Trial by Fire!

Joy of joy, the Headmasters arrive on Earth but it’s a bittersweet moment as tragedy strikes… and Spike Witwicky makes his comic breakthrough.

In the 1980s, Transformers fans were mostly divided between those who celebrated the Sunbow cartoons and considered them canon, and that other more sophisticated bunch (at least we thought so) who worshipped at the altar of the comics. As much as I enjoyed the cartoon, I was firmly in the latter camp.

The cartoon had its classics – Heavy Metal War and War Dawn being two – but a lot of it was light entertainment. Whereas the comic seemed to set the bar consistently higher, with sublime stories like Target 2006 and The Smelting Pool (admittedly there was the odd dodgy number, like Car Wash of Doom).

The Marvel UK letters pages, hosted by Soundwave and then Grimlock, enjoyed taking a poke at the cartoons and insisting that the comic had the greater claim to being considered canon. It dismissed Spike Witwicky as a figment of the cartoon’s imagination, at best their version of our own Buster Witwicky.

So, as UK issue 156 rolls around in March 1988, the editorial team finds themselves eating humble pie, forced to acknowledge that Spike not only exists within the comic universe but that he’s about to play a major role from here onwards.

The game changer here is (as always) Hasbro, omnipresent owner of the Transformers brand. They’ve released a Fortress Maximus toy that has Spike as its Headmaster partner, so of course that means Spike must now appear in the comic.

The trouble is that, in the 3-4 years since we met the Witwickys, Spike has never been mentioned once. So what to do? Writer Bob Budiansky comes up with the explanation that Spike is Buster’s older brother and he has been at college these past four years. In that time nobody thought to tell him of the family’s close involvement in the Transformers war. That’s pretty lame but probably the best Bob could come up with on the spot. The Transformation page in #156 notes that if readers think Spike’s arrival at the same time as the Headmasters is purely coincidental, they ought to know better.

Trial by Fire opens with Fortress Maximus on the operating table, undergoing enhancing surgery to double his size, as the Headmasters’ ship ‘Steelhaven’ warps from Nebulos to Earth. Max seems to have gone from being this focal point and the conscience of the Autobot cause during the Headmasters mini-series, to now being a barely speaking tool of war whose Nebulan partner Galen does all the talking for him.

It’s unclear how much time has passed since the Autobots left Nebulos with Lord Zarak and the Decepticons in pursuit, but it’s time enough for Galen to have had a major personality reset. Gone is the compassionate, committed pacifist and in his place is a focused, single-minded warrior, intent on achieving victory in the Transformer war. Ironically, Galen is reminiscent of how Zarak was after bonding with Decepticon leader Scorponok. ‘If war is their fate, they must accept it and do all they can to win’ is the new mantra.

Galen can sense the awesome new power of Fortress Maximus, ‘power enough to destroy the Decepticons once they reach Earth’ and that’s as good a plug for the Fort Max toy as any (sadly, like so much else in the toy range, he wasn’t on sale in the UK). Galen’s lack of concern for the fact that Earth is teeming with innocent life jars with Autobot values – it’s the very opposite of Optimus Prime for example – and there’s a sense that momentary abandoning of responsibilities will come back to bite.

On Earth, Spike arrives at the scene of devastation that was his dad’s auto garage. When we last saw Sparkplug, he was at the mercy of Ratbat and the Predacons so you immediately fear the worst. Thankfully Bob doesn’t drag things out. He has Sparkplug reappear almost immediately, having been pulled from the rubble ‘off camera’ and thankfully unscathed. He’s able to quickly bring Spike up to speed about their connection with the Transformers and how Buster had gone to Mount St Hillary to find the Autobots.

Spike resolves to find his brother. Luckily, he knows the way, as we’re told he used to play in the Mount St Hillary caves as a kid, though this seems a stretch when you consider that it’s a two-hour drive away (a vacation perhaps?).

