Crossing over iconic 1980s toy lines is nothing new, as Hasbro is taking it to the next level with their planned cinematic universe, but it's save to say there's never quite been a crossover like Tom Scioli and John Barber's G.I. Joe Vs. the Transformers.
The IDW series, which concludes this week with its 13th issue, takes the idea of the Real American Heroes and Robots in Disguise existing in the same world to the nth degree, telling a time-and-space-spanning story that managed to include virtually every character from the 1980s cartoons, filtered through a distinct Jack Kirby-influenced style. From explaining how the Deceptions were responsible to Snake Eyes’s scars to the Joes being responsible for Soundwave’s cold, emotionless nature, this was a series where Megatron wearing Bumblebee’s severed head as bling was one of the least crazy plot twists.
With the series wrapping up, Newsarama talked to Scioli about this undertaking, his thoughts on the characters, his creative process, and much, much more. In addition to a preview of the finale, Scioli also shared an exclusive set of process images showing his process for bringing Starscream to the page from sketch to final colors in the first issue.
Newsarama: Tom, how does it feel to have reached this finale?
Tom Scioli: It feels really, really good. When you look at the history of comics, there’s so few examples of someone being able to finish a story – really wrap it up, and tell a complete start-to-finish comic-book tale exactly the way they wanted. I just feel really fortunate to have been able to do this.
Nrama: How much was this planned from the beginning, this being the finale point?
Scioli: When I first started working on this thing, I wrote a big document – like 100+ pages – that were the broad strokes of the story. And this was it, the finale – it plays out pretty much the way I always envisioned in that plan.
Some things changed along the way – you get more clarity into your characters once you’re a few hundred pages into writing them – but this is it, the giant war between G.I. Joe and the Transformers I set out to tell.
Nrama: Like J.R.R. Tolkien said, “This tale grew in the telling.”
Scioli: Exactly. And I think you have to have that open mind – unless you’re completely rigid, you’re going to get ideas as you work on a project that are more nuanced and developed and clear.
Nrama: Having talked to you at the beginning of this, I was curious about your delving into the 1980s comic books, cartoons and figures, and what the process of discovery was for you in terms of finding characters and ideas you wanted to explore in the book. A lot of lesser-known characters come up in this book with very unique interpretations.
Scioli: Just being alive and working today is a very privileged position, because you have the entire history of art and literature to rest on, and to build upon. With this work specifically, there’s the hard work of a lot of people that’s already gone into developing the technology and designs.
I like sifting through it, finding things that were buried within there – everything everyone had done before was like a rough draft for my book, and people who work on these properties going forward can use things from my book.
Nrama: My personal favorite was the Vikings-meets-Chariots of the Gods flashback with the Clan McCullen, which ties Destro’s family with the Transformers in something like Kirby’s Eternals work.
Scioli: That was one of the first stories I’d written in the process of making this – one of the ideas that first struck me while writing this.
That sort of allowed me to see the possibilities of this series – that it could be something that stretches back as deep as human history, and even further.
Nrama: Also, the crazy homages throughout – I like how there’s a visual homage to the Joust arcade game with Sky Lynx. It’s just there, one of a hundred crazy visuals in this massive scene full of characters, each with their own history and conflicts and personality.
Scioli: This comic is me – me making something and putting my personality into it, and these are the pieces of cultural detritus that formed me. So they’re going to find their way in there.
Nrama: As you were telling the story, did any characters surprise you – did you find yourself doing things with them you hadn’t anticipated.
Scioli: The two biggest examples are Dr. Venom and General Flagg, who were both minor characters in the overall scope of the 1980s G.I. Joe comic – they both died in the first 20, 25 issues. Reading all those old comics, they were integral parts of the story at the very beginning, but didn’t stick around long enough to become iconic.
They were kind of unique to the comic – Venom didn’t appear in the cartoon, and Flagg was a different character. In the first few comics, Dr. Venom is very interesting – he’s not cookie-cutter, he’s a very specific personality, he reall y enjoys coming up with ways to hurt people. It was that kind of specific misanthropy that was typical of a comicbook villain, but it was laser-like in a way that was very different to me, and using him, I found he’d do things that were very surprising.
General Flagg, in the comics, was kind of a flat character – you barely got to know him. So I wanted to give him more personality, and he wound up kind of taking over the comic to a certain degree.
Nrama: He’s got a certain maniacal intensity that’s a lot of fun – like an old-school Nick Fury in some ways.
