Transformers after three decades

A few weeks ago, the always observant xkcd introduced the instantly familiar concept of the “Timeghost.” These things have been haunting me for years, now, long before I had a name for them. I think the most consistently strange one year in and year out, so far, must however be Transformers: The Movie.

Get back to me in several more years, when Hill Valley of 2015 has also slid into the past, and it may have taken over. But at this point, the 20-years-from-now “two thousand fiiiiive” of my childhood has been behind me for most of a decade. As I probably watch this movie about once per year, I saw this weird reality creeping up even before that… and yet, viewing the movie again last night, I was still surprised by this most familiar Timeghost showing off a whole new trick. I’ve got to guestimate his age in TFTM, but it occurs to me that at this point, the Autobots’ boy sidekick Daniel Witwicky may very well be old enough to drink. Yeeesh. Pass that bottle over here Danny.

Meanwhile, this got me thinking yet again about how and why it is that at 36 years old, I’m still a fan of Transformers.

Section of Transformers toy catalog from 1985

I’ve go that guy in the upper-left, yes.

There are bigger fans out there, certainly. I haven’t bought a Transformer since the last century. But, I’ve been tempted, and I still have three or four of the things around here. I’ve got more than 100 Transformers comics, and those I occasionally still buy. I’ve got a Transformer web site bookmarked, and I still watch the flipping movie (which I must have seen two dozen times by now) once per year at least. At age 36. Can I account for this?

In one sense it isn’t difficult. The quick answer is “shameless, trashy nostalgia for happy associations with childhood” and that’s by no means wrong. If anyone has read this far but wants to bail out now, you won’t be missing any key points. That said, I feel like there has to be a bit more going on, if only to explain “why Transformers and why not other fascinations of my early life?”

It isn’t like Transformers were alone. I grew up in the 1980s. TV-show-toyline combinations were plentiful. I didn’t get into all of them; I never really took interest in GI Joe, for example. But I had plenty of He-Man toys and watched the show regularly. Haven’t felt any interest in that world for ages though. There were also heaps of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures (and vehicles, and playsets) in our toyroom. I had the toys, I watched the cartoon, I read comics and played video games and saw at least two of the feature films.

Now, before going any further, I should establish that I regard all of these worlds, Transformers included, as thoroughly dopey, at least on their surface. I’m going to try splitting hairs on this issue a bit, eventually, but I won’t and can’t really claim that on its face, Transformers makes any more sense than He-Man or Ninja Turtles. They all collapse into absurdity if you start evaluating their premise with a rational, adult skepticism.

So why Transformers, other than just random preference? With acknowledgement that I’m just making up possible interpretations—I never sat down and said “okay, I’m going to keep one toy property from childhood, and it shall be Transformers based on these strengths”—I think it does offer an interesting problem to bat around on a weekend morning.

Beginning with the obvious alternatives, He-Man and Ninja Turtles, I can make surprisingly decent counter-arguments in their favor. At first glance it seems easy to write off the former; it was so silly, right? But so were they all. What’s more, as an internally plausible world (and going off memories that are most of 30 years old now), He-Man seems like potentially the least hopelessly childish, when I think about it. As I recall it was basically a swords-and-sorcery (and spaceships) fantasy world. Last I looked, lots of people regard this sort of premise as fertile ground for stories well into adulthood. In recent years I’ve become an avid reader of the Elric comics, and while I’m sure the He-Man cartoons were dopey 1980s silliness… well, see above. It seems like the overall world could support stories that win over an adult at least as well as either of its obvious competitors.

I don’t know that it did, as I’ve never checked, and I’ll come back to one or two possible reasons for that. First, though, the Ninja Turtles offer a strong practical case to examine next to He-Man’s theoretical case. He-Man might in some sense have offered better potential for a long-term following, but I lost interest in the whole thing early on anyway; by contrast, for all of their grinning goofiness I was into the Ninja Turtles well into adolescence and, examining my pre-college years as a whole, I was very possibly a bigger fan of Turtles than Transformers. It’s close enough that one would need a more objective measure than is possible here, to say for sure, but I was a Turtles fiend.

