Jazz shows up in the woods in southern England – and scares the hell out of young Sammy Harker! It’s the other worldly, slightly bizarre and baffling UK four-part story, Man of Iron.
January 1985. Readers of Marvel UK’s fortnightly Transformers comic are still reeling from last issue’s shock ending (where Shockwave showed up and blasted the Autobots into unconsciousness – single-handedly ending the Transformers’ war on Earth in the Decepticons’ favour). Anyone buying the next issue to find out what happens next will have been thoroughly perplexed to find a very different story in its place.
It will be six to seven months before the US material is available (in Transformers UK #22) so the UK creative team will have to fill the void by coming up with their own original stories in the interim.
The first one out the blocks is this off-beat, slightly weird but at times compelling tale by Steve Parkhouse. Man of Iron would be his one and only writing credit for Transformers, though he later did the lettering for the 1988 story ‘Wrecking Havoc’. Steve’s TF Wiki page suggests he knew “almost nothing” about the Transformers franchise when writing the story. Marvel only told him the bare bones of the set-up and as a result Man of Iron “stays far away from any of the US plots” to avoid a clash.
We later find out (courtesy of the ‘Robot War’ recap in UK #22) that this story takes place between the events of Power Play and Prisoner of War. After Sparkplug’s capture, the Autobots returned to the Ark to learn of a message in a Transformers language (evidence to suggest Transformers don’t speak English) emanating from Southern England. The Autobots investigate believing it to be a rescue craft from their home-world holding vital information on its whereabouts. Soundwave has also picked up this signal and the search begins!
The story centres around a medieval castle near a small village, which is bombed by Decepticon jets. While the army is called in to search for an unexploded bomb the castle curator, Roy Harker, goes looking for his son in the woods. Sammy Harker does not want to go home and hides from his father, but after a brief encounter with Jazz – he runs home while Jazz follows him in vehicle mode and reports his address to Optimus Prime (there are a lot of unclear events in this story). Later, Roy Harker shows Sammy a drawing of the Man of Iron – a legendary metal being who showed up at the castle more than 900 years ago! The pair wonder whether this was the mysterious robot in the woods.
Things get weirder in part two as we see Sammy dreaming of Mirage appearing at his bedroom window. Next thing Sammy is floating above the house seeing a Decepticon plane, and the ancient drawing of the Man of Iron flying out the window into Mirage’s hand. His father charges in to find him sleeping peacefully, and a giant figure walking off into the distance. Was it a dream after all or reality masked by a Mirage illusion? Much is left to the reader’s imagination at this point.
The next morning, Roy finds the entire castle cordoned off. An object the size of an ocean liner has been found buried underneath the castle ruins! Sammy meanwhile is looking at a Porsche in his street (Jazz) when he notices the picture of the Man of Iron on the back seat. The car door opens and Jazz beckons him to get in. This is where it all gets a bit uncomfortable; Sammy tells Jazz he’s not allowed to accept lifts from strangers and Jazz replies (in a manner disturbingly reminiscent of a child abductor) that he isn’t a stranger and he can show Sammy an adventure. He then drives off at speed as Sammy’s panicked mother screams! There’s a short message of advice to readers about never accepting lifts from strangers. This is just as well but the scene feels just a little disturbing, even irresponsible.
It really isn’t clear at this point why the Autobots are interested in Sammy and their tactics in getting him to talk to them leave a lot to be desired. Man of Iron is a different kind of story in that it is told from the humans’ perspective and with Transformers making cameos. In this way they are able to appear a lot more mysterious and alien.
In part 3 Mike Collins picks up the artist duties from John Ridgeway and does a fantastic job of capturing the drama and realism of the battle scenes in way I have seldom seen in a comic. As Jazz and Sammy rendezvous with Trailbreaker and Mirage on the highway they come under aerial attack by the Decepticon jets. Trailbreaker is literally blown to pieces by a missile impact, while Mirage deploys his illusionary abilities to cause their opponent to crash into a bridge (and practically disintegrate on impact!). Bluestreak appears on a flyover and shoots down another of the jets, again blowing the Decepticon to pieces. Despite these devastating looking injuries, most of the Transformers will appear quite soon back in one piece!
The scene where Jazz and Sammy arrive at the Autobot shuttle is like something from an alien encounter movie. The boy meets Optimus Prime. Prime and we learn that the signal which brought them to England is coming from a rescue craft, sent from Cybertron, that is beneath the castle. For reasons unknown, Prime is convinced the Decepticons will try to destroy the ship (why when they could learn its secrets or pilot it back to Cybertron instead?).
In the final instalment we at last meet the Man of Iron. A ground tremor heralds his arrival as he emerges from a concealed hatch to attack the army! It’s not clear why, and moments later he’s blown to bits by Starscream – who is in turn rammed at full speed by Jazz! We never do learn the secrets of the rescue craft or the dormant Autobot within, known as Navigator. This is because the Autobots take the fateful decision to destroy the rescue craft rather than allow it to fall into enemy hands.
Soon the tourists are back, this time with the stories of UFO sightings, but see nothing new that is out of the ordinary. Sammy never sees the Autobots again but the Man of Iron continues to walk in his dreams.
Following its original publication in TF UK#9-12 it received a full colour reprint in US issues #33 and #34. The cover of #33 is something of a tribute to the Brits with William Shakespeare taking the place of Spider-man in bottom-left-corner box. The editorial pitches the story as “from the land that gave us the Fab Four, Dickens and Princess Di”, which I find rather charming. I’m not sure of the truth to the claim though, that UK material is being printed due to “overwhelming” reader demand. It’s more likely that this was to give breathing space to the creative team, who will have been busy working on the Headmasters spin-off series at this time.
Had I been choosing a story to showcase to an American audience I might well have picked The Enemy Within, Dinobot Hunt or In the National Interest, any of which will have excited US fans more than this one. Perhaps it is the Englishness of the story with its castles, leafy suburbs and military types who say things like ‘what’s going on old boy?’ or it might be that it simply reads well as a standalone.
As mentioned above, it takes place between Powerplay and Prisoner of War. This niggles a little as we’re invited to believe that the Autobots – who at this time were so low on fuel as to be running on vapours – went on a jaunt across the Atlantic while Sparkplug had just been snatched by the Decepticons and was in immediate need of a rescue. Fitting this story and the subsequent two into continuity would prove tricky.