As we announced just a bit ago, the license for Transformers and GI Joe comics has landed at Skybound, with the surprise appearance of the Transformer Jetfire in Void Rivals #1 by Robert Kirkman, artist Lorenzo De Felici (Kroma), colorist Matheus Lopes (Step By Bloody Step) and letterer Rus Wooton.

It’s the start of the “Energon Universe,” an ongoing publishing program that will see these classic characters given a fresh coat of comic book paint, while preserving some of the storylines beloved by fans. 

In full disclosure, I’m not an expert on anything Transformers related…but when I was given an advance PDF of Void Rivals #1 and got to the page in question, even I said to myself….”That looks like a…Transformer? WTF?”

Pretty clever! Doing this kind of stealth launch is a daring move, especially for a huge get like the Hasbro licenses, and the secret alllllmost lasted until the issue came out. I’m told that retailers were given advance word on what was happening, and they kept it under wraps until an advance copy went out last week and beans got spilled.   

Still, it’s the latest shot at unusual marketing from Skybound, which has tried different methods for previous Kirkman titles like Die! Die! Die! and Oblivion Song. A few weeks ahead of today’s launch, The Beat was given a chance to talk to Kirkman about the book, the surprise and the publishing plans. As noted, our conversation took place before Jetfire’s appearance in Void Rivals had leaked. 

Heidi MacDonald: So, you sneaky devil! What’s the story behind the story of Skybound getting the Transformers?

Robert Kirkman: Yeah, Hasbro reached out to us about two years ago, about the possibility of us pitching for Transformers and GI Joe. One of the things we thought about, moving into it, is that IDW has done a lot of great Transformers and GI Joe comics. And so you have to kind of come up with something different, something unique. The thing that we came up with was not only doing the Energon Universe – where we kind of do it from the ground up, retelling origins and a new way into this universe, essentially akin to the Ultimate Universe with these characters, kind of a soft reboot – but also to have Void Rivals, this completely new concept, be the way into that universe.

A page from Void Rivals by De Felici, Lopes and Wooton

I always try to [approach] everything from a fan perspective. And thinking of myself as a fan, if I was reading a Mark Millar comic, and all of a sudden, the Smurfs showed up, it would be just absolutely insane, like something completely impossible and unreal. I got really excited about the possibility of actually pulling something like that off, and we pitched it to Hasbro and they were totally into the idea and were willing to work with us every step of the way. So from that point on, it was like, Oh my gosh, we’re actually going to be able to do this. This is gonna be crazy. To be able to do a book that is essentially the same as Firepower or Oblivion Song or Die! Die! Die! but have this familiar character that has its own built-in fan base, just kind of randomly show up in the middle of the issue – it was just too new and different and exciting to not do so. So yeah, I was thrilled.

MacDonald: When I turned the page, I gotta admit, it was a lot of fun. You grew up with the Transformers. What’s your personal Transformers story?

Kirkman: I was born in ‘78. So I was eight years old when the Transformers movie came out in 1986. I was sitting in a theater with my dad, my mom, crying my eyes out watching Optimus Prime die. I think that that moment kind of set me on a path that led to everything I’ve ever done. I don’t think you get all of the shocking Walking Dead deaths if I’m not an eight year old experiencing the death of Optimus Prime. That shocking experience of seeing the death of the character I loved, pulled from me feeling those emotions…getting that out of a cartoon, where robots fight each other with guns, was just life-changing for me.

I had watched the Transformers and GI Joe cartoons leading up to that, [and] every birthday and Christmas was a game of like, which GI Joe, which Transformer am I going to get? I always had the little Transformers because my parents couldn’t afford the big Transformers. So I was hunting those yard sales, trying to get my Optimus Primes, trying to get my SoundWaves. So yeah, it’s a huge part of my life. And still to this day, I buy a lot of Transformers and GI Joe stuff. My kids are always making fun of me because my office looks like a toy store. It’s a big part of my life, and it’s great to take my addiction and turn it into my job.

MacDonald: So the big news is a whole Hasbro universe coming from Skybound. What can you tell us about that?

Kirkman: Yes, we’re rolling out Transformers #1 in October. And then Duke #1 launches in December. And then Cobra Commander #1 launches in January. These four titles make up the Energon universe, which is going to be a pretty contained shared universe.

MacDonald: There are four series right now and you said this will Ultimize things a little bit. So is this kind of tidying up any continuity?

Kirkman: It’s really going back to the beginning, starting these characters off fresh. We’re going to be adapting a lot of familiar stories from the comics and the TV shows and things like that. So there will be character introductions that are familiar, updated retellings of your favorite episodes of Transformers and GI Joe. But also, they will dovetail into completely new stories. The organic meshing of these concepts will lead to some new and exciting ways [to approach] the characters. Void Rivals leads to the Transformers waking up on Earth and that in a way leads to the formation of the GI Joe and Cobra organizations. It’s like putting a fresh coat of paint on these concepts and trying to tell the best stories of them again, while mixing in new stories. The whole goal here is to give fans a new starting point for these creations and to make them see how cool they are and love them as much as we do.

