The Battlechargers, Runabout and Runamuck, arrive from Cybertron intent on causing a bit of mayhem – and embark on a graffiti spree across America!
Marvel’s UK weekly Transformers comic enters 1987 brimming with confidence. The title and its creative team are riding high following the success of its recent epic Target: 2006 and basking in the glow of the amazing Transformers the Movie, and its coming off the back of a year of (mostly) strong stories and looking ahead to its landmark one hundredth issue and another solid year. The comic’s devoted fanbase which included my twelve-year-old self at the time also knew we were on to a very good thing.
Just prior to the Christmas edition we’d seen the Aerialbot gestalt Superion squaring off with the Stunticons combined as Menasor – coming off worse after Circuit Breaker intervened. Then insult was added to injury when Donny Finkleberg betrayed the Autobot Skids to Walter Barnett and RAAT.
US writer Bob Budiansky picks up where this cliff-hanger left off and takes the opportunity to spice things up by introducing a pair of newcomers from ever expanding Hasbro toy range in the shape of the Decepticon Battlechargers, Runabout and Runamuck. This was an exciting development for me as I’d recently invested in a Runabout toy. Rather like the less appealing Jump Starters (who the US comic ignored) their gimmick was that you can pull them back and they would release and transform in mid-drive. In the comics universe this translated as them being the ‘fastest Transformers on Earth’.
The first impression is of course the cover. Herbe Trimpe’s cover for issue #23 of the US Transformers comic, the infamous ‘Humans are Wimps’ Statue of Liberty cover appears on TFUK #95. For issue #94, where the story kicks off, we’re treated to a fantastic cover by Lee Sullivan. Now, Lee’s style hasn’t always hit the spot for me, but I really love his work on this cover! The story is about graffiti and the Battlechargers literally look like they’ve been spray painted. There’s a metallic shine that looks fab (whether Lee is responsible for the colouring I don’t know) but it brings the art to life and I remember picking up the issue and thinking that TF had lifted its game even further for the new year.
The title is of course a spoof of the 1973 cult movie American Graffiti. Except here the title is interpreted literally as the Battlechargers go on a spray paint wrecking spree. It wouldn’t be the last time Budiansky would reference a film in his story title… the infamous Buster Witwicky and the Car Wash of Doom comes to mind. Could it be that Bob is a Harrison Ford fan? The actor stars in both American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and of course both are directed by the one and only George Lucas.
The story begins at RAAT headquarters where an unusually sedate and gentle looking Circuit Breaker holds a tiny Transformer brain module on the tip of her finger. By generating electrical pulses, she can stimulate movement in the deactivated body of the Autobot Skids. To her this is research, but to Donny Finkleberg it looks like she’s dissecting his erstwhile partner and he’s starting to regret selling out Skids for $50,000. He protests that Skids looks in pain, but Circuit Breaker snaps that this is a machine not a person. Poor Skids is not the only RAAT captive – the hanger wall is adorned with the face plates of twelve other Autobot hunting trophies which includes the Aerialbots and the Cybertron seven. Donny realises that their captivity is leaving the Decepticons with even greater freedom to do what they want on Earth… and he helped – great! We’re starting to see the redemption of Donny at this point.
Over at the Decepticon coal mine base in Eastern Wyoming, one of the themes of the year is starting to emerge: that of Megatron’s mental instability. He is seated on a throne made of the cab of a truck and greeting his latest recruits from Cybertron, the two Battlechargers. They have been summonsed across the galaxy via the Space Bridge for the purpose of taking a challenge to Optimus Prime. When Soundwave helpfully suggests a simple phone call, he is bashed in the face by his boss using a car exhaust! Having seen how Megatron deals with insubordination, neither Runabout nor Runamuck are inclined to argue and promptly roll out. When you consider that Soundwave has been a stand-in leader and very loyally stuck by Megatron against Shockwave, it really is a very poor way to treat him and perhaps a sign of Megatron losing his grip.
Once on the open highway the Battlechargers voice their displeasure at working for this bully. They decide to blow off this rather ridiculous mission and have a good time on their new world. Given that Megatron will probably tear them limb from limb for disobeying him this is either very brave or stupid. It speaks to the childish, fun-seeking natures of the pair.
With no plan of action, they pull up at a service station to look for a bit of inspiration. A typical American nuclear family is taking a break on their cross-country road trip vacation. While the mother wipes a young girl’s face (the daughter, Leah has been eating chocolate coated sushi which sounds positively vile) and her badly behaved older sibling Noah has a bad habit of scrawling graffiti wherever he goes, earning him a severe telling-off from his father. The Battlechargers rather like this defiant little fellow and decide to follow the family. (Re-reading now I’ve noticed that young Noah has a Spider-Man face on the front AND the back of his t-shirt which is a bit odd!)
