Distant Thunder!

Marvel UK celebrates its one hundredth issue of The Transformers with a stunning wraparound cover and a feature length story revealing what happened when Optimus Prime, Prowl and Ratchet were displaced to the Limbo dimension.

It’s February 1987 and Marvel UK’s flagship title, Transformers, cements its pre-eminence by notching up triple figures. It’s a big moment for the comic, possibly the biggest since its launch three years previously, and the production team pulls out the stops with a super-sized issue containing 19 pages of story instead of the usual 11. And there’s a fantastic hand-painted wraparound cover by Alan Davis, the artist best known for his work on Captain Britain and X-Men series in the US.

According to TF Wiki, the team had only half-seriously approached Davis about doing a cover, not expecting him to agree. But the suspicion is that his son Thomas was a fan of the comic and so Davis agreed, and both are named on the credit. It’s one of the memorable covers of the run; instantly recognisable like Prime vs Soundwave or ‘The Autobots are all dead’ from issues #1 and #22.

The hype has been building for issue #100 in the weeks leading up to it. We’ve been promised a ‘different side to Optimus Prime’ a fighting mad Prime, a story that ‘has to be seen to be believed’. Does it live up to the expectation? To be honest, not really. There are good moments and an intriguing concept, the extended story is its certainly welcome, but it fails to hit the mark. Consider the last time we had a bumper issue was the amazing, edge of the seat exciting ‘Warrior School’ (in issue #25) and Distant Thunder is really no comparison.

On the plus side Will Simpson has been tasked with bringing Simon Furman’s bizarre Limbo dimension to life and does a fine job – he’s my second favourite TF artist of the Marvel era after Geoff Senior, and creates a Planet of the Apes style horror zone here. The story begins in the Dead End – that desolate region of Polyhex inhabited by the down-and-out dregs of Cybertron society. It’s a good place for Prime and the mortally wounded Outback to lay low. Trouble is they are being hunted by the Autobots’ crack commando unit, the Wreckers (with Prime believed to be Decepticon spy impersonating the great Autobot leader) and it is only a matter of time before they are found and executed.

Outback’s wound (inflicted last issue by one of the Guardian units tracking them) is on his left side and then on the right in subsequent panels. Oops. In order to keep his spirits up, Prime tells his fellow fugitive of ‘another time when hope seemed lost’ when he, along with Prowl and Ratchet were transported to a bizarre hybrid metal and organic world between dimension – Limbo. (This occurred during Target: 2006 when the trio made way for Galvatron, Cyclonus and Scourge arriving from the future). They had encountered the peaceful Cloran, who had been driven from their homes by ape-like invaders. The Autobots had decided to help.

We see the three Autobot warriors being overrun by superior numbers. They could even the odds by using their blasters but Prime refuses to give the order to kill. The decision is about to be taken out of his hands, as a blinding light heralds the arrival of the Decepticons, Shockwave, Thundercracker and Frenzy. They waste no time in mass executing the attacking forces, with Shockwave deciding that logically he must save Prime so that they can work together to escape this place, wherever or whatever it is. Prime is incensed at the casual waste of life and punches out Frenzy for making a flippant comment about wasting fuel on these ‘slimeballs’.

Against his better judgement, Prime tells Shockwave about their encounter with the Cloran and the marauders’ leader Zenag, who had promised them a device that could return them to Earth if they left his army unhindered. Quite why Prime discloses this explosive bit of info is unclear. It’s utterly predictable what was about to happen and sure enough the Decepticons go straight to Zenag and agree to his terms – destroy the Autobots in return for the device.

They attack from above, allowing Frenzy to ambush the Autobots on the ground by unleashing his sonic power. Prime, Prowl and Ratchet fall, but they’ve anticipated the move and switched off their audio receptors. This takes the Decepticons off guard and the Autobots counterattack, with Ratchet (surprisingly) taking out the more powerful Shockwave with a laser scalpel blast to the eye.

Prime helps Shockwave up and explains his theory that the dynamic of the peace loving Cloran and the aggressive invaders mirrors the beginnings of the war on Cybertron, maybe a little too coincidentally – perhaps they are being ‘mentally manipulated’ into situations where they are forced to fight?

