A gremlin-like creature with a fondness for arson arrives from space and sets a human town ablaze, as Inferno, Broadside and Sandstorm investigate
“Shorter but no less shocking,” is how the introduction to UK Transformers #188 describes it’s 11-page story, Firebug. It appeared in print in October 1988, straight after Simon Furman’s Space Piratessaga which culminated with the colossus, Metroplex, stomping on Sharkticons and the Quintesson planet blowing up!
After that, whatever followed was likely to be more sedate, regardless of the comic’s claims to the contrary, but a change of pace is no bad thing.
The first thing to notice about this issue is the dip in paper quality. As a guy in my school rather crudely put it: “It’s been printed on bog roll!” He had been collecting since the early days like I had but gave the comic up soon after. He had probably grown out of comics, but the recent run of poor stories wouldn’t have helped.
For whatever reason, being busy or just bringing forward new talent, Furman is credited with the plot and has delegated the actual writing duties to newcomer Dan Abnett. It’s the first time Simon has not been credited as the writer of a UK story in the weekly comic since I think Mike Collins did Crisis of Command in 1986.
It’s a gentle easing into franchise for Abnett, with a fairly throwaway tale about a space gremlin who starts fires and provides a challenge for our resident fire engine Inferno (last seen meeting his making in an exploding spaceship in 2008, this is his earlier ‘present day’ self). The Firebug character has not appeared in Transformers before and won’t do so again, so I suspect he was just brought in this one time as an obvious nemesis for the big red fire engine Autobot.
On the plus side, it’s nice that Inferno is finally making appearances in the comic. He was part of the 1985 Hasbro toy line, very much yesterday’s news for the toymaker which has moved on to Headmasters, Powermasters, Pretenders and the like, so it’s good that this older character has featured.
Sandstorm and Broadside are his companions, and Broadside seems to spend chunks of the story being bickering with the other two, despite being the team leader. Following an intro page where a meteor impacts near Mt St Hilary in Oregon (naturally) overnight, the Autobot trio landed the following day.
They’ve been sent by Emirate Xaaron, the elder and commander of the Autobot forces on Cybertron to set up a permanent reconnaissance post (you would think Xaaron has enough on his plate on Cybertron without worrying about Earth). They cloak the ship and make a joke about remembering where they parked, which feels like it’s been nicked from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
Inferno teases pokes fun at the Wreckers’ last visit to Earth to take down Galvatron which turned into a disaster when they materialised in a human settlement (this time it’s old-fashioned travel by spaceship). Broadside getting touchy and squaring up to Inferno is not a great look for a unit commander. Sandstorm intervenes.
The orange triple-changer then goes off to investigate smoke in the distance. Even though they are not permitted to get involved in human affairs (sounding even more like Trek) he’s itching for some action. Inferno isn’t going – once you’ve seen the “molten heart of a star” Earth fires are minor league. Nice point.
Sandstorm finds a small town ablaze and a major emergency in progress. Broadside agrees they will have to step in. This gives Inferno an opportunity to do the firefighting he’s well equipped for, until Broadside catches a glimpse of something in a burning building. It turns out to be Firebug, a native of Furnacia, who feeds on high temperatures and likes combustible matter (Earth is rich pickings).
There’s a bit of humour from the writer about the nomadic Firebugs having ended up on an ice world “with predictably disastrous results,” Inferno notes.
This Firebug is fast and easily evades the Autobot trio’s clumsy attempts to capture him. I did laugh at the frames where Sandstorm fires his Silica Gun and melts a Ford Fiesta (not too many of those in Oregon I’d bet, though they were common to the UK back then). After dodging fireballs and bumping into each other, the Autobots team up to pin the Firebug down and extinguish his flame.
But what to do with their captive? They resolve to stuff him in a message pod (no radio messages then?) and blast him off to Mercury where the surface temperatures of 400 degrees C prove to be just the ticket. All’s well that ends well, and to fair to the Firebug, he’s not a villain but is just doing what his race does to survive, that’s burning things! In summary, not a bad little story but not destined to be a classic. Dan Abnett will get a chance to sink his teeth into something more consequential in the next story, Dry Run, which features the return of Megatron.
It’s Cyclonus and Scourge versus Galvatron versus The Wreckers, in this enjoyable three-way scrap from 1988, set in mid-western town
Transformers meets Top Gun, or so it appears from Jerry Paris’ fiery cover for UK issue 172 and the opening pages of its lead strip ‘Wrecking Havoc,’ by Simon Furman (naturally) and the rarely-spotted-though-much-celebrated artist Bryan Hitch. In fact, as I review the story 34 years later, Top Gun Maverick is wowing audiences in the cinemas and so it seems rather fitting to be revisiting this Decepticon dogfight.
