Friday, December 30, 2011

Transformers Feature: Vector Prime

New Year's is upon us, so why not do a feature on the Transformers version of "Father Time" himself? Of course, I'm referring to Vector Prime. Vector Prime is a member of "the Thirteen." In theory, these are the 13 original Transformers as created by Primus, and each of these Transformers was given a special power to help defend the universe. In Vector Prime's case, that power is mastery over the space-time continuum.

When Vector Prime was introduced, the idea was that these 13 Transformers were unique in the Transformers multiverse. That is, although the Optimus Prime of the Animated cartoon is a different Optimus Prime than any of the Generation One Optimus Primes (and there are several of those), any "Vector Prime" you see is supposed to be the same entity as this one (who appeared in the Cybertron cartoon). However, recent revelations in preparation for the current cartoon (Transformers: Prime), coupled with important plot points in the Michael Bay live-action movies, suggest that this concept has already been revised, so take that with a grain of salt.

Vector Prime's alternate mode strikes me as a cross between the Star Wars X-Wing Fighter and the TIE Figher, although here you see how Hasbro's best intentions in regard to safety unfortunately result in toys that don't hold up over time very well. The wings of the vehicle mold are made with a very soft plastic, and most specimens come out of their original packages with visible warping. Mine has suffered even more from being put in storage for the past few years. Takara's version uses a harder plastic, which doesn't have this problem.

Vector Prime comes with a few accessories. You've probably already noticed the big sword in the picture above, but none of the shots I've used yet have shown Vector Prime's Mini-Con: Safeguard. There's really not to much I can say about him, as like most Mini-Cons, he's not given a whole lot of personality.

Safeguard also turns into a spaceship of some kind, with a front end that clearly doubles as a weapon. This is at least in part so you could plant Safeguard on Vector Prime's arm to use as an arm cannon...

... or on Vector Prime's spacecraft mode. There is one other accessory that isn't shown in any of these pictures: Vector Prime's special Cyber Planet Key. Cyber keys served a similar function in the Cybertron line as Mini-Cons did in the Armada line, in that they tend to unlock special features of the larger robot. In Vector Prime's case, this is limited to some sound effects, which don't photograph especially well, and I'm not really into Transformers with electronics, anyway, so I tend to ignore that feature.

Obviously, this is the last entry I'll be doing for 2011. As I'm writing this, I'm preparing to report to a courthouse in Los Angeles for potential jury duty. I may get through the experience without actually being selected to serve on a trial and thus be free for another year, or I may end up serving on a jury that takes up my time and attention for a while. Between that and my already uncertain schedule, I don't know when the next post will be, but I'll try not to take too long. See you in 2012!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Transformers Feature: Shattered Glass Goldbug

At BotCon 2008, the "Shattered Glass" universe was introduced. Although there is still a bit of a divide within the fandom as to the merits of the alternate universe concept, I think it's fair to say by now that the franchise has given Fun Publications a venue for creating stories and toys that are unique to their properties (that is, the official Transformers club and the BotCon convention), and that sell quite well. In fact, the toys from the 2008 convention set go for such high prices these days (and I've needed the money badly enough) that I have to confess that I have already sold all of my 2008 official Shattered Glass toys except for Goldbug.

Goldbug, as you may recall, was the name given to the upgraded form of the Autobot Bumblebee back in 1987. After Hasbro decided to go back to the name Bumblebee just a couple of years later, the character has consistently been "Bumblebee" ever since, and the name "Goldbug" was never used by Hasbro again (even an honest effort to homage Goldbug this past year was simply called "Gold Bumblebee"). This left the name available to Fun Publications to do an homage that would likely never have been attempted otherwise.

BotCon Goldbug uses the mold of the Cybertron Hot Shot figure, with a new head that captures the essence of original Throttlebot Goldbug head quite well (if admittedly adding red to the eyes to capture the sense that this Goldbug is evil). Since the Hot Shot toy doesn't even remotely resemble a Volkswagen Beetle (commonly called a "bug"), the folks who worked on the deco played with the colors a bit to give the figure's chest design a somewhat insectoid feel. I'm not sure how that works in the fiction (the writers handwave the Earthen modes on a Cybertron where no one had, at that point, ever been to the Earth as preparation for an upcoming Earth invasion, but how familiar can they be with insects?), but the head really captures the idea that this is a new Goldbug just fine. I'm not sure I would argue that "the head is enough" on all—or even most—figures, but it seems to do the job here. Thus, this is the one Shattered Glass figure from the 2008 convention that I've held on to.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Shopping for Baby Clothes

Lest I give anyone the wrong impression, I should hasten to say that my wife is NOT expecting.

Oddly enough, I'm not talking about shopping for any of my young nieces and nephews, either (although my youngest nephew, at a few months old, might nonetheless have been benefited from this adventure when I get to meet him in a few days, had it not worked out as I hoped). Rather, I was shopping for a Muppet.

For a few years now, the FAO Schwarz website has had a "Muppet Whatnot Workshop" whereby one could design their own Muppet on the website, order it, and have your custom-made Muppet delivered to your home. I've been intrigued by this offering for quite some time, but I've been reluctant to spend the cash that FAO was asking (the price has gone down a bit since these were first offered, but it's still nearly a hundred bucks). Then I found out that Toys R Us (who bought out FAO Schwarz in 2009, mere months after the Workshop website first started up) was selling kits at the store for a somewhat lower price. With Christmas around the corner, this promptly went on my "Want List," and my brother was kind enough to send me one. I thus had my own Muppet!

The kits differ from the online product in a few notable details (besides the price). One advantage that the kits have over their online counterpart is that you are given an assortment of eyes, hair, and noses that you can mix-and-match to your heart's content, rather than having to choose just one of each to be permanently affixed to your creation. However, one element the kits lack is clothing for the new Muppet. Instead, you can buy from an assortment of Whatnot clothing for about $20. Actually, if one added the value of clothing to the base price, you've almost caught up with what you pay for the online version, which includes clothes.

