Tom Scioli And John Barber Talk ‘Transformers vs. G.I. Joe’ [Interview]
Transformers vs. G.I. Joe is a crossover that sells it self, but the downside of that is that it’s been done often enough that it can be difficult to get excited about the next version. Unless, of course, you tell me that it’s going to be co-written, drawn, and lettered by Tom Scioli, the man who wrote the line “Robot Dracula is an efficient torturer” and rendered all other comics obsolete. If you do that, you have my attention, and that’s exactly what they did when they announced that Scioli and John Barber were kicking off an ongoing series about the two teams, set to launch with #0 on Free Comic Book Day.
To find out more about how the project came together, I spoke to Scioli and Barber about how the project came together, Scioli’s massive pitch document, and how their life-long and relatively recent love of the comics influenced their storytelling. Believe it or not, I don’t think we talk about Destro at all.
ComicsAlliance: We’ve seen Transformers vs. G.I. Joe stories before, going all the way back to Marvel.
Tom Scioli: Right, once or twice.
CA: What made you each want to tackle the project in a new form, aside from just the idea that people love the Transformers and love G.I. Joe?
John Barber: At IDW, I think we wanted to do this for a long time, institutionally, just for that very reason — but we’d always sort of resisted it. Without anything interesting to do with it, there was no reason to do it. We have some G.I. Joe comics, we have the Transformers comics, I think they’re both pretty good… but if you’re going to combine them, you have to do something really different and really special. Knowing this year was going to be the 30th anniversary of Transformers and the 50th anniversary of the original G.I. Joe, we really wanted to do something with the two. We weren’t going to waste the opportunity, but if there wasn’t anything good to do, we didn’t want to do it. And then, enter Tom. [Laughs]
Tom Scioli: For me, I’m such a backseat driver with every movie I see. You almost can’t help it, once you get involved with writing, drawing or whatever. You start viewing the whole world that way. From day one of the Transformers movies, for me, it was like “okay, if I was doing the Transformers story, I’d do this, I’d do that,” and when John suggested doing a Transformers vs. G.I. Joe story, that was perfect. That’s exactly what Transformers kind of needs. The Transformers themselves were cool, but the humans never held up their end of the bargain, so having G.I. Joe be the humans, that’s perfect. They’re iconic, comics-y, sci-fi characters in their own right, so you finally have that missing ingredient.
CA: Well if you’re looking for cool humans, I mean, they don’t get cooler than Snake-Eyes.
TS: Not at all. As a kid, I was an obsessive TV-watcher, so I watched everything, whether I liked it or not. G.I. Joe was definitely a big thing, so I’ve seen every episode of it. Of the two, Transformers was way more my thing, because it’s more sci-fi. I had the G.I. Joe toys, I was into it to the degree that a kid my age was expected to be into it, but I didn’t love it. I didn’t pursue it any further. I never read any of the comics until adulthood. I’ve become a fan of the G.I. Joe comic just from working on this, and I became a huge fan. For me, it may as well be 1984, because I’m reacting to these comics like they’re new. They’re new comics to me.
CA: I really came to the comics as an adult the same way, with the classic Larry Hama run, but a lot of people have that nostalgia tied in from when they were kids. It’s only when they go back that they realize these are actually really good comics.
TS: I wish I would’ve known to read the comics when I was a kid, because I think I would’ve enjoyed them. They’re so up my alley. I guess there’s enough of a nostalgic connection because I have memories of the cartoon and the toys, so I’m kind of primed to enjoy it to begin with.
CA: Did you read the Transformers comics?
TS: No, I didn’t read those either, but in adulthood, I sought out Transformers comics and read them and enjoyed them. Not so much the old Marvel ones, I remember seeing a copy of the one where they met Spider-Man and thumbing through it, but it really wasn’t until now that I read them. I’ve been reading them for the past… well, since the new millennium, off and on.
With G.I. Joe, I did read the Silent Issue, because that’s the one everyone tells you to check it out, and I really enjoyed it. I don’t know why I didn’t think “maybe the rest of them are good too,” I just assumed that it was the best G.I. Joe comic, and the rest of them probably aren’t so great, this is the one special moment. But that’s not the case at all — I don’t even know if that’s my favorite issue of G.I. Joe anymore.
