Given that that I’ve written a whole slew of fictional counselling sessions with them, it’s probably no surprise I’m a fan of the Transformers. I’ve loved them since I was a kid.
What might be surprising is that in spite of the fact I collected the Marvel comics run from #1 into the early thirties, for the most part, I often found those comics boring.
Too much people. Not enough giant robots fighting.
The writer on most of those comics was a fellow named Bob Budiansky, Budiansky created the backstories and names for most of the Transformers and took over writing duties on the comic starting with Issue #5. Years later, another writer, Simon Furman, took over the book. Furman’s run on the Transformers is considered a high point of the series. Most modern Transformers comics are still built on the foundation laid by Simon Furman: galactic scale warfare, tribal politics, the meaning of leadership, forays into mysticism and religion, and a Cybertronian-centric narrative.
But revisiting those Budiansky issues recently, I have a new appreciation for his stories. They were different from what I wanted at the time, but rereading he first thirty or so issues of his run on Transformers I notice three recurring points of focus: smaller-scale personal stories, the interaction between humans and Transformers, and an emphasis on morality.
Although Transfomers is ostensibly about a multi-million year old, galaxy-spanning robot war, Budiansky tended to use the war as a setting for his stories rather than as the story itself. Most of his best stories featured only one or two protagonists struggling with a specific problem or limitation.
Sometimes he would do this by isolating characters.
For example, from issue #5 to Issue #8 when he rediscovers the Dinobots (*), Ratchet is the ONLY Autobot character in the comic, the rest having been incapacitated since Issue #4. It’s hard to have story about a war between giant robot armies when one of the armies has only ONE member, and a medic, at that.
But the story is not about the galactic war. It is about Ratchet finding a way to rescue his friends in the face of insurmountable odds and his own self-doubt…and defeating Megatron, the mightiest of Decepticons in the process (**).
In a similar fashion, Bumblebee is isolated (although by choice, feeling he is a liability to the group) in Issue #16. Skids is the only Autobot in Issue #20 (“Showdown!”) and Ravage the only Decepticon to make a physical appearance (although Megatron shows up in a dream sequence). In issue #13 (“Shooting Star!”), Megatron is the lone Transformer to appear, and he is locked in gun mode for most of the issue--the protagonist of the story is a human, turning the Transformers into side characters in their own comic.
Even when there are numerous characters in the story, the emotional arc often centers around just one or two characters. A number of Autobots are in on the action in issue #10, but the story’s emotional arc(and climactic moment) revolves around Huffer and his homesickness.
Similarly, issues #17 and 18 introduce us to a number of new Autobots and Decepticons who are fighting on Cybertron, but the war is not the story. The war is the setting. The story is the story of Blaster, an Autobot defying orders to first rescue, then avenge his friend Scrounge, an Autobot labelled as useless, but who ends up both discovering crucial information and dying courageously for the Autobot cause.
The Decepticons, as the villains, tend to get less in the way of personal treatment, but Budiansky does attempt to make the Decepticon leaders distinct from one another:
Shockwave, Megatron’s rival for command of the Decepticons, is coldly logical, a strong contrast to the more hot-blooded Megatron. Meanwhile one of the most unique of the Decepticon high command is the (by Transformer standards) diminutive Ratbat, whose leadership style is more in keeping with a penny-pinching bureaucrat than a bloodthirsty conqueror (***).
Even Megatron, whose personality for the most part is indistinguishable from countless other villainous would-be despots, has his moments. Issue #25 is focused around Megatron’s inability to accept the death of Optimus Prime in the previous issue. Whether the denial is brought about by a twisted form of grief at the loss of the foe that has defined his existence for four million years or the blow to Megatron’s ego that it was a human and not the Decepticon leader who killed Prime, the result adds an interesting, if unexpected, layer of depth to a previously one-dimensional character.
I love the way story reveals character now. But back in 1986 I wanted to see more robots, more fighting, and More Than Meets The Eye.
I also wanted to see less of something in my Transformers comics.
That something was humans.
We’ll tackle that in Part 2
(*) Issue #8 also featured the Dinobots being beaten by two different opponents less than fifteen pages apart despite a five-to-one numerical advantage. Their next appearance was for two panels eleven issues later when they quit the Autobots and they didn’t show up again until #27. Grimlock and Co. might be signature characters in Transformers comic book lore, but they got off to an underwhelming start to say the least.
(**) It also established a link between Ratchet and Megatron which would be revisited later in the series by Furman, a link that probably wouldn’t have happened without Budiansky’s story. But it’s a brilliant storytelling juxtaposition. Optimus Prime and Megatron are ideological opposites, but they are both powerful warriors and leaders. Ratchet on the other hand is far lesss-powerful, charismatic, and lower in the command structure not to mention a medical officer and non-combatant. The difference between Autobot and Decepticon philosophies is not best embodied by the difference between Optimus Prime and Megatron. It’s embodied in the difference between Megatron and RATCHET.
(***)When the Decepticons launch a successful surprise assault on the Autobots, Ratbat rejoices at the ambush’s energy efficiency, exclaiming: “What a banner day this will become in the annals of Decepticon fuel accounting!” It’s no “Kneel before Zod,” that‘s for sure.