Toys R Us, Part 4: More Than Meets the Eye -

Comic Book Retrospective

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Toys R Us, Part 4: More Than Meets the Eye

CINESCAPE concludes its look at the most successful comic tie-ins of the '80s with everyone's favorite transforming robots

By Tony Whitt     May 08, 2002

These robots look like they're losing their heads (sorry) over the prospect of another Transformers series, HEADMASTERS.
© Marvel Characters Inc.
It's somehow entirely fitting that the two mack daddies of 1980s pop culture, G.I. JOE and THE TRANSFORMERS, have been brought back to the comics page within months of each other, given that the two series were tied together long before their successful Marvel Comics and Sunbow Productions incarnations. The history between these toy lines goes all the way back to 1971, when Japanese toy company Takara first marketed the G.I. Joe line under the name "Combat Joe." Not long after that, the company used the Joe molds to create Henshin Cyborg - literally "transforming cyborg" - a series of 12 inch figures with translucent bodies that could be "transformed" by adding various accessories and costumes to their robotic forms.

Optimus Prime went nuts in TRANSFORMERS #12, but he got better.

Much like Joe's history, a comprehensive history about this fascinating toy line would take far too long to go into here, so we'll skip ahead to 1974, when Takara decided to issue a scaled-down version of the Henshin Cyborgs in a line called Microman Zone. (It's the later mutation of this line that would eventually be marketed in this country by Mego as the Micronauts - the earliest Microman figures correspond to the Time Traveler figures in the Micronauts line, for those of you who are interested.) By 1980, Takara had created the New Microman line as the toy market shifted to become more science fiction-oriented. The New Microman line became more and more robot-focused, and soon a line called Micro Change emerged that boasted robots that could turn into cars, planes, and household objects such as cassette tapes, watches, and guns. This line was eventually retooled and repackaged to become the original Japanese version of - you guessed it - the Transformers.

The Transformers debuted in their very own Marvel Comics title in 1984.

Hasbro obtained the license for this line, and soon the Transformers were making their first appearance in the US toy market in 1984. Eager to follow up on the success they'd had with the G.I. JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO line as a result of their partnership with Marvel, Hasbro created a similar deal for a comic book tie-in and a television series. The weekly cartoon series and a four-part limited series appeared almost simultaneously in September of that year. The success of the first three issues was so overwhelming that Marvel immediately decided to pick up regular publication of the title. TRANSFORMERS would run from September 1984 until July 1991 for a total of eighty issues.

The historic union of the two big '80s toy giants concluded in G.I. JOE AND THE TRANSFORMERS #4.

The comic's original four-part storyline, initially written by Bill Mantlo of MICRONAUTS fame and then taken up by Jim Salicrup, immediately diverged from the television series in such a way that only the most tenuous links could be established between the two continuities. In both versions, the Autobots and Decepticons are rival factions fighting for leadership of the planet Cybertron, a world where machine life dominates instead of animal life. The Autobots left the planet, their ship was boarded by Decepticons, and they crash-landed on Earth four million years ago. They remained dormant until 1984, when a volcanic eruption revived their drones. The drones searched the planet for templates upon which they could redesign the Transformers to survive in their new environment, found various Earth vehicles and other objects, and restructured both Autobots and Decepticons - not knowing they had based these templates on non-living machines unlike the Transformers themselves.

A short-lived revival dubbed TRANSFORMERS: GENERATION 2 didn't last as long as the first incarnation of the series.

From here on out, everything is different. Even the reasons given for the Autobots leaving Cybertron differ from the comic to the television series - in the former, an asteroid field threatens the planet, and the Autobots are attacked by the Decepticons when they try to intervene; in the latter, the Autobots leave to find new sources of energy and are attacked by the Decepticons in an asteroid field. But that's only the beginning of the many variations between the two series. Perhaps because of this discontinuity, an animated commercial would never be produced for the comic series as it had for G.I. JOE. Not that it seemed to matter - sales on both the comic and the toy line were doing just fine without them.

Sunbow's animated series also did not include any of the Marvel Universe's superpowered beings, but the comic series jumped right in with both feet - no less than Spider-Man himself, wearing the black alien costume which would soon cause continuity problems all its own, appeared in the third issue of the original miniseries. But while TRANSFORMERS didn't avoid interaction with the Marvel Universe entirely, it didn't require nearly the amount of interaction that series like MICRONAUTS did. The series' internal continuity was active enough as it was, changing in order to mirror the ever-expanding Hasbro toy line. Every time the toy line introduced a new gimmick, whether it be Headmasters (behave) or what have you, the comic included it, even if the television series did not.

Is this the end of the Transformers? Yeah, right.

By 1986, the television series had grown popular enough that it spawned a surprisingly well-animated feature film, featuring the voice talents of Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Stack, and Orson Welles in what may have been his last film role. Marvel came out with a four-part miniseries adaptation which somehow managed to combine the continuity of the film and that of the preceding comics series - easy enough at that point, since the film took place in 2015. Soon the comic series began adding plot elements from the movie into its current continuity, making the gulf between the TV and comic series wider than before. The TV series finally ended in 1987, while the comic series branched off into TRANSFORMERS DIGEST published from January 1987 to May 1988. A four-part HEADMASTERS miniseries appeared that same year.

Eventually, in 1990, Hasbro released the most controversial variant of the Transformers, the Action Masters, a group of robots who did not transform. This marked the end of what would later be referred to as "Transformers: Generation 1;" The comic series ended soon after. But Hasbro, determined not to give up on the franchise, introduced "Transformers: Generation 2," a mixture of new toys and repaints of the originals. Marvel followed suit with the TRANSFORMERS: GENERATION 2 comic, which ran for twelve issues, even while the television series was repackaged and re-aired with annoying computer graphic overlays. Both ended in 1995.

We probably wouldn't be reading Dreamwave's latest version of the comic, interestingly named TRANSFORMERS: GENERATION 1, were it not for Kenner's TRANSFORMERS: BEAST WARS line of toys and the resulting CGI series BEAST WARS and BEAST MACHINES, which kept the transforming robots in the public eye. But it's the original 1980s incarnation of the comic that Dreamwave has returned to - which, for most of us reared in that decade, is the only version that counts.

Special thanks to Ray Blakey, David Thornton, BBC1's h2g2, Stanley Lui, Ron Pringle, William G. Jones, Lee K. Seitz, Christopher DeLisle, CybertOOn, Corey Stinson, Conor Malone, and Ryan Kowalchuk for their help in compiling this article.


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