Zenag arrives, ordering Shockwave to destroy Prime. When the Decepticon refuses, Zenag attacks the Autobot leader, raining blows upon him and tearing off part of Prime’s side (this is the origin of the wound that Prime returned with at the end of Target: 2006, showing that Furman had been planning the details of the Distant Thunder story as far back as issue #88). Prime refuses to fight back and finally Zenag and their entire surroundings fade out of existence and the six Transformers find themselves floating in the emptiness of a dark void.

The idea of everyone being hooked into a shared illusion seems like something out of the Matrix, though to be fair the comic predates the film by 12 years. Prime’s wound is evidence that the illusion had very nearly become a reality. Each robot has a leech-like parasite attached to their head, feeding on their emotions. Frenzy attempts to destroy his but is forbidden by Shockwave, else it might trigger a new situation. ‘A Decepticon advocating a policy of non-violence,’ mocks Prime.

He concludes the story, telling Outback that they were all returned to 1986 Earth when the future Autobots and Decepticons departed. There’s a noise and they turn to see the Wreckers enter with blasters raised. Prime has no intention of pleading for his life, rather he will beg for life of Outback – a ‘truly heroic Autobot’. To fight his comrades would be to allow Megatron his greatest victory says Prime. Thankfully that won’t be necessary. Emirate Xaaron, the wise Autobot elder, steps-up alongside Magnus. He has heard enough to recognise the true Optimus Prime when he hears him and welcomes his old friend home.

What else is going on in the issue? There’s no Grim Grams page (sadly) but its place is taken by a competition where 100 entrants will win a Transformers toy – either Rodimus Prime and Wreck Gar or a mini Autobot. That’s pretty generous of Hasbro. Action Force continues in the back-up strip spot, ahead of the launch of its own comic and Lew Stringer’s Robo Capers begins the first of a long and hugely enjoyable saga with the alien king and his inventor sidekick stranded in space.

Interestingly this is also Whirl’s last appearance in the Transformers comic apart from in the 1988 annual story ‘Peace’. And now on to issues #101 and #102 and the return (a little hasty in my view) of the most powerful and deadly Decepticon of all – Galvatron!

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Robot Buster!

Buster Witwicky sets out to prove to Optimus Prime that he has what it takes to be honorary Autobot, courtesy of the robotic suit designed especially for him – but he ends up taking on more trouble than he can handle.

May 1986. The Marvel UK Transformers comic begins a seven-week run of homegrown stories starting with Robot Buster, a two-parter from regular writer Simon Furman which is based on an idea by Barry Kitson (who is also the artist on this story). Furman later acknowledged that the story was ‘done for Barry’ as an attempt to keep him involved with the Transformers title. It didn’t work – he would do one more story (Second Generation part 2) and pop back for the occasional cover but that would be it.

In my remarks about Plight of the Bumblebee, I observed that Autobots tend to regard humans as weaker lifeforms in need of protection, kind in the same way a parent or guardian views children. It’s well-meant if a tad condescending. That sentiment is in play in this story, which we could almost call Plight of the Buster. It stars of course, the Autobots’ human friend Buster Witwicky who makes a return after a four-month absence.

One thing I never quite appreciated about Buster is how little he features in the US Transformers comic after the early stories. Literally, on returning the Matrix to Optimus at the end of the story Prime Time (published in the US in early 1986) Buster vanishes for the best part of two and a half years, only appearing once in that time, in the infamous Buster Witwicky and the Car Wash of Doom story. In the UK he would appear in this story, Devastation Derby and Second Generation, as well as the 1985 and 1986 Christmas issues.

Robot Buster opens with Prime advancing on Repair Bay 2 within the Ark, irked that his engineer Wheeljack is not working on the ship’s propulsion and Chief Medical Officer Ratchet is not focused on repairing those injured in the Dinobot Hunt. They had better have a good reason for neglecting their duties.

When he gets there, he discovers what has preoccupied his team – it’s Buster Witwicky sitting in the cockpit of a Transformer-sized robotic suit (this being before the 1986 Transformers Movie introduced us to the concept of the exo-suit). Buster is delighted and Wheeljack and Ratchet suggest the body could provide Buster with protection in the event of a Decepticon attack.

Prime blows his top – he can forgive Buster’s foolishness on grounds of his youth and inexperience (that parental view again) – but his warriors must have “lost their minds” to think it is acceptable to expose a human to danger in this way. The suit will be destroyed. Buster hits back, reminding that he kept the Matrix safe and saved Prime’s ass during the events of the Matrix saga. Then he utters the memorable phrase of whole story, “You stink Prime”. Ratchet and Wheeljack recoil in visuals that look like somebody may indeed have let off a stinker. It’s quite a moment.

