Desert Island of Space

Spike’s first mission as Fortress Maximus and Autobot leader may be his last as he gives way to emotion in a desperate bid to rescue his brother from Decepticon clutches…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next story
Previous

Toy Soldiers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next story
Previous

Buster Witwicky and the Car Wash of Doom!

One of the most bizarre Transformers stories of writer Bob Budiansky’s reign sees Buster Witwicky uncover a plot by Ratbat to steal gasoline by hypnotising motorists in his Wash and Roll car washes!

Simon Furman titled one of his early Marvel UK Transformers stories Raiders of the Last Ark and in 1987 it was the turn of US writer Bob Budiansky to run with the Indiana Jones theme. His story, Buster Witwicky and the Car Wash of Doom is one of his most off-the-wall and rather sounds like the title came to him in the shower one morning and he decided to craft a story around it.

On the up side it’s got Ratbat as a main character, offering us a chance to enjoy more of his obsessive penny pinching and complete absence of morals – and it’s a welcome return for the Buster Witwicky (who saves the day without help from any of his Autobot friends). On the downside its a stand-out silly story that even the UK editorial team are struggling to take seriously and raises questions about whether Bob was starting to get a bit bored with the book by this point.

Car Wash has been a few issues in the making. Bob introduced us to Ratbat an his role as Decepticon fuel auditor and bean counter in chief in the Trypticon story. Crater Critters established that he’d sent a mysterious cargo to Earth and in The Cure, Astrotrain darted GB Blackrock with a brainwashing microchip that allowed him to be manipulated for what’s to follow. At this point in the US run, readers last saw Buster at the end of the 1985 story Prime Time where he returned the Matrix to Optimus Prime and returned to a normal life. In the UK Buster returned a couple more times, not least in a major way for the Special Teams debut story Second Generation, but even this side of the pond he’s been absent for a good nine months. And what an infamous story to return to!

The story is printed in the UK in the pages of Transformers #128, with a cover depicting Shockwave setting his ‘dogs’ (Ramjet, Thrust and Vortex against a Blackrock tanker). I like it a lot. Now, Blackrock must be one of the most unlucky billionaires there is! Literally every time the Decepticons target a rig or a plant its always one his, never a competitor. (Having said that Blackrock did comment in UK#123 that tankers were going missing so perhaps the Decepticons have been targeting indiscriminately). On this occasion one of Blackrock’s tankers is attacked in a bit of piracy on the high seas by the Conehead jets, Vortex and the Insecticons (all fairly recent additions to the Earth Decepticons’ ranks).

Before too long the vessel is seized and the crew rounded up. Bombshell hits one poor soul with a mind-controlling Cerebro Shell in order to have the man direct them to the control room. It’s a waste of a good shell as Kickback suggests – he’d have rather used his own powers of persuasion! – but Bombshell reveals their effectiveness is being tested. This being a family comic, the crew are put to sea in lifeboats rather than be executed (which might have been easier). The ship is towed to a small uncharted island, or rather the Decepticon’s undersea base which is concealed below. Commander Shockwave and the newly arrived Ratbat fly out to it.

Shockwave is smugly content that the operation went flawlessly, thanks to his “infallible logic” (naturally). But when Ratbat sinks his fangs into a pipe line there’s red faces all round – the tanker is empty!! It appears the tanker had already delivered its cargo when the Decepticons attacked. Shockwave is furious, immediately laying the blame with his warriors! Ratbat makes sure to rub it in by calculating the units of lost energy. The dynamic between the two is highly amusing. Clearly there’s no love lost between them but Shockwave has to be on his best behaviour to avoid Ratbat pulling the plug on the Earth operation. It’s difficult to imagine Megatron controlling himself and not roasting Ratbat with his fusion cannon and the first sign of condescension.

Ratbat suggests that they ought to be making use of the planets natives. Shockwave has little time for the idea and warns Ratbat not to bother – but Ratbat reveals that he already has plans in place…

Back on the mainland, in Portland, Oregon, Sparkplug Witwicky’s auto dealership now has a vulgar-looking Wash and Roll car wash adjacent (presumably this would have required months of applying for planning permission or perhaps not). Business seems to be booming with a queue formed on the forecourt. Sparkplug arrives to take over filling the customers’ tanks from Buster, mentioning that he also wants to fill his own tank – very strange as it was only filled an hour ago. Suddenly Buster’s girlfriend Jessie arrives on her bike and invites Buster to join her for a drink. He is forced to decline as another customer pulls up. Jessie shows Buster the local paper reporting a feared fuel shortage in the north west. Could it all be linked?

