An interview with Bob Budiansky
By Charles Ellis
Bob Budiansky wrote the American Transformers series from issue 5-55, in doing so turning characters like Shockwave, Ratchet, Blaster, Fortress Maximus and even hi-then-die's like Scrounge & Straxus into major parts of the Transformer mythos. Despite all this, he's much maligned for his later work and while Furman has been interviewed a million or so times, nobody has ever talked with Budiansky over his Transformers work.
How did you get the job editing and later writing the Transformers comic?
In 1983 Marvel had made a deal with Hasbro to develop Hasbro's new line of toys, The Transformers, into a comic book, as Marvel had so successfully done with GI Joe just a couple of years earlier. In November 1983, then-Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter asked me if I would be interested in writing some material for it, specifically naming and developing some of the Transformers characters. Shooter had already developed a treatment and some of the characters with Denny O'Neill, but I believe they had some creative differences, so Shooter
came to me. And I know he went to a few other writers before he got to me. At the time I was a staff editor, and I had pencilled a bunch of books, but I hadn't written that much, so it was understandable why I wasn't at the top of Shooter's list. Nevertheless, I really appreciated the opportunity Shooter was giving me. It was a rush job- naming and writing character descriptions for about 20 characters, I think, and I had a little over a weekend to do it. Denny had written a few of them- he named and wrote the bio for Optimus Prime, for
instance -but the bulk of the characters still remained to be done.
So over the next few days I named and gave personalities to the remaining Transformers, Shooter liked them, Hasbro (which had to approve everything Marvel did) liked them, and Shooter came to the conclusion that maybe I would be a good choice to edit the mini-series. So that's how I became editor.
I remember that for the writers of the mini-series- I believe Bill Mantlo, Ralph Macchio and Jim Salicrup all had a hand in it -it was a challenge. Introducing all these new characters and their back story all at once, trying to give at least some of them interesting characterizations, fashioning a coherent storyline that could run over four issues- just trying to tell them apart, all of this was a struggle for the writers. Normally a four-issue mini-series would have one writer. The fact that Transformers had three speaks for itself.
At the end of the fourth issue, when we knew the Transformers would continue as a regular series, Jim Salicrup was just about begging me to find someone to replace him as writer (I don't think Jim would disagree with that characterization, but I apologize to him if I'm overstating his desire to leave the book). So I went to Shooter and volunteered to take over the writing chores. Since I was developing the characters already, I seemed like a natural fit to Shooter for the job, so he agreed. The rule at Marvel at that time was that you couldn't edit what you wrote, so with issue #5, I ceased editing Transformers and began writing it.
How much interaction did you have with the Transformers cartoon makers Sunbow regarding stories and characterisation?
I remember going to some meetings early in the development of the series with Sunbow people present. I think a couple of the later additions to the back story, specifically when new lines of characters were being introduced by Hasbro, may have been generated by Sunbow. I know all the characters and story ideas for the Transformers movie came from Sunbow (I don't know how much of it was developed in-house by Sunbow). Otherwise, once the comic book series got rolling, I generated almost all the names, personalities, and additions to the Transformers back story for the next several years. After a season or two on TV, the Transformers were relocated off of Earth. At that point, there was very little connection between the comic book I was writing and the TV show Sunbow was producing, other than the fact that I was still generating the names and personalities of new characters, and that material was passed on by Hasbro to Sunbow to use as Sunbow saw fit.
Who were the people at Marvel who created the tech specs for the Transformers toys? Most sources say you did most or all of them, but others say that other people at Marvel, i.e. Jim Shooter, did the original ones and no one is sure who did the later ones.
Although it's possible that Jim Shooter had something to do with it at the beginning, I believe I created most if not all of those tech specs for about the first five or six years worth of characters. I modelled mine after the specs that fellow Marvel Editor Mark Gruenwald had created for his Marvel Universe series for Marvel characters. I also wrote just about all of the packaging copy for the Transformers toys that Hasbro put out during those years. All that material was eventually reprinted in the Transformers Universe comic book mini-series.
After the deaths of Optimus and Megatron, you took a slightly controversial approach in making Ratbat the fuel auditor leader of the Decepticons and Grimlock into a tyrannical leader of the Autobots. What was the inspiration for this?
