Cold Comfort and Joy!

It’s Christmas and Optimus Prime returns to Earth to rediscover his connection to the planet, and the Powermasters investigate a robotic rampage.

The iconic image of Optimus Prime in a Santa outfit on the cover of Marvel UK Transformers #41 established the tradition of the ‘Christmas issue’. That was in December 1985 and the festive edition became an annual thing thereafter.

Each year the comic’s regular writer Simon Furman would conjure up a different scenario where a Transformer would discover the ‘meaning of Christmas’. This was not in a religious sense (that might be a bit misplaced in a comic about warring robots) but on the theme of ‘peace and goodwill to all men’ and with lots of snow!

The first time we had Circuit Breaker halting her attack on Jazz after Buster Witwicky drew her attention to the sound of Christmas bells. The next year Buster gave Jetfire the ‘gift’ of perspective. And in 1987, Starscream learned to do a good deed! As you can probably gather these stories were fluffy feel-good tales, containing a bit of action and humour, plus sentimentality bordering on cheesy.

The average reader would have been boys and young teens for whom Christmas would be a special time of year, and the comic wanted to be a part of that. Fair enough.

Cold Comfort and Joy, from December 1988, follows the established pattern. This time the cast are the Autobot Powermasters and the new look Optimus Prime – all of whom were headlining the toy range at that time. And unusually, not a Decepticon enough.

Optimus has returned to Earth for the first time since his resurrection on Nebulos but is not quite the robot he once was. There’s also a mystery about a giant robot ‘attack’ on a human settlement that the Powermasters set off to unravel, and finally a resolution for Prime’s malaise.

Optimus Prime not being his old self is one of the more interesting aspects of Furman’s story. The great Autobot leader was of course fatally wounded following his encounter with Megatron in the multi-world (see the 1987 classic Afterdeath!) and his essence preserved on disk by Ethan Zachary. After existing for a time as a games character, Prime was eventually retrieved and downloaded into a new and upgraded body by the Nebulan scientist Hi-Q (who went on to become his Powermaster engine and binary-bonded partner).

But it’s an interesting question whether this Optimus Prime is the same being who led the Autobots previously, or a clone copy. I prefer to think he is one the same, but it would be understandable if this resurrected Prime was missing some of the memories and learned insights that defined and shaped the old Optimus (I mean, how much data could Ethan really have saved, especially on a single floppy disk!!).

This new Prime knows how important the Earth was to his former self. But standing amid the snow-covered landscape he is struggling to remember what he ever saw in the place. Hi-Q is “enchanted” by the winter wonderland (do they have snow on Nebulos? Maybe not) and Prime thinks their bonding may have changed him. My theory is the missing data, but anyway…

There are echoes of Furman’s earlier classic, Crisis of Command, where Prime was restored to the leadership after a period as a dismembered captive of the Decepticons and suffered a crisis of confidence – did he still have what it takes to lead? This time Prime is unsure that he can still prioritise the protection of the Earth over doing what is militarily necessary to end the Decepticon threat.

Andy Wildman, the artist who would become a close Furman collaborator, provides the cover and the internal artwork. Some people will like the fact that he draws his robots with human like expressions and rubbery faces, but I’m not keen. I prefer the sharp lines of the Geoff Senior approach. And the three Nebulans on Andy’s cover all look like the same person.

That said, the cover works well as a teaser for the story, with Hot Wire, Lube and Rev telling the reader that “they said” (they being the Autobots) they would teach them all about “peace and the spirit of goodwill” but instead the Autobots are in the background involved in a big scrap. What’s going on? Readers will surely pick up the comic to find out, especially as the opponents look very much like the Autobot triple changers Sandstorm and Broadside.

With this being a Christmas edition, Furman and Wildman have a bit of fun with the story. We get Slapdash watching TV and referring to Miami Vice as “Miami Metal Clamp or something like that” and learning a kick from the show. And later, in the flashback to the Ark rebuilding a Transformer, there’s blueprint on screen for a toaster!

The story begins with a nice splash page of Optimus Prime walking the Earth once more, and its Christmas day. He’s lost in thoughts, wondering what’s changed and why he no longer feels the same affinity for the planet that he once sacrificed his life for (maybe it’s the cold and the snow?).

The Powermasters are waiting for him in the shuttle. Joyride is worried about their leader, while Slapdash just wants the door closed to keep the draft out (fair enough). His TV viewing gets interrupted by a newsflash of a giant robot rampage through Border Flats, a nearby settlement. The Powermasters link up with their Nebulans and roll-out to investigate.

Prime reviews the early days on Earth, from the first battle with Megatron in Sparkplug’s scrapyard, to the battle in the Ark four million years previously, which resulted in the fateful crash landing on Earth. He remembers now – it was his decision to force the crash, intending to take Megatron and the Decepticons with them, and the civil war on Earth is his responsibility – the “sins of the Autobots” as Prime puts it.

This idea, that Prime deliberately sacrificed them all to try to end the war, would be developed further in Furman’s Transformers ’84: Secrets and Lies mini-series in 2021.

The Powermasters roll through the devastated town, convinced that they are witnessing Decepticon handiwork. They standout like you would expect (one is a yellow racing car after all) but nobody seems to spot the lack of any drivers. Joyride is pissed that those responsible have “crushed the spirit” of the townsfolk.

When they spot large footprints, they race after them and pounce on the trio – Slapdash even uses a kick he learned from Miami Metal Clamp! It turns out their opponents are in fact the Autobots Sandstorm, Broadside and Inferno, and they had been trying to get close to the festive celebrations when they sparked a panic and busted up buildings. Oh dear.

Optimus arrives to apply some perspective: the incident has reminded them that they do not belong on the Earth and have a duty to safeguard it. Joyride observes that Christmas is for sharing and giving, but all the Transformers have given is war.

And Prime vows to do something about that, starting with clearing up the town. The snowstorm is clearing, but with so many Decepticons still at large, Prime observes that the real storm is still to come.

And of course, he’s not wrong, as 1989 is to begin with the hotly anticipated Time Wars – where a rift in space and time is threatening to destroy Earth and Cybertron. It’s touted in the ‘Next Week’ feature as seven issues that are “destined to be the finest comics you’ve ever possessed”. That’s a bold statement.

Lastly, on the Dread Tidings page there was a form inviting readers to send off for the Transformers Universe (a book of profiles on each character) for the amazingly low by modern standards price of £1.99. Of course I sent off for it and it was a fantastic purchase.

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