Space Hikers!

The Autobots inadvertently capture a group of human children in their pursuit of the renegade Blaster – will Grimlock really use kids as leverage in his personal battle? And Sky Lynx makes his comics debut.

Blaster was my favourite character in the Marvel comics and so having him centre stage – and in demand for the Autobot leadership no less – is very welcome. However, at the close of Used Autobots, with the Protectobots placing Blaster under arrest for desertion, I was eager to get straight to the inevitable confrontation with Grimlock. Instead Child’s Play seemed to drag things out with a largely unnecessary confrontation between the Protectobots and Combaticons (probably to address the lack of Defensor and Bruticus in the previous story) and to put the four human children in the mix.

In Space Hikers the youngsters’ purpose to the plot is clear. It’s to provide a catalyst for Blaster to surrender rather than whip up a revolution (not to difficult given how fed up the Autobots are with Grimlock at this point) and thus postpone his inevitable showdown with the tyrannical Autobot leader for an incredible 30 more issues! Crikey.

I might sound like a boring parent here, but the idea of taking four little kids into space in a captured Decepticon of all things – with their families completely unaware, and without thought for the massive risks you are exposing them too seemed incredibly unwise. Yes, Blast Off was mode-locked, but just as Blaster remained conscious and was thinking of ways to thwart his captors, surely Blast Off would have been expected to do similar. He might have turned off the air supply for example. Another thought: at the point of his arrest Blaster was keen to get after RAAT and recover the Throttlebots. I’m surprised this was no longer a priority once he was freed. Or perhaps he realised the trail would have gone cold and so the next best thing is to return to the Autobots and force a change of leader.

Childs Play ended with the kids and Blaster, in orbit with the Ark bearing down on them. For Space Hikers (published in the UK in mid December 1987) writer Bob Budiansky rewinds the clocks a few hours and makes another toy introduction – the space shuttle/bird/big cat Autobot Sky Lynx. After millions of years of scrapping with Decepticons on the Transformers home world, Sky Lynx was looking for a change and so when Wheeljack asked for his assistance in the Grimlock situation he was only too willing.

Meanwhile, Wheeljack is piloting the Ark after Blast Off. They are using the mode lock’s signal as a homing beacon and Grimlock cites the Decepticon warrior Blast Off as further evidence of Blaster’s treachery. Even Wheeljack is puzzled by this and questioning his admiration for Blaster. The four kids had been having the time of their lives but with the Ark bearing down and likely to shoot them out of the sky, Blaster decides his own recourse is to surrender. Sammy decides instead to throws Blaster out of the airlock – he saved them and now the Space Hikers can return the favour.

A huge claw reaches out from below the Ark (while theatrical I can’t help thinking about the unnecessary storage space this must be taking and surely a tractor beam is more efficient) and swallows the tiny craft. Inside, the Autobots with weapons drawn have Blast Off surrounded. The four children emerge, and Wheeljack convinces the Dinobots that they don’t present any danger…

I’m not sure if the Alzamora family of New Jersey have any significance to the production team or are simply made up, but in two panels we see their TV viewing suddenly disrupted as Blaster commandeers a satellite and uses its stabilising rockets to propel himself to the Ark. Wheeljack leads the four nervous children on a tour, getting them to stand in a chamber where space suits materialise around them (and not forgetting Robin’s teddy either, lol). The suits carry two hours of air, which is significant to the plot later.

Suddenly Slag interrupts – commander Grimlock wants the see the “slime squirts” now! And despite Wheeljack’s reassurances that the commander probably only wants to meet them, they arrive to find a court in session with the crown-wearing King Grimlock presiding. This is truly ridiculous given that the children have every reason to be ignorant of Autobot affairs. Any help they have given Blaster is inconsequential you would think.

Instead, Grimlock orders them to be thrown out of the airlock – in effect executed. The faces of the other Autobots is of utter horror, but WHY DON’T THEY SAY SOMETHING? Grimlock may be a tyrant but the rest are a bunch of wimps!! Snarl questions whether this is a wise move given the other Autobots strong sympathies for humans but Grimlock only intends to use the children to draw Blaster out. Frankly, its incredible at this point that the Autobots are so cowered that they are prepared to stand idly by and allow they sacred principles to be violated.

Wheeljack, having earlier already been throttled by Grimlock, suspects his loyalties are being questioned but throws caution to the wind by calling Sky Lynx and having him swoop down and rescue the Space Hikers as they drift into space. Grimlock orders his warriors back inside to pursue this new arrival. Blaster finally gets within reach of the Ark, only for its huge engines to seemingly flame-grill the Autobot before he can grab a hold. By rights Blaster should be obliterated here or at least propelled to the other side of space by such force! He’s not.

Sky Lynx introduces himself to his passengers and – with the Ark gaining on him – he travels into a meteor shower and reverts to Lynx mode to hop between rocks as the Dinobots exit the Ark and pursue.

Blaster makes a nice reference to not feeling this bad since he swam in the smelting pools of Polyhex (an encounter we fans remember all to well – a great story). He gets into the Ark through a hatch and is warmly greeted by his fellow Autobots. After explaining that he hadn’t teamed-up with Blast-Off, the Decepticon was mode-locked and under control, the Autobots including Prime’s old number two Prowl want him to stay and take charge. As a Blaster fan this idea appealed to me greatly at the time also! But true to his character, Blaster has to put his the four young charges first.

When Sky Lynx radios in to say that the Dinobots have surrounded him and are playing a waiting game its clear that the kids will run out of air unless something is done. Jetfire offers to lead a strike against the Dinobots but Blaster refuses – that might endanger Sky Lynx and the humans. There is only one way to ensure their safety… Blaster goes outside and surrenders! Darn it!

So what happens to Blaster after this shock ending? Readers were not destined to find out until issue #174, well over four months away! The US material seems to drop this whole storyline to concentrate on the Headmasters’ arrival on Earth. We’ll shortly be heading back to the future for one of the most momentous stories of the run, which will take the UK comic up to and past its milestone 150th issue… But first it’s time for a change of pace and the annual tradition that was the Transformers Christmas edition.

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King of the Hill!

Grimlock stakes his claim for the vacant leadership of the Autobots just as the monstrous Trypticon arrives from Cybertron intent on making sure there’s nobody left alive to lead!

May 1987. In Britain a general election campaign is getting underway (which would result in a third term for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party) and this is referenced in the Transformation page of issue #111 as being of secondary importance to another big contest underway – who should govern the Autobots as the successor the late Optimus Prime! Lee Sullivan’s fantastic cover makes it clear that Grimlock is making an aggressive play for the top job. The big shake-up of the Transformers status quo initiated by writer Bob Budiansky through his decision to kill of both Prime and Megatron nears its conclusion but not before we marvel at the debut of the biggest, baddest robotic dinosaur of all… the unstoppable Trypticon!

