Q. Who are you, where are you from and what do you collect?
My name is Michael Vella, I’m from Sydney and I collect pre-TF, G1,
Masterpiece, Generations, RID 2001 and Beast era figures.
Q. Do you collect anything other than Transformers?
Not particularly. I have a bit of Powers Rangers stuff, bit of Lego, few
Digimon tamagotchis, but really my passion is Transformers.
Q. How does collecting fit with your lifestyle, family, friends etc?
My family and friends have all accepted my obsession with collecting.
Q. Do you ever go to conventions, are you involved in any social groups or collector clubs etc?
I don’t go to conventions, but I have been to plenty of Transformer meetups which is something I really enjoy. Having a conversation in real life is so much nicer than behind a computer. I am a member of TCCA and former NSW rep. I also admin a group called
Transformers BST Down Under which is going really well so far.
Q. When did you start collecting, and do you remember your first ever Transformer toys? Was it something you bought yourself, or a gift from family etc?
I had a few Transforming toys beforehand, but I want to say I started really collecting around Beast Machines, and my older brother was showing me episodes of G1 around that time as well which is why I love the older series despite those toys not being on shelves when I was a kid. The Commemorative reissues that came out a couple years later were great for me though. I have very vague recollections of G2 toys, but the first Transformers I remember ever buying were Beast Wars Scarem and Air Hammer.
Q. Do you have any specific collection goals in your lifetime, or any specific “exit strategy” eg a point where you can see yourself stopping?
I’d love to own a Diaclone PC DX set one day, but I can’t see that happening without winning the lotto. Ha! My biggest goal for right now is getting a Milton Bradley red Tracks. I keep saying after this or that I’ll stop collecting or take a break, but I don’t think it will happen for a long time realistically.
Q. Do you have an all time favourite line of Transformers toys, what makes this line so special for you? And what line do you like the least out of everything we have had so far?
My favourite line is easily G1. I find the aesthetic of those vintage toys so wonderful to look at even though they have the articulation of a brick, but there is just a certain charm about them. It’s hard for me to say what I like the least out of all the different lines as I tend to not buy stuff that doesn’t look appealing. I can say that the Titanium line is the worst I’ve actually gotten into, thankfully I no longer own anything from that line.
Q. Favourite Transformer characters and favourite Transformers toys?
Favourite characters are G1 Bumblebee, G1 Starscream and Beast Wars Blackarachnia. One of my favourite toys is the G1 Bumblebee mold of which I have a few variations, I think it’s well designed for it’s era and fun. My most favourite toy above all is my Diaclone Powered Convoy as that is something I have wanted for a very long time.
Q. Of all the Transformers fiction out there, what is your favourite?
In terms of fiction I have to say Beast Wars is incredibly well written and put together for its time. I do love the G1 toys more than BW toys, but the BW show beats G1 show quite easily.
Q. What would you like to see for the foreseeable future of the brand eg more toys, comics, cartoons, films, games, media etc? And what would you like NOT to see for the brand?
This answer may be odd as I feel we aren’t getting enough G1 Masterpeices quick enough, but in terms of Generations I am starting to want something a bit different than the same G1 characters over and over. After POTP finishes I would like to give Generations collecting a break unless they heavily focus on other eras like BW or RID 2001.
Q. Any unique, rare or special items in your collection?
Yeah I have a few rarities. At the moment I’m focusing on Prime variants
and I collect pre-TF as mentioned previously. I’d say my rarest figures
are Diaclone blue Fairlady and G2 Breakdown.
THANKS FOR TAKING THE TIME TO ANSWER SOME QUESTIONS MICHAEL, MUCH APPRECIATED. I HOPE FOLKS HAVE ENJOYED HEARING ABOUT YOU AND YOUR COLLECTION AS MUCH AS I HAVE.
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
Sometimes it’s easy to forget how cool and amazing Transformers toys are.
The idea of the very first Transformer toys were realistic diecast toy cars – that also happened to turn into simplistic robots.
It’s easy to miss those old school toys were not robots that turned into vehicles, (or real world objects such as Soundwave and Megatron) they were vehicles with a bonus mode that resembled a very basic robot. You had to use your imagination. It was the branding and cartoon that made us think of them primarily as robots.
Over the years Transformers evolved from simple chunky bots into fully articulated action figures. They did not start off as action figures, but as toys that had a bonus feature – the transformation gimmick. You paid for one toy, but you basically got two toys for your money – making for increased play value.
