Dinobot Hunt

One of the most eagerly anticipated Simon Furman stories of the early Marvel UK Transformers. The Dinobots have reverted to primal states – their brains addled by millions of years spent in a tar pit. It’s up to the Autobots to bring them in before they unleash havoc, but the Decepticons are determined to exploit the situation for maximum advantage.

Bob Budiansky said that one of the challenges he faced as the writer of the American Transformers comic was the constant requirement to introduce new characters. This was to ensure the comic kept pace with Hasbro’s ever-expanding toy line – but with only 12 monthly issues per year it inevitably meant that characters would be introduced and then vanish for long periods (the Constructicons for example).

The Dinobots were criminally under-used in the US comic for two years after their introduction. However, this created an opportunity for Simon Furman to utilise them in the weekly UK Transformers comic without conflicting with anything Bob was doing. So, in 1985/6 we had the Wrath of Guardian/Grimlock, Dinobot Hunt, Victory and In the National Interest.

Dinobot Hunt, published in February 1986 (with Will Simpson and Barry Kitson alternating on the art), was our first meaty Dinobot story. It follows on from The Icarus Theory which reintroduced Swoop and alerted the Autobots to the fact that the Dinobots had reverted to their baser instincts. Optimus Prime declared that their top priority was now to track down and subdue the Dinobots before human lives were lost.

Issue #47 kicks off the hunt in the Nevada Black Rock desert where three human soldiers venture into a sandstorm to investigate giant spikes protruding from the ground. These solar collectors are attached the missing Dinobot Snarl, who is submerged in the sand. One of the men uses a laser saw (standard issue for the US army in the 80s?) and tries to cut into a spike. The predicable result is that the sleeping Dinobot roars into life and attacks the humans. They are saved only by the arrival of Mirage, Brawn and Trailbreaker.

In flashback, we see Optimus Prime and Prowl briefing the hunter teams of situation and their targets – Grimlock, whose jaws that can cut an opponent in two; Snarl, whose strength increases ten-fold in sunlight; Slag, fast, ferocious and fire-breathing; and Sludge, deadly in water.

Snarl’s vision appears to be severely pixelated. Whether this is due to his condition is unclear, but if not then he really should go to Specsavers. He makes out the three enemy forms and charges, injuring Mirage before escaping into the storm. Prowl, who is coordinating via a shuttle, tracks the Dinobot heading west – where he runs into a secret military base (literally), taking out the fence and coming under heavy fire.

General Carl Thompson, commanding, finds the alarms a welcome relief from the boredom. On seeing Snarl, he realises that “only a nuclear strike” will do – this sounds incredibly like ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’, but their weapon alters molecular structure and in this case is useful for making Snarl revert to his robot mode and collapse.

Simpson does a solid job on the art, but it’s a slow start to the story. Unfortunately, neither Snarl or the hunters get up-to much and we’re missing the involvement of the Decepticons. With Laserbeak spying on the Autobots at the end though, it’s an indication that they are about to enter the fray.

Things hot up in the second part as we head to Little Wood, a “vast inland waterway” in Northern California. It’s popular with tourists apparently (despite looking like a midgie-filled swamp) and three newcomers have shown up today – trouble is they are Decepticons! We don’t see who until the end of the story, leading to speculation from my comic reading schoolfriends back in the day that it might be the Insecticons – no such luck. They bully a couple of locals to spill the beans about a monster sighting in the swamp, before blowing their home to bits. Harsh!

The Autobots have sent A-Team (no not that A-Team) of Gears, Cliffjumper and team leader Windcharger to track-down the Dinobot Sludge, who they think is in the area. In those pre-google days I imagine Furman having to pour over an atlas of North America to identify swamps and deserts that can feature in the story. Interestingly, according to Mr Google, only Black Rock Desert which is a real location.

Sludge is not far away, quietly munching on vegetation (his condition having turned him docile) and has been befriended by a TV reporter named Joy Meadows who eyes him as her ticket to the big time.

