Monday, November 17, 2014

The Origin of the Transformers.

Transformers... they absolutely consumed my childhood.

Interestingly enough, they still do.

If there's any sort of starting point with Transformers, then it has to be with Optimus Prime. Everybody knows the name. As far as fictitious characters go, Prime has withstood the test of time. Thirty years later and kids still know who he is. The same certainly can't be said about Skeletor or He-Man (which makes no sense to me, but that's another story altogether). As a whole, Transformers are perhaps the most successful toy line in history.

Optimus Prime

The story of the Transformers actually begins in 1980, a full four years before the first Transformer toy was ever released. Takara, a Japanese toy manufacturer, created a new series of toys called Diaclone. The toys were all based on real life vehicles that could change into robots. Many of the original Transformers toys from 1984 and 1985, like Optimus Prime, Thundercracker, Jazz, Hoist and Grapple, were released as Diaclones in their original forms with no names or backstory. In fact, many were in different colors that would eventually be changed for the Transformers toy line. For example, Ironhide as we all know is a red van. But, when he first came out as a Diaclone toy, Ironhide was a black van.

Pre-Transformers Diaclone "Ironhide"

In the time between 1980 and 1984, the Diaclone toys had mild success in Japan. Takara even began to export some of the Diaclone toys to the United States and Europe, where they were met with a lukewarm reception. At the time, the Masters of the Universe and Cabbage Patch Kids dominated the toy market. Diaclone was no match!

In 1983, Takara also released a smaller toy line in Japan called Micro Change. These toys were smaller than the Diaclone toys and had designs based on household objects, guns and tools. These toys would later become Transformers characters like Soundwave, Reflector, Megatron, Blaster and the cassette tape Transformers (Ravage, Eject, etc.).

Soundwave and cassette Ratbat


At the 1983 Tokyo Toy Show, representatives from American toy company Hasbro encountered the Diaclone and Micro Change toys for the first time. They negotiated a deal with Takara by the end of the year to license their toys and sell them in the United States. To make the toys more easily accessible and memorable, Hasbro decided early on to sell them under one brand name with a unifying story. To develop that story, Hasbro turned to Marvel Comics. Hasbro had already achieved remarkable success with Marvel through their development of the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero toy line, cartoon and comics. Essentially, Hasbro figured they could make lightning strike twice... and they were right.

Marvel's Editor-In-Chief Jim Shooter, writer Dennis O'Neil and editor Bob Budiansky all contributed to the Transformers story and generated character biographies. To go along with the upcoming toy line, they began publication of a Transformers comic series which surprisingly ran for eighty issues. Hasbro also hastily ordered production of the original Transformers cartoon. By the holiday season of 1984, the Transformers were on store shelves and ready to surprise eager kids as gifts. Though, they didn't remain on toy shelves for very long -- most stores sold out of Transformers very quickly. Kids had already gobbled up the comics and watched the cartoons; now they desperately wanted the toys for holiday gifts (to which parents eagerly obliged).

The Seacons merge to form the giant robot combiner Piranacon

The rest, as they say, is history. Transformers became a huge phenomenon and are still in production to this day. Through countless cartoons, movies, comics and toy lines, Transformers have remained in production or for sale consistently for thirty years. The 2014 Holiday Season will be the thirtieth time kids (and adult collectors like myself) will receive Transformers as gifts. Oh, how lucky we are!


Pretender Skullgrin

*All photos are from my personal archive.*

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