We’ll be blunt: We love ‘80s cartoons. We love the insane Kirby-style riffs of writer/artist Tom Scioli (Gødland, American Barbarian). So when we found out Scioli was going to be doing a new ongoing Transformers/G.I. Joe series at IDW (co-written with John Barber) starting with a Free Comic Book Day issue that will be in stores in April, we were…enthusiastic, to say the least.
Details on the book are hush-hush and Scioli is finalizing the artwork on everything, but we got him on the line to talk about his love of these characters, from the classic toys to the classic cartoons to the classic comics.
Here now are excerpts from our long, long geek-out session with Scioli on these great characters and how they warped our childhoods, and a look at some of the behind-the-scenes drawing for the upcoming series. If anything, we did learn this: Scioli is bringing a real passion and love for the characters to this book, and you can get a glimpse of it here.
Newsarama Note: The art shown here is not final, and only represents Scioli’s initial doodles and experiments with the characters’ looks. It does not represent what will appear in the actual series.
Newsarama: Tom, how did this come about?
Tom Scioli: Pretty organically – I sent some samples of my work to IDW, and then I was contacted by John Barber about doing a cover for Black Dynamite, and then I started pitching ideas around the image I’d come up with, and it was a bit too much all at once, but after a while he contacted me with an idea for a Transformers/G.I. Joe comic, this one-sentence pitch. So those were all the steps.
Nrama: This can get confusing, but what continuity does this take place in?
Scioli: My thoughts are that this is its own continuity – they can be similar to other books except for how these worlds interact, or they can be completely different, I hate to change anything without a good reason, but I do like to feel like everything is up for grabs.
There’s no unified continuity for either of these properties – they’ve both existed for a long time, and had their own worlds, but there is no one “right” version.
Nrama: What I liked about the preview image was that it had these very 1980s-style designs –
Nrama: You know, “Let’s do a 1980s-style G.I. Joe/Transformers comic, and in that Kirby visual style.” That’s ringing my bell. (laughs)
Scioli: Yeah, I’ll take influences from wherever I can get them, but with these, the 1980s designs were very much present in my mind. Those designs, to me, were incredibly strong, incredibly memorable, so I’m going to use them to the best of my ability.
Nrama: I’m trying to remember who did the designs, especially for the cartoon –
Scioli: I know Larry Hama was heavily involved in a lot of the G.I. Joe designs, but I’m sure there were a lot of people on the toy end, the comics end, the cartoon end…a lot of people.
Nrama: Those designs were very meaningful to me as a kid. There were a lot of toys and cartoons, but those designs had a certain…kind of mythological quality to them that I can’t quite explain.
Scioli: Yeah, and you have to think of the difficulty of taking a functional toy, you know, this toy that does a specific thing, and then translating into a character that you can relate to, yet is still recognizable as a toy – that’s something that’s a very difficult design problem. Whoever that initial designer was came up with some very creative solutions to that.
Nrama: And you read the initial appearances of some of these characters in the comics, where they just had the initial toy designs to go off of, and the characters are very stiff – and once they’ve been in the comics a bit, they tend to loosen up a little.
Scioli: I think that happens with comics in general. If you look at the first few issues of the Fantastic Four—when you start drawing a character for the first time, even if it’s a character you created, it takes a while for everything to snap into place
That’s where I’m at with this book – I think I’m over the hump right now. I did a lot of drawings of these characters that the public hasn’t seen, just to understand how they’re put together intimately, so I could put them in any situation that I need to. But you really need to draw them a couple times before you can really get into the characters.
Nrama: How into the characters were you growing up? Did you play with the toys, read the comics, watch the cartoons…?
Scioli: I didn’t read any of the comics back then – I kind of wish I did, because I’m reading them now and they’re great, especially the Marvel G.I. Joe stuff. I mean, those are now some of my favorite comics.
But I watched the cartoons – those shows were part of the cultural landscape when you were a kid. You’d watch them, and then you’d talk about them in school. I ate it all up.
I think the first G.I. Joe toy I had was the hang glider – there was this commercial where the kids threw it. I remember buying Duke and Destro the first chance I got. Transformers were a little different because they were pretty high-end toys – so I had Gobots.
Nrama: Gobots were the Transformers that your parents would buy you when they didn’t want to buy you Transformers.
