EXCLUSIVE: Interview with “JaAm” creator Matt Marshall – now the author of an unofficial full-length Micromaster novel!

At TFNation 2019, wadapan was lucky enough to get his hands on a copy of the latest – and perhaps greatest – madcap Transformers story to spring from the mind of Matt Marshall: an unofficial full-size novel about everyone’s favourite quarter-size Cybertronians. This is far from the first publication of its kind – fans of James Roberts’ More than Meets the Eye may even recall that some concepts from that series originated in his novel Eugenesis, similarly distributed at a UK convention – but it’s a big step up for Matt, whose previous output has mostly been limited to fanzines and online publications.
The entirety of the proceeds from both the novel and the accompanying zines have been donated to Mary’s Meals, a charity which helps feed children in poverty at places of learning. All three publications have been extremely well-received by attendees of the convention, thanks to their strong comedy and high production values, but it’s only now that they’ve been made freely available to the world at large – and so, in the aftermath of the novel’s digital release, wadapan has been able to sit down with Matt (also known as Yartek, RockLordsRock on Twitter, and Blueshift here on the Allspark) to discuss his experiences writing for the fandom. Read on for the full interview…

Gav Spence’s cover to the novel, with colours by Matt Marshall.

How did the novel come about?
Every year, a group of friends from the TMUK fan group (a subset of the UK Transformers fandom that’s floated about since the 90s) carries out fundraising at UK conventions via toy sales and fanzines for the charity Mary’s Meals. This summer we had three publications all themed around Micromasters – a 40 page fanzine, a 28 page profile book and a 256 page novel. I’m really proud of this year’s zines; loads of contributors all brought their A-game.
The novel, ‘Little Victories’, was very much a labour of love and it was great to finally get a proper physical perfect-bound book published. It’s about the adventures of a group of obscure misfit Micromasters desperately trying not to get involved in any of that nasty ‘war’ business while more and more bafflingly dangerous situations start to pile up. I want to say the mix of comedy and drama is very much Red Dwarf but I don’t think anyone would get that reference anymore, so I’ll just say it’s in the vein of More than Meets the Eye but with more Micromasters and less robot cats.

The Decepticon Micromasters celebrate Skyhopper’s birthday.

The title of this year’s novel – “Little Victories” – was decided by a vote. What are your thoughts on the result, and on the other potential options?
As much as I love democracy, I’m just thankful “Big Banana Bonanza” and “I Am The Big Daddy” never made it to the shortlist.

The Air Strike Patrol is faced with a tricky decision.

Which bit of the novel are you most proud of?
The format of the novel is a collection of short stories that are set in the same universe with the same characters but seem rather standalone until the end when everything just slots into place. I was really pleased with how it works as a whole and how the characters managed to take on a life of their own.
In terms of individual moments, while I don’t want to spoil too much, pretty much everyone has told me that the Ultra Magnus chapter, “Weekend at Ultra Magnus’” was a highlight. For those who get the reference, yes it’s a bizarre Weekend at Bernies homage. For those who don’t, there is a terrible and completely unavoidable accident that our heroes Strikedown, Big Daddy, Erector and Overload must cover up before they get thrown into space jail.

The Autobot Micromasters deal with a surprise inspection.

What were the most challenging parts of working on this year’s publications?
Trying to coordinate people across multiple fanzines is a bit like herding cats. There’s an incredible amount of work done behind the scenes in terms of editing and typesetting which is completely invisible, and every year I fail to be strict on deadlines and let people submit later and later. I can’t complain though, as I’m actually the worst at writing my bits in a timely fashion! A lot of people give so much time and effort into writing submissions for the various zines, and it’s really important to make sure it gets presented and printed in the best way possible. I can’t heap enough praise on everyone who works on this with me!
What’s it like being part of Toy Fu?
Toy Fu started in 2009 and was the brainchild of TMUK member Nick Davidson. The first year it was one table in the corner of that year’s Auto Assembly convention. More of us came on board to help Nick, and it’s grown and grown. This year we had five tables selling toys, as well as a TMUK table dedicated to fanzines and art, the profits from all of it going to the charity Mary’s Meals. There’s a small core group of us who do the organising with Nick taking the lead, and a wider network of people who help out. It’s a real group effort, and there’s so much work that goes on behind the scenes that people never see. We’re always last to finish setting up at conventions, and the last to pack away, and I always miss all the panels at TFNation! It’s all worth it though!