Elsewhere, at his corporate headquarters, GB Blackrock holds a press conference to reveal the success of the Wash and Roll – the “cleansing experience for both car and driver” – and reveals his plans for Wash and Roll mark two. After the reporters leave, Blackrock’s mind turns blank like he’s been hypnotised. He removes a tiny cassette from his inside pocket, which transforms into the fearsome form of Ratbat – his plan working perfectly.

Later that evening, Buster is sweeping up the forecourt when a final customer pulls up – Jessie! Her brother’s car needed a wash, and Buster reluctantly accepts her invitation to join her through the Wash and Roll! As the car slowly moves through, various flashing lights and heavy metal music blaze out, but Buster spends every day at this place so he’s not too excited. She decides to cheer him up another way – i.e. jumping on him! All of a sudden a light flashes into Jessie’s eyes, and the effect is instant. As the cycle soon finishes, Jessie tells Buster she has to go and then drives off zombie-like. Buster is confused and concerned and decides to follow her for an hour’s drive until she turns off the highway into a Blackrock fuel depot…

Elsewhere in the issue, we’ve got our first advert for the Hasbro Headmasters toys, and Grimlock defends the decision to conclude the Wanted Galvatron saga in the annual. It seems the marketing gimmick is not to everyone’s liking, though I would have thought most Transformers fans would want to pick up the annual anyway. We’re also at the start of a long an enjoyable Robo Capers saga with King Nonose and the Inventor on Earth’s moon.

In part two (UK #129) Buster uncovers the Decepticon plan. He follows Jessie into the Blackrock depot wondering whether she has a night job that she hadn’t mentioned before. He sees her ‘fill up’ her tank before driving off again and blocks her path with his car. Jessie doesn’t seem to acknowledge him until he flashes his headlights, snapping her back into reality. Suddenly Laserbeak swoops down and blasts at Buster’s car. He hasn’t been recognised the human as an Autobot as first thought, just a human who is out of line
The cons are actually siphoning fuel from hypnotised motorists before sending them on their way.

Presumably there is an art to leaving just the right amount of fuel in the tank or there would be a lot of folk breaking down on the drive home? Ratbat’s plan seems very inefficient compared to just stealing the oil directly as per Shockwave’s approach. The only justifiable reason for the laborious process of stealing gasoline from drivers must simply be down to its discreteness, but then you can only wonder how long people would take to notice their partners constantly staring into space and going on late night drives. Plus spending all the household income on petrol!

Buster and Jessie climb to the roof of an adjacent building where they can see Blackrock, flanked by Ratbat, addressing the crowd. He helpfully explains (for the readers – it’s difficult to imagine why the hypnotised crowds need to know) that Astrotrain zapped him with a hypnotising chip and he’d witnessed the Decepticon’s cargo transform into the first Wash and Roll car wash. Blackrock then instructed his organisation to begin mas production of the washes. The only problem is that the hypnosis quickly wears off – however Wash and Roll mark II will be a lot more permanent. He selects someone from the crowd to test it out, and picks on Buster’s dad Sparkplug (who oddly gives his name as Irving Witwicky and not William as he did previously in Prisoner of War – Bob probably forgot).

Buster must act right away, and after sending Jessie to find help, he speeds his own car into his dad’s path. The brainwashed humans soon surround him, leaving Buster no choice but to flee into the Wash and Roll (not the most sensible escape route given that it washes brains!) and Ratbat follows him, jumping onto Buster’s bonnet, and draining the cars fuel vampire-like. Buster rolls out of the door, covering his eyes, and gripping a tyre iron. He kicks a water pipe, splashing Ratbat in the face who releases him. Suddenly Jessie comes speeding in and shunts Ratbat (she couldn’t leave Buster to face this monster alone, she says). Buster decides there is no time to call the Autobots, this must be ended now.

He smashes the neon Car Wash sign with a throw of the iron, creating a big flash that wakes everyone from their trances. The crowd bombard the Laserbeak and Ratbat with spanners forcing the Decepticons into a rather pathetic retreat. Buster has saved the day and is congratulated by his dad and GB Blackrock (amazingly this is the first time the two have met considering they are both so closely linked to the Autobots). Blackrock vows to dismantle all the Wash and Rolls and Jessie thanks Buster with a big smooch.

