The Wrath of Grimlock

As Ratchet labours to reactivate the fallen Autobots, there’s a rogue battle droid on the loose, stuffed full of explosives, and the Dinobots are about to blow him to bits! It’s the second part of the Wrath story from Simon Furman and drawn by Barry Kitson.

There’s a sense of counting down to disaster which kicks in right at the off in Transformers UK #32 (published 26 October 1985). When we last left the Dinobots they had Guardian at their mercy (the ‘rouge’ battle droid as the narrative misspells it). Trouble is, if Grimlock pulls the trigger he’ll detonate the thermo nuclear charge and wipe out the Ark and everyone in it and probably the whole mountainside too!

Conveniently (for the drama) if not the protagonists, communications are down in that part of the Ark. So being unable to raise the alarm, Wheeljack does the next best thing by using remote control to commandeer the headless body of Optimus Prime and seize Grimlock’s arm. This is a nice surprise because when Ratchet ran into Prime last issue, it seemed like his body was incidental to the plot and merely reminding readers of Prime’s current predicament. Just like last issue where Grimlock’s head was drawn at the size of Ratchet’s chest, Kitson’s got the dimensions wrong again, with Prime towering over Grimlock.

The Dinobots go from being pumped-up aggressive to finding Grimlock’s helpless situation rather funny. While larking around they forget that Guardian is down but not out and he’s able to engage power reserves and punch his way loose. Prime and Grimlock are physically separated, with the Dinobot leader suffering a severed hand. He’s in a foul mood by now and later, once Ratchet reconnects the hand, he tests it by punching the medic in the face! As last week’s teaser pre-empted, it’s the ‘Wrath of Grimlock and look who’s on the receiving end’.

Ratchet dismisses the assault as a case of the terminal sulks. There are more important things to worry about like repairing the other Autobots, starting with Windcharger as his magnetic abilities were so useful against Guardian the last time around. Though Grimlock’s attitude is dismissed, its an early indication of the Dinobots being loose canons in future.

As Guardian recharges we get a flashback to Soundwave and Shockwave referring to the nuclear charge as a failsafe should Megatron or the Autobots return. I wonder if this means they also saw the TV footage of Megatron’s ski-slope battle with the Dinobots. Rather than send a search party for Megatron, Shockwave seems to be content to think he was either destroyed or has gone AWOL. Guardian calculates that, with fourteen Autobots active, the odds are now against him and therefore he activates his detonation sequence… one hundred seconds and counting! He seeks out the largest concentration of the enemy, which as it turns out is quite handy.

As Ratchet puts the final touches to Swoop, with Grimlock looking over his shoulder. Guardian bursts in and attacks. The Dinobots lay waste to him and Grimlock bites his arm – not so much an eye for an eye than an arm for an arm. Windcharger is denied another moment of glory, as Swoop revives, attempts to shoot Guardian and blows a hole in the roof, after Ratchet throws his aim off. Hearing that Guardian is packed with explosives, Swoop transforms into pteranadon mode and flies Guardian outside. He reaches a decent height and distance and he lets go only to get caught up in the blast as Guardian explodes!

I like how Furman is able to revisit the opening narrative about so much being possible in so few seconds, but in Swoop’s case not quite enough. He saved the Ark but apparently paid the ultimate price (chances are that most readers will expect him to return at some point, as nobody ever really dies in comics – well except Guardian, he looks toast). In epilogue, the Autobots hold a memorial service for Swoop and afterwards the Dinobots leave to go their own way. We wonder what will become of them. Ratchet is able to complete repairs on all but one of his fallen comrades (Sunstreaker being the unlucky one) and in a hospital bed Josie Beller, now reborn as Circuit Breaker, is preparing to undo all of his hard work!

In summary, it’s an ending to the saga of the Autobots being dead/captive which began with The Last Stand some months ago. It’s a moment of tragedy and optimism. Things are back to approaching the status quo, with Autobot and Decepticon armies back in situ, except with obvious absence of Optimus Prime from the Autobot ranks. That’s a big loose end for them to tie up!

On the Soundwaves page the mystery of why Shockwave’s toy is not available in the UK is solved. In response to a letter from Paul Sherwood of Loughborough, we’re told Shockwave forbid Hasbro from making a toy replica because they could not possibly capture his true greatness! There’s also a welcome Factfile on Inferno – a character who will not feature for another two and a half years.

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The Wrath of Guardian

Ratchet and the Dinobots reclaim the Ark, only to run into a Guardian unit who’s been reprogrammed to kill anything wearing an Autobot badge. It’s a classic Transformers UK early years story from Simon Furman.

The Dinobots ‘no more mister nice guys’ teases the front cover strip of Transformers UK #31 (from October 1985), alongside with artwork of Snarl, Slag, Sludge and Grimlock looking like they mean business – and usually, they are depicted in their robot modes. Unless I’m mistaken this could be Will Simpson’s artist debut (one of my favourites).

The Wrath of Guardian picks up directly from where the previous issue left off, with the Dinobots arriving at the Ark to find Guardian cradling the battered body of their team-mate Swoop. It’s a strong return for Guardian, who despite looking menacing in UK issues #19 and #20 was largely wasted as a threat. This time he’s back as a more formidable foe and ready to give the comic’s new stars a run for their money. Plus, Swoop’s treatment at Guardian’s hands has given them a powerful motivation for revenge!

