Monstercon From Mars!

Decepticon Pretender Skullgrin is recruited by an unscrupulous movie director and paid in fuel to appear in his next blockbuster, and Circuit Breaker waits in the wings

1980s Marvel US writer Bob Budiansky will always be a legendary name in Transformers. He literally created all the original characters for Hasbro – Optimus Prime, Megatron, Grimlock – you name it, and fleshed out their personalities and backstories. On the comic he’s produced some truly memorable stories like Warrior School, the Matrix saga, The Smelting Pool. Alongside the action, there was always a healthy dose of humour, often involving the human characters.

The flipside of Bob’s genius were the ‘sillier’ ideas like the Car Wash of Doom which almost seemed to be Transformers taking the piss out of itself. Monstercon from Mars is very much in that vein, and like Car Wash it also revolves around an unorthodox method of Decepticons acquiring fuel from human sources.

This story also ties-up the loose end of the ‘Space Hikers’ kids, re-introduces Circuit Breaker after a long absence and works out a practical application for the pointless Pretenders disguises (no small feat).

Bob’s story, which was published in the UK comic in November 1988, is pencilled by his long-term collaborator Jose Delbo, and begins with a robotic with a salivating alien head, menacing a pretty young female. It looks like the set of a crappy 1950s B-movie, and it is (all apart from the era) as the leading man ‘Brick’, aka actor Jake Colton, rushes to the aid of his ‘love’ Celestia.

But then the robot prop blows a fuse, and its head explodes. Rollie Friendly the director screams at the poor old props guy and Jake establishes himself as a rude and rather unpleasant bloke who is deeply dismissive of his co-star Carissa Carr (who as a result wins the reader’s sympathy).

Case in point when Carissa muses, “maybe I should have become a nurse like mother wanted,” and Jake replies, “what a crushing loss to the acting profession that would have been.”

Filming is suspended for three weeks until the main prop can be repaired. Public relations ‘wizard’ Mitch Keno comes to see Rollie and switches on the TV news, where there’s live coverage of a Transformer event. Sky Lynx is returning four children to Earth after an absence of nearly a year (see Space Hikers and the Cosmic Carnival). Mitch hints that perhaps a Transformer could make an adequate movie star (?). It’s a neat way that Bob finds here to bring in Sky-Lynx and the Space Hikers, letting the readers know that they’ve been safely returned to their parents.

Sky Lynx reverts to his familiar (and bizarre) robot-esque mode and is happy to take questions from the media, while Josie ‘Circuit Breaker’ Beller watches from her van a distance away. She’s wearing a trench coat and hat, looking more like a private eye than the circuit coated avenger. The injuries she sustained at the hands of Shockwave (back in the 1985 stories Worse of Two Evils) was so long ago that a recap is needed, particular for any new readers. Bob has got very good at summarising her back story into four short panels.

Sky Lynx, sadly, falls foul of protestors and is pelted with rocks and hate, forcing him to flee, as the kids shed a tear. It demonstrates that Transformers are still very much misunderstood and feared by the public, a theme since Bob’s very first stories.

Mitch has got another idea for Rollie – Bigfoot sightings have been reported in the paper and perhaps this creature would make a decent film star? (Stop laughing ok!!) Most people would usher the guy out the office by this point, but Rollie decides he may as well do a bit of backpacking on the off chance he might find Bigfoot! Deary me. And orders Jake and Carissa to jump in the jeep and accompany him and Mitch.

At the foothills of the Great Smokies in North Carolina, the film crew, run into an army cordon and can go no further. So, Rollie pays a cash-stricken farmer to show them the way. An hour later, in a clearing full of toppled trees and crushed homes, a gigantic monster confronts them – it’s the Decepticon Pretender Skullgrin, he kicks over the camera crew’s van. Once Rollie realises the monster can talk he uses his smooth talking to strike a deal.

