Heavy Traffic!

This 1986 Marvel classic sees the Stunticons take to the road and do battle as Menasor with the Aerialbot combined form, Superion – with Circuit Breaker in the mix, hunting down Transformers for her trophy wall.

December 1986. The Marvel Transformers comic enters the final furlong of a remarkable year where it has grown in confidence and reputation thanks to stunning original material like Target 2006. And at the same time fans are being to be blown away by Transformers the Movie – which opened in the UK 12th December. It was the first big screen outing for the franchise and after 35 years is in my opinion still the best.

To mark the occasion, Grimlock’s regular letters page is dropped for issue #91 with him reviewing the Movie instead, LOL. His verdict: “Kids – let’s not mince words… this movie’s utterly, utterly brilliant!”

Transformers #91 & #92 features the Marvel US story Heavy Traffic! Writer Bob Budiansky properly reintroduces Circuit Breaker as an existential threat and provides a neat debut for Stunticons. I should declare an interest; Motormaster was the first Special Team toy I bought back in the day and the Stunticons have always been personal favourites. It’s great to see them finally taking to the road, rather than as a Matrix-induced dream (see issues 63-65).

Equally brilliant is the long-awaited return of Blaster and the rest of the ‘Cybertron Seven’ – though its fair to say they’ve seen better days. The story begins with the unsuspecting septet examining military vehicles for signs of sentient life. It’s that favourite old stich about Transformers not recognising organics and mistaking vehicles as Earth’s dominant species. The Ark’s computer core AUNTIE made the same error after it awoke in 1984 of course, but you’d like to think Cybertron has encountered many diverse worlds during its four million years traversing the stars – surely Transformers would have encountered organic life in that time? Or perhaps Blaster and company were holed up in their resistance cell throughout?

The account of what proceeded their arrival on Earth via the Space Bridge in issue #69 is revealed by Circuit Breaker in a briefing to her government sponsor, Walter Barnett of Triple I. She’s been hired to head-up a crack squad called RAAT (short for Rapid Anti-robot Assault Team). This must be the least comfortable team acronym to work under since Richard Nixon’s Committee to RE-Elect the President (CREEP) and the boss is just a tad obsessive about her work!

She tells Barnett the robots were ‘moments away from crushing’ the vehicles before RAAT intervened. Even he can see that isn’t the case but probably realises that CB has a major mental blackspot where Transformers are concerned. RAAT helicopters and released electrical foil above the Autobots which disrupted their circuits, allowing troops to abseil down and affix a pad on to each robot’s head. Circuit Breaker then personally intervened, unleashing 300,000 volts upon the disorientated Cybertron Seven and rendering them inoperative. After loading them on to flatbed trucks they were on their way to RAAT headquarters, all in 46 minutes!

Barnett thinks the use of force may have been unnecessary but the results speak for themselves. How would Circuit Breaker appreciate a cash bonus, he asks? Naturally, she’s appalled – money is certainly not her motivator, she lives for the destruction of all robots! Though you have to wonder how she earns money for her food and board when not working as a government hired gun.

As she departs to continue her work, she passes the mounted faces of the Cybertron seven – a grim reminder of her personal vendetta against Transformers.

A world away at the Ark, Ratchet treats Optimus Prime for an open wound he sustained in the Limbo dimension (see issue 100). Unknown to the pair the tiny insect form of Bombshell is watching (having sneaked into the Ark on Silverbolt’s wing last issue). He sees Prime’s wound as the perfect opportunity to plant one of his mind-controlling ‘cerebro shells’ and manoeuvres unnoticed. The shell makes its way up to Prime’s brain module and takes root – but for some unexplained reason it fails to take control and can only monitor the Autobot leader’s thoughts.

With his wound repaired, Prime heads to Wheeljack’s lab where the technician is fitting a chemical tracker to Skids. The device will allow him to follow the fuel trail left behind by Blaster, and hopefully lead to the Cybertron Seven. It’s interesting to see how Prime and the Autobots have nearly as much disdain for Donny Finkleberg (the human who supplied the intel) as his former Decepticon captors. Perhaps that’s understandable given that Donny was ‘Robot Master’ a Decepticon stooge for several weeks/months. Optimus will know that Megatron is easily capable of coercing a human, so the Autobots’ mistrust of Donny probably runs a little deeper. They’ve concluded he’s a greedy weasel who would sell his granny for a Walter Barnett $25,000 cheque. This being the case, what happens later with Skids trusting Donny makes little sense.

As it happens, Donny is carrying one of those Triple I cheques in his wallet. All the Autobots have to do is hold on to that to secure his cooperation. So Prime assigns Donny to accompany Skids to track down the Cybertron seven. Bombshell uses the opportunity to plant a homing device inside Donny’s wallet, hoping to lead the Decepticons to him.

Skids and Donny depart and Prime turns his attention to the Aerialbots. Following the near disaster at Hoover Dam their minds have been blanked, ready to be reprogrammed and given life by Prime’s Creation Matrix. Unbeknown to the Autobot leader, Soundwave is eavesdropping via Bombshell’s cerebro shell and the Decepticons are ready to steal away the Matrix when it is released. It’s the Transformer equivalent of piggy backing on to a neighbour’s unsecured WIFI signal perhaps?

Since the opportunity for the Decepticons to ‘hack the Matrix’ was entirely fortuitous and unexpected, it’s rather difficult to believe (as readers of the US comics are expected to) that the Decepticons were able to rapidly engineer the five Stunticon bodies, program them and design their combination ability in the short time between Prime instructing Wheeljack to prepare the Aerialbots for Matrixing and him actually carrying out the action. In the UK continuity this makes a little more sense, as the Decepticons had also been privy to Buster’s dream and had time to begin constructing their Special Teams.

