Target: 2006 (Parts 7 & 8)

As Simon Furman’s future epic builds to its crescendo, there’s further humiliation for the leaderless Autobots, Starscream switches sides and Galvatron and Ultra Magnus do battle.

I’ve lost track of the amount of money I’ve spent on comics over the years. As a schoolboy in the 1980s, cycling to my newsagent to pick up the latest issue of Marvel UK’s flagship title, The Transformers, was a weekly ritual. I certainly parted with quite a lot of 30ps back in the day.

Re-reading those stories three and a half decades later, I’m often struck by how well they endure – and Target: 2006 is a real case in point. These issues are every bit as good now as they were then, and I’ve had literally decades of enjoyment from them. Not a bad return for my money I reckon.

The first thing you notice about Transformers #85 (cover date 1st Nov ’86) is Robin Smith’s cover and the strapline ‘Galvatron’s Autobot zombie’. It depicts events from the story with a mindless Jazz beating up on his comrades, Smokescreen and Tracks. Usually, the comic’s loyal readers would have a fair idea of what to expect, thanks to the Next Week/coming attractions teaser (much beloved of this reviewer) on the penultimate page of each issue. We’d been led to believe that this issue’s main event would be Starscream joining Team Galvatron, so the shocking fate of Jazz was, well that, shocking. Once again Simon Furman shows himself to be more than capable of weaving a tale that is full of unexpected twists.

Another unforeseen turn of events occurs at the start of the issue. The Decepticons’ original star-ship, long forgotten by writers and the fans, which was used to pursue the Ark four million years ago, makes a surprise reappearance. Not for long mind, as it is very quickly blown to smithereens as a demonstration of the destructive power of Galvatron’s solar weapon.

Simon must have felt on safe grounds to dispense with it, as Bob Budiansky, writing the master narrative in the US had never revisited the ship and it was a fair bet he wouldn’t in future. Despite being in Earth orbit for millions of years, the ship has been conveniently shielded from sensors. With its spectacular demise, Galvatron is content. Once the weapon has recharged, he will return to 2006 and use it against his actual intended target, his master Unicron.

First there are loose ends to tie up, namely recovering Scourge from Autobot captivity. For this task Galvatron has accepted the services of the treacherous opportunist Starscream, who joins him now. He’s clearly uncomfortable in the presence of Cyclonus who roughed Starscream up off camera a couple of issues ago, but Galvatron is much more cordial and welcoming. As Starscream jets away, eager to serve his new master, Galvatron and Cyclonus share a joke at his expense – thanks to them, in 2006 Starscream “has no future”!

As fans now know, Starscream is destined to be reduced to ash by Galvatron during the Transformers Movie. But in November 1986 the film was still a couple of weeks away from it’s release. Target: 2006 is doing a great job of building anticipation for the big screen event, that’s for sure.

As prominent as Galvatron has been in the story so far, we’ve seen significantly less of his fellow ‘new leader’ and counterpart Ultra Magnus. The mighty Autobot has been spending his time trying and failing to recover Optimus Prime from wherever he ended up. Now he’s finally about to get a break Hotrod, Kup and Blurr, the newest refugees from the future, arrive with the vital answers Magnus needs. It’s a favourite scene of mine – with Hot Rod kneeling in tribute to Magnus as a Matrix holder, only to get a whispered reminder from Kup that “he hasn’t got it yet” (another hint of future events there) and Kup’s brilliant description of Blurr as “fidgeting like there’s about nine different places he wants to be”. The Movie really illustrates that well.

Galvatron personally oversees the prisoner exchange, handing a battered and unconscious Jazz over to Jetfire, Smokescreen, Tracks and Brawn, while receiving Scourge whose arms and legs are manacled behind his back – it sure doesn’t look comfortable. The Autobots under Jetfire have repeatedly underestimated Galvatron and now do so again. The Decepticon produces a remote control and activates Jazz, who immediately launches a savage attack on his comrades, who of course are completely taken by surprise and unwilling to use deadly force. The result is that all four are quickly defeated.

Megatron, meanwhile, has used the opportunity of Galvatron’s absence to get close solar weapon. He gets mugged by Cyclonus who starts throttling him, but when Soundwave uses the butt of his concussion blaster to clonk Cyclonus over the head, it provides the distraction Megatron needs to punch his lights out. This is about right I think – for all his Unicron enhanced power, Cyclonus should not be in the same league as Megatron in power terms, and of course in much later issues he’s quite a bit weaker. At this moment in the comic he’s still able to strangle Megatron, which is a pretty major statement.

Also punching above his weight is Starscream. He ambushes Megatron and Soundwave, cutting them down with two sudden and powerful blasts. He’s about to finish Megatron off when Galvatron arrives and punches Starscream’s lights out. Phew! It’s all happening in this instalment.

But while all of this has been going on, Magnus has been learning from Kup that when a Transformer time-jumps, they lock on to beings of a comparable mass in their target year and displace them to a limbo between dimensions. The mystery of Prime, Prowl and Ratchet’s disappearance is finally solved. Kup is about to explain more when Magnus high-tails it away to confront Galvatron – and so the issue ends with the mouth-watering prospect of the new leaders doing battle. It’s been eagerly awaited!

