Deadly Games!

Evil gangster lizard Zabra is making a killing from Cybertron’s gladiatorial games and pits Ultra Magnus against a hideous four-armed brute named Hooligan…

Transformers #170 was the issue that I feared I might never get. It was June 1988 and I’d been religiously collecting the comic every week for three years. My routine was to get up early on a Friday and be at the newsagent for when it opened at 7am and then I’d read my weekly instalment of Transformers from cover to cover before school. This time though something had gone wrong, there was no comic on Friday, nor the weekend and not even Monday.

Cue a minor panic. Had the comic been cancelled? Surely not, it was Marvel UK’s flagship title. However, I still remembered the fate of ‘Scream!’, an early 80s horror comic which I’d collected and loved, vanished without warning. Interestingly our very own Simon Furman had cut his teeth as a comics writer on that title.

Finally, on Tuesday the comic showed up. What a relief! It was four days late and with a 3p price rise to rub it in, but at least normal service had resumed. The editorial (Transformations), to its credit, immediately acknowledged the rise rather than hoping kids wouldn’t notice, and blamed it on rising production costs, which Marvel had held off from passing on for as long as possible.

Later in the year we’d see the paper quality dive and after that the return of black and white pages, although it would be the reprints that were the final straw for me and when I switched from the UK comic over to the monthly US title. More than to come.

Back to TFUK#170 though, we’ve a a delightful cover from Jeff Anderson which I really admire, depicting the reptilian Zabra with a huge knife and catching the horrified reflections of Ultra Magnus and the Sparklers in the weapon’s reflection. It’s such a great idea and allows us to see the main villain and the reaction of the heroes in one striking image. In fact, Deadly Games was to be the swansong of Magnus and the Sparklers. They’d had a good run together since Salvage, but all good things come to an end.

There’s a mention of a new Marvel UK title Dragon’s Teeth, from Furman and Senior (more on that later) before readers and dropped straight into a Roman-style arena and fight to the death between a multi-armed gladiator called Hooligan, and an Autobot extra named Chameleon (no surprises about how that is going to end up).

Simon Furman provides the story and to Dan Reed’s art, tipping their hats to the 1986 Annual story State Games (which established that gladiatorial combat had been a thing in Cybertron’s history and Megatron had risen to prominence and celebrity through this route) and after centuries of closure the Jekka amphitheatre is now back in service as a place where Autobots and other unfortunates meet their brutal end for the entertainment of a motley array of alien spectators.

Hooligan ‘from the planet Mil-Wal’ (a reference to Millwall FC which had a poor rep for football hooliganism at the time) wields a powerful mace and is also pretty deft with his fists. Chameleon is hopelessly outmatched but what he does have is an ability to blend into his surroundings, effectively turning invisible. This works against the lumbering Hooligan, until finally he twigs that he needs to switch to infrared where his quarry is quickly located and dismembered.

As an aside, we learn that Transformers can still transform with a limb missing but it is painful process.

The following day, Magnus and the Sparkabots are poking around and conducting an unauthorised investigation. We learn that Chameleon had been looking into rumours of a deal between the Decepticons and an alien when he met his end. However, the Wreckers are preparing to travel to Earth to confront Galvatron just as soon a dimensional portal is in alignment, and the orders are to stay put. Instead, Magnus feels that Chameleon’s demise deserves some of their time and they sneak out.

They are about to head back when Sizzle suggests they check out the abandoned Jekka Amphitheatre. Among the pile of bodies and severed limbs they find Chameleon’s missing arm, but before they can report back, they are confronted by the Firecons Flamefeather, Sparkstalker and Cindersaur, who are keen for a rematch (see Enemy Action for details). Magnus tries to help but is rendered unconscious by an attack from the scorpion tail of Zabra, the alien controller of the games. Is Zabra is organic? If so it’s hard to believe he could take down the Autobots’ greatest warrior unless he’s a cyborg of some sort.

The first half ends with Zabra announcing that Magnus will be the star attraction at the next games… setting up the exciting prospect of a showdown with Hooligan. Hurrah!