Meanwhile, Skids has a fix on the Cybertron Autobots but is forced into an impromptu rescue when a woman careers off the road in the rain and crashes into an electric pylon. Skids transforms and goes to her aid – leaving Donny to whine about getting soaked. His noble act makes the TV news and is seen by Walter Barnett, who starts to believe there could be some truth in the theory that not all robots are evil, and Circuit Breaker who decides there’s another robot loose that she has to hunt down! Megatron has also been watching the tele and sends the Stunticons to rendezvous with Skids and undo his good work.

Skids succumbs to Donny’s weary protests that he needs to stop at a motel and sleep. They find a suitable establishment and the Autobot, very unwisely asks Donny to press his ‘shutdown button’ that puts Skids in his own recharging mode. The off switch is a very suspect idea and it appears that Skids cannot activate it himself. When morning comes, the Stunticons are quietly waiting in vehicle modes at the motel car park.

Skids and Donny resume their journey and spot a commotion in the rear mirror. It’s Motormaster taking road rage to new levels by ramming cars aide and telling the traffic to ‘get out of the way or die’ – ha!

Issue #92, which carries the second part, continues the Transformers the Movie love-in with a full page advert for the film’s (excellent) soundtrack and a reader offer to win copies of the album if you can answer such questions as who Megatron is transformed into and the Mr Spock actor who provides a voiceover! Grim Grams also plugs the film fairly remorselessly but what caught my eye was the reply to one Michael Blagg of Blackpool. He’s told in reply to comments about the Wreckers, that Impactor can switch his right arm for a variety of weapons – the harpoon being his favourite. That sounds an awful lot like the Death’s Head character which Furman would be introducing around 20 issues after this one.

But getting back to the story… as the Stunticons transform and close in on Skids, they come under attack from RAAT helicopters who deploy their electrical interference foil. Deadend considers the human attack beneath their notice, but Motormaster is more canny and warns his men never to underestimate an enemy.

Deadend promptly disperses the foil using his compressed air gun and Breakdown blasts one of the choppers out of the sky (presumably with the four abseiling RAAT troopers meeting a sticky end?).

Circuit Breaker realises that this group of robots are far more aggressive than the last and unleashes on Dragstrip and Wildrider. It’s one of the rare occasions she attacks Decepticons! Motormaster (got to love him) uses his huge sword as a golf club to swipe the cab clean off a truck and send it skywards into Circuit Breaker, who hovers back to the ground. It’s a cool moment and at this point I’m practically rooting for the Stunticons, since CB is such a pain in the rear end and is finally getting what she deserves!

Donny runs over to see if CB is okay. Their exchange, with him saying “they must be paying you a ton” and her reply, speaks volumes about the characters and motives. Barnett also arrives to confront Donny – they have a lot to discuss! To be fair to Donny he does his best to defend Skids and the arriving Aerialbots, even succeeding in persuading Barnett. Then the Stunticons surround Skids and pretend to protect him. This Decepticon trick appears to work as both Circuit Breaker and Barnett now accuse Donny of being in league with the bad robots and CB goes to re-join the fight.

At last the moment arrives that fans have been waiting for, as the two teams combine into Superion and Menasor respectively. The behemoths square off. Menasor uses a section of flyover as a shield and Superion shattering it with a single punch. They seem pretty evenly matched, until Circuit Breaker flies alongside Superion’s head and unleashes a mighty burst of electricity, stunning the Autobot and allowing Menasor to steal the advantage and blast Superion at close range. He falls and Menasor hails his victory, moving to crush the weakened Circuit Breaker.

Barnett, in an amazing display of strength it has to be said, clings to a rope dangled from a RAAT chopper and swings into action, rescuing CB in mid-air from Menasor’s clenching fist. In the distraction, Skids and Donny flee the scene. There’s nothing they can do to help Superion.

Later that night, Donny puts Skids to bed via his deactivation button, and goes into a motel. He places a call to Walter Barnett… asking how much a Transformer would be worth to him, no fuss, sleeping like a baby. It is the quickest 50 grand he has ever made!

I’m tempted to say ‘what a creep’ but Donny is not all bad, just weak. His desire to get out of the situation financial enhanced gets the better of him and he takes advantage of Skids’ trusting nature. The Cybertron Seven captured, plus the Aerialbots and shortly Skids. Things are not looking good for the Autobots at this point.

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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.

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Dis-integrated Circuits

Autobots, Decepticons and now Humans! Josie Beller ‘transforms’ from paralysed victim of Shockwave to a robot-busting avenger known as Circuit Breaker! Unfortunately, her wrath is not reserved only for the Decepticons. It’s Dis-integrated Circuits, by Bob Budiansky.

After a four-week interlude of homegrown material, the Transformers UK comic returned to another run of reprinting stories from its US parent. Bob Budiansky continues on writing duties, accompanied by artist and one hit wonder Mike Manley (this being his only outing on Transformers).

There’s been quite a bit of build up to this issue on both sides of the pond. In the earlier story ‘The Worse of Two Evils’, Bob went to pains to put a human face on Shockwave’s attack on the oil drilling platform. We were introduced the industrialist GB Blackrock (owner of the platform) and his brilliant young engineering talent, Josie Beller. Ultimately, she got fried during the attack and has been in her boss’s private hospital ever since – severely paralysed but using the equipment he provided to plot her next move. Blackrock received a second kick in the proverbials when his aerospace plant was taken over by the Decepticons. It is now their new base.

At last its time for Bob to show us where he’s been going with these characters. Transformers has always been about humanity alongside Transformers and Bob’s stories more than most, so it’s perhaps inevitable that we would eventually see a human on equal terms to the giant robots (arguably two, if we consider Buster Witwicky who now holds the power of the Creation Matrix). As this is a Marvel publication, we shouldn’t be surprised to see a superhero/villain feature.