Looking back from 2017 to the vintage Transformers, Diaclone and Micro-Change toys, it’s easy to miss the aim of the toy line was not poseability or articulation – it was all about play value and various gimmicks. Most kids don’t give a crap what poses a figure can pull off, it’s gotta be an engaging character, something they recognise, or full of bright cheerful colors or have some cool play gimmick to keep a kids attention. If a toy has all of those things that makes it even more desirable.
ALL ACTION, ALL THE TIME
The general idea of licensed action figures such as the Kenner Super Powers or MEGO’s was character accuracy, bright colors and toy gimmicks that made the toy appealing to kids. The term Action Figure often implied some type of action gimmick, or being tied to an action oriented licensed character – rather than just articulation.
Take a look at vintage G. I. Joe and Action Man, and you’ll see amazing articulation that was not used used in many other toys for decades as its was just too cost prohibitive. The large scale Joes used the same basic idea as girls dolls – large toys that you can buy many outfits for thus increasing it’s potential play value. Their poseability and accessories set the action figure standard, but the large size (costs, mass market vs say hot toys etc) was mostly non transferable to other toy lines. As costs went up, and more and more licensed merchandise arrived in the form of action figures – over the years the toys got smaller.
When G.I. Joe eventually was relaunched he didn’t come back in his large scale cloth clothing form, he was shrunk down the same size as the new tiny Star Wars figures. Meaning they were cheaper toys to make, but they also were far more articulated than the Star Wars figures. And like the Star Wars toy line – the new smaller scale toys had legendary vehicles and accessories to play with.
FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY – THE ARTICULATED MAN
Even the basic idea of articulation existed much earlier than the action figure craze of the 1960’s. For example Ideal Toy Company produced a wooden articulated Superman toy back in 1939. And various dolls for girls over the decades had limited articulation, soft hair, eyes that moved etc. Going back even further we have wooden marionettes – puppets more than toys – but the idea of articulation based on a mammalian skeletal structure and movement patterns is there.
The action figure is basically a hybrid of features from other toys – mainly from girls dolls, with play gimmicks added from toys typically made for boys. The modern action figure still exists as a toy on chainstore shelves for kids but also exists as an adult collectible aiming at screen, comic or video game artistic accuracy over any play features or poseability, while mainline chain-stores boys toys are still heavily oriented around various gimmicks, accessories and ties ins such as vehicles.
For example my Grossery Gang Garbage Truck has a Garbage Catapult, the front dumpster lifts up on the arm forks, both the side doors open with peg holes for figures, there’s a gun turret and seat on one side and the wheels roll quite smoothly. Oh and the front canopy opens so you can put a figure in there.
The play pattern and emphasis is on ACTION. And those fold out doors mean you can store Transforming burgers or whatever other Junkfood Formers you got lying around in there.
From these different influences then – statues, marionettes, dolls and other odd toys and gimmicks we arrive at the hybrid toy – the action figure. Poseable, articulated, stylish, cool, full of attitude and toughness and can-do.
The modern action figure is like a marionette without strings that can hold its own poses on one end of the scale – or like a statue with limited articulation on the other hand – made to look stunning on display.
Those old Brickformers of my youth could not pull of an action pose to save their life. Fast forward to more modern toys like Combiner Wars Motormaster or Classics / Henkei Optimus Prime and we now have a toy robot that transforms into a cool vehicle AND is a competent action figure.
THESE ARE NOT THE BOTS YOU ARE LOOKING FOR
The toy line that made action figures truly viable in the mainstream after vintage Joe died off was of course the Star Wars figures and vehicles from Kenner. The articulation was pretty limited, but the details were nice. The card backs were rather attractive and most important – they had a MASSIVE demand in stores and a CHEAP price point for toys that mostly resembled their source material.
Star Wars figures were toys kids could buy with pocket money, or parents might buy on a day out at the shops without breaking the bank. To my eyes they are small, ugly and stupid. Yeah I’m not a fan of those figures at all. But I respect the place they have in toy and action figure history, and I did enjoy seeing some of my mates collection when I was younger (I never owned any myself, and if I did I would likely burn them).
The Star Wars movies eventually being released on home VHS meant an extended life for Star Wars products and figures, along with their vehicles. The smaller scale Star Wars figures were such a hit, that when the G.I. Joe brand was relaunched by Hasbro – they went with the new cheaper downscaled 3 3/4 scale figures – mimicking the Star Wars figures, while adding in much needed articulation. This scale of action figure also had the benefit of fitting in the many large vehicles that populate the Star Wars and G.I. Joe lines without looking ridiculous as most toy lines typically do due to scale issues.
