In August 1986, Marvel UK’s flagship Transformers comic itself ‘transformed’ with a fresh new look and a four-part story starring the Dinobots, taking on the deceitful Triple I and the Decepticons, in order to expose the Robot Master lie.
As much as I enjoyed going on summer holidays as a kid there was a major downside – my parents didn’t own a video recorder until I was mid-teens, so I’d miss my favourite shows and would have to hope the newsagent saved me whatever comics I happened to be collecting. Such things seemed to matter a lot at the time and is very different to today where favourite entertainments are available wherever you go thanks to the internet.
So it was that in August 1986 I was spending the week in a caravan off the southern coast of England, aged 12, when Transformers transformed. I caught a glimpse of the new format (which started in issue #74) in a shop at the campsite but, having asked the newsagent back home to save me a copy, I decided to wait to buy it. I have to say it was well worth the wait.
While outwardly the comic looked the same – Alister Pearson’s cover of the Dinobots ‘cutting loose’ was cool but along familiar lines – the Transformation page had a great new look. The panel was bordered by a circuit board design, with an image from the story appearing in viewscreen-shaped panel (making it feel like you were getting a proper preview of the contents) and brightly coloured new headings. The main strip itself, drawn by Will Simpson (whose work I’ve always liked) appeared more striking and creative in terms of its arrangement. And of course, it helped no end that we were being treated to the first four-part story with the Dinobots in the driving seat (as their normal selves, rather than malfunctioning savages in the Dinobot Hunt). The team were, and would continue to be, firm fan favourites. And, continuing the theme, Grimlock was replacing Soundwave as the letter answerer, as revealed on a full page Robo Capers (it was also great to see this feature getting more prominence – it was always so much better than Matt and the Cat).
The title ‘In the National Interest’ refers to the justification cited by the diabolical clowns in the fictional US intelligence agency Triple I, for their decisions to cover up at the Transformers presence on Earth. They’ve concluded the American public cannot handle the idea of alien robots, so they concocted a fantasy about a terrorist leader called Robot Master who commands the machines. The fact they stole the concept of a comic book and paid its writer (Donny Finkleberg) to put on the Robot Master costume, is real Stan and Ollie stuff. Bob Budiansky, writer of the Marvel US Transformers comic, wrote the Robot Master stuff as a kind of parody, but in this Simon Furman four-parter, Triple I come across as something far more sinister.
The story begins with TV reporter Joy Meadows, hinting that she will blow the lid on the Robot Master hoax. Any half decent reporter would put out their exclusive immediately rather than tip off the competition and risk getting scooped, but Meadows seems happy to wait until next week’s edition of Between the Lines. (Presumably rival stations/programmes will now be scrambling around to find out what she knows and broadcast first.) This buys a little time for Triple I who conclude she must be stopped… permanently if need be… because it’s in the national interest of course. They will need to accelerate the completion of Project Centurion!
In a courtroom in Portland, Oregon, Professor P. Morris stands trial for the murder of a security guard (whom he killed while in control of Swoop in earlier story, The Icarus Theory). The doors are flung open and masked gunmen storm in – gas Morris – and carry him off, making a swift getaway. (This would also be a very big story in media world).
At the Ark, the Dinobots are working out (despite not having muscles to tone). They have been confined to base for weeks due to their conspicuous Earth modes and are pent up and frustrated. Sludge rushes in holding a TV (tiny in his huge hands) with the frozen image of Joy Meadows on it. The ‘beautiful golden human’ who ‘cared’ for him when he was ill still lives!
Meadows is driving along a windy mountain road towards Mount St Hillary, where her contact GB Blackrock had suggested she would find proof of the Robot Master Hoax. Her car looks suspiciously like the Stunticon Dead End and she’s violently rammed into the barrier by Triple I’s masked men. They approach with guns drawn, as the Dinobots arrive from the other direction. (The team had decided to find Meadows and help her, as it is a good enough excuse to get out of the Ark as any). Sludge immediately charges into the hail of bullets and the gunman flee – after giving Meadows’ car a kick over the cliff. Sludge is distraught. Thankfully Swoop had reacting in time and caught the vehicle in mid fall.
Part one ends with Morris being into Triple I’s top security lab, where his mind control equipment has been reassembled by the agency and he is introduced to his new charge… an awesome foot thick titanium titan known as Centurion!
Part two opens in downtown Portland. It’s 5:23pm, the aftermath of chaos. Furman then winds back the clock four hours to the beach at Talon’s Point, where Meadows and the Dinobots confer. Grimlock and Swoop explain about the civil war with the Decepticons, that Robot Master has nothing to do with – Optimus Prime, who Swoop starts to say “our leader” before correcting himself and saying the “Autobots’ leader” (a nice touch that shows how the group considers itself separate from the Autobots) believes he’s a fake, created by the US government. Meadows, initially disbelieving, realises this makes perfect sense. She’ll need an interview on camera, and lovesick Sludge could be the bot for the job. However, first Swoop will need to airlift Meadows’ film crew to the beach.
And what of the Decepticons, who we’ve not seen in the story until now? At their coal mine base, Megatron is anxious about the disappearance of Robot Master (evidently Ravage failed to recapture the human – last issue) and his leadership rival Shockwave will use this as ammunition. Soundwave is monitoring the airwaves and picks-up a call from Meadows to her film crew.
