The Secret Origin of the TRANSFORMERS – Part 1
In 1983, a toy company approached Marvel Comics seeking development of a toy property for comics, animation and other entertainment. The toys in question were cars and other vehicles that could be opened and unfolded into ROBOTS. Very cool.
The toy company was KNICKERBOCKER TOYS. They called their toy property, based on technology licensed from a Japanese company, the “MYSTERIONS.”
Marvel Comics was their second choice as a creative services provider. They had gone to DC Comics first. The executive who approached us showed us what DC had created for them. It was a comic book. He only had photocopies. I don’t believe the thing was ever printed.
It was awful. Apologies to whomever created that thing, but it was pathetic and wrong-headed to an unbelievable degree. The art was well-drawn, I’ll allow that, but the storytelling was chaotic. The story, as best one could discern it, was unnecessarily, excessively dark and violent. The dialogue was peppered with “Hells” and “damns,” and I can’t swear to it almost 30 years later, but I think there was a “*******” or two in there.
Need I mention that the primary target audience for toys is ages three through eight? Yes, sure, boys’ action figures and action toys skew a little higher, but still. (Aside: People like us really would warp the average, if we counted.)
Though the DC story was convoluted, when you boiled it down it was vehicle/robots battling each other. Not much in the way of motivation beyond “good” versus “evil.” All clichés, all the time.
The Knickerbocker guy told me what they’d paid for this…item. Top dollar.
He asked if we could do better.
Our mailroom guys could do better. Our top executives could do better. And they were not very sharp. The execs, I mean.
So, we made a deal and began work. I wrote the back story and the treatment for the first story. They loved it.
The plan was for us to publish comics and for our studio, Marvel Productions, to produce a number of animated half-hours—six, I think. I forget. We would launch just before the pre-sale of the toys. Then follow it up in the spring when the initial wave of low price point items shipped. The usual.
We were asked to come to a meeting at Knickerbocker’s offices out in the wilds of Jersey somewhere. Publisher Mike Hobson and I were the ranking officers on that excursion. Somebody else was with us. I don’t remember who. DeFalco? Maybe. I don’t think so, but… A licensing person? Maybe. I don’t know. Might have been two people.
Anyway, we rented a car and off we went.
I can’t run down that trip step by step, but I remember some highlights and lowlights.
We ate a late lunch or dinner at a Ground Round, which was the classiest joint in the area. I put that first because, relatively speaking, it was a major highlight.
We arrived on time for our meeting, but had to wait for THREE HOURS. The Knickerbocker execs we were supposed to meet with were “unavoidably detained.” There was something going on at that office. People seemed on edge, upset. We had no idea why. No one told us anything.
They had a nice reception area. Comfy seats….
Finally, we were ushered into a room by an assistant to somebody’s assistant and shown the toys. I’d only seen a few of them up until then.
Finally, we were shown to a large office. The Knickerbocker people were ashen faced and nervous. But we had our meeting. We talked about the launch, the toys and the story. They didn’t want to talk about elements or the business transaction that were still pending.
I had the distinct feeling that they were just going through the motions.
Another highlight: Part of the meeting was a scheduled conference call with Dennis Marks, head of development at Marvel Productions. For reasons I’ll never understand, the people who ran Marvel Productions until Margaret Loesch took over hated us comics people. David DePatie, Head of Production, especially. They thought of us as amateurish morons, and our work as garbage. MUCH more on that, later.
At any rate, we had provided the studio with my treatment and back story.
Dennis spoke about what the studio proposed to do with the Mysterions property, which was to completely ignore my work and do something completely different. And stupid. With cute, wacky kids and a goofy dog.
That was the only time the Knickerbocker people showed any life. They told Dennis that they wanted what I had created, not what he was talking about. They couldn’t understand where he was coming from. Didn’t he read the treatment?
