The Transformers #1 Marvel featured Longform 

Transformers at 40: What the Robots in Disguise Taught Me About Being Human

By | May 8th, 2024
Posted in Longform | % Comments
Art by Bill Sienkiewicz

On May 8, 1984, Marvel Comics released the first issue of “The Transformers” (cover dated September 1.) Written by Bill Mantlo and Ralph Macchio, with art by Frank Springer, Kim DeMulder, and Nelson Yomtov, and edited by Bob Budiansky, the cartoonist who had been tasked by Hasbro and Griffin-Bacal Advertising to create the names and backstories for the toy line’s characters, it was an inauspicious debut – the very first online post about Transformers ever made described it as a contender for the “worst comic of the year.” One telling criticism was aimed at the original explanation for the characters’ existence, namely “the interaction of naturally occurring gears, levers and pulleys that miraculously brought forth sentient beings.”

I was born several years later, and became part of the generation who were introduced to the saga through the Beast Wars toys and cartoon that launched in 1996. I vividly remember being enraptured by the sight of these animals “maximizing” or “terrorizing” their way into robot mode: truly, the only thing cooler than dinosaurs and other megafauna duking it out was the sight of them turning into warriors wielding weapons. Because I was a precocious kid, I remember telling a teacher about the show, and in particular, explaining that it wasn’t too violent, because the characters didn’t bleed, unless they were bleeding energon. Though my younger self didn’t know it at the time, I was beginning to articulate the base appeal of the Transformers: they are people.

Sadly, I did not have this many Beast Wars toys as a kid

Yes, they are people made of metal, plastic, and energon instead of flesh, blood, and bone, but people nonetheless. They can get hungry, depleted, and die; are capable of great art and scientific discovery, or designing terrible weaponry; of commerce and exploitation; debating the existence of the gods and the afterlife; and above all, forming relationships, whether they’re romantic, platonic, quarrelsome, and of course, ones filled with great hatred and violence. In my early teens, it struck me how unique the series was compared to other sci-fi stories, which were relentlessly obsessed with the question of whether A.I. could be truly alive, or inherently malevolent: Cybertron’s inhabitants simply were.

Why, though? That’s a question the series largely managed to answer more satisfyingly in the years after the first issue, with the introduction of the creator god Primus in the Marvel UK run, and subsequent iterations which revealed Earth has been visited constantly by Cybertronians in the past, or that the planet itself is a Transformer, indirectly explaining why humans resemble them so much. However, being a relatively young mythos, there were still many bugbears among fans and even creators hammering it out, like why some characters would refer to others as literal family, and more controversially, the very presence of female Transformers. The writers of the 2007 movie said they replaced Arcee with Ironhide because they needed additional time to explain why a robot would have a feminine voice and appearance, although no such explanation was offered when she appeared in the 2009 sequel, Revenge of the Fallen.

The first female Transformers (Greenlight, Firestar, Chromia, and Moonracer) in their debut, the season two episode 'The Secret of Alpha Trion'

The comics struggled to introduce female Transformers aside from Arcee, because longtime writer Simon Furman found the notion of gender among non-sexually reproducing robots difficult to justify. In the Marvel UK run, Arcee was revealed as having been created because the Autobots wanted to placate a crowd of angry feminists, who could not understand that they had no gender, while in the 2005-18 IDW Publishing universe, she was the result of a cruel science experiment, which also turned her into a violent, vengeful berserker who was a danger to Autobots and Decepticons alike. This storyline, which necessitated multiple retcons to introduce more female characters later in the universe’s life cycle, was rightfully criticized by “Transformers: Windblade” writer Mairghread Scott as being inadvertently offensive, implying being a woman (and indeed, a transgender one at that) was inherently traumatic and a cause for mental illness.

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I was nearly 23 when Scott shared her thoughts, and it reinforced a lot about what I was learning about people at the time, like how our unconscious biases can affect what we perceive to be neutral – including the notion feminine robots voiced by women are inherently stranger than masculine ones voiced by men – and how gender itself is a construct, separate from biological sex. (It is not lost on me how amusingly appropriate it is that Transformers would indeed introduce transgender robots.) Arcee’s dubious origin would pave the way for more explicit trans representation in the comics, and another silver lining in its implication that any romantic relationships on Cybertron were between male robots, reminding me that love does not equal sex – despite obsessive homophobes who always falsely conflate the two – and that asexual people exist in our world too.

