GETTING MORE TALE #678: Robots
Long-time readers know that mikeladano.com started as a site about music, but has grown beyond that. Mike Ladano (that’s me) is passionate about music, but that’s not all. You may have noticed that in addition to collecting rare Japanese import CDs with bonus tracks, I also like to collect tape decks and cars and trucks and planes that transform into robots.
The music/Transformers connection is pretty solid. First there was a Bruce Springsteen-like character who debuted in the Marvel comic series. Then, Stan Bush and Weird Al Yankovic contributed tunes to 1986’s Transformers: The Movie. (Weird Al’s song was “Dare to Be Stupid”, and you should certainly know Stan Bush’s songs “The Touch” and “Dare”.) Two decades later, Linkin Park had the lead single from 2007’s Transformers. In fact, Linkin Park have songs in all five Transformers “Bayverse” films. Some members are so deep into the ‘bots that they even have their own Transformers action figure. In 2013, Hasbro released a limited edition golden Linkin Park Soundwave figure designed by Joseph Hahn!
I should state for the record, because this really cheeses off a lot of Transformers fans: I hated the old cartoon. It was too kiddie, with nonsensical plots and characterisations. The Marvel Transformers comic series, originally written by Bob Budiansky and later Simon Furman, was grittier and geared to older kids. It ran 80 issues, from 1986 to 1991. It was better than the Sunbow cartoon, and the Michael Bay movies too for that matter.
I “stopped playing with toys” around 1987, but still collected the comics for another year. The Transformers toyline and comic were officially cancelled in the early 90s, but even that was short-lived. Much like Optimus Prime himself, the toys wouldn’t stay dead for long.
1993 saw the debut of Transformers: Generation 2. This consisted of a rebooted toyline with old and new toys, and a new Marvel comic continuing the storyline of the original. While in Frankenmuth, Michigan I picked up issue #1 of the comic, in a special fold-out cover. Unfortunately, the new G2 comic was adapted to the 90s: Big guns, and grittier action. Meanwhile the toys were increasingly designed with kids in mind. They sported bright colours and gimmicky play features, like squirting water. Around the same time, while checking garage sales with buddy Peter, I ran across a massive stash of original mint condition Transformers comics that I was missing. 50 cents a piece! I was back collecting the comics once again.
I regret that I didn’t buy any Generation 2 toys. Some of them, including “Laser Rod” Optimus Prime, were really quite excellent. I thought I “shouldn’t” be buying toys at my age.
When did that all go out the window? In 2006 I quit the Record Store and started at Aecon Industrial. I was teamed up with a fantastic lady named Julie in their Quality Assurance department, and she showed me the ropes. She was also responsible for getting me back into transforming toys.
We had a little office to work out of, and on the shelf was a small black Beast Wars toy. Beast Wars was a 90s incarnation of Transformers, a complete reboot after the commercial failure of Generation 2. This time, a new cast of characters featured robots that turned into life-like animals, on a flashy new computer animated TV show. Julie brought in a small Beast Wars toy that belonged to a nephew. It was a bull of some kind, and when we needed a break we’d fiddle with it. That’s what started it up again. I remembered how fun those little toys were. Like 3D puzzles that you solved by twisting and turning parts around into new formations.
I made a trip over to Toys R Us to see what they had: Star Wars Transformers! These were famous vehicles from the Star Wars movies that transformed into robot likenesses of their drivers. There was a Vader/TIE, a Luke/X-Wing and many more to collect. Unfortunately they were not very good toys. The whole concept was dicey from the start. Darth Vader flies a TIE Fighter that transforms into a giant robotic Darth? That never made a lot of sense, but the toys were just not good. They were flimsy and the robot modes often had giant wings and spaceship parts hanging off the back.
A couple years later, things changed again. Hasbro realized there was a massive market out there for old men buying nostalgia toys. They began issuing new versions of old classic characters from the 80s, and that was all I needed to jump back in with both feet. You could even buy “Encore” reissues for some of the original figures from 1984, ’85 and ’86! Therefore, for just a few bucks you could get a brand new replica of the original Optimus Prime, with only a few minor changes (smaller smokestacks so kids won’t poke an eye out).
I buy both Encore reissues, and brand new iterations of old characters. The new toys satisfy a lot of the wants of collectors today. Unlike the old ones from the 80s, they have better articulation. Elbows, knees and ankles all move so you can put your toys in the most action-packed poses. But they’re not perfect. They come with fewer accessories and sometimes lack the gimmicks of their 80s counterparts. Materials are cheaper today, and toys are sometimes misassembled or defective right out of the package. Design flaws and bad QA are a constant issue. Toys are made so hastily that some can’t even transform properly like they’re shown on the packaging.
Sounds like Hasbro needs a full-time play-tester. I’m available.