[Author's Note: Expanded from a comment left on The Comics Journal, in response to Joe McCulloch's own great piece on this same comic.]
I try not to write about The Transformers more than once a year. If you’re looking for context, check out my previous pieces on the franchise’s legacy back in 2009 on The House Next Door, on finding some meat on the bone through its most enduring character in 2011 at The Mindless Ones, and on the franchise wrestling with its own history in season two of the Beast Wars cartoon here on this site back in 2012. I wasn’t sure I’d come back to the subject, but some comics just plain ol’ demand your attention.
Tom Scioli and John Barber’s Transformers vs. G.I.Joe, the #0 issue for which was released for Free Comic Book Day (and is now available for free on Comixology), is a fascinating artifact, in no small part because it has no reason to be. Not only because any combination of these characters is an easy vote on the nostalgia ticket, but because any story using these characters and Scioli’s Kirby-inspired by way of the independents artwork would have been entertaining – and genuinely different from the norm for a licensed book of this specific type – that it would have been worthy of note. What we received instead, however, was a book that fully immerses itself in the lore and traditions of the properties – that plays with the toys, as it were – but maintains a unique creative voice in no small part because it deliberately and with full cognizance focuses its interests on the difficulty of moving within a licensed work at all.
It’s worth noting that the reason the book exists is because these two franchises interacting is a sort of tradition. Both were popular Marvel comic books tied into Hasbro toylines, and so it seemed natural for them to cross over back in the 1980′s, but in 2014, poor Joe Colton’s medals are a bit dull. The toyline’s losing shelf space by the second, there isn’t an influential cartoon at the moment, and while the films might have been as dumb as Bay’s Transformers movies, they didn’t have the same success. To portray the Joes in this comic, then, as the humans trapped in the war between the Transformers-as-”New Gods” feels sort of sickly appropriate as business commentary.
Which brings one to the very idea of what a “crossover” of this type represents. We are in a time where the “franchise” is now a storytelling unit, for better or worse, and so when you pit two franchises against each other in a story, that story is going to inevitably be, on some level, about the nature of those two franchises and how they conflict. The original Marvel (US) version of this crossover, for instance, was certainly not a high water mark for either property, but it made a point of showing civilians caught in the crossfire and featured an appearance of a Transformer as an action figure, because the POV of the mini-series viewed G.I.Joe as semi-”realistic” and the imposition of Transformers stretched the universe too far. Personally, I’ve argued in the past that the two franchises arguably offer opposing stances on the subject of ongoing war, and thus Scioli’s take here regarding the friction between the two actually suits me fairly well – the humans in Transformers fiction are often derided – but are they not, in essence, the lifeboat family from Jack Kirby’s legendary New Gods story “The Glory Boat,” whose drama is both less and more important than the clashes around them? Utilizing the larger-than-life soap operatics of G.I.Joe rather suits, when the story is written and illustrated in that tone.
What’s more interesting to me, though, is that the #0 issue of Scioli and Barber’s story is not actually about the differences between these two franchises in a tangible way – rather, it’s about the differences between the cartoon and comic iterations of these same characters.
In an interview with Barber and Scioli about this book, Barber said “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 in #0, at least – which at the time of this writing, is all that’s been yet released – he’s only half-correct.
TF/Joe #0 opens with Starscream in hot pursuit of a fleeing Bumblebee. This is essentially (though not quite) what occurs in the first few minutes of the very first episode of the Transformers cartoon. There are any number of elements in these two pages that play with “commonly understood” TF concepts, but by the time Starscream’s ripped the “Ark’s” cockpit open to show Bumblebee piloting it, any similarity to the cartoon episode is lost. Similarly, the next page features a splash with a Duke and Scarlett flirting, only for Snake-Eyes to pull off his mask and not only speak, but open things up into a love triangle – taking established ideas from the cartoon, and sliding them away from the source quickly.
Anyone with even a casual familiarity with the comic books that ran at the same time as the more well-remembered 80′s cartoons for either franchise knows that they were very different. I don’t think I need to go into the reasons for this, as they’re fairly obvious. Some differences that were minor, though, became emblematic: in the case of G.I.Joe, for instance, which of the two blond guys Scarlett was dating became a sort of shorthand for which version of the media you viewed as “true.” Anyone coming to the properties now have to decide what to incorporate and what to discard when building their take, which is common for work for hire projects; but it’s less common for such wildly divergent material to have such equal weight to the nostalgic (Hell, depending on your nation of origin, something as simple as Flint’s “real name” may be a point of contention for you, to be honest, if you’re someone who cares about these things).
Transformers vs. G.I.Joe #0 is structured specifically around the tension between the two versions of each property, until declaring its intentions in the climactic splash page. Because the issue is set from the Joes’ POV, the struggle sits primarily there. There are references to all sorts of history, of course – Hawk’s newly implemented Tomahawk accessory is a reference to the logo for the original “Adventure Team” concept for G.I.Joe in the 1960′s, for instance – but the presence of a comic-specific character like Dr. Venom, for instance, doesn’t inherently mean one version’s being favored over the other; what clinches it is the gorgeous splash page of Snake-Eyes slaying Cobra Commander at the cost of his own face.
