Totalled

The long awaited grudge match between Blaster and Grimlock takes place, with the leadership of the Autobots in the balance, as the Decepticons prepare an ambush

There are a few things you should never do to your loyal fanbase and one of them is keep them waiting too long for a conclusion.

In Transformers #144, published in the UK at Christmas 1987, the fugitive Blaster surrendered to his increasingly despotic commander Grimlock, to spare the lives of Sky-Lynx and the Space Hiker children. It was the sort of courageous, self-sacrificing act that we’d come to expect from this big-hearted fan favourite (a red shouldered robot in the Optimus Prime mould if ever there was one).

Readers were desperate for answers to their questions: How would Grimlock exact his revenge? Might the Autobots find a spine and rise-up against his tyranny at long last? Could Blaster be installed as Autobot Commander in Grimlock’s place (something I doubt this reader was alone in wanting to see).

Instead, we had to wait seven long months – until well into the summer of 1988 – for the continuation. The delay was made bearable by some great stories along the way like Legacy of Unicron, Trial by Fire, City of Fear, etc, but even so.

That long awaited sequel, Totalled, by Bob Budiansky was finally published in the pages of UK Transformers #174 and 175. Is it worth the wait? You betcha!

Not only do we get Blaster and Grimlock settling their differences mano-a-mano, but the crew of the Steelhaven are in the mix, the old guard meeting the new for the first time, and a massive ensemble cast on – of all places the Moon – including original characters we haven’t seen in a long while.

The scenes of the Steelhaven and Ark crews strolling onto the lunar surface are a visual representation of how the sheer number of characters, and therefore the commercial success of Transformers by this point in the run (mid 1988) which was still the highpoint for the franchise.

Budiansky’s Grimlock, reintroduced after a several months’ hiatus, is still a massive ass and lacking the depths or intelligence that Simon Furman imbues his version with. The Dinobots of the US comics appear to be modelled on the Sunbow cartoons, which to be fare were probably better known by many of the readers – outside of the diehard collectors that is.

The cover for #174 contrasts the old and new. Grimlock’s representing the originals, meets his first Headmaster, and on learning that a human (Spike Witwicky) controls Fortress Maximus, exclaims that it’s a “revoltin’ development!”. Perhaps there are a few purists who may agree with the sentiment to a greater or lesser extent.

The story title, Totalled, suggests something or something is about to be destroyed; I’m not clear what, but I think it probably refers to the devastating Decepticon attack against the Autobot forces, who are caught unawares, or perhaps it’s a reference to Optimus Prime getting blown to bits (again) on the opening page.

Jose Delbo does a good homage to the Don Perlin’s iconic exploding Prime from the 1987 shocker Afterdeath. This time though, it’s not the real Optimus being exploded but a new body built for him by Brainstorm and Highbrow. Either the pair are extremely negligent in their wiring, or somehow attempting to transfer the consciousness of Optimus Prime from a floppy disk has caused a catastrophic feedback loop. The problem is unclear; however, it makes for an attention-grabbing opening page and provides the catalyst for Steelhaven to seek out the Ark; put simply they’ve run out of resources to rebuild the former Autobot leader and they need help.

It’s worth noting Goldbug’s discomfort as he’s told the ‘good news’ that they’ve located the Ark space cruising nearby and are on course to meet them. Whilst Goldbug has fitted in nicely with his new shipmates, he hasn’t entrusted them enough to explain that he and Blaster were deserters from Grimlock’s army. Perhaps he fears that this would be seen as a major black mark.

Aboard the Ark, we are reminded why Grimlock is so loathsome. He’s in his dinosaur mode lounging on a throne, being fed oil, and still wearing that stupid crown (a symbol of hubris if ever there was). Ratchet pleads with Grimlock to return the Ark to Earth where humanity will be at the mercy of the Decepticons. Considering their back-history and the Dinobots would still be in a tar swamp if not for the medic, there is no quarter given.

When Snarl informs Grimlock of the contact from Steelhaven, Grimlock immediately reacts like a territorial animal in the presence of a rival. He will see them, but if there is any suggestion of who’s in charge, it’s going to be him!

Given Grimlock’s paranoia it’s no surprise the meeting does not go well. The towering figure of Fortress Maximus ought to cut an imposing figure, but Grimlock is not impressed, particularly at the suggestion the two crews could work together to rebuild Optimus Prime. Labelling Prime “a peace-loving coward,” and assaulting poor Doc Ratchet for good measure (not for the first time in fact, see the 1985 classic The Wrath of Grimlock) and dismissing humans as “worthless”, Grimlock is horrified when Fortress Maximus’ heads transforms to Cerebros and then to Spike Witwicky. Things have moved on and Grimlock has been left feeling like, well, a dinosaur!

The discovery that the fugitive Goldbug is being harboured aboard the Steelhaven is the final straw and Grimlock challenges Fort Max to a duel to determine who should lead. Max ought to be able to take Grimlock given he two to three times larger, but we’re told he’s still recovering from the injuries he sustained in his assault against the Decepticon base (in The Desert Island of Space). You might wonder why Max, as a robot, is not immediately recovered once his parts are repaired or replaced – much as F1 car, speeds out the pits with a new nose – this is not a human body that takes time to recover. Nevertheless, the threat is that Max will lose unless somebody fights for him…

Goldbug, having surrendered in a futile attempt to bring about harmony between the two Autobot crews, is unceremoniously dumped in the brig where he finds his old buddy Blaster attached to a torture device. If the seven months interim between Space Hikers and now has been tough on the fans, it’s been worse for Blaster, hooked up to the VVH and he’s now reduced to wallowing in self-pity.

Blaster gives a useful recap on what happened to him since he parted company with Goldbug, including that the Autobots had begged him to save them from Grimlock. However, since surrendering to protect his human friends, nobody intervened to prevent him being treated as a prisoner; the status quo of Grimlock’s rule continues. Goldbug suggests that Blaster could fight in Max’s place, and take his revenge on Grimlock, and so the stage is set.

