A homesick Starscream is encouraged to learn the joy of giving at Christmas time!
It feels a bit odd to review a Transformers Christmas story in the middle of April. Then again today has been hailstones and a biting wind so perhaps its appropriately wintery after all. Roll on the spring please!
Stargazing is the third in what would become an annual tradition of Marvel UK’s festive Transformers stories. They are typically snow-sprinkled, somewhat smaltzy tales of an Autobot or Decepticon discovering the Christmas spirit or overcoming some personal drama thanks to the festive season. Previously we’ve seen Circuit Breaker sparing Jazz after hearing Christmas bells, and Jetfire recovering his lost confidence thanks to a pep talk from Buster Witwicky as he took a break from wrapping presents. So it seems a logical step to feature a Decepticon this year – in this case Starscream.
Somewhat unusually, Simon Furman provides the plot but its his old editor Ian Rimmer who wrote the script for Stargazing. Jeff Anderson provides the interior art and there’s an enjoyable ‘Christmas so what?’ cover featuring Screamer that’s been drawn by Barry Kitson (first time we’ve seen him in a long while) and Robin Boutell.
We last saw Starscream way back in issue #88 when (at the conclusion of Target 2006) he was placed in stasis by Hot Rod, Kup and Blurr, who were visiting from the future to carry out a mission for Unicron. According to the splash page that pod was just a few metres from a main road that’s obviously busy enough to warrant a street light, yet nobody seems to have noticed it in the previous 12 months!
With the pod now opened, Starscream awakens and the story begins with him staring at the night sky and suffering from a severe bout of homesickness. His previous all-consuming ambition to lead the Decepticons has left him – all that it had achieved was to get him put on ice. Now he just wants to see Cybertron again.
Starscream hears a voice…. and sees a human standing at his feet, who recognises him as a Transformer. We never find out his name but he looks like a long lost member of the Proclaimers. Perhaps it’s the ghost of Christmas present come to cheer up Starscream the Scrooge? Starscream tells him to get lost, and then my favourite line of the story, “It’s a sure sign of how bad things are when I can’t even stir up the enthusiasm to squash a fleshling”.
This is a youth with a death wish I think. He tests Starscream’s tolerance by suggesting he would cheer up if he knew what Christmas was about and challenges him to admit he doesn’t know about the occasion. The Decepticon’s internal data file gives a brief and mundane description of the calendar event, but the human tells Starscream he is missing the point. This fleshling wont live long enough to see Christmas Day the way he’s going – but when the youth asks to be released so he can go home Starscream admits to being envious that this human can do what he cannot.
So, in a rare moment of indulgence, he transforms into his jet mode invites the human to show him the spirit Christmas, thinking it might cure his depression. I particularly enjoy the panel with Starscream’s arm emerging from his jet mode to chuck the kid into the cockpit.
Proclaimer kid hopes they will see people giving presents, as they pass over a familiar looking police car. Helping the needy conflicts with the Decepticon ethos of course, the weak give and the strong take. These Autobot sentiments are not for him. They spot a bus caught in a snowdrift and the human thinks it the perfect opportunity for Starscream to show compassion. It would be simplicity itself for Starscream to free the vehicle but he fails to see what’s in it for him.
At that moment the police car from earlier – the Protectobot Streetwise arrives and attacks. Christmas or not, it wouldn’t be Transformers without some action. Starscream is taken by surprise but he’s sure he has the superior firepower than a small Protectobot. As they brawl the people in the bus are placed in greater peril and Starscream’s friend steps-in, telling Streetwise he should be ashamed seeing as Starscream was about to help these humans! The Autobot doesn’t believe it so Starscream smugly lifts the bus from the snowdrift and places it on the road. The bus passengers cheer before going on their way, escorted by Streetwise.
The youth is sure Starscream must have got satisfaction from his good deed. However, Starscream makes out that he was simply motivated to humiliate an Autobot! The human gives up, thinking this Transformer is beyond redemption. All he can do is bid Starscream ‘Merry Christmas’ as the Decepticon laughs and walks off. He takes a few steps and then pauses, perhaps a twinge of conscience or a remnant from the earlier events, he turns and wishes the youth a Merry Christmas back!
It’s a nice note to end on and perhaps a sinister turn there too, as we realise Starscream is on the way back to being his treacherous best. Streetwise’s presence is interesting from a continuity standpoint. When the Protectobots freed Blaster and bade him farewell in the captured Blast Off, my assumption was that they had missed the Ark’s launch and were stuck on Earth. Had they have been picked up on the way you would have thought that the team would have been severed punished for allowing Blaster to go free – but in Space Hikers the Protectobot Blades was clearly aboard, so how is Streetwise on Earth for Christmas? Perhaps its a sign that even while space borne, the Autobots are still able to pop down to Earth for missions.
On that note, we’ll shortly bid a fond farewell to 1987 – a very prolific year for the comic – and get stuck into the next lot of twists and turns from 1988, including a character’s shocking and rather epic return! But first a final story from the 1987 annual.
The Autobots inadvertently capture a group of human children in their pursuit of the renegade Blaster – will Grimlock really use kids as leverage in his personal battle? And Sky Lynx makes his comics debut.
Blaster was my favourite character in the Marvel comics and so having him centre stage – and in demand for the Autobot leadership no less – is very welcome. However, at the close of Used Autobots, with the Protectobots placing Blaster under arrest for desertion, I was eager to get straight to the inevitable confrontation with Grimlock. Instead Child’s Play seemed to drag things out with a largely unnecessary confrontation between the Protectobots and Combaticons (probably to address the lack of Defensor and Bruticus in the previous story) and to put the four human children in the mix.
In Space Hikers the youngsters’ purpose to the plot is clear. It’s to provide a catalyst for Blaster to surrender rather than whip up a revolution (not to difficult given how fed up the Autobots are with Grimlock at this point) and thus postpone his inevitable showdown with the tyrannical Autobot leader for an incredible 30 more issues! Crikey.
I might sound like a boring parent here, but the idea of taking four little kids into space in a captured Decepticon of all things – with their families completely unaware, and without thought for the massive risks you are exposing them too seemed incredibly unwise. Yes, Blast Off was mode-locked, but just as Blaster remained conscious and was thinking of ways to thwart his captors, surely Blast Off would have been expected to do similar. He might have turned off the air supply for example. Another thought: at the point of his arrest Blaster was keen to get after RAAT and recover the Throttlebots. I’m surprised this was no longer a priority once he was freed. Or perhaps he realised the trail would have gone cold and so the next best thing is to return to the Autobots and force a change of leader.
Childs Play ended with the kids and Blaster, in orbit with the Ark bearing down on them. For Space Hikers (published in the UK in mid December 1987) writer Bob Budiansky rewinds the clocks a few hours and makes another toy introduction – the space shuttle/bird/big cat Autobot Sky Lynx. After millions of years of scrapping with Decepticons on the Transformers home world, Sky Lynx was looking for a change and so when Wheeljack asked for his assistance in the Grimlock situation he was only too willing.
Meanwhile, Wheeljack is piloting the Ark after Blast Off. They are using the mode lock’s signal as a homing beacon and Grimlock cites the Decepticon warrior Blast Off as further evidence of Blaster’s treachery. Even Wheeljack is puzzled by this and questioning his admiration for Blaster. The four kids had been having the time of their lives but with the Ark bearing down and likely to shoot them out of the sky, Blaster decides his own recourse is to surrender. Sammy decides instead to throws Blaster out of the airlock – he saved them and now the Space Hikers can return the favour.
A huge claw reaches out from below the Ark (while theatrical I can’t help thinking about the unnecessary storage space this must be taking and surely a tractor beam is more efficient) and swallows the tiny craft. Inside, the Autobots with weapons drawn have Blast Off surrounded. The four children emerge, and Wheeljack convinces the Dinobots that they don’t present any danger…
I’m not sure if the Alzamora family of New Jersey have any significance to the production team or are simply made up, but in two panels we see their TV viewing suddenly disrupted as Blaster commandeers a satellite and uses its stabilising rockets to propel himself to the Ark. Wheeljack leads the four nervous children on a tour, getting them to stand in a chamber where space suits materialise around them (and not forgetting Robin’s teddy either, lol). The suits carry two hours of air, which is significant to the plot later.
Suddenly Slag interrupts – commander Grimlock wants the see the “slime squirts” now! And despite Wheeljack’s reassurances that the commander probably only wants to meet them, they arrive to find a court in session with the crown-wearing King Grimlock presiding. This is truly ridiculous given that the children have every reason to be ignorant of Autobot affairs. Any help they have given Blaster is inconsequential you would think.
Instead, Grimlock orders them to be thrown out of the airlock – in effect executed. The faces of the other Autobots is of utter horror, but WHY DON’T THEY SAY SOMETHING? Grimlock may be a tyrant but the rest are a bunch of wimps!! Snarl questions whether this is a wise move given the other Autobots strong sympathies for humans but Grimlock only intends to use the children to draw Blaster out. Frankly, its incredible at this point that the Autobots are so cowered that they are prepared to stand idly by and allow they sacred principles to be violated.
Wheeljack, having earlier already been throttled by Grimlock, suspects his loyalties are being questioned but throws caution to the wind by calling Sky Lynx and having him swoop down and rescue the Space Hikers as they drift into space. Grimlock orders his warriors back inside to pursue this new arrival. Blaster finally gets within reach of the Ark, only for its huge engines to seemingly flame-grill the Autobot before he can grab a hold. By rights Blaster should be obliterated here or at least propelled to the other side of space by such force! He’s not.
