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Inside the surprise revival of the Transformers & GI Joe shared universe with Hasbro, Skybound, & Image Comics

A conversation with Hasbro's Michael Kelly about Transformers, G.I. Joe, working with Skybound...and Squirrel Girl?

Transformers #1
Image credit: Daniel Warren Johnson/Mike Spicer (Image Comics/Skybound Entertainment)

One look at Hasbro’s Vice President for Global Publishing Michael Kelly will tell you he is not your ordinary toy executive. When we first met in the Hasbro area on the Comic-Con International: San Diego showfloor, he’s wearing neither the standard suit of an exec nor the pop culture nerdom you might expect an exec to wear to SDCC. Instead he’s got on the same blue t-shirt of everyone working the booth.

He’s also wearing a kilt and sporting some fantastic Celtic art on his arms.

But it turns out a passion for his Scottish roots is the least of what sets Kelly apart. We’re here to talk Hasbro and Skybound’s exciting sneak-attack of a new shared universe, Energon (pronounced EN-ur-john), which is bringing Transformers and G.I. Joe together by way of two ongoing series—Transformers from writer/artist Daniel Warren Johnson (launching in October) and G.I. Joe #301 from longtime Joe writer Larry Hama (in November) alongside artist Chris Mooneyham. A third series, Void Rivals from Robert Kirkman and Lorenzo De Felici, is already slowly building out a fascinating broader universe in which these stories will take place. And a number of G.I. Joe-based minis have also been announced: Duke from Joshua Williamson and Jordie Bellaire, in December; and Cobra Commander from Williamson, Andrea Milana, and Annalisa Leoni starting in January.

And when Kelly starts talking about this new universe, where you might expect a toy exec to be speaking mostly in terms of things like brand management, his reflections are all about story and character. In ten minutes, amidst the hordes roaming the Hasbro booth and the convention floor, and having rolled already through who knows how many interviews just like mine—he gives me the kind of thoughtful comments about storytelling you usually only get from a great writer or editor.

Wherever Energon is headed, it’s clear from talking to Kelly, Hasbro is invested in telling some exciting stories.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Popverse: There have been so many iterations of Transformers and G.I. Joe over the decades. What would you say has to be at the heart of any version of those properties?

Michael Kelly: I think for Transformers what’s really vital is recognizing the fact that these are sentient beings. They might be from another planet, they might be 30-foot transforming robots, but the bottom line is that they think, feel, and emote the same way that we as humans do. We don’t want to ever give the idea that they were programmed or that they have sort of central processing units. They have hearts and minds. They might not look like ours, but the emotional intensity and the relationships that they have between them and other species, I think it’s really important that we capture that when we’re telling stories about Transformers.

I was fascinated to hear that Daniel Warren Johnson would be doing the book. His storytelling is so raw and visceral. The straight lines and clean design of the Transformers seemed like a real departure. But he sounds like a natural choice for your vision of the characters.

We always look at the history of somebody’s writing, what kind of projects they’ve been doing and how much heart they give their books. There are some people who would not fit for Transformers. But yeah, Daniel Warren Johnson is going to knock it out of the park.

How would you describe the essence of G.I. Joe?

I think the most important thing for me with Joe is conveying that these are everyday humans. They weren’t bitten by a spider, they’re not from another planet, they didn’t get blasted with radiation or anything. They are literally people like you and me. It’s their extraordinary dedication to their trade, to their learning, to their intelligence, to their physical well-being that makes them G.I. Joe.

I think it’s really important to say these are not super heroes, these are everyday people doing extraordinary things.

There seems to be a similar grounded-ness in your take on both properties.


And keeping long-time G.I. Joe writer Larry Hama seems like a no-brainer.

You have to go back to 1982 for when Larry wrote his first G.I. Joe story. He just finished issue 304. With a brief hiatus he’s been writing G.I. Joe comics for 40 years now.

It’s amazing.

Yeah, it is.

The idea of bringing these two universes of characters together has definitely surprised and excited people.

There’s actually a good history of doing this with the brands. Marvel in the ‘80s did the first GI Joe/Transformers crossover. So there have been iterations of it through time.

But to your point that they’re grounded in a certain way in their storytelling and character development, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say if the Transformers come to Earth, well, the G.I. Joe lives on Earth. They’re going to encounter each other.

We don’t have to force that story. It’s a story that makes sense.

Over the years Hasbro has worked with so many companies to tell Transformers and G.I. Joe stories. What made Skybound the right place right now?

When we were looking for a new partner after our IDW relationship on those two brands expired, Skybound just brought an amazingly creative take. Both of these stories have been told many times, so it’s always a matter of how are we going to honor the legacy of the brand and at the same time bring something fresh and new to it. And the proposal that they brought forth from a creative and storytelling standpoint was just exactly what we needed right now.

Was the idea of launching the line covertly through Void Rivals part of the initial pitch?

Absolutely. We’ve been keeping that a secret for over two years now, and it’s almost killed me. [Laughs] I’m really happy that we can now speak about it.

Adding that element of surprise seems like a fun hook for readers.

Yes, it’s important to not go too far from the core storytelling. These characters, they are beloved for a certain reason and you don’t want to radically redesign that.

But within that context you have to figure out new and innovative ways of telling that story so it’s not, 'Well, I already read that.'

Growing up I always loved another Hasbro property, the Micronauts. When I heard about Energon I immediately wondered/hoped/manifested to the universe that that this might be a way to bring them back, too. Any possibility of something like that happening?

I like to think there’s always possibilities. What’s important is not rushing into something, not forcing something that is not a perfect fit. [Right now we’re] just really letting the story that we’re telling right now build and develop that audience. And then we’ll start thinking about whether there’s a broader opportunity.

I know you’ve done some writing of your own for Hasbro. [Kelly wrote the Junior novelization of the film Dark Side of the Moon.] It seems like you have a real knowledge and passion for story.

[Laughs] Well, I’ve been doing this for 17 years now, so I picked up a few things here and there.

Are there comic books or creators that are inspirations for how you think about comic book storytelling?

I gravitate to books that are very character focused and tend to tell a slightly different story from the more usual super hero comic. I love things like Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Ms. Marvel, but I also love Fables and Whiteout. I tend to really love that ability to drive story and character through both writing and visual representation that comics captures.

Ryan North and Erica Henderson can do no wrong.

I love that book.

How does the relationship between you and Skybound work? What role do you have in the ongoing storytelling?

Probably the most hands on, in-depth part is really planning out say 6-12 issues, what the story is going to be, the overall concept and direction.

After that, I read every manuscript that comes through and just make some comments here and there, suggestions at times. Very rarely do I have to definitively change something. We hire experts because they’re great at what they do. It’s not my job to tell them they’re wrong, unless they’re wrong. [Laughs]

At the end of the day, we have to protect the brands, we have to protect the company and the legacy. But within that context I want people to have free reign to be creative and bring their own vision.

With your understanding of storytelling and love of comics, you sound like a great partner for them.

I hope they think so!

Finally, what would you say to long term fans curious about what this Energon Universe is going to offer?

I’d say, they should buckle up and get ready for a really fun ride. There’s going to be things they’re going to see and read that are going to seem familiar, but presented in a way that I think’s going to surprise them.

Joshua Williamson on breaking Duke and the hidden Transformer in plain sight.