When “Tales of Cybertron” Explored the Transformers’ Backstory

The original Transformers comic in the U.K. was augmented by hardcover annuals, beginning with Transformers Annual 1986 (published in late 1985). These annuals generally included several short stories, some in the comics format and others in illustrated text, along with profile pages and sometimes a few game-like features, such as puzzles or pages readers could color.

For the first couple annuals, the Transformers was still new, and its continuity was very much in flux. The weekly U.K. series had enough difficulty interacting with the U.S. series, but the annuals had even more trouble. The U.S.-driven continuity essentially told a single story through 1985, leaving little room for new stories to be inserted between. Compounding this, Marvel U.K. almost certainly wanted to include new and popular characters, such as the Insecticons, which hadn’t yet debuted in the U.S. The result, inevitably, were stories that featured a set of Transformers who couldn’t be together, as well as inconsistencies. Making sure that the U.S. stories eventually connected with these U.K. stories was beneath the attention of the U.S. Marvel offices. But in fairness, the U.K. offices hardly seemed concerned either, and some stories in these annuals even conflicted with one another (as we’ll soon see).

One of the stand-out stories from the very first annual was “And There Shall Come… a Leader!” The 10-page story was written by Simon Furman, who had already become the dominant U.K. Transformers writer — a position he’d hold throughout the U.K. series; in fact, he’d also take over the U.S. series. The short story was illustrated by John Stokes, and the characters have the feel of early Transformers art, in which the depictions are slightly closer to the actual toys than most of us are used to. Also, the story’s splash page includes a robot in the background that’s swiped from page 3 of Transformers #1.

from Transformers #1 from Transformers Annual 1986

That’s actually kind of cool, however, because the short story was a prequel to Transformers #1, and the swiped art helps connect the two stories. The short story (like the earliest pages of Transformers #1) was set on Cybertron, prior to the events that led the Transformers to Earth. Specifically, the story focused on how Optimus Prime became Autobot leader. On the top of the story’s second page, “Tales of Cybertron” was emblazoned upon the top of the page, indicating that this was something special.

from Transformers Annual 1986Today, we’re not surprised by the idea of a story set on Cybertron in the past. But at the time of the story’s publication, this was something unique. True, a few animated episodes featured time travel to Cybertron’s past, or glimpses thereof. But those were framed by their present-day sequences and case. The idea of an entire prequel story was popularized by the mini-series Transformers: The War Within (#1-6, Oct 2002 – Mar 2003), which wasn’t published until Dreamwave’s revival of Transformers comics. This original “Tale of Cybertron” appeared when the Transformers were still new.

In the story, the Decepticons, led by Megatron, are overrunning Cybertron, and its capitol city, Iacon, is in danger of falling. Bluestreak, in his Cybertronian form (which is a little too close to his human car form, but at least bothers to be somewhat different from it), is on a mission to deliver bombs to Optimus Prime, who was then an Autobot general. In a bit of violence rare to Transformers stories at the time, Bluestreak’s comrade, Fusion, is killed during the mission. The Council of Autobot Elders decides to invest its whole authority in Optimus Prime. As Megatron prepares his final assault, Optimus Prime leads a counter-attack. Megatron blasts Optimus Prime, who orders that his Autobots flee. They do, but as Megatron’s about to deliver the final blow, those previously-mentioned bombs detonate, collapsing the elevated road on which everyone was fighting. Apparently, Optimus Prime intended to sacrifice himself, and his order that the Autobots flee was to get them out of the way from the coming destruction. Naturally, we see that both Optimus Prime and Megatron have survived the destruction, and the final panel is of Optimus Prime, who’s now Autobot leader.

That final caption tells us, “never once did Optimus Prime shirk the responsibility that had been handed to him,” and the story obviously intends us to view him as heroic, especially since he’s willing to sacrifice himself. We’re supposed to enjoy this story about how Optimus Prime became leader of the Autobots and not think too much about it. But the story actually presents a far more complex portrait of this moment.

from Transformers Annual 1986Today, we’re probably used to thinking about the Autobots as always having a singular leader. That’s how the cartoon presented things, placing Optimus Prime and then Rodimus Prime as part of a long continuity of such leaders. Many stories have since suggested that “Prime” is an indicator of this leadership role, or at least the potential to assume it. In essence, this presents the Autobots’ system of government as a monarchy. And although Transformers don’t have children, Autobot monarchs alone determine their successors. For example, when Optimus Prime appoints Ultra Magnus his successor in Transformers: The Movie, nobody questions this, even after Ultra Magnus’s rule deteriorates.

