“These robots are prone to highly imitative behavior when exposed to humans.”
-Circuit Breaker, Transformers #23 (Decepticon Graffiti)
The first panel of Bob Budiansky’s first Transformers issue (#5) shows us a full page panel of a black and white episode of the Honeymooners. The next page Is another single-page panel that shows the Honeymooners episode is playing on just one of a number of televisions, each tuned to a different channel. In addition to the black and white sitcom, we see news brodcasts, game shows, and sports broadcasts. And standing before the screens watching…the cyclopean Decepticon commander Shockwave.
“Very illuminating,” he says.
In these opening two panels on these opening two pages, Budiansky introduces us to a theme that he will return to again and again--the effect of the humans and Transformers on each other’s worlds and worldviews.
Humans have been part of the Transformers story from the beginning. The Witwickys--staples of both the comics and the cartoon--were introduced before Budiansky began writing and continued to be a part of it after he left.
But Budiansky added many more characters of his own creation. Billionaire energy industrialist GB Blackrock and Josie Beller are introduced in #5 (via one of the televisions Shockwave is watching). Blackrock becomes an ally of the Autobots while Beller turns into the vengeful Circuit-Breaker.
.Selfish and neurotic comic book writer Donny Finkelberg is introduced in Issue #15 and slowly undergoes a change of heart from self-centered, self-loathing and greedy to making a gesture of altruism at personal cost to himself at the end of Issue #23.
Other human characters enter the comic and disappear as quickly as they appear. Like many of the Transformers themselves, human characters burst into the story for an issue or two and then vanish from the book--and unlike the Transformers they don’t even get the benefit of the occasional one or two panel cameo appearance in the background of crowd or battle scenes. If G.B. Blackrock is the human equivalent of Grimlock, Blaster, or Bumblebee then characters like Ricky Vasquez (Issue #21, ) are Gears or Huffer (*)
But although their encounters with the Transformers are brief, their lives are changed from their contact with the Cybertronians.
There’s Joey Slick (“Shooting Star!” Issue #13) who goes from loser to losing himself while becoming rich and then finding himself and his own inner courage, thanks to the unwilling…and unwitting…help of Megatron.
There’s hot headed Jake Dalrymple (Issues #19 and 20) who pursues Skids after the Autobot scrapes his car. Dalrymple’s interference ends up in Skids near destruction at the hands of Ravage but in the end (after finally listening to his girlfriend Frannie), Dalrymple courageously rams the Decepticon with his car, saving Skids and Charlene.
Issue #20 also features Small town-girl Charlene (not to be confused with research assistant Charlie from Issues #29-30 who helps Blaster and Goldbug overcome the Scraplets) who ends up having a star-crossed, if chaste romance with Skids (although the panels where she washes him in his vehicle mode are suggestive --it‘s not a Whitesnake video, but it‘s pretty close for a kids‘ comic book).
And the change goes both ways. The Transformers are also shaped by their encounters with the humans.
From trucker Bomber Bill (Issue #10, “The Next Best Thing To Being There!”) to rock star Brick Springstern (Issue #14, “Rock and Roll-Out!“) to dishonest used car salesman Big Steve (Issue #32, “Used Autobots”), the Transformers and humans are agents of change in one another’s lives.
We mostly see these two-way relations with the Autobots, but the Decepticons are not immune. Megatron is duly impressed by Joey Slick’s courage in “Shooting Star,” while in less noble fashion, The Battlechargers Runabout and Runamuck are inspired by the sight of a misbehaving child to abandon their assigned mission in favor of a cross country vandalism spree defacing American national monuments (Issue #23, “Decepticon Graffiti.”)
In Budiansky’s world, Transformers and humans are continuously surprising each other. In each other they find things to admire, things that are disappointing, and things that inspire them. Organic or robot, each of them gains a new perspective on their world from their time spent in the world of the other.
In short, they transform one another.
The comic is about exactly what its title tells us it is. The nature of that transfomation though…well, sometimes that’s about more than meets the eye.
(*) Which still puts them a step above Windcharger or Trailbreaker.