Aerialbots Over America!

The Aerialbots take to the skies in their debut-proper, but after the heady heights of Target: 2006 the UK comic is back to Earth with a bump in this largely run-of-the-mill tale from over the pond.

Target: 2006 was such a blockbuster that whatever followed was always likely to feel second best, and that’s the case with Aerialbots Over America. Written by US mainstay Bob Budiansky and published in October 1986 (the UK reprint coming out in the November) it is an okayish story that has some good moments, but which mostly fails to ignite. The story is really a vehicle to introduce recent Hasbro toy releases into the comic – so we get the Insecticons, Ramjet, Dirge and Thrust embedded within the ranks of the Earth-based Decepticons at last, and of course the launch of the Autobots’ first combiner team, the Aerialbots.

Surprisingly enough, the Insecticons play almost as large a role in the story as the titular Aerialbots. As this issue begins, Bombshell is in his tiny insect form, perched on a leaf and watching his human target Ricky Vasquez. It feels like he’s finally in his proper element – there being no insects on Cybertron (that we’re aware of) the Insecticons were literally made for an Earth existence.

Budiansky regularly grounds his Transformers with a human character. Ricky, our guest this issue, is a devoted family man – husband to Carmen and dad to little Maria, who he promises to take to fourth of July celebrations on his return from work. It’s his job that makes him of interest to the Decepticons – he’s assistant chief-engineer at Hoover Dam, the huge facility in Nevada which provides electricity to 20 million Americans. To the bad guys, it’s a source of energy which they can use to replenish stocks on Cybertron.

Bombshell injects Ricky with one of his mind-controlling ‘Cerebral Shells’ which quickly takes root in his brain and renders him a helpless puppet of the Decepticons. He turns his car off the main highway and on to a desolate dirt road, where Megatron and the other Insecticons (Kickback and Shrapnel) are waiting. Bombshell demonstrates the effectiveness of his shells by sadistically making Ricky remove a grease spot from his foot with his tongue.

Shortly afterwards, Ricky is strolling past Dam security zombielike as a jolly cop wishes him a happy fourth of July. This guy should have gone to Specsavers, as he completely misses the stonking great gun (Megatron in his gun mode) that Ricky is casually carrying. And minutes later they’re in the control room and Ricky is holding the staff hostage, demanding the dam be switched off!

At this point it might be worth mentioning the strange chronology of this story. Though published in October 1986 its set on American Independence Day in July, which means that all of the stories that have taken place previously that year (from the crisis of command to the Dinobot Hunt, the advent of the Special Teams, Megatron’s return, Target: 2006 and more…) all of it would have had to have happened in the first six months of the year!

And since we’re practically at Christmas, we’re meant to believe that nothing whatever of note is occurring in the second half of the year. It’s a jarring discrepancy and I can’t help thinking that Bob should have set this story at Thanksgiving in November where the timing would have made more sense, but he probably didn’t anyone who notice or care too much.

Meanwhile, Skids has returned to the Ark (having been lost for dead as far as the Autobots were concerned) and bringing with him Donny Finkleberg, aka Robot Master. Ratchet is on unusually cantankerous form for him. He’s repairing a wound Optimus Prime picked up in the Limbo dimension during Target: 2006 (though in the US continuity it was inflicted by a huge swinging axe during the Autobot assault on the Decepticon base) and is concerned about a human perspiring and causing a rust infection. I’m amused by his offer to perform a little surgery on the untrustworthy Donny to get the truth out of him about his claim of seven Autobots having travelled across the Decepticon space bridge. Instead, Prime assigns Jetfire to escort Donny to the location.

Bumblebee notifies Optimus of the siege underway at Hoover Dam. On hearing this, Prime postpones repairs and rushes outside where Wheeljack is testing the five newly constructed Aerialbots. They are now instilled with life, but only Silverbolt has been properly programmed. Their lack of battle readiness is a worry, particularly as Prime is convinced that the Decepticons are involved in the Dam siege but dispatches the Aerialbots anyway with instructions to thwart the enemy plan and defend human life.