“And There Shall Come… a Leader!” suggests something quite different. There, we’re led to believe that the Council of Autobot Elders ruled the Autobots before ceding sole authority to Optimus Prime. Optimus was already a prominent general, apparently in charge of the capital city of Iacon. This transition parallels that between the Roman republic and the Roman empire. In other words, Optimus Prime is Julius Caesar.

This makes what we witness in the story far more morally ambiguous. Images of Rome tend to focus on its imperial period, but the transition from republic to empire is still debated today and is usually depicted as, at best, a necessary evil. Historically, Caesar’s seizure of power was represented by his supporters as a temporary measure done in the name of the republic. Long after it was clear that Rome was permanently ruled by a monarch, some Romans continued to pine for the republic.

Optimus Prime may seem more noble and less power-hungry than Julius Caesar is often depicted as having. The Council of Autobot Elders seems only too eager to cede its authority to its most prominent general, and there’s no sign in the story that Optimus Prime has manipulated the council into this decision. Still, we shouldn’t ignore that what we’re witnessing, in the story, is the fall of the Autobot republic and the beginning of a dictatorship — even if it’s usually depicted as a benevolent dictatorship.

While there’s no sign that Optimus Prime is pulling the strings behind the Council’s decision to divest its own authority, there are ominous signs that he may not be innocent. When Emirate Xaaron calls Optimus with the news that Optimus now has full control over the Autobot forces, Optimus replies “At last…” He’s clearly waiting for the news. It’s not unexpected. Indeed, Xaaron seems to be Optimus’s inside man on the Council. True, Optimus’s first response to the news is couched in the language of being released to help the Autobots: “At last, I can strike positively against the advancing Decepticons…” He’s not self-congratulatory, nor hungry for power — at least not for its own sake. But there are clear indications that he wants the Council to make this decision and has been planning (plotting?) with Xaaron.

Then there’s the Autobot, who looks a lot like Gears, who plants the actual bombs in the story. His thought balloons indicate that he and others have spent “weeks” securing the bombs and planning for this moment. “And all without the Council suspecting we were acting without their approval,” he thinks. In other words, Optimus Prime’s been defying the Council — and the law. Perhaps this was a necessary evil, but it certainly demonstrates that Optimus hasn’t been respecting the existing government, while he’s also been consulting on the Council’s decision to cede all control to him personally.

What emerges from an examination of these undertones is something far different from what the story seems to wish to convey. We’re supposed to see Optimus Prime as an uncomplicated hero and to see his becoming Autobot leader as a good thing. But reading between the lines, a very different picture emerges.

It’s worth mentioning that there’s no sign that the Decepticons, who generally transform into military vehicles, have ever been anything except a dictatorship. That makes sense. This story suggests that the more domestic Autobots’ natural form of government is a republic. That republic’s dissolution, the story suggests, was a necessity of war. And even if Optimus Prime is the most noble Transformer ever, we ought not to pretend that the Autobots haven’t compromised their principles here. Essentially, almost everything we’ve seen of the Autobots is a new and recent state, necessitated by desperation.

At the very least, this suggests that mining the Transformers’ time on Cybertron, prior to the series’s beginning, could result in fascinating material — stories that had the capability of changing how we saw the Transformers. One of the problems with the Transformers, despite their obvious coolness and potential, has long been that their backstory was never worked out. “Tales of Cybertron” had the potential to do that.

But there would be only one more such story, produced almost a year later, for Transformers Annual 1987. This story was a prose tale with illustrations — a format common to British comics annuals. But despite this difference of medium, the story was very much a companion to “And There Shall Come… a Leader!” Only instead of focusing on Optimus Prime, this new story focused on Megatron. It’s also set even earlier, before the Autobot-Decepticon war, so that it could be regarded as a prequel to “And There Shall Come… a Leader!” (which was itself a prequel to the rest of the series).

from Transformers Annual 1987The story, entitled “State Games,” ran 8 pages, was written by James Hill, and was illustrated by John Stokes (who also illustrated “And There Shall Come… a Leader!”). Whereas that earlier story was labeled “Tales of Cybertron” (on the top of its second page) this one is labelled “A Tale from Cybertron” right above the title on the story’s first page.

