Earl Norem of Transformers Big Looker Storybooks

Earl Norem

Earl Norem and the Big Looker Storybooks

The Book Fair came to my elementary school once or twice a year. For a week, the school library was inhabited by portable metal bookcases that were filled with the most recent offerings of the children’s book publishers. However, the legitimate children’s literature was rarely purchased, as the Book Fair also contained trinkets like pencils, erasers, stickers, coloring books, posters and other diversions. During each class’s designated library time, the students were allowed to comb the Book Fair, and spend what little money their parents had allotted to them. However, if you were a good student, you could also earn bonus time at the Book Fair by completing your class assignments early, which I did as often a possible.

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At the 1984 Book Fair, two books leaped off the shiny aluminum shelves. They were Battle For Cybertron and The Great Car Rally, two Transformers Big Looker Storybooks published by Marvel Books. Each of them bore the cover price of $1.50. I don’t remember how much money I was given to spend at the Book Fair that year, but $3.00 was spent to get my little kindergartner’s mitts on those two books, and I am fortunate to still have them in my possession today. Both were illustrated by Earl Norem.

I read these books over, and over, and over. I knew the stories by heart and the drawings captivated my imagination. Tracing paper was a precious commodity. I would hold the pages up to my dining room window until my arms grew weary to get enough light to make paper reproductions of my favorite characters for whatever activity my imagination could devise.

When I became involved in the Transformers hobby as an adult and found these books—my name written in them in kindergarten scrawl—I realized I possessed a treasure. Looking at the illustrations took me back to that feeling of child-like wonder.

I knew Earl’s work was underappreciated. I noticed that his name never came up in discussions of the greatest Transformers artists, but his style was so distinct and so important to me personally, I made it a point to interject, “What about Earl Norem?” as often as possible.

Finally, last year, on the Transformers’ 20th anniversary, I made it a goal to shed some light on this overshadowed corner of the Transformers universe. In the process, I became a little more enlightened.

There wasn’t much information about Earl to be found on the Internet. His name popped up with credits for various illustrations (Conan, Wizards and Warriors, toy packaging, Marvel projects) but not with enough info to track him down. Finally, after an Internet search turned up an address, I prepared a package that contained copies of some of his illustrations and questions about his work on the Transformers. All I could do was mail it and wait. A few months went by and I was certain I would never hear from Earl. Still, I was pleased with myself for having taken the initiative, rather than allowing my search to fall alongside my many “someday” projects.

Then one day, I got a package from Earl.

In it, along with the answers to my questions, there was a reply letter from him. It read:

Sorry this project has taken so long. Your package caught me just as I decided (finally) to get a new knee. Most of October and November were taken up with pre-op, surgery, and rehab. Just couldn’t think of anything else.
I hope my answers to your questions are satisfactory. It seems a long time ago that I did these books and I’ve forgotten a lot of the details. However, I have answered you as best I can.
Thanks for your interest in my work. I am surprised that these books are still around.

Yours Truly,
Earl H. Norem

Although Earl found it difficult to remember details of work done 20 years ago, I was thrilled with the information I received.

Magnus Magnus: Battle For Cybertron and The Great Car Rally

First, I wanted to find out as much as I could about his work on the books I owned. As far as I knew, they represented Earl’s only work on The Transformers, although I was suspicious there was at least one other. I wanted to get a feel for the climate at Marvel under which they were created, at the very genesis of the Transformers franchise.

How were you chosen to illustrate these books? Did you know anything about the Transformers before you worked on them?

Earl Norem Earl Norem: Because I could draw action in Conan and superheroes, the art director thought I could make the Transformers move almost human-like, instead of the stiffness of the toys.

These words rang especially true with me, as I have always believed the appeal of the Transformers lies in their human-like behavior. The creative team realized that for these books to be compelling, the Transformers needed to be more than pictures of toy robots on a page. They needed character and action. They needed personality.

Magnus Magnus: What can you tell me about the models you based your Transformers artwork on? Did you have access to the toys? Did Marvel provide you with character sketches, or were you left to your own devices?

Earl Norem Earl Norem: I don’t remember if I had the toys for models. I certainly had drawings of the characters to go by.

Magnus Magnus: Did you do both books as one project, or was there a lapse in between?

Earl Norem Earl Norem: Both “Battle For Cybertron” and “The Great Car Rally” were assigned at the same time.

Any Transformers fan who reads The Great Car Rally will automatically notice that Optimus Prime is drawn with a mouth, rather than his trademark faceplate. We know Optimus has a faceplate on the Battle For Cybertron cover and that these books were assigned at the same time. At one time, I speculated that Earl had been working from early mock-ups of Optimus that featured a mouth. There were several characters, such as Trailbreaker, who had faceplates on their toy, but mouths in the comic and cartoon. Why not Prime? However, judging from this response, that theory is unlikely:

Magnus Magnus: Why did you draw Optimus Prime with a mouth? Was it your own interpretation, or was he represented that way in the sample art you worked from?

