Monstercon From Mars!

Decepticon Pretender Skullgrin is recruited by an unscrupulous movie director and paid in fuel to appear in his next blockbuster, and Circuit Breaker waits in the wings

1980s Marvel US writer Bob Budiansky will always be a legendary name in Transformers. He literally created all the original characters for Hasbro – Optimus Prime, Megatron, Grimlock – you name it, and fleshed out their personalities and backstories. On the comic he’s produced some truly memorable stories like Warrior School, the Matrix saga, The Smelting Pool. Alongside the action, there was always a healthy dose of humour, often involving the human characters.

The flipside of Bob’s genius were the ‘sillier’ ideas like the Car Wash of Doom which almost seemed to be Transformers taking the piss out of itself. Monstercon from Mars is very much in that vein, and like Car Wash it also revolves around an unorthodox method of Decepticons acquiring fuel from human sources.

This story also ties-up the loose end of the ‘Space Hikers’ kids, re-introduces Circuit Breaker after a long absence and works out a practical application for the pointless Pretenders disguises (no small feat).

Bob’s story, which was published in the UK comic in November 1988, is pencilled by his long-term collaborator Jose Delbo, and begins with a robotic with a salivating alien head, menacing a pretty young female. It looks like the set of a crappy 1950s B-movie, and it is (all apart from the era) as the leading man ‘Brick’, aka actor Jake Colton, rushes to the aid of his ‘love’ Celestia.

But then the robot prop blows a fuse, and its head explodes. Rollie Friendly the director screams at the poor old props guy and Jake establishes himself as a rude and rather unpleasant bloke who is deeply dismissive of his co-star Carissa Carr (who as a result wins the reader’s sympathy).

Case in point when Carissa muses, “maybe I should have become a nurse like mother wanted,” and Jake replies, “what a crushing loss to the acting profession that would have been.”

Filming is suspended for three weeks until the main prop can be repaired. Public relations ‘wizard’ Mitch Keno comes to see Rollie and switches on the TV news, where there’s live coverage of a Transformer event. Sky Lynx is returning four children to Earth after an absence of nearly a year (see Space Hikers and the Cosmic Carnival). Mitch hints that perhaps a Transformer could make an adequate movie star (?). It’s a neat way that Bob finds here to bring in Sky-Lynx and the Space Hikers, letting the readers know that they’ve been safely returned to their parents.

Sky Lynx reverts to his familiar (and bizarre) robot-esque mode and is happy to take questions from the media, while Josie ‘Circuit Breaker’ Beller watches from her van a distance away. She’s wearing a trench coat and hat, looking more like a private eye than the circuit coated avenger. The injuries she sustained at the hands of Shockwave (back in the 1985 stories Worse of Two Evils) was so long ago that a recap is needed, particular for any new readers. Bob has got very good at summarising her back story into four short panels.

Sky Lynx, sadly, falls foul of protestors and is pelted with rocks and hate, forcing him to flee, as the kids shed a tear. It demonstrates that Transformers are still very much misunderstood and feared by the public, a theme since Bob’s very first stories.

Mitch has got another idea for Rollie – Bigfoot sightings have been reported in the paper and perhaps this creature would make a decent film star? (Stop laughing ok!!) Most people would usher the guy out the office by this point, but Rollie decides he may as well do a bit of backpacking on the off chance he might find Bigfoot! Deary me. And orders Jake and Carissa to jump in the jeep and accompany him and Mitch.

At the foothills of the Great Smokies in North Carolina, the film crew, run into an army cordon and can go no further. So, Rollie pays a cash-stricken farmer to show them the way. An hour later, in a clearing full of toppled trees and crushed homes, a gigantic monster confronts them – it’s the Decepticon Pretender Skullgrin, he kicks over the camera crew’s van. Once Rollie realises the monster can talk he uses his smooth talking to strike a deal.

A quick recap from days earlier sees Skullgrin being sent to Earth by Scorponok to locate a fuel source for the eventual Decepticon landing (apparently his shell is durable enough to withstand a trip through Earth’s atmosphere without burning up). The commander hadn’t stipulated how to secure that source, so Skullgrin decides to work for his living (very un-Decepticon-like you would think). In no time at all Skullgrin is gracing the cover of magazines and being billed as a ‘star’, even attracting his own fandom.

In the second, half Jake Colton’s ego is threatened by Skullgrin’s success, and Circuit Breaker’s instincts that there may be a robot connection with the Skullgrin phenomenon is piqued when she sees a fleet of Blackrock tankers visiting the movie set. In a rather daft moment, Skullgrin is sent out to do a press conference and loses his rag with the media’s accusatory line of questioning. He starts smashing up the set and sending everyone running, until Carissa intervenes.

It seems Skullgrin has a sweet spot for Carissa, or as Rollie puts it like a ‘real-life beauty and the beast’ story. However, I can’t believe the media is just accepting that this is a real-life talking monster!

Carissa, being a kind-hearted soul, takes pity on the wheelchair-bound Circuit Breaker, who is being ushered away by security, along with the rest of the visitors. They have a brief chat in which Circuit Breaker claims to be a big Skullgrin fan and Carissa lets slip that they will be filming tomorrow at the Grand Canyon.

The next day filming continues as normal, with Jake delivering cheesy and slightly sexist lines. Carissa gets changed into her casual wear and tells the Skullgrin how good it feels to be plain old ‘Ethel Stankiewicz’ again (her real name – not surprising she uses Carissa Carr) and Skullgrin exudes even more unlikely sentimentality and decides to share his secret and pops out of his shell to show off his robot mode.

I have to say, I much prefer the way the shells divide in the comic (down the middle as opposed to the front and back of the toy) and Skullgrin’s robot mode looks much better here than the spindly toy I once owned.

Circuit activates her armour, springs out of her wheelchair and unleashes a huge burst of electricity against Skullgrin. Carissa is shocked when she realises it’s the woman in the wheelchair and angry because SHE told her where Skullgrin would be. Rollie, meanwhile, orders his cameramen and Jake to start filming.

Skullgrin operates his shell by radio control and has it swing a sword at Circuit Breaker. Clearly there are some advantages to being a Pretender (beyond an unconvincing disguise) as it doubles the fighting force. As Skullgrin transforms to vehicle mode and lines up his shrapnel blasters, Circuit Breaker radio commands the Pretender shell to attack its owner.

A stray shot results in the cliff Carissa was standing on crumbling. Skullgrin (having recombined with his shell) hears her cries for help but thinks she betrayed him by leading Circuit Breaker there. Finally, he is persuaded by his Circuit Breaker’s admission that she tricked Carissa and he plucks her to safety. Rollie hollers to her to finish the monster off and he’ll ‘make her a star’ but this only incenses her to unleashes on the cameras and destroys the footage.

She departs leaving the greedy producer with nothing to show for his trouble, and presumably the end of Skullgrin’s brief tenure as a movie star.

In closing, there is a lot of cliché, slapstick and humour (make up people talking about sandblasting Skullgrin’s nails and powdering his horn for example) but this story is better enjoyed if you don’t take it seriously and just go with it. Bob is either run short of ideas or reaching a point where he’s no longer too fussed.

On the other hand, it can’t be easy to find ways to integrate Transformers whose disguises are gigantic monsters into an Earth setting without straying into Bigfoot (and later) King Kong type territory. It’s nice to see Circuit Breaker back, rather than forgotten about, although she’s still as stubborn and annoying as ever (amazingly though, she’s attacking a Decepticon for once).

Skullgrin and his friendship with Carissa does come across as likeable and genuine, though mercifully less erotic than Skids getting his hubcaps buffed by Charlene! He even seems to care for such things as making an arrangement to secure fuel where “nobody gets hurt” which suggests a bit more depth of character than the average Decepticon.

Overall, the story is hardly a classic, but its fun and I enjoyed more than I thought I would. Elsewhere in the comic, Action Force is back as the second strip, meaning Visionaries is out already. And Marvel UK is heavily promoting Simon Furman’s new Death’s Head monthly title.

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Dry Run!

Cyclonus and Scourge call on Shockwave to form an alliance, only for their stupidity to land them in a fight for their lives against the ultimate opponent

THA-KUNCH! The sound of an uppercut from a mystery assailant that leaves Galvatron damaged and disorientated. He retreats to prepare a particle cannon blast, but takes a drop-kick and is blown to bits by a Fusion Cannon blast – Fraddam! It’s all over in 10 seconds. Megatron is victorious!

It’s fair to say that Dry Run, the 1988 story from Marvel UK (scripted by Dan Abnett, using a plot by Simon Furman), makes a dramatic entrance. Long-time readers will have been aware that Galvatron is the most powerful Decepticon there is. Created by a god (Unicron) during the Transformers Movie, he’s said to be the ultimate enhancement of Megatron – more powerful, more durable, more cunning. Yet here getting his ass kicked by his less powerful former self. What gives?

Simon Furman’s masterpiece Target: 2006 introduced readers to the concept of facsimile constructs – automated fake Transformers used in combat training. So, it’s not a surprise that Galvatron we’ve just witnessed getting ripped to bits is a fake, and I cannot imagine that Megatron could dispatch the real Galvatron with the same effortless ease. Nevertheless, Shockwave is pleased.

