Funeral for a Friend

It’s April 1987 and in the Marvel UK Transformers comic the fall-out from the shocking death of Optimus Prime continues.

In the previous story we saw how Megatron was driven insane by the realisation that he had waited four million years to destroy his arch nemesis only for the opportunity to slip through his hands. Unable to comprehend this, Megatron eventually blew up the Space Bridge with himself on it. Is he also dead? No seasoned comic book reader would bet on it, but for now he’s out of the picture and a new era has descended on the Decepticon camp with Shockwave once again in command.

In Funeral For A Friend we get to see how the Autobots are reacting to the loss of their inspirational leader and talisman – the being who more than anyone else embodies their cause. Writer Bob Budiansky’s big reset is in full swing and will conclude with the appointment of the next Autobot leader (and a controversial successor indeed) but for now there is the gut wrenching business of saying goodbye.

The story begins in the Ark’s medical bay as chief physician Ratchet welds together the broken frame of Optimus Prime. Just to add to the enormous pressure on the surgeon’s shoulders, he’s being observed from the gallery by a couple of dozen of his colleagues, all waiting for him to restore life to the dead. No pressure then!

It’s interesting to note who is there and who isn’t – Jetfire, the Protectobots, the Aerialbots, the Cybertron seven, Omega Supreme and the new Autobots (Hoist, Grapple and co) so all of the newer characters basically. The original cast is represented only by Wheeljack and Ratchet himself which goes to show the importance of Hasbro’s latest toyline over the old characters it is phasing out, and the comic reflects this by and large. Thank goodness that Bob keeps the faith with old favourites such as Ratchet.

Skids also appears in the assembly in the US version of the story but has been airbrushed out for the UK comic (since in the UK continuity he was displaced to Limbo by the time travelling Galvatron). It’s lucky that Skids appeared at the back and was easy to erase and I find myself wondering whether this is serendipitous or Simon Furman agreed it with the US team.

We discover that Ratchet has been working non-stop to repair Optimus Prime for 238 hours – which is almost 10 days! He administers a 2,000,000 volt charge to revive their fallen leader, Frankenstein-style… but nothing. The terrible truth is that Optimus is beyond fixing.

Some hours later Omega Supreme (still large but quite a bit smaller than on his comics debut) demonstrates an array of new defences which he built into the mountainside surrounding the Ark. They are activated by a radio signal or by pulling on a power booster rod inside the base. Perceptor is pleased that the base will be secure while everyone is attending Prime’s funeral. He seems to be pretty senior within the Earthbound Autobots despite being a recent arrival. I suppose because he commanded a unit on Cybertron…

Ratchet is haunted by his failure to revive Optimus Prime and refuses to attend the send-off. We see First Aid trying to console him and I imagine it might be a big help for Ratchet to finally have a second medic to split the burden. However, First Aid is newly created and Ratchet thinks the young Protectobot is too inexperienced to understand what it’s like to lose comrades. First Aid does offer a good piece of advice though: “where there’s life there’s hope” – Ratchet must concern himself with the living.

As the convoy departs, Ratchet is alone in the Ark and with his moping. He checks on Prowl and other patients in the life support area, oddly reminiscent of a laundrette with a row washers. Each window contains a fallen Autobot and Ratchet might be able to repair them if he had replacement parts. He decides to heads to a scrap yard under the cover of darkness to see what he can salvage… quite a bit as it turns out. However, he hears human voices and is forced to revert to ambulance mode to avoid detection.

In the Transformation page for issue #109, readers are warned to expect the debut of the Transformers latest and most deadly human foe – Nestor Forbes aka The Mechanic. That’s probably overstating his abilities somewhat but as threats go he’s not insignificant. We join the Mechanic’s assistant, the car thief Juan, who is being pressured by a buyer to let him deal the boss rather than a middleman. The Mechanic steps out of the shadows – perhaps now the customer will do business properly? Suddenly the buyer pulls out a police badge and sqaud come screaming in. The Mechanic is reduced to a quivering wreck (so much for being a super villain) and flees with Juan into the waiting Ratchet. They take off with the cops in hot pursuit.

The Mechanic has a real phobia about the police. He did an eight year stretch behind bars and is terrified of going back. As he cowers in the back of Ratchet, the Autobot uses his cryogenic scalpel medical tool to ice up the road and assist their escape. He’s hoping the Mechanic is too freaked out to notice. No such luck. Pretty soon he’s got a screwdriver out and has removed the tools from Ratchet’s interior. Once back in the Mechanic’s garage HQ, Ratchet reveals his robot form and announces he’s taking his weapons back and will be leaving. While elsewhere, Omega Supreme places the body of Optimus Prime in a funeral barge and the vessel is blasted off to the stars. So long Prime!

In the second instalment, things have turned decidedly frosty for Chief Medical Officer Ratchet who has been turned into a giant snowman by a blast from his own cryogenic scalpel, now wielded by the Mechanic. Frozen to the spot, he has no choice but to stay put until he thaws. He then sets off to drive back to the Ark with the Mechanic and Juan following and hoping to score some more advanced technology.

At the funeral, Perceptor delivers the eulogy and remarks that Optimus was a beacon in this dark alien world. He’s speaking for all I suppose but its odd in that Perceptor literally only arrived at the ark seven issues previously so he’s had little or no opportunity to experience Prime’s leadership on Earth. As the Autobots begin their return to base, Ratchet is there ahead of them and transmits the radio signal to deactivates Omega’s defences. The Mechanic’s pick-up truck parks nearby and the wily criminal slips in on foot.

Once there he observes Ratchet reactivate the defences using the rod. Mechanic is feeling pretty brave now he’s in possession of weapons (and irritated at being labelled a thief) and he uses one of stolen lasers to blast a gaping hole in Ratchet’s knee. The medic crashes to the floor, leaking fuel, but the tables are about to be turned as the other Autobots appear on the monitor, having arrived outside. The Mechanic knows he is finished if they get into the Ark but he cannily switches the gun turrets back on and decides to hold on to the power booster rod, which miraculously makes even the heaviest equipment light as a feather.

As Omega Supreme and the other Autobots take heavy damage, Ratchet flees the Mechanic in ambulance mode, still leaking fuel, and retreats into his medical bay. He props himself against Prowl’s life support capsule. It looks like he may never get the chance to repair his friend… or will he. He still has a few minutes before the Mechanic finds him, so he decides to use them to install the scrap yard parts. In Prowls case that was a set of lights, however we’re supposed to believe that this was enough to revive Prowl. So much so that when the Mechanic appears and uses the rod to haul a hunk of machinery into the air intending to crush Ratchet, he’s startled by the wail of a police siren and makes a swift run for it. He joins the waiting Juan in the pick-up outside and exclaims that it was police trap. Juan thinks his boss has taken leave of his senses and not surprisingly.

Ratchet and First Aid get to work patching up the latest casualties. First Aid is pleased to see his comrade in better spirits. Ratchet has not yet put the loss of Optimus Prime behind him but he’s been too busy concerning himself with helping the living! As he speaks the funeral barge containing Optimus streaks across the sky.
In closing – poor old Ratchet. He’s been a favourite character of mine since the 1985 story arc where he was the last surviving Autobot and had to take on the Decepticons alone. This time he’s not looking too clever getting outsmarted by the latest annoying human enemy. In light of the pressure on Bob Budiansky to continually introduce new characters from the ever expanding Hasbro toy range we can be grateful that older characters like Ratchet still get to go centre stage.

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Afterdeath!

It’s March 1987 and after two and a half years of writing the Marvel US Transformers comic, Bob Budiansky is about to do something incredibly bold to shake things up – he’s about to kill off the two stars of the franchise, Optimus Prime and Megatron!

Pictured: The US cover to the Afterdeath! story

Of course, with this being comics, death is never really permanent but for the best part of the next 18 months or longer these two much loved characters (or love to hate in Megatron’s case) are about to disappear from the pages of our favourite comic.

