Jul 18, 2011

Back Issue Ben: Gateway Comics: TRANSFORMERS

Back Issue Ben is a column written by Ben Smith for the Comics Cube! See his archives here.


Gateway Comics: TRANSFORMERS
by Ben Smith

This is all my dad's fault. To be more specific, this lifelong love I have for comic books is his fault, as he was the one that gave me my very first comic book, TRANSFORMERS #13.

Like most kids my age in the mid-80s, I was a rabid fan of the Transformers cartoon and toys. Knowing this, I can only assume my dad had seen the comic on a rack somewhere and decided to get it for me. The funny thing about that issue is that it only features one Transformer, Megatron, and he's mostly incapacitated in gun mode for the entire issue, as a human thug uses him to achieve fame and fortune. Yet, I was hooked, and wanted more. I eventually found out there was an entire store devoted to selling not only new comic books, but back issues as well. I would spend most of the next 6-7 years of my life in that store. I proudly remember the day I got that final issue to complete my collection of Transformers (up to that date).

(My dad would later go on to tell me about his expansive comic collection as a kid in the 60s, which included all the early Marvel stuff. My grandmother threw them all away when he went off to college, and she never heard the end of it from me).

The Transformers started as several different toy lines by Takara in Tokyo. Hasbro bought the rights to distribute the toys in North America, but wanted to unite all the lines under one banner. After the success of the G.I. Joe comic series, they turned to Marvel Comics for a backstory. Jim Shooter and Denny O'Neal came up with the story, while editor Bob Budiansky created most of the names and personalities (I believe it was Denny O'Neal that came up with the name Optimus Prime). Thus, the Takara toy line of cars turned into the heroic Autobots, while the line of guns and planes became the evil Decepticons. Locked in an age-old civil war on their home planet of Cybertron, a group of Autobots and Decepticons crash-landed on Earth 4 million years ago, but are revived in modern day 1984 with the ability to transform their robot bodies into the shapes of Earth vehicles and appliances.

I knew that the original Transformers series had been published by Marvel, but I never knew how instrumental they were in coming up with the overall storyline and the actual names of all the characters until several years ago. Marvel's influence over my young life was far more far-reaching than I realized.

The Transformers was originally supposed to be a four-issue mini-series published by Marvel, but was so successful it ended up continuing on, eventually ending at issue #80. Not a bad run for a "toy comic". The series was a little bit darker and more violent than the cartoon series, which immediately appealed to me as a young boy.

The initial two issues introduce the Transformers characters, the backstory of their conflict, and depict the circumstances that lead them to Earth in 1984. The Decepticons seek to plunder the Earth of it's natural resources for fuel, with the Autobots determined to stop them. Caught in the middle are high school student Buster Witwicky, and his father Sparkplug, a car mechanic. Most of the broad details of the comics are the same as the cartoon here in the beginning, with Buster serving as the human lead instead of Spike in the cartoon. Another notable difference is that while the Autobots were embraced by the human population practically from the beginning in the cartoon, that is not true of the comic.

Issue #3 in particular would go on to be a very important comic for me for different reasons, but I'll get into that later.

The fourth issue is where the action really takes off, with a brutal final battle between the Autobots and Decepticons. The Decepticons, after kidnapping Sparkplug and forcing him to convert Earth energy into fuel for them, appear to be at full-strength, while the Autobots only have a small rag-tag group of warriors left to oppose them. The battle is graphic and fierce (as far as robot battles go). Panels of mangled robots missing limbs were frequent. Just when it looks like the Autobots have won, Decepticon Shockwave appears from above and blasts them to pieces.

Issue #5 has one of the more legendary covers of the series, and would open with a scene I would remember for the rest of my life. Shockwave familiarizes himself with human culture through the use of TV feeds, then as he moves through the Autobots home-base the Ark, a double-page splash depicts the lifeless and mangled bodies of the Autobots hanging from the ceiling. After Buster sneaks into the base for intel, the issue ends on an unforgettable cliffhanger, with a shot of Optimus Prime's head detached from his body and hooked up to equipment. Mind. Blown.

The next several issues would deal with Shockwave having declared himself leader of the Decepticons, and Megatron's struggle to regain control. Autobot doctor/ambulance Ratchet is the sole remaining Autobot, and must overcome his lack of combat skills to rescue his friends and defeat the Decepticons. Buster struggles with newly-acquired psychic powers, as the result of Optimus transferring the Creation Matrix to him for safe-keeping. Ratchet frantically searches for a group of Autobot warriors named the Dinobots, that went missing on Earth millions of years ago.

The series would continue on from there, killing and resurrecting characters seemingly at random, and exploring unconventional ideas like Dinobot leader Grimlock and Blaster vying for command of the Autobots following Optimus Prime's "death". There were stark differences from the cartoon series, with some characters depicted completely differently. Thankfully, they avoided the mistakes the cartoon series made by flash-forwarding to the then future year of 2005 and replacing all the characters. It was a well-done and entertaining series, and remains a favorite of mine to this very day.

The Transformers was my "gateway" into the world of comic books. Not only did I learn about the medium from that series, but I learned of comic book stores, new comic book day, and what a mylar bag is. It truly achieved its gateway status for me with the aforementioned issue #3, which guest-starred a well-known Marvel super-hero character. A character that, after I moved on from Transformers, I decided would be a good place to start exploring other comic book titles. A little character named Spider-Man.

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