Under Fire!

On Cybertron, Ultra Magnus and the Wreckers prepare to execute Optimus Prime, believing him to be a Decepticon spy.

‘Any last requests prisoner?’ That’s the question asked of Optimus Prime on the cover of Transformers #99 by Ultra Magnus at the head of an Autobot firing squad! If you’d missed the previous issue, you’d be unaware that Megatron had put the word around of a Decepticon infiltrator designed to look and sound like the great Optimus and the Wreckers and Magnus had caught up with him and passed a death sentence without trial – all of which sounds distinctly un-Autobot behaviour but this is war I suppose. As the purpose of a cover is to make you buy the comic and find out what the hell is going on then Lee Sullivan’s efforts here are likely to hit the spot. And if that doesn’t do the job, there’s a free Ultra Magnus sticker badge too!

The issue’s Transformations page has two preoccupations: the first being its impending one hundredth issue (naturally) and the other is the launch of three new Marvel UK comics for March 1987 – Action Force, Zoids monthly, and Thundercats! Of the three I was most easily the most excited about Thundercats – it was undeniably one of the best kids’ cartoons on TV at the time and I collected the comic for a good couple of years. Reading the blurb though, I get the impression that Marvel is really pinning its hopes on Action Force becoming the next big thing. Like Transformers it is underpinned by a major toy line and has a lot of cool vehicles and figures. I was never wild about AF though. The Ancient Relics crossover with Transformers (in issue #125) was pretty good but it seemed a bit forced for the comic to pretend that AF were ‘Europe’s anti-terrorist force’ when it was blatantly the GI Joe comic rebranded and with stories predominately set in the US. In case you’re wondering the AF comic was cancelled in 1988 after fifty issues and then relaunched as a monthly which itself lasted for 15 issues before being cancelled.

Back to Transformers… As mentioned, Prime finds himself under arrest and put in front of a firing squad. If he’s worried about dying at this point, he’s not alone; Outback, who he saved from a Decepticon bully in the previous issue, is about to put himself between Optimus and the loaded guns. We get some insight into his situation – he’s a rule breaker and risk taker, his fellow Autobots resent him for it and consequently he’s not well thought of. So much so that Magnus is unwilling to listen to Outback’s claims that they are making a big mistake. He’d rather believe their spy sources who have never been wrong in the past. Outback foolishly provokes Magnus by suggesting that he is acting rashly in a bid to atone for his failure to save Impactor during Operation: Volcano. He’s hit a nerve as Magnus erupts and orders Outback to take a hike or else, he can share in the prisoner’s fate!

Outback places a small device on Prime’s chest which causes the shackles behind his back disappear or dissolve. He then lobs a gas particle bomb and creates a smokescreen allowing Prime and himself to escape. It’s interesting to see how reluctant Optimus is to flee – for some reason he thinks he can talk sense into Magnus and the Wreckers, even though he’s failed dismally so far.

Magnus tells Springer that he will take three Guardian units and hunt them down himself. All the while the Decepticon Ratbat observes from a safe distance, before returning to base to delivers the news of Prime’s escape to Lord Straxus. Megatron’s plan has failed, and Lord Straxus takes great pleasure in rubbing it in. Megatron reminds his host of his precarious position – it would be laughably simple to reach into Straxus’ life support bubble and crush what remains of him! Megatron orders a search party be sent after Prime, surely, he cannot evade the Decepticons and the Autobots! He then departs leaving Ratbat to question Straxus on just how long they must tolerate Megatron’s unstable presence. Straxus reveals that he has something up his sleeve. I must say I’m really enjoying the Megatron-Straxus antagonism, it’s great!

Meanwhile Magnus and a Guardian unit follow the trail of the escapees. Magnus reflects on Outback’s home truths from earlier and now wishes that he hadn’t divided his search party – Guardian units are loyal but tend to interpret orders too literally. Sure enough, there is an explosion nearby which suggests the Guardians have caught up with the fugitives. Outback blasts one, just as a second unit seizes Prime from behind and starts to crush his body. Outback tries to get a clear shot but the first Guardian recovers and tears through Outback’s side with his huge nails. Ouch!

The mini Autobot collapses and spurs Prime into action. He draws on his considerable strength and tears the head off the Guardian unit holding him. Though peace loving and abhorring of violence, it’s a timely reminder that Prime is one of the most powerful and formidable Autobot fighters.

Prime scoops up the fallen Outback. Once again, he (Optimus) has cheated death but perhaps at the cost of the life of a truly heroic Autobot. Magnus remains out of site as he watches Prime carry his friend into the distance. He does nothing to intervene which is a big clue that he’s starting to wonder whether this really is the real Optimus Prime. About time too!

On the letters page, Grimlock is asked by a fan whether the TF Movie adaptation will be reprinted when 2006 comes around. His reply that it would be ‘possible though daunting’ if the comic were still going! That might be the first acknowledgement from the creative team that the comic, though going gangbusters in 1987, has a finite lifespan and perhaps this is also why hitting the big 100 is such a cause for celebration. As we know the Marvel Transformers UK comic ran out of road in 1992, ending at issue #332. But the franchise has continued in one form or another ever since. At the time of writing Transformers is in its fourth decade (36 years old) and still going strong.

