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.

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Aerialbots Over America!

The Aerialbots take to the skies in their debut-proper, but after the heady heights of Target: 2006 the UK comic is back to Earth with a bump in this largely run-of-the-mill tale from over the pond.

Target: 2006 was such a blockbuster that whatever followed was always likely to feel second best, and that’s the case with Aerialbots Over America. Written by US mainstay Bob Budiansky and published in October 1986 (the UK reprint coming out in the November) it is an okayish story that has some good moments, but which mostly fails to ignite. The story is really a vehicle to introduce recent Hasbro toy releases into the comic – so we get the Insecticons, Ramjet, Dirge and Thrust embedded within the ranks of the Earth-based Decepticons at last, and of course the launch of the Autobots’ first combiner team, the Aerialbots.

Surprisingly enough, the Insecticons play almost as large a role in the story as the titular Aerialbots. As this issue begins, Bombshell is in his tiny insect form, perched on a leaf and watching his human target Ricky Vasquez. It feels like he’s finally in his proper element – there being no insects on Cybertron (that we’re aware of) the Insecticons were literally made for an Earth existence.

Budiansky regularly grounds his Transformers with a human character. Ricky, our guest this issue, is a devoted family man – husband to Carmen and dad to little Maria, who he promises to take to fourth of July celebrations on his return from work. It’s his job that makes him of interest to the Decepticons – he’s assistant chief-engineer at Hoover Dam, the huge facility in Nevada which provides electricity to 20 million Americans. To the bad guys, it’s a source of energy which they can use to replenish stocks on Cybertron.

Bombshell injects Ricky with one of his mind-controlling ‘Cerebral Shells’ which quickly takes root in his brain and renders him a helpless puppet of the Decepticons. He turns his car off the main highway and on to a desolate dirt road, where Megatron and the other Insecticons (Kickback and Shrapnel) are waiting. Bombshell demonstrates the effectiveness of his shells by sadistically making Ricky remove a grease spot from his foot with his tongue.

Shortly afterwards, Ricky is strolling past Dam security zombielike as a jolly cop wishes him a happy fourth of July. This guy should have gone to Specsavers, as he completely misses the stonking great gun (Megatron in his gun mode) that Ricky is casually carrying. And minutes later they’re in the control room and Ricky is holding the staff hostage, demanding the dam be switched off!

At this point it might be worth mentioning the strange chronology of this story. Though published in October 1986 its set on American Independence Day in July, which means that all of the stories that have taken place previously that year (from the crisis of command to the Dinobot Hunt, the advent of the Special Teams, Megatron’s return, Target: 2006 and more…) all of it would have had to have happened in the first six months of the year!

And since we’re practically at Christmas, we’re meant to believe that nothing whatever of note is occurring in the second half of the year. It’s a jarring discrepancy and I can’t help thinking that Bob should have set this story at Thanksgiving in November where the timing would have made more sense, but he probably didn’t anyone who notice or care too much.

Meanwhile, Skids has returned to the Ark (having been lost for dead as far as the Autobots were concerned) and bringing with him Donny Finkleberg, aka Robot Master. Ratchet is on unusually cantankerous form for him. He’s repairing a wound Optimus Prime picked up in the Limbo dimension during Target: 2006 (though in the US continuity it was inflicted by a huge swinging axe during the Autobot assault on the Decepticon base) and is concerned about a human perspiring and causing a rust infection. I’m amused by his offer to perform a little surgery on the untrustworthy Donny to get the truth out of him about his claim of seven Autobots having travelled across the Decepticon space bridge. Instead, Prime assigns Jetfire to escort Donny to the location.

Bumblebee notifies Optimus of the siege underway at Hoover Dam. On hearing this, Prime postpones repairs and rushes outside where Wheeljack is testing the five newly constructed Aerialbots. They are now instilled with life, but only Silverbolt has been properly programmed. Their lack of battle readiness is a worry, particularly as Prime is convinced that the Decepticons are involved in the Dam siege but dispatches the Aerialbots anyway with instructions to thwart the enemy plan and defend human life.

