To say that Tom Scioli and John Barber‘s Transformers vs. GI Joe is an unusual comic is underselling things quite a bit. On paper, it’s a natural fit, an ongoing series that follows in the footsteps of earlier books that have combined the two toy lines into one massive interplanetary battle. In practice, though, it’s something a lot bigger, a comic that almost assaults the reader by cramming in as much big, wild stuff as it possibly can — a toy comic so weird, and so great, that it almost feels like it shouldn’t exist.
With the book’s second storyline well under way, throwing in everything from Vikings to old gods to Dinobots (and a new printing of his amazing American Barbarian on the way this summer), I talked to cowriter, artist and occasional ComicsAlliance guest contributor Tom Scioli about the series. Today, he talks about building a history for a universe that’s even more important than our own, the two-page Free Comic Book Day story, and why his book isn’t a paean to Snake Eyes. You can read the first part of this interview here.
CA: The next specific scene that I wanted to talk about was the first page of #6. Every time I think this comic can’t get any wilder, it gets bigger and weirder in a way that I find really enjoyable. This comic opens with Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden by floating Transformers with laser swords.
TS: It’s a universe. It’s a whole universe. My thought is that the Transformers vs. GI Joe universe is the most important universe there is, and while you’re reading it, it’s even more important than our universe. There’s an Alpha to that universe and there’s an Omega to that universe, and what you were witnessing was Roadblock’s reading of the Cobra Bible, the Decepticobranomicon, so what you’re reading may well be an actual accounting of what happened. It might be mythology. It might be disinformation. It could be any number of things. There’s a deep history to this world.
CA: I’ve said this before, and I mean it in the best way possible, but I’m always surprised this book exists.
TS: Right. [Laughs]
ComicsAlliance: The first thing I want to talk about is pacing. Jumping into Transformers vs. GI Joe #5, which is the start of the second paperback if people are reading it that way, they’re getting a comic that moves so fast that it is often hard for me to keep up.
Tom Scioli: Well, issue #5 would be the one, because issue #5 is where it really accelerates. I just find that so many comics have a lot of redundancy, a lot of over-explaining, a lot of images of basically the same thing, so part of the approach is to just eliminate redundancy and just give you the things you need to move the narrative forward. I sort of crossed a point of no return with it, I think, and where that came from is that I wrote a script for a Transformers vs. GI Joe movie adaptation.
You know, the movie doesn’t exist yet, but I made a comic as though I was adapting a movie, and how movie adaptations are. There are chunks missing, and jumps because of the time it takes to take an hour and a half movie and put it into a comic, you’re going to have to cut some things out. I wrote something with that sort of style in mind, and after I did that, I realized that’s a tool I could use any time. It doesn’t have to be restricted to this particular conceit, it’s just a tool in my arsenal now. It was really effective in that script, which hasn’t come out yet, but it was just a really intense reading experience.
CA: The interesting thing about that to me is that, like you said, there have been Transformers and GI Joe team-up books before, and now you’re doing it as an ongoing series and using the entire cast of both books, as they have existed for thirty years. There’s not a whole lot left on the table.
TS: That’s one thing I noticed. I was sort of going through all these characters and throwing them in, and now I’ve sort of reached the point where it’s like, “Oh, what Decepticon villain can show up?” and most of them are there already, pretty much. There’s an endless number of jets that I can go to, but most of the really resonant ones have shown up, so now it’s just getting weird, which is actually interesting. Now we’re getting into the Pretenders and the Predacons, all the weirder corners of the mythology.
CA: That’s something I wanted to bring up, because you’re at the point now where you’re creating new stuff.
TS: I want to go more in that direction. I thought doing a comic like this, that’s an established thing, would be easier — having a universe that’s already established that I’m just building up. But I’m seeing the limitations of it. I really do want to just create more and add more to it. It’s not so complete a cosmology that there’s a character for every season. I thought there would be a character for every occasion, and in a lot of cases there are. I needed a character who was a chef, and, okay, Roadblock is a chef, I can use him. But there are a lot of holes in the mythology that I’m trying to fill in.
That last Transformers movie… they went nuts. It almost wasn’t even Transformers anymore, it was this infinite universe of every kind of creature you can imagine, and that freed me up too, realizing that I could make this universe whatever I wanted it to be. It doesn’t have to just be giant robots that turn into cars or dinosaurs, it can be a universe.
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.
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.
JB: What was your entry into the world of Transformers—as a fan, I mean? Do you have a favorite version of Transformers from over the years?
GB: I was parked in front of every episode of Transformers G1 in the 1980s but I couldn’t convince my mother to buy me any of the toys. She was a huge toy collector and had no problem showering me with Star Wars figures but Transformers just didn’t speak to her. After tons of pathetic begging she bought me one: Topspin, a Jumpstarter who sort-of-kind-of popped onto his feet when you pulled him backwards.
