Exhibit / May 24, 2017
Object Name: The Transformers Toys, “Generation One”
Maker and Year: Hasbro, Inc., 1984-1990
Object Type: Toys
Image Source: Botch the Crab
Description: (Michael Grasso, Richard McKenna, K.E. Roberts)
ROBERTS: Christmas, 1984. It was a hell of a time to be a kid. We’d reveled in seven years of Star Wars and Star Wars toys, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (also Hasbro) and Mattel’s Masters of the Universe franchises launched in 1982, using Lucas’s simplistic moral universe as a backdrop, and then Hasbro struck again with these diecast shape-shifting robots yanked from Japanese company Takara. After the Transformers cartoon debuted in September 1984, we all went mad. The urge to acquire the “robots in disguise” verged on lust, spreading through an already computer- and video game-obsessed kid world like a cybernetic virus. In a super-militarized America that blindly swallowed the redemptive promise of technology (Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars,” in 1983), how could we resist dueling super-robots, one of which turned into a goddamn Walther P-38?
GRASSO: This one is going to be very hard for me to be objective about, guys. I have a lot of very strong, personal, almost atavistic feelings about this G1 Year 1 Transformers pamphlet as an artifact. The launch of the Transformers cartoon and the release of the G1 toys happened at pretty much the perfect juncture in my life. I believe I started collecting Transformers with Year 2 of G1 in 1985 at the age of 10, but I went back and got plenty of the Year 1 toys in the weeks and months to come. As Kelly says, Transformers offered a perfect good vs. evil narrative for the Reagan years. The Autobots were proletarian cars and trucks, hard-working everyday Joe vehicles, while the Decepticons were avatars of the military machine and, interestingly, in the person of Soundwave and his microcassette servants, of the invasion of America by microprocessor-powered electronics from Japan.
My allowance was pretty much just enough every couple of weeks to get an Autobot car-level toy, which meant I needed to save up for bigger boxes like Optimus Prime, Megatron, or some of the bigger toys from the Year 2 line like Jetfire (a repainted Macross VF-1S Super Valkyrie). One thing I remember about these Year 1 and 2 toys: so many of them were good, heavy, substantial pieces of metal! I remember the Autobot cars like Jazz, Sunstreaker, and Wheeljack having solid metal chassis with actual rolling tires! Transformers in every way gave off the impression of being premium toys, unlike the hunks of plastic we’d seen in the late ’70s and very early ’80s (sorry, Star Wars, GoBots, and He-Man).
MCKENNA: I’m guessing that the Transformers phenomenon broke through in the UK slightly later than it did in the US, which would explain why I was already outside the glowing envelope that would have allowed me to become obsessed with them—because who in their right mind wouldn’t become obsessed with them?—instead of them being more the domain of kids the age of my younger brother, whose childish pursuits were beneath me. The didactic nature of British children’s TV programming—even that on the dreaded commercial ITV channel—meant that we UK kids born in the early ’70s had been insulated from the burgeoning world of Japanese cartoons (which, in places like Italy, unregulated private broadcasting hungry for cheap product made a defining and enduring part of national child culture). My personal exposure to them had been pretty much limited to a once-weekly Battle of the Planets, Ulysses 31, and a couple of blurry pictures of Voltron, Mazinger Z, and Space Cruiser Yamato in Starburst magazine.
My first recollection of seeing a Transformer is at a metaller friend’s house. I must have been about 15, and his younger brother had left one—the Walkman—lying around among some Celtic Frost LPs and copies of Kerrang magazine. I picked it up and, as Mike says, was shocked by how heavy and solid it was, how much it felt like a piece of hardware instead of the usual hollow injection-moulded plastic dross. When I was shown how it worked, I felt the same way I did years later the first time someone put an iPhone in my hands: I knew I was handling a technology that I didn’t understand. And then there were the confusing aesthetic dissonances: why were they all such disparate sizes? And why was there seemingly no logic to the things they could turn into? I mean, a Walkman and an articulated truck?
ROBERTS: I want to go back to the easy dualism of all of these kid’s properties in the ’80s for a second. Charlie Jane Anders makes a great case that Star Wars, despite Lucas’s opposing political views, actually fueled the rise of Reagan and the Cold War. Americans were tired of hearing about the moral failures of Vietnam and Watergate. They were tired of gas shortages and terrorism and recession. Reagan tapped into the childlike optimism of Star Wars—borrowed in part from the Christian triumphalism of The Lord of the Rings—even employing its rhetoric directly in a speech invoking the “Evil Empire,” as well as the SDI nonsense already mentioned. The cartoon villains of the decade—Cobra, the Decepticons, the Evil Horde, V.E.N.O.M., and so on—reflect this Cold War intellectual malaise: if the adults swallowed it, then of course the kids were going to eat it up. Cartoons from the previous two decades (Scooby Doo, Where Are You!, Jonny Quest, Tarzan and the Super 7) had a revolving cast of villains, none of whom were part of an “empire” bent on world domination—and most cartoons didn’t feature any true villains at all.
I should mention that I did not get any Transformers for Christmas in 1984. They were almost nowhere to be found and they were much too expensive. I got a couple of GoBots instead. C’est la vie.
