Salvage!

Shockwave recovers Megatron from his watery grave to use as an agent against Galvatron, who appears to have mentally broken poor old Ultra Magnus…

‘Look who’s in Transformers’, teases the Transformation page for issue 160 with Lee Sullivan’s realistic drawing of a familiar face from the ‘real world’ – Richard Branson. Genuinely this was unexpected.

Branson was/is one of the Britain’s most recognisable business personalities, and in April 1988 when the comic was released, he was famous for high-profile marketing stunts such as driving a tank through New York’s 5th Avenue or wearing a wedding dress to launch his Virgin Brides line.

It’s easy to imagine that when Marvel UK asked if he would like to appear in Britain’s best-selling weekly comic, Branson was tickled by the idea. It may well have engendered some goodwill from young readers towards Virgin corporation (and sales as the Virgin Media stores) but if Sir Richard was hoping to look cool and down with the kids, he might be disappointed. If anything, he’s on the receiving end of some Decepticon humiliation, in a manner that other billionaire GB Blackrock knows well.

Our story opens with a full-page of Megatron and Centurion being dredged from the bottom of the Thames by Mr Branson, while still locked in the battle poses they were in when bombed by Action Force in the Ancient Relics crossover story.

Mr Branson is dreaming of his corporation being splashed across the headlines – all good publicity for his environmental credentials (that was a thing in the 80s too!) -when an employee shouts a shark warning. This sounds ridiculous, as ‘there are no sharks in the Thames’, but the Seacon Jawbreaker pops up and bites through the chains that are holding the two petrified giants. Then Blitzwing, Ramjet, Dirge, and Thrust swoop down make off with Mr Branson’s prize, leaving the tycoon shaking his fists.

Hours later at Mount Verona, USA, the Sparkler Minibots – Sizzle, Fizzle and Guzzle – free Magnus from his tomb, where he’s been contained since the 1987 Transformers Annual. Magnus is at first disorientated and then overcome with fear as images of his fateful last encounter with Galvatron flood back. Sullivan’s nightmarish depiction of Galvatron’s laughing face inside a Decepticon sign is genuinely creepy.

FYI Salvage is Lee Sullivan’s first ‘interiors’ for Transformers UK after cutting his teeth on a series of covers. I wasn’t a fan back in the day, as I didn’t think robots should have human expressions, wrinkles and saliva – metal faces shouldn’t contort. But revisiting the story now I think Lee has done a much better job than I’d initially given him credit. His splash page of Optimus Prime looming over a cowering Megatron in part two is particularly inspired.

When Magnus and the Sparklers catch sight of the Decepticon jets flying Megatron and Centurion in the direction of Fortress Sinister, their original and long abandoned base, the Autobots set off to investigate. Meanwhile, a shadowy figure keeps watch outside the said base. Sullivan does well to conceal the figure’s identity, but most fans will have immediately twigged it was Galvatron.

Why’s he there? Well, ever since Enemy Action Galvy has been keeping tabs on Shockwave and plotting his moves to overthrow him. He thought the present day Decepticon leader had ‘escaped’ him by blasting his island base into space, only for Shockwave to fall to Earth moments later in a blaze of fire. As we know, he was shot down by Fortress Maximus in last week’s story and got sucked into Earth’s gravitational pull. His demise looked conclusive, and it will see Shockwave written out of the US comic for the next two years, while Ratbat rules.

However, Simon Furman has need of Shockwave for his developing storyline in the UK and downplays the demise, which is a shame as Bob Budiansky had written such a good exit for the character. Now the Earthfall is relegated to a minor setback leaving Shockwave stranded with a handful of remaining Decepticons but free to pursue his long-term aim of ending the threat of Galvatron. What’s odd about this of course is that Shockwave is worried about Galvatron stealing his command, when Ratbat has actually gone and done exactly this. How has Shockwave not realised?

Inside the fortress, Snaptrap shows himself to be quite capable as Shockwave’s mad scientist sidekick complete with ‘psycho-probe’ equipment. Finding Megatron in a vegetative state, it will be necessary to stimulate coax his catatonic mind back to consciousness and requiring the former Decepticon leader to overcome his greatest fears along the way.

Ultra Magnus is about to face the same mental trial, as he arrives at Fortress Sinister with the Sparklers hoping to prevent Megatron’s revival, he runs into his archnemesis Galvatron. Magnus sinks to the ground screaming ‘nooooo’ as part one ends on a suitably dramatic cliff-hanger.

In part two, Megatron once again strides confidently through the corridors of the Decepticon fortress, is he restored to his past glory? No, as it turns out. Where once he was a force of undiluted evil, feared by the enemy and his own troops alike, now he is reduced to a quivering wreck as he is confronted with a ghost from his past… that of Optimus Prime. In the real-world Shockwave is frustrated – he needs Megatron back to his aggressive and arrogant best if he is to be of any use.

Furman now runs the twin plots of Megatron and Magnus in parallel as both are forced to confront their demons. Magnus is on his knees, broken by the haunting memory of past battles with Galvatron, battles where he’s been utterly defeated. The fear is suffocating but if he can’t get snap out of it his new friends, the Sparklers are about to become Galvatron’s next victims, having rejected the offer to take Magnus and scram.

In possibly the finest moment of the story, we’re treated to the return of Lord Straxus – who asks: ‘why so surprised to see me?’ – after all he shares the same mind as Megatron following a botched body takeover back in issue 103. As if to revel in Megatron’s weakness, Straxus proceeds to tear Prime limb from limb, just as Galvatron is busy knocking seven bells out of the Sparklers as Magnus is in the grip of despair.

Then comes the turning point for both protagonists. Megatron remembers how he used to be – previously if any being dared to challenge him, he would crush them utterly, and with that his anger swells and he punches a crater sized hole in Straxus’ face, tearing him in two! Megatron is victorious and Shockwave is pleased, his subject is now ready to receive new programming.

Likewise, Magnus finally comes to his senses, knowing he has to act to save his fellow Autobots – better to die than live a coward. He reigns blows on Galvatron, taking him by surprise and amazingly wins the battle. Galvatron is hurt and retreats (first time for everything). Magnus does not pursue but he knows now that he could have beaten his foe all along, he just lacked the confidence. Next time will be different he vows, and they will fight for the last time. That next encounter was, I think, intended to happen in Time Wars but fell by the wayside when the saga was shortened.

All in all, Salvage is a satisfying read and lays the building blocks for epic upcoming events that will take us up to and beyond the milestone 200th issue.

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Desert Island of Space

In a desperate attempt to rescue his brother Buster, Spike and Fortress Maximus cling to the Decepticon’s island base as it rockets off to space…

Our second Transformers story of 1988 from the Marvel US team of Bob Budiansky, Jose Delbo and co and its one of my favourites.

After the hugely enjoyable Headmasters mini-series, which spanned 16 weeks of the Marvel UK comic in the back-up strip spot, readers were left thirsting for more of the adventures of this great new cast of Autobots, Decepticons and their Nebulan companions. In Trial by Fire the Headmasters returned, this time in the main story, and sadly it was to prove the final curtain for Galen Kord, a central figure in the Headmasters saga, but who died passing the helmet of Fortress Maximus to Spike Witwicky. As mentioned in the last review this was inevitable if the comic was to keep in step with the Hasbro toy line which has Spike as Fort Max’s partner.

No sooner had Galen succumbed to his injuries, and a volcano’s blast, Spike was anointed by the other Autobots as his successor. Essentially, we’ve got a young man who’s straight out of college, who’s an alien to the Nebulans and Autobots, and has no military experience or credentials other than he made a promise to Galen and enjoyed one successful rout of Scorponok’s Decepticons. To say he’s a risky choice is probably an understatement.

Added to this, Spike’s judgement – and by extension Fort Max’s – is clouded by the emotional pressure he’s under to try to rescue his brother Buster from Decepticon captivity. It’s a perfect storm which comes to a head in Desert of Island of Space, where the Targetmasters take their turn in the spotlight and Kup provides the mouthpiece for all those pent-up doubts about their new ‘leader’.

It’s also a pivotal story in that it removes the Earthbound Decepticons from the stage (temporarily) to clear the way for Scorponok’s group to fill the gap, and the unlikely ascendancy of Ratbat – a subplot for several US stories now – comes to fruition as he successfully sees off Shockwave for the Decepticon leadership.

Dan Reed provides the cover for issue 158, which depicts ‘The Hostage’ aka Buster Witwicky on Shockwave’s palm as seen through the binoculars of the US Navy. The Transformation page also trumpets a four-page mini comic about The Visionaries, who are due to get their own Marvel UK monthly comic and talks up the ‘bizarre and exciting’ new Transformers that are on their way… the Pretenders.

