Hot Rod is ordered to guard the Ark from Decepticon attack but can’t resist leaving his post when he sees Kup under attack from the Stunticons
At the end of March 2020, as the UK went into lockdown, and have some unexpected time on my hands due to no longer commuting for 1.5 hours a day, I embarked on this project to re-read and review all of my classic 1980s and 90s Transformers comics. It’s been a lot of fun, I might say a blast from the past and I’ve been struck by how good those stories still are despite the passage of time. A year and two weeks later, I’ve reached the end of 1987 with Ark Duty… a story from the Transformers Annual of that year.
Somewhat unusually there are none of the usual credits, so it’s difficult to be sure who the production team is. I would hazard a guess though that its a Simon Furman story with Will Simpson on art duties; I’m pretty sure its his style. This seven page story is a nice, compact little tale, which fills in some of the gaps between the then ‘present day’ (1980s) era and the Transformers the Movie set up.
It defies the usual Furman practice of setting future stories exactly 20 years on from the publication date by being set in 2003. Ultra Magnus is now the Autobot commander on Earth (no explanation is given for Optimus Prime’s absence, but we might assume that he’s on Cybertron’s moons at this put overseeing the operation to retake the homeworld) and plans have been drawn up to build Autobot City Earth. Obviously in the Movie, which is set in 2005/6 depending on whether you follow cartoon or comic continuity, the city is built.
We open with Magnus in the Ark showing the gathered Autobots a video simulation of how Autobot City will be able to withstand and repel a Decepticon attack. Magnus alludes to the fact that the Ark contains many valuable secrets that cannot be allowed to fall into Decepticon hands – this is intriguing as we have no idea what these secrets may be. My feeling it’s something in the Ark/Auntie’s data banks. He also speaks of the Autobots having been given land and all the materials they need by Earth’s governments, which rather suggests that humanity has finally accepted the Autobots as their protectors. It’s taken a while. I wonder if even Circuit Breaker has stopped attacking Autobots and is targeting Decepticons at last by 2003?
Magnus explains that all Autobots will take part in the convoy to collect the materials they need for the city, except for Hot Rod, Kup and Blurr. Oddly enough the trio are not Targetmasters, despite becoming bonded to Nebulans over the course of 1987, and the Ark is still embedded in the side of Mount St Hillary, that’s despite it being repaired and returned to orbit in the main Transformers strip by the end of the year. This begs the question of whether Ark Duty is in the same continuity as the regular comic. It’s likely that its in the Transformers Movie alternate reality. For anyone who doesn’t know what I mean, the Transformers comic departed from the Movie future by having Unicron show up and attack Cybertron in 1991 and not 2005/6. This pretty much cast the Movie into a different reality to the comic stories.
The Decepticon spy Ravage observes from the wings, his electro-magnetic shield ensuring that he remains undetected. When Magnus reveals that Kup will deliver a top secret data tape to the human authorities, Ravage determines to steal it and tasks the Stunticons with intercepting the Autobot old timer. (It’s great to see the under-used Stunticons again).
Kup made a point of ordered Hot Rod to guard the Ark and not to leave under any circumstances. Blurr is uttering dialogue similar to his lines in the Movie (“positively absolutely certain” sounding like his “absolutely positively definitely”) but unlike the Movie which Blurr is something of a novelty character and quite fun, here he’s just plain annoying. When Hot Rod sees Kup getting roughed up by Motormaster and his crew on screen, he wastes no time in defying orders and setting out after his colleague.
After checking Kup is okay, he takes off after the Stunticon convoy to retrieve the stolen tape. Hot Rod doesn’t stick around to allow Kup to tell him something important, namely that the tape is a fake and they wanted the Decepticons to steal it. Hot Rod catches up with the Stunticons and challenges them. Shortly after, Kup arrives and finds Hot Rod beaten up and left bruised and battered at the roadside.
He explains the plan and thanks Hot Rod for making it seem all the more convincing. Now they will be left alone to build the city as the Decepticons will believe they know its secrets, he says. The obvious flaw in the logic is that the Decepticons will surely know that the Autobots are aware that their plans have been stolen and are likely to change the plans. Hot Rod apologises and insists he will stay in the Ark next time, but Kup somehow doubts it. They hobble off together into the sunset.
I liked this story overall because it bridges the divide between the present day 80s set-up and the Autobots we see in the Transformers Movie. It’s also a welcome to see Ravage back to his cunning best (he hasn’t been seen since he disappeared down a mine shaft of course) and the Stunticons are rarely used, compared to other special teams. The dynamic between Hot Rod and Kup is established by this point. They are polar opposites but true friends.
Now its time to fast forward from 2003 to January 2008 and a post-Movie showdown on the Planet of Junk between Death’s Head, Cyclonus and Scourge.
Skids returns in a heart-warming ‘robot meets girl’ story with flashes of The Terminator and High Noon thrown in for fun. Can he be the first Autobot to successfully ‘check out’ from the Transformers war?
Showdown! was published in Marvel UK’s weekly Transformers comic in two instalments cover dated August 1986. The tendency was to release the comic about a week before the actual date stated on the cover. I know this, as my copy of issue #72 – with the brilliant Ravage close-up by Geoff Senior – took some battle damage from an apple crumble I made in Home Economics (cookery) class and transported home in the same rucksack. That was on the last week of school in late July, and sadly the comic still bears the scars 34 years later!
The story is from the US team, and is written as brilliantly as ever by Bob Budiansky with art from Herbe Trimpe (who also provides the Skids vs Megatron cover for the second instalment). As mentioned in the intro, it’s a mixed bag of themes – part love story, part facing up to responsibilities, and it’s also a chase thriller. Skids, Charlene and Donny are relentlessly pursued by Ravage and (in Skids’ case) by an unhinged sports car driver.
While not exactly slow, it is a more sedate story than Bob’s recent work which has included the epic Return to Cybertron saga and action-packed Command Performances. Some may not take to it as a result, but for this reviewer Showdown! is one of my favourites, mostly for the core relationship between Skids and Charlene.
Skids is a likeable character, particularly for his curiosity. That was evident from the petrol station comedy scene in Rock and Roll Out, and for me he stood out as the best of the new bunch of Autobots introduced in that story. It’s great to see Skids strike out on his own here, and be given a spotlight in a comic that is getting pretty crowded for characters by this point.
