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More Than Meets the Eye

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The Transformers comic began as a four-part series promoting a series of toys, but through 23 years and three publishers, the Robots in Disguise keep on rolling…

In 1983, Marvel Comics had played a major role in the successful re-launch of Hasbro’s G.I. Joe line. Around the same time, Hasbro acquired the North American license for two successful transforming toy lines by Japanese toymakers Takara. Intending to combine the Microman and Diaclone toys into one line called “The Transformers.” Hasbro approached Marvel about developing the cast of characters and backstory for the line. Marvel Editor-in-Chief, Jim Shooter, wrote an initial treatment and premise for the new line, establishing the concept of the war between two rival factions of transforming robots landing on Earth.

Hasbro approved Shooter’s pitch, which was then passed to editor Denny O’Neil for further development. For reasons that appear to have been lost in the mists of time, O’Neil either left the project, which then passed to writer/artist Bob Budiansky. As Budiansky fleshed out a cast of nearly 30 characters, work began on creating character models of the toys for the inevitable comic book and cartoon debut. Some debate still surrounds who was responsible for the models, although the consensus seems to be that an artist named Floro Dery is primarily responsible, and not a Marvel art team helmed by John Romita Sr. as was once believed.  

Marvel’s Transformers comic debuted in the summer of 1984, as a four-issue limited series. Budiansky was assigned as editor of the book, so he could use his intimate knowledge of the property to guide the efforts of writers Bill Mantlo, Ralph Macchio and Jim Salicrup, as well as artist Frank Springer. The bi-monthly series proved to be a hit (even featuring a guest-appearance by Marvel figurehead, Spider-Man), leading Marvel and Hasbro to agree that the title should continue as an ongoing series. Salicrup’s script to issue #4 was quickly re-written into a cliffhanger ending which saw the evil Decepticon Shockwave appear on the final page, destroying all of the heroic Autobots.

Even as Transformers was becoming a solid hit for Marvel in North America, the company was readying itself to launch the property in the UK. The UK Transformers series debuted as a bi-weekly book, each issue reprinting part of the American mini-series, with the bulk of the comic filled up with Machine Man reprints, as well as original comic strips and general interest robot articles. Transformers UK also proved to be a popular title and, as such, was also approved as an ongoing title. The interesting challenge for the UK title was how to handle the delay between its reprinting of the American #4 and the forthcoming #5.

Rather than place the book on hiatus, Marvel UK commissioned their own original Transformers stories, running from UK #9-21. Due to the cliffhanger ending in the American #4, the UK stories were essentially stand-alone tales, generally accepted to be outside of regular continuity. The first arc, “Man of Iron”, was later reprinted in the American series as a fill-in, while Marvel editor Simon Furman, a creator who would play a major role in the history of the Transformers, wrote the second UK arc. 

The return of the Transformers comic proved to be an initially chaotic undertaking. Obviously, Marvel recognized that a 4-issue series promoting a toy line needed to be handled differently than an ongoing comic story (albeit, still one promoting a toy). That being the case, Budiansky was relived of his editorial duties and named regular writer for the series. The subsequent issues proved to be strong sellers, introducing several new characters (all now available in toy stores) and establishing the groundwork for Transformers as an ongoing saga. Behind the scenes however, incompatibilities between Budiansky and new editor Jim Owsley created challenges, as did the inability to secure a regular artistic team. Finally, Owsley departed the title, replaced by Mike Carlin and the book gained a measure of stability.

Across the pond, Transformers UK resumed reprinting American material with issue #22. Marvel continued to adjust the format of the book, finally settling on a weekly comic with fewer non-Transformer back-ups. UK #29 marked a new status-quo for the book as it offered a new UK originated story by Furman, this time set firmly in continuity with the American comic (between American issues #8 and 9). With the American monthly series creating a steady body of material, Furman was able to regularly craft tales that not only fit with the existing American saga, but developed UK’s own ongoing plots and subplots. 

In 1986, the animated Transformers movie was released. The theatrical release advanced the timeline of the animated series to 2005, although Marvel US and Hasbro elected to keep the comic book rooted firmly in the modern day (although the movie was adapted in a 3-issue mini-series). Transformers UK handled the motion picture slightly differently, as Furman’s “Target 2006” (running UK issues #78-88, set between US #20 & 21) saw the “future” Transformers make their way to the past, resulting in a fondly-remembered teaming of two eras. Despite maintaining this independence, the comic did mirror some events of the movie, most obviously with the deaths of the rival leaders Optimus Prime (January 1987, #24) and Megatron (February 1987, #25). 

The inevitable crossover between Transformers and G.I. Joe (surprising enough called G.I. Joe and the Transformers) was a 4-issue mini-series that fit itself firmly into the US Transformers continuity. In the UK, (which had its own version of G.I. Joe, known as Action Force), Furman presented another story dealing with the time-traveling movie characters, and a new character called Death’s Head (who helped smooth over some continuity glitches created by omitting the G.I. Joe story). A short time later, Furman also penned a brief Transformers crossover with Action Force

As 1987 moved on, the nature of Transformers as a promotion for Hasbro became increasingly apparent. While Budiansky had generally been able to work in each addition to the toyline with reasonable success, he was able to convince Marvel and Hasbro to launch a 4-part limited series to introduce a new batch of characters called the Headmasters. The series provided Budiansky the opportunity to introduce the new characters in their own separate storyline (which was used as a backup feature in the UK), but it did create some bumps in the regular series. In an interesting reversal, the US issues #33 & 34 were reprints of UK material (the “Man of Iron” story). Respectively, issues #38 and #156 folded the mini-series plot and characters back into the one core titles.

