The Bridge to Nowhere!

Lord Straxus activates his Space Bridge, linking Cybertron to Earth. Unless the Autobots stop them, the Decepticons could send unlimited reinforcements to plunder our world. The stakes are high in the Marvel TF classic by Budiansky and artist Don Perlin.

July 1986. As I entered the final weeks of my first year at secondary school, good things were afoot in the world of Transformers comics (my escape from stresses of everyday life). We’d just had the fantastic Smelting Pool story, introducing a host of new characters from the wider toy range and my new favourite Autobot, Blaster. I’d been blown away by that story, which was (and would remain) one of Bob Budiansky’s finest, and equally delighted that we’d be getting a further instalment – The Bridge to Nowhere. I knew it would struggle to reach the uncommon heights of the Smelting Pool (and would be correct) but Phil Gascoine’s fine cover to TFUK#68, depicting the two planets joined and the faces of Prime, Megatron, Perceptor and Straxus, created the impression of more excitement to come.

The Transformation page sets the scene – after four million years of radio silence, contact is made with Cybertron, but it’s the Decepticons getting in touch. As we saw last issue, Straxus (ruler of the Polyhex province) was overseeing the frantic construction of something epic. It was a project that required the kidnap of a neutral scientist – Spanner – who Blaster, a leading light of the local Autobot resistance, is obsessed with for reasons we never find out. Perhaps there’s a back history there we’re not privy too, or maybe just Blaster’s innate concern for any innocent taken captive by the Decepticons. In this story we find out that the construction project was in fact a Space Bridge, and Spanner is very closely involved (more on that later).

If last issue was unusual for the absence of Earth and humans (save for a glimpse via Soundwave’s message) this issue resumes normal service. It opens on the Columbia River Gorge, home to some of the most spectacular scenery in Northern Oregon. ‘Charlie and Rita’ are driving through a rugged track overlooked by mountains and pine, when they spot a gigantic metal bridge that piques their curiosity. They drive their red Jeep onto it, only to slam on the brakes when they realise to their horror that it stops halfway!

As the couple make a hasty U-turn, a gigantic robot appears from nowhere and explodes spectacularly! They drive away at speed just as the bridge begins to vanish… only to re-materialise on Cybertron, several light years away, where it reconnects to its other half.

Lord Straxus, the badass Decepticon despot, already showed the cruel contempt he holds for his Autobot prisoners. It seems this also extends to his Decepticon lackies as well – as he orders a robot onto the bridge to investigate the malfunction. He promptly explodes as well. Shrapnel contacts Spanner to identify the issue (a faulty fuel line). Blaster is watching and recording from above in his Cybertronian communications device mode. It’s a pretty useless alt mode when it comes to travel or combat, it must be said. Luckily, someone with a more useful alternative form – the plane Powerglide – arrives to collect him and they return to the Autobot secret underground base.

Blaster is keen to rescue Spanner. In some way this would allow him to atone, at least partially, for having to abandon Scrounge last issue. But the news that the bridge is almost operational is top priority for Perceptor, who needs every Autobot to play their part in destroying it. The Decepticons must not be allowed to reach Earth and endanger that distant world.

And what of the Earth? We see it now surrounded by a weird cloud (like Roadrunner has zipped around it). I’m not sure why Don Perlin drew the Earth so strangely. In Wyoming, Megatron and Soundwave are holed up in the coal mine along with the human captive Donny Finkleberg, aka Robot Master. Ravage now arrives with a vending machine full of candy bars for the prisoner’s food. Robot Master has just finished another Autobot-bashing broadcast to North America but tests the limited patience of Megatron even further by complaining about his poor treatment and lack of appreciation.

Shockwave arrives with the other flying Decepticons and the two square-up briefly. Interestingly, three of the panels have been altered in the UK comic to reflect the situation from Transformers #65 where Megatron and Shockwave agreed to try out a joint leadership. In the US none of the UK extras are published, so as far as the American audience is concerned this is the first meeting between the two leaders since Megatron reappeared. The square up for a fight but are interrupted by the holographic form of Lord Straxus. He acknowledges Soundwave’s (sent in issue #36) and offers to help the Decepticons conquer Earth, adding that they have a means of instantaneous travel between the two distant worlds.

The news is enough to restore the truce between Shockwave and Megatron. And in the US version it becomes the reason for the pair agreeing to put their differences and make the necessary preparations. Donny hears about the Earth being drained of its natural resources and realises he must escape and warn the Autobots.

In the second half (published in TFUK#69), Straxus oversees the final stages of the Space Bridge’s activation from viewpoint high up in Darkmount. Little does he realise that Perceptor and his crew have tunnelled underneath the stronghold and are busy planting explosives. Everything Warpath utters seems to be related to shooting or warfare, and his line now “nothing pleases me more than a big blast”, raises a smile. Two ‘extras’, Corkscrew and Borebit, drill an escape tunnel to the surface, where the Autobots come under instant attack. It’s not clear if the pair are the first victims, but as a rule, any character who is not part of the Hasbro toy line is usually guaranteed to die.

Darkmount explodes and crumbles. Straxus falls, transforming into a fearsome-looking flying cannon, and vowing revenge. This little act of destruction is but a diversion to allow Blaster on to the Space Bridge to plant more explosives. He’s busy doing that when the bridge begins to transform. It reveals itself to be none other than the missing Spanner. In a nice twist, which for once I’d not had an inkling about, he’d not only been used by the Decepticons for his physics know how but they built him into the bridge. As punishments go its pretty sadistic, or perhaps it simply works more efficiently with a living Transformer at its heart. Spanner pleads with Blaster to plant the explosives and free him, but Blaster falters.

Straxus, meanwhile, is blasting anything that moves. Shrapnel alerts him to the attack on Darkmount being a ruse – pointing out the Autobot presence on the bridge. If Blaster’s flaw is his compassion which causes him to flinch from what must be done, Straxus’ weakness is surely his impatience. It’s not very sensible to activate the bridge while the battle is raging but he orders Shrapnel to do just that. This allows Blaster a glimpse of the strange world that is Earth.

A Decepticon seeker zapped by Blaster’s disorientating Electro Scrambler spins out of control and into the swirling void at side of the bridge, being destroyed instantly (this is the compressed space that the bridge spans – very deadly). A misplaced blast from Straxus also crosses the bridge, disintegrating trees on the Earth side, which is noticed by a passing Police car. Truly this is a battle between the worlds!

The main event soon arrives as Straxus blasts the Autobots unconscious and squares up the last man standing – Blaster (who has lost his scrambler). Straxus swings his axe furiously at Blaster, who does well to avoid most of the blows until one cuts into his leg. He spots the fuel line he noted earlier (the one that caused the malfunction at the start of the story). A huge swing from Straxus’ axe cuts the line, and, with the bridge now unstable, Blaster boots Straxus towards the Cybertron side of the bridge where he dies immediately (though not in the UK continuity where he’ll be back for a swansong or two).

Blaster is left off balance but saved by Powerglide (not for the first time). The seven remaining Autobots exit the malfunctioning bridge on to the Earth side as it begins to vanish. Although it won’t take the Decepticons long to repair it, they’ve bought a little time to warn the Autobots on Earth. It’s time for ‘Cybertron seven’ to bid greetings to the Earthlings (police and military) who approach them.

And so, we conclude the Return to Cybertron story. A head to head between the main hero and villain was really the only way to end this brief but excellent saga. Straxus ultimately goes the way of all who are not part of the toy range, but as mentioned he’ll appear again in the UK comics. Blaster, Perceptor and the others finish up on Earth, allowing them to eventually be part of the regular characters. However, we won’t learn their fate until issue #90, which is about five months away at the time the comic was published.

The Space Bridge idea has been lifted from the Sunbow Transformers cartoons (along with Energon Cubes previously) and with this now a feature, it will be a highly useful vehicle for bringing new characters into the comic relatively simply as Bob Budiansky would be under constant pressure to do. In the next issue it’s back to the adventures of the Earth-bound Autobots and the debut of Omega Supreme.