Of course, I didn't want my Muppet to go around naked! I'd already had a couple of shirts too small for me to wear from Hasbro's recent Transformers giveaway, but neither the "Adult Small" nor the "Child's Large" were anything near small enough to fit the Muppet properly.  Even so, I felt confident that I could get some baby clothes from Goodwill that would work, and at a fraction of the "official" price. There was still an element of risk: despite doing some research online, I could not find any firm suggestion of what the right size would be. I suppose it makes sense that the Whatnot folks aren't just going to come out and tell you how to avoid purchasing their product. So, there was a chance that, even after having made an educated guess based on my previous attempts, I might still end up with something that wouldn't work.

After checking out a few stores in the area, I finally got the shirt you see here for $1.99 (Goodwill doesn't even charge tax!). For those who are wondering, it is a size "3T." I might have been able to get away with a size smaller, but basically I think it fits pretty well. And I was able to get a Transformers-related shirt, to boot! All for a tenth of the price!

Thus, I have a new mascot for the blog. I haven't yet come up with a name for the character, but welcome suggestions. Feel free to recommend names in the comments.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Photo Contest Entry: Attack of the G2 Decepticons

The latest contest run by the folks at the Hasbro Transformers Collectors' Club asked members to depict "ANY of the Fun Publications produced Transformers toy(s) and showcase them in some sort of battle or adventure. ACTION is the key word!" As with another recent contest, I chose to use Action Master Thundercracker. After working so hard to get this toy made, I figure I should make the most of it!

Sadly, this photo wasn't any more successful at winning the contest than any of my other recent efforts (although I did feel that one of the entries that did win used a similar concept, albeit not including Thundercracker). What follows is the text I submitted along with my entry when I sent it in.
As is often the case with contests like these, I took quite a few shots trying to get one that I thought was good enough to send. The element that put this one over the top was that this angle and setting seemed the most "in action" to me (in keeping with the fact that "ACTION" was said to be the "key word" on the front page announcing the contest). All figures in this shot, with the exception of the KRE-O human running away from the Decepticons as Rapido races to get him to safety, are not only Fun Pub figures, but are all characters from the existing "Wings" universe (assuming that we have AMTC and not his SG counterpart, and allowing for the possibility that Side Burn is still alive by the time G2 enters into things).

Monday, December 12, 2011

Offbeat Transformers Collectibles: Fruit Flavored Snacks

This little oddity is something I found during a recent trip to the so-called 99 Cents Only Store.  Of course, I may have to rethink my title, since this is obviously no more collectible than the Valentine's Candy was, but ah, well....

Not too much to tell, really. It's pretty standard character-shaped gummy-snack fare. It's just the first time I can recall Transformers getting into the act (I'd welcome images of anything older, of course). The snacks are apparently made by Betty Crocker, and feature a cartoonish version of Live-Action Movie Bumblebee on both the front and back of the box, while the pouches inside depict a similarly cartoony Movie Optimus Prime.

The gummies inside, oddly enough, are not apparently based on the movie designs (even the faction logos seem to be the standard Autobot and Decepticon logos, rather than the slightly-tweaked versions used in the movies), although it's admittedly hard to tell from the gummies as pictured here, as they were already fused into a single mass as I pulled them out of the pouch, and had to physically separate them. The box is a bit clearer, and one can tell that the characters are drawn from Transformers: Animated, featuring not only Prime and Bumblebee and the faction logos, but also Bulkhead, Megatron, and several vehicle forms. If you happen to find these, go ahead and pick them up. They're worth a buck, and I'm guessing they won't be around for much longer.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Remembering Wrath Side Story

Back when I was in high school, I was a member of a local Star Trek fan club that met once a month. Besides watching episodes of the show (both original and Next Generation, but none of the other spin-offs existed yet at that point), we also enjoyed the occasional piece created by fans. One such film we watched, which was apparently presented live at a convention somewhere, was called Wrath Side Story.

As the name might suggest, Wrath Side Story was a mash-up of the second Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, with the musical West Side Story. To this day it remains one of the funniest Trek parodies I can remember, although I grant that one would probably need to know the stories of both Khan and West Side to appreciate it all. Here are some highlights:

Near the beginning of the story, Khan meets Chekov.  Although the original episode of Star Trek in which Khan featured ("Space Seed") was during the first season (before Chekov joined the cast), it is clear that Khan recognizes Chekov. This has been the subject of much speculation among fans. Wrath Side Story captures this oddity with a single line, spoken by Chekov to his commanding officer: "But, sir! I met this maniac fifteen years ago, and I wasn't even there!"

Of course, the real gems of the parody were the musical numbers. For example, shortly after stealing Chekov's ship, the Reliant, Khan breaks out to the tune of "Maria":
Reliant!  I just stole a ship named Reliant!...
Arguably, the most memorable part of The Wrath of Khan is the death of Spock. Wrath Side Story captures this scene, too, but after Spock successfully saves the day at the cost of his own life, its time to sing again, this time to the tune of "America":
I like to be on the Enterprise.
All right by me on the Enterprise.
Even when some of the people die.
I like to be on the Enterprise.
Obviously, it was all pretty silly, which is exactly what made it work. Sadly, even with the ubiquity of information on the Internet, I've never found Wrath Side Story anywhere online. Indeed, I've only quite recently found any other sites that acknowledged that the parody even existed. If anyone has a copy, and feels that it's safe to post, I'd certainly appreciate the chance to see it again.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Game Show Board Games: Match Game (1974 2nd edition)

"Get ready to match the stars!"

NBC did a version of The Match Game in the 1960's, but that's not the version that anyone remembers. The iconic version of Match Game is the version that started on CBS in 1973 (with the year proudly displayed after the nameMatch Game '73and changing each year as appropriate until the daytime network version was cancelled), which itself spawned a pair of successful syndicated versions (Match Game PM and The Match Game, the latter of which continued on for some time after the daytime version's end). Similarly, there were several home game versions of the NBC game, but I've neither seen any of those nor cared enough to spend much time searching for them. It's the iconic '70s version that I made the effort to add to my collection.

