King of the Hill!

Grimlock stakes his claim for the vacant leadership of the Autobots just as the monstrous Trypticon arrives from Cybertron intent on making sure there’s nobody left alive to lead!

May 1987. In Britain a general election campaign is getting underway (which would result in a third term for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party) and this is referenced in the Transformation page of issue #111 as being of secondary importance to another big contest underway – who should govern the Autobots as the successor the late Optimus Prime! Lee Sullivan’s fantastic cover makes it clear that Grimlock is making an aggressive play for the top job. The big shake-up of the Transformers status quo initiated by writer Bob Budiansky through his decision to kill of both Prime and Megatron nears its conclusion but not before we marvel at the debut of the biggest, baddest robotic dinosaur of all… the unstoppable Trypticon!

As is also typical for a Budiansky Transformers story there is a human support character. In the case of ‘King of the Hill’ that role is filled by a young palaeontology student named Rachel Becker. The story opens with Rachel up in the wooded mountains in Oregon showing her professor and his assistant an “exciting find” – fresh dinosaur footprints! It could be a stegasaurus or triceratops she claims, but Professor Paaswell knows better. He points out the even lines suggesting the prints were mechanically carved and therefore an elaborate hoax. Rachel is disheartened but the group’s attention is attracted to a pterodactyl soaring in the sky above them. They decide to stick around and pitch their tents.

That prehistoric bird is of course the Dinobot Swoop. He’s on a mission to procure a fuel source for his comrades and finds his target in the form of a petrol tanker parked at a diner 158 miles south east. It’s odd that Swoop can’t find anything more local but perhaps he simply enjoys a chance to stretch his wings and get away from the other Dinobots for a bit. He steals the drum clean off the tanker vehicle and makes off with it (as a waitress in the diner overfills a coffee cup while watching in shock!). Soon the Dinobots are feasting in the manner of a pack of hungry lions. Curiously, when the Transformers first arrived they were unable to ingest Earth fossil fuels but that’s no longer a problem it seems. Possibly the Dinobots have been modified following the agreement between G.B. Blackrock and the Autobots for him to provide them with free fuel?

We learn that Grimlock and his team have a certain disdain for humanity that is at sharp odds with that of their fellow Autobots. There’s also an arrogant belief in their own strength and superiority over humanity and the other Autobots. Word has reached them that a successor to Optimus Prime is to be chosen and Grimlock intends to claim the empty throne. The Dinobots’ self-imposed exile (since they walked out in the prologue to Target: 2006) will shortly be ended. Their bellies filled, their hunger now is for power.

A quick check in with the Decepticons reveals that the small Florida Keys island they commandeered in Gone But Not Forgotten is now a top cover for a massive underwater base. This is impressive progress considering that the enemy forces won’t have been there much more than a month by this point. I wondered whether the Constructicons could have been sent ahead? But I’m not so sure, as the hydrothermacline technology is the reason for the base’s location and the Decepticons only acquired that fairly recently (in Afterdeath!).

Inside the base, Shockwave again commands but the change of regime has done nothing to reassure their bottom-line-obsessed fuel auditor Ratbat – who is stationed on Cybertron and now appears on screen. Ratbat is convinced that the Earth-bound operation is costing more in fuel than it brings in and they will have to pull the plug. Shockwave pins the blame for their inefficiency on the flawed leadership of his predecessor Megatron and persuades Ratbat to give them one more chance, by sending the mightiest Decepticon available for an assault on the Ark. If they can capture the Autobot headquarters they will have access to abundant resources.

At the Ark, Perceptor has convened a meeting of the senior Autobots to discuss the appointment of Optimus Prime’s successor. Jetfire, who endured a disastrous spell of temporary command during Prime’s disappearance is present, Blaster, Ratchet, Omega Supreme (now about a fifth he was on his debut) and the Special Teams leaders Silverbolt and Hotspot. Interestingly, Prowl is absent. As Prime’s deputy I would expect to see him there as a frontrunner, particularly as we know he’s now operational against (see Funeral For a Friend). As for Perceptor himself, for someone who very recently arrived from Cybertron, he’s in a very senior role. I put this down to the years (perhaps millennia?) that he commanded a resistance unit on Cybertron. That has to count for a lot. Perceptor praises the qualities of the great Optimus: strength, wisdom, leadership, compassion and generosity.

These are attributes that are mostly lacking in the oafish Grimlock, who blunders in swings his energo sword through a hologram of Prime. He declares that strength is all that matters and as the strongest Autobot he should lead. Where Prime avoided conflict in order to spare humanity the fallout, Grimlock has no such qualms. Everyone is horrified and the Dinobot commander stomps off in a huff.

