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Review: ‘Transformers: A Visual History’

Transformers: A Visual History
Writer: Jim Sorensen
Artists: Various
Viz Media

The ancient war between the Autobots and the Decepticons has not only been waged on multiple planets like Earth and their homeworld of Cybertron, but it has also been waged across all media, as Transformers: A Visual History makes clear. Created for last year’s 35th anniversary of the 1984 toy line-turned-timeless pop culture juggernaut, the massive 9-by-12-inch, 400+-page hardcover is something of a museum exhibit on paper, curated by Transformers archivist Jim Sorensen to suggest the size and scope of the Transformers phenomenon through disparate images and artifacts.

Sorensen divides the book into five major sections: Packaging, comics, animation, video games, and movies. Each begins with a short but complete prose history of that aspect of The Transformers, followed by scores of pages of imagery from that category, through which the audience can get a sense of the evolution of franchise through three and a half decades simply by the pictures before them.

It’s probably not the single best way to tell the Transformers story, as each of those sections could probably support its own book, and obviously many fans will want to know more about the ins-and-outs of various decisions and milestones that can’t be revealed in an almost purely visual history, but the book is certainly a nice entry point. (And some of the aspects that are merely sections in here have supported their own books; for example, last year also saw the release of Transformers Legacy: The Art of Transformers Packaging, by Sorensen and Bill Forster.)

I suppose one could also argue over whether all five aspects should be given equal weight, or if including video games and movies eats up pages that might might have been better spent on packaging, the visual aspect of the Transformers home medium of toys, or their more prominent and longest-running media adaptations, the cartoons and comics. Decisions had to be made, though. And were the book another 1,000 pages longer, far more categories could have probably been included, like prose adaptations, advertising and marketing, miscellaneous merchandising, parodies, online memes, and so on.

So let’s look at the book that we have, not a book that could have been.

Packaging, of course, refers to the packaging of the toys themselves. Rather than photographs of the toys, the toys are explored through the imagery that appeared on the boxes they came in and in cards that were sometimes included with them.

This may just be my personal experience sneaking into my professional opinion and coloring it—I was seven when the Transformers first came to America, and my own first encounter with them was the art on the boxes in the toy aisles of my local Hills and K-Mart—but these are the images that seem the most powerful to me.

In particular are the very first ones, imported directly from Japan, where the Transformers began their life as toy manufacturer Takara’s Diaclone and Micro Change lines, which featured massive, air-brushed battle scenes in orbit above the earth, wherein the context-free images seem to violate the “story” the cartoons and comics were telling us. For example, characters who couldn’t fly would be streaking through space—some in the form of cars!—and others would appear multiple times in the same image, as if they weren’t a single character but several identical robots.

Looked at again today, the packaging art on the earliest-released toys also makes the characters all look particularly alien, as they were produced to reflect the toys as objects, rather than the characters that would grow out of those toys. So there’s none of the streamlining that occurred in the cartoons and comics, and the robots look big and clunky and awkward.

As one flips through these images, the chapter also, and incidentally, provides something of an art history and technology lesson. That is, we can see line-drawing and air-brushing give way to painting and digitally rendered computer imagery. Styles change, from alien sci-fi to something more comic book-y, to manga and anime-influenced art, wherein the Transformers look a bit more like various mecha and Gundams, to deliberately simplified and stylized, to reflect the 21st century cartoons, to almost baroquely detailed, to reflect the dizzyingly busy designs of the live-action cycle of films.

Additionally, the chapter shows the change in focus of the line, as various toy gimmicks are exhausted—– transformers that combine into a gestalt form, or come in nesting-doll like skins to disguise them, or ones who can change into multiple alternate modes, etc—and the focus shifts from mechanical modes to animals and monsters and back again.

The same can be said of the animation chapter, in which one can see the evolution from cheap, made-for-TV early -’80s cel animation, to the more expensive version of the same for 1986’s theatrically released The Transformers: The Movie, to the early baby steps of 3D-styled computer animation of 1996’s CGI Beast Wars, and then the continual alternation between 2D and 3D animation of the many series that followed.

And there have been a lot of animated series, most of which have made it to US airwaves in one form or another. In fact, for about 25 of the last 35 years, there has always been at least one new Transformers cartoon on American television in a given calendar year, and there has been one continuously since 1996.

Our focus here at Good Comics For Kids, of course, is on comics, and it is in comics that the Transformers saga—or sagas, really—has found its fullest expression. The original Marvel series, for example, lasted from 1984 to 91, and Marvel UK published imported Transformers comics during that same time period, but since the UK issues were twice the size of the US ones, they quickly ran out of American comics to republish and had to come up with original material. The result was thousands of pages featuring a gigantic cast of characters that told what was more-or-less a single, uninterrupted, years-long story.

In 2002, Dreamwave Productions launched a new series that returned the Transformers to comics and pumped out spin-offs, totaling about 100 issues in three years, before IDW Productions got the license. IDW has been publishing a variety of Transformers comics in different timelines and continuities ever since.

This section of the book is filled mostly with cover images and context-less interior images from the comics, again giving a sort of history lesson in how comics art has changed over the last 35 years and how the main audience for Transformers comics has shifted, from children to adults who used to be those children who read the original comics.

The video games and film sections are perhaps the most limited, if only because of the relatively small chunk of the 35 years in which they cover. As the animated film was covered in the book’s animation section, that means the film chapters covers the years 2007-2018, between the release of the first film and, four sequels later, the spin-off/prequel Bumblebee. And while there were various Transformers video games going back to the 8-bit age of the 1980s, most of the page count here is devoted to the more cinematic imagery of the 21st century games, some of which reflect the “G1”  aesthetics of the original cartoon, much more of which reflect the realistic look of the films, and even more of which are the sort of hybrid between the two that evokes the most elaborately colored and rendered of the millennial Dreamworks comics.

The most interesting visuals to be found within these 400 pages appear unexpectedly here and there. These are the unofficial images that few Transfans are likely to have seen, at least, not unless they would have gone looking: Location art and character designs from the original cartoons, industrial drawings for toy lines, concept sketches for film characters and the like.

It’s a coffee table book, and thus can be something of a frustrating read if an aspect of the franchise or a particular image intrigues a reader, but to expect much more would be to expect the book to be more than it its. It is, after all, a visual history, and the focus is therefore on the visuals over the history. 

There are two editions of the book available, a $50 standard version and a $100 limited edition that comes packaged in a box with a special cover in which movie Optimus Prime’s head transforms into movie Megatron’s head and five individual prints of images from within the book.

J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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