Gone But Not Forgotten!

Megatron descends into madness over the death of Optimus Prime, striking terror into his troops and prompting Shockwave to again plot a coup de tat involving the Predacons.

The destruction of Optimus Prime in the previous story was easily one of the most shocking moments of the original Marvel Comics run. Not only were readers left reeling at the sight of the iconic Optimus being blown to bits, it the way it happened just seemed to rub salt in the wounds. Prime had won the virtual showdown in Multi-World in spite of Megatron’s cheating. The Decepticon leader had thoroughly deserved his defeat. Instead Prime stepped in to save his greatest foe, by arguing that he (Optimus) had violated sacred Autobot principles by allowing the computer generated inhabitants of Multi-World to be sacrificed in order to win. Therefore he deserved to be executed rather than Megatron! As a teenage fan reading this in March 1987 this was a bitter pill to swallow, it was not even though the Multi-World lifeforms were even real. So, Prime’s actions were in one sense remarkably noble, but on the other incredibly stupid.

Having arrived at this watershed moment there’s a big question mark about whether Transformers story goes next. It reminds me a little of those big DC moments where Doomsday killed Superman and Bane broke the bat – though these stories would come after Bob Budiansky killed off Optimus Prime. All of these great stories contain a protagonist and antagonist who exist in a symbiotic relationship – so think Superman and Lex Luther, Batman and the Joker, Holmes and Moriarty. So it is with Optimus Prime and Megatron and after millions of years of being adversaries, it’s perhaps not surprising that Megatron should have a difficult time of adjusting to the new reality. In fact he even feels cheated of his destiny, having had the opportunity to destroy Optimus slip through his hands.

It’s a fascinating premise which is ably developed in ‘Gone But Not Forgotten’, as well as the concept of mental illness and what happens when a powerful and feared leader begins to lose his mind and become irrational and unpredictable. Having witnessed the exit of Optimus Prime, we’re now along for the ride for the demise of Megatron. Strap yourself in as its quite a ride!

The story begins with the US army advancing on foot and with tanks toward the Decepticons’ coal mine base in Wyoming. Triple I’s Walter Barnett is overseeing the attack and its interesting (at least to me) that with Circuit Breaker and her obsession with targeting the Autobots now off the scene, the US government is at last turning its attention to the real threat. We learn that “environmental concerns” prevented a strike on the Decepticon base previously but what those concerns are or what has changed is unclear. The sensible tactic would surely be to carpet bomb the base from the air rather than risk a land assault against a heavily fortified compound.

Inside the pit, Soundwave contacts the Decepticons on Cybertron with an update on their plans. Having secured the Hydrothermocline technology, they will shortly be abandoning the mine and moving to a remote island off the Florida Keys where they can begin to harness the power of the sea for their energy needs. A secondary reason appears in the narration box in the US version of the story only, and that is to be closer to the Decepticons’ new Cobra allies. This is a reference to the GI Joe vs Transformers mini-series, publishing in the States at the time and which was ignored by the UK comic. Thankfully so, as it’s a terrible story and inferior to the UK crossover ‘Ancient Relics’ which started at Transformers #125. The UK audience would eventually get to read the US crossover as a filler story which ran from issues #265 to #281 during a low point for the UK comic.

Going back to the story, Laserbeak flies in squawking loudly about the imminent ‘fleshling’ attack. Shockwave decides that whatever Megatron’s current mental state, he still commands the Decepticons and must be informed immediately. However, he finds Megatron, seated on a throne of crushed cars, curiously disinterested; “Only Optimus Prime concerns me…” he says.

Brawl unwisely tries to bring his boss to his senses by reminding Megatron that Prime died in the lab and they all saw it. In an instant Megatron is on his feet and wrapping his mighty hands around the Combaticon’s head – how can he be sure that Prime is dead, he tells him? He demonstrates what he would have liked to have done to Prime, by crushing Brawl’s head and throwing his body against the cliff-face!! We’ve previously seen Megatron hitting Soundwave in the face with an exhaust, giving Onslaught a kick up the rear and dropping a boulder just whiskers away from Motormaster while in his rages, but Brawl’s fate is a whole new order of magnitude. It’s hard to imagine that the Combaticon could survive these injuries but he’ll be repaired and restored for the UK story Ladies Night in issue #137.

