Brothers in Armour!

“See you in the next world” – Lord Zarak, slowly being consumed by Scorponok, realises he must free Galen and the Autobots in order to save Nebulos from destruction.

Brothers in Armour, which I always thought of as a play on the title of the Dire Straits song, is the fourth and final instalment of Headmasters. Even with the frequent art blunders, the series has easily been the best and most original of Marvel’s occasional spin-off titles (the others being the Transformers the Movie adaptation and the very turgid Transformers vs GI Joe). At this point the Autobot Headmasters have been defeated by Scorponok’s Decepticons and things look extremely bleak for the Autobots who remain at large.

The tension in the series is that the good guys can’t seem to get a break. Having fled the neverending war on Cybertron, Fortress Maximum and his fellow refugees arrived on Nebulos where they were shown only fear and hatred – and were even attacked by the pacifist Nebulans. Then, having surrendered their heads as a gesture of peace, Lord Zarak gave away their location to Scorponok, their sworn Decepticon enemy. And just as the Autobots regained the upper hand by becoming Headmasters, Zarak and his followers bonded-up with the Decepticons to inflict a terrible defeat on the Autobots.

It’s just like Bob Budiansky’s stories of the Transformers’ early years on Earth where Shockwave and the Decepticons had overcome the Autobots. A similar situation is occurring on Nebulos and as a reader you have to keep coming back to find out how the heroic forces can possibly recover the situation.

The final instalment opens at the gardens of Melanossus – a place of outstanding natural beauty – now the latest casualty of war. Nothing is sacred for Scorponok and his forces who have invaded paradise to persecute and destroy the remaining Autobot fugitives. We were briefly introduced to the Monsterbots in part one. Now Grotesque, Doublecross and Repugnus get another showing (just as the Technobots and Terrorcons did last issue) as part of the obligatory toy product placement. The trio are the sole survivors and make a strategic retreat. It’s fun to see Doublecross’ two heads arguing about whether they should fight or flee. It’s a shame there isn’t the space to see more of the Monsterbots.

Zarak and his fellow Headmaster Nebulans have become drunk on their new power. With the Decepticons at their side there is no curb on their ambitions. The Nebulan media arrive via some interesting looking hover planes. They invite Zarak to repeat his claims that Galen is a traitor to Nebulos, which Zarak does without hesitation. It should be pretty obvious to right thinking folk that Zarak is equally as guilty of what he accuses Galen of, namely teaming up with robots to acquire power, and clearly Zarak’s victories over the Autobots are having a cataclysmic effect on Nebulan cities (as he speaks Melanossus lies in ruins). Yet nobody seems to be questioning why Zarak is in league with the very Decepticons who were laying siege to Koraja not so long ago. Could it be that everyone is in fear of this new power in the Nebulan government? Echoes of Nazi Germany here.

At the Autobot base camp in the swamps (where even the Decepticons won’t venture) Point Blank appears to have taken a position of leadership. Like Fortress Maximus before him, he’s having to reign in a frustrated Kup. Luckily they have six new Nebulan recruits who are working with them at great personal risk to resist the Decepticons. They have undergone bio-mechanical engineering to become the weapons of Pointblank and five others – becoming the Autobot Targetmasters. We’re introduced to the sextet but sadly Firebolt is referred to as Sparks; another production team mistake?

Hot Rod has detected a distress signal from Earth. It’s one that Goldbug will send in issue 155 and Crosshairs is up for abandoning Nebulos and trying their luck at this new world. Blurr disagrees, reminding colleagues that their brethren are captives of the Decepticons and they can’t leave until Fortress Maximus and the others are rescued. With that, the Targetmasters depart to protect the latest Nebulan sanctuary under threat.

Zarak’s very hard-working ally Vorath (who monitors communications and builds Targetmasters in his spare time!) has also picked up the transmission, so now the Decepticons know of Earth as well. Zarak visits his archenemy Galen, who is held in a state of unconsciousness in some sort of energy vine, only to find his daughter Llyra there. Her ex love Galen is now the most hated being on Nebulos. Zarak has Galen ‘reactivated’ but Llyra storms out rather than stick around and listen to his plea for her understanding.

Galen can see clearly that Zarak is becoming consumed by his own power and will end up tearing apart Nebulos unless he wakes up to what is happening. Zarak refuses to accept this but at the back of his mind he knows Galen speaks the truth.

