It is fair to say the Transformers would not be nearly as engaging as they are without the incredible quality and variety of artwork that has brought this fantastic Universe to life. While the Transformers toys are the main focus, every aspect of them has been magnified through a Cybertronic lens of dynamic box art, amazing battle scenes, comics and cartoon artwork that give each and every character a voice and personality that fans can identify with.
This is what makes the release of the "Transformers: A Visual History" book from VIZ Media so important. After 35 years, Hasbro and Takara have produced an immense collection of visual artwork between the many animated and toy properties since 1984. Starting with Generation 1, and each new series that followed, a whole new galaxy of characters, toys and artwork created to go with them has been growing steadily into today with more Transformers properties running in parallel than ever.
Tformers had an opportunity to talk with "Transformers: A Visual History" author, Jim Sorensen, about Transformers artwork and his book that will be released on November 12th in a number of configurations for casual readers and collectors. Transformers fans already know Jim's work from a number of Transformers books such as the "Transformers Animated: The Complete Allspark Almanac" and other projects he's developed. There is truly more than meets the eye here, so much that we'll never be able to see all of it. So its great to know that we have a seasoned curator taking us on what is literally a tour of the Transformers Art-verse to show us the very best selections from it. Read our interview with author Jim Sorensen below to learn more about his new book and what went into making it.
Tformers: A book with this kind of breath and depth has been a long time coming. How did you get involved with documenting popular culture lore and ultimately, the TRANSFORMERS: A VISUAL HISTORY book?
"Transformers: A Visual History" author, Jim Sorensen
Way back in the late 90s I found scans of one of the old Japanese laserdisks online. The booklet had all this really cool artwork, black & white turn arounds of the various Decepticons. I didn't even really know what it was but I knew I loved it. I eventually figured out that they were animation models, created for the original cartoon to help the multiple animators draw the characters consistently. I bought a pack of the models through eBay for an exorbitant fee, but never complained.
Eventually my interest took a turn for the evangelical and I decided I should be trying to share this new passion of mine. I pitched a book of 20-year-old black & white animation models and, incredibly, IDW bought it. When The Ark: A Complete Compendium of Character Models came out, it sold well enough to warrant a sequel, and then a book of the Transformers: Animated character models which morphed into The AllSpark Almanac, and I was well on my way.
Fast forward a decade and I've got a dozen books under my belt, not to mention various bios and stories and articles and even an online novel. I've been fortunate enough to work with G.I. Joe, GoBots, Robotix, even Angry Birds! What a long, strange trip it's been. So when VIZ reached out and asked if I'd be interested in doing one more, I said yes almost immediately. (I think the first thing I asked was "are you the same VIZ who did Ranma 1/2 back in the day?" The answer, of course, was "yes.")
Tformers: You have done quite a few books for Transformers and other properties, what is different about this book and what were you most excited about doing with this one?
The sheer scope of the work. Most of what I've tackled in the past has had an intentionally narrow scope. Here are all the animation models from the 80s Transformers anime; here is the production art from Transformers: Prime. Not this bad boy! We covered the entire 35 year history of the brand; every decade, every franchise. Nothing was off the table. Exciting, yes, but also daunting.
Tformers: With stuff this rare, a lot of it is not seen in its original form. Where do you begin with a project like this, idea wise, and where did it take you, location wise?
I was fortunate enough to be able to work with some really sharp editors, so at every stage the project was a conversation. There was a very rough outline in place that VIZ and Hasbro had concocted before my involvement. At the top level it's very close to what the book looks like today: Packaging, Comics, Animation, Video Games, and Film. There was one chapter that we wound up cutting, The Future, and another we briefly flirted with called Key Visuals that wound up getting subsumed into the other sections. But it provided an excellent starting point for the conversation.
In terms of travel, mostly I let my fingers do the walking. (How's that for a dated reference?) I did get as far as Los Angeles to track down some early Marvel production artwork, but that was about the extent of it. But make no mistake, this was truly a global effort. Folks from as far away as Europe and Japan lent expertise and scans to make A Visual History the hefty beast that it is.
Tformers: What is different about the Transformers art from other superhero and popular culture properties?
Art-wise, what stands out to me is how strongly Transformers leans into its Japanese roots. The earliest images of Transformers came from Takara, Hasbro's Japanese partner. Package art from the Diaclone and Microman lines--which made up the bulk of the '84 and '85 Transformers toylines--was used in the states as well with minimal alterations. This helped define the unique package-art aesthetic. On the comics and cartoon side, meanwhile, the earliest designs were from Takara designer Shohei Kohara. These would eventually be reinterpreted by Floro Dery in the states, but those character models (the same ones from question one!) would be used to inform both the Sunbow cartoon and the Marvel comics. These three aspects of the brand--toy packaging, cartoon, comic--were THE foundational aspects of Transformers art, and their influence is still strongly felt to this day. It's that blending of Japanese and American artistic sensibilities that gives Transformers its most distinctive qualities.
Tformers: We know there will be lots of images of Optimus and Megatron. How did you decide what goes into the book, and not?
It was a real challenge! We reviewed almost five thousand images, and that was the short list compiled from Hasbro and my own archives and contacts! Once again, it was a real team effort. I worked with Sarah Fairhall and David Brothers at VIZ to review each of the pieces that had made it onto our list, breaking them down into four categories: 'Must Have', 'Probably Keep', 'Maybe/Unsure', 'Reject'. I think there was a bit of naivete that we'd be able to use much from the 'Maybe' pile, but we were really good about getting our 'Must-Haves' into the book.
