the comics.

I think we’re in a good position, relative to any other time in my life, where comics are easily accessible if you want them and where the general public is aware of the existence of comics.

GP: From your experience do you think it’s difficult to get people who consume a brand one way to try another? For example someone who really likes a video game, is it difficult to get them to read a comic of that based in the world of that game?

JB: It depends on the property. There are some movies that are fun to watch, that the mainstream public goes and sees or plays or whatever, but don’t really encourage you to immerse yourself in the mythology the way something like Transformers, or Star Trek, or the Avengers, do.

Transformers is interesting because it’s consistently been picking up new fans for the past 30 years. Depending on your age, you might have an iteration of Transformers that’s “yours,” that you grew up with—like, I picked up issue #1 of the original comic from a 7-11. But people younger than me grew up with Beast Wars or with Armada or Animated or the movies or Prime. I think Transformers as a brand isn’t really locked into one medium in people’s minds… it’s toys, movies, cartoons, comics, video games, costumes, you name it.

That kind of thing, where there’s a big fandom of the brand, that’s where I think there’s the best opportunity to introduce someone to a different medium. Does that make sense?

Somebody might be a big video game player, and might love playing a particular game, but not have any interest past the actual gameplay. Not every game (or movie or TV show or toy) inherently draws people into the world.

Transformers demonstrably DOES pull people into its world.  There’s a lot of richness and variety to the Transformers universe, relative to… well, to everything else that exists. I mean, there are other properties as rich, but I think Transformers is on a really high tier. And new fans are drawn into the world by whatever connects with them—maybe if that video game fan gets into a Transformers game, he or she gets pulled into the world, into the mythology, and wants to check out the comics, the cartoons, the books.

I think the answer to your question is that it’s really specific to what brand you’re talking about.

GP: Have you run efforts to run promotions targeting “fans” online through ads or other promotions and get them to try a copy of a comic? If so, what’d you learn from that?

JB: We’re really lucky that the Transformers fan sites and Transformers fans across the world—in person and across social media—have been really supportive of what we’re doing. So I think there’s a growing awareness among the fans who check out those sites. You can see that reflected in the fact that the print sales are really strong and insanely stable. There’s no attrition, which is really rare for three ongoing series (between More Than Meets the Eye, Robots in Disguise, and Regeneration One) that have been rolling for two years.

But even more than the print sales, I think you can see that reflected in the digital sales. Without cannibalizing print at all, we’re seeing heavy month-to-month growth on digital. I mean, that’s true overall for digital, but the Transformers comics are outpacing just about everything else—and I think you can draw a direct line from those sales to fans of Transformers that are checking the books out from finding out through fan circles.

We did a “scavenger hunt” around the launch of More Than Meets the Eye and Robots in Disguise where we released images to fan sites and on Twitter and Facebook and it was cool to see people on message boards talking about where you could find certain images—fans banding together and sharing the information.

But beyond the fans that go to the fan sites and keep up on Transformers news… I think there are even more people out there who identify themselves as Transformers fans, but who maybe aren’t active in fandom. I’ve met a ton of people like that—I’ve had neighbors with the Autobot sigil in their car window or the mode-changing-sound as their ringtone. Hopefully, getting the comics in-pack with the toys will reach some of those fans—the ones who love the toys but maybe don’t know about the wider Transformers world.

GP: We recently ran a study looking at Transformers fans on Facebook and found it’s about 60% male. In a similar study we found women overwhelmingly are interested in female characters. We’ve also noticed more “female” Transformers are being brought back and spotlighted. Is this a conscious effort to appeal to more women?

JB: It’s interesting to see these numbers. I don’t have any real data on the gender-breakdown of Transformers comic readership—I think it’s possible to get information like that on the digital side, but the print side is… you’d need market research that outstrips any comic book company’s reach, I think. But that Facebook breakdown is interesting. Are you looking at people who are fans of Hasbro’s Transformers Facebook page, or people who self-identify on Facebook as Transformers fans? I imagine there are lots of people who like Transformers but don’t identify as fans online… and probably some that go the other way, that maybe sign up as fans without giving the matter any thought.

But I’m rambling.

Anecdotally, I think that More Than Meets the Eye and Robots in Disguise—probably especially More Than Meets the Eye, but I think there’s really strong overlap in readership—have a pretty high percentage of female readers, by comics standards. I definitely operate thinking we have more like Sandman or Saga percentages, as compared to an average superhero comic. 40% female readership definitely is in line with my guess.

I’m not exactly sure what you mean that “more ‘female’ Transformers are being brought back and spotlighted”… I mean, not that I don’t want to! It’s something we’re very very aware of and something we’re—without giving anything away in terms of upcoming stories—something we’re really going to move forward on. But I don’t know that the results of this have actually shown up in the comics yet. If you’re seeing it now… well, keep reading, there just might be more.

Hasbro did a contest where fans got to vote and create a new Transformers character, and the fans voted for a female character, Winblade. I think that says a lot—that fans of any gender want more female characters. I think that’s great. I definitely agree.

I think women want to read good comics with compelling characters, and I think there should be more compelling women characters in fiction. So, in that sense, yeah—we’re doing it to appeal to women—but we’re doing it to appeal to everybody that likes compelling characters.

I like it a lot that there are so many women reading Transformers comics. I mean, I think 40% is a sort of high number—I’d absolutely love it to be dead even, but 40%… Someday that’s not going to be a notable statement—“Of course women like Transformers.” We’re not far off from that—within Transformers fandom we’ve had that awareness for a while, but from an outside perspective I’d say we’re not far off from everybody understanding these comics are for everybody.

GP: Any hints as to what we can expect from the Transformer brand in the future?

JB: Well, hey, I just work on the comics. I don’t know any big secrets. I hear there’s a new movie coming…

In the comics, we’ve Dark Cybertron is a big story that intertwines More Than Meets the Eye and Robots in Disguise. It’s going to shake things up, and tell a big, big story—but without losing the focus on the characters that’s driven the books for the past few years. Dark Cybertron is going to shake up the status quo and lead both of these ongoings into some exciting directions. Dark Cybertron is a great place to jump on and see what the hype is about, but for longtime readers it’s going to pay off some bits that have been around for a long time.

And when Dark Cybertron ends… well, I think our plans are going to generate a lot of discussion among fans!