Back at the Dam a large police presence and the media have assembled. The gunman is soon identified as Ricky and his family (now at the scene) can only watch in horror. Within moments the space bridge materialises and Ramjet, Dirge and Thrust – fly out and transform. A giant drill follows in their wake and begins to grind away at the Dam’s cement exterior…

The second half begins with Jetfire soaring above the Columbia river gorge with Donny Finkleberg onboard. They are right above where the seven Autobots arrived but there’s no sign of anyone. Jetfire transforms in mid-air and catches the screaming Donny as he falls, noting that humans don’t bounce particularly well. Jetfire’s refers to the Cybertron sport ‘Basketrek’ that they used to play but of course he has never been to Transformers’ home world as he was created on Earth! Perhaps he’s been studying his heritage or didn’t want to let on to Donny about his origins. It seems neither Autobot nor Decepticon has much regard for Mr Finkleberg, or trust.

However, Jetfire does find a puddle of fuel which suggests that Transformers have been in this region, and one of them was leaking! This is of course the gaping leg wound Blaster received when he took a blow from Lord Straxus’ axe in their fateful battle. More on the Cybertron Seven shortly…

The Aerialbots’ arrival at Hoover Dam is announced by the TV reporter at the scene, as clearly not the US Air Force as they are led by an SST (supersonic transport)! This gives Ramjet, Dirge and Thrust an opportunity to showcase their abilities to the reader. Thrust uses his engine roar to deafen Skydive and play havoc with his internal systems, forcing him to land. Ramjet crashes head-first into Slingshot and Dirge fires missiles at Fireflight – they miss the target but reign rocks and debris on to the crowd below. Silverbolt, uniquely, recognises the danger and orders Fireflight to stop the rocks (which he does by melting them) but clearly the rest of the team’s incomplete programming is rendering them a liability to the humans. In fact, Dirge congratulates his opponent on his disregard for the humans who “get in the way”, and taps into Silverbolt’s hidden fear of heights, causing the Aerialbot leader to panic and dive for the ground. So far, the team’s debut is far from successful.

Megatron orders the Insecticons to assist their Decepticon comrades outside. We learn that they are intent on transferring water to Cybertron to ‘generate enough energy to power the planet for years. A human hostage protests that the missing water would devastate the American Southwest, but as far as Megatron is concerned, all of Earth will be a wasteland once he’s finished any way! Ricky’s subconscious starts to struggle against the shell’s effects.

Outside, Thrust and Dirge congratulate themselves on a job well done, when Air Raid dives between them and transforms. He shoots Ramjet’s fuselage severely damaging him, as Kickback sneaks up in insect mode and gives the Aerialbot a massive wallop! In order to save the dam, the Aerialbots combine into their eight-storey sized alter-ego, Superion and begin to demolish the drill. Ricky arrives, holding Megatron, who orders him to fire upon the giant Autobot. (It always surprises me that Megatron needs someone to pull his own trigger!)

Superion notices the threat and manoeuvres a giant hand to crush Ricky! The part of their unified mind that is Silverbolt protests, and for a moment Ricky and Superion are frozen as they fight the confusion within their minds. Suddenly, young Maria Vasquez, Ricky’s daughter, runs from the crowd calling out to her father. Ricky overpowers the shell controlling him and blasts the drill instead. The space bridge instantly begins to dematerialise back to Cybertron, while Megatron retreats with all but one of his Decepticons.

As the Aerialbots return to the Ark, Silverbolt thinks the mission went well all things considered: the drill was destroyed, and despite Superion’s problems, the humans they sought to protect were saved. He doesn’t realise that Bombshell is secretly stowing away on his wing for a free ride into the Autobot base! Ricky, meanwhile, apologises to his daughter about being unable to take her to the fireworks, but she does not mind – she’s seen enough of those today.

Finally, what about the Cybertron Seven? This issue’s epilogue holds the answers to that long-running question. We see flatbed trucks arrive at a disused aircraft hangar in New Jersey that is serving as the secret headquarters of RAAT (Rapid Anti-robot Assault Team) – a creature of the United States government. Seven cargoes are quickly unloaded and uncovered to reveal the deactivated Cybertron Seven. Each Autobot is placed under precision machinery and has its face plating removed and mounted on to the hanger wall, as hunting trophies! A RAAT worker announces to his boss that this is the ‘last of the heads’ and she corrects him – this is only the beginning, so swears Circuit Breaker!! RAAT are set to be a major thorn in the side of the Transformers but – as we soon see – they seem to have an annoying habit of only attacking the Autobots!