For now, let’s revisit that first big milestone – Transformers’ one hundredth issue!

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The Harder They Die!

Optimus Prime sets foot on Cybertron for the first time in four million years only to discover it reduced to a mechanical wasteland… while Megatron is also ‘home’ – an unwanted guest of the local Decepticons – and hatches a truly diabolical scheme!

The conclusion of the previous issue’s story ‘Prey!’ looked pretty cut and dried: Optimus Prime was at the mercy of the Predacons, who leapt towards him with teeth and claws barred, and the Autobots arrived shortly after to find their leader torn to shreds. However, there was the matter of the secret plot that Shockwave had hatched with Predacon team leader Razorclaw and the mysterious cargo in Prime’s trailer which suggested that perhaps everything was not as it seemed.

Sure enough, issue #98 begins with Optimus walking the desolate landscape of Cybertron – he is finally home after four million years! There are some great, vivid descriptions of the ravaged home-world: once towering cities have been levelled and the sky is polluted by the stench of a thousand battles. Up ahead Prime sees signs of life – a large Decepticon pummelling the mini-Autobot Outback. Prime’s huge figure looms over him – how would he like to take on someone larger?

What I love about the set-up of this issue is that it’s completely unexpected. Readers will have sussed that the robotic body that was destroyed last issue was not the real Prime but that he should suddenly turn up on Cybertron of all places is right out of leftfield. It’s an opportunity for Furman and Senior (the writer and artist) to deliver their own take to US writer Bob Budiansky’s masterpiece Return to Cybertron saga of the previous year and provide a sequel of sorts.

The Decepticon picking on Outback is not of the toy range, thus we can already guess at his fate, but looks the business with a head shaped like a paratrooper’s helmet and is wearing his insignia on his head module, Straxus-style (that shows a certain admirable commitment to the cause). He mocks Prime’s threat, in his experience, “the bigger they are”…. “THE HARDER THEY DIE” insists Prime!

He lifts the Decepticon off the ground by the throat, educating him on the number of comrades he’s seen fall in battle, while he has consistently cheated death due to some warped good fortune. The Decepticon seems unimpressed and unleashes a surprise eye-blast to the face… which looks pretty darn cool. Prime is temporarily blinded and throws his opponent as far as he can before falling in pain. The enemy has grown powerful in his long absence and expecting the Decepticon to finish him off at any moment, he thinks his luck has finally run out!!!

The expected onslaught never comes. It turns out that Prime’s throw had resulted in the Decepticon becoming impaled on a huge spike! The curse of the non-toy range robots strikes again! Outback is shocked to learn that this is none other than the great Optimus Prime, believing him to be long dead. Prime’s thoughts turn to the situation on Earth where he imagines his followers discovered the body parts of the facsimile construct ‘fake Prime’ which Wheeljack built so that Optimus could fake his death and now believe their leader to be dead. Prime had wanted to see how they coped without him and will now get the chance.

Prime bids Outback farewell, there are things he must do alone – but as he departs Outback transforms and follows (into a nifty Cybertronian hover car I might add). We now check in on Megatron, who is also on Cybertron, inside a Decepticon stronghold in Polyhex, which may or may not be Castle Darkmount. Megatron surveys the destruction which stretches as far as he can see and finds it be magnificent! Decepticon standards have not slackened in his absence, but an italicised voice off panel sounds less than happy with his presence. It notes that Megatron has brought with him trouble – the last thing the Cybertron Decepticons need is for the demoralised Autobot resistance to be galvanised by Optimus Prime.

Megatron erupts in a rage, recalling for the benefit of the reader how Rampage and Razorclaw had leapt clear of Optimus Prime and the Predacons had attacked Megatron himself, fleeing with his fusion canon! The situation smacked of a ‘Shockwave set-up’ he works out astutely: he’d been left to face Optimus Prime alone, though not unarmed it turns out, as Megatron carries a spare gun. He found ‘Prime’ propped up against his trailer and blew him to pieces… only to discover that it was a fake and he was rugby tackled from behind by the real Optimus. Megatron, being throttled, had summonsed the Space Bridge and Optimus hurled the two of them into it before it had fully materialised, hoping to carry Megatron to his death. Instead the pair had survived intact, but on the other side of the galaxy.

Now we see Megatron’s tormentor… it’s none other than the salvaged head of Polyhex’s ruler Lord Straxus, who eerily floats in green liquid. He has been confined to a life support bubble after the events of issue #69 and having made such a great first impression in the aforementioned Return to Cybertron saga, his return is a real treat for the readers. It’s another unexpected twist in a short 11-page story that is blessed with them. And Megatron has wasted no time in making himself at home. Having procured a new fusion canon, he’s passed word through to the Decepticon informers that a spy designed to resemble Optimus Prime will try and infiltrate the Autobot resistance. He feels sure that when the Autobots learn of this they will kill Optimus Prime for him! Despite being unhinged of late, Megatron shows he has lost none of his cunning.

