Friday, April 16, 2010

The Autobot Parade! : 4 robots, 25 years, 1,200 miles, 8,000 pages and ten dirty, filthy, inky fingers

Almost exactly a year ago there was an eBay auction for an original piece of Transformers artwork that I'd never seen before. It was by the late great Fred Carillo, a comics and animation professional who was one of the many extremely talented Filipino background designers and character model artists who worked on the original Transformers animated series and movie. The piece showed Optimus Prime with Blaster and Grapple to his right and Bluestreak to his left, all walking toward the viewer and some of them are waving their hands and guns in the air as if they're in some sort of Autobot parade. Since I knew original Transformer art sells for crazy money I gave up thinking about winning the auction. I did at least want to find out more about the picture like where it was first published in the hopes that I could track down the original comic or magazine it came from. The auction description said that it was art from 1984 done for an issue of Variety magazine. I didn't know anything about Variety magazine other than that it was some sort of entertainment tabloid and I thought it was an unusual place to find a unique and original piece of Transformer artwork. I asked my fellow Transformer Illuminati if they'd ever heard of or seen this particular drawing and the Variety article it was from. Nobody did and so I ended up with a bit of a mystery on my hands. What issue of Variety was it from? In what context was it published? Was it in an article or just a standalone picture? Could this art really be from 1984 with those 1985 characters in it? And why is it that whenever I see a Transformer with a missile for a hand I feel like he's flipping me off?


I pretty much gave up on finding that old issue of Variety because even on eBay back issues are really hard to find. Plus I was living in Rapid City, South Dakota at the time and the main library there didn't have back issues of Variety. There was an inter-library loan system where I could possibly get materials from libraries outside of South Dakota, but that cost money and even if I could get microfilms of Variety loaned to me from a different library, what issue would I ask for? Ordering every issue of a weekly magazine from an entire year could get expensive. Then I moved down to south Florida and asked the downtown Miami library if they had it, but they didn't. So I kind of gave up on finding it and the image of Optimus leading his Autobot parade began to fade in my mind. Then last week just as I was getting ready to leave during my visit to the downtown Houston library I remembered the picture and I asked the librarian if they had back issues of Variety. Sure enough they did and it wasn't on microfilm-they had hardbound collected issues of the actual magazine! Although I was running out of time had to I sit down and look through as many Varietys as I could, hoping to find that drawing!

Variety, 01 May 1985
Variety, 19 June 1985
A PHENOMENON BECOMES A DAILY SERIES! After achieving blockbuster numbers in its first telecast in September, '84, The Transformers became an incredibly high-rated weekend series! This Fall, The Transformers will transform your afternoon kid block as kids race home from school to watch the most exciting action adventure on planet Earth! It's already cleared in over 91 markets for 86% U.S. coverage.


Searching though Variety was an intimidating task because it was a giant sized weekly publication. It was the size of a large road atlas and each issue had on average about 125 pages. I didn't know where to start so I figured I would try looking from September through December of 1985 because I figured some 1985 robots were in the drawing so 1985 had to be the true year of publication. Also since Variety was an entertainment magazine I figured it was a cartoon related article I was looking for, and the new cartoon season started in September. I found absolutely nothing Transformers in those months. So I tried the same months but from 1984, thinking maybe the auction description could be right. Again I failed to find anything. At this point I had looked through a little over 3,000 pages and although I found a couple cool Voltron ads I was feeling frustrated. Then I asked the librarian for all the rest of the Variety issues from 1984 and 1985 which would mean over 7,000 more pages to look through. I really started wondering if finding the ad would be worth it. I wondered if finding anything could be worth hours and hours of looking through 10,000 pages of magazine. I looked through 11 of the 12 months of 1984, excluding only January then I moved on to 1985 and got all the way through May before I found anything Transformers but it turned out to only be a generic blurb for the upcoming 1985 season with a very common promotional image I'd seen a million times before. Under any other circumstances I'd think that ad was pretty cool but that day anything short of my goal was wasting my time. It was getting late and I knew my wife would be pissed because I was in danger of not making it back in time for dinner. But I kept on flipping through the pages AND THEN IT HAPPENED!

Variety, 29 May 1985


8,000 pages into my journey I found the Autobot parade! It was Prime, Grapple, Blaster and Bluestreak just as I'd remembered them! All of my questions were answered. The art appeared in an ad Marvel studios took out in Variety on May 29th of 1985 to thank the Toei animation studios for helping them on Transformers and other projects. I was so relieved! I took my pictures, finished off looking through the issues from June '85 and then I quit satisfied. I left July and August 1985 unsearched. I was really tired and my mind was fried and my hands were covered in ink and I smelled like toy robots newspaper ads. Even though I was kind of late for dinner I finally solved the mystery. Or so I thought. Days later once I got back to my home computer in Florida I pulled out the original Fred Carrillo art from the eBay auction and to my horror I realized it was totally different from the Variety ad I found. The angle of the characters was different, the number of characters was different and stylistically it didn't even look like Fred Carillo drew it. There were still enough similarities between the two drawings to say that maybe this was the ultimate final published version of the project he may have been working on but for whatever reason his drawing wasn't used. I don't know! Instead of solving my mystery I now have like a tryptzillion other questions. Did Carillo's art ever really get used in Variety and I just missed it? Or was his version an unpublished submission meant for this ad but wasn't used at all? Did I find what I was looking for even if it didn't look like what I was looking for? All I know is that it's not the same drawing. I also know Houston is over 1,000 miles away from me and my brain is still a little fried and although I've showered a couple times since then I still kind of smell like toy robots newspaper ads so I need a break.


