Oshkosh, Wisconsin. 1984. I’m six (“and a half!”) years old, and this is the year I would discover some seriously cool stuff: Transformers and G.I. Joe. While G.I. Joe had debuted two years earlier, and my older brother, Kevin, doubtless had some of the toys, I didn’t really notice that stuff until after I’d turned six. At this point, I was beginning to become one of the “big kids,” and my tastes in toys reflected that. The fact that, a year later in 1985, both toy lines would have TV shows – which were, really, little better than half-hour-long daily commercials for said toys – certainly aided in my discovery. That year also saw the release of a new cartoon in the U.S.: Robotech, and by 1986, I’d also discovered Voltron, another Japanese import. Add these to my existing love of the Star Wars toys, and I’m shocked my mother was able to refrain from causing physical harm to myself or my brother whenever we happened to pass a toy aisle when we’d go shopping.
Prior to 1985, Transformers and G.I. Joe toys were, honestly, kinda cool, but not really “must-haves” for me. The cartoon series for both were something of a gateway drug for me, and connected me to a toy line like nothing before or since. Sure, they had catchy theme songs (“The Transformers! More than meets the eye!” and “They’ll fight for freedom wherever there’s trouble, G.I. Joe is theeeere!” still spring immediately to mind, nearly thirty years later) but that’s not what did it for me. They brought life to the toys, made them into characters that I could love, hate, or even love to hate (Starscream, I’m lookin’ at you). Playing with those toys was so much more fulfilling, with the knowledge of who that hunk of plastic in my hand really was, and what his/her/its motivations really were. Granted, those cartoons from the 1980s are practically unwatchable in retrospect, and the cartoons produced since aren’t much better (with the exception of G.I. Joe: Resolute and the possible exception of G.I. Joe: Renegades, which I haven’t seen enough of to judge yet), but they were enough for me at the time, and that’s what really matters.
Kevin and I used to watch those cartoons every day (while my younger sister, Stacia, meanwhile, preferred the more sophisticated fare of Rainbow Brite, My Little Pony, and The Care Bears), as well as another new cartoon that had caught our attention: Robotech. This was a cartoon unlike anything a seven- and a ten-year-old from the Midwest had ever seen before. Robotech, in fact, was actually three separate Japanese cartoon series, creatively edited with new, English dialogue so that they would flow together; each series represented a separate generation of characters. Of these generations, the first, Macross, remains my favorite. While all three had giant, transforming mecha, and all three boasted more “grown up” storylines than any other cartoon on television – people died, relationships weren’t simple – something about Macross appealed to me far more than the others.
For some reason, one thing I remember about the time that we lived in that particular house in Oshkosh (my family moved frequently – every year, in fact, until I was ten), Kevin and I were watching Robotech. There was a fairly heavy thunderstorm underway, and halfway through the episode, there was an incredibly bright flash concurrent with an ear-splitting “Boom!” I was old enough to know that sound, being that loud, and that close to the flash, meant that lightning had struck somewhere very close. So close, in fact, we were able to look out the window and see a house less than a block away beginning to catch fire. Kevin and I watched in amazement as the house burned (the lightning strike had also cut the power in the neighborhood, so going back to the TV was out, even if we would’ve just watched the spectacle unfolding across the street, three houses away, anyhow). Eventually, the fire department arrived to put out the blaze.
Robotech would become my gateway drug to other anime, much as the Transformers and G.I. Joe cartoons were to my affection for their toy lines. Another early exposure to anime was Voltron. Like Robotech, it featured giant, transforming mecha. Awesome points for that. But the story? Well, to put it bluntly, I always thought the story was a bit craptacular. I never really got into Voltron in quite the same way that I did with Robotech, but my early exposure to both helped open me up in later years to other anime, some of which was outstanding, and some of which was also, well, craptacular. Well, at least the Voltron tie-in with Privateer Press’ Monsterpocalypse game was pretty cool.
