Raiders of the Last Ark

I’m tempted to say the best thing about ‘Raiders of the Last Ark’ is the title. That’s not quite fair as the story does have some good moments. In general though, Transformers UK comic is treading water at this point with two months still to go before the sequel to the US story ‘The Last Stand’ lands.

Once again Simon Furman is on writer duties – this is only his second Transformers story in fact, so if it’s a little underwhelming that is perhaps understandable (he’s still finding his feet). Though I think the problem is more about the reduced format which is spreading stories thinly over twice as many issues. It increases the pressure on those smaller instalments to pack more punch.

I read elsewhere (via Stuart Webb’s excellent and entertaining blog) that the plan had been for Steve Parkhouse and Furman to alternate, but Parkhouse quit Marvel and they obviously decided to pad the comics out with more filler (i.e. poor backup strips) rather than double Furman’s workload.

The story’s title derives (obviously) from the 1981 Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, whose sequel The Temple of Doom was released in June 1984 around a year before this comic hit the shelves. Last Ark follows on directly from the events of The Enemy Within, and sees the Decepticons thirsty for revenge and launch a surprise assault on the Autobot base, the Ark.

First we have a re-telling of the familiar events which brought the Transformers to Earth – the Autobots went into space aboard the Ark only for the Decepticons to board the ship and attack – only there’s a twist. We knew Optimus Prime put the ship on collision course with the Earth but we now learn that the Ark’s computer core ‘Auntie’ presented Prime with this option, having assessed this as the best way to win.

History now repeats itself as the Decepticons gather atop of Mount St Hillary and again breach the Ark’s hull. Laserbeak and Buzzsaw are first in and surprise the unprepared Autobots. Prime literally disintegrates Laserbeak with his laser rifle before (uncharacteristically) berating his troops for their ineptness and orders them to arm up. Laserbeak will be back soon enough, but to see the damage he takes here, its hard to see how. The poor guy is literally in pieces!

Some very average art of the two armies doing battle is lifted for TFUK#18’s cover, which seems kind of lazy but is the custom for the comic at this time. We find out Soundwave’s armour and weaponry are the more effective in battle against Jazz – but Sideswipe is physically superior to Rumble. Windcharger versus is Ravage is a more interesting contest. Windcharger deploys his unbelievably powerful magnetic powers, launching his opponent some distance. But Ravage can manipulate electro-magnetic fields (usually to avoid detection) and in this case can counter Windcharger’s ability. This is an early hint that these two will be central characters in this story (in fact, this is pretty much Windcharger’s only moment in the spotlight as he’ll be a background character for the rest of the comic’s run).

Part two sees Prime step away from the battle to attempt to reactivate Auntie and her powerful defences. Interestingly, until now the Autobots have relied on basic computer functions. We don’t know why this is and I would speculate its possibly connected to their lack of power/fuel situation. Megatron, sensing Optimus is up to something, follows him and blasts a hole in the computer screen. It’s enough to ensure that when Auntie wakes – her huge golden holographic face filling the room – it’s quite an entrance!

Her power within the Ark is incredible and the fighting Transformers are suddenly magnetised helplessly to the walls as Auntie puts its defence procedures into operation. In her damaged state, Auntie seems to have morphed into Hal from 2001 crossed with Judge Judy – she remarks oddly that “nobody built her” and thus no loyalties any longer, but she will decide the Transformers’ fates after hearing both arguments.

In part 3 we learn that Ravage and Windcharger are immune to Auntie’s magnetism and have had to form an ‘unholy alliance’. Neither is particularly happy at teaming up with the other, which I think makes for a fun dynamic. Ravage expertly avoids a field of lasers (he’s showing off now) and then disables the weapon. The pair are then attacked by electricity and momentarily subdued.

Elsewhere, the trial is not going well for both leaders. Optimus manages to convince Megatron that Auntie will destroy them both unless she is shut down. Perhaps Windcharger and Ravage can get to her core? We then get another significant moment as Auntie deploys her ‘last line of defence’, the muscle-bound bruiser known as Guardian!