Every great gladiatorial match needs a suitable arena and Bob’s fertile mind has dreamed up the perfect location – a large Moon crater. The stakes of a duel have not been so high since Prime fought a power enhanced Megatron in the cartoon classic Heavy Metal Wars. Meanwhile, Ratbat’s Decepticons (including Soundwave drawn with a mouth in place of his usual plate – argh) are poised to launch a surprise attack on the unsuspecting Autobots. How wonderfully “energy efficient” as Ratbat puts it, once a bean counter always a bean counter.

I’m reminded of a pub fight where one fighter asks a pal to hold their coat; in this case Grimlock hands his crown to Snarl, promising that it will be a quick battle. Blaster meanwhile has been reunited with his beloved Electro Scrambler gun – there’s probably nobody outside of the Dinobots who is rooting for a Grimlock win.

Omega Supreme (who seems smaller every time we see him) is referee. Let’s not forget he was originally a towering giant who bested Megatron and several of his henchmen and is now reduced to taking orders from Grimlock the tyrant. Strange. However, part one concludes in epic style with the battle getting underway and the Decepticons waiting in the wings. Fantastic stuff.

On the Transformations page for UK #174 there’s a reference to ‘Dragon’s Teeth’ – an awesome new sci-fi comic from Furman and Senior for Marvel UK set on Earth of 8162. There’s been quite a bit of build-up and now suddenly we’re told that the title has been renamed ‘Dragon’s Claws’ due to a licensing matter (a bit of googling reveals that Marvel discovered the title was already in use elsewhere – I’ve no idea how many copies of Dragons Teeth #1 had been printed or whether they were pulped). The Claws turned out to be a fun ride, with a cameo from our very own Death’s Head to boot, and one I’ll hopefully get around to reviewing in time.

The return of Sunstreaker warrants a mention as a selling point for the issue. In Streaker’s case he’s been inoperative since The Last Stand in UK #8 and last seen on Ratchet’s operating table in the Constructicon debut story, three years earlier. Now, finally he’s back in the land of the living, along with Prowl, Cliffjumper and others.

In part two, the battle begins in earnest. Grimlock, sword drawn, immediately advances with a huge slice, while Blaster displays incredible agility by ducking and diving, and disorientating Grimlock with an Electro Scrambler blast, before booting him away. Grimlock transforms into T-Rex-mode as he lands and latches his jaws on Blaster’s arm. The assembled Autobots watch in horror. Beachcomber, ever the pacifist bemoans all the violence.

Then, right on cue, the Decepticon rocket base arrives in low orbit and blasts the Autobot spectators. The advantage secured, Ratbat orders Onslaught to the troops outside and to engage the remaining Autobots in hand-to-hand combat.

During what must be described as a spectacular lunar battle (a Transformers fanboy’s dream) in which Soundwave even (near) recites his tech-specs motto of cries and screams being music to his ears, the Constructicons perform a raid on the Ark and recover the neatly packed and stored bodies of the Decepticons put out of commission by Omega Supreme in his 1986 debut story Command Performances.

Ratbat watches the carnage unfold with growing delight, while we’re reminded that Buster Witwicky is still their prisoner and indulged with a ringside seat.

During the battle, Fortress Maximus makes a strategic and fateful decision to dispatch Goldbug back to Steelhaven and order its skeleton crew of Slapdash, Joyride and Getaway (a trio we’re now familiar as Autobot ‘Powermasters’ from the latest Hasbro toy adverts) to depart immediately with the Optimus Prime disk.

All of this seems to have miraculously escaped the attention of Grimlock and Blaster (a situation parodied on the cover of UK #175) while the battle on the Moon’s dark side. Finally, explosions catch Blaster’s attention. He suggests a truce while they investigate. Grimlock on seeing Steelhaven blasting away, suspects treachery from Fort Max (or ‘Fullstrength Motleypuss’ as he nicknames him – in fact Grimlock has a few amusing names for Max this story) but Blaster convinces him that a full scale Decepticon attack is clearly underway and what’s more is their fault for causing the distraction that gave the enemy its opportunity.

Grimlock, rather uncharacteristically offers Blaster a draw, which is gratefully accepted, and the pair fight side by side and begin to turn the tide of battle. This is all fantastic punch the air stuff of course, but difficult to believe that two Autobots, even ones as powerful as Grimlock and Blaster can make all the difference.

Even more unlikely, is that the duo can disable the Decepticon ship with an Scrambler blast and well-placed impact from Grimlock’s sword. The ship begins to shake violently due to circuit overload and Ratbat orders a swift retreat.

There are some tough lessons to learn and clearly the two Autobot crews will need to work together to restore their injured and rebuild their ships. Grimlock requests the help of Max in this endeavour, only to be told that Steelhaven has set a course for Nebulos: the one place in the universe where they can reconstruct the great leader, they now need more than ever – Optimus Prime.

Some points in closing, 1) the lunar battle seems on the face of it like a desperate mismatch in the Autobots favour, as we not only have the full count of regular Autobots but the super-enhanced Pretenders/Head/Target Masters, Fortress Maximus himself and Omega Supreme, versus the regular compliment of the erstwhile Earth-bound Decepticons. Their surprise attack using the firepower of their base for the opening salvo was a tactical masterstroke.

2) Some minor editing was required for the UK version of the story. As the Constructicons retrieve the Decepticon POWs, Starscream, Thundercracker, and Frenzy have already been freed during Target 2006, while Skywarp was blown to bits in the same story, so for the UK edition the names on the caskets have been altered to Buzzsaw and Rumble, the only two left unaccounted for. That’s a lot of trouble to go to for just two minor Decepticon warriors, you might think.

3) The story draws a line under the entertaining Blaster and Goldbug deserters story arc, and the disastrous first phase of Grimlock leadership (he will of course get another chance in 1991 following another of Prime’s demises).

4) Many fans struggle to reconcile why the Autobots are so timid in standing up against Grimlock’s tyranny; even in the face of his abandoning of the Earth and torture of Blaster, they do nothing. One theory is that the Autobots are an incredibly honourable race, and obliged to obey the recognised Autobot leader, which may explain why Blaster and Goldbug’s desertion was so frowned upon.

5) While it’s nice to see so many original characters reappear, there are a couple of errors. Skids is pencilled in the background, when in fact he’s meant to be in Limbo dimension, having been displaced there by Galvatron (though not in the US continuity of course) and in Blaster’s flashback, an Autobot that looks suspiciously like Override is among the Ark crew; when he should of course be on Steelhaven. Given the sheer number of characters in this story its to be expected that there will be some mistakes, and ultimately forgivable… though Soundwave drawn with a mouth does stretch my tolerance.

