Pretender to the Throne!

Optimus Prime returns from the dead as a video game character, just in time to witness the launch of a new breed of Transformer – the Pretenders…

The cover of Transformers US #40 featuring the new Pretenders

April 1988 saw Marvel UK going potty for the Pretenders. No, not the eighties rock band fronted by Chrissie Hynde, the Autobot and Decepticon Pretenders were Transformers hiding inside giant humanoid or monster-alien shells.

They were the latest bright idea from Hasbro as part of their perpetual quest to push new products and if it all sounds a bit far-out and wacky, well it was. We’d previously had concepts that pushed the envelope a bit like transforming heads and weapons here but the Headmasters and Targetmasters were at least recognisably Transformers. Pretenders were not, although I suppose that was the point.

The shells, though a chunk of plastic, were the main attraction and the robot inside – skinny and unimpressive with a poor transformation – seemed like an afterthought. I’d still take them over the Action Masters which came later, but that’s not saying much.

It wasn’t only the toys – the Pretenders were flawed as a concept too. I mean, a 30-foot human is not the most inconspicuous disguise, and if a gigantic monster came at you with a sword or gun, you’d probably open fire anyway regardless of whether you realised it was a Decepticon.

Despite these being one Hasbro idea that should never have got off the drawing board, the Transformers comic dutifully does its best to talk up the latest big event. By the time of issue 162’s release, we’d had a couple of weeks of build-up, and the hype was in full flow.

Jeff Anderson’s cover depicts Cloudburst, one of the new Autobots, and the character also adorns on a sticker badge ‘free gift’ that readers are encouraged to detach and “wear with pride.” This would be followed by a competition to win 50 of the new toys.

As you can tell, I was somewhat unimpressed by the Pretenders so you would imagine I refused to buy any of them, right? Err, well not exactly. I hate to admit it but being a Transformers superfan I shelled out for all the new releases, and in this case invested in Skullgrin who seemed the best of the bunch. The Decepticon Pretenders were visually much more interesting that the rather bland Autobots.

I think over time the Pretender toys got better, such as the Beasts and the Classics (I also owned a Pretender Bumblebee and Snarler) but this first wave was underwhelming. In the UK only six of the original twelve were released, and for once I was not envious of our American cousins.

So, what of the story Pretender to the Throne? The first thing to note is that there is no would-be king seeking a throne as the name suggests. The title has been chosen for no other reason than it’s a well-known phrase containing the word ‘Pretender’, so a bit more product emphasis (as I said Marvel was trying hard). Ironically, although this is their debut story, the Pretenders are pretty much incidental to the plot, which is about Optimus Prime returning from the dead as a computer game character. This is actually a saving grace for the story as it’s far more interesting.

It begins in a “reality different from our own” where Optimus is at his heroic best, leading a group of Mechabots into battle against the evil Bombasticons. With the inspiring leader of the Autobots at their side the battle is quickly won, and Prime stands victorious as ‘GAME OVER’ flashes across programmer Ethan Zachary’s screen. Long-term readers will remember Ethan as the guy who allowed Prime and Megatron to fight in his Multi-world simulation with tragic real-world consequences for the Autobot leader. At the conclusion of that 1987 story Afterdeath! we saw Ethan with a disc labelled ‘Optimus Prime’ which suggested he’d made a back-up of some sort and perhaps Prime’s death may be reversible.

Ethan is now a bigshot owner of his own games corporation and has even created an early precursor to the webcam – a camera peripheral that allows Optimus to see the real world outside cyberspace. He show’s Optimus the day’s paper and a photograph of Scorponok’s Decepticons seizing a genetics lab. Prime doesn’t recognise them, and questions Ethan on whether they are opponents in the next game.

There’s a fun scene where Ethan recovers an image of Buster Witwicky from Prime’s memories, then tracks down a number for Sparkplug only for Buster’s dad to slam the phone down (so angry is he with the Autobots for endangering his family) with Optimus remarking that some players are “sore losers,” which is hilarious and also incredibly apt for his current level of self-awareness.

