Legacy of Unicron (Parts 5 & 6)

Death’s Head journeys into Unicron’s mind and learns the origin of the Transformers as Rodimus travels to Junk for the final showdown with the Chaos Bringer!

January 1988 saw Marvel UK’s flagship comic, The Transformers, notch up another milestone of its eight-year run – the 150th issue.

For issue #50 we had a fight to the death between Grimlock and Sludge in the epic Dinobot Hunt (one of my faves) and on reaching triple figures readers were treated to a fantastic wraparound cover poster and an extended story featuring Optimus doing battle with barbaric cyborg apes! Yes, every bit as weird as it sounds.

Issue #150 also provides a wraparound poster that is something really special. Jerry Paris, who drew the cover of issue #1, that memorable and dare I say iconic Prime versus Soundwave cover, now turns his hand to depicting Unicron in his planet devouring glory. This sets us up nicely for issue #150’s story – the honest to gosh origin of the Transformers.

It’s a bold move into unchartered territory and moving beyond anything we’ve seen so far from the Transformers’ American parent title. This was Simon Furman and the UK comic laying the foundations of the franchise and staking a claim to being the main canon. It also makes #150 one of the most significant issues in the Transformers run. Arguably an origin story was needed following the events of the 1986 movie which established the relationship between Unicron and the Matrix.

So, to the story, which is pencilled this time by Jeff Anderson. It begins with Wreck-Gar deploying explosives in a cavern underneath the head of Unicron. It’s like a modern-day Guy Fawkes moment.

Unicron, for all his vast mental ability is strangely oblivious. His attention is focused on Death’s Head who has somehow managed to inject his consciousness into Unicron’s vast mindscape. The planet eater is impressed by his slave’s resourcefulness and ‘bare faced effrontery’. Whilst it will not be enough to spare Death’s Head from oblivion, as a last request Unicron will share with him a story unheard of by any mortal – Unicron’s origin!

‘Elsewhere in the real world’ Rodimus Prime’s shuttle soars towards the planet of Junk. The Autobot leader ponders who Unicron really is and why he’s so hell bent on destroying Cybertron. He also watches Smokescreen at the ship’s controls with barely concealed contempt for abandoning Prime’s pal Wreck-Gar. Smokescreen takes it on the chin as he’s desperately disappointed by his own actions, but it’s hardly fair.

We learn from Unicron that he was once a god of chaos and fury who was pitched in an eternal battle against his counterpart, Primus, leader of the light gods and protector of all life in the universe. According to Unicron, he had the measure of Primus, both in the physical realm and the astral plane (perhaps wishful thinking on his part as the two seem essentially to be in stalemate). Primus knew this and outsmarted Unicron. He fled the astral plane with Unicron pursuing and materialised them both within enormous barren asteroids.

They appeared to be trapped for all eternity. However, as the millennia passed, Unicron used his fury and hatred to physically reshape his prison, becoming a mobile planet. Much later he was able to restructure himself further, adding a robot form. In effect he had become the first Transformer!

Primus had also shaped his body but rather than become a giant robot and continue their evenly matched battle, he instead chose to become the habitable world of Cybertron. He created the Transformers to succeed him and distilled his essence into a Matrix capable of giving life but also destroying Unicron. Pretty clever.

We also learn that Primus and Unicron shared a mental link and therefore is aware of the other’s motives and plans. Unicron knew the danger of the Matrix, which is why in the Movie he recruits Megatron and transforms him into Galvatron to act as his agent to capture and destroy the Matrix. As we know, Galvatron failed and Hot Rod eventually unleashed the power of the Matrix, becoming elevated into Rodimus Prime and destroying the planet eater.

Unicron’s concentration is broken as Rodimus’ shuttle arrives and begins a bombing run. He returns fire using the deadly laser eye beams we saw in the Movie. The Junkions are ordered to counterattack along with Death’s Head, who resists and is lucky to escape a Unicron eye beam in his direction. It’s enough, however, to send Wreck-Gar tumbling inside the underground shaft, burying him under rubble just as the detonator counts down. Eeks!

