What do Ronald Reagan, Roller and the Insecticons have in common? Answer, they all make their Transformers comic debut in the 1985 annual story, Plague of the Insecticons – a UK exclusive by Simon Furman with art from Mike Collins and Jeff Anderson.
Annuals are something of a tradition in the UK. Growing up in the 1980s it seemed that every popular children’s TV show or comic had one. I remember receiving the Knight Rider, Spider-Man, Metal Mickey, Roland Rat and Thundercats annuals at various Christmases, and probably more books that have since faded from memory.
These tended to hardbacked, containing text stories and comic strips (my favourites) plus puzzles, interviews and anything else they could think of. So, a real mixed bag and of varying qualities. If they were connected to an ongoing comic there was no guarantee that the stories would actually fit into any established continuity, and so it was with the first Transformers Annual, released to popular demand in the UK in late 1985.
Of the four stories, arguably only There Shall Come a Leader, a prequel, gelled with the weekly Transformers comic. The rest simply jarred. So, we had Hunted which featured Topspin and Twin Twist as part of the Ark’s crew; Missing in Action in which Tracks, Inferno, Grapple and Hoist were also part of the set-up. Though three of those would be introduced in early 1986, Inferno doesn’t make his debut until issue #188. So, these stories are mainly there to showcase new Transformer toys but not to sweat it about where they fit into the overall picture.
The Insecticon story is the biggest muddle of all. Kickback, Shrapnel and Bombshell are not due to join the Earthbound Decepticons until TFUK#89 in late 1986, and by this time Ravage is out of the picture (having disappeared down a mineshaft, so they could not appear together). On the other hand the Insecticons in the story appeared to have been hatched in a lab and perhaps they are clones of the actual Insecticons. This might explain why it is necessary for Ravage to control them remotely. Warpath’s presence is similarly problematic (he won’t join the Earth setup until after Ravage is written out and the genuine Insecticons are on Earth).
Putting that aside, Collins and Anderson have done a good job in capturing Reagan’s likeness and capturing the drama and carnage caused by the Insecticon attack. Their depiction of Warpath with his feet joined together is accurate to the toy design but in practical terms, if this is not a serious weakness in battle, I don’t know what is.
The story sets out to answer the question of why the Autobots haven’t announced their presence to humanity and forged a common alliance against the Decepticons (after all the Autobots are sworn to protect mankind from the Decepticon tyranny). The scene opens at nightfall over Washington DC, and troops sweating it out as they await the arrival of actual aliens – the Autobots! Optimus Prime, Prowl and Warpath drive on to the White House lawn where Ronald Reagan strolls out to greet them.
The meeting is presumably secret, hence the absence of the world’s media at this historic moment, so you wonder why it’s in the very public location of the President’s front lawn?! I also question the wisdom of Prime bringing Warpath along as a tank doesn’t exactly convey ‘we come in peace’. Reagan extends the hand of peace and friendship, while wryly observing it’s the first time he’s conversed with a truck. Optimus transforms to echo the president’s wishes for peaceful relations.
At that moment, the ground shakes and our three Insecticons spring up and declare they will “kill all the humans in the name of the Autobots”. The phrase ‘public relations disaster’ doesn’t quite cut it. Prime is shocked and surprised – he had instructed Jazz to reach out to the US government and talks were held under the tightest security to stop the enemy from finding out. In flashback, we see a military man making a careless call without a scrambler, allowing Soundwave to pick it up in one of his routine sweeps. Megatron responded by releasing the Insecticons from booths where they had been in suspended animation, or perhaps growing.
At the White House, Prime and his warriors return fire. Bombshell declares “Great Optimus we hear your command” and withdraws to attack the Capital. Despite seeing the Autobots fighting these Decepticons, the military fall for the ruse and turn their anger against the Autobots.
As Optimus sets out to discover who is remote controlling the trio of saboteurs, Prowl and Warpath hit the streets to track down the Insecticons. They find the city ablaze and people fleeing for their lives. The trio are introduced along with a short summary of their main abilities: Bombshell can control minds; Kickback is a master of espionage, and Shrapnel is a master of electricity.
Prowl takes out Kickback with a missile but succumbs to Shrapnel’s splinter grenade. Warpath rams Shrapnel, looking like he destroys the Insecticon, but evidently not, for when Prime dispatches his drone Roller from his trailer, it arrives to engulf Shrapnel in a ball of fire.
We know that Prime’s trailer and Roller are extensions of him, so much so that he feels any pain inflicted on to his other components. As Optimus confronts Ravage (who has been operating the Insecticons) he’s unaware of Bombshell swooping down to inject him with one of his mind-controlling cerebro shell. Conveniently, at the crucial moment Kickback blows up Roller and causes the Autobot leader to lurch forward in pain. Bombshell completely misses him and injects Ravage instead. This leaves the controller mindless and the Insecticons inert.
At this point the way is clear for Prime, Prowl and Warpath to explain the situation to the President. Instead they return to the Ark convinced the humans would not believe them and lamenting a lost opportunity. I suppose Furman couldn’t realistically plot a major game-changer like the Autobots joining forces with the US government, tension in the story demands that the Autobots are typically on the backfoot.
However, as mentioned this story is far removed from the comics continuity and therefore it allows Furman more creative licence. As a reader it is a little frustrating that Prime just accepted the smear on the Autobots’ name and didn’t try to explain. It’s nice to see Roller used in a story (this being his only appearance outside of the cartoon series) even if questions are unanswered such as Ravage how recovers from the surprisingly creepy and horrific depiction of his invaded mind.
All in all, not a bad story if you’re willing to overlook the jarring conflicts with the US and UK comics continuities, and a nice showcase for Roller, Warpath and the Insecticons.