Writers Behind 'GI Joe' and 'Transformers' Comic on How Hasbro's Movie Plans Informed Their Universe

IDW's John Barber and Cullen Bunn talk about writing the first shared universe project combining multiple properties from the toy company.
Courtesy of IDW Publishing

In IDW's new comic book series Revolution, which debuts in comic stores Wednesday, there is — to borrow a phrase — much more than meets the eye going on. Not only does the first issue pit the Transformers and G.I. Joe team against each other, but there are appearances by characters from Hasbro's M.A.S.K., Rom and Action Man properties as well, setting up a shared universe of Hasbro franchises that will also include Micronauts down the road.

The series is just the start of IDW's plans for comic book adventures in this shared mythology, with one spin-off, Revolutionaries, already announced. But how will each property interact, and how do you even start building a shared reality for characters who have spent three decades as separate entities? Heat Vision spoke to Revolution writers John Barber and Cullen Bunn about the origins, and future, of the new universe.

How do you start combining the various franchises that are at the center of Revolution? While Transformers and G.I. Joe have crossed over before, this time around you also have to make sense of how the mythologies of Action Man, Rom, Micronauts and M.A.S.K. fit together, as well.

John Barber: It was tricky trying to set all that up, and trying to make it play for people with different levels of knowledge on the characters. That’s one of the funny things with a lot of these characters—there are people who are Transformers fans (or fans of whichever group) who know every detail of the comics, and there are ones who pull the 1985 movie out every couple years, and ones who grew up with Transformers: Animated or Beast Wars but don’t necessarily keep up, and ones who buy every toy but haven’t tried the comics in a serious way, and ones that watch the movies and want to see what happens when G.I. Joe shows up, and... well, it goes on. And hopefully a lot of those fans will be checking this series out, and maybe it’s their first exposure to the comics.

Plus we’ve got Rom and Micronauts, who have a beloved history but are just starting their runs in this universe. So, yeah, it’s a lot to make sense of.

For me, mashing the Transformers and G.I. Joe characters — with their histories and their mythologies — kinda created the spine of the world, and that instantly suggested how M.A.S.K. would come into being; and Rom made sense in that world because he crosses space/Earth in a way that fits in with the reality of the Transformers. Action Man historically has ties to G.I. Joe, and we’re able to position him in relation to the universe by the end of his mini-series and get him set up to be a major figure going forward. Micronauts were the easiest and the hardest — they’re literally from another dimension, but they were always heading to “our” world, so it was a matter of figuring out what would lead them here.

Cullen Bunn: I feel like we found one or two elements within each of the various “factions” that seem to play really well against each other. This allowed us to take the longstanding histories of the Joes and the Transformers and fuse them with the newly emerging histories of the Micornauts and Rom in some interesting ways.

For me, that helped the whole thing come together in a really interesting way. I love seeing how all the different backstories fit together. There are moments when it comes together so naturally that I knew we were onto something great!

It’s still tricky balancing all these characters. After all, Revolution may be the first exposure to Rom for a Transformers fan. Or to M.A.S.K. for a Joe fan. I have to keep reminding myself that not everyone lived and breathed all these toy lines when they were kids. So that’s always in my mind, trying to make sure this all makes sense to even the casual reader.

And — really — I completely get that this sounds a lot like we’re digging through a mixed-up toy box full of awesome. Because that’s how it feels for me.

Where does your fandom with these characters and properties come from? How aware of the various previous incarnations of the characters are you when writing a project like this?

Barber: For me, it went G.I. Joe toys to comics to Transformers comics to toys... Actually, that’s not entirely true. I had a box of Micronauts toys a friend of the family gave us—that must have pre-dated the G.I. Joe toys... I had a couple Rom comics but missed the toys entirely, and I was into M.A.S.K., too—I actually read those three comics, as well. So, for me, the comics were the leading fiction the whole way, much as I loved the cartoons. Action Man I didn’t really become aware of until I moved to England in my twenties... though I do remember when the Action Force comics were reprinted in the U.S.

There was a really interesting thing that Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely said about writing the Winter Soldier movie where they were in a weird place writing the “reveal” that (spoilers, sorta) Robert Redford is a bad guy. Because they know that people going into a movie know the big-name actor in the role of the authority figure is always a bad guy. And they know the marketing of the movie is going to make it relatively clear that’s the case. It’s definitely not a shock, right? But you still have the reveal in the movie, and hopefully its interesting to see what kind of a bad guy he is, and who he’s a bad guy with.

So there are moments like that in Revolution. If you know everything about Rom, you might be asking different questions than if you’re a novice...

