Fandom can be a wonderful thing. Powered by passion, it forges friendships, creates communities and brings people together. More importantly, fandom inspires intense creativity. In this series of articles, podcasts and videos, we speak to fans about how and why they do what they do, and showcase their incredible work.
The importance of comics in the ever-evolving Transformers universe should never be underestimated. Just as it was in 1984, Hasbro’s ‘robots in disguise’ are probably best known today for their animated shows and associated toy lines. After all, that’s probably where the money is. But, right from the start, it was print that provided The Transformers the initial spark that gave their brand life – and has also been the elusive fuel that has sustained it ever since.
For Graham Thomson, whose TFUK Guide painstakingly chronicles the British Marvel comics that ran from 1984 to 1991, those pages ignited a childhood imagination and started a lifelong love affair with the space robots from the planet Cybertron. “It was my introduction to the Transformers universe,” he tells me. “I’d just started at a new school and one of my new mates, finding out I had a couple of the toys, invited me round and showed me his small collection of the comics. I was immediately captivated.”
Those stories, initially crafted for US readers by writers like Bill Mantlo, Ralph Macchio, Jim Salicrup and Steve Parkhouse, took their cues from the characters and concepts already developed for the toy line and animated series by Marvel’s Denny O Neil, Jim Shooter and more specifically, Bob Budiansky. The UK version of the Marvel comic arrived on newsagent’s shelves in May of 1984, initially as a fortnightly and based on reprints of the American strips. However, with the addition of writer Simon Furman from issue 13, it soon took those narrative threads and carefully pulled them together with fresh material, before comfortably and organically blazing its own celebrated trail.
It’s this journey, both from a historic and creative perspective, that Thomson captures so vividly on the pages of The TFUK Guide – and it’s not hard to see where the motivation comes from. “It’s a joy, even now, to go back and re-read those cherished comics,” he says. “There’s always some new detail to be gleaned,” adding this is why he never dares to describe the guide as ‘comprehensive’. “I try and visualise each issue of the guide as a discrete time period in the comic’s history. There may be 10 pages’ worth for just one comic issue for example, but another may only need two or three.”
After carefully going through each of the original comics, trawling through pages of notes and deciding upon needs more detail, art working or writing, the next step is creating a page map that allows each issue to be planned to a strict 32-page format. This approach is something Thomson says is informed by many years as a fanzine creator, but also comes from a lifelong fascination with the way magazines work, which helped lead to a career as a freelance graphic designer. “I’ve had a passion for magazine and comic book design from a very young age,” he admits. “In fact, any school project where I could get away with making a magazine in some form of other was always taken advantage of!”
“Once all the content is written it gets edited and filtered through the perspective of a magazine, in other words, to make it as visually interesting as possible. It’s not a book or a blog or some other type of body of text. Much like an actual comic book page, a magazine page needs to flow and tell its story. The final shape of each issue seems to occur almost organically and it naturally reaches a point where it’s finished.”
It’s really here where the quality of TFUK Guide shines through. There’s no doubt the project is powered by Graham’s passion for the subject matter, but it’s the way it looks that truly exposes it as an endeavour from someone who knows their craft. The layout makes it effortlessly readable, offering a fair old chunk of informative, occasionally nostalgic, but always fun material for Patreon subscribers to chow down on. But it’s also abundantly clear its creator fully appreciates the importance of the visual side of the story. In addition to the legendary cover art and carefully selected panels, all carefully displayed and preserved in each issue, Thomson restores key pieces of artwork that supported the comic (adverts, posters and character profiles) back in the day, and shares newly created and specially commissioned work from other creators as bonus material.
Outside of the odd commission though, The TFUK Guide is very much a one-person project, researched, compiled, written and designed by Graham – right down to all the scans coming from his own personal collection of comics. So, how does he manage to stay on top of it all? “It’s all about sensible management and good planning,” he says. ‘It’s a manageable project because it’s designed to be manageable. The toughest part is making sure it doesn’t get repetitive. There are 332 issues of the UK comic and each is the same in terms of format, so I’m always very conscious of this ‘sameness’ being unintentionally translated into the guide. Hopefully the mix of features, spotlights and so on in amongst the commentaries alleviates this. But, say, if there are 10 comics in a row all drawn by the same team of artists then it becomes very tough indeed to write about in an interesting and engaging manner.”
In terms of how The TFUK Guide sits in the wider Transformers fandom, Graham admits a big part of why he does this is because of his own attachment to the franchise, but that some of the biggest pleasure he gets is in hearing back from the subscribers. “I create the TFUK Guide so I can share the love of something that’s brought me so much joy for so many years,” he says. “I try my hardest to make sure it’s historically accurate, but also give a fresh and unique perspective on these 35-year-old stories that are already so well known and loved by fans. If it can stir a forgotten memory or make a reader think or feel something new about a particular story or character then that’s a reward all its own.”
At the time of writing, Graham was putting the final touches to issue 8 of the guide, which picks up with the comic at issue 42 from January 1986. After a couple of one-off issues dedicated to peripheral publications like the collected specials, 1985 annual, Ladybird books and more, this would seem to suggest that The TFUK Guide will be taking up Graham’s time for a good while yet – but you get a sense this undertaking doesn’t phase him. “I don’t live and breathe Transformers because that would be unhealthy, right?,” he jokes, before adding that there are definitely parts of the franchise he feels comfortable backing away from to help keep things that way.
“The mission of the TFUK Guide was to celebrate the comics, characters and creators,’ he concludes. “There’s a lot of noise out there right now and so much that shouts at us and demands our attention so, very simply, I hope the TFUK Guide is something people can find a quiet moment with and enjoy an interesting and insightful read.” Well, as someone who’s a very happy customer Graham, I’ll say mission most definitely accomplished.