It's hard not to imagine you're back in the eighties, as the popular Transformers franchise has been popping up everywhere. The robots from another world, whose ancient war brings them to Earth, have never quite disappeared from western pop culture since their introduction in 1984, but they're back in full force these days. There's always some Transformers related merchandise at the popular chain of Hot Topic stores; the Internet is a flurry with stories about the new film; Toys 'R Us stores continually are stocked full of a myriad of Transformers toy lines; and the cult-classic "Transformers: The Movie" is set to be re-released on DVD for its 20th anniversary.
IDW Publishing has also been offering a unique vision of the Transformers, aimed at fans old and new, in their recent line of Transformers comic books. They've debuted to a strong response from fans, eschewing the ongoing series format for a series of mini-series, each telling an important chapter in this new mythology for the "Robots In Disguise." The success of IDW's comics can also be attributed to writer Simon Furman, whose legendary work on both the US and UK "Transformers" comic books has made him the definitive Transformers writer in the minds of many fans. With the new "Escalation" mini-series on the horizon, and a bevy of upcoming "Transformers Spotlight" one-shots to come, Furman is only going to add to his legacy. CBR News caught up with Furman to learn a little more about those projects, and discussed the appeal of the Transformers.
As a child in the eighties, you had lots of animated options for a battle between good and evil. From "Robotech" to "Voltron" to "Thundercats," epic struggles between good and evil appeared daily, in expertly marketed entertainment experiences, designed in large part to encourage toy sales. Decades later, while there's nostalgic affection for many of those animated properties, "Transformers" still reigns supreme, which doesn't surprise Furman. "'Transformers,' while broadly fitting the same basic pattern, laid out a much more multi-layered playing field, providing depth, reach and back story to otherwise two-dimensional characters and situations," Furman told CBR News. "There was a sweeping, cohesive scope to the saga (similar to 'Star Wars') that inspired imaginations to take what was presented (be it in cartoons, comics or on/in the toy packs themselves) and run with it, fashioning countless stories within stories. All the tools were there. And, I feel, there were values and themes running through Transformers that marked it out from the rest and truly resonated with the viewers. Speaking with the fans who are still fans to this day, you can tell Transformers really meant something to them, affected them (even shaped them). That's rare enough in fiction or filmmaking, but in animation it's largely unheard of."
With that kind of love for the original animated series, from both Furman and the fans, it would seem logical to use the comic book to continue that mythology (as DC Comics did with their "Thundercats" comics), but the scribe wanted to bring fans something truly new. "First job was to lose the 'retro' 80s tag that Transformers inevitably seemed to carry with it," said Furman of his work at IDW that began with the "Transformers: Infiltration" mini-series. "While keeping the core structure/characters largely intact, my intent with 'Infiltration'/'Escalation' (and onwards) was to completely update the saga, make it relevant to the world we live in today and accessible to today's more sophisticated comics reader. There was just so much (often contradictory) back story, spread between various (previous) publishers and the TV show, that the logical (and hugely liberating) course of action seemed to be to start over fresh. My next goal was to avoid just telling the same story all over again. Much in the way that Marvel's Ultimate line takes classic characters and gives them (and their world/supporting cast, etc) a new, fresh, modern twist, that was my aim for Transformers. Here was a chance to build anew from the ground up (something I'd never done before), to craft a fresh and cohesive TF universe and be able to pick and choose the elements I'd liked from before and re-present them, put a slightly different spin on them (and somewhat defy expectations).
"I also looked for a more cinematic, real time/real world approach, playing up the whole 'robots in disguise' aspect of the characters. It struck me that what these beings do best was to blend in unnoticed, to operate sub-radar on an alien world. I went very much for a kind of conspiracy theory led 'they are among us' vibe, whereby the existence of the robots was rumored but rarely if ever confirmed by the population at large. It'd got so the man in the street barely batted an eyelid when the giant robots appeared and that seemed to me a great shame. The 'awe' factor was missing and I desperately wanted to put it back."
If you've never checked out any of Furman's "Transformers" comics in the past, or are only familiar with the cartoon, the scribe said that you'll find something more than you might expect. "'Transformers' has grown up," he explained. "Not in a prohibitive or in-your-face way, but rather just aged well like a fine wine. It's now much more of a grand, sweeping (and, I hope, sophisticated) sci-fi opus, and not just about good robots fighting bad robots. With the groundwork of 'Infiltration' (now in one handy, lush trade paperback) in place, I'm starting to really expand the range and scope of the saga, taking it to other worlds, bringing in storylines and plot threads that will bubble under for a good while before exploding into the 'ongoing' series. And though still kid-friendly, there's a hard-edged realism to the series that I'm trying to maintain even in the face of the fantastic scenarios that are playing out month to month, issue to issue. From the (re)designs/updates of the vehicles themselves to the real world topicality I'm lacing into the storyline, it's very much 'what if... Transformers really existed?' How would that work? Why are they here? What would they want? What would it mean to us and our planet? But most of all, if you've never read a Transformers comic before, it doesn't matter. Because, as far as Infiltration et al are concerned, this is it. It all starts here, and I urge people to at least give it a shot (and keep their preconceptions on ice)."
Furman's initial Transformers series at IDW, "Escalation," introduced readers to the new world of the Transformers and did something very unexpected: put the hugely popular Autobot leader Optimus Prime and the villainous Decepticon leader Megatron on the sidelines. It was a move that divided many fans, as both characters have huge fanbases, but Furman said that the new "Escalation" mini-series will put a smile on the faces of those fans. "Having kept them to a bare minimum in 'Infiltration,' Optimus Prime and Megatron are going to take center stage in Escalation. And when they do come together in one-on-one combat, it'll be for the first time for many millennia, so expect major fireworks. Moving from their solo 'spotlight' issues, both Hot Rod and Nightbeat (plus Hardhead) arrive on Earth in 'Escalation,' and there are plenty of hints (and some hard and fast reveals) of other key characters lurking in the background throughout. By issue #6, the stage is set for a much bigger influx of characters, which in turn leads into the catastrophic 'Devastation' arc/series."