Overall, Totalled is a fantastic standout story in the Marvel Transformers original run, and one I always enjoy coming back to. It sets the scene nicely for the big event of 1988, the return of Optimus Prime.

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Desert Island of Space

Spike’s first mission as Fortress Maximus and Autobot leader may be his last as he gives way to emotion in a desperate bid to rescue his brother from Decepticon clutches…

Our second Transformers story of 1988 from the Marvel US team of Bob Budiansky, Jose Delbo and co and its one of my favourites.

After the hugely enjoyable Headmasters mini-series, which spanned 16 weeks of the Marvel UK comic in the back-up strip spot, readers were left thirsting for more of the adventures of this great new cast of Autobots, Decepticons and their Nebulan companions. In Trial by Fire the Headmasters returned, this time in the main story, and sadly it was to prove the final curtain for Galen Kord, a central figure in the Headmasters saga, but who died passing the helmet of Fortress Maximus to Spike Witwicky. As mentioned in the last review this was inevitable if the comic was to keep in step with the Hasbro toy line which has Spike as Fort Max’s partner.

No sooner had Galen succumbed to his injuries, and a volcano’s blast, Spike was anointed by the other Autobots as his successor. Essentially, we’ve got a young man who’s straight out of college, who’s an alien to the Nebulans and Autobots, and has no military experience or credentials other than he made a promise to Galen and enjoyed one successful rout of Scorponok’s Decepticons. To say he’s a risky choice is probably an understatement.

Added to this, Spike’s judgement – and by extension Fort Max’s – is clouded by the emotional pressure he’s under to try to rescue his brother Buster from Decepticon captivity. It’s a perfect storm which comes to a head in Desert of Island of Space, where the Targetmasters take their turn in the spotlight and Kup provides the mouthpiece for all those pent-up doubts about their new ‘leader’.

It’s also a pivotal story in that it removes the Earthbound Decepticons from the stage (temporarily) to clear the way for Scorponok’s group to fill the gap, and the unlikely ascendancy of Ratbat – a subplot for several US stories now – comes to fruition as he successfully sees off Shockwave for the Decepticon leadership.

Dan Reed provides the cover for issue 158, which depicts ‘The Hostage’ aka Buster Witwicky on Shockwave’s palm as seen through the binoculars of the US Navy. The Transformation page also trumpets a four-page mini comic about The Visionaries, who are due to get their own Marvel UK monthly comic and talks up the ‘bizarre and exciting’ new Transformers that are on their way… the Pretenders.

The action begins with Buster coming-to on the shore of an island off the Florida Keys, which we know to be masking the current Decepticon undersea base. For someone who was once pursued, terrified to near death by Shockwave, the site of the cold and imposing Decepticon leader, plus Ratbat, doesn’t seem to faze him. Quite chipper, Buster asks whether he might be provided with breakfast – at which Ratbat catches a raw fish (what a skinflint) and Shockwave proves the more generous by firing a nifty laser beam from his eye to fry several fish. True to form, Ratbat complains of the waste of energy resources! LOL

Why are they keeping Buster alive? The answer is the naval armada that has gathered on the horizon, thanks to Triple I tracking the recent Decepticon raids back to their source. Head of the organisation Forest Forsythe is aboard the flagship and welcomes back Walter Barnett, who by rights should be in the firing line for stealing the Throttlebots’ brain modules prior to their execution (see the story Toy Soldiers). Lucky for him, Forsythe had a close run-in with Ratbat and the Predacons that persuaded him that there might indeed be two warring factions of Transformers.

Walter has brought along five Throttlebot brains inside toy cars (minus Goldbug of course, who has since been crushed by Ratbat and recovered by the Autobot Headmasters) and spots Buster through binoculars. This complicates things as it means the navy can’t attack while there’s a human hostage.

Bob seems to be having a moment and forgets how many Throttlebots there are. Seven are mentioned and then later in the issue Hot Rod’s Nebulan companion is mis-labelled as Sparks rather than his actual name Firebolt. This requires a bit of editing for the UK edition, some Tippex and overlay text.

Slightly silly is Sparkplug not noticing that Spike has majorly bulked up in the couple of days he was away. In fact he’s wearing a suit of Autobot armour under a baggy overcoat which ought to have raised a question mark with his dad. Perhaps it was because Spike is visiting his dad’s motel room at 5.36am and Sparkplug is a bit sleepy? Barnett calls to say that Buster has been located but he’s not at liberty to divulge the location. Spike holds the wire and ‘traces the call’, one of his many new abilities since binary bonding to Fortress Maximus.

This rather gives the game away so Spike leads his dad outside and introduces him to Fortress Maximus and Cerebros, demonstrating that he can now transform and combine with the pair of them (you can only imagine how Sparkplug must be feeling about this, having sought to keep his other son away from the Transformers war, now here’s his eldest becoming intimately involved). Spike reassures that this is the best way of rescuing Buster and goes on to introduce the six Targetmasters emerging from the bushes, and their Nebulan partners.

As mentioned, the Autobots had taken quite a chance on bonding the inexperienced, alien Spike with their leader, and it would be quite understandable for this to have thrown up some concerns in the camp. These misgivings are voiced by Kup, in private to his Targetmaster colleagues, that Spike is ‘too emotional’ and will lead them to the junkyard if they let him! He’s at least consistent, as he’ll be on the verge of leading a mutiny against Optimus Prime in the run up to the Unicron war.

I very much enjoy the humorous moment where Forsythe, on being prevented from blasting the approaching Autobot shuttle by Rollbar who protests that it’s their comrades coming to help, complains that he cannot believe that he is expected to take orders from a “*$@# toy”! (he he).

Issue 159’s cover, dated 2nd April 1988, depicts Fortress Maximus harpooned in space and Shockwave closing in. For reasons I could never fathom his robot mode remains uncoloured. An oversight? The story opens with the Targetmasters storming the beach WW2 style, as Kup restrains the eager Fortress Maximus to hang back and provide covering fire in his battle station mode, lest his feelings get in the way.

