Are All Dead?
On Saturday night, Nacho sent me a series of semi-panicked texts from which I eventually gathered he was screening a rare Italian version of the 1986 animated film Transformers: The Movie in HD. This being his first HD experience with the movie that scarred him and countless other school aged children in the mid-80s, he suffered a sort of PTSD breakdown and soon told me he had to stop watching somewhere around the part Starscream is murdered shortly after a Caesarian coup d’état of the Decepticons.
This reminded me that I was supposed to write a rebuttal to his opinion that the Transformers comic book series published by Marvel Comics in the 1980s was unreadable garbage.
We at GS have long held an obsession with Transformers: The Movie as an example of children’s marketing gone awry while also recognizing it as a seminal moment in our creative development. In the mid-1980s, in order to sell kids on a bunch of new Transformers toys, somebody at Hasbro had the brilliant idea of killing off most of the beloved old characters in a “only in theaters” spectacular that was heavily advertised during the afternoon cartoon series.
Nacho relates the details of this debacle far better than I, but the first half hour of Transformers: The Movie is an absolute bloodbath. All your favorite characters not only died, but died in horrifyingly violent ways that even adults cringe at. Ironhide was shot in the head at point blank range by Megatron’s arm cannon after the Decepticons massacred a handful of other fan favorites. Optimus Prime was savagely beaten by Megatron and died on the operating table. Starscream was shot by a death ray that was basically liquid nitrogen and shattered into shards. This was all after a giant, metal Lovecraftian Death Star committed planetary genocide in the film’s opening.
The 80s, man. No wonder they’ve made such a huge comeback.
For Hasbro and Sunbow Productions (makers of the toys and producers of the Transformers movie and TV cartoon respectively), what was supposed to be an inventive reboot turned into a nightmare. Across the country, kids were dragged screaming and crying from theaters while angry parents berated theater employees and demanded ticket refunds. Other parents wrote strongly worded letters to both companies stating that they wouldn’t be buying any more Transformers toys for their children, and by the way, how in the name of God did they think these scenes were appropriate for kids between the age of five and twelve? The brand was irrevocably damaged and didn’t really recover until Paramount, Dreamworks, and Michael Bay made a live action Transformers movie in 2007.
The violence was not necessarily without precedent, at least to any child who had been reading Marvel Comics monthly Transformers series for any length of time. I came to the comic series late having noticed the desaturated, horror movie purple and blue front cover of issue #5 which featured Shockwave, the Joseph Goebbels of the Deceptions, standing in front of a brick wall on which was scrawled the cryptic message, “Are All Dead?”
Inside the comic proper, things didn’t get any rosier. The splash page is a black and white recreation of a scene from The Honeymooners. On the next page, we pull back to see Shockwave watching a dozen TV channels at once, studying human culture and behavior. “Very illuminating,” he says.
(This was to become something of an inside joke around my house. My parents dutifully read many of my comics to make sure they weren’t turning me into a juvenile delinquent. Therefore, whenever someone would get done telling a long winded story, which in my family was most of them, someone, usually my father, would pipe up, “Very illuminating.” The other pop culture reference that got a lot of play in our house during the 80’s was the Danger Mouse quote, “Penfold, shush.” We were a weird family.)
Shockwave then begins a Shakespearean monologue about how unevolved and conquerable the human race is. This speech continues as he walks through a darkened hallway of the Ark, the Autobot headquarters, in which nearly all of the Autobots are hanging like slabs of meat.
Then, just when you think Shockwave has become lost in what Dr. Evil refers to as “the insane lament,” you turn the page to reveal Megatron chained to a giant wall, very obviously a prisoner despite Shockwave’s assertion that he’s “recovering nicely from his injuries.” In terms that can only be described as Vulcanesque, Shockwave proceeds to tell Megatron that he’s taking on leadership of the Deceptions since Megatron was so handily getting his ass handed to him before Shockwave showed up to wipe out everybody at the end of the last issue.
The rest of issue #5 focuses mainly on the adventures of Ratchet, the Autobot medic who happened to be out on a different mission during issue #4’s big ka-blooey, and Buster Wickwicky. (“Spike” in the cartoon and “Sam” in Bay’s movie versions). Buster is having these weird headaches accompanied by funky telekinetic powers. We find out later that Optimus Prime has transferred the “creation matrix” to Buster. (The 1986 movie later tweaked this concept into the “Matrix of Leadership.”)
Ratchet goes to the Ark to find it invaded by Decepticons. Buster sneaks in and finds the dead Autobots and the head of Optimus Prime hooked up to some weird machine that Shockwave wants to use in order to create new Decepticons.
To my ten year old brain in 1985, this was freak-a-doo, badass shit.
I hurriedly picked up the back issues which told of the Transformers origins, how they crash landed on Earth millions of years ago, and got reactivated by the Ark’s computer which thought that cars and planes were the dominate life form on the planet. Therefore it repaired the Transformers to have the ability to transform into vehicles so they could blend in. The Autobots befriend Buster Wickwicky and his father Sparkplug. (Who later has a heart attack. Don’t worry, he lives.) The Decepticons want to plunder the earth’s natural resources. Spider-Man(!) shows up at one point. Finally, there’s the big “final” battle where Shockwave shows up to wipe out everybody.
