Decepticon Graffiti!

The Battlechargers, Runabout and Runamuck, arrive from Cybertron intent on causing a bit of mayhem – and embark on a graffiti spree across America!

Marvel’s UK weekly Transformers comic enters 1987 brimming with confidence. The title and its creative team are riding high following the success of its recent epic Target: 2006 and basking in the glow of the amazing Transformers the Movie, and its coming off the back of a year of (mostly) strong stories and looking ahead to its landmark one hundredth issue and another solid year. The comic’s devoted fanbase which included my twelve-year-old self at the time also knew we were on to a very good thing.

Just prior to the Christmas edition we’d seen the Aerialbot gestalt Superion squaring off with the Stunticons combined as Menasor – coming off worse after Circuit Breaker intervened. Then insult was added to injury when Donny Finkleberg betrayed the Autobot Skids to Walter Barnett and RAAT.

US writer Bob Budiansky picks up where this cliff-hanger left off and takes the opportunity to spice things up by introducing a pair of newcomers from ever expanding Hasbro toy range in the shape of the Decepticon Battlechargers, Runabout and Runamuck. This was an exciting development for me as I’d recently invested in a Runabout toy. Rather like the less appealing Jump Starters (who the US comic ignored) their gimmick was that you can pull them back and they would release and transform in mid-drive. In the comics universe this translated as them being the ‘fastest Transformers on Earth’.

The first impression is of course the cover. Herbe Trimpe’s cover for issue #23 of the US Transformers comic, the infamous ‘Humans are Wimps’ Statue of Liberty cover appears on TFUK #95. For issue #94, where the story kicks off, we’re treated to a fantastic cover by Lee Sullivan. Now, Lee’s style hasn’t always hit the spot for me, but I really love his work on this cover! The story is about graffiti and the Battlechargers literally look like they’ve been spray painted. There’s a metallic shine that looks fab (whether Lee is responsible for the colouring I don’t know) but it brings the art to life and I remember picking up the issue and thinking that TF had lifted its game even further for the new year.

The title is of course a spoof of the 1973 cult movie American Graffiti. Except here the title is interpreted literally as the Battlechargers go on a spray paint wrecking spree. It wouldn’t be the last time Budiansky would reference a film in his story title… the infamous Buster Witwicky and the Car Wash of Doom comes to mind. Could it be that Bob is a Harrison Ford fan? The actor stars in both American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and of course both are directed by the one and only George Lucas.

The story begins at RAAT headquarters where an unusually sedate and gentle looking Circuit Breaker holds a tiny Transformer brain module on the tip of her finger. By generating electrical pulses, she can stimulate movement in the deactivated body of the Autobot Skids. To her this is research, but to Donny Finkleberg it looks like she’s dissecting his erstwhile partner and he’s starting to regret selling out Skids for $50,000. He protests that Skids looks in pain, but Circuit Breaker snaps that this is a machine not a person. Poor Skids is not the only RAAT captive – the hanger wall is adorned with the face plates of twelve other Autobot hunting trophies which includes the Aerialbots and the Cybertron seven. Donny realises that their captivity is leaving the Decepticons with even greater freedom to do what they want on Earth… and he helped – great! We’re starting to see the redemption of Donny at this point.

Over at the Decepticon coal mine base in Eastern Wyoming, one of the themes of the year is starting to emerge: that of Megatron’s mental instability. He is seated on a throne made of the cab of a truck and greeting his latest recruits from Cybertron, the two Battlechargers. They have been summonsed across the galaxy via the Space Bridge for the purpose of taking a challenge to Optimus Prime. When Soundwave helpfully suggests a simple phone call, he is bashed in the face by his boss using a car exhaust! Having seen how Megatron deals with insubordination, neither Runabout nor Runamuck are inclined to argue and promptly roll out. When you consider that Soundwave has been a stand-in leader and very loyally stuck by Megatron against Shockwave, it really is a very poor way to treat him and perhaps a sign of Megatron losing his grip.

Once on the open highway the Battlechargers voice their displeasure at working for this bully. They decide to blow off this rather ridiculous mission and have a good time on their new world. Given that Megatron will probably tear them limb from limb for disobeying him this is either very brave or stupid. It speaks to the childish, fun-seeking natures of the pair.

With no plan of action, they pull up at a service station to look for a bit of inspiration. A typical American nuclear family is taking a break on their cross-country road trip vacation. While the mother wipes a young girl’s face (the daughter, Leah has been eating chocolate coated sushi which sounds positively vile) and her badly behaved older sibling Noah has a bad habit of scrawling graffiti wherever he goes, earning him a severe telling-off from his father. The Battlechargers rather like this defiant little fellow and decide to follow the family. (Re-reading now I’ve noticed that young Noah has a Spider-Man face on the front AND the back of his t-shirt which is a bit odd!)

Three days later at RAAT headquarters, Triple I agent Walter Barnett draws Circuit Breaker’s attention to news reports about weird markings that are appearing on several US landmarks. First it was a Football stadium in Wyoming, then Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, and finally the Gateway arch in St. Louis. Barnett thinks they have been left by Transformers and Circuit Breaker is to investigate. Donny suggests that Skids could help but Circuit Breaker is not amused – no human can trust a robot, she says ironically!

In Washington D.C. the next morning, Noah Acton and his family are visiting the Washington Monument. Two cars across the grass and transform into Runabout and Runamuck, now armed with a barrel of spray paint (one wonders how they came by these). Unusually for a couple of land-based vehicles, they possess the ability to fly while in robot mode and soar to the top of monument and spray graffiti, taking delight in the comedic phrase the other is daubing. Since the human crowds are unable to decipher Transformers writing (or the comic’s readers for that matter) nobody is any the wiser what they are writing. However, I like that they make a point of adding punctuation.

Circuit Breaker arrives on the scene along with Barnett and Donny. They are introduced to the Acton family and learn of the strange co-incidence, that the graffiti attacks seem to follow them. Circuit Breaker tells them to travel as normal and her troops will lay in wait at the next stop, Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

The Decepticon vandals propel themselves airborne towards the monument, where a squadron of RAAT aerial assault craft swarm around them. The Decepticons are unphased and rain debris on to the innocent bystanders below. RAAT stage a swift withdrawal, but Circuit Breaker refuses to back-off and attacks the robots. Noah is almost hit by falling concrete until Circuit Breaker moves and gets knocked her to the ground. Runabout and Runamuck decide to find safer targets and transform and blend into the traffic.

