It’s weird that the Transformers series are het, right?
It’s not weird, when you look at it from the outside, that it’s primarily an advertising vehicle made to sell toys to a particular market, which has been isolated to the cooties-averse category of young boys aged seven to eleven, as set out in around the 1980s, and every change to the franchise since then has been a matter of a modest step away from that same base narrative. In the original G1 continuity, there are around 400 characters, and of them, there were three women, but there were a few dozen stories about robots getting crushes on human women, or vice versa. The default was heterosexuality, which, y’know, that’s what heterosexuality wants.
But the robots are robots and they have an enormous amount of control over their identity and expression. Like, there’s no Robo Boobies to signal femininity, unless you actively choose to have them. When you view these creatures as people of a culture, then it kind of stands to reason there’d be robots that chose a different gender. Heck, they’re called trans formers, why would they have a specific gender as a constant?
Anyway, hey, let’s talk about Acid Storm!Continue Reading →
No no no, not those. Not the officially purchased ones. Not the licensed toys where you can construct a big special transformer that uses specific pieces that were picked out to make a branded character. No, those are cool, and that’s fine, but they’re not intriguing to me the way the work of IX RollOut IX is.
See, what RollOut does, is Rollout makes transformers out of lego. They make Transformer OCs out of lego. They make transformer OCs, out of lego, and that lego is the standard pieces, without special decals. It is –
You know what, here, just check it out.
Okay, so this being Bumblebee, from the movie, that’s not really what I meant, but the idea is still there. This is making transformers. I – I don’t know how to express how mindblowing that is to me. Transformers are something I’ve loved for years, but after a childish period of drawings of extremely ugly cars and being unsatisfied with my own ability to express the materiality of a transformer with drawing, I kind of abandoned the idea of ever making what was, ultimately, transformer OCs.
Oh I conceived of them, but transformers are just so impossibly challenging to even concept, the idea of being able to make them just blows my mind.
These creations just excite me.
Now, I don’t have any lego – at all! – so I can’t exactly go and get experimenting with that! But it’s so exciting to see this creative play experience getting to make articulated expressive transforming toys.
How freaking cool is that?
I’m going to tell you a story. It jumps around a little, to future and past, and it has a big twist in it that I’m going to need you to trust me on. Because of that, the fold – and content warning – is coming later than you’d expect.
This story, started, for me, on the Transformers wiki.
This is a Rubsign. It’s a small piece of plastic that’s heat-reactive. When Transformers started out as a brand, there was an immediate push to make cheap knockoff toys with similar ideas. In order to ‘protect’ the brand and ensure kids only wanted to buy the genuine Transformers, they developed something that they could pretend was part of the play pattern: a small symbol on the robot’s body that had the silhouette of either the Decepticon or Autobot faction, and you wouldn’t know for sure if you didn’t heat it up, usually as a child, by rubbing it with your finger.
Transformers, and their gimmick of ‘transforming’, is essentially, open source. You can’t copyright it or even copyright the techniques of a mould. This is one of the reasons there’s so many knockoffs of those toys — the actual technique of a transforming toy is pretty much uncopyriteable method.
The rubsigns, however, were made with patented technology; not only weren’t other people allowed to put them on their toys, but even worse, they simply couldn’t make them because the method for their creation was proprietary. What I thought as a child was a clever way to represent a disguise, for a moment of tension in the narrative, was really just a corporate control collar, a thing that meant they could draw a hard line between their version of the idea and the other, shitty ones, so I could ensure my collection of second hand transforming robot toys was properly branded.
Rubsigns are a cop is what I’m saying.
But, they had to be invented.
This is Henry Orenstein. Learning about the origin of the rubsign meant learning that to my surprise, the patent for them is not held by The company per se, but is instead partially owned by Hasbro, and partially owned by this one dude, Henry Orenstein.
When I found his name in the Transformers wiki, the wiki stated, perhaps boldly: His life is more interesting than Transformers.
This is professional Poker. It’s a well known game that involves players playing for extremely large sums of money, often with similarly large sums of money involved in the buy-in. It’s grown in popularity over the past twenty years, in part because of improvements in presenting the game to an audience. Back in 1995, a patent was filed for a device known as a hole camera, which let the broadcasters collect the information about the players’ hands without doing anything that disrupted the natural flow of the game. The hole camera was used in 1999, and that’s about when poker started to pick up in public discourse.