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Second Generation

The Autobots and Decepticons are shown a vision of their future – the Special Teams, courtesy of Buster Witwicky’s Matrix-induced nightmares, and Megatron battles Shockwave for the Decepticon leadership once again.

Late May 1986, the big summer event from Hasbro is the release of the new combiner teams – the Aerialbots, Protectobots, Stunticons and Combaticons. Unlike the Constructicons, which are fiddly to combine (and not for sale in the UK anyway) these new teams are more streamlined. A larger ‘team leader’ becomes the body of the combined robot and the other four members easily click into place as arms and legs. All are interchangeable. As a disgruntled Mixmaster wryly observes in the story, suddenly the Constructicons are “yesterday’s news”.

There’s one problem. The new toys are not scheduled to appear in the UK comic until late November. That’s good timing for Christmas sales but not ideal for Hasbro execs looking to give the Special Team toys a push as they go on sale in mid 1986. The solution is this story, Second Generation, where the Special Teams debut in a dream, ahead of their actual debut.

Issue #63’s cover by Alan Stevens is an arrangement of Superion and Menasor from their box art. I can’t be sure whether Stevens is the box artist or the guy who arranged the compilation, but it’s reminder (if any were needed) of some major product placement on the way. There’s the third and final Robot War round-up explaining the saga so far, and then straight into the action from Simon Furman and artist John Stokes.

It starts by delving into Buster’s dream and this time the readers are along for the journey. Buster runs from Shockwave in a strange barren dreamscape with fire and orbiting moons. His legs scream in agony and oxygen-starved lungs beg for release (all told, it reminds me of the first 10k I ever ran). Shockwave is like the Terminator, he’s relentless and unstoppable, making light work of Optimus Prime, Jazz and Ratchet, as you can see above. It’s a great sequence apart from the blunder with Shockwave being drawn with two hands in one panel, rather than his distinctive gun arm, oops.

Buster is saved from certain death by the appearance of Superion, who blows Shockwave to pieces! Then Menasor attacks the giant Autobot and Buster flees the madness again, only to have his path blocked by the Combaticons, who combine into Bruticus.

Buster wakes with a scream – he is safely within the Ark. His father and Jessie are there, along with Prime and Ratchet. Sparkplug complains bitterly that the Autobots and Prime personally have made his son a “walking target” in their civil war. Stokes does a good job of drawing robots and making the dream sequence other-worldly and vivid, but I’m not keen on his humans. Buster like he’s about 12 and in need of a haircut, and Sparkplug like a wrinkly old crone. Not appealing.

Prime correctly interprets Buster’s nightmares as a message from the Matrix. And, in the Wyoming coal mine Soundwave explains the same theory to Megatron. The dynamic with Donny Finkleberg (aka Robot Master) irritating the hell out of Megatron is good fun. Megatron is desperate to blast him to a pulp (a sentiment shared by a fair few readers) but cannot because Donny is integral to the Decepticon propaganda war. Presumably, Ravage is with Megatron full time, guarding their captive.

In flashbacks we’re reminded of Buster’s sacrifices on behalf of the Autobots (for the benefit of new readers presumably, though this feels a bit like filler). He will help the Autobots again, this time by re-entering the dream with Optimus Prime at his side. At the Decepticon base, Shockwave has dusted down the technology he used to plunder Prime’s mind of the Matrix a while back, and will use it to eavesdrop on the visions.

It’s interesting to see how close Soundwave comes to being discovered as a double agent. Luckily for him, Shockwave is more concerned with the bigger picture stuff and tends to ignore trivial details. For all his vast intelligence and logic, he is easily duped.

And so, to issue #64 and chapter two of the saga. It’s the first time I’ve seen Shakespeare quoted in the comic (‘perchance to dream’ being mentioned on the Transformation page – I’m not sure I would have got the reference aged 12) and the first French quotation, with Defensor delivering the “coup de grace” to Bruticus. Barry Kitson is on art duties for the final time (though he’d draw a few more covers).

The story is a re-do of the mini comic that readers were treated to in Transformers #54 except longer and better drawn. The first team they (and we) meet are the Protectobots (this is only fair as they were missing from the opening instalment). They helpfully namecheck themselves for a proper introduction. Their mission is to make sure that the plant is safely evacuated. Blades, in helicopter mode, spots five vehicles approaching, who turn out to be the Stunticons.

Moments later, the Decepticon cars demonstrate their ability to combine “in one fluid move” into Menasor. Shockwave is watching along impressed (hopefully he missed the bit where his rival Megatron was depicted as Decepticon leader in the vision). He thinks Menasor is infinitely superior to the Devastator. Unsurprisingly Mixmaster is less convinced, probably realising the Constructicons are likely to get even less exposure in the comic once the new teams come along.

Buster and Prime observe Defensor wrestling Menasor (possibly the only time in the comic that we see them clash). Three military vehicles pull into the plant along with an army helicopter (Vortex mis-coloured as Blades – whoops), while high in the air, space shuttle Blast-Off dodges five planes (the approaching Aerialbots) to merge with his fellow Combaticons into Bruticus! It is two against one, until Superion arrives to even the odds.

Menasor turns out to have a pretty major weakness – his component parts can’t always agree. Dead End takes exception at being told when to fire and misses the opportunity. Also, embarrassingly he’s been drawn as Dragstrip. With so many new characters being introduced, it’s perhaps not too surprising that Kitson got confused who he was meant to be drawing. The kids will have noticed though.

Superion directs the blast at Bruticus and Defensor stamps on the stunned Decepticon’s head (brutal for a kids comic). Menasor’s retreat is halted by Superion’s Stress Fracture Cannon creating a mini earthquake under his feet. And so the battle ends with Prime and Buster waking up and saying with them the phrase of the moment…. SPECIAL TEAMS!

There’s also no mention of Matrix dreams after this, which suggests that the merger with Prime exorcised the visions from Buster’s mind. For that matter, there’s no explanation why the dream was a coherent story when Prime and Buster accessed it, and a hellish nightmare previously.

Megatron learns about the combiner teams from Soundwave and resolves to challenge Shockwave again for the Decepticon leadership. This is the premise for the third and final instalment (and the best). Though still under the banner of Second Generation its only loosely connected to the previous two parts. As the Transformation page suggests, this is a rematch that has been inevitable and eagerly awaited by readers.

Jeff Anderson takes his turn on the art duties, introducing us to coloured borders around frames to denote flashbacks. It’s a technique that he uses again in the upcoming Target 2006 to good effect.

Donny Finkleberg plays up his Robot Master alter ego, introducing the two challengers and the fact they are fighting for leadership. While it’s great fun to read this presented like a heavyweight boxing bout, it’s totally illogical the Decepticons would have Robot Master do this. His cover is meant to be that he’s the commander of the machines, so why introduce the idea of factions in the public consciousness, or the idea of there being a commander of the Decepticons with rivals contesting the job?

Apart from the doubtful set-up, the fight itself is pretty good. It’s no holds barred using fists, weaponry and discarded army tanks. Though evenly matched, you get the impression that Megatron at full strength (he wasn’t last time around) is the more powerful of the two (and the dirtier fighter). My expectation before reading the issue the first time around was that it would result in a Megatron victory. However, the outcome really isn’t in the hands of Simon Furman, as the UK comic reprints all the Marvel US stories, so any change of leadership would need to marry up with want Bob Budiansky is doing over the pond.

Soundwave cannot believe the Decepticon leaders are scrapping around for the benefit of humans. The scene where he spits at Donny, making the sound PUTTUP answers one of the long-standing questions of the letters page hosted by Soundwave. Every time an Autobot is mentioned on the page, he would accompany it with the word PUTTUP. Now we learn it’s the sound he makes when spitting oil. How Soundwave does this with a plate over his mouth is a whole other matter.

