Love and Steel

At the mid point in the mini-series the Autobots have become Headmasters and gained the upper hand over their Decepticon enemies but their fortunes on Nebulos are about to undergo a dramatic reversal

Headmasters started life in the US as a four issue spin-off from the main Transformers title, in 1987. Its job was to introduce fans to a new cast of Autobots and Decepticons (and Nebulans) and the novel concept of transforming heads and weapons. The story hopped over the pond into the Marvel UK Transformers comic where it became that rarest of things, a back-up strip with the power to outshine the main story.

Most of the secondary stories up to that point had been pretty run of the mill, with a few exceptions like Machine Man of 2020, Action Force (the anglicized version of GI Joe) and my personal favourite Hercules. Having wall-to-wall Transformers stories for 16 weekly issues was a huge deal back in the day and as a reader we felt suitably blessed.
The Headmasters saga is the Transformers US writer Bob Budiansky on his A game, and if the purpose is to push a toy line that doesn’t detract from what is thought provoking (and entertaining) story. On the face of it, the set-up is familiar; it’s giant alien robots unleashing their civil war onto an unsuspecting human world, with the Decepticons intent on conquest and plunder and the Autobots struggling to protect the planet’s inhabitants (and mostly being met with fear and misunderstanding).

Earth in this case is substituted for the pacifist world of Nebulos. That’s thousands of years tradition of peace is not the only difference though. In regular Transformers, the concept of robots in disguise is quite apparent. The Transformers are blended into the background of society, and while they often break cover and get written up in the press, there’s been government attempts to dismiss them as a hoax (e.g. Robot Master) and life goes on generally speaking.

Whereas on Nebulos, the Transformers’ presence is acknowledged off the bat and is front and centre. From Highbrow’s clumsy first contact with Gort in the forest, Nebulos life is completely upended. Their parliament debates the Autobot presence, and Blurr arrives in a very public (and disastrous) way. The people are on the streets protesting and rioting! Public pressure is such, that the Nebulan leadership even abandons it’s tradition of peace in order to wage war on the Autobot refugees. It could be that Bob was saying something profound about human nature here (albeit they’re Nebulans) that fear and misunderstanding quickly descends into hatred and violence, and we’re all susceptible.

Love and Steel is the third instalment of the saga. We’ve previously seen the Decepticons arrive and the Autobot leader and four of his allies bonded with Nebulans to become Headmasters in order to repel Scorponok. From this point on the balance of power is about to shift decisively…

The story begins in Splendora, a city of “prosperity and beauty”, that is being laid waste by the Apeface and Snapdragon (the Horrorcons) and the combiner team known as the Terrorcons. The names say it all pretty much, and the panicked citizens are fleeing for their lives. Presumably, although we don’t see it, the death and casualty count is high. For the Decepticons the attack is just about relieving their boredom. In the words of Blott: “I bet when you stomp on them they make squishy sounds”.

The cavalry arrives in the form of the Technobots, who are led into battle by the Nebulan-controlled Autobots Hardhead and Brainstorm. I think there is a deliberate attempt by the Nebulan leader Galen to reassure the public by having Nebulans involved whenever the Autobots mount a defence, not that it is very successful.

The Terrorcons combine into Abominus, whose scale is utterly awesome. He’s able to demolish tall buildings with a swing of one of his mighty arms. The Technobots merge into Computron, who deploys a well placed shot and batters Abominus into his component parts with a huge metal girder. In his enthusiasm, Computron manages to give the impression of being as big a menace as the Decepticons. The Horrorcons are no match for the sharp-shooting Hardhead and Brainstorm, whose aim and abilities has improved exponentially since teaming up with Nebulans. (I’m not really sure why this should be the case, but perhaps it’s the old saying of two heads better than one…).

Brainstorm and Hardhead detach their heads into Nebulans Arcana and Duros to calm the public and assure them that the crisis is passed. As per usual they get zero gratitude. Peer Soriza, part of the Nebulan ruling council, simply questions the wisdom of Galen and his followers in “involving robots” in Nebulan affairs. The benefits should be pretty blooming obvious I would have thought, as the Decepticons would still be rampaging if not for the Autobot intervention.

At the Decepticon’s temporary base, Lord Zarak – who very unwisely reached out to Scorponok to seek his help in ridding Nebulos of the Autobots – is getting his just desserts by becoming a caged prisoner. For some reason, Scorponok is choosing to keep them as laboratory animals (showing his keen interest in mad science that would surface in the future and more so in the IDW comics of the 2000s). He’s created a bubble machine an elaborate trash disposal system for dumping Nebulan dissidents into the oblivion of outer space! Hmm.

