Second Generation

The Autobots and Decepticons are shown a vision of their future – the Special Teams, courtesy of Buster Witwicky’s Matrix-induced nightmares, and Megatron battles Shockwave for the Decepticon leadership once again.

Late May 1986, the big summer event from Hasbro is the release of the new combiner teams – the Aerialbots, Protectobots, Stunticons and Combaticons. Unlike the Constructicons, which are fiddly to combine (and not for sale in the UK anyway) these new teams are more streamlined. A larger ‘team leader’ becomes the body of the combined robot and the other four members easily click into place as arms and legs. All are interchangeable. As a disgruntled Mixmaster wryly observes in the story, suddenly the Constructicons are “yesterday’s news”.

There’s one problem. The new toys are not scheduled to appear in the UK comic until late November. That’s good timing for Christmas sales but not ideal for Hasbro execs looking to give the Special Team toys a push as they go on sale in mid 1986. The solution is this story, Second Generation, where the Special Teams debut in a dream, ahead of their actual debut.

Issue #63’s cover by Alan Stevens is an arrangement of Superion and Menasor from their box art. I can’t be sure whether Stevens is the box artist or the guy who arranged the compilation, but it’s reminder (if any were needed) of some major product placement on the way. There’s the third and final Robot War round-up explaining the saga so far, and then straight into the action from Simon Furman and artist John Stokes.

It starts by delving into Buster’s dream and this time the readers are along for the journey. Buster runs from Shockwave in a strange barren dreamscape with fire and orbiting moons. His legs scream in agony and oxygen-starved lungs beg for release (all told, it reminds me of the first 10k I ever ran). Shockwave is like the Terminator, he’s relentless and unstoppable, making light work of Optimus Prime, Jazz and Ratchet, as you can see above. It’s a great sequence apart from the blunder with Shockwave being drawn with two hands in one panel, rather than his distinctive gun arm, oops.

Buster is saved from certain death by the appearance of Superion, who blows Shockwave to pieces! Then Menasor attacks the giant Autobot and Buster flees the madness again, only to have his path blocked by the Combaticons, who combine into Bruticus.

Buster wakes with a scream – he is safely within the Ark. His father and Jessie are there, along with Prime and Ratchet. Sparkplug complains bitterly that the Autobots and Prime personally have made his son a “walking target” in their civil war. Stokes does a good job of drawing robots and making the dream sequence other-worldly and vivid, but I’m not keen on his humans. Buster like he’s about 12 and in need of a haircut, and Sparkplug like a wrinkly old crone. Not appealing.

Prime correctly interprets Buster’s nightmares as a message from the Matrix. And, in the Wyoming coal mine Soundwave explains the same theory to Megatron. The dynamic with Donny Finkleberg (aka Robot Master) irritating the hell out of Megatron is good fun. Megatron is desperate to blast him to a pulp (a sentiment shared by a fair few readers) but cannot because Donny is integral to the Decepticon propaganda war. Presumably, Ravage is with Megatron full time, guarding their captive.

In flashbacks we’re reminded of Buster’s sacrifices on behalf of the Autobots (for the benefit of new readers presumably, though this feels a bit like filler). He will help the Autobots again, this time by re-entering the dream with Optimus Prime at his side. At the Decepticon base, Shockwave has dusted down the technology he used to plunder Prime’s mind of the Matrix a while back, and will use it to eavesdrop on the visions.

It’s interesting to see how close Soundwave comes to being discovered as a double agent. Luckily for him, Shockwave is more concerned with the bigger picture stuff and tends to ignore trivial details. For all his vast intelligence and logic, he is easily duped.

And so, to issue #64 and chapter two of the saga. It’s the first time I’ve seen Shakespeare quoted in the comic (‘perchance to dream’ being mentioned on the Transformation page – I’m not sure I would have got the reference aged 12) and the first French quotation, with Defensor delivering the “coup de grace” to Bruticus. Barry Kitson is on art duties for the final time (though he’d draw a few more covers).

