The Headmasters make their UK Transformers debut in a Simon Furman story where Highbrow must learn to work together with his Nebulan partner Gort to save themselves from the pinchers of Scorponok!
September 1987. The Marvel UK Transformers comic goes head over heels for Headmasters! For several weeks leading up to issue #130 readers were promised a big celebration to mark the arrival of this new breed of Autobot and Decepticon and pulls out the stops with a free gift dataset (a sliding card thing dedicated to the new characters) and giving away 250 videos as competition prizes; but best of all as far as I was concerned as a 13-year-old fan at the time, was the mouth-watering prospect of ‘wall to wall Transformers stories’ as the the back-up strip was a Transformers story for the first time.
In fact for the next 16 weeks the comic would be reprinting the US Headmasters mini-series and it all started with Ring of Hate this issue – the story of how the Transformers brought their war to the peaceful planet of Nebulos.
I’d become aware of the new toys in the summer of ’87 after stopping by a local toy store and eventually collected all of the first wave of Headmasters with the exception of Fortress Maximus, who was never released in the UK, and the Horrorcons. I had Crosshairs from the Targetmaster range too. Admittedly the name ‘Headmasters’ is a little awkward for a UK audience. It’s the word kids would associate with their head teacher and that might make the new characters just a little less cool! In the US (Hasbro’s main market) the name probably had no such connotations as their schools are run by principals or deans, right?
These toys were the figure major revolution from Hasbro since the introduction of the Special Teams and it was inevitable they would debut in the comic to considerable fanfare.
With the back-up strip dealing with the origins of the Headmasters/Targetmasters, Simon Furman’s World’s Apart story acts as a segway into the world of these new Autobot and Decepticons who dwell on the distant planet Nebulos. It’s not entirely clear where the story sits within the Headmasters continuity. I’m guessing its somewhere in between Zarak setting the Autobot Headmasters free and their actual departure for Earth. In the US story that seemed to be a fair rapid sequence but perhaps it was more drawn out than is apparent. Worlds Apart is notable for the absence of Fortress Maximus, the Autobot Headmaster leader who is not part of the UK toy range, and this leaves for a nemesis for Scorponok which is filled somewhat unexpectedly by Highbrow.
We’re introduced to Nebulos, a ‘lush beautiful world whose inhabitants knew only peace, happiness and prosperity’ and told that the calm has been shattered by the sound of an age-old conflict. Enter the four Autobot Headmasters – Hardhead, Chromedome, Brainstorm and Highbrow – dodging laser beams and explosions.
Chromedome notes that their ‘simple rescue mission’ has gone pear-shaped. They are attacked from the air by the jet forms of Apeface and Snapdragon, and ambushed on the ground by Weirdwolf and Skullcruncher. Mindwipe shows off his unusual and effective ability to hypnotise an opponent – in this Brainstorm – to crash into his colleague Hardhead, who transforms to robot mode holding his head. However, Chromedome shakes off his pursuers and has time to transform and shoots the Horrorcons down. He’s about to end up in Snapdragon’s jaws when Highbrow intervene with a well timed blast. The Autobots recover and score an unlikely victory as Mindwipe stages a fake retreat.
We start to learn a bit more about the Headmasters’ personalities as Highbrow establishes himself as serious and cautious, and a source of irritation for the more gung-ho Hardhead, who dismisses talk of a trap. We find out that the team were on their way to rescue their Targetmaster colleagues, Sureshot, Pointblank and Crosshairs, from the Decepticons. They have no choice but to push on, trap or not.
Highbrow gets interrupted in mid sentence as his Nebulan partner Gort reasserts himself. The head detaches and transforms into Gort in a robotic exo-suit, who speaks to Chromedome’s partner Stylor and bemoans his lack of compatibility with Highbrow. Furman has spotted some potential for that essential story ingredient ‘conflict’ in the Highbrow/Gort partnership, and how they overcome that is the crux of Worlds Apart. It’s predictable – you know they’ll overcome their differences and work together to save the day – but it’s still an enjoyable journey. We also learn at this point, via flashbacks, that the Nebulans had agreed to partner with the Autobots, sharing a united mind, to save the planet from the impending arrival of the Decepticons – and we get our first glimpse of the Nebulan leader Galen.
