Space Pirates (parts 1, 2 and 3)

With their home-world coming apart at the scenes, the Quintessons launch a desperate plan to conquer Cybertron, starting with an assault on Autobot City

Simon Furman’s Space Pirates saga was published in issues #182 through to #187 of the Marvel UK Transformers comic, in September/October 1988. It’s another of the writer’s future epics using the cast and characters from the fan favourite Transformers animated movie. It’s one of the weaker future stories as far as I’m concerned, but after the truly terrible Big Broadcast of 2006 US story which preceded it, Space Pirates at least suggests a return to normal levels of story quality.

After 100 or issues since the last redesign, this was a moment for comic itself to ‘transform’. Out went the familiar page 2 design with the circuit board style border (which I really enjoyed) and a neat looking columns design which looked fresh. The masthead was enlarged, and the contents section done away with – but as the comic was only 24 pages anyway, how much use was it really?

The coming attractions half page has a redesign and Grimlock is out as the letter answerer, to be replaced by ‘Dread Tidings’ presented by one of the new Decepticon Powermasters, Dreadwind, and his Nebulan sidekick Hi-Test. He’s not an obvious choice, unlike say Soundwave, but on the other hand there’s something to said for having a bad guy as the letter answerer, some fun replies are to be expected.

The ‘handover’ from Grimlock to Dreadwind is satirised in a one-page Robo Capers special by the talented Lew Stringer (just like last time). And six pages of Lew’s Combat Colin strips are used as a stop gap in issue #183 until Marvel was ready to kick off the new (though quite temporary back-up strip) Visionaries. I think because the Visionaries comic had closed suddenly without completion. For me, not being particularly a fan of Action Force, I was happy to see a change of back-up strip. And Visionaries is a great 1980s cartoon, from Sunbow who also animated Transformers.

Story-wise, Space Pirates attempts to salvage a coherent narrative out of the nonsense that was BB2006, in which the Quintessons hypnotised half the universe to buy space for them to search for a canister on Junk. We never found out what the canister’s value was, so Simon has decided it contained secret plans for conquering other worlds. And the reason the Quintesson need a new home world is because theirs is suddenly and rapidly being torn apart by strange gravitational forces.

If plans had been transmitted across space by Quintesson agents and then stored in a canister, why not send them the rest of the journey by transmission? It makes no sense to encode them in a physical object that will take time to travel across space, particularly as the clock is ticking on Quintesson.

The story is set in 2008 (still futuristic destination for the readers of 1988) and the opens views of the Quintesson homeworld coming apart. Panic and desperation have set in on the planet, and given they’ve spent their time capturing and executing space farers over the years, one assumes they have little allies they can call on.

Whereas in the Movie the Quintessons were one-dimensional villains with a perverted idea of justice, the comic at least presents them as more of a regular state with scientists, military, and political leaders. One general called Ghyrik is dispatched to attack and secure their “primary target”, Autobot City, Earth, while General Jolup is to assemble the main fleet for an assault on Cybertron (their preferred choice for a new home world).

The Junkion leader Wreck-Gar, who we saw at the mercy of torturer last issue, remains their prisoner. He’s hauled into a court where a huge six-faced judge presides and where a previous defendant is being devoured by Sharkticons. Wreck-Gar has no wish to share this fate, and overpowers his guard, throwing him into the murky waters where the moronic Sharkticons rip him apart not realising he’s on their side. Wreck-Gar picks up a blaster from somewhere (it’s not clear where) and fights his way outside, escaping by boat. But while he’s navigating the rust sea hordes of Sharkticons attack the vessel from below the water.

Wreck-Gar, still talking TV, is engulfed by robotic carnivores as the Quintessons close in on Autobot City, ending the first part. Interestingly, there are no Transformers in this instalment at all, just Wreck-Gar and the Quintessons, I think this may be a first for the comic.

Part 2 opens with Arcee, rendered like a catwalk model by artist Dan Reed. She’s bored and decides to desert her post preferring a country drive to tedious guard duty. Naturally, this is just the time that Ghyrik launches his surprise attack. A ‘hi and die’ character called Hopper is blown to bits and Perceptor enquires as to whether Chase is still functioning following the attack (trouble is Chase has been coloured as Rollbar – oops). Sharkticon warriors breach the city walls and overpower the Autobots, with Blaster also gunned down before he can manually activate the city defences.

Back on the Quintesson Wreck-Gar repels his Sharkticon attackers with a burst of electricity, and Wheelie arrives overhead in a shuttle and pulls him aboard. With Wreck-Gar speaking TV and Wheelie’s entire dialog being spoken in rhyme, I can imagine the pair are challenging characters to write.