Megatron’s anxiety is revealed. “I waited 4,000,000 years to destroy Optimus Prime and a fleshling does it for me!” he cries. Rather than face the facts that his chance to conquer his greatest foe has been denied him, Megatron would rather believe that Prime’s death was a trick. Shockwave decides to stoke the fires a bit, suggesting that Prime death in a computer game could also have been simulated. Megatron mulls it over and erupts with savage fury, firing his fusion cannon is all directions! Prime lives and he is coming!! The US Army is taking the fall out from the blasts and decides to beat a retreat – clearly they were woefully under equipped to try to challenge the Decepticons.

As the time for moving arrives, Megatron orders his warriors to assemble and transform, as he shrinks to gun mode and boards Deadend. The convoy moves for the two day journey to Florida, leaving Shockwave within the communications cave to contact the Predacon leader Razorclaw (on Cybertron) and arrange another assassination attempt against Megatron. Here’s where Simon Furman’s audacity in swiping the Budiansky story elements for the UK Prey comes back to bite him, as the issue requires quite a bit of editing to cover the fact that this will be the second attempt and that Megatron’s mental state has deteriorated thanks to the bungled Straxus mind swop.

Shockwave jets away to Florida riding on the Hydrothermacline (now fitted with rockets) content that, Hannibal Smith style, a plan is coming together.

Meanwhile on the open highway Megatron spies a red truck approaching. He leaps from Deadend and transforms, blasting the vehicle to bits. A human driver flees from the explosion and boxes of fruit fall out of the trailer. It becomes clear (even to Megatron) that this is an ordinary truck and not Prime. Megatron tells Deadend that had it been Prime he would now be dead… In the US version Deadend replies ‘But Commander he is already dead’ and in the UK this has been adapted too, “and death will come for Optimus Prime!”

Some other novelties in Transformers #107: we’ve got a tie-in with Kellogg’s Ricicles where kids have to hunt for Captain Ric hidden somewhere in the comic (hint, he’s in the next week box) and cut him out to claim a pack of felt tips. It would have had to be a major prize indeed for me to be tempted to cut up my Transformers comic, and pens doesn’t cut it (literally). Its interesting that the comic has recently carried adverts for Weetabix amongst the usual plugs for toys and other Marvel titles. Kellogg’s must feel that comics are a good way to reach young consumers who are obviously influential when it comes to deciding what cereals the parents buy. I like Ricicles but not enough to cut up my comic for them, lol. There’s a fun new theme from Robo Capers – the robots of history (I do enjoy Lew Stringer’s work) – and Grimlock is asked if he could beat Soundwave in a fight!

The cover #108 is an adaptation of the US cover ‘Megatron’s Last Stand’ except here the Predacons are alluding to their previous encounter: ‘Strike two Megatron… you’re out’. Or is he? The story resumes with the Predacons preparing to cross the Space Bridge to begin their hunt on Earth. Again the dialog has had to be heavily altered to reflect the UK continuity but new UK editor Simon Furman takes it in his stride. The cadre are welcomed by Shockwave and we’re reminded that Megatron has forgotten his previous encounted with the team. They switch their Decepticon badges for Autobot insignias, to make the attack more authentic and take up their positions.

Human holidaymakers at a clams bar observe Deadend storming down the winding roads at 80mph. Out of sight he transforms, as does his passenger Megatron. Vortex ferries Deadend to the nearby island base leaving Megatron alone and expecting Optimus Prime to make his move. Instead he’s confronted with five animal-like Transformers, who unleash a swift (and deadly) assault. As Rampage tears a new opening in Megatron’s head, the Decepticon leader spies the hated Autobot insignia. Clearly Optimus Prime has sent these minions to destroy him – but Megatron will show them who is the stronger!

He repels Rampage and Tantrum just as Divebomb and Headstrong attack. The rhino’s horn pierces Megatron’s side and the mighty Decepticon is now spewing smoke and circuitry – but there’s no sign that any of this is slowing him down! As Razorclaw opens fire, Megatron is sent cascading into the clams bar. The holidaymakers flee in panic (with handfulls of food) in one of the few comedic moments in an otherwise serious story. Megatron rises to his feet and renews his offensive, as Razorclaw pounces, tearing off the right-hand-side of Megatron’s face. This outrage only exacerbates the Decepticon leader’s fury! This is shaping up to be a hell of a battle.