Scioli: Yeah, Gobots were like two or three dollars while Transformers could be like nine or ten – and they were really well-put-together toys. For years I didn’t have the Transformers, but I did have a Gobot that was an 18-wheeler that was red, white and blue, and I pretended that was Optimus Prime.
Eventually I got some second-hand Transformers, a bunch of them, one Christmas. And that was great, having them. I never found out how my parents got them, but I assumed some relative or friend of the family had a son who’d outgrown them and was willing to let them go cheap.
Nrama: It was so interesting with the cartoons – it wasn’t until I got to college and got bored and looked this stuff up, but there were some major comics guys who worked on these shows. You know, Steve Gerber was a story editor on both shows, and Denny O’Neill came up with the name “Optimus Prime” –
Scioli: Yeah, I just read that.
Nrama: Maybe it was the frustration that you couldn’t kill any characters or do continuing stories, but –
Scioli: Well, the comics did have pretty high body counts. But that was the thing on the G.I. Joe cartoon – if someone got hit, they’d groan as they fell to the ground so you knew they were okay, or if their plane got blown up –
Nrama: They’d parachute to safety, yeah.
Scioli: But you read the comics and they’re pretty cutthroat! And of course the movies for each of these, there’s the clearing of the decks –
Nrama: Yeah, they killed all the characters you knew in the Transformers movie! I couldn’t watch that as a kid once I heard Optimus Prime died!
Scioli: You relate so much to Optimus Prime. And it was strange, because here was a character who’d existed for maybe two years in America at this point, but he dies in that film, and it’s such a vacuum.
And I remember watching the TV cartoon, and there was like a countdown to the return of Optimus Prime…I think it was because Optimus Prime is this sort of warm-but-strong father figure, and if you’re of a certain age, you don’t want that to go away.
Nrama: I gotta give credit to the writing and to Peter Cullen’s voice-work, because the character has no facial expressions –
Scioli: Right, right, he’s wearing a mask. He’s a robot with like a mask covering up his nose and mouth. So to be able to relate to a character that’s that abstracted is really something. I agree with your assessment. The voice-acting is a big component, and that’s why it’s the same actor doing that voice to this day. And you hear that when you read the comics.
Nrama: I’ve rewatched some of the post-movie cartoons, and I didn’t like those as much as a kid, though I recognize they’re a lot better now that I’m an adult…legally, anyway. But I noticed that the designs they did for the robots for the movie and post-movie episodes had more human-like features, more detailed faces – Scourge in the Decepticons has a beard! -- and I just didn’t like that at all. They looked like gray humans wearing armor.
And you had a lot of Steve Gerber-type scripts like with Galvatron on a therapy planet or a “male” Autobot being turned into a tiny Geisha doll with an insigna for a face or a retired Cobra Commander turning the Autobots into humans…that was sort of an unsettling, uncanny experience for me. That stuff had an effect on me –
Scioli: I think I’ve witnessed the effect it had on you. (both laugh) It brought the toys closer to what was depicted in the cartoons – the Optimus and Megatron in the cartoon were much more anthropomorphic than the toys –
Nrama: Oh, Megatron was a terrible, terrible toy. He had a trigger between his legs, and it didn’t help that part of the gun barrel was on his thigh right next to it. It’s one of the most unsettling children’s toys ever.
Scioli: Those cartoons – there were a lot of episodes. They had seasons of like 65 episodes, compared to like 22 for a season of a prime-time TV show. They were vast, with a large number of writers working on these, and you had all these voices contributing to the series.
Nrama: Yeah, and you could see the weirder voices like Gerber standing out – I remember this two-parter…looking it up…Martin Pasko did it, where they got rid of some Joes who’d been killed off in the comics by sending them to a parallel dimension where Cobra had won.
Scioli: I remember those episodes! Those were probably the episodes that made the biggest impression on me as a kid, and I think about those a lot. I think when you’re a kid, that whole parallel universe concept in general is very resonant. I remember that being very poignant, and those Joes deciding to stay in that universe and fight as the resistant.
Nrama: I saw that again, and there was one bit where a Joe got bit by an insect and his eyes were all yellow and he was hallucinating and ranting – I had to have been five or six when I saw this! And there was a Lovecraft one in that series as well, a big creature living under Destro’s ancestral home that was an eyeball with tentacles.
