Space Hikers!

The Autobots inadvertently capture a group of human children in their pursuit of the renegade Blaster – will Grimlock really use kids as leverage in his personal battle? And Sky Lynx makes his comics debut.

Blaster was my favourite character in the Marvel comics and so having him centre stage – and in demand for the Autobot leadership no less – is very welcome. However, at the close of Used Autobots, with the Protectobots placing Blaster under arrest for desertion, I was eager to get straight to the inevitable confrontation with Grimlock. Instead Child’s Play seemed to drag things out with a largely unnecessary confrontation between the Protectobots and Combaticons (probably to address the lack of Defensor and Bruticus in the previous story) and to put the four human children in the mix.

In Space Hikers the youngsters’ purpose to the plot is clear. It’s to provide a catalyst for Blaster to surrender rather than whip up a revolution (not to difficult given how fed up the Autobots are with Grimlock at this point) and thus postpone his inevitable showdown with the tyrannical Autobot leader for an incredible 30 more issues! Crikey.

I might sound like a boring parent here, but the idea of taking four little kids into space in a captured Decepticon of all things – with their families completely unaware, and without thought for the massive risks you are exposing them too seemed incredibly unwise. Yes, Blast Off was mode-locked, but just as Blaster remained conscious and was thinking of ways to thwart his captors, surely Blast Off would have been expected to do similar. He might have turned off the air supply for example. Another thought: at the point of his arrest Blaster was keen to get after RAAT and recover the Throttlebots. I’m surprised this was no longer a priority once he was freed. Or perhaps he realised the trail would have gone cold and so the next best thing is to return to the Autobots and force a change of leader.

Childs Play ended with the kids and Blaster, in orbit with the Ark bearing down on them. For Space Hikers (published in the UK in mid December 1987) writer Bob Budiansky rewinds the clocks a few hours and makes another toy introduction – the space shuttle/bird/big cat Autobot Sky Lynx. After millions of years of scrapping with Decepticons on the Transformers home world, Sky Lynx was looking for a change and so when Wheeljack asked for his assistance in the Grimlock situation he was only too willing.

Meanwhile, Wheeljack is piloting the Ark after Blast Off. They are using the mode lock’s signal as a homing beacon and Grimlock cites the Decepticon warrior Blast Off as further evidence of Blaster’s treachery. Even Wheeljack is puzzled by this and questioning his admiration for Blaster. The four kids had been having the time of their lives but with the Ark bearing down and likely to shoot them out of the sky, Blaster decides his own recourse is to surrender. Sammy decides instead to throws Blaster out of the airlock – he saved them and now the Space Hikers can return the favour.

A huge claw reaches out from below the Ark (while theatrical I can’t help thinking about the unnecessary storage space this must be taking and surely a tractor beam is more efficient) and swallows the tiny craft. Inside, the Autobots with weapons drawn have Blast Off surrounded. The four children emerge, and Wheeljack convinces the Dinobots that they don’t present any danger…

I’m not sure if the Alzamora family of New Jersey have any significance to the production team or are simply made up, but in two panels we see their TV viewing suddenly disrupted as Blaster commandeers a satellite and uses its stabilising rockets to propel himself to the Ark. Wheeljack leads the four nervous children on a tour, getting them to stand in a chamber where space suits materialise around them (and not forgetting Robin’s teddy either, lol). The suits carry two hours of air, which is significant to the plot later.

Suddenly Slag interrupts – commander Grimlock wants the see the “slime squirts” now! And despite Wheeljack’s reassurances that the commander probably only wants to meet them, they arrive to find a court in session with the crown-wearing King Grimlock presiding. This is truly ridiculous given that the children have every reason to be ignorant of Autobot affairs. Any help they have given Blaster is inconsequential you would think.

Instead, Grimlock orders them to be thrown out of the airlock – in effect executed. The faces of the other Autobots is of utter horror, but WHY DON’T THEY SAY SOMETHING? Grimlock may be a tyrant but the rest are a bunch of wimps!! Snarl questions whether this is a wise move given the other Autobots strong sympathies for humans but Grimlock only intends to use the children to draw Blaster out. Frankly, its incredible at this point that the Autobots are so cowered that they are prepared to stand idly by and allow they sacred principles to be violated.

Wheeljack, having earlier already been throttled by Grimlock, suspects his loyalties are being questioned but throws caution to the wind by calling Sky Lynx and having him swoop down and rescue the Space Hikers as they drift into space. Grimlock orders his warriors back inside to pursue this new arrival. Blaster finally gets within reach of the Ark, only for its huge engines to seemingly flame-grill the Autobot before he can grab a hold. By rights Blaster should be obliterated here or at least propelled to the other side of space by such force! He’s not.

Sky Lynx introduces himself to his passengers and – with the Ark gaining on him – he travels into a meteor shower and reverts to Lynx mode to hop between rocks as the Dinobots exit the Ark and pursue.

Blaster makes a nice reference to not feeling this bad since he swam in the smelting pools of Polyhex (an encounter we fans remember all to well – a great story). He gets into the Ark through a hatch and is warmly greeted by his fellow Autobots. After explaining that he hadn’t teamed-up with Blast-Off, the Decepticon was mode-locked and under control, the Autobots including Prime’s old number two Prowl want him to stay and take charge. As a Blaster fan this idea appealed to me greatly at the time also! But true to his character, Blaster has to put his the four young charges first.

When Sky Lynx radios in to say that the Dinobots have surrounded him and are playing a waiting game its clear that the kids will run out of air unless something is done. Jetfire offers to lead a strike against the Dinobots but Blaster refuses – that might endanger Sky Lynx and the humans. There is only one way to ensure their safety… Blaster goes outside and surrenders! Darn it!

So what happens to Blaster after this shock ending? Readers were not destined to find out until issue #174, well over four months away! The US material seems to drop this whole storyline to concentrate on the Headmasters’ arrival on Earth. We’ll shortly be heading back to the future for one of the most momentous stories of the run, which will take the UK comic up to and past its milestone 150th issue… But first it’s time for a change of pace and the annual tradition that was the Transformers Christmas edition.

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Child’s Play

The Protectobots are escorting the Autobot deserter Blaster back to the Ark for trial when they run into a Combaticon ambush – and four human children get caught in the middle.

In issue #122, when Blaster and Goldbug deserted rather than put up with Grimlock’s tyrannical leadership, it was obvious that a reckoning would be coming. Last issue it looked like that moment had arrived, when the Protectobots caught up with Blaster and placed him under arrest. Anyone reading Child’s Play and expecting a showdown between Blaster and his old commander will be disappointed, as the situation is destined to drag out for two more stories before taking a long hiatus and coming to a head in issue #174 – eight months on from this point.

For the moment Blaster is wearing a mode locked (the Transformer equivalent of a car clamp) trapping him in cassette-deck form, and chained to Groove, who is in turn in the back of First Aid, as the Protectobots keep the prisoner secure for the journey back to the Ark. We’re about to meet four human children – Sammy, Allen, Jed and little sister Robin, and Daisy her teddy bear, who look like being this issue’s human support cast but are destined to be around for a surprisingly long while (much to the annoyance of some fans).

Bob Budiansky’s story (which is published in Transformers UK issues #141/2 in November 1987) opens in a rail yard in northern California where the boys are playing with toy guns. Little Robin just wants the game to finish so she can go home. When the children see a police car approaching they decide to hide. However, it’s not the authorities come to reprimand them for playing where they shouldn’t, but Streetwise leading the Protectobot convoy.

Their update to HQ triggers Grimlock, who makes another embarrassing outburst about Blaster being “leader of traitors” and will be punished. Wheeljack, who is fast becoming Grimlock’s whipping boy, is thinking he can hardly blame Blaster for going his own way. Grimlock orders the Protectobots to hurry back as the Ark is repaired and ready for take off! Why there is a need to get space-borne is unclear, particularly as Wheeljack has just constructed a device which draws heat from the volcano in order to supply the Autobots’ fuel needs.

As Blaster contemplates the diminishing possibility of escape, Blades spots tanks treads in the area, possibly belonging to the Combaticon Brawl and suggesting an ambush (in fact the Combaticons have been hanging around like a bad smell since the events of Ladies Night two stories ago). Groove is told to deposit Blaster somewhere out of the way for safe keeping. Jed witnesses the driverless motorbike and tries to persuade his doubtful friends, while Blaster is stuck in an open water pipe and sees the kids. There’s nothing he can do to keep them out of harm’s way.

In a train shed a mile away, Brawl and Swindle lay in wait and startle a railway worker. When Vortex gives the signal they roll-out, demolishing the shed, and confront Hotspot’s team. Sammy is shocked to find a talking cassette deck and run back to tell the others, who think his winding them up. Robin collects who tells the kids to evacuate the area (wise advice given the fierce battle ensuing nearby).

With too much going on the previous issue to feature the Combaticon and Protectobot combined forms, Budiansky makes up for that now by having Bruticus enter the fray and blast the Protectobots. They retaliate by forming Defensor and the two giant gestalts go at it, throwing carriages at each other. A quick check in at the Ark, shows Cosmos and Beachcomber completing Grimlock’s infamous ‘Variable Voltage Harness’ torture chamber for Blaster, their old colleague in the Cybertron resistance. (You have to wonder when exactly the Autobots are going to stand-up to Grimlock and his ever more extreme ways).

