Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]
One needs to only look at the Amazon reviews for Transformers vs. GI Joe to see how divisive it is: one is five stars, the other is one star, and each warns the reader not to pay attention to the other. Depending on who you ask, it’s either one of the most clever and unique projects either franchise has ever engaged in (which is my opinion), or it’s a childish mess not worth the paper it’s printed on.
This is indicative of a trend I hadn’t really considered until recently: for many GI Joe and Transformers fans, the only comics they read are the ones from their franchises. The non-traditional More Than Meets the Eye and female-centric Windblade have broadened the horizons of toy tie-in comics, but Transformers vs. GI Joe might be a step too far for people who just want to see Optimus Prime team up with Snake-Eyes. It’s quite telling that not only does said team-up not occur in this book, but the plot completely prevents it.
While previous GI Joe vs. Transformers crossovers only had the “versus” to indicate GI Joe and the Autobots fighting Cobra and the Decepticons, John Barber and Tom Scioli take a different path. The Transformers presented here are unfathomably alien and are unable to even communicate with humans until late in this collection. Instead of a constant war with balanced sides, Cybertron has been conquered by Megatron, who is interpreted as a dark god akin to DC’s Darkseid. Optimus Prime has fled to parts unknown, leaving behind a scattered Autobot resistance. On the GI Joe side, we’re presented with Duke as a rookie and Snake-Eyes with a face and a voice ... at least, until the end of the initial issue #0, where he becomes the mute we all know as Bumblebee dies and Cobra Commander gets beheaded.
Tom Scioli’s artwork is the biggest indication that Transformers vs. GI Joe is unlike any other title in either franchise. IDW cleverly released #0 as a Free Comic Book Day title to entice potential readers who might otherwise shy away from the odd artwork, and likely by coincidence, it shared shelves with an FCBD edition of Hip-Hop Family Tree. Both Scioli and Family Tree’s Ed Piskor have a similar style derived from the works of Jack Kirby filtered through decades-old printing processes. This can lead to odd interpretations of character designs and warped proportions in service of stylization. Such artwork can be a shock for readers not used to more experimental artwork; while I can see why some call the artwork childish, I also understand the concept behind it.
Barber and Scioli have a major resource on their side: a shared passion for the franchises involved and the storytelling they have the opportunity to share. There are quite literally hundreds of cameos and references, ranging from titles and captions to character appearances. One major human character is Doctor Venom from the Marvel GI Joe title reinterpreted as an apparently benevolent figure. Along with the stock GI Joe vehicle choices for their fleet, there’s also an appearance of the obscure Vector jet from the Battle Force 2000 line. The creators even use the original toy designs to give the characters features they never had in other continuities. For instance, Soundwave uses his interior tape hold to capture a group of Joes. While the original toy can’t do this, it’s a tribute to the way many kids played with their Soundwave toys by pretending to use the tape deck as a prison.
The creative team consistently chooses the most unlikely plot developments without making such plot swerves seem too ridiculous. This is made clear in the second issue with the biggest surprise of the entire book: unlike previous GI Joe vs. the Transformers comics, Transformers vs. GI Joe sees the Joes attack Cybertron head-on. Such a plot goes against any expectation of what the book might be about but the Joes have the tech and resources to pull it off. (Good thing it’s the '80s or else the government never would’ve sprung for a giant shuttle capable of transporting the entire Joe force across the universe.) And just when you think that it couldn’t get any crazier, the last issue collected here introduces a task force made up entirely of the Joes’ animal assistants, led by Shipwreck’s parrot Polly.
2014 was a rough year for both the Transformers and GI Joe brands with the former getting stuck with a profitable but bloated fourth film, the latter seemingly getting ignored entirely by Hasbro, and both toy lines suffering from quality control and cut corners. The comics have been a bright spot for the long-time fans (even though GI Joe had a massive retooling of its line) and Transformers vs. GI Joe is a key part of that. It would have been easy to just do a standard ongoing team-up of Hasbro’s sister action figure franchises. Instead, IDW has let two of its most creative staff members loose to create a truly one-of-a-kind book.
Next week, it’s time to return to the Avengers. We have four more months until the Earth explodes ... or reboots ... or whatever it is Hickman’s been leading up to this whole time, but there’s an evil team of Avengers to deal with first.