This June, the Autobots and Decepticons will return to theaters when Transformers: The Last Knight premieres. While director Michael Bay’s vision for the franchise isn’t quite what many old-school Transformers fans grew up loving, several classic elements carried over from the toys, cartoons and comics – specifically, those iconic names.
Ratchet, Starscream, Sideswipe and yes, Megatron, can all be traced back to the imagination of one creator – writer and artist Bob Budiansky. Following a lengthy career in comics, which included stints as a Marvel Comics writer, artist and editor (he created Sleepwalker), Budiansky now works outside of the comics industry, doing private art commissions and appearing at conventions.
And it’s at New England Super Megafest Comic-Con in Massachusetts where I had a chance to sit down with the Transformers Hall of Fame inductee about those beloved robots in disguise.AiPT!: What was your first reaction to the Transformers concept and did you think it’d go on to become the global phenomenon it’s become?
Bob Budiansky: So I was a Marvel editor at the time, and the way I heard about it was Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter was desperately looking for somebody to take the initial 26 Transformers toys and turn them into characters. Name them and come up with character profiles for them. He’d already developed the treatment for the story. He went to one senior editor, who had a long history of being a writer as well, and had him develop the characters, but didn’t like the results. So the deadline was approaching, he was desperate, he went to several different editors who had writing credentials and they turned him down, and he finally, got to me. I was an editor who was then known more as an artist than a writer, so I was not an obvious choice.
When I first heard about it, I felt, well this is a good opportunity to show I have some writing skills. I thought the toy was kind of interesting, it was imaginative. I did not claim to be an expert in the toy industry. So I didn’t know how successful the toy would become. I looked at it as a challenge. I had to develop 26 characters over a long weekend, about three to four days maybe, and turned it in on Monday. So that’s how I looked at it – I had a deadline, I have all this work to do, I want to prove I can be a writer and it’s kind of a cool toy, but I wasn’t so focused on how great a toy it was. More, how can I produce the results my boss wanted, and ultimately, Hasbro would be happy with.
As far as did I ever imagine it’d become a multi-billion dollar movie franchise? No way, I was just as surprised as anyone. When I got off the book in 1989, it was a dying franchise, the toy line was not selling. Hasbro had pulled back on production. Comic book sales were going down. It just seemed like it fulfilled its lifecycle like a lot of toys. It had its moment, then it was gone. Then it came back bigger than ever.AiPT!: You came up with the 26 Transformers’ names. Does that include Optimus Prime?
Budiansky: So of that initial 26, I think two names were held over from my predecessor’s work. Optimus Prime being one of them. I came up with Megatron and just about all the others. So the first five years of Transformers, from November 1983 when I started working on it until early 1989, I developed most of the names and profiles of the toys. All the profiles, all the packaging copy for Hasbro, as well as writing the comic for about five years.
AiPT!: Do you have a favorite Transformer name?
Budiansky: Megatron – I had to fight for that one. Hasbro initially turned it down because they felt it was too scary, because back in the 1980s, megatons meant nuclear bombs and had a very scary connotation, which was my intent. So when Hasbro turned it down, I realized it’s Hasbro’s product, they can do whatever they want. I’m the new guy, they don’t know me. On other occasions, they turned down names, but with Megatron, I felt it had a nice ring to it and I fought for it. They said it was too scary and I said, well, he is the head of the bad guys, he’s supposed to be scary. So they reconsidered.AiPT!: Do you remember any of the rejected character names?
Budiansky: Most of the time they were for legal reasons, because they had a legal department that had to check everybody’s trademark. So if they had a competing product with a similar name, they couldn’t use it. The only name that stands out that they rejected, which I thought was a good name for an Autobot – the initial Autobots were mostly cars or some sort of wheeled vehicle, so I was always looking for cool-sounding car-related names. So I came up with Highbeams, which i thought was a pretty cool name for an Autobot. So the product manager at Hasbro – female by the way – pointed out that in Chicago where she came from, “high beams” was slang for certain part of female anatomy. I was pretty innocent and naive back then, so I had no clue. But in any case, I could not use Highbeams because it had a sexual connotation.
AiPT!: Well, my favorite Transformer was always Skywarp.
