On “The Night the Transformers Saved Christmas”

Woman's Day, 26 Dec 1985Surely among the least-known early Transformers comics, “The Night the Transformers Saved Christmas” appeared in the 26 December 1985 issue of Woman’s Day magazine. The four-page story wasn’t an insert; it was printed on page 69-72 of the magazine.

Why exactly a Transformers story, aimed at an audience predominantly composed of boys, would be printed in Woman’s Day isn’t entirely clear. But a banner across the first page’s corner pronounced it a “kids’ comic special,” as if women reading the magazine might get to these four pages and hand the magazine over to their children.

The story was clearly prepared by Marvel Comics. It doesn’t feature any credits, although some have identified the art as the product of artist Herb Trimpe, who did occasional work for the Marvel Transformers comic’s early years. Among the oddities of the story is that, because it was printed in Woman’s Day, which presumably used offset printing, the story’s colors are superior to those of the ongoing Marvel comic, which was still printed on newsprint.

The story takes place on Christmas Eve, although no year is specified (which is convenient for continuity purposes, as we’ll discuss below). The Perry family, who lives in an American town called Midville in an unspecified state, drives to their town square to witness the traditional lighting of the town Christmas tree. However, we see that the power’s off in the town. (Readers would be forgiven for thinking that the Perry family had arrived in the town square and discovered the power out, but we later see that this isn’t the case; the story simply jumps from the Perry family driving to the town square to show what they haven’t yet seen. It’s not the clearest of transitions.)

The Night the Transformers Saved Christmas, page 1The reason for the power outage is soon made clear: the Decepticons Soundwave and Laserbeak are siphoning the electricity from a nearby power station. In the very next panel, the Autobots Bumblebee, Tracks, and Hoist arrive. It’s not entirely clear how the Autobots discovered the incident, nor why only these three Autobots would be sent. We’re only told that Bumblebee “has been keeping his optical sensors” on Soundwave and summoned the others for help. Does this mean that Bumblebee’s been stalking Soundwave and requested that only Tracks and Hoist come to assist him?

Soundwave’s reaction to the Autobots’ arrival is to immediately flee. He justifies this by telling Laserbeak that they’re outnumbered.

In a nice touch, we’re shown Soundwave transforming into his cassette tape mode, which Laserbeak takes in his mouth as he flies away. The reason this is a nice touch is that Laserbeak, whose alternate form is a cassette tape, is normally transported inside Soundwave. Reversing this takes advantage of the implicit size-changing inherent to most of the Transformers: when a cassette tape can unfold into a child-sized robot, it’s obviously growing as well as changing shape. Many Transformers stories avoid drawing attention to this, since it’s essentially a byproduct of the toy designs. In fact, many of the earliest Transformers toys were molds from existing Japanese toys lines that were simply combined into a new one, so there was no thought given to maintaining scale between the toys, let alone between the two forms of each toy.

The Night the Transformers Saved Christmas, page 2As Laserbeak escapes, he fires a blast that downs a tree along the secluded road. It falls in front of the Perry’s car, on its way to the town square’s Christmas tree. The Perry family gets out of its car and is clearly scared of the giant yellow robot standing in the road. Bumblebee reassures them and takes the fallen tree off the hood of the Perry’s car. But the car’s no longer operational; or, as Bumblebee amusingly puts it, “I fear your car is unconscious.”

(Strictly speaking, Bumblebee should probably know by now that human cars aren’t, you know, alive. He already knows what humans are, after all. But Bumblebee’s line evokes one of the best features of the earliest Transformers stories, in which Optimus Prime and the rest assume that Earth’s vehicles are its dominant life form — a perfectly reasonable assumption on their part, and one that illustrates the truly alien perspective of the Transformers. Bumblebee’s dialogue here, while amusing, therefore also evokes one of the best elements of the Transformers story. And it’s only a single line, so it may pretty easily be forgiven as Bumblebee slipping momentarily into older thought patterns, in which a non-functional car might well be considered to be “unconscious.”)

Cynthia Perry, the mother of the family, requests a ride into town. “We have to deliver these presents,” she explains. When Bumblebee prompts her for more information, she adds that on Christmas Eve, “everyone goes to town and puts a present under the Christmas tree for those in need.”

The story’s dripping with the wholesome goodness associated with traditional Americana, and I must add that I’ve lived in many different parts of America, including small towns, and never seen anything like this. Most small towns don’t have a central Christmas tree, and I’m unaware of any that put presents for the needy under it. But it’s a wonderful idea, filled with the kind of neighborly compassion for the less fortunate that ought to be a part of Christmas.