Part 2 concludes, predictably, with Arcee returning to the realisation, to her horror, that the city was attacked while she was goofing off. Rather than flee and raise the alarm she compounds her error by planning a surprise attack only to be cut down and captured. She is to be bait in a trap for the Autobot leader Rodimus Prime!

A couple of observations: it’s nice to see Arcee making her debut in the regular title, as well as Wheelie (previously both only appeared in the Movie adaptation.) Blaster appears in his TF Movie communications centre again and uses his line from the film, “they’re blitzing Autobot City”. Blaster is missing his trademark visor and for some reason seems a different character to the one Bob Budiansky writes so brilliantly. I feel like Simon can’t quite capture him.

Part 3, with a decent cover by Jerry Paris, is drawn by Dougie Braithwaite. The style is okay and very good in places – the final scene with the strung up Autobots for example, but Dougie’s faces are a bit cartoony for my tastes.

Rodimus has a frustrating call with the Junkions who have not seen hide not hair of Wreck-Gar and are still speaking in TV slogans (I can well imagine that gets irritating in a crisis). In recap, we learn something of why Prime is such close friends with Wreck-Gar, who he feels indebted to for helping them defeat Unicron not once but twice. The last Prime heard, Wreck-Gar was inbound, with news of a Quintesson threat to countless metallic worlds so top secret that he dares not speak it over an open comms channel.

On Earth, Ghyrik enjoys the views from Autobot City which are all the more sweet in light of his conquest. On Cybertron, phase two is in progress. A Quintesson agent had approached Decepticon commander Soundwave for help against the Autobots attacking their home world. Soundwave, falling for the ruse, decides the Autobot base on Cybertron will be vulnerable and rallies his key lieutenants for an assault, much to the pleasure of Lord Kledji on Quintesson, who sees the plans coming to fruition.

The only wildcard is Wreck-Gar, who has fled into hyperspace in a battle-damaged ship, which may yet blow up in his and Wheelie’s faces.

The issue ends with a surveillance droid relaying images to Prime and company, en-route to Earth, of their colleagues strung up on the walls like some medieval or biblical scene. This moment is up there with Shockwave’s ‘slabs of beef’ treatment of the Autobots way back in The New Order, and the decapitation of Cyclonus which is coming up. At this point the story seems to be warming up nicely.

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Altered Image

Shockwave deploys a re-programmed Megatron as the perfect agent to take down Galvatron, who surely would be unable to destroy his past-self

In the early years, Transformers annuals tended to run with standalone stories that were loosely connected to the main comics continuity and in some cases didn’t fit at all (for a good example see 1985’s ‘A Plague of Insecticons’, also famous for featuring Ronald Reagan).

But in 1988, just like the previous year, publishers Marvel and Grandreams have cottoned on that it makes much better business sense to tie at least one of the strips into the weekly Transformers comic and ensure crossover sales (to be fair though, most regular TF comic readers would buy both regardless).

In the previous year, the conclusion of the ‘Wanted Galvatron’ saga happened in the annual, and for 1988 it’s the pay-off of a story that’s been building for a while – the showdown between Megatron and his future self Galvatron.

Shockwave, who leads the Earthbound Decepticons in the present day (1988) had been badly rattled by an undersea encounter with Galvatron, where he was outsmarted and came close to losing his command.

He decided that he needed a powerful agent, somebody with the brute strength to defeat Galvatron, and only Megatron fitted the bill. He was also the perfect solution, as Galvatron – who has been hiding out in Earth’s past these last two years, since fleeing from 2006 – cannot possibly destroy Megatron without potentially erasing himself in the process. It’s a delicious conundrum, and a win-win for Shockwave who stands to rid himself of two rivals.

Megatron was retrieved from his watery grave in the Thames (see Ancient Relics for how he came to be there) and reprogrammed to believe that Galvatron is an imposter who dares to claim he is descended from Megatron. Fresh from his take-down of Cyclonus in ‘Dry Run’, Megatron has proven his readiness and been deployed.

Altered Image is the tale of that meeting. It’s plotted by Simon Furman, with his old editor Ian Rimmer on writing duties, and Lee Sullivan providing the art. The colours by Steve White are impressive too and give a clean finish.

