Launch issues

Before Tuesday, 8th of May 1984 there was nothing. And then, with one almighty marketing department thunderclap, Transformers (US) issue 1 came into existence! It was the very first Transformers-branded product ever released. It was the Big Bang of the Transformers Universe.

In 1983, a comic book publisher called Marvel was tasked by toy-makers, Hasbro, to create a backstory for all the Transformers toys/characters they were about to release and to try to give a good reason for the existence of an alien race of robots that could transform themselves into Earth-based jets, cars, guns and tape players, and to make their adventures exciting enough that kids across the world would buy them.

That first American Transformers comic book was, it is widely accepted, the first piece of Transformers fiction/merchandise ever distributed, pre-dating the television series and any related books, stationery sets and jigsaws. It was the world’s first exposure to the likes of Optimus Prime, Megatron, Ratchet, Starscream. And, of course, Huffer.

It wasn’t until early 1987 until I managed to read the Transformers’ first adventure when it was reprinted by Marvel UK in their two hardcover The Complete Works books. Being used to the likes of the “Dinobot Hunt”, “Second Generation” and “Target: 2006”, reading this very first Transformers story was a completely alien experience. I imagine anyone getting into Transformers via the Michael Bay movies or IDW’s current series will likely have the same feelings.

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Issue 1 – “The Transformers”

Written by Ralph Macchio (based on a plot by Bill Mantlo), illustrated by Frank Springer with inks by Kim DeMulder and colours by Nelson Yomtov and letters by Michael Higgins and Rick Parker. 25 pages. Originally published in Transformers (US) 1, May 1984.

Within its 25 pages, “The Transformers” covers an epic amount of story; many millions of years and several light years. It introduces over 30 named characters and inundates the reader with new concept after new concept after new concept. Even for a comic book published in the 1980s, the narration is dense. Its language is stiff and functional, more like a historical documentary than a story. The characters, too, are formal and frigid. Despite three entire pages of laborious roll-call introductions, there isn’t much in the way of personality to speak of. (Wheeljack and Brawn are so far the warmest of the Autobots.)

The plot itself is contrived to get its characters (trademarked products) to where they need to be (target market, boys aged 8 to 12) before any kind of story can start. There are all sorts of clumsy convolutions that take the action from an ancient alien planet to (then) present-day Earth. For example, Cybertron, the Transformers’ homeworld, somehow breaks free from its orbit around Alpha Centauri (perhaps not as farfetched as you might think: Rogue Planets are considered a common phenomenon) to enable it to plummet head long into the path of the asteroid field that’s near Earth. There’s also the conceit that, because Transformers are mechanical in nature, anything organic is ignored, so that they can be rebuilt to change into cars. Oh yeah, and the big computer that does all this conveniently forgets who is a Decepticon and who is an Autobot. They guys in Hasbro’s marketing department sure did think of everything.

Saying all that, to breathe life into characters based on robot toys, and to paint such a detailed and rich backstory is a feat in itself and not to be taken lightly.

This issue looks like it was illustrated before the character models for the Transformers were finalised. The result being that almost everyone portrayed is inconsistent and, often, unrecognisable. It’s comparable to a toy catalogue filled with bad photos of unfinished prototypes that’s been rushed out to make a deadline.

This is the ultimate irony for a comic book commissioned to showcase a brand new range of toys.

Somehow, though, despite how messy and rough this first Transformers story is, it does come together (especially when read along with the remaining three issues of this four-issue mini-series) to form a legendary and memorable introduction to the 30 year long (and counting) saga of the Transformers.

While not a perfect story by any means, “The Transformers” is a piece of history, a museum curiosity. Everyone with even a passing interest in Transformers is encouraged to make a pilgrimage to this issue at least once in their life.

Issue 2 – “Power Play”

Written by Jim Salicrup (based on a plot by Bill Mantlo), illustrated by Frank Springer with inks by Kim DeMulder and colours by Nelson Yomtov and letters by Janice Chiang. 23 pages. Originally published in Transformers (US) 2, July 1984.

Jim Salicrup takes over script writing duties for “Power Play” and gives us a more grounded plot than last issue. Less epic, but no less dramatic. The set up is simple. Much like humans stranded on a desert island, the Autobots and Decepticons now stranded on Earth are looking for the two most important things for survival: food (well, fuel) and shelter. The more straightforward plot leaves plenty of space to get to know the cast a little better.

Each Autobot and Decepticon gets his moment, and this issue it’s done a little less clumsily. It also looks like the character model sheets have been finalised as artist Frank Springer has a much, much better grasp of what everyone’s supposed to look like now.

The differences between Autobot and Decepticon are nicely highlighted this issue, with their approach to getting their hands on the fuel they need. Needless to say, the ‘Cons are looking to just take what they want. Saying that, things aren’t quite as black and white; Mirage, of the Autobots, stands out as a dissenting voice.

With the goals of each faction clear, the issue doesn’t waste its time getting to the action. One thing to notice is that, despite the violence of their attacks, the Decepticons are very good at avoiding too much collateral damage. I think last issue mentioned something about the “pinpoint accuracy” of their attacks.

“Power Play” ends on a remarkably desolate note: Sparkplug is abducted by the Decepticons and the Autobots are too fuel-starved to do anything about it. I think it is this cliffhanger ending that really provides the ignition of the series. Last issue was the history lesson, but this issue gets to the heart of the concept and gives a compelling story that hooks its readers.

There are a few nice touches of character: Mirage’s longing to return home is so strong that he even tries to reason with a Decepticon, the two Autobot “brothers” Sunstreaker and Sideswipe actually relish battle, and Starscream wastes no time in undermining Megatron at every opportunity.