Dennis was flabbergasted. Seemed he couldn’t believe that they were taking anything done by the comic book people seriously. Dennis’s said, exactly: “I’m completely at sea, here.” Yes, Dennis, you were, and maybe still are.
That conversation ended in a muddle with Dennis making “we’ll see about this” noises, albeit reasonably politely. We in the office in Jersey sort of looked at each other after the call ended, in that way that people look at each other after a shared surreal experience.
So, we all shook hands and we Marvel types drove back to New York. Mike Hobson guessed that some kind of company shakeup was going on.
The next day we learned that, just before our meeting, Hasbro had announced that it was acquiring Knickerbocker. Shakeup, indeed.
The deal with Knickerbocker fell victim to the takeover by Hasbro. The Hollywood term for similar events is “turnaround.” Projects begun by previous administrations are automatically put into turnaround, that is, on hold—usually permanently.
Here endeth the story of the Mysterions.
That’s a good break point, but I promised some of the TRANSFORMERS tale, not just the prequel, so I’ll press on for a while.
Some months later, the Hasbro exec who was Marvel’s main contact, Bob Prupis, came to my office. He pulled a few toy vehicles out of his bag and proceeded to open and unfold them into ROBOTS.
They were bigger and much more complex than the Mysterions. Different Japanese technology, same general idea.
Hasbro, he said, had the rights to the technology and toys based upon it. The problem, he said was story. He said that the Japanese storyline associated with the toys wasn’t useful. Japanese kids, apparently, don’t require much justification. Cars become robots, robots become cars. Well, of course they do. What do you mean, “why?”
(P.S. To this day I’ve never read or seen any of the Japanese storyline.)
American kids, he thought would like to know why. Did I think we could develop this toy concept for comics, animation and other entertainment the way we developed G.I. JOE?
I didn’t mention the Mysterons, but, hey, if I could do it once, I figured I could do it again. I had to wonder, though, whether the Knickerbocker Mysterions somehow inspired Hasbro’s acquisition of the Transformers toys and technology.
Following the success of G.I. JOE, these toy developments had become a regular thing. When possible, I gave the development job to an editor or key freelance creator as a perk. Developments paid very well.
I thought that it was time to give Denny O’Neill a crack at one of these, and Denny was always up for making extra money.
I met with Denny and gave him some foundation concepts. Fed him his lines a little. I always did that with these toy gigs, because I had been the one meeting with the client, and also I had the most background working with toy companies. I had learned to think “toyetically,” as they say. What I proposed was completely different from my Mysterions story. And, better, I think.
If the Hasbro people had read my Mysterions treatment, well, I didn’t want them to think I was a one-trick pony.
Denny wanted the job, wanted the dough, but I don’t think his heart was in it. He had a disdain, I think, for “toy books.” The Marvel mainstream characters were modern mythology. The toys were, well, toys.
What Denny delivered was unusable. Cranked out, pithless stuff. I paid him anyway.
There’s also a proper way to write these things that’s part pitch piece, part story. You have to convey the sizzle, write it with some sturm und drang, with Flight of the Valkyries playing in the background. A few football clichés help. “He would not be denied!”
So, I wrote the backstory/treatment. Free. I usually did such things no extra charge. I considered it part of the Editor in Chief job. I think my treatment is floating around on the web somewhere. And, I actually have the original around here in one of the many storage boxes piled up in my living room awaiting sorting. The cats just love scratching those boxes into cardboard confetti, by the way. It’s a constant struggle to protect the contents from errant claws….
But I digress.
As stated, the treatment was all new, unrelated to the Mysterions treatment. And, the only thing of Denny’s I kept, as I recall, was the name of the Autobots’ ship, “Auntie.” I have become convinced, also, that he named Optimus Prime. It’s not unlike a name I might come up with, but it’s very much in the style of the erudite Mister O’Neill, full of scope, dignity and power.
By the way, “Transformers,” “Autobots” and “Decepticons” came from Hasbro.
Bob Prupis and the Hasbro troops liked the treatment.