Showdown!

Skids returns in a heart-warming ‘robot meets girl’ story with flashes of The Terminator and High Noon thrown in for fun. Can he be the first Autobot to successfully ‘check out’ from the Transformers war?

Showdown! was published in Marvel UK’s weekly Transformers comic in two instalments cover dated August 1986. The tendency was to release the comic about a week before the actual date stated on the cover. I know this, as my copy of issue #72 – with the brilliant Ravage close-up by Geoff Senior – took some battle damage from an apple crumble I made in Home Economics (cookery) class and transported home in the same rucksack. That was on the last week of school in late July, and sadly the comic still bears the scars 34 years later!

The story is from the US team, and is written as brilliantly as ever by Bob Budiansky with art from Herbe Trimpe (who also provides the Skids vs Megatron cover for the second instalment). As mentioned in the intro, it’s a mixed bag of themes – part love story, part facing up to responsibilities, and it’s also a chase thriller. Skids, Charlene and Donny are relentlessly pursued by Ravage and (in Skids’ case) by an unhinged sports car driver.

While not exactly slow, it is a more sedate story than Bob’s recent work which has included the epic Return to Cybertron saga and action-packed Command Performances. Some may not take to it as a result, but for this reviewer Showdown! is one of my favourites, mostly for the core relationship between Skids and Charlene.

Skids is a likeable character, particularly for his curiosity. That was evident from the petrol station comedy scene in Rock and Roll Out, and for me he stood out as the best of the new bunch of Autobots introduced in that story. It’s great to see Skids strike out on his own here, and be given a spotlight in a comic that is getting pretty crowded for characters by this point.

Bob specialises in grounding his Transformers stories with human characters and interactions. He does it well and constantly, so perhaps exploring a romance between a human and a Transformer was inevitable at some point. It’s tastefully done, avoiding suggestions of anything sexual for the most part, with the notable exception of Charlene in hotpants ‘pleasuring’ Skids by polishing his hubcaps!

The story is also a final outing for Ravage. I’m not sure if it was ever Bob’s intention to write him out permanently, but with a constant supply of new characters to be introduced he never got around to bringing Ravage back (though he would reappear courtesy of the UK stories – in issue 200!).

Geoff Senior’s cover, Ravage ripping up Robot Master’s cape with his jaws, sets up the story nicely. The Decepticon jaguar is swiftly crossing the Wyoming wilderness ‘like a midnight breeze’ in pursuit of the escaped Donny Finkleberg, who the Decepticons were using to put out anti-Autobot propaganda, but who legged it last issue.

Not too far ahead, Donny is still wearing the ridiculous Robot Master costume but stumbles across a small camp that is luckily unoccupied at this moment. Even better, there’s spare clothes that he can change into. He leaves money and buries the orange costume. He must contact the Autobots as soon as possible to warn them of Decepticon reinforcements coming over the Space Bridge. Ironically, in his haste to find an Autobot he passes by the injured Autobot Skids, who after toppling from a cliff remains helpless.

Ravage reaches the small camp site, and after incinerating it with a fire blast, checks the debris – there is no seared flesh or charred bones, and no fleshling!! Here it becomes apparent that Ravage’s mission is not to recapture Donny, but to eliminate him – presumably this in order to stop him spilling the beans about the Robot Master hoax but perhaps also for professional pride, after all this human dared to give Ravage the slip and this humiliation must be avenged.

In a small town several miles away, a checkout woman called Charlene is missing her old car. She would often use it to get away from the hum-drum of life. Her co-worker and admirer, Wendell, can see she is down and offers to take her for a drive after work, which she gratefully accepts. Charlene’s thirst for adventure leads the pair to head towards an old gold mine. They encounter the injured Skids, who despite being incapable of speaking, manages to put his radio on to get some attention. It’s like something Bumblebee would do in the Bay films years later.

Charlene assumes the van to be abandoned and is keen to claim it and get it roadworthy again. Money could be a problem, but luckily Wendell’s cousin is a mechanic (and presumably a sucker for a pretty girl with a hard luck story as he does the work for free). I assumed Wendell was a surname, but since his cousin also calls him it, perhaps it’s an unusual first name?

Whatever, in no time the familiar Honda van is fixed in the workshop. A contented Skids stays silent, he finds the idea of being Charlene’s car quite interesting and certainly a lot safer than being part of the never-ending Transformers civil war. As he’s leaving the garage with Charlene, trouble appears in the shape of our old friend Jake Dalrymple (of the pink Lamborghini) and his long-suffering partner Frannie. Recognising Skids as the one who dented him (in issue 70), and apparently causing Skids to tumble down the mountain side wasn’t revenge enough, he takes up the tail.

Skids demonstrates that Autobots have some extraordinary abilities on the road compared to your average car, such as leaping in the air and driving along a fence (how it can support his weight I don’t know). All these things should convince Dalrymple to stay clear, but he is a determined chap it seems. He ends up colliding with a workman’s ladder and getting his beloved car covered in green paint, which serves him right.

Of course, it means that the game is up for Skids. As Charlene flees, he’s forced to transform and reveal himself. He displays holograms of Megatron and the war on Cybertron and tells her how he wants to escape that life and just be her car. In his old life had been an anthropologist, and his natural curiosity about the surroundings dovetails nicely with Charlene’s own interests. He quickly becomes the companion she’s been looking for.

Meanwhile, Donny overhears Jake and Frannie in a bar discussing Skids. He realises there’s an Autobot nearby and sets out to find him. Charlene and Skids develop their friendship over the next few days. He chats to her through the bedroom window and she educates him about the old west, with artefacts, memorabilia and her love for that age of adventure. She shows Skids her favourite film ‘High Noon’, in which the hero marshal is willing to die for what he believes in. Skids is impressed, but also uncomfortable as it’s a reminder that he is essentially an Autobot deserter and running away from his duty to fight the Decepticons.

Skids cuts a tragic figure at times, telling Charlene that his only memories are of war. She is determined to change that, and the pair set out to explore the tranquillity of the unspoilt wilderness. Poor Wendell asks if she is up for a date, but Charlene has no time for him now that she’s got Skids.

Soon enough, the outside world comes crashing in. Charlene is hosing down the ex-Autobot in her driveway when the pair are confronted by Donny (who is hilariously still wearing the borrowed clothes from earlier, even though this is several days later). Skids stays silent, letting Charlene issue denials – he doesn’t want to go back to his old life – but then Ravage attacks and he’s forced to bundle both humans aboard and take off at speed.

Ravage is hot in pursuit, deploying his fire breath, and so is Jake Dalrymple, who was checking the successful paint removal job on his Lamborghini when he Skids thundered past. Now comes the High Noon element as Skids, Donny and Charlene hide out in an old abandoned mining town. Dalrymple, who has followed them, walks up to Skids and smashes his front windscreen with a swing of his tire iron. (This guy has got a serious obsession!) Skids screams in pain, and hallucinates about Megatron holding Charlene and demanding a wild west showdown. Skids doesn’t want to fight anymore and is ripped in two by Megatron’s fusion cannon…

Thankfully, it was all a dream. Charlene is fine, but perhaps not for much longer if Skids cannot stop Ravage. The Decepticon crashes through a wooden building, knocking Skids on to his side. Jake drives his Lamborghini into the charging Decepticon, leaving him momentarily stunned. What happened here exactly? Did Jake have an attack of conscience, or was he just trying to protect his girlfriend? It buys Skids enough time to transform and accept that his fate is to be an Autobot warrior and defend the humans.

Ravage collapses a building on Skids, but he deflects the Decepticon with a piece of debris. Ravage fires a missile which hits Skids hard in the back, but as he pounces to finish him, Skids rolls clear and Ravage plunges down a deep mine shaft. Charlene is just pleased the ordeal is over, but Skids has realised that he cannot escape his fate and must return to the Autobots.

It’s a sad note to end their relationship on, but Skids reminds her that she still has Wendell. I’d like to think they ended up happily ever after, but if Charlene was keen she wouldn’t have side-lined the poor guy for an Autobot. So he’ll have his work cut out. Interestingly, a speech bubble from Skids on the final page has been altered – “I’m going back with Donny, back to my people – the Autobots!” has been altered to – “When my wounds heal, I’m going back to the Autobots”.

In closing, Showdown! is a nice story and a touching, if at times sickly-sweet friendship between Skids and Charlene, with Donny providing the comedy element. With so many characters in the comic these days, it is a rare thing that two can get such a prominent show and prove quite easily that a smaller amount of characters can provide just as good a tale as an epic battle.

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Command Performances

Omega Supreme bests Megatron and seven other Decepticons on his debut, as Optimus Prime takes the fight to the enemy by leading a full-scale assault on the Decepticon base.

Transformers US writer Bob Budiansky continues his recent run of good form with another cracker of a story, and once again it introduces a new character from the toy range – the immensely powerful Omega Supreme. As the cover to TFUS#19 proclaims “You asked for him – you got him!”. I’m not sure there was any great clamour in the UK for Omega to appear, mostly because he was not included in the truncated Hasbro toy range we had over here.

Command Performances was published in TFUK#70 and #71 in July 1986, about a month before its release in the States. Omega Supreme is talked up in the UK comic’s opener ‘Transformation’, as a “rocket and tank rolled into one giant package, making him the Autobots’ most powerful weapon”. He would certainly live up to the billing once we saw him in action. Though, as a friend of mine wryly observed back in the day, Omega Supreme suffered from “diminishing hardness”, which is to say he was unbeatable on his debut but would become more run-of-the-mill regular in subsequent appearances, culminating in his defeat by a super-powered Starscream in a much later issue.

As this one begins, every functioning Autobot is assembled outside the Ark to hear Optimus Prime unveil their newest warrior. Designed and built by Grapple to be the Ark’s last line of defence, he is Omega Supreme. There’s a reference to the previous story Rock and Roll Out where Grapple was side-lined to work on a special project for Optimus – this is it.

Prime explains that with Omega protecting the Ark, the Autobots will launch an assault on the Decepticon base in order to provoke Devastator into battle. They hope to capture his combination sequence and use it to assist in building their own combiner teams, the Aerialbots and Protectobots. Omega Supreme transforms into a huge robot that towers over a sceptical Ratchet and the others. He looks every bit the ultimate Autobot that Prowl wanted to build at the start of the year and Prime refused to sanction. To be fair Prowl was talking at the time about super soldiers to pursue an aggressive strategy of hunting down and destroying the Decepticons, while Omega’s function is defensive.

