The Comics That Transformed My Childhood

I would not be here today if it weren’t for the Transformers.

On this site, I mean. I’d be alive with or without them. Astrotrain didn’t talk me out of drinking and driving after graduation or anything.

But when it comes to reading comics, buying comics, and the weekly rating and debating of comics, page one of my origin story goes all the way back to Children’s Palace. Stores like this used to sell random grab-bags of comics back when Dinobots ruled the earth, and one day on an errand I sweet-talked my infinitely patient mother into buying me one that contained Transformers #1-3. If it hadn’t been a four-part story, I would never have wheedled her into finding a comic shop for me, and if Marvel hadn’t ended #4 by saying, “Aw, screw it: to be continued in #5! Let’s see where this goes,” you would be sitting here reading Paul’s column a day early and I’d be off writing a memoir about how I got strung out on meth in junior high without anything else to spend my money on. Transformers were my anti-drug, and also my anti-allowance.

When I started buying those comics– and I bought them like Grimlock was clutching Wonka’s golden ticket between his jaws in there somewhere– I’m almost positive I owned not a single Transformer toy. I mean, really: Starscream is $7.00? Am I reading that right? I might not be, because I don’t have a monocle, because I’m not Scrooge McDuck. Or so I would have been thinking at the time, as I biked home with another reasonably-priced back issue of the comic in my quest to catch up to what was on the shelves. (I think they were on #12 or #13 when I finally got caught up enough to spend a whopping $.75 per issue.) In time, of course, the comics would hook me into buying or begging for dozens of transforming trinkets; I had everything from Bumblebee to Metroplex to the aforementioned Astrotrain. (Astrotrain could disguise himself as either a space shuttle or a steam locomotive, because you never ****ing know.) The Transformers and G.I. Joe comics were both brilliant about adverti– er, introducing new characters into their richly-woven storylines. Often a half dozen at a time.

Twenty years before Michael Bay’s movies, the Transformers were teaching me life lessons about disappointment. It was hard to earn (and hold onto) seven bucks as a ten year old, but in 1985 by God I needed a proper Decepticon if my Bumblebee and Wheeljack were ever going to do anything more than bully the Barbies. I set my sights on Thundercracker. I saved like a monk that summer. I cut back on the comics that were even then getting between me and my savings. I banked every penny and did every chore. I cleaned that room like dust had killed my family and framed me for the crime. Finally, the day came when I marched into Target like a conquistador and marched out with Thundercracker held above my head in triumph. I got out to the car; I opened the package; and there it was. All that work, all that striving, and now I had… plastic. After all the buildup, actually getting the small folding robot completely deflated my tires. My name for a thing that could never hope to live up to expectations became “a Thundercracker” for years after that, until my name for that thing was changed to “a prom night.”

I tend to forget about how much I loved the Transformers, probably willfully so. Why did I hang on every panel of those comics? Could anyone look you in the eye today and say they related to the characters or responded to their personalities? These were four-story robots without jobs or rent or girlfriends. They were fighting an eternal battle for the future of their planet, like you do, but they didn’t have the richest inner lives.

I have the first 51 issues. Years ago, during the lengthy period of unemployment I dubbed my “early retirement,” I got it into my head that since I couldn’t afford to leave the house anymore I might as well try getting some free entertainment out of old comics. What better way to start than by reading that entire run of Transformers? I made it about halfway through before I started to crack; being cooped up was already rapidly turning my life into the last act of The Shining before I started mainlining robot wars. Before I abandoned readership, though, I noticed some things as an adult that never struck me as a kid. For one thing, I remembered loving the book for eons and eons, but the epic story I was so emotionally invested in lasted maybe two years. Events I remembered having happened years down the line occur within a matter of issues. Optimus prime and Megatron both get killed before issue #30. I remember seeing the Predacons and the Aerialbots and thinking, “Wow, we’re really grasping at straws now, eh fellas?” They showed up in issues #25 and #21, respectively. Time just moves at a different rate when you’re ten and have to fill your summers.

I also noticed that nearly every issue I had of the entire series was written by a single person, Bob Budiansky. With the exception of Peter David’s Hulk, I never could have told you who was writing the comics I read back then. Don’t mind me; I’m just here about the Optimus. Actually, I did know one other writer then: Larry Hama, the guy who wrote nearly every issue of the entire G.I. Joe series just as Budiansky had written Transformers. It’s utterly unheard of for someone to write someone else’s characters for that long, and there both these guys were doing it for properties that were so corporate and removed they didn’t even belong to the comic book company putting them out. I wonder what reading all those Transformers would tell me about Bob Budiansky if I knew what to look for.