Even at this point Swoop is showing an unlucky streak. He was the first to be cast into the tar pit, the one who fell victim to Guardian and there is more to come.

This story and the next are actually a standard two parter but are regarded as two stories due their separate titles. Once again Simon Furman has found a way to weave a tale from the loose threads of the US storyline (the main canon) and Wrath of Guardian really gives added value. In the US, following the destruction of Megatron in Repeat Performance, the Ark had been reclaimed and the Autobots reactivated by the next issue. UK readers got to find out what happened in between and more importantly to see the hugely popular Dinobots in action (in the US comic they vanished until Command Performances in July 1986, and even then as a cameo appearance. I’ve always said that the US got the better deal where the toys were concerned and Brits did better out of the comics (enjoying a weekly not a monthly).

And so to this instalment. It begins with the five ton powerhouse,  Guardian, an Autobot omega class battle droid now reprogrammed by the Decepticons to kill any Autobots who try to enter the Ark! Swoop was the first to feel those clunking great fists and now it’s the other turn of his Dinobot comrades, who launch a four-against one attack. Just a thought, if Transformers have battle droids, why not fight the war through these proxies rather than endangering themselves?

Guardian holds his own, even swinging Snarl by the tail to knock down the others. Ratchet knows brute force won’t be enough, but if he can just fire a beam down a recharging port on Guardian’s neck – which he does, and sends the droid into overload and retreating into the Ark.

Up till now relations between Ratchet and the Dinobots have been congenial, with the team regarding him as a guide and mentor in this new environment. However, we get a glimpse of what will become long standing tensions between the Dinobots and the Autobots as Ratchet insists that Swoop will have to wait his turn for repairs. He says its because others must take precedence but there’s probably also an element of Swoop having ignored warnings and been foolhardy in flying ahead to the Ark and having brought his current predicament on himself.

In the meantime, the four Dinobots can help by tracking down Guardian. Ratchet enters the deserted Ark and finds Optimus Prime’s headless body standing there. It’s all a bit creepy – Prime’s head now safely away in the Decepticon’s captured aerospace plant – and oddly enough Prime has two arms. In the battle where he fell (The Last Stand) Optimus lost his forearm to a blast from Megatron’s fusion canon. This seems to been conveniently forgotten, or if not then the Decepticons repaired Prime’s arm for some reason.

At the Decepticon base Shockwave has succeeded in accessing the Creation Matrix programme in Prime’s mind to give life to six Decepticon brain modules (more from them in the upcoming story The Next Best Thing to Being There). Soon the group will have bodies and become the first of a new generation of warriors born on Earth. Little does Shockwave realise that Prime has transferred the rest of Matrix to Buster Witwicky, leaving only these vestiges that have now been used up. We’re then shown Buster Witwicky toiling over his dismantled stereo. He has an attack of headache and discovers the stereo fixed and playing Springsteen (not Brick Springhorn thank goodness – a little joke for a later story).

Ratchet has reactivated several Autobots including Wheeljack who is losing concentration. Prowl tells him feeling “sluggish and disconnected” is an after effect of their long period offline. I like that Furman has put some thought into this and the Autobots would take some time to warm up. The reason for the Autobots being offline, let’s not forget, is that they donated all their remaining power to Prime and four others, so we have to assume that the Decepticons had left some fuel at the Ark that Ratchet is using to recharge (as well as repair) them.

Guardian is not the smartest. He thinks he’s sneaking up on the Dinobots but they are aware and turn around hit him with their energo swords while Sludge opens fire. They prepare to finish him. Trouble is, as Wheeljack has discovered, Guardian is a walking bomb – he’s been booby-trapped full of explosives by the Decepticons and the Dinobots, in taking him out, could blow Mount St Hillary off the face of the Earth!

It’s a solid cliff-hanger to end on and the issue also features an unexpected treat in the form of a fact file on Bombshell. Robo Capers, Matt and the Cat and Machine Man – now reawakened in a futuristic looking 2020 – provide the back-up strips.

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Decepticon Dambusters

The Dinobots encounter human life for the first time, and it doesn’t go well! Ratchet decides to tell them a story of when the Autobots saved ungrateful townsfolk from a Decepticon attack on their dam, in this comic adaptation of a cartoon classic.

In the 1980s the Transformers were a global toy phenomenon first and foremost but also a hugely successful Sunbow cartoon and Marvel comic. Aside from adhering to a common origin story and character profiles, the cartoons and comics then went in completely different directions.

Both would develop the characters and introduce new ones in their own ways. To my mind the comics were more tightly woven and coherent but there are others who will argue for the cartoon being the official canon. Transformers the Movie in 1986 was something of an exception. It was such a massive event that the UK comic embraced it into its timeline, while the US comic continued its policy of ignoring the cartoons (with one notable exception being the awful 1988 story ‘The Big Broadcast of 2006’, so bad it makes me shudder to think of it.

Decepticon Dambusters is something of a rarity as it incorporates a storyline from a cartoon episode (More Than Meets The Eye part 2). It’s top and tailed by current events in the form of a story told to the Dinobots by Ratchet. This is only Simon Furman’s third Transformers story for Marvel UK and follows on from seven weeks of major US stories. By comparison it feels a little underwhelming and personally I find the top and tailed events more interesting that the main segment, which is basically a reinterpretation of a cartoon story I’ve (and most readers at the time) was already familiar with.