GB: I missed out when the movie was in theaters due to the same lack of parental interest—I saw it years later on TV and turned it off when Starscream died, because without Starscream around I just didn’t see the point. I returned to Transformers with Transformers: Prime, then jumped into the comics and bought my own toys, although my daughter’s plan to “share” the Bumblebee I got for my birthday isn’t working out in my favor. Now if only someone would take nine boxes of Star Wars figures off my hands.
JB: This new TRANSFORMERS ROBOTS IN DISGUISE comic is based on the all-new hit tv series airing on Cartoon Network. But this comic isn’t an adaptation—it’s all-new stories set in that world, but with… well, without giving anything away, some old friends you’re only going to see in the comic, right?
GB: The stories tie into the continuity the show shares with Transformers Prime and what happens in the cartoon will have consequences in the comic. But the comic will also feature new villains and explore different themes. There will be squabbles and there will be punching, but the first arc weaves in an element of mystery and betrayal. Bumblebee has to put the pieces together and he may not get them in the right order. I like resolving subplots in one or two issues within the context of a longer ongoing story, I’m not a fan of ending an issue without getting somewhere.
JB: What do you think of TRANSFORMERS ROBOTS IN DISGUISE artist Priscilla Tramontano’s work? Have you two had a chance to collaborate much yet?
GB: This will be my first time working with Priscilla, who I was familiar with mainly for her color work in the comics. I love the somewhat organic feel she brings to the characters that lets them act out their emotions, she’s the perfect choice.
JB: Any other messages for Transformers fans out there?
GB: Transformers Robots in Disguise is accessible to new readers and is all about action and fun. Plus Autobots punching weird Decepticons in the face.
As well as providing the making of text, how involved are you in the development of the book? Do you have a say in things like design, layout and covers as well?
The cover and contents page designs have been constant throughout, and were conceived entirely in-house at IDW. For every edition I'm asked to give Andy Wildman a detailed cover idea (let's face it, no one else involved in the production of the book would have asked for Nightstalker and an Autobot Overlord on the cover of Vol 2). You'll have noticed that with the covers we try to highlight the unique aspects of the UK stories, typically the characters that never featured in the US comics.
I'm responsible for selecting what should go in each volume, from the stories to the non-story scans: posters, letters pages, adverts etc. I re-read the 30 - 40 issues covered by each volume and flag up everything I think would be interesting to fans old and new, such as Transformation pages that trail or tease a big story, or announcements for new toys, or promotion about the original Movie and so on. Letters pages that disclose hitherto unknown 'in universe' facts are worth reprinting, too. I'll choose the front-papers - usually the inside cover of the annual, so that's easy - and the sequencing of the contents.
I'll submit the text - the foreword, the introductory essay, the story intros etc - and notate it to indicate which scans should go where.
At this point I must sing Lloyd Young's praises. The series wouldn't be a tenth as good as it is without him. Lloyd got in touch after Volume 1 and offered to use his complete collection of TFUK issues to provide high-quality scans of all the material that IDW didn't have. He spends hours and hours cleaning up and 'brightening' the strip pages, and digs up all sorts of rare free gifts and original art. I couldn't do any of this without him.
We’re now past the halfway point of the series, how advanced is the work on the remaining three books and do you think we’re likely to remain on a one volume a year schedule?
I'd love to be able to do more than one a year, but realistically... it's Volume 6 later this year, and Volume 7 in 2016. Maybe we'll get Volume 8 - the final one - out in 2016 too. I'd like that. As much as I love the project, I want to see it done! I can't relax until all eight volumes are on the shelf. I owe it to fans - and to myself.
As for how advanced work is on the remaining books, I know precisely which issues and annuals will be reprinted, and what special features we'll put in. I keep a list of non-story material we've not yet printed, and it's pretty long. I know exactly what's going in Volume 6. And I have my list of confirmed and prospective interviewees.
Be a huge tease and give us a hint of an exciting and new fact we’ll be learning in volume 6.
There's interesting stuff in Volume 6 (did you know that a TF character appeared on the cover of another Marvel UK publication in the late 80s?), but it's in Volume 7 that there's a real revelation. Wait until you find out what was originally planned for after issue 212...
I understand you and James first came into contact about this series via the TMUK forum, had you known each other before this, and what has the process of working with him (and IDW generally) been like?
As fate would have it, it was only a short time after finding all of the free gifts from the UK series and joining the TMUK forum that I was introduced to the one and only James Roberts. It was prior to Volume 1 of Transformers Classics UK being released and I received an email with an introduction. At the time I probably had to re-read it, it’s not often you’re approached to contribute to something that’s dear to you. After James explained what he was trying to achieve, there was no doubt that I wanted to be involved.