The story begins at Blackrock’s racetrack (yes, he owns a racetrack too!) where’s he interrupted five minutes before the end of the session. He’s not happy but it’s due to the arrival of General Capshaw of the US military. He’s heard about Blackrock’s intention to unveil a new “weapon” capable of destroying Transformers, and feels it will needlessly publicise the robot presence. The army want to avoid this until it can work out who is responsible for the Transformer menace (they assume it’s an enemy nation).

Blackrock is a bit of dick at this point. He’s testy with his staff and not used to hearing no for an answer. He gives Capshaw short shrift and explains he has shareholders to keep happy – and the giant robots have been bad for business. Oddly, considering he got out of the car dripping in sweat, Blackrock puts his suit on while he talks to the general! We know he’s got a tight schedule but surely there’s time for a shower? Particularly as his next port of call is to the hospital where Josie is being looked after. She shows him a flying device she has created which becomes airborne by using electro-magnetics to repel from metal objects. Blackrock is impressed but he gets a bad vibe about Josie’s obsession with getting back to work and helping in his fight against the Transformers.

Sadly, the two pages where the Autobots make their re-entrance and another page have been mis-coloured in the UK version (the page above is from the US comic). I’m vaguely aware that colouring is achieved by transposing the primary colours over each other and I suspect that those pages one of the three are missing. It’s a shame because this is a big moment – the Autobots once again in the land of the living and back as a fighting force. All had seemed lost only a few weeks earlier. That said, things are not back to normal. The presence of Optimus Prime’s headless body is a reminder to all that their leader is a prisoner of the Decepticons, and they cannot rest until he has been recovered.

The matter of how the Autobots can function without a securing fuel is explained on page seven – they are using the limited supplies very considerately left behind by the Decepticons. In the US version of page 7 Ratchet refers to himself as being in command. In the UK the words have been changed to “and no matter who’s in command”. I suspect the explanation is that, in the next story, Prowl is established as stand-in leader. Perhaps the UK team just felt it was less confusing to leave out the mention of Ratchet commanding.

It’s apparent that Jazz is going to feature as a main character in the story. He’s the only one not to transform on command (because he’s listening to Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’). His radio picks up a news item of Blackrock boasting about his anti-robot weapon. Jazz wants to educate him that not all Transformers are the enemy and thinks an alliance would solve the Autobots ongoing fuel needs. In return they can offer Blackrock protection from the Decepticons. It’s a good plan and Prowl gives permission, providing Wheeljack accompanies Jazz.

Over at the aerospace plant Starscream informs Commander Shockwave that the Autobots are free and have regained the Ark – all because of the “incompetence” of the “fool Megatron”. Shockwave is surprisingly nonchalant. This should be a massive disaster for the Decepticons and his leadership – they had utterly defeated the Autobots and now the situation is reversed, and their mortal enemy has been allowed to recover. They even left a handy fuel reserve behind.

Perhaps it is a sign of Shockwave’s preoccupation with his grand plan of creating a new Decepticon army, but he dismisses the Autobot threat, saying they are unwilling to take the fuel the need through misguided ethics. And he calculates that Megatron will not return to be defeated by him again. This hubris is astounding in one so calculating and logical.

Frenzy having a tantrum in reaction to Blackrock’s public threats is good fun – also the ruthless way Buzzsaw instinctively understands his commander’s wish and silences Frenzy by slicing the metal he holds into ribbons. Next time Buzzsaw will aim for Frenzy’s body! Gulp! Interestingly, the mini-Decepticon’s emotionally-charged response is completely the opposite that of his boss. Shockwave dismisses human threats as too trivial to be concerned about, however he agrees to Starscream’s suggestion that destroying the weapon would be a good way to exercise the troops and a bit of mayhem at Blackrock’s expense is no bad thing. Also enjoyable is Starscream’s treacherous thoughts of stealing the weapon to use against Shockwave. It’s this type of thing that makes the Decepticon camp much more entertaining to read about.

For the first time, US readers are shown the six brain modules which Shockwave has nurtured and Prime’s mind has breathed life into (thanks to the last vestiges of the Creation Matrix in his mind), and for the first time we see how small a Transformer brain is, fitting on to the top of Shockwave’s finger (incidentally here they are round, whereas they were drawn as larger boxes in the last UK issue).

The rest of the Matrix is of course in the mind of Buster Witwicky who is growing in his understanding of it. While failing miserably to fill in for his father (recovering in hospital from a Transformer induced heart attack) he suddenly sees the faulty engine with total clarity and is able to reassemble it using the power of his mind (now that’s using the Force!).

Elsewhere, Blackrock is working late at this office penthouse. He takes a call from the Josie Beller’s doctors saying the patient has escaped via a fifth storey window. At that moment a shadowy figure enters the building, disabling security cameras on the way. She flies up several floors and strips off her coat to reveal her body sans clothing and coated in circuitry – Josie Beller has become Circuit Breaker!

In part two, Beller reveals that while she wears the Circuit Breaker costume she is no longer paralysed. What’s more she can assess computer files and reprogram them with a thought (such as Blackrock’s giant laser project). She can fly and emit powerful bursts of electricity. Blackrock is awed by her abilities but has no wish to involve her further in his private battle. He orders her to go back to the hospital, but she refuses and walks out.

The next day Blackrock is back at his racetrack dodging the media. Jazz, in Porsche mode forces him inside and speeds off – he already has proven credentials as a kidnapper (see Man of Iron) and attempts to explain to a very confused GB that he is looking to partner-up against the Decepticons. The police give chase and Jazz crashes through a barrier, plunging over a cliff. He transforms and catches Blackrock as they fall. A Decepticon would have let him bounce, he explains. Despite this odd way to start a partnership, it seems they have a deal.

