WARNING: Nerd Level Omega here, tread with Caution!!!
So I’ve been meandering around the internet this morning in a state of distracted sleeplessness and somehow something made me think of the Transformers.
NOT THE MOVIES.
I’m eschewing all facets of the recent Michael Bay drek for the remainder of this one, so just put ‘em out of your mind.
I started thinking about the Transformers I grew up with. ‘Generation One’ as the first two seasons of the original cartoon are now referred to ‘in the parlance of our time’ and the massive mindfuck that occurred with and after the animated movie that hit theatres in 1986.
What was I thinking about these giant robots? Glad you asked.
The two major toy franchises of my youth were GIJOE and Transformers. Both had cartoons and both had Marvel comics. The interesting thing is with Joe the cartoon had some charm but mostly I looked down my nose at it compared to Larry Hama’s amazingly well-written, intricately-plotted comic books. With Transformers it was the exact opposite for quite some time. The reason for this I believe was based around the difference in the way the two cartoons were approached.
GIJOE’s cartoons were essentially constantly updated commercials for the toy line. Not to say Mr. Hama didn’t have to stay on his toes introducing new characters and vehicles into the comic all the time but with the cartoon one ‘season’ would end and when the next began 90% of the characters from the previous year would be remanded to the status of those green uniform, tan helmet-and-action suspenders* filler troops that always made up the background of battle scenes**. Hell, by the time that Cobra-La Movie thing came out Snake Eyes could hardly be seen except as background fodder.
Snake Eyes. Arguably the most popular character from any toy line during that time period.
It would not be unfair to say that Joe’s cartoon was product driven and its comic was continuity and character driven (hell, Hama had Ripcord and several Crimson Guard’s sans uniform as an integral part of the ongoing story for quite some time).
Transformers the cartoon was quite the opposite. The comic itself was continuity driven and Bob Budiansky (initial writer and in large part early character creator) also had to juggle introducing characters almost every issue with his ongoing story (this often provided laughs as he’d sometimes introduce them and kill them off in the same issue) but the thing was, the cartoon actually operated in a very similar manner to the comic. Sure, it may have begun product driven, but then all of a sudden when the animated movie struck from there out continuity seemed to be given as much consideration as $ale$.
Now I know, the first argument here is obviously, ‘Uh, hey asshead, did you forget that the movie effectively killed the old characters in order to bring in the new?’
Well no Jimbob, I hadn’t forgotten that. Let me finish or I’ll come over there and cram a Sharkticon down your mullet-headed gob.
The show still remained product driven, but the thing was the writers found a way to do it and drive the ongoing story. Notice how instead of just throwing Megatron and his henchmen away the writers turned them into the new characters – this was effectively the best of both worlds for fan and studio – continuity didn’t have to die and all the little kiddies would still HAVE to have Galvatron to replace their old Megatron figures. Not only that, something about the jump in time post-movie to 2010 really seemed to streamline the continuity – no longer was it just the giant robots trapped on mundane old Earth – the animated Transformers world of 2010 more than a little resembled 70’s Marvel/Jack Kirby-esque storytelling, with literally galaxies of planets and lifeforms for the characters to encounter and interact with. And the agendas and situations for the characters became quite interesting amidst this intergalactic backdrop – the Decepticons forced to take shelter on the burnt out husk of a planet called CHAR (awesome!) and those pesky five-faced Quintessons floating around with their evil, tentacled machinations of … of whatever it was they were trying to do. It’s amazing I remember as much of this as I do, but even my nerd storage capacity has its limits.
So I guess you’d say I was partial to the cartoon for the ‘Formers. I read the comic off and on and while I dug some of the really interesting things Budiansky and later Brit Simon Furman did with the characters (RATBAT an important enough Decepticon to actually make a bid for leadership?) I was always slightly irked that little things I loved from the cartoon continuity didn’t gel over into comic-verse.
Then, years later I stumbled across issue #80 of Marvel’s original Transfomers line. The cover depicted characters I did not know along with a header that read ‘NUMBER 80 IN A FOUR-ISSUE LIMITED SERIES’. That was awesome!!! I bought it and marveled at the stuff that was implied to have happened in the issues preceding it (at that point I probably hadn’t seen an issue since, oh, maybe thirty or forty something). Alas though, T-Formers nostalgia had not begun and just like the Joe comic there was no call for reprints (the trade paperback edition trend had not even nearly taken off yet).
Then in 2001 or so BOOM! I found that Furman’s last two story arcs, THEY ALL FALL DOWN and END OF THE ROAD had both been collected in trade paperback form from Titan Books. I bought them, read them and loved them, and now today I’ve begun re-reading them.
Again the Kirby-like comparison pops up, so I found the comic did go the same route, but you know what? It did it better because it took its time getting there and really seeded all these other worlds and entities into the story itself, not just on top, where regardless of how continuity-driven the cartoon used to seem to me (no doubt at the time emphasized by its concurrent lifespan with the shill Joe cartoon) the comic, no longer propping up a popular toy line*** had been free for some time to go its own way, and Furman, no doubt realizing it wasn’t going to last forever, was able to plot probably the last third or so of the series to come to a proper conclusion.
There used to be, maybe even still is, a stigma about comics derived from toy lines. And yes, often they are product-pushing crap. But this is not the case here, never was with the Transformers comic, and I’d like to raise my glass and give a hearty ‘Good Show!!!’ to Budiansky and Furman, both of who, to me, stand as extremely underrated and influential comic talents on par with the guys who plot the long haul stuff – Claremont, Morrison (another Kirby-geek when viewed through his DC continuity work), Peter David and their peers.
* Hmmmm – Action Suspenders… good band name.
** And what was with that anyway? I know I’m treading fool territory here by attempting to hold a cartoon to real world logic but if GI JOE is a specially selected Unit why do they have nameless, faceless, apparently (via lack of funny hats, snorkels, Bar.b.ques and/or animal mascots) specialty-less grunts on board?
*** I think by that time, early/mid 90’s, the toy ceased to exist for a while, floundering just before beast wars or whatever came after. My nerd line is drawn with what I grew up with, I couldn’t give two shits about mallards that transform into Geo Metro-looking robots.