Back at the Dam a large police presence and the media have assembled. The gunman is soon identified as Ricky and his family (now at the scene) can only watch in horror. Within moments the space bridge materialises and Ramjet, Dirge and Thrust – fly out and transform. A giant drill follows in their wake and begins to grind away at the Dam’s cement exterior…

The second half begins with Jetfire soaring above the Columbia river gorge with Donny Finkleberg onboard. They are right above where the seven Autobots arrived but there’s no sign of anyone. Jetfire transforms in mid-air and catches the screaming Donny as he falls, noting that humans don’t bounce particularly well. Jetfire’s refers to the Cybertron sport ‘Basketrek’ that they used to play but of course he has never been to Transformers’ home world as he was created on Earth! Perhaps he’s been studying his heritage or didn’t want to let on to Donny about his origins. It seems neither Autobot nor Decepticon has much regard for Mr Finkleberg, or trust.

However, Jetfire does find a puddle of fuel which suggests that Transformers have been in this region, and one of them was leaking! This is of course the gaping leg wound Blaster received when he took a blow from Lord Straxus’ axe in their fateful battle. More on the Cybertron Seven shortly…

The Aerialbots’ arrival at Hoover Dam is announced by the TV reporter at the scene, as clearly not the US Air Force as they are led by an SST (supersonic transport)! This gives Ramjet, Dirge and Thrust an opportunity to showcase their abilities to the reader. Thrust uses his engine roar to deafen Skydive and play havoc with his internal systems, forcing him to land. Ramjet crashes head-first into Slingshot and Dirge fires missiles at Fireflight – they miss the target but reign rocks and debris on to the crowd below. Silverbolt, uniquely, recognises the danger and orders Fireflight to stop the rocks (which he does by melting them) but clearly the rest of the team’s incomplete programming is rendering them a liability to the humans. In fact, Dirge congratulates his opponent on his disregard for the humans who “get in the way”, and taps into Silverbolt’s hidden fear of heights, causing the Aerialbot leader to panic and dive for the ground. So far, the team’s debut is far from successful.

Megatron orders the Insecticons to assist their Decepticon comrades outside. We learn that they are intent on transferring water to Cybertron to ‘generate enough energy to power the planet for years. A human hostage protests that the missing water would devastate the American Southwest, but as far as Megatron is concerned, all of Earth will be a wasteland once he’s finished any way! Ricky’s subconscious starts to struggle against the shell’s effects.

Outside, Thrust and Dirge congratulate themselves on a job well done, when Air Raid dives between them and transforms. He shoots Ramjet’s fuselage severely damaging him, as Kickback sneaks up in insect mode and gives the Aerialbot a massive wallop! In order to save the dam, the Aerialbots combine into their eight-storey sized alter-ego, Superion and begin to demolish the drill. Ricky arrives, holding Megatron, who orders him to fire upon the giant Autobot. (It always surprises me that Megatron needs someone to pull his own trigger!)

Superion notices the threat and manoeuvres a giant hand to crush Ricky! The part of their unified mind that is Silverbolt protests, and for a moment Ricky and Superion are frozen as they fight the confusion within their minds. Suddenly, young Maria Vasquez, Ricky’s daughter, runs from the crowd calling out to her father. Ricky overpowers the shell controlling him and blasts the drill instead. The space bridge instantly begins to dematerialise back to Cybertron, while Megatron retreats with all but one of his Decepticons.

As the Aerialbots return to the Ark, Silverbolt thinks the mission went well all things considered: the drill was destroyed, and despite Superion’s problems, the humans they sought to protect were saved. He doesn’t realise that Bombshell is secretly stowing away on his wing for a free ride into the Autobot base! Ricky, meanwhile, apologises to his daughter about being unable to take her to the fireworks, but she does not mind – she’s seen enough of those today.

Finally, what about the Cybertron Seven? This issue’s epilogue holds the answers to that long-running question. We see flatbed trucks arrive at a disused aircraft hangar in New Jersey that is serving as the secret headquarters of RAAT (Rapid Anti-robot Assault Team) – a creature of the United States government. Seven cargoes are quickly unloaded and uncovered to reveal the deactivated Cybertron Seven. Each Autobot is placed under precision machinery and has its face plating removed and mounted on to the hanger wall, as hunting trophies! A RAAT worker announces to his boss that this is the ‘last of the heads’ and she corrects him – this is only the beginning, so swears Circuit Breaker!! RAAT are set to be a major thorn in the side of the Transformers but – as we soon see – they seem to have an annoying habit of only attacking the Autobots!