Soundwave hopes that the Autobots aren’t watching the broadcast. They are, but Prime is not too bothered as humans are not in danger. He hopes the pair will destroy one another. Their attention is on creating the Special Teams, with Wheeljack having already created a schematic of Superion. Wheels are in motion for future stories, including the mention that the Autobots do not yet understand the combination process and will need to observe someone. He is interrupted by an alarm before he can finish the sentence, but we know Prime is referring to Devastator. This also dovetails with the upcoming story Command Performances. I assume Furman got quite a bit of advanced warning of what Budiansky was planning State-side.

That alarm is the Dinobots waking up. The madness which caused their earlier rampage is now gone (as evidenced by the return of their usual bad attitude) and there’s the intriguing hint of more about their recovery in the 1986 Transformers Annual. This is a reference to the superb Furman/Senior story, Victory. With the Dinobots also due to appear in Command Performances, Furman has taken the opportunity to revive them here.

Soundwave, ever the grown up, intervenes to bring the fight to a close by offending both Megatron and Shockwave in unison. He cites their very different approaches – one logical and patient, the other action orientated – and proposes that they work together as joint leaders. The one who’s approach results in the most Autobot casualties will lead. Surprisingly, both agree, perhaps sensing that they are more evenly matched as fighters than they care to admit.

Remember what I said about the result needing to concur with the US storyline? This joint leadership is what results when the two leaders meet in the upcoming story Bridge To Nowhere, except in the UK the panels are edited to refer to an existing situation. It’s much better in my opinion that we’ve had this issue establishing the set-up instead of Bob’s approach which feels rushed and perhaps a bit underwhelming given the anticipation of a rematch.

And so the story ends, with Prime feeling confident that with Dinobots active and the secrets of the Special Teams solely in Autobot hands, they are finally on the front foot. If only they knew. Then finally we see the message that Soundwave transmitted to Cybertron in issue #36 finally reaching its target.

The blurb for next week’s return to Cybertron epic sounds amazing! There the war is over and the Decepticons have won. Plus, Ramjet, Dirge and Thrust and the Insecticons will appear, along with someone called Lord Straxus! And there’s fact files on Soundwave and Blaster. In hindsight it’s a hint of Blaster’s imminent debut in the comic. Onwards to one of the best Transformers stories of all time… The Smelting Pool.

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I, Robot Master

Desperate for fuel, Megatron attacks a coal mining plant and becomes rooted to the spot! And a washed-up comic book writer is recruited by the US government to claim to be the terrorist mastermind behind the Transformers.

April 1986. Bob Budiansky’s most offbeat story since… well, his last two where Megatron was controlled by a small-time hoodlum, and Hoist stole the show at a rock concert, arrives on UK shores. The Marvel UK Transformers comic is mid-way through an eight-week run of US stories at this point. Don Perlin is once again on art duties.

After taking his leave of Joey Slick, Megatron apparently spent weeks walking through the American North West in search of fuel. I say apparently because it seems somewhat unfathomable that a giant Decepticon with a hair-trigger temper such as he, could possibly wander around and not attract an awful lot of attention. Particularly when you consider that he can’t exactly convert into a vehicle and blend in.

His sensors have bought him to a coal mine which is high in hydrocarbons. Megatron attacks the huge machinery and in his desperation, showers himself in coals. He finds these black rocks indigestible in their current form. Suddenly, he stops dead in his tracks, drained of fuel, paralysed and helpless! A worker notes that he “just ran out of gas”. We’ve previously seen Transformers dangerously low on fuel but this is a new situation.

Walter Barnett, the Triple I agent we met in the last story, arrives at a restricted government building at the behest of his boss, Forest Forsythe. Along with the rest of the board, they are shown footage of recent high-profile robot incidents (Megatron and Shockwave’s battle, the capture of G.B. Blackrock’s aerospace plant, Hoist at the Springhorn concert and the incident with Megatron at the coal mine in Wyoming).  

Blackrock has been invited to give his insight to the group and attempts to persuade them that the Transformers are two factions, one good and one evil. It’s a huge waste of time as Forsythe is not interested in hearing this and after showing Blackrock out, tells Triple I that the policy will be to treat all robots as a threat. For a group called the Intelligence and Information Institute they really are lacking in basic intelligence. Despite acknowledging that there is evidence to back-up Blackrock’s claims they are willing to throw away the chance of an alliance with the Autobots that might solve their Decepticon problem. Instead they’ve decided to invest in a cover-up. I suppose this will have been only a dozen years after Watergate and cynical government cover-ups will have been in the public consciousness, including Bob’s. This feels like a spoof of the government cover-up cliché.

Barnett comes across like a real deadbeat dad and husband as he arrives home. His young son is excited to see him but all Walt does is tell him to tidy up his toys. He then spots the boy’s Robot Master comic, about a guy who controls an army of robots, and before you can say co-incidence he rushes off to catch a plane to New York. You have to wonder if his family see much of him. I’m not sure if his destination, 387 Park Ave, might be another in-joke, perhaps it was Marvel’s address in the day. He’s in time to catch the writer of the Robot Master comic, Donny Finkleberg, on his way out of the building, having had his book cancelled.

According to TFWiki and other knowledgeable fans, Donny is based on an actual comic book writer called Danny Fingeroth, who worked with Bob on Marvel’s Avengers in 1981. It’s not clear whether Bob or Don Perlin created Robot Master in his likeness as a hilarious office in-joke or whether Bob’s getting his own back. Certainly, Donny Finkleberg is not presented as a great guy. Instead he’s greedy, unscrupulous, a geeky loser and has a rather incessant smoking habit to boot.

Barnett takes Donny to lunch and offers him $25,000 if he can help come up with a Robot Master story to hoodwink the American public. Naturally he suggests bringing to life the character he created (Barnett could have saved £25k by simply reading the comic). They could say the Transformers are being controlled by a human terrorist mastermind, which apparently is less likely to result in a public scare that giant alien robots. If Donny would like to play Robot Master, he can double his money (and best of all, no acting experience appears to be necessary).

The idea is loopy on several levels. When Donny appears on TV he’s likely to be recognised by someone (like his old boss perhaps) and outed, and it wouldn’t take the media very long to discover the similarity to the Robot Master comic and expose the whole hoax. Triple I are playing with fire and it’s a wonder and it’s a wonder that Barnett he was not laughed out of the agency for coming up with such a foolhardy plan.

Nevertheless, the next day Donny is broadcasting as Robot Master and claiming to be the human leader of a robotic army. Optimus Prime is alerted as is Mr Blackrock, who realises that Triple I must be behind this.

He suggests to the media that the whole thing might be a hoax. Triple I are furious but it shows what a house of cards their plan is – it really could fall apart in a moment. Blackrock shuns his limo to drive away in a VW Beetle, which is hilarious (though his calling Bumblebee ‘Bum’ is not really the sort of nickname you’d want).

A photo of frozen Megatron makes the news, much to the horror of Barnett and Forsythe (honestly, how was that ever going to stay private seeing as Megatron attacked a mine full of workers). They decide to offer Donny a way to double his money, with another broadcast.

In part two, the Autobots have been monitoring the TV news and Optimus Prime sets out to capture his old nemesis with assistance from Skids, Tracks and Bumblebee (once again the comic is showcasing its recently introduced characters, and Hoist also appears earlier in the issue making a nuisance of himself by taking charge of Autobots maintenance schedules). This small band, albeit including Optimus, seems decidedly light to capture a Transformer as powerful as Megatron. Even if he is currently immobilised, why take the chance? So much better to go in overwhelming numbers.

In downtown Portland, Soundwave is hanging out at a TV and video store in his cassette deck mode for some totally inexplicable reason. When the shop worker/owner (who oddly enough has been drawn exactly like G.B. Blackrock before they started forgetting his moustache) tests whether it is working, apparently intending to sell this equipment he found on the doorstep. There’s a deafening sound, followed by Ravage transforming and escaping with Soundwave, who are picked up and flown away by Laserbeak and Buzzsaw. They all head off in the direction of Wyoming, some 1,022 miles away. The sequence doesn’t add-up. Why not hang out a store more local to Megatron, or monitor TV from the Decepticon base?

