Welcome to Adventure(s) Time's 104th installment, a look at animated heroes of the past. This week, we celebrate the 35th anniversary of Transformers by examining the property's comics and cartoon debuts. (I managed to work this one in just a few weeks before the anniversary year passed!) And if you have any suggestions for the future, let me hear them on Twitter.
Having found great success with its partnership with Marvel Comics to promote G.I. Joe, Hasbro followed the same model when rolling out the Transformers line. Having licensed the Diaclone and Micro Change toylines from Japanese toy company Takara, Hasbro turned to Marvel to develop a mythology for the toys, and a promotional comic book.
Exploiting the lack of Federal Communications Commission regulation on comic book commercials, fully animated television advertised the comics. (Toy commercials could only feature a certain number of seconds of animation; not so with comics.) Hasbro employees report calls from excited children as soon as the commercial aired, even though the toys had yet to be announced. Kids simply recognized the same style of animation from the G.I. Joe spots, and guessed this had to be a Hasbro product.
Former Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter has detailed his involvement in developing the line on his blog. Shooter indicates he stepped in after editor Denny O'Neil gave a less-than-inspired effort, writing out the basics of the mythology (without asking for money or credit, accepting this as a part of his job at Marvel). While the name "Optimus Prime" survived O'Neil's treatment, we know today that Marvel editor Bob Budiansky took over Shooter's notes and contributed the names and personality profiles associated with the characters today.
Budiansky, an artist and editor, had little experience as a writer, which might explain why he wasn't asked to write the comic (initially planned as a miniseries). Bill Mantlo, who'd successfully adapted the Micronauts toyline into a comic, was given the assignment to plot the book, with editor Ralph Macchio scripting. They were joined on the first issue by penciler Frank Springer and inker Kim DeMulder. The cover is from Bill Sienkiewicz, of all people!
The opening animated miniseries was developed simultaneously, using the basics of the comic's storyline as a sort of outline. "More than Meets the Eye," written by George Arthur Bloom (an established sitcom and variety show writer) and animated by respected Japanese studio Toei, debuted on Sept. 17, 1984.
Shooter has indicated a kind of rivalry between Marvel and Griffin-Bacal, the ad agency hired by Hasbro and the owners of Sunbow, the production company that created the cartoon with Marvel Productions. (Shooter also feels Marvel Productions, an '80s animation studio that shared an owner with Marvel Comics, also had beef with the comics division. So much drama.)
The comic and the cartoon both open with a narrator detailing the story of the Autobots and Decepticons, and their troubled planet Cybertron. In the comics, the planet is in the path of an asteroid belt, requiring the Autobots to clear the way. On the cartoon, the planet's energy reserves are dangerously low. Regardless, both plots have the Autobots aboard a ship ambushed by the Decepticons.
Following that attack, the Transformers crash-land on Earth. There, they remain dormant for four million years, until a volcano awakens machinery inside the ship. (That's likely inspired by the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.) It assumes automobiles to be the dominant species on this planet, and creates alt-modes for the robots to give them appropriate disguises.
From there, the stories diverge in significant ways. The cartoon depicts Decepticons searching for an energy source to fuel their return to Cybertron. That leads to them attacking an oil platform, soon defended by the Autobots.
Here, we meet middle-aged father, Sparkplug Witwicky, and his son, Spike. Identifying the pair as blue-collar types, always in their work clothes, is specific to the cartoon.
The Autobots save the Witwickys, Spike quickly becomes the viewpoint figure for the young audience, and the Autobots and Decepticons clash in assorted locations. The second episode has a rather famous confrontation between Optimus Prime and Decepticon leader Megatron atop a dam. It's nowhere to be found in the initial comics, but it's later adapted for the Marvel UK series by Simon Furman and John Stokes.
Ultimately, the Autobots sabotage the Decepticons' ship, preventing their return to space. A voiceover from Spike reveals Earth's governments have united to provide the Autobots with the fuel they need to return home. Remember, this was a miniseries; there were no plans for an ongoing at this time.
