I, Robot Master

Desperate for fuel, Megatron attacks a coal mining plant and becomes rooted to the spot! And a washed-up comic book writer is recruited by the US government to claim to be the terrorist mastermind behind the Transformers.

April 1986. Bob Budiansky’s most offbeat story since… well, his last two where Megatron was controlled by a small-time hoodlum, and Hoist stole the show at a rock concert, arrives on UK shores. The Marvel UK Transformers comic is mid-way through an eight-week run of US stories at this point. Don Perlin is once again on art duties.

After taking his leave of Joey Slick, Megatron apparently spent weeks walking through the American North West in search of fuel. I say apparently because it seems somewhat unfathomable that a giant Decepticon with a hair-trigger temper such as he, could possibly wander around and not attract an awful lot of attention. Particularly when you consider that he can’t exactly convert into a vehicle and blend in.

His sensors have bought him to a coal mine which is high in hydrocarbons. Megatron attacks the huge machinery and in his desperation, showers himself in coals. He finds these black rocks indigestible in their current form. Suddenly, he stops dead in his tracks, drained of fuel, paralysed and helpless! A worker notes that he “just ran out of gas”. We’ve previously seen Transformers dangerously low on fuel but this is a new situation.

Walter Barnett, the Triple I agent we met in the last story, arrives at a restricted government building at the behest of his boss, Forest Forsythe. Along with the rest of the board, they are shown footage of recent high-profile robot incidents (Megatron and Shockwave’s battle, the capture of G.B. Blackrock’s aerospace plant, Hoist at the Springhorn concert and the incident with Megatron at the coal mine in Wyoming).  

Blackrock has been invited to give his insight to the group and attempts to persuade them that the Transformers are two factions, one good and one evil. It’s a huge waste of time as Forsythe is not interested in hearing this and after showing Blackrock out, tells Triple I that the policy will be to treat all robots as a threat. For a group called the Intelligence and Information Institute they really are lacking in basic intelligence. Despite acknowledging that there is evidence to back-up Blackrock’s claims they are willing to throw away the chance of an alliance with the Autobots that might solve their Decepticon problem. Instead they’ve decided to invest in a cover-up. I suppose this will have been only a dozen years after Watergate and cynical government cover-ups will have been in the public consciousness, including Bob’s. This feels like a spoof of the government cover-up cliché.

Barnett comes across like a real deadbeat dad and husband as he arrives home. His young son is excited to see him but all Walt does is tell him to tidy up his toys. He then spots the boy’s Robot Master comic, about a guy who controls an army of robots, and before you can say co-incidence he rushes off to catch a plane to New York. You have to wonder if his family see much of him. I’m not sure if his destination, 387 Park Ave, might be another in-joke, perhaps it was Marvel’s address in the day. He’s in time to catch the writer of the Robot Master comic, Donny Finkleberg, on his way out of the building, having had his book cancelled.

According to TFWiki and other knowledgeable fans, Donny is based on an actual comic book writer called Danny Fingeroth, who worked with Bob on Marvel’s Avengers in 1981. It’s not clear whether Bob or Don Perlin created Robot Master in his likeness as a hilarious office in-joke or whether Bob’s getting his own back. Certainly, Donny Finkleberg is not presented as a great guy. Instead he’s greedy, unscrupulous, a geeky loser and has a rather incessant smoking habit to boot.

Barnett takes Donny to lunch and offers him $25,000 if he can help come up with a Robot Master story to hoodwink the American public. Naturally he suggests bringing to life the character he created (Barnett could have saved £25k by simply reading the comic). They could say the Transformers are being controlled by a human terrorist mastermind, which apparently is less likely to result in a public scare that giant alien robots. If Donny would like to play Robot Master, he can double his money (and best of all, no acting experience appears to be necessary).

The idea is loopy on several levels. When Donny appears on TV he’s likely to be recognised by someone (like his old boss perhaps) and outed, and it wouldn’t take the media very long to discover the similarity to the Robot Master comic and expose the whole hoax. Triple I are playing with fire and it’s a wonder and it’s a wonder that Barnett he was not laughed out of the agency for coming up with such a foolhardy plan.

Nevertheless, the next day Donny is broadcasting as Robot Master and claiming to be the human leader of a robotic army. Optimus Prime is alerted as is Mr Blackrock, who realises that Triple I must be behind this.

He suggests to the media that the whole thing might be a hoax. Triple I are furious but it shows what a house of cards their plan is – it really could fall apart in a moment. Blackrock shuns his limo to drive away in a VW Beetle, which is hilarious (though his calling Bumblebee ‘Bum’ is not really the sort of nickname you’d want).

A photo of frozen Megatron makes the news, much to the horror of Barnett and Forsythe (honestly, how was that ever going to stay private seeing as Megatron attacked a mine full of workers). They decide to offer Donny a way to double his money, with another broadcast.

In part two, the Autobots have been monitoring the TV news and Optimus Prime sets out to capture his old nemesis with assistance from Skids, Tracks and Bumblebee (once again the comic is showcasing its recently introduced characters, and Hoist also appears earlier in the issue making a nuisance of himself by taking charge of Autobots maintenance schedules). This small band, albeit including Optimus, seems decidedly light to capture a Transformer as powerful as Megatron. Even if he is currently immobilised, why take the chance? So much better to go in overwhelming numbers.

In downtown Portland, Soundwave is hanging out at a TV and video store in his cassette deck mode for some totally inexplicable reason. When the shop worker/owner (who oddly enough has been drawn exactly like G.B. Blackrock before they started forgetting his moustache) tests whether it is working, apparently intending to sell this equipment he found on the doorstep. There’s a deafening sound, followed by Ravage transforming and escaping with Soundwave, who are picked up and flown away by Laserbeak and Buzzsaw. They all head off in the direction of Wyoming, some 1,022 miles away. The sequence doesn’t add-up. Why not hang out a store more local to Megatron, or monitor TV from the Decepticon base?

There’s a nice scene however, where Barnett and Donny (in his Robot Master threads) arrive at the mine and Megatron’s eyes burn as Donny refers to him as “old junkpile” and strikes a match on his foot. Apparently with Robot Master broadcasting next to a giant robot, the story’s credibility will be bolstered by a thousand percent! Blackrock arrives (minus tache) to make a final attempt to persuade Barnet to drop the crazy plan, pointing out that Triple I are lumping potential allies (the Autobots) in with the enemy – and inviting Decepticon attack.

The Autobots arrive and are promptly fired upon by the US military and of course they can’t return fire. Barnett’s comment about them coming to free a comrade is ridiculous, given that the Autobots are clearly not being hostile even under extreme provocation. However, it’s all too late as Soundwave and his cassettes arrive with a casket of fuel (and a petrol hose) and quickly restore Megatron to working order. The Decepticons make very short work of the army and the Autobots, in their weakened state are forced to withdraw. It’s odd seeing them leave humans to the mercy of Megatron (even if it’s the army’s own silly fault) it seems to run contrary to Autobot principles.

