Crater Critters

Blaster and Goldbug encounter the Decepticon Triple Changers and pick-up a nasty infection of Scraplets!

‘Trouble times three!’ declares the cover of Transformers #123 alongside spiffy art by Lee Sullivan depicting the Decepticon Triple Changers – Octane, Blitzwing and Astrotrain – in a Charlies Angels pose.

It’s a great cover and feels like trio are making their comics debut. In one sense they are. Their appearance in this issue’s story Crater Critters is their first in an American storyline, and their first time on Earth of course. However, UK readers will have seen them in action already in the totemic Target: 2006, and Octane famously made a cowardly run for it in Resurrection.

When you consider that Bob Budiansky was constantly introducing Hasbro toy releases as new characters in his stories, its perhaps surprising that he took so long to feature these three (and he would never get around the the Autobot Triple Changers at all!). Blitzwing and Astrotrain were part of the 1985 Hasbro toy line and Octane was released a year later, so they’d been around for a while when this story came out in mid 1987.

As good as the cover is, it’s a little misleading as this is not a story with the Decepticon Triple Changers as the main characters. Instead they are supporting cast and the Autobot deserters Blaster and Goldbug are focus. At the end of Mechanical Difficulties, having failed again to capture the Mechanic and recover the stolen Autobot tools, the pair had made a major life-changing decision, seemingly on the spur of the moment and born out of frustration, to repudiate their tyrannical leader Grimlock by quitting the Autobot army.

As we join them in this story they are attempting to carve out a role as a Decepticon-fighting dynamic duo and in order to survive they need fuel – hence why they go to G.B. Blackrock seeking help. They’ve had a bit of time to reflect and perhaps take in the ramifications of their choices, and it’s interesting to see a change in Blaster’s personality in this story. He’s more snappy with Goldbug and is on edge. He’s fearful that his companion, who he hasn’t properly got to know yet, might drop him and run back to the Autobots. And of course Bob engineers a situation in the story where those doubts are brought to the fore.

Blaster was, lest we forget, something of a loner and a rebel on Cybertron. He disliked the methods and caution of resistance leader Perceptor and openly questioned his orders, even disobeying them when it came to rescuing Scrounge. This may have impacted his standing with his fellow Autobots but there was no suggestion of punishment from Perceptor, however Grimlock is a different kettle of fish, and Blaster knows it. Goldbug appears more level headed and has walked into the situation with his eyes open.

Crater Critters begins with a spacecraft crash-landing in a barren part of the American South West. As the dust settles over the huge crater which results from the impact, a barely functioning mechanoid claws his way to the rim before falling backwards. A nut detaches from a hole in the robot’s hand and appears to partially transform to reveal a head with gnashing teeth! It’s our first glimpse of a Scraplet… and unlike the fat overalls-wearing Mechanic, this new menace is a far more chilling threat to the Transformers. They literally eat robots from the inside out!

Goldbug and Blaster stake out a very exclusive restaurant hoping to spot the oil tycoon GB Blackrock. Sure enough the billionaire soon appears with a snooty young lady on his arm and sees the familiar-looking yellow/gold Volkswagen pull up behind his limo. Cue some comedic scenes as Blackrock invites the Autobot to take a hike and Goldbug insists they talk by part running over poor GB’s foot, then ruining his evening when he’s forced to suggest to to his dinner date that he’ll drive her home in the VW rather than the limo!

Later at a Blackrock petrol station, Goldbug receives a top up of fuel and introduces GB to Blaster, revealing that they are now operating independently of the Autobots. Their new leader Grimlock is a “mechanical moron” as Blaster delicately puts in. GB is unsure whether to trust the pair, after all he’s never met Blaster and ‘Bumblebee’ looks different to before. Cue Blaster losing his getting in GB’s face and aggressively protesting that he’s not soft on Decepticons, backing this up with a recap about the sad death of Scrounge.

It’s all a bit odd and erratic, and would normally ring a few alarm bells. Goldbug doesn’t help matters by expresses surprise that Blaster allowed a fellow Autobot to die. Blaster insists that he would not allow the same fate to befall Goldbug – but if his colleague doubts that then he is welcome to turn-tail and run back to Grimlock. Ouch.

It’s quite possible that hanging around with a smaller yellow Autobot is bringing back painful memories for Blaster of his last partner in crime, who of course met a tragic end in the fires of the Decepticon smelting pool (a fantastic story and well worth a read).

Blackrock informs the pair of the strange radio signals coming out of the crater! Thinking this is the opportunity they’ve been waiting for, the pair immediately roar off to investigate, leaving poor GB Blackrock stranded at his own petrol station in the middle of the night!

Light-years away on Cybertron, the Triple Changers are summoned to the office of the Decepticon fuel auditor Ratbat and informed that an important package, sent via low energy cost space freighter, reached Earth but there has been no word from the pilot. In the circumstances Ratbat is compelled to reactivate the spacebridge and send the triple-changers to Earth to find out what has happened and bring the secret cargo online. The mission will involves enlisting the help of wealthy and high profile human, preferably connected to the automotive industry. No prizes for guessing who that might be!

