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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