The story is a re-do of the mini comic that readers were treated to in Transformers #54 except longer and better drawn. The first team they (and we) meet are the Protectobots (this is only fair as they were missing from the opening instalment). They helpfully namecheck themselves for a proper introduction. Their mission is to make sure that the plant is safely evacuated. Blades, in helicopter mode, spots five vehicles approaching, who turn out to be the Stunticons.

Moments later, the Decepticon cars demonstrate their ability to combine “in one fluid move” into Menasor. Shockwave is watching along impressed (hopefully he missed the bit where his rival Megatron was depicted as Decepticon leader in the vision). He thinks Menasor is infinitely superior to the Devastator. Unsurprisingly Mixmaster is less convinced, probably realising the Constructicons are likely to get even less exposure in the comic once the new teams come along.

Buster and Prime observe Defensor wrestling Menasor (possibly the only time in the comic that we see them clash). Three military vehicles pull into the plant along with an army helicopter (Vortex mis-coloured as Blades – whoops), while high in the air, space shuttle Blast-Off dodges five planes (the approaching Aerialbots) to merge with his fellow Combaticons into Bruticus! It is two against one, until Superion arrives to even the odds.

Menasor turns out to have a pretty major weakness – his component parts can’t always agree. Dead End takes exception at being told when to fire and misses the opportunity. Also, embarrassingly he’s been drawn as Dragstrip. With so many new characters being introduced, it’s perhaps not too surprising that Kitson got confused who he was meant to be drawing. The kids will have noticed though.

Superion directs the blast at Bruticus and Defensor stamps on the stunned Decepticon’s head (brutal for a kids comic). Menasor’s retreat is halted by Superion’s Stress Fracture Cannon creating a mini earthquake under his feet. And so the battle ends with Prime and Buster waking up and saying with them the phrase of the moment…. SPECIAL TEAMS!

There’s also no mention of Matrix dreams after this, which suggests that the merger with Prime exorcised the visions from Buster’s mind. For that matter, there’s no explanation why the dream was a coherent story when Prime and Buster accessed it, and a hellish nightmare previously.

Megatron learns about the combiner teams from Soundwave and resolves to challenge Shockwave again for the Decepticon leadership. This is the premise for the third and final instalment (and the best). Though still under the banner of Second Generation its only loosely connected to the previous two parts. As the Transformation page suggests, this is a rematch that has been inevitable and eagerly awaited by readers.

Jeff Anderson takes his turn on the art duties, introducing us to coloured borders around frames to denote flashbacks. It’s a technique that he uses again in the upcoming Target 2006 to good effect.

Donny Finkleberg plays up his Robot Master alter ego, introducing the two challengers and the fact they are fighting for leadership. While it’s great fun to read this presented like a heavyweight boxing bout, it’s totally illogical the Decepticons would have Robot Master do this. His cover is meant to be that he’s the commander of the machines, so why introduce the idea of factions in the public consciousness, or the idea of there being a commander of the Decepticons with rivals contesting the job?

Apart from the doubtful set-up, the fight itself is pretty good. It’s no holds barred using fists, weaponry and discarded army tanks. Though evenly matched, you get the impression that Megatron at full strength (he wasn’t last time around) is the more powerful of the two (and the dirtier fighter). My expectation before reading the issue the first time around was that it would result in a Megatron victory. However, the outcome really isn’t in the hands of Simon Furman, as the UK comic reprints all the Marvel US stories, so any change of leadership would need to marry up with want Bob Budiansky is doing over the pond.

Soundwave cannot believe the Decepticon leaders are scrapping around for the benefit of humans. The scene where he spits at Donny, making the sound PUTTUP answers one of the long-standing questions of the letters page hosted by Soundwave. Every time an Autobot is mentioned on the page, he would accompany it with the word PUTTUP. Now we learn it’s the sound he makes when spitting oil. How Soundwave does this with a plate over his mouth is a whole other matter.