The Transformation page intro suggests that readers may have thought they were witnessing an aerial battle between ‘Action Force’ (the anglicised version of GI Joe) and Decepticons Cyclonus and Scourge. This makes sense given that there have been crossover stories in the previous year, and AF was the back up strip in UK Transformers at this point in its run (July 1988).
However, by the most exciting thing on the welcome page as far as I was concerned then and now is the glimpse of Powermaster Optimus Prime and the assurance “He’s on his way honest…” and in fact Prime would be returning to the main strip, not as a computer-generated character, but as a fully restored Autobot in issue 177, just five weeks away. Of course, at this point fans had no inkling of what ‘Powermasters’ were, so the Hasbro advert for this new toy-line, on page 17, would have been especially interesting. It features Autobots Joyride, Getaway, Slapdash, but not Optimus, and Decepticons Darkwing and Dreadwind, whose name tags were mixed up.
But let’s get back to Wrecking Havoc. This is the fifth of five two-parters from Simon starring the Cybertr0n-based Autobot resistance movement led by Emirate Xaaron, and with Ultra Magnus as their star player. It picks up from Deadly Games, where the team were last seen waiting for their trans-dimensional portal to come online and to deposit them across the vast gulf of space to Earth. It’s not a perfect technology and I get the impression it can only be used when planets are in alignment, or some such, hence they are having to leave without Magnus. (On the letters page, we’re promised that Magnus’ final showdown with Galvatron will come, although I’m not sure it ever does, presumably because Time Wars was curtailed).
In the absence of internet, Furman must have consulted the military books to look-up the Grumman F14 Tomcat and presumably Hitch will have been provided with photos of the elite warplane (which according to Wikipedia is still in service today in Iran, although it stopped being widely used in 2006). There’s some fantastic artwork from the 16-year-old Hitch of Cyclonus and Scourge zooming up on the F14s and striking with deadly force. The rear of one plane explodes and the two pilots eject – phew, no humans injured yet – but Scourge is less obliging than his teammate, blowing a second plane to bits.
It’s enjoyable to see Nightstick and Fracas, the Target master companions of the two future Decepticons, seated in the cockpits. We don’t get a strong sense of the relationships except that Cyclonus is dismissive of Nightstick and won’t let him near the controls, whereas Scourge seems to have more confidence in his companion, and they seem the stronger pairing. Both Decepticons believe they have been enhanced by becoming Target-Masters and bonding with the Nebulans. This is revealed later in the issue by Shockwave, who has agreed to provide sanctuary for the pair if their mission to confront Galvatron fails.
As the aerial battle continues, Cyclonus’ arrogance counts against him as he is duped by two planes suddenly banking left and right and leaving him to collide with a precipice that somehow crept up on him! Down but not out, Cyclonus must quite recover his bearings and destroy a sidewinder missile that is homing in on him. He and Scourge scuttle off with their metaphorical tails between their legs, embarrassed at being bested by human jets. They fear that it’s a bad omen for their meeting with their old boss Galvatron.
An interlude sees a slimmed down line-up of Wreckers (minus Magnus but also inexplicably missing Whirl and Roadbuster, a shame) going through their drills as Xaaron and Wrecker commander Springer express their concerns about the mission. A combat drop through an unstable portal is bad enough without facing one of the most powerful Decepticons in creation. There’s no backing out now… but I do have to wonder why Galvatron is such a target. They could, if they wanted, leave him to the Earthbound Autobots to deal with, while they concentrate on the bigger fish they must fry, namely overthrowing the Decepticons on Cybertron. It could be that with Prime now dead and his successor Grimlock having abandoned the Earth, Xaaron and Springer feel and obligation to fill the void.
Cyclonus and Scourge transform and land in the middle of a human settlement. Their arrival sends the human inhabitants (depicted in an array of eclectic outfits) to flee in a panic, all except one guy in a suit who is holding the shrunken gun-form of Galvatron and pleading to be allowed to go. Galvatron reverts to his robot form, surprising Scourge and Cyclonus, and although he stipulated that they should come unarmed there’s Galvy with his trademark particle cannon! He’s less happy that they have brought along the Nebulans – he also specified they come alone.
Oddly enough, given their history there are no pleasantries, nor any attempt by Cyclonus and Scourge to deceive their old boss by posing as allies and finding out about the time-jump control. They foolishly show their hand immediately by declaring to Galvatron that they have no desire to serve him and again, and they are prepared to take his trigger by force. Their intention is of course to return to 2008 and the position of power they enjoyed there.
Let’s explore that a moment. The are two ways to get to 2008. One is simply to sit tight and let the years roll around, after all 20 years is no big deal for an immortal robot. Or they can skip over those years with the device, saving themselves the wait, but then what – surely, they would run in an older version of Galvatron, laying in wait for them. It’s a flaw in the story’s logic I feel. (Or maybe they know that Galvatron is destined to die in the past?)