Again, I had, watched, and read all the crap. That last point is particularly significant, because in some ways Ninja Turtles achieved the results for which I was just speculating on He-Man’s potential, even if its concept was less well-positioned to do so. The cartoon was cheesy and silly (again, see above), but Ninja Turtles had rather good comics. In fact they originally came from a witty, self-aware comics in-joke before being dumbed-down for the kiddie market… but what’s strange is that after being adapted back to comics they smartened up again to a baffling extent. I acquired collections of the original Eastman/Laird series, and they were certainly good stuff, but so were the Archie(!!) comics based on the cartoon. Much like Transformers, Archie’s Turtles comics began from the same premise as the cartoon and then promptly went its own way… and thinking back, I’ve got to say that Archie may have done a better, or at least more consistent, job of trying to sidestep silliness than Marvel’s Transformers comic.

As I recall, the writer(s) put some real thought and craft into those comics, building up good long-term plots while eventually adding in quite thoughtful explorations of sustainability, or cross-cultural differences. I feel like they were better comics, in a lot of respects, than way too many of the other books I was buying in the same years and even more than a few of those I’ve kept.

Despite which, I’m only going off memories here because I purged all my Turtles comics at least a decade ago, and if I might not do so today I don’t think I’m going to reacquire them either. What happened? How did the Transformers become the last bots standing, with competition that was theoretically and/or genuinely quite strong? Well… having made the case for He-Man and the Turtles the fact remains that they didn’t make the cut… and I’m afraid there’s no more avoiding it; it’s time to start being mean.

In the Turtles’ case, I believe they probably both lived and died by the same sword. (Presumably a katana.) They captured lightning in a bottle. They came along at exactly the right time, not only for me but in general. As a result they exploded in popularity… but now, I think (at least for me, perhaps not so much in general) that same magic moment effect has worked against them.

Time does not seem to have been kind to the Turtles. A different sort of Timeghost, i.e. zeitgeist, seems to haunt them. Monstrous reptiles in the sewers, crime-ridden New York, TV reporters in trouble, punk-themed villains and skater-dude heroes… it all seems so painfully of the past. I almost hate to say this, but I warned about being mean: time has kind of marooned the Turtles as Poochie. They were so cool in 1990 and now they just look like grinning idiots.

The cartoon is to blame for much of this, true, but not all, and in any event the cartoon has largely overshadowed the original comic. Which may in some sense be fair, given that the original comic began as a cute little joke in the depths of the 1980s, and how far could you really stretch that anyway before it, ahem, mutated beyond recognition? Definitely not so far as a live-action film, which I would say was probably the Turtles’ likeliest jump-the-shark moment. For teenage mutant ninja turtles to work, at all, it can’t lose sight of its absurdist-joke element, and I think that the instant you decide to make a big-budget live-action film, you’ve stopped appreciating the joke.

Of course, Ninja Turtles are hardly unique in suffering some bad movies. I’ve heard the Transformers have had one or two or four, and we’ll get back to them briefly. First, though, let’s kick He-Man a bit. Yeah, um… “He Man.” Honestly, I really have only limited memories of that show, but one thing that does stick with me as, by itself, a valid reason for chucking it aside is yet another failure to appreciate its own point. Why the Hell did He-Man need a wussy, foppish secret identity? I cannot recall any conceivable point to this, other than 1) the creators brainlessly aping Superman with the sole practical benefit of 2) providing more figures for the toyline. Frankly, Superman’s double identity as Clark Kent has not aged well, either; I have no idea how the current comic treats it, but the traditional dynamic of the early comics and the Chris Reeve films long ago became tiresome. That said, at least Superman had a plausible motivation in wanting to maintain a normal life in human society that an out-of-the-closet (phone booth?) Superman can’t have.

This doesn’t apply in He-Man’s Eternia, which as I recall might almost have been a G-rated version of Burning Man. Among warrior princesses, cyborgs, and whatever-the-hell Orko was, disguising yourself to fit in wasn’t even a valid concept. Least of all by disguising yourself as a “normal guy.” And again, what really earns a fatal #cmonman here is the total failure to appreciate your own concept.

You can obviously pick Transformers apart, and yet, I’m not sure that there’s any equivalent fundamental failing like this. (Outside of the Michael Bay movies, and I think you have to blame those more on a personal inability on his part to preserve the good in any concept.) Could be wrong; if so, I guess I’ll just have to fall back on happenstance. (“Decepticons, retreat!”) But if not, that’s probably as much the one reason, if there is any, why I’ve failed to evict Transformers they way I did their peers.

