The Power and Pathos of Optimus Prime


As you might know, I am a great fan of the old-school Transformers, the 1986 Transformers animated film in particular. (I even hosted a whole podcast episode about it.) For all their flaws (which are plentiful), the franchise was a watershed moment for me, introducing me as a child to a kind of storytelling, a style of animation, and a degree of out-and-out violence I’d never experienced, for better and/or worse.

What stays with with me more than any other aspect of the franchise, more than the novelty of form-shifting robots or the grandeur of heavy-metal space opera, is the character of Optimus Prime. This is not simply due to the fact that he was the “leader of the good guys,” or that he was strong, or visually striking, all of which are true. But there is a kind of nobility to Prime that permeates every manifestation of Transformers, be it the old cartoon, the animated film, the comic books, or even the recent Michael Bay movies (of which I have only seen the first). Though astoundingly powerful and even deadly, Optimus Prime has always been at the same time almost naive in his idealism, his self-discipline, his personal sense of morality and honor.

My friend Kyle Calderwood directed me to an interview with some of the folks behind the 1980s show and film, and one part stood out to me. Here, voice director Wally Burr described creating the Prime character’s voice with the man who would play him, Peter Cullen:

We were auditioning lots of people for the show, and he was auditioning for Optimus. [Cullen] didn’t have it yet, but he was well known, so he was obviously going to be one of the best candidates. And I was pushing him pretty hard at that audition. And he’s a big guy, a master of everything. And he said “Wally, I’ve got about thirty promos to do for ABC tomorrow, can we back off a little bit?” And I said, “What if we back off a lot and just make Optimus a very nice gentleman who doesn’t shout at anybody, because he knows what the hell he’s doing?” And so Peter softened his voice, and became noble! Instead of a shouting boss, he was noble. And he credited me once at a convention when someone asked him how he created the character. He pointed to me at the back of the room. He agreed with me that we could soften him, yet still make him a very strong character. And he’s been doing it for over thirty years now!

It feels kind of obvious thinking back to it now, but it makes sense that this decision by Cullen and Burr to “soften” the character’s delivery, rather than voice him as some kind of ultra-macho task-master, made all the difference in making Prime a character with a palpable pathos. It spoke to Prime’s strength that he didn’t feel the need to constantly project it. It spoke to his authority that he didn’t need to reinforce it. It spoke to his determination that he didn’t waste effort making grand protestations about it.

I am reminded of Optimus Prime’s entry in Marvel Comics’ Transformers Universe series, a kind of Transformers encyclopedia in comic book form, and even though I last read them at the age of 9 or so, the closing lines stuck with me. I rediscovered them archived here at this website, where, under the entry for Prime’s weaknesses, it says:

Otherwise the only weakness he could be accused of having is being too compassionate and concerned about the safety of others. He would be a more effective military commander if he were more ruthless, but then he wouldn’t be Optimus Prime.

Comics on Tablets: A High Bar Easily Cleared (Addendum to “The Tablet Reconsidered”)

20150104_125122_HDRIt occurred to me that after my 3400-word opus on how the tablet is being squeezed out of its reason-for-being by big phones and sleeker laptops, that I owed it to myself and my tens of readers to give a serious look at one use-case for large tablets that I suspect no other device can match, and one that Steve Jobs never mentioned when he first introduced the iPad: comic books and graphic novels.
The Google Play Store was having a sale on some interesting titles, and keeping in mind that I know next to nothing about comics and I’m fairly intimidated to dip in, I rounded a few titles up (including a collection of the new Ms. Marvel, which looks pretty cool). But what I began reading last night on my iPad Air, just before bed, was Watchmen. I’ve read a little more today, too, and also took a little spin around a couple of titles on my beloved LG G3, which has a 5.5-inch screen.

There’s no two ways around it. Reading comics and graphic novels on the iPad Air is fantastic. I can only imagine what a revelatory boon it must be to comics enthusiasts to have an iPad, plus services like Marvel Unlimited. The art, the story, and the bird’s-eye view of an entire page’s layout come through beautifully on that big, colorful screen. If you’re a comics fan, you really must own a large-ish, high-resolution tablet of some sort.