After some mirth with Gears getting pulled out of the swamp by Windcharger’s magnetic powers, the Autobots are confronted by the river police who are responding to all the local destruction caused by the Decepticons and decide these three robots are the culprits. It’s a nice opportunity for Cliffjumper to deploy his glass-gas gun (not seen for a long while) against one of the vessels.

The Autobots see blaster fire in a clearing and run towards it. They find poor Joy Meadows “dealt with” (though she’ll survive and return) and Sludge unconscious. The trio are cut down by a volley of fire, as Soundwave, Skywarp, and the Scavenger (yay!) reveal themselves. I’m genuinely excited to see Scavenger reappearing (although annoyingly drawn with a regular face instead of his distinctive ‘gas mask’ in one panel) as the Constructicons have been is conspicuous by their absence.

You have to wonder how Sludge made it as far as Northern California without being noticed by anyone. Or Grimlock all the way to Canada for that matter! The issue features a ‘Who’s Who’ flowchart about the Decepticons which also provides a reminder of previous stories.

From the muddy swamps of California, we’re off to Cowboy country for part 3. Slag, amusingly described in the blurb as “as mean a critter as you’ll ever come across” is causing havoc by trampling a ranch and gets pursued by hot-headed human Greg and his brother. I’m quite fond of this instalment, partly for the ridiculousness of cowboys lassoing Slag and for Jetfire showing up still wearing his Decepticon badge.

Soundwave, Skywarp and Scavanger arrive in Idaho to discover a buckled Decepticon insignia and evidence of a recent battle. They find Laserbeak in bad shape but still able to transform and deliver his report (interestingly he makes bird like noises while in robot/bird mode but can ‘speak’ while delivering playback. Perhaps it’s like Bumblebee in the Bay films being unable to speak and communicating through his radio).

Laserbeak had observed two “suicidal” human brothers on horseback pursuing Slag and one of them unloading a rifle on him at close range. The crude weapon only served to get his attention. D-Team, consisting of Jazz, Ironhide and the Decepticon defector Jetfire came to their rescue.

The bad attitude Jetfire gets from Ironhide over his Decepticon badge shows that things must be uncomfortable for him at the moment. Jazz alludes to there having been no time to perform the ‘Rite of Autobrand’ (giving him his badge) which rather pre-empts the upcoming US story Rock and Roll-out. Slag might be a triceratops, not a bull, but that’s close enough for Furman who has him ‘see red’ and charge at Ironhide. This allows Jetfire to swoop down, transform and wrestle the Dinobot to the ground.

Jazz gets Greg safely out of the way but pays the price with a fireball at close range. We’ve always known that Transformers have the ability to grow or shrink in transformation, but the rule also applies to their weaponry. We see Jazz remove a gun from a compartment in his mid-section, and it promptly enlarges to actual size. It’s a nice detail.

Jetfire got pierced by Slag’s horn, explaining the amputated badge that would later be found by Scavenger, and Laserbeak was rendered unconscious by being thrown into Slag’s maw by the Autobots. This turned Slag’s flame inwards and he overheated. Laserbeak proves himself amazingly durable.

His offer to take responsibility for the failure to apprehend Slag shows a certain honour among thieves, while Soundwave’s refusal to apportion blame is perhaps indicative of his respect for Laserbeak, loyalty towards one of his cassettes and good leadership skills (better to keep the troops on side). We learn that Soundwave hopes to set their captured and manacled Sludge against any other Dinobots they can find – and having lit a fuse they’ll sit back and watch the Autobot casualties mount. Soundwave may only be interim Decepticon leader, but he’s demonstrating a flair for exploiting the weaknesses of his enemy in order to make quick gains.

So, to the concluding part, which also happens to be Transformers UK’s landmark 50th edition. To mark the occasion readers are promised a clash between two frenzied Dinobots and the issue doesn’t disappoint.