Laserbeak retrieves Donny and plonks him in front of Megatron for termination. Donny’s quick talking saves his own neck. He offers the Decepticons his assistance in continuing the dark propaganda so that they can continue to cast fear and suspicion about the Autobots. At this point Megatron really should’ve blasted him into oblivion but with Soundwave thinking it’s a good idea, he also agrees. A second broadcast occurs, with Robot Master backed up Megatron’s raw power (crushing huge boulders for effect). Afterwards Donny very stupidly strikes another match on Megatron’s foot (does he not have a matchbox?) and gets hoisted by the cape (if not his own petard) and warned by Megatron, in full-on public health warning mode, never to presume his value to the Decepticons or he may discover that smoking is hazardous to his health!

So, there you have it kids, smoking is not cool – as Donny’s habit gets him in trouble with Megatron! Overall, it’s a fun, slightly camp and off the wall story from Bob Budiansky that helps keep momentum with the Decepticons and the Autobots on the backfoot, which is important for the drama and tension. Robot Master is a rather ridiculous figure. He looks more like a bloke going to a comic convention in a silly outfit than a potential world dominator or terrorist mastermind. If you think about the concept seriously it quickly unravels – people will know Donny Finkleberg from his regular life and it wouldn’t take the cops or the media long to find out he’s a struggling comic book writer. I guess the story is meant to be enjoyed but not taken too seriously.

Interestingly, Shockwave won’t learn of Megatron’s return until TFUK#65 in another nine issues, which is strange since the ex-Decepticon leader has appeared on every TV channel with Robot Master.

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Rock and Roll-Out!

Jetfire joins the Autobot club and gets a free badge, as five reinforcements – Grapple, Hoist, Skids, Tracks and Smokescreen – debut and uncover a Decepticon presence at Brick Springhorn’s concert!

A key difference for me between Bob Budiansky, the writer of the US Transformers comic (and cover artist for this issue – see above) and his Marvel UK counterpart Simon Furman, was the way they approached the storytelling.

Simon’s stuff tends to be more serious, pitched to an older audience and leans towards the epic, while Bob’s style was more light-hearted and tongue in cheek (though always well structured and paced). Even when he’s writing about the serious business of Ratchet shouldering the burden of being the last surviving Autobot, or Megatron’s explosive showdown with Shockwave, Bob will keep the fun factor by inserting comedy moments involving baffled or freaked out humans.

Thanks to sillier ideas such as Robot Master and the infamous Carwash of Doom, Bob tends to get unfairly compared to Simon. In truth both made exceptional contributions to Transformers comics and both have had great moments. The cool thing about being a UK Transformers fan was that we our weekly comic ran every US story as well the homegrown material, so we had a best of both worlds.

Budiansky’s ‘Rock and Roll Out!’ appears in TFUK #53 and #54 in March 1986. It’s the first of his more ‘offbeat’ stories. The story opens with Jetfire undergoing the sacred Rite of the Autobrand. It’s an age-old ceremony which involves burning an Autobot insignia on to a recruit and them accepting fuel donated by their new comrades. Prime’s words “May your lustre never dull and your wires never cross” had a bit of charm to it, and years later I added the line to my email signature for a while. Another geek confession: even now, if we’re going somewhere, I might say to the kids ‘lets rock and roll out’ so this story must have left an impression.

Jetfire was of course created by the Decepticons, but stolen away by the Autobots. Optimus Prime used his Creation Matrix to give him life and a new purpose. He is the first of a new generation of Autobots, constructed on Earth, and as the Special Teams pull-out included with issue #54 amply illustrates, there are more on their way. A visit to Ratchet’s medical bay shows why new recruits are needed: it’s full of injured warriors, some in a bad way. As far as US readers are concerned these copped it during Prime Time, but in the UK expanded continuity they were casualties of the Dinobot Hunt. Luckily in Wheeljack’s lab, are five robotic bodies waiting to house the personalities of Grapple, Hoist, Smokescreen, Skids, and Tracks.

Budiansky was under constant pressure to keep up with the ever-expanding Hasbro toy line. These five, released in 1985, were overdue an appearance in the comic. The obvious way to bring them in would be to have the Autobots build them and Prime give them life with his Creation Matrix. To Budiansky’s credit he avoids the predictable solution and comes up with something novel (if a little flawed). We find out that these five previously existed on Cybertron and allowed the Ark to copy their minds in case reinforcements were needed (on the original mission to blast a safe passage for Cybertron through the asteroid belt, four million years ago). It begs the question of why not just just take the five along in the first place, rather than go to the trouble of building new bodies during the mission? Also, since we know that Transformers are basically immortal, isn’t it possible that the originals and are kicking around on the home world? Awkward.

Prime and Jetfire step into Wheeljack’s lab, where we witness crystals containing coded memories transfer via laser beams into five newly created robot bodies. With that they wake up as if from a deep sleep.

After the welcomes, Grapple is tasked by Optimus Prime to work on a secret task (we discover what that is in the upcoming story Command Performances). Meanwhile, Bumblebee will help the four other newbies to get acquainted with Earth.

Elsewhere, a fleet of navy vessels closes in on the Decepticon-controlled oil rig. G.B. Blackrock, the rig’s rightful owner, is on the deck of a ship with Walter Barnet from the government agency Triple III. This is Walter’s first appearance in the comic, but he’ll be a recurring character from this point onwards. Blackrock is depicted without his trademark moustache. It could be that artist Don Perlin forgot or just prefers him clean shaven!

It turns out that Starscream, Thundercracker and Skywarp have been toiling away on the rig, harvesting fuel for their recently returned commander, Shockwave. It’s been weeks already and Starscream is in mutinous mood. They are soon joined by Shockwave himself – who blows a hole in a cliff and emerges in flying gun mode (sending a couple of lovebirds diving for cover). He easily evades the navy’s fire and shows his warriors the power siphon he invented. It can convert energy from any sources into Energon cubes and will reduce their reliance on isolated outposts such as the rig. His every word is being eavesdropped by the navy who hear of a plan to harvest a huge release of sonic energy.

Incidentally this is the first time the US comic has acknowledged the existence of Energon cubes (which appear constantly in the cartoons). They do feature in the UK story Decepticon Dambusters, which is itself based on an episode of the Sunbow cartoon. Also, Shockwave’s return is handled without any fanfare. He simply got out of the swamp that he was chucked in by Optimus two US issues ago. In the UK continuity the Decepticons were leaderless for a time.

So, next morning Bumblebee and his trainees are blending into the Oregon traffic. Tracks is already admiring his sleak new vehicle mode. Thanks to modifications, the Autobots can now hide their insignias if necessary and create an illusion of a driver – a mannequin springs up on the driving seat at each Autobots command. After explaining such things as a speed limit, Bumblebee takes them into a Blackrock petrol station where they converse rather awkwardly with the attendants (who think they are either ventriloquists or double jointed). Hehehe!!!

Skids, the more sociable of the Autobots, is intrigued by the song on the station attendants’ radio. He’s told it is Brick Springstern and the Tenth Avenue Band! The lyrics are near identical to Dancing in the Dark, except with a few key word changes. Oddly, Springstern becomes Springhorn later in the story. That one obviously slipped by Editor Michael Carlin. I’m guessing that it was easier for the team to spoof Bruce Springsteen rather than go to all the trouble of asking permission to feature him.