Since Enemy Action, earlier in the year, he’s been paranoid that Galvatron, who fled 2006 to hide out in ‘present day’ Earth (the 1980s as was), is out to steal his command. And not wanting to take him on directly, Shockwave had recovered the non-functional Megatron from his watery grave in the Thames and reprogrammed him into an obedient agent of destruction.

In the US ‘master’ continuity Shockwave burned up in Earth’s orbit after a space battle with Fortress Maximus (see Desert Island of Space) and the ambitious Ratbat very rapidly jumped into his seat (Shockwave would resurface on the beach at Blackpool in a later US story, creating a continuity faux pas).

In the UK comic, the fall to Earth was less of a big deal. Shockwave dusted himself off and regrouped to the original Decepticon base, Fortress Sinister, to continue his machinations. One of these would have been dealing with the Galvatron situation. However, if he’s worried about threats to his command, Ratbat ought to be the immediate problem.

As Shockwave muses the possibility of testing Megatron against more substantial opposition, he watches Cyclonus and Scourge on the monitor. These two refugees from the future are waiting in the hall, having come to Shockwave for his protection following their abortive attack on Galvatron (they confronted their former boss, Galvatron, in Wrecking Havoc hoping to steal his time travel device).

It’s debatable what protection Shockwave can provide, seeing as he seems to be on his own in the fortress – the rest of his Decepticon army is with Ratbat.

Cyclonus is on edge. He’s uncomfortable about cosying up to Shockwave, who was their hated commander in 2008 and who they subsequently executed (well, Death’s Head did the deed, but with their help). This was in the very excellent Legacy of Unicron part 2 of course. Scourge seems to be thinking more clearly, though that’s not saying much.

Within seconds of Shockwave entering the room and letting them know they’ll be serving him, Cyclonus is ‘triggered’. He calls Shockwave a “pompous, overbearing fool” and goes further – much further – by letting slip that they are destined kill him in the future and take his command. It’s such a ridiculously dumb and unnecessary outburst, like he’s developed the robot equivalent of tourettes syndrome! Scourge is furious.

The response is predictable: a volley of fire from Shockwave (who manages to miss, despite being at point blank range) as Cyclonus and Scourge scatter. The hapless pair unite with their Targetmaster Nebulans, Nightstick and Fracas, and return fire (also misfiring!). What happens next is entirely foreseen…

Shockwave appears with Megatron, instructing him that these are two ‘lieutenants of the hated Galvatron’ and must be destroyed, he’s happy to oblige. Cyclonus and Scourge are shocked and surprised – first Cyclonus is hit by a Fusion Cannon blast, and Scourge is pummelled and thrown against a wall.

Cyclonus, getting throttled, opens fire at point-blank range but Megatron only seems to become more enraged. He crushes Nightstick (surely fatal for the Nebulan) and threatens to crush Cyclonus, who screams for Scourge to help.

Scourge, on his knees, lines up Megatron with Fracas on full power to unleash a fatal blast. Then he thinks of the timeline, if Megatron dies might that mean that he can’t become Galvatron in 2006, and Cyclonus and Scourge might cease to exist as well. It’s a fascinating conundrum, and one that Scourge is not willing to test. He reverts to his jet mode and flees the fortress with Fracas, leaving poor old Cyclonus – the guy who was once able to throttle Megatron in Target: 2006 – to be terminated by Megatron tearing his head off.

In deep space the ‘heavens scream’ as a tear in space time is formed. Decapitation in a kids’ comic, well why not? It’s happened before, to Optimus Prime during the ‘Creation Matrix saga’ of 1985, and Scorponok’s head is severed by Highbrow in the 1988 Annual story All in the Minds. Neither of these died so Cyclonus seems to have been very unlucky in this instance!

In epilogue, Shockwave has decided that Megatron has proven himself ready to take on the main target. Human media reports a mechanoid answering Galvatron’s description running riot through a nearby settlement. Shockwave dispatches Megatron to find the “impostor who claims to be descended from you” and destroy him! And so, the stage is set for that irresistible reckoning, in the 1988 Transformers Annual (on sale now, naturally). It’s a good piece of marketing.

This issue is part of a major story arc that Simon Furman has been weaving in the UK comics since Fallen Angel (way back issue #101) where Galvatron fled to Earth’s past. We’ve since had Cyclonus and Scourge travel back (further disrupting time) and now the death of one of them nearly 20 years before his creation. This resulting rift in space-time is apparently the cause of the destruction of the Quintesson planet, as seen recently in the Space Pirates saga.

(Why the rift should form half the galaxy away at the Quintesson planet rather than at source is a curious question – there they are minding their own business, staging gruesome executions, and a rift that’s nothing to do with them shows up to destroy everything).

The comic is still being printed on the lower quality paper, but thankfully with eight of the 24 pages on glossy, including the cover. This is important as the tip in physical quality is unsettling. I remember thinking at the time that it was a sign of cost cutting and maybe the comic was losing sales and might be about to fold. In fact, it would survive until early 1993, though resorting to black and white and reprints along the way, which would test the loyalty of readers.

What happens when Megatron and Galvatron meet is told in the Annual story Altered Image.

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Firebug!

A gremlin-like creature with a fondness for arson arrives from space and sets a human town ablaze, as Inferno, Broadside and Sandstorm investigate

“Shorter but no less shocking,” is how the introduction to UK Transformers #188 describes it’s 11-page story, Firebug. It appeared in print in October 1988, straight after Simon Furman’s Space Pirates saga which culminated with the colossus, Metroplex, stomping on Sharkticons and the Quintesson planet blowing up!

After that, whatever followed was likely to be more sedate, regardless of the comic’s claims to the contrary, but a change of pace is no bad thing.

The first thing to notice about this issue is the dip in paper quality. As a guy in my school rather crudely put it: “It’s been printed on bog roll!” He had been collecting since the early days like I had but gave the comic up soon after. He had probably grown out of comics, but the recent run of poor stories wouldn’t have helped.

For whatever reason, being busy or just bringing forward new talent, Furman is credited with the plot and has delegated the actual writing duties to newcomer Dan Abnett. It’s the first time Simon has not been credited as the writer of a UK story in the weekly comic since I think Mike Collins did Crisis of Command in 1986.

It’s a gentle easing into franchise for Abnett, with a fairly throwaway tale about a space gremlin who starts fires and provides a challenge for our resident fire engine Inferno (last seen meeting his making in an exploding spaceship in 2008, this is his earlier ‘present day’ self). The Firebug character has not appeared in Transformers before and won’t do so again, so I suspect he was just brought in this one time as an obvious nemesis for the big red fire engine Autobot.

On the plus side, it’s nice that Inferno is finally making appearances in the comic. He was part of the 1985 Hasbro toy line, very much yesterday’s news for the toymaker which has moved on to Headmasters, Powermasters, Pretenders and the like, so it’s good that this older character has featured.

Sandstorm and Broadside are his companions, and Broadside seems to spend chunks of the story being bickering with the other two, despite being the team leader. Following an intro page where a meteor impacts near Mt St Hilary in Oregon (naturally) overnight, the Autobot trio landed the following day.

They’ve been sent by Emirate Xaaron, the elder and commander of the Autobot forces on Cybertron to set up a permanent reconnaissance post (you would think Xaaron has enough on his plate on Cybertron without worrying about Earth). They cloak the ship and make a joke about remembering where they parked, which feels like it’s been nicked from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

Inferno teases pokes fun at the Wreckers’ last visit to Earth to take down Galvatron which turned into a disaster when they materialised in a human settlement (this time it’s old-fashioned travel by spaceship). Broadside getting touchy and squaring up to Inferno is not a great look for a unit commander. Sandstorm intervenes.

The orange triple-changer then goes off to investigate smoke in the distance. Even though they are not permitted to get involved in human affairs (sounding even more like Trek) he’s itching for some action. Inferno isn’t going – once you’ve seen the “molten heart of a star” Earth fires are minor league. Nice point.

Sandstorm finds a small town ablaze and a major emergency in progress. Broadside agrees they will have to step in. This gives Inferno an opportunity to do the firefighting he’s well equipped for, until Broadside catches a glimpse of something in a burning building. It turns out to be Firebug, a native of Furnacia, who feeds on high temperatures and likes combustible matter (Earth is rich pickings).

There’s a bit of humour from the writer about the nomadic Firebugs having ended up on an ice world “with predictably disastrous results,” Inferno notes.

This Firebug is fast and easily evades the Autobot trio’s clumsy attempts to capture him. I did laugh at the frames where Sandstorm fires his Silica Gun and melts a Ford Fiesta (not too many of those in Oregon I’d bet, though they were common to the UK back then). After dodging fireballs and bumping into each other, the Autobots team up to pin the Firebug down and extinguish his flame.

But what to do with their captive? They resolve to stuff him in a message pod (no radio messages then?) and blast him off to Mercury where the surface temperatures of 400 degrees C prove to be just the ticket. All’s well that ends well, and to fair to the Firebug, he’s not a villain but is just doing what his race does to survive, that’s burning things! In summary, not a bad little story but not destined to be a classic. Dan Abnett will get a chance to sink his teeth into something more consequential in the next story, Dry Run, which features the return of Megatron.

