Most toy lines manage to have a stand out cool car, a sleek military jet with missiles or some kind of super-hero or fantasy figure for a kid to role play with.
Transformers went ahead and put everything into one toyline.
IT’S A SUPERHERO!
IT’S A FAST CAR!
IT’S A KICK-ASS ROBOT!
Everything in one! The all new all exciting Trans-Morpher-Bots 5000 from HASBRO!
Talk about value for money and stuffing as many features, ideas and values into one toyline and media property as possible.
Stronger than He-Man, faster than Road Runner, tougher than the Hulk, more heroic than Superman – Transformers are not to be fucked with.
Oh, and they also happen to be a race of super-smart sentient aliens, making their genre a mish-mash of pure classical science fiction, Japanese Super Robots and uniquely American Style Superheroes.
They also like to beat the shit out of each other and have non-stop battles, laser guns and explosions – what more could the average ten year old boy ask for?
Like other 80’s co-productions, Transformers were Japanese import toys given Americanized fiction courtesy of Hasbro and Marvel Comics.
The 80’s had a number of import and co-productions linked to various toys, cartoons and other media. Golion was redubbed and written to become “Voltron, Defender of the Universe” in America. Thundercats was created in America in the pre-production and writing stages, but animated overseas – giving it a unique Anime flavor (superior animation quality) married to typical American tropes of heroism and Western storytelling.
Thundercats offered the best of both worlds to its potential audience, as did many other co-productions which through the magic of “Synergy” (a horrible 80’s business buzz word… and also the name for JEM’s A.I. super-computer…) saw two different cultures co-operating across the ocean to create something new and exciting for kids to enjoy. Something better than what either culture solo might have come up with. These co-productions led to mixed results, with some great stand outs and plenty of wretched refuse littering up the airwaves and toy aisles of the eighties.
Fortunately in the case of Transformers, these formerly known as Diaclone and Micro Change Japanese robots were successfully launched in America with a new fiction attached to them that took off. They became so popular, that eventually even Japan started selling their old toys (from the same molds) in new packages as “Transformers”, the brand had reached global recognition, something not easily achieved.
An interview with MAZ of TF-1 that appeared on Toybox Soapbox sums it up pretty well:
T.S.:What was it about Transformers that originally captivated you and made you a lifelong fan?
MAZ: In the first instance, my original exposure to Transformers came from the cartoon, specifically the 3-part pilot called “Arrival From Cybertron” in the UK. I watched that thing to death on VHS, and once I was shown where the Transformers toys were in Toys R Us in what must have been super-late 1985 or early 1986, I was hooked on the toys as much as I was on the fascinating cartoon. It sounds strange to say this today, but the appeal came from lovely looking cars and planes (two big favourites of mine as a child) that turned into heroic-looking robots with great power. I’d never seen their like before, and the toys were pretty special.
You can read the full Toybox Soapbox interview with MAZ at the link above and please do, it’s a great read, I’ve read it several times.
OBEY THE LORE!
The Transformers lore would be a mix of toys, cartoon and comic books courtesy of Marvel Comics and Hasbro meetings that led to establishing the basic universe and fiction of the Transformers. Jim Shooter, Denny O Neil and Bob Budianksy would lay down the foundations that other Transformers fiction would be built on for years to come. Later Simon Furman became a key figure in creating Transformers fiction, a lot of which was adopted by Hasbro into future toy lines, lore and TV shows.
The basic premise of the Transformers was a race of warring sentient alien robots crash landed on earth. Megatron lead the EVIL Decepticons (Decepticon’s being synonymous with Deception and Destruction) while the peace loving Autobots would be led by Optimus Prime.
Optimus Prime was a mixture of Abraham Lincoln and John Wayne wrapped in the colors of Superman. Prime also happens to be wearing the colors of the American flag. Optimus Prime is about as Apple Pie Americana as it gets for an alien robot.
Unlike some cynical fictional characters, Optimus Prime is all heart. He really is the embodiment of a tough noble warrior mixed with compassion and true leadership skills. The kind of individual/character that can never exist in real life, because they are too perfect – the kind that only exist in “true” biographies – but who work wonderfully in fiction as a noble and inspiring figure of humanities own potentials for greatness en masse and as individuals.
Optimus Prims is the ambassador to The Transformers brand and media. It’s most well known icon and the most traditional super-hero like figure that appears in the fiction. When the live action movies made Optimus a ruthless killer, many fans felt betrayed that their iconic hero was being used in such a fashion.
RESPECTABLE IN THE 80’S
It’s impossible to be a Transformers fan and not reminisce now and then on your first TF toy experiences. I remember seeing the Transformers cartoon as a kid and loving it. For years the show was in endless repeats wherever you went. In the morning, the afternoon, any time of day it might show up and I’d watch it again every time as it was just so much fun, it was magnetic and I was powerless to look away.
