Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Origin Story

Many millions of years ago on the planet Cybertron, life existed.  But not life as we know it.  Intelligent machines who could think and feel...

These words can be recited by Transformers fans the world over, for they belong to the opening scene of one of the greatest origin stories in science fiction. 

Okay, I'm overstating that a little. 

But come on! It didn't get much better than the original "More Than Meets the Eye, Part I."  First off, was the whole, 7-year-old boy brain melter that was robots changing into cars and jets. But beyond that was this millions-of-years-long conflict, that zoomed through an asteroid belt and smashed into Jurassic era Earth, only to start again in 1980's America. We met heroic Autobots, and evil Decepticons.  And this brilliant twist of toy and storyline would resound over the mountaintops with the ringing of a million cash registers, and likely the greatest holiday party the Hasbro corporate offices have ever known.

The scene was set on a metal world with giant pieces blown out of it. The first episode showed us alien cars native to the planet Cybertron, flying tetra jets with suspiciously terrestrial robot forms (hey, you have to pay for those character models).  We met human characters, in fact the only fan-acceptable human characters to date (Transformers fans have a problem with too much of the human element). On earth, these amazing new characters showed off new and marvelous powers and abilities, that would inspire real life playtimes all over the world.

Okay, who tried to activate the planetary propulsion thrusters?
I'm looking at you, Megatron.

This story would be tweaked, revisited, and retconned multiple times. In Season 2, we saw a telling of the Optimus Prime/Megatron origin.  Season 3 would bring us the revelation that it was the Quintessons who built Cybertron. Beast Wars/Beast Machines would turn everything on its head and reveal that Cybertron had once been an organic planet.  Factor in the rich history of the comic books, and you have a lot of love that has been put into fleshing out this half-hour commercial for action figures.

Trees on cybertron? Cue fan-boy head explosion.

Origin stories are great.  They usually feature the best a show's animators can come up with, along with all of the freshness that comes with a new property. There is new music, new or sometimes better yet, familiar voice actors. It's a memory that sticks with even the most casual fan.  Most children of the 80s can certainly remember with fondness their first looks at Thundercats, Silverhawks, M.A.S.K., Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, Centurions, or Tigersharks to name a few.

I've said it before, I will take any opportunity to show
a screencap from Silverhawks.
It got me thinking about what an origin story is...what it means. Specifically, can you ever recapture the magic that was there at the beginning? Should you? Or is what comes after more important. Sure, you can go back and flick on an old episode, and there is always a nice wave of familiarity that comes over you.  But, I think it's made sweeter by thinking of everything that came after; all of the cues that artists and writers would spin off from, all of the memorable quotes; That's when you know you're looking at something special.  

There is the origin story of this blog for instance.  It came out of a box from my parents' basement, that became a fun (and yes, obsessive) hobby, and ended up overtaking the basement, then the attic.  Several times I thought about giving it all up and cashing in on eBay (that remains an option). But every few years, some new take on my favorite story would spring up, and the Rubbermaid tub was that much harder to close. I was almost ready to give it up, when my 5-year-old's fervor for Transformers reached its peak.  I could have made them disappear overnight, but I had this feeling that maybe there was an opportunity there.  Something to be said, words to be written about how a childhood pleasure carries on into adulthood, or fatherhood. My once pristine shelves are now typically in a state of disaster because, well, he is messy.  But do you pack all of that away?  Or do you leave it out, and see what becomes of the mess?

You can look at any origin story, a personal one, even, and love it for it's nostalgia, but maybe what's more important is everything that came after. I look back on meeting my eventual wife in middle school (yes, I have touched a woman), and I remember with nostalgia watching her jump off of a boat into a lake. I remember the sun twinkling off the water in the way it does best when you close your eyes to remember. It will always be a special place I go to. But even more special, is thinking about every wonderful, hard, beautiful, challenging thing that came after that. A move across the country, three babies, and career changes.

How about your life, dear reader? How does your origin story reflect what came after? Furthermore, do you know it? Are you still writing it? Living it? Trying to forget it?