The question is how to do it in an original way. After all the two leaders have clashed on countless occasions on the battlefield and had been seen in a fight to the death in the Transformers Movie less than four months previous. Bob being the super imaginative writer that he is, comes up with a novel way of having his two main protagonists do battle for the ‘last time’ by having them duke it out in a computer game. This is a game with very high stakes as the loser must be destroyed in real life. For this reason Afterdeath! is one of the most controversial stories in the history of Transformers comics. It’s a decent story but is detested by many because of the ending, as we will see.

First a quick mention of the cover to issue #105. Lee Sullivan, who admittedly is not one of my favourites when he’s illustrating the main strip – mostly for his tendency to draw saliva in the mouths of his robots (I’m picky I know) – nevertheless has been turning in some really solid covers of late. There was the Battlechargers on Transformers UK #94 and his latest effort has Defensor and Bruticus squaring up alongside Prime and Megatron. Deadlock indeed! It’s great to see the two remaining Special Teams finally making their debut.

Following a public health warning on the Transformation page, letting readers know that the demise of one of the two leaders is coming up, the stakes and the stage is set for the story to come. It begins with the genius programmer and gaming enthusiast, Ethan Zachary, playing his Multi-World creation on a huge wall-sized screen. His character is overwhelmed by the hordes of Hazzak just as his colleague Margaret arrives and wonders why Ethan wastes so much time playing silly video games. We learn that they are working inside a top security facility which houses the Hydrothermocline, a revolutionary new technology for extracting energy from the thermal layers in the ocean. (Eighties kids were already learning about green technology years before they became a thing!)

Ethan demonstrates his technique for restoring his game character to life using the command ‘AFTERDEATH’, which is a pretty significant detail as we later find out.

Little do they know they are being monitored from above by Vortex in helicopter mode. Here’s our first glimpse of a Combaticon in the comic for real as opposed to appearing as part of Buster’s Matrix-induced dream. As Ethan re-immerses himself in the Multi-World, at the Ark, Wheeljack is extracting the Cerebro Shell which the Insecticon Bombshell had implanted within Optimus Prime’s head module (as seen in the story Heavy Traffic). This shell has already served its purpose as the Decepticons were able to use it to siphon off the Matrix as Prime was giving life to the Aerialbots, allowing them to breathe life into the Stunticons. Now can assume that the same thing happened in respect to the Combaticons and Protectobots.

Wheeljack turns the tables by using the device to eavesdrop on the Decepticons and they learn of Megatron’s plans to seize the Hydrothermocline. And later that evening, when Onslaught, Brawl and Swindle roll through the perimeter fence, they are met with the sight of Optimus Prime and the Protectobots laying in wait. Megatron jumps out from Onslaught’s cab and they are joined by Vortex and Blastoff. In a blatant bit of product placement both teams combine to their respective gestalts and it’s clear that the situation is a stalemate. That is until Ethan Zachary decides to make a run for it right by Bruticus and is easily snatched by the fearsome but insanely stupid Decepticon. His request to crush the Zachary is denied, as Megatron thinks he might make a useful hostage.

Ethan suggests a way the two sides could fight it out without destroying the plant, by connecting to his Multi-World. Amazingly they all agree and pretty soon the teams and their leaders are attaching cables to their heads in order to appear as avatars in the game (a good thing Ethan keeps these cables handy eh?). The rules are simple, if the Decepticons destroy Optimus Prime in the game they can take the Hydrothermocline, but Megatron is loses then they can’t. Ethan assures a sceptical Groove that there is no way to cheat (famous last words!) and Megatron decides to up the ante by insisting that the loser must be destroyed in real life.

So Ethan controls two joysticks that can trigger a lethal explosion in one or other leader, which strikes me as incredibly trusting of Megatron to allow a human he’s only just met to hold the power of life or death over him. Additionally, it was only a few weeks ago that Prime was so concerned about his warriors’ inability to cope without him that he was faked his own death to test them, and yet now he’s entering into an agreement where the outcome could well be his actual death! Very strange.

The first half ends with Optimus Prime and the Protectobots arriving in the strange computer generated landscape that makes up Multi-World, and Prime preparing to lead his troops. Issue #106 again reminds readers of the stakes. This is the honest to gosh ‘final battle’ between Prime and Megatron we’re told… and one will die! The story then resumes with Hotspot basically ordering Optimus to stay put and allow the Protectobots to fan out and pick off the enemy. After all in this game their deaths are meaningless whereas if Prime dies they all lose. Prime agrees, but reminds his warriors that even though nothing is real, they must all remain true to their Autobot principles avoid harming any of this world’s inhabitants.

Hilariously, we see the mirror situation with Megatron and the Combaticons. Onslaught is almost cocky about inviting Megatron to take the lead. That earns him a swift boot up the rear as the more canny Megatron realises that he must be preserved and his Combaticons are mere fodder. He sends them ahead and tells them “let nothing stop you” – Multi-World inhabitants need to beware!

Now usually the Autobot concern for innocent life tends to be handicap in their encounters with the Decepticons but this is one of those rare occasions where doing the right thing brings powerful dividends. Streetwise and First Aid take great care to avoid harming any of the vines in their path, which leaves them open to ambush from Brawl and Swindle, who also take out many of the vines in the process. The two Combaticons transform and are ensnared by the vines, who it turns out possess sentience. This allows First Aid to crystallise the stunned pair with his roof mounted gun (it’s nice to see their weapons being spotlighted in addition to the characters) and Streetwise to shattering them with a blast of compressed air. Back in the real world, Ethan Zachary cheers the victory.

In the Cloud-steppes region, Blast Off and Vortex cut the skyway support cables, sending Grove and many of the Cloudstepper inhabitants falling. Blades swoops down to save his comrade, but is told to catch the Cloudsteppers instead as Groove just manages to grab a ledge. Blades does so, leaving himself wide open to a Combaticon attack. But one of the Cloudsteppers lets off a smoke bomb, blinding the two Decepticons who crash into each other while Grove finishes them off with his Photon Pistol.

Two more down and one to go as Hotspot and Onslaught face off in the Slimepit region. Onslaught makes use of the mud to launch a surprise ambush. His random laser blasts decimating the homes of the local Slimepit people and Hotspot uses his body to shield the defenceless creatures. They reward him by pulling him and resurfacing behind the Decepticon. A powerful blast from Hotspot allows him to claim an unlikely victory. Ethan applauds the win, while Megatron screams to know what is going on.

With the Combaticons failing to return, Megatron goes searching for Prime and soon finds his foe in the Metropipe region. As the pair stand either end of a bridge over a bottomless chasm, It would appear that the final battle now comes down to just the two leaders – or not, as the ominous form of Defensor appears behind Prime! Megatron screams at his fellow Combaticons to aid him, but with all having been defeated he can only lash out at them blindly in the real world. Vortex explains there’s a way to cheat by inputting the word “Afterdeath” when you lose. Thus when Defensor carries himself and Megatron over the ledge to their dooms, Megatron reappears behind Optimus and blasts him with full force. In the real world the Protectobots and Ethan are puzzled as to what just happened.

Back in the game, Prime hangs off the edge by a single arm, with the other a mangled wreck. Megatron looks down at his helpless foe when suddenly with the last of his strength, Prime yanks at one of the support pipes toppling one of the towers above and knocking Megatron to his death a second time. This time there is no reprieve as Megatron and many of the small Metropipe inhabitants plunge to their doom. The game over message appears, with Prime the sole character left on screen, and the Protectobots hailing their leader as everyone’s optics are switched back on.

Streetwise tells Ethan to press Megatron’s detonator before he can escape, but a far from happy Optimus Prime speaks his disapproval of the win. He argues that because he deliberately caused the deaths of the innocent inhabitants of Metropipe he in fact violated his own sacred Autobot principles. He cannot accept this victory and insists that Ethan press his detonator, which the incredulous human reluctantly does. In a full page to convey the sheer enormity, Prime explodes spectacularly as the Protectobots – and the readers presumably – watch in utter shock and horror!

