The Harder They Die!

Optimus Prime sets foot on Cybertron for the first time in four million years only to discover it reduced to a mechanical wasteland… while Megatron is also ‘home’ – an unwanted guest of the local Decepticons – and hatches a truly diabolical scheme!

The conclusion of the previous issue’s story ‘Prey!’ looked pretty cut and dried: Optimus Prime was at the mercy of the Predacons, who leapt towards him with teeth and claws barred, and the Autobots arrived shortly after to find their leader torn to shreds. However, there was the matter of the secret plot that Shockwave had hatched with Predacon team leader Razorclaw and the mysterious cargo in Prime’s trailer which suggested that perhaps everything was not as it seemed.

Sure enough, issue #98 begins with Optimus walking the desolate landscape of Cybertron – he is finally home after four million years! There are some great, vivid descriptions of the ravaged home-world: once towering cities have been levelled and the sky is polluted by the stench of a thousand battles. Up ahead Prime sees signs of life – a large Decepticon pummelling the mini-Autobot Outback. Prime’s huge figure looms over him – how would he like to take on someone larger?

What I love about the set-up of this issue is that it’s completely unexpected. Readers will have sussed that the robotic body that was destroyed last issue was not the real Prime but that he should suddenly turn up on Cybertron of all places is right out of leftfield. It’s an opportunity for Furman and Senior (the writer and artist) to deliver their own take to US writer Bob Budiansky’s masterpiece Return to Cybertron saga of the previous year and provide a sequel of sorts.

The Decepticon picking on Outback is not of the toy range, thus we can already guess at his fate, but looks the business with a head shaped like a paratrooper’s helmet and is wearing his insignia on his head module, Straxus-style (that shows a certain admirable commitment to the cause). He mocks Prime’s threat, in his experience, “the bigger they are”…. “THE HARDER THEY DIE” insists Prime!

He lifts the Decepticon off the ground by the throat, educating him on the number of comrades he’s seen fall in battle, while he has consistently cheated death due to some warped good fortune. The Decepticon seems unimpressed and unleashes a surprise eye-blast to the face… which looks pretty darn cool. Prime is temporarily blinded and throws his opponent as far as he can before falling in pain. The enemy has grown powerful in his long absence and expecting the Decepticon to finish him off at any moment, he thinks his luck has finally run out!!!

The expected onslaught never comes. It turns out that Prime’s throw had resulted in the Decepticon becoming impaled on a huge spike! The curse of the non-toy range robots strikes again! Outback is shocked to learn that this is none other than the great Optimus Prime, believing him to be long dead. Prime’s thoughts turn to the situation on Earth where he imagines his followers discovered the body parts of the facsimile construct ‘fake Prime’ which Wheeljack built so that Optimus could fake his death and now believe their leader to be dead. Prime had wanted to see how they coped without him and will now get the chance.

Prime bids Outback farewell, there are things he must do alone – but as he departs Outback transforms and follows (into a nifty Cybertronian hover car I might add). We now check in on Megatron, who is also on Cybertron, inside a Decepticon stronghold in Polyhex, which may or may not be Castle Darkmount. Megatron surveys the destruction which stretches as far as he can see and finds it be magnificent! Decepticon standards have not slackened in his absence, but an italicised voice off panel sounds less than happy with his presence. It notes that Megatron has brought with him trouble – the last thing the Cybertron Decepticons need is for the demoralised Autobot resistance to be galvanised by Optimus Prime.

Megatron erupts in a rage, recalling for the benefit of the reader how Rampage and Razorclaw had leapt clear of Optimus Prime and the Predacons had attacked Megatron himself, fleeing with his fusion canon! The situation smacked of a ‘Shockwave set-up’ he works out astutely: he’d been left to face Optimus Prime alone, though not unarmed it turns out, as Megatron carries a spare gun. He found ‘Prime’ propped up against his trailer and blew him to pieces… only to discover that it was a fake and he was rugby tackled from behind by the real Optimus. Megatron, being throttled, had summonsed the Space Bridge and Optimus hurled the two of them into it before it had fully materialised, hoping to carry Megatron to his death. Instead the pair had survived intact, but on the other side of the galaxy.

