Transformers: Toy Stories

July 4th, 2011

There are many, many reasons why I might be considered an idiot, but if you were going to make a list – and believe me, I’ve made a few such lists in my time – then I’ve got a fair idea of what the top three should look like.

I’ll spare you numbers one and two for now, but number three is easy. You see, I must be an idiot, because I don’t think I understood mortality until I watched Transformers: The Movie for the first time. Yeah, Transformers, “robots in disguise” that turned into planes and cars and tanks, and had their own crappy TV show. That was where my first intimation of mortality came from. Told you I was an idiot.

The realisation that all of this would one day stop had never sunk in at Sunday School, where the focus was more on old stories than on the possible absence of narrative. It hadn’t made any impression on me when various distant relatives had died – they had seemed like minor characters in my story, and their deaths didn’t truly register with me at the time. It didn’t even really occur to me in the early parts of Transformers: The Movie, despite the fact that whole planets were being destroyed and beloved characters were being gunned down like so many extras (with all weapons having been switched from tickle to mangle between TV series and movie, naturally). But OPTIMUS FUCKING PRIME, my favourite toy and childhood hero, dying on-screen, in an astonishingly drawn out manner? Yeah, I felt that, and it scared the living shit out of me.

See, here? One day your sentence will be up. Full stop. Story over. The end.

***

The second biggest reason why I think I’m an idiot? I know I said I’d hold off on this, but it’s closely related, so here we go! You see, not only did Transformers: The Movie introduce me to the idea that death could be a final thing, it was also the first time I remember being aware that I was being sold something. While I cried manly tears™ for a dead robot lorry, my dad grumbled: “Yeah, great, and now we’ll have to buy you the new leader I suppose!”

Thankfully the new guy turned out to be a preening dick called Rodimus Prime, so no worries there. Though, yes, actually – my Ultra Magnus toy was very much appreciated thanks! Anyway, while my dad’s commentary seemed crushingly insensitive at the time, and was temporarily blotted out by the full on cheese-metal glory of the rest of the film, the comment stayed with me.

While I think I’d always been a demanding wee bugger when it came to toys, I’m not sure that I’d ever properly understood that the TV show was an advert to sell them to me (along with the attendant videos, cinema tickets and comic books of course!). Put this down to the security afforded by a lower middle class upbringing, if you want – comfort provides an understanding that there is such a thing as money, but it doesn’t necessarily clue you in to the finer points of who has how much and what it needs to be spent on. For example, I half-remember flicking through and Argos catalogue, seeing something I wanted and informing my bemused mother that it was “in our price range”. Which… that’s pretty gross and formal and disgusting, right? That mix of naiveté, awareness and entitlement? Euch! A little privilege can turn a nice kid into an scabby wee monster, and who’s to say the little shit will ever turn back?

Transformers: The Movie was perfectly, calculatingly crass – I loved it, of course, but when the closing voice-over announced that Optimus Prime would return? Well shit, even as a kid I knew that that was some manipulative bullshit!

***

(According to my pal Scott, who knows about these things, the bit about Optimus Prime returning was added to the movie’s European edition to calm down agitated parents groups, which somewhat complicates what I’m trying to do with it here. Because you obviously can’t suggest that death might be final, that would be crazy, WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?! etc.

Heh, actually, this is just more evidence that I would be a terrible parent. The kind of arsehole who reads his kids The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil as a bedtime story, petitions the local primary school to put on a production of Waiting for Godot, and so on.)

***

These two stupid revelations—about marketing and mortality—have become linked in my head. Daft as it might seem, I don’t think that I would have properly understood one without the other. It’s all about built in obsolescence, I guess – none of this is built to last, and my toys were already starting to fall to pieces by that point. Optimus Prime’s arm had been held on by blu-tack for ages, and my first ever Transformer, Skywarp, was a mangled mix of guns and limbs when the time the movie hit. And let’s be honest, this is a very tactile way to think about decay isn’t it?

The message is as solid as the cheap materials the toys were made of: no matter how much imagination you use, no matter how many ingenious solutions and scenarios you come up with, you can’t stop parts from going missing or falling apart.

***

(This obviously isn’t true if you keep your toys all packaged up in a beautiful vacuum, but only mega-fetishists do that, and even then it’ll all be reduced to mulch one day so ha ha fucker.

Actually, just typing this, I can’t help but think of Toy Story 2, in which Woody has to choose between being a child’s plaything and a museum display. The catch being, of course, that to be played with is also to acknowledge that one day you will stop being played with – or, to put it another way, to allow yourself is to be loved is to acknowledge that one day you will stop being loved.