Pictured: Don Perlin’s iconic depiction of Optimus Prime’s destruction!

With the battle over, Megatron and the Combaticons prepare the Hydrothermocline for transport and the Protectobots round-up the remains of their fallen leader before departing in utter silence. Now alone, Ethan reflects on what he witnessed, Optimus Prime was the most noble being he had ever met in his entire life. In a final, teasing image he writes the name Optimus Prime on a disk and files it away, taking comfort that in the realm of Multi-world, for a character such as Optimus Prime there is always the Afterdeath!

Wow! So where do I start? Optimus Prime is dead (just like in issue #78 and #97 of course) but this time he really is! So what will happen now for the Autobots? Who can pick up the mantle of the greatest Autobot of them all? Prowl, Ultra Magnus? Intriguing questions remain and of course Bob will have plenty more surprises in store. In the end I really enjoyed the video game scenario, but the way Prime insists on his own death is disturbing, and many people despise this story for that single reason. The fact that Megatron cheated just seems to rub it in, and the way this fact is unaddressed at the end leaves readers feeling angry and dismayed. But hey, great art and literature is meant to have an emotional impact right, and why shouldn’t that apply to comic books?

The final scene where Ethan Zachary appears to save Optimus Prime’s mind onto disk also brings up a lot of points. If a Transformers mind can apparently be backed up (as shown back in issue #53 using high density crystals) then why don’t all Transformers do this as an insurance policy against death, not to mention the fact you could potentially use this to create as many Optimus Primes as you wish. Lastly, it seems unlikely that Prime’s vast personality and millions of years worth of memories could be backed up onto a single floppy disk. In 1987 a gigabyte of data was practically unheard of, and you would expect Prime’s memory to be vastly in excess of that.

The US comic was running a Transformers/GI Joe crossover series in parallel to this and the next few issues. Although initially excluded from the UK continuity, it was printed much later on as a space-filler in UK #265-281.

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Resurrection!

The good guys are in the ascendance for a change as Optimus Prime and Ultra Magnus lead the fight back on Cybertron! While in the Decepticon camp the crippled Lord Straxus launches a desperate attempt to rid himself of Megatron.

‘Resurrection!’ is a two-part story published in March 1987 by Marvel UK in the pages of Transformers #103 and #104. Simon Furman swiftly and skilfully concludes his ‘return to Cybertron’ saga that began with ‘Prey!’ in issue #96 and took the comic up to and past its milestone one hundredth issue.

This slew of stories represents an audacious move by Furman – who literally swipes all the ideas that his Transformers US counterpart Bob Budiansky has planned for his next few stories! However, it’s almost as if the two comics are alternate realities where similar events unfold in a slightly different way. Bob’s upcoming stories ‘Afterdeath!’ and ‘Gone But Not Forgotten!’ deal with Optimus Prime’s death and Megatron’s madness as well as the introduction of the Predacons. And ‘Funeral for a Friend’ deals with Prime’s final send off and these are all elements that are present in this collection of UK issues.

The first thing to note about issue #103 is the Martin Griffiths/Robin Bouttell cover (above) which may well be the first time Prime and Magnus have appeared together in the same frame. The headline ‘Prime and Magnus side by side on Cybertron’ reads like a fanboy’s dream and actually it’s pretty cool that what seemed like a throwaway line from Magnus at the end of Target: 2006 “tell your leader that someday Optimus Prime and Ultra Magnus will fight side by side” was something Simon Furman actually intended to make happen. The cover looks good at a casual glance but some of the proportions on Ultra Magnus are a bit off, particularly his head in relation to the rest of him, though the readers’ eye is distracted by the colouring.

Our story begins with a hilarious account from Octane about his ‘heroics’ in battle after Optimus Prime led a raid on one of the Decepticons’ Energon depots on Cybertron. In fact, Octane had been about to batter a slave robot like the cowardly thug he is, when a laser blast ignited an Energon Cube, temporarily blinding the Decepticons present. His vision cleared and he witnessed his personal nightmare come to life: Prime and Magnus leading a full-scale assault. Octane made a run for it and in his panic, he had tripped and injured himself. So much for his heroics!

It’s great fun for the readers as we’re able to juxtapose Octane’s spoken account with the visuals which show what really happened. Naturally his boss, Lord Straxus is not taken in for a moment, he knows Octane far too well. But this is the fifth raid in as many days since Prime began leading the Autobots again. As far as Straxus is concerned Megatron brought the Autobot leader with him from Earth and he’s responsible. Ratbat reports that their unwanted guest had also lashed out a pair of guards and he’s turning into a huge liability. Straxus’ technicians are busy rigging up equipment to his life support bubble – the hour of his revenge is nigh!

Prime has really given the beleaguered Cybertron Autobots new impetus. Their resistance base beneath Iacon reverberates with the sound of celebration (quite a novelty) but good things can’t last forever, as soon Prime must return to Earth to re-join the fight to stop the Decepticons from plundering the planet’s resources. Interestingly, Prime borrows the now famous line from the Movie ‘Till all are one’, varying it as ‘All will be one’.

A quick check in on Earth, reveals that the Cybertron seven have found their way to the Ark. Ironhide is shocked to hear from them that their deadliest enemy Galvatron has returned from the future – and in turn the seven are left reeling by the news that Optimus Prime is dead! For the explanation see ‘Prey!’.

On Cybertron, Megatron taunts the seemingly helpless Straxus, threatening to crush his life support. Straxus responds by unleashing a burst of energy against Megatron’s head. His intention is to swap over their two minds – Megatron will experience the living hell that is Straxus’ existence – and Straxus will be whole again in a powerful new body! The process works – or appears to – as Megatron rises to his feet and smashes the life support bubble, squishing Straxus’ head. “Fear not…” he tells his followers, “Megatron is dead, and Lord Straxus lives on in his place…” Wow!

And so, part one ends on a pretty decent cliff-hanger. Straxus gamble appears to have paid off for now, though nobody will seriously think this is the last we’ll see of the mighty Megatron. Straxus was taking a hell of a risk though. He really ought to have had the technicians build him a new body and transfer to that, rather than launch an attack on Megatron with untested equipment. Flicking through the issue, there’s a new back-up strip – the Inhumanoids – and an advert for Thundercats crisps! A sign of how big the cats were in those days, and of course their Marvel UK comic was just about to launch.

Geoff senior provides a striking cover for part two captioned ‘No mercy for Megatron’. It’s got Prime and Magnus training their guns on a helpless looking Decepticon leader. In the strip, Jeff Anderson takes over the art duties from Will Simpson with an opening splash page on the funeral of Optimus Prime. This is another theme that Furman has stolen from an upcoming US story but to make it a little different he’s committing Prime to the ground rather than having him blast off into space.

They gather around a grave and headstone, while Ratchet delivers a eulogy. Omega Supreme towers over the mourners. It’s our first glimpse of him since his debut and already he’s half the size and in a later story he’ll be able to fit in the Ark. Prime’s death may have come in mysterious circumstances, but it was almost certainly in battle against the Decepticons and upholding Autobot principles.

Light-years away on Cybertron, a far from dead Optimus addresses the Autobot resistance in untypical style: he wants Megatron’s head! This is uncharacteristic of Prime, he’s not normally so aggressive but he can’t return to Earth while Megatron is still at large so needs must. The Wreckers will create a diversion and Prime and Magnus will sneak into the Decepticon stronghold.

Meanwhile, shock, horror (not!) Straxus’ attempt to switch bodies appears to have gone awry. Megatron’s personality is reasserting itself but for now he’s in the grip of a fog of amnesia. Ratbat arrives to warn of the Autobot attack in progress and quickly realises that all is not well with his leader.

Moments later, Megatron wanders into familiar face – Optimus Prime! And he’s not alone as Ultra Magnus appears and starts laying into him. He’s been looking for someone to unleash on since Impactor died. For the good of two worlds Megatron must die… but the Decepticon leader’s survival instinct is strong, and even in his amnesiac state he is canny enough to draw out his rare and unstable ability to generate lethal anti-matter energy.