Onwards to Part 8 of Target: 2006, published in #86 of Transformers UK. The cover’s strapline declares, ‘it’s crunch time’ and that certainly sums up the situation. Geoff Senior’s splash page of Galvatron riding atop of Magnus is breathtakingly brilliant and is the iconic image that encapsulates Target: 2006 more than any other. I also love how much Magnus in truck mode so closely resembles Optimus Prime (no surprise as the Magnus toy is a remake and enhancement of Optimus) but as the stand-in leader it’s fitting.

Furman opens with a recap of Galvatron’s triumphs – the assembly of the solar weapon and the fall of his enemies. The mindless Jazz standing among the bodies of his comrades is such a powerful image, as is the acid injury to Trailbreaker. Grapple, you imagine, would have recovered and been back on his feet quite quickly if Ratchet had been there.

Magnus thunders down the highway, sending cars swerving and crashing as Galvatron hangs on to him for dear life (or perhaps sheer fury). Magnus cuts through the divider and heads on to an overpass that is in mid construction. At the last moment he slams on the brakes and sends Galvatron flying off the bridge. He plummets to the ground and his impact with concrete can almost be felt by the reader! Senior is doing a fantastic job of capturing the drama.

Of course, 11 pages of fighting would be difficult to sustain, and would probably be a fast read. So, I’m grateful to Furman for the flashback which explains the difference between Magnus’ arrival at the end of the previous issue and their presence on the freeway.

We learn that Magnus had confronted Galvatron in order force him to return to the future. Critically, he cannot allow Galvatron to die in case this should prevent the return of Optimus Prime, so he’s already fighting with a handicap. Galvatron, as we saw, had reacted with fury at Magnus’ imposition and had opened fire, leaving a hole in his weapon. He had leapt on to Magnus and been kicked away, crashing into the solar laser and breaking off more components.  Though Magnus had given a fair account of himself, it was clear that Galvatron is the tougher opponent (and certainly the more unhinged).

Magnus had received an internal communication from Kup, asking him to buy some time by getting Galvatron clear of the solar weapon. He had transformed and begun to drive off only for Galvatron to dig his fingers into Magnus’ steel skin and thus the events which opened the story came to pass.

Back to present, and Galvatron recovers. In an instant he disintegrates the motorway floor under the daydreaming Magnus and causes him to fall to the ground also. He lands smack back in the firing line of Galvatron’s cannon mode. Magnus leapfrogs the blast but is knocked aside. He throws a petrol tanker in Galvatron’s direction, which the Decepticon destroys and engulfs both Transformers in a terrible inferno. Further explosions follow until finally a victor emerges from the conflagration… and it is Galvatron!

The end? Well not quite. Magnus is down but not yet out, though it certainly looks like Galvatron is the conqueror at the end of this issue. To be fair, it would have made a lousy cliff hanger to have the good guy win. And so, the tension continues into the penultimate instalment next issue. Target: 2006 has been amazing so far and is building to its stunning conclusion.

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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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The Enemy Within

March 1985 was a significant month in the history of Transformers comics. Issue #13 marked the debut of Simon Furman – the writer who even more than Bob Budiansky most deserves the title Mr Transformers. Furman is responsible for the vast majority of the UK stories in the comic’s 332 issue run and a good number of the Marvel US classics too! And his contribution in the years which followed, with stories for successive license-holders Dreamwave, Titan and IDW.

But it all began with The Enemy Within – a four part story, later hastily stretched to five – produced during the seven months interlude where Transformers UK was fresh out of stories from the US comic to reprint and had to fill the gap with home grown material.

The story is essentially a duel between Starscream and Brawn, two hitherto supporting characters, with the stakes being either death or redemption; but it’s the Decepticon side of the equation that is arguably the more interesting.

The Enemy Within builds on the dynamic between the two biggest Decepticon egos, commander Megatron and his would-be leadership rival Starscream. It was often hinted in the initial mini-series that Starscream thought he would make a better leader, and was just looking for his opportunity to strike. With patience not one of his virtues, his mask eventually slipped and (during The Last Stand) Starscream was openly critical of Megatron and quickly found himself on the receiving end of the leader’s all-powerful fusion canon!

Save for that comedic moment, we haven’t seen Starscream at his most cunning and plotting until now. Furman’s debut story delves in, and unlike the Sunbow cartoons where Starscream is forever undermining the leader and getting away with it, there’s a sense of real consequences here. The Decepticons are like a mafia outfit and if you’re on manoeuvres against the Don, you’re definitely taking a massive risk with your life.

The story grabs the reader from the first panel, opening on a close-up of a Megatron who is outraged! We soon find out why. Starscream is stirring unrest by suggesting they all-out attack the Autobots, something he knows the others will support him on. In doing so, he’s openly questioning Megatron’s chosen course of action. A fusion cannon blast across his bows puts Starscream back in his place, but there is lingering unease in the camp. Megatron instructs Ravage to spy on Starscream and bring back evidence of his treachery, so that he can be silenced for good!