As is also typical for a Budiansky Transformers story there is a human support character. In the case of ‘King of the Hill’ that role is filled by a young palaeontology student named Rachel Becker. The story opens with Rachel up in the wooded mountains in Oregon showing her professor and his assistant an “exciting find” – fresh dinosaur footprints! It could be a stegasaurus or triceratops she claims, but Professor Paaswell knows better. He points out the even lines suggesting the prints were mechanically carved and therefore an elaborate hoax. Rachel is disheartened but the group’s attention is attracted to a pterodactyl soaring in the sky above them. They decide to stick around and pitch their tents.

That prehistoric bird is of course the Dinobot Swoop. He’s on a mission to procure a fuel source for his comrades and finds his target in the form of a petrol tanker parked at a diner 158 miles south east. It’s odd that Swoop can’t find anything more local but perhaps he simply enjoys a chance to stretch his wings and get away from the other Dinobots for a bit. He steals the drum clean off the tanker vehicle and makes off with it (as a waitress in the diner overfills a coffee cup while watching in shock!). Soon the Dinobots are feasting in the manner of a pack of hungry lions. Curiously, when the Transformers first arrived they were unable to ingest Earth fossil fuels but that’s no longer a problem it seems. Possibly the Dinobots have been modified following the agreement between G.B. Blackrock and the Autobots for him to provide them with free fuel?

We learn that Grimlock and his team have a certain disdain for humanity that is at sharp odds with that of their fellow Autobots. There’s also an arrogant belief in their own strength and superiority over humanity and the other Autobots. Word has reached them that a successor to Optimus Prime is to be chosen and Grimlock intends to claim the empty throne. The Dinobots’ self-imposed exile (since they walked out in the prologue to Target: 2006) will shortly be ended. Their bellies filled, their hunger now is for power.

A quick check in with the Decepticons reveals that the small Florida Keys island they commandeered in Gone But Not Forgotten is now a top cover for a massive underwater base. This is impressive progress considering that the enemy forces won’t have been there much more than a month by this point. I wondered whether the Constructicons could have been sent ahead? But I’m not so sure, as the hydrothermacline technology is the reason for the base’s location and the Decepticons only acquired that fairly recently (in Afterdeath!).

Inside the base, Shockwave again commands but the change of regime has done nothing to reassure their bottom-line-obsessed fuel auditor Ratbat – who is stationed on Cybertron and now appears on screen. Ratbat is convinced that the Earth-bound operation is costing more in fuel than it brings in and they will have to pull the plug. Shockwave pins the blame for their inefficiency on the flawed leadership of his predecessor Megatron and persuades Ratbat to give them one more chance, by sending the mightiest Decepticon available for an assault on the Ark. If they can capture the Autobot headquarters they will have access to abundant resources.

At the Ark, Perceptor has convened a meeting of the senior Autobots to discuss the appointment of Optimus Prime’s successor. Jetfire, who endured a disastrous spell of temporary command during Prime’s disappearance is present, Blaster, Ratchet, Omega Supreme (now about a fifth he was on his debut) and the Special Teams leaders Silverbolt and Hotspot. Interestingly, Prowl is absent. As Prime’s deputy I would expect to see him there as a frontrunner, particularly as we know he’s now operational against (see Funeral For a Friend). As for Perceptor himself, for someone who very recently arrived from Cybertron, he’s in a very senior role. I put this down to the years (perhaps millennia?) that he commanded a resistance unit on Cybertron. That has to count for a lot. Perceptor praises the qualities of the great Optimus: strength, wisdom, leadership, compassion and generosity.

These are attributes that are mostly lacking in the oafish Grimlock, who blunders in swings his energo sword through a hologram of Prime. He declares that strength is all that matters and as the strongest Autobot he should lead. Where Prime avoided conflict in order to spare humanity the fallout, Grimlock has no such qualms. Everyone is horrified and the Dinobot commander stomps off in a huff.

Part one finishes where it began, with Rachel Becker. She awakened in her tent by a blinding light outside. She goes to investigate and witnesses the manifestation of the Space Bridge and a gigantic and imposing war machine travelling across it – the ‘unspeakable terror’ that is Trypticon! Fans cheer. Rachel screams!

As an interesting footnote to the story, this will be the first time US readers will have seen the Dinobots in a major way since their debut two years ago (save from a cameo in Command Performances). The lack of character development Stateside means that Grimlock is now portrayed as the ‘dumb dino’ with speech difficulties just as he is in the now well-established Sunbow cartoons. Trouble is that this portrayal is at odds with the UK continuity where he’s talked normally up until now. UK writer Simon Furman would have to move his Grimlock closer to the Budiansky portrayal after this. The Grim Grams page carries a letter from a reader in the USA who has discovered the UK comic and is enquiring about Target: 2006, showing again the growing global reach of the comic.

Part 2 – issue #112 – kicks off with the fabulous ‘Dinosaur war’ cover by Herbe Trimpe and Tim Perkins which adorns the US version of the story. Rachel Becker flees in panic at the terrible sight of Trypticon but as her terror abates she realises that the giant dinosaur has not even noticed her. She settles down for the night to wait for morning (obviously it takes more than a close encounter with an extra-terrestrial dinosaur to put her off her sleep!).

Trypticon quickly makes his way to the Ark and reveals his impressive battlestation mode. He dispatches his servant Wipe-Out in car mode to scout the area, and fires ‘sonic scrambler’ missiles at the Ark entrance. The devices begin to disorientate the Autobots inside. Perceptor and his ‘Cybertron Seven’ comrades staggers outside to investigate and come under heavy bombardment. The Dinobots, like Rachel, are attracted by the noises and the light show and have a ringside seat for the slaughter.

While Slag, Snarl and Sludge are enjoying the show (and admiring Trypticon’s marksmanship) Grimlock seems to have come over all responsible and leaderlike and is aghast to see his would-be troops getting cut down. He steps away to resolve his inner conflict and comes face to face with Rachel, who this time holds her ground (she had previously been disappointed with herself for running from Trypticon instead of indulging her scientific curiosity). Grimlock is impressed by her courage but as he leaves, Wipe-Out sneaks up and steals Rachel as a gift to his master.

As Blaster follows Perceptor in taking a direct hit in the chest, Omega Supreme and the other Autobots emerge from the Ark and also suffer immediate disorientation. If they can’t destroy the scramblers they’ll be sitting ducks! Grimlock takes no enjoyment from the carnage. He was prepared to throw his weight around to obtain the leadership but he has no wish to see the Autobots slaughtered.

So, when Rachel is delivered to Trypticon as a snack. Grimlock leaps into action and sinks his teeth in the giant Decepticon’s head and the other Dinobots rush to his aid. Slag bathes Trypticon in fire and Snack appears to break Wipe-Out apart with a mighty flick of his tail. Swoop as usual comes off worse, taking a blast through the wings from Trypticon’s head cannon but still gets off a missile.