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Target: 2006 (Part 9 & Epilogue)

Simon Furman’s Transformers masterpiece reaches its dramatic conclusion – will Galvatron return to the future defeated or as master of all he surveys? And tragedy strikes on Cybertron as Operation: Volcano begins without Magnus.

Simon Furman has written some great Transformers stories during his now 35-year association with the franchise, but I think Target: 2006 may still be his finest. Whether he would agree with that, or prefer more recognition to be afforded to his later works is something I’d like to ask him one day.

One thing that is apparent to me on re-reading issues #87 and #88 of Marvel UK Transformers, is that here we have a writer and a title that are at the top of their game and riding the crest of a wave. November 1986 was a fortnight before the release of that other classic Transformers: The Movie and so these were truly halcyon days for the TF fans in the UK. Issue #87’s Transformation page references the Movie, apologising for the delayed release but promising fans that it would be worth the extra two week wait: “We’ve seen the movie, so take it from us – it’s absolutely superb!” It sure was (and still is).

As warm-up acts for a film go, they don’t come much better or more epic than Target: 2006. So far we’ve seen the Autobots rendered leaderless and in disarray, the arrival from the future of Galvatron, his incredible origin, the Autobots’ crack commandos the Wreckers in action, Autobot Triple Changers, the zombification of Jazz, Magnus versus Galvatron, the return of Starscream and the debut of Kup, Hot Rod and Blurr! Phew! That’s really some list, and the action isn’t over yet.

The story picks up where the previous issue left off, with Galvatron having defeated Ultra Magnus, the last foe standing in his way. Little did he realise that while he was beating-up on poor Magnus, the three future Autobots were rigging up a little show for him back at his solar weapon.

The opening is narrated in film vernacular, with the set, the make-up, special effects, props and support cast. The make-up part is certainly interesting – we see Hot Rod spraying Skywarp in the colours of Starscream. The effects they deploy are evidently explosives, and the real Starscream (knocked out by Galvatron two issues previous) is dragged out of sight. Likewise, Cyclonus and Scourge and rendered unconscious by the fists of these Autobots. This, however, feels a little incongruent, as a few issues ago we saw Galvatron’s henchmen best a whole legion of Autobots and heard the boast that even 100 foes could not defeat them. Suddenly they are looking a bit ordinary. Perhaps the trio have been augmented for this mission by a higher power?!! See later, for who’s pulling their strings.

Galvatron returns, dragging a defeated and pathetic looking Magnus with him. Finding his deputies out cold and realising that Megatron and Soundwave are still unconscious, he figures it must be the work of Starscream. This of course is exactly what the future Autobots want him to think, but surely Galvatron should be asking himself how a lone Decepticon seeker could do this? After all he said 100 Autobots could not best Cyclonus and Scourge.

A quick recap of what’s at stake for Magnus (time is running out for him to get back to Cybertron) and he musters just enough energy to rugby tackle Galvatron. He is easily batted off, and Galvatron appears to contemplate destroying Magnus, regardless of any damaging effects to the timeline, when Jetfire, Brawn, Smokescreen and Tracks arrive for a last ditch attempt at stopping him. Earlier we’d seen Jetfire conceding that they (and he) are out of their depth against Galvatron. Poor Jetfire – he’s been a woeful stand-in commander. Though brave, his inexperience and hot headedness counted against him massively. He rushed into battle underprepared and was humiliated. It took their arch enemy Megatron to organise the ‘rabble’ so that they could capture Scourge, and then Jetfire was outsmarted by Galvatron at the prisoner exchange. Could it be though, that in realising he was wrong (in his approach and about Magnus) Jetfire is starting to learn the lessons and from defeat comes maturity?