Star Wars and licensed superhero figures pushed the niche of the Action Figure to mass mainstream audiences through the seventies and eighties. Eventually, technology moved along to provide more accurate sculpting of facial features. This side technology of facial scanning grew out of the movie and video game worlds, and became a standard adopted, used and rapidly progressed in its accuracy for several years and used in many licensed products for actor likenesses, wrestlers, etc.
Meaning more accuracy and less reliance on sculpts from scratch. Previous portrait technologies involved the use of a camera, or the use of a person sitting really still for many hours while being painted. So facial scanning for licensed products is still pretty new in the history of humanity. Our cave man ancestors made do with sticks and stone toys presumably, and lots more imagination. They never imagined a future of three dimensional scanning creepily bringing dead actors back to life in movies, or giving us the highest possible raised position of an eyebrow on a sweaty muscle man.
Our modern toys still have to be physically designed, prototyped, and manufactured of course. But this fancy pants computer technology bullshit contributes and fast tracks the amazing movie accurate toys we see today in toy lines from Hot Toys, NECA etc, along with the more traditional artists sculpts and statues. Not to gloss over all the traditional design and pre-production work from artists in traditional and digital media that precedes the production of any high end toy or movie licensed product. Full credit to those hard working artists man!
THE BEASTS OF BURDEN
Eventually Transformers started adopting more of the standardized features of the action figure type of toys, and less of the features typical of diecast vehicles (well…Alternators…*cough*). While various features like light piping, ball joints and more appeared in selected G1 and G2 toys, it was the Beast Wars tie in toy line that made Transformers into fully articulated standarized action figures – rather than diecast vehicles that also turned into boxy robots.
The organic alt modes of Beast Wars allowed more freedom to run wild with new designs not limited by past Transformers designs, or styles of transformation. They were more Western action figure that happens to turn into a thing, rather than Japanese super robot…that turns into a thing.
For the first time subsidiary Kenner – famous for making Star Wars, Super Powers and Batman action figure lines was asked to make the new Beast Wars figures. Having failed to make any real impact with the Generation Two branding (and cancelled TV show) Hasbro was willing to take a chance with something radically different to anything that had come before in Transformers history.
Beast Wars remains a divisive line/brand with many fans loving it or outright hating it. But nobody (except lunatics) denies the impact it had on the evolution of Transformers toys – and that it basically saved the Transformers media brand and toys from probable extinction. I still can’t stand about 90% of anything Beast Wars related. But like Star Wars, Beast Wars has its significant place in Transformers toy history and Lore.
AND I’LL FORM… THE HEAD
So, with all that articulation and fancy bells and whistles making these modern Transformer toys so special, what else do they need? A cool look is important, but more than that you need personality and character.
Do kids want Bumblebee every year because he’s frigging yellow and named after a Bee? No they want him because of his winning personality and on screen shenanigans. Because he’s a recognizable iconic character like Mickey Mouse, Scooby Doo or Spongebob. Its a challenge for any Writer/Creator/Imagineer of Transformers fiction to balance the robot modes with the alt modes. Stories set on Earth or Cybertron tend to have roads or an atmosphere conducive to flying. Roads justify vehicle alt modes, while worlds without roads make more sense to have Beast of flying forms for mobility.
Too much alt mode and we lose the character or get bored. It just becomes a piloted mech or fancy ATV. Too much humanoid sentient alien robot, and we lose what makes Transformers unique from mecha and super robot shows.
We like our robots of all flavors to have personalities. The most enduring characters are well defined in their personalities and values, but with room to do new things in stories, or the for audience to project something of themselves onto that character. The original Transformers toys came alive in kids imaginations, partly due to the old box bios – and partly due to the tie in cartoon and comics, the rest was imagination for them Brickformers. The toys themselves were rather beautiful, but limited in what they could do. The stories and characters were mainly influenced by american superhero fiction, thus making Transformers uniquely american, despite the toys being a totally different toyline rebranded and imported from Japan.
Astro boy, Optimus Prime and the Iron Giant are sentient robots full of personality and humanity, and while Gundam mecha are big robot suits piloted by humans – even these mecha has a personality and style to them that makes them far more than just “vehicles” even if they are ultimately the worlds fanciest all terrain (or no terrain) vehicles.