Trypticon’s size and raw power means he is a formidable adversary for all five Dinobots at once, but the Space Bridge suddenly appears and Ratbat commands Trypticon to retreat – he has exceeded his energy budget for this mission (either Ratbat is worried about him running out of fuel and being overcome, or he’s that anal about the budget that he won’t countenance an overspend even if Trypticon may well have emerged victorious).

While Rachel re-joins her fellow humans, the battered Autobots regroup within the Ark. They are extremely grateful for the Dinobots’ timely intervention and impressed by Grimlock’s performance on the battlefield. Jetfire tells him that he has earned the position of Autobot leader if he still wants it. Grimlock for once is humbled and respectfully declines. He had thought that being the strongest was enough, but now he realises that it takes more than that to command the Autobots, because of his selfishness many of his comrades were unnecessarily hurt.

Ratchet enters telling Grimlock that his patients (Blaster and Perceptor) wish to disagree: Grimlock has displayed courage, compassion, military skill and charisma in the battle – in short, exactly what the Autobots could hope for in a great leader. Perceptor tells the others that their search is over, and they all hail Grimlock – Leader of the Autobots!

In summary, the Autobots have a new leader but his earlier abrasive style and questionable values must still raise some serious question marks about his suitability. It appears that the Autobots, perhaps in their desperation, have acted in the heat of the moment and in the cold light of day might come to regret their choice (which of course they do). But it must also be recognised that the humble and selfless Grimlock who manifested in defence of Rachel was a worthy contender in that moment.

I rather enjoyed Trypticon’s butt-kissing sidekick Wipe-Out. It appeared that he’d been left behind when his boss fled. However, it might not be the last we see of him. On the cover to issue #169 Trypticon has a car chest plate which on the toy version is Wipe-Out.

This ends a run of US stories. Next issue it’s back to the UK team for the latest Transformers The Movie inspired time-travelling saga – Wanted: Galvatron.

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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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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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“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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Target:2006 Prologue

Possibly Simon Furman’s finest story for the Marvel Transformers comic – Target:2006 spans the future and the present, Cybertron and Earth, tying in with the eagerly anticipated Transformers Movie and introducing a host of new characters. It begins with a shocking departure and an arrival.

“G’day cobbers!” announces the Transformation/welcome page for issue #78 of the Marvel UK Transformers comic. It’s early September 1986 and the UK’s premier comic has just gone on sale in Australia too. Whether Aussie readers would have appreciated the cliched and slightly patronising references to ‘cobbers’ and ‘sports’, I’m not sure. Perhaps people were less sensitive then? In any case it’s a good jumping on point for readers of whatever nationality. The comic has been enjoying a fine run of form in both its US and homegrown stories of late, and Target:2006 is about as good as it gets.

I have a vague memory of walking back from my local newsagent with this issue in my eager hands. It will have been the last week of the summer holidays, just before my second year at ‘big school’ and I remember being surprised and concerned by Alister Pearson’s cover (Prime, Prowl and Ratchet engulfed in entropy) and corresponding scenes inside. It felt like the comic was delving into unfamiliar territory, which can turn out either good or bad, and I was concerned that Optimus Prime might not feature in this much-promised epic 11 issue storyline. As it happened, Prime would be absent, but this would add to the sense of desperation and drama in the Autobot camp – and certainly made things more interesting – while also creating an opening for Ultra Magnus to step in as a new leader (as he’s described in the toy ads).

Jeff Anderson, who would illustrate some of the great T:2006 moments, is on board for the prologue. It opens with Optimus barging his way through woodland, felling trees and sending squirrels scurrying for safety. Prowl orders the Autobot leader to stop and take note of the damage he is causing. Prime is instantly remorseful about losing his temper. He doesn’t do it often but in flashbacks we find out that the Dinobots had wound up the pair of them by refusing to explain the battle they had just been involved in (and lost) or the presence of a non-Transformer mechanoid (Centurion).

Grimlock is drawn quite a bit larger than Optimus, which feels like a mistake (unless Prime is stood further away). I get the impression that the Dinobots are frustrated at taking a pasting by Megatron, Soundwave and the Constructicons and are feeling a bit embarrassed. They particularly don’t like losing face in front of Optimus Prime.  It’s interesting to see the Dinobots are now a faction within a faction – fighting for the Autobot cause but on their own terms. They’ll be off goodness knows where for the next few months, resurfacing in issue #101 in time for Galvatron’s second visit.

On Cybertron – recently reintroduced to readers via the US stories The Smelting Pool and Bridge to Nowhere – Emirate Xaaron wanders through the devastated ruins of Iacon, at one time the planet’s capital city. The Autobot elder previously appeared in the 1985 annual and is making his debut in the main comic here. He activates a lift that descends him into a secret Autobot base deep underground. There are shades of Perceptor’s resistance cell and their subterranean hideout here. He is met by Skater, a green an orange robot with a blue face that now reminds me of an Andorian from Star Trek. He warns Xaaron that Impactor (another made-for-comics character) is being difficult.

When we meet Impactor, he’s just as prickly as we’ve been led to expect. On behalf of his elite squadron, the Wreckers (great name), he wants assurances that Ultra Magnus will be ready to assist them in something called Operation Volcano. We can assume that this is a major strike being planned by the resistance against Cybertron’s Decepticon rulers. There’s no sign of Magnus himself yet, which adds to his mistique.

In Polyhex, the province we were introduced to in The Smelting Pool, an Autobot suffers at the hands of Shrapnel. To save himself he offers information in exchange for sparing his life. Shrapnel agrees and learns of plans for a secret meeting of Xaaron and other Autobot resistance leaders in Iacon. Shrapnel is pleased – his superiors will reward him handsomely for the information (presumably they are more grateful than his old boss Straxus?!) – and now for the Autobot’s reward – a fatal dose of electricity!

There’s a great line from the unfortunate wretch, “Wha – ? Noo! You Promised!” and Shrapnel’s gleeful retort, “I lied!”. In recent years there’s been a blurring of the lines in Transformers, making Decepticons not altogether bad and Autobots not all good. For example, Thundercracker befriending a dog in IDW’s Optimus Prime title and the ultimate expression of that being Megatron joining the Autobots in More Than Meets the Eye/The Lost Light. As good as those characterisations are (and Megatron was written extremely well) – I’m a bit of a traditionalist in the sense that I like my Autobots to be heroic and my Decepticons to be evil. I find one-dimensional bad guys like Megatron and Straxus quite fun, and therefore Shrapnel’s ruthlessness in this moment also raises a smile – what a bastard he is! Lol.

