Saturday, May 30, 2009

BotCon 2009: Friday Overview

Yesterday, BotCon was finally in full-motion. I arrived about 8:40-ish to get in the line (yes, another long one, but this wasn't so bad) to await the opening of the doors at 9:00 am. It turns out a great many of the people in line were still looking to go to the club store, which I had largely taken care of the night before. So when the doors opened, those of us who were already registered and didn't need to buy anything from the club, and were just there to attend the first forum, were allowed to walk right on past the club store line to head into the forum.

The first forum was about the official Transformers Collectors' Club (TCC), and specifically about the magazine and comics produced for the club and the convention. Although upcoming club exclusives were not yet annouced, Pete Sinclair did tell us that they will announce two club exclusives for 2009 later in the convention. I was privileged to be asked to run the slides for this event (which is why you can see both the computer and the large screen in this shot), and trust that I was able to help things run smoothly. Other items discussed included some behind-the-scenes insights into the club's fiction and just what happened with the naming of the recently completed club exclusive. I'll deal with that more properly later, but for now, it seems safe to nutshell it all into "it's Hasbro's fault!" (they actually said this without actually blaming Hasbro, in a rather professional and classy way, but that's still the way I understood it).

I also poked my head into a bit of the Animated forum, where it was finally officially confirmed that Season 3 is the end of the series. They showed a series of more than dozen short clips animated separately from any actual episodes, containing humorous little vignettes and character bios. I hope these manage to find their way onto an official DVD release, as they were really quite good (the one where Starscream is dreaming would be worth it on its own!).

The main attraction of the day was the opening of the Dealer Room. On Friday, the Dealer Room was only open for three hours, but when everything's open to walk-ins on Saturday and Sunday, a lot of the best deals are often already gone, so there's obviously large demand to get in even for this short time. I was joking with my wife later today that I've gotten good at waiting in lines. This one wasn't anything like as bad as it looks, though. Unlike the autograph line on the left, this one pretty much evaporated once the doors to the Dealer Room were opened.

Besides the dealers themselves, there were a number of exhibits in the dealer room worthy of special attention. Here, for example, the originally proposed Unicron toy is displayed alongside the one that was actually made nearly two decades later.

The truck (or a mock-up) used for Optimus Prime in the movies was also on hand, and was a popular photo opportunity.

But this may well be the most surprising find of all, at least for me. I've gone on record as not caring much for the aesthetic of the movie toys. But this one (or two, depending on how you look at it) I found among the upcoming movie toys is one I'll just have to get. A Transformer that turns into an ice cream truck! How cool is that?

I have other Dealer Room photos, but putting them all up here would become unwieldy really fast, so instead, you can see them among my other BotCon 2009 photos over at Photobucket.

Most of the special guests make their appearance on Saturday, and the party at Paramount studios should prove to be interesting, as well. However, the party itself doesn't conclude until midnight, so I won't be able to get anything written down here for tomorrow. Instead, I'll cover Saturday's events, as well as any Sunday wrap-up, on Monday.

Friday, May 29, 2009

BotCon 2009: The Customizing Class

Although my wife's and my BotCon experience this week actually started Wednesday night, there's really not too much to tell about that bit. We waited in line for about an hour so that we could pick up the box set of toys (which I'll say more about in a few days) and other registration materials. The first real experience of BotCon 2009 worth mentioning was the Thursday customizing class (another class was held on Wednesday, but I wasn't there). I'm embarrassed to say that I was actually the last person to arrive at yesterday's class, although I was there only a minute or two after 9:00 am at most. I found a seat and was given my materials in short order.

As you may have already heard from other online forums, the figure we were making this year was a "Shattered Glass" version of Thunderclash, one of the exclusive figures in this year's box set. But before we get into the changes that we made to make this figure distinct from the "real" exclusive, we need to get into the construction of the custom figure.

