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Friday, 31 January 2014

Transformations: Bob Budiansky and Writing Robots

Transformers fans over a certain age will remember with fondness the work of Marvel writer Bob Budiansky, even if they don't know his name. In 1983 he was given about a week to bring 28 characters from the Transformers universe to life. Transformers was initially created in order to sell a range of toys Hasbro had licensed from Takara Tomy, amalgamating several pre-existing lines. As part of the marketing strategy, they commissioned a comic and TV series to showcase the toys.

Budiansky set about thoughtfully and imaginatively writing the complex personality types of real people into the bodies of massive alien robots. The net result of this work has been the sustained appeal of the franchise and its offshoots well beyond its initial heyday. Although Autobot leader Optimus Prime remains the most iconic figure from the franchise, even the more minor characters and villains like the treacherous Starscream have made a lasting impression on readers and viewers' minds.

Here's a sample of Budiansky's work, taken from the original profile for Prowl (with thanks to

Profile: He is quiet, competent, and very loyal, but perhaps his most valuable trait is his almost endless patience. Once Prowl is assigned a task, he will keep at it until it is accomplished. He works with proven facts, not imagination or guesses. If he has any doubts, he will radio Optimus Prime, his commander, before proceeding. He hates doubts in any form, and he strives to make everything he encounters reasonable and logical. He believes it only when he can explain it. On a personal level he is friendly, but not too sociable. He's a listener, not a talker, unless someone says something unreasonable. Then he will demand an explanation.  
Abilities: Prowl has the most sophisticated logic center of all the Autobots, giving him the ability to analyze any combat situation almost instantaneously and then advise on the optimal course of action. For example, Prowl can observe 800 moving objects, compute their probable paths of movement, and determine the proper countermove in .05 seconds. From his shoulder cannons he can shoot wire-guided incendiary missiles that reach temperatures of 12,000 degrees Centigrade upon explosion. He also carries a semi-automatic rifle that shoots pellets filled with a highly corrosive acid. Its range is 300 yards.  
Weaknesses: His dedication to logic and reason makes Prowl particularly vulnerable to the unexpected. Irrational and inexplicable situations can really scramble his circuits, sometimes to the point of total shutdown of his mechano-cortex center, leaving him temporarily dysfunctional.

Here we see neither a clear-cut workaholic, by-the-book lawman, nor a coldly lethal Judge Dredd figure, but instead a complicated mixture. Prowl is portrayed as a highly efficient police officer who, while dogged and unyielding, is also somewhat friendly and prone to awkwardness. We are given hints of tension between him and his team-mates (“he will demand an explanation”) and sudden shifts in his behaviour, from cool keeper of order to fiery interrogator. The detailing in the weapons description is also incredibly evocative, providing a sense of reality to a distinctly fantastical universe. A rifle that shoots acid pellets says a lot about its wielder, not to mention the extremity of the social situation.

In the early 2000s there was a wave of nostalgia for 1980s properties, and titles such as Thundercats, G.I. Joe and My Little Pony underwent reboots and updates. The children who had enjoyed these series returned as adults to spend their money on the franchises they had forgotten. But while initial sales were high (in August 2002 alone, combined sales of two Thundercats titles were more than 200,000), most of the nostalgia faded as the characters and stories failed to live up to the matured tastes of an adult readership, and many reboots ended up falling by the wayside over the following months and years. In contrast, Transformers, which was relaunched by Dreamwave in the same period, retained its adult fanbase, whose favourite characters, as conceptualised by Budiansky, remained substantial, relatable and able to develop further. Dreamwave released 11 Transformers series (including a one-shot and two G.I. Joe crossovers) before financial problems stopped play. After they went into administration, IDW took up the reins, and in July 2012 three separate Transformers titles shifted over 10,000 copies apiece in the North American market alone.

Recent series More Than Meets The Eye, written by James Roberts, has seen this supposed children’s franchise consider ideas of segregation, workers' rights, murder and war, among other difficult topics. The title of the series could not be more apt; not simply transforming robots but deeply flawed individuals in a desperate situation. Even gender ambiguity is addressed, as we see in the relationship between Chromedome and Rewind. Rarely found apart, this couple have an intensely strong bond, and yet their lack of gender raises questions about the nature of love and sexuality between robots.

It's clear that the writers behind present-day Transformers storylines have a genuine interest in the philosophy and possibilities of the universe. Roberts, who also penned the fan-acclaimed Last Stand of the Wreckers series, began himself as a fanfiction author, even going so far as to write a novel, Eugenesis, devoted to the characters, before being picked up by IDW to write a flagship title. The manoeuvrability and potential of those initial personalities and backstories has been vital to linking Roberts' new ideas to the original characters his readers have followed.

The fact that fans are still inspired, 30 years after Transformers first appeared, to create sophisticated, satisfying Autobot/Decepticon narratives of their own is a tribute to Budiansky’s fleshed-out (if fleshless) prototype cast. Thanks to his inspired writing, original devotees still follow the franchise and still demand alien robots with real heart. Yes, even Starscream's rotten spark.

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