The Decepticons view the contents of their captured Autobot tapes in holographic ‘real-vision’ and get a ring-side seat for an early encounter between Optimus Prime and Megatron
1988 was a year of highs and lows for the Marvel US Transformers comic. Writer Bob Budiansky served up page turners like ‘public execution’ of the Throttlebots, the Headmasters and Targetmasters’ dramatic arrival on Earth, the culmination of Blaster versus Grimlock and the return of Optimus Prime – all of which were amazing.
Then we had the sillier stuff like the Cosmic Carnival, Skullgrin in the movies, and the truly terrible Big Broadcast.
The Flames of Boltax is in the category of Bob’s less impressive 1988 output – a dull and fairly pedestrian scene-setter which introduces the Underbase as this powerful force that was cast into space millions of years ago and is on its way to Earth.
Bob’s four-part Underbase Saga began with Club Con in the previous issue and is building to the double-sized fiftieth issue of the US Transformers title, in which Bob will cathartically lay waste to huge swaths of the characters he has been forced to introduce over the years to keep pace with Hasbro’s ever expanding toy range.
With hindsight you can also detect the early signs of Bob beginning to tire of the Transformers title which had been his mainstay for the past 4-5 years and which he would be handing over in a matter of months to Marvel UK’s Simon Furman.
Following on from the events of Club Con, where the Decepticons’ human prisoner, Buster Witwicky, had been promoted as ‘island ruler’ as part of that madcap scheme, Buster now finds himself under attack by an array of strange laser-beam emitting creatures and machines. He takes a blast square in the chest and is surprised to feel no pain. Buster quickly realises it was an illusion and is helpfully informed by Decepticon commander Ratbat that he’s been unwittingly testing their new technology, ‘Realvision’ (think of the holodeck from Star Trek TNG).
Starscream further updates that the tech has been installed to view the captured Autobot tapes so recently recovered from the ocean floor. As captors go, these Decepticons are extremely generous with the information they proffer to their captive Buster. I’m wondering though, how he is being fed, watered, clothed and provided with toilet and shower facilities in his ‘cell’.
Ratbat really has lost the plot at this point. He’s appointed as his second in charge, Starscream, who has a track record of plotting against and betraying every Decepticon leader he’s ever served under, and some cursory background checks or asking the views of say, Soundwave (who ought to be the number two) would have quickly revealed this. In subsequent issues, this error of judgement on Ratbat’s part is about to have catastrophic consequences.
And just quickly on Soundwave – he’s been drawn with a mouth rather than his signature faceplate and coloured purple. I doubt I would have been the only one to find this irksome. Ironically, my UK comic which reprinted the Flames of Boltax story (TFUK #196 from December 1988) features Soundwave as he is supposed to look on p2 among the teaser images of characters appearing in the edition.
The two Autobot cassettes which contain the Underbase knowledge are Grand Slam and Raindance, part of the 1987 Hasbro toy range. They are worth a mention even though they display no sentience in the story.
In fact, the info on their toy boxes reveals that the pair are rather interesting characters (or deserve to be). Grand Slam is a “war weary veteran of ten thousand battles on a hundred worlds” and has dedicated his life to recording the sounds of the conflict – from “the nervous laughter, the cries of pain, the blistering explosions, the chilling quiets”. His motto is “the sounds of war are history speaking”.
Raindance specialises in video capture and is willing to “take any risk to record the best picture”. The pair have cassette and vehicle modes – Grand Slam is a tank, and Raindance a jet – and both combine to form the robot Slamdance.
These two are chroniclers, reporters, and historians of the Autobot-Decepticon conflict and quite unique as Transformers. They are interesting characters and it’s a real missed opportunity that they don’t come to life in this story.
They could easily have featured as part of Optimus Prime’s convoy alongside the Triggerbots, recording their mission to call on High Circuitmaster Boltax, which is the subject of the Realvision simulation that they generate for Ratbat and Starscream’s viewing pleasure.