The disgruntled Dinobots, not seen in the US storyline since their debut (but recently recovered from their psychosis from the Dinobot Hunt in the UK expanded continuity), refuse to take part in the attack. In the US comic their reason is that they are fed up with being locked down in the Ark because their alt-modes are too conspicuous, and finally with some action in the offering they are pissed off to find out that the Autobots will retreat when they have secured Devastator’s codes. The UK version is less coherent, with speech bubbles doctored to have Grimlock dismissing the mission as a fool’s errand.

Prime gives the impression that this mission is a major deal and he has planned for every eventuality, including the Dinobots being difficult. Skids has his doubts about the wisdom of assaulting the no-doubt fortified Decepticon base for something they might not be able to use, in a premonition of trouble to come.

Over at the coal strip mine in Wyoming which serves as an unlikely base for the Decepticons (now under the joint leadership of Shockwave and Megatron) the Constructicons have been hard at work erecting fortifications around the rim. It’s good timing all things considered. In the US version Shockwave mentions that he ‘found and brought them back’. This begs the question of where they wandered off to. The wording is tweaked in the UK version to avoid this.

Once again, we see poor Donny Finkleberg, aka Robot Master, still wisecracking his captors but terrified that his number could be up at any minute. How he can possibly escape these giant megalomaniacs with Ravage constantly breathing down his neck?

To Shockwave, Donny is evidence of Megatron’s unfitness to command. Whereas Megatron takes a blast at the defences out of frustration at their hiding behind fortifications – Decepticons should be free to go where they please and conquer he says, illustrating the two very different leadership styles. Megatron summons Starscream and the seekers, along with Laserbeak, Buzzsaw, Rumble and Frenzy, and they go to greet their Decepticon brethren who should have arrived across the Space Bridge by now (obviously unknowing of last issue’s events).

The Autobot convoy rolls through Wyoming. They are depicted eight abreast which suggests to me a very wide road. Skids watches humans doing things like washing their cars and starts thinking how much nicer it might be to have an Earth vehicle’s life (a clue as to next issue’s plot). While daydreaming he clips a Lamborghini being driven Jake Dalrymple – a massive douche who speaks about himself in the third person, and immediate vows to get revenge on Skids (who left the scene of the accident without stopping, albeit on the orders of Optimus Prime). Jetfire causes a diversion as the Autobots smash through an army barrier to advance on the Decepticon base. Jake and his girlfriend follow and are immediate stopped by the army at gunpoint.

John Stokes’ cover of this issue depicting the Autobot attack, is then mirrored by events in the story as Prime orders his Autobots to charge the Decepticon gun turrets… with predictable results. You might think the Autobots would have spied on the Decepticon base to learn of its fortifications, rather than running blindly towards them – and what if the Decepticons were not even there, this would have been a pointless exercise?!

Megatron meanwhile discovers that the new arrivals they were expecting are not Decepticons at all – they are Autobots: Blaster and the rest of the ‘Cybertron Seven’. He’s about to order the attack, when Shockwave radios the news that the Decepticon base is under siege. Megatron realises that the Ark must be vulnerable, and they head there to capture it.

Part two, opens with Skids snared by a tentacle and a gigantic axe poised to cut him in two. Optimus frees him but takes a hit from the blade. Shockwave decides that it is time for Devastator to turn the tide of the battle. We learn that the combination sequence takes less than 30 seconds – this sounds quite slow in the heat of a battle and lends credence to the claim that the Special Teams are a technological advancement – and the giant soon appears holding a huge bolder. However, the Autobots react faster and destroy it.

Bumblebee has recorded the Constructicons’ combination sequence and with the objective secured, the Autobots retreat. Shockwave is happy to let them go, while Ravage realises that Donny Finkleberg has made a run for it. As the smoke dies down, he picks up the scent, and follows….

Megatron and the other Decepticons approach the Ark and are pleased to see just a tank and rocket booster guarding it. Their overconfidence proves their undoing. Skywarp is blown to pieces with one shot, and when the Decepticons revert to robot modes and advance, they are swiftly repelled by the intense electrical current generating from Omega’s track.

Omega Supreme transforms into his humongous robot mode – and dispatches the Decepticons one-by-one, with a series of wordy but instantly iconic phrases – “I am the guardian of the gates, the planner of your obsolescence, the number you cannot compute”. Megatron reels as his warriors are picked off and left mangled, smoking and crumpled. It is rare to see the Decepticon leader so comprehensively beaten – even his infamous Fusion Cannon has no effect on this opponent. A huge swing then takes Megatron down and he’s about to be reduced to scrap (as we learned from the full-page fact-file on Omega Supreme, he can shatter mountains and pulverise steel) – but Laserbeak swoops in and retrieves his leader. The pair disappear east.

The still satisfying results are transmitted to the Autobot convoy racing away from the Decepticon base. Skids apologises to Optimus for doubting his plan, but they are not home and dry yet. Jake Dalrymple runs out in front of Skids causing him to swerve, and Ravage seizes the opportunity to score a direct missile hit on Skids, sending him tumbling into the ravine. The Autobots cannot afford (can’t think why!) and press on.

But for this late setback Prime’s ‘command performance’ had been exemplary – Megatron’s on the other hand has not. At the Decepticon base, Shockwave is resolved to execute him for gross incompetence. A battered Megatron rises to his feet to accuse Shockwave of allowing a trap to spring up around him. The Decepticon warriors lost “mean nothing and can be replaced” (I love this line, it’s such a Decepticon thing to say – and since the advent of the Space Bridge, very true) and at least with Megatron’s actions the Autobots know that the Decepticons are ready to strike at any time. Shockwave ponders this before accepting his failure and acknowledging Megatron as the leader.

Ever since Megatron was relieved of his command and then beaten in battle by Shockwave, I always expected he would win the leadership back. However, I do have a hard time seeing how Shockwave can logically view Megatron’s approach as the better one, given that his unprepared attack ensured they took a solid beating from the Autobots and six of their warriors have ended up deactivated and put into cold storage. It’s hard to see this as anything other than abject failure.

Overall though, another solid story and very successful in toy advertisement terms, with most readers probably wanting to get Omega Supreme at the earliest opportunity after this (too bad if you lived in the UK though!). There is the first two instalments of the new back-up strip, Hercules, in which the Greek god enjoys intergalactic adventures with his robotic friend, The Recorder. It’s easily the best back-up that the UK comic would have – and a distinct improvement on Rocket Racoon which I found weird (though he’s great in the Guardians of the Galaxy films). There’s a teaser for upcoming stories (I always loved those) hinting at another Dinobot epic and the biggest, most ambitious story the comic has ever attempted. It’ll star Ultra Magnus and Galvatron and tie-in with the hotly anticipated Transformers Movie – we’ll come to know it as Target:2006. The comic feels like its going from strength to strength in this moment. Next issue – Skids versus Ravage (and Jake the douche).

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The Bridge to Nowhere!

Lord Straxus activates his Space Bridge, linking Cybertron to Earth. Unless the Autobots stop them, the Decepticons could send unlimited reinforcements to plunder our world. The stakes are high in the Marvel TF classic by Budiansky and artist Don Perlin.

July 1986. As I entered the final weeks of my first year at secondary school, good things were afoot in the world of Transformers comics (my escape from stresses of everyday life). We’d just had the fantastic Smelting Pool story, introducing a host of new characters from the wider toy range and my new favourite Autobot, Blaster. I’d been blown away by that story, which was (and would remain) one of Bob Budiansky’s finest, and equally delighted that we’d be getting a further instalment – The Bridge to Nowhere. I knew it would struggle to reach the uncommon heights of the Smelting Pool (and would be correct) but Phil Gascoine’s fine cover to TFUK#68, depicting the two planets joined and the faces of Prime, Megatron, Perceptor and Straxus, created the impression of more excitement to come.

The Transformation page sets the scene – after four million years of radio silence, contact is made with Cybertron, but it’s the Decepticons getting in touch. As we saw last issue, Straxus (ruler of the Polyhex province) was overseeing the frantic construction of something epic. It was a project that required the kidnap of a neutral scientist – Spanner – who Blaster, a leading light of the local Autobot resistance, is obsessed with for reasons we never find out. Perhaps there’s a back history there we’re not privy too, or maybe just Blaster’s innate concern for any innocent taken captive by the Decepticons. In this story we find out that the construction project was in fact a Space Bridge, and Spanner is very closely involved (more on that later).

If last issue was unusual for the absence of Earth and humans (save for a glimpse via Soundwave’s message) this issue resumes normal service. It opens on the Columbia River Gorge, home to some of the most spectacular scenery in Northern Oregon. ‘Charlie and Rita’ are driving through a rugged track overlooked by mountains and pine, when they spot a gigantic metal bridge that piques their curiosity. They drive their red Jeep onto it, only to slam on the brakes when they realise to their horror that it stops halfway!

As the couple make a hasty U-turn, a gigantic robot appears from nowhere and explodes spectacularly! They drive away at speed just as the bridge begins to vanish… only to re-materialise on Cybertron, several light years away, where it reconnects to its other half.

Lord Straxus, the badass Decepticon despot, already showed the cruel contempt he holds for his Autobot prisoners. It seems this also extends to his Decepticon lackies as well – as he orders a robot onto the bridge to investigate the malfunction. He promptly explodes as well. Shrapnel contacts Spanner to identify the issue (a faulty fuel line). Blaster is watching and recording from above in his Cybertronian communications device mode. It’s a pretty useless alt mode when it comes to travel or combat, it must be said. Luckily, someone with a more useful alternative form – the plane Powerglide – arrives to collect him and they return to the Autobot secret underground base.

Blaster is keen to rescue Spanner. In some way this would allow him to atone, at least partially, for having to abandon Scrounge last issue. But the news that the bridge is almost operational is top priority for Perceptor, who needs every Autobot to play their part in destroying it. The Decepticons must not be allowed to reach Earth and endanger that distant world.

And what of the Earth? We see it now surrounded by a weird cloud (like Roadrunner has zipped around it). I’m not sure why Don Perlin drew the Earth so strangely. In Wyoming, Megatron and Soundwave are holed up in the coal mine along with the human captive Donny Finkleberg, aka Robot Master. Ravage now arrives with a vending machine full of candy bars for the prisoner’s food. Robot Master has just finished another Autobot-bashing broadcast to North America but tests the limited patience of Megatron even further by complaining about his poor treatment and lack of appreciation.