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The Smelting Pool

One of – IF NOT THE – finest Transformers story Bob Budiansky ever wrote. The Smelting Pool is an instant classic, transporting readers to the dystopian world of present day Cybertron, inhabited by powerful good and evil archetypes. It’s a story of hope and despair, horror and heroism.

We thought it would be good, but not THIS good! The return to Cybertron story had been hinted as far back as issue 40, some six months previous, and was eagerly awaited by the readers (myself very much included). I was looking forward to it from a novelty point of view – a chance to see the home world again, some of the toy line characters we hadn’t seen yet, and the story wouldn’t have to be too good for it to be an exciting event.

On picking up my copy of Marvel UK Transformers #66 before school on a Friday in June 1986, that amazing cover by Herb Trimpe which appeared on the UK and US editions (Blaster plunging head first towards a pit of lava and melting wrecks) was the first hint of something above average, and in fact a very special event for the comic.

And Bob’s story and the characters he created blew me away. Blaster, the classic Western hero whose tough exterior disguises a big heart – Scrounge the plucky underdog, desperate to prove his critics wrong – and the axe-wielding total bastard of villain (that we’d love to hate) Lord Straxus. Added to that the concepts of underground Autobot resistance, Transformer down-and-outs, industrialised murder (courtesy of the Decepticons’ Smelting Pool), comic debuts of the new mini Autobot, seeker jets and Insecticons toys, and even Cybertronian time concepts. Frankly, its impressive quite how much Bob packed into the first 11 pages of story.

Our first glimpse of Cybertron reveals it to have two moons, just like in the upcoming (at the time) 1986 Transformers Movie. Marvel universe Cybertron also bears little resemblance to the Sunbow cartoons, appearing dark and bleak, almost reminiscent of the apocalyptic future in The Terminator.

Don Perlin’s pencils bring the horrors of Polyhex province to life from the get-go, as three civilian robots flee from a trio of Decepticon seekers, using them as sport. On Cybertron these days, anyone who is not part of the ruling class or useful to them, is likely to be exterminated as an unnecessary drain on the planet’s dwindling fuel supply. It begs a question of what naturally occurring fuel Cybertron has? Not fossil fuels as its a metallic world and even solar power will be difficult to harness, as the Transformers home world is not tethered to any star.

Two of the robots – Telus and Rotorbolt – are destroyed by a Decepticon called Ferak. A third watches in horror as his friends are scooped up a by Decepticon harvester unit as scrap to be recycled. He flees in the direction of Blaster, the red shouldered hero of our story. Blaster is irritated about being stood-up by his fellow Autobot, Scrounge, who was meant to be delivering information 12 breems ago (we learn that one breem is a very precise 8.3 Earth minutes!).

Blaster is however perfectly placed to go to the aid of the third runner.  Stepping into the open, he deploys his Electro Scrambler gun against Ferak, causing the Decepticon to spin out of control. In a demonstration of his raw strength, Blaster seizes the Decepticon and throws him into a derelict structure, which collapses over him. The small transformer thanks his saviour, but Blaster insists he has better things to do than save his “rusty hide”! These rough words are at odds with Blaster’s thought bubbles, which earlier revealed his concern for the ‘little fella’ being picked on by a Decepticon bully.

Elsewhere, the mini Autobot spy Scrounge is in his wheel form outside the enemy stronghold, Darkmount. He has acquired information that a missing neutral called Spanner – a scientist with specialist knowledge in inter-dimensional engineering – is being held inside. Scrounge sees an opportunity to finally prove his worth to his fellow Autobots. Any readers who have ever felt inadequate or not quite accepted, can immediately sympathise with Scrounge. He reminds me a little of Bumblebee but has an extraordinary ability to extend his finger, deftly steering them through long winding shafts without tripping alarms, in order to listen on the Decepticons inside – in this case Shrapnel and two technicians who are discussing an all important transmission they have received. It’s the most profound revelation for 50,000 vorns (83 Earth years!) apparently. It is of course the message transmitted by Soundwave from Earth in the Next Best Thing to Being There.

