The Transformed Man:

Close Encounters of the Optimal Kind

One day, just another day of organized happiness
Like all the others
I closed all the doors behind me.
–all quotes from William Shatner’s “The Transformed Man,” words by Frank Devenport

About a month ago I got an email from Mike Phillips, the Editor-in-Chief here at Sequart, announcing that we were going to have a special “Transformers Week.”  Now, I just wrote “we,” were doing Transformers week, but it really should’ve been “they” because as soon as I saw the email I knew I wouldn’t be able to participate.  It took only seconds for me to fire back a reply to Mike asking him if I could opt out.  I knew there was no way I would write about Transformers.

And as a leaf drops from a tree
I quietly walked out of the life they had planned for me.
Not once did regret clutch my hand.
I left on the wings of instinct.

The fact is there was no way I could write about Transformers.  I literally knew nothing about them.  The whole thing is a mystery to me.  Somehow, without really even trying, I’ve managed to avoid the entire franchise.  I’ve never seen any of the cartoons, never watched any of the movies, never read any of the comics, and never even played with the toys.  In short, I can’t think of another part of geek culture that I know less about than Transformers.

I turned away from the city teeming with desperate and haggard faces,
Away from the peddlers of hate and vengeance,
Away from the clock that decrees “time is money,”
Away from the arrogant and infallible
Whose hands are stained with blood.

So why have I remained so ignorant?  Almost everyone I know is a fan, but while all my friends were watching the original cartoon, I was doing other things.  I was in that awkward phase that we sometimes look back on affectionately and call … priggish.  You remember that insufferably pretentious guy you used to know in school, the one who had just discovered that film is art and couldn’t stop talking about Ingmar Bergman?  Yep, that was me.  So when it came to the Transformers, not even the fact that Orson Welles voiced one of the characters in the animated movie was enough to pique my interest.  This was also around the same time I was discovering what Julian Darius sometimes calls “literary comics”—mainstream genre comics by ambitious writers with names like Moore, Gaiman, and Morrison.  So for a pop culture snob like myself, the idea of paying attention to a toy-turned-cartoon-turned-movie franchise was pretty much unthinkable.

All this I left far behind me,
And as a moth seeks light,
As water seeks water,
I sought the purity of higher regions
Where austere mountains thrust their faces towards the sun.

But as Bob Dylan once wrote, “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.”  Maybe that’s why I couldn’t get Mike’s email about Tranformers Week out of my head.  You’ve heard of buyer’s remorse?  Well I had non-buyer’s remorse.  Why shouldn’t I do a Transformers piece? It wouldn’t be too hard.  I could just watch some of the old cartoons and maybe check out one of the movies.  My son even had a couple of the toys buried somewhere in the mounds of dirty clothes and Happy Meal freebies in his bedroom.  Maybe because I would have a fresh perspective, I might be the perfect person to write about Transformers.  I would probably have all sorts of insights to offer and be able to see things that the long-time fans couldn’t.  And that’s when I knew, I had to write a Transformers column.

But where to start?  What’s the proper gateway for Transformers?  I decided to be a purist.  Since it began as a toy franchise, that’s where I would start—I would “borrow” my son’s two Transformer toys.  This was exciting for me.  I was doing research like a method actor, only in my case I would be a method writer.  I’d just play with the toys, watch the cartoons, then graduate to the movies.  I was ready.

There in my sanctuary
Surrounded by the dignity of pines and the serenity of gray boulders,
I let my eyes drink in the clarity of wind-swept skies,
I felt the warmth of sun-drenched stone,
I listened to all the sounds of the earth
And I waited as calm as a hooded falcon
For the hand of faith to lift the darkness.

So there I was, staring at two Transformers.  There was a green one that looked like a truck, but I decided to work with the other one instead.  It was a robot, and I was pretty sure it was the one called Optimus Prime, who I thought was supposed to be, like, the head robot or something.  As robots go, he looked kind of strange to me.  He was mostly red and blue—primary colors.  Was that why his last name was Prime?  Somehow I doubted it.

But he was an unusual toy, in robot form, because he managed to be both blocky and wiggly which is an odd combination.  All the armor reminded me of that green suit Lex Luthor used to wear in the pre-Crisis days, but the robot wiggled so much that he didn’t feel particularly solid either.  I guess he had to have loose joints in order to house all those moving parts.  Regardless, he was certainly not from the sleek, humanoid robot tradition of Maria from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis nor from the blinking-light tradition of Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet.  Clearly, I wasn’t going to get anywhere just studying him.  It was time to start playing.

Each new dawn flamed above the treetops
And scattered white fleece about the skies
And the darkness came and pushed the red lip of sun below the horizon.

So I pulled out the sheet of instructions and set about “transforming” this robot into whatever vehicle it was supposed to become.  The first thing I noticed about the instructions was … no words.  Now I know I’m supposed to be a comics scholar and everything, but I hate picture-based instructions.  The problem isn’t that they use pictures—it’s that they’re not drawn by people like Scott McCloud or Jack Kirby. Most illustrated instructions are incoherent.  And these instructions had as much in common with good comics as your zoom-lens-happy Uncle Wilbur has with Martin Scorsese.

So the instructions were no help.  In fact, I actually got hung up on step one.  According to the picture, I was supposed to cram Optimus’s head down into his shoulder blades.  The problem was that his head didn’t want to move, and I was afraid if I forced it any more I would wind up playing King Joffrey to the robot’s Ned Stark.  It took at least ten minutes before I discovered a hidden switch on the back of his neck—just like Data from Star Trek—that let me snap his head down.