Bob specialises in grounding his Transformers stories with human characters and interactions. He does it well and constantly, so perhaps exploring a romance between a human and a Transformer was inevitable at some point. It’s tastefully done, avoiding suggestions of anything sexual for the most part, with the notable exception of Charlene in hotpants ‘pleasuring’ Skids by polishing his hubcaps!
The story is also a final outing for Ravage. I’m not sure if it was ever Bob’s intention to write him out permanently, but with a constant supply of new characters to be introduced he never got around to bringing Ravage back (though he would reappear courtesy of the UK stories – in issue 200!).
Geoff Senior’s cover, Ravage ripping up Robot Master’s cape with his jaws, sets up the story nicely. The Decepticon jaguar is swiftly crossing the Wyoming wilderness ‘like a midnight breeze’ in pursuit of the escaped Donny Finkleberg, who the Decepticons were using to put out anti-Autobot propaganda, but who legged it last issue.
Not too far ahead, Donny is still wearing the ridiculous Robot Master costume but stumbles across a small camp that is luckily unoccupied at this moment. Even better, there’s spare clothes that he can change into. He leaves money and buries the orange costume. He must contact the Autobots as soon as possible to warn them of Decepticon reinforcements coming over the Space Bridge. Ironically, in his haste to find an Autobot he passes by the injured Autobot Skids, who after toppling from a cliff remains helpless.
Ravage reaches the small camp site, and after incinerating it with a fire blast, checks the debris – there is no seared flesh or charred bones, and no fleshling!! Here it becomes apparent that Ravage’s mission is not to recapture Donny, but to eliminate him – presumably this in order to stop him spilling the beans about the Robot Master hoax but perhaps also for professional pride, after all this human dared to give Ravage the slip and this humiliation must be avenged.
In a small town several miles away, a checkout woman called Charlene is missing her old car. She would often use it to get away from the hum-drum of life. Her co-worker and admirer, Wendell, can see she is down and offers to take her for a drive after work, which she gratefully accepts. Charlene’s thirst for adventure leads the pair to head towards an old gold mine. They encounter the injured Skids, who despite being incapable of speaking, manages to put his radio on to get some attention. It’s like something Bumblebee would do in the Bay films years later.
Charlene assumes the van to be abandoned and is keen to claim it and get it roadworthy again. Money could be a problem, but luckily Wendell’s cousin is a mechanic (and presumably a sucker for a pretty girl with a hard luck story as he does the work for free). I assumed Wendell was a surname, but since his cousin also calls him it, perhaps it’s an unusual first name?
Whatever, in no time the familiar Honda van is fixed in the workshop. A contented Skids stays silent, he finds the idea of being Charlene’s car quite interesting and certainly a lot safer than being part of the never-ending Transformers civil war. As he’s leaving the garage with Charlene, trouble appears in the shape of our old friend Jake Dalrymple (of the pink Lamborghini) and his long-suffering partner Frannie. Recognising Skids as the one who dented him (in issue 70), and apparently causing Skids to tumble down the mountain side wasn’t revenge enough, he takes up the tail.
Skids demonstrates that Autobots have some extraordinary abilities on the road compared to your average car, such as leaping in the air and driving along a fence (how it can support his weight I don’t know). All these things should convince Dalrymple to stay clear, but he is a determined chap it seems. He ends up colliding with a workman’s ladder and getting his beloved car covered in green paint, which serves him right.
Of course, it means that the game is up for Skids. As Charlene flees, he’s forced to transform and reveal himself. He displays holograms of Megatron and the war on Cybertron and tells her how he wants to escape that life and just be her car. In his old life had been an anthropologist, and his natural curiosity about the surroundings dovetails nicely with Charlene’s own interests. He quickly becomes the companion she’s been looking for.
Meanwhile, Donny overhears Jake and Frannie in a bar discussing Skids. He realises there’s an Autobot nearby and sets out to find him. Charlene and Skids develop their friendship over the next few days. He chats to her through the bedroom window and she educates him about the old west, with artefacts, memorabilia and her love for that age of adventure. She shows Skids her favourite film ‘High Noon’, in which the hero marshal is willing to die for what he believes in. Skids is impressed, but also uncomfortable as it’s a reminder that he is essentially an Autobot deserter and running away from his duty to fight the Decepticons.
Skids cuts a tragic figure at times, telling Charlene that his only memories are of war. She is determined to change that, and the pair set out to explore the tranquillity of the unspoilt wilderness. Poor Wendell asks if she is up for a date, but Charlene has no time for him now that she’s got Skids.
Soon enough, the outside world comes crashing in. Charlene is hosing down the ex-Autobot in her driveway when the pair are confronted by Donny (who is hilariously still wearing the borrowed clothes from earlier, even though this is several days later). Skids stays silent, letting Charlene issue denials – he doesn’t want to go back to his old life – but then Ravage attacks and he’s forced to bundle both humans aboard and take off at speed.
Ravage is hot in pursuit, deploying his fire breath, and so is Jake Dalrymple, who was checking the successful paint removal job on his Lamborghini when he Skids thundered past. Now comes the High Noon element as Skids, Donny and Charlene hide out in an old abandoned mining town. Dalrymple, who has followed them, walks up to Skids and smashes his front windscreen with a swing of his tire iron. (This guy has got a serious obsession!) Skids screams in pain, and hallucinates about Megatron holding Charlene and demanding a wild west showdown. Skids doesn’t want to fight anymore and is ripped in two by Megatron’s fusion cannon…
Thankfully, it was all a dream. Charlene is fine, but perhaps not for much longer if Skids cannot stop Ravage. The Decepticon crashes through a wooden building, knocking Skids on to his side. Jake drives his Lamborghini into the charging Decepticon, leaving him momentarily stunned. What happened here exactly? Did Jake have an attack of conscience, or was he just trying to protect his girlfriend? It buys Skids enough time to transform and accept that his fate is to be an Autobot warrior and defend the humans.
Ravage collapses a building on Skids, but he deflects the Decepticon with a piece of debris. Ravage fires a missile which hits Skids hard in the back, but as he pounces to finish him, Skids rolls clear and Ravage plunges down a deep mine shaft. Charlene is just pleased the ordeal is over, but Skids has realised that he cannot escape his fate and must return to the Autobots.
