One of the most bizarre Transformers stories of writer Bob Budiansky’s reign sees Buster Witwicky uncover a plot by Ratbat to steal gasoline by hypnotising motorists in his Wash and Roll car washes!
Simon Furman titled one of his early Marvel UK Transformers stories Raiders of the Last Ark and in 1987 it was the turn of US writer Bob Budiansky to run with the Indiana Jones theme. His story, Buster Witwicky and the Car Wash of Doom is one of his most off-the-wall and rather sounds like the title came to him in the shower one morning and he decided to craft a story around it.
On the up side it’s got Ratbat as a main character, offering us a chance to enjoy more of his obsessive penny pinching and complete absence of morals – and it’s a welcome return for the Buster Witwicky (who saves the day without help from any of his Autobot friends). On the downside its a stand-out silly story that even the UK editorial team are struggling to take seriously and raises questions about whether Bob was starting to get a bit bored with the book by this point.
Car Wash has been a few issues in the making. Bob introduced us to Ratbat an his role as Decepticon fuel auditor and bean counter in chief in the Trypticon story. Crater Critters established that he’d sent a mysterious cargo to Earth and in The Cure, Astrotrain darted GB Blackrock with a brainwashing microchip that allowed him to be manipulated for what’s to follow. At this point in the US run, readers last saw Buster at the end of the 1985 story Prime Time where he returned the Matrix to Optimus Prime and returned to a normal life. In the UK Buster returned a couple more times, not least in a major way for the Special Teams debut story Second Generation, but even this side of the pond he’s been absent for a good nine months. And what an infamous story to return to!
The story is printed in the UK in the pages of Transformers #128, with a cover depicting Shockwave setting his ‘dogs’ (Ramjet, Thrust and Vortex against a Blackrock tanker). I like it a lot. Now, Blackrock must be one of the most unlucky billionaires there is! Literally every time the Decepticons target a rig or a plant its always one his, never a competitor. (Having said that Blackrock did comment in UK#123 that tankers were going missing so perhaps the Decepticons have been targeting indiscriminately). On this occasion one of Blackrock’s tankers is attacked in a bit of piracy on the high seas by the Conehead jets, Vortex and the Insecticons (all fairly recent additions to the Earth Decepticons’ ranks).
Before too long the vessel is seized and the crew rounded up. Bombshell hits one poor soul with a mind-controlling Cerebro Shell in order to have the man direct them to the control room. It’s a waste of a good shell as Kickback suggests – he’d have rather used his own powers of persuasion! – but Bombshell reveals their effectiveness is being tested. This being a family comic, the crew are put to sea in lifeboats rather than be executed (which might have been easier). The ship is towed to a small uncharted island, or rather the Decepticon’s undersea base which is concealed below. Commander Shockwave and the newly arrived Ratbat fly out to it.
Shockwave is smugly content that the operation went flawlessly, thanks to his “infallible logic” (naturally). But when Ratbat sinks his fangs into a pipe line there’s red faces all round – the tanker is empty!! It appears the tanker had already delivered its cargo when the Decepticons attacked. Shockwave is furious, immediately laying the blame with his warriors! Ratbat makes sure to rub it in by calculating the units of lost energy. The dynamic between the two is highly amusing. Clearly there’s no love lost between them but Shockwave has to be on his best behaviour to avoid Ratbat pulling the plug on the Earth operation. It’s difficult to imagine Megatron controlling himself and not roasting Ratbat with his fusion cannon and the first sign of condescension.
Ratbat suggests that they ought to be making use of the planets natives. Shockwave has little time for the idea and warns Ratbat not to bother – but Ratbat reveals that he already has plans in place…
Back on the mainland, in Portland, Oregon, Sparkplug Witwicky’s auto dealership now has a vulgar-looking Wash and Roll car wash adjacent (presumably this would have required months of applying for planning permission or perhaps not). Business seems to be booming with a queue formed on the forecourt. Sparkplug arrives to take over filling the customers’ tanks from Buster, mentioning that he also wants to fill his own tank – very strange as it was only filled an hour ago. Suddenly Buster’s girlfriend Jessie arrives on her bike and invites Buster to join her for a drink. He is forced to decline as another customer pulls up. Jessie shows Buster the local paper reporting a feared fuel shortage in the north west. Could it all be linked?
Elsewhere, at his corporate headquarters, GB Blackrock holds a press conference to reveal the success of the Wash and Roll – the “cleansing experience for both car and driver” – and reveals his plans for Wash and Roll mark two. After the reporters leave, Blackrock’s mind turns blank like he’s been hypnotised. He removes a tiny cassette from his inside pocket, which transforms into the fearsome form of Ratbat – his plan working perfectly.
