Brothers in Armour!

“See you in the next world” – Lord Zarak, slowly being consumed by Scorponok, realises he must free Galen and the Autobots in order to save Nebulos from destruction.

Brothers in Armour, which I always thought of as a play on the title of the Dire Straits song, is the fourth and final instalment of Headmasters. Even with the frequent art blunders, the series has easily been the best and most original of Marvel’s occasional spin-off titles (the others being the Transformers the Movie adaptation and the very turgid Transformers vs GI Joe). At this point the Autobot Headmasters have been defeated by Scorponok’s Decepticons and things look extremely bleak for the Autobots who remain at large.

The tension in the series is that the good guys can’t seem to get a break. Having fled the neverending war on Cybertron, Fortress Maximum and his fellow refugees arrived on Nebulos where they were shown only fear and hatred – and were even attacked by the pacifist Nebulans. Then, having surrendered their heads as a gesture of peace, Lord Zarak gave away their location to Scorponok, their sworn Decepticon enemy. And just as the Autobots regained the upper hand by becoming Headmasters, Zarak and his followers bonded-up with the Decepticons to inflict a terrible defeat on the Autobots.

It’s just like Bob Budiansky’s stories of the Transformers’ early years on Earth where Shockwave and the Decepticons had overcome the Autobots. A similar situation is occurring on Nebulos and as a reader you have to keep coming back to find out how the heroic forces can possibly recover the situation.

The final instalment opens at the gardens of Melanossus – a place of outstanding natural beauty – now the latest casualty of war. Nothing is sacred for Scorponok and his forces who have invaded paradise to persecute and destroy the remaining Autobot fugitives. We were briefly introduced to the Monsterbots in part one. Now Grotesque, Doublecross and Repugnus get another showing (just as the Technobots and Terrorcons did last issue) as part of the obligatory toy product placement. The trio are the sole survivors and make a strategic retreat. It’s fun to see Doublecross’ two heads arguing about whether they should fight or flee. It’s a shame there isn’t the space to see more of the Monsterbots.

Zarak and his fellow Headmaster Nebulans have become drunk on their new power. With the Decepticons at their side there is no curb on their ambitions. The Nebulan media arrive via some interesting looking hover planes. They invite Zarak to repeat his claims that Galen is a traitor to Nebulos, which Zarak does without hesitation. It should be pretty obvious to right thinking folk that Zarak is equally as guilty of what he accuses Galen of, namely teaming up with robots to acquire power, and clearly Zarak’s victories over the Autobots are having a cataclysmic effect on Nebulan cities (as he speaks Melanossus lies in ruins). Yet nobody seems to be questioning why Zarak is in league with the very Decepticons who were laying siege to Koraja not so long ago. Could it be that everyone is in fear of this new power in the Nebulan government? Echoes of Nazi Germany here.

At the Autobot base camp in the swamps (where even the Decepticons won’t venture) Point Blank appears to have taken a position of leadership. Like Fortress Maximus before him, he’s having to reign in a frustrated Kup. Luckily they have six new Nebulan recruits who are working with them at great personal risk to resist the Decepticons. They have undergone bio-mechanical engineering to become the weapons of Pointblank and five others – becoming the Autobot Targetmasters. We’re introduced to the sextet but sadly Firebolt is referred to as Sparks; another production team mistake?

Hot Rod has detected a distress signal from Earth. It’s one that Goldbug will send in issue 155 and Crosshairs is up for abandoning Nebulos and trying their luck at this new world. Blurr disagrees, reminding colleagues that their brethren are captives of the Decepticons and they can’t leave until Fortress Maximus and the others are rescued. With that, the Targetmasters depart to protect the latest Nebulan sanctuary under threat.

Zarak’s very hard-working ally Vorath (who monitors communications and builds Targetmasters in his spare time!) has also picked up the transmission, so now the Decepticons know of Earth as well. Zarak visits his archenemy Galen, who is held in a state of unconsciousness in some sort of energy vine, only to find his daughter Llyra there. Her ex love Galen is now the most hated being on Nebulos. Zarak has Galen ‘reactivated’ but Llyra storms out rather than stick around and listen to his plea for her understanding.

Galen can see clearly that Zarak is becoming consumed by his own power and will end up tearing apart Nebulos unless he wakes up to what is happening. Zarak refuses to accept this but at the back of his mind he knows Galen speaks the truth.

At The Nursery, a sacred facility that provides Nebulan food and medicine needs, Peacemaker and his fellow Targetmaster Nebulans meet with Selani, one of the facility administrators. The suggestion here is that The Nursery are fearful of being seized by Zarak and the Decepticons. Sure enough, they are soon under attack by Zarak, atop Scorponok, and joined in battle by the Terrorcons. Zarak is pleased to see the Autobots are apparently defenceless and he is in no mood to show mercy – they attack.