Luckily for Jetfire and his three colleagues, Galvatron has no time to destroy them. Kup triggers the explosives and the solar weapon blows, burying all and sundry. Finally, when Galvatron emerges, mad as hell, he’s confronted by Starscream in all his arrogance. Galvatron lets rip, blowing Starscream to pieces! Now here’s the fascinating bit. He concludes that as Starscream is essential to his becoming Galvatron in 2006, by rights he should now cease to exist. The fact he is still there, suggests to Galvatron that he probably created (or ended up) in a parallel universe when he time travelled, and therefore he cannot affect change in the 2006 he originated from. So, Galvatron gathers up his lieutenants and leaves. I love the parting narration that ‘he knows he has all the time in the world’. Very apt.

A couple of things puzzle me though. Why would Galvatron expect to return to the dimension where he started, rather than arrive 20 years into the future of his current reality? And why assume Starscream was dead for good? Transformers can be blown to bits and repaired. In fact I think Skywarp even makes reappears in a later story. The disintegration ray Galvatron hit Starscream with in the Movie was of course far more conclusive! Again, in telling us that Screamer is destined to die at Galvatron’s hands, here’s Target: 2006 offering us a nugget from the Movie plot and whetting the appetites of the fans still further.

Any readers who are sorry to see the back of Galvatron can take ample consolation from the New Leaders fact file on their favourite villain on page 14 which describes him as ‘invulnerable to injury and even less subject to emotion or decency’ (not that he suffered from these things much as Megatron of course!). The Grim Grams page also has some decent hints as to upcoming stories, with the Predacons due to debut, the Swoop/Divebomb rivalry and a suggestion that we’ll get to see where Prime, Shockwave and the others were displaced to.

With Galvatron now having exited the stage, there is the question of whether final instalment of Target: 2006 will be something of a damp squib. As we’ll see however, Mr Furman is not done with twists and turns.

Issue #88 immediately wows with a fantastic cover by Geoff Senior featuring the exciting new Autobot Triple Changers – Broadside, Springer and Sandstorm – ready for action. ‘Volcano erupts without Magnus, but maybe it doesn’t matter’ reads the cover blurb. It certainly looks like we’re in for an epic conclusion.

And then the next surprise… our narrator for opening part of the issue is none other than Unicron himself! Now that is truly epic! I love how his speech bubbles have an uneven red border, making them feel echoing and menacing. Unicron surveys the wreckage of his “puppet’s” solar weapon and he is content. We cut to Galvatron in 2006 writhing in pain, being taught another lesson by his master. He had underestimated Galvatron, not realising until it was too late, that his creation had fled into the past to plot against him. But Unicron had enlisted Hot Rod, Kup and Blurr as his agents – exercising a subliminal control over their minds and sending them after Galvatron and co. to thwart their plan. Later, he is able to return the trio to their place of origin, removing all knowledge of what they’ve done. Thus, everyone is reintegrated into their proper place in the Transformers: The Movie storyline.

Much later of course, once Simon Furman had got hold of the reins of Marvel’s American Transformers comic (the parent continuity) he decided to part ways with the Movie timeline altogether and have Unicron attack in 1990. There’s no real explanation for the timeline divergence, but is it possible Unicron used his three Autobot agents to send a message to his 1986 counterpart, advising that Unicron of the location of Cybertron? This could explain how he arrived fifteen or sixteen years early. But most likely the explanation was that the Movie took place in one of many possible futures.

Anyway, going back to the story… after putting Starscream into cold storage (where he’ll stay for another year) the future Autobots also returned to 2006 and Unicron indulged himself by planting a thought in Smokescreen’s mind, that the site of Galvatron’s weapon would make an excellent location for the first Autobot City on Earth! One assumes that’s exactly what happens, circa 2003. The thing is, if Galvatron’s plan had worked, it’s difficult to see how he could have buried the weapon beneath the city without it being detected by the Autobots during the city’s construction. It’s a minor nit-pick and not to detract from what is overall a great storyline.

Just as Ultra Magnus has finally earned the trust and respect of the earth based Autobots, its time for him to return to Cybertron (via a portal) as Operation: Volcano is under way. Magnus’ parting wish, that he should one day fight side-by-side with Optimus Prime is a mouth-watering prospect, and happily one that will come to pass in issue #103.