Later that evening, Buster is sweeping up the forecourt when a final customer pulls up – Jessie! Her brother’s car needed a wash, and Buster reluctantly accepts her invitation to join her through the Wash and Roll! As the car slowly moves through, various flashing lights and heavy metal music blaze out, but Buster spends every day at this place so he’s not too excited. She decides to cheer him up another way – i.e. jumping on him! All of a sudden a light flashes into Jessie’s eyes, and the effect is instant. As the cycle soon finishes, Jessie tells Buster she has to go and then drives off zombie-like. Buster is confused and concerned and decides to follow her for an hour’s drive until she turns off the highway into a Blackrock fuel depot…
Elsewhere in the issue, we’ve got our first advert for the Hasbro Headmasters toys, and Grimlock defends the decision to conclude the Wanted Galvatron saga in the annual. It seems the marketing gimmick is not to everyone’s liking, though I would have thought most Transformers fans would want to pick up the annual anyway. We’re also at the start of a long an enjoyable Robo Capers saga with King Nonose and the Inventor on Earth’s moon.
In part two (UK #129) Buster uncovers the Decepticon plan. He follows Jessie into the Blackrock depot wondering whether she has a night job that she hadn’t mentioned before. He sees her ‘fill up’ her tank before driving off again and blocks her path with his car. Jessie doesn’t seem to acknowledge him until he flashes his headlights, snapping her back into reality. Suddenly Laserbeak swoops down and blasts at Buster’s car. He hasn’t been recognised the human as an Autobot as first thought, just a human who is out of line
The cons are actually siphoning fuel from hypnotised motorists before sending them on their way.
Presumably there is an art to leaving just the right amount of fuel in the tank or there would be a lot of folk breaking down on the drive home? Ratbat’s plan seems very inefficient compared to just stealing the oil directly as per Shockwave’s approach. The only justifiable reason for the laborious process of stealing gasoline from drivers must simply be down to its discreteness, but then you can only wonder how long people would take to notice their partners constantly staring into space and going on late night drives. Plus spending all the household income on petrol!
Buster and Jessie climb to the roof of an adjacent building where they can see Blackrock, flanked by Ratbat, addressing the crowd. He helpfully explains (for the readers – it’s difficult to imagine why the hypnotised crowds need to know) that Astrotrain zapped him with a hypnotising chip and he’d witnessed the Decepticon’s cargo transform into the first Wash and Roll car wash. Blackrock then instructed his organisation to begin mas production of the washes. The only problem is that the hypnosis quickly wears off – however Wash and Roll mark II will be a lot more permanent. He selects someone from the crowd to test it out, and picks on Buster’s dad Sparkplug (who oddly gives his name as Irving Witwicky and not William as he did previously in Prisoner of War – Bob probably forgot).
Buster must act right away, and after sending Jessie to find help, he speeds his own car into his dad’s path. The brainwashed humans soon surround him, leaving Buster no choice but to flee into the Wash and Roll (not the most sensible escape route given that it washes brains!) and Ratbat follows him, jumping onto Buster’s bonnet, and draining the cars fuel vampire-like. Buster rolls out of the door, covering his eyes, and gripping a tyre iron. He kicks a water pipe, splashing Ratbat in the face who releases him. Suddenly Jessie comes speeding in and shunts Ratbat (she couldn’t leave Buster to face this monster alone, she says). Buster decides there is no time to call the Autobots, this must be ended now.
He smashes the neon Car Wash sign with a throw of the iron, creating a big flash that wakes everyone from their trances. The crowd bombard the Laserbeak and Ratbat with spanners forcing the Decepticons into a rather pathetic retreat. Buster has saved the day and is congratulated by his dad and GB Blackrock (amazingly this is the first time the two have met considering they are both so closely linked to the Autobots). Blackrock vows to dismantle all the Wash and Rolls and Jessie thanks Buster with a big smooch.
In summary, the infamous Car Wash of Doom is not one of the best examples of the Marvel Transformers run, which is a shame seeing as it sees the welcome return of Buster, Jessie and Sparkplug. The story has its moments, in particular the moment where the Decepticons discover the tanker they went to all the trouble to hijack is empty! It’s odd to think that an operation run by the calculating Shockwave could be incompetent. Mind you Ratbat may not be in a position to criticise after this, now that his ropey scheme to hypnotise people into handing over their fuel tanks has literally run out of gas. Why not capture a rig or demand fuel in return for not destroying a city or something? Bizarre.
Next issue we go off-world for our first glimpse of the planet Nebulos, home of the most unique Autobots and Decepticons yet – the Headmasters!