The story establishes that the various cities of Cybertron used to conduct gladiatorial games, a mixture of the Greek Olympics and Roman gladiatorial combat. Interestingly, the story also establishes that Cybertron suffers from population pressured, caused by the unabated creation of new Transformers. (Regretfully, how new Transformers are created has varied over the years; most versions suggest some sort of Transformers “soul” is required, but that kind of mysticism is nicely absent from this story.)

In the story, Megatron is the champion athlete from the city of Tarn, while Optimus Prime is the champion from Iacon. The Vos athletic team plots to plant a bomb in Tarn, where the games are being held. Although the Vos team intends to plant evidence suggesting Iacon was responsible for the bombing, they fail; the bomb goes off, decimating Tarn, but Vos’s guilt becomes known. As a consequence, the cities of Tarn and Vos go to war, whereas the Tarn plot was intended to lead to a war between Tarn and Iacon. At the end of the story, the war between Tarn and Vos concludes, and Megatron convinces the survivors to form a new faction known as the Decepticons.

And thus the Autobot-Decepticon war begins.

The depiction of Cybertron’s government here is at odds with what we’ve seen in “And There Shall Come… a Leader!” Before the creation of the Decepticons, we’re shown that the Autobots are ruled by someone known only as the Autobot Overlord — although he’s depicted as old and frail, requiring frequent care. The Overlord used to rule the entire planet, prior to the rise of city-states. By the time the story takes place, his power is largely ceremonial. The Overlord is left to die during the story, which doesn’t explain how this is compatible with the Council seen in “And There Shall Come… a Leader!”

I love the idea that the various Cybertronian cities have their own culture, although that’s barely explored in this story. As you can probably tell, I’m a sucker for examinations of Transformer history, society, and government. As robotic life, the Transformers are very alien, and the idea that aliens ought to be presented as having alien cultures with moralities foreign to our own is a foundational idea in science fiction. At eight pages, “State Games” is more suggestive of possibilities than fulfilling of them, but it’s another example of how the Transformers could be made fascinating from a science-fiction standpoint.

Even though this was only a prose story in the second U.K. annual, it’s one of the more influential Transformers stories. Beginning with Dreamwave’s comics continuity, the idea that Decepticons evolved out of gladiatorial games has been a part of almost every version of the Transformers. IDW’s 2007 four-issue mini-series The Transformers: Megatron Origin is essentially a reboot of “State Games,” with the games — there illegal — and cultural turmoil serving as essential aspects of Megatron’s rise to power.

Sadly, these were the only two “Tales of Cybertron” ever produced. But they’re full of potential. The name “Tales of Cybertron” recalls “Tales of Asgard,” the back-up that fleshed out Thor’s backstory and first made Thor seem meaningfully different (or even alien) as a character. Had “Tales of Cybertron” continued, even as an annual concern, it could have had much the same effect. But even the two stories that were published infused the Transformers with new meaning, having lasting effects not only for the then-current comics continuity but for all the Transformers continuities that followed.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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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7 Comments

  1. I still own this annual, it’s sitting right there. The first thing on my Transformer comics shelf.

  2. Smith says:

    Don’t forget the short “Cybertron: The Middle Years” from the regular comic, which filled us in on what had been happening on Cybertron while the Ark was dormant, just in time for us to revisit the planet in Target: 2006.

    http://tfwiki.net/wiki/Cybertron:_The_Middle_Years!

    Regarding the many text stories from the annuals – James Roberts is providing some excellent background material and interviews (on these, as well as the main UK strips) in IDW’s UK Classics collection (the latest volume of which – 5 – is currently delayed). Highly recommended.

  3. Thanks to you both! To an American kid like me, unfamiliar with the format, those hardcover annuals were amazing!

    Good call on “The Middle Years.” I remember it was more a prequel to “Target: 2006″ than a “Tales of Cybertron” story in tone, but you’re right that I forgot it! Thanks!

  4. Smith says:

    Oh, and loving the articles, by the way!

  5. Brad Sawyer says:

    Another great source of info for past Cybertron history and how Transformers society is like is in:

    Transformers: Exodus – The Official History of the War for Cybertron by Alexander C. Irvine

    It doesn’t take place in the Marvel comics continuity, but it does have elements from said continuity and various others’. It’s usually called by the fans the “Aligned Continuity.” You can see more of it at the TFWiki site that Smith mentioned above in his post.

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