Roadbuster, another debutant, is watching from the side lines. He’d leaked the information to the deceased robot and, though he is sickened at the sight of even a traitorous colleague dying at the hands of “scum” like Shrapnel, it means that Operation Volcano is on. Evidently a trap of some kind for the Decepticons with Xaaron providing the bait. Intriguing.

Back on Earth the Autobots gather in the Ark for a pep talk from their leader, Optimus Prime, flanked by his two lieutenants Prowl and Ratchet. He’s interrupted in mid-flow by sudden pain and becoming engulfed in antimatter. There’s a burst of light and all three are gone. The Autobots are shell shocked, and on Cybertron the Matrix Flame (described as the living embodiment of the Matrix) flickers and dies. What is the Matrix Flame and what does it do? Can it be used to give life to new Transformers like the actual Matrix? We don’t find out. Suffice to say it’s a device to ensure that the Cybertron-based Autobots are clued in that something has happened to Optimus.

On a cereal farm in Oregon the stillness is broke as three unknown Transformers materialise, provoking a sudden and violent thunderstorm. We only see a glimpse of their feet and various body parts, but any fans who know their toys (which will have been the serious readers) know this is Galvatron, Cyclonus and Scourge. Three humans in rain coats arrive with torches expecting to find a plane crash or worse. Instead they are confronted with three powerful Decepticons. Galvatron demands to know the year and is pleased to learn it is 1986 and within their target date. Galvatron reveals they have travelled from 20 years in the future – a future where humans and Autobot kneel before him… As it is in 2006 so shall it be in this time.

In summary, it’s an intriguing opening part that poses many questions – the whereabouts of Prime, Prowl and Ratchet (are they now in 2006 having traded places with the three Decepticons?), what will happen with Operation Volcano, and why has Galvatron travelled to present day Earth? Anticipation is building for the Transformers Movie and T:2006 will link into it in a major way we’re told. Galvatron looks a bit too close to his toy model on the splash page but is drawn better later and I’m not sure I quite realised at the time, what a significant character he would become. At this point fans had no idea of his origin as Megatron so there would be some surprises in store.

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Robot Buster!

Buster Witwicky sets out to prove to Optimus Prime that he has what it takes to be honorary Autobot, courtesy of the robotic suit designed especially for him – but he ends up taking on more trouble than he can handle.

May 1986. The Marvel UK Transformers comic begins a seven-week run of homegrown stories starting with Robot Buster, a two-parter from regular writer Simon Furman which is based on an idea by Barry Kitson (who is also the artist on this story). Furman later acknowledged that the story was ‘done for Barry’ as an attempt to keep him involved with the Transformers title. It didn’t work – he would do one more story (Second Generation part 2) and pop back for the occasional cover but that would be it.

In my remarks about Plight of the Bumblebee, I observed that Autobots tend to regard humans as weaker lifeforms in need of protection, kind in the same way a parent or guardian views children. It’s well-meant if a tad condescending. That sentiment is in play in this story, which we could almost call Plight of the Buster. It stars of course, the Autobots’ human friend Buster Witwicky who makes a return after a four-month absence.

One thing I never quite appreciated about Buster is how little he features in the US Transformers comic after the early stories. Literally, on returning the Matrix to Optimus at the end of the story Prime Time (published in the US in early 1986) Buster vanishes for the best part of two and a half years, only appearing once in that time, in the infamous Buster Witwicky and the Car Wash of Doom story. In the UK he would appear in this story, Devastation Derby and Second Generation, as well as the 1985 and 1986 Christmas issues.

Robot Buster opens with Prime advancing on Repair Bay 2 within the Ark, irked that his engineer Wheeljack is not working on the ship’s propulsion and Chief Medical Officer Ratchet is not focused on repairing those injured in the Dinobot Hunt. They had better have a good reason for neglecting their duties.

When he gets there, he discovers what has preoccupied his team – it’s Buster Witwicky sitting in the cockpit of a Transformer-sized robotic suit (this being before the 1986 Transformers Movie introduced us to the concept of the exo-suit). Buster is delighted and Wheeljack and Ratchet suggest the body could provide Buster with protection in the event of a Decepticon attack.

Prime blows his top – he can forgive Buster’s foolishness on grounds of his youth and inexperience (that parental view again) – but his warriors must have “lost their minds” to think it is acceptable to expose a human to danger in this way. The suit will be destroyed. Buster hits back, reminding that he kept the Matrix safe and saved Prime’s ass during the events of the Matrix saga. Then he utters the memorable phrase of whole story, “You stink Prime”. Ratchet and Wheeljack recoil in visuals that look like somebody may indeed have let off a stinker. It’s quite a moment.

Buster storms off to a human-sized bedroom that the Autobots have provided for him in the Ark, as Ratchet and Wheeljack agree to dismantle the suit in the morning. However, that night Buster is feeling back about the outburst and resolves to demonstrate the suit’s worth to Prime. He uses its flying capabilities to travel to the abandoned former Decepticon base, Fortress Sinister, where, as coincidence would have it, Shockwave and Frenzy are carrying out a salvage operation.

I always enjoy Decepticon inter dynamics – very few of them are friends, more like colleagues joined together by fear and adherence to a common cause and code. In this case Frenzy takes pleasure in thinking that Shockwave is terrified by the prospect of Megatron’s rumoured return and is destroying anything the former leader had a hand in just to feel better. It’s a very emotional reaction for the normally logical and emotionless Shockwave. As revealed in the previous story, the Decepticons are currently in a makeshift base, we don’t know where. It would have made sense to regroup at Fortress Sinister. As they have abandoned the place, I wonder why the US army isn’t crawling all over the castle to learn what they can about the alien invaders in their country.

Buster sneaks up on Frenzy, reasoning that he’s one of the least powerful Decepticons and could be taken prisoner. That would really demonstrate his usefulness to the Autobot cause. A powerful plasma bolt takes the Decepticon down, but not for long. Frenzy retaliates by unleashing his sonic power and threatening to make Buster suffer a horrible death. By total fluke, Buster activates the suit’s ability to jam Frenzy’s broadcast and play it back at him (via an echo cell). Frenzy is beaten but Buster realises he is out of his depth and got lucky, he needs to go before he runs into one of the more powerful Decepticons. Sure enough, part one ends on the cliff-hanger of the Decepticons leader arriving and noting that, while humans are usually beneath his notice, Buster has earned his right to “die at the hands” of Shockwave! (or should that be hand?!

Geoff senior does a great job with the cover of issue #59 and its striking how similar Buster’s seating pose and the helmet look reminiscent of Professor Morris’ robot-control technology from The Icarus Theory story. Buster does look exposed though as an opponent is likely to aim straight for the glass that shields him. There’s a Human Who’s Who feature on the back cover which includes prominent persons who have appeared in the story to date, arranged as friends/allies and enemies/antagonists. Soundwave stars in the Robo Capers strip blasting the Marvel staff for the printing error in issue #51 – it was a matter that preoccupied the previous week’s Transformation page. I can only assume the readers have been writing in about it.