Bumblebee’s apparently equally impressed. “That’s a very nice tradition,” he says. “We have nothing like it back where I come from on Cybertron.” But Bumblebee soon realizes the problem when Cynthia adds that “the best part is when the Christmas tree lights are turned on!”

The Night the Transformers Saved Christmas, page 3On the final page, Prowl has joined Tracks and Hoist, who says that “those human engineers should be able to complete repairs on the power lines better than us, Prowl.” It’s a little odd, given that we don’t see these “human engineers.” Essentially, the Autobots have just left the problem for the humans to deal with. The same word balloon could just as easily tell us that the Autobots had repaired the power station between panels, but that would upset the plot. Rather than concern themselves with repairs, the Autobots are instead concerned with where Bumblebee has gone. Apparently, he’s driven the Perry family into town without a single word to his comrades, who have to follow Bumblebee’s tracks in the snow to find him.

They find Bumblebee in the town square, where he’s hooked up the Christmas tree to his battery. Because Bumblebee’s car form is a Volkswagen Beetle, his battery is in his trunk — a rare bit of fidelity to the particulars of the Transformers’ vehicle forms. Lest we miss the point of the story, Bumblebee, asked what he’s doing, says that “the humans would call it ‘giving to those in need’!”

After Bumblebee charmingly refers to the tree as “that organic structure,” he ends the strip by exclaiming, “Merry Christmas, Autobots!

The Night the Transformers Saved Christmas, page 4It’s only a four-issue story, and it’s certainly got its clunky moments. For example, the Perry family, which ought to be the human grounding of the story, disappears on this final page, where they could at least be shown smiling, if not handing out presents to the less fortunate or something.

And as a Transformers story, there’s not much in the way of drama. The Decepticon plan is pretty pathetic. We’ve seen them take over offshore drilling rigs and the like, so siphoning electricity from a regional substation is small potatoes. Compounding this, there’s no fight at all; the Decepticons simply run away as soon as the Autobots arrive. The only shot that’s fired is the one Laserbeak uses to down the tree that disables the Perry family’s car, presumably to get the Autobots to focus on the endangered (or at least inconvenienced) humans rather than on pursuing the Decepticons.

But it’s this same concern for humans that helps redeem the story. Sure, it’s all a whitewashed, slightly syrupy version of wholesome, small-town America. But the entire reason why such visions are wholesome is because of the good-hearted, unpretentious, communal concern for the less fortunate that we’re told the town’s Christmas tree ritual represents. Sure, the focus ends up being on the pretty lights of the town tree. But underneath this celebration, and grafted to it, is a very basic kind of humanitarianism.

Yes, it’s an easy form of sacrifice. Bringing some presents, one day a year, isn’t that much more difficult than Bumblebee letting humans strap some cables to his batteries. But it’s something, and its heart is in the right place. It’s amazing how this aspect of the town’s Christmas tree, only present in Cynthia Perry’s dialogue, redeems the story, or at least keeps it from collapsing.

Having been prepared by Marvel Comics, “The Night the Transformers Saved Christmas” actually fits relatively well into Marvel’s comics continuity. It can’t, however, occur in the year in which it was published, 1985. Tracks and Hoist didn’t debut until 1986. The story must occur in 1986, because Bumblebee would become Goldbug in 1987. (See the story in the context of Transformers comics continuity here.)

Since it’s not even known exactly who made ”The Night the Transformers Saved Christmas,” it’s not surprising we also don’t know precisely when it was made. Woman’s Day probably required a bit more lead time than most Marvel comics in 1985 operated with. In any case, this is one of the earliest Transformers comics stories, and its fascinating for that reason.

The story doesn’t have the awkwardness of the very earliest stories, in which artists conformed a bit too closely to the toys. Still, when Soundwave transforms, his transformation looks very much like his toy counterpart. Bumblebee’s reference to the Perrys’ car being “unconscious” and the tree as “that organic structure” also help this feel like an early story. The story’s title alone makes it a classic.

The U.S. Marvel, unlike its U.K. division (which had its own Transformers comic), didn’t publish short Transformers stories, helping to make this story even more of an oddity. Marvel U.K.’s Transformers comic would eventually print five Christmas stories, beginning the same year “The Night the Transformers Saved Christmas” was published and continuing until 1989. But this was the only Transformers Christmas story produced by the U.S. Marvel Comics — and it’s one that almost no Transformers fan has read.

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In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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