The Decepticons have travelled to Doonstown in Canada where the last remaining Dinobot, Grimlock, is located. They rigged up a device in their captured Autobot shuttle (the one used by A-Team, who are manacled inside) to broadcast a signal to Sludge, keeping him in a fighting mad state, then set him against Grimlock. The result was explosive – the destruction of the town and C-Team also down. Bluestreak and Huffer are unconscious and a wounded Sideswipe was radioing Prime for reinforcements when the Dinobots rampaged through the shuttle.

The splash page shows the Dinobots fighting each other over a cliff. It actually looks like Grimlock would have no trouble biting Sludge’s head off, but they plunge down a scope and into a frozen lake, where Sludge is the stronger in water. Scavenger and Soundwave watch with satisfaction and Skywarp announces the arrival of Prime’s shuttle as well as the discovery of an oil rig nearby which they can plunder. All in all, a successful little mission.

As Ratchet recovers C-Team and Bumblebee scouts investigates how Sludge came to be there, it falls to Prime to engage the Dinobots and prevent them from getting out of the lake. His gun overheats and explodes in his hands. Luckily, he buys enough time for Prowl to arrive in a shuttle, electrify the hull and bail out as it hits the lake. The charge is enough to knock out Grimlock. However, Sludge recovers and turns his aggression towards Optimus.

Bumblebee using a piece of kit we haven’t seen before (a Portable Energy Tracer – PET) locates their missing shuttle, finding it cloaked. This wouldn’t be the first time Furman would use a Star Trek concept. He drags Windcharger and co. to safety before triggering Scavenger’s booby-trap and exploding the shuttle. This immediately renders Sludge unconscious. The hunt is over, but it is Soundwave who declares victory!

That’s it for Dinobots for a while, though they do return in TFUK#65 and in the scarily good 1986 Annual story ‘Victory’, which delves into their dreams while they recover in Ratchet’s medical bay. On the Transformations page we hear the buzzword for the next 50 issues – ‘Special Teams’. We’d soon find out that this meant more combiners on the way. This were heady days for young Transformers fans.

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And There Shall Come a Leader

Two decades before Simon Furman’s War Within prequels made Cybertron’s early years cool – came this first attempt in the 1985 Transformers Annual. It marks a turning point in the Transformers’ civil war, where one individual stepped forward to make a difference.

And There Shall Come a Leader, written by Simon Furman and with John Stokes on art duties, is the second strip in the 1985 annual. Though 10 pages shorter than Plague of the Insecticons, it is in my opinion the better story. Partly this is because it doesn’t upset the apple cart by messing with current stories (introducing characters that shouldn’t be there etc) but mainly because its setting is on the Transformers home world in the early years of their civil war. This is an undiscovered country of stories, rich in potential that would be largely untapped until Furman returned to the theme in his three War Within mini-series (published by Dreamwave from 2002-04).

The narrative informs readers that the story is set millions of years before the Transformers began their exile on Earth. In this time, Cybertron’s capital city Iacon is under siege and on the brink of falling to Megatron’s invading Decepticons. The council of Autobot Elders meets to discuss the dire situation. It’s suggested that their ineptness in trying to exert central control over the fightback is what has hastened the end.

This is our first introduction to Emirate Xaaron, a wily Autobot leader who Furman invented for this story and would continue to feature almost throughout the comic’s seven-year run. Xaaron alone has the foresight to see that they must entrust command to a warrior general and empower him to make the decisions that are required to defeat the Decepticons. He has someone in mind – a natural born leader (and if you said Optimus Prime go to the top of the class!).

Xaaron refuses to accept defeat – his leaping from his chair and exclaiming “never” is reminiscent of Megatron’s defiant reaction to being given an ultimatum to surrender – both characters are similar in nature, if worlds apart in their values. He persuades High Councillor Traachon (another never before-seen character with double a in his name) to use his veto to “free the Autobots” according to Xaaron’s plan.

On the battlefield, Optimus is issuing orders to a host of unfamiliar names – Pulsar, Tempest – and some we do know such as Hound and Ratchet. Interestingly, he’s already called Prime, suggesting that this is not a title which was bestowed upon him being given leadership of the Autobots. Does he have the Matrix yet or is that received after he becomes leader? We don’t know.