The action begins with Buster coming-to on the shore of an island off the Florida Keys, which we know to be masking the current Decepticon undersea base. For someone who was once pursued, terrified to near death by Shockwave, the site of the cold and imposing Decepticon leader, plus Ratbat, doesn’t seem to faze him. Quite chipper, Buster asks whether he might be provided with breakfast – at which Ratbat catches a raw fish (what a skinflint) and Shockwave proves the more generous by firing a nifty laser beam from his eye to fry several fish. True to form, Ratbat complains of the waste of energy resources! LOL

Why are they keeping Buster alive? The answer is the naval armada that has gathered on the horizon, thanks to Triple I tracking the recent Decepticon raids back to their source. Head of the organisation Forest Forsythe is aboard the flagship and welcomes back Walter Barnett, who by rights should be in the firing line for stealing the Throttlebots’ brain modules prior to their execution (see the story Toy Soldiers). Lucky for him, Forsythe had a close run-in with Ratbat and the Predacons that persuaded him that there might indeed be two warring factions of Transformers.

Walter has brought along five Throttlebot brains inside toy cars (minus Goldbug of course, who has since been crushed by Ratbat and recovered by the Autobot Headmasters) and spots Buster through binoculars. This complicates things as it means the navy can’t attack while there’s a human hostage.

Bob seems to be having a moment and forgets how many Throttlebots there are. Seven are mentioned and then later in the issue Hot Rod’s Nebulan companion is mis-labelled as Sparks rather than his actual name Firebolt. This requires a bit of editing for the UK edition, some Tippex and overlay text.

Slightly silly is Sparkplug not noticing that Spike has majorly bulked up in the couple of days he was away. In fact he’s wearing a suit of Autobot armour under a baggy overcoat which ought to have raised a question mark with his dad. Perhaps it was because Spike is visiting his dad’s motel room at 5.36am and Sparkplug is a bit sleepy? Barnett calls to say that Buster has been located but he’s not at liberty to divulge the location. Spike holds the wire and ‘traces the call’, one of his many new abilities since binary bonding to Fortress Maximus.

This rather gives the game away so Spike leads his dad outside and introduces him to Fortress Maximus and Cerebros, demonstrating that he can now transform and combine with the pair of them (you can only imagine how Sparkplug must be feeling about this, having sought to keep his other son away from the Transformers war, now here’s his eldest becoming intimately involved). Spike reassures that this is the best way of rescuing Buster and goes on to introduce the six Targetmasters emerging from the bushes, and their Nebulan partners.

As mentioned, the Autobots had taken quite a chance on bonding the inexperienced, alien Spike with their leader, and it would be quite understandable for this to have thrown up some concerns in the camp. These misgivings are voiced by Kup, in private to his Targetmaster colleagues, that Spike is ‘too emotional’ and will lead them to the junkyard if they let him! He’s at least consistent, as he’ll be on the verge of leading a mutiny against Optimus Prime in the run up to the Unicron war.

I very much enjoy the humorous moment where Forsythe, on being prevented from blasting the approaching Autobot shuttle by Rollbar who protests that it’s their comrades coming to help, complains that he cannot believe that he is expected to take orders from a “*$@# toy”! (he he).

Issue 159’s cover, dated 2nd April 1988, depicts Fortress Maximus harpooned in space and Shockwave closing in. For reasons I could never fathom his robot mode remains uncoloured. An oversight? The story opens with the Targetmasters storming the beach WW2 style, as Kup restrains the eager Fortress Maximus to hang back and provide covering fire in his battle station mode, lest his feelings get in the way.

Spike at this point feels too much like the new boy to argue, but it’s a mistake as the Targetmasters quickly come under heavy attack by an array of automated weaponry that emerges from below ground. They are repelled just as glass encases the island and the bases transforms into a rocket which starts blasting off.

Fortress Maximus, motivated by Spike’s strong desire to rescue Buster, launches himself at the rocket and clings on as it blasts into Earth orbit. Kup’s concerns appear to have come to pass, but was this foolishness or guts?

Inside the craft Ratbat continues to goad the rather patient Shockwave in the manner of a nagging spouse, pointing out that Max had tagged along and risks dragging them down (surely, he’s not that heavy in context of a huge rocket?). Shockwave clearly feels he has something to prove to Ratbat, this representative of the Cybertron Decepticon leadership, and activates the ship’s external defences – a huge pitch fork WTAF? It’s followed by a harpoon fired from a palm tree in the island section that spears the Autobot leader through the chest. Fortress Maximus’ new and improved body is incapacitated but he can still transform to Cerebros and continue his advance.

So, Shockwave ‘takes matters into his own hands’ heading outside in space gun mode to put Cerebros out of commission. Spike ejects and transforms, again demonstrating solid tactics or perhaps a lucky streak by commanding Fortress Maximus’ guns to blast Shockwave, sending him into Earth’s gravitational pull and sending him into sky fall, with Ratbat smugly welcoming the leader’s demise and seeing this as his chance to seize his chance to take command of the Decepticons.

Spike and Buster come face to face on opposite sides of the island dome. The big brother vows to find a way of freeing his sibling, just as Decepticon craft accelerates away. Spike is stranded in space but not for long as the Autobot shuttle shortly arrives and collects him. On board he’s gutted about the loss of Buster and shamed by the damaged to Fortress Maximus. However, Kup now sees things differently. He realises that he should have had more faith in Spike who has shown himself to be a true hero and worthy of the Autobot name.

In closing, the harpoon and pitchfork are a bit camp and gimmicky, typical Bob Budiansky lighter moments, but it all helps to make the story enjoyable and Spike’s heroism and the loss of his brother at the end are genuinely touching.

Clearly, Shockwave is meant to be written of the US storyline at this point and he’ll be gone for two years or so before turning up off the coast of Blackpool falling his planet fall. However, Simon Furman is not done with the character and intends to use him going forwards, starting in the very next issue. For this reason, Shockwave’s commentary in UK version of the story has been changed to ‘logical that I fall to Earth’ rather than burning up. Of course, this means his later appearance at Blackpool will be somewhat awkward and not satisfactorily explained.

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Trial by Fire!

Joy of joy, the Headmasters arrive on Earth but it’s a bittersweet moment as tragedy strikes… and Spike Witwicky makes his comic breakthrough.

In the 1980s, Transformers fans were mostly divided between those who celebrated the Sunbow cartoons and considered them canon, and that other more sophisticated bunch (at least we thought so) who worshipped at the altar of the comics. As much as I enjoyed the cartoon, I was firmly in the latter camp.

The cartoon had its classics – Heavy Metal War and War Dawn being two – but a lot of it was light entertainment. Whereas the comic seemed to set the bar consistently higher, with sublime stories like Target 2006 and The Smelting Pool (admittedly there was the odd dodgy number, like Car Wash of Doom).

The Marvel UK letters pages, hosted by Soundwave and then Grimlock, enjoyed taking a poke at the cartoons and insisting that the comic had the greater claim to being considered canon. It dismissed Spike Witwicky as a figment of the cartoon’s imagination, at best their version of our own Buster Witwicky.

So, as UK issue 156 rolls around in March 1988, the editorial team finds themselves eating humble pie, forced to acknowledge that Spike not only exists within the comic universe but that he’s about to play a major role from here onwards.

The game changer here is (as always) Hasbro, omnipresent owner of the Transformers brand. They’ve released a Fortress Maximus toy that has Spike as its Headmaster partner, so of course that means Spike must now appear in the comic.

The trouble is that, in the 3-4 years since we met the Witwickys, Spike has never been mentioned once. So what to do? Writer Bob Budiansky comes up with the explanation that Spike is Buster’s older brother and he has been at college these past four years. In that time nobody thought to tell him of the family’s close involvement in the Transformers war. That’s pretty lame but probably the best Bob could come up with on the spot. The Transformation page in #156 notes that if readers think Spike’s arrival at the same time as the Headmasters is purely coincidental, they ought to know better.

Trial by Fire opens with Fortress Maximus on the operating table, undergoing enhancing surgery to double his size, as the Headmasters’ ship ‘Steelhaven’ warps from Nebulos to Earth. Max seems to have gone from being this focal point and the conscience of the Autobot cause during the Headmasters mini-series, to now being a barely speaking tool of war whose Nebulan partner Galen does all the talking for him.

It’s unclear how much time has passed since the Autobots left Nebulos with Lord Zarak and the Decepticons in pursuit, but it’s time enough for Galen to have had a major personality reset. Gone is the compassionate, committed pacifist and in his place is a focused, single-minded warrior, intent on achieving victory in the Transformer war. Ironically, Galen is reminiscent of how Zarak was after bonding with Decepticon leader Scorponok. ‘If war is their fate, they must accept it and do all they can to win’ is the new mantra.

Galen can sense the awesome new power of Fortress Maximus, ‘power enough to destroy the Decepticons once they reach Earth’ and that’s as good a plug for the Fort Max toy as any (sadly, like so much else in the toy range, he wasn’t on sale in the UK). Galen’s lack of concern for the fact that Earth is teeming with innocent life jars with Autobot values – it’s the very opposite of Optimus Prime for example – and there’s a sense that momentary abandoning of responsibilities will come back to bite.