In part two, Buster flees Shockwave, setting falling rocks against his pursuers and engulfing him in fire, but to no avail. A phone call to the Autobots would be a good idea about now, so we must assume this isn’t an option, perhaps a result of damage from the encounter with Frenzy. As Shockwave – who Kitson depicts with a ridiculously oversized head throughout the issue – closes in for the kill, Buster throws a fist full of sand in the Decepticon leader’s single eye. This exposes a weakness – his eye – that we’ve not seen before. It inflicts a temporary blindness and causes Shockwave to shoot at random, allowing Buster to make a run for it.

There’s an interesting flashback from Shockwave’s perspective, a resurfacing of suppressed trauma of his being buried beneath rock (following his pre-historic battle with the Dinobots) and then cast into the swamp by Optimus Prime. In the US continuity he returned almost straight away, but in the UK we had a period where Soundwave became interim leader in the absence of Shockwave and Megatron. This requires more explanation about how Shockwave escaped his murky fate, which Furman provides here, describing how ‘days or months’ passed before Shockwave was able to get a foothold on solid ground. Seeing as he’s 30 feet or so tall, that must be one deep swamp!

Buster has done well to make it to sunrise. Shockwave tears up a mountain in his search, until finally the two are face to face. Buster channels all power into one blast – inflicting pain on both. Shockwave falls but the exo-suit is a smoking wreck. Buster climbs out of the cockpit, only to be seized by Shockwave’s gigantic hand. As he prepares to crush the life out of the youth, Optimus Prime and the Autobots arrive with weapons trained on Shockwave. Prime offer him a logical choice – release Buster and he can go free.

Shockwave accepts, leaving with the obligatory threats about their next encounter. As Buster jokingly resigns from Autobot frontline duty, we see Shockwave contemplating how he can exploit the Autobots’ fondness for Buster to the Decepticons’ advantage.

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Dinobot Hunt

One of the most eagerly anticipated Simon Furman stories of the early Marvel UK Transformers. The Dinobots have reverted to primal states – their brains addled by millions of years spent in a tar pit. It’s up to the Autobots to bring them in before they unleash havoc, but the Decepticons are determined to exploit the situation for maximum advantage.

Bob Budiansky said that one of the challenges he faced as the writer of the American Transformers comic was the constant requirement to introduce new characters. This was to ensure the comic kept pace with Hasbro’s ever-expanding toy line – but with only 12 monthly issues per year it inevitably meant that characters would be introduced and then vanish for long periods (the Constructicons for example).

The Dinobots were criminally under-used in the US comic for two years after their introduction. However, this created an opportunity for Simon Furman to utilise them in the weekly UK Transformers comic without conflicting with anything Bob was doing. So, in 1985/6 we had the Wrath of Guardian/Grimlock, Dinobot Hunt, Victory and In the National Interest.

Dinobot Hunt, published in February 1986 (with Will Simpson and Barry Kitson alternating on the art), was our first meaty Dinobot story. It follows on from The Icarus Theory which reintroduced Swoop and alerted the Autobots to the fact that the Dinobots had reverted to their baser instincts. Optimus Prime declared that their top priority was now to track down and subdue the Dinobots before human lives were lost.

Issue #47 kicks off the hunt in the Nevada Black Rock desert where three human soldiers venture into a sandstorm to investigate giant spikes protruding from the ground. These solar collectors are attached the missing Dinobot Snarl, who is submerged in the sand. One of the men uses a laser saw (standard issue for the US army in the 80s?) and tries to cut into a spike. The predicable result is that the sleeping Dinobot roars into life and attacks the humans. They are saved only by the arrival of Mirage, Brawn and Trailbreaker.

In flashback, we see Optimus Prime and Prowl briefing the hunter teams of situation and their targets – Grimlock, whose jaws that can cut an opponent in two; Snarl, whose strength increases ten-fold in sunlight; Slag, fast, ferocious and fire-breathing; and Sludge, deadly in water.

Snarl’s vision appears to be severely pixelated. Whether this is due to his condition is unclear, but if not then he really should go to Specsavers. He makes out the three enemy forms and charges, injuring Mirage before escaping into the storm. Prowl, who is coordinating via a shuttle, tracks the Dinobot heading west – where he runs into a secret military base (literally), taking out the fence and coming under heavy fire.

General Carl Thompson, commanding, finds the alarms a welcome relief from the boredom. On seeing Snarl, he realises that “only a nuclear strike” will do – this sounds incredibly like ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’, but their weapon alters molecular structure and in this case is useful for making Snarl revert to his robot mode and collapse.

Simpson does a solid job on the art, but it’s a slow start to the story. Unfortunately, neither Snarl or the hunters get up-to much and we’re missing the involvement of the Decepticons. With Laserbeak spying on the Autobots at the end though, it’s an indication that they are about to enter the fray.

Things hot up in the second part as we head to Little Wood, a “vast inland waterway” in Northern California. It’s popular with tourists apparently (despite looking like a midgie-filled swamp) and three newcomers have shown up today – trouble is they are Decepticons! We don’t see who until the end of the story, leading to speculation from my comic reading schoolfriends back in the day that it might be the Insecticons – no such luck. They bully a couple of locals to spill the beans about a monster sighting in the swamp, before blowing their home to bits. Harsh!

The Autobots have sent A-Team (no not that A-Team) of Gears, Cliffjumper and team leader Windcharger to track-down the Dinobot Sludge, who they think is in the area. In those pre-google days I imagine Furman having to pour over an atlas of North America to identify swamps and deserts that can feature in the story. Interestingly, according to Mr Google, only Black Rock Desert which is a real location.

Sludge is not far away, quietly munching on vegetation (his condition having turned him docile) and has been befriended by a TV reporter named Joy Meadows who eyes him as her ticket to the big time.

After some mirth with Gears getting pulled out of the swamp by Windcharger’s magnetic powers, the Autobots are confronted by the river police who are responding to all the local destruction caused by the Decepticons and decide these three robots are the culprits. It’s a nice opportunity for Cliffjumper to deploy his glass-gas gun (not seen for a long while) against one of the vessels.

The Autobots see blaster fire in a clearing and run towards it. They find poor Joy Meadows “dealt with” (though she’ll survive and return) and Sludge unconscious. The trio are cut down by a volley of fire, as Soundwave, Skywarp, and the Scavenger (yay!) reveal themselves. I’m genuinely excited to see Scavenger reappearing (although annoyingly drawn with a regular face instead of his distinctive ‘gas mask’ in one panel) as the Constructicons have been is conspicuous by their absence.