So, to the second part which begins with Prime passing on information to Bumblebee that G.B. Blackrock has warned of a Decepticon plot to steal sonic energy. Both agree that it is likely to involve the Springhorn concert and Bumblebee is told to investigate, but not engage the enemy.

At the Washington DC, offices of Triple I (Intelligence and Information Institute), Walter Barnet calls on his boss Forrest Forsythe. The agency still has no idea what the Transformers are or what they want, and steps must be taken to contain the growing public hysteria. Barnett is told to come up with a plan. The interlude lays the seeds of the next story.

Bumblebee and his trainees drive into the concert parking area without paying the entrance fee. Fortunately, by deactivating their mannequins they park up and fool the security. There are 80,000 fans singing along to ‘Born in America’ when the noise is suddenly drained away. Hoist severs a mysterious cable leading from the stage to somewhere underground and suddenly the three Decepticon jets burst through the ground to attack.

Bumblebee falls in the hole, leaving the four rookie warriors to fight the Decepticons unguided. Luckily the fans all think the missiles and explosions are part of the concert (so much for Triple I’s fears of hysteria), even when Hoist steps up to the stage to weld a piece of rigging back together.

Shockwave is under the stadium, generating cubes from his siphon. It’s all a bit undignified for the Decepticon leader, who you would think wouldn’t have to do the graft himself. He decides to take his revenge for the Autobots spoiling the plan by soaring into the air in gun mode and preparing to incinerate the crowd. Bumblebee throws an Energon Cube at him and the blasts lights up the sky, sending Shockwave spinning off. We don’t find out whether the siphon Shockwave spent weeks making is retrieved or left under the stadium.

Despite Bumblebee disobeying orders, Prime is pleased at the way the new warriors acquitted themselves and they all learned an important motto from the day: the show must go on!

Included free with TFUK#54 is a pull-out mini comic featuring the new combining teams – or Special Teams as Marvel UK is referring to them – the Stunticons, Aerialbots, Combaticons and Protectobots. At a stroke the headcount is increased by 24. The three-page story sees the teams squaring off outside and power plant and demonstrating their combining abilities. The story is a little underwhelming but works as an advert for the new toys, which is what it’s intended to be. The story will be expanded on and put into a proper context by Marvel UK in issue #64.

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The Next Best Thing to Being There

Creating the Constructions – the comic’s first combiner team makes their debut; the Decepticons attempt to ‘phone home’ and Huffer gets his moment in the spotlight. It’s all in this Bob Budiansky fan favourite from November 1985.

The Next Best Thing To Being There. It was a memorable title for sure, but if you’d asked 11-year-old me from 1985 what it meant I wouldn’t have had a clue. Years later as a married father of three in my mid-40s (who probably should know better than to still be obsessed with Transformers, but hey-ho) I can’t say I’m any the wiser. If it’s about being present at the birth of the Constructicons – the Decepticons’ newest warriors and the first combiner team to grace the pages of a Transformers comic – well we ARE there at the bedside, or factory floor in this case. So, my best guess is it refers in some way to contacting ‘home’ – the next best thing to actually being there. Or maybe I’m overthinking things. One thing I know is that this enigmatic title continues to confound me.

The story occupies issue #10 of the US Transformers comic and issues #35 and #36 of the UK weekly edition. It opens with the eagerly awaited return of Gabe and Ferdy! Who? You ask. Why, the moustached pair of halfwits who carried Soundwave through security and into Blackrock’s aerospace planet some weeks ago. They and their fellow workers have now been reduced to slave labour, but at least they get a ringside seat for a momentous occasion – the first Transformers born on Earth.

Ever since Shockwave took Optimus Prime’s head hostage, he’s been threatening to plunder the Creation Matrix nested in the great Autobot’s mind to create a new generation of Decepticon warriors. Finally, that plot is coming to fruition – six brain modules have been prepared and are finally ready to be fused into robotic bodies. Shockwave’s narrative is an attempt to give it a respectable build-up but it comes off like the nonsensical technobabble we would get used to hearing from Star Trek engineers. Shockwave’s genuine bafflement at how Prime could stay leader of the Autobots for so long, with such a glaring weakness as caring about lesser beings, shows how they really are worlds apart.

Gabe and Ferdy, our baffled human bystanders provide the comedy element (complaining of singed facial hair) in what would otherwise be a Frankenstein moment, as the six purple and green distinctive robotic forms begin to come to life.

As a kid I was super excited for the debut of the Constructicons (even though I initially misread their name as Constructions). We’d glimpsed Longhaul in the previous comic (the next week feature) and I was blown away by this new character with his distinctly different green. Although Budiansky would later bemoan the constant pressure to introduce new characters (a result of Hasbro forever expanding the toy line) he did it very well, and by and large, as a reader, I was always thrilled to see new characters (with the possible exception of the Pretenders, who were just silly).

The Constructicons add another string to the Decepticon bow, as they can build literally anything required. For example the solar weapon in Target 2006 and the defences around the Decepticon coal mine base, both in later issues. Though, after this the team would largely fade into the background in the US stories and it will fall to the UK writers to give them more of a presence.

Who leads the team? We’re never quite sure, but Scavenger steps up to acknowledge Shockwave and receive their orders. He’s my favourite Constructicon based on the toy and his bio, but his motto, “everything is worth something, even me”, suggests a lack of confidence that you expect would preclude him from the team leadership.

Laserbeak paves the way for the Constructicons to depart on their first mission, but firing missiles at the army surrounding the plant. This provides a smoke cover and melts their tanks and machinery. This being a family friendly comic, no humans are killed in the making of that escape, but the military are really being shown up by the Decepticons.

Meanwhile, GB Blackrock gets a guided tour of the Ark from acting Autobot commander Prowl. We’re reminded about the deal agreed last issue by GB and Jazz. He’ll provide the Autobots with fuel in return for Autobot protection of his assets. The quest for a fuel source preoccupied but the Autobots and Decepticons in the early issues, so its good to see this resolved and not forgotten about. GB is awestruck by the Autobots’ advanced technology and his business mind is busy thinking about whether he could use it to gain a competitive edge in his business. He might sound like a bit of a bastard but to be fair he wouldn’t be a billionaire industrialist if he wasn’t someone who spots opportunities.

On learning that Optimus Prime is being held prisoner in the aerospace plant, Blackrock mentions that he bugged all the phones (to spy on his employees if he needs to – nice). That gives the Autobots an opportunity to listen in to Decepticon plans.

With Bumblebee spying on the plant, the Autobots are aware of the Constructicons departure and Prowl dispatches a group to intercept (including Huffer who could use some action to take his mind off things).

We’re then introduced to another of the oft-annoying human guest stars who Budiansky would introduce throughout his run. They’ll often provide some comedy relief or hold up a mirror to the Transformers alien natures. Bomber Bill – driver of a large red truck he calls Bessie – looks like a bearded Hell’s Angel but he’s actually a big softy who delights in showing the waitress at a diner, the photos of his kids he carries in his wallet.

We also meet Shockwave’s next project – Jetfire. This enormous jet is still in production but will shortly be ready to be infused with life. Of course, Prime no longer has the Matrix and thus he knows his usefulness will soon be at an end – but denying Shockwave the Matrix is as worthy a victory he thinks. Sparkplug Witwicky is finally home from hospital and pleasantly surprised to discover his son, Buster, has been able to repair all the cars in the garage. Readers know the truth, that its thanks to Buster now possessing Matrix superpowers.