The story opens in bar where the TV news is showing scenes of Megatron’s battle with the Dinobots in a ski resort (in last issue’s story Repeat Performance). One grumpy patron wants the “rubbish” turned off. He’s far from convinced by claims of a giant robot invasion and steps out into the night… only to be confronted in the parking lot by Grimlock! Artist John Stokes draws the Dinobot leader, probably the closest to his toy form as I’ve seen in the comic, though smaller than he ought to be.

The incredulous bar-goer runs face-first into the leg of another Dinobot. All in all the team isn’t very impressed with their first specimen of carbon-based life and are not quite sure how this is the dominant lifeform. The man runs towards an approaching ambulance thinking he’s saved, only for it to transform into an apologetic Ratchet. Seconds later he’s running for his life in the opposite direction!

As the Dinobots continue their long march back to the Ark, Ratchet attempts to explain the complicated relationship between the Autobots and humanity. He flashes back to the early days of the Transformers war on Earth when Megatron was still Decepticon leader and their base was Fortress Sinister. The Autobots had been “monitoring” the base, whatever that means. It’s hard to imagine that a listening device would not have been detected by Soundwave as it transmitted.

The Decepticon are interested in Sherman Dam and in particular forcing water through it to generate an electrical surge that they could harness as a crude fuel substitute. Megatron blasts his way into the control centre (the ceilings are high enough for him to fit inside, luckily) and reveals that he is the reason the dam is about to burst – or rather Rumble is. He’s on the riverbed using his pile drivers to generate a tidal wave.

The Autobots assembled, led by Optimus Prime. Hound was dispatched into the water while Prime and Megatron engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Both leaders revealed an ability to substitute their hand for a weapon, in Megatron’s case a ball and chain, while Prime wields an axe. Starscream leads a bunch of anonymous looking Decepticons in a counter attack while other non-descripts are loading energon cubes into Thundercracker under Soundwave’s supervision. Again, who were these foot soldiers? The first part ends on not so much a cliff hanger but a fall – as Prime (distracted by Hound being propelled out of the water by Rumble’s powerful piledriver arms) is sent flying over the dam by Megatron!

The conclusion is billed as a ‘tidal wave of terror’ on the cover to TFUK#30. Furman has got his dams confused and now refers to it as Boulder Dam (rather than Sherman). Prime survives his plunge and is quickly fished out, but Megatron transforms to gun mode and blows the dam wide open. Prowl leads Jazz, Mirage, Ironhide, Bumblebee and Sideswipe to the human settlement below, while the other Autobots collapse rocks and carve out trenches with their blasters in order to halt the coming tsunami. Bumblebee, despite being ordered to leave with Prowl, is present with Optimus (and gets swept away by the water) and on the following page he’s back with Prowl’s group again. This is sloppy stuff and makes me wonder whether the story was rushed, or perhaps writer or artist felt a bit half hearted about it (like this reader).

Ironhide outruns the coming water with Bumblebee in the back blasting a trench in the road behind. Finally, the water calms down leaving no more than ankle deep flooding. They’ve saved the town but residents have heard that giant robots were responsible for destroying the dam and they turn their anger on the Autobots. Mirage has an outburst but Prime orders him to control himself. Optimus decided they had best leave, and so all the hard work had gained no appreciation – only more hate.

And so, back to current events. We see Josie Beller/Circuit Breaker with her arm coated in circuitry and thirsting for revenge, and GB Blackrock examining a huge laser gun that he plans to deploy against the Transformers. In my favourite scene in the story, Swoop flies ahead to Mount St Hillary, eager to see the mountain again after four million years; it is after all the nearest thing the Transformers have to a home on Earth. Ratchet is worried – there could be Decepticons guarding the Ark. Grimlock reassures him about Swoop: he can look after himself, he’s fast and real strong… famous last words, they arrive to Swoop having been battered by the huge muscle-bound menace that is Guardian!

In closing, many wonder where Decepticon Dambusters actually fits into continuity. This is finally mentioned in TFUK#63’s Robot War round-up. We’re told it happened right after the Transformers returned from searching for the Man of Iron in England. So that means that Sparkplug’s time as a Decepticon prisoner lasted much longer than we thought. Even worse the Autobots had taken their sweet time about rescuing him.

Another thought, how come Ratchet and the Dinobots are walking to the Ark anyway? What happened to the shuttle craft he used to travel to Antarctica and presumably back?

Stokes’ art gives the sense of this being a throwback to the early days as we’ve got Ironhide and others drawn true to their toys rather than their better-established cartoon forms. Last time Guardian had been squandered as a character as he was easily defeated by Windcharger and Ravage but now he’s back, having been reprogrammed to target and destroy anyone wearing an Autobot badge and it looks like he means business. From the largely irrelevant flashback to the dam we’re now back in the thick of the action the stage is set for an epic showdown next issue.

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Repeat Performance!

Transformers UK celebrates one year in print by going weekly and full colour! In the main story, Ratchet journeys to the Savage Land to locate the Dinobots and hopes they can assist him in defeating Megatron.

