Comic Writer Simon Furman Discusses Three Decades of Transformers and ‘Earth Wars’

The most famous of all Transformers writers is on dialogue duty for a new video game. So naturally we needed a word with him.

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Jun 12 2016, 12:07am

Imagery from 'Transformers: Earth Wars'

Video games based on the Transformers universe(s) have blown Energon-burning hot and freeze-your-diodes-off cold for 30 years. The first one I can remember came out on the ZX Spectrum in 1986, titled simply The Transformers, and was based on the toys (and, by extension, the cartoon) of the time. This was pre-The Transformers: The Movie stuff, with Autobot (goodies) leader Optimus Prime and his Decepticon (not-so-goodies) counterpart Megatron very much in working order. It was garbage. Rather better was a 2004 effort on the PlayStation 2, Transformers, which leant on the Armada line for inspiration; and then in 2010 and 2012 Activision put out Transformers: War for Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron, which when taken as a pair represent probably the best game(s) based on the franchise of morphing cars and planes and tanks and cassette recorders yet realised. 2015's unashamedly fan-servicing Devastation was neat, too, but then most things made by Platinum Games are, right?

Transformers: Earth Wars is the latest game to roll off the titles-based-on-these-bots production line, a real-time strategy affair available now for iOS and Android devices. Its visuals are very much indebted to the "Generation 1" toys and 'toons, although they're specifically based on the more recent Generations: Prime Wars Trilogy, which Hasbro intends to cover various products and media in the next couple of years. But for old-timers (like me), seeing Starscream look a lot more like this, rather than this awful mess, is a genuine relief.

Made by Backflip Studios and Space Ape Games, Earth Wars features voice acting from Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, who voiced Optimus and Megatron respectively back in the G1 days. (Cullen still plays Prime in the Michael Bay movies.) The game also has Simon Furman writing dialogue for the characters, and if you know your Transformers, you know that this is A Very Good Thing. The British writer penned several celebrated storylines for the 1980s comic, published by Marvel, and wrote the Ultimate Guide to Transformers in 2005. He's worked on Transformers comics for IDW, Dreamwave and 3H, and been an editor at Titan Books.

He also caused the seven-year-old me to have nightmares by writing "Victory!" for the 1987 Transformers (UK) annual, in which the Dinobots are each apparently killed off, only for it to be revealed that they're in comas, and dreaming. The art by Geoff Senior is fantastic, by which I mean terrifying, and the viciousness with which the pair gleefully do away with the Dinobots truly shook me up. (That said, it wasn't just the Autobot-affiliated Dinos that got toasted – check out what happens to Megatron in this memorable image.)

I spoke to Simon about all things Transformers and Earth Wars. For best results, read this interview while listening to this, thanks.

VICE: Hey Simon. So, to me, you're pretty much The Daddy of Transformers fiction. I read all the Marvel comics as a kid. And man, do I ever wish I still had them. Before we even touch on Earth Wars, the longevity of this brand must continue to amaze you. What would the Simon Furman of the mid-1980s say if someone told him Transformers would be just as big in another 30 years, if not bigger?
Simon Furman: The Simon Furman of early 1985, when I was first asked to write for the UK Transformers comic, would have probably said "pull the other one" if you'd told me I'd still be involved with Transformers over 30 years later, and that the brand itself was still going strong. The usual "life expectancy" of a toy-related or tie-in comic was about a year. About the time it took for kids to get bored and look for the next big thing, or grow out of the previous one. Transformers just kept on bucking that trend.

The US comic ran for 80 issues and some seven years, while the UK comic ran for 332 issues and nearly eight years. Unbelievable, really. At its height, the UK comic was selling 200,000 copies every week, and the US comic was cancelled on sales of around 70,000 – which by today's standards would make it a top ten bestselling comic. And even when it did end, I glibly wrote in the final issue, "it never ends". And as it turns out, I was right.

The franchise has appeared in many guises. I certainly can't say that I'm familiar with all of them. But "Generation 1", hell yes. And since Earth Wars is very much rooted in that era of Transformers, visually, why do you think it is that the 1980s "models" have enjoyed such longevity?
I think the first generation of Transformers was built on really solid foundation with a fully realised and cosmic backdrop – developed by Jim Shooter, EiC of Marvel at the time, and further developed by Denny O'Neil and, most tellingly, Bob Budiansky – a great cast, each with their own fleshed-out character bio, and a cool dual-toy concept to boot. It immediately gave both readers and writers of the comic a lot to invest in, and then expand upon.

And personally, as a writer, I never treated the robots as robots – just characters with recognisable human emotions and flaws and dreams. I think readers really responded to that. And we never flinched from making the stories gritty and intense, and eventually expanding the scope of the story, bringing in elements like Primus, their creator, and his nemesis Unicron. Overall, G1 – from the toys, to Marvel, the cartoon, the comics, the animated movie – has just had so much love invested in it, which is why I think it's lasted.