Another Robot War recap preludes the second half of the story. As well as being an enjoyable read, it is probably useful and necessary to bring the comic’s newer readers up to date. Interestingly, there would only be three of these features with the final one appearing in issue #63.

In the first part we were introduced to Bomber Bill and his longing to go home, which echoed Huffer’s earlier sentiments. The two are clearly destined to cross paths and it is the Constructicons who provide the catalyst. Bill feels the diner shake as the Decepticon team scoops up vehicles and the roof of the diner itself, to be used as raw materials.

Everyone flees but Bomber Bill pursues on foot (his beloved six-wheeler Bessie having been stolen too). He flags down Huffer and, as always happens when someone meets an Autobot, is shocked to find nobody driving. Nel Yomtov has made a mess of colouring the Autobot convoy. Ironhide is coloured as Ratchet, Bluestreak (leading the mission) is depicted in Jazz’s colours and thereafter coloured to look like Prowl. Later Ironhide is coloured green and purple, which really smacks of someone not paying attention.

Unbeknown to readers, Soundwave has tagged along with the Constructicons. As they pull up alongside an enormous satellite dish, he transforms, erects a disruptive field and sets the Constructicons to work to enhance and amplify the equipment, before plugging himself in. The plan is to transmit a message to Cybertron!

The Autobots arrive and Soundwave insists the scrambler must be defended – he gives the order for the Constructicons to combine. Six Decepticons merge to become one ‘terrifying titan’ – Devastator! Normally this would have been a huge, exciting twist, but readers will have known what was coming thanks to the cover, but it’s cool nevertheless. The combination sequence feels a bit wasted though, having been covered in a single panel. We soon learn that for all of his size and power, Devastator is slow and clunky (the fusing of six minds is clearly an imperfect science) and as such he struggles to respond to Soundwave’s instructions.

Huffer has a perfect opportunity to unplug Soundwave before he can send the transmission, but not wanting to lose an opportunity to re-establish contact with Cybertron, he hesitates. When he hears Ironhide’s warning that the Decepticons will be able to bring an army to Earth, he tries to act but by then it’s too late. Huffer is downed by Devastator, Bomber Bill, having found his truck, drives it at Soundwave, and Huffer returns the favour by saving him. Their message sent, Soundwave and the Constructions depart rather than continue a fight they’ve already won.

Huffer asks the forgiveness of his comrades and gets some reassurance from his new pal Bomber Bill. The difference is that Bill can now go home but Huffer can’t.

Back at the aerospace plant, the Autobot eavesdropping device is functioning and Prowl overhears Shockwave bemoaning Prime’s failure to breathe life into Jetfire – if he no longer has the Matrix then there is no longer a logical reason to keep him alive. Suspense is building for the finale of this saga in four issues time.

In summary, it’s respectable enough debut for the Constructicons. We may not have a sense of them as individual personalities yet, but if the purpose was to showcase a new toy line and get kids excited enough to buy them then it will have achieved its purpose. Of course, sadly the toys will not be available in the UK. Devastator proved somewhat inept in battle due to his slowness – a case of brawn not brains.

Soundwave (coloured purple throughout) succeeds in sending a message to Cybertron which will have consequences in later issues. Re-establishing contact with Cybertron will also provide a means for Budiansky to introduce new characters without the need for gimmicks.

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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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Decepticon Dambusters

The Dinobots encounter human life for the first time, and it doesn’t go well! Ratchet decides to tell them a story of when the Autobots saved ungrateful townsfolk from a Decepticon attack on their dam, in this comic adaptation of a cartoon classic.

In the 1980s the Transformers were a global toy phenomenon first and foremost but also a hugely successful Sunbow cartoon and Marvel comic. Aside from adhering to a common origin story and character profiles, the cartoons and comics then went in completely different directions.

Both would develop the characters and introduce new ones in their own ways. To my mind the comics were more tightly woven and coherent but there are others who will argue for the cartoon being the official canon. Transformers the Movie in 1986 was something of an exception. It was such a massive event that the UK comic embraced it into its timeline, while the US comic continued its policy of ignoring the cartoons (with one notable exception being the awful 1988 story ‘The Big Broadcast of 2006’, so bad it makes me shudder to think of it.

Decepticon Dambusters is something of a rarity as it incorporates a storyline from a cartoon episode (More Than Meets The Eye part 2). It’s top and tailed by current events in the form of a story told to the Dinobots by Ratchet. This is only Simon Furman’s third Transformers story for Marvel UK and follows on from seven weeks of major US stories. By comparison it feels a little underwhelming and personally I find the top and tailed events more interesting that the main segment, which is basically a reinterpretation of a cartoon story I’ve (and most readers at the time) was already familiar with.

The story opens in bar where the TV news is showing scenes of Megatron’s battle with the Dinobots in a ski resort (in last issue’s story Repeat Performance). One grumpy patron wants the “rubbish” turned off. He’s far from convinced by claims of a giant robot invasion and steps out into the night… only to be confronted in the parking lot by Grimlock! Artist John Stokes draws the Dinobot leader, probably the closest to his toy form as I’ve seen in the comic, though smaller than he ought to be.

The incredulous bar-goer runs face-first into the leg of another Dinobot. All in all the team isn’t very impressed with their first specimen of carbon-based life and are not quite sure how this is the dominant lifeform. The man runs towards an approaching ambulance thinking he’s saved, only for it to transform into an apologetic Ratchet. Seconds later he’s running for his life in the opposite direction!

As the Dinobots continue their long march back to the Ark, Ratchet attempts to explain the complicated relationship between the Autobots and humanity. He flashes back to the early days of the Transformers war on Earth when Megatron was still Decepticon leader and their base was Fortress Sinister. The Autobots had been “monitoring” the base, whatever that means. It’s hard to imagine that a listening device would not have been detected by Soundwave as it transmitted.

The Decepticon are interested in Sherman Dam and in particular forcing water through it to generate an electrical surge that they could harness as a crude fuel substitute. Megatron blasts his way into the control centre (the ceilings are high enough for him to fit inside, luckily) and reveals that he is the reason the dam is about to burst – or rather Rumble is. He’s on the riverbed using his pile drivers to generate a tidal wave.

The Autobots assembled, led by Optimus Prime. Hound was dispatched into the water while Prime and Megatron engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Both leaders revealed an ability to substitute their hand for a weapon, in Megatron’s case a ball and chain, while Prime wields an axe. Starscream leads a bunch of anonymous looking Decepticons in a counter attack while other non-descripts are loading energon cubes into Thundercracker under Soundwave’s supervision. Again, who were these foot soldiers? The first part ends on not so much a cliff hanger but a fall – as Prime (distracted by Hound being propelled out of the water by Rumble’s powerful piledriver arms) is sent flying over the dam by Megatron!

