Ark Duty

Hot Rod is ordered to guard the Ark from Decepticon attack but can’t resist leaving his post when he sees Kup under attack from the Stunticons

At the end of March 2020, as the UK went into lockdown, and have some unexpected time on my hands due to no longer commuting for 1.5 hours a day, I embarked on this project to re-read and review all of my classic 1980s and 90s Transformers comics. It’s been a lot of fun, I might say a blast from the past and I’ve been struck by how good those stories still are despite the passage of time. A year and two weeks later, I’ve reached the end of 1987 with Ark Duty… a story from the Transformers Annual of that year.

Somewhat unusually there are none of the usual credits, so it’s difficult to be sure who the production team is. I would hazard a guess though that its a Simon Furman story with Will Simpson on art duties; I’m pretty sure its his style.
This seven page story is a nice, compact little tale, which fills in some of the gaps between the then ‘present day’ (1980s) era and the Transformers the Movie set up.

It defies the usual Furman practice of setting future stories exactly 20 years on from the publication date by being set in 2003. Ultra Magnus is now the Autobot commander on Earth (no explanation is given for Optimus Prime’s absence, but we might assume that he’s on Cybertron’s moons at this put overseeing the operation to retake the homeworld) and plans have been drawn up to build Autobot City Earth. Obviously in the Movie, which is set in 2005/6 depending on whether you follow cartoon or comic continuity, the city is built.

We open with Magnus in the Ark showing the gathered Autobots a video simulation of how Autobot City will be able to withstand and repel a Decepticon attack. Magnus alludes to the fact that the Ark contains many valuable secrets that cannot be allowed to fall into Decepticon hands – this is intriguing as we have no idea what these secrets may be. My feeling it’s something in the Ark/Auntie’s data banks. He also speaks of the Autobots having been given land and all the materials they need by Earth’s governments, which rather suggests that humanity has finally accepted the Autobots as their protectors. It’s taken a while. I wonder if even Circuit Breaker has stopped attacking Autobots and is targeting Decepticons at last by 2003?

Magnus explains that all Autobots will take part in the convoy to collect the materials they need for the city, except for Hot Rod, Kup and Blurr. Oddly enough the trio are not Targetmasters, despite becoming bonded to Nebulans over the course of 1987, and the Ark is still embedded in the side of Mount St Hillary, that’s despite it being repaired and returned to orbit in the main Transformers strip by the end of the year. This begs the question of whether Ark Duty is in the same continuity as the regular comic. It’s likely that its in the Transformers Movie alternate reality. For anyone who doesn’t know what I mean, the Transformers comic departed from the Movie future by having Unicron show up and attack Cybertron in 1991 and not 2005/6. This pretty much cast the Movie into a different reality to the comic stories.

The Decepticon spy Ravage observes from the wings, his electro-magnetic shield ensuring that he remains undetected. When Magnus reveals that Kup will deliver a top secret data tape to the human authorities, Ravage determines to steal it and tasks the Stunticons with intercepting the Autobot old timer. (It’s great to see the under-used Stunticons again).

Kup made a point of ordered Hot Rod to guard the Ark and not to leave under any circumstances. Blurr is uttering dialogue similar to his lines in the Movie (“positively absolutely certain” sounding like his “absolutely positively definitely”) but unlike the Movie which Blurr is something of a novelty character and quite fun, here he’s just plain annoying. When Hot Rod sees Kup getting roughed up by Motormaster and his crew on screen, he wastes no time in defying orders and setting out after his colleague.

After checking Kup is okay, he takes off after the Stunticon convoy to retrieve the stolen tape. Hot Rod doesn’t stick around to allow Kup to tell him something important, namely that the tape is a fake and they wanted the Decepticons to steal it. Hot Rod catches up with the Stunticons and challenges them. Shortly after, Kup arrives and finds Hot Rod beaten up and left bruised and battered at the roadside.

He explains the plan and thanks Hot Rod for making it seem all the more convincing. Now they will be left alone to build the city as the Decepticons will believe they know its secrets, he says. The obvious flaw in the logic is that the Decepticons will surely know that the Autobots are aware that their plans have been stolen and are likely to change the plans. Hot Rod apologises and insists he will stay in the Ark next time, but Kup somehow doubts it. They hobble off together into the sunset.

I liked this story overall because it bridges the divide between the present day 80s set-up and the Autobots we see in the Transformers Movie. It’s also a welcome to see Ravage back to his cunning best (he hasn’t been seen since he disappeared down a mine shaft of course) and the Stunticons are rarely used, compared to other special teams. The dynamic between Hot Rod and Kup is established by this point. They are polar opposites but true friends.

Now its time to fast forward from 2003 to January 2008 and a post-Movie showdown on the Planet of Junk between Death’s Head, Cyclonus and Scourge.