I recently watched the original version of Macross, albeit dubbed into English. Even without the Robotech trappings, the story remained essentially unchanged. Best of all, the campy voiceovers by the far-too-avuncular announcer weren’t present in the original, and the rare occasions that did have a voiceover summary were performed by a much less annoying-sounding woman. Many of the actors providing the voices for Macross were the same as for Robotech (so, effectively, they got paid to do the same job twice, with only minor changes the second time around). Pretty much everything involving Minmay, however, just makes me cringe and my skin crawl. The character of Lynn Minmay is a typically self-centered and vapid teenage girl, who inexplicably becomes a singing and modeling sensation aboard the SDF-1 while it’s in deep space. My problems are twofold. First, every single adult male on the ship is openly lusting after a fifteen-year-old girl, and no one has a problem with this. (Then again, essentially the same thing happened a decade later with Britney Spears, but at least most people agreed that it wasn’t really healthy for adult men to behave like that) Secondly, after she finally ditches the young fighter pilot she’s been stringing along for half the season, she shacks up with someone who is, ironically, militant in his anti-military stance… and is her cousin. Lynn Minmay is not only the focus of unhealthy sexual attention, she’s committing incest… and again, nobody has a problem with this. Yes, I realize that both of these problems are likely due to cultural differences between Japan and America… but since they were dubbing everything over anyway, would it be so hard to change her age and relationship to Lynn Kyle? Even in Robotech, which was heavily altered for American audiences, that aspect of the show was left unchanged. But, as a boy, this was something I’d never noticed.
While living in Shiprock, New Mexico, in 1985-86, I became aware that there were more to the Transformers and G.I. Joe than cartoons and toys. Yes, there were also comic books. I was already a voracious reader. I’d discovered the Transformers Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, and had read several of those. I’d paged through these comics, but, in all honesty, even at the ripe old age of eight years old, I just wasn’t ready for them yet. Both in execution and in their thematic elements, the comic book iterations of both the Transformers and G.I. Joe were too mature for me. I wouldn’t be ready for them until several years later, after we’d moved several more times, finding us living now in Germany, where my mother worked as an elementary school teacher on a U.S. Army base.
In 1989, when I was on the cusp of turning twelve years old, I rediscovered those comic books. By now, the comics had been running for several years, and had built up their own continuities, which were separate from the cartoons with which I’d become familiar, but I was ready to leave the cartoons behind. I embraced the comics. The characters remained the same, at heart, despite odd differences in the history and development of the storylines in the different media. My interest in the toys was renewed, revitalized by a new medium which spoke more directly to my more mature sensibilities. And as I grew and matured, my appreciation for the nuances brought to those comics by some very talented writers increased as well. Re-reading older stories from a new perspective, I found new things to appreciate that I either hadn’t understood or simply hadn’t even noticed when I was younger. It kept me coming back, so much so that I still read the Transformers and G.I. Joe comics to this very day. And, just as I’ve grown and matured, so, too, have they.
What the Transformers and G.I. Joe have always been about, of course, was the toys. The genius of marketing them to children through cartoons and comic books aside, the toys were undoubtedly the heart and soul of the entire operation. I loved the G.I. Joe toys when I was a boy, but eventually grew out of them by the time I was in the seventh grade. (As far as everyone else was concerned, I’d grown out of them in the fifth grade, but, as I’m sure pretty much every other boy out there has done, I’d continue to play with them when I thought nobody else was looking for another couple years. I’m quite sure I fooled a grand total of nobody.)
The Transformers were, and remain, some seriously cool-@$$ shiznit. What further proof of that does one require than FREAKIN’ UNICRON, BABY! One of the first Transformers characters to actually appear on screen before becoming a toy, this badass mofo actually transforms into a PLANET! And not just any planet… this guy’s the biggest big bad of them all, so he turns into a planet that eats other planets! Oh, and did I mention that his voice in the cartoon was provided by none other than Orson Welles, in his last performance before his death? Unicron was so seriously cool that I wanted desperately to get the toy after seeing him in 1986’s Transformers: The Movie. Unicron, however, wasn’t released in toy form until nearly twenty years later, when he appeared on screen once again, this time in the Transformers: Armada and Energon cartoons. And at about $80, I can guaran-freakin’-tee that my mother would never have bought him. (But by that point, I was an adult, gainfully employed as a member of the U.S. Air Force… so I bought him. Eagerly. And he’s occupied a place of honor atop my bookshelves, arm outstretched menacingly, ever since.)