It’s a sad note to end their relationship on, but Skids reminds her that she still has Wendell. I’d like to think they ended up happily ever after, but if Charlene was keen she wouldn’t have side-lined the poor guy for an Autobot. So he’ll have his work cut out. Interestingly, a speech bubble from Skids on the final page has been altered – “I’m going back with Donny, back to my people – the Autobots!” has been altered to – “When my wounds heal, I’m going back to the Autobots”.
In closing, Showdown! is a nice story and a touching, if at times sickly-sweet friendship between Skids and Charlene, with Donny providing the comedy element. With so many characters in the comic these days, it is a rare thing that two can get such a prominent show and prove quite easily that a smaller amount of characters can provide just as good a tale as an epic battle.
Omega Supreme bests Megatron and seven other Decepticons on his debut, as Optimus Prime takes the fight to the enemy by leading a full-scale assault on the Decepticon base.
Transformers US writer Bob Budiansky continues his recent run of good form with another cracker of a story, and once again it introduces a new character from the toy range – the immensely powerful Omega Supreme. As the cover to TFUS#19 proclaims “You asked for him – you got him!”. I’m not sure there was any great clamour in the UK for Omega to appear, mostly because he was not included in the truncated Hasbro toy range we had over here.
Command Performances was published in TFUK#70 and #71 in July 1986, about a month before its release in the States. Omega Supreme is talked up in the UK comic’s opener ‘Transformation’, as a “rocket and tank rolled into one giant package, making him the Autobots’ most powerful weapon”. He would certainly live up to the billing once we saw him in action. Though, as a friend of mine wryly observed back in the day, Omega Supreme suffered from “diminishing hardness”, which is to say he was unbeatable on his debut but would become more run-of-the-mill regular in subsequent appearances, culminating in his defeat by a super-powered Starscream in a much later issue.
As this one begins, every functioning Autobot is assembled outside the Ark to hear Optimus Prime unveil their newest warrior. Designed and built by Grapple to be the Ark’s last line of defence, he is Omega Supreme. There’s a reference to the previous story Rock and Roll Out where Grapple was side-lined to work on a special project for Optimus – this is it.
Prime explains that with Omega protecting the Ark, the Autobots will launch an assault on the Decepticon base in order to provoke Devastator into battle. They hope to capture his combination sequence and use it to assist in building their own combiner teams, the Aerialbots and Protectobots. Omega Supreme transforms into a huge robot that towers over a sceptical Ratchet and the others. He looks every bit the ultimate Autobot that Prowl wanted to build at the start of the year and Prime refused to sanction. To be fair Prowl was talking at the time about super soldiers to pursue an aggressive strategy of hunting down and destroying the Decepticons, while Omega’s function is defensive.
The disgruntled Dinobots, not seen in the US storyline since their debut (but recently recovered from their psychosis from the Dinobot Hunt in the UK expanded continuity), refuse to take part in the attack. In the US comic their reason is that they are fed up with being locked down in the Ark because their alt-modes are too conspicuous, and finally with some action in the offering they are pissed off to find out that the Autobots will retreat when they have secured Devastator’s codes. The UK version is less coherent, with speech bubbles doctored to have Grimlock dismissing the mission as a fool’s errand.
Prime gives the impression that this mission is a major deal and he has planned for every eventuality, including the Dinobots being difficult. Skids has his doubts about the wisdom of assaulting the no-doubt fortified Decepticon base for something they might not be able to use, in a premonition of trouble to come.
Over at the coal strip mine in Wyoming which serves as an unlikely base for the Decepticons (now under the joint leadership of Shockwave and Megatron) the Constructicons have been hard at work erecting fortifications around the rim. It’s good timing all things considered. In the US version Shockwave mentions that he ‘found and brought them back’. This begs the question of where they wandered off to. The wording is tweaked in the UK version to avoid this.
Once again, we see poor Donny Finkleberg, aka Robot Master, still wisecracking his captors but terrified that his number could be up at any minute. How he can possibly escape these giant megalomaniacs with Ravage constantly breathing down his neck?
To Shockwave, Donny is evidence of Megatron’s unfitness to command. Whereas Megatron takes a blast at the defences out of frustration at their hiding behind fortifications – Decepticons should be free to go where they please and conquer he says, illustrating the two very different leadership styles. Megatron summons Starscream and the seekers, along with Laserbeak, Buzzsaw, Rumble and Frenzy, and they go to greet their Decepticon brethren who should have arrived across the Space Bridge by now (obviously unknowing of last issue’s events).
The Autobot convoy rolls through Wyoming. They are depicted eight abreast which suggests to me a very wide road. Skids watches humans doing things like washing their cars and starts thinking how much nicer it might be to have an Earth vehicle’s life (a clue as to next issue’s plot). While daydreaming he clips a Lamborghini being driven Jake Dalrymple – a massive douche who speaks about himself in the third person, and immediate vows to get revenge on Skids (who left the scene of the accident without stopping, albeit on the orders of Optimus Prime). Jetfire causes a diversion as the Autobots smash through an army barrier to advance on the Decepticon base. Jake and his girlfriend follow and are immediate stopped by the army at gunpoint.
John Stokes’ cover of this issue depicting the Autobot attack, is then mirrored by events in the story as Prime orders his Autobots to charge the Decepticon gun turrets… with predictable results. You might think the Autobots would have spied on the Decepticon base to learn of its fortifications, rather than running blindly towards them – and what if the Decepticons were not even there, this would have been a pointless exercise?!
Megatron meanwhile discovers that the new arrivals they were expecting are not Decepticons at all – they are Autobots: Blaster and the rest of the ‘Cybertron Seven’. He’s about to order the attack, when Shockwave radios the news that the Decepticon base is under siege. Megatron realises that the Ark must be vulnerable, and they head there to capture it.
Part two, opens with Skids snared by a tentacle and a gigantic axe poised to cut him in two. Optimus frees him but takes a hit from the blade. Shockwave decides that it is time for Devastator to turn the tide of the battle. We learn that the combination sequence takes less than 30 seconds – this sounds quite slow in the heat of a battle and lends credence to the claim that the Special Teams are a technological advancement – and the giant soon appears holding a huge bolder. However, the Autobots react faster and destroy it.
Bumblebee has recorded the Constructicons’ combination sequence and with the objective secured, the Autobots retreat. Shockwave is happy to let them go, while Ravage realises that Donny Finkleberg has made a run for it. As the smoke dies down, he picks up the scent, and follows….