The comics, meanwhile, place the Transformers in more of a suburban setting. While the cartoon had this idea of the Transformers crashing in the desert, the comic is set near Portland, with drive-in movie theaters and small automotive shops.
Here, we meet a teenage Buster (not Spike), who aspires to become a writer. His dad, Sparkplug, is pushing him to become a mechanic, but Buster would rather hang with his friends, "O" and Jesse.
Buster encounters the Transformers at the drive-in, where they attempt to communicate with the cars, still ignorant of this whole "human" thing. Buster befriends Bumblebee, and convinces his father to repair the Autobot after a battle. Sparkplug, though, has far more complex feelings about the Transformers in this canon.
Other issues from the initial comics storyline, which had Jim Salicrup stepping in to write the rest of the mini, include a Spider-Man guest appearance (toy company Mattel, already producing Spider-Man toys for the Secret Wars line, wasn't so thrilled with this) and an origin for the Dinobots, set in the Savage Land.
Most shocking is the conclusion to what had been sold as a miniseries. Shockwave, the Decepticon representative left on Cybertron, arrives on Earth. He makes his presence felt, triggering a laser blast that seemingly kills the Autobots.
It's OK, though. Because the miniseries sold so well, the series continued for years. The cover to the last issue is a classic, announcing Issue 80 is the final chapter in a four-issue miniseries.
The early issues of the comic are notorious for featuring outrageously off-model designs for the Transformers. As inker Kim DeMulder told Back Issue on 2006, "When I started inking this, the marketing hadn't actually started ... originally we had no access to any reference other than the toys themselves. Marvel actually gave me several of the toys as the only reference I had! Just after I had left the book, all the Transformers artists got those wonderful, clear model sheets that the animators were using."
The look of Megatron, with the black helmet, has always confused fans. Apparently, this is based on an early prototype, abandoned by the time the animation models were designed. More info on the contradictory designs can be found at the TF Wiki.
What's the deal with the Witwicky kid having two different first names? Shooter indicates he always wanted Spike as the name, but was told Hasbro didn't like the violent connotations. And yet, somehow, this became his name on the show, while the comics were stuck with "Buster." Later, Spike had to be established in the comics as Buster's brother when Spike showed up as an actual toy. Buster's blond helmet hair, meanwhile, is typical of early-'80s Marvel.
It's no secret that no one at Marvel particularly wanted to write Transformers -- especially in these early issues, when no one knew it would be a hit. While the animation has a snappy pace and quippy patter, the earliest comics issues are often bogged down by clunky exposition and stilted dialogue. Particularly the first issue, which is honestly a slog to read. While the basics of the canon come from the comic, it's the cartoon that's truly shaped the public's perception of the Transformers. It's also worth noting that the iconic Energon cubes are an invention of the cartoon, not the comics.
A legend has also developed over the years regarding the final page of Transformers #4. It is true an alternate, "happy ending" page exists, archived today by the TFArchive site. The page ran in the Marvel UK collection of the first mini in order to provide a clear conclusion to the story.
"... AND ROLL OUT!"
It's amazing to think of how much mythology, still in use today, comes from this relatively short run of comics and cartoons. Is this an airtight, carefully conceived universe? Nope. Establishing the Transformers' ship as resting for four million years lodged into a mountain with no one noticing is just bizarre. Even worse, the story does shift back to Cybertron, where we have to buy essentially nothing has changed in the millions of years the stranded Transformers were off-line.
There's also the complication of having the Transformers exiled on Earth, even as new toys continually repopulate the line (all with Earth-based alt-modes ... even though they're aliens). Presumably, if Shooter knew he was actually setting the stage for an ongoing series, he would have made different choices.
Still, the basics of an inherently heroic team of robots defending humans from the other robots who view them as little more than ants ... that's a strong concept. It's easy enough for a kid to grasp, but also with enough story avenues to entertain teens and adults. The Michael Bay films, as juvenile as they are, aren't kid-friendly at all, but still brought in large audiences. Unlike some of the other '80s toy properties, people don't feel a need to defend their love of the Transformers. To think a concept that's survived for decades, and been adapted across the world, originated as a last-minute pitch to appease a toy company...that's pretty impressive.