After that, the next couple of steps went okay, but by step number four I was stuck again.  The pretzel-shaped hunk of red and blue plastic I held in my hand no longer looked anything like the pictures in the instructions.  And it didn’t help that the illustrations had these randomly placed red arrows that seemed to be pointing in different directions with no other explanation.  You know what it’s like when you come upon a construction site and they’ve sent somebody to the middle of the road to direct traffic but the guy’s not really into it—too cool to get all Barney Fife with the waving of the arms and everything—so he just gives you some vague, non-committal hand gestures that could mean anything from “stop” to “run for your life?”

Well … anyway, the arrows weren’t helping.

So I kept backtracking, restoring him to his original condition and going back over the steps one at a time, with careful, slow deliberation.  You remember the way Edgar Allan Poe describes the murderer in “The Tell-Tale Heart?”  How he stares at the old man sleeping in the dark, cracking the door open by a mere fraction of an inch each hour?  That’s the way I was studying poor, half-deconstructed Optimus Prime, as I kept muttering to myself, “I’ve been to college.  I can do this.  I can do this.  I can do this…”

I lost track of the days—
To count them never occurred to me.
Cutting myself adrift from the past and the future
I became immersed in the flow of the living moment,
The eternal now.

It was some time before anything interesting happened.  That’s one way of putting it.  Another way would be to say that I broke his arm off.  Staring at his now-mangled body, like C-3PO after the Sand People attack, I started to panic until I saw the small notice at the bottom of the instruction sheet:  “Some parts are made to detach if excessive force is applied, and are designed to be reattached if separation occurs.  Adult supervision may be necessary.”  That gave me an idea.  All I needed to do was find an adult.

Five minutes later I was sitting on the couch next to my wife as she began working with what used to be Optimus Prime.  In retrospect, I guess the whole Stanislavski, method-writing thing was working, because I certainly felt like a helpless child.  But whatever feelings of inferiority I had began to wane when, after working on it for about five minutes, my wife broke its arm off.  That’s when she told me to stop watching her.  When I came back a few minutes later she handed me a red and blue truck.

Then one day in the split of a moment
The shutter within flashed open
And a gush of light flooded my being

Well there it was.  What once had been a weird looking robot was now a weird looking truck.  I was having trouble understanding the appeal.  It didn’t really look like a normal truck, its wheels didn’t all touch the ground, and it didn’t roll very fast.  Plus, it had taken so long to transform that I was no longer going to have much time for the cartoons and movies.  This was shaping up to be a disaster.  I still didn’t really know how to transform one of the toys, and I didn’t feel like I had learned anything about the franchise or its appeal.  So I had a choice to make.  Watch the first episode of the cartoon series or try one of the feature films?  To paraphrase an old Frank Miller line, I thought of Shia LaBeouf and Michael Bay.  The rest was easy.

The cartoon’s first episode was called “More Than Meets the Eye” which was more true than I wanted it to be considering that what I thought would be a 30-minute pilot wound up being a three-part episode.  The cartoon debuted in 1984 and it definitely had an ‘80s vibe—particularly the music, which sounded slightly distorted and out of tune, much like an old VHS tape might sound before you adjust the tracking.  And this was on Netflix.

But I did have to admit that there was a story there.  Granted some things didn’t make sense—the whole transforming into vehicles conceit still seems unnecessary and illogical to me for any number of reasons.  I also laughed out loud when a ship crashed into a volcano and the words “Four Million Years Later” suddenly appeared on screen.  Kubrick got away with that in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but for the rest of us mortals, such time jumps just don’t work.

However, the concept was still interesting.  It really explores the ways in which individual identity in the Postmodern world has become fluid and I could see where it was demonstrating the ways in which the lines between modern technology and organic life are becoming blurred.  That’s when I finally began to understand the appeal.

I became as a pure crystal submerged in a translucent sea
And I knew that I had been awakened.
I had touched the face of God!

Aw, who am I kidding?  I still don’t get it, but it’s kinda cool to watch robots fight.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer



  1. I laughed out loud several times reading this. Thanks!

    In the old days, the toys’ transformations were mostly a pretty simply affair. Today, they’re almost all as complex as the most difficult ones were back in the day. The result is toys that look a lot better and are a lot more maneuverable. But yeah, they can be tricky the first couple times.

    That whole “arm breaking off” thing is, as you discovered, a design feature. When you’re moving all these parts around, it’s easy to worry that you’re pushing too hard, or to damage something. So these toys are designed to give like this. It’s pretty brilliant engineering, in most cases.

    Those visual instructions can be confusing. But imagine a prose version! “Find the prong hidden behind the head and slide it to the right, if you’re looking at the figure’s face. Then find the wing attached to the left arm and bend it upward, so that it interlocks with the arm and creates what is effectively a second forearm, as if the arm had three distinct segments.”

    (Oh, and visual instructions drawn by Kirby would be terrible. McCloud, yes, but Kirby didn’t have that precision.)

    Anyway, it’s very funny to read all of this. I particularly love the “I went to college!” frustration. My mother would always say to my father, “I think if I had a Ph.D., I would know how to [insert domestic thing here].” I’ve had the same frustration at times…

    …including when playing with my Transformers toys. ;)

    • Truth be told, I’m afraid I’d still do better with your prose instructions. Of course, I’m also the person who stared at the throttle of a lawn mower for ten minutes one time trying to figure out why there was a picture of a rabbit on one end and a turtle on the other.

      As for Kirby, I’m now imagining what it would be like trying to follow instructions drawn by him only to realize that halfway through the instructions he would’ve gotten bored and changed the design of the figure and started adding new pieces, etc. :) You’re right, I don’t think he was nearly meticulous enough for something like that.

  2. Brad Sawyer says:

    Wow. That was %#@?!% -in’ deep. You should try Gundam or Robotech next. Those’ll totally blow your mind!

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