You have to wonder how Sludge made it as far as Northern California without being noticed by anyone. Or Grimlock all the way to Canada for that matter! The issue features a ‘Who’s Who’ flowchart about the Decepticons which also provides a reminder of previous stories.

From the muddy swamps of California, we’re off to Cowboy country for part 3. Slag, amusingly described in the blurb as “as mean a critter as you’ll ever come across” is causing havoc by trampling a ranch and gets pursued by hot-headed human Greg and his brother. I’m quite fond of this instalment, partly for the ridiculousness of cowboys lassoing Slag and for Jetfire showing up still wearing his Decepticon badge.

Soundwave, Skywarp and Scavanger arrive in Idaho to discover a buckled Decepticon insignia and evidence of a recent battle. They find Laserbeak in bad shape but still able to transform and deliver his report (interestingly he makes bird like noises while in robot/bird mode but can ‘speak’ while delivering playback. Perhaps it’s like Bumblebee in the Bay films being unable to speak and communicating through his radio).

Laserbeak had observed two “suicidal” human brothers on horseback pursuing Slag and one of them unloading a rifle on him at close range. The crude weapon only served to get his attention. D-Team, consisting of Jazz, Ironhide and the Decepticon defector Jetfire came to their rescue.

The bad attitude Jetfire gets from Ironhide over his Decepticon badge shows that things must be uncomfortable for him at the moment. Jazz alludes to there having been no time to perform the ‘Rite of Autobrand’ (giving him his badge) which rather pre-empts the upcoming US story Rock and Roll-out. Slag might be a triceratops, not a bull, but that’s close enough for Furman who has him ‘see red’ and charge at Ironhide. This allows Jetfire to swoop down, transform and wrestle the Dinobot to the ground.

Jazz gets Greg safely out of the way but pays the price with a fireball at close range. We’ve always known that Transformers have the ability to grow or shrink in transformation, but the rule also applies to their weaponry. We see Jazz remove a gun from a compartment in his mid-section, and it promptly enlarges to actual size. It’s a nice detail.

Jetfire got pierced by Slag’s horn, explaining the amputated badge that would later be found by Scavenger, and Laserbeak was rendered unconscious by being thrown into Slag’s maw by the Autobots. This turned Slag’s flame inwards and he overheated. Laserbeak proves himself amazingly durable.

His offer to take responsibility for the failure to apprehend Slag shows a certain honour among thieves, while Soundwave’s refusal to apportion blame is perhaps indicative of his respect for Laserbeak, loyalty towards one of his cassettes and good leadership skills (better to keep the troops on side). We learn that Soundwave hopes to set their captured and manacled Sludge against any other Dinobots they can find – and having lit a fuse they’ll sit back and watch the Autobot casualties mount. Soundwave may only be interim Decepticon leader, but he’s demonstrating a flair for exploiting the weaknesses of his enemy in order to make quick gains.

So, to the concluding part, which also happens to be Transformers UK’s landmark 50th edition. To mark the occasion readers are promised a clash between two frenzied Dinobots and the issue doesn’t disappoint.

The Decepticons have travelled to Doonstown in Canada where the last remaining Dinobot, Grimlock, is located. They rigged up a device in their captured Autobot shuttle (the one used by A-Team, who are manacled inside) to broadcast a signal to Sludge, keeping him in a fighting mad state, then set him against Grimlock. The result was explosive – the destruction of the town and C-Team also down. Bluestreak and Huffer are unconscious and a wounded Sideswipe was radioing Prime for reinforcements when the Dinobots rampaged through the shuttle.

The splash page shows the Dinobots fighting each other over a cliff. It actually looks like Grimlock would have no trouble biting Sludge’s head off, but they plunge down a scope and into a frozen lake, where Sludge is the stronger in water. Scavenger and Soundwave watch with satisfaction and Skywarp announces the arrival of Prime’s shuttle as well as the discovery of an oil rig nearby which they can plunder. All in all, a successful little mission.

As Ratchet recovers C-Team and Bumblebee scouts investigates how Sludge came to be there, it falls to Prime to engage the Dinobots and prevent them from getting out of the lake. His gun overheats and explodes in his hands. Luckily, he buys enough time for Prowl to arrive in a shuttle, electrify the hull and bail out as it hits the lake. The charge is enough to knock out Grimlock. However, Sludge recovers and turns his aggression towards Optimus.

Bumblebee using a piece of kit we haven’t seen before (a Portable Energy Tracer – PET) locates their missing shuttle, finding it cloaked. This wouldn’t be the first time Furman would use a Star Trek concept. He drags Windcharger and co. to safety before triggering Scavenger’s booby-trap and exploding the shuttle. This immediately renders Sludge unconscious. The hunt is over, but it is Soundwave who declares victory!

That’s it for Dinobots for a while, though they do return in TFUK#65 and in the scarily good 1986 Annual story ‘Victory’, which delves into their dreams while they recover in Ratchet’s medical bay. On the Transformations page we hear the buzzword for the next 50 issues – ‘Special Teams’. We’d soon find out that this meant more combiners on the way. This were heady days for young Transformers fans.

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The Icarus Theory

The Autobots have a run-in with Professor P Morris, a brilliant but embittered scientist who has invented a machine that enables him to control Transformers. The story sees the return of a character thought dead, and the emergence of a major new problem for the Autobots.

‘This man is mad. And he also has the power to control Transformers’. So declared the teaser for The Icarus Theory. It’s fair to say that if this were published now, rather than January 1986, the comic would probably be in trouble for propagating ‘negative stereotypes of mental ill health’. In fact, Morris, the main protagonist in Simon Furman’s story, is not insane he’s just obsessed with the Transformers in an unhealthy way (unlike we fans of course!). He is angry, bitter and resentful at the world because he isn’t getting any respect from his employers.

The story opens with Morris fishing at Lake Dena, a man-made reservoir with no fish (!). He thinks over events from the previous day, where he’d presented to a room of Roxxon Oil executives, setting out in breathless fashion his wild theory that G.B. Blackrock is controlling the ‘robots’ who recently attacked his plants. These well publicised incidents were merely a cover to throw others off the scent, he claims. However, with funding Morris can take control of the Transformers.

The cigar smoking Mister Hemmings has heard enough (strangely enough all the rest of the execs are smoking too which is another 80s anachronism). Hemmings calls Morris a crackpot and throws him out. The professor is desperate to prove himself and get even, and an object he snags in the lake may be the answer.

In another flashback we see Morris seated in a chair with various equipment attached to his body. He is using the apparatus to control a robot that is beating the crap out of a dummy, which helps to relieve his frustrations at the recent turn of events.