By 1989, the popularity of Transformers as a whole had begun to fade. The toyline was losing steam, Budiansky’s enthusiasm was waning and the UK series began to cutback on original material. Issue #55 of the North American series was the final issue by Budiansky, but the announcement of his replacement – Simon Furman – was met with initial optimism by fans hoping for a tighter continuity between the two versions of the comic. On the American side of the comic, a lessened interest by Hasbro provided Furman with more of an opportunity to let the story be served by the characters, as opposed the need to highlight the latest toys. As sales began to stabilize, Furman started importing concepts from his UK run, just as members of the UK art team, most notably Andy Wildman, started taking up American assignments. The UK Transformers series, while using American reprints of Furman’s work, tended to lose their own strength, serving as epilogues, prologues or asides to the American title. By issue #289, the original material for the UK title was discontinued, and the series only reprinted the American book.

Despite the enthusiasm of hard-core Transformers fans, the pairing of Furman and Wildman did not appear able to sustain the market for the Transformer comic past 1990 when the toyline was discontinued. Furman built his complex story towards a climax in issue #75, which was to be the end of the series. The momentum created by this “final” arc, pitting the Transformers against the uber-villain of the motion picture, Unicron, bought the comic one final stay from cancellation. Furman resumed his long-term plans in issue #76, but the comic finally succumbed to cancellation due to low sales with issue #80 (the indica affectionately listed the comic as #80 of a four-issue limited series). Not long after, despite a slightly stronger cult-following in the UK, that Transformers series as well was cancelled, ending with #321 – reprinting the ending of the American #80.

Transformers made a brief return to Marvel Comics in 1994. As part of Hasbro’s ill-fated “Generation 2” line, Marvel agreed to a new series. Following a debut in Marvel’s G.I. Joe, the Transformers: Generation 2 leapt to their own title, once again penned by Simon Furman. As previously, the book found a small loyal core audience for the continuing adventures of the Autobots and Decepticons, but the comic was cancelled after only 12 issues. At the same time, Hasbro and Fleetway Comics launched a G2 series in the UK (Marvel’s UK branch had closed up by this point). The first two issues were original material (credited to Furman, although there is some debate if this is accurate), neither clearly in continuity with any of the previous American or British comics. Beginning with issue #3, the Fleetway series reprinted issues of the American G2 book, before being cancelled after issue #5.

In 1999, there were brief rumors that the Transformers comic book license had been awarded to a new company called Benchpress Comics. To the dismay of many Transformers fans, this series never materialized, with the company folding before even one issue was published.

The Transformers next returned to comics in 2002, at the height of the 1980s nostalgia craze. This time, Canadian publisher Dreamwave Studios was awarded the license. Written by Chris Sarracini and featuring art by Dreamwave Vice-Chairman Pat Lee; the first issue of the new 6-issue limited series proved to be a success, giving Dreamwave a #1 selling title. The series, featuring the original Generation 1 Transformers, was not set firmly in any previously established continuity, but remained a strong seller for Dreamwave (despite facing several shipping delays). 

A new mini-series appeared in 2003, this time written by Brad Mick (also known as James McDonough). Around the same time, Dreamwave expanded their Transformers line with Transformers: Armada (based on the most recent Hasbro toyline, and later re-titled as Energon), The War Within (a prequel series, scripted by none other than Simon Furman) and a pair of out-of-continuity crossovers with Devil’s Due Publishing’s G.I. Joe (Devil’s Due produced one series, combining the histories of Transformers and G.I. Joe, while Dreamwave’s recast both lines in a World War II setting). 

Dreamwave’s time with the Transformers license was a tumultuous one as there was great demand for new Transformers stories, but through both internal and external factors, the company seemed unable to deliver the books with much regularity. By late 2004, rumours were circulating that Dreamwave was on the verge of collapse (suspicions supported by claims of non-payment by many Dreamwave staffers). Dreamwave officially shutdown in January 2005, abruptly ending their ongoing Transformers series with issue #10, Energon with #30 and a third War Within mini-series with #3.

Most recently, IDW Publishing has taken up the Transformers license, beginning with a one-shot preview book in October 2005. January 2006 saw the launch of Transformers: Infiltration, a new ongoing series written by Simon Furman. Previously speaking with Broken Frontier, Furman described the new series as an “update, to give it modern day sensibilities and style… keeping the essential core story elements but looking at it very much in the here and now, with human characters you could actually believe in/relate to.” As the year rolls on, IDW plans to expand their Transformers line to include another incarnation of the Transformers toyline – Beast Wars – and Evolution, an out-of-continuity series comparable to DC’s Elseworlds or Marvel’s What If.

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