Three days later at RAAT headquarters, Triple I agent Walter Barnett draws Circuit Breaker’s attention to news reports about weird markings that are appearing on several US landmarks. First it was a Football stadium in Wyoming, then Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, and finally the Gateway arch in St. Louis. Barnett thinks they have been left by Transformers and Circuit Breaker is to investigate. Donny suggests that Skids could help but Circuit Breaker is not amused – no human can trust a robot, she says ironically!
In Washington D.C. the next morning, Noah Acton and his family are visiting the Washington Monument. Two cars across the grass and transform into Runabout and Runamuck, now armed with a barrel of spray paint (one wonders how they came by these). Unusually for a couple of land-based vehicles, they possess the ability to fly while in robot mode and soar to the top of monument and spray graffiti, taking delight in the comedic phrase the other is daubing. Since the human crowds are unable to decipher Transformers writing (or the comic’s readers for that matter) nobody is any the wiser what they are writing. However, I like that they make a point of adding punctuation.
Circuit Breaker arrives on the scene along with Barnett and Donny. They are introduced to the Acton family and learn of the strange co-incidence, that the graffiti attacks seem to follow them. Circuit Breaker tells them to travel as normal and her troops will lay in wait at the next stop, Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
The Decepticon vandals propel themselves airborne towards the monument, where a squadron of RAAT aerial assault craft swarm around them. The Decepticons are unphased and rain debris on to the innocent bystanders below. RAAT stage a swift withdrawal, but Circuit Breaker refuses to back-off and attacks the robots. Noah is almost hit by falling concrete until Circuit Breaker moves and gets knocked her to the ground. Runabout and Runamuck decide to find safer targets and transform and blend into the traffic.
Circuit Breaker is seen by a doctor and confined to RAAT headquarters, which is incredibly frustrating for her knowing that there is a robot menace on the loose. Donny suggests that if she really wants to stop the Battlechargers she must make use of the ‘help’ around her – namely the deactivated Autobots! Circuit Breaker is adamant they cannot be trusted but starts to succumb to the idea of fashioning them together in a robot body she could interface with and control. And so, the next day as RAAT commandos take up positions inside the Statue of Liberty, Circuit Breaker and Donny make their way towards the island on commandeered trawler. She’s connected herself to the torso of a bizarre amalgam of Transformer parts and rockets towards the statue.
Runabout and Runamuck unleash their latest bit of graffiti this time in English! It’s unclear how they’ve downloaded the lingo but its an exciting development for the pair as now they are finally able to wind-up the ‘fleshlings’. They deface the noble statue with the words ‘Humans are Wimps!’ before coming under attack by Circuit Breaker’s robotic monstrosity.
The conglomerated creature disintegrates Runamuck’s shoulder mounting and when the Decepticon retaliates with a blast of his own, the amalgam’s giant hand moves to protect Circuit Breaker of its own free will! At last a glimmer of hope that she might finally be seeing the light and recognising that the Autobots are the good guys. Runabout severs the Statue of Liberty torch which threatens to land on the ferry below. Circuit Breaker detaches the hand from her robotic host which catches the torch. She and her ally then emit a blast of full power to frazzle the Battlechargers and their smoking wrecks are last seen plunging into New York harbour!
They’ll certainly be gone a while… Bob Budiansky never brought the duo back in the rest of his tenure (they were literally one issue wonders) but his successor as US writer, Simon Furman, would recover them as part of Shockwave’s group during the Decepticon civil war of 1991.
The story ends with Walter Barnett discovering the hanger empty of the thirteen captive Transformers and firing Circuit Breaker and Donny. Circuit Breaker confesses that she had no choice in order to get their co-operation. The Aerialbots weren’t in there so they were presumably allowed to go free. This issue holds out the hope that Circuit Breaker has mended her attitude towards the Autobots, and we won’t see her for a long while, but when we do, she is still busting away without too much thought for good or bad.
Donny bows out from the franchise. As a support character he’s had a good run, but now he returns home thinking about spending his big pay cheque. He sees a TV news item about the Statue of Liberty and in a fit of conscience writes out a $50,000 cheque to the statue repair fund.
Years later Bob Budiansky would cite this story as one of his favourites (he obviously had a lot of fun writing it) and he even got a fan-mail letter about it from the great Stan Lee! That’s praise indeed.