Updated: Aug 20, 2019
I've been a fan of The Transformers since the very beginning.
Born in the 1970s in the United Kingdom and growing up as a child in the 1980s, I can recall to this day my very first exposure to the Robots in Disguise.
It was "More than Meets the Eye Part 1", the first episode of the original animated series that was serialised on the "Wide Awake Club," the children's section of then-UK television morning breakfast show "TV-am". As soon as I looked into that monitor, my circuits sizzled. I was instantly hooked.
My first toy was Jazz, and many more would follow. I cried my eyes out in the cinema in 1986 as a Hasbro marketing policy killed off Optimus Prime and pretty much every other Autobot I cared about. I mailed never-to-be-published illustrations to the children's TV art show "Hartbeat". I picked up #1 of the Marvel UK Transformers comic book hot off the newsstand, that would prove to be the beginning of a hobby that continues for me to this day.
Sure, there were other things I liked too. I had plenty of G.I.Joe toys (or Action Force as they were known over here), the odd Thundercats figure, and my evenings and weekends were filled with episodes of The Real Ghostbusters, Centurions, and Galaxy Rangers among many others, but there was something special about Transformers, something that nothing else could replace, and that's why it's a love that persists to this day.
However, for all the toys, comics, movies, and other Transformers merchandise I had collected over the decades since, and despite being a regular attendee at comic book conventions and a cosplay enthusiast, I'd never once attended a Transformers convention.
So, deciding I had better things to do tonight than die, I packed myself a little energon (sandwiches) and a lot of luck (hope that the traffic wouldn't be too bad on my 100 mile journey), and prepared myself for a full-scale assault on Europe's biggest Transformers convention: TFNation!
Now into its fourth year, TFNation is a three day event dedicated to all aspects and eras of Transformers fandom, as well as other robot brands such as Gundam. I attended on the Saturday only, although It wasn't hard to recognise those fans who were there for the Long Haul (geddit?), as there were more than a few people looking like they had enjoyed a raucous evening of consuming a little too much of Trailcutters vintage Nightmare Fuel!
After successfully slipping by their early warning systems (the speed cameras that seem to line the entirety of the Manchester to Birmingham motorway!), I got to my destination, where I was immediately greeted by a display of replica vehicles of the alt-modes of some of the characters from the Transformers live action movies, including Bumblebee's VW Beetle and Camaro modes, and the Decepticon Barricade's Police cruiser.
The point I really knew I had arrived though was when I walked into the hotel lobby past a couple of fans enthusiastically talking about their mutual love of the Dinobots!
Once I'd registered my arrival and collected my introductory booklet and wrist band, it was off to the main panel room where I joined a packed room of equally excited fans for the opening ceremony.
There the lights were dimmed and we were treated to a big screen showing scenes from all of our favourite Transformers visual media, accompanied by an energetic musical track before the master of ceremonies arrived on stage to introduce that days special guests, which included comic book legend Simon Furman, Generation 1 voice actor Gregg Berger (the voice of Grimlock), and a host of additional creative talents.
Even the obligatory health and safety input had a Transformers theme to it, as an animated Grimlock voiced by the aforementioned Mr Berger provided the crowd advice on fire evacuation procedures, which for a Dinobot like himself amounts to "Make hole in wall and walk straight out", but for us mere humans involves "you use fire exit"!
Once the opening ceremony was over, it was time for what many people consider to be the main attraction of the event: the Trader Hall.
located in a huge conference room, the Trader Hall is a place where you will find literally dozens of stalls selling just about anything Transformers related you could think of.
As expected there is a special emphasis on the toys that form the foundation of the franchise, and the Trader Hall is a place where you can find all of the UK's most popular online shops represented, selling everything from the latest and hottest Hasbro releases, to classic toys from the '80s and '90s in every condition between loose and mint in sealed box, huge bins of spare parts and components for those who already have toys that are perhaps a bit of a fixer-upper ( got a nasty burr in your rotator? They can sort you out. ), toys from other robot related lines such as Gundam, spiritual ancestors to the Transformers brand like Micro Change and Diaclone, and the latest and coolest unlicensed third party releases.
Now I've visited the bazaars of both Egypt and Tunisia (every place reminds you of some place else), but I reckon that the Trader Hall at TFNation has probably got them both licked in terms of the amount of commotion and the sheer volume of customers!
It feels like a bit of a free-for-all when the doors first open as people excitedly stack up armfuls of the most sought after purchases from the displays like a hungry pack of Sharkticons, but after the initial flurry of activity things chill out sufficiently that you can walk around the hall with relative ease and peruse the goods at your leisure. The traders here are pretty relaxed, and are happy for you to physically inspect the goods, will answer any questions you might have about their wares, and if you're lucky you can even find a little wriggle-room on the price. I accept your terms!
It's not all about toys though, and also located within the Trader Hall you can find "The Forge", which is a community of fans that have turned their love and enthusiasm for the Transformers into a business by producing high quality hand-made goods.
Want a Transformers-themed waist coat, a block of soap that looks like an energon cube, a picture of Ratchet and Drift kissing, or a pin of your favourite Wrecker? You can find it all here along with many other oddities!