The object of the game, as perhaps implied by the tagline quoted at the beginning of this entry, is to match the answers of as many of the celebrities playing as possible.  Each episode featured six celebrities, and thus the board game provides six "celebrities" who respond to each question, which is almost always a fill-in-the-blank process. For example, "At the hospital, Steve passed out when the nurse showed him his ____." The exceptions to this "fill-in-the-blank" rule are leftovers from the early days of the 70s version, before the game had quite found what would be its successful pattern, about which I'll say more in a bit. The responses are, according to Wikipedia (and the game instruction booklet itself in the case of the "Super Match" round) actually from the show itself, and thus reflect the ways real people responded to the questions involved, rather than just reflecting the writers of the game questions themselves, as is the norm for most game show home editions. This is a welcome move, and really helps capture the feel of the game without requiring as many as nine people in a room just to play a single game.

On the actual show, once you've matched a celebrity, you earned a point for that celebrity, but you could not match that same celebrity again in future rounds of the same game. This was displayed on the show by means of a light (either a red circle or a green triangle, depending on the contestant) illuminated next to the celebrity's name. Since the board game doesn't use electronics, it instead marks progress by punching the paper cover of the game board through to the other side, where another punched piece of paper then becomes visible. In the picture to the right, the 1st player has matched "Dick," "Jane," and "Chuck," while the 2nd player has yet to make a match. After the game is done, the punches are easily reset simply by lifting the cover page with the celebrities on it, and the pre-punched folds are able to be reused again and again.

But the board really isn't all that necessary. Really, all one needs to play this game is a set of fill-in-the-blank questions, as well as the short-phrase versions needed to play the "Super Match" and "Head-to-Head Match" bonus rounds. If one has a large enough group available, I would by all means designate a half-dozen of them as "celebrities" to further create a sense of authenticity, but I certainly recognize that getting a large enough group of people interested enough in playing a game show from decades ago may not be the easiest of tasks!

There have been several attempts to revive Match Game since this version finally ended in the early 1980s. None have worked out quite so well. One reason might be that the pattern of game play that the 1970s version of the show found so successful employed a great deal of double-entendre. This worked just fine in the 1970s, when broadcast standards dictated that none of the celebrities could actually get away with writing an outright dirty response. At least one later revival of Match Game on television (in the 1990s) clearly had no such restrictions on the celebrities, and although they still had to "bleep" out a number of responses, the resulting game play simply wasn't funny anymore, and the show died within the year. Other attempts to revive the show since then haven't even gotten beyond the pilot stage. Some have argued that the standards of the culture have simply moved too far today to get away with such mildly suggestive language as was used in the 1970s, and that may be true, but I'm not ready to give up so easily. I think that a talented enough group of celebrities and producers—who know how to be suggestive as necessary, while also knowing that there is a line that can't be crossed without destroying the humorous balance that the 70s show enjoyed—could manage it. But even assuming such people are out there (and I'm convinced that they are), they may not want to use their talents in this way. Until that extraordinary group of people can be found, we'll just have to make do with reruns, and perhaps home games like this one!

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Humans Among Transformers Toys

Although the Transformers franchise has always been primarily about giant transforming robots, the folks behind the fiction have generally sought to include a human element to the saga from the very beginning. But the proportion of human representation in the toyline itself has always been fairly low. While this perhaps isn't an exhaustive accounting, I'll try to cover the bases.

The first attempt to include figures of human characters came in Generation One, with the advent of the Headmasters and Targetmasters (and, later, Powermasters). Technically, these aren't humans, but an alien race called Nebulans. However, in the Marvel comics, Nebulans were all but indistinguishable from humans, so I'll include them (and, Spike, the "Nebulan leader" who came with the original Fortress Maximus, was a human).

I suppose I could make a case for the Pretenders as being "human figures," but in this case, the toys were never meant to actually be human characters, but merely to "pretend" to look human, so I'll make do with a link to Pretender Bumblebee.

That was pretty much it for the original Generation One, but the next attempt I've been able to locate, in 2001, was also Generation One-related. Takara released a series of PVCs of popular characters, and although the focus was decidedly on the robots, there were a couple of human-character PVCs released alongside robots with whom they had some connection. Minerva here, a Japanese Headmaster character, originally just a repaint of the American Nightbeat toy, was released with a Metalhawk PVC figure, but only in Japan. A Spike PVC was released with a Bumblebee PVC, both here and in Japan, but I no longer seem to have that figure.

The next attempt to create a figure for a human character in the Transformers franchise came in 2005 with Energon and Kicker, the human figure that came with Deluxe-sized High Wire. Finally, we're given a fully-articulated G.I. Joe-sized figure (the only human character to be given such official Joe-like toys in the Transformers franchise to date). Sadly, since this picture was taken, my Kicker has suffered the fate of many others, in that the rubber O-ring that holds his torso and legs together has disintegrated and fallen apart. Although I have attempted a repair, I'm none too happy with it. I'm really pretty annoyed at Hasbro for constructing this figure in such a way that it cannot be disassembled without doing damage to the figure (there is a differently-constructed Kicker figure in the Takara line. I haven't heard whether or not that one has this problem).

A short time later, Hasbro—which also owns the rights to the Star Wars action figure line—started releasing some Transformers toys of famous Star Wars ships that turn into robots resembling the characters of that "galaxy far, far away." A few of these also came with little human figures that fit into the vehicles. However, I'm not really counting these, as the Star Wars franchise really is its own thing.

Fast-forward to 2007 and the first live-action Transformers movie. A few "Screen Battles" sets came with figurines of human characters such as Sam Witwicky and Mikaela Barnes, in fixed poses relevant to a diorama-style action scene the set enabled you to create. Owing to my distate for movie figures, I've never bought these, but here's a link to an image from the TFWiki.

I've not stayed completely away from movie-related toys, however. After the second movie, Revenge of the Fallen, came out, a line of "Human Alliance" toys were released, containing small-but-articulated human figures designed to interact with the robot the figure was packaged with. Although I never picked up any of the original figures, I have recently picked up one of the smaller "Human Alliance" figures released with the latest movie, Dark of the Moon. This toy features an astronaut packaged with a dune buggy that's supposed to pass as a lunar rover.