The Ark’s bouncer – he certainly looks like he can do some damage. Sadly not on this occasion as Windcharger is able to defeat him fairly easily in Part 4 – quite a disappointment, but perhaps inevitable given the constraints on page count. It will not be until Furman’s sequel story Wrath of Guardian that we’ll see the full potential of this opponent (cue hundreds of letters to the comic asking what Guardian transforms into – the answer is nothing, he’s a droid used for menial tasks and defence).

For the first of only two occasions in the comic, Megatron draws on his rare and incredibly unstable ability to summon anti-matter from a black hole, in an attempt to escape Auntie’s magnetic clutches. It isn’t necessary as Ravage pounces into the computer core and destroys Auntie. Both factions are released and Windcharger generates the largest magnetic field he can muster to repel Megatron through the Ark’s roof and into the sky. At this point you’re thinking Windcharger must be the most powerful Autobot ever, until his systems overload. Even so you wonder why he’s so little used going forward.

Later Optimus Prime says prophetically that the Decepticons will be back (which leads us nicely back to the shocking events of The Last Stand, which is continuing next issue). Given the long hiatus the UK comic reprints that gob-smacking last page of TLS with Shockwave blasting the surviving Autobots. The stage is set for the most eagerly awaited continuation in the comic’s short history at this point.

Other things to mention: The Transformers are still being drawn to their toy forms with sometimes comical effect, such as Megatron with a trigger for a waist. There’s a back page advert for the Decepticon jets which has the names all mixed up. Dirge is captioned as Starscream, Ramjet is called Dirge and Starscream is called Ramjet! What a mess. It looks like the person who prepared the ad didn’t have the first clue. The fans spotted it though and I seem to remember a letter being published in Soundwaves (the name for the letters page from TFUK#22) to rub it in!

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The Enemy Within

March 1985 was a significant month in the history of Transformers comics. Issue #13 marked the debut of Simon Furman – the writer who even more than Bob Budiansky most deserves the title Mr Transformers. Furman is responsible for the vast majority of the UK stories in the comic’s 332 issue run and a good number of the Marvel US classics too! And his contribution in the years which followed, with stories for successive license-holders Dreamwave, Titan and IDW.

But it all began with The Enemy Within – a four part story, later hastily stretched to five – produced during the seven months interlude where Transformers UK was fresh out of stories from the US comic to reprint and had to fill the gap with home grown material.

The story is essentially a duel between Starscream and Brawn, two hitherto supporting characters, with the stakes being either death or redemption; but it’s the Decepticon side of the equation that is arguably the more interesting.

The Enemy Within builds on the dynamic between the two biggest Decepticon egos, commander Megatron and his would-be leadership rival Starscream. It was often hinted in the initial mini-series that Starscream thought he would make a better leader, and was just looking for his opportunity to strike. With patience not one of his virtues, his mask eventually slipped and (during The Last Stand) Starscream was openly critical of Megatron and quickly found himself on the receiving end of the leader’s all-powerful fusion canon!

Save for that comedic moment, we haven’t seen Starscream at his most cunning and plotting until now. Furman’s debut story delves in, and unlike the Sunbow cartoons where Starscream is forever undermining the leader and getting away with it, there’s a sense of real consequences here. The Decepticons are like a mafia outfit and if you’re on manoeuvres against the Don, you’re definitely taking a massive risk with your life.

The story grabs the reader from the first panel, opening on a close-up of a Megatron who is outraged! We soon find out why. Starscream is stirring unrest by suggesting they all-out attack the Autobots, something he knows the others will support him on. In doing so, he’s openly questioning Megatron’s chosen course of action. A fusion cannon blast across his bows puts Starscream back in his place, but there is lingering unease in the camp. Megatron instructs Ravage to spy on Starscream and bring back evidence of his treachery, so that he can be silenced for good!

There’s a sense that Ravage is a trusted confidant and someone with whom Megatron can let his guard down. And unlike Ravage’s cartoon depiction, where he’s more animal-like, in the comic he speaks and is like any other Decepticon except with a jaguar robot form.

Unlike the previous UK story Man of Iron, which is out on a limb, we can see that Furman is making a conscious effort to fit his story into the established US canon. So, he has Megatron mention the encounter with Spider-Man and the talk of attacking the Autobots feels like a build-up to what eventually happens in The Last Stand.

