Canon originally referred to (among other things) the recognised books of the Bible. In the 20th Century however the term has also been adopted in the discussion of most long-running media franchises to mean any event, character, or location within the fiction that is considered to have been "real" with respect to that fictional continuity. Only canonical material should be used as evidence in debates on the nature of the fictional universe and the characters that inhabit them.
In the Transformers brand, as a result of editorial choice and the multiversal nature of Transformers, canon is both extremely complicated and extremely simple, depending on how you look at it. The only reliable metric for determining the canonical status of Transformers fiction is whether it was officially licensed/approved or not. If so, it is canon... for some continuity. If not, it is not canon at all.
Canon in other media franchises
Before examining canonicity as it pertains to Transformers it might first be useful to understand how canon is dealt with in other media franchises. It is tempting to dismiss canonicity as a trivial matter, of interest only to the most obsessive fans, and while it is true that many casual fans of a franchise will give very little thought to the canon, some franchise owners have taken it seriously enough to create their own "canon policies". Others ignore the issue totally.
The owners of three of the largest franchises in existence today, Star Wars, Star Trek and Doctor Who, have vastly different views on canon. Lucasfilm has developed several levels of canonicity into which a Star Wars text can fall. The policy decrees that most fiction is canonical unless it is contradicted by a higher level source or is explicitly marked as non-canonical (such as material released under the Infinities banner).
By contrast, Paramount, owners of Star Trek have for the most part limited their canon to events within the live-action television series and the motion pictures. All other material is largely considered non-canonical.
Some franchise owners ignore canon totally. The BBC, owners of Doctor Who, have no canon policy. Indeed so little attention is paid to it that the franchise is riddled with countless irreconcilable continuity clashes despite being presented as a single continuous story, even in the TV movie and continuing television series that were made many years after the original series was cancelled. It has been the fans who have therefore attempted to create a canon for the series, though this is in constant flux as new material is released and is the subject of perpetual arguments.
(Actually, it's because it's seen by the producers as fruitless exercise, and to spend energy claiming that some made up stories are more real than others is a waste of the public money Doctor Who is made with.)
Canon in Transformers
Right from its conception in 1984 Transformers differed from many other franchises in that it was made up of more than a single continuity, the two main ones being the Sunbow cartoon series and the Marvel comic series. Although based on the same basic concept both series offered different interpretations of events and characters. For example, in the cartoon, Shockwave was shown to be slavishly loyal to Megatron, whereas the comic portrayed him as a usurper constantly plotting to take control of the Decepticons himself. Both interpretations are canonical within the confines of their specific continuity.
In addition to these two main continuities, countless other licensed products offered their own take on the Transformers' fictional universe, resulting in yet more micro-continuities, such as those presented in the Ladybird Books, Big Looker Storybooks (also published by Marvel) and Kid Stuff’s Talk and Read series to name but three.
Over the years as new Transformers products have been developed, multiple continuities have given way to multiple continuity families, each of which may contain dozens of continuities.
Hasbro's only real input on what constitutes canon in Transformers comes from the Transformers Universe franchise, which grew out of the BotCon merchandise and fiction produced by 3H Productions, and has continued with Fun Publications' fan club and Timelines comics. These stories present the idea that each Transformers continuity exists in its own separate universe, with Primus and Unicron as entities which straddle (or easily travel between) these universes. This approach is essentially a tacit endorsement of the model that the Transformers fandom had already started working under:
- Everything is canon.
In Transformers, "canon" is for all intents and purposes a synonym for "official". If it was released by a Transformers licensor with Hasbro approval, then it is canonical. However, simply being canonical doesn't say anything about what continuity or continuities it applies to.
3H and IDW have both released comics which take place "just offscreen" during the Beast Wars cartoon, but these comics contradict each other. Rather than the newer IDW comics invalidating the 3H story or retconning it out of existence, the two are simply relegated to separate but closely parallel universes.
While this "multiverse" approach helps to ensure that essentially all Transformers fiction is given a certain amount of validity, there are occasions when individual texts within the same continuity contradict each other. (The history of the Constructicons in the original cartoon series are probably the most famous example.) When this happens, there is no clear way to proceed. Fans may reach a consensus on how to best interpret the evidence, but this consensus is not official and therefore not canon. (Until/unless somebody writing official fiction drops it in, transforming it from fanon to canon.) Each fan's interpretation of such events constitutes a part of their personal canon, a subjective collection of ideas about the official fiction which is typically a work in progress that is constantly being reevaluated.
General canon rules
When dealing with Transformers fiction, these general rules apply:
- All officially-licensed fiction is canonical for some continuity.
- If conflicting events occur which are ostensibly within the same continuity, there is no single "correct" interpretation, unless an official retcon is later issued. Fans may reach a consensus on it, or not. The two events may be relegated to slightly different continuities, or an in-continuity fix may be applied.
- While canon from one continuity cannot, in general, be used as evidence to support canon in a different continuity, there are exceptions. For example, the Tech Specs and bios from toy packaging are used as the basis for character personalities across various continuities, and can therefore hold some cross-continuity weight.
- Fan fiction is not canon.
- Toy catalogs produced by companies other than Hasbro (such as J.C. Penny) are not canon.
- Some fans have their own ideas about what constitutes canon and nothing anyone else says will change their mind (see personal canon).
- Perhaps most important of all — it only has one N in the center, and one at the end. Megatron has a "personal cannon," but you likely never will.