With Revenge Of The Fallen primed to break box office records, we caught up with Steve White, Transformers comic editor and all-round Transformers industry expert, to discuss the robots in disguise…
Why is Hollywood turning to comic and toy franchises for inspiration?
I suppose the big reason is you have a ready-made fan base to cash in on but also most of the stories already exist in some form or another, be it comic or otherwise. You can pick up a comic and see how it would look as a film because they are storyboarded for you. It’s a relatively short jump from page to screen. But I am surprised how few comic-based movies actually pay homage to the fan base; they are often too concerned with taking it to a border market.
The first Transformers movie was accused of making too many changes and going too mainstream. Being so closely linked with the franchise, what are your thoughts on the Michael Bay movies?
When it came to the first movie I was a bit surprised at just how long it took to get the robots into the action, it felt a little like a teen romance with the robots tacked on, but with the second one they’ve already established a back story so the action arrives a lot quicker. My other main concern was with the designs of the robots because they were so visually similar and because of the pacing Michael Bay favours it was often quite hard to distinguish which robot you were watching unless they were very clearly defined, like Bumblebee or Optimus Prime. It could be confusing, I remember when we were doing the comic strips for the first movie we had problems with the complexities of the robots, we were using artists who worked on the original Marvel comic and they hated the new designs, but technology moves on and they were always going to look a little different.
Some fans were upset that the characters’ looks changed radically from the original cartoon and comic designs. Was it a wise move?
I often think how different the Transformers would have looked if Hasbro had the technology we have now when it was first creating the franchise. Would it have decided to go for designs that look like they could have actually turned into vehicles or would it have kept with the simpler look? However, when I first saw the movie designs I did think that they seemed unduly complicated, and a lot of them looked similar, whereas back in the day they were much more straightforward and colourful.
Titan acquired the rights to Transformers from Panini – was there any temptation to produce a Gen-One-based comic or were you always focused on the movies?
When we got the licence we had our eye very firmly on the movie and it would have seemed very much like a false start to put out anything before that. It just seemed so obvious to wait for the movie and see what reception it got and now we’re very glad that we did. We felt vindicated for holding fire.
Why do you think the movie-licensed comic was a success but not the animated equivalent?
We’re still scratching our heads to figure out why the animated version performed so poorly – despite Transformers originating from a cartoon, the new animated series just didn’t seem to strike a chord like the live-action movie version. Sometimes kids are fickle and it’s hard to know what they’re going to like or not when it comes to this sort of thing. I still hope the whole area will be revisited and they’ll do something similar to what’s happened with Clone Wars. Expand the Transformers universe and introduce some really gritty stories. So who knows what will be done next, there is certainly scope to do much more.
Do you have to talk to the studio to ensure comic and movie stories don’t clash?
Absolutely. What will usually happen is that we’ll do a very basic story and outline for the year, then Simon [Furman] will plan out a few directions he wants to take it in. Then we’ll send that over to the movie producers and get their feedback and they’ll say yes or no, or often ‘yes, could you do it but not with that character’, so there is a lot of back and forth. We have to be very careful how we use the characters.
What’s it been like to work with people like Simon Furman again?
It’s quite surreal really because it was a surprise to both of us that we’d be doing this again. I got called into the office back in 2006 and got told that we were relaunching the Transformers comic and because of my previous experience I was asked to edit. It was also very interesting working with the artists because I’d worked closely with a lot of them before and I got to see how their styles have changed. Like I mentioned before, the intriguing thing was to see how the Gen-One artists reacted compared to the new guys who came on board in tandem with the movie licence.
You’ve been involved in Transformers UK comics for a while – what has been the biggest change to the Transformers universe in that time?
It’s gone through so many incarnations over the years and the movie brought up so much more of the mythology but dealt with it in a different way. In the originals it was all about Unicron and Primus, whereas now it’s more about the All-Spark and The Fallen, so it is about classic Transformers mythology, it’s just been slightly rewritten. Thankfully the important concepts remain the same: the Autobots are good and the Decepticons are evil – it’s just their ancient history that has changed.
The original Transformers comic originated some epic story arcs – which were your favourite and why?
From the Marvel UK ones it was always the Target: 2006 stuff, and the one where we bring in Death’s Head. That was back when I was colouring it full-time. I never really read Transformers then, I was more into things like 2000 AD but I read them as I coloured the pages and these were the arcs that got me hooked.
What characters would you like to see make a return?
That’s an easy one… I’d love to see the Dinobots return. The filmmakers did talk about bringing them back for the second movie but they couldn’t find a plausible reason to bring them in. I believe one idea was to have new Transformers land in a museum and see the dinosaur bones and take that form. With the second movie they’ve flirted with the fact that Transformers have been here before as far back as ancient Egypt so why not the prehistoric period? I’m just throwing it out there – I think they’d be hugely popular if they returned, the combination of dinosaurs and robots is such a winning formula.
You were also involved with the Action Force comic – Transformers UK used to feature some Action Force/Transformer crossover stories – now that the two are both film franchises, do you think we might see more, at least in comics?
Funnily enough before the G.I. Joe movie is even out people are saying that a crossover would be such a cool thing to do. IDW did a very good crossover series and gave it an anime twist, so I suppose never say never. It will probably all depend on how well Joe is received.
What’s your opinion on the rumours that the Action Force/G.I. Joe film is in trouble?
Well, it’s all rumour and hearsay at the moment, you just never can tell. I’ve seen some of the G.I. Joe stuff and internationally it will be very interesting to see how it all plays out. The problem they are facing is that G.I. Joe is such a quintessentially American franchise and I know that they’re really trying hard to make it appeal to an international audience.
You have a large portfolio of high-profile science-fiction comics – does sci-fi spell success and is it harder to tailor your content to suit a younger audience?
Our first issues of the Star Trek and Terminator comics have just gone on sale so we’re still waiting to see what the sales figures are like and how the target audience, which is essentially young males, will pick up on the notion of these franchises being comics. I mean Transformers is much more predictable as it’s already a toy line and has a movie and so on, but things like Terminator obviously has a lot darker and grittier pedigree. So whether kids will pick up on that I really don’t know, it wouldn’t be an understatement to say it’s been a nightmare on Terminator in particular because there are so many things that we can and can’t do in terms of licensing issues and sometimes we’re asked to do something but we have to find a middle ground between the franchise staples and the younger audience. You don’t want to dilute something into banality. If you take the path of least resistance every time you end up with a really drab and dull comic so sometimes you have to take a much more irreverent and humorous approach. Unfortunately, when trying to explain the concept to a Hollywood producer sometimes stuff gets lost in translation. It’s been a very interesting exercise.
You worked on the real Ghostbusters – Ghostbusters is having a revival at the moment so what’s the secret to its enduring success?
Ghostbusters is just inherently funny and such a great idea, I really enjoyed getting to develop the mythology, really listening to the movies and translating stuff into the comic. For example, when Egon mentions he collects spores, mould and fungus, we developed a storyline where his fungus collection is possessed. It’s just fun to take little concepts like that and run with them.
What other franchises do you think would work well as a comic?
Going back to your previous question, the one we’ve got our eyes firmly fixed on is Ghostbusters, we’ve already been talking about what we’d do with it if we could get our hands on it. In terms of other franchises I’d love to revisit things like Thundercats, but whether that would work now without the toys range and so on, I’m not so sure.
We can’t let you go without asking who is your favourite Transformer?
I’ve mentioned the Dinobots but I also really like Galvatron, he was always such a powerful character – he was always so brutal.