Prime suggests that, thanks to the Council, his hands are tied, and he must watch his comrades fall, however we also learn that Bluestreak and (another new character) Fusion are engaged in a race against time to bring them a supply of shatter bombs. Cut to the aforementioned duo, who are racing towards the Autobot lines across one of Cybertron’s many high-elevated bridges. They are under aerial attack from Decepticons resembling Earth jets (rather than the triangular forms that appeared in the cartoon’s origin story). If this seems a little unimaginative, it’s also disappointing that Bluestreak looks an Earth car except with a rocket booster rear. Fusion, on the other hand, is at least more alien – we only see him in vehicle form, which resembles to the mobile cannon that Optimus Prime transformed into in the first issue of Transformers.

There’s an unwritten rule that any character who is not part of the Hasbro toy range is expendable and likely to suffer some grisly fate in short order (it’s like the Transformers equivalent of the red-shirted extra beaming down on Star Trek). In this case poor Fusion can see the writing on the wall. Bluestreak clears a missing section of bridge with panache, while Fusion provides covering fire. He takes out one of the jets before being blown to bits. Bluestreak (who thankfully is in the toy range) can do nothing but swear revenge and go full speed ahead.

In Iacon, Prime is called away from the battle to receives word from Xaaron he has been granted control of the Autobot army and the war effort is now in his hands. He’s relieved, also hearing that Bluestreak is back with the bombs they’ve been waiting for.

Megatron, arriving in Iacon is briefed by Soundwave (who seems to have a very different head than usual – either intentionally or by mistake) informs him that the defeated Autobots are regrouping. Soon enough his passage is blocked by Optimus Prime, in what is possibly the earliest meeting of the two leaders in a Marvel Transformers comic. A fierce battle ensues with casualties on all sides. Below, Gears prepares to use Bluestreak’s bombs to detonate the bridge where the battle is raging. The Decepticons triumph by virtue of superior numbers and Prime finds Megatron standing over him preparing to savour his victory. He orders his troops to retreat moments before the bridge explodes – causing the Decepticons to come crashing down together with the debris (clearly, they don’t have flying abilities in robot mode, unlike the cartoons). Meanwhile, Prime is plucked to safety thanks to Windcharger’s legendary magnetic abilities. No-one could have survived they think, but of course Megatron does and, emerging from the rubble, he vows to have his revenge. Thus, the stage is set for the rivalry between Prime and Megatron that is central to the Transformers story.

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Prisoner of War

The Decepticons have made Sparkplug Witwicky their ‘Prisoner of War’ and put him to work converting earth fuels for their consumption. Rescue comes in the unlikely form of the lesser-seen character Gears… and the Amazing Spider-Man himself!

Generally, I’m not a fan of crossovers. They usually stretch the realms of credibility (even for comics) and feel super contrived. All too often they fail to match up to the hype, for example the 2007 Avengers vs Transformers, though GI Joe and the Transformers arguably had some success in marrying their two properties. While Prisoner of War and the Last Stand (which features the Savage Land) establishes The Transformers as part of the Marvel universe, the two will shortly diverge and remain separate for the rest of the comic’s seven year run.

On paper there’s no reason that Spider-Man and the Transformers should make comfortable bedfellows but incredibly it works! In fact, this is one of my favourite stories from the early years. It has humour, much improved art – Frank Springer is hitting his stride and now drawing the bots more like their cartoon forms rather than the toys – and the action is fast paced and exciting. Fans of Spider-man will not be disappointed and may also be encouraged to continue picking up The Transformers, which is of course the publisher’s intention. Marvel is pulling out the big guns in the form of their most prominent superhero to give the TF comic a big boost at this point.

The action picks up where the previous story left off, with Starscream having abducted Sparkplug in the midst of a battle with the Autobots in the Witwicky auto yard. The humour rolls from the start with Sparkplug protesting to be let out and Starscream pointing out that at the altitude they are travelling at this be most unwise! They arrive at the Fortress Sinister, which has been constructed in super quick time by the Decepticons from machinery they salvaged from the Harrison Nuclear Plant only the previous issue.