Back at the fight, a dialogue box which I think is intended for Bruticus is ascribed to Defensor. The giant Autobot shows off his forcefield ability to repel his opponent’s weapons discharge. Meanwhile two of the boys are arguing with each other again in a tedious and unnecessary way that brings to mind that old Harry Enfield Scousers sketch until Allen pulls the mode lock off Blaster, enabling him to transform. He goes on to win the kids’ trust by saving them from a falling pylon.

When Bruticus uses a train to batter Defensor into submission (echoing Dan Reed’s cover), Blaster shows up claiming to have turned against the Protectobots who had kept him prisoner. Bruticus asks Blaster to prove it by destroying one of the kids (which reading that now feels a little uncomfortable). He pretends to open fire on Sammy who fakes being dead. The distraction is enough for Blaster to whack Bruticus with the downed pylon, sending thousands of volts coursing through the Decepticon’s body and causing him to break into his component parts.

Later Blaster offers his surrender to the Protectobots but Hotspot has other ideas: if he arrested someone who does a better job of protecting than he does he ought to ‘turn in his engine’. Instead they decide to mode-lock Blast Off in shuttle mode and allow Blaster to take the kids for a trip into orbit as a thank you. As they launch you get the impression that the Protectobots are now going to be in a world of trouble with Grimlock, since they have now effectively defied orders too and should also be fugitives like Blaster.

Finally, the children are just starting to enjoy weightlessness, when Jed spots a large ship bearing down on them – it’s the Ark! After four million years of be buried inside Mount St Hillary it is free and space-bourne again, and what timing. To be continued…

In closing the Ark has been under repair for a long time but ironically it’s under Grimlock’s otherwise disastrous leadership that progress has been made. (He obviously has ways of motivating his troops to deliver). Now we know what the Autobots were doing during the period of Grimlock’s tyrannical reign, because they weren’t out battling Decepticons, although some were looking for Blaster and Goldbug! Luckily the Decepticons have been quite idle as well with a hypnotising car wash the height of their global masterplans of late.

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Used Autobots

Hunted by the Combaticons, RAAT and the Protectobots, the Throttlebots hide out in Big Steve’s auto dealership – but how far can they trust a guy with morals lower than a snake pit?

By this point in the series (Marvel UK’s Transformers #139) I’d grown quite fond of the Throttlebots. Since they arrived to purge the Scraplet plague and then teamed-up with our favourite deserters Blaster and Goldbug they’ve made a credible unit operating independently of Grimlock’s Autobots. It would have been nice to see them notch up a few more successes against the Decepticons, really making a nuisance of themselves and a target for the bad guys, before fate caught up with them. Alas Used Autobots marks a (rather premature for me) parting of the ways between them and Blaster.

The story opens on a California highway with the team under fire from Vortex in his helicopter mode. We’re told via the Transformations page that the Combaticons are fuming after they were prevented from completing their mission to destroy Mount Verona and Galvatron (and from executing the pesky fleshlings that caused them so much trouble). The US audience will not have seen the events of Ladies Night, as it was a Transformer UK story, so presumably for the majority of the readership, Vortex’s attack is a random thing, literally a case of him spotting six Autobots and using them for target practice.

Although its seven against one, the advantage is with Vortex as the Throttlebots are stuck in the traffic and unable to retaliate. Blaster, hot headed as ever, has no qualms about returning the fight. He ejects from Goldbug’s dashboard, transforming to robot mode and straddling Chase and Rollbar as he aims his electro scrambler at the airborne pest, while on the move. The moment is captured on the cover to issue #139, published in November 1987, with a rather constipated looking Blaster riding the cars with no context – and a tree lined highway (in the story he actually on a river bridge). It’s not one of my favourites.

As Rollbar is forced to swerve, Blaster takes a tumble, but holding on to bridge, he’s finally able to zap Vortex and send the Decepticon spinning away with his circuits running haywire (the good old Electro Scrambler strikes again). The Throttlebots have had a lucky escape but they are low on fuel now and must find a Blackrock garage to top up their tanks.

Things get a bit daft at this point as our old friends RAAT (Rapid Anti Robot Assault Team) are up to their old tricks hunting Transformers, Autobots mainly. Having figured out the link between the Transformers and Blackrock they are staking out his garages. Now when you consider how many petrol stations there must be in California, this is a pretty major labour intensive operation, and not to mention the wisdom of having a pitched battle on top of highly flammable petroleum!

As misfortune would have it, RAAT are waiting in ambush at the very station that the Throttlebots pick, and emerge from a garage in an Action Force/GI Joe style tank type vehicle with a detachable small plane. Again, Blaster leaps out to save the day, but his gun is out of energy. He’s forced to do things by uprooting the Blackrock sign and giving the tank a might whack. It demolishes a pump and creates an eruption of gasoline – which the plane’s shooting ignites. Blaster frees the RAAT troopers from the overturned tank and shields him from the resulting explosion. The RAAT plane is sent crashing to the ground, but not before it inflicts a nasty wound on Rollbar’s rear chasis.

Having expended even more fuel, and with a trail of destruction behind them, the Throttlebots make their escape. Unbeknown to them, Vortex is monitoring from above.

Back at Mount St Hillary, home to the Ark, all of the UK writer Simon Furman’s efforts to pass Grimlock off as a tough for shrewd Autobot leader and once again massively undermined by US writer Budiansky’s portrayal of Grims as a massive egotist and dimwit. This Grimlock is still wearing that embarrassing crown and seems oblivious that he’d tasked Wheeljack with solving their fuel problem. In fact Wheeljack has come up trumps by building a geothermal generator which taps heat from the volcano core to generate Energon Cubes. They’ll no longer be dependent on humans like GB Blackrock for fuel.

Rather than praise his engineer for this significant step forward, Grimlock goes on a mini tirade about “taking” he needs and humans being weak and unimportant. He shows a complete lack of awareness for the obvious discomfort this will cause his troops. It can’t be in his interests to undermine his own leadership this way. It’s just moronic and I’ll bet Simon Furman cringes to read the dialogue – its difficult for him to square the circle between his Grimlock and the US one at this point.

Slag informs them of radio reports about Autobot sightings, and suggests it might be Blaster and Goldbug in trouble. Grimlock orders Hotspot to gather his Protectobots and bring them in, adding ominously “they’ll be in trouble no more”.

The Throttlebots, still concerned about the injuries to Rollbar and their fuel situation, decide to lay low to consider their next move. Goldbug leads them into what they think is a car park full of “abandoned vehicles”, but is actually Big Steve’s used car lot. As morning comes we meet the unscrupulous slippery Steve. He’s visited by a couple of cops who leave him a piece of literature about six vehicles the authorities are looking for (yep, its the Throttlebots) but he takes no notice at this point as he wants the police off the premises before they scare the customers away.

Steve then establishes his credentials as the ultimate cliche car salesman, pressuring a poor unsuspecting couple with bogus claims of a special offer. His assistant Clifford goes to work on an old car, knocking 100,000 miles off the clock, and marking it up by a thousand dollars. Big Steve palms the vehicle off on the young family and retires to his office light up a fat cigar.

Clifford shows him a cassette deck (Blaster) he found in one of the new vehicles that have magically appeared in the lot. Steve says he can keep it (he’ll deduct from Clifford’s next pay cheque) and inspects the new cars. He’ll try to “make a few bucks” off them, even though he has no idea where they came from, whether they are stolen, and has no paperwork!! However, Steve wants Rollbar junked as an obvious embarrassment.

At this point the Throttlebots decide to brake cover by transforming and taking Big Steve into their confidence (bad move). All they want is a refuel and they’ll be gone by nightfall they tell him. Blaster, communicating with the team through internal radio, cautions Chase that “humans often act out of self interest”. Sure enough, Steve’s now reviewing the letter that the cops delivered which promises a $50,000 reward per Autobot, and dispatches Clifford to buy a vat load of extra sugary soda pop. He’ll stick that in the Throttlebots’ tanks and disable them.

Walter Barnett of Triple I soon arrives in combat fatigues leading a RAAT convoy of tanks and a car transporter. The Throttlebots are unable to move and are sitting ducks!

At this point the Combaticons come crashing into the yard. Onslaught transforms and stakes his claim to the stricken Autobots. Hotspot and his team arrive to complete the stand-off. Big Steve hilariously suggests a bidding war (rather than an actual war that might make a huge mess of his cars). Stupidly the parties consider this, with Onslaught even suggesting the Decepticons could “steal” whatever money they need!

Swindle, who is the obvious candidate to hold such an auction (and in fact is depicted on the cover inviting bids for Big Steve) is oddly out of the picture. He’s got Big Steve in his sights and is preparing to open fire, perhaps a distraction that the Combaticons can take advantage of? Blaster leaps out of Steve’s office and seizes Swindle, throwing the surprised Combaticon into a parked car.

The Protectobots and Combaticons go at each other and RAAT take the opportunity to load the Throttlebots onto their transporter (amazingly none of the transformers notice this happening). Still, it’s nice to see First Aid in one of the panels, proving that he made it back safely from being mass-displaced to Limbo by the time travelling Death’s Head (back in issue #114).