In summary, the infamous Car Wash of Doom is not one of the best examples of the Marvel Transformers run, which is a shame seeing as it sees the welcome return of Buster, Jessie and Sparkplug. The story has its moments, in particular the moment where the Decepticons discover the tanker they went to all the trouble to hijack is empty! It’s odd to think that an operation run by the calculating Shockwave could be incompetent. Mind you Ratbat may not be in a position to criticise after this, now that his ropey scheme to hypnotise people into handing over their fuel tanks has literally run out of gas. Why not capture a rig or demand fuel in return for not destroying a city or something? Bizarre.

Next issue we go off-world for our first glimpse of the planet Nebulos, home of the most unique Autobots and Decepticons yet – the Headmasters!

Next story
Previous

The Gift

It’s the festive season but Jetfire is having trouble fitting in with the other Autobots and visits their human friend Buster Witwicky seeking advice.

As 1986 draws to a close, the Marvel UK Transformers comic sees the welcome return of James Hill for one of his rare appearances, standing in for regular writer Simon Furman. James bookends the year, having written the first story (Crisis of Command) and now the last, with The Gift. This is his second festive Transformers story, having penned the quintessential yuletide tale Christmas Breaker! the previous year, and his last story for the Marvel TF comic.

On art duties is Martin Griffiths, who is best known for his work of the Marvel UK Thundercats comic. Issue #93’s story is his only strip for Transformers UK, although he would later illustrate the cover for issues #103 and #143.

The first thing that strikes you about the comic is the Robin Smith cover. Rather than illustrating the story within, there’s a surprise appearance from Galvatron, exclaiming “I’ll be back!” while taking aim at a metallic looking Christmas fern. Those Terminator-style words are a hint of what’s to come if ever there was one. Naturally none of us will have thought we’d seen the last of Galvatron when he scuttled off back to his own time in issue #87, but to be talking about bringing him back already (barely five weeks later) feels like indecent haste. In fact, his actual return to the 1980s would be in issue #101 – and he’d be staying for good!

The issue’s Transformation page, complete with festive snow coating and Xmas wrapping, explains that the cover hint is part of the production team’s attempts at pulling out the stops to produce the ultimate Christmas present for their loyal readers. There’s also 20 of the Sunbow Transformers videos to be given away in a competition and an AtoZ entry (always appreciated) on Beachcomber and Blades.

The Gift is two mini-stories in one, knitted together through the device of Jetfire’s narration. It being almost Christmas, the small Oregon town of Portland is enjoying a coating of snow. Buster Witwicky is in his room weighed down with his college history project and wandering if future kids will be studying the Transformers war on earth.

The TV news details a recent incident at a chemical plant concerning the giant robots, and Buster hears a knocking at the window – it’s Jetfire.

Buster’s décor is a bit odd. There’s a banner up saying ‘Happy Christmas 86’ which I’m guessing can’t be used again, and a framed photo of a bare-chested guy (should Jessie be worried?) but it’s nice to see the scale of Transformers compared to humans, with Jetfire’s face filling the entire window frame. I also notice that Griffiths has a style of drawing circuitry within the mouths of his Transformers, giving them a more machine-like appearance than we see from many of his contemporaries.

Jetfire’s timing is not ideal as Buster has imminent exams to revise for. Nevertheless, it is clear he has come in need of advice that only the Autobots’ closest human ally can provide. He tells Buster he is feeling alienated from the other Autobots, because they are from Cybertron while he was created on Earth. He knows nothing of the Primal program and has never seen the celestial spires etc and come to that, he has never even been to the Transformers’ home planet. This seems immediately at odds with his mention of Basketrek games on Cybertron in his conversation with Donny Finkleberg recently (though a possible explanation is that Jetfire had been studying Cybertron culture to try to fit in).

He narrates a recent encounter with the Decepticons to illustrate his point. It had been just after the ‘business with Galvatron’ he says (suggesting that Buster in the loop about such things) and Wheeljack had been monitoring news bulletins. The Decepticons had taken control of a NASA facility and Prowl quickly suggested that he and the recently repaired Trailbreaker should slip past the police cordon and assess the situation. Prime accepted the plan requesting that Jetfire go as back-up. They came under attack from Dirge, Kickback and Soundwave, who were attempting to magnify the power of a NASA radio telescope to send another message to Cybertron.

The Insecticons and ‘coneheads’ Ramjet, Dirge and Thrust have only recently been introduced into the ranks of the Earth based Decepticons at this point, and their appearance here helps cement them as mainstay characters.

