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Comics Column Special More Than Meets Few Eyes At All: The Legacy of the Transformers

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Comics Column Special—More Than Meets Few Eyes At All: The Legacy of the Transformers

I was working on the next comics column, inspired by some of the welcome suggestions and comments to my last entry, when a special date snuck up on me. So do pardon my self-indulgence.

When I began this essay, it was Friday, May 8th, 2009, and Transformers celebrated 25 years of near-continuous presence in various media, from animated cartoons to live action films to, quite obviously, action figures for children and obsessed collectors. It was, actually, the comic book that was released first, with the intent to stir up interest in the new toyline. And with a sequel to Michael Bay’s spastic blockbuster film coming in a couple of weeks and the newest speciously-reasoned philosophy book recently released (surely the sign that you’ve hit the zeitgeist, right?), it’s a time of reflection for armchair pop culture theorists; what has led the property to endure—even, arguably, to flourish of late—when so many have fallen by the wayside? While critical reception to the film largely confirms the popular view that the property’s long-running fiction is little more than a facile toy commercial, is there anything buried there to hold onto?

Noted webcartoonist and longtime Transformers fan David Willis (Shortpacked!, Joyce and Walky!), in noting the anniversary date, proposed, “...perhaps being a marketing gimmick is part of Transformers’ longevity. It’s free to reinvent itself whenever it feels like it so as to keep itself viable…Star Trek had to sludge through forty years, at the end subsisting on nothing more than fumes, before it was allowed to reinvent itself top-to-bottom for a fresher audience.” And indeed, Transformers’ numerous iterations over the years found it trendsetting as often as it drew on nostalgia (the Emmy award-winning cartoon Beast Wars, for instance, was one of the earlier uses of fully-CG animation for a wide audience, debuting only about six months after Toy Story).

History

In the early 1980s, Japanese toy company Takara had a number of toylines featuring transforming robots, vehicles, and animals—and none of them were especially huge sellers. The two largest, or at least the two with the best design sense, were Diaclone (which featured robots that turned into realistic cars and jets) and Microchange (robots that turned into household objects like tape players and, er, Walther P38 firearms—Microchange was also a subline of Microman, the progenitor of the also-infamous Micronauts!). At a toy show in March of 1983, representatives from Hasbro (who perhaps need no introduction in America) stumbled on the various Takara transforming toys and suggested that they could sell the toys with a solid rebranding. (Thus beginning, at the franchise’s very inception, a tradition of repainting and retooling toys that continues to this day.)

And solid it was. Calling them “Transformers” so that it was obvious what the toy was supposed to do, Hasbro licensed the property immediately to Marvel Comics. Marvel put writer Bob Budiansky on the job—it was the comic writer who came up with the tech specs for the backs of the toy packages, and thus established the basic traits for characters like Bumblebee and Megatron, who would continue to appear in thousands of different forms to this day (though it was actually editor and famed Batman writer Dennis O’Neil who named the lead heroic Autobot Optimus Prime). Even as Marvel began production on a cartoon for Sunbow Productions, Budiansky was writing the first year of comics, solidifying not only the characters, but recurring elements like the home planet of Cybertron and “the Matrix,” a Macguffin which has become an underpinning of the property’s mythos (a version of the Matrix was called the “Allspark” in the Bay film in order, presumably, to avoid confusion with the Wachowski trilogy).

Sunbow, the animation studio, was actually owned by the advertising agency that was employed by Hasbro. Ronald Reagan had recently de-regulated television advertising for kids, and Hasbro more than anyone else (save perhaps rival Mattel, owner of Barbie and He-Man) leapt through that open gate, pushing cartoons for Transformers, GIJoe, and other properties that were glorified commercials, but also (generally) vast improvements in programming for the demographic for the time period. Sunbow knew how to market, and the cartoons all featured talented voice actors (to compensate for lackluster and comparatively inexpensive animation), catchy theme music—and the characters made every excuse to call out each other’s names, locking those names into the young audience’s minds, often to this day.