Blaster saves Hotspot from being shot in the back by Brawl and generally turns the tide, with Onslaught forced to signal a humiliating retreat. Big Steve is aghast at the site of his wrecked inventory but at least he still has Walter Barnett’s cheque for $300,000 – or does he? A zap from Blaster’s Electro Scrambler sees the paper disintegrate before the crooked salesman’s eyes. Blaster tells him its bad enough he lost his friends saving Steve’s life, he won’t allow him to get rich off it. At this point you’d think Steve would be calling back Barnett to ask for a new cheque or even for funds to be deposited in his account – and not to mention calling his insurers.

We then get one of the best cliff-hangers of the year, with Blaster turning to Hotspot and saying he’ll skip thanking the Protectobots for showing up, as they need to get after RAAT while the trail is warm. Hotspot’s men circle Blaster with their weapons drawn – Grimlock didn’t send them to affect a rescue, but to arrest Blaster for desertion and to bring him back to the Ark for trial and execution! Crikey.

A couple of nit picks: Vortex is drawn twice as big as Streetwise, and Blast-off is similarly out of proportion to Hotspot. You’ve also got to say that it doesn’t say much for Autobot justice that execution is the preordained outcome here. What about presumption of innocence? Why have a trial at all? It’s all very ‘un-Autobot’. With Goldbug being on Grimlock’s wanted list also I’m surprised the Protectobots would not want to retrieve him from RAAT as well, plus the rest of the Throttlebots for aiding and abetting the fugitives.

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Grudge Match

Swoop goes looking for Divebomb to settle an old score and stop a humiliating secret from his past from becoming known… and their respective teams, the Dinobots and the Predacons, are close behind

Forget Rodimus Prime versus Galvatron or Blaster and Goldbug locking horns with the Mechanic… or even Buster Witwicky’s soapy showdown with Ratbat in a car wash (as if we could), the big fight of the year 1987 is, insofar as Simon Furman is concerned, the Dinobots versus the Predacons! According to the Transformers UK comic, fans have been demanding that the two teams meet in battle. While I’m not so sure of the claim myself, in those pre-internet days it would have impossible to disprove. In any case, in October 1987 this is what Furman (and artist Jeff Anderson) was poised to deliver…

The pre-text for the big fight was a throwaway line in the (much) earlier story, The Icarus Theory, about the Dinobot Swoop being known as Divebomb when he was on Cybertron as a member of the Autobot Elite Flying Corps. He’d resented Optimus Prime’s authority back then and, in the story, Prime is able to leverage this to force Swoop’s personality to reassert itself and override Professor Morris mind control.

So, when Hasbro subsequently brought out an actual Decepticon toy called Divebomb, Furman had a problem. He explained the discrepancy away by saying Swoop had lost the name due to being defeated in combat. The Annual story What’s In a Name? explains all this and sets up the events of Grudge Match rather neatly.

The story opens at a circus big top in Florida where the ring master whips up the crowd for a night of surprises… He’s not wrong. Moments later the Predacon Headstrong charges through O’Connor’s Circus scattering performers and spectators alike and crashing through the side of the tent. Nearby, a boy is pestering his father to see the big cats, and right on cue Razorclaw and Rampage pounce on to assembled funfair and trample the amusements. Rampage tosses a Big Wheel in the direction of Tantrum, who presumably was supposed to catch it but instead manages to shatter it into so many pieces. What’s the purpose of all this? Nothing really, it’s just a bit of mindless mayhem that the team have been needing since relocating to Earth. As Divebomb, who is nearby but finds the idea of tormenting lesser creatures beneath his status as an elite hunter, notes that things had started well: Optimus Prime and Megatron had been worthy quarry but since then Earth has been deadly dull.

Despite not having seen Swoop in four million years, Divebomb’s thoughts turn to his old sparring partner and wondering what happened to him. Does he know that Swoop is also on Earth and now part of a team? If not its mightily coincidental that Divebomb should be thinking of this memory from his long distant past on this very night.

Through Divebomb’s dialogue, are reminded that the Predacons combine to form Predaking (which is as well as the gestalt is sadly absent from the story – a missed opportunity perhaps?) and we cut to the Ark where the Swoop and Sludge see the circus rampage on the TV news.

Sludge finds it all very funny for some odd and inappropriate reason, but Swoop is visibly shocked at Divebomb’s reappearance. Sludge doesn’t understand his colleague’s strong emotional response, after all they’ve all lost battles before so why does this one matter? For Swoop, the fact that he got beaten by Divebomb and only survived due to the intervention of Optimus Prime, is a source of eternal shame. He thinks he’ll be disgraced if the truth comes out and he must silence Divebomb. It’s a massive overreaction but it speaks to Swoop’s emotional personality which we’ve seen lead him into trouble so many times before. Rather than come clean to his fellow Dinobots, Swoop explains his reaction with the immortal line: “he’s still usin’ my name.”

Shortly after, Divebomb is circling the Florida swamps in bird of prey mode. Suddenly a missile clips his wing and he spins around to see Swoop gunning for him. Divebomb is overjoyed! This is exactly the sort of excitement he’s been craving, and he wastes no time in getting stuck in. Unfortunately, it appears that the years since their last encounter has not shifted the balance in Swoop’s favour – he’s still weaker and less accomplished in battle than Divebomb. Pretty soon he’s dumped in the swamp and Divebomb as transforms and lands. Swoop is not done yet. He too reverts to robot mode and the pair are settling old scores with their fists when suddenly they are distracted by a noise off panel… the other Predacons have arrived (to the displeasure of both winged warriors) but that’s especially bad news for Swoop.

The second half begins with Swoop getting a good beating from the Predacons, with leader Razorclaw delivers the blows. Divebomb is taking no part in the punishment. This battle with Swoop is personal and he doesn’t appreciate his Predacon teammates muscling in on his fun, but neither does he say as much, it’s left to his actions. Interestingly, Swoop’s internal monologue still thinks he would have avenged himself against Divebomb had the other Predacons not arrived. I’m not sure that even Swoop is convinced by that.

As Razorclaw bends down to pick up his sword, the huge foot of Grimlock steps on it. The Dinobots look after their own, declares Grimlock, before booting Razorclaw aside. Slag and Snarl waste no time in squaring up to Headstrong and Tantrum and Divebomb goads Swoop with the threat that he might just tell the other Dinobots about Swoop’s disgrace. “I’ll kill you first,” is Swoop impassioned response, which is of course music to the Predacon’s ears. They take to the sky for round four.

Despite the billing, this does seem to be a one-sided fight. Grimlock is making light work of Razorclaw, despite the latter being a supposedly deadly predator, while Slag is just softening Tantrum up before exposing him to his fiery breath; while Headstrong is feeling the power of Snarl’s tail and Rampage will soon be worn down by Sludge (who is too stupid to admit defeat – a great line). If there was ever a time that the Predacons needed to pull their combiner trick it’s at this moment, but it never comes.

Swoop and Divebomb continue their battle in the skies above. He’s holding his own, but for how long? Swoop calculates a way to win through deception – he places himself in the firing line to Grimlock to make it appear that Divebomb has unleashed a missile attack against the Dinobot leader. Grimlock responds in typical fashion by using Razorclaw’s sword to clip the Predacon’s wings. Moments later, Grimlock is throttling Divebomb with his bare hands and Swoop only feels even more wretched.

Divebomb, naturally, attempts to save his skin by telling Grimlock that he is being played by Swoop and then spills the beans about the events on Cybertron. Grimlock listens attentively before dropping Divebomb and hoisting a huge boulder aloft. The Predacon cowers as Grimlock reveals that he’s known all about the incident for ages – since he became Autobot leader and had access to all of Prime’s unlogged reports. He doesn’t care because Swoop is a member of his team, and Dinobots look after their own. This is welcome characterisation from Furman, showing that Grimlock is a lot smarter than the crown-wearing oaf that the US stories make him out to be. His response to Swoop’s predicament is measured and proportionate and he’s looking out for someone under his command by keeping the secret.

As Divebomb cowers, awaiting the impact of the boulder, Swoop steps in to spare him. It’s time he stopped letting others fight his battles, he says. Grimlock understands that this is Swoop’s battle and is content to go along with how his colleague chooses to resolve it. The upshot is that the Predacons are allow to walk away, albeit humiliated (so much for the Decepticons’ elite hunting cadre). Swoop decides it’s time to come clean to his teammates about what that ‘certain battle on Cybertron’. Meanwhile, Razorclaw offers Divebomb a pistol and suggests that he “take out Swoop and scarper” (somewhat odd language for a Transformer but I digress). Divebomb declines: for the first time in a while he is finally starting to have fun – his playmate is back, and he intends to enjoy himself.

It’s a strong end the story and sets up the prospect of further encounters. Sadly, Simon Furman would not get around to giving us the rematch these two deserved and we wouldn’t see much of the Predacons from this point on, save for an appearance in the 1988 story Toy Soldiers (chasing Throttlebot brain modules in remote controlled cars) and then reduced to background cameos thereafter.

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What’s In A Name?