Understanding nothing about licensed tie-in comics as a kid, it drove me crazy for years that giant robots were barnstorming the Pacific Northwest while SHIELD and the Avengers did nothing to stop them; I almost wrote an angry letter when Transformer foe Circuit Breaker randomly appeared in Secret Wars II and saved the entire Marvel universe from the Beyonder with an offhand remark. (“The mulleted lady in the tinfoil support garments is right; people do need free will!”) I mean, for robots who claimed to value disguise, these jokers seemed to be fighting their war pretty publicly. Where was the outrage? If nothing else, someone had to send G.I. Joe in to check on that nonsense… but by the time they did, I was already starting to outgrow the whole affair. I bowed out just as they were introducing the Headmasters, characters that were literally so empty-headed I couldn’t buy in anymore.

Nostalgia hasn’t managed to rekindle my fondness for Transformers. I won’t be seeing Transformers 2. There was a time when I’d hear that a movie was terrible and gleefully go see it anyway, but these days I like to like things because I like them. I’ve reached the conclusion that, if you say a movie is “mindless fun” and mean it in a good way, you are actively making the world a worse place to live. You never get to say or think, “Why does Hollywood keep making such crap?” again. Let me know how that Deadpool movie works out.

Still, the fact that the Transformers movies turned out to be colorless, ricocheting noise doesn’t hurt me. I guess it would have been nice if the people involved had taken them seriously, but I didn’t enjoy the eighties any less because of Michael Bay. Frankly, I would feel silly caring that much about the Transformers as a 34 year old. I don’t know why. I can get worked up in a hurry over Spider-Man, and how different is that, really? I have this invisible, arbitrary line when it comes to toys, I guess. I still take Captain America seriously as an adult, but the idea of a Thundercats movie makes me roll my eyes until I get a headache.

It doesn’t matter in the end. I’m not ten anymore, but I had a lot of fun when I was. I owe a lot of that fun to these folding robots, even if they were a cynical cash grab. Thanks, Bob Budiansky, wherever you are.


Jim Mroczkowski did not codify which alternate Marvel Earth the Transformers were on, but by Jove some grown man did, and God bless him.

Comments

  1. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    See, now, Thundercats…that’s my bag. If they make a movie and louse it up, heads will roll.  

     

  2. Thats a pretty gruesome cover to the GI Joe/Transformers mini series. Its like watching Johnny 5 get axed in Short Circuit 2. "No dissasemble."

  3. "So medicore! I cant take it!!!"

    Cant stop laughing over that picture. Great article Jimski.

  4. Sounds like your childhood was more than meets the eye.

  5. For the first time since The Transformers animated film, you have made me think about Astrotrain.  Thank you, sir.

  6. Head Masters…what an unfortunate title.I had trouble imagining Rule 34 applying to Transformers but whoomp,there it is.

  7. What’s funny is that I’ve been reading Life of Reilly and it’s really clear that Budiansky is the whipping boy of choice that most writers use to explain the prolonging of the Clone Saga. What a difference a decade makes, right?

  8. I think Jimski and I had the exact same childhood.  I’m 30, so I had no choice, but to love this stuff. 

    Also, I am jealous that you have a son to share all this with.  I keep trying to get my girls to play with my transformers, but they keep putting dresses on megatron.  I tell them (loudly) that Megatron does not wear dresses, but it doesn’t sink in.

  9. My odd prejudice against anything non-super hero kept my away from Transformers growing up.  I grouped these with Cerebus and Aliens, intelectual clap trap for the mature and thus uncool reader.  I was not a bright kid. 

  10. @paul I could care less about transformers or G I Joe. I was more into the funny cartoons as a kid. But Thundercats was my one exception. Loved that show.

  11. @stuclach – Megatron in a dress could possibly happen in Transformers 3.

    I would like to see Unicron (voiced by Leonard Nimoy) in TF3.  Nothing cooler than a planet-sized robot with a Fu-Manchu.

  12. The Maxx by Sam Kieth and Sandman.

  13. Jimski, stop looking in my head and stealing my identity!

    I remember those collections of Transformers comics fondly.  Unfortunately I didn’t start getting them until #7 and was completely lost on some of the details ("Who is SAM Witwicky?  What’s this Creation Matrix thingee?  Why is Optimus Prime a disembodied head?"), but I recognized the characters and enough of the basics to get along.  In hindsight, a lot of the stories were very silly, especially Robot Master and the Mechanic, and later artists gave the faces way too much detail (robots should not have curved cheeks and chins).  I still, however, read the final issues of Transformers with fondness.  The last one, with the heading "#76 of a Four Issue Limited Series"gets me on a certain level.  

