COMICS VERSUS MOVIE: Skybound can write Transformers and Paramount cannot.
Newest saga of the robots in disguise is proof that budget isn't the problem.
2024 marks the 40th birthday of Optimus Prime, Megatron, and their loyal cohorts. While the Transformers aren’t exactly an independent franchise, Skybound is certainly a smaller operation in the comics space, and after getting their hands on the rights to Transformers and G.I. Joe, they’ve decided to hit the ground running.
Personally I am a “Level 7 Susceptible” when it comes to the Autobots and Decepticons. When the 2007 movie rolled out, I was there at midnight with my hair sprayed yellow and striped black, screaming at the top of my lungs whenever a robot did anything cool. I shelled out money for that flick five times that summer, including my first time in IMAX. I even defended the sequels, in my ignorance, until the fourth one came out and I realized I was the problem. I still, proudly, have not seen the fifth.
It became clear to me after a while that Paramount, with its recognizable actors and directors and 9-figure budgets, didn’t actually love these characters or this setting. They just loved pumping its fans for cash. Many friends tried to warn me, but like any addict, I didn’t listen. Now here we are, 17 years later, with 7 movies in the rearview (and an 8th coming down the pike…) and it’s a tired franchise. Making fun of Transformers is cooler than watching it. It’s the 90s all over again.
Then Skybound came along.
ComicsBeat had the reveal last June. Short version: they’re starting a new shared universe between the Robots In Disguise and the Real American Heroes. Transformers hit the shelves back in October, while the G.I. Joe runs are starting this month. Through the four currently-released issues of Transformers we’ve only gotten one little mention of the Joes, so they don’t play a distracting role in the story just yet.
No, the writer on this series—Daniel Warren Johnson—is going all the way back to the roots of the story in ‘84, updating it not for modern audiences, but for a modern setting. And not only is it exciting and compelling on its own…it shows just how badly the 2007 film’s writers—Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci—screwed the pooch.
In the 2007 film, a stammering idiot teenager is trying to bang a stripper from his history class, and accidentally ends up in a war between giant robots that sort of look like melted slag being hit with a pickaxe.
Shia LaBeouf played “Sam Witwicky” who was called “Spike” throughout the entire cartoon, but we’ll just kick that aside. “Mikaela” wasn’t a character from the originals. “Carly” was Spike’s girlfriend. Knowing this stuff would have required Kurtzman and Orci to be fans as well as talented writers, but they are neither. They’re just connected.
In the 2023-onward series, a high school senior is coming of age and struggling with his alcoholic father, his supportive girlfriend who’s headed to a different college, and an uncertain future. He and the girlfriend accidentally end up in a war between giant robots that look like either cars or jets.
Spike and Carly are already a thing, and Spike’s father—an Army veteran nicknamed Sparkplug—works at the power plant. This is significant because when the dormant Transformers wake up in a nearby mountain, they need power, and that’s where they go to get it.
Spike and Carly are stargazing on the mountain that night when a cave-in leads them to the Ark, an Autobot ship full of Transformers. One of them, Jetfire, wakes up and starts reviving the others, not realizing that they were at war before they crashed on Earth. Starscream starts executing the sleeping Autobots, causing Jetfire to switch sides. While they’re fighting, Optimus Prime and Ratchet wake up, salvage what they can of their comrades, and try to escape.
In the middle of it all, Spike and Carly realize who the good guys are and they help Optimus. He takes them to safety, and now the war is active on Earth. From there the story is fast-paced and has real consequences. It doesn’t waste tons of page space trying to establish everything before making anything real happen. This sucker has wheels.
Spike and Carly are relatable and likeable, but not shallow like the original cartoon counterparts. Both their dads work at the power plant, but Carly’s dad is killed by Starscream when he shows up for a boost. This puts Sparkplug into panic mode, and he runs home to get his old Army gear. He and the boys down at the VFA stack up to face these new giant machines.
Optimus enjoys Earth’s natural beauty and laments what the war will do to it. In his conversations with Spike he struggles to understand concepts like family and parentage, since robots are built different, but he finds common ground with their good virtues.
And then there’s Starscream, who has taken full command of the Decepticons. Megatron’s absence isn’t explained yet, but as Starscream continues to fail in his role, the others question his leadership, which is a key storyline from the original. Kurtzman and Orci wrote him as a faithful suckup, but Daniel Warren Johnson knows what he really is.
The contrasting styles of command couldn’t be more obvious between the two. Optimus takes responsibility for bringing the war to Earth, while Starscream is happy to rack up a list of casualties. In fact, in the middle of one fight, Spike takes a bullet to the gut, and while Sparkplug doesn’t think any of the robots are good, he changes his mind when he sees an injured Optimus rush Spike to the ER.
Johnson not only stays true to the original spirit and storyline of the 1984 cartoon, he does so while bringing us new scenes and situations that keep it fresh. That’s talent and fandom in one.
Ours, with current-day amenities. Old used cars, expensive rent, a surplus of jaded veterans, and the Internet. While the 2007 film spent a fair amount of screen time in the Middle East, traipsing about with the military, this one shows us a post-GWOT world where a lot of men still replace therapy with beer and hangouts at the VFW.
So far, none. Not a single lick. Hell, the only thing I could grasp at if I was really looking for something? Carly’s skin color is just a shade more tan than Spike’s, and there’s been no mention of that at all.
There have been some pretty brutal killings. The Decepticons like to squish humans. As for language, nothing worse than the “A-word.” And no teenaged girls in booty shorts bending over motorcycles.
Who’s it for?
The remaining real fans of Transformers. Those of us who were there from the early days, who pined for a live-action film, got it, were eventually disillusioned by it, and are more than fed-up with manipulation of our favorite IP. So far, after four months of this run, I am satisfied with what Johnson has laid out for us. I’m cautiously hopeful to see it continue.
Why buy it?
It’s the best way to get more of it. I’m in my late 30s and for the first time in my life, I went down to a local comic shop and started a pull file so I don’t miss a new issue. Trade paperbacks should be coming soon, now that the fifth issue is around the corner.
In conclusion, this is yet another example of talent and hard work creating something that a giant budget and a network of favors never could. Yes, Kurtzman and Orci got the bag with their scripts. But it’s guys like Daniel Warren Johnson who will keep Transformers rolling for another 40 years.