This is the story of what happened, millions of years ago on Cybertron, when Swoop went looking for the Decepticon who stole his name

Ah Swoop. My favourite Dinobot in the comics, even though ironically he was the worst of the toys. I’ve had a soft spot for the poor bugger ever since he got beaten to a pulp by Guardian, recovered, then was engulfed by a massive explosion as he flew the aforementioned bomb-laden mechanoid away from the Ark. He’s also been bashed up by Megatron, had his mind taken over by the human scientist Professor Morris, and had a huge hole blasted in his wings by Trypticon. Swoop is probably the most unlucky Dinobot of the lot, and yet he’s also a great survivor, always battling back from whatever scrape he’s involved in.

One of two Shakespearean titled Transformers stories from Simon Furman (the other being Purchase to Dream, in 1990), What’s In A Name? is arguably the standout story in the 1987 Transformers Annual. At five pages its short and sweet but so much better than the vast majority of the Earthforce stories of the later run, many of which were turgid.

So, what is in a name? Quite a lot as it turns out. In fact a stolen name, taken by an enemy who bested Swoop in battle is the catalyst for a bitter rivalry spanning millions of years. To explain, in Transformers UK #45, Simon Furman included a throwaway line about Swoop having been known as Divebomb back on Cybertron and that he’d been part of a stuck-up elite flying corps of Autobots who resented the authority of commander Optimus Prime. Furman couldn’t have known (or at least I don’t think it was planned) that Hasbro would actually release a Predacon called Divebomb in their toy line up a year after that story was published. So, Furman takes advantage of that awkward development to weave a really compelling rivalry, that of Swoop versus Divebomb. It would play out in the 1987 story Grudge Match (where the Dinobots and the Predacons clash) and this short annual story is the warm up act.

It’s drawn by Will Simpson, whose work I like a lot, and is a real treat to see Swoop’s pre-Earth aerial mode. (In many ways the story is like a dry run for the hugely enjoyable War Within prequels that Furman wrote for Dreamwave from 2002-04). It starts with Swoop as a sleek, agile jet (a mode he says he much prefers to his current pterodactyl form) trespassing deep into Decepticon territory in direct defiance of his orders.

He’s looking for one Decepticon in particular: an airborne foe who’s real name he never found out, who bested him in combat and then adopted the name Divebomb as a consequence of winning their fight. Swoop had been humiliated and faced taunts from the other flying corps members (with friends like them, eh?) and so he’s coming looking for rematch. He doesn’t have long to wait…

As Swoop skulks around in robot mode, Divebomb spies him from the air, and sweeps past in a lightening quick strafing run, throwing off Swoop’s aim. He taunts Swoop ‘if he wants the name back he’ll have to fight for it’. Both take to the air and there is a clash of wings. Divebomb is supremely confident – he’s either stronger or just the better fighter. He unleashes a fragment rocket which makes contact with Swoop and sends him spiralling to the ground with smoke trails billowing from his engines.

Divebomb lands and transforms, a little disappointed that Swoop didn’t put up more of a fight. He closes in for the kill and is ambushed by Swoop’s afterburners, full-force in his face. Divebomb careers backwards, but is quickly able to counterattack with a blast from his sword. Swoop ends up at Divebomb’s mercy and this time he knows he is finished. Or is he? Suddenly Divebomb is cut down in a burst of laser fire from none other than Optimus Prime! Swoop’s life has been saved by the commanding officer he despises, and now his humiliation is complete.

Fast forward four million years to Earth. Prime is now dead, succeeded as Autobot leader by Swoop’s Dinobot colleague Grimlock, and the truth of Swoop’s defeat has died with him. However, Sludge shows Swoop TV footage of the Predacons rampaging on Earth, with Divebomb among them. Not as dead as he’d lead the Dinobots to believe. Grimlock joins Sludge outside and, on seeing Swoop striding away, asks what’s going on. Sludge replies that Swoop had looked like he was about to confess some secret about his history with this Decepticon but in the end all he said was “He’s still usin’ my name”. A great closing line.

It’s a neat little story which gives a good insight into Swoop’s big problem, his sense of pride. Having made it into an elite team, he feels he has to live up to the macho image and it eats him up when he falls short and is humiliated. That to Swoop is worse than death and revenge becomes an imperative. Instead he ends up making matters worse by having to be saved by Optimus Prime, who once again shows his great humanity and care for his warriors (even those who detest him) by sparing Swoop the further shame of disclosure. Rather than being grateful to Prime, Swoop appears to have only resented him more.

Divebomb, in turn, is in a league above Swoop either through training or strength, I’m not sure. But he has an almost affection for this plucky Autobot who is desperate to challenge him and can’t quite measure up. He rather admires the way Swoop won’t accept defeat I think. It makes the otherwise humdrum existence of never-ending warfare that bit more interesting and more so when Divebomb is posted to Earth and homesick for Cybertron.

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Ancient Relics (parts 2-5)

Megatron has returned and is loose within the tunnels under London. It will be up to Action Force and their Autobots allies to stop him – if they can!

If you live in the UK you’ll probably have seen TV adverts that are obviously American but the voices have been dubbed over by actors with English accents. The syncing is not quite right and there’s something a little inauthentic about it. That’s how I feel about the decision to repackage GI Joe for the UK market as ‘Action Force’. Their Marvel UK comic maintains the fiction that the team and Cobra are Europe’s counter terror squad and terror squads, with battles set on Salisbury Plains and now London.

Trouble is that the US stories that were reprinted in the weekly Action Force comic (from 1987 to mid 1988) were very obviously set in the States. And there are characters like Wild Bill who is your quintessential mid-western cowboy type and a former Vietnam vet to boot, who the UK Action Force comic tried to pass off as coming from Hull! Sheesh.

The thing is, it’s all rather unnecessary as British audiences are not deterred in the slightest by a series being set in the US. We grew up watching American TV shows and films for goodness sake, plus Marvel and DC superhero comics, and 99% of the stories in Marvel’s flagship Transformers are US based. It’s a non issue. That said, as a London native it is nice to see a story like Ancient Relics set on this side of the Atlantic.

Ancient Relics, for the uninitiated, is a five part story that began in the pages of Marvel UK’s flagship Transformers comic (in issue #125) and played out over the next four issues of the Action Force comic (issues #24-27). The intention was to introduce Transformers readers to the sister comic and hopefully convert them to regular subscribers. I can’t say whether the Action Force readership was significantly boosted, but if so it wasn’t a long term success as AF folded a year later. It rebirthed as a monthly but that was also short-lived.

As I mentioned in the review of part one, there have been all manner of Transformers crossovers and most suck to a greater or lesser extent. This, by the dream team of Simon Furman and artist Geoff Senior, is one of the better ones.

In the first instalment, Blades tracked down a Transformer life signal beneath London. He radioed it in to Autobot commander Grimlock who figured it was the deserters Blaster and Goldbug and is en route. Action Force also investigated the sighting with archaeologist Susan Hoffman, who had barely escaped the sewer creature with her life. To cut a long story short it turned out to be Megatron, and now Autobot and human alike are in big trouble!

Part 2 starts with a monologue from Flint, the Action Force commander. He knows when to stand and fight and when to withdraw. As a mangled-face Megatron, looking truly monstrous, advances towards them, this qualifies as one of those times to get the hell out of there! Previous events are recapped, including Megatron’s swift dispactch of Protectobot Blades and they clamber to the surface to be confronted with yet mechanical monster – Grimlock in T-Rex mode and flanked by the formidable looking Centurion.

Grimlock has a low opinion of humans at this point in the story and fighting side by side with Action Force will prompt him into a grudging respect. Whether he’s aware that Centurion is controlled remotely by Professor Morris, a human, is unclear – and certainly Centurion gives no indication that he’s anything other than a non-transforming mechanoid allied to the Dinobot cause. Suddenly Megatron breaks free and he’s soon launching himself at Grimlock. It’s good to see the new Autobot leader cutting it up rough with the erstwhile Decepticon leader, a right of passage I’d say – and he’s holding his own just about.

Scarlett fears the battle could destroy the whole of Dockside, which I think was still to be redeveloped at that stage. Flint summons Dragonfly helicopters and the Mauler tanks for a bit of needed toy product placement but also to show that Action Force has heavy artillery at its disposal. Wild Bill commands the fleet to open fire on Megatron who reels in pain. He curses the fleshlings and promptly unleashes a fusion cannon blast, setting up a suitable cliff-hanger as Wild Bill’s rotors are disintegrated and he’s plummeting to earth!

Part 3 – Blades leaps from the Thames and lands on the pier. It’s a great couple of panels from Geoff. The Protectobot is no fan of getting wet but unfortunately a trip through the river was required in order for him to escape from the underground tunnels. Cue a quick recap of his encounter with Action Force and getting blasted by a mystery Decepticon. Blades climbs to the surface to witness a scene of carnage: Grimlock and Megatron in battle and Centurion running to catch the falling chopper of Wild Bill.

Blades takes to the air, just as Bill bails out and the Autobot catches him mid-air. Flint, however, thinks his friend perished in the fireball that results from the crashed helicopter and Scarlett has to hold him back from running into the flames. Emotion gets the better of Flint and he orders the Mauler tanks move in and hit Megatron with everything they’ve got.

Wild Bill arrives with Blades, who seem to have become immediate friends. He warns Flint that they call off the maulers fast. All they’ll do is succeed in making the already demented Megatron even more mad!