Transformers sit comfortably as a mix of toy, action figure, cool robot, and cool character/personality. Take Jetfire above – he’s a warrior/scientist, looks great as a robot and turns into a gigantic kick ass flying vehicle. Any one of these elements alone can be enough to sell a toy, or promote a tie in with licensed media. Add them all together and you have a recipe for keeping kids young and old entertained and coming back for more for decades.
In this image below from left to right: Transformers Animated Black Arachnia, TF Animated Bulkhead, Generation Two Sideswipe and TMNT Classics Mikey. The turtle toy can pull off just about any pose you can dream of, while in contrast G2 Sideswipe (a redeco of the G1 toy) can move his arms up and down a little and his wheels rolls smoothly in vehicle mode. Bulkhead has a fair amount of articulation, but his poses are limited by his size and weight – no kung-fu kicks for this Deskbot – unless you have the patience for it.
You can see how the Sideswipe toys looks cool, but not much personality to him other than his sweet color scheme. Without a box bio or comic or cartoon – we don’t know much about Sideswipe. In contrast Mikey and Bulkhead are just full of personality and quite expressive. Even without looking at any tie in media, we get an idea of their character just from looking at them.
Bulkhead has cool gimmicks such as his jaw moves when he talks, and the voice clips are straight from the show audio – no second hand “toy only” off key voice actor shenanigans here. His arm buzzsaw spins, while his other arm has a claw grabbing action. Mikey has Nunchucks with fake chains so they hang and can be posed in any number of ways, while his base and foot pegs means he can ninja-kick with the best of em and not topple over.
WE MUST BRING BALANCE TO THE TRANSFORMATION
Stories like IDW comics Stormbringer bring us less “robots in disguise” and more robots in big action scenes, gung-ho dialogue with loads of characters and not much alt modes to be seen because it’s what fans – manchildren – want. But a good Transformers story in any media needs a balance of bot and alt mode to make it genuine, and not just a generic Robot story. Personally just give me a shit ton of fights and explosions and I’ll be happy.
Likewise, a good modern Transformers toy needs to be a balance of vehicle, cool robot and action figure and winning personality (or face ripping sadist executioner). It’s a balance that is not always quite right. Often one mode suffers for the sake or another. Most notorious are triple changers – at best two out of three modes look decent, with the third mode often suffering to accommodate the other two.
When a Bot transformation scheme, play factor and overall cool aesthetics comes together, it’s just magic. The infamous MP-10 Optimus Prime and his variants have a beautiful truck mode and a stunning robot mode that looks great many years after its creation. It’s also a highly articulated action figure, satisfying the third criteria of successful modern Transformers toy designs. It’s also a kick-ass representation of an iconic character, so it’s win/win/win and gets Bluebot Bears Big Stamp of Awesome.
Most modern action figures usually emulate the human musculoskeletal system (or an animal’ skeleton), and it’s implied ranges of normal movement.
In the below image is a Kenner Batman figure that can pull off a variety of action poses, next to him is RID Thunderhoof, who can do most if not all of the same poses Batman can do. He’s the modern Transformer robot, vehicle and action figure hybrid. The brickbots of my childhood (that I still love) generally can’t pull of these sorts of poses, and they were never intended to. To me it’s silly to complain any toy does’t have a feature it was never designed to have. Makes as much sense to me as complaining that pigs don’t have wings and can’t fart gold bricks.
The BVS movie Batman (in silver) next to The Rock also has articulation, but its rather limited and he can pull of almost zero action poses other than kneeling while falling over or raising and bending his arms in a straight linear line while dropping his poorly gripped weapon. Samurai Leo is even worse, he looks great but his articulation means his feet can’t go far and his arms are not flexible enough to pull off any realistic sword poses or combat stances.
Thunderhoof meanwhile can pull of some great poses, has a really cool transformation scheme, looks great in his tractor alt mode and (mostly) resembles his on screen persona. While there are better TF toys, Thunderhoof is a fine example of a modern Transformers toy done right and the evolution of the Vehicle / Robot / Action figure triangle, and a good place to end this post.
Optimus Prime art by Alex Milne / Marker Guru https://markerguru.deviantart.com/gallery/6117864/commissions
Superman toy image https://www.cgccomics.com/boards/topic/252921-rare-1939-40-13quot-superman-action-figure-1st-licensed-supes-merchandise/
Sunstreaker vintage toy image http://tfwiki.net/wiki/Sunstreaker_(G1)/toys