Scioli has joked in the past about how Duke and Hawk are all identical blond guys, and that focus is going to inevitably fall on one of them over the other. Showing Snake-Eyes before his accident in this #0 extends the joke into a farce, as all the main male roles in the issue look alike, and something is going to have to give for the sake of visual storytelling. In killing (or “killing”) Cobra Commander, Snake-Eyes wins over Scarlett, and thus Duke’s role is reduced – the comic book version wins out. As if to “celebrate,” this comic issue ends with Bumblebee’s dismemberment, which is also very funny to longtime readers of the TF/Joe comic book meetings – the Marvel book had entirely different crossovers in the US and in the UK, and Bumblebee was torn apart in both of them in different ways. To a certain age of reader, it wouldn’t be a crossover if it didn’t happen!
Here’s why that decision is interesting, though, choosing the comic book over the cartoon (and I’ve no doubt that Scioli and Barber will continue to pepper in references to both, and to other things, based on whatever works for their ongoing – I’m speaking to the structure of this opening issue)… it serves as a sort of thesis statement, and why I was pointing this comic out as particularly interesting – as opposed to just “good,” which of course it was, a very fun read.
When it comes to “nostalgia,” Scioli’s on record as not being a longtime embedded fan – there was material he liked, certainly, but it’s only with the inception of this project that he’s really been voraciously gobbling it all up to find what works best for him. I can’t think of a better choice than Scioli – especially when you consider that both of these franchises were actively created, all their lore, by Marvel creators, who often impressed Marvel superhero concepts onto them – and the Marvel Transformers comic eventually came to reveal that their creator god was a Jack Kirby-styled face in the center of the planet. Seven degrees removed, even these are essentially more of Kirby’s legacy, and while Scioli’s artwork is absolutely his own, his channeling of Kirby’s style has been intentional and deliberate, and he returned to some of his most Kirby-like work here for this project.
So when TF/Joe #0 establishes that the comics predominate first and foremost, it’s less about Scioli and Barber choosing Marvel comics “continuity” over that of the cartoon which was inescapably more popular in its day; it’s about Scioli deliberately carrying a torch for the work of Larry Hama, Bob Budiansky, Simon Furman, Herb Trimpe, Andrew Wildman, Geoff Senior, Frank Springer, Don Perlin, [and this list goes on for a couple of paragraphs, honestly, and I'm just cutting myself off here after listing a bunch rather than try to hit them all and leave someone out, sorry].
The other indicator of this is that there are just as many nods to Kirby himself as there are to anything in particular about Transformers or G.I.Joe. Cobra Commaner dropping the creeper bomb while mentioning “the world that’s coming” is a great threefold gag – an OMAC reference, a foreshadowing of later issues, a boasting statement regarding the series to follow #0 – but on the previous page is #0′s most delicious gag; Scioli at his Kirby-est, referencing and paying tribute to the infamous “Silent Interlude” story of the original Marvel G.I.Joe comic, which had no lettering, but here overwhelming every panel with too much lettering, so much Kirby-style narration that nobody can get a word in edgewise, ending with a flourish – “Salvation is a Gold Bug” – which in retrospect, announces that Bumblebee won’t make it to the end of the issue, as Goldbug is the title he always takes up after getting blown up in a TF/Joe crossover.
Maintaining an artistic identity when working on a licensed property is easier now than it used to be in the days of the Marvel Transformers and G.I.Joe books. Larry Hama’s known in part now for how capable he proved in keeping his book elevated above the requirements of introducing new toys, but even he was constantly trying to keep all of his balls in the air, continually getting tossed more and more ludicrous toys whenever he wanted to talk about the realities of being a soldier. Always professional and a consummate craftsman, he still had to roll with an awful lot of punches. He refused to work on the original crossover of the two Hasbro giant franchises – that miniseries was written by someone else. But towards the end, in part to keep his book from cancellation, even he buckled, and the specific tone that Hama was always shooting for was perhaps never more broken than when Megatron showed up at Destro’s transforming castle (the same castle from “Silent Interlude,” no less! Like the interlopers came in to attack his most celebrated issue!), convinced that it must be from Cybertron as well.
Nowadays, you have more comfortable licensing agreements not everywhere, but much more often. Boom Studios, for instance, has a pretty good relationship with the webcartoonists it brings in to work on licensed material. Though, those are not the same sort of arrangement as what Hasbro offers, which is a chance to keep nostalgic memories alive to encourage the purchasing of a toy market that increasingly caters to collectors. It takes a strong creative voice to create something singular in that environment. What Tom Scioli and John Barber have created in Transformers vs. G.I.Joe #0 is to create a story that literally reads like viewing an action figure playset, as Joe McCulloch notes:
“My personal biases pull me towards 1930s manga, with its teeming crowds of figures traversing flat spaces, but parts of it nearly hearken back to Richard F. Outcault’s busy scenes of antic street life burlesque – note the robot peeking into the G.I. Joe action from the top of the page above! Really, though, it’s like a lot of action figures, toys, finding themselves arranged around locations-as-playsets; a few pages later those character identification cards start finding themselves getting shot full of holes and knocked into the air by the rough play of the figures: a child causing a big mess from bashing his things together.”
–Which operates wonderfully as a symbol for that age old Work-For-Hire adage of “playing with someone else’s toys,” while also, in its structure, speaking to a nostalgia not specifically for the characters, but for the creators and what they were able to do with these toys in the past. In many ways this is not a huge thing; but in era that views the franchise as a natural storytelling unit, it’s a subtle joy. It’s the human story between the two battling giants, which is exactly what a story about these specific characters meeting should be.