Sparkplug is informed by Megatron that he will make fuel for their cause or die. He realises that, for all of their advanced technology, the Decepticons are out of their element when it comes to adapting to a more primitive world such as Earth. Cue another laugh-out-loud moment where Sparkplug, having rattled off his rank like when he was previously a Korean prisoner of war, is hoist upside down by an impatient Megatron!

As before Starscream’s actions are shown to be highly political. He exploits his role in capturing the human as a showcase for his suitability to command. Megatron praises him but thought bubbles reveal he is biding his time to deal with this would-be assassin. In fact that reckoning will come, but only for UK audiences in Simon Furman’s debut story for
The Autobots are really on the backfoot at this point. After their exertions in battle they are dangerously low on fuel and can barely make the return journey to the Ark (sending a motorcycle traffic careering off the road with the ‘there’s no-one driving’ recurring gag). Prime orders that several Autobots including himself are refuelled, including Gears, who will feature prominently in the rest of the story.

Laserbeak’s shows off his precision eye beams to put the heat on Sparkplug, who agrees to cooperate. Obtaining a lab and a gasoline source is a small matter for the Decepticons, who demonstrate that they have the size, ability and power to take literally anything they want.
The US army massing outside the Fortress Sinister is the response you would expect if alien robots showed up on Earth, so it is a little strange how everyone is content to leave the building alone once its abandoned in subsequent issues. Naturally word of alien arrival is a major media story too and this provides an opportunity Spider-Man’s alter-ego, press photographer Peter Parker to be dispatched to the scene.

Unsurprisingly the military is no match for a Decepticon aerial onslaught and are soon driven back. Gears, now refuelled, arrives to observe and, after transforming to robot mode, is tackled by Spider-Man. He proves his good intentions by catching a tank that has been propelled in the direction of a group of humans by Skywarp. Again, we’re treated to a fun skirmish between the Autobots and Decepticon troops, with Sunstreaker taking out Skywarp with a missile, and Brawn punching out Rumble before succumbing to Frenzy’s sonic power.

The eye-catching cover to Transformers US issue #3 featuring Spidey
The eye-catching cover to Transformers US issue #3 featuring Spidey

The cantankerous Gears and wise-cracking Spider-Man form an unlikely double act. They really rub off well as they maraud their way through the Decepticon HQ dispatching a series of foes with lively humour throughout. This issue is a great platform for Gears, though sadly he would be destined to fade into the background again under successive writers. The cover of the US edition features Megatron being webbed by Spider-Man. This actually happens (it’s always good when covers depict actual events in the story rather than an exaggeration) as Spidey and Gears infiltrate Megatron’s command centre. Of course, the webbing is insufficient to bind the mighty Decepticon leader. He promptly and blasts a hole in the floor to dispatch the intruders. Spider-Man catches Sparkplug with a line of webbing, but the heavier Gears falls seemingly to his doom!

Later, Gears recovers under Ratchet’s auspices just long enough to deliver the devastating news that Megatron ‘got what he wanted’ from Sparkplug. Awkward. It’s another great cliff hanger that ramps up the tension with Autobots now majorly disadvantaged in this war.

A couple of other things of note: Ratchet’s mention of a discovery in the Ark’s memory banks will prove majorly significant in the next issue, and Prime, interestingly, doesn’t feature much at all in this issue. Though early in the series the writers are already confident enough to put more minor characters like Gears forward, or perhaps it was easier with Spider-Man providing the big name draw. This story will be the first and only time a Marvel hero or villain appears in Transformers. From here on the super-powered guest stars will be home grown, in the form of Circuit Breaker, the Neo Knights and The Mechanic.

TF UK #6 has a Megatron fact file and a feature on Sieve Head, a robot from Saturday Superstore (a kids TV show of the era). A reader writes in to demand a Transformers annual and is told that one is in the pipeline for 1985 – a sign perhaps that even at this early stage Marvel UK had realised it had a long-term success on its hands.

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