Spike at this point feels too much like the new boy to argue, but it’s a mistake as the Targetmasters quickly come under heavy attack by an array of automated weaponry that emerges from below ground. They are repelled just as glass encases the island and the bases transforms into a rocket which starts blasting off.

Fortress Maximus, motivated by Spike’s strong desire to rescue Buster, launches himself at the rocket and clings on as it blasts into Earth orbit. Kup’s concerns appear to have come to pass, but was this foolishness or guts?

Inside the craft Ratbat continues to goad the rather patient Shockwave in the manner of a nagging spouse, pointing out that Max had tagged along and risks dragging them down (surely, he’s not that heavy in context of a huge rocket?). Shockwave clearly feels he has something to prove to Ratbat, this representative of the Cybertron Decepticon leadership, and activates the ship’s external defences – a huge pitch fork WTAF? It’s followed by a harpoon fired from a palm tree in the island section that spears the Autobot leader through the chest. Fortress Maximus’ new and improved body is incapacitated but he can still transform to Cerebros and continue his advance.

So, Shockwave ‘takes matters into his own hands’ heading outside in space gun mode to put Cerebros out of commission. Spike ejects and transforms, again demonstrating solid tactics or perhaps a lucky streak by commanding Fortress Maximus’ guns to blast Shockwave, sending him into Earth’s gravitational pull and sending him into sky fall, with Ratbat smugly welcoming the leader’s demise and seeing this as his chance to seize his chance to take command of the Decepticons.

Spike and Buster come face to face on opposite sides of the island dome. The big brother vows to find a way of freeing his sibling, just as Decepticon craft accelerates away. Spike is stranded in space but not for long as the Autobot shuttle shortly arrives and collects him. On board he’s gutted about the loss of Buster and shamed by the damaged to Fortress Maximus. However, Kup now sees things differently. He realises that he should have had more faith in Spike who has shown himself to be a true hero and worthy of the Autobot name.

In closing, the harpoon and pitchfork are a bit camp and gimmicky, typical Bob Budiansky lighter moments, but it all helps to make the story enjoyable and Spike’s heroism and the loss of his brother at the end are genuinely touching.

Clearly, Shockwave is meant to be written of the US storyline at this point and he’ll be gone for two years or so before turning up off the coast of Blackpool falling his planet fall. However, Simon Furman is not done with the character and intends to use him going forwards, starting in the very next issue. For this reason, Shockwave’s commentary in UK version of the story has been changed to ‘logical that I fall to Earth’ rather than burning up. Of course, this means his later appearance at Blackpool will be somewhat awkward and not satisfactorily explained.

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Trial by Fire!

Joy of joy, the Headmasters arrive on Earth but it’s a bittersweet moment as tragedy strikes… and Spike Witwicky makes his comic breakthrough.

In the 1980s, Transformers fans were mostly divided between those who celebrated the Sunbow cartoons and considered them canon, and that other more sophisticated bunch (at least we thought so) who worshipped at the altar of the comics. As much as I enjoyed the cartoon, I was firmly in the latter camp.

The cartoon had its classics – Heavy Metal War and War Dawn being two – but a lot of it was light entertainment. Whereas the comic seemed to set the bar consistently higher, with sublime stories like Target 2006 and The Smelting Pool (admittedly there was the odd dodgy number, like Car Wash of Doom).

The Marvel UK letters pages, hosted by Soundwave and then Grimlock, enjoyed taking a poke at the cartoons and insisting that the comic had the greater claim to being considered canon. It dismissed Spike Witwicky as a figment of the cartoon’s imagination, at best their version of our own Buster Witwicky.

So, as UK issue 156 rolls around in March 1988, the editorial team finds themselves eating humble pie, forced to acknowledge that Spike not only exists within the comic universe but that he’s about to play a major role from here onwards.

The game changer here is (as always) Hasbro, omnipresent owner of the Transformers brand. They’ve released a Fortress Maximus toy that has Spike as its Headmaster partner, so of course that means Spike must now appear in the comic.

The trouble is that, in the 3-4 years since we met the Witwickys, Spike has never been mentioned once. So what to do? Writer Bob Budiansky comes up with the explanation that Spike is Buster’s older brother and he has been at college these past four years. In that time nobody thought to tell him of the family’s close involvement in the Transformers war. That’s pretty lame but probably the best Bob could come up with on the spot. The Transformation page in #156 notes that if readers think Spike’s arrival at the same time as the Headmasters is purely coincidental, they ought to know better.

Trial by Fire opens with Fortress Maximus on the operating table, undergoing enhancing surgery to double his size, as the Headmasters’ ship ‘Steelhaven’ warps from Nebulos to Earth. Max seems to have gone from being this focal point and the conscience of the Autobot cause during the Headmasters mini-series, to now being a barely speaking tool of war whose Nebulan partner Galen does all the talking for him.

It’s unclear how much time has passed since the Autobots left Nebulos with Lord Zarak and the Decepticons in pursuit, but it’s time enough for Galen to have had a major personality reset. Gone is the compassionate, committed pacifist and in his place is a focused, single-minded warrior, intent on achieving victory in the Transformer war. Ironically, Galen is reminiscent of how Zarak was after bonding with Decepticon leader Scorponok. ‘If war is their fate, they must accept it and do all they can to win’ is the new mantra.

Galen can sense the awesome new power of Fortress Maximus, ‘power enough to destroy the Decepticons once they reach Earth’ and that’s as good a plug for the Fort Max toy as any (sadly, like so much else in the toy range, he wasn’t on sale in the UK). Galen’s lack of concern for the fact that Earth is teeming with innocent life jars with Autobot values – it’s the very opposite of Optimus Prime for example – and there’s a sense that momentary abandoning of responsibilities will come back to bite.

On Earth, Spike arrives at the scene of devastation that was his dad’s auto garage. When we last saw Sparkplug, he was at the mercy of Ratbat and the Predacons so you immediately fear the worst. Thankfully Bob doesn’t drag things out. He has Sparkplug reappear almost immediately, having been pulled from the rubble ‘off camera’ and thankfully unscathed. He’s able to quickly bring Spike up to speed about their connection with the Transformers and how Buster had gone to Mount St Hillary to find the Autobots.