Bunn: I was a pretty big fan of all these properties. I love the Micronauts toy line and still have many of them. I followed the Joes in terms of toys, comics, and cartoon. Same with Transformers and Rom. I didn’t follow M.A.S.K. as loyally, but I can still sing the song and I still have a box of the old toys somewhere. That said, I don’t think I’ve ever allowed any one storyline to cement in my head as “the one true reality” and I think that helps when it comes to forging something new.

How would you describe IDW's relationship with Hasbro on this project? They're obviously doing a similar project with their shared movie universe, so has there been a lot of back and forth on the interconnectedness of the various properties, and do's and don't's?

Barber: Well, IDW Editor-in-Chief Chris Ryall and I flew out to Hasbro headquarters in Rhode Island to pitch this to people at Hasbro, and they were totally onboard. They let us know their plans are in terms of the movie universe, and where they’re going with the characters that are in Revolution — and several that aren’t. So we had a lay of the land, but we’re out far ahead of some of those movie plans. I mean, clearly the M.A.S.K. comic is hitting years before a M.A.S.K. movie.

They worked a lot with Cullen and I when Cullen was putting the Micronauts outline together—there were characters they’d developed for the future they wanted to see. Same thing with M.A.S.K. and Rom. They’re the stewards of these characters, so understandably, every once in a while they’ll have a “We want to go somewhere else with Flash from G.I. Joe” or whatnot, but it was really more of everybody at Hasbro being really supportive and suggesting cool new things and adding toys to the toybox.

I mean, Chris and our editor David Hedgecock were all-in on this series. And Ted Adams at IDW was very enthusiastic, and I think all of them — plus [IDW President] Greg Goldstein, who was instrumental — helped make sure Hasbro knew how serious we were. And as always, Michael Kelly at Hasbro was one of the earliest sounding boards and was key in developing the series into what it is. And once we were out sitting down with Derryl DePriest and Mark Weber and everybody at Hasbro, we really were able to gather the materials and build this thing up.

Bunn: Yeah, my experience with them mainly came when I was developing the backstory for the Micronauts book. There were characters they had in development (such as Phenelo-Phi) but they were totally open to me creating the backstory for them and changing directions on some of the characters. In the end, they were ready to see the comics forging their own path, just like the cinematic stuff is going in its own direction.

The first issue manages to somehow be a slow burn, and yet not slow at all. A lot happens, but you keep two of the five properties off-stage (well, for the most part) for the entire issue. Was there any concern that you had to work everyone in to this first issue, to get those hardcore Micronauts fans or whoever excited?

Barber: I think it’d be too overwhelming to try to shoehorn everybody in. This isn’t the traditional crossover where there’s an inciting incident and everybody knows each other and gathers together and talks about how to deal with the threat. Nobody knows who Rom is. The G.I. Joe team isn’t friends with Optimus Prime’s Transformers. Nobody on Earth is aware Microspace exists, and vice versa. (Or... do they...?) The characters all have to meet each other, have to figure out what this is all about, and the most natural way to do it seemed to just roll straight in at full speed.

Bunn: John’s absolutely right. I know that today’s readers want all the players on the page now-now-now! But I’ve always been a fan of holding some of our cards close until the time was right. I think there’s so much going on in the first issue, if we had tried to throw “microscopic people” into the mix, too, readers wouldn’t have been able to connect with them.

So, we started with the two most recognizable batches of characters—Transformers and Joes—and as the other elements enter the story, the readers find their lives turned upside down as the Joes and Cybertronians experience the same thing!

So what should everyone look forward to in Revolution, or even further, in the announced spin-off title, Revolutionaries? Should fans expect pairings or team-ups that people have been waiting decades to see?

Bunn: As much as I love to see Rom take on the Joes in issue one, and as much fun as it is to see Snake Eyes tangle with the Micronauts… There’s a confrontation between Rom and the Transformers in the second issue I think is awesome. It’s a case of Rom being totally outclassed, but being completely unwilling to back down.

Barber: Fico Ossio [Revolution artist] drew a 2-page spread in issue 4 that has about two issues worth of storytelling in it. And the pairings there are pretty unusual. If you’d listed those characters two years ago I’d’ve thought you were nuts. But it’s 100% spoilers....

I think we’ve seen this in a cover, so maybe I can say this: Snake Eyes versus Arcee is really something.

In Revolutionaries, getting Micronauts versus the new Storm Shadow is cool, and I’m really looking forward to Soundwave versus Joe Colton and the original G.I. Joe Adventure Team. That’s another moment that fits together really well with things we’ve suggested happened in the past, but that drives the characters and the world forward.

Revolution No. 1 is available in comic book stores and digitally now.

comments powered by Disqus