Meltdown!

The countdown is on until Cybertron itself is ripped apart by Megatron’s unstable engines, but salvation may be coming in the unlikeliest of forms as the Autobots and Decepticon unite against Flame

A powerful cover by Marvel UK artist Jerry Paris illustrates the predicament that the Cybertron Autobots find themselves in. Xaaron, Ultra Magnus and the Wreckers, while not actually caught in the clutched fist of the rogue Autobot scientist Flame, are in that bind metaphorically, as captives of his zombie army.

Until last issue that army included the Wreckers’ former (now deceased) leader Impactor, who was also reanimated by Flame’s computer mainframe, but has started to regain some echoes of his consciousness. As the Transformation (intro) page for Transformers UK 168 memorably puts it: ‘Old soldiers don’t die, they get reanimated by insane Autobot scientists.’ Impactor wants revenge on the guy who interrupted his eternal rest, and you get the impression that he will play a pivotal role in what is coming next.

Meltdown, which was published by Marvel UK in June 1988, with art by Robin Smith and story by the prolific Simon Furman, is the third and final instalment of what has been a quirky and offbeat tale. It utilises a cast of Cybertron bots and cons that Furman has assembled and it a great example of the expanded story that the writer has created to fill the gaps between material from the comic’s US sister title (this is because the UK comic was weekly, and the US was monthly.)

These days it is not unheard of to have bad Autobots and noble Decepticons, I mean just look at efforts to recast Megatron as a heroic/tragic revolutionary against an oppressive Autobot State in the modern era. However, in the Eighties things were by and large nice and simple: the Autobots were the good guys and Decepticons the were the villains, so Meltdown is memorable for having an Autobot as the arch baddie. It also shows that bad apples are present on both sides.

The story begins with a recap of what’s happened so far, as told from the perspective of Flame’s computer briefing him on the threat level, and finally a countdown to the firing of the vast engines that will relaunch Cybertron as a mobile dreadnought.

As a minor point, having been told in Legion of the Lost that the events happened ‘three weeks’ before City of Fear, we’re now back to counting time in the Cybertronian vernacular established by Bob Budiansky way back in the 1986 classic, The Smelting Pool, by counting down in ‘breems’ (each one equivalent to eight point three earth minutes).

Robin Smith does a nice job of depicting Flame as a garish nightmare of a robot, utterly self-obsessed and hell bent on reviving an insane idea from Cybertron’s history so that the planet can sail the heavens with himself at the helm, everyone in awe at his achievement. The fact that a good chunk of the planet would be extinguished in the process is by the by.

The rest of the issue is mostly about getting the cast assembled and into place. Springer leads Ultra Magnus and the Sparkler Mini-bots below ground, with Sizzle still whinging about Magnus’ decision to send Flywheels, a Decepticon prisoner, for help. Magnus is charitable in the circumstances and explains that Flywheels is the only one with a jet mode and access to reinforcements, but he equally could have put this upstart back in his place. In a war situation and high stakes there’s no room for petty bickering and questioning superiors.

Below ground Broadside is about to find himself a meal for a hungry Zombie when Impactor intervenes with his trademark harpoon, decapitating the foe. He leaves armed with the information that Flame caused this situation and Broadside gets access to the armoury, which is likely to be extremely useful.

Xarron meanwhile confronts Flame, an old colleague who is still holding a millions-of-years-old grudge against him. When reason fails, Xarron tries to intervene and switch off the reactor, prompting one of the memorable moments of the issue as Flame transforms into his fire cannon mode. We learn that Xaaron also has a combat vehicle mode, but he hasn’t used it in several centuries – the shock of transforming may kill him. It’s a nice twist. I suppose it’s like asking a very elderly and long retired athlete to run a marathon.

With the Wreckers tooled-up, the zombie army is becoming manageable, so Flame’s computer takes defensive measures by sealing the reactor off with blast doors. The opening instalment ends with Springer and Broadside making a dash for the surface to get “stuff” from Autobase that can cut through, only to find their paths blocked by the biggest, most deadly Decepticon of all – Trypticon!

It’s a welcome, if totally unexpected, return for this character, who became an instant fan favourite at his debut in the 1987 story King of the Hill and sets the scene nicely for the conclusion.

This of course begins with Jeff Anderson’s cover depicting Trypticon ‘partying’ at the expense of the zombie hordes. His arrival has the potential to tip the balance heavily in the favour of Flame’s opponents, but first we’ve got three pages of Xaaron dodging blasts from Flame, attempting to transform, and finally reasoning with Flame again, so basically a rehash of scenes from the previous issue.

In the battle of the Wreckers versus the blast doors, it’s the doors that are holding firm. Magnus asks where Springer and Broadside are with the heavy artillery, only to get the answer in the shape of the monstrous Trypticon advancing towards them.

Springer and Broadside appear with Flywheels – who apparently could not get reinforcements in terms of numbers, so he settled for the biggest Decepticon of the lot. Then a memorable line from Flywheels, “Trypticon get the door,” sees the giant Decepticon headbutt the doors down and they are in (with zombie Impactor following close behind).

Magnus makes light work of Flame and the Autobots argue about who should be the one to undertake the surely fatal trip inside the reactor to switch it off. Xaaron is their talismanic elder and too important to sacrifice, but before Magnus or Springer can go in, they are forced to repel more of Flame’s zombies. This is the scene that the cover is based on.

Flame, having been an irritating pain in the arse for the last four issues, finally gets his comeuppance, as he’s about to launch himself at Xaaron and gets harpooned through the head by Impactor. The ex-Wrecker leader then becomes the one to enter the reactor and shut it off, getting torn apart in the process. As the Autobots and Decepticons escape to the planet surface, the engines destroy themselves, and the Xaaron pays tribute to Impactor – the Autobot who “died twice” so that others may live.

In closing it’s a satisfying conclusion to the story. Sure, it’s in many ways predictable, but there are a few unexpected turns, such as the return of Impactor and Trypticon, and some great moments like Xaaron attempting his transformation and Flame’s fire tank, to keep things exciting. It’s no surprise that the City of Fear saga is a fan favourite from the original Marvel run.

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Legion of the Lost!

The source of the zombies is revealed, as Wreckers leader Springer must overcome his inner doubts if he is to confront the past and save the future…

In City of Fear, fans were treated to a hugely entertaining zombie-fest as Ultra Magnus, the Sparklers, and their show-stealing Decepticon prisoner, Flywheels, fought to stay a step ahead of the armies of the undead, succeeding against all odds and probably much to their own surprise.

It wasn’t at all clear how or why the bodies of dead Transformers had sprung to life and started menacing the living, and it didn’t matter because the lack of explanations allowed us to enjoy a fun, uncomplicated and thrilling ride. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

However, inevitably Simon Furman was going to have to explain the zombie situation, as well as the whereabouts of the Emirate Xaaron and the missing Wreckers. Legion of the Lost, the middle instalment of our story (from May 1988), is where those explanations are revealed, and the pieces put in place for an explosive finale (literally).

A bit like playtime followed by the classroom, Legion is essential learning but ultimately less satisfying than City of Fear or even the final instalment, Meltdown.

Things pick-up where we left off, with Magnus and co. having learned that a mysterious signal which animated the zombies originated from deep below the surface of Cybertron. However, the locus switches to our mysterious villain (Flame) who we can only see by his arm and its flamboyant fire markings – a bit like a bad Hot Rod tribute act – watching the Autobots and Flywheels on his monitors.

Magnus is caught on camera booting a now deactivated zombie across the floor in a moment which raised an eyebrow for me, is this the same Magnus who was so worried about injuring the zombies last week that he ordered a ceasefire that nearly got everyone killed?

We see Xaaron, once a member of Cybertron’s governing council and ever after a talisman figure of the Autobot resistance, sitting in a cell. Whoever this mysterious enemy is, he’s responsible for the disappearance of the Wreckers and everything that has transpired so far. Furman transitions into the events of three weeks earlier and a massive nuclear explosion which fried a lot of bots.

Springer, who is the main character in the second instalment, had stormed into Autobase in an absolute panic, only to find Xaaron calm and in control (no doubt this sort of thing used to wind up Springer’s predecessor Impactor also). Xaaron has already determined that the enemy were not responsible and that someone else was, and, on cue, a technician briefs the assembled Wreckers on his theory that a reactor below ground had been vented.

Xaaron reminds us that Megatron, the founder of the Decepticon movement and the instigator of the millennia long civil war, had once schemed to turn Cybertron into a space-faring dreadnought. It turns out that he might have actually got around to building the engine room before he disappeared.

Springer immediately deployed with his men to find a way underground, only to return in failure. Sitting there dejected he wallows in doubts and self-pity about his mistakes since taking over leadership of the Wreckers following the heroic death of the team’s long-time leader Impactor. These include falling for Megatron’s disinformation and nearly executing Optimus Prime, which as mistakes go is about as bad as it gets.

It’s all shaping up to be a classic Furman redemption story (I remember reading one of his Thundercats stories with Lion-O wracked with doubts and having to overcome them by the story conclusion, and similarly Prime himself in Crisis of Command or even Magnus recently in Salvage) – you get what I mean, it’s a familiar trope.