Spike resolves to find his brother. Luckily, he knows the way, as we’re told he used to play in the Mount St Hillary caves as a kid, though this seems a stretch when you consider that it’s a two-hour drive away (a vacation perhaps?).

He’s at the cave and marvelling at the ginormous machinery left behind when the Ark departed, when the five Autobot Headmasters arrive. They discover the battered toy-car form of Goldbug and Chromedome patches himself in and projects images from Goldbug’s memory of Ratbat attacking and carrying off Buster. Fortress Maximus squashes suggestions of a rescue, as outside their mission parameters, and the first part ends with Spike emerging from his hiding place to protest.

Part two establishes Spike and Galen as the story’s key dynamic.

Spike feels that the Autobots, as ‘the good guys’, are obligated to help him find Buster. When Fortress Maximus refuses, he is accused (by Spike) of being a cold-hearted machine and Galen reveals himself as flesh and blood, the man in the machine. They may be alike physically, but they have very different priorities. Galen insists that the needs of the many outweigh those of an individual, and they all depart leaving Spike to camp down for the night, alone.

Next, the Decepticon craft emerges from hyperspace (if the vessel has a name, readers are not privy to it). As if to illustrate his all-around rottenness, Galen’s opposite number Lord Zarak sees no beauty in the Earth and dismisses their new home as ‘flyspeck mudball’. He’s impatient to get to the surface and track down the Autobots, who are most likely to be found near the source of Goldbug’s distress signal in the cave which formerly housed the Ark.

They make their way down (do they skydive from orbit like the Autobots? I’m surprised they don’t melt) and Mindwipe identifies the source of the interstellar signal that brought them to Earth. Spike can tell that these guys are bad news, and when they aren’t looking he hits a switch to reactivate Goldbug’s distress call, knowing that the Autobots will come back and he can warn them.

It does the trick but not before Spike is discovered and is shot at before being trapped and menaced by Scorponok. Luckily for Spike the Autobot Headmasters arrive in the nick of time and the two sides pick up where they left off on Nebulos – except this time Fortress Maximus is bigger and more powerful. Soon the battle is turning in the direction of the Autobots. Scorponok needs an advantage, and the sight of Spike’s blanket presents an opportunity.

Spike flees into the caverns, finding himself at the molten core of the volcano (!) as Scorponok closes in. Fortress Maximus spies Scorponok’s absence from the fight and pursues, but his enlarged form is too big to get through the caves and so he detaches as the regular sized Cerebros. The smaller Autobot attacks Scorponok and his head transforms into Galen who takes on Zarak. The pair fight on a rock bridge just metres above a molten lava river. Their titanic struggle has come to this moment, thousands of light years from their native Nebulos.

Zarak is pinned down but wily as ever. He radio-commands Scorponok to blast the rock above Spike. Galen heroically pushes Spike out of the way and takes the impact of the boulders himself. Mortally wounded, but at last restored to full nobility, Galen instructs Spike to take his helmet so that his death will not be in vain.

Then, in an incredible closing page which packs and amazing amount into 10 panels, Scorponok is topside and turning the tide of the battle when Fortress Maximus arrives very much alive and ready to fight. Spike wears Galen’s helmet and controls Max now – he unleashes the power of the Headmaster leader on the Decepticons, who beat a swift retreat.

Finally, as the Autobots get clear, there’s a spectacular explosion/eruption at Mount St Hillary, signifying a fitting tribute to their lost leader Galen and, Hardhead suggests, a suitable welcome to their new commander, Spike Witwicky! Wowzers!

In closing, it’s a fine story – brilliant to see the Headmaster cast on Earth but so frustrating and sad to see the end of Galen. He’s been effectively killed off and replaced by his omission from the toyline, which is a real shame as he had a lot more developing to do. How would Galen have settled on Earth, how would his feud with Zarak have played out, would he ever have returned to Nebulos to clear his name and reunite with his lost love, Llyra?

Sadly, this is the last we’ll see of Galen. A main character in the Headmasters mini-series but not destined to play a role in the saga now that the cast has arrived on Earth. However, the question of how Spike will cope with being thrust into the forefront of the war is also an intriguing prospect, and one we’ll get a chance to explore in the next instalment, the Desert Island of Space. At this point in its run, the Marvel Transformers comic is really going from strength to strength.

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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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Love and Steel

At the mid point in the mini-series the Autobots have become Headmasters and gained the upper hand over their Decepticon enemies but their fortunes on Nebulos are about to undergo a dramatic reversal

Headmasters started life in the US as a four issue spin-off from the main Transformers title, in 1987. Its job was to introduce fans to a new cast of Autobots and Decepticons (and Nebulans) and the novel concept of transforming heads and weapons. The story hopped over the pond into the Marvel UK Transformers comic where it became that rarest of things, a back-up strip with the power to outshine the main story.

Most of the secondary stories up to that point had been pretty run of the mill, with a few exceptions like Machine Man of 2020, Action Force (the anglicized version of GI Joe) and my personal favourite Hercules. Having wall-to-wall Transformers stories for 16 weekly issues was a huge deal back in the day and as a reader we felt suitably blessed.
The Headmasters saga is the Transformers US writer Bob Budiansky on his A game, and if the purpose is to push a toy line that doesn’t detract from what is thought provoking (and entertaining) story. On the face of it, the set-up is familiar; it’s giant alien robots unleashing their civil war onto an unsuspecting human world, with the Decepticons intent on conquest and plunder and the Autobots struggling to protect the planet’s inhabitants (and mostly being met with fear and misunderstanding).

Earth in this case is substituted for the pacifist world of Nebulos. That’s thousands of years tradition of peace is not the only difference though. In regular Transformers, the concept of robots in disguise is quite apparent. The Transformers are blended into the background of society, and while they often break cover and get written up in the press, there’s been government attempts to dismiss them as a hoax (e.g. Robot Master) and life goes on generally speaking.

Whereas on Nebulos, the Transformers’ presence is acknowledged off the bat and is front and centre. From Highbrow’s clumsy first contact with Gort in the forest, Nebulos life is completely upended. Their parliament debates the Autobot presence, and Blurr arrives in a very public (and disastrous) way. The people are on the streets protesting and rioting! Public pressure is such, that the Nebulan leadership even abandons it’s tradition of peace in order to wage war on the Autobot refugees. It could be that Bob was saying something profound about human nature here (albeit they’re Nebulans) that fear and misunderstanding quickly descends into hatred and violence, and we’re all susceptible.