The group arrives at the Decepticon’s notorious Fortress of Despair (which sounds to me like something out of a Dungeons & Dragons cartoon episode). They find the doors open – all very suspicious – and proceed with caution. In a main chamber they find their Targetmaster comrades suspended above.
Sureshot, miscoloured in purple and magenta, shouts a warning for them to get out of there – it’s not the Targetmaster process the Decepticons are having trouble with, it’s their Headmaster conversion. These three are the bait… and right on cue a bulkhead is blown apart and the Decepticon Targetmasters file in accompanied by feared Decepticon leader, Scorponok! (He has no mercy you know…) Interestingly you can see Cyclonus and Scourge in silhouette. No doubt their presence will have been confusing for readers but we’ll find out in the 1988 Legacy of Unicron epic how they came to be here.
Part two begins with another great Lee Sullivan cover (of Highbrow trapped in Scorponok’s pinchers) to accompany Will Simpson’s pencils on the strip. The story resumes, this time from Scorponok’s eye view as the Autobots below him are in shock at his sudden arrival. However the Decepticon leader is not here to do battle. He requires an Autobot Headmaster to dissect, which suggests Scorponok is possessed of scientific abilities as well as deadly strength and stature, and chooses Highbrow as his unlucky victim.
He scuttles away with the Autobot in his pinchers, leaving the Decepticon Target Masters – Cyclonus, Scourge, Triggerhappy, Slugslinger and Misfire – to dispose of the others. It’s five versus three but the Headmasters quickly even the odds by freeing Sureshot, Pointblank, Crosshairs (curiously their Nebulan companions have been imprisoned alongside them and are able to quickly become their weapons). The Autobots now have the numbers advantage.
A short distance away Scorponok taunts Highbrow, who appears to have given up, to fight back a bit for goodness sake. When Highbrow speaks it is with two contradicting voices. Scorponok understands in an instant that his captive is about as far from an ideal specimen as he could find, however perhaps he can learn something here after all?
A quick flashback to the battle sees the Autobots making light work of their Decepticon opponents – and with Cyclonus and Scourge easily also disposed of (so much for these two being the match for one hundred Autobots as Galvatron boasted in Target: 2006). Chromedome sets off to rescue Highbrow.
Meanwhile, Scorponok transforms to robot mode. He understands now that the Headmaster process itself is sound but the problem lies in the pairing. Match the cerebral and aloof Highbrow with cheerful and brash Gort and they can’t get along. Now Scorponok will put them both out of their misery – or will he? Chromedome arrives in the nick of time and battles the giant Decepticon, opening fire, throwing sand in his face and dodging rocks and pincher blows. As he fights he tells Gort how he and Stylor are very different but are united by a common cause. Gort pulls himself together and bonds with Highbrow. As one, they fight with renewed vigour and Scorponok is caught by surprise. He flees to plan anew, calling the other Decepticons to his side.
Finally it seems that Highbrow and Gort have found some common ground with which to move forward. They may be ‘worlds apart’ in their thinking but they know that they can be a force for truth and justice. And that, says Highbrow, is what being a Headmaster is all about.
In summary, this issue is a turning point in the saga of the Transformers, heralding the biggest influx of new characters since the Special Teams. In addition to the Headmasters and Target Masters we have the new leaders – Fortress Maximus and Scorponok. Truth be told, Worlds Apart is enjoyable but feels less consequential that the back-up storyline which is the real meat of the saga. Ironically, it’s more significant than it appears as it establishes the Scorponok/Highbrow rivalry which we’ll see more of in the 1988 Annual and the later story, Time Wars. The Headmasters and Targetmasters have arrived and Transformers won’t be the same again.