To be thorough, however, and because I just feel like it, I want to give Transformers’ good points their own hearing to examine why they should even make it into consideration as a lasting interest in the first place.

I’ll begin by kicking He-Man a bit more, with an observation that stuck with me from the TF Archive site’s recent 30th anniversary retrospective. Considering the 1980s cartoon(1) and its typically ineffective chief villain, Mr. inflatable dalek writes that despite his abysmal win-loss record, Megatron

has one huge advantage over the majority of his fellow cartoon villains: He’s not the boss of a gang or a small group of terrorists, he’s the leader of (at least) half of an entire species, a despot with a (admittedly mostly unseen) vast army at his disposal. He’s a military dictator, not a super villain and that gives him a power and gravitas that Skeletor looks at and has a good cry over.

I have to admit, while it’s obviously gratifying, this did and does make me smile. There’s something to this. Transformers had and has an epic, even cosmic, scope, as well as a (potential) seriousness of purpose because it’s about a fucking war. Before I leave He-Man alone (promise, this time) I feel it’s worth noting that somewhere or other, I once read a comparison of its world to Jack Kirby’s New Gods… but thinking about it, I submit that surface resemblance aside The Transformers has much more kinship with Kirby’s Fourth World than did He-Man.

Though it featured robots that transformed into cars and jets, from that toy-selling premise, Bob Budiansky’s Transformers quickly began aspiring to a kind of immeasurable cosmic epic worthy of Jack’s grand visions. From the beginning, the TFs were a millions-of-years-old alien civilization. The execution of this idea didn’t entirely help the concept’s plausibility, but it was shooting for big things, and continued to do so.

This is a decent lead-in (or lead back) to Transformers: The Movie, I think. Because introducing, above all your ordinary villains, a space giant from the dawn of time who devours planets is very much the kind of fearlessly ambitious world-expansion with which Kirby would have gifted fans. (And did, for that matter, depending on how much credit you assign to whom for Fantastic Four #48-50.) This is part of why I think TFTM worked, and still works for me, which in turn is probably one important part of why I still own to liking Transformers.

Transformers: The Movie was, I’m going to argue, an entirely credible movie. It could have been just a longer toy commercial—again, correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m not aware of the GI Joe movie achieving the same lasting impact—but it wasn’t. The story was ambitious, the craft was good (and in the case of much of the voice acting, excellent), the plot rattles along efficiently… and most of all, I think that to a great extent it works by itself. If TFTM landed in some parallel universe where the Transformers line never existed, I think that it would just about be comprehensible, not to mention enjoyable, anyway. You would have to interpret it as some weird fantasy movie from Japan, probably based on a manga or something you’d never heard of, but I think this would work. Other than starring transforming robots, TFTM is very much its own story of a quest in the midst a war, a giant monster, and a rich universe at least some of which served no end other than embellishing the movie. Here I will point to the Quintessons in particular. At some point I’m sure that some company or other has produced Quintesson figures, but I don’t think they can have been invented for the purpose of expanding the toy line because they aren’t even transformers. They’re (even more bizarre) robot aliens whose cynical court scene, as much as anything else, takes the movie out of the realm of condescending crap written for kids who are presumed not to care. It only fully strikes me as I write this, but really, that scene is almost like a particularly cruel Marx Brothers sketch, on acid.

Having gone that far, in fact, this is probably a fine time for me to dive headfirst into nerd blasphemy and suggest that, at least to my taste, Transformers compares quite well with another cosmic epic that has been compared to Kirby’s New Gods: Star Wars.

Yeah, you read that right, I’m going to put Transformers up against the holy trilogy. Why not? I still rewatch TFTM regularly, but I haven’t been able to make myself sit down and watch a Star Wars movie in ages.

It probably won’t save me from the lightpitchfork-wielding mob, but I will certainly allow that (the original) Star Wars was a tremendous cinematic accomplishment, as well as a cultural touchstone in ways that Transformers will never approach. Even I still reference Star Wars far more often than I mutter, e.g., “it’s over, Prime.” Transformers itself, particularly TFTM, drew freely from Star Wars. This having been said, I think there are genuine ways in which Transformers gets its similar core premise right that Star Wars, even the originals, did not.

