It never ends-SHEEEAGH!
When Transformers was plopped out of Hasbro’s Rhode Island factory in 1984, the toy maker demanded a full assault on the malleable minds of young American children to help their new toys sell. An animated series and monthly comic book were commissioned at once, to the immediate delight of the target audience. All three of these siblings then swam across the Atlantic like newborn ducklings to arrive on our shores here in the United Kingdom. The toys were put on our shelves, the cartoon was shown on the telly, and the comic was re-printed by Marvel UK.
And this is where our story begins. You see, Marvel UK ran into trouble quite early on. The US comic was a big success here, despite being crap. It sold like hot cakes, and since it was only published once a month in the USA, and the impatient Brits demanded weekly comics, Marvel very quickly ran out of material to print. To give us something to read while the American team were beavering away on their monthly book, Marvel UK approached a young writer called Simon Christopher Francis Furman to make more stories from their base in London. The rest is history (we’ll go into more detail another time) but needless to say, make more stories he did. Over the span of nine years, Simon crafted a rich, engaging universe.
Working with the brilliant artists and colourists of Marvel UK, he created an impressive tapestry of work that brought the Robots in Disguise to life like never before. In fact, his stories were so good that the Americans shanghaied him, putting Simon in the unusual position of writing and editing two comics for each side of the Atlantic.
Simon Furman’s work at Marvel stood as the definitive Transformers universe for thirty years or more – all subsequent material such as Beast Wars, More than Meets the Eye, and even the Michael Bay movies draw from his well of creativity. Read on and enjoy a few words from the man himself:
RTN: It was Marvel UK’s Transformer comics that made us fall in love with the medium. Did you always intend to become a comic writer?
SF: As a kid, I always had my nose stuck in a book or comic. I loved to kick a football around outside with the best of ‘em, but I was always happiest immersed in some story or another. And if I wasn’t reading ‘em, I was creating them – even back then. I’d fill school exercise books with (badly) illustrated prose stories/adventures, or sit with my Action Man (Men) putting them through extreme missions of my own devising. I really think the pre-requisite for any writer is a big imagination, and I certainly had that.
Comics-wise, I kind of went through phases – when I was younger it was Beano, Dandy, Beezer, Cor!, Buster, etc (the more kid-friendly humour titles), then it was Lion, Tiger, Smash etc (the more adventure-led comics), then the UK Marvel titles, initially Fantastic and Terrific and eventually Mighty World of Marvel and Spider-Man Weekly. The Marvel comics blew my mind. They were such a quantum leap ahead in relation to their UK counterparts, which – story–wise – felt a little mired in the past, even to me. And then, aged 11 or 12, in a little traversed section of a Popular Book Centre (a chain of secondhand book stores) in Camberwell, I uncovered my holy grail – actual full colour Marvel comics, imported from the US. My first one was Amazing Spider-Man #30, which featured some fairly naff villain called the Cat. But I didn’t care. Lee script, Ditko art, and that feel and texture US comics had, especially back in the day. I was in heaven. I had arrived!
But intend to be a comics writer? No. Not in my wildest imaginings. I got that people wrote and drew these things. Marvel comics had credits (as opposed to a lot of UK comics at the time). But the idea you could make a living writing comic books was laughable (and to some extent still is). I knew I wanted to be writing and telling stories, but pretty quickly school conspires to kick anything creative like that out of you, and when I left school I went to work in a bank. The rest was dumb luck and happenstance.
Please tell us a little more about your current projects, such as To The Death with Geoff Senior. Will you be working with any more Marvel UK almuni in the future?
I do still keep in touch with the Marvel UK people. Most of ‘em, like me, are still working in the biz, either freelance or in an editorial or design capacity. I think Andrew and I and Geoff and I just work well together. There was no grand plan, just a kind of meeting of minds and an urge to create something that was ultimately ours, rather than belonging to Marvel or DC or whoever. With Andrew it was the Engine: Industrial Strength (which I think we’d both like to dust off/revisit sometime… when we have time!) and Monster Maker, which is kind of still out there as a possible animated TV show. With Geoff, who had moved out of comics and into advertising, it was the need to be independently creative again and that led to us putting our heads together and devising To The Death.
It’s been a lot of work, more for Geoff than me, but a labour of love. It’s channeling our inner (and enduring) love for Dragon’s Claws, the series we did for Marvel back in the 80s, and Death’s Head of course, into something completely full on and visceral and cinematic (it’s all widescreen panels, like a full colour movie shooting board). Geoff’s completely knocking the art out of the park. It’s awesome stuff.
How has the industry changed since you started? For example, do you find that there’s more or less freedom these days to tell the stories you want? Is it harder to get your original ideas out there?
