City of Fear

The dead walk the streets in the Cybertron city of Kalis! Can Magnus, the Sparklers and their Decepticon prisoner Flywheels make it out alive?

Location, location, location. Any estate agent will tell you this is the top consideration when investing in property. So, whoever decided to relocate the headquarters of Cybertron’s Autobot Resistance to Kalis really screwed up royally!

On the face of it, Kalis is a bombed-out wreck of a place, but pretty much your average Cybertron metropolis after millions of years of ongoing civil war. However, recently it has earned itself a feared reputation for supernatural goings on. Whisper it gently, but some say the dead walk the streets here!

Like I said, not the best place to open a new base. Or maybe it is if you don’t want Decepticon patrols to find you?

Welcome to City of Fear, the first chapter of a six-issue saga from writer Simon Furman and artist Dan Reed, published in issues 164 and 165 of Marvel UK’s weekly Transformers comic (still enjoying its hey day back in May 1988).

I’ll say up front that I absolutely love this two part story and for me it ranks among the best of Simon’s UK material. It also really suits Dan’s artistic style. These days a zombie fest is common enough but less so in the 80s and I wouldn’t have expected the concept to work for a Transformers story but by Primus it does.

Dan’s cover for 164, ‘Face it Sparkers there’s no-one home’ – with zombie silhouettes reaching for Magnus and his mini-bot mates lets you know what you’re in for. The Transformation intro page also ramps up the anticipation for the ‘most spinetingling Transformers story we’ve ever dared to present’. This one would have made a very good Hallowe’en story if it had been later in the year.

Simon is not adverse to stealing concepts from Star Trek (like warp drive, Hot Rod beaming down in Kup’s Story, time travel, communicators etc) and this also includes the unwritten rule that a character who is not part of the main cast (in this case the Hasbro toy line) is almost certain to die horribly.

A case in point is the anonymous green and orange Autobot making his way across Kalis in the opening scene. (I have a vague memory of him being revealed as Chuffer on a later Grim Grams page – not sure if this was a gag by Furman).

Chuffer, or whoever he is, has got the jitters alright. He’s jumping out of his skin at eery noises and big-time regretting not heeding the warnings to stay hidden. A skeletal-looking robot zombie rears up behind him, still wearing an Autobot badge, and punches a hole clean through the robot’s chest. Eeks. As openings go its dramatic and defy anyone not to read on.

On Earth, Ultra Magnus and the Sparkabots are awaiting the arrival of an interdimensional portal that will transport them to Cybertron and the new Autobase on Kalis. The mini-bots are still being referred to in the UK comic as the Sparkler Mini-bots (why I don’t know?) and Sizzle and Fizzle’s colourings are reversed. These are curiosities that endure to this day, however they are a good foil for Magnus, who is our main character and Optimus Prime stand-in.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Cybertron Autobots led by Xaaron and the Wreckers have enough on their plate trying to retake their home world without worrying about the future Decepticon Galvatron, who is at large on Earth, a very distant for them. For some reason he is a priority though, and enough to send the Sparklers to Earth to spy on him and with the secondary aim of recovering Magnus.

With the mission complete, it’s time to return to Cybertron and report back, so they step through the portal and emerge in a trashed and deserted Autobase. Magnus questions who could have been mighty enough to best the Wreckers, their elite commandos? And where is everyone now?

One clue might be a very old, severed head that Sizzle finds. Odd that the blaster damage looks recent. He drops the head and runs to catch up with the others, only for it to come alive and bear vampirical fangs. A brilliant moment.

Our intrepid heroes find Kalis a ‘ghost town’ and even the Empties (Cybertron down and outs) that they see, beat a quick retreat when they see them. They think they see movement in a window, but no-one will come out and talk, much to Magnus’ annoyance.

Instead, everyone reverts to vehicle modes (Dan Reed uniquely illustrates their transformations with electrical energy in yellow and black) and they head out of the city in search of some answers, only to run into a Decepticon cordon. Are they keeping something out or something in?

Then an unexpected character debut (I always loved those) of the Duocons Flywheels and Battletrap who attack via their aerial modes and drop a bomb on the four Autobots. The Sparklers are rendered temporarily unconscious, but Magnus, who is still standing and pretty riled up by this point, whacks Flywheels with a girder and forces him to crash-land and revert to his robot mode.