There’s a nice scene however, where Barnett and Donny (in his Robot Master threads) arrive at the mine and Megatron’s eyes burn as Donny refers to him as “old junkpile” and strikes a match on his foot. Apparently with Robot Master broadcasting next to a giant robot, the story’s credibility will be bolstered by a thousand percent! Blackrock arrives (minus tache) to make a final attempt to persuade Barnet to drop the crazy plan, pointing out that Triple I are lumping potential allies (the Autobots) in with the enemy – and inviting Decepticon attack.

The Autobots arrive and are promptly fired upon by the US military and of course they can’t return fire. Barnett’s comment about them coming to free a comrade is ridiculous, given that the Autobots are clearly not being hostile even under extreme provocation. However, it’s all too late as Soundwave and his cassettes arrive with a casket of fuel (and a petrol hose) and quickly restore Megatron to working order. The Decepticons make very short work of the army and the Autobots, in their weakened state are forced to withdraw. It’s odd seeing them leave humans to the mercy of Megatron (even if it’s the army’s own silly fault) it seems to run contrary to Autobot principles.

Laserbeak retrieves Donny and plonks him in front of Megatron for termination. Donny’s quick talking saves his own neck. He offers the Decepticons his assistance in continuing the dark propaganda so that they can continue to cast fear and suspicion about the Autobots. At this point Megatron really should’ve blasted him into oblivion but with Soundwave thinking it’s a good idea, he also agrees. A second broadcast occurs, with Robot Master backed up Megatron’s raw power (crushing huge boulders for effect). Afterwards Donny very stupidly strikes another match on Megatron’s foot (does he not have a matchbox?) and gets hoisted by the cape (if not his own petard) and warned by Megatron, in full-on public health warning mode, never to presume his value to the Decepticons or he may discover that smoking is hazardous to his health!

So, there you have it kids, smoking is not cool – as Donny’s habit gets him in trouble with Megatron! Overall, it’s a fun, slightly camp and off the wall story from Bob Budiansky that helps keep momentum with the Decepticons and the Autobots on the backfoot, which is important for the drama and tension. Robot Master is a rather ridiculous figure. He looks more like a bloke going to a comic convention in a silly outfit than a potential world dominator or terrorist mastermind. If you think about the concept seriously it quickly unravels – people will know Donny Finkleberg from his regular life and it wouldn’t take the cops or the media long to find out he’s a struggling comic book writer. I guess the story is meant to be enjoyed but not taken too seriously.

Interestingly, Shockwave won’t learn of Megatron’s return until TFUK#65 in another nine issues, which is strange since the ex-Decepticon leader has appeared on every TV channel with Robot Master.

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Shooting Star!

Small time crook Joey Slick gets a ticket to the big league when he stumbles across a malfunctioning Megatron, in this homage to the gangster movie genre.

The Autobots have been wracking-up casualties of late, thanks to their Dinobot Hunt going awry, and the preview for Shooting Star – by Bob Budiansky and the US team, and published in the UK in March 1986 – suggests things are about to get a lot worse with the return of one of the most powerful Decepticons of all, Megatron!

Apart from a tiny mention of Ratchet in one panel, this is the only Marvel US Transformers story not to feature an Autobot (or any other Transformer). It takes a big beast to carry the title single handed and they don’t come much bigger than Megatron.

We last saw him in the 1985 story Repeat Performance, disappearing over a cliff following his showdown with Ratchet and the Dinobots. Those events occurred just five monthly comics previous for US readers, but in the UK 22 weekly issues have passed, and it feels like Megatron has been away longer and therefore his return is more of a big deal.

The story begins with Joey Slick legging it through a half-dried up stream as two sunglasses-and-suit-wearing guys, looking every inch the gangsters they are, take pot shots at him (missing naturally, this being a kid’s comic). They are henchmen for a local kingpin called Jake Lomax – who Joey unwisely ripped off. He finds a Walther P-38 in the water – the familiar alt-mode of Megatron – and attempts to shoot his pursuers. Nothing happens, that is until the two guys goad the gun to fire at them and it promptly unleashes a bolt of energy!

Joey retreats to a barn and asks to know what the gun is. It promptly transforms and enlarges into the ex-Decepticon leader, in robot form. Joey describes Megatron as his “weird angel” which is not far off the mark as things turn out. The cliff fall had disconnected Megatron’s higher brain circuits and he can no longer think for himself, only follow orders!

This makes for an intriguing set-up – a human in control of a Transformer (and it is much more entertainingly executed than The Icarus Factor which explored the same theme) but it’s also a really major weakness if a jolt to the head can make the Decepticon leader a compliant automaton. It’s a wonder the Autobots have never tried to bring about this situation and enlist Megatron’s help on their side.

The other slightly daft thing is that the two guys Megatron blasted turn up dishevelled but very much alive, to report their failure to Lomax. They really should have been incinerated, but the fact that everyone makes it out of the story alive tells you that Budiansky is looking to keep things light-hearted and entertaining, and not push grisly deaths at the young readers. The UK comic is more daring in this regard and is often credited with treating its readers more like grown-ups. Personally, I never minded the light-hearted, slightly tongue in cheek style of Budiansky.

If Joey Slick, with his wide collars and long face, brings to mind Al Pacino in Scarface then Lomax bears a passing resemblance to the moustache and medallion-wearing Frank Lopez of the same film. He’s got a nice mansion in Oregon complete with a private pool and young bikini wearing girlfriend at his side. But he’s not happy at Joey making a fool of him and sends four heavies to go and finish the job.

Joey’s neighbourhood is considerably less affluent, if richer in sincerity. He receives many kind comments and offers of soup and fruits from the locals who all know him. He also joins in a football game with street kids. It’s apparent that he’s not a bad guy but has lost his way and got in with a bad crowd in his desire to stop being a “loser”. Seeing cars outside that are too classy for the neighbour, and hearing footsteps on the stairs he skips out the window and up the fire escape, on to the roof.

Megatron saves Joey’s bacon by blasting a huge water tank and knocking all four mobsters unconscious! Taking to the road, he stops at a motel but is a couple of dollars short on the bill. Incidentally the headline in the newspaper being read by the unsympathetic hotel owner is ‘Robots Leave Plane Plant’ alluding the Decepticons’ recent abandonment of the Blackrock aerospace plant following the demise of Shockwave and the human slave revolt. The obvious course of action for a petty crook is to rob the local convenience store, which nets him cash but brings the police after him. However, a blast from Megatron stops them.

Just to mention, there’s an odd printing fault in issue #51 which Robo Capers is missing the black lines, consequently there are no words and its impossible to read. The rest of the page is fine. So bizarre. The comic launches Robotix in the back-up strip, which feels like an early forerunner of the Headmasters and Targetmasters concept, and the next week section trails three weeks of free gifts – starting with a free Transformers sticker album from panini, followed by free stickers and, in issue #54, a pull out poster of the new combiner teams. Heady days!

Part two of the of story sees Joey taking out a bridge and causing more police cars to crash. Over the next few weeks he creates a one-man crime wave using Megatron’s amazing power and is soon making the headlines. Megatron never misses a shot as bank after bank is robbed, bringing Joey wealth, women and power! After one such robbery he is confronted by the army itself – but walks away unscathed leaving them in ruins.

He’s soon living in a luxury penthouse apartment with his own entourage. However, he feels like they are using him as a wallet and Megatron is the only one he can really trust (and he’s “as brainless as a beer can”, which is a great line). The floor must be incredibly strong for it to take Megatron’s weight!

Joey goes back to his old neighbourhood, finding the fruit stall guy is now terrified of him and the kids he played ball with now want to see his ‘super gun’ and think robbing banks are life goals to aspire to. Joey starts to realise that his new life is not all its cracked up to be, and for reason concludes that having it out with Lomax is the way to put his life in order.

He rings the buzzer at the gates of the Lomax compound and is invited in.  Making short work of the welcoming committee, Joey puts holes all over the mansion before Lomax surrenders. He tosses Megatron to the ground before knocking Lomax over with one punch, showering him with the money he originally owed – plus interest.