The comic, meanwhile, was a limited four issue tie-in (the first issue featured cover art by the respected Bill Sienkiewicz of Elektra: Assassin, Stray Toasters, and the Alan Moore-penned Big Numbers; and a script by long, long-time Marvel writer/editor Ralph Macchio) that was so popular and sold so well that Marvel agreed to continue the series indefinitely. During the period of Transformers’ highest recognition and sales in the toy stores, the cartoon and the comic book were both enormously popular (though their stories had only the barest minimum to do with each other—while the cartoon was similar to the other ’80s properties in portraying the heroes as reactionary defenders against bizarre super-villain-style schemes, the comic laid the “misunderstood alien race” thick with a trowel and brought the property eerily close to the X-Men in tone). However, in 1986, a number of things happened at once:

1. Transformers: The Movie, a full-length animated feature (we’ve all heard the Orson Welles urban legend), killed off most of the beloved characters, including Optimus Prime.

2. 1986 became the year that comics exploded, and “dark, realistic” comics ran roughshod over books like Transformers, which debuted during the era of Secret Wars II (and was, like all Marvel books, technically part of that crossover—still viewed as awful by comics’ current lazy crossover standards).

3. Nintendo came to America, a move that proceeded to utterly decimate the way that kids had played with toys through the first half of the decade.

Transformers began to hemorrhage money, as the toys increasingly relied upon further gimmicks (Headmasters, Micromasters, Action Masters—the Transformers that didn’t), the cartoon gave up all pretenses and crammed the cast full of awful comic relief characters with no straight men, and the comic took an odd turn.

Marvel had a separate branch in the UK in the ’80s, a branch which was often known for more esoteric and experimental writers—Marvel UK put Alan Moore on Captain Britain early in his career, a step on the road towards his later acclaimed graphic novels. One Marvel UK writer, Simon Furman, had been writing Transformers since the title’s inception—Transformers was a weekly book in the UK, and for every two issues that could gather material from the US title, two more had to be created whole cloth, and had to dance around the Marvel US title’s own ridiculous continuity. Simon Furman became an adept tap dancer, and with the UK title under a little less pressure from the licensor than Budiansky’s work across the pond, Furman was able to make his stories darker and more concerned with character. He gave the characters an origin story with light religious underpinnings (though with a marked similarity to earlier stories by Fantastic Four scribes). When Budiansky tired of trying to play ball with Hasbro’s demand for new toys to appear in the comic and left, Furman took over the writing duties entirely. Even after the cartoon had gone off the air, the comic continued into the early ’90s, until even the toyline collapsed, and the comic industry was gasping for air in the days of the Death of Superman, Speculation, and the “Image Revolution.”

The fields lay fallow for a few years, but Hasbro provoked a brief resurgence with Generation 2, an early grab at nostalgia featuring largely repainted figures from early in the original toyline—the cartoon, as well, was the original show with new bumpers. It was only the comic book that struck a different tone, continuing the story where the original had left off, but now darker and more violent (showing its mid-’90s roots) and a story that went deeper into the origins of the Autobot-Decepticon schism and how the robots operated in “families”—a major plot point was their original ability to reproduce. Generation 2 didn’t last long, and seemed to be a victim of the many toy store closings that happened at this time. The title would be a footnote were it not such an inspiration for the creators to come.

Generation 2 was dropped, but there was barely a gap before a completely reinvented Transformers franchise was released in toys and animation. Beast Wars and its sequel, Beast Machines, were controversial in the eyes of fans when they were released—the robots now became not vehicles and household objects, but animals, from insects to primates; the cartoon was now fully CG and the plot was wildly different. However, the toys were incredibly poseable (compared to brick-like early die-cast figures) and detailed, the cartoon was full of homages to the original series, and the characters were memorable and more evolved than any since the ’84–’86 era (it was too expensive to computer-animate a larger cast). Most notable, perhaps, was that the Beast era series did more to examine what exactly a “Transformer” was, canonically, than had ever been done before (more on this below). While Beast Machines is still unfairly derided by fans, the era as a whole is now considered a renaissance for the property and a sign (along with the superior, two-time Emmy award-winning Paul Dini Batman: The Animated Series) that children’s entertainment was finally maturing.