In his excitement Scrounge gets careless and triggers an intruder alarm. He rolls for it, radioing Blaster on the way that he is returning with a big catch. Blaster is sceptical as they’ve all heard Scrounge’s tall stories before. Then, in one of my favourite scenes, Scrounge rolls through the Dead End, which is inhabited by Transformer down-and-outs called the Empties. They are a forgotten class of Transformer, a symbol of the despair and inequity in Polyhex, and reduced to begging for fuel. Poor Scrounge is seized by Shrapnel in his giant insect form and carried off.

Blaster lifts what appears to be a stray wall plate to descend into the secret underground ‘Autobase’. As a 12-year-old reading this in 1986 I thought that was supercool and mysterious. He is greeted there by Powerglide, Cosmos, Seaspray, Warpath and Beachcomber – all making their comics’ debut – along with Perceptor, who commands the resistance cell.

The tensions between Blaster and his commander are immediately apparent. They are very different characters – one impulsive, emotional, daring, and the other (Perceptor) patient and prone to cold realism. Both embody different leadership qualities. I got the impression that Blaster’s daring-do would win the respect and loyalty of the unit if he had really wanted to lead it, but he has no time for politics, ambition or the sort of long-term strategizing needed to run a successful resistance cell, so Perceptor – who is better suited to the long game – leads.  You can practically see the steam rising from Blaster’s ears when he demands they search for Scrounge and Perceptor refuses to risk the group on a fool’s errand (guessing correctly that their missing mini bot is probably captured on his way to the Smelting Pool). However, the sympathies of the group are with Blaster on this occasion and Perceptor wisely backs down, but they will make one attempt only.

In the shadows of Darkmount lies the awesome spectacle of the Smelting Pool. Blood-red molten metal boils with the devastated bodies of Transformers disgorged into it by Decepticon Harvester units. Its perimeter is lined with heavily armed Decepticon guards who make sure that none who go in ever come out, except as remoulded raw materials for future use. Despite having only 11 pages to play with (22 for the full story) its bloody marvellous that Bob devotes a full page of art to showing us this final solution in its full horror.

Shrapnel lands at Darkmount, threatening poor Scrounge with the pit. He will enjoy hearing the Autobot’s screams but first he wants to take Scrounge for interrogation by Lord Straxus. Shrapnel is ever hoping to win the favour of his master, but ever failing. We then meet Straxus – holding court flanked by Ramjet, Thrust, Dirge and the other Insecticons, Bombshell, and Kickback. As villains go, he looks utterly the business – cutting two unfortunate victims in half with a swing of his Energo Axe and uttering the immortal line: “Mercy is not dispensed here fools, only death!”

Straxus is less than grateful to Shrapnel for his capture. And when Scrounge refuses to talk, his special arm is wrenched off by Straxus and crushed. You can almost feel Scrounge’s despair at this, and he is dragged off to meet his fate. Whatever information he has learned, he will not live long enough to pass on.

Sadly, there is no preview page in TFUK #66 to tell us about the following issue. We just had to endure an agonising seven day wait for the concluding part. Lew Stringer’s Robo Capers strip again features Transformers – Bumblebee and the embarrassed joke of an Autobot called Push-Along, who transforms into a pram! It follows on from the Optimus Prime “It’s rude to stare at someone when they are changing” strip last issue, that was also rather good.

In part two, the Autobots travel to the Dead End in search of information. Perceptor creates a holographic image of the missing Scrounge, hoping to jog a few decaying memory circuits from the Empties. However, where they are concerned everything has a price. Wheezel (who we met in the first half) hints at information, and beaker of donated fuel seals the deal – along with the threat of violence from Blaster – elicits the sorry news that Scrounge was captured and taken to Darkmount. At this Perceptor orders everyone back to base – the chances of finding Scrounge alive are minimal. Blaster is determined to discover his friend’s fate and goes on alone.

At the rim of the Smelting Pool, he attacks the guards. He’s quickly captured, (as planned) but prevented from being thrown into the pool by Shrapnel, who has spotted another prisoner he can deliver to Straxus. Blaster is marched inside Darkmount where the Decepticons are busy constructing a huge Space Bridge. Straxus is not impressed with Shrapnel for bringing him yet another distraction and threatens the Insecticon with his own dip in the pool if he doesn’t stop wasting time.