Having perused the merchandise, it was time to get in line and wait for my opportunity to geek out in front of some of the most important creative names in Transformers media, and thrust a sweaty, desperate arm full of my favourite Transformers books and comics under their noses in the hope that they would be kind enough to sign them for me.
The saying goes "never meet your heroes", but honestly I don't think that I've ever met a nicer, more down to Earth, more accommodating bunch of people anywhere in my entire life, so quick were they to share a handshake or a hug, pose for photos, discuss their work - and yes - sign the huge pile of my favourite Transformers literature that I'd brought with me!
I have to be honest and admit that I felt more than a little self-indulgent and guilty asking Simon Furman to grace no less than twelve personal items with his John Hancock, but he did it happily, with a smile on his face, and without a single hint of insincerity as he explained his thoughts on each issue to me as ran his pen over their covers.
"That's a rare one. I don't see many of them", he said as he handled my copy of Transformers UK #332.
"This is always a popular one", he stated as he handled my copy of the first appearance of the Autobots crack commando team, "The Wreckers" (Transformers UK #82)
As he was signing my first appearance of Death's Head (Transformers UK #113) I asked him whether there was a story behind the characters iconic looking cranial injury. "No", he replied, "(artist) Geoff Senior just thought that would look cool, and if he was going to be a bounty hunter with a reputation then he needed to look like he'd been in a few fights".
All of the other stars present were just as willing to open up about their thoughts and feelings regarding The Transformers too.
"Transformers have been a channel for pretty much all of my creative energy", revealed James Roberts (writer, "Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye/ Lost Light" etc).
"The first time my sequential art was published was in Transformers. I'll always be grateful that it gave me the first opportunity to expose my work to an audience", said Jack Lawrence (artist, "Transformers: Lost Light", "Doctor Who", "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" etc).
Having been discussing with me his awareness that his work on the current IDW Publishing ongoing Transformers title had been considered a bit of a "slow burner" by some corners of the fandom, writer Brian Ruckley simply assured me of one thing: "War is coming".
Unlike most conventions, signings are free at TFNation - it's all just part of the experience. It's a place without even a hint of judgement or toxicity, where you'll meet people of every shape, size, age, ethnicity, and nationality, all happy to sit together and speak to complete strangers about their mutual love of Transformers, which was probably summarized best by Simon Furman himself when I asked him what he felt about the event and he replied: "TFNation is one of the most friendly and social events I've ever had the pleasure to attend".
As well as pressing the flesh and putting the world to rights, the creator zone is also a place where you can purchase plenty of unique Transformers related goods from your favourite writers and artists.
James Roberts for example was selling annotated scripts for his "More Than Meets the Eye/ Lost Light" mega-epic that you won't find anywhere else, whilst Simon Furman was also promoting his excellent new series "To the Death" and handing out free book marks with every purchase.
There's also a host of other products ranging from fine art prints of all the most popular Transformers characters and sub-groups, concept art sketch books, signed comics, original pages from some of the most iconic comics in the history of the franchise, and the opportunity to order personalised commissioned artwork of whatever or whoever you choose.
Having spent a good few hours on my feet by this point, and having spent somewhere around 10,000 Shanix on merchandise, it was time to relax a little and take in some of the many panel shows that form an essential part of the TFNation experience.
The panels run throughout most of the day and included things such as Gregg Berger talking about his acting career as the voice of Grimlock in the original Transformers animated series and the more recent and immensely popular Transformers Devastation console game, an input from Marty Isenberg (one of the key creative talents behind the Beast Machines and Transformers Animated shows), a behind the scenes chat with the people from Boulder Media (the Transformers Cyberverse team), a comedy improv tutorial from Peter Spellos (the voice of Sky-byte in the Robots in Disguise animated show), and a retrospective from the likes of Simon Furman, EJ Su, and Nick Roche about their decade-long work on IDW Publishing's comic book franchise.
After an intermission, the panels continue into the evening where the show runs its yearly cosplay competition where you get to see some humans in disguise showing off their mad creative skills and wearing homemade costumes of their favourite Transformers characters, in a feature aptly named "The Pretenders". This is followed later by One shall Stand, an elimination quiz where only the fans with the most encyclopedic knowledge of the Transformers survive. The evening is then finally wrapped up with some Transformers related improv and comedy from Peter Spellos and friends. This is bad comedy indeed!
After the show was over, with another full day of Transformers related events and high jinx for them to look forward to, it was time for many of the crowd to hit the bar once more for another long night of probably ill-advised drinking and fervent debate and discussion of the day's events. For me however, it was time to roll out, and the only thing I was hitting was the road for the long, slow drive back home — although it was a sadness soothed by the memories of the creative heroes I'd finally got the opportunity to meet after a lifetime of loving their work, the many great people I'd met, the fun I had enjoyed, and of course the car full of cool swag that I was taking with me!
Whether you're into the toys, comics, movies, or animation, TFNation is a place where any fan of the Transformers will have a fantastic time. It's a place where all are one, and a place that once you've visited you'll always belong!