Soundwave hopes that the Autobots aren’t watching the broadcast. They are, but Prime is not too bothered as humans are not in danger. He hopes the pair will destroy one another. Their attention is on creating the Special Teams, with Wheeljack having already created a schematic of Superion. Wheels are in motion for future stories, including the mention that the Autobots do not yet understand the combination process and will need to observe someone. He is interrupted by an alarm before he can finish the sentence, but we know Prime is referring to Devastator. This also dovetails with the upcoming story Command Performances. I assume Furman got quite a bit of advanced warning of what Budiansky was planning State-side.

That alarm is the Dinobots waking up. The madness which caused their earlier rampage is now gone (as evidenced by the return of their usual bad attitude) and there’s the intriguing hint of more about their recovery in the 1986 Transformers Annual. This is a reference to the superb Furman/Senior story, Victory. With the Dinobots also due to appear in Command Performances, Furman has taken the opportunity to revive them here.

Soundwave, ever the grown up, intervenes to bring the fight to a close by offending both Megatron and Shockwave in unison. He cites their very different approaches – one logical and patient, the other action orientated – and proposes that they work together as joint leaders. The one who’s approach results in the most Autobot casualties will lead. Surprisingly, both agree, perhaps sensing that they are more evenly matched as fighters than they care to admit.

Remember what I said about the result needing to concur with the US storyline? This joint leadership is what results when the two leaders meet in the upcoming story Bridge To Nowhere, except in the UK the panels are edited to refer to an existing situation. It’s much better in my opinion that we’ve had this issue establishing the set-up instead of Bob’s approach which feels rushed and perhaps a bit underwhelming given the anticipation of a rematch.

And so the story ends, with Prime feeling confident that with Dinobots active and the secrets of the Special Teams solely in Autobot hands, they are finally on the front foot. If only they knew. Then finally we see the message that Soundwave transmitted to Cybertron in issue #36 finally reaching its target.

The blurb for next week’s return to Cybertron epic sounds amazing! There the war is over and the Decepticons have won. Plus, Ramjet, Dirge and Thrust and the Insecticons will appear, along with someone called Lord Straxus! And there’s fact files on Soundwave and Blaster. In hindsight it’s a hint of Blaster’s imminent debut in the comic. Onwards to one of the best Transformers stories of all time… The Smelting Pool.

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Devastation Derby!

Soundwave can barely believe his audio receptors when crack combiner team, the Constructicons, are dispatched to capture a lowly human! However, their target, Buster Witwicky, turns out to be more valuable than expected, in this two-part Marvel UK story from May 1986.

“They’re tough, mean and nasty… and what’s more they proved to be a firm favourite with you readers” declares the Transformation page of TFUK #61. It’s referring to the Constructicons of course. The comic’s one and only combiner team (for the moment) debuted in issue #35, some six months before this issue and then disappeared as quickly as they arrived.

In the UK continuity, Scavenger appeared in a solo capacity in the Dinobot Hunt saga, but Devastation Derby is the first time that we get to see the team back together since their introduction. I can well imagine Marvel has been receiving letters from fans on each side of the Atlantic requesting their return and that of their more famous combiner form, Devastator. (Incidentally, the Constructicons will reappear in the US continuity too, in the upcoming story The Bridge to Nowhere, though in a background capacity.)

So, UK fans will have been delighted to see the Constructicons back in a starring role back in May 1986. I know I certainly was. The story, written as always by Simon Furman, is drawn by the redoubtable Will Simpson – my second favourite TF artist behind the equally great Geoff Senior. Will draws a fantastic cover and Devastator splash page, as you can see above.

Frankly, it’s a mystery why the Constructicons were not utilised in earlier stories like Crisis of Command, when the Decepticons were vulnerable and leaderless, in need of the raw power of Devastator. The story attempts to explain away their absence by revealing that they’ve been training in the desert to improve their reactions in combined form. Evidently, their debut encounter with the Autobots left a lot to be desire.