Meanwhile, at the Ark, Brawn is lifting a heavy piece of equipment that Mirage is working on when both receive what looks like a very nasty electric shock. In Mirage’s case it will enhance his illusion abilities but Brawn suffers a personality change and becomes selfish, angry and resentful. He goes on a rampage and batters his way through the Ark’s hull and escapes.

Starscream is planning to attack an army base. He thinks that when the Autobots come to the human’s rescue, the Decepticons will come to his – and will be convinced by his leadership qualities. For some stupid reason Starscream articulates all this out loud (why?) and is overheard by Ravage. He offers Ravage a chance to join the plot or else be destroyed. You get a sense of some mutual respect between the two of the other’s abilities – I think when Starscream offers the alliance it’s not only because he’s been caught red-handed, he genuinely thinks Ravage would be an asset.

We see each of their abilities play out in a head to head. Ravage is able to blend into the desert and spring up out of nowhere to launch a missile attack, but the agile flier Starscream is able to evade the threat. The battle concludes with Ravage being blasted and disappearing under falling rocks. There’s no longer any turning back.

In part 2 (TFUK #14) we learn that Ravage survived. He staggers home to the Decepticons and reveals it was Starscream who attacked him. We also see Brawn causing a really nasty (probably fatal) road smash as he takes revenge on humans for ‘enslaving’ his fellow machines (cars). Those hook hands of his are probably useless at picking things up but they are pretty handy for battering the crap out of stationary vehicles, as Brawn does to a cop car which he ‘freed from servitude’ to mankind but which appeared ungrateful. Oh dear.

Starscream causes havoc by shooting down US jets and appearing on television challenging the Autobots to take him on! However, with their own problems to sort out, they swerve the invite and show up to confront the renegade Brawn. It is the Decepticons and Megatron who arrive to take down Starscream!

Cue part 3 where Brawn refuses to come quietly and repels his one-time comrades (fairly successfully) until being taken down by – of all people – Red Alert. Why is that strange, well for one thing he’s never appeared in the line up of Earthbound Autobots before and his appearance here feels like a continuity error. They really ought to have coloured him red and said it was Sideswipe, getting his revenge from earlier.

While Starscream is in a fight for his life – pursued by his former wingmen Skywarp and Thundercracker, he is shot down in the desert and confronted by Megatron. He begs for trial by combat, which apparently he is entitled to, but really Megatron should take no notice of this and press the advantage. That he doesn’t is an indication that there are limits to his authority and he has to keep the troops on side.

In a nice touch, we’re treated to an incident (via historical tapes) of two Cybertronians called Tornado and Earthquake who accepted trial by combat and destroyed each other. With names like that, perhaps it was unsurprising? This could be a perfect resolution, Megatron thinks. Once Brawn is repaired and realises his terrible error, he readily accepts the challenge laid down by the Decepticons to do battle.

Part 4 was billed in advance as the concluding part, but over the fortnight the production team must have discovered that the wait for US material was going to be longer than they expected. The result was that they decided to split the final 11 pages over two issues, and the next story (Raiders of the Last Ark would be told over four issues not two).

That disappointment aside, TFUK #16 is an exciting issue with both Brawn and Starscream showcasing their respective talents (strength and deadly aerial abilities). Brawn throws a giant bolder, Starscream rains down volleys from above. Brawn leaps off a ledge and on to his opponent but ends up hitting the ground hard. Starscream unleashes on the helpless Autobot, seemingly blowing him to bits… or has he? The narrative states that ‘no emotion registered on Optimus Prime’s face’ (how many emotions can a guy without a face show anyway?) and we start to realise that things might not all be as they seem.

In part 5 we find out Mirage had used his abilities to simulate Brawn’s destruction while pulling him clear. Ravage, meanwhile, is in wait with a massive gun strapped to his back, which he uses to take out Starscream! Revenge is a dish best served cold. This can neatly be blamed on the Autobots and serve as a premise for Megatron to lead the attack his troops have been itching for.

In summary, this is action-packed debut story from Simon Furman and nice in that it gives the lesser-seen Brawn a turn in the spotlight. The art, by Ridgway and Collins, sees characters drawn like their toy incarnations but after a while you get used it. One of the letters to the editor asks why Megatron looks different every week. Their reply: none of the artists have been able to get close enough to him, which I guess is fair enough!