Things usually must get worse before they get better and sure enough Autobase is quickly overrun with Zombies bursting up from the floor. Springer has no idea what to do and his men are started to get overwhelmed.

Sandstorm shouts to Springer to get away and save Xaaron, which eventually he resolves to do, even though it means leaving his men to their fates. This sets up a ‘shock ending’ for the first part as the fleeing Springer comes face-to-face with his worst nightmare, a zombified Impactor!

Did we see that coming? Well yes, I think the build-up with Springer invoking Impactor’s memory – revealing that he looks up to his predecessor massively, even though they only met for a very short time in Target: 2006, pretty much gave the game away. Still, he was a great character in that iconic 1986 saga, still arguably Simon Furman’s greatest Transformers stories, and its exciting to see him return (proving that in comics, no death is truly forever).

In the second part, Transformers issue 167, we learn the Wreckers survived the attack, along with Xaaron, and are now in the cells with a band around their mid-rift which prevents transformation. Impactor enters as the zombie bodyguard of Flame, who we finally see, and surprise, surprise, he’s an Autobot! (Albeit clearly a loon).

There’s a bit of history here between Xaaron and Flame. It turns out that Xaaron was responsible for snuffing out Flame’s grand ambition to activate Megatron’s engines and propel Cybertron on a journey through the cosmos (presumably in a more controlled way than currently, with it having spun out of orbit in issue 1).

Flame had been presumed dead in an explosion, but he survived and has like a science geek who got ridiculed at school he’s returned all embittered and desperate to prove he was right all along. Luckily for the Xaaron and company, they are needed alive long enough for that ‘I told you so moment’, although Xaaron’s expects that the loopy plot will probably destroy Cybertron in the process.

A quick check on the surface sees Flywheels jetting away in his plane mode and Magnus arguing with the Sizzle about why their prisoner has been allowed to go. Magnus rather hopes he can trust the Duocon to bring reinforcements. We’ll see.

Back to what I was saying about the ‘overcoming self-doubt motif’, Springer has reached rock bottom in terms of his lack of belief in himself. It takes Xaaron to remind him of the insult he’s giving to Impactor’s memory if he doesn’t snap out of it. Finally, Springer sorts himself out, and uses his leaping ability to launch himself through a vent in the ceiling, with Impactor gripping his legs and getting carried along.

The old trick of escaping through an air vent is not very original, and I have to wonder at the point of vents on a planet inhabited by robots who don’t need to breathe. That said, much later the Neo Knights (Earth superheroes) are able to survive on Cybertron so perhaps there’s an atmosphere after all, just without plants to release the oxygen.

Springer reasons with Impactor as they tussle in the shaft, finally triggering Impactor’s limited consciousness starts to reassert. He leaves to ‘find out what he has become’ and Springer resumes his mission to alert the outside world about the impending doom. To be concluded…

It must be said that 1988 is a boom time for Marvel UK. In both issues there are plugs for new releases, as the company launches a line of American format monthly titles – there’s Action Force, Dragon’s Teeth (soon to be Dragon’s Claws when it turns out that an independent already has the name) and a one-page strip about Death’s Head which hints at his return. Exciting stuff.

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City of Fear

The dead walk the streets in the Cybertron city of Kalis! Can Magnus, the Sparklers and their Decepticon prisoner Flywheels make it out alive?

Location, location, location. Any estate agent will tell you this is the top consideration when investing in property. So, whoever decided to relocate the headquarters of Cybertron’s Autobot Resistance to Kalis really screwed up royally!

On the face of it, Kalis is a bombed-out wreck of a place, but pretty much your average Cybertron metropolis after millions of years of ongoing civil war. However, recently it has earned itself a feared reputation for supernatural goings on. Whisper it gently, but some say the dead walk the streets here!

Like I said, not the best place to open a new base. Or maybe it is if you don’t want Decepticon patrols to find you?

Welcome to City of Fear, the first chapter of a six-issue saga from writer Simon Furman and artist Dan Reed, published in issues 164 and 165 of Marvel UK’s weekly Transformers comic (still enjoying its hey day back in May 1988).

I’ll say up front that I absolutely love this two part story and for me it ranks among the best of Simon’s UK material. It also really suits Dan’s artistic style. These days a zombie fest is common enough but less so in the 80s and I wouldn’t have expected the concept to work for a Transformers story but by Primus it does.

Dan’s cover for 164, ‘Face it Sparkers there’s no-one home’ – with zombie silhouettes reaching for Magnus and his mini-bot mates lets you know what you’re in for. The Transformation intro page also ramps up the anticipation for the ‘most spinetingling Transformers story we’ve ever dared to present’. This one would have made a very good Hallowe’en story if it had been later in the year.

Simon is not adverse to stealing concepts from Star Trek (like warp drive, Hot Rod beaming down in Kup’s Story, time travel, communicators etc) and this also includes the unwritten rule that a character who is not part of the main cast (in this case the Hasbro toy line) is almost certain to die horribly.

A case in point is the anonymous green and orange Autobot making his way across Kalis in the opening scene. (I have a vague memory of him being revealed as Chuffer on a later Grim Grams page – not sure if this was a gag by Furman).

Chuffer, or whoever he is, has got the jitters alright. He’s jumping out of his skin at eery noises and big-time regretting not heeding the warnings to stay hidden. A skeletal-looking robot zombie rears up behind him, still wearing an Autobot badge, and punches a hole clean through the robot’s chest. Eeks. As openings go its dramatic and defy anyone not to read on.

On Earth, Ultra Magnus and the Sparkabots are awaiting the arrival of an interdimensional portal that will transport them to Cybertron and the new Autobase on Kalis. The mini-bots are still being referred to in the UK comic as the Sparkler Mini-bots (why I don’t know?) and Sizzle and Fizzle’s colourings are reversed. These are curiosities that endure to this day, however they are a good foil for Magnus, who is our main character and Optimus Prime stand-in.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Cybertron Autobots led by Xaaron and the Wreckers have enough on their plate trying to retake their home world without worrying about the future Decepticon Galvatron, who is at large on Earth, a very distant for them. For some reason he is a priority though, and enough to send the Sparklers to Earth to spy on him and with the secondary aim of recovering Magnus.

With the mission complete, it’s time to return to Cybertron and report back, so they step through the portal and emerge in a trashed and deserted Autobase. Magnus questions who could have been mighty enough to best the Wreckers, their elite commandos? And where is everyone now?

One clue might be a very old, severed head that Sizzle finds. Odd that the blaster damage looks recent. He drops the head and runs to catch up with the others, only for it to come alive and bear vampirical fangs. A brilliant moment.

Our intrepid heroes find Kalis a ‘ghost town’ and even the Empties (Cybertron down and outs) that they see, beat a quick retreat when they see them. They think they see movement in a window, but no-one will come out and talk, much to Magnus’ annoyance.

Instead, everyone reverts to vehicle modes (Dan Reed uniquely illustrates their transformations with electrical energy in yellow and black) and they head out of the city in search of some answers, only to run into a Decepticon cordon. Are they keeping something out or something in?

Then an unexpected character debut (I always loved those) of the Duocons Flywheels and Battletrap who attack via their aerial modes and drop a bomb on the four Autobots. The Sparklers are rendered temporarily unconscious, but Magnus, who is still standing and pretty riled up by this point, whacks Flywheels with a girder and forces him to crash-land and revert to his robot mode.

Duocons, as we know, separate into two vehicles and therefore Flywheels’ jet should only be able to form his robotic torso and would have been parted from his tank mode (needed to form his legs). To get around this obvious problem, Furman has the Duocons function as triple changers, which is a real shame. Better I think, to have had the vehicle mode teleport across.

Flywheels is actually the unexpected star of the show from this point on. He’s such a brilliant addition to the team – wise-cracking, untrustworthy and one real cool dude. Initially though, he’s freaking out after discovering that he’s been bundled into Kalis – don’t they know the dead walk the streets in Kalis and their victims become like them, the living dead?!

Right on cue, hands burst from the floor and grab their feet. The dead have risen… and it’s a hell of cliff-hanger to top off a downright entertaining opening instalment.

On the letters page Grimlock deals with the confusion over Jawbreaker/Overbite, explaining that Jawbreaker was the Seacon’s name on Cybertron and it stuck. Hmm. He also reveals that the message that the Headmasters received which brought them to Earth was sent by Goldbug from the cave at Mount St Hilary. Since the message was received before we saw the story where it was sent, I’d assumed that it must have been Soundwave’s message sent in The Next Best Thing to Being There, way back.

In the opener for issue 165 there’s the first mention of Dragon’s Teeth, a new title on the way from Furman and Senior (a real classic) that would end up being renamed ahead of its release to Dragon’s Claws. I think at some point I’ll review it.

Back to City of Fear, and part two opens with zombie hordes spilling out from the sides and surrounding our protagonists like circling wagons from a Western. They’ll have to ‘fight their way out’ declares Magnus, and everyone starts gunning down their attackers using their identical blasters (Dan Reed standardised the weapons which was a shame as often the guns were unique to each Transformer and certainly looked different).

Magnus won’t allow Flywheels to have a gun back (he’s their prisoner after all and being a Decepticon, he’s not to be trusted) but the latter has a tank mode which comes in rather useful. The Sparklers unleash a fire bath from their engines, until Magnus realises some of the zombies are Autobots – they are killing their own troops.

