Insect art: Transformers and other insect mecha

In my previous post I discussed the use of insects in Japanese anime. There are many other fascinating examples of insects being featured in cartoons, but I cannot leave the subject without mentioning one specific example that is somewhat related: The Transformers.

"Look! There is some interesting text written down there"

“Look! There is some interesting text written down there”

"Yes! Let's check it out!"

“Yes! Let’s check it out!”

I grew up in the 1980’s, a time when giant robots were popular among kids. The Transformers was one such franchise, telling the story of two races of transforming robots fighting each other, who one day end up stranded on earth. Despite its apparent novelty, it was not the first show to come up with the idea of robots that can change form into vehicles and other objects; the same concept was already in use by other animated mecha shows like Gobots, Voltron, Macross etc’. Nevertheless, The Transformers had the largest variety of shape-shifting robots compared to its competitors. It is important to remember that at its core, The Transformers cartoon series was meant to promote the sale of toys created by the Japanese manufacturer Takara and licensed to Hasbro in the US. New characters were introduced continuously on the show, corresponding to new toy models being released. Soon enough, The Transformers became a huge success, attracting a large crowd of followers. Together with its toy lines, unique animation style, and recognizable sound effects, it coined catchphrases like “More than Meets the Eye” and “Robots in Disguise”. Now, over 30 years after its first launch, it is still growing as a franchise.

I look at this image and I see toys. So many toys.

I look at this image and I see toys. So many toys.

To make things clear, I am not a hardcore Transformers fan. I do not collect the toys, and I am not too obsessed with the cartoon. I also do not care much for the recent reboot of the franchise in live-actions films, but I am not their target audience anyway. To put it more simply, I love the idea of transforming robots for exactly what it is – creatures trying to disguise themselves as something else. You can imagine my excitement as a kid when I found out about the Transformers’ line of robot insects: the insecticons.

As a young naturalist I learned that insects try to hide or disguise themselves all the time. It seemed natural to me (and I must admit, also very cool) that insects inspired the design of some of the Transformers characters. Although the thought of giant robots from another planet taking the form of insects may come as a surprise, does it really? Insects already look bulky, and their movements are often described as mechanical, thanks to their restricting exoskeleton. I think the idea of robot insects is as straightforward and predictable as it can be.

The insecticons Kickback, Shrapnel and Bombshell in their insect modes

The insecticons Kickback, Shrapnel and Bombshell in their insect modes

The insecticons were introduced early in the Transformers series, in the episode A Plague of Insecticons. The group included three members: Shrapnel, the gang’s leader who can also control lightning, was modeled after a stag beetle; Bombshell, who can mind-control other robots by using capsules, transforms into a weevil; and Kickback, a robotic locust. Some of the show’s fans will probably try to correct me that Bombshell is supposed to be a Japanese rhinoceros beetle, however the design of his snout complete with two antennae-like projections, along with the way he uses it in his insect mode, suggest he is a weevil. In addition, the insecticons were supposed to portray insect pests; they had the ability to multiply and form swarms, consuming crops and energy resources in their path. Pest locusts and weevils are well known. As to why a stag beetle was chosen to represent a pest species, that is indeed a good question.

The insecticons swarm on its way to defoliate a crop field. Oh, Kickback. Why are you so cute?

The insecticons swarm on its way to defoliate a crop field. Oh, Kickback. Why are you so cute?

"Silly farmers. Thanks for growing our food!"

“Silly farmers. Thanks for growing our food!”

I love this comic artwork showing Kickback's locust swarm. It is an excellent depiction of our helplessness not only against giant menacing robots, but also the unpredictability of catastrophic natural phenomena.

I love this comic artwork showing Kickback’s locust swarm. It is an excellent depiction of our helplessness not only against giant menacing robots, but also the unpredictability of catastrophic natural phenomena.

By the time The Transformers were popular as a TV series and a toy line, they released several other insect robots toys known as “Deluxe insecticons”. These colorful figures were never featured on the animated show due to a licensing issue, but they appeared in the comics.

