The Next Best Thing to Being There

Creating the Constructions – the comic’s first combiner team makes their debut; the Decepticons attempt to ‘phone home’ and Huffer gets his moment in the spotlight. It’s all in this Bob Budiansky fan favourite from November 1985.

The Next Best Thing To Being There. It was a memorable title for sure, but if you’d asked 11-year-old me from 1985 what it meant I wouldn’t have had a clue. Years later as a married father of three in my mid-40s (who probably should know better than to still be obsessed with Transformers, but hey-ho) I can’t say I’m any the wiser. If it’s about being present at the birth of the Constructicons – the Decepticons’ newest warriors and the first combiner team to grace the pages of a Transformers comic – well we ARE there at the bedside, or factory floor in this case. So, my best guess is it refers in some way to contacting ‘home’ – the next best thing to actually being there. Or maybe I’m overthinking things. One thing I know is that this enigmatic title continues to confound me.

The story occupies issue #10 of the US Transformers comic and issues #35 and #36 of the UK weekly edition. It opens with the eagerly awaited return of Gabe and Ferdy! Who? You ask. Why, the moustached pair of halfwits who carried Soundwave through security and into Blackrock’s aerospace planet some weeks ago. They and their fellow workers have now been reduced to slave labour, but at least they get a ringside seat for a momentous occasion – the first Transformers born on Earth.

Ever since Shockwave took Optimus Prime’s head hostage, he’s been threatening to plunder the Creation Matrix nested in the great Autobot’s mind to create a new generation of Decepticon warriors. Finally, that plot is coming to fruition – six brain modules have been prepared and are finally ready to be fused into robotic bodies. Shockwave’s narrative is an attempt to give it a respectable build-up but it comes off like the nonsensical technobabble we would get used to hearing from Star Trek engineers. Shockwave’s genuine bafflement at how Prime could stay leader of the Autobots for so long, with such a glaring weakness as caring about lesser beings, shows how they really are worlds apart.

Gabe and Ferdy, our baffled human bystanders provide the comedy element (complaining of singed facial hair) in what would otherwise be a Frankenstein moment, as the six purple and green distinctive robotic forms begin to come to life.

As a kid I was super excited for the debut of the Constructicons (even though I initially misread their name as Constructions). We’d glimpsed Longhaul in the previous comic (the next week feature) and I was blown away by this new character with his distinctly different green. Although Budiansky would later bemoan the constant pressure to introduce new characters (a result of Hasbro forever expanding the toy line) he did it very well, and by and large, as a reader, I was always thrilled to see new characters (with the possible exception of the Pretenders, who were just silly).

The Constructicons add another string to the Decepticon bow, as they can build literally anything required. For example the solar weapon in Target 2006 and the defences around the Decepticon coal mine base, both in later issues. Though, after this the team would largely fade into the background in the US stories and it will fall to the UK writers to give them more of a presence.

Who leads the team? We’re never quite sure, but Scavenger steps up to acknowledge Shockwave and receive their orders. He’s my favourite Constructicon based on the toy and his bio, but his motto, “everything is worth something, even me”, suggests a lack of confidence that you expect would preclude him from the team leadership.

Laserbeak paves the way for the Constructicons to depart on their first mission, but firing missiles at the army surrounding the plant. This provides a smoke cover and melts their tanks and machinery. This being a family friendly comic, no humans are killed in the making of that escape, but the military are really being shown up by the Decepticons.

Meanwhile, GB Blackrock gets a guided tour of the Ark from acting Autobot commander Prowl. We’re reminded about the deal agreed last issue by GB and Jazz. He’ll provide the Autobots with fuel in return for Autobot protection of his assets. The quest for a fuel source preoccupied but the Autobots and Decepticons in the early issues, so its good to see this resolved and not forgotten about. GB is awestruck by the Autobots’ advanced technology and his business mind is busy thinking about whether he could use it to gain a competitive edge in his business. He might sound like a bit of a bastard but to be fair he wouldn’t be a billionaire industrialist if he wasn’t someone who spots opportunities.

On learning that Optimus Prime is being held prisoner in the aerospace plant, Blackrock mentions that he bugged all the phones (to spy on his employees if he needs to – nice). That gives the Autobots an opportunity to listen in to Decepticon plans.