Finally, Blaster is thrown into molten pit, echoing the cover of last issue. The incredible heat scolds his metallic skin, but he’s able to climb onto a small ledge. He finds Scrounge barely alive and suddenly one of the gun turrets explodes above, as Powerglide arrives having disobeyed orders. He lowers a cable and as Blaster grabs on, he yanks Scrounge from the pool and is shocked to see his friend already melted from the waist down! Scrounge insists on being left to his fate and wriggles free. Before he sinks, he throws Blaster a recording of the Decepticon transmission (thankfully Blaster is a good catch) and asks that he be remembered as doing something right.

Outside the other Autobots minus Perceptor are involved in their own pitched battles with Decepticons. As they escape in vehicle modes, they are attacked by the Decepticon jets and Insecticons. Once again Blaster shows he’s the man. He rips out huge pipes which suck molten metal from the Smelting Pool and turns the hot jet on the Decepticons.

Back at Autobase, Perceptor plays Scrounge’s recording. Soundwave is heard and video shows the distant planet Earth, rich in resources and ruled by the primitive organic lifeform man. A group of long thought dead Decepticons crash landed here millions of years ago. The recording suggests they are led by Megatron, which wasn’t the case when Soundwave sent the message. And opposed by Optimus Prime (who was a Decepticon captive at the time of sending). That aside, the message is huge for the beleaguered resistance, just to know that the great Optimus lives gives them hope. Blaster hopes that wherever Scrounge is, he knows he did good.

In summary, Blaster’s stock-in-trade rocketed after this incredibly strong debut. He would go on to become one of the most popular Autobots among the readers, even taking up the mantle of letters page answerer in the UK comic towards the end of the run. For a time, it even looked like Blaster could become leader of the Earthbound Autobots in place of Grimlock, though it wasn’t to be. He is one of the characters Bob cared about and wrote brilliantly, bringing him back and again throughout his run on the US book. While Simon Furman used Blaster occasionally in the UK book, there wasn’t the same spark. I guess Furman preferred to cultivate his own favourites (Grimlock, Galvatron, Nightbeat etc).

Should Scrounge have detached his head and thrown that to Blaster, allowing him to survive with message intact? Perhaps. I don’t know that this was ever an option but his death, though tragic, was purposeful and heroic (which is more than most made-for-comics/hi-then-die characters get). Blaster would feel the loss of Scrounge and guilt at not saving him for some time to come.

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Plague of the Insecticons

What do Ronald Reagan, Roller and the Insecticons have in common? Answer, they all make their Transformers comic debut in the 1985 annual story, Plague of the Insecticons – a UK exclusive by Simon Furman with art from Mike Collins and Jeff Anderson.

Annuals are something of a tradition in the UK. Growing up in the 1980s it seemed that every popular children’s TV show or comic had one. I remember receiving the Knight Rider, Spider-Man, Metal Mickey, Roland Rat and Thundercats annuals at various Christmases, and probably more books that have since faded from memory.

These tended to hardbacked, containing text stories and comic strips (my favourites) plus puzzles, interviews and anything else they could think of. So, a real mixed bag and of varying qualities. If they were connected to an ongoing comic there was no guarantee that the stories would actually fit into any established continuity, and so it was with the first Transformers Annual, released to popular demand in the UK in late 1985.

Of the four stories, arguably only There Shall Come a Leader, a prequel, gelled with the weekly Transformers comic. The rest simply jarred. So, we had Hunted which featured Topspin and Twin Twist as part of the Ark’s crew; Missing in Action in which Tracks, Inferno, Grapple and Hoist were also part of the set-up. Though three of those would be introduced in early 1986, Inferno doesn’t make his debut until issue #188. So, these stories are mainly there to showcase new Transformer toys but not to sweat it about where they fit into the overall picture.

