Interviews: Simon Furman (3/99)

in Interviews


1. Please tell us a bit about your background
Born: Carshalton, Surrey, UK (3/22/61). Educated at Wilson's School (skipped college altogether). Trained as a journalist for IPC Magazines (a big London-based periodical publisher) before moving onto one of their comics (a junior anthology horror title called Scream!) as assistant editor. It was there I did my first comics scriptwriting, on a werewolf story (can't remember the title), and I did a bunch of others (an episode of 'The Dracula Files', a sea-monster story that Steve Parkhouse drew, and so on). It's all stuff best forgotten, but it did start me off. Scream folded after just fifteen issues (the casualty of a labour dispute at the time) and I was out of work for about five months. My editor on Scream was a guy called Ian Rimmer, and he had gone on to work for Marvel UK. In 1984, when a position came up for Assistant Editor on Captain Britian Monthly, Ian called and I got the job. At the same time, and also at Marvel UK, the editor of the newly launched Transformers (UK) comic, Sheila Cranna was trawling for writers to fill in between the reprinted US material.

My first story, which ran after Steve Parkhouse's Man of Iron, was 'The Enemy Within', a Starscream/Brawl/Ravage story. It ran, I think, in issues 13­16, but I could be wrong. It was somewhere around that point. From there I just ran and ran with it, and after maybe one or two stories by other writers I was writing all the UK Transformers material (as well as the likes of Action Force -- UK GI Joe -- Thundercats, Zoids and Doctor Who). In time, I also became the editor of Transformers, but so as not to conflict, my friend and fellow editor Richard Starkings (he of Comicraft, the lettering people) would edit my scripts. Around 1987, Marvel UK started dabbling in US format comics and launched Dragon's Claws (originally, Teeth) and Sleeze Brothers (by John Carnell and Andy Lanning). I wrote Dragon's Claws and then Death's Head (which span off from a short one-page strip and a guest-star role in Transformers... issue 113 is his first apperance), each of which ran for just ten issues. At this time I was doing so much freelance scriptwriting work, and had just been offered the US Transformers book by departing writer Bob Budiansky, it made sense to go full time freelance, which I did in January 1989.

Since then I've written the likes of Alpha Flight, What if?, She-Hulk, Robocop (for Marvel) and Turok (for Acclaim). But the work of which I'm still proudest is the run on Transformers (Gen 1), especially the issues leading up to 75, with Andy Wildman and Geoff Senior. We really hit our stride back then, and though I've done some okay stuff since, those issues are the ones I can happily go back into and read (without a wince).

2. How did you train to become a writer?
See above. There was no formal training, though (if you discount thejournalism bit). I just saw other people's scripts when I was working on Scream! and thought, 'I could do that'. I was right (eventually).

3. What advice would you give for any young writers out there if they want to break into the field?
Don't limit yourself. The Comics Industry isn't at its healthiest right now, and there are a lot of writers chasing not enough work. So look at other options as well as comics, cut your teeth on short stories, feature writing, journalism and just keep submitting stuff to the comic companies at the same time. Remember not to be derivative, and that your pitch needs to be short, direct and instantly eye-catching. You send in pages and pages of stuff it will not get read. Editors just don't have the time. If your first sentence reads like every other comic since the dawn of time, it will also not get read. Make it brief, get to the backbone of your idea right off. Look for new angles on old ideas, keep it fresh and contemporary/forward-looking. There's a lot of retro stuff about right now, but the trend is changing. Writers like Devin Grayson (Titans, Catwoman) are the way forward, writing 'soap-opera' comics, 'Friends' in spandex. But most of all, and I can't stress this enough, make your pitch short and to the point. Rumour has it that the entire pitch for the 'Miami Vice' show was 'MTV Cops'.

4. Please tell us about some of your past work aside from Transformers.
Also covered above (I'm not sticking to the format here, am I?). Some of the stuff I'm not so proud of (and works very much on the lines of 'I was in it for the money, honest!') includes Brute Force, Captain Planet and Toxic Crusaders. But even then you always try and do a good job, even if your heart's not in it. Right now, apart from the animation work (see later), I'm doing bits and pieces of very junior Superman and Batman material (for a UK title based around the animated series) and advertisement strips for Birdseye, featuring their Captain Birdseye character (fish sticks, that type of stuff). Neither are very satisfying on a creative outlet level, but in a strange way it becomes a challenge just to find new ways to operate within tight editorial constraints, and tell stories that are on one level very basic (aimed a young kids), but in which flashes of your own style and (I hope) humour come through. It was only ever meant to be stop-gap stuff, but I'm still doing both.