    @ultimatehoratio- Unicron in TF3 seconded!  Just as long as they don’t cop out like FF 2.  If they made a transforming planet, that would be an fx dream.

  14. Interesting how these things shake out generationally. I just had the scary, brain-warping Jack Kirby adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey and so-so Ross Andru Amazing Spider-Man.

  15. @ultimatehoratio and @BC1 – He would probably be a transforming Planet Hollywood.  Product placement FTW (or is it FT$$$).

    If they put Megatron in a dress Simon Furman will hunt and kill Michael Bay with the sharp parts of a Death’s Head action figure.  (If you aren’t familiar with Simon Furman’s work [Marvel UK] or who/what Death’s Head is, then you MUST turn in your Transformers geek card NOW.)

  16. I loved the transformers comic when i was a kid. That and iron man were like my crack. And i had completely forgotten about the Headmasters! I had that comic but for the life of me, i can’t remember what it was about. 

  17.  transformers was the first comic i ever collected started with issue 1 at the age of 7 and kept going for it’s entire UK run of 332 comics (it was weekly) I truly enjoyed the ongoing adventures of Optimus Prime and the rest. it also had some excellent backups in Iron Man, Machine Man, PowerPack and Action Force (GI Joe)

  18. "I cleaned that room like dust had killed my family and framed me for the crime."

    Hilarious.  Your wit makes me very jealous. 

  19. About 3 years ago I bought one of those box sets of the entire Gen. 1 Transformers cartoon.  I ate that shit up so much that I even went over to my mom and dads to rummage around in the attic.  I found a gold mine of mangled Transformers toys that I played with until their joints squeeked.  I look back on my childhood often as a rough time.  I had ADHD and none of the other kids could keep up with my energy level, so my friends were minimal.  So as I’m looking at my toys, I realized how much of my childhood was spent blissfully alone with my army of toys that my parents tried to overcompensate for my lonesome adolescence with mountains of things to keep me busy.  I found Go-bots, Star Wars, GI Joe, Thundercats, M.A.S.K., and of course dozens of different generation Transformer toys.  It was a good time being a kid and often I forget about that.  Thanks Jim.

  20. Great article Jimski.  I never read any of the comics, but I was a slave to the TV show and the toys when I was a kid.  

  21. I am going to transform this article into one that got more than twenty comments for the week.

    There.

    I actually don’t have anything else to say. Oh! Robot-master was delightful.

    Rhetoricons, roll out!

  22. I dont even know what Headmasters is. What the hell is that? And why is it a faction of Transformers?

  23. Oh, sir. Headmasters were Transformers whose heads transformed. Men in little Iron Man suits transformed into heads, and then they controlled the Transformer.

    No matter who you were in this arrangement, it was no way to go through life.

  24. Jeff Reid (@JeffRReid) says:

    Wow.  That does sound pretty awful, Jim.  Still, you could almost see the thought behind it.  If that book had ever crossed over with He-Man, the resulting miniseries would have had to be called "Headmasters of the Universe."

    And hey, maybe that’ll be the twist ending to the new GI JOE film.  Those weird looking suits make them cross over into 2011’s inevitable TRANSFORMERS 3 as Headmasters.

  25. JeffR, that is the best possible thing that could come out of the G.I. JOE movie. They all transform into heads and then jump onto robots, and then the robots all do a kickline to "New York, New York."

  26. Oh, but it didn’t stop there.  There were Targetmasters (men who turned into guns, which as toys were less articulated than the Headmasters), and Powermasters (men who turned into engines).  Oh, and don’t forget the Pretenders (robots who hid inside shells of men and monsters).  A lot of these were excuses for Hasbro to reuse old and well known characters with a different twist, though all the Headmaster characters were original (Scorponok from the first Transformers movie was a Headmaster). 

    The sad part is that the story behind all of this was interesting, if it weren’t weighed down with melodrama.  The idea was that a faction of Autobots broke off from the main group and travelled to a distant planet called Nebulon.  They just wanted to get away from the war, but for some reason another group of Decepticons followed them, bringing the war to a groups of innocents.  At first, the Autobots agreed to become Headmasters so that the Nebulons would have some control over them; later, another group, led by a man who just wanted all of these things off his planet, joined with the Decepticons.  There were issues of sacrifice and giving up one’s old life for the greater good, and there was also some examination on the nature of the war itself and how it was almost an unshakable curse on all the participants.  It also made Scorponok a much more interesting character, as his interaction with his Headmaster counterpart made him more thoughtful and less cruel.  But yeah, eventually it turned back into a toy selling tool and also triend to sound all Shakespearean when, really, it was still a comic book about robots that turned into giant spaceships and bats and scorpions.