At the mid point in the mini-series the Autobots have become Headmasters and gained the upper hand over their Decepticon enemies but their fortunes on Nebulos are about to undergo a dramatic reversal
Headmasters started life in the US as a four issue spin-off from the main Transformers title, in 1987. Its job was to introduce fans to a new cast of Autobots and Decepticons (and Nebulans) and the novel concept of transforming heads and weapons. The story hopped over the pond into the Marvel UK Transformers comic where it became that rarest of things, a back-up strip with the power to outshine the main story.
Most of the secondary stories up to that point had been pretty run of the mill, with a few exceptions like Machine Man of 2020, Action Force (the anglicized version of GI Joe) and my personal favourite Hercules. Having wall-to-wall Transformers stories for 16 weekly issues was a huge deal back in the day and as a reader we felt suitably blessed.
The Headmasters saga is the Transformers US writer Bob Budiansky on his A game, and if the purpose is to push a toy line that doesn’t detract from what is thought provoking (and entertaining) story. On the face of it, the set-up is familiar; it’s giant alien robots unleashing their civil war onto an unsuspecting human world, with the Decepticons intent on conquest and plunder and the Autobots struggling to protect the planet’s inhabitants (and mostly being met with fear and misunderstanding).
Earth in this case is substituted for the pacifist world of Nebulos. That’s thousands of years tradition of peace is not the only difference though. In regular Transformers, the concept of robots in disguise is quite apparent. The Transformers are blended into the background of society, and while they often break cover and get written up in the press, there’s been government attempts to dismiss them as a hoax (e.g. Robot Master) and life goes on generally speaking.
Whereas on Nebulos, the Transformers’ presence is acknowledged off the bat and is front and centre. From Highbrow’s clumsy first contact with Gort in the forest, Nebulos life is completely upended. Their parliament debates the Autobot presence, and Blurr arrives in a very public (and disastrous) way. The people are on the streets protesting and rioting! Public pressure is such, that the Nebulan leadership even abandons it’s tradition of peace in order to wage war on the Autobot refugees. It could be that Bob was saying something profound about human nature here (albeit they’re Nebulans) that fear and misunderstanding quickly descends into hatred and violence, and we’re all susceptible.
Love and Steel is the third instalment of the saga. We’ve previously seen the Decepticons arrive and the Autobot leader and four of his allies bonded with Nebulans to become Headmasters in order to repel Scorponok. From this point on the balance of power is about to shift decisively…
The story begins in Splendora, a city of “prosperity and beauty”, that is being laid waste by the Apeface and Snapdragon (the Horrorcons) and the combiner team known as the Terrorcons. The names say it all pretty much, and the panicked citizens are fleeing for their lives. Presumably, although we don’t see it, the death and casualty count is high. For the Decepticons the attack is just about relieving their boredom. In the words of Blott: “I bet when you stomp on them they make squishy sounds”.
The cavalry arrives in the form of the Technobots, who are led into battle by the Nebulan-controlled Autobots Hardhead and Brainstorm. I think there is a deliberate attempt by the Nebulan leader Galen to reassure the public by having Nebulans involved whenever the Autobots mount a defence, not that it is very successful.
The Terrorcons combine into Abominus, whose scale is utterly awesome. He’s able to demolish tall buildings with a swing of one of his mighty arms. The Technobots merge into Computron, who deploys a well placed shot and batters Abominus into his component parts with a huge metal girder. In his enthusiasm, Computron manages to give the impression of being as big a menace as the Decepticons. The Horrorcons are no match for the sharp-shooting Hardhead and Brainstorm, whose aim and abilities has improved exponentially since teaming up with Nebulans. (I’m not really sure why this should be the case, but perhaps it’s the old saying of two heads better than one…).
Brainstorm and Hardhead detach their heads into Nebulans Arcana and Duros to calm the public and assure them that the crisis is passed. As per usual they get zero gratitude. Peer Soriza, part of the Nebulan ruling council, simply questions the wisdom of Galen and his followers in “involving robots” in Nebulan affairs. The benefits should be pretty blooming obvious I would have thought, as the Decepticons would still be rampaging if not for the Autobot intervention.
At the Decepticon’s temporary base, Lord Zarak – who very unwisely reached out to Scorponok to seek his help in ridding Nebulos of the Autobots – is getting his just desserts by becoming a caged prisoner. For some reason, Scorponok is choosing to keep them as laboratory animals (showing his keen interest in mad science that would surface in the future and more so in the IDW comics of the 2000s). He’s created a bubble machine an elaborate trash disposal system for dumping Nebulan dissidents into the oblivion of outer space! Hmm.
The overweight Nebulan Monzo is selected as a test and quickly floats off, courtesy of Skullcruncher’s anti-gravity gun, before the bubble bursts at 50ft. Luckily Mindwipe transforms and catches the poor guy before he goes splat (no sense in wasting lab materials).