Megatron and the other Decepticons approach the Ark and are pleased to see just a tank and rocket booster guarding it. Their overconfidence proves their undoing. Skywarp is blown to pieces with one shot, and when the Decepticons revert to robot modes and advance, they are swiftly repelled by the intense electrical current generating from Omega’s track.
Omega Supreme transforms into his humongous robot mode – and dispatches the Decepticons one-by-one, with a series of wordy but instantly iconic phrases – “I am the guardian of the gates, the planner of your obsolescence, the number you cannot compute”. Megatron reels as his warriors are picked off and left mangled, smoking and crumpled. It is rare to see the Decepticon leader so comprehensively beaten – even his infamous Fusion Cannon has no effect on this opponent. A huge swing then takes Megatron down and he’s about to be reduced to scrap (as we learned from the full-page fact-file on Omega Supreme, he can shatter mountains and pulverise steel) – but Laserbeak swoops in and retrieves his leader. The pair disappear east.
The still satisfying results are transmitted to the Autobot convoy racing away from the Decepticon base. Skids apologises to Optimus for doubting his plan, but they are not home and dry yet. Jake Dalrymple runs out in front of Skids causing him to swerve, and Ravage seizes the opportunity to score a direct missile hit on Skids, sending him tumbling into the ravine. The Autobots cannot afford (can’t think why!) and press on.
But for this late setback Prime’s ‘command performance’ had been exemplary – Megatron’s on the other hand has not. At the Decepticon base, Shockwave is resolved to execute him for gross incompetence. A battered Megatron rises to his feet to accuse Shockwave of allowing a trap to spring up around him. The Decepticon warriors lost “mean nothing and can be replaced” (I love this line, it’s such a Decepticon thing to say – and since the advent of the Space Bridge, very true) and at least with Megatron’s actions the Autobots know that the Decepticons are ready to strike at any time. Shockwave ponders this before accepting his failure and acknowledging Megatron as the leader.
Ever since Megatron was relieved of his command and then beaten in battle by Shockwave, I always expected he would win the leadership back. However, I do have a hard time seeing how Shockwave can logically view Megatron’s approach as the better one, given that his unprepared attack ensured they took a solid beating from the Autobots and six of their warriors have ended up deactivated and put into cold storage. It’s hard to see this as anything other than abject failure.
Overall though, another solid story and very successful in toy advertisement terms, with most readers probably wanting to get Omega Supreme at the earliest opportunity after this (too bad if you lived in the UK though!). There is the first two instalments of the new back-up strip, Hercules, in which the Greek god enjoys intergalactic adventures with his robotic friend, The Recorder. It’s easily the best back-up that the UK comic would have – and a distinct improvement on Rocket Racoon which I found weird (though he’s great in the Guardians of the Galaxy films). There’s a teaser for upcoming stories (I always loved those) hinting at another Dinobot epic and the biggest, most ambitious story the comic has ever attempted. It’ll star Ultra Magnus and Galvatron and tie-in with the hotly anticipated Transformers Movie – we’ll come to know it as Target:2006. The comic feels like its going from strength to strength in this moment. Next issue – Skids versus Ravage (and Jake the douche).
Optimus Prime is suffering post-traumatic stress from his months as a prisoner of war. His followers are turning on each other and the Decepticons’ interim leader Soundwave hatches a fiendish plot to exploit their weaknesses. Marvel UK presents the exceptional Crisis of Command.
If I were to think of my top 10 all-time favourite Transformers stories, I’m certain Crisis of Command would be up there. What is it about this tale, published over three weeks in January 1986, which still strikes a chord more than 34-years later? Put simply, Crisis has all the elements of a great Transformers story. It’s a personal journey of redemption for Optimus Prime, who we see at his most vulnerable and later at his best; it’s the values of the Autobots and the cruelty of the enemy brought into sharp contrast; and its Soundwave at his magnificent cruel and calculating best.
Remarkably, Crisis is one of the few Marvel UK Transformers stories that was not written by Simon Furman. Instead, Mike Collins (of Man of Iron fame) and James Hill share the honours. The superlative Geoff Senior (my favourite TF artist of the era) debuts on the first two parts, with John Stokes illustrating the third and final instalment.
Crisis takes place in between the US story Prime Time (in which Shockwave is hurled into a swamp by Optimus Prime) and Rock and Roll Out where he reappears. As far as the American audience was aware, the Decepticons were quickly reunited with Shockwave and it was business as usual. In the UK comics however, nearly three months passed in which the Decepticons were missing both Shockwave and Megatron.
So, with Optimus restored and the enemy leaderless and outnumbered, the Autobots enter the new year with the advantage. However, that’s not how things pan out, as we soon see.
The story opens on the Ark and a heated argument between two camps of Autobots. Hawks led by Prowl argue they must use the Creation Matrix to create an army of super soldiers against the Decepticons. Jazz and fellow doves are horrified by talk of hunting down and destroying the enemy, calling it “Decepticon thinking”. This is somewhat naïve – they are at war and have been for millions of years. A continuation of the status quo would inevitably mean more lives lost, so a case can be made for the ends justifying the means. Jazz does make an important point though; how would they fuel these super warriors given they have barely enough for themselves? Prime, meanwhile, sits on a golden throne in the middle of all this, his thoughts elsewhere. As Ratchet implores him to give some guidance it is apparent that Prime’s odd behaviour at Christmas is getting worse.
Finally, he speaks, reminding the Autobots (in typical Optimus speak) that he is “not a warrior by choice”, he fights because he must. He allows Prowl to expand on his ideas and Senior does a great job in drawing the imagined giant Autobots in their full menacing majesty (looking like a cross between Omega Supreme and Sunstreaker). Prime gives the plan short shrift saying the price the Earth would pay would be cataclysmic.
His words settle the argument for now, but there is discontent and several Autobots wonder if Prime is fully himself. In the shadows the Decepticon master spy Ravage is fascinated by the prospect of the Autobots starting to doubt their leader.
We get the strongest indication that Prime is likely to be suffering from post-traumatic stress as a result of his long spell detached from his body as a helpless captive of the Decepticons. The Autobots had not hesitated in making him leader again, but Prime is having doubts whether he is still the right robot for the job. He thinks the discontent he heard suggests others are starting to doubt him too.