The conclusion is billed as a ‘tidal wave of terror’ on the cover to TFUK#30. Furman has got his dams confused and now refers to it as Boulder Dam (rather than Sherman). Prime survives his plunge and is quickly fished out, but Megatron transforms to gun mode and blows the dam wide open. Prowl leads Jazz, Mirage, Ironhide, Bumblebee and Sideswipe to the human settlement below, while the other Autobots collapse rocks and carve out trenches with their blasters in order to halt the coming tsunami. Bumblebee, despite being ordered to leave with Prowl, is present with Optimus (and gets swept away by the water) and on the following page he’s back with Prowl’s group again. This is sloppy stuff and makes me wonder whether the story was rushed, or perhaps writer or artist felt a bit half hearted about it (like this reader).

Ironhide outruns the coming water with Bumblebee in the back blasting a trench in the road behind. Finally, the water calms down leaving no more than ankle deep flooding. They’ve saved the town but residents have heard that giant robots were responsible for destroying the dam and they turn their anger on the Autobots. Mirage has an outburst but Prime orders him to control himself. Optimus decided they had best leave, and so all the hard work had gained no appreciation – only more hate.

And so, back to current events. We see Josie Beller/Circuit Breaker with her arm coated in circuitry and thirsting for revenge, and GB Blackrock examining a huge laser gun that he plans to deploy against the Transformers. In my favourite scene in the story, Swoop flies ahead to Mount St Hillary, eager to see the mountain again after four million years; it is after all the nearest thing the Transformers have to a home on Earth. Ratchet is worried – there could be Decepticons guarding the Ark. Grimlock reassures him about Swoop: he can look after himself, he’s fast and real strong… famous last words, they arrive to Swoop having been battered by the huge muscle-bound menace that is Guardian!

In closing, many wonder where Decepticon Dambusters actually fits into continuity. This is finally mentioned in TFUK#63’s Robot War round-up. We’re told it happened right after the Transformers returned from searching for the Man of Iron in England. So that means that Sparkplug’s time as a Decepticon prisoner lasted much longer than we thought. Even worse the Autobots had taken their sweet time about rescuing him.

Another thought, how come Ratchet and the Dinobots are walking to the Ark anyway? What happened to the shuttle craft he used to travel to Antarctica and presumably back?

Stokes’ art gives the sense of this being a throwback to the early days as we’ve got Ironhide and others drawn true to their toys rather than their better-established cartoon forms. Last time Guardian had been squandered as a character as he was easily defeated by Windcharger and Ravage but now he’s back, having been reprogrammed to target and destroy anyone wearing an Autobot badge and it looks like he means business. From the largely irrelevant flashback to the dam we’re now back in the thick of the action the stage is set for an epic showdown next issue.

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Repeat Performance!

Transformers UK celebrates one year in print by going weekly and full colour! In the main story, Ratchet journeys to the Savage Land to locate the Dinobots and hopes they can assist him in defeating Megatron.

Issue #27 of the Marvel UK Transformers comic heralds some big changes for the book. After a successful 12 months as a fortnightly publication the team has taken the major step of going weekly. This reflects the growing confidence in the title (it would quickly become Marvel UK’s flagship) but also in the team’s abilities to generate the flow of home-grown material that will now be needed with even more issues to fill in between reprinting the American stories. I’m sure the presence of Simon Furman on the UK team will have encouraged them to think a weekly could work.

For now, Simon has a bit of breathing space while the UK comic runs the Marvel US story ‘Repeat Performace!’ by Bob Budiansky and artist William Johnson in its issues #27 and #28. It begins in one of the most improbable places, a hidden pocket of prehistoric jungle on the continent of Antarctica. I remember being aware of the Savage Land from other Marvel comics but I didn’t quite appreciate at the time that Antarctica is actually a frozen waste land and certainly not a place where lifeforms dependent on a hot climate would last very long.

For those who are interested, the explanation for the Savage Land is that it was created by technologically advanced aliens who set up game reserves on a number of worlds in order to observe the evolution of the wildlife. The Savage Land was one such reserve, and even though it has long been abandoned by the alien observers, the technology which maintains the tropical climate in the zone continues to function. So there we are. Incidentally this will be the last time that Transformers and the wider Marvel universe continue to co-exist. After this it isn’t stated that they are separate but in practice those paths never cross.

The story opens with Ratchet navigate swampland atop his M.A.R.B (Mobile Autobot Repair Bay). He’s forced to use a surgical weapon on a huge snake which attaches itself to his neck. Under normal circumstances the ever curious Ratchet would pause to learn more about this tubular life form (just as he was fascinated by a log fire last issue) but he has work to do. Cue a flashback to his discovery of the Autobots laying deactivated and captive in the Ark and Prime’s words that he must learn to think like a warrior. He bought himself time by striking a bargain with Megatron that he will defeat Shockwave for him in return for reclaiming the Ark. But the possibility of betrayal is high.

Shockwave travels to the Ark to check in on Megatron. I like that, walking computer that he is, Shockwave has calculated the odds of having to terminate his rival for insubordination. So far, he’s adjusting well to “taking orders not giving them” and has prepared Optimus Prime’s head for transport as instructed. As we’ll soon see, Prime’s head will be relocating to the recently captured aerospace plant where Shockwave intends to manufacture the next generation of Decepticon warriors.

Ratchet, meanwhile, detects Transformers life signals in a tar pit and uses a power hose to unearth the Dinobot Slag in unexpectedly quick time. He taps into Slag’s memory banks with the MARB and finally we’re privy to the origin of the Dinobots (and their fateful encounter with Shockwave). The account is narrated by Slag in a gruff but coherent way (he certainly doesn’t sound like the dumb dino of the Transformers cartoon).

Readers had been led to believe that the Ark and all aboard where rendered inoperative when the ship crashed into Mount St Hilary four million years ago. Apparently not. The ship still functioned, but rather than repair the fallen Autobots it had dispatched a probe to the Savage Land to spy on Shockwave and then revived five Autobots to take him on. They had been invested with the ability to change into dinosaurs in order to blend in. Oddly the Ark was able to recognise ‘organic life’ (dinosaurs) in this case, but when it reactivated again in 1984 it ignored humans and animals and instead mistook vehicles, planes and machines as the planet’s life forms!

So, we see the Dinobots tackle Shockwave, five against one. He is repels them all, sending them crashing down a cliff alongside the tar pit where Ratchet now is. Shockwave had cast Swoop into the tar, causing him to sink – “a bad way to go” Slag says – and Snarl brought down the cliff with a swish of his powerful tail. The result was the Dinobots falling into the tar and Shockwave getting buried under tons of rubble. The Decepticon would eventually be reawakened by the probe Ratchet dispatched in the original mini-series. The rest is history as they say. Annoyingly Nel Yomtov has coloured Shockwave in white and blue, obviously confusing him with Megatron which is all a bit amateur hour.

In a nice moment, Slag revives and charges at Ratchet, but the doc peels back tar to reveal his Autobot insignia. Slag transforms for a proper introduction, and on hearing that Shockwave lives again, he’s determined to finish the job.

Part 2 begins with GB Blackrock and the military speaking to reporters outside his imprisoned aerospace plant. Shockwave soars overhead in robot mode carrying equipment that looks like a tank but could well be a container of some sort carrying the head of Optimus Prime. He opens fire on the military and makes short work of them. Further humiliation for Blackrock who really should stop doing these media engagements.