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Space Pirates (parts 4, 5 and 6)

The Autobots and Decepticons team-up to repel the Quintesson invasion of Cybertron, and Metroplex is awakened to fight them on Earth

In 2008, the Quintesson home world (Quintessa?) is being torn apart by gravitational forces, making it necessary for them to expedite an invasion of Cybertron. Fearful that the Matrix of Leadership could thwart them, they have laid waste to Autobot City Earth and set a trap for Rodimus Prime, who is of course the bearer and keeper of the Matrix in this post Transformers Movie era.

Transformers #185 from Marvel UK, published in the Autumn of 1988, contains part 4 of Simon Furman’s story. Dougie Braithwaite is again credit with the art. His style is not quite to my taste but has its moments. One such scene is the defeated Autobots hanging from the city walls like a medieval or biblical display (the dead bodies of criminals being hung up as a warning). It’s one of the standout moments of Space Pirates, which is otherwise quite average as far as Furman’s “future” epics go.

The next phase of the Quintesson masterplan is underway as the Decepticon commander Soundwave leads his airborne army into a trap. He’s normally a wily operator but has been completely fooled by the Quintesson’s fake plea for help, claiming that the Autobots were attacking their home planet. Soundwave should have known something was suss, as attacking worlds is not something Autobots do, but instead he saw an opportunity to strike at the Autobot base while the bulk of their forces would be absent.

Aboard Astrotrain with his team leaders, Soundwave is boasting of his impending success, pride before a fall and all that. Just in the Movie, Astrotrain can massively increase his size when is in plane or train mode, enough to accommodate numerous colleagues with room to spare.

They are attacked by Quintesson tridents and forced to bail out (Astrotrain reverts into a normal sized robot and joins the counterattack), it dawns on Soundwave that he has been played. Elsewhere, Wreck-Gar and Wheelie continue to deal with a heavily damaged ship and set a course for a remote asteroid. Both are still being as annoying as ever, talking TV and in rhyme. As I’ve said before, it must be a real pain for the writer to come up with their dialogue.

On Cybertron, Ultra Magnus and Blaster’s cassette, Eject, receive a distress call of unknown origin, which is of course from Soundwave. This suggests the two enemy camps are likely to join forces to repel the invading Quintessons. Surely there would have been ample Decepticon reinforcements to call on though? Their base may have been pinned down, but it’s a planet full of Transformers! The Quints should be massively outnumbered.

Part four ends on a decent enough cliff-hanger, with Rodimus arriving on Earth and whopping out the Matrix to heal the battered up Arcee, only to get ambushed by the Quintessons and one of them to fly away with the sacred bauble. With it out of reach, Prime shrinks and reverts to Hot Rod! A bad situation has got massively worse.

Elsewhere in the issue, there’s an opportunity to win one of three Trypticon toys (usually only available in the US). It’s a nifty prize and of course I entered the competition back in the day. Never won of course.

Lee Sullivan takes over the art for the final two instalments, depicting a very toothy Hot Rod and pliable faces for his robots, which I didn’t care for much at the time (the style has grown on me since). The final splash page with Metroplex is among his best work however and still looks very cool today.

Hot Rod and Arcee burn rubber away from hordes of Quintesson soldiers, bringing the ceiling down to cover their escape. General Ghyrik is scene watching various monitor screens, with the Matrix dangling from his pincher arm.

In need of reinforcements, Hot Rod and Arcee abseil down to the stricken Blaster (still unconscious and suspended from the city walls) and recover his cassettes. We previously saw Rewind, Ramhorn and Steeljaw in the 1986 Transformers Movie and it’s an exciting ‘fanboy’ moment with them making their comic’s debut.

On Cybertron, the Decepticons are still getting their asses whooped. Soundwave himself nearly falls foul of a Quintesson trooper sneaking up behind him, when Ultra Magnus arrives and blows the would-be assassin away. Salvation has arrived apparently, even though the ‘reinforcements’ only appear to comprise of Magnus, Eject and three of the Technobots (hardly a game changer).

Wreck-Gar and Wheelie bail out of their smoking shuttle on to a large asteroid where other Junkions are waiting with a transmitter, presumably to warn the universe of the Quintessons’ plans. To be honest it only really involves the Cybertronians and they have by now got a pretty good idea that they are under attack.

After some nice panels of the cassettes in pitched battle, part 5 concludes with Hot Rod successfully awakening the sleeping giant at the heart of Autobot City (and the reason it can transform) – with Metroplex bursting out of the ground. I dare say at this point, Hot Rod seems to be a much smarter and more effective than Rodimus was, which is a bit ironic.

The elements are all in place for a major Quintesson rout in the final part, which unfortunately takes the tension out of the story. Metroplex has apparently woken from his five year slumber like a bear with a sore head (usually a long sleep produces the opposite effect), and swats the invaders like insects.

General Ghyrik watches aghast, but he still has the Matrix, and this could yet give him a winning advantage. He goes off to retrieve it with Hot Rod following, fearful that the Matrix could be ‘perverted’ to the cause of evil (considering it would not open for Galvatron, a Decepticon, this seems unlikely).

Ghyrik gets a power boost from the Matrix and beats up Hot Rod, who is suffering from a nasty case of self-doubt, ‘wondering why the Matrix chose him’ until he predictably snaps out of it, snatches back the sacred talisman and restores himself as Rodimus Prime. He throws Ghyrik off the roof of Autobot City and leaves him a spectacular mess on the floor below!

On Cybertron, Magnus, now annoyingly drawn to the same proportions as Soundwave (when toy-wise he’s twice the size) work together to mop up the invading forces. Soundwave’s moment in the aftermath, where he considers that the two factions could perhaps reconcile, is a fascinating moment of what if. But he concludes that it would never work, there’s too much water under the bridge.

Finally, Wreck-Gar and the Junkions broadcast the Quintessons’ invasion plans to all of their would-be targets, leaving this soon-to-be extinct race without a card to play (all of which seems pretty vindictive). Finally, Quintessa is torn apart, with Lord Kledji threatening revenge (this would be the last time they appear in the comic though). We learn that Autobot scientists will soon discover that the planet’s demise was the result of a ‘rapidly expanding rift’ in the fabric of time and space… setting the scene for the next epic, the 1989 year’s opener Time Wars.

It’s interesting to note the clues as to the state of the comics market evidenced in Transformers #187. The first and last four pages are on the regular paper, and the rest of the book on what I would now call recycled paper. It’s a cheaper type and suggestive of the rising prices of paper, pushing up costs in the market.

At the same time, it appears that Marvel UK’s rapid expansion is coming apart. The weekly Action Force title has folded, followed by Visionaries (who’s final stories are being concluded in Transformers in the back up slot) and an advert for the Thundercats comic reveals it is amalgamating/absorbing the doomed Galaxy Rangers title. Elsewhere there’s plugs for Doctor Who Magazine, Dragon’s Claws (both of which I collected) and an upcoming Death’s Head title.

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Space Pirates (parts 1, 2 and 3)

With their home-world coming apart at the scenes, the Quintessons launch a desperate plan to conquer Cybertron, starting with an assault on Autobot City

Simon Furman’s Space Pirates saga was published in issues #182 through to #187 of the Marvel UK Transformers comic, in September/October 1988. It’s another of the writer’s future epics using the cast and characters from the fan favourite Transformers animated movie. It’s one of the weaker future stories as far as I’m concerned, but after the truly terrible Big Broadcast of 2006 US story which preceded it, Space Pirates at least suggests a return to normal levels of story quality.

After 100 or issues since the last redesign, this was a moment for comic itself to ‘transform’. Out went the familiar page 2 design with the circuit board style border (which I really enjoyed) and a neat looking columns design which looked fresh. The masthead was enlarged, and the contents section done away with – but as the comic was only 24 pages anyway, how much use was it really?

The coming attractions half page has a redesign and Grimlock is out as the letter answerer, to be replaced by ‘Dread Tidings’ presented by one of the new Decepticon Powermasters, Dreadwind, and his Nebulan sidekick Hi-Test. He’s not an obvious choice, unlike say Soundwave, but on the other hand there’s something to said for having a bad guy as the letter answerer, some fun replies are to be expected.

The ‘handover’ from Grimlock to Dreadwind is satirised in a one-page Robo Capers special by the talented Lew Stringer (just like last time). And six pages of Lew’s Combat Colin strips are used as a stop gap in issue #183 until Marvel was ready to kick off the new (though quite temporary back-up strip) Visionaries. I think because the Visionaries comic had closed suddenly without completion. For me, not being particularly a fan of Action Force, I was happy to see a change of back-up strip. And Visionaries is a great 1980s cartoon, from Sunbow who also animated Transformers.

Story-wise, Space Pirates attempts to salvage a coherent narrative out of the nonsense that was BB2006, in which the Quintessons hypnotised half the universe to buy space for them to search for a canister on Junk. We never found out what the canister’s value was, so Simon has decided it contained secret plans for conquering other worlds. And the reason the Quintesson need a new home world is because theirs is suddenly and rapidly being torn apart by strange gravitational forces.

If plans had been transmitted across space by Quintesson agents and then stored in a canister, why not send them the rest of the journey by transmission? It makes no sense to encode them in a physical object that will take time to travel across space, particularly as the clock is ticking on Quintesson.

