Scioli & Barber Crank Up the Kirby in "Transformers vs. G.I. Joe" #1

IDW Publishing brings together two of the most beloved '80s toy properties this July in "Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe," a new ongoing series by "Godland" artist Tom Scioli and "Transformers: Dark Cybertron" writer John Barbara. The sci-fi series officially debuted last month in IDW's Free Comic Book Day offering "Transformers vs. G.I. Joe" #0.

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The new ongoing series will be told in stand-alone issues, with each featuring "life, death, love, hate, mechanical aliens from space." Scioli and Barber spoke with CBR News about "Transformers vs. G.I. Joe" #1, explaining how Megatron functions as the series' Darkseid, how Scioli is playing with readers, why Doctor Venom should get his own series and much more about their nontraditional approach to both franchises.

CBR News: First off -- did Bumblebee make it out alive from "Transformers vs. G.I. Joe" #0, the FCBD issue?

Barber: Well, he didn't look very good on that last page, did he? I think we might have to wait and see.

Scioli: Life and death have a different, not-quite-analogous definition for Cybertronians.

What's "Transformers vs. G.I. Joe" # 1 about?

Barber: Well... they fight.

Scioli: The G.I. Joe team is the only thing standing between earth and an invasion force of alien living robots.

Barber: They aren't actually robots. They're mechanical life forms.

So they fight in the first issue -- but why?

Scioli: Turf war. Two cultures of honor with only the dimmest understanding of each other's rules and motives meet face-to-face. A clash was inevitable.

Barber: Classic cultural clash. I mean, everything about humans and Cybertronians seems different, at first glance. It's only when you get deeper into it...

What's your main cast look like? Is there be a singular big bad like Megatron or Cobra Commander or will there be a rotating set of villains?

Scioli: Megatron is like Darkseid in Kirby's "New Gods" -- he casts a long shadow that's felt in every corner of the universe. This book isn't so much about heroes and villains, but a rich universe filled with a diverse cast of colorful characters, each with their own story to tell. The events of issue #0 demand that we'll be seeing some Cobra leaders other than Commander.

Barber: There are certain characters taking center stage -- Duke, Scarlett, Snake Eyes, General Flagg, a bunch of others -- but a wide range of characters will be making their mark on this series. Megatron is definitely a huge factor.

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You said in our last interview that these stories will be single-issue stories. What are the benefits and challenges to writing one-issue stories?

Barber: Every issue stands on its own, but they definitely flow into each other. I think the rhythms of the series will start to be clearer as the series progresses, but really -- if all you did in life was read any single issue of "Transformers vs. G.I. Joe." I think you'd have had a pretty satisfying life. It's all there in every issue -- life, death, love, hate, mechanical aliens from space.

It's really a matter of taking an approach where every single issue is a whole unit. Not every issue is going to feel the same. I think the best comics are like that, sometimes. Every issue of this comic will have a personality. If you like one, you'll probably like the rest, I hope, but every one will have it's own idiosyncrasies.

The Free Comic Book Day #0 issue was very G.I. Joe-heavy; issue #1 is also very much from the point of view of the G.I. Joe team (but, believe me, is not lacking in Transformers), and then issue #2 switches it up completely.

Scioli: The major benefit is long-term goodwill. The readers will know that when they purchase their issue, they'll get a complete entertainment experience that they will want to repeat. The challenge is fitting all the story beats, and have them unfold in a natural manner, in a set number of pages. With my webcomics, I had the flexibility of having any give chapter being however many pages it took: 20, 14, 100. I do like the creative problem solving that's required for a rigid format. Jack [Kirby] and Stan [Lee] did all of those early epic "Fantastic Four" sagas in 20 pages. I'm not just talking about the to-be-continued soap operas from the middle issues, I'm talking about the self-contained stories in the first 20 or so issues.

Will you continue to do Battlefield Reports as back-ups or was that just for the FCBD issue?

Barber: Tom wanted to add some extra material to the back. There's a lot of background stuff to the main story, but that page was all Tom; so was the Wanted Poster page. They'll be stuff like that in the ongoing comic; we did another commentary article for issue #1, and I'm sure we'll throw stuff in as needed.

Scioli: I had a one month gap in the production schedule between issue #0 and #1. I didn't want to just sit around twiddling my thumbs. There were some extra unaccounted-for pages in the FCBD book that most likely would've been more ads, so I thought it would be good to run some bonus sketches. Once I decided to do sketches, I thought, why not do sketches that double as story content. I may do it in future issues if the muse strikes me, but once I finish an issue, I have to immediately launch into the next one, so it's unlikely I'll have the time to do anything more than the commentary stuff.

The issue both looks and reads like a comic out of time. Were you intentionally going for a classic Golden Age Kirby feel to it, or is that just your natural style?