Scioli: I’m going to have to revisit these episodes – as you’re describing them, they’re sounding like Steve Gerber comics. A lot of these cartoons are like distant memories for me – the comics are fresher, because I read more old comics than watch old TV, but I remember so many parts of these episodes. But some of these have that Silver Age Superman quality – that was an obsession of Gerber’s as well.
Nrama: Yeah, he did stuff like that Phantom Zone miniseries – taking that weirdness but treating it more seriously, with this nightmarish quality.
Scioli: When I was a kid, I thought I’d seen every episode of these cartoons multiple times, but man, some of these I don’t recall at all – and yet, the way you’re describing them, they sound very weird and compelling. I need to see these.
Nrama: Well, let me know what you think. This has proven really therapeutic to me.
Scioli: You talk about the change-over with characters for Transformers – I do remember when they did something similar on G.I. Joe, putting Serpentor in charge of Cobra. A lot of people didn’t like Serpentor, but I did.
Nrama: Really? I know the DiC-produced episodes of the cartoon are vastly inferior, but I did love the moment where Cobra Commander re-evolved to human form and zapped Serpentor into an iguana. That was a sort of “hell yeah!” moment for me as a kid.
Scioli: Like, Serpentor…visually, he’s so different from everything that came before. I liked that look, and I hadn’t seen the Conan the Barbarian movie yet at that point in my life, so the whole snake thing, how he had snakes slithering on his neck that he could throw as spears, that was cool.
And I had a definite SF/fantasy bent, so taking things into that realm for me was really cool. I think a lot of kids wanted something slightly more realistic, or at least more like action movies.
Nrama: Well, it’s a cool idea – here’s a bad guy engineered from the worst tyrants in history –
Scioli: And it sets up that quest – “Let’s to Transylvania and get a piece of Dracula’s DNA!”
Nrama: I think the division bell in fandom is that you and I watched the cartoons, and a lot of other fans grew up reading the Larry Hama comics, and he has that military experience, a slightly greater sense of realism –
Scioli: Yeah, you get that in the comics. You learn a lot of lingo, a real sense of military procedure – that comes through in the comics.
Nrama: Hama has some crazy stuff – if you read the bios he did for the file cards for the figures, he has these oddball moments of satire, like Dr. Mindbender being a dentist who had an overdose of his own gas.
But they’re a little more serious in the comics, a little more real-world, where characters get injured and die all the time, while the cartoon was more of an absurdist playground. The Transformers comics, especially the British stuff, that was more gonzo than the cartoons –
Scioli: I’ve been reading the volumes of Simon Furman stuff that IDW’s been reprinting. I’m enjoying those a lot.
Nrama: They’re kind of a weird, crazy, cosmic saga.
Scioli: Yeah, and stuff happens really fast. Reading them in trades is like getting years of stuff in a weekend’s worth of reading. So you go from the first wave of characters to Galvatron and Hot Rod relatively quickly, and then time travel gets introduced to bring in those future characters from the movie –
Nrama: And in Transformers, they had all these alternate timelines to keep introducing new characters. And towards the end, Simon Furman was ready to leave…
Scioli: Yeah, I’ve been reading those collections and it’s getting a little confusing…
Nrama: I can’t help you much, though I did remember that he was doing Transformers: Generation Two at Marvel, and I read that he named a character “Jhiaxus” as a pun on “Gee,axe us!” because he knew the book couldn’t last.
Scioli: I’ll have to check that out.
Nrama: To kind of give this reminiscing a point – these were characters explicitly designed to sell toys. And yet here you and I are, nearly three decades later, we’re talking about them, fans are still going to see the movies, watching the cartoons, buying the toys – why are they so powerful?
Scioli: I think the designs are really strong, that whatever the initial impetus for creating these things was, people still invested the full weight of their imaginations and creativity on them, and so they transcended whatever initial decision-making brought them into being.
Someone like Larry Hama offered whatever he had in terms of life experience and imagination into G.I. Joe, and it’s something that transcends generations, something kids and adults can enjoy years later. Comics are something designed to sell themselves, and I’ve spent might adult life reading and making comics.
The commercial aspect is almost invisible. I think it’s almost beside the point.
Worlds collide (for free) in the Transformers vs. G.I. Joe special in shops April, available for pre-order now!