Circuit Breaker is seen by a doctor and confined to RAAT headquarters, which is incredibly frustrating for her knowing that there is a robot menace on the loose. Donny suggests that if she really wants to stop the Battlechargers she must make use of the ‘help’ around her – namely the deactivated Autobots!  Circuit Breaker is adamant they cannot be trusted but starts to succumb to the idea of fashioning them together in a robot body she could interface with and control. And so, the next day as RAAT commandos take up positions inside the Statue of Liberty, Circuit Breaker and Donny make their way towards the island on commandeered trawler. She’s connected herself to the torso of a bizarre amalgam of Transformer parts and rockets towards the statue.

Runabout and Runamuck unleash their latest bit of graffiti this time in English! It’s unclear how they’ve downloaded the lingo but its an exciting development for the pair as now they are finally able to wind-up the ‘fleshlings’. They deface the noble statue with the words ‘Humans are Wimps!’ before coming under attack by Circuit Breaker’s robotic monstrosity.

The conglomerated creature disintegrates Runamuck’s shoulder mounting and when the Decepticon retaliates with a blast of his own, the amalgam’s giant hand moves to protect Circuit Breaker of its own free will! At last a glimmer of hope that she might finally be seeing the light and recognising that the Autobots are the good guys. Runabout severs the Statue of Liberty torch which threatens to land on the ferry below. Circuit Breaker detaches the hand from her robotic host which catches the torch. She and her ally then emit a blast of full power to frazzle the Battlechargers and their smoking wrecks are last seen plunging into New York harbour!

They’ll certainly be gone a while… Bob Budiansky never brought the duo back in the rest of his tenure (they were literally one issue wonders) but his successor as US writer, Simon Furman, would recover them as part of Shockwave’s group during the Decepticon civil war of 1991.

The story ends with Walter Barnett discovering the hanger empty of the thirteen captive Transformers and firing Circuit Breaker and Donny. Circuit Breaker confesses that she had no choice in order to get their co-operation. The Aerialbots weren’t in there so they were presumably allowed to go free. This issue holds out the hope that Circuit Breaker has mended her attitude towards the Autobots, and we won’t see her for a long while, but when we do, she is still busting away without too much thought for good or bad.

Donny bows out from the franchise. As a support character he’s had a good run, but now he returns home thinking about spending his big pay cheque. He sees a TV news item about the Statue of Liberty and in a fit of conscience writes out a $50,000 cheque to the statue repair fund.

Years later Bob Budiansky would cite this story as one of his favourites (he obviously had a lot of fun writing it) and he even got a fan-mail letter about it from the great Stan Lee! That’s praise indeed.

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Heavy Traffic!

This 1986 Marvel classic sees the Stunticons take to the road and do battle as Menasor with the Aerialbot combined form, Superion – with Circuit Breaker in the mix, hunting down Transformers for her trophy wall.

December 1986. The Marvel Transformers comic enters the final furlong of a remarkable year where it has grown in confidence and reputation thanks to stunning original material like Target 2006. And at the same time fans are being to be blown away by Transformers the Movie – which opened in the UK 12th December. It was the first big screen outing for the franchise and after 35 years is in my opinion still the best.

To mark the occasion, Grimlock’s regular letters page is dropped for issue #91 with him reviewing the Movie instead, LOL. His verdict: “Kids – let’s not mince words… this movie’s utterly, utterly brilliant!”

Transformers #91 & #92 features the Marvel US story Heavy Traffic! Writer Bob Budiansky properly reintroduces Circuit Breaker as an existential threat and provides a neat debut for Stunticons. I should declare an interest; Motormaster was the first Special Team toy I bought back in the day and the Stunticons have always been personal favourites. It’s great to see them finally taking to the road, rather than as a Matrix-induced dream (see issues 63-65).

Equally brilliant is the long-awaited return of Blaster and the rest of the ‘Cybertron Seven’ – though its fair to say they’ve seen better days. The story begins with the unsuspecting septet examining military vehicles for signs of sentient life. It’s that favourite old stich about Transformers not recognising organics and mistaking vehicles as Earth’s dominant species. The Ark’s computer core AUNTIE made the same error after it awoke in 1984 of course, but you’d like to think Cybertron has encountered many diverse worlds during its four million years traversing the stars – surely Transformers would have encountered organic life in that time? Or perhaps Blaster and company were holed up in their resistance cell throughout?

The account of what proceeded their arrival on Earth via the Space Bridge in issue #69 is revealed by Circuit Breaker in a briefing to her government sponsor, Walter Barnett of Triple I. She’s been hired to head-up a crack squad called RAAT (short for Rapid Anti-robot Assault Team). This must be the least comfortable team acronym to work under since Richard Nixon’s Committee to RE-Elect the President (CREEP) and the boss is just a tad obsessive about her work!

She tells Barnett the robots were ‘moments away from crushing’ the vehicles before RAAT intervened. Even he can see that isn’t the case but probably realises that CB has a major mental blackspot where Transformers are concerned. RAAT helicopters and released electrical foil above the Autobots which disrupted their circuits, allowing troops to abseil down and affix a pad on to each robot’s head. Circuit Breaker then personally intervened, unleashing 300,000 volts upon the disorientated Cybertron Seven and rendering them inoperative. After loading them on to flatbed trucks they were on their way to RAAT headquarters, all in 46 minutes!

Barnett thinks the use of force may have been unnecessary but the results speak for themselves. How would Circuit Breaker appreciate a cash bonus, he asks? Naturally, she’s appalled – money is certainly not her motivator, she lives for the destruction of all robots! Though you have to wonder how she earns money for her food and board when not working as a government hired gun.

As she departs to continue her work, she passes the mounted faces of the Cybertron seven – a grim reminder of her personal vendetta against Transformers.

A world away at the Ark, Ratchet treats Optimus Prime for an open wound he sustained in the Limbo dimension (see issue 100). Unknown to the pair the tiny insect form of Bombshell is watching (having sneaked into the Ark on Silverbolt’s wing last issue). He sees Prime’s wound as the perfect opportunity to plant one of his mind-controlling ‘cerebro shells’ and manoeuvres unnoticed. The shell makes its way up to Prime’s brain module and takes root – but for some unexplained reason it fails to take control and can only monitor the Autobot leader’s thoughts.

With his wound repaired, Prime heads to Wheeljack’s lab where the technician is fitting a chemical tracker to Skids. The device will allow him to follow the fuel trail left behind by Blaster, and hopefully lead to the Cybertron Seven. It’s interesting to see how Prime and the Autobots have nearly as much disdain for Donny Finkleberg (the human who supplied the intel) as his former Decepticon captors. Perhaps that’s understandable given that Donny was ‘Robot Master’ a Decepticon stooge for several weeks/months. Optimus will know that Megatron is easily capable of coercing a human, so the Autobots’ mistrust of Donny probably runs a little deeper. They’ve concluded he’s a greedy weasel who would sell his granny for a Walter Barnett $25,000 cheque. This being the case, what happens later with Skids trusting Donny makes little sense.