Because Beast Machines did poorly (and for a number of other reasons), creative control shifted from largely-US to largely-Japanese for the next iteration of the franchise, now known as the “Unicron Trilogy” for how it focused on the titular devil figure in each of its series. The series were a mess of CGI-mixed animation and odd decisions including hip hop themes, Pokemon-style “catch ’em” plotting, and the return of added gimmicks to the toys. Opinions on the trilogy are divided, but the story’s close left just enough time for a return to “classics” (revised toys in different models, licensed toys, publisher shift of the comics from financial disaster Dreamwave to IDW) before the infamous Michael Bay picture and the new animated program that is airing its final episodes this month.

Currently, the toys have undergone such a resurgence of popularity amongst both children and now-adult collectors, that multiple lines address various versions of the story—figures for the movie, cartoon, and updated versions of classic characters war for shelf space. Recognizable characters like Optimus Prime have been placed on any licensed item that could be bought, putting the property on a level of many better-known superheroes or other kids’ properties. The “BotCon” convention gets a larger turnout every year, and recognition didn’t exactly hurt the opening numbers of Bay’s picture in 2007.

Argument

We all have, I believe, at least one thing. An affection that, if it can be justified at all, is justified weakly, with exhaustion in one’s voice. A band, a book, a reality show, a…I have a distaste for the term “guilty pleasure,” personally. One should never feel guilty for what one enjoys. That’s an old argument, of course, and not an especially deep one for a critical community. And, of course, Transformers is only barely a year older than I am. It was something that I was there for the beginning of, something constant—indeed, I personally learned to read before I could walk, and some of my first books were comic books, particularly Transformers ones. I can cite down to the number and title (Issue #7, “Warrior School!”) the book that, while not of a standard that I usually apply to the books that I examine here at the House, captivated me so fully at an age that I can barely remember otherwise that I decided on the spot that I had to write comic books, even just write about comic books, for the rest of my life.

[Apocryphal Note: It was also a Transformers story where I noticed my first plot hole, my first error, and—apparently, as this was a story told to me later—I (at seven years) wrote a three page filler story to explain whatever continuity gaffe I’d discovered, fully assuming that they would ask me if they could print the story later with full art to repair the damage. I would imagine that it wound up in a dustbin at the Marvel offices labeled “No-Prizes.”]

When prompted to explain, though, my own affection for the property, beyond nostalgia: It’s a question of potential.

When Alan Moore turned the campy, barely-noticed punchline Swamp Thing into a meditation on human nature and its relationship to the environment, all bets were largely off in the comic book community regarding what could be done with an established character. Since then, postmodernism steamrolled the superhero biz (see my fifth comics column) and any property can be mined for a (usually darker) take that’s geared for theme as much as its original idea. That nobody has done so for Transformers speaks to not only its perception as a commercial cash-in but almost certainly also the heavy hands of Hasbro and Takara, desperate to protect their trademarks—a sharp 180 from earlier days, when they assumed that children wouldn’t care about any particular character, and so fan favorites from the cartoons and comics would vanish from toy shelves entirely after their year was up.

The Transformers story, in all its iterations right down to Bay’s film, features two long-warring factions battling it out on our own home planet. Rather than the more intimately-familiar alien invasion storyline, typically the Transformers have little interest in Earth beyond using it as territory and as a source of energy to fuel the combat. It’s the clearest sign of its Reagan-era Cold War origins: Earth is Vietnam or Korea or your fire-bombed nation of choice, with giant robots serving as giant national superpowers. In contrast with its brother-in-arms, G.I.Joe (which also recently celebrated a birthday, and which also has a film due out shortly), Transformers ostensibly bears its paranoia on its sleeve. The “modern era” G.I.Joe featured “terrorists” as costumed clowns who fires Stormtrooper-esque lasers, easy to spot, easy to laugh at. A Decepticon could be anything, that plane overhead, the car passing you on the street, even the tape player in your pocket. What is odd, however, is that Transformers is more defiantly anti-war than its military-fetishist compatriot.

Consider the argument from a distance, holding one’s laughter in check for a moment. Here you have a single nation of people, split along arbitrary lines. From the moment of their birth, they know nothing of life but warfare—civilian life is not an option, you’re conscripted instantly into a battle whose origins are largely forgotten. You ostensibly argue for, pray for peace, but knowing nothing else, how can you do anything but continue taking your war with you, regardless of who gets caught in the crossfire? And while there are idealogical differences between you and your foe, indeed (depending on which version of the story is being told) there are even differences in theology, the battle comes down to nothing really but an inability to share the same energy resources.

