One of the biggest crossovers of all time just got even bigger…and stranger.
Let’s explain: For the uninitiated, Tom Scioli, who specializes in gonzo, cosmic-sized comics with a Jack Kirby art influence like Godland and American Barbarian, did a massive Transformers vs. G.I. Joe miniseries for IDW that riffed on the existing comic books and cartoon backstory for a millennia-long conflict with vikings, aliens, robot cities and of course ninjas.
Now, he’s done a comic book adaptation of the movie based on this series, and it hit shelves this week.
A movie that technically does not even exist.
Yes, it’s Transformers vs. G.I. Joe: The Movie Adaptation, a look at what would happen if someone tried condensing the story of Scioli’s series into one movie…then condensed that into a comic book. The result is an “all killer, no filler” take on the story that combines its biggest moments while still going off in new directions…and even has behind-the-scenes materials interviewing the “actors” and people doing the “special effects” for this epic.
In an effort to make sense of this, Newsarama called up Scioli to talk Transformers, G.I. Joe, and comic book adaptations of movies. Things got real crazy real fast.
Newsarama: Tom, IDW sent me an advance of the book, and…after attempting to parse all its levels, I’m not sure reality exists any more.
Tom Scioli: [Laughs]
Nrama: For those unfamiliar with the solicitation, how would you describe the book?
Scioli: It’s the story of Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, distilled to its most…let’s say “essential” story.
It’s like, the series I’d been working on for such a really long time had all these ins and outs to it, all these parts, and I just saw a vision of how you could reduce it down to the atomic level – where you can’t break it down any further and still hit all the notes. And it was also a chance to maybe tell a different version of it.
Nrama: So you’re taking the Transformers, this Americanized version of a Japanese property, and all the mythology of the cartoons and the figures and the comics, and the G.I. Joes, this updated version of these dolls and adding all their cartoons and figures and comic books, and then filtering them through your vision and a Jack Kirby-style aesthetic, and then there’s a nonexistent film of this and this is the distilled comic book adaptation of the film of the comic of the cartoons and comics and toys and... I’m sorry, I think I just went cross-eyed.
Scioli: Right. One of the ways I described working on this series as a whole, just the maxiseries, is that it’s comics as a kind of literary criticism. I’m riffing on a preexisting text, of every iteration of the Transformers and/or G.I. Joe that’s happened prior to my interpretation.
So this comics adaptation of a movie adaptation of a comic book... that idea’s pushed as far as you can possibly push it.
Nrama: There’s also an aspect similar to jazz to what you’re describing - you’re taking all these things that are thrown at you, and trying to create your own beat, your own rhythm off of that structure.
Scioli: I think just doing comics, especially American comics, requires a lot of improv. And Jack Kirby was a great improviser - whatever you threw at him, he had that confidence to spin it into gold.
Nrama: You’re taking some of your favorite moments from throughout the series in this and putting them all together - and also doing variations on these moments, or emphasizing small moments that might not have gotten as much of a spotlight in the series itself, and now play as a bit bigger.
Scioli: When I did the series with co-writer John Barber, we were laying out the storyline, and when you make storytelling decisions, it often means ruling out other decisions - that we’re going to take this path instead of this other path.
So, doing the movie adaptation was a chance to take the other path - “If I’d gone this way instead of this other way, what would the story be like?”
Nrama: What was it like doing this story without John?
Scioli: I had the idea for this while I was still working on the series with John - while I was traveling to conventions and stuff to promote the series, just sitting on the plane and in airports and having coffee and a bagel - it was sort of gestating in that environment, and it kind of came to me all at a piece.
The script and the structure and everything came to me very fast, and I put it together on my own - the first draft was a finished draft, which rarely happens. So that was different than what I did with John, which is I’d send him the material and he’d offer his thoughts and input, and we’d move on from there.
Nrama: And how exactly did you pitch this to IDW…?
Scioli: I mean, I just sort of described it as, “This is the comics adaptation of the movie adaptation of the comics.” It was that simple. And I sent the script to John and to Carlos Guzman, the editor, and they were both into it.
It was pitched as, “We can do this at some point, like as an annual…” And I had the idea that someone else could draw it. But, the time came about, and I really wanted to draw it myself. Because I felt like, “Whoever gets to draw all this stuff is gonna have so much fun,” and I wanted to save that fun for myself. [Laughs]
Nrama: What was the whole process of coming up with the “behind the scenes” materials with “in-world” interviews and everything?
Scioli: That’s funny, because during the time I worked on this, the book became part of a wave of annuals IDW is putting out, and it got an expanded page count. And I wanted to take as much advantage of that page count as I could. So I wanted to do a movie magazine-type thing, like when the 1989 Batman film came out, or an old issue of Starlog magazine –
Nrama: I remember those! That was how you found out what went into the making of movies, because there was no internet back then!