Jetfire had ignored Prowl’s orders to attack Soundwave and instead targeted Kickback, who promptly shrunk into insect mode and vanished, causing Jetfire to crash. Dirge took advantage of the calamity to topple Trailbreaker, scoop up Soundwave and escape. Jetfire claimed Prowl’s order had been drowned out by the noise of laser fire, but this was not true.

Buster listens to the story and reminds Jetfire that Prowl always overreacts. Jetfire expels a frustrated thud that shakes Buster’s house, a comical moment (and probably as well that Sparkplug is not around – he thinks the Autobots are trouble at the best of times).

Jetfire tells of another recent skirmish, this time involving himself and Jazz, another Target:2006 victim who has now recovered. They had been overseeing fuel production at a Blackrock chemical plant when Thrust and Bombshell attacked. The surprise left the two Autobots reeling, and as the base became a flaming battle zone G.B. Blackrock warned that toxic fumes could poison the area if the plant went up. Thousands might die! Jetfire saw red. He punched out Thrust (a cool moment) and blasted Bombshell. Then he jetted to a huge water tank, lifted it and threw it in the direction of the fire – using it to douse the flames. Buster is ecstatic to hear of his friend’s heroics!

Jetfire’s problem is that he reacts fine when humans are in danger but is not so capable when it comes to helping his fellow Autobots. He worries about being forced to choose between saving Autobots and humans. Buster reminds him that he is the first of a generation of Terran Transformers and it is natural that he should feel closer to Earth than the others. These words of comfort are his Christmas gift. As Buster returns to his revision, Jetfire sits outside the window and thinks things over, then smiles, transforms and takes to the sky.

And there we have it – another nice Christmas tales which ties up some of the loose ends of Target:2006 but of no major significance to the ongoing story. A festive Robo Capers finishes off the Xmas edition and then there’s a look ahead to the new year and the continuation of Circuit Breaker’s vendetta. But first, the 1986 Transformers Annual.

Next story
Previous

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.

Next Story
Previous

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.

Next Story
Previous

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.

Next story
Previous

Christmas Breaker!

Poor old Jazz falls foul of Circuit Breaker again. This is not what he wanted for Christmas!

What better way to get readers feeling festive than a Christmas themed Transformers story? The cover by Mike Collins and Mark Farmer is an absolute cracker! Corny and a little cheesy it might be, but nothing screams ‘Transformers Christmas special’ more than the sight of Optimus Prime in Santa Claus outfit. Now, normally this sort of cover would be for illustrative purposes only and would not actually reflect events in the story, but astonishingly this one does and yes, Prime wears the suit!

The red-themed Transformation page is suitably festive complete with Santa hats and holly. It’s clear the production team are really getting behind the theme. We’re also told that Soundwave had a little too much oil and the Marvel Christmas party failed to turn up for work to answer the letters page – so for this issue only he’s been replaced with Ratchet and the page has been branded Rat-Chat! It’s genius.

James Hill is the writer for this festive special, with Will Simpson as the artist (though credited as William here). It’s Christmas Eve 1985 and – as it always is in these stories – it’s snowing. However, as Circuit Breaker reads the Portland Chronicle’s frontpage story, headlined ‘Held Hostage by Alien Robots’, she explodes with fury. The two guys in the paper look like our friends Gabe and Ferdy, who were until last issue among the human slave labour being forced to toil in the Decepticons’ aerospace plant.

Circuit Breaker is wearing a trench coat and hat to disguise her freakish appearance – an otherwise naked woman covered in circuitry. You assume that the circuits regulate her temperature, or boy would she be feeling the cold right now. In condemning the robots for ‘bringing their conflict to Earth’ she acknowledges that she is fully aware that there are two sides in the Transformers war, it’s just that she holds Autobot and Decepticon equally threatening and culpable.

Simpson draws Soundwave super menacing, with a gaping mouth and drill fingers in Circuit Breaker’s imagination of what the workers endured. And she narrates her own backstory – being attacked by Shockwave, paralysed and reborn as Circuit Breaker to wreak revenge on the Transformers – which is useful for anyone who missed the events of previous stories including Dis-Integrated Circuits. Her vow to destroy every last Transformer might seem understandable given what she’s endured, but it also comes across as dangerously unhinged. This is one lady in urgent need of counselling.