Elsewhere, his paralysed employee Josie Beller has succeeded in coating her right arm in circuitry. For some reason the words ‘she cannot move of lift it on her own’ have been substituted in the UK version with ‘moving it causes her great pain’. She’ll feature again on the last page, tooled up and ready to ‘check out’ from the hospital, but only in the US version of the story. The UK reprint will substitute that half page for a fact file on Snarl (it being a month before we’ll see Josie Beller reborn as Circuit Breaker).

Megatron is ruing the day he allowed Ratchet to go free. He’s sure he’s fled like a coward and the attack on Shockwave won’t happen, despite his obligations under Cybertronian custom. But then Ratchet gets in touch with images of Shockwave being brought down. Little does Megatron realise that this is old footage from Slag’s memories, and even though it would be startlingly simple to contact Shockwave and check whether he’s still around or not, amazingly he does not and believes he’s been shown a genuine take-down.

The stage is set for one of the greatest Ratchet moments in the comic. He is confronted by Megatron on a snow-coated mountain (skiers fleeing in fright) and told by the Decepticon that he never had any intention of upholding their bargain (quell surprise). Megatron goes on to mock Ratchet as failed warrior – he should have found a way to fight his enemy not trust him, he says – but suddenly the Dinobots rise from under the snow and the tables are turned. I think on some level Megatron is actually impressed.

He’s quickly attacked by the Dinobots, but their time in the tar pit has dulled their effectiveness and they are easily repelled. It falls to Ratchet to remember Optimus Prime’s words and prove himself as a warrior. He charges Megatron, hoping to carry them both over a cliff to their doom. Megatron absorbs the impact and is set to grant Ratchet an honourable death, when the ground beneath him crumbles and he falls hundreds of feet, transforming and shrinking into his gun mode until he is swallowed up by the snow (he’s gone, but obviously not for good – we’ll see him again in TFUK #51). The way is now clear for Ratchet and the Dinobots to reclaim the Ark and revive the fallen Autobots.

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Warrior School

Ratchet is the last Autobot standing and must learn to become a warrior if he is to survive and rescue his comrades. Meanwhile the Decepticons continue to target installations owned by GB Blackrock and the UK comic announces some exciting changes going forwards.

Warrior School. 35 years after it was first published it remains in my mind one of the standout stories of the original Marvel G1 and one I have an abiding affection for. Essentially it is a coming of age story – Chief Medical Officer Ratchet stepping out his comfort zone in a major way and learning the ways of the warrior. His stepping up to the plate shows real, genuine courage and is an example to all of us, young impressionable readers as we were at the time. The scale of his challenge is enormous, and the stakes incredibly high. This is a classic success against impossible odds story that great comics (and fiction generally) are made of and, together with the second instalment ‘Repeat Performance’ cements Ratchet’s reputation and standing as a major character in Transformers.

I can still remember stepping out of my local newsagent with a copy of TFUK#26 in my eager 11-year-old hands, being blown away by the usual 11 page story being increased to an incredible 23 pages. And the full-page announcement on page 30 that the comic is celebrating its first year in print by GOING WEEKLY and full colour was tremendous news! Of course, it would mean having to swallow a 3p increase, but in view of what we were getting in I considered this to be no hardship.

Once again, it’s Bob Budiansky writing the script (as he would until US issue #55) and joined on the art by a new credit, William Johnson. He had worked on a bunch of Marvel superhero titles but would only illustrate this Transformers story and the next. I wondered why and his entry in TFWiki provides a clue. It mentions a comment Budiansky made to a fansite, that Johnson was “a very nice guy with a lot of talent” but struggled to meet the deadlines of a monthly comic book. So perhaps that was the reason for his short association, but his art on Warrior School is emotive and enjoyable.

The story begins in the woods near the Ark, with a romantic narration of “the sweet scent of Douglas Fir and a dome of stars in the indigo sky” – I wondered whether Budiansky was a fan of camping? Four college students are around a camp fire when a falling tree causes them to scatter. The cause of the interruption is the Autobot Ratchet, who had collided with the “brown pipe” while looking for the road. Buster Witwicky, his teenage friend and ally is on Ratchet’s shoulder and is happy to interpret for the young people. He knows from experience that a giant talking robot can be a difficult concept to come to terms with.

Ratchet is fascinated by the concept of burning wood to generate fire (there’s nothing like it on Cybertron) and demonstrates how his laser scalpel can cook hotdogs more efficiently. The gentle way Ratchet interacts with humanity is a real contrast to what we’re used to seeing from the Decepticons at this time. When Buster recoils in sudden, inexplicable pain we’re reminded that Optimus Prime did something to him when the pair were mind-linked recently.

It’s agreed that the students will take Buster home and Ratchet is reminded that he has more important problems. Never a truer word spoken, he is the last Autobot and the burden of stopping the Decepticons rests entirely on his shoulders. The encounter with the students was an enjoyable distraction but he can’t put off his responsibilities much longer.

‘Hey, what about GB Blackrock?’ I hear nobody ask. Well, he’s about to become possibly the unluckiest CEO in America as first his oil drilling platform was annexed by the Decepticons and now his aerospace plant is in the crosshairs too. In a slapstick moment, two workers, Gabe and Ferdy stop to claim an abandoned cassette deck that’s been left in the parking lot, then proceed to walk it passed the wall mounted gun defences. It is of course the Decepticon Soundwave, who transforms and bursts out of the locker in which he’s been placed. It’s obviously a room with very high ceilings as Soundwave is able to stand at full height while ejecting Laserbeak skywarps to assist in putting down any resistance. The plant was clearly unprepared for an attack from within and quickly falls. Blackrock is crestfallen and humiliated, particularly as Soundwave has been broadcasting the footage far and wide. Clearly some good PR for the Decepticons to advertise their menace and that they have hostages.

We’re briefly shown Blackrock visiting his paralysed employee Josie Beller and delivering equipment she asked for. Josie has use of one arm and hints to the reader that she is determined to take her revenge. This is clearly a developing situation and she and Blackrock are being established as ongoing characters. I’m a little indifferent to them at this point.

And so to the main events of the issue. Ratchet has sneaked into the Ark and finds it deserted. The Decepticons are elsewhere at their temporary new base, the Blackrock rig, and Commander Shockwave has left Megatron on Ark guard duty. Ratchet is horrified to discover the Autobots all inoperative and suspended from the ceiling like some macabre nightmare. He then finds the head of Optimus Prime descends into despair – could everything be lost?

Amazingly Prime speaks, uttering one of the truly memorable lines: “Put aside your grief Ratchet, now is time for valour”. He explains that the Decepticons intend to extract the Matrix from him and he has taken steps to thwart them (clearly in reference to Buster). But just as Ratchet trained to be a medic on Cybertron, on Earth he must become a warrior and use his guile and cunning to find a way to defeat Megatron. His own survival will be his ultimate test. All well and good but Prime is surely placing unrealistic expectations on his Chief Medical Officer here – there is no way Ratchet can best Megatron in one-to-one combat and to put himself in that position is surely suicidal.

There’s an interlude where Buster is joined at his dad’s repair shop by friends Jessie and ‘O’. He’s under a lot of stress, worrying about his dad, the Autobots and keeping the family business going when he knows next to nothing about repairing cars. He snaps at his friends, causing them to leave. In O’s case this will be permanent as this issue turns out to be his last appearance. No sooner is he alone, Buster feels the pains again the various tools around him start levitating! Interesting.