As it happens, Donny is carrying one of those Triple I cheques in his wallet. All the Autobots have to do is hold on to that to secure his cooperation. So Prime assigns Donny to accompany Skids to track down the Cybertron seven. Bombshell uses the opportunity to plant a homing device inside Donny’s wallet, hoping to lead the Decepticons to him.

Skids and Donny depart and Prime turns his attention to the Aerialbots. Following the near disaster at Hoover Dam their minds have been blanked, ready to be reprogrammed and given life by Prime’s Creation Matrix. Unbeknown to the Autobot leader, Soundwave is eavesdropping via Bombshell’s cerebro shell and the Decepticons are ready to steal away the Matrix when it is released. It’s the Transformer equivalent of piggy backing on to a neighbour’s unsecured WIFI signal perhaps?

Since the opportunity for the Decepticons to ‘hack the Matrix’ was entirely fortuitous and unexpected, it’s rather difficult to believe (as readers of the US comics are expected to) that the Decepticons were able to rapidly engineer the five Stunticon bodies, program them and design their combination ability in the short time between Prime instructing Wheeljack to prepare the Aerialbots for Matrixing and him actually carrying out the action. In the UK continuity this makes a little more sense, as the Decepticons had also been privy to Buster’s dream and had time to begin constructing their Special Teams.

Meanwhile, Skids has a fix on the Cybertron Autobots but is forced into an impromptu rescue when a woman careers off the road in the rain and crashes into an electric pylon. Skids transforms and goes to her aid – leaving Donny to whine about getting soaked. His noble act makes the TV news and is seen by Walter Barnett, who starts to believe there could be some truth in the theory that not all robots are evil, and Circuit Breaker who decides there’s another robot loose that she has to hunt down! Megatron has also been watching the tele and sends the Stunticons to rendezvous with Skids and undo his good work.

Skids succumbs to Donny’s weary protests that he needs to stop at a motel and sleep. They find a suitable establishment and the Autobot, very unwisely asks Donny to press his ‘shutdown button’ that puts Skids in his own recharging mode. The off switch is a very suspect idea and it appears that Skids cannot activate it himself. When morning comes, the Stunticons are quietly waiting in vehicle modes at the motel car park.

Skids and Donny resume their journey and spot a commotion in the rear mirror. It’s Motormaster taking road rage to new levels by ramming cars aide and telling the traffic to ‘get out of the way or die’ – ha!

Issue #92, which carries the second part, continues the Transformers the Movie love-in with a full page advert for the film’s (excellent) soundtrack and a reader offer to win copies of the album if you can answer such questions as who Megatron is transformed into and the Mr Spock actor who provides a voiceover! Grim Grams also plugs the film fairly remorselessly but what caught my eye was the reply to one Michael Blagg of Blackpool. He’s told in reply to comments about the Wreckers, that Impactor can switch his right arm for a variety of weapons – the harpoon being his favourite. That sounds an awful lot like the Death’s Head character which Furman would be introducing around 20 issues after this one.

But getting back to the story… as the Stunticons transform and close in on Skids, they come under attack from RAAT helicopters who deploy their electrical interference foil. Deadend considers the human attack beneath their notice, but Motormaster is more canny and warns his men never to underestimate an enemy.

Deadend promptly disperses the foil using his compressed air gun and Breakdown blasts one of the choppers out of the sky (presumably with the four abseiling RAAT troopers meeting a sticky end?).

Circuit Breaker realises that this group of robots are far more aggressive than the last and unleashes on Dragstrip and Wildrider. It’s one of the rare occasions she attacks Decepticons! Motormaster (got to love him) uses his huge sword as a golf club to swipe the cab clean off a truck and send it skywards into Circuit Breaker, who hovers back to the ground. It’s a cool moment and at this point I’m practically rooting for the Stunticons, since CB is such a pain in the rear end and is finally getting what she deserves!

Donny runs over to see if CB is okay. Their exchange, with him saying “they must be paying you a ton” and her reply, speaks volumes about the characters and motives. Barnett also arrives to confront Donny – they have a lot to discuss! To be fair to Donny he does his best to defend Skids and the arriving Aerialbots, even succeeding in persuading Barnett. Then the Stunticons surround Skids and pretend to protect him. This Decepticon trick appears to work as both Circuit Breaker and Barnett now accuse Donny of being in league with the bad robots and CB goes to re-join the fight.

At last the moment arrives that fans have been waiting for, as the two teams combine into Superion and Menasor respectively. The behemoths square off. Menasor uses a section of flyover as a shield and Superion shattering it with a single punch. They seem pretty evenly matched, until Circuit Breaker flies alongside Superion’s head and unleashes a mighty burst of electricity, stunning the Autobot and allowing Menasor to steal the advantage and blast Superion at close range. He falls and Menasor hails his victory, moving to crush the weakened Circuit Breaker.

Barnett, in an amazing display of strength it has to be said, clings to a rope dangled from a RAAT chopper and swings into action, rescuing CB in mid-air from Menasor’s clenching fist. In the distraction, Skids and Donny flee the scene. There’s nothing they can do to help Superion.

Later that night, Donny puts Skids to bed via his deactivation button, and goes into a motel. He places a call to Walter Barnett… asking how much a Transformer would be worth to him, no fuss, sleeping like a baby. It is the quickest 50 grand he has ever made!

I’m tempted to say ‘what a creep’ but Donny is not all bad, just weak. His desire to get out of the situation financial enhanced gets the better of him and he takes advantage of Skids’ trusting nature. The Cybertron Seven captured, plus the Aerialbots and shortly Skids. Things are not looking good for the Autobots at this point.

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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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Showdown!

Skids returns in a heart-warming ‘robot meets girl’ story with flashes of The Terminator and High Noon thrown in for fun. Can he be the first Autobot to successfully ‘check out’ from the Transformers war?

Showdown! was published in Marvel UK’s weekly Transformers comic in two instalments cover dated August 1986. The tendency was to release the comic about a week before the actual date stated on the cover. I know this, as my copy of issue #72 – with the brilliant Ravage close-up by Geoff Senior – took some battle damage from an apple crumble I made in Home Economics (cookery) class and transported home in the same rucksack. That was on the last week of school in late July, and sadly the comic still bears the scars 34 years later!