Michael Bay’s film featured sequences set in the Middle East, but I don’t quite think the connection made it across, do you?

Where Transformers defies its obvious critical examination here is that the Decepticons are so very clearly evil in intent. There is no reasoning with Megatron, there is only battle or escape. Shades of gray fall by the wayside in favor of epic (or “epic”) battle sequences: Recent writers have attempted to explain Megatron’s backstory as a reaction to a corrupt Autobot government, an overdose of power and manipulation from above. In earlier comic book tales, he’d been portrayed as Hitler, instead. The Hitler comparison typically wins out—it’s easier, and it makes sure kids know which side to root for. Even there, as the face of the whitewashed view of warfare, it’s relevant in its way to modern audiences.

When the later cartoons, Beast Wars and Beast Machines, began their run, the situation was similar—initially unable to get away from manicheanism in a children’s cartoon, they settled for other tactics of maturing the brand. The tortured, Shakespeare-quoting character of “Dinobot,” a defector from the villain side (and a ronin poet superhero in the mode of Wolverine or Star Trek’s Commander Worf) offered a view of someone being trapped between the two ideologies—his second-season sacrifice remains one of the few moments in the property’s history (alongside Optimus Prime’s first death in the 1986 film) that provoked such significantly strong emotions in its fanbase. A later redemption of duplicitous villainess “Blackarachnia” tackled similar ground, with the addition of a rare show of romance in the largely sexless universe of characters, and prompted a deeper look at the idea of duality—apparently the “good/evil” division is an imprinting process performed on (essentially) Transformers young, an imprinting which can be broken, but only in part. A surprising amount of time was spent on the life cycle and biology of a Transformer for a Saturday morning cartoon, but more interesting was the ever-so-briefly implied idea that in the future from which this cast of characters originated, the Autobots had won their “Great War”—and proceeded to oppress their former foes during ostensible peacetime.

Beast Machines, which followed, was, in the words of story editor Bob Skir, a “religious epic novel for television.” While it was an uneven and very different production from its often-campy preceding series, it nonetheless attempted to use its characters as mouthpieces for a twenty-six episode treatise on the balance between technology and the environment, and the role of an individual in service to a society at large. Perhaps even more notable is that the series featured its heroes as guerilla warriors in a fascist state, which brought the original Cold War-servicing story back down to ground level (fans reacted poorly to the protagonists frequently running away from the rampaging villains).

Over both of these CG series, the “Megatron” character (only taking his name from the original pistol-to-robot villain) was portrayed as a master chessplayer who frequently won, eventually conquering the planet—but in the final episodes of the run, it became clear that only a removal of the duality that the Autobot/Decepticon idea represented was required in order to heal the planet—to some extent, a facile “yin and yang” sort of argument (one that Simon Furman had apparently also been working towards in the Marvel comic years earlier, before its cancellation) but also a marked step up from its relatives of the era, and what would have been a first, tentative grasp towards transcendence—comic book heroes, for their part, would have to rely on Grant Morrison for its anti-manicheanism, as he was beginning his counter-cultural hit The Invisibles at roughly the same time.

Michael Bay, after the release of Pearl Harbor, has had perhaps unprecedented support from the U.S. military, and he in turn has showed them off at every opportunity. His first Transformers was no exception, featuring wisecracking soldiers and impressive weaponry brought against the rampaging alien menace. If anything, the film stands as idealogically opposite to the original story—but unfortunately, the inability for writers to fully express those ideals under the limitations of such a commercially-locked property (often through, it would appear, little fault of their own) leaves it a poor argument to support fully. In fact, the scene of Peter Cullen’s Optimus Prime, voicing his opinion that the Transformers are little different than humans and vice versa, even as humans torture the Autobot Bumblebee within their laboratory, seems torn from a different script, one closer to its forebearers in partially articulating an idea that doesn’t survive under the weight of ADHD battle editing and jokes about Shia LeBoeuf’s masturbation habits.