Ratbat views the situation with alarm and realises they must act now to get rid of Megatron! With the Predacons having stepped off the Space Bridge, Ratbat redirects the bridge to materialise around Megatron, Prime and Magnus and whisk them all away to Earth. Megatron materialises in the Decepticon coalmine base where Shockwave – initially fearing he’s about to be executed for his treachery – discovers that Megatron has forgotten all about recent events. A lucky reprieve!

Prime gate-crashes his own funeral, much to the surprise and delight of his fellow Autobots… and Ultra Magnus stands alone an unknown distance away. He had wanted to visit Earth again and now he has a chance to explore it while looking for The Ark. It’s a rather rapid conclusion to the story but one that neatly ties up the loose ends and puts both leaders back in situ for the next US stories… the stage is set for one of Bob Budiansky most shocking and fan-controversial tales ever!

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Distant Thunder!

Marvel UK celebrates its one hundredth issue of The Transformers with a stunning wraparound cover and a feature length story revealing what happened when Optimus Prime, Prowl and Ratchet were displaced to the Limbo dimension.

It’s February 1987 and Marvel UK’s flagship title, Transformers, cements its pre-eminence by notching up triple figures. It’s a big moment for the comic, possibly the biggest since its launch three years previously, and the production team pulls out the stops with a super-sized issue containing 19 pages of story instead of the usual 11. And there’s a fantastic hand-painted wraparound cover by Alan Davis, the artist best known for his work on Captain Britain and X-Men series in the US.

According to TF Wiki, the team had only half-seriously approached Davis about doing a cover, not expecting him to agree. But the suspicion is that his son Thomas was a fan of the comic and so Davis agreed, and both are named on the credit. It’s one of the memorable covers of the run; instantly recognisable like Prime vs Soundwave or ‘The Autobots are all dead’ from issues #1 and #22.

The hype has been building for issue #100 in the weeks leading up to it. We’ve been promised a ‘different side to Optimus Prime’ a fighting mad Prime, a story that ‘has to be seen to be believed’. Does it live up to the expectation? To be honest, not really. There are good moments and an intriguing concept, the extended story is its certainly welcome, but it fails to hit the mark. Consider the last time we had a bumper issue was the amazing, edge of the seat exciting ‘Warrior School’ (in issue #25) and Distant Thunder is really no comparison.

On the plus side Will Simpson has been tasked with bringing Simon Furman’s bizarre Limbo dimension to life and does a fine job – he’s my second favourite TF artist of the Marvel era after Geoff Senior, and creates a Planet of the Apes style horror zone here. The story begins in the Dead End – that desolate region of Polyhex inhabited by the down-and-out dregs of Cybertron society. It’s a good place for Prime and the mortally wounded Outback to lay low. Trouble is they are being hunted by the Autobots’ crack commando unit, the Wreckers (with Prime believed to be Decepticon spy impersonating the great Autobot leader) and it is only a matter of time before they are found and executed.

Outback’s wound (inflicted last issue by one of the Guardian units tracking them) is on his left side and then on the right in subsequent panels. Oops. In order to keep his spirits up, Prime tells his fellow fugitive of ‘another time when hope seemed lost’ when he, along with Prowl and Ratchet were transported to a bizarre hybrid metal and organic world between dimension – Limbo. (This occurred during Target: 2006 when the trio made way for Galvatron, Cyclonus and Scourge arriving from the future). They had encountered the peaceful Cloran, who had been driven from their homes by ape-like invaders. The Autobots had decided to help.

We see the three Autobot warriors being overrun by superior numbers. They could even the odds by using their blasters but Prime refuses to give the order to kill. The decision is about to be taken out of his hands, as a blinding light heralds the arrival of the Decepticons, Shockwave, Thundercracker and Frenzy. They waste no time in mass executing the attacking forces, with Shockwave deciding that logically he must save Prime so that they can work together to escape this place, wherever or whatever it is. Prime is incensed at the casual waste of life and punches out Frenzy for making a flippant comment about wasting fuel on these ‘slimeballs’.

Against his better judgement, Prime tells Shockwave about their encounter with the Cloran and the marauders’ leader Zenag, who had promised them a device that could return them to Earth if they left his army unhindered. Quite why Prime discloses this explosive bit of info is unclear. It’s utterly predictable what was about to happen and sure enough the Decepticons go straight to Zenag and agree to his terms – destroy the Autobots in return for the device.

They attack from above, allowing Frenzy to ambush the Autobots on the ground by unleashing his sonic power. Prime, Prowl and Ratchet fall, but they’ve anticipated the move and switched off their audio receptors. This takes the Decepticons off guard and the Autobots counterattack, with Ratchet (surprisingly) taking out the more powerful Shockwave with a laser scalpel blast to the eye.

Prime helps Shockwave up and explains his theory that the dynamic of the peace loving Cloran and the aggressive invaders mirrors the beginnings of the war on Cybertron, maybe a little too coincidentally – perhaps they are being ‘mentally manipulated’ into situations where they are forced to fight?

Zenag arrives, ordering Shockwave to destroy Prime. When the Decepticon refuses, Zenag attacks the Autobot leader, raining blows upon him and tearing off part of Prime’s side (this is the origin of the wound that Prime returned with at the end of Target: 2006, showing that Furman had been planning the details of the Distant Thunder story as far back as issue #88). Prime refuses to fight back and finally Zenag and their entire surroundings fade out of existence and the six Transformers find themselves floating in the emptiness of a dark void.

The idea of everyone being hooked into a shared illusion seems like something out of the Matrix, though to be fair the comic predates the film by 12 years. Prime’s wound is evidence that the illusion had very nearly become a reality. Each robot has a leech-like parasite attached to their head, feeding on their emotions. Frenzy attempts to destroy his but is forbidden by Shockwave, else it might trigger a new situation. ‘A Decepticon advocating a policy of non-violence,’ mocks Prime.

He concludes the story, telling Outback that they were all returned to 1986 Earth when the future Autobots and Decepticons departed. There’s a noise and they turn to see the Wreckers enter with blasters raised. Prime has no intention of pleading for his life, rather he will beg for life of Outback – a ‘truly heroic Autobot’. To fight his comrades would be to allow Megatron his greatest victory says Prime. Thankfully that won’t be necessary. Emirate Xaaron, the wise Autobot elder, steps-up alongside Magnus. He has heard enough to recognise the true Optimus Prime when he hears him and welcomes his old friend home.

What else is going on in the issue? There’s no Grim Grams page (sadly) but its place is taken by a competition where 100 entrants will win a Transformers toy – either Rodimus Prime and Wreck Gar or a mini Autobot. That’s pretty generous of Hasbro. Action Force continues in the back-up strip spot, ahead of the launch of its own comic and Lew Stringer’s Robo Capers begins the first of a long and hugely enjoyable saga with the alien king and his inventor sidekick stranded in space.

Interestingly this is also Whirl’s last appearance in the Transformers comic apart from in the 1988 annual story ‘Peace’. And now on to issues #101 and #102 and the return (a little hasty in my view) of the most powerful and deadly Decepticon of all – Galvatron!

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Under Fire!

On Cybertron, Ultra Magnus and the Wreckers prepare to execute Optimus Prime, believing him to be a Decepticon spy.

‘Any last requests prisoner?’ That’s the question asked of Optimus Prime on the cover of Transformers #99 by Ultra Magnus at the head of an Autobot firing squad! If you’d missed the previous issue, you’d be unaware that Megatron had put the word around of a Decepticon infiltrator designed to look and sound like the great Optimus and the Wreckers and Magnus had caught up with him and passed a death sentence without trial – all of which sounds distinctly un-Autobot behaviour but this is war I suppose. As the purpose of a cover is to make you buy the comic and find out what the hell is going on then Lee Sullivan’s efforts here are likely to hit the spot. And if that doesn’t do the job, there’s a free Ultra Magnus sticker badge too!