And the patent for the earliest hole camera (which isn’t used much any more) is to a guy named Henry Orenstein. So important was this – and his winnings and his achievements lifetime – that he’s been inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.
This is a Johnny Seven OMA, which were made by Topper Toys. And that’s a company Henry Orenstein founded to make his toys after being annoyed at how expensive dolls and toy guns were for poor kids. Topper Toys eventually folded into another brand, Deluxe Reading, which I understand if you are a hardcore toy collector, really into things like barbie accessories and cross compatibility, is very important to the hobby.
This background was how Henry got the attention of Hasbro, and wound up working with them on acquiring new toy properties. That meant he was in position to be in Japan, looking at Takara and Microchange toys, and come back with the idea of acquiring both toy sets, and rebranding them as Transformers in 1980.
Interesting dude, right? He should write a memoir.
Except he did already:
And now, when we jump back in the story, I have to say: Content Warning: Nazis.Continue Reading →
Remember Friend Of The Blog (But Not A Good Friend Because He’s A Massive Weirdo And Has Creepy Views About Women And Colonialism), Roger Caillois?
The classic villain of the Transformers canon is the generically named villain Megatron. In almost forty years of reimagining and endless marketing, we have seen Megatron in a lot of different ways. He’s been an unassailable, all-powerful figure at the top of a hierarchy, a strongman ruler who can oversee an army, a gatekeeper of power, a rebel leader attacking an empire, a damaged soldier, a gladiator and an avatar of oblivion. Across the major histories of Transformers, Megatron’s image of himself has varied, from series to series, writer to writer (and in particular projects, episode to episode), but it is reassuring to see how consistently this character is recognisably himself.
Of course, to know that, you’d have to watch a lot of transformers media, and that’s not how lots of people partake of them. Most people, at least, most of the people who don’t watch the Bay movies and think ‘oh yeah that’s about right,’ bring the same thing to mind when they talk about Megatron.
They think about a gun.
There’s a lot of lore around the gun form of Megatron, sometimes called ‘Uncle Robo’ by the kinds of turbo nerds who like to say ‘did you knowwwwww.’ I’m not invested in making an exhaustive history of this toy, but the toy does bear a special place in the narrative of transformers for a bunch of reasons.
First, there’s the way the gun was originally a tie-in with the 60s TV show ‘The Man From Uncle,‘ which is why it has the fantastic name of ‘Uncle Robo’ from its Japanese version. Second, there’s the true-at-heart story that the toy posed risk for kids, because it looks like a gun, and the fear was police would shoot them, in the country where everyone has guns, in the 1980s. It’s not that the gun was specifically involved in a specific crime, but the fact it looked like a gun meant it got caught in a bunch of legislation designed to make sure fake guns look like fake guns, with the little orange cap over the end of the barrel. This measure, designed to ensure kids got shot less, didn’t work, at least for black kids, but nonetheless was roundly complained about by the community for generations, because anything that treated our toys for children as if they were things children would likely have or use was an imposition on our rights as serious toy collectors.
And that’s kind of the ‘default’ point for Megatron. He’s a dude, gunmetal grey, who turns into a gun, and that gun is … like, a gun. It’s a gun you hold. No matter how silly that is, or how silly that idea is in the universe it’s from. Like, as a gun, he’s usually depicted as having to be wielded by another member of his army, usually either Starscream or Soundwave. Yet, we’ve had other Megatrons, of varying impact!
First after the gun, we got this ‘tank’ in the nebulously named ‘Generation 2’ Transformers. Obviously, we hated this and it was terrible, because it was different, and the internal language of transformers fandom was already set on the ‘they changed it so now it sucks.’ Boy howdy was that muscle going to get a workout next generation.
This violently coloured tank was the ‘next Megatron,’ and because it followed classic Megatron, it served as an example of the first wrong Megatron. We also don’t get a lot of insight into this version of Megatron as a character, but it doesn’t much matter – it’s Megatron, but now he’s a tank. Whatever.
By the way, check out those tiny little tappy toes.