GRASSO: Let us not forget that the Decepticons’ main aim in the first couple of seasons of the Transformers cartoon was grabbing all the sweet, sweet energon cubes they could. This seems to me to be a fairly clear metaphor for the Western military-industrial complex being mobilized to secure all the sources of petroleum they could after the aforementioned OPEC crises of the ’70s. As the Cold War played out its final decade, of course, the pieces were being put into place for the post-Cold War order. And all that oil, secured by guns and jet airplanes, would end up right in the fuel tanks of… thirsty American cars and trucks—in other words, Autobots. As dualist as the Autobot vs. Decepticon conflict might be, I’d argue that the Cybertronian as a species, both Autobot and Decepticon, is a libidinal synthesis/projection of all of America’s fears of a permanent loss of prestige due to our dependency on foreign oil. Both hunger for Earth’s resources, and, as much as the Autobots proclaim the rhetoric of Cold War American liberation (the literally red-white-and-blue Optimus Prime’s own Tech Specs motto is “freedom is the right of all sentient beings“), I find it interesting that in the canon of the cartoon, the Transformers Wiki informs us that “by 2005, however, the Autobots had begun to use energon cubes for power as well.”
And the ontology of hiding in plain sight, being “robots in disguise,” as Richard remarked upon earlier, is also really interesting. The Transformers in the cartoon received their forms as they were awakened from a four-million year slumber. The Autobots’ spacecraft, the Ark (a name redolent with all kinds of religious and cultural significance), sent out probes to find ways for the Transformers to be able to fit in on 1984 Earth. Like Ford Prefect in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978), the Ark’s computers thought that disguising the Autobots as automobiles would make them “nicely inconspicuous” as members of the dominant lifeform on Earth: the car.
MCKENNA: The more I think about it, the more I find the whole concept of secret beings hiding inside everyday objects oddly fitting for the period when they emerged. Maybe another of the reasons the Transformers were so resonant was that, with society growing increasingly materialistic, it was reassuring to think that commodities might not just be colorful chunks of cheaply-extruded plastic and metal we filled our lives with—that things might actually have their own souls, might have something to contribute. A peculiarly ’80s kind of ghost-in-the-machine animism which, as Mike points out, found its highest expression in the talking car, both fictional and real (though comically useless).
We never had any Transformer toys in the McKenna household. The closest we got were the books which hitherto prim-and-proper British publisher Ladybird put out as it began to surrender to the changing realities of the day: written by respected SF author John Grant (who also wrote 1986’s Sex Secrets of Ancient Atlantis), they featured memorably rubbish, rushed-looking art (by Mike Collins and Mark Farmer), came with a cassette version of the story and completely negated the charm of the physical objects themselves. My brother had a couple, and maybe it’s because they were so dull that I struggle to get up any enthusiasm for Transformers. After growing up with the prole irreverence of the protagonists of Ro-Busters, The A.B.C. Warriors, and Robo Hunter, the whole Transformers schtick seemed a little worthy and dull, its epic pretensions all a bit Sunday school. And plus, the cartoon version’s legs were so fucking clunky-looking.
ROBERTS: I should have known better than to get slightly philosophical with you two on deck, although I totally dig both the oil dependency and animism arguments. For me, the Transformers led to Harmony Gold’s Robotech, yet another U.S. appropriation of a Japanese franchise, this one about Earth forces defending against an alien invasion. The animation and story, taken from three separate anime series, was so much more elegant than what I’d seen—there were actual adult relationships, politics and political consequences played out, characters died, and so on—and the Veritech fighters and assorted mecha were so much cooler than anything Hasbro had to offer.
GRASSO: As much as it hurts to realize that the toys of one’s youth are part and parcel of a kind of consumerist indoctrination in status symbols and commodity fetishism, there’s something undeniable about how the Transformers toys fired my imagination. This period around age 10 and 11 was right before I discovered tabletop RPGs, and so the stories I told with my Transformers were some of the first narratives I crafted myself. While the Transformers and G.I. Joe cartoons and comic books were inspirational, the continuities of Hasbro’s toy lines inspired me to create my own consistent fictional universes. It was fanfic before I knew what the word was. Moreover, in childhood, learning kinesthetically is just as important as the kind of imaginative play that the Transformers’ stories inspired. For someone like me, who’s always had problems with spatial relations in three dimensions, the act of transforming the toys was immensely helpful in overcoming that particular learning obstacle.
I still have a lot of strong positive feelings about the Transformers universe, ambivalent as I may feel about the raw consumerist ethos embedded in these objects as an adult. I can joke about Optimus Prime being an avatar of American imperialism, but I bet for a lot of kids of my late-Generation X cohort, Prime was a father figure in a world severely lacking in them. All of us kids who looked up to him were Bumblebee (or indeed Spike Witwicky). Finding some positive value in what was essentially a cynical method of marketing toys to kids in an era of massive children’s television deregulation is, I think, necessary and proper. Even amidst rampant commercialization, children’s imaginations and thirst for stories where justice prevails can’t be completely quashed.