Booting up cold: a look back at how Marvel, Dreamwave and IDW started their Transformers comics

Please note: this article was originally written in June, 2008

Does a robot die a little each time it’s rebooted? When “The Transformers” first appeared in the eighties in its comic book and cartoon series incarnations, words like “brand”, “franchise” and “reboot” were seldom applied outside the slick, knife-edged world of corporate business. But capitalism has come a long, long way since then. In these times of ratings chasers, bean counters and brand shouters, beloved character-centric storylines have been price-tagged and bagged. 

Remember “Batman”? He used to be a rich man in a black suit that fought crime; now he’s a fully-fledged brand with subsidiary licensing opportunities and all rights reserved. A single character has become a franchise, a property to be licensed to the highest bidder and used in films, comics, action figures and bedspreads. Each time a new licensor arrives on the scene the franchise gets a new beginning, a new backstory. It gets what they call a “reboot”. And the same goes for “The Transformers”.

So when these franchises are based on characters and stories, what effect does the continual restarting have? “The Transformers” has been rebooted many times over the years, most significantly last year with the start of the “live-action Transformers franchise” and almost immediately again (for an altogether different audience) with “Transformers Animated”. In the space of a year, two very different Transformers brands were launched. The Optimus Prime that appears in the Transformers film is a very different property to that appearing in the Transformers Animated cartoon, despite the surface similarities.

In the world of comics, “The Transformers” lasted an epic eleven years of continuous storytelling in the hands of Marvel (via two “Transformers” series in the US and UK and associated mini-series, and one “Transformers: Generation 2” maxi-series in the US). And if you count the “Beast Wars” and “Beast Machines” television series as a direct continuation of the comics, then that makes sixteen years of the same continuity. It wasn’t just children that had longer attention spans back then, marketing executives did too. 

“The Transformers Comic Franchise” was rebooted in 2002 by Dreamwave and again in late 2005 by IDW Publishing. In literary terms it meant that the stories, environments, and characters nurtured and developed by the creative teams working for Marvel were effectively wiped out of existence when Dreamwave took over the licence. And so the cycle repeated with IDW when it took over.

Each of the three publishers started their Transformers stories with a mini-series. With Marvel, their initial four-issue mini-series became an ongoing monthly series and both Dreamwave and IDW started their storyline with a half-issue preview and a six-issue mini-series.

Quite the Marvel

Marvel’s initial approach was very simple. “The Transformers” brand was completely new to the market. When the first issue was published, no accompanying cartoon yet existed and only a small range of toys waited on the shelves for eager hands to grab them.

The Transformers were alien when we met them. Very alien. The writers of the Marvel mini-series went to great lengths to show how incompatible the Transformers and their technology were with Earth. In fact, the entire plot of that first 4-issue story revolved around an attempt to make (crude) Earth fuels compatible with Cybertronian systems. And the inter-species drama didn’t end there. The Transformers, it seemed, had no prior experience of organic life and only the vehicles of Earth registered as “alive”.

Though the lead characters in their own series, The Transformers arrival on Earth was told concurrently with the relatively unremarkable human drama of the Witwicky family. However, instead of stealing the robots’ thunder, the human factor served to root the (presumably human) reader in the storyline and provide an anchor to its perspective. A fine balance was maintained throughout and the human subplot not once overshadowed the fantastic Transformers.

Human/Transformer interaction also allowed for some gentle humour too. In vehicle mode, the Autobots were driverless and passers-by’s reactions to them were played to full humourous effect. 

Despite the concerted effort to establish the Transformers as alien robots, a lot of personality traits were very human. Many of the Autobots (even the grumpy ones) had warm personalities. Also worth noting, is the fact that several Transformers were given “superpowers” in addition to their already wonderous tranformation abilities that mimicked many Marvel superheroes.

It almost goes without saying that the initial Marvel mini-series, and indeed the rest of the run when it was renewed as a “regular” series, was commissioned as a marketing vehicle. One jarring sequence in the very first issue has all the Transformers (Autobot and Decepticon) introduce themselves roll-call fashion. Ironically, though, certain technical problems such as mis-colouring and inconsistent character models meant that characters were not always instantly recognisable.

Despite that, each and every character introduced had at least one small sequence to highlight their personalities and abilities all without throwing off the pace of the story.

The story does cover a lot of ground, each page thick with plot and forward-moving pace leading up to a satsifying climax and buy-the-next-issue cliffhanger. Perhaps it was a sign of the times, but the story covered in the 88 pages of the Marvel mini-series would likely be told across two or three 132 page trade paperback collections if conceived today.

Incidentally, the premise and story of the initial Marvel mini-series, in my opinion, would translate very well into a Michael BayTM live-action Transformers film. It has the perfect introduction of the Transformers on Earth, an interesting human subplot, plenty of high-impact fight scenes and set pieces, and it even has a scene of Buster’s girlfriend scantily clad at dance class. (And issues 5-8 and 9-12 would make two excellent sequels, too!)

As it was, the initial Marvel mini-series was a commercial hit and a regular series was commissioned which lasted a further 76 issues and many mini-series and sequels. It also spawned a quarter-century fiction-based legacy that outgrew the toy-range it was based on leading to many themes being picked up by new comic publishers, cartoon writers and Hollywood producers.

Success? Without question. Phenomenon? Without a doubt.

Must Be Dreaming

In the year 2002, Canadian comic publishers Dreamwave released the first issue of their version of “The Transformers Comics Franchise”. It became one of the top-selling comics of the year, most likely owing to a feverish Internet-borne clamouring for 80s nostalgia. It had been eight years since the last mass-released Transformers comic and much talk of 80s properties (see how easy the corporate speak of the 00s rolls onto the keyboard?) such as Transformers, Turtles, and Thundercats meant that comic collectors and speculators came out in their droves to buy the issue.

