The year 1984 is a special one for Transformers fans, because it was the year that saw the birth of the toy line that we hold so dear to our hearts. Transformers was a runaway hit from day one, and the line launched with a blitz that included both toys and comic books. It was the cartoon, though, that brought it from "popular toyline" to "cultural phenomenon". It brought kids the world over together, made them forget about the Thundercats, He-Man or G.I. Joe figures they'd been playing with the day before and sent all of them running out of their homes desperately searching for Transformers toys. Or at least, that's what I'm lead to believe -- Transformers and I were born in the same year, so I was still in a crib while the franchise was running away with hearts and minds.
Lots of you asked Santa for these...
Because of my age, my journey into being a Transformers fan started later than most. I watched the show as a toddler and I got my first toy the day before my fourth birthday -- in other words, in 1988. And so by the time I had started paying attention, the world of Transformers was a very different place than it had been in the franchise's youth. The cartoon had ended but reruns were plentiful, and I saw Rodimus Prime duke it out with Galvatron most days. Optimus and Megatron were familiar to me from the Movie, a lot of secondary media (sticker books, video rentals, etc.) but rarely made it to TV for the first few years I watched. And when I got into the comics a couple years later, I found Powermaster Optimus Prime and Scorponok leading their respective bands of Headmasters, Targetmasters and Pretenders. A short while after that, they were shuffled out in favour of Grimlock and Bludgeon.
As a child, none of that seemed weird to me. In fact, the varied and ever-changing cast of the Transformers media I consumed was what kept my attention, what kept me captivated for so long when things like Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers had caught the eye of most of my classmates. Transformers wasn't like those shows -- it wasn't about the same four or six heroes fighting against the same four or six bad guys every episode with the occasional villain of the week to spice things up. It was a war story, characters died and new ones came along to take their place. And even when Beast Wars came along, in spite of the show's limited cast it still managed to create the same feelings in me -- familiar characters went away, new ones jointed the gang and existing ones changed a lot over the course of the show.
...but some of us were hoping for these.
Because of that, I grew into adulthood thinking that's what Transformers was about. So imagine my surprise when I got a home internet connection in 2002, searched for Transformers websites and ran into a collective fandom that practically shouted at me that I was wrong -- that the first two years of the cartoon were all that mattered.
The first year of Transformers (in particular, the first season of the cartoon) had become the apex of the franchise in so many fans' minds that, for better or worse, it is Transformers to a lot of them. The second season, dating from 1985, doesn't see the same kind of devotion but still got painted very heavily with the nostalgia brush and was generally beloved. After that, things dropped off the map very quickly in the fandom's collective consciousness. A lot of people accepted the 1986 movie as "real" too, but season three seemed to be a huge dividing line -- to a lot of people that was where Transformers "ended" because that was when they gave up on it as a child. The stuff that came after? It might as well not even exist. So not only did many fans of the original series more-or-less ignore the many iterations that followed, they also write off huge swaths of G1 as "that other stuff" and treated it like it didn't really count.
Grimlock in the corner box? Prowl and
Bludgeon on the cover? Normal to me.
I was baffled by this, just utterly baffled. Hadn't these people seen what I'd seen? Didn't they know there was so much more to the franchise than that? I grappled with those thoughts for a while before I came to a simple but painful realization: they hadn't seen and they didn't know. I'd always assumed that most fans were more or less my age, give or take a few years. But many fans -- at the time, probably the vast majority of them -- were a lot older than that. Many of them had been eight, ten, even twelve years old when the series debuted. Transformers was the bedrock of my childhood, the foundation that everything else built upon and had to live up to. But for the older fans it was something different -- it was the capstone to their boyhood, the grand finale before hormones dragged them inexorably into their teen years and eventually adulthood. Transformers had been a constant throughout my whole childhood, but for the older fans it represented a single snapshot in time -- something they loved for a year or two before outgrowing.
Of course, those older fans would have found out a lot about the later years' toys and fiction once they joined the online fandom. But knowing and caring are two different things, and many of them simply wouldn't have formed any emotional attachments to the characters and stories that are so alien to what they grew up with.
But what does that mean
, really? Well, a few things. Because we were on the cusp of an 80s nostalgia boom then, people looking to cash in on Transformers resurgent popularity targeted their offerings squarely at the crowd that loved 84/85. Those fans' preferences drove the direction of the revived G1 fiction for more than a decade, from the start of Dreamwave's comics through most of IDW's output, only recently losing their stranglehold with the launch of the More than Meets the Eye and Robots in Disguise series (both of which have shown the courage to elevate plenty of late-run or obscure characters to the main cast). For ten years, almost everything G1 we got was Optimus, Megatron, Starscream, Grimlock, Bumblebee, Soundwave and friends. The occasional Hot Rod or Nightbeat might have been tossed in due to author appeal, but they rarely stuck and usually found themselves shoved out of the spotlight in favour of the earlier cast when someone new took over.
Though it was the popular choice at the time, it signalled a fundamental change in what Transformers was
-- once a franchise about hundreds of characters locked in an epic struggle, now the focus had narrowed to a dozen and a half guys on either side with everyone else shoved to the background. Ironically, in spite of their legendary status a lot of the early G1 characters were nought but flat cyphers. The decade-long re-exploration of those characters granted many of them a depth that they simply hadn't had before, to the point where they actually began to feel like the "main cast" of the entire franchise.
Those preferences also transformed the toy market. They drove the aftermarket prices of early G1 toys through the roof, which prompted Hasbro and Takara to reissue a lot of those same figures -- basically everything 1984 they could find the mold for, whatever was handy from 1985 and a few tidbits from the 1986 movie as well. And when they decided to dip into making new toys for the original series characters, first with Alternators and later with Classics and its' spiritual successors, the same philosophy continued on. Although the occasional later character snuck in, those lines were very much love letters to 1984 and 1985.
