Devastation Derby!

Soundwave can barely believe his audio receptors when crack combiner team, the Constructicons, are dispatched to capture a lowly human! However, their target, Buster Witwicky, turns out to be more valuable than expected, in this two-part Marvel UK story from May 1986.

“They’re tough, mean and nasty… and what’s more they proved to be a firm favourite with you readers” declares the Transformation page of TFUK #61. It’s referring to the Constructicons of course. The comic’s one and only combiner team (for the moment) debuted in issue #35, some six months before this issue and then disappeared as quickly as they arrived.

In the UK continuity, Scavenger appeared in a solo capacity in the Dinobot Hunt saga, but Devastation Derby is the first time that we get to see the team back together since their introduction. I can well imagine Marvel has been receiving letters from fans on each side of the Atlantic requesting their return and that of their more famous combiner form, Devastator. (Incidentally, the Constructicons will reappear in the US continuity too, in the upcoming story The Bridge to Nowhere, though in a background capacity.)

So, UK fans will have been delighted to see the Constructicons back in a starring role back in May 1986. I know I certainly was. The story, written as always by Simon Furman, is drawn by the redoubtable Will Simpson – my second favourite TF artist behind the equally great Geoff Senior. Will draws a fantastic cover and Devastator splash page, as you can see above.

Frankly, it’s a mystery why the Constructicons were not utilised in earlier stories like Crisis of Command, when the Decepticons were vulnerable and leaderless, in need of the raw power of Devastator. The story attempts to explain away their absence by revealing that they’ve been training in the desert to improve their reactions in combined form. Evidently, their debut encounter with the Autobots left a lot to be desire.

As the story opens, Devastator is bashing the shit out of a yellow school bus (just to show how mean he is). Soundwave is impressed – eight strikes and eight would-be kills, all in the space of 34 seconds. Shockwave arrives to address the team – but he’s abrupt with Soundwave and frankly a bit rude, considering this is the second in command, who acquitted himself admirably as stand-in leader. Soundwave probably doesn’t help relations with the boss by making it obvious that he’s horrified by the idea of sending their crack troops to capture a human – even if it is an Autobot ally. This is a little out of character for Shockwave and makes me think that Frenzy was on to something last issue when he talked of the Decepticon Commander “running scared” about the rumoured return of Megatron.

Soundwave is right to be sceptical. The kidnap could be easily accomplished by Laserbeak or Ravage, and it doesn’t make much sense to involve the Constructicons other than as a plot device to introduce the Special Teams (albeit in dream form) in the next story. We get an early glimpse of Superion when Buster wakes up in a cold sweat from a pretty vivid dream and has drawn the Aerialbot combined form on his bedroom door.

Unsurprisingly Buster is less than keen to go to the demolition derby the following morning, when Jessie arrives to collect him. According to his dad, Sparkplug, Buster goes every month, which I find unlikely seeing as he’s been completely disinterested in cars before now and after. No sooner has Buster set off, than Sparkplug whips out a screwdriver and removes the door to show the Autobots. Now normally he wouldn’t give the Autobots the time of day, but maybe he’ll only speak to them if he needs something.

Prime and Wheeljack agree that Buster has put his finger on something they’ve been thinking about, an Autobot combiner. Wheeljack suggests the drawing is a robot made up of “four or five” components. (I would have thought five of six is more likely) and of course no-one mentions that Buster carried the Matrix in his mind, though that would seem the likely trigger for these visions.

I’m also rather surprised at the casual way the Autobots refer to Buster’s recent run in with Shockwave. It was almost crushed to a pulp by a 30ft one-eyed robot – that’s a pretty big deal. I’m surprised Sparkplug is not surprised. Shouldn’t he be asking why nobody told him about this incident?

Although Prime is sure Shockwave will have no further interest in Buster, he orders Smokescreen and three others to accompany Sparkplug to the demolition derby and find Buster, who it turns out has forgotten his cares and started enjoying himself.

Simpson has an absent-minded moment as he draws Sparkplug in the crowd alongside Buster and Jessie in one of the frames, when he’s meant to be parked up with Smokescreen, Tracks, Brawn and Ironhide! Oops.

Furman does his own take on the comedic scenes from Rock and Roll Out involving the Autobots and their mannequin ‘fake drivers’ – having one pop out from Smokescreen’s seat while Sparkplug is still sitting there. The derby has got Smokescreen eager to join in, while Tracks is concerned for his bodywork.

I enjoyed the Constructicons’ grand entrance, as they throw a ticket seller through a billboard and trash a kiosk and the car park. Ironhide engages the team and they retaliate by combing into Devastator – “I hate it when they do that” says Ironhide – and the sight of the 60ft titan is enough to cause Buster to collapse, leaving Jessie screaming!