Come to think of it, I’ve actually got a bit of sympathy for people who want to hold on to the past, to wrap it up so nothing can touch it. The way we’re constantly moving forward through time is pretty terrifying, and as such I get the need to try and deny the instability of the present. Still, no matter how futile all action is in this scenario, I can’t help but think that there are better, more productive ways to waste your time…

And now we won’t talk about Toy Story 3 right now. No one wants to see a grown man blubber on about a kids film so… oh, right. Maybe that should be “No one wants to see a grown man blubber on about hunners and hunners of kids films as though all you have to do is raise the spector of the death of childhood to make him greet” -?)

***

While Transformers: The Movie was BIGGER and LOUDER and MORE AWESOMER than the cartoon, it was the Marvel UK comic that really infected my childhood imagination.

The best stories were written by a blood-thirsty bastard called Simon Furman. Drawn by a shifting review of British artists (including a pre-fame Bryan Hitch and Furman’s fellow Death’s Head creator Geoff Senior), the comic had a more complicated relationship to death and destruction than either the movie or the cartoon.

While Furman loved to write grisly deaths for his cast, and while his writing was obviously energised by the apocalyptic madness of the movie, his big comic stories were more concerned with intrusion of the future on the present, with new characters who were introduced in the movie travelling back into the pre-movie continuity and making and epic mess out of everything.

The culmination of this story habit came in a seven part story called Time Wars, in which the traditional consequences of the time travel story manifest themselves in the form of a “living, breathing rift in time and space” which threatens to bring about “the end of everything”. Featuring, as it did, different incarnations of the same characters fighting beside each other (Optimus Prime and Rodimus Prime, Megatron and Galavatron), what this most resembled is the greatest playtime ever, in which old toys and new a freely mixed up, and in which everything seems to be at stake but everything can be wrapped up safely until next time.

Well, not quite safely, or at least not for everyone:

This is the real paradox of Time Wars, and of Furman’s Transformers run in general: brutal, terrible things happen all the time, and the comic was never exactly shy about overwriting other established Transformers plots, but there always more toys to sell, and Furman and co had to sell a few mangy dogs in their time (see, for example: The Pretenders/the Action Masters). Furman’s solution? If you can’t blow them up, just build them into your ongoing space-opera mega plot and hope for the best!

And it worked, or at least, it kept me reading until my local newsagents stopped stocking the comic. Somehow, despite the fact that Optimus Prime died and came back on an annual basis, this never grated on me the way the closing monologue in the film did. Possibly because even then I had different expectations of what a movie should do vs. what a comic should do, or possibly because the movie had established the idea, I’m not sure.

Either way, Furman’s stories still read like an attempt to do great violence to the basic concept of the series.  Which is fun!  It’s an ever-evolving playtime, but the threat of real destruction is always there, a well-established part of Furman’s recurring story-patterns, his attempts to think better/write better/ sell better:

***

Also hard to dislodge from memory – the Transformers’ version of Limbo as a place where characters from the present are displaced when travellers from the future come calling. Now, this is a bullshit, arbitrary sci-fi rule designed to keep the drama going, but it still made sense to me at the time – can’t keep a track of too many toys at once!

The fact that it was full of creepy wee mind leaches is what really put it over for me though:

The temptation to do terrible violence to this concept is huge, especially since there are currently a couple of other figures lurking out there in limbo right now, all living in their own dreams, oblivious as to the details of the story I’m about to involve them in.

But… there’s something I’ve got to get out of the way first. The main reason I should be considered a fucking idiot? The number #1 reason? I can’t honestly remember whether my gran died before or after I saw Transformers: The Movie.

I think I saw the movie first, but I can’t be 100% sure, and if it’s the other way round then I’ll feel like my memory has seriously betrayed me. It’ll be proof, if any was needed, that my perspective on life is completely and irreparably fucked, because I can still act out all of the fights from Transformers: The Movie blow by blow today. But my gran dying? That was the first time I ever remember something so raw and terrifying that it refused to be made a part of my daily fantasy. You’d think that would stick with me.  I mean sure, I’m aestheticizing it here, but it’s making me queasy to do so and I think relative artlessness of this passage is obvious…

***

(Ugh, this is devolving into some sort of terrible high school creative writing exercise, isn’t it? “Write an essay about a day that really affected you” and all that pish. Except, worse than that, I’m doing it through the prism of my own geek bullshit. That’s a victory for arrested development any way you look at it.

