ALBANY PARK — A shelf of Optimus Prime figures greets you at the entrance to comic book creator Daniel Warren Johnson’s home studio. Johnson’s love for the leader of the Transformers’ Autobots has fueled his artistic passion since childhood — and now he’s been picked to relaunch the official “Transformers” comic book as writer and artist.
It has been a watershed year for Johnson. His creator-owned comic, “Do a Powerbomb,” won the Best Publication for Teens Eisner Award. And his profile skyrocketed with the announcement of “Transformers,” debuting as part of Skybound Entertainment’s Energon Universe, which also includes an upcoming G.I. Joe series.
“Transformers” #1, written and drawn by Johnson and colored by Mike Spicer, will debut Wednesday on shelves in comic book stores.
Johnson, 36, is a Massachusetts native who lives with his wife and two children in Albany Park, less than a mile from his alma mater, North Park University. He ascended in comics by crafting emotionally rich narratives with lively artwork.
Working with colorist Mike Spicer, Johnson has done books for Marvel and DC. But his independent comics are where he shines brightest, building stories around the subjects that interest him most, like heavy metal in “Murder Falcon” and pro-wrestling in “Do a Powerbomb.”
“Transformers” is a licensed book that scratches a similar itch, and Johnson’s fascination with giant robots goes well beyond the Hasbro property. Mecha statues and figurines are displayed throughout his studio, and he recently acquired original concept art from the 1999 film “The Iron Giant,” a childhood favorite.
“’The Iron Giant’ is still really hard to draw,” Johnson said. “The proportions have to be so right; otherwise, it doesn’t look correct. The same thing with Optimus Prime. I tried for years to draw Optimus Prime and eventually just gave up. Doing this project was a little bit like, ‘OK, I’m going to get this now.’”
Figuring out how to create dynamic action with the Transformers’ blocky bodies was Johnson’s biggest challenge, but his collection of toys has been a valuable resource for thinking about how their bodies can move. Incorporating wrestling moves has brought dramatic physicality to the characters, and Johnson has fought the impulse to give them the high level of detail he would typically give mechanical objects.
“The harder I tried to make them mechanical, the more stiff they looked,” Johnson said. “They didn’t look like living characters that should exist in a story. The looser I am with these robots and these blocky shapes, the better it looks.”
Each page is a record of Johnson’s emotional state when he was creating it.
“I don’t remember what was going on in my life when I look at old pages, but I do remember how I was feeling,” Johnson said.
Johnson recalls working on “Wonder Woman: Dead Earth” for DC during the first months of the pandemic and channeling his stress and frustration into an issue where Wonder Woman makes a whip out of a dead Superman’s spine and skull. A physical recreation of the weapon hangs on the wall of his studio, created by a cosplay-loving friend.
“Transformers” is a dream project for Johnson, but it’s also his most demanding.
“Hasbro has been very involved, the most involved I’ve ever had on any project,” Johnson said. “You have the corporate vibe of Hasbro trying to make sure they’re checking their boxes — which I understand is part of the game — mixed with my fervent desire to make this the absolute best Transformers book I can possibly make it.”
“I’m having an incredible time drawing ‘Transformers,’” the artist said. “But in turn, just by its very nature, working on licensed stuff, it gets that fire to start making new things that are my own.”
Johnson’s working on two independent projects, one he is writing for an artist and one he is also drawing, an epic sci-fi fantasy that is a love letter to his wife and daughter.
Family — chosen and biological — is at the core of nearly all of Johnson’s work, and it’s the major grounding force of his “Transformers,” which places a grieving father and son at the center of the cosmic robot war. It’s a fitting relationship for Johnson to explore while raising his toddler son, who has inherited his father’s love for Optimus Prime. When he’s picked up to look at the shelf, the boy gazes in wonder, a new generation of Transformers fans held by the hands creating the next generation of Transformers’ stories.
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