Finally, we have the recently-released KRE-O line of toys, which are basically LEGO sets done by a non-LEGO company (that is, Hasbro). My local Target had the Ratchet sets on clearance, and so I picked one up. The "Kreon" figures meant to represent the actual Transformers are admittedly far more interesting, but this human medic is more relevant to this post. Most sets that include "Kreons" include at least one such human character.

There has always been a good deal of debate about how much the Transformers franchise should feature humans, either in the fiction or in the toys. Personally, as long as they don't overwhelm the attention on the robots themselves, I see no problem. And as long as they are doing human toys, I'll still keep petitioning for an official G.B. Blackrock figure!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Seven Dwarfs as Mortal Flesh

Harikalar Diyari Snowwhite 7Dwarfs 06042 nevitMy wife and I put this parody together a number of years ago, about the same time we came up with this one. Riffing on hymns may seem a bit sacrilegious  but it's all in good fun. I definitely imagine the Disney version of the dwarfs when I think of this song:

(To the tune of "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence")

Let all seven dwarfs keep working
In the diamond mines all day
Let them sing about their labors
As they earn their daily pay
Then they'll march on home, "Heigh-Ho! Heigh-Ho!"
To their house of stone and hay

(My wife, a professionally-trained musician, notes that one could segue straight into "Heigh-Ho" from here if you like.  It works really well!)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Game Show Board Games: The New Tic-Tac-Dough (70s version)

Last week, I featured the 1950's version of the Tic-Tac-Dough board game.  This week, I'm discussing the 1970's version, which like the original version, seems to have come out roughly around the time of the show's premiere (1978, in this case, although the copyright actually says 1977 for some reason). The game play of the new show was rather similar to the original version, although they changed pretty quickly from shuffling only after both contestants had been asked a question to shuffling after each question. Also, center-box questions on the show became routinely two-part questions, as opposed to merely "more difficult" than other questions (although like the original, extra time was allowed for the contestant to consider a response).

There's little point in denying that the 1970's board game itself is considerably cheaper than the 1950's version.  Instead of mechanical gears and a lever to shuffle the categories, the 1970's game settles for a mostly cardboard affair, using numbers for categories on a single rotating disk. This does, however, have the benefit of easily allowing for different categories in each game (I'm under the impression that one was supposed to order accessory kits to add new categories to the 1950's game, but I've never seen that these actually exist).

One oddity deserves mention that applies to both versions of the board game. The scorekeeper (a disk on this version; a pointer on the original) allows for rounds to be worth up to $1000.  Each box being worth $100 (or $200 for the center square). This is accurate enough the daytime network versions of each show, but the 1978 network version of The New Tic-Tac-Dough didn't last very long, and the syndicated version (which lasted much longer) awarded $200 for each square ($300 for the center), which really isn't possible to do if you're limiting yourself to the board itself (of course, it's pretty easy to just grab a piece of paper and a pencil!).*

The other big difference in this version of the board game involves the Bonus game (a feature that the original 1950's show didn't have in the first place). Oddly enough, while the dollar amounts for the main game reflect the 1970's network version, the bonus game is instead taken from the syndicated version of that era. The game provides cards with the words "Bonus Game" on the back, and you are to lay these out on the table in a 3-by-3 grid. The contestant turns over one card at a time, which reveals either a dollar amount or a dragon. The contestant is allowed to add to their score the accumulated total of the dollar amounts revealed after each turn, or risk losing that amount to turn over another card. If the contestant reaches $1000, they win the Bonus game and receive a total of $2000 added to their score. If the dragon is revealed, all money from the Bonus game is lost. This is somewhat different than the show, where two of the dollar amounts are replaced by cards that say "TIC" and "TAC," which award no money, but which will automatically yield a victory if both are selected. This actually makes the home version considerably easier to win than the real thing. The real game would also add a prize package (worth quite a bit more than $1000, in my experience) in addition to the money accumulated (rather than a set $2000), so perhaps the added risk evens out in the long run.

*I should also point out here that the 1950's show had a nighttime version where the values were $300/$500.
I should point out here that the game actually gives you 12 cards, even though the instructions say you should only use 9. Basically, they give you 3 extra dragons for no apparent reason. The rules even make clear that there should only be one dragon among the 9.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Game Show Board Games: Tic-Tac-Dough (1950s version)

I've featured a few game show board games on this blog in the past, and it's high time I got back to doing a few more. This time, I'm going to feature the oldest such game in my collection: a 1956 or 57 (my sources differ on the year) edition of the game created for the original Tic-Tac-Dough. Jack Barry (later known to my generation as the host of The Joker's Wild before his death in 1984) is featured on the cover, and was indeed the original host of Tic-Tac-Dough. But since Barry was only host of the show for a few months in 1956, it seems reasonably likely that he had already moved on by the time this game would have been available.

Tic-Tac-Dough was a quiz show built on (as the name no doubt makes obvious) Tic-Tac-Toe. The game board features nine categories, a different one appearing in each square of a 3-by-3 grid. The returning champion, playing as "X," selects a category (and its corresponding square), and the host reads a question from that category. If the contestant gets the correct answer, an "X" is placed in that square, and the cash value of that square is added to a game pot. If not, the square remains unclaimed. The "O" contestant may then choose one of the remaining categories/squares to capture it in the same way. After both contestants have had a chance to answer a question, the categories would shuffle around the board, a feat done by virtue of a series of rollers on which the categories have been written. As in Tic-Tac-Toe, a player wins the game (and the accumulated pot of money) by capturing three squares in a row.

The board game really captures the feel of the actual show rather brilliantly. I'm especially impressed by how the board game duplicates the mechanism for shuffling categories, almost precisely scaled-down from what was done on the 1950s-era set. The categories are shuffled by pulling down on the blue lever to the right. The questions are contained on a series of cards held in a blue stand. While this means a lot of potential parts to be lost, it is much closer to how an actual quiz show host gets his questions than the standard "question book" that most game show board games of a later era would have.

