Robot Buster!

Buster Witwicky sets out to prove to Optimus Prime that he has what it takes to be honorary Autobot, courtesy of the robotic suit designed especially for him – but he ends up taking on more trouble than he can handle.

May 1986. The Marvel UK Transformers comic begins a seven-week run of homegrown stories starting with Robot Buster, a two-parter from regular writer Simon Furman which is based on an idea by Barry Kitson (who is also the artist on this story). Furman later acknowledged that the story was ‘done for Barry’ as an attempt to keep him involved with the Transformers title. It didn’t work – he would do one more story (Second Generation part 2) and pop back for the occasional cover but that would be it.

In my remarks about Plight of the Bumblebee, I observed that Autobots tend to regard humans as weaker lifeforms in need of protection, kind in the same way a parent or guardian views children. It’s well-meant if a tad condescending. That sentiment is in play in this story, which we could almost call Plight of the Buster. It stars of course, the Autobots’ human friend Buster Witwicky who makes a return after a four-month absence.

One thing I never quite appreciated about Buster is how little he features in the US Transformers comic after the early stories. Literally, on returning the Matrix to Optimus at the end of the story Prime Time (published in the US in early 1986) Buster vanishes for the best part of two and a half years, only appearing once in that time, in the infamous Buster Witwicky and the Car Wash of Doom story. In the UK he would appear in this story, Devastation Derby and Second Generation, as well as the 1985 and 1986 Christmas issues.

Robot Buster opens with Prime advancing on Repair Bay 2 within the Ark, irked that his engineer Wheeljack is not working on the ship’s propulsion and Chief Medical Officer Ratchet is not focused on repairing those injured in the Dinobot Hunt. They had better have a good reason for neglecting their duties.

When he gets there, he discovers what has preoccupied his team – it’s Buster Witwicky sitting in the cockpit of a Transformer-sized robotic suit (this being before the 1986 Transformers Movie introduced us to the concept of the exo-suit). Buster is delighted and Wheeljack and Ratchet suggest the body could provide Buster with protection in the event of a Decepticon attack.

Prime blows his top – he can forgive Buster’s foolishness on grounds of his youth and inexperience (that parental view again) – but his warriors must have “lost their minds” to think it is acceptable to expose a human to danger in this way. The suit will be destroyed. Buster hits back, reminding that he kept the Matrix safe and saved Prime’s ass during the events of the Matrix saga. Then he utters the memorable phrase of whole story, “You stink Prime”. Ratchet and Wheeljack recoil in visuals that look like somebody may indeed have let off a stinker. It’s quite a moment.

Buster storms off to a human-sized bedroom that the Autobots have provided for him in the Ark, as Ratchet and Wheeljack agree to dismantle the suit in the morning. However, that night Buster is feeling back about the outburst and resolves to demonstrate the suit’s worth to Prime. He uses its flying capabilities to travel to the abandoned former Decepticon base, Fortress Sinister, where, as coincidence would have it, Shockwave and Frenzy are carrying out a salvage operation.

I always enjoy Decepticon inter dynamics – very few of them are friends, more like colleagues joined together by fear and adherence to a common cause and code. In this case Frenzy takes pleasure in thinking that Shockwave is terrified by the prospect of Megatron’s rumoured return and is destroying anything the former leader had a hand in just to feel better. It’s a very emotional reaction for the normally logical and emotionless Shockwave. As revealed in the previous story, the Decepticons are currently in a makeshift base, we don’t know where. It would have made sense to regroup at Fortress Sinister. As they have abandoned the place, I wonder why the US army isn’t crawling all over the castle to learn what they can about the alien invaders in their country.

Buster sneaks up on Frenzy, reasoning that he’s one of the least powerful Decepticons and could be taken prisoner. That would really demonstrate his usefulness to the Autobot cause. A powerful plasma bolt takes the Decepticon down, but not for long. Frenzy retaliates by unleashing his sonic power and threatening to make Buster suffer a horrible death. By total fluke, Buster activates the suit’s ability to jam Frenzy’s broadcast and play it back at him (via an echo cell). Frenzy is beaten but Buster realises he is out of his depth and got lucky, he needs to go before he runs into one of the more powerful Decepticons. Sure enough, part one ends on the cliff-hanger of the Decepticons leader arriving and noting that, while humans are usually beneath his notice, Buster has earned his right to “die at the hands” of Shockwave! (or should that be hand?!

Geoff senior does a great job with the cover of issue #59 and its striking how similar Buster’s seating pose and the helmet look reminiscent of Professor Morris’ robot-control technology from The Icarus Theory story. Buster does look exposed though as an opponent is likely to aim straight for the glass that shields him. There’s a Human Who’s Who feature on the back cover which includes prominent persons who have appeared in the story to date, arranged as friends/allies and enemies/antagonists. Soundwave stars in the Robo Capers strip blasting the Marvel staff for the printing error in issue #51 – it was a matter that preoccupied the previous week’s Transformation page. I can only assume the readers have been writing in about it.

In part two, Buster flees Shockwave, setting falling rocks against his pursuers and engulfing him in fire, but to no avail. A phone call to the Autobots would be a good idea about now, so we must assume this isn’t an option, perhaps a result of damage from the encounter with Frenzy. As Shockwave – who Kitson depicts with a ridiculously oversized head throughout the issue – closes in for the kill, Buster throws a fist full of sand in the Decepticon leader’s single eye. This exposes a weakness – his eye – that we’ve not seen before. It inflicts a temporary blindness and causes Shockwave to shoot at random, allowing Buster to make a run for it.

There’s an interesting flashback from Shockwave’s perspective, a resurfacing of suppressed trauma of his being buried beneath rock (following his pre-historic battle with the Dinobots) and then cast into the swamp by Optimus Prime. In the US continuity he returned almost straight away, but in the UK we had a period where Soundwave became interim leader in the absence of Shockwave and Megatron. This requires more explanation about how Shockwave escaped his murky fate, which Furman provides here, describing how ‘days or months’ passed before Shockwave was able to get a foothold on solid ground. Seeing as he’s 30 feet or so tall, that must be one deep swamp!

Buster has done well to make it to sunrise. Shockwave tears up a mountain in his search, until finally the two are face to face. Buster channels all power into one blast – inflicting pain on both. Shockwave falls but the exo-suit is a smoking wreck. Buster climbs out of the cockpit, only to be seized by Shockwave’s gigantic hand. As he prepares to crush the life out of the youth, Optimus Prime and the Autobots arrive with weapons trained on Shockwave. Prime offer him a logical choice – release Buster and he can go free.

Shockwave accepts, leaving with the obligatory threats about their next encounter. As Buster jokingly resigns from Autobot frontline duty, we see Shockwave contemplating how he can exploit the Autobots’ fondness for Buster to the Decepticons’ advantage.

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