This, not so much.
In recent years, however, a lot of that has changed. The Michael Bay movies have shaken the foundations of the Transformers fandom in more ways than one, but perhaps the most welcome change they've wrought has been the creation of a second "default" template for future Transformers stories. Now instead of seeing ideas and characters from 1984 revisited and rehashed over and over again, a lot of new fiction draws on the movies for inspiration. Things like Transformers: Animated, Transformers: Prime and the War for Cybertron video game universe blend elements of both the original series and the movies, often drawing in elements from other incarnations of the franchise as well. Even the IDW comics, which started out as a fairly straightforward "new spin on G1" starring all of Simon Furman's favourites, have begun to move in that direction. And as the 1984/85 stranglehold started to break, ideas and characters from late G1 began to leak into the media on almost equal terms alongside the ideas from more modern interpretations. The toylines have moved on as well, with the Generations line shifting focus from G1 nostalgia to video game characters, then to IDW designs and now Beast Wars and Armada in the space of a year. Even characters like Scoop, a random nobody from 1988, have been getting love lately.
The transition hasn't exactly been an easy one for the fandom. The amount of hate that the Bay movies attract is phenomenal
, to the point where you'd think they'd crippled the franchise permanently rather than injecting hundreds of millions of dollars into it. Some of the traditional breed of fan recognize the positive impact that the movies have had (whether they enjoy the movies themselves or not) and are willing to take the good along with the bad. Others...not so much. As movie influence and non-traditional characters have begun to encroach on the official nostalgia-bait lines, a fair chunk of those fans have moved away from official toys entirely in favour of third-party products designed specifically to cater to adult fans.
Just try to ignore Regeneration One.
As I write this, the last refuge of the "1984 forever!" breed in official offerings is the Masterpiece line. It started out originally as a series of one-off figures, rather understandably patterned on the brand's most recognizable faces -- Optimus, Megatron, Grimlock, Starscream and his redecos...and happily for me at least, Rodimus. But the movie-induced growth of the fandom caused Takara to take a risk and expand the line from "once a year" to multiple releases in different size classes every few months. And the figures that came since then have established a solid pattern -- another Optimus Prime, Soundwave and the tapes, Sideswipe and Prowl, with Wheeljack and Bumblebee on the way. The lead designer has even gone on the record that he's intent on releasing the entire Season One cast before anyone else, much to the joy of this segment of the fandom.
Even after all this time that attitude still baffles me, to be honest. Who in their right mind will pay $50 or whatever for a Masterpiece Gears or Huffer? How could people say with a straight face that they'd rather have Sludge or Windcharger than actually important characters like Cyclonus or Scorponok? To borrow a Batman reference, that would be like somebody trying to make the argument that Clock King or Calendar Man are more important characters than Bane or Harley Quinn strictly because they were introduced earlier. In practically any other fandom that would be a laughable assertion, but with Transformers it was accepted at face value for a long, long time.
If you think you sense a hint of bitterness in this article, you're not wrong. I spent a decade watching the parts of the Transformers universe that I was most fond of be denigrated by the fandom at large, written off as "not real Transformers" and generally get ignored because other fans didn't like it. If I wanted to be a fan, to enjoy the new G1 fiction and toys, then I had to do it on their terms because they were the target market instead of me. Eventually I grew to accept that but I was never really happy about it. Now that the worm has turned and my preferred vision of the franchise seems to be the dominant one, it would be easy to gloat.
But I'm not here to gloat.
Ah, that's better (click image for full size).
Now, don't get me wrong -- I'm glad
that Transformers has started to ever-so-slowly move away from the obsession with the early Generation 1 cartoon. I believe the franchise was stuck in the past for a decade, and only began treading interesting ground again when quality modern fiction and toylines emerged from the shadows of 1984 with the courage to blaze their own path. The Transformers landscape is a much brighter place now that it has characters like Movie Bumblebee or IDW Chromedome and Metalhawk, toys like Generations Straxus and Black Shadow, than it would be if all that effort had been spent on yet more iterations of Bluestreak or Starscream. Spreading the attention out to other characters adds depth to the whole enterprise and
makes the original crew more interesting at the same time by giving them new counterparts to bounce off of.
But just because something is for the best doesn't mean that it won't hurt anyone. And for a lot of those "strictly early G1" fans, the changes of the last couple years must have hurt. For the longest time the fandom was essentially about them and their interests, and whenever anything was aimed at collectors you could bet it was going to be something they liked. Now the landscape has changed though, and instead of being the bulk of the fandom they're just one of a handful of relatively equal groups within that fandom. It sucks to see something that you've sunk so much time and energy into changing into a shape that you don't recognize or particularly like, and I feel for them. But there is no need to despair. Just because the original cartoon doesn't dominate the discussion boards, comics and toylines like it used to doesn't mean it's going to be forgotten. Those characters and those stories will always have a place, and so will those fans.
If those cartoons hadn't set the world on fire in 1984, none of the comics, toys and TV shows that I
grew up with would have ever been made. And if those fans hadn't been driven by their love of those shows to take to the internet and form communities, none of the toy reissues and comics that caught my attention as an adult would have come to pass either. Would there even have been live-action movies without a vibrant online fandom that proved that Transformers was a property that adults would spend money on? I doubt it. I'm glad that the franchise has moved on, but the originals will always
be a big part of the Transformers' universe -- the stories, the characters, the toys and especially the fans. Because without all four of those things, there wouldn't be