At The Nursery, a sacred facility that provides Nebulan food and medicine needs, Peacemaker and his fellow Targetmaster Nebulans meet with Selani, one of the facility administrators. The suggestion here is that The Nursery are fearful of being seized by Zarak and the Decepticons. Sure enough, they are soon under attack by Zarak, atop Scorponok, and joined in battle by the Terrorcons. Zarak is pleased to see the Autobots are apparently defenceless and he is in no mood to show mercy – they attack.

In response the six armoured Nebulans transform to the weapons of Blurr, Crosshairs, Hotrod, Kup, Pointblank and Sureshot. They unleash a variable volley of laser fire unlike anything seen before and cut down their Decepticon opponents. However, attacks from the Terrorcons Cutthroat and Hun-grr destroy the Nursery supports and the structure comes crashing down. The Autobots realise that their presence is only exposing the Nursery to more danger and they have no choice but to withdraw. As the adrenaline fades, Zarak begins to realise that Galen was right and he is losing his mind the longer he spends in a mental link with Scorponok.

It’s weird because at this point Scorponok seems to have ceased to be an independent Decepticon. When his head is transformed in Zarak he just stands around like a total non-entity. It’s become the Zarak show and its difficult to see any great advantage from Scorponok’s perspective.

In a matter of days, Vorath has succeeded in duplicating the Autobots’ technological advantage and has created the Decepticon Targetmasters – Slugslinger, Triggerhappy, Misfire, Cyclonus and Scourge. The latter two, Cyclonus and Scourge, would fill numerous columns on the comic’s letters pages with fans wondering how they could possibly be on Nebulos in 1987 when they are not created until 2006. Grimlock (on the Grim Grams page) hints that the answer will be revealed in the next big Transformers story – the 1988 new year opener – whose title is being kept strictly under wraps!

Zarak seems barely interested in the Decepticon Targetmasters (they do seem like an afterthought for the story too in all honestly) and even ignores his daughter Llyra as he brushes past her and into the detention cell for another face-to-face with Galen. Ironically his hated is the only one who understands his dilemma. In a very telling scene Zarak confesses to feeling like he’s been controlled by Scorponok and mentions that he and Galen will meet in the “next world”. Galen naturally takes this as a reference to his receiving the death penalty (again its bizarre that a world at peace for thousands of years has not abolished the practice of capital punishment) but the world Zarak is speaking of is Earth.

He knocks Krunk unconscious and deactivates the field holding Galen and his allies, allowing them to break out and recombine with their Autobot partners. Annoyingly Gort and Stylor have been miscoloured as each other; the level of production team errors in the mini-series is astounding but thank goodness the standard of story makes up for it. The Autobots break-out and are soon engaged in a pitched battle with the Decepticon Targetmasters at the iconic Nebulan globe monument.

The real drama for me is the scene with Llyra questioning how Galen and the Autobots could have escaped and realising that her father must have freed them. But Zarak is losing his mind at this point, mesmerised by the call of battle and soon he is riding atop of Scorponok and joining in. Llyra realises that the Decepticons are destroying the city and at long last the penny drops. Fortress Maximus orders a retreat to avoid Nebulan casualties and they return to the swamp for a reunion with their fellow Autobots. There, Galen informs them that they must leave Nebulos and he is certain that Zarak and the Decepticons will follow; it’s the only way to save the planet.

There’s a very poignant moment where a repentant Llyra arrives and basically tells Galen that if he tells her the truth she will believe him. Finally! Tragically Galen coldly rebuffs her overture and sends her off in tears. She now hates him more than ever. As Galen explains to his followers, if Llyra still loved him he could not leave Nebulos as he must. Galen, heroic to the last, sacrifices his own happiness for patriotism. Soon the Autobot ship Steelhaven is warping away bound for Earth (and a starring role in the main Transformers comic) leaving their dreams of a world where robot and Nebulan can peaceful coexist in tatters. Days later, Zarak and the Decepticons board their own ship and give chase, leaving Llyra and the Nebulan people to rebuild their shattered lives. Wow.