Issue #27 of the Marvel UK Transformers comic heralds some big changes for the book. After a successful 12 months as a fortnightly publication the team has taken the major step of going weekly. This reflects the growing confidence in the title (it would quickly become Marvel UK’s flagship) but also in the team’s abilities to generate the flow of home-grown material that will now be needed with even more issues to fill in between reprinting the American stories. I’m sure the presence of Simon Furman on the UK team will have encouraged them to think a weekly could work.

For now, Simon has a bit of breathing space while the UK comic runs the Marvel US story ‘Repeat Performace!’ by Bob Budiansky and artist William Johnson in its issues #27 and #28. It begins in one of the most improbable places, a hidden pocket of prehistoric jungle on the continent of Antarctica. I remember being aware of the Savage Land from other Marvel comics but I didn’t quite appreciate at the time that Antarctica is actually a frozen waste land and certainly not a place where lifeforms dependent on a hot climate would last very long.

For those who are interested, the explanation for the Savage Land is that it was created by technologically advanced aliens who set up game reserves on a number of worlds in order to observe the evolution of the wildlife. The Savage Land was one such reserve, and even though it has long been abandoned by the alien observers, the technology which maintains the tropical climate in the zone continues to function. So there we are. Incidentally this will be the last time that Transformers and the wider Marvel universe continue to co-exist. After this it isn’t stated that they are separate but in practice those paths never cross.

The story opens with Ratchet navigate swampland atop his M.A.R.B (Mobile Autobot Repair Bay). He’s forced to use a surgical weapon on a huge snake which attaches itself to his neck. Under normal circumstances the ever curious Ratchet would pause to learn more about this tubular life form (just as he was fascinated by a log fire last issue) but he has work to do. Cue a flashback to his discovery of the Autobots laying deactivated and captive in the Ark and Prime’s words that he must learn to think like a warrior. He bought himself time by striking a bargain with Megatron that he will defeat Shockwave for him in return for reclaiming the Ark. But the possibility of betrayal is high.

Shockwave travels to the Ark to check in on Megatron. I like that, walking computer that he is, Shockwave has calculated the odds of having to terminate his rival for insubordination. So far, he’s adjusting well to “taking orders not giving them” and has prepared Optimus Prime’s head for transport as instructed. As we’ll soon see, Prime’s head will be relocating to the recently captured aerospace plant where Shockwave intends to manufacture the next generation of Decepticon warriors.

Ratchet, meanwhile, detects Transformers life signals in a tar pit and uses a power hose to unearth the Dinobot Slag in unexpectedly quick time. He taps into Slag’s memory banks with the MARB and finally we’re privy to the origin of the Dinobots (and their fateful encounter with Shockwave). The account is narrated by Slag in a gruff but coherent way (he certainly doesn’t sound like the dumb dino of the Transformers cartoon).

Readers had been led to believe that the Ark and all aboard where rendered inoperative when the ship crashed into Mount St Hilary four million years ago. Apparently not. The ship still functioned, but rather than repair the fallen Autobots it had dispatched a probe to the Savage Land to spy on Shockwave and then revived five Autobots to take him on. They had been invested with the ability to change into dinosaurs in order to blend in. Oddly the Ark was able to recognise ‘organic life’ (dinosaurs) in this case, but when it reactivated again in 1984 it ignored humans and animals and instead mistook vehicles, planes and machines as the planet’s life forms!

So, we see the Dinobots tackle Shockwave, five against one. He is repels them all, sending them crashing down a cliff alongside the tar pit where Ratchet now is. Shockwave had cast Swoop into the tar, causing him to sink – “a bad way to go” Slag says – and Snarl brought down the cliff with a swish of his powerful tail. The result was the Dinobots falling into the tar and Shockwave getting buried under tons of rubble. The Decepticon would eventually be reawakened by the probe Ratchet dispatched in the original mini-series. The rest is history as they say. Annoyingly Nel Yomtov has coloured Shockwave in white and blue, obviously confusing him with Megatron which is all a bit amateur hour.

In a nice moment, Slag revives and charges at Ratchet, but the doc peels back tar to reveal his Autobot insignia. Slag transforms for a proper introduction, and on hearing that Shockwave lives again, he’s determined to finish the job.

Part 2 begins with GB Blackrock and the military speaking to reporters outside his imprisoned aerospace plant. Shockwave soars overhead in robot mode carrying equipment that looks like a tank but could well be a container of some sort carrying the head of Optimus Prime. He opens fire on the military and makes short work of them. Further humiliation for Blackrock who really should stop doing these media engagements.

Elsewhere, his paralysed employee Josie Beller has succeeded in coating her right arm in circuitry. For some reason the words ‘she cannot move of lift it on her own’ have been substituted in the UK version with ‘moving it causes her great pain’. She’ll feature again on the last page, tooled up and ready to ‘check out’ from the hospital, but only in the US version of the story. The UK reprint will substitute that half page for a fact file on Snarl (it being a month before we’ll see Josie Beller reborn as Circuit Breaker).

Megatron is ruing the day he allowed Ratchet to go free. He’s sure he’s fled like a coward and the attack on Shockwave won’t happen, despite his obligations under Cybertronian custom. But then Ratchet gets in touch with images of Shockwave being brought down. Little does Megatron realise that this is old footage from Slag’s memories, and even though it would be startlingly simple to contact Shockwave and check whether he’s still around or not, amazingly he does not and believes he’s been shown a genuine take-down.