Remembering precisely what inspired me almost twenty years ago is a challenge, but I'll give it a try. I think the main thing was I wanted to shake things up, and defy readers' expectations. I didn't want to focus on the same two characters every issue. I couldn't. I was always under pressure from Hasbro to introduce new characters, particularly the characters based on the new toys Hasbro was releasing every year. For example, the Dinobots were a big deal, perhaps the first new set of Transformers after the initial couple of dozen. So I highlighted them for a while and gave Grimlock a big role in the storyline. I liked playing around with the idea that not every Autobot was equally sensitive to humans. Whereas Optimus Prime was the idealized leader of the heroes- brave, protective, noble, self-sacrificing -Grimlock and his gang of Dinobots had personalities not quite as multi-faceted. They were mainly concerned about being in charge and kicking some Decepticon butt.
You devoted a lot of time and character development to the characters Blaster and Shockwave. What drew you to these characters?
This kind of goes back to my last answer. I just wanted to develop other characters and not always focus on Optimus Prime and Megatron. I think in the earlier issues that I wrote I was able to more successfully do that. As the series developed, I was introducing so many new characters that it became a real challenge to focus on anyone for more than an issue or two. As for why specifically Blaster and Shockwave- I dunno. The toys probably just looked cool to me, so I chose them. It could have just as easily been two other characters.
A criticism often thrown at the comic is that Starscream was hardly used. Was this due to lack of time & space, or did you just not find the character appealing?
I don't think I had anything specifically against Starscream. I just chose other directions to go in creatively. He did play a major role in the early issues of the series and in the Underbase storyline though.
What were your experiences with Hasbro?
I had a great time working with Hasbro. We didn't always agree 100% of the time, but more often than not we did. I worked with some excellent people there who were very supportive of and receptive to my work. I think the first time I went on a business trip to the Hasbro headquarters, I got some razzing because I was wearing a jacket and tie. They were expecting a Marvel creative type to look a bit less formal. After that, whenever I visited I dressed down.
In the story 'Return to Cybertron', you had the Decepticons melting Transformers in the vast Smelting Pools. What was the inspiration behind the Smelting Pools?
Again asking about specifics from almost twenty years ago! I do remember that that two-parter was among my favourite Transformers stories that I wrote. I'm pretty sure the final scene in Terminator (where Arnold meets his melter), which was in the theatres around then, was at least part of the inspiration for the smelting pools- the idea that a robot would be destroyed in that manner. And I'm sure there were other inspirations. I think I had a Clint Eastwood-type character in mind when I was scripting Blaster in those stories. But it's been a while- maybe I was thinking of Woody Allen.
What were your thoughts on the later Transformers figures- the Headmasters, Targetmasters, Pretenders etc?
I don't have any real feelings for these characters, at least none that I can recall now. By this point in the series' development, when it seemed like every other month Hasbro was rolling out new action figures and I had to figure out ways to add them to the comic book's storyline, these new characters often seemed to be just clogging up the works. Enough already! I already have more than enough characters to feature in the book. Those were at least some of my thoughts, maybe all of them, about those characters.
Did you have problems with having to introduce new characters in with such frequency?
See my previous answer. You bet! Just when I was developing a storyline and some characters in some direction that I though was interesting, BOOM!- I have to suddenly find room for another dozen. It was like having endless waves of uninvited boat people wash up on your shore. For me, at least, it made writing the book ever more challenging as my tenure on it lengthened. I think sometimes I dealt with bringing new characters into the book better than others. But don't ask me which were the ones I did well and which ones I didn't- I don't remember!
One of the defining traits of your stories was that you would bring in a human character to interact with the various Transformers. Why did you use human characters so often?
The Transformers were on Earth! Why shouldn't they interact with humans? I think I had the most fun having the two very different species cross paths in various ways. If the Transformers weren't going to deal with humans, why have them wind up on a planet full of them? What would be the point of that? I guess the people at Sunbow asked themselves the same question at some point and decided they didn't like the answer, because they eventually took the Transformers off of Earth in the animated show, right? (I confess, I didn't watch the animated show, so I could be wrong.) I really felt that was what made the idea of writing a Transformers comic book interesting to me- the idea that these two species that are so different would suddenly find themselves in the same world and would have to figure out ways to deal with it.
What was the idea behind the infamous Carwash of Doom story?
Again, the years have done a pretty good job covering that trail in my memory, but I suspect it was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It was a parody of that movie. I believe we even had the letterer letter the story title in a similar style to the movie title.
What were your feelings towards the title near the end of your run?
Relief at the prospect of leaving! After 50 issues or so, I was running on fumes. Toward the end of my run, the book's editor, Don Daley, persuaded me to stay on for a couple of more issues than I wanted to, even got me to pencil some of the last issue that I wrote. But I was ready to jump ship. I wanted to move on to other projects. All the time I was writing the Transformers I was also a full-time Marvel editor, so I didn't have a lot of time to do much else creatively.
