What a long, strange trip it’s been for the Transformers, from one publisher to another.
Mention “Takara” in the 1980s and the first thought that, er, popped into any pop culture aficionado’s mind would be “Transformers!”. Both names are synonymous with making the “robots in disguise” concept a household phrase, but the Transformers’ place in the collective imagination of millions would not have been as complete (or comprehensive) if not for the depth of character development from their many memorable comic-book adventures.
In conjunction with the release of this year’s most anticipated movie – Transformers: Age Of Extinction – we retrace the Transformers’ comic roots and stop to pay tribute to some of the milestones.
More than meets the eye
The “robots in disguise” concept began 30 years ago in Japan (not Cybertron!), courtesy of Takara Tomy (then known as just Takara).
Utilising the moulds for its Diaclone and Microman toy lines, the company came up with the concept of a nifty combination of a robot that could transform into a vehicle, device or animal.
While this would have been more than enough to meet the expectations of young toy buyers, a further injection of … let’s call it commercialism by Hasbro, Inc saw the concept taken to new marketing frontiers.
Hence, what started out as an impressive toy line with endless possibilities was accompanied by a plethora of merchandise … most notably, comic books.
With the linkage between Hasbro and Marvel Comics solidified by their collaboration on G.I. Joe – A Real American Hero, it was no surprise that the Marvel Universe very quickly played host to our visitors from Cybertron.
Ironically, expectations were initially (extremely) low, with the Transformers slotted to appear in a mere four-issue limited series.
Presumably, Marvel was a little wary after Starriors – a Tomy robot line released in association with Marvel, a little after the Transformers toys – received less than spectacular response.
The impact generated by the first three issues of Transformers was overwhelming, and the cliffhanger ending in issue #4 (with Shockwave silencing both Autobots and Decepticons) made it a no-brainer to continue the series.
The new lease of life provided various platforms for our Cybertronian visitors to battle, as well as explore Earth, en route to providing multitude character-developing opportunities for the Autobots and Decepticons.
Eventually, Marvel’s first Transformers run ended at issue #80, but this did not signal the end, because the foundation it built (along with a Marvel UK series) was solid enough to further expand the battlefront into new horizons, namely spin-offs (Headmasters, Transformers Universe), crossovers (G.I.Joe And The Transformers) and a second volume (Transformers: Generation 2).
Obviously, having Autobots and Decepticons in the Marvel Universe posed a continuity headache for the powers-that-be, as they already had to contend with mutants, Inhumans, Morlocks, and Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, among many others. While Spidey did make an appearance in issue #3 and Circuit Breaker made a cameo in Secret Wars II, future Transformers escapades were very much “insulated” from the hustle and bustle of the perpetually cataclysmic ambience of the Marvel Universe.
To cater for the ever-expanding toy line, the first Marvel series and its British counterpart did remarkably well in assimilating new toy creations into the comics medium.
While the prevailing “suspicion” among industry observers was that the comics were being pressured into keeping pace with new toy releases, it was actually a boon to fans.
Some minor complaints – such as the comic-book absence of characters from the 1986 animated movie including Ultra Magnus, Springer, Metroplex and Arcee – were overshadowed by the inclusion of variant transformation concepts like the Dinobots, Headmasters, Targetmasters, Monsterbots, Horrorcons, Terrorcons and Technobots, all offering new dimensions to fans.
While the Transformers’ comic-book journey began on US shores, credit should also be given to its Britain-based expansion. Usually, the “Marvel UK” imprint was focused more on reprinting American publications for the domestic market there.
It was a different approach for the Transformers, however, with Marvel UK actually advancing the creative front with more serious sci-fi-centric storytelling – on a weekly basis!
Almost 360 issues were produced with many milestones in Transformers chronology – most notably, Galvatron travelling back in time from the future.
The meticulous nature of the British series is accredited to legendary scribe Simon Furman, who was instrumental in charting the robots’ comic-book evolution from Marvel UK to the United States, in the process establishing a template for the title’s future incarnations under different publishers.
After Marvel’s “Generation 1” stint, the second volume (Generation 2) granted the Autobots and Decepticons a bigger battlefield – the whole galaxy! The concept for this 12-issue series was promising, because it offered an expansion of the G1 crew, “new” nuts-and-bolts in the G2 Decepticons and Swarm, as well as Liege Maximo (one of the 13 original Transformers).
Unfortunately, all this was still not enough to secure retail interest. Dismal sales forced Marvel to fast-track the conclusion and address any leftover demand for Transformers comics in a giveaway, The Transformers Generation 2: Halloween Special Edition, which accompanied the G2 toyline. There would be many subsequent reprints and compilations, but Marvel’s decade-long foray into Transformers territory really ended here (although a New Avengers/Transformers crossover materialised in 2007).
Overall, the Transformers’ Marvel years are lauded for their contribution to building a strong foundation for the toy line. The stories, particularly the characterisation, certainly helped take the Transformers Universe to a level far beyond what the toy line alone could have achieved, even with the cartoons.
Of course, this pales in comparison next to the CGI-heavy Michael Bay Trans-verse, but it was still enthralling in a 1980s/1990s context.
The impossible Dream … wave
Arguably, the best (and worst) Transformers comic moments came from Dreamwave Productions’ short three-year stint (2002-04). Building on the foundation laid over the past decade by Marvel, Dreamwave succeeded in … transforming the existing landscape into a sprawling realm of epic cinematic proportions with a host of series and spin-offs.
Its eye-catching Transformers Generation 1 was a fitting statement of intent for Dreamwave’s foray into the tough business of publishing comics. The company went on to add to its own Transformers mythos with The War Within, Micromasters, Armada, Energon and two G.I. Joe team-ups, before going bankrupt in 2005 and losing the Transformers licence.
IMHO, Generation 1 is the “origins” benchmark for the Transformers and crafted very much with a movie in mind. Despite its erratic shipping schedule, it succeeded in garnering strong fan support and its sequel-of-sorts, Transformers: The War Within, even paved the way for a homecoming for Furman.
While Dreamwave would most be remembered for its real-world problems, its contribution to the fantasy space cannot be denied.
In Furman we trust
Unlike the switch from Marvel to Dreamwave, the journey from Dreamwave to IDW – the next publisher to acquire the Transformers licence – was a smoother ride. Credit to Dreamwave for sowing the right seeds, even reigniting interest in Beast Wars before it went belly-up.
With Transformers comic concepts already adjusted for 21st-century tastes, the IDW team didn’t needed to reinvent the wheel.
Furman, given carte blanche in the creative department, was a great asset to the cause.
With great power comes unlimited creativity and all that, and it did not take him long to revitalise the whole Transformers landscape with titles like Generation One, Infiltration, Stormbringer, Spotlight, Escalation, Devastation, Revelation, Beast Wars, etc.
While keeping tabs on all the comic-book developments would require an Optimus Prime-size wallet, it is comforting to note that the franchise’s continuity and development are in the hands of an eternal fan.
If, however, you find most Transformers comics too campy or “1980s” for your liking, then All Hail Megatron (an Elseworlds-like take of Earth, where Megatron reigns supreme and his Autobot foes are exiled on Cybertron) and Transformers: The Last Stand Of The Wreckers (a notable effort that portrays the “humanity” of this Autobots special-ops team) should be right up your alley.