Part 2: Transformers Questions
ASM: In an issue of Marvel Age from 1984, it was stated that Jim Shooter and Denny O'Neil created the background story for The Transformers and came up with the personalities for the first 28. Jim Shooter has gone on to say that he brought you in to name all of them. Can you tell us exactly how far in the development process were you actually brought in?
Bob Budiansky: My recollection is different, but only slightly. Shooter and O'Neil came up with the backstory, that's true. I had nothing to do with that. Shooter brought me in when most of the initial names and at least some of the character profiles were rejected by Hasbro. For whatever reason, Denny declined to revise them. So, facing an imminent deadline, Shooter scoured the Marvel editorial offices looking for someone who could write at least basic English. The first few Marvel editors Shooter approached, all with more writing experience than me, wanted nothing to do with Transformers. I was probably Shooter's third or fourth choice. I turned around the revisions over a couple of days -- right before Thanksgiving of 1983 -- and Hasbro was very pleased with what I wrote. I renamed most of the characters (Optimus Prime was Denny's, Megatron was mine), and revised some character profiles.
ASM: Some character names mentioned in the Marvel Age article (such as BLOW-OUT and SPIN-OUT) differ from the final ones (they became CLIFFJUMPER and SUNSTREAKER, respectively). Were name changes from promotion to finished product common?
BB: For that initial 28, yes. But for most of the Transformers that I developed over the next four years or so, I'd say 80% of the names I submitted got approved on the first try. Most of the rest I got on the second try. Hasbro was usually thrilled with what I submitted. One thing I did to improve the odds of getting Hasbro's approval was to give Hasbro more than one choice of a name for a new toy. Often, I'd come up with three or four that I thought could potentially fit a particular character. I must have named well over a hundred during that period.
ASM: One thing that set the Transformers apart from other toylines in the '80s was its use of Latinate names - Optimus Prime, Ultra Magnus, Fortress Maximus, and Omega Supreme spring to mind. Was this an aesthetic decision on your part, or due to a mandate from Hasbro?
BB: Give Denny O'Neil credit for that. He started it by naming Optimus Prime. Generally, Hasbro wanted more literal names for most of the toys, but for some of the really major toys, they preferred names with more grandeur to them, so they pushed me to follow in the vein of Op Prime on those. I think I named Fortress Maximus, and possibly Omega Supreme.
ASM: I'm working off the assumption that you named the five Dinobots - Slag (triceratops), Sludge (brontosaurus), Swoop (pteranodon), Snarl (stegosaurus) and Grimlock (tyrannosaurus), their commander. The other four names are self-evident, but I've never been able to figure out what "Grimlock" means. The oldest reference I've been able to find to the word online was as a monster in a late '70s Dungeons and Dragons manual. Does "Grimlock" mean anything?
It was just meant to be evocative. "Grim" meaning grim, serious, maybe even dangerous, and "lock" meaning, big steely, toothy jaws that could lock around you. Also since he was the Dinobot leader, I wanted his name to set him apart from the others.
ASM: What were your impressions when writing your first issues? Did you have any idea that you'd be writing about these characters for the next five years?
BB: First thing everyone needs to understand is that not a lot of people at Marvel expected Transformers to be a success. That's why it was originally planned as only a 4-issue mini-series. Once the mini-series sales figures started coming in, and Marvel decided to continue Transformers as a regular series, then we knew it had at least some kind of future. So although I didn't anticipate writing it for five years, I knew it had legs. As for how I felt writing it initially, in many ways it made my life easier. I went through three writers on the four-issue mini-series! No one could get a handle on all these characters. I was spoon-feeding all this stuff to the writers to try to keep some consistency with the treatment and character profiles we had. Working with Hasbro as much as I was, I was the only person, it seemed, who could keep everything straight. So when the regular book launched, it just seemed easier for me to just write the damn thing myself and cut out the middleman.
ASM: In the original Transformers limited series, the designs of the characters radically changed from issue to issue, starting out very toy-based. By the time of issue 5 the characters models resembled those seen in the cartoon series. Do you remember who drew the model sheets for the Transformers, or if there were any problems with the character designs?