It’s a dumb move and risks getting everyone killed. Luckily, Flywheels takes not a bit of notice of the order and saves Magnus from getting mauled by a flying zombie. Not that Magnus is particularly grateful!

Having beaten a retreat they regroup nearby and theorise what might be reanimating these dead Autobots and Decepticons. If it’s a remote control (or computer transmission as stated) Flywheels suggests they jam the signal. Obvious huh?

Cue Magnus and Flywheels heading into the Baird Beaming Transmitter (a nice nod from Simon to the Briton, John Logie Baird, the inventor of television) and he reluctantly agrees that he’ll have to hand the Decepticon back his gun. Can Flywheels be trusted? Magnus doesn’t think so, but feels he has no choice, he needs the help.

Magnus is successful, only to find himself staring down the barrel of Flywheels’ blaster. Luckily, his target turns out to be a still reanimated zombie – phew!

The threat is over, and Magnus was able to learn something significant – that the signal which activated the zombies was coming from hundreds of feet beneath the surface of Cybertron. Interesting.

In closing, what a fun ride and a distinctly different Transformers story. The rank-and-file Sparklers compliment the more senior and serious Magnus, our stand-in Optimus who is comfortable getting his hands dirty as well as commanding. The Sparklers are a nice, easy-going bunch (as much as anyone can be with zombies on their trail) but they don’t register as separate personalities.

Flywheels steals the show. His wanton disregard for life is just the ticket in this situation and gung-ho philosophy contrasts with restrictive Autobot morality. He is the black humour element and enjoys the Autobots’ discomfort in having to side with their prisoner. There’s always the feeling that Flywheels is about to turn on his new allies, but instead he saves Magnus twice. Perhaps he was starting to like his new Autobot allies?

With that, we’re on to Legion of the Lost, the next instalment, where the explanations begin and events go from bad to worse.

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Pretender to the Throne!

Optimus Prime returns from the dead as a video game character, just in time to witness the launch of a new breed of Transformer – the Pretenders…

The cover of Transformers US #40 featuring the new Pretenders

April 1988 saw Marvel UK going potty for the Pretenders. No, not the eighties rock band fronted by Chrissie Hynde, the Autobot and Decepticon Pretenders were Transformers hiding inside giant humanoid or monster-alien shells.

They were the latest bright idea from Hasbro as part of their perpetual quest to push new products and if it all sounds a bit far-out and wacky, well it was. We’d previously had concepts that pushed the envelope a bit like transforming heads and weapons here but the Headmasters and Targetmasters were at least recognisably Transformers. Pretenders were not, although I suppose that was the point.

The shells, though a chunk of plastic, were the main attraction and the robot inside – skinny and unimpressive with a poor transformation – seemed like an afterthought. I’d still take them over the Action Masters which came later, but that’s not saying much.

It wasn’t only the toys – the Pretenders were flawed as a concept too. I mean, a 30-foot human is not the most inconspicuous disguise, and if a gigantic monster came at you with a sword or gun, you’d probably open fire anyway regardless of whether you realised it was a Decepticon.

Despite these being one Hasbro idea that should never have got off the drawing board, the Transformers comic dutifully does its best to talk up the latest big event. By the time of issue 162’s release, we’d had a couple of weeks of build-up, and the hype was in full flow.

Jeff Anderson’s cover depicts Cloudburst, one of the new Autobots, and the character also adorns on a sticker badge ‘free gift’ that readers are encouraged to detach and “wear with pride.” This would be followed by a competition to win 50 of the new toys.

As you can tell, I was somewhat unimpressed by the Pretenders so you would imagine I refused to buy any of them, right? Err, well not exactly. I hate to admit it but being a Transformers superfan I shelled out for all the new releases, and in this case invested in Skullgrin who seemed the best of the bunch. The Decepticon Pretenders were visually much more interesting that the rather bland Autobots.

I think over time the Pretender toys got better, such as the Beasts and the Classics (I also owned a Pretender Bumblebee and Snarler) but this first wave was underwhelming. In the UK only six of the original twelve were released, and for once I was not envious of our American cousins.

So, what of the story Pretender to the Throne? The first thing to note is that there is no would-be king seeking a throne as the name suggests. The title has been chosen for no other reason than it’s a well-known phrase containing the word ‘Pretender’, so a bit more product emphasis (as I said Marvel was trying hard). Ironically, although this is their debut story, the Pretenders are pretty much incidental to the plot, which is about Optimus Prime returning from the dead as a computer game character. This is actually a saving grace for the story as it’s far more interesting.

It begins in a “reality different from our own” where Optimus is at his heroic best, leading a group of Mechabots into battle against the evil Bombasticons. With the inspiring leader of the Autobots at their side the battle is quickly won, and Prime stands victorious as ‘GAME OVER’ flashes across programmer Ethan Zachary’s screen. Long-term readers will remember Ethan as the guy who allowed Prime and Megatron to fight in his Multi-world simulation with tragic real-world consequences for the Autobot leader. At the conclusion of that 1987 story Afterdeath! we saw Ethan with a disc labelled ‘Optimus Prime’ which suggested he’d made a back-up of some sort and perhaps Prime’s death may be reversible.

Ethan is now a bigshot owner of his own games corporation and has even created an early precursor to the webcam – a camera peripheral that allows Optimus to see the real world outside cyberspace. He show’s Optimus the day’s paper and a photograph of Scorponok’s Decepticons seizing a genetics lab. Prime doesn’t recognise them, and questions Ethan on whether they are opponents in the next game.

There’s a fun scene where Ethan recovers an image of Buster Witwicky from Prime’s memories, then tracks down a number for Sparkplug only for Buster’s dad to slam the phone down (so angry is he with the Autobots for endangering his family) with Optimus remarking that some players are “sore losers,” which is hilarious and also incredibly apt for his current level of self-awareness.

On board the Autobot spacecraft ‘Steelhaven’, orbiting the Earth, we see that Goldbug has been gifted a new body, which is surely a relief for his many fans among the readership, after he was transplanted into a toy car and crushed by Ratbat. The Autobots are aware of the call from Ethan thanks to a listening device that Spike left at his father’s apartment previously (sneaky) and so it’s a good opportunity for Goldbug to hop on a shuttle to Earth and try out his new form while investigating.

He finds Ethan and asks if he is psychic, seeing as he “claims he can talk to the dead!” Moments later Goldbug is stunned to see Optimus Prime alive and well inside the computer intranet. If Prime could command the Autobots in battle again, Goldbug thinks it might snap him back to full consciousness. Instead, Ethan sends Prime through the grid to invade the Decepticon-ensnared genetics lab and spy on their enemies where, by coincidence, they are poised to initiate Scorponok’s latest mad-science experiment.

Positioned in front of Lord Zark and Vorath (heads of Scorponok and Mindwipe respectively) are six Decepticon volunteers stood within ‘synthoplasmic chambers’, which crackle into life and coat the warriors in synthetic flesh and tissue. The Decepticon Pretenders – Iguanus, Sub Marauder, Skull Grin, Bugly and Finback – are born, with virtual Optimus getting a ringside seat.

Prime is detected by Vorath (who refers to their ‘file wall’ being breached, most likely he means firewall, let’s not forget that in the late 80s this would not be a widespread term) and repelled with a data surge. Scorponok orders the intruder to be tracked down and eliminated, and Prime formulates an appropriate response to the threat – which is that the Autobots must create six characters of their own (how convenient).

Thus, ends the first instalment, which at 12 pages of story is one more than usual (all part of the Pretender giveaway fest we’re assured) and part two opens with Brainstorm having hastily reproduced Scorponok’s experiment and found six willing volunteers of their own – Landmine, Cloudburst, Waverider, and three that were not released as toys in the UK, Groundbreaker, Sky High and Splashdown. Readers are asked to believe that these six were always part of the Steelhaven crew, though we’ve never seen or heard from them before.

With a trap set for the Decepticons, Prime decides to he must bait it by travelling back into the Decepticon computer and luring them to Ethan’s lab. Goldbug is fearful that Prime could be terminated by a protection program but he is showing more courage and leadership than he has up to now, so they’ve got to see the plan through.

It’s fun to see Prime as a game character moving across cyberspace and an original idea with quite a lot of potential. The gaps in his memories also strengthens the idea that not all his original mind was able to be retained on the disk, which makes sense given that floppy disks in 1988 could store about 1MB of data and not even scrape the surface of a robot with millions of years of existence. That’s a hell of a Winzip.

Scorponok suspects that something strange is afoot and orders Vorath to input him into cyberspace, setting up the mouth-watering prospect of Prime versus the Decepticon Headmaster leader. It’s also nice to see RAAT forces surrounding the lab in a nice throwback to past stories, and even better to see them getting routed by the Decepticon Pretenders (at least RAAT were fooled that they weren’t robots).

The Decepticon Pretenders fly to Ethan’s lab where they spy six giant humans standing guard. This ought to set alarm bells ringing, considering that they are about five or six times the size of your average human, but Scorponok assures them (ridiculously) that it simply means their cowardice is greater! This gives the Autobot Pretenders the opportunity to ‘reveal and roll out’, separating from their shells and mentally controlling the shells to double their fighting force.