We are given our figure not only disassembled, but actually still on the original plastic sprues. Modelers may already be familiar with the process of cutting off plastic parts from sprues like these, and I have some minor experience in this area, myself (although it's probably been close to ten years since I've put together that kind of a model kit!). Even so, I was a bit surprised at just how many parts were involved in this deluxe-sized figure.

Thankfully, Shawn Tessmann, the instructor behind the event, created a fairly detailed set of instructions and a process from which to make order out of such chaos. While cutting the parts off of the sprues, we followed charts whereby we put parts into different groups. All left arm parts when in one tray. All right arm parts in another. All torso parts in another. You get the idea. We also had to separate all the metal screws, pegs, and springs into appropriate trays as well. With all of the parts separated and thus organized, we were ready to begin.

I knew getting into the endeavor that I would find it a bit challenging. Although I've done a few customs from time to time, the fact is that I have a dangerous combination of perfectionism and a lack of patience, which is undoubtedly why I haven't done more such projects. Still, I knew that this was an opportunity that might not ever come so readily to me again, and was glad to take advantage of it, frustration and all. Here you see my custom Thunderclash's nearly-completed arm (sorry for the fuzzy pic!).

The part I found the most frustrating about this whole process was getting springs in place. This mold uses several ratcheting limbs, so that you can pose arms, elbows, legs and knees in more or less stable positions. However, I found that some springs didn't really want to fit in the spaces I was trying to put them in, and these parts were sent flying on more than one occasion. I suppose I should be grateful that I only actually lost a spring once in the whole process. But, in the end, it was my own fault. The picture you see here, for example, actually shows a spring that was not intended to be put where it is shown. I later discovered that I had a few of the springs confused, and the one that actually goes here is a bit shorter, fitting into place with considerably less force.

Shawn encouraged class members to inform Brian Savage, president of Fun Publications (the group that runs BotCon), of any comments, both good and bad. The only criticism I actually have is that I did find it difficult to tell precisely which part was intended to go in which place on a few such occasions. Several screws, for example, are very similar, but not identical, while the consequences of getting a spring wrong has already been demonstrated.

After several hours (I think it was close to five), I finally got the whole thing assembled. I was tempted to leave things right there, because I already know that I'm not very good at painting. Remember what I said about perfectionism combined with lack of patience? Well, the perfectionist streak dictated that I simply couldn't leave the figure as it was, so I went to work on putting color on my toy.

This is what Shawn's version of Shattered Glass Thunderclash looks like (well, more or less. It's not really fully transformed into robot mode). Such perfect lines! How he managed that, I still don't know. In the past, I've tried masking tape, masking fluid, just being really careful (yeah, right!), and anything else I could think of, but I never have been able to achieve such mechanical precision.

Some members of the class, especially those with greater skill, chose to go with their own ideas rather than following the "Shattered Glass" model at all. I opted for following the instructions... mostly. I purposely left a few paint applications off, and chose one or two colors that were at variance with the "original" version. Although I still wish that I was able to duplicate the straight lines Shawn managed, at least my version doesn't look as plain as it did before I painted it. Actually, it's not quite done yet. This is a mold that I've never had before, and I really don't know how to transform it without instructions. One of the faction symbols (generously supplied by the class, and featuring a clever twist on the "Elite Guard" design of this year's box set that reflects the "Shattered Glass" version's evil nature) is expected to break down the middle of Thunderclash's front end in vehicle mode. I decided to apply those stickers when I got home and could have access to instructions on how to transform the toy properly.

By about 3:30 or so, I decided that I needed to stop, as I was simply adding more frustrations with each paint application I decided to apply. When I got home, "Shattered Glass" Thunderclash was ready to join the official BotCon 2009 exclusive in my collection. For the record, I've never considered customizing class figures to be "official" exclusives, which is why they don't appear on the data sheet (which has just been updated to reflect what's currently known about the BotCon 2009 exclusives!). Still, it's a unique toy that I'm glad to have. I haven't really been home all that much to take pictures, what with the long lines at the convention and all (I was in a more than two hour-long line by the end of the day today!), but I'll try to put up some side-by-side shots of this toy alongside "regular" Thunderclash when I review him in a few days.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Generation Two Go-Bot Bumblebee

Some Transformer character names just get used a lot. I've already featured a couple of different Bumblebees, including another one from Generation Two. "Go-Bot" Bumblebee came out in 1995, near the end of the Generation Two line, and is the second (and final) Bumblebee to feature in that line.