Joey turns around to see Megatron in robot mode, the heavy fall had reconnected his brain functions. Megatron prepares to destroy this impudent human and Joey agrees that it’s no more than he deserves. However, Megatron respects his audacity and decides to spare him. As Megatron walks off with a war to win, the police arrive to pick up the not so super criminal. We never see Joey Slick again, but we can safely assume he does a long stretch behind bars, hopefully turning his life around in the end. Who would have thought Megatron capable of showing mercy, and to a ‘lower lifeform’ of all people?!

Final thoughts. It turns out that all Joey owed Lomax was $600, which hardly seems worth him getting so worked up! This story is also notable for it being artist Don Perlin’s debut Transformers story. He would draw a creditable 18 regular issues of Transformers as well as all three instalments of the Transformers the Movie comic adaptation.

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And There Shall Come a Leader

Two decades before Simon Furman’s War Within prequels made Cybertron’s early years cool – came this first attempt in the 1985 Transformers Annual. It marks a turning point in the Transformers’ civil war, where one individual stepped forward to make a difference.

And There Shall Come a Leader, written by Simon Furman and with John Stokes on art duties, is the second strip in the 1985 annual. Though 10 pages shorter than Plague of the Insecticons, it is in my opinion the better story. Partly this is because it doesn’t upset the apple cart by messing with current stories (introducing characters that shouldn’t be there etc) but mainly because its setting is on the Transformers home world in the early years of their civil war. This is an undiscovered country of stories, rich in potential that would be largely untapped until Furman returned to the theme in his three War Within mini-series (published by Dreamwave from 2002-04).

The narrative informs readers that the story is set millions of years before the Transformers began their exile on Earth. In this time, Cybertron’s capital city Iacon is under siege and on the brink of falling to Megatron’s invading Decepticons. The council of Autobot Elders meets to discuss the dire situation. It’s suggested that their ineptness in trying to exert central control over the fightback is what has hastened the end.

This is our first introduction to Emirate Xaaron, a wily Autobot leader who Furman invented for this story and would continue to feature almost throughout the comic’s seven-year run. Xaaron alone has the foresight to see that they must entrust command to a warrior general and empower him to make the decisions that are required to defeat the Decepticons. He has someone in mind – a natural born leader (and if you said Optimus Prime go to the top of the class!).

Xaaron refuses to accept defeat – his leaping from his chair and exclaiming “never” is reminiscent of Megatron’s defiant reaction to being given an ultimatum to surrender – both characters are similar in nature, if worlds apart in their values. He persuades High Councillor Traachon (another never before-seen character with double a in his name) to use his veto to “free the Autobots” according to Xaaron’s plan.

On the battlefield, Optimus is issuing orders to a host of unfamiliar names – Pulsar, Tempest – and some we do know such as Hound and Ratchet. Interestingly, he’s already called Prime, suggesting that this is not a title which was bestowed upon him being given leadership of the Autobots. Does he have the Matrix yet or is that received after he becomes leader? We don’t know.

Prime suggests that, thanks to the Council, his hands are tied, and he must watch his comrades fall, however we also learn that Bluestreak and (another new character) Fusion are engaged in a race against time to bring them a supply of shatter bombs. Cut to the aforementioned duo, who are racing towards the Autobot lines across one of Cybertron’s many high-elevated bridges. They are under aerial attack from Decepticons resembling Earth jets (rather than the triangular forms that appeared in the cartoon’s origin story). If this seems a little unimaginative, it’s also disappointing that Bluestreak looks an Earth car except with a rocket booster rear. Fusion, on the other hand, is at least more alien – we only see him in vehicle form, which resembles to the mobile cannon that Optimus Prime transformed into in the first issue of Transformers.

There’s an unwritten rule that any character who is not part of the Hasbro toy range is expendable and likely to suffer some grisly fate in short order (it’s like the Transformers equivalent of the red-shirted extra beaming down on Star Trek). In this case poor Fusion can see the writing on the wall. Bluestreak clears a missing section of bridge with panache, while Fusion provides covering fire. He takes out one of the jets before being blown to bits. Bluestreak (who thankfully is in the toy range) can do nothing but swear revenge and go full speed ahead.

In Iacon, Prime is called away from the battle to receives word from Xaaron he has been granted control of the Autobot army and the war effort is now in his hands. He’s relieved, also hearing that Bluestreak is back with the bombs they’ve been waiting for.

Megatron, arriving in Iacon is briefed by Soundwave (who seems to have a very different head than usual – either intentionally or by mistake) informs him that the defeated Autobots are regrouping. Soon enough his passage is blocked by Optimus Prime, in what is possibly the earliest meeting of the two leaders in a Marvel Transformers comic. A fierce battle ensues with casualties on all sides. Below, Gears prepares to use Bluestreak’s bombs to detonate the bridge where the battle is raging. The Decepticons triumph by virtue of superior numbers and Prime finds Megatron standing over him preparing to savour his victory. He orders his troops to retreat moments before the bridge explodes – causing the Decepticons to come crashing down together with the debris (clearly, they don’t have flying abilities in robot mode, unlike the cartoons). Meanwhile, Prime is plucked to safety thanks to Windcharger’s legendary magnetic abilities. No-one could have survived they think, but of course Megatron does and, emerging from the rubble, he vows to have his revenge. Thus, the stage is set for the rivalry between Prime and Megatron that is central to the Transformers story.

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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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Decepticon Dambusters

The Dinobots encounter human life for the first time, and it doesn’t go well! Ratchet decides to tell them a story of when the Autobots saved ungrateful townsfolk from a Decepticon attack on their dam, in this comic adaptation of a cartoon classic.

In the 1980s the Transformers were a global toy phenomenon first and foremost but also a hugely successful Sunbow cartoon and Marvel comic. Aside from adhering to a common origin story and character profiles, the cartoons and comics then went in completely different directions.

Both would develop the characters and introduce new ones in their own ways. To my mind the comics were more tightly woven and coherent but there are others who will argue for the cartoon being the official canon. Transformers the Movie in 1986 was something of an exception. It was such a massive event that the UK comic embraced it into its timeline, while the US comic continued its policy of ignoring the cartoons (with one notable exception being the awful 1988 story ‘The Big Broadcast of 2006’, so bad it makes me shudder to think of it.

Decepticon Dambusters is something of a rarity as it incorporates a storyline from a cartoon episode (More Than Meets The Eye part 2). It’s top and tailed by current events in the form of a story told to the Dinobots by Ratchet. This is only Simon Furman’s third Transformers story for Marvel UK and follows on from seven weeks of major US stories. By comparison it feels a little underwhelming and personally I find the top and tailed events more interesting that the main segment, which is basically a reinterpretation of a cartoon story I’ve (and most readers at the time) was already familiar with.

The story opens in bar where the TV news is showing scenes of Megatron’s battle with the Dinobots in a ski resort (in last issue’s story Repeat Performance). One grumpy patron wants the “rubbish” turned off. He’s far from convinced by claims of a giant robot invasion and steps out into the night… only to be confronted in the parking lot by Grimlock! Artist John Stokes draws the Dinobot leader, probably the closest to his toy form as I’ve seen in the comic, though smaller than he ought to be.

The incredulous bar-goer runs face-first into the leg of another Dinobot. All in all the team isn’t very impressed with their first specimen of carbon-based life and are not quite sure how this is the dominant lifeform. The man runs towards an approaching ambulance thinking he’s saved, only for it to transform into an apologetic Ratchet. Seconds later he’s running for his life in the opposite direction!

As the Dinobots continue their long march back to the Ark, Ratchet attempts to explain the complicated relationship between the Autobots and humanity. He flashes back to the early days of the Transformers war on Earth when Megatron was still Decepticon leader and their base was Fortress Sinister. The Autobots had been “monitoring” the base, whatever that means. It’s hard to imagine that a listening device would not have been detected by Soundwave as it transmitted.