The story is set in 2008 (still futuristic destination for the readers of 1988) and the opens views of the Quintesson homeworld coming apart. Panic and desperation have set in on the planet, and given they’ve spent their time capturing and executing space farers over the years, one assumes they have little allies they can call on.

Whereas in the Movie the Quintessons were one-dimensional villains with a perverted idea of justice, the comic at least presents them as more of a regular state with scientists, military, and political leaders. One general called Ghyrik is dispatched to attack and secure their “primary target”, Autobot City, Earth, while General Jolup is to assemble the main fleet for an assault on Cybertron (their preferred choice for a new home world).

The Junkion leader Wreck-Gar, who we saw at the mercy of torturer last issue, remains their prisoner. He’s hauled into a court where a huge six-faced judge presides and where a previous defendant is being devoured by Sharkticons. Wreck-Gar has no wish to share this fate, and overpowers his guard, throwing him into the murky waters where the moronic Sharkticons rip him apart not realising he’s on their side. Wreck-Gar picks up a blaster from somewhere (it’s not clear where) and fights his way outside, escaping by boat. But while he’s navigating the rust sea hordes of Sharkticons attack the vessel from below the water.

Wreck-Gar, still talking TV, is engulfed by robotic carnivores as the Quintessons close in on Autobot City, ending the first part. Interestingly, there are no Transformers in this instalment at all, just Wreck-Gar and the Quintessons, I think this may be a first for the comic.

Part 2 opens with Arcee, rendered like a catwalk model by artist Dan Reed. She’s bored and decides to desert her post preferring a country drive to tedious guard duty. Naturally, this is just the time that Ghyrik launches his surprise attack. A ‘hi and die’ character called Hopper is blown to bits and Perceptor enquires as to whether Chase is still functioning following the attack (trouble is Chase has been coloured as Rollbar – oops). Sharkticon warriors breach the city walls and overpower the Autobots, with Blaster also gunned down before he can manually activate the city defences.

Back on the Quintesson Wreck-Gar repels his Sharkticon attackers with a burst of electricity, and Wheelie arrives overhead in a shuttle and pulls him aboard. With Wreck-Gar speaking TV and Wheelie’s entire dialog being spoken in rhyme, I can imagine the pair are challenging characters to write.

Part 2 concludes, predictably, with Arcee returning to the realisation, to her horror, that the city was attacked while she was goofing off. Rather than flee and raise the alarm she compounds her error by planning a surprise attack only to be cut down and captured. She is to be bait in a trap for the Autobot leader Rodimus Prime!

A couple of observations: it’s nice to see Arcee making her debut in the regular title, as well as Wheelie (previously both only appeared in the Movie adaptation.) Blaster appears in his TF Movie communications centre again and uses his line from the film, “they’re blitzing Autobot City”. Blaster is missing his trademark visor and for some reason seems a different character to the one Bob Budiansky writes so brilliantly. I feel like Simon can’t quite capture him.

Part 3, with a decent cover by Jerry Paris, is drawn by Dougie Braithwaite. The style is okay and very good in places – the final scene with the strung up Autobots for example, but Dougie’s faces are a bit cartoony for my tastes.

Rodimus has a frustrating call with the Junkions who have not seen hide not hair of Wreck-Gar and are still speaking in TV slogans (I can well imagine that gets irritating in a crisis). In recap, we learn something of why Prime is such close friends with Wreck-Gar, who he feels indebted to for helping them defeat Unicron not once but twice. The last Prime heard, Wreck-Gar was inbound, with news of a Quintesson threat to countless metallic worlds so top secret that he dares not speak it over an open comms channel.

On Earth, Ghyrik enjoys the views from Autobot City which are all the more sweet in light of his conquest. On Cybertron, phase two is in progress. A Quintesson agent had approached Decepticon commander Soundwave for help against the Autobots attacking their home world. Soundwave, falling for the ruse, decides the Autobot base on Cybertron will be vulnerable and rallies his key lieutenants for an assault, much to the pleasure of Lord Kledji on Quintesson, who sees the plans coming to fruition.

The only wildcard is Wreck-Gar, who has fled into hyperspace in a battle-damaged ship, which may yet blow up in his and Wheelie’s faces.

The issue ends with a surveillance droid relaying images to Prime and company, en-route to Earth, of their colleagues strung up on the walls like some medieval or biblical scene. This moment is up there with Shockwave’s ‘slabs of beef’ treatment of the Autobots way back in The New Order, and the decapitation of Cyclonus which is coming up. At this point the story seems to be warming up nicely.

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Altered Image

Shockwave deploys a re-programmed Megatron as the perfect agent to take down Galvatron, who surely would be unable to destroy his past-self

In the early years, Transformers annuals tended to run with standalone stories that were loosely connected to the main comics continuity and in some cases didn’t fit at all (for a good example see 1985’s ‘A Plague of Insecticons’, also famous for featuring Ronald Reagan).

But in 1988, just like the previous year, publishers Marvel and Grandreams have cottoned on that it makes much better business sense to tie at least one of the strips into the weekly Transformers comic and ensure crossover sales (to be fair though, most regular TF comic readers would buy both regardless).

In the previous year, the conclusion of the ‘Wanted Galvatron’ saga happened in the annual, and for 1988 it’s the pay-off of a story that’s been building for a while – the showdown between Megatron and his future self Galvatron.

Shockwave, who leads the Earthbound Decepticons in the present day (1988) had been badly rattled by an undersea encounter with Galvatron, where he was outsmarted and came close to losing his command.

He decided that he needed a powerful agent, somebody with the brute strength to defeat Galvatron, and only Megatron fitted the bill. He was also the perfect solution, as Galvatron – who has been hiding out in Earth’s past these last two years, since fleeing from 2006 – cannot possibly destroy Megatron without potentially erasing himself in the process. It’s a delicious conundrum, and a win-win for Shockwave who stands to rid himself of two rivals.

Megatron was retrieved from his watery grave in the Thames (see Ancient Relics for how he came to be there) and reprogrammed to believe that Galvatron is an imposter who dares to claim he is descended from Megatron. Fresh from his take-down of Cyclonus in ‘Dry Run’, Megatron has proven his readiness and been deployed.

Altered Image is the tale of that meeting. It’s plotted by Simon Furman, with his old editor Ian Rimmer on writing duties, and Lee Sullivan providing the art. The colours by Steve White are impressive too and give a clean finish.

It opens with Galvatron staring at his reflection in the glass panels of a wrecked office block. A city centre lays in ruins and deserted – Galvatron has gone to a lot of trouble to draw attention to himself. It’s never explained, but somehow, he knows that Megatron will be coming for him and has determined that the meeting should be of his own choosing. I suppose you could say that Galvatron remembers the encounter from a time when he was Megatron, except that it will eventually turn out that this Megatron isn’t the original at all (see the 1989 story ‘Two Megatrons’ for that clumsy explanation).

Megatron charges into view, accusing Galvatron of lies for daring to claim he is descended from him. Galvatron repudiates this with quick references to his rebirth by Unicron in 2006 and points out the obvious: that Shockwave is manipulating them. He experiences the fury of Megatron’s fusion cannon, which must be a novel experience having always been the one firing it previously, and blows are traded.

You would think that Shockwave would have seen to it that Megatron’s personality remained submerged, so that he would not be open to critical thinking and possible persuasion by Galvatron. Perhaps success requires a Megatron with his powers of agile thinking and cunning intact, but it’s a big risk for Shockwave.

Galvatron contemplates destroying Megatron if he cannot reason with him, after all he doesn’t know for sure what the temporal consequences would be. He transforms into his cannon mode and fires, appearing to miss. Megatron’s triumph is short lived though as a huge chunk of building descends on him.

As Megatron crawls out of debris, Galvatron reveals there are worse indignities to come like when Starscream throws him into space in the future. His curiosity peaked, Megatron inquires how Galvatron avenged this, and the reply comes in the form of a question: “What would you have done?” Megatron laughs. If not the same being they are at least like minds, and an alliance could be in their mutual interest.

In conclusion, it’s a nice little story but short at six pages and probably if it had appeared as a standard 22 pages two-parter in the UK comic it would have been done with a bit more fanfare and drama. Instead, the script and the actual dust-up are a little thin, given the build-up. That said, the 1989 year-opener ‘Time Wars’ will feature a more satisfying example of Megatron and Galvatron fighting side-by-side so there is a good pay-off coming up.

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The Big Broadcast of 2006

Wreck-Gar recants an fictional encounter between Rodimus Prime and Galvatron as part of an attempt to trick a Quintesson interrogator

As Starscream famously said in Transformers: The Movie: “Oh how it pains me to do this.” That’s what I was thinking as I sat down to review this because it’s one of the worst issues of the entire series. Starscream was of course talking about throwing a battered Megatron out of the airlock, but believe me if you’ve read this story, you’d see why it wants jettisoning into space too!

This 1988 story has been adapted from the third series of the Sunbow cartoons which normally I’m a fan of, but this episode is unfortunately one of the worst.