Sure enough, the cover for Part 4 depicts the giant hand of Megatron crushing a Mauler. The instalment switches perspectives between the key characters, starting with Megatron who remembers the satisfying feeling of tearing a foe limb from limb. It’s how he earned his justified rep as the most feared Decepticon of all. Now, however, he’s left to pull apart human tanks and propel one – on fire – at Action Force.

Flint remembers allowing emotion to cloud his judgement, with the Maulers paying the price. Whether the crews lost their lives is unclear. He’s at a loss to work out what to do next to stop Megatron and even Blades and Centurion seem powerless, while Grimlock is unconscious, having taken a beating from Megatron.
Centurion remembers his previous battle with Megatron stateside where he’d been properly roughed up, and punched through a building no less! He’s been beaten again now and even saving the life of Wild Bill had proved beyond him. Perhaps Wheeljack had been right to call him an ‘ancient relic’, he thinks (even though he was only constructed a year earlier right?).

Grimlock rallies and remembers… a time not long ago when he’d have happily left humans to their fate. Action Force has given him cause to reconsider his opinion of mankind as weak, helpless and undeserving. In fact their interventions against Megatron may well of saved the Autobot leader’s life and Grimlock does not take such debts lightly. With savage fury he renews his attack, charging into Megatron’s back and clamping his powerful jaws on Decepticon’s fusion cannon, snatching it away from the Decepticon. The pair of them battle through a fence into a gas works plant… I think we can see where this is going to end up.

Lastly, Wild Bill remembers… a mission to South East Asia on a last-ditch rescue mission. They’d rescued six men and Bill was prevented from going back for the seventh by his commanding officer. It’s an interesting backstory for the man from Hull, North East England!! Now Flint gives the order to blow the gas tanks, sacrificing Grimlock to take out Megatron. Flint can’t help remembering about that seventh man!

Part 5 sees the story racing towards an explosive finale. It’s been action packed so far, if perhaps a little too drawn out over five weeks. This would have made a good two part story over the standard 11 pages per issue I think.

It’s not stated who drew the cover for Action Force #27 but it’s a nice one of Blades and a rare cover appearance for him. I can’t think of another time outside of Ancient Relics where he appeared solo on a cover. More AF product placement as the sky strikers jets zoom dip beneath the clouds over London. Wild Bill continues to protests to Flint about taking out Grimlock along with Megatron. It’s the sort of tough call that a leader has to make and Flint proves his mettle here. Centurion, meanwhile, seems frozen to the spot, paralysed with indecision or fear. Wild Bill and Blades figure they can’t count on him and set off to help Grimlock alone. But then Centurion has a plan.

It involves Blades flying Centurion in and allowing him to drop-kick Megatron and get off a few punches. The distraction allows Blades to drag Grimlock clear as the sky strikers unleash their deadly missile payload. Centurion grins and moments later a gigantic explosion engulfs them. Flint and Wild Bill catch sight of what looks like the two robots falling out of the conflagration and into the Thames – but Flint refuses to believe anything could have survived it. That’s likely to be a lot of Londoners without a gas supply for a while!
Later Blades, Flint and Wild Bill gather at the water’s edge, with Blades paying tribute to Centurion’s remarkable sacrifice. Rather than an ancient relic, Flint describes him better as an old soldier and as such Action Force salutes him.

So ends the first of many Transformers/GI Joe crossovers and this is one of the best ones I reckon. The characters are likeable, particularly Flint, who is in the Optimus Prime or Autobot leader mould and the two franchises fit together rather well with each getting roughly equal airtime. Some may lament the absence of Cobra but Megatron is more than enough for all of them to handle and certainly would not have needed the help. This will be the last we’ll see of Megatron and Centurion for a while until they are fished out of the Thames by none other than Richard Branson in the 1988 story Salvage!

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Ancient Relics

Transformers comic joins with Action Force as the elite counter-terror team investigates a deadly giant robot loose in the sewers under London.

Transformers crossovers. There’s sure been a lot of them over the years! It seems that every franchise from The Avengers to the Justice League, the crew of starship Enterprise, the X-Files, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future and even My Little Pony, have encountered the Autobots and Decepticons on the printed page at some point. Most of these are throwaway fun and I tend to think best avoided.

A handful have been very good and integrated well into Transformers. I’m thinking here of the GI vs Transformers title that Dreamwave that was set in an alternative World War Two and the Marvel story Prisoner of War which saw Gears team up with Spider-Man to rescue Sparkplug Witwicky from Megatron’s clutches and is one of my favourites. In more recent years IDW attempted to forge an shared Hasbro universe which included having the transforming from its MASK reboot being made possible by plundered Cybertron tech. And even Death’s Head’s encounter with Doctor Who in the 1988 Marvel UK story Crossroads of Time counts, I would argue, as a crossover with the Transformers universe.

The point is that there have been many, many attempts at crossovers and most have never warranted more than a one off novelty. GI Joe (Action Force as they were known in the UK) is more enduring and has spawned crossovers via a number of comics publishers over the years, but it started with Marvel in the 1980s. In the US there was a four issue mini-series. A piss poor tale that was thankfully ignored by the UK continuity, though later reprinted as a back-up strip when material ran short in the late 200s but on the understanding that it was not part of the regular continuity.

That uninspiring US mini-series in 1987 set-up the destruction of Bumblebee and his rebirth as Goldbug and meant Simon Furman had to write an alternative for the UK comic, which was that Death’s Head destroyed Bumblebee and fellow time-traveller Wreck-Gar reconstructed him (events from the Wanted Galvatron saga). This was necessary to explain why Goldbug would appear in the comic going forwards. And whereas I suspect the US crossover was motivated by the desire on Hasbro’s part to shift toy product, for Marvel UK crossover between its flagship weekly title Transformers, and the still fledgling Action Force title, was in the hopes of generating more readers for the latter. It didn’t work as ultimately AF folded in 1988 and was absorbed into Transformers as the back-up strip.

So it was that, just as the Blaster/Goldbug/Scraplets story was getting interesting, the UK comic hit pause and whisked off to London for a one-week interlude (in issue #125) to kick off the Ancient Relics crossover story, from Simon Furman and with art by Geoff Senior, that would continue into #24-27 of Action Force. Young collectors would need to fund two comics for the month that followed, and obviously Marvel hoped it would be for longer after that. In my case, I was happy to collect both Transformers and Thundercats but Action Force never appealed that strongly.

In the streets under the Capital is a network of undiscovered Roman tunnels – that is undiscovered until recently. Susan Hoffman – a character modelled on the Bangles singer Sussanna Hoffs – and her three companions are hoping to uncover fascinating relics for their heritage society. Their flashlight catches a glimpse of something metallic; not a building as first thought but a battle-damaged midrift. Next their torches illuminate a terrifying and deformed, though recognisable, robot face! A huge fist punches the wall causing the ceiling to collapse as the humans run for their lives. Hoffman escapes the falling debris – just! Her companions are buried. Had this been the US comic the whole party would have survived but the Marvel UK comic tended to have a grittier ‘2000AD’ edge, as Simon Furman has said.

Across the pond in Oregon USA, Autobot commander Grimlock is not a happy bunny (or T-Rex). He called a meeting of all available warriors and nobody turned up! He strides into Wheeljack’s workshop in the Ark where the engineer is just completing repairs to Centurion (previously ripped to bits by Galvatron). Senior’s Grimlock is twice the size of Wheeljack which may not be consistent with past appearances but makes him appear more imposing and leaderly. While Centurion, who now sports a humanoid face as opposed rather than his much better and more distinctive visor, is bigger than both of them.

Bob Budiansky made Grimlock a tyrannical, petty, obsessive, narcissistic oaf of a leader in his stories – a kind of Donald Trump without the fanbase – but Furman to his credit presents a more mature and agreeable characterisation without undermining Bob. The crown has been ditched (thankfully) and Grimlock’s obsession with finding Blaster and Goldbug is more an insistence on not tolerating failure (or running away after failing).

Wheeljack is surprisingly flippant in his remarks to Grimlock, chastising his leader for tasking the Autobots with fools errands such as the Centurion repair. If Grimlock is as dictatorial and intolerant of dissent as Budiansky presents him, then Wheeljack would not have dared to speak so disrespectfully. It’s a nice nod to Wheeljack’s later role in the US stories as a sidekick whose working against Grimlock.

The mention of Blaster and Goldbug is a nice tie-in to last week’s story Crater Critters as well as upcoming stuff. It shows us how their split is being viewed in the Autobot camp and that Grimlock is not taking it lightly. This helps the build up for eventual reckoning in the US storyline. Centurion is presumably still being controlled by Professor Morris but there’s no mention of that. My guess is that Furman was thinking about the Action Force readership here and didn’t want to muddy the waters with complicated backstory at this point. So Centurion would appear to recent readers as just another Autobot.

Wheeljack brands him an ancient relic (harsh considering he was constructed a year previously) and taking up time that he could be spending repairing fallen colleagues. Centurion looks forlorn but says nothing. Grimlock points out that this mechanoid is a personal friend and of his and that should be enough to prioritise him.