The story is from the US team, and is written as brilliantly as ever by Bob Budiansky with art from Herbe Trimpe (who also provides the Skids vs Megatron cover for the second instalment). As mentioned in the intro, it’s a mixed bag of themes – part love story, part facing up to responsibilities, and it’s also a chase thriller. Skids, Charlene and Donny are relentlessly pursued by Ravage and (in Skids’ case) by an unhinged sports car driver.

While not exactly slow, it is a more sedate story than Bob’s recent work which has included the epic Return to Cybertron saga and action-packed Command Performances. Some may not take to it as a result, but for this reviewer Showdown! is one of my favourites, mostly for the core relationship between Skids and Charlene.

Skids is a likeable character, particularly for his curiosity. That was evident from the petrol station comedy scene in Rock and Roll Out, and for me he stood out as the best of the new bunch of Autobots introduced in that story. It’s great to see Skids strike out on his own here, and be given a spotlight in a comic that is getting pretty crowded for characters by this point.

Bob specialises in grounding his Transformers stories with human characters and interactions. He does it well and constantly, so perhaps exploring a romance between a human and a Transformer was inevitable at some point. It’s tastefully done, avoiding suggestions of anything sexual for the most part, with the notable exception of Charlene in hotpants ‘pleasuring’ Skids by polishing his hubcaps!

The story is also a final outing for Ravage. I’m not sure if it was ever Bob’s intention to write him out permanently, but with a constant supply of new characters to be introduced he never got around to bringing Ravage back (though he would reappear courtesy of the UK stories – in issue 200!).

Geoff Senior’s cover, Ravage ripping up Robot Master’s cape with his jaws, sets up the story nicely. The Decepticon jaguar is swiftly crossing the Wyoming wilderness ‘like a midnight breeze’ in pursuit of the escaped Donny Finkleberg, who the Decepticons were using to put out anti-Autobot propaganda, but who legged it last issue.

Not too far ahead, Donny is still wearing the ridiculous Robot Master costume but stumbles across a small camp that is luckily unoccupied at this moment. Even better, there’s spare clothes that he can change into. He leaves money and buries the orange costume. He must contact the Autobots as soon as possible to warn them of Decepticon reinforcements coming over the Space Bridge. Ironically, in his haste to find an Autobot he passes by the injured Autobot Skids, who after toppling from a cliff remains helpless.

Ravage reaches the small camp site, and after incinerating it with a fire blast, checks the debris – there is no seared flesh or charred bones, and no fleshling!! Here it becomes apparent that Ravage’s mission is not to recapture Donny, but to eliminate him – presumably this in order to stop him spilling the beans about the Robot Master hoax but perhaps also for professional pride, after all this human dared to give Ravage the slip and this humiliation must be avenged.

In a small town several miles away, a checkout woman called Charlene is missing her old car. She would often use it to get away from the hum-drum of life. Her co-worker and admirer, Wendell, can see she is down and offers to take her for a drive after work, which she gratefully accepts. Charlene’s thirst for adventure leads the pair to head towards an old gold mine. They encounter the injured Skids, who despite being incapable of speaking, manages to put his radio on to get some attention. It’s like something Bumblebee would do in the Bay films years later.

Charlene assumes the van to be abandoned and is keen to claim it and get it roadworthy again. Money could be a problem, but luckily Wendell’s cousin is a mechanic (and presumably a sucker for a pretty girl with a hard luck story as he does the work for free). I assumed Wendell was a surname, but since his cousin also calls him it, perhaps it’s an unusual first name?

Whatever, in no time the familiar Honda van is fixed in the workshop. A contented Skids stays silent, he finds the idea of being Charlene’s car quite interesting and certainly a lot safer than being part of the never-ending Transformers civil war. As he’s leaving the garage with Charlene, trouble appears in the shape of our old friend Jake Dalrymple (of the pink Lamborghini) and his long-suffering partner Frannie. Recognising Skids as the one who dented him (in issue 70), and apparently causing Skids to tumble down the mountain side wasn’t revenge enough, he takes up the tail.

Skids demonstrates that Autobots have some extraordinary abilities on the road compared to your average car, such as leaping in the air and driving along a fence (how it can support his weight I don’t know). All these things should convince Dalrymple to stay clear, but he is a determined chap it seems. He ends up colliding with a workman’s ladder and getting his beloved car covered in green paint, which serves him right.

Of course, it means that the game is up for Skids. As Charlene flees, he’s forced to transform and reveal himself. He displays holograms of Megatron and the war on Cybertron and tells her how he wants to escape that life and just be her car. In his old life had been an anthropologist, and his natural curiosity about the surroundings dovetails nicely with Charlene’s own interests. He quickly becomes the companion she’s been looking for.

Meanwhile, Donny overhears Jake and Frannie in a bar discussing Skids. He realises there’s an Autobot nearby and sets out to find him. Charlene and Skids develop their friendship over the next few days. He chats to her through the bedroom window and she educates him about the old west, with artefacts, memorabilia and her love for that age of adventure. She shows Skids her favourite film ‘High Noon’, in which the hero marshal is willing to die for what he believes in. Skids is impressed, but also uncomfortable as it’s a reminder that he is essentially an Autobot deserter and running away from his duty to fight the Decepticons.

Skids cuts a tragic figure at times, telling Charlene that his only memories are of war. She is determined to change that, and the pair set out to explore the tranquillity of the unspoilt wilderness. Poor Wendell asks if she is up for a date, but Charlene has no time for him now that she’s got Skids.

Soon enough, the outside world comes crashing in. Charlene is hosing down the ex-Autobot in her driveway when the pair are confronted by Donny (who is hilariously still wearing the borrowed clothes from earlier, even though this is several days later). Skids stays silent, letting Charlene issue denials – he doesn’t want to go back to his old life – but then Ravage attacks and he’s forced to bundle both humans aboard and take off at speed.

Ravage is hot in pursuit, deploying his fire breath, and so is Jake Dalrymple, who was checking the successful paint removal job on his Lamborghini when he Skids thundered past. Now comes the High Noon element as Skids, Donny and Charlene hide out in an old abandoned mining town. Dalrymple, who has followed them, walks up to Skids and smashes his front windscreen with a swing of his tire iron. (This guy has got a serious obsession!) Skids screams in pain, and hallucinates about Megatron holding Charlene and demanding a wild west showdown. Skids doesn’t want to fight anymore and is ripped in two by Megatron’s fusion cannon…

Thankfully, it was all a dream. Charlene is fine, but perhaps not for much longer if Skids cannot stop Ravage. The Decepticon crashes through a wooden building, knocking Skids on to his side. Jake drives his Lamborghini into the charging Decepticon, leaving him momentarily stunned. What happened here exactly? Did Jake have an attack of conscience, or was he just trying to protect his girlfriend? It buys Skids enough time to transform and accept that his fate is to be an Autobot warrior and defend the humans.