The box proudly calls itself a "First Edition," but I do wonder just how many variations of this edition were made, as the images I've found elsewhere on the web of early 1950s-era Tic-Tac-Dough games use the form "1st Editon," rather than spelling the ordinal number out. Either way, it seems clear that the game comes from the time before the show was investigated for game rigging (as many game shows of that era were, most notably Jack Barry's most well-known show of the time, Twenty One). The board game continued to be released after that, but with all references to Tic-Tac-Dough removed, going by the name 3 In-A-Row Home Quiz.

Being born in 1974, I of course never actually saw the 1950s version of Tic-Tac-Dough when it was originally on. I've had to rely on the wonders of You Tube for that. I grew up with the 1970s/80s version, which had its own board game version released. I'll feature that next week, along with some of the differences between the two.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Vote for Admiral Daala!

From time to time, Hasbro announces a "Fans Choice" poll for their Star Wars action figure line, where fans get to suggest characters to be given a figure. This is the chance to suggest figures that otherwise might not get made. While we're still in the nomination stage of the current go-round, I'm going to throw my support behind a candidate that, to date, has never yet been given a figure (and there are increasingly few such characters of any prominence at all, even including the "Expanded Universe" beyond the movies and Clone Wars series): Admiral Natasi Daala.

I think Daala is an interesting character who, despite never having appeared in any of the movies, has nonetheless become an important figure in the history of the Expanded Universe. A rare example of a woman rising to prominence in the Imperial Navy (apparently in part thanks to having an affair with Grand Moff Tarkin, but don't let either Daala or Tarkin hear you say so!), Daala not only survived her initial appearance in the Star Wars franchise (unlike Tarkin, who despite this fact has become extremely well-known and has had several figures at this point), but has risen to sufficient prominence to become the Chief of State of the Galactic Alliance in some of the more recent Star Wars novels (set some 40 years after A New Hope). But make no mistake. Daala is still an Imperial at heart, and not a friendly person. She quickly proceeds to use her new position of power to cause Luke Skywalker's new Jedi order all kinds of trouble.

But, just as Daala had, despite clearly demonstrated brilliance and ability, been routinely passed over for promotion (before Tarkin), simply because she's a woman, she suffers from a similar anti-female bias that plagues so many action figure lines, and has never had an action figure made in her likeness.  This situation must be rectified!

So, let's assume I've convinced you that Daala is the perfect choice to have a new figure made.What do you do next? First, go to your favorite Star Wars fan forum (or, you can go to the Allspark, which despite being a Transformers forum, is how I found out about the current "Fans Choice" poll), find out if they're participating in the Fans Choice poll, and place Daala into nomination. The deadline to do this is September 28th. The top 20 nominees will then be placed on a ballot for voting at the Star Wars Insider website in October. The character with the most votes as of December 1st (the Allspark quote says November 31st, but there is no such date) will be the character to have a figure made!

Support Admiral Daala!

Friday, August 26, 2011

GoBots Feature: Scooter

Once upon a time, there was a company named Tonka. By the mid-1980's, they were known mostly for making sturdy, metal, toy trucks, which they had done quite successfully for several decades already by that point. But like many other companies, Tonka sought to expand, and had placed their footprint in a number of other sectors of the toy market. This included a line of transforming robot toys that came to be known as the most serious competitor to Hasbro's Transformers line: the GoBots.

GoBots toys, in general, were standardized to a far greater degree than the Transformers toys were at the time. While Transformers toys came in a wide variety of sizes, the vast majority of GoBots were roughly 3 ½" tall (and most of the exceptions fell within a standard "Super GoBots" size of around 5 to 6 inches). While the earliest Transformers were taken from the previously-existing Japanese "Microchange" and "Diaclone" lines, most GoBots used previously-existing molds created for the "Machine Robo" line in Japan.

Scooter is an excellent standard example of a GoBot. The character got a lot of visibility due to the character's central role in the Challenge of the GoBots cartoon that was created to help advertise the line (voiced by the legendary Frank Welker, who I had occasion to write about last month), and he demonstrates at least the standard articulation of most GoBots toys (i.e., the arms move, but that's about as much as you can do to pose the toy).*

Transformation to alternate mode is fairly simple, but I think it could be fairly argued that GoBots were generally more complex than similar-sized Transformers of this era. For this reason, there has been a long-standing debate as to which line was inherently superior, and the GoBots line certainly has fans to this day.

Unfortunately for GoBots fans, it is unlikely that toys such as this one will ever get the benefit of being reissued as many 1980's-era Transformers toys have been. In 1991, the Tonka company was purchased by Hasbro, giving Hasbro the US rights to all of the GoBots characters and storylines. However, the molds for the toys themselves are retained by Bandai (the owners of Popy, which released the original Machine Robo toys), a competitor to TakaraTomy, the Japanese company connected to Transformers. Even if the original GoBot molds exist (and I really don't have much information on that question), Bandai is unlikely to want to help out their own competition by allowing TakaraTomy or Hasbro access to them, and Bandai (which, unlike Hasbro, operates in both the US and in Japan) remains unable to use the molds themselves because of Hasbro's US ownership of the GoBots concepts (at least, they couldn't be used as any actual GoBots reissue. I suppose Bandai could use 1980's Machine Robo molds for a totally new line in the US, but I can't imagine why they'd want to if they couldn't take advantage of the nostalgia factor connected to actually being GoBots).

*By the way, I know that I have the arms mistransformed (at least, according to the official instructions). I've always thought the official version, with the handlebars of the vehicle mode sticking out in front of Scooter's hands, looked absolutely ridiculous.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Transformers Feature: Rodimus Prime

The climactic scene of Transformers: The Movie features Hot Rod unlocking the power of the Matrix to become a larger, more mature-looking robot: Rodimus Prime, the new leader of the Autobots. The original toy of Rodimus Prime came out in 1986, at about the same time as (perhaps slightly later than) Hot Rod, and is arguably the first Transformers toy ever made that is the same character as a another toy. I say "arguably," not simply because Galvatron (an upgraded form of Megatron) is more or less in the same category, but the fact is that pretty much no one other than me "argues" for anything different. To most fans, it's obvious that Rodimus Prime is, and always has been, a mature version of Hot Rod. There's absolutely no denying the similarity between the toys, nor even the intention that the toys be related.  Such similarity simply doesn't happen by chance.

