Warrior School

Ratchet is the last Autobot standing and must learn to become a warrior if he is to survive and rescue his comrades. Meanwhile the Decepticons continue to target installations owned by GB Blackrock and the UK comic announces some exciting changes going forwards.

Warrior School. 35 years after it was first published it remains in my mind one of the standout stories of the original Marvel G1 and one I have an abiding affection for. Essentially it is a coming of age story – Chief Medical Officer Ratchet stepping out his comfort zone in a major way and learning the ways of the warrior. His stepping up to the plate shows real, genuine courage and is an example to all of us, young impressionable readers as we were at the time. The scale of his challenge is enormous, and the stakes incredibly high. This is a classic success against impossible odds story that great comics (and fiction generally) are made of and, together with the second instalment ‘Repeat Performance’ cements Ratchet’s reputation and standing as a major character in Transformers.

I can still remember stepping out of my local newsagent with a copy of TFUK#26 in my eager 11-year-old hands, being blown away by the usual 11 page story being increased to an incredible 23 pages. And the full-page announcement on page 30 that the comic is celebrating its first year in print by GOING WEEKLY and full colour was tremendous news! Of course, it would mean having to swallow a 3p increase, but in view of what we were getting in I considered this to be no hardship.

Once again, it’s Bob Budiansky writing the script (as he would until US issue #55) and joined on the art by a new credit, William Johnson. He had worked on a bunch of Marvel superhero titles but would only illustrate this Transformers story and the next. I wondered why and his entry in TFWiki provides a clue. It mentions a comment Budiansky made to a fansite, that Johnson was “a very nice guy with a lot of talent” but struggled to meet the deadlines of a monthly comic book. So perhaps that was the reason for his short association, but his art on Warrior School is emotive and enjoyable.

The story begins in the woods near the Ark, with a romantic narration of “the sweet scent of Douglas Fir and a dome of stars in the indigo sky” – I wondered whether Budiansky was a fan of camping? Four college students are around a camp fire when a falling tree causes them to scatter. The cause of the interruption is the Autobot Ratchet, who had collided with the “brown pipe” while looking for the road. Buster Witwicky, his teenage friend and ally is on Ratchet’s shoulder and is happy to interpret for the young people. He knows from experience that a giant talking robot can be a difficult concept to come to terms with.

Ratchet is fascinated by the concept of burning wood to generate fire (there’s nothing like it on Cybertron) and demonstrates how his laser scalpel can cook hotdogs more efficiently. The gentle way Ratchet interacts with humanity is a real contrast to what we’re used to seeing from the Decepticons at this time. When Buster recoils in sudden, inexplicable pain we’re reminded that Optimus Prime did something to him when the pair were mind-linked recently.

It’s agreed that the students will take Buster home and Ratchet is reminded that he has more important problems. Never a truer word spoken, he is the last Autobot and the burden of stopping the Decepticons rests entirely on his shoulders. The encounter with the students was an enjoyable distraction but he can’t put off his responsibilities much longer.

‘Hey, what about GB Blackrock?’ I hear nobody ask. Well, he’s about to become possibly the unluckiest CEO in America as first his oil drilling platform was annexed by the Decepticons and now his aerospace plant is in the crosshairs too. In a slapstick moment, two workers, Gabe and Ferdy stop to claim an abandoned cassette deck that’s been left in the parking lot, then proceed to walk it passed the wall mounted gun defences. It is of course the Decepticon Soundwave, who transforms and bursts out of the locker in which he’s been placed. It’s obviously a room with very high ceilings as Soundwave is able to stand at full height while ejecting Laserbeak skywarps to assist in putting down any resistance. The plant was clearly unprepared for an attack from within and quickly falls. Blackrock is crestfallen and humiliated, particularly as Soundwave has been broadcasting the footage far and wide. Clearly some good PR for the Decepticons to advertise their menace and that they have hostages.

We’re briefly shown Blackrock visiting his paralysed employee Josie Beller and delivering equipment she asked for. Josie has use of one arm and hints to the reader that she is determined to take her revenge. This is clearly a developing situation and she and Blackrock are being established as ongoing characters. I’m a little indifferent to them at this point.

And so to the main events of the issue. Ratchet has sneaked into the Ark and finds it deserted. The Decepticons are elsewhere at their temporary new base, the Blackrock rig, and Commander Shockwave has left Megatron on Ark guard duty. Ratchet is horrified to discover the Autobots all inoperative and suspended from the ceiling like some macabre nightmare. He then finds the head of Optimus Prime descends into despair – could everything be lost?

Amazingly Prime speaks, uttering one of the truly memorable lines: “Put aside your grief Ratchet, now is time for valour”. He explains that the Decepticons intend to extract the Matrix from him and he has taken steps to thwart them (clearly in reference to Buster). But just as Ratchet trained to be a medic on Cybertron, on Earth he must become a warrior and use his guile and cunning to find a way to defeat Megatron. His own survival will be his ultimate test. All well and good but Prime is surely placing unrealistic expectations on his Chief Medical Officer here – there is no way Ratchet can best Megatron in one-to-one combat and to put himself in that position is surely suicidal.

There’s an interlude where Buster is joined at his dad’s repair shop by friends Jessie and ‘O’. He’s under a lot of stress, worrying about his dad, the Autobots and keeping the family business going when he knows next to nothing about repairing cars. He snaps at his friends, causing them to leave. In O’s case this will be permanent as this issue turns out to be his last appearance. No sooner is he alone, Buster feels the pains again the various tools around him start levitating! Interesting.

Ratchet goes looking for Megatron (you immediately know this is a bad idea) and fails to notice the Decepticon ex-leader sneaking up. Megatron’s giant hand grasps Ratchet’s shoulder and partially crushes it. He wants to add the medic to his “collection of scrapped Autobots” and will alleviate the boredom by taking his time over it! Ratchet punches Megatron as hard as he can and zaps him with his hold and cold medical tools but to no effect. With brute force not an option, he will need to outsmart Megatron. And so, Ratchet offers to help Megatron regain his command by locating the Dinobots and setting them against Shockwave. In return Megatron will hand back custody of the Ark to Ratchet.

Megatron treats the readers to a brief history of his rivalry. On Cybertron Shockwave had been supreme Decepticon military operations officer and the strategist who had plotted their ambush of the Ark. Shockwave had stayed behind on the Decepticon ship as a back-up. Megatron perceived this as self-serving and was already making plans to destroy this rival.

We then learn (through Megatron’s continuing narration) that Shockwave travelled to Earth to investigate the disappearance of the Ark (which had collided with the planet) and the radiation belt effected his navigation systems, causing him to touch down in timeless region of Antarctica where dinosaurs still roamed (Marvel Comics’ Savage Land). The Ark had revived five Autobots and gave them the dinosaur alt-modes, and the team had battled Shockwave. It is not known what happened next or why they or Shockwave disappeared for four million years.

While helpful for the readers, I’m unclear as to how Megatron has learned about the Dinobots. It’s unlikely Shockwave has revealed anything more to him, so perhaps Megatron has accessed the Ark’s databanks similar to Ratchet did some issues ago?

He agrees to Ratchet’s suggestion – mainly to provide an amusing distraction, rather than an expectation of success – and the two seal the deal by contributing fuel to beaker and setting it alight. We’re told this is an ancient Cybertron ritual and no about has broken such a pact. Megatron, of course, is no Autobot! And so, the stage is set for the dramatic debut of the Dinobots. With the sequel arriving in just seven (not 14) days these were exciting times for the UK Transformers comic.

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