City of Fear

The dead walk the streets in the Cybertron city of Kalis! Can Magnus, the Sparklers and their Decepticon prisoner Flywheels make it out alive?

Location, location, location. Any estate agent will tell you this is the top consideration when investing in property. So, whoever decided to relocate the headquarters of Cybertron’s Autobot Resistance to Kalis really screwed up royally!

On the face of it, Kalis is a bombed-out wreck of a place, but pretty much your average Cybertron metropolis after millions of years of ongoing civil war. However, recently it has earned itself a feared reputation for supernatural goings on. Whisper it gently, but some say the dead walk the streets here!

Like I said, not the best place to open a new base. Or maybe it is if you don’t want Decepticon patrols to find you?

Welcome to City of Fear, the first chapter of a six-issue saga from writer Simon Furman and artist Dan Reed, published in issues 164 and 165 of Marvel UK’s weekly Transformers comic (still enjoying its hey day back in May 1988).

I’ll say up front that I absolutely love this two part story and for me it ranks among the best of Simon’s UK material. It also really suits Dan’s artistic style. These days a zombie fest is common enough but less so in the 80s and I wouldn’t have expected the concept to work for a Transformers story but by Primus it does.

Dan’s cover for 164, ‘Face it Sparkers there’s no-one home’ – with zombie silhouettes reaching for Magnus and his mini-bot mates lets you know what you’re in for. The Transformation intro page also ramps up the anticipation for the ‘most spinetingling Transformers story we’ve ever dared to present’. This one would have made a very good Hallowe’en story if it had been later in the year.

Simon is not adverse to stealing concepts from Star Trek (like warp drive, Hot Rod beaming down in Kup’s Story, time travel, communicators etc) and this also includes the unwritten rule that a character who is not part of the main cast (in this case the Hasbro toy line) is almost certain to die horribly.

A case in point is the anonymous green and orange Autobot making his way across Kalis in the opening scene. (I have a vague memory of him being revealed as Chuffer on a later Grim Grams page – not sure if this was a gag by Furman).

Chuffer, or whoever he is, has got the jitters alright. He’s jumping out of his skin at eery noises and big-time regretting not heeding the warnings to stay hidden. A skeletal-looking robot zombie rears up behind him, still wearing an Autobot badge, and punches a hole clean through the robot’s chest. Eeks. As openings go its dramatic and defy anyone not to read on.

On Earth, Ultra Magnus and the Sparkabots are awaiting the arrival of an interdimensional portal that will transport them to Cybertron and the new Autobase on Kalis. The mini-bots are still being referred to in the UK comic as the Sparkler Mini-bots (why I don’t know?) and Sizzle and Fizzle’s colourings are reversed. These are curiosities that endure to this day, however they are a good foil for Magnus, who is our main character and Optimus Prime stand-in.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Cybertron Autobots led by Xaaron and the Wreckers have enough on their plate trying to retake their home world without worrying about the future Decepticon Galvatron, who is at large on Earth, a very distant for them. For some reason he is a priority though, and enough to send the Sparklers to Earth to spy on him and with the secondary aim of recovering Magnus.

With the mission complete, it’s time to return to Cybertron and report back, so they step through the portal and emerge in a trashed and deserted Autobase. Magnus questions who could have been mighty enough to best the Wreckers, their elite commandos? And where is everyone now?

One clue might be a very old, severed head that Sizzle finds. Odd that the blaster damage looks recent. He drops the head and runs to catch up with the others, only for it to come alive and bear vampirical fangs. A brilliant moment.

Our intrepid heroes find Kalis a ‘ghost town’ and even the Empties (Cybertron down and outs) that they see, beat a quick retreat when they see them. They think they see movement in a window, but no-one will come out and talk, much to Magnus’ annoyance.

Instead, everyone reverts to vehicle modes (Dan Reed uniquely illustrates their transformations with electrical energy in yellow and black) and they head out of the city in search of some answers, only to run into a Decepticon cordon. Are they keeping something out or something in?

Then an unexpected character debut (I always loved those) of the Duocons Flywheels and Battletrap who attack via their aerial modes and drop a bomb on the four Autobots. The Sparklers are rendered temporarily unconscious, but Magnus, who is still standing and pretty riled up by this point, whacks Flywheels with a girder and forces him to crash-land and revert to his robot mode.

Duocons, as we know, separate into two vehicles and therefore Flywheels’ jet should only be able to form his robotic torso and would have been parted from his tank mode (needed to form his legs). To get around this obvious problem, Furman has the Duocons function as triple changers, which is a real shame. Better I think, to have had the vehicle mode teleport across.

Flywheels is actually the unexpected star of the show from this point on. He’s such a brilliant addition to the team – wise-cracking, untrustworthy and one real cool dude. Initially though, he’s freaking out after discovering that he’s been bundled into Kalis – don’t they know the dead walk the streets in Kalis and their victims become like them, the living dead?!

Right on cue, hands burst from the floor and grab their feet. The dead have risen… and it’s a hell of cliff-hanger to top off a downright entertaining opening instalment.