Later, Blackrock unveils his huge anti-robot cannon (with Jazz and Wheeljack parked discretely nearby). The weapon is a dud and fizzles out. There’s raucous laughter and further humiliation for Blackrock. As Circuit Breaker steps up, she reveals she sabotaged the gun and now Blackrock will have to unveil her as his secret weapon.

Suddenly, Starscream and Frenzy attack. Jazz transforms to defend Blackrock from Frenzy but Circuit Breaker zaps his gun and then unleashes a powerful burst of electricity against him! Blackrock pleads with her that Jazz is one of the good guys. Wheeljack blasts Frenzy with his magnetic weapon that causes vehicles to attract on to the Decepticon’s body and encase him. It’s a neat attack that makes a change from the standard laser blasts (and arguably not enough is made of Transformers’ weapons, which are distinct and personal).

Circuit Breaker attacks Starscream (possibly the one and only time in this part of the comic’s run where we see her attack a Decepticon) and majorly fries Wheeljack (after he thanks her for the helping hand – harsh). Starscream flees with the smouldering Frenzy, and Blackrock pleads for the lives of his Autobot friends. Circuit Breaker destroys the target the canon was supposed to obliterate and then flounces off. She won’t allow any loyalty to Blackrock to get in the way next time.

In summary, it’s an issue of mixed fortunes for the Autobots. They have a powerful ally and a source of fuel at last, but a new adversary too. Readers will find Circuit Breaker pretty infuriating in upcoming stories while she keeps attacking the good guys. Ironically, she has become the very thing she seeks to destroy: a cold, unfeeling machine!

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Decepticon Dambusters

The Dinobots encounter human life for the first time, and it doesn’t go well! Ratchet decides to tell them a story of when the Autobots saved ungrateful townsfolk from a Decepticon attack on their dam, in this comic adaptation of a cartoon classic.

In the 1980s the Transformers were a global toy phenomenon first and foremost but also a hugely successful Sunbow cartoon and Marvel comic. Aside from adhering to a common origin story and character profiles, the cartoons and comics then went in completely different directions.

Both would develop the characters and introduce new ones in their own ways. To my mind the comics were more tightly woven and coherent but there are others who will argue for the cartoon being the official canon. Transformers the Movie in 1986 was something of an exception. It was such a massive event that the UK comic embraced it into its timeline, while the US comic continued its policy of ignoring the cartoons (with one notable exception being the awful 1988 story ‘The Big Broadcast of 2006’, so bad it makes me shudder to think of it.

Decepticon Dambusters is something of a rarity as it incorporates a storyline from a cartoon episode (More Than Meets The Eye part 2). It’s top and tailed by current events in the form of a story told to the Dinobots by Ratchet. This is only Simon Furman’s third Transformers story for Marvel UK and follows on from seven weeks of major US stories. By comparison it feels a little underwhelming and personally I find the top and tailed events more interesting that the main segment, which is basically a reinterpretation of a cartoon story I’ve (and most readers at the time) was already familiar with.

The story opens in bar where the TV news is showing scenes of Megatron’s battle with the Dinobots in a ski resort (in last issue’s story Repeat Performance). One grumpy patron wants the “rubbish” turned off. He’s far from convinced by claims of a giant robot invasion and steps out into the night… only to be confronted in the parking lot by Grimlock! Artist John Stokes draws the Dinobot leader, probably the closest to his toy form as I’ve seen in the comic, though smaller than he ought to be.

The incredulous bar-goer runs face-first into the leg of another Dinobot. All in all the team isn’t very impressed with their first specimen of carbon-based life and are not quite sure how this is the dominant lifeform. The man runs towards an approaching ambulance thinking he’s saved, only for it to transform into an apologetic Ratchet. Seconds later he’s running for his life in the opposite direction!

As the Dinobots continue their long march back to the Ark, Ratchet attempts to explain the complicated relationship between the Autobots and humanity. He flashes back to the early days of the Transformers war on Earth when Megatron was still Decepticon leader and their base was Fortress Sinister. The Autobots had been “monitoring” the base, whatever that means. It’s hard to imagine that a listening device would not have been detected by Soundwave as it transmitted.

The Decepticon are interested in Sherman Dam and in particular forcing water through it to generate an electrical surge that they could harness as a crude fuel substitute. Megatron blasts his way into the control centre (the ceilings are high enough for him to fit inside, luckily) and reveals that he is the reason the dam is about to burst – or rather Rumble is. He’s on the riverbed using his pile drivers to generate a tidal wave.

The Autobots assembled, led by Optimus Prime. Hound was dispatched into the water while Prime and Megatron engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Both leaders revealed an ability to substitute their hand for a weapon, in Megatron’s case a ball and chain, while Prime wields an axe. Starscream leads a bunch of anonymous looking Decepticons in a counter attack while other non-descripts are loading energon cubes into Thundercracker under Soundwave’s supervision. Again, who were these foot soldiers? The first part ends on not so much a cliff hanger but a fall – as Prime (distracted by Hound being propelled out of the water by Rumble’s powerful piledriver arms) is sent flying over the dam by Megatron!

The conclusion is billed as a ‘tidal wave of terror’ on the cover to TFUK#30. Furman has got his dams confused and now refers to it as Boulder Dam (rather than Sherman). Prime survives his plunge and is quickly fished out, but Megatron transforms to gun mode and blows the dam wide open. Prowl leads Jazz, Mirage, Ironhide, Bumblebee and Sideswipe to the human settlement below, while the other Autobots collapse rocks and carve out trenches with their blasters in order to halt the coming tsunami. Bumblebee, despite being ordered to leave with Prowl, is present with Optimus (and gets swept away by the water) and on the following page he’s back with Prowl’s group again. This is sloppy stuff and makes me wonder whether the story was rushed, or perhaps writer or artist felt a bit half hearted about it (like this reader).