Blades radios in that he has picked up a Transformer life signal beneath London and Grimlock is convinced it is his fugitives. Despite there being any number of Transformers it could be, it makes sense to him that the pair would want to put as much distance between him and them as possible. He orders Wheeljack to ready a shuttle and place Centurion aboard – hands-on leader Grimlock will go to London to settle business personally!

Blades transforms and lands in the Docklands. He too is deeply unhappy that Grimlock has got them all hunting for two fellow Autobots rather than fighting Decepticons. If he finds Blaster or Goldbug, should he bring them in or join them? It’s a fascinating dilemma, though interestingly not one he seems to grapple with in a few issues time when Blades and his fellow Protectobots do actually encounter Blaster.

Enter Action Force – Flint, Scarlet, Bazooka, Airtight and Barbecue – who are accompanying Susan Hoffman back to the Roman tunnels to find her mystery robot. Considering the traumatic experience that Susan has been through its to her credit that she would step foot in there again. And Scarlett is remarkably unsympathetic that this lady has lost her colleagues, even alleging that she made the whole story up. Flint does a good job of reigning in the fiery personalities and keeping them focused on the task.

A robotic shape emerges from the tunnels. It’s Blades, still wrestling with his loyalties, and stumbles into the line of fire as Action Force unleashes on him! Blades is struck by rockets and flame and becomes enraged, firing a burst of blinding light against the humans. Whatever Blades might say, it’s clear that Grimlock’s negative opinions of humans is rubbing off on him. Thankfully he comes to his senses before he can do any serious harm and he declares that he bears Action Force no malice.

However, the comotion has drawn out the mysterious transformer from earlier. A familiar looking cannon emerges from the shadows. The hated Autobot insignia is sighted, and the Transformer opens fire, striking Blades in the back and sending him crashing to the ground. Hoffman recognises the attacker as the one who killed her friends earlier – and as Flint scrambles to find out “what is it?” the answer comes back – Megatron!!
Phew! It’s fair to say that most fans would have sussed out who the Transformer was from the first couple of clues, in particularly the mangled face which was clearly the one Megatron was left with after his battle with the Predacons. At the end of Gone But Not Forgotten, a mentally ill Megatron blew up the Space Bridge with himself on it to escape from Optimus Prime, who he had convinced himself was coming to get him.

It appears that the Bridge transported Megatron to London, where he’s been lurking in the underground tunnels ever since. This is a huge risk that Simon Furman is taking in using Megatron. There is every chance that Bob Budiansky would have reintroduced Megatron at some point and had him reappear on Cybertron in direct continuation from the events on the Space Bridge. In depositing him to London for the Ancient Relics story, Furman achieves his aim of having a big nemesis for the Autobots and Action Force, but he will at some point have to put right the big continuity rift that he’s opening up.

Indeed, Megatron will return in the 1989 US story Back From The Dead, showing up in the Dead End of Cybertron after his accident. Furman ironically will be writing the US comic by then and will come up with the explanation that the Megatron in London was a duplicate created by Straxus in case his attempt to take over Megatron’s mind went awry. Okay, but that doesn’t explain why the London Megatron has the battle scars that the real Megatron picked up in his battle with the Predacons some time after the encounter with Straxus.

Up until this point Furman has been masterful in weaving original UK stories that seamlessly intergrate with the US master continuity but this will be a departure too far. Though it wouldn’t become evident for a couple of years yet. For now let’s kick back and enjoy Megatron versus Action Force and Grimlock as the story continues.

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Mechanical Difficulties

The Mechanic returns, more audacious than ever as he uses his stolen Autobot technology to power a one-man crime wave; can Blaster and Goldbug can stop him, and what punishment awaits them if they fail?

It’s July 1987 and the Wanted Galvatron saga has drawn to a close (albeit to be finally concluded in that year’s annual) and with the future Autobots and Death’s Head now departed its time for the comic to resume normal service. As previously mentioned, the Galvatron saga had felt over long so I was pleased to move past it and excited to see the latest imaginings from the furtive mind of US writer Bob Budiansky. His latest story Mechanical Difficulties is reprinted in UK issues #121 and #122.

Bob recently installed Grimlock as the new leader of the Autobots so we’re waiting to see how that is working out. And in the story before that he introduced readers to the Transformers’ latest human foe, The Mechanic. He’s an engineering genius and car thief who, on his debut, brazenly infiltrated the Ark and stole Autobot tech. Like Circuit Breaker and Professor Morris he suffers from being ever so slightly annoying. In Circuit Breaker’s case she’s constantly picking on Autobots over the real enemy, and The Mechanic is a cocky git who you want to see getting a good slap and locked up in a police cell. Sadly its not to be.

Bob must be pleased with the character as he brings him back for a second outing – along with sidekick Juan – so soon after his introduction. In the US its a matter of two issues later but in the UK some 10 weeks have passed. Just like Joey Slick (the down on his luck gangster who found himself in possession of Megatron) Nestor Forbes aka The Mechanic is able to use his brush with the Transformers to propel him into the big leagues.

Budiansky’s story, drawn as usual by Don Perlin, opens late night at Portland International Airport where the control tower personnel watch in amazement as a lone figure walks off with one of their huge radar dishes below. It’s The Mechanic using the stolen Power Booster Rod which has the ability to render even the most heavy equipment light as a feather. A truck then crashes through the perimeter fence, driven by his sidekick and the radar dish is placed in the back. Airport security show up but are stopped in their tracks by Ratchet’s former cryogenic spray and laser scalpel which The Mechanic wields as laser guns. The pair of crooks take off at speed – another successful operation.

Several miles away at a run down Industrial section of Portland, we find Goldbug parked up outside the Mechanic’s old garage headquarters. Blaster sits on his dashboard in cassette deck mode. The two Autobots have been waiting for days, under orders from Grimlock to recover the stolen equipment. As Blaster tunes into a rock station he catches the attention of two passing deadheads. One punk takes a crowbar to Goldbug’s passenger door, which the Autobot obligingly opens and then promptly slams shut. The pair are spooked and decide to just break the window with a brick – with Goldbug speeding forward a few metres to avoid contact. They thieves make a run for it, into the waiting arms of detectives Altman and Greco who are assigned to the Mechanic case.

What I thought was little more than a comedy moment has actually prompted Blaster and Goldbug to break off their surveillance and return to base. They find Grimlock trying on crowns (seriously?! This leadership business seems to have gone to his head). When he hears his warriors have come back empty handed Grimlock furiously crushes the crowns and questions why they didn’t simply destroy the humans that got in the way of the mission? So much for humility Grimlock seemed to have learned after the Trypticon incident. His behaviour and leadership style are a major red flag already and shows a staggering lack of awareness of Autobot values. It’s a quick way to lose the trust of the troops. Or perhaps Grimlock thinks the way to make his mark is with being tough and racking up successes?

At the Portland Police department, Detective Greco chats to his boss about the two punks he hauled in earlier and their story about a car that drove off by itself. Greco’s chief has heard about the giant robots can disguise as everyday vehicles and figures that they may be involved with the The Mechanic’s elevation from small time car thief to stealer or hi-tech equipment. They set a trap by leaking word of a high-tech computer coming in by road and the cops will be lying in wait. The important thing to remember is that if any robots show up, then they become the Prime target!

On the outskirts of Portland in an abandoned canning factory, the elusive Mechanic addresses one of Portland’s many gangsters over his new franchise. The customer Mr Bigalow seems unconvinced about the Mechanic’s car modifications, and at 50,000 dollars a time would rather just take his car and leave. Juan takes the car apart using robot arms and his boss throws Mr Bigalow and the remains of the vehicle out the front door and into the river using the Power Booster Rod – The Mechanic doesn’t like time wasters! Wheeljack is able to lock onto the rod’s signal and Blaster and Goldbug are once again dispatched. Grimlock warns them that failure will means much punishment!

The vehicle carrying the so-called super computer with its 256 megabyte capacity is forced to a halt by a tree laying across the road. Juan holds the driver and his friend up at gun point and The Mechanic steals the wonder computer. My first PC in 1989 had a 10MB hard drive so perhaps this one is impressive but I’m feeling underwhelmed.

The cops close in on one side and Blaster and Goldbug are on the other – The Mechanic appears to be trapped. However, the guy who ran away in a panic when he heard police sirens in the Ark, has been replaced by a far more cock-sure fellow who promptly uses the rod to hoist the fallen tree trunk and swing it into the two Autobots as though it were a baseball bat. They make off with the truck and its precious cargo, icing the road behind them to prevent the cops from following. Blaster raises his Electro Scrambler to stop the accelerating truck, but his aim is thrown as a police trooper blasts his arm with a rocket. The Mechanic would probably have been captured if not for the intervention of the police. Sheesh! Detective Greco get a lucky shot on Goldbug’s rear tire, forcing Blaster to repair this ‘flesh wound’ by fitting the spare (who knew Autobots carried spares?).

Later, at The Mechanic’s hideout, what appears to be every crime boss in the North West is assembled for a preview of his car upgrade service. Like every auto mechanic there’s a steep price to be paid; in this case it’s 50,000 dollars to drive off with a car kitted out with an array of firepower and armour. Outside, Goldbug leaves Blaster a distance from the building and goes ahead to spy on The Mechanic. Juan notices the gold beetle and figures it’s not the sort of car one of their wealthy clients would drive!