BB: This also falls under the category of people initially having trouble getting a handle on this property. Frank Springer, the penciler of the mini-series, knew how to draw people beautifully. But I think all those robots overwhelmed him. It was a challenge just to get them to look like the toys and be distinct from each other. It's also possible that we didn't have model sheets initially, just the toys themselves to work from. I don't really remember. But when there were model sheets, Hasbro provided all of them. Who drew them, I don't know. At some point, I think Sunbow, the producer of the cartoon, produced the model sheets.
ASM: During the early part of the series, artists changed every few issues until Don Perlin came on board. Do you know what caused this early turmoil?
BB: I know what ended it. Mike Carlin became editor of the book after issue 9. Mike knew how to put together a creative team on a book. Why the previous editor, Jim Owsley, chose the artists he did and changed them, I don't know. He wanted to change me, too -- he fired me, after issue 9. I was able to negotiate his giving up the book -- since he admitted he really didn't care much about it -- to Mike. Mike kept me as writer, and the art situation improved.
ASM: After the initial artist shuffle, your two main collaborators on Transformers were Don Perlin and Jose Delbo. Mr. Perlin had been doing comics since the '40s, while Mr. Delbo was relatively much newer to the comics game. What was it like working with these two artists?
BB: They were both wonderful to work with. They were open to ideas, to collaborating with me on how to get across what I wanted visually. They knew I was also an artist, so I think that helped them to be as receptive to my input as they were. And Don and I had sort of worked together before so we knew and respected each other's work. For many years, Don was the regular penciler of Ghost Rider and I was the regular Ghost Rider cover penciler.
ASM: Artist Frank Springer drew both the original limited series and later the Headmasters limited series. Do you know why he was chosen for these projects?
BB: I think Jim Shooter chose Frank for the mini-series, so you'd have to ask Jim. I edited Headmasters, so I probably asked Frank to do that series. Even though Frank struggled with the mini-series, mainly because he had to accurately draw so many robots, I knew he had at least some familiarity with the idea of the Transformers, so he was a good candidate to draw Headmasters. Quite frankly, a lot of artists weren't jumping out of their seats to draw Transformers. Anything that involves so much reference material tends to be a creative drag for most comic book artists.
ASM: Though he only drew two issues of the regular Transformers series, artist Herb Trimpe drew over 20 covers. Do you recall why he was chosen to do so many?
BB: He was great, that's why! I loved those two issues he did. I think they're two of the best-illustrated issues of my run. I think the editors of the Transformers at that time (Mike Carlin, then Don Daley) probably felt Herb could more effectively sell the book if he drew the covers instead of the artist who did the interiors.
ASM: Surprisingly, the most consistent fixture of the Transformers comic was colorist Nel Yomtov, who was on the book for the entire 80 issue run. Considering how (in comparison) the artist situation was so volatile in the early issues, any idea how he became so closely associated with the series?
BB: Y'know, he got the gig, he did a good job from the get-go, and he was willing to put up with the torture of coloring each one of those darn robots just the right way. Nel probably knew what the characters should look like better than anyone, and editors were thankful to have him continue on the book as long as he did.
ASM: When the Transformers comic first started, there was a guest appearance by Spider-Man, references to Dazzler, and the Dinobots got their alternate forms in the X-Men's Savage Land. Yet, by about issue 14 or 15, it was clear that Transformers was no longer a part of the Marvel Universe proper; Marvel characters simply existed in comic books kids in the Transformers universe read. Do you recall why this change came about?
BB: Initially, we had little faith that Transformers, on its own, would sell. So we were looking for ways to bring attention to it by connecting it to the Marvel Universe. Jim Salicrup was editor of the Spider-Man books, and was writing a couple of issues of the mini-series for me. He thought guest-starring Spidey, Marvel's headline character, would be a good way to hype the book. I agreed. Hasbro initially didn't; they rejected using Spider-Man because a rival toy company was putting out his action figure. Hasbro's view was that we'd promoting their rival. And here we thought we were doing Hasbro a favor! We eventually got Hasbro's approval by having Spidey appear in his alien black costume, instead of his traditional, licensed-to a-rival-toy-company, red-and-blue costume. Once Transformers established itself as a successful comic, there was no reason to further complicate an already complicated storyline with further connections to the Marvel Universe.