That mission predated the Transformers coming to Earth four million years ago, and even Prime’s appointment as Autobot leader. At this point Prime is a field commander who is eager to bring Cybertron’s civil war to an end and hopes that Boltax’s famous database may hold the answers.
Prime’s is depicted by Jose Delbo as a futuristic looking truck but this ‘Cybertron mode’ is quite half-arsed when compared to the well thought out pre-Earth modes from the Dreamwave’s War Within series in the early 2000s. No effort has been made at all with Backstreet, Override and Dogfight’s alt-modes.
As the quartet journey through strange and treacherous terrain (bubbles and molten eruptions) the commentary from Starscream is amusing, noting that Prime became “even more foolish with age” – unlike today, he was willing to risk involving a neutral like Boltax.
As Buster escapes his confinement through an air vent, eager to catch a look at the information on the tapes, he’s attacked by cables, which ironically mirrors the vines which ensnare Prime and men, but are overcome, as well as collapsing floors.
Megatron makes an entrance with ‘Triggercons’ Ruckus, Crankcase and Windsweeper, hanging back to allow Prime to overcome and deactivate the series of traps before advancing. In the ‘present day’ Megatron is believed to be dead and it’s unnerving for Starscream to see his old rival back at the height of his powers.
Prime meets the disciples of Boltax as introduces himself (laughably) as Lieutenant Commander of the Autobot fourth computerised division (!). He’s urged to turn back immediately by these spindly robots, who don’t seem to be welcoming of outside visitors. “Pain and suffering will be yours if you stay,” is their cheery warning.
The Triggerbots set up camp nearby, allowing Prime to advance alone and meet with Boltax (or rather one of his vessels). We learn that the Underbase is a “collection of knowledge that underlies all databases” – a font of wisdom that Prime is granted access to, and promptly steps into a chamber to be bathed in light.
Megatron and his trio lay waste to the gatekeepers (who were pretty annoying to be fair) and do away with Boltax himself (although it’s just a puppet body and the real Boltax is in cyberspace around them).
Prime cautions Megatron that the knowledge contained is “too much for and one Transformer” and would lead to madness and death, which naturally Megatron dismisses and orders his Decepticons to unleash on Optimus.
Here the UK comic (TFUK #197) finds an inventive way to make up for the reduced US content by inserting as page 10 the cover of the American comic. It makes more of a set piece of Prime’s apparent destruction, and most readers would not have realised that this page was not meant to be there.
Prime staggers away and closes the vents (the titular ‘flames’ of Boltax) causing a build-up that blasts the Underbase into the heavens – though not before himself, Megatron and Triggercons are able to escape. So now we know that “Cybertron’s greatest treasure” is wandering the universe and highly desired by the Decepticons.
And far from ruining Prime’s reputation, his actions in denying Megatron ultimate power proved to be the making of him, no doubt putting him on course for the eventual full command of the Autobot forces.
As Starscream and Ratbat exit the simulation they are informed by Soundwave that he has calculated the course of the Underbase and, quell surprise, it is due to brush past the Earth in a matter of days!
Buster has been listening and watching and tries to make his escape (to warn the Autobots) only to bump into a wall that he thought was holographic. Ratbat concludes with a fitting line from the disciples: “Too much knowledge can lead to madness and death.”
In closing, the early days on Cybertron are a rich vein of untapped stories so it’s nice to see Bob delving into the past and fleshing out Prime and Megatron’s origins. The younger Prime is a little more impetuous but still recognisable, whereas Megatron was and still is the one-dimensional villain we love to hate.
I would have expected to see Prime flanked by his traditional lieutenants of Prowl, Ratchet, Jazz etc. rather than the Triggerbots, and likewise this is the first time Megatron has appeared alongside the Triggercons. Their appearance is obviously an opportunity for Bob to discharge his obligation to Hasbro to feature the new toy range where possible. Fine with me though as I have a soft spot for the Triggercon toys and owned a couple in the day.
There are a couple of teasers for the upcoming epic Time Wars in both UK issues which reprinted the Flames of Boltax. We’re promised world shattering events which also sounds promising for the upcoming two hundredth UK issue.