The Decepticon are interested in Sherman Dam and in particular forcing water through it to generate an electrical surge that they could harness as a crude fuel substitute. Megatron blasts his way into the control centre (the ceilings are high enough for him to fit inside, luckily) and reveals that he is the reason the dam is about to burst – or rather Rumble is. He’s on the riverbed using his pile drivers to generate a tidal wave.

The Autobots assembled, led by Optimus Prime. Hound was dispatched into the water while Prime and Megatron engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Both leaders revealed an ability to substitute their hand for a weapon, in Megatron’s case a ball and chain, while Prime wields an axe. Starscream leads a bunch of anonymous looking Decepticons in a counter attack while other non-descripts are loading energon cubes into Thundercracker under Soundwave’s supervision. Again, who were these foot soldiers? The first part ends on not so much a cliff hanger but a fall – as Prime (distracted by Hound being propelled out of the water by Rumble’s powerful piledriver arms) is sent flying over the dam by Megatron!

The conclusion is billed as a ‘tidal wave of terror’ on the cover to TFUK#30. Furman has got his dams confused and now refers to it as Boulder Dam (rather than Sherman). Prime survives his plunge and is quickly fished out, but Megatron transforms to gun mode and blows the dam wide open. Prowl leads Jazz, Mirage, Ironhide, Bumblebee and Sideswipe to the human settlement below, while the other Autobots collapse rocks and carve out trenches with their blasters in order to halt the coming tsunami. Bumblebee, despite being ordered to leave with Prowl, is present with Optimus (and gets swept away by the water) and on the following page he’s back with Prowl’s group again. This is sloppy stuff and makes me wonder whether the story was rushed, or perhaps writer or artist felt a bit half hearted about it (like this reader).

Ironhide outruns the coming water with Bumblebee in the back blasting a trench in the road behind. Finally, the water calms down leaving no more than ankle deep flooding. They’ve saved the town but residents have heard that giant robots were responsible for destroying the dam and they turn their anger on the Autobots. Mirage has an outburst but Prime orders him to control himself. Optimus decided they had best leave, and so all the hard work had gained no appreciation – only more hate.

And so, back to current events. We see Josie Beller/Circuit Breaker with her arm coated in circuitry and thirsting for revenge, and GB Blackrock examining a huge laser gun that he plans to deploy against the Transformers. In my favourite scene in the story, Swoop flies ahead to Mount St Hillary, eager to see the mountain again after four million years; it is after all the nearest thing the Transformers have to a home on Earth. Ratchet is worried – there could be Decepticons guarding the Ark. Grimlock reassures him about Swoop: he can look after himself, he’s fast and real strong… famous last words, they arrive to Swoop having been battered by the huge muscle-bound menace that is Guardian!

In closing, many wonder where Decepticon Dambusters actually fits into continuity. This is finally mentioned in TFUK#63’s Robot War round-up. We’re told it happened right after the Transformers returned from searching for the Man of Iron in England. So that means that Sparkplug’s time as a Decepticon prisoner lasted much longer than we thought. Even worse the Autobots had taken their sweet time about rescuing him.

Another thought, how come Ratchet and the Dinobots are walking to the Ark anyway? What happened to the shuttle craft he used to travel to Antarctica and presumably back?

Stokes’ art gives the sense of this being a throwback to the early days as we’ve got Ironhide and others drawn true to their toys rather than their better-established cartoon forms. Last time Guardian had been squandered as a character as he was easily defeated by Windcharger and Ravage but now he’s back, having been reprogrammed to target and destroy anyone wearing an Autobot badge and it looks like he means business. From the largely irrelevant flashback to the dam we’re now back in the thick of the action the stage is set for an epic showdown next issue.

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Repeat Performance!

Transformers UK celebrates one year in print by going weekly and full colour! In the main story, Ratchet journeys to the Savage Land to locate the Dinobots and hopes they can assist him in defeating Megatron.

Issue #27 of the Marvel UK Transformers comic heralds some big changes for the book. After a successful 12 months as a fortnightly publication the team has taken the major step of going weekly. This reflects the growing confidence in the title (it would quickly become Marvel UK’s flagship) but also in the team’s abilities to generate the flow of home-grown material that will now be needed with even more issues to fill in between reprinting the American stories. I’m sure the presence of Simon Furman on the UK team will have encouraged them to think a weekly could work.

For now, Simon has a bit of breathing space while the UK comic runs the Marvel US story ‘Repeat Performace!’ by Bob Budiansky and artist William Johnson in its issues #27 and #28. It begins in one of the most improbable places, a hidden pocket of prehistoric jungle on the continent of Antarctica. I remember being aware of the Savage Land from other Marvel comics but I didn’t quite appreciate at the time that Antarctica is actually a frozen waste land and certainly not a place where lifeforms dependent on a hot climate would last very long.

For those who are interested, the explanation for the Savage Land is that it was created by technologically advanced aliens who set up game reserves on a number of worlds in order to observe the evolution of the wildlife. The Savage Land was one such reserve, and even though it has long been abandoned by the alien observers, the technology which maintains the tropical climate in the zone continues to function. So there we are. Incidentally this will be the last time that Transformers and the wider Marvel universe continue to co-exist. After this it isn’t stated that they are separate but in practice those paths never cross.

The story opens with Ratchet navigate swampland atop his M.A.R.B (Mobile Autobot Repair Bay). He’s forced to use a surgical weapon on a huge snake which attaches itself to his neck. Under normal circumstances the ever curious Ratchet would pause to learn more about this tubular life form (just as he was fascinated by a log fire last issue) but he has work to do. Cue a flashback to his discovery of the Autobots laying deactivated and captive in the Ark and Prime’s words that he must learn to think like a warrior. He bought himself time by striking a bargain with Megatron that he will defeat Shockwave for him in return for reclaiming the Ark. But the possibility of betrayal is high.

Shockwave travels to the Ark to check in on Megatron. I like that, walking computer that he is, Shockwave has calculated the odds of having to terminate his rival for insubordination. So far, he’s adjusting well to “taking orders not giving them” and has prepared Optimus Prime’s head for transport as instructed. As we’ll soon see, Prime’s head will be relocating to the recently captured aerospace plant where Shockwave intends to manufacture the next generation of Decepticon warriors.

Ratchet, meanwhile, detects Transformers life signals in a tar pit and uses a power hose to unearth the Dinobot Slag in unexpectedly quick time. He taps into Slag’s memory banks with the MARB and finally we’re privy to the origin of the Dinobots (and their fateful encounter with Shockwave). The account is narrated by Slag in a gruff but coherent way (he certainly doesn’t sound like the dumb dino of the Transformers cartoon).

Readers had been led to believe that the Ark and all aboard where rendered inoperative when the ship crashed into Mount St Hilary four million years ago. Apparently not. The ship still functioned, but rather than repair the fallen Autobots it had dispatched a probe to the Savage Land to spy on Shockwave and then revived five Autobots to take him on. They had been invested with the ability to change into dinosaurs in order to blend in. Oddly the Ark was able to recognise ‘organic life’ (dinosaurs) in this case, but when it reactivated again in 1984 it ignored humans and animals and instead mistook vehicles, planes and machines as the planet’s life forms!

So, we see the Dinobots tackle Shockwave, five against one. He is repels them all, sending them crashing down a cliff alongside the tar pit where Ratchet now is. Shockwave had cast Swoop into the tar, causing him to sink – “a bad way to go” Slag says – and Snarl brought down the cliff with a swish of his powerful tail. The result was the Dinobots falling into the tar and Shockwave getting buried under tons of rubble. The Decepticon would eventually be reawakened by the probe Ratchet dispatched in the original mini-series. The rest is history as they say. Annoyingly Nel Yomtov has coloured Shockwave in white and blue, obviously confusing him with Megatron which is all a bit amateur hour.

In a nice moment, Slag revives and charges at Ratchet, but the doc peels back tar to reveal his Autobot insignia. Slag transforms for a proper introduction, and on hearing that Shockwave lives again, he’s determined to finish the job.