Five days later, at the Ark, Optimus Prime checks in on Bumblebee, who is recovering under Ratchet’s auspices and both have apologies to make over the mini-Autobot’s capture by the Decepticons. The scene is pleasant enough but doesn’t serve much purpose, other than perhaps to point out that everyone has the capacity for error (whether we’re supposed to relate this to Morris, I’m not sure). Prime has also been drawn in a weirdly overdramatic pose by Kitson as he’s walking down the corridor. I imagine he’d have got some funny looks from the other Autobots strolling around like that!

In the skies above Oregon we see the tip of a plane’s nose, or is it a beak, with an Autobot insignia. Most fans will have clicked immediately who this Transformer was. Morris controls it and sees the world below, he’s enjoying the sensation of flight. However, a security guard hears sounds coming from the lab and stumbles across Morris. The guard, being a massive dick, points a gun in the professor’s face and suggests he Morris gives him a little hush money if he wants to avoid being ruined.

It’s strange, because the professor could surely could have come up with a perfectly plausible excuse for why he is working on the equipment (after all he was hired to work on it). I’m not sure why would the guard automatically assume he’s up to no good. However, Morris is enraged by the blackmail attempt and before he can stop himself the robot under his control strikes the guard with a huge claw, killing him! Morris didn’t mean for this to happen and considers turning himself in, then resolves to see his mission through. He might need his flying robot to do a spot of body disposal (perhaps at the lake with no fish).

Later, at the Ark, in a scene reminiscent of Crisis of Command part 2, Huffer detects an airborne Transformer signal heading their way. It’s apparently too small to be a Decepticon seeker jet and too big for Laserbeak or Buzzsaw. The Autobots take-up defensive positions outside. Suddenly two rockets fly in, clouding the area with a ton of dust. Moments later their attacker shows himself – it is the missing Dinobot Swoop! If you guessed it, well done.

This issue has fact files on Cosmos and Beachcomber (two characters due to be introduced in TFUK#66) and a mini-Autobots poster. A kid called Kevin Wootton has created a pretty good drawing of Soundwave on computer which takes up half of the letters page. With only two letters this is one of the shortest in a while.

Following the big reveal, part 2 begins with a tale of two beings – Swoop and Morris. Swoop had flown “too close to the sun” we’re told (actually it was the exploding Guardian) and had plunged into Lake Dena. Morris, who was trapped in the prison of his life, had created a machine that set him free – he found Swoop and a way to fly.

Now he’s using the Dinobot (who appears heat scarred but still deadly) to attack the Autobots. He flies Trailbreaker into a rockface but Hound blinds Swoop momentarily. Morris covers his human eyes in reflex. The Autobots pile on Swoop but he breaks free.

Prime tries a different tack. Standing firm, he orders Swoop to transform and halt. A fury stirs within and Swoop, who appears to be getting his mind back. He takes to the air and the Autobots follow on the ground, tracking him by radar. Prime reveals an interesting vignette, of how Swoop had been Divebomb, a member of the Elite Flying Corps on Cybertron, and had despised his authority. It’s no doubt meant to be a throw-away piece of back story from Furman but would require a remedy around a year later when the Predacon Divebomb was released by Hasbro. The result would be ‘What’s in a Name?’, a story in the 1987 annual which reveals how the Predacon and Swoop fought for the use of the Divebomb name. Here’s a spoiler – Swoop lost.

Meanwhile, Swoop transforms and puts a blaster to Morris’ head. The professor pleads for mercy, saying he had no idea the Transformers were living beings, but then concedes that he killed a man and deserves whatever punishment Swoop is about to dish out.  

When the Autobots arrive, Swoop brings the professor out, who confesses his sins to Optimus while comparing himself to Icarus who flew with wings made of wax (why he would assume alien robots know the story of Icarus, I don’t know). Prime declares that human justice must decide what happens to Morris – he must turn himself in after he has destroyed the machine. Then comes a twist. Swoop goes vacant before attacking Ratchet, transforming and going berserk again! Morris protests that it is not his doing, and Prime agrees. Nevertheless, they can use the mind control device to bring the attack to an end.

Back at HQ, Ratchet diagnoses Swoop as suffering from corrosion brought about by the millions of years he spent buried in tar. This has caused him to revert to a primal state, and if anything, Morris’ device probably stopped it happening sooner. Prime is aghast – he knows that out there are four more Dinobots, probably also succumbed to madness and who are now a threat to any human life they encounter. There is only one thing for it, they must find the Dinobots without delay!

In conclusion, it’s an okay story which is not too spectacular but is elevated somewhat by the return of Swoop (though most will have guessed before the big reveal) and the mouth-watering prospect of the Autobots versus the Dinobots in conclusion. However, it’s really just a prelude for the main event starting in issue #47 and which takes us to the comic’s exciting half centenary milestone.

One final thought: did Morris stumble upon Swoop by accident in Lake Dena? It looks that way, but the editorial makes it clear there are no fish in the lake, so Morris had to be looking for something else. Although it’s not stated, it’s likely he had a means of tracking down Transformers, which also explains how he knew to attack the Ark.

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Dis-integrated Circuits

Autobots, Decepticons and now Humans! Josie Beller ‘transforms’ from paralysed victim of Shockwave to a robot-busting avenger known as Circuit Breaker! Unfortunately, her wrath is not reserved only for the Decepticons. It’s Dis-integrated Circuits, by Bob Budiansky.

After a four-week interlude of homegrown material, the Transformers UK comic returned to another run of reprinting stories from its US parent. Bob Budiansky continues on writing duties, accompanied by artist and one hit wonder Mike Manley (this being his only outing on Transformers).

There’s been quite a bit of build up to this issue on both sides of the pond. In the earlier story ‘The Worse of Two Evils’, Bob went to pains to put a human face on Shockwave’s attack on the oil drilling platform. We were introduced the industrialist GB Blackrock (owner of the platform) and his brilliant young engineering talent, Josie Beller. Ultimately, she got fried during the attack and has been in her boss’s private hospital ever since – severely paralysed but using the equipment he provided to plot her next move. Blackrock received a second kick in the proverbials when his aerospace plant was taken over by the Decepticons. It is now their new base.

At last its time for Bob to show us where he’s been going with these characters. Transformers has always been about humanity alongside Transformers and Bob’s stories more than most, so it’s perhaps inevitable that we would eventually see a human on equal terms to the giant robots (arguably two, if we consider Buster Witwicky who now holds the power of the Creation Matrix). As this is a Marvel publication, we shouldn’t be surprised to see a superhero/villain feature.

The story begins at Blackrock’s racetrack (yes, he owns a racetrack too!) where’s he interrupted five minutes before the end of the session. He’s not happy but it’s due to the arrival of General Capshaw of the US military. He’s heard about Blackrock’s intention to unveil a new “weapon” capable of destroying Transformers, and feels it will needlessly publicise the robot presence. The army want to avoid this until it can work out who is responsible for the Transformer menace (they assume it’s an enemy nation).