Buster storms off to a human-sized bedroom that the Autobots have provided for him in the Ark, as Ratchet and Wheeljack agree to dismantle the suit in the morning. However, that night Buster is feeling back about the outburst and resolves to demonstrate the suit’s worth to Prime. He uses its flying capabilities to travel to the abandoned former Decepticon base, Fortress Sinister, where, as coincidence would have it, Shockwave and Frenzy are carrying out a salvage operation.

I always enjoy Decepticon inter dynamics – very few of them are friends, more like colleagues joined together by fear and adherence to a common cause and code. In this case Frenzy takes pleasure in thinking that Shockwave is terrified by the prospect of Megatron’s rumoured return and is destroying anything the former leader had a hand in just to feel better. It’s a very emotional reaction for the normally logical and emotionless Shockwave. As revealed in the previous story, the Decepticons are currently in a makeshift base, we don’t know where. It would have made sense to regroup at Fortress Sinister. As they have abandoned the place, I wonder why the US army isn’t crawling all over the castle to learn what they can about the alien invaders in their country.

Buster sneaks up on Frenzy, reasoning that he’s one of the least powerful Decepticons and could be taken prisoner. That would really demonstrate his usefulness to the Autobot cause. A powerful plasma bolt takes the Decepticon down, but not for long. Frenzy retaliates by unleashing his sonic power and threatening to make Buster suffer a horrible death. By total fluke, Buster activates the suit’s ability to jam Frenzy’s broadcast and play it back at him (via an echo cell). Frenzy is beaten but Buster realises he is out of his depth and got lucky, he needs to go before he runs into one of the more powerful Decepticons. Sure enough, part one ends on the cliff-hanger of the Decepticons leader arriving and noting that, while humans are usually beneath his notice, Buster has earned his right to “die at the hands” of Shockwave! (or should that be hand?!

Geoff senior does a great job with the cover of issue #59 and its striking how similar Buster’s seating pose and the helmet look reminiscent of Professor Morris’ robot-control technology from The Icarus Theory story. Buster does look exposed though as an opponent is likely to aim straight for the glass that shields him. There’s a Human Who’s Who feature on the back cover which includes prominent persons who have appeared in the story to date, arranged as friends/allies and enemies/antagonists. Soundwave stars in the Robo Capers strip blasting the Marvel staff for the printing error in issue #51 – it was a matter that preoccupied the previous week’s Transformation page. I can only assume the readers have been writing in about it.

In part two, Buster flees Shockwave, setting falling rocks against his pursuers and engulfing him in fire, but to no avail. A phone call to the Autobots would be a good idea about now, so we must assume this isn’t an option, perhaps a result of damage from the encounter with Frenzy. As Shockwave – who Kitson depicts with a ridiculously oversized head throughout the issue – closes in for the kill, Buster throws a fist full of sand in the Decepticon leader’s single eye. This exposes a weakness – his eye – that we’ve not seen before. It inflicts a temporary blindness and causes Shockwave to shoot at random, allowing Buster to make a run for it.

There’s an interesting flashback from Shockwave’s perspective, a resurfacing of suppressed trauma of his being buried beneath rock (following his pre-historic battle with the Dinobots) and then cast into the swamp by Optimus Prime. In the US continuity he returned almost straight away, but in the UK we had a period where Soundwave became interim leader in the absence of Shockwave and Megatron. This requires more explanation about how Shockwave escaped his murky fate, which Furman provides here, describing how ‘days or months’ passed before Shockwave was able to get a foothold on solid ground. Seeing as he’s 30 feet or so tall, that must be one deep swamp!

Buster has done well to make it to sunrise. Shockwave tears up a mountain in his search, until finally the two are face to face. Buster channels all power into one blast – inflicting pain on both. Shockwave falls but the exo-suit is a smoking wreck. Buster climbs out of the cockpit, only to be seized by Shockwave’s gigantic hand. As he prepares to crush the life out of the youth, Optimus Prime and the Autobots arrive with weapons trained on Shockwave. Prime offer him a logical choice – release Buster and he can go free.

Shockwave accepts, leaving with the obligatory threats about their next encounter. As Buster jokingly resigns from Autobot frontline duty, we see Shockwave contemplating how he can exploit the Autobots’ fondness for Buster to the Decepticons’ advantage.