Reacting to their clumsy approach, Galvatron maintains the pretence that he still possesses the time travel device and challenges the two Target Masters to take him on. It’s certainly a fight I would have like to have seen, but alas it’s not to be, for at that moment the sky opens as the Wreckers descend from the portal, realising to their horror that they are smack-bang in the middle of a human settlement and the mission is already doomed. All this sets-up a strong cliff-hanger going into next week’s issue.
Jeff Anderson’s cover for issue 173 sees Galvatron busting through a wall, bricks flying in all directions. It’s okay as an image except that the Hulk or some other Marvel character of human size, he’s a giant robot. He should be a lot taller than most brick walls and the bricks and mortar itself would be tiny in comparison, but not so in Jeff’s image. It niggles with me, but I imagine most readers would not have noticed. Bryan Hitch continues one art duties, with Springer being propelled into an apartment block in the opening splash page and demolishing it. Interestingly there’s a naked silhouette in one of the shop windows, either a mannequin or somebody blissfully unaware of what’s going on outside!
Springer dodges Cyclonus’ downward punch in his direction and a laser blast before recovering his weapon and shooting a crater like dent into the Deception’s chest (the first time I’ve seen weapons have this level of impact). In a little reminder to the readers of the Target-Master concept, Springer attempts to relieve the dazed Cyclonus of his weapon, only for it to transform into Nightstick and run away.
I mentioned previously that The Wreckers are little light on troops, with some key people missing. Here they are not only battling three Decepticons rather than the one they expected to be up against, but Sandstorm is left performing crowd control.
Rack ‘n’ Ruin charges towards Galvatron, engaging in hand-to-hand combat and a close-range blast to the chest (another crater impact) but the Decepticon punches our Broadside and swings him into the others. The fight is going badly.
Fortunately, Galvatron inexplicably decides to voice out loud the irony that if the Autobots had waited, Cyclonus and Scourge would have tried to do the job for them (no internal monologue for him). Springer overhears Galvatron going on to say that the time travel device no longer exists, and – after sandwiching Cyclonus’ head between two cars (probably my favourite moment in the story) – he ambushes Galvatron and leaps away (a welcome reminder of his ability in this regard), exclaiming loudly that the “time jump trigger device is ours”. Cyclonus and Scourge immediately take the bait and go in pursuit, leaving the human settlement.
Galvatron understands that Springer has exploited his ex-lieutenants’ weakness, “their stupidity” and of course offers them a choice: ‘save your leader or try and take me in’. The Wreckers promptly go to Springer’s aid forcing Cyclonus and Scourge to take to the air and flee. Springer’s gamble worked, but presumably if they had offered to help Cyclonus and Scourge to take down Galvatron they might have collectively succeeded. The answer is surely that as soon Springer realised human innocents were in danger the priorities of the mission changed.
Despite a bold declaration that ‘Galvatron’s head will be ours’ they have been outwitted for now. Likewise, Cyclonus and Scourge will be forced into the arms (arm?) of Shockwave with rather far-reaching consequences (see Dry Run). And so, the curtain falls on an enjoyable run of UK stories. Next issue, the very long awaited (six and a half months) continuation of the Blaster versus Grimlock story. At last!
The source of the zombies is revealed, as Wreckers leader Springer must overcome his inner doubts if he is to confront the past and save the future…
In City of Fear, fans were treated to a hugely entertaining zombie-fest as Ultra Magnus, the Sparklers, and their show-stealing Decepticon prisoner, Flywheels, fought to stay a step ahead of the armies of the undead, succeeding against all odds and probably much to their own surprise.
It wasn’t at all clear how or why the bodies of dead Transformers had sprung to life and started menacing the living, and it didn’t matter because the lack of explanations allowed us to enjoy a fun, uncomplicated and thrilling ride. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
However, inevitably Simon Furman was going to have to explain the zombie situation, as well as the whereabouts of the Emirate Xaaron and the missing Wreckers. Legion of the Lost, the middle instalment of our story (from May 1988), is where those explanations are revealed, and the pieces put in place for an explosive finale (literally).
A bit like playtime followed by the classroom, Legion is essential learning but ultimately less satisfying than City of Fear or even the final instalment, Meltdown.
Things pick-up where we left off, with Magnus and co. having learned that a mysterious signal which animated the zombies originated from deep below the surface of Cybertron. However, the locus switches to our mysterious villain (Flame) who we can only see by his arm and its flamboyant fire markings – a bit like a bad Hot Rod tribute act – watching the Autobots and Flywheels on his monitors.
Magnus is caught on camera booting a now deactivated zombie across the floor in a moment which raised an eyebrow for me, is this the same Magnus who was so worried about injuring the zombies last week that he ordered a ceasefire that nearly got everyone killed?
