Megatron, as Futurist

A Mastodon thread considering the origin of the Transformers’ civil war, and comparing it with contemporary Anglo-American division, has been all kinds of fascinating fun.

My first response was that “the origin of the Cybertronian wars” presents a complicated premise for comment, because writers have told many different stories of that origin, over the decades. I can think of at least a handful, without even counting a 2010 novel apparently published as “the official history.” Given this, I thought it worth going back to the beginning, i.e. Issue One of Marvel’s comic book, probably the first published account of the war’s origin.

I haven’t actually read this issue many times, and probably not in years, so a close read of the opening pages was actually quite interesting in this context. In the original account of how Transformers’ civil war began, Megatron and the Decepticons seem motivated by something quite a lot like Futurism.

Contrary to many later accounts, the Decepticons did not have anything like legitimate grievances from a liberal perspective. But they weren’t quite one-dimensional bad guys greedy for power, either.

According to the omniscient narrator, antebellum Cybertron was a paradise; “each Autobot went about his pursuits in peace and prosperity.” Some readers could and no doubt have latched onto the words “each Autobot,” and find a basis for later versions which described a paradise for Autobots, at the expense of Decepticons exploited in some way. But the original intent was clearly that “the Autobots” referred to the species. The malcontents who essentially seceded from and declared war on the larger population did not do so because paradise excluded them, but because it offended them.

Paradise, as addressed by Megatron, was a dead-end civilization; a society without want or struggle was very logically static, and stagnant.

I like how this design of Megatron’s face is ever so faintly reminiscent of Gaddafi in his big aviator sunglasses

The Decepticons’ reaction was still not exactly compatible with any liberal notion of “the greater good,” e.g. seeing war as a necessary evil to toughen up the race, to meet inevitable challenges more effectively than a contented paradise might. The Decepticons glorify war, and aspire toward bringing it to the rest of the universe. Thus Futurism comes to mind as a human parallel.

But, “say what you will about the tenets of [Megatron’s Futurism], at least it’s an ethos.” This wasn’t only greed for wealth or power. Nor was it the ennui of Kang, another comic book warlord whose career began in reaction to a contented paradise, but whose original comments in Fantastic Four #19 included no intellectual criticism of any kind, just a wholly self-centered and indulgent moan that “I’m so borrrrrrrrred! [So, rather than starting shit with my own society, I will take a time machine back to an age when war was a constant and I can just join in.]”

The original Megatron was a monster, but a surprisingly interesting monster, for a 1980s comic book written to promote a toy line for children.

I also find it interesting that this changed, over time, to motivations involving some experience of wrong or unfairness. This is an important theme in fiction, part of a lot of great stories, yet I feel like the urge to explain villainy can get carried away.

This model obviously appeals to people, including the original poster on Mastodon. For my part, as I have written, I have with the years grown suspicious of morality plays. There’s important value in self-critique, but I also think that a lot of contemporary liberalism get carried away with explaining all human evils that way. From leftists’ embrace of bullshit claims that NATO forced Putin to launch a genocidal war in response to valid “security concerns,” to centrist fixation on “understanding” why a large minority is completely intolerant (rather than ever understanding that it is completely intolerant), evil is rarely really considered as having values different from liberalism’s. I’m reminded of an essay about Phyllis Schlafly, which noted a liberal tendency to conceive of rightwing women as “failed feminists,” and to assume that they want basically the same things as liberals.

The original origin for the Transformers’ war refuted such belief as the explanation for all evil. The narration remarks that “every paradise has its serpent…” Megatron, by his own account, has a very genuine and real value system which is however very different from his society’s mainstream, and which the mainstream value system cannot accommodate or appease. You can call that evil, or not; I’m of the opinion that there isn’t a practical difference.

Likewise, I’m of the opinion that a critical portion, at least, of Republicans are by no means simply “failed progressives,” who want basically the same things as e.g. the attendees as a typical Pride festival, and have simply fallen into error. Lots of them believe lots of things which I would call objectively false. But aside from the complete impracticality of persuading them of that, I also think that a significant number of people genuinely want and value an oppressive caste society. The fundamental conflict with liberal values won’t be resolved by telling them that they’re being exploited by the rich for divide and rule (progressives have been trying to persuade the working class of that for a long time), nor even by delivering cheaper housing, and healthcare, and a shorter work week, etc.

I don’t by any means think that fundamentally incompatible values are the whole story of contemporary social division. But I think that they are a part of the story, which too much of the center-left spectrum just won’t see.

In that regard, it is indeed interesting to look back four decades to the first draft of how the Transformers’ war began, and consider how and why revisionist stories have (afaik) overwhelmingly preferred other explanations.

Good grief, I thought this post would be much more about Transformers #1 as an artifact and my history with it, but the philosophical “opening” ran really long. Maybe another time. Credit to Bill Mantlo and Ralph Macchio (not the Karate Kid) for writing the issue.

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