I think Transformers, not necessarily consistently but at least often, actually kept/keeps sight of the fact that it has chosen as its backdrop an interstellar war. Rather than, say, collapsing everything down into a mildly incestuous family feud ultimately resolved with rather psychobabble-y mysticism. You want to say “it was supposed to be about that, not about the war,” fine, but I’ve chosen my words carefully here and interstellar war was still Star Wars’ selected backdrop, and having made that choice I don’t think Star WARS actually makes the most compelling use of it.(2)

Transformers, though, regularly returns to not only a war but an endless, essentially insoluble war. Which, it occurred to me last night, may be one further reason why I continue to appreciate the concept. Not necessarily a reason why it stuck with me this long. Making into the 21st century needs other explanations, a few of which I have hopefully teased out. Having lasted this long, though, I think that Transformers has begun to resonate with a growing pessimism on my part.

Through the past several years, I have to admit that I really have become more pessimistic, not exactly about my own life but about the world we live in and, I suspect, are going to continue living in with little improvement for the foreseeable future. Transformers, I believe, is at its core a concept very accessible to this kind of pessimism. The Transformers’ entire existence, since a past so distant it may as well have been forever, has generally been a war in which maintaining stalemate seems to be the good guys’ best hope. Not only are the Autobots never going to win the war, but even when they win a bunch of battles, the Decepticons still control their home world, and menace the Earth.

Significantly, this stands in contrast even to so much other recurring villainy in fiction. Long-running comics’ popular super-villains will never be permanently defeated, of course, but the onus is always on them to win rather than simply to hold on to what they have. The status quo is a world where good prevails (based on the dubious assumption that our ordinary world is just fine), and as long as you keep Dr. Doom and the Red Skull in check, “the day is saved” and you can chillax in your mansion or skyscraper feeling good about things. Transformers doesn’t offer that sense of security. Dozens of variant long-running continuities have inevitably played with this premise, at times, but this is at least the central reality of Transformers that I think of: no matter how far you go, or how hard you try, you’re still stuck in a world where cruelty and injustice have far too much power, and in this world you’re going to remain as long as you live.(3) You accept that and try to make what you can, under those circumstances, or you just don’t function at all.

I don’t want to make too much of this, and certainly don’t want to suggest “Transformers is better because it’s darrrrrk.” It’s hardly that, which is just fine. Fun is great, and by no means does good or even adult-appropriate have to mean “serious” and “dark.” I’m writing about the Transformers, here, after all.

But like most concepts, Transformers has some potential in it, and I believe that in this and other ways it has made enough of that potential that it offers enough, in addition to nostalgia, to address why it might, and for me, does, continue to evade the box of moved-on-from.

It is, of course, still a little bit childish and stupid. Not arguing that. But, having waded deep into  1980s pop culture, I might close by going Ferris Bueller one better…

“But so is real life.”

1) Transformers may have some advantage over competitors, I must note, in that it has spawned so many variant incarnations including not only reboots but big-time reimaginings, that some part of the whole almost has to be good. That said, I don’t think I’ve really done much picking and choosing, as my concept of Transformers is basically the original versions from the 1980s cartoon and comics, most of which were at least recognizably quite similar in contrast to what has followed since. I’ve never even seen Armada, or Beast Wars; I saw the last five minutes or so of Michael Bay’s first movie and that was more than enough of that. I’ve seen a handful of episodes of the relatively recent Transformers: Animated… but, then, it’s very much inspired by what we dorks call “G1.”

2) Ninja Turtles shares this failing, though in its case so thoroughly you hardly even notice. In theory, even in exile, his position as a warlord from Dimension X could have allowed the Turtles cartoon villain Krang to aspire toward Vader-league status alongside Megatron. In practice, though, the writers never made more of this than occasional hollow threats of mass invasion of Earth. Krang’s armies always remained not only bottled up but so far out of sight and mind that the show lacked any real element of a cosmic war, and would have worked much the same with solely terrestrial villains.

3) The only real way out being that you eventually die, and then things go right on without you, nothing really changed. Which, for fictional alien machines, doesn’t even represent much of a permanent exit. By contrast, I’m pretty certain that brain death will be a final, no-afterlife-or-reincarnation end for me… and yet, one or two cosmological theories suggest enough of a possibility of “oh god not again” that, while it doesn’t significantly shape my outlook on life, this further aspect of Transformers also has a bit of haunting resonance, too.

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