Meanwhile, Prime stands high above Iacon, the once great capital of Cybertron – it too has been turned into a barren wasteland, can any Autobots still inhabit this place? Suddenly he is whacked in the face by the hammer arm belonging to Rack ‘n’ Ruin, one of the Wreckers. And a huge Guardian unit (a much stronger version than we have seen before) pummels Prime’s face into the ground. He blacks out and when he comes to, he finds himself a prisoner of the Wreckers and Ultra Magnus: without a trial he has been found guilty of impersonating the Autobots’ greatest leader… and the sentence is death!

In summary, what a cracking story! It’s class from beginning to end. The twist of Prime and Megatron’s return to Cybertron is not one I saw coming, and the encounter with the Deception – his cool eye blasts and the gruesome way Prime dispatches him – was hugely enjoyable. Outback was a recent edition to the Hasbro toy line up and it was nice to see him make a cameo here. The best bit for me though, is probably the clash of the two great egotists, Megatron and Straxus. The latter doesn’t appreciate his unwanted guest one little bit and Megatron makes no attempt to endear himself, but for now Straxus is not in much of a position to do anything about it. By the end it looks like Megatron’s ruse has worked a treat: Magnus and the Wreckers are ready to pass a death sentence on Optimus without even interrogating him to see what he has to say for himself.

It’s worth noting that while this is essentially a two-part story, the next instalment appears under a different title. This is unusual for the comic. It also comes with a Galvatron sticker badge on the cover.

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Prey!

Optimus Prime plans to test his followers by faking his death. Trouble is, with the Decepticons’ deadly cadre of hunters – the Predacons – on his trail, his demise may become a reality!

1986 ended on a real high note with the awe-inspiring Transformers the Movie and its comic tie-in Target: 2006. Entering the new year there was the question of ‘what next?’ and could the Marvel UK team raise the bar any higher? The immediate big event on the horizon was the comic’s ‘incredible 100th issue’ and looking back across the decades, I remember that felt like a huge milestone. It was a fantastic achievement for this title based on a toy line to reach triple figures and a sure sign of how successful the comic had grown. On the Transformation page we learn that its even selling in the United States and Australia at that point – a global phenomenon in the making! There’s a nod to Australia in the Robo Capers strip for #96 which is fitting in the circumstances.

But the countdown to that milestone begins with Prey, a Simon Furman two-parter published in the pages of Transformers #96 and #97. Once again Optimus Prime is the lead character, which is always good but especially more so since his enforced absence of some 11 issues during Target: 2006. The story also provides the UK debut of the Predacons, ahead of their US appearance no less. Although the elite hunting cadre were never released as toys in the UK, a kid at school had discovered a leaflet showing Hasbro’s extended toy range in his Transformers toy box. This is how I got my first glimpse of this exciting team of wild beasts who combine.

Jeff Anderson’s cover depicts the encounter between Prime and the Predacons. The Autobot leader is flat on his front, and a tortoise-like foot stomps his laser rifle. I’m thinking this foot belongs to Headstrong. ‘Prime’s the prey… and he hasn’t got a prayer!’ is the teaser/catch line. Jeff will be unleashed on the main strip in the second part but the first instalment we’re in the hands of Will Simpson, one of my favourites.

Will creates a striking opening page. Prime is safe within the Ark, but he looks poised for battle, like he’s under immediate threat. The source of his anxiety is giant screens showing recent events: the Decepticon Space Bridge delivering enemy reinforcements and Scourge’s ninja-like attack on the Autobots at the steel refinery.

The Space Bridge features prominently in the Sun Bow cartoon series as a means of travel between Earth and Cybertron. US writer Bob Budiansky is widely thought to have introduced it into the Transformers comic as a convenient way to be able to bring in the new toy releases that he was under constant pressure to showcase. But the issue of this being a massive, massive threat to the Autobots has never really been addressed until now. It stands to reason though that this is a major gamechanger in the war on Earth, as for the first time the Decepticons have access to unlimited reinforcements. Prime realises that it must either be captured (unwise as the enemy would not rest until it repossessed it) or destroyed.

So far so good, but then Prime’s thoughts take a sharp turn down a slightly odd tangent. He’s always been willing to sacrifice his life for the Autobot cause without hesitation but having seen how poorly his followers coped without him (during his spell in the Limbo dimension during Target: 2006) he worries that things could fall apart without him. So, he begins to formulate a plan to remove himself from the picture, to test his followers and allow him to work on the destruction of the Space Bridge. Why do I say the plan is ‘slightly odd’? Well, it’s a distraction from the main objective of destroying the bridge for a start; and rather pointless as he’s already seen how crappy an outfit the Autobots were without him. Would it not be better to strengthen the command structure, training and building confidence and resilience? No. Instead Optimus hatches a plan to fake his own death with help from Wheeljack who he instructs to work on a secret project for him.

At the Decepticon base Megatron’s obsession with his Autobot opposite number continues to grow. A flippant comment from Motormaster sends him into a rage – only he, Megatron, can defeat Optimus Prime – no-one else! Motormaster cowers in fear as Megatron just misses him with a giant boulder. We don’t know what the Stunticon leader said exactly but it’s not beyond the realms of fantasy that, as the two share an alt-mode, he sees Optimus as a personal rival.

Simpson draws Megatron with a trigger waist like his toy, while his Motormaster has a ‘regular head’ rather than the boxed-in look of his toy and previous depictions in the comic. This Motormaster looks better.

