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The bots are back

An '80s phenomenon is hurling toward a new wave of popularity

Chris Cummings first stumbled upon Transformers while browsing at his local Store 24 in Lawrence in 1984 . He became mesmerized by a comic book cover that featured two giant robots, which he later realized were the Transformers characters Optimus Prime and Megatron , fighting over two human beings.

``I was just kind of looking at that like, `Wow!' " says Cummings, 32, of Haverhill. It was the second issue of the Transformers comic book. ``I'd never seen anything like that before."

Transformers tells the story of the good- guy Autobots (le d by Optimus Prime) and the bad- guy Decepticons (lead by Megatron), who are engaged in an unending, ever - changing battle. The bots get their tag line -- ``More than meets the eye" -- from their ability to transform into animate beings (gorillas, cheetahs, dinosaurs) or inanimate objects (cars, trucks, jets) . Hasbro purchased the rights to the Japanese toys and introduced them to this country in 1984 simultaneously as a toy, television cartoon, and comic book. They're now the third- largest- selling boys ' toy in the United States, behind ``Star Wars" and G.I. Joe, says Brian Goldner , Hasbro's chief operating officer.

They're also a hot collectible thanks to a nostalgic revival that began about seven years ago. A limited- edition figure of Optimus Prime in an unopened box recently sold on Ebay for $212 . Next month toy stores will start selling the new Transformers Classic line, featuring such beloved characters as Optimus Prime, Megatron, and Bumblebee . The toys are companion pieces to a DVD, set for a Nov. 7 release, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the animated film ``Transformers: The Movie."

These days it's increasingly common to hear the Transformers referenced in pop culture. Movie director and renowned comics fan Kevin Smith included a Transformers fanatic among the cast of characters in his summer film, ``Clerks II ." Comic Dane Cook riffs on naming his kids after the Transformers in the skit ``My Son Optimus Prime " featured on his most recent CD, ``Retaliation ." Last year the Transformers robot Soundwave made a cameo appearance in the animated TV series ``The Family Guy ," and Optimus Prime was revealed to be Jewish in a 2003 episode of the series. Optimus Prime also appeared in the first episode of the Cartoon Network series ``Robot Chicken," an animated send-up of pop culture icons that debuted last year. The bot transforms into a casket after he succumbs to prostate cancer.

``We loved the novelty of playing with all these old toys and characters that inspired us," says actor Seth Green , 32, a co creator of ``Robot Chicken," explaining why the creative team decided to pick on Optimus Prime. `` `Transformers' was a huge part of our childhood."

Transformer fans convene in a variety of ways. The largest Transformers convention, Botcon, which debuted in 1994 , gives fans a chance to interact with Transformers comic book artists or voice actors and examine the collectible offerings from dealers. Websites such as seibertron.com , tformers.com , and allspark.com keep fans abreast of what's going on in the Transformers universe. Many of these sites are currently kept busy displaying smuggled images from the closely guarded set of the big-budget, live-action ``Transformers" film, directed by Michael Bay and produced by Steven Spielberg , set to open July 4.

The early buzz makes Goldner, who is a co producer of the movie, believe that this possible franchise may have legs.

``If you look at `Star Wars' or `Spider- Man,' " Goldner says from Los Angeles, where he had just left a screening of recently shot footage of the movie, which stars Shia LeBeouf , Josh Duhamel , and Tyrese Gibson , ``there's a lot of evidence that that genre -- live action, of telling a story that seems real and contemporary -- seems important to us."

Cool characters
Lewis Brooks , 30, of Arlington believes he knows why the Transformers retain their robotic grip on fans. He discovered the robots when he was 8 years old. Today he has a collection of 2,300 Transformers toys.

``There are two things about the Transformers that [excites] the fans," Brooks says. ``The toys are very cool, and . . . the characters are still some of the best characters in animation."

Fans seem to remember their introduction to the Transformers just as vividly as they remember their first love. Hasbro introduced the bots by inundating the nation with a multimillion-dollar print and TV advertising campaign. Tim Finn , a 28-year-old Som erville resident in the early stages of developing a coffee- table book about the Transformers, discovered the toys that year.

``I was 6," says Finn, who retains a collection of 200 Transformers but has moved on to collecting art, ``and I might have seen some commercials for the toy, but I caught the first episode on TV. I was pretty much hooked."

The strength of fans' feelings for the bots became obvious in 1986 when `` Transformers: The Movie " debuted, featuring the death of fan favorite Optimus Prime. It was such a wrenching experience for viewers, Hasbro decided to resurrect the bot soon after his ``demise."

The emotional connection remains strong today. Finn, who has gone to all but last year's Botcon, remembers when Peter Cullen , the actor who voiced Optimus Prime in the original series, attended the event.

``A lot of people," says Finn, ``were, I don't want to say close to tears, but it was like meeting a hero."

Cummings drove to New York City with his sons, who are now 3 and 5, to attend the Cybercon Expo , an unofficial Transformers and toy convention, so they could meet Cullen in person.

The Cummings family shows how multigenerational Transformers fans have become. Cummings has a collection of about 100 Transformers; his wife, Sarah , recently allowed him to display 15 to 20 of them in their living room. His kids, Joseph and David , have another 100 Transformers in their toy collection, but that doesn't keep them from clamoring for the Transformers in their father's display case.

Kids weren't interested in the Transformers a decade ago when the Emmy-winning cartoon ``Beast Wars: Transformers" was on the air and beloved by a small collective of ardent fans. The resurgence began around 1999, says Finn, when someone purchased the rights to print retro Transformers images on T-shirts. The tops were snapped up by people who remembered the Transformers phenomenon. By 2001 Hasbro had reintroduced the Transformers as ``Robots in Disguise "; since then, Hasbro has produced a succession of television cartoons and toys, the latest being the ``Transformers Cybertron " series.

``[Interest] has just been slowly building over the years," says Brendan Reilly , an Ottawa, Canada, resident who started his popular Transformers site tfarchive.com in 1996 to preserve the online content that was disappearing because of lack of interest. ``Everyone likes to hold onto their childhood. You realize that stuff wasn't so bad."

This dovetailing of interest explains why Hasbro pushed for a movie, says Goldner. ``The feeling was we had many generations of Transformers fans and kids who would enjoy seeing the film for the first time on screen."

Little is known about the movie. The most Goldner will reveal is that it's an origin story done in a contemporary way that will incorporate the latest in computer-generated imagery. One move that met with resounding approval from the fanbase is the casting of Cullen as the voice of Optimus Prime. But there's handwringing among fans about how the movie will turn out.

``I am nervous," says Cummings. ``The track record with Hollywood taking what I like and transforming it into something that other people like is kind of 50- 50. `Batman Begins ' -- that was a great movie. `Superman Returns'? Ehh, not so much."

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