Crisis of Command

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.

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Prime Time!

After several months as Shockwave’s prisoner, the head of Optimus Prime is finally reunited with his body. And what’s the first thing he does? Blast his fellow Autobots! There’s twists, shocks, defeat and victory in this eagerly awaited conclusion to Bob Budiansky’s Matrix saga – and boy does it deliver!

Prime Time. My goodness here’s a story that I look back on with fondness and just a little abiding awe. Published in the UK in December 1985, just a few weeks ahead of its release in the US, it draws together all the plot threads since TFUK#22 and weaves a truly epic conclusion.

When Shockwave showed up at the end of The Last Stand to lay waste to the heroic forces, it was difficult to predict where the story could go. In the intervening months there have been some fantastic moments, namely: Budiansky’s boldness in replacing Megatron with a new leader – and Shockwave’s ruthless humiliation of his predecessor; Prime’s head captive and the shocking image of his troops hanging from the ceiling; the introduction of the Matrix as a means of creating new Transformer life; Ratchet the medic, becoming a warrior; and also introducing new characters in the form of the Dinobots, Constructicons and Jetfire without it feeling forced; and Buster Witwicky unleashing the power of the Matrix! Wow. It’s certainly been an entertaining few months.

At last the time to bring the curtain down on the story, but as the awe-inspiring cover by Herb Trimpe – Optimus Prime: Autobot Killer! – makes apparent, there’s another big twist in store. So, how is Prime whole again and why is he laying waste to his comrades? For the answers we must start at the beginning, as Buster Witwicky soars above the Oregon countryside aboard the captured Decepticon drone Jetfire.

Buster recaps his Matrix journey for the benefit of the readers, from unwittingly receiving it, to mastery – when he blew apart Jetfire last issue and remade him to serve the Autobot cause. The plan now is to pilot Jetfire into the Decepticon base and rescue Prime (and surprisingly Buster’s normally cautious father gave his blessing).

Naturally it wouldn’t be dramatic if everything went to plan, so when Jetfire is engaged by the US air force and takes evasive action, the result is that Buster blacks out. It being a family friendly comic, no pilots are killed in the dogfight – all safely eject. However, without commanding, Jetfire reverts to his previous program.

The scene with Rumble summoned to see ‘the boss’ to receive his punishment is a delight. It’s at once laugh out loud funny and a demonstration of Shockwave’s ruthlessness. Readers will remember that Rumble screwed-up royally while on Ark guard duty by allowing Buster to slip by him and steal the Creation Matrix. He’s sweating oil now as he contemplates what the humourless Shockwave has in store for him. At first, it’s a relief – he’s being tasked with guarding their human slave workforce – until Shockwave crushes the shit out of a part assembled jet, letting Rumble know exactly what he can expect if any escape. Ha!

Shockwave, being a smart cookie has worked out that the Autobots must have bugged their base otherwise they wouldn’t have got to Buster ahead of Laserbeak and Jetfire. Soundwave duly discovers the device and turn the tables a bit by deliberately tipping off Prowl that the head of Optimus will be dumped in a nearby swamp. The Autobot army heads there.

Jetfire returns with a gift for his master – the unconscious Buster, who is swiftly strapped to a table. Shortly, machinery will integrate with his mind and extract the Matrix enough to give life to a hundred new Decepticon jets (that would be quite a gamechanger). Prime watches helplessly, realising he’s messed up by putting Buster in such danger.

Shockwave seems to have forgotten about the three existing jets on his team and is making maximum use of his new toy, Jetfire. He tasks the new boy with dropping Prime’s head into the swamp in front of the horrified Autobots. Prowl heads a daisy chain to retrieve their leader, and moments later Prime’s head and body are reunited – or are they? We know from the cover what’s coming next. Prime turns his guns on Prowl and cuts down several others, taking them by surprise. In a nice cliff-hanger ending, a platoon of Decepticons led by Soundwave sneaks up unnoticed and advise that the Autobot leader obeys them now!

Elsewhere in the issue there’s a fact file on my favourite Constructicon, Scavenger; the back-up strip Machine Man of 2020 continues to be surprisingly good (even if flying motorbikes and a floating city doesn’t bear resemblance to the present day 2020!) and there’s a teaser of upcoming stories that shows they have mapped out the UK comic all the way up to the milestone issue 50.

The following issue’s Transformation page features a Q&A with Mrs Julia Elkins of Hasbro’s Consumer Relations Department answering such questions as whether Swoop and Shockwave toys will be on sale here. It’s done with Christmas in mind, and no doubt the comic has been bombarded with these commercial questions. The column ensures that Lew Stringer’s Robo Capers, which I rather enjoy, is somewhat shrunk.

In the story, Buster wakes up to find himself inside the Decepticon base and tethered. Shockwave is talking to the head of Optimus Prime – the real head that is – so we learn the one currently attached to Prime’s shoulders is a fake. So that explains why Prime is attacking the Autobots (who incidentally are looking in terrible shape – Prowl has an arm hanging off and one anonymous robot seems to have had his entire head melted).

Buster has picked his moment to revive perfectly. He’s able to stop Jetfire from executing Optimus and instead command him to punch out Shockwave, then fly with the real Prime’s head to rendezvous with the Autobots. Once at the battlefield Optimus commands his body to reject the fake head, cast it into the swamp, and connect the real one.

With Prime back in business we’re treated to a highly satisfying rampage by the Autobot leader where he takes down Soundwave and the other Decepticons in turn. The contrast between the unstoppable Prime and his ineffectual troops, caught on the backfoot, is stark. And it’s not over yet – we’ve got the leaders showdown with Shockwave still to come. Wow!

There’s a lovely moment where Shockwave rises, crestfallen as he realises Prime has escaped his clutches and is completely oblivious to Rumble – who has been overpowered by the escaping human slaves – in a few paces behind, begging for forgiveness. The idea that Shockwave is unlikely to care about that when his entire plan is in ruins hasn’t occurred to Rumble – he’s hilarious only thinking about his personal predicament.

Shockwave tranforms into his flying gun and jets to confront Prime. The leaders do battle over two pages, with Shockwave declaring that it was “always logical” that he should be the one to deal with Prime personally. Instead, Optimus hoists him up and throw him into the centre of the swamp where he rapidly starts to sink. The sensible, albeit ruthless thing to do here is to blast Shockwave while he’s helpless (it is war after all) but Prime being Prime, he rushes away (in robot mode, oddly) to go to Buster’s aid. It’s almost as if the other Autobots have forgotten that they too have weapons as they passively allow Shockwave to sink rather than press the advantage. There’s a hint he will return.

Back at the plant the other workers have freed Buster. Optimus thanks him for saving the day and expresses his regret for endangering the young human. It’s a nice moment where Prime acknowledges he couldn’t have found a better being – human or Autobot – to safeguard the Matrix, before taking it back.

After 18 issues the storyline is complete, and the total defeat suffered by the Autobots is turned around. Now it is the Decepticons who are beaten and leaderless. All it took was for Optimus Prime to become whole again, showing what a gamechanger he is. This is Prime at his most awesome, but this is Transformers and that means there is always trouble and strife around the corner for the Autobots. But all in good time, first there is the matter of the Christmas story.

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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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