The overweight Nebulan Monzo is selected as a test and quickly floats off, courtesy of Skullcruncher’s anti-gravity gun, before the bubble bursts at 50ft. Luckily Mindwipe transforms and catches the poor guy before he goes splat (no sense in wasting lab materials).

Zarak is pretty feisty for a caged captive. He warns Scorponok that a “thousand Nebulans will rise up” to take the place of any killed (hollow words perhaps from a society which has no concept of warfare) but he sees an opening when Apeface and Snapdragon return to report their defeat at Spendora, and are on the receiving end of Scorponok’s wrath – is he afraid to admit there are advantages to working with Nebulans, Zarak challenges.

Scorponok smashes the small prison and seizes Zarak in his pinchers. Yet the condemned Nebulan shows no fear – his death is a small matter if his world is to be conquered by Decepticons or Galen’s allies, he says. Perhaps it’s the scientist in Scorponok, or his desire to vanquish the enemy, but he agrees to share his power. However, he has a telling word of warning for Zarak: once possessed of the savage strength of Scorponok all other considerations become insignificant, perhaps even Zarak’s beloved daughter.

Later, at the Headmaster’s temporary headquarters, Galen and his men are visited by Soriza (still as miserable as ever) and a delegation. They find Galen and his men working on the Autobot weapons in what is undoubtedly the early stages of developing a Targetmaster process. As usual their preoccupation with war-making hits all the wrong notes insofar as the observers are concerned. Gort and Stylor are miscoloured as each other in one of the frequent art and colouring blunders with bedevil the series – thank goodness Bob’s storytelling makes up for this.

The Council has decided to send a delegation to accompany all of the Autobot missions. Galen agrees because he’s a stickler for the law, but he reinforces Duros’ point that the battlefield is no place for “headline hunting politicians”. Zarak’s daughter Llyra arrives looking like she’s stepped out in her negligee. She’s still giving poor Galen the cold shoulder for abandoning his peace loving principles, and has come with a very dubious video of Lord Zarak, apparently smuggled out of captivity, appealing for Galen and the Autobots to rescue them from the Decepticons. Galen readily agrees.

He tries to insist on Llyra not accompanying the political delegation and putting herself in harm’s way, but apparently she has inherited her father’s council seat in his absence – showing that they have an elitist hereditary system of politics on Nebulos rather than a democratic popular vote that you might expect from this highly evolved society.

The Headmasters roll-out to effect a rescue. Fortress Maximus, through Galen’s prior dealings with Zarak, ought to have known of the possibility for a trap and taken Autobot reinforcements along. Instead the five of them show up to take on an entire base full of Decepticons. They are met by Scorponok and five other Decepticons who emerge headless, with Zarak and the Nebulans now wearing robotic suits. The situation has “changed dramatically” says Zarak, before they bond with the Decepticons and attack the Autobots. Watching from above the politicians are appalled by the violence and Llyra cannot believe Galen is involved in it – despite him risking his life to rescue her beloved father – the same dad who’s now bonded to Scorponok!!

Zarak, now part-Scorponok, experiences power the likes of which he could never have imagined. Plucking Brainstorm from the air he feels like he could rip him in two; luckily, Fortress Maximus propels Skullcruncher at the Decepticon to prevent this happening. The inner conflict between Zarak’s love for his daughter and his home-world, and his lust for power and petty jealously, which is now magnified though his bonding with Scorponok is a really fascinating aspect of the story. With the Decepticons now ascendant, that inner turmoil is the only chance the Autobots have at a saving grace.

Apeface throws a boulder at the Nebulan observers’ floating craft, damaging a stabiliser and causing it to crash land (his bonding with Spasma doesn’t appear to have engendered any more sympathy towards Nebulans) and for Llyra and the others to spill out. Scorponok orders Mindwipe to create a distraction (except Scorpy has been drawn as Fortress Maximus, which is a shocking error by the artist) and Mindwipe uses his hypnotic gaze on Llyra to make her lead her fellow Nebulans into the trap of the Decepticon bubble machine. With Scorponok tearing a hole in roof, the bubbled-captives begin to float skywards and the Autobots have no choice but to break off the fight and focus on trying to free everyone.