CA: It’s a good one. John, you’ve obviously been working editorially on G.I. Joe and Transformers for a while now.
JB: Yeah, I’ve been writing Transformers for a while now, and I’ve been working editorially on G.I. Joe and Transformers since I got over to IDW about two and a half years ago. For me, it was different — they were two of the first comics I got into. G.I. Joe was probably the first comic I engaged with, and Transformers was the first one that I was into from #1. Maybe Star Wars and some random stuff here and there, but yeah. I remember my very first trip to a comic book store was owing to G.I. Joe. I remember getting a second printing of G.I. Joe #2. I assume your readers already know this [laughs], but #2 was the one that was really hard to get. Number one was ordered so heavily because of the TV commercial, and with #2, orders dropped but demand didn’t drop—so Marvel went back for a second printing, which was relatively rare for 1982.
I remember getting that the first day my dad was taking me to a comic book store, but I got the comic at a used book store we went to first. We didn’t even make it to the comic book store; I spent all my allowance before we even got there.
For me, the two things that those comics did were that they opened up the world of comics. It was never about superheroes for me, because my first two comics were about military men and women and then giant fighting machines from space. It never occurred to me that comics could only be about one genre. Yeah, they were both based on toys, but my first encounters with Spider-Man came from The Electric Company, and my first encounter with Batman came from reruns of the Adam West TV show or SuperFriends. I had toys of Batman and Superman, but my first Transformers experience was in a comic book. They always hold something special to me for that.
The second thing is that in the comics, especially the G.I. Joe ones… well, those guys were all Vietnam vets. People died on the missions. If you read the comics in grade school, you were in this special club that wasn’t the same people who were watching the cartoons.
TS: You had additional knowledge.
JB: Yeah! The real story of Snake-Eyes. You didn’t get that in the cartoon.
TS: I don’t think Kwinn ever showed up in the cartoon, and he’s in those early issues, too.
JB: In those days, you didn’t really know which characters were going to carry over. Baroness, I think, appears in the comics well before there was a toy, so that was no different from Kwinn or Dr. Venom, and those guys get — spoiler warning if you’re reading G.I. Joe #1 – 19 right now — those guys get killed.
JB: It was pretty powerful!
CA: So how did you guys get together? Did you have to convince Tom that he should be drawing Transformers vs. G.I. Joe?
TS: It took no convincing at all. In fact, if I recall, John was vaguely apologetic about it, like “I don’t know if you’d like to do this or not, but…” and to me, of course, that sounds awesome. That’s right up my alley. Giant robots and quasi-superhero sci-fi army men. That’s perfect.
JB: The whole dirty secret of this is that Tom had emailed into IDW, and I was a big fan of his from Myth of 8-Opus and Godland. I was sitting there, and I don’t know how this train of thought got to me, but I was reading East of West, and looking at Nick Dragotta’s art, and thinking about how when he and Jonathan Hickman had done Fantastic Four, he was doing a little more of a Kirby thing. I’d emailed Tom that day about something else, and I thought, “you know what would be absolutely bananas? Doing this comic with Tom.”
TS: John had this elevator pitch of what he wanted this comic to be, and it sounded great. It was the sort of thing I could run with, and the ideas just kept coming. At that point, it was just sort of a “maybe.” Even though it wasn’t a thing yet, even though it was just a notion, I started thinking about things we could do. I’ve had that happen a couple of times, and I’d gotten to a point where I’d fight that impulse, but in recent years, I just let my imagination go where it’s going to go. I can do something with it. Even at that point, I was thinking “okay, if this ends up not happening, I can use some of this energy and some of these ideas somewhere else.” I’ve been working on a creator-owned sci-fi thing in the background, so if worse comes to worse, I can repurpose some of these ideas.
So I just kept going, and basically from the day John said it was something we could do, I’ve been working on it. So when it was finally something we were going to do, I had this huge thick stack of story that I dropped on John.
JB: You came in gangbusters, and it was all cool stuff. The floodgates opened, and I think it really helped that you were coming in as a fresh set of eyes.