Love and Steel is the third instalment of the saga. We’ve previously seen the Decepticons arrive and the Autobot leader and four of his allies bonded with Nebulans to become Headmasters in order to repel Scorponok. From this point on the balance of power is about to shift decisively…

The story begins in Splendora, a city of “prosperity and beauty”, that is being laid waste by the Apeface and Snapdragon (the Horrorcons) and the combiner team known as the Terrorcons. The names say it all pretty much, and the panicked citizens are fleeing for their lives. Presumably, although we don’t see it, the death and casualty count is high. For the Decepticons the attack is just about relieving their boredom. In the words of Blott: “I bet when you stomp on them they make squishy sounds”.

The cavalry arrives in the form of the Technobots, who are led into battle by the Nebulan-controlled Autobots Hardhead and Brainstorm. I think there is a deliberate attempt by the Nebulan leader Galen to reassure the public by having Nebulans involved whenever the Autobots mount a defence, not that it is very successful.

The Terrorcons combine into Abominus, whose scale is utterly awesome. He’s able to demolish tall buildings with a swing of one of his mighty arms. The Technobots merge into Computron, who deploys a well placed shot and batters Abominus into his component parts with a huge metal girder. In his enthusiasm, Computron manages to give the impression of being as big a menace as the Decepticons. The Horrorcons are no match for the sharp-shooting Hardhead and Brainstorm, whose aim and abilities has improved exponentially since teaming up with Nebulans. (I’m not really sure why this should be the case, but perhaps it’s the old saying of two heads better than one…).

Brainstorm and Hardhead detach their heads into Nebulans Arcana and Duros to calm the public and assure them that the crisis is passed. As per usual they get zero gratitude. Peer Soriza, part of the Nebulan ruling council, simply questions the wisdom of Galen and his followers in “involving robots” in Nebulan affairs. The benefits should be pretty blooming obvious I would have thought, as the Decepticons would still be rampaging if not for the Autobot intervention.

At the Decepticon’s temporary base, Lord Zarak – who very unwisely reached out to Scorponok to seek his help in ridding Nebulos of the Autobots – is getting his just desserts by becoming a caged prisoner. For some reason, Scorponok is choosing to keep them as laboratory animals (showing his keen interest in mad science that would surface in the future and more so in the IDW comics of the 2000s). He’s created a bubble machine an elaborate trash disposal system for dumping Nebulan dissidents into the oblivion of outer space! Hmm.

The overweight Nebulan Monzo is selected as a test and quickly floats off, courtesy of Skullcruncher’s anti-gravity gun, before the bubble bursts at 50ft. Luckily Mindwipe transforms and catches the poor guy before he goes splat (no sense in wasting lab materials).

Zarak is pretty feisty for a caged captive. He warns Scorponok that a “thousand Nebulans will rise up” to take the place of any killed (hollow words perhaps from a society which has no concept of warfare) but he sees an opening when Apeface and Snapdragon return to report their defeat at Spendora, and are on the receiving end of Scorponok’s wrath – is he afraid to admit there are advantages to working with Nebulans, Zarak challenges.

Scorponok smashes the small prison and seizes Zarak in his pinchers. Yet the condemned Nebulan shows no fear – his death is a small matter if his world is to be conquered by Decepticons or Galen’s allies, he says. Perhaps it’s the scientist in Scorponok, or his desire to vanquish the enemy, but he agrees to share his power. However, he has a telling word of warning for Zarak: once possessed of the savage strength of Scorponok all other considerations become insignificant, perhaps even Zarak’s beloved daughter.

Later, at the Headmaster’s temporary headquarters, Galen and his men are visited by Soriza (still as miserable as ever) and a delegation. They find Galen and his men working on the Autobot weapons in what is undoubtedly the early stages of developing a Targetmaster process. As usual their preoccupation with war-making hits all the wrong notes insofar as the observers are concerned. Gort and Stylor are miscoloured as each other in one of the frequent art and colouring blunders with bedevil the series – thank goodness Bob’s storytelling makes up for this.

The Council has decided to send a delegation to accompany all of the Autobot missions. Galen agrees because he’s a stickler for the law, but he reinforces Duros’ point that the battlefield is no place for “headline hunting politicians”. Zarak’s daughter Llyra arrives looking like she’s stepped out in her negligee. She’s still giving poor Galen the cold shoulder for abandoning his peace loving principles, and has come with a very dubious video of Lord Zarak, apparently smuggled out of captivity, appealing for Galen and the Autobots to rescue them from the Decepticons. Galen readily agrees.

He tries to insist on Llyra not accompanying the political delegation and putting herself in harm’s way, but apparently she has inherited her father’s council seat in his absence – showing that they have an elitist hereditary system of politics on Nebulos rather than a democratic popular vote that you might expect from this highly evolved society.

The Headmasters roll-out to effect a rescue. Fortress Maximus, through Galen’s prior dealings with Zarak, ought to have known of the possibility for a trap and taken Autobot reinforcements along. Instead the five of them show up to take on an entire base full of Decepticons. They are met by Scorponok and five other Decepticons who emerge headless, with Zarak and the Nebulans now wearing robotic suits. The situation has “changed dramatically” says Zarak, before they bond with the Decepticons and attack the Autobots. Watching from above the politicians are appalled by the violence and Llyra cannot believe Galen is involved in it – despite him risking his life to rescue her beloved father – the same dad who’s now bonded to Scorponok!!

Zarak, now part-Scorponok, experiences power the likes of which he could never have imagined. Plucking Brainstorm from the air he feels like he could rip him in two; luckily, Fortress Maximus propels Skullcruncher at the Decepticon to prevent this happening. The inner conflict between Zarak’s love for his daughter and his home-world, and his lust for power and petty jealously, which is now magnified though his bonding with Scorponok is a really fascinating aspect of the story. With the Decepticons now ascendant, that inner turmoil is the only chance the Autobots have at a saving grace.