In addition to the always fun Grim Grams letters page, Furman and Lee Sullivan have produced a tightly written one-page story with Magnus fighting-while-narrating and setting the scene for the Transformers UK storyline (civil war on Earth and Cybertron and in the future) and declaring, “Only a miracle can save us,” cue an inset picture of Powermaster Optimus Prime… our first glimpse of the new incarnation of the Autobots’ greatest leader. So far so amazing! Marvel must have felt that the return of Prime provided a ‘jumping on point’ for new readers and the ad will have been intended to be rolled out across Marvel’s various UK titles.

Issue #171 has cover art by Jerry Paris depicting a battered and bloodied (oiled) Magnus in the arena with a poster showing what he’s up against. I like it a lot.

The Transformation page majors on ‘Dragon’s Teeth’ a flagship title for Marvel UK’s American-format monthly titles. It was a dystopian sci-fi story set in 8162 where survivors from a violent team sport (The Game) are recruited to a law enforcement role. What’s interesting about this plug for the latest Furman-Senior spectacular is that the title was found to be already owned by an independent, so very soon after it was rebadged as ‘Dragon’s Claws’ which is arguably better. I never actually saw an issue of Dragon’s Teeth on sale, even though Transformation suggests here that issue #2 is in the shops.

Back to Transformers – the story opens with an array of weird and wonderful aliens flooding into the amphitheatre, including a slug alien with a Decepticon insignia (is he wearing it as a fan?) and gives Dan Reed an opportunity to let his imagination run wild. There’s a nice touch with the souvenir sellers doing a good line in offering up severed limbs and parts from the games’ losing contestants.

In the dungeons below the stadium, Magnus and the Sparkabots are visited by Zabra and his Firecon minders. A painful strike from the guard’s mace sets Magnus’ hands on fire and puts him in his place. Just in case he still refuses to fight, the bad guys threaten to execute his friends, so Magnus has little choice at this point.

On the way to the arena, he attempts an appeal to Zabra’s conscience and gets precisely nowhere. For this alien mercenary it’s all about the profits and pandering to base instincts of the audience is a price worth paying. Likewise, Magnus soon discovers, as he’s being roughed up by Hooligan, that this brute enjoys what he’s doing – he’s not the fellow victim of the games that Magnus first thought, which means Ultra Magnus doesn’t need to hold back.

Much of the issue flips between the arena battle and the Sparklers tricking their guard and affecting an escape. They face a choice about getting back to Autobase in time for the transport to Earth – to fill in for Magnus in the assault against Galvatron, which given their power compared to Ultra Magnus is pretty ludicrous – and in the end they stick around an come to their friends’ aid, by ambushing the Decepticon troops who were poised to open fire on Magnus.

Finally, with the Optimus-style soul searching and compassion parked, Magnus can show his potential as a warrior and give Hooligan a deserved pummelling. At one stage Magnus picks up his opponent’s mace, only to realise that to execute Hooligan would make him no better, so he casts it aside and gives a sermon to the crowds about the sanctity of life – before taking Zabra into custody. Nobody cares and as they walk away, a couple of the alien spectators are already talking about a great murder-pit to visit!

The story feels like a satirical comment on TV/movie violence and concerns that were regularly raised in the media at the time. ‘Where’s a policeman when you need one, to blame the colour TV?’ as a popular song from the era memorably said. Is it escapist fun or the root of societal ills? I think probably more the former than the latter as Transformers itself exemplifies. We love nothing more than a clash between great rivals but also identify with the good and evil archetypes.

In summary, it’s a reasonably enjoyable two-parter with nods to Transformers history and some nice creative art, rounding off a run of stories of Ultra Magnus and the Sparkabots and Magnus’ performance as a stand-in for Optimus Prime before the great leader returns.

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Meltdown!

The countdown is on until Cybertron itself is ripped apart by Megatron’s unstable engines, but salvation may be coming in the unlikeliest of forms as the Autobots and Decepticon unite against Flame

A powerful cover by Marvel UK artist Jerry Paris illustrates the predicament that the Cybertron Autobots find themselves in. Xaaron, Ultra Magnus and the Wreckers, while not actually caught in the clutched fist of the rogue Autobot scientist Flame, are in that bind metaphorically, as captives of his zombie army.

