From the Associated Press
LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- The Transformers, a race of gigantic, shape-shifting robots, invaded planet Earth two decades ago, desperate to find life-giving fuel for their ailing civilization.
Now they're back, this time fueled by the nostalgia of Generation X.
So-named because they could change shape into cars, trucks and jet fighters, Transformers came in the form of die-cast toys, comic books and an after-school cartoon series that, well, transformed them into a billion-dollar pop culture phenomenon.
Over the years, the toys were tossed away or vanished into attic corners while the cartoon show was canceled and forgotten.
But as the children of the 1980s have become financially independent adults, collecting Transformers memorabilia has become a passion.
"They take you back to fourth grade, when you didn't have any problems," said collector Angie Hung, a 25-year-old manager at an Internet service company in Calgary, Canada. "I wish I could go back to the mid-'80s and use the money I have now to buy them all."
In some ways, she's getting her wish.
Rhino Home Video has just released a DVD of the first "Transformers" cartoon season, a new comic book about the famed "robots in disguise" is a best seller, and sales of the vintage toys abound on the Internet, many selling for triple their original value.
A link to childhood
These toys and cartoons are more than just retro kitsch to the people who love them -- they are a powerful link to childhood.
"I wouldn't say the Transformers was the only good thing in my life as a kid, but it was the best thing in my life," said collector Alex Weiner, a counselor for delinquent youths in Philadelphia.
He was 8 when he first encountered the toys and cartoon in 1984 -- the year his parents divorced and he moved to a new town in New Jersey with his mother.
The first new friend he made was playing with Transformers, he recalled.
"They gave me a chance to connect with another kid," Weiner said. "It was definitely an outlet from the other stuff roiling in my head from the divorce."
He remained a fan for several years, often watching the cartoon show twice daily. Then came more upheaval: his mother, who had remarried, was getting another divorce and they were moving again.
While cleaning out his room, he started playing with the Transformers one last time. Then he packed them up in a bag and carried them out to the trash.
Transformers brand still sells
Until relatively recently, Peter Cullen didn't know people like Weiner existed.
But now the veteran voice-over actor, who supplied the voice of heroic Optimus Prime in "The Transformers" cartoon, has met hundreds of admirers and attended a fan convention.
Despite the program's low-production values and cynical marketing purpose (even fans acknowledge it's something of a glorified toy commercial) Cullen said he and other actors took pride in making the stories wholesome.
Prime, who transformed into a big-rig truck, led the good-guy Autobot robots in war against the resource-depleting Decepticons, led by the sinister Megatron, who changed into a massive silver handgun.
"I wanted Optimus Prime to be strong and just and fair," said Cullen, who now plays Eeyore in Disney's "Winnie the Pooh" cartoons. "I saw him like John Wayne, and did a little of that voice. ... I wanted him to be a super-hero, not stupid or off-the-wall. He never yelled or lost his temper. I think the kids appreciated that."
The innovative marketing technique of a half-hour cartoon based on a toy line helped "The Transformers" racked up nearly $1 billion in action-figure sales over eight years in the 1980s.
And there's still more money to be made.
The first issue of the new comic book "Transformers: Generation 1" from publisher Dreamwave Productions has sold nearly 225,000 copies since it debuted April 5, and orders for next month's issue have already reached 165,000.
Meanwhile, bootleg copies of all 98 original cartoon episodes proliferated for years on the Internet, the complete set selling for $70 to $90. Now Rhino Home Video is releasing the program's first 16-episode season on DVD, which retails for about $60. Other seasons will follow.
A day before its April 23 debut, advance sales of that 17-year-old cartoon show ranked No. 7 on the Amazon.com list of best-selling DVDs.
Transformer fans even posted praise for the discs weeks in advance, rejoicing that they no longer had to pirate the episodes.
"No more downloading, encoding and video CD burning for me!" one fan wrote on the Amazon review section. "I want the real thing!"
The same sentiment goes for the toys.
The annual Transformers convention -- known as Botcon -- started in 1994 with 120 people. This year it's being held July 27-27 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and organizers expect a crowd of more than 2,000, representing the most voracious of countless fans across the country.
"They're a singular type of fan. They'll starve themselves and live six people per (hotel) room so they can spend an extra couple of bucks on toys," said Botcon organizer Glen Hallit, 30, of Rochester, New York.
Meanwhile, Hasbro Inc., which abandoned the robots-into-vehicles motif for many years, has returned to the original theme with the new "Robots in Disguise" toy line and cartoon.
'Armada' coming out in fall
Hasbro has another Transformers line called "Armada" coming out in the fall, and executives are considering reissuing some of the toys from the 1980s, something the Takara toy company in Japan, where the Transformers originated, has already done to great success there.
Joel Boblit, who runs the Internet retail site BigBadToystore.com, started his business by selling thousands of dollars worth of the original toys.
"These are really worth something," he said. "I've turned up some big collections that were just hidden away in someone's garage. Die-hard collectors will pay a lot for them, because this time they plan to keep them for life."
Whether it's toys, comic books or cartoons, fans of this sci-fi kids universe from the 1980's are determined not to let it slip away again.
Just for a joke a few years ago, Weiner watched an old tape of the 1986 "Transformers" feature movie with some college friends, but the powerful memories it resurrected turned him back into a collector.
He now co-manages an Internet fan site called Transfandom.com, where he sells the comic book, recruits participants for the Botcon convention and organizes chat room discussions among scores of fans.
He hopes to turn it into a full-time business, and expects the new DVD release will jog enough memories to create a new wave of fans.
"It's just the best feeling when you see something that brought you pleasure as a kid," he said. "You forget what it's like to be 8 years old, but this takes you back like you wouldn't believe."
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