The background to this story is that the Marvel team behind the US Transformers comic (having taken leave of their senses) decided to take a break from their normally high standard stories and make things easy on themselves. Rather than coming up with an original story they decided to cannibalise one from the cartoons, and by choosing a post Movie episode they were able to feature the likes of Rodimus Prime, Galvatron and Ultra Magnus in the comic for the first time.

Some US readers might have been pleased about that but those who watched the cartoons and bought the comics probably felt a tad ripped off.

Over at Marvel UK the production team obviously faced a dilemma. They had always slavishly reprinted the US stories and built their own continuity around it. But unlike America the UK comic regularly featured the ‘future’ Autobots and Decepticons and this instalment did not fit with any of the other stories.

The simple answer would have been to ‘skip’ this one, but Simon Furman has chosen to run with it and explain it away as a story made-up by the Autobots’ TV-talking ally Wreck-Gar to trick his Quintesson-employed torturer. This will allow Simon to take the central elements of the Quintessons and their cannister and create a coherent story around it. It’s also worth noting that there have been other cartoon adaptations in Transformers including ‘Decepticon Dambusters’ and the Movie adaptation, both of them average, but this one manages to be worse. Anyway, here’s what happens…

On a distant planet, Earth date 2008, Junkion leader Wreck-Gar finds himself at the mercy of a torturer with a high reputation for getting answers. Painfully shackled against a wall with his moustache singed, and what looks like electrodes on his nipples, Wreck-Gar screams out in pain as he is once again asked for the location of a missing “canister”. His sinister hosts remain out of sight, as Wreck-Gar offers to spill the beans…  

It is the year 2006, and a large spacecraft soars over the planet of Junk, deploying Sharkticon soldiers for a missing object. Nearby, Wreck-Gar and his lady friend (?) enjoy their favourite pastime of old Television broadcasts. Moments later a Sharkticon lifts a large canister over his head, only for Wreck-Gar (wasn’t he just watching TV?) to blast it free and for the invader to be captured.

The Quintessons decide on a different approach, by exploiting the Junkions’ strange obsession with primitive Earth TV. The next morning the Junkions hear a strange music and are drawn to its source – not a Trojan Horse but it’s equivalent in this context – a giant TV screen! Watching from above, the Quintessons will use their ‘gift’ to infuse the Junkions with hypnotic commands!

Rodimus Prime and Ultra Magnus are on Cybertron when Sky Lynx arrives to warn them on strange goings-on happening on Junk. They send the Aerialbots to investigate, meanwhile Galvatron has also been tipped off about the situation, but seems strangely distracted (turns out later, he’s been watching the broadcast too).

The Quintessons cloak their ship in a giant cloud of gas to retrieve their cannister, but they near Junk they are engaged by the Aerialbots in their combined form Superion, repelling the giant robot but at the cost of their forcefield.

Wreck-Gar and his people, rather than becoming violent as they were supposed to, adopt a share and care attitude, and start broadcasting the message to the wider galaxy. On distant worlds, populations of cat people attack their K9 neighbours (daft).

Ships attack Junk with Omega Supreme arriving to get involved in the melee, and Rodimus Prime and Galvatron also arrive on Junk and do battle with one another. During the fight, a stray blast blows the canister out of the Quintesson tractor beam and hurtling off into space. Finally, the Autobots come up with a plan to counteract the hypnotic messages using Omega Supreme and Blaster – who cringingly says “Hey dude I need altitude” – to soars over the battlefield holding playing music and breaking the hypnotic spell. With peace restored, the Quintessons are left to scour the galaxy for their missing canister before anyone else finds it.

Back in the real world the torturer is satisfied he’s extracted another confession. That is until a Quintesson enters the chamber and informs the smug torturer he’s fallen for a story that’s full of absurdities and contradictions (I second that) and sentences him to death (are you listening writer Ralph Macchio?)!

Interesting this story was not written by Bob Budiansky, but instead by Ralph Macchio who we haven’t seen since the start of the series. It may be that Bob was away and the editors thought it would be easier to adapt a TV episode rather than ask someone else to pick up Bob’s storylines. Whatever the reason I’m glad this was a one off. After four years of the comic, including some great stories, fans had come to expect a lot better than this.

The artwork by Alan Kupperberg is poor and must rate as some of the worst for a long time, with some truly terrible character renditions. The best part by a long way are the two pages of UK story, with Lee Sullivan’s work looking way superior. It would have made more sense to run a couple of pages of this and go straight into Space Pirates, bypassing Big Broadcast altogether. Certainly, the way the two-parter is dismissed as a figment of imagination, leaves you wondering what the point was.

When you look at the rest of the material from 1988 (or any other year for that matter) you’ll see ample evidence of intelligent writing, well thought-out plots and a fair stab at characterisation. The characters in this two parter are flat as cardboard (with the exception of the add on bits with Wreck-Gar and the torturer). Wreck-Gar and his girlfriend sitting on their thrones watching exercise videos is naff, the dialogue is terrible, and even the Rodimus versus Galvatron battle is flat compared to the gritty showdown in TFUK#120.

We have flying Autobots, cat and dog people, and Galvatron being hypnotised by a pool of water! The part about Earth having an embassy on Cygnus 7 (wherever that is) is an unlikely development for only 18 years in the future at the time of publication, and I could also mention Cyclonus and Scourge following their leader around and getting scared when he leaves without them. That is the stuff of the playground.

A final point: I thought the Planet of Junk was a collection of rubbish in space, but here it is a spherical world? The UK editors must have feared a deluge of letters regarding this issue’s story, because they took the unusual step of running a blurb on p2 asking everyone to read p14 before writing in!

Interesting this story was printed before The Cosmic Carnival over in the States. We can assume it went straight into the US continuity as an alternate future, but even so it still doesn’t explain why it appeared at all. The story lacks substance to the extreme, and progresses with about the same subtlety as any similar cartoon episode – ie none! The strange hypnotic television scenario is exactly the kind of thing you would expect from the cartoon series too (I know it’s been done before in the comic with hypnotising car washes, but let’s just leave that for now).

This story finally introduces the Quintessons into the comic but not much is revealed about the elusive canister either, or what’s so important about it. Readers are left hoping that will be explained in the issues which follow.

Review by Adam Hogg

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The Cosmic Carnival

Optimus Prime and Goldbug detour to the Cosmic Carnival to free the star attractions – Sky Lynx and the human children known as the ‘Spacehikers’

By August 1988, Transformers had enjoyed a run of strong stories, culminating with the return of Optimus Prime in issue #177. However, The Cosmic Carnival represents a dip in form, a bit like a speeding juggernaut entering a 20mph zone.

The worst is still to come – the next US story is ‘The Big Broadcast of 2006’ which is truly terrible, a real nadir, and against this ‘The Cosmic Carnival’ is merely a disappointment, a lacklustre follow-up to the Powermasters’ introduction.

The concept is a circus-cum-carnival meandering through space in a giant worm of a starship. It pulls in a variety of alien entertainment-seekers and is always on the lookout for new attractions, such as missing Autobot Sky-Lynx and his young human passengers, the ‘Spacehikers’ – last seen in TFUK#144 when Blaster surrendered to Grimlock to secure their freedom.

The story is essentially a vehicle to tie-up that loose-end and, arguably, to give the Autobot Powermasters some additional airtime (though they only appear as bookends to the story). Stephen Baskerville’s cover features Sky-Lynx in cat form atop a circus podium with the hook of this being the ‘greatest show in outer space’.

The 22-page tale begins with a splash page of the carnival ship weaving serpent-like through the voids of space. It is passing within broadcasting distance of the Autobot craft ‘Steelhaven’ which is continuing its journey from Nebulos to Earth’s Moon and a rendezvous with comrades stranded there.

Frank Springer, filling in for the regular US artist Jose Delbo, does good renditions of Goldbug and Prime, which I rather like. His Hi Q has tufts of white hair, making him appear somewhat older than (and slimmer) than the character Delbo introduced us to in the previous story. Prime is shown in his regular mode, not combined with his trailer, which might disappoint some after the big introduction last issue.

However, the enhanced mode would later lose all its novelty when Prime was consistently depicted in his combined form and often drawn at the same height as every other character.

Prime is projecting holographic images (which is kind of cool) of the history of the Transformers’ war on Cybertron and its spread to Earth. This is a useful introduction for the Nebulans, Hi Q, Rev, Hotwire, and Lube, who by joining with the Autobots are now part of the Transformers’ civil war whether they like it or not.

Suddenly another holographic projection fills the room, it’s an advert for the Cosmic Carnival boasting ‘exotic creatures from 10,000 different planets, daring performers and death-defying stunts’ – Joyride and Slapdash are impressed, the cynical Getaway is not. Prime is up for ignoring it until they catch an eyeful of Sky Lynx as the main attraction and think they had better investigate.

Only Goldbug and Optimus go aboard the carnival ship, leaving everyone else behind. The carnival’s steep entry fee is cited as the reason, but when you consider that Goldbug had previously mentioned that Steelhaven was low on energon cubes it seems unlikely that they have had enough spare to pay his and Prime’s admission using these as currency.

They witness the many strange and exotic aliens that make up both the exhibits and the visitors. It also serves to further expand the Transformers galaxy, which was first hinted upon during Deadly Games’ (TFUK#170).