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Dis-integrated Circuits

Autobots, Decepticons and now Humans! Josie Beller ‘transforms’ from paralysed victim of Shockwave to a robot-busting avenger known as Circuit Breaker! Unfortunately, her wrath is not reserved only for the Decepticons. It’s Dis-integrated Circuits, by Bob Budiansky.

After a four-week interlude of homegrown material, the Transformers UK comic returned to another run of reprinting stories from its US parent. Bob Budiansky continues on writing duties, accompanied by artist and one hit wonder Mike Manley (this being his only outing on Transformers).

There’s been quite a bit of build up to this issue on both sides of the pond. In the earlier story ‘The Worse of Two Evils’, Bob went to pains to put a human face on Shockwave’s attack on the oil drilling platform. We were introduced the industrialist GB Blackrock (owner of the platform) and his brilliant young engineering talent, Josie Beller. Ultimately, she got fried during the attack and has been in her boss’s private hospital ever since – severely paralysed but using the equipment he provided to plot her next move. Blackrock received a second kick in the proverbials when his aerospace plant was taken over by the Decepticons. It is now their new base.

At last its time for Bob to show us where he’s been going with these characters. Transformers has always been about humanity alongside Transformers and Bob’s stories more than most, so it’s perhaps inevitable that we would eventually see a human on equal terms to the giant robots (arguably two, if we consider Buster Witwicky who now holds the power of the Creation Matrix). As this is a Marvel publication, we shouldn’t be surprised to see a superhero/villain feature.

The story begins at Blackrock’s racetrack (yes, he owns a racetrack too!) where’s he interrupted five minutes before the end of the session. He’s not happy but it’s due to the arrival of General Capshaw of the US military. He’s heard about Blackrock’s intention to unveil a new “weapon” capable of destroying Transformers, and feels it will needlessly publicise the robot presence. The army want to avoid this until it can work out who is responsible for the Transformer menace (they assume it’s an enemy nation).

Blackrock is a bit of dick at this point. He’s testy with his staff and not used to hearing no for an answer. He gives Capshaw short shrift and explains he has shareholders to keep happy – and the giant robots have been bad for business. Oddly, considering he got out of the car dripping in sweat, Blackrock puts his suit on while he talks to the general! We know he’s got a tight schedule but surely there’s time for a shower? Particularly as his next port of call is to the hospital where Josie is being looked after. She shows him a flying device she has created which becomes airborne by using electro-magnetics to repel from metal objects. Blackrock is impressed but he gets a bad vibe about Josie’s obsession with getting back to work and helping in his fight against the Transformers.

Sadly, the two pages where the Autobots make their re-entrance and another page have been mis-coloured in the UK version (the page above is from the US comic). I’m vaguely aware that colouring is achieved by transposing the primary colours over each other and I suspect that those pages one of the three are missing. It’s a shame because this is a big moment – the Autobots once again in the land of the living and back as a fighting force. All had seemed lost only a few weeks earlier. That said, things are not back to normal. The presence of Optimus Prime’s headless body is a reminder to all that their leader is a prisoner of the Decepticons, and they cannot rest until he has been recovered.

The matter of how the Autobots can function without a securing fuel is explained on page seven – they are using the limited supplies very considerately left behind by the Decepticons. In the US version of page 7 Ratchet refers to himself as being in command. In the UK the words have been changed to “and no matter who’s in command”. I suspect the explanation is that, in the next story, Prowl is established as stand-in leader. Perhaps the UK team just felt it was less confusing to leave out the mention of Ratchet commanding.

It’s apparent that Jazz is going to feature as a main character in the story. He’s the only one not to transform on command (because he’s listening to Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’). His radio picks up a news item of Blackrock boasting about his anti-robot weapon. Jazz wants to educate him that not all Transformers are the enemy and thinks an alliance would solve the Autobots ongoing fuel needs. In return they can offer Blackrock protection from the Decepticons. It’s a good plan and Prowl gives permission, providing Wheeljack accompanies Jazz.

Over at the aerospace plant Starscream informs Commander Shockwave that the Autobots are free and have regained the Ark – all because of the “incompetence” of the “fool Megatron”. Shockwave is surprisingly nonchalant. This should be a massive disaster for the Decepticons and his leadership – they had utterly defeated the Autobots and now the situation is reversed, and their mortal enemy has been allowed to recover. They even left a handy fuel reserve behind.

