Simon Furman interview at Auto Assembly Europe 2011

During Auto Assembly Europe 2011 in Uppsala, Sweden, I sat down with Simon Furman to talk about his role in Transformers mythos. The following is the result of that interview as well as a presentation Simon made that weekend. While he obviously couldn’t say much concrete about issue 81 and onwards, he gave lots of intriguing examples of things that might be revisited.

For those who don’t know who you are, tell us a little about yourself and how you’re related to the Transformers brand
My name is Simon Furman and I’m a writer for comic books, TV animation, and just recently movies. My relationship with Transformers goes all the way back to ’85, when I was hired to write an adventure for the UK version of the comic. And since then I’ve been involved with pretty much all the publishers; Marvel in the US and the UK, Dreamwave, IDW, Panini and probably a few others I’ve forgotten about. I’ve written an episode of the Beast Wars TV show, Transformers: The Ultimate Guide, so basically lots of stuff for the past 25-26 years.

What are you currently working on?
Currently I’m doing the continuation of the Marvel series which finished in 1991 with issue 80. We’re starting that up in 2012. Then I’m working on a cartoon show called the Matt Hatter Chronicles about a kid who jumps through cinema screens to fight old movie villains. And I’m working on a movie which I can’t talk about at the moment, but I can’t wait to be able to blog about it.

So how did you end up being the main writer on Transformers?
I don’t know really. In the UK, it seemed I just took over as the one writing it. I was able to keep coming up with stories. I don’t know why we didn’t use other writers because I by no means had a monopoly on it. When Bob Budiansky, who wrote the American comic, decided he had had enough, he passed over the American book to me, so for a while I wrote for both the US and UK. So in the end I did have some kind of monopoly.

When you first started, what were your ambitions for your writing?
I think first and foremost I wanted to tell stories that weren’t just adverts for the toys. You know, I wasn’t really interested in that, I just wanted to tell good comic book stories. And for me that always means character first. So I looked at the robots and wanted them to be good, individual characters. To flesh them out and give them depth, put them through story arcs, and all those things you see in regular comic books. So I never thought of them as robots, just personalities.

So who’s your favourite, and why?
I’ve got several favourites, but over the years I’ve been associated with Grimlock. He’s the kind of character I like, not good or evil but more realistic, in the middle. He’s driven by his emotions, his anger, and he’s just a sort of conflicted character. He’s not a bad guy, he wants to do the right thing but sometimes his methods are a little bit… questionable. I like the characters who thread that fine line between good and bad.

I expected that, so except for Grimlock?
What I like most is when there’s almost no character to start off with and I can just build the character into them. So characters like Bludgeon, and Thunderwing, and Nightbeat, and Razorbeast in Beast Wars. I could create a character that people would care for, believe in, just from the sparsest of tech specs. Some of those are my favourite characters.

Is there someone you don’t like writing about?
Well, when I was doing Spotlight: Wheelie I wasn’t very fond of him to begin with, but he actually grew on me. One character that is hard to write about is Optimus Prime, because he’s such an icon. He has to behave in a certain way, so you can’t really use him for what you want. He’s like Captain America. Also, I felt that when I watched the second movie and what he did there, that wasn’t really what Optimus would do.

So did you have anything to work from or did you design them completely on your own?
I tried to always use what Bob had done as a launch pad, then I tried to move them in a little different direction or play out a different aspect of their personality.

What part of the original story are you most proud of?
There’s two stories that stand out for me. In the UK terms it’s Target 2006, which is where we started using characters from the animated movie (1986), and that gave us a lot more freedom and crafted a lot of the UK stories that followed. And a lot of people still speak very favourably about Target 2006 and I’m quite proud of that one. And in the US run it was the Unicron battle. Really everything from #69 to #75, it felt like we had a big story with momentum that was building up to this epic climax. I was teamed with Andrew Wildman and Geoff Senior, and it felt like we were all on the same page and working very hard to make it the best we could.

Then I’m very proud of The War Within that I made for Dreamwave, and Infiltration for IDW.

And is there a story that you’re least proud of?
I look back on my early ones, not with lack of pride. I wasn’t as proficient as a script writer so I can see all my mistakes and where I hadn’t developed as a writer much more clearly now. Some of these I wince a bit about.

