Friday, May 23, 2014

Back Issues with Issues: The Transformers #1

cover art by Bill Sienkiewicz (
One of the wonders of 1980s pop culture is that Marvel comics used Bill Sienkiewicz' talents on so many secondary titles. 1984 was the first year that I was allowed to read comic books; in retrospect I seem to have picked things that Sienkiewicz did the covers for: Rom Spaceknight, Starriors, Star Wars, Micronauts, various movie adaptations. Also, I was brought up in a very sheltered manner, so I didn't have the background to pick a super-hero title.

Cybertron, before the fall, rendered by Frank Springer
So, other than the Star Wars movies, which are meant to be in media res, this was my first chance at getting in at the beginning of a story. 

wordy stuff by Ralph Macchio, from Bill Manto's plot

As a beginning, though, it's a lot of back story. It's kind of fascinating to see this sort of retro-fitting going on. Marvel was hired not only to publish a comic-book spin-off, but to come up with characters to fit these robot toys that Hasbro had picked up the rights to. And, since these are "boys" toys, to give them a reason to be endlessly fighting.

Megatron doesn't like sissy peace-niks

As the "bad guy," Megatron is a hawkish sort who believes that the pursuit of peace is a weakness. He envisions a future for Cybertron in which its technology is used to power a vast war machine. By launching some sort of rebellion against the utopian government, he starts a thousand-year conflict. Basically, he's already met his goals and created a military-industrial complex. Optimus Prime is just there to give encouraging speeches to the liberals.

Boy, can that robot give a speech. He could be President some day.

Eventually, the war-that-never-ends causes a spaceship full of both political parties to crash land on Earth. In an "ark." Four million years ago.

Ah, the futility of conflict.

And this ark does not carry "two of every kind." It carries combatants, for its role will be the re-activation of the war, rather than mere preservation of species.

All good leaders have the ability to speak in exposition.
And this brings up a weird question: Can we define gender in a species of toy robots? The original line-up presented here were all referred to as "he" on the packaging. The later animated series would give them all "male" voices. We could probably discount the question entirely, if this was just going to be a story for 10 year old boys about mechanical soldiers. But the writers bring in a human sub-plot:

It's not easy having a Tea Party dad.
Someone in Marvel management decided that the robots would need a human sidekick, so we get Buster. His main characteristics are a love of reading and not being able to repair cars. The is mainly a set-up to form a dialectic against his father, who owns a garage and doubts the value of a formal education. He has a red-headed girlfriend named "Jesse" (girls in boys' stories are ALWAYS redheads), and an overweight comedy-relief friend named "O." No mother. No mention of why there is no mother.

Meanwhile, Optimus Prime is still catching up with the plot
Instead of questioning the writing, however, I'd rather take a moment to praise the art. Long before "widescreen comics" would become a hip term, Frank Springer solves the problem of dealing with such a large cast by arranging his pages in tiers of horizontal panels, and then using vertical panels when needed to convey quick actions. It's also interesting to see him drawing all these guys as giant versions of the toys. Later issues would match up with the simpler animation designs, taking away some of the more alien aspects of the robots.

Autobots aren't the best decision makers.
One of the other cute things here is the explanation of WHY they transform into earthly things. Apparently, our robot friends are a bit species-ist and can't wrap their heads around non-mechanical life. So, they've been "upgraded" to be able to mix with the locals. Like boom boxes and Volkswagen "beetles." Oops.

What geeks daydream about on the commute to work.
So, reading this again as an adult isn't a terrible experience. There is a lot of expository dialogue, and there's the whole weird "males only" vibe, but I'm not intended audience for this anymore. The odd thing about this comic book is that it reminds me of many current titles that DO cater to adults rather than 10-year-old boys. It's as if the current DC and Marvel writers are still replaying this father-son reconciliation, but for whiny, middle-aged men. Maybe they realize that any female cast members would just tell them to grow up and get over it.

"Where are your fancy book-words now, boy?"
The 1980s were a very sex-divided decade in retrospect, so it isn't surprising to see comic books from the era being written specifically for boys or girls. Personally, I remember my younger years as a time when I'd read and absorb ANY story. But, there was also the threat of being caught partaking of something from the girl's side. If I wasn't so bookish, and had to rely on TV or comics for my fiction as most children did, I wonder if I would have turned out more normal as an adult, looking to become a father myself?

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