Morris meanwhile has been mind-linked to Centurion. Agent Grady reveals they’d planted evidence to exonerate him, intending to have him work for Triple I all along, but plans had to be brought forward. Morris, presumably, could use Centurion attack Triple I at this point, but he seems to be playing ball, however reluctantly.
3:57pm. The camera crew are waiting for the “unexpected”. A green construction truck is parked opposite them. Naturally, it is no ordinary vehicle, and neither is its occupant – Megatron! The Decepticon leader springs out of Mixmaster’s cab, transforming to robot mode and seizing the humans. Swoop launches a surprise attack but Megatron soon recovers and slams him into a wall. Then Centurion bursts out of the ground – finally an opportunity to repay his past debt to Swoop – and wrestles with the Decepticon leader. Joy’s camera crew figure out the unconscious Swoop had been sent to pick them up and they are in all sorts of trouble!
Issue #76, which contains part three, has an article headlined ‘Hot stuff from Hasbro’ which describes Hot Rod as coming from Earth’s future but “here now in all good toyshops” – and reveals that a 6ft 6ins Hot Rod will be touring British toy shops during the summer. He’ll be talking to customers and organising free giveaways. Exciting stuff for young fans. I remember our local toy store, Zodiac (in Hounslow High Street) was visited by Darth Vader and Skeletor back in the day (separately I might add) so these sorts of promos were a thing. Hot Rod’s tour was presumably done with the Movie and its related toy line in mind. The comic is also dropping hints at this point about the ‘new leaders’ Ultra Magnus and Galvatron who will be featuring in an upcoming epic storyline, tying in with the movie (the epic and still awesome, Target:2006).
Back to the story. Part three opens with Swoop laying buried in the rubble and cameramen Tony and Rick trying to revive him. He casts his mind back over recent events to regain his bearings (and of course bring readers up to speed). We learn that Megatron had given him a thrashing for 10 minutes! All I can say is that Swoop must be tougher than he looks to withstand such a pounding.
He comes to and looks around – yep, that was no dream! Centurion is pitched in battle with Megatron. His arsenal is formidable, but Megatron has firepower of his own and transforms into gun mode, allowing Mixmaster to catch him and open fire. Megatron then punches Centurion so hard that he goes airborne and crashes through the fourth storey of a nearby building. Ouch!
Swoop makes his getaway, airlifting the humans and their van out of Megatron’s reach with seconds to spare. But he’s marked by a tracer dart fired by a Triple I operative from a nearby window. At the agency’s HQ, they are in crisis as Morris has put the lab in lockdown and sealed himself behind impenetrable blast doors. He has control of Centurion and enough supplies in the bunker to last a year! Let’s hope it also has loos!
Poor Swoop becomes an object of ridicule as the tracer causes him to become stuck in mid-transformation. Why is this? I’m thinking perhaps the signal it is broadcasting interferes with the electrical signals in Swoops body. Slag squishes the device but it’s too – they have been tracked down by Megatron, Soundwave and the Constructicons (who sneak up unnoticed!?). It makes for one of the great Grimlock lines: “this is a Dinobot you’re talking to, we don’t walk away from any fight”. Bold words considering Megatron bested all five Dinobots in their last encounter (the 1985 story Repeat Performance) and this time he’s got back-up!
The concluding part is narrated by Professor Morris, now Centurion, recapping recent events and letting us know that he’s decided to redress his past mistakes by aiding the Dinobots and taking down Triple I. He arrives at Talon’s Point to see the Dinobots, to coin a phrase, fighting them on the beaches – as they are in pitched battle with Megatron and the Constructicons.
Megatron and Grimlock are having a private battle, with the Dinobot commander coming off worse. Sludge is holding his own, and Snarl dispatches Scrapper before turning to confront Soundwave. In one of the best moments of the issue, the Decepticon number two again demonstrates his cunning and why he rarely needs to get his hands dirty, by ejecting Laserbeak at close range and clawing Snarl’s face.
Centurion’s intervention on the side of the Dinobots begins to turn the tide. So, Soundwave sticks a blaster in the faces of Meadows and her crew to force them to hand over their incriminating information about the Robot Master hoax. Laserbeak then publicly burns this in front all the combatants, which decisively ends the battle and the Decepticons depart.
Morris notes the Dinobots’ wounded pride and Meadows’ superficial defiance – underneath she has been badly shaken. “Someday perhaps”, he says in a reference to I’m not sure what – possibly that she’ll get the story out in the future, or he’s thinking of a romantic liaison between himself and Joy, which is a bit weird if he’s thinking that. The final words of Triple I’s chief, that they’ve covered up their tracks (as always) and Morris will be dealt with by the law when the time comes, convinces him to use the year to destroy Triple I. In actual fact he’d get torn to bits by Galvatron, rebuilt and then bombed with Megatron and the pair would end up in the Thames. So, Triple I would have a lucky escape in the end.
In summary, this is another fantastic story in what is becoming a golden age for the Marvel UK’s flagship comic. Simpson’s art is of a high standard throughout. It’s great to see the Dinobots centre stage in their first solo adventure, with more of their distinctive no-nonsense brand of heroism… and Sludge loved-up!! Whatever next?!
Oddly enough, with the comic about to embark on its greatest ever UK story the following week, the comic has sold an extra ad for BMX bike oil and there’s no room for the usual Next Week half page to talk up the big event. Instead there’s a small panel on the Grim Grams page to tell us that our next lead story will take readers on a journey from ‘Cybertron to Earth and 1986 to 2006’. The future is coming.