On the letters page Grimlock deals with the confusion over Jawbreaker/Overbite, explaining that Jawbreaker was the Seacon’s name on Cybertron and it stuck. Hmm. He also reveals that the message that the Headmasters received which brought them to Earth was sent by Goldbug from the cave at Mount St Hilary. Since the message was received before we saw the story where it was sent, I’d assumed that it must have been Soundwave’s message sent in The Next Best Thing to Being There, way back.

In the opener for issue 165 there’s the first mention of Dragon’s Teeth, a new title on the way from Furman and Senior (a real classic) that would end up being renamed ahead of its release to Dragon’s Claws. I think at some point I’ll review it.

Back to City of Fear, and part two opens with zombie hordes spilling out from the sides and surrounding our protagonists like circling wagons from a Western. They’ll have to ‘fight their way out’ declares Magnus, and everyone starts gunning down their attackers using their identical blasters (Dan Reed standardised the weapons which was a shame as often the guns were unique to each Transformer and certainly looked different).

Magnus won’t allow Flywheels to have a gun back (he’s their prisoner after all and being a Decepticon, he’s not to be trusted) but the latter has a tank mode which comes in rather useful. The Sparklers unleash a fire bath from their engines, until Magnus realises some of the zombies are Autobots – they are killing their own troops.

It’s a dumb move and risks getting everyone killed. Luckily, Flywheels takes not a bit of notice of the order and saves Magnus from getting mauled by a flying zombie. Not that Magnus is particularly grateful!

Having beaten a retreat they regroup nearby and theorise what might be reanimating these dead Autobots and Decepticons. If it’s a remote control (or computer transmission as stated) Flywheels suggests they jam the signal. Obvious huh?

Cue Magnus and Flywheels heading into the Baird Beaming Transmitter (a nice nod from Simon to the Briton, John Logie Baird, the inventor of television) and he reluctantly agrees that he’ll have to hand the Decepticon back his gun. Can Flywheels be trusted? Magnus doesn’t think so, but feels he has no choice, he needs the help.

Magnus is successful, only to find himself staring down the barrel of Flywheels’ blaster. Luckily, his target turns out to be a still reanimated zombie – phew!

The threat is over, and Magnus was able to learn something significant – that the signal which activated the zombies was coming from hundreds of feet beneath the surface of Cybertron. Interesting.

In closing, what a fun ride and a distinctly different Transformers story. The rank-and-file Sparklers compliment the more senior and serious Magnus, our stand-in Optimus who is comfortable getting his hands dirty as well as commanding. The Sparklers are a nice, easy-going bunch (as much as anyone can be with zombies on their trail) but they don’t register as separate personalities.

Flywheels steals the show. His wanton disregard for life is just the ticket in this situation and gung-ho philosophy contrasts with restrictive Autobot morality. He is the black humour element and enjoys the Autobots’ discomfort in having to side with their prisoner. There’s always the feeling that Flywheels is about to turn on his new allies, but instead he saves Magnus twice. Perhaps he was starting to like his new Autobot allies?

With that, we’re on to Legion of the Lost, the next instalment, where the explanations begin and events go from bad to worse.

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The Enemy Within

March 1985 was a significant month in the history of Transformers comics. Issue #13 marked the debut of Simon Furman – the writer who even more than Bob Budiansky most deserves the title Mr Transformers. Furman is responsible for the vast majority of the UK stories in the comic’s 332 issue run and a good number of the Marvel US classics too! And his contribution in the years which followed, with stories for successive license-holders Dreamwave, Titan and IDW.

But it all began with The Enemy Within – a four part story, later hastily stretched to five – produced during the seven months interlude where Transformers UK was fresh out of stories from the US comic to reprint and had to fill the gap with home grown material.

The story is essentially a duel between Starscream and Brawn, two hitherto supporting characters, with the stakes being either death or redemption; but it’s the Decepticon side of the equation that is arguably the more interesting.

The Enemy Within builds on the dynamic between the two biggest Decepticon egos, commander Megatron and his would-be leadership rival Starscream. It was often hinted in the initial mini-series that Starscream thought he would make a better leader, and was just looking for his opportunity to strike. With patience not one of his virtues, his mask eventually slipped and (during The Last Stand) Starscream was openly critical of Megatron and quickly found himself on the receiving end of the leader’s all-powerful fusion canon!

Save for that comedic moment, we haven’t seen Starscream at his most cunning and plotting until now. Furman’s debut story delves in, and unlike the Sunbow cartoons where Starscream is forever undermining the leader and getting away with it, there’s a sense of real consequences here. The Decepticons are like a mafia outfit and if you’re on manoeuvres against the Don, you’re definitely taking a massive risk with your life.

The story grabs the reader from the first panel, opening on a close-up of a Megatron who is outraged! We soon find out why. Starscream is stirring unrest by suggesting they all-out attack the Autobots, something he knows the others will support him on. In doing so, he’s openly questioning Megatron’s chosen course of action. A fusion cannon blast across his bows puts Starscream back in his place, but there is lingering unease in the camp. Megatron instructs Ravage to spy on Starscream and bring back evidence of his treachery, so that he can be silenced for good!