The wiggle room that I'm quick to point out is that neither Rodimus Prime nor Galvatron are explicitly named as being new forms for the differently-named characters they represent on the packages themselves (as the later Goldbug toy would be, as an updated form for Bumblebee). This presumably was done to protect the secret of how the movie would end, but it has the effect of making it appear—at least in the "micro-continuity" of the Tech Specs—that Rodimus Prime is a distinct entity from Hot Rod (and Galvatron from Megatron). Sure, even the Tech Specs for Rodimus Prime drop some hints. "Maturity" is mentioned a few times, as is a tendency to be "hot-headed at times," but that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

As with Hot Rod, I did not get the original Rodimus Prime toy, but rather a reissue. My Rodimus Prime toy is actually the 2004 Hasbro version, purchased at a point when Generation One toys were finally being clearanced, and frankly still not selling very well. I often say that, by that time, the toys "had the stench of shelfwarmer" about them, and I do think that's at least partly true. If a toy is visibly not being sought after, people start to feel that there's a reason, whether or not there really is one. But the fact is, even by 1986 standards, Rodimus Prime is a pretty pathetic toy. He has even less useful articulation than Hot Rod (which is saying something). As a display piece, I just keep it in vehicle mode (often referred to as the "Winnebago of Doom") most of the time.

As the new Autobot leader, Rodimus Prime does attempt to retain at least one feature that the previous leader, Optimus Prime, had (besides the similar name): a trailer that can transform into a kind of base. There's not much to do with the base, however. In fact, you can barely fit Rodimus Prime's robot form on top of it, and the only adjustable part is the weapon itself (and most of that is needed for transformation). I won't say that I paid too much for this toy at clearance, but it most definitely wasn't ever worth what Toys R Us was charging for it originally. Perhaps some of the reason for the higher cost was the die cast metal. I'm honestly not sure. If so, just add that to the list of reasons I'm glad not to see die cast metal in modern Transformers very often.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Transformers Feature: Hot Rod

When writing about the original animated Transformers movie the other day, I mentioned that I actually don't have very many of the original toys that came out of the new characters the movie introduced (although readers of my Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? parody will note that I do have Wheelie). Much of this can be easily explained by the fact that my childhood dollars were limited. Perhaps it's a bit more surprising that I haven't gone back and picked these toys up in my adulthood, although I do of course have updated versions of many of these characters (Titanium Scourge is just one example). As to the original molds, Hasbro and Takara have reissued some of these toys in more recent years, and I do have a couple of these, so I'll take advantage of the anniversary of the movie to feature them today and on Friday, starting with the 2000 Japanese reissue of Hot Rod.

Like Transformers: The Movie itself, the original Hot Rod toy came out in 1986. Up until this point of the Transformers toyline, Hasbro had been using molds that were originally created for other toylines in Japan. As of the 1986 line, Hasbro had more or less run through the molds to which they had access, and needed to start creating new designs. Most of the characters designed for Transformers: The Movie were especially unusual in that the robot mode designs were actually created first, rather than the vehicle modes, as has been the case for the vast majority of Transformers toys. Deciding on a vehicle design from which to work generally allowed for reasonably realistic alternate modes, but starting from the robot mode was another thing altogether. I've never heard it argued that this is why the movie was set in the then-future year of 2005, but a future setting clearly gave the designers freedom to come up with alternate modes free from the restriction of having to look like existing real-world forms. Any such vehicle could be plausibly explained as either "futuristic" or "Cybertronian."

Hot Rod is arguably the main character of Transformers: The Movie. His character is that of a stereotypical brash young hero who must endure a coming of age to eventually become the new leader of the Autobots after Optimus Prime's death.  This is specifically juxtaposed with the character of Kup, who is a stereotypical "old guy."  Having character archetypes so clearly age-based may seem a little odd when one considers that we're talking about a race of robots who apparently can live for millions of years without apparent signs of age, but it is what it is.

More on Friday!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Celebrating The 25th Anniversary of Transformers: The Movie

25 years ago today, I became 12 years old, and to celebrate, my family went to see an opening day presentation of Transformers: The Movie*. For modern-day Transformers fans, it probably comes as a bit of a surprise that the franchise had a theatrical movie many years before the Michael Bay live-action movies started setting box office records. But this was the Transformers movie for my generation of Transformers fans.

Premiering during the summer between Seasons 2 and 3 of the original 1980's Transformers cartoon, Transformers: The Movie represented a significant shift: changing the setting from then-modern day Earth to the then-future year 2005 and a broader interplanetary context.  Along with this change came a series of new characters (most of which I actually don't have the original toy versions of) including Hot Rod, Kup, Galvatron, Cyclonus, Ultra Magnus, and others.

Besides just the characters, the movie introduced some concepts that have become deeply embedded in the franchise in the years since.  It's now almost impossible to imagine the Transformers without the Matrix of Leadership, and the planet-devouring Unicron, introduced and destroyed within the course of this movie without any hint of a backstory, has since been elevated to a Satan-like universal-level threat, eternally able to resurface despite all manner of apparent annihilation.

Of course, the thing that Transformers: The Movie is most remembered for (among those that remember it, in any event) is what was later considered to be Hasbro's greatest mistake in the history of the franchise: the death of Optimus Prime.  The idea, of course, was that they needed to move characters for toys that were no longer available at stores out of the way in favor of characters for the new toys that kids could buy.  No one had imagined how traumatized many children would become at seeing one of their heroes--even an animated cartoon character--die.  Like most television cartoons of the era (and, indeed, even most today), death was practically unknown.  Characters would shoot lasers (never bullets!) at point-blank range and still miss!  A theatrical movie afforded the creators the freedom to do things that would never be allowed on television, having characters actually die was only one of the freedoms that were taken.  Optimus Prime was by no means the only casualty of the movie, but his passing was certainly the most acutely felt.