The toys I would see in the stores, but we grew up pretty poor and Transformers were not something we generally could afford. Mostly it was window shopping and unfulfilled wishes. One time my Grandfather took me to a toy store on the way to visit one of his old friends. We stopped in some toy store and he let me choose what I wanted. I asked if I could get this cool looking dragon robot thing, and to my surprise he said Yes. That toy was G1 Doublecross, a toy I still have today and treasure like it was made of gold. I remember the box and that he was packaged in his dragon mode, which really made it more appealing and cool. I doubt I would have picked it if he had been packaged in his robot mode.
The only other Transformers I had as a kid were Beachcomber and Streetwise, both small budget scale toys that I got on a birthday and pretty plain looking. They didn’t have two heads and breathe fire like Doublecross. They could not fly with cool dragon wings. I never even saw most of the other Transformers toys over the years. I do remember seeing the box for Metroplex in a store, and recognized it from the pack in catalogs that I would ogle for hours. Most of my neighborhood friends also came from poor families. Some had a few He-man or G.I. Joe’s, but most folks didn’t have Transformers in that area. If you had Transformers you either had wealthy parents or Grandparents, that was how I saw it. They just were not affordable toys for anyone I knew where I grew up.
Cars never appealed to me as a kid, neither did jets or Top Gun or any of that sort of thing. I’ve seen hundreds of hours of actual circuit racing, speedway and drag racing – it was (and still is) my Father’s passion but not mine. I’m more interested in Dinosaurs, mythical monsters and scary disgusting creatures – foul beasts from the Underverse that want to eat you alive in one bite. That’s why I gravitate toward characters like Grimlock and Doublecross.
One is a double headed dragon, the other a Tyrannosaurus Rex in their alt modes. Terrorcons, Predacons, Dinobots and Monsterbots are more exciting to me than Fast Cars and Jets. Grimlock beats Vin Diesel any day of the week, but if he wants to voice him in an animated film or show – I would not object. Vehicles are cool too, but I can see cars in real life any day of the week when I drive to work. I can’t see real life mythical beasts at the Mythical Beasts & Dragons show on Sunday. I can’t ride Grimlock to work. It comes back to the characters for me. Cool monsters are one thing, but what is their personality or their unique voice?
I can admire the real life screen used or replica Kitt, Mad Max’s Interceptor, the ’66 and ’89 Batmobiles – and other cool racing and sports cars. But there is no 1:1 scale Grimlock replica out there for me to go and enjoy on the weekend at a show. I wish there was, something that makes that fantasy world more real, more immersive even if for just a brief moment. I would of course get the real Grimlock to destroy all my enemies.
BOY VS GIRL VS i-ROBOT
Like a lot of eighties conceived power fantasy fiction, the primary market for the cartoon, comic books and Transformers toys was boys. Girls had Barbie, Minnie Mouse, My Little Pony and that sort of thing. Power suited marketers, advertisers and focus groups told the toy “experts” what kids wanted. Nobody could foresee that over thirty years later Transformers would be still be around as a multimedia empire, and now with a significant amount of female fans.
If you’re a girl and you like Transformers, He-Man and Voltron, that’s fine. If you’re you’re a guy and like My Little Pony, Care Bears or Barbie, well that’s okay. Some people will “judge” you for it, but fuck em! Don’t listen to them. Enjoy what you enjoy. One of the most impressive collections I’ve ever seen was an old mate who collected mostly vintage Barbie and G.I. Joe. Not 80’s Joe, the vintage original full sized dolls with cloth clothing. He had them in lovely display cabinets with lighting and they looked fantastic. Ordinarily I would not even look at dolls, but his passion for his collection and the presentation was simply stunning, and made you appreciate the toys.
We are aloud to like whatever the fuck we like. It’s not up to marketers, the media, your parents, your family and other forms of social conditioning to tell you what you should enjoy
We choose our own toys and make up the stories that appeal to us. No human being can tell you the “correct” way to play, as play is intrinsic to human nature both for kids and adults. As adults we unfortunately associate Play mostly with children due to the success of those dictatorial marketers and toy merchants and well meaning social psychologists (often on the payroll). They have hijacked a natural free human experience in order to sell us their shit.
GIRL VS BOY VS TOY AISLE
It makes a certain kind of sense / convenience to put Barbie with Barbie, G.I. Joe with G.I. Joe and Ninja Turtles with other Ninja Turtles. People generally don’t have a hard time figuring out how to find toys in a toy section. But do they HAVE to have “Boys Toys” and “Girls Toys” written on the catalog? Not really, it’s kind of redundant and more aimed at saving time for busy parents. But there are some cultural conditions / bias that also play into this grouping with some rather odd origins.
