In 1986, flush with the success of the ongoing Transformers comic, Marvel began looking for ways to expand the good thing they had going. In August of that year, concurrent with their monthly title, they began the first of an eventual four mini-series, Transformers Universe.
It's easy to see why they chose the name (and, indeed, came up with the idea) if one examines the historical context. Marvel had had great success with their Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe line, a long-running limited series profiling many Marvel characters. From 1982 - 1984, they published what turned out to be a 15 issue limited series covering large swaths of their main continuity. In 1985, they began publishing a deluxe updated version that would turn out to be 20 oversized issues long. Since then, Marvel would revisit the concept many times and are still doing so today.
But Transformers made an especially good candidate for this style of book. Most of the work necessary to put this book together was already done, making it one of the cheapest and easiest books to assemble. The entries consisted of a combination of the character models provided by Hasbro and pre-written extended character biographies already written by Bob Budiansky. Color and ink the models, add in the character's first appearance, and they were good to go.
The covers were wrap-around and feature an Autobot on the front and a Decepticon on the back. For the most part, they don't interact with each other, though by alphabetic proximity Optimus Prime and Megatron get the chance to blast at each other. The characters are set against a monochrome backdrop of character heads, most of which are new art. A few of them, though, are the character model heads snuck in. The cover artwork isn't signed or credited, but it looks like Perlin's stuff to me which also tracks with the time period. Overall, the covers are fairly effective, with the gallery of portraits conveying a sense of the scope of the book, and mostly good choices for characters to adorn the fronts. I think that issue #1 should probably have gone with Devastator instead of Bruticus, and issue #4 should probably have gone with Rodimus Prime and Galvatron instead of Unicron (GAH! He's just SOOOO big!) and Arcee/Ultra Magnus.
Once inside the book, we get a fairly uniform look and feel. The bios are consistently well written, featuring a lot of technical jargon. They jive very well with the tech specs from the toys, since the tech specs are in fact condensed versions of these extended bios. I do think it's a shame that we couldn't get the tech spec statistics in here. Doing them as a graph would have been difficult at the time, since it would have had to be done by hand, but even just the text would have been nice. Because of the way the book was put together, characters like the Deluxe Insecticons were omitted. Since they didn't have character designs, Marvel would have had to commission new artwork for them, something that they apparently were not interested in doing.
Of course, this being Marvel, they naturally used the Marvel versions of the character models and color schemes, which were not always identical to that used for the Sunbow cartoon. Megatron is a good example of a character who diverged; note his head and the trigger on his cannon.
The fourth issue finished off the regular run of characters, then turned to the cast of The Transformers: The Movie. The designs here are some of Floro Dery's early concepts, not the final versions that would mostly be used in the movie or cartoon, and tend to vary more dramatically from the final versions than the earlier divergent Marvel designs. Additionally, the bios are more truncated.
Transformers Universe was fairly well received, at least judging by the letters pages, and in 1987 there was talk of doing a second volume. However, by 1988, it had become apparent that Transformers sales were declining and a fifth mini-series (after the first Universe, G.I. Joe and the Transformers, the movie adaptation and of course Headmasters) was not feasible. At this point, from issue #47 though virtually the end of the run, some issues would feature Universe style profiles for characters from 1987 and 1988.
Transformers Universe was a fun idea, executed well. I'm a big fan of profile books in general (not a surprise I suppose, since I write them), so I've always treasured these. I wish that the second mini-series had become a reality, though I'm happy that we at least got 75 pages or so of backup profiles. Transformers Universe hardcopies are not easily available (there's an out of print TPB of the most of the first mini-series, but it's notoriously hard to come by), but scans are readily available online.
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