The term "Go-Bot," itself, has a bit of a history. Back in the 1980s, "GoBots" were arguably the most successful competitors to the Transformers. Made by Tonka, GoBots were also largely drawn from a pre-existing Japanese line of transforming robots (in this case, "Machine Robo"), but were more uniform in size--most being roughly action-figure sized and sold on cards. By the time of the Generation Two line, it was clear that Hasbro was the winner of this competition, as they purchased Tonka in 1991 (although it's perhaps worth noting that the original Transformers line was itself in the process of dying out at that same time, leading to an almost two-year drought of Transformers toys in America before Generation Two began). Hasbro apparently wanted to make clear to the world that they now had the rights to the GoBots name and the characters (although not the molds themselves, which were retained by the original company in Japan), because even a couple of years before this toy, they had actually released a toy with the name "Gobots" in their color-changing subline. Then, in 1995, Hasbro released a line of small vehicles with free-spinning connected-axle wheels (purportedly at 1:64 scale, to be compatible with "Hot Wheels"-style racetracks) and called the subline "Go-Bots." (Note the slight variations in spelling for each distinct use of the term.)

The Cybertronian guide suggests that Go-Bot Bumblebee is supposed to be a Pontiac Firebird, but the TF Wiki generically calls it a "concept car," noting the exposed rear engine. Honestly, I wouldn't know one way or the other. The fact that many of the earliest Transformers actually did turn into vehicles that one could identify by make and manufacturer is a large part of the appeal for a lot of folks (nowadays, Hasbro's more careful to get licenses from the automakers if they do such a thing, which is why current Bumblebees don't turn into the Volkswagen Beetle form most readily identified with the character). I'm just not enough of a car aficionado to be able to tell the difference, myself. If it looks car-like, that's enough for me!

Not counting the very first Bumblebee mold (which was created for the pre-Transformers "Micro Change" line), this is actually the first mold not actually created to be Bumblebee that was assigned to the character. In fact, Go-Bot Bumblebee is a repaint of a character named "High Beam," and even uses the exact same package art, recolored to be a bit more appropriate to the recolored toy (although the art for both of these toys gives the robot the wrong hand weapon!). After the original wave of six Go-Bots, all other Go-Bots released before the end of Generation Two were repaints, and given names of classic characters. Even Megatron, previously always transforming into some kind of powerful weapon (when he transformed at all), was assigned a sports car mode! Presumably, this was done in an effort to boost lower-than-desired sales numbers for the Generation Two line. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough, and the line was canceled with several toys unreleased to make way for the new "Beast Wars" line. Although this was regrettable, it seems to have been a wise move, as the "Beast Wars" line was quite successful, and Transformers have never been absent from American toy shelves since!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Preparing for BotCon

It's almost here! A week from tomorrow, I'll be sitting in the customizing class to begin my 2009 BotCon experience. This seems to be a good time to relist the appropriate links I've already written, as well as fill you in on some of my plans on covering the convention via this blog.
  • In response to some requests I'd gotten online, I put together a brief "Survival Guide" to the greater Pasadena/Los Angeles area (especially amenities close to the convention center). I later added this In-N-Out (Alhambra) review when so many people mentioned the need to enjoy In-N-Out while they're here.
  • I've stayed out of the business of covering rumors for the most part, but I did mention this much near the beginning of the pre-registration period.
That brings me to my plans for this blog. Between the convention itself, and the toys that are already known to be coming out, and the toys that are rumored to be coming out, I'm going to shift to a daily schedule (including some, but not all, weekend days) for roughly two weeks starting on Friday, May 29th. On that day, I'll share what I'm able to about the experience of the customizing class (and pictures, if I'm able to take ones worth sharing, of the custom toy I'll have put together). Then, I'll spend a little bit of time writing about the convention before moving to daily features on each of the toys released that weekend. For the most part, I'll leave it to the TF news sites like TFW2005 and the Allspark to take care of sharing what news is coming out of Hasbro or in regard to the movie. What I'll have here will deal more with my experience at the convention. I hope you'll find it interesting. I'm certainly looking forward to it!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Mini-Spies