A Rodimus fact file rounds off the treats for issue #150 before we move on to the next issue and the concluding part of the Legacy of Unicron. There’s a hint on the Transformations page about a ‘major new development’ in the pipeline, which will turn out to be the closure of the weekly Action Force comic and amalgamating it into Transformers as the regular back-up strip. Bryan Hitch, one of the AF artists, makes his TF debut and makes an instant impact with a truly demonic depiction of Unicron’s head.

As Prime decamps to the surface of Junk, Smokescreen continues to strafe Unicron’s eye beams in an apparent death wish. He’s giving Scattershot the jitters and perhaps Unicron too, as the demi-god orders Cyclonus and Scourge to head for Junk to bolster his defences. With their departure from the battle on Cybertron, Soundwave can see no point in continuing the suicide attack and orders a strategic Decepticon retreat. This is the point where Soundwave can be said to have taken over the leadership of the future Decepticons.

Hitch strikes an incredibly dramatic pose for Rodimus Prime, who is wracked with guilt at the fate of the Junkion slaves (whom the Dinobots are busy dismantling). Death’s Head arrives with an appeal for Prime to trust him. Next thing he’s holding the Matrix up to Unicron alongside a defeated Rodimus and asking to bargain. Unicron immediately prepares to capture Death’s Head’s mind again and the bounty hunter propels Prime into the psychic plane where he confronts Unicron (appearing as regular sized) as a surrogate for Primus.

I’m not sure of what the point of the confrontation is. Rodimus is hopelessly out of his depth and runs a real of risk of losing the Matrix to the great enemy. Thankfully Death’s Head pulls him out in the nick of time, having also freed Wreck-Gar from his entombment.

Things then rush to a swift conclusion over the space of two pages. Cyclonus and Scourge arrive just as the explosives begin to detonate. Death’s Head knows the only route of escape – the only way to fulfil his contract on the pair – is to bundles all three of them into Unicron’s time portal so that they can fight another day. They vanish just as Unicron is engulfed in a catastrophic explosion that rains debris on to Rodimus and his allies.

As the dust settles, we learn that Unicron’s essence has been absorbed into the Matrix. Such a powerful evil would surely taint the sacred lifeforce but that’s a story for another time. In the short postscript we discover that Cyclonus and Scourge were transported to Cybertron’s past where they joined Scorponok’s army and this explains how the pair are able to exist in the past as Target Masters. Nicely done Simon Furman.

We end on a line about the real star of the show, ‘of Death’s Head there was no trace’. What happens to him? He’ll encounter Doctor Who at the crossroads of time but shrunk to human size and then wind up in Earth’s distant future in a springboard to his own monthly Marvel title.

So ends the first epic tale of 1988 with a lot more still to come.

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Love and Steel

At the mid point in the mini-series the Autobots have become Headmasters and gained the upper hand over their Decepticon enemies but their fortunes on Nebulos are about to undergo a dramatic reversal

Headmasters started life in the US as a four issue spin-off from the main Transformers title, in 1987. Its job was to introduce fans to a new cast of Autobots and Decepticons (and Nebulans) and the novel concept of transforming heads and weapons. The story hopped over the pond into the Marvel UK Transformers comic where it became that rarest of things, a back-up strip with the power to outshine the main story.

Most of the secondary stories up to that point had been pretty run of the mill, with a few exceptions like Machine Man of 2020, Action Force (the anglicized version of GI Joe) and my personal favourite Hercules. Having wall-to-wall Transformers stories for 16 weekly issues was a huge deal back in the day and as a reader we felt suitably blessed.
The Headmasters saga is the Transformers US writer Bob Budiansky on his A game, and if the purpose is to push a toy line that doesn’t detract from what is thought provoking (and entertaining) story. On the face of it, the set-up is familiar; it’s giant alien robots unleashing their civil war onto an unsuspecting human world, with the Decepticons intent on conquest and plunder and the Autobots struggling to protect the planet’s inhabitants (and mostly being met with fear and misunderstanding).