It opens with Galvatron staring at his reflection in the glass panels of a wrecked office block. A city centre lays in ruins and deserted – Galvatron has gone to a lot of trouble to draw attention to himself. It’s never explained, but somehow, he knows that Megatron will be coming for him and has determined that the meeting should be of his own choosing. I suppose you could say that Galvatron remembers the encounter from a time when he was Megatron, except that it will eventually turn out that this Megatron isn’t the original at all (see the 1989 story ‘Two Megatrons’ for that clumsy explanation).

Megatron charges into view, accusing Galvatron of lies for daring to claim he is descended from him. Galvatron repudiates this with quick references to his rebirth by Unicron in 2006 and points out the obvious: that Shockwave is manipulating them. He experiences the fury of Megatron’s fusion cannon, which must be a novel experience having always been the one firing it previously, and blows are traded.

You would think that Shockwave would have seen to it that Megatron’s personality remained submerged, so that he would not be open to critical thinking and possible persuasion by Galvatron. Perhaps success requires a Megatron with his powers of agile thinking and cunning intact, but it’s a big risk for Shockwave.

Galvatron contemplates destroying Megatron if he cannot reason with him, after all he doesn’t know for sure what the temporal consequences would be. He transforms into his cannon mode and fires, appearing to miss. Megatron’s triumph is short lived though as a huge chunk of building descends on him.

As Megatron crawls out of debris, Galvatron reveals there are worse indignities to come like when Starscream throws him into space in the future. His curiosity peaked, Megatron inquires how Galvatron avenged this, and the reply comes in the form of a question: “What would you have done?” Megatron laughs. If not the same being they are at least like minds, and an alliance could be in their mutual interest.

In conclusion, it’s a nice little story but short at six pages and probably if it had appeared as a standard 22 pages two-parter in the UK comic it would have been done with a bit more fanfare and drama. Instead, the script and the actual dust-up are a little thin, given the build-up. That said, the 1989 year-opener ‘Time Wars’ will feature a more satisfying example of Megatron and Galvatron fighting side-by-side so there is a good pay-off coming up.

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The Big Broadcast of 2006

Wreck-Gar recants an fictional encounter between Rodimus Prime and Galvatron as part of an attempt to trick a Quintesson interrogator

As Starscream famously said in Transformers: The Movie: “Oh how it pains me to do this.” That’s what I was thinking as I sat down to review this because it’s one of the worst issues of the entire series. Starscream was of course talking about throwing a battered Megatron out of the airlock, but believe me if you’ve read this story, you’d see why it wants jettisoning into space too!

This 1988 story has been adapted from the third series of the Sunbow cartoons which normally I’m a fan of, but this episode is unfortunately one of the worst.

The background to this story is that the Marvel team behind the US Transformers comic (having taken leave of their senses) decided to take a break from their normally high standard stories and make things easy on themselves. Rather than coming up with an original story they decided to cannibalise one from the cartoons, and by choosing a post Movie episode they were able to feature the likes of Rodimus Prime, Galvatron and Ultra Magnus in the comic for the first time.

Some US readers might have been pleased about that but those who watched the cartoons and bought the comics probably felt a tad ripped off.

Over at Marvel UK the production team obviously faced a dilemma. They had always slavishly reprinted the US stories and built their own continuity around it. But unlike America the UK comic regularly featured the ‘future’ Autobots and Decepticons and this instalment did not fit with any of the other stories.

The simple answer would have been to ‘skip’ this one, but Simon Furman has chosen to run with it and explain it away as a story made-up by the Autobots’ TV-talking ally Wreck-Gar to trick his Quintesson-employed torturer. This will allow Simon to take the central elements of the Quintessons and their cannister and create a coherent story around it. It’s also worth noting that there have been other cartoon adaptations in Transformers including ‘Decepticon Dambusters’ and the Movie adaptation, both of them average, but this one manages to be worse. Anyway, here’s what happens…

On a distant planet, Earth date 2008, Junkion leader Wreck-Gar finds himself at the mercy of a torturer with a high reputation for getting answers. Painfully shackled against a wall with his moustache singed, and what looks like electrodes on his nipples, Wreck-Gar screams out in pain as he is once again asked for the location of a missing “canister”. His sinister hosts remain out of sight, as Wreck-Gar offers to spill the beans…  

It is the year 2006, and a large spacecraft soars over the planet of Junk, deploying Sharkticon soldiers for a missing object. Nearby, Wreck-Gar and his lady friend (?) enjoy their favourite pastime of old Television broadcasts. Moments later a Sharkticon lifts a large canister over his head, only for Wreck-Gar (wasn’t he just watching TV?) to blast it free and for the invader to be captured.