Ravage collapses a building on Skids, but he deflects the Decepticon with a piece of debris. Ravage fires a missile which hits Skids hard in the back, but as he pounces to finish him, Skids rolls clear and Ravage plunges down a deep mine shaft. Charlene is just pleased the ordeal is over, but Skids has realised that he cannot escape his fate and must return to the Autobots.

It’s a sad note to end their relationship on, but Skids reminds her that she still has Wendell. I’d like to think they ended up happily ever after, but if Charlene was keen she wouldn’t have side-lined the poor guy for an Autobot. So he’ll have his work cut out. Interestingly, a speech bubble from Skids on the final page has been altered – “I’m going back with Donny, back to my people – the Autobots!” has been altered to – “When my wounds heal, I’m going back to the Autobots”.

In closing, Showdown! is a nice story and a touching, if at times sickly-sweet friendship between Skids and Charlene, with Donny providing the comedy element. With so many characters in the comic these days, it is a rare thing that two can get such a prominent show and prove quite easily that a smaller amount of characters can provide just as good a tale as an epic battle.

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Command Performances

Omega Supreme bests Megatron and seven other Decepticons on his debut, as Optimus Prime takes the fight to the enemy by leading a full-scale assault on the Decepticon base.

Transformers US writer Bob Budiansky continues his recent run of good form with another cracker of a story, and once again it introduces a new character from the toy range – the immensely powerful Omega Supreme. As the cover to TFUS#19 proclaims “You asked for him – you got him!”. I’m not sure there was any great clamour in the UK for Omega to appear, mostly because he was not included in the truncated Hasbro toy range we had over here.

Command Performances was published in TFUK#70 and #71 in July 1986, about a month before its release in the States. Omega Supreme is talked up in the UK comic’s opener ‘Transformation’, as a “rocket and tank rolled into one giant package, making him the Autobots’ most powerful weapon”. He would certainly live up to the billing once we saw him in action. Though, as a friend of mine wryly observed back in the day, Omega Supreme suffered from “diminishing hardness”, which is to say he was unbeatable on his debut but would become more run-of-the-mill regular in subsequent appearances, culminating in his defeat by a super-powered Starscream in a much later issue.

As this one begins, every functioning Autobot is assembled outside the Ark to hear Optimus Prime unveil their newest warrior. Designed and built by Grapple to be the Ark’s last line of defence, he is Omega Supreme. There’s a reference to the previous story Rock and Roll Out where Grapple was side-lined to work on a special project for Optimus – this is it.

Prime explains that with Omega protecting the Ark, the Autobots will launch an assault on the Decepticon base in order to provoke Devastator into battle. They hope to capture his combination sequence and use it to assist in building their own combiner teams, the Aerialbots and Protectobots. Omega Supreme transforms into a huge robot that towers over a sceptical Ratchet and the others. He looks every bit the ultimate Autobot that Prowl wanted to build at the start of the year and Prime refused to sanction. To be fair Prowl was talking at the time about super soldiers to pursue an aggressive strategy of hunting down and destroying the Decepticons, while Omega’s function is defensive.

The disgruntled Dinobots, not seen in the US storyline since their debut (but recently recovered from their psychosis from the Dinobot Hunt in the UK expanded continuity), refuse to take part in the attack. In the US comic their reason is that they are fed up with being locked down in the Ark because their alt-modes are too conspicuous, and finally with some action in the offering they are pissed off to find out that the Autobots will retreat when they have secured Devastator’s codes. The UK version is less coherent, with speech bubbles doctored to have Grimlock dismissing the mission as a fool’s errand.

Prime gives the impression that this mission is a major deal and he has planned for every eventuality, including the Dinobots being difficult. Skids has his doubts about the wisdom of assaulting the no-doubt fortified Decepticon base for something they might not be able to use, in a premonition of trouble to come.

Over at the coal strip mine in Wyoming which serves as an unlikely base for the Decepticons (now under the joint leadership of Shockwave and Megatron) the Constructicons have been hard at work erecting fortifications around the rim. It’s good timing all things considered. In the US version Shockwave mentions that he ‘found and brought them back’. This begs the question of where they wandered off to. The wording is tweaked in the UK version to avoid this.

Once again, we see poor Donny Finkleberg, aka Robot Master, still wisecracking his captors but terrified that his number could be up at any minute. How he can possibly escape these giant megalomaniacs with Ravage constantly breathing down his neck?

To Shockwave, Donny is evidence of Megatron’s unfitness to command. Whereas Megatron takes a blast at the defences out of frustration at their hiding behind fortifications – Decepticons should be free to go where they please and conquer he says, illustrating the two very different leadership styles. Megatron summons Starscream and the seekers, along with Laserbeak, Buzzsaw, Rumble and Frenzy, and they go to greet their Decepticon brethren who should have arrived across the Space Bridge by now (obviously unknowing of last issue’s events).

The Autobot convoy rolls through Wyoming. They are depicted eight abreast which suggests to me a very wide road. Skids watches humans doing things like washing their cars and starts thinking how much nicer it might be to have an Earth vehicle’s life (a clue as to next issue’s plot). While daydreaming he clips a Lamborghini being driven Jake Dalrymple – a massive douche who speaks about himself in the third person, and immediate vows to get revenge on Skids (who left the scene of the accident without stopping, albeit on the orders of Optimus Prime). Jetfire causes a diversion as the Autobots smash through an army barrier to advance on the Decepticon base. Jake and his girlfriend follow and are immediate stopped by the army at gunpoint.

John Stokes’ cover of this issue depicting the Autobot attack, is then mirrored by events in the story as Prime orders his Autobots to charge the Decepticon gun turrets… with predictable results. You might think the Autobots would have spied on the Decepticon base to learn of its fortifications, rather than running blindly towards them – and what if the Decepticons were not even there, this would have been a pointless exercise?!

Megatron meanwhile discovers that the new arrivals they were expecting are not Decepticons at all – they are Autobots: Blaster and the rest of the ‘Cybertron Seven’. He’s about to order the attack, when Shockwave radios the news that the Decepticon base is under siege. Megatron realises that the Ark must be vulnerable, and they head there to capture it.

Part two, opens with Skids snared by a tentacle and a gigantic axe poised to cut him in two. Optimus frees him but takes a hit from the blade. Shockwave decides that it is time for Devastator to turn the tide of the battle. We learn that the combination sequence takes less than 30 seconds – this sounds quite slow in the heat of a battle and lends credence to the claim that the Special Teams are a technological advancement – and the giant soon appears holding a huge bolder. However, the Autobots react faster and destroy it.

