As a franchise, Transformers owes its existence to Hasbro discovering two existing Japanese changing robot toylines, Diaclone and Microchange, and mashing them together to create a new one of its own. But the origins of the original (or Generation 1) Transformers canon came in 1983 from what might come as a surprise to some: Marvel Comics.
Well, maybe not too surprising. Marvel — specifically writer, artist and Vietnam War veteran Larry Hama and a host of artists — had reworked a scrapped Nick Fury comic into what became the original G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero series that ran for an astonishing 155 issues to resounding success. It made sense, then, for Hasbro to hit Marvel up again, this time to flesh out the official storyline for the toy manufacturer’s form-changing robots. Marvel’s editor-in-chief Jim Shooter wrote a six-page treatment, assigning editor/writer Denny O’Neil to flesh out the characters (Hasbro, according to Shooter, had already coined the terms “Transformers,” “Autobots” and “Decepticons”). Shooter, however, thought O’Neil’s work was unusable, and then Hasbro rejected both O’Neil and Shooter’s work, save for some names, like Optimus Prime (attributed to O’Neal though he admitted in a 2014 episode of Fat Man On Batman that he doesn’t remember doing so).
Shooter then reassigned the project to a writer/penciller and newly-turned special projects editor Bob Budiansky, who renamed and refined Megatron, Autobot scientist Wheeljack and countless others, all during the weekend before Thanksgiving. Budiansky — in addition to creating the toyline’s mythos for the next 5 years — also edited The Transformers, a 4-issue bimonthly miniseries that ran from May-December 1984, pre-dating the cartoon by several months to tell the origin story of the robots in disguise crash-landing on prehistoric Earth and awakening in 1984 in the Pacific Northwest. Plotted by Bill Mantlo, written by Ralph Macchio and Jim Salicrup, pencilled by Frank Springer, inked by Kim DeMulder, Mike Esposito, Ian Akin and Brian Garvey, colored by Nelson Yomtov and lettered by John Workman, the mini — which is loaded with exposition-laden dialogue but still has a fun energy — was a smash hit, and quickly became an ongoing series.
In a 2009 interview with members of the fansite Rusting Carcass, Budiansky relayed how the initial mini, which had black-suited Spider-Man drop by in the third chapter, was “messy” in his point of view. “Nobody could handle it, there was just characters running all over the place, it was a mess.” When The Transformers became an ongoing, Budiansky was replaced as editor by Christopher Priest, because his job title meant he couldn’t edit a monthly comic. However, Budiansky successfully lobbied Priest to “fire the writer who I hired and hire ME because I [was] telling him what to put in the stories!”
Budiansky, with a rotating crew of artists including Herb Trimpe and Don Perlin (Yomtov colored the series throughout its run), stayed on the book until issue #55 in 1989, when he left due to being burned out. His tenure — featuring a mix of intense fight stories like Shockwave and The Dinobots fighting each other in the Savage Land and lighter fare like “Buster Witwicky and the Car Wash of Doom!” — was regarded negatively in wider Transformers fandom until relatively recently, when he began giving interviews and participating in convention panels that revealed just how involved in creating the G1 mythos he’d been.
The Transformers wasn’t just a huge hit for Marvel stateside, but around the world, particularly in the UK. Published largely biweekly from 1984 to 1990, Marvel UK’s The Transformers was, like most of the imprint’s titles, comprised of chopped-up reprints of the US comic. When the well of reprintable material ran dry, British talent was enlisted to fill in the gaps with new stories. The longest-running writer for the UK series was Simon Furman, who wrote years’ worth of stories filling in and expanding on the US mythos. Along the way, he created or fleshed out now-core concepts of the franchise like Satan figure Unicron, and Cybertronian creator god Primus, as well as unrelated bounty hunter robot Death’s Head, who has become a minor, yet integral part of the Marvel Universe. Furman also wrote well-received, densely plotted epic stories like “Target 2006” and “Matrix Quest.”
Noting how well Furman seemed to grasp the franchise and the great comics he was turning out (which inspired loads of British and European comics pros like Nick Roche and Kieron Gillen), Budiansky suggested Furman take over the US comic. As a result, Furman helmed the series until it was cancelled amid declining sales and a general decline in interest in Transformers in the US in 1991. The final issue proclaimed that it was “Number 80 In A Four-Issue Limited Series,” a reflection on how what started as a simple toy commercial wound up eclipsing the toyline that inspired it.
Marvel and Furman were tapped once again for the tie-in comic to Transformers: Generation 2 (an “extreme” ’90s reissue of older toys whose cartoon was literally old episodes with random CGI thrown in). While it continued the story of The Transformers, the series only lasted a year. After some various random series by assorted publisher, the next chapter of Transformers comics bloomed alongside one of the most notorious stories in recent comics history: The sad, horrible tale of Dreamwave Productions.
Founded by artist Pat Lee and his brother Roger under the Image Comics umbrella in 1996, Dreamwave accquired the rights to Transformers comics in 2002. The imprint released two miniseries and an ongoing called Transformers: Generation One, written by Chris Sarracini and Brad Mick and drawn by Lee and, most prominently, fandom-recruited artist Don Figueroa. Taking place in a future where the Autobots had tried to leave Earth but were deactivated when their new ship was sabotaged, the series featured anime-inspired art and crisp digital coloring, but had a muddled story and was filled with a plethora of bizarre poses and expressions, including what the TFan community has lovingly termed “dull surprise.”
Much more successful were Dreamwave’s comics for 2002’s Transformers Armada, which introduced a third race of robots, the Mini-Cons, who could connect to bigger toys and unlock hidden features, and 2003’s Transformers Energon. While the anime series for both were hampered by being translated and dubbed before the show was even finished (Armada) and quite literally some of the worst animation of all time (Energon), the comics fared much better. Written by Sarracini and Furman and drawn by James Raiz and Guido Guidi (another fandom-recruited artist), these comics far exceeded the quality of their cartoon counterparts, mostly by virtue of the Mini-Cons ability to properly speak instead of merely making beeping sounds as the Armada anime presented them. Furman and Figureoa also created Transformers: The War Within, a series set in the far past on Cybertron.
Sadly, Dreamwave’s TF series, and everything else, were all abruptly cancelled when, after a huge string of financial mismanagement and misappropriation that resulted in several talents not being paid, as well as the discovery that most of Pat Lee’s credited work was actually drawn by Alex Milne, the Lees suddenly declared bankruptcy in 2005.
A year later, with hype building for the first Michael Bay film, Hasbro granted a upstart company named IDW Publishing — then best known for 30 Days Of Night — the license. IDW brought Furman on board alongside artist E.J. Su to pen several interconnected miniseries forming a brand new G1 continuity involving three twenty-somethings rather than kids stumbling across the robots. The Autobots, like the Decepticons, were revealed to have been fighting their incognito war across numerous planets. IDW’s vast, vast line of Transformers comics — which currently include the astonishingly clever and wonderful Lost Light, the gorgeously-drawn Optimus Prime and the political-drama-but-with-robots Till All Are One — helped launch the publisher into the next level, paving the way for its nascent interconnected Hasbro comics-verse. Furman and longtime collaborator Andrew Wildman were even given the chance to bring a proper end to the original Marvel Transformers saga with The Transformers: Regeneration One.
If nothing else, the many different takes on Cybertronians over the years have shown that comics is probably the true home of the Transformers. Only through the unlimited budget and experimentation this medium provides can creators take the simple premise of “car turns into robot” and spawn an incredible fabric of stories like a gay romance that stretches across universes, an epic retelling of Paradise Lost with giant planetoid robots and even something as goofy as “the Car Wash of Doom!”
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