Duocons, as we know, separate into two vehicles and therefore Flywheels’ jet should only be able to form his robotic torso and would have been parted from his tank mode (needed to form his legs). To get around this obvious problem, Furman has the Duocons function as triple changers, which is a real shame. Better I think, to have had the vehicle mode teleport across.

Flywheels is actually the unexpected star of the show from this point on. He’s such a brilliant addition to the team – wise-cracking, untrustworthy and one real cool dude. Initially though, he’s freaking out after discovering that he’s been bundled into Kalis – don’t they know the dead walk the streets in Kalis and their victims become like them, the living dead?!

Right on cue, hands burst from the floor and grab their feet. The dead have risen… and it’s a hell of cliff-hanger to top off a downright entertaining opening instalment.

On the letters page Grimlock deals with the confusion over Jawbreaker/Overbite, explaining that Jawbreaker was the Seacon’s name on Cybertron and it stuck. Hmm. He also reveals that the message that the Headmasters received which brought them to Earth was sent by Goldbug from the cave at Mount St Hilary. Since the message was received before we saw the story where it was sent, I’d assumed that it must have been Soundwave’s message sent in The Next Best Thing to Being There, way back.

In the opener for issue 165 there’s the first mention of Dragon’s Teeth, a new title on the way from Furman and Senior (a real classic) that would end up being renamed ahead of its release to Dragon’s Claws. I think at some point I’ll review it.

Back to City of Fear, and part two opens with zombie hordes spilling out from the sides and surrounding our protagonists like circling wagons from a Western. They’ll have to ‘fight their way out’ declares Magnus, and everyone starts gunning down their attackers using their identical blasters (Dan Reed standardised the weapons which was a shame as often the guns were unique to each Transformer and certainly looked different).

Magnus won’t allow Flywheels to have a gun back (he’s their prisoner after all and being a Decepticon, he’s not to be trusted) but the latter has a tank mode which comes in rather useful. The Sparklers unleash a fire bath from their engines, until Magnus realises some of the zombies are Autobots – they are killing their own troops.

It’s a dumb move and risks getting everyone killed. Luckily, Flywheels takes not a bit of notice of the order and saves Magnus from getting mauled by a flying zombie. Not that Magnus is particularly grateful!

Having beaten a retreat they regroup nearby and theorise what might be reanimating these dead Autobots and Decepticons. If it’s a remote control (or computer transmission as stated) Flywheels suggests they jam the signal. Obvious huh?

Cue Magnus and Flywheels heading into the Baird Beaming Transmitter (a nice nod from Simon to the Briton, John Logie Baird, the inventor of television) and he reluctantly agrees that he’ll have to hand the Decepticon back his gun. Can Flywheels be trusted? Magnus doesn’t think so, but feels he has no choice, he needs the help.

Magnus is successful, only to find himself staring down the barrel of Flywheels’ blaster. Luckily, his target turns out to be a still reanimated zombie – phew!

The threat is over, and Magnus was able to learn something significant – that the signal which activated the zombies was coming from hundreds of feet beneath the surface of Cybertron. Interesting.

In closing, what a fun ride and a distinctly different Transformers story. The rank-and-file Sparklers compliment the more senior and serious Magnus, our stand-in Optimus who is comfortable getting his hands dirty as well as commanding. The Sparklers are a nice, easy-going bunch (as much as anyone can be with zombies on their trail) but they don’t register as separate personalities.

Flywheels steals the show. His wanton disregard for life is just the ticket in this situation and gung-ho philosophy contrasts with restrictive Autobot morality. He is the black humour element and enjoys the Autobots’ discomfort in having to side with their prisoner. There’s always the feeling that Flywheels is about to turn on his new allies, but instead he saves Magnus twice. Perhaps he was starting to like his new Autobot allies?

With that, we’re on to Legion of the Lost, the next instalment, where the explanations begin and events go from bad to worse.

Next story

Dan Reed: How being broke saved my life!

Dan Reed was a freelance artist for Marvel UK in the 1980s and worked on some iconic Transformers comics of the era, including the zombie spectacular ‘City of Fear’ – his best TF work in my opinion. This is an interview I did with Dan a few years ago about his time with Transformers.