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Prey!

Optimus Prime plans to test his followers by faking his death. Trouble is, with the Decepticons’ deadly cadre of hunters – the Predacons – on his trail, his demise may become a reality!

1986 ended on a real high note with the awe-inspiring Transformers the Movie and its comic tie-in Target: 2006. Entering the new year there was the question of ‘what next?’ and could the Marvel UK team raise the bar any higher? The immediate big event on the horizon was the comic’s ‘incredible 100th issue’ and looking back across the decades, I remember that felt like a huge milestone. It was a fantastic achievement for this title based on a toy line to reach triple figures and a sure sign of how successful the comic had grown. On the Transformation page we learn that its even selling in the United States and Australia at that point – a global phenomenon in the making! There’s a nod to Australia in the Robo Capers strip for #96 which is fitting in the circumstances.

But the countdown to that milestone begins with Prey, a Simon Furman two-parter published in the pages of Transformers #96 and #97. Once again Optimus Prime is the lead character, which is always good but especially more so since his enforced absence of some 11 issues during Target: 2006. The story also provides the UK debut of the Predacons, ahead of their US appearance no less. Although the elite hunting cadre were never released as toys in the UK, a kid at school had discovered a leaflet showing Hasbro’s extended toy range in his Transformers toy box. This is how I got my first glimpse of this exciting team of wild beasts who combine.

Jeff Anderson’s cover depicts the encounter between Prime and the Predacons. The Autobot leader is flat on his front, and a tortoise-like foot stomps his laser rifle. I’m thinking this foot belongs to Headstrong. ‘Prime’s the prey… and he hasn’t got a prayer!’ is the teaser/catch line. Jeff will be unleashed on the main strip in the second part but the first instalment we’re in the hands of Will Simpson, one of my favourites.

Will creates a striking opening page. Prime is safe within the Ark, but he looks poised for battle, like he’s under immediate threat. The source of his anxiety is giant screens showing recent events: the Decepticon Space Bridge delivering enemy reinforcements and Scourge’s ninja-like attack on the Autobots at the steel refinery.

The Space Bridge features prominently in the Sun Bow cartoon series as a means of travel between Earth and Cybertron. US writer Bob Budiansky is widely thought to have introduced it into the Transformers comic as a convenient way to be able to bring in the new toy releases that he was under constant pressure to showcase. But the issue of this being a massive, massive threat to the Autobots has never really been addressed until now. It stands to reason though that this is a major gamechanger in the war on Earth, as for the first time the Decepticons have access to unlimited reinforcements. Prime realises that it must either be captured (unwise as the enemy would not rest until it repossessed it) or destroyed.

So far so good, but then Prime’s thoughts take a sharp turn down a slightly odd tangent. He’s always been willing to sacrifice his life for the Autobot cause without hesitation but having seen how poorly his followers coped without him (during his spell in the Limbo dimension during Target: 2006) he worries that things could fall apart without him. So, he begins to formulate a plan to remove himself from the picture, to test his followers and allow him to work on the destruction of the Space Bridge. Why do I say the plan is ‘slightly odd’? Well, it’s a distraction from the main objective of destroying the bridge for a start; and rather pointless as he’s already seen how crappy an outfit the Autobots were without him. Would it not be better to strengthen the command structure, training and building confidence and resilience? No. Instead Optimus hatches a plan to fake his own death with help from Wheeljack who he instructs to work on a secret project for him.

At the Decepticon base Megatron’s obsession with his Autobot opposite number continues to grow. A flippant comment from Motormaster sends him into a rage – only he, Megatron, can defeat Optimus Prime – no-one else! Motormaster cowers in fear as Megatron just misses him with a giant boulder. We don’t know what the Stunticon leader said exactly but it’s not beyond the realms of fantasy that, as the two share an alt-mode, he sees Optimus as a personal rival.

Simpson draws Megatron with a trigger waist like his toy, while his Motormaster has a ‘regular head’ rather than the boxed-in look of his toy and previous depictions in the comic. This Motormaster looks better.

Soundwave watches Megatron’s paranoia with interest. With the leader’s mental state rapidly deteriorating, Soundwave knows that his best interests are served by helping Shockwave to re-take command. He plants a seed about flushing Prime into the open using a specialised team of hunters… Megatron takes the bait – the Predacons still exist on Cybertron and would be perfect for the job. He orders Soundwave to summon them. Meanwhile Shockwave is monitoring the conversation from within a nearby cave. His plan is going perfectly, soon he will manoeuvre Prime and Megatron into a situation where the only winner is Shockwave!