Now we see Megatron’s tormentor… it’s none other than the salvaged head of Polyhex’s ruler Lord Straxus, who eerily floats in green liquid. He has been confined to a life support bubble after the events of issue #69 and having made such a great first impression in the aforementioned Return to Cybertron saga, his return is a real treat for the readers. It’s another unexpected twist in a short 11-page story that is blessed with them. And Megatron has wasted no time in making himself at home. Having procured a new fusion canon, he’s passed word through to the Decepticon informers that a spy designed to resemble Optimus Prime will try and infiltrate the Autobot resistance. He feels sure that when the Autobots learn of this they will kill Optimus Prime for him! Despite being unhinged of late, Megatron shows he has lost none of his cunning.

Meanwhile, Prime stands high above Iacon, the once great capital of Cybertron – it too has been turned into a barren wasteland, can any Autobots still inhabit this place? Suddenly he is whacked in the face by the hammer arm belonging to Rack ‘n’ Ruin, one of the Wreckers. And a huge Guardian unit (a much stronger version than we have seen before) pummels Prime’s face into the ground. He blacks out and when he comes to, he finds himself a prisoner of the Wreckers and Ultra Magnus: without a trial he has been found guilty of impersonating the Autobots’ greatest leader… and the sentence is death!

In summary, what a cracking story! It’s class from beginning to end. The twist of Prime and Megatron’s return to Cybertron is not one I saw coming, and the encounter with the Deception – his cool eye blasts and the gruesome way Prime dispatches him – was hugely enjoyable. Outback was a recent edition to the Hasbro toy line up and it was nice to see him make a cameo here. The best bit for me though, is probably the clash of the two great egotists, Megatron and Straxus. The latter doesn’t appreciate his unwanted guest one little bit and Megatron makes no attempt to endear himself, but for now Straxus is not in much of a position to do anything about it. By the end it looks like Megatron’s ruse has worked a treat: Magnus and the Wreckers are ready to pass a death sentence on Optimus without even interrogating him to see what he has to say for himself.

It’s worth noting that while this is essentially a two-part story, the next instalment appears under a different title. This is unusual for the comic. It also comes with a Galvatron sticker badge on the cover.

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Prey!

Optimus Prime plans to test his followers by faking his death. Trouble is, with the Decepticons’ deadly cadre of hunters – the Predacons – on his trail, his demise may become a reality!

1986 ended on a real high note with the awe-inspiring Transformers the Movie and its comic tie-in Target: 2006. Entering the new year there was the question of ‘what next?’ and could the Marvel UK team raise the bar any higher? The immediate big event on the horizon was the comic’s ‘incredible 100th issue’ and looking back across the decades, I remember that felt like a huge milestone. It was a fantastic achievement for this title based on a toy line to reach triple figures and a sure sign of how successful the comic had grown. On the Transformation page we learn that its even selling in the United States and Australia at that point – a global phenomenon in the making! There’s a nod to Australia in the Robo Capers strip for #96 which is fitting in the circumstances.

But the countdown to that milestone begins with Prey, a Simon Furman two-parter published in the pages of Transformers #96 and #97. Once again Optimus Prime is the lead character, which is always good but especially more so since his enforced absence of some 11 issues during Target: 2006. The story also provides the UK debut of the Predacons, ahead of their US appearance no less. Although the elite hunting cadre were never released as toys in the UK, a kid at school had discovered a leaflet showing Hasbro’s extended toy range in his Transformers toy box. This is how I got my first glimpse of this exciting team of wild beasts who combine.

Jeff Anderson’s cover depicts the encounter between Prime and the Predacons. The Autobot leader is flat on his front, and a tortoise-like foot stomps his laser rifle. I’m thinking this foot belongs to Headstrong. ‘Prime’s the prey… and he hasn’t got a prayer!’ is the teaser/catch line. Jeff will be unleashed on the main strip in the second part but the first instalment we’re in the hands of Will Simpson, one of my favourites.

