Broken Glass!

The Autobot presence on the planet Nebulos has triggered a wave of panic and protests and matters are about to get worse when the Decepticons show up!

I’ve got a lot of love for the Headmasters saga. It was published by Marvel as a four comic spin-off series in 1987 and reprinted in the back pages of Transformers UK.

It’s writer Bob Budiansky at the top of his game in my opinion. His task is to provide a story vehicle to introduce a large array of new Transformers toys and characters (Autobots, Decepticons and Nebulans) that has Hasbro were releasing that summer. And to provide a plausible reason why Transformers would wish to join forces with humanoids as Headmasters and Targetmasters.
Bob ably rises to the challenge and weaves a story of heroism , tragedy, sacrifice, love and treachery, with compelling lead characters in Fortress Maximus and Scorponok and their Nebulan counterparts Galen and Zarak.

It’s a testament to the story that it does not need to rely on big name draws like Optimus Prime or Megatron to sell it (in fact the only established characters to appear are Hot Rod, Kup and Blurr, Cyclonus and Scourge, and even then as bit players) and so it succeeds under its its own steam.

In the first instalment, we met the noble Fortress Maximus, an Autobot leader in the Optimus Prime mould, who had grown weary of the never-ending cycle of civil war and realised the Autobots were equally culpable of propagating the conflict as their enemies the Decepticons. The only way to break the circle of violence was for his side to leave Cybertron forever. Their logical destination would be Nebulos, where peace had reigned for ten thousand years. However, the arrival of giant alien robots in their midst proved so destabilising that the Nebulans reactivated their long dormant weapons of war and attacked the newcomers. Fortress Maximus surrendered his head as the ultimate gesture of peace, as did four of his followers, while six others disarmed. Crisis was averted temporarily.

So, as we pick up the story in Broken Glass! the Nebulan capital Koraja is in a state of civil unrest with protestors waving anti-robot placards and climbing on the globe monument to burn an effigy. Galen, leader of the World Watchers, and a member of the ruling council, watches the situation with alarm. He feels responsible because it was his decision to accept the surrender of Fortress Maximus and allow the other Autobots to remain. Evidently public opinion does not share his assessment that these robots do not pose a threat.

Lord Zarak is an intriguing character. We see him at this point, standing alongside Galen as a fellow council member. The dovish Galen and hawkish Zarak have very different political perspectives but for now they are nominally on the same side. Zarak is of course, responsible for first contact between Blurr and the Nebulans going so awry in the last issue, and he’s busy stirring the pot even now, with hired thugs in the crowd to ensure the protests erupt into violence. Galen appears not to suspect the lengths Zarak will go to. And matters are complicated by the fact that Galen’s lover, Llyra, is Zarak’s daughter. She also seems to dismiss her father as a harmless crank.

So what are Zarak’s motives here? On the one hand it would seem to be power grab, by using the crisis to bring down Galen and advance himself. On the other, maybe he’s looking for an opportunity break up his daughter’s relationship with this guy he despises. We can only speculate what it is he dislikes so much about Galen: could it be Zarak finds Galen’s nobility intolerable as it reveals his (Zarak’s) own failings as a man and leader? Or maybe he detests Galen’s flamboyant choice of clothes, i.e. the bright red outfit with the slightly naff green globe on it. What we can say with some certainty is that Zarak’s daughter is smoking hot!
It’s interesting to see how Earthlike these Nebulans are in terms of their actions and passions. It’s no wonder that they can come to Earth later on and integrate pretty seamlessly. Perhaps this is a missed opportunity on Bob’s part to create something more alien (that said the cartoon’s answer was simply to make the Nebulans green).

As a fight breaks out and Galen leaps into the crowd to break it up (let’s skirt over the fact that he was two storeys up and would have broken his legs) only to be punched out by one of Zarak’s goons. Nebulan security forces step in and Llyra rushes to the aid of her love, who has just been punched in the face by a protester. Galen insists on taking the blame and says the man should not be arrested. Bad judgement I think – what sort of precedent is that setting if a mob is allowed to physically assault a leading politician without consequence? Zarak is soon trying to poison Llyra against Galen, saying the deal with the Autobots is Galen’s way of seizing more power. She won’t hear of it.

Later we see what has become of Fortress Maximus and the other surrendered Autobots. Their heads are in an abandoned munitions warehouse along with their bodies and weapons. The head of Fortress Maximus has become a wise counsel to Galen and is growing ever more extreme in his selflessness as time goes on. Not only is he prepared to accept life as a decapitated prisoner, he now urges Galen to destroy them all if it will maintain the peace on Nebulos. Galen feels that would run counter to all his stands for (luckily).