Scioli: Exactly! So once I started working on those features, and putting them together, I found myself thinking, “This project is so much better with them!” Like, how did I think I could do something like this without the behind-the-scenes features? It enhances the concept of this as adapting a real movie. They have pictures, they have words, but they’re something beyond comics.
Nrama: I’m curious about some of you favorite - either in terms of quality or just strangeness - comic-book adaptations of movies. Because there were some that had to work without a finished film, and some that were on movies that barely got a release -
Scioli: Yeah! Like, just recently there was an adaptation of Star Wars: The Force Awakens that came out way, way after the movie. I’m assuming there was just such a demand for product related to the film that they decided to do that.
Nrama: That’s interesting, because the original Star Wars adaptation is credited by some with saving Marvel Comics, and also has these moments that weren’t in the final film like 'Irish Jabba the Hutt.'
Scioli: Yeah, and it’s fascinating because they had to make it before the world knew what Star Wars was. They had to make a Star Wars comic without having seen Star Wars - just designs and script excerpts and such. Can you imagine trying to describe that movie to someone in a world where it doesn’t exist?! You couldn’t make that comic now. It’s like a snapshot of a moment of history before all entertainment changed.
Nrama: There’s a lot of interesting movie adaptations in comic books –
Scioli: I was checking out Larry Hama’s stuff while doing the Joe/Transformers book, and I found he had an adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau from 1977, the film version, and that ‘s actually got some pretty beautiful stuff.
Nrama: There’s some interesting ones that kind of transcend the source material, like Stephen Bissette and Rick Veitch –
Scioli: 1941, yeah.
Nrama; And then there’s the Archie Goodwin/Walt Simonson Alien adaptation, and Simonson also did art for Marvel’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind adaptation, which doesn’t have a ton of visuals, but him drawing that spaceship…
Scioli: And of course Jack Kirby doing 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Nrama: Yeah! And there was literally a book from Sequart examining how that is one of the strangest pairings of creator and film adaptations of all time.
Scioli: It was a project that he sort of pitched and wanted to do - that film clearly made a mark on Kirby.
Nrama: And there’s ones where something interesting is brought to the material, like Kyle Baker’s kind of bizarre, dark adaptation and prequels to the Dick Tracy movie…what are some other favorites of yours?
Scioli: One of the ones I like is the Jim Steranko Outland. It feels like a really good comic, and has so much innovation in its pages. The movie adaptation genre has kind of a bad reputation, I think, and here is one of the seminal comic book artists at the full extent of his powers doing one. It’s never been reprinted in its entirety in the United States - I had to hunt down all the various issues of Heavy Metal to find it.
I like when, like the Star Wars adaptations, they do an adaptation of a movie and then, once they’ve adapted it, keep going, and going off in their own weird imaginary realms that roughly parallels what’s happened in the movies.
It’d be kind of cool if the Marvel Force Awakens adaptation, after the movie’s finished, they let the creative team come up with their own idea of “Okay, what’s next?” Because then they can do about two years of whatever they want, and then the next movie comes about and just wipes it out, like what happened with the 1980s comic.
Nrama: It’s like the “Extended Universe” thing - how much can you do, and how much is going to get wiped away?
Scioli: The thing is, I don’t like all these very coordinated, synergistic, expanded universes. I like the crazy, wild west, letting chaos reign, “come up with your bit, and if it conflicts with everything else, who cares?” kind of riff.
Nrama: Well, it can be very tricky dealing with comic books based on licensed properties - you have the editors at the publishers, but then you have the representatives for the company that owns the property, and there are often higher-ups involved with the properties at the companies that can go, “Don’t do this, we’re going to explore that plot point down the line…” It’s more than just getting the character “voices” right, there’s an awful lot of hoops to jump through. And that’s paralleled in writing most superhero books at major companies, actually.
Nrama: On a completely inappropriate note: Based off this “adaptation,” I have to wonder if you invented Scarlett/Optimus Prime fan fiction, or did it exist before?
Scioli: I’m pretty sure I didn’t. But I’m afraid to research.
Nrama: As am I.
And you’ve got your new project going…
Scioli: Princess, yeah. I’m working on it today, and it’s going very well – what you said about working on licensed books and jumping through hoops, it’s nice to be working on something that’s entirely mine and all the creative decisions are decisions that I want to make.
Nrama: Do you see yourself doing more with the Transformers, G.I. Joe, or other licensed properties?
Scioli: There’s a history of people working on them, going off, and then working on them again, so I could see that happening with me. It’s been a while since I worked on the final issue of the maxiseries and then working on this, so I got a nice little break, and it was fun going back and revisiting this universe.
I could see coming back in the future, who knows when - but it could happen, for the fun of it alone.