Part one finishes where it began, with Rachel Becker. She awakened in her tent by a blinding light outside. She goes to investigate and witnesses the manifestation of the Space Bridge and a gigantic and imposing war machine travelling across it – the ‘unspeakable terror’ that is Trypticon! Fans cheer. Rachel screams!

As an interesting footnote to the story, this will be the first time US readers will have seen the Dinobots in a major way since their debut two years ago (save from a cameo in Command Performances). The lack of character development Stateside means that Grimlock is now portrayed as the ‘dumb dino’ with speech difficulties just as he is in the now well-established Sunbow cartoons. Trouble is that this portrayal is at odds with the UK continuity where he’s talked normally up until now. UK writer Simon Furman would have to move his Grimlock closer to the Budiansky portrayal after this. The Grim Grams page carries a letter from a reader in the USA who has discovered the UK comic and is enquiring about Target: 2006, showing again the growing global reach of the comic.

Part 2 – issue #112 – kicks off with the fabulous ‘Dinosaur war’ cover by Herbe Trimpe and Tim Perkins which adorns the US version of the story. Rachel Becker flees in panic at the terrible sight of Trypticon but as her terror abates she realises that the giant dinosaur has not even noticed her. She settles down for the night to wait for morning (obviously it takes more than a close encounter with an extra-terrestrial dinosaur to put her off her sleep!).

Trypticon quickly makes his way to the Ark and reveals his impressive battlestation mode. He dispatches his servant Wipe-Out in car mode to scout the area, and fires ‘sonic scrambler’ missiles at the Ark entrance. The devices begin to disorientate the Autobots inside. Perceptor and his ‘Cybertron Seven’ comrades staggers outside to investigate and come under heavy bombardment. The Dinobots, like Rachel, are attracted by the noises and the light show and have a ringside seat for the slaughter.

While Slag, Snarl and Sludge are enjoying the show (and admiring Trypticon’s marksmanship) Grimlock seems to have come over all responsible and leaderlike and is aghast to see his would-be troops getting cut down. He steps away to resolve his inner conflict and comes face to face with Rachel, who this time holds her ground (she had previously been disappointed with herself for running from Trypticon instead of indulging her scientific curiosity). Grimlock is impressed by her courage but as he leaves, Wipe-Out sneaks up and steals Rachel as a gift to his master.

As Blaster follows Perceptor in taking a direct hit in the chest, Omega Supreme and the other Autobots emerge from the Ark and also suffer immediate disorientation. If they can’t destroy the scramblers they’ll be sitting ducks! Grimlock takes no enjoyment from the carnage. He was prepared to throw his weight around to obtain the leadership but he has no wish to see the Autobots slaughtered.

So, when Rachel is delivered to Trypticon as a snack. Grimlock leaps into action and sinks his teeth in the giant Decepticon’s head and the other Dinobots rush to his aid. Slag bathes Trypticon in fire and Snack appears to break Wipe-Out apart with a mighty flick of his tail. Swoop as usual comes off worse, taking a blast through the wings from Trypticon’s head cannon but still gets off a missile.

Trypticon’s size and raw power means he is a formidable adversary for all five Dinobots at once, but the Space Bridge suddenly appears and Ratbat commands Trypticon to retreat – he has exceeded his energy budget for this mission (either Ratbat is worried about him running out of fuel and being overcome, or he’s that anal about the budget that he won’t countenance an overspend even if Trypticon may well have emerged victorious).

While Rachel re-joins her fellow humans, the battered Autobots regroup within the Ark. They are extremely grateful for the Dinobots’ timely intervention and impressed by Grimlock’s performance on the battlefield. Jetfire tells him that he has earned the position of Autobot leader if he still wants it. Grimlock for once is humbled and respectfully declines. He had thought that being the strongest was enough, but now he realises that it takes more than that to command the Autobots, because of his selfishness many of his comrades were unnecessarily hurt.

Ratchet enters telling Grimlock that his patients (Blaster and Perceptor) wish to disagree: Grimlock has displayed courage, compassion, military skill and charisma in the battle – in short, exactly what the Autobots could hope for in a great leader. Perceptor tells the others that their search is over, and they all hail Grimlock – Leader of the Autobots!

In summary, the Autobots have a new leader but his earlier abrasive style and questionable values must still raise some serious question marks about his suitability. It appears that the Autobots, perhaps in their desperation, have acted in the heat of the moment and in the cold light of day might come to regret their choice (which of course they do). But it must also be recognised that the humble and selfless Grimlock who manifested in defence of Rachel was a worthy contender in that moment.

