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Interview with John Barber, The Transformers and G.I. Joe

At this year's New York Comic Con, IDW announced a new series putting two of Hasbro's most popular "boys' toys" properties, The Transformers and G.I. Joe, in a "permanent crossover" comic. We got a chance to talk with series co-writer and IDW editor John Barber about the new series.

G.I. Joe and The Transformers have a long history of appearing together in comics. To date, there have been eight published crossovers between the two Hasbro properties—two published by Marvel (a standalone miniseries released at the height of the G.I. Joe comics' popularity in late 1986/early 1987 and a 1993 crossover between the ongoing Marvel G.I. Joe and Transformers: Generation 2 comics), two limited series published by Dreamwave Productions, (the first Dreamwave crossover, set in a unique World War II setting and continuity with gorgeous art by Jae Lee, is a personal favorite), and four limited series published by Devil's Due (the first of which was co-published by Image Comics). The cross-audience appeal of the two toy-based properties should make their pairing in comics and other media a marketing no-brainer. What kid from the 1980s wouldn't want a transforming Cobra H.I.S.S. tank? In association with our friends at The Comixverse, we talked to IDW's John Barber soon after the publisher announced that it would launch a new ongoing Transformers/G.I. Joe series at NYCC. The upcoming title will feature Barber co-writing with series artist Tom Scioli (Gødland, Freedom Force). Below is the transcript of that discussion:

YJ: What led to the Transformers/G.I. Joe series being developed now? Were there arguments for making it in-continuity or was it always going to be its own thing?

John Barber: We knew 2014 is the 30th Anniversary of the TRANSFORMERS brand and the 50th Anniversary of the G.I. JOE brand, so it seemed like a good time to get serious about doing a TRANSFORMERS/G.I. JOE comic.

It’s been on our radar—at IDW and at Hasbro—for a long time. We’ve been waiting to get the right story, the right angle of approach… we really didn’t want to do it just to do it, you know? We want to do it because we’re making something good. And the idea of bringing in Tom Scioli and doing this story big and cosmic… it felt right, and felt interesting to me.

Prior to that, we’d gone through every permutation of the idea… in-continuity/new continuity/other contuities than the regular IDW comics… nothing was off the table while we were thinking about it. We’ve got big plans for the main-line comics, for both TRANSFORMERS and G.I. JOE. Those lines of comics are pretty clearly defined, and—at least for the time being—we want to keep them apart.

But trying to figure out a way to do a crossover TRANSFORMERS/G.I. JOE story in its own continuity without making it feel slight, or unimportant, or easy to ignore—that was the trick. Because this should be an important thing—it should be a fun comic, and—this sounds dumb—but it really has to be good to be worth doing. That’s true of every comic—that’s why it sounds dumb, I know—but we’ve waited a long time to connect TRANSFORMERS and G.I. JOE, and it has to be a unique experience that’s worth the wait.

YJ: The cover image (see above, right) shown during the title's reveal features "A Real American Hero"-era G.I. Joe characters and the "Generation 1"-period Transformers. Is it correct for us to assume that the series will be rooted in the continuity of the 1980s toys and comics? How will the two properties be combined?

JB: With the ongoing IDW TRANSFORMERS and G.I. JOE comics, we’ve been trying to explore some of the different iterations of the brands—but with this one we really wanted to at least start with the original groups. There’ll be other characters, but going back to the first-wave characters has a certain appeal to Tom and me.

There’s an aspect where a lot of those characters have gone on to be the most recognized characters from the brand—the characters that are most recognizable to a mass audience. I mean, TRANSFORMERS fans love every character, but everybody on the planet knows Optimus Prime and Bumblebee. But there’s more than that...

There’s something in the initial launches of G.I. JOE and TRANSFORMERS where the universe isn’t figured out yet. It all seems new and alien, and you watch the world grow and take form as you read. I really like that sense, and it fit in with the aesthetic that Tom brings to the table. Things will feel odd, and big, and grand, and operatic.

And it’s not that you can’t do that when you’re pulling in stories from later in the brands’ existence, but there is a familiarity that exists at that point. There’s a way TRANSFORMERS works in 2013, and I really love how it works. I love playing in that world.

But I also love how, in 1984, there wasn’t a rulebook for TRANSFORMERS. Or, in 1982, when the G.I. JOE figures were on the shelves, and issue one of the comic hit the stands, there wasn’t a “right” way to do the stories yet.


There’s a sense of discovery as a reader that’s a slightly different—not necessarily better, but different—sense than you’d get if you first encountered the characters later on, because the writers and artists and designers are all discovering the characters at the same time. So going back to the basics—in this particular case, for TRANSFORMERS/G.I. JOE—lets us do something primal, and imagine a different path these characters could have gone down.