Blackrock is a bit of dick at this point. He’s testy with his staff and not used to hearing no for an answer. He gives Capshaw short shrift and explains he has shareholders to keep happy – and the giant robots have been bad for business. Oddly, considering he got out of the car dripping in sweat, Blackrock puts his suit on while he talks to the general! We know he’s got a tight schedule but surely there’s time for a shower? Particularly as his next port of call is to the hospital where Josie is being looked after. She shows him a flying device she has created which becomes airborne by using electro-magnetics to repel from metal objects. Blackrock is impressed but he gets a bad vibe about Josie’s obsession with getting back to work and helping in his fight against the Transformers.

Sadly, the two pages where the Autobots make their re-entrance and another page have been mis-coloured in the UK version (the page above is from the US comic). I’m vaguely aware that colouring is achieved by transposing the primary colours over each other and I suspect that those pages one of the three are missing. It’s a shame because this is a big moment – the Autobots once again in the land of the living and back as a fighting force. All had seemed lost only a few weeks earlier. That said, things are not back to normal. The presence of Optimus Prime’s headless body is a reminder to all that their leader is a prisoner of the Decepticons, and they cannot rest until he has been recovered.

The matter of how the Autobots can function without a securing fuel is explained on page seven – they are using the limited supplies very considerately left behind by the Decepticons. In the US version of page 7 Ratchet refers to himself as being in command. In the UK the words have been changed to “and no matter who’s in command”. I suspect the explanation is that, in the next story, Prowl is established as stand-in leader. Perhaps the UK team just felt it was less confusing to leave out the mention of Ratchet commanding.

It’s apparent that Jazz is going to feature as a main character in the story. He’s the only one not to transform on command (because he’s listening to Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’). His radio picks up a news item of Blackrock boasting about his anti-robot weapon. Jazz wants to educate him that not all Transformers are the enemy and thinks an alliance would solve the Autobots ongoing fuel needs. In return they can offer Blackrock protection from the Decepticons. It’s a good plan and Prowl gives permission, providing Wheeljack accompanies Jazz.

Over at the aerospace plant Starscream informs Commander Shockwave that the Autobots are free and have regained the Ark – all because of the “incompetence” of the “fool Megatron”. Shockwave is surprisingly nonchalant. This should be a massive disaster for the Decepticons and his leadership – they had utterly defeated the Autobots and now the situation is reversed, and their mortal enemy has been allowed to recover. They even left a handy fuel reserve behind.

Perhaps it is a sign of Shockwave’s preoccupation with his grand plan of creating a new Decepticon army, but he dismisses the Autobot threat, saying they are unwilling to take the fuel the need through misguided ethics. And he calculates that Megatron will not return to be defeated by him again. This hubris is astounding in one so calculating and logical.

Frenzy having a tantrum in reaction to Blackrock’s public threats is good fun – also the ruthless way Buzzsaw instinctively understands his commander’s wish and silences Frenzy by slicing the metal he holds into ribbons. Next time Buzzsaw will aim for Frenzy’s body! Gulp! Interestingly, the mini-Decepticon’s emotionally-charged response is completely the opposite that of his boss. Shockwave dismisses human threats as too trivial to be concerned about, however he agrees to Starscream’s suggestion that destroying the weapon would be a good way to exercise the troops and a bit of mayhem at Blackrock’s expense is no bad thing. Also enjoyable is Starscream’s treacherous thoughts of stealing the weapon to use against Shockwave. It’s this type of thing that makes the Decepticon camp much more entertaining to read about.

For the first time, US readers are shown the six brain modules which Shockwave has nurtured and Prime’s mind has breathed life into (thanks to the last vestiges of the Creation Matrix in his mind), and for the first time we see how small a Transformer brain is, fitting on to the top of Shockwave’s finger (incidentally here they are round, whereas they were drawn as larger boxes in the last UK issue).

The rest of the Matrix is of course in the mind of Buster Witwicky who is growing in his understanding of it. While failing miserably to fill in for his father (recovering in hospital from a Transformer induced heart attack) he suddenly sees the faulty engine with total clarity and is able to reassemble it using the power of his mind (now that’s using the Force!).

Elsewhere, Blackrock is working late at this office penthouse. He takes a call from the Josie Beller’s doctors saying the patient has escaped via a fifth storey window. At that moment a shadowy figure enters the building, disabling security cameras on the way. She flies up several floors and strips off her coat to reveal her body sans clothing and coated in circuitry – Josie Beller has become Circuit Breaker!

In part two, Beller reveals that while she wears the Circuit Breaker costume she is no longer paralysed. What’s more she can assess computer files and reprogram them with a thought (such as Blackrock’s giant laser project). She can fly and emit powerful bursts of electricity. Blackrock is awed by her abilities but has no wish to involve her further in his private battle. He orders her to go back to the hospital, but she refuses and walks out.

The next day Blackrock is back at his racetrack dodging the media. Jazz, in Porsche mode forces him inside and speeds off – he already has proven credentials as a kidnapper (see Man of Iron) and attempts to explain to a very confused GB that he is looking to partner-up against the Decepticons. The police give chase and Jazz crashes through a barrier, plunging over a cliff. He transforms and catches Blackrock as they fall. A Decepticon would have let him bounce, he explains. Despite this odd way to start a partnership, it seems they have a deal.

Later, Blackrock unveils his huge anti-robot cannon (with Jazz and Wheeljack parked discretely nearby). The weapon is a dud and fizzles out. There’s raucous laughter and further humiliation for Blackrock. As Circuit Breaker steps up, she reveals she sabotaged the gun and now Blackrock will have to unveil her as his secret weapon.

Suddenly, Starscream and Frenzy attack. Jazz transforms to defend Blackrock from Frenzy but Circuit Breaker zaps his gun and then unleashes a powerful burst of electricity against him! Blackrock pleads with her that Jazz is one of the good guys. Wheeljack blasts Frenzy with his magnetic weapon that causes vehicles to attract on to the Decepticon’s body and encase him. It’s a neat attack that makes a change from the standard laser blasts (and arguably not enough is made of Transformers’ weapons, which are distinct and personal).

Circuit Breaker attacks Starscream (possibly the one and only time in this part of the comic’s run where we see her attack a Decepticon) and majorly fries Wheeljack (after he thanks her for the helping hand – harsh). Starscream flees with the smouldering Frenzy, and Blackrock pleads for the lives of his Autobot friends. Circuit Breaker destroys the target the canon was supposed to obliterate and then flounces off. She won’t allow any loyalty to Blackrock to get in the way next time.

In summary, it’s an issue of mixed fortunes for the Autobots. They have a powerful ally and a source of fuel at last, but a new adversary too. Readers will find Circuit Breaker pretty infuriating in upcoming stories while she keeps attacking the good guys. Ironically, she has become the very thing she seeks to destroy: a cold, unfeeling machine!

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