IMG_0012It looks like comics are doable on a phablet. If the resolution is high enough (and on the LG G3 it’s crazy-high), even zoomed all the way out, most text is still legible, but you really do need to zoom in on individual panels to get the full effect. That’s a busy, fiddly process, and not as much of a “lean-back” experience as one would want comic reading to be. You have to repeatedly poke at the screen on each page.

So there’s a big justification for tablet existence. If you dig comics, there’s no other way to go. It’s not enough to keep an entire mass market product category afloat, but it’s a reason for someone like me, who’s interested in getting into comics, to keep it around.

The Superhero America, with its Systemic and Infrastructural Problems, Deserves

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Vlad Savov has an interesting essay at The Verge in which he laments that popular superheroes as they are written are rarely called upon to use their extraordinary powers to do more than fight, as opposed to tackling some of the bigger, more systemic problems faced by societies and civilization. He writes, for example:

Superman’s reduction to a punching machine — particularly prominent in his movie outings — is … less excusable than Batman’s since the Man of Steel actually has superhuman powers. He can hear, see, smell, and remember things in ways the rest of us can only dream of. His strength is otherworldly, and he can literally fly out into space on a whim. Think of all the impossible construction and exploration projects we could complete if we had a real Superman to help us. Instead, he gels his hair back, puts on a cape, and manhandles a different set of anonymous thugs to the ones Batman’s taking care of. …

But don’t we deserve a higher class of hero to match the Joker’s better class of criminal? Every news broadcast will tell you how terribly unfair and unjust the world is: from corruption in the highest echelons of power to basic lack of opportunity, the themes of iniquity are as ancient as human civilization itself. To be my hero, you have to do something to change these awful societal habits, not merely contain them.

I pondered this a bit, because I think it’s a legitimate grievance with the limited scope of superhero storytelling. I did manage to think of one superhero, though, who does just what Savov is asking for, a hero who used his amazing powers to genuinely solve world problems. There are lots of days to save before the term is up!

I’m talking, of course, about President Jed Bartlet.

Bartlet isn’t a superhero in the sense of being a costumed crime-fighter with mega-strength or the ability to fly or shoot beams from his eyes. But he does possess skills and abilities that, let’s admit it, no real-life mortal does: successfully defeating intransigent GOP Congresses, manipulating and reversing public perception of incredible scandals and mistakes, persuading enemies to see things his way, recalling facts, quotes, and passages from scripture and literature, fluently conversing in foreign and dead languages, all at the drop of a hat. He even survives an assassination attempt, stays one step ahead of multiple sclerosis, and manages to have (and win?) an argument with God. If that’s not a superhero, I don’t know what is.

He doesn’t use his powers only for beating up bad guys (though he does use his military and his security detail to do that), but to make things better. Crises emerge not in the form of supervillains (though, again, sometimes), but in the form of natural disasters, foreign policy predicaments, economic emergencies, and the overall push to make life more fair and prosperous for hundreds of millions of Americans. And he gets help from his White House-based Justice League of flawed but formidable allies, with CJ Craig perhaps being his closest rival in overall super-powerful-ness.

Oh, and he also had a catchphrase: Upon the completion of some heroic objective, no time is wasted before he asks his team, “What’s next?” There’s more saving-the-day to do!

I think for a very long time politicians were my superheroes, and that President Bartlet and his team represented the apotheosis of that feeling. Yes, politics is ugly and slow, but for a while I did have heroes who I thought were using their amazing and near-superhuman abilities to make the world a better place. Think of the super-clever and super-charismatic Clinton, or the super-intelligent and super-prophetic Gore. Even the super-principled Ralph Nader. In the 90s and early aughts, these were my Justice League. Barack Obama, back in 2006 to 2008, seemed more like a superhero than any of them! Then, anyway.

Not anymore. They all seem like the clichéd disappointing actor in the frayed superhero suit, now. The Oz behind the curtain, but without the great-and-powerful part. The supervillains are all still there, of course, but now they run the place. The superheroes were never really there.

So anyway, maybe we need a President Santos-era West Wing comic book, followed by a blockbuster Marvel movie, complete with a team-up with Bartlet, Santos, Craig, and maybe the Hulk. That’d be cool.