This blog has so far had far less Transformers content than originally intended. That is the chief complaint from the three people who have read any of these posts. ‘Not enough TFs, man,’ they say. This was the first in a projected series of character assassinations, and for some reason it took weeks to piss this one out. And you’re right, I shouldn’t have bothered.
The selling point of Transformers was always that they were robots in disguise. Hence the early models favoured disguising themselves as everyday vehicles, cars, planes – okay, a gun in one instance. But the point is they took on disguises which were less outlandish than the robots they really were.
To an extent the Pretenders adhered to this rule. While the robots themselves were able to convert into anonymous vehicles, their protective shells which they hid in from time to time provided another layer of obfuscation. For the Autobots, not swamped in imagination as they were, this shell took on a humanoid form. They looked like men – curiously blank-faced and immobile men, but men all the same. It was never clear what dimensions they took. Could Pretender Grimlock walk unnoticed down the street and slip into the newsagent’s for a paper and some crisps without somehow giving off that alien robot vibe? Could you play football with Pretender Jazz and wonder silently why that perfectly normal human wigga was so easy to nutmeg?
In one storyline Cloudburst and Landmine travelled to the planet Femax, populated by humanoid females who were well up for a bit of alien rough. Cloudburst managed to trick their ruler into falling for him, just before the inevitable revelation of his true self. Femax’s queen, perhaps out of recognition that her planet’s name sounded like a painkiller aimed at women for certain times of the month or the fact that she had got it on with a robot, had Cloudburst’s head removed from his shoulders. Fortunately he recovered from this, with an interesting story about women to share at the robot pub, or down the robot football/dog-fighting.
Some of the Decepticon Pretenders made attempts at this humanoid disguise, with varied success. Starscream, with his pointy helmet and utilitarian clothing, looked like an Aryan youth mistakenly let out into the future. Stranglehold, with his semi-nudity and prominent tash, looked a trifle gay. While it is rarely worthwhile to bring politics into the storylines, it’s a fair bet the Decepticons took a more conservative stance when it came to sexuality.
Stranglehold was an associate of Octopunch – a pair of menacing eyes peering out of a deep-sea diver’s helmet, who transformed into the weediest crab you can imagine – and Bludgeon, a poncy martial arts enthusiast who happened to look like a skeleton of an overweight samurai. No surprise the Decepticons preferred to keep to their shells.
It is hard to see what value the likes of Submarauder and Bugly derived from their shells. Had Decepticons by this time grown so blasé about their place on Earth that they didn’t need to even make a pretence at hiding? This was clearly not the case, as shown by the example of Skullgrin.
Skullgrin didn’t have many storylines in the comics because, let’s face it, he resembled a bony bipedal goat. There was no mitigation for his shape. He resembled nothing on Earth or on Cybertron. Whoever designed his shell was having a laugh. But this very alienness proved to be its own success. At a time of heightened hostility towards alien robots – we all remember the 1980s – it was his very strangeness which saved him. On revealing himself to the world, Skullgrin was not rejected as a murderous machine but accepted as a monster, more credible somehow than being an alien robot. Like King Kong he was tamed by a human girl, who thought she saw through his grotesque appearance, although not deeply enough, obviously. He became of all things a film star, a random monster whose provenance was never questioned. Until he broke the spell, however, by outing himself as a robot. This was a stretch too far.