Meanwhile, with the Decepticons operation to transfer energy from the sea across the space bridge going according to plan, Shockwave breaks off his supervision to go an check on Megatron. He arrives to find the finds that things are not going well from his perspective. Even with the weight of numbers on their side, Megatron is just too powerful. Razorclaw gives the order for the Predacons to combine and moments later, Megatron is facing the 80 foot titan Predaking! He has to move fast to avoid a blast from Predaking’s X-ray cannon.

Shockwave soars into view and offers help but Megatron rejects this; he needs no assistance to destroy his enemies, as he ably demonstrates by throwing a tree into Predaking and wounding him, before unleashing a deadly blast of his fusion cannon. Predaking falls leaving Megatron to raise his hands in victory – none can challenge him! This is an awesome end to the battle. Despite being severely unbalanced mentally Megatron is still massively powerful and maybe even more so than usual. His survival instinct is strong.

Now for the slightly daft bit, the corrollory to Optimus Prime’s sacrificing himself in many ways. At the island base Megatron’s victory has done him the power of good and restored his confidence that were Prime still alive he would conquer him as easily as he did Predaking. Then the disk is discovered within the unconscious Predaking that reveals Shockwave’s treachery. Megatron prepares to execute this traitor when Shockwave informs him that he recorded major portions of his personality on to the disk – he had controlled the Predacons as surely as if he had been in the battle himself.

It is a lie but Megatron takes the bait. His thoughts skip back to Ethan Zachary’s lab and sees an image of the human holding a similar disk – it must have contained Optimus Prime! The thought that his adversary still lives is enough to tip Megatron over the edge and he steps on to the space bridge, firing indiscriminately until the bridge starts to explode and vanishes, taking the Decepticon leader with it. As the sun sets it appears that Megatron’s tumultuous reign is over and Shockwave commands once again. Soundwave congratulates him but the new leader cannot take full credit. Although things went precisely to plan it was not Shockwave who destroyed Megatron… “a memory did”.

And so a new era dawns. Megatron would be out of the comic for another two years although he would reappear in the UK continuity in the interim (creating Simon Furman’s greatest continuity headache – but more on that another time).

In closing, Gone But Not Forgotten is one of Bob Budiansky’s best stories. Megatron’s descent into madness is expertly done and the fight with Predacons is supremely satisfying. If there’s a weakness its the way that Megatron falls for Shockwave’s ruse at the end. And so to the next issue where we find out how Prime’s death is impacting on the Autobots. We’re in the midst of another strong batch of US stories at this point.

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Afterdeath!

It’s March 1987 and after two and a half years of writing the Marvel US Transformers comic, Bob Budiansky is about to do something incredibly bold to shake things up – he’s about to kill off the two stars of the franchise, Optimus Prime and Megatron!

Pictured: The US cover to the Afterdeath! story

Of course, with this being comics, death is never really permanent but for the best part of the next 18 months or longer these two much loved characters (or love to hate in Megatron’s case) are about to disappear from the pages of our favourite comic.

The question is how to do it in an original way. After all the two leaders have clashed on countless occasions on the battlefield and had been seen in a fight to the death in the Transformers Movie less than four months previous. Bob being the super imaginative writer that he is, comes up with a novel way of having his two main protagonists do battle for the ‘last time’ by having them duke it out in a computer game. This is a game with very high stakes as the loser must be destroyed in real life. For this reason Afterdeath! is one of the most controversial stories in the history of Transformers comics. It’s a decent story but is detested by many because of the ending, as we will see.

First a quick mention of the cover to issue #105. Lee Sullivan, who admittedly is not one of my favourites when he’s illustrating the main strip – mostly for his tendency to draw saliva in the mouths of his robots (I’m picky I know) – nevertheless has been turning in some really solid covers of late. There was the Battlechargers on Transformers UK #94 and his latest effort has Defensor and Bruticus squaring up alongside Prime and Megatron. Deadlock indeed! It’s great to see the two remaining Special Teams finally making their debut.

Following a public health warning on the Transformation page, letting readers know that the demise of one of the two leaders is coming up, the stakes and the stage is set for the story to come. It begins with the genius programmer and gaming enthusiast, Ethan Zachary, playing his Multi-World creation on a huge wall-sized screen. His character is overwhelmed by the hordes of Hazzak just as his colleague Margaret arrives and wonders why Ethan wastes so much time playing silly video games. We learn that they are working inside a top security facility which houses the Hydrothermocline, a revolutionary new technology for extracting energy from the thermal layers in the ocean. (Eighties kids were already learning about green technology years before they became a thing!)

