“I’ve been rooting for female Transformers for eight years now!” – A Conversation with Alex Milne
Hi there! Rachel Stevens for Women Write About Comics here! I’m interviewing artist Alex Milne and talking to him about his work on Transformers.
For those who don’t know, what work have you done in the past, and what are you working on now?
The work I’ve done in the past is primarily Transformers based, starting at Dreamwave Productions, run by Pat Lee. They folded and went bankrupt, and I don’t really want to get into it in detail. Now, I work for IDW Publishing; I started working on the live action movie adaptation comics and also on Megatron Origin.
I’ve done various projects over the years, most of them movie based. Fortunately, I got to do a couple of issues of the ongoing series when Don Figueroa left the book, starting with issue 16. After that, I did a couple of issues with James Roberts, including issues 22 and 23.
From there, I started on More Than Meets the Eye, and it’s been three or four years since then.
For the curious, what art tools you use for your job, and what led you to use them? What have you used in the past?
I’m primarily traditional based for comic artwork. I know there’s a few people who use digital tools. I primarily use a mechanical Pentil .5mm pencil. If people are interested in specifics, the P205. Primarily I use whatever’s comfortable, because I’m working for eight hours at a time. When inking I use pantograph techpens of various sizes, and then I have some Windsor and Newton sable brushes.
Windsor and Newton sable brushes?
That’s right, specifically Series 7 for spotting blacks or filling in areas. I use a Micron pen for doing the outlining. I primarily use whatever tools that I have available. Whenever I run out, if I can’t get to the store, I scramble to use whatever I have on hand, because the page has to get done on time.
Who’s your favorite character to draw right now?
That’s a good question. [Pause] A tie between Skids & Nautica. I always liked to draw Skids since I got to design him for issue 2.
I also have a lot of fun drawing Nautica—right now I’m working on issue 42, which has them interacting, so I’m having a lot of fun drawing my two favorites in the same panel.
On the flip side, who’s the most difficult one to work on?
Ah, that’s a good question. [A lengthy pause, some muttering] Whoever I haven’t drawn a lot of in a long time is usually the hardest one to work on. I don’t know, sometimes the hardest one can be Ultra Magnus, just to make sure the scale’s right.
Ah, that makes sense.
Other times it can be Getaway. The hardest one I’ve ever had to draw, that I never feel like I get right, is Red Alert, but he’s not on the ship in season two, so I don’t have to worry about drawing him right now.
What’s your process for designing the various alien backgrounds of The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye (MTMTE)? You always have to draw detailed environments month after month after month, which is really quite impressive.
Depending on location, if it’s a technical background the first thing I do, which is a lot more work for me but, it helps me out for the final drawing, is to plot in perspective and background first. I draw up almost everything in background, then the minor details. I place in characters, erase background, and ink in characters. That way I’m not trying to figure out perspective for details.
It’s a lot of work, but it’s very fast for me to do it that way. I’m really happy with that; characters take up a lot of space. Sometimes, I accidentally cover up the details with the characters, and I think, “Oh no, I have to redraw this.” It’s just the way I work these days
What’s the average time it takes to work on an issue, out of curiosity?
Depends on how I’m feeling. When I’m really in the work zone, I can do two pages in a day. Usually, I like to have a comfortable day to do a page, a good amount of time to do it in the same day. Some of the issues of MTMTE James [Roberts] writes, at least as of the second season, each issue is taking longer to do. It’s not boding well for me. What are you trying to do James, kill me?
Can you go into your relationships with the other members of the art crew, like colorists, inkers, and letterers?
Most of the time, there’s no inker, since I’m doing that. If I need help, I’ll have an inker help me out.
There’s no interaction with that person’ I send in the scanned in pencil pages to IDW, and they send it out to the inker. Sometimes they’ll ink it on computer, or they’ll reprint the page and ink it traditionally.
For colorist, right now in MTMTE I’m working with Joana Lafuente; we have a solid working relationship. She would like it if I was a little more on time right now. Sometimes she’s like, “Damn it, I have to rush on this kind of page!”
I’m like, “I’m sorry it took so long to do; blame James, not me! I’m not the one who wrote in twenty characters in a panel!”
