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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