As police helicopters approach, the Autobots fear the officers will be easy prey for The Mechanic’s arsenal. Blaster transforms, revealing himself to the cops, and warns them of the trap they are walking into. Like Greco, he’s been given lousy orders from a superior but perhaps they can work together to stop the Mechanic.
So, as Goldbug enters the factory via a rear door and is seized by Juan’s production line machinery, Greco waltzes in carrying Blaster in cassette deck mode. He whips out his badge, and switching off the music is the signal for the cops to swarm the building. Blaster transforms and sprays the Mechanics modified cars with his Electro scrambler, causing the vehicles to turn on each other. With the crime bosses being rounded up, Greco orders Juan to stick ’em up and he’s arrested, saving Goldbug from the disassembly line. However, in the chaos The Mechanic slips out of the exit.

Later, Greco thanks the two Autobots for their help, even if it did mean disobeying orders. Blaster and Goldbug realise that their mission has ended in failure and Commander Grimlock will care little for the success achieved with the humans. With the Ark behind them to the East, the pair speed off west…

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) this story marks The Mechanic’s last appearance, despite the unfinished business with the Autobot tools. The story was clearly left open for him to return (and it is even mentioned on the letters page that he will), but with the US book being monthly and the ongoing pressure to introduce characters Budiansky just never got time to do it. A UK story would have sufficed but this never happened either. Grimlock later seems more obsessed with capturing Blaster and Goldbug than the Mechanic! Still this is a good twist having two Autobots become deserters and fans will be intrigued to see how this one pans out.

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King of the Hill!

Grimlock stakes his claim for the vacant leadership of the Autobots just as the monstrous Trypticon arrives from Cybertron intent on making sure there’s nobody left alive to lead!

May 1987. In Britain a general election campaign is getting underway (which would result in a third term for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party) and this is referenced in the Transformation page of issue #111 as being of secondary importance to another big contest underway – who should govern the Autobots as the successor the late Optimus Prime! Lee Sullivan’s fantastic cover makes it clear that Grimlock is making an aggressive play for the top job. The big shake-up of the Transformers status quo initiated by writer Bob Budiansky through his decision to kill of both Prime and Megatron nears its conclusion but not before we marvel at the debut of the biggest, baddest robotic dinosaur of all… the unstoppable Trypticon!

As is also typical for a Budiansky Transformers story there is a human support character. In the case of ‘King of the Hill’ that role is filled by a young palaeontology student named Rachel Becker. The story opens with Rachel up in the wooded mountains in Oregon showing her professor and his assistant an “exciting find” – fresh dinosaur footprints! It could be a stegasaurus or triceratops she claims, but Professor Paaswell knows better. He points out the even lines suggesting the prints were mechanically carved and therefore an elaborate hoax. Rachel is disheartened but the group’s attention is attracted to a pterodactyl soaring in the sky above them. They decide to stick around and pitch their tents.

That prehistoric bird is of course the Dinobot Swoop. He’s on a mission to procure a fuel source for his comrades and finds his target in the form of a petrol tanker parked at a diner 158 miles south east. It’s odd that Swoop can’t find anything more local but perhaps he simply enjoys a chance to stretch his wings and get away from the other Dinobots for a bit. He steals the drum clean off the tanker vehicle and makes off with it (as a waitress in the diner overfills a coffee cup while watching in shock!). Soon the Dinobots are feasting in the manner of a pack of hungry lions. Curiously, when the Transformers first arrived they were unable to ingest Earth fossil fuels but that’s no longer a problem it seems. Possibly the Dinobots have been modified following the agreement between G.B. Blackrock and the Autobots for him to provide them with free fuel?

We learn that Grimlock and his team have a certain disdain for humanity that is at sharp odds with that of their fellow Autobots. There’s also an arrogant belief in their own strength and superiority over humanity and the other Autobots. Word has reached them that a successor to Optimus Prime is to be chosen and Grimlock intends to claim the empty throne. The Dinobots’ self-imposed exile (since they walked out in the prologue to Target: 2006) will shortly be ended. Their bellies filled, their hunger now is for power.

A quick check in with the Decepticons reveals that the small Florida Keys island they commandeered in Gone But Not Forgotten is now a top cover for a massive underwater base. This is impressive progress considering that the enemy forces won’t have been there much more than a month by this point. I wondered whether the Constructicons could have been sent ahead? But I’m not so sure, as the hydrothermacline technology is the reason for the base’s location and the Decepticons only acquired that fairly recently (in Afterdeath!).

Inside the base, Shockwave again commands but the change of regime has done nothing to reassure their bottom-line-obsessed fuel auditor Ratbat – who is stationed on Cybertron and now appears on screen. Ratbat is convinced that the Earth-bound operation is costing more in fuel than it brings in and they will have to pull the plug. Shockwave pins the blame for their inefficiency on the flawed leadership of his predecessor Megatron and persuades Ratbat to give them one more chance, by sending the mightiest Decepticon available for an assault on the Ark. If they can capture the Autobot headquarters they will have access to abundant resources.

At the Ark, Perceptor has convened a meeting of the senior Autobots to discuss the appointment of Optimus Prime’s successor. Jetfire, who endured a disastrous spell of temporary command during Prime’s disappearance is present, Blaster, Ratchet, Omega Supreme (now about a fifth he was on his debut) and the Special Teams leaders Silverbolt and Hotspot. Interestingly, Prowl is absent. As Prime’s deputy I would expect to see him there as a frontrunner, particularly as we know he’s now operational against (see Funeral For a Friend). As for Perceptor himself, for someone who very recently arrived from Cybertron, he’s in a very senior role. I put this down to the years (perhaps millennia?) that he commanded a resistance unit on Cybertron. That has to count for a lot. Perceptor praises the qualities of the great Optimus: strength, wisdom, leadership, compassion and generosity.

These are attributes that are mostly lacking in the oafish Grimlock, who blunders in swings his energo sword through a hologram of Prime. He declares that strength is all that matters and as the strongest Autobot he should lead. Where Prime avoided conflict in order to spare humanity the fallout, Grimlock has no such qualms. Everyone is horrified and the Dinobot commander stomps off in a huff.

Part one finishes where it began, with Rachel Becker. She awakened in her tent by a blinding light outside. She goes to investigate and witnesses the manifestation of the Space Bridge and a gigantic and imposing war machine travelling across it – the ‘unspeakable terror’ that is Trypticon! Fans cheer. Rachel screams!

As an interesting footnote to the story, this will be the first time US readers will have seen the Dinobots in a major way since their debut two years ago (save from a cameo in Command Performances). The lack of character development Stateside means that Grimlock is now portrayed as the ‘dumb dino’ with speech difficulties just as he is in the now well-established Sunbow cartoons. Trouble is that this portrayal is at odds with the UK continuity where he’s talked normally up until now. UK writer Simon Furman would have to move his Grimlock closer to the Budiansky portrayal after this. The Grim Grams page carries a letter from a reader in the USA who has discovered the UK comic and is enquiring about Target: 2006, showing again the growing global reach of the comic.

Part 2 – issue #112 – kicks off with the fabulous ‘Dinosaur war’ cover by Herbe Trimpe and Tim Perkins which adorns the US version of the story. Rachel Becker flees in panic at the terrible sight of Trypticon but as her terror abates she realises that the giant dinosaur has not even noticed her. She settles down for the night to wait for morning (obviously it takes more than a close encounter with an extra-terrestrial dinosaur to put her off her sleep!).

Trypticon quickly makes his way to the Ark and reveals his impressive battlestation mode. He dispatches his servant Wipe-Out in car mode to scout the area, and fires ‘sonic scrambler’ missiles at the Ark entrance. The devices begin to disorientate the Autobots inside. Perceptor and his ‘Cybertron Seven’ comrades staggers outside to investigate and come under heavy bombardment. The Dinobots, like Rachel, are attracted by the noises and the light show and have a ringside seat for the slaughter.

While Slag, Snarl and Sludge are enjoying the show (and admiring Trypticon’s marksmanship) Grimlock seems to have come over all responsible and leaderlike and is aghast to see his would-be troops getting cut down. He steps away to resolve his inner conflict and comes face to face with Rachel, who this time holds her ground (she had previously been disappointed with herself for running from Trypticon instead of indulging her scientific curiosity). Grimlock is impressed by her courage but as he leaves, Wipe-Out sneaks up and steals Rachel as a gift to his master.

As Blaster follows Perceptor in taking a direct hit in the chest, Omega Supreme and the other Autobots emerge from the Ark and also suffer immediate disorientation. If they can’t destroy the scramblers they’ll be sitting ducks! Grimlock takes no enjoyment from the carnage. He was prepared to throw his weight around to obtain the leadership but he has no wish to see the Autobots slaughtered.

So, when Rachel is delivered to Trypticon as a snack. Grimlock leaps into action and sinks his teeth in the giant Decepticon’s head and the other Dinobots rush to his aid. Slag bathes Trypticon in fire and Snack appears to break Wipe-Out apart with a mighty flick of his tail. Swoop as usual comes off worse, taking a blast through the wings from Trypticon’s head cannon but still gets off a missile.