Soundwave watches Megatron’s paranoia with interest. With the leader’s mental state rapidly deteriorating, Soundwave knows that his best interests are served by helping Shockwave to re-take command. He plants a seed about flushing Prime into the open using a specialised team of hunters… Megatron takes the bait – the Predacons still exist on Cybertron and would be perfect for the job. He orders Soundwave to summon them. Meanwhile Shockwave is monitoring the conversation from within a nearby cave. His plan is going perfectly, soon he will manoeuvre Prime and Megatron into a situation where the only winner is Shockwave!

Shockwave alludes to a different side of Prime that he witnessed in the Limbo dimension. And the editorial footnote drops a major revelation: we will see this story in the landmark issue 100! The suggestion is that Megatron would come off worse in a straight fight, yet in issue 100 we don’t see a fighting mad Prime but an intelligent one who knows when and when not to fight. You could easily favour Megatron because he is not handicapped by Prime’s compassion for other beings, so Shockwave’s logic is not clear.

A week later at the Ark, Prime is ready to put his own plan into action. His fellow Autobots are aghast to learn that their leader plans to embark on an unimportant reconnaissance mission to the Decepticons base, alone! Let’s not forget that the enemy base is in another State – it’s a fair distance away if he gets into trouble. Prime is too important to risk, surely one of them should go in his place. Prime is saddened to hear his warriors speak so, but it only strengthens his resolve to proceed and he assures them that he’ll alert Wheeljack (who stands close-by looking decidedly uncomfortable) if he runs into trouble.

After ordering them to return to their duties, Prime has a final chat with Wheeljack. They load a mysterious cargo into Prime’s trailer and Optimus tells Wheeljack that he is relying on him to sound the alarm in two hours. That should give him enough time to fake his death!

While over at the Decepticon base, Megatron has found a practical use for Motormaster – target practice for the newly arrived Predacons! Their hunting skills are still as exceptional Megatron remembers, and he is satisfied. And after Soundwave announces Optimus Prime’s is ‘heading this way’ (surely on an interstate trip he could detour in any number of directions) the hunt is about to begin! Shockwave has a quick word with team leader Razorclaw, serve him well and the Predacons have a glorious place in the new Decepticon hierarchy!

Nearby, Prime’s uneventful ride through the peaceful Wyoming countryside takes an unexpected twist when the road ahead explodes leaving to revert to robot mode. He is momentarily stunned and reaches for his gun, just as it is crushed by a giant foot before he can grasp it! Prime looks up to find himself at the mercy of Megatron and the Predacons in animal mode. It’s quite a cliff-hanger!

And so, we’re on to part 2 – announced via a Geoff Senior cover as ‘Terror of the Predacons’. In addition to the wild animals there’s a proverbial elephant in the room in the shape of the comic’s 2p price rise. To their credit the team do not duck the issue – its announced in the Transformation page as due to ‘increased production costs’ and is the first rise in 70 issues. It’s interesting that they mention ‘unless you’re reading this in the shop’ as its likely that a few kids will have arrived at the shop with the exact pocket money and found themselves short. Clearly the team were concerned about this. To be fair, I would have been similarly caught out but for some reason on that day, my dad was going to the shop and offered to collect my issue. I remember it well as I worried, he might have come back with the wrong edition!

The second instalment begins with Prime in a tricky spot. He’s alone, unarmed, with no means of calling for help (no internal radio?) and being hunted by the deadly Predacons! The feline forms of Rampage and Razorclaw spring from nowhere and leap – with fangs and teeth bared! Prime punches out Rampage but takes a scratch across the torso from Razorclaw, before dodging a blast and landing on the Predacon leader. Tantrum’s charging bull mode is easily evaded by Prime, who simply transforms and drives away (one of my favourite moments in the story) but up ahead is ‘rhino’ Headstrong coming straight for him and Divebomb circling above in eagle mode! At the last moment Prime transforms to robot mode, launches at Divebomb leaving Tantrum and Headstrong to collide. After raining a few blows on Divebomb Prime lands and sets off again.

A flashback reveals that Prime had been given a sporting 10-minute head start to make the hunt interesting. Readers are reminded of Prime’s plan to fake his death and that Wheeljack is not due to raise the alarm for another 20 minutes. By then it could be too late! Suddenly his daydream is cut short by a huge boulder propelled in his direction by the Predacon-combined form, Predaking! Optimus had not realised that the Predacons were combiners and now things are even worse!

He heads for his trailer and runs into Megatron. A blast from his Fusion Canon impacts the trailer and causes Prime to feel the pain. Injury to either part (or roller) is felt by the whole. When you think about it, this is a significant weakness that the Decepticons rarely exploit.

Finally, Prime is at the mercy of his enemy, but the Razorclaw whispers to the team that it’s ‘now or never’ if they are to carry out Shockwave’s plan. The last sight is of the Predacons diving at Prime with claws bared… before the Autobots arrive shortly afterwards and discover a scene of complete and utter devastation – they’ve found what’s left of Optimus Prime, and he’s been to pieces!