In response the six armoured Nebulans transform to the weapons of Blurr, Crosshairs, Hotrod, Kup, Pointblank and Sureshot. They unleash a variable volley of laser fire unlike anything seen before and cut down their Decepticon opponents. However, attacks from the Terrorcons Cutthroat and Hun-grr destroy the Nursery supports and the structure comes crashing down. The Autobots realise that their presence is only exposing the Nursery to more danger and they have no choice but to withdraw. As the adrenaline fades, Zarak begins to realise that Galen was right and he is losing his mind the longer he spends in a mental link with Scorponok.

It’s weird because at this point Scorponok seems to have ceased to be an independent Decepticon. When his head is transformed in Zarak he just stands around like a total non-entity. It’s become the Zarak show and its difficult to see any great advantage from Scorponok’s perspective.

In a matter of days, Vorath has succeeded in duplicating the Autobots’ technological advantage and has created the Decepticon Targetmasters – Slugslinger, Triggerhappy, Misfire, Cyclonus and Scourge. The latter two, Cyclonus and Scourge, would fill numerous columns on the comic’s letters pages with fans wondering how they could possibly be on Nebulos in 1987 when they are not created until 2006. Grimlock (on the Grim Grams page) hints that the answer will be revealed in the next big Transformers story – the 1988 new year opener – whose title is being kept strictly under wraps!

Zarak seems barely interested in the Decepticon Targetmasters (they do seem like an afterthought for the story too in all honestly) and even ignores his daughter Llyra as he brushes past her and into the detention cell for another face-to-face with Galen. Ironically his hated is the only one who understands his dilemma. In a very telling scene Zarak confesses to feeling like he’s been controlled by Scorponok and mentions that he and Galen will meet in the “next world”. Galen naturally takes this as a reference to his receiving the death penalty (again its bizarre that a world at peace for thousands of years has not abolished the practice of capital punishment) but the world Zarak is speaking of is Earth.

He knocks Krunk unconscious and deactivates the field holding Galen and his allies, allowing them to break out and recombine with their Autobot partners. Annoyingly Gort and Stylor have been miscoloured as each other; the level of production team errors in the mini-series is astounding but thank goodness the standard of story makes up for it. The Autobots break-out and are soon engaged in a pitched battle with the Decepticon Targetmasters at the iconic Nebulan globe monument.

The real drama for me is the scene with Llyra questioning how Galen and the Autobots could have escaped and realising that her father must have freed them. But Zarak is losing his mind at this point, mesmerised by the call of battle and soon he is riding atop of Scorponok and joining in. Llyra realises that the Decepticons are destroying the city and at long last the penny drops. Fortress Maximus orders a retreat to avoid Nebulan casualties and they return to the swamp for a reunion with their fellow Autobots. There, Galen informs them that they must leave Nebulos and he is certain that Zarak and the Decepticons will follow; it’s the only way to save the planet.

There’s a very poignant moment where a repentant Llyra arrives and basically tells Galen that if he tells her the truth she will believe him. Finally! Tragically Galen coldly rebuffs her overture and sends her off in tears. She now hates him more than ever. As Galen explains to his followers, if Llyra still loved him he could not leave Nebulos as he must. Galen, heroic to the last, sacrifices his own happiness for patriotism. Soon the Autobot ship Steelhaven is warping away bound for Earth (and a starring role in the main Transformers comic) leaving their dreams of a world where robot and Nebulan can peaceful coexist in tatters. Days later, Zarak and the Decepticons board their own ship and give chase, leaving Llyra and the Nebulan people to rebuild their shattered lives. Wow.

It’s a great end to the series but I must confess to feeling a little cheated for poor old Galen. He really can’t get a break and even when things finally go his way he has to abandon his world to save it. It’s a shame he couldn’t have taken Llyra with him, or maybe reversed the binary bond process and sent the Autobots off without their Nebulans? Perhaps that wasn’t practical. We’ll revisit Nebulos again on a couple of occasions – one in the 1988 story People Power and then two decades later in Simon Furman’s Transformers Regeneration One series – however we aren’t destined to see Llyra again. I hope that in the fullness of time she came to realise the truth about Galen and her father.

In closing, the art blunders aside this is a great story from Bob Budiansky. It must have been challenging to weave an engaging tale while hampered by having to introduce legions of new characters – but it all works. I’ve read that there was some talk at the time of making Headmasters an ongoing series. When you consider that the main comic had to print the UK story Man of Iron to give themselves breathing space to work on Headmasters, I doubt the team could have managed two books every month. Instead the Headmasters and Targetmasters are destined to play a big role in the Earth adventures of the Transformers – a mouth watering prospect.

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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.

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