Origin Story: Episode 1



Thirty years ago, I began collecting comics for the first time.  Now, I’m taking you back to those days with “Origin Story,” a comics podcasting miniseries where I will look at all of the comics I bought in 1986-1987 in “real time.”

In this first episode, I take a look at the book that started all of this, which is a crossover that every kid would have loved to see play out because they had already been playing the crossover in their basements and bedrooms with their toys.  I’m talking about Marvel Comics’ miniseries G.I. Joe and The Transformers.  This time around, I will summarize and review issue #1 of the series.

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

Comics Prehistory: Transformers #5

Transformers 5Okay, so I cheated a bit with my last post and simply reblogged a very old post about Superman: The Secret Years, but in rereading that old post, I saw the very roots of this series as well as “Origin Story” itself–three of those four issues came from Amazing Comics, and that started me on the road to eventually becoming a collector because I knew exactly where I could get any comic at any time.  Not only that, but I had followed an entire series from beginning to end, which was a big deal when I was seven.

On the day in March 1985 when I bought Superman: The Secret Years #4, which was a few weeks after the issue had hit the stands, I also bought Transformers #5.  My friend Christ had come over to my house and for some reason, my dad decided to take us to the comic book store.  I grabbed the Superman book while he grad a comic that he said had “Superman’s dad” in it that I think was Crisis on Infinite Earths #3; we both, however, saw Shockwave on the cover of Transformers #5 standing in front of the phrase “Are All Dead,” which he had carved into a wall and almost immediately grabbed a copy.  In fact, I think I remember being slightly scared of that cover and even to this day I think there is something ominous about it.

Plus, Shockwave was one of the toys that had recently been introduced along with the autobot Jetfire, which was and still is my favorite-looking Transformers toy (mainly because it was modeled after the Valkyrie fighter from Robotech).  They had shared a commercial and in our minds, that made them big.

Unknown to us at the time, in terms of The Transformers comic book, Shockwave was big–at the end of issue #4 (the last issue of what was then a four-issue miniseries), with the Autobots on the verge of a major victory, Shockwave shows up on Earth and just blasts everyone who is left standing completely to hell.  When issue #5 opens, he is watching The Honeymooners (and the opening of Ed asking “What’sa matter, Ralphie Boy?” and Ralph saying “Homina homina homina” cracked the two of us up) among other shows, including a news broadcast about an offshore oil rig, and he decides that Earth will be easy to conquer.  And by the way, the opening splash page, which is drawn by Alan Kupperberg, is incredible.

Then, we get an image scarier than the cover–a two-page splash of Shockwave walking under the seemingly dead bodies of the Autobots.  Moreover, we see him reviving and repairing his fellow Decepticons and telling Megatron–who is also under repair–that he is going to lead the group now, especially since Megatron’s rather incompetent excuse for leadership is what got them all there to begin with.

It’s a dynamic that I was unfamiliar with, to be honest.  I had been watching the cartoon every day after school and if you had asked me to name the Decepticon most likely to pose a threat to Megatron, I would say that probably would have been Starscream and not Shockwave.  But the comic and the cartoon had a lot of difference in continuities, which is something I would discover years later when I collected the comics.

There isn’t much else to this issue.  Spike and Buster find the one surviving Autobot, Ratchet, and begin to work toward helping the good guys get back to life, and the next issue’s main event, which is a fight between Megatron and Shockwave in one of those classic, “AND ONLY ONE SHALL LEAD!” Marvel cover moments.  But I think it is probably one of the most important issues of the series.  This was the first issue of the ongoing comic book (and if this were today, it would have been a new issue #1), so this storyline was going to be the big test of whether or not The Transformers could sustain a following.  Bob Budianscky provides a transition piece that is full of tension and leaves you wanting action, but also complicates the world even further.  It was only because of my sporadic comics buying habits, however, that I wouldn’t get issue #6, or any other Transformers comic book until 1987.

Next Time:  Superman #410

Comics Prehistory: Transformers #1

Transformers 1According to Mike’s Amazing World of Marvel Comics, Transformers #1 hit the stands on May 29, 1984.  This would have been around the time that I was finishing up the first grade, and while I can’t exactly recall everything I got for my seventh birthday, I’m pretty sure that in the very least by the time I hit the beginning of second grade, I owned at least one Transformer–and it was probably Huffer.  I was still pretty much unaware of anything related to comic books or comic stores, aside from what I saw in my local stationary stores, so the idea of a Transformers comic book would have completely passed me by.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that it passed by a number of people my age at that point, even if the toys and television show didn’t.