I've mentioned before that all of the first year or two's worth of toys in the Transformers line were not, in fact, "new" toys, but used molds that had been created for entirely different lines in Japan, notably "Diaclone" and "Microchange." The "Transformers" brand was only new in terms of marketing, and in creating the storyline that went along with it. This repurposing of Japanese brands for Hasbro's American audience extended even to the very first pack-in promotions done for the Transformers line: a set of especially small Transformers called "Mini-Spies" that came packaged with the regular Mini Vehicle (often called "Minicar") assortment that included such favorites as Bumblebee.

Speaking of marketing, here's the commercial that advertised the Mini-Spy promotion:

The commercial demonstrates the use of the heat-sensitive "rubsigns," which were used on Transformers for the first time with these toys. Although later Transformers would all have these rubsigns, when the Mini-Spies were released, they were the only Transformers to use them (EDIT: See comment below), allowing for the mystery of not knowing which faction the toy was a part of until you rubbed the sticker (or exposed it to a heat source). The use of the rubsigns on Transformers was novel enough that Hasbro actually got a patent on the concept. However, like all other Transformers toys at this time, the Mini-Spies were not created to be Transformers (they came from a line called "Mecha Warriors"), and thus were not actually intended for use with the rubsigns. The TFWiki implies that rubsigns were created in order for Hasbro to assure consumers that a toy was a true Transformers product, but I'm not convinced. Although Hasbro always said (with later toys that used rubsigns) that the rubsigns were there to prove that a toy was a real Transformer, I just don't see why Hasbro would have bothered introducing the rubsigns with this promotion if authentication was always their intent.

Besides the rubsigns, these toys also featured the first pull-back motors to be used on Transformers, allowing for added play value.

Although I only have two Mini-Spies, there were actually four different molds (The FX-1 type and Buggy type seen here, and also a Jeep type and a Porsche type), each available in three different colors (white was the other color), and each could be either an Autobot or a Decepticon. In case you haven't done the math, that means that there are 24 distinct variations out there. Although these were packed visibly on the cards with the Mini Vehicles, so you could know which color and type you were getting (it was a bit more difficult to discern the faction in-store, although that didn't stop us from trying!), there were quite a few more Mini-Spy varieties out there than there were Mini Vehicles, so anyone who tried to get a complete set would have had to have bought multiples of the regular toys (as was also the case for the similar, but later, decoy promotion). I don't know anyone who even attempted this back in 1985 (I'm sure such people exist), but a few folks have completed their sets since due to the miracle of the Internet.

In this modern era of improved toy technology, "completing the set" is probably the only reason someone would want more than a couple of Mini-Spies. As toys on their own, these things are pretty puny. I can see why Hasbro never sold them separately, although as a "bonus," I think they did their job admirably. And in terms of historical value, they're definitely worth noticing (if you care about the history of toys, in any event).

Incidentally, after I finished writing my first draft of the entry, Reprolabels announced "upgrade stickers" specifically for the Mini-Spies! I haven't yet decided whether I'll invest in these, myself, but they're worth taking a look at (incidentally, the picture over there shows a red Mini-Spy. This is clearly a pre-Transformer, and not a Hasbro Mini-Spy. For what it's worth, the original Mecha Warriors didn't come in Yellow or White!).

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet?