There’s a sense that Ravage is a trusted confidant and someone with whom Megatron can let his guard down. And unlike Ravage’s cartoon depiction, where he’s more animal-like, in the comic he speaks and is like any other Decepticon except with a jaguar robot form.

Unlike the previous UK story Man of Iron, which is out on a limb, we can see that Furman is making a conscious effort to fit his story into the established US canon. So, he has Megatron mention the encounter with Spider-Man and the talk of attacking the Autobots feels like a build-up to what eventually happens in The Last Stand.

Meanwhile, at the Ark, Brawn is lifting a heavy piece of equipment that Mirage is working on when both receive what looks like a very nasty electric shock. In Mirage’s case it will enhance his illusion abilities but Brawn suffers a personality change and becomes selfish, angry and resentful. He goes on a rampage and batters his way through the Ark’s hull and escapes.

Starscream is planning to attack an army base. He thinks that when the Autobots come to the human’s rescue, the Decepticons will come to his – and will be convinced by his leadership qualities. For some stupid reason Starscream articulates all this out loud (why?) and is overheard by Ravage. He offers Ravage a chance to join the plot or else be destroyed. You get a sense of some mutual respect between the two of the other’s abilities – I think when Starscream offers the alliance it’s not only because he’s been caught red-handed, he genuinely thinks Ravage would be an asset.

We see each of their abilities play out in a head to head. Ravage is able to blend into the desert and spring up out of nowhere to launch a missile attack, but the agile flier Starscream is able to evade the threat. The battle concludes with Ravage being blasted and disappearing under falling rocks. There’s no longer any turning back.

In part 2 (TFUK #14) we learn that Ravage survived. He staggers home to the Decepticons and reveals it was Starscream who attacked him. We also see Brawn causing a really nasty (probably fatal) road smash as he takes revenge on humans for ‘enslaving’ his fellow machines (cars). Those hook hands of his are probably useless at picking things up but they are pretty handy for battering the crap out of stationary vehicles, as Brawn does to a cop car which he ‘freed from servitude’ to mankind but which appeared ungrateful. Oh dear.

Starscream causes havoc by shooting down US jets and appearing on television challenging the Autobots to take him on! However, with their own problems to sort out, they swerve the invite and show up to confront the renegade Brawn. It is the Decepticons and Megatron who arrive to take down Starscream!

Cue part 3 where Brawn refuses to come quietly and repels his one-time comrades (fairly successfully) until being taken down by – of all people – Red Alert. Why is that strange, well for one thing he’s never appeared in the line up of Earthbound Autobots before and his appearance here feels like a continuity error. They really ought to have coloured him red and said it was Sideswipe, getting his revenge from earlier.

While Starscream is in a fight for his life – pursued by his former wingmen Skywarp and Thundercracker, he is shot down in the desert and confronted by Megatron. He begs for trial by combat, which apparently he is entitled to, but really Megatron should take no notice of this and press the advantage. That he doesn’t is an indication that there are limits to his authority and he has to keep the troops on side.

In a nice touch, we’re treated to an incident (via historical tapes) of two Cybertronians called Tornado and Earthquake who accepted trial by combat and destroyed each other. With names like that, perhaps it was unsurprising? This could be a perfect resolution, Megatron thinks. Once Brawn is repaired and realises his terrible error, he readily accepts the challenge laid down by the Decepticons to do battle.

Part 4 was billed in advance as the concluding part, but over the fortnight the production team must have discovered that the wait for US material was going to be longer than they expected. The result was that they decided to split the final 11 pages over two issues, and the next story (Raiders of the Last Ark would be told over four issues not two).

That disappointment aside, TFUK #16 is an exciting issue with both Brawn and Starscream showcasing their respective talents (strength and deadly aerial abilities). Brawn throws a giant bolder, Starscream rains down volleys from above. Brawn leaps off a ledge and on to his opponent but ends up hitting the ground hard. Starscream unleashes on the helpless Autobot, seemingly blowing him to bits… or has he? The narrative states that ‘no emotion registered on Optimus Prime’s face’ (how many emotions can a guy without a face show anyway?) and we start to realise that things might not all be as they seem.

In part 5 we find out Mirage had used his abilities to simulate Brawn’s destruction while pulling him clear. Ravage, meanwhile, is in wait with a massive gun strapped to his back, which he uses to take out Starscream! Revenge is a dish best served cold. This can neatly be blamed on the Autobots and serve as a premise for Megatron to lead the attack his troops have been itching for.

In summary, this is action-packed debut story from Simon Furman and nice in that it gives the lesser-seen Brawn a turn in the spotlight. The art, by Ridgway and Collins, sees characters drawn like their toy incarnations but after a while you get used it. One of the letters to the editor asks why Megatron looks different every week. Their reply: none of the artists have been able to get close enough to him, which I guess is fair enough!

The story would be reprinted twice more – the first time in ‘Collected Comics 4’ in full colour, and much later as a back-up strip filler in TFUK #308-318 (in 1991). Robo Capers by Lew Stringer launches to provide regular comedy value but the other back up strips are by and large pretty mediocre. It’s a shame at this point that they are outnumbering the Transformers pages. That US material can’t come quick enough.

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