As endings go, this is as shocking as they come. Prime’s death looks very cut and dried but there are the clues that nothing is what it seems. For starters we have the mysterious cargo in the trailer, a robot by the looks of it, and one with the same feet as Optimus. Then there is the Predacons about to defy Megatron’s orders, suggesting that their disposing of Prime may not have happened. And so, we’re on to issue #98 ‘The Harder They Die’ – another hugely enjoyable, surprise-filled 11 pages from the Furman/Senior dream team.

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Decepticon Graffiti!

The Battlechargers, Runabout and Runamuck, arrive from Cybertron intent on causing a bit of mayhem – and embark on a graffiti spree across America!

Marvel’s UK weekly Transformers comic enters 1987 brimming with confidence. The title and its creative team are riding high following the success of its recent epic Target: 2006 and basking in the glow of the amazing Transformers the Movie, and its coming off the back of a year of (mostly) strong stories and looking ahead to its landmark one hundredth issue and another solid year. The comic’s devoted fanbase which included my twelve-year-old self at the time also knew we were on to a very good thing.

Just prior to the Christmas edition we’d seen the Aerialbot gestalt Superion squaring off with the Stunticons combined as Menasor – coming off worse after Circuit Breaker intervened. Then insult was added to injury when Donny Finkleberg betrayed the Autobot Skids to Walter Barnett and RAAT.

US writer Bob Budiansky picks up where this cliff-hanger left off and takes the opportunity to spice things up by introducing a pair of newcomers from ever expanding Hasbro toy range in the shape of the Decepticon Battlechargers, Runabout and Runamuck. This was an exciting development for me as I’d recently invested in a Runabout toy. Rather like the less appealing Jump Starters (who the US comic ignored) their gimmick was that you can pull them back and they would release and transform in mid-drive. In the comics universe this translated as them being the ‘fastest Transformers on Earth’.

The first impression is of course the cover. Herbe Trimpe’s cover for issue #23 of the US Transformers comic, the infamous ‘Humans are Wimps’ Statue of Liberty cover appears on TFUK #95. For issue #94, where the story kicks off, we’re treated to a fantastic cover by Lee Sullivan. Now, Lee’s style hasn’t always hit the spot for me, but I really love his work on this cover! The story is about graffiti and the Battlechargers literally look like they’ve been spray painted. There’s a metallic shine that looks fab (whether Lee is responsible for the colouring I don’t know) but it brings the art to life and I remember picking up the issue and thinking that TF had lifted its game even further for the new year.

The title is of course a spoof of the 1973 cult movie American Graffiti. Except here the title is interpreted literally as the Battlechargers go on a spray paint wrecking spree. It wouldn’t be the last time Budiansky would reference a film in his story title… the infamous Buster Witwicky and the Car Wash of Doom comes to mind. Could it be that Bob is a Harrison Ford fan? The actor stars in both American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and of course both are directed by the one and only George Lucas.

The story begins at RAAT headquarters where an unusually sedate and gentle looking Circuit Breaker holds a tiny Transformer brain module on the tip of her finger. By generating electrical pulses, she can stimulate movement in the deactivated body of the Autobot Skids. To her this is research, but to Donny Finkleberg it looks like she’s dissecting his erstwhile partner and he’s starting to regret selling out Skids for $50,000. He protests that Skids looks in pain, but Circuit Breaker snaps that this is a machine not a person. Poor Skids is not the only RAAT captive – the hanger wall is adorned with the face plates of twelve other Autobot hunting trophies which includes the Aerialbots and the Cybertron seven. Donny realises that their captivity is leaving the Decepticons with even greater freedom to do what they want on Earth… and he helped – great! We’re starting to see the redemption of Donny at this point.

Over at the Decepticon coal mine base in Eastern Wyoming, one of the themes of the year is starting to emerge: that of Megatron’s mental instability. He is seated on a throne made of the cab of a truck and greeting his latest recruits from Cybertron, the two Battlechargers. They have been summonsed across the galaxy via the Space Bridge for the purpose of taking a challenge to Optimus Prime. When Soundwave helpfully suggests a simple phone call, he is bashed in the face by his boss using a car exhaust! Having seen how Megatron deals with insubordination, neither Runabout nor Runamuck are inclined to argue and promptly roll out. When you consider that Soundwave has been a stand-in leader and very loyally stuck by Megatron against Shockwave, it really is a very poor way to treat him and perhaps a sign of Megatron losing his grip.

Once on the open highway the Battlechargers voice their displeasure at working for this bully. They decide to blow off this rather ridiculous mission and have a good time on their new world. Given that Megatron will probably tear them limb from limb for disobeying him this is either very brave or stupid. It speaks to the childish, fun-seeking natures of the pair.

With no plan of action, they pull up at a service station to look for a bit of inspiration. A typical American nuclear family is taking a break on their cross-country road trip vacation. While the mother wipes a young girl’s face (the daughter, Leah has been eating chocolate coated sushi which sounds positively vile) and her badly behaved older sibling Noah has a bad habit of scrawling graffiti wherever he goes, earning him a severe telling-off from his father. The Battlechargers rather like this defiant little fellow and decide to follow the family. (Re-reading now I’ve noticed that young Noah has a Spider-Man face on the front AND the back of his t-shirt which is a bit odd!)