The story would be reprinted twice more – the first time in ‘Collected Comics 4’ in full colour, and much later as a back-up strip filler in TFUK #308-318 (in 1991). Robo Capers by Lew Stringer launches to provide regular comedy value but the other back up strips are by and large pretty mediocre. It’s a shame at this point that they are outnumbering the Transformers pages. That US material can’t come quick enough.

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Man of Iron

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.

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The Last Stand

The conclusion of the original four issue mini-series sees things looking bleak for the heroic forces. Their mortal enemies the Decepticons are refuelled and poised to deliver a fatal blow. It will fall to five champions to mount the “Autobots’ Last Stand”.

That iconic Last Stand cover

This story was published in November/December 1984 in the UK well ahead of its March release in the US (the latter being a bi-monthly title at this stage but relaunching as a monthly from issue #5). After a slow start the action really picked up with last issue’s Spider-Man guest appearance (surprisingly good fun) and things get series in this instalment as we head to one of Transformers’ most shocking endings.

Previously, Gears regained consciousness – having nearly died rescuing Sparkplug from the Decepticon base – only to shock the Autobots by revealing that Megatron had ‘got what he wanted from the human’. In other words, Sparkplug had betrayed them by assisting the enemy to convert Earth fuels for their consumption. The flagging and under-powered Autobots now face the prospect of annihilation at the hands of an enemy at full strength.

What’s fascinating is how emotionally the Autobots respond to the news, albeit they are tired, battle-weary and dejected at this point, but there’s no machine-like detachment or cool assessment. Huffer leads the charge, branding Sparkplug a traitor to the cause and hints at retribution. Bluestreak is ready to abandon the Earth to the Decepticons, and willing to publicly disagree with Optimus Prime. The idea that humans are innocent in this war and must be protected, with Autobot lives if necessary, is Prime’s mantra but it seems that some in his ranks have major reservations.

The sensible course of action at this point would be to park the ill-feeling and set Sparkplug to work replicating his fuel conversion process before the inevitable Decepticon attack comes. But as ever, fate is no friend of the Autobots, and Sparkplug collapses with a suspected heart attack while fleeing the ‘ugly’ mood in the Ark (not at all helped by the shock of being met with a wall of flame, erected by Jazz).

Ratchet reverts to ambulance mode and whisks Sparkplug away to a hospital, accompanied by Buster. Prime hopes the human ‘can be repaired’, which is a nice reminder that Transformers still find organic life very alien.

We see Buster’s pal ‘O’ for the penultimate time before the writers give up on him altogether. His bar-owning father has got hold of an Optimus Prime suit to drum-up trade (some manufacturer obviously sees the alien invasion as a business opportunity!) and the interlude is a reminder of the impact of the Transformers’ arrival on the wider population. People are worried and starting to leave town. A fully re-powered Megatron amps up the tension by stepping out for his HQ to absorb a barrage of firepower from the US army. He laughs it off and strolls back inside, undamaged. Whilst a devastating demonstration of his strength, it’s hard to imagine a more sensible or calculating leader like Shockwave or Soundwave acting this recklessly – i.e. risking damage ahead of an impending major battle with the Autobots.

If readers had been wondering how the Decepticons repair their injured, we get to see the answer. It turns out they have a team of robot medics attending to the task (Reflector?). They’ve never been seen before and will disappear again hereafter, but not before Starscream adds himself to their damage list by overstepping the line and criticising Megatron for allowing Sparkplug to escape. He feels the fury of Megatron’s fusion cannon, but as usual he had a point and Megatron dispatches the loyal Ravage to spy on the Autobot base and report back.

Seeds are laid here for the continuation of the Transformers US comic beyond the initial four issue run. Optimus is informed of an incident from the Ark’s memory banks. Shortly after the ship crash-landed on Earth, with all aboard rendered unconscious, the Decepticon Shockwave showed up in Antarctica searching for his missing comrades. He touched down in a pocket of preserved prehistoric jungle, known to Marvel readers as the Savage Land. The Ark’s used rebuilt five Autobots and invested them with dinosaur alt modes; they were of course the Dinobots: Snarl, Grimlock, Swoop, Sludge and Slag. The team confronted Shockwave in the Savage Land but what happened next is unknown. Ratchet had earlier dispatched probe to investigate. Even from this glimpse its apparent that the Dinobots are exciting characters and this bodes well for future stories.