Until last issue that army included the Wreckers’ former (now deceased) leader Impactor, who was also reanimated by Flame’s computer mainframe, but has started to regain some echoes of his consciousness. As the Transformation (intro) page for Transformers UK 168 memorably puts it: ‘Old soldiers don’t die, they get reanimated by insane Autobot scientists.’ Impactor wants revenge on the guy who interrupted his eternal rest, and you get the impression that he will play a pivotal role in what is coming next.

Meltdown, which was published by Marvel UK in June 1988, with art by Robin Smith and story by the prolific Simon Furman, is the third and final instalment of what has been a quirky and offbeat tale. It utilises a cast of Cybertron bots and cons that Furman has assembled and it a great example of the expanded story that the writer has created to fill the gaps between material from the comic’s US sister title (this is because the UK comic was weekly, and the US was monthly.)

These days it is not unheard of to have bad Autobots and noble Decepticons, I mean just look at efforts to recast Megatron as a heroic/tragic revolutionary against an oppressive Autobot State in the modern era. However, in the Eighties things were by and large nice and simple: the Autobots were the good guys and Decepticons the were the villains, so Meltdown is memorable for having an Autobot as the arch baddie. It also shows that bad apples are present on both sides.

The story begins with a recap of what’s happened so far, as told from the perspective of Flame’s computer briefing him on the threat level, and finally a countdown to the firing of the vast engines that will relaunch Cybertron as a mobile dreadnought.

As a minor point, having been told in Legion of the Lost that the events happened ‘three weeks’ before City of Fear, we’re now back to counting time in the Cybertronian vernacular established by Bob Budiansky way back in the 1986 classic, The Smelting Pool, by counting down in ‘breems’ (each one equivalent to eight point three earth minutes).

Robin Smith does a nice job of depicting Flame as a garish nightmare of a robot, utterly self-obsessed and hell bent on reviving an insane idea from Cybertron’s history so that the planet can sail the heavens with himself at the helm, everyone in awe at his achievement. The fact that a good chunk of the planet would be extinguished in the process is by the by.

The rest of the issue is mostly about getting the cast assembled and into place. Springer leads Ultra Magnus and the Sparkler Mini-bots below ground, with Sizzle still whinging about Magnus’ decision to send Flywheels, a Decepticon prisoner, for help. Magnus is charitable in the circumstances and explains that Flywheels is the only one with a jet mode and access to reinforcements, but he equally could have put this upstart back in his place. In a war situation and high stakes there’s no room for petty bickering and questioning superiors.

Below ground Broadside is about to find himself a meal for a hungry Zombie when Impactor intervenes with his trademark harpoon, decapitating the foe. He leaves armed with the information that Flame caused this situation and Broadside gets access to the armoury, which is likely to be extremely useful.

Xarron meanwhile confronts Flame, an old colleague who is still holding a millions-of-years-old grudge against him. When reason fails, Xarron tries to intervene and switch off the reactor, prompting one of the memorable moments of the issue as Flame transforms into his fire cannon mode. We learn that Xaaron also has a combat vehicle mode, but he hasn’t used it in several centuries – the shock of transforming may kill him. It’s a nice twist. I suppose it’s like asking a very elderly and long retired athlete to run a marathon.

With the Wreckers tooled-up, the zombie army is becoming manageable, so Flame’s computer takes defensive measures by sealing the reactor off with blast doors. The opening instalment ends with Springer and Broadside making a dash for the surface to get “stuff” from Autobase that can cut through, only to find their paths blocked by the biggest, most deadly Decepticon of all – Trypticon!

It’s a welcome, if totally unexpected, return for this character, who became an instant fan favourite at his debut in the 1987 story King of the Hill and sets the scene nicely for the conclusion.

This of course begins with Jeff Anderson’s cover depicting Trypticon ‘partying’ at the expense of the zombie hordes. His arrival has the potential to tip the balance heavily in the favour of Flame’s opponents, but first we’ve got three pages of Xaaron dodging blasts from Flame, attempting to transform, and finally reasoning with Flame again, so basically a rehash of scenes from the previous issue.