Shockwave arrives with the other flying Decepticons and the two square-up briefly. Interestingly, three of the panels have been altered in the UK comic to reflect the situation from Transformers #65 where Megatron and Shockwave agreed to try out a joint leadership. In the US none of the UK extras are published, so as far as the American audience is concerned this is the first meeting between the two leaders since Megatron reappeared. The square up for a fight but are interrupted by the holographic form of Lord Straxus. He acknowledges Soundwave’s (sent in issue #36) and offers to help the Decepticons conquer Earth, adding that they have a means of instantaneous travel between the two distant worlds.

The news is enough to restore the truce between Shockwave and Megatron. And in the US version it becomes the reason for the pair agreeing to put their differences and make the necessary preparations. Donny hears about the Earth being drained of its natural resources and realises he must escape and warn the Autobots.

In the second half (published in TFUK#69), Straxus oversees the final stages of the Space Bridge’s activation from viewpoint high up in Darkmount. Little does he realise that Perceptor and his crew have tunnelled underneath the stronghold and are busy planting explosives. Everything Warpath utters seems to be related to shooting or warfare, and his line now “nothing pleases me more than a big blast”, raises a smile. Two ‘extras’, Corkscrew and Borebit, drill an escape tunnel to the surface, where the Autobots come under instant attack. It’s not clear if the pair are the first victims, but as a rule, any character who is not part of the Hasbro toy line is usually guaranteed to die.

Darkmount explodes and crumbles. Straxus falls, transforming into a fearsome-looking flying cannon, and vowing revenge. This little act of destruction is but a diversion to allow Blaster on to the Space Bridge to plant more explosives. He’s busy doing that when the bridge begins to transform. It reveals itself to be none other than the missing Spanner. In a nice twist, which for once I’d not had an inkling about, he’d not only been used by the Decepticons for his physics know how but they built him into the bridge. As punishments go its pretty sadistic, or perhaps it simply works more efficiently with a living Transformer at its heart. Spanner pleads with Blaster to plant the explosives and free him, but Blaster falters.

Straxus, meanwhile, is blasting anything that moves. Shrapnel alerts him to the attack on Darkmount being a ruse – pointing out the Autobot presence on the bridge. If Blaster’s flaw is his compassion which causes him to flinch from what must be done, Straxus’ weakness is surely his impatience. It’s not very sensible to activate the bridge while the battle is raging but he orders Shrapnel to do just that. This allows Blaster a glimpse of the strange world that is Earth.

A Decepticon seeker zapped by Blaster’s disorientating Electro Scrambler spins out of control and into the swirling void at side of the bridge, being destroyed instantly (this is the compressed space that the bridge spans – very deadly). A misplaced blast from Straxus also crosses the bridge, disintegrating trees on the Earth side, which is noticed by a passing Police car. Truly this is a battle between the worlds!

The main event soon arrives as Straxus blasts the Autobots unconscious and squares up the last man standing – Blaster (who has lost his scrambler). Straxus swings his axe furiously at Blaster, who does well to avoid most of the blows until one cuts into his leg. He spots the fuel line he noted earlier (the one that caused the malfunction at the start of the story). A huge swing from Straxus’ axe cuts the line, and, with the bridge now unstable, Blaster boots Straxus towards the Cybertron side of the bridge where he dies immediately (though not in the UK continuity where he’ll be back for a swansong or two).

Blaster is left off balance but saved by Powerglide (not for the first time). The seven remaining Autobots exit the malfunctioning bridge on to the Earth side as it begins to vanish. Although it won’t take the Decepticons long to repair it, they’ve bought a little time to warn the Autobots on Earth. It’s time for ‘Cybertron seven’ to bid greetings to the Earthlings (police and military) who approach them.

And so, we conclude the Return to Cybertron story. A head to head between the main hero and villain was really the only way to end this brief but excellent saga. Straxus ultimately goes the way of all who are not part of the toy range, but as mentioned he’ll appear again in the UK comics. Blaster, Perceptor and the others finish up on Earth, allowing them to eventually be part of the regular characters. However, we won’t learn their fate until issue #90, which is about five months away at the time the comic was published.

The Space Bridge idea has been lifted from the Sunbow Transformers cartoons (along with Energon Cubes previously) and with this now a feature, it will be a highly useful vehicle for bringing new characters into the comic relatively simply as Bob Budiansky would be under constant pressure to do. In the next issue it’s back to the adventures of the Earth-bound Autobots and the debut of Omega Supreme.

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The Smelting Pool

One of – IF NOT THE – finest Transformers story Bob Budiansky ever wrote. The Smelting Pool is an instant classic, transporting readers to the dystopian world of present day Cybertron, inhabited by powerful good and evil archetypes. It’s a story of hope and despair, horror and heroism.

We thought it would be good, but not THIS good! The return to Cybertron story had been hinted as far back as issue 40, some six months previous, and was eagerly awaited by the readers (myself very much included). I was looking forward to it from a novelty point of view – a chance to see the home world again, some of the toy line characters we hadn’t seen yet, and the story wouldn’t have to be too good for it to be an exciting event.

On picking up my copy of Marvel UK Transformers #66 before school on a Friday in June 1986, that amazing cover by Herb Trimpe which appeared on the UK and US editions (Blaster plunging head first towards a pit of lava and melting wrecks) was the first hint of something above average, and in fact a very special event for the comic.

And Bob’s story and the characters he created blew me away. Blaster, the classic Western hero whose tough exterior disguises a big heart – Scrounge the plucky underdog, desperate to prove his critics wrong – and the axe-wielding total bastard of villain (that we’d love to hate) Lord Straxus. Added to that the concepts of underground Autobot resistance, Transformer down-and-outs, industrialised murder (courtesy of the Decepticons’ Smelting Pool), comic debuts of the new mini Autobot, seeker jets and Insecticons toys, and even Cybertronian time concepts. Frankly, its impressive quite how much Bob packed into the first 11 pages of story.

Our first glimpse of Cybertron reveals it to have two moons, just like in the upcoming (at the time) 1986 Transformers Movie. Marvel universe Cybertron also bears little resemblance to the Sunbow cartoons, appearing dark and bleak, almost reminiscent of the apocalyptic future in The Terminator.

Don Perlin’s pencils bring the horrors of Polyhex province to life from the get-go, as three civilian robots flee from a trio of Decepticon seekers, using them as sport. On Cybertron these days, anyone who is not part of the ruling class or useful to them, is likely to be exterminated as an unnecessary drain on the planet’s dwindling fuel supply. It begs a question of what naturally occurring fuel Cybertron has? Not fossil fuels as its a metallic world and even solar power will be difficult to harness, as the Transformers home world is not tethered to any star.

Two of the robots – Telus and Rotorbolt – are destroyed by a Decepticon called Ferak. A third watches in horror as his friends are scooped up a by Decepticon harvester unit as scrap to be recycled. He flees in the direction of Blaster, the red shouldered hero of our story. Blaster is irritated about being stood-up by his fellow Autobot, Scrounge, who was meant to be delivering information 12 breems ago (we learn that one breem is a very precise 8.3 Earth minutes!).

Blaster is however perfectly placed to go to the aid of the third runner.  Stepping into the open, he deploys his Electro Scrambler gun against Ferak, causing the Decepticon to spin out of control. In a demonstration of his raw strength, Blaster seizes the Decepticon and throws him into a derelict structure, which collapses over him. The small transformer thanks his saviour, but Blaster insists he has better things to do than save his “rusty hide”! These rough words are at odds with Blaster’s thought bubbles, which earlier revealed his concern for the ‘little fella’ being picked on by a Decepticon bully.

Elsewhere, the mini Autobot spy Scrounge is in his wheel form outside the enemy stronghold, Darkmount. He has acquired information that a missing neutral called Spanner – a scientist with specialist knowledge in inter-dimensional engineering – is being held inside. Scrounge sees an opportunity to finally prove his worth to his fellow Autobots. Any readers who have ever felt inadequate or not quite accepted, can immediately sympathise with Scrounge. He reminds me a little of Bumblebee but has an extraordinary ability to extend his finger, deftly steering them through long winding shafts without tripping alarms, in order to listen on the Decepticons inside – in this case Shrapnel and two technicians who are discussing an all important transmission they have received. It’s the most profound revelation for 50,000 vorns (83 Earth years!) apparently. It is of course the message transmitted by Soundwave from Earth in the Next Best Thing to Being There.

In his excitement Scrounge gets careless and triggers an intruder alarm. He rolls for it, radioing Blaster on the way that he is returning with a big catch. Blaster is sceptical as they’ve all heard Scrounge’s tall stories before. Then, in one of my favourite scenes, Scrounge rolls through the Dead End, which is inhabited by Transformer down-and-outs called the Empties. They are a forgotten class of Transformer, a symbol of the despair and inequity in Polyhex, and reduced to begging for fuel. Poor Scrounge is seized by Shrapnel in his giant insect form and carried off.

Blaster lifts what appears to be a stray wall plate to descend into the secret underground ‘Autobase’. As a 12-year-old reading this in 1986 I thought that was supercool and mysterious. He is greeted there by Powerglide, Cosmos, Seaspray, Warpath and Beachcomber – all making their comics’ debut – along with Perceptor, who commands the resistance cell.

The tensions between Blaster and his commander are immediately apparent. They are very different characters – one impulsive, emotional, daring, and the other (Perceptor) patient and prone to cold realism. Both embody different leadership qualities. I got the impression that Blaster’s daring-do would win the respect and loyalty of the unit if he had really wanted to lead it, but he has no time for politics, ambition or the sort of long-term strategizing needed to run a successful resistance cell, so Perceptor – who is better suited to the long game – leads.  You can practically see the steam rising from Blaster’s ears when he demands they search for Scrounge and Perceptor refuses to risk the group on a fool’s errand (guessing correctly that their missing mini bot is probably captured on his way to the Smelting Pool). However, the sympathies of the group are with Blaster on this occasion and Perceptor wisely backs down, but they will make one attempt only.

In the shadows of Darkmount lies the awesome spectacle of the Smelting Pool. Blood-red molten metal boils with the devastated bodies of Transformers disgorged into it by Decepticon Harvester units. Its perimeter is lined with heavily armed Decepticon guards who make sure that none who go in ever come out, except as remoulded raw materials for future use. Despite having only 11 pages to play with (22 for the full story) its bloody marvellous that Bob devotes a full page of art to showing us this final solution in its full horror.

