Panels of Future Past
Episode 2: Transformers, the Four Issue Limited Series (plus bonus issue)
Since their debut in 1984, the Transformers has become one of popular culture’s most enduring and recognizable franchises, but even the die hard fan who can words like nole-ray and gestalt in casual conversation would have to admit that this entire mythology was created and nurtured through the years as a means to sell toys, and the 1984 animated series debuted around the same time Hasbro had come up with the idea of re-branding a few Japanese toys lines as Transformers. An important step in that process was the creation of original Transformers comic book, published by Marvel. I was a kid at the time and was hardly purvey to the process of licensing and the creation of new franchises, but it seemed to me, as a member of the audience that powers-that-be were targeting, that it was this comic book that came out first. Me and my buddy had seen a short commercial for the comic on television and subsequently scooped up the first issue. Toys of these transforming robots were waiting around on shelves for us to buy as well, but it seemed that It was only sometime later that the two of us began to see it all expand to that cartoon show, the same cartoon show which, of course, we both watched.
I remember that the initial three-part episode was general faithful to the first few issues of the comic book, but I was generally intrigued by a few of the differences. It was my first exposure to the lesson that “the book is always going to be different than the movie.”
Transformers was perhaps the first comic book series that I ever really got into. My buddy at the time had a whole closet full of titles from both Marvel and DC and I spent some going through all of it, but, for me, it came down to this: Superhero books are cool, but Transformers and G.I. Joe are cooler. Maybe one reason that is that each superhero has his or her background and unique story, and it helps to know a bit about those individual stories even when they team up with other superheroes. That’s actually a lot of information to have to know. What’s more, it also helps to know the individual stories of the villains and how or why they are teaming up, so before you even get the first splash page of an issue of the Avengers, you have to have at least field-level expertise of all recent comic book history. On the other hand, both G.I. Joe and Transformers came in per-assembled teams, and while each member of each team had his own back-story as well as an individual personality, you really didn’t have know any of that to get by. If you at least knew what faction they were fighting for, that was generally good enough.
The initial Transformers four-issue limited series was (and still is) a big deal to me, all the way up through 2007 when the first live-action Transformers film came out. Flawed as it might be, that film was a lot of fun, and it did for me what 2012’s Avengers did for a lot of people: it brought an ambitious comic book to the screen in an unforgettable way.
Unfortunately, I no longer own any of the issues I will be discussing here. I might use a Google search so I can pepper this article with a few pictures, but the story is one that I know at least fairly well from memory. For those that actually still have these issues: please don’t hold me on my accuracy; I think it’s more fun to reflect upon what I might remember.
The very core mythology of the Transformers is established here, and surprisingly enough, it has all been generally adhered to in subsequent continuities. The first issue gives us quite a lot of background on the planet Cybertron. I just remember reading a lot of “caption text” that contained information about the planet. After bringing home the issue, I looked at my buddy and said something to the effect that this will take a while to read and digest. He reminded that it’s just a comic book and that I just hadn’t (to that point) read all that many of them, but it shouldn’t take me more than fifteen minutes to finish the entire issue. Turns out he was right. I remember reading stories about these automated machines, about how ruthless Megatron, the leader of the Decepticons, was and how his fusion cannon could destroy an entire city. I seem to remember him actually doing so to a city called Iocon. From the rubble was Optimus Prime, a kind of John Connor like leader who knew how to hold off the Decepticons. I recall that, on Cybertron, his alternate mode was a combat vehicle.
One of the best parts of this issue is how well they differentiate the story-telling and character development from what is typically found in the usual superhero comic books. Again, Transformers (like G.I Joe) has quite a large ensemble of characters, each with their own back-story, and each character seems to have a unique personality. Instead of having to bring that background knowledge into the story, all you really need to do is just know that the characters are in fact, part of a faction; there’s no need to get into much more detail than that. There is a splash page early in this issue in which the Autobots introduce themselves.. they each have cool names, and you get a sense of each of their back-story and personality on this page, and it’s all right there: no individual story is more important than the fact that each of them are Autobots. That means that no one character brings a lot of “story baggage” to the table. To wit: in order to appreciate the Avengers, it really helps to kind of know Thor’s history, and the problems he’s had with Odin and Loki, and I might want to know how and why Tony had come up with these Iron Man suits.. everyone’s back-story is so different and yet they are all )almost) essential reading. With the Transformers, I can start with the big picture and then learn more about each individual character as I go. I think, as a kid, this kind of story-telling appealed to me. After all, I’m a Star Trek fan as well.. and it’s more important to know that each character serves on the enterprise before I need to know what each of their back-stories are. In fact, I can enjoy quite a few episodes only knowing that they each serve on the Enterprise together and not be lost at all.