They soon happen upon Berko, a human employee of the carnival, who is calling the crowds to witness one of the most “astonishing, amazing, amusing alien” species – Earth children! Prime and Goldbug are shocked to see the four Spacehikers, Jed, Alen, Sammy, and Robin, cruelly confined in a makeshift human environment, and looking very glum. Goldbug attempts to free them, only to be repelled backwards by a forcefield holding the kids in. Prime demands to see who is in charge, and Berko agrees to take them to the boss, a sort of cross between an octopus and Jabba The Hutt, named Big Top (writer Bob Budiansky’s quirky sense of humour?).

The cigar-smoking slug comments how rare it is to see Transformers at his carnival, with one of the good lines from the story, “Whatsamatter, a few million years of civil war take all the fun outta youse guys?” They are informed that Big Top has a legitimate contract to perform along with Sky Lynx and the two Autobots accept complimentary passes for the main event and agree to leave. Berko is ordered to keep an eye on them and warned that he will be held responsible for any trouble.

In the main arena, Sky Lynx leaps from a high cage, soaring in bird mode before transforming mid-air into a Lynx and then leaping from tiny platforms. For his grand finale Sky Lynx plummets dangerously towards the ground before transforming at the last minute into a shuttle and landing safely.

I’m reminded of when the Duocons were introduced in the 1988 story ‘City of Fear’, not as robots who separate into two vehicles, like their actual toys, but as triple changers (a real shame I thought). The same appears true of Sky-Lynx. His Hasbro toy is a space shuttle that separates into two parts, one which transforms into a bird and another which becomes a lynx, and of course they can join up. However, the comic just skips over this which feels lazy and a missed opportunity to showcase a rather unique Transformer.

The second half starts with Optimus and Goldbug confronting Sky Lynx backstage and hearing his explanation… Whilst returning the Spacehikers to Earth they had seen the same holographic advert and the children begged Sky-Lynx to take them. The children were having the time of their lives, until Berko showed up and demanded payment. Not having acceptable currency, Sky Lynx agreed to perform as payment, signing a contract via laserbeam to/from his eyes. Now he wonders if the day will ever come when the debt is paid off.

They learn that Berko was alien-abducted from Earth and put in a cage like just another sideshow freak. By cooperating and doing tricks he was able to ingratiate himself with Big Top and become an employee – and he has no wish to return to Earth where he was rudderless and unwanted. Prime observes the story is “edged with sadness” and offers to take Berko with them. He agrees.

Over at the arena, Prime again watches the show begin, and on Sky Lynx’s cue he springs into action, transforming and telling Sky Lynx to play along and land on him. The crowd cheer as Prime and Sky-Lynx tackle and evade an onslaught of viscous looking performers, and the ringmaster (who looks a lot like Big Top – and could possibly be him). Berko frees the Spacehikers and they all climb into Goldbug’s VW Beetle mode – that tired “how many clowns can squeeze into a car” trick, an alien visitor observes. Big Top wraps his tentacles around Berko and the kids, only for a dazed Goldbug to reverse at speed, shunting Big Top into the empty cage (he conveniently drops the five humans).

With Big Top safely locked away, they all beat a quick retreat to ‘Steelhaven’ to be reunited with their shipmates. It’s as well that the Powermasters and Nebulans remained on board I think, as the story was thin, and I suspect would not have supported an expanded cast. They rocket away leaving a closing shot of Big Top getting a taste of his own medicine as a carnival exhibit.

As Big top has friends (similar aliens) surely, they can free him, as Berko can’t have the only pair of keys… can he? And when Goldbug reversed into Big Top at the end, how come he flies spectacularly into the empty cage (the fact that he’s larger than an elephant, and Goldbug is a small car makes this rather daft).

As for the Spacehikers, it has been eight months since they last appeared, and they have been missing from Earth for absolutely ages. For children they don’t seem to be mentally broken, or all that dirty considering they’ve been in the same clothes all this time!

On the Grim Grams page, one correspondent congratulates Grimlock on his 100-issues anniversary as letter answerer, prompting a response that perhaps it’s time for him to hand it on. Prescient words as another revamp of the comic would be coming in just a few short weeks. But first, it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire, from the dull to the truly terrible, it’s The Big Broadcast…

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People Power

Goldbug journeys to Nebulos in the hopes of restoring Optimus Prime to life, only to find the planet terrorised by a new type of Transformer: the Powermasters

As summer 1988 rolled around, Transformers UK was enjoying a strong run of stories. Readers had been treated to the zombie-fest City of Fear (one of my all-time favourites) the Wreckers’ showdown with Galvatron and most recently the satisfying spectacle of Blaster versus Grimlock on Earth’s moon, amid of cast of near hundreds of Autobot and Decepticons, a fanboy moment if ever there was one.

All of this has built up to the year’s main event: the honest-to-gosh-finally-at-long-last return of Optimus Prime! There have been a couple of false dawns on the way: Prime’s brief return in Salvage, which turned out to be a figment of Megatron’s diseased mind, and the Prime who returned in Pretender to the Throne was a video game character, a diminished version of the Autobots’ greatest leader. But now, after an absence of a year and half some 70 issues, Optimus is back.

With Transformers being a toy franchise, it’s perhaps not surprising that Prime’s return should be precipitated by owners Hasbro, who have decided to reissue Optimus Prime as part of their new Powermasters toy line. Building on the novelty of Autobots and Decepticons with transforming heads and guns, the Powermasters have Nebulan companions who become their engines, ‘unlocking the power to transform’.

At this point, Prime had killed off in the comic and, also, more famously in the cartoon canon courtesy of the 1986 Transformers Movie (creating childhood trauma in the process). So, this new Optimus Prime toy is more than just a revamp of an existing character, it’s more a revival and restoration with emotional power underpinning it.

As we know, in the world of comics no death is ever final, and Marvel US writer Bob Budiansky had left the door open for Prime’s eventual return by hinting that Ethan Zachary may have preserved the Autobot leader’s personality on a floppy disk. Now, things have developed, and video game Prime is due to be downloaded into a new body in the one place with the technology to make it happen: Nebulos.

You might say that People Power is the perfect title for a story about humans who become the powerplants of Transformers. Kev Hopgood prefaces the action with his cover of TFUK #176 (dated 30th July 1988) introducing the Powermaster Decepticons, Darkwing and Dreadwind, poised to throw the distinctive globe on to the heads of Roman-looking Nebulan senators (it’s not the first time that globe monument has been manhandled by Transformers either).

The story opens with the two Decepticons in their combined plane form ‘Dreadwing’ opening fire on a high-end eatery under domes, poncily-titled the ‘Gardens of Eternal Peace and Harmony Macrobiotic Restaurant’. A flying taxi plane zooms away, making Nebulos appear to be a futuristic version of Earth with familiar white faces (unlike the cartoon who made their Nebulans alien-green).

The bickering Decepticons introduce themselves and their Nebulans, Hi-Test and Throttle, as they land alongside the restaurant complex. The pair are like the new Runabout and Runamuck, only less complimentary to one another. Darkwing is the more hot-headed and is bonded to Throttle, a small time criminal, while Hi-Test is a self-centred-scientist-turned-bad, but the brains of the outfit. As their order the manager to prepare “20 servings of your best entrees -fast” we learn the first facets about the Powermaster Nebulans: they need food, and an awful lot of it, to power their Transformer companions. It’s an obvious limitation and weakness if sufficient food sources are not to be found.

Shortly afterwards, Steelhaven arrives in orbit. A shuttle departs for a secluded industrial complex on the surface, where its Autobot passengers, Goldbug, Getaway, Joyride and Slapdash, depart at speed. Inside the complex, we’re introduced to the Nebulans, Lube, Hotwire, and Kari engineering machinery of some sort. The Autobots transform and in a ‘take us to your leader’ moment, announce they are seeking an audience with the eminent scientist Hi Q.

It’s unclear at this point how long it takes the Steelhaven to cross the galaxy from Earth to Nebulos: certainly, the journey in the other direction appeared to take weeks or months. Hi Q’s recap of the significant developments that have occurred on Nebulos since the respective armies of Fortress Maximus/Galen and Scorponok/Lord Zarak suggests a reasonable amount of time has passed. To ensure the Transformers could never return the High Council of Nebulos endorsed the plan by Hi Q and his then assistant Hi-Test to detonate a bomb in the atmosphere that would render the planet’s fuels toxic to Transformers.

It’s best not to dwell too much on this drastic solution, implemented at great haste, with little care for the natural environment. Surely such a reckless move would have all-sorts of unforeseen consequences and how could they be sure it would not be easily bypassed by the technologically advanced Transformers, or prevent Nebulan vehicles from working?

Hi-Test had apparently quit in a fit of pique, jealous at his boss Hi Q’s accomplishments, and recruited Throttle to help him breathe new life in Darkwing and Dreadwind – two Decepticons who come to Nebulos in search of Scorponok’s forces and presided over a short-lived reign of terror before the poison fuel permanently grounded them. Using fuel conversion theories stolen from Hi-Q, Hi-Test had mechanically engineered himself and Throttle to become the engine partners of the two Decepticons and returned them to full working order, and more.

