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CAPTAIN COMICS: A golden age for Transformer fans

If the upcoming movie makes it seem like the Transformers are ubiquitous, it's because they are.

Transformer history begins in 1984, when Hasbro and the Japanese toy company Takara teamed to create and release the first line of these toy robots - robots that could transform into ordinary vehicles with a few deft twists and tucks. There were good guys and bad guys, of course, with the former being Autobots and the latter Decepticons (they had different names in Japan).

But the Transformer story really begins in the fall of '84, with the release of the cartoon "Transformers" and Marvel comic book "Transformers" No. 1. While the toys had suggestive names and color schemes (good guys in warm colors, bad guys in cool), it was the cartoon and the comics that fleshed out the backstory, motivations and personalities of the various robots.

And so it was that millions of American kids, soon to be Transformer fanatics, learned that the sentient robots came from Cybertron, a planet of machine life. There the Decepticons had attempted a coup that failed, whereupon they fled to Earth, followed by the Autobots. And the war continued.

And continued, and continued.

Every year since, somewhere on the planet, new Transformers have been created and marketed (primarily in the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom). Various subgroups of the originals have appeared over the years, including Triple Changers, Aerialbots, Stunticons, Microns, robots that change into animals and so forth.

And while the U.S. cartoon ended in 1987 (culminating in the animated "Transformers" movie, in which Optimus Prime "died"), it continued in Japan in various incarnations. The United States also had its fair share of revivals on the small screen, some set 20 or so years in the future, where the robots transformed into less-recognizable vehicles.

But the big news on the animation front is a new series, coming to Cartoon Network in early 2008. Starring fan favorites Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Ratchet, Prowl and Bulkhead, the series is set in the near future in Detroit, with the familiar storyline of Autobots vs. Decepticons. "Transformers Animated" will launch with a 90-minute special, followed by (at least) 26 episodes, which will be self-contained.

Cartoon Network and its partners are particularly proud of the "2-D" technique used for the show. Brian Goldner, Hasbro's chief operating officer, said: "The animation style that Cartoon Network has developed really brings the lore and characters of the Transformers franchise alive in a way that has never been seen through animation."

And then there are the comics. Marvel's first "Transformers" series was canceled in 1991, but has been revived again and again - often by other companies, including Blackthorne, Dark Horse, Devil's Due and Dreamwave. Currently IDW has the franchise, and released an avalanche of Transformers product this month, including "Transformers: The Movie Prequel" (detailing the events leading up to the new movie), "Transformers: The Movie Adaptation," "Transformers: Best of Simon Furman," "Transformers: Escalation" and "Transformers: Spotlight."

Speaking of the new movie, "Transformers," it debuts July 3 and - as should be obvious by now - is live action. Directed by Michael Bay and starring Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, the movie will essentially start the franchise over, with the arrival of the "Robots in Disguise" and the eruption of the Autobot-Decepticon war on Earth - with humans like LaBeouf caught in the middle.

Which is a bummer for some longtime Transformer fans, who'd like to see some of the later characters and developments. But, as is true of superhero movies, the first film of a potential franchise always suffers the "Curse of the Origin," where the backstory has to be established for the non-cognoscenti. Which can be boring for those who already know it by heart.

Still, not to worry. IDW Publisher/Editor-in-Chief Chris Ryall, who co-wrote the movie prequel with longtime Transformer scribe Simon Furman, said: "One thing people will really notice ... is that, despite the film versions of the Transformers looking different than past iterations, this is very much a Transformers story through and through. Maybe the most epic Transformers story ever told."

Plus, there's always more comics, more toys and more animated episodes in the works. This is really a golden age for Transformer fans, with the Robots in Disguise just about everywhere.

And given that they can look like just about anything, it may be more true than we know!