So that got too heavy for a robot blog.  But, I'd like to think I am mining a new genre here. Robot Blog, with Heart

*I found all but the last two pictures on the internet, and claim no rights to them.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The State of My Shelves.

There was a time when every item in my collection was displayed in all it's glory. When I would spend a little time each day tweaking each pose, making sure that it was the most befitting of the character, and of course, canonically accurate.

I was so young then, and missing so many members
of the cast of the 1986 full-length motion picture.

Those days, are over.

Initially, the problem became the scale of everything.  So, I built custom shelves for all of my bots, but they eventually outgrew them.  I would occasionally colonize a book shelf, or an impromptu spot in my closet. but the important thing was for them to all be together.  When this became impossible, the challenge then became which ones to pack away. But really, to not have 24 incarnations of Optimus Prime displayed at the same time felt just plain wrong.


I was also limited a little in terms of space, because well, I liked being married, so I relegated myself to the space under the stairs in our basement (I know...).  It made for a cramped, but semi-private escape, and also allowed me to pick and choose who I let in on my dirty secret. Until that is, my children evolved the ability to open doors...

Now, this is the norm...
I won't tell you the dollar value of any of this (it's only crushing my soul a little). 

Or this...

Oh man, some of these aren't even from the same continuity.

My 5-year-old shares my need for the bots to all be together and he plays with them with such zeal, that "please only take out three at a time" has become, "okay, you need to at least come back here and help me put away 10 of these!"  It's been a good exercise in Zen. My blood pressure used to go up at least 20 mmHg when he would even hold one of my sought-after trinkets. Now, I can actually react calmly with a "that's okay, those were only custom decals, they can be re-ordered."

So now, most of my plastic friends live in our new home's family room.  It's a common area, and certainly invites questions from house guests, but it turns out only a few people have run screaming.

Or mocked me openly.

But hey, screw them! I get to go to bed with this at night.

Put the sword away, big boy.  

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Big Looker Storybooks

I want to write a little about one of my favorite Transformers treasures; the Big Looker Storybooks from 1985-1986.

Marvel Books published six of these gems, with stories by various authors, but artwork chiefly done by John Speirs and Earl Norem. These books were a staple of my nighttime routines as a child, and have become the same with my own kids.

The Big Looker stories enjoy much admiration from longtime fans. While being a treasured memory for some, there is an outright appreciation for them as independent works of Transformers media. Anytime someone puts a brush to a canvas, you know you've made it big.

Robots with satchels. I'm in love.

The six books included "The Battle for Cybertron," "The Great Car Rally," "Decepticon Hijack," Insecticon Attack," "Car Show Blow Up," and "The Story of Wheelie, the Wild Boy of Quintesson." The stories were typical good guy/bad guy fair, but occasionally featured some decent prose (remember this is about robots):

'What a beautiful spot!' thought Grapple as he lay on his stomach. He dragged his fingers through the water, making little ripples....Grapple spotted a grasshopper and a beetle sitting by the side of the water. 'If only life was as simple as it is for those little insects,' he thought. 

Come here, often-often-often??
Spoiler alert, things don't go well for Grapple.  And those aren't ordinary bugs!!!

What really makes these books shine though, is the absolutely beautiful paintings that adorn their pages.  While many of the character designs differ wildly from their cartoon or action figure counterparts, in these books, they have a life and style of their own.  The models, particularly in Speirs' works, have a gaunt, at times wispy look about them, that makes the story of an energy starved and war-torn race seem so real. While the characters all have the appropriate stature, they fittingly lack the beefy, meched-up look of later interpretations.

Objects in a mirror are completely drawn of scale.

The landscapes are especially rich in Norem's paintings, who tends to me my favorite.  You will find dry deserts where living Jeeps take boys for rides, and lush swamplands where evil robotic insects are waiting to take over your mind.

This is what it's all about.

These books are emblematic of just how big of a craze Transformers were in those early years, and of one of the first all-out marketing blitzes to bombard kids into buying toys. That being said, there is something special about these books that make the whole story seem legit, and not like a half-hour commercial.

