Friday, October 30, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Classics Grimlock

On a couple of occasions this week, I've called Grimlock a "glory hog."  Although the Dinobots as a team have always been popular (with new homage teams popping up periodically within Transformers history), Grimlock's the only individual character to have gotten consistent attention.  After the original release, there's been a Grimlock Pretender, an Action Master (to be fair, Snarl was an Action Master, too), a Beast Wars toy (arguably the only one to actually be clearly stated as being the same character as the Generation One character sharing the name) an Alternator, a "War Within" Titanium, a Masterpiece toy, and still others.  Given the fact that Grimlock has historically been so popular, it's no surprise that he was one of the characters featured in the 2006 Classics line.

One modern criticism of the original Grimlock toy is that, due to previously common understandings of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, that toy depicts a T-Rex that drags his tail as he walks.  We now know that this depiction is not accurate.  Classics Grimlock fixes that problem handily, and clearly depicts a dinosaur who can run with his tail held high!  Of course, the bayonet blaster on his back probably isn't quite historically accurate....

I've come to the opinion that, for most Grimlock toys, the robot mode is an afterthought.  Whereas for most Transformers toys, I display them in robot mode, I almost never take Grimlock out of dinosaur mode.  Perhaps this picture explains why (at least in regard to the Classics toy).  There's something about this mode that just doesn't work for me.  Perhaps it's the way he stands on the jaws of his split-apart dino head.  Maybe it's the lack of discernible knees.  Or the way his shoulders don't quite seem to lock in place.  I'm not sure (it's not like other toys don't have those "flaws"), but it just doesn't seem to work here.  Not shown here is the fact that the dinosaur tail comes off, and can be held as a weapon, but whereas Pretender Grimlock also did something like this, they at least tried to make that tail look like it doubled as a blaster.  I'm not sure what this Grimlock's supposed to do with his tail in his hand!  (If you really want to see what that looks like, here's a picture)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Not-Quite-Transformers Feature: WST Dinorobots

I don't typically feature items that aren't made by either Hasbro or TakaraTomy that nonetheless clearly attempt to replicate Transformers characters. There's a whole line of argument about whether such products are legal or—even if they are technically not illegal—ethical, but the flip side is that fans have gotten some really nifty toys that would almost certainly have never been created otherwise. Generally, I try to avoid that debate these days, but for Dinobot Week, I'm making an exception. Basically, since I don't own any of the G1 Dinobots anymore (my brother has that part of the collection, although I'm sure he'd have happily contributed to the cause, had I asked), but I do own these little guys, this seemed to be a good opportunity to say "I make the rules for my own blog, and that means I can also break them when I deem it necessary!"

A few years ago, a mostly then-unknown company called Justitoys started doing a line that was originally to be called "WST Dinobots." WST comes from "World's Smallest Transformers," a popular (if incorrect) fan name for the "Smallest Transforming Transformers" line. The first toy in the line was even called "Snarl." However, future toys in the line demonstrated a greater awareness that Justitoys was treading on dubious legal ground (at best), and so they decided to play it a bit safer by not using any names that were clearly trademarked by other companies, so the line became "WST Dinorobots," and the other toys tended to be called by the characters' old Tech Spec functions, rather than by their names. Still, they're the Dinobots to me, so from left to right, here's Snarl, Grimlock, Sludge, Slag, and Swoop.

These toys are amazingly faithful (if scaled-down) representations of the original toys (in fact, that's why I put the quarter in the picture, just so it's clear that I am talking about these smaller toys, as opposed to the original ones), which means that the legality of what Justitoys is doing is still in a gray area, at best. One could easily consider these toys "derivative works" of copyrighted designs. But that's the last I'm going to say about legality. I'm not going to get into the question of whether Hasbro or TakaraTomy can or even should do something about this purported infringement. That's up to them.

Although I just said that these toys are "amazingly faithful" to the original toys, Justitoys did make a few deliberate changes. Some, I'm sure, were dictated by the tiny size (some toys have fists that are pegged into the arms, rather than sliding out of them), while others attempted to "fix" things that were considered "flaws" in the original designs (Grimlock's head slides forward just a bit in robot mode, so it's not quite so far back from the torso as it is in the original toy). It also seems that the designers tended toward "cartoon-accurate" colors, as well (Slag's head is red, here, as in the cartoon, whereas the original toy has a black head. I'd have preferred black, myself). In fact, the "main" version of WST Swoop has a blue chest, in keeping with the cartoon version of Swoop, which followed the Diaclone version's coloring. The "red" version of Swoop you see here is actually the TFSource "Stocking Stuffer" version, which I got simply because I preferred the original toy's colors (My brother got the "blue" WST Swoop).