Optimus is able to watch the battle via a video link with Goldbug, which glitches for a short time leaving the Autobot Pretenders in disarray, but Prime saves the day by subjecting Scorponok to a data surge and defeating him and then commanding the Autobots to victory of the Decepticon Pretenders who retreat.

Ethan and Goldbug are delighted, and Optimus Prime believes he has discovered a renewed purpose as a warrior and a leader before asking, “when is the next game?” Oh dear.

This is to be Ethan’s final appearance in the comic, so we can assume that he hands over the disk of Optimus Prime to Goldbug. In closing, we get zero development from any of the new Pretender characters, but you imagine that Bob Budiansky has done just enough to get the suited Hasbro executive off his back for now. Unlike the Headmasters who seem to have made the comic their own, the Pretenders are quickly forgotten about, though unfortunately the concept is here to stay.

Next issue, from monsters to the undead, it’s one of my favourite 1988 stories and one that was made for Dan Reed’s art – the City of Fear.

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Salvage!

Shockwave recovers Megatron from his watery grave to use as an agent against Galvatron, who appears to have mentally broken poor old Ultra Magnus…

‘Look who’s in Transformers’, teases the Transformation page for issue 160 with Lee Sullivan’s realistic drawing of a familiar face from the ‘real world’ – Richard Branson. Genuinely this was unexpected.

Branson was/is one of the Britain’s most recognisable business personalities, and in April 1988 when the comic was released, he was famous for high-profile marketing stunts such as driving a tank through New York’s 5th Avenue or wearing a wedding dress to launch his Virgin Brides line.

It’s easy to imagine that when Marvel UK asked if he would like to appear in Britain’s best-selling weekly comic, Branson was tickled by the idea. It may well have engendered some goodwill from young readers towards Virgin corporation (and sales as the Virgin Media stores) but if Sir Richard was hoping to look cool and down with the kids, he might be disappointed. If anything, he’s on the receiving end of some Decepticon humiliation, in a manner that other billionaire GB Blackrock knows well.

Our story opens with a full-page of Megatron and Centurion being dredged from the bottom of the Thames by Mr Branson, while still locked in the battle poses they were in when bombed by Action Force in the Ancient Relics crossover story.

Mr Branson is dreaming of his corporation being splashed across the headlines – all good publicity for his environmental credentials (that was a thing in the 80s too!) -when an employee shouts a shark warning. This sounds ridiculous, as ‘there are no sharks in the Thames’, but the Seacon Jawbreaker pops up and bites through the chains that are holding the two petrified giants. Then Blitzwing, Ramjet, Dirge, and Thrust swoop down make off with Mr Branson’s prize, leaving the tycoon shaking his fists.

Hours later at Mount Verona, USA, the Sparkler Minibots – Sizzle, Fizzle and Guzzle – free Magnus from his tomb, where he’s been contained since the 1987 Transformers Annual. Magnus is at first disorientated and then overcome with fear as images of his fateful last encounter with Galvatron flood back. Sullivan’s nightmarish depiction of Galvatron’s laughing face inside a Decepticon sign is genuinely creepy.

FYI Salvage is Lee Sullivan’s first ‘interiors’ for Transformers UK after cutting his teeth on a series of covers. I wasn’t a fan back in the day, as I didn’t think robots should have human expressions, wrinkles and saliva – metal faces shouldn’t contort. But revisiting the story now I think Lee has done a much better job than I’d initially given him credit. His splash page of Optimus Prime looming over a cowering Megatron in part two is particularly inspired.

When Magnus and the Sparklers catch sight of the Decepticon jets flying Megatron and Centurion in the direction of Fortress Sinister, their original and long abandoned base, the Autobots set off to investigate. Meanwhile, a shadowy figure keeps watch outside the said base. Sullivan does well to conceal the figure’s identity, but most fans will have immediately twigged it was Galvatron.

Why’s he there? Well, ever since Enemy Action Galvy has been keeping tabs on Shockwave and plotting his moves to overthrow him. He thought the present day Decepticon leader had ‘escaped’ him by blasting his island base into space, only for Shockwave to fall to Earth moments later in a blaze of fire. As we know, he was shot down by Fortress Maximus in last week’s story and got sucked into Earth’s gravitational pull. His demise looked conclusive, and it will see Shockwave written out of the US comic for the next two years, while Ratbat rules.

However, Simon Furman has need of Shockwave for his developing storyline in the UK and downplays the demise, which is a shame as Bob Budiansky had written such a good exit for the character. Now the Earthfall is relegated to a minor setback leaving Shockwave stranded with a handful of remaining Decepticons but free to pursue his long-term aim of ending the threat of Galvatron. What’s odd about this of course is that Shockwave is worried about Galvatron stealing his command, when Ratbat has actually gone and done exactly this. How has Shockwave not realised?

Inside the fortress, Snaptrap shows himself to be quite capable as Shockwave’s mad scientist sidekick complete with ‘psycho-probe’ equipment. Finding Megatron in a vegetative state, it will be necessary to stimulate coax his catatonic mind back to consciousness and requiring the former Decepticon leader to overcome his greatest fears along the way.

Ultra Magnus is about to face the same mental trial, as he arrives at Fortress Sinister with the Sparklers hoping to prevent Megatron’s revival, he runs into his archnemesis Galvatron. Magnus sinks to the ground screaming ‘nooooo’ as part one ends on a suitably dramatic cliff-hanger.

In part two, Megatron once again strides confidently through the corridors of the Decepticon fortress, is he restored to his past glory? No, as it turns out. Where once he was a force of undiluted evil, feared by the enemy and his own troops alike, now he is reduced to a quivering wreck as he is confronted with a ghost from his past… that of Optimus Prime. In the real-world Shockwave is frustrated – he needs Megatron back to his aggressive and arrogant best if he is to be of any use.

Furman now runs the twin plots of Megatron and Magnus in parallel as both are forced to confront their demons. Magnus is on his knees, broken by the haunting memory of past battles with Galvatron, battles where he’s been utterly defeated. The fear is suffocating but if he can’t get snap out of it his new friends, the Sparklers are about to become Galvatron’s next victims, having rejected the offer to take Magnus and scram.

In possibly the finest moment of the story, we’re treated to the return of Lord Straxus – who asks: ‘why so surprised to see me?’ – after all he shares the same mind as Megatron following a botched body takeover back in issue 103. As if to revel in Megatron’s weakness, Straxus proceeds to tear Prime limb from limb, just as Galvatron is busy knocking seven bells out of the Sparklers as Magnus is in the grip of despair.

Then comes the turning point for both protagonists. Megatron remembers how he used to be – previously if any being dared to challenge him, he would crush them utterly, and with that his anger swells and he punches a crater sized hole in Straxus’ face, tearing him in two! Megatron is victorious and Shockwave is pleased, his subject is now ready to receive new programming.

Likewise, Magnus finally comes to his senses, knowing he has to act to save his fellow Autobots – better to die than live a coward. He reigns blows on Galvatron, taking him by surprise and amazingly wins the battle. Galvatron is hurt and retreats (first time for everything). Magnus does not pursue but he knows now that he could have beaten his foe all along, he just lacked the confidence. Next time will be different he vows, and they will fight for the last time. That next encounter was, I think, intended to happen in Time Wars but fell by the wayside when the saga was shortened.

All in all, Salvage is a satisfying read and lays the building blocks for epic upcoming events that will take us up to and beyond the milestone 200th issue.

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Desert Island of Space

Spike’s first mission as Fortress Maximus and Autobot leader may be his last as he gives way to emotion in a desperate bid to rescue his brother from Decepticon clutches…

Our second Transformers story of 1988 from the Marvel US team of Bob Budiansky, Jose Delbo and co and its one of my favourites.

After the hugely enjoyable Headmasters mini-series, which spanned 16 weeks of the Marvel UK comic in the back-up strip spot, readers were left thirsting for more of the adventures of this great new cast of Autobots, Decepticons and their Nebulan companions. In Trial by Fire the Headmasters returned, this time in the main story, and sadly it was to prove the final curtain for Galen Kord, a central figure in the Headmasters saga, but who died passing the helmet of Fortress Maximus to Spike Witwicky. As mentioned in the last review this was inevitable if the comic was to keep in step with the Hasbro toy line which has Spike as Fort Max’s partner.

No sooner had Galen succumbed to his injuries, and a volcano’s blast, Spike was anointed by the other Autobots as his successor. Essentially, we’ve got a young man who’s straight out of college, who’s an alien to the Nebulans and Autobots, and has no military experience or credentials other than he made a promise to Galen and enjoyed one successful rout of Scorponok’s Decepticons. To say he’s a risky choice is probably an understatement.

Added to this, Spike’s judgement – and by extension Fort Max’s – is clouded by the emotional pressure he’s under to try to rescue his brother Buster from Decepticon captivity. It’s a perfect storm which comes to a head in Desert of Island of Space, where the Targetmasters take their turn in the spotlight and Kup provides the mouthpiece for all those pent-up doubts about their new ‘leader’.

It’s also a pivotal story in that it removes the Earthbound Decepticons from the stage (temporarily) to clear the way for Scorponok’s group to fill the gap, and the unlikely ascendancy of Ratbat – a subplot for several US stories now – comes to fruition as he successfully sees off Shockwave for the Decepticon leadership.