In the second part, kids who are climbing up the fence for a look at the stock car racing are almost hit by a flying car propelled by Devastator. Cue another fantastic splash page from Simpson, depicting Ironhide and Tracks in pitched battle with the Constructicon gestalt. Smokescreen swerves around Devastator’s legs and sends him off balance and crashing to the floor. It earns the ‘youngster’ a bit of credit from the seasoned old warrior Ironhide.

Brawn’s presence in the stands is causing the crowd to panic even more (hardly surprising as he caused a few motorists to meet a grisly end in the Enemy Within a while back). The sight of Soundwave in the stands is enough to convince Sparkplug that the Decepticon must have found Buster. But as he and Smokescreen zips over there, Ironhide gets pummelled by Devastators huge fist (that school bus squishing technique coming in handy).

Jessie is all that stands between Soundwave and her man. However, when Soundwave scans Buster’s mind he discovers something that cause him to change tactics. After blasting Brawn for sneaking up, Soundwave orders the Constructicons to separate and they retreat calling the incident a mistake on their part. The Autobots are bemused by this and reckon Prime will want to investigate this personally.

Ratchet tricks Sparkplug and Jessie by posing as the ambulance they called. Seriously? The Autobot sign and lack of driver was not a giveaway? As they make their way back to the Ark (as part of an Autobot convoy driving on the left-hand-side – I think Simpson forgot the story was set in the USA and not Britain) Ratchet reassures that whatever is wrong with Buster it’s not something that a hospital could help with, but may be the Autobots can.

At the Decepticon hideout, Shockwave holds his gun arm to poor old Soundwave’s head, intent on executing him for disobeying orders. His number insists he has a good explanation, and he does. His scan of Buster revealed that Matrix had placed in his mind a vision of the future of the Transformer race!

Shock, horror. It’s begs the question of why Soundwave allowed Buster to go back to the Autobots. It’s surely even more important to take him captive so that only the Decepticons can know of the Special Teams? Now, the Autobots will also learn about them and they have got the means (through the Matrix) to build these new warriors. Next issue it’s the big event – the arrival of the new combiner teams.

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Brainstorm!

Shockwave is furious to learn that the Creation Matrix has slipped through his hands and launches an investigation to find out who has it! And Jetfire takes to the sky for the first time in this penultimate instalment of Bob Budiansky’s Matrix saga.

The cover of the US version – I prefer the UK wording: ‘Introducing Jetfire! Fast-furious-and fatal?’

Soundwave has become a real star of the UK Transformers comic, not so much for his story appearances but for his hilarious put-downs (and putt-ups!) as host of the letters page. His comments about neuro-shocking the printers for mistakes is a good example. Unfortunately, the decision to have Soundwave (aka Simon Furman) take over the Transformation page for TFUK#37 is spoiled by yellow text on white – it’s barely legible, oops.

This issue from late November 1985 and the next reprints the US Transformers story ‘Brainstorm’, by Bob Budiansky and with art from the late Herbe Trimpe (who worked on three strips and several covers for Transformers and was the artist on the TF GI Joe spin-off crossover during his years at Marvel).

The story opens with the Autobots’ human friend (and unwitting custodian of the Creation Matrix) Buster Witwicky laying on his bed reading a book titled Advanced Physics (no prizes for guessing what it is about). Metal objects are levitating around him and Buster, an A grade student we’re told, is hoping to find the answer to it in the books. We’re reminded how it started – when he was zapped by Optimus Prime’s head in TFUK #24.

This amazing new ability to manipulate and assemble machines with a single thought, was certainly useful while Buster’s father Sparkplug was convalescing in hospital. It enabled Buster to mend all of the vehicles in his father’s garage despite knowing next to nothing about engines previously. Trouble is, Sparkplug is now convinced his son has developed a sudden interest in auto mechanics. He’s even thinking about renaming the family business to S Witwicky & Son! For now, Buster is playing along to avoid worrying his father, given the older man’s recent heart attack.

At the Blackrock’s assembly plant, which is currently serving as a base for Shockwave’s Decepticons, the human workforce has been reduced to slave labour. They are doing well though, recording an 18.7% increase in productivity (it’s amazing what a bit of menace can do!). Or maybe it’s the food they been receiving? Budiansky’s quirky humour and fondness for human side characters is evident as pizza delivery man ‘Mozzarella Mike’ arrives with food for the hostages. He’s waved through by the army presence surrounding the plant and a one soldier kids that Mike’s peperoni and onion pies have been known to wipe out a platoon.

Shockwave is less happy with Optimus Prime’s efficiency. With the Matrix essence inside Prime’s mind gone, the Decepticons’ latest warrior Jetfire is destined to remain lifeless. Shockwave begins to suspect that Prime has transferred the Matrix somewhere, but where and to whom?