Scorponok’s conflict at seeing ‘his daughter’ floating away is fascinating, although at this point the Decepticon side is stronger – there is no time for trivialities when he has a world within his grasp. Fortress Maximus frees Llyra and catches her (again, another artist blunder as Max’s head has been drawn as Cerebros – how does the artist get the main character of the saga wrong three issues in? It’s bizarre). The Autobots are sitting ducks and quickly cut down by a barrage of Decepticon fire. They heads detach and revert to unconscious Nebulan forms.

Zarak takes great pleasure in the defeat of his hated foe Galen – “you tried to intimidate me with your power” he says, showing a petty jealousy that underlines why he is the lesser man than Galen. However, in Llyra’s eyes Zarak is the hero of the hour. In her daze she thinks Galen and the Autobots were shooting at them, and despite dumping Galen for his decision to bond with Transformers to save Nebulos, she holds her father to no similar standard.

The instalment ends with the Autobots vanquished and Zarak vowing that Galen and his kind will never threaten Nebulos again! Harsh. As a reader the unfairness of the situation is brutal, however it’s certainly dramatic and you’ll be back for the concluding instalment Brothers in Armour to find out how the situations resolves.

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Worlds Apart

The Headmasters make their UK Transformers debut in a Simon Furman story where Highbrow must learn to work together with his Nebulan partner Gort to save themselves from the pinchers of Scorponok!

September 1987. The Marvel UK Transformers comic goes head over heels for Headmasters! For several weeks leading up to issue #130 readers were promised a big celebration to mark the arrival of this new breed of Autobot and Decepticon and pulls out the stops with a free gift dataset (a sliding card thing dedicated to the new characters) and giving away 250 videos as competition prizes; but best of all as far as I was concerned as a 13-year-old fan at the time, was the mouth-watering prospect of ‘wall to wall Transformers stories’ as the the back-up strip was a Transformers story for the first time.

In fact for the next 16 weeks the comic would be reprinting the US Headmasters mini-series and it all started with Ring of Hate this issue – the story of how the Transformers brought their war to the peaceful planet of Nebulos.

I’d become aware of the new toys in the summer of ’87 after stopping by a local toy store and eventually collected all of the first wave of Headmasters with the exception of Fortress Maximus, who was never released in the UK, and the Horrorcons. I had Crosshairs from the Targetmaster range too. Admittedly the name ‘Headmasters’ is a little awkward for a UK audience. It’s the word kids would associate with their head teacher and that might make the new characters just a little less cool! In the US (Hasbro’s main market) the name probably had no such connotations as their schools are run by principals or deans, right?

These toys were the figure major revolution from Hasbro since the introduction of the Special Teams and it was inevitable they would debut in the comic to considerable fanfare.

With the back-up strip dealing with the origins of the Headmasters/Targetmasters, Simon Furman’s World’s Apart story acts as a segway into the world of these new Autobot and Decepticons who dwell on the distant planet Nebulos. It’s not entirely clear where the story sits within the Headmasters continuity. I’m guessing its somewhere in between Zarak setting the Autobot Headmasters free and their actual departure for Earth. In the US story that seemed to be a fair rapid sequence but perhaps it was more drawn out than is apparent. Worlds Apart is notable for the absence of Fortress Maximus, the Autobot Headmaster leader who is not part of the UK toy range, and this leaves for a nemesis for Scorponok which is filled somewhat unexpectedly by Highbrow.

We’re introduced to Nebulos, a ‘lush beautiful world whose inhabitants knew only peace, happiness and prosperity’ and told that the calm has been shattered by the sound of an age-old conflict. Enter the four Autobot Headmasters – Hardhead, Chromedome, Brainstorm and Highbrow – dodging laser beams and explosions.

Chromedome notes that their ‘simple rescue mission’ has gone pear-shaped. They are attacked from the air by the jet forms of Apeface and Snapdragon, and ambushed on the ground by Weirdwolf and Skullcruncher. Mindwipe shows off his unusual and effective ability to hypnotise an opponent – in this Brainstorm – to crash into his colleague Hardhead, who transforms to robot mode holding his head. However, Chromedome shakes off his pursuers and has time to transform and shoots the Horrorcons down. He’s about to end up in Snapdragon’s jaws when Highbrow intervene with a well timed blast. The Autobots recover and score an unlikely victory as Mindwipe stages a fake retreat.

We start to learn a bit more about the Headmasters’ personalities as Highbrow establishes himself as serious and cautious, and a source of irritation for the more gung-ho Hardhead, who dismisses talk of a trap. We find out that the team were on their way to rescue their Targetmaster colleagues, Sureshot, Pointblank and Crosshairs, from the Decepticons. They have no choice but to push on, trap or not.