Perhaps it is a sign of Shockwave’s preoccupation with his grand plan of creating a new Decepticon army, but he dismisses the Autobot threat, saying they are unwilling to take the fuel the need through misguided ethics. And he calculates that Megatron will not return to be defeated by him again. This hubris is astounding in one so calculating and logical.

Frenzy having a tantrum in reaction to Blackrock’s public threats is good fun – also the ruthless way Buzzsaw instinctively understands his commander’s wish and silences Frenzy by slicing the metal he holds into ribbons. Next time Buzzsaw will aim for Frenzy’s body! Gulp! Interestingly, the mini-Decepticon’s emotionally-charged response is completely the opposite that of his boss. Shockwave dismisses human threats as too trivial to be concerned about, however he agrees to Starscream’s suggestion that destroying the weapon would be a good way to exercise the troops and a bit of mayhem at Blackrock’s expense is no bad thing. Also enjoyable is Starscream’s treacherous thoughts of stealing the weapon to use against Shockwave. It’s this type of thing that makes the Decepticon camp much more entertaining to read about.

For the first time, US readers are shown the six brain modules which Shockwave has nurtured and Prime’s mind has breathed life into (thanks to the last vestiges of the Creation Matrix in his mind), and for the first time we see how small a Transformer brain is, fitting on to the top of Shockwave’s finger (incidentally here they are round, whereas they were drawn as larger boxes in the last UK issue).

The rest of the Matrix is of course in the mind of Buster Witwicky who is growing in his understanding of it. While failing miserably to fill in for his father (recovering in hospital from a Transformer induced heart attack) he suddenly sees the faulty engine with total clarity and is able to reassemble it using the power of his mind (now that’s using the Force!).

Elsewhere, Blackrock is working late at this office penthouse. He takes a call from the Josie Beller’s doctors saying the patient has escaped via a fifth storey window. At that moment a shadowy figure enters the building, disabling security cameras on the way. She flies up several floors and strips off her coat to reveal her body sans clothing and coated in circuitry – Josie Beller has become Circuit Breaker!

In part two, Beller reveals that while she wears the Circuit Breaker costume she is no longer paralysed. What’s more she can assess computer files and reprogram them with a thought (such as Blackrock’s giant laser project). She can fly and emit powerful bursts of electricity. Blackrock is awed by her abilities but has no wish to involve her further in his private battle. He orders her to go back to the hospital, but she refuses and walks out.

The next day Blackrock is back at his racetrack dodging the media. Jazz, in Porsche mode forces him inside and speeds off – he already has proven credentials as a kidnapper (see Man of Iron) and attempts to explain to a very confused GB that he is looking to partner-up against the Decepticons. The police give chase and Jazz crashes through a barrier, plunging over a cliff. He transforms and catches Blackrock as they fall. A Decepticon would have let him bounce, he explains. Despite this odd way to start a partnership, it seems they have a deal.

Later, Blackrock unveils his huge anti-robot cannon (with Jazz and Wheeljack parked discretely nearby). The weapon is a dud and fizzles out. There’s raucous laughter and further humiliation for Blackrock. As Circuit Breaker steps up, she reveals she sabotaged the gun and now Blackrock will have to unveil her as his secret weapon.

Suddenly, Starscream and Frenzy attack. Jazz transforms to defend Blackrock from Frenzy but Circuit Breaker zaps his gun and then unleashes a powerful burst of electricity against him! Blackrock pleads with her that Jazz is one of the good guys. Wheeljack blasts Frenzy with his magnetic weapon that causes vehicles to attract on to the Decepticon’s body and encase him. It’s a neat attack that makes a change from the standard laser blasts (and arguably not enough is made of Transformers’ weapons, which are distinct and personal).

Circuit Breaker attacks Starscream (possibly the one and only time in this part of the comic’s run where we see her attack a Decepticon) and majorly fries Wheeljack (after he thanks her for the helping hand – harsh). Starscream flees with the smouldering Frenzy, and Blackrock pleads for the lives of his Autobot friends. Circuit Breaker destroys the target the canon was supposed to obliterate and then flounces off. She won’t allow any loyalty to Blackrock to get in the way next time.

In summary, it’s an issue of mixed fortunes for the Autobots. They have a powerful ally and a source of fuel at last, but a new adversary too. Readers will find Circuit Breaker pretty infuriating in upcoming stories while she keeps attacking the good guys. Ironically, she has become the very thing she seeks to destroy: a cold, unfeeling machine!

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