Earth in this case is substituted for the pacifist world of Nebulos. That’s thousands of years tradition of peace is not the only difference though. In regular Transformers, the concept of robots in disguise is quite apparent. The Transformers are blended into the background of society, and while they often break cover and get written up in the press, there’s been government attempts to dismiss them as a hoax (e.g. Robot Master) and life goes on generally speaking.

Whereas on Nebulos, the Transformers’ presence is acknowledged off the bat and is front and centre. From Highbrow’s clumsy first contact with Gort in the forest, Nebulos life is completely upended. Their parliament debates the Autobot presence, and Blurr arrives in a very public (and disastrous) way. The people are on the streets protesting and rioting! Public pressure is such, that the Nebulan leadership even abandons it’s tradition of peace in order to wage war on the Autobot refugees. It could be that Bob was saying something profound about human nature here (albeit they’re Nebulans) that fear and misunderstanding quickly descends into hatred and violence, and we’re all susceptible.

Love and Steel is the third instalment of the saga. We’ve previously seen the Decepticons arrive and the Autobot leader and four of his allies bonded with Nebulans to become Headmasters in order to repel Scorponok. From this point on the balance of power is about to shift decisively…

The story begins in Splendora, a city of “prosperity and beauty”, that is being laid waste by the Apeface and Snapdragon (the Horrorcons) and the combiner team known as the Terrorcons. The names say it all pretty much, and the panicked citizens are fleeing for their lives. Presumably, although we don’t see it, the death and casualty count is high. For the Decepticons the attack is just about relieving their boredom. In the words of Blott: “I bet when you stomp on them they make squishy sounds”.

The cavalry arrives in the form of the Technobots, who are led into battle by the Nebulan-controlled Autobots Hardhead and Brainstorm. I think there is a deliberate attempt by the Nebulan leader Galen to reassure the public by having Nebulans involved whenever the Autobots mount a defence, not that it is very successful.

The Terrorcons combine into Abominus, whose scale is utterly awesome. He’s able to demolish tall buildings with a swing of one of his mighty arms. The Technobots merge into Computron, who deploys a well placed shot and batters Abominus into his component parts with a huge metal girder. In his enthusiasm, Computron manages to give the impression of being as big a menace as the Decepticons. The Horrorcons are no match for the sharp-shooting Hardhead and Brainstorm, whose aim and abilities has improved exponentially since teaming up with Nebulans. (I’m not really sure why this should be the case, but perhaps it’s the old saying of two heads better than one…).

Brainstorm and Hardhead detach their heads into Nebulans Arcana and Duros to calm the public and assure them that the crisis is passed. As per usual they get zero gratitude. Peer Soriza, part of the Nebulan ruling council, simply questions the wisdom of Galen and his followers in “involving robots” in Nebulan affairs. The benefits should be pretty blooming obvious I would have thought, as the Decepticons would still be rampaging if not for the Autobot intervention.

At the Decepticon’s temporary base, Lord Zarak – who very unwisely reached out to Scorponok to seek his help in ridding Nebulos of the Autobots – is getting his just desserts by becoming a caged prisoner. For some reason, Scorponok is choosing to keep them as laboratory animals (showing his keen interest in mad science that would surface in the future and more so in the IDW comics of the 2000s). He’s created a bubble machine an elaborate trash disposal system for dumping Nebulan dissidents into the oblivion of outer space! Hmm.

The overweight Nebulan Monzo is selected as a test and quickly floats off, courtesy of Skullcruncher’s anti-gravity gun, before the bubble bursts at 50ft. Luckily Mindwipe transforms and catches the poor guy before he goes splat (no sense in wasting lab materials).

Zarak is pretty feisty for a caged captive. He warns Scorponok that a “thousand Nebulans will rise up” to take the place of any killed (hollow words perhaps from a society which has no concept of warfare) but he sees an opening when Apeface and Snapdragon return to report their defeat at Spendora, and are on the receiving end of Scorponok’s wrath – is he afraid to admit there are advantages to working with Nebulans, Zarak challenges.

Scorponok smashes the small prison and seizes Zarak in his pinchers. Yet the condemned Nebulan shows no fear – his death is a small matter if his world is to be conquered by Decepticons or Galen’s allies, he says. Perhaps it’s the scientist in Scorponok, or his desire to vanquish the enemy, but he agrees to share his power. However, he has a telling word of warning for Zarak: once possessed of the savage strength of Scorponok all other considerations become insignificant, perhaps even Zarak’s beloved daughter.