Ravage places a paw into the light and triggers an intruder alarm. A small nit-pick, but how are these alarms are not routinely sprung by the Autobots themselves? Ravage leaps across Prime and past Prowl and a couple of unidentified warriors – Prowl and Jazz and unified against this common enemy. Ravage fires a missile into a group of Autobots, proving that he’s able to cause serious damage despite being alone and outnumbered. However, once outside he’s deceived by a Mirage hologram and ensnared by Hound’s energy net. On a cliff high above, Laserbeak observes the capture.
And so, to the Decepticons, the other half of this crisis equation. They have regrouped at Fortress Sinister, their original base. Poor Starscream, you almost feel sorry for him. He’s craved command for so long, and with Megatron and Shockwave out of the way, this should be his moment. However, he’s easily dismissed by Soundwave (with one of the best put-downs ever) as a “missile with a mouth”. If they followed his foolhardy instincts and attacked, not knowing what forces lay in wait, they could be utterly defeated. Even Starscream’s attempt to turn the tables on Soundwave – blaming him for Ravage’s capture falls flat – as it’s revealed that this is part of a master plan.
Sure enough, Ravage uses his electromagnetic abilities to easily disrupt the force field in his cell and escape through it. The Autobots have seen his abilities before (in the encounter with Aunty) and should have known better than to leave the cell unguarded.
Fact files on new, still-to-be-introduced characters Blitzwing and Tracks, and the conclusion to the Machine Man of 2020 back-up strip, ensures a fantastic start to 1986 for the UK Transformers comic.
James Hill picks up the writer’s baton for part two. It opens with Bumblebee racing across the desert in search of the escaped Ravage. We learn, via flashback, that Bumblebee had discovered the Decepticon’s cell empty and had reported the news to Optimus Prime. He was shocked by Prime’s indecision and how he was easy prey to his deputy Prowl’s more aggressive instincts. Instead of ordering Mirage and Hound to affect the capture (as instructed) he decide to go after Ravage himself.
Bumblebee apparently possesses infrared vision. We see him use it to pick out Ravage against the arid landscape and then pursue him through a narrow canyon. What happens next is superbly executed. Hill has Prime narrate over the action as the penny drops that Ravage was captured far too-easily – he must have planned to escape all along in order to lure as many Autobots as possible into a Decepticon trap!
This is exactly what Bumblebee now stumbles into, as he’s suddenly face-to-face with eight heavily armed Decepticons. Even with their most powerful warriors absent, the Decepticons are a force to be reckoned with, especially how Senior draws them here. Forget fair play – they are more than willing gang up on a lone opponent and enjoy playing the playground bullies.
First, Bumblebee is thrown in the air by a Laserbeak missile attack, then Skywarp easily absorbs a punch the Autobot throws, before making him eat dirt. The seeds that were planted last issue come to fruition as the Soundwave reveals his sinister plan is to exchange an Autobot hostage in return for Optimus Prime. To be fair to Bumblebee, what he lacks in strength he makes up for in courage. He makes a final desperate attempt to escape, transforming to vehicle mode (and almost succeeding) until he runs into Starscream (this allows Screamer an opportunity to redeem himself in front of his comrades after last issue’s humiliation).
If the ambush was the first shock of the issue, then what follows is the second. The Ark’s sensors pick up a distress signal – it could be Bumblebee, except its airborne. The Autobots rush outside and see Laserbeak drop something. Thinking it’s a bomb, they dive for cover. There’s no explosion and as the dust clears, they are confronted with the severed arm of their missing comrade. Harsh!
Fans of Bumblebee were warned they would not enjoy this issue! However, it’s a powerful ending and ably demonstrates the ruthless and devious side of Soundwave, who is effectively accepted by the other Decepticons as acting leader from this point. He knows the Decepticons are numerically inferior to the Autobots at this point and unable to repel a full-scale attack, but if they can eliminate the Autobot leader it could be a game changer.
In the concluding part (by Mike Collins with John Stokes taking over the art) Laserbeak throws down the metaphorical gauntlet (Bumblebee’s arm) to Prime to come and rescue him alone. It’s one of the rare times Laserbeak speaks but it might be that he’s playing back a message from Soundwave. And so, the stage is set for some vintage Optimus Prime action. With the great Autobot having regained the resolve that had earlier deserted him, he announces he take up the challenge alone.
I think Prime is being a little hard on himself for blaming Bumblebee’s capture on himself. Sure, he could have seen through the charade of Ravage’s capture, but he wasn’t to know that Bumblebee would have gone after the Decepticon alone. It certainly seems incredibly foolhardy for him to go into the viper’s nest alone at this point, but it does make for great drama.
The news of Prime’s approach is music to the ears of Soundwave – and we also see Bumblebee captive but very much alive. Rumble shakes the ground from under Prime forcing him to crash and revert to robot mode. He fakes injury, luring Rumble in and the mini-Decepticon is easily beaten. The pay-off from the cover (depicting a ‘Jet Trap’) comes now as Thundercracker deafens Prime, Skywarp appears out of nowhere to blast him in the shoulder and self-proclaimed ‘leader killer’ Starscream arrives to finish the job.
But the enemy’s boasts serve to remind Prime of his greater purpose. The words of Emirate Xaaron who entrusted him with command and with stopping the Decepticons millennia ago (in the 1985 annual) come back into focus. Prime revives, punches out Skywarp and Thundercracker and then takes on the quivering Starscream. In fact, he gives Starscream a free shot before punching the wings off him (any claim he had to leading the Decepticons as Primes equal and opposite look ridiculous now).
There’s then the pay off as Soundwave is taunting Bumblebee with the reports that Optimus was defeated. “Where is your saviour now?” he asks, as Prime throws Starscream’s weapon into the room and walks in looking bruised and battered but every bit the unstoppable force. Soundwave, having been taken by surprise is easily repelled, and Laserbeak succumbs to a single punch. In Soundwave’s defence he is much more of a strategist than a fighter, tending to use his cassettes to do the dirty work. Bumblebee, jubilant, tells Prime to finish off the Decepticons. It’s either foolish, or to Prime’s credit (depending on how you look at it) that Optimus passes up the opportunity in order to get his wounded comrade back safely. One thing is for sure, the Decepticons will be back.
Later, Prime tells his men that he has considered the argument for creating super soldiers and rejected the plan. The Matrix will not be perverted. This time there though, there is no dissent, as everyone recognises that Optimus is back to his best. Ironically, he has the Decepticons to thank for snapping him out of his melancholy.