This fashionable buyers’ behaviour was capitalised by Dreamwave: They released each issue of their mini-series with multiple covers and multiple mini-posters inside to ensure ravenous fans and speculators bought as many comics as possible. The mini-series was structured to tell one story over six issues so it could be resold as a trade paperback collection as soon as possible.

Creatively, it seemed Dreamwave was aware of the comic industry’s then-current climate and readers’ desire to see the Transformers again, and so structured the plot of the story in an attempt to play on that tension with the slow re-introduction of the Transformers characters.

The Dreamwave mini-series was set in an ambiguous continuity, vaguely referencing the characters and themes of the original Transformers cartoon and reading as if continuing some previously set untold story. It was more a soft reboot of the Transformers story, a ctrl-alt-delete of the Transformers universe, if you will. 

The tone of the story made an attempt to be darker. The first generation of Transformers fans had grown older and there was no toyline of the characters to market. (That mandate was fulfilled by Dreamwave’s “Armada” comic which provided a less eye-pickling alternative to the concurrent cartoon that was trying to sell Hasbro’s Transformers: Armada toys.) 

There was more gratuitous death, more blood and even luke-warm profanity than seen previously in Transformers.

The story itself (which suffered from severe plot drift, mundane characterisation and erratic pacing) relied more on visual spectacle to carry it along. Colours (now done on computer compared to the archaeic tones used in the Marvel days) were bright and bold and there certainly seemed to be a deliberate attempt to pull out dramatic and iconic images from the script. There was no true sense of wonder about the Transformers, but they were undoubtedly drawn large on the page.

Dreamwave’s reboot was shallow and inconsequential. It sold well, yes, but those sales figures were no indication of quality or lasting endurance. In fact, by the time the second Dreamwave mini-series came along with a new writing team a lot of the first mini-series’ story was retroactively changed. It was like that second reboot was needed after seeing the comic equivalent of the infamous “blue screen of death” common of Microsoft computers. Despite the re-reboot, the initial strong sales for Dreamwave took a nose-dive and, coupled with other bad business decisions, the company went bankrupt within three years.

Ideas Work

In late 2005, Idea & Design Works’ “IDW Publishing” division took over the Transformers comic book licence and, presumably not wishing to follow in the previous licencee’s footsteps made great efforts to completely reboot the Transformers universe. 

Every aspect, from individual characters, robot/vehicle designs, origins, history and tenets of war, of the Transformers story was carefully considered, re-evaluated and updated. This was a cold, hard reboot. The Transformers universe had been turned off, left for thirty seconds and then switched back on again.

Seasoned Transformers scribe, Simon Furman, had been drafted in from the beginning to rebuild the new story from the ground up. Interestingly, though the longest-serving creator in the Transformers franchise, Simon had never once been there to mould a Transformers story from scratch. But with IDW he was given a unique opportunity to prove his mettle. 

In his introduction to the “Infiltration” trade paperback collection Simon himself stated, “I had never got to do ‘my’ Transformers series. Until now…” So with renewed vigour he set about challenging long-time readers’ expectations and shaking off the reputation that Transformers had.

The result was “Infiltration”, a monthly six-issue (and one short preview issue 0) mini-series. Much like the Dreamwave restart, it was designed to be sold once as a comic series and again as a trade paperback. Also similar to Dreamwave, the tactic of multiple covers to boost sales was employed. Except this time the covers actually depicted the events inside the cover, compared to Dreamwave’s seemingly random, pulled-out-the-hat covers.

The Transformers were again on Earth, this time with updated and more contemporary vehicle forms, and there was heavy interaction with human characters. The intent was to create a renewed sense of wonder to the robots and a return to the traditional “robots in disguise” premise. It may have backfired ever so slightly however, as focus seemed to fall a little too much on the human characters. However, when the light did shine on the Transformers, they were brilliant.

Another creative shift compared to Dreamwave and Marvel was a depiction of decidedly more techinical and “realistic” Transformers designs. Each robot looked like it could actually transform into its vehicle mode. Another difference between IDW and Marvel was the introduction of “solidly holographic” drivers for the Transformers. And while the lack of drivers in the Marvel days allowed for comedic effect so too did the holograms in IDW.

Compared to the relatively shallow story of the Dreamwave mini-series, IDW’s story was positively gorge-like. Despite being based on a 20 year old mythos, “Infiltration” went to great lengths to surprise and enthrall its grown up readers. For the first time, Transformers readers were given something to think about. The plot of the story itself may have been loose but it afforded room to fit layered characterisation and thought-provoking themes comfortably into the storyline.

Again, like Dreamwave, there were no actual related Transformers toys to accompany the storyline, so there was complete freedom to pick and choose characters. In fact, Optimus Prime, the most iconic Transformer and main player of both the Marvel and Dreamwave mini-series, did not make an appearance until the last panel of the last page of “Infiltration”. 

And, as IDW progressed further with the likes of “Stormbringer” and the Spotlight issues, there was a certain irony that unfolded. In the Marvel series, the continual introduction of new characters was seen as a hinderance, but with IDW, readers and long-time Transformers fans were desperate to see where their favourite characters were.

To this day (at time of writing this article, IDW are part-way through their “Revelations” saga) this new ground-up retelling of the Transformers has proved itself to be built on strong foundations, with new plot twists and long-running storylines continuing to build up. Characters, though familiar, have either had added layers to their personalities or been reinvented altogether. Characters once hated are now loved, and characters once loved have become even more revered.

It may be true that a robot dies a little each time it’s rebooted, but it’s how it’s brought back to life that counts. 

May your luster never dull, and your wires never cross!

Published by Graham Thomson

Blogger, photographer, worrier.

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