Apeface throws a boulder at the Nebulan observers’ floating craft, damaging a stabiliser and causing it to crash land (his bonding with Spasma doesn’t appear to have engendered any more sympathy towards Nebulans) and for Llyra and the others to spill out. Scorponok orders Mindwipe to create a distraction (except Scorpy has been drawn as Fortress Maximus, which is a shocking error by the artist) and Mindwipe uses his hypnotic gaze on Llyra to make her lead her fellow Nebulans into the trap of the Decepticon bubble machine. With Scorponok tearing a hole in roof, the bubbled-captives begin to float skywards and the Autobots have no choice but to break off the fight and focus on trying to free everyone.

Scorponok’s conflict at seeing ‘his daughter’ floating away is fascinating, although at this point the Decepticon side is stronger – there is no time for trivialities when he has a world within his grasp. Fortress Maximus frees Llyra and catches her (again, another artist blunder as Max’s head has been drawn as Cerebros – how does the artist get the main character of the saga wrong three issues in? It’s bizarre). The Autobots are sitting ducks and quickly cut down by a barrage of Decepticon fire. They heads detach and revert to unconscious Nebulan forms.

Zarak takes great pleasure in the defeat of his hated foe Galen – “you tried to intimidate me with your power” he says, showing a petty jealousy that underlines why he is the lesser man than Galen. However, in Llyra’s eyes Zarak is the hero of the hour. In her daze she thinks Galen and the Autobots were shooting at them, and despite dumping Galen for his decision to bond with Transformers to save Nebulos, she holds her father to no similar standard.

The instalment ends with the Autobots vanquished and Zarak vowing that Galen and his kind will never threaten Nebulos again! Harsh. As a reader the unfairness of the situation is brutal, however it’s certainly dramatic and you’ll be back for the concluding instalment Brothers in Armour to find out how the situations resolves.

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Broken Glass!

The Autobot presence on the planet Nebulos has triggered a wave of panic and protests and matters are about to get worse when the Decepticons show up!

I’ve got a lot of love for the Headmasters saga. It was published by Marvel as a four comic spin-off series in 1987 and reprinted in the back pages of Transformers UK.

It’s writer Bob Budiansky at the top of his game in my opinion. His task is to provide a story vehicle to introduce a large array of new Transformers toys and characters (Autobots, Decepticons and Nebulans) that has Hasbro were releasing that summer. And to provide a plausible reason why Transformers would wish to join forces with humanoids as Headmasters and Targetmasters.
Bob ably rises to the challenge and weaves a story of heroism , tragedy, sacrifice, love and treachery, with compelling lead characters in Fortress Maximus and Scorponok and their Nebulan counterparts Galen and Zarak.

It’s a testament to the story that it does not need to rely on big name draws like Optimus Prime or Megatron to sell it (in fact the only established characters to appear are Hot Rod, Kup and Blurr, Cyclonus and Scourge, and even then as bit players) and so it succeeds under its its own steam.

In the first instalment, we met the noble Fortress Maximus, an Autobot leader in the Optimus Prime mould, who had grown weary of the never-ending cycle of civil war and realised the Autobots were equally culpable of propagating the conflict as their enemies the Decepticons. The only way to break the circle of violence was for his side to leave Cybertron forever. Their logical destination would be Nebulos, where peace had reigned for ten thousand years. However, the arrival of giant alien robots in their midst proved so destabilising that the Nebulans reactivated their long dormant weapons of war and attacked the newcomers. Fortress Maximus surrendered his head as the ultimate gesture of peace, as did four of his followers, while six others disarmed. Crisis was averted temporarily.

So, as we pick up the story in Broken Glass! the Nebulan capital Koraja is in a state of civil unrest with protestors waving anti-robot placards and climbing on the globe monument to burn an effigy. Galen, leader of the World Watchers, and a member of the ruling council, watches the situation with alarm. He feels responsible because it was his decision to accept the surrender of Fortress Maximus and allow the other Autobots to remain. Evidently public opinion does not share his assessment that these robots do not pose a threat.

Lord Zarak is an intriguing character. We see him at this point, standing alongside Galen as a fellow council member. The dovish Galen and hawkish Zarak have very different political perspectives but for now they are nominally on the same side. Zarak is of course, responsible for first contact between Blurr and the Nebulans going so awry in the last issue, and he’s busy stirring the pot even now, with hired thugs in the crowd to ensure the protests erupt into violence. Galen appears not to suspect the lengths Zarak will go to. And matters are complicated by the fact that Galen’s lover, Llyra, is Zarak’s daughter. She also seems to dismiss her father as a harmless crank.

So what are Zarak’s motives here? On the one hand it would seem to be power grab, by using the crisis to bring down Galen and advance himself. On the other, maybe he’s looking for an opportunity break up his daughter’s relationship with this guy he despises. We can only speculate what it is he dislikes so much about Galen: could it be Zarak finds Galen’s nobility intolerable as it reveals his (Zarak’s) own failings as a man and leader? Or maybe he detests Galen’s flamboyant choice of clothes, i.e. the bright red outfit with the slightly naff green globe on it. What we can say with some certainty is that Zarak’s daughter is smoking hot!
It’s interesting to see how Earthlike these Nebulans are in terms of their actions and passions. It’s no wonder that they can come to Earth later on and integrate pretty seamlessly. Perhaps this is a missed opportunity on Bob’s part to create something more alien (that said the cartoon’s answer was simply to make the Nebulans green).

As a fight breaks out and Galen leaps into the crowd to break it up (let’s skirt over the fact that he was two storeys up and would have broken his legs) only to be punched out by one of Zarak’s goons. Nebulan security forces step in and Llyra rushes to the aid of her love, who has just been punched in the face by a protester. Galen insists on taking the blame and says the man should not be arrested. Bad judgement I think – what sort of precedent is that setting if a mob is allowed to physically assault a leading politician without consequence? Zarak is soon trying to poison Llyra against Galen, saying the deal with the Autobots is Galen’s way of seizing more power. She won’t hear of it.

Later we see what has become of Fortress Maximus and the other surrendered Autobots. Their heads are in an abandoned munitions warehouse along with their bodies and weapons. The head of Fortress Maximus has become a wise counsel to Galen and is growing ever more extreme in his selflessness as time goes on. Not only is he prepared to accept life as a decapitated prisoner, he now urges Galen to destroy them all if it will maintain the peace on Nebulos. Galen feels that would run counter to all his stands for (luckily).