Earl Norem Earl Norem: It was a long time ago, but I seem to remember that the Marvel Books art director and I agreed that it would be difficult to show emotion with the mouth covered.

Based on Earl’s comments and the artwork itself, it seems likely he was either working from the same character sketches that appeared in Marvel’s Transformers Universe comics or something very similar. He simply was given the latitude to take some liberties with their appearance.

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Magnus Magnus: Dwight Zimmerman wrote The Great Car Rally and Scott Siegel wrote Battle For Cybertron. Did you work closely with them, or were you simply given a script to illustrate?

Earl Norem Earl Norem: I worked mostly from the script. However, I knew Dwight quite well and he had some suggestions after seeing my final layouts. He was pleased with the final book. I never met Scott Siegel.

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Magnus Magnus: What were your impressions of the characters as you drew them? Did you develop an affinity for any of the Transformers?

Earl Norem Earl Norem: The Transformers were just more superheroes to me. I tried to think of them as human so I could get their action. Each was a challenge, but I didn’t have any favorites.

Magnus Magnus: The Story of Wheelie and Car Show Blow Up

I was pretty sure Earl had not done any other Transformers illustrations, but I wanted to ask just to be certain. I received a very exciting answer.

Earl Norem Earl Norem: There were two more Big Looker Transformers books done about the same time – Car Show Blow Up and The Story of Wheelie, The Wild Boy of Quintesson.

I couldn’t believe it. Despite my appreciation for the Big Lookers, I had never heard of these books. But I was even more pleased when I managed to acquire both of them on eBay the very night I received the package.

The Story of Wheelie (and Earl’s illustrations) portrays the Autobot orphan the way he was always intended—a wild, witty survivalist with a slingshot and Sharkticon-tooth necklace. It also features stunning images of the movie cast and Dinobots on a carbon-based Quintessa.

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Car Show Blow Up is unusual in that it features Hot Rod, Kup, and season 1-2 Autobots under the leadership of Ultra Magnus, while Starscream and Skywarp remain with the Decepticons serving under Galvatron. Clearly, the script was written after the 1986 toy line was created but with no regard for the events of Transformers The Movie.

Magnus Magnus: The Shockwave Cover

I never owned, read, or even knew of the Marvel Transformers comic books when I was little. Only when I started collecting Transformers did I begin to amass these issues. When I saw the cover of issue No. 5—Shockwave’s “…Are All Dead” portrait—I knew immediately that Earl Norem had drawn it. The style was so similar, and the quality was so much better that anything that had appeared in the comic to that point, I knew it had to be his work.

I was wrong.

A few trusted sources on Seibertron.com told me it was not Norem’s work, but before I would be convinced, I had to hear it directly from him. I included a scan of No. 5 in the package.

Did you draw the Shockwave cover?

Earl Norem Earl Norem: The cover art you show was not mine. I did not do any of the comic books, only the Big Looker 8 x 8 storybooks.

Disappointed at being wrong, I was still glad to know for sure.

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Magnus Magnus: About Earl

I asked a few more questions about Earl’s life and work.

Were you in the military? If so, what can you tell me about your military service? How has it affected your art?

Earl Norem Earl Norem: Yes, I saw military action in WWII with the 10th Mountain Division. We trained in Colorado and Texas and fought the Germans in the Northern Apennine Mountains of Italy. I was a squad leader (S/SGT) and was wounded going into the Po Valley. Thus ended my military career.

Magnus Magnus: What type of artwork do you enjoy most?

Earl Norem Earl Norem: I like to paint with acrylic colors. Recently (12/04) I did two murals in The Military Museum of Southern New England in Danbury, Connecticut.

Magnus Magnus: Are you surprised that after 20 years the Transformers—and your interpretation of them—still have such a strong following? Would you consider drawing them again?

Earl Norem Earl Norem: It seems a long time ago that I did the Transformer books. I’d forgotten about them. Don’t think I could do them now since I have arthritis in my hands.

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Magnus Magnus: What are you doing now?

Earl Norem Earl Norem: I am retired and only paint and make things for my own amusement and for my grandchildren. All the contacts that I had in the commercial art field are either retired or dead and the younger art buyers don’t want anything to do with an 81-year-old artist.

Magnus Magnus: Conclusion

Reading Earl’s comments was cathartic for me. It gave me the opportunity to learn more about the creation of the Big Looker Storybooks and the early days of the Transformers. But it also allowed me to reach back and touch my childhood. A little nostalgia is a precious thing. I will always be grateful for the artwork Earl created and for the time he took to satisfy my curiosity.

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