In the battle of the Wreckers versus the blast doors, it’s the doors that are holding firm. Magnus asks where Springer and Broadside are with the heavy artillery, only to get the answer in the shape of the monstrous Trypticon advancing towards them.

Springer and Broadside appear with Flywheels – who apparently could not get reinforcements in terms of numbers, so he settled for the biggest Decepticon of the lot. Then a memorable line from Flywheels, “Trypticon get the door,” sees the giant Decepticon headbutt the doors down and they are in (with zombie Impactor following close behind).

Magnus makes light work of Flame and the Autobots argue about who should be the one to undertake the surely fatal trip inside the reactor to switch it off. Xaaron is their talismanic elder and too important to sacrifice, but before Magnus or Springer can go in, they are forced to repel more of Flame’s zombies. This is the scene that the cover is based on.

Flame, having been an irritating pain in the arse for the last four issues, finally gets his comeuppance, as he’s about to launch himself at Xaaron and gets harpooned through the head by Impactor. The ex-Wrecker leader then becomes the one to enter the reactor and shut it off, getting torn apart in the process. As the Autobots and Decepticons escape to the planet surface, the engines destroy themselves, and the Xaaron pays tribute to Impactor – the Autobot who “died twice” so that others may live.

In closing it’s a satisfying conclusion to the story. Sure, it’s in many ways predictable, but there are a few unexpected turns, such as the return of Impactor and Trypticon, and some great moments like Xaaron attempting his transformation and Flame’s fire tank, to keep things exciting. It’s no surprise that the City of Fear saga is a fan favourite from the original Marvel run.

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Legion of the Lost!

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.

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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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Salvage!

Shockwave recovers Megatron from his watery grave to use as an agent against Galvatron, who appears to have mentally broken poor old Ultra Magnus…

‘Look who’s in Transformers’, teases the Transformation page for issue 160 with Lee Sullivan’s realistic drawing of a familiar face from the ‘real world’ – Richard Branson. Genuinely this was unexpected.

Branson was/is one of the Britain’s most recognisable business personalities, and in April 1988 when the comic was released, he was famous for high-profile marketing stunts such as driving a tank through New York’s 5th Avenue or wearing a wedding dress to launch his Virgin Brides line.

It’s easy to imagine that when Marvel UK asked if he would like to appear in Britain’s best-selling weekly comic, Branson was tickled by the idea. It may well have engendered some goodwill from young readers towards Virgin corporation (and sales as the Virgin Media stores) but if Sir Richard was hoping to look cool and down with the kids, he might be disappointed. If anything, he’s on the receiving end of some Decepticon humiliation, in a manner that other billionaire GB Blackrock knows well.

Our story opens with a full-page of Megatron and Centurion being dredged from the bottom of the Thames by Mr Branson, while still locked in the battle poses they were in when bombed by Action Force in the Ancient Relics crossover story.

Mr Branson is dreaming of his corporation being splashed across the headlines – all good publicity for his environmental credentials (that was a thing in the 80s too!) -when an employee shouts a shark warning. This sounds ridiculous, as ‘there are no sharks in the Thames’, but the Seacon Jawbreaker pops up and bites through the chains that are holding the two petrified giants. Then Blitzwing, Ramjet, Dirge, and Thrust swoop down make off with Mr Branson’s prize, leaving the tycoon shaking his fists.

Hours later at Mount Verona, USA, the Sparkler Minibots – Sizzle, Fizzle and Guzzle – free Magnus from his tomb, where he’s been contained since the 1987 Transformers Annual. Magnus is at first disorientated and then overcome with fear as images of his fateful last encounter with Galvatron flood back. Sullivan’s nightmarish depiction of Galvatron’s laughing face inside a Decepticon sign is genuinely creepy.

FYI Salvage is Lee Sullivan’s first ‘interiors’ for Transformers UK after cutting his teeth on a series of covers. I wasn’t a fan back in the day, as I didn’t think robots should have human expressions, wrinkles and saliva – metal faces shouldn’t contort. But revisiting the story now I think Lee has done a much better job than I’d initially given him credit. His splash page of Optimus Prime looming over a cowering Megatron in part two is particularly inspired.

