More Than Meets the Eye: My Life with The Transformers (Part II: Better to Fight and Die)
I remember the event about as vividly as I remember anything that happened during my university years. I was walking through a shopping centre in Nottingham, past Forbidden Planet, when I spied in the window of aforementioned geek retailer a solitary comic book. There it was, in the window, one little comic. On the cover there was a chunky rendition of Optimus Prime standing earnestly beside a rather diminutive Bumblebee in his classically chunky VW Beetle form. Prime clenched a fist and held aloft his rifle. Bumblebee looked fat and silly. THE TRANSFORMERS, screamed the comic, in the original hard-lined, metallic-looking typeface that adorned early toy boxes and movie posters, rather than the italicised logo that came later.
It was, in short, a brand new Transformers comic. Starring old-school Prime and old-school Bumblebee.
I’d never heard of “Dreamwave”, but at this point my comic-book knowledge was a shallow pool. I knew Marvel, of course, because the original Transformers had been a gateway into the wider Marvel world, especially Marvel UK. I knew that DC were their “Distinguished Competition”, and I knew (more or less) which superheroes belonged to which publisher. Thanks to the “Books & Comics”, the indie retailer in Middlesbrough, and a couple of hand-me-down copies of Wizard my cousin had sent me from America, I was buffeted by the currents of the 1990s comics boom, if not exactly swept along; therefore, I was familiar enough with Image and Dark Horse, and had for a little while collected Spawn. But Dreamwave - no, these guys were knew. They clearly weren’t Marvel, though, and therefore the classic Simon Furman run remained at an end. This was a bold, fresh start.
Needless to say, I bought the comic (and a rather nice flocked Autobot logo t-shirt, that I later saw one of the special effects artists wearing on a behind-the-scenes video of one of the Matrix movies). Now, I’m a little bit fuzzy as to whether I bought the “0” preview issue or issue 1; but I was sufficiently informed by the comic itself that another issue of Transformers was already out there, waiting, and fortunately the other comic book store in Nottingham had one copy left. This was it: once more I was buying brand new Transformers comics, reading a brand new Transformers story. I remember at the time marvelling (no pun intended) at the quality of the art, but I think really what impressed me was the quality of the production; I wasn’t familiar with computer-produced comics at that point. In fact, the art - by the, ahem, notorious Pat Lee - I have come to regard with very little affection; ridiculous blocky Transformer designs, with tiny heads and massive hands, dodgy proportions and frankly terrible expressions (seriously, Google “dull surprise”). To be honest, even at the time I felt that this wasn’t “my” Transformers - this was some interloper, someone who just didn’t get the franchise the way I did; it wasn’t “real”, it wasn’t “the” Transformers. I think the original Furman run had burned itself so profoundly onto my consciousness that anything that disregarded his work - anything, in fact, that didn’t genuflect at his stories, treat them as gospel and attempt to adapt them as faithfully as possible - was heresy.
Even today, more objectively, I have to say the story isn’t great: the backstory, with the presumed-dead Transformers being resurrected by money-grabbing humans to serve as weapons of mass destruction, was actually alright, but once the plot itself kicks in, and Autobots and Decepticons face off in San Francisco, it’s very one-note. Weaned as I was on the precise linework of Geoff Senior and the characterful detail of Andrew Wildman, Lee’s fat-limbed and uncoordinated ‘bots were disappointingly static, and their fights totally bereft of the circuit-spewing, metal-rending destruction Wildman in particular excelled at. Prime warbles the sort of wan, noble sentiment that has become his default mode of address (a world away from the more aggressive character from the old Sunbow cartoons, let alone the wracked, doubt-ridden, semi-tragic figure portrayed by Simon Furman); the story ends with predictable sacrifice, but somehow rings rather empty. I also remember finding the human bodycount a touch offensive, as skyscrapers tumble beneath Megatron’s assault; this comic came out in the months following 9/11, so smoke-filled skies above ruined American cities had lost some of their appeal (although, to be fair, I also found the scene where Prime drives up Devastator’s chest and blasts him in the face very exciting).