Later, at the Headmaster’s temporary headquarters, Galen and his men are visited by Soriza (still as miserable as ever) and a delegation. They find Galen and his men working on the Autobot weapons in what is undoubtedly the early stages of developing a Targetmaster process. As usual their preoccupation with war-making hits all the wrong notes insofar as the observers are concerned. Gort and Stylor are miscoloured as each other in one of the frequent art and colouring blunders with bedevil the series – thank goodness Bob’s storytelling makes up for this.

The Council has decided to send a delegation to accompany all of the Autobot missions. Galen agrees because he’s a stickler for the law, but he reinforces Duros’ point that the battlefield is no place for “headline hunting politicians”. Zarak’s daughter Llyra arrives looking like she’s stepped out in her negligee. She’s still giving poor Galen the cold shoulder for abandoning his peace loving principles, and has come with a very dubious video of Lord Zarak, apparently smuggled out of captivity, appealing for Galen and the Autobots to rescue them from the Decepticons. Galen readily agrees.

He tries to insist on Llyra not accompanying the political delegation and putting herself in harm’s way, but apparently she has inherited her father’s council seat in his absence – showing that they have an elitist hereditary system of politics on Nebulos rather than a democratic popular vote that you might expect from this highly evolved society.

The Headmasters roll-out to effect a rescue. Fortress Maximus, through Galen’s prior dealings with Zarak, ought to have known of the possibility for a trap and taken Autobot reinforcements along. Instead the five of them show up to take on an entire base full of Decepticons. They are met by Scorponok and five other Decepticons who emerge headless, with Zarak and the Nebulans now wearing robotic suits. The situation has “changed dramatically” says Zarak, before they bond with the Decepticons and attack the Autobots. Watching from above the politicians are appalled by the violence and Llyra cannot believe Galen is involved in it – despite him risking his life to rescue her beloved father – the same dad who’s now bonded to Scorponok!!

Zarak, now part-Scorponok, experiences power the likes of which he could never have imagined. Plucking Brainstorm from the air he feels like he could rip him in two; luckily, Fortress Maximus propels Skullcruncher at the Decepticon to prevent this happening. The inner conflict between Zarak’s love for his daughter and his home-world, and his lust for power and petty jealously, which is now magnified though his bonding with Scorponok is a really fascinating aspect of the story. With the Decepticons now ascendant, that inner turmoil is the only chance the Autobots have at a saving grace.

Apeface throws a boulder at the Nebulan observers’ floating craft, damaging a stabiliser and causing it to crash land (his bonding with Spasma doesn’t appear to have engendered any more sympathy towards Nebulans) and for Llyra and the others to spill out. Scorponok orders Mindwipe to create a distraction (except Scorpy has been drawn as Fortress Maximus, which is a shocking error by the artist) and Mindwipe uses his hypnotic gaze on Llyra to make her lead her fellow Nebulans into the trap of the Decepticon bubble machine. With Scorponok tearing a hole in roof, the bubbled-captives begin to float skywards and the Autobots have no choice but to break off the fight and focus on trying to free everyone.

Scorponok’s conflict at seeing ‘his daughter’ floating away is fascinating, although at this point the Decepticon side is stronger – there is no time for trivialities when he has a world within his grasp. Fortress Maximus frees Llyra and catches her (again, another artist blunder as Max’s head has been drawn as Cerebros – how does the artist get the main character of the saga wrong three issues in? It’s bizarre). The Autobots are sitting ducks and quickly cut down by a barrage of Decepticon fire. They heads detach and revert to unconscious Nebulan forms.

Zarak takes great pleasure in the defeat of his hated foe Galen – “you tried to intimidate me with your power” he says, showing a petty jealousy that underlines why he is the lesser man than Galen. However, in Llyra’s eyes Zarak is the hero of the hour. In her daze she thinks Galen and the Autobots were shooting at them, and despite dumping Galen for his decision to bond with Transformers to save Nebulos, she holds her father to no similar standard.

