Each and every issue of the Marvel UK Transformers comic is like its own time capsule. Like a lot of British comics, Transformers was almost as much a magazine as a comic book. In addition to the actual comic stories it published, it also ran comprehensive editorial, features, profiles, competitions and letters pages that, in retrospect, gave a good indication of what was happening in the UK in terms of which Transformers toys were available and when. Essentially, it was the ultimate all-in-one action/adventure companion to burgeoning British Transformers collectors.
Being one such Transformers collector, I came to rely on the comic as a weekly guide. Growing up, my overall Transformers experience was a wonderful, heady after-school combination of the stories in the comics, the few toys I had, and my own imagination. Even now, I find it nearly impossible to separate the comic from the toys… Transformers were and still are, to me, epic heroes and villains in die cast and plastic form. And pretty cool toys in their own right!
Today marks the 35th anniversary of that very first issue of the Marvel UK Transformers comic and I wanted to celebrate such a momentous occasion with an all-new project, simply titled Time Capsule 35, as a way of looking back 35 years in real time and reminding myself of the fun I had reading the comic and playing with the toys as a kid. Opening up each issue really is like opening up a time capsule. I hope that these quick and regular visits to the past will build into a complete story of what it was like to be a UK-based Transformers collector. (You can read an overview of my personal connection to the comic, in the About Section!)
Let’s get started!
Looking back at the first issue of a long-running and popular comic book is almost like watching the pilot episode of a television series. It’s tentative, not yet fully formed or even polished, but the spark is there. It’s an invitation to an event and you have no idea who might turn up, if anyone at all.
The cover alone positions Transformers as a violent, science-fiction war epic. The blurb speaks of “evil machines from another world” who want our planet and the fight begins inside.
The artwork, a painting by Jerry Paris, is vicious and brutal with streams of energy arcing across and off the page as two robots battle above the planet. Poor Optimus Prime! Having two robots with face plates instead of mouths makes the image all the more sinister.
There are two interesting things to note: both Optimus and Soundwave (and Buzzsaw) are based on their toys, and Megatron is nowhere to be seen. At this point, the creative team only had access to the Transformers toys themselves as reference (animation model sheets weren’t yet available) hence the very “toy-ish” look to the characters (which we’ll see a lot of in these early issues). As for the absence of Megatron? Well it’s a widely held belief that Megatron wasn’t released in the UK at the time of the toy range’s launch in 1984. This is backed up by the pack-in catalogue that came with the toys and editorial in a later issue of comic itself stating so. (More on all that soon!)
There’s a lot of text here and it does cover up a lot of Jerry’s artwork. It won’t be until the Complete Works is released that readers will see it in all its glory. The comic’s title almost exactly matches the toy packaging… at least for the Autobots. It’s the same logo, with the same solid black background. The tagline is “Warrior robots in disguise”, which appears to be unique to Hasbro UK’s marketing strategy to play up on the war-like nature of these robots. It’s like they’re saying to the kids, “these guys hate each other and fight a lot… that’s why you need to buy more of ‘em!”
Open up the first issue of Transformers and it stops being a Transformers comic and becomes a very general robot-based science fiction magazine. It even has a text book like quality to it, with features on robotics and robot-y advancements. There’s also competitions for robot-based books and games and even a thing that’ll help you organise your homework. So yeah, robots.
Among all of these features, the magazine (I’m calling it a magazine now) does reprint the first 11 pages of Marvel (US)’s first Transformers comic story “The Transformers” in full colour (with a few spelling changes from American English to British English). I will review that story in its entirely in due course.
It also reprints another Marvel US comic, Machine Man. For two reasons: it’s kiiiiind of a robot thing, and, money.
Marvel UK wouldn’t publish a comic if it didn’t make money. And a first issue (and the rest of the early issues) are a huge gamble so savings have to be made wherever possible. Reprinting other Marvel comics make for big savings.
The Jerry Paris cover probably ate up most of this first issue’s budget, but it is the most important investment for a comic… that cover is the first impression any potential reader is going to have and it needs to stand out on the newsagent’s magazine racks!
Reprinting two halves of an American comic per issue is a good strategy for a fortnightly British comic. In fact, it could coast along for years in such a manner. However, the editorial team had loftier aspirations than publishing just reprints so all this money saving means that original content will soon be on its way as we’ll see in the coming months!
As much as Transformers issue 1 feels like a very general robot-based magazine, it does include a competition to win Jazz, one of the Autobots. Outside of the comic reprint, this is the first Transformer readers meet! He’s very much described as the James Bond of the Autobots. I want one!
A few pages later there’s a full page advert from Hasbro UK featuring the NEW Transformers. Oddly, none of the Transformers it features are named but we do know that the Autobots are “terrific” and the Decepticons are “terrifying”!
There is also a still from the television advert used as a poster, alongside a rendition of the street that Sparkplug Witwicky’s garage is on (spoiler alert… he hasn’t been introduced yet!). You’ll notice that the previous owner of this particular copy saw fit to apply the free gift action transfers here!
Although the subscription coupon makes light of the Marvel UK’s accountant’s apparent heart condition it offers a year’s worth of Transformers for £8 when buying 26 issues from the newsagent at 25p each will cost only £6.50. But you do get a glossy wall poster (which I don’t think I’ve ever seen…) and first class delivery.
Warrior robots in disguise
In terms of being used to advertise and make readers aware of the Transformers characters and toys, this first issue is quite useless. 32 pages later and the reader comes away knowing the names of just a handful… Megatron, Ravage, Optimus Prime, Prowl from the comic reprint, and Jazz from the competition. And even though Soundwave (and Buzzsaw) are on the cover, they aren’t name-checked anywhere!
All we know at this point is that new Transformers are now in shops. Maybe a red sports car one… a yellow VW bug… a blue jet… a red cassette tape. Go find ‘em, kids! With this comic’s launch in September (perfect for all the kids going back to school and asking each other what they did during the holidays) I would guess that the Transformers range launched in the UK sometime over the summer of 1984. Kids often get bought toys over the school holiday, so it would have been an ideal time.
I wasn’t around to see the launch of the Transformers toy range, or indeed the Marvel UK comic. I was still living in Germany by 1984 and wouldn’t yet be living in the UK until Christmas (when I would receive my first Transformers toy).
I can imagine the initial reception to this first issue of Transformers being lukewarm. It’s a kind of confusing package. The comic story itself is more of a history lesson than an introduction to the characters (which won’t come until issue 2, ironically!) and the rest of the magazine is too generic to be all that exciting.
(And do remember that the Transformers cartoon won’t yet be shown in the UK until summer 1985! In fact, this first issue of Marvel UK’s Transformers comic was released just a few days after the first episode of the cartoon aired in America.)
The toys themselves are another story! I can imagine, in September 1984, playgrounds up and down the country filled with lucky kids showing off these amazing new toys they got over the summer to their friends, and then their friends in turn begging their parents for a Transformer when they got home. Never underestimate the power of word of mouth, especially when it’s an awesome fighter jet or sleek sports car that can change into a robot with weapons right in front of you!
The Best Pals Club
Oh! I couldn’t write about the first Marvel UK Transformers comic without mentioning the back page advert for The Best Pals Club. Had I been allowed a dog when I was a kid I would have joined this in a heartbeat. Look at it. Dog horoscopes and everything.
May your luster never dull, and your wires never cross.
— Graham (@grhmthmsn)
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