By: Tom Nealon
March 8, 2021

One in a series of 25 enthusiastic posts, contributed by 25 HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of our favorite animated TV series.



I was 13 when the Transformers happened — a little too old, really, but I bought the comic because, I mean, ROBOTS IN DISGUISE. I was burning through paper-route money on mostly Marvel with the occasional weird indie at the time, so it wasn’t much trouble. I think I bought maybe the first 12 issues and then bowed out, but the sudden ubiquity of the robots sticks in my head. Certainly it wasn’t the first toy/comic/cartoon crossover — G.I. Joe, Masters of the Universe, Micronauts, and Rom the Space Knight come to mind — but this simultaneous launch where it was legitimately unclear what was the original concept (it was the toy, which Hasbro had bought a few years before from a Japanese company and repurposed) felt, briefly, quite novel.

My younger brothers, though, were full-bore obsessives, and watched the show fervently for years and collected the first figures with birthday money and hoarded allowance. That you could watch the cartoon and play with the figures, that all this merchandising and product placement was happening in real time, simultaneously, was a feature not a bug. It might have been a crass money-grab in theory, but in practice it was organic and participatory. Compared to the ponzi-scheme engineered disappointment of sea monkeys and spy kits and Charles Atlas 98-lb.-weakling scams from the back pages of comic books a few years earlier, it was all payoff.

Years later with the movies, I wondered at the changes — Bumblebee altering from a Candide-esque bridge between robot and man to a bland badass; Megatron switching from turning into a gun (absurdly, a sized-up Walther PPK) to a fighter jet; and the Paradise Lost theme (Megatron getting all the good lines and the Decepticons being SO MUCH COOLER) getting muddled and then lost as the Autobots slowly mutated into more easily marketable shapes. If the devil had gotten to pick someone to spearhead the crass marketing of a product that was birthed in crass marketing, surely he could not have chosen better than Michael Bay. And yet, somehow, like those other great creations of 1984, the Macintosh and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they retain most of their charm.

Naturally my son (now 7) got hooked on Transformers. We’ve gone again and again to Savers and other thrift stores, where they bag a number of them together and sell them pig-in-a-poke style, to find them. We became expert at eyeballing these bags and identifying complete or mostly complete examples, but even so, our basket of robots that are missing arms and weapons and doors and heads, clavicles, bumpers, and jet engines, has grown out of control. Worse, because they have gone through so many generations of these toys, they almost never can be combined, even with aggressive cajoling, because the ball and socket joints don’t match. We’ve made elaborate tableaux with them — memorably, all the stations of the cross with a different Bumblebee (of course) as Jesus in each station. Megatron was Pontius Pilate. Was Ratchet Mary Magdalene? Optimus as Simon? I forget.

We’ve gone back and watched the 1984 cartoon, and it is just as much incoherent rip-roaring fun as I remembered. The character that my son fixated on — I’ve asked my brothers and others their age about this, and they concur — was not Bumblebee (in his original VW Bug incarnation), Optimus, Megatron, or the shrilly insane Starscream, but Soundwave — who transforms from a robot into a cassette deck. He has a team of transforming cassette-tape scouts, including a dog (Ravage), a bird (Laserbeak) and a bat named (for some reason) Ratbat, all of whom do his bidding. This is a robot that transforms into an outdated technology to which my son has no connection, which spits out transforming cassette creatures whose main purpose is tracking down fuel that the Decepticons need to return to Cybertron… even though by episode four of the cartoon they’ve already built a wormhole machine that will transport them there.

Coherence is, I believe, extremely overvalued these days. There is a lot of weird stuff in kids’ fare these days — surreal, disordered in time, oblique jokes flying all over, and plenty (as ever) of dumb — but a vanishingly small amount of true narrative incoherence. Not counting Star Wars, of course. In 30 years our kids will talk about the “coherence bubble” and what a drag it was on their childhoods, but, hopefully, we’ll still have the Transformers to tether us to giant-sized capitalist inanity.


FERB YOUR ENTHUSIASM: SERIES INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | Miranda Mellis on STEVEN UNIVERSE | Luc Sante on TOP CAT | Peggy Nelson on PINK PANTHER | Charlie Mitchell on COWBOY BEBOP | Mimi Lipson on THE FLINTSTONES | Sam Glenn on BIG MOUTH | Mandy Keifetz on ROAD RUNNER | Ramona Lyons on SHE-RA | Holly Interlandi on DRAGON BALL Z | Max Glenn on ADVENTURE TIME | Joe Alterio on REN & STIMPY | Josh Glenn on SPEED RACER | Adam McGovern on KIMBA THE WHITE LION | Jonathan Pinchera on SAMURAI JACK | Lynn Peril on JONNY QUEST | Stephanie Burt on X-MEN THE ANIMATED SERIES and X-MEN: EVOLUTION | Elizabeth Foy Larsen on THE JETSONS | Adam Netburn on NARUTO | Madeline Ashby on AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER | Tom Nealon on TRANSFORMERS | Sara Ryan on BOJACK HORSEMAN | Michael Grasso on COSMIC CLOCK | Erin M. Routson on BEAVIS & BUTTHEAD | Deborah Wassertzug on DARIA | Lydia Millet on BOB’S BURGERS.




Cartoons, Enthusiasms