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.

Next issue
Previous

Target: 2006 (Parts 3 & 4)

Galvatron inflicts a humiliating defeat on the leaderless Autobots, after they are deserted by Ultra Magnus in their hour of need. While on Cybertron, the Wreckers question their involvement in Operation: Volcano.

Defeat – an ‘ugly word that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth’. So says Ironhide, our narrator for part 3 of Target: 2006. The issue starts with the big red Autobot shifting boulders in the aftermath of momentous events, which we are about to hear about courtesy of flashbacks.

It’s October 1986 and Simon Furman’s 11-part time-and-galaxy-spanning epic Target: 2006 is in full swing. Previous instalments have shown us glimpses of the god given power of Galvatron, Cyclonus and Scourge, and in this issue, we see them in combat with the era’s Autobots. Trouble is that this is just what Galvatron wants. Having captured Jazz, he taunted the Autobots to “come and get” their comrade, goading them into a hasty attack that would allow him to inflict a crushing defeat on them, and so it proved.

Jeff Anderson is the artist for Part 3 and again demonstrates his technique of applying a coloured border to differentiate between past and present events, which works perfectly here.

Ironhide’s flashback begins with Jetfire telling him to focus as they are about to arm up and set off after Galvatron. Jazz’s life is at stake and they have no time to lose. Quite why Jetfire is in charge is unclear. Prowl, Jazz and Ratchet were the established deputies to Optimus Prime and all are unavailable, so it might be that Jetfire is filling the void by virtue of his status as one of the more powerful Autobots, or maybe his emotions are running high and others are falling in behind his driving force.

Hound sounds a note of caution about Galvatron’s power. It’s clear they need the strength of Ultra Magnus, and Jetfire reluctantly agrees to extend him an invite. For some reason, Jetfire has taken against him, even though Magnus saved Hound from Cyclonus; his arrival so soon after Prime’s departure is a little close for comfort.

There’s an uncomfortable moment when Magnus is forced to decline to help because his time-limited mission to locate Optimus Prime takes priority. Magnus’ fact file (in TFUK #81) tells us his only failing is “once he has accepted a certain task, his singled-minded purposes sometimes blinds him to other things” which sounds like it refers to this moment.

The battle itself starts badly for the Autobots. They are subjected to heavy aerial bombardment and Jetfire seems to be considerably weaker than Cyclonus when the two clashed in the air. Scourge dodges enemy fire with before landing and inviting the Autobots to attack him. With the henchmen seemingly under control, Jetfire takes Ironhide, Tracks and Smokescreen with him to take down Galvatron, four versus one. This is incredibly foolhardy and overconfident. Four Autobots wouldn’t be anywhere near enough to challenge Megatron, and from what they’ve seen of Galvatron so far he is in that league – plus they know he’s protected by the Constructicons.

This is where Galvatron demonstrates his dominance so utterly. He points out the Constructicons, Cyclonus and Scourge all stood down at the side lines and invites the Autobots to do their worst. They unleash enough firepower to level a small city, only for Galvatron to soak it all up and laugh throughout. Then beat the four of them to a pulp! All of which brings us back to the beginning where it’s revealed that Ironhide is digging up Megatron and Soundwave!

The epilogue shows a fist breaking out from confinement in the Ark. We’re not shown who but it’s likely to be one of the Decepticons captured after their defeat by Omega Supreme. Are they being reactivated to join an alliance? The answers would have to wait, as in TFUK #81 the focus switched to Cybertron, providing a week’s interlude from the main events.

Ron Smith takes over art duties for Part 4, which explains more about Operation: Volcano and introduces several new characters, among them Whirl, Topspin, Twin Twist, the Decepticon triple changers, Rack n Ruin and Fang. Generally speaking, a character that is part of the Hasbro toy line can be expected survive whilst the made-for-comics characters will usually meet a grisly end (in the finest Star Trek red shirt tradition).

The Wreckers’ now familiar battle cry ‘Wreck and Rule!’ is heard for the first time in the comic. It chills the oil of the Decepticon killers who hear it, we’re told. Impactor and his men bearing down on them.

Shrapnel is the first victim – speared through the brain module by Impactor’s harpoon. His electrical emissions running wild, he can be used as a weapon against Octane. Whirl draws Decepticon fire, allowing Rack n Ruin to get close to pummel Thrust. Topspin, the glory seeker, takes on too many foes, but is saved by Twintwist and Roadbuster who emerge from below ground to evaporate Dirge and Ramjet. This is brutal stuff!

Of course, going back to my point about toy line characters, it’s pretty obvious that the slain Decepticons are not properly dead, and sure enough it soon becomes apparent that these are Facsimile Constructs – fake Transformers. These doubles are being used by the Wreckers to practice for Operation: Volcano, which is now less than five days away.

The team is anxious. They know if Ultra Magnus does not return from Earth in time, they will be overrun by Decepticon reinforcements, making the mission a suicide. They agree to pull the plug and Impactor will deliver the news to Emirate Xaaron, while the rest take five.

All told this is probably my least favourite instalment of Target: 2006 because it feels like a distraction from the main story. But I can see why Furman thought a full issue’s story was needed to properly introduce the Wreckers, Impactor and the Volcano aspect of the plot. One of the fun, quirky aspects of the story is Maccadam’s Old Oil House, the rowdy place black market oil bar, which Roadbuster, Twin Twist and Whirl frequent.

It’s interesting because it’s a neutral space where Autobot, Decepticon and neutrals can coexist (if they stay out of trouble). It’s also one of the rare times we see Transformers engaged in social activities. Could Maccadam’s be a place where Autobot and Decepticon double agents exchange information or enemies can come together as friends, albeit briefly? In this case, our three Wreckers are there to drown their sorrows. As Whirl wryly observes, he’s seen “cheerier” Decepticon badges than the other two.

Suddenly, a gigantic Decepticon bully called Fang, enters – he’s so big he practically cracks the doorframe – and he decides to pick on the Transformer with the piano alt mode who is supplying the bar music. Fang attacks the poor fellow with his sink plunger for a fist before giving him a good kick.

Twin Twist, enraged, wants to get involved. Roadbuster tells him to leave it, saying “it’s not out fight” in echoes of their earlier judgement on Operation Volcano. Instead with a ‘Wreck and Rule’ cry, Twin Twist sucker-punches Fang courtesy of a strike to the knees, that severs his lower leg and sends his upper torso crashing down. Fang winds up as a pile of metal debris. He looked like he would have put up more of a fight.

However, the incident is catalyst enough to persuade the Wreckers to change their mind about Volcano. So much so, that when Impactor – who has been outsmarted into reconsidering the mission by the wily, experienced politician Xaaron – asks for volunteers he gets a full show of hands. The Wreckers return to practice, taking it from the top…

In closing: The Wreckers make a strong impression on their team debut and are destined to be fan favourites. These ‘return to Cybertron’ stories are a good way for writers to get the extended toy range into the comic, for example the Jump Starters who had been out for well over a year and I hadn’t expected to see. Also Whirl and Roadbuster and the long overdue Decepticon Triple Changers.

How has the Autobot resistance got the resources to build so many working facsimiles of their enemies? You’d imagine they’d be better off investing more Ultra Magnus or Omega Supreme warriors. Next issue its back to main plot (horay!) as the Autobots form an unholy alliance with their worst enemy Megatron – a case of better the devil you know!

Next Story
Previous