Worst of all, I can actually make this into a point if I want to, so long as I stay far enough away from the reality of the situation. Because you see, going to my gran’s involved a three part ritual of pure pleasure: first we drink Irn Bru, then we eat chocolate éclairs, then we play with the lego for the rest of the afternoon. I’d like to pretend that I was a particularly imaginative kid, but I mostly just built the exact same fleet of spaceships every time. More worryingly, I could probably build you this exact same fleet today, and as for my dietary habits… well, they haven’t changed much either, as the stinky plastic prison I’m busy building out of empty Irn Bru bottles will surely attest!)

***

I can’t pretend that I care about Transformers anymore. I don’t collect or play with toys, and the new live action movies don’t have anything much to offer me. The first one is one part fake Spielberg to three parts Michael Bay stock footage; the second one is like the worst college comedy ever mixed with the worst plot those guys from Lost have ever written, plus comedy racism, plus some fairly boring action. So again, not for me.

This can’t really be taken as proof that I’ve matured or moved on though. Really, all it proves is that I want to see Megan Fox torture a robot for information as much as I want to see the same robot hump Megan Fox’s leg, so whatever, I’m still addicted to tooth-rotting fizzy drinks, and I still read comics.

Enter Scottish comic book writer Grant Morrison, fresh out of limbo with a head full of infinitely egressing micro-universes. I know! Bet you weren’t expecting to see him around here, but still – if anything fills the Transformers shaped void at the heart of things, it’s Morrison’s comics, which read like a super-advanced mutation of Furman’s old mega-epics. Super-powered protagonists who’re actually immune defenders in the battle between chaos and order? Morrison may have done it best, but it was in Furman’s work that I first encountered these concepts – well, I was probably reading Moorock at roughly the same time, but that’s a separate topic entirely.

Working in and around the confines of big franchises like Batman, Superman and the X-Men, Morrison has managed to create some of the most mortal and vibrant pop culture of the past twenty years. That he’s done this by focussing on the transient, throwaway qualities of the genre and medium he works in is both remarkable and telling. In Morrison’s best comics, existence in a committee-controlled fictional universe looks a lot like a microcosm of early 21st century Western life– full of wonderful possibility, but with the sense that you’re actually just playing out a pre-determined role and everything could go to shit at any moment. And so in comics like Seven Soldiers and New X-Men the struggle to move beyond the recycled traumas of modern serial narratives becomes a metaphor for trying to live a life that’s not just a repeat of the ones that came before.

For all that he share’s Furman’s enthusiasm for shocking reinvention, there is love in Morrison’s work, an irrational attachment to passing things that you can catch like the cold. It’s easy to laugh at this idea, but Morrison’s meta-fictional fantasies have a genuine moral urgency to them – after all, if real life is as fleeting and fragile as fiction, then doesn’t it make sense to use all the authority you have to live well and play nicely?

I’m tempted to get triumphant about this, to point to Morrison’s best superhero work as some sort of validation of my childhood fascination with trashy Transformers comics, but it sometimes seems that Morrison’s creator owned works are written precisely in order to scupper this triumphalism. I’ve written about The Filth at length both here and elsewhere, but both that story and Morrison’s ongoing collaboration with Cameron Stewart on their Seaguy title can be read as a man eviscerating his own work just to show how little there actually was in there in the first place.

These comics seem to say: if you thought your attachment to this juvenile crap was proof that there you were capable of love then the joke’s on you dumbass! While you were wasting your time obsessing over whatever geek bullshit they were selling this week everything fell apart. And what did you do? Nothing, because you were too busy wanking off into a tatty wee rag, fuck-nugget!

It’s bitter medicine, for sure, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary!

***

(It would be really convenient if I could rewrite history here and pretend that I read Grant Morrison’s ZOIDS comics back in the eighties, but the truth is I’ve only ever read a few of them on the Internet.

Which is a shame, because it would be handy to place Morrison’s BLACK ZOID saga in the context of my childhood idiocy — its endlessly adaptable, seemingly unstoppable villain would have fit in nicely here as a representative of both the inevitability of death and the malleability of pop culture. [Yeah, I know!]

Thinking about this I feel like a character in Time Wars. Shockwave, maybe, or Galvatron – one of the ones who ended up losing the plot trying to work out what was happening, what would happen, what was supposed to happen, and so on. I’m fighting my own little time war in my brain, trying to work out how much I can change the past without damaging narrative integrity, and I don’t think I’m the only one.)

***

Meanwhile, in Limbo, comedian Richard Herring is dreaming a familiar dream. In his mind he’s climbing again.  As always, he climbs his way to the top in the 90s, looks down into the early 21st century. He sees the lay of the land, his TV work drying up, his 40th birthday passing by, failure, adulthood. He decides to buy a skateboard for the ride down. After all, might as well have some fun while your body disintegrates!

