Monday, August 26, 2013

The Transformers Thunderous Thirty #5 - Trailbreaker/Trailcutter

According to some stories within the Transformers canon, each of the characters represented by the original 1984 Transformers toys is a legend. However, that assessment is sometimes hard to reconcile with the reality that some of these characters received little to no characterization at all, and comparatively few appearances in the fiction in which any personality might be expressed. Trailbreaker is one of these ciphers.

Even if you were to ask a hard-core Transformers fan, pretty much the only thing they'd be likely to be able to tell you about Trailbreaker without looking him up is that he's "the force-field guy." With few exceptions, if Trailbreaker does show up in a story, it's because the script calls for a force-field to be used in that situation, and Trailbreaker's the go-to guy for force-fields. When this new toy (now called "Trailcutter" for trademark reasons) was released just a couple of months ago, the included pack-in comic book even made a point to talk about the fact that so little is known about Trailbre...uh, Trailcutter besides the fact that he can do force-fields.

The original 1984 toy's Tech Specs bio did make an attempt to tell us more about the character (and some of these traits do survive into the above-mentioned comic story, if arguably for the first time ever). He demonstrates a public face of humor and optimism, apparently to cover up a low sense of self-worth, being the Autobot that (of that original group, at least) uses up fuel more quickly than anyone else. Given that the need for fuel was perhaps the single most consistent plot point of the early Transformers stories, it perhaps makes sense that being so much of a gas-guzzler would cause one to consider oneself a liability, but I can't recall any story of the 1980's that made note of this point (readers are invited to cite examples in the comments if they know of any).

Having established what little there is to say about Trailbreaker's personality, I did want to point out an oddity about this recent toy. The accessory they gave Trailbre... uh, Trailcutter (that name's going to take some getting used to) is a shield. I haven't seen anyone else comment on this yet, but this seems a singularly odd choice of weapon for the character whose one well-known character trait is that he creates force-fields. Why would such a character need a physical shield? (I've got the toy holding it upside down, compared to the character art and the instructions, which probably highlights the "shield-ness" of the item even more than intended, but even with those gun barrels pointing the right way, there's little denying that this thing is a shield) Perhaps the inclusion was meant to be symbolic or something, but it just strikes me as weird.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Transformers Thunderous Thirty #4 - Sunstreaker

I've written before about the Autobots being "good guys" and the Decepticons being "bad guys" in fairly sweeping terms. While this is helpful for describing things to people who don't know much about the Transformers franchise, the reality is that the truth is often more subtle (much like real life!). Sunstreaker is an Autobot, but to call him a "good guy" glosses over some fairly significant personality flaws.

The character's original Tech Specs bio from 1984 says that Sunstreaker is "the complete egotist" and describes his intense vanity, as well as the fact that he is "not a team player," but that's the version that had to be edited down for space to fit on the back of the toy's box. The longer version, published a few years later in issue #3 of Marvel's Transformers Universe comic, describes Sunstreaker's "sociopathic tendencies," and these have only become more prominent in fictional portrayals of more recent years. Sunstreaker may fight on the Autobots' side in a battle, but he really isn't someone you'd want to get to know too closely (as IDW's Hunter O'Nion character found out. Click on that Wiki link for more details).

The original Sunstreaker toy is one of a very few 1984 molds that has never been officially reissued in the post-Generation One era (it was most recently reissued in the European "Classics" line of 1990), and the original molds are believed to be lost (or, perhaps, currently in the hands of Zhong Jin, a company which has been making knock-offs that are nigh indistinguishable from the originals. Buyer beware!). This 2008 Universe toy, however, is relatively easy to find. Besides not being as accurate to the Lamborghini stylings of the original toy for legal reasons, this toy represents an early effort by Hasbro to not only get more than one toy out of a mold (usually done simply by reissuing the mold in new colors, maybe with a new head), but to incorporate a distinctive transformation for each character. Thus, with Sunstreaker, the car's roof becomes the robot's chest (much as in the original) while with Sunstreaker's brother Sideswipe, the car's hood becomes the robot's chest. This dual-transformation design has already been demonstrated when I featured the Transformers Collectors' Club's Punch/Counterpunch figure, which also uses this mold.

One further note about that original bio, which was written (as were most, if not all, of the Generation One bios) by Bob Budiansky as part of Hasbro's efforts to give their transforming robot line an edge over its competitors (an effort that, by all accounts, was singularly successful). There are are clues, especially in the longer version, that suggest that Sunstreaker's bio was originally intended for the toy that became Sideswipe, who also turned into a Lamborghini, although a somewhat different-looking one. The idea is that the color schemes (and thus the names) intended for each toy were swapped sometime after the bios had been attached to them. So when the same bio that calls Sunstreaker a sociopath also says that he thinks Sideswipe's design "is spoiled by the rear-mounted engine in his automobile mode" (a feature distinctive to Sunstreaker, but not Sideswipe) it seems clear that the G1 mold we now associate with Sideswipe was really supposed to be the jerk! As it is, Sunstreaker's irritating personality stuck, while his particular reasons for feeling superior to his brother have been glossed over as a mistake. Go figure.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Transformers Thunderous Thirty #3 - Rumble

It is perhaps noteworthy that, for the first year of the Transformers franchise, the bad guys were outnumbered by the good guys roughly two-to-one! While I can't speak to how well that ratio has held up in other eras of the franchise, having more Autobot (good guy) figures than Decepticons (bad guys) has definitely been a recurring reality throughout the years. Indeed, on the assumption that kids don't want to buy "bad guy" toys, there are whole years of the Japanese line where Deceptions are all but absent altogether! I can't say I've ever quite gotten my head around that assumption myself. As a sometime-actor in grade school and college, I know that role-playing as bad guys can be tons of fun! As one of the best-remembered bad guys from the early years of the Transformers franchise, it's hard to imagine kids not wanting to have a Rumble figure of their very own!