On Cybertron, Emirate Xaaron stands before twenty-two Autobot resistance leaders, or rather facsimile constructs. Kickback watches from a vantage point and returns to base to report that they have an unprecedented opportunity to wipe out the Autobot high command. Soon enough, Dirge, Ramjet and Thrust, the Insecticons, Triple Changers and a never-before-seen nasty opportunist type called Macabre are on the march. The latter is particularly keen to slay Xaaron rather than follow the plan to capture him alive, as he sees Xaaron as his ticket to the big leagues. It’s almost something Starscream would do.

However, the plan rapidly falls apart when, on Earth, Laserbeak succeeds in freeing Megatron from the wreckage of Galvatron’s weapon, and the Decepticon leader issues a summons for the Insecticons and coneheads to reinforce him on Earth. None of them dare disobey and so they break off their ambush. That is, all apart from Macabre, who continues, determined to take out Xaaron.

And so, the final twist in the tale… as Impactor breaks the news to Xaaron that Volcano has failed to erupt, Macabre opens fire from the side lines using a huge blaster. Impactor throws Xaaron clear and takes the blast himself. He passes the mantle of the Wreckers’ leadership to Springer before dying a heroes’ death. The Autobots cut down Macabre with multiple blasts. Once again, characters who are not part of the toy line are doomed to die, such is the way of things in TF! Still, for a throwaway character, Impactor made a hell of an impression on the fans and would return (albeit as a zombie) a couple of years later, and then in his full glory in the 2010 IDW story ‘Last Stand of the Wreckers’.

At last, Optimus Prime is back (and we have missed him) but once again the Autobots are counting the cost of a Decepticon victory. Jazz, Grapple and Trailbreaker are the latest casualties, while the others bear the psychological scars. Having once again survived a brush with destruction, Prime is certain they can pull together and prevail.

Thus, ends Target: 2006, a Transformers epic that spanned two worlds and two eras, tying into the amazing Transformers: The Movie. Like the movie itself it has stood the test of time and rightly deserves to be called a classic.

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The Smelting Pool

One of – IF NOT THE – finest Transformers story Bob Budiansky ever wrote. The Smelting Pool is an instant classic, transporting readers to the dystopian world of present day Cybertron, inhabited by powerful good and evil archetypes. It’s a story of hope and despair, horror and heroism.

We thought it would be good, but not THIS good! The return to Cybertron story had been hinted as far back as issue 40, some six months previous, and was eagerly awaited by the readers (myself very much included). I was looking forward to it from a novelty point of view – a chance to see the home world again, some of the toy line characters we hadn’t seen yet, and the story wouldn’t have to be too good for it to be an exciting event.

On picking up my copy of Marvel UK Transformers #66 before school on a Friday in June 1986, that amazing cover by Herb Trimpe which appeared on the UK and US editions (Blaster plunging head first towards a pit of lava and melting wrecks) was the first hint of something above average, and in fact a very special event for the comic.

And Bob’s story and the characters he created blew me away. Blaster, the classic Western hero whose tough exterior disguises a big heart – Scrounge the plucky underdog, desperate to prove his critics wrong – and the axe-wielding total bastard of villain (that we’d love to hate) Lord Straxus. Added to that the concepts of underground Autobot resistance, Transformer down-and-outs, industrialised murder (courtesy of the Decepticons’ Smelting Pool), comic debuts of the new mini Autobot, seeker jets and Insecticons toys, and even Cybertronian time concepts. Frankly, its impressive quite how much Bob packed into the first 11 pages of story.

Our first glimpse of Cybertron reveals it to have two moons, just like in the upcoming (at the time) 1986 Transformers Movie. Marvel universe Cybertron also bears little resemblance to the Sunbow cartoons, appearing dark and bleak, almost reminiscent of the apocalyptic future in The Terminator.

Don Perlin’s pencils bring the horrors of Polyhex province to life from the get-go, as three civilian robots flee from a trio of Decepticon seekers, using them as sport. On Cybertron these days, anyone who is not part of the ruling class or useful to them, is likely to be exterminated as an unnecessary drain on the planet’s dwindling fuel supply. It begs a question of what naturally occurring fuel Cybertron has? Not fossil fuels as its a metallic world and even solar power will be difficult to harness, as the Transformers home world is not tethered to any star.