The stage is set for one of the greatest Ratchet moments in the comic. He is confronted by Megatron on a snow-coated mountain (skiers fleeing in fright) and told by the Decepticon that he never had any intention of upholding their bargain (quell surprise). Megatron goes on to mock Ratchet as failed warrior – he should have found a way to fight his enemy not trust him, he says – but suddenly the Dinobots rise from under the snow and the tables are turned. I think on some level Megatron is actually impressed.

He’s quickly attacked by the Dinobots, but their time in the tar pit has dulled their effectiveness and they are easily repelled. It falls to Ratchet to remember Optimus Prime’s words and prove himself as a warrior. He charges Megatron, hoping to carry them both over a cliff to their doom. Megatron absorbs the impact and is set to grant Ratchet an honourable death, when the ground beneath him crumbles and he falls hundreds of feet, transforming and shrinking into his gun mode until he is swallowed up by the snow (he’s gone, but obviously not for good – we’ll see him again in TFUK #51). The way is now clear for Ratchet and the Dinobots to reclaim the Ark and revive the fallen Autobots.

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Warrior School

Ratchet is the last Autobot standing and must learn to become a warrior if he is to survive and rescue his comrades. Meanwhile the Decepticons continue to target installations owned by GB Blackrock and the UK comic announces some exciting changes going forwards.

Warrior School. 35 years after it was first published it remains in my mind one of the standout stories of the original Marvel G1 and one I have an abiding affection for. Essentially it is a coming of age story – Chief Medical Officer Ratchet stepping out his comfort zone in a major way and learning the ways of the warrior. His stepping up to the plate shows real, genuine courage and is an example to all of us, young impressionable readers as we were at the time. The scale of his challenge is enormous, and the stakes incredibly high. This is a classic success against impossible odds story that great comics (and fiction generally) are made of and, together with the second instalment ‘Repeat Performance’ cements Ratchet’s reputation and standing as a major character in Transformers.

I can still remember stepping out of my local newsagent with a copy of TFUK#26 in my eager 11-year-old hands, being blown away by the usual 11 page story being increased to an incredible 23 pages. And the full-page announcement on page 30 that the comic is celebrating its first year in print by GOING WEEKLY and full colour was tremendous news! Of course, it would mean having to swallow a 3p increase, but in view of what we were getting in I considered this to be no hardship.

Once again, it’s Bob Budiansky writing the script (as he would until US issue #55) and joined on the art by a new credit, William Johnson. He had worked on a bunch of Marvel superhero titles but would only illustrate this Transformers story and the next. I wondered why and his entry in TFWiki provides a clue. It mentions a comment Budiansky made to a fansite, that Johnson was “a very nice guy with a lot of talent” but struggled to meet the deadlines of a monthly comic book. So perhaps that was the reason for his short association, but his art on Warrior School is emotive and enjoyable.

The story begins in the woods near the Ark, with a romantic narration of “the sweet scent of Douglas Fir and a dome of stars in the indigo sky” – I wondered whether Budiansky was a fan of camping? Four college students are around a camp fire when a falling tree causes them to scatter. The cause of the interruption is the Autobot Ratchet, who had collided with the “brown pipe” while looking for the road. Buster Witwicky, his teenage friend and ally is on Ratchet’s shoulder and is happy to interpret for the young people. He knows from experience that a giant talking robot can be a difficult concept to come to terms with.

Ratchet is fascinated by the concept of burning wood to generate fire (there’s nothing like it on Cybertron) and demonstrates how his laser scalpel can cook hotdogs more efficiently. The gentle way Ratchet interacts with humanity is a real contrast to what we’re used to seeing from the Decepticons at this time. When Buster recoils in sudden, inexplicable pain we’re reminded that Optimus Prime did something to him when the pair were mind-linked recently.

It’s agreed that the students will take Buster home and Ratchet is reminded that he has more important problems. Never a truer word spoken, he is the last Autobot and the burden of stopping the Decepticons rests entirely on his shoulders. The encounter with the students was an enjoyable distraction but he can’t put off his responsibilities much longer.

‘Hey, what about GB Blackrock?’ I hear nobody ask. Well, he’s about to become possibly the unluckiest CEO in America as first his oil drilling platform was annexed by the Decepticons and now his aerospace plant is in the crosshairs too. In a slapstick moment, two workers, Gabe and Ferdy stop to claim an abandoned cassette deck that’s been left in the parking lot, then proceed to walk it passed the wall mounted gun defences. It is of course the Decepticon Soundwave, who transforms and bursts out of the locker in which he’s been placed. It’s obviously a room with very high ceilings as Soundwave is able to stand at full height while ejecting Laserbeak skywarps to assist in putting down any resistance. The plant was clearly unprepared for an attack from within and quickly falls. Blackrock is crestfallen and humiliated, particularly as Soundwave has been broadcasting the footage far and wide. Clearly some good PR for the Decepticons to advertise their menace and that they have hostages.

We’re briefly shown Blackrock visiting his paralysed employee Josie Beller and delivering equipment she asked for. Josie has use of one arm and hints to the reader that she is determined to take her revenge. This is clearly a developing situation and she and Blackrock are being established as ongoing characters. I’m a little indifferent to them at this point.