The next major incarnation of Megatron, and the thing that broke my personal ‘they changed it so it sucks,’ boundary – ten years later when I thought back on it – was Beast Wars megatron. He’s a T-rex. He’s a freaking T-rex!
This Megatron was also the first serious break in characterisation than before. Original Megatron oversaw a military, and was kind of an idiot – I mean, he kept Starscream around, and his plans were often silly even to me as a child. But this Megatron was thoughtful, gloating, preening and superior. He made fun of his subordinates, but also endured their strangeness, like how Inferno called him a queen, and he couldn’t get him to stop.
And like, a purist vision of Transformers wouldn’t let us have this Megatron. This Megatron is only available as someone who explicitly rejected the line of continuity, the slavish need to be a gun. And what’s more, he was tailored to his environment – the Beast Wars story is about animals in prehistoric earth. No place for a gun there, nowhere that would make sense.
Armada had this Megatron, who… like I don’t like the way he looks like a stag beetle, but the core idea of him as a tank is now being more thoroughly realised. The actual thing he turns into is a bit of, um, what I think we might just say is ‘crumpled up dude on his face,’ with a big kibbly backpack, but the technology is still evolving.
Narratively, this Megatron is honestly pretty cool. When he encountered Unicron, his response was not fear or supplication, but to instead draw plans on how he could tear Unicron apart and use his power for himself. Impressive stuff.
Also, this was the story arc with antihero bishounen Starscream and the strange little plot spurling of Hot Shot, the reinvention of Hot Rod and Bumblebee that just got turned into Bumblebee later on.
Honourable mention though goes to this design, which is apparently just a toy made of G1 Megatron. I don’t personally see it – like, I think of it as more Skywarp aesthetic than Megatron – but I do like the Stealth Bomber. It could be really cool if he was grey and black and maybe the highlights in red?
Anyway, this is just a Megatron I thought looked cool, and what I especially like about him is the way that the form itself isn’t a combative form, but it is a war form. The stealth bomber lives above the battlefield, it doesn’t dogfight, but it does represent being able to easily leave the battlefield, and rain down indiscriminately on battlefields. I really like it, especially with some of that cynical gulf war machismo, where his ‘precision’ tools are just immense cluster bombs of nonsense.
I do have a favourite Megatron – this helicopter from Transformers Animated. He’s a flier, which builds on the idea of Decepticons as ‘the air force.’ He’s also a thoughtful, interesting villain who’s used sparingly in the development of the Transformers Animated narrative. In his first appearance, he cleans house on the whole crew, but then circumstances and betrayal leave him injured and unable to leverage his full force on his enemies all at once. It’s a cool plot arc that uses Megatron’s threat properly – he’s individually a match for everyone, even groups of the heroes, until they spend months at a time learning how to fight Decepticons.
Okay, so why this little rundown of Megatrons?
Because Megatron is, traditionally, a gun. And by volume, he is definitely a gun. The majority of toys of Megatron are versions of the Generation 1 character, and of those, lots and lots of them are if not the gun, are meant to look like the gun, or find some excuse to involve the gun. And like…
More and more?
I find I think the gun is dumb?
Like, okay, it was maybe a cool thing at the time. It was novel, sure. But it was weird and dumb and relies on ‘space shifting,’ which is one of those things that doesn’t really hurt the story space, but I don’t like when the story relies on like, jamming it right in your face. And this is the villain, and he keeps putting himself in the hand of his least responsible subordinate, who has betrayed him multiple times. What does being a gun get him?
When you look at a transformer, the form that the character turns into sets tone for what the character’s meant to be, what they’re meant to be seen as. The gun… is uh…
The gun is primal?
But also the gun is really dumb?
It creates this sort of essential helplessness to Megatron, as a device we spend a lot of time asserting doesn’t have its own agency is the form that the leader of the Decepticons takes on. And maybe that could create an interesting dynamic where he has a host of trained subordinates to wield him well and that creates different tactical needs, but he doesn’t do that. He just jumps into Starscream’s hand.
Of all these forms, I think the stealth bomber is honestly one of the coolest as far as ways to tell you what Megatron should be like, or about. Remote, distant, dangerous, but also if he wants to fight, he has to break out of that, he has to turn into his robot form.
So there, there’s your conclusion. Megatron shouldn’t be a gun. Yep, think we’re done here. Whatever.