Three days later at RAAT headquarters, Triple I agent Walter Barnett draws Circuit Breaker’s attention to news reports about weird markings that are appearing on several US landmarks. First it was a Football stadium in Wyoming, then Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, and finally the Gateway arch in St. Louis. Barnett thinks they have been left by Transformers and Circuit Breaker is to investigate. Donny suggests that Skids could help but Circuit Breaker is not amused – no human can trust a robot, she says ironically!

In Washington D.C. the next morning, Noah Acton and his family are visiting the Washington Monument. Two cars across the grass and transform into Runabout and Runamuck, now armed with a barrel of spray paint (one wonders how they came by these). Unusually for a couple of land-based vehicles, they possess the ability to fly while in robot mode and soar to the top of monument and spray graffiti, taking delight in the comedic phrase the other is daubing. Since the human crowds are unable to decipher Transformers writing (or the comic’s readers for that matter) nobody is any the wiser what they are writing. However, I like that they make a point of adding punctuation.

Circuit Breaker arrives on the scene along with Barnett and Donny. They are introduced to the Acton family and learn of the strange co-incidence, that the graffiti attacks seem to follow them. Circuit Breaker tells them to travel as normal and her troops will lay in wait at the next stop, Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

The Decepticon vandals propel themselves airborne towards the monument, where a squadron of RAAT aerial assault craft swarm around them. The Decepticons are unphased and rain debris on to the innocent bystanders below. RAAT stage a swift withdrawal, but Circuit Breaker refuses to back-off and attacks the robots. Noah is almost hit by falling concrete until Circuit Breaker moves and gets knocked her to the ground. Runabout and Runamuck decide to find safer targets and transform and blend into the traffic.

Circuit Breaker is seen by a doctor and confined to RAAT headquarters, which is incredibly frustrating for her knowing that there is a robot menace on the loose. Donny suggests that if she really wants to stop the Battlechargers she must make use of the ‘help’ around her – namely the deactivated Autobots!  Circuit Breaker is adamant they cannot be trusted but starts to succumb to the idea of fashioning them together in a robot body she could interface with and control. And so, the next day as RAAT commandos take up positions inside the Statue of Liberty, Circuit Breaker and Donny make their way towards the island on commandeered trawler. She’s connected herself to the torso of a bizarre amalgam of Transformer parts and rockets towards the statue.

Runabout and Runamuck unleash their latest bit of graffiti this time in English! It’s unclear how they’ve downloaded the lingo but its an exciting development for the pair as now they are finally able to wind-up the ‘fleshlings’. They deface the noble statue with the words ‘Humans are Wimps!’ before coming under attack by Circuit Breaker’s robotic monstrosity.

The conglomerated creature disintegrates Runamuck’s shoulder mounting and when the Decepticon retaliates with a blast of his own, the amalgam’s giant hand moves to protect Circuit Breaker of its own free will! At last a glimmer of hope that she might finally be seeing the light and recognising that the Autobots are the good guys. Runabout severs the Statue of Liberty torch which threatens to land on the ferry below. Circuit Breaker detaches the hand from her robotic host which catches the torch. She and her ally then emit a blast of full power to frazzle the Battlechargers and their smoking wrecks are last seen plunging into New York harbour!

They’ll certainly be gone a while… Bob Budiansky never brought the duo back in the rest of his tenure (they were literally one issue wonders) but his successor as US writer, Simon Furman, would recover them as part of Shockwave’s group during the Decepticon civil war of 1991.

The story ends with Walter Barnett discovering the hanger empty of the thirteen captive Transformers and firing Circuit Breaker and Donny. Circuit Breaker confesses that she had no choice in order to get their co-operation. The Aerialbots weren’t in there so they were presumably allowed to go free. This issue holds out the hope that Circuit Breaker has mended her attitude towards the Autobots, and we won’t see her for a long while, but when we do, she is still busting away without too much thought for good or bad.

Donny bows out from the franchise. As a support character he’s had a good run, but now he returns home thinking about spending his big pay cheque. He sees a TV news item about the Statue of Liberty and in a fit of conscience writes out a $50,000 cheque to the statue repair fund.

Years later Bob Budiansky would cite this story as one of his favourites (he obviously had a lot of fun writing it) and he even got a fan-mail letter about it from the great Stan Lee! That’s praise indeed.

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“Victory!”

In their dream state the comatose Dinobots battle their enemies and experience victory and defeat… can they wake up before it’s too late?

In the 1986 Transformers Annual there is one story that stands head and shoulders above the rest: the aptly named Victory. It is a coda to one of the biggest story triumphs of the year, that timeless classic Dinobot Hunt. And it is more accurately five mini tales in one as the each Dinobot in turn battles with the demons of their own minds in their own vignette.

Simon Furman at the height of his powers in this story and he’s assisted by a superb creative team: the great Geoff Senior on art duties – his dynamic style bringing each page to life; and regular hands Annie Halfacree on lettering and Gina Hart doing the colours (she captures the yellow tinge which the Megatron toy displays over time, which is a nice touch – though let’s not mention the panel where Starscream is part yellow) and Sheila Cranna as editor bows out from Transformers on a high note with this story.

From the first panel the reader is hooked… “he thinks I’m dead” says Grimlock. “His mistake”. How can you not read on to find out what has happened and what happens next? Grimlock is our narrator – he’s a Furman favourite and its evident in these four pages how well Simon knows this character he’s done so much to build.