ASM: Do you remember the circumstances behind issue 16's filler story "The Plight of the Bumblebee," written by Len Kaminski? Is it true that Peter David wrote a script for that issue that was never used?
BB: I was probably running late on my writing deadlines. Wise editors always kept an inventory story in the drawer to have on hand for those occasions. As for the Peter David story -- I don't know anything about it. I think that Jim Owsley was perhaps the first Marvel editor to give Peter writing assignments, so it wouldn't surprise me if he had Peter do a Transformers story during his tenure as Transformers editor.
ASM: One of the human characters that got a lot of play in your stories was Donny Finkleburg, AKA the Robot Master. Why the obvious nod to Marvel staffer Danny Fingeroth?
BB: I was just having fun. I've known Danny since high school and helped get him his first staff job at Marvel. I think at the time Danny had recently quit the Marvel editorial staff to work as a freelance comic book writer, so he seemed a natural fit for the Robot Master character, who was a struggling comic book writer.
ASM: As the Transformers series progressed, you had to introduce new characters and character concepts, like the Throttlebots and Headmasters. While two of your introduction stories - "Return to Cybertron" and "The Headmasters" -- are considered classics by many fans, what sort of effect did these mass introductions have on the storytelling of the series in general, from your point of view?
BB: I didn't know they were considered classics! Thanks for the info. Generally, anytime I had to introduce a new line of toys into the comic, which was at least once a year, and probably more often than that, it wreaked havoc with the storylines I was developing. It's the primary reason I wanted to get off the book after a couple of years. I found it increasingly difficult to develop characters and storylines. I would do something for a couple of issues with a character or a small group of characters, and then I'd have to drop them and move on to a bunch of new ones. Hasbro basically viewed the Transformers comic as an advertising vehicle for its ever-expanding line of toys. I understood that. But that didn't mean that, as a writer trying to develop interesting storylines, I liked it. I felt pretty burnt out over the last year or so of my run.
ASM: While the Headmasters, Targetmasters and Powermasters all featured alien partners from the planet Nebulos (as detailed in the Headmasters miniseries and later issues), only the Nebulan toys associated with the Headmasters had genuinely "alien" names, such as Lord Zarak, Vorath and Gort. The Targetmaster and Powermaster Nebulans generally featured more conventional Transformer names, like Peacemaker and Hi-Test. Was there a conscious attempt to differentiate them?
BB: I guess there was, but it's been a while. I don't remember the thinking that went into that.
ASM: The character Spike Witwicky was introduced in the comics to become Fortress Maximus's Headmaster partner. Prior to that, a Nebulan named Galen was Fortress Maximus's partner. Was Galen originally planned to be Fortress Maximus's head unit in the toyline, or was his inclusion in the comics simply to cover a narrative gap? And was the name "Kord", used instead of Galen in a story published in the UK, an earlier name for the character?
BB: I'm as confused as you. Again, it was a long time ago. I'm sure at the time there were reasons for all the confusion.
ASM: Your run on the Transformers comic is known for showcasing characters that were only minor players in the toyline. Storylines featuring Skids' solo adventures, Ratbat becoming Decepticon leader and Skullgrin's brief movie career gave unknown characters a chance to shine. Do you remember the thinking behind such character choices?
BB: Other than the obvious biggies, like Optimus Prime and Megatron, I didn't pay any attention to the relative importance of Transformers as toys. Until you mentioned it in your question I had no idea any of these characters were minor toys. I just chose characters as I saw fit (that is, when I wasn't compelled to introduce a new line of 24 characters in a particular issue). If a character's personality, or look, or abilities fit into or suggested a storyline, then that's whom I used.
ASM: The only prominent use of characters created for Transformers: The Movie (such as Rodimus Prime and Galvatron) during your run on the comic was issue 43's "The Big Broadcast of 2006" - a filler story adapted by Ralph Macchio from a cartoon episode. Do you remember the circumstances behind that issue, and why these characters weren't used in regular storylines?
