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Transformers: A Love Letter To A Personal Hero
When I saw the negative worldwide reaction to Michael Bay’s Transformers I thought, good! He’s put pretty much no effort into making these characters likable and doesn’t respect the source material, as much as a person can respect giant talking robots!
But what started upsetting me is the fans who were defending the film were basically saying that the films should be enjoyed because they were fun after all how intelligent can Transformers be? Well fellow transfans you’re wrong, hang on for a bumpy ride!
Now I want to make this article accessible for people who’ve know the history of Transformers as well as those who only know the live action films, so I’m going to walk you through the history of the franchise.
What are Transformers?
OK, simply put Transformers is a toy line that focuses on robots that change into weapons, machines and vehicles.
Believe it or not the Transformers started life in 1984 as a series of Japanese toys, called Diclone and Microman both of which were owned by Takara a Japanese toy corporation. American toy company Hasbro found out about the toyline and struck a deal with Takara, Hasbro would import and sell the toys in the United States under the name, Transformers.
OK, I’m going to be honest, the toys were not very good! In vehicle mode they didn’t look like scale models of real cars and planes instead they looked like toy cars and planes (there is a difference). The biggest problem is that the robots looked, well, ugly and not as highly detailed with personality on their faces as they would later look in the cartoons.
Some of the writers working for Marvel Comics at the time, in particular Bob Budiansky, were hired to write a backstory for these characters. Now most people know the back story but here it is anyway, once upon a time there was a planet named Cybertron full of Transformers, the good guys were the Autobots the bad guys were Decepticons. They started fighting over, something, energy in most versions of the story, they came to Earth they continued fighting here, yadda, yadda, yadda, most people know the rest…
The part where the story gets pretty interesting is that Hasbro went into partnership with Sunbow Productions and Marvel Productions to create an animated series. The animated series followed the backstory created by Marvel but made some modifications. Primarily the motives of the characters were changed and the plot was simplified a lot. The comic book also happened in the Marvel Universe with Spider-Man guest starring the cartoon happened in a self contained universe.
OK, I’m going to be honest, the cartoon was not good in fact everything that a cartoon can do wrong, Transformers did do wrong! First of all there were too many characters, unlike He-Man and the Masters of the Universe there was not a title character whose story could be followed from beginning to end, the closest we got were Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Megatron, Starscream and the human boy Spike. Characters would have special abilities when the writers didn’t know how to get them out of a problem. Continuity didn’t really matter. The laws of physics were thrown out the window. You name it they did it! To give you an idea just how truly terrible this idiotic story was, it was revealed that there were many unseen female Transformers and every Autobot had a girlfriend! Why a race of sexless robots would need gender is beyond me, how did they even have sex and where were the Transformer kids?
The cartoon began it’s run in 1984 and in 1986 it got worse when a feature length animated film was released, inventively named Transformers: The Movie, as stupid as the cartoon was it at least made a little sense, the plot of the film MADE NO SENSE, killed off almost every character and jumped nearly twenty years into the future! As idiotic as the cartoon had been up until that point it was at least entertaining, the show jumped the shark with the opening credits of the third season that followed the film in 1986!
But the truth was that the cartoon wasn’t made for the same crowd that watched Star Trek, it was made for little kids!
OK, I’m going to be honest, the comic, as published by Marvel Comics in North America was, not good! The stories were, comparative to the cartoon, very mature, but by and large they were pretty, well, stupid! The Autobots would fight an evil mechanic with a super powered wrench and an evil used car salesman (I’m not making this up)!
Now American comics are published monthly and British comics are published weekly and are mostly reprints of American stories. Every week half an American story would be printed followed by a back up story, either half and Ironman or G.I.Joe story. So eventually Marvel UK needed a British writer to write a few fill in Transformer stories and for that they turned to a young man named Simon Furman (life is a funny old game).
Simon took Transformers seriously, very seriously! When he wrote the stories, the first thing he did was make the characters logical and likeable, Optimus Prime was now a stately leader who wanted what was best for everyone wven though he had to make hard choices like ordering soldiers to their deaths. Grimlock, once the caveman like leader of the Dinobots now became an almost Klingon like warrior, who was a brilliant military leader and wanted to defeat the Decepticons but didn’t care much for humans.
Even the Decepticons improved, Megatron was no longer a cartoon baddie thinking up a wacky lunatic invention of the week he was now an evil genius, who was insane and feared and ultimately rejected by his own followers due to his mental instability. Starsctream continued his role from the cartoon as backstabber, Shockwave became a cold logical conspirator scheming against Megatron as much as Starscream and Soundwave was no longer the monotonous idiot he had been in the cartoon he now schemed not against his own leader but against his fellow soldiers so as to look good for his master. Scorpok was now an honourable warrior who had no intention of harming humans but would go to any lengths to win the war and Ravage was no longer a mute robot panther but a speaking character and master spy and saboteur.
