Daniel Warren Johnson's Transformers is a thrilling fresh start for the robots in disguise

 Optimus Prime rolls out.
Optimus Prime rolls out.

The reveal that Robert Kirkman's Void Rivals wasn't a standalone sci-fi adventure series, but the first part of a top secret shared Energon Universe alongside new Transformers and G.I. Joe titles, has been one of the more exciting comics news stories so far this year. We were even more delighted when we learned who would be heading up the core Transformers book: Daniel Warren Johnson.

The writer/artist behind Do A Powerbomb, Murder Falcon and Extremity is one of the most exciting creatives working right now in the medium, and his dynamic visuals imbue the new Transformers with both widescreen spectacle and a real weight and physicality. We've read the first issue and, while we're bound to secrecy about its contents, it's safe to say that it's a bold start to a series that should appeal to both new readers and veteran fans.

We caught up with Johnson to find out more about how he came to be involved with the comic in the first place, his long history with the robots in disguise, and why Optimus Prime is so difficult to draw.

Art from Transformers #1
Art from Transformers #1

Newsarama: Let's start at the beginning... How did you get involved with Transformers and the new Energon Universe?

Daniel Warren Johnson: I have a very good working relationship with Sean Mackiewicz at Skybound. He was my editor on Extremity and Murder Falcon and, not only was he a great editor, he also had a bunch of story notes for me on both those books that really helped make them better. So we just stayed in touch.

I went on to do Wonder Woman and he reached out towards the end of Do A Powerbomb. I had known that Skybound was trying to get the license for at least a year or so because I had done some spec art for it, and then he calls and he's like, "Hey, we got the license. How do you feel about writing and drawing Transformers?"

And, you know, to be totally honest, I was very hesitant. It's a licensed book and sometimes that comes with challenges, creatively, but Sean really convinced me. I thought about it a lot and the more I thought about it, the more of a good fit I felt like it was.

Art from Transformers #1
Art from Transformers #1

Are you a long time Transformers fan?

For as long as I can remember. It was maybe second grade when I started watching the reruns on television. I was born in '87, so I missed the initial airing, but they had the reruns on after school every day and I watched those religiously.

I was also always trying to get my Transformers fix with the Marvel comics that were in the back issue bins at my local shop, but all of the cool ones had been picked clean! All the ones with Optimus Prime doing cool stuff, those were all gone. I remember they had the Soundwave "the Autobots are all dead" cover [from 1985's The Transformers #5] but in the interiors there weren't any Optimus Prime scenes, so I was like, "I don't want this comic!" I kept asking the shop owners, "When are you going to get more Transformers comics in?" They were like, "Dude, that was 10 years ago, nobody buys those!"

So yeah, big fan. I was also always trying to draw Optimus Prime and always failing. He has that kind of Homer Simpson or Iron Giant quality, where it seems very simple, but it's actually really complicated and always a challenge.

Art from Transformers #1
Art from Transformers #1

What makes him so challenging?

He's really boxy. The G1 design, it's super cool to look at, especially in the toys, but drawing him... it would always look too stiff. It just didn't look good whenever I drew him, so I had to figure out how to do that.

You'll notice that his look changes from season one of the TV show to the 1986 movie where they had an art director making sure that Optimus Prime looks the same in every scene. I'm kind of treating the movie as my visual bible for the whole series and I have been using the head of the Masterpiece Optimus figure that is based on the movie, so I have some nice reference material here.

Plus every Optimus Prime toy that I buy, I can write off on my taxes for as long as I work on this!

Did you have to come up with a pitch for Skybound about where you wanted to take the book?

Skybound have the bible that they pitched to Hasbro initially and after seeing that document and agreeing to it, I started getting ideas. There are some big plans - I mean, they're planning on making this series go for a long time and there's some really cool events that they want to do, but they've left it up to me how to get to those big things.

One thing they didn't want me to do was reveal too much at once. You know, like have every single Autobot and Decepticon fighting immediately, which is fine, because I don't want to draw that anyway. It's good to have a sandbox that starts small and you build it out as the series go on. So there has been oversight, but not in a bad way. The story and the emotional beats and the characters that show up are all my choices.

Art from Transformers #1
Art from Transformers #1

How did you choose which characters would be in your Autobot and Decepticon line-ups?

Well, Optimus had to be in there. That was my main thing: I only want to do it if Optimus is a main character. And Skywarp's my favorite Decepticon, so I had to put him in there. I basically just picked my favorites and the ones that I want to draw.

It's funny, the line-ups that are on the Skybound promotional materials, those were made before I'd even started writing, because they needed those fast. And so some of that is me kind of taking a guess as I was writing the outline. What I've been telling people who ask is, "don't take that cast as bible." But it's a good approximation.

I'm trying to debut characters in ways that are exciting and dynamic. It's fun to introduce a new cast member and maybe get rid of a cast member every once in a while, you never know.

The Autobots lineup
The Autobots lineup

The first issue also includes a couple of young humans who will be familiar to fans, Spike and Carly. What can you say about those characters?

I feel like, when writing tales about big robots, there's a tendency to lose sight of the human stakes. You have to do so much groundwork when writing about an alien species or robots to make it seem that their lives matter. I know that sounds silly, but you have to really put in the time, which is not something you necessarily have when you're doing an issue one. I've found the easiest way to make connections with other readers is to include humans and have them be kind of like the hobbits of the story. They're kind of a way in, and I'm also trying to figure out a way to give them a little more agency than I've seen them have in the past.

There's also an element of connection between robot and human, almost a spiritual connection, which I think could be explored a lot more. That's something that I'm really excited to write more of and those two characters allow me to do that.

Art from Transformers #1
Art from Transformers #1

Obviously, the book is part of the shared Energon universe that started with Void Rivals. How much cross connectivity is there between yourself and what Robert Kirkman is doing on that book?

Every once in a while, we'll talk about it, but for the first arc of Transformers I'm mostly being left to my own devices. As far as the larger Energon universe goes, that's something that we will get into more in later arcs.

Skybound really wants to make sure that people know that this is a book that can stand on its own, and that's my goal too. I want to have a Transformers book that people can just buy and enjoy, but with some added hints and little Easter eggs scattered about. There is a wider world that is out there and is ready to be dived into, but we are taking our time and making sure that everybody is invested in the main characters and excited about what is already there.

Does working on a licensed book like this involve a different skill set to your creator-owned work?

I'm learning to balance what I feel the story needs and how to present it with what Hasbro's needs are. It's tough, but it's also rewarding, and it's always good to be stretched and be challenged in that way.

I don't want to be like one of those directors that has all the money and can do whatever they want, but they actually make terrible stuff. I want to keep learning and keep pushing myself. I have had to change things with the story, but it's been a really positive thing. All I can say that is that different is not always bad. I'm having a really good time, especially drawing the book. It's been a blast, and I can't wait for people to see it.

Transformers #1 is published by Skybound on October 4.

Here's how you can watch all of the Transformers movies in order.