Lord Zarak, meanwhile, keeps up the pressure with a speech in the Council urging his fellow law makers to listen to the voices of the people. Galen is losing the argument but Gort comes to his aid. Having recovered from the injuries he received at the forest encounter with Highbrow, he takes the platform and explains to councillors that he was not attacked at all – his fall was an accident. The speech proves to be a game changer and tensions ease a little.

So much so that Galen, Zarak are soon leading a delegation to meet Kup, Blurr, Pointblank and the other Autobots to see how construction of their forest base is going. Hot Rod is establishing one-way contact with their old base on Cybertron so that they can listen in on events happening on the homeworld. The Autobots will not broadcast to Cybertron in case the Decepticons should learn of their location. Zarak’s assistant Vorath secretly records the location of the Cybertron base, and later in a powerful observatory Zarak transmits a message to Cybertron asking for help in ridding Nebulos of the Autobots.

That message arrives, with perfect timing, as Scorponok and his Decepticons have infiltrated the deserted Autobot base on Cybertron to try to find out what has become of their regular sparring partners. When an unintelligible message starts broadcasting out of a console they activate translators and hear Zarak’s appeal for assistance against Fortress Maximus! Soon his his army is setting course for Nebulos to crush the Autobots and conquer the planet!

Natural justice demands that Zarak should be locked up for a very long time as a traitor to Nebulos for exposing his people to such danger, but that’s not what happens. My other thoughts are around Scorponok’s motives. They supposedly fight to conquer Cybertron, and with the Autobots gone that goal becomes more achievable, but Scorponok would rather up-sticks and follow Fortress Maximus. For him and his troops, conquering the enemy has long become the primary goal. In a real sense they are in a symbiotic relationship with the Autobots and are lost without them.

In one of the panels, Scorponok is meant to be speaking to Cyclonus. Instead, artist Frank Springer has drawn one of the Nebulan robots. Rather than open up a can of worms that would get readers writing in, UK editor Simon Furman simply replaces the name Cyclonus with Krunix. It won’t be the only mistake Springer makes (drawing Cerebros’ head in place of Fortress Maximus is another glaring one) but I can only imagine the number of new character specs to learn was overwhelming. It’s sloppy but is forgivable only because the standard of art is good overall and the story is of a high standard.

Before too long Scorponok and his followers arrive on Nebulos in force. Zarak is alarmed by the numbers of them and more so when Scorpnok announces they will ignore the Autobots in the forest for now and attack the city where Fortress Maximus is being held. It should be pretty apparent to Zarak that he has messed up in a major way, particularly as Scorponok makes plain that he’ll deal with Zarak and his cronies when he returns.

Galen is woken by security chief Duros, who tells him ‘robots are attacking’ apparently in contravention of their agreement. Galen gets dressed and rushes outside, where it’s quickly apparent that these are the enemies of their allies the Autobots. As the Decepticon assault on the city begins, Galen convenes with the head of Fortress Maximus, who warns him that Scorponok would interpret any surrender of the captive heads as weakness and destroy the city anyway.

Since they cannot reconnect the Autobots to their bodies without violating the promises Galen made to the Nebulan people, another way must be found. Remote controlling the Autobot bodies will not be enough to counter a heavily armed Decepticon attack and so Fortress Maximus suggests a way for the Nebulans to become the heads of the Autobots and control their bodies. It’s a novel idea and makes you wonder whether Max dreamed it up or there has been previous instances in Transformers history where the Headmaster process has been attempted.

Arcana, an expert in bio-engineering is summoned. He quickly advances the plan to allow Nebulans to become the heads of the Autobots, allowing them to ‘take control’ of the robotic bodies and fight back against the Decepticons. When I say quickly, I mean insanely fast. An engineering feat like this, which has never been attempted before, would surely take months or years to design and test, and yet here is Arcana creating the process in a matter of hours, while the city is under siege. Plus, he volunteers to be one of the five being operated on, so while he should be overseeing the crucial stage of the experiment he’s actually going on the operating table for a very risky physical process (which, when you consider involves replacing joints and strengthening bones, you would think it would take the volunteers a long time to recover from such surgery).

Gort, Duros and Stylor step up and Galen will be the fifth volunteer. He is implored by Llyra not to do become a man of war, but he feels he must lead by example if he is to save Nebulos. An operation that looks and reads like something out of a Frankenstein horror, gets underway. It is a stunning success. Finally, the five emerge from the operating theatre in robotic suits, not quite Autobots but now more than Nebulans. They fold up and transform into the heads of the Autobots and thus the Headmasters are born!