Two of the robots – Telus and Rotorbolt – are destroyed by a Decepticon called Ferak. A third watches in horror as his friends are scooped up a by Decepticon harvester unit as scrap to be recycled. He flees in the direction of Blaster, the red shouldered hero of our story. Blaster is irritated about being stood-up by his fellow Autobot, Scrounge, who was meant to be delivering information 12 breems ago (we learn that one breem is a very precise 8.3 Earth minutes!).

Blaster is however perfectly placed to go to the aid of the third runner.  Stepping into the open, he deploys his Electro Scrambler gun against Ferak, causing the Decepticon to spin out of control. In a demonstration of his raw strength, Blaster seizes the Decepticon and throws him into a derelict structure, which collapses over him. The small transformer thanks his saviour, but Blaster insists he has better things to do than save his “rusty hide”! These rough words are at odds with Blaster’s thought bubbles, which earlier revealed his concern for the ‘little fella’ being picked on by a Decepticon bully.

Elsewhere, the mini Autobot spy Scrounge is in his wheel form outside the enemy stronghold, Darkmount. He has acquired information that a missing neutral called Spanner – a scientist with specialist knowledge in inter-dimensional engineering – is being held inside. Scrounge sees an opportunity to finally prove his worth to his fellow Autobots. Any readers who have ever felt inadequate or not quite accepted, can immediately sympathise with Scrounge. He reminds me a little of Bumblebee but has an extraordinary ability to extend his finger, deftly steering them through long winding shafts without tripping alarms, in order to listen on the Decepticons inside – in this case Shrapnel and two technicians who are discussing an all important transmission they have received. It’s the most profound revelation for 50,000 vorns (83 Earth years!) apparently. It is of course the message transmitted by Soundwave from Earth in the Next Best Thing to Being There.

In his excitement Scrounge gets careless and triggers an intruder alarm. He rolls for it, radioing Blaster on the way that he is returning with a big catch. Blaster is sceptical as they’ve all heard Scrounge’s tall stories before. Then, in one of my favourite scenes, Scrounge rolls through the Dead End, which is inhabited by Transformer down-and-outs called the Empties. They are a forgotten class of Transformer, a symbol of the despair and inequity in Polyhex, and reduced to begging for fuel. Poor Scrounge is seized by Shrapnel in his giant insect form and carried off.

Blaster lifts what appears to be a stray wall plate to descend into the secret underground ‘Autobase’. As a 12-year-old reading this in 1986 I thought that was supercool and mysterious. He is greeted there by Powerglide, Cosmos, Seaspray, Warpath and Beachcomber – all making their comics’ debut – along with Perceptor, who commands the resistance cell.

The tensions between Blaster and his commander are immediately apparent. They are very different characters – one impulsive, emotional, daring, and the other (Perceptor) patient and prone to cold realism. Both embody different leadership qualities. I got the impression that Blaster’s daring-do would win the respect and loyalty of the unit if he had really wanted to lead it, but he has no time for politics, ambition or the sort of long-term strategizing needed to run a successful resistance cell, so Perceptor – who is better suited to the long game – leads.  You can practically see the steam rising from Blaster’s ears when he demands they search for Scrounge and Perceptor refuses to risk the group on a fool’s errand (guessing correctly that their missing mini bot is probably captured on his way to the Smelting Pool). However, the sympathies of the group are with Blaster on this occasion and Perceptor wisely backs down, but they will make one attempt only.

In the shadows of Darkmount lies the awesome spectacle of the Smelting Pool. Blood-red molten metal boils with the devastated bodies of Transformers disgorged into it by Decepticon Harvester units. Its perimeter is lined with heavily armed Decepticon guards who make sure that none who go in ever come out, except as remoulded raw materials for future use. Despite having only 11 pages to play with (22 for the full story) its bloody marvellous that Bob devotes a full page of art to showing us this final solution in its full horror.

Shrapnel lands at Darkmount, threatening poor Scrounge with the pit. He will enjoy hearing the Autobot’s screams but first he wants to take Scrounge for interrogation by Lord Straxus. Shrapnel is ever hoping to win the favour of his master, but ever failing. We then meet Straxus – holding court flanked by Ramjet, Thrust, Dirge and the other Insecticons, Bombshell, and Kickback. As villains go, he looks utterly the business – cutting two unfortunate victims in half with a swing of his Energo Axe and uttering the immortal line: “Mercy is not dispensed here fools, only death!”