Ethan demonstrates his technique for restoring his game character to life using the command ‘AFTERDEATH’, which is a pretty significant detail as we later find out.

Little do they know they are being monitored from above by Vortex in helicopter mode. Here’s our first glimpse of a Combaticon in the comic for real as opposed to appearing as part of Buster’s Matrix-induced dream. As Ethan re-immerses himself in the Multi-World, at the Ark, Wheeljack is extracting the Cerebro Shell which the Insecticon Bombshell had implanted within Optimus Prime’s head module (as seen in the story Heavy Traffic). This shell has already served its purpose as the Decepticons were able to use it to siphon off the Matrix as Prime was giving life to the Aerialbots, allowing them to breathe life into the Stunticons. Now can assume that the same thing happened in respect to the Combaticons and Protectobots.

Wheeljack turns the tables by using the device to eavesdrop on the Decepticons and they learn of Megatron’s plans to seize the Hydrothermocline. And later that evening, when Onslaught, Brawl and Swindle roll through the perimeter fence, they are met with the sight of Optimus Prime and the Protectobots laying in wait. Megatron jumps out from Onslaught’s cab and they are joined by Vortex and Blastoff. In a blatant bit of product placement both teams combine to their respective gestalts and it’s clear that the situation is a stalemate. That is until Ethan Zachary decides to make a run for it right by Bruticus and is easily snatched by the fearsome but insanely stupid Decepticon. His request to crush the Zachary is denied, as Megatron thinks he might make a useful hostage.

Ethan suggests a way the two sides could fight it out without destroying the plant, by connecting to his Multi-World. Amazingly they all agree and pretty soon the teams and their leaders are attaching cables to their heads in order to appear as avatars in the game (a good thing Ethan keeps these cables handy eh?). The rules are simple, if the Decepticons destroy Optimus Prime in the game they can take the Hydrothermocline, but Megatron is loses then they can’t. Ethan assures a sceptical Groove that there is no way to cheat (famous last words!) and Megatron decides to up the ante by insisting that the loser must be destroyed in real life.

So Ethan controls two joysticks that can trigger a lethal explosion in one or other leader, which strikes me as incredibly trusting of Megatron to allow a human he’s only just met to hold the power of life or death over him. Additionally, it was only a few weeks ago that Prime was so concerned about his warriors’ inability to cope without him that he was faked his own death to test them, and yet now he’s entering into an agreement where the outcome could well be his actual death! Very strange.

The first half ends with Optimus Prime and the Protectobots arriving in the strange computer generated landscape that makes up Multi-World, and Prime preparing to lead his troops. Issue #106 again reminds readers of the stakes. This is the honest to gosh ‘final battle’ between Prime and Megatron we’re told… and one will die! The story then resumes with Hotspot basically ordering Optimus to stay put and allow the Protectobots to fan out and pick off the enemy. After all in this game their deaths are meaningless whereas if Prime dies they all lose. Prime agrees, but reminds his warriors that even though nothing is real, they must all remain true to their Autobot principles avoid harming any of this world’s inhabitants.

Hilariously, we see the mirror situation with Megatron and the Combaticons. Onslaught is almost cocky about inviting Megatron to take the lead. That earns him a swift boot up the rear as the more canny Megatron realises that he must be preserved and his Combaticons are mere fodder. He sends them ahead and tells them “let nothing stop you” – Multi-World inhabitants need to beware!

Now usually the Autobot concern for innocent life tends to be handicap in their encounters with the Decepticons but this is one of those rare occasions where doing the right thing brings powerful dividends. Streetwise and First Aid take great care to avoid harming any of the vines in their path, which leaves them open to ambush from Brawl and Swindle, who also take out many of the vines in the process. The two Combaticons transform and are ensnared by the vines, who it turns out possess sentience. This allows First Aid to crystallise the stunned pair with his roof mounted gun (it’s nice to see their weapons being spotlighted in addition to the characters) and Streetwise to shattering them with a blast of compressed air. Back in the real world, Ethan Zachary cheers the victory.