Will creates a striking opening page. Prime is safe within the Ark, but he looks poised for battle, like he’s under immediate threat. The source of his anxiety is giant screens showing recent events: the Decepticon Space Bridge delivering enemy reinforcements and Scourge’s ninja-like attack on the Autobots at the steel refinery.

The Space Bridge features prominently in the Sun Bow cartoon series as a means of travel between Earth and Cybertron. US writer Bob Budiansky is widely thought to have introduced it into the Transformers comic as a convenient way to be able to bring in the new toy releases that he was under constant pressure to showcase. But the issue of this being a massive, massive threat to the Autobots has never really been addressed until now. It stands to reason though that this is a major gamechanger in the war on Earth, as for the first time the Decepticons have access to unlimited reinforcements. Prime realises that it must either be captured (unwise as the enemy would not rest until it repossessed it) or destroyed.

So far so good, but then Prime’s thoughts take a sharp turn down a slightly odd tangent. He’s always been willing to sacrifice his life for the Autobot cause without hesitation but having seen how poorly his followers coped without him (during his spell in the Limbo dimension during Target: 2006) he worries that things could fall apart without him. So, he begins to formulate a plan to remove himself from the picture, to test his followers and allow him to work on the destruction of the Space Bridge. Why do I say the plan is ‘slightly odd’? Well, it’s a distraction from the main objective of destroying the bridge for a start; and rather pointless as he’s already seen how crappy an outfit the Autobots were without him. Would it not be better to strengthen the command structure, training and building confidence and resilience? No. Instead Optimus hatches a plan to fake his own death with help from Wheeljack who he instructs to work on a secret project for him.

At the Decepticon base Megatron’s obsession with his Autobot opposite number continues to grow. A flippant comment from Motormaster sends him into a rage – only he, Megatron, can defeat Optimus Prime – no-one else! Motormaster cowers in fear as Megatron just misses him with a giant boulder. We don’t know what the Stunticon leader said exactly but it’s not beyond the realms of fantasy that, as the two share an alt-mode, he sees Optimus as a personal rival.

Simpson draws Megatron with a trigger waist like his toy, while his Motormaster has a ‘regular head’ rather than the boxed-in look of his toy and previous depictions in the comic. This Motormaster looks better.

Soundwave watches Megatron’s paranoia with interest. With the leader’s mental state rapidly deteriorating, Soundwave knows that his best interests are served by helping Shockwave to re-take command. He plants a seed about flushing Prime into the open using a specialised team of hunters… Megatron takes the bait – the Predacons still exist on Cybertron and would be perfect for the job. He orders Soundwave to summon them. Meanwhile Shockwave is monitoring the conversation from within a nearby cave. His plan is going perfectly, soon he will manoeuvre Prime and Megatron into a situation where the only winner is Shockwave!

Shockwave alludes to a different side of Prime that he witnessed in the Limbo dimension. And the editorial footnote drops a major revelation: we will see this story in the landmark issue 100! The suggestion is that Megatron would come off worse in a straight fight, yet in issue 100 we don’t see a fighting mad Prime but an intelligent one who knows when and when not to fight. You could easily favour Megatron because he is not handicapped by Prime’s compassion for other beings, so Shockwave’s logic is not clear.

A week later at the Ark, Prime is ready to put his own plan into action. His fellow Autobots are aghast to learn that their leader plans to embark on an unimportant reconnaissance mission to the Decepticons base, alone! Let’s not forget that the enemy base is in another State – it’s a fair distance away if he gets into trouble. Prime is too important to risk, surely one of them should go in his place. Prime is saddened to hear his warriors speak so, but it only strengthens his resolve to proceed and he assures them that he’ll alert Wheeljack (who stands close-by looking decidedly uncomfortable) if he runs into trouble.