What I do know about acquiring it is that I got this at the same place I got a few comic books in those days of single-digit ages, a birthday party.  At some point in the early 1980s, a parent or two figured out that if you had a dozen kids, mostly boys, at a birthday party and you had to give something away for a goody bag and didn’t want to ply them with candy, spending about $10 on a few Marvel three-packs was a great idea.  And indeed it was.  I walked away from a few birthday parties at the time with a comic book that I read cover to cover several times over, eventually rolling the spines or nearly completely taking the covers off until they eventually disappeared down whatever memory hole your childhood belongings eventually go.  And while the strategy of putting a comic from a three-pack was nearly perfect (a not-so-perfect example will be the penultimate entry in this series of posts), I wasn’t thinking much about the quality of the comics I was getting in 1984.  I was excited to get something better than a ball on a paddle.

Transformers #1 is, as the cover by Bill Sienkewitz tells us, #1 in a four-issue limited series.  I used to love seeing the “… in a four-issue limited series” label on the top of a Marvel comic book in the same way that I loved the colored bar with “4 part mini series” or “12 part maxi series” running along the top of DC’s comics at the same time.  To me, it seemed like there was something special about the comic that I was going to read–plus, it meant that convincing my parents that further comics needed to be purchased was a good idea because a limited series meant it had an end and therefore less of a commitment.

Then again, it’s not like I ever owned any other part of the original limited series that featured the Transformers.  A friend at one point had a copy of issue #4 and let me read it, and I know that issue #3 was one of the more expensive back issues to get a few years later because the black-suited Spider-Man made an appearance (and I believe this has also caused some issue when it comes to the reprints of the series), but I wouldn’t pick up the adventures of my favorite metamorphing toys until the first issue of the ongoing series, which was #5.  And while they will be a big part of the “Origin Story” podcast miniseries, the Transformers comics never had the impact on me the way that G.I. Joe eventually would.

The plot to the issue (which has no story title and was written by Bill Mantlo and Ralph Macchio with art by Frank Springer and Kim DeMulder) is everything you’d expect from a first issue of the era, especially one that is the first chapter of a miniseries–it’s mostly exposition and setup.  We start out on Cybertron, learn the history behind the war between the Autobots and Decepticons, a war that lasted 1,000 years and whose devastation and power sent the planet hurtling off course and its path took it directly toward an asteroid field.  Seeing the danger, Optimus Prime and his Autobots board a spaceship called The Ark and flee the planet.  The Decepticons, who have been spying on their opponents, follow suit, attack The Ark, and Prime steers The Ark toward Earth.  They land and are buried for millennia and eventually the ship’s computer wakes up to find themselves in 20th Century America.  Not distinguishing between opponents, it equips them with the ability to transform into vehicles of that world.

The Decepticons flee the ark and we get a few pages of character identification and Prime summing up how they got their and restating what their mission is.  Meanwhile, in Oregon, Buster and Spike Whitwicky work in their repair shop and Buster eventually comes across Bumblebee and some other Autobots who are doing some recon and exploring the world.  Suddenly, the Decepticons attack and Buster manages to hop into Bumblebee and escape to the garage, where they first hear the car speak, “Help me, please!  I’m dying!”

I suppose I never bought the next issue because by the time I got it, it was already a back issue and Transformers were on the rise, so the price would have been too much.  I suppose I could have asked my parents to purchase the very three-pack that my copy of the book was taken from, but i was interested in getting them to buy me action figures.  It would would take a couple of years for that to change.

Coming Next Month: Superman: The Secret Years


Sometimes, you learn that you have to settle for less.

The Autobot known as Huffer, who would play a more significant role in my childhood than it should have.

I am sure that in the annals of our toy collecting histories, there are toys that we remember so vividly and consider so important that the day we received them ranks as high as the senior prom, first kisses, and getting married. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but ask any child of the Eighties about Castle Greyskull, the AT-AT, or Optimus Prime and you’ll probably get an enthusiastic response followed by a wave of nostalgia appropriate to key toys to the era.

You probably won’t get the same if you mention Huffer.