The issue’s Transformations page has two preoccupations: the first being its impending one hundredth issue (naturally) and the other is the launch of three new Marvel UK comics for March 1987 – Action Force, Zoids monthly, and Thundercats! Of the three I was most easily the most excited about Thundercats – it was undeniably one of the best kids’ cartoons on TV at the time and I collected the comic for a good couple of years. Reading the blurb though, I get the impression that Marvel is really pinning its hopes on Action Force becoming the next big thing. Like Transformers it is underpinned by a major toy line and has a lot of cool vehicles and figures. I was never wild about AF though. The Ancient Relics crossover with Transformers (in issue #125) was pretty good but it seemed a bit forced for the comic to pretend that AF were ‘Europe’s anti-terrorist force’ when it was blatantly the GI Joe comic rebranded and with stories predominately set in the US. In case you’re wondering the AF comic was cancelled in 1988 after fifty issues and then relaunched as a monthly which itself lasted for 15 issues before being cancelled.

Back to Transformers… As mentioned, Prime finds himself under arrest and put in front of a firing squad. If he’s worried about dying at this point, he’s not alone; Outback, who he saved from a Decepticon bully in the previous issue, is about to put himself between Optimus and the loaded guns. We get some insight into his situation – he’s a rule breaker and risk taker, his fellow Autobots resent him for it and consequently he’s not well thought of. So much so that Magnus is unwilling to listen to Outback’s claims that they are making a big mistake. He’d rather believe their spy sources who have never been wrong in the past. Outback foolishly provokes Magnus by suggesting that he is acting rashly in a bid to atone for his failure to save Impactor during Operation: Volcano. He’s hit a nerve as Magnus erupts and orders Outback to take a hike or else, he can share in the prisoner’s fate!

Outback places a small device on Prime’s chest which causes the shackles behind his back disappear or dissolve. He then lobs a gas particle bomb and creates a smokescreen allowing Prime and himself to escape. It’s interesting to see how reluctant Optimus is to flee – for some reason he thinks he can talk sense into Magnus and the Wreckers, even though he’s failed dismally so far.

Magnus tells Springer that he will take three Guardian units and hunt them down himself. All the while the Decepticon Ratbat observes from a safe distance, before returning to base to delivers the news of Prime’s escape to Lord Straxus. Megatron’s plan has failed, and Lord Straxus takes great pleasure in rubbing it in. Megatron reminds his host of his precarious position – it would be laughably simple to reach into Straxus’ life support bubble and crush what remains of him! Megatron orders a search party be sent after Prime, surely, he cannot evade the Decepticons and the Autobots! He then departs leaving Ratbat to question Straxus on just how long they must tolerate Megatron’s unstable presence. Straxus reveals that he has something up his sleeve. I must say I’m really enjoying the Megatron-Straxus antagonism, it’s great!

Meanwhile Magnus and a Guardian unit follow the trail of the escapees. Magnus reflects on Outback’s home truths from earlier and now wishes that he hadn’t divided his search party – Guardian units are loyal but tend to interpret orders too literally. Sure enough, there is an explosion nearby which suggests the Guardians have caught up with the fugitives. Outback blasts one, just as a second unit seizes Prime from behind and starts to crush his body. Outback tries to get a clear shot but the first Guardian recovers and tears through Outback’s side with his huge nails. Ouch!

The mini Autobot collapses and spurs Prime into action. He draws on his considerable strength and tears the head off the Guardian unit holding him. Though peace loving and abhorring of violence, it’s a timely reminder that Prime is one of the most powerful and formidable Autobot fighters.

Prime scoops up the fallen Outback. Once again, he (Optimus) has cheated death but perhaps at the cost of the life of a truly heroic Autobot. Magnus remains out of site as he watches Prime carry his friend into the distance. He does nothing to intervene which is a big clue that he’s starting to wonder whether this really is the real Optimus Prime. About time too!

On the letters page, Grimlock is asked by a fan whether the TF Movie adaptation will be reprinted when 2006 comes around. His reply that it would be ‘possible though daunting’ if the comic were still going! That might be the first acknowledgement from the creative team that the comic, though going gangbusters in 1987, has a finite lifespan and perhaps this is also why hitting the big 100 is such a cause for celebration. As we know the Marvel Transformers UK comic ran out of road in 1992, ending at issue #332. But the franchise has continued in one form or another ever since. At the time of writing Transformers is in its fourth decade (36 years old) and still going strong.

For now, let’s revisit that first big milestone – Transformers’ one hundredth issue!

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The Harder They Die!

Optimus Prime sets foot on Cybertron for the first time in four million years only to discover it reduced to a mechanical wasteland… while Megatron is also ‘home’ – an unwanted guest of the local Decepticons – and hatches a truly diabolical scheme!

The conclusion of the previous issue’s story ‘Prey!’ looked pretty cut and dried: Optimus Prime was at the mercy of the Predacons, who leapt towards him with teeth and claws barred, and the Autobots arrived shortly after to find their leader torn to shreds. However, there was the matter of the secret plot that Shockwave had hatched with Predacon team leader Razorclaw and the mysterious cargo in Prime’s trailer which suggested that perhaps everything was not as it seemed.

Sure enough, issue #98 begins with Optimus walking the desolate landscape of Cybertron – he is finally home after four million years! There are some great, vivid descriptions of the ravaged home-world: once towering cities have been levelled and the sky is polluted by the stench of a thousand battles. Up ahead Prime sees signs of life – a large Decepticon pummelling the mini-Autobot Outback. Prime’s huge figure looms over him – how would he like to take on someone larger?

What I love about the set-up of this issue is that it’s completely unexpected. Readers will have sussed that the robotic body that was destroyed last issue was not the real Prime but that he should suddenly turn up on Cybertron of all places is right out of leftfield. It’s an opportunity for Furman and Senior (the writer and artist) to deliver their own take to US writer Bob Budiansky’s masterpiece Return to Cybertron saga of the previous year and provide a sequel of sorts.

The Decepticon picking on Outback is not of the toy range, thus we can already guess at his fate, but looks the business with a head shaped like a paratrooper’s helmet and is wearing his insignia on his head module, Straxus-style (that shows a certain admirable commitment to the cause). He mocks Prime’s threat, in his experience, “the bigger they are”…. “THE HARDER THEY DIE” insists Prime!

He lifts the Decepticon off the ground by the throat, educating him on the number of comrades he’s seen fall in battle, while he has consistently cheated death due to some warped good fortune. The Decepticon seems unimpressed and unleashes a surprise eye-blast to the face… which looks pretty darn cool. Prime is temporarily blinded and throws his opponent as far as he can before falling in pain. The enemy has grown powerful in his long absence and expecting the Decepticon to finish him off at any moment, he thinks his luck has finally run out!!!

The expected onslaught never comes. It turns out that Prime’s throw had resulted in the Decepticon becoming impaled on a huge spike! The curse of the non-toy range robots strikes again! Outback is shocked to learn that this is none other than the great Optimus Prime, believing him to be long dead. Prime’s thoughts turn to the situation on Earth where he imagines his followers discovered the body parts of the facsimile construct ‘fake Prime’ which Wheeljack built so that Optimus could fake his death and now believe their leader to be dead. Prime had wanted to see how they coped without him and will now get the chance.

Prime bids Outback farewell, there are things he must do alone – but as he departs Outback transforms and follows (into a nifty Cybertronian hover car I might add). We now check in on Megatron, who is also on Cybertron, inside a Decepticon stronghold in Polyhex, which may or may not be Castle Darkmount. Megatron surveys the destruction which stretches as far as he can see and finds it be magnificent! Decepticon standards have not slackened in his absence, but an italicised voice off panel sounds less than happy with his presence. It notes that Megatron has brought with him trouble – the last thing the Cybertron Decepticons need is for the demoralised Autobot resistance to be galvanised by Optimus Prime.