Let's get the alt-mode out of the way first. Rumble was one of several Decepticons that turned into microcassette tapes. Kids nowadays probably have no idea what this is, outside of a funny-colored rectangle, but cassette tapes were in wide usage during the 1980s, and Transformers that turned into cassettes were almost always popular. That said, cassette tapes admittedly don't make for very exciting photographs!

So let's move on to Rumble's robot mode (using the recent Japanese "Masterpiece" version of the character for demonstration purposes*). Rumble is a red-and-black robot, at least, in the original version and most subsequent official depictions over the years. However, this is admittedly at variance with the 1980s cartoon, which made a mistake late in the start-up process and switched Rumble's color scheme with something more closely resembling his same-mold twin Frenzy (about whom I'll have more to say in coming weeks). This has led to one of the most long-standing debates within the Transformers fandom, often shorthanded along the lines of FIRRIB, short for "Frenzy is Red, Rumble is Blue" (after the cartoon depiction), although several other permutations are out there, depending on the fan's preference. My own preference is that the cartoons made a mistake (ably demonstrated by noting that the cartoon "bible" itself has a note calling Rumble a "red robot"), and I'm actually kind of annoyed that after being consistently red in toy form for over 25 years, Hasbro has recently started to cave to the cartoon's disproportionate popularity, and has started releasing (or, in one case, planned to releaseblue Rumble toys these past couple of years (although I'm pleased to learn that the recent Toys R Us exclusive American re-release of this same toy maintains the "Rumble is Red" identity).

Rumble's most distinctive feature is the one from which he gets his name. Rumble can cause earthquakes! In the cartoon, this was famously depicted by having Rumble's arms turn into massive pistons with which he would pound the ground. The original toy had no such pistons, even as accessories, and so other depictions had Rumble create earthquakes differently (the comic suggested that Rumble sent vibrations through his legs, for example). However, the cartoon's pistons quickly became rather iconic, and so it was no surprise to see them depicted in toys as the character came back in other forms over the years. Rumble is now fully equipped for maximum destruction!

*Thanks to my brother Nick, for the generous use of his Masterpiece Rumble figure while we were on vacation visiting him and the rest of my family this past week. Nick also helped set up lights to make this photo shoot a success. I do apologize to those of you who have perhaps noticed the very slight transformation error. I discovered after completing the photo shoot that this toy allows you to extend Rumble's torso upward slightly to reveal a bit of a red abdomen, in keeping with the Rumble/Frenzy animation model. The decision not to take up more of our vacation time to retake the relevant photos was mine and mine alone.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Transformers Thunderous Thirty #2 - Bumblebee

Within months of my first post on this blog back in 2005, when I made what was perhaps my first attempt to do meaningful Transformers-related content, it seemed a natural choice to feature Bumblebee. At that time, neither Hasbro nor Takara had made much of a serious attempt to revive the Generation One characters, with the possible exception of the Alternators line, and since the trademark to the name "Bumblebee" had apparently been lost, it didn't seem likely that we'd see too much more of the once-prominent character.

A lot has changed since 2005.

Perhaps the most important reason for this change was the coming of the live-action Transformers movie in 2007. While I've made no secret of the fact that I'm not a fan of Michael Bay's take on the Transformers concept, there's little point in denying that the movies have injected a lot of money and energy into the franchise, and that at least one of the benefits has been the resurgence of interest in Generation One characters and concepts. Since the movie was going to feature a character named Bumblebee (who, besides being yellow and being the Transformer most readily identified with the main human character, bears little resemblance to the original), Hasbro was able to recapture the trademark to the name (first used on the "Classics" figure of 2006), and whereas once it seemed like we'd never see a Bumblebee on the shelves again, stores are now so flush with them that it sometimes seems like they won't carry any other character!

Theoretically, Bumblebee is an Autobot spy, able to use his diminutive stature to sneak into enemy establishments to locate valuable information undetected. But that's not really what anyone remembers him as. Bumblebee was the guy everyone could relate to. He was the one who spent the most time with the human characters. If we could just "hang out" with a Transformer character and shoot the breeze, the odds are that character would be Bumblebee.

I'm going to step out on a limb and say that I don't think that the 2010 War for Cybertron version of Bumblebee pictured here is anyone's favorite version of the character. In fact, given the fact that the War for Cybertron video game is generally accepted as being in continuity with Transformers: Prime (which is decidedly not in the Generation One continuity family), it may even seem to be a wholly inappropriate toy to use to demonstrate the Bumblebee character. The fact is that I've already shown nearly every other Bumblebee toy I own (if not a feature article on each one) on this blog, and I want to show something new as often as possible. Besides, since the current run of comics produced by IDW (which is more-or-less in the Generation One family) has recently featured Bumblebee in this form, I figure it counts as a "repurposed" Generation One form. And, let's face it, War for Cybertron (and its sequel, Fall of Cybertron) really is based off of Generation One in a pretty meaningful way. If the snarl of conflicting continuities has gotten confusing, feel free to blame Hasbro.

Not all of them...

Transformers Wiki