Dan Reed provides the cover for issue 158, which depicts ‘The Hostage’ aka Buster Witwicky on Shockwave’s palm as seen through the binoculars of the US Navy. The Transformation page also trumpets a four-page mini comic about The Visionaries, who are due to get their own Marvel UK monthly comic and talks up the ‘bizarre and exciting’ new Transformers that are on their way… the Pretenders.

The action begins with Buster coming-to on the shore of an island off the Florida Keys, which we know to be masking the current Decepticon undersea base. For someone who was once pursued, terrified to near death by Shockwave, the site of the cold and imposing Decepticon leader, plus Ratbat, doesn’t seem to faze him. Quite chipper, Buster asks whether he might be provided with breakfast – at which Ratbat catches a raw fish (what a skinflint) and Shockwave proves the more generous by firing a nifty laser beam from his eye to fry several fish. True to form, Ratbat complains of the waste of energy resources! LOL

Why are they keeping Buster alive? The answer is the naval armada that has gathered on the horizon, thanks to Triple I tracking the recent Decepticon raids back to their source. Head of the organisation Forest Forsythe is aboard the flagship and welcomes back Walter Barnett, who by rights should be in the firing line for stealing the Throttlebots’ brain modules prior to their execution (see the story Toy Soldiers). Lucky for him, Forsythe had a close run-in with Ratbat and the Predacons that persuaded him that there might indeed be two warring factions of Transformers.

Walter has brought along five Throttlebot brains inside toy cars (minus Goldbug of course, who has since been crushed by Ratbat and recovered by the Autobot Headmasters) and spots Buster through binoculars. This complicates things as it means the navy can’t attack while there’s a human hostage.

Bob seems to be having a moment and forgets how many Throttlebots there are. Seven are mentioned and then later in the issue Hot Rod’s Nebulan companion is mis-labelled as Sparks rather than his actual name Firebolt. This requires a bit of editing for the UK edition, some Tippex and overlay text.

Slightly silly is Sparkplug not noticing that Spike has majorly bulked up in the couple of days he was away. In fact he’s wearing a suit of Autobot armour under a baggy overcoat which ought to have raised a question mark with his dad. Perhaps it was because Spike is visiting his dad’s motel room at 5.36am and Sparkplug is a bit sleepy? Barnett calls to say that Buster has been located but he’s not at liberty to divulge the location. Spike holds the wire and ‘traces the call’, one of his many new abilities since binary bonding to Fortress Maximus.

This rather gives the game away so Spike leads his dad outside and introduces him to Fortress Maximus and Cerebros, demonstrating that he can now transform and combine with the pair of them (you can only imagine how Sparkplug must be feeling about this, having sought to keep his other son away from the Transformers war, now here’s his eldest becoming intimately involved). Spike reassures that this is the best way of rescuing Buster and goes on to introduce the six Targetmasters emerging from the bushes, and their Nebulan partners.

As mentioned, the Autobots had taken quite a chance on bonding the inexperienced, alien Spike with their leader, and it would be quite understandable for this to have thrown up some concerns in the camp. These misgivings are voiced by Kup, in private to his Targetmaster colleagues, that Spike is ‘too emotional’ and will lead them to the junkyard if they let him! He’s at least consistent, as he’ll be on the verge of leading a mutiny against Optimus Prime in the run up to the Unicron war.

I very much enjoy the humorous moment where Forsythe, on being prevented from blasting the approaching Autobot shuttle by Rollbar who protests that it’s their comrades coming to help, complains that he cannot believe that he is expected to take orders from a “*$@# toy”! (he he).

Issue 159’s cover, dated 2nd April 1988, depicts Fortress Maximus harpooned in space and Shockwave closing in. For reasons I could never fathom his robot mode remains uncoloured. An oversight? The story opens with the Targetmasters storming the beach WW2 style, as Kup restrains the eager Fortress Maximus to hang back and provide covering fire in his battle station mode, lest his feelings get in the way.

Spike at this point feels too much like the new boy to argue, but it’s a mistake as the Targetmasters quickly come under heavy attack by an array of automated weaponry that emerges from below ground. They are repelled just as glass encases the island and the bases transforms into a rocket which starts blasting off.

Fortress Maximus, motivated by Spike’s strong desire to rescue Buster, launches himself at the rocket and clings on as it blasts into Earth orbit. Kup’s concerns appear to have come to pass, but was this foolishness or guts?

Inside the craft Ratbat continues to goad the rather patient Shockwave in the manner of a nagging spouse, pointing out that Max had tagged along and risks dragging them down (surely, he’s not that heavy in context of a huge rocket?). Shockwave clearly feels he has something to prove to Ratbat, this representative of the Cybertron Decepticon leadership, and activates the ship’s external defences – a huge pitch fork WTAF? It’s followed by a harpoon fired from a palm tree in the island section that spears the Autobot leader through the chest. Fortress Maximus’ new and improved body is incapacitated but he can still transform to Cerebros and continue his advance.

So, Shockwave ‘takes matters into his own hands’ heading outside in space gun mode to put Cerebros out of commission. Spike ejects and transforms, again demonstrating solid tactics or perhaps a lucky streak by commanding Fortress Maximus’ guns to blast Shockwave, sending him into Earth’s gravitational pull and sending him into sky fall, with Ratbat smugly welcoming the leader’s demise and seeing this as his chance to seize his chance to take command of the Decepticons.

Spike and Buster come face to face on opposite sides of the island dome. The big brother vows to find a way of freeing his sibling, just as Decepticon craft accelerates away. Spike is stranded in space but not for long as the Autobot shuttle shortly arrives and collects him. On board he’s gutted about the loss of Buster and shamed by the damaged to Fortress Maximus. However, Kup now sees things differently. He realises that he should have had more faith in Spike who has shown himself to be a true hero and worthy of the Autobot name.

In closing, the harpoon and pitchfork are a bit camp and gimmicky, typical Bob Budiansky lighter moments, but it all helps to make the story enjoyable and Spike’s heroism and the loss of his brother at the end are genuinely touching.

Clearly, Shockwave is meant to be written of the US storyline at this point and he’ll be gone for two years or so before turning up off the coast of Blackpool falling his planet fall. However, Simon Furman is not done with the character and intends to use him going forwards, starting in the very next issue. For this reason, Shockwave’s commentary in UK version of the story has been changed to ‘logical that I fall to Earth’ rather than burning up. Of course, this means his later appearance at Blackpool will be somewhat awkward and not satisfactorily explained.

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Trial by Fire!

Joy of joy, the Headmasters arrive on Earth but it’s a bittersweet moment as tragedy strikes… and Spike Witwicky makes his comic breakthrough.

In the 1980s, Transformers fans were mostly divided between those who celebrated the Sunbow cartoons and considered them canon, and that other more sophisticated bunch (at least we thought so) who worshipped at the altar of the comics. As much as I enjoyed the cartoon, I was firmly in the latter camp.

The cartoon had its classics – Heavy Metal War and War Dawn being two – but a lot of it was light entertainment. Whereas the comic seemed to set the bar consistently higher, with sublime stories like Target 2006 and The Smelting Pool (admittedly there was the odd dodgy number, like Car Wash of Doom).

The Marvel UK letters pages, hosted by Soundwave and then Grimlock, enjoyed taking a poke at the cartoons and insisting that the comic had the greater claim to being considered canon. It dismissed Spike Witwicky as a figment of the cartoon’s imagination, at best their version of our own Buster Witwicky.

So, as UK issue 156 rolls around in March 1988, the editorial team finds themselves eating humble pie, forced to acknowledge that Spike not only exists within the comic universe but that he’s about to play a major role from here onwards.

The game changer here is (as always) Hasbro, omnipresent owner of the Transformers brand. They’ve released a Fortress Maximus toy that has Spike as its Headmaster partner, so of course that means Spike must now appear in the comic.

The trouble is that, in the 3-4 years since we met the Witwickys, Spike has never been mentioned once. So what to do? Writer Bob Budiansky comes up with the explanation that Spike is Buster’s older brother and he has been at college these past four years. In that time nobody thought to tell him of the family’s close involvement in the Transformers war. That’s pretty lame but probably the best Bob could come up with on the spot. The Transformation page in #156 notes that if readers think Spike’s arrival at the same time as the Headmasters is purely coincidental, they ought to know better.

Trial by Fire opens with Fortress Maximus on the operating table, undergoing enhancing surgery to double his size, as the Headmasters’ ship ‘Steelhaven’ warps from Nebulos to Earth. Max seems to have gone from being this focal point and the conscience of the Autobot cause during the Headmasters mini-series, to now being a barely speaking tool of war whose Nebulan partner Galen does all the talking for him.

It’s unclear how much time has passed since the Autobots left Nebulos with Lord Zarak and the Decepticons in pursuit, but it’s time enough for Galen to have had a major personality reset. Gone is the compassionate, committed pacifist and in his place is a focused, single-minded warrior, intent on achieving victory in the Transformer war. Ironically, Galen is reminiscent of how Zarak was after bonding with Decepticon leader Scorponok. ‘If war is their fate, they must accept it and do all they can to win’ is the new mantra.