Megatron erupts in a rage, recalling for the benefit of the reader how Rampage and Razorclaw had leapt clear of Optimus Prime and the Predacons had attacked Megatron himself, fleeing with his fusion canon! The situation smacked of a ‘Shockwave set-up’ he works out astutely: he’d been left to face Optimus Prime alone, though not unarmed it turns out, as Megatron carries a spare gun. He found ‘Prime’ propped up against his trailer and blew him to pieces… only to discover that it was a fake and he was rugby tackled from behind by the real Optimus. Megatron, being throttled, had summonsed the Space Bridge and Optimus hurled the two of them into it before it had fully materialised, hoping to carry Megatron to his death. Instead the pair had survived intact, but on the other side of the galaxy.

Now we see Megatron’s tormentor… it’s none other than the salvaged head of Polyhex’s ruler Lord Straxus, who eerily floats in green liquid. He has been confined to a life support bubble after the events of issue #69 and having made such a great first impression in the aforementioned Return to Cybertron saga, his return is a real treat for the readers. It’s another unexpected twist in a short 11-page story that is blessed with them. And Megatron has wasted no time in making himself at home. Having procured a new fusion canon, he’s passed word through to the Decepticon informers that a spy designed to resemble Optimus Prime will try and infiltrate the Autobot resistance. He feels sure that when the Autobots learn of this they will kill Optimus Prime for him! Despite being unhinged of late, Megatron shows he has lost none of his cunning.

Meanwhile, Prime stands high above Iacon, the once great capital of Cybertron – it too has been turned into a barren wasteland, can any Autobots still inhabit this place? Suddenly he is whacked in the face by the hammer arm belonging to Rack ‘n’ Ruin, one of the Wreckers. And a huge Guardian unit (a much stronger version than we have seen before) pummels Prime’s face into the ground. He blacks out and when he comes to, he finds himself a prisoner of the Wreckers and Ultra Magnus: without a trial he has been found guilty of impersonating the Autobots’ greatest leader… and the sentence is death!

In summary, what a cracking story! It’s class from beginning to end. The twist of Prime and Megatron’s return to Cybertron is not one I saw coming, and the encounter with the Deception – his cool eye blasts and the gruesome way Prime dispatches him – was hugely enjoyable. Outback was a recent edition to the Hasbro toy line up and it was nice to see him make a cameo here. The best bit for me though, is probably the clash of the two great egotists, Megatron and Straxus. The latter doesn’t appreciate his unwanted guest one little bit and Megatron makes no attempt to endear himself, but for now Straxus is not in much of a position to do anything about it. By the end it looks like Megatron’s ruse has worked a treat: Magnus and the Wreckers are ready to pass a death sentence on Optimus without even interrogating him to see what he has to say for himself.

It’s worth noting that while this is essentially a two-part story, the next instalment appears under a different title. This is unusual for the comic. It also comes with a Galvatron sticker badge on the cover.

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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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“Victory!”

In their dream state the comatose Dinobots battle their enemies and experience victory and defeat… can they wake up before it’s too late?

In the 1986 Transformers Annual there is one story that stands head and shoulders above the rest: the aptly named Victory. It is a coda to one of the biggest story triumphs of the year, that timeless classic Dinobot Hunt. And it is more accurately five mini tales in one as the each Dinobot in turn battles with the demons of their own minds in their own vignette.

Simon Furman at the height of his powers in this story and he’s assisted by a superb creative team: the great Geoff Senior on art duties – his dynamic style bringing each page to life; and regular hands Annie Halfacree on lettering and Gina Hart doing the colours (she captures the yellow tinge which the Megatron toy displays over time, which is a nice touch – though let’s not mention the panel where Starscream is part yellow) and Sheila Cranna as editor bows out from Transformers on a high note with this story.

From the first panel the reader is hooked… “he thinks I’m dead” says Grimlock. “His mistake”. How can you not read on to find out what has happened and what happens next? Grimlock is our narrator – he’s a Furman favourite and its evident in these four pages how well Simon knows this character he’s done so much to build.

The scene is one of devastation, of an Earth city in ruins. A bomb had taken out several of the Autobots including Optimus Prime. The sight of Prime “out of the fight permanently” is jarring and because main characters rarely die it’s a big hint early on that things are not what they seem. The next clue is writ large – it’s Grimlock armed with his Energo Sword and slicing Megatron down the middle! It’s an instantly iconic moment.

Grimlock screams his triumph to the Decepticons! This is pure Grimlock fantasy. He’s the powerful one and he alone among the Autobots can turn the course of the war. In reality of course, the last two times Grimlock has gone toe to toe with Megatron (in Repeat Performance and In the National Interest) he’s taken a pasting. His jealousy towards Optimus Prime which is at the root of his dislike for the Autobot leader and grudging respect is present alongside Grimock’s arrogance – Prime “was good but I’m the best”, he says.

As Grimlock transforming to T-Rex mode and takes full advantage of the Decepticons’ shock and disarray, Starscream still has the wherewithal to see the opportunity in the situation. With Megatron dead the path to leadership is finally open to him. He straps his former leader’s fusion cannon onto his own arm, and fakes being hurt, luring Grimlock closer and then at close range Starscream whips out the fusion cannon and blows a massive hole in Grimlock’s chest. He slips into darkness and voices…

Next it is Swoop’s turn to dream. He has Soundwave in his talons and parades his capture in front of the Autobots and Decepticons. Optimus Prime orders Swoop to release the prisoner but his age-old animosity towards Optimus won’t allow him to obey the request. His mistake is fatal, as Soundwave self-destructs to end his humiliation. Swoop is engulfed in a ball of flame.

Again, the voices continue… it is the outside world intruding on the dream.

Sludge charges through the jungle scape, he’s in Brontosaurus mode and in his element. He encounters Joy Meadows, the ‘shining’ human who nursed him through his illness, she’s come back to him. Joy hugs Sludge before ripping off her face to reveal a horrific robotic skeleton! Truly this is the stuff of nightmares and I reckon there’ll have been a few kids who got pretty freaked out at this point. Android Joy unleashes beams from her eyes that take down Sludge. The last thing he sees before the darkness is Megatron holding a remote control.

Snarl faces up to a bogeyman from his own past – the rogue battle droid Guardian. This time the other Autobots have fallen and only he can save the day. With a mighty whip of his tail, he beheads Guardian and pauses to savour the victory. He foolishly lets his guard down just long enough for the headless Guardian to get to his feet and pummel poor Snarl into unconsciousness!

Finally, Slag relives the confrontation with Shockwave at the Savage Land million years ago. In this version he runs the Decepticon, off a cliff, but in doing so lands in the swamp and is swallowed up by the darkness…

And back in the present, Optimus and Chief Medical Officer Ratchet survey the deactivated Dinobots in the Ark’s repair bay. The damage to their minds has been repaired but they remain comatose. Something is preventing the Dinobots from making the final leap and returning to consciousness. Prime orders Ratchet to make sure they survive – he needs the Dinobots in their fight against the Decepticons. As Prime departs, Ratchet surmises that his monstrous patients will need to take that final step themselves. And in their dream state the Dinobots go to war once more… they will have either victory or death.

Why can’t the Dinobots wake up? Could it be that for all their bravado and arrogance they are masking an insecurity and they don’t believe they can be winners? Perhaps this explains why in each dream they come close to victory, but their mind can’t quite accept it and throws a spanner in works. As we know they did wake eventually, in Second Generation (issue 65).

In summary, the story is undiminished nearly 35 years after it first appeared. It’s among Furman’s best works, perhaps because he’s writing about the Dinobots and Grimlock who he clearly has a lot of affection for, but also because it the pages are exploding with action. The device of dreams allows for stories where the usual limits don’t need to apply. Who could fail to be blown away by sight of Grimlock slicing Megatron in two, or Starscream exploding the Dinobot’s at close range? Grimlock’s sequence is the most attention grabbing, but the other Dinos meet their end in imaginative ways too.

And so we reach the end of 1986, a very fine year for the Transformers comic and enter 1987 full of excitement and expectation… and there’s lots more to come.

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To a Power Unknown

A prototype weapon designed to reverse the direction of missiles, causes a dramatic change in the Transformers’ personalities. Plus, other stories from the 1986 Transformers Annual.