Furman even invented an elaborate culture for the Transformers, they now had language, public holidays, an elaborate history and even martial arts. There were areas on their planet Cybertron that were considered ghost towns where the deactivated robots walked the streets. Transformers went to bars complete with graffiti on the walls and enjoyed an energy drink. The female Transformers no longer existed in his stories.
The best part of what Furman did was he used the inconsistencies of the film as a basis for his stories. Furman explained that the Transformer race and their homeworld Cybertron had been created by a god named Primus as his enemy Unicron (the latter introduced in the film with no backstory whatsoever) created a metal body for himself capable of transforming into a planet capable of destroying Cybertron. Primus had given his children the ability to transform into weapons, machines and vehicles to mimic Unicron’s ability and hence the reason they transformed was explained. Primus’ own soul had become the Autobot’s Matrix of Leadership which was passed from one Prime to the next from Generation to generation.
Thus under Furman’s writing Optimus Prime became like a warrior king and the Matrix of Leadership became a holy weapon that could only be used by a king like Excalibur. Megatron who tried to incite global genocide became like Hitler and when Megatron and Unicron became effectively the evil deity or harbinger of judgement day of the Transformer race.
Simon Furman was to the Transformer franchise what Stan Lee was to 1960s Marvel comics, he was the guy who came along and turned them from a joke into something very intelligent and impressive. Simon Furman is one of the reasons the 1980s rocked (no seriously British TV did a show called Why the ’80s Rocked and he was a part of it)!
The problem was that as far as the world was concerned Transformers was a stupid kids cartoon and toyline and among the Transformer fan community a small percentage was aware of the comic and among them only a small number of them were aware of the British comic. So Furman’s work was a niche, within a niche, within a niche!
But as far as I was concerned Simon Furman was a genius, the man had taken these ridiculous toy robots and made them into an exciting inventive story. In fact his stories were so good they were a lot better than the likes of Knight Rider or the A Team! His stories got me interested in science fiction; Simon Furman was a stepping stone to writers like Isaac Asimov and Philip K Dick! Simon Furman should never have written Transformers, he should have taken those same story ideas to the producers of television shows like Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek!
The franchise was eventually cancelled in the late ‘80s but in the early ‘90s it made a dramatic return. True to form the fanboys were up in arms when they learned that Transformers would no longer be weapons, machines or vehicles but rather transform into animals with an outer layer or Terminator like organic skin. The new show called Beast Wars actually used many of the ideas introduced by Simon Furman and even brought him on board as a writer. Most importantly Beast Wars, thanks to time travel, went into the events of the 1980s show, establishing it was a sequel!
Robots In Disguise/Armada/Energon
There’s always an exception that proves the rule. So far the toys had been designed by the Japanese and the cartoons made by the Americans. Now a new show was made called Robots In Disguise, animated by the Japanese based on toys created by American designers, it was shit. Several other reiterations of the franchise followed and the Transformers seemed to not want to go away! Now one of the sad facts of life is when a story is popular Hollywood comes knocking!
The Live Action Movies
Now as far as the world was concerned Transformers was a stupid kids cartoon and toyline and most of the world was unaware of the good work of Mr Furman! Steven Spielberg realised that a story about robots that could transform into weapons, machines and vehicles would make for an incredible action film. Now this article is not about the live action films, but suffice to say that the first was entertaining if not as stupid as the cartoon, the second was shockingly bad and the third that is soon to be released (at the time of this writing) has been slated across the board.
Very unfortunately the overwhelming majority of people in the world, through no fault of their own, are under the impression that these films are as bad as the cartoon and toyline they are based on. The truth is they are correct because the films have invented their own backstory and versions of the characters instead of taking little from the cartoon and toyline. But the stories of Simon Furman remain largely untouched!
As a result the film fans across the world are dismissing the entire franchise as nonsense believing that there is no logic or value to these stories. They don’t know how wrong they are. Unfortunately there seems to be no way to inform the mass public that Transformers was once an amazing storyline. But even if they did know the full story, would anyone really care?
TF Animated, TF Prime And Beyond
Following the first two films the franchise lives on, a new well written cartoon series named Transformers: Animated was made and a new one named Transformers: Prime is in the works! This is a franchise that works and doesn’t seem to want to go away!
When the first live action Transformers film was released a friend of mine won two tickets to the premiere in Leicester Square in London and decided to take me. There I got to meet Michael Bay and Megan Fox but they weren’t the ones who caught my eye, in the corner there was a middle aged man with a friendly smile on his face. I recognised him from photos I had seen, it was Simon Furman. I approached him and introduced myself and shook his hand and told him he was the reason I read books!
Though the world doesn’t know his name or his work and has dismissed his subject matter as nonsense, I see him as a personal hero, the day I met him was one of the best days of my life!