This second Transformers story actually works better as an introductory issue than “The Transformers” did. It hits the ground running, it paints its characters and its plot well, and it provides enough exposition to keep new readers informed. Last issue was a mere prologue; “Power Play” is the real start of the Transformers’ story on Earth.

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Issue 3 – “Prisoner of War”

Written by Jim Salicrup, illustrated by Frank Springer with inks by Kim DeMulder and Mike Esposito and colours by Nelson Yomtov and letters by Janice Chiang. 23 pages. Originally published in Transformers (US) 3, October 1984.

Sometimes an action/adventure comic book featuring awesome shape-shifting robots from another planet just doesn’t contain enough excitement for the average comic book reader. Sometimes you need a one-issue guest-star to add to the mix.

I’m going to gloss over all the Spider-Man stuff. That’s because Marvel wants you to forget he ever even appeared in Transformers. He was never there. It. Didn’t. Happen.

After last issue’s cliffhanger, the action moves to the Decepticons’ base of operations on Earth with their leader, Megatron, torturing a car mechanic so that he can convert diesel into Transformer fuel. Imagine doing that. Imagine being Sparkplug Witwicky and knowing how to convert fossil fuels into whatever it is that Autobots and Decepticons run on. (You can’t say “Energon” yet, no one’s come up with that word at this point.)

Sparkplug comes up with a wonderful analogy here. “They’re like modern men trying to hack it back in caveman days!” he thinks to himself. I think this nicely sums up the basic premise of the Transformers story. The Autobots and Decepticons, I imagine, are incomprehensibly advanced. They’ve existed for millions of years, bestowed upon themselves numerous technological advancements (in the name of war, sadly), and are indeed a space-faring race. And yet, they’ve never heard of organic life before and now find themselves stranded on a world teeming with it.

In short, the Transformers, advanced as they are, are stranded and desperate. This makes for a much more compelling story. Being published in 1984, this story pre-dates any notion of a “Spark” that in most cases seems to power a Transformer indefinitely until it is extinguished. I personally prefer the drama and desperation portrayed here.

Not to mention that it is the Autobots’ main human ally’s father who is providing the means to refuel the Decepticons!

At this point, it seems like all is lost for the Autobots. And yet they battle on to rescue Sparkplug and thwart the Decepticons. Good for them, I say! Proper heroes, all of them. One particular Autobot, Gears, gets the spotlight this issue. He’s a bit grumpy and a bit of an underdog, too. He also has an adorable (but limited) ability to fly that makes a “sput-sput” sound as it runs out of power.

Artist Frank Springer provides an arresting panel that depicts the media, hungry for propaganda, oblivious to the actions of the real enemy. I wonder if this image was at all requested by the script or it came entirely from Frank. While this picture is from a toy-based comic published in 1984, it’s a powerful image that resonates even today.

Transformers: encouraging a distrust of mainstream media AND seemingly harmless tape players and cassettes.

As with last issue, a lot of the Transformers get a few nice moments. There’s a nice scene between Brawn and Rumble and Frenzy that highlights the brother-like relationship between the two Decepticons.

Another nice, bubbling subplot is the growing tension between Megatron and Starscream. The best villains have a constant thorn in their side, but the subversive way Starscream tries to belittle his leader is a great touch.

Of course it is the Autobot, Gears (with help from that spider guy) who saves the day. This mighty Marvel team-up, complete with sparkling repartee, takes on Ravage, Soundwave, and even Megatron! Oh, it’s a shame that Spider-Man couldn’t have stayed around for longer than this one issue. But, reasons.

The script and artwork, as per last issue, continue to provide a clear and well paced story filled with drama and characterisation.

By the end of the issue Buster and his father are reunited, but this moment is soured by the revelation that Megatron succeeded in getting the fuel conversion process he craved. It’s another brilliant cliffhanger and, worse than last issue, it’s a brutal (perceived) betrayal.

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Issue 4 – “The Last Stand”

Written by Jim Salicrup, illustrated by Frank Springer with inks by Ian Aikin and Brian Garvey  and colours by Nelson Yomtov and letters by John Workman. 22 pages. Originally published in Transformers (US) 4, December 1984.

“The Last Stand” is where the introduction to the Transformers’ arrival on Earth really comes together and, thanks to a thickening subplot, paves the way for the next year of storylines. It is a vast improvement over the first quarter of this four-part mini-series.

Aptly named, this issue features the stranded Autobots’ desperate gambit to defeat the Decepticons once and for all. The odds are stacked against them and the stakes are high. It’s easy to forget how tense and exciting this issue actually is.

There is one particular sequence that shows a freshly refuelled Megatron allowing the US Army to come at him. The arrogance and superiority of the Decepticon Leader instantly makes him a wonderful villain in my opinion.

By the time of “The Last Stand” artist Frank Springer really has a hold of the Transformers’ character designs. His work in this issue is a world apart from the first one. The climactic battle scene is handled wonderfully with plenty of energy. It’s brutal, too. At least every single Autobot gets an arm bitten and/or blown off!

And just when you think the Autobots have grabbed a last minute victory along comes Shockwave in one of the series’ all-time, most heart-arresting cliffhangers. When this story was first published in America, readers had to wait an agonising 12 weeks for the continuation!

These first four stories are, to me, the definitive start of the Transformers saga and “The Last Stand” does all it can to provide both a satisfying conclusion and a taste of what is yet to come.

Now some 34 years old, this original Transformers mini-series and the chapters they contain might be considered primitive and clumsy by modern standards. Yes, the first part is a mess and hard going but once it gets the history lesson out of the way there’s a good and dramatic story to be found with heroes to love and villains to love-to-hate in a situation that tests the mettle of all concerned.

May your luster never dull, and your wires never cross!

–Graham (@grhmthmsn)

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