Scioli: Yeah, and I think he is a good counterbalance to Dr. Venom, because they both really, really enjoy what they do. In General Flagg’s case, it’s almost immaterial that he’s on the side of the good guys. He’s interested in what he’s interested in, and his ego, and that this happens to line up with the interests of the G.I. Joe team are just coincidental.
Nrama: Well, he’s mostly known as the namesake for that really, really expensive/awesome U.S.S. Flagg playset…
Scioli: That’s how I knew him! I had that name stuck in my head from that playset – the one you could only imagine having when you were a kid. And that namesake drew my attention to the character, and from there, wanting to take the character whose name resonates with a lot of fans, and make him into an outsize character to match that name.
Someone else who surprised me, who just came to mind, was Lt. Falcon, from G.I. Joe: The Movie –
Nrama: Voiced by Mr. Don Johnson!
Scioli: Right! I was watching that movie, and that character, and found myself thinking, “There’s really something here – he’s Duke’s brother, and why is Duke looking out for him all these years, and putting up with all his crap…?”
And watching movies from that era, I recognized that was a character type – An Officer and a Gentleman, Top Gun – those were the stories being told back then, and I could lean on some of the tropes from back then and figure this character out.
Nrama: That was the character who was supposed to avenge Duke in the movie, and that led to Transformers: The Movie killing off Optimus Prime, and then that came out first and had such a backlash that G.I. Joe: The Movie dubbed in a line at the end saying Duke was okay.
Scioli: It took some of the wind out of the sails – some of the bite out of those characters. Lt. Falcon became almost a forgotten character, a sidelined one, who never got to take the leadership role that was intended for him, the passing of the torch. Same with the new characters in Transformers: The Movie like Ultra Magnus and Rodimus Prime – it’s not long until Optimus Prime comes back and pushing them to the side.
It would have been interesting if they’d stuck to their guns and had new characters taking over as the older characters left – I know this was a result of wanting to sell toys, a very mercantile motivation, but you can do really interesting things with a story about generations and characters dying.
I know back then that notion was really appealing in shows like Robotech – especially when you’re a teenager and know there’s actual stakes, that characters can die.
Nrama: I admit I was happy Optimus was okay. It was kind of traumatic at the time. But watching those post-movie Transformers episodes years later, I have a new respect for them. There’s something kind of dark and surreal and SF in them. The first set of episodes, “Five Faces of Darkness,” Rodimus Prime short-circuits himself to go into the Autobot Matrix of Leadership and learn about the Quintessons, and there’s this sort of vision quest where he’s guided by past Autobot leaders, including Optimus Prime. You have regression and past lives and even a sort of suicide, in a show for kids!
Scioli: I remember those cartoons, and that was really provocative! It blew my mind. Later on, reading Dune, I’d recognize similar themes in that.
There was so much creativity in those cartoons! Working with these characters and ideas now, they came up with so many premises and ideas in a very, very short period of time.
Nrama: And they’re pretty short – about 20 minutes each minus credits and little “tags” at the end like “knowing is half the battle.” They had to go through ideas at lightning speed.
Scioli: These shows were beasts that needed to be fed! And I certainly learned that working on a comic. The ignition is constantly on, and when you think you don’t have anything more to give, something new comes out – and it’s often very surprising, amazing stuff.
Nrama: G.I. Joe: The Movie, and some of the post-movie Transformers TV episodes, have this touch of H.P. Lovecraft to them, like with Cobra-La, which you include in your book. It’s strange watching the G.I. Joe movie – the opening sequence is very pure “Let’s stop some terrorists!” and quickly, it turns into “At the Mountains of Madness,” this kind of cosmic horror.
Scioli: Yeah, and I think the kids watching the cartoons were more conservative than the people making it. The people making it wanted to keep moving forward, and the viewers wanted it to stay the way it was, the same characters, but changed just enough to keep them from getting bored.
It’s tricky – how do you keep track of all those personnel, and not just have characters disappear? And how do you keep it so the characters are all doing something, and have relevance to the plot? It’s a like a massive, massive math problem.
Nrama: And then you have not just the number of characters but the physical scale, as the Transformers are many times larger than the Joes –
Scioli: That wound up informing the entire series. A lot of the art innovations I did were a result of having to deal with this massive problem: “I have these really big characters, and these really small characters, and these in-between characters…” It was a lot of work, and required some really good storyboarding. I think I got smarter from figuring all that out.
Nrama: There’s a Fantastic Voyage quality when the Joes are on Cybertron – like they’re moving through these bodily systems.
Scioli: Yeah – like, I had 30 years or so to ruminate on these stories that I watched as a child, and so I was able to bring all that to bear, without the constraints of “come up with this story on Monday, have a script ready by Friday.”