Ironhide outruns the coming water with Bumblebee in the back blasting a trench in the road behind. Finally, the water calms down leaving no more than ankle deep flooding. They’ve saved the town but residents have heard that giant robots were responsible for destroying the dam and they turn their anger on the Autobots. Mirage has an outburst but Prime orders him to control himself. Optimus decided they had best leave, and so all the hard work had gained no appreciation – only more hate.

And so, back to current events. We see Josie Beller/Circuit Breaker with her arm coated in circuitry and thirsting for revenge, and GB Blackrock examining a huge laser gun that he plans to deploy against the Transformers. In my favourite scene in the story, Swoop flies ahead to Mount St Hillary, eager to see the mountain again after four million years; it is after all the nearest thing the Transformers have to a home on Earth. Ratchet is worried – there could be Decepticons guarding the Ark. Grimlock reassures him about Swoop: he can look after himself, he’s fast and real strong… famous last words, they arrive to Swoop having been battered by the huge muscle-bound menace that is Guardian!

In closing, many wonder where Decepticon Dambusters actually fits into continuity. This is finally mentioned in TFUK#63’s Robot War round-up. We’re told it happened right after the Transformers returned from searching for the Man of Iron in England. So that means that Sparkplug’s time as a Decepticon prisoner lasted much longer than we thought. Even worse the Autobots had taken their sweet time about rescuing him.

Another thought, how come Ratchet and the Dinobots are walking to the Ark anyway? What happened to the shuttle craft he used to travel to Antarctica and presumably back?

Stokes’ art gives the sense of this being a throwback to the early days as we’ve got Ironhide and others drawn true to their toys rather than their better-established cartoon forms. Last time Guardian had been squandered as a character as he was easily defeated by Windcharger and Ravage but now he’s back, having been reprogrammed to target and destroy anyone wearing an Autobot badge and it looks like he means business. From the largely irrelevant flashback to the dam we’re now back in the thick of the action the stage is set for an epic showdown next issue.

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Repeat Performance!

Transformers UK celebrates one year in print by going weekly and full colour! In the main story, Ratchet journeys to the Savage Land to locate the Dinobots and hopes they can assist him in defeating Megatron.

Issue #27 of the Marvel UK Transformers comic heralds some big changes for the book. After a successful 12 months as a fortnightly publication the team has taken the major step of going weekly. This reflects the growing confidence in the title (it would quickly become Marvel UK’s flagship) but also in the team’s abilities to generate the flow of home-grown material that will now be needed with even more issues to fill in between reprinting the American stories. I’m sure the presence of Simon Furman on the UK team will have encouraged them to think a weekly could work.

For now, Simon has a bit of breathing space while the UK comic runs the Marvel US story ‘Repeat Performace!’ by Bob Budiansky and artist William Johnson in its issues #27 and #28. It begins in one of the most improbable places, a hidden pocket of prehistoric jungle on the continent of Antarctica. I remember being aware of the Savage Land from other Marvel comics but I didn’t quite appreciate at the time that Antarctica is actually a frozen waste land and certainly not a place where lifeforms dependent on a hot climate would last very long.

For those who are interested, the explanation for the Savage Land is that it was created by technologically advanced aliens who set up game reserves on a number of worlds in order to observe the evolution of the wildlife. The Savage Land was one such reserve, and even though it has long been abandoned by the alien observers, the technology which maintains the tropical climate in the zone continues to function. So there we are. Incidentally this will be the last time that Transformers and the wider Marvel universe continue to co-exist. After this it isn’t stated that they are separate but in practice those paths never cross.

The story opens with Ratchet navigate swampland atop his M.A.R.B (Mobile Autobot Repair Bay). He’s forced to use a surgical weapon on a huge snake which attaches itself to his neck. Under normal circumstances the ever curious Ratchet would pause to learn more about this tubular life form (just as he was fascinated by a log fire last issue) but he has work to do. Cue a flashback to his discovery of the Autobots laying deactivated and captive in the Ark and Prime’s words that he must learn to think like a warrior. He bought himself time by striking a bargain with Megatron that he will defeat Shockwave for him in return for reclaiming the Ark. But the possibility of betrayal is high.

Shockwave travels to the Ark to check in on Megatron. I like that, walking computer that he is, Shockwave has calculated the odds of having to terminate his rival for insubordination. So far, he’s adjusting well to “taking orders not giving them” and has prepared Optimus Prime’s head for transport as instructed. As we’ll soon see, Prime’s head will be relocating to the recently captured aerospace plant where Shockwave intends to manufacture the next generation of Decepticon warriors.

Ratchet, meanwhile, detects Transformers life signals in a tar pit and uses a power hose to unearth the Dinobot Slag in unexpectedly quick time. He taps into Slag’s memory banks with the MARB and finally we’re privy to the origin of the Dinobots (and their fateful encounter with Shockwave). The account is narrated by Slag in a gruff but coherent way (he certainly doesn’t sound like the dumb dino of the Transformers cartoon).

Readers had been led to believe that the Ark and all aboard where rendered inoperative when the ship crashed into Mount St Hilary four million years ago. Apparently not. The ship still functioned, but rather than repair the fallen Autobots it had dispatched a probe to the Savage Land to spy on Shockwave and then revived five Autobots to take him on. They had been invested with the ability to change into dinosaurs in order to blend in. Oddly the Ark was able to recognise ‘organic life’ (dinosaurs) in this case, but when it reactivated again in 1984 it ignored humans and animals and instead mistook vehicles, planes and machines as the planet’s life forms!