Bumblebee has recorded the Constructicons’ combination sequence and with the objective secured, the Autobots retreat. Shockwave is happy to let them go, while Ravage realises that Donny Finkleberg has made a run for it. As the smoke dies down, he picks up the scent, and follows….

Megatron and the other Decepticons approach the Ark and are pleased to see just a tank and rocket booster guarding it. Their overconfidence proves their undoing. Skywarp is blown to pieces with one shot, and when the Decepticons revert to robot modes and advance, they are swiftly repelled by the intense electrical current generating from Omega’s track.

Omega Supreme transforms into his humongous robot mode – and dispatches the Decepticons one-by-one, with a series of wordy but instantly iconic phrases – “I am the guardian of the gates, the planner of your obsolescence, the number you cannot compute”. Megatron reels as his warriors are picked off and left mangled, smoking and crumpled. It is rare to see the Decepticon leader so comprehensively beaten – even his infamous Fusion Cannon has no effect on this opponent. A huge swing then takes Megatron down and he’s about to be reduced to scrap (as we learned from the full-page fact-file on Omega Supreme, he can shatter mountains and pulverise steel) – but Laserbeak swoops in and retrieves his leader. The pair disappear east.

The still satisfying results are transmitted to the Autobot convoy racing away from the Decepticon base. Skids apologises to Optimus for doubting his plan, but they are not home and dry yet. Jake Dalrymple runs out in front of Skids causing him to swerve, and Ravage seizes the opportunity to score a direct missile hit on Skids, sending him tumbling into the ravine. The Autobots cannot afford (can’t think why!) and press on.

But for this late setback Prime’s ‘command performance’ had been exemplary – Megatron’s on the other hand has not. At the Decepticon base, Shockwave is resolved to execute him for gross incompetence. A battered Megatron rises to his feet to accuse Shockwave of allowing a trap to spring up around him. The Decepticon warriors lost “mean nothing and can be replaced” (I love this line, it’s such a Decepticon thing to say – and since the advent of the Space Bridge, very true) and at least with Megatron’s actions the Autobots know that the Decepticons are ready to strike at any time. Shockwave ponders this before accepting his failure and acknowledging Megatron as the leader.

Ever since Megatron was relieved of his command and then beaten in battle by Shockwave, I always expected he would win the leadership back. However, I do have a hard time seeing how Shockwave can logically view Megatron’s approach as the better one, given that his unprepared attack ensured they took a solid beating from the Autobots and six of their warriors have ended up deactivated and put into cold storage. It’s hard to see this as anything other than abject failure.

Overall though, another solid story and very successful in toy advertisement terms, with most readers probably wanting to get Omega Supreme at the earliest opportunity after this (too bad if you lived in the UK though!). There is the first two instalments of the new back-up strip, Hercules, in which the Greek god enjoys intergalactic adventures with his robotic friend, The Recorder. It’s easily the best back-up that the UK comic would have – and a distinct improvement on Rocket Racoon which I found weird (though he’s great in the Guardians of the Galaxy films). There’s a teaser for upcoming stories (I always loved those) hinting at another Dinobot epic and the biggest, most ambitious story the comic has ever attempted. It’ll star Ultra Magnus and Galvatron and tie-in with the hotly anticipated Transformers Movie – we’ll come to know it as Target:2006. The comic feels like its going from strength to strength in this moment. Next issue – Skids versus Ravage (and Jake the douche).

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I, Robot Master

Desperate for fuel, Megatron attacks a coal mining plant and becomes rooted to the spot! And a washed-up comic book writer is recruited by the US government to claim to be the terrorist mastermind behind the Transformers.

April 1986. Bob Budiansky’s most offbeat story since… well, his last two where Megatron was controlled by a small-time hoodlum, and Hoist stole the show at a rock concert, arrives on UK shores. The Marvel UK Transformers comic is mid-way through an eight-week run of US stories at this point. Don Perlin is once again on art duties.

After taking his leave of Joey Slick, Megatron apparently spent weeks walking through the American North West in search of fuel. I say apparently because it seems somewhat unfathomable that a giant Decepticon with a hair-trigger temper such as he, could possibly wander around and not attract an awful lot of attention. Particularly when you consider that he can’t exactly convert into a vehicle and blend in.

His sensors have bought him to a coal mine which is high in hydrocarbons. Megatron attacks the huge machinery and in his desperation, showers himself in coals. He finds these black rocks indigestible in their current form. Suddenly, he stops dead in his tracks, drained of fuel, paralysed and helpless! A worker notes that he “just ran out of gas”. We’ve previously seen Transformers dangerously low on fuel but this is a new situation.

Walter Barnett, the Triple I agent we met in the last story, arrives at a restricted government building at the behest of his boss, Forest Forsythe. Along with the rest of the board, they are shown footage of recent high-profile robot incidents (Megatron and Shockwave’s battle, the capture of G.B. Blackrock’s aerospace plant, Hoist at the Springhorn concert and the incident with Megatron at the coal mine in Wyoming).  

Blackrock has been invited to give his insight to the group and attempts to persuade them that the Transformers are two factions, one good and one evil. It’s a huge waste of time as Forsythe is not interested in hearing this and after showing Blackrock out, tells Triple I that the policy will be to treat all robots as a threat. For a group called the Intelligence and Information Institute they really are lacking in basic intelligence. Despite acknowledging that there is evidence to back-up Blackrock’s claims they are willing to throw away the chance of an alliance with the Autobots that might solve their Decepticon problem. Instead they’ve decided to invest in a cover-up. I suppose this will have been only a dozen years after Watergate and cynical government cover-ups will have been in the public consciousness, including Bob’s. This feels like a spoof of the government cover-up cliché.

Barnett comes across like a real deadbeat dad and husband as he arrives home. His young son is excited to see him but all Walt does is tell him to tidy up his toys. He then spots the boy’s Robot Master comic, about a guy who controls an army of robots, and before you can say co-incidence he rushes off to catch a plane to New York. You have to wonder if his family see much of him. I’m not sure if his destination, 387 Park Ave, might be another in-joke, perhaps it was Marvel’s address in the day. He’s in time to catch the writer of the Robot Master comic, Donny Finkleberg, on his way out of the building, having had his book cancelled.

According to TFWiki and other knowledgeable fans, Donny is based on an actual comic book writer called Danny Fingeroth, who worked with Bob on Marvel’s Avengers in 1981. It’s not clear whether Bob or Don Perlin created Robot Master in his likeness as a hilarious office in-joke or whether Bob’s getting his own back. Certainly, Donny Finkleberg is not presented as a great guy. Instead he’s greedy, unscrupulous, a geeky loser and has a rather incessant smoking habit to boot.