It’s changed a lot. I really wish there’d been more emphasis on creator-owned back in the day, when I was doing a lot of comics, but I slightly missed that boat and then got caught up in the whole mid-90s industry implosion that kind of pushed me in still other directions – editorial (again), TV animation, etc. Overall, I think it’s a lot healthier, that there’s all these outlets for people, even if it’s self-published and be damned, but I miss how comics used to be less influenced by money-making (often ‘event’) strategies, and dislike how creators rarely stay on one book for long. As a reader I loved the huge runs, where you really got to invest in the writer’s vision, like Roger Stern’s Spider-Man or David Michelinie’s Iron Man… and, of course, Chris Claremont’s X-Men. I think big business/shareholders, etc have ground the spark out of comics. There’s still a ton of great stuff out there, but I really miss that solid investment in a series, and the reader loyalty it inspired. And in some ways, the big two have become very narrow in their thinking, almost twitchy. Any slight hint of readers moving on/away and it’s… Quick, change everything. Restart/reboot. It’s got to be all-new, all-different all the time. And that’s a big part of why my creative juices are flowing in about six different directions at once these days, only some of which are comics (as we know and love ‘em).
On the subject of original creations, what is Death’s Head up to these days? IDW artist Nich Roche tells us that as a child you traumatised him with Death’s Head’s gruesome execution of Shockwave!
Death’s Head has had something of a renaissance recently, what with Kieron Gillen championing his return in S.W.O.R.D. and Iron Man, and Revolutionary War, an X-Men Special and even, I think, an issue of Spider-Man. And we had his action figure recently. So, he’s still out there. Who knows, maybe he’ll even crop up in a Marvel movie sometime. Guardians of the Galaxy would be a great fit. So, where DH is concerned, never say never. He’ll be back, yes?
As for Nick, it amuses me that we may have inadvertently traumatised him and countless other kids back in the day. We never thought about the level of violence much – they were robots, no one cared. But you look back now, in the coddled 21st century, and think… ooh, should we really have done that/shown that? Generally, though, I think the answer is yes.
You created a few new characters for Marvel UK’s Transformers, such as Xaaron and Impactor, who both survived the 80s and are still going strong in comics to this very day. Are you proud that an original Transformers character has outlived many “official” ones? (We still weep for poor Chuffer!)
Of course it’s flattering when sort of incidental creations take on a life of their own. But I have the fans, and the fans turned creator, to thank for that. It’s nice to have substantially contributed to the overall Transformers mythology too – with the whole Primus thing, and the pseudo religious trappings I layered in to the back story.
Y’know, when I saw the second movie was going to be called Revenge of the Fallen I was, um, chuffed (less so when I actually saw the movie), as he was another creation of mine in the War Within. So absolutely, it’s a thrill to have had some small hand in the 30 plus years that is TRANSFORMERS (with capital letters). It never ends…
You never shied away from killing characters off, often with a grisly dismemberment and a loud exclamation of “Sheeeaagh!” Was this because you had a surplus of characters and knew you’d get away with it? We can’t imagine that sort of thing going on in My Little Pony….
I think it’s more that I came from a UK-comics mindset, which was a little grittier and more down & dirty than US comics were at the time. And death in comics meant something back then. It had real impact. And I always looked at key characters as fair game for the big shutdown, because at the time no one saw that coming.
Now, every company kills off core characters on a regular basis (and brings ‘em straight back, so it’s hard not to just yawn and shrug), but back in the 80s it was far rarer. Maybe Gwen Stacy, Captain Marvel and Jean Grey… and the Flash, etc, in Crisis on Infinite Earths. But for me, back then, it was more – it’s a war, there have to be casualties and fatalities, otherwise what are you teaching kids – that there’s no downside to shooting at each other? It was never meant to be gratuitous, but there were going to be deaths, both meaningful and senseless. That’s how it is with war.
Have you drawn a line under your Transformers work with Regeneration One? Is it over… finished?
It was always meant to be the end. That was the whole idea. I mean, never say never, but largely RG1 really is, over, finished, etc. Y’know I wouldn’t rule out a mini-series set within those 20 plus issues somewhere, if the idea and incentive was good enough, but I certainly wouldn’t consider any kind of continuation. I rather like that one continuity at least has a lovely and resilient THE END.
What does the future hold – do you see yourself doing more comic work, or TV writing? What can we look forward to?
I hope the future holds a balance, which is what I enjoy most about writing at the moment. Time was, it was pretty much all comics – now (currently) I’m working on an animated TV show (CITV’s Matt Hatter Chronicles), a computer game (Transformers Earth Wars), digest graphic novels (How To Train Your Dragon & Kung Fu Panda for Titan), a partwork (Marvel Fact-Files), my web-based graphic comic with Geoff, and — with a co-writer – banging on the door of the movie biz. So far we’ve written six, got two options, did one as special commission for Tim Burton, and currently have two out with various companies for consideration. So very exciting times. But I’ve got to say, I love writing for the screen. It just suits me. It’s comics but looser, with a whole different internal pacing. So I really would love to put more of my energy in that direction.
Thank you very much for your time, Simon!