Some may wonder why Prime had not set his best scientific minds, like Wheeljack, to the existential task of developing a fuel conversion. Instead they relied on a car mechanic, and with Sparkplug now in hospital fighting for life it’s time for a plan B; and what an exciting development it is. Every Autobot (with the exception of absent Ratchet) transfers their remaining fuel to champions and are rendered inoperative. It falls to Optimus Prime, Huffer, Bluestreak, Ironhide and Mirage to make a final stand against the combined might of the Decepticon army! What an exciting conclusion to the mini-series in prospect, and as we will see, the writers still have a couple of twists up their sleeves.

Mirage’s inclusion in the line-up is suspect. All the evidence to date is that he is weak in battle and with a questionable commitment to the Autobot cause. It may be for his ability to generate illusions and deceive the enemy, which he deploys to good effect against Laserbeak and Buzzsaw. Retreating into the Ark (surely unforgivable when others have given their fuel for you to fight) Mirage has another encounter with Ravage and his attempt to appeal to his opponent’s better nature results in the loss of an arm. Finally Mirage wises up, picks up his gun and blasts Ravage – better late than never!

Megatron and Prime face off. During their earlier battle in the Witwickly junk yard, Optimus was able to absorb a blast from Megatron’s fusion cannon at short range – this time a blast from the weapon is enough to sever or mangle the Autobot leader’s right arm.

Elsewhere Sparkplug is in a dream state, remembering the trauma of his time as a North Korean prisoner of war, of 30 years earlier. He survived thanks to his talent for repairing vehicles, which the enemy found useful. However Sparkplug had sabotaged their fuel and brakes, before being rescued, and it appears that history is about to repeat itself. Sure enough, as Megatron holds Prime aloft declares victory, the Decepticons fall in agony as their poisoned fuel takes affect at the most opportune moment.

Amazingly, against all odds the Autobots have prevailed… or have they. In The Complete Works Part 2 reprint, the story ended here, on a happy note. However, the official canon has is one more twist in store. The probe dispatched to the Savage Land inadvertently reactivated Shockwave, who now arrives in his giant space-gun mode and blasts the weakened Autobots into unconsciousness! Transforming to robot mode, he reflects that after four million years his mission is complete… the Autobots are no more!

The shocking ending of the first Transformers mini-series is sure to have produced a gasp!

In summary, what a fantastic issue. It’s a brave move by the team to conclude the series on such a cliff-hanger but it’s a great way to ensure the readers come back for the launch of the monthly comic, starting from April 1985. Of course in the UK readers would be waiting SEVEN months to find out what happened next! They would have to come up with 18 issues of original stories and somehow fit these into the established story.

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Prisoner of War

The Decepticons have made Sparkplug Witwicky their ‘Prisoner of War’ and put him to work converting earth fuels for their consumption. Rescue comes in the unlikely form of the lesser-seen character Gears… and the Amazing Spider-Man himself!

Generally, I’m not a fan of crossovers. They usually stretch the realms of credibility (even for comics) and feel super contrived. All too often they fail to match up to the hype, for example the 2007 Avengers vs Transformers, though GI Joe and the Transformers arguably had some success in marrying their two properties. While Prisoner of War and the Last Stand (which features the Savage Land) establishes The Transformers as part of the Marvel universe, the two will shortly diverge and remain separate for the rest of the comic’s seven year run.

On paper there’s no reason that Spider-Man and the Transformers should make comfortable bedfellows but incredibly it works! In fact, this is one of my favourite stories from the early years. It has humour, much improved art – Frank Springer is hitting his stride and now drawing the bots more like their cartoon forms rather than the toys – and the action is fast paced and exciting. Fans of Spider-man will not be disappointed and may also be encouraged to continue picking up The Transformers, which is of course the publisher’s intention. Marvel is pulling out the big guns in the form of their most prominent superhero to give the TF comic a big boost at this point.