The instalment ends with the Autobots vanquished and Zarak vowing that Galen and his kind will never threaten Nebulos again! Harsh. As a reader the unfairness of the situation is brutal, however it’s certainly dramatic and you’ll be back for the concluding instalment Brothers in Armour to find out how the situations resolves.

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Ring of Hate!

Frustrated by the never-ending war on Cybertron, Fortress Maximus and his Autobots leave for a new life on the peaceful world of Nebulos, but their arrival is met with fear and hostility by the native Nebulans.

In September 1987 readers of the Marvel UK Transformers comic were introduced to a new species of Transformer – the Headmasters and Targetmasters. Simon Furman’s two parter, Worlds Apart, whet fans’ collective appetites for these unique new Autobots and Decepticons who are bonded with natives of the planet Nebulos who become their heads and weapons.

Furman’s story in issues #130-131 was a fun throwaway introduction, but the real meat in the sandwich was a four issue mini-series in the United States, written by Bob Budiansky, which established the origin of these new Transformers. That series was serialised in the UK Transformers comic via the back-up strip, so for 16 weeks in late 1987 readers were spoilt rotten with cover to cover Transformers stories.

‘Uncle Bob’ was instrumental in creating and defining the original Transformers characters on behalf of Hasbro in the early eighties. In 1986, as regular writer of the US book, he introduced the dystopian Cybertron where the Decepticons are in control and the heroic Autobots are reduced to scattered pockets of resistance (see the iconic Smelting Pool story). So Bob is the perfect writer to be tasked with mapping out the backstory of the Headmasters and Targetmasters, the Nebulans and a whole host of other characters. It’s a tall order to accomplish that while weaving a coherent story, but Bob does it with aplomb.

The mini-series tackles some big concepts, like love and sacrifice, betrayal, greed, revenge, and how war takes its toll on the characters.

Right off the bat we know we’re on to something interesting, as Scorponok shows what a cruel and sadistic bastard he is by unleashing his scorpion’s sting against an Autobot prisoner who is marching too slowly – possibly executing the poor soul. These survivors are being marched by Scorponok and his henchmen towards a slow and painful death in the Smelting Pool. (Whether this is the Straxus pool or Scorponok has his own, we don’t know).

Salvation arrives in the shape of Autobot leader Fortress Maximus – nemesis of Scorponok – who sets his army against the unsuspecting Decepticons leading to a fierce battle (told over two pages to give it a sense of epic). Fort Max is one-robot engine of destruction laying waste to the enemy while lambasting them as “evil stains” on the world. There’s a nice line from Scorponok of how the cowardice of his men “desecrates the name Decepticon” but their “destruction would serve no purpose” – so he signals a retreat, showing that he is smart enough not to waste resources in what is a long game. The enemy may win a battle but not the war… as the saying goes.

The Autobots return to their base in the Manganese Mountains jubilant. However, Fortress Maximus is no mood to celebrate (and bawls out Kup and Hot Rod for their triumphalism). He is weary of the war and has come to view Autobot and Decepticon as equally culpable in propagating the cycle. Max’s solution is for them to leave the battlefield and he has just the place… the planet Nebulos, a Saturn-like world he has observed for centuries, which has been at peace for thousands of years. With Cybertron passing closing to the Nebulan system, his intention is to leave for an exile on the planet. His followers can come with him or they can stay. Everyone is shocked but gradually the Autobots are convinced by Max’s argument and agree to follow him.
The slightly out of place reference to Optimus Prime (as a previous leader who disappeared and was never seen again) lets us know that Ring of Hate is set before the arrival of the message from Earth during the Smelting Pool story in mid 1986.

The Autobots devote their efforts to the rapid construction of the star ship Steelhaven and, as word spreads, comrades come from far and wide to join the exodus – the Technobots and Monsterbots among them – and soon they are warping away from Cybertron perhaps never to return. Once in orbit of Nebulos, the Autobots waste no time in disembarking. They find the planet to be a lush paradise full of organic life.