When we talk about characters in the Transformers franchise – we, I say, like you’re taking part in this conversation. When I, when I bring them up unprompted, when I talk about The Transformers, there’s a sort of corpus of ‘the main characters’ that represent the typical, classic forms. I don’t need to explain who Optimus Prime is, because he’s Optimus fucking Prime. I like talking about the groups and characters that have an idea I find interesting, which the media doesn’t necessarily carry out. It’s stuff like the way that Blades is clearly holding himself together through caring for his found family (which annoyingly has two cops), or the way that the Stunticons can be read as a group of trans girls waiting to escape an abusive father figure.
What’s a rarity, then, is where the character as depicted in the media they’re from is just, like, no, that’s it, that’s the tweet. That’s the thing I like. The character as depicted, in the story, is a good character and I like them.
Such is the case with Beast Wars’ Dinobot.Continue Reading →
In How To Be we’re going to look at a variety of characters from Not D&D and conceptualise how you might go about making a version of that character in the form of D&D that matters on this blog, D&D 4th Edition. Our guidelines are as follows:
- This is going to be a brief rundown of ways to make a character that ‘feels’ like the source character
- This isn’t meant to be comprehensive or authoritive but as a creative exercise
- While not every character can work immediately out of the box, the aim is to make sure they have a character ‘feel’ as soon as possible
- The character has to have the ‘feeling’ of the character by at least midway through Heroic
When building characters in 4th Edition it’s worth remembering that there are a lot of different ways to do the same basic thing. This isn’t going to be comprehensive, or even particularly fleshed out, and instead give you some places to start when you want to make something.
Another thing to remember is that 4e characters tend to be more about collected interactions of groups of things – it’s not that you get a build with specific rules about what you have to take, and when, and why, like you’re lockpicking your way through a design in the hopes of getting an overlap eventually. Character building is about packages, not programs, and we’ll talk about some packages and reference them going forwards.
You know, last year we did a bunch of characters who could be seen as fitting the genre of a combative adventurer reasonably well, and maybe it’s time to try some stuff that’s a bit more weird. With that in mind, let us reach wide, with our tiny, tiny arms, and look at ME GRIMLOCK!Continue Reading →
Ever noticed that there are a bunch of super speedster characters who are just total buttholes?
This isn’t a hard rule by any means – I don’t mean to say ‘characters who have super speed are all bastards.’ If nothing else, that’d be a pretty sweeping statement. It was something I noticed on City of Heroes that it was really common for people, when freed from existing canons, to make their own take on the super-speedster, seemed to pretty reliably make them, well, jerks.
At the time I thought this was just a byproduct of the somewhat insular reference pool of the community I was in. Like, the fact I couldn’t name in my entire RP circle, someone who had played a ‘Power Girl-type character’ but I could name multiple people who made anthropomorphic bats, and that the bats were all jerks, maybe painted to me that my environment was jerk-dense.
Thing is, when I went to revisit the topic, I found that it wasn’t that all speedsters are jerks… it’s that prominent speedsters were jerks. I did a quick sweep of a list of speed characters, and found that there was a pretty consistent trend that media that featured a speedster would often present that speedster as an asshole, and there was seemingly a stock episode in the 90s where a character would get super speed, be a total asshole with it, then abandon it, because they don’t want to be assholes. Because learning to not be an asshole with super speed is hard?
“But okay,” you may say, “Is this setting up a listicle,” and I thought about it.
I thought about it.
And then I did it.
Because look, this isn’t just superheroes, right?
If you know this character already, you know that there is one specific voice to use when writing about him. You might also know it is exceptionally annoying to write that way, and it’s even more annoying to read. It’s even the voice that the entire article about him is written about on the Transformers Wiki, which is so irritating to read that I have summarily given up on knowing anything true about the character and will not fact check anything I have to say here.
So here is the Generation 1 transformer, Blurrtimus ‘David’ The Jones.