As the story opens, Devastator is bashing the shit out of a yellow school bus (just to show how mean he is). Soundwave is impressed – eight strikes and eight would-be kills, all in the space of 34 seconds. Shockwave arrives to address the team – but he’s abrupt with Soundwave and frankly a bit rude, considering this is the second in command, who acquitted himself admirably as stand-in leader. Soundwave probably doesn’t help relations with the boss by making it obvious that he’s horrified by the idea of sending their crack troops to capture a human – even if it is an Autobot ally. This is a little out of character for Shockwave and makes me think that Frenzy was on to something last issue when he talked of the Decepticon Commander “running scared” about the rumoured return of Megatron.

Soundwave is right to be sceptical. The kidnap could be easily accomplished by Laserbeak or Ravage, and it doesn’t make much sense to involve the Constructicons other than as a plot device to introduce the Special Teams (albeit in dream form) in the next story. We get an early glimpse of Superion when Buster wakes up in a cold sweat from a pretty vivid dream and has drawn the Aerialbot combined form on his bedroom door.

Unsurprisingly Buster is less than keen to go to the demolition derby the following morning, when Jessie arrives to collect him. According to his dad, Sparkplug, Buster goes every month, which I find unlikely seeing as he’s been completely disinterested in cars before now and after. No sooner has Buster set off, than Sparkplug whips out a screwdriver and removes the door to show the Autobots. Now normally he wouldn’t give the Autobots the time of day, but maybe he’ll only speak to them if he needs something.

Prime and Wheeljack agree that Buster has put his finger on something they’ve been thinking about, an Autobot combiner. Wheeljack suggests the drawing is a robot made up of “four or five” components. (I would have thought five of six is more likely) and of course no-one mentions that Buster carried the Matrix in his mind, though that would seem the likely trigger for these visions.

I’m also rather surprised at the casual way the Autobots refer to Buster’s recent run in with Shockwave. It was almost crushed to a pulp by a 30ft one-eyed robot – that’s a pretty big deal. I’m surprised Sparkplug is not surprised. Shouldn’t he be asking why nobody told him about this incident?

Although Prime is sure Shockwave will have no further interest in Buster, he orders Smokescreen and three others to accompany Sparkplug to the demolition derby and find Buster, who it turns out has forgotten his cares and started enjoying himself.

Simpson has an absent-minded moment as he draws Sparkplug in the crowd alongside Buster and Jessie in one of the frames, when he’s meant to be parked up with Smokescreen, Tracks, Brawn and Ironhide! Oops.

Furman does his own take on the comedic scenes from Rock and Roll Out involving the Autobots and their mannequin ‘fake drivers’ – having one pop out from Smokescreen’s seat while Sparkplug is still sitting there. The derby has got Smokescreen eager to join in, while Tracks is concerned for his bodywork.

I enjoyed the Constructicons’ grand entrance, as they throw a ticket seller through a billboard and trash a kiosk and the car park. Ironhide engages the team and they retaliate by combing into Devastator – “I hate it when they do that” says Ironhide – and the sight of the 60ft titan is enough to cause Buster to collapse, leaving Jessie screaming!

In the second part, kids who are climbing up the fence for a look at the stock car racing are almost hit by a flying car propelled by Devastator. Cue another fantastic splash page from Simpson, depicting Ironhide and Tracks in pitched battle with the Constructicon gestalt. Smokescreen swerves around Devastator’s legs and sends him off balance and crashing to the floor. It earns the ‘youngster’ a bit of credit from the seasoned old warrior Ironhide.

Brawn’s presence in the stands is causing the crowd to panic even more (hardly surprising as he caused a few motorists to meet a grisly end in the Enemy Within a while back). The sight of Soundwave in the stands is enough to convince Sparkplug that the Decepticon must have found Buster. But as he and Smokescreen zips over there, Ironhide gets pummelled by Devastators huge fist (that school bus squishing technique coming in handy).

Jessie is all that stands between Soundwave and her man. However, when Soundwave scans Buster’s mind he discovers something that cause him to change tactics. After blasting Brawn for sneaking up, Soundwave orders the Constructicons to separate and they retreat calling the incident a mistake on their part. The Autobots are bemused by this and reckon Prime will want to investigate this personally.

