Third Party Transformers...one fan's perspective
One of the questions I am asked most often is my opinion on so called Third Party Transformers. For those not in the know, Third Party Transformers refer to unlicensed action figures and accessories produced by smaller companies including FansProject, Justitoys and Maketoys. These toys include original sculpts based on existing intellectual property (ex: the design of Optimus Prime with his iconic head design and windshild chest etc.), accessories to augment or modify existing figures or completely original characters that are designed with an aesthetic similar to an existing toy line and sized accordingly. To date, such products have thrived, often selling out entire production runs in weeks and now over two dozen companies are known to produce such items.
iGear Hench (aka Generation One Brawn)
Point of View
It is important for me to draw focus on what this article is. It is not an indictment on anyone who enjoys these toys. Nor is it meant to be a critique of the various companies. Rather, this article seeks to answer the question stated at the top: "Ben, how do you feel about third party Transformers?" and nothing more.
To give you an idea of the mindset I live life with, I'm one of the rare breed who does not go online to bootleg my television shows and movies. I watch them on demand, on my DVR, online via official channels like Netflix or I purchase Blu-Ray/DVDs. I do actually purchase my own music instead of downloading it online as well. Some readers may think "That's so quaint!" or "Why would you do that?!" and the answer is quite simple. If an artist creates work that I enjoy, I want to support them. I can claim to be a fan of a band all I want, but if I'm not pushing any money their way, I have no reason to expect they'll be around to make more of the entertainment I enjoy in the future. To me, this same principle applies to toys. You vote with your dollar. If you enjoy a certain toy line, you buy pieces from it. If not, you don't. The purchase is an expression of your support for said product. You can call this point of view simplistic, naive or even dumb - but it's my personal point of view regardless.
It is also important to keep in mind that over the years, I have formed semi-working relationships and friendships with many people who work on the "Transformers" toy line. Some of what I "feel" about Third Party figures is partly dictated by my desire to not see the hard work of friends and associates being copied without license.
As with many things in life, it is not enough to say something is simply acceptable or not acceptable. For me, Third Party toys fall into a wide spectrum. Some items are outright violations of Hasbro and Takara Tomy's intellectual property. Others fall into a more grey area while others still are complete on the opposite side of the spectrum, avoiding any infringement whatsoever. This is the spectrum that I use when I look at Third Party Transformers.
When I refer to "The Black" portion of the spectrum, in my mind this represents all completely original designs not based on previous characters. There can absolutely be influence from them, but you cannot trace the toy back to one character and say "This is the unofficial version of XYZ". Examples of this include "Steel Core" and the "Glacial Lord" figures from FansProject. These are products that I wholeheartedly support. They show an obvious love for the "Transformers" toy line while giving us a window into the imagination of those making these toys. These truly represent fans making their "dream toys" come true in the most pure form, direct from their own creative core. It is also an amazing demonstration of artistry to conceptualize and create a wholly original character using only themes of the "Transformers" toy line as a springboard.
My current shining example of "Black" category Third Party figures are the "Retro Future" toys from FansProject. These figures seek to recreate the look and feel of classic Transformers from the Generation One era but they are completely original sculpts, names and designs. Even better? The Combiner elements are able to interact with G1 figures but the figures also have "advanced" features not seen in G1 Combiners such as articulated elbows for the Combiner and all the parts fitting onto the figure in both forms. I've purchased the first three of the "Retro Future" toys and can't wait for the rest!
Retro Future figures by FansProject
The "grey area" is just that, a difficult-to-define zone where my decision to support or not support the item really varies in degree, sometimes on an (admittedly arbitrary) internal system of me thinking "How badly does this violate IP and potentially the main Transformers line itself?". Examples of items that I am totally comfortable are those that require you to own the official product to use. This incudes replacement heads, additional weapons or even "armor" to attach to an existing figure. Some of these items can really skirt the edge of what is personally acceptable to me, these include some "Targetmasters" that were made (including one with Megatron's iconic G1 design as its robot mode). In reality, the odds of there ever being a Targetmaster accessory of Megatron for larger figures is extremely small and you do need a Transformer to hold the weapon, so while this pushes my personal envelope, it doesn't break it.
A part of the "Grey" area I wish was done more are reproduction parts. There used to be dealers who recreated missiles, arms and other bits of older Transformers that would break over the years. Since you had to own the toy itself to begin with and this was more of an item to restore/repair the toy, I always appreciated this type of Third Party item.
ArtTek Rex Blaster (for Grimlock)
On the other end of the spectrum is "The White" category. Here we find Third Party Transformers that outright violate Hasbro and Takara Tomy's intellectual property. Whether or not you are a fan of these toys does not matter in this regard, denying that Hench is a G1 Brawn or Hegemon is Megatron by another name is disingenuous at best.
In the interest of full disclosure, I do own Hench because I felt it was important I write this article owning at least one example of a "White category" figure so I could speak to the topic from an informed point of view. I totally felt weird buying it, but at the same time I did not want to put this article out and have someone say "Well you can't understand Third Party figures until you own one!", I do and my point of view hasn't changed.
I believe the "White category" Third Party figures were a great starting point for these companies to dip their toes into the fan market. It gave them a chance to flex their muscles and show what they were capable of from a design and production standpoint. Depending on your point of view, some companies were more successful than others. Still, I consider this a revolutionary step in fandom, even if I don't agree with the IP infringement involved. Taking Hench for example, many of these toys are very impressive and deserve the accolades fans have given them for design, transformation and complexity. He is a very good representation of the character in this animated form complete with a weapon to boot. Of course, he is also about 2-3x the price an equivalent Hasbro figure would be at retail - but that is part and parcel of Third Party figures.
Mastermind Creations Bovis (aka Generation One Tantrum)
Let's step back for a moment. Nothing about what I said above is a judgement on the fans who enjoy these figures. Many of my friends in fandom have collected Third Party figures in the "White" category and that's fine by me, it's just not where I choose to funnel a majority of my collecting dollars.
Third Party Transformers are an amazing expression of fan dedication and effort. The artistic skill and engineering know how that goes into this type of work is not simple and no matter your stance, it is quite impressive! How you choose (or not choose) to collect them is a personal choice.