In the Cloud-steppes region, Blast Off and Vortex cut the skyway support cables, sending Grove and many of the Cloudstepper inhabitants falling. Blades swoops down to save his comrade, but is told to catch the Cloudsteppers instead as Groove just manages to grab a ledge. Blades does so, leaving himself wide open to a Combaticon attack. But one of the Cloudsteppers lets off a smoke bomb, blinding the two Decepticons who crash into each other while Grove finishes them off with his Photon Pistol.

Two more down and one to go as Hotspot and Onslaught face off in the Slimepit region. Onslaught makes use of the mud to launch a surprise ambush. His random laser blasts decimating the homes of the local Slimepit people and Hotspot uses his body to shield the defenceless creatures. They reward him by pulling him and resurfacing behind the Decepticon. A powerful blast from Hotspot allows him to claim an unlikely victory. Ethan applauds the win, while Megatron screams to know what is going on.

With the Combaticons failing to return, Megatron goes searching for Prime and soon finds his foe in the Metropipe region. As the pair stand either end of a bridge over a bottomless chasm, It would appear that the final battle now comes down to just the two leaders – or not, as the ominous form of Defensor appears behind Prime! Megatron screams at his fellow Combaticons to aid him, but with all having been defeated he can only lash out at them blindly in the real world. Vortex explains there’s a way to cheat by inputting the word “Afterdeath” when you lose. Thus when Defensor carries himself and Megatron over the ledge to their dooms, Megatron reappears behind Optimus and blasts him with full force. In the real world the Protectobots and Ethan are puzzled as to what just happened.

Back in the game, Prime hangs off the edge by a single arm, with the other a mangled wreck. Megatron looks down at his helpless foe when suddenly with the last of his strength, Prime yanks at one of the support pipes toppling one of the towers above and knocking Megatron to his death a second time. This time there is no reprieve as Megatron and many of the small Metropipe inhabitants plunge to their doom. The game over message appears, with Prime the sole character left on screen, and the Protectobots hailing their leader as everyone’s optics are switched back on.

Streetwise tells Ethan to press Megatron’s detonator before he can escape, but a far from happy Optimus Prime speaks his disapproval of the win. He argues that because he deliberately caused the deaths of the innocent inhabitants of Metropipe he in fact violated his own sacred Autobot principles. He cannot accept this victory and insists that Ethan press his detonator, which the incredulous human reluctantly does. In a full page to convey the sheer enormity, Prime explodes spectacularly as the Protectobots – and the readers presumably – watch in utter shock and horror!

Pictured: Don Perlin’s iconic depiction of Optimus Prime’s destruction!

With the battle over, Megatron and the Combaticons prepare the Hydrothermocline for transport and the Protectobots round-up the remains of their fallen leader before departing in utter silence. Now alone, Ethan reflects on what he witnessed, Optimus Prime was the most noble being he had ever met in his entire life. In a final, teasing image he writes the name Optimus Prime on a disk and files it away, taking comfort that in the realm of Multi-world, for a character such as Optimus Prime there is always the Afterdeath!

Wow! So where do I start? Optimus Prime is dead (just like in issue #78 and #97 of course) but this time he really is! So what will happen now for the Autobots? Who can pick up the mantle of the greatest Autobot of them all? Prowl, Ultra Magnus? Intriguing questions remain and of course Bob will have plenty more surprises in store. In the end I really enjoyed the video game scenario, but the way Prime insists on his own death is disturbing, and many people despise this story for that single reason. The fact that Megatron cheated just seems to rub it in, and the way this fact is unaddressed at the end leaves readers feeling angry and dismayed. But hey, great art and literature is meant to have an emotional impact right, and why shouldn’t that apply to comic books?

The final scene where Ethan Zachary appears to save Optimus Prime’s mind onto disk also brings up a lot of points. If a Transformers mind can apparently be backed up (as shown back in issue #53 using high density crystals) then why don’t all Transformers do this as an insurance policy against death, not to mention the fact you could potentially use this to create as many Optimus Primes as you wish. Lastly, it seems unlikely that Prime’s vast personality and millions of years worth of memories could be backed up onto a single floppy disk. In 1987 a gigabyte of data was practically unheard of, and you would expect Prime’s memory to be vastly in excess of that.

The US comic was running a Transformers/GI Joe crossover series in parallel to this and the next few issues. Although initially excluded from the UK continuity, it was printed much later on as a space-filler in UK #265-281.

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