Dan Reed2

Dan pictured in 2019.

IT WAS DECEMBER 1988 and Dan Reed, then 28, was a struggling artist living in Paris. It had been an up-and-down couple of years. He had been through a difficult divorce in his native America, and his wife had refused to let him see their daughter – eventually moving to another state without telling him. But things had picked up and Reed was enjoying life in France and the opportunities to travel around Western Europe and indulge his love of painting. He had also landed semi-regular work with Marvel Comics UK – illustrating The Transformers.

Simon Furman had given him the chance to prove himself by doing the artwork for issue 115’s strip, Burning Sky part 1. Furman was pleased and asked Reed to draw several more stories including the Legacy of Unicron, City of Fear, Deadly Games and Space Pirates in 1988. Reed was also invited to attend Marvel’s Christmas party in London and he thought it would be a great stop-over on his way back to America. When it came time to buy a ticket he was faced with the option of Pan Am 103 and a cheaper ticket on Virgin Atlantic. Reed, being an artist of limited means, chose Virgin and while in the air, heard the other plane had exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. Today, in better financial circumstances he reflects sombrely that “being poor sometimes has its advantages”.

Reed was born in Massachusetts on January 26, 1960, and raised in the warmer climates of Miami. He worked for Charlton, Marvel and DC, pursuing his love of comics, while also working seriously on his painting. He attended Miami Dade Community College and discovered art history, becoming entranced with the role the French had played. Reed thought it would be great to go to France and actually live there, and some time later following his divorce and estrangement from his child, he got the chance. The college sent him to Paris and then to the south to paint. It was supposed to be a six week program but Reed thought he had more to learn by getting out there and painting than he could in the classroom and decided to stay.

Fifteen years on he is remarried and back in touch with his daughter (he recently attended her wedding reception in South Dakota). Reed lives 25 miles from New York City and regularly draws crowds to exhibitions of his paintings. He is still involved in comics however, and has ‘self published’ an eight-part series called New World Order and another book called Retro-Dead.

How did you come to be an artist on Transformers?

I was living in Paris, France and found life there very difficult in a financial sense, although I really loved living there in many other ways. Unfortunately to work there you need a special card which was almost impossible to obtain, so I picked up a couple of issues of Indiana Jones that I had done for Marvel US, and hitched a ride with an 18 wheeler over to London. I stepped into the offices of Marvel UK and spoke with Simon Furman. I showed him my comics and asked if he had any work for me. He said yes and handed me the script for Transformers #115 a couple of older issues of the book and some model sheets to go by, and let me know when he needed them by. I told him that I preferred to ink my own work and he agreed.

What was it like working for Marvel UK?

For the most part it was really great! When I turned in #115 Simon seemed to really like it and told me I could work on a regular basis if I wanted to. I told him that I would love to but I wanted to live in Paris. He asked me how I proposed to pull this off. I told him that when I was working for Marvel in the states that I actually lived in Miami and mailed my jobs to New York through Fed Ex, and saw no reason why that arrangement shouldn’t work again. Simon agreed and I went back to Paris.

When I finished the next job however, I thought it would be fun to travel back over to London, so this time I spent the little money I had left and bought a bus ticket. Unfortunately for me when I got to the border control they told me that I couldn’t get into England because I didn’t have enough money on me. They took me to a little room, took my artwork, strip searched me, verbally abused me, and when they returned my artwork the first page of the story was missing. I told them that they stole my art. They told me that was too bad, then they proceeded to handcuff me and throw me in the back of their police car, pushed me to the floor and started to beat me. Then they dragged me onto the ferry back to Paris.

When we got there the French border guard was sitting at his desk reading a newspaper. He asked me what happened… why was I handcuffed with a cop on either side of me. I told him that the British wouldn’t let me in because I didn’t have enough money on me. He asked me what I did. I told him I was an artist. He laughed and said: “You’re an artist… of course you don’t have any money.” He asked me where I lived, I told him Paris, and he said: “hitchhike back”, then went back to reading his paper.

I called Simon when I got back and explained what had happened. I was already a little late on the story, so the pressure to get the job to him was enormous. I spent the entire night up, and managed to re-pencil and ink the first page. So if you ever see a page that looks close to the splash page of Transformers #119, but a little different you’ll know that it was stolen and the person who stole it almost cost me my job at Marvel UK!