Although the movie is now regarded as a classic among Transformers fans, it was almost universally reviled by critics.  That's perhaps not terribly surprising, as critics have much the same impression of the current live-action movies.  Unlike the current movies, however, Transformers: The Movie didn't perform terribly well at the box office.  No matter.  I'll still enjoy watching the movie again this evening in honor of the anniversary.

*Yes, I know that the title of the movie technically has another definite article: "The Transformers: The Movie." But not only is that not the way I generally see/hear the movie referred to, but including that definite article all the time makes composing coherent sentences a real pain, so I'm just not going to bother. You have my permission to accept that the fact that I'm referencing this fact down here as sufficient testimony to my obsessive nature, and we'll all move on....

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Hopeless Autograph Line

Right on the heels of the "Transformers Summer Fun" contest, the official Transformers Club Twitter account announced another photo contest, this one tied to the recently-finished San Diego Comic-Con.  Fans were asked to depict beast-mode Transformers in some Comic-Con related activity.  Here's my entry, with it's accompanying Tweet (click on the photo to enlarge so you can read the sign):

I don't wanna be the one to tell them that Mr. Welker doesn't attend conventions....
A word of explanation is necessary for those of you who are not pop culture fans. Frank Welker is arguably one of the most famous voice actors alive.  His career goes back more than 40 years, and according to Wikipedia, actually holds the record for combined US box-office gross of films featuring him (more than a billion dollars ahead of Samuel L. Jackson, the #2 holder).  Besides doing a lot of Transformers characters, Welker is well-known for voicing a plethora of animals in dozens of works.  Given the beast-emphasis of this contest, Welker was the obvious choice for an autograph gag, with one caveat: Welker is known for being a very private person who has (to the best of my knowledge) never made a convention appearance anywhere (there was a rumor that he'd expressed interest in BotCon, but so far such an appearance has not materialized).  This problem was dealt with by the caption, and thus the entry was sent to the club's Twitter account.

Although none of my photo contest entries proved to be winners, I hope that you've enjoyed them here.  These are fun little projects to do.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Donald Duck Skateboarding: The Evolution of an Image

The second picture that I entered in last week's "Transformers Summer Fun" contest was this one of Donald Duck skating down a ramp at the park.  Although the skateboard accessory that comes with this toy made it an obvious choice for depicting a Transformer in a summer activity, I actually had to go through several phases before I was able to settle on this picture as one worthy of submitting to the contest.

My original idea was to have Donald surfboarding.  I was already unsure of how I would create a sufficient wave to convey the image of surfing, but I never really even got that far.  Since the figure doesn't float upright especially well (or at all!), I had to hold the toy with my fingers, and it was quickly obvious that this ruined the shot.  I later experimented with holding the toy up with fishing wire, but this made it difficult to keep the figure facing the direction I wanted for the shot.  I ultimately gave up on water-based poses entirely.

Establishing that Donald was stuck to terrestrial skateboarding, there was still the question of setting up the shot.  I attempted several angles, including overhead shots, on multiple surfaces, but all of the shots still seemed too static to be interesting.  I needed to convey a sense of motion.

Finally, while at the local park, I stumbled upon a small staircase with sloped sides.  The slope was slight enough that I could fit Donald on the curve without having the toy just roll off, and then I could shoot the toy at an upward angle to create the sense that Donald was skating down the ramp.  I still found myself going back and forth between the image I sent for the contest and this one, which is undeniably centered more precisely than the other.  I ultimately went with the image with Donald at the top of the frame, feeling that the lines of the ramp, perhaps aided by the line of Donald's shadow, conveyed the sense of direction and movement down the ramp that I was looking for.

All in all, I was pleased with the result, but this still isn't my favorite image of those I submitted.  That honor actually goes to the one my brother Nick created with Photoshop.  It depicts Optimus Prime playing a game of volleyball with his fellow Autobots.  Although it didn't win the contest, either (I don't think they really wanted Photoshopped entries), it has gotten a lot of positive feedback on DeviantART.

Friday, July 22, 2011

On Comics, Continuity, and Change

Yesterday, the folks at IDW publishing officially announced that they will be picking up the classic Marvel comics Transformers continuity, starting with an "issue 80 1/2" in Spring 2012.  Obviously, I'm thrilled with this news, and the irony that I find myself looking to buy any comic books so shortly after Wednesday's post is not lost on me.  But if anything could get me to do it, this is definitely it.

Of course, there's a lot of risk in such an undertaking.  Not just for IDW, but for those of us who are fans, as well. As almost any Star Wars fan who saw The Phantom Menace will tell you, picking up a well-loved story after a huge gap can easily lead to huge disappointment. In regard to the Marvel Transformers comic, at least one fan has pointed out that some of what made that series work was the constant pressure from Hasbro to keep introducing new characters to keep up with the toys they were trying to sell, and that this caused the writers to create stories and personalities that would likely never have come to exist if they were simply left to their own devices. Any new Marvel-continuity continuation, no longer having that recipe of obligations, may not be able to reach the same creative heights as a result. Even so, since writer Simon Furman tells us that the plan is only to go as far as "issue 100" and then conclude, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

My recent reflections on DC Comics' efforts to reset their universes' continuity also has me thinking through some of the difficulties inherent in setting up a long-running fictional universe. Besides the obvious fact that "it isn't real," fiction is not like real life.  Fiction, essentially by definition, requires story. Now, we have stories in real life, of course.  To be a "story" does not require that something not be true. But our "real life stories" flow inevitably from the much more mundane events of our lives that preceded that tale we actually want to tell. A married couple may, for example, tell the story of how they first met, but they probably won't include the details of the job interview that put them in the job or city that facilitated that chance meeting, or how their father's job caused the whole family to move some 15 years earlier, thus putting one person in a context that would make meeting the other possible.