I was lucky because I did just barely make it back to the other side of town in time to go out to dinner with my relatives on that last night in Houston so I'm glad I did the right thing by them. But there's still a little twinge of doubt and I wonder what was in those last two months of 1985 issues I didn't look through. In an extremely fortunate turn of events, I called and found out yesterday that the Fort Lauderdale library carries Variety on microfilm. Maybe one of these days I'll get to find out once and for all if that art was published during those last 8 issues I've yet to look through. I also wonder if there are Transformers or other cartoon robots ads in years beyond 1985 and what other interesting stuff Variety has buried in its pages. I figure if I do find anything good in Lauderdale I can write down the dates, then go to Houston and get my pictures more quickly. My relatives are probably getting tired of me spending more time at the library than with them, but honestly there's this really great restaurant downtown that I think they need to check out.


Hooper_X said...

Variety is probably an interesting place to look for TF info - I'd also see if your library has an archive of Advertising Age, Mediaweek, or Broadcasting & Cable. I bet B&C has some interesting stuff...

(I'd be really really interested in seeing market info and rating/share info for TF!)

Evil King Macrocranios said...

Yeah I really wonder how well the Transformers could have possibly done ratings-wise when it was an off network show airing primarily on Sundays. I'd bet it came nowhere near the numbers of a show like Mighty Orbots. But the syndicated cartoon toy ads did business a different way and I don't think Transformers was as ratings driven as shows like Voltron or Orbots that didn't have toy tie-ins initially (or even at all).

Thanks for the leads on the other magazines. I didn't have time to read much of Variety as I was scanning through it but it did look like a goldmine of ratings info.

Hooper_X said...

At least in Atlanta, TF was running five days a week by '85. That's a sure sign of success, when you syndicate out daily instead of weekly.

(I wonder if Billboard wouldn't have some info on home video releases - they tracked that for a while in the 80s, I know...)

Evil King Macrocranios said...

I wouldn't take daily syndication as an indication of a program's success. There were plenty of one shot cartoons like Wheeled Warriors and Galaxy Rangers that got 65 episode runs from out of nowhere, with no previous miniseries to prove their viability and then died after a single season. If this were network television where ratings really mattered and a weekend cartoon show got a Monday through Friday slot based on its ratings performance then that would be phenomenal, but syndication didn't work like that and I doubt the local markets served by these UHF stations ran toy programs based on ratings. Otherwise the Claster Transformer ad would have supplied hard numbers instead of just alluding to the show having performed well in its first year as a weekend show. If the cartoons had good numbers the distributors were not afraid to show them of in the Variety ads, as is evidenced by the Thundercats and Voltron ads I've found. But I never saw anything like that for the Transformers. It seems the only people that bragged were the #1s.

In some cases like Thundercats where Lorimar Telepictures let some stations in on a cut of the toy profits, ratings were essentially bought and sold. I'd like to see the numbers on Transformers, too, because I can't imagine it was ever much of a ratings winner that first year (despite the Claster ad) and I know ratings had nothing to do with its cancellation. Success as defined for these shows had more to do with toy sales and how much the toy manufacturers were motivated to continue advertising the line and not how many people were watching. In this case the number of people watching is not as important as numbers of toys being sold, and success in one is not necessarily tied to the other.

If someone ever does come up with the Transformer numbers I'd be surprised if the show was anywhere near the top during its time slot in any year. The performance of the movie in '86 also illustrates how a viewing audience isn't necessarily reflective of popularity. So I'd be surprised if the Transformers had the blockbuster ratings Claster was claiming in any year and not just 1984.

Hooper_X said...

You have a point. Syndication isn't really my strong point as far as the TV business goes.

If anywhere has that kind of data, it'd probably be Broadcasting & Cable (or going to Nielsen outright, but somehow I'm sure you'd have to pay for that privilege.)

Hooper_X said...

FYI: I looked through an article search for Broadcasting (which became B&C) and there wasn't much direct info on anything in the ratings about TF. There was a little bit about He-Man having a 9.5/15 in early '84.

You might get something better if you looked through microfiche.

fairplaythings said...

What a beautiful piece of art. And the one that ran in Variety is also stunning. But I hear you on the questions it raises. My gut tells me your suspicion is true - the eBay auction art was the first cut and it was later reworked. But who knows for sure?

Do you know what the eBay piece ultimately went for?

Evil King Macrocranios said...

It went for somewhere in the range of $800 to $1000. I wanted to bid 250-300 on it but it stuck in my mind that the final price was more than three times what I wanted to bid.


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