On Earth, Spike arrives at the scene of devastation that was his dad’s auto garage. When we last saw Sparkplug, he was at the mercy of Ratbat and the Predacons so you immediately fear the worst. Thankfully Bob doesn’t drag things out. He has Sparkplug reappear almost immediately, having been pulled from the rubble ‘off camera’ and thankfully unscathed. He’s able to quickly bring Spike up to speed about their connection with the Transformers and how Buster had gone to Mount St Hillary to find the Autobots.

Spike resolves to find his brother. Luckily, he knows the way, as we’re told he used to play in the Mount St Hillary caves as a kid, though this seems a stretch when you consider that it’s a two-hour drive away (a vacation perhaps?).

He’s at the cave and marvelling at the ginormous machinery left behind when the Ark departed, when the five Autobot Headmasters arrive. They discover the battered toy-car form of Goldbug and Chromedome patches himself in and projects images from Goldbug’s memory of Ratbat attacking and carrying off Buster. Fortress Maximus squashes suggestions of a rescue, as outside their mission parameters, and the first part ends with Spike emerging from his hiding place to protest.

Part two establishes Spike and Galen as the story’s key dynamic.

Spike feels that the Autobots, as ‘the good guys’, are obligated to help him find Buster. When Fortress Maximus refuses, he is accused (by Spike) of being a cold-hearted machine and Galen reveals himself as flesh and blood, the man in the machine. They may be alike physically, but they have very different priorities. Galen insists that the needs of the many outweigh those of an individual, and they all depart leaving Spike to camp down for the night, alone.

Next, the Decepticon craft emerges from hyperspace (if the vessel has a name, readers are not privy to it). As if to illustrate his all-around rottenness, Galen’s opposite number Lord Zarak sees no beauty in the Earth and dismisses their new home as ‘flyspeck mudball’. He’s impatient to get to the surface and track down the Autobots, who are most likely to be found near the source of Goldbug’s distress signal in the cave which formerly housed the Ark.

They make their way down (do they skydive from orbit like the Autobots? I’m surprised they don’t melt) and Mindwipe identifies the source of the interstellar signal that brought them to Earth. Spike can tell that these guys are bad news, and when they aren’t looking he hits a switch to reactivate Goldbug’s distress call, knowing that the Autobots will come back and he can warn them.

It does the trick but not before Spike is discovered and is shot at before being trapped and menaced by Scorponok. Luckily for Spike the Autobot Headmasters arrive in the nick of time and the two sides pick up where they left off on Nebulos – except this time Fortress Maximus is bigger and more powerful. Soon the battle is turning in the direction of the Autobots. Scorponok needs an advantage, and the sight of Spike’s blanket presents an opportunity.

Spike flees into the caverns, finding himself at the molten core of the volcano (!) as Scorponok closes in. Fortress Maximus spies Scorponok’s absence from the fight and pursues, but his enlarged form is too big to get through the caves and so he detaches as the regular sized Cerebros. The smaller Autobot attacks Scorponok and his head transforms into Galen who takes on Zarak. The pair fight on a rock bridge just metres above a molten lava river. Their titanic struggle has come to this moment, thousands of light years from their native Nebulos.

Zarak is pinned down but wily as ever. He radio-commands Scorponok to blast the rock above Spike. Galen heroically pushes Spike out of the way and takes the impact of the boulders himself. Mortally wounded, but at last restored to full nobility, Galen instructs Spike to take his helmet so that his death will not be in vain.

Then, in an incredible closing page which packs and amazing amount into 10 panels, Scorponok is topside and turning the tide of the battle when Fortress Maximus arrives very much alive and ready to fight. Spike wears Galen’s helmet and controls Max now – he unleashes the power of the Headmaster leader on the Decepticons, who beat a swift retreat.

Finally, as the Autobots get clear, there’s a spectacular explosion/eruption at Mount St Hillary, signifying a fitting tribute to their lost leader Galen and, Hardhead suggests, a suitable welcome to their new commander, Spike Witwicky! Wowzers!

In closing, it’s a fine story – brilliant to see the Headmaster cast on Earth but so frustrating and sad to see the end of Galen. He’s been effectively killed off and replaced by his omission from the toyline, which is a real shame as he had a lot more developing to do. How would Galen have settled on Earth, how would his feud with Zarak have played out, would he ever have returned to Nebulos to clear his name and reunite with his lost love, Llyra?

Sadly, this is the last we’ll see of Galen. A main character in the Headmasters mini-series but not destined to play a role in the saga now that the cast has arrived on Earth. However, the question of how Spike will cope with being thrust into the forefront of the war is also an intriguing prospect, and one we’ll get a chance to explore in the next instalment, the Desert Island of Space. At this point in its run, the Marvel Transformers comic is really going from strength to strength.

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Toy Soldiers

The Throttlebots survive a public execution after their brains are transferred to remote controlled toy cars, but surviving the Predacons and Ratbat may prove to be altogether more difficult!

Toy Soldiers was published in the pages of Transformers #154 and #155 from Marvel UK in late February/early March 1988. It was the first US material to feature that year and comes off the back of eight weeks of strong stories from the UK team.

Personally, I was pleased. The variety is good, and I always enjoy a good Bob Budiansky tale, even off the wall stuff like Autobots transplanted into toy cars. Plus, we readers get to see what happened to the Throttlebots following their capture by Walter Barnett and Triple III some three months earlier. It’s felt like a long wait.

Toy Soldiers is classic ‘Uncle Bob’ with a wacky concept of the toy car Autobots and comedy element of them running rings around the lumbering Predacons, juxtaposed with the quite shocking and brutal way that the Throttlebots are car crushed to death in a TV execution. This is a story with light and shade and sets us up nicely for the big event of the year, the arrival on Earth of the Headmasters and Targetmasters.

Bryan Hitch provides the covers of both UK issues, with the sketch of the junked Throttlebots being the better of the two (even though they don’t actually end up in a scrap yard as depicted). Transformation page in issue #154 talks up the story as another of those ‘humans strike back moments’ that occasionally come along. There’s also a non-subtle plug for Death’s Head’s appearance in Doctor Who Magazine 135, which I’m sure will have put on a lot of sales for that issue of DWM.

The story begins the Predacons raiding a chemical storage facility. US readers won’t have seen the team since their debut in Gone But Not Forgotten, although Simon Furman featured them in the UK story Grudge Match, so this is a good way for Bob to remind us that they are still around. They seem to enjoy the outing and the chance to skirmish with the humans, but the resistance is so feeble that you wonder if this is suitable work for the Decepticons’ elite hunter cadre.

The Constructicons, another rarely seen team, are also helping themselves to raw materials. Interestingly they are labelled as a quintet, with Mixmaster is missing for some unexplained reason. I do enjoy the way Blitzwing shows up and nets Longhaul, flying him back to base. It shows some coordinated Decepticon teamwork even if it’s difficult to believe that Longhaul could have been carrying enough materials to build very much. Overall, the picture is of the Decepticons running rampant and humanity powerless to do anything about them.

Watching developments with growing concern is Triple III, the appalling and incompetent US agency tasked with tackling the robot menace. This terrible outfit previously ripped off the comic character Robot Master to con the public into thinking the Transformers were an Earth-grown menace, they only ever succeed in capturing Autobots and their leader Forsyth refuses to acknowledge the existence of the warring factions. You would think that learning the nature of the enemy they face would be essential to their work.

Walter Barnett is sent to interrogate the six captured Throttlebots, who have been drained of fuel to prevent their escape and can now be reactivated and switched between robot and vehicle modes by their captives. Goldbug reiterates that the Decepticons are responsible and he’s rather surprised that the Autobots don’t seem to be containing them much these days – little does he realise that Grimlock has whisked the Ark off to space. Barnett tows the line, that the notion of two warring camps is unacceptable to Triple III but he clearly has come to believe that Goldbug is speaking the truth. Actually the scene rather reminds me of when Galen would go to see the captive Autobot heads of Fortress Maximus and the others in the Headmasters saga.

Barnett gets a work visit from his wife and young son, which seems a bit unreasonable when he’s working until Mrs B reveals that its Sunday and this is the only way they get to see him. Barnett’s son has brought along not one but six toy cars which is somewhat excessive, however it’s a significant detail as these are of course the cars that Barnett will use to smuggle out the Throttlebot brains.

That night he’s home at last when Forsythe appears on TV to warn that the next act of robo-terrorism will result in the destruction of their six Transformer captives. This is an open invitation to the Decepticons and sure enough more attacks follow. Termination of the Autobots is set for 6pm, in time for the evening news, and Barnett realises he must work fast. So, he leaves home at 4am, much to his wife’s annoyance and has a pre-dawn discussion with Goldbug…

Next comes the main event of the story. As evening falls, each Throttlebot is magnetically hoisted aloft and dropped into a car crusher, getting compressed and emerging out the other side squished as a block. This is as brutal takedown of a Transformer as we’ve seen since Optimus Prime was detonated by Ethan Zachary.