No, but really, we have a good working relationship. We talk back and forth on Skype; she’ll message me about characters, making sure things are correct as possible. Given the amount of time, there’s occasionally mistakes during crunch time. I have no relationship with the letterer; I know of the person.
I think Tom B. Long does most of the lettering for The Transformers books nowadays, right?
If I ever meet him, I’ll have to thank him for working on this book in precisely detailed panels.
Are there any particular art influences you want to talk about?
There’s so many out there, I like a lot of American style comics. In particular, Jim Lee, and also Sean Gordon Murphy’s work on Chrononauts. I love the work he does with really a traditional styling of inking, cool pencils, and brushes. I’d love to do that with Transformers, but I’m scared to do it with Transformers, because of all the detailed lines and boxes. Maybe one day when I gather up my courage, I’ll do an issue like that.
That would be really cool. There was this awesome panel you did in MTMTE #2 or #3, with the Sparkeater …
I did the Sparkeater panel in MTMTE #3 with a cool pen; it was really cool doing messy, scratchy lines.
Now, if I was to do that page, I’d do a brush pen to do that to give even more weird effects with that.
Right now I’m doing some panels, with some panels I’m using a brush. It’s a small little test, not a whole book.
What’s the collaborative process like with James? Can you get into the back and forth over script to penciled page, character designs, and so forth.
There usually isn’t a whole lot of back and forth. I’ll get the script; I’ll read the entire script front to back. I’m either very happy, or I’ll cry in the corner because of what I have to draw.
Depending on how much time I have, I do small thumbnails for each page. Sometimes I do thumbnail for the actual page, roughing full size. I’ll pencil and ink it, send it in, it gets colored. Sometimes James sees the pages before the PDF, doing little edits for dialogue.
Ah, I see.
The only time I have to talk to him is for big questions, over what might be an issue or error. Some things it’s like the recent preview that just went up [issue 41]. It shows Thunderclash in his altmode. James wrote in the script that we saw his cab, that he was a version of a truck and trailer. When I designed him for issue 22, I integrated the cap and trailer into one altmode; I think he forgot about that. I had to mention that he doesn’t have a trailer; he went, “That’s fine, then!”
I just had to mention there’s no separate trailer, stuff like that. Sometimes we argue about stupid stuff like doors. I’m more in the Star Trek vein of sci-fi—in the future there’s mechanical doors; they open up automatically.
I’ll get bits in the script where you have characters pushing open doors, it doesn’t make sense to me! Shouldn’t they be more mechanical and cool to show they’re advanced? It’s like a human pushing them. Just little fights there.
Sometimes you tweet about what’s going on with the stuff you have to draw in the book; you seem frustrated at times.
James is really busy with what he’s doing. Communication for both of us is hard; it’s hard to get in touch with him. Sometimes I verbally go out on Twitter to get his attention; I’m just joking around about the workload. He’ll go, “Okay, okay,” and get in touch. It’s nice when I don’t have to go off in public and shout at the world.
How do you feel about colorist Josh Perez? You’ve been working with him since the Dreamwave days.
Working with him is like working with my best friend. We’ve been working for so long together, he basically knows what I like; I know what he likes to do when he gets a page. There’s points where I’ll go, “I’m sorry this is really detailed, I hope you understand.” He’ll go, “Yeah, yeah, it’s cool,” when I know really he’s complaining at me under his breath. We do have a good working relationship; we’re always online talking to each other.
Something he needs to know, he knows I’ll be there and get back to him. We go over stuff, it’s a lot of fun working together. It’s sad we’re not working the same book on interiors anymore; we’ve worked together for ten years. It’s weird we’re not on the same team anymore. He works on my covers, small things.
Can you tell the readers about your experiences at Dreamwave, the transition to IDW, and your workload now versus then?
With Dreamwave, all I was doing was penciling; at the time they had inkers.
My style was different back them, I had to keep artwork crisp and clean. The backgrounds would only be penciled with characters inked in. Robots and humans that would be interacted with would be inked in, backgrounds only in pencil to keep things really clean.
I was only doing pencils back then, trying to find my style. Dreamwave wanted a house style; some of the pages I had to redo because I went too anime looking at the time. They’d tell me, “We need this to be changed to like Pat Lee was doing at the time.”