The Quintessons decide on a different approach, by exploiting the Junkions’ strange obsession with primitive Earth TV. The next morning the Junkions hear a strange music and are drawn to its source – not a Trojan Horse but it’s equivalent in this context – a giant TV screen! Watching from above, the Quintessons will use their ‘gift’ to infuse the Junkions with hypnotic commands!

Rodimus Prime and Ultra Magnus are on Cybertron when Sky Lynx arrives to warn them on strange goings-on happening on Junk. They send the Aerialbots to investigate, meanwhile Galvatron has also been tipped off about the situation, but seems strangely distracted (turns out later, he’s been watching the broadcast too).

The Quintessons cloak their ship in a giant cloud of gas to retrieve their cannister, but they near Junk they are engaged by the Aerialbots in their combined form Superion, repelling the giant robot but at the cost of their forcefield.

Wreck-Gar and his people, rather than becoming violent as they were supposed to, adopt a share and care attitude, and start broadcasting the message to the wider galaxy. On distant worlds, populations of cat people attack their K9 neighbours (daft).

Ships attack Junk with Omega Supreme arriving to get involved in the melee, and Rodimus Prime and Galvatron also arrive on Junk and do battle with one another. During the fight, a stray blast blows the canister out of the Quintesson tractor beam and hurtling off into space. Finally, the Autobots come up with a plan to counteract the hypnotic messages using Omega Supreme and Blaster – who cringingly says “Hey dude I need altitude” – to soars over the battlefield holding playing music and breaking the hypnotic spell. With peace restored, the Quintessons are left to scour the galaxy for their missing canister before anyone else finds it.

Back in the real world the torturer is satisfied he’s extracted another confession. That is until a Quintesson enters the chamber and informs the smug torturer he’s fallen for a story that’s full of absurdities and contradictions (I second that) and sentences him to death (are you listening writer Ralph Macchio?)!

Interesting this story was not written by Bob Budiansky, but instead by Ralph Macchio who we haven’t seen since the start of the series. It may be that Bob was away and the editors thought it would be easier to adapt a TV episode rather than ask someone else to pick up Bob’s storylines. Whatever the reason I’m glad this was a one off. After four years of the comic, including some great stories, fans had come to expect a lot better than this.

The artwork by Alan Kupperberg is poor and must rate as some of the worst for a long time, with some truly terrible character renditions. The best part by a long way are the two pages of UK story, with Lee Sullivan’s work looking way superior. It would have made more sense to run a couple of pages of this and go straight into Space Pirates, bypassing Big Broadcast altogether. Certainly, the way the two-parter is dismissed as a figment of imagination, leaves you wondering what the point was.

When you look at the rest of the material from 1988 (or any other year for that matter) you’ll see ample evidence of intelligent writing, well thought-out plots and a fair stab at characterisation. The characters in this two parter are flat as cardboard (with the exception of the add on bits with Wreck-Gar and the torturer). Wreck-Gar and his girlfriend sitting on their thrones watching exercise videos is naff, the dialogue is terrible, and even the Rodimus versus Galvatron battle is flat compared to the gritty showdown in TFUK#120.

We have flying Autobots, cat and dog people, and Galvatron being hypnotised by a pool of water! The part about Earth having an embassy on Cygnus 7 (wherever that is) is an unlikely development for only 18 years in the future at the time of publication, and I could also mention Cyclonus and Scourge following their leader around and getting scared when he leaves without them. That is the stuff of the playground.

A final point: I thought the Planet of Junk was a collection of rubbish in space, but here it is a spherical world? The UK editors must have feared a deluge of letters regarding this issue’s story, because they took the unusual step of running a blurb on p2 asking everyone to read p14 before writing in!

Interesting this story was printed before The Cosmic Carnival over in the States. We can assume it went straight into the US continuity as an alternate future, but even so it still doesn’t explain why it appeared at all. The story lacks substance to the extreme, and progresses with about the same subtlety as any similar cartoon episode – ie none! The strange hypnotic television scenario is exactly the kind of thing you would expect from the cartoon series too (I know it’s been done before in the comic with hypnotising car washes, but let’s just leave that for now).

This story finally introduces the Quintessons into the comic but not much is revealed about the elusive canister either, or what’s so important about it. Readers are left hoping that will be explained in the issues which follow.

Review by Adam Hogg

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The Cosmic Carnival

Optimus Prime and Goldbug detour to the Cosmic Carnival to free the star attractions – Sky Lynx and the human children known as the ‘Spacehikers’

By August 1988, Transformers had enjoyed a run of strong stories, culminating with the return of Optimus Prime in issue #177. However, The Cosmic Carnival represents a dip in form, a bit like a speeding juggernaut entering a 20mph zone.