Budiansky: Oh yeah, well, that’s one I named. I remember of the Decepticons, there were three jet fighters. So I had to come up with names that evoked power, menace, insanity, danger, evil – so I came up with Starscream, Skywarp and Thundercracker. That was my initial trio of Decepticon jet fighters.AiPT!: Do you have a favorite Transformer?
Budiansky: You know, that’s a question I’ve been asked on a bunch of occasions and I do, but only because of the stories I wrote about him, and that would be Blaster. I wrote a couple of stories I thought were good that featured him prominently. And along the way, people have said he was a minor character in the animation and the toy was a tape cassette player. But to me, he was important because I wrote some cool stories about him and that’s why he was my favorite.
AiPT!: I’m assuming you’ve seen Michael Bay’s Transformers films. How do you feel about them?
Budiansky: The first Transformers movie I liked quite a bit. I thought it was a big budget version of what I tried to do when I wrote the comic book. So I really appreciated it for that reason – they did a pretty good job capturing what I tried to do and they had a lot more money to do it. The second one I felt was a big step backwards. The third one I felt was a little bit of an improvement. And I haven’t watched anything that’s come out since. But I can’t say I run to the movie theaters to see the Transformers movies. You know, it’s something I worked on, I appreciated it when I worked on it, I tried to do a good job. But in the sense of being a fan of it, I’m not a fan that grew up reading the book or watching the animation on TV or buying the toys, so I came at it from a different perspective. When I got off the Transformers book in 1989, I did not follow it, I did not follow it in the 1990s when Beast Wars came out, you know? I was vaguely aware of these things.
AiPT!: Are there any Transformers stories you wrote that you think could be adapted into a film?
Budiansky: I would have to review some of the storylines I came up with and see what potentially could make a good movie. My favorite storyline was a two-part story called “The Smelting Pool!” and “The Bridge to Nowhere!”
AiPT!: Those featured Blaster, right?
Budiansky: Yeah, it was the first introduction I had in the comics to Cybertron. The story was on Cybertron, then moved to Earth eventually. I felt there was a lot of good drama in there. It introduced a lot of interesting mythology, being on Cybertron. I can see that being, if not an entire movie, a part of a movie bringing in those elements.
AiPT!: A non-Transformers question. While at Marvel, you worked on the infamous Spider-Man Clone Saga. Ben Reilly is back in the comics and the Scarlet Spider is getting a new series. Have you been following that?
Budiansky: I’m aware but haven’t followed that.
AiPT!: Do you have any thoughts on the character, seeing him back all these years later?
Budiansky: I don’t really. All I will say is if you look at the history of modern comics – the 70s, 80s – any time somebody kills off a character or ends a storyline, it’s almost guaranteed somebody else will find a way to bring it back. More power to Marvel, hope it works out for them, but I have no comment on whether I like it or don’t like it.
AiPT!: Final question. You’ve been an integral part of two pop culture phenomena – Transformers and the Marvel Universe. How do you feel when you look back on your incredible career?
Budiansky: Well, I’m thankful that I had the opportunity I had to work in the industry as long as I did. I was in comics for 20 years doing all sorts of really interesting things, Transformers being one of them. Marvel products like Ghost Rider, Sleepwalker, overseeing the Marvel Comics trading cards that came out in first half of 1990s – the first 11 sets. I had my hands in a lot of pots, so I’m really thankful I had the opportunity. I’d like to think a lot of the work I produced did the job and the fans found it satisfactory. It wasn’t always me – was a team of people.
So when I look back, I’m not as surprised, but I am surprised, because after the Transformers movies came out, people like you are interviewing me about stories I wrote over 30 years ago. I never expected when I was writing those stories, people would care 10, 20, 30 years later. I remember when the internet started getting hot in the late 90s, I did a search for my name and came across these early Transformers fan sites and there were these long reviews on comics I’d written 10 to 15 years earlier and people were slamming them and having all these interesting things to say about them and making all these assumptions about me. I found it amusing that people even cared and that people were still talking about stuff I was really writing for 10-year-olds way back when. Now they’re obviously adults. I felt they were somewhat disposable at the time, trying to fill a purpose of getting out a monthly book for a number of years, then it’d be done. So the fact that people are still talking about them … I’m as surprised as anyone.
AiPT!: Thanks for taking the time to chat, Bob!