I rather enjoyed Trypticon’s butt-kissing sidekick Wipe-Out. It appeared that he’d been left behind when his boss fled. However, it might not be the last we see of him. On the cover to issue #169 Trypticon has a car chest plate which on the toy version is Wipe-Out.

This ends a run of US stories. Next issue it’s back to the UK team for the latest Transformers The Movie inspired time-travelling saga – Wanted: Galvatron.

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Aerialbots Over America!

The Aerialbots take to the skies in their debut-proper, but after the heady heights of Target: 2006 the UK comic is back to Earth with a bump in this largely run-of-the-mill tale from over the pond.

Target: 2006 was such a blockbuster that whatever followed was always likely to feel second best, and that’s the case with Aerialbots Over America. Written by US mainstay Bob Budiansky and published in October 1986 (the UK reprint coming out in the November) it is an okayish story that has some good moments, but which mostly fails to ignite. The story is really a vehicle to introduce recent Hasbro toy releases into the comic – so we get the Insecticons, Ramjet, Dirge and Thrust embedded within the ranks of the Earth-based Decepticons at last, and of course the launch of the Autobots’ first combiner team, the Aerialbots.

Surprisingly enough, the Insecticons play almost as large a role in the story as the titular Aerialbots. As this issue begins, Bombshell is in his tiny insect form, perched on a leaf and watching his human target Ricky Vasquez. It feels like he’s finally in his proper element – there being no insects on Cybertron (that we’re aware of) the Insecticons were literally made for an Earth existence.

Budiansky regularly grounds his Transformers with a human character. Ricky, our guest this issue, is a devoted family man – husband to Carmen and dad to little Maria, who he promises to take to fourth of July celebrations on his return from work. It’s his job that makes him of interest to the Decepticons – he’s assistant chief-engineer at Hoover Dam, the huge facility in Nevada which provides electricity to 20 million Americans. To the bad guys, it’s a source of energy which they can use to replenish stocks on Cybertron.

Bombshell injects Ricky with one of his mind-controlling ‘Cerebral Shells’ which quickly takes root in his brain and renders him a helpless puppet of the Decepticons. He turns his car off the main highway and on to a desolate dirt road, where Megatron and the other Insecticons (Kickback and Shrapnel) are waiting. Bombshell demonstrates the effectiveness of his shells by sadistically making Ricky remove a grease spot from his foot with his tongue.

Shortly afterwards, Ricky is strolling past Dam security zombielike as a jolly cop wishes him a happy fourth of July. This guy should have gone to Specsavers, as he completely misses the stonking great gun (Megatron in his gun mode) that Ricky is casually carrying. And minutes later they’re in the control room and Ricky is holding the staff hostage, demanding the dam be switched off!

At this point it might be worth mentioning the strange chronology of this story. Though published in October 1986 its set on American Independence Day in July, which means that all of the stories that have taken place previously that year (from the crisis of command to the Dinobot Hunt, the advent of the Special Teams, Megatron’s return, Target: 2006 and more…) all of it would have had to have happened in the first six months of the year!

And since we’re practically at Christmas, we’re meant to believe that nothing whatever of note is occurring in the second half of the year. It’s a jarring discrepancy and I can’t help thinking that Bob should have set this story at Thanksgiving in November where the timing would have made more sense, but he probably didn’t anyone who notice or care too much.

Meanwhile, Skids has returned to the Ark (having been lost for dead as far as the Autobots were concerned) and bringing with him Donny Finkleberg, aka Robot Master. Ratchet is on unusually cantankerous form for him. He’s repairing a wound Optimus Prime picked up in the Limbo dimension during Target: 2006 (though in the US continuity it was inflicted by a huge swinging axe during the Autobot assault on the Decepticon base) and is concerned about a human perspiring and causing a rust infection. I’m amused by his offer to perform a little surgery on the untrustworthy Donny to get the truth out of him about his claim of seven Autobots having travelled across the Decepticon space bridge. Instead, Prime assigns Jetfire to escort Donny to the location.

Bumblebee notifies Optimus of the siege underway at Hoover Dam. On hearing this, Prime postpones repairs and rushes outside where Wheeljack is testing the five newly constructed Aerialbots. They are now instilled with life, but only Silverbolt has been properly programmed. Their lack of battle readiness is a worry, particularly as Prime is convinced that the Decepticons are involved in the Dam siege but dispatches the Aerialbots anyway with instructions to thwart the enemy plan and defend human life.