Growing up in Britain in the 1980s, annual were a Christmas staple. These hardback books carried text and comic stories, posters, fact files, interviews, quizzes and anything and every else. All the popular TV shows of the day had an annual and I recall my bookshelf being stocked with Knight Rider, Buck Rogers, Roland Rat, Spider-Man… and of course The Transformers.

The first annual was released in 1985 and was pretty good, even if it jarred quite annoyingly with the comic continuity (the Plague of the Insecticons story being a case in point) and the 1986 book sets out to eclipse the previous years. Overall, it succeeds but mostly due to Simon Furman’s amazing Dinobot story Victory (which we’ll come to next) and text stories like State Games which aren’t too shabby either. The book is edited and compiled by Sheila Cranna who was the original editor of the UK Transformers comic. No offence to her, but I tend to think things really improved after she departed.

To a Power Unknown offers the intriguing concept of Evil Autobots and Heroic Decepticons long before the 2008 Shattered Glass story set in a parallel universe. The spectacle of a super polite Megatron and Shockwave complimenting the other’s leadership abilities is a hilarious moment but all in all the story is let down by poor execution, jarring dialogue and some questionable colouring (Seekers all being coloured like Starscream for example). The reversal of the Transformers personalities is well explained though by way of a computer virus that infiltrates and reprograms hardware.

The story is by the unfamiliar pairing of Ian Mennell and Wilf Prigmore with semi regular artist Will Simpson on pencil duty. I like Simpson’s work and he has some good moments here, like when Starscream is hit by Jazz’s missile in mid-air – and he draws a realistic Bet Lynch and Ken Barlow from Coronation Street in a bizarre sequence later in the story. Then there are the scenes in Pinewoodsville where Prowl appears in two places and you can make out Mirage’s back wheel but not what he’s doing, that are crammed and confusing.

The story begins with Optimus Prime thundering along a British motorway with several of his Autobots huddled in the trailer. For the explanation of why they are on the other side of the Atlantic, we’re shown a flashback to recent events where the Autobots were the honoured guests of the citizens of Pinewoodsville, USA. All had been going well until a freak malfunction caused the Autobots to attack the humans and one another. All the goodwill they had built up with the townsfolk evaporated. Once the madness passed, Optimus Prime had ordered Prowl, Jazz, Mirage and Sideswipe, to accompany him to Britain where the signal which altered their behaviour originated.

At the same time the Decepticons had also been affected. In their case the signal made them friendly and docile; they even started apologising to humans for trashing their town! Afterwards Megatron was furious and ordered his Decepticons to locate the ‘Autobot’ device that they thought must be responsible for the hack.

We learn that trigger for these personality changes is a top-secret prototype called PARD – the Purnel Auto-Reverse Defence system. It has been invented by one Professor Purnel to reprogram missiles and turn them against their sender. Its waves had literally covered the globe even being felt in the US. Purnel’s Nazi sounding assistant Zeke Heilmann turns out to be a spy who intends to steal the PARD technology.

Prime is injured by a direct hit from Starscream’s missile and is then attacked by his fellow Autobots as another wave from PARD hits them. After it wears off Starscream tries to press the advantage against the wounded Optimus, but his circuits are still scrambled and he starts picking up errant TV broadcasts, including Coronation Street (!!). This is an even weirder cameo than when Richard Branson featured in the TFUK story Salvage a couple of years later.

Jazz arrives at Purnel’s headquarters to find it on fire and Heilmann escaping with the computer core. He hops into Jazz, believing the Porsche to be a getaway vehicle supplied by his employers and is captured by Starscream. Jazz can’t allow the technology to fall into Decepticon hands, so he lobs a rocket at the Decepticon. Starscream transforms in mid-air, narrowly avoiding the heat seeker and Heilmann is blown up along with the computer chip.

Later the Autobots are driving home with the injured Optimus on their roofs. A passing family think Prime is an art sculpture until he waves at them!

The story shows that the Transformers are little more than machines that can be reprogrammed. It’s a serious vulnerability as super advanced robots should be easily capable of replicating anything the Professor has come up with and that’s a weakness of the story. This is also the first and only time we see the Autobots able to fly in their robot modes.

Also, in the annual is the text story The Beginning. Teenager Adam Reynolds tries to hack into Portland National Bank but instead accesses the Decepticon mainframe and uncovers a history of the Transformers war on Earth. It’s a more creative way than a straightforward ‘story so far’ and with a sting in the tail as Adam triggers a security protocol which sends one million volts coursing through his home PC, blowing it to bits!

The Return of the Transformers concerns Danny Philips, the boy rescued from an exploding bank by Inferno a year ago (that’s the same Inferno who isn’t destined to arrive on Earth for another two years in the main comic). He stumbles into a Decepticon-captured power plant and is rescued by Fireflight. Later, Superion demolishes his hotel to get to Starscream. The experience makes Danny realise that the Transformers are not the perfect beings he thought they were, and he throws his scrapbook about them into the sea. Superion as a liability has echoes of the Marvel US story Aerialbots Over America.

The third text story is State Games which is a nice prequel showing Megatron as a gladiator in the Cybertron province of Tarn. Sunstreaker is thrashed by him and is saved by another fighter, Optimus Prime. The games are a public distraction from a serious fuel shortage. However, war breaks out between rival cities. Optimus tries to get Overlord (who in this story is an ageing Autobot ex-ruler rather than a formidable Decepticon) and is guarded by Ravage and his brother Nightstalker. Nightstalker self-destructs when he comes under attack and Ravage switches sides to join Megatron’s new world order. As Megatron builds an army he is hailed, just as he was in the arena.

State Games is also a good read and fills in some of the back history to the civil war. It attempts to portray Megatron as more than a self-centred, power-hungry bully. He is a popular charismatic who’s able to sway hearts and minds and has a justification in trying to overthrow a corrupt and tired world order. In many ways this story is a precursor to 21st Century tales such as Eric Holmes’ 2007 Megatron Origin mini-series for IDW.

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Heavy Traffic!

This 1986 Marvel classic sees the Stunticons take to the road and do battle as Menasor with the Aerialbot combined form, Superion – with Circuit Breaker in the mix, hunting down Transformers for her trophy wall.

December 1986. The Marvel Transformers comic enters the final furlong of a remarkable year where it has grown in confidence and reputation thanks to stunning original material like Target 2006. And at the same time fans are being to be blown away by Transformers the Movie – which opened in the UK 12th December. It was the first big screen outing for the franchise and after 35 years is in my opinion still the best.

To mark the occasion, Grimlock’s regular letters page is dropped for issue #91 with him reviewing the Movie instead, LOL. His verdict: “Kids – let’s not mince words… this movie’s utterly, utterly brilliant!”

Transformers #91 & #92 features the Marvel US story Heavy Traffic! Writer Bob Budiansky properly reintroduces Circuit Breaker as an existential threat and provides a neat debut for Stunticons. I should declare an interest; Motormaster was the first Special Team toy I bought back in the day and the Stunticons have always been personal favourites. It’s great to see them finally taking to the road, rather than as a Matrix-induced dream (see issues 63-65).

Equally brilliant is the long-awaited return of Blaster and the rest of the ‘Cybertron Seven’ – though its fair to say they’ve seen better days. The story begins with the unsuspecting septet examining military vehicles for signs of sentient life. It’s that favourite old stich about Transformers not recognising organics and mistaking vehicles as Earth’s dominant species. The Ark’s computer core AUNTIE made the same error after it awoke in 1984 of course, but you’d like to think Cybertron has encountered many diverse worlds during its four million years traversing the stars – surely Transformers would have encountered organic life in that time? Or perhaps Blaster and company were holed up in their resistance cell throughout?

The account of what proceeded their arrival on Earth via the Space Bridge in issue #69 is revealed by Circuit Breaker in a briefing to her government sponsor, Walter Barnett of Triple I. She’s been hired to head-up a crack squad called RAAT (short for Rapid Anti-robot Assault Team). This must be the least comfortable team acronym to work under since Richard Nixon’s Committee to RE-Elect the President (CREEP) and the boss is just a tad obsessive about her work!