That was a close one.  Somebody get the wrench! 

*All images are property of Marvel Books. 


It's Halloween time.  Soon all the kids (and adults) will be running around in the twilight with their costumes on, many of them in the guise of our favorite robot heroes.

This year, my five-year-old son who is OBSESSED with Transformers opted for the obscure G1 minibot, Tailgate.  Now, while Tailgate has had a huge resurgence due to James Roberts' Robots in Disguise storyline, even garnered himself a new Generations Line release, my son is cognizant of neither of those facts.  Here is a character who has never been in a cartoon and didn't (mercifully) make it into the blockbuster live-action movies. The boy simply loved how he looked on the shelf.

So here's the funny part of all of this. As I was fixing up his costume, which, I think turned out

Show-accurate purists need not comment.
I was taking artistic liberties, okay?!

...I thought back a lot to my year as a transformer. It was 1987, and of all the 'bots, I was Pipes, Tailgate's case-mate (a toy that is shipped from the factory with another toy, usually around the same size) from the 1986 line of transformers .

I remember my dad making the arms out of baby-wipe containers from my younger brother, and sacrificing a beloved tech-spec meter reader for my visor. I was the cat's pajamas.

Has no fear of patterned linoleum. 

So anyway, a neat way for a father and son to connect through the decades.  I think we would have made great case-mates.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Action Master Prowl...

I want to spend some time talking about 1990 Action Master Prowl. 

"Who will give up the power to transform to become stronger, faster, more alive?!"

Prowl is an iconic character in the Transformers canon. He was a member of the original class of '84, and one of the few transformers to receive a second incarnation during Generation One (G1). As a kid, my dad was a state trooper, so a Datsun 280ZX (Nissan Fairlady Z) done up in highway patrol markings was a no-brainer for this writer's favorite Autobot. 

In the fiction, Prowl serves as the Autobot's chief strategist, and along with Jazz, makes up Optimus Prime's inner circle. In the more current, IDW readings, Prowl often engages in less savory dealings; often elaborate orchestrations the likes of which bear more resemblance to Shockwave's level of subterfuge. 

He will. For the greater good, of course. 

In his Action Master configuration, Prowl is a nontransforming robot, powered up by the fictional Nucleon element which renders bots more powerful, yet stripped of their alternate mode. Prowl's figure is a more anime-accurate representation (despite his red eyes; clearly a side effect of Nucleon, right?), with slightly less articulation than you might have found in his GI Joe contemporaries.

Someone is going to have to talk to him about the militarization of local police. 

To make up for for his lack of transformation, Prowl rides a souped-up motorbike, which was featured in the recent IDW story, ShadowPlay. The bike features stabilizer fins,  a working kick stand, a front mounted gattling gun, and two side mounted projectiles. 

As with all figures from this size-class, the bike transforms into a battle implement, in this case, a cannon turret. This mode features a flip-up cannon and battle shield (which works as a nice homage to Prowl's orginal door/wing silouette). You can also remove the top of the bike's gas tank for a handy shield for Prowl. 

Chromedome atop a turbo cycle. Amazing.

I must admit that what really makes this set come alive is an upgrade sticker set from For it's part, Prowl gets headlights, reflective windows, and his characteristic shoulder stripes.  The turbo cycle upgrades take cues from Prowl's original alt mode such as Highway patrol decals and badges, as well as adding some nice chrome engine details that highlight the molded side panels. These added details really make this entire set shine. 

People love to knock Action Masters, but I can't get enough of them. What I love about this particular figure is what it represented at the time it was produced. For decades, fans searched for more show-accurate renditions of their favorite characters. We suffered through the Beast era, Robots in Disguise, and Armada, each with their own Prowl, until we finally received decent offerings through Alternators, Classics and Masterpiece. But here he was, right there in the 80's, ready for action, with red eyes, on a frickin' motorcycle! 

*Video is from a YouTube post by, Comic cover is property of IDW comics.