Luckily Barnett has saved the day. As he’s driving home, we learn that he recovered the brains of each Throttlebot and has inserted them into the six toy cars. They are connected to the battery to allow them to speak and (if that sounds implausible) their optical fibres are attached to the car headlamps to allow them to see! Goldbug thinks they’ll need help to get into the Ark – only one human can do it and that’s his old friend Buster Witwicky.

At this point we haven’t seen good old Buster in the comic since the awful 1987 story The Carwash of Doom, and as we drop in on the Witwicky auto workshop we find Buster feeling miserable about the apparent death by car crusher of his old friend Bumblebee. Even the news that his brother Spike is returning from college fails to lift his spirits… This news of another Witwicky son is of course a very big revelation. For over 150 issues we’ve been led to believe that Buster was the comic version of Spike from the Sunbow Transformers cartoons, but it turns out that wasn’t the case.

The second part begins with the Predacons launching an assault on Triple I headquarters. Forsythe orders all units to repel the invaders, with the RAAT assault vehicles making a reappearance and getting swatted aside. Tantrum and Headstrong beat a path to the heart of the compound where they locate the Throttlebot cubes.

It transpires that Ratbat is leading the missing and he’s been in Divebomb’s maw in his cassette mode. At his instruction, Razorclaw tears into one of the carcasses and is satisfied that their enemies are indeed destroyed. Ratbat is not so sure and soon spots the absence of the brains. It’s cathartic to see Forsyth getting pounced on and for the penny to drop that there are indeed warring factions of Transformers, like he’s been told all along. Luckily for him, Ratbat has detected a scent from the brains, and they all clear off leaving Forsythe to fight another day.

Walter Barnett finds Sparkplug and Buster and convinces them (with help from Goldbug) that national security is at stake – Buster must escort them to the Ark. They set off in the Witwicky pick-up with the Predacons arriving moments later and collapsing the garage on top of poor old Sparkplug.

Buster and Barnett stop at a mall to pick up batteries for the Autobots. Buster, for contrived reasons, is carrying around his cassette deck rather than leaving it in the car. Soon the mall is breached as Ratbat and Divebomb shatter the glass roof and Headstrong, Tantrum and Razorclaw trash everything in their path. Terrified shoppers run for cover, and in the melee Barnet drops the suitcase of Autobots allowing them to spill out and lead the Predacons on a chase.

Ratbat goes after Buster but is thwarted when Barnett brings a security gate crashing down on the Decepticon and pins him. Out of the reader’s sight, Ratbat is able to transform and insert himself into Buster’s ghetto blaster, while the latter was replacing Goldbug’s batteries. They take off, leaving Barnett and the other Throttlebots and complete the hours long journey to Mount St Hillary – only to find the Ark and a bunch of discarded machines left behind.

As luck would have it, among the junk is an intergalactic transceiver, which Goldbug uses to send a distress call to Cybertron. This is, we’re told, the message that Hot Rod detected on Nebulos. However, before they can leave Ratbat flies into the cave, crushes Goldbug with a talon, and is poised to attack Buster! It’s a case of ‘to be continued’…

On the letters page, Grimlock responds to a kid who claims to have found Sky Lynx on sale in the UK by asking to be sent the box. Was this Marvel wanting to warn their Hasbro buddies about erroneous imports or possible fakes, i.e. I managed to pick up a Shockwave toy in grey and different packaging at a market. Meanwhile the next week box talks up the next big event, the arrival of the Headmasters.

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Enemy Action

The Seacons make their UK debut in an underwater battle with Galvatron; while on land the Firecons and make things uncomfortably hot for the Sparkler Mini-bots!

One of Bob Budiansky’s major headaches as the writer of Marvel’s monthly Transformers comic in the US was the constant pressure to introduce new characters, to keep pace with Hasbro’s expanding toy range.

Bob came up with several inventive plot devices over the years, from the Creation Matrix to personality engrams in crystals used to create the new Autobots, before eventually settling on the Space Bridge as a handy device for introducing waves of new warriors from Cybertron.

As a fan I found it exciting when new Transformers appeared in the comics. It was fun to learn their bios, abilities, unique weaponry, and of course their mottos. So, Enemy Action, a UK story from February 1988, is a treat because it introduces no fewer than twelve new characters – that’s the six Seacons, three Firecons and three Sparkabots (for some reason the UK comic would refer to them as Sparkler mini-bots). In fact, it’s thirteen new characters if you include the Seacon combined form, Pirranacon.

This is time it is Simon Furman, not Budiansky, adding to the cast. Simon was not under a Hasbro mandate to do so, he did it for the sheer fun of it apparently and because he liked the idea of an underwater story. This was several months before these characters would appear in the American comic so once again Simon is stealing a march on the parent title as he had done by featuring the Transformers the Movie cast and the Predacons long before they appeared Stateside.

To ensure there’s no loss of momentum following the Legacy of Unicron epic, the comic is bringing back one of the most dangerous Decepticons (and most popular guest stars) the future leader, Galvatron.

We last saw Galvatron in Ladies’ Night, breaking free from his volcano tomb. Now he’s straight back to the forefront, striding along the seabed towards the present day Decepticons’ undersea base off the coast of Florida.

His approach has not gone unnoticed by Commander Shockwave who fears that Galvatron has come to take his crown (and with it everything he has worked so hard to accomplish). It’s easy to feel some sympathy for Shockwave at this point, after all it was only a few issues ago that we witnessed his brutal execution in the future at the hands of Death’s Head.

Shockwave is so jittery that he almost incinerates Soundwave for sneaking up on him, in a comical moment. Soundwave is the loyal deputy but also offers some wise advice: they could try speaking to Galvatron and perhaps coming to an agreement based on their mutual interests as Decepticons.

While Shockwave can see the logic of an alliance, his personal survival comes first. So he orders their untested new troops the Seacons – who were imported from Cybertron to work on the base’s fortifications rather than combat – to go toe to toe with Galvatron.

Soundwave’s disapproval is evident via a clenched fist and thought bubble “On your head be it”. Soundwave is no fan of Galvatron – he got buried alive by him in Target: 2006 for starters – and has led the Combaticons on the mission to finish off the future Decepticon when he was trapped in Mount Verona) but Soundwave has also made a career out of aligning himself with whoever rules. Galvatron would just be a continuation of that. Not so for Shockwave.

Lee Sullivan’s memorable ‘sea scrape’ cover provided the hint of the battle to come. Snaptrap, having received his orders, instructs the team to hit their opponent ‘hard and fast’ – no doubt this is the best way to compensate for the team’s lack of experience with their new Earth modes.

The five Seacons take turns to attack, giving readers a sense of each one, while Galvatron arrogantly dismisses them as nautical non-entities. His overconfidence is put into check briefly though by Seawing’s paralysing sting.

Readers with prior experience of Galvatron will not be surprised that the Seacons are, to pardon the pun, out of their depth against this opponent. Even in their combined form Pirranacon, they don’t fair much better.

A couple of nitpicks/observations. Overbite is named Jawbreaker in the story – it’s never made clear why the comic departed from the official toy name or whether this was done in error. Pirranacon’s name has two Rs, though the word piranha, which it is presumably derived from doesn’t. Also Jeff Anderson, the story’s artist, draws Pirrancon as pretty comparable in size to Galvatron. I think it would have been more dramatic for him to be much larger, similar to the Megatron versus Predaking contest in Budiansky’s 1987 classic Gone But Not Forgotten.

At this point Furman brings in the story’s other protagonists, starting with the Sparklers, Sizzle, Fizzle, and Guzzle. They were sent to Earth by the Wreckers leader Springer to keep tabs on Galvatron and have followed him to the beach. Since the trio have no undersea modes they are unable to follow any further.

It’s curious that Springer is preoccupied with Galvatron. You might think he has enough on his plate with trying to overthrow Decepticon rule on Cybertron without also picking a fight with the most powerful Decepticon on Earth. Then again, perhaps he knows of the Cybertron Decepticons’ plan to recruit Galvatron, or simply fears that Grimlock’s Earthbound Autobots have abdicated their responsibility.

As it turns out, the Sparklers are not destined to be mere bystanders after all… for they are suddenly confronted by the Firecons – Cindersaur, Sparkstalker, and Flamefeather! See below.

So, to part two and issue #153. The first thing you notice when picking up the issue is Snake Eyes and another Action Force guy (Flint?) bursting out of the cover as Sizzle, Fizzle and Guzzle look on in horror. I think the trio are meant to be recoiling from the sight of the Firecons but maybe the merger has got them spooked?

Transformations sells this as major win for fans of both comics – a two for the price of one. Soon enough AF it would settle into that traditional back-up strip role, but unlike previous back-ups its logo appears on the cover along side Transformers so this is a new development. Combat Colin has been annexed from the former AF comic, taking-up the regular cartoon spot vacated by Robo Capers and would go on to become a firm favourite of the readers.

Returning to the story, part two picks up with the Firecons, breathing fire in all directions like a pack of dragons post-feasting on hot chili peppers. We discover that they are here to secure Galvatron for their masters on Cybertron and any Autobots in their way are set to the feel the heat.