Lord Zarak, meanwhile, keeps up the pressure with a speech in the Council urging his fellow law makers to listen to the voices of the people. Galen is losing the argument but Gort comes to his aid. Having recovered from the injuries he received at the forest encounter with Highbrow, he takes the platform and explains to councillors that he was not attacked at all – his fall was an accident. The speech proves to be a game changer and tensions ease a little.

So much so that Galen, Zarak are soon leading a delegation to meet Kup, Blurr, Pointblank and the other Autobots to see how construction of their forest base is going. Hot Rod is establishing one-way contact with their old base on Cybertron so that they can listen in on events happening on the homeworld. The Autobots will not broadcast to Cybertron in case the Decepticons should learn of their location. Zarak’s assistant Vorath secretly records the location of the Cybertron base, and later in a powerful observatory Zarak transmits a message to Cybertron asking for help in ridding Nebulos of the Autobots.

That message arrives, with perfect timing, as Scorponok and his Decepticons have infiltrated the deserted Autobot base on Cybertron to try to find out what has become of their regular sparring partners. When an unintelligible message starts broadcasting out of a console they activate translators and hear Zarak’s appeal for assistance against Fortress Maximus! Soon his his army is setting course for Nebulos to crush the Autobots and conquer the planet!

Natural justice demands that Zarak should be locked up for a very long time as a traitor to Nebulos for exposing his people to such danger, but that’s not what happens. My other thoughts are around Scorponok’s motives. They supposedly fight to conquer Cybertron, and with the Autobots gone that goal becomes more achievable, but Scorponok would rather up-sticks and follow Fortress Maximus. For him and his troops, conquering the enemy has long become the primary goal. In a real sense they are in a symbiotic relationship with the Autobots and are lost without them.

In one of the panels, Scorponok is meant to be speaking to Cyclonus. Instead, artist Frank Springer has drawn one of the Nebulan robots. Rather than open up a can of worms that would get readers writing in, UK editor Simon Furman simply replaces the name Cyclonus with Krunix. It won’t be the only mistake Springer makes (drawing Cerebros’ head in place of Fortress Maximus is another glaring one) but I can only imagine the number of new character specs to learn was overwhelming. It’s sloppy but is forgivable only because the standard of art is good overall and the story is of a high standard.

Before too long Scorponok and his followers arrive on Nebulos in force. Zarak is alarmed by the numbers of them and more so when Scorpnok announces they will ignore the Autobots in the forest for now and attack the city where Fortress Maximus is being held. It should be pretty apparent to Zarak that he has messed up in a major way, particularly as Scorponok makes plain that he’ll deal with Zarak and his cronies when he returns.

Galen is woken by security chief Duros, who tells him ‘robots are attacking’ apparently in contravention of their agreement. Galen gets dressed and rushes outside, where it’s quickly apparent that these are the enemies of their allies the Autobots. As the Decepticon assault on the city begins, Galen convenes with the head of Fortress Maximus, who warns him that Scorponok would interpret any surrender of the captive heads as weakness and destroy the city anyway.

Since they cannot reconnect the Autobots to their bodies without violating the promises Galen made to the Nebulan people, another way must be found. Remote controlling the Autobot bodies will not be enough to counter a heavily armed Decepticon attack and so Fortress Maximus suggests a way for the Nebulans to become the heads of the Autobots and control their bodies. It’s a novel idea and makes you wonder whether Max dreamed it up or there has been previous instances in Transformers history where the Headmaster process has been attempted.

Arcana, an expert in bio-engineering is summoned. He quickly advances the plan to allow Nebulans to become the heads of the Autobots, allowing them to ‘take control’ of the robotic bodies and fight back against the Decepticons. When I say quickly, I mean insanely fast. An engineering feat like this, which has never been attempted before, would surely take months or years to design and test, and yet here is Arcana creating the process in a matter of hours, while the city is under siege. Plus, he volunteers to be one of the five being operated on, so while he should be overseeing the crucial stage of the experiment he’s actually going on the operating table for a very risky physical process (which, when you consider involves replacing joints and strengthening bones, you would think it would take the volunteers a long time to recover from such surgery).

Gort, Duros and Stylor step up and Galen will be the fifth volunteer. He is implored by Llyra not to do become a man of war, but he feels he must lead by example if he is to save Nebulos. An operation that looks and reads like something out of a Frankenstein horror, gets underway. It is a stunning success. Finally, the five emerge from the operating theatre in robotic suits, not quite Autobots but now more than Nebulans. They fold up and transform into the heads of the Autobots and thus the Headmasters are born!

Duros’ men have fought valiantly but perimeter defences have been breached (presumably many Nebulans will have died, though this is not addressed). Skullcruncher can’t wait to start stomping organic creatures. Scorponok feels that won’t be necessary, as iron doors open to reveal Fortress Maximus (his head drawn as Cerebros, annoyingly) and fellow Autobots. Scorponok is expecting their surrender, but instead they are hear to fight.

A great battle ensues, with the five warriors now sharper, faster and more agile than before. The Decepticons are soon on the run, despite having the superior numbers. Scorponok sounds a general retreat and the Autobots do a victory march into Koraja. Many Nebulans are fearful of the ‘monstrous’ newcomers and aren’t sure if they have traded one set of conquerors for another. To ease their fears, each Autobot head disconnects and transforms back in/to its Nebulan component. They are quickly mobbed.

Llyra is aghast that Galen went ahead with this. She gives no credit at all to the fact that he has just saved the Nebulan capital and its people from destruction at the hands of a murderous alien robot mob. To be fair, Galen doesn’t help himself by speaking in terms of ‘the Autobots’ power being theirs to control’. It’s really the worst thing he could say as it makes Llyra believe that her father was right about Galen all along – he is power hungry and now longer the peaceful man she fell in love with. Ouch.

So ends Broken Glass. The title is meant to relate to the fragility of the peace on Nebulos and the civil unrest but it could also relate to Galen’s own situation. His relationship is now shattered and he may not be able to piece it back together. Even if he could, he has extensively surgically altered, a freak essentially, and it is naïve to think he can just slot back into his old life and things will be as they were.

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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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