I couldn’t do this interview without highlighting the sheer passion that James has put into these books. He really has gone to the ends of earth to interview key contributors in its rich history to dig up information that would have potentially been lost forever. Each time we work on a new volume and I’m hunting around for items to include, I sit back and think, how the bloody hell is James going to fill this issue out? But testament to his unrelenting passion for the series, he does. Quite often, we’ll be nearing our cutoff dates to collate everything we need to hand off to the IDW guys, who then stitch the book together, and James will message me at the eleventh hour saying he’s found space for one last thing. That ‘one last thing’ often turns into the ‘tenth last thing’ but that’s what I love about this project, we’re always pushing to get the best content we can in.
This is where the guys over at IDW obviously do a great job as well and as James said earlier, are always kind enough to push the page count up if there’s more great content to include. As the books lay flat on my table you can visibly see the thickness change from the first few volumes. Without these guys, the books wouldn’t happen either. Shout out to Justin Eisinger.
And finally, you’ve contributed to an officially licensed Transformers book about the comic you love and have had your name in the credits alongside the great and the good who worked on the original series. On a scale of one to ten, how much of a good feeling is that?
It’s nothing short of amazing; I give it a 1984 out of 10 (the year that changed it all for me). What an absolute privilege to contribute to not only something you’ve loved since childhood, but to have your name in the same publication as the guys who shaped the original series and those who continue to work on the existing stories. I pinch myself from time to time.
During my years working in the games industry, I was also fortunate enough to work on a Transformers game. Although I was working as a 3d artist at the time, my good friend and fellow 3d artist/ photographer Jamie Andy Evans was given the role of advert photographer. Long story short, like a child attempting with their dear life to answer a questions in class, my arm went immediately up. I said to Jamie, “I have to get my face in this game; I don’t care what it takes”. It’s safe to say, I’m now immortalized on a mobile phone billboard. Sadly, Jamie passed away mid way through 2014, far too young and I’ll be forever thankful to him for taking those photos. RIP mate.
I’ll sign off now by once again thanking James Roberts and IDW, not only for including me in this epic journey of theirs but just because these guys rock it hard for TF’s! I’m certainly looking forward to meeting James and the gang in the flesh, we’ve only been working together for 4 years now after all.
TR: Did your writing process change when you began scripting the movie as opposed to the TV show?
Flint Dille: Well, it did from the point of view that we knew this was going to be a very big movie. Of course, the purpose of the movie was not only to have something in theaters, but also to introduce next year's product line. Which meant that we had to first kill off the old product line to make way for the new toys.
TR: So Optimus Prime had to die?
FD: Exactly. We just didn't realize that it was going to bother anybody! :laughs: But I'd argue that had we not killed him, we wouldn't be talking about Transformers right now. Still, we didn't know the can of worms that we were opening when we wrote those scenes.
Topless Robot: The film world recently lost Leonard Nimoy, who voiced Galvatron in the Transformers animated feature. Can you talk about what he was like to work with?
Wally Burr: Very professional. Business-like. He came in and was ready to work. I asked him if I could give him the profile of what the show was about, to help get him up to speed. And he said "Go ahead." So I did. And when I finished with the full explanation, he said, "Okay, get your director and let's do this." :laughs: He didn't realize that I was the director! He must have thought I was a production assistant or somebody hired by the studio to hold his hand until he was ready to be used.
TR: What about Orson Welles? He came with quite a reputation, I imagine.
WB: With Mister Welles, I was intimidated in advance. Because if you've ever heard any of the outtake reels on him, he could be pretty tough. And he had a right to be! He could look at any script and say, instantly, I know what you need here. The problem was, he didn't want to be directed. But somebody had to coordinate the session, and that's what a voice director does. We coordinator of the cast. Otherwise, they'd overlap each other. The voice director keeps the characters straight, and so on. So I thought I was going to have a lot of problems with Mister Welles. And I did. At one point he was rather slow in his delivery, so I gently said "Mister Welles, this is sounding great. I'm wondering if I can ask you to pick up the tempo just a little bit." And he said, in that voice of his, "I'm reading this as rapidly as I possibly can. And furthermore, I'll do the slating from now on." Well, the voice director usually slates from the recording booth.
Topless Robot: You both voiced a number of different characters throughout the Transformers film. Did you have any particular favorites to play?
Neil Ross: Yes, I think so. My favorite was called Springer. He could turn into a helicopter at will, and he was just a good, fun, solid hero-type to play. He also didn't involve any throat ripping.
TR: Throat ripping?
NR: :speaks in a painfully scratchy voice: "That's when some of the characters sound like this!"
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