TRANSFORMERS & Beyond: 5 Best Marvel TOY Comics1 of 7By Graeme McMillan, Newsarama Contributor
With Transformers: Dark of the Moon setting the Fourth of July weekend record, it seemed like a good time to look back at the long and proud history of toy tie-in comics and remember five of the greatest - and to celebrate the publisher that came up with them all.
From the late 1970s through the late 1980s, you see, toy manufacturers knew that there was one publisher that they could go to to help them dominate toys-for-boys market: Marvel Comics. Their early success with Star Wars and Conan showed that they knew how to navigate through licenses, but there were four series in particular that demonstrated that the House of Ideas could bring so much more than just brand reinforcement to the toyetic table.
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MICRONAUTS2 of 7Marvel's connection with the Mego Corporation's line of Japanese import action figures actually began almost a year before their comic book debut, when writer Bill Mantlo became so enamored with his son Adam's 1977 Christmas presents that he convinced Marvel boss Jim Shooter that the publisher should get the comic license for the characters.
It was a smart move; the almost-six year run that followed (59 issues, two annuals, and a crossover mini with the X-Men, all written or co-written by Mantlo) offered up thrills, spills and guest-stars from the Marvel Universe galore, all told in a way that fit in exactly with the regular MU at the time. With artists including Michael Golden, Pat Broderick and Butch Guice, it looked as good - if not better, on occasion - as it read, as well, making it a standout book on the stands at a time when there was all manner of classic comics being released every week.
(There was also a 20 issue follow-up series, Micronauts: The New Voyages, by Peter Gillis and with early art by Kelley Jones that was... weirdly cosmic, and sent the franchise off with a particular sense of finality, thanks to a Secret Wars II crossover and unpicking of the Microverse towards the end of its run.)
ROM3 of 7If Micronauts was Bill Mantlo being inspired by an already successful toy, Rom was Mantlo - and others, including then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter - being invited by owners Parker Brothers to contribute to the creation of a toy before it was even released... and the start of something special for Marvel in a couple of ways. Marvel was invited to contribute a backstory for the electronic action figure (His eyes lit up!) in addition to creating a comic to support the toy's release, and created the whole Galadorian spaceknight versus the Dire Wraiths scenario that still exists and gets used in the Marvel Universe today (As anyone who's read any of Marvel's cosmic books, or even Avengers #12.1, can attest).
As a series, Rom massively outlived the toy, which ended up being a costly flop; it ran 75 issues and four annuals, with Bill Mantlo again writing each installment and an art team that included Steve Ditko, Sal Buscema and P. Craig Russell. But as a side business for Marvel, it proved to be surprisingly lucrative, and led to...
G.I. JOE4 of 7Is this the ultimate comic/toy crossover? Hasbro may have designed the looks of each action figure, but they left the job of creating personalities and, in many cases names, to comic writer Larry Hama, allowing him to create something that just may be one of Marvel's most consistently enjoying series of the 1980s (Yes, it continued into the '90s, but for our money, things started to go downhill around the time of "Ninja Force").
Both surprisingly solid in terms of plotting and characterisation - GI Joe has a depth that many mainstream comics of the time were lacking entirely, even if it did tend towards the soap operatics a little too much at times - and surprisingly subversive for a tie-in to a line of military toys (Hama's background with things like Crazy were obvious from some of the sly social satire he placed in the book), Joe lasted 155 issues from Marvel, along with multiple spinoffs (Order of Battle, Special Missions, Tales of GI Joe, GI Joe Special - featuring previously replaced art by Todd McFarlane - a Transformers tie-in or two).
The true indicator of its success, however, may be the number of times that it has been relaunched by other publishers since then: Dark Horse, Devil's Due and (currently) IDW have all taken attempts at reviving the franchise since Marvel's series was cancelled in 1994, with IDW even going as so far as to launch a continuation of Marvel's continuity last year, with Hama in place as writer. Hama's expertise not only built Joe from a generic toyline into a continually-ongoing concern in multiple media - Could 2009's movie have happened without his work? Doubtful - but also changed him from an outside hired hand to one of the most integral people to work on the franchise.
TRANSFORMERS5 of 7Could Michael Bay's movie series exist without Marvel Comics' series introducing the world to those Robots In Disguise? Well, potentially - but I'd be curious if it would have come about without Simon Furman's tireless work on various incarnations of the franchise, starting with Marvel UK's original material in early 1985, and running through Marvel US' series (and its Generation 2 follow-up), and then both the Dreamwave and IDW incarnations of the comic, along with fan-generated material and online versions.
Another case where Hasbro turned to Marvel to create characters and backstory for a line of toys pre-launch, Transformers built on the relationship and experience the two companies had from GI Joe, which had launched two years earlier, and resulted in similar, if lesser, success; the original series lasted 80 issues in the US, with a twelve issue sequel, before again being revived by multiple publishers looking to catch lightning in a bottle for a second time. The cartoon may have had catchier theme music and that funky sound effect for when the Autobots changed into their vehicle of choice, but let's face it: Without Bob Budiansky and Jim Salicrup (editor and writer of the original mini-series, and collaborators on a lot of the background material pre-launch for Hasbro), there wouldn't be a Dark of The Moon for Michael Bay to explore in 3D.
ZOIDS6 of 7The lesser-known of Marvel's toy masterpieces - but still the better comic, compared with things like Madballs, Visionaries, or Air Raiders, for those who remember those classics - Zoids was a Marvel UK comic that started as a series of inserts in the pages of the British Secret Wars reprint series before going on to share pagespace and the title with Marvel's own Mickey Mouse in Spider-Man and Zoids. Essentially ripping off Ridley Scott's Alien but adding in robotic dinosaurs, the original incarnation of the series by Ian Rimmer and Kev Hopgood was a surprisingly dark comic that gleefully reminded young readers on a regular basis that every victory was shortlived, and that love couldn't conquer all, especially if "all" was defined by giant robot dinosaurs.
Things only got better when a young Grant Morrison took over the writing, adding in an thread of epic weirdness that hinted at heights he'd reach much later with The Invisibles. Ably assisted by artists including his future Zenith co-creator Steve Yeowell, Morrison's Zoids was shaping up to a grand showdown between the remaining human cast and the unstoppable "Black Zoid" - Imagine Alien's Ash, but melded to a giant robot dinosaur - when Spider-Man and Zoids was cancelled. A follow-up series, entirely dedicated to Zoids was promised, but never materialized, a truly sad (lack of) ending to what had been an enjoyable merging of classic Marvel toy tie-in and 2000AD's sci-fi-punk-mashup sensibilities.
As the speculator boom took over comics in the early 1990s, the demographics of comics seemed to shift, just as toy companies became more reticent to launch all-new, original and non-licensed material. The two circumstances collided, and Marvel's toy heyday ended, leaving behind five classic series that were much better than they had any right to be - and thousands of fanboys wishing that someone could get the rights to put them into trade paperbacks so we could all re-read them again.
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