5. Among all the Transformers tales you've written, which is your favorite Transformers story?
Oops. I really am doing this backwards, aren't I? Like I say, my favourite stuff is the Unicron arc, especially the issues 70 through 75. That said, I recently scanned back through the Gen 2 stuff, and some of that (especially the latter issues) was actually pretty good (I really liked the Tales of Earth back-up, especially when Derek Yaniger drew them... that shot of the totally knackered Megatron bursting into the Autobots' base in 8(?) is way cool. And the alas poor Bludgeon cover, that was great. I remember sitting in a restaurant in New York with Rob Tokar (my editor at the time and friend still), describing that cover to him. It was one of those places with paper tablecloths and crayons, and Rob sketched the cover rough out on the table as I told him my idea. At the end of the meal, Rob tore that section of tablecloth out and mailed it to Derek. Ah, those were the days... Some of the Swarm stuff was good. I love big, epic, destructive stories (it's a character flaw, what can you do?), and that and the Unicron saga fulfilled that for me. I must be known for it, because when I met Bob Forward (story editor on Beast Wars) for the first time, that was what had impressed him about my stuff, and things kind of went from there (see 7).

6. How do you become inspired to write?
The easiest way to write is to write about stuff you enjoy reading/watching/doing yourself. There are only so many stories, so if you accept that your stuff isn't going to stun people with its originality and just write, it flows a lot better, and sometimes you end up stunning one or two people anyway. I'm not big on planning. I like to just run with an idea (keeping in mind a few big story points and a rough ending) and see where it takes me. Always know your ending, though. There's nothing worse than essentially backing yourself into a story dead end and having to fake it. It shows each and every time. If all else fails, and I really can't get started or come up with an idea, I start by thinking up a clever, generally punny, title, and writing a story to fit it. I don't recommend this method, however, and if asked I will deny I ever use it.

7. How did you join the writing team of Beast Wars Transformers?
I met Bob Forward at Botcon 97, and he was telling me they intended to bring more Gen 1 threads and characters into the show. He'd read my stuff, or some of it, and knew who I was, so we talked in very general terms about Gen 1. I didn't hit on Bob for work (to be honest, it didn't occur to me to, I had no grounding or experience in the field) and he didn't offer. But we parted on the understanding that if he ever needed some Gen 1 background info, he could call me and I'd happily do what I could. Maybe four months later Bob called me, not for info but to see if I'd like to write an episode of Beast Wars. A door had creaked open and my foot was in there.

8. Dozens of fan fiction writers and the writers of Beast Wars Transformers have drawn from source material that you wrote. How does it feel to have influenced the direction of Transformers "history" so strongly?
I don't think I ever realised at the time I was writing the comic exactly what I was laying down, and certainly not how much the fans were into it. It's a shame, in a way, because I might have tried a lot harder to nail it down and make it cohesive. As it is, there are big holes and even bigger missed opportunities. But on the whole I'm very happy to have contributed so much, and that people seem to dig what I did (and am doing). I love it that the fans are picking up stuff I laid down back then and are running with it in their own work. If I can tell myself I've inspired at least one person to pick up a pen (or at least sit at a keyboard) and write a story, then I figure I did good. I love to write, it's more a passion than a profession, and if some of that translated and got other people excited enough to write then yeah, I'm very happy. It's been kind of fun doing this new story for Botcon 99/2000, the thing that's going out to the pre-registrants, because I get to plug some of those gaps in the continuity that I left. The biggest thrill of all for me, though, is when I meet the fans and I can see firsthand how important the Transformers stuff I did is to them.

9. What are your hobbies?
I love to read (which I don't do nearly enough of). I'm very into smart, sassy crime fiction (strangely I'm not a big sci-fi fan), the likes of Joseph Wambaugh, Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy and Carl Hiaasen (who is just incredible). I'm also a big fan of Robert B Parker and Ed McBain, and I've read and re-read all of Chandler's stuff. No one writes hard-boiled like him. I also love cinema, not just movies per se but the whole cinema experience. It's like a little ritual: big tub of salt popcorn, enough for the whole movie, soft drink, in in good time for the trailers, settle down and enjoy. I love it and don't want to leave (I always stay right to the end of the credits, I want the whole thing). Again, I just don't get there enough. My video collection is massive.

Other than that I try and offset some of the damage I do to my body (by way of the pub) my keeping fit. I work out regularly, no matter how pressing deadlines may be, and play softball (in season) and badminton (year round). Right now I seem to have traded a social life for pure work. Some times I feel like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. All work and no play makes Simon a dull boy, all work and no play...

10. Did you enjoy your experience with "Nemesis Part Two"?
It was fantastic. I had such a great time writing that, though it had to be done in next to no time in the end. I was desperately scared I'd do a crap job, and all through it I was going back over what I'd done and despairing. It was never good enough, and even when I sent it off I still wasn't convinced. When Bob came back and said he was real happy with it, I couldn't believe it. I expected re-write hell or a 'thanks but no thanks'. Though the two disciplines, comics and animation, aren't a million miles from each other, there was just so much I didn't know. Bob, I suspect, tidied everything up, made it look like a real script and generally made me look better than I was, but then that's been one of the best things about the animation stuff: working with Bob. Encouragement, help, advice, praise, extremely fast getting back to me, he's a dream editor to work for, and I'm happy to report that we both moved on from Nemesis to an animated series called the Roswell Conspiracies, which debuts this fall (I think). Bob's keeping me very busy, for which I am eternally grateful. The thing is, it all stemmed from Transformers. I owe Transformers a lot, it's been very good to me over the years.

Simon Furman, 1999