Ratchet tricks Sparkplug and Jessie by posing as the ambulance they called. Seriously? The Autobot sign and lack of driver was not a giveaway? As they make their way back to the Ark (as part of an Autobot convoy driving on the left-hand-side – I think Simpson forgot the story was set in the USA and not Britain) Ratchet reassures that whatever is wrong with Buster it’s not something that a hospital could help with, but may be the Autobots can.

At the Decepticon hideout, Shockwave holds his gun arm to poor old Soundwave’s head, intent on executing him for disobeying orders. His number insists he has a good explanation, and he does. His scan of Buster revealed that Matrix had placed in his mind a vision of the future of the Transformer race!

Shock, horror. It’s begs the question of why Soundwave allowed Buster to go back to the Autobots. It’s surely even more important to take him captive so that only the Decepticons can know of the Special Teams? Now, the Autobots will also learn about them and they have got the means (through the Matrix) to build these new warriors. Next issue it’s the big event – the arrival of the new combiner teams.

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Brainstorm!

Shockwave is furious to learn that the Creation Matrix has slipped through his hands and launches an investigation to find out who has it! And Jetfire takes to the sky for the first time in this penultimate instalment of Bob Budiansky’s Matrix saga.

The cover of the US version – I prefer the UK wording: ‘Introducing Jetfire! Fast-furious-and fatal?’

Soundwave has become a real star of the UK Transformers comic, not so much for his story appearances but for his hilarious put-downs (and putt-ups!) as host of the letters page. His comments about neuro-shocking the printers for mistakes is a good example. Unfortunately, the decision to have Soundwave (aka Simon Furman) take over the Transformation page for TFUK#37 is spoiled by yellow text on white – it’s barely legible, oops.

This issue from late November 1985 and the next reprints the US Transformers story ‘Brainstorm’, by Bob Budiansky and with art from the late Herbe Trimpe (who worked on three strips and several covers for Transformers and was the artist on the TF GI Joe spin-off crossover during his years at Marvel).

The story opens with the Autobots’ human friend (and unwitting custodian of the Creation Matrix) Buster Witwicky laying on his bed reading a book titled Advanced Physics (no prizes for guessing what it is about). Metal objects are levitating around him and Buster, an A grade student we’re told, is hoping to find the answer to it in the books. We’re reminded how it started – when he was zapped by Optimus Prime’s head in TFUK #24.

This amazing new ability to manipulate and assemble machines with a single thought, was certainly useful while Buster’s father Sparkplug was convalescing in hospital. It enabled Buster to mend all of the vehicles in his father’s garage despite knowing next to nothing about engines previously. Trouble is, Sparkplug is now convinced his son has developed a sudden interest in auto mechanics. He’s even thinking about renaming the family business to S Witwicky & Son! For now, Buster is playing along to avoid worrying his father, given the older man’s recent heart attack.

At the Blackrock’s assembly plant, which is currently serving as a base for Shockwave’s Decepticons, the human workforce has been reduced to slave labour. They are doing well though, recording an 18.7% increase in productivity (it’s amazing what a bit of menace can do!). Or maybe it’s the food they been receiving? Budiansky’s quirky humour and fondness for human side characters is evident as pizza delivery man ‘Mozzarella Mike’ arrives with food for the hostages. He’s waved through by the army presence surrounding the plant and a one soldier kids that Mike’s peperoni and onion pies have been known to wipe out a platoon.

Shockwave is less happy with Optimus Prime’s efficiency. With the Matrix essence inside Prime’s mind gone, the Decepticons’ latest warrior Jetfire is destined to remain lifeless. Shockwave begins to suspect that Prime has transferred the Matrix somewhere, but where and to whom?

As the Autobots’ acting commander Prowl listens in (courtesy of a bugged phone in the plant) we’re shown the clever way that Shockwave uncovers the truth. He summons Rumble (who had been on guard duty at the Ark) and connects his gun arm to the back of the mini-Decepticon’s head, interfacing directly with his memories. It’s a painful process, but Shockwave has no concern for the comfort of his underling. He identifies movement from the periphery of Rumble’s vision and enhances the image, revealing Buster. Laserbeak squarks to declare that he recognises the human.

