The Transformers are making their fourth appearance in Michael Bay-helmed live action movies right this very moment. They’re celebrating 30 years as a toy line this year, and the Robots in Disguise never go very long between animated series on TV.
Yet they have just as long and rich a heritage in comics, as they made their debut in Marvel Comics back in 1984, the first year the toys started appearing on shelves in the U.S. Though they’ve switched publishers multiple times and gone through a number of relaunches and restarts, the Transformers are still in print in new stories today. Not too shabby considering the original series was only supposed to last for four issues.
Not counting a few brief stops at other places, the Transformers comic license has gone through three distinct eras, though one man links them all: Simon Furman, the prolific British writer who has been guiding the robots’ fortunes for decades, expanding their backstory in ways Hasbro could never have imagined when it first signed off on something it probably just hoped would sell some more action figures.
If you’re any good at internet, you can pretty easily find one of the excellent fan sites out there that recap these series in detail. But in honor of the various anniversaries and the new flick, we figured we’d do our part here at Bam Smack Pow and briefly summarize the three phases and the way the comics have — ahem — transformed over the years.
Marvel Comics (1984 – 1993)
Whether it was because Hasbro was just looking for a quick sales boost or Marvel didn’t have faith in the then-untested franchise’s staying power, The Transformers was labeled as a four-issue limited series when it made its 1984 debut. Happily, that led to one of the great inside jokes in comics, as the final Marvel issue included the cover blurb “#80 in a Four-Issue Limited Series.” After a brief hiatus of just a few months, issue #5 continued from where #4 left off, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Since Spider-Man guest-starred in issue #3 and the series later introduced the human villain Circuit Breaker, who made an appearance in Secret Wars II, it certainly appeared back in the 80s that The Transformers was set in the Marvel Universe proper (or as fans now call it, Earth-616). It’s for the best that the book drifted away from these types of links, avoiding the messy question of why the heck the Avengers were ignoring the fact that there were giant shape-changing robots running around.
Big things did happen in the U.S. Marvel comic, including the deaths of both Optimus Prime and Megatron, the introduction of the Dinobots and Powermasters and the first exploration of what life was like on the Transformers’ home world of Cybertron. Meanwhile, Furman was creating an extensive mythology in the Marvel U.K. series (most notably the conflict between Primus and Unicron), where he was free to branch off in directions of his own and use characters that weren’t featured in the animated TV show.
Furman assumed writing duties on the U.S. book with issue #56 and was with it until the end came in 1991. A Transformers: Generation 2 series popped up in 1993 but lasted only 12 issues, coinciding with what many fans consider a low point in the toy line. Several mini-series were also produced during Marvel’s time in charge of the brand, including a crossover with G.I. Joe that featured poor Bumblebee being blown apart by well-meaning Joes. The Transformers would lay low for a while, but they’d return in the early 2000s.