A day on Cybertron

Optimus Prime
Optimus Prime

Last Saturday I was on another planet, or so I expected to be. Specifically I was at a Transformers convention in Birmingham. Just to make things clear, I am not a fan of plastic robots that convert into cars, nor of the bombastic films that have been made about them. I do, however, have a nephew who discovered this race of robots when he was three, and now aged eleven shows little sign of losing interest in them. So it is that I have spent eight years in deep conversation about Transformers, bought numerous Transformers toys, have assisted in making Transformers animated films, and finally went to a Transformers convention along with 800 people engrossed in the timeless battles between the Autobots and the Decepticons, each the sometime residents of Cybertron.

It is possible that you may not be wholly acquainted with the mythology surrounding the Transformers. Let me enlighten you. Cyberton is a planet inhabited by a race of robotic beings who can transform themselves into mechanical objects. The Transformers divide up into the good, noble, peace-loving Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (pictured at the head of this post) and the malevolent Decepticons, led by Megatron. These two are at war, chiefly over a mystical object called the AllSpark, which created the planet in the first place. For reasons complex and not terribly important, the Autobots and the Decepticons take their battles to Earth, where they hide their presence for a time by disguising themselves as various vehicles, before transforming back into robots to do noisy, metallic battle. They come with names such as Bumblebee, Starscream, Ironhide and Ratchet, each of which has its own character trait and choice of vehicle into which it transforms. And so the war goes on, for all time.

There’s a whole lot more to it than that – vast amounts more, as any cursory visit to the voluminous Wikipedia pages on each and every aspect of Transformers will tell you. Greek mythology itself (an obvious influence on the whole story) cannot boast so complex, so extensive, and so contradictory a mythos, as the various stories overlap, conflict and are endlessly embellished through comics, films, TV animations, websites, fan sites, and the toy manufacturers who generated this world in the first place.

The Transformers were developed out of earlier toys created by Japanese manufacturer Takara in the early 1980s. The American distribution rights were acquired by Hasbro, who gave them the name Transformers and eventually acquired primary rights in the entire line. The toys were supported by an animated cartoon series, which greatly popularised the toys and gave the world its cheesily pompous theme song (“Transformers, robots in disguise…”).

Transformers toys were ingenious in two respects. Firstly, the engineering that made a robot convert into a car and then back again was outstanding. The sturdiness of their construction, the skill involved in transforming the more complex examples, and the attention to detail (mechanical as well as narrative) made them as popular with parents as they were with children. They were good toys to buy – and they kept on coming. Because the other ingenious stroke was to have multiple releases of the same characters, as well as introducing new characters, so that fans kept on buying the toys over and over again, revelling in each new incarnation.

After a strong start in the 1980s, the Transformers concept drifted, the sales of toys fell away, and the series seemed to be petering out alongside Thundercats, Masters of the Universe and other such 1980s kitsch innovations. But in the early 2000s Hasbro and Takara joined forces once more to create a new line in the transforming toys, better engineered and with a more consistent underlying story. The result (nicely timed for my nephew) was a huge resurgence in the franchise, a bewildering set of seemingly annual issues of new versions of the characters, and of course the advances in CGI techniques which enabled filmmaker Michael Bay to make the fantasy come real and show the robots converting into vehicles, and back again, in seeming real life. It has been a good time to be a small boy.

Jazz with a General Problem

The cult has also spread so successfully because of the internet, and the fan cultures it engenders. Narratives are sustained and embellished, characters enlarged, images generated and videos created that make the fan central to the maintenance of the mythology. This fan-led phenomenon is of course apparent in many other field, notably the Twilight series, but Transformers has a particular edge because the toys lend themselves so readily to animation, benefiting from the great upsurge in DIY stop-frame videos, of which the dazzling Jazz with a General Problem featured above is probably the most celebrated example (Jazz is one of the Transformers; General is a car that featured in the TV series The Dukes of Hazzard and does not exist as a transforming toy, despite what the video’s ingenious sleight of hand might suggest – see how it was done here). Another major video trend is the toy review, where enthusiasts demonstrate their latest purchase, showing other how to transform it and giving their opinion on its particular qualities. These review videos are massively popular, and the leading exponents (who come in all ages) have amassed considerable followings.

And so we came to Birmingham, to visit the annual Auto Assembly Transformers convention, held at the Hilton hotel next door to the National Exhibition Centre. By some happy accident of scheduling, the Transformers convention was being held next door to a quilting convention, a delightful vision of the different ways in which the compulsion for hobbies will lead humankind.

Just one stall among many
Just one stall among many

The convention was held in a vast room, with a quarter given over to seating and a stage, and the remainder devoted to rows upon rows of stalls piled high with plastic toys. On entering the place the first thing that struck you was the heat, as 800 bodies patrolled the stalls or sat at the front to listen to the jolly compere introduce sixteen special guests, one by one. Our special guests turned out to be comic book artists and voice actors for cartoon series. So it was that artistic hacks paid a pittance and taking in whatever work comes while chained to their desks found themselves cheered to the rafters by a set of fans in a mood to laud anyone associated with the cult. The artists played along with the spirit of the event, saying enthusiastic things into the microphone and ending their few words with a whoop, before settling down in a long line at a row of desks to draw pictures all day and chat to the fans. The voice actors were in a slightly higher league, fan-appreciation-wise, though one did wonder at the difference between the genial, small, bearded Neil Kaplan, and the all-powerful metal-muscular Optimus Prime whose voice he supplies for one of the animated series. But he played along with the game too, and the fans loved him for it.

The comic artists meet the fans
The comic artists meet the fans

I had expected to be in a room with a few hundred middle-aged men of sad demeanour and unfortunate dress sense purchasing toys beyond the purchasing power of any child (I saw £150 for the largest new toy, £300 for some second-hand rarity), geekishly exchanging minutiae of information with other social misfits. The reality wasn’t quite like that. There were young and old, a surprising number of women (most of those who took the trouble to dress up as one of the characters were women), and more couples than might have been expected. In short, it was a gathering of normal people, who just happened to like Transformers. They took it all seriously, yet could laugh at themselves at the same time. They were imbued with that gentle sense of irony which is a such pleasant hallmark of many aspects of modern life.

Auto Assembly wasn’t a terribly good convention, as conventions go – too little in the way of sideshows, not enough relief from the plain business of selling. But what was special about it was the chance to visit this alien world of fandom and to find it was much like any other world. Human beings need other worlds; they need stories. They need to fight battles on other planets in order that they can better deal with the battles to be faced on this one. The Transformers themselves seem to operate as a mechanical metaphor for this. They convert from being of another world into something belonging to our world. Then we can convert them back again. This repetitive making and unmaking holds a particular fascination for a child, who is able to discover the hidden, master its mysteries, and to achieve this mastery over and over again. I watched with my own fascination how a boy of eleven could play with one small robot for three hours on our journey home –

making, unmaking
making, unmaking
making, unmaking

– the master of the universe, in his own small way.

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