Meltdown!

The countdown is on until Cybertron itself is ripped apart by Megatron’s unstable engines, but salvation may be coming in the unlikeliest of forms as the Autobots and Decepticon unite against Flame

A powerful cover by Marvel UK artist Jerry Paris illustrates the predicament that the Cybertron Autobots find themselves in. Xaaron, Ultra Magnus and the Wreckers, while not actually caught in the clutched fist of the rogue Autobot scientist Flame, are in that bind metaphorically, as captives of his zombie army.

Until last issue that army included the Wreckers’ former (now deceased) leader Impactor, who was also reanimated by Flame’s computer mainframe, but has started to regain some echoes of his consciousness. As the Transformation (intro) page for Transformers UK 168 memorably puts it: ‘Old soldiers don’t die, they get reanimated by insane Autobot scientists.’ Impactor wants revenge on the guy who interrupted his eternal rest, and you get the impression that he will play a pivotal role in what is coming next.

Meltdown, which was published by Marvel UK in June 1988, with art by Robin Smith and story by the prolific Simon Furman, is the third and final instalment of what has been a quirky and offbeat tale. It utilises a cast of Cybertron bots and cons that Furman has assembled and it a great example of the expanded story that the writer has created to fill the gaps between material from the comic’s US sister title (this is because the UK comic was weekly, and the US was monthly.)

These days it is not unheard of to have bad Autobots and noble Decepticons, I mean just look at efforts to recast Megatron as a heroic/tragic revolutionary against an oppressive Autobot State in the modern era. However, in the Eighties things were by and large nice and simple: the Autobots were the good guys and Decepticons the were the villains, so Meltdown is memorable for having an Autobot as the arch baddie. It also shows that bad apples are present on both sides.

The story begins with a recap of what’s happened so far, as told from the perspective of Flame’s computer briefing him on the threat level, and finally a countdown to the firing of the vast engines that will relaunch Cybertron as a mobile dreadnought.

As a minor point, having been told in Legion of the Lost that the events happened ‘three weeks’ before City of Fear, we’re now back to counting time in the Cybertronian vernacular established by Bob Budiansky way back in the 1986 classic, The Smelting Pool, by counting down in ‘breems’ (each one equivalent to eight point three earth minutes).

Robin Smith does a nice job of depicting Flame as a garish nightmare of a robot, utterly self-obsessed and hell bent on reviving an insane idea from Cybertron’s history so that the planet can sail the heavens with himself at the helm, everyone in awe at his achievement. The fact that a good chunk of the planet would be extinguished in the process is by the by.

The rest of the issue is mostly about getting the cast assembled and into place. Springer leads Ultra Magnus and the Sparkler Mini-bots below ground, with Sizzle still whinging about Magnus’ decision to send Flywheels, a Decepticon prisoner, for help. Magnus is charitable in the circumstances and explains that Flywheels is the only one with a jet mode and access to reinforcements, but he equally could have put this upstart back in his place. In a war situation and high stakes there’s no room for petty bickering and questioning superiors.

Below ground Broadside is about to find himself a meal for a hungry Zombie when Impactor intervenes with his trademark harpoon, decapitating the foe. He leaves armed with the information that Flame caused this situation and Broadside gets access to the armoury, which is likely to be extremely useful.

Xarron meanwhile confronts Flame, an old colleague who is still holding a millions-of-years-old grudge against him. When reason fails, Xarron tries to intervene and switch off the reactor, prompting one of the memorable moments of the issue as Flame transforms into his fire cannon mode. We learn that Xaaron also has a combat vehicle mode, but he hasn’t used it in several centuries – the shock of transforming may kill him. It’s a nice twist. I suppose it’s like asking a very elderly and long retired athlete to run a marathon.

With the Wreckers tooled-up, the zombie army is becoming manageable, so Flame’s computer takes defensive measures by sealing the reactor off with blast doors. The opening instalment ends with Springer and Broadside making a dash for the surface to get “stuff” from Autobase that can cut through, only to find their paths blocked by the biggest, most deadly Decepticon of all – Trypticon!

It’s a welcome, if totally unexpected, return for this character, who became an instant fan favourite at his debut in the 1987 story King of the Hill and sets the scene nicely for the conclusion.

This of course begins with Jeff Anderson’s cover depicting Trypticon ‘partying’ at the expense of the zombie hordes. His arrival has the potential to tip the balance heavily in the favour of Flame’s opponents, but first we’ve got three pages of Xaaron dodging blasts from Flame, attempting to transform, and finally reasoning with Flame again, so basically a rehash of scenes from the previous issue.

In the battle of the Wreckers versus the blast doors, it’s the doors that are holding firm. Magnus asks where Springer and Broadside are with the heavy artillery, only to get the answer in the shape of the monstrous Trypticon advancing towards them.

Springer and Broadside appear with Flywheels – who apparently could not get reinforcements in terms of numbers, so he settled for the biggest Decepticon of the lot. Then a memorable line from Flywheels, “Trypticon get the door,” sees the giant Decepticon headbutt the doors down and they are in (with zombie Impactor following close behind).

Magnus makes light work of Flame and the Autobots argue about who should be the one to undertake the surely fatal trip inside the reactor to switch it off. Xaaron is their talismanic elder and too important to sacrifice, but before Magnus or Springer can go in, they are forced to repel more of Flame’s zombies. This is the scene that the cover is based on.

Flame, having been an irritating pain in the arse for the last four issues, finally gets his comeuppance, as he’s about to launch himself at Xaaron and gets harpooned through the head by Impactor. The ex-Wrecker leader then becomes the one to enter the reactor and shut it off, getting torn apart in the process. As the Autobots and Decepticons escape to the planet surface, the engines destroy themselves, and the Xaaron pays tribute to Impactor – the Autobot who “died twice” so that others may live.

In closing it’s a satisfying conclusion to the story. Sure, it’s in many ways predictable, but there are a few unexpected turns, such as the return of Impactor and Trypticon, and some great moments like Xaaron attempting his transformation and Flame’s fire tank, to keep things exciting. It’s no surprise that the City of Fear saga is a fan favourite from the original Marvel run.

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