When Magnus and the Sparklers catch sight of the Decepticon jets flying Megatron and Centurion in the direction of Fortress Sinister, their original and long abandoned base, the Autobots set off to investigate. Meanwhile, a shadowy figure keeps watch outside the said base. Sullivan does well to conceal the figure’s identity, but most fans will have immediately twigged it was Galvatron.

Why’s he there? Well, ever since Enemy Action Galvy has been keeping tabs on Shockwave and plotting his moves to overthrow him. He thought the present day Decepticon leader had ‘escaped’ him by blasting his island base into space, only for Shockwave to fall to Earth moments later in a blaze of fire. As we know, he was shot down by Fortress Maximus in last week’s story and got sucked into Earth’s gravitational pull. His demise looked conclusive, and it will see Shockwave written out of the US comic for the next two years, while Ratbat rules.

However, Simon Furman has need of Shockwave for his developing storyline in the UK and downplays the demise, which is a shame as Bob Budiansky had written such a good exit for the character. Now the Earthfall is relegated to a minor setback leaving Shockwave stranded with a handful of remaining Decepticons but free to pursue his long-term aim of ending the threat of Galvatron. What’s odd about this of course is that Shockwave is worried about Galvatron stealing his command, when Ratbat has actually gone and done exactly this. How has Shockwave not realised?

Inside the fortress, Snaptrap shows himself to be quite capable as Shockwave’s mad scientist sidekick complete with ‘psycho-probe’ equipment. Finding Megatron in a vegetative state, it will be necessary to stimulate coax his catatonic mind back to consciousness and requiring the former Decepticon leader to overcome his greatest fears along the way.

Ultra Magnus is about to face the same mental trial, as he arrives at Fortress Sinister with the Sparklers hoping to prevent Megatron’s revival, he runs into his archnemesis Galvatron. Magnus sinks to the ground screaming ‘nooooo’ as part one ends on a suitably dramatic cliff-hanger.

In part two, Megatron once again strides confidently through the corridors of the Decepticon fortress, is he restored to his past glory? No, as it turns out. Where once he was a force of undiluted evil, feared by the enemy and his own troops alike, now he is reduced to a quivering wreck as he is confronted with a ghost from his past… that of Optimus Prime. In the real-world Shockwave is frustrated – he needs Megatron back to his aggressive and arrogant best if he is to be of any use.

Furman now runs the twin plots of Megatron and Magnus in parallel as both are forced to confront their demons. Magnus is on his knees, broken by the haunting memory of past battles with Galvatron, battles where he’s been utterly defeated. The fear is suffocating but if he can’t get snap out of it his new friends, the Sparklers are about to become Galvatron’s next victims, having rejected the offer to take Magnus and scram.

In possibly the finest moment of the story, we’re treated to the return of Lord Straxus – who asks: ‘why so surprised to see me?’ – after all he shares the same mind as Megatron following a botched body takeover back in issue 103. As if to revel in Megatron’s weakness, Straxus proceeds to tear Prime limb from limb, just as Galvatron is busy knocking seven bells out of the Sparklers as Magnus is in the grip of despair.

Then comes the turning point for both protagonists. Megatron remembers how he used to be – previously if any being dared to challenge him, he would crush them utterly, and with that his anger swells and he punches a crater sized hole in Straxus’ face, tearing him in two! Megatron is victorious and Shockwave is pleased, his subject is now ready to receive new programming.

Likewise, Magnus finally comes to his senses, knowing he has to act to save his fellow Autobots – better to die than live a coward. He reigns blows on Galvatron, taking him by surprise and amazingly wins the battle. Galvatron is hurt and retreats (first time for everything). Magnus does not pursue but he knows now that he could have beaten his foe all along, he just lacked the confidence. Next time will be different he vows, and they will fight for the last time. That next encounter was, I think, intended to happen in Time Wars but fell by the wayside when the saga was shortened.

All in all, Salvage is a satisfying read and lays the building blocks for epic upcoming events that will take us up to and beyond the milestone 200th issue.