The worst is still to come – the next US story is ‘The Big Broadcast of 2006’ which is truly terrible, a real nadir, and against this ‘The Cosmic Carnival’ is merely a disappointment, a lacklustre follow-up to the Powermasters’ introduction.

The concept is a circus-cum-carnival meandering through space in a giant worm of a starship. It pulls in a variety of alien entertainment-seekers and is always on the lookout for new attractions, such as missing Autobot Sky-Lynx and his young human passengers, the ‘Spacehikers’ – last seen in TFUK#144 when Blaster surrendered to Grimlock to secure their freedom.

The story is essentially a vehicle to tie-up that loose-end and, arguably, to give the Autobot Powermasters some additional airtime (though they only appear as bookends to the story). Stephen Baskerville’s cover features Sky-Lynx in cat form atop a circus podium with the hook of this being the ‘greatest show in outer space’.

The 22-page tale begins with a splash page of the carnival ship weaving serpent-like through the voids of space. It is passing within broadcasting distance of the Autobot craft ‘Steelhaven’ which is continuing its journey from Nebulos to Earth’s Moon and a rendezvous with comrades stranded there.

Frank Springer, filling in for the regular US artist Jose Delbo, does good renditions of Goldbug and Prime, which I rather like. His Hi Q has tufts of white hair, making him appear somewhat older than (and slimmer) than the character Delbo introduced us to in the previous story. Prime is shown in his regular mode, not combined with his trailer, which might disappoint some after the big introduction last issue.

However, the enhanced mode would later lose all its novelty when Prime was consistently depicted in his combined form and often drawn at the same height as every other character.

Prime is projecting holographic images (which is kind of cool) of the history of the Transformers’ war on Cybertron and its spread to Earth. This is a useful introduction for the Nebulans, Hi Q, Rev, Hotwire, and Lube, who by joining with the Autobots are now part of the Transformers’ civil war whether they like it or not.

Suddenly another holographic projection fills the room, it’s an advert for the Cosmic Carnival boasting ‘exotic creatures from 10,000 different planets, daring performers and death-defying stunts’ – Joyride and Slapdash are impressed, the cynical Getaway is not. Prime is up for ignoring it until they catch an eyeful of Sky Lynx as the main attraction and think they had better investigate.

Only Goldbug and Optimus go aboard the carnival ship, leaving everyone else behind. The carnival’s steep entry fee is cited as the reason, but when you consider that Goldbug had previously mentioned that Steelhaven was low on energon cubes it seems unlikely that they have had enough spare to pay his and Prime’s admission using these as currency.

They witness the many strange and exotic aliens that make up both the exhibits and the visitors. It also serves to further expand the Transformers galaxy, which was first hinted upon during Deadly Games’ (TFUK#170).

They soon happen upon Berko, a human employee of the carnival, who is calling the crowds to witness one of the most “astonishing, amazing, amusing alien” species – Earth children! Prime and Goldbug are shocked to see the four Spacehikers, Jed, Alen, Sammy, and Robin, cruelly confined in a makeshift human environment, and looking very glum. Goldbug attempts to free them, only to be repelled backwards by a forcefield holding the kids in. Prime demands to see who is in charge, and Berko agrees to take them to the boss, a sort of cross between an octopus and Jabba The Hutt, named Big Top (writer Bob Budiansky’s quirky sense of humour?).

The cigar-smoking slug comments how rare it is to see Transformers at his carnival, with one of the good lines from the story, “Whatsamatter, a few million years of civil war take all the fun outta youse guys?” They are informed that Big Top has a legitimate contract to perform along with Sky Lynx and the two Autobots accept complimentary passes for the main event and agree to leave. Berko is ordered to keep an eye on them and warned that he will be held responsible for any trouble.

In the main arena, Sky Lynx leaps from a high cage, soaring in bird mode before transforming mid-air into a Lynx and then leaping from tiny platforms. For his grand finale Sky Lynx plummets dangerously towards the ground before transforming at the last minute into a shuttle and landing safely.

I’m reminded of when the Duocons were introduced in the 1988 story ‘City of Fear’, not as robots who separate into two vehicles, like their actual toys, but as triple changers (a real shame I thought). The same appears true of Sky-Lynx. His Hasbro toy is a space shuttle that separates into two parts, one which transforms into a bird and another which becomes a lynx, and of course they can join up. However, the comic just skips over this which feels lazy and a missed opportunity to showcase a rather unique Transformer.

