Transformers are much harder to play with now than when I was a kid. They’re collectibles more than toys, made to break apart when the joints are overstressed, a far cry from the chunky metal and plastic originals that took all kinds of abuse. I can’t believe they’re rated for five-year-olds!
Last night, after my four-year-old son opened the cheery little guy below, it took most of dinner and a lot of head scratching over schematics to figure out how to make the mean-looking car turn into the meaner-looking robot.
That meant we had plenty of time, however, to discuss Transformers lore. Since our family opts out of TV and consumes all video streaming or by DVDs over our laptops, much of my son’s pop inculturation happens the old fashioned way, via oral tradition. Transformers were something new.
“Is he a good guy or a bad guy?”
“What do you think he is?”
“He looks mean. I think he’s a bad guy.”
“That’s right. He’s a Decepticon. He’s part of Megatron’s army. They want to hurt people and take over the world.”
“Are there good Transformers?”
“Yes, they’re called Autobots. They want to help people and stop the Decepticons.”
“What do they look like?”
We looked over the merchandising poster but sadly, the good guys looked no more or less heroic than the villains. That’s an important life lesson in itself, but not one I wanted to make this evening. Heroism was on the line!
Then one character immediately jumped off the page, his colors drawing my eyes to the upper left corner of the page.
“There!” I said. “That’s Optimus Prime. He’s the leader of the Autobots. He’s a good guy. He’s like Superman.”
I thought that was an odd comparison as soon as I said it, but it was the first thing that came to mind, the instant he caught my eye. I thought about it a moment, and then realized why.
“See?” I continued. “He wears Superman’s colors.”
That seemed to settle the matter, and we went about the rest of our evening routine, pitting the new household villain against the wooden trains of Sodor under Sir Topham Hatt and the ever trusty Thomas (hm, blue and red again).
Long after bedtime, I continued thinking about the heroism of colors, wondering what it was they communicated so instinctively. Over the last 75 years, Superman’s iconic “S” has become one of the most recognizable branded identities on the planet and all pop culture heroes participate in his archetype. There is an inescapable patriotism to this quintessential American character, but the power of his costume can not be identified with the American flag alone. Long before radio introduced the familiar mantra of Superman’s “never ending battle for truth, justice and the American way” during World War II, Superman was already hard at work in comic book pages as the “Champion of the Oppressed,” more of a populist everyman hero with a preferential option for the poor. Many writers have noted how, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, teenaged sons of Jewish immigrants in Cleveland in the middle of the Great Depression, Superman can be seen as a kind of avatar for the righteous Judges of Israel in the Torah making the immigrant experience palatable to mainstream Americana.
It only stands to reason that the blue and red in today’s franchise characters for boys, from Thomas the Tank Engine to Spider-Man to the Transformers, descends from Superman’s original standard. But is that due to the strength of the Superman motif itself, or something beyond that? Is there something in the combination of blue and red that predates Superman and in fact contributed to his visual resonance in 20th Century pop culture?
The answer lies in the traditional combination of red and blue in Christian iconography, paired almost exclusively for use in the garments of Christ and his Virgin Mother. In the visual language of the Christian East, dating back to at least the 7th Century, colors and poses were selected to convey distinct theological statements. Red was the color of Divine fire, the transcendent realm of the Eternal One. Blue was the color of the created order, the world of mortal flesh. Pairing them in specific ways delivered an unspoken sermon about the mysteries of faith. Christ’s inner robe was the Red of the Divine Nature, upon which the Blue of his Humanity was worn like a garment. Blue on Red: the mystery of Incarnation. His mother, Mary, on the other hand is always depicted in the reverse schema: the blue undergarment of her humanity enfolded in the red robe of Divinity. Red on Blue: the mystery of Annunciation and human assent to the Divine. Ironically, Superman’s costume resembles Mary’s traditional dress, with the blue of humanity at his core, made divine by the outer red cape… odd, given that he is in fact a child of another world, descended to Earth. That paradox itself perhaps says more about the enduring appeal of Superman as a heroic figure: at the end of the day, no matter his otherworldly origins and powers beyond those of mortal men, his heart belongs to ordinary humanity.
This isn’t to say that Superman is explicitly a Christian metaphor. Far from it. The deep symbolism of his primary colors runs deeper than specifics of faith and belongs to the culture we have all inherited, and which we all can choose to learn from and pass on. Intentionally or not, though his creators may have been writing a hero from Torah, they chose to paint him in the colors of Byzantine Christology, creating as if by providence the perfect fusion of Judeo-Christian aspiration.
If color has anything to teach us, it is that the hero is more than his mighty deeds alone. Rather, heroism is born of humanity that has been touched by the transcendent. It is the mortal who aspires to the Eternal, whose deeds serve as a bridge between the two realms. Indeed, if heroes were defined by might alone, then every villain would seem like one. True character knows the difference.
At the end of the story, perhaps that is the father’s truest calling: to teach our children to see in color.
© Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.