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How early on in the Earth Wars project were you brought in? And given the nature of the game – real-time strategy titles on mobile aren't exactly famed for their story sides – just how much of an impression have you been able to have on how the game's narrative plays out? Do you enjoy the "restrictions" that working in this medium presents, versus comics?
I wasn't there right at the beginning, but early enough to suggest how the story could be laid out to support what the creators at Space Ape and Backflip already had. It was G1 and it was set on Earth, but otherwise we had to base it in the IDW continuity as it turned out, and support it with its own backstory and story direction, adding in a new human cast at the same time. Then it was a matter of planning the campaigns and putting in the dialogue, both the incidental mid-gameplay stuff and the more story-led before, between and after battles stuff that really drives the narrative. So overall early, but not right at the very beginning.

And I've really enjoyed the experience. Usually, storytelling for me is a one-off process, after which it moves on to another level – with the artist, or whatever. But this was much more a case of laying out a rough story framework and then evolving and adapting it to fit the game mechanics, and it was a much more collaborative, team process. I always enjoy flexing new creative muscles, and this was very much that. We tried hard, within what could be a fairly restrictive storytelling medium, to give Earth Wars the kind of narrative integrity that owed more to my comics work. Overall, I think we succeeded.

The original voice actors, Peter and Frank, are present and correct. Did that have an influence on any of the script, simply because you wanted these guys to say a few, basically, iconic lines again? Fan service is okay, right? So long as a story isn't slave to it.
Even the creators, me included, have our geeky, fanboy moments, and this was it. Peter and Frank were already on board so when I was asked to add in some dialogue suggestions for them, how could I resist throwing in a few of my own "Furmanisms", as they became known in the fan community, little sound bites that had become synonymous with my Transformers writing. Pure indulgence, but hey – it also kind of serves to unite a little bit of Transformers comic book love with TV series love. It's a win-win thing.

The launch trailer for 'Transformers: Earth Wars'

For you, who were the best characters to write stories for, in the old, original days? And how do you feel now about those characters? Are any featured in this game – and if so, were they always at the forefront of your mind, coming into the project?
It's no secret I love (the Tyrannosaur Dinobot) Grimlock as a character, so I was pleased to see him in there from the get-go. But I also pushed for Bludgeon's inclusion on the Decepticon side and slowly, bit by bit, all my favourite characters are making it into the game. But while I have my favourites – Nightbeat, Hardhead, Galvatron, Bludgeon, Grimlock, all of whom I feel there's a lot of "me" invested in how they've developed over the years – there are really no bad characters. Bob Budiansky did such a wonderful job originally of making them rounded, interesting characters, they're all great fun to write. The new human characters turned out to be really fun too, especially the interplay between Starscream and Luca. It gave us plenty of opportunity for humorous and snarky back and forth exchanges.

Transformers was aimed at boys, back when. It sorta says a lot that the main "female" Transformer was coloured pink, doesn't it – though Arcee is an absolute bad-ass. Do you think that the way the franchise was sold in the 1980s could have done anything differently? You got pretty radical with the comic, once the leash, I suppose, was off, post-Movie. Would you have liked to have seen the cartoon be a little more "inclusive", I suppose; and the stories grow a little darker? As even the G1 cartoon, post-Movie, was still pretty fluffy.
I think even back in the day the comic was a lot harder edged than the cartoon show. I was only ever writing the kind of stories I would've wanted to read myself, so what boundaries there were we pushed pretty hard. Could we/should we have done more, especially in the depiction of female Transformers? Almost certainly, but it was a different age and our audience was 99 percent male. Also, I never really thought much about gender. Okay, they were obviously "male" robots, but they were robots! Which are kind of genderless. I applaud what's been done of late, and done well, including in Earth Wars which features several female Transformers like Windblade, Rust Dust, Stormclash, Skyburst, Slipstream and more still to come. But if I had the 1980s to do over again, I doubt I'd do much differently.

Related, on Motherboard: Dawn of the Killer Robots

Are you optimistic about the future of the Transformers franchise, generally?
Always. I've gone way past the point of expecting anything other than Transformers to keep going strong for, like, forever. The IDW comics, the Michael Bay movies, the way Hasbro is really behind and invested in the brand long-term these days: it all suggests that there's a lot more great stuff to come, and further generations of kids to get into the whole thing. And really that's key – getting the next wave of kids to love Transformers the way previous generations did. That original batch of '80s kids who grew up with it are a big part of why it is what it is now, but that can't go on indefinitely. But Transformers itself... maybe that can.

And what of Earth Wars? Naturally a man in your position will be keen to promote it, but do you hope that the style of play appeals to people who might not be into Transformers, but they subsequently begin to get a taste for it? Or do you see this more as a release with the existing audience for these robots firmly in its sights?
I think there's plenty in Earth Wars for both the committed and casual fans, and people who barely know Transformers at all or are just gamers, pure and simple. We always approached it looking to appeal to the widest demographic possible, so while there's plenty for the fans to get excited about, it's not prohibitive if you're picking Earth Wars up as a complete newcomer to the world of G1 Transformers. Everything you need is right there, front and centre, no pre-knowledge required.

Transformers: Earth Wars is out now. Find more information at the game's official website.

@MikeDiver

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