I like listening to Old Time Radio podcasts. One that I especially enjoy these days is the old 1940's Superman radio program. As a mere historical curiosity, it's worth noting if only because it was the radio program--and not the comics--that introduced the characters of Jimmy Olsen and Perry White, but it's actually fairly entertaining, too! And, at a mere 15 minutes (or less) per episode, it's not too difficult to fit in between other tasks.

There are, of course, the elements of the program's era which can be a bit eyebrow-raising in the modern era. Besides less than politically correct depictions of Asians and American Indians, for example, this Superman doesn't seem to mind putting bad guys in mortal peril in order to get them to surrender (although, even as far back as then, I haven't noticed that he's actively killed anyone. More than a few bad guys have died as a result of their own machinations, though!). And, honestly, this version of Superman seems unusually slow to me. I'm used to reading about and seeing a Superman who can move so fast that he can travel practically anywhere in the world in the blink of an eye, should he so choose. Although the programs do use a variation of the traditional "faster than a speeding bullet" line (it changes every now and again. The episode I'm listening to now says that Superman can "race a speeding bullet to its target," which is certainly close enough), I'm constantly getting the impression that Superman himself is unsure that he can make it from Point A to Point B quickly enough to save the day.

Obviously, at least some of this is simply a side effect of the need to build tension in an action-packed radio adventure. And, generally, they succeed at their goal. It's also really pretty remarkable how voice actor Bud Collyer (who also hosted some early game shows, so I've just gotta respect him!) was able to switch his voice down an octave or so from what he used as Clark Kent to the voice he used for Superman. It's as close as one could hope for in a non-visual medium to actually seeing Kent rip open his shirt to don the red and blue tights.

Hundreds of episodes were made over the course of more than a decade. Not all them exist anymore, but there are more than enough to keep you going for quite a while, especially at the rate of two or three a week (which is about how often the episodes were broadcast in the 1940's, as well). You can find a good supply of episodes for free download (they're believed to be in the Public Domain now) over at the Internet Archive.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Transformers: Let's Talk About Ravage

Today is the 25th Anniversary of the release of the first issue of Marvel Comics' The Transformers. Although the concept of robots that change from one form to another had been around for a few years by this time, The Transformers introduced something entirely new: the idea that the robots themselves were sentient beings, as opposed to being controlled by some humanoid force. In recognition of this anniversary, bloggers across the Transformers fandom will be writing entries about Transformers today. Click here to find a list of participating blogs (which will no doubt grow as the day moves on).

But I'm not looking to talk about Issue One today. Although it is the first time that any Transformers-branded product was made available to the general public, and deserves a thorough review, Jim Sorenson did an admirable job of that just a few months ago. Instead, I'm going to celebrate the 25th Anniversary by taking a look at the first Transformer character ever to be seen speaking in a Transformers comic book. Was it Optimus Prime, leader of the heroic Autobots? How about the evil Megatron? NO! The honor of speaking the very first lines ever printed in the Transformers mythos went to Ravage.

This is more than a little ironic, since Ravage was a jaguar, and not a humanoid robot like most other Transformers. In the 1980's cartoon, which is remembered far more readily by most people who grew up in the 1980's, most "animal" characters were treated as non-sapient, and thus Ravage never spoke in that medium (Just one more reason to prefer the comics!).

But whatever the medium, Ravage is clearly one of those characters that captured the imaginations of Transformers fans. His popularity was so great that he was one of only a small handful of Generation One characters to make an active appearance in the Beast Wars cartoon, in which he not only spoke, but had actually been reformatted into a humanoid form (which, oddly, retained the panther's head).

Ravage has been given a number of toys over the years, too. More than I can comfortably post images of here, so I'll have to make do with this partial group shot, and encourage you to check out this link from the TF Wiki. Note that this link only shows toys based on the Generation One character, and not homages. It's still quite the list!

Anyway, that's my contribution to today's 25th Anniversary. There are quite a few others, too, so be sure to check them out! If you haven't already clicked on the link at the top, you can click on the image to the right. Regular Transformers toy features resume next Friday.