Ratchet goes looking for Megatron (you immediately know this is a bad idea) and fails to notice the Decepticon ex-leader sneaking up. Megatron’s giant hand grasps Ratchet’s shoulder and partially crushes it. He wants to add the medic to his “collection of scrapped Autobots” and will alleviate the boredom by taking his time over it! Ratchet punches Megatron as hard as he can and zaps him with his hold and cold medical tools but to no effect. With brute force not an option, he will need to outsmart Megatron. And so, Ratchet offers to help Megatron regain his command by locating the Dinobots and setting them against Shockwave. In return Megatron will hand back custody of the Ark to Ratchet.

Megatron treats the readers to a brief history of his rivalry. On Cybertron Shockwave had been supreme Decepticon military operations officer and the strategist who had plotted their ambush of the Ark. Shockwave had stayed behind on the Decepticon ship as a back-up. Megatron perceived this as self-serving and was already making plans to destroy this rival.

We then learn (through Megatron’s continuing narration) that Shockwave travelled to Earth to investigate the disappearance of the Ark (which had collided with the planet) and the radiation belt effected his navigation systems, causing him to touch down in timeless region of Antarctica where dinosaurs still roamed (Marvel Comics’ Savage Land). The Ark had revived five Autobots and gave them the dinosaur alt-modes, and the team had battled Shockwave. It is not known what happened next or why they or Shockwave disappeared for four million years.

While helpful for the readers, I’m unclear as to how Megatron has learned about the Dinobots. It’s unlikely Shockwave has revealed anything more to him, so perhaps Megatron has accessed the Ark’s databanks similar to Ratchet did some issues ago?

He agrees to Ratchet’s suggestion – mainly to provide an amusing distraction, rather than an expectation of success – and the two seal the deal by contributing fuel to beaker and setting it alight. We’re told this is an ancient Cybertron ritual and no about has broken such a pact. Megatron, of course, is no Autobot! And so, the stage is set for the dramatic debut of the Dinobots. With the sequel arriving in just seven (not 14) days these were exciting times for the UK Transformers comic.

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The Worse of Two Evils

The Decepticons are under new management as the reign of Shockwave begins! Meanwhile Optimus Prime’s head is a prisoner of the Decepticons and his troops are all non-functioning, saving for the surgeon Ratchet. Phew! Things sure aren’t looking good for the good guys at this point.

As first impressions go, Shockwave takes some beating! With impeccable timing, he showed-up and blasted the victorious Autobots into next week, single-handedly saving the Decepticon army from certain defeat. His cold logic and awesome firepower ensured he was quickly able to press his advantage and consolidate control of the Decepticon forces, ruthlessly ejecting Megatron from power. He has big bold plans and has identified exactly how to use Optimus Prime for maximum advantage. And to top it off Shockwave has featured solo on one of the most stunning covers in Transformers comic history. All in all, not bad for a newcomer.

In terms of a comparison with the raw power and cunning of Megatron, which of them is the worse of the two evils? This is the question for eager readers to ponder, as posed by the title of this instalment. It was published in UK issues #24 and #25 in August and early September 1985.

The story opens at an oil drilling platform off the Oregon coast. This gleaming steel example of man’s struggle to conquer the natural elements is billed as the ‘most productive and technologically advanced’ facility of its kind, and well defended too. We’re told the roustabouts (a new term on me, but it means unskilled workers) are proud of the rigs industry-leading reputation and want everyone to know about it. Trouble is they now have the wrong kind of attention as Shockwave soars overhead in space gun mode and claims the facility for himself.

Surprisingly, G.B. Blackrock, the millionaire industrialist who owns the platform has got an office on board! Likewise, the young technology hotshot who designed the rig, Josie Beller, is also present and at the controls of the rig’s defences. At Blackrock’s command, cannons spring up and security staff in laser-equipped helicopters mount a counterattack. For a business venture, the rig is surprisingly well defended!

Shockwave blasts the rig repeatedly. You would think this would be enough to reduce it to rubble floating on the sea surface, but not so. Josie obeys an order to unleash harpoons, which piece the Decepticon leader’s armour. Shockwave soars higher and rips the harpoons from their moorings. We also learn that he can deploy bursts of light from his gun barrel which are enough to blind his opponents.

Blackrock orders staff to abandon the rig. Josie Beller refuses the instruction (not for the last time, as well see in later stories). She pays the price as falling debris sets off a chain reaction that sees Beller fried by a huge electrical discharge. Blackrock carries the wounded young woman topside where they are confronted by Shockwave in his full robot glory. He will allow the survivors to depart, but only so that they can spread the word that reign of the Decepticons has begun!

Meanwhile, Megatron is feeling like yesterday’s news as seething with anger as he sees his erstwhile warriors now following Shockwave’s orders. But what can he do while he’s manacled to a wall, undergoing repairs and well below his normal strength. He’s cutting a pretty pathetic figure at this point. Likewise, Optimus Prime is also in a bad spot thanks to Shockwave. He head has been removed from his body and is suspended by several beams. Prime is being kept alive because Shockwave plans to plunder the Creation Matrix energy which resides in the Autobot leader. With it he can create a new generation of Decepticon warriors.

Last time we saw Buster infiltrate the Ark and discover Prime’s fate. He’s now informed by the stricken Optimus that the fate of the Autobots is in his hands, whatever that could mean. Though Buster promised his father he wouldn’t get involved any further, it’s clear the situation is desperate and so he agrees to Prime’s demand that they establish a mind link. Buster attaches a cable to either side of his head, which immediately earths and administers a severe shock, rendering him unconscious! Just what is Prime playing at?

The story continues in TFUK#25 a fortnight later. The comic’s editorial page Transformation promises the ‘fight of the century’ as Megatron and Shockwave resolve their differences robot to robot. From the looks of the cover it you’d have to figure that Megatron is about to meet his match.

Though evenly matched in brute strength and firepower in normal circumstances, timing is a huge element in success or failure. Megatron knows that now is the wrong time to make a move on Shockwave – he is not fully recovered and is too weak to succeed, but his pride will no longer allow him to stand by passively while another assumes his rightful command. It must be particularly galling to be on the receiving end of Shockwave’s put downs about securing a defendable new base (the rig) and fuel source, which were goals that alluded Megatron as leader.

Ratchet, watching from a safe distance outside, has seen Shockwave return to the Ark. Buster staggers out, looking like he’s been caught in the middle of Megatron-Shockwave grudge match. He tells Ratchet that the Autobots are all dead and Prime is a prisoner!

Now it’s the moment fans have been waiting for. Megatron breaks free and with the immortal line “Shockwave, you are relieved of command” -unleashes the full power of his fusion cannon against his rival. Shockwave is propelled through the side of the mountain and crashes into a football stadium in the heart of a human settlement. One player’s comment “I hope he’s not playing for Deforest High this Saturday” shows once again how Bob Budiansky, the writer, loves to inject a bit of camp humour into proceedings – even in a fight to the finish between Decepticon rivals!