Part 2 begins with GB Blackrock and the military speaking to reporters outside his imprisoned aerospace plant. Shockwave soars overhead in robot mode carrying equipment that looks like a tank but could well be a container of some sort carrying the head of Optimus Prime. He opens fire on the military and makes short work of them. Further humiliation for Blackrock who really should stop doing these media engagements.

Elsewhere, his paralysed employee Josie Beller has succeeded in coating her right arm in circuitry. For some reason the words ‘she cannot move of lift it on her own’ have been substituted in the UK version with ‘moving it causes her great pain’. She’ll feature again on the last page, tooled up and ready to ‘check out’ from the hospital, but only in the US version of the story. The UK reprint will substitute that half page for a fact file on Snarl (it being a month before we’ll see Josie Beller reborn as Circuit Breaker).

Megatron is ruing the day he allowed Ratchet to go free. He’s sure he’s fled like a coward and the attack on Shockwave won’t happen, despite his obligations under Cybertronian custom. But then Ratchet gets in touch with images of Shockwave being brought down. Little does Megatron realise that this is old footage from Slag’s memories, and even though it would be startlingly simple to contact Shockwave and check whether he’s still around or not, amazingly he does not and believes he’s been shown a genuine take-down.

The stage is set for one of the greatest Ratchet moments in the comic. He is confronted by Megatron on a snow-coated mountain (skiers fleeing in fright) and told by the Decepticon that he never had any intention of upholding their bargain (quell surprise). Megatron goes on to mock Ratchet as failed warrior – he should have found a way to fight his enemy not trust him, he says – but suddenly the Dinobots rise from under the snow and the tables are turned. I think on some level Megatron is actually impressed.

He’s quickly attacked by the Dinobots, but their time in the tar pit has dulled their effectiveness and they are easily repelled. It falls to Ratchet to remember Optimus Prime’s words and prove himself as a warrior. He charges Megatron, hoping to carry them both over a cliff to their doom. Megatron absorbs the impact and is set to grant Ratchet an honourable death, when the ground beneath him crumbles and he falls hundreds of feet, transforming and shrinking into his gun mode until he is swallowed up by the snow (he’s gone, but obviously not for good – we’ll see him again in TFUK #51). The way is now clear for Ratchet and the Dinobots to reclaim the Ark and revive the fallen Autobots.

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Warrior School

Ratchet is the last Autobot standing and must learn to become a warrior if he is to survive and rescue his comrades. Meanwhile the Decepticons continue to target installations owned by GB Blackrock and the UK comic announces some exciting changes going forwards.

Warrior School. 35 years after it was first published it remains in my mind one of the standout stories of the original Marvel G1 and one I have an abiding affection for. Essentially it is a coming of age story – Chief Medical Officer Ratchet stepping out his comfort zone in a major way and learning the ways of the warrior. His stepping up to the plate shows real, genuine courage and is an example to all of us, young impressionable readers as we were at the time. The scale of his challenge is enormous, and the stakes incredibly high. This is a classic success against impossible odds story that great comics (and fiction generally) are made of and, together with the second instalment ‘Repeat Performance’ cements Ratchet’s reputation and standing as a major character in Transformers.

I can still remember stepping out of my local newsagent with a copy of TFUK#26 in my eager 11-year-old hands, being blown away by the usual 11 page story being increased to an incredible 23 pages. And the full-page announcement on page 30 that the comic is celebrating its first year in print by GOING WEEKLY and full colour was tremendous news! Of course, it would mean having to swallow a 3p increase, but in view of what we were getting in I considered this to be no hardship.

Once again, it’s Bob Budiansky writing the script (as he would until US issue #55) and joined on the art by a new credit, William Johnson. He had worked on a bunch of Marvel superhero titles but would only illustrate this Transformers story and the next. I wondered why and his entry in TFWiki provides a clue. It mentions a comment Budiansky made to a fansite, that Johnson was “a very nice guy with a lot of talent” but struggled to meet the deadlines of a monthly comic book. So perhaps that was the reason for his short association, but his art on Warrior School is emotive and enjoyable.

The story begins in the woods near the Ark, with a romantic narration of “the sweet scent of Douglas Fir and a dome of stars in the indigo sky” – I wondered whether Budiansky was a fan of camping? Four college students are around a camp fire when a falling tree causes them to scatter. The cause of the interruption is the Autobot Ratchet, who had collided with the “brown pipe” while looking for the road. Buster Witwicky, his teenage friend and ally is on Ratchet’s shoulder and is happy to interpret for the young people. He knows from experience that a giant talking robot can be a difficult concept to come to terms with.

Ratchet is fascinated by the concept of burning wood to generate fire (there’s nothing like it on Cybertron) and demonstrates how his laser scalpel can cook hotdogs more efficiently. The gentle way Ratchet interacts with humanity is a real contrast to what we’re used to seeing from the Decepticons at this time. When Buster recoils in sudden, inexplicable pain we’re reminded that Optimus Prime did something to him when the pair were mind-linked recently.

It’s agreed that the students will take Buster home and Ratchet is reminded that he has more important problems. Never a truer word spoken, he is the last Autobot and the burden of stopping the Decepticons rests entirely on his shoulders. The encounter with the students was an enjoyable distraction but he can’t put off his responsibilities much longer.

‘Hey, what about GB Blackrock?’ I hear nobody ask. Well, he’s about to become possibly the unluckiest CEO in America as first his oil drilling platform was annexed by the Decepticons and now his aerospace plant is in the crosshairs too. In a slapstick moment, two workers, Gabe and Ferdy stop to claim an abandoned cassette deck that’s been left in the parking lot, then proceed to walk it passed the wall mounted gun defences. It is of course the Decepticon Soundwave, who transforms and bursts out of the locker in which he’s been placed. It’s obviously a room with very high ceilings as Soundwave is able to stand at full height while ejecting Laserbeak skywarps to assist in putting down any resistance. The plant was clearly unprepared for an attack from within and quickly falls. Blackrock is crestfallen and humiliated, particularly as Soundwave has been broadcasting the footage far and wide. Clearly some good PR for the Decepticons to advertise their menace and that they have hostages.

We’re briefly shown Blackrock visiting his paralysed employee Josie Beller and delivering equipment she asked for. Josie has use of one arm and hints to the reader that she is determined to take her revenge. This is clearly a developing situation and she and Blackrock are being established as ongoing characters. I’m a little indifferent to them at this point.

And so to the main events of the issue. Ratchet has sneaked into the Ark and finds it deserted. The Decepticons are elsewhere at their temporary new base, the Blackrock rig, and Commander Shockwave has left Megatron on Ark guard duty. Ratchet is horrified to discover the Autobots all inoperative and suspended from the ceiling like some macabre nightmare. He then finds the head of Optimus Prime descends into despair – could everything be lost?

Amazingly Prime speaks, uttering one of the truly memorable lines: “Put aside your grief Ratchet, now is time for valour”. He explains that the Decepticons intend to extract the Matrix from him and he has taken steps to thwart them (clearly in reference to Buster). But just as Ratchet trained to be a medic on Cybertron, on Earth he must become a warrior and use his guile and cunning to find a way to defeat Megatron. His own survival will be his ultimate test. All well and good but Prime is surely placing unrealistic expectations on his Chief Medical Officer here – there is no way Ratchet can best Megatron in one-to-one combat and to put himself in that position is surely suicidal.

There’s an interlude where Buster is joined at his dad’s repair shop by friends Jessie and ‘O’. He’s under a lot of stress, worrying about his dad, the Autobots and keeping the family business going when he knows next to nothing about repairing cars. He snaps at his friends, causing them to leave. In O’s case this will be permanent as this issue turns out to be his last appearance. No sooner is he alone, Buster feels the pains again the various tools around him start levitating! Interesting.

Ratchet goes looking for Megatron (you immediately know this is a bad idea) and fails to notice the Decepticon ex-leader sneaking up. Megatron’s giant hand grasps Ratchet’s shoulder and partially crushes it. He wants to add the medic to his “collection of scrapped Autobots” and will alleviate the boredom by taking his time over it! Ratchet punches Megatron as hard as he can and zaps him with his hold and cold medical tools but to no effect. With brute force not an option, he will need to outsmart Megatron. And so, Ratchet offers to help Megatron regain his command by locating the Dinobots and setting them against Shockwave. In return Megatron will hand back custody of the Ark to Ratchet.