We pull Herring out of Limbo and set him loose in our story, and straight away he’s doing routines from his Oh Fuck, I’m 40! stand-up set. Let’s focus on one of the best bits from that show, the skit where Herring manages to skew it so that a ‘Gimme Me Head Till I’m Dead’ t-shirt he sees is actually a critique of the idea of heaven. Of course this requires a lot of Herring’s trademark over-the-top pedantic literalism – imagining that this item of clothing was a binding contract, extrapolating how unpleasant this would be for both participants after the first thirty minutes, considering the possibility that both parties might die in this situation (one from a zinc overdose, one from a zinc deficiency) – before resolving into a rant about how pleasure is meaningless if it’s constant and uninterrupted.

Beyond the absurd crudity of Herring’s logic, this is a striking bit of self-criticism. Laughing along with the routine, I feel complicit in it too – the overly intellectualised immaturity of the joke is part of the mindset that it critiques, the mindset that is far too invested in turning everything into an eternal playtime. To laugh along is to admit that, on some level, you’re willing to go along with this. Too willing, perhaps.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that, because you’re laughing at Herring as well as with him – remember, failure is a part of his persona. Except that’s misleading too, because Herring’s not actually a washout. In fact, he’s managed to turn the idea that he’s a washed out comedian who “used to be on the telly… about ten years ago” into a distinct and sellable persona.

In the last couple of years Herring’s ironic immaturity has allowed him to put on some alarmingly ambitious shows. Like The Headmaster’s Son, in which Herring revisits his teenage diaries and tries to unpick how he’s ended up with his current life – the bit where he imagines reconciling with and shagging his younger self is particularly relevant to this essay! Or like his 2009 show, Hitler Moustache, which turned a childish attempt to reclaim the toothbrush moustache into an engaged defence of liberal values.

You can probably see why the fact that Herring is able to achieve escape velocity would appeal to me, given the trajectory of this essay. But isn’t this another bit of self-deluding triumphalism? Well, maybe, but I’m with Herring here – if it’s all downhill from here, then I’d at least like to feel that I’m doing something fun on the way. Value for money and all that!

***

(Standing in line to yet another Pixar movie, Up, I find myself staring gluey-eyed at a poster showing the cheap plastic toys they’ve made of the film’s characters.

From a marketing point of view, this latest 3D adventure story probably makes Ratatouille seem like an easy sell: rats in a restaurant you can just about make look cute and cuddly, if you flatten out the teeth and ignore the whole disease thing. But an old man with a walking frame? Fuck that! Bring on Cars 2!

Or, you know, don’t because while Cars was a crawlingly pedestrian exercise in rootsy wistfulness, Up examines the emptiness of nostalgic fantasy with an unblinking harshness that would reduce Beckett to tears, if he weren’t already dead. Also, the talking dog is funny as fuck and twice as cute.

Really though, is there any more stilted and idiotic way to package death than this?

Not the movie, the toys the cinema is advertising – a parody of mortality, a cheap plastic gonk that probably no one really wants?

Well, it made me laugh anyway!)

***

My old Transformers comics are getting pretty tatty now. I’d hoped that once I was finished writing this I’d be happy to either burn them all or give them to a charity shop or something. What I’ll probably do instead is put them back in a box in my parents’ house – they’re part of my life, part of the goofy mental play set I’ve built up for myself over the years. And while it’s important – liberating even – to remember that all of this is crap, that doesn’t mean that you can’t use it to do something wonderful. Because sometimes crap can be useful, you know? You’ve just got to remember not to mistake the play set for the world.

This is my big concern here: that I’m not thinking anything here that I didn’t think back when I saw Transformers: The Movie for the first time. I’ve got much more articulate since then, and I’ve learned a lot of fun tricks, but I’m not sure that I’ve had the courage to properly think through any of these fundamental questions.

With any luck those old Transformers comics will come to pieces in the box so that next time I dig them out they’ll have got all mixed up, with pages from one story shuffling into the next, creating new stories, new opportunities, new ways for me to think myself into a mess.

***

So… how to end this? How to find the escape velocity to break free of my own stupidity, my fear of death, my obsession with pop culture detritus?

Well, if you’re interested in reading about the ways that trash culture can promote critique of the society that produces it, go read academic and novelist David Fiore on comic books and The Culture Industry:

(This image is on loan from this lively, if slightly offtopic, beatdown of Mark Millar’s Unfunies.)