We see Xaaron, once a member of Cybertron’s governing council and ever after a talisman figure of the Autobot resistance, sitting in a cell. Whoever this mysterious enemy is, he’s responsible for the disappearance of the Wreckers and everything that has transpired so far. Furman transitions into the events of three weeks earlier and a massive nuclear explosion which fried a lot of bots.
Springer, who is the main character in the second instalment, had stormed into Autobase in an absolute panic, only to find Xaaron calm and in control (no doubt this sort of thing used to wind up Springer’s predecessor Impactor also). Xaaron has already determined that the enemy were not responsible and that someone else was, and, on cue, a technician briefs the assembled Wreckers on his theory that a reactor below ground had been vented.
Xaaron reminds us that Megatron, the founder of the Decepticon movement and the instigator of the millennia long civil war, had once schemed to turn Cybertron into a space-faring dreadnought. It turns out that he might have actually got around to building the engine room before he disappeared.
Springer immediately deployed with his men to find a way underground, only to return in failure. Sitting there dejected he wallows in doubts and self-pity about his mistakes since taking over leadership of the Wreckers following the heroic death of the team’s long-time leader Impactor. These include falling for Megatron’s disinformation and nearly executing Optimus Prime, which as mistakes go is about as bad as it gets.
It’s all shaping up to be a classic Furman redemption story (I remember reading one of his Thundercats stories with Lion-O wracked with doubts and having to overcome them by the story conclusion, and similarly Prime himself in Crisis of Command or even Magnus recently in Salvage) – you get what I mean, it’s a familiar trope.
Things usually must get worse before they get better and sure enough Autobase is quickly overrun with Zombies bursting up from the floor. Springer has no idea what to do and his men are started to get overwhelmed.
Sandstorm shouts to Springer to get away and save Xaaron, which eventually he resolves to do, even though it means leaving his men to their fates. This sets up a ‘shock ending’ for the first part as the fleeing Springer comes face-to-face with his worst nightmare, a zombified Impactor!
Did we see that coming? Well yes, I think the build-up with Springer invoking Impactor’s memory – revealing that he looks up to his predecessor massively, even though they only met for a very short time in Target: 2006, pretty much gave the game away. Still, he was a great character in that iconic 1986 saga, still arguably Simon Furman’s greatest Transformers stories, and its exciting to see him return (proving that in comics, no death is truly forever).
In the second part, Transformers issue 167, we learn the Wreckers survived the attack, along with Xaaron, and are now in the cells with a band around their mid-rift which prevents transformation. Impactor enters as the zombie bodyguard of Flame, who we finally see, and surprise, surprise, he’s an Autobot! (Albeit clearly a loon).
There’s a bit of history here between Xaaron and Flame. It turns out that Xaaron was responsible for snuffing out Flame’s grand ambition to activate Megatron’s engines and propel Cybertron on a journey through the cosmos (presumably in a more controlled way than currently, with it having spun out of orbit in issue 1).
Flame had been presumed dead in an explosion, but he survived and has like a science geek who got ridiculed at school he’s returned all embittered and desperate to prove he was right all along. Luckily for the Xaaron and company, they are needed alive long enough for that ‘I told you so moment’, although Xaaron’s expects that the loopy plot will probably destroy Cybertron in the process.
A quick check on the surface sees Flywheels jetting away in his plane mode and Magnus arguing with the Sizzle about why their prisoner has been allowed to go. Magnus rather hopes he can trust the Duocon to bring reinforcements. We’ll see.
Back to what I was saying about the ‘overcoming self-doubt motif’, Springer has reached rock bottom in terms of his lack of belief in himself. It takes Xaaron to remind him of the insult he’s giving to Impactor’s memory if he doesn’t snap out of it. Finally, Springer sorts himself out, and uses his leaping ability to launch himself through a vent in the ceiling, with Impactor gripping his legs and getting carried along.
The old trick of escaping through an air vent is not very original, and I have to wonder at the point of vents on a planet inhabited by robots who don’t need to breathe. That said, much later the Neo Knights (Earth superheroes) are able to survive on Cybertron so perhaps there’s an atmosphere after all, just without plants to release the oxygen.
Springer reasons with Impactor as they tussle in the shaft, finally triggering Impactor’s limited consciousness starts to reassert. He leaves to ‘find out what he has become’ and Springer resumes his mission to alert the outside world about the impending doom. To be concluded…
It must be said that 1988 is a boom time for Marvel UK. In both issues there are plugs for new releases, as the company launches a line of American format monthly titles – there’s Action Force, Dragon’s Teeth (soon to be Dragon’s Claws when it turns out that an independent already has the name) and a one-page strip about Death’s Head which hints at his return. Exciting stuff.