I, Robot Master

Desperate for fuel, Megatron attacks a coal mining plant and becomes rooted to the spot! And a washed-up comic book writer is recruited by the US government to claim to be the terrorist mastermind behind the Transformers.

April 1986. Bob Budiansky’s most offbeat story since… well, his last two where Megatron was controlled by a small-time hoodlum, and Hoist stole the show at a rock concert, arrives on UK shores. The Marvel UK Transformers comic is mid-way through an eight-week run of US stories at this point. Don Perlin is once again on art duties.

After taking his leave of Joey Slick, Megatron apparently spent weeks walking through the American North West in search of fuel. I say apparently because it seems somewhat unfathomable that a giant Decepticon with a hair-trigger temper such as he, could possibly wander around and not attract an awful lot of attention. Particularly when you consider that he can’t exactly convert into a vehicle and blend in.

His sensors have bought him to a coal mine which is high in hydrocarbons. Megatron attacks the huge machinery and in his desperation, showers himself in coals. He finds these black rocks indigestible in their current form. Suddenly, he stops dead in his tracks, drained of fuel, paralysed and helpless! A worker notes that he “just ran out of gas”. We’ve previously seen Transformers dangerously low on fuel but this is a new situation.

Walter Barnett, the Triple I agent we met in the last story, arrives at a restricted government building at the behest of his boss, Forest Forsythe. Along with the rest of the board, they are shown footage of recent high-profile robot incidents (Megatron and Shockwave’s battle, the capture of G.B. Blackrock’s aerospace plant, Hoist at the Springhorn concert and the incident with Megatron at the coal mine in Wyoming).  

Blackrock has been invited to give his insight to the group and attempts to persuade them that the Transformers are two factions, one good and one evil. It’s a huge waste of time as Forsythe is not interested in hearing this and after showing Blackrock out, tells Triple I that the policy will be to treat all robots as a threat. For a group called the Intelligence and Information Institute they really are lacking in basic intelligence. Despite acknowledging that there is evidence to back-up Blackrock’s claims they are willing to throw away the chance of an alliance with the Autobots that might solve their Decepticon problem. Instead they’ve decided to invest in a cover-up. I suppose this will have been only a dozen years after Watergate and cynical government cover-ups will have been in the public consciousness, including Bob’s. This feels like a spoof of the government cover-up cliché.

Barnett comes across like a real deadbeat dad and husband as he arrives home. His young son is excited to see him but all Walt does is tell him to tidy up his toys. He then spots the boy’s Robot Master comic, about a guy who controls an army of robots, and before you can say co-incidence he rushes off to catch a plane to New York. You have to wonder if his family see much of him. I’m not sure if his destination, 387 Park Ave, might be another in-joke, perhaps it was Marvel’s address in the day. He’s in time to catch the writer of the Robot Master comic, Donny Finkleberg, on his way out of the building, having had his book cancelled.

According to TFWiki and other knowledgeable fans, Donny is based on an actual comic book writer called Danny Fingeroth, who worked with Bob on Marvel’s Avengers in 1981. It’s not clear whether Bob or Don Perlin created Robot Master in his likeness as a hilarious office in-joke or whether Bob’s getting his own back. Certainly, Donny Finkleberg is not presented as a great guy. Instead he’s greedy, unscrupulous, a geeky loser and has a rather incessant smoking habit to boot.

Barnett takes Donny to lunch and offers him $25,000 if he can help come up with a Robot Master story to hoodwink the American public. Naturally he suggests bringing to life the character he created (Barnett could have saved £25k by simply reading the comic). They could say the Transformers are being controlled by a human terrorist mastermind, which apparently is less likely to result in a public scare that giant alien robots. If Donny would like to play Robot Master, he can double his money (and best of all, no acting experience appears to be necessary).

The idea is loopy on several levels. When Donny appears on TV he’s likely to be recognised by someone (like his old boss perhaps) and outed, and it wouldn’t take the media very long to discover the similarity to the Robot Master comic and expose the whole hoax. Triple I are playing with fire and it’s a wonder and it’s a wonder that Barnett he was not laughed out of the agency for coming up with such a foolhardy plan.

Nevertheless, the next day Donny is broadcasting as Robot Master and claiming to be the human leader of a robotic army. Optimus Prime is alerted as is Mr Blackrock, who realises that Triple I must be behind this.