Barnett takes Donny to lunch and offers him $25,000 if he can help come up with a Robot Master story to hoodwink the American public. Naturally he suggests bringing to life the character he created (Barnett could have saved £25k by simply reading the comic). They could say the Transformers are being controlled by a human terrorist mastermind, which apparently is less likely to result in a public scare that giant alien robots. If Donny would like to play Robot Master, he can double his money (and best of all, no acting experience appears to be necessary).

The idea is loopy on several levels. When Donny appears on TV he’s likely to be recognised by someone (like his old boss perhaps) and outed, and it wouldn’t take the media very long to discover the similarity to the Robot Master comic and expose the whole hoax. Triple I are playing with fire and it’s a wonder and it’s a wonder that Barnett he was not laughed out of the agency for coming up with such a foolhardy plan.

Nevertheless, the next day Donny is broadcasting as Robot Master and claiming to be the human leader of a robotic army. Optimus Prime is alerted as is Mr Blackrock, who realises that Triple I must be behind this.

He suggests to the media that the whole thing might be a hoax. Triple I are furious but it shows what a house of cards their plan is – it really could fall apart in a moment. Blackrock shuns his limo to drive away in a VW Beetle, which is hilarious (though his calling Bumblebee ‘Bum’ is not really the sort of nickname you’d want).

A photo of frozen Megatron makes the news, much to the horror of Barnett and Forsythe (honestly, how was that ever going to stay private seeing as Megatron attacked a mine full of workers). They decide to offer Donny a way to double his money, with another broadcast.

In part two, the Autobots have been monitoring the TV news and Optimus Prime sets out to capture his old nemesis with assistance from Skids, Tracks and Bumblebee (once again the comic is showcasing its recently introduced characters, and Hoist also appears earlier in the issue making a nuisance of himself by taking charge of Autobots maintenance schedules). This small band, albeit including Optimus, seems decidedly light to capture a Transformer as powerful as Megatron. Even if he is currently immobilised, why take the chance? So much better to go in overwhelming numbers.

In downtown Portland, Soundwave is hanging out at a TV and video store in his cassette deck mode for some totally inexplicable reason. When the shop worker/owner (who oddly enough has been drawn exactly like G.B. Blackrock before they started forgetting his moustache) tests whether it is working, apparently intending to sell this equipment he found on the doorstep. There’s a deafening sound, followed by Ravage transforming and escaping with Soundwave, who are picked up and flown away by Laserbeak and Buzzsaw. They all head off in the direction of Wyoming, some 1,022 miles away. The sequence doesn’t add-up. Why not hang out a store more local to Megatron, or monitor TV from the Decepticon base?

There’s a nice scene however, where Barnett and Donny (in his Robot Master threads) arrive at the mine and Megatron’s eyes burn as Donny refers to him as “old junkpile” and strikes a match on his foot. Apparently with Robot Master broadcasting next to a giant robot, the story’s credibility will be bolstered by a thousand percent! Blackrock arrives (minus tache) to make a final attempt to persuade Barnet to drop the crazy plan, pointing out that Triple I are lumping potential allies (the Autobots) in with the enemy – and inviting Decepticon attack.

The Autobots arrive and are promptly fired upon by the US military and of course they can’t return fire. Barnett’s comment about them coming to free a comrade is ridiculous, given that the Autobots are clearly not being hostile even under extreme provocation. However, it’s all too late as Soundwave and his cassettes arrive with a casket of fuel (and a petrol hose) and quickly restore Megatron to working order. The Decepticons make very short work of the army and the Autobots, in their weakened state are forced to withdraw. It’s odd seeing them leave humans to the mercy of Megatron (even if it’s the army’s own silly fault) it seems to run contrary to Autobot principles.

Laserbeak retrieves Donny and plonks him in front of Megatron for termination. Donny’s quick talking saves his own neck. He offers the Decepticons his assistance in continuing the dark propaganda so that they can continue to cast fear and suspicion about the Autobots. At this point Megatron really should’ve blasted him into oblivion but with Soundwave thinking it’s a good idea, he also agrees. A second broadcast occurs, with Robot Master backed up Megatron’s raw power (crushing huge boulders for effect). Afterwards Donny very stupidly strikes another match on Megatron’s foot (does he not have a matchbox?) and gets hoisted by the cape (if not his own petard) and warned by Megatron, in full-on public health warning mode, never to presume his value to the Decepticons or he may discover that smoking is hazardous to his health!

So, there you have it kids, smoking is not cool – as Donny’s habit gets him in trouble with Megatron! Overall, it’s a fun, slightly camp and off the wall story from Bob Budiansky that helps keep momentum with the Decepticons and the Autobots on the backfoot, which is important for the drama and tension. Robot Master is a rather ridiculous figure. He looks more like a bloke going to a comic convention in a silly outfit than a potential world dominator or terrorist mastermind. If you think about the concept seriously it quickly unravels – people will know Donny Finkleberg from his regular life and it wouldn’t take the cops or the media long to find out he’s a struggling comic book writer. I guess the story is meant to be enjoyed but not taken too seriously.

Interestingly, Shockwave won’t learn of Megatron’s return until TFUK#65 in another nine issues, which is strange since the ex-Decepticon leader has appeared on every TV channel with Robot Master.

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Rock and Roll-Out!

Jetfire joins the Autobot club and gets a free badge, as five reinforcements – Grapple, Hoist, Skids, Tracks and Smokescreen – debut and uncover a Decepticon presence at Brick Springhorn’s concert!

A key difference for me between Bob Budiansky, the writer of the US Transformers comic (and cover artist for this issue – see above) and his Marvel UK counterpart Simon Furman, was the way they approached the storytelling.

Simon’s stuff tends to be more serious, pitched to an older audience and leans towards the epic, while Bob’s style was more light-hearted and tongue in cheek (though always well structured and paced). Even when he’s writing about the serious business of Ratchet shouldering the burden of being the last surviving Autobot, or Megatron’s explosive showdown with Shockwave, Bob will keep the fun factor by inserting comedy moments involving baffled or freaked out humans.

Thanks to sillier ideas such as Robot Master and the infamous Carwash of Doom, Bob tends to get unfairly compared to Simon. In truth both made exceptional contributions to Transformers comics and both have had great moments. The cool thing about being a UK Transformers fan was that we our weekly comic ran every US story as well the homegrown material, so we had a best of both worlds.