In summary, Crisis is a story about courage and the triumph of good over evil. It’s also about leadership and different examples of it. Prime took up command for selfless reasons, and his position stems from the respect of the Autobots. Soundwave earns primacy through his sense of strategy, cunning and opportunism that inspires the confidence of his comrades. Starscream fails as he basically seeks the leadership out of an overinflated opinion of himself.
Having praised Senior’s incredible job on parts one and two, Stokes also deserves plaudits for the way he conveys the emotions of the characters – Starscream’s fear, Bumblebee’s despair and relief – really well. The pay-off of Prime’s triumphant entrance into Soundwave’s lair to save the day is his best work on the title. The scene is enough to make even the most cynical fan punch the air in triumph.
What do Ronald Reagan, Roller and the Insecticons have in common? Answer, they all make their Transformers comic debut in the 1985 annual story, Plague of the Insecticons – a UK exclusive by Simon Furman with art from Mike Collins and Jeff Anderson.
Annuals are something of a tradition in the UK. Growing up in the 1980s it seemed that every popular children’s TV show or comic had one. I remember receiving the Knight Rider, Spider-Man, Metal Mickey, Roland Rat and Thundercats annuals at various Christmases, and probably more books that have since faded from memory.
These tended to hardbacked, containing text stories and comic strips (my favourites) plus puzzles, interviews and anything else they could think of. So, a real mixed bag and of varying qualities. If they were connected to an ongoing comic there was no guarantee that the stories would actually fit into any established continuity, and so it was with the first Transformers Annual, released to popular demand in the UK in late 1985.
Of the four stories, arguably only There Shall Come a Leader, a prequel, gelled with the weekly Transformers comic. The rest simply jarred. So, we had Hunted which featured Topspin and Twin Twist as part of the Ark’s crew; Missing in Action in which Tracks, Inferno, Grapple and Hoist were also part of the set-up. Though three of those would be introduced in early 1986, Inferno doesn’t make his debut until issue #188. So, these stories are mainly there to showcase new Transformer toys but not to sweat it about where they fit into the overall picture.
The Insecticon story is the biggest muddle of all. Kickback, Shrapnel and Bombshell are not due to join the Earthbound Decepticons until TFUK#89 in late 1986, and by this time Ravage is out of the picture (having disappeared down a mineshaft, so they could not appear together). On the other hand the Insecticons in the story appeared to have been hatched in a lab and perhaps they are clones of the actual Insecticons. This might explain why it is necessary for Ravage to control them remotely. Warpath’s presence is similarly problematic (he won’t join the Earth setup until after Ravage is written out and the genuine Insecticons are on Earth).
Putting that aside, Collins and Anderson have done a good job in capturing Reagan’s likeness and capturing the drama and carnage caused by the Insecticon attack. Their depiction of Warpath with his feet joined together is accurate to the toy design but in practical terms, if this is not a serious weakness in battle, I don’t know what is.
The story sets out to answer the question of why the Autobots haven’t announced their presence to humanity and forged a common alliance against the Decepticons (after all the Autobots are sworn to protect mankind from the Decepticon tyranny). The scene opens at nightfall over Washington DC, and troops sweating it out as they await the arrival of actual aliens – the Autobots! Optimus Prime, Prowl and Warpath drive on to the White House lawn where Ronald Reagan strolls out to greet them.
The meeting is presumably secret, hence the absence of the world’s media at this historic moment, so you wonder why it’s in the very public location of the President’s front lawn?! I also question the wisdom of Prime bringing Warpath along as a tank doesn’t exactly convey ‘we come in peace’. Reagan extends the hand of peace and friendship, while wryly observing it’s the first time he’s conversed with a truck. Optimus transforms to echo the president’s wishes for peaceful relations.
At that moment, the ground shakes and our three Insecticons spring up and declare they will “kill all the humans in the name of the Autobots”. The phrase ‘public relations disaster’ doesn’t quite cut it. Prime is shocked and surprised – he had instructed Jazz to reach out to the US government and talks were held under the tightest security to stop the enemy from finding out. In flashback, we see a military man making a careless call without a scrambler, allowing Soundwave to pick it up in one of his routine sweeps. Megatron responded by releasing the Insecticons from booths where they had been in suspended animation, or perhaps growing.
At the White House, Prime and his warriors return fire. Bombshell declares “Great Optimus we hear your command” and withdraws to attack the Capital. Despite seeing the Autobots fighting these Decepticons, the military fall for the ruse and turn their anger against the Autobots.
As Optimus sets out to discover who is remote controlling the trio of saboteurs, Prowl and Warpath hit the streets to track down the Insecticons. They find the city ablaze and people fleeing for their lives. The trio are introduced along with a short summary of their main abilities: Bombshell can control minds; Kickback is a master of espionage, and Shrapnel is a master of electricity.
Prowl takes out Kickback with a missile but succumbs to Shrapnel’s splinter grenade. Warpath rams Shrapnel, looking like he destroys the Insecticon, but evidently not, for when Prime dispatches his drone Roller from his trailer, it arrives to engulf Shrapnel in a ball of fire.
We know that Prime’s trailer and Roller are extensions of him, so much so that he feels any pain inflicted on to his other components. As Optimus confronts Ravage (who has been operating the Insecticons) he’s unaware of Bombshell swooping down to inject him with one of his mind-controlling cerebro shell. Conveniently, at the crucial moment Kickback blows up Roller and causes the Autobot leader to lurch forward in pain. Bombshell completely misses him and injects Ravage instead. This leaves the controller mindless and the Insecticons inert.
At this point the way is clear for Prime, Prowl and Warpath to explain the situation to the President. Instead they return to the Ark convinced the humans would not believe them and lamenting a lost opportunity. I suppose Furman couldn’t realistically plot a major game-changer like the Autobots joining forces with the US government, tension in the story demands that the Autobots are typically on the backfoot.
However, as mentioned this story is far removed from the comics continuity and therefore it allows Furman more creative licence. As a reader it is a little frustrating that Prime just accepted the smear on the Autobots’ name and didn’t try to explain. It’s nice to see Roller used in a story (this being his only appearance outside of the cartoon series) even if questions are unanswered such as Ravage how recovers from the surprisingly creepy and horrific depiction of his invaded mind.
All in all, not a bad story if you’re willing to overlook the jarring conflicts with the US and UK comics continuities, and a nice showcase for Roller, Warpath and the Insecticons.
I’m tempted to say the best thing about ‘Raiders of the Last Ark’ is the title. That’s not quite fair as the story does have some good moments. In general though, Transformers UK comic is treading water at this point with two months still to go before the sequel to the US story ‘The Last Stand’ lands.