On board the Autobot spacecraft ‘Steelhaven’, orbiting the Earth, we see that Goldbug has been gifted a new body, which is surely a relief for his many fans among the readership, after he was transplanted into a toy car and crushed by Ratbat. The Autobots are aware of the call from Ethan thanks to a listening device that Spike left at his father’s apartment previously (sneaky) and so it’s a good opportunity for Goldbug to hop on a shuttle to Earth and try out his new form while investigating.

He finds Ethan and asks if he is psychic, seeing as he “claims he can talk to the dead!” Moments later Goldbug is stunned to see Optimus Prime alive and well inside the computer intranet. If Prime could command the Autobots in battle again, Goldbug thinks it might snap him back to full consciousness. Instead, Ethan sends Prime through the grid to invade the Decepticon-ensnared genetics lab and spy on their enemies where, by coincidence, they are poised to initiate Scorponok’s latest mad-science experiment.

Positioned in front of Lord Zark and Vorath (heads of Scorponok and Mindwipe respectively) are six Decepticon volunteers stood within ‘synthoplasmic chambers’, which crackle into life and coat the warriors in synthetic flesh and tissue. The Decepticon Pretenders – Iguanus, Sub Marauder, Skull Grin, Bugly and Finback – are born, with virtual Optimus getting a ringside seat.

Prime is detected by Vorath (who refers to their ‘file wall’ being breached, most likely he means firewall, let’s not forget that in the late 80s this would not be a widespread term) and repelled with a data surge. Scorponok orders the intruder to be tracked down and eliminated, and Prime formulates an appropriate response to the threat – which is that the Autobots must create six characters of their own (how convenient).

Thus, ends the first instalment, which at 12 pages of story is one more than usual (all part of the Pretender giveaway fest we’re assured) and part two opens with Brainstorm having hastily reproduced Scorponok’s experiment and found six willing volunteers of their own – Landmine, Cloudburst, Waverider, and three that were not released as toys in the UK, Groundbreaker, Sky High and Splashdown. Readers are asked to believe that these six were always part of the Steelhaven crew, though we’ve never seen or heard from them before.

With a trap set for the Decepticons, Prime decides to he must bait it by travelling back into the Decepticon computer and luring them to Ethan’s lab. Goldbug is fearful that Prime could be terminated by a protection program but he is showing more courage and leadership than he has up to now, so they’ve got to see the plan through.

It’s fun to see Prime as a game character moving across cyberspace and an original idea with quite a lot of potential. The gaps in his memories also strengthens the idea that not all his original mind was able to be retained on the disk, which makes sense given that floppy disks in 1988 could store about 1MB of data and not even scrape the surface of a robot with millions of years of existence. That’s a hell of a Winzip.

Scorponok suspects that something strange is afoot and orders Vorath to input him into cyberspace, setting up the mouth-watering prospect of Prime versus the Decepticon Headmaster leader. It’s also nice to see RAAT forces surrounding the lab in a nice throwback to past stories, and even better to see them getting routed by the Decepticon Pretenders (at least RAAT were fooled that they weren’t robots).

The Decepticon Pretenders fly to Ethan’s lab where they spy six giant humans standing guard. This ought to set alarm bells ringing, considering that they are about five or six times the size of your average human, but Scorponok assures them (ridiculously) that it simply means their cowardice is greater! This gives the Autobot Pretenders the opportunity to ‘reveal and roll out’, separating from their shells and mentally controlling the shells to double their fighting force.

Optimus is able to watch the battle via a video link with Goldbug, which glitches for a short time leaving the Autobot Pretenders in disarray, but Prime saves the day by subjecting Scorponok to a data surge and defeating him and then commanding the Autobots to victory of the Decepticon Pretenders who retreat.

Ethan and Goldbug are delighted, and Optimus Prime believes he has discovered a renewed purpose as a warrior and a leader before asking, “when is the next game?” Oh dear.

This is to be Ethan’s final appearance in the comic, so we can assume that he hands over the disk of Optimus Prime to Goldbug. In closing, we get zero development from any of the new Pretender characters, but you imagine that Bob Budiansky has done just enough to get the suited Hasbro executive off his back for now. Unlike the Headmasters who seem to have made the comic their own, the Pretenders are quickly forgotten about, though unfortunately the concept is here to stay.

Next issue, from monsters to the undead, it’s one of my favourite 1988 stories and one that was made for Dan Reed’s art – the City of Fear.

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