And so to the main events of the issue. Ratchet has sneaked into the Ark and finds it deserted. The Decepticons are elsewhere at their temporary new base, the Blackrock rig, and Commander Shockwave has left Megatron on Ark guard duty. Ratchet is horrified to discover the Autobots all inoperative and suspended from the ceiling like some macabre nightmare. He then finds the head of Optimus Prime descends into despair – could everything be lost?

Amazingly Prime speaks, uttering one of the truly memorable lines: “Put aside your grief Ratchet, now is time for valour”. He explains that the Decepticons intend to extract the Matrix from him and he has taken steps to thwart them (clearly in reference to Buster). But just as Ratchet trained to be a medic on Cybertron, on Earth he must become a warrior and use his guile and cunning to find a way to defeat Megatron. His own survival will be his ultimate test. All well and good but Prime is surely placing unrealistic expectations on his Chief Medical Officer here – there is no way Ratchet can best Megatron in one-to-one combat and to put himself in that position is surely suicidal.

There’s an interlude where Buster is joined at his dad’s repair shop by friends Jessie and ‘O’. He’s under a lot of stress, worrying about his dad, the Autobots and keeping the family business going when he knows next to nothing about repairing cars. He snaps at his friends, causing them to leave. In O’s case this will be permanent as this issue turns out to be his last appearance. No sooner is he alone, Buster feels the pains again the various tools around him start levitating! Interesting.

Ratchet goes looking for Megatron (you immediately know this is a bad idea) and fails to notice the Decepticon ex-leader sneaking up. Megatron’s giant hand grasps Ratchet’s shoulder and partially crushes it. He wants to add the medic to his “collection of scrapped Autobots” and will alleviate the boredom by taking his time over it! Ratchet punches Megatron as hard as he can and zaps him with his hold and cold medical tools but to no effect. With brute force not an option, he will need to outsmart Megatron. And so, Ratchet offers to help Megatron regain his command by locating the Dinobots and setting them against Shockwave. In return Megatron will hand back custody of the Ark to Ratchet.

Megatron treats the readers to a brief history of his rivalry. On Cybertron Shockwave had been supreme Decepticon military operations officer and the strategist who had plotted their ambush of the Ark. Shockwave had stayed behind on the Decepticon ship as a back-up. Megatron perceived this as self-serving and was already making plans to destroy this rival.

We then learn (through Megatron’s continuing narration) that Shockwave travelled to Earth to investigate the disappearance of the Ark (which had collided with the planet) and the radiation belt effected his navigation systems, causing him to touch down in timeless region of Antarctica where dinosaurs still roamed (Marvel Comics’ Savage Land). The Ark had revived five Autobots and gave them the dinosaur alt-modes, and the team had battled Shockwave. It is not known what happened next or why they or Shockwave disappeared for four million years.

While helpful for the readers, I’m unclear as to how Megatron has learned about the Dinobots. It’s unlikely Shockwave has revealed anything more to him, so perhaps Megatron has accessed the Ark’s databanks similar to Ratchet did some issues ago?

He agrees to Ratchet’s suggestion – mainly to provide an amusing distraction, rather than an expectation of success – and the two seal the deal by contributing fuel to beaker and setting it alight. We’re told this is an ancient Cybertron ritual and no about has broken such a pact. Megatron, of course, is no Autobot! And so, the stage is set for the dramatic debut of the Dinobots. With the sequel arriving in just seven (not 14) days these were exciting times for the UK Transformers comic.

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The New Order

There’s nothing quite so nostalgic as revisiting your first Transformers issue – and in my case it was TFUK #23. It was August 1985 and I’d been getting into TF in a big way thanks to the Sunbow cartoon series which was airing as part of the school holiday kids programmes. Aged 11, my routine at the time was to accompany my mum food shopping on a Tuesday and spend the afternoon at my gran’s. On this occasion I wandered along to her local shop and spotted issue #23 on the shelf.

I was immediately struck by the cover – Buster surrounded by dead Autobots (and a couple of erroneously inserted Decepticons) and his immortal line “the Autobots strung up like slabs of beef… but where’s Optimus?”. Where indeed? On eagerly reading the story and discovering Prime’s fate (more on that shortly) I was both dumbstruck and blown away. The comic was darker and serious than the cartoon and had done something I totally didn’t expect, by having the Decepticons seemingly win the Transformers civil war! Chief Medical Officer Ratchet and 17-year-old Buster was the Autobots’ last hope against the powerful Decepticon army – a real David v Golliath contest! How could I not pick up the subsequent issues to see how this played out?

So, first a bit of context. Transformers was initially envisaged as a four issue, bi-monthly mini-series in the States. Marvel were obviously content with the sales as they gave a green light for the title to continue as a monthly ongoing concern, starting at #5. Bob Budiansky, the comic’s editor took over the writing cudgels for an incredible 50 more issues. So, in a sense, the story’s title, The New Order represented more than just the events in the comic strip. It was mirrored in real life too.

In the UK we’d been left on tenterhooks for seven months, waiting to find out what would happen next after Shockwave showed up and blasted the Autobots, decisively ending the war and leaving himself the last Transformer standing!

The UK comic has received an overhaul for issue #22 and now carries an introductory page called Transformation and a new letters page hosted by Soundwave. We’re also given some major hints about the impending debut (or should that be return) of The Dinobots!