At the Ark we’re able to check in on Optimus Prime for the first time since his head was rescued from the Decepticons and reunited with his body. The fact that he and the Autobots survived the episode is entirely due to their human friend Buster Witwicky, who kept the Creation Matrix safe for Optimus. Clearly the Autobot leader feels he owes Buster a huge debt, as he’s willing to dress up in a Santa outfit to indulge the youth (quite how you can come by an outfit in Prime’s size is another matter!).

Buster and Huffer are busy decorating the Ark and lighting up a mechanical tree, but Prime’s second-in-command, Prowl, is disgusted that Prime has sanctioned this waste of time while the Decepticons are leaderless and the Autobots should be pressing their advantage. He whispers his discontent to Bluestreak who reminds him of their collective debt to Buster. Interestingly Hill’s Bluesteak is a lot less talkative than the one Budiansky characterised in the recent story Brainstorm. It’s interesting and significant to see this dissatisfaction with Prime in the ranks and is a nice tie-in to Crisis of Command, the next story.

Jazz asks Buster about the Christmas tree and is told it symbolises charity, which is part of the festive season. Conveniently this makes Jazz think about Circuit Breaker, who could use her power to help many people but is “only interested in destruction” and there’s yet another recap, this time of Jazz and Wheeljack’s firy encounter with Circuit Breaker at Blackrock’s speedway track. Buster is late for seeing delivering his dad’s Christmas presents and Jazz’s offers to drive him.

In St Petersburg (USA not Russia!) kids are having great fun skating and snowball fighting when a girl falls through the ice. Circuit Breaker leaps into action, using her electric power to melt the ice and pull the child to safety. A gentle burst of electricity restarts her heart. Circuit Breaker is a hero, but she gets no thanks – in fact one of the adults bounces a stick off her head, calling her a freak and suggesting she melted the ice. This is a moment of supreme irony, where Circuit Breaker is given a taste of her own medicine. Usually it’s her attacking Autobots after they’ve tried to do good. In her anger and paranoia, she hallucinates about seeing Shockwave among the trees.

Jazz is speeding through the icy streets and causing Buster some concern. Sure enough, he loses control, transforming as he crashes and throwing Buster clear. Circuit Breaker, flying above, sees this and immediately thinks it’s a robot attacking innocent people again. She zaps Jazz and then disintegrates his weapon. As she moves in for the kill, Buster revives and pleads for Jazz’s life, pointing out the church bells in the distance – it’s Christmas day. Circuit Breaker agrees to spare Jazz a second time, however she vows that this reprieve will be his last and again flies away. Jazz realises that it was Christmas that saved him and how special it is.

This is Circuit Breaker’s only UK exclusive appearance and she now seems to be able to fly without magnetically bouncing off nearby metal objects. Annoyingly she’s doing her usual trick of always attacking the Autobots. This would be an eternal cause of frustration for readers, but if life was easy for the heroes the comic probably wouldn’t be half as dramatic. This issue, while fairly inconsequential to the ongoing storyline is nevertheless good festive fun and would set the theme for future yuletide editions, of human’s teaching Transformers the meaning of Christmas.

Next Story
Previous

Prime Time!

After several months as Shockwave’s prisoner, the head of Optimus Prime is finally reunited with his body. And what’s the first thing he does? Blast his fellow Autobots! There’s twists, shocks, defeat and victory in this eagerly awaited conclusion to Bob Budiansky’s Matrix saga – and boy does it deliver!

Prime Time. My goodness here’s a story that I look back on with fondness and just a little abiding awe. Published in the UK in December 1985, just a few weeks ahead of its release in the US, it draws together all the plot threads since TFUK#22 and weaves a truly epic conclusion.

When Shockwave showed up at the end of The Last Stand to lay waste to the heroic forces, it was difficult to predict where the story could go. In the intervening months there have been some fantastic moments, namely: Budiansky’s boldness in replacing Megatron with a new leader – and Shockwave’s ruthless humiliation of his predecessor; Prime’s head captive and the shocking image of his troops hanging from the ceiling; the introduction of the Matrix as a means of creating new Transformer life; Ratchet the medic, becoming a warrior; and also introducing new characters in the form of the Dinobots, Constructicons and Jetfire without it feeling forced; and Buster Witwicky unleashing the power of the Matrix! Wow. It’s certainly been an entertaining few months.

At last the time to bring the curtain down on the story, but as the awe-inspiring cover by Herb Trimpe – Optimus Prime: Autobot Killer! – makes apparent, there’s another big twist in store. So, how is Prime whole again and why is he laying waste to his comrades? For the answers we must start at the beginning, as Buster Witwicky soars above the Oregon countryside aboard the captured Decepticon drone Jetfire.