Zarak is pretty feisty for a caged captive. He warns Scorponok that a “thousand Nebulans will rise up” to take the place of any killed (hollow words perhaps from a society which has no concept of warfare) but he sees an opening when Apeface and Snapdragon return to report their defeat at Spendora, and are on the receiving end of Scorponok’s wrath – is he afraid to admit there are advantages to working with Nebulans, Zarak challenges.
Scorponok smashes the small prison and seizes Zarak in his pinchers. Yet the condemned Nebulan shows no fear – his death is a small matter if his world is to be conquered by Decepticons or Galen’s allies, he says. Perhaps it’s the scientist in Scorponok, or his desire to vanquish the enemy, but he agrees to share his power. However, he has a telling word of warning for Zarak: once possessed of the savage strength of Scorponok all other considerations become insignificant, perhaps even Zarak’s beloved daughter.
Later, at the Headmaster’s temporary headquarters, Galen and his men are visited by Soriza (still as miserable as ever) and a delegation. They find Galen and his men working on the Autobot weapons in what is undoubtedly the early stages of developing a Targetmaster process. As usual their preoccupation with war-making hits all the wrong notes insofar as the observers are concerned. Gort and Stylor are miscoloured as each other in one of the frequent art and colouring blunders with bedevil the series – thank goodness Bob’s storytelling makes up for this.
The Council has decided to send a delegation to accompany all of the Autobot missions. Galen agrees because he’s a stickler for the law, but he reinforces Duros’ point that the battlefield is no place for “headline hunting politicians”. Zarak’s daughter Llyra arrives looking like she’s stepped out in her negligee. She’s still giving poor Galen the cold shoulder for abandoning his peace loving principles, and has come with a very dubious video of Lord Zarak, apparently smuggled out of captivity, appealing for Galen and the Autobots to rescue them from the Decepticons. Galen readily agrees.
He tries to insist on Llyra not accompanying the political delegation and putting herself in harm’s way, but apparently she has inherited her father’s council seat in his absence – showing that they have an elitist hereditary system of politics on Nebulos rather than a democratic popular vote that you might expect from this highly evolved society.
The Headmasters roll-out to effect a rescue. Fortress Maximus, through Galen’s prior dealings with Zarak, ought to have known of the possibility for a trap and taken Autobot reinforcements along. Instead the five of them show up to take on an entire base full of Decepticons. They are met by Scorponok and five other Decepticons who emerge headless, with Zarak and the Nebulans now wearing robotic suits. The situation has “changed dramatically” says Zarak, before they bond with the Decepticons and attack the Autobots. Watching from above the politicians are appalled by the violence and Llyra cannot believe Galen is involved in it – despite him risking his life to rescue her beloved father – the same dad who’s now bonded to Scorponok!!
Zarak, now part-Scorponok, experiences power the likes of which he could never have imagined. Plucking Brainstorm from the air he feels like he could rip him in two; luckily, Fortress Maximus propels Skullcruncher at the Decepticon to prevent this happening. The inner conflict between Zarak’s love for his daughter and his home-world, and his lust for power and petty jealously, which is now magnified though his bonding with Scorponok is a really fascinating aspect of the story. With the Decepticons now ascendant, that inner turmoil is the only chance the Autobots have at a saving grace.
Apeface throws a boulder at the Nebulan observers’ floating craft, damaging a stabiliser and causing it to crash land (his bonding with Spasma doesn’t appear to have engendered any more sympathy towards Nebulans) and for Llyra and the others to spill out. Scorponok orders Mindwipe to create a distraction (except Scorpy has been drawn as Fortress Maximus, which is a shocking error by the artist) and Mindwipe uses his hypnotic gaze on Llyra to make her lead her fellow Nebulans into the trap of the Decepticon bubble machine. With Scorponok tearing a hole in roof, the bubbled-captives begin to float skywards and the Autobots have no choice but to break off the fight and focus on trying to free everyone.
Scorponok’s conflict at seeing ‘his daughter’ floating away is fascinating, although at this point the Decepticon side is stronger – there is no time for trivialities when he has a world within his grasp. Fortress Maximus frees Llyra and catches her (again, another artist blunder as Max’s head has been drawn as Cerebros – how does the artist get the main character of the saga wrong three issues in? It’s bizarre). The Autobots are sitting ducks and quickly cut down by a barrage of Decepticon fire. They heads detach and revert to unconscious Nebulan forms.
Zarak takes great pleasure in the defeat of his hated foe Galen – “you tried to intimidate me with your power” he says, showing a petty jealousy that underlines why he is the lesser man than Galen. However, in Llyra’s eyes Zarak is the hero of the hour. In her daze she thinks Galen and the Autobots were shooting at them, and despite dumping Galen for his decision to bond with Transformers to save Nebulos, she holds her father to no similar standard.
The instalment ends with the Autobots vanquished and Zarak vowing that Galen and his kind will never threaten Nebulos again! Harsh. As a reader the unfairness of the situation is brutal, however it’s certainly dramatic and you’ll be back for the concluding instalment Brothers in Armour to find out how the situations resolves.