There were several artists working on the comic so who decided who would draw which strips?

Simon was in control as far as I knew. At any rate he was the guy that I always talked to.

How long did it take to draw an issue of The Transformers?

I really don’t remember exactly, but I know I was always a little late turning in the jobs. I’m sure I caused more than a few grey hairs on Simon’s head.

Was it tricky to master the look of around 100 or so characters?

Well they gave me character sheets from the movie for each character. I was always trying to find ways to make them look more exciting and got in a little trouble because I would bend the arms and legs of the characters, and would use energy dots to show the transformation scenes. I also got a kick when I got a chance to design a building or a transformer that didn’t exist (They were like Star Trek’s red shirts… sure to die).

You have a distinctive style of drawing. Who influences your work and was there anyone at Transformers whose art you particularly admired?

Thank you very much. It’s nice to know that some people appreciate the work I was doing. Comics wise my influences are so many… C.C. Beck, Kirby, Colan, Palmer, Adams, Kubert, Infantino, Moebius, Frazetta, etc… the list reads like a who’s who of the true greats in comic history.  I really liked Geoff Senior’s work… especially the stuff he was doing for a while before I showed up. It was so graphic and clean… very good design sense.

What influence, if any, did you have over story lines as an artist?

I didn’t have much say over the story lines. However I did try to make every page as much fun as I could… after all I’m a real fan of this wonderful medium and try to make my work as cool as the work of the greats that I grew up admiring. I can only hope that I’m succeeding to some degree.

Did Hasbro have much of a say over the comic’s stories or the artwork?

Simon handled that end of it at the Marvel offices. I do know that the character had to look like those character sheets that they gave us.

Is there an issue of Transformers that you worked on that you are particularly proud of? If so, which and why?

There was something in every issue that I found exciting, that got my creative juices flowing, and Simon never really gave me too much interference. I was very free to follow my intuition. My living in Paris probably helped a lot with that aspect of things.

Were you a fan of the comic… and what do you think of the new Dreamwave Transformers titles?

I’m going to have to be honest with you, when I went over to Marvel UK I was hoping to draw the FF or Spidey or Thor… I had never even heard of the Transformers before. I didn’t even see the movie until years later when I returned the states. However it did grow on me, and I like the idea of living metal beings… kind of reminds me of the Voyager theme in the first Star Trek movie.

Did you/do you have much contact with the fans and what kind of feedback did you get about your work?

I really didn’t even know there was a fan network until I stumbled onto your website. When I was doing the book all those years ago I was working in a vacuum fan wise. I thought I was doing some really kick butt work but had no way of knowing if anyone else thought so as well.

Are you surprised how enduring the Transformers franchise has proved to be?

It did seem to me to just be a passing fad at the time…

Finally, what else have you done aside from Transformers… and what does the future hold for Dan Reed?

For Charlton I did the Blue Beetle and The Question, as well as Captain Atom. For DC I did some House Of Mystery stuff, and some D&D books. For Marvel I worked on characters ranging from the Hulk to Captain America, the Punisher, Alpha Flight and others. The fanzine “Comic Book Artist” did an interview with me as well.

I self published a series called New World Order which ran for eight issues, and did another book called Retro-Dead. The basic premise behind New World Order deals with the world of the future where people who live in space stations have evolved into a new species, and look at us as an inferior life form and dominate the planet. The protagonists are a trio of artists in a world where art is banned. It’s a mature readers book and reflects some adult themes. Retro-Dead takes place after a dimensional rift has swept across the planet, physically altering people to revert into the being that lies within their souls. If someone is a blood-sucking vampire by nature, then he actually becomes that in the ‘real’ world. The idea being that the monsters that live among us can no longer hide behind the guise of being human.

Also I’ve been doing some characters that I created for Gary Carlson’s “Big Bang”, the “Great Pyramid” and the “Dimensioneer”. I’m also involved with doing some illustrations for Edgar Rice Burroughs fan magazines including one in the UK. I’ve been painting for many years and have a website you might want to check out….

As far as the future goes, I hope continue painting and creating my own characters.