It’s worth noting that Hi Q comes across as a massive curmudgeon for much of the story and a decidedly reluctant host. Not only does he make it clear that Goldbug and company are unwanted on Nebulos; he expresses incredulity that they travelled half the universe for the trivial purpose of “rebuilding a machine” (Optimus Prime), and questions their very sentience; then saying he will “not mourn” their passing when they eventually run out of fuel and cease functioning.

Not only that but Hi Q is unmoved by news of the death of Galen, one of the greatest patriots Nebulos has known (the guy who gave up his entire future and even left his home-world never to return, to restore the peace). You might be inclined to question Hi Q’s one-sided account of the tensions between him and Hi-Test, but the fact that the latter seems to confirm everything with his own utterances and actions.

That said, Hi Q does warm up a bit when he sees the precision and efficiency of the Autobots at work on constructing Prime body (despite their own weakening). Further brownie points are there to be earned when Goldbug responds to the news of the latest Decepticon attack, by the leading the four of them off to do battle.

Part One concludes with Darkwing and Dreadwind paying the ruling council a visit. They tear off the roof and demand to be told the whereabouts of the Decepticons who once visited Nebulos. Defiant Peers Sorgen refuses to cooperate, which is foolish really as you might think giving the Decepticons the information they need would be the quickest way to get them on their way. Darkwing wrenches the Nebulos globe from its stand and holds it aloft, as per the cover image.

TFUK #177 is fronted by an iconic cover of Optimus Prime ‘back and here to stay’ with his distinctive new-style cranium and Wild-West-style smoking gun as depicted by Jeff Anderson. As the blurb (probably written by Simon Furman) confirms, “this time it’s no dream, no imaginary tale,” and a “new era of Transformers greatness has begun”. That’s quite a claim, but there’s no denying that this is a major development for the title.

The story picks up with Slapdash, Joyride and Getaway racing towards the Nebulan capital, guns atop their vehicle modes blazing, only for Darkwing to react by hurling the famous Nebulos globe in their direction and taking out all three in one hit. As debuts go, these three are not making a great impression so far or exhibiting much in the way of distinctive personalities (to be fair, Rev, Lube and Hotwire, are also pretty much interchangeable in terms of personalities, with only Kari, Hi Q and the bad guys making an impression). The Autobots’ poor performance is attributed to their lack of fuel, with only the ‘energy-efficient’ Goldbug able to offer any resistance.

As Dreadwind circles back, he dumps a burst of blaster fire on the hapless Autobots, further zapping them of strength. Later, at Hi Q’s lab, Goldbug’s wounds are found to be relatively minor compared to the other three, who are now dangerously low on resources. Their plight is at least starting to win sympathy from Hi Q who now ponders whether they are more than just intelligent machines.

Kari points out that the Transformers are “dying” before their very eyes, which causes Hi Q to beg Goldbug to return to the Steelhaven: if he rebuilds Optimus Prime under these circumstances, the Autobot leader might live again, but not for long. Here Goldbug makes a ‘really big’ call, that it’s better for Prime to “die a whole Autobot” than continue in a second-class life as a game character. While the sentiment is reasonable, it’s surely a decision for those more senior than Goldbug.

They continue with the reconstruction, and soon the Prime we know and love stands before us. Kari infuses the robot body with the personality from the disc and Prime, begins to stutter into life in a glow and crackle of electricity reminiscent of the birth of Frankenstein’s monster. He’s had a few upgrades courtesy of the Nebulans, and now with a thought, he can combine with his trailer into a larger and more powerful form (cool, but pointless if, as the Nebulans believe, he’s not destined to survive).

At first, he continues to speak as the game character Optimus, confirming Hi Q’s initial impressions, but when suddenly he collapses in agony, Prime realises that he is fully alive. Goldbug can only apologise but Prime reassures his old friend that it is better to live for a few precious moments than endure the living death of the disc. Hi Q, on seeing the nobility of the great Optimus Prime, spontaneously offers to undergo the Powermaster process to save him. Rev, Hotwire and Lube follow the example of their mentor, but the pacifist Kari cannot be part of this. Thankfully Goldbug has “enough juice” in the tank to survive.

The stage is set for a final showdown, as the peers inform Darkwing and Dreadwind of the location of the Autobots. The pair don’t guess it’s a trap and swoop down on Hi Q’s lab, only to be met by the re-energised Getaway, Slapdash, and Joyride, who are now able to dodge their shots and return heavy fire of their own. The Decepticons decide to retreat but Optimus Prime steps out and shoots them down. Hi Q jumps out from Prime’s Powermaster compartment on his stomach and confronts Hi Test.

He reveals that Hi-Test and Throttle are to be banished from Nebulos (by order of the Council) and must depart immediately, which they do. Hopefully they packed sufficient food for a long journey across space.

With Optimus and the Autobots now bonded to Nebulans, it appears they will have to stay, and Goldbug to pilot the Steelhaven home on his own. That is until Kari points out that Hi Q has accomplished the very thing he set out to prevent: he’s made it possible for Transformers to again survive on Nebulos. The stability of the planet could again be threatened unless they also depart, which Hi Q agrees to do. They rocket away, leaving Kari behind to shed a tear.

In conclusion, the return of Optimus Prime after a year and a half absence predictably overshadows everything else, but overall People Power is pretty decent launch for the Powermasters, with a reasonable attempt to invent a different reason for Nebulans and Transformers to team up. Darkwing and Dreadwind steal the show and are welcome editions to the franchise (we’ll be seeing lots more of them), with great toy incarnations and their unique combining super jet mode. The Autobot Powermasters don’t make much impression though unfortunately.

The small cast of Nebulan characters have been portrayed nicely, although I find it strange that they make a split-second decision at the end to leave the planet for good (don’t they have friends and family etc?). With Kari crying at the end we have similarities to the final Headmasters episode Brothers in Armour.

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Totalled

The long awaited grudge match between Blaster and Grimlock takes place, with the leadership of the Autobots in the balance, as the Decepticons prepare an ambush

There are a few things you should never do to your loyal fanbase and one of them is keep them waiting too long for a conclusion.

In Transformers #144, published in the UK at Christmas 1987, the fugitive Blaster surrendered to his increasingly despotic commander Grimlock, to spare the lives of Sky-Lynx and the Space Hiker children. It was the sort of courageous, self-sacrificing act that we’d come to expect from this big-hearted fan favourite (a red shouldered robot in the Optimus Prime mould if ever there was one).

Readers were desperate for answers to their questions: How would Grimlock exact his revenge? Might the Autobots find a spine and rise-up against his tyranny at long last? Could Blaster be installed as Autobot Commander in Grimlock’s place (something I doubt this reader was alone in wanting to see).

Instead, we had to wait seven long months – until well into the summer of 1988 – for the continuation. The delay was made bearable by some great stories along the way like Legacy of Unicron, Trial by Fire, City of Fear, etc, but even so.

That long awaited sequel, Totalled, by Bob Budiansky was finally published in the pages of UK Transformers #174 and 175. Is it worth the wait? You betcha!

Not only do we get Blaster and Grimlock settling their differences mano-a-mano, but the crew of the Steelhaven are in the mix, the old guard meeting the new for the first time, and a massive ensemble cast on – of all places the Moon – including original characters we haven’t seen in a long while.

The scenes of the Steelhaven and Ark crews strolling onto the lunar surface are a visual representation of how the sheer number of characters, and therefore the commercial success of Transformers by this point in the run (mid 1988) which was still the highpoint for the franchise.

Budiansky’s Grimlock, reintroduced after a several months’ hiatus, is still a massive ass and lacking the depths or intelligence that Simon Furman imbues his version with. The Dinobots of the US comics appear to be modelled on the Sunbow cartoons, which to be fare were probably better known by many of the readers – outside of the diehard collectors that is.

The cover for #174 contrasts the old and new. Grimlock’s representing the originals, meets his first Headmaster, and on learning that a human (Spike Witwicky) controls Fortress Maximus, exclaims that it’s a “revoltin’ development!”. Perhaps there are a few purists who may agree with the sentiment to a greater or lesser extent.

The story title, Totalled, suggests something or something is about to be destroyed; I’m not clear what, but I think it probably refers to the devastating Decepticon attack against the Autobot forces, who are caught unawares, or perhaps it’s a reference to Optimus Prime getting blown to bits (again) on the opening page.

Jose Delbo does a good homage to the Don Perlin’s iconic exploding Prime from the 1987 shocker Afterdeath. This time though, it’s not the real Optimus being exploded but a new body built for him by Brainstorm and Highbrow. Either the pair are extremely negligent in their wiring, or somehow attempting to transfer the consciousness of Optimus Prime from a floppy disk has caused a catastrophic feedback loop. The problem is unclear; however, it makes for an attention-grabbing opening page and provides the catalyst for Steelhaven to seek out the Ark; put simply they’ve run out of resources to rebuild the former Autobot leader and they need help.

It’s worth noting Goldbug’s discomfort as he’s told the ‘good news’ that they’ve located the Ark space cruising nearby and are on course to meet them. Whilst Goldbug has fitted in nicely with his new shipmates, he hasn’t entrusted them enough to explain that he and Blaster were deserters from Grimlock’s army. Perhaps he fears that this would be seen as a major black mark.

