The Transformers was launched by Marvel Comics in September 1984 as a ‘four issue mini-series’. It must have done well because it continued for another seven years until issue #80! With the gift of hindsight, it is surprising that Marvel were so cautious. Perhaps it was an awareness that the Transformers toy phenomenon could turn out to be a flash in the pan, and that transforming robots represented a departure from their mainstay of superhero comics. It is telling that Spider-man was given a cameo in issue #3, no doubt to entice in readers of Marvel’s most successful title.
The production team on the first issue is Ralph Macchio (writing) and Frank Springer (pencils). In the UK the story was spread over issues #1 and #2 of a fortnightly Transformers title (published in September and October 1984) with Machine Man as the main back-up strip. The cover price was an amazingly cheap by today’s standards, 25 pence. The UK and US covers are reproduced above. The US version features an over-sized and slightly menacing Prime and human characters in prominence (again, this may reflect concerns about the appeal of a robot-led cast). The battle between Gears and Laserbeak is a nice touch. Overall the cover feels movie-like and a little cliché. The UK #1 cover is bolder and more exciting, depicting Optimus Prime and Soundwave pitched in close combat. Why Soundwave? I suspect this was based on the toy figures, with Soundwave being larger and more imposing than the other Decepticons and Megatron’s toy not available until the following year.
The story introduces us to planet Cybertron, a “vast Saturn-sized machine world” orbiting Alpha Centauri. There are biblical themes abounding in that the Autobots live in a mechanical Eden with a “serpent” in their midst in the form of Megatron. Paradise is lost when the Decepticons, seeking power and conquest, plunge the planet into war and undergo physical modifications to enable them to ‘transform’ into fighting vehicles and weapons. The Autobots follow suit and thus the Transformers are born. We’re told Optimus Prime rises up to take charge of the beleaguered Autobot army (interestingly his Cybertron mode is a canon on wheels and not his more familiar truck mode, and we don’t see what Megatron turns into). Cybertron is shaken from its orbit and sent sailing through the heavens.
Global conflict rages for centuries. It seems that unlike human wars that start and finish, flare up again and stop, the near infinite life spans of the Transformers and perhaps even a robotic programming means their conflict continues unabated. External forces are the catalyst for change as Cybertron enters an asteroid field in our solar system. The Autobots board a vast spaceship called the Ark (another biblical reference) to blast a safe passage and are ambushed by Megatron’s forces. Prime sets the ship on a collision course with the Earth hoping to end the war.
The Ark impacts into Mount St Hilary in what will become Oregon, USA. It is buried for four million years until an eruption reawakens the ship’s computer which sets about repairing and reactivating the fallen Autobots and Decepticons, giving them the ability to become the vehicles, planes and communication devices that the Ark’s probe has mistaken as the dominant life on the planet.
The Decepticons are the first on their feet and helpfully introduce themselves to the reader with a brief summary of their abilities. It feels a little contrived but is essential as a reference to what is quite a large cast of characters. The Autobots rise and do the same (only in the US print though) and, with the Decepticons having made off, study the monitors to learn about their new world. Oddly they are completely oblivious to the presence of humanity or the natural world, only paying attention to the machines.
The pace is a little slow at this point but is perhaps to be expected from an origin story that is setting the scene. Things pick up as Prowl, Brawn, Cliffjumper, Hound and Bumblebee head to a drive-in movie (do these things still exist?) and have their first skirmish with the enemy. Chaos is unleashed as screaming humans flee in terror from the giant alien machines! It’s immediately apparent for the reader that mankind will be collateral damage in this war. The Autobots are sworn to protect innocent lives (with their own if necessary) while the Decepticons have no such concerns for the population or the planet’s resources. Though fewer in number they have the upper hand.
It’s here that the Autobots encounter 17-year-old Buster Witwicky, their long-term human friend. He is of course Spike in the TF cartoons, and here is the first of many jarring differences between the two canons. Buster is making out with his girlfriend Jessie prior to the Decepticon attack, while their gooseberry mate ‘O’ is also in the car. Slightly awkward. Bumblebee is gravely injured by the enemy and Buster drives him to his father’s garage, hoping to stem a potentially fatal loss of fuel. ‘Sparkplug’ Witwicky thinks his son has developed a sudden interest in the family auto business, only for Bumblebee to plead for their help and reveal he is “dying”!
In summary it’s a good start to the series with lots here to recommend. The Transformers tend to be drawn more closely to their toy forms at this point. We also have a lot of non-descript robots seen battling on the Ark prior to the collision, who are never seen again. But the scene is set for epic battles with humanity caught in the crossfire.
Have you got memories, positive or negative about the series opener? Please post below, I’d love to hear your comments.