We Dig Giant Robots:

Transformers vs. G.I.Joe

Transformers vs. G.I.Joe
Writer: Tom Scioli, John Barber
Artist: Tom Scioli
Publisher: IDW

One would not expect Transformers vs. G.I.Joe. Well, one would expect there to be a title called “Transformers vs. G.I.Joe” – seeing how both of these are fairly popular nostalgic-children-toy-based-concepts that have shared a fanbase during their formative years[1], seeing as how their comics version is now owned by the same corporation (IDW), seeing as how previous crossover version have proved highly profitable (such as when the brand was under the ownership of Devil’s Due press).

Have you noticed something about the previous paragraph? The wording choice – “brand”, “profitable”, “corporation”, “toys”. These are not the words one would associate with any sort of artistic expression. These are words one would associate with hack work – made for the lowest common denominator in order to squeeze some more pennies from the fans’ pockets. Which is why it was easy to imagine a “Transformers vs. G.I.Joe” comic but not the Transformers vs. G.I.Joe that we’ve actually gotten, which is as artistically driven as any other comics on the shelf.

Writer-artist Tom Scioli (along with co-writer John Barber) was such an odd-choice to create such a comic – the artist behind the Kirby-inspired Godland (written by Joe Casey for Image[2]) does not fit the modern, almost frantically over-designed, aesthetic dictated throughout the other IDW Transformers titles[3], nor the more ‘realistic’ figures preferred by the G.I.Joe line. Rather, Scioli is a wholly new beast, and his unique drawing style dictates the odd and wonderful path which this series seems to take. (How great is it to have a series that moves along so swiftly that by the end of its first issue[4] it’s all going in the right direction, which is a pure delight in an age in which many first issues feel like the first fifteen minutes of a TV pilot).

It would be obvious to say that Scioli’s art is “Kirby Inspired.” Godland was a direct aping of Kirby in style, because the coloring (also by Scioli) is intentionally aiming for added old-faded-newsprint-touch[5] and because the bold and overtly eager posturing that some the characters engage in is not popular in today’s superhero comics (as opposed to over-dramatic, post-Jim Lee, posturing which is still prevalent). But to simply say Scioli’s work is stripped from Kirby would do disservice.

In Transformers vs. G.I.Joe, Scioli directly mines the history of both franchises not only by slyly (and not so slyly) winking at previous comics’ (and cartoon) versions of the same characters, but also by addressing their very nature as toys. His Joes are not soldiers but action figures (including re-used molds for some of them) by design, as seen in their movement and facial expressions. A soldier is a human thing of flesh and bones, made to fail and fall. Scioli’s creations are the zenith of representation. They are not a manifestation of the toys, but the toys themselves, breathed life by an unseen creator.

If this was done in a Fantagraphics graphic novel this would have been seen as an fearless (or even Avantgarde) commentary on the nature of war of in the modern age (soldiers as toys in the hands of the generals, war as a distant thing that happens not to actual people, like us, but to talking action figures somewhere in the distance). Scioli doesn’t feel the need to shove this massage down our throat – he lets the artwork do the talking for him, while he is busy away at telling an exciting adventure story.

What’s truly amazing is the way Scioli takes these crude versions, that many modern readers might find offensively old fashioned, and puts them straight in the middle of some of the most interesting and innovating page louts in mainstream comics. Issue #1 begins with a G.I.Joe staple – the Joes have discovered the Cobra organization secret hideout in the seemingly normal American town of Springfield and storm the place. The whole thing is presented in one large page, without breaking the panels, into a seemingly chaotic set of skirmishes which outline the absurdist nature of the Joe vs Cobra struggle (Issue #0, which was given in Free Comic Book Day 2014 was even more advanced in its presentation). This is like nothing you had seen before.

Scioli shows that the comic is as much about formalist innovation than it is about storytelling. (Though the storytelling is top notch, Scioli covers more ground in the first issue than most people do in a story arc, and he manages to do so while delivering dozens of new characters and provide the setting for the action.) Small touches such as the way the characters talk over one another (or have their words interrupted by noise) or by having speech balloons lay one on top of the other provide subtle inflection. The way in which death is announced by a breaking of caption boxes and sheer scale of how three Decepticons transform and tower above the humans contribute to the aesthetic. (When Soundwave holds the Joes in his gigantic hand I couldn’t help by see my child-self lifting and tossing Joe dolls around.)

By the time the plot of the issue has actually begun Cobra has been crippled revealing how far Scioli is willing to stray off the beaten path. Clearly, this isn’t a “Transformers” story, nor it is a “G.I.Joe” story. Later, when the Joes become aware of aliens approaching earth, one would think the meeting between the two forces would be revealed to end of the issue – a climax preparing us for the first story arc. Instead the meeting takes place halfway through the issue and the climax proper is something far more brazen.

Brazen is the only proper word for Transformers vs. G.I.Joe actually. This doesn’t feel like a comics based on toys or restrictions brought from high up by corporate overlords. Scioli and Baber’s work feels personal, independent, and utterly new. You have not seen comics like this. This is the real deal.


[1] Though by now most would concede the financial superiority of the Transformers brand, considering the billions of film revenue, the never-ending reinventions (and re-selling) of the characters for every new generation of TV-watching children, and the seemingly infinite number of kids books, comics, novels collector’s items, and (of course) the toys. G.I.Joe is, by comparison, a tiny human next to the building sized war behemoths, proof that kids prefer giant robots to toy soldiers.

[2] How odd it was to read Transformers vs. G.I.Joe in the same week in which Image announced their new titles, boasting once again on the diversity of Casey’s line-up but neglected (again) the toy-based comics has he had done before. It was odd because the new Image line-up was basically more of the same – more Science Fiction and Fantasy books, each by creators with long track record on Science Fiction and Fantasy books, but appear to stagnant. The toy based book looks like nothing else on the shelf.

[3] Which deserve an article by themselves – Transformers: More than Meets the Eyes is one the smartest, most touching, human (yes) comics on shelves right now. I have no problem putting these collection right next to Saga or Prophet.

[4] Well, there was the zero issue that came out during 2014′s Free Comic Book Day (and would likely be included in any future collection) but the first issue stands proudly by itself, delivering proper explanation and exposition to any plot points established by issue zero.

[5] Jeff Lester and Gram Mcmillen from the Wait, What Podcast suggested that the comic would be better off on cheaper paper that on today’s glossy stock, and while that maybe a tad eccentric I can see market for Wednesday Comics style reprint if the book gets the success it so richly deserves.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Shapira is a carbon-based life from the planet earth. He was formed in the year 1985 AD by two loving parents. He is also an MA student of English Lit. at Tel-Aviv University, Israel, where he feels proud to be the first student to graduate with a BA by writing a paper about the works of Grant Morison. In his native tongue, Tom is a staff writer for Israel's leading comics blog Alilon.net and an occasional participant in the blog's bi-weekly podcast. He spends too much time, money and thought on Comics (especially the works of Grant Morison, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis) and his friends and family wish he would stop. He is not going to.

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Also by Tom Shapira:

Curing the Postmodern Blues: Reading Grant Morrison and Chris Weston\'s The Filth in the 21st Century

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1 Comment

  1. I wanted to dislike this comic so bad, but when I read it I felt like I was watching a cartoon on a Saturday morning in the Eighties. I like how it doesn’t try to fit in to either pre-existing, and wholly complex, continuities and spins a wonderfully camp romp of a tale.

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