So, we see the Dinobots tackle Shockwave, five against one. He is repels them all, sending them crashing down a cliff alongside the tar pit where Ratchet now is. Shockwave had cast Swoop into the tar, causing him to sink – “a bad way to go” Slag says – and Snarl brought down the cliff with a swish of his powerful tail. The result was the Dinobots falling into the tar and Shockwave getting buried under tons of rubble. The Decepticon would eventually be reawakened by the probe Ratchet dispatched in the original mini-series. The rest is history as they say. Annoyingly Nel Yomtov has coloured Shockwave in white and blue, obviously confusing him with Megatron which is all a bit amateur hour.

In a nice moment, Slag revives and charges at Ratchet, but the doc peels back tar to reveal his Autobot insignia. Slag transforms for a proper introduction, and on hearing that Shockwave lives again, he’s determined to finish the job.

Part 2 begins with GB Blackrock and the military speaking to reporters outside his imprisoned aerospace plant. Shockwave soars overhead in robot mode carrying equipment that looks like a tank but could well be a container of some sort carrying the head of Optimus Prime. He opens fire on the military and makes short work of them. Further humiliation for Blackrock who really should stop doing these media engagements.

Elsewhere, his paralysed employee Josie Beller has succeeded in coating her right arm in circuitry. For some reason the words ‘she cannot move of lift it on her own’ have been substituted in the UK version with ‘moving it causes her great pain’. She’ll feature again on the last page, tooled up and ready to ‘check out’ from the hospital, but only in the US version of the story. The UK reprint will substitute that half page for a fact file on Snarl (it being a month before we’ll see Josie Beller reborn as Circuit Breaker).

Megatron is ruing the day he allowed Ratchet to go free. He’s sure he’s fled like a coward and the attack on Shockwave won’t happen, despite his obligations under Cybertronian custom. But then Ratchet gets in touch with images of Shockwave being brought down. Little does Megatron realise that this is old footage from Slag’s memories, and even though it would be startlingly simple to contact Shockwave and check whether he’s still around or not, amazingly he does not and believes he’s been shown a genuine take-down.

The stage is set for one of the greatest Ratchet moments in the comic. He is confronted by Megatron on a snow-coated mountain (skiers fleeing in fright) and told by the Decepticon that he never had any intention of upholding their bargain (quell surprise). Megatron goes on to mock Ratchet as failed warrior – he should have found a way to fight his enemy not trust him, he says – but suddenly the Dinobots rise from under the snow and the tables are turned. I think on some level Megatron is actually impressed.

He’s quickly attacked by the Dinobots, but their time in the tar pit has dulled their effectiveness and they are easily repelled. It falls to Ratchet to remember Optimus Prime’s words and prove himself as a warrior. He charges Megatron, hoping to carry them both over a cliff to their doom. Megatron absorbs the impact and is set to grant Ratchet an honourable death, when the ground beneath him crumbles and he falls hundreds of feet, transforming and shrinking into his gun mode until he is swallowed up by the snow (he’s gone, but obviously not for good – we’ll see him again in TFUK #51). The way is now clear for Ratchet and the Dinobots to reclaim the Ark and revive the fallen Autobots.

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Warrior School

Ratchet is the last Autobot standing and must learn to become a warrior if he is to survive and rescue his comrades. Meanwhile the Decepticons continue to target installations owned by GB Blackrock and the UK comic announces some exciting changes going forwards.

Warrior School. 35 years after it was first published it remains in my mind one of the standout stories of the original Marvel G1 and one I have an abiding affection for. Essentially it is a coming of age story – Chief Medical Officer Ratchet stepping out his comfort zone in a major way and learning the ways of the warrior. His stepping up to the plate shows real, genuine courage and is an example to all of us, young impressionable readers as we were at the time. The scale of his challenge is enormous, and the stakes incredibly high. This is a classic success against impossible odds story that great comics (and fiction generally) are made of and, together with the second instalment ‘Repeat Performance’ cements Ratchet’s reputation and standing as a major character in Transformers.

I can still remember stepping out of my local newsagent with a copy of TFUK#26 in my eager 11-year-old hands, being blown away by the usual 11 page story being increased to an incredible 23 pages. And the full-page announcement on page 30 that the comic is celebrating its first year in print by GOING WEEKLY and full colour was tremendous news! Of course, it would mean having to swallow a 3p increase, but in view of what we were getting in I considered this to be no hardship.

Once again, it’s Bob Budiansky writing the script (as he would until US issue #55) and joined on the art by a new credit, William Johnson. He had worked on a bunch of Marvel superhero titles but would only illustrate this Transformers story and the next. I wondered why and his entry in TFWiki provides a clue. It mentions a comment Budiansky made to a fansite, that Johnson was “a very nice guy with a lot of talent” but struggled to meet the deadlines of a monthly comic book. So perhaps that was the reason for his short association, but his art on Warrior School is emotive and enjoyable.

The story begins in the woods near the Ark, with a romantic narration of “the sweet scent of Douglas Fir and a dome of stars in the indigo sky” – I wondered whether Budiansky was a fan of camping? Four college students are around a camp fire when a falling tree causes them to scatter. The cause of the interruption is the Autobot Ratchet, who had collided with the “brown pipe” while looking for the road. Buster Witwicky, his teenage friend and ally is on Ratchet’s shoulder and is happy to interpret for the young people. He knows from experience that a giant talking robot can be a difficult concept to come to terms with.

Ratchet is fascinated by the concept of burning wood to generate fire (there’s nothing like it on Cybertron) and demonstrates how his laser scalpel can cook hotdogs more efficiently. The gentle way Ratchet interacts with humanity is a real contrast to what we’re used to seeing from the Decepticons at this time. When Buster recoils in sudden, inexplicable pain we’re reminded that Optimus Prime did something to him when the pair were mind-linked recently.