If you’re unsure of who or what “Huffer” is, he was one of the Transformers “mini-bots,” a line of small, affordable Transformers that came out with the first wave of the toys in 1984. As most Transformers were sold in boxes, mini-bots were placed on cards and hung in aisles as if they were regular action figures, and although I don’t know their exact retail price, they probably cost as much. The most famous of the mini-bots was Bumblebee, who in his first incarnation was a yellow VW Bug (in the current iteration, he is a Camaro), but in that first wave, you had characters like Cliffjumper, the red car voiced by Casey Kasem on the cartoon series, and Huffer, an orange semi who was an Autobot that had very few appearances in the cartoon and seemed to be around when Optimus Prime needed someone to take his trailer. The times when he did have a speaking role or a spotlight, he was kind of gruff and obviously homesick for Cybertron. So for the most part, he was a supporting or background character.

Huffer as featured on the Transformers cartoon series.

But he was a supporting character who seemed to be everywhere. Huffer was the Transformers equivalent of Prune Face or Squid Head, a figure that seemd to come out for the toy line as a way to just suck more money out of our parents’ wallets but had little or nothing to contribute to the overall storyline. Plus, everyone seemed to have him because he was an “introduction level” transformer. Mini-bots were easy to transform (and probably easy to make) and were very cheap; therefore, they were ubiquitous in both toy stores and Christmas stockings. Optimus Prime, Megatron, Jetfire (Skyfire?), or Shockwave would set your parents back a decent amount of money and might require that they fight their way through a horde of shoppers in the early hours of Black Friday, but your lazy aunt could pick up Huffer on Christmas Eve and have money left over to buy Squid Head.

Most importantly, though, or at least to me, is a symbol. He’s the toy you got because you couldn’t get anything else. There were others like this in the line–Thundercracker was a blue version of Starscream, but still a pretty cool toy–but Huffer was relatively useless. Going to a toy store and walking out with Huffer meant that you were either a completist or it was a consolation prize. In my case, it was the latter.

In 1984, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was still pretty popular, especially because the cartoon was still on the air and Mattel had started releasing action figure versions of some of the characters on the show. One particular character that got his own action figure was He-Man’s alter ego, Prince Adam of Eternia. Now, looking at that figure now, it’s kind of ridiculous that you’d want it–he was basically He-Man with purple pants, a white shirt, and a maroon jacket. I mean, it wasn’t even a good alter ego figure like the Super Powers Clark Kent figure. Still, I watched He-Man every day (and my sister would watch She-Ra) and there was a point in every episode where Prince Adam would hold aloft his sword and say “By the power of Greyskull … I HAVE THE POWER!” and transform into He-Man, then transform his tiger named Cringer into Battle Cat. Playing with my He-Man figures, I wanted to be able to “play” that transformation. Transforming Cringer into Battle Cat wasn’t hard–Battle Cat’s armor came off–but I had no way of transforming anyone into He-Man.

Prince Adam, the alter ego of He-Man. A toy that I broke down and cried over, something which defies rational explanation now that I think of it.

Until, that is, I first spotted Prince Adam in the toy aisle of TSS. It was in the middle of the fall and I had no idea that Prince Adam had been made into a figure and despite the purple pants and maroon jacket, I wanted him right away. I wanted to be able to take him, have him hold his sort aloft, say “By the power of Greyskull … I HAVE THE POWER!” and become He-Man (either original recipie or battle-damaged … I had both). I ran and got my mom, dragged her over to the aisle, and enthusiastically declared that I wanted the action figure and that I’d been a good kid and wanted it right then and there. Her response was something along the lines of, “Not right now but if you’re good, dad will take you back tonight.”

This seemed like a good enough response to me and we left TSS. My dad got home later that night and took me up to TSS because apparently I had “earned” my Prince Adam action figure. Remembering what aisle in the toy section it was found, once we entered the doors, I ignored the smell of fresh soft pretzels (which I lived for back in the day and to an extent still do) and made a bee line for the toys.

But it wasn’t here.

I began to cry, and my father probably got the same “Are you kidding me with this?” look that I get on my face when my son cries over insignificant things–only my son is five and I was seven at this time so you think I would have gotten over it by then–and he did what so many dads have done in that situation over the years, which is said, “Well, you can get something else.” Since TSS was not Toys R Us and what was there wasn’t much, so I grabbed which was the most readily available toy at the moment, and that was Huffer.

We went home, and while I did eventually get Prince Adam that Christmas, I never forgot that I missed out on my chance to get something because my mom had said, “Oh, we’ll come back later,” which is one of the most rookie fo mistakes you can make when shopping for toys, a mistake I’m sure I’ve made a few times these past few years (although my son doesn’t realize that). And every time I looked at Huffer, I thought of that moment and the disappointment I felt and how I made solemn vow to never let that happen again.

Okay, it wasn’t that dramatic, but the seven year old me hated that toy for that reason and nearly 30 years later I still kind of do.