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Enemy Action

The Seacons make their UK debut in an underwater battle with Galvatron; while on land the Firecons and make things uncomfortably hot for the Sparkler Mini-bots!

One of Bob Budiansky’s major headaches as the writer of Marvel’s monthly Transformers comic in the US was the constant pressure to introduce new characters, to keep pace with Hasbro’s expanding toy range.

Bob came up with several inventive plot devices over the years, from the Creation Matrix to personality engrams in crystals used to create the new Autobots, before eventually settling on the Space Bridge as a handy device for introducing waves of new warriors from Cybertron.

As a fan I found it exciting when new Transformers appeared in the comics. It was fun to learn their bios, abilities, unique weaponry, and of course their mottos. So, Enemy Action, a UK story from February 1988, is a treat because it introduces no fewer than twelve new characters – that’s the six Seacons, three Firecons and three Sparkabots (for some reason the UK comic would refer to them as Sparkler mini-bots). In fact, it’s thirteen new characters if you include the Seacon combined form, Pirranacon.

This is time it is Simon Furman, not Budiansky, adding to the cast. Simon was not under a Hasbro mandate to do so, he did it for the sheer fun of it apparently and because he liked the idea of an underwater story. This was several months before these characters would appear in the American comic so once again Simon is stealing a march on the parent title as he had done by featuring the Transformers the Movie cast and the Predacons long before they appeared Stateside.

To ensure there’s no loss of momentum following the Legacy of Unicron epic, the comic is bringing back one of the most dangerous Decepticons (and most popular guest stars) the future leader, Galvatron.

We last saw Galvatron in Ladies’ Night, breaking free from his volcano tomb. Now he’s straight back to the forefront, striding along the seabed towards the present day Decepticons’ undersea base off the coast of Florida.

His approach has not gone unnoticed by Commander Shockwave who fears that Galvatron has come to take his crown (and with it everything he has worked so hard to accomplish). It’s easy to feel some sympathy for Shockwave at this point, after all it was only a few issues ago that we witnessed his brutal execution in the future at the hands of Death’s Head.

Shockwave is so jittery that he almost incinerates Soundwave for sneaking up on him, in a comical moment. Soundwave is the loyal deputy but also offers some wise advice: they could try speaking to Galvatron and perhaps coming to an agreement based on their mutual interests as Decepticons.

While Shockwave can see the logic of an alliance, his personal survival comes first. So he orders their untested new troops the Seacons – who were imported from Cybertron to work on the base’s fortifications rather than combat – to go toe to toe with Galvatron.

Soundwave’s disapproval is evident via a clenched fist and thought bubble “On your head be it”. Soundwave is no fan of Galvatron – he got buried alive by him in Target: 2006 for starters – and has led the Combaticons on the mission to finish off the future Decepticon when he was trapped in Mount Verona) but Soundwave has also made a career out of aligning himself with whoever rules. Galvatron would just be a continuation of that. Not so for Shockwave.

Lee Sullivan’s memorable ‘sea scrape’ cover provided the hint of the battle to come. Snaptrap, having received his orders, instructs the team to hit their opponent ‘hard and fast’ – no doubt this is the best way to compensate for the team’s lack of experience with their new Earth modes.

The five Seacons take turns to attack, giving readers a sense of each one, while Galvatron arrogantly dismisses them as nautical non-entities. His overconfidence is put into check briefly though by Seawing’s paralysing sting.

Readers with prior experience of Galvatron will not be surprised that the Seacons are, to pardon the pun, out of their depth against this opponent. Even in their combined form Pirranacon, they don’t fair much better.

A couple of nitpicks/observations. Overbite is named Jawbreaker in the story – it’s never made clear why the comic departed from the official toy name or whether this was done in error. Pirranacon’s name has two Rs, though the word piranha, which it is presumably derived from doesn’t. Also Jeff Anderson, the story’s artist, draws Pirrancon as pretty comparable in size to Galvatron. I think it would have been more dramatic for him to be much larger, similar to the Megatron versus Predaking contest in Budiansky’s 1987 classic Gone But Not Forgotten.