All of this came to a head in the latest animated series, EarthSpark (2022-), which introduced the first bona fide non-binary Transformer, Nightshade. Again, how delightfully appropriate it is that a series about a race of robots who live as two or more shapes would introduce a major character who doesn’t consider themself male or female. When Fox News found out about the character several months after their debut, the response was predictably vicious, with bigots vote-brigading the show’s IMDb rating down to a whopping 4/10, in stark contrast to the largely positive reception the show has received. Still, we can take comfort in the irony of robots having genders being such an ingrained idea in the series until that point, that those who would be otherwise opposed to female representation were now against genderless bots.

Mo Malto sharing Nightshade (who's still a protoform here)'s pronouns with Optimus Prime in EarthSpark's 'Age of Evolution' Part 2

EarthSpark is a special show in many ways, truly embodying the series entering its fourth decade: not only is Nightshade the first major non-binary character in the franchise, they are part of a new generation known as Terrans, born of Earth’s waters instead of Cybertron’s energon, that give the show its name. The main villain is a human scientist called “Mandroid,” who seeks to kill all Transformers, regardless of whether they’re evil or not, and by the end of the first season’s second volume, it dawned on me that the show was telling a story about second-generation immigrants like myself, and how we are still subject to hatred and xenophobia from bigots despite being born in the same place as them. It was an incredibly profound moment, and wild realizing not only had Transformers echoed what I learned about gender and sexuality, but my own rude awakening about racism being alive and well in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder, the “migrant crisis,” Brexit, and Trump.

I often feel people look at me as if I’ve grown a second head when I share my love of Transformers, and in fairness, the series has often not often done itself any favors, with insensitive moments like the introduction of the country Carbombya in the original cartoon (which led voice actor Casey Kasem to quit the show), or the stereotypical Twins in Revenge of the Fallen (not to mention the general awfulness of Michael Bay’s sequels!) However, I think some people have the misconception that they are just giant toys who are programmed to be good and evil, when they’re generally anything but. In truth, many people are far more cold and robotic than the average Transformer – even Megatron, who’s been depicted as having far more integrity than most real-world villains since he was established as having been an oppressed miner in the 2007 comics series “Megatron: Origin.”

A pre-war Megatron being brutalized by Whirl in 'The Transformers' (2011) #22. Writer: James Roberts; Artist: Alex Milne; Colorist: Joana Lafuente; Letterer: Shawn Lee

The very notion of dehumanization, of being treated as little more than a machine, has become integral to every iteration of the backstory for the war for Cybertron, including the upcoming movie Transformers One, where the alien Quintessons appear to have conquered the planet’s surface, and been responsible for instituting its caste system. That this movie will teach the kids who will soon consider it the definitive origin story that the parts you are made of does not define who you are, and convey to them just why Optimus Prime’s catchphrase is “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings,” is wonderful indeed.

Long may Transformers continue to remind everyone the power to choose whatever form you take as a person, is your inalienable right as a living being imbued with a spark or soul. As a 33-year old fan, I feel an intense joy and sense of gratitude from knowing I have got to witness the majority of the series’ evolution, and its ups and downs during its 40-year existence, and I cannot wait to see these wonderful characters spark the imagination of kids and adults alike for the next 40. They might all be an opportunity to sell toys at the end of the day, but like their more inconspicuous alt modes, there’ll always be more to them than meets the eye.

To 40 more years! Art from 'Transformers: Lost Light' #25 (2018). Writer: James Roberts; Artist: Jack Lawrence; Colorist: Joana Lafuente; Letterer: Tom B. Long

Christopher Chiu-Tabet

Chris was the news manager of Multiversity Comics. A writer from London on the autistic spectrum, he enjoys talking about his favourite films, TV shows, books, music, and games, plus history and religion. He is Lebanese/Chinese, although he can't speak Cantonese or Arabic. Give him a visit (and a tip if you like) on Ko-fi.