Highbrow gets interrupted in mid sentence as his Nebulan partner Gort reasserts himself. The head detaches and transforms into Gort in a robotic exo-suit, who speaks to Chromedome’s partner Stylor and bemoans his lack of compatibility with Highbrow. Furman has spotted some potential for that essential story ingredient ‘conflict’ in the Highbrow/Gort partnership, and how they overcome that is the crux of Worlds Apart. It’s predictable – you know they’ll overcome their differences and work together to save the day – but it’s still an enjoyable journey. We also learn at this point, via flashbacks, that the Nebulans had agreed to partner with the Autobots, sharing a united mind, to save the planet from the impending arrival of the Decepticons – and we get our first glimpse of the Nebulan leader Galen.

The group arrives at the Decepticon’s notorious Fortress of Despair (which sounds to me like something out of a Dungeons & Dragons cartoon episode). They find the doors open – all very suspicious – and proceed with caution. In a main chamber they find their Targetmaster comrades suspended above.

Sureshot, miscoloured in purple and magenta, shouts a warning for them to get out of there – it’s not the Targetmaster process the Decepticons are having trouble with, it’s their Headmaster conversion. These three are the bait… and right on cue a bulkhead is blown apart and the Decepticon Targetmasters file in accompanied by feared Decepticon leader, Scorponok! (He has no mercy you know…) Interestingly you can see Cyclonus and Scourge in silhouette. No doubt their presence will have been confusing for readers but we’ll find out in the 1988 Legacy of Unicron epic how they came to be here.

Part two begins with another great Lee Sullivan cover (of Highbrow trapped in Scorponok’s pinchers) to accompany Will Simpson’s pencils on the strip. The story resumes, this time from Scorponok’s eye view as the Autobots below him are in shock at his sudden arrival. However the Decepticon leader is not here to do battle. He requires an Autobot Headmaster to dissect, which suggests Scorponok is possessed of scientific abilities as well as deadly strength and stature, and chooses Highbrow as his unlucky victim.

He scuttles away with the Autobot in his pinchers, leaving the Decepticon Target Masters – Cyclonus, Scourge, Triggerhappy, Slugslinger and Misfire – to dispose of the others. It’s five versus three but the Headmasters quickly even the odds by freeing Sureshot, Pointblank, Crosshairs (curiously their Nebulan companions have been imprisoned alongside them and are able to quickly become their weapons). The Autobots now have the numbers advantage.

A short distance away Scorponok taunts Highbrow, who appears to have given up, to fight back a bit for goodness sake. When Highbrow speaks it is with two contradicting voices. Scorponok understands in an instant that his captive is about as far from an ideal specimen as he could find, however perhaps he can learn something here after all?

A quick flashback to the battle sees the Autobots making light work of their Decepticon opponents – and with Cyclonus and Scourge easily also disposed of (so much for these two being the match for one hundred Autobots as Galvatron boasted in Target: 2006). Chromedome sets off to rescue Highbrow.

Meanwhile, Scorponok transforms to robot mode. He understands now that the Headmaster process itself is sound but the problem lies in the pairing. Match the cerebral and aloof Highbrow with cheerful and brash Gort and they can’t get along. Now Scorponok will put them both out of their misery – or will he? Chromedome arrives in the nick of time and battles the giant Decepticon, opening fire, throwing sand in his face and dodging rocks and pincher blows. As he fights he tells Gort how he and Stylor are very different but are united by a common cause. Gort pulls himself together and bonds with Highbrow. As one, they fight with renewed vigour and Scorponok is caught by surprise. He flees to plan anew, calling the other Decepticons to his side.

Finally it seems that Highbrow and Gort have found some common ground with which to move forward. They may be ‘worlds apart’ in their thinking but they know that they can be a force for truth and justice. And that, says Highbrow, is what being a Headmaster is all about.

In summary, this issue is a turning point in the saga of the Transformers, heralding the biggest influx of new characters since the Special Teams. In addition to the Headmasters and Target Masters we have the new leaders – Fortress Maximus and Scorponok. Truth be told, Worlds Apart is enjoyable but feels less consequential that the back-up storyline which is the real meat of the saga. Ironically, it’s more significant than it appears as it establishes the Scorponok/Highbrow rivalry which we’ll see more of in the 1988 Annual and the later story, Time Wars. The Headmasters and Targetmasters have arrived and Transformers won’t be the same again.

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