Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Sour Grapes : Transformers and the High-End Collectible Market

-mantis nine nines

We have never been more divided. This statement rings true in so many ways at present, and about things far more important than toys. For those weary of current events, don’t worry, I’m not here to discuss anything serious, or even use collecting as an allegory for the greater world. I just want to talk about the collision between Transformers and the high-end collectible market, and the collateral damage that has brought with it. No matter what forum you go to or which social media platform you choose, the tone sucks. Every thread, no matter how celebratory it starts, is spoiled as inevitably people show up to interject and ruin the fun. Why are we like this? To me it’s an indication of the youth of our fandom. We are experiencing a growth spurt as we catch up to all those OTHER robot franchises.

The problem as I see it is that Transformers have their heart and soul in being the everyman toy line, with success built on getting relatively cheap but cool robot puzzle toys into the hands of kids. Over the last decade Masterpiece, the TFCC, and Third Party have combined to create a whole new level of Transformer. Nothing wrong with that, I own some of all of these personally, but it has caused a rift in the fandom that has us shouting at each other from across an imaginary line. Both sides determined to convince the other that the objects of their affection are somehow unworthy. A damn shame since Transfans used to be defined by our common love of robot toys for kids.

Whether you are from the Geewonner, Beastie, Bayformer, or even (god help you) the Unicron Trilogy generation, you almost certainly got your start when someone put some affordable plastic in your hands at a young age. The shows were on TV, you had your little pocket bots to create your own adventures, and maybe, MAYBE you were lucky enough to get that Metroplex or Omega Prime or whatever the badass expensive torchbearer was in your time. The point is that being a Transformer fan has always put us in a different class than those who had more “serious” taste.

Gundam, Dougram, Macross, these were franchises that established a more somber tone. Post-apocalyptic, mecha-centric, and with complex toys full of tiny parts. If you were an adult collector in the early eighties, this is where you would find items worthy of purchase and display. For an American collector such as me, we were lucky to have a few of these gems licensed by Hasbro. Jetfire brought us the transcendent Takatoku VF-1 Valkyrie, and the same company made the mold for the 1/55 Mugen Calibur sold as Roadbuster. My family could not afford them, but my best friend had an older brother and rich parents who traveled a lot, so I was lucky enough to have access to a lot of these cool toys. In addition, Robotech had opened my eyes to the gorgeous designs of Mospeada and Macross. Many of the Japanese toys for these shows were imported, but many were not, and ALL were expensive. While I was playing with Gears, Bumblebee, and Huffer (and grateful for them), my well-off buddies had an incredible collection of Alpha Fighters and Space Fortresses.

Despite not being able to get them myself, my experience with those Japanese mecha gems led me to have a taste for complex, expensive bots. Even in my college years when I was busy chasing girls, parties, and gigs, I still kept an eye out for what graced the retail shelves. Didn’t buy much since I was spending all my money on booze and guitars, but I was still interested, and not just in Transformers. The Comic Shops I frequented often had Gunpla, Bandai Macross toys, and by the late 90’s; Soul Of Chogokin. By today’s standards these SOC figures were primitive and fragile, but at the time they were a revelation! The Combattler V was the first I bought, and I loved it. It brought me back to days spent drooling over the Shogun Warrior version in my friend’s basement. Over the years I picked up a few, and used the meager resources of the internet at the time to explore the world of high-end robot swag. Combattler V, Gunbuster, God Mars, I loved them.

On the retail side, Alternators captured my attention with their highly accurate 1:24 cars and G1 characters, and when Masterpiece Prime came out in 2004 I thought I was in heaven! This was as good as Transformers could get. Or so I thought.

Little did I know that Michael Bay would initiate an explosion in popularity and with it the start of a collectors market on steroids. As the distance between retail and specialty product widened, so did the divisions in the fandom. The brief flare-ups involving Beast Machines and Trukk not Munky have become a pissing contest over whether Despotron or Mightron is better than MP Megatron, or if people are dumb for having bought FansProject headmasters when the Titans Return versions are so good.

We are struggling to understand something that has been natural to the other robot fandoms; its okay to like both retail and collector grade product without hating the other side. We don’t need to even compare them. If you find yourself losing interest in retail “classics” scale product, no worries! Go enjoy the complexity and detail of the MP and 3P market. But please let go of the need to condescend to those who remain satisfied with buying off a peg. Likewise we need retail fans to allow for the fact that there's no use arguing about whether Third Party is wrong or a waste of money to those who support it. At this point we need to accept that this is our reality and return to the commonality of what united us in the first place.

Follow Dan on Twitter @mantisninenines

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