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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