It’s a great end to the series but I must confess to feeling a little cheated for poor old Galen. He really can’t get a break and even when things finally go his way he has to abandon his world to save it. It’s a shame he couldn’t have taken Llyra with him, or maybe reversed the binary bond process and sent the Autobots off without their Nebulans? Perhaps that wasn’t practical. We’ll revisit Nebulos again on a couple of occasions – one in the 1988 story People Power and then two decades later in Simon Furman’s Transformers Regeneration One series – however we aren’t destined to see Llyra again. I hope that in the fullness of time she came to realise the truth about Galen and her father.

In closing, the art blunders aside this is a great story from Bob Budiansky. It must have been challenging to weave an engaging tale while hampered by having to introduce legions of new characters – but it all works. I’ve read that there was some talk at the time of making Headmasters an ongoing series. When you consider that the main comic had to print the UK story Man of Iron to give themselves breathing space to work on Headmasters, I doubt the team could have managed two books every month. Instead the Headmasters and Targetmasters are destined to play a big role in the Earth adventures of the Transformers – a mouth watering prospect.

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Ring of Hate!

Frustrated by the never-ending war on Cybertron, Fortress Maximus and his Autobots leave for a new life on the peaceful world of Nebulos, but their arrival is met with fear and hostility by the native Nebulans.

In September 1987 readers of the Marvel UK Transformers comic were introduced to a new species of Transformer – the Headmasters and Targetmasters. Simon Furman’s two parter, Worlds Apart, whet fans’ collective appetites for these unique new Autobots and Decepticons who are bonded with natives of the planet Nebulos who become their heads and weapons.

Furman’s story in issues #130-131 was a fun throwaway introduction, but the real meat in the sandwich was a four issue mini-series in the United States, written by Bob Budiansky, which established the origin of these new Transformers. That series was serialised in the UK Transformers comic via the back-up strip, so for 16 weeks in late 1987 readers were spoilt rotten with cover to cover Transformers stories.

‘Uncle Bob’ was instrumental in creating and defining the original Transformers characters on behalf of Hasbro in the early eighties. In 1986, as regular writer of the US book, he introduced the dystopian Cybertron where the Decepticons are in control and the heroic Autobots are reduced to scattered pockets of resistance (see the iconic Smelting Pool story). So Bob is the perfect writer to be tasked with mapping out the backstory of the Headmasters and Targetmasters, the Nebulans and a whole host of other characters. It’s a tall order to accomplish that while weaving a coherent story, but Bob does it with aplomb.

The mini-series tackles some big concepts, like love and sacrifice, betrayal, greed, revenge, and how war takes its toll on the characters.

Right off the bat we know we’re on to something interesting, as Scorponok shows what a cruel and sadistic bastard he is by unleashing his scorpion’s sting against an Autobot prisoner who is marching too slowly – possibly executing the poor soul. These survivors are being marched by Scorponok and his henchmen towards a slow and painful death in the Smelting Pool. (Whether this is the Straxus pool or Scorponok has his own, we don’t know).

Salvation arrives in the shape of Autobot leader Fortress Maximus – nemesis of Scorponok – who sets his army against the unsuspecting Decepticons leading to a fierce battle (told over two pages to give it a sense of epic). Fort Max is one-robot engine of destruction laying waste to the enemy while lambasting them as “evil stains” on the world. There’s a nice line from Scorponok of how the cowardice of his men “desecrates the name Decepticon” but their “destruction would serve no purpose” – so he signals a retreat, showing that he is smart enough not to waste resources in what is a long game. The enemy may win a battle but not the war… as the saying goes.

The Autobots return to their base in the Manganese Mountains jubilant. However, Fortress Maximus is no mood to celebrate (and bawls out Kup and Hot Rod for their triumphalism). He is weary of the war and has come to view Autobot and Decepticon as equally culpable in propagating the cycle. Max’s solution is for them to leave the battlefield and he has just the place… the planet Nebulos, a Saturn-like world he has observed for centuries, which has been at peace for thousands of years. With Cybertron passing closing to the Nebulan system, his intention is to leave for an exile on the planet. His followers can come with him or they can stay. Everyone is shocked but gradually the Autobots are convinced by Max’s argument and agree to follow him.
The slightly out of place reference to Optimus Prime (as a previous leader who disappeared and was never seen again) lets us know that Ring of Hate is set before the arrival of the message from Earth during the Smelting Pool story in mid 1986.

The Autobots devote their efforts to the rapid construction of the star ship Steelhaven and, as word spreads, comrades come from far and wide to join the exodus – the Technobots and Monsterbots among them – and soon they are warping away from Cybertron perhaps never to return. Once in orbit of Nebulos, the Autobots waste no time in disembarking. They find the planet to be a lush paradise full of organic life.