Fizzle is soon made to sizzle, courtesy of Cindersaur, and plunges into deep water to recover. Oddly, Fizzle is coloured red and Sizzle is blue, which is the opposite of their official toys. All three Sparkler mini-bots, while a likeable bunch, are rather homogenous and so maybe the production team had trouble telling them apart?

The unarmed Sparklers ‘remember’ that they can also discharge their own flame courtesy of their engines while in vehicle mode. Sizzle demonstrates this on Spark Stalker, which feels a bit contrived to show off the toy gimmick if I’m honest. While Guzzle sticks to the more convention tank mode gun barrel to take down Cindersaur.

Below depths, Galvatron finishes off Pirranacon with a well-placed blast, breaking him up into his component Seacons, before punching his way into the Decepticon base. With seawater flowing in behind him, he declares to Shockwave and the assembled warriors that he had come in peace seeking an alliance, but Shockwave’s hostile actions have made an enemy of him and when they next meet all Decepticons will pay. He then exits leaving Shockwave to fend off some very angry looks from his warriors.

So, clearly it was Galvatron’s plan all along to provoke Shockwave into attacking and creating an opportunity for Galvatron to drive a wedge between the Decepticon leader and his warriors. Pretty smart, but Galvatron is powerful enough to come in and take the leadership if he had wanted to. I think most Decepticons would have fallen into line out of fear or opportunism, I’m not sure the political machinations are that necessary.

On the other hand, surely Galvatron becoming leader in 1988 would have been a significant change to the timeline such that he might unravel the events that lead to his own creation by Unicron in 2006? If that’s on his mind he doesn’t voice it. This is unlike the Galvatron of Target: 2006 who clearly conscious of disrupting the timeline.

Enemy Action’s two plots neatly converge as Galvatron exits the ocean with the unconscious Fizzle in his clutches. Flamefeather rushes to his side and offers the alliance with the Decepticons of Cybertron “that we may crush their mutual enemies together” only for Galvatron to laugh and dismiss this. Having skilfully avoided one alliance he’s not about to fall into another. Sizzle offers token resistance and swiftly knocked aside by Galvatron like a troublesome bug.

In closing, Shockwave has been left in command and under no illusions that his days are numbered unless he does something radical. He needs an expendable agent with the raw power enough to take down Galvatron – his choice is an intriguing one… none other than Megatron, Galvatron’s past self. This thread plays out further in the upcoming story Salvage and then comes to a head in the 1988 Transformers Annual. Lots to look forward to then.

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Legacy of Unicron (Parts 5 & 6)

Death’s Head journeys into Unicron’s mind and learns the origin of the Transformers as Rodimus travels to Junk for the final showdown with the Chaos Bringer!

January 1988 saw Marvel UK’s flagship comic, The Transformers, notch up another milestone of its eight-year run – the 150th issue.

For issue #50 we had a fight to the death between Grimlock and Sludge in the epic Dinobot Hunt (one of my faves) and on reaching triple figures readers were treated to a fantastic wraparound cover poster and an extended story featuring Optimus doing battle with barbaric cyborg apes! Yes, every bit as weird as it sounds.

Issue #150 also provides a wraparound poster that is something really special. Jerry Paris, who drew the cover of issue #1, that memorable and dare I say iconic Prime versus Soundwave cover, now turns his hand to depicting Unicron in his planet devouring glory. This sets us up nicely for issue #150’s story – the honest to gosh origin of the Transformers.

It’s a bold move into unchartered territory and moving beyond anything we’ve seen so far from the Transformers’ American parent title. This was Simon Furman and the UK comic laying the foundations of the franchise and staking a claim to being the main canon. It also makes #150 one of the most significant issues in the Transformers run. Arguably an origin story was needed following the events of the 1986 movie which established the relationship between Unicron and the Matrix.

So, to the story, which is pencilled this time by Jeff Anderson. It begins with Wreck-Gar deploying explosives in a cavern underneath the head of Unicron. It’s like a modern-day Guy Fawkes moment.

Unicron, for all his vast mental ability is strangely oblivious. His attention is focused on Death’s Head who has somehow managed to inject his consciousness into Unicron’s vast mindscape. The planet eater is impressed by his slave’s resourcefulness and ‘bare faced effrontery’. Whilst it will not be enough to spare Death’s Head from oblivion, as a last request Unicron will share with him a story unheard of by any mortal – Unicron’s origin!

‘Elsewhere in the real world’ Rodimus Prime’s shuttle soars towards the planet of Junk. The Autobot leader ponders who Unicron really is and why he’s so hell bent on destroying Cybertron. He also watches Smokescreen at the ship’s controls with barely concealed contempt for abandoning Prime’s pal Wreck-Gar. Smokescreen takes it on the chin as he’s desperately disappointed by his own actions, but it’s hardly fair.

We learn from Unicron that he was once a god of chaos and fury who was pitched in an eternal battle against his counterpart, Primus, leader of the light gods and protector of all life in the universe. According to Unicron, he had the measure of Primus, both in the physical realm and the astral plane (perhaps wishful thinking on his part as the two seem essentially to be in stalemate). Primus knew this and outsmarted Unicron. He fled the astral plane with Unicron pursuing and materialised them both within enormous barren asteroids.

They appeared to be trapped for all eternity. However, as the millennia passed, Unicron used his fury and hatred to physically reshape his prison, becoming a mobile planet. Much later he was able to restructure himself further, adding a robot form. In effect he had become the first Transformer!

Primus had also shaped his body but rather than become a giant robot and continue their evenly matched battle, he instead chose to become the habitable world of Cybertron. He created the Transformers to succeed him and distilled his essence into a Matrix capable of giving life but also destroying Unicron. Pretty clever.

We also learn that Primus and Unicron shared a mental link and therefore is aware of the other’s motives and plans. Unicron knew the danger of the Matrix, which is why in the Movie he recruits Megatron and transforms him into Galvatron to act as his agent to capture and destroy the Matrix. As we know, Galvatron failed and Hot Rod eventually unleashed the power of the Matrix, becoming elevated into Rodimus Prime and destroying the planet eater.

Unicron’s concentration is broken as Rodimus’ shuttle arrives and begins a bombing run. He returns fire using the deadly laser eye beams we saw in the Movie. The Junkions are ordered to counterattack along with Death’s Head, who resists and is lucky to escape a Unicron eye beam in his direction. It’s enough, however, to send Wreck-Gar tumbling inside the underground shaft, burying him under rubble just as the detonator counts down. Eeks!

A Rodimus fact file rounds off the treats for issue #150 before we move on to the next issue and the concluding part of the Legacy of Unicron. There’s a hint on the Transformations page about a ‘major new development’ in the pipeline, which will turn out to be the closure of the weekly Action Force comic and amalgamating it into Transformers as the regular back-up strip. Bryan Hitch, one of the AF artists, makes his TF debut and makes an instant impact with a truly demonic depiction of Unicron’s head.

As Prime decamps to the surface of Junk, Smokescreen continues to strafe Unicron’s eye beams in an apparent death wish. He’s giving Scattershot the jitters and perhaps Unicron too, as the demi-god orders Cyclonus and Scourge to head for Junk to bolster his defences. With their departure from the battle on Cybertron, Soundwave can see no point in continuing the suicide attack and orders a strategic Decepticon retreat. This is the point where Soundwave can be said to have taken over the leadership of the future Decepticons.

Hitch strikes an incredibly dramatic pose for Rodimus Prime, who is wracked with guilt at the fate of the Junkion slaves (whom the Dinobots are busy dismantling). Death’s Head arrives with an appeal for Prime to trust him. Next thing he’s holding the Matrix up to Unicron alongside a defeated Rodimus and asking to bargain. Unicron immediately prepares to capture Death’s Head’s mind again and the bounty hunter propels Prime into the psychic plane where he confronts Unicron (appearing as regular sized) as a surrogate for Primus.

I’m not sure of what the point of the confrontation is. Rodimus is hopelessly out of his depth and runs a real of risk of losing the Matrix to the great enemy. Thankfully Death’s Head pulls him out in the nick of time, having also freed Wreck-Gar from his entombment.

Things then rush to a swift conclusion over the space of two pages. Cyclonus and Scourge arrive just as the explosives begin to detonate. Death’s Head knows the only route of escape – the only way to fulfil his contract on the pair – is to bundles all three of them into Unicron’s time portal so that they can fight another day. They vanish just as Unicron is engulfed in a catastrophic explosion that rains debris on to Rodimus and his allies.

As the dust settles, we learn that Unicron’s essence has been absorbed into the Matrix. Such a powerful evil would surely taint the sacred lifeforce but that’s a story for another time. In the short postscript we discover that Cyclonus and Scourge were transported to Cybertron’s past where they joined Scorponok’s army and this explains how the pair are able to exist in the past as Target Masters. Nicely done Simon Furman.

We end on a line about the real star of the show, ‘of Death’s Head there was no trace’. What happens to him? He’ll encounter Doctor Who at the crossroads of time but shrunk to human size and then wind up in Earth’s distant future in a springboard to his own monthly Marvel title.