The action picks up where the previous story left off, with Starscream having abducted Sparkplug in the midst of a battle with the Autobots in the Witwicky auto yard. The humour rolls from the start with Sparkplug protesting to be let out and Starscream pointing out that at the altitude they are travelling at this be most unwise! They arrive at the Fortress Sinister, which has been constructed in super quick time by the Decepticons from machinery they salvaged from the Harrison Nuclear Plant only the previous issue.

Sparkplug is informed by Megatron that he will make fuel for their cause or die. He realises that, for all of their advanced technology, the Decepticons are out of their element when it comes to adapting to a more primitive world such as Earth. Cue another laugh-out-loud moment where Sparkplug, having rattled off his rank like when he was previously a Korean prisoner of war, is hoist upside down by an impatient Megatron!

As before Starscream’s actions are shown to be highly political. He exploits his role in capturing the human as a showcase for his suitability to command. Megatron praises him but thought bubbles reveal he is biding his time to deal with this would-be assassin. In fact that reckoning will come, but only for UK audiences in Simon Furman’s debut story for
The Autobots are really on the backfoot at this point. After their exertions in battle they are dangerously low on fuel and can barely make the return journey to the Ark (sending a motorcycle traffic careering off the road with the ‘there’s no-one driving’ recurring gag). Prime orders that several Autobots including himself are refuelled, including Gears, who will feature prominently in the rest of the story.

Laserbeak’s shows off his precision eye beams to put the heat on Sparkplug, who agrees to cooperate. Obtaining a lab and a gasoline source is a small matter for the Decepticons, who demonstrate that they have the size, ability and power to take literally anything they want.
The US army massing outside the Fortress Sinister is the response you would expect if alien robots showed up on Earth, so it is a little strange how everyone is content to leave the building alone once its abandoned in subsequent issues. Naturally word of alien arrival is a major media story too and this provides an opportunity Spider-Man’s alter-ego, press photographer Peter Parker to be dispatched to the scene.

Unsurprisingly the military is no match for a Decepticon aerial onslaught and are soon driven back. Gears, now refuelled, arrives to observe and, after transforming to robot mode, is tackled by Spider-Man. He proves his good intentions by catching a tank that has been propelled in the direction of a group of humans by Skywarp. Again, we’re treated to a fun skirmish between the Autobots and Decepticon troops, with Sunstreaker taking out Skywarp with a missile, and Brawn punching out Rumble before succumbing to Frenzy’s sonic power.

The eye-catching cover to Transformers US issue #3 featuring Spidey
The eye-catching cover to Transformers US issue #3 featuring Spidey

The cantankerous Gears and wise-cracking Spider-Man form an unlikely double act. They really rub off well as they maraud their way through the Decepticon HQ dispatching a series of foes with lively humour throughout. This issue is a great platform for Gears, though sadly he would be destined to fade into the background again under successive writers. The cover of the US edition features Megatron being webbed by Spider-Man. This actually happens (it’s always good when covers depict actual events in the story rather than an exaggeration) as Spidey and Gears infiltrate Megatron’s command centre. Of course, the webbing is insufficient to bind the mighty Decepticon leader. He promptly and blasts a hole in the floor to dispatch the intruders. Spider-Man catches Sparkplug with a line of webbing, but the heavier Gears falls seemingly to his doom!

Later, Gears recovers under Ratchet’s auspices just long enough to deliver the devastating news that Megatron ‘got what he wanted’ from Sparkplug. Awkward. It’s another great cliff hanger that ramps up the tension with Autobots now majorly disadvantaged in this war.

A couple of other things of note: Ratchet’s mention of a discovery in the Ark’s memory banks will prove majorly significant in the next issue, and Prime, interestingly, doesn’t feature much at all in this issue. Though early in the series the writers are already confident enough to put more minor characters like Gears forward, or perhaps it was easier with Spider-Man providing the big name draw. This story will be the first and only time a Marvel hero or villain appears in Transformers. From here on the super-powered guest stars will be home grown, in the form of Circuit Breaker, the Neo Knights and The Mechanic.

TF UK #6 has a Megatron fact file and a feature on Sieve Head, a robot from Saturday Superstore (a kids TV show of the era). A reader writes in to demand a Transformers annual and is told that one is in the pipeline for 1985 – a sign perhaps that even at this early stage Marvel UK had realised it had a long-term success on its hands.

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