TS: I think you’re right. To have this enthusiasm for the material. You’re a longtime fan and you’ve been working on it, and you still have an enthusiasm, but it’s probably not as white-hot as it was when you were a kid first discovering it. It’s nice to have a balance of someone who has the experience and knowledge of this stuff, and then someone whose head is currently exploding with how great it is.
CA: It’s interesting to me that you both mention Tom’s other work, because, Tom, you know that I’m a fan of American Barbarian and Final Frontier, and that I consider Robot Dracula to be the sensational character find of the new millennium. Like I said, we’ve seen these two books meet, but this, this doesn’t look like those. It has this whole new feel to it, where things are so bright and colorful and wild and super violent, right from the beginning, and I really love it. So what was the division of labor like? You guys are credited as cowriters, and obviously, Tom did the art, color and lettering.
JB: We talked about it a little bit. Tom wrote a pretty detailed treatment… what, about 1,200 pages?
TS: It was big. It was an outline of the entirety of the Transformers vs. G.I. Joe ongoing series.
JB: Then you wrote a specific outline for the Free Comic Book Day issue. That came about a little bit later. At IDW, we were trying to figure out what the FCBD book would be, and this seemed like a good fit. So Tom and I added that story in, and that wound up changing everything going forward, too. You wrote an outline for it, I wrote a script based on the outline, and then you write a completely different script using pieces of that script, and then did the layouts.
TS: It went through so many transformations, and each one was so much better than the previous. It was like this exponential growth in how much it was improved with each draft that we passed back and forth. Looking over those previous drafts, the final story is way better than any of them, which is as it should be, but there are a lot of really cool moments left on the cutting room floor. It felt like we were making something much larger than what you’ve seen before in a single issue of a comic.
CA: That’s something I wanted to bring up, too. The Free Comic Book Day book is always big for every publisher, it’s the book you want to put out into as many people’s hands as you can. I remember seeing a ton of kids come to the store on FCBD, and I am legitimately jealous of a kid who gets this as his first comic. I can only imagine how mind-blowing this book is going to be, which I think is going to replicate your experiences as fans. You’re going to blow minds the same way that your minds were blown.
TS: I used to feel like our job is to make things that are as good as what we had as kids, but it’s really our job to blow that stuff out of the water. Whether you do or not, that’s one thing, but that should be your goal, to just make something that’s so awesome. That’s as it should be. When Kirby did his thing, and when Larry Hama did his thing, Kirby didn’t have a Kirby. Larry Hama didn’t have a Larry Hama. Larry Hama spent years of his life crafting this story, and now we’re at this vantage point where we can see all this work and pick what we like and free associate it. We’ve got to make something crazy, we can’t just match it. We have to try to make something wild using that as the building blocks.
JB: To me, the opportunity was to come in and do this from a completely different angle than we do the ongoing solo G.I. Joe and Transformers comics. To me, that’s really exciting. Our general take on those books is that it’s the G.I. Joe and Transformers that grew up with you — but Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe grew up in a different way. This book goes into some different, odd areas. It’s really accessible on one hand, you don’t need to know a lot of G.I. Joe and Transformers lore to get into it. Everything’s laid out in the first issue, this is who G.I. Joe is, this is who the Transformers are. It’s really accessible, but it’s really formally innovative and different. It’s not like anything else out there. The splash pages in this comic don’t work the way splash pages are usually intended to in comics in 2014. Not to sound all pretentious and information-theory-y, but just the way the story and the world and the information are presented to you is completely different from the way you tend to see them in comics, especially mainstream comics, today. But it’s still totally readable.
There are panels Tom would script — one page in particular — where he was just like “Trust me, this’ll work.” The panel description was so crazy, and by the end of it, by the time we were writing #1, any time I’d write a panel that I thought could be drawn, I felt guilty because I didn’t think I was doing it right. Every panel should be something that can’t be drawn, because that’s what Tom draws. He draws impossible panels. You throw out all the possible stuff that you put down, and that’s pretty much the opposite of every instinct I’ve been hit with for the past ten years.
You see that a lot in books like Hawkeye, doing stuff that you can only do in comics, and seeing that in a Free Comic Book Day book is exciting. It’s a Free Comic Book Day comic that could only ever be a comic.