The Insecticon story is the biggest muddle of all. Kickback, Shrapnel and Bombshell are not due to join the Earthbound Decepticons until TFUK#89 in late 1986, and by this time Ravage is out of the picture (having disappeared down a mineshaft, so they could not appear together). On the other hand the Insecticons in the story appeared to have been hatched in a lab and perhaps they are clones of the actual Insecticons. This might explain why it is necessary for Ravage to control them remotely. Warpath’s presence is similarly problematic (he won’t join the Earth setup until after Ravage is written out and the genuine Insecticons are on Earth).

Putting that aside, Collins and Anderson have done a good job in capturing Reagan’s likeness and capturing the drama and carnage caused by the Insecticon attack. Their depiction of Warpath with his feet joined together is accurate to the toy design but in practical terms, if this is not a serious weakness in battle, I don’t know what is.

The story sets out to answer the question of why the Autobots haven’t announced their presence to humanity and forged a common alliance against the Decepticons (after all the Autobots are sworn to protect mankind from the Decepticon tyranny). The scene opens at nightfall over Washington DC, and troops sweating it out as they await the arrival of actual aliens – the Autobots! Optimus Prime, Prowl and Warpath drive on to the White House lawn where Ronald Reagan strolls out to greet them.

The meeting is presumably secret, hence the absence of the world’s media at this historic moment, so you wonder why it’s in the very public location of the President’s front lawn?! I also question the wisdom of Prime bringing Warpath along as a tank doesn’t exactly convey ‘we come in peace’. Reagan extends the hand of peace and friendship, while wryly observing it’s the first time he’s conversed with a truck. Optimus transforms to echo the president’s wishes for peaceful relations.

At that moment, the ground shakes and our three Insecticons spring up and declare they will “kill all the humans in the name of the Autobots”. The phrase ‘public relations disaster’ doesn’t quite cut it. Prime is shocked and surprised – he had instructed Jazz to reach out to the US government and talks were held under the tightest security to stop the enemy from finding out. In flashback, we see a military man making a careless call without a scrambler, allowing Soundwave to pick it up in one of his routine sweeps. Megatron responded by releasing the Insecticons from booths where they had been in suspended animation, or perhaps growing.

At the White House, Prime and his warriors return fire. Bombshell declares “Great Optimus we hear your command” and withdraws to attack the Capital. Despite seeing the Autobots fighting these Decepticons, the military fall for the ruse and turn their anger against the Autobots.

As Optimus sets out to discover who is remote controlling the trio of saboteurs, Prowl and Warpath hit the streets to track down the Insecticons. They find the city ablaze and people fleeing for their lives. The trio are introduced along with a short summary of their main abilities: Bombshell can control minds; Kickback is a master of espionage, and Shrapnel is a master of electricity.

Prowl takes out Kickback with a missile but succumbs to Shrapnel’s splinter grenade. Warpath rams Shrapnel, looking like he destroys the Insecticon, but evidently not, for when Prime dispatches his drone Roller from his trailer, it arrives to engulf Shrapnel in a ball of fire.

We know that Prime’s trailer and Roller are extensions of him, so much so that he feels any pain inflicted on to his other components. As Optimus confronts Ravage (who has been operating the Insecticons) he’s unaware of Bombshell swooping down to inject him with one of his mind-controlling cerebro shell. Conveniently, at the crucial moment Kickback blows up Roller and causes the Autobot leader to lurch forward in pain. Bombshell completely misses him and injects Ravage instead. This leaves the controller mindless and the Insecticons inert.

At this point the way is clear for Prime, Prowl and Warpath to explain the situation to the President. Instead they return to the Ark convinced the humans would not believe them and lamenting a lost opportunity. I suppose Furman couldn’t realistically plot a major game-changer like the Autobots joining forces with the US government, tension in the story demands that the Autobots are typically on the backfoot.

However, as mentioned this story is far removed from the comics continuity and therefore it allows Furman more creative licence. As a reader it is a little frustrating that Prime just accepted the smear on the Autobots’ name and didn’t try to explain. It’s nice to see Roller used in a story (this being his only appearance outside of the cartoon series) even if questions are unanswered such as Ravage how recovers from the surprisingly creepy and horrific depiction of his invaded mind.

All in all, not a bad story if you’re willing to overlook the jarring conflicts with the US and UK comics continuities, and a nice showcase for Roller, Warpath and the Insecticons.

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