One more note, for the sake of accuracy. Although these toys were sold packaged with stickers, there were early widespread reports that they didn't adhere to the toys well, so I never even bothered with them. Instead, I got stickers from Reprolabels, designed to go with these toys. I even got the WST "rub symbols" to make them as G1-like as I could, although you really can't see any of the rubsigns in these pictures (Grimlock's is on his foot, and you can kind of make out the one on Swoop's dino mode, if you know where to look).

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Dinobots in the Marvel Comics

As I mentioned yesterday, "Repeat Performance!", issue #8 of the 1980's Marvel Transformers comic, was my very first Transformers comic issue.  I had already been following the Transformers saga, with interest, through the toys and comics that my friends at school had, but it was the appearance of the Dinobots that finally got me buying the comic for myself.  From that point on, I never missed an issue, and I even made sure to get the previous seven issues as soon as I could, so that I could lay claim to having the entire series (something I'm still proud about, truth be told).

This issue is commonly considered to the be first (comic) appearance of the Dinobots, but that's not technically true.  In fact, the Dinobots were introduced in a flashback in issue #4, as part of the set-up for the cliffhanger that marked the transition of the comic from a four-issue mini-series to a monthly ongoing series.  In fact, I have always wondered what the original plan was.  The "alternate ending" shown in the UK seems to have been written later, and it therefore doesn't represent the original intentions.  And since Ratchet not only makes an oblique reference to this event in issue #3, but Megatron makes a similarly oblique reference to Shockwave (who also figures into the flashback) in issue #1 (long before any decision could possibly have been made to make this series ongoing!), it seems likely that the Dinobots were always a part of the earliest plans for the series in at least some fashion.

Whatever the original plans for the Dinobots were, it seems clear that writer Bob Budiansky wasn't entirely sure what to do with them.  They disappear entirely after issue #8, only to reappear just long enough to abandon the rest of the Autobots in issue #19.  They don't show up again until issue #27, where Grimlock assumes the role of Autobot leader (and does an absolutely terrible job of it!).   Although this enables Grimlock to finally take the spotlight for a while, the other Dinobots fade into the background, mostly serving as Grimlock's lackeys, even as the other Autobots chafe under Grimlock's leadership.  The Dinobots were certainly portrayed as belligerent, following their team leader's commands quite happily, especially as it represented a very different style from the more mild-mannered Autobots, but they were surprisingly not given quite the limited intelligence that their cartoon versions had, although Grimlock's tenure as leader definitely makes him out to be no Einstein.  All of the Dinobots (including Grimlock) are deactivated in a mass-Transformer-slaughter in issue #50.

Shortly after this time, UK writer Simon Furman (who had already used the Dinobots a bit more frequently in the pages of the UK comic) took over as the main writer on The Transformers.  In Furman's very first US story arc, Grimlock was revived (granted, this may have been because a new Pretender toy of the character was now available in stores), and the character becomes the focus of a couple of significant story developments.  Notably, in an effort to revive his fellow Dinobots, Grimlock procures a substance called Nucleon, which revives not only the other Dinobots, but a number of other "classic" characters.  Nucleon also has the unfortunate side-effect of stripping Grimlock's ability to transform, but by the time the comic is canceled, he is the only Transformer thus afflicted, so it's debatable how much of the Action Master phenomenon is his fault in this continuity.

Under Furman's authorship, Grimlock also becomes Autobot leader once again.  When I first read this development, I was dumbfounded (don't they remember how badly that worked out last time?!?), but it seems to have worked out much better this time around (and, to be fair, it even works "in-continuity," as Optimus Prime was dead the first time around, and thus wouldn't have remembered Grimlock's first tenure as leader firsthand!).  The other Dinobots get a bit of "page time" in that same issue, although it's still mostly just so Grimlock has someone to talk to (glory hog!).  Actually, these last few issues go some way toward establishing the Dinobots as a pre-existing unit even before the Transformers crashed on prehistoric earth (this had been established in the UK, but not so much in the US comics).  It seems that they've always preferred to operate independently from the rest of the Autobots, a fact that actually works out to save everyone by the end of series.  No one can say that the Dinobots weren't important!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Dinobot Week Begins

Back in May, we celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the Transformers franchise.  But why stop there?  Tomorrow, October 27, 2009, is the 25th anniversary of the first appearance of the Dinobots, in the episode "S.O.S. Dinobots" (Yes, although the comic hit the shelves before the cartoon first aired, the cartoon was decidedly earlier than the comic in depicting these characters.  And that was by a couple of months, even by the most generous of estimates).  In honor of this occasion, I am declaring this to be "Dinobot Week" here at Transforming Seminarian, with a full week of daily posting!

