If you're a creator in the comic book world, the only thing more prestigious than writing stories about well-known characters in long-established universes is getting the chance to re-imagine those characters and universes on your own terms.
Frank Miller got to do it in the '80s with Batman and Daredevil, imbuing these well-known characters with rough-and-tumble pathos. Todd McFarlane got to do it in the '90s with Spider-Man, shining a light on the domestic toll that a life of superheroing would take on everyman Peter Parker. When done right, these reinventions re-invigorate worlds and launch careers into the stratosphere.
Pittsburgh-based creator Tom Scioli — best known for his psychedelic American Barbarian and his recently wrapped collaboration with writer Joe Casey, Gødland - was recently given the opportunity to play in the sandbox of not just one, but two long-standing worlds: the world of giant, morphing robots the Transformers — whose greatest power of all seems to be their ability to smash box-office records — and the world of G.I. Joe, elite soldiers with a budget for over-the-top firepower that would make Chuck Hagel blush, and an unerring military intelligence to match.
If Scioli's previous works are indication, that means that all bets are off. With the support of IDW Publishing's editorial staff and co-writer John Barber, Scioli's options are constrained only by his capacity to envision them.
"[I encountered] no resistance whatsoever. John Barber wanted a different take than what had been published previously. In fact, he wanted something even more whimsical than what I ended up making,” Scioli says. “I'm creating a new comic-book universe that will stand the test of time. ... I have the power to use or ignore whatever I want, so there is no downside.”
The result is something like when Brian DePalma directed the first Mission: Impossible film: true to the tone of the source material, but also clearly a product of its creator. It reveals previously hidden layers of meaning.
While creators like Miller and McFarlane made their bones by placing the well-known characters they were writing in a darker context than readers were used to, Scioli, who takes his creative cues from the legendary (and legendarily out there) Jack Kirby, plays to his own strengths.
Scioli’s Transformers vs. G.I. Joe is not dismal, but day-glo. It's a bold stance in a comic-book marketplace where dire dystopias like those found in titles like The Walking Dead frequently top the charts. Glancing at Scioli's illustrations alone, it would be easy to dismiss Transformers vs. G.I. Joe as mere kids' stuff: yet another commercial avenue by which to sell more of the toys on which the comic is based. Even the most cursory reading of the words and their feverish coupling with Scioli’s images, though, reveals something far more ambitious. “I wanted to create a comic that alternated between the absurd and the tragic,” he says.
Also like the toys on which the comic is based, Scioli’s frenzied, adventurous approach pushes the concept of play to the forefront. It’s clear from the lavish spreads and carefully coordinated color palette that Scioli is having a blast. Each panel is like a visual playset, which translates to a joyful experience for the reader, who will want to take a second pass just to make sure that all the eye candy has been consumed.
Drawing from careful study of the source material, of the distinctive character and vehicle designs of both properties, Scioli is crafting a universe that will appeal to long-time fans and newcomers, alike. “I spent months researching, trying to get a handle on the various characters and their worlds. If I didn't have so much lead time it would've been very intimidating,” Scioli says.
As mentioned earlier, until now Scioli was perhaps best known as a channeler of the visual language of Jack Kirby. Perhaps the greatest opportunity Scioli has in Transformers vs G.I. Joe is being able to dabble in the styles of other creators as well. He's seized this opportunity in his study of Larry Hama, the writer who is largely responsible for the G.I. Joe canon as it is known today.
“My primary influence is Jack Kirby, but in researching Larry Hama's G.I. Joe work, I've incorporated a lot of his virtues into my [own] work. Hama composes action sequences with lots of tiny characters and vehicles moving along multiple vectors. That freneticism, combined with Kirby's own brand of power action, has created a book unlike anything before.”
As much fun as Scioli is having, he is doing so with an eye to the future of his career and the future of his own creations. “Transformers vs. G.I. Joe reaches the widest audience of anything I've done. I plan to bring as many of those readers as possible to my other work, like American Barbarian.”
As much as he seeks to channel the knowledge of the creators who have come before him, Scioli also seeks to impart the knowledge he’s accrued to the next generation of creators. Along these same lines, Scioli will lead a class on creating comics for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. The workshop, Making Comics with Tom Scioli, will take place on August 9, at Downtown's Trust Arts Education Center.