Shrapnel lands at Darkmount, threatening poor Scrounge with the pit. He will enjoy hearing the Autobot’s screams but first he wants to take Scrounge for interrogation by Lord Straxus. Shrapnel is ever hoping to win the favour of his master, but ever failing. We then meet Straxus – holding court flanked by Ramjet, Thrust, Dirge and the other Insecticons, Bombshell, and Kickback. As villains go, he looks utterly the business – cutting two unfortunate victims in half with a swing of his Energo Axe and uttering the immortal line: “Mercy is not dispensed here fools, only death!”

Straxus is less than grateful to Shrapnel for his capture. And when Scrounge refuses to talk, his special arm is wrenched off by Straxus and crushed. You can almost feel Scrounge’s despair at this, and he is dragged off to meet his fate. Whatever information he has learned, he will not live long enough to pass on.

Sadly, there is no preview page in TFUK #66 to tell us about the following issue. We just had to endure an agonising seven day wait for the concluding part. Lew Stringer’s Robo Capers strip again features Transformers – Bumblebee and the embarrassed joke of an Autobot called Push-Along, who transforms into a pram! It follows on from the Optimus Prime “It’s rude to stare at someone when they are changing” strip last issue, that was also rather good.

In part two, the Autobots travel to the Dead End in search of information. Perceptor creates a holographic image of the missing Scrounge, hoping to jog a few decaying memory circuits from the Empties. However, where they are concerned everything has a price. Wheezel (who we met in the first half) hints at information, and beaker of donated fuel seals the deal – along with the threat of violence from Blaster – elicits the sorry news that Scrounge was captured and taken to Darkmount. At this Perceptor orders everyone back to base – the chances of finding Scrounge alive are minimal. Blaster is determined to discover his friend’s fate and goes on alone.

At the rim of the Smelting Pool, he attacks the guards. He’s quickly captured, (as planned) but prevented from being thrown into the pool by Shrapnel, who has spotted another prisoner he can deliver to Straxus. Blaster is marched inside Darkmount where the Decepticons are busy constructing a huge Space Bridge. Straxus is not impressed with Shrapnel for bringing him yet another distraction and threatens the Insecticon with his own dip in the pool if he doesn’t stop wasting time.

Finally, Blaster is thrown into molten pit, echoing the cover of last issue. The incredible heat scolds his metallic skin, but he’s able to climb onto a small ledge. He finds Scrounge barely alive and suddenly one of the gun turrets explodes above, as Powerglide arrives having disobeyed orders. He lowers a cable and as Blaster grabs on, he yanks Scrounge from the pool and is shocked to see his friend already melted from the waist down! Scrounge insists on being left to his fate and wriggles free. Before he sinks, he throws Blaster a recording of the Decepticon transmission (thankfully Blaster is a good catch) and asks that he be remembered as doing something right.

Outside the other Autobots minus Perceptor are involved in their own pitched battles with Decepticons. As they escape in vehicle modes, they are attacked by the Decepticon jets and Insecticons. Once again Blaster shows he’s the man. He rips out huge pipes which suck molten metal from the Smelting Pool and turns the hot jet on the Decepticons.

Back at Autobase, Perceptor plays Scrounge’s recording. Soundwave is heard and video shows the distant planet Earth, rich in resources and ruled by the primitive organic lifeform man. A group of long thought dead Decepticons crash landed here millions of years ago. The recording suggests they are led by Megatron, which wasn’t the case when Soundwave sent the message. And opposed by Optimus Prime (who was a Decepticon captive at the time of sending). That aside, the message is huge for the beleaguered resistance, just to know that the great Optimus lives gives them hope. Blaster hopes that wherever Scrounge is, he knows he did good.

In summary, Blaster’s stock-in-trade rocketed after this incredibly strong debut. He would go on to become one of the most popular Autobots among the readers, even taking up the mantle of letters page answerer in the UK comic towards the end of the run. For a time, it even looked like Blaster could become leader of the Earthbound Autobots in place of Grimlock, though it wasn’t to be. He is one of the characters Bob cared about and wrote brilliantly, bringing him back and again throughout his run on the US book. While Simon Furman used Blaster occasionally in the UK book, there wasn’t the same spark. I guess Furman preferred to cultivate his own favourites (Grimlock, Galvatron, Nightbeat etc).

Should Scrounge have detached his head and thrown that to Blaster, allowing him to survive with message intact? Perhaps. I don’t know that this was ever an option but his death, though tragic, was purposeful and heroic (which is more than most made-for-comics/hi-then-die characters get). Blaster would feel the loss of Scrounge and guilt at not saving him for some time to come.

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Second Generation

The Autobots and Decepticons are shown a vision of their future – the Special Teams, courtesy of Buster Witwicky’s Matrix-induced nightmares, and Megatron battles Shockwave for the Decepticon leadership once again.

Late May 1986, the big summer event from Hasbro is the release of the new combiner teams – the Aerialbots, Protectobots, Stunticons and Combaticons. Unlike the Constructicons, which are fiddly to combine (and not for sale in the UK anyway) these new teams are more streamlined. A larger ‘team leader’ becomes the body of the combined robot and the other four members easily click into place as arms and legs. All are interchangeable. As a disgruntled Mixmaster wryly observes in the story, suddenly the Constructicons are “yesterday’s news”.

There’s one problem. The new toys are not scheduled to appear in the UK comic until late November. That’s good timing for Christmas sales but not ideal for Hasbro execs looking to give the Special Team toys a push as they go on sale in mid 1986. The solution is this story, Second Generation, where the Special Teams debut in a dream, ahead of their actual debut.

Issue #63’s cover by Alan Stevens is an arrangement of Superion and Menasor from their box art. I can’t be sure whether Stevens is the box artist or the guy who arranged the compilation, but it’s reminder (if any were needed) of some major product placement on the way. There’s the third and final Robot War round-up explaining the saga so far, and then straight into the action from Simon Furman and artist John Stokes.

It starts by delving into Buster’s dream and this time the readers are along for the journey. Buster runs from Shockwave in a strange barren dreamscape with fire and orbiting moons. His legs scream in agony and oxygen-starved lungs beg for release (all told, it reminds me of the first 10k I ever ran). Shockwave is like the Terminator, he’s relentless and unstoppable, making light work of Optimus Prime, Jazz and Ratchet, as you can see above. It’s a great sequence apart from the blunder with Shockwave being drawn with two hands in one panel, rather than his distinctive gun arm, oops.

Buster is saved from certain death by the appearance of Superion, who blows Shockwave to pieces! Then Menasor attacks the giant Autobot and Buster flees the madness again, only to have his path blocked by the Combaticons, who combine into Bruticus.

Buster wakes with a scream – he is safely within the Ark. His father and Jessie are there, along with Prime and Ratchet. Sparkplug complains bitterly that the Autobots and Prime personally have made his son a “walking target” in their civil war. Stokes does a good job of drawing robots and making the dream sequence other-worldly and vivid, but I’m not keen on his humans. Buster like he’s about 12 and in need of a haircut, and Sparkplug like a wrinkly old crone. Not appealing.

Prime correctly interprets Buster’s nightmares as a message from the Matrix. And, in the Wyoming coal mine Soundwave explains the same theory to Megatron. The dynamic with Donny Finkleberg (aka Robot Master) irritating the hell out of Megatron is good fun. Megatron is desperate to blast him to a pulp (a sentiment shared by a fair few readers) but cannot because Donny is integral to the Decepticon propaganda war. Presumably, Ravage is with Megatron full time, guarding their captive.

In flashbacks we’re reminded of Buster’s sacrifices on behalf of the Autobots (for the benefit of new readers presumably, though this feels a bit like filler). He will help the Autobots again, this time by re-entering the dream with Optimus Prime at his side. At the Decepticon base, Shockwave has dusted down the technology he used to plunder Prime’s mind of the Matrix a while back, and will use it to eavesdrop on the visions.

It’s interesting to see how close Soundwave comes to being discovered as a double agent. Luckily for him, Shockwave is more concerned with the bigger picture stuff and tends to ignore trivial details. For all his vast intelligence and logic, he is easily duped.

And so, to issue #64 and chapter two of the saga. It’s the first time I’ve seen Shakespeare quoted in the comic (‘perchance to dream’ being mentioned on the Transformation page – I’m not sure I would have got the reference aged 12) and the first French quotation, with Defensor delivering the “coup de grace” to Bruticus. Barry Kitson is on art duties for the final time (though he’d draw a few more covers).

The story is a re-do of the mini comic that readers were treated to in Transformers #54 except longer and better drawn. The first team they (and we) meet are the Protectobots (this is only fair as they were missing from the opening instalment). They helpfully namecheck themselves for a proper introduction. Their mission is to make sure that the plant is safely evacuated. Blades, in helicopter mode, spots five vehicles approaching, who turn out to be the Stunticons.

Moments later, the Decepticon cars demonstrate their ability to combine “in one fluid move” into Menasor. Shockwave is watching along impressed (hopefully he missed the bit where his rival Megatron was depicted as Decepticon leader in the vision). He thinks Menasor is infinitely superior to the Devastator. Unsurprisingly Mixmaster is less convinced, probably realising the Constructicons are likely to get even less exposure in the comic once the new teams come along.

Buster and Prime observe Defensor wrestling Menasor (possibly the only time in the comic that we see them clash). Three military vehicles pull into the plant along with an army helicopter (Vortex mis-coloured as Blades – whoops), while high in the air, space shuttle Blast-Off dodges five planes (the approaching Aerialbots) to merge with his fellow Combaticons into Bruticus! It is two against one, until Superion arrives to even the odds.

Menasor turns out to have a pretty major weakness – his component parts can’t always agree. Dead End takes exception at being told when to fire and misses the opportunity. Also, embarrassingly he’s been drawn as Dragstrip. With so many new characters being introduced, it’s perhaps not too surprising that Kitson got confused who he was meant to be drawing. The kids will have noticed though.

Superion directs the blast at Bruticus and Defensor stamps on the stunned Decepticon’s head (brutal for a kids comic). Menasor’s retreat is halted by Superion’s Stress Fracture Cannon creating a mini earthquake under his feet. And so the battle ends with Prime and Buster waking up and saying with them the phrase of the moment…. SPECIAL TEAMS!