Back in 1984, the Transformers were still a pretty new thing, and although I enjoyed seeing the occasional cartoon (still airing only once a week at this point in time), I did not possess very many Transformer toys of my own.  Much of what I would learn about the franchise came from when friends would bring their toys or comics with them on the school bus.  When I first saw the episode "S.O.S. Dinobots," I don't think I fully comprehended that the purpose of the cartoon was to sell toys, the obvious fact of the Transformers toyline's existence notwithstanding.  So when new characters like the Constructicons and the Dinobots were being introduced, I was somehow still surprised to soon discover that my fellow schoolmates actually had toys of these characters.

Kids have been fascinated with dinosaurs for forever, so it makes sense that someone would have thought to incorporate them into the transformable robots concept (the Dinobots, like most early Transformers, were actually created for a Japanese toyline—Diaclone, in this case—and brought over to the Transformers line when Hasbro decided to have Marvel put together a storyline concept to go with those toys).   The fusion of dinosaur and Transformer was so successful, in fact, that hardly a Transformers line has gone by without some kind of an homage to the idea (it might even be easier to name the lines that don't seem to have such an homage, but that would require defining terms far more pedantically than I care to at the moment).

Even though the original Dinobot toys (being somewhat larger than the typical Autobot cars) were generally outside of my price range at the time, I still found them to be fascinating characters.  So what if Slag, Sludge, Snarl, and Swoop got almost no characterization in any of the official fiction (Grimlock really was something of a glory hog, wasn't he?).  They transformed into dinosaurs!  How cool is that?  I think that I can safely say that it was the Dinobots that provided my first real connection into becoming a Transformers fan (in fact, the first Transformers comic I ever purchased was issue #8, but more about that tomorrow).

Having established that the Dinobots, both as a concept in general and talking about the Generation One team in particular, have had an enormous impact on the Transformers franchise, here's is the schedule with which I'm looking to honor them for the rest of the week:

Friday, October 23, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Universe Sharkticon

In the past, I've said that the original Universe line was a line consisting entirely of recolors of previously existing toys.  That's not quite true.  However, the exception to that rule is not, as one might expect, toys with new molds, but rather, previously existing toys being carried over and reissued with no changes whatsoever!

In 2005, as the original Universe line was dying down, several waves of such "unchanged" toys were released under the Universe banner to various store chains, notably KB Toys and discount chains like Big Lots.  These had been released previously under either the Energon or Cybertron lines.  Sharkticon, for example, was an Energon toy "repackaged" (a misnomer I'll get to later) for Universe.

Energon had the at-the-time unique distinction of releasing several toys with names that homaged Generation One characters, but with vehicle modes that only loosely homaged their namesakes.  In Sharkticon's example, although the Generation One version did indeed turn into a shark-like mechanical monster, the Energon/Universe version only vaguely looks shark-like, but is not, in fact, a creature at all.  Rather, it turns into some kind of "Cybertronian submarine."  However, there does seem to be some miscommunication between the toy designers and the people who write the bios.  Sharkticon's official bio mentions "jaws," which the toy utterly lacks.

While Autobots in the Energon line all tended to have some kind of "combining" feature, Decepticons in the line were all given "Hyper Modes" with enhanced weaponry.  These extra weapons could be deployed in either mode.  I actually consider Sharkticon one of the more successful attempts at incorporating this gimmick without actually getting in the way of the rest of the toy.

Toys that are reissued like this in a comparatively short time after their original release (as opposed to, say, the Generation One re-releases of the past several years) are sometimes referred to as "repackaged."  This term is more than a little misleading, because it conveys the idea that Hasbro took a bunch of toys (presumably, ones that stores couldn't sell during the toys' original release) out of their original packages, created new packages, put the toys in those packages, and then sent them back out to stores.  If one takes the time to think about the amount of effort and expense this implies, it is naturally demonstrated to be a ludicrous notion.  I'm not sure what other term to suggest, though.  "Reissue" already conveys something rather different (toys that haven't been around for a good long time, finally being reintroduced to the market).  So, I expect "repackaged" is going to be used for a while longer, yet.