The second half starts with Optimus and Goldbug confronting Sky Lynx backstage and hearing his explanation… Whilst returning the Spacehikers to Earth they had seen the same holographic advert and the children begged Sky-Lynx to take them. The children were having the time of their lives, until Berko showed up and demanded payment. Not having acceptable currency, Sky Lynx agreed to perform as payment, signing a contract via laserbeam to/from his eyes. Now he wonders if the day will ever come when the debt is paid off.

They learn that Berko was alien-abducted from Earth and put in a cage like just another sideshow freak. By cooperating and doing tricks he was able to ingratiate himself with Big Top and become an employee – and he has no wish to return to Earth where he was rudderless and unwanted. Prime observes the story is “edged with sadness” and offers to take Berko with them. He agrees.

Over at the arena, Prime again watches the show begin, and on Sky Lynx’s cue he springs into action, transforming and telling Sky Lynx to play along and land on him. The crowd cheer as Prime and Sky-Lynx tackle and evade an onslaught of viscous looking performers, and the ringmaster (who looks a lot like Big Top – and could possibly be him). Berko frees the Spacehikers and they all climb into Goldbug’s VW Beetle mode – that tired “how many clowns can squeeze into a car” trick, an alien visitor observes. Big Top wraps his tentacles around Berko and the kids, only for a dazed Goldbug to reverse at speed, shunting Big Top into the empty cage (he conveniently drops the five humans).

With Big Top safely locked away, they all beat a quick retreat to ‘Steelhaven’ to be reunited with their shipmates. It’s as well that the Powermasters and Nebulans remained on board I think, as the story was thin, and I suspect would not have supported an expanded cast. They rocket away leaving a closing shot of Big Top getting a taste of his own medicine as a carnival exhibit.

As Big top has friends (similar aliens) surely, they can free him, as Berko can’t have the only pair of keys… can he? And when Goldbug reversed into Big Top at the end, how come he flies spectacularly into the empty cage (the fact that he’s larger than an elephant, and Goldbug is a small car makes this rather daft).

As for the Spacehikers, it has been eight months since they last appeared, and they have been missing from Earth for absolutely ages. For children they don’t seem to be mentally broken, or all that dirty considering they’ve been in the same clothes all this time!

On the Grim Grams page, one correspondent congratulates Grimlock on his 100-issues anniversary as letter answerer, prompting a response that perhaps it’s time for him to hand it on. Prescient words as another revamp of the comic would be coming in just a few short weeks. But first, it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire, from the dull to the truly terrible, it’s The Big Broadcast…

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People Power

Goldbug journeys to Nebulos in the hopes of restoring Optimus Prime to life, only to find the planet terrorised by a new type of Transformer: the Powermasters

As summer 1988 rolled around, Transformers UK was enjoying a strong run of stories. Readers had been treated to the zombie-fest City of Fear (one of my all-time favourites) the Wreckers’ showdown with Galvatron and most recently the satisfying spectacle of Blaster versus Grimlock on Earth’s moon, amid of cast of near hundreds of Autobot and Decepticons, a fanboy moment if ever there was one.

All of this has built up to the year’s main event: the honest-to-gosh-finally-at-long-last return of Optimus Prime! There have been a couple of false dawns on the way: Prime’s brief return in Salvage, which turned out to be a figment of Megatron’s diseased mind, and the Prime who returned in Pretender to the Throne was a video game character, a diminished version of the Autobots’ greatest leader. But now, after an absence of a year and half some 70 issues, Optimus is back.

With Transformers being a toy franchise, it’s perhaps not surprising that Prime’s return should be precipitated by owners Hasbro, who have decided to reissue Optimus Prime as part of their new Powermasters toy line. Building on the novelty of Autobots and Decepticons with transforming heads and guns, the Powermasters have Nebulan companions who become their engines, ‘unlocking the power to transform’.

At this point, Prime had killed off in the comic and, also, more famously in the cartoon canon courtesy of the 1986 Transformers Movie (creating childhood trauma in the process). So, this new Optimus Prime toy is more than just a revamp of an existing character, it’s more a revival and restoration with emotional power underpinning it.

As we know, in the world of comics no death is ever final, and Marvel US writer Bob Budiansky had left the door open for Prime’s eventual return by hinting that Ethan Zachary may have preserved the Autobot leader’s personality on a floppy disk. Now, things have developed, and video game Prime is due to be downloaded into a new body in the one place with the technology to make it happen: Nebulos.