So ends the first epic tale of 1988 with a lot more still to come.

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Legacy of Unicron (Parts 3 & 4)

Cyclonus and Scourge lead the Decepticons in a suicidal attack on the Autobots as part of Unicron’s insidious plan to decimate both warring factions, and Inferno meets a fiery end

A quick recap: Death’s Head pursued Cyclonus and Scourge to the Planet of Junk to execute them and complete the contract he agreed with the Autobot leader Rodimus Prime. There, on New Year’s Day 2008, they encountered the head of Unicron being rebuilt by an army of mind controlled Junkions. They were also enlisted into his service and used to assassinate the Decepticon leader Shockwave. With Cyclonus and Scourge now installed as the new leaders they are poised to launch an all-out attack on the Autobots to keep everyone distracted while Unicron rebuilds.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this six-part saga from 1988 has treated readers to one of the best starts to a Transformers story since, well, Simon Furman’s previous future epic, Wanted Galvatron. However, that story had started strongly and then quickly went south, and I must admit that Legacy was in danger of going the same say, as part three is in my opinion the weakest of the six. Thankfully it gets better.

As we go into issue #148, expectations are sky-high after those magnificent first and second instalments. In part three we’ve got an epic battle between the deadlocked Autobot and Decepticon factions in prospect so on paper it should be a good one. And artist Dan Reed deserves praise for the amazingly detailed sea of battling robots he renders over two pages and also the menacing, if slightly phallic, armada of jets that overfly Rodimus at the start.

It’s difficult to put a finger on why the issues a bit flat overall, but I think it’s because we’re detached from the action. We never delve into the battle and see characters that we care about bite the dust or perform heroics so its difficult to feel all that invested. Part three feels like it is just moving the plot on until the better stuff comes along.

It begins with Rodimus and Kup strolling on the veranda of their command centre on Cybertron. Kup is twitchy for some action and Prime is irritated by the gung-ho attitude. As Hot Rod he might have shared the sentiment, but as leader the death and destruction is a heavy burden to carry. We all know what’s coming and sure enough their words set up the splash page of the Decepticon forces swarming overhead like a scene from the Blitz. Evidently the Autobots don’t do radar, as they are ‘taken by surprise’ but they quickly scramble a full response.

This provides us with the high point of the issue, Reed’s double pager with the battle scene. It must have been a hell of a challenge and time consuming to pencil all the detail.

On Junk Unicron is watching events unfold through the eyes of Cyclonus and Scourge. His new shoulders are also starting to take shape! As I’ve mentioned before, it’s somewhat impractical for the Junkions to be hoisting him up and adding layers – much better to have rebuilt Unicron in space.

Wreck-gar, Inferno and Smokescreen have been watching in horror and hear Unicron boast of his intention to “descend on Cybertron” once his body is rebuilt and the Autobots and Decepticons have largely destroyed one another. They make a break for their shuttle, hoping to get back and warn Prime, but they are confronted with a (miscoloured green?) Junkion with a torso that really reminds me of Galvatron’s 1986 toy form. Wreck-gar is forced to take out the mind-controlled Junkion out with a flying axe, adding further to the Junkion leader’s immense distress. He’s still talking in TV references but less so. The situation is too serious for silly comments.

Then we have Death’s Head, the unofficial star of the show, for whom the Legacy of Unicron story is really an opportunity to showcase him ahead of his own Marvel UK monthly comic that is coming up later in 1988. Uniquely, because he’s Death’s Head and awesome, he’s able to display a stronger will than Cyclonus and Scourge and attempt to resist Unicron’s mental control. This only amuses Unicron who turns up the dial on his mental control. Soon DH is back in service and shoots Inferno in the back as the Autobots near their shuttle, causing the Autobot serious internal damage. Wreck-gar stays to battle Death’s Head and buy Smokescreen and the injured Inferno the time they need to blast off.

Unicron orders Wreck-gar to be finished off but again Death’s Head resists. He is swiftly punished with an influx of pain but allows the Junkion leader to scarper off. Death’s Head takes this a significant step forward in defying the mind control, as part three ends.

In the Grim Grams page, Grimlock responds to a reference to Autobot City being called Fortress Maximus by saying that it may have been named in honour of Max. Later in 1988, in the story Space Pirates, it would be confirmed that Autobot City was in fact Metroplex.

Onwards to issue #149, which is all about Inferno meeting his end in a massive ball of fire – only fitting really. Inferno is in fact one of the early Hasbro releases but for some reason he never featured in either the UK or US Transformers comics, save for an appearance in a UK annual text story which was not considered canon.

Finally, he shows up as part of the 2008 Autobots but sadly it doesn’t take long before Inferno comes to sticky end. On the plus side, it is a heroic and rather memorable exit and because these are future events, the way is clear for Inferno to make further appearances in the comics that are set in the ‘present day’, which he does.

The story opens with Smokescreen at the controls of a large Autobot ship, desperate to make it back to Cybertron and raise the alarm about Unicron’s return. For a moment it looks like Smokescreen and the injured Inferno (in the medical bay) might make it back in one piece, but they’ve come under aerial attack in the skies above their home world by Unicron’s agents Cyclonus and Scourge.

Without a co-pilot to man the guns, Smokescreen is a sitting duck. A quick check to the power core reveals it as near empty, and they are almost out of time. Suddenly the power gauge fills up, allowing them to pull the shuttle up. Inferno staggers in, and although severely injured he has been repairing the engines. Smokescreen fears his friend will not survive unless he returns to med bay but unless Inferno helps, they are both as good as dead anyway. The huge battle still rages below.

Inferno discovers that the ship is wrecked and has little chance of landing in one piece, so with a heroic effort, he lifts Smokescreen and hurls him out of the shuttle window, while remaining on board to direct the ship into the hordes of marauding Decepticons below. Smokescreen watches the incredible mushroom cloud that follows the explosion.

On Junk, Unicron is pleased as it suits his purpose to remain undetected. Death’s Head continues to provoke his master, which seem rather unwise, except that for now he knows he is more useful to Unicron alive than dead, and he’s testing for ways to loosen Unicron’s mental hold by distracting him.

Talking of distractions, Unicron has had his Junkion slaves – who were working flat out as it is – build him a time portal that he can use to snatch Galvatron from the past once the time is right. You would think however that the resources required for this side project would be enormous, and better directed at Unicron’s reassembly. Plus, unless Galvatron dies in the past he should still be around in 2008 and could be picked up then. I was always confused on this point as a reader in the 1980s but (spoiler warning) as we see in the 1989 story Time Wars, Galvatron does indeed meet his end in the past.

Meanwhile, Smokescreen makes it back to Autobase and fills Rodimus in on the new threat. Prime will have to go to Junk to confront Unicron, but how can he leave with all-out war unleashed on Cybertron? Grimlock is never one to underrate the Dinobots’ fighting abilities and suggests with them at Prime’s side, they can prevail against a planet eating god (perhaps with a bit of help from the Matrix too). So Rodimus, the Dinobots, Smokescreen and Scattershot will go to Junk for the big showdown.

The issue ends with Death’s Head making his move. He grabs his gun and blasts some of the Junkion workers. Unicron responds by wracking Death’s Head’s body with pain, allowing the bounty hunter an opening to project his mind into Unicron’s. Perhaps on the mental plain they can battle on equal terms… it seems rather unlikely but it does set the stage for the awesome 150th issue of Transformers where Unicron’s secrets (and the origins of the Transformers themselves) will be revealed. 

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Legacy of Unicron (Parts 1 and 2)

Death’s Head corners Cyclonus and Scourge on the Planet of Junk, where the all three are forcibly enlisted into an insidious plot hatched by the dismembered head of Unicron!

In January 1988, Marvel UK’s flagship comic, The Transformers, was ushering in a new year… except the one in question was 2008 – twenty years beyond the publication date! Yes it’s another story set in the post-Transformers Movie future, which will take the comic up to and beyond its milestone 150th issue.

Lee Sullivan’s cover for issue #146 depicts a wonderfully maniacal-looking Death’s Head poised to execute poor, battered and wretched Cyclonus, with a Junkion springing up all-jolly and shouting “G’Day!” Since Junkions use popular culture references for communication, I’m wondering whether the greeting is riffing off the Crocodile Dundee movies or maybe Aussie soap Neighbours, as that was taking off in the UK at the time.

The corner box also features Rodimus Prime raising a toast to the new year, which is a nice touch.

Ever since Target: 2006 proved a runaway success, Simon Furman has known there is a rich furrow to be ploughed in Transformers the Movie and post-Movie tie-ins. Not only are these popular with the readers, but they offer freedom from the comic’s usual constraints.

Back in the day a lot of the UK material consisted of the Marvel US stories. In fact the American material was the main canon and the home-grown British stories supplemented and expanded on these. Simon would take care not to do anything that might inadvertently contradict an upcoming US story (and for the most part was successful). However, future stories could be taken in any direction the liked, even killing off main characters, i.e. Shockwave, as we’ll see.