A page from Void Rivals by De Felici, Lopes and Wooton

MacDonald: What about the future of Void Rivals? As I was reading it, I really loved the art by Lorenzo De Felici – I loved that it kind of had this classic, retro sci-fi feel to it, and enjoyed the story. So how will it fit into all of this going forward?

Kirkman: I love to hear that you enjoyed the book as a book, because that’s the goal. We want Void Rivals to stand on its own with its own stories, its own conflicts and characters. That’s going to continue. There are a lot of elements from the Transformers Universe that exist out in deep space, different alien races, different planets, and the Void Rivals characters may get to interact in some form. But if you’re not familiar with that stuff, you’ll just think, Oh, they went to this new planet, that’s pretty cool. “Oh, that ship is from the planet, Nebulon. Interesting.” You won’t know that there’s a deep history to that planet in the Transformers Universe. [Editors note: I did not.] So that’s kind of the way we’re playing it. But the goal with the Energon Universe is that each individual title will stand on its own. If you just want to read Daniel Warren Johnson‘s Transformers book, reading the other books will be additive, there will be things in that book that mean more, and are cool in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily understand if you weren’t reading the other books. But if you’re not reading the other books, you’re not going to notice that you’re missing that stuff. We’re trying to make this as accessible in all different angles and ways as possible.

MacDonald: I really want to ask a little bit about the marketing of this, just because I know at Skybound you’ve tried various different ways of launching books. You’ve tried the all out press conference event, here’s the PDF, sending the first six issues to retailers. And you’ve also just done a mic drop with no lead in. I know you did do some events with retailers for Void Rivals and the Hasbro reveal. And it somehow hasn’t leaked out which is amazing. [Editors note: It did after this interview was conducted.] Do you have any feeling for these different methods, what works and what doesn’t? The comic book selling system has so many checkpoints and weird time frames.

Kirkman: What I’ve discovered from doing all these different things is that they all work and don’t work but in different ways. And so it’s nice knowing, okay, if I want to pull this off, I can do this. If I want to try that, I can do that. And I’m constantly learning and sharing all of this stuff with everybody at Skybound and Image as “Okay, here’s a different way to market things, here’s a different way to do this.” It’s a lot of fun being, essentially, like a think tank, trying to find new ways to sell comics. It’s all toward the goal of making the experience of reading comics as exciting as possible for the reader. So, if I’m trying to keep a secret, it’s because I want that secret to hit you at the right time to make the book as exciting as possible. Sometimes doing that is at odds with actually selling the book, which is weird. Navigating that and figuring that out is really difficult.

And that’s why we had that private event with retailers to tell them, this is exactly what we’re doing, this is how we’re going to market it before the book is out and after the book is out. Because when you do a thing like this, you have to make sure that the book is actually in stores for when people do find out. Bringing retailers in, recognizing that partnership that we have and giving them all the information, letting them make their educated guess on how this book is going to perform in their store, was a great opportunity for us and it worked out so well. But it’s exciting me for the next thing like, now I can let this community of retailers in on what we’re doing. And that makes the possibilities really exciting of what we can do with more Energon Universe launches or with completely different things. There’s really a great potential in strengthening that part.

MacDonald: I’m glad somebody’s trying different ways because the direct market system is so Byzantine. Also, you said these will be mini-series and ongoings. There’s been quite a bit of talk lately, again, in comic book Twitter or the internet comics community, about ongoings versus shorter series. And certainly The Walking Dead was a perfect example of more than 100 issues, knowing every month, you’re gonna get this story, and how successful that method could be. And now we’re seeing shorter series. Do you have any take on the evolution of these different formats for periodical comics?

Robert Kirkman: Yeah, I think, perception ebbs and flows. A lot of people are saying shorter series make more sense. Longer series are more difficult to do, but the more difficult a thing to do is, the more rewarding it can be if it works out. So I think that as a comic book reader, the thing I most want is a continuing story that’s going to go for a good long time. Half of the appeal of Saga is seeing what Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples are able to do to keep that story interesting. From arc to arc to arc year to year to year. And I don’t think we’re in danger of losing that anytime soon. A lot of creators are a little hesitant to start that journey and try to find that path, because it is difficult, but I think it’s a cornerstone of our industry. It’s definitely the kind of comics that I want to be doing.

MacDonald: Just one more question, Daniel Warren Johnson. How awesome is that?

Robert Kirkman: It’s great. And he’s the perfect mix of really innovative and exciting and unique action, but insanely emotional storytelling. The drama, and the pathos that he’s able to bring to his characters is second to none. And to be able to take that lens and turn its focus to Transformers in a really exciting way…I couldn’t be more thrilled for people to be getting this book and the stuff that he has planned for it is absolutely excellent.

Daniel Warren Johnson Transformers art