There’s nothing quite so nostalgic as revisiting your first Transformers issue – and in my case it was TFUK #23. It was August 1985 and I’d been getting into TF in a big way thanks to the Sunbow cartoon series which was airing as part of the school holiday kids programmes. Aged 11, my routine at the time was to accompany my mum food shopping on a Tuesday and spend the afternoon at my gran’s. On this occasion I wandered along to her local shop and spotted issue #23 on the shelf.
I was immediately struck by the cover – Buster surrounded by dead Autobots (and a couple of erroneously inserted Decepticons) and his immortal line “the Autobots strung up like slabs of beef… but where’s Optimus?”. Where indeed? On eagerly reading the story and discovering Prime’s fate (more on that shortly) I was both dumbstruck and blown away. The comic was darker and serious than the cartoon and had done something I totally didn’t expect, by having the Decepticons seemingly win the Transformers civil war! Chief Medical Officer Ratchet and 17-year-old Buster was the Autobots’ last hope against the powerful Decepticon army – a real David v Golliath contest! How could I not pick up the subsequent issues to see how this played out?
So, first a bit of context. Transformers was initially envisaged as a four issue, bi-monthly mini-series in the States. Marvel were obviously content with the sales as they gave a green light for the title to continue as a monthly ongoing concern, starting at #5. Bob Budiansky, the comic’s editor took over the writing cudgels for an incredible 50 more issues. So, in a sense, the story’s title, The New Order represented more than just the events in the comic strip. It was mirrored in real life too.
In the UK we’d been left on tenterhooks for seven months, waiting to find out what would happen next after Shockwave showed up and blasted the Autobots, decisively ending the war and leaving himself the last Transformer standing!
The UK comic has received an overhaul for issue #22 and now carries an introductory page called Transformation and a new letters page hosted by Soundwave. We’re also given some major hints about the impending debut (or should that be return) of The Dinobots!
The cover for TFUK#22 (which is reprint of TFUS#5) is utterly iconic. It features the victorious Shockwave, gun arm smouldering and the words The Transformers Are All Dead burned into the wall. Need I say more? It sets the scene nicely for the story, which begins with the coldly logical Shockwave studying human TV and media and concluding that Earth’s dominant species are “more primitive” than he thought. The UK version of the opening page has a scene from the sci-fi series V (where Mike Donavan learns that Earth’s visitors are really reptiles with sinister intentions!). One news item is about a state-of-the-art oil drilling platform owned by GB Blackrock. This piques Shockwave’s interest.
He strolls through a large room to where a number of Decepticons are undergoing repairs, passing through a chamber with the Autobots are hanging from the ceiling like meat. It’s another chillingly iconic image (courtesy of artist Alan Kupperberg) that illustrates how bad the situation is for the heroic forces. We then find Megatron manacled to a wall, healing from the terrible internal injuries he sustained from Sparkplug’s poisonous fuel.
Although Megatron thinks he can resume command of the Decepticons, Shockwave has other ideas. His logical mind reasons that Megatron’s leadership is faulty – it almost led to the total defeat of the Decpticons and worse still, he had been tricked by a lowly human! The logical conclusion is that new leadership is called for, and Shockwave will provide it! Poor Megatron, he’s furious but too weak to do anything about it. He will have to accept the humiliation for now. However, to prove his point Shockwave executes a deactivated Autobot with his gun arm (though the colouring is all wrong, it’s generally thought that this unlucky bot is Sunstreaker – who is too damaged to be fixed for a long time).
The story continues in TFUK#23. It’s time to head over to the hospital where Sparkplug Witwicky is recovering from a mild heart attack. Here, Ratchet is returning from being abducted by paramedics who thought he was a regular ambulance. At this point Ratchet is blissfully unaware of events at the Ark or that he is now the last Autobot standing!
Buster tells him about the corrosive fuel. Ratchet is delighted but finds it odd that he’s unable to raise anyone at HQ via internal radio. Buster’s offer to accompany Ratchet so as to avoid a driverless ambulance raising suspicion sounds sensible. Then again it would also look pretty suss having a teenager at the wheel of an ambulance.
In a display of the light and shade that alternates throughout the story, we get comical moments where Ratchet scares the bejesus out the hospital staff by revealing himself as a talking ambulance – and later when he’s reasoning with a traffic light. We also get Sparkplug issuing a heartfelt appeal to Buster to say his goodbyes and walk away from the Autobots and the Transformer war is too dangerous to be involved in.
Back at the Ark, Megatron tries unsuccessfully to tease details from Shockwave as to where he’s been for the past four million years. His defensiveness tells Megatron that there could be something here that he can use against Shockwave when the time comes. The new commander is happy to reveal his current plans, however. He thinks 11 Decepticons are insufficient to conquer Earth and its resources, so he will tap into the mysterious Creation Matrix that is housed in the mind of Optimus Prime, and use it to create a new generation of Decepticon warriors. The Autobots are to serve as a supply of spare parts!
Ratchet and Buster park up a distance from the Ark and find Rumble and Frenzy standing guard. Ratchet will not be able to sneak past undetected but Buster can. The youth discovers the shocking fate of the Autobots but Prime is not among them – surely he survived? Moments later Buster finds the Autobot leader’s dismembered head. It speaks and pleads for help… Buster is the Autobots’ last hope!
In summary, the story has been a long time coming but, wow, it’s certainly been worth the wait. I can think of no time before or after when things have been quite so bleak for the Autobots – their fate literally lies in the hands of a teenage boy and an Autobot who is not even a warrior. How can they succeed against impossible odds? It’s a great set up for a story and even though the Autobots are removed the picture (with the obvious exception of Ratchet) there’s no loss of tension that the simmering situation between Megatron and the usurper Shockwave.
A Robot War feature in TFUK#22 updates readers on the story so far and explains how the recent UK prequels fit into the current timeline.