You might say that People Power is the perfect title for a story about humans who become the powerplants of Transformers. Kev Hopgood prefaces the action with his cover of TFUK #176 (dated 30th July 1988) introducing the Powermaster Decepticons, Darkwing and Dreadwind, poised to throw the distinctive globe on to the heads of Roman-looking Nebulan senators (it’s not the first time that globe monument has been manhandled by Transformers either).

The story opens with the two Decepticons in their combined plane form ‘Dreadwing’ opening fire on a high-end eatery under domes, poncily-titled the ‘Gardens of Eternal Peace and Harmony Macrobiotic Restaurant’. A flying taxi plane zooms away, making Nebulos appear to be a futuristic version of Earth with familiar white faces (unlike the cartoon who made their Nebulans alien-green).

The bickering Decepticons introduce themselves and their Nebulans, Hi-Test and Throttle, as they land alongside the restaurant complex. The pair are like the new Runabout and Runamuck, only less complimentary to one another. Darkwing is the more hot-headed and is bonded to Throttle, a small time criminal, while Hi-Test is a self-centred-scientist-turned-bad, but the brains of the outfit. As their order the manager to prepare “20 servings of your best entrees -fast” we learn the first facets about the Powermaster Nebulans: they need food, and an awful lot of it, to power their Transformer companions. It’s an obvious limitation and weakness if sufficient food sources are not to be found.

Shortly afterwards, Steelhaven arrives in orbit. A shuttle departs for a secluded industrial complex on the surface, where its Autobot passengers, Goldbug, Getaway, Joyride and Slapdash, depart at speed. Inside the complex, we’re introduced to the Nebulans, Lube, Hotwire, and Kari engineering machinery of some sort. The Autobots transform and in a ‘take us to your leader’ moment, announce they are seeking an audience with the eminent scientist Hi Q.

It’s unclear at this point how long it takes the Steelhaven to cross the galaxy from Earth to Nebulos: certainly, the journey in the other direction appeared to take weeks or months. Hi Q’s recap of the significant developments that have occurred on Nebulos since the respective armies of Fortress Maximus/Galen and Scorponok/Lord Zarak suggests a reasonable amount of time has passed. To ensure the Transformers could never return the High Council of Nebulos endorsed the plan by Hi Q and his then assistant Hi-Test to detonate a bomb in the atmosphere that would render the planet’s fuels toxic to Transformers.

It’s best not to dwell too much on this drastic solution, implemented at great haste, with little care for the natural environment. Surely such a reckless move would have all-sorts of unforeseen consequences and how could they be sure it would not be easily bypassed by the technologically advanced Transformers, or prevent Nebulan vehicles from working?

Hi-Test had apparently quit in a fit of pique, jealous at his boss Hi Q’s accomplishments, and recruited Throttle to help him breathe new life in Darkwing and Dreadwind – two Decepticons who come to Nebulos in search of Scorponok’s forces and presided over a short-lived reign of terror before the poison fuel permanently grounded them. Using fuel conversion theories stolen from Hi-Q, Hi-Test had mechanically engineered himself and Throttle to become the engine partners of the two Decepticons and returned them to full working order, and more.

It’s worth noting that Hi Q comes across as a massive curmudgeon for much of the story and a decidedly reluctant host. Not only does he make it clear that Goldbug and company are unwanted on Nebulos; he expresses incredulity that they travelled half the universe for the trivial purpose of “rebuilding a machine” (Optimus Prime), and questions their very sentience; then saying he will “not mourn” their passing when they eventually run out of fuel and cease functioning.

Not only that but Hi Q is unmoved by news of the death of Galen, one of the greatest patriots Nebulos has known (the guy who gave up his entire future and even left his home-world never to return, to restore the peace). You might be inclined to question Hi Q’s one-sided account of the tensions between him and Hi-Test, but the fact that the latter seems to confirm everything with his own utterances and actions.

That said, Hi Q does warm up a bit when he sees the precision and efficiency of the Autobots at work on constructing Prime body (despite their own weakening). Further brownie points are there to be earned when Goldbug responds to the news of the latest Decepticon attack, by the leading the four of them off to do battle.

Part One concludes with Darkwing and Dreadwind paying the ruling council a visit. They tear off the roof and demand to be told the whereabouts of the Decepticons who once visited Nebulos. Defiant Peers Sorgen refuses to cooperate, which is foolish really as you might think giving the Decepticons the information they need would be the quickest way to get them on their way. Darkwing wrenches the Nebulos globe from its stand and holds it aloft, as per the cover image.