One of the first appearances of the Deluxe insecticons in the Transformers comics

One of the first appearances of the Deluxe insecticons in the Transformers comics

The Deluxe insecticons included a Japanese rhinoceros beetle (Allomyrina dichotoma) called Barrage, another stag beetle named Chop Shop, a grasshopper named Ransack, and Venom – a cicada. You can definitely see the influence of Japanese culture reflecting in these insect mode choices.

Barrage and Chop Chop. The Deluxe insecticons were not exactly loyal to each other.

Barrage and Chop Shop. The Deluxe insecticons were not exactly loyal to each other.

Deluxe insecticons Venom and Barrage. I love how they designed Venom to have sucking mouthparts, a proboscis, in his insect mode, just like a real cicada.

Deluxe insecticons Venom and Barrage. I love how they designed Venom to have sucking mouthparts, a proboscis, in his insect mode, just like a real cicada.

Despite their bright color palette, the Deluxe insecticons were more similar in their appearance to real-life insects than the original insecticons. The only figure I have issues with is Ransack: With his black and yellow coloration he is supposed to represent a gregarious morph of the desert locust Schistocerca gregaria, but his colors make him look more like Aganacris velutina, a wasp-mimicking katydid.

Deluxe insecticons Ransack and Barrage in mid-fight

Deluxe insecticons Ransack and Barrage in mid-fight

There is a small a history lesson here too: Despite their late addition to the franchise, the Deluxe insecticons were not really new characters. They were designs borrowed from another Japanese franchise by the name of Beetras: Armored Insect Battalion, manufactured by the Japanese company Takatoku Toys. The Beetras story revolved around five young warriors who pilot insectoid mecha to protect earth from threats. I like this idea of humans using insectoid vehicles to perform different tasks. Anyone who has stumbled upon the photo of John Deer’s Walking Harvester will know what I am talking about. However, shortly after the Beetras toy line was released in 1984, Takatoku Toys went bankrupt. The toy molds were sold to Bandai, another toy manufacturer who then licensed them to Hasbro, and those would later become the Deluxe insecticons. I much prefer the original Beetras color scheme of the robots as opposed to the brightly colored deluxe insecticons. The Beetras colors appear more natural and closer to what insects look like in real life.

The insecticons toys presented in the 1985 catalog. The original insecticons can be seen at the bottom, while the Deluxe insecticons, still sporting their Beetras coloration, at the top.

The insecticons toys presented in the 1985 catalog. The original insecticons can be seen at the bottom, while the Deluxe insecticons, still sporting their Beetras coloration, at the top.

The Deluxe insecticons toy line in the 1986 catalog, now with their reissued colors.

The Deluxe insecticons toy line in the 1986 catalog, now with their reissued colors.

Going over the Beetras robot designs reveals that there were several additional characters in planning – a Hercules beetle, yet another stag beetle, and a ladybird beetle (a female robot toy, which at the time was quite unusual). Unfortunately, these characters never made it through to the production stage.

The Beetras planned toy line from 1984. This could have been such a great series.

The Beetras planned toy line from 1984. This could have been such a great series.

If there is anything that the insecticons have taught us, it is that good things are only temporary. Like many good Transformers characters, the insecticons’ fate was to fade from existence. They were hit, run over, and eventually killed off during the events of Transformers: The Movie in 1986.

Kickback being run over by a vehicle. The poor guy can be seen trying to cover his head and antennae just before the impact. I can feel for him.

Kickback being run over by a vehicle. The poor guy can be seen trying to cover his head and antennae just before the impact. I can feel for him.

Although they never returned to the animated series, their legacy still lives on in the form of toys, with interesting reissues from time to time. In my opinion the insecticons were a great idea that never really reached its full potential. They left much to be desired. Maybe we will see them again one day, after all insects are all around us.

Soundwave releases tiny insecticons for a mission. Maybe there are still some little transformers out there?

Soundwave releases tiny insecticons for a mission. Maybe there are still some little transformers out there?

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* This post makes use of copyrighted material for the purpose of commentary under fair use.

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