Trypticon’s size and raw power means he is a formidable adversary for all five Dinobots at once, but the Space Bridge suddenly appears and Ratbat commands Trypticon to retreat – he has exceeded his energy budget for this mission (either Ratbat is worried about him running out of fuel and being overcome, or he’s that anal about the budget that he won’t countenance an overspend even if Trypticon may well have emerged victorious).

While Rachel re-joins her fellow humans, the battered Autobots regroup within the Ark. They are extremely grateful for the Dinobots’ timely intervention and impressed by Grimlock’s performance on the battlefield. Jetfire tells him that he has earned the position of Autobot leader if he still wants it. Grimlock for once is humbled and respectfully declines. He had thought that being the strongest was enough, but now he realises that it takes more than that to command the Autobots, because of his selfishness many of his comrades were unnecessarily hurt.

Ratchet enters telling Grimlock that his patients (Blaster and Perceptor) wish to disagree: Grimlock has displayed courage, compassion, military skill and charisma in the battle – in short, exactly what the Autobots could hope for in a great leader. Perceptor tells the others that their search is over, and they all hail Grimlock – Leader of the Autobots!

In summary, the Autobots have a new leader but his earlier abrasive style and questionable values must still raise some serious question marks about his suitability. It appears that the Autobots, perhaps in their desperation, have acted in the heat of the moment and in the cold light of day might come to regret their choice (which of course they do). But it must also be recognised that the humble and selfless Grimlock who manifested in defence of Rachel was a worthy contender in that moment.

I rather enjoyed Trypticon’s butt-kissing sidekick Wipe-Out. It appeared that he’d been left behind when his boss fled. However, it might not be the last we see of him. On the cover to issue #169 Trypticon has a car chest plate which on the toy version is Wipe-Out.

This ends a run of US stories. Next issue it’s back to the UK team for the latest Transformers The Movie inspired time-travelling saga – Wanted: Galvatron.

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Fallen Angel

Galvatron is back from the future… and this time he’s here to stay. That’s bad news for Centurion, the Cybertron seven, the Dinobots, Shockwave and pretty much everyone else!

Simon Furman’s masterpiece Target: 2006 unleashed the phenomenon that was Galvatron on to the unsuspecting readers of the UK Transformers comic. Without doubt this was the ultimate nemesis that either the Autobots or the Decepticons for that matter had faced; a more cunning, more powerful and more indestructible version of Megatron. Galvatron was the great disruptor that shook up both Autobot and Decepticon camps, even forcing them into an unlikely alliance with one another.

The trouble is, when you establish a big bad adversary such as this you can’t feature them too often or they start to lose their shock value and potency (think The Borg on Star Trek). So, I must confess to feeling a certain trepidation when I saw Galvatron on the cover of the Christmas edition (Transformers #95) and learned of his impending return in issue #101. Here we are in January 1987, just three months / thirteen issues after the conclusion of Target: 2006 and Galvatron is back. I’m sure that many readers will have been ecstatic but for me it felt a little too soon.

So, what’s going on? My take on it is that Transformers has just notched up its centenary issue and Simon Furman is looking ahead to the next hundred and thinking of how he can keep up the momentum and up the ante. One idea he has come up with it is to reintroduce Galvatron but this time as a regular recurring character and in Fallen Angel he’s pitting the fugitive future Decepticon leader against one of the readership’s (and Furman’s) favourite teams, the Dinobots!

On paper it’s a good idea (and yes, I realise comics are printed on paper) but in practice the Dinobots have been royally stuffed by Megatron at every encounter, so can they really expect to prevail against his more powerful future incarnation? Well, no and yes, as we find out in the story.

It begins with Skids and the ‘Cybertron seven’ – Blaster, Perceptor, Cosmos, Seaspray, Beachcomber, Warpath and Powerglide – walking leisurely towards the sanctuary of the Ark following their release by Circuit Breaker. This is odd for a couple of reasons, first because several of them including Skids have vehicle modes and are capable of transporting the whole group, and second the headquarters of their former captors RAAT was in New Jersey on the East Coast, whereas the Ark is on the West Coast – that is a long way to travel on foot, even for a giant robot.

The reason for the walking is quickly apparent. It means Skids is in robot mode and we’re able to see him engulfed by the familiar dark antimatter and vanish, heralding an arrival from the future. As we know from Target: 2006 when one Transformer arrives from the future, they clear a space for themselves by mass-displaying a present-day Transformer into the Limbo dimension. Poor Skids!

Furman would have had to be confident that his US writer counterpart Bob Budiansky was not planning to use Skids again in a major way, otherwise it would have created a very tricky problem plot wise.

And so, the way is clear for Galvatron’s return to the Earth of the 1980s. He materialises above the planet and falls to the surface in one huge fireball. This attracts the attention of the mute mechanoid Centurion, who unbeknownst to his new comrades the Dinobots is controlled by Professor Morris, the scientist who once took over the mind of Swoop. Being a man of science, he is drawn by the unknown and approaches the impact crater. A hand reaches out and in dramatic fashion seizes Centurion’s wrist!

Galvatron emerges, looking utterly crazed in a fantastic splash panel by Geoff Senior and tears poor Centurion to bits mistaking him for Rodimus Prime! When Galvatron’s rage subsides, he remembers being thrown out of Unicron into space by Rodimus (at the end of Transformers the Movie) and using his time jump trigger to transport him back to the past. The planet fall disorientated him, much to the misfortune of Centurion. Not that Galvatron is particularly remorseful.

Another robotic hand finds the head of Centurion and clenches a fist. We don’t see who it is but its fair to conclude its one of the Dinobots.

Meanwhile, Perceptor in giant microscope/cannon mode is scanning for a Transformer life sign they have detected – trouble is that it’s not Skids, it’s Galvatron. Not recognising him but not wanting to get into a fight, Perceptor and Warpath fire a couple of warning shots across his bows. Galvatron responds by transforming into cannon mode and blasting the pair of them skywards! The explosion is sufficient to get the attention of Shockwave, over at the Decepticon coal mine base in Wyoming, who thinks Megatron may have returned to exact his revenge for the recent coup attempt involving the Predacons. He assembles his warriors to go and meet the threat.

Back at the main action, Blaster hits Galvatron with him high frequency sonics, causing his earlier madness to resurface! And the Dinobots to claim revenge for the death of their friend Centurion. As part one ends, the scene is set for a battle royal as the story continues in Transformers #102.

Following a recap from Blaster about their various misfortunes since arriving on Earth (having their heads put on a wall as hunting trophies of Circuit Breaker was a pretty major one) we see Galvatron lays into the Dinobots. He meets Grimlock’s brute force in kind and floors the Dinobot leader. Blaster, having not used sonic energy in previous stories now seems to be doing it all the time.

He transforms into his tape deck mode (now having an Earth mode rather than the Cybertron version we saw previously) and unleashes a further burst on Galvatron, who falls to his knees and throws a sword in Blaster’s direction (with deadly accuracy). Luckily for my favourite Autobot, he’s plucked out of harm’s way by one of my other favourites, Swoop. And in fact, Swoop is about to be a big player in this instalment of the story.

The Dinobots show good teamwork by flooring, trampling and fire roasting Galvatron.  But this is no ordinary opponent and he’s quickly back on his feet and laying waste to the Autobots. While flat on his back and dazed, Swoop is contacted by Centurion (or rather Professor Morris) via the mental link they share, which he’s conveniently just discovered.

Morris reveals himself and asks Swoop to trust him and work with him. If he takes control, they might stand a chance of saving the others. Swoop is understandably reluctant but agrees. He attacks Galvatron from the air, pecking frantically at the Decepticon’s face. And salvation arrives in the form of Shockwave and his Decepticons who conclude that Galvatron is the bigger threat and turn their fire on him. Though Galvatron would gladly like to claim the Decepticon leadership he decides it is best to flee and plan for his conquest, rather than being forced to destroy his future troops. So, off he goes…

And Shockwave is off too. He concludes that further action against the Dinobots would also be a waste of resources, and he has bigger fish to fry in the shape of Galvatron. Of course, he has Swoop with an unsettling thought: when Galvatron returns the Dinobots are likely to be his first target!

Some closing thoughts:

Just how much punishment can Galvatron take? Not only has he fallen from orbit and landed intact, but he also is able to absorb attacks from the Autobots, Dinobots and Decepticons simultaneously. Professor Morris is officially one of the good guys now after finally atoning for his treatment of Swoop in The Icarus Theory. However, he’s now without a body to control and he only has a year’s supply of food and water in the Triple III vault where he’s holed up. It’s quite a predicament. Could he be the Fallen Angel of the title, or is this Galvatron? He’s certainly fallen from previous heights of his near omnipotence in 2006 but he’s hardly an angel, more like a devil.

While not one of my favourite stories, there are good moments. The scene with Galvatron destroying Centurion is awesome and gives you a real idea of the amount of raw unchecked power he has. Galvatron is incredibly dangerous and nobody apart from maybe Rodimus Prime can stop him! It’s good to have the Cybertron seven back, and Blaster is one of my favourites, but Furman’s Blaster feels like a different character to the one written so impeccably by US writer Bob Budiansky.

The roots of Shockwave’s long-running rivalry with Galvatron are planted here, when he sets his warriors on the future Decepticon. That’ll play out over the next one hundred or so issues.

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