Prime took a huge gamble by involving Buster – in many ways it was against his entire code of ethics – and now he realises it hasn’t paid off, as Buster is in supreme danger. Thankfully the Autobots are alive to the situation and Prowl dispatches Bumblebee and the talkative Bluestreak to find them.

At the plant, workers Gabe and Ferdy are grumbling about cold pizza when an eye blast from Laserbeak rapidly warms it (probably scaring the shit out of the two humans). Laserbeak reverts to his cassette mode and is delivered by Mozzarella Mike to the army commander outside. He plays a warning from Shockwave that the army must withdraw, or hostages will be terminated. They have little choice. Laserbeak ejects and easily avoids a hail of bullets from the soldiers.

There’s a welcome return for Jessie, Buster’s girlfriend, who we last saw getting turfed out of the Witwicky garage – along with their friend O – when Buster wanted some time alone to contemplate his problems. She now arrives on a bicycle, having forgiven his jerkish behaviour and looking hotter than ever. It’s good timing as Buster was about to get roped into helping Sparkplug fix up a vehicle they just towed. Instead the young lovers cycle away, a short while before Bumblebee arrives with a cryptic warning for Sparkplug that his son has something the Decepticons want and is a target. Sparkplug gives Bumblebee short shrift but then promptly jumps in his pick-up and heads off, with Bluestreak in tail.

The second part opens with Buster and Jessie cycling towards the falls. He wants to explain why he has been acting strange lately, but Jessie is deliberately avoiding the conversation. Using the power of the Matrix, Buster removes the master link from her bike chain and she soon stops. Both seem genuinely sorry for the argument they had a while back, and as they make up, they are found by Sparkplug. Bumblebee and Bluestreak also arrive, having followed Sparkplug. Bluestreak observed Buster and Jessie sharing a kiss, and in a comical if slightly awkward moment, enquires as to what that the function of the act was! Not for the first time, Bumblebee is forced to tell him to put a sock in it – they have serious business to discuss. High above, Laserbeak is watching – he’s really getting some time in the spotlight this story.

Shockwave has anticipated that the Autobots would seek out Buster. This suggests he’s aware of the listening device that the enemy have been using, even though he doesn’t mention it explicitly. Once again, we see Shockwave’s ability to fire a beam from his lone eye – in this case, using it to program the mindless Jetfire with Buster’s coordinates and order him to transform and recover the target.

Bumblebee encourages Buster to tell his father about the power Optimus Prime has given him, but the youth is reluctant to admit anything. They are attacked by Laserbeak, who after a bit of evasive flying is eventually brought down by Bluestreak – mouth still running away with him.

Jetfire swoops down, easily avoiding a boulder thrown by Bumblebee, and returning fire. BlueStreak’s missile scores a hit but Jetfire feels no pain, convincing Bumblebee that this opponent is not alive. He tells Buster he has the power to control any unliving machine and he agrees. Buster rises and unleashes the Matrix – with Jetfire coming apart spectacularly.

It’s a stunning reveal and well deserving of the full-page treatment that Budiansky and Trimpe give it. You wonder why Prime doesn’t use these Matrix-inspired Jedi powers in battle, though perhaps they don’t work so well against living opponents. After a moment of stunned silence, Buster confesses to his father that does have this ‘Creation Matrix’ the Autobots alluded to, then proceeds to reassemble Jetfire – at Bumblebee’s suggestion – and infuse him with new commands. The Decepticons will hunt Buster so long as he has the Matrix, but perhaps Jetfire can be used to defeat the enemy and rescue the head of Optimus Prime…

In epilogue, the army continue to reinforce come across as woefully inept. One soldier noticed that vehicles travelling with them, that have now peeled off, appeared to be driverless. Despite having skirmishes with robots who have demonstrated the ability to disguise as vehicles, no-one seems to have put two and two together. In fact, it’s Prowl and the Autobots heading to the Decepticon base to try to rescue Optimus. Thanks to the listening device they know that Shockwave has decided that Prime no longer has the Matrix and will be terminated immediately!