He suggests to the media that the whole thing might be a hoax. Triple I are furious but it shows what a house of cards their plan is – it really could fall apart in a moment. Blackrock shuns his limo to drive away in a VW Beetle, which is hilarious (though his calling Bumblebee ‘Bum’ is not really the sort of nickname you’d want).

A photo of frozen Megatron makes the news, much to the horror of Barnett and Forsythe (honestly, how was that ever going to stay private seeing as Megatron attacked a mine full of workers). They decide to offer Donny a way to double his money, with another broadcast.

In part two, the Autobots have been monitoring the TV news and Optimus Prime sets out to capture his old nemesis with assistance from Skids, Tracks and Bumblebee (once again the comic is showcasing its recently introduced characters, and Hoist also appears earlier in the issue making a nuisance of himself by taking charge of Autobots maintenance schedules). This small band, albeit including Optimus, seems decidedly light to capture a Transformer as powerful as Megatron. Even if he is currently immobilised, why take the chance? So much better to go in overwhelming numbers.

In downtown Portland, Soundwave is hanging out at a TV and video store in his cassette deck mode for some totally inexplicable reason. When the shop worker/owner (who oddly enough has been drawn exactly like G.B. Blackrock before they started forgetting his moustache) tests whether it is working, apparently intending to sell this equipment he found on the doorstep. There’s a deafening sound, followed by Ravage transforming and escaping with Soundwave, who are picked up and flown away by Laserbeak and Buzzsaw. They all head off in the direction of Wyoming, some 1,022 miles away. The sequence doesn’t add-up. Why not hang out a store more local to Megatron, or monitor TV from the Decepticon base?

There’s a nice scene however, where Barnett and Donny (in his Robot Master threads) arrive at the mine and Megatron’s eyes burn as Donny refers to him as “old junkpile” and strikes a match on his foot. Apparently with Robot Master broadcasting next to a giant robot, the story’s credibility will be bolstered by a thousand percent! Blackrock arrives (minus tache) to make a final attempt to persuade Barnet to drop the crazy plan, pointing out that Triple I are lumping potential allies (the Autobots) in with the enemy – and inviting Decepticon attack.

The Autobots arrive and are promptly fired upon by the US military and of course they can’t return fire. Barnett’s comment about them coming to free a comrade is ridiculous, given that the Autobots are clearly not being hostile even under extreme provocation. However, it’s all too late as Soundwave and his cassettes arrive with a casket of fuel (and a petrol hose) and quickly restore Megatron to working order. The Decepticons make very short work of the army and the Autobots, in their weakened state are forced to withdraw. It’s odd seeing them leave humans to the mercy of Megatron (even if it’s the army’s own silly fault) it seems to run contrary to Autobot principles.

Laserbeak retrieves Donny and plonks him in front of Megatron for termination. Donny’s quick talking saves his own neck. He offers the Decepticons his assistance in continuing the dark propaganda so that they can continue to cast fear and suspicion about the Autobots. At this point Megatron really should’ve blasted him into oblivion but with Soundwave thinking it’s a good idea, he also agrees. A second broadcast occurs, with Robot Master backed up Megatron’s raw power (crushing huge boulders for effect). Afterwards Donny very stupidly strikes another match on Megatron’s foot (does he not have a matchbox?) and gets hoisted by the cape (if not his own petard) and warned by Megatron, in full-on public health warning mode, never to presume his value to the Decepticons or he may discover that smoking is hazardous to his health!

So, there you have it kids, smoking is not cool – as Donny’s habit gets him in trouble with Megatron! Overall, it’s a fun, slightly camp and off the wall story from Bob Budiansky that helps keep momentum with the Decepticons and the Autobots on the backfoot, which is important for the drama and tension. Robot Master is a rather ridiculous figure. He looks more like a bloke going to a comic convention in a silly outfit than a potential world dominator or terrorist mastermind. If you think about the concept seriously it quickly unravels – people will know Donny Finkleberg from his regular life and it wouldn’t take the cops or the media long to find out he’s a struggling comic book writer. I guess the story is meant to be enjoyed but not taken too seriously.

Interestingly, Shockwave won’t learn of Megatron’s return until TFUK#65 in another nine issues, which is strange since the ex-Decepticon leader has appeared on every TV channel with Robot Master.

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