Sky Lynx introduces himself to his passengers and – with the Ark gaining on him – he travels into a meteor shower and reverts to Lynx mode to hop between rocks as the Dinobots exit the Ark and pursue.
Blaster makes a nice reference to not feeling this bad since he swam in the smelting pools of Polyhex (an encounter we fans remember all to well – a great story). He gets into the Ark through a hatch and is warmly greeted by his fellow Autobots. After explaining that he hadn’t teamed-up with Blast-Off, the Decepticon was mode-locked and under control, the Autobots including Prime’s old number two Prowl want him to stay and take charge. As a Blaster fan this idea appealed to me greatly at the time also! But true to his character, Blaster has to put his the four young charges first.
When Sky Lynx radios in to say that the Dinobots have surrounded him and are playing a waiting game its clear that the kids will run out of air unless something is done. Jetfire offers to lead a strike against the Dinobots but Blaster refuses – that might endanger Sky Lynx and the humans. There is only one way to ensure their safety… Blaster goes outside and surrenders! Darn it!
So what happens to Blaster after this shock ending? Readers were not destined to find out until issue #174, well over four months away! The US material seems to drop this whole storyline to concentrate on the Headmasters’ arrival on Earth. We’ll shortly be heading back to the future for one of the most momentous stories of the run, which will take the UK comic up to and past its milestone 150th issue… But first it’s time for a change of pace and the annual tradition that was the Transformers Christmas edition.
“See you in the next world” – Lord Zarak, slowly being consumed by Scorponok, realises he must free Galen and the Autobots in order to save Nebulos from destruction.
Brothers in Armour, which I always thought of as a play on the title of the Dire Straits song, is the fourth and final instalment of Headmasters. Even with the frequent art blunders, the series has easily been the best and most original of Marvel’s occasional spin-off titles (the others being the Transformers the Movie adaptation and the very turgid Transformers vs GI Joe). At this point the Autobot Headmasters have been defeated by Scorponok’s Decepticons and things look extremely bleak for the Autobots who remain at large.
The tension in the series is that the good guys can’t seem to get a break. Having fled the neverending war on Cybertron, Fortress Maximum and his fellow refugees arrived on Nebulos where they were shown only fear and hatred – and were even attacked by the pacifist Nebulans. Then, having surrendered their heads as a gesture of peace, Lord Zarak gave away their location to Scorponok, their sworn Decepticon enemy. And just as the Autobots regained the upper hand by becoming Headmasters, Zarak and his followers bonded-up with the Decepticons to inflict a terrible defeat on the Autobots.
It’s just like Bob Budiansky’s stories of the Transformers’ early years on Earth where Shockwave and the Decepticons had overcome the Autobots. A similar situation is occurring on Nebulos and as a reader you have to keep coming back to find out how the heroic forces can possibly recover the situation.
The final instalment opens at the gardens of Melanossus – a place of outstanding natural beauty – now the latest casualty of war. Nothing is sacred for Scorponok and his forces who have invaded paradise to persecute and destroy the remaining Autobot fugitives. We were briefly introduced to the Monsterbots in part one. Now Grotesque, Doublecross and Repugnus get another showing (just as the Technobots and Terrorcons did last issue) as part of the obligatory toy product placement. The trio are the sole survivors and make a strategic retreat. It’s fun to see Doublecross’ two heads arguing about whether they should fight or flee. It’s a shame there isn’t the space to see more of the Monsterbots.
Zarak and his fellow Headmaster Nebulans have become drunk on their new power. With the Decepticons at their side there is no curb on their ambitions. The Nebulan media arrive via some interesting looking hover planes. They invite Zarak to repeat his claims that Galen is a traitor to Nebulos, which Zarak does without hesitation. It should be pretty obvious to right thinking folk that Zarak is equally as guilty of what he accuses Galen of, namely teaming up with robots to acquire power, and clearly Zarak’s victories over the Autobots are having a cataclysmic effect on Nebulan cities (as he speaks Melanossus lies in ruins). Yet nobody seems to be questioning why Zarak is in league with the very Decepticons who were laying siege to Koraja not so long ago. Could it be that everyone is in fear of this new power in the Nebulan government? Echoes of Nazi Germany here.
At the Autobot base camp in the swamps (where even the Decepticons won’t venture) Point Blank appears to have taken a position of leadership. Like Fortress Maximus before him, he’s having to reign in a frustrated Kup. Luckily they have six new Nebulan recruits who are working with them at great personal risk to resist the Decepticons. They have undergone bio-mechanical engineering to become the weapons of Pointblank and five others – becoming the Autobot Targetmasters. We’re introduced to the sextet but sadly Firebolt is referred to as Sparks; another production team mistake?
Hot Rod has detected a distress signal from Earth. It’s one that Goldbug will send in issue 155 and Crosshairs is up for abandoning Nebulos and trying their luck at this new world. Blurr disagrees, reminding colleagues that their brethren are captives of the Decepticons and they can’t leave until Fortress Maximus and the others are rescued. With that, the Targetmasters depart to protect the latest Nebulan sanctuary under threat.
Zarak’s very hard-working ally Vorath (who monitors communications and builds Targetmasters in his spare time!) has also picked up the transmission, so now the Decepticons know of Earth as well. Zarak visits his archenemy Galen, who is held in a state of unconsciousness in some sort of energy vine, only to find his daughter Llyra there. Her ex love Galen is now the most hated being on Nebulos. Zarak has Galen ‘reactivated’ but Llyra storms out rather than stick around and listen to his plea for her understanding.
Galen can see clearly that Zarak is becoming consumed by his own power and will end up tearing apart Nebulos unless he wakes up to what is happening. Zarak refuses to accept this but at the back of his mind he knows Galen speaks the truth.
At The Nursery, a sacred facility that provides Nebulan food and medicine needs, Peacemaker and his fellow Targetmaster Nebulans meet with Selani, one of the facility administrators. The suggestion here is that The Nursery are fearful of being seized by Zarak and the Decepticons. Sure enough, they are soon under attack by Zarak, atop Scorponok, and joined in battle by the Terrorcons. Zarak is pleased to see the Autobots are apparently defenceless and he is in no mood to show mercy – they attack.
In response the six armoured Nebulans transform to the weapons of Blurr, Crosshairs, Hotrod, Kup, Pointblank and Sureshot. They unleash a variable volley of laser fire unlike anything seen before and cut down their Decepticon opponents. However, attacks from the Terrorcons Cutthroat and Hun-grr destroy the Nursery supports and the structure comes crashing down. The Autobots realise that their presence is only exposing the Nursery to more danger and they have no choice but to withdraw. As the adrenaline fades, Zarak begins to realise that Galen was right and he is losing his mind the longer he spends in a mental link with Scorponok.
It’s weird because at this point Scorponok seems to have ceased to be an independent Decepticon. When his head is transformed in Zarak he just stands around like a total non-entity. It’s become the Zarak show and its difficult to see any great advantage from Scorponok’s perspective.
In a matter of days, Vorath has succeeded in duplicating the Autobots’ technological advantage and has created the Decepticon Targetmasters – Slugslinger, Triggerhappy, Misfire, Cyclonus and Scourge. The latter two, Cyclonus and Scourge, would fill numerous columns on the comic’s letters pages with fans wondering how they could possibly be on Nebulos in 1987 when they are not created until 2006. Grimlock (on the Grim Grams page) hints that the answer will be revealed in the next big Transformers story – the 1988 new year opener – whose title is being kept strictly under wraps!
Zarak seems barely interested in the Decepticon Targetmasters (they do seem like an afterthought for the story too in all honestly) and even ignores his daughter Llyra as he brushes past her and into the detention cell for another face-to-face with Galen. Ironically his hated is the only one who understands his dilemma. In a very telling scene Zarak confesses to feeling like he’s been controlled by Scorponok and mentions that he and Galen will meet in the “next world”. Galen naturally takes this as a reference to his receiving the death penalty (again its bizarre that a world at peace for thousands of years has not abolished the practice of capital punishment) but the world Zarak is speaking of is Earth.
He knocks Krunk unconscious and deactivates the field holding Galen and his allies, allowing them to break out and recombine with their Autobot partners. Annoyingly Gort and Stylor have been miscoloured as each other; the level of production team errors in the mini-series is astounding but thank goodness the standard of story makes up for it. The Autobots break-out and are soon engaged in a pitched battle with the Decepticon Targetmasters at the iconic Nebulan globe monument.
The real drama for me is the scene with Llyra questioning how Galen and the Autobots could have escaped and realising that her father must have freed them. But Zarak is losing his mind at this point, mesmerised by the call of battle and soon he is riding atop of Scorponok and joining in. Llyra realises that the Decepticons are destroying the city and at long last the penny drops. Fortress Maximus orders a retreat to avoid Nebulan casualties and they return to the swamp for a reunion with their fellow Autobots. There, Galen informs them that they must leave Nebulos and he is certain that Zarak and the Decepticons will follow; it’s the only way to save the planet.
There’s a very poignant moment where a repentant Llyra arrives and basically tells Galen that if he tells her the truth she will believe him. Finally! Tragically Galen coldly rebuffs her overture and sends her off in tears. She now hates him more than ever. As Galen explains to his followers, if Llyra still loved him he could not leave Nebulos as he must. Galen, heroic to the last, sacrifices his own happiness for patriotism. Soon the Autobot ship Steelhaven is warping away bound for Earth (and a starring role in the main Transformers comic) leaving their dreams of a world where robot and Nebulan can peaceful coexist in tatters. Days later, Zarak and the Decepticons board their own ship and give chase, leaving Llyra and the Nebulan people to rebuild their shattered lives. Wow.