In closing, Jetfire is becoming well known to the fans as part of Hasbro’s line of Autobot toys. Having him debut as a Decepticon is a fascinating twist but ultimately, we know he’s destined to join the Autobots. Sparkplug’s frosty attitude towards the Autobots appears to be thawing a little. He knows they are trouble for his family but can also see they are the only ones who can help Buster in his current predicament. And so to the epic conclusion next issue.

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The Next Best Thing to Being There

Creating the Constructions – the comic’s first combiner team makes their debut; the Decepticons attempt to ‘phone home’ and Huffer gets his moment in the spotlight. It’s all in this Bob Budiansky fan favourite from November 1985.

The Next Best Thing To Being There. It was a memorable title for sure, but if you’d asked 11-year-old me from 1985 what it meant I wouldn’t have had a clue. Years later as a married father of three in my mid-40s (who probably should know better than to still be obsessed with Transformers, but hey-ho) I can’t say I’m any the wiser. If it’s about being present at the birth of the Constructicons – the Decepticons’ newest warriors and the first combiner team to grace the pages of a Transformers comic – well we ARE there at the bedside, or factory floor in this case. So, my best guess is it refers in some way to contacting ‘home’ – the next best thing to actually being there. Or maybe I’m overthinking things. One thing I know is that this enigmatic title continues to confound me.

The story occupies issue #10 of the US Transformers comic and issues #35 and #36 of the UK weekly edition. It opens with the eagerly awaited return of Gabe and Ferdy! Who? You ask. Why, the moustached pair of halfwits who carried Soundwave through security and into Blackrock’s aerospace planet some weeks ago. They and their fellow workers have now been reduced to slave labour, but at least they get a ringside seat for a momentous occasion – the first Transformers born on Earth.

Ever since Shockwave took Optimus Prime’s head hostage, he’s been threatening to plunder the Creation Matrix nested in the great Autobot’s mind to create a new generation of Decepticon warriors. Finally, that plot is coming to fruition – six brain modules have been prepared and are finally ready to be fused into robotic bodies. Shockwave’s narrative is an attempt to give it a respectable build-up but it comes off like the nonsensical technobabble we would get used to hearing from Star Trek engineers. Shockwave’s genuine bafflement at how Prime could stay leader of the Autobots for so long, with such a glaring weakness as caring about lesser beings, shows how they really are worlds apart.

Gabe and Ferdy, our baffled human bystanders provide the comedy element (complaining of singed facial hair) in what would otherwise be a Frankenstein moment, as the six purple and green distinctive robotic forms begin to come to life.

As a kid I was super excited for the debut of the Constructicons (even though I initially misread their name as Constructions). We’d glimpsed Longhaul in the previous comic (the next week feature) and I was blown away by this new character with his distinctly different green. Although Budiansky would later bemoan the constant pressure to introduce new characters (a result of Hasbro forever expanding the toy line) he did it very well, and by and large, as a reader, I was always thrilled to see new characters (with the possible exception of the Pretenders, who were just silly).

The Constructicons add another string to the Decepticon bow, as they can build literally anything required. For example the solar weapon in Target 2006 and the defences around the Decepticon coal mine base, both in later issues. Though, after this the team would largely fade into the background in the US stories and it will fall to the UK writers to give them more of a presence.

Who leads the team? We’re never quite sure, but Scavenger steps up to acknowledge Shockwave and receive their orders. He’s my favourite Constructicon based on the toy and his bio, but his motto, “everything is worth something, even me”, suggests a lack of confidence that you expect would preclude him from the team leadership.

Laserbeak paves the way for the Constructicons to depart on their first mission, but firing missiles at the army surrounding the plant. This provides a smoke cover and melts their tanks and machinery. This being a family friendly comic, no humans are killed in the making of that escape, but the military are really being shown up by the Decepticons.