If you want to read a fun article that’s actually about the old Simon Furman Transformers comics, go read blogger-king bobsy’s blow by blow write-up of Death’s Head vs. Shockwave:

As for me, I’m going to crank up the soundtrack to Transformers: The Movie before I go reread the commencement address that David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005, and then I’m going to try to stop panicking about thinking beyond my usual concerns. As the man himself said:

…the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

Time to stop chasing the same old stories; time to write some new ones, without ignoring what’s come before.

***

THIS ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN ISSUE #2 OF ANDREW HICKEY’S EXCELLENT PEP! MAGAZINE. I’VE MADE A COUPLE OF CHANGES TO BRING IT INTO 2011, BUT I’VE LEFT THE MAIN SHAPE OF IT UNCHANGED.

ISSUE #3 OF PEP! WILL BE OUT AT THE START OF AUGUST – I’VE GOT FEATURES IN THERE ABOUT MY FAVOURITE MUSICIAN, MARNIE STERN, AND AUTHOR/BLOGGER/GOOD PAL OF MINE DAVID FIORE. NOT SURE WHAT ELSE IS GOING TO BE IN THERE, BUT IT’LL BE WORTH YOUR TIME.

ALSO, APPARENTLY THERE’S ANOTHER TRANSFORMERS MOVIE OUT? IT’S CALLED “THE DARK OF THE MOON”, AND APPARENTLY I SAW IT YESTERDAY AND IT WAS RUBBISH. YEAH, I KNEW IT WAS GOING TO BE PISH, SHUT UP. SOME DAMAGE YOU JUST CAN’T SHAKE…

11 Responses to “Transformers: Toy Stories”

  1. Illogical Volume Says:

    Hmmm. I really should have linked to this in my post, huh?

    Sorry Michael! I’ll try harder next time/edit it in later.

  2. Patchworkearth Says:

    The saddest thing of all is how it’s felt like Furman’s regressed in his portrayals of this stuff over time. Held now as a sort of “Creator Emeritus,” there isn’t a whole lot of love in his revisits to these characters. Afraid of being viewed as a man who has a few tics and a few favorites, he’s quick to maul any characters he’s used before after too long – picture if Moz, in working on 52, had been quick to do some Jeans-style violence on poor Buddy to get him out of the picture.

    Compare it to anything he was doing back then – the exhausted triumph as Ratchet enacted his suicide plan, say, or Prowl clutching a busted spire as weather tore his planet apart and he wondered if his morals had killed his people – just so terrible depressing.

  3. hellblazer Says:

    Prowl? which story/issue was that?

    Have fond memories of being disturbed yet thrilled by the Time Wars stuff. Started, IIRC, by a zombified/brainwashed Megatron RIPPING SOMEONE’S GODDAMNED HEAD OFF.

  4. Patchworkearth Says:

    It was one of the last issues. Action Master period, right before cancellation. Prowl as defacto leader because Grimlock took off, there had been a weak truce that the ‘Cons broke, Grims showed up a page or two later with stolen shuttles and saved the day, etc.

  5. Botswana Beast Says:

    Yeah, that would’ve been circa UK #325, US #76-77, the Prowl thing.

  6. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » The Miser’s Coat – Andrew Hickey interview Says:

    [...] the last ish came out before or after my son’s birth now? (This is a bit like the inverse of your gran and Optimus Prime dying, David, synchronistically, I suppose.) It was pretty [...]

  7. Illogical Volume Says:

    I’ve not read enough modern Furman to be disappointed, but he taught ne Thrillpower and made me the man I am today, so I’ve always got room for him in my heart.

  8. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Rogue’s Review: Starscream Says:

    [...] his motivations the proper shades of gray. He stands in opposition to Optimus Prime, after all, who dies for all of his people’s sins. Megatron’s change from reformer to potential dictator has always been painted in broad [...]

  9. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Rogue’s Review: Thunderwing Says:

    [...] the herald of Unicron. Of course, but this point in the tale of the Transformers, he’s already been told off by spacetime itself and put to bed without any supper. Or [...]

  10. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Note 3 – Left 4 Dead Says:

    [...] you’re deluded enough to think you could act heroically if it all went bad – maybe you absorbed a bit too much Optimus Prime in your youth, who can say?  Regardless, you plunge off the roller-coaster after your inept comrade, hacking and [...]

  11. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Tues Reviews, fuck the winter blues! (featuring Mister Attack) Says:

    [...] I read these too and struggled to engage with them as earnestly as I wanted to, possibly because my childhood enthusiasm for Transformers comics was so strong that a project like this can never hope to live up to that distant [...]

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