Duros’ men have fought valiantly but perimeter defences have been breached (presumably many Nebulans will have died, though this is not addressed). Skullcruncher can’t wait to start stomping organic creatures. Scorponok feels that won’t be necessary, as iron doors open to reveal Fortress Maximus (his head drawn as Cerebros, annoyingly) and fellow Autobots. Scorponok is expecting their surrender, but instead they are hear to fight.

A great battle ensues, with the five warriors now sharper, faster and more agile than before. The Decepticons are soon on the run, despite having the superior numbers. Scorponok sounds a general retreat and the Autobots do a victory march into Koraja. Many Nebulans are fearful of the ‘monstrous’ newcomers and aren’t sure if they have traded one set of conquerors for another. To ease their fears, each Autobot head disconnects and transforms back in/to its Nebulan component. They are quickly mobbed.

Llyra is aghast that Galen went ahead with this. She gives no credit at all to the fact that he has just saved the Nebulan capital and its people from destruction at the hands of a murderous alien robot mob. To be fair, Galen doesn’t help himself by speaking in terms of ‘the Autobots’ power being theirs to control’. It’s really the worst thing he could say as it makes Llyra believe that her father was right about Galen all along – he is power hungry and now longer the peaceful man she fell in love with. Ouch.

So ends Broken Glass. The title is meant to relate to the fragility of the peace on Nebulos and the civil unrest but it could also relate to Galen’s own situation. His relationship is now shattered and he may not be able to piece it back together. Even if he could, he has extensively surgically altered, a freak essentially, and it is naïve to think he can just slot back into his old life and things will be as they were.

Next story
Previous

Ring of Hate!

Frustrated by the never-ending war on Cybertron, Fortress Maximus and his Autobots leave for a new life on the peaceful world of Nebulos, but their arrival is met with fear and hostility by the native Nebulans.

In September 1987 readers of the Marvel UK Transformers comic were introduced to a new species of Transformer – the Headmasters and Targetmasters. Simon Furman’s two parter, Worlds Apart, whet fans’ collective appetites for these unique new Autobots and Decepticons who are bonded with natives of the planet Nebulos who become their heads and weapons.

Furman’s story in issues #130-131 was a fun throwaway introduction, but the real meat in the sandwich was a four issue mini-series in the United States, written by Bob Budiansky, which established the origin of these new Transformers. That series was serialised in the UK Transformers comic via the back-up strip, so for 16 weeks in late 1987 readers were spoilt rotten with cover to cover Transformers stories.

‘Uncle Bob’ was instrumental in creating and defining the original Transformers characters on behalf of Hasbro in the early eighties. In 1986, as regular writer of the US book, he introduced the dystopian Cybertron where the Decepticons are in control and the heroic Autobots are reduced to scattered pockets of resistance (see the iconic Smelting Pool story). So Bob is the perfect writer to be tasked with mapping out the backstory of the Headmasters and Targetmasters, the Nebulans and a whole host of other characters. It’s a tall order to accomplish that while weaving a coherent story, but Bob does it with aplomb.

The mini-series tackles some big concepts, like love and sacrifice, betrayal, greed, revenge, and how war takes its toll on the characters.

Right off the bat we know we’re on to something interesting, as Scorponok shows what a cruel and sadistic bastard he is by unleashing his scorpion’s sting against an Autobot prisoner who is marching too slowly – possibly executing the poor soul. These survivors are being marched by Scorponok and his henchmen towards a slow and painful death in the Smelting Pool. (Whether this is the Straxus pool or Scorponok has his own, we don’t know).

Salvation arrives in the shape of Autobot leader Fortress Maximus – nemesis of Scorponok – who sets his army against the unsuspecting Decepticons leading to a fierce battle (told over two pages to give it a sense of epic). Fort Max is one-robot engine of destruction laying waste to the enemy while lambasting them as “evil stains” on the world. There’s a nice line from Scorponok of how the cowardice of his men “desecrates the name Decepticon” but their “destruction would serve no purpose” – so he signals a retreat, showing that he is smart enough not to waste resources in what is a long game. The enemy may win a battle but not the war… as the saying goes.

The Autobots return to their base in the Manganese Mountains jubilant. However, Fortress Maximus is no mood to celebrate (and bawls out Kup and Hot Rod for their triumphalism). He is weary of the war and has come to view Autobot and Decepticon as equally culpable in propagating the cycle. Max’s solution is for them to leave the battlefield and he has just the place… the planet Nebulos, a Saturn-like world he has observed for centuries, which has been at peace for thousands of years. With Cybertron passing closing to the Nebulan system, his intention is to leave for an exile on the planet. His followers can come with him or they can stay. Everyone is shocked but gradually the Autobots are convinced by Max’s argument and agree to follow him.
The slightly out of place reference to Optimus Prime (as a previous leader who disappeared and was never seen again) lets us know that Ring of Hate is set before the arrival of the message from Earth during the Smelting Pool story in mid 1986.