In a Wired magazine article just prior to the first film’s release, much hay was made about Optimus Prime, that big rig with the voice like John Wayne’s, and his paternal role to a generation of latch-key kids. There’s a certain amount of truth to this—this was the generation which grew up in the shadow of Baby Boomer divorce and a shifting set of priorities, a different pop culture cause for juvenile delinquency every week, and alone amongst the ’80s properties for children, Prime was an unerringly confident and compassionate leader of men, with a traditionally masculine voice and demeanor. It’s been said that Prime’s death in the ’86 cartoon was the “Bambi moment” for a generation that often didn’t know their fathers even if they still lived in the same house. There was a parent uproar over the death scene which prompted the upcoming G.I.Joe: The Movie to edit a death scene out of the film before release out of concern for the backlash. Transformers, then, in its own clumsy way, left an indelible impression on a great many young boys during an impressionable period.

And so Transformers also contains, perhaps, one half-formed metanarrative as well. A frequent plot device in many iterations has been the use of time travel, and the established story element of the Transformer war’s length leads also back to history. The idea of a race of violent, underdeveloped personas—like arrested adolescence—trying to escape memory and history (of violence, of loss), to change the past entirely, exists buried beneath the surface, and that (like Moore’s own character-reinvention, Watchmen) speaks to the power and the narrative potential in what has always been viewed as one of the things holding Transformers back from being anything like a serious narrative: that is to say, nostalgia.

The sick irony, then, of Transformers at the conceptual level: the property is about a race of beings who change into other forms, it’s right there in the title, but there is little about Transformers that changes at all, or rather, nothing that evolves. The better part of the property’s rabid fandom desires a consistent reset to the cast of characters and original concepts of 1984, and usually the 1984 cartoon, at that. IDW’s current version of the comic book story has suffered an ugly narrative blow, even by the property’s low standards, as a long-running plotline which was attempting, awkwardly if earnestly, to update the ideas to the present day was cut short and the long-standing writer was replaced with a fresh newcomer whose “direct continuation” dumped most of the established continuity—to bring everything back to the old cartoon that hangs around the property’s neck like an albatross. The new series contains a dire bit of subtext as the characters claim their newer motivations were antithetical to their existence, that they needed to return to “who they really were”—the idea being that anything other than a particular conception of the ’84-’85 year of characters is an aberration, an idea which Hasbro and Takara are comforable supporting, due to collector response to that set of characters when they come around again as toys.

Not long ago, DC Comics brought Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash, back from the dead after his death in 1986—many fans have lobbied for the character’s return, but now find themselves frustrated with how little the character belongs in the new, weirder, darker and more violent DC Comics universe. Barry Allen was a symbol of an age that has passed by, a hopeful atomic age, and his non sequiter existence in 2009 was called by Noel Murray at the A.V. Club a reminder of why superhero comics repel many audiences.

“In my ideal world, D.C. would toss long-range continuity out the window. They’d stop trying to rectify it, reboot it, or in any way fix something that’s beyond repair. The writers should just tell new stories, and only rely on the rudiments of the past.”

But, of course, their lifeblood is a small and ever-dwindling group of people whose eyes are locked at a past that applies solely to their own generation. Like the Transformers themselves, a dedicated section of the readership (and no, as I’ve said in articles past, it’s never everyone, it’s always just some, many, most) claim to desire change but find themselves unable to adapt or evolve. And so the Flash is an episode of The Venture Bros. with the humor leeched out, a failed symbol of a hopeful age lost and adrift in the modern world, and our heroes become, well, robots, fighting the same old battles. And Optimus Prime is destined to die again, and again, and again, to where in Bay’s film he begs for it to happen in spite of a perfectly logical solution to his situation that a teenager is able to figure out without effort.

Transformers has, from time to time, shown glimpses of a promise that often goes unfulfilled, and yet an endearing set of character types and a fundamental idea which is a simple line to youth’s heart—the desire to transform—keep it running in perpetuity, bordered tightly by its commercial origin and existence. Will such a large, lucrative property ever make a fully-formed leap from entertainment to “informed” entertainment, or to whatever one’s personal criteria may be for a loftier “art?” It’s a questionable proposition at best. However, with a new tune-out-and-turn-up action blockbuster film on the horizon, the idea serves as a healthy reminder both of what more it can always be (with a guiding hand), and what we so often settle for.

Michael Peterson is the publisher of the blog & portfolio site Patchwork Earth.