Aboard the Ark, we are reminded why Grimlock is so loathsome. He’s in his dinosaur mode lounging on a throne, being fed oil, and still wearing that stupid crown (a symbol of hubris if ever there was). Ratchet pleads with Grimlock to return the Ark to Earth where humanity will be at the mercy of the Decepticons. Considering their back-history and the Dinobots would still be in a tar swamp if not for the medic, there is no quarter given.

When Snarl informs Grimlock of the contact from Steelhaven, Grimlock immediately reacts like a territorial animal in the presence of a rival. He will see them, but if there is any suggestion of who’s in charge, it’s going to be him!

Given Grimlock’s paranoia it’s no surprise the meeting does not go well. The towering figure of Fortress Maximus ought to cut an imposing figure, but Grimlock is not impressed, particularly at the suggestion the two crews could work together to rebuild Optimus Prime. Labelling Prime “a peace-loving coward,” and assaulting poor Doc Ratchet for good measure (not for the first time in fact, see the 1985 classic The Wrath of Grimlock) and dismissing humans as “worthless”, Grimlock is horrified when Fortress Maximus’ heads transforms to Cerebros and then to Spike Witwicky. Things have moved on and Grimlock has been left feeling like, well, a dinosaur!

The discovery that the fugitive Goldbug is being harboured aboard the Steelhaven is the final straw and Grimlock challenges Fort Max to a duel to determine who should lead. Max ought to be able to take Grimlock given he two to three times larger, but we’re told he’s still recovering from the injuries he sustained in his assault against the Decepticon base (in The Desert Island of Space). You might wonder why Max, as a robot, is not immediately recovered once his parts are repaired or replaced – much as F1 car, speeds out the pits with a new nose – this is not a human body that takes time to recover. Nevertheless, the threat is that Max will lose unless somebody fights for him…

Goldbug, having surrendered in a futile attempt to bring about harmony between the two Autobot crews, is unceremoniously dumped in the brig where he finds his old buddy Blaster attached to a torture device. If the seven months interim between Space Hikers and now has been tough on the fans, it’s been worse for Blaster, hooked up to the VVH and he’s now reduced to wallowing in self-pity.

Blaster gives a useful recap on what happened to him since he parted company with Goldbug, including that the Autobots had begged him to save them from Grimlock. However, since surrendering to protect his human friends, nobody intervened to prevent him being treated as a prisoner; the status quo of Grimlock’s rule continues. Goldbug suggests that Blaster could fight in Max’s place, and take his revenge on Grimlock, and so the stage is set.

Every great gladiatorial match needs a suitable arena and Bob’s fertile mind has dreamed up the perfect location – a large Moon crater. The stakes of a duel have not been so high since Prime fought a power enhanced Megatron in the cartoon classic Heavy Metal Wars. Meanwhile, Ratbat’s Decepticons (including Soundwave drawn with a mouth in place of his usual plate – argh) are poised to launch a surprise attack on the unsuspecting Autobots. How wonderfully “energy efficient” as Ratbat puts it, once a bean counter always a bean counter.

I’m reminded of a pub fight where one fighter asks a pal to hold their coat; in this case Grimlock hands his crown to Snarl, promising that it will be a quick battle. Blaster meanwhile has been reunited with his beloved Electro Scrambler gun – there’s probably nobody outside of the Dinobots who is rooting for a Grimlock win.

Omega Supreme (who seems smaller every time we see him) is referee. Let’s not forget he was originally a towering giant who bested Megatron and several of his henchmen and is now reduced to taking orders from Grimlock the tyrant. Strange. However, part one concludes in epic style with the battle getting underway and the Decepticons waiting in the wings. Fantastic stuff.

On the Transformations page for UK #174 there’s a reference to ‘Dragon’s Teeth’ – an awesome new sci-fi comic from Furman and Senior for Marvel UK set on Earth of 8162. There’s been quite a bit of build-up and now suddenly we’re told that the title has been renamed ‘Dragon’s Claws’ due to a licensing matter (a bit of googling reveals that Marvel discovered the title was already in use elsewhere – I’ve no idea how many copies of Dragons Teeth #1 had been printed or whether they were pulped). The Claws turned out to be a fun ride, with a cameo from our very own Death’s Head to boot, and one I’ll hopefully get around to reviewing in time.

The return of Sunstreaker warrants a mention as a selling point for the issue. In Streaker’s case he’s been inoperative since The Last Stand in UK #8 and last seen on Ratchet’s operating table in the Constructicon debut story, three years earlier. Now, finally he’s back in the land of the living, along with Prowl, Cliffjumper and others.

In part two, the battle begins in earnest. Grimlock, sword drawn, immediately advances with a huge slice, while Blaster displays incredible agility by ducking and diving, and disorientating Grimlock with an Electro Scrambler blast, before booting him away. Grimlock transforms into T-Rex-mode as he lands and latches his jaws on Blaster’s arm. The assembled Autobots watch in horror. Beachcomber, ever the pacifist bemoans all the violence.

Then, right on cue, the Decepticon rocket base arrives in low orbit and blasts the Autobot spectators. The advantage secured, Ratbat orders Onslaught to the troops outside and to engage the remaining Autobots in hand-to-hand combat.

During what must be described as a spectacular lunar battle (a Transformers fanboy’s dream) in which Soundwave even (near) recites his tech-specs motto of cries and screams being music to his ears, the Constructicons perform a raid on the Ark and recover the neatly packed and stored bodies of the Decepticons put out of commission by Omega Supreme in his 1986 debut story Command Performances.

Ratbat watches the carnage unfold with growing delight, while we’re reminded that Buster Witwicky is still their prisoner and indulged with a ringside seat.

During the battle, Fortress Maximus makes a strategic and fateful decision to dispatch Goldbug back to Steelhaven and order its skeleton crew of Slapdash, Joyride and Getaway (a trio we’re now familiar as Autobot ‘Powermasters’ from the latest Hasbro toy adverts) to depart immediately with the Optimus Prime disk.

All of this seems to have miraculously escaped the attention of Grimlock and Blaster (a situation parodied on the cover of UK #175) while the battle on the Moon’s dark side. Finally, explosions catch Blaster’s attention. He suggests a truce while they investigate. Grimlock on seeing Steelhaven blasting away, suspects treachery from Fort Max (or ‘Fullstrength Motleypuss’ as he nicknames him – in fact Grimlock has a few amusing names for Max this story) but Blaster convinces him that a full scale Decepticon attack is clearly underway and what’s more is their fault for causing the distraction that gave the enemy its opportunity.

Grimlock, rather uncharacteristically offers Blaster a draw, which is gratefully accepted, and the pair fight side by side and begin to turn the tide of battle. This is all fantastic punch the air stuff of course, but difficult to believe that two Autobots, even ones as powerful as Grimlock and Blaster can make all the difference.

Even more unlikely, is that the duo can disable the Decepticon ship with an Scrambler blast and well-placed impact from Grimlock’s sword. The ship begins to shake violently due to circuit overload and Ratbat orders a swift retreat.

There are some tough lessons to learn and clearly the two Autobot crews will need to work together to restore their injured and rebuild their ships. Grimlock requests the help of Max in this endeavour, only to be told that Steelhaven has set a course for Nebulos: the one place in the universe where they can reconstruct the great leader, they now need more than ever – Optimus Prime.

Some points in closing, 1) the lunar battle seems on the face of it like a desperate mismatch in the Autobots favour, as we not only have the full count of regular Autobots but the super-enhanced Pretenders/Head/Target Masters, Fortress Maximus himself and Omega Supreme, versus the regular compliment of the erstwhile Earth-bound Decepticons. Their surprise attack using the firepower of their base for the opening salvo was a tactical masterstroke.

2) Some minor editing was required for the UK version of the story. As the Constructicons retrieve the Decepticon POWs, Starscream, Thundercracker, and Frenzy have already been freed during Target 2006, while Skywarp was blown to bits in the same story, so for the UK edition the names on the caskets have been altered to Buzzsaw and Rumble, the only two left unaccounted for. That’s a lot of trouble to go to for just two minor Decepticon warriors, you might think.

3) The story draws a line under the entertaining Blaster and Goldbug deserters story arc, and the disastrous first phase of Grimlock leadership (he will of course get another chance in 1991 following another of Prime’s demises).

4) Many fans struggle to reconcile why the Autobots are so timid in standing up against Grimlock’s tyranny; even in the face of his abandoning of the Earth and torture of Blaster, they do nothing. One theory is that the Autobots are an incredibly honourable race, and obliged to obey the recognised Autobot leader, which may explain why Blaster and Goldbug’s desertion was so frowned upon.

5) While it’s nice to see so many original characters reappear, there are a couple of errors. Skids is pencilled in the background, when in fact he’s meant to be in Limbo dimension, having been displaced there by Galvatron (though not in the US continuity of course) and in Blaster’s flashback, an Autobot that looks suspiciously like Override is among the Ark crew; when he should of course be on Steelhaven. Given the sheer number of characters in this story its to be expected that there will be some mistakes, and ultimately forgivable… though Soundwave drawn with a mouth does stretch my tolerance.

Overall, Totalled is a fantastic standout story in the Marvel Transformers original run, and one I always enjoy coming back to. It sets the scene nicely for the big event of 1988, the return of Optimus Prime.

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