There’s a nice touch with Megatron stepping over a supermarket’s roof and presumably flattening a car or two as he pursues Shockwave. He’s repelled backwards, through a wall by Shockwave, who accuses Megatron of foolishness for attacking at less than full strength. Shockwave’s claim that even at full strength he is the stronger is curious. If this were true you wonder why Megatron had not been deposed before now.

Even in battle Shockwave continues to analyse and deduce the strength of his opponent based on his reaction time. He exploits Megatron’s unhealed wounds by battering him with a water tower and causing him to short circuit. Transforming into gun mode, Shockwave finishes the job.

Poor Megatron, he is beaten and about to be given the humiliation of his life. Shockwave refuses him the death he asks for and instead takes him back to the Ark to become an example to the other Decepticons of the fate of any who defy Shockwave. The Decepticons in unison pledge their lives and loyalty to their new commander. Megatron raises his arm and does the same. His humiliation is complete.

In summary, wow – what a battle. It really summed up the difference in style between the terrifyingly smart and calculating Shockwave and emotional and foolhardy Megatron. The outcome was never in any doubt but Shockwave’s humiliation of his rival is brutal. We may not have had the Autobots in the story for a while but I’m not missing them at this point – the drama in the Decepticon ranks is more than enough.

The final panel sees Ratchet drawn with a red Decepticon insignia – oops! And issue #25’s Soundwaves settles a long running debate over whether Ravage is a dog. We’re told he’s in fact closest to a jaguar.

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The New Order

There’s nothing quite so nostalgic as revisiting your first Transformers issue – and in my case it was TFUK #23. It was August 1985 and I’d been getting into TF in a big way thanks to the Sunbow cartoon series which was airing as part of the school holiday kids programmes. Aged 11, my routine at the time was to accompany my mum food shopping on a Tuesday and spend the afternoon at my gran’s. On this occasion I wandered along to her local shop and spotted issue #23 on the shelf.

I was immediately struck by the cover – Buster surrounded by dead Autobots (and a couple of erroneously inserted Decepticons) and his immortal line “the Autobots strung up like slabs of beef… but where’s Optimus?”. Where indeed? On eagerly reading the story and discovering Prime’s fate (more on that shortly) I was both dumbstruck and blown away. The comic was darker and serious than the cartoon and had done something I totally didn’t expect, by having the Decepticons seemingly win the Transformers civil war! Chief Medical Officer Ratchet and 17-year-old Buster was the Autobots’ last hope against the powerful Decepticon army – a real David v Golliath contest! How could I not pick up the subsequent issues to see how this played out?

So, first a bit of context. Transformers was initially envisaged as a four issue, bi-monthly mini-series in the States. Marvel were obviously content with the sales as they gave a green light for the title to continue as a monthly ongoing concern, starting at #5. Bob Budiansky, the comic’s editor took over the writing cudgels for an incredible 50 more issues. So, in a sense, the story’s title, The New Order represented more than just the events in the comic strip. It was mirrored in real life too.

In the UK we’d been left on tenterhooks for seven months, waiting to find out what would happen next after Shockwave showed up and blasted the Autobots, decisively ending the war and leaving himself the last Transformer standing!

The UK comic has received an overhaul for issue #22 and now carries an introductory page called Transformation and a new letters page hosted by Soundwave. We’re also given some major hints about the impending debut (or should that be return) of The Dinobots!

The cover for TFUK#22 (which is reprint of TFUS#5) is utterly iconic. It features the victorious Shockwave, gun arm smouldering and the words The Transformers Are All Dead burned into the wall. Need I say more? It sets the scene nicely for the story, which begins with the coldly logical Shockwave studying human TV and media and concluding that Earth’s dominant species are “more primitive” than he thought. The UK version of the opening page has a scene from the sci-fi series V (where Mike Donavan learns that Earth’s visitors are really reptiles with sinister intentions!). One news item is about a state-of-the-art oil drilling platform owned by GB Blackrock. This piques Shockwave’s interest.

He strolls through a large room to where a number of Decepticons are undergoing repairs, passing through a chamber with the Autobots are hanging from the ceiling like meat. It’s another chillingly iconic image (courtesy of artist Alan Kupperberg) that illustrates how bad the situation is for the heroic forces. We then find Megatron manacled to a wall, healing from the terrible internal injuries he sustained from Sparkplug’s poisonous fuel.

Although Megatron thinks he can resume command of the Decepticons, Shockwave has other ideas. His logical mind reasons that Megatron’s leadership is faulty – it almost led to the total defeat of the Decpticons and worse still, he had been tricked by a lowly human! The logical conclusion is that new leadership is called for, and Shockwave will provide it! Poor Megatron, he’s furious but too weak to do anything about it. He will have to accept the humiliation for now. However, to prove his point Shockwave executes a deactivated Autobot with his gun arm (though the colouring is all wrong, it’s generally thought that this unlucky bot is Sunstreaker – who is too damaged to be fixed for a long time).

The story continues in TFUK#23. It’s time to head over to the hospital where Sparkplug Witwicky is recovering from a mild heart attack. Here, Ratchet is returning from being abducted by paramedics who thought he was a regular ambulance. At this point Ratchet is blissfully unaware of events at the Ark or that he is now the last Autobot standing!

Buster tells him about the corrosive fuel. Ratchet is delighted but finds it odd that he’s unable to raise anyone at HQ via internal radio. Buster’s offer to accompany Ratchet so as to avoid a driverless ambulance raising suspicion sounds sensible. Then again it would also look pretty suss having a teenager at the wheel of an ambulance.

In a display of the light and shade that alternates throughout the story, we get comical moments where Ratchet scares the bejesus out the hospital staff by revealing himself as a talking ambulance – and later when he’s reasoning with a traffic light. We also get Sparkplug issuing a heartfelt appeal to Buster to say his goodbyes and walk away from the Autobots and the Transformer war is too dangerous to be involved in.

Back at the Ark, Megatron tries unsuccessfully to tease details from Shockwave as to where he’s been for the past four million years. His defensiveness tells Megatron that there could be something here that he can use against Shockwave when the time comes. The new commander is happy to reveal his current plans, however. He thinks 11 Decepticons are insufficient to conquer Earth and its resources, so he will tap into the mysterious Creation Matrix that is housed in the mind of Optimus Prime, and use it to create a new generation of Decepticon warriors. The Autobots are to serve as a supply of spare parts!

Ratchet and Buster park up a distance from the Ark and find Rumble and Frenzy standing guard. Ratchet will not be able to sneak past undetected but Buster can. The youth discovers the shocking fate of the Autobots but Prime is not among them – surely he survived? Moments later Buster finds the Autobot leader’s dismembered head. It speaks and pleads for help… Buster is the Autobots’ last hope!

In summary, the story has been a long time coming but, wow, it’s certainly been worth the wait. I can think of no time before or after when things have been quite so bleak for the Autobots – their fate literally lies in the hands of a teenage boy and an Autobot who is not even a warrior. How can they succeed against impossible odds? It’s a great set up for a story and even though the Autobots are removed the picture (with the obvious exception of Ratchet) there’s no loss of tension that the simmering situation between Megatron and the usurper Shockwave.

A Robot War feature in TFUK#22 updates readers on the story so far and explains how the recent UK prequels fit into the current timeline.

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