Incidentally, these Universe versions still show up at Big Lots from time to time.  Now that the Christmas holidays are just around the corner, I see that they've unloaded a bunch from their warehouses yet again, so if Sharkticon appeals to you, feel free to head down and see if you can find it!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Kiss Players Position Cassettron Set

Over the years, the Transformers franchise has had many different iterations. The latest Transformers movie notwithstanding, I could argue that none has generated the level of controversy of the 2006 Kiss Players line in Japan. Some of the controversy is due to the sexually charged nature of some of the art (some of it really is pretty bad) and of the main gimmick (mild by comparison, mostly involving Transformers gaining energy from being kissed by young girls), and some of it just plain bizarre. This is not a line I really followed all that much, and I'll leave it to you to check out the link above if you really want to know more about the franchise.

In fact, the entirety of my Kiss Players collection is made up of these three figures, which were sold as a set exclusive to e-Hobby, a Japanese store affiliated with TakaraTomy. Actually, I really wanted just one of them, the reasons for which I'll get to in a bit. But I needed to buy the set to get that one, unless I wanted to get it used (and the price for the set was low enough new that there was little reason to bother). All three are recolors of Generation One cassettes. From left to right, this is Sundor, Rosanna, and Glit.

Let's start with Sundor, a recolor of Laserbeak. Sundor is a nominally Autobot condor who's secretly a spy for the Decepticons. As might be assumed via the name, Sundor has solar-based weaponry, and is fascinated by solar trivia, which apparently comprises the near-entirety of the data recorded on his cassette mode.

Next up is Rosanna, arguably the pinkest Transformer I'd ever seen, at least before Elita-1 came along! (I've always been a bit ambivalent about assigning gender to robots in the first place, but I'm especially annoyed at these supremely stereotypical examples) Rosanna is a recolor of Eject. Strangely enough, both Rosanna and another new character, Flip Sides, were released in Japan before they got around to an actual reissue of Eject (or his 80's contemporary recolor, Rewind), which finally happened this past March.  Rosanna, an Autobot, is perhaps unique among Transformers characters, in that she's a pop music star.

Finally, we have Glit. Glit is a recolor of the original Ravage toy. Although Glit is a Decepticon, Glit is a rarity among members of his faction, in that he is a doctor. In fact, Glit's cassette mode isn't used for recording data, but is in fact a "head-cleaning cassette," used to keep cassette players in good working order.

These three Transformers, perhaps following Rosanna's lead (I confess I'm fuzzy on the details, as I don't read or speak Japanese), joined up with some humans to form a singing group. I'm not clear on why the fully-Decepticon Glit joined this band of (supposed, in the case of Sundor) Autobots and humans, but it's clear enough that Glit is kind-hearted for a Decepticon, and this fact has brought him into some tension with his superiors. To emphasize the musical nature of this group, this set of toys also comes with an audio CD with two songs. I've listened to them, and they're okay, but my appreciation is definitely hampered by my ignorance of the language.

Anyway, as to the reason I bought this set. Transformers fan (and creator of the webcomic, Shortpacked!) David Willis decided that Glit would make an appropriate "Shattered Glass Ravage," and created a Twitter page and Facebook account for the character. This fan character quickly became very popular, and was eventually made official by inclusion in the Transformers Collectors' Club prose story "Eye in the Sky." Unlike more conventional interpretations of the character, this version of Ravage craves attention, and speaks largely like a LOLcat. He's absolutely hilarious, and after reading "Eye in the Sky," I promptly looked up prices for Glit, so that I could put a Shattered Glass Decepticon faction symbol on him and repurpose the toy. He now stands proudly next to my Shattered Glass Soundwave.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Classics Megatron

Last week, I emphasized that one of the goals of the Classics line was to give Generation One characters updated forms that were still somewhat analogous to their original ones. This means that, even if you haven't yet seen the Classics toy in robot mode, you probably would stand a good chance of guessing which character it was intended to be just by looking at its alternative form, provided you have a good working knowledge of the Generation One characters. This intention on the part of the designers meant that some creativity would have to be exercised in order to create a Classics Megatron that retained the Generation One commonality, yet kids would actually be able to purchase in toy stores.