The cover for TFUK#22 (which is reprint of TFUS#5) is utterly iconic. It features the victorious Shockwave, gun arm smouldering and the words The Transformers Are All Dead burned into the wall. Need I say more? It sets the scene nicely for the story, which begins with the coldly logical Shockwave studying human TV and media and concluding that Earth’s dominant species are “more primitive” than he thought. The UK version of the opening page has a scene from the sci-fi series V (where Mike Donavan learns that Earth’s visitors are really reptiles with sinister intentions!). One news item is about a state-of-the-art oil drilling platform owned by GB Blackrock. This piques Shockwave’s interest.

He strolls through a large room to where a number of Decepticons are undergoing repairs, passing through a chamber with the Autobots are hanging from the ceiling like meat. It’s another chillingly iconic image (courtesy of artist Alan Kupperberg) that illustrates how bad the situation is for the heroic forces. We then find Megatron manacled to a wall, healing from the terrible internal injuries he sustained from Sparkplug’s poisonous fuel.

Although Megatron thinks he can resume command of the Decepticons, Shockwave has other ideas. His logical mind reasons that Megatron’s leadership is faulty – it almost led to the total defeat of the Decpticons and worse still, he had been tricked by a lowly human! The logical conclusion is that new leadership is called for, and Shockwave will provide it! Poor Megatron, he’s furious but too weak to do anything about it. He will have to accept the humiliation for now. However, to prove his point Shockwave executes a deactivated Autobot with his gun arm (though the colouring is all wrong, it’s generally thought that this unlucky bot is Sunstreaker – who is too damaged to be fixed for a long time).

The story continues in TFUK#23. It’s time to head over to the hospital where Sparkplug Witwicky is recovering from a mild heart attack. Here, Ratchet is returning from being abducted by paramedics who thought he was a regular ambulance. At this point Ratchet is blissfully unaware of events at the Ark or that he is now the last Autobot standing!

Buster tells him about the corrosive fuel. Ratchet is delighted but finds it odd that he’s unable to raise anyone at HQ via internal radio. Buster’s offer to accompany Ratchet so as to avoid a driverless ambulance raising suspicion sounds sensible. Then again it would also look pretty suss having a teenager at the wheel of an ambulance.

In a display of the light and shade that alternates throughout the story, we get comical moments where Ratchet scares the bejesus out the hospital staff by revealing himself as a talking ambulance – and later when he’s reasoning with a traffic light. We also get Sparkplug issuing a heartfelt appeal to Buster to say his goodbyes and walk away from the Autobots and the Transformer war is too dangerous to be involved in.

Back at the Ark, Megatron tries unsuccessfully to tease details from Shockwave as to where he’s been for the past four million years. His defensiveness tells Megatron that there could be something here that he can use against Shockwave when the time comes. The new commander is happy to reveal his current plans, however. He thinks 11 Decepticons are insufficient to conquer Earth and its resources, so he will tap into the mysterious Creation Matrix that is housed in the mind of Optimus Prime, and use it to create a new generation of Decepticon warriors. The Autobots are to serve as a supply of spare parts!

Ratchet and Buster park up a distance from the Ark and find Rumble and Frenzy standing guard. Ratchet will not be able to sneak past undetected but Buster can. The youth discovers the shocking fate of the Autobots but Prime is not among them – surely he survived? Moments later Buster finds the Autobot leader’s dismembered head. It speaks and pleads for help… Buster is the Autobots’ last hope!

In summary, the story has been a long time coming but, wow, it’s certainly been worth the wait. I can think of no time before or after when things have been quite so bleak for the Autobots – their fate literally lies in the hands of a teenage boy and an Autobot who is not even a warrior. How can they succeed against impossible odds? It’s a great set up for a story and even though the Autobots are removed the picture (with the obvious exception of Ratchet) there’s no loss of tension that the simmering situation between Megatron and the usurper Shockwave.

A Robot War feature in TFUK#22 updates readers on the story so far and explains how the recent UK prequels fit into the current timeline.

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The Last Stand

The conclusion of the original four issue mini-series sees things looking bleak for the heroic forces. Their mortal enemies the Decepticons are refuelled and poised to deliver a fatal blow. It will fall to five champions to mount the “Autobots’ Last Stand”.

That iconic Last Stand cover

This story was published in November/December 1984 in the UK well ahead of its March release in the US (the latter being a bi-monthly title at this stage but relaunching as a monthly from issue #5). After a slow start the action really picked up with last issue’s Spider-Man guest appearance (surprisingly good fun) and things get series in this instalment as we head to one of Transformers’ most shocking endings.

Previously, Gears regained consciousness – having nearly died rescuing Sparkplug from the Decepticon base – only to shock the Autobots by revealing that Megatron had ‘got what he wanted from the human’. In other words, Sparkplug had betrayed them by assisting the enemy to convert Earth fuels for their consumption. The flagging and under-powered Autobots now face the prospect of annihilation at the hands of an enemy at full strength.

What’s fascinating is how emotionally the Autobots respond to the news, albeit they are tired, battle-weary and dejected at this point, but there’s no machine-like detachment or cool assessment. Huffer leads the charge, branding Sparkplug a traitor to the cause and hints at retribution. Bluestreak is ready to abandon the Earth to the Decepticons, and willing to publicly disagree with Optimus Prime. The idea that humans are innocent in this war and must be protected, with Autobot lives if necessary, is Prime’s mantra but it seems that some in his ranks have major reservations.