There’s also no mention of Matrix dreams after this, which suggests that the merger with Prime exorcised the visions from Buster’s mind. For that matter, there’s no explanation why the dream was a coherent story when Prime and Buster accessed it, and a hellish nightmare previously.

Megatron learns about the combiner teams from Soundwave and resolves to challenge Shockwave again for the Decepticon leadership. This is the premise for the third and final instalment (and the best). Though still under the banner of Second Generation its only loosely connected to the previous two parts. As the Transformation page suggests, this is a rematch that has been inevitable and eagerly awaited by readers.

Jeff Anderson takes his turn on the art duties, introducing us to coloured borders around frames to denote flashbacks. It’s a technique that he uses again in the upcoming Target 2006 to good effect.

Donny Finkleberg plays up his Robot Master alter ego, introducing the two challengers and the fact they are fighting for leadership. While it’s great fun to read this presented like a heavyweight boxing bout, it’s totally illogical the Decepticons would have Robot Master do this. His cover is meant to be that he’s the commander of the machines, so why introduce the idea of factions in the public consciousness, or the idea of there being a commander of the Decepticons with rivals contesting the job?

Apart from the doubtful set-up, the fight itself is pretty good. It’s no holds barred using fists, weaponry and discarded army tanks. Though evenly matched, you get the impression that Megatron at full strength (he wasn’t last time around) is the more powerful of the two (and the dirtier fighter). My expectation before reading the issue the first time around was that it would result in a Megatron victory. However, the outcome really isn’t in the hands of Simon Furman, as the UK comic reprints all the Marvel US stories, so any change of leadership would need to marry up with want Bob Budiansky is doing over the pond.

Soundwave cannot believe the Decepticon leaders are scrapping around for the benefit of humans. The scene where he spits at Donny, making the sound PUTTUP answers one of the long-standing questions of the letters page hosted by Soundwave. Every time an Autobot is mentioned on the page, he would accompany it with the word PUTTUP. Now we learn it’s the sound he makes when spitting oil. How Soundwave does this with a plate over his mouth is a whole other matter.

Soundwave hopes that the Autobots aren’t watching the broadcast. They are, but Prime is not too bothered as humans are not in danger. He hopes the pair will destroy one another. Their attention is on creating the Special Teams, with Wheeljack having already created a schematic of Superion. Wheels are in motion for future stories, including the mention that the Autobots do not yet understand the combination process and will need to observe someone. He is interrupted by an alarm before he can finish the sentence, but we know Prime is referring to Devastator. This also dovetails with the upcoming story Command Performances. I assume Furman got quite a bit of advanced warning of what Budiansky was planning State-side.

That alarm is the Dinobots waking up. The madness which caused their earlier rampage is now gone (as evidenced by the return of their usual bad attitude) and there’s the intriguing hint of more about their recovery in the 1986 Transformers Annual. This is a reference to the superb Furman/Senior story, Victory. With the Dinobots also due to appear in Command Performances, Furman has taken the opportunity to revive them here.

Soundwave, ever the grown up, intervenes to bring the fight to a close by offending both Megatron and Shockwave in unison. He cites their very different approaches – one logical and patient, the other action orientated – and proposes that they work together as joint leaders. The one who’s approach results in the most Autobot casualties will lead. Surprisingly, both agree, perhaps sensing that they are more evenly matched as fighters than they care to admit.

Remember what I said about the result needing to concur with the US storyline? This joint leadership is what results when the two leaders meet in the upcoming story Bridge To Nowhere, except in the UK the panels are edited to refer to an existing situation. It’s much better in my opinion that we’ve had this issue establishing the set-up instead of Bob’s approach which feels rushed and perhaps a bit underwhelming given the anticipation of a rematch.

And so the story ends, with Prime feeling confident that with Dinobots active and the secrets of the Special Teams solely in Autobot hands, they are finally on the front foot. If only they knew. Then finally we see the message that Soundwave transmitted to Cybertron in issue #36 finally reaching its target.

The blurb for next week’s return to Cybertron epic sounds amazing! There the war is over and the Decepticons have won. Plus, Ramjet, Dirge and Thrust and the Insecticons will appear, along with someone called Lord Straxus! And there’s fact files on Soundwave and Blaster. In hindsight it’s a hint of Blaster’s imminent debut in the comic. Onwards to one of the best Transformers stories of all time… The Smelting Pool.

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Devastation Derby!

Soundwave can barely believe his audio receptors when crack combiner team, the Constructicons, are dispatched to capture a lowly human! However, their target, Buster Witwicky, turns out to be more valuable than expected, in this two-part Marvel UK story from May 1986.

“They’re tough, mean and nasty… and what’s more they proved to be a firm favourite with you readers” declares the Transformation page of TFUK #61. It’s referring to the Constructicons of course. The comic’s one and only combiner team (for the moment) debuted in issue #35, some six months before this issue and then disappeared as quickly as they arrived.

In the UK continuity, Scavenger appeared in a solo capacity in the Dinobot Hunt saga, but Devastation Derby is the first time that we get to see the team back together since their introduction. I can well imagine Marvel has been receiving letters from fans on each side of the Atlantic requesting their return and that of their more famous combiner form, Devastator. (Incidentally, the Constructicons will reappear in the US continuity too, in the upcoming story The Bridge to Nowhere, though in a background capacity.)

So, UK fans will have been delighted to see the Constructicons back in a starring role back in May 1986. I know I certainly was. The story, written as always by Simon Furman, is drawn by the redoubtable Will Simpson – my second favourite TF artist behind the equally great Geoff Senior. Will draws a fantastic cover and Devastator splash page, as you can see above.

Frankly, it’s a mystery why the Constructicons were not utilised in earlier stories like Crisis of Command, when the Decepticons were vulnerable and leaderless, in need of the raw power of Devastator. The story attempts to explain away their absence by revealing that they’ve been training in the desert to improve their reactions in combined form. Evidently, their debut encounter with the Autobots left a lot to be desire.

As the story opens, Devastator is bashing the shit out of a yellow school bus (just to show how mean he is). Soundwave is impressed – eight strikes and eight would-be kills, all in the space of 34 seconds. Shockwave arrives to address the team – but he’s abrupt with Soundwave and frankly a bit rude, considering this is the second in command, who acquitted himself admirably as stand-in leader. Soundwave probably doesn’t help relations with the boss by making it obvious that he’s horrified by the idea of sending their crack troops to capture a human – even if it is an Autobot ally. This is a little out of character for Shockwave and makes me think that Frenzy was on to something last issue when he talked of the Decepticon Commander “running scared” about the rumoured return of Megatron.

Soundwave is right to be sceptical. The kidnap could be easily accomplished by Laserbeak or Ravage, and it doesn’t make much sense to involve the Constructicons other than as a plot device to introduce the Special Teams (albeit in dream form) in the next story. We get an early glimpse of Superion when Buster wakes up in a cold sweat from a pretty vivid dream and has drawn the Aerialbot combined form on his bedroom door.

Unsurprisingly Buster is less than keen to go to the demolition derby the following morning, when Jessie arrives to collect him. According to his dad, Sparkplug, Buster goes every month, which I find unlikely seeing as he’s been completely disinterested in cars before now and after. No sooner has Buster set off, than Sparkplug whips out a screwdriver and removes the door to show the Autobots. Now normally he wouldn’t give the Autobots the time of day, but maybe he’ll only speak to them if he needs something.

Prime and Wheeljack agree that Buster has put his finger on something they’ve been thinking about, an Autobot combiner. Wheeljack suggests the drawing is a robot made up of “four or five” components. (I would have thought five of six is more likely) and of course no-one mentions that Buster carried the Matrix in his mind, though that would seem the likely trigger for these visions.

I’m also rather surprised at the casual way the Autobots refer to Buster’s recent run in with Shockwave. It was almost crushed to a pulp by a 30ft one-eyed robot – that’s a pretty big deal. I’m surprised Sparkplug is not surprised. Shouldn’t he be asking why nobody told him about this incident?

Although Prime is sure Shockwave will have no further interest in Buster, he orders Smokescreen and three others to accompany Sparkplug to the demolition derby and find Buster, who it turns out has forgotten his cares and started enjoying himself.

Simpson has an absent-minded moment as he draws Sparkplug in the crowd alongside Buster and Jessie in one of the frames, when he’s meant to be parked up with Smokescreen, Tracks, Brawn and Ironhide! Oops.

Furman does his own take on the comedic scenes from Rock and Roll Out involving the Autobots and their mannequin ‘fake drivers’ – having one pop out from Smokescreen’s seat while Sparkplug is still sitting there. The derby has got Smokescreen eager to join in, while Tracks is concerned for his bodywork.

I enjoyed the Constructicons’ grand entrance, as they throw a ticket seller through a billboard and trash a kiosk and the car park. Ironhide engages the team and they retaliate by combing into Devastator – “I hate it when they do that” says Ironhide – and the sight of the 60ft titan is enough to cause Buster to collapse, leaving Jessie screaming!

In the second part, kids who are climbing up the fence for a look at the stock car racing are almost hit by a flying car propelled by Devastator. Cue another fantastic splash page from Simpson, depicting Ironhide and Tracks in pitched battle with the Constructicon gestalt. Smokescreen swerves around Devastator’s legs and sends him off balance and crashing to the floor. It earns the ‘youngster’ a bit of credit from the seasoned old warrior Ironhide.

Brawn’s presence in the stands is causing the crowd to panic even more (hardly surprising as he caused a few motorists to meet a grisly end in the Enemy Within a while back). The sight of Soundwave in the stands is enough to convince Sparkplug that the Decepticon must have found Buster. But as he and Smokescreen zips over there, Ironhide gets pummelled by Devastators huge fist (that school bus squishing technique coming in handy).

Jessie is all that stands between Soundwave and her man. However, when Soundwave scans Buster’s mind he discovers something that cause him to change tactics. After blasting Brawn for sneaking up, Soundwave orders the Constructicons to separate and they retreat calling the incident a mistake on their part. The Autobots are bemused by this and reckon Prime will want to investigate this personally.

Ratchet tricks Sparkplug and Jessie by posing as the ambulance they called. Seriously? The Autobot sign and lack of driver was not a giveaway? As they make their way back to the Ark (as part of an Autobot convoy driving on the left-hand-side – I think Simpson forgot the story was set in the USA and not Britain) Ratchet reassures that whatever is wrong with Buster it’s not something that a hospital could help with, but may be the Autobots can.