Buster recaps his Matrix journey for the benefit of the readers, from unwittingly receiving it, to mastery – when he blew apart Jetfire last issue and remade him to serve the Autobot cause. The plan now is to pilot Jetfire into the Decepticon base and rescue Prime (and surprisingly Buster’s normally cautious father gave his blessing).

Naturally it wouldn’t be dramatic if everything went to plan, so when Jetfire is engaged by the US air force and takes evasive action, the result is that Buster blacks out. It being a family friendly comic, no pilots are killed in the dogfight – all safely eject. However, without commanding, Jetfire reverts to his previous program.

The scene with Rumble summoned to see ‘the boss’ to receive his punishment is a delight. It’s at once laugh out loud funny and a demonstration of Shockwave’s ruthlessness. Readers will remember that Rumble screwed-up royally while on Ark guard duty by allowing Buster to slip by him and steal the Creation Matrix. He’s sweating oil now as he contemplates what the humourless Shockwave has in store for him. At first, it’s a relief – he’s being tasked with guarding their human slave workforce – until Shockwave crushes the shit out of a part assembled jet, letting Rumble know exactly what he can expect if any escape. Ha!

Shockwave, being a smart cookie has worked out that the Autobots must have bugged their base otherwise they wouldn’t have got to Buster ahead of Laserbeak and Jetfire. Soundwave duly discovers the device and turn the tables a bit by deliberately tipping off Prowl that the head of Optimus will be dumped in a nearby swamp. The Autobot army heads there.

Jetfire returns with a gift for his master – the unconscious Buster, who is swiftly strapped to a table. Shortly, machinery will integrate with his mind and extract the Matrix enough to give life to a hundred new Decepticon jets (that would be quite a gamechanger). Prime watches helplessly, realising he’s messed up by putting Buster in such danger.

Shockwave seems to have forgotten about the three existing jets on his team and is making maximum use of his new toy, Jetfire. He tasks the new boy with dropping Prime’s head into the swamp in front of the horrified Autobots. Prowl heads a daisy chain to retrieve their leader, and moments later Prime’s head and body are reunited – or are they? We know from the cover what’s coming next. Prime turns his guns on Prowl and cuts down several others, taking them by surprise. In a nice cliff-hanger ending, a platoon of Decepticons led by Soundwave sneaks up unnoticed and advise that the Autobot leader obeys them now!

Elsewhere in the issue there’s a fact file on my favourite Constructicon, Scavenger; the back-up strip Machine Man of 2020 continues to be surprisingly good (even if flying motorbikes and a floating city doesn’t bear resemblance to the present day 2020!) and there’s a teaser of upcoming stories that shows they have mapped out the UK comic all the way up to the milestone issue 50.

The following issue’s Transformation page features a Q&A with Mrs Julia Elkins of Hasbro’s Consumer Relations Department answering such questions as whether Swoop and Shockwave toys will be on sale here. It’s done with Christmas in mind, and no doubt the comic has been bombarded with these commercial questions. The column ensures that Lew Stringer’s Robo Capers, which I rather enjoy, is somewhat shrunk.

In the story, Buster wakes up to find himself inside the Decepticon base and tethered. Shockwave is talking to the head of Optimus Prime – the real head that is – so we learn the one currently attached to Prime’s shoulders is a fake. So that explains why Prime is attacking the Autobots (who incidentally are looking in terrible shape – Prowl has an arm hanging off and one anonymous robot seems to have had his entire head melted).

Buster has picked his moment to revive perfectly. He’s able to stop Jetfire from executing Optimus and instead command him to punch out Shockwave, then fly with the real Prime’s head to rendezvous with the Autobots. Once at the battlefield Optimus commands his body to reject the fake head, cast it into the swamp, and connect the real one.

With Prime back in business we’re treated to a highly satisfying rampage by the Autobot leader where he takes down Soundwave and the other Decepticons in turn. The contrast between the unstoppable Prime and his ineffectual troops, caught on the backfoot, is stark. And it’s not over yet – we’ve got the leaders showdown with Shockwave still to come. Wow!

There’s a lovely moment where Shockwave rises, crestfallen as he realises Prime has escaped his clutches and is completely oblivious to Rumble – who has been overpowered by the escaping human slaves – in a few paces behind, begging for forgiveness. The idea that Shockwave is unlikely to care about that when his entire plan is in ruins hasn’t occurred to Rumble – he’s hilarious only thinking about his personal predicament.