The Autobots devote their efforts to the rapid construction of the star ship Steelhaven and, as word spreads, comrades come from far and wide to join the exodus – the Technobots and Monsterbots among them – and soon they are warping away from Cybertron perhaps never to return. Once in orbit of Nebulos, the Autobots waste no time in disembarking. They find the planet to be a lush paradise full of organic life.

Max entrusts Highbrow with a device containing a message for the Nebulan leadership to announce their arrival and peaceful intent. Highbrow quite quickly stumbles across Gort, his youthful future binary bond partner, locked in an embrace with girlfriend Marita. It’s all a bit cringe-worthy as the cerebral Autobot geekily observes that they must have been engaged in data transfer (Bob always does a good job of showing the Transformers as alien and clueless as to the ways of humankind) but Highbrow only succeeds in startling the pair and causing Gort to fall and hurt his head. He departs with an earnest comment about hoping Marita’s companion “can be repaired”.

The plot moves fast, with the planet’s ruling council of peers meeting in the capital Koraja the following day to discuss their response to the Autobot message. When you consider that the Transformers have been on Earth for three years at this point and their presence has never been properly acknowledged by the US government (other than through the Robot Master hoax). Headmasters is already breaking new ground in terms of first contact.

Among the Nebulan senators, Lord Zarak is one of hawks who regards the Autobots’ arrival as the greatest threat to his people and urges them to rearm. Gort’s injuries are cited as evidence of the aliens’ ill-intent, despite Marita’s attempts to interject from the gallery. Galen, leader of the World Watchers, and hated by Zarak, argues that they hold true to their values of peace and understanding and hear the aliens out. So, the Autobots’ emissary Blurr is permitted into the Nebulan capital the following day to deliver his message of peace.

Krunk, acting on orders from Zarak, aims a magnetic polarizer gun at Blurr causing his arm to be drawn to a fountain monument of a Nebulan globe, knocking it from its moorings and sending it into the crowd. Pandemonium breaks out and Blurr is forced to flee from a volley of fire from Zarak’s personal militia. The ambush of Blurr by Zarak’s forces was a spectacular success, proving that luck is on their side and against the Autobots. They could not have known that Blurr would stand at exactly the right distance to the globe or even know that his body would react to magnetism.

This causes a dilemma for the Autobots. If attacked do they fight back? Fortress Maximus is adamant: absolutely not. Little do they realise that Galen has been instructed by the council to unlock the armoury containing the Nebulans long-abandoned machines of war. Galen and Duros are soon leading an armada of war machines against the Autobots. Kup returns fire and is confronted by Max who tells him they will never convince the Nebulans of their peaceful intent if they fight. If Kup wants to battle the Nebulans he’ll have to go through his own leader. He backs down and they flee into the woods and swamp where the cumbersome vehicles cannot pursue.

Kup’s willingness to challenge authority is not a side of him we’ve seen before but it will surface again, much later when they are on Earth and Kup has serious misgivings about Fortress Maximus’ new headmaster partner Spike Witwicky, and later still when Optimus Prime proposes that the Autobots surrender to Scorponok to forge an alliance against Unicron.

It must be something about human nature (admittedly these are Nebulans but they certainly looks and act like Earth people) that a tradition of peace for ten millennia can be so easily cast aside the minute they feel threatened. It’s frankly a miracle that they have had peace for so long, especially considering the suspicious and manipulative ways of some of their number. While the noble Galen fears he may have betrayed his countrymen by acting in such haste, Zarak believes his manipulation of Galen has been necessary to manoeuvre the Nebulan leader into doing the sensible thing.

The Autobots are in a bind. They cannot return to Cybertron and the war, but neither can they risk igniting a new conflict. Fortress Maximus decides to take another of his bold risks. Accompanied by Hardhead, Chromedome, Brainstorm, Highbrow, Hot Rod, Kup, Blurr, Sureshot, Pointblank and Crosshairs, he advances on the Nebulan capital and pleads for peace. Zarak implores Galen to order the attack, and so to prove his good faith, Max offers the most he has to give… his head. In a macabre gesture he removes his head from his shoulders and surrenders it to the Nebulans. Hardhead, Chromedome, Highbrow and Brainstorm do the same. The others were a bit more sensible and merely surrendered their weapons!

Galen comes to his senses and realises that a moment of distrust can destroy 10,000 years of peace. He declares they will work with the Autobots and there will be no war this day. From the look on Zarak’s face its clear that he is not done yet.

The saga continues in the second instalment Broken Glass.

Next story
Previous