Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Transformers: The Manga
The Autobots and the Decepticons have brought their eternal battle to Earth! While in Japan, the Autobots enlist the aid of elementary schooler Kenji to help them prevent the Decepticons from dragging humanity into their endless conflict, and further in the future, humans and transformers join forces in epic space battles in these classic tales from the 1980s.
Transformers: The Manga is a title best appreciated either by nostalgic adults who remember watching the original run of the First Generation Transformers cartoon in the mid-1980s or by children in the 7 – 10 age range who really enjoy motor vehicles and robots. Since at this point there's a decent chance of those two groups coexisting in the same household, Viz's hardcover release of the manga counterpart to the T.V. show is well-timed, although unlikely to find fans outside of those two demographics. The reason for this is not a waning in the potential of the core Transformers concept, but rather in the fact that the short story arcs within the volume are very clearly children's manga, lacking a lot of the character development, plotting, and writing that would allow for an older audience unfamiliar with the early show to dive in.
As a manga, the book's pedigree is impeccable. Writer Masumi Kaneda worked on the franchise from its inception and created many Japan-unique characters while artist Ban Magami was an apprentice of Leiji Matsumoto and worked on a variety of illustrating projects, from picture books to manga to video games, at times adapting Matsumoto's works. The actual volume is hardcover with a variety of glossy and matte pages and an extensive image collection at the end, which is almost long enough to be considered a supplemental artbook all on its own. The only complaint is for the type of collector who prefers fingerprint-free covers; as with many of Viz's hardcover releases, the finish shows smears and prints all too clearly. Besides that, this is obviously designed for the dedicated fan of the franchise to have something else to add to their collection.
Story-wise, the book contains three complete story arcs: “Fight! Super Robt Life-Form Transformers,” “The Story of the Super Robot Life-Forms: The Transformers,” and “The Great Transformers War.” All of them come in at different points in the franchise's early storylines, with the first, and longest, sticking with the original two seasons, which were released together in Japan in the 1980s. That means that our heroes are led by Optimus Prime while the Decepticons are headed by Megatron; this changes in later storylines within the book. In an effort to bring the story to Japanese audiences and make it more accessible, the stories here all take place in Japan with a Japanese boy as the Autobots' link to humanity: Kenji, a plucky elementary school boy. Most of the adventures are fairly pat, with Kenji and one or two featured Transformers heading into a battle and the Autobots carrying the day and keeping Earth safe from the Decepticons' machinations a little bit longer. All of this changes, however, in the final chapter of the first story arc, when the Decepticons attempt to weaponize a dog. While this certainly isn't any worse than any other dead dog story given to elementary schoolers (are we all still traumatized by Where the Red Fern Grows?), it's still markedly darker than anything else in the book and definitely won't sit well with some readers, whether children or adults. It's easily skipped and doesn't impact the story as a whole, but it is striking in its tonal shift and is the sort of chapter anyone reading this with a child should be aware of.
Interestingly it is not the only chapter to bring animals into the fray, although the island of friendly animals that Optimus Prime creates for all the children of the world is much lighter-hearted. Children are also key features of these stories, with Kenji giving way to more of an “all kids together” vibe in the stories set during Rodimus Prime's reign as the Autobots' leader. In those story arcs, it's fairly common for the Autobots to invite large groups of human children to Scramble City and other Autobot areas, or to specifically save space-faring families from Decepticons. Despite this, Kenji remains the sole child protagonist to be named and featured in multiple chapters, and the focus really is on the Transformers themselves.
This is, in some ways, where the stories really show their 1980s origins. Female characters are almost totally absent in a way that we rarely see in more contemporary children's media; the idea of the “token female” is clearly at play in the character of Arcee, who is the only named female and the sole feminine Transformer in the entire book. (While little girls are drawn in crowd scenes and Kenji interacts with a female schoolmate, they aren't “characters” in any sort of dialogue or developed sense.) While this has later been the basis for some LGBTQ+ interpretations of the Transformers (see the IDW comic series More Than Meets the Eye), here it mostly serves to remind readers that this is a Boy Series, something people who were children in the 1980s may remember hearing or being told. While girls can absolutely still enjoy this, especially if they're fans of motor vehicles of all stripes and robots, these stories are very much not looking to appeal to them, and that is a little off-putting at this juncture.
For those simply hoping to see some manga interpretations of the original characters, however, this book is a definite treat. Alongside the impressive image collection that makes up the back seventy-five pages, the art is cleanly drawn with the sort of small, fiddly detail that you'd expect from someone who learned from space opera master Leiji Matsumoto. This gives the book a harder sci fi feel than it might otherwise have, and Magami is equally good at putting in everyday details that firmly grounds the first story arc in the mid-1980s. Characters are recognizable from the original cartoons while still looking more like you'd expect an “anime robot” to appear, and if some pages are a bit overcrowded, it's worth the time and effort to study them for all of the detail.
Transformers: The Manga's first book is mostly an exercise in nostalgia for long-ago Saturday mornings. It's rooted in the 1980s in the way it carries out its themes and stories, and there still is that commercial feel that a lot of cartoons of the period had in terms of selling toys to unsuspecting kids. But it also captures the appeal of the franchise in a way that new young readers can enjoy by being a solid piece of children's media. It won't appeal to people outside of those two groups, but if you're a fan or looking to create a new young one, this is a good time.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : B+
+ Strong art, complete story arcs, and an impressive art gallery.
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