Shockwave tranforms into his flying gun and jets to confront Prime. The leaders do battle over two pages, with Shockwave declaring that it was “always logical” that he should be the one to deal with Prime personally. Instead, Optimus hoists him up and throw him into the centre of the swamp where he rapidly starts to sink. The sensible, albeit ruthless thing to do here is to blast Shockwave while he’s helpless (it is war after all) but Prime being Prime, he rushes away (in robot mode, oddly) to go to Buster’s aid. It’s almost as if the other Autobots have forgotten that they too have weapons as they passively allow Shockwave to sink rather than press the advantage. There’s a hint he will return.

Back at the plant the other workers have freed Buster. Optimus thanks him for saving the day and expresses his regret for endangering the young human. It’s a nice moment where Prime acknowledges he couldn’t have found a better being – human or Autobot – to safeguard the Matrix, before taking it back.

After 18 issues the storyline is complete, and the total defeat suffered by the Autobots is turned around. Now it is the Decepticons who are beaten and leaderless. All it took was for Optimus Prime to become whole again, showing what a gamechanger he is. This is Prime at his most awesome, but this is Transformers and that means there is always trouble and strife around the corner for the Autobots. But all in good time, first there is the matter of the Christmas story.

Next story
Previous

Brainstorm!

Shockwave is furious to learn that the Creation Matrix has slipped through his hands and launches an investigation to find out who has it! And Jetfire takes to the sky for the first time in this penultimate instalment of Bob Budiansky’s Matrix saga.

The cover of the US version – I prefer the UK wording: ‘Introducing Jetfire! Fast-furious-and fatal?’

Soundwave has become a real star of the UK Transformers comic, not so much for his story appearances but for his hilarious put-downs (and putt-ups!) as host of the letters page. His comments about neuro-shocking the printers for mistakes is a good example. Unfortunately, the decision to have Soundwave (aka Simon Furman) take over the Transformation page for TFUK#37 is spoiled by yellow text on white – it’s barely legible, oops.

This issue from late November 1985 and the next reprints the US Transformers story ‘Brainstorm’, by Bob Budiansky and with art from the late Herbe Trimpe (who worked on three strips and several covers for Transformers and was the artist on the TF GI Joe spin-off crossover during his years at Marvel).

The story opens with the Autobots’ human friend (and unwitting custodian of the Creation Matrix) Buster Witwicky laying on his bed reading a book titled Advanced Physics (no prizes for guessing what it is about). Metal objects are levitating around him and Buster, an A grade student we’re told, is hoping to find the answer to it in the books. We’re reminded how it started – when he was zapped by Optimus Prime’s head in TFUK #24.

This amazing new ability to manipulate and assemble machines with a single thought, was certainly useful while Buster’s father Sparkplug was convalescing in hospital. It enabled Buster to mend all of the vehicles in his father’s garage despite knowing next to nothing about engines previously. Trouble is, Sparkplug is now convinced his son has developed a sudden interest in auto mechanics. He’s even thinking about renaming the family business to S Witwicky & Son! For now, Buster is playing along to avoid worrying his father, given the older man’s recent heart attack.

At the Blackrock’s assembly plant, which is currently serving as a base for Shockwave’s Decepticons, the human workforce has been reduced to slave labour. They are doing well though, recording an 18.7% increase in productivity (it’s amazing what a bit of menace can do!). Or maybe it’s the food they been receiving? Budiansky’s quirky humour and fondness for human side characters is evident as pizza delivery man ‘Mozzarella Mike’ arrives with food for the hostages. He’s waved through by the army presence surrounding the plant and a one soldier kids that Mike’s peperoni and onion pies have been known to wipe out a platoon.

Shockwave is less happy with Optimus Prime’s efficiency. With the Matrix essence inside Prime’s mind gone, the Decepticons’ latest warrior Jetfire is destined to remain lifeless. Shockwave begins to suspect that Prime has transferred the Matrix somewhere, but where and to whom?

As the Autobots’ acting commander Prowl listens in (courtesy of a bugged phone in the plant) we’re shown the clever way that Shockwave uncovers the truth. He summons Rumble (who had been on guard duty at the Ark) and connects his gun arm to the back of the mini-Decepticon’s head, interfacing directly with his memories. It’s a painful process, but Shockwave has no concern for the comfort of his underling. He identifies movement from the periphery of Rumble’s vision and enhances the image, revealing Buster. Laserbeak squarks to declare that he recognises the human.