It’s agreed that the students will take Buster home and Ratchet is reminded that he has more important problems. Never a truer word spoken, he is the last Autobot and the burden of stopping the Decepticons rests entirely on his shoulders. The encounter with the students was an enjoyable distraction but he can’t put off his responsibilities much longer.

‘Hey, what about GB Blackrock?’ I hear nobody ask. Well, he’s about to become possibly the unluckiest CEO in America as first his oil drilling platform was annexed by the Decepticons and now his aerospace plant is in the crosshairs too. In a slapstick moment, two workers, Gabe and Ferdy stop to claim an abandoned cassette deck that’s been left in the parking lot, then proceed to walk it passed the wall mounted gun defences. It is of course the Decepticon Soundwave, who transforms and bursts out of the locker in which he’s been placed. It’s obviously a room with very high ceilings as Soundwave is able to stand at full height while ejecting Laserbeak skywarps to assist in putting down any resistance. The plant was clearly unprepared for an attack from within and quickly falls. Blackrock is crestfallen and humiliated, particularly as Soundwave has been broadcasting the footage far and wide. Clearly some good PR for the Decepticons to advertise their menace and that they have hostages.

We’re briefly shown Blackrock visiting his paralysed employee Josie Beller and delivering equipment she asked for. Josie has use of one arm and hints to the reader that she is determined to take her revenge. This is clearly a developing situation and she and Blackrock are being established as ongoing characters. I’m a little indifferent to them at this point.

And so to the main events of the issue. Ratchet has sneaked into the Ark and finds it deserted. The Decepticons are elsewhere at their temporary new base, the Blackrock rig, and Commander Shockwave has left Megatron on Ark guard duty. Ratchet is horrified to discover the Autobots all inoperative and suspended from the ceiling like some macabre nightmare. He then finds the head of Optimus Prime descends into despair – could everything be lost?

Amazingly Prime speaks, uttering one of the truly memorable lines: “Put aside your grief Ratchet, now is time for valour”. He explains that the Decepticons intend to extract the Matrix from him and he has taken steps to thwart them (clearly in reference to Buster). But just as Ratchet trained to be a medic on Cybertron, on Earth he must become a warrior and use his guile and cunning to find a way to defeat Megatron. His own survival will be his ultimate test. All well and good but Prime is surely placing unrealistic expectations on his Chief Medical Officer here – there is no way Ratchet can best Megatron in one-to-one combat and to put himself in that position is surely suicidal.

There’s an interlude where Buster is joined at his dad’s repair shop by friends Jessie and ‘O’. He’s under a lot of stress, worrying about his dad, the Autobots and keeping the family business going when he knows next to nothing about repairing cars. He snaps at his friends, causing them to leave. In O’s case this will be permanent as this issue turns out to be his last appearance. No sooner is he alone, Buster feels the pains again the various tools around him start levitating! Interesting.

Ratchet goes looking for Megatron (you immediately know this is a bad idea) and fails to notice the Decepticon ex-leader sneaking up. Megatron’s giant hand grasps Ratchet’s shoulder and partially crushes it. He wants to add the medic to his “collection of scrapped Autobots” and will alleviate the boredom by taking his time over it! Ratchet punches Megatron as hard as he can and zaps him with his hold and cold medical tools but to no effect. With brute force not an option, he will need to outsmart Megatron. And so, Ratchet offers to help Megatron regain his command by locating the Dinobots and setting them against Shockwave. In return Megatron will hand back custody of the Ark to Ratchet.

Megatron treats the readers to a brief history of his rivalry. On Cybertron Shockwave had been supreme Decepticon military operations officer and the strategist who had plotted their ambush of the Ark. Shockwave had stayed behind on the Decepticon ship as a back-up. Megatron perceived this as self-serving and was already making plans to destroy this rival.

We then learn (through Megatron’s continuing narration) that Shockwave travelled to Earth to investigate the disappearance of the Ark (which had collided with the planet) and the radiation belt effected his navigation systems, causing him to touch down in timeless region of Antarctica where dinosaurs still roamed (Marvel Comics’ Savage Land). The Ark had revived five Autobots and gave them the dinosaur alt-modes, and the team had battled Shockwave. It is not known what happened next or why they or Shockwave disappeared for four million years.

While helpful for the readers, I’m unclear as to how Megatron has learned about the Dinobots. It’s unlikely Shockwave has revealed anything more to him, so perhaps Megatron has accessed the Ark’s databanks similar to Ratchet did some issues ago?

He agrees to Ratchet’s suggestion – mainly to provide an amusing distraction, rather than an expectation of success – and the two seal the deal by contributing fuel to beaker and setting it alight. We’re told this is an ancient Cybertron ritual and no about has broken such a pact. Megatron, of course, is no Autobot! And so, the stage is set for the dramatic debut of the Dinobots. With the sequel arriving in just seven (not 14) days these were exciting times for the UK Transformers comic.

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The Worse of Two Evils

The Decepticons are under new management as the reign of Shockwave begins! Meanwhile Optimus Prime’s head is a prisoner of the Decepticons and his troops are all non-functioning, saving for the surgeon Ratchet. Phew! Things sure aren’t looking good for the good guys at this point.

As first impressions go, Shockwave takes some beating! With impeccable timing, he showed-up and blasted the victorious Autobots into next week, single-handedly saving the Decepticon army from certain defeat. His cold logic and awesome firepower ensured he was quickly able to press his advantage and consolidate control of the Decepticon forces, ruthlessly ejecting Megatron from power. He has big bold plans and has identified exactly how to use Optimus Prime for maximum advantage. And to top it off Shockwave has featured solo on one of the most stunning covers in Transformers comic history. All in all, not bad for a newcomer.