Budiansky’s Ratbat is a show stealer. He talks in management speak and is obsessed with the bottom line cost of each mission. Far from being just another Soundwave cassette as he could have been, Bob is taking the character under his wing (pun intended) as he’s done with the likes of Shockwave, Ratchet, Blaster and Skids previously, and will make him a main character, even installing him as the next Decepticon leader. Few will have seen that coming.

At the Arizona impact site, a team of scientists from the federal government are there to investigate. Scientist Charlie Fong is aching to get down there and is admonished by a superior for his impatience. A bright light heralds the arrival of the space bridge and the Triple Changers take to the sky in plane modes and order the humans back. Next they land on the crater floor and approach the barely functioning pilot. They ignore his pleas for them to stay back, intending to meet out some punishment, but then Blitzwing cries out in pain as bolts strewn across the floor attach themselves to his foot!!

A few hours later, the National Guard have sealed off the area, and Charlie Fong thinks he will have to wait even longer to begin his research. He passes a VW Beetle which speaks to him. Charlie is then amazed when Goldbug and Blaster transform. His scientific curiosity prevents him from running away and the Autobots are able to convince him to help them get past the army blockade. He does so with a very silly explanation that the cassette deck Blaster is actually an adapted this seismometer to detect the robots’ movements. Incredibly, as its very obviously a tall story, the gullible troop allows them through even praising Charlie (in his thought bubble) for his bravery and selflessness.

The next week box and the cover for Transformers UK #124 gives the game away as to what’s coming next: Blaster is about to get a nasty dose of Scraplets! Will Simpson and John Burns produce another quality cover with a battered looking Blaster with a Scraplet shown in magnification. You can see it below right, and it’s interesting that the team could simply have recycled the cover from the US version but chose for some reason to do their own, although somebody must have liked the big green Scraplet as they’ve redrawn him on the UK version.

At the crater rim Blaster, Goldbug and Charlie quickly come under attack from the Triple Changers in the airborne modes but a few zaps from Blaster’s electro scrambler gun sends them into a spiral. Somehow Blitzwing succeeds in blasting out the cliff out from under Charlie and Goldbug moves swiftly to catch his human friend. The pair end up on the crater floor where they encounter the freighter pilot. He reveals that he’d been hired by the Decepticons to transport some cargo to Earth and had passed through what he thought was a dust cloud (actually the space-borne Scraplets) and got infected him. Moments later, in horror film style, his head promptly topples off his shoulders.

Charlie notices thousands of tiny creatures advancing on Goldbug. Since they are not interested in his organic life, he’s able to kick and swipe them away but there are a lot of them!

Back at the battle, the Triple Changers revert to vehicle modes and the tank Blitzwing (my favourite when I collected the three toys in the 1980s incidentally) opens fire, alerting the US army nearby. Considering its three against one, Blaster is holding his own. He heroically leaps clear as the charging Decepticons plough over the cliff, but a shot from Blitzwing’s cannon crumbles the cliff beneath Blaster sending him tumbling and into contact with Scraplets. Astrotrain reveals that they are all infected and as good as dead!

We find out that Scraplets have the ability to resemble harmless nuts, bolts and screws but are in fact the most deadly disease known to mechanical life forms in the galaxy. Octane reveals that the last outbreak on Cybertron, thousands of vorns ago (a vorn being 83 Earth years remember), was ended by the discovery of a cure, but its a very rare chemical on Cybertron which has been forgotten over time.

Blaster secretly radios Goldbug – in their weakened state they should be able to take the Decepticons on his signal. Goldbug agrees but Charlie argues that they must instead look for the cure or otherwise Blaster is dead already. Goldbug makes the painful decision to leave, and just hopes that Blaster will understand. But as Goldbug disappears up the side of the crater, Blaster (incandescent with rage), brands Goldbug a coward, and vows that after finishing these Decepticons he will come for him next.

Goldbug stops to look back, seriously conflicted a fearing he is leaving Blaster to die. At that moment a single Scraplet jumps onto Goldbug’s foot! Charlie desperately tries to pull off but can’t. Suddenly it splits in half creating two Scraplets – it is spreading!!

Hours later Goldbug is in desperate need of help, his bodywork riddled with Scraplets he admits that he can’t go on much further – but Charlie tells him to hold on, surely a town is nearby…. Half an hour later and Goldbug lets out a plea for help, his body is devastated, and begs not to be left to die in the middle of nowhere, especially not with Blaster thinking he was betrayed. Charlie has no answer, and offers no reassurance – he is silenced by despair….

In summary, it’s a shocking cliff-hanger as Blaster and Goldbug look doomed. Even a healthy Goldbug would have a job to find a cure with no clue as to what it might be. In his present state it looks like an impossible task. Unfortunately readers had wait an agonising TWO weeks for the next instalment as the Marvel UK comic’s Action Force crossover would provide an interlude in the following issue.

Despite some strange characterisation (Blaster really is a rogue figure these days), this story seems to have that special touch which has been missing from some of Budiansky’s recent work. The carefully introduced Scraplets really are a unique and original idea, and quite a fearsome prospect for any unsuspecting Transformer. It all amounts to one of the better US stories overall, and together with the sequel The Cure one of my favourite Blaster outings since the glorious Smelting Pool.

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