Well, here we are at the Christmas season again. Too much eating, too much drinking, too much spending and too much bitching from the Scrooge types who are sick of the same 10 Christmas songs being recycled over and over again by everyone from Bing Crosby to Lady Gaga. I wonder if said Scrooge types understand that the only thing more tiresome than Christmas music, which we’ve all been hearing since a week before Halloween, is them bitching about it. Probably not. It’s not that said Scrooge types aren’t self-aware, but rather that they don’t care about being self-aware.
Anyway, I don’t know what the hell that had to do with my topic, which is toys.
I ran across a YouTube channel called, RetroBlast, which is some nerd and his wife who review ‘80’s toys and the cartoons that resulted from Ronald Reagan and said ‘80’s toys. The guy (I don’t know his name) says that the “big three” toy lines that every miniature human with a developing penis either owned or wanted were Transformers, G.I. Joe and the Masters of the Universe.
As a witness to the events between President Carter’s unceremonious departure from the White House and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, I can state unequivocally that this is a fact. I was big on Optimus Prime and his merry band of talking robots, as well as Cobra Commander and his incontinent hiss. All of my friends were also big on Transformers and G.I. Joe. Strangely, none of us collected the He-Man toys. Some of us watched the cartoon, but that was just filler until Transformers came on at four. Besides, you have to admit that, even by today’s standards, Skeletor was a pussy compared to Megatron.
My first Transformers toy came to me Christmas of 1984. Up to that point, I was big on toys called, Super Powers Collection. These were basically action figures based on the Superfriends cartoon. A Superman figure that could actually punch the air was cool, but a tape recorder that could be changed into a robot was way, way more awesome. I played with my Joker toy for about five minutes, but kept going back to Soundwave and his little buddy housed in his chest compartment, Buzzsaw. Buzzsaw was just like Laserbeak, but with a less cool name.
I forget the name of my second toy, or third, or fourth. I do remember collecting Cliffjumper, Megatron, Skywarp, Prowl, Brawn, Slag, Inferno, Sunstreaker, Sideswipe, Blitzwing, Ramjet, Ironhide, Longhaul, Shockwave, Blaster, Smokescreen and the entire Airealbots team throughout the years of ‘85 and ‘86. But my biggest prize was Jetfire, a huge jet that turned into a robot that stood at about a foot tall. Mom got him for me but said I had to wait until Christmas of 1985 to open him. But then, she bribed me by telling me that if I practiced piano every day for a month without complaining, she’d give him to me. I did it, and playing that stupid E-scale was never so painless. It was the first lesson I learned about how positive rewarding can work with a kid, as long as the reward is Jetfire.
I should testify truthfully that I tried to steal a few Transformers from my classmates at school. I pilfered Swoop, Bombshell and Windcharger, but I always got caught in the end. I wasn’t a particularly clever criminal.
I will also testify that my enthusiasm for the Transformers toys was directly influenced by my love of the cartoon. Yup… I was a product of those evil capitalists who wanted to sell toys to kids. G.I. Joe and He-Man were already around in September of 1984 when the first three-part Transformers miniseries hit the airwaves of KOLN-KGIN, the CBS affiliate that covered the cities of Lincoln, Grand Island and Kearney. He-Man was kind of meh for me. Even as a kid, I always thought that John Erwin sounded like a wuss trying to pass himself off as an alpha male. Duke, Flint and Destro were more interesting. For the first time, I saw cartoon characters engage in fistfights and gun battles. Of course, none of them were ever shot and or wounded by gunfire, but who cared. Imperial Storm Troopers never hit anyone either, and Star Wars was real life action, man! So why would it matter? Still, none of those characters impressed me as did Optimus Prime as he stood atop Hoover Dam and did battle with Megatron.
I have to stop my meandering stroll down memory lane to pay homage to the guys who did the voices of The Transformers cartoon characters. Most of the boys in my tiny 4th grade class watched the show, but the other guys could see the robots change into cars, planes, dinosaurs and even a handgun. I could only hear it. Thus, guys like Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, Chris Latta, Casey Kasem, Michael Bell, Don Messick, Dan Gilvezan and Corey Burton were the stars of the show to me.
Oh sure, I collected G.I. Joe toys as well. My love for them sprang up more in the summer of 1985. I had Cobra Commander, Duke, Quick Kick, The Baroness, Shipwreck, Flint, Ladyjaye, Zartan, Ripcord, Blowtorch, Airtight and all of the Dreadnoks. For Christmas of 1985, I got the Crimson Twins (Tomax and Xamot), as well as Perceptor and Redalert. I went through a love affair with the Joe toys for about nine months, but my affinity for The Transformers lasted for over two years.
Sidebar: My first stab at sex education came, not from the stupid, awkward lecture from the school principal and nurse, but from my futile efforts to place my Flint and Ladyjaye action figures in various positions that were meant to simulate copulation. It was a sorry effort that was also inspired by the cartoon series. If Bill Ratner or Mary McDonald-Lewis ever happen to stumble upon this blog, #SorryNotSorry.