In the final of the Underbase storyline, you killed off a vast amount of the older characters. Was this due to a mandate of Hasbro or did you just want to clean house?
First of all, what exactly is death to the Transformers? Can't they just be rebuilt? So whether they were permanently dead or not is debatable. At least that's the way I looked at it. Aside from that, I'm not sure exactly what went into who died or why. It's been a while. I suspect I was thinking the following:
1) I've built up to this big Underbase saga.
2) I want to have real important things happen in it to justify the magnitude of the storyline.
3) I have way too many characters floating around this series.
4) Hasbro won't mind if I 'kill' off a bunch of them, especially some of the ones they're not producing as toys any more, because a way can always be found to bring them back.
I was a fan of the DC series Metal Men in the 60s. Those guys got trashed and rebuilt almost every issue. I figured this is the 80s, the technology is better. Rebuilding a mangled Transformer should be no prob. But I wasn't even planning on bringing any back at that point (or myself, for that matter, since at that time I was thinking of leaving the series). Truthfully, with so many Transformers still in the series and new ones always being added, who would miss the ones that were 'killed'? More importantly, if they were still alive, when would I have time to give them any significant space in the series? So, yeah, maybe I whacked a few fan faves, but I think in most cases they were characters that had faded from the spotlight or had barely been used in the series and I had no plans to use them again. So they were already just about dead.
Is there a story or character you wish you'd had time to pursue?
If there was, I don't remember. It's been a while.
Finally, what have been your experiences with Transformers fandom and would you write for the characters again if you had the chance?
While I worked on the series, my experiences with the fans were overall extremely positive. The bulk of the fan mail we received was generally complimentary and showed a great interest in the characters and storylines. Stan Lee even wrote us a glowing fan letter after he read issue #23, Decepticon Graffitti! No higher praise than that, in my book. When I met fans at comic book conventions, they seemed enthusiastic about what I was doing in the book. Since I left Transformers, I haven't really dealt with Transformers fandom. I get the impression there is still a high level of interest in the Transformers, especially on the Internet. But other than responding to an occasional interview like this, don't interface
with the Transformer fans any more.
As for writing the Transformers again, I never say yes or no to an offer until after someone makes it. So I suppose I'm open to the idea of writing the Transformers- at least until someone actually asks me to do it.
My personal feeling about Bob is that he gets dumped on a lot by Transformers fans. His Shockwave is one of the key things in the comic mythos and made it stand out from the cartoon, but people still try to ignore him. I think he was a good writer who was held back by crappy art and the need to keep bringing in new characters; with these constraints, it's amazing he actually developed characters as much as he did!
I agree for the most part. Like all writers, when he was on form, Budiansky was very good. Shame, like you said, that he had to introduce so many characters. It's actually the one thing I think the cartoon was better at. At least they waited 20 years before introducing the next "generation" of characters. Bob's mistake was to introduce the Headmasters and Pretenders, etc. in the present day. And for the Pretenders, the Japanese got it right... actual human sized shells!! Why Bob chose TF sized ones I'll never fathom. TFs already had size-changing abilities at that point, so it wouldn't have been unreasonable to have human-sized Pretenders in the comic.
Ah, Uncle Bob whom I shall defend unto death. He did some great stuff, he did some awful stuff but he was OK. As good/bad as Furman in my opinion. If only for Smelting Pool/Bridge to Nowhere which are my favourite tf comics...ever! I really liked the whole Blaster/Grimlock plotline too, and the idea of the Autobots being ruled by someone who was essentially a despot! Now, *that's* a good idea.
Bob had more talent than Furman in my opinion, because most of the time he tried to write intelligently and thoughtfully, rather than just spectacularly. I disagree with Charles putting the Headmasters mini-series in the stupid age though. Unless you're one of those who thinks TF stories are only good when told from the TF point of view, it had good characterisation and handled some tough moral issues. To me, some the most important elements of Transformers was the way they interacted with humans, the way they saw humans and the way humans saw them. We only really got this from Bob. Plus, he gave us Shockwave, Ratchet, Blaster, Straxus, Skids, Fortress Maximus and the Creation Matrix. The US art wasn't really inferior to the UK. It was more realistic when it came to humans and scenery. But it wasn't spectacular, and had the dull dot-colouring. Plus Bob's work had far, far more dialogue, which makes it less exciting for teenaged boys. And of course as Graham points out, the constant influx of new toys killed his work off dead. I'd have stopped trying too in that situation.