As the Autobots’ acting commander Prowl listens in (courtesy of a bugged phone in the plant) we’re shown the clever way that Shockwave uncovers the truth. He summons Rumble (who had been on guard duty at the Ark) and connects his gun arm to the back of the mini-Decepticon’s head, interfacing directly with his memories. It’s a painful process, but Shockwave has no concern for the comfort of his underling. He identifies movement from the periphery of Rumble’s vision and enhances the image, revealing Buster. Laserbeak squarks to declare that he recognises the human.

Prime took a huge gamble by involving Buster – in many ways it was against his entire code of ethics – and now he realises it hasn’t paid off, as Buster is in supreme danger. Thankfully the Autobots are alive to the situation and Prowl dispatches Bumblebee and the talkative Bluestreak to find them.

At the plant, workers Gabe and Ferdy are grumbling about cold pizza when an eye blast from Laserbeak rapidly warms it (probably scaring the shit out of the two humans). Laserbeak reverts to his cassette mode and is delivered by Mozzarella Mike to the army commander outside. He plays a warning from Shockwave that the army must withdraw, or hostages will be terminated. They have little choice. Laserbeak ejects and easily avoids a hail of bullets from the soldiers.

There’s a welcome return for Jessie, Buster’s girlfriend, who we last saw getting turfed out of the Witwicky garage – along with their friend O – when Buster wanted some time alone to contemplate his problems. She now arrives on a bicycle, having forgiven his jerkish behaviour and looking hotter than ever. It’s good timing as Buster was about to get roped into helping Sparkplug fix up a vehicle they just towed. Instead the young lovers cycle away, a short while before Bumblebee arrives with a cryptic warning for Sparkplug that his son has something the Decepticons want and is a target. Sparkplug gives Bumblebee short shrift but then promptly jumps in his pick-up and heads off, with Bluestreak in tail.

The second part opens with Buster and Jessie cycling towards the falls. He wants to explain why he has been acting strange lately, but Jessie is deliberately avoiding the conversation. Using the power of the Matrix, Buster removes the master link from her bike chain and she soon stops. Both seem genuinely sorry for the argument they had a while back, and as they make up, they are found by Sparkplug. Bumblebee and Bluestreak also arrive, having followed Sparkplug. Bluestreak observed Buster and Jessie sharing a kiss, and in a comical if slightly awkward moment, enquires as to what that the function of the act was! Not for the first time, Bumblebee is forced to tell him to put a sock in it – they have serious business to discuss. High above, Laserbeak is watching – he’s really getting some time in the spotlight this story.

Shockwave has anticipated that the Autobots would seek out Buster. This suggests he’s aware of the listening device that the enemy have been using, even though he doesn’t mention it explicitly. Once again, we see Shockwave’s ability to fire a beam from his lone eye – in this case, using it to program the mindless Jetfire with Buster’s coordinates and order him to transform and recover the target.

Bumblebee encourages Buster to tell his father about the power Optimus Prime has given him, but the youth is reluctant to admit anything. They are attacked by Laserbeak, who after a bit of evasive flying is eventually brought down by Bluestreak – mouth still running away with him.

Jetfire swoops down, easily avoiding a boulder thrown by Bumblebee, and returning fire. BlueStreak’s missile scores a hit but Jetfire feels no pain, convincing Bumblebee that this opponent is not alive. He tells Buster he has the power to control any unliving machine and he agrees. Buster rises and unleashes the Matrix – with Jetfire coming apart spectacularly.

It’s a stunning reveal and well deserving of the full-page treatment that Budiansky and Trimpe give it. You wonder why Prime doesn’t use these Matrix-inspired Jedi powers in battle, though perhaps they don’t work so well against living opponents. After a moment of stunned silence, Buster confesses to his father that does have this ‘Creation Matrix’ the Autobots alluded to, then proceeds to reassemble Jetfire – at Bumblebee’s suggestion – and infuse him with new commands. The Decepticons will hunt Buster so long as he has the Matrix, but perhaps Jetfire can be used to defeat the enemy and rescue the head of Optimus Prime…

In epilogue, the army continue to reinforce come across as woefully inept. One soldier noticed that vehicles travelling with them, that have now peeled off, appeared to be driverless. Despite having skirmishes with robots who have demonstrated the ability to disguise as vehicles, no-one seems to have put two and two together. In fact, it’s Prowl and the Autobots heading to the Decepticon base to try to rescue Optimus. Thanks to the listening device they know that Shockwave has decided that Prime no longer has the Matrix and will be terminated immediately!

In closing, Jetfire is becoming well known to the fans as part of Hasbro’s line of Autobot toys. Having him debut as a Decepticon is a fascinating twist but ultimately, we know he’s destined to join the Autobots. Sparkplug’s frosty attitude towards the Autobots appears to be thawing a little. He knows they are trouble for his family but can also see they are the only ones who can help Buster in his current predicament. And so to the epic conclusion next issue.

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