David is a transformer created for the Transformers Movie, back in 198something. There was this push for the movie to serve as this dividing line between old Transformers, which played up the disguise, infiltration, secret angle of the Transformers characters, to the new generation of Transformers, who were going to be more of a ‘weird world space-faring’ story, where every new episode took the characters to a new oddball planet or meeting a new oddball alien. This was in part to open up different kind of transforming robot designs and maybe free up the previous generation’s reliance on wheeled vehicles, and it shows in the way characters like Kuppimus Kup and Miss ‘Sir Not Getting A Toy This Generation’ Arcee have vehicle modes that are kind of not like what you’d consider a vehicle, more ‘sci fi space ship’ than ‘could be parked at a Blockbuster.’
This movie also got a bit of a push where the characters presented for it were created with a bit more whole thought than the TV series? Characters were sort of approached all at once, and given clear affects and styles and character voices for the voice actors to establish. These aren’t complex characters – it’s pretty much just each character had a single gimmick that they could build out later (and never did). So, you have Rodimus Jr, whose gimmick was ‘is young’ and then you had Ultra Magnus whose gimmick was ‘is boring’ and then you had Arcee, whose gimmick was ‘is a girl’ and Springer whose gimmick was ‘probably meant to be Rodimus Jr.’
Now, David here, aka Blurr, is a Transformer whose bit is that he’s fast.
The way they handled Blurr in the movie was to have him talk very quickly, with a voice artist renowned for talking fast. That’s John Moschitta Jr. aka ‘Motormouth John,’ whose wikipedia page is easy to read, Telatraan-1, who has been responsible for a lot of voice acting in other roles. If you saw an ad for Micro Machines, or something like FedEx that had a super fast voiceover? That was this guy.
Blurr is meant to be fast, but if you look at him in the movie and subsequent series, they never do anything with that. Because, the most interesting thing about this is how we represent the affect of being fast, compared to the practical reality of being fast.
Like, the fastest way to answer the question ‘are you ready’ is ‘yes.’ And instead, Blurr would answer a question with dozens and dozens of words, and he would be shown moving at the same speed as other characters with a blurring outline. And that was good enough for me, as a kid, to look at Blurr and think ‘oh hey, I guess he’s really fast.’
But what does really fast mean?
Blurr showed up again, voiced again by Motormouth John, in Transformers Animated
Which is the best Transformers,
Where he once again was verbose, but also he had things to say. Original Blurr was a character who had nothing to say, but said it a lot; but then in a later iteration he had the same affect, doing very clear, very quick, descriptions of the entire plot up until now. It’s interesting, too, because the character was also treated as if he was very fast, and him being fast was treated this way to both update late viewers on the plot, and to convey extremely complicated scenarios and solutions.
If you have a fast character, consider why you need them to be fast, and ways to use that fastness.
Okay, there, now, how do you end an article like this?
I like the Transformers, but they are absolutely a universe where a lot of give and take had be done between what the toys could make happen and what the character designers could make work, and boy is that obvious when you talk about the Seacons.
For those of you not already familiar, the Seacons are from that twilight-of-G1-not-quite-G2 era when dayglo purple and cyan were the thing, where gold plastic that turned to dust got produced in high volume, and where all the good, easy concepts and moulds from Takara’s stockpile had been used up. The transformers had run through their first wave of designs that could be cobbled together and it was time to start expanding into the less obvious, less easy model kit things to turn into transformers. The toy with a gimmick of transforming robot aliens already had the idea of transforming robot aliens that could slot together to form bigger robot aliens, and that meant new designs had to make new groups that could combine.
In The Transformers, the very serious advertising campaign about alien robots that transform into cars, planes, dinosaurs, two boomboxes (ask your parents), a vending machine and an enormous twelve-meter tall microscope, there are collections of toy robots that can be stuck together into single bigger toy robots. We’ve talked about them in the past, when I talked about the Protectobots and the Stunticons, where you could collect a set that was a squad which had its own internal dynamic, leaders and friends and followers. It was a really neat marketing gimmick, where you could Consume Products in a way with both a targeted list, and a reward for achieving all parts of that list.
These squads also tended to be written to have a bit of personality, based on the cards that they had on the back of the boxes, or the guidebooks you could buy and the maybe-sometimes-eventually-expressed-in-a-comic way that the show did to express character. The fact is in the TV Show, most Transformers were as much an accent and a hand to hold one of a number of blue-or-red lasers, with very few of them having a chance to really put forwards their characterisation compared to just filling space in battle scenes. Oh, there were single episodes that focused on single transformers from time to time, but they rarely got to build a large amount of context. I don’t remember any episode where Trailbreaker’s fear of being overconsumptive of Energon paralysed him, nor any instance of Windcharger magnetically tearing things apart.
