Welcome to a special edition of Adventure (s) Time, where I think back to the animated heroes of the past. This week, we think outside the box and take a look at some curiosities from the early days of Marvel’s relationship with Hasbro. Specifically, Marvel’s attempts to build a myth around Hasbro’s Transformers toy line.
The early origins of the Transformers can be traced back to the Japanese toy lines of the 1970s and 1980s Micro change and Diaclone. These were toy robots with the ability to transform into weapons, vehicles, or everyday household items. Hasbro licensed the toy molds, and conscious competitor Tonka was producing a rival transformation robot line called GoBots, saw the need to create a unique brand for its Transformers.
Hasbro turned to Marvel Comics, already a partner in their rejuvenated GI Joe line, to design a backstory for the characters. Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter has written a comprehensive treatment establishing the core concept of the franchise involving rival factions of robots – a noble and an infamous one – escaping their home planet and being stranded on Earth and have entrusted the development to editor Denny O’Neil. . (Shooter’s role in creating the early concepts of Transformers was largely unknown until he started writing about it on his blog in 2011.) Shooter was not happy with O ‘work. Neil, although O’Neil devised the heroic leader’s name “Optimus Prime.” Another editor, with far more experience in drawing than writing comics, has been tasked with beefing up the cast of Transformers. This was Bob Budiansky, who wrote the majority of Transformers problems and name most of the characters.
While this initial development may seem chaotic, the essentials remain to this day. The heroic Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, defend Earth from the ruthless Decepticons and their leader Megatron. The premise was spelled out in the early issues of the Marvel comics and was the basis for the first episodes of the animated series. (The cartoon was from Marvel Productions, the animation studio that shared owners with Marvel Comics.)
What many don’t know is that Marvel’s deal with Hasbro wasn’t limited to the monthly comics. A Marvel Books division was formed in 1982 to publish children’s books, coloring books, and sticker sets based on Marvel’s licensed properties. Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, during a time he was still professionally active but didn’t want to work on heroes in moral conflict, contributed several Transformers coloring books for this line, including “Bumblebee to the Rescue! ” and “The Deadly Fuel Shortage.”
Some of Marvel’s early commercial paperbacks also came from this imprint. The Transformers: The Story Begins … is a reprint of the first three Transformers comics, edited in a square-bound format with a sturdy cover, intended for a bookstore market. No one would think twice about such a product today, but it was a quirk back in 1985.
In addition to reprinting the comic for a new audience, Marvel Books also released Transformers soft cover story books; some reissues included either an audio cassette or a 45 rpm record of actors dramatizing the story. These have become collector’s items for die-hard Transformers fans.
One point of interest is that some featured painted works of art by renowned artists like Earl Norem. Norem won a devoted following due to his painted work depicting the Hulk for Marvel 1970s covers Hulk Unleashed magazine, and his art of merchandise for the Masters of the Universe from Mattel in the 1980s.
“Battle for Cybertron” presents Norem’s take on the origin of the Transformers, as written by Scott Siegel. The story is a simplified version of the first comic book and cartoon episodes, detailing the arrival of the Transformers on Earth and the first encounters with teenager Spike Witwicky and his mechanic father, Sparkplug. The climax, however, occurs at a nuclear power plant, oddly enough.
Other deviations from the standard Transformers lore include a name for the town of Witwicky (called Kimball here and only here), Autobots as tall as humans, “The Ark” cast as the Autobots’ computer in the instead of their ship (and giving it a distinct personality), and establishing that Starscream has dozens of Seeker brothers, instead of just two.
If for nothing else, Norem’s painted art makes the book worthy of even a casual Transformers fan’s attention. Norem went on to paint three more storybooks, including one of the final titles, “The Story of Wheelie, the Wild Boy from Quintesson”, which gives alternate origin to the characters introduced in 1986’s Transformers: The Movie.. Other notable installments include “Decepticon Hijack” and “Insecticon Attack!” featuring watercolors by artist John Speirs. “Decepticon Hijack” is actually the only appearance of the Transformer called Shooting Star, a spaceship that may have been redesigned as Autobot Cosmos in 1985.
Future installments of the storybooks also establish hundreds of Dinobots, Autobots who can also fly in their vehicle modes, Decepticons who desire oil but never mention Energon, Optimus Prime depicted with a mouth instead of a plaque buccal (years before Michael Bay’s first film) and characterizations that don’t match established personalities, such as the normally stoic Soundwave, shouting exclamations like “Oh, my God! “
Another curiosity about storybooks is their relationship with the cartoon Transformers series. The first books were likely produced before the show aired, so it’s understandable that the voice actors aren’t trying to match the cartoon’s voice cast.
However, as the books progress, there is a clear effort to mimic the popular voices from the cartoon, even putting an electronic vocal effect on the actor representing Soundwave. Still, as the actors look more like the cartoon, the visuals take a turn in the opposite direction.
Popular 1980s Transformers visuals often bear little resemblance to actual toys. Most of the cast were redesigned by artist Floro Dery, who was the cartoon’s design supervisor and Transformers: the movie. Even before Dery was assigned to the cartoon, Toys had already received animated models for the 1984 commercial series by Japanese artist Shōhei Kohara. These were streamlined for a daily cartoon budget by Dery, who then adapted more toys for animation and defined the look of the show.
Oddly, the latest storybooks ditch Floro Dery’s character models and revert the Transformers back to toy-based designs and specific blueprints copied directly from the illustrations on the toy packaging. So the result is a Megatron that looks a lot like Frank Welker, but looks like the alternate mode of the toy, with the pistol trigger pelvis and ultra-thin legs. These early toys were from Japan, of course, and weren’t designed with the idea of giving the vehicle’s alternate modes human personalities and anthropomorphized faces.
Ratchet and Ironhide also return to their weird toy models in these editions, literally losing the heads Dery gave them. Bumblebee, perhaps the toy that has undergone the most radical animation overhaul, looks like its animated model in the early books, but is described as the truly alien toy from 1984 with an expressionless face. It must have come as a shock to the kids who only knew the bumblebee with the childish face from the cartoon.
The RetroRobotRadio YouTube channel has archived many of these storybooks, including another series published only in the UK by Ladybird Books. It’s a strange time capsule from a time when the Transformers canon was still in flux.
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