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Transformers: A Visual History review – A nice gift for casual fans of the Robots in Disguise

Take a quick trip through Transformers history with help from VIZ Media.

I’ve been told by more than one person–on more than one occasion–that my standards are too high. Apparently, I expect too much from people. Whether or not those statements are true, they’re worth keeping in mind as you read this review for VIZ Media’s Transformers: A Visual History hardcover. Believe me, this oversized coffee table book is a wonderful addition to any Transformers fan’s library…

… But it left me–a lifelong fan of the Robots in Disguise–wanting more. Have my impossible standards spread from people to books about alien robots, or is there more than meets the eye here? Read on and decide for yourself!

Written and assembled by Jim Sorenson, this $49.99 tome is just what its cover promises: a visual journey through the history of the Transformers franchise. But speaking of the cover–I feel the choice to put the live-action film version of Optimus Prime’s face on the front (and Megatron’s mug on the back), does send a message to consumers that this book is more for the casual Transformers fan. The type of fan who’s newer to the franchise than someone like me (been there since Generation 1, baby!) or the type of individual who truly enjoys the Michael Bay-directed robot blockbusters (I prefer Bumblebee).

Hey, I understand marketing–it’s very possible that cover is expected to move the most copies this holiday season. But as a fan who wants what’s best for Optimus Prime and the gang–and had to suffer through far too many live-action adaptations–seeing Bay’s ultra-violent version of Prime on the cover’s an immediate turnoff.

The face of a robot that’s about to murder you.

But once you get past the cover, there’s a lot to enjoy in here. The book is broken into five sections: Packaging, Comics, Animation, Video Games and Movies. Sorenson does a nice job of giving a brief, written overview ahead of each section. If you know your Transformers history, there’s not much new information here, but if you’re a reader who hasn’t watched the special features on Transformers DVD collections or visited fan sites like Seibertron.com, these introductions should prove interesting. Also nice are the bits of background from the artists behind a few of the images featured.

It’s likely, however, people aren’t buying this book for the text–they’re in it for the pictures! And many of them are very pretty. In the Packaging section, the images of the Transformers from toy boxes are especially striking when blown up on quality paper. Let’s face it–if you got the original Soundwave in the ’80s, you probably weren’t too interested in the Decepticon’s packaging. But now, as an adult, you can really appreciate the finer details on these images.

Similarly, the Comics section does an excellent job of showing off how striking so many of the classic Transformers Marvel covers were. And I honestly had no idea that Jim Lee illustrated the cover to Transformers #67–so thank you for that, Sorenson! As the Transformers have had a long and eclectic comic book history, there are quite a few images in this part of the book I’d never seen before, including a U.K. Dinobots poster by artist John Higgins I really want.

Also fun–seeing several Transformers homage covers in one place. The Transformers do Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band! The Transformers do The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars! The Transformers do the cover of X-Men #1! Who knew the Autobots and Decepticons were such fans of pop culture?

Now, no matter what generation of Transformers fandom you belong to, you’re well represented in this book. Generation 1, Beast Wars, Armada, Prime–look, there have been a lot of generations. The point is, every chapter in the seemingly never-ending Transformers saga gets some love in here (some, a lot more than others).

And, honestly, the focus on every generation of Transformers is where my problems with this book begin. This is a quick journey through the franchise’s history (I read all 408 pages in one sitting). You get a sample of package artwork–you don’t get it all. And I couldn’t help but question why some characters received the single-page spotlight over others. With Beast Wars, for example–Depth Charge gets a whole page. Yes, awesome–Depth Charge was an iconic character from the Beast era. But then, on the very next page, you’ve got Buzzclaw. It’s a nice picture, sure, but Buzzclaw wasn’t even on the show.

Again, I understand that there are only so many pages in this book, but I found myself wishing I could continue exploring certain chapters of Transformers history. Really, each section of this book could be its own 400-page hardcover. Transformers Animated? I’d love to read a book about that show, which was without a doubt one of the best Transformers series of all time! Actually, in some cases, those books do exist. I highly recommend IDW Publishing’s Transformers Legacy: The Art of Transformers Packaging for a more in-depth look at decades worth of box art.

A look at that John Higgins Dinobot poster I want.

But speaking of that other coffee table book, another disappointing aspect of this book was that the majority of the images contained inside can be found elsewhere–specifically on the internet. I guess a major benefit of this book is many of them are simply collected in one place–in a physical format. But when you’re shelling out $50 bucks, you want to be WOWed, and I’m not sure I finished this book amazed at what I’d just read. It was more of a reminder of what I already knew.

But like I said at the beginning of this review, I know my Transformers history. I’m one of those fans who kept the figures’ original packaging (including those awkward and very-hard-to-store plastic Generation 2 cases). I purchased American reprints of the U.K. stories the second they became available. And back in the early 2000s, before I had high-speed internet at home, I would use the more capable computers in my high school’s library to learn about Japanese Beast Wars characters. I’m not trying to be some elitist Transformers gatekeeper (because that sounds like such a pointless thing to be), I’m just saying I’m not a casual fan and, as a result, expect a lot.

Did I mention I’ve been to a BotCon?

But I’m also saying all that to remind you that despite my possibly high expectations, this is still a very nice book. I mean, I remember that very dark period between the end of Generation 1 and the start of Generation 2, when you’d find leftover Action Masters on clearance. Back then, the idea of a Transformers coffee table book–along with a Steven Spielberg-produced feature film franchise–was a fantasy and nothing more. So, believe me, I don’t take the existence of this book for granted.

It’s the holiday season. Maybe you’re putting together a wish list for yourself or looking for gift ideas for others. I do recommend this book for all Transformers fans–but mostly the casual ones. The hardcore fans may approach it with a mindset similar to mine. Aside from that cover, though–which will forever serve as a reminder of the crimes Michael Bay committed against good taste–it is a lovely addition to any library.

Transformers: A Visual History
Is it good?
Casual fans should get more enjoyment out of this book than more hardcore Transformers fans.
A nice overview of the Transformers franchise throughout its many highs and lows.
The oversized format really helps the artwork shine.
A few very nice pieces of artwork that were new to me...
... But still not enough new or rarely seen pieces to truly make this book a must-buy.
Many of the images can easily be found on the internet.
Wish there was more room to dig into some aspects of Transformers history.
8
Good
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