In (circa) 1900 white dresses and undyed fabrics were the in thing for baby boys and girls. White plain fabrics could be easily bleached when soiled, and both sexes wore dresses for the first few years of their lives. As clothing dyes became more available, (and cheaper to produce) clever marketers came up with the idea of pink for boys, and blue for girls. This trend grew as more stores stocked the new dyed gender specific fabrics. The “Genderisation” didn’t occur right away, but slowly grew as marketers and stores picked up the idea and ran with it. Any time you can create a new market segment with clear distinctions (a line of clothes for boys, a line for girls, instead of clothes for both) that means more potential profit. Advertising is subtle social conditioning, and so over time people came to associate certain colors with gender.
The march toward gender-specific clothes was neither linear nor rapid. Pink and blue arrived, along with other pastels, as colors for babies in the mid-19th century, yet the two colors were not promoted as gender signifiers until just before World War I—and even then, it took time for popular culture to sort things out.
Read more: SmithsonianMag.com
That eventually Pink became associated with Girls / Feminine and Blue for Boys / Masculine (the reverse of what it had been) shows how the whole idea was a social construct in the first place, truly having nothing to do with sex at all. To go one step further, many of the characteristics often associated with male and female turn out to be the creation of culture. The simple version is, if it’s considered Masculine or Feminine – it’s a creation of culture and social conditioning, but if it’s Male and Female (Sex) then we are talking Biology, the confusion comes when we erroneously mix qualities from one to another, and then consider them to be immutable truths or facts.
Fast forward a few decades, and we move beyond gender specific clothing, to various toy lines marketed specifically to boys or girls. We’ve all pretty much had the experience of walking into a modern chain-store toy section and find the action figure (boys) aisle, and the dolls / Barbie pink (girls) aisles. Don’t get me started on Babies ‘R Us (the sub section and brand of Toys ‘R Us). That toys are grouped together is NOT a negative thing. If you have to find a Barbie to buy for your niece, would you rather it was easy to find and next to all the other Barbie’s, or would you prefer you had to look through all the Lego sets, Beanie Babies and Star Wars stuff to find it?
I prefer things to be easy to find, the issue is not the way toys are displayed – but that we create unrealistic expectations for children that if they don’t enjoy the toys “approved” for their Gender (as decided by marketers and Mad Men) then they are shunned by their peers, or the irrational fear that it’s going to make them grow up the wrong way.
BACK IN BLACK
American superheroes are intrinsically linked to the colors red and blue – it’s the most famous Superhero of all – Superman – who is adorned in a heroic version of the American flag itself, the trope goes beyond mere symbolism and is rooted in our very subconscious psyche over the decades from repeated exposure. It’s that combination of colors that mean even those unable to read can see and know those symbols as representing America and the superhero ideal.
Other icons who wear those patriotic symbolic colors include Spider-Man and Optimus Prime. Superheroes over the decades have traditionally been marketed to Boys, sure girls have Wonder Woman, Batgirl and Lois Lane, but the sales of of comic books over the decades have predominantly been boys and men. Boys are expected to like action, and whether by nature or nurture that dynamic plays out.
It’s no accident that Optimus Prime wears the primary red and blue colors. He’s an American icon, for better or worse. A Japanese super robot re-purposed, wrapped in the american flag and his personality calls back to archetypes like cowboys and superheroes. The Transformers toys and fiction are all about action. Now and then there is a message about the environment or war and conflict in there somewhere – but that is not the main appeal for kids.
The primary appeal is to play with these powerful incredible robots that turn into vehicles that only adults drive or fly in the real world. When a kid plays with a Transformer, they get to fly that Top Gun jet, or drive a big truck, a construction vehicle or military jeep. Then it turns into a robot/action figure and the fantasy play continues. Transformers are magic for any kid that gets to enjoy them, and I hope they are around for many more years to come. It takes a certain kind of magic to combine vehicles, robots and superheroes into one fantastic toy. It’s a magnificent obsession for many kids and adults, for myself and many others it will probably be a lifelong one.
Optimus Prime image from Transformers Visual Works
Optimus punching Megatron from “Tranformers: Regeneration One” by IDW Publishing
Optimus vs Seekers from Transformers Visual Works
Megatron punching Optimus comic panel From IDW Transformers Comics
Megatron panel from IDW Transformers Comics
‘Wayne’ screen capture from Wayne’s World
Fans Hobby Lazer Prime / Gunfighter courtesty of Fans Hobby
Buster / Prime comic panel from Marvel Comics The Transformers