Robert Kirkman explains THAT jaw-dropping Void Rivals twist and how he established a new shared universe

The cover for Void Rivals #1.
(Image credit: Skybound)

Void Rivals #1 is published today by Skybound and, if you've read our news story, you'll already know that it contains a fairly jaw-dropping twist around the halfway point of the issue. We're going to get into that right from the off, so if you're keen to stay clear of spoilers, look away now!

The book is the creation of Oblivion Song collaborators Robert Kirkman and Lorenzo De Felici. While Void Rivals initially looks like - and is - an exciting deep space adventure series, it also operates as an introduction to a new shared universe, one that features two iconic '80s toy franchises: Transformers and G.I. Joe.

We sat down with Kirkman to discuss the new series, the origins of this bold idea, his hopes for the future of the newly established Energon Universe, and how Optimus Prime set him on the path towards creating The Walking Dead and Invincible...

A panel from Void Rivals #1.

(Image credit: Skybound)

Newsarama: There's a lot to talk about with this book... But before all that, what can you tell us about your main characters and the general set up of Void Rivals?

Robert Kirkman: Void Rivals focuses on two opposing forces, the Agorrians and the Zertonians. Darak is an Agorrian pilot and Solila is a Zertonian pilot, and they both come from this thing called The Sacred Ring, this big apparatus that is built around a black hole. They fight for resources in this dead quadrant of space, as the black hole hole pulls things into their vicinity.

As the story picks up these two pilots have gone on this mission to recover a comet so that they can mine its frozen ice, but they find themselves stranded on this desolate planet. They have very little resources and they have to figure out a way to survive or kill each other.

I really enjoyed the book's retro sci-fi adventure feel. Did you go for that tone because of the big reveal partway through?

Yeah, I mean, I don't really feel like it's retro, per se, but I definitely wanted to do something that fit seamlessly into that G.I. Joe, Transformers space. I wanted something that could kind of exist alongside those without feeling too different. I wanted it to feel like it was in the same universe. 

A page from Void Rivals #1.

(Image credit: Skybound)

Which of course it is. Partway through #1 we meet Jetfire, revealing that Void Rivals is the start of a new shared comics universe that will also include Transformers and G.I. Joe titles. Can you break that down for us? How long has this collaboration been in the works?

We started talking to Hasbro about taking over the Transformers and the G.I. Joe license almost two years ago. IDW had those licenses for a good long time and served those brands very well, so we had to come up with something that was new and different. I thought that one of the best things that we could do is strip everything down to its core and establish a new beginning with these characters in the shared Energon universe, where they can interact in organic ways.

I just thought, as a fan, if I were to go into a comic book store and buy a new comic and halfway through Freddy Krueger showed up and it was completely unexpected, that would be the most exciting thing in the world. So I'm hoping there's other people out there who feel like me!

In a sense it's playing with my love of the DC Universe and the Marvel Universe. It's something that's unique to the comic space, and it's something that the MCU has replicated in the movies that's made it something super special.

Two strangers fight in a page from Void Rivals #1.

(Image credit: Skybound)

So is Void Rivals the hub of this new Energon universe?

I think it's important that all of the books in the Energon universe are kind of their own hub. If you love Void Rivals and that's the book that you most enjoy you can continue reading that and there will be little bits and pieces here and there that tie into the other books, but there's nothing [else] that you absolutely have to have to make sense of Void Rivals. 

The way we're trying to make it work is, if you start with Transformers, that's the central hub. If you start with Void Rivals, that's the central hub, or our G.I. Joe titles can be the central hub. 

If you're reading all of them, there's going to be an additive experience where the different things that happen enrich the overall story and make it one big thing, but each individual book completely stands on its own and has its own narrative and its own rewards and isn't dependent on the other titles.

How will the different books cross over?

Well, Void Rivals takes place in deep space, so a lot of the references are going to be Transformers related - there's not a lot of G.I. Joe characters that are exploring the cosmos. 

Daniel Warren Johnson’s Transformers book is very much Earth based and so you'll start to see how the G.I. Joe books will unfold from that. It's kind of Void Rivals leads to Transformers, Transformers leads to G.I. Joe.

We also want to maintain the integrity of G.I. Joe. It's never gonna feel like just a Transformers spin-off or an offshoot, or anything like that. We love G.I. Joe, as much as we love Transformers. We're definitely going to give it its moment to shine. As this universe unfolds you'll see how it all makes sense and how we're integrating these characters together. 

The other thing is, we've got other plans for G.I. Joe and Transformers that don't involve the Energon universe. There's a lot of stuff that will be rolling out in the next year.

Pilots face off in Void Rivals #1.

(Image credit: Skybound)

We've recently seen some of the other Hasbro licenses move back to Marvel, with Rom and The Micronauts. I appreciate that's a different publisher, but might there be room for crossovers with those titles?

Our focus right now is on Transformers and G.I. Joe. Who knows what the future holds, we'll just have to see, but right now, there are no plans for that.

How is it reuniting with Lorenzo De Felici on the series?

Lorenzo is an absolute genius. I think that his concept work on Oblivion Song and Kroma shows that he's got a real knack for coming up with really unique visuals. He has a clear vision that is completely unexpected. He just brings a lot to the table. He's a great guy, I love working with him. 

When Oblivion Song ended, and Lorenzo started doing Kroma, I was very excited for him because it was great to see him writing his own thing, but I was also extremely jealous because I wanted to work with him again. As Void Rivals was coming together, I started talking to him about it, and he was very excited about the concept and the new ideas mixed with the old ideas and getting to play in the Transformers Universe. 

Optimus Prime kneels.

(Image credit: Skybound)

What's your personal history with these franchises? Were they a big part of your childhood?

The Transformers movie came out in 1986. I was eight and it was one of the first movies I saw in a theater. I think one it's one of the touchstones of my career. I think that you wouldn't have the character deaths in The Walking Dead and you wouldn't have had the shocking events in Invincible if Optimus Prime hadn't died in that movie in front of my very innocent eight year old eyes!

My dad talks about it as being the first time he ever saw me crying in a movie theater. I was just weeping! And if you look at my work, everything that I do is trying to replicate the feeling I had in that theater. I'm trying to make you love characters and pull emotions out of you with my storytelling. I'm always trying to shock and surprise people. I'm trying to launch books in different ways and tell stories in different ways. And I'm trying to find new ways to kill characters in unexpected ways!

This stuff is huge for me. So yeah, when the opportunity to play in this universe presented itself, I jumped in with both feet. I love all of these characters and it's just really exciting to be able to play with these worlds and also to add to them with Void Rivals and try to come up with characters that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Optimus Prime and Duke and Cobra Commander.

Void Rivals #1 is out now from Skybound.

Here's how you can watch all of the Transformers movies in order.

Will Salmon
Comics Editor

Will Salmon is the Comics Editor for GamesRadar/Newsarama. He has been writing about comics, film, TV, and music for more than 15 years, which is quite a long time if you stop and think about it. At Future he has previously launched scary movie magazine Horrorville, relaunched Comic Heroes, and has written for every issue of SFX magazine for over a decade. He sometimes feels very old, like Guy Pearce in Prometheus. His music writing has appeared in The Quietus, MOJO, Electronic Sound, Clash, and loads of other places and he runs the micro-label Modern Aviation, which puts out experimental music on cassette tape.