The sensible course of action at this point would be to park the ill-feeling and set Sparkplug to work replicating his fuel conversion process before the inevitable Decepticon attack comes. But as ever, fate is no friend of the Autobots, and Sparkplug collapses with a suspected heart attack while fleeing the ‘ugly’ mood in the Ark (not at all helped by the shock of being met with a wall of flame, erected by Jazz).

Ratchet reverts to ambulance mode and whisks Sparkplug away to a hospital, accompanied by Buster. Prime hopes the human ‘can be repaired’, which is a nice reminder that Transformers still find organic life very alien.

We see Buster’s pal ‘O’ for the penultimate time before the writers give up on him altogether. His bar-owning father has got hold of an Optimus Prime suit to drum-up trade (some manufacturer obviously sees the alien invasion as a business opportunity!) and the interlude is a reminder of the impact of the Transformers’ arrival on the wider population. People are worried and starting to leave town. A fully re-powered Megatron amps up the tension by stepping out for his HQ to absorb a barrage of firepower from the US army. He laughs it off and strolls back inside, undamaged. Whilst a devastating demonstration of his strength, it’s hard to imagine a more sensible or calculating leader like Shockwave or Soundwave acting this recklessly – i.e. risking damage ahead of an impending major battle with the Autobots.

If readers had been wondering how the Decepticons repair their injured, we get to see the answer. It turns out they have a team of robot medics attending to the task (Reflector?). They’ve never been seen before and will disappear again hereafter, but not before Starscream adds himself to their damage list by overstepping the line and criticising Megatron for allowing Sparkplug to escape. He feels the fury of Megatron’s fusion cannon, but as usual he had a point and Megatron dispatches the loyal Ravage to spy on the Autobot base and report back.

Seeds are laid here for the continuation of the Transformers US comic beyond the initial four issue run. Optimus is informed of an incident from the Ark’s memory banks. Shortly after the ship crash-landed on Earth, with all aboard rendered unconscious, the Decepticon Shockwave showed up in Antarctica searching for his missing comrades. He touched down in a pocket of preserved prehistoric jungle, known to Marvel readers as the Savage Land. The Ark’s used rebuilt five Autobots and invested them with dinosaur alt modes; they were of course the Dinobots: Snarl, Grimlock, Swoop, Sludge and Slag. The team confronted Shockwave in the Savage Land but what happened next is unknown. Ratchet had earlier dispatched probe to investigate. Even from this glimpse its apparent that the Dinobots are exciting characters and this bodes well for future stories.

Some may wonder why Prime had not set his best scientific minds, like Wheeljack, to the existential task of developing a fuel conversion. Instead they relied on a car mechanic, and with Sparkplug now in hospital fighting for life it’s time for a plan B; and what an exciting development it is. Every Autobot (with the exception of absent Ratchet) transfers their remaining fuel to champions and are rendered inoperative. It falls to Optimus Prime, Huffer, Bluestreak, Ironhide and Mirage to make a final stand against the combined might of the Decepticon army! What an exciting conclusion to the mini-series in prospect, and as we will see, the writers still have a couple of twists up their sleeves.

Mirage’s inclusion in the line-up is suspect. All the evidence to date is that he is weak in battle and with a questionable commitment to the Autobot cause. It may be for his ability to generate illusions and deceive the enemy, which he deploys to good effect against Laserbeak and Buzzsaw. Retreating into the Ark (surely unforgivable when others have given their fuel for you to fight) Mirage has another encounter with Ravage and his attempt to appeal to his opponent’s better nature results in the loss of an arm. Finally Mirage wises up, picks up his gun and blasts Ravage – better late than never!

Megatron and Prime face off. During their earlier battle in the Witwickly junk yard, Optimus was able to absorb a blast from Megatron’s fusion cannon at short range – this time a blast from the weapon is enough to sever or mangle the Autobot leader’s right arm.

Elsewhere Sparkplug is in a dream state, remembering the trauma of his time as a North Korean prisoner of war, of 30 years earlier. He survived thanks to his talent for repairing vehicles, which the enemy found useful. However Sparkplug had sabotaged their fuel and brakes, before being rescued, and it appears that history is about to repeat itself. Sure enough, as Megatron holds Prime aloft declares victory, the Decepticons fall in agony as their poisoned fuel takes affect at the most opportune moment.

Amazingly, against all odds the Autobots have prevailed… or have they. In The Complete Works Part 2 reprint, the story ended here, on a happy note. However, the official canon has is one more twist in store. The probe dispatched to the Savage Land inadvertently reactivated Shockwave, who now arrives in his giant space-gun mode and blasts the weakened Autobots into unconsciousness! Transforming to robot mode, he reflects that after four million years his mission is complete… the Autobots are no more!

The shocking ending of the first Transformers mini-series is sure to have produced a gasp!

In summary, what a fantastic issue. It’s a brave move by the team to conclude the series on such a cliff-hanger but it’s a great way to ensure the readers come back for the launch of the monthly comic, starting from April 1985. Of course in the UK readers would be waiting SEVEN months to find out what happened next! They would have to come up with 18 issues of original stories and somehow fit these into the established story.

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