At this point Furman brings in the story’s other protagonists, starting with the Sparklers, Sizzle, Fizzle, and Guzzle. They were sent to Earth by the Wreckers leader Springer to keep tabs on Galvatron and have followed him to the beach. Since the trio have no undersea modes they are unable to follow any further.

It’s curious that Springer is preoccupied with Galvatron. You might think he has enough on his plate with trying to overthrow Decepticon rule on Cybertron without also picking a fight with the most powerful Decepticon on Earth. Then again, perhaps he knows of the Cybertron Decepticons’ plan to recruit Galvatron, or simply fears that Grimlock’s Earthbound Autobots have abdicated their responsibility.

As it turns out, the Sparklers are not destined to be mere bystanders after all… for they are suddenly confronted by the Firecons – Cindersaur, Sparkstalker, and Flamefeather! See below.

So, to part two and issue #153. The first thing you notice when picking up the issue is Snake Eyes and another Action Force guy (Flint?) bursting out of the cover as Sizzle, Fizzle and Guzzle look on in horror. I think the trio are meant to be recoiling from the sight of the Firecons but maybe the merger has got them spooked?

Transformations sells this as major win for fans of both comics – a two for the price of one. Soon enough AF it would settle into that traditional back-up strip role, but unlike previous back-ups its logo appears on the cover along side Transformers so this is a new development. Combat Colin has been annexed from the former AF comic, taking-up the regular cartoon spot vacated by Robo Capers and would go on to become a firm favourite of the readers.

Returning to the story, part two picks up with the Firecons, breathing fire in all directions like a pack of dragons post-feasting on hot chili peppers. We discover that they are here to secure Galvatron for their masters on Cybertron and any Autobots in their way are set to the feel the heat.

Fizzle is soon made to sizzle, courtesy of Cindersaur, and plunges into deep water to recover. Oddly, Fizzle is coloured red and Sizzle is blue, which is the opposite of their official toys. All three Sparkler mini-bots, while a likeable bunch, are rather homogenous and so maybe the production team had trouble telling them apart?

The unarmed Sparklers ‘remember’ that they can also discharge their own flame courtesy of their engines while in vehicle mode. Sizzle demonstrates this on Spark Stalker, which feels a bit contrived to show off the toy gimmick if I’m honest. While Guzzle sticks to the more convention tank mode gun barrel to take down Cindersaur.

Below depths, Galvatron finishes off Pirranacon with a well-placed blast, breaking him up into his component Seacons, before punching his way into the Decepticon base. With seawater flowing in behind him, he declares to Shockwave and the assembled warriors that he had come in peace seeking an alliance, but Shockwave’s hostile actions have made an enemy of him and when they next meet all Decepticons will pay. He then exits leaving Shockwave to fend off some very angry looks from his warriors.

So, clearly it was Galvatron’s plan all along to provoke Shockwave into attacking and creating an opportunity for Galvatron to drive a wedge between the Decepticon leader and his warriors. Pretty smart, but Galvatron is powerful enough to come in and take the leadership if he had wanted to. I think most Decepticons would have fallen into line out of fear or opportunism, I’m not sure the political machinations are that necessary.

On the other hand, surely Galvatron becoming leader in 1988 would have been a significant change to the timeline such that he might unravel the events that lead to his own creation by Unicron in 2006? If that’s on his mind he doesn’t voice it. This is unlike the Galvatron of Target: 2006 who clearly conscious of disrupting the timeline.

Enemy Action’s two plots neatly converge as Galvatron exits the ocean with the unconscious Fizzle in his clutches. Flamefeather rushes to his side and offers the alliance with the Decepticons of Cybertron “that we may crush their mutual enemies together” only for Galvatron to laugh and dismiss this. Having skilfully avoided one alliance he’s not about to fall into another. Sizzle offers token resistance and swiftly knocked aside by Galvatron like a troublesome bug.

In closing, Shockwave has been left in command and under no illusions that his days are numbered unless he does something radical. He needs an expendable agent with the raw power enough to take down Galvatron – his choice is an intriguing one… none other than Megatron, Galvatron’s past self. This thread plays out further in the upcoming story Salvage and then comes to a head in the 1988 Transformers Annual. Lots to look forward to then.

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