As far back ago as the beginning of Generation Two, Hasbro no longer considered it viable for one of their toys to resemble a realistic weapon, such as Generation One Megatron's Walther-P38 handgun. That's why Generation Two Megatron is a green tank, and other "Megatron's" over the years have tended to follow suit (although there is admittedly much more variety among Megatrons than there is among Optimus Primes). That's not to say that Hasbro never sells "weapons." Their Nerf and Star Wars lines both have several examples of gun-like weaponry. However, all of these made in the past couple of decades adhere to some fairly strict guidelines. At BotCon 2002, Hasbro reportedly showed a picture of an attempt to recolor the original Walther-P38 Megatron according to these guidelines, so that they could sell it in stores. The result was said to be a horrifically eye-searing combination of bright blue and orange, and apparently "even that" wouldn't have been enough to make that mold viable for selling to children (Incidentally, a lot of adult fans ask "well, then, why not just sell it as an adult collectible?" Legally, that might work, but Hasbro simply won't risk their reputation by selling something that could harm a kid, and no amount of "adult" labeling and/or marketing is going to change that problem. If you want a Generation One Megatron reissue, import it from Japan.). Classics Megatron's alt mode, no longer tied to the Generation One mold, enabled them to design a "weapon" that wouldn't realistically be mistaken for a real firearm, yet still homaged the original. Even still, the "safety orange" is there for a reason.

I think that it's safe to say that Classics Megatron is the most complicated toy of the entire Classics line. I find it infuriatingly awkward. It's not so difficult to the point of being inappropriate for a children's toy, but non-intuitive enough that I've probably only transformed this toy a total of three times back and forth in the three years I've owned it. Usually, it just sits on the shelf in robot mode.

As to the mildly Generation One-esque weapon mode, there's actually a debate that's raged on in the fan community over the years about just how viable a handgun alternate mode would have been for the evil Decepticon leader, anyway. In the cartoon, for example, Megatron usually has to be held by one of his soldiers to be used (and most often, it seems, that soldier is Starscream, the guy who's always trying to knock him off and take over leadership! Yeah, like that makes sense!). And in the Transformers club-produced comic that featured the Classics characters, Megatron is never actually seen using his weapon mode (granted, a lot of characters never seem to actually transform in these comics, perhaps a side-effect of only getting six pages every two months...). So, I figure I'm in good company if I just keep this toy in robot mode all the time.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Classics Optimus Prime

Starting around the holiday season of the year 2006, many long-time Transformers fans finally got what they'd been asking to get for more than a decade.  Finally, Hasbro truly revisited the Generation One era, giving classic characters updated forms utilizing 21st century toymaking technology.  Granted, this wasn't exactly the first time these characters had been revived since the original line ended in 1991.  The 2003 Alternators line, for example, also gave old characters new forms, but Alternators was a side-line with the stated purpose of using licensed ground vehicle forms (i.e., only cars and a few trucks).  This limitation meant that some reborn characters (such as Shockwave and Grimlock) were given forms wholly unrelated to their Generation One identities.

The Classics line, on the other hand, was more of a true "update."  While the updated Classics alternate modes were by no means identical to a character's Generation One form, they were very obviously similar.  So although Classics Optimus Prime is no longer quite as boxy as he used to be, and while he no longer comes with a transforming trailer, he's still a truck.

Besides having far greater articulation than toys of the '80s, updated toy tech also means that one no longer has to worry about things like detachable fists or weapons that don't have any place to go when Prime has changed into vehicle mode.  Rather, the fists are actually a part of the toy, and the weapons--as with most (but by no means all) modern Transformers--are actually created out of parts of the vehicle mode (in this case, the smokestacks and the aero fairing) that themselves "transform" into the weapons.  This is, of course, nothing new to Transformers toys themselves, but it's a first (not counting Alternators) for a Generation One Optimus Prime character toy (even "Masterpiece" Prime's weapon doesn't store in vehicle mode, much less transform into a part of it!).

Classics Prime's weapons even combine, although I have to admit that I've never been all that happy with these "shoulder cannons," so I don't actually use this option often.

Sadly, the Classics line was only ever intended as "filler" between the end of Cybertron and the beginning of the 2007 movie-based line of toys, and so lasted for only about 8 months or so, nowhere near as long as many fans would have liked.  However, the concepts behind Classics have continued into other lines since then, and although toy stores are currently saturated with movie-based toys again (since the release of the sequel, Revenge of the Fallen), Hasbro promises to revisit these characters and concepts as long as they can be convinced that such toys will sell.

Transformers Wiki