The scene is one of devastation, of an Earth city in ruins. A bomb had taken out several of the Autobots including Optimus Prime. The sight of Prime “out of the fight permanently” is jarring and because main characters rarely die it’s a big hint early on that things are not what they seem. The next clue is writ large – it’s Grimlock armed with his Energo Sword and slicing Megatron down the middle! It’s an instantly iconic moment.

Grimlock screams his triumph to the Decepticons! This is pure Grimlock fantasy. He’s the powerful one and he alone among the Autobots can turn the course of the war. In reality of course, the last two times Grimlock has gone toe to toe with Megatron (in Repeat Performance and In the National Interest) he’s taken a pasting. His jealousy towards Optimus Prime which is at the root of his dislike for the Autobot leader and grudging respect is present alongside Grimock’s arrogance – Prime “was good but I’m the best”, he says.

As Grimlock transforming to T-Rex mode and takes full advantage of the Decepticons’ shock and disarray, Starscream still has the wherewithal to see the opportunity in the situation. With Megatron dead the path to leadership is finally open to him. He straps his former leader’s fusion cannon onto his own arm, and fakes being hurt, luring Grimlock closer and then at close range Starscream whips out the fusion cannon and blows a massive hole in Grimlock’s chest. He slips into darkness and voices…

Next it is Swoop’s turn to dream. He has Soundwave in his talons and parades his capture in front of the Autobots and Decepticons. Optimus Prime orders Swoop to release the prisoner but his age-old animosity towards Optimus won’t allow him to obey the request. His mistake is fatal, as Soundwave self-destructs to end his humiliation. Swoop is engulfed in a ball of flame.

Again, the voices continue… it is the outside world intruding on the dream.

Sludge charges through the jungle scape, he’s in Brontosaurus mode and in his element. He encounters Joy Meadows, the ‘shining’ human who nursed him through his illness, she’s come back to him. Joy hugs Sludge before ripping off her face to reveal a horrific robotic skeleton! Truly this is the stuff of nightmares and I reckon there’ll have been a few kids who got pretty freaked out at this point. Android Joy unleashes beams from her eyes that take down Sludge. The last thing he sees before the darkness is Megatron holding a remote control.

Snarl faces up to a bogeyman from his own past – the rogue battle droid Guardian. This time the other Autobots have fallen and only he can save the day. With a mighty whip of his tail, he beheads Guardian and pauses to savour the victory. He foolishly lets his guard down just long enough for the headless Guardian to get to his feet and pummel poor Snarl into unconsciousness!

Finally, Slag relives the confrontation with Shockwave at the Savage Land million years ago. In this version he runs the Decepticon, off a cliff, but in doing so lands in the swamp and is swallowed up by the darkness…

And back in the present, Optimus and Chief Medical Officer Ratchet survey the deactivated Dinobots in the Ark’s repair bay. The damage to their minds has been repaired but they remain comatose. Something is preventing the Dinobots from making the final leap and returning to consciousness. Prime orders Ratchet to make sure they survive – he needs the Dinobots in their fight against the Decepticons. As Prime departs, Ratchet surmises that his monstrous patients will need to take that final step themselves. And in their dream state the Dinobots go to war once more… they will have either victory or death.

Why can’t the Dinobots wake up? Could it be that for all their bravado and arrogance they are masking an insecurity and they don’t believe they can be winners? Perhaps this explains why in each dream they come close to victory, but their mind can’t quite accept it and throws a spanner in works. As we know they did wake eventually, in Second Generation (issue 65).

In summary, the story is undiminished nearly 35 years after it first appeared. It’s among Furman’s best works, perhaps because he’s writing about the Dinobots and Grimlock who he clearly has a lot of affection for, but also because it the pages are exploding with action. The device of dreams allows for stories where the usual limits don’t need to apply. Who could fail to be blown away by sight of Grimlock slicing Megatron in two, or Starscream exploding the Dinobot’s at close range? Grimlock’s sequence is the most attention grabbing, but the other Dinos meet their end in imaginative ways too.

And so we reach the end of 1986, a very fine year for the Transformers comic and enter 1987 full of excitement and expectation… and there’s lots more to come.

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To a Power Unknown

A prototype weapon designed to reverse the direction of missiles, causes a dramatic change in the Transformers’ personalities. Plus, other stories from the 1986 Transformers Annual.

Growing up in Britain in the 1980s, annual were a Christmas staple. These hardback books carried text and comic stories, posters, fact files, interviews, quizzes and anything and every else. All the popular TV shows of the day had an annual and I recall my bookshelf being stocked with Knight Rider, Buck Rogers, Roland Rat, Spider-Man… and of course The Transformers.

The first annual was released in 1985 and was pretty good, even if it jarred quite annoyingly with the comic continuity (the Plague of the Insecticons story being a case in point) and the 1986 book sets out to eclipse the previous years. Overall, it succeeds but mostly due to Simon Furman’s amazing Dinobot story Victory (which we’ll come to next) and text stories like State Games which aren’t too shabby either. The book is edited and compiled by Sheila Cranna who was the original editor of the UK Transformers comic. No offence to her, but I tend to think things really improved after she departed.