Having written the Transformers for over a decade, Furman's certainly scripted a lot of stories about everyone's favorite transforming robots, but that familiarity has not bred complacency. "I definitely feel both my writing style and my approach to Transformers need to continually evolve," he explained. "I think it'd be a terrible mistake to try and tell the same type of stories I used to tell a decade or more ago. Comics have changed. The readers of comics have changed. The fans have grown up. It makes sense that I, as a writer, need to adapt to all that. That said, some things about my approach to storytelling will never change. I believe very much in solid, character-led stories, ones that take this or those character(s) through a defined arc, with conflict and then (in some form or other) resolution. I also still love the idea of multiple, overlapping storylines, lacing in teasers of things to come, creating a sense of something much larger and more intricate. I aim to excite and intrigue in equal measure, and that's something I don't ever see changing. Of course, there's a pressure (when people used to love what you do) to keep delivering, but you also have to take risks, push the envelope. Otherwise it'd get boring for me, and I'm sure that would come through in the work I'm delivering. Right now, Transformers is more fresh and exciting to me than it's ever been, and that can only be a good thing."
Joining Furman on "Escalation" and "Infiltration" is artist E.J. Su, whose depiction of the robotic warriors has clicked with many fans. Furman said that the artist deserves all the praise for a lot of reasons, and added, "For my money, he's one of the best at crafting clear, panel to panel action/interaction. You never have to stop and wonder where to go next on the page, or what you're looking it. His linework is sharp, clear and unfussy, and his panels (even when a lot is happening) uncluttered. In many ways, he's perfect for the real world feel of Infiltration (and onwards). Everything's there, nothing is cheated or fudged. And his robots are just amazing. Detailed, but also lean and mean, and he's instinctively 'got' that sense I wanted of awe and majesty to them, his angles often from a low perspective, so they tower over us. There's also a sheer enthusiasm that I love. Tell EJ we need to bring this character's vehicle mode up to date, or turn a Cybertronian vehicle into its nearest approximate Earth vehicle, and he'll hit you with an array of options in no time at all. The other thing about EJ is his sheer level of consistency. It struck me most when I saw the 'Infiltration' TPB. Where often, in a collected edition, you see highs and lows of quality, with EJ it's just all highs, page after page of them. Trust me, this is a star in the making."
Switching gears, Furman has been supplementing the mini-series with "Transformers Spotlight" one-shots, with the recent "Shockwave" issue earning him a lot of praise from both fans and critics. "I think there's two reasons the Shockwave story went down so well," explained Furman. "One, it's a complete entity in and of itself (though it's also laced firmly and demonstrably into the past and future of the TF universe we're building here). That's rare these days. Mostly, comics are one part of a four, five or six issue story, and tend not to support themselves as single entities in the way that comics once did. I think people just enjoyed and appreciated being able to read and enjoy a whole story for their three or four bucks. The second reason is that it kind of harks back to the comics many remember (from their childhood). It takes a kind of classic confrontation and re-imagines it, while lacing in elements from outside of what's strictly flagged as G1. For one issue, there's a whole lot in there! Same for the other spotlight issues. Each is self-contained, but there's a whole heap of stuff that will pay off down the line. Oh, and I should mention Nick Roche's superlative art, which kind of combines EJ's clear storytelling with Don Figeuroa's attention to detail. All in all, I was very pleased, and I'm often my harshest critic."
While the manipulative Shockwave has lots of fans, a future "Spotlight" star, Hot Rod, may be one the most controversial Transformer that Furman could tackle. The character made his debut in 1986's "Transformers: The Movie," supplanting Optimus as leader of the Autobots. Hot Rod was seen as a "whiny brat" by many fans, who only hated him more when he was transformed into the powerful Rodimus Prime and spent the third season of "Transformers" getting beat up and humiliated more than one would expect for Optimus' successor. When asked how he'll approach Hot Rod in the one-shot, Furman said, "The joy of these spotlights, in the context of our new G1 universe, is that I don't necessarily have to (and, in fact, am taking pains not to) do the characters as they've been down before. So, while I try and stay true to the essence of Hot Rod, I've kind of taken the bits I liked (brash, daredevil, rather hot-heated) and discarded those I didn't (whiny, etc). Funnily enough, there's still an element of him 'screwing up' in the story, but it's more the making of him (as well as his Achilles Heel!)."
One element that you shouldn't be surprised to find in Furman's Transformers stories is the recurring theme of responsibility. "I just think it's a theme that can applied anywhere, to any character," Furman said. "We all walk a line. Sometimes we step one way, sometimes another. How we then deal with the consequences defines us as a person. And I definitely see the Transformers as people. It's a mistake, I think, to start out with the idea that they're robots. They're weak, flawed, strong, inspirational, conflicted, opinionated characters - just like us. The fact that they're robots is, to me, fairly incidental."
After "Escalation" and the current batch of "Spotlight" issues wrap up, Furman has a very clear idea of where to take the characters. The British scribe has spent a lot of time with these characters and you shouldn't expect that relationship to end any time soon, as he explained, "To paraphrase my own little epitaph to the various series of Transformers that have come and gone - it never ends. Right now, I have the next three or four story arcs mapped out (in my mind at least). And I do see an eventual 'end' (of sorts) to what we're building here. But it's a big, big universe, and I seriously doubt (as long as people keep buying the comics) we need to be completely finite in our thinking."