Max entrusts Highbrow with a device containing a message for the Nebulan leadership to announce their arrival and peaceful intent. Highbrow quite quickly stumbles across Gort, his youthful future binary bond partner, locked in an embrace with girlfriend Marita. It’s all a bit cringe-worthy as the cerebral Autobot geekily observes that they must have been engaged in data transfer (Bob always does a good job of showing the Transformers as alien and clueless as to the ways of humankind) but Highbrow only succeeds in startling the pair and causing Gort to fall and hurt his head. He departs with an earnest comment about hoping Marita’s companion “can be repaired”.

The plot moves fast, with the planet’s ruling council of peers meeting in the capital Koraja the following day to discuss their response to the Autobot message. When you consider that the Transformers have been on Earth for three years at this point and their presence has never been properly acknowledged by the US government (other than through the Robot Master hoax). Headmasters is already breaking new ground in terms of first contact.

Among the Nebulan senators, Lord Zarak is one of hawks who regards the Autobots’ arrival as the greatest threat to his people and urges them to rearm. Gort’s injuries are cited as evidence of the aliens’ ill-intent, despite Marita’s attempts to interject from the gallery. Galen, leader of the World Watchers, and hated by Zarak, argues that they hold true to their values of peace and understanding and hear the aliens out. So, the Autobots’ emissary Blurr is permitted into the Nebulan capital the following day to deliver his message of peace.

Krunk, acting on orders from Zarak, aims a magnetic polarizer gun at Blurr causing his arm to be drawn to a fountain monument of a Nebulan globe, knocking it from its moorings and sending it into the crowd. Pandemonium breaks out and Blurr is forced to flee from a volley of fire from Zarak’s personal militia. The ambush of Blurr by Zarak’s forces was a spectacular success, proving that luck is on their side and against the Autobots. They could not have known that Blurr would stand at exactly the right distance to the globe or even know that his body would react to magnetism.

This causes a dilemma for the Autobots. If attacked do they fight back? Fortress Maximus is adamant: absolutely not. Little do they realise that Galen has been instructed by the council to unlock the armoury containing the Nebulans long-abandoned machines of war. Galen and Duros are soon leading an armada of war machines against the Autobots. Kup returns fire and is confronted by Max who tells him they will never convince the Nebulans of their peaceful intent if they fight. If Kup wants to battle the Nebulans he’ll have to go through his own leader. He backs down and they flee into the woods and swamp where the cumbersome vehicles cannot pursue.

Kup’s willingness to challenge authority is not a side of him we’ve seen before but it will surface again, much later when they are on Earth and Kup has serious misgivings about Fortress Maximus’ new headmaster partner Spike Witwicky, and later still when Optimus Prime proposes that the Autobots surrender to Scorponok to forge an alliance against Unicron.

It must be something about human nature (admittedly these are Nebulans but they certainly looks and act like Earth people) that a tradition of peace for ten millennia can be so easily cast aside the minute they feel threatened. It’s frankly a miracle that they have had peace for so long, especially considering the suspicious and manipulative ways of some of their number. While the noble Galen fears he may have betrayed his countrymen by acting in such haste, Zarak believes his manipulation of Galen has been necessary to manoeuvre the Nebulan leader into doing the sensible thing.

The Autobots are in a bind. They cannot return to Cybertron and the war, but neither can they risk igniting a new conflict. Fortress Maximus decides to take another of his bold risks. Accompanied by Hardhead, Chromedome, Brainstorm, Highbrow, Hot Rod, Kup, Blurr, Sureshot, Pointblank and Crosshairs, he advances on the Nebulan capital and pleads for peace. Zarak implores Galen to order the attack, and so to prove his good faith, Max offers the most he has to give… his head. In a macabre gesture he removes his head from his shoulders and surrenders it to the Nebulans. Hardhead, Chromedome, Highbrow and Brainstorm do the same. The others were a bit more sensible and merely surrendered their weapons!

Galen comes to his senses and realises that a moment of distrust can destroy 10,000 years of peace. He declares they will work with the Autobots and there will be no war this day. From the look on Zarak’s face its clear that he is not done yet.

The saga continues in the second instalment Broken Glass.

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