Having different perspectives in this process was invaluable. I was able to make sure that the truly iconic illustrations from the history of the franchise were represented, but Sarah was able to come at it from a purely aesthetic perspective, responding to the pieces absent historical context. Sometimes we'd be borderline between two categories, and then we'd do a quick vote to see where they'd end up.
And then, having selected what we want, we'd kick it over to Daniel New, our extremely talented designer. He'd look at what we'd chosen for each section and, following our guidelines, lay them out whichever way made the pieces work the best. In practice, if a piece was labeled ‘Probably Keep’, it meant he'd feel free to use or not use it. I think we flagged about 150 ‘Must Have’ and then another 1,200 ‘Probably Keep’, with about 400 ‘Maybes’. Of those 1,750 images, we wound up placing about 1,150 of them in the book. Some were double-page spreads, a few were placed 10 or more per page, but all were given the space they needed.
It was a pretty satisfying process. The end result is that we have a great balance of pieces big and small, characters classic and obscure, iconic illustrations and never-before-seen concept art. Being able to showcase the production art of films--more than 50 pages worth!--was particularly gratifying to me.
Tformers: How did you go about deciding what to focus on from the many comic, movie, toy and TV properties?
With such a wide variety of individual properties within the brand, we tried to give each its due. In a few cases we were limited by what material was available to use -- we're a little underrepresented on the Unicron Trilogy, for instance--but mostly we got to pick and choose. Franchises that made a bigger impact, or perhaps generated a wider variety of material, got more pages. The longevity, impact, and artistic diversity of the IDW comics, for example, make the IDW section the longest single sub-chapter in the book, at 28 pages. Others, like the Japanese exclusive anime Beast Wars Neo, only got a single page, because it's a relatively unimportant series and the material available to us wasn't particularly special or different from material elsewhere in the book. Overall I think we threaded that needle, giving proper weight to each franchise within the brand while making a book that has a nice flow, one that you can flip through for thirty, forty minutes at a time and never get bored.
Tformers: With so much media, what kind of pre-production was involved? Did you have to scan from hard copy, fix colors, touch up scans and all that?
Occasionally, sure. The scanning was pretty much done before we started, with just a few exceptions. The major restoration work was to the classic ‘84 promotional poster on page 220, which I was stoked to get into the book. After all the restoration we did on the Legacy package art book I've seen the original box art used in more and more places, which is obviously extremely gratifying; I'm hoping this piece similarly finds its way back to mainstream use. Otherwise, yeah, a little color correction here, cropping there, nothing too major.
Tformers: How much of the known Transformers art is seen in this book and will it ever make sense to publish all of it?
I mean... less than 1 percent surely. Just consider comic books... 104 issues from Marvel US, 322 issues of the Marvel UK series, 91 issues from Dreamwave, 17 crossover issues from Devil's Due, ~440 issues from IDW, another 100 or so issues from IDW in other continuities, plus the publishing output of the Transformers fan club, Titan Magazines, and then there are all the new covers for various reprints. Conservatively we're talking well north of twenty THOUSAND pages of comic art. And that's just in English! And then consider that every Transformers film, cartoon, and video game has hundreds of pages of designs and storyboards, each toy has multiple illustrations along the design process.
The good news is, of course, that a lot of that HAS been published already, with a natural bias towards the more interesting bits. Would it ever make sense to publish all the designs, storyboards, and other process-type documents? I suppose that depends on what you mean by publish. I could envision some kind of streaming service where you pay a couple of bucks and you can access the old storyboards. I doubt it'd ever make sense to publish all the old storyboards or character designs in book format. The story boards are long, and frankly not every animation model is inherently interesting. The robots and gizmos are great, don't get me wrong, but pretty much every background character, prop, and vehicle gets a design too. There are only so many fire hydrants and window washers and telephone poles and construction workers one can see before they start to get redundant.
Tformers: Has anything really important been lost forever, or that you could not publish, but wanted to?
Forever? Forever is a long time coming. There are certainly designs not in my or Hasbro's archives that I'd love to retrieve, but I'm optimistic that we'll be able to track them down some day. The Transformers fandom is an incredibly GIVING group of people, and the majority of collectors have a sharing mindset. So when something rare gets uncovered by a collector, more often than not it finds its way to the light of day.
As far as pieces we couldn't use, there were a few pieces that were in an early draft of the book that we were asked to remove for strategic or legal reasons--think third party logos--but mostly we were able to pick and choose.
Tformers: It is not widely known who did much of the box, advertising and many other forms of art supporting Transformers over the decades. Will we get any insights into who these people are?
Just a bit! Unfortunately that wasn't something that people were so interested in keeping track of back in the day, but we've got a few of those sorts of pieces with an artist credited, and even in one case got the original artist to give us some commentary.
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Tformers: Books like this seem to be making a comeback as collectibles. What do these books offer that the vast Internet has not, and is this the beginning of more books to come?
Well, the Stan Lee formulation is pithier than anything I'm likely to come up with. I'm probably biased, but to me there's something magical about having a book, especially an art book, in your hand. There's no sense of ownership that comes with scrolling through something on a screen. It becomes informational, data that you know rather than art that you feel. "Oh, that's what the box art for Starscream looked like." Once it's published in a book, and lives on your shelf, it's easier to emotionally connect with it.
As for what the future holds, well, that's up to you! If you love this kind of book, please, go to your LCS (local comic shop or bookstore) and ask them to order one for you. If you like it once you get it, let people know online. I've got a hundred books I'd like to make, so if you'd like to read them vote with your wallets and make a little noise.
Tformers wants to thank Jim Sorensen for answering our questions and we are looking forwards to reading the full TRANSFORMERS: A VISUAL HISTORY book when it comes out. Stay tuned to Tformers.com for the full review as soon as we get one.