TFUK #177 is fronted by an iconic cover of Optimus Prime ‘back and here to stay’ with his distinctive new-style cranium and Wild-West-style smoking gun as depicted by Jeff Anderson. As the blurb (probably written by Simon Furman) confirms, “this time it’s no dream, no imaginary tale,” and a “new era of Transformers greatness has begun”. That’s quite a claim, but there’s no denying that this is a major development for the title.

The story picks up with Slapdash, Joyride and Getaway racing towards the Nebulan capital, guns atop their vehicle modes blazing, only for Darkwing to react by hurling the famous Nebulos globe in their direction and taking out all three in one hit. As debuts go, these three are not making a great impression so far or exhibiting much in the way of distinctive personalities (to be fair, Rev, Lube and Hotwire, are also pretty much interchangeable in terms of personalities, with only Kari, Hi Q and the bad guys making an impression). The Autobots’ poor performance is attributed to their lack of fuel, with only the ‘energy-efficient’ Goldbug able to offer any resistance.

As Dreadwind circles back, he dumps a burst of blaster fire on the hapless Autobots, further zapping them of strength. Later, at Hi Q’s lab, Goldbug’s wounds are found to be relatively minor compared to the other three, who are now dangerously low on resources. Their plight is at least starting to win sympathy from Hi Q who now ponders whether they are more than just intelligent machines.

Kari points out that the Transformers are “dying” before their very eyes, which causes Hi Q to beg Goldbug to return to the Steelhaven: if he rebuilds Optimus Prime under these circumstances, the Autobot leader might live again, but not for long. Here Goldbug makes a ‘really big’ call, that it’s better for Prime to “die a whole Autobot” than continue in a second-class life as a game character. While the sentiment is reasonable, it’s surely a decision for those more senior than Goldbug.

They continue with the reconstruction, and soon the Prime we know and love stands before us. Kari infuses the robot body with the personality from the disc and Prime, begins to stutter into life in a glow and crackle of electricity reminiscent of the birth of Frankenstein’s monster. He’s had a few upgrades courtesy of the Nebulans, and now with a thought, he can combine with his trailer into a larger and more powerful form (cool, but pointless if, as the Nebulans believe, he’s not destined to survive).

At first, he continues to speak as the game character Optimus, confirming Hi Q’s initial impressions, but when suddenly he collapses in agony, Prime realises that he is fully alive. Goldbug can only apologise but Prime reassures his old friend that it is better to live for a few precious moments than endure the living death of the disc. Hi Q, on seeing the nobility of the great Optimus Prime, spontaneously offers to undergo the Powermaster process to save him. Rev, Hotwire and Lube follow the example of their mentor, but the pacifist Kari cannot be part of this. Thankfully Goldbug has “enough juice” in the tank to survive.

The stage is set for a final showdown, as the peers inform Darkwing and Dreadwind of the location of the Autobots. The pair don’t guess it’s a trap and swoop down on Hi Q’s lab, only to be met by the re-energised Getaway, Slapdash, and Joyride, who are now able to dodge their shots and return heavy fire of their own. The Decepticons decide to retreat but Optimus Prime steps out and shoots them down. Hi Q jumps out from Prime’s Powermaster compartment on his stomach and confronts Hi Test.

He reveals that Hi-Test and Throttle are to be banished from Nebulos (by order of the Council) and must depart immediately, which they do. Hopefully they packed sufficient food for a long journey across space.

With Optimus and the Autobots now bonded to Nebulans, it appears they will have to stay, and Goldbug to pilot the Steelhaven home on his own. That is until Kari points out that Hi Q has accomplished the very thing he set out to prevent: he’s made it possible for Transformers to again survive on Nebulos. The stability of the planet could again be threatened unless they also depart, which Hi Q agrees to do. They rocket away, leaving Kari behind to shed a tear.

In conclusion, the return of Optimus Prime after a year and a half absence predictably overshadows everything else, but overall People Power is pretty decent launch for the Powermasters, with a reasonable attempt to invent a different reason for Nebulans and Transformers to team up. Darkwing and Dreadwind steal the show and are welcome editions to the franchise (we’ll be seeing lots more of them), with great toy incarnations and their unique combining super jet mode. The Autobot Powermasters don’t make much impression though unfortunately.

The small cast of Nebulan characters have been portrayed nicely, although I find it strange that they make a split-second decision at the end to leave the planet for good (don’t they have friends and family etc?). With Kari crying at the end we have similarities to the final Headmasters episode Brothers in Armour.

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