Max entrusts Highbrow with a device containing a message for the Nebulan leadership to announce their arrival and peaceful intent. Highbrow quite quickly stumbles across Gort, his youthful future binary bond partner, locked in an embrace with girlfriend Marita. It’s all a bit cringe-worthy as the cerebral Autobot geekily observes that they must have been engaged in data transfer (Bob always does a good job of showing the Transformers as alien and clueless as to the ways of humankind) but Highbrow only succeeds in startling the pair and causing Gort to fall and hurt his head. He departs with an earnest comment about hoping Marita’s companion “can be repaired”.

The plot moves fast, with the planet’s ruling council of peers meeting in the capital Koraja the following day to discuss their response to the Autobot message. When you consider that the Transformers have been on Earth for three years at this point and their presence has never been properly acknowledged by the US government (other than through the Robot Master hoax). Headmasters is already breaking new ground in terms of first contact.

Among the Nebulan senators, Lord Zarak is one of hawks who regards the Autobots’ arrival as the greatest threat to his people and urges them to rearm. Gort’s injuries are cited as evidence of the aliens’ ill-intent, despite Marita’s attempts to interject from the gallery. Galen, leader of the World Watchers, and hated by Zarak, argues that they hold true to their values of peace and understanding and hear the aliens out. So, the Autobots’ emissary Blurr is permitted into the Nebulan capital the following day to deliver his message of peace.

Krunk, acting on orders from Zarak, aims a magnetic polarizer gun at Blurr causing his arm to be drawn to a fountain monument of a Nebulan globe, knocking it from its moorings and sending it into the crowd. Pandemonium breaks out and Blurr is forced to flee from a volley of fire from Zarak’s personal militia. The ambush of Blurr by Zarak’s forces was a spectacular success, proving that luck is on their side and against the Autobots. They could not have known that Blurr would stand at exactly the right distance to the globe or even know that his body would react to magnetism.

This causes a dilemma for the Autobots. If attacked do they fight back? Fortress Maximus is adamant: absolutely not. Little do they realise that Galen has been instructed by the council to unlock the armoury containing the Nebulans long-abandoned machines of war. Galen and Duros are soon leading an armada of war machines against the Autobots. Kup returns fire and is confronted by Max who tells him they will never convince the Nebulans of their peaceful intent if they fight. If Kup wants to battle the Nebulans he’ll have to go through his own leader. He backs down and they flee into the woods and swamp where the cumbersome vehicles cannot pursue.

Kup’s willingness to challenge authority is not a side of him we’ve seen before but it will surface again, much later when they are on Earth and Kup has serious misgivings about Fortress Maximus’ new headmaster partner Spike Witwicky, and later still when Optimus Prime proposes that the Autobots surrender to Scorponok to forge an alliance against Unicron.

It must be something about human nature (admittedly these are Nebulans but they certainly looks and act like Earth people) that a tradition of peace for ten millennia can be so easily cast aside the minute they feel threatened. It’s frankly a miracle that they have had peace for so long, especially considering the suspicious and manipulative ways of some of their number. While the noble Galen fears he may have betrayed his countrymen by acting in such haste, Zarak believes his manipulation of Galen has been necessary to manoeuvre the Nebulan leader into doing the sensible thing.

The Autobots are in a bind. They cannot return to Cybertron and the war, but neither can they risk igniting a new conflict. Fortress Maximus decides to take another of his bold risks. Accompanied by Hardhead, Chromedome, Brainstorm, Highbrow, Hot Rod, Kup, Blurr, Sureshot, Pointblank and Crosshairs, he advances on the Nebulan capital and pleads for peace. Zarak implores Galen to order the attack, and so to prove his good faith, Max offers the most he has to give… his head. In a macabre gesture he removes his head from his shoulders and surrenders it to the Nebulans. Hardhead, Chromedome, Highbrow and Brainstorm do the same. The others were a bit more sensible and merely surrendered their weapons!

Galen comes to his senses and realises that a moment of distrust can destroy 10,000 years of peace. He declares they will work with the Autobots and there will be no war this day. From the look on Zarak’s face its clear that he is not done yet.

The saga continues in the second instalment Broken Glass.

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