Unicron, and the other expensive Transformers, were obviously unattainable. The only reason I ever got Optimus Prime was because my father sent him to me for Christmas. (I only wish that I had taken better care of him, because somewhere along the line, he was lost or thrown away, and I would LOVE to have him on proud display in my room). I never actually had the real Devastator (the original combiner, which was formed by merging six separate Constructicon figures into a single, giant figure), but my grandparents in California sent me a knockoff version that was identical to that set of figures in every way but their color. I briefly had the original Bumblebee, and though I loved him so, he was small and easily lost.
Kevin and I would play with the toys that we had, though, and I was admittedly more than a little jealous that he had both the Millennium Falcon and mail-order Cobra Commander figure with the “cloth” mask (really just a rubberized plastic; the in-store version of the figure had a hard plastic “helmet” instead). I got to play with them from time to time, though, and we both lost out when our mom made us trash the Falcon because we decided to take it apart so the figures could walk down the “neck” between the main compartment and the cockpit. Modification of our toys was practically the order of the day, however. The Transformer Jetfire? This Robotech Veritech mecha (a.k.a. Valkyrie in Macross) was repainted to become an Autobot in the Transformers line, and was later the subject of a further repaint by my brother. Kevin wanted him to have a more “authentic” military paint scheme, and proceeded to redecorate him in the gray tones used by the U.S. Air Force on its fighters (even if the figure was actually a Navy F-14, but I digress). It would be another twenty-five years before I, with the help of eBay, would manage to find replacement parts that allowed me to repair and restore Jetfire to nearly pristine condition. I wasn’t much better, of course. Several of my G.I. Joe figures would find themselves disassembled and recombined to provide more “authentic” military appearances. I still have several of the toys that I was given as a child, and many of them are now kept, proudly, on display in my room.
One would think that a video game based on a series of popular toy/cartoon/comic lines would make for outstanding video games. With, truthfully, only one exception, one would be wrong. Aside from Transformers: War for Cybertron, every game I’ve played based on the Transformers or G.I. Joe franchises has been made of fail. Why can’t we get a G.I. Joe game where you hunt down the forces of Cobra a la Call of Duty: Modern Warfare? Fortunately, the team responsible for War for Cybertron is not only producing a sequel, they also produced the tie-in game for the Transformers: Dark of the Moon, so I’m a bit more hopeful for that game franchise now.
Speaking of Dark of the Moon, what would an exploration of Transformers and G.I. Joe be without an examination of the films produced in the last several years? A poor one, I grant you. Sadly, much like the video games, the attempts to bring Transformers and G.I. Joe to the silver screen have been, shall we say, less than successful. Yes, visually, they’re stunning feats of eye candy. But, much like Scott Evil’s understanding of his father’s struggle against Austin Powers, the people responsible for these films just didn’t get it. The first Transformers film, while a bit underwhelming, at least had potential. If they’d gone with a director other than, say, Michael “kewl ‘sploshuns and HOLY SHIT HOT BABES and more kewl ‘sploshuns, an’ some ‘sploshuns, and blur that might be a robot HOLY SHIT HOT BABES and ‘sploshuns” Bay, then it’s possible we might have gotten a decent film. No surprise, then, that the second one just completely sucked. While it tried to pull more material from the original cartoons and comics (the Matrix, the special nature of the Primes), it just was a mess in its delivery. Sadly, given this track record, I have considerably lowered the bar for my expectations on the third film, which I don’t even intend to see on opening weekend. G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra suffered many of the same problems, but at least it was fun to watch, and I’m still holding out a glimmer of hope that the sequel can salvage things for fans like me.
Now, it’s 2011. I still read Transformers and G.I. Joe comics, which I’ve found to be incredibly well written, as opposed to their film and television counterparts, which almost seem to be aiming for the lowest common denominator. I still collect Transformers toys, though now they’re displayed on a shelf, rather than played with in a yard or on a bedroom floor. As ever… it’s all about good stories, interesting characters, and just a hint of nostalgia for flavor.