BB: Again, that story was probably used to help meet our deadlines. I might be wrong, but I think the movie characters existed in a different context than the rest of the Transformers I dealt with, which is why I avoided using them. Besides, I had plenty of other characters to choose from.
ASM: Do you have any favorite anecdotes from your time working on the series?
That one about Spider-Man being initially rejected as a Transformers guest-star by Hasbro ranks up there. Hasbro also initially rejected the name "Megatron," claiming it was too scary. At the time, ""mega" had a nuclear bomb connotation. (Now, of course, "mega" merely suggests how much memory you have on your hard drive.) Anyway, I explained out to Hasbro that that was the point -- as the head of the bad guys, Megatron was supposed to sound scary. I guess they hadn't looked at it that way -- duh -- and they approved the name. As you can tell from a lot of the Autobots' names, I came up with a lot of names that suggested cars, like Sideswipe and Wheeljack. One name that I submitted to Hasbro for approval that I thought was especially clever was "Highbeams." Hasbro rejected it. I asked why, and the Hasbro account manager whom I regularly dealt with answered, very delicately since this manager was a woman, that "highbeams" was slang for a particular part, or I should say twin parts, of female anatomy, at least where she came from.
ASM: A lot of the violence in the Transformers comics could be surprisingly brutal. Megatron pushing his thumb through Ratchet's shoulder, characters having their heads ripped off or crushed, and smelting pools being used to melt down living enemies. Did the fact that your lead characters were robots give you certain freedoms that other Code-approved books at the time didn't have?
BB: I guess it did. As a kid, I was a fan of DC's Metal Men. One of the cool things about that comic was that no matter how mangled the Metal Men were at the end of a story, Doc Magnus could always repair them since they were robots. I treated the Transformers similarly. Part of the fun of writing the Transformers was I could find all sorts of new ways to take .em apart, and then put .em back together again. You can't do that sort of thing with most of your human comic book characters, at least not without spilling a lot of blood and guts along the way.
ASM: Were there ever concrete plans for a regular ongoing Headmasters series? Or a follow-up Transformers Universe miniseries?
BB: I think there was talk of a second Transformers series based around Headmasters, but I think Transformers sales had peaked by that time, and Marvel didn't think the market could sustain another Transformers title. I don't remember if another "Universe" series was ever discussed. Basically, "Universe. just reprinted all the character profiles I had written for Hasbro. I think after those were used up, that was the end of the series.
ASM: Did you write the later "Transformers Universe" entries that appeared in the back of the Transformer comic? Furthermore, did any complete or incomplete Transformers Universe profiles simply not appear?
BB: I had very little to do with putting together the Universe series. I provided the profiles, which were already written for Hasbro's packaging, and the editorial team slapped them together to make a series of books. If any were left out, I wouldn't have necessarily been aware of it. I don't remember any of my Universe entries appearing in the back of Transformers comics, but I just checked a few of the comics that followed my run on the book. Yes, those are profiles I wrote and characters I named. I guess they were leftovers that never made it into the Universe books.
ASM: Is it surprising to learn that there's a fan-base for these comics you wrote back in the '80s?
BB: You never know how these things will develop. I worked on several toy-related projects in the 80's. Most just vanished. If it weren't for the Internet, which no one envisioned when I wrote Transformers, I don't think this level of interest would exist about the Transformers. So I guess I didn't expect this level of attention back then in the 80's, but I've known for quite a number of years that there was a large Transformers presence on the Internet. So I'm not that surprised more recently. If that makes sense.
ASM: From a four issue miniseries to a 20-year legacy, it looks as though Transformers won't be going away anytime soon. Do you have any parting thoughts on the Transformers phenomenon?
BB: I'm happy that so many people continue to get so much pleasure out of a creation that, 20 years ago, didn't seem like anything more than another short-lived licensed project at Marvel. And I'm happy that I had the opportunity to contribute to it.
ASM would like to thank Bob Budiansky for taking the time to answer these
questions. We would also like to thank The Obscure Transformers Website
for their help with this interview.