Regardless, Dreamwave’s Transformers was a massive success. I remember reading about it in The Guardian, the writer marvelling that a twenty-year-old toy franchise would be now outselling the mainstream likes of Batman and Spider-Man. I also remember the article ending with a quote from a comic store employee claiming that the following year’s Thundercats reboot would blow Transformers out of the water – clearly a regular Mystic Meg, that guy. But for now, Transformers was back: a fresh new toyline and cartoon (Armada), a new Generation 1 comic, and – at last! – Simon Furman and Andrew Wildman back together and doing Transformers again, albeit in the ancient-Cybertron-set tales, The War Within, which shed new light on the origins of the Autobot-Decepticon war and which (quite frankly) was loads better than the main, present-day-set storyline.
And then all the Pat Lee-ishness happened, Dreamwave imploded, and really a lot of wind left the Transformers sales. By the time yet another company had revived the series, the entire comic book market had shrivelled to a fraction of its former self. But even if the (for me) core component of the Transformers franchise was somehow now sidelined, Transformers itself was making a full-fisted assault on popular culture once again.
Yeah, “yet another company”. Don’t worry, I’m getting to it.
I’d enjoyed the Dreamwave books, and by the time they were sucked into the black hole of Pat Lee’s ego, they were putting out some very compelling stories. But I know, because my brother was a kid at the time, that the new Armada toys were almost as popular among kids of the 2000s as the original G1 line was in the 80s. Transformers toys, suddenly, were everywhere again; and even if, as with Beast Wars before it, I felt that these toys weren’t really “for me”, I was still overjoyed to see my beloved favourite franchise do so well. And then one day, at uni, I was reading Empire Online, when lo and behold, they announced that Steven Spielberg was going to produce a live-action Transformers movie.
Now, in all honesty, my first thought was disappointment that someone else had got to the franchise before I could (my Hollywood career not quite advancing as quickly as I’d hoped). But even so, Spielberg! My favourite director of all time! Producing a TRANSFORMERS MOVIE! What could possibly go wrong?
Well, you could argue, everything went right. I don’t know if it’s fair to say that Transformers has never been more popular, because quite frankly it was (in my memory, at least) the Harry Potter of the 80s, a true mega-franchise that touched every kid in the playground. But who could imagine that one day a Transformers film would gross a billion dollars? That a new Transformers film might be the biggest-grossing film in a year that also included new X-Men, Spider-Man, and Captain America films? Or that Transformers could attract Oscar winners and nominees in supporting roles? This is a remarkable world we live in for a long-standing fan; a world that has, arguably, been conquered by Cybertron. As the money rolls in for Age of Extinction, one starts to feel that maybe, just maybe, Transformers is the biggest franchise in the world right now (of course, a new Star Wars film comes out next year, and the year after that Batman fights Superman, but for now let’s go with it).
But I can’t escape the sagging, old-man feeling that Transformers has left me behind. You’d think that I, a thirtysomething father with disposable income and and three decades of love for the franchise, would be the ideal audience for a new Transformers film. Yet they leave me cold; I have to conclude, quite frankly, that I am not the target audience. I don’t wish to criticise people I’ve never met, working in a discipline I’m only on the peripheries of, and at a scale I can’t comprehend, but in all honesty I remain fiercely disappointed by the films. It reeks of the lowest standards of internet forum hand-wringing, but as I watch them all I can think is, “Optimus Prime wouldn’t do that”. And, of course, he wouldn’t; not my Prime, the Prime of Simon Furman or Bob Budiansky. But, although he sounds more-or-less the same, this is a different Prime for a different age and a very different audience. I can criticise the aesthetics of the new robot designs all I want, and find the Sturm und Drang of city destruction numbing and depressing, but these films are phenomenally successful, and have brought a whole new generation of fans into the Transformers fold. They have, most probably, secured for decades the viability of one of my favourite fictional universes, and even if I’m not a fan of them myself, I have to applaud them for that at least. In fact, it’s entirely plausible that they have given parent company Hasbro the financial clout and confidence to invest in other areas and allow the part of the franchise that I am in love with to take bigger and bigger risks.
And it’s here that I begin to talk about the single greatest thing to happen to Transformers in thirty years. The absolute pinnacle of the franchise, the zenith, the tippety-top. Because after we all woke up from the Dreamwave, the comics carried on. And what happened to them is simply amazing, and continues to amaze, and in all probability is going to get better and better.
And that’s the subject of my next little essay…