Barber: I think it reads pretty unique to any time period. I mean, there's some referencing the past, and Kirby is a huge influence, but there's... I'd argue there isn't actually a lot of nostalgia here. I'd argue that every page, every moment is built on innovation. And Tom's looking to the past for some of the cues, but what he's actually building is what comics will be like in the future, not the past.

Scioli: "Out of time" is a fair description. It's classic and modern at the same time. I think the surface is deceptive, but comics work best if the reader isn't aware of all the elements at play. There is an immense Kirby element to my style, even at the times I deliberately try to quash it, but I deliberately turned up the Kirby dial on this issue. The next issue has a slightly different style that I'm anxious for the world to see. It might be a shift that's imperceptibly subtle, but to my eyes, it's vastly different. I spend a lot of time staring at this stuff, so I'm hyper-aware of the stylistic nuances. If I had my druthers, I would've drawn it a lot closer to the aesthetic in "Satan's Soldier." I inquired about printing an entire comic with black-light-sensitive inks. Maybe for the trade.

There were lots of really cool design elements in the FCBD issue, from the way you translated the Transformers' language to bullets shot through generic GI Joe's name cards. Will we continue to see innovative use of design in future issues?

Scioli: I plan to continue to innovate as much as I'm able. It all comes from a willingness to play. The willingness to play extends to all areas: the writing, the art. I mean that you take the bits and pieces, move them around (in your head, on paper, in toy form) and see what develops. It's important to not be too precious, to allow yourself to do a lot of work that may or may not make it into the final product.

Which other artists like to play with their audience?

Scioli: I think what you're asking is a different meaning of "play with." An artist who tweaks his audience in that manner would be somebody like Frank Miller, a provocateur. I don't know that I partake in that myself, at least not yet, but I am a fan of artists who aren't afraid to rock the boat.

Barber: Years ago, when I was still in college, I had this realization looking at a really well-done, professional comic compared to a less-polished comic, that there were some artists who really know how to put together a page. But the ones that are more interesting are the ones that don't know how to put a page together, the best. Like, the ones that still experiment.

I think a lot of artists -- well, maybe not a lot, but good ones -- come out and do exciting things. But then, over the years, the good ones fall into a system they know will work. The great ones never do. And I think every page, every panel of this comic is Tom on a tightrope without a net, and he's trying a complicated jump that he's never really done before.

What is your writing process like as co-writers?

Barber: It's been different every issue. Tom will start with something -- an outline or a script, and I'll make some notes or changes or write something as a script, and he'll rewrite it. And he's doing drawings of all of it as he goes, too. There's a lot that's gone on the cutting room floor, all to the betterment of the comic.

Scioli: John, I'd like to release all the various unused pages I drew for the series, uncensored. Maybe in the deluxe hardcover. Those early direct-from-the-id stories are something aspiring comics creators could learn from.

We didn't know what the collaboration was going to be like when we started. I warned John that I was going to go full-speed ahead, and I recommended he do the same, then we'll have our stories collide and see what happens. It's been surprisingly smooth.

What do you mean by "direct from the id" stories? Why didn't those pages make it into the book?

Scioli: They are publishable because there are certain guidelines to be publishable in a mainstream licensed book. My early drafts were along the lines of my "Satan's Soldier" comic and not too far from Rick Veitch's "Army @ Love" vs. robots. The lesson from those early drafts is that even in the controlled environment of a popular entertainment, you should see how far you can push your story before you reel things back in for public consumption.

Barber: And you just made those for yourself, right? I mean, it wasn't like they got shot down by anybody -- this was stuff you were doing in preparation for the series. It was never actually the series.

What are some future stories coming up?

Barber: Well, in issue #1 the Transformers meet the G.I. Joe team. That's going to be a key moment in the series.

Scioli: It's a proper face-to-face meeting with attempts at hand-shaking. Its unofficial title is "Space War I" so that should tell you how that meeting goes. Issue #2 sees the Star Brigade being brought out of mothballs, and we find out a little bit about the political situation on Cybertron.

Who have been your favorite characters to write and draw so far?

Barber: I love Tom's version of General Flagg. I don't think I've written any of his bits at all...

Scioli: There are reader-identification characters and writer-identification characters. So far I identify very closely with General Flagg because of his master-of-puppets role in the series. Doctor Venom really jumped out at me in the original Larry Hama Joe series. He's such a fully-formed unforgettable character. The villains really are the heroes in Hama's "Joe" and Venom is the worst of the bunch. He really is the most vile human being imaginable, but there's so much to like. That's a difficult feat to achieve. "A character you love to hate" is the wrong description, too, because he's such a remorseless turd that you can't help but love him. He's the one most worthy of his own solo series.

"Transformers vs. G.I. Joe" #1 is on sale July 9 from IDW Publishing.

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