Issue #146’s Transformations page tries incredibly hard to tease the main story without giving away the title or the identity of the big threat. It’s fun to see how they fill a couple of hundred words saying without giving anything away, although I reckon most fans would have guessed the big reveal from the clues, I know I did at the time.

The story picks up the threads of 1987’s Headhunt, where Rodimus Prime paid Death’s Head an advance to hunt down the troublesome Cyclonus and Scourge. As 2008 dawns, that pursuit is entering its final stages in the skies above the Planet of Junk.

Scourge is hit with a blast from Death’s Head’s ship and goes down in a trail of smoke. His calls for Cyclonus to help fall on deaf ears, as apparently his partner-in-crime is in an ‘every man for himself’ mood, or is it a trick? (Ironically, the tables will be turned in the story Dry Run later that year). Scourge manages to style-out his crash-landing by transforming and aiming a blaster at Death’s Head’s ship, now hovering a few feet from him.

Scourge is obviously confused as to why he’s not under attack but quickly starts scanning around for a fuel tank he can blast. Death’s Head shows up, having been on the planet all along and operating his ship remotely. I particularly like the scene with Scourge on his knees feigning a plea for mercy (which Death’s Head regards with utter contempt) as Cyclonus swoops down to attempt a reverse-ambush and a surprise bombing run.

Death’s Head is a class act and manages to get clear of the explosions. He takes out Scourge and sticks a heat seeker on Cyclonus’ tail, forcing him to revert to his more vulnerable robot mode, where he too is quickly subdued. When you consider that Cyclonus and Scourge are two Unicron creations and elites (one hundred Autobots could not best them, Galvatron once said) all this underlines Death’s Head’s badass credentials. He’ll soon have his own Marvel UK monthly title, so the story is undoubtedly a showcase for the character.

Then, as per the cover, a Junkion rises from beneath a pile of debris. He’s more solemn than on the cover and implores Death’s Head to help free his people from the mental control of a being of vast power (a big clue there). Death’s Head doesn’t do freebies but is assured the Junkions are “among the richest traders in the galaxy” (not that you would think it to see the state of their planet) so this could be a profitable diversion.

He’ll need Cyclonus and Scourge to help with the operation, but he makes a mental note to double-cross the pair afterwards and kill them anyway. To not deliver on a contract would be bad for business after all. You’ve got to love him.

In a quick interlude, we see Rodimus bidding farewell to Wreck-gar who is heading back to that great fly-tip pile he calls home. There’s a genuine fondness between the two unlikely allies, perhaps because Wreck-gar has been at Prime’s side since his ascendance to the leadership. Wreck-gar departs in a shuttle, piloted by Smokescreen and the lesser seen Inferno, with Prime offering an appropriate farewell: “May all your programmes be sequels”.

Back on Junk, the attack goes badly awry. The Junkion, who was meant to be laying explosives, is discovered and quickly dispatched. Then powerful will commands Death’s Head, Cyclonus and Scourge to stand to attention. Artist Geoff Senior is on top form with a splash page making the big reveal – yes, it’s Unicron! No doubt there will have been genuine shock and excitement from the fans and the certain knowledge this is about to get epic…

Some quick thoughts on part one: Unicron is back as a head and is being reassembled by an army of Junkion slaves. Surely, they will have to keep hoisting him up to add layers, and it would be far easier to do the rebuilding in space. When last seen, Unicron was doing a slingshot around Cybertron and either entering into orbit or heading for deep space. You might expect that the Transformers would have kept tabs on their mortal enemy but apparently not. Junkions evidently have no long-range warning capabilities.

In the second instalment readers were assured, “if you thought last week’s episode was shocking, you are not going to believe what’s in store for you now!” They were not wrong. In fact, Shockwave’s demise in issue #147 is one of the best deaths of a main character I’ve ever seen in the comic. Truly unexpected and impactful.

The curtain rises on the Decepticons’ stronghold on Cybertron. It’s depicted from the outside with a couple of moons in the night sky behind it. Not that I spotted it at the time, but re-reading 33 years later it occurs to me that both of Cybertron’s moons were consumed by Unicron in the Movie – oops!

Commander Shockwave, flanked by his bodyguard, is on his way to the throne room to receive Death’s Head. The bounty hunter has returned out of the blue seeking compensation for Cyclonus and Scourge messing up the hit on Rodimus Prime. If as it turns out Death’s Head has executed the pair, he’ll have done Shockwave a favour. Ever cautious, he orders Soundwave to monitor from behind the scenes.

I have to admire Death’s Head’s gumption. He was hired by Shockwave to kill Prime and he failed. However, he still wants a pay out as it was two of Shockwave’s warriors who got in the way and messed it up. Rather than telling him to get lost, Shockwave agrees to pay up as he might have need of Death’s Head in the future.

First, he wants to be convinced that Cyclonus and Scourge are dead. Soundwave, monitoring from another room, scans for minds… the guards, Shockwave, his bounty hunter guest… and, surprise, surprise the not-dead-after-all Cyclonus and Scourge! With that Death’s Head turns and fires at the throne, disintegrating it but finding Shockwave gone. The Decepticon leader pops up to return fire, showing himself to be a wily (and worthy) opponent.

Elsewhere Smokescreen, Inferno and Wreck Gar find the Planet of Junk deserted. The absence of a welcome party is a concern and it doesn’t take long before they stumble across the horrific scene of Unicron being rebuilt by enslaved Junkions. So, now the Autobots are aware of Unicron’s return, but can they get word back to Rodimus Prime?

Meanwhile, Death’s Head pursues Shockwave deeper into the labyrinthine Decepticon base and comes across a target range with effigies of Prime and key Autobots. Its reminiscent of the final showdown between 007 and the Man With The Golden Gun in the film of that title.

We learn that Death’s Head can still think for himself but Unicron maintains a subliminal control and the ability to punish (much like the hold he retained over Galvatron in the Transformers Movie) and as a result Death’s Head’s senses are dulled. This is an edge for Shockwave, as is the advantage of facing his adversary on home turf.

As Death’s Head contemplates whether the real Rodimus would be laughing if he could see the galaxy’s most feared bounty hunter “killing for free”, the Prime effigy rolls forward propelled by Shockwave. Death’s Head gets the jitters and blasts it, coming under attack by Shockwave and incurring a blast wound to his leg. Shockwave is on fine fighting form here it must be said.

Then he gets overconfident and steps out into the open – fatal. Another Autobot target rolls forward and Shockwave thinks Death’s Head is trying to trick him with his own tactic. Little does he realise that Death’s Head is hiding behind the target and opens fire at close range leaving the Decepticon leader badly damaged and spewing circuitry from his chest wounds. The defeated Shockwave sinks to his knees and Death’s Head (turning away in self-disgust) blows him to bits. Praising Shockwave as a worthy adversary, and promising to avenge them both, Death’s Head reaches into the Decepticon’s skull and crushes his brain module. Wow – there’s no coming back from that it would seem.

Meanwhile Menasor has pounded in the throne room doors and Cyclonus and Scourge are on their knees about to be executed (so much for the warriors who are superior to one hundred Autobots). Death’s Head arrives to save their bacon. He announces that Shockwave is dead and Cyclonus and Scourge will be the new leaders, and if not, he’ll let go of his hold on an explosives trigger and blow the fortress sky high. Soundwave would rather like to kill the lot of them and take over himself, but he’s not about to call Death’s Head’s bluff and responds by hailing Cyclonus and Scourge as the new joint commanders.

On Junk Unicron’s eyes glow with pride as he realises the first phase of his plan has been achieved. Cyclonus and Scourge will instigate a suicidal attack on the Autobots which few will survive, he declares.

So, in closing… wow. It’s not often we see a major character destroyed in Transformers (with the exception of Optimus Prime, naturally!!) but Shockwave’s death in ‘the future’ does not preclude him from appearing in the regular continuity. Indeed, as we’ll see in later stories, past Shockwave will learn of his future counterpart’s death and lose his mind over it.

I had thought that Transformer brain modules were globular. That’s the case for Skids when Circuit Breaker extracts his brain in issue #94. Shockwave’s vital components are rectangular and suggest that internal components can vary from robot to robot. Also, Menasor shouldn’t be here because one of his component parts, Wildrider, was executed by Megatron in the Earthforce stories. This suggests he survived somehow and was rebuilt.

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Ark Duty

Hot Rod is ordered to guard the Ark from Decepticon attack but can’t resist leaving his post when he sees Kup under attack from the Stunticons

At the end of March 2020, as the UK went into lockdown, and have some unexpected time on my hands due to no longer commuting for 1.5 hours a day, I embarked on this project to re-read and review all of my classic 1980s and 90s Transformers comics. It’s been a lot of fun, I might say a blast from the past and I’ve been struck by how good those stories still are despite the passage of time. A year and two weeks later, I’ve reached the end of 1987 with Ark Duty… a story from the Transformers Annual of that year.