The story proceeds as normal. I don’t recall the comic book’s specific reason that the Autobots left, but I believe that the all consuming war on Cybertron sent that planet out of its own orbit and, after many years, it wound up in our solar system. In a desperate attempt to clear asteroids form its path the Autobots board the ship called the Ark, but they can’t overcome a Decepticon attack. Optimus sets his course for Earth. The ship crashes into a volcano in what would, in millions years of time, be Washington state I believe. Fast forward all those years to present day, where the volcano’s eruption wakes up the computer, and it sends off probes that would reshape the transformers to blend in. It obviously thinks that cars, trucks and planes are the citizens of this world.
Most of the first issue, I recall, was about this misconception that the Transformers have. Overlooking a drive-in theater where a movie is being shown, the Autobots wonder what it is on the screen the life forms (the parked cars) are watching. Something happens wherein Bumblebee (the Volkswagen Beetle) is injured and brought into a mechanics garage, and they don’t know that he is alive.
I think this qualifies as pretty good writing, and was what clearly attracted Spielberg to become the executive producer of the live action films. Though Michael Bay directed those films, it was clear that the mandate that first film be largely about “a boy and his car,” the echoes of this issue was certainly an inspiration. I like how the Autobots in Sam’s yard “hide” by transforming into their vehicle mode, but, as Sam observes: “this is a backyard, not a truck stop.”
The issue ends just as the humans, Buster and Sparkplug Witwicky, come to teh realization tht the car on their lift is, well, more than meets the eye.
The story continues, but, from memory, this issue is more about moving the plot along than anything else. Early on, Optimus and the other Autobots introduce themselves to the Witwicky’s, and they seek help in obtaining fuel they so desperately need. I’m sure that a lot more happened in this issue, but the two most the two events that I recall from all those years ago are 1) Optimus transforming in front of the humans and 2) Optimus, while fending a Decepticon attack, orders Bumblebee to protect the humans. Megatron easily defeats him, and kidnaps Spark-Plug. Since Bumblebee is the weakest Autobot, Optimus blames himself for giving that order.
I also remember that the pacing of this issue was pretty good. Not too much happens, but certainly enough to advance the story and to make this individual issue a satisfying read unto itself. It also develops the characters of Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, and Megatron, and their characterizations have been pretty consistent with how they are portrayed here ever since.
So, what can I say about this one?
The first thing I could talk about is that canon.. what actually happens and is considered “history” in the Marvel universe, sometimes has to dismiss certain one-off events, and even if the creators don’t do it, the reader is usually sharp enough to know what’s actually canon and wasn’t it. If something is too broad and asinine, it can often be dismissed from canon without a second thought.
After all, while Marvel has had many cross-overs that have demonstrated that Transformers and G.I. Joe share the same universe, neither of these franchises share space with the superheroes.
The only exception is this issue, where Spider-Man appears.
I love this issue. Odd as it may be to include Spidey at all, he definitely feels right here somehow. We don’t get bogged down by all his personal drama here, so he can simply exist here to liven up the events that transpire, with his sarcasm and quick wit.
All I really remember about this issue is that the Decepticons have forced Spark-plug to start making fuel for them. I also remember that Gears and Spider-Man try to sneak in to rescue Spark-Plug. On the journey, Gears mentions that Spider-Man talks as much as Blue Streak. Optimus Prime aside, Blue Streak was my favorite transformer; even a mention of his name caused me to perk up.
The issue’s climactic scene involves Gears and Spidey getting the drop on Megatron. As fast as he can, Spider-Man wraps Megatron in a web cocoon. “Bazooka Joe’s all tied up. Let’s call a cab and split!” Yeah, I remembered Spidey saying that. It’s so good when the writers of this character remember that he’s supposed to be funny.