At the Decepticon hideout, Shockwave holds his gun arm to poor old Soundwave’s head, intent on executing him for disobeying orders. His number insists he has a good explanation, and he does. His scan of Buster revealed that Matrix had placed in his mind a vision of the future of the Transformer race!

Shock, horror. It’s begs the question of why Soundwave allowed Buster to go back to the Autobots. It’s surely even more important to take him captive so that only the Decepticons can know of the Special Teams? Now, the Autobots will also learn about them and they have got the means (through the Matrix) to build these new warriors. Next issue it’s the big event – the arrival of the new combiner teams.

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Robot Buster!

Buster Witwicky sets out to prove to Optimus Prime that he has what it takes to be honorary Autobot, courtesy of the robotic suit designed especially for him – but he ends up taking on more trouble than he can handle.

May 1986. The Marvel UK Transformers comic begins a seven-week run of homegrown stories starting with Robot Buster, a two-parter from regular writer Simon Furman which is based on an idea by Barry Kitson (who is also the artist on this story). Furman later acknowledged that the story was ‘done for Barry’ as an attempt to keep him involved with the Transformers title. It didn’t work – he would do one more story (Second Generation part 2) and pop back for the occasional cover but that would be it.

In my remarks about Plight of the Bumblebee, I observed that Autobots tend to regard humans as weaker lifeforms in need of protection, kind in the same way a parent or guardian views children. It’s well-meant if a tad condescending. That sentiment is in play in this story, which we could almost call Plight of the Buster. It stars of course, the Autobots’ human friend Buster Witwicky who makes a return after a four-month absence.

One thing I never quite appreciated about Buster is how little he features in the US Transformers comic after the early stories. Literally, on returning the Matrix to Optimus at the end of the story Prime Time (published in the US in early 1986) Buster vanishes for the best part of two and a half years, only appearing once in that time, in the infamous Buster Witwicky and the Car Wash of Doom story. In the UK he would appear in this story, Devastation Derby and Second Generation, as well as the 1985 and 1986 Christmas issues.

Robot Buster opens with Prime advancing on Repair Bay 2 within the Ark, irked that his engineer Wheeljack is not working on the ship’s propulsion and Chief Medical Officer Ratchet is not focused on repairing those injured in the Dinobot Hunt. They had better have a good reason for neglecting their duties.

When he gets there, he discovers what has preoccupied his team – it’s Buster Witwicky sitting in the cockpit of a Transformer-sized robotic suit (this being before the 1986 Transformers Movie introduced us to the concept of the exo-suit). Buster is delighted and Wheeljack and Ratchet suggest the body could provide Buster with protection in the event of a Decepticon attack.

Prime blows his top – he can forgive Buster’s foolishness on grounds of his youth and inexperience (that parental view again) – but his warriors must have “lost their minds” to think it is acceptable to expose a human to danger in this way. The suit will be destroyed. Buster hits back, reminding that he kept the Matrix safe and saved Prime’s ass during the events of the Matrix saga. Then he utters the memorable phrase of whole story, “You stink Prime”. Ratchet and Wheeljack recoil in visuals that look like somebody may indeed have let off a stinker. It’s quite a moment.

Buster storms off to a human-sized bedroom that the Autobots have provided for him in the Ark, as Ratchet and Wheeljack agree to dismantle the suit in the morning. However, that night Buster is feeling back about the outburst and resolves to demonstrate the suit’s worth to Prime. He uses its flying capabilities to travel to the abandoned former Decepticon base, Fortress Sinister, where, as coincidence would have it, Shockwave and Frenzy are carrying out a salvage operation.

I always enjoy Decepticon inter dynamics – very few of them are friends, more like colleagues joined together by fear and adherence to a common cause and code. In this case Frenzy takes pleasure in thinking that Shockwave is terrified by the prospect of Megatron’s rumoured return and is destroying anything the former leader had a hand in just to feel better. It’s a very emotional reaction for the normally logical and emotionless Shockwave. As revealed in the previous story, the Decepticons are currently in a makeshift base, we don’t know where. It would have made sense to regroup at Fortress Sinister. As they have abandoned the place, I wonder why the US army isn’t crawling all over the castle to learn what they can about the alien invaders in their country.

Buster sneaks up on Frenzy, reasoning that he’s one of the least powerful Decepticons and could be taken prisoner. That would really demonstrate his usefulness to the Autobot cause. A powerful plasma bolt takes the Decepticon down, but not for long. Frenzy retaliates by unleashing his sonic power and threatening to make Buster suffer a horrible death. By total fluke, Buster activates the suit’s ability to jam Frenzy’s broadcast and play it back at him (via an echo cell). Frenzy is beaten but Buster realises he is out of his depth and got lucky, he needs to go before he runs into one of the more powerful Decepticons. Sure enough, part one ends on the cliff-hanger of the Decepticons leader arriving and noting that, while humans are usually beneath his notice, Buster has earned his right to “die at the hands” of Shockwave! (or should that be hand?!

Geoff senior does a great job with the cover of issue #59 and its striking how similar Buster’s seating pose and the helmet look reminiscent of Professor Morris’ robot-control technology from The Icarus Theory story. Buster does look exposed though as an opponent is likely to aim straight for the glass that shields him. There’s a Human Who’s Who feature on the back cover which includes prominent persons who have appeared in the story to date, arranged as friends/allies and enemies/antagonists. Soundwave stars in the Robo Capers strip blasting the Marvel staff for the printing error in issue #51 – it was a matter that preoccupied the previous week’s Transformation page. I can only assume the readers have been writing in about it.

In part two, Buster flees Shockwave, setting falling rocks against his pursuers and engulfing him in fire, but to no avail. A phone call to the Autobots would be a good idea about now, so we must assume this isn’t an option, perhaps a result of damage from the encounter with Frenzy. As Shockwave – who Kitson depicts with a ridiculously oversized head throughout the issue – closes in for the kill, Buster throws a fist full of sand in the Decepticon leader’s single eye. This exposes a weakness – his eye – that we’ve not seen before. It inflicts a temporary blindness and causes Shockwave to shoot at random, allowing Buster to make a run for it.

There’s an interesting flashback from Shockwave’s perspective, a resurfacing of suppressed trauma of his being buried beneath rock (following his pre-historic battle with the Dinobots) and then cast into the swamp by Optimus Prime. In the US continuity he returned almost straight away, but in the UK we had a period where Soundwave became interim leader in the absence of Shockwave and Megatron. This requires more explanation about how Shockwave escaped his murky fate, which Furman provides here, describing how ‘days or months’ passed before Shockwave was able to get a foothold on solid ground. Seeing as he’s 30 feet or so tall, that must be one deep swamp!

Buster has done well to make it to sunrise. Shockwave tears up a mountain in his search, until finally the two are face to face. Buster channels all power into one blast – inflicting pain on both. Shockwave falls but the exo-suit is a smoking wreck. Buster climbs out of the cockpit, only to be seized by Shockwave’s gigantic hand. As he prepares to crush the life out of the youth, Optimus Prime and the Autobots arrive with weapons trained on Shockwave. Prime offer him a logical choice – release Buster and he can go free.

Shockwave accepts, leaving with the obligatory threats about their next encounter. As Buster jokingly resigns from Autobot frontline duty, we see Shockwave contemplating how he can exploit the Autobots’ fondness for Buster to the Decepticons’ advantage.

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Plight of the Bumblebee

Feeling unwanted, Bumblebee decides to go it alone, only to become a target for human car thieves and the Decepticons, in this two-part story from April 1986 by stand-in US writer Len Kaminski and art by Graham Nolan.

April 1986. Marvel UK’s Transformers comic has printed six weeks of stories from its US counterpart and has two more to go before kicking off with a seven-part epic introducing the new combiner teams. Plight of the Bumblebee is unusual in that it is the first US story since issue #8 to be written by someone other than Bob Budiansky. It could be that Bob took some time off or needed a little extra help to get ahead of his deadlines.

Whatever the reason, a young Len Kaminski was handed the writing cudgels for his one and only Transformers credit. According to his TF Wiki page, Kaminski joined Marvel in 1984 and was 23 when he wrote his Bumblebee story. He stayed with Marvel eight years before going freelance and is best known for his work on Iron Man and Ghost Rider. The artist tasked with bringing his script to life is Graham Nolan of similar age – this is also his one and only Transformers story.

Both do a solid job but its fair to say that the story is fun but forgettable. Recent issues of Bob’s such as Megatron controlled by a human gangster, Hoist at a rock concert and Robot Master, have been slightly silly and off the wall but have made their mark in ways this story doesn’t. To be fair, I suspect Kaminski is doing his best to avoid treading on Bob’s toes in terms of any plot threads he’s been developing, so the events in this issue largely stand alone. It’s just a shame for the UK audience that its fairly similar in concept to the second part of Crisis of Command where Bumblebee also faces the Decepticons alone.

Having abandoned their captured oil rig and aerospace plant, it’s unclear where the Decepticon base is these days. Nevertheless, the story begins ‘deep within a makeshift fortress’ where Shockwave (unaware of the recent events in the Wyoming coal mine, see last issue for Megatron’s return) is unveiling his latest plan against the Autobots. This time it involves capturing and controlling a member of the enemy camp, and their data suggests Bumblebee is the perfect candidate. Has Bumblebee been targeted as he’s the weakest Autobot or have they something specific in mind? We don’t know.

At the Ark, Wheeljack and Prowl are receiving maintenance from a recent skirmish which must have occurred ‘off camera’. The TV news which Prime is watching refers to ‘yesterday’s robot battle’ with the editor’s note suggesting this means the events of last issue (where the Autobots took a pounding from the human armed forces at the coal mine).

Bumblebee, watching through the window, is suffering a bout of low confidence making him believe he is not pulling is weight and that the other Autobots would be better off without him. As I say, this works fine in isolation, but in context of recent stories with Bumblebee leading the new recruits in Rock and Roll Out and accompanying Prime on the mission to recover Megatron last issue, there’s been no sign of him being undervalued or any way a liability, so this lack of esteem on his part is rather out of the blue (not to mention that Prime took on the whole Decepticon army to rescue Bumblebee a few issues UK back).

