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Why Transformers Still Resonates 35 Years Later

first_img Hasbro’s Unicron SDCC Transformer Toy Almost as Big as Orson Welles11 Geeky Splurges to Spend Your Tax Refund On Part of growing up is recognizing the fact that everything you loved as a child was created to sell you toys. Franchises like Power Rangers, G.I. Joe, and Masters of the Universe weren’t conceived as primarily creative endeavors. They were conceived because they presented companies with the opportunity to make a whole lot of money by selling hunks of plastic in the shape of certain characters. When a story, a character, or a world is conceived under this pretense, its longevity is never certain.Toy sales are a short-term game and anything that failed to catch on — or had a steep decline in popularity the way that all of the aforementioned properties did — went away fast. Oftentimes they never come back and wind up forgotten (when was the last time you thought of Scannerz or Max Steel?). But every now and then, toy company executives accidentally stumble upon something that sticks around.‘Transformers’ toys are displayed at a Target store on July 23, 2018 in San Rafael, Calif. (Photo Credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)G.I. Joe is very much the prototype for this. What started out as a line of realistic military dolls became a sprawling military-tangent action universe full of ninjas, cool tech, and a cast of memorable characters. This is thanks almost entirely to comic creator Larry Hama, whose 100 plus-issue run on the Joe comic created a universe more or less out of whole cloth and did so through stories that have, decades later, proven some of the best comics ever published. The folks at Hasbro clearly recognized that this was a system that could work — they make the toys and leave the storytelling up to the pros. That’s why they tried it again when they partnered with Japanese toy company Takara in an effort to bring the latter’s Microman and Diacom lines to the United States under a new name: Transformers.Comic greats including Jim Shooter, Denny O’Neill, and Bob Budiansky were tasked with fleshing out a mythology for the world of Transformers, creating everything from characters to names to stories. An animated show followed shortly. It was, as you’re likely well aware, a hit. Since then, Transformers have been a near-constant presence in the landscape of American pop culture. 2019 marks the franchise’s 35th anniversary, and such an anniversary has me wondering why a weird toy-based franchise about robots who can transform into cars has the longevity it does.1986: A boy carries carries his favorite ‘Transformers’ toy at his school decorated as ‘Cybertron,’ the homeworld of the Transformers. (Photo by Jeff Goode/Toronto Star via Getty Images)Like Power Rangers and He-Man, it’s the sort of concept that shouldn’t have the legs it does. The Transformers franchise was never a primarily creative endeavor. It was created so that Hasbro could take advantage of a toy license that was selling well overseas. Translating that international popularity into something that would resonate in the States isn’t something the company approached with long-term ambition in mind. Sure, they may have hoped or even planned for something that would still make them money in toy sales over three decades from then, but I can’t imagine the folks in those boardrooms intended to provide a platform for characters that would not only be iconic but genuinely beloved across generations to come.Credit is first and foremost owed to the staying power of giant robots as a concept. Giant robots? They’re good. They’re very good. Most stories would be better with giant robots in them and stories that already have giant robots like Pacific Rim and The Iron Giant could easily be improved upon with the addition of more giant robots. If Jane Eyre had giant robots in it I probably would have actually read it over winter break like I was supposed to my sophomore year of high school instead of basing my book report on the Wikipedia summary (It’s cool, I got a B minus. Ms. Brown: if you’re reading this I’m so sorry).Giant robots aren’t the sole key to staying power though, otherwise we’d talk about Macross Delta in the same breath as Neon Genesis Evangelion. It should go without saying that this applies to film, television, and comics but it’s a quietly significant factor in a toy line’s longevity as well. A good story and mythology can be what brings hunks of plastic to life for generations of kids. A few Vintage Shelves ago I talked about the Dragonflyz toy line I grew up playing with as a kid, and while the toys were a ton of fun, my friends and I had so little context for just what it was we were playing with. Not so for an Obi-Wan Kenobi action figure or the Ninja Turtles’ Party Wagon. Not to knock on the power of imagination but a toy is much easier to get attached to as a kid if you have some sort of understanding of what or who it is you’re playing with.As such, much of its longevity comes down to the fact that Transformers has become a franchise that thrive on context over the last 35 years. Between TV, movies, film, video games, and comic books the lore behind the Autobots and Decepticons has become shockingly intricate. Optimus Prime’s Wikipedia page alone spans over 10,000 words, most of which are dedicated to laying out the character’s complex fictional history. There’s a vast mythology to the world of Cybertron and its inhabitants that give way to some incredible stories and a large cast of characters, many of whom have experienced moving arcs and genuine change over the decades. From Hot Rod to Swerve, the franchise is populated by characters that have a pathos you wouldn’t expect from sentient robot racecars.The franchise is the sum of countless parts, a myriad of mish-mashed additions to mythos from Beast Wars to the original Marvel comics to the more recent IDW comic runs like Lost Light and More Than Meets the Eye. From the lore to the characters to the ongoing production of, well, some pretty dope toys, the biggest draw to Transformers over the last 35 years has been that there is — I’m so sorry about this — more than meets the eye. A $15 action figure can be a gateway drug into a world of interstellar morality plays between fascist robo-villains and the remarkably human freedom fighters who never give up in their fight to liberate the galaxy from the villains’ tyranny.The world of Cybertron has been expanding and changing constantly since its debut. There’s always something new to discover, whether it’s in the form of the upcoming War For Cybertron trilogy on Netflix, an undiscovered run of comics, or just the next line of toys.More on Geek.com:The Most Incredible ‘Transformers’ ToysNew ‘Transformers’ Animated Origin Series Is Coming to Netflix in 202011 ‘Transformers’ That Sound Dirty Stay on targetlast_img read more