Straxus is less than grateful to Shrapnel for his capture. And when Scrounge refuses to talk, his special arm is wrenched off by Straxus and crushed. You can almost feel Scrounge’s despair at this, and he is dragged off to meet his fate. Whatever information he has learned, he will not live long enough to pass on.

Sadly, there is no preview page in TFUK #66 to tell us about the following issue. We just had to endure an agonising seven day wait for the concluding part. Lew Stringer’s Robo Capers strip again features Transformers – Bumblebee and the embarrassed joke of an Autobot called Push-Along, who transforms into a pram! It follows on from the Optimus Prime “It’s rude to stare at someone when they are changing” strip last issue, that was also rather good.

In part two, the Autobots travel to the Dead End in search of information. Perceptor creates a holographic image of the missing Scrounge, hoping to jog a few decaying memory circuits from the Empties. However, where they are concerned everything has a price. Wheezel (who we met in the first half) hints at information, and beaker of donated fuel seals the deal – along with the threat of violence from Blaster – elicits the sorry news that Scrounge was captured and taken to Darkmount. At this Perceptor orders everyone back to base – the chances of finding Scrounge alive are minimal. Blaster is determined to discover his friend’s fate and goes on alone.

At the rim of the Smelting Pool, he attacks the guards. He’s quickly captured, (as planned) but prevented from being thrown into the pool by Shrapnel, who has spotted another prisoner he can deliver to Straxus. Blaster is marched inside Darkmount where the Decepticons are busy constructing a huge Space Bridge. Straxus is not impressed with Shrapnel for bringing him yet another distraction and threatens the Insecticon with his own dip in the pool if he doesn’t stop wasting time.

Finally, Blaster is thrown into molten pit, echoing the cover of last issue. The incredible heat scolds his metallic skin, but he’s able to climb onto a small ledge. He finds Scrounge barely alive and suddenly one of the gun turrets explodes above, as Powerglide arrives having disobeyed orders. He lowers a cable and as Blaster grabs on, he yanks Scrounge from the pool and is shocked to see his friend already melted from the waist down! Scrounge insists on being left to his fate and wriggles free. Before he sinks, he throws Blaster a recording of the Decepticon transmission (thankfully Blaster is a good catch) and asks that he be remembered as doing something right.

Outside the other Autobots minus Perceptor are involved in their own pitched battles with Decepticons. As they escape in vehicle modes, they are attacked by the Decepticon jets and Insecticons. Once again Blaster shows he’s the man. He rips out huge pipes which suck molten metal from the Smelting Pool and turns the hot jet on the Decepticons.

Back at Autobase, Perceptor plays Scrounge’s recording. Soundwave is heard and video shows the distant planet Earth, rich in resources and ruled by the primitive organic lifeform man. A group of long thought dead Decepticons crash landed here millions of years ago. The recording suggests they are led by Megatron, which wasn’t the case when Soundwave sent the message. And opposed by Optimus Prime (who was a Decepticon captive at the time of sending). That aside, the message is huge for the beleaguered resistance, just to know that the great Optimus lives gives them hope. Blaster hopes that wherever Scrounge is, he knows he did good.

In summary, Blaster’s stock-in-trade rocketed after this incredibly strong debut. He would go on to become one of the most popular Autobots among the readers, even taking up the mantle of letters page answerer in the UK comic towards the end of the run. For a time, it even looked like Blaster could become leader of the Earthbound Autobots in place of Grimlock, though it wasn’t to be. He is one of the characters Bob cared about and wrote brilliantly, bringing him back and again throughout his run on the US book. While Simon Furman used Blaster occasionally in the UK book, there wasn’t the same spark. I guess Furman preferred to cultivate his own favourites (Grimlock, Galvatron, Nightbeat etc).

Should Scrounge have detached his head and thrown that to Blaster, allowing him to survive with message intact? Perhaps. I don’t know that this was ever an option but his death, though tragic, was purposeful and heroic (which is more than most made-for-comics/hi-then-die characters get). Blaster would feel the loss of Scrounge and guilt at not saving him for some time to come.

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