It’s a great end to the series but I must confess to feeling a little cheated for poor old Galen. He really can’t get a break and even when things finally go his way he has to abandon his world to save it. It’s a shame he couldn’t have taken Llyra with him, or maybe reversed the binary bond process and sent the Autobots off without their Nebulans? Perhaps that wasn’t practical. We’ll revisit Nebulos again on a couple of occasions – one in the 1988 story People Power and then two decades later in Simon Furman’s Transformers RegenerationOne series – however we aren’t destined to see Llyra again. I hope that in the fullness of time she came to realise the truth about Galen and her father.
In closing, the art blunders aside this is a great story from Bob Budiansky. It must have been challenging to weave an engaging tale while hampered by having to introduce legions of new characters – but it all works. I’ve read that there was some talk at the time of making Headmasters an ongoing series. When you consider that the main comic had to print the UK story Man of Iron to give themselves breathing space to work on Headmasters, I doubt the team could have managed two books every month. Instead the Headmasters and Targetmasters are destined to play a big role in the Earth adventures of the Transformers – a mouth watering prospect.
The Protectobots are escorting the Autobot deserter Blaster back to the Ark for trial when they run into a Combaticon ambush – and four human children get caught in the middle.
In issue #122, when Blaster and Goldbug deserted rather than put up with Grimlock’s tyrannical leadership, it was obvious that a reckoning would be coming. Last issue it looked like that moment had arrived, when the Protectobots caught up with Blaster and placed him under arrest. Anyone reading Child’s Play and expecting a showdown between Blaster and his old commander will be disappointed, as the situation is destined to drag out for two more stories before taking a long hiatus and coming to a head in issue #174 – eight months on from this point.
For the moment Blaster is wearing a mode locked (the Transformer equivalent of a car clamp) trapping him in cassette-deck form, and chained to Groove, who is in turn in the back of First Aid, as the Protectobots keep the prisoner secure for the journey back to the Ark. We’re about to meet four human children – Sammy, Allen, Jed and little sister Robin, and Daisy her teddy bear, who look like being this issue’s human support cast but are destined to be around for a surprisingly long while (much to the annoyance of some fans).
Bob Budiansky’s story (which is published in Transformers UK issues #141/2 in November 1987) opens in a rail yard in northern California where the boys are playing with toy guns. Little Robin just wants the game to finish so she can go home. When the children see a police car approaching they decide to hide. However, it’s not the authorities come to reprimand them for playing where they shouldn’t, but Streetwise leading the Protectobot convoy.
Their update to HQ triggers Grimlock, who makes another embarrassing outburst about Blaster being “leader of traitors” and will be punished. Wheeljack, who is fast becoming Grimlock’s whipping boy, is thinking he can hardly blame Blaster for going his own way. Grimlock orders the Protectobots to hurry back as the Ark is repaired and ready for take off! Why there is a need to get space-borne is unclear, particularly as Wheeljack has just constructed a device which draws heat from the volcano in order to supply the Autobots’ fuel needs.
As Blaster contemplates the diminishing possibility of escape, Blades spots tanks treads in the area, possibly belonging to the Combaticon Brawl and suggesting an ambush (in fact the Combaticons have been hanging around like a bad smell since the events of Ladies Night two stories ago). Groove is told to deposit Blaster somewhere out of the way for safe keeping. Jed witnesses the driverless motorbike and tries to persuade his doubtful friends, while Blaster is stuck in an open water pipe and sees the kids. There’s nothing he can do to keep them out of harm’s way.
In a train shed a mile away, Brawl and Swindle lay in wait and startle a railway worker. When Vortex gives the signal they roll-out, demolishing the shed, and confront Hotspot’s team. Sammy is shocked to find a talking cassette deck and run back to tell the others, who think his winding them up. Robin collects who tells the kids to evacuate the area (wise advice given the fierce battle ensuing nearby).
With too much going on the previous issue to feature the Combaticon and Protectobot combined forms, Budiansky makes up for that now by having Bruticus enter the fray and blast the Protectobots. They retaliate by forming Defensor and the two giant gestalts go at it, throwing carriages at each other. A quick check in at the Ark, shows Cosmos and Beachcomber completing Grimlock’s infamous ‘Variable Voltage Harness’ torture chamber for Blaster, their old colleague in the Cybertron resistance. (You have to wonder when exactly the Autobots are going to stand-up to Grimlock and his ever more extreme ways).
Back at the fight, a dialogue box which I think is intended for Bruticus is ascribed to Defensor. The giant Autobot shows off his forcefield ability to repel his opponent’s weapons discharge. Meanwhile two of the boys are arguing with each other again in a tedious and unnecessary way that brings to mind that old Harry Enfield Scousers sketch until Allen pulls the mode lock off Blaster, enabling him to transform. He goes on to win the kids’ trust by saving them from a falling pylon.
When Bruticus uses a train to batter Defensor into submission (echoing Dan Reed’s cover), Blaster shows up claiming to have turned against the Protectobots who had kept him prisoner. Bruticus asks Blaster to prove it by destroying one of the kids (which reading that now feels a little uncomfortable). He pretends to open fire on Sammy who fakes being dead. The distraction is enough for Blaster to whack Bruticus with the downed pylon, sending thousands of volts coursing through the Decepticon’s body and causing him to break into his component parts.
Later Blaster offers his surrender to the Protectobots but Hotspot has other ideas: if he arrested someone who does a better job of protecting than he does he ought to ‘turn in his engine’. Instead they decide to mode-lock Blast Off in shuttle mode and allow Blaster to take the kids for a trip into orbit as a thank you. As they launch you get the impression that the Protectobots are now going to be in a world of trouble with Grimlock, since they have now effectively defied orders too and should also be fugitives like Blaster.
Finally, the children are just starting to enjoy weightlessness, when Jed spots a large ship bearing down on them – it’s the Ark! After four million years of be buried inside Mount St Hillary it is free and space-bourne again, and what timing. To be continued…
In closing the Ark has been under repair for a long time but ironically it’s under Grimlock’s otherwise disastrous leadership that progress has been made. (He obviously has ways of motivating his troops to deliver). Now we know what the Autobots were doing during the period of Grimlock’s tyrannical reign, because they weren’t out battling Decepticons, although some were looking for Blaster and Goldbug! Luckily the Decepticons have been quite idle as well with a hypnotising car wash the height of their global masterplans of late.
Hunted by the Combaticons, RAAT and the Protectobots, the Throttlebots hide out in Big Steve’s auto dealership – but how far can they trust a guy with morals lower than a snake pit?
By this point in the series (Marvel UK’s Transformers #139) I’d grown quite fond of the Throttlebots. Since they arrived to purge the Scraplet plague and then teamed-up with our favourite deserters Blaster and Goldbug they’ve made a credible unit operating independently of Grimlock’s Autobots. It would have been nice to see them notch up a few more successes against the Decepticons, really making a nuisance of themselves and a target for the bad guys, before fate caught up with them. Alas Used Autobots marks a (rather premature for me) parting of the ways between them and Blaster.
The story opens on a California highway with the team under fire from Vortex in his helicopter mode. We’re told via the Transformations page that the Combaticons are fuming after they were prevented from completing their mission to destroy Mount Verona and Galvatron (and from executing the pesky fleshlings that caused them so much trouble). The US audience will not have seen the events of Ladies Night, as it was a Transformer UK story, so presumably for the majority of the readership, Vortex’s attack is a random thing, literally a case of him spotting six Autobots and using them for target practice.
Although its seven against one, the advantage is with Vortex as the Throttlebots are stuck in the traffic and unable to retaliate. Blaster, hot headed as ever, has no qualms about returning the fight. He ejects from Goldbug’s dashboard, transforming to robot mode and straddling Chase and Rollbar as he aims his electro scrambler at the airborne pest, while on the move. The moment is captured on the cover to issue #139, published in November 1987, with a rather constipated looking Blaster riding the cars with no context – and a tree lined highway (in the story he actually on a river bridge). It’s not one of my favourites.
As Rollbar is forced to swerve, Blaster takes a tumble, but holding on to bridge, he’s finally able to zap Vortex and send the Decepticon spinning away with his circuits running haywire (the good old Electro Scrambler strikes again). The Throttlebots have had a lucky escape but they are low on fuel now and must find a Blackrock garage to top up their tanks.
Things get a bit daft at this point as our old friends RAAT (Rapid Anti Robot Assault Team) are up to their old tricks hunting Transformers, Autobots mainly. Having figured out the link between the Transformers and Blackrock they are staking out his garages. Now when you consider how many petrol stations there must be in California, this is a pretty major labour intensive operation, and not to mention the wisdom of having a pitched battle on top of highly flammable petroleum!
As misfortune would have it, RAAT are waiting in ambush at the very station that the Throttlebots pick, and emerge from a garage in an Action Force/GI Joe style tank type vehicle with a detachable small plane. Again, Blaster leaps out to save the day, but his gun is out of energy. He’s forced to do things by uprooting the Blackrock sign and giving the tank a might whack. It demolishes a pump and creates an eruption of gasoline – which the plane’s shooting ignites. Blaster frees the RAAT troopers from the overturned tank and shields him from the resulting explosion. The RAAT plane is sent crashing to the ground, but not before it inflicts a nasty wound on Rollbar’s rear chasis.