See, Transformers was supposed to be a four issue limited series, but it proved so popular that Marvel turned it into an ongoing series. This was back before corporate brands had trans-media plans in place months or even years before a product’s release. Therefore the comic book followed a very different narrative path than the TV cartoon. Well, at least for a while.
The five or six issues that followed up Issue #5 were something of a dark masterpiece to my burgeoning pubescent mind. A weakened Megatron gets loose and challenges Shockwave for the Decepticon leadership, but gets his ass handed to him atop an oil tanker. Shortly after, Ratchet sneaks into the Ark and discovers information about the Dinobots whom the Ark had awakened upon first landing on Earth billions of years ago. Turns out they beat Shockwave once before. There’s even video to prove it.
Before Ratchet can escape with this information, he’s confronted by Megatron, who’s about to kill him until he finds out Ratchet has a plan for stopping Shockwave. They come to an uneasy truce, the first of many storylines tying Megatron and Ratchet together in the comic continuity. Much is made of Ratchet’s lack of fighting ability. He’s a healer, not a fighter. Nonetheless, if Ratchet defeats Shockwave, Megatron will give him the Ark and Autobots. Ratchet then speeds to a lush jungle in Antarctica, desperate to revive the Dinobots.
For those of you wondering why there’s a lush jungle in the midst of frozen tundra, I’ll remind you that Transformers was a Marvel Comic. In the beginning, Marvel was trying to keep the Transformers stories working within Marvel continuity, hence the earlier appearance of Spider-Man. The Savage Land is a mythical prehistoric “Lost World” magically hidden in a warm spot in Antarctica, and the editors assumed this was a good place to have the Dinobots buried.
Anyway, Ratchet raises the Dinobots from their four billion year sleep and repairs them. Their fierce warrior nature is often (perhaps too often) contrasted with Ratchet’s weakness and pacifism. Knowing Megatron won’t keep his end of their bargain; Ratchet hatches a plan and instead shows him the video of the Dinobots defeating Shockwave from four billion years ago. Megatron indeed betrays his agreement, defeats the Dinobots, and prepares to kill Ratchet as well. However, the lowly Autobot medic finds his inner strength and alone defeats Megatron, knocking him off the edge of a cliff. The healer becomes the warrior.
There were other cool subplots to this story arc. A woman paralyzed during Shockwave and Magatron’s oil tanker fight builds herself an electric suit and becomes the robot killing superhero Circuit Breaker. Shockwave is desperate to create new Decepticons, but can’t use Optimus Prime’s Creation Matrix, not knowing Prime has transferred the power to Buster Wickwicky. As Prime’s usefulness to Shockwave wanes, a “ticking clock” is set in motion to rescue the Ark and the meat slab Autobots before it’s too late!
At this point, the cartoon series was becoming quite popular and a second wave of characters were being introduced. To this end, the comics started edging the stories back toward the cartoon’s status quo. The Autobots are repaired, the Ark liberated, and after a tense showdown, Optimus Prime is restored to his leadership glory. Despite this, the comic series still operated independently for the most part and a couple of cool standalone stories slipped through.
One notable entry is issue #13 in which a small time crook finds a memory wiped Megatron in his gun form and uses him in a series of brilliant robberies. The crook goes from a down on his luck, but respected neighborhood guy to a rich but feared mercenary with a “super gun.” Right as his ego gets too big to be handled, Megatron’s memory returns, and the crook is left to return to working class roots after learning that crime doesn’t pay, kids.
There’s also the great “Return to Cybertron” two-parter in which a group of Autobots led by Blaster desperately tries to escape the now post-apocalyptic Cybertron by way of a Space Bridge (a conceit used both in the cartoon and one of Bay’s sequels). A one-dimensional, slightly racist character played for comic relief in the cartoon, the comic book version of Blaster was a war weary freedom fighter haunted by the death of his best friend. The “all or nothing” mission that he and his ragtag team of Autobots engage in to cross the Space Bridge is one of the most memorable stories from my youth. Waiting a month (a whole month!) for the second part was agony.
After this, Marvel must have begun working closely with Hasbro as the series degenerated into simply introducing whatever new toy needed to be sold with every consecutive issue. Character arcs weren’t completely jettisoned, but with the need to keep adding new characters every single issue, any narrative structure became totally uncontrollable. Maybe it was just puberty, but by issue #30 I was pretty much done. It was unreadable.
So maybe Nacho’s right. Maybe the Transformers comic book did suck. However, for a five or six issue arc, they warped my pre-pubescent mind in a way that has stayed with me, shaping my view of what made a good story. I’m not sure Ratchet’s rise from healer to warrior lives anywhere but the city of serviceable, but maybe, just maybe, it set me on a path to find the mythical Antarctic land where good lived.
Very illuminating, indeed.