Once upon a time, comic book stories were essentially "done in one" efforts, with little attempt to retain continuity over a period of time. You could read any story at any time, even out of order, and generally have the exact same experience. Real life tends not to work that way, and increasingly over the past few decades, the more popular fictional universes have attempted to duplicate real life in this respect. Going back to the example of Clark Kent's marriage to Lois Lane, readers like me came to expect to see the important steps along the way. And just as importantly, we expect future stories to build upon the events of the past, and not to contradict them. If Superman's friend Bibbo opens a bar in one issue, we expect not to hear him say he disapproves of drinking alcoholic beverages in a later issue.

Keeping continuity helps build a believable fictional universe, but there are still two major differences between a fictional universe and a real one. The first is that fictional universes tend to be a lot more interesting than most of our lives. Most of us never have to save the universe from total annihilation, but it sometimes seems like Superman (or even Captain Kirk) have to do this every other week. This difference usually isn't too much of a problem. While the writers certainly want to watch it so that they don't stretch plausibility too far, we expect the stories to be interesting, or we won't buy them.

The other major difference is harder to overcome: most fictional characters don't age in relation to the number of events they experience. For many years now, DC has used a sliding "10 year scale" for the bulk of their superhero universe. That is, Superman has supposedly been operating in public for 10 years, and thus all of the experiences we've seen him do should fit in that span. But even if we just try to work in "the major points," it quickly becomes apparent that 10 years just isn't enough. And when one realizes that Superman stories have been published for more than 70 years now, the need for the occasional "reset" becomes readily apparent. You just can't keep a plausible fictional continuity going on that long if you insist on keeping Superman (let alone, say, Lois Lane and Perry White) at approximately the same age that entire time. Even if one grants that the events of, say, a story that it took a few months of comic issues to read actually took only a couple of weeks or so to play out, eventually you're going to have the characters be too old to keep telling the stories the writers want to tell.

So, there are basically two choices: decide that after a certain point, a character needs to be retired entirely (I can't imagine DC ever doing this willingly with Superman, although the ongoing court case with the families of Superman's creators may certainly cause trouble), or recognize that you'll have to drop the excess continuity baggage from time to time.  DC is choosing to do the latter, as did Star Trek with the new movie a couple of years ago.

With all that in mind, I'm very much looking forward to revisiting the Marvel Transformers universe next year, but am actually not too bothered that it seems that we'll only get about 20 issues or so before it is set to be retired at "issue 100." Right now, fans are eager for more from that continuity, but a pre-determined end will help ensure that when we have to say "good bye" to it again, it will leave on a high note.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The End of Superman's Marriage

Now, if you don't follow comic books, you may well be saying to yourself "Superman's married?" Yes, my friends, and he has been for nearly 15 years now. But ever since comic book fans learned that DC Comics would be making massive changes to their fictional universe, and resetting all of their titles (including the 900+ issue runs of Action Comics and Detective Comics) to "issue 1" in a couple of months, we've suspected that the marriage of Clark Kent to Lois Lane was one of the realities on the chopping block. Alas, it's been made official in the past few days. Superman's days as a married man are numbered.

For those who don't follow comic books, I hasten to clarify that it's not that Lois and Clark are getting a divorce. Instead, DC is doing what Marvel did with Spider-Man a few years back: they're re-writing history in such a way that, after September, they never got married in the first place. 

I have to be honest, when DC made it clear a few months ago that they were effectively rebooting their entire franchise, I was annoyed at the fact that Action and Detective won't be given the chance to reach "1000" uninterrupted. But the records they already have will, I'm confident, never ever be broken, and maybe that's enough. And the proposed changes to Superman's uniform are significant, but nothing I have any great problem with (besides, the "red underwear on the outside" has been an item of ridicule for ages now). But to know that this particular facet of Superman's history for the past 15 years is about to be wiped away as if it never happened, this is a change that truly angers me.

I don't really want to make this into one of those "another assault on the institution of marriage" diatribes. I'm sure that some will read this move by the comics publisher in that light (much as some people did when Marvel vetoed the marriage of Peter Parker to Mary Jane Watson out of existence), and I'm not entirely sure that my opinion can be wholly separated from that kind of thinking. But it's not just that. I honestly was never all that invested in Spider-Man's marriage.  Marvel has never been a main source of my comic book interest (the 80's Transformers comic notwithstanding). Superman's marriage to Lois Lane held more of a symbolic value for me.

I suppose part of the reason for this has to do with a few quirks of timing. The most legendary "continuity reboot" of DC's history was, of course, Crisis on Infinite Earths back in 1985. I was 11 years old when, shortly after the series finished, Superman's then-nearly-50-year history was rewritten, and it seemed a good time to start paying attention. So I was able to witness Clark's engagement to Lois in 1990. I saw Clark reveal his secret identity as Superman to Lois (permanently for the first time ever in the "main" continuity, the upcoming reboot notwithstanding). I saw the relationship weather serious setbacks (not the least of which was Superman's death shortly after I started college in 1992, although of course he "got better"), yet survive them, until they finally got married in 1996, coincidentally around a time that I was recovering from a serious break-up of my own. Watching Clark Kent and Lois Lane tie the knot, if only fictionally, nonetheless helped me through my own relational difficulties, and it's hard to watch that event disappear.

Of course, DC needs to do whatever they can to keep people buying their comics, especially in this age of the decline of print publications, and my own experience demonstrates that such reboots can achieve this goal. And, let's be honest, I haven't actually bought any of DC's comics (or anybody else's, for that matter) in quite a few years. (For those who are wondering, that includes IDW's Transformers comics, which I stopped reading after the horrible All Hail Megatron) I do however, still have the issues of all those pivotal points in Superman's history for the past 20 years or so (not the entire line. Just those pivotal points), and although DC can change the history of their ongoing fictional universe, they can't take those old back issues away from me. At least that's something.

But it's still sad to see one of the most enduring marriages of comic book history (and, at only 15 years, that may be a commentary worth noting for another time) disappear.
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