Back at the Dam a large police presence and the media have assembled. The gunman is soon identified as Ricky and his family (now at the scene) can only watch in horror. Within moments the space bridge materialises and Ramjet, Dirge and Thrust – fly out and transform. A giant drill follows in their wake and begins to grind away at the Dam’s cement exterior…

The second half begins with Jetfire soaring above the Columbia river gorge with Donny Finkleberg onboard. They are right above where the seven Autobots arrived but there’s no sign of anyone. Jetfire transforms in mid-air and catches the screaming Donny as he falls, noting that humans don’t bounce particularly well. Jetfire’s refers to the Cybertron sport ‘Basketrek’ that they used to play but of course he has never been to Transformers’ home world as he was created on Earth! Perhaps he’s been studying his heritage or didn’t want to let on to Donny about his origins. It seems neither Autobot nor Decepticon has much regard for Mr Finkleberg, or trust.

However, Jetfire does find a puddle of fuel which suggests that Transformers have been in this region, and one of them was leaking! This is of course the gaping leg wound Blaster received when he took a blow from Lord Straxus’ axe in their fateful battle. More on the Cybertron Seven shortly…

The Aerialbots’ arrival at Hoover Dam is announced by the TV reporter at the scene, as clearly not the US Air Force as they are led by an SST (supersonic transport)! This gives Ramjet, Dirge and Thrust an opportunity to showcase their abilities to the reader. Thrust uses his engine roar to deafen Skydive and play havoc with his internal systems, forcing him to land. Ramjet crashes head-first into Slingshot and Dirge fires missiles at Fireflight – they miss the target but reign rocks and debris on to the crowd below. Silverbolt, uniquely, recognises the danger and orders Fireflight to stop the rocks (which he does by melting them) but clearly the rest of the team’s incomplete programming is rendering them a liability to the humans. In fact, Dirge congratulates his opponent on his disregard for the humans who “get in the way”, and taps into Silverbolt’s hidden fear of heights, causing the Aerialbot leader to panic and dive for the ground. So far, the team’s debut is far from successful.

Megatron orders the Insecticons to assist their Decepticon comrades outside. We learn that they are intent on transferring water to Cybertron to ‘generate enough energy to power the planet for years. A human hostage protests that the missing water would devastate the American Southwest, but as far as Megatron is concerned, all of Earth will be a wasteland once he’s finished any way! Ricky’s subconscious starts to struggle against the shell’s effects.

Outside, Thrust and Dirge congratulate themselves on a job well done, when Air Raid dives between them and transforms. He shoots Ramjet’s fuselage severely damaging him, as Kickback sneaks up in insect mode and gives the Aerialbot a massive wallop! In order to save the dam, the Aerialbots combine into their eight-storey sized alter-ego, Superion and begin to demolish the drill. Ricky arrives, holding Megatron, who orders him to fire upon the giant Autobot. (It always surprises me that Megatron needs someone to pull his own trigger!)

Superion notices the threat and manoeuvres a giant hand to crush Ricky! The part of their unified mind that is Silverbolt protests, and for a moment Ricky and Superion are frozen as they fight the confusion within their minds. Suddenly, young Maria Vasquez, Ricky’s daughter, runs from the crowd calling out to her father. Ricky overpowers the shell controlling him and blasts the drill instead. The space bridge instantly begins to dematerialise back to Cybertron, while Megatron retreats with all but one of his Decepticons.

As the Aerialbots return to the Ark, Silverbolt thinks the mission went well all things considered: the drill was destroyed, and despite Superion’s problems, the humans they sought to protect were saved. He doesn’t realise that Bombshell is secretly stowing away on his wing for a free ride into the Autobot base! Ricky, meanwhile, apologises to his daughter about being unable to take her to the fireworks, but she does not mind – she’s seen enough of those today.

Finally, what about the Cybertron Seven? This issue’s epilogue holds the answers to that long-running question. We see flatbed trucks arrive at a disused aircraft hangar in New Jersey that is serving as the secret headquarters of RAAT (Rapid Anti-robot Assault Team) – a creature of the United States government. Seven cargoes are quickly unloaded and uncovered to reveal the deactivated Cybertron Seven. Each Autobot is placed under precision machinery and has its face plating removed and mounted on to the hanger wall, as hunting trophies! A RAAT worker announces to his boss that this is the ‘last of the heads’ and she corrects him – this is only the beginning, so swears Circuit Breaker!! RAAT are set to be a major thorn in the side of the Transformers but – as we soon see – they seem to have an annoying habit of only attacking the Autobots!

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