With Bumblebee spying on the plant, the Autobots are aware of the Constructicons departure and Prowl dispatches a group to intercept (including Huffer who could use some action to take his mind off things).

We’re then introduced to another of the oft-annoying human guest stars who Budiansky would introduce throughout his run. They’ll often provide some comedy relief or hold up a mirror to the Transformers alien natures. Bomber Bill – driver of a large red truck he calls Bessie – looks like a bearded Hell’s Angel but he’s actually a big softy who delights in showing the waitress at a diner, the photos of his kids he carries in his wallet.

We also meet Shockwave’s next project – Jetfire. This enormous jet is still in production but will shortly be ready to be infused with life. Of course, Prime no longer has the Matrix and thus he knows his usefulness will soon be at an end – but denying Shockwave the Matrix is as worthy a victory he thinks. Sparkplug Witwicky is finally home from hospital and pleasantly surprised to discover his son, Buster, has been able to repair all the cars in the garage. Readers know the truth, that its thanks to Buster now possessing Matrix superpowers.

Another Robot War recap preludes the second half of the story. As well as being an enjoyable read, it is probably useful and necessary to bring the comic’s newer readers up to date. Interestingly, there would only be three of these features with the final one appearing in issue #63.

In the first part we were introduced to Bomber Bill and his longing to go home, which echoed Huffer’s earlier sentiments. The two are clearly destined to cross paths and it is the Constructicons who provide the catalyst. Bill feels the diner shake as the Decepticon team scoops up vehicles and the roof of the diner itself, to be used as raw materials.

Everyone flees but Bomber Bill pursues on foot (his beloved six-wheeler Bessie having been stolen too). He flags down Huffer and, as always happens when someone meets an Autobot, is shocked to find nobody driving. Nel Yomtov has made a mess of colouring the Autobot convoy. Ironhide is coloured as Ratchet, Bluestreak (leading the mission) is depicted in Jazz’s colours and thereafter coloured to look like Prowl. Later Ironhide is coloured green and purple, which really smacks of someone not paying attention.

Unbeknown to readers, Soundwave has tagged along with the Constructicons. As they pull up alongside an enormous satellite dish, he transforms, erects a disruptive field and sets the Constructicons to work to enhance and amplify the equipment, before plugging himself in. The plan is to transmit a message to Cybertron!

The Autobots arrive and Soundwave insists the scrambler must be defended – he gives the order for the Constructicons to combine. Six Decepticons merge to become one ‘terrifying titan’ – Devastator! Normally this would have been a huge, exciting twist, but readers will have known what was coming thanks to the cover, but it’s cool nevertheless. The combination sequence feels a bit wasted though, having been covered in a single panel. We soon learn that for all of his size and power, Devastator is slow and clunky (the fusing of six minds is clearly an imperfect science) and as such he struggles to respond to Soundwave’s instructions.

Huffer has a perfect opportunity to unplug Soundwave before he can send the transmission, but not wanting to lose an opportunity to re-establish contact with Cybertron, he hesitates. When he hears Ironhide’s warning that the Decepticons will be able to bring an army to Earth, he tries to act but by then it’s too late. Huffer is downed by Devastator, Bomber Bill, having found his truck, drives it at Soundwave, and Huffer returns the favour by saving him. Their message sent, Soundwave and the Constructions depart rather than continue a fight they’ve already won.

Huffer asks the forgiveness of his comrades and gets some reassurance from his new pal Bomber Bill. The difference is that Bill can now go home but Huffer can’t.

Back at the aerospace plant, the Autobot eavesdropping device is functioning and Prowl overhears Shockwave bemoaning Prime’s failure to breathe life into Jetfire – if he no longer has the Matrix then there is no longer a logical reason to keep him alive. Suspense is building for the finale of this saga in four issues time.

In summary, it’s respectable enough debut for the Constructicons. We may not have a sense of them as individual personalities yet, but if the purpose was to showcase a new toy line and get kids excited enough to buy them then it will have achieved its purpose. Of course, sadly the toys will not be available in the UK. Devastator proved somewhat inept in battle due to his slowness – a case of brawn not brains.

Soundwave (coloured purple throughout) succeeds in sending a message to Cybertron which will have consequences in later issues. Re-establishing contact with Cybertron will also provide a means for Budiansky to introduce new characters without the need for gimmicks.

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