She tells Barnett the robots were ‘moments away from crushing’ the vehicles before RAAT intervened. Even he can see that isn’t the case but probably realises that CB has a major mental blackspot where Transformers are concerned. RAAT helicopters and released electrical foil above the Autobots which disrupted their circuits, allowing troops to abseil down and affix a pad on to each robot’s head. Circuit Breaker then personally intervened, unleashing 300,000 volts upon the disorientated Cybertron Seven and rendering them inoperative. After loading them on to flatbed trucks they were on their way to RAAT headquarters, all in 46 minutes!

Barnett thinks the use of force may have been unnecessary but the results speak for themselves. How would Circuit Breaker appreciate a cash bonus, he asks? Naturally, she’s appalled – money is certainly not her motivator, she lives for the destruction of all robots! Though you have to wonder how she earns money for her food and board when not working as a government hired gun.

As she departs to continue her work, she passes the mounted faces of the Cybertron seven – a grim reminder of her personal vendetta against Transformers.

A world away at the Ark, Ratchet treats Optimus Prime for an open wound he sustained in the Limbo dimension (see issue 100). Unknown to the pair the tiny insect form of Bombshell is watching (having sneaked into the Ark on Silverbolt’s wing last issue). He sees Prime’s wound as the perfect opportunity to plant one of his mind-controlling ‘cerebro shells’ and manoeuvres unnoticed. The shell makes its way up to Prime’s brain module and takes root – but for some unexplained reason it fails to take control and can only monitor the Autobot leader’s thoughts.

With his wound repaired, Prime heads to Wheeljack’s lab where the technician is fitting a chemical tracker to Skids. The device will allow him to follow the fuel trail left behind by Blaster, and hopefully lead to the Cybertron Seven. It’s interesting to see how Prime and the Autobots have nearly as much disdain for Donny Finkleberg (the human who supplied the intel) as his former Decepticon captors. Perhaps that’s understandable given that Donny was ‘Robot Master’ a Decepticon stooge for several weeks/months. Optimus will know that Megatron is easily capable of coercing a human, so the Autobots’ mistrust of Donny probably runs a little deeper. They’ve concluded he’s a greedy weasel who would sell his granny for a Walter Barnett $25,000 cheque. This being the case, what happens later with Skids trusting Donny makes little sense.

As it happens, Donny is carrying one of those Triple I cheques in his wallet. All the Autobots have to do is hold on to that to secure his cooperation. So Prime assigns Donny to accompany Skids to track down the Cybertron seven. Bombshell uses the opportunity to plant a homing device inside Donny’s wallet, hoping to lead the Decepticons to him.

Skids and Donny depart and Prime turns his attention to the Aerialbots. Following the near disaster at Hoover Dam their minds have been blanked, ready to be reprogrammed and given life by Prime’s Creation Matrix. Unbeknown to the Autobot leader, Soundwave is eavesdropping via Bombshell’s cerebro shell and the Decepticons are ready to steal away the Matrix when it is released. It’s the Transformer equivalent of piggy backing on to a neighbour’s unsecured WIFI signal perhaps?

Since the opportunity for the Decepticons to ‘hack the Matrix’ was entirely fortuitous and unexpected, it’s rather difficult to believe (as readers of the US comics are expected to) that the Decepticons were able to rapidly engineer the five Stunticon bodies, program them and design their combination ability in the short time between Prime instructing Wheeljack to prepare the Aerialbots for Matrixing and him actually carrying out the action. In the UK continuity this makes a little more sense, as the Decepticons had also been privy to Buster’s dream and had time to begin constructing their Special Teams.

Meanwhile, Skids has a fix on the Cybertron Autobots but is forced into an impromptu rescue when a woman careers off the road in the rain and crashes into an electric pylon. Skids transforms and goes to her aid – leaving Donny to whine about getting soaked. His noble act makes the TV news and is seen by Walter Barnett, who starts to believe there could be some truth in the theory that not all robots are evil, and Circuit Breaker who decides there’s another robot loose that she has to hunt down! Megatron has also been watching the tele and sends the Stunticons to rendezvous with Skids and undo his good work.

Skids succumbs to Donny’s weary protests that he needs to stop at a motel and sleep. They find a suitable establishment and the Autobot, very unwisely asks Donny to press his ‘shutdown button’ that puts Skids in his own recharging mode. The off switch is a very suspect idea and it appears that Skids cannot activate it himself. When morning comes, the Stunticons are quietly waiting in vehicle modes at the motel car park.

Skids and Donny resume their journey and spot a commotion in the rear mirror. It’s Motormaster taking road rage to new levels by ramming cars aide and telling the traffic to ‘get out of the way or die’ – ha!

Issue #92, which carries the second part, continues the Transformers the Movie love-in with a full page advert for the film’s (excellent) soundtrack and a reader offer to win copies of the album if you can answer such questions as who Megatron is transformed into and the Mr Spock actor who provides a voiceover! Grim Grams also plugs the film fairly remorselessly but what caught my eye was the reply to one Michael Blagg of Blackpool. He’s told in reply to comments about the Wreckers, that Impactor can switch his right arm for a variety of weapons – the harpoon being his favourite. That sounds an awful lot like the Death’s Head character which Furman would be introducing around 20 issues after this one.

But getting back to the story… as the Stunticons transform and close in on Skids, they come under attack from RAAT helicopters who deploy their electrical interference foil. Deadend considers the human attack beneath their notice, but Motormaster is more canny and warns his men never to underestimate an enemy.

Deadend promptly disperses the foil using his compressed air gun and Breakdown blasts one of the choppers out of the sky (presumably with the four abseiling RAAT troopers meeting a sticky end?).

Circuit Breaker realises that this group of robots are far more aggressive than the last and unleashes on Dragstrip and Wildrider. It’s one of the rare occasions she attacks Decepticons! Motormaster (got to love him) uses his huge sword as a golf club to swipe the cab clean off a truck and send it skywards into Circuit Breaker, who hovers back to the ground. It’s a cool moment and at this point I’m practically rooting for the Stunticons, since CB is such a pain in the rear end and is finally getting what she deserves!

Donny runs over to see if CB is okay. Their exchange, with him saying “they must be paying you a ton” and her reply, speaks volumes about the characters and motives. Barnett also arrives to confront Donny – they have a lot to discuss! To be fair to Donny he does his best to defend Skids and the arriving Aerialbots, even succeeding in persuading Barnett. Then the Stunticons surround Skids and pretend to protect him. This Decepticon trick appears to work as both Circuit Breaker and Barnett now accuse Donny of being in league with the bad robots and CB goes to re-join the fight.

At last the moment arrives that fans have been waiting for, as the two teams combine into Superion and Menasor respectively. The behemoths square off. Menasor uses a section of flyover as a shield and Superion shattering it with a single punch. They seem pretty evenly matched, until Circuit Breaker flies alongside Superion’s head and unleashes a mighty burst of electricity, stunning the Autobot and allowing Menasor to steal the advantage and blast Superion at close range. He falls and Menasor hails his victory, moving to crush the weakened Circuit Breaker.

Barnett, in an amazing display of strength it has to be said, clings to a rope dangled from a RAAT chopper and swings into action, rescuing CB in mid-air from Menasor’s clenching fist. In the distraction, Skids and Donny flee the scene. There’s nothing they can do to help Superion.

Later that night, Donny puts Skids to bed via his deactivation button, and goes into a motel. He places a call to Walter Barnett… asking how much a Transformer would be worth to him, no fuss, sleeping like a baby. It is the quickest 50 grand he has ever made!

I’m tempted to say ‘what a creep’ but Donny is not all bad, just weak. His desire to get out of the situation financial enhanced gets the better of him and he takes advantage of Skids’ trusting nature. The Cybertron Seven captured, plus the Aerialbots and shortly Skids. Things are not looking good for the Autobots at this point.

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