Prime took a huge gamble by involving Buster – in many ways it was against his entire code of ethics – and now he realises it hasn’t paid off, as Buster is in supreme danger. Thankfully the Autobots are alive to the situation and Prowl dispatches Bumblebee and the talkative Bluestreak to find them.

At the plant, workers Gabe and Ferdy are grumbling about cold pizza when an eye blast from Laserbeak rapidly warms it (probably scaring the shit out of the two humans). Laserbeak reverts to his cassette mode and is delivered by Mozzarella Mike to the army commander outside. He plays a warning from Shockwave that the army must withdraw, or hostages will be terminated. They have little choice. Laserbeak ejects and easily avoids a hail of bullets from the soldiers.

There’s a welcome return for Jessie, Buster’s girlfriend, who we last saw getting turfed out of the Witwicky garage – along with their friend O – when Buster wanted some time alone to contemplate his problems. She now arrives on a bicycle, having forgiven his jerkish behaviour and looking hotter than ever. It’s good timing as Buster was about to get roped into helping Sparkplug fix up a vehicle they just towed. Instead the young lovers cycle away, a short while before Bumblebee arrives with a cryptic warning for Sparkplug that his son has something the Decepticons want and is a target. Sparkplug gives Bumblebee short shrift but then promptly jumps in his pick-up and heads off, with Bluestreak in tail.

The second part opens with Buster and Jessie cycling towards the falls. He wants to explain why he has been acting strange lately, but Jessie is deliberately avoiding the conversation. Using the power of the Matrix, Buster removes the master link from her bike chain and she soon stops. Both seem genuinely sorry for the argument they had a while back, and as they make up, they are found by Sparkplug. Bumblebee and Bluestreak also arrive, having followed Sparkplug. Bluestreak observed Buster and Jessie sharing a kiss, and in a comical if slightly awkward moment, enquires as to what that the function of the act was! Not for the first time, Bumblebee is forced to tell him to put a sock in it – they have serious business to discuss. High above, Laserbeak is watching – he’s really getting some time in the spotlight this story.

Shockwave has anticipated that the Autobots would seek out Buster. This suggests he’s aware of the listening device that the enemy have been using, even though he doesn’t mention it explicitly. Once again, we see Shockwave’s ability to fire a beam from his lone eye – in this case, using it to program the mindless Jetfire with Buster’s coordinates and order him to transform and recover the target.

Bumblebee encourages Buster to tell his father about the power Optimus Prime has given him, but the youth is reluctant to admit anything. They are attacked by Laserbeak, who after a bit of evasive flying is eventually brought down by Bluestreak – mouth still running away with him.

Jetfire swoops down, easily avoiding a boulder thrown by Bumblebee, and returning fire. BlueStreak’s missile scores a hit but Jetfire feels no pain, convincing Bumblebee that this opponent is not alive. He tells Buster he has the power to control any unliving machine and he agrees. Buster rises and unleashes the Matrix – with Jetfire coming apart spectacularly.

It’s a stunning reveal and well deserving of the full-page treatment that Budiansky and Trimpe give it. You wonder why Prime doesn’t use these Matrix-inspired Jedi powers in battle, though perhaps they don’t work so well against living opponents. After a moment of stunned silence, Buster confesses to his father that does have this ‘Creation Matrix’ the Autobots alluded to, then proceeds to reassemble Jetfire – at Bumblebee’s suggestion – and infuse him with new commands. The Decepticons will hunt Buster so long as he has the Matrix, but perhaps Jetfire can be used to defeat the enemy and rescue the head of Optimus Prime…

In epilogue, the army continue to reinforce come across as woefully inept. One soldier noticed that vehicles travelling with them, that have now peeled off, appeared to be driverless. Despite having skirmishes with robots who have demonstrated the ability to disguise as vehicles, no-one seems to have put two and two together. In fact, it’s Prowl and the Autobots heading to the Decepticon base to try to rescue Optimus. Thanks to the listening device they know that Shockwave has decided that Prime no longer has the Matrix and will be terminated immediately!

In closing, Jetfire is becoming well known to the fans as part of Hasbro’s line of Autobot toys. Having him debut as a Decepticon is a fascinating twist but ultimately, we know he’s destined to join the Autobots. Sparkplug’s frosty attitude towards the Autobots appears to be thawing a little. He knows they are trouble for his family but can also see they are the only ones who can help Buster in his current predicament. And so to the epic conclusion next issue.

Next story
Previous