Budiansky’s ‘Rock and Roll Out!’ appears in TFUK #53 and #54 in March 1986. It’s the first of his more ‘offbeat’ stories. The story opens with Jetfire undergoing the sacred Rite of the Autobrand. It’s an age-old ceremony which involves burning an Autobot insignia on to a recruit and them accepting fuel donated by their new comrades. Prime’s words “May your lustre never dull and your wires never cross” had a bit of charm to it, and years later I added the line to my email signature for a while. Another geek confession: even now, if we’re going somewhere, I might say to the kids ‘lets rock and roll out’ so this story must have left an impression.

Jetfire was of course created by the Decepticons, but stolen away by the Autobots. Optimus Prime used his Creation Matrix to give him life and a new purpose. He is the first of a new generation of Autobots, constructed on Earth, and as the Special Teams pull-out included with issue #54 amply illustrates, there are more on their way. A visit to Ratchet’s medical bay shows why new recruits are needed: it’s full of injured warriors, some in a bad way. As far as US readers are concerned these copped it during Prime Time, but in the UK expanded continuity they were casualties of the Dinobot Hunt. Luckily in Wheeljack’s lab, are five robotic bodies waiting to house the personalities of Grapple, Hoist, Smokescreen, Skids, and Tracks.

Budiansky was under constant pressure to keep up with the ever-expanding Hasbro toy line. These five, released in 1985, were overdue an appearance in the comic. The obvious way to bring them in would be to have the Autobots build them and Prime give them life with his Creation Matrix. To Budiansky’s credit he avoids the predictable solution and comes up with something novel (if a little flawed). We find out that these five previously existed on Cybertron and allowed the Ark to copy their minds in case reinforcements were needed (on the original mission to blast a safe passage for Cybertron through the asteroid belt, four million years ago). It begs the question of why not just just take the five along in the first place, rather than go to the trouble of building new bodies during the mission? Also, since we know that Transformers are basically immortal, isn’t it possible that the originals and are kicking around on the home world? Awkward.

Prime and Jetfire step into Wheeljack’s lab, where we witness crystals containing coded memories transfer via laser beams into five newly created robot bodies. With that they wake up as if from a deep sleep.

After the welcomes, Grapple is tasked by Optimus Prime to work on a secret task (we discover what that is in the upcoming story Command Performances). Meanwhile, Bumblebee will help the four other newbies to get acquainted with Earth.

Elsewhere, a fleet of navy vessels closes in on the Decepticon-controlled oil rig. G.B. Blackrock, the rig’s rightful owner, is on the deck of a ship with Walter Barnet from the government agency Triple III. This is Walter’s first appearance in the comic, but he’ll be a recurring character from this point onwards. Blackrock is depicted without his trademark moustache. It could be that artist Don Perlin forgot or just prefers him clean shaven!

It turns out that Starscream, Thundercracker and Skywarp have been toiling away on the rig, harvesting fuel for their recently returned commander, Shockwave. It’s been weeks already and Starscream is in mutinous mood. They are soon joined by Shockwave himself – who blows a hole in a cliff and emerges in flying gun mode (sending a couple of lovebirds diving for cover). He easily evades the navy’s fire and shows his warriors the power siphon he invented. It can convert energy from any sources into Energon cubes and will reduce their reliance on isolated outposts such as the rig. His every word is being eavesdropped by the navy who hear of a plan to harvest a huge release of sonic energy.

Incidentally this is the first time the US comic has acknowledged the existence of Energon cubes (which appear constantly in the cartoons). They do feature in the UK story Decepticon Dambusters, which is itself based on an episode of the Sunbow cartoon. Also, Shockwave’s return is handled without any fanfare. He simply got out of the swamp that he was chucked in by Optimus two US issues ago. In the UK continuity the Decepticons were leaderless for a time.

So, next morning Bumblebee and his trainees are blending into the Oregon traffic. Tracks is already admiring his sleak new vehicle mode. Thanks to modifications, the Autobots can now hide their insignias if necessary and create an illusion of a driver – a mannequin springs up on the driving seat at each Autobots command. After explaining such things as a speed limit, Bumblebee takes them into a Blackrock petrol station where they converse rather awkwardly with the attendants (who think they are either ventriloquists or double jointed). Hehehe!!!

Skids, the more sociable of the Autobots, is intrigued by the song on the station attendants’ radio. He’s told it is Brick Springstern and the Tenth Avenue Band! The lyrics are near identical to Dancing in the Dark, except with a few key word changes. Oddly, Springstern becomes Springhorn later in the story. That one obviously slipped by Editor Michael Carlin. I’m guessing that it was easier for the team to spoof Bruce Springsteen rather than go to all the trouble of asking permission to feature him.

So, to the second part which begins with Prime passing on information to Bumblebee that G.B. Blackrock has warned of a Decepticon plot to steal sonic energy. Both agree that it is likely to involve the Springhorn concert and Bumblebee is told to investigate, but not engage the enemy.

At the Washington DC, offices of Triple I (Intelligence and Information Institute), Walter Barnet calls on his boss Forrest Forsythe. The agency still has no idea what the Transformers are or what they want, and steps must be taken to contain the growing public hysteria. Barnett is told to come up with a plan. The interlude lays the seeds of the next story.

Bumblebee and his trainees drive into the concert parking area without paying the entrance fee. Fortunately, by deactivating their mannequins they park up and fool the security. There are 80,000 fans singing along to ‘Born in America’ when the noise is suddenly drained away. Hoist severs a mysterious cable leading from the stage to somewhere underground and suddenly the three Decepticon jets burst through the ground to attack.

Bumblebee falls in the hole, leaving the four rookie warriors to fight the Decepticons unguided. Luckily the fans all think the missiles and explosions are part of the concert (so much for Triple I’s fears of hysteria), even when Hoist steps up to the stage to weld a piece of rigging back together.

Shockwave is under the stadium, generating cubes from his siphon. It’s all a bit undignified for the Decepticon leader, who you would think wouldn’t have to do the graft himself. He decides to take his revenge for the Autobots spoiling the plan by soaring into the air in gun mode and preparing to incinerate the crowd. Bumblebee throws an Energon Cube at him and the blasts lights up the sky, sending Shockwave spinning off. We don’t find out whether the siphon Shockwave spent weeks making is retrieved or left under the stadium.

Despite Bumblebee disobeying orders, Prime is pleased at the way the new warriors acquitted themselves and they all learned an important motto from the day: the show must go on!

Included free with TFUK#54 is a pull-out mini comic featuring the new combining teams – or Special Teams as Marvel UK is referring to them – the Stunticons, Aerialbots, Combaticons and Protectobots. At a stroke the headcount is increased by 24. The three-page story sees the teams squaring off outside and power plant and demonstrating their combining abilities. The story is a little underwhelming but works as an advert for the new toys, which is what it’s intended to be. The story will be expanded on and put into a proper context by Marvel UK in issue #64.

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