Having expended even more fuel, and with a trail of destruction behind them, the Throttlebots make their escape. Unbeknown to them, Vortex is monitoring from above.
Back at Mount St Hillary, home to the Ark, all of the UK writer Simon Furman’s efforts to pass Grimlock off as a tough for shrewd Autobot leader and once again massively undermined by US writer Budiansky’s portrayal of Grims as a massive egotist and dimwit. This Grimlock is still wearing that embarrassing crown and seems oblivious that he’d tasked Wheeljack with solving their fuel problem. In fact Wheeljack has come up trumps by building a geothermal generator which taps heat from the volcano core to generate Energon Cubes. They’ll no longer be dependent on humans like GB Blackrock for fuel.
Rather than praise his engineer for this significant step forward, Grimlock goes on a mini tirade about “taking” he needs and humans being weak and unimportant. He shows a complete lack of awareness for the obvious discomfort this will cause his troops. It can’t be in his interests to undermine his own leadership this way. It’s just moronic and I’ll bet Simon Furman cringes to read the dialogue – its difficult for him to square the circle between his Grimlock and the US one at this point.
Slag informs them of radio reports about Autobot sightings, and suggests it might be Blaster and Goldbug in trouble. Grimlock orders Hotspot to gather his Protectobots and bring them in, adding ominously “they’ll be in trouble no more”.
The Throttlebots, still concerned about the injuries to Rollbar and their fuel situation, decide to lay low to consider their next move. Goldbug leads them into what they think is a car park full of “abandoned vehicles”, but is actually Big Steve’s used car lot. As morning comes we meet the unscrupulous slippery Steve. He’s visited by a couple of cops who leave him a piece of literature about six vehicles the authorities are looking for (yep, its the Throttlebots) but he takes no notice at this point as he wants the police off the premises before they scare the customers away.
Steve then establishes his credentials as the ultimate cliche car salesman, pressuring a poor unsuspecting couple with bogus claims of a special offer. His assistant Clifford goes to work on an old car, knocking 100,000 miles off the clock, and marking it up by a thousand dollars. Big Steve palms the vehicle off on the young family and retires to his office light up a fat cigar.
Clifford shows him a cassette deck (Blaster) he found in one of the new vehicles that have magically appeared in the lot. Steve says he can keep it (he’ll deduct from Clifford’s next pay cheque) and inspects the new cars. He’ll try to “make a few bucks” off them, even though he has no idea where they came from, whether they are stolen, and has no paperwork!! However, Steve wants Rollbar junked as an obvious embarrassment.
At this point the Throttlebots decide to brake cover by transforming and taking Big Steve into their confidence (bad move). All they want is a refuel and they’ll be gone by nightfall they tell him. Blaster, communicating with the team through internal radio, cautions Chase that “humans often act out of self interest”. Sure enough, Steve’s now reviewing the letter that the cops delivered which promises a $50,000 reward per Autobot, and dispatches Clifford to buy a vat load of extra sugary soda pop. He’ll stick that in the Throttlebots’ tanks and disable them.
Walter Barnett of Triple I soon arrives in combat fatigues leading a RAAT convoy of tanks and a car transporter. The Throttlebots are unable to move and are sitting ducks!
At this point the Combaticons come crashing into the yard. Onslaught transforms and stakes his claim to the stricken Autobots. Hotspot and his team arrive to complete the stand-off. Big Steve hilariously suggests a bidding war (rather than an actual war that might make a huge mess of his cars). Stupidly the parties consider this, with Onslaught even suggesting the Decepticons could “steal” whatever money they need!
Swindle, who is the obvious candidate to hold such an auction (and in fact is depicted on the cover inviting bids for Big Steve) is oddly out of the picture. He’s got Big Steve in his sights and is preparing to open fire, perhaps a distraction that the Combaticons can take advantage of? Blaster leaps out of Steve’s office and seizes Swindle, throwing the surprised Combaticon into a parked car.
The Protectobots and Combaticons go at each other and RAAT take the opportunity to load the Throttlebots onto their transporter (amazingly none of the transformers notice this happening). Still, it’s nice to see First Aid in one of the panels, proving that he made it back safely from being mass-displaced to Limbo by the time travelling Death’s Head (back in issue #114).
Blaster saves Hotspot from being shot in the back by Brawl and generally turns the tide, with Onslaught forced to signal a humiliating retreat. Big Steve is aghast at the site of his wrecked inventory but at least he still has Walter Barnett’s cheque for $300,000 – or does he? A zap from Blaster’s Electro Scrambler sees the paper disintegrate before the crooked salesman’s eyes. Blaster tells him its bad enough he lost his friends saving Steve’s life, he won’t allow him to get rich off it. At this point you’d think Steve would be calling back Barnett to ask for a new cheque or even for funds to be deposited in his account – and not to mention calling his insurers.
We then get one of the best cliff-hangers of the year, with Blaster turning to Hotspot and saying he’ll skip thanking the Protectobots for showing up, as they need to get after RAAT while the trail is warm. Hotspot’s men circle Blaster with their weapons drawn – Grimlock didn’t send them to affect a rescue, but to arrest Blaster for desertion and to bring him back to the Ark for trial and execution! Crikey.
A couple of nit picks: Vortex is drawn twice as big as Streetwise, and Blast-off is similarly out of proportion to Hotspot. You’ve also got to say that it doesn’t say much for Autobot justice that execution is the preordained outcome here. What about presumption of innocence? Why have a trial at all? It’s all very ‘un-Autobot’. With Goldbug being on Grimlock’s wanted list also I’m surprised the Protectobots would not want to retrieve him from RAAT as well, plus the rest of the Throttlebots for aiding and abetting the fugitives.
At the mid point in the mini-series the Autobots have become Headmasters and gained the upper hand over their Decepticon enemies but their fortunes on Nebulos are about to undergo a dramatic reversal
Headmasters started life in the US as a four issue spin-off from the main Transformers title, in 1987. Its job was to introduce fans to a new cast of Autobots and Decepticons (and Nebulans) and the novel concept of transforming heads and weapons. The story hopped over the pond into the Marvel UK Transformers comic where it became that rarest of things, a back-up strip with the power to outshine the main story.
Most of the secondary stories up to that point had been pretty run of the mill, with a few exceptions like Machine Man of 2020, Action Force (the anglicized version of GI Joe) and my personal favourite Hercules. Having wall-to-wall Transformers stories for 16 weekly issues was a huge deal back in the day and as a reader we felt suitably blessed. The Headmasters saga is the Transformers US writer Bob Budiansky on his A game, and if the purpose is to push a toy line that doesn’t detract from what is thought provoking (and entertaining) story. On the face of it, the set-up is familiar; it’s giant alien robots unleashing their civil war onto an unsuspecting human world, with the Decepticons intent on conquest and plunder and the Autobots struggling to protect the planet’s inhabitants (and mostly being met with fear and misunderstanding).
Earth in this case is substituted for the pacifist world of Nebulos. That’s thousands of years tradition of peace is not the only difference though. In regular Transformers, the concept of robots in disguise is quite apparent. The Transformers are blended into the background of society, and while they often break cover and get written up in the press, there’s been government attempts to dismiss them as a hoax (e.g. Robot Master) and life goes on generally speaking.
Whereas on Nebulos, the Transformers’ presence is acknowledged off the bat and is front and centre. From Highbrow’s clumsy first contact with Gort in the forest, Nebulos life is completely upended. Their parliament debates the Autobot presence, and Blurr arrives in a very public (and disastrous) way. The people are on the streets protesting and rioting! Public pressure is such, that the Nebulan leadership even abandons it’s tradition of peace in order to wage war on the Autobot refugees. It could be that Bob was saying something profound about human nature here (albeit they’re Nebulans) that fear and misunderstanding quickly descends into hatred and violence, and we’re all susceptible.
Love and Steel is the third instalment of the saga. We’ve previously seen the Decepticons arrive and the Autobot leader and four of his allies bonded with Nebulans to become Headmasters in order to repel Scorponok. From this point on the balance of power is about to shift decisively…
The story begins in Splendora, a city of “prosperity and beauty”, that is being laid waste by the Apeface and Snapdragon (the Horrorcons) and the combiner team known as the Terrorcons. The names say it all pretty much, and the panicked citizens are fleeing for their lives. Presumably, although we don’t see it, the death and casualty count is high. For the Decepticons the attack is just about relieving their boredom. In the words of Blott: “I bet when you stomp on them they make squishy sounds”.
The cavalry arrives in the form of the Technobots, who are led into battle by the Nebulan-controlled Autobots Hardhead and Brainstorm. I think there is a deliberate attempt by the Nebulan leader Galen to reassure the public by having Nebulans involved whenever the Autobots mount a defence, not that it is very successful.
The Terrorcons combine into Abominus, whose scale is utterly awesome. He’s able to demolish tall buildings with a swing of one of his mighty arms. The Technobots merge into Computron, who deploys a well placed shot and batters Abominus into his component parts with a huge metal girder. In his enthusiasm, Computron manages to give the impression of being as big a menace as the Decepticons. The Horrorcons are no match for the sharp-shooting Hardhead and Brainstorm, whose aim and abilities has improved exponentially since teaming up with Nebulans. (I’m not really sure why this should be the case, but perhaps it’s the old saying of two heads better than one…).