But that doesn’t matter because Transformers is a canon made up of a shotgun blast of ideas, and what sticks tends to be what any given writer could put together. When dealing with our girls the Stunticons, it was picking any given list of personal neuroses and jamming them onto the toys they had to work with.
And that same policy got to be used on the beta model gestalt, the first step mistake that was Devastator.
Talking about Transformers continuity is fraught because to say there’s a ‘canon’ or a ‘character’ is nonsense. Thanks to the neverending maw of capitalism and a loose vision of what matters to the people who engage with a brand that very much just started to sell toys thirty years ago, it’s not like there’s any kind of sensible core to anything. Talking about character and continuity of a story that isn’t just interrupted by commercial breaks but is basically constructed out of those commercial breaks is a fool’s errand. Anything I have to say about a Transformers character is going to be either contained within a specific bubble of continuity (like Animated), or sort of formed out of a general collusion of shadows shining on many similar objects, to see where they overlap.
With that in mind, have I told you about Blades?
You know what let’s trot out a silly personal fan theory based on a tiny window of time. In this TED talk, I will explain to you that the Generation 1 Transformers known as the ‘Stunticons’ are four trans girls dealing with an abusive father figure who wants to keep them closeted.
Content warning, I’m going to talk in a general way about how much Motormaster sucks and about some queer stereotypes, but everything is done in the name of fun and I’m not trying to get you to consider Something Very Serious.
As a boy of my age I feel it seems only natural that I would be a fan of Transformers, one of the franchises from my youth that somehow managed to be acceptable in a landscape of anti-fun fundamentalism. Perhaps it was something about the fact that they were all robots-that-turned-into-things, or maybe the fact that the toys were honestly really expensive for my childhood experience, but somehow, I was able to get into Transformers, in the fashion of someone who read all the lore he could find in the dollar shops and salvo stores.
The actual TV show was screened at times I missed, and the movie was important to my upbringing, but it wasn’t really until I hit adulthood that I was able to watch the TV series that Transformers had as their extended commercials. This meant that I got to see the best one.
Transformers Animated was the last pre-Bayformers animated series, and there was, at the time, some rumbling that the series got kicked in the neck because it was trying to clear toy shelf space for the movie tie-ins. This is probably nonsense, but it still helped to fuel some resentment towards the (actually also quite bad) live-action movies. And that’s a shame, because my first feeling about Transformers Animated when I bring it to mind should not be, if I had my preferences, any kind of spite or sadness about it.
It should be joy, joy at this wonderful, fun series.
Transformers Animated had a teen sidekick, people of colour, a technofuturist vision of Detroit, shapeshifting superheroes, at least one examination of war crimes and the loss of identity, and the best Grimlock ever put to Transformers media. It’s a punchline for its art style and that’s a damn shame because it’s absolutely excellent.Continue Reading →
To some people, the best Christmas movie is Die Hard. To some, it’s Gremlins. To me it’s The Transformers Movie.
But you might point out that the reason those movies are held up as Christmas movies is because Christmas plays into them! And, wittily, they might say, there is something essentially Christmas-toned about them which will allow you to watch them on a technicality on your Christmas weekend, as if you need to cheat the rules to enjoy your own time off, or the smugness makes the experience sweeter. You might want to make a point of the use of Christmas as a central plot element in Gremlins and that’s great, but that’s not why The Transformers Movie is a Christmas movie to me.
The Transformers Movie is a Christmas movie for me, because it, to me, feels like Christmas.
In October 2015, a new Transformers Videogame hit the shelves and it read like the kind of thing a fan would have made up – a full-scale brawler game, modelled on the classic G1 aesthetic, rendered in tight cell-shaded styles and delivered to us courtesy of the minds behind such classics as Vanquish and Bayonetta: Platinum Games. It had a frightfully short hype cycle, too – it was announced in June 2015, and launched less than three full months later.
So what came of this? Did the game actually deliver on its incredibly strange, moment-in-time development? Was it a cheap cash-in on a license that was in the news? Was this just another attempt to mine our nostalgia?