Nrama: When going through the 1980s comic book, what were some other things you wound up using, like Dr. Venom and General Flagg earlier?
Scioli: Beyond the characters, there was the approach. The approach to storytelling in the G.I. Joe comic was very different than what I was used to – it was a lot of vehicular combat seen from a distance, and now that’s part of my tool kit.
It was interesting to read a comic that had such a high turnover of characters, and how it dealt with that, how some characters wound up sticking around. It’s clear in any ensemble book there are characters who are favorites of the writer, even if they’re not always the favorites of the fans. I tried to keep a balance of who I wanted to see as a fan, and who as a creator I wanted to spend time with.
The Transformers comic was different. The British comics were the ones I got the most out of, that I spent the most time with. They helped me flesh out this exotic world of Cybertron – the Joes are the explorers and Cybertron is the environment. I needed to learn the topography and create a topography and a logic, a way it could all work together.
IDW kept sending me reprints of the Transformers U.K. books as they came out, and it was always like a fresh infusion – “Ooh, I can use the Transformers City of the Dead!” It would reignite things, and give me new places to explore.
Nrama: That run, the Simon Furman stuff, that really explored the idea, “What would a planet full of robots be like?”
Scioli: Right, what are their politics, their religion? A lot of those comics are straight adventure stories, but they had something the American Transfomers title didn’t – those felt like they were trying to fit more into the Marvel style, so there were stories with gangsters and very stock characters. You don’t need humans – the characters are the Transformers.
Nrama: I’ll do my best to avoid making a Shia LaBeouf joke.
Scioli: You want to see as little of the human characters as possible. The robots are what draw you in. You want to see the robots.
I don’t want to throw stones – a lot of writers have to deal with how to handle a concept based on the bag of tricks they’re used to using for other stories. It’s why a lot of movies and TV shows with imaginative concepts tend to emphasize plots you could see on any show, why you don’t see a lot of supervillains in older superhero movies and TV. Now you have a lot more examples of kind of stories to draw from across different media.
Nrama: I wanted to talk about the collaboration between you and John Barber – one of the fun parts of the book was the backmatter where you two explained your storytelling process and decisions about how to use characters.
Scioli: The way I work is so rigorous and so ruthless – I’ll just throw out a lot of stuff, write and write and write and throw it out and write and write and write some more. There’s so much work that goes into a story that a reader has no idea about, and shouldn’t have to have an idea about it – so much thought and care.
The backmatter was a chance to share some of that craziness – why this thing is connected to that thing, and so on. We had these pages in the back that were going to be filler otherwise, and we wanted to put in something that was compelling, without setting the schedule back too far. It seemed like more fun than a letters column.
Nrama: What was this collaborative process like?
Scioli: In the beginning, this task seemed just massive – I have to tell this big story with all these characters that I have little or no knowledge of. I started working on this idea months prior to the first issue coming out, and three or four months before it was even approved!
John was really essential for throwing things back and forth and getting a sense of what an expert in this stuff would think – he knows these concepts inside and out. I’d say, “I need a character who can do this –“ and he’d go, “Well, this character already does this.”
From the very beginning, he was a vital help to this story, and helped make this story much stronger. Working on a comic can be a very alienated, isolated, lonely experience, so it was good to have someone with me through the experience.
Nrama: Do you see yourself focusing on your own creations for your next project, or doing more with these characters or other properties? You could do Rom vs. the Micronauts now…
Scioli: I’m not quite done with the Transformers and G.I. Joe – this is the final issue that wraps up this big, epic storyline, but there’s another surprise that’ll most likely surface at some point next year.
I’m not completely done yet, but I am glad to be taking a nice break from them – my entire life for the last three years has been about G.I. Joe and the Transformers, and it’s nice to be able to think about other things.
As far as this being something I really work on and focus on, it’ll be a while before I tackle something on this level again – my batteries need to recharge. I kind of told the ultimate story with these characters, so right now, anything beyond that might be redundant. There’s kind of a mic drop in the final issue. It’ll be a while before I want to tell a story like this again.
I’ve got something new going with another company right now, that’s not my characters – it’s in the very early stages, so I can’t say anything. But it’ll be pretty awesome to announce.
Once I’m done with that, I want to work on my own properties – I feel you need to start fresh once in a while to stay excited, to feel that creative mania you have at the beginning of a new project. It’s excited to be at the beginning of a long project, and excited to be at the end, and then there’s the middle.
Being in the middle of a long project is like being in the middle of the ocean – it’s a long, long way to shore. You’ve got to power through that middle, and let things run that course and wait for the next wave to build up so you can keep surfing.