Shockwave alludes to a different side of Prime that he witnessed in the Limbo dimension. And the editorial footnote drops a major revelation: we will see this story in the landmark issue 100! The suggestion is that Megatron would come off worse in a straight fight, yet in issue 100 we don’t see a fighting mad Prime but an intelligent one who knows when and when not to fight. You could easily favour Megatron because he is not handicapped by Prime’s compassion for other beings, so Shockwave’s logic is not clear.

A week later at the Ark, Prime is ready to put his own plan into action. His fellow Autobots are aghast to learn that their leader plans to embark on an unimportant reconnaissance mission to the Decepticons base, alone! Let’s not forget that the enemy base is in another State – it’s a fair distance away if he gets into trouble. Prime is too important to risk, surely one of them should go in his place. Prime is saddened to hear his warriors speak so, but it only strengthens his resolve to proceed and he assures them that he’ll alert Wheeljack (who stands close-by looking decidedly uncomfortable) if he runs into trouble.

After ordering them to return to their duties, Prime has a final chat with Wheeljack. They load a mysterious cargo into Prime’s trailer and Optimus tells Wheeljack that he is relying on him to sound the alarm in two hours. That should give him enough time to fake his death!

While over at the Decepticon base, Megatron has found a practical use for Motormaster – target practice for the newly arrived Predacons! Their hunting skills are still as exceptional Megatron remembers, and he is satisfied. And after Soundwave announces Optimus Prime’s is ‘heading this way’ (surely on an interstate trip he could detour in any number of directions) the hunt is about to begin! Shockwave has a quick word with team leader Razorclaw, serve him well and the Predacons have a glorious place in the new Decepticon hierarchy!

Nearby, Prime’s uneventful ride through the peaceful Wyoming countryside takes an unexpected twist when the road ahead explodes leaving to revert to robot mode. He is momentarily stunned and reaches for his gun, just as it is crushed by a giant foot before he can grasp it! Prime looks up to find himself at the mercy of Megatron and the Predacons in animal mode. It’s quite a cliff-hanger!

And so, we’re on to part 2 – announced via a Geoff Senior cover as ‘Terror of the Predacons’. In addition to the wild animals there’s a proverbial elephant in the room in the shape of the comic’s 2p price rise. To their credit the team do not duck the issue – its announced in the Transformation page as due to ‘increased production costs’ and is the first rise in 70 issues. It’s interesting that they mention ‘unless you’re reading this in the shop’ as its likely that a few kids will have arrived at the shop with the exact pocket money and found themselves short. Clearly the team were concerned about this. To be fair, I would have been similarly caught out but for some reason on that day, my dad was going to the shop and offered to collect my issue. I remember it well as I worried, he might have come back with the wrong edition!

The second instalment begins with Prime in a tricky spot. He’s alone, unarmed, with no means of calling for help (no internal radio?) and being hunted by the deadly Predacons! The feline forms of Rampage and Razorclaw spring from nowhere and leap – with fangs and teeth bared! Prime punches out Rampage but takes a scratch across the torso from Razorclaw, before dodging a blast and landing on the Predacon leader. Tantrum’s charging bull mode is easily evaded by Prime, who simply transforms and drives away (one of my favourite moments in the story) but up ahead is ‘rhino’ Headstrong coming straight for him and Divebomb circling above in eagle mode! At the last moment Prime transforms to robot mode, launches at Divebomb leaving Tantrum and Headstrong to collide. After raining a few blows on Divebomb Prime lands and sets off again.

A flashback reveals that Prime had been given a sporting 10-minute head start to make the hunt interesting. Readers are reminded of Prime’s plan to fake his death and that Wheeljack is not due to raise the alarm for another 20 minutes. By then it could be too late! Suddenly his daydream is cut short by a huge boulder propelled in his direction by the Predacon-combined form, Predaking! Optimus had not realised that the Predacons were combiners and now things are even worse!

He heads for his trailer and runs into Megatron. A blast from his Fusion Canon impacts the trailer and causes Prime to feel the pain. Injury to either part (or roller) is felt by the whole. When you think about it, this is a significant weakness that the Decepticons rarely exploit.

Finally, Prime is at the mercy of his enemy, but the Razorclaw whispers to the team that it’s ‘now or never’ if they are to carry out Shockwave’s plan. The last sight is of the Predacons diving at Prime with claws bared… before the Autobots arrive shortly afterwards and discover a scene of complete and utter devastation – they’ve found what’s left of Optimus Prime, and he’s been to pieces!

As endings go, this is as shocking as they come. Prime’s death looks very cut and dried but there are the clues that nothing is what it seems. For starters we have the mysterious cargo in the trailer, a robot by the looks of it, and one with the same feet as Optimus. Then there is the Predacons about to defy Megatron’s orders, suggesting that their disposing of Prime may not have happened. And so, we’re on to issue #98 ‘The Harder They Die’ – another hugely enjoyable, surprise-filled 11 pages from the Furman/Senior dream team.

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