Does what you see here interest you? Subscribe to this feed for regular updates!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Upcoming Blog Event: Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Transformers

Transforming Seminarian has joined forces with Bloggers Unite to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the Transformers with a multi-blog event this Friday, May 8th. Several other blogs have already signed up in the early stages of planning, and I expect more will do so this week (you can see some of them, and can sign up yourself, at this link, although a number of bloggers have made informal commitments via the Allspark and elsewhere).

I've tried not to set unnecessarily restrictive requirements for participation in this event. Just write something about Transformers on May 8th. If you already have a Transformers-centric blog, you're especially encouraged to come up with something special for the 25th Anniversary (where were you when you first learned about the Transformers, for example), but if you don't regularly feature Transformers on your blog, you might just want to do a toy or a comic review, or talk about the time that someone in a Grimlock costume came to your local zoo, or whatever strikes your fancy. Then, once you've written your piece, head over to the Bloggers Unite site and share your link there, so that others can see what you've written.

Why May 8th? It's a fair question, and I'm sure arguments can be made for other dates. My reasoning is that, as the date of the release of the first issue of Marvel's Transformers comic, May 8th was the first time that Transformers merchandise was made available to the public, and thus is an appropriate choice for an anniversary date. See you back here on Friday!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Target Exclusive Universe Long Haul and Hightower (and Constructicon Devastator)

Last week, I discussed the history of the Target exclusive Universe homages to the classic Constructicons. This week, let's talk more about these versions themselves. Since these toys started out from molds created for rather different characters (working for the opposite faction!) in an entirely different line, it's perhaps understandable that although the homage is clear, it isn't exact. Only three of the four toys: Scavenger, Bonecrusher, and Long Haul--were actually given names that once belonged to Generation One Constructicons.

Given the crane vehicle mode of the toy on the right, one would have expected it to be called "Hook" if the same theme were followed, but the character is instead called "Hightower" (Ironically, the exact same name as the Robots in Diguise character who was an Autobot. The better to confuse you with!). This is clearly yet another case where Hasbro has lost the trademark. Usually, with a name that's also a commonly used word like "hook," they can just slap "Decepticon" (or "Constructicon"?) in front of the name and make it okay, but Hasbro has never done so for any of the Hook-like homages done in the past decade. One assumes that some other company has a toy using Hook's name, as the existence of such a conflicting toy would prevent such an easy patch. However, I have to admit that I'm not aware of any off the top of my head (are there any "Captain Hook" toys out there at the moment? Perhaps we have Disney to blame!).

I don't know what Hasbro was thinking when they decided how to position Long Haul's faction symbol (as seen here on the left). This is not a mistransformation! The symbol really is upside-down! Sometimes, this kind of thing happens so that the symbol looks correct in the other mode, but the symbol is practically concealed in Long Haul's dump truck vehicle mode by the bed, which hangs over it (as seen above), and wouldn't look demonstrably better even if you could see it more clearly.

In keeping with the "Constructicon" homage, the team members combine to form a giant robot, who is in this case called "Constructicon Devastator." This image shows the most commonly used assembly, with Long Haul and Hightower as the legs and Scavenger as the arms. Bonecrusher becomes the torso and head.

As I mentioned with Piranacon, combiner robots are occasionally designed with interchangeable limbs. Constructicon Devastator has interchangeable units, too, but with only four components, it's done a little differently. Bonecrusher always forms the torso and the head, but any of the other three team members can form both arms while the other two each become a leg. Here, for example, we see what Constructicon Devastator looks like if Long Haul becomes the arms.

I've tried to be careful to call the individual team members Constructicon homages rather than "Constructicons." The reason for this is that these toys are never actually called "Constructicons" anywhere on their packaging or instructions. The word is only used as a trademark-protecting prefix to the name of the combined "Constructicon Devastator." Even so, the intention is clear enough.
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