In terms of a comparison with the raw power and cunning of Megatron, which of them is the worse of the two evils? This is the question for eager readers to ponder, as posed by the title of this instalment. It was published in UK issues #24 and #25 in August and early September 1985.

The story opens at an oil drilling platform off the Oregon coast. This gleaming steel example of man’s struggle to conquer the natural elements is billed as the ‘most productive and technologically advanced’ facility of its kind, and well defended too. We’re told the roustabouts (a new term on me, but it means unskilled workers) are proud of the rigs industry-leading reputation and want everyone to know about it. Trouble is they now have the wrong kind of attention as Shockwave soars overhead in space gun mode and claims the facility for himself.

Surprisingly, G.B. Blackrock, the millionaire industrialist who owns the platform has got an office on board! Likewise, the young technology hotshot who designed the rig, Josie Beller, is also present and at the controls of the rig’s defences. At Blackrock’s command, cannons spring up and security staff in laser-equipped helicopters mount a counterattack. For a business venture, the rig is surprisingly well defended!

Shockwave blasts the rig repeatedly. You would think this would be enough to reduce it to rubble floating on the sea surface, but not so. Josie obeys an order to unleash harpoons, which piece the Decepticon leader’s armour. Shockwave soars higher and rips the harpoons from their moorings. We also learn that he can deploy bursts of light from his gun barrel which are enough to blind his opponents.

Blackrock orders staff to abandon the rig. Josie Beller refuses the instruction (not for the last time, as well see in later stories). She pays the price as falling debris sets off a chain reaction that sees Beller fried by a huge electrical discharge. Blackrock carries the wounded young woman topside where they are confronted by Shockwave in his full robot glory. He will allow the survivors to depart, but only so that they can spread the word that reign of the Decepticons has begun!

Meanwhile, Megatron is feeling like yesterday’s news as seething with anger as he sees his erstwhile warriors now following Shockwave’s orders. But what can he do while he’s manacled to a wall, undergoing repairs and well below his normal strength. He’s cutting a pretty pathetic figure at this point. Likewise, Optimus Prime is also in a bad spot thanks to Shockwave. He head has been removed from his body and is suspended by several beams. Prime is being kept alive because Shockwave plans to plunder the Creation Matrix energy which resides in the Autobot leader. With it he can create a new generation of Decepticon warriors.

Last time we saw Buster infiltrate the Ark and discover Prime’s fate. He’s now informed by the stricken Optimus that the fate of the Autobots is in his hands, whatever that could mean. Though Buster promised his father he wouldn’t get involved any further, it’s clear the situation is desperate and so he agrees to Prime’s demand that they establish a mind link. Buster attaches a cable to either side of his head, which immediately earths and administers a severe shock, rendering him unconscious! Just what is Prime playing at?

The story continues in TFUK#25 a fortnight later. The comic’s editorial page Transformation promises the ‘fight of the century’ as Megatron and Shockwave resolve their differences robot to robot. From the looks of the cover it you’d have to figure that Megatron is about to meet his match.

Though evenly matched in brute strength and firepower in normal circumstances, timing is a huge element in success or failure. Megatron knows that now is the wrong time to make a move on Shockwave – he is not fully recovered and is too weak to succeed, but his pride will no longer allow him to stand by passively while another assumes his rightful command. It must be particularly galling to be on the receiving end of Shockwave’s put downs about securing a defendable new base (the rig) and fuel source, which were goals that alluded Megatron as leader.

Ratchet, watching from a safe distance outside, has seen Shockwave return to the Ark. Buster staggers out, looking like he’s been caught in the middle of Megatron-Shockwave grudge match. He tells Ratchet that the Autobots are all dead and Prime is a prisoner!

Now it’s the moment fans have been waiting for. Megatron breaks free and with the immortal line “Shockwave, you are relieved of command” -unleashes the full power of his fusion cannon against his rival. Shockwave is propelled through the side of the mountain and crashes into a football stadium in the heart of a human settlement. One player’s comment “I hope he’s not playing for Deforest High this Saturday” shows once again how Bob Budiansky, the writer, loves to inject a bit of camp humour into proceedings – even in a fight to the finish between Decepticon rivals!

There’s a nice touch with Megatron stepping over a supermarket’s roof and presumably flattening a car or two as he pursues Shockwave. He’s repelled backwards, through a wall by Shockwave, who accuses Megatron of foolishness for attacking at less than full strength. Shockwave’s claim that even at full strength he is the stronger is curious. If this were true you wonder why Megatron had not been deposed before now.

Even in battle Shockwave continues to analyse and deduce the strength of his opponent based on his reaction time. He exploits Megatron’s unhealed wounds by battering him with a water tower and causing him to short circuit. Transforming into gun mode, Shockwave finishes the job.

Poor Megatron, he is beaten and about to be given the humiliation of his life. Shockwave refuses him the death he asks for and instead takes him back to the Ark to become an example to the other Decepticons of the fate of any who defy Shockwave. The Decepticons in unison pledge their lives and loyalty to their new commander. Megatron raises his arm and does the same. His humiliation is complete.

In summary, wow – what a battle. It really summed up the difference in style between the terrifyingly smart and calculating Shockwave and emotional and foolhardy Megatron. The outcome was never in any doubt but Shockwave’s humiliation of his rival is brutal. We may not have had the Autobots in the story for a while but I’m not missing them at this point – the drama in the Decepticon ranks is more than enough.

The final panel sees Ratchet drawn with a red Decepticon insignia – oops! And issue #25’s Soundwaves settles a long running debate over whether Ravage is a dog. We’re told he’s in fact closest to a jaguar.

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