His decision to head for the hills and feel sorry for himself is happily coincidental for the Decepticons, who have been looking for their opportunity. Laserbeak sights Bumblebee and tips off the others. Within minutes Shockwave and the other flying Decepticons attack – and Nolan shows his skills in capturing the shock on Bumblebee’s face and the violence of the attack against the mini-Autobot.

Bumblebee survives and, though losing power, drives on to the freeway, taking evasive action under an aerial volley. It’s apparent that the pursuit is risking the lives of the other motorists. Knowing he can’t possibly outrun the Decepticons, and with his communicator damaged, Bumblebee drives into a nearby filled car lot and shuts down. With the signal lost the Decepticons pull back but remain ready to pounce when he reappears. As yellow beetles are not especially common you would have thought one of the jets would have spotted the parked-up Autobot, but apparently not.

That night, two men climb into the car lot and decide to steal Bumblebee, thinking there’s less chance anyone will be bothered by the loss of a Volkswagen! Unaware of the dangers ahead they take off at speed. While back at the Ark, footage of the Decepticons firing on Bumblebee is aired on the TV news, prompting Prime and the others to strike up some suitably dramatic poses and vow to rescue their missing colleague before it’s too late!

A couple of trivial points… the UK editor has changed the ‘maneuvers’ in the TV reporter’s speech to the UK spelling manoeuvres – and misspelled it. Oops. To be fair it’s not the easiest of words. Page 8 is numbered at the top and the bottom too, which is a little weird.

In part 2, as the Autobots and the Decepticons search for Bumblebee, his two joyriders Ernest and Waldo (whose names sound like they ought to be a couple of pensioners rather than young thrill-seekers) are causing all sorts of commotion uptown. Bumblebee seems oddly happy to help his passengers show off, even when they are driving up pavements and forcing pedestrians to flee for their lives. Could it be that he’s getting a confidence boost out of being adopted by the two humans? Bee is even happy to help the pair show off by pushing 200 in a race against a challenger in a sporty car. He’s leaving the guy for dust until his engine blows and he splutters to an embarrassing halt.

One of the men tries to make head or tails of Bumblebee’s damaged alien engine and as luck would have it, succeeds in reconnecting damaged power lines. Ernest and Waldo ride again but are soon under fire from the skies – in the shape of the Decepticons. Hilariously the two car thieves are baffled as to why the Air Force is after them for ‘pinching a lousy Volkswagen’ – and they are even more confused when their car starts driving on its own (Bumblebee has no choice but to take control to protect his passengers from the Decepticon bombardment). Pretty soon the police are on their tails and the US Airforce has been scrambled. You get the impression the Ernest and Waldo will be wondering what on earth they’ve got themselves into.

Shockwave and his warriors might light work of the Air Force. Usually we’ll see the pilots ejecting (to keep the story family friendly) but no sign of that in Kaminski’s story. Bumblebee, cornered at last, transforms to make a final stand in defence of his human ‘friends’. Suddenly, Jetfire soars into view, taking out Buzzsaw, but getting himself shot down by a Decepticon jet. It’s great to see Jetfire in action but disappointing that he’s already a shadow of the awesome ultimate warrior that he was billed as at his introduction.

Events then move to a rapid conclusion. In the space of a single page, Bumblebee rescues the two humans from a collapsing bridge, is confronted by Shockwave… and the Autobots, police and Air Force arrive, forcing a hasty Decepticon retreat. The two Humans have a lot of questions to answer with the police, while Bumblebee recognises that the Autobots came to his rescue and he was wrong to question his place in the team.

Some closing thoughts: it’s not a bad story, if largely inconsequential to the wider plot – fast paced with a decent chase at the end. The art is also suitably dramatic. Probably the weakest element is Shockwave’s plot to capture Bumblebee, which we never see put into action and just feels like a device to ensure that Bumblebee is a Decepticon target while out on his own. The best bit for me is the way Bee takes his two human abductors under his wing – he’s completely cool about them stealing him and wants to help and protect them. It’s a good illustration of the parental way that Autobots look on humanity.

The UK covers of two instalments are also ace. John Stokes draws a wonderful, toy-realistic version of Shockwave (including leg springs) and Herb Trimpe’s cover for issue #58 (which is also the cover of the US version) offers the mouth-watering prospect of Bumblebee against impossible odds.

For the next issue, it’s back to the UK stories and the return of Buster Witwicky.

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I, Robot Master

Desperate for fuel, Megatron attacks a coal mining plant and becomes rooted to the spot! And a washed-up comic book writer is recruited by the US government to claim to be the terrorist mastermind behind the Transformers.

April 1986. Bob Budiansky’s most offbeat story since… well, his last two where Megatron was controlled by a small-time hoodlum, and Hoist stole the show at a rock concert, arrives on UK shores. The Marvel UK Transformers comic is mid-way through an eight-week run of US stories at this point. Don Perlin is once again on art duties.

After taking his leave of Joey Slick, Megatron apparently spent weeks walking through the American North West in search of fuel. I say apparently because it seems somewhat unfathomable that a giant Decepticon with a hair-trigger temper such as he, could possibly wander around and not attract an awful lot of attention. Particularly when you consider that he can’t exactly convert into a vehicle and blend in.

His sensors have bought him to a coal mine which is high in hydrocarbons. Megatron attacks the huge machinery and in his desperation, showers himself in coals. He finds these black rocks indigestible in their current form. Suddenly, he stops dead in his tracks, drained of fuel, paralysed and helpless! A worker notes that he “just ran out of gas”. We’ve previously seen Transformers dangerously low on fuel but this is a new situation.

Walter Barnett, the Triple I agent we met in the last story, arrives at a restricted government building at the behest of his boss, Forest Forsythe. Along with the rest of the board, they are shown footage of recent high-profile robot incidents (Megatron and Shockwave’s battle, the capture of G.B. Blackrock’s aerospace plant, Hoist at the Springhorn concert and the incident with Megatron at the coal mine in Wyoming).  

Blackrock has been invited to give his insight to the group and attempts to persuade them that the Transformers are two factions, one good and one evil. It’s a huge waste of time as Forsythe is not interested in hearing this and after showing Blackrock out, tells Triple I that the policy will be to treat all robots as a threat. For a group called the Intelligence and Information Institute they really are lacking in basic intelligence. Despite acknowledging that there is evidence to back-up Blackrock’s claims they are willing to throw away the chance of an alliance with the Autobots that might solve their Decepticon problem. Instead they’ve decided to invest in a cover-up. I suppose this will have been only a dozen years after Watergate and cynical government cover-ups will have been in the public consciousness, including Bob’s. This feels like a spoof of the government cover-up cliché.

Barnett comes across like a real deadbeat dad and husband as he arrives home. His young son is excited to see him but all Walt does is tell him to tidy up his toys. He then spots the boy’s Robot Master comic, about a guy who controls an army of robots, and before you can say co-incidence he rushes off to catch a plane to New York. You have to wonder if his family see much of him. I’m not sure if his destination, 387 Park Ave, might be another in-joke, perhaps it was Marvel’s address in the day. He’s in time to catch the writer of the Robot Master comic, Donny Finkleberg, on his way out of the building, having had his book cancelled.

According to TFWiki and other knowledgeable fans, Donny is based on an actual comic book writer called Danny Fingeroth, who worked with Bob on Marvel’s Avengers in 1981. It’s not clear whether Bob or Don Perlin created Robot Master in his likeness as a hilarious office in-joke or whether Bob’s getting his own back. Certainly, Donny Finkleberg is not presented as a great guy. Instead he’s greedy, unscrupulous, a geeky loser and has a rather incessant smoking habit to boot.

Barnett takes Donny to lunch and offers him $25,000 if he can help come up with a Robot Master story to hoodwink the American public. Naturally he suggests bringing to life the character he created (Barnett could have saved £25k by simply reading the comic). They could say the Transformers are being controlled by a human terrorist mastermind, which apparently is less likely to result in a public scare that giant alien robots. If Donny would like to play Robot Master, he can double his money (and best of all, no acting experience appears to be necessary).

The idea is loopy on several levels. When Donny appears on TV he’s likely to be recognised by someone (like his old boss perhaps) and outed, and it wouldn’t take the media very long to discover the similarity to the Robot Master comic and expose the whole hoax. Triple I are playing with fire and it’s a wonder and it’s a wonder that Barnett he was not laughed out of the agency for coming up with such a foolhardy plan.

Nevertheless, the next day Donny is broadcasting as Robot Master and claiming to be the human leader of a robotic army. Optimus Prime is alerted as is Mr Blackrock, who realises that Triple I must be behind this.

He suggests to the media that the whole thing might be a hoax. Triple I are furious but it shows what a house of cards their plan is – it really could fall apart in a moment. Blackrock shuns his limo to drive away in a VW Beetle, which is hilarious (though his calling Bumblebee ‘Bum’ is not really the sort of nickname you’d want).

A photo of frozen Megatron makes the news, much to the horror of Barnett and Forsythe (honestly, how was that ever going to stay private seeing as Megatron attacked a mine full of workers). They decide to offer Donny a way to double his money, with another broadcast.

In part two, the Autobots have been monitoring the TV news and Optimus Prime sets out to capture his old nemesis with assistance from Skids, Tracks and Bumblebee (once again the comic is showcasing its recently introduced characters, and Hoist also appears earlier in the issue making a nuisance of himself by taking charge of Autobots maintenance schedules). This small band, albeit including Optimus, seems decidedly light to capture a Transformer as powerful as Megatron. Even if he is currently immobilised, why take the chance? So much better to go in overwhelming numbers.

In downtown Portland, Soundwave is hanging out at a TV and video store in his cassette deck mode for some totally inexplicable reason. When the shop worker/owner (who oddly enough has been drawn exactly like G.B. Blackrock before they started forgetting his moustache) tests whether it is working, apparently intending to sell this equipment he found on the doorstep. There’s a deafening sound, followed by Ravage transforming and escaping with Soundwave, who are picked up and flown away by Laserbeak and Buzzsaw. They all head off in the direction of Wyoming, some 1,022 miles away. The sequence doesn’t add-up. Why not hang out a store more local to Megatron, or monitor TV from the Decepticon base?