Once again Simon Furman is on writer duties – this is only his second Transformers story in fact, so if it’s a little underwhelming that is perhaps understandable (he’s still finding his feet). Though I think the problem is more about the reduced format which is spreading stories thinly over twice as many issues. It increases the pressure on those smaller instalments to pack more punch.
I read elsewhere (via Stuart Webb’s excellent and entertaining blog) that the plan had been for Steve Parkhouse and Furman to alternate, but Parkhouse quit Marvel and they obviously decided to pad the comics out with more filler (i.e. poor backup strips) rather than double Furman’s workload.
The story’s title derives (obviously) from the 1981 Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, whose sequel The Temple of Doom was released in June 1984 around a year before this comic hit the shelves. Last Ark follows on directly from the events of The Enemy Within, and sees the Decepticons thirsty for revenge and launch a surprise assault on the Autobot base, the Ark.
First we have a re-telling of the familiar events which brought the Transformers to Earth – the Autobots went into space aboard the Ark only for the Decepticons to board the ship and attack – only there’s a twist. We knew Optimus Prime put the ship on collision course with the Earth but we now learn that the Ark’s computer core ‘Auntie’ presented Prime with this option, having assessed this as the best way to win.
History now repeats itself as the Decepticons gather atop of Mount St Hillary and again breach the Ark’s hull. Laserbeak and Buzzsaw are first in and surprise the unprepared Autobots. Prime literally disintegrates Laserbeak with his laser rifle before (uncharacteristically) berating his troops for their ineptness and orders them to arm up. Laserbeak will be back soon enough, but to see the damage he takes here, its hard to see how. The poor guy is literally in pieces!
Some very average art of the two armies doing battle is lifted for TFUK#18’s cover, which seems kind of lazy but is the custom for the comic at this time. We find out Soundwave’s armour and weaponry are the more effective in battle against Jazz – but Sideswipe is physically superior to Rumble. Windcharger versus is Ravage is a more interesting contest. Windcharger deploys his unbelievably powerful magnetic powers, launching his opponent some distance. But Ravage can manipulate electro-magnetic fields (usually to avoid detection) and in this case can counter Windcharger’s ability. This is an early hint that these two will be central characters in this story (in fact, this is pretty much Windcharger’s only moment in the spotlight as he’ll be a background character for the rest of the comic’s run).
Part two sees Prime step away from the battle to attempt to reactivate Auntie and her powerful defences. Interestingly, until now the Autobots have relied on basic computer functions. We don’t know why this is and I would speculate its possibly connected to their lack of power/fuel situation. Megatron, sensing Optimus is up to something, follows him and blasts a hole in the computer screen. It’s enough to ensure that when Auntie wakes – her huge golden holographic face filling the room – it’s quite an entrance!
Her power within the Ark is incredible and the fighting Transformers are suddenly magnetised helplessly to the walls as Auntie puts its defence procedures into operation. In her damaged state, Auntie seems to have morphed into Hal from 2001 crossed with Judge Judy – she remarks oddly that “nobody built her” and thus no loyalties any longer, but she will decide the Transformers’ fates after hearing both arguments.
In part 3 we learn that Ravage and Windcharger are immune to Auntie’s magnetism and have had to form an ‘unholy alliance’. Neither is particularly happy at teaming up with the other, which I think makes for a fun dynamic. Ravage expertly avoids a field of lasers (he’s showing off now) and then disables the weapon. The pair are then attacked by electricity and momentarily subdued.
Elsewhere, the trial is not going well for both leaders. Optimus manages to convince Megatron that Auntie will destroy them both unless she is shut down. Perhaps Windcharger and Ravage can get to her core? We then get another significant moment as Auntie deploys her ‘last line of defence’, the muscle-bound bruiser known as Guardian!
The Ark’s bouncer – he certainly looks like he can do some damage. Sadly not on this occasion as Windcharger is able to defeat him fairly easily in Part 4 – quite a disappointment, but perhaps inevitable given the constraints on page count. It will not be until Furman’s sequel story Wrath of Guardian that we’ll see the full potential of this opponent (cue hundreds of letters to the comic asking what Guardian transforms into – the answer is nothing, he’s a droid used for menial tasks and defence).
For the first of only two occasions in the comic, Megatron draws on his rare and incredibly unstable ability to summon anti-matter from a black hole, in an attempt to escape Auntie’s magnetic clutches. It isn’t necessary as Ravage pounces into the computer core and destroys Auntie. Both factions are released and Windcharger generates the largest magnetic field he can muster to repel Megatron through the Ark’s roof and into the sky. At this point you’re thinking Windcharger must be the most powerful Autobot ever, until his systems overload. Even so you wonder why he’s so little used going forward.
Later Optimus Prime says prophetically that the Decepticons will be back (which leads us nicely back to the shocking events of The Last Stand, which is continuing next issue). Given the long hiatus the UK comic reprints that gob-smacking last page of TLS with Shockwave blasting the surviving Autobots. The stage is set for the most eagerly awaited continuation in the comic’s short history at this point.
Other things to mention: The Transformers are still being drawn to their toy forms with sometimes comical effect, such as Megatron with a trigger for a waist. There’s a back page advert for the Decepticon jets which has the names all mixed up. Dirge is captioned as Starscream, Ramjet is called Dirge and Starscream is called Ramjet! What a mess. It looks like the person who prepared the ad didn’t have the first clue. The fans spotted it though and I seem to remember a letter being published in Soundwaves (the name for the letters page from TFUK#22) to rub it in!
March 1985 was a significant month in the history of Transformers comics. Issue #13 marked the debut of Simon Furman – the writer who even more than Bob Budiansky most deserves the title Mr Transformers. Furman is responsible for the vast majority of the UK stories in the comic’s 332 issue run and a good number of the Marvel US classics too! And his contribution in the years which followed, with stories for successive license-holders Dreamwave, Titan and IDW.
But it all began with The Enemy Within – a four part story, later hastily stretched to five – produced during the seven months interlude where Transformers UK was fresh out of stories from the US comic to reprint and had to fill the gap with home grown material.
The story is essentially a duel between Starscream and Brawn, two hitherto supporting characters, with the stakes being either death or redemption; but it’s the Decepticon side of the equation that is arguably the more interesting.