After ordering them to return to their duties, Prime has a final chat with Wheeljack. They load a mysterious cargo into Prime’s trailer and Optimus tells Wheeljack that he is relying on him to sound the alarm in two hours. That should give him enough time to fake his death!

While over at the Decepticon base, Megatron has found a practical use for Motormaster – target practice for the newly arrived Predacons! Their hunting skills are still as exceptional Megatron remembers, and he is satisfied. And after Soundwave announces Optimus Prime’s is ‘heading this way’ (surely on an interstate trip he could detour in any number of directions) the hunt is about to begin! Shockwave has a quick word with team leader Razorclaw, serve him well and the Predacons have a glorious place in the new Decepticon hierarchy!

Nearby, Prime’s uneventful ride through the peaceful Wyoming countryside takes an unexpected twist when the road ahead explodes leaving to revert to robot mode. He is momentarily stunned and reaches for his gun, just as it is crushed by a giant foot before he can grasp it! Prime looks up to find himself at the mercy of Megatron and the Predacons in animal mode. It’s quite a cliff-hanger!

And so, we’re on to part 2 – announced via a Geoff Senior cover as ‘Terror of the Predacons’. In addition to the wild animals there’s a proverbial elephant in the room in the shape of the comic’s 2p price rise. To their credit the team do not duck the issue – its announced in the Transformation page as due to ‘increased production costs’ and is the first rise in 70 issues. It’s interesting that they mention ‘unless you’re reading this in the shop’ as its likely that a few kids will have arrived at the shop with the exact pocket money and found themselves short. Clearly the team were concerned about this. To be fair, I would have been similarly caught out but for some reason on that day, my dad was going to the shop and offered to collect my issue. I remember it well as I worried, he might have come back with the wrong edition!

The second instalment begins with Prime in a tricky spot. He’s alone, unarmed, with no means of calling for help (no internal radio?) and being hunted by the deadly Predacons! The feline forms of Rampage and Razorclaw spring from nowhere and leap – with fangs and teeth bared! Prime punches out Rampage but takes a scratch across the torso from Razorclaw, before dodging a blast and landing on the Predacon leader. Tantrum’s charging bull mode is easily evaded by Prime, who simply transforms and drives away (one of my favourite moments in the story) but up ahead is ‘rhino’ Headstrong coming straight for him and Divebomb circling above in eagle mode! At the last moment Prime transforms to robot mode, launches at Divebomb leaving Tantrum and Headstrong to collide. After raining a few blows on Divebomb Prime lands and sets off again.

A flashback reveals that Prime had been given a sporting 10-minute head start to make the hunt interesting. Readers are reminded of Prime’s plan to fake his death and that Wheeljack is not due to raise the alarm for another 20 minutes. By then it could be too late! Suddenly his daydream is cut short by a huge boulder propelled in his direction by the Predacon-combined form, Predaking! Optimus had not realised that the Predacons were combiners and now things are even worse!

He heads for his trailer and runs into Megatron. A blast from his Fusion Canon impacts the trailer and causes Prime to feel the pain. Injury to either part (or roller) is felt by the whole. When you think about it, this is a significant weakness that the Decepticons rarely exploit.

Finally, Prime is at the mercy of his enemy, but the Razorclaw whispers to the team that it’s ‘now or never’ if they are to carry out Shockwave’s plan. The last sight is of the Predacons diving at Prime with claws bared… before the Autobots arrive shortly afterwards and discover a scene of complete and utter devastation – they’ve found what’s left of Optimus Prime, and he’s been to pieces!

As endings go, this is as shocking as they come. Prime’s death looks very cut and dried but there are the clues that nothing is what it seems. For starters we have the mysterious cargo in the trailer, a robot by the looks of it, and one with the same feet as Optimus. Then there is the Predacons about to defy Megatron’s orders, suggesting that their disposing of Prime may not have happened. And so, we’re on to issue #98 ‘The Harder They Die’ – another hugely enjoyable, surprise-filled 11 pages from the Furman/Senior dream team.

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