Click here for Part 1: This Gets Complicated
There’s an episode in the third season of the G1 (generation 1, i.e. Original) Transformers cartoon called “The Burden Hardest To Bear”, in which Rodimus Prime struggles with becoming leader of the Autobots after being thrust into the position, somewhat involuntarily, following the death of Optimus Prime in Transformers:The Movie (1986).
Before being rechristened as a “Prime”, Rodimus was an arrogant, reckless, thrill-seeking primadonna named Hot Rod, liberally based on Luke Skywalker. The character conflict Rodimus experiences in the episode centers on his romantic longing for his carefree life before being saddled with the responsibilities of leadership, the anxiety of not being prepared for the job, and resentment for not having a choice in the matter. All of this is underscored by the legacy of his predecessor, easily the most famous Transformer in history both in and outside of the fictional universe, whose demise was arguably Rodimus’ fault to begin with. It’s a thoughtful, quite Shakespearean conundrum for a children’s show created to sell toys, and integral to Rodimus being a character I still feel a kinship with well into adulthood.
This type of kinship distinguishes my personal interpretation of the modern geek identity from how it’s defined by many analytical or marketing types. It’s fair to peg us with a desire to suspend disbelief and over-indulge our need to collect, but those are secondary traits when considering pathos. Geek culture has more to do with our complex and often intense emotional relationships to characters and stories than our consumer behavior.
It’s not solely the addict’s pursuit of recapturing the joyous feeling of our dumb little baby imaginations engaged in the fantastic, either. That stuff is great. It’s the primary ingredient of nostalgia, which plays a significant role in all of this, too, but that’s just the shiny side of the collectable coin. For long time Transformers fans, the other side of that coin has a diagram of the abuse cycle and is minted in strait up trauma.
It’s possible that my introduction to the heroic Autobots and evil Decepticons occurred all the way back at the initial airing of the premiere 3-part episode of the G1 series, “More Than Meets the Eye”. I was 4 and most of the details line up in hindsight, but there’s also a lot I learned about the franchise later in life that supplements my unreliable memory. What I do remember with visceral clarity are the very real tears I shed when I experienced Transformers:The Movie for the first time.
Yo, things from TV and comic books didn’t just pop onto a movie screen backed by Disney money 2-3 times a year like they do now. This was a surreal event, and a life lesson about wondrous expectations being met with bleak return. An entire planet of happy robo-people is introduced, destroyed, and eaten by the film’s villain before a single note of movie theme plays. An entire crew of familiar Autobots get slaughtered by Megatron right in front of my 6 year old face in the first 10 minutes.
No one ever died for realsies in anything I watched up to this point. I felt literal horror at the sight of Autobot Prowl taking a lethal shot in the chest, causing the light in his eyes to flicker and fade (because robot eyes are lights, obviously), smoke to billow from his open mouth (again, robot parts), and his lifeless body to drop awkwardly in extreme close-up. These were characters I’d spent every afternoon with for one third of my life at the time. It hurt.
Killing off Optimus Prime in the film was a big deal. It’s a trope to kill major characters and bring them back these days, but in 1986 it was damn near taboo. It’s impact was completely undermined when they brought zombie Optimus back less than a year later in the episode “Dark Awakening”, bringing us full circle in the abuse cycle. It also rendered Rodimus’ uniquely profound character arc completely inert, just like Shakespeare would’ve done with his characters if he didn’t want anyone to care about them.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the film’s theatrical release, and there’s still a very real part of me holding a grudge. My adult resentment stems from knowing that killing these characters off was a cruel means of getting older characters off the toy shelves to make room for the new ones. I still wrestle with knowing this is all created to deliberately manipulate me into buying stuff, which I have. A lot. Because that’s how toxic relationships work. I give you $80 I may not actually be able to afford to spend, you send me a Masterpiece Hot Rod figure from Japan, and we stay together as a happy family who love each other because you do all this for me because you love me, right corporate media master?
Ah, but as a poem written by Tupac once asked, “Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete”? If Transformers is any indication, something remarkable begins happening when your generation becomes the ones that write the stories of your childhood heroes.
IDW has been a fantastic steward of the Transformers license with John Barber as series editor, earning the title of “Captain Continuity” from the fandom. James Roberts’ “More Than Meets The Eye” has been some of the most compelling fiction of the last decade. Think Star Trek:TNG with robots, amplified pathos, and effortless humor. It’s also f*cking brutal, both in physical violence and emotional turbulence, because that’s part of my generation’s experience with this world. I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve shed tears reading this book, recently crossing the 50 issue mark, which will be unforgettable with visceral clarity. This book alone has single-handedly offset the damage those bad explodey movies have done to the franchise for me.
Oh, and I’m particularly fond of the captain of the ship’s crew. He’s kind of an arrogant, reckless primadonna named Rodimus. It’s made the burden of being a Transformers fan worth bearing for a while longer.
Versus The New Half-life is a satirical feature series documenting the experience of modern geek life beyond the 18-34 demographic. Are we simply nostalgia driven super-consumers refusing to embrace adulthood by indulging childhood fantasy or have the expectations of being an adult changed? Writer J. Aaron Poole over-analyzes various geek fandoms to explore common themes and appropriate behavior from limbo as an indubitable grown-up under the age of 40.
J. Aaron Poole is a 21st century writer, musician, and geek culture advocate. He is a member of the American Sociological Association with an academic interest in the relationship between media, technology, and modern culture. Currently residing in Atlanta, Georgia, Aaron can be found making absurd comments on Twitter, PSN, and other social media platforms as @JAaronPoole.
artwork by: Nakoshinobi