Megatron doesn’t react right away, not because he can’t (he does wind up tearing through the webbing as if it’s tissue paper) but because he’s flabbergasted: who the heck is this and what did he just try to do?
This issue is comic gold. Its also gimmicky, and very dated. Comic books, and the crossovers that go with it, are a product of their time.
The important thing to keep in mind is that this was definitely touted as the last issue of the Transformers (considering how big an impact the franchise continues to have on popular culture, this is hard to imagine, really). But everything came down to this.. The Autobots might have rescued Sparkplug, but they are worried that he provided the Decepticons with fuel.
I also remember some talk about the fact that the computer had been awakened just after the Ark had crashed, and in a desperate attempt to fight off a Decepticon named Shockwave, who had followed the Ark to Earth, it had scanned some dinosaurs and created the Dinobots. I think (I could be wrong) that both the Dinobots and their enemy perished in a tar pit. When a new probe is sent to this location by the Autobots, a purple robotic hand breaks through the surface and crushes the probe.
The creators had a plan as to where this was going, but, to a kid just taking this all in, this really felt like it was going culminate into something right here and right now. The Autobots take a final stand against the Decepticons. They wind up being way over-matched. One of the final pages has Optimus Prime losing his arm in the fire -fight before Megatron hoists his inert body over his head in triumph.
Then, he collapses, along with the other Decepticons. The human they captured has done something to the fuel he was forced to synthesize for them. He alone changed the tide of the war. Optimus Prime and the others are just beginning to realize what had happened, and coming to terms with the fact that they had won. And then…
They are all destroyed in what seems to be a massive explosion. Really. Yes. I’m not joking. The Decepticons all perished thanks to the sabotaged fuel. And now, all of the Autobots have been destroyed as well. The only one left standing is the one who is atop a crevice who fired that massive blast that killed them all: Shockwave. He had revived after four million years and has single-handedly ended it all for the heroes. His alternate form is a massive ray gun, after all.
That’s how the four-issue limited series ended. Not something I, as a kid, could have ever expected.. and I would dare say that it’s a twist ending that would put M. Night Shyamalan to shame. Really? Wow.
The whole story – at least in the comic book medium – ended right there. The television show had come on and its initial three-part episode closely mirrored the comic book had been successful, and the first wave of Transformers toys were largely the best figures they’d ever released. Transformers wasn’t over, but as a kid I kind of figured that, in the back of mind mind they are all dead.
.. and indeed, they were.
My older brother was not above putting one over on me. To this day I still kind of expect that. I remember – months after reading issue number four – that he had been at the local convenience store and that he saw issue number five.
I figured he was bullshitting me. It was a “four issue” limited series. Plain and simple. There was no issue number five. Of course there wasn’t.
Then he described the cover. Shockwave standing underneath the title “Transformers” and he had carved (with his wrist-mounted laser gun) that they “are all dead.”
Certainly my brother was joking.
Panels of Future Past Bonus: Issue 5.
So now Transformers would be a regular series. The property was obviously an instant success for everyone involved in creating it. It succeeded as a toy, television show, and a comic book, and its characters and mythology were already well-known.
The issue was a small first step into seeing how the series would continue, largely with the ongoing conflict between the factions on Earth. This introductory issue was not filled with great battles and contained – as far as I can remember – only one revelation.
What do I remember about this issue. Well, Shockwave had set up his own base somewhere, and was passing the time monitoring human transmissions, even watching our television shows, including the Honeymooners. Buster Witwicky, the human kid, is able to sneak into the base. Most of the issue is, I believe, his exploration of the base, as he discovers what Shockwave is doing with all of the dead transformers. I don’t remember much else.. except for the last panel. Buster finds Optimus Prime’s disembodied head. He has been kept alive, hooked up to a machine. This wasn’t hard for Shockwave to do; Prime is a machine after all.
There you have it. I don’t recall issue six, but clearly threads were tied together for the heroes and villains of this series to return. Isn’t that same with all pop culture properties when they have huge changes to the status quo?
These comics were the first I bought myself. I could read superhero books any time I went to my buddy’s house, but I wanted this series at home. The characters and general mythos are now iconic and well-known but this original series was much riskier than one might expect.
Oh yes, the Dinobots, sprung from this, the best version of their origin story, do come back as well.