Brainstorm and Hardhead detach their heads into Nebulans Arcana and Duros to calm the public and assure them that the crisis is passed. As per usual they get zero gratitude. Peer Soriza, part of the Nebulan ruling council, simply questions the wisdom of Galen and his followers in “involving robots” in Nebulan affairs. The benefits should be pretty blooming obvious I would have thought, as the Decepticons would still be rampaging if not for the Autobot intervention.
At the Decepticon’s temporary base, Lord Zarak – who very unwisely reached out to Scorponok to seek his help in ridding Nebulos of the Autobots – is getting his just desserts by becoming a caged prisoner. For some reason, Scorponok is choosing to keep them as laboratory animals (showing his keen interest in mad science that would surface in the future and more so in the IDW comics of the 2000s). He’s created a bubble machine an elaborate trash disposal system for dumping Nebulan dissidents into the oblivion of outer space! Hmm.
The overweight Nebulan Monzo is selected as a test and quickly floats off, courtesy of Skullcruncher’s anti-gravity gun, before the bubble bursts at 50ft. Luckily Mindwipe transforms and catches the poor guy before he goes splat (no sense in wasting lab materials).
Zarak is pretty feisty for a caged captive. He warns Scorponok that a “thousand Nebulans will rise up” to take the place of any killed (hollow words perhaps from a society which has no concept of warfare) but he sees an opening when Apeface and Snapdragon return to report their defeat at Spendora, and are on the receiving end of Scorponok’s wrath – is he afraid to admit there are advantages to working with Nebulans, Zarak challenges.
Scorponok smashes the small prison and seizes Zarak in his pinchers. Yet the condemned Nebulan shows no fear – his death is a small matter if his world is to be conquered by Decepticons or Galen’s allies, he says. Perhaps it’s the scientist in Scorponok, or his desire to vanquish the enemy, but he agrees to share his power. However, he has a telling word of warning for Zarak: once possessed of the savage strength of Scorponok all other considerations become insignificant, perhaps even Zarak’s beloved daughter.
Later, at the Headmaster’s temporary headquarters, Galen and his men are visited by Soriza (still as miserable as ever) and a delegation. They find Galen and his men working on the Autobot weapons in what is undoubtedly the early stages of developing a Targetmaster process. As usual their preoccupation with war-making hits all the wrong notes insofar as the observers are concerned. Gort and Stylor are miscoloured as each other in one of the frequent art and colouring blunders with bedevil the series – thank goodness Bob’s storytelling makes up for this.
The Council has decided to send a delegation to accompany all of the Autobot missions. Galen agrees because he’s a stickler for the law, but he reinforces Duros’ point that the battlefield is no place for “headline hunting politicians”. Zarak’s daughter Llyra arrives looking like she’s stepped out in her negligee. She’s still giving poor Galen the cold shoulder for abandoning his peace loving principles, and has come with a very dubious video of Lord Zarak, apparently smuggled out of captivity, appealing for Galen and the Autobots to rescue them from the Decepticons. Galen readily agrees.
He tries to insist on Llyra not accompanying the political delegation and putting herself in harm’s way, but apparently she has inherited her father’s council seat in his absence – showing that they have an elitist hereditary system of politics on Nebulos rather than a democratic popular vote that you might expect from this highly evolved society.
The Headmasters roll-out to effect a rescue. Fortress Maximus, through Galen’s prior dealings with Zarak, ought to have known of the possibility for a trap and taken Autobot reinforcements along. Instead the five of them show up to take on an entire base full of Decepticons. They are met by Scorponok and five other Decepticons who emerge headless, with Zarak and the Nebulans now wearing robotic suits. The situation has “changed dramatically” says Zarak, before they bond with the Decepticons and attack the Autobots. Watching from above the politicians are appalled by the violence and Llyra cannot believe Galen is involved in it – despite him risking his life to rescue her beloved father – the same dad who’s now bonded to Scorponok!!
Zarak, now part-Scorponok, experiences power the likes of which he could never have imagined. Plucking Brainstorm from the air he feels like he could rip him in two; luckily, Fortress Maximus propels Skullcruncher at the Decepticon to prevent this happening. The inner conflict between Zarak’s love for his daughter and his home-world, and his lust for power and petty jealously, which is now magnified though his bonding with Scorponok is a really fascinating aspect of the story. With the Decepticons now ascendant, that inner turmoil is the only chance the Autobots have at a saving grace.
Apeface throws a boulder at the Nebulan observers’ floating craft, damaging a stabiliser and causing it to crash land (his bonding with Spasma doesn’t appear to have engendered any more sympathy towards Nebulans) and for Llyra and the others to spill out. Scorponok orders Mindwipe to create a distraction (except Scorpy has been drawn as Fortress Maximus, which is a shocking error by the artist) and Mindwipe uses his hypnotic gaze on Llyra to make her lead her fellow Nebulans into the trap of the Decepticon bubble machine. With Scorponok tearing a hole in roof, the bubbled-captives begin to float skywards and the Autobots have no choice but to break off the fight and focus on trying to free everyone.
Scorponok’s conflict at seeing ‘his daughter’ floating away is fascinating, although at this point the Decepticon side is stronger – there is no time for trivialities when he has a world within his grasp. Fortress Maximus frees Llyra and catches her (again, another artist blunder as Max’s head has been drawn as Cerebros – how does the artist get the main character of the saga wrong three issues in? It’s bizarre). The Autobots are sitting ducks and quickly cut down by a barrage of Decepticon fire. They heads detach and revert to unconscious Nebulan forms.
Zarak takes great pleasure in the defeat of his hated foe Galen – “you tried to intimidate me with your power” he says, showing a petty jealousy that underlines why he is the lesser man than Galen. However, in Llyra’s eyes Zarak is the hero of the hour. In her daze she thinks Galen and the Autobots were shooting at them, and despite dumping Galen for his decision to bond with Transformers to save Nebulos, she holds her father to no similar standard.
The instalment ends with the Autobots vanquished and Zarak vowing that Galen and his kind will never threaten Nebulos again! Harsh. As a reader the unfairness of the situation is brutal, however it’s certainly dramatic and you’ll be back for the concluding instalment Brothers in Armour to find out how the situations resolves.
Susan Hoffman is on the brink of the greatest find of her archaeological career – the fossilised remains of Ultra Magnus and Galvatron!
Transformers is and has always been a bit of a sausage fest. Not that giant alien robots have a gender either way, at least not officially. But in appearance, personality, voice and behaviour they’ve always been depicted as male. That was certainly true in the 1980s when the Marvel comic was on sale, and the arrival of Arcee (the first Autobot of female Autobot) in the 1986 Transformers Movie only cemented the idea that the rest were male.
So, the premise of Simon Furman’s 1987 story Ladies’ Night – that the sisters are doing it and taking centre stage in the fight against the Decepticons – was something of a novelty. Is it sexist? I wouldn’t go as far as to say that. The dictionary definition of sexism is prejudice and discrimination based on gender and I don’t think that’s in play here. But take a look at the cover with the ‘fellas’ Rollbar and Goldbug being shocked at being relegated to the side lines by the three ladies and there’s a whiff of something patronising and gender stereotyping, that looks a bit antiquated these days.
That said, the story is pretty good and advances the Ultra Magnus and Galvatron plot a little, as well as the rivalry and paranoia of Shockwave in relation to the threat that he perceives Galvatron to be to his command. We catch up with the human characters we haven’t seen in a while and the story provides a plausible explanation for the Combaticons’ pursuit of the Throttlebots which would be the plot of the next US story Used Autobots. But mostly for me, the highlight of the entire story is Dan Reed’s rendition of Magnus and Galvatron petrified in stone. It’s a kind of nightmarish Pompeii meets Han Solo in Carbonite.
The tale begins with Susan Hoffman, the archaeologist we met in the Ancient Relics story earlier in 1987. You might have been forgiven for thinking her specialism was Roman architecture given that this was what she was investigating under London.
However, in Ladies Night she’s half a world away in Southern Oregon about to descend into Mount Verona to uncover the secret of its sudden and mysterious eruption recently (and the presence of metal debris at the volcano mouth). We’ll just have to suspend our belief and go with it. She doesn’t have to descend far before she lands on something. A spotlight quickly illuminates what it is – Galvatron’s shoulder! Susan has found the fossilised remains of the future Decepticon leader and his greatest enemy (in this era at least) Ultra Magnus.
Incidentally Simon Furman later confirmed that Susan Hoffman was modelled on Susanna Hoffs, lead single of the 80s the band The Bangles, who he evidently had a crush on.
Fast forward a week and Goldbug is helping Rollbar get acquainted with Earth but parking up outside an electronics store that has closed for the night. They are watching TV with Blaster on hand to intercept the sound at source and provide the volume. As he notes, it’s “sorta inconsiderate” of the shopkeepers to turn the sound off on the sets! A news broadcast catches Goldbug’s attention – it is Joy Meadows, the investigative reporter who got involved in the Transformers war when she attempted to uncover the Robot Master hoax with help from the Dinobots – and she’s broadcasting her Ladies Night show from the summit of Mount Verona. Joy is interviewing Susan Hoffman about her amazing find and Goldbug is shocked to see a close-up of the petrified Magnus. He’d thought his friend had perished along with Galvatron but evidently not. (It’s that old rule of comics that nobody actually stays dead for good).
Elsewhere Cindy Newell, the student who befriended Ultra Magnus during the Galvatron saga, is suffering a recurring nightmare about the monstrous Galvatron. Its fair to say that coming up close to a being that powerful and evil, coupled with the loss of her friend, probably has left some post traumatic stress. Incidentally the scene looks really reminiscent of Buster Witwicky in his bedroom, with Cindy even wearing Buster’s trademark colours of pink top and blue jeans. I digress, she wakes from her dream to sees the face of Galvatron on her TV screen!