There’s a nice scene however, where Barnett and Donny (in his Robot Master threads) arrive at the mine and Megatron’s eyes burn as Donny refers to him as “old junkpile” and strikes a match on his foot. Apparently with Robot Master broadcasting next to a giant robot, the story’s credibility will be bolstered by a thousand percent! Blackrock arrives (minus tache) to make a final attempt to persuade Barnet to drop the crazy plan, pointing out that Triple I are lumping potential allies (the Autobots) in with the enemy – and inviting Decepticon attack.

The Autobots arrive and are promptly fired upon by the US military and of course they can’t return fire. Barnett’s comment about them coming to free a comrade is ridiculous, given that the Autobots are clearly not being hostile even under extreme provocation. However, it’s all too late as Soundwave and his cassettes arrive with a casket of fuel (and a petrol hose) and quickly restore Megatron to working order. The Decepticons make very short work of the army and the Autobots, in their weakened state are forced to withdraw. It’s odd seeing them leave humans to the mercy of Megatron (even if it’s the army’s own silly fault) it seems to run contrary to Autobot principles.

Laserbeak retrieves Donny and plonks him in front of Megatron for termination. Donny’s quick talking saves his own neck. He offers the Decepticons his assistance in continuing the dark propaganda so that they can continue to cast fear and suspicion about the Autobots. At this point Megatron really should’ve blasted him into oblivion but with Soundwave thinking it’s a good idea, he also agrees. A second broadcast occurs, with Robot Master backed up Megatron’s raw power (crushing huge boulders for effect). Afterwards Donny very stupidly strikes another match on Megatron’s foot (does he not have a matchbox?) and gets hoisted by the cape (if not his own petard) and warned by Megatron, in full-on public health warning mode, never to presume his value to the Decepticons or he may discover that smoking is hazardous to his health!

So, there you have it kids, smoking is not cool – as Donny’s habit gets him in trouble with Megatron! Overall, it’s a fun, slightly camp and off the wall story from Bob Budiansky that helps keep momentum with the Decepticons and the Autobots on the backfoot, which is important for the drama and tension. Robot Master is a rather ridiculous figure. He looks more like a bloke going to a comic convention in a silly outfit than a potential world dominator or terrorist mastermind. If you think about the concept seriously it quickly unravels – people will know Donny Finkleberg from his regular life and it wouldn’t take the cops or the media long to find out he’s a struggling comic book writer. I guess the story is meant to be enjoyed but not taken too seriously.

Interestingly, Shockwave won’t learn of Megatron’s return until TFUK#65 in another nine issues, which is strange since the ex-Decepticon leader has appeared on every TV channel with Robot Master.

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Rock and Roll-Out!

Jetfire joins the Autobot club and gets a free badge, as five reinforcements – Grapple, Hoist, Skids, Tracks and Smokescreen – debut and uncover a Decepticon presence at Brick Springhorn’s concert!

A key difference for me between Bob Budiansky, the writer of the US Transformers comic (and cover artist for this issue – see above) and his Marvel UK counterpart Simon Furman, was the way they approached the storytelling.

Simon’s stuff tends to be more serious, pitched to an older audience and leans towards the epic, while Bob’s style was more light-hearted and tongue in cheek (though always well structured and paced). Even when he’s writing about the serious business of Ratchet shouldering the burden of being the last surviving Autobot, or Megatron’s explosive showdown with Shockwave, Bob will keep the fun factor by inserting comedy moments involving baffled or freaked out humans.

Thanks to sillier ideas such as Robot Master and the infamous Carwash of Doom, Bob tends to get unfairly compared to Simon. In truth both made exceptional contributions to Transformers comics and both have had great moments. The cool thing about being a UK Transformers fan was that we our weekly comic ran every US story as well the homegrown material, so we had a best of both worlds.

Budiansky’s ‘Rock and Roll Out!’ appears in TFUK #53 and #54 in March 1986. It’s the first of his more ‘offbeat’ stories. The story opens with Jetfire undergoing the sacred Rite of the Autobrand. It’s an age-old ceremony which involves burning an Autobot insignia on to a recruit and them accepting fuel donated by their new comrades. Prime’s words “May your lustre never dull and your wires never cross” had a bit of charm to it, and years later I added the line to my email signature for a while. Another geek confession: even now, if we’re going somewhere, I might say to the kids ‘lets rock and roll out’ so this story must have left an impression.

Jetfire was of course created by the Decepticons, but stolen away by the Autobots. Optimus Prime used his Creation Matrix to give him life and a new purpose. He is the first of a new generation of Autobots, constructed on Earth, and as the Special Teams pull-out included with issue #54 amply illustrates, there are more on their way. A visit to Ratchet’s medical bay shows why new recruits are needed: it’s full of injured warriors, some in a bad way. As far as US readers are concerned these copped it during Prime Time, but in the UK expanded continuity they were casualties of the Dinobot Hunt. Luckily in Wheeljack’s lab, are five robotic bodies waiting to house the personalities of Grapple, Hoist, Smokescreen, Skids, and Tracks.

Budiansky was under constant pressure to keep up with the ever-expanding Hasbro toy line. These five, released in 1985, were overdue an appearance in the comic. The obvious way to bring them in would be to have the Autobots build them and Prime give them life with his Creation Matrix. To Budiansky’s credit he avoids the predictable solution and comes up with something novel (if a little flawed). We find out that these five previously existed on Cybertron and allowed the Ark to copy their minds in case reinforcements were needed (on the original mission to blast a safe passage for Cybertron through the asteroid belt, four million years ago). It begs the question of why not just just take the five along in the first place, rather than go to the trouble of building new bodies during the mission? Also, since we know that Transformers are basically immortal, isn’t it possible that the originals and are kicking around on the home world? Awkward.

Prime and Jetfire step into Wheeljack’s lab, where we witness crystals containing coded memories transfer via laser beams into five newly created robot bodies. With that they wake up as if from a deep sleep.

After the welcomes, Grapple is tasked by Optimus Prime to work on a secret task (we discover what that is in the upcoming story Command Performances). Meanwhile, Bumblebee will help the four other newbies to get acquainted with Earth.

Elsewhere, a fleet of navy vessels closes in on the Decepticon-controlled oil rig. G.B. Blackrock, the rig’s rightful owner, is on the deck of a ship with Walter Barnet from the government agency Triple III. This is Walter’s first appearance in the comic, but he’ll be a recurring character from this point onwards. Blackrock is depicted without his trademark moustache. It could be that artist Don Perlin forgot or just prefers him clean shaven!

It turns out that Starscream, Thundercracker and Skywarp have been toiling away on the rig, harvesting fuel for their recently returned commander, Shockwave. It’s been weeks already and Starscream is in mutinous mood. They are soon joined by Shockwave himself – who blows a hole in a cliff and emerges in flying gun mode (sending a couple of lovebirds diving for cover). He easily evades the navy’s fire and shows his warriors the power siphon he invented. It can convert energy from any sources into Energon cubes and will reduce their reliance on isolated outposts such as the rig. His every word is being eavesdropped by the navy who hear of a plan to harvest a huge release of sonic energy.

Incidentally this is the first time the US comic has acknowledged the existence of Energon cubes (which appear constantly in the cartoons). They do feature in the UK story Decepticon Dambusters, which is itself based on an episode of the Sunbow cartoon. Also, Shockwave’s return is handled without any fanfare. He simply got out of the swamp that he was chucked in by Optimus two US issues ago. In the UK continuity the Decepticons were leaderless for a time.

So, next morning Bumblebee and his trainees are blending into the Oregon traffic. Tracks is already admiring his sleak new vehicle mode. Thanks to modifications, the Autobots can now hide their insignias if necessary and create an illusion of a driver – a mannequin springs up on the driving seat at each Autobots command. After explaining such things as a speed limit, Bumblebee takes them into a Blackrock petrol station where they converse rather awkwardly with the attendants (who think they are either ventriloquists or double jointed). Hehehe!!!

Skids, the more sociable of the Autobots, is intrigued by the song on the station attendants’ radio. He’s told it is Brick Springstern and the Tenth Avenue Band! The lyrics are near identical to Dancing in the Dark, except with a few key word changes. Oddly, Springstern becomes Springhorn later in the story. That one obviously slipped by Editor Michael Carlin. I’m guessing that it was easier for the team to spoof Bruce Springsteen rather than go to all the trouble of asking permission to feature him.

So, to the second part which begins with Prime passing on information to Bumblebee that G.B. Blackrock has warned of a Decepticon plot to steal sonic energy. Both agree that it is likely to involve the Springhorn concert and Bumblebee is told to investigate, but not engage the enemy.

At the Washington DC, offices of Triple I (Intelligence and Information Institute), Walter Barnet calls on his boss Forrest Forsythe. The agency still has no idea what the Transformers are or what they want, and steps must be taken to contain the growing public hysteria. Barnett is told to come up with a plan. The interlude lays the seeds of the next story.

Bumblebee and his trainees drive into the concert parking area without paying the entrance fee. Fortunately, by deactivating their mannequins they park up and fool the security. There are 80,000 fans singing along to ‘Born in America’ when the noise is suddenly drained away. Hoist severs a mysterious cable leading from the stage to somewhere underground and suddenly the three Decepticon jets burst through the ground to attack.

Bumblebee falls in the hole, leaving the four rookie warriors to fight the Decepticons unguided. Luckily the fans all think the missiles and explosions are part of the concert (so much for Triple I’s fears of hysteria), even when Hoist steps up to the stage to weld a piece of rigging back together.

Shockwave is under the stadium, generating cubes from his siphon. It’s all a bit undignified for the Decepticon leader, who you would think wouldn’t have to do the graft himself. He decides to take his revenge for the Autobots spoiling the plan by soaring into the air in gun mode and preparing to incinerate the crowd. Bumblebee throws an Energon Cube at him and the blasts lights up the sky, sending Shockwave spinning off. We don’t find out whether the siphon Shockwave spent weeks making is retrieved or left under the stadium.

Despite Bumblebee disobeying orders, Prime is pleased at the way the new warriors acquitted themselves and they all learned an important motto from the day: the show must go on!

Included free with TFUK#54 is a pull-out mini comic featuring the new combining teams – or Special Teams as Marvel UK is referring to them – the Stunticons, Aerialbots, Combaticons and Protectobots. At a stroke the headcount is increased by 24. The three-page story sees the teams squaring off outside and power plant and demonstrating their combining abilities. The story is a little underwhelming but works as an advert for the new toys, which is what it’s intended to be. The story will be expanded on and put into a proper context by Marvel UK in issue #64.

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