Galen can sense the awesome new power of Fortress Maximus, ‘power enough to destroy the Decepticons once they reach Earth’ and that’s as good a plug for the Fort Max toy as any (sadly, like so much else in the toy range, he wasn’t on sale in the UK). Galen’s lack of concern for the fact that Earth is teeming with innocent life jars with Autobot values – it’s the very opposite of Optimus Prime for example – and there’s a sense that momentary abandoning of responsibilities will come back to bite.

On Earth, Spike arrives at the scene of devastation that was his dad’s auto garage. When we last saw Sparkplug, he was at the mercy of Ratbat and the Predacons so you immediately fear the worst. Thankfully Bob doesn’t drag things out. He has Sparkplug reappear almost immediately, having been pulled from the rubble ‘off camera’ and thankfully unscathed. He’s able to quickly bring Spike up to speed about their connection with the Transformers and how Buster had gone to Mount St Hillary to find the Autobots.

Spike resolves to find his brother. Luckily, he knows the way, as we’re told he used to play in the Mount St Hillary caves as a kid, though this seems a stretch when you consider that it’s a two-hour drive away (a vacation perhaps?).

He’s at the cave and marvelling at the ginormous machinery left behind when the Ark departed, when the five Autobot Headmasters arrive. They discover the battered toy-car form of Goldbug and Chromedome patches himself in and projects images from Goldbug’s memory of Ratbat attacking and carrying off Buster. Fortress Maximus squashes suggestions of a rescue, as outside their mission parameters, and the first part ends with Spike emerging from his hiding place to protest.

Part two establishes Spike and Galen as the story’s key dynamic.

Spike feels that the Autobots, as ‘the good guys’, are obligated to help him find Buster. When Fortress Maximus refuses, he is accused (by Spike) of being a cold-hearted machine and Galen reveals himself as flesh and blood, the man in the machine. They may be alike physically, but they have very different priorities. Galen insists that the needs of the many outweigh those of an individual, and they all depart leaving Spike to camp down for the night, alone.

Next, the Decepticon craft emerges from hyperspace (if the vessel has a name, readers are not privy to it). As if to illustrate his all-around rottenness, Galen’s opposite number Lord Zarak sees no beauty in the Earth and dismisses their new home as ‘flyspeck mudball’. He’s impatient to get to the surface and track down the Autobots, who are most likely to be found near the source of Goldbug’s distress signal in the cave which formerly housed the Ark.

They make their way down (do they skydive from orbit like the Autobots? I’m surprised they don’t melt) and Mindwipe identifies the source of the interstellar signal that brought them to Earth. Spike can tell that these guys are bad news, and when they aren’t looking he hits a switch to reactivate Goldbug’s distress call, knowing that the Autobots will come back and he can warn them.

It does the trick but not before Spike is discovered and is shot at before being trapped and menaced by Scorponok. Luckily for Spike the Autobot Headmasters arrive in the nick of time and the two sides pick up where they left off on Nebulos – except this time Fortress Maximus is bigger and more powerful. Soon the battle is turning in the direction of the Autobots. Scorponok needs an advantage, and the sight of Spike’s blanket presents an opportunity.

Spike flees into the caverns, finding himself at the molten core of the volcano (!) as Scorponok closes in. Fortress Maximus spies Scorponok’s absence from the fight and pursues, but his enlarged form is too big to get through the caves and so he detaches as the regular sized Cerebros. The smaller Autobot attacks Scorponok and his head transforms into Galen who takes on Zarak. The pair fight on a rock bridge just metres above a molten lava river. Their titanic struggle has come to this moment, thousands of light years from their native Nebulos.

Zarak is pinned down but wily as ever. He radio-commands Scorponok to blast the rock above Spike. Galen heroically pushes Spike out of the way and takes the impact of the boulders himself. Mortally wounded, but at last restored to full nobility, Galen instructs Spike to take his helmet so that his death will not be in vain.

Then, in an incredible closing page which packs and amazing amount into 10 panels, Scorponok is topside and turning the tide of the battle when Fortress Maximus arrives very much alive and ready to fight. Spike wears Galen’s helmet and controls Max now – he unleashes the power of the Headmaster leader on the Decepticons, who beat a swift retreat.

Finally, as the Autobots get clear, there’s a spectacular explosion/eruption at Mount St Hillary, signifying a fitting tribute to their lost leader Galen and, Hardhead suggests, a suitable welcome to their new commander, Spike Witwicky! Wowzers!

In closing, it’s a fine story – brilliant to see the Headmaster cast on Earth but so frustrating and sad to see the end of Galen. He’s been effectively killed off and replaced by his omission from the toyline, which is a real shame as he had a lot more developing to do. How would Galen have settled on Earth, how would his feud with Zarak have played out, would he ever have returned to Nebulos to clear his name and reunite with his lost love, Llyra?

Sadly, this is the last we’ll see of Galen. A main character in the Headmasters mini-series but not destined to play a role in the saga now that the cast has arrived on Earth. However, the question of how Spike will cope with being thrust into the forefront of the war is also an intriguing prospect, and one we’ll get a chance to explore in the next instalment, the Desert Island of Space. At this point in its run, the Marvel Transformers comic is really going from strength to strength.

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Toy Soldiers

The Throttlebots survive a public execution after their brains are transferred to remote controlled toy cars, but surviving the Predacons and Ratbat may prove to be altogether more difficult!

Toy Soldiers was published in the pages of Transformers #154 and #155 from Marvel UK in late February/early March 1988. It was the first US material to feature that year and comes off the back of eight weeks of strong stories from the UK team.

Personally, I was pleased. The variety is good, and I always enjoy a good Bob Budiansky tale, even off the wall stuff like Autobots transplanted into toy cars. Plus, we readers get to see what happened to the Throttlebots following their capture by Walter Barnett and Triple III some three months earlier. It’s felt like a long wait.

Toy Soldiers is classic ‘Uncle Bob’ with a wacky concept of the toy car Autobots and comedy element of them running rings around the lumbering Predacons, juxtaposed with the quite shocking and brutal way that the Throttlebots are car crushed to death in a TV execution. This is a story with light and shade and sets us up nicely for the big event of the year, the arrival on Earth of the Headmasters and Targetmasters.

Bryan Hitch provides the covers of both UK issues, with the sketch of the junked Throttlebots being the better of the two (even though they don’t actually end up in a scrap yard as depicted). Transformation page in issue #154 talks up the story as another of those ‘humans strike back moments’ that occasionally come along. There’s also a non-subtle plug for Death’s Head’s appearance in Doctor Who Magazine 135, which I’m sure will have put on a lot of sales for that issue of DWM.

The story begins the Predacons raiding a chemical storage facility. US readers won’t have seen the team since their debut in Gone But Not Forgotten, although Simon Furman featured them in the UK story Grudge Match, so this is a good way for Bob to remind us that they are still around. They seem to enjoy the outing and the chance to skirmish with the humans, but the resistance is so feeble that you wonder if this is suitable work for the Decepticons’ elite hunter cadre.

The Constructicons, another rarely seen team, are also helping themselves to raw materials. Interestingly they are labelled as a quintet, with Mixmaster is missing for some unexplained reason. I do enjoy the way Blitzwing shows up and nets Longhaul, flying him back to base. It shows some coordinated Decepticon teamwork even if it’s difficult to believe that Longhaul could have been carrying enough materials to build very much. Overall, the picture is of the Decepticons running rampant and humanity powerless to do anything about them.

Watching developments with growing concern is Triple III, the appalling and incompetent US agency tasked with tackling the robot menace. This terrible outfit previously ripped off the comic character Robot Master to con the public into thinking the Transformers were an Earth-grown menace, they only ever succeed in capturing Autobots and their leader Forsyth refuses to acknowledge the existence of the warring factions. You would think that learning the nature of the enemy they face would be essential to their work.

Walter Barnett is sent to interrogate the six captured Throttlebots, who have been drained of fuel to prevent their escape and can now be reactivated and switched between robot and vehicle modes by their captives. Goldbug reiterates that the Decepticons are responsible and he’s rather surprised that the Autobots don’t seem to be containing them much these days – little does he realise that Grimlock has whisked the Ark off to space. Barnett tows the line, that the notion of two warring camps is unacceptable to Triple III but he clearly has come to believe that Goldbug is speaking the truth. Actually the scene rather reminds me of when Galen would go to see the captive Autobot heads of Fortress Maximus and the others in the Headmasters saga.

Barnett gets a work visit from his wife and young son, which seems a bit unreasonable when he’s working until Mrs B reveals that its Sunday and this is the only way they get to see him. Barnett’s son has brought along not one but six toy cars which is somewhat excessive, however it’s a significant detail as these are of course the cars that Barnett will use to smuggle out the Throttlebot brains.

That night he’s home at last when Forsythe appears on TV to warn that the next act of robo-terrorism will result in the destruction of their six Transformer captives. This is an open invitation to the Decepticons and sure enough more attacks follow. Termination of the Autobots is set for 6pm, in time for the evening news, and Barnett realises he must work fast. So, he leaves home at 4am, much to his wife’s annoyance and has a pre-dawn discussion with Goldbug…

Next comes the main event of the story. As evening falls, each Throttlebot is magnetically hoisted aloft and dropped into a car crusher, getting compressed and emerging out the other side squished as a block. This is as brutal takedown of a Transformer as we’ve seen since Optimus Prime was detonated by Ethan Zachary.