There’s a sense that Ravage is a trusted confidant and someone with whom Megatron can let his guard down. And unlike Ravage’s cartoon depiction, where he’s more animal-like, in the comic he speaks and is like any other Decepticon except with a jaguar robot form.

Unlike the previous UK story Man of Iron, which is out on a limb, we can see that Furman is making a conscious effort to fit his story into the established US canon. So, he has Megatron mention the encounter with Spider-Man and the talk of attacking the Autobots feels like a build-up to what eventually happens in The Last Stand.

Meanwhile, at the Ark, Brawn is lifting a heavy piece of equipment that Mirage is working on when both receive what looks like a very nasty electric shock. In Mirage’s case it will enhance his illusion abilities but Brawn suffers a personality change and becomes selfish, angry and resentful. He goes on a rampage and batters his way through the Ark’s hull and escapes.

Starscream is planning to attack an army base. He thinks that when the Autobots come to the human’s rescue, the Decepticons will come to his – and will be convinced by his leadership qualities. For some stupid reason Starscream articulates all this out loud (why?) and is overheard by Ravage. He offers Ravage a chance to join the plot or else be destroyed. You get a sense of some mutual respect between the two of the other’s abilities – I think when Starscream offers the alliance it’s not only because he’s been caught red-handed, he genuinely thinks Ravage would be an asset.

We see each of their abilities play out in a head to head. Ravage is able to blend into the desert and spring up out of nowhere to launch a missile attack, but the agile flier Starscream is able to evade the threat. The battle concludes with Ravage being blasted and disappearing under falling rocks. There’s no longer any turning back.

In part 2 (TFUK #14) we learn that Ravage survived. He staggers home to the Decepticons and reveals it was Starscream who attacked him. We also see Brawn causing a really nasty (probably fatal) road smash as he takes revenge on humans for ‘enslaving’ his fellow machines (cars). Those hook hands of his are probably useless at picking things up but they are pretty handy for battering the crap out of stationary vehicles, as Brawn does to a cop car which he ‘freed from servitude’ to mankind but which appeared ungrateful. Oh dear.

Starscream causes havoc by shooting down US jets and appearing on television challenging the Autobots to take him on! However, with their own problems to sort out, they swerve the invite and show up to confront the renegade Brawn. It is the Decepticons and Megatron who arrive to take down Starscream!

Cue part 3 where Brawn refuses to come quietly and repels his one-time comrades (fairly successfully) until being taken down by – of all people – Red Alert. Why is that strange, well for one thing he’s never appeared in the line up of Earthbound Autobots before and his appearance here feels like a continuity error. They really ought to have coloured him red and said it was Sideswipe, getting his revenge from earlier.

While Starscream is in a fight for his life – pursued by his former wingmen Skywarp and Thundercracker, he is shot down in the desert and confronted by Megatron. He begs for trial by combat, which apparently he is entitled to, but really Megatron should take no notice of this and press the advantage. That he doesn’t is an indication that there are limits to his authority and he has to keep the troops on side.

In a nice touch, we’re treated to an incident (via historical tapes) of two Cybertronians called Tornado and Earthquake who accepted trial by combat and destroyed each other. With names like that, perhaps it was unsurprising? This could be a perfect resolution, Megatron thinks. Once Brawn is repaired and realises his terrible error, he readily accepts the challenge laid down by the Decepticons to do battle.

Part 4 was billed in advance as the concluding part, but over the fortnight the production team must have discovered that the wait for US material was going to be longer than they expected. The result was that they decided to split the final 11 pages over two issues, and the next story (Raiders of the Last Ark would be told over four issues not two).

That disappointment aside, TFUK #16 is an exciting issue with both Brawn and Starscream showcasing their respective talents (strength and deadly aerial abilities). Brawn throws a giant bolder, Starscream rains down volleys from above. Brawn leaps off a ledge and on to his opponent but ends up hitting the ground hard. Starscream unleashes on the helpless Autobot, seemingly blowing him to bits… or has he? The narrative states that ‘no emotion registered on Optimus Prime’s face’ (how many emotions can a guy without a face show anyway?) and we start to realise that things might not all be as they seem.

In part 5 we find out Mirage had used his abilities to simulate Brawn’s destruction while pulling him clear. Ravage, meanwhile, is in wait with a massive gun strapped to his back, which he uses to take out Starscream! Revenge is a dish best served cold. This can neatly be blamed on the Autobots and serve as a premise for Megatron to lead the attack his troops have been itching for.

In summary, this is action-packed debut story from Simon Furman and nice in that it gives the lesser-seen Brawn a turn in the spotlight. The art, by Ridgway and Collins, sees characters drawn like their toy incarnations but after a while you get used it. One of the letters to the editor asks why Megatron looks different every week. Their reply: none of the artists have been able to get close enough to him, which I guess is fair enough!

The story would be reprinted twice more – the first time in ‘Collected Comics 4’ in full colour, and much later as a back-up strip filler in TFUK #308-318 (in 1991). Robo Capers by Lew Stringer launches to provide regular comedy value but the other back up strips are by and large pretty mediocre. It’s a shame at this point that they are outnumbering the Transformers pages. That US material can’t come quick enough.

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