Jim Shooter wrote:
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 “bastard” 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.
Knickerbocker Toys was a maker of “soft” toys—that is, plush toys and girls’ toys. They produced the famous Holly Hobbie dolls, for instance. In 1983, their business was sliding, though. Mysterions was a last-ditch attempt to get into boys’ toys, obviated when Hasbro acquired them.
(ASIDE: I had the pleasure of meeting the real Holly Hobbie once, creator of the eponymous character. Brilliant, talented woman. I have an autographed copy of her book.)
Once Hasbro signed off on the treatment, we began work on the comics. I assigned the series to editor Bob Budiansky. Bob was (and probably still is) smart, hardworking, creative, organized, detail-conscious and above all a good editor.
And then I’m a little fuzzy on the details. I’ve heard that Bob says a number of names we (Marvel) proposed for the robots were rejected by Hasbro. I don’t doubt Bob, who is a solid citizen as well as a talented creator and effective editor. I just don’t remember. Maybe Bob or Jim Salicrup, if you read this, can shed some light. I don’t think I was very hands-on at that point.
At any rate, Bob eventually was pressed into service creating names and dossiers for the robots and he did a terrific job.
Meanwhile, treachery was afoot….
Hasbro’s advertising agency was Griffin-Bacal. They had great aspirations regarding the Hasbro account. They wanted to run Hasbro’s entire marketing effort. And they wanted to be Hasbro’s go-to creative resource, which WE were rapidly becoming. This isn’t pure speculation. Tom Griffin and Joe Bacal were fairly clear about that at several of our meetings.
I seem to recall that there was a personal relationship between one of the Hasbro top brass and either Tom or Joe. College roommates or some such. Whatever. There was a connection that tilted the playing field.
Griffin-Bacal increasingly insinuated itself between Marvel and Hasbro. We found ourselves dealing less and less with Bob Prupis and the Hasbro boys’ toys guys and more and more with G-B and Sunbow, their executive production arm. Sunbow had been founded, I think, to oversee the production of the G.I. JOE commercials a couple of years earlier. Sunbow not only came between Marvel and Hasbro, but also between Marvel Comics and our animation studio, Marvel Productions.
Sunbow’s creative efforts, as near as I could tell, consisted of removing our cover sheets from whatever we created and stapling on their cover sheets.
As described earlier, there was generally a strained relationship between Marvel Productions and Marvel Comics anyway. Possibly because we brought in almost all their business, we did the foundation creative work for everything they worked on and we were successful, making money. Meanwhile, they created little that was useful and they were losing money by the truckload. Jealous, maybe? Whatever.
P.S. The studio actually managed to keep their staggering losses hidden for a while. More on that later.
David DePatie, in particular, for some reason, hated the comics. He hated the fact that the word “Marvel” was part of Marvel Productions’ name. While he was top dog at Marvel Productions, he refused to have Spider-Man’s image as part of their logo or trade dress. He wanted nothing to do with comics or comics people.
Therefore, I believe, he was delighted to have Sunbow elbow its way in between us.
In 1984, President Jim Galton hired an experienced children’s programming executive named Margaret Loesch, at first as Marvel’s liaison with the studio and the TV business. She worked at 387 Park Avenue South with us publishing types for a few months.
I liked her. She was (is) scary smart, knew her business like we knew ours and she liked the comics! She respected our creativity.
After a while, she was moved out to the West Coast and installed as the President and CEO of Marvel Productions. Over DePatie. Heeheehee.
Margaret “Marvelized” the studio, making Spider-Man part of their trade ID. She even had installed a sculpted FIGURE OF SPIDER-MAN CRAWLING UP THE SIDE OF THEIR BUILDING! Hoo-ha!
After a while, realizing how deep the animosity toward the comics people ran among some of her execs, Margaret invited me out to spend some time at the studio, and see whether we could forge more cooperation between our people and her people. I think I tied it in with the San Diego trip that year. 1984? 1985? I don’t remember. Possibly, I had one or more of our editors along with me.
Margaret called a meeting. It included DePatie, Margaret, me and a few other people of hers and ours. Margaret stated the goal: working better together. I said that I thought we comics people could be a good creative resource for the studio, that we could, perhaps, do some development work for them.
DePatie, who had been simmering from the moment he walked into the room, blew up. He launched into a diatribe about how ugly, amateurish, unreadable and stupid our comics were. Complete crap. There was nothing useful that we could possibly do.
I pointed out that we had created G.I. JOE and TRANSFORMERS. DePatie said that we had NOTHING TO DO WITH TRANSFORMERS.