Luckily Barnett has saved the day. As he’s driving home, we learn that he recovered the brains of each Throttlebot and has inserted them into the six toy cars. They are connected to the battery to allow them to speak and (if that sounds implausible) their optical fibres are attached to the car headlamps to allow them to see! Goldbug thinks they’ll need help to get into the Ark – only one human can do it and that’s his old friend Buster Witwicky.

At this point we haven’t seen good old Buster in the comic since the awful 1987 story The Carwash of Doom, and as we drop in on the Witwicky auto workshop we find Buster feeling miserable about the apparent death by car crusher of his old friend Bumblebee. Even the news that his brother Spike is returning from college fails to lift his spirits… This news of another Witwicky son is of course a very big revelation. For over 150 issues we’ve been led to believe that Buster was the comic version of Spike from the Sunbow Transformers cartoons, but it turns out that wasn’t the case.

The second part begins with the Predacons launching an assault on Triple I headquarters. Forsythe orders all units to repel the invaders, with the RAAT assault vehicles making a reappearance and getting swatted aside. Tantrum and Headstrong beat a path to the heart of the compound where they locate the Throttlebot cubes.

It transpires that Ratbat is leading the missing and he’s been in Divebomb’s maw in his cassette mode. At his instruction, Razorclaw tears into one of the carcasses and is satisfied that their enemies are indeed destroyed. Ratbat is not so sure and soon spots the absence of the brains. It’s cathartic to see Forsyth getting pounced on and for the penny to drop that there are indeed warring factions of Transformers, like he’s been told all along. Luckily for him, Ratbat has detected a scent from the brains, and they all clear off leaving Forsythe to fight another day.

Walter Barnett finds Sparkplug and Buster and convinces them (with help from Goldbug) that national security is at stake – Buster must escort them to the Ark. They set off in the Witwicky pick-up with the Predacons arriving moments later and collapsing the garage on top of poor old Sparkplug.

Buster and Barnett stop at a mall to pick up batteries for the Autobots. Buster, for contrived reasons, is carrying around his cassette deck rather than leaving it in the car. Soon the mall is breached as Ratbat and Divebomb shatter the glass roof and Headstrong, Tantrum and Razorclaw trash everything in their path. Terrified shoppers run for cover, and in the melee Barnet drops the suitcase of Autobots allowing them to spill out and lead the Predacons on a chase.

Ratbat goes after Buster but is thwarted when Barnett brings a security gate crashing down on the Decepticon and pins him. Out of the reader’s sight, Ratbat is able to transform and insert himself into Buster’s ghetto blaster, while the latter was replacing Goldbug’s batteries. They take off, leaving Barnett and the other Throttlebots and complete the hours long journey to Mount St Hillary – only to find the Ark and a bunch of discarded machines left behind.

As luck would have it, among the junk is an intergalactic transceiver, which Goldbug uses to send a distress call to Cybertron. This is, we’re told, the message that Hot Rod detected on Nebulos. However, before they can leave Ratbat flies into the cave, crushes Goldbug with a talon, and is poised to attack Buster! It’s a case of ‘to be continued’…

On the letters page, Grimlock responds to a kid who claims to have found Sky Lynx on sale in the UK by asking to be sent the box. Was this Marvel wanting to warn their Hasbro buddies about erroneous imports or possible fakes, i.e. I managed to pick up a Shockwave toy in grey and different packaging at a market. Meanwhile the next week box talks up the next big event, the arrival of the Headmasters.

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Enemy Action

The Seacons make their UK debut in an underwater battle with Galvatron; while on land the Firecons and make things uncomfortably hot for the Sparkler Mini-bots!

One of Bob Budiansky’s major headaches as the writer of Marvel’s monthly Transformers comic in the US was the constant pressure to introduce new characters, to keep pace with Hasbro’s expanding toy range.

Bob came up with several inventive plot devices over the years, from the Creation Matrix to personality engrams in crystals used to create the new Autobots, before eventually settling on the Space Bridge as a handy device for introducing waves of new warriors from Cybertron.

As a fan I found it exciting when new Transformers appeared in the comics. It was fun to learn their bios, abilities, unique weaponry, and of course their mottos. So, Enemy Action, a UK story from February 1988, is a treat because it introduces no fewer than twelve new characters – that’s the six Seacons, three Firecons and three Sparkabots (for some reason the UK comic would refer to them as Sparkler mini-bots). In fact, it’s thirteen new characters if you include the Seacon combined form, Pirranacon.

This is time it is Simon Furman, not Budiansky, adding to the cast. Simon was not under a Hasbro mandate to do so, he did it for the sheer fun of it apparently and because he liked the idea of an underwater story. This was several months before these characters would appear in the American comic so once again Simon is stealing a march on the parent title as he had done by featuring the Transformers the Movie cast and the Predacons long before they appeared Stateside.

To ensure there’s no loss of momentum following the Legacy of Unicron epic, the comic is bringing back one of the most dangerous Decepticons (and most popular guest stars) the future leader, Galvatron.

We last saw Galvatron in Ladies’ Night, breaking free from his volcano tomb. Now he’s straight back to the forefront, striding along the seabed towards the present day Decepticons’ undersea base off the coast of Florida.

His approach has not gone unnoticed by Commander Shockwave who fears that Galvatron has come to take his crown (and with it everything he has worked so hard to accomplish). It’s easy to feel some sympathy for Shockwave at this point, after all it was only a few issues ago that we witnessed his brutal execution in the future at the hands of Death’s Head.

Shockwave is so jittery that he almost incinerates Soundwave for sneaking up on him, in a comical moment. Soundwave is the loyal deputy but also offers some wise advice: they could try speaking to Galvatron and perhaps coming to an agreement based on their mutual interests as Decepticons.

While Shockwave can see the logic of an alliance, his personal survival comes first. So he orders their untested new troops the Seacons – who were imported from Cybertron to work on the base’s fortifications rather than combat – to go toe to toe with Galvatron.

Soundwave’s disapproval is evident via a clenched fist and thought bubble “On your head be it”. Soundwave is no fan of Galvatron – he got buried alive by him in Target: 2006 for starters – and has led the Combaticons on the mission to finish off the future Decepticon when he was trapped in Mount Verona) but Soundwave has also made a career out of aligning himself with whoever rules. Galvatron would just be a continuation of that. Not so for Shockwave.

Lee Sullivan’s memorable ‘sea scrape’ cover provided the hint of the battle to come. Snaptrap, having received his orders, instructs the team to hit their opponent ‘hard and fast’ – no doubt this is the best way to compensate for the team’s lack of experience with their new Earth modes.

The five Seacons take turns to attack, giving readers a sense of each one, while Galvatron arrogantly dismisses them as nautical non-entities. His overconfidence is put into check briefly though by Seawing’s paralysing sting.

Readers with prior experience of Galvatron will not be surprised that the Seacons are, to pardon the pun, out of their depth against this opponent. Even in their combined form Pirranacon, they don’t fair much better.

A couple of nitpicks/observations. Overbite is named Jawbreaker in the story – it’s never made clear why the comic departed from the official toy name or whether this was done in error. Pirranacon’s name has two Rs, though the word piranha, which it is presumably derived from doesn’t. Also Jeff Anderson, the story’s artist, draws Pirrancon as pretty comparable in size to Galvatron. I think it would have been more dramatic for him to be much larger, similar to the Megatron versus Predaking contest in Budiansky’s 1987 classic Gone But Not Forgotten.

At this point Furman brings in the story’s other protagonists, starting with the Sparklers, Sizzle, Fizzle, and Guzzle. They were sent to Earth by the Wreckers leader Springer to keep tabs on Galvatron and have followed him to the beach. Since the trio have no undersea modes they are unable to follow any further.

It’s curious that Springer is preoccupied with Galvatron. You might think he has enough on his plate with trying to overthrow Decepticon rule on Cybertron without also picking a fight with the most powerful Decepticon on Earth. Then again, perhaps he knows of the Cybertron Decepticons’ plan to recruit Galvatron, or simply fears that Grimlock’s Earthbound Autobots have abdicated their responsibility.

As it turns out, the Sparklers are not destined to be mere bystanders after all… for they are suddenly confronted by the Firecons – Cindersaur, Sparkstalker, and Flamefeather! See below.

So, to part two and issue #153. The first thing you notice when picking up the issue is Snake Eyes and another Action Force guy (Flint?) bursting out of the cover as Sizzle, Fizzle and Guzzle look on in horror. I think the trio are meant to be recoiling from the sight of the Firecons but maybe the merger has got them spooked?

Transformations sells this as major win for fans of both comics – a two for the price of one. Soon enough AF it would settle into that traditional back-up strip role, but unlike previous back-ups its logo appears on the cover along side Transformers so this is a new development. Combat Colin has been annexed from the former AF comic, taking-up the regular cartoon spot vacated by Robo Capers and would go on to become a firm favourite of the readers.

Returning to the story, part two picks up with the Firecons, breathing fire in all directions like a pack of dragons post-feasting on hot chili peppers. We discover that they are here to secure Galvatron for their masters on Cybertron and any Autobots in their way are set to the feel the heat.