Did you ever have to make any major changes to your plot outlines because of Hasbro?
No, I can’t remember any instances where Hasbro dictated what we could and couldn’t do. Often we did stories that fit with their launches of toys like the Headmasters or the special teams (the combiners), and those had to be slightly shoehorned in, I guess, because they came before the American issues that introduced those characters. The only real problem we had was when we had to reprint an American story which was an adaptation of one of the season three cartoon episodes, The Big Broadcast of 2006, and the problem with it was that it didn’t fit in any continuity that we had in the comic, and it also used characters like Galvatron and Rodimus Prime, so we had to explain this away somehow since Marvel management was insistent that we use it. It was worth money to them every time they could use a reprint instead of an original story. So we decided to bookend it with a page at either end with new material that explained away the story as a fiction, which made them happy.

That was Wreck-Gar, right?
Yeah, Wreck-Gar had been tortured by the Quintessons and he spins them this nonsensical yarn.

You’ve created or helped create several characters, how do you feel about toys being made for them?
Well, I didn’t create Bludgeon and Thunderwing as such, I just fleshed them out. But I’m always flattered when something I made is reused or remade in other forms.

Is there any character you’d like to see used more?
Not really, no. A lot of characters get a good shout, and when we do #81 to #100 I’ll make sure to use anyone I feel I haven’t used enough. Like Ultra Magnus, we never really used him in the US comic. I can’t quite understand why I didn’t, so I look to rectify that when it gets to #81 and onwards.

So is there anything more you can tell us about #81 at this point?
I absolutely can’t. I mean, I’d love to tell you all about what’s coming up, but at the moment IDW and Hasbro want to save that for maybe the new year when they’re gearing up to the launch of it all. And there’s some things I don’t want to talk about because they would spoil the surprise. Hopefully people will come to the end of #81 and go ”wow, I never saw that coming”. One thing I can say is about Wildman and Stephen Baskerville. They’re actually going back somewhat to their older style. It’s still computer coloured but with some details you might recognize. For example, in the old book metal walls were just white with blue highlights. We tried that now and felt that it looked really good. And yes, Wildman’s faces will still be very human-like. He draws the most human Transformers ever.

Looking back on the established story, is there any character you regret killing off now that you’re continuing the story?
Well, it was interesting going back to see who I killed off in issue 75 and thinking ”oh, I wish I hadn’t”. But one of the story strands I’m toying with might actually find a way to bring those characters back.

Like the Headmasters? (note: Simon mentioned the heads still being left on Nebulos in his presentation)
Yeah, something like that. I mean, I don’t want to suddenly start bringing back characters I’ve bumped off without a very good way of doing it. There will be no miraculous rebirths. And if someone dies in the new series they’re probably gonna stay dead.

And things like the universe outside Earth and Cybertron, like the Cosmic Carnival or the planets they went to in the Matrix Quest, is that something you’ll use again or just a lost plotline?
I consider nothing a lost plotline, and yes, many of these may feature in a small or big way. I literally went back and reread the whole eighty issues plus Headmasters so see what I felt needed addressing or should be picked up on. So the sky is the limit, there’s potential for lots and lots of things to be picked up on here. There’s Nebulos, there’s what happened to all the Decepticon leaders that crashed on Earth, and the thing about Grimlock and many of the Autobots now being Action Masters because of the Nucleon.

Does Hasbro have any input on this story, considering that it deals with old toys?
Of course, Hasbro has input on anything Transformers, and they’re very invested in this continuation. You know, now they’ve signed up for it and they want it to be the best they can. They don’t want it to conflict with what they’re doing in their ongoing story.

Are you involved in anything outside the comics, like the games or the movies?
I’d be happy to, but for the moment there’s no involvement. There were talks early on, with the first movie, and I had talks with Don Murphy, but it didn’t happen. Maybe that was when Michael Bay was brought in.

So if Transformers was entirely your universe, is there something you’d like to go back and change?
I’m not really a fan of retcons. I think that once it’s there in print you should stick with it. I was always disappointed when Marvel did that Brand New Day with Spider-Man. It seemed to cheapen all the stuff that had come before. So I don’t think I’d retcon, just look at things to be used in a different way.

Something I noticed in one of your early stories in the US run was that Megatron and Ratchet were, well, uniting. And in an earlier issue, one of the first, they actually made sort of a blood pact. Was that intentional?
Well, there seems to be a thing with Megatron and Ratchet. On paper it should be over in a couple of seconds, Ratchet vs Megatron, but Ratchet seems to think his way through a lot of things, or muddle his way through. And liked how there was almost this unfinished business thing between them, and we’ll pick up on that again in the new series. So yeah, I had that old story in mind back then.

Well, that would be all then. Just one final question: if you were a Transformer, what would your alternate form be?
Something fast and sporty I think.

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