That took me by surprise. I had my Hasbro file with me. I pulled out my TRANSFORMERS treatment. I said I wrote this. HE CALLED ME A LIAR, insisted that SUNBOW had written that treatment, that Sunbow had done all the development. He got up and stormed out of the room.
So much for cooperation.
Margaret apologized. She said she’d address the situation. But nothing much changed during the rest of my time at Marvel.
P.S. As far as I know, with regard to G.I. JOE and TRANSFORMERS Sunbow never created or contributed anything.
Okay, now let’s see….
Other interesting (it says here) notes:
Sunbow or the studio people changed the human protagonist’s name from Spike to Buster because, I was told, Spike was too aggressive and violent-sounding. What?
They pretty much ignored or glossed over my human interest stuff anyway.
You may wonder where Stan was during all of this. Even before the studio was founded in 1981, Stan was moved out to the West Coast to try to develop film and television opportunities for Marvel. Made sense. Who in Hollywood wouldn’t take Stan Lee’s call?
When the studio started with DePatie in charge, Stan had an office in the studio headquarters building (there was another building where the some of the animators worked.) I’d spend time with Stan whenever I went to LA. He had a secretary. Other than her, I think no one reported to him. He had no apparent role in the work being done at the studio, no day to day responsibility. DePatie, I think, actively excluded him. Even Stan, I suppose, was one of us useless comics people to DePatie.
We’d go to lunch in his Volkswagen Beetle convertible. It was yellow, I think. He had vanity plates that said “Marvel Comics” abbreviated somehow—you know, MRVLCOMX or something like that. A few times he lamented to me that they just weren’t letting him help.
When I became Editor in Chief, and the executive table of organization was explained to me by Galton, several things jumped out. One, everyone in the comics department reported to me. Two, that nobody reported to Sol Brodsky, not even a secretary. He was his own little island, off to the side. And three, that nobody except Stan’s secretary reported to him. Not even Sol. Stan (and secretary) were on an island, too.
Why? Well, though his title was “Publisher,” in fact, Stan had no day to day responsibilities, and certainly not publishing responsibilities. Just as well. Contracts, business and paperwork would have bored him to death, I think. Stan’s job at that point was being Stan, the one, the only, the inimitable resident genius Stan Lee. He was plenty busy, don’t get me wrong. He was the face of Marvel. He worked on the Spider-Man syndicated strip. He was constantly pursuing opportunities, especially in other media, for Marvel. He helped me a million times and continued teaching me until the day he left for California.
The difference between Stan’s being at the House of Ideas, a lot of them his, and being at the studio was that we treated Stan as though he built the place, because he did. He didn’t need a T.O. to make him important. If he said something, if he weighed in on anything, we listened as if it were an E.F. Hutton commercial, and did as he said.
Out there in LA, no such luck. Until Margaret came along. Then, Stan got to do his stuff. Even I got invited to a network pitch once.
I’ll think of more tidbits later.
One last anecdote.
Marvel Productions’ work on the G.I. JOE and TRANSFORMERS cartoons was done work for hire. There was no potential back-end revenue from syndication, as there typically is with a network animated show.
Accounting for network animated shows is typically done according to an accepted formula that amortizes, or spreads the costs out over a prescribed number of years to book a significant portion of the costs during the syndication period, when most revenues are earned.
In 1986, the owner of Marvel was Cadence Management Incorporated. CMI consisted, more or less, of the Cadence Industries board of directors, who had taken Cadence private in a leveraged buy-out. (They screwed over the stockholders. Then they screwed over one of their own. Originally the “Gang of Seven,” there were only six of them at the end. But that’s a tale for another time.) Jim Galton was one of the CMI principals as well as President of the crown jewel of Cadence companies, Marvel. CMI was in negotiations with New World Pictures to sell Marvel.
It was October. I was at the Frankfurt Book Fair. So were a number of other Marvel people—licensing execs, support staff and Jim Galton.
One day in the middle of the fair, Galton got a phone call at the Marvel “stand,” or booth. He looked upset and left in a tremendous hurry. Went back to his hotel, packed and got on the first flight to LA.
Seems that New World’s due diligence had uncovered the fact that the accounting for the G.I. JOE and TRANSFORMERS cartoons had been done as if there would be syndication revenues. But, oops, there weren’t any to be had. So all those amortized costs had to be re-booked to current operations. That meant that the big losses the studio was showing were actually waaay bigger than Galton and his CMI cronies knew, and that was going to make a biiig dent in the sale price. By the way the names, “Transformers,” “Autobots” and “Decepticons” came from Hasbro.