review for the Agony Booth looks at the comic Marvel put out centering on the Transformers during their (pre-Michael Bay) height of fame in the 1980s.
Like many of my generation, I grew up loving the Transformers cartoon during the mid-to-late 1980s. After all, these were robots that could turn themselves into cars, planes, weapons, and even dinosaurs! What’s not to like here?
Hasbro introduced the Transformers in 1984, one year after a similar line of robots called the GoBots. Those toys were made by Tonka and also had a cartoon, which ran from 1983 until 1987. However, the GoBots faded into obscurity, while the Transformers increased in popularity, and Hasbro bought out Tonka in 1991.
Unlike Star Wars, the Transformers toys came along before the cartoon (the same applies to other lucrative Hasbro properties from the 1980s, like G.I. Joe and My Little Pony). Perhaps this is why the cartoon hasn’t aged well. Yes, you could say that about almost any animated show from that decade, but Transformers has actually aged worse than most, because its lapses in logic are even more bizarre than, say, Bugs Bunny climbing into a hot stove when he discovers a party going on inside.
For example, the Transformers series began with the three-part installment “More Than Meets the Eye”, which introduced the Autobots and the Decepticons, and showed us how their war took them from their home planet of Cybertron to Earth. It ended with the Decepticons presumably vanquished and the victorious Autobots preparing to return home. But in the very next episode, the Autobots are still on Earth, apparently with no plans to leave, even though they’re (initially) unaware that the Decepticons are still around.
Still, the cartoon proved popular enough to spawn an animated feature film in 1986. But alas, Transformers: The Movie ended up sucking hard, despite a great voice cast that included Leonard Nimoy, Scatman Crothers, Robert Stack, and the legendary Orson Welles in his final film role (which is one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard).
The movie was as logic-free as the cartoon, but the main reason the fans (myself included) hated it was because of the arbitrary way it killed off not only Autobot leader Optimus Prime, but other beloved characters as well, including Starscream, who was always a good source of laughs on the show for how he constantly challenged the authority of Decepticon leader Megatron.
Actually, it wasn’t even the fact that those characters were killed off; it was more that they were killed off in lousy ways. For a good analogy, just think of the way James T. Kirk was killed off. In other words, their deaths had absolutely no relevance to the plot of the film, which had the Transformers dealing with a huge-ass Transformer named Unicron (voiced by Welles) who could transform into a planet. We now had a new boring Autobot leader named Rodimus Prime, and a resurrected Megatron (rechristened Galvatron) who, despite sounding like Spock, just wasn’t fun to watch without an underling who was batshit-crazy enough to challenge him.
So while I certainly don’t regret the time I devoted to collecting the toys, the cartoon is not something I’ve gone out of my way to get on DVD.
But at the same time the cartoon was on the air, Marvel Comics began publishing a Transformers comic book series. It started as a four-issue limited series (complete with an appearance from Spider-Man in issue #3) detailing the robots’ war and their arrival on Earth and Optimus Prime’s attempts to stop Megatron while protecting humanity, with a few slight tweaks (the Autobots’ nerdy human pal Spike is named “Buster” here).
Strong sales prompted Marvel to continue the series beyond issue #4. Which is why that particular issue ends on an unexpected note, with the remaining Autobots, having triumphed over the Decepticons, suddenly getting blown away by Shockwave.
The first few issues of the regular series dealt with Autobot medic Rachet, who was taking Buster’s dad Sparkplug to the hospital during the events of issue #4, as he attempted to rebuild his friends. Meanwhile, Megatron has to contend with Shockwave usurping his command.
Optimus and the other Autobots are eventually restored, but they have to deal not only with the Decepticons, but with other adversaries. One of these is a woman named Josie who, in issue #6, is horribly injured and paralyzed by Shockwave. However, Josie re-emerges stronger than ever by attaching electronic implants to herself and becoming a supervillain called “Circuit Breaker”. She then embarks on a mission to eradicate Transformers on both sides. Many of her victims are Autobots, although this plot point proves effective in issue #23, when she has to deal with the Decepticons Runabout and Runamuck.
In addition to this title, there was also a four-issue miniseries in which the Transformers shared the comic page with G.I. Joe, although that series is pretty ho-hum.