The Decepticons have seen the broadcast too. Soundwave, who monitors human channels routinely, flags it up to his commander. Shockwave’s response is not to order Soundwave to accompany the Combaticons to Mount Verona, not to free Galvatron but to finish him off. It’s a risk for Shockwave and one that will come back to haunt him later, but no doubt his logical mind has concluded that he would be unable to withstand a leadership challenge from Galvatron so he must take advantage of his rival’s current helplessness.
With the key players mobilised, the story flips back to Mount Verona where the US military is keeping guard (with several tanks and jeeps securing the scene) as Hoffman and Meadows talk post-interview. There’s a scuffle as Cindy attempts to reach them and has her way blocked by a soldier. Joy appeals for her to be let through but she’s wittering on about Magnus and not making a great deal of sense.
Suddenly an explosion rocks the area, as Combaticons arrive and lay waste to the military. (I particularly enjoy Brawl verses a tank. It’s actually something of a relief to see him functional again after the particularly gruesome way that Megatron squashed his head back earlier in the year (in Gone But Not Forgotten). With the humans in retreat Soundwave instructs the Combaticons to proceed with the plan to destroy Galvatron.
Nearby, Goldbug and Rollbar and watching and listening. When you consider that they were watching the TV news from 200 miles away they’ve wasted no time in getting there. However, on learning that the Decepticons are there to rub out Galvatron, Goldbug concludes that they would be wise to withdraw and let them get on with it.
Cindy confronts Goldbug and appeals to him to rescue Magnus. He rightly points out that if the Autobots did that, Magnus’ original sacrifice would be in vain, and tells Cindy to go home. She insists that, on the contrary, the fight has only just begun! On the letters page Grimlock confirms to reader Andrew Jackson that the Terrorcons and Technobots will feature in next issue’s Headmasters instalment and Runabout and Runamuck are still at the bottom of New York harbour. Going back to what I was saying about TFs never truly being dead, you have to wonder at this juncture whether anyone will be coming to fish them out (they will eventually). And a letter from Christopher Millwood asking for Transformers reprints as the back-up story would sadly become rather prescient as the comic cut corners in its latter years! In the Robo Capers strip, one Margaret Thatcher makes a cameo (with the banned spook memoir Spycatcher in her bin!).
Part two begins with a great splash page by Geoff Senior of Swindle planting an explosive just as a flaming jeep comes bearing down on him. He can’t react in time and takes the impact full on. He turns, angry, to see who has dared attack, only to see a tank approaching. Next thing he’s hit square in the chest with a projectile and collapses backwards bemoaning his resale value in true Swindle/Ferenghi fashion.
It turns out that Joy Meadows operated the tank. The Ladies Night edition she did with a female tank driver surprisingly provided all the training required. Hmm.
The trio are jubilant at taking first blood and we get an insight into why Hoffman and Meadows are helping Cindy. In the former’s case its protect the Decepticons from destroying the greatest find of her archaeological career and for the later it’s the prospect of a great news story.
Nearby Soundwave completes his work priming the detonator, while the Combaticons are wondering why Swindle hasn’t returned. Soundwave sends them to find out while he remains to guard the detonator. Elsewhere, the Throttlebots and Blaster are concerned that the humans might be attempting to tangle with the Decepticons and implore Goldbug to rethink his earlier decision to step away. It’s the first time that Goldbug has appeared to be the defacto leader of this group, even though Rollbar commands the Throttlebots. I suspect its because Goldbug has the most experience of Earth while the rest of relative newcomers and he’s also a fairly switched on chap most of the time (and in fact in the IDW verse Goldbug’s alter ego Bumblebee would enjoy stints as an Autobot civilian leader).
Finding Swindle unconscious, the Combaticons look for signs of the perpetrators. An empty jeep rolls down the mountainside towards them. Only when it arrives do they notice the explosives. Onslaught orders them to scatter but they are too late – as Cindy and Joy fire a tank shell at the powder keg, catapulting the Decepticons into the air. Debris from the explosion lands in the volcano, cracking the solidified lava around Galvatron!
The blast is also enough to upturn the tank and both women crawl out dazed. Onslaught seizes the unconscious Susan Hoffman in his palm. He’s mad enough to squish her but then relents. Cindy and Joy realise why when they spot four Throttlebots present with their weapons drawn. Onslaught withdraws, smarting from the humiliation.
From a safe distance, Soundwave transmits the detonation signal only for there to be no ensuing explosion. The Autobots could not have defused the bombs in time he thinks. The explanation, as if we couldn’t guess, is Blaster in radio mode jamming the signal. This might be the one and only time Soundwave and Blaster have competed, though not in battle more’s the pity. There’s a nice satirical conclusion with Goldbug chastising the girls for trying to take on the Decepticons. That said, he notes they “did pretty well for mere…” and Meadows, triggered, jumps in expecting him to say “mere women”. In fact Goldbug was going to say “mere humans”!
Magnus and Galvatron have been present throughout the story without actually playing an active role. It’s fitting that they have the final scene with the rock around Galvatron cracking and his eyes returning to life. A story for another time we’re told…
In summary. This Ladies Night is an enjoyable two parter that shows that’s that a bit of human ingenuity can actually be a match for a team of heavily armed and dangerous Decepticons. The execution is good and doesn’t stretch the boundaries of belief too far. Onslaught declares that, after their intervention, the Throttlebots will become their primary targets which ties in nicely to the US story arc that starts in the next issue.
Swoop goes looking for Divebomb to settle an old score and stop a humiliating secret from his past from becoming known… and their respective teams, the Dinobots and the Predacons, are close behind
Forget Rodimus Prime versus Galvatron or Blaster and Goldbug locking horns with the Mechanic… or even Buster Witwicky’s soapy showdown with Ratbat in a car wash (as if we could), the big fight of the year 1987 is, insofar as Simon Furman is concerned, the Dinobots versus the Predacons! According to the Transformers UK comic, fans have been demanding that the two teams meet in battle. While I’m not so sure of the claim myself, in those pre-internet days it would have impossible to disprove. In any case, in October 1987 this is what Furman (and artist Jeff Anderson) was poised to deliver…
The pre-text for the big fight was a throwaway line in the (much) earlier story, The Icarus Theory, about the Dinobot Swoop being known as Divebomb when he was on Cybertron as a member of the Autobot Elite Flying Corps. He’d resented Optimus Prime’s authority back then and, in the story, Prime is able to leverage this to force Swoop’s personality to reassert itself and override Professor Morris mind control.
So, when Hasbro subsequently brought out an actual Decepticon toy called Divebomb, Furman had a problem. He explained the discrepancy away by saying Swoop had lost the name due to being defeated in combat. The Annual story What’s In a Name? explains all this and sets up the events of Grudge Match rather neatly.
The story opens at a circus big top in Florida where the ring master whips up the crowd for a night of surprises… He’s not wrong. Moments later the Predacon Headstrong charges through O’Connor’s Circus scattering performers and spectators alike and crashing through the side of the tent. Nearby, a boy is pestering his father to see the big cats, and right on cue Razorclaw and Rampage pounce on to assembled funfair and trample the amusements. Rampage tosses a Big Wheel in the direction of Tantrum, who presumably was supposed to catch it but instead manages to shatter it into so many pieces. What’s the purpose of all this? Nothing really, it’s just a bit of mindless mayhem that the team have been needing since relocating to Earth. As Divebomb, who is nearby but finds the idea of tormenting lesser creatures beneath his status as an elite hunter, notes that things had started well: Optimus Prime and Megatron had been worthy quarry but since then Earth has been deadly dull.
Despite not having seen Swoop in four million years, Divebomb’s thoughts turn to his old sparring partner and wondering what happened to him. Does he know that Swoop is also on Earth and now part of a team? If not its mightily coincidental that Divebomb should be thinking of this memory from his long distant past on this very night.
Through Divebomb’s dialogue, are reminded that the Predacons combine to form Predaking (which is as well as the gestalt is sadly absent from the story – a missed opportunity perhaps?) and we cut to the Ark where the Swoop and Sludge see the circus rampage on the TV news.
Sludge finds it all very funny for some odd and inappropriate reason, but Swoop is visibly shocked at Divebomb’s reappearance. Sludge doesn’t understand his colleague’s strong emotional response, after all they’ve all lost battles before so why does this one matter? For Swoop, the fact that he got beaten by Divebomb and only survived due to the intervention of Optimus Prime, is a source of eternal shame. He thinks he’ll be disgraced if the truth comes out and he must silence Divebomb. It’s a massive overreaction but it speaks to Swoop’s emotional personality which we’ve seen lead him into trouble so many times before. Rather than come clean to his fellow Dinobots, Swoop explains his reaction with the immortal line: “he’s still usin’ my name.”
Shortly after, Divebomb is circling the Florida swamps in bird of prey mode. Suddenly a missile clips his wing and he spins around to see Swoop gunning for him. Divebomb is overjoyed! This is exactly the sort of excitement he’s been craving, and he wastes no time in getting stuck in. Unfortunately, it appears that the years since their last encounter has not shifted the balance in Swoop’s favour – he’s still weaker and less accomplished in battle than Divebomb. Pretty soon he’s dumped in the swamp and Divebomb as transforms and lands. Swoop is not done yet. He too reverts to robot mode and the pair are settling old scores with their fists when suddenly they are distracted by a noise off panel… the other Predacons have arrived (to the displeasure of both winged warriors) but that’s especially bad news for Swoop.