Left to right: Matt Marshall, Nick Davidson, and Tony Baker.

Can you tell us a little more about Mary’s Meals?
Mary’s Meals is a charity that supplies school meals to some of the world’s poorest children so that they don’t have to choose between getting an education and going to work so they can afford to eat. It costs an average of £13.90 to supply school meals for a child for one year. We’ve been raising funds for this charity for the last ten years, and have donated over £50k in total.

The Toy Fu table in full swing.

When does the theme for each year’s zine get decided?
Usually we have a chat about it over on the TMUK group and a consensus emerges. I’ve tried to keep it to things that are anniversaries, and things we can tie in to the Toy Fu stall – for example, the year we did Rock Lords, we also had nearly every Rock Lord for sale! When we did Masterforce, we managed to find a Black Zarak!
I’m also very keen to do fanzines and projects based on more obscure/unloved aspects of the franchise. There’s so much that’s fantastic and interesting than just seasons one and two of the Sunbow cartoon, and I really want to get people excited about that. We’ve done Rock Lords, Armada, Masterforce and Micromasters. Next year the theme is Action Masters. I’m just going to glue all the pages together and call it a day.

Ed Pirrie’s cover for this year’s Toy Fu zine, with colours by Matt Marshall.

How on Earth did you come up with profiles for (nearly) every single Micromaster?
The profile book ‘The Junior Micromaster Encyclopedia’ came about because Matt Dallas (the guy who kickstarted the entire UK fanzine industry and whose home address can be found in the last issue of the UK G2 comic which told readers to just write to him for more comics) was drawing a picture for the Micromaster fanzine and I agreed to colour it, sight unseen. He then unveiled a drawing of every single Western-released Micromaster. 
That’s a lot to colour.
I then decided to turn it into an A3 print rather than just print it at a tiny A5 size, and to add value wanted to put a few profiles on the back of it. I asked a few friends to help out, and together we just started to churn out profiles. It was when someone wrote the profile for Tote, revealing that “Tote was once a Diaclone Car-Robot (and pilot) who angered a powerful wizard. Both pilot and mecha were miniaturized with an arcane spell which cost the wizard many Mana Points but completely ruined Tote’s life.” that I realised it needed to be its own publication.
Writing them was easy because all of the profiles are 100% canon.

Matt Dallas’ cover artwork for “The Junior Micromaster Encyclopedia”, with colours by Matt Marshall.

You were the man behind the famous (infamous?) “JaAm” comic, from back in the days of Transformers: Armada. Has the comic’s legacy surprised you?
Oh heck. I mean, at the time it was funny, but that time was 17 year ago and I was in my teens and it was very much a ‘hey the new Hot Shot toy looks a bit silly’. Stripped of all that context, it’s not aged that well and the way the internet works is that things you did almost twenty (yikes) years ago are seen as just as current as something you did yesterday.
I’ve made my peace with it, but I do hope that it doesn’t end up being my enduring legacy to the world!

Optimus Prime gives Jolt his orders.

You made significant contributions to the Transformers: Mosaic anthology of one-page comics. What can you tell us about that experience?
The whole Mosaic project was a fantastic thing which really helped boost the creative side of the fandom, and it does make me sad that there’s not that opportunity for people anymore.  It was based on a project on the Allspark by Drivaar that I contributed a few things to before Josh and Shaun ran with the idea for the Mosaics. There were two really big things about it that I think people forget – it actively linked up writers with artists, and it gave a platform with every major news site having them as front page posts.
As a writer it’s really hard to get any sort of collaboration going with an artist unless it’s someone you know well. A lot of the Mosaics I did were extremely well received, but at the same time featured some of the most obscure characters possible, and I don’t think I’d have ever found anyone to draw them if not for this! It helped everyone take a lot more risks rather than just playing it safe.
The other thing is that getting exposure is hard. It’s really, really hard. It’s rare to get more than a handful of comments on anything, even if you have hundreds of people reading it. People also say they want new and interesting things, but don’t go out of their way to look for it. The fact that the Mosaics were there, front-and-centre in the fandom really helped people to get an audience and learn and develop their talent from all the feedback. You don’t tend to see that any more, and the majority of sites aren’t interested in fan projects unless it’s third party figures, which is a shame as so much great official work began life in these fan projects.