Unlike the cartoon, there were plenty of running plots in the comics which eventually came together, including numerous trips to Cybertron, which introduced us to other Autobots and Decepticons who later found their way to Earth.
One of these recurring plots occurred when the Headmasters were introduced, in another four-issue series. In that series, a group of Autobots, led by Fortress Maximus, and a group of Decepticons, led by Scorponok, take their conflict to the planet of Nebulos. Once there, Transformers on both sides agree to be partnered with natives of the planet to become either “Headmasters” (basically, a Transformer whose head transforms into a person) or “Targetmasters” (the same, only with the person transforming into a weapon).
They later join the Transformers on Earth in issue #38 after receiving a distress signal sent by Goldbug (the reincarnated form of the Autobot Bumblebee).
This leads to Optimus Prime—who was destroyed in issue #24 thanks to a video game, a WTF? moment if ever there was one—being resurrected in issue #42 as a “Powermaster” (in this case, a Nebulon partner transforms into his engine).
However, the series’ crowning moment came with its double-sized 50th issue, in which Decepticons Ratbat and Scorponok attempt to obtain the Underbase, a super-powerful database that Prime sent into space centuries earlier. However, Starscream manages to get the Underbase first and becomes powerful enough to wipe out all Transformers on both sides, until Prime tricks him into basically ODing on it. In a nutshell, this issue was everything Transformers: The Movie should have been: the stakes were much higher, and many plot elements of the series came together beautifully.
That issue could have concluded the series in a reasonable and admirable way, as none of the subsequent thirty issues reach this level of greatness again (for instance, Prime dies and returns to life yet again during this period). But there are still some good moments, such as Megatron returning in issue #56 (after presumably dying in #25), only to be caught in an explosion that merges him with Rachet, à la The Fly.
It’s also nice when Circuit Breaker finally gets even with Shockwave in issue #69. We even get to see Unicron, as well as a face-off between Megatron and Galvatron, which I suppose means the 1986 film wasn’t a total waste of time.
The series ended in 1991 with issue #80 (which amusingly bears the cover caption “#80 in a four-issue limited series”), in which Prime announces that the Autobots have won and can return to Cybertron.
Most of the series came from the pen of Bob Budiansky, who was the main writer until issue #55. The rest of the series came from writer Simon Furman, who wrote the Transformers comic in the UK, which readers on our side of the pond were able to get a look at via issues #33 and #34.
The series did suffer from some of the same ludicrous plot points as the cartoon. For instance, both Prime and Bumblebee died and came back almost as often as Kenny from South Park (though Prime and Bumblebee were a lot less annoying). In another issue, Buster thwarts a Decepticon’s plan to brainwash humans with (I kid you not!) a car wash.
Plus, there was the killing off of many of the Transformers in issue #50, which was done, like in the 1986 film, solely for the purpose of introducing new characters into the mix, even though it was done in a more dramatically satisfying way. In addition, Buster was basically Spike until, lo and behold, Spike himself was introduced as Buster’s big brother, and inexplicably became an Autobot leader when Fortress Maximus’ original partner Galen was killed in issue #38.
But overall, the good in the series outweighs the bad. One of the best moments is in issue #4 of the Headmasters miniseries, when Scorponok’s partner Lord Zarak realizes that his bonding with the Decepticon is slowly taking his humanity from him. This revelation leads to him freeing the partners of the Autobot Headmasters (who were captured in the previous issue) before Scorponok’s influence completely overtakes him. This plot point made Zarak a somewhat sympathetic and even tragic character (another nod to The Fly?) because moments such as these were rarely (if ever) seen on the cartoon.
The series presenting these kinds of issues, as well as conflict within the camps of both Autobots and Decepticons, is ultimately what made this series different and more interesting than the cartoon.
Even when the series officially finished, its continuity would be picked up just two years later when Marvel published the Transformers: Generation 2 series, and later, the Regeneration One series.
So, while people today may automatically think of the dumb, annoying Michael Bay films (starring the dumb, annoying Shia LeBeouf) when they think of the Transformers, this series proved that something dramatically intriguing can be mined out of its premise.
Happily, the series has been reissued in collector’s volumes, available now from IDW Publishing.