The second half begins with Swoop getting a good beating from the Predacons, with leader Razorclaw delivers the blows. Divebomb is taking no part in the punishment. This battle with Swoop is personal and he doesn’t appreciate his Predacon teammates muscling in on his fun, but neither does he say as much, it’s left to his actions. Interestingly, Swoop’s internal monologue still thinks he would have avenged himself against Divebomb had the other Predacons not arrived. I’m not sure that even Swoop is convinced by that.
As Razorclaw bends down to pick up his sword, the huge foot of Grimlock steps on it. The Dinobots look after their own, declares Grimlock, before booting Razorclaw aside. Slag and Snarl waste no time in squaring up to Headstrong and Tantrum and Divebomb goads Swoop with the threat that he might just tell the other Dinobots about Swoop’s disgrace. “I’ll kill you first,” is Swoop impassioned response, which is of course music to the Predacon’s ears. They take to the sky for round four.
Despite the billing, this does seem to be a one-sided fight. Grimlock is making light work of Razorclaw, despite the latter being a supposedly deadly predator, while Slag is just softening Tantrum up before exposing him to his fiery breath; while Headstrong is feeling the power of Snarl’s tail and Rampage will soon be worn down by Sludge (who is too stupid to admit defeat – a great line). If there was ever a time that the Predacons needed to pull their combiner trick it’s at this moment, but it never comes.
Swoop and Divebomb continue their battle in the skies above. He’s holding his own, but for how long? Swoop calculates a way to win through deception – he places himself in the firing line to Grimlock to make it appear that Divebomb has unleashed a missile attack against the Dinobot leader. Grimlock responds in typical fashion by using Razorclaw’s sword to clip the Predacon’s wings. Moments later, Grimlock is throttling Divebomb with his bare hands and Swoop only feels even more wretched.
Divebomb, naturally, attempts to save his skin by telling Grimlock that he is being played by Swoop and then spills the beans about the events on Cybertron. Grimlock listens attentively before dropping Divebomb and hoisting a huge boulder aloft. The Predacon cowers as Grimlock reveals that he’s known all about the incident for ages – since he became Autobot leader and had access to all of Prime’s unlogged reports. He doesn’t care because Swoop is a member of his team, and Dinobots look after their own. This is welcome characterisation from Furman, showing that Grimlock is a lot smarter than the crown-wearing oaf that the US stories make him out to be. His response to Swoop’s predicament is measured and proportionate and he’s looking out for someone under his command by keeping the secret.
As Divebomb cowers, awaiting the impact of the boulder, Swoop steps in to spare him. It’s time he stopped letting others fight his battles, he says. Grimlock understands that this is Swoop’s battle and is content to go along with how his colleague chooses to resolve it. The upshot is that the Predacons are allow to walk away, albeit humiliated (so much for the Decepticons’ elite hunting cadre). Swoop decides it’s time to come clean to his teammates about what that ‘certain battle on Cybertron’. Meanwhile, Razorclaw offers Divebomb a pistol and suggests that he “take out Swoop and scarper” (somewhat odd language for a Transformer but I digress). Divebomb declines: for the first time in a while he is finally starting to have fun – his playmate is back, and he intends to enjoy himself.
It’s a strong end the story and sets up the prospect of further encounters. Sadly, Simon Furman would not get around to giving us the rematch these two deserved and we wouldn’t see much of the Predacons from this point on, save for an appearance in the 1988 story Toy Soldiers (chasing Throttlebot brain modules in remote controlled cars) and then reduced to background cameos thereafter.
The Autobot presence on the planet Nebulos has triggered a wave of panic and protests and matters are about to get worse when the Decepticons show up!
I’ve got a lot of love for the Headmasters saga. It was published by Marvel as a four comic spin-off series in 1987 and reprinted in the back pages of Transformers UK.
It’s writer Bob Budiansky at the top of his game in my opinion. His task is to provide a story vehicle to introduce a large array of new Transformers toys and characters (Autobots, Decepticons and Nebulans) that has Hasbro were releasing that summer. And to provide a plausible reason why Transformers would wish to join forces with humanoids as Headmasters and Targetmasters. Bob ably rises to the challenge and weaves a story of heroism , tragedy, sacrifice, love and treachery, with compelling lead characters in Fortress Maximus and Scorponok and their Nebulan counterparts Galen and Zarak.
It’s a testament to the story that it does not need to rely on big name draws like Optimus Prime or Megatron to sell it (in fact the only established characters to appear are Hot Rod, Kup and Blurr, Cyclonus and Scourge, and even then as bit players) and so it succeeds under its its own steam.
In the first instalment, we met the noble Fortress Maximus, an Autobot leader in the Optimus Prime mould, who had grown weary of the never-ending cycle of civil war and realised the Autobots were equally culpable of propagating the conflict as their enemies the Decepticons. The only way to break the circle of violence was for his side to leave Cybertron forever. Their logical destination would be Nebulos, where peace had reigned for ten thousand years. However, the arrival of giant alien robots in their midst proved so destabilising that the Nebulans reactivated their long dormant weapons of war and attacked the newcomers. Fortress Maximus surrendered his head as the ultimate gesture of peace, as did four of his followers, while six others disarmed. Crisis was averted temporarily.
So, as we pick up the story in Broken Glass! the Nebulan capital Koraja is in a state of civil unrest with protestors waving anti-robot placards and climbing on the globe monument to burn an effigy. Galen, leader of the World Watchers, and a member of the ruling council, watches the situation with alarm. He feels responsible because it was his decision to accept the surrender of Fortress Maximus and allow the other Autobots to remain. Evidently public opinion does not share his assessment that these robots do not pose a threat.
Lord Zarak is an intriguing character. We see him at this point, standing alongside Galen as a fellow council member. The dovish Galen and hawkish Zarak have very different political perspectives but for now they are nominally on the same side. Zarak is of course, responsible for first contact between Blurr and the Nebulans going so awry in the last issue, and he’s busy stirring the pot even now, with hired thugs in the crowd to ensure the protests erupt into violence. Galen appears not to suspect the lengths Zarak will go to. And matters are complicated by the fact that Galen’s lover, Llyra, is Zarak’s daughter. She also seems to dismiss her father as a harmless crank.
So what are Zarak’s motives here? On the one hand it would seem to be power grab, by using the crisis to bring down Galen and advance himself. On the other, maybe he’s looking for an opportunity break up his daughter’s relationship with this guy he despises. We can only speculate what it is he dislikes so much about Galen: could it be Zarak finds Galen’s nobility intolerable as it reveals his (Zarak’s) own failings as a man and leader? Or maybe he detests Galen’s flamboyant choice of clothes, i.e. the bright red outfit with the slightly naff green globe on it. What we can say with some certainty is that Zarak’s daughter is smoking hot! It’s interesting to see how Earthlike these Nebulans are in terms of their actions and passions. It’s no wonder that they can come to Earth later on and integrate pretty seamlessly. Perhaps this is a missed opportunity on Bob’s part to create something more alien (that said the cartoon’s answer was simply to make the Nebulans green).
As a fight breaks out and Galen leaps into the crowd to break it up (let’s skirt over the fact that he was two storeys up and would have broken his legs) only to be punched out by one of Zarak’s goons. Nebulan security forces step in and Llyra rushes to the aid of her love, who has just been punched in the face by a protester. Galen insists on taking the blame and says the man should not be arrested. Bad judgement I think – what sort of precedent is that setting if a mob is allowed to physically assault a leading politician without consequence? Zarak is soon trying to poison Llyra against Galen, saying the deal with the Autobots is Galen’s way of seizing more power. She won’t hear of it.
Later we see what has become of Fortress Maximus and the other surrendered Autobots. Their heads are in an abandoned munitions warehouse along with their bodies and weapons. The head of Fortress Maximus has become a wise counsel to Galen and is growing ever more extreme in his selflessness as time goes on. Not only is he prepared to accept life as a decapitated prisoner, he now urges Galen to destroy them all if it will maintain the peace on Nebulos. Galen feels that would run counter to all his stands for (luckily).
Lord Zarak, meanwhile, keeps up the pressure with a speech in the Council urging his fellow law makers to listen to the voices of the people. Galen is losing the argument but Gort comes to his aid. Having recovered from the injuries he received at the forest encounter with Highbrow, he takes the platform and explains to councillors that he was not attacked at all – his fall was an accident. The speech proves to be a game changer and tensions ease a little.
So much so that Galen, Zarak are soon leading a delegation to meet Kup, Blurr, Pointblank and the other Autobots to see how construction of their forest base is going. Hot Rod is establishing one-way contact with their old base on Cybertron so that they can listen in on events happening on the homeworld. The Autobots will not broadcast to Cybertron in case the Decepticons should learn of their location. Zarak’s assistant Vorath secretly records the location of the Cybertron base, and later in a powerful observatory Zarak transmits a message to Cybertron asking for help in ridding Nebulos of the Autobots.
That message arrives, with perfect timing, as Scorponok and his Decepticons have infiltrated the deserted Autobot base on Cybertron to try to find out what has become of their regular sparring partners. When an unintelligible message starts broadcasting out of a console they activate translators and hear Zarak’s appeal for assistance against Fortress Maximus! Soon his his army is setting course for Nebulos to crush the Autobots and conquer the planet!