Somewhat unusually there are none of the usual credits, so it’s difficult to be sure who the production team is. I would hazard a guess though that its a Simon Furman story with Will Simpson on art duties; I’m pretty sure its his style.
This seven page story is a nice, compact little tale, which fills in some of the gaps between the then ‘present day’ (1980s) era and the Transformers the Movie set up.

It defies the usual Furman practice of setting future stories exactly 20 years on from the publication date by being set in 2003. Ultra Magnus is now the Autobot commander on Earth (no explanation is given for Optimus Prime’s absence, but we might assume that he’s on Cybertron’s moons at this put overseeing the operation to retake the homeworld) and plans have been drawn up to build Autobot City Earth. Obviously in the Movie, which is set in 2005/6 depending on whether you follow cartoon or comic continuity, the city is built.

We open with Magnus in the Ark showing the gathered Autobots a video simulation of how Autobot City will be able to withstand and repel a Decepticon attack. Magnus alludes to the fact that the Ark contains many valuable secrets that cannot be allowed to fall into Decepticon hands – this is intriguing as we have no idea what these secrets may be. My feeling it’s something in the Ark/Auntie’s data banks. He also speaks of the Autobots having been given land and all the materials they need by Earth’s governments, which rather suggests that humanity has finally accepted the Autobots as their protectors. It’s taken a while. I wonder if even Circuit Breaker has stopped attacking Autobots and is targeting Decepticons at last by 2003?

Magnus explains that all Autobots will take part in the convoy to collect the materials they need for the city, except for Hot Rod, Kup and Blurr. Oddly enough the trio are not Targetmasters, despite becoming bonded to Nebulans over the course of 1987, and the Ark is still embedded in the side of Mount St Hillary, that’s despite it being repaired and returned to orbit in the main Transformers strip by the end of the year. This begs the question of whether Ark Duty is in the same continuity as the regular comic. It’s likely that its in the Transformers Movie alternate reality. For anyone who doesn’t know what I mean, the Transformers comic departed from the Movie future by having Unicron show up and attack Cybertron in 1991 and not 2005/6. This pretty much cast the Movie into a different reality to the comic stories.

The Decepticon spy Ravage observes from the wings, his electro-magnetic shield ensuring that he remains undetected. When Magnus reveals that Kup will deliver a top secret data tape to the human authorities, Ravage determines to steal it and tasks the Stunticons with intercepting the Autobot old timer. (It’s great to see the under-used Stunticons again).

Kup made a point of ordered Hot Rod to guard the Ark and not to leave under any circumstances. Blurr is uttering dialogue similar to his lines in the Movie (“positively absolutely certain” sounding like his “absolutely positively definitely”) but unlike the Movie which Blurr is something of a novelty character and quite fun, here he’s just plain annoying. When Hot Rod sees Kup getting roughed up by Motormaster and his crew on screen, he wastes no time in defying orders and setting out after his colleague.

After checking Kup is okay, he takes off after the Stunticon convoy to retrieve the stolen tape. Hot Rod doesn’t stick around to allow Kup to tell him something important, namely that the tape is a fake and they wanted the Decepticons to steal it. Hot Rod catches up with the Stunticons and challenges them. Shortly after, Kup arrives and finds Hot Rod beaten up and left bruised and battered at the roadside.

He explains the plan and thanks Hot Rod for making it seem all the more convincing. Now they will be left alone to build the city as the Decepticons will believe they know its secrets, he says. The obvious flaw in the logic is that the Decepticons will surely know that the Autobots are aware that their plans have been stolen and are likely to change the plans. Hot Rod apologises and insists he will stay in the Ark next time, but Kup somehow doubts it. They hobble off together into the sunset.

I liked this story overall because it bridges the divide between the present day 80s set-up and the Autobots we see in the Transformers Movie. It’s also a welcome to see Ravage back to his cunning best (he hasn’t been seen since he disappeared down a mine shaft of course) and the Stunticons are rarely used, compared to other special teams. The dynamic between Hot Rod and Kup is established by this point. They are polar opposites but true friends.

Now its time to fast forward from 2003 to January 2008 and a post-Movie showdown on the Planet of Junk between Death’s Head, Cyclonus and Scourge.

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Stargazing

A homesick Starscream is encouraged to learn the joy of giving at Christmas time!

It feels a bit odd to review a Transformers Christmas story in the middle of April. Then again today has been hailstones and a biting wind so perhaps its appropriately wintery after all. Roll on the spring please!

Stargazing is the third in what would become an annual tradition of Marvel UK’s festive Transformers stories. They are typically snow-sprinkled, somewhat smaltzy tales of an Autobot or Decepticon discovering the Christmas spirit or overcoming some personal drama thanks to the festive season. Previously we’ve seen Circuit Breaker sparing Jazz after hearing Christmas bells, and Jetfire recovering his lost confidence thanks to a pep talk from Buster Witwicky as he took a break from wrapping presents. So it seems a logical step to feature a Decepticon this year – in this case Starscream.

Somewhat unusually, Simon Furman provides the plot but its his old editor Ian Rimmer who wrote the script for Stargazing. Jeff Anderson provides the interior art and there’s an enjoyable ‘Christmas so what?’ cover featuring Screamer that’s been drawn by Barry Kitson (first time we’ve seen him in a long while) and Robin Boutell.

We last saw Starscream way back in issue #88 when (at the conclusion of Target 2006) he was placed in stasis by Hot Rod, Kup and Blurr, who were visiting from the future to carry out a mission for Unicron. According to the splash page that pod was just a few metres from a main road that’s obviously busy enough to warrant a street light, yet nobody seems to have noticed it in the previous 12 months!

With the pod now opened, Starscream awakens and the story begins with him staring at the night sky and suffering from a severe bout of homesickness. His previous all-consuming ambition to lead the Decepticons has left him – all that it had achieved was to get him put on ice. Now he just wants to see Cybertron again.

Starscream hears a voice…. and sees a human standing at his feet, who recognises him as a Transformer. We never find out his name but he looks like a long lost member of the Proclaimers. Perhaps it’s the ghost of Christmas present come to cheer up Starscream the Scrooge? Starscream tells him to get lost, and then my favourite line of the story, “It’s a sure sign of how bad things are when I can’t even stir up the enthusiasm to squash a fleshling”.

This is a youth with a death wish I think. He tests Starscream’s tolerance by suggesting he would cheer up if he knew what Christmas was about and challenges him to admit he doesn’t know about the occasion. The Decepticon’s internal data file gives a brief and mundane description of the calendar event, but the human tells Starscream he is missing the point. This fleshling wont live long enough to see Christmas Day the way he’s going – but when the youth asks to be released so he can go home Starscream admits to being envious that this human can do what he cannot.

So, in a rare moment of indulgence, he transforms into his jet mode invites the human to show him the spirit Christmas, thinking it might cure his depression. I particularly enjoy the panel with Starscream’s arm emerging from his jet mode to chuck the kid into the cockpit.

Proclaimer kid hopes they will see people giving presents, as they pass over a familiar looking police car. Helping the needy conflicts with the Decepticon ethos of course, the weak give and the strong take. These Autobot sentiments are not for him. They spot a bus caught in a snowdrift and the human thinks it the perfect opportunity for Starscream to show compassion. It would be simplicity itself for Starscream to free the vehicle but he fails to see what’s in it for him.

At that moment the police car from earlier – the Protectobot Streetwise arrives and attacks. Christmas or not, it wouldn’t be Transformers without some action. Starscream is taken by surprise but he’s sure he has the superior firepower than a small Protectobot. As they brawl the people in the bus are placed in greater peril and Starscream’s friend steps-in, telling Streetwise he should be ashamed seeing as Starscream was about to help these humans! The Autobot doesn’t believe it so Starscream smugly lifts the bus from the snowdrift and places it on the road. The bus passengers cheer before going on their way, escorted by Streetwise.

The youth is sure Starscream must have got satisfaction from his good deed. However, Starscream makes out that he was simply motivated to humiliate an Autobot! The human gives up, thinking this Transformer is beyond redemption. All he can do is bid Starscream ‘Merry Christmas’ as the Decepticon laughs and walks off. He takes a few steps and then pauses, perhaps a twinge of conscience or a remnant from the earlier events, he turns and wishes the youth a Merry Christmas back!

It’s a nice note to end on and perhaps a sinister turn there too, as we realise Starscream is on the way back to being his treacherous best. Streetwise’s presence is interesting from a continuity standpoint. When the Protectobots freed Blaster and bade him farewell in the captured Blast Off, my assumption was that they had missed the Ark’s launch and were stuck on Earth. Had they have been picked up on the way you would have thought that the team would have been severed punished for allowing Blaster to go free – but in Space Hikers the Protectobot Blades was clearly aboard, so how is Streetwise on Earth for Christmas? Perhaps its a sign that even while space borne, the Autobots are still able to pop down to Earth for missions.

On that note, we’ll shortly bid a fond farewell to 1987 – a very prolific year for the comic – and get stuck into the next lot of twists and turns from 1988, including a character’s shocking and rather epic return! But first a final story from the 1987 annual.

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