He’s at the cave and marvelling at the ginormous machinery left behind when the Ark departed, when the five Autobot Headmasters arrive. They discover the battered toy-car form of Goldbug and Chromedome patches himself in and projects images from Goldbug’s memory of Ratbat attacking and carrying off Buster. Fortress Maximus squashes suggestions of a rescue, as outside their mission parameters, and the first part ends with Spike emerging from his hiding place to protest.

Part two establishes Spike and Galen as the story’s key dynamic.

Spike feels that the Autobots, as ‘the good guys’, are obligated to help him find Buster. When Fortress Maximus refuses, he is accused (by Spike) of being a cold-hearted machine and Galen reveals himself as flesh and blood, the man in the machine. They may be alike physically, but they have very different priorities. Galen insists that the needs of the many outweigh those of an individual, and they all depart leaving Spike to camp down for the night, alone.

Next, the Decepticon craft emerges from hyperspace (if the vessel has a name, readers are not privy to it). As if to illustrate his all-around rottenness, Galen’s opposite number Lord Zarak sees no beauty in the Earth and dismisses their new home as ‘flyspeck mudball’. He’s impatient to get to the surface and track down the Autobots, who are most likely to be found near the source of Goldbug’s distress signal in the cave which formerly housed the Ark.

They make their way down (do they skydive from orbit like the Autobots? I’m surprised they don’t melt) and Mindwipe identifies the source of the interstellar signal that brought them to Earth. Spike can tell that these guys are bad news, and when they aren’t looking he hits a switch to reactivate Goldbug’s distress call, knowing that the Autobots will come back and he can warn them.

It does the trick but not before Spike is discovered and is shot at before being trapped and menaced by Scorponok. Luckily for Spike the Autobot Headmasters arrive in the nick of time and the two sides pick up where they left off on Nebulos – except this time Fortress Maximus is bigger and more powerful. Soon the battle is turning in the direction of the Autobots. Scorponok needs an advantage, and the sight of Spike’s blanket presents an opportunity.

Spike flees into the caverns, finding himself at the molten core of the volcano (!) as Scorponok closes in. Fortress Maximus spies Scorponok’s absence from the fight and pursues, but his enlarged form is too big to get through the caves and so he detaches as the regular sized Cerebros. The smaller Autobot attacks Scorponok and his head transforms into Galen who takes on Zarak. The pair fight on a rock bridge just metres above a molten lava river. Their titanic struggle has come to this moment, thousands of light years from their native Nebulos.

Zarak is pinned down but wily as ever. He radio-commands Scorponok to blast the rock above Spike. Galen heroically pushes Spike out of the way and takes the impact of the boulders himself. Mortally wounded, but at last restored to full nobility, Galen instructs Spike to take his helmet so that his death will not be in vain.

Then, in an incredible closing page which packs and amazing amount into 10 panels, Scorponok is topside and turning the tide of the battle when Fortress Maximus arrives very much alive and ready to fight. Spike wears Galen’s helmet and controls Max now – he unleashes the power of the Headmaster leader on the Decepticons, who beat a swift retreat.

Finally, as the Autobots get clear, there’s a spectacular explosion/eruption at Mount St Hillary, signifying a fitting tribute to their lost leader Galen and, Hardhead suggests, a suitable welcome to their new commander, Spike Witwicky! Wowzers!

In closing, it’s a fine story – brilliant to see the Headmaster cast on Earth but so frustrating and sad to see the end of Galen. He’s been effectively killed off and replaced by his omission from the toyline, which is a real shame as he had a lot more developing to do. How would Galen have settled on Earth, how would his feud with Zarak have played out, would he ever have returned to Nebulos to clear his name and reunite with his lost love, Llyra?

Sadly, this is the last we’ll see of Galen. A main character in the Headmasters mini-series but not destined to play a role in the saga now that the cast has arrived on Earth. However, the question of how Spike will cope with being thrust into the forefront of the war is also an intriguing prospect, and one we’ll get a chance to explore in the next instalment, the Desert Island of Space. At this point in its run, the Marvel Transformers comic is really going from strength to strength.

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