YJ: With this series taking place in its own continuity, will there be any radical changes or will things start off slow? What is the combined world like? I'm torn because I want to know more about how the two mythos are integrated, but I want to wait for the series and be surprised. With the launch of the series being in mid-late 2014, how much has it been fleshed out?

JB: There will be a lot of radical stuff, and things do not start off slow.

We’re working on it now—Tom is super-excited and he immersed himself in tons of material and came back out with some really exciting takes on the characters, and some great ideas on how to combine these worlds.

I think the best way to describe it, maybe, is that a lot of the other TRANSFORMERS/G.I. JOE crossovers have tried to bring the TRANSFORMERS characters to the G.I. JOE universe—to make the Autobots and Decepticons more reasonable... that’s not what we’re doing. The G.I. JOE team is going to have to adapt to a world that has—from their point of view—gone crazy.

We’re locking everything in place, but Tom has a great set-up and a roadmap for a year-long epic. [The first story arc is 12 issues long–ed.]

YJ: Speaking for our readers out there who may not be familiar with Tom Scioli's work, how did he come to be involved and what makes him the perfect person for this job? How does the collaboration between the two of you work?

JB: Tom Scioli is maybe best known to the comics world at large as the artist of Gødland, an Image series he does with Joe Casey. Tom’s also done an amazing series called The Myth of 8-Opus and has a several more current books—Adhouse just published American Barbarian as a hardcover, and Tom’s published Final Frontier, both of which he initially ran on his website.

Tom works in a cosmic milieu... he takes some of the comic book tropes of... I don’t know how to describe them other than “cosmic”... and expands them, and builds a really unique and mind-bending world around them. When I say “cosmic,” I don’t mean just “in space.” I mean grappling with big, universe-sized ideas; there’s a certain amount of psychedelia and larger-than-life introspection. What Tom does isn’t a pastiche, it’s an expansion of those styles—his work is a trip down an evolutionary road that most comics didn’t go down.

What makes him right for this, is that his work is so idiosyncratic and unique. You mentioned the WWII G.I. JOE/TRANSFORMERS comic that John Ney Rieber wrote and Jae Lee drew. That’s one that a lot of people remember fondly, and I think that’s because it’s such an unusual comic—it doesn’t look or read like a “typical” comic book.

I think that’s important—I think the personality of the comic is what people react to, what they gravitate to, as much as anything. Having Tom involved gives us a really strong personality, that I think people—fans of G.I. JOE, fans of TRANSFORMERS, fans of both, and fans of comics who may not have looked at TRANSFORMER or G.I. JOE comics before—will really dig.

Tom happened to email IDW, I happened to see the email, and I happened to be a big fan. I started talking to him about doing a cover for another comic. But one Wednesday night I was at home, reading my week’s comic book haul, thinking a little about what we could do with a TRANSFORMERS/G.I. JOE series. I knew it had to be a comic that would live up to the standards of the two brands.

I started thinking about what would have happened if these two series grew together from day one... and somehow Tom entered my mind, and the whole thing just snapped into place as a concept. I emailed him the next day, and he was really into the idea. I mean—I didn’t know him very well, and it was a hell of a curve-ball to throw at him, but he immediately had ideas.

We bounced plans off each other—mostly Tom throwing brilliant ideas that ricochet off my head, while I nod (on the phone) and say “yeah, yeah” a lot. Tom came up with a huge outline—I’m making notes on that, coming up with a few ideas here and there, and Carlos Guzman is editing the whole thing. Tom is a lot of fun to work with... and he’s been amazing with what he’s come up with.

YJ: How much creative input will Hasbro have on the comic? And perhaps the biggest question certain fans would want to know the answer to is "When are the cross-over toys coming?"

JB: Well, as always, we’re working closely with Hasbro. I sort of breathlessly called Michael Kelly after I talked to Tom. Michael is the Director, Global Publishing at Hasbro, and a great guy to work with. I called him up, excited about these crazy plans, and he was into it. He ran it by the brand teams, and I think we knew we had something special here.

It’s a different direction than a lot of what we do, but we all think that’s important—you can’t keep hitting the same note over and over, we’ve got to do new things, try new styles and keep the fans we have happy, while still reaching out to new readers who might not know they’re fans yet! Hopefully, once people get a good look at what we’re doing, there’ll be a lot of converts!

And I’m not qualified to answer the question about the toys… you’ll have to ask Hasbro!

Transformers/G.I. Joe is set for a Summer 2014 launch.

Interview by: Troy Osgood, 12/04/013

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