My passionate romance with The Transformers officially ended at the premier of that accursed Transformers movie. The writers killed off Optimus Prime, along with most of the original toys that were scattered around my bedroom floor at home. I’ve heard tales of some kids crying in the theater. I didn’t cry. I was alternately mad and sad. As pathetic as it is to admit, Optimus Prime had been a major hero to me. He was a character that had unwavering morals, a strong sense of loyalty to his followers and a courageous mechanical heart. Sure, guys like Duke, Flint and Roadblock were American patriots, but Optimus Prime seemed to carry something larger with him. I can’t explain it, other than to say that he gave those of us lonely kids who felt empty something to look to when times got rough. Recess was full of physical and emotional bullies, but I took heart in knowing that Optimus Prime would be waiting for me when I got home, always ready to do the right thing. Sure, I took visceral pleasure in watching the Joe Team beat the crap out of those hapless Cobra troops, but Prime employed a measure of compassion toward the innocent. Decepticons were contemptuous and violent toward humanity, calling them names like, “Earth germs.” Prime always defended humanity, arguing that freedom was the right of all beings.
It seems strange to think that, of all the toys I collected, the Optimus Prime toy was not one that ever made it into my basket.
AND THOSE ASSHOLES KILLED HIM!!! They scrapped him and replaced him with freakin’ Judd Nelson, Robert Stack, Leonard Nimoy, the Micro Machines guy and… Orson Welles!? Citizen Kane as a planet-eating monster. What a way to go out. I can understand why Orson did it. He wasn’t getting a lot of other offers and he had to pay for his expensive wine habit, but why the hell would Leonard Nimoy take a voice role like that? He was doing just fine and Star Trek: The Great Whale Chase, was about three months from hitting the screens.
Anyway, I tried to keep up with the TV cartoon, more out of habit than anything, but Rodimus Prime and Galvatron were poor substitutes. Meanwhile, G.I. Joe brought Sergeant friggin’ Slaughter, a professional wrestler, on board to do battle with Serpentor. Cobra Commander was kind of a clownish terrorist, but he was fun and colorful. Serpentor, by contrast, was just boring. Think about it! Serpentor had the DNA of Vlad Tepes in his makeup, but he never got around to sticking Cobra Commander up on a pole.
In Christmas of 1986, I got Ultra Magnus and Kup. I also got the Cobra Night Raven. Galvatron was my last toy, given as my 12th birthday gift in February of 1987. I played with them for a time, but the magic was fading. By the summer of ’87, I was watching crime shows like The Equalizer, Mike Hammer and Simon and Simon. I had also been introduced to old-time radio and had quickly become a fan of The Shadow and The Green Hornet. The cartoons seldom got turned on and my toys were relegated to a plastic basket in my closet, eventually to be taken downstairs and stored somewhere in the basement. The surviving toys would come out again years later, when my little nephew Hunter discovered the same love of Star Wars and The Transformers that I’d had as a kid. Yeah… We’re getting too close to Toy Story territory here, so I’m gonna move on.
I think my parents had hoped that I would grow out of toy cartoons in the sixth grade as many of my peers were doing. Honestly, I didn’t fully turn my back on the show until early in the seventh grade when the whole Headmaster thing hit and I realized that reincarnated Optimus Prime had outlived his usefulness. My parents breathed a huge sigh of relief. Maybe I was gonna finally grow up and go out for wrestling and hit puberty. Their rest bit was short-lived, because about a year later, I discovered Star Trek on VHS, available for rental at Video Kingdom. Mom and Dad stood aghast at the fact that they had sired, not only a blind, chubby, reclusive middle kid, but a nerd as well.
I did, of course, buy the DVD’s of both the G.I. Joe and Transformers cartoons in the early 2,000’s. I humbly admit that it is my prerogative to break them out and sample them every now and again. They are hopelessly dated, of course, but I get a warm feeling when I watch them. You’re entitled to judge me if you want, and I’m entitled to tell you to kiss my fat Polish ass. I’ll tell you this… Optimus Prime and Megatron have aged a hell of a lot better than Hostess Cupcakes and Twinkies. There was a time when I couldn’t imagine one without the other.
I particularly admire the voice artistry of the actors I listed previously. Peter Cullen said it best when he spoke at some Comic Con panel or other. “The only way you can do a job like this is if you really, truly love it.”
It is interesting that, in hindsight, I find The Transformers to be more compelling than G.I. Joe. It’s also interesting that, of all the Christmas gifts I received during my childhood, the ones that stand out most in my memory are the Transformers toys, as well as the cassettes of old-time radio programs given to me by my grandparents at Christmas, 1987.
My final thought is that I find it odd that Transformers and G.I. Joe have gotten several major movies, while Masters of the Universe has not. Maybe the 1987 film with Dolph Lundgren did what Skeletor never could and killed He-Man, dead. Then again, if you look at how the modern Transformers movies turned out, maybe He-Man and Skeletor got the better end of the deal.
If only Cobra Commander had brainwashed Santa Claus, he would’ve had all of the kids saying, “Merry Chrisssssssssssssstmasssssssssssss!”
PS: If you guys aren’t able to read this blog in about two weeks or so, it’s because Steve Sawczyn, the guy who gets the bill, was a He-Man fan.