Natural justice demands that Zarak should be locked up for a very long time as a traitor to Nebulos for exposing his people to such danger, but that’s not what happens. My other thoughts are around Scorponok’s motives. They supposedly fight to conquer Cybertron, and with the Autobots gone that goal becomes more achievable, but Scorponok would rather up-sticks and follow Fortress Maximus. For him and his troops, conquering the enemy has long become the primary goal. In a real sense they are in a symbiotic relationship with the Autobots and are lost without them.
In one of the panels, Scorponok is meant to be speaking to Cyclonus. Instead, artist Frank Springer has drawn one of the Nebulan robots. Rather than open up a can of worms that would get readers writing in, UK editor Simon Furman simply replaces the name Cyclonus with Krunix. It won’t be the only mistake Springer makes (drawing Cerebros’ head in place of Fortress Maximus is another glaring one) but I can only imagine the number of new character specs to learn was overwhelming. It’s sloppy but is forgivable only because the standard of art is good overall and the story is of a high standard.
Before too long Scorponok and his followers arrive on Nebulos in force. Zarak is alarmed by the numbers of them and more so when Scorpnok announces they will ignore the Autobots in the forest for now and attack the city where Fortress Maximus is being held. It should be pretty apparent to Zarak that he has messed up in a major way, particularly as Scorponok makes plain that he’ll deal with Zarak and his cronies when he returns.
Galen is woken by security chief Duros, who tells him ‘robots are attacking’ apparently in contravention of their agreement. Galen gets dressed and rushes outside, where it’s quickly apparent that these are the enemies of their allies the Autobots. As the Decepticon assault on the city begins, Galen convenes with the head of Fortress Maximus, who warns him that Scorponok would interpret any surrender of the captive heads as weakness and destroy the city anyway.
Since they cannot reconnect the Autobots to their bodies without violating the promises Galen made to the Nebulan people, another way must be found. Remote controlling the Autobot bodies will not be enough to counter a heavily armed Decepticon attack and so Fortress Maximus suggests a way for the Nebulans to become the heads of the Autobots and control their bodies. It’s a novel idea and makes you wonder whether Max dreamed it up or there has been previous instances in Transformers history where the Headmaster process has been attempted.
Arcana, an expert in bio-engineering is summoned. He quickly advances the plan to allow Nebulans to become the heads of the Autobots, allowing them to ‘take control’ of the robotic bodies and fight back against the Decepticons. When I say quickly, I mean insanely fast. An engineering feat like this, which has never been attempted before, would surely take months or years to design and test, and yet here is Arcana creating the process in a matter of hours, while the city is under siege. Plus, he volunteers to be one of the five being operated on, so while he should be overseeing the crucial stage of the experiment he’s actually going on the operating table for a very risky physical process (which, when you consider involves replacing joints and strengthening bones, you would think it would take the volunteers a long time to recover from such surgery).
Gort, Duros and Stylor step up and Galen will be the fifth volunteer. He is implored by Llyra not to do become a man of war, but he feels he must lead by example if he is to save Nebulos. An operation that looks and reads like something out of a Frankenstein horror, gets underway. It is a stunning success. Finally, the five emerge from the operating theatre in robotic suits, not quite Autobots but now more than Nebulans. They fold up and transform into the heads of the Autobots and thus the Headmasters are born!
Duros’ men have fought valiantly but perimeter defences have been breached (presumably many Nebulans will have died, though this is not addressed). Skullcruncher can’t wait to start stomping organic creatures. Scorponok feels that won’t be necessary, as iron doors open to reveal Fortress Maximus (his head drawn as Cerebros, annoyingly) and fellow Autobots. Scorponok is expecting their surrender, but instead they are hear to fight.
A great battle ensues, with the five warriors now sharper, faster and more agile than before. The Decepticons are soon on the run, despite having the superior numbers. Scorponok sounds a general retreat and the Autobots do a victory march into Koraja. Many Nebulans are fearful of the ‘monstrous’ newcomers and aren’t sure if they have traded one set of conquerors for another. To ease their fears, each Autobot head disconnects and transforms back in/to its Nebulan component. They are quickly mobbed.
Llyra is aghast that Galen went ahead with this. She gives no credit at all to the fact that he has just saved the Nebulan capital and its people from destruction at the hands of a murderous alien robot mob. To be fair, Galen doesn’t help himself by speaking in terms of ‘the Autobots’ power being theirs to control’. It’s really the worst thing he could say as it makes Llyra believe that her father was right about Galen all along – he is power hungry and now longer the peaceful man she fell in love with. Ouch.
So ends Broken Glass. The title is meant to relate to the fragility of the peace on Nebulos and the civil unrest but it could also relate to Galen’s own situation. His relationship is now shattered and he may not be able to piece it back together. Even if he could, he has extensively surgically altered, a freak essentially, and it is naïve to think he can just slot back into his old life and things will be as they were.
This is the story of what happened, millions of years ago on Cybertron, when Swoop went looking for the Decepticon who stole his name
Ah Swoop. My favourite Dinobot in the comics, even though ironically he was the worst of the toys. I’ve had a soft spot for the poor bugger ever since he got beaten to a pulp by Guardian, recovered, then was engulfed by a massive explosion as he flew the aforementioned bomb-laden mechanoid away from the Ark. He’s also been bashed up by Megatron, had his mind taken over by the human scientist Professor Morris, and had a huge hole blasted in his wings by Trypticon. Swoop is probably the most unlucky Dinobot of the lot, and yet he’s also a great survivor, always battling back from whatever scrape he’s involved in.
One of two Shakespearean titled Transformers stories from Simon Furman (the other being Purchase to Dream, in 1990), What’s In A Name? is arguably the standout story in the 1987 Transformers Annual. At five pages its short and sweet but so much better than the vast majority of the Earthforce stories of the later run, many of which were turgid.
So, what is in a name? Quite a lot as it turns out. In fact a stolen name, taken by an enemy who bested Swoop in battle is the catalyst for a bitter rivalry spanning millions of years. To explain, in Transformers UK #45, Simon Furman included a throwaway line about Swoop having been known as Divebomb back on Cybertron and that he’d been part of a stuck-up elite flying corps of Autobots who resented the authority of commander Optimus Prime. Furman couldn’t have known (or at least I don’t think it was planned) that Hasbro would actually release a Predacon called Divebomb in their toy line up a year after that story was published. So, Furman takes advantage of that awkward development to weave a really compelling rivalry, that of Swoop versus Divebomb. It would play out in the 1987 story Grudge Match (where the Dinobots and the Predacons clash) and this short annual story is the warm up act.
It’s drawn by Will Simpson, whose work I like a lot, and is a real treat to see Swoop’s pre-Earth aerial mode. (In many ways the story is like a dry run for the hugely enjoyable War Within prequels that Furman wrote for Dreamwave from 2002-04). It starts with Swoop as a sleek, agile jet (a mode he says he much prefers to his current pterodactyl form) trespassing deep into Decepticon territory in direct defiance of his orders.
He’s looking for one Decepticon in particular: an airborne foe who’s real name he never found out, who bested him in combat and then adopted the name Divebomb as a consequence of winning their fight. Swoop had been humiliated and faced taunts from the other flying corps members (with friends like them, eh?) and so he’s coming looking for rematch. He doesn’t have long to wait…
As Swoop skulks around in robot mode, Divebomb spies him from the air, and sweeps past in a lightening quick strafing run, throwing off Swoop’s aim. He taunts Swoop ‘if he wants the name back he’ll have to fight for it’. Both take to the air and there is a clash of wings. Divebomb is supremely confident – he’s either stronger or just the better fighter. He unleashes a fragment rocket which makes contact with Swoop and sends him spiralling to the ground with smoke trails billowing from his engines.
Divebomb lands and transforms, a little disappointed that Swoop didn’t put up more of a fight. He closes in for the kill and is ambushed by Swoop’s afterburners, full-force in his face. Divebomb careers backwards, but is quickly able to counterattack with a blast from his sword. Swoop ends up at Divebomb’s mercy and this time he knows he is finished. Or is he? Suddenly Divebomb is cut down in a burst of laser fire from none other than Optimus Prime! Swoop’s life has been saved by the commanding officer he despises, and now his humiliation is complete.
Fast forward four million years to Earth. Prime is now dead, succeeded as Autobot leader by Swoop’s Dinobot colleague Grimlock, and the truth of Swoop’s defeat has died with him. However, Sludge shows Swoop TV footage of the Predacons rampaging on Earth, with Divebomb among them. Not as dead as he’d lead the Dinobots to believe. Grimlock joins Sludge outside and, on seeing Swoop striding away, asks what’s going on. Sludge replies that Swoop had looked like he was about to confess some secret about his history with this Decepticon but in the end all he said was “He’s still usin’ my name”. A great closing line.
It’s a neat little story which gives a good insight into Swoop’s big problem, his sense of pride. Having made it into an elite team, he feels he has to live up to the macho image and it eats him up when he falls short and is humiliated. That to Swoop is worse than death and revenge becomes an imperative. Instead he ends up making matters worse by having to be saved by Optimus Prime, who once again shows his great humanity and care for his warriors (even those who detest him) by sparing Swoop the further shame of disclosure. Rather than being grateful to Prime, Swoop appears to have only resented him more.
Divebomb, in turn, is in a league above Swoop either through training or strength, I’m not sure. But he has an almost affection for this plucky Autobot who is desperate to challenge him and can’t quite measure up. He rather admires the way Swoop won’t accept defeat I think. It makes the otherwise humdrum existence of never-ending warfare that bit more interesting and more so when Divebomb is posted to Earth and homesick for Cybertron.