A quick recap from days earlier sees Skullgrin being sent to Earth by Scorponok to locate a fuel source for the eventual Decepticon landing (apparently his shell is durable enough to withstand a trip through Earth’s atmosphere without burning up). The commander hadn’t stipulated how to secure that source, so Skullgrin decides to work for his living (very un-Decepticon-like you would think). In no time at all Skullgrin is gracing the cover of magazines and being billed as a ‘star’, even attracting his own fandom.

In the second, half Jake Colton’s ego is threatened by Skullgrin’s success, and Circuit Breaker’s instincts that there may be a robot connection with the Skullgrin phenomenon is piqued when she sees a fleet of Blackrock tankers visiting the movie set. In a rather daft moment, Skullgrin is sent out to do a press conference and loses his rag with the media’s accusatory line of questioning. He starts smashing up the set and sending everyone running, until Carissa intervenes.

It seems Skullgrin has a sweet spot for Carissa, or as Rollie puts it like a ‘real-life beauty and the beast’ story. However, I can’t believe the media is just accepting that this is a real-life talking monster!

Carissa, being a kind-hearted soul, takes pity on the wheelchair-bound Circuit Breaker, who is being ushered away by security, along with the rest of the visitors. They have a brief chat in which Circuit Breaker claims to be a big Skullgrin fan and Carissa lets slip that they will be filming tomorrow at the Grand Canyon.

The next day filming continues as normal, with Jake delivering cheesy and slightly sexist lines. Carissa gets changed into her casual wear and tells the Skullgrin how good it feels to be plain old ‘Ethel Stankiewicz’ again (her real name – not surprising she uses Carissa Carr) and Skullgrin exudes even more unlikely sentimentality and decides to share his secret and pops out of his shell to show off his robot mode.

I have to say, I much prefer the way the shells divide in the comic (down the middle as opposed to the front and back of the toy) and Skullgrin’s robot mode looks much better here than the spindly toy I once owned.

Circuit activates her armour, springs out of her wheelchair and unleashes a huge burst of electricity against Skullgrin. Carissa is shocked when she realises it’s the woman in the wheelchair and angry because SHE told her where Skullgrin would be. Rollie, meanwhile, orders his cameramen and Jake to start filming.

Skullgrin operates his shell by radio control and has it swing a sword at Circuit Breaker. Clearly there are some advantages to being a Pretender (beyond an unconvincing disguise) as it doubles the fighting force. As Skullgrin transforms to vehicle mode and lines up his shrapnel blasters, Circuit Breaker radio commands the Pretender shell to attack its owner.

A stray shot results in the cliff Carissa was standing on crumbling. Skullgrin (having recombined with his shell) hears her cries for help but thinks she betrayed him by leading Circuit Breaker there. Finally, he is persuaded by his Circuit Breaker’s admission that she tricked Carissa and he plucks her to safety. Rollie hollers to her to finish the monster off and he’ll ‘make her a star’ but this only incenses her to unleashes on the cameras and destroys the footage.

She departs leaving the greedy producer with nothing to show for his trouble, and presumably the end of Skullgrin’s brief tenure as a movie star.

In closing, there is a lot of cliché, slapstick and humour (make up people talking about sandblasting Skullgrin’s nails and powdering his horn for example) but this story is better enjoyed if you don’t take it seriously and just go with it. Bob is either run short of ideas or reaching a point where he’s no longer too fussed.

On the other hand, it can’t be easy to find ways to integrate Transformers whose disguises are gigantic monsters into an Earth setting without straying into Bigfoot (and later) King Kong type territory. It’s nice to see Circuit Breaker back, rather than forgotten about, although she’s still as stubborn and annoying as ever (amazingly though, she’s attacking a Decepticon for once).

Skullgrin and his friendship with Carissa does come across as likeable and genuine, though mercifully less erotic than Skids getting his hubcaps buffed by Charlene! He even seems to care for such things as making an arrangement to secure fuel where “nobody gets hurt” which suggests a bit more depth of character than the average Decepticon.

Overall, the story is hardly a classic, but its fun and I enjoyed more than I thought I would. Elsewhere in the comic, Action Force is back as the second strip, meaning Visionaries is out already. And Marvel UK is heavily promoting Simon Furman’s new Death’s Head monthly title.

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