The Enemy Within builds on the dynamic between the two biggest Decepticon egos, commander Megatron and his would-be leadership rival Starscream. It was often hinted in the initial mini-series that Starscream thought he would make a better leader, and was just looking for his opportunity to strike. With patience not one of his virtues, his mask eventually slipped and (during The Last Stand) Starscream was openly critical of Megatron and quickly found himself on the receiving end of the leader’s all-powerful fusion canon!
Save for that comedic moment, we haven’t seen Starscream at his most cunning and plotting until now. Furman’s debut story delves in, and unlike the Sunbow cartoons where Starscream is forever undermining the leader and getting away with it, there’s a sense of real consequences here. The Decepticons are like a mafia outfit and if you’re on manoeuvres against the Don, you’re definitely taking a massive risk with your life.
The story grabs the reader from the first panel, opening on a close-up of a Megatron who is outraged! We soon find out why. Starscream is stirring unrest by suggesting they all-out attack the Autobots, something he knows the others will support him on. In doing so, he’s openly questioning Megatron’s chosen course of action. A fusion cannon blast across his bows puts Starscream back in his place, but there is lingering unease in the camp. Megatron instructs Ravage to spy on Starscream and bring back evidence of his treachery, so that he can be silenced for good!
There’s a sense that Ravage is a trusted confidant and someone with whom Megatron can let his guard down. And unlike Ravage’s cartoon depiction, where he’s more animal-like, in the comic he speaks and is like any other Decepticon except with a jaguar robot form.
Unlike the previous UK story Man of Iron, which is out on a limb, we can see that Furman is making a conscious effort to fit his story into the established US canon. So, he has Megatron mention the encounter with Spider-Man and the talk of attacking the Autobots feels like a build-up to what eventually happens in The Last Stand.
Meanwhile, at the Ark, Brawn is lifting a heavy piece of equipment that Mirage is working on when both receive what looks like a very nasty electric shock. In Mirage’s case it will enhance his illusion abilities but Brawn suffers a personality change and becomes selfish, angry and resentful. He goes on a rampage and batters his way through the Ark’s hull and escapes.
Starscream is planning to attack an army base. He thinks that when the Autobots come to the human’s rescue, the Decepticons will come to his – and will be convinced by his leadership qualities. For some stupid reason Starscream articulates all this out loud (why?) and is overheard by Ravage. He offers Ravage a chance to join the plot or else be destroyed. You get a sense of some mutual respect between the two of the other’s abilities – I think when Starscream offers the alliance it’s not only because he’s been caught red-handed, he genuinely thinks Ravage would be an asset.
We see each of their abilities play out in a head to head. Ravage is able to blend into the desert and spring up out of nowhere to launch a missile attack, but the agile flier Starscream is able to evade the threat. The battle concludes with Ravage being blasted and disappearing under falling rocks. There’s no longer any turning back.
In part 2 (TFUK #14) we learn that Ravage survived. He staggers home to the Decepticons and reveals it was Starscream who attacked him. We also see Brawn causing a really nasty (probably fatal) road smash as he takes revenge on humans for ‘enslaving’ his fellow machines (cars). Those hook hands of his are probably useless at picking things up but they are pretty handy for battering the crap out of stationary vehicles, as Brawn does to a cop car which he ‘freed from servitude’ to mankind but which appeared ungrateful. Oh dear.
Starscream causes havoc by shooting down US jets and appearing on television challenging the Autobots to take him on! However, with their own problems to sort out, they swerve the invite and show up to confront the renegade Brawn. It is the Decepticons and Megatron who arrive to take down Starscream!
Cue part 3 where Brawn refuses to come quietly and repels his one-time comrades (fairly successfully) until being taken down by – of all people – Red Alert. Why is that strange, well for one thing he’s never appeared in the line up of Earthbound Autobots before and his appearance here feels like a continuity error. They really ought to have coloured him red and said it was Sideswipe, getting his revenge from earlier.
While Starscream is in a fight for his life – pursued by his former wingmen Skywarp and Thundercracker, he is shot down in the desert and confronted by Megatron. He begs for trial by combat, which apparently he is entitled to, but really Megatron should take no notice of this and press the advantage. That he doesn’t is an indication that there are limits to his authority and he has to keep the troops on side.
In a nice touch, we’re treated to an incident (via historical tapes) of two Cybertronians called Tornado and Earthquake who accepted trial by combat and destroyed each other. With names like that, perhaps it was unsurprising? This could be a perfect resolution, Megatron thinks. Once Brawn is repaired and realises his terrible error, he readily accepts the challenge laid down by the Decepticons to do battle.
Part 4 was billed in advance as the concluding part, but over the fortnight the production team must have discovered that the wait for US material was going to be longer than they expected. The result was that they decided to split the final 11 pages over two issues, and the next story (Raiders of the Last Ark would be told over four issues not two).
That disappointment aside, TFUK #16 is an exciting issue with both Brawn and Starscream showcasing their respective talents (strength and deadly aerial abilities). Brawn throws a giant bolder, Starscream rains down volleys from above. Brawn leaps off a ledge and on to his opponent but ends up hitting the ground hard. Starscream unleashes on the helpless Autobot, seemingly blowing him to bits… or has he? The narrative states that ‘no emotion registered on Optimus Prime’s face’ (how many emotions can a guy without a face show anyway?) and we start to realise that things might not all be as they seem.
In part 5 we find out Mirage had used his abilities to simulate Brawn’s destruction while pulling him clear. Ravage, meanwhile, is in wait with a massive gun strapped to his back, which he uses to take out Starscream! Revenge is a dish best served cold. This can neatly be blamed on the Autobots and serve as a premise for Megatron to lead the attack his troops have been itching for.
In summary, this is action-packed debut story from Simon Furman and nice in that it gives the lesser-seen Brawn a turn in the spotlight. The art, by Ridgway and Collins, sees characters drawn like their toy incarnations but after a while you get used it. One of the letters to the editor asks why Megatron looks different every week. Their reply: none of the artists have been able to get close enough to him, which I guess is fair enough!
The story would be reprinted twice more – the first time in ‘Collected Comics 4’ in full colour, and much later as a back-up strip filler in TFUK #308-318 (in 1991). Robo Capers by Lew Stringer launches to provide regular comedy value but the other back up strips are by and large pretty mediocre. It’s a shame at this point that they are outnumbering the Transformers pages. That US material can’t come quick enough.
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”.
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!
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.