Extract from Matt Marshall’s “Blackest Night”, with colours by Jake Isenberg and letters by Mark Kuggeleijn

“Little Victories” wasn’t the first book you’ve worked on for TFNation. In 2018, you wrote “The Decepticons’ Time Terror” alongside Ralph Burns – what was that experience like?
Each year TFNation does an exclusive publication, and last year I was asked to help write a G2-era Ladybird book style story. These were children’s books in the 80s which were hugely influential with Transformers fans (remember, we didn’t really have the cartoon in the UK). They even got Mike Collins, the artist on some of the original ones, to do the cover!
The brief was that it was supposed to be called “Decepticon Meltdown” and the story we were asked to write was “A new type of Power Plant is attacked by the Decepticons and Skram goes in to shut it down before it goes into meltdown.” The story as written was about Megatron travelling back in time to enslave the first fish that walked on land the moment it came out of the sea, thus enslaving humanity for all time. The original edit was even stranger, with a lot cut for time and tone. I wrote a really good friendship speech that got edited out but made its way into the finale of Little Victories, where it probably works better to be honest.
If TFNation ever wants me to do anything else, I’m always up for it, hint hint.

Mike Collins’ cover for “The Decepticons’ Time-Terror”, with colours by Kris Carter.

In addition to being a talented writer, you’re also an accomplished artist/colourist. Got any other tricks up your sleeves?
I can make balloon animals!
What’s your involvement in other fandoms like?
I was a very big fanfic writer in the My Little Pony community for a while (writing under ‘Blueshift’ ). My biggest story has over 1.7 million combined chapter views (and 90k unique, which is still a lot) which was a bit surreal. In comparison, Transformers fandom doesn’t get nearly as excited over fanfic (probably because there’s so much official product out there that scratches that itch), but space robots are where my heart lies.

“The Star In Yellow”, one of Blueshift’s highest-rated stories, was adapted into a full-length animation on YouTube.

If you had the chance to work with IDW or Hasbro in an official capacity, what would your dream Transformers story look like?
Little Victories is pretty close to my vision I think, in that it’s a mix of ridiculous comedy and drama with some familiar faces but mostly characters who could be considered ‘new’ (whilst yeah, all the Micromasters already exist, I approached them as a blank canvas). I think the big difference between US and UK fandom (which is less apparent now thanks to everything being available on the internet) is that the US fandom is still very much fixed on seasons one and two of the G1 cartoon, whereas the UK fandom grew up on the Marvel UK comics which kept pushing things forwards (we didn’t really have the cartoon here unless you were lucky enough to have satellite TV or got one of the VHS tapes).
It’s nice to have recognisable faces, but a lot of recent Transformers product has felt a bit overkill on the ’84 homages. You’ve got to start introducing new things or you’ll run out of things to homage. At the same time you’ve got to recognise that people love the old things for a reason. My ideal Transformers is something that keeps doing new and interesting things and constantly building on itself without hitting the reset button every two years!
If you were to give one piece of advice to aspiring writers – aside from the usual “read widely, write as much as possible” stuff – what would it be?
Write stuff because you want to write it, not because you think other people will like it. It’s impossible to know for sure what people will like; I’ve known people spend ages on a piece they didn’t really care about but wrote because they thought it would be popular and it wasn’t. On the flipside, writing something that becomes really popular yet you didn’t really care about yourself is a strangely hollow feeling.

Seawatch flexes his creative muscles.

Where can people find more of your writing?
I’ve put up an archive of all of the Toy Fu/TMUK fanzines I’ve been involved in producing. There’s work here not just by me but a lot of talented people who I hope will go far!
If anyone wants to do something for any future projects, I’m all about as much community involvement as possible! Send me a message on the Allspark or Twitter.

Follow Matt on Twitter to take part in the #MicromasterCountdown and for more of his writing. Digital copies of “Small Soldiers”, “The Junior Micromaster Encyclopedia” and Little Victories are freely available now – if you enjoy them, consider making a donation to Mary’s Meals. You can discuss the novel right here on the Allspark forums, or over on our official Discord server.