Fizzle is soon made to sizzle, courtesy of Cindersaur, and plunges into deep water to recover. Oddly, Fizzle is coloured red and Sizzle is blue, which is the opposite of their official toys. All three Sparkler mini-bots, while a likeable bunch, are rather homogenous and so maybe the production team had trouble telling them apart?

The unarmed Sparklers ‘remember’ that they can also discharge their own flame courtesy of their engines while in vehicle mode. Sizzle demonstrates this on Spark Stalker, which feels a bit contrived to show off the toy gimmick if I’m honest. While Guzzle sticks to the more convention tank mode gun barrel to take down Cindersaur.

Below depths, Galvatron finishes off Pirranacon with a well-placed blast, breaking him up into his component Seacons, before punching his way into the Decepticon base. With seawater flowing in behind him, he declares to Shockwave and the assembled warriors that he had come in peace seeking an alliance, but Shockwave’s hostile actions have made an enemy of him and when they next meet all Decepticons will pay. He then exits leaving Shockwave to fend off some very angry looks from his warriors.

So, clearly it was Galvatron’s plan all along to provoke Shockwave into attacking and creating an opportunity for Galvatron to drive a wedge between the Decepticon leader and his warriors. Pretty smart, but Galvatron is powerful enough to come in and take the leadership if he had wanted to. I think most Decepticons would have fallen into line out of fear or opportunism, I’m not sure the political machinations are that necessary.

On the other hand, surely Galvatron becoming leader in 1988 would have been a significant change to the timeline such that he might unravel the events that lead to his own creation by Unicron in 2006? If that’s on his mind he doesn’t voice it. This is unlike the Galvatron of Target: 2006 who clearly conscious of disrupting the timeline.

Enemy Action’s two plots neatly converge as Galvatron exits the ocean with the unconscious Fizzle in his clutches. Flamefeather rushes to his side and offers the alliance with the Decepticons of Cybertron “that we may crush their mutual enemies together” only for Galvatron to laugh and dismiss this. Having skilfully avoided one alliance he’s not about to fall into another. Sizzle offers token resistance and swiftly knocked aside by Galvatron like a troublesome bug.

In closing, Shockwave has been left in command and under no illusions that his days are numbered unless he does something radical. He needs an expendable agent with the raw power enough to take down Galvatron – his choice is an intriguing one… none other than Megatron, Galvatron’s past self. This thread plays out further in the upcoming story Salvage and then comes to a head in the 1988 Transformers Annual. Lots to look forward to then.

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Legacy of Unicron (Parts 5 & 6)

Death’s Head journeys into Unicron’s mind and learns the origin of the Transformers as Rodimus travels to Junk for the final showdown with the Chaos Bringer!

January 1988 saw Marvel UK’s flagship comic, The Transformers, notch up another milestone of its eight-year run – the 150th issue.

For issue #50 we had a fight to the death between Grimlock and Sludge in the epic Dinobot Hunt (one of my faves) and on reaching triple figures readers were treated to a fantastic wraparound cover poster and an extended story featuring Optimus doing battle with barbaric cyborg apes! Yes, every bit as weird as it sounds.

Issue #150 also provides a wraparound poster that is something really special. Jerry Paris, who drew the cover of issue #1, that memorable and dare I say iconic Prime versus Soundwave cover, now turns his hand to depicting Unicron in his planet devouring glory. This sets us up nicely for issue #150’s story – the honest to gosh origin of the Transformers.

It’s a bold move into unchartered territory and moving beyond anything we’ve seen so far from the Transformers’ American parent title. This was Simon Furman and the UK comic laying the foundations of the franchise and staking a claim to being the main canon. It also makes #150 one of the most significant issues in the Transformers run. Arguably an origin story was needed following the events of the 1986 movie which established the relationship between Unicron and the Matrix.

So, to the story, which is pencilled this time by Jeff Anderson. It begins with Wreck-Gar deploying explosives in a cavern underneath the head of Unicron. It’s like a modern-day Guy Fawkes moment.

Unicron, for all his vast mental ability is strangely oblivious. His attention is focused on Death’s Head who has somehow managed to inject his consciousness into Unicron’s vast mindscape. The planet eater is impressed by his slave’s resourcefulness and ‘bare faced effrontery’. Whilst it will not be enough to spare Death’s Head from oblivion, as a last request Unicron will share with him a story unheard of by any mortal – Unicron’s origin!

‘Elsewhere in the real world’ Rodimus Prime’s shuttle soars towards the planet of Junk. The Autobot leader ponders who Unicron really is and why he’s so hell bent on destroying Cybertron. He also watches Smokescreen at the ship’s controls with barely concealed contempt for abandoning Prime’s pal Wreck-Gar. Smokescreen takes it on the chin as he’s desperately disappointed by his own actions, but it’s hardly fair.

We learn from Unicron that he was once a god of chaos and fury who was pitched in an eternal battle against his counterpart, Primus, leader of the light gods and protector of all life in the universe. According to Unicron, he had the measure of Primus, both in the physical realm and the astral plane (perhaps wishful thinking on his part as the two seem essentially to be in stalemate). Primus knew this and outsmarted Unicron. He fled the astral plane with Unicron pursuing and materialised them both within enormous barren asteroids.

They appeared to be trapped for all eternity. However, as the millennia passed, Unicron used his fury and hatred to physically reshape his prison, becoming a mobile planet. Much later he was able to restructure himself further, adding a robot form. In effect he had become the first Transformer!

Primus had also shaped his body but rather than become a giant robot and continue their evenly matched battle, he instead chose to become the habitable world of Cybertron. He created the Transformers to succeed him and distilled his essence into a Matrix capable of giving life but also destroying Unicron. Pretty clever.

We also learn that Primus and Unicron shared a mental link and therefore is aware of the other’s motives and plans. Unicron knew the danger of the Matrix, which is why in the Movie he recruits Megatron and transforms him into Galvatron to act as his agent to capture and destroy the Matrix. As we know, Galvatron failed and Hot Rod eventually unleashed the power of the Matrix, becoming elevated into Rodimus Prime and destroying the planet eater.

Unicron’s concentration is broken as Rodimus’ shuttle arrives and begins a bombing run. He returns fire using the deadly laser eye beams we saw in the Movie. The Junkions are ordered to counterattack along with Death’s Head, who resists and is lucky to escape a Unicron eye beam in his direction. It’s enough, however, to send Wreck-Gar tumbling inside the underground shaft, burying him under rubble just as the detonator counts down. Eeks!

A Rodimus fact file rounds off the treats for issue #150 before we move on to the next issue and the concluding part of the Legacy of Unicron. There’s a hint on the Transformations page about a ‘major new development’ in the pipeline, which will turn out to be the closure of the weekly Action Force comic and amalgamating it into Transformers as the regular back-up strip. Bryan Hitch, one of the AF artists, makes his TF debut and makes an instant impact with a truly demonic depiction of Unicron’s head.

As Prime decamps to the surface of Junk, Smokescreen continues to strafe Unicron’s eye beams in an apparent death wish. He’s giving Scattershot the jitters and perhaps Unicron too, as the demi-god orders Cyclonus and Scourge to head for Junk to bolster his defences. With their departure from the battle on Cybertron, Soundwave can see no point in continuing the suicide attack and orders a strategic Decepticon retreat. This is the point where Soundwave can be said to have taken over the leadership of the future Decepticons.

Hitch strikes an incredibly dramatic pose for Rodimus Prime, who is wracked with guilt at the fate of the Junkion slaves (whom the Dinobots are busy dismantling). Death’s Head arrives with an appeal for Prime to trust him. Next thing he’s holding the Matrix up to Unicron alongside a defeated Rodimus and asking to bargain. Unicron immediately prepares to capture Death’s Head’s mind again and the bounty hunter propels Prime into the psychic plane where he confronts Unicron (appearing as regular sized) as a surrogate for Primus.

I’m not sure of what the point of the confrontation is. Rodimus is hopelessly out of his depth and runs a real of risk of losing the Matrix to the great enemy. Thankfully Death’s Head pulls him out in the nick of time, having also freed Wreck-Gar from his entombment.

Things then rush to a swift conclusion over the space of two pages. Cyclonus and Scourge arrive just as the explosives begin to detonate. Death’s Head knows the only route of escape – the only way to fulfil his contract on the pair – is to bundles all three of them into Unicron’s time portal so that they can fight another day. They vanish just as Unicron is engulfed in a catastrophic explosion that rains debris on to Rodimus and his allies.

As the dust settles, we learn that Unicron’s essence has been absorbed into the Matrix. Such a powerful evil would surely taint the sacred lifeforce but that’s a story for another time. In the short postscript we discover that Cyclonus and Scourge were transported to Cybertron’s past where they joined Scorponok’s army and this explains how the pair are able to exist in the past as Target Masters. Nicely done Simon Furman.

We end on a line about the real star of the show, ‘of Death’s Head there was no trace’. What happens to him? He’ll encounter Doctor Who at the crossroads of time but shrunk to human size and then wind up in Earth’s distant future in a springboard to his own monthly Marvel title.

So ends the first epic tale of 1988 with a lot more still to come.

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