Megatron treats the readers to a brief history of his rivalry. On Cybertron Shockwave had been supreme Decepticon military operations officer and the strategist who had plotted their ambush of the Ark. Shockwave had stayed behind on the Decepticon ship as a back-up. Megatron perceived this as self-serving and was already making plans to destroy this rival.

We then learn (through Megatron’s continuing narration) that Shockwave travelled to Earth to investigate the disappearance of the Ark (which had collided with the planet) and the radiation belt effected his navigation systems, causing him to touch down in timeless region of Antarctica where dinosaurs still roamed (Marvel Comics’ Savage Land). The Ark had revived five Autobots and gave them the dinosaur alt-modes, and the team had battled Shockwave. It is not known what happened next or why they or Shockwave disappeared for four million years.

While helpful for the readers, I’m unclear as to how Megatron has learned about the Dinobots. It’s unlikely Shockwave has revealed anything more to him, so perhaps Megatron has accessed the Ark’s databanks similar to Ratchet did some issues ago?

He agrees to Ratchet’s suggestion – mainly to provide an amusing distraction, rather than an expectation of success – and the two seal the deal by contributing fuel to beaker and setting it alight. We’re told this is an ancient Cybertron ritual and no about has broken such a pact. Megatron, of course, is no Autobot! And so, the stage is set for the dramatic debut of the Dinobots. With the sequel arriving in just seven (not 14) days these were exciting times for the UK Transformers comic.

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The Worse of Two Evils

The Decepticons are under new management as the reign of Shockwave begins! Meanwhile Optimus Prime’s head is a prisoner of the Decepticons and his troops are all non-functioning, saving for the surgeon Ratchet. Phew! Things sure aren’t looking good for the good guys at this point.

As first impressions go, Shockwave takes some beating! With impeccable timing, he showed-up and blasted the victorious Autobots into next week, single-handedly saving the Decepticon army from certain defeat. His cold logic and awesome firepower ensured he was quickly able to press his advantage and consolidate control of the Decepticon forces, ruthlessly ejecting Megatron from power. He has big bold plans and has identified exactly how to use Optimus Prime for maximum advantage. And to top it off Shockwave has featured solo on one of the most stunning covers in Transformers comic history. All in all, not bad for a newcomer.

In terms of a comparison with the raw power and cunning of Megatron, which of them is the worse of the two evils? This is the question for eager readers to ponder, as posed by the title of this instalment. It was published in UK issues #24 and #25 in August and early September 1985.

The story opens at an oil drilling platform off the Oregon coast. This gleaming steel example of man’s struggle to conquer the natural elements is billed as the ‘most productive and technologically advanced’ facility of its kind, and well defended too. We’re told the roustabouts (a new term on me, but it means unskilled workers) are proud of the rigs industry-leading reputation and want everyone to know about it. Trouble is they now have the wrong kind of attention as Shockwave soars overhead in space gun mode and claims the facility for himself.

Surprisingly, G.B. Blackrock, the millionaire industrialist who owns the platform has got an office on board! Likewise, the young technology hotshot who designed the rig, Josie Beller, is also present and at the controls of the rig’s defences. At Blackrock’s command, cannons spring up and security staff in laser-equipped helicopters mount a counterattack. For a business venture, the rig is surprisingly well defended!

Shockwave blasts the rig repeatedly. You would think this would be enough to reduce it to rubble floating on the sea surface, but not so. Josie obeys an order to unleash harpoons, which piece the Decepticon leader’s armour. Shockwave soars higher and rips the harpoons from their moorings. We also learn that he can deploy bursts of light from his gun barrel which are enough to blind his opponents.

Blackrock orders staff to abandon the rig. Josie Beller refuses the instruction (not for the last time, as well see in later stories). She pays the price as falling debris sets off a chain reaction that sees Beller fried by a huge electrical discharge. Blackrock carries the wounded young woman topside where they are confronted by Shockwave in his full robot glory. He will allow the survivors to depart, but only so that they can spread the word that reign of the Decepticons has begun!

Meanwhile, Megatron is feeling like yesterday’s news as seething with anger as he sees his erstwhile warriors now following Shockwave’s orders. But what can he do while he’s manacled to a wall, undergoing repairs and well below his normal strength. He’s cutting a pretty pathetic figure at this point. Likewise, Optimus Prime is also in a bad spot thanks to Shockwave. He head has been removed from his body and is suspended by several beams. Prime is being kept alive because Shockwave plans to plunder the Creation Matrix energy which resides in the Autobot leader. With it he can create a new generation of Decepticon warriors.

Last time we saw Buster infiltrate the Ark and discover Prime’s fate. He’s now informed by the stricken Optimus that the fate of the Autobots is in his hands, whatever that could mean. Though Buster promised his father he wouldn’t get involved any further, it’s clear the situation is desperate and so he agrees to Prime’s demand that they establish a mind link. Buster attaches a cable to either side of his head, which immediately earths and administers a severe shock, rendering him unconscious! Just what is Prime playing at?

The story continues in TFUK#25 a fortnight later. The comic’s editorial page Transformation promises the ‘fight of the century’ as Megatron and Shockwave resolve their differences robot to robot. From the looks of the cover it you’d have to figure that Megatron is about to meet his match.

Though evenly matched in brute strength and firepower in normal circumstances, timing is a huge element in success or failure. Megatron knows that now is the wrong time to make a move on Shockwave – he is not fully recovered and is too weak to succeed, but his pride will no longer allow him to stand by passively while another assumes his rightful command. It must be particularly galling to be on the receiving end of Shockwave’s put downs about securing a defendable new base (the rig) and fuel source, which were goals that alluded Megatron as leader.

Ratchet, watching from a safe distance outside, has seen Shockwave return to the Ark. Buster staggers out, looking like he’s been caught in the middle of Megatron-Shockwave grudge match. He tells Ratchet that the Autobots are all dead and Prime is a prisoner!

Now it’s the moment fans have been waiting for. Megatron breaks free and with the immortal line “Shockwave, you are relieved of command” -unleashes the full power of his fusion cannon against his rival. Shockwave is propelled through the side of the mountain and crashes into a football stadium in the heart of a human settlement. One player’s comment “I hope he’s not playing for Deforest High this Saturday” shows once again how Bob Budiansky, the writer, loves to inject a bit of camp humour into proceedings – even in a fight to the finish between Decepticon rivals!

There’s a nice touch with Megatron stepping over a supermarket’s roof and presumably flattening a car or two as he pursues Shockwave. He’s repelled backwards, through a wall by Shockwave, who accuses Megatron of foolishness for attacking at less than full strength. Shockwave’s claim that even at full strength he is the stronger is curious. If this were true you wonder why Megatron had not been deposed before now.

Even in battle Shockwave continues to analyse and deduce the strength of his opponent based on his reaction time. He exploits Megatron’s unhealed wounds by battering him with a water tower and causing him to short circuit. Transforming into gun mode, Shockwave finishes the job.

Poor Megatron, he is beaten and about to be given the humiliation of his life. Shockwave refuses him the death he asks for and instead takes him back to the Ark to become an example to the other Decepticons of the fate of any who defy Shockwave. The Decepticons in unison pledge their lives and loyalty to their new commander. Megatron raises his arm and does the same. His humiliation is complete.

In summary, wow – what a battle. It really summed up the difference in style between the terrifyingly smart and calculating Shockwave and emotional and foolhardy Megatron. The outcome was never in any doubt but Shockwave’s humiliation of his rival is brutal. We may not have had the Autobots in the story for a while but I’m not missing them at this point – the drama in the Decepticon ranks is more than enough.

The final panel sees Ratchet drawn with a red Decepticon insignia – oops! And issue #25’s Soundwaves settles a long running debate over whether Ravage is a dog. We’re told he’s in fact closest to a jaguar.

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