May 7th, 2009

Megatron

Transformers is 25!

Shortpacked!: It's a special day.

"The premise is that two groups of 'robots' evolve on a faraway planet and start an eons long war for control of same. This knocks the planet from its orbit and sends it spinning through our solar system (!) The goodguy robots send an expedition out to punch a path through the asteroid belt, where they are ambushed by the badguy robots and all end up crashing into Earth and being suspended for ages in a volcano. Then they wake up and start the battle again."
Transformers is 25 years old today.  Amazingly, Usenet is even older.  The above quote is from a Usenet post dated May 22, 1984, reviewing the first issue of Marvel Comics' The Transformers.  According to our best estimates, The Transformers #1 hit newsstands (back when they had newsstands!) on May 8, 1984.  Exactly 25 years ago today.  The cartoon pilot, "More than Meets the Eye, Part 1," wasn't due until September 17.  There is a commercial which may predate the release of the first comic book on May 8, since it's an advertisement for the "coming soon" comic book, but we don't know of any concrete airdate.  The toys were reportedly released some time during the summer.  For all intents and purposes, May 8 is Transformers' birthday.

According to the recently-published book Transformers and Philosophy: More than Meets the Mind, "excepting only the Star Wars saga, no science-fiction story has reached as many people around the world."  That seems a little untrue to me, especially having just seen Star Trek last night, but it may not be far off.  The amount of hype generated from a toyline for kids is pretty crazy.  Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica -- these all started out as stories, not as marketing gimmicks. 

But perhaps being a marketing gimmick is part of Transformers' longevity.  It's free to reinvent itself whenever it feels like it so as to keep itself viable.  Vehicles aren't selling to kids?  Well, make them beasts!  Problem solved.  Kids want more interactivity in their toys?  Well, hell, let's give them Mini-ConsStar Trek had to sludge through forty years, at the end subsisting on nothing more than fumes, before it was allowed to reinvent itself top-to-bottom for a fresher audience.  

Transformers had some missteps along the way, however.  Early on, Hasbro horribly misjudged how important its characters were to the kids they were selling product to.  Optimus Prime was just a plaything Hasbro thought they could easily replace with the next year's line.  They only made that mistake once.  Optimus Prime is never going away, even if they occasionally have to change his last name and make him a different guy who transforms into a gorilla.  Hasbro has learned to respect its intellectual property, and not just as a means to sell disposable action figures, but as a viable entertainment franchise.  That lesson took a little longer to take hold than the "don't get rid of Optimus Prime" thing. 

At the twenty-five years mark, I think Hasbro has reached a pretty good balance between staying true to its concept and the ability to adapt new ideas.  We're getting a lot of references to past Transformers history this year.  We're also getting a good influx of new ideas.  Transformers has hit the sweet spot.

Bloggers Unite: The 25th Anniversary of Transformers