To a Power Unknown offers the intriguing concept of Evil Autobots and Heroic Decepticons long before the 2008 Shattered Glass story set in a parallel universe. The spectacle of a super polite Megatron and Shockwave complimenting the other’s leadership abilities is a hilarious moment but all in all the story is let down by poor execution, jarring dialogue and some questionable colouring (Seekers all being coloured like Starscream for example). The reversal of the Transformers personalities is well explained though by way of a computer virus that infiltrates and reprograms hardware.

The story is by the unfamiliar pairing of Ian Mennell and Wilf Prigmore with semi regular artist Will Simpson on pencil duty. I like Simpson’s work and he has some good moments here, like when Starscream is hit by Jazz’s missile in mid-air – and he draws a realistic Bet Lynch and Ken Barlow from Coronation Street in a bizarre sequence later in the story. Then there are the scenes in Pinewoodsville where Prowl appears in two places and you can make out Mirage’s back wheel but not what he’s doing, that are crammed and confusing.

The story begins with Optimus Prime thundering along a British motorway with several of his Autobots huddled in the trailer. For the explanation of why they are on the other side of the Atlantic, we’re shown a flashback to recent events where the Autobots were the honoured guests of the citizens of Pinewoodsville, USA. All had been going well until a freak malfunction caused the Autobots to attack the humans and one another. All the goodwill they had built up with the townsfolk evaporated. Once the madness passed, Optimus Prime had ordered Prowl, Jazz, Mirage and Sideswipe, to accompany him to Britain where the signal which altered their behaviour originated.

At the same time the Decepticons had also been affected. In their case the signal made them friendly and docile; they even started apologising to humans for trashing their town! Afterwards Megatron was furious and ordered his Decepticons to locate the ‘Autobot’ device that they thought must be responsible for the hack.

We learn that trigger for these personality changes is a top-secret prototype called PARD – the Purnel Auto-Reverse Defence system. It has been invented by one Professor Purnel to reprogram missiles and turn them against their sender. Its waves had literally covered the globe even being felt in the US. Purnel’s Nazi sounding assistant Zeke Heilmann turns out to be a spy who intends to steal the PARD technology.

Prime is injured by a direct hit from Starscream’s missile and is then attacked by his fellow Autobots as another wave from PARD hits them. After it wears off Starscream tries to press the advantage against the wounded Optimus, but his circuits are still scrambled and he starts picking up errant TV broadcasts, including Coronation Street (!!). This is an even weirder cameo than when Richard Branson featured in the TFUK story Salvage a couple of years later.

Jazz arrives at Purnel’s headquarters to find it on fire and Heilmann escaping with the computer core. He hops into Jazz, believing the Porsche to be a getaway vehicle supplied by his employers and is captured by Starscream. Jazz can’t allow the technology to fall into Decepticon hands, so he lobs a rocket at the Decepticon. Starscream transforms in mid-air, narrowly avoiding the heat seeker and Heilmann is blown up along with the computer chip.

Later the Autobots are driving home with the injured Optimus on their roofs. A passing family think Prime is an art sculpture until he waves at them!

The story shows that the Transformers are little more than machines that can be reprogrammed. It’s a serious vulnerability as super advanced robots should be easily capable of replicating anything the Professor has come up with and that’s a weakness of the story. This is also the first and only time we see the Autobots able to fly in their robot modes.

Also, in the annual is the text story The Beginning. Teenager Adam Reynolds tries to hack into Portland National Bank but instead accesses the Decepticon mainframe and uncovers a history of the Transformers war on Earth. It’s a more creative way than a straightforward ‘story so far’ and with a sting in the tail as Adam triggers a security protocol which sends one million volts coursing through his home PC, blowing it to bits!

The Return of the Transformers concerns Danny Philips, the boy rescued from an exploding bank by Inferno a year ago (that’s the same Inferno who isn’t destined to arrive on Earth for another two years in the main comic). He stumbles into a Decepticon-captured power plant and is rescued by Fireflight. Later, Superion demolishes his hotel to get to Starscream. The experience makes Danny realise that the Transformers are not the perfect beings he thought they were, and he throws his scrapbook about them into the sea. Superion as a liability has echoes of the Marvel US story Aerialbots Over America.

The third text story is State Games which is a nice prequel showing Megatron as a gladiator in the Cybertron province of Tarn. Sunstreaker is thrashed by him and is saved by another fighter, Optimus Prime. The games are a public distraction from a serious fuel shortage. However, war breaks out between rival cities. Optimus tries to get Overlord (who in this story is an ageing Autobot ex-ruler rather than a formidable Decepticon) and is guarded by Ravage and his brother Nightstalker. Nightstalker self-destructs when he comes under attack and Ravage switches sides to join Megatron’s new world order. As Megatron builds an army he is hailed, just as he was in the arena.

State Games is also a good read and fills in some of the back history to the civil war. It attempts to portray Megatron as more than a self-centred, power-hungry bully. He is a popular charismatic who’s able to sway hearts and minds and has a justification in trying to overthrow a corrupt and tired world order. In many ways this story is a precursor to 21st Century tales such as Eric Holmes’ 2007 Megatron Origin mini-series for IDW.

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