It wasn’t very successful. I think the first version of the pages I did looked better, but you gotta do what your bosses tell you.
When I started work with IDW, the workload was doing pencils and inks. When they hire an artist they do both pencils and inks; that was a bit different. I wasn’t one hundred percent confident doing inks. I had to really find a nice balance between drawing a book and inking it. Over the years, I’ve become pretty comfortable with inking, how tight I can do the pencils, what details I’ll add to the inks. Back when I started I was very nervous about it. I guess IDW’s a little more work, but I enjoy it—it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge working with James; he gives me very tough scripts. It’s a challenge to see how I can interpret them and make them better.
So, um, is there anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t touched on already?
Hmmm … well, I’m really happy for the inclusion of more female Transformers. Since the preview for issue 41 is out showing more female Transformers, I can only be happy about that. Over the years I snuck in female Transformers in backgrounds. Megatron Origin, the Drift miniseries in the Circle of Light (a faction of Transformers). They make the world bigger; the more the merrier. Now it’s better that I don’t have to sneak them in, and I’m like, “Yes, they’re there!” I’ve been rooting for them for eight years now; we need more!
That makes me really happy to hear, coming from you. Did you design Firestar’s flame hair, as seen in the issue 41 preview?
Yes, it was me who came up with Firestar’s hair. When designing characters, I ask myself, “How can i make interesting character designs?” I look at silhouettes, heads. What’s a standard head, what’s different?
l looked at different things; when I was designing her I designed her altmode first. I put her head in the altmode’s back as the exhaust. I asked myself, “Can I get away with fire for hair?” But since it’s the exhaust for the car, it kinda works. I thought about how’d it work for portraying different emotions. If knocked out, she’d have little blue flame or it’d be snuffed out. If enraged, her hair expands and just goes nuts. It’s a great way to show emotion.
I had the altmode and head design, took it to James, and said, “James, this is the idea.” He went, “That’s really cool! I have fire for hair [to work with].” It’s really different, and it makes her stand out among other characters.
Along with the other female Transformers, I started thinking about different designs that haven’t been done before. I’ve got to post them online so other people can see her. There’s a big female Transformer I want to show off, one who doesn’t have a standard head at all, but one singular eye. It was really fun to do. It’s just really fun to try new things, to see whats out there.
Transformers is all about change; you don’t have to be stuck to the standard. The big thing with Firestar was keeping in elements of the original design. When IDW started out with Transformers, they’d take a character and do something completely different; it’s how I did her design.
Who do you want to redesign, if you could? Obviously, you can’t talk about who you’ve actually redesigned and are showing up soon, but you know.
There’s a few characters. I love working on Rodimus, but I want to redesign him a bit.
I’d like to see him be a little more mature looking; right now he’s fun and immature. I think he needs a bit of an overhaul, especially since Megatron’s around. Grow up, beef up a bit, show he’s a bit of a leader.
I’d love to redesign Drift—if he comes back.
Well, the end of Empire of Stone DOES set up Drift coming back.
[Coyly] I want him back; I like having Drift around.
You have a bit of a reputation in the fanbase of drawing conventionally attractive characters, with distinctive features such as the way you draw their noses, reflected in the head-sculpt for Skids in the Generations toyline. How do you feel about that?
It doesn’t really bother me; I just draw them in a way that makes me happy with the drawing. If people think they’re handsome, then fine with me. I guess they’re happy with the drawing.
It’s kinda weird to think a lot of stuff is distinctive; I just draw what I think is looks correct and is comfortable for the situation. I’ve been trying to do a bit more with facial features—I’ve noticed some people said they had a sameness to them; I can agree with that. Part of my thinking was that old Transformers’ faces had a lot of sameness, was trying to reflect that. Trying to make distinctiveness is nice, and I’m trying to do that more.
Art is a very progressive medium. I’m never quite satisfied; I’m always trying to get better. If you think you’re the best you can be as an artist, what you’re doing is the top stuff you can do, you’ve failed as an artist. An artist doing something for fifty years is always learning something, and that’s how it should be; it’s an evolution.