Meanwhile, GB Blackrock gets a guided tour of the Ark from acting Autobot commander Prowl. We’re reminded about the deal agreed last issue by GB and Jazz. He’ll provide the Autobots with fuel in return for Autobot protection of his assets. The quest for a fuel source preoccupied but the Autobots and Decepticons in the early issues, so its good to see this resolved and not forgotten about. GB is awestruck by the Autobots’ advanced technology and his business mind is busy thinking about whether he could use it to gain a competitive edge in his business. He might sound like a bit of a bastard but to be fair he wouldn’t be a billionaire industrialist if he wasn’t someone who spots opportunities.

On learning that Optimus Prime is being held prisoner in the aerospace plant, Blackrock mentions that he bugged all the phones (to spy on his employees if he needs to – nice). That gives the Autobots an opportunity to listen in to Decepticon plans.

With Bumblebee spying on the plant, the Autobots are aware of the Constructicons departure and Prowl dispatches a group to intercept (including Huffer who could use some action to take his mind off things).

We’re then introduced to another of the oft-annoying human guest stars who Budiansky would introduce throughout his run. They’ll often provide some comedy relief or hold up a mirror to the Transformers alien natures. Bomber Bill – driver of a large red truck he calls Bessie – looks like a bearded Hell’s Angel but he’s actually a big softy who delights in showing the waitress at a diner, the photos of his kids he carries in his wallet.

We also meet Shockwave’s next project – Jetfire. This enormous jet is still in production but will shortly be ready to be infused with life. Of course, Prime no longer has the Matrix and thus he knows his usefulness will soon be at an end – but denying Shockwave the Matrix is as worthy a victory he thinks. Sparkplug Witwicky is finally home from hospital and pleasantly surprised to discover his son, Buster, has been able to repair all the cars in the garage. Readers know the truth, that its thanks to Buster now possessing Matrix superpowers.

Another Robot War recap preludes the second half of the story. As well as being an enjoyable read, it is probably useful and necessary to bring the comic’s newer readers up to date. Interestingly, there would only be three of these features with the final one appearing in issue #63.

In the first part we were introduced to Bomber Bill and his longing to go home, which echoed Huffer’s earlier sentiments. The two are clearly destined to cross paths and it is the Constructicons who provide the catalyst. Bill feels the diner shake as the Decepticon team scoops up vehicles and the roof of the diner itself, to be used as raw materials.

Everyone flees but Bomber Bill pursues on foot (his beloved six-wheeler Bessie having been stolen too). He flags down Huffer and, as always happens when someone meets an Autobot, is shocked to find nobody driving. Nel Yomtov has made a mess of colouring the Autobot convoy. Ironhide is coloured as Ratchet, Bluestreak (leading the mission) is depicted in Jazz’s colours and thereafter coloured to look like Prowl. Later Ironhide is coloured green and purple, which really smacks of someone not paying attention.

Unbeknown to readers, Soundwave has tagged along with the Constructicons. As they pull up alongside an enormous satellite dish, he transforms, erects a disruptive field and sets the Constructicons to work to enhance and amplify the equipment, before plugging himself in. The plan is to transmit a message to Cybertron!

The Autobots arrive and Soundwave insists the scrambler must be defended – he gives the order for the Constructicons to combine. Six Decepticons merge to become one ‘terrifying titan’ – Devastator! Normally this would have been a huge, exciting twist, but readers will have known what was coming thanks to the cover, but it’s cool nevertheless. The combination sequence feels a bit wasted though, having been covered in a single panel. We soon learn that for all of his size and power, Devastator is slow and clunky (the fusing of six minds is clearly an imperfect science) and as such he struggles to respond to Soundwave’s instructions.

Huffer has a perfect opportunity to unplug Soundwave before he can send the transmission, but not wanting to lose an opportunity to re-establish contact with Cybertron, he hesitates. When he hears Ironhide’s warning that the Decepticons will be able to bring an army to Earth, he tries to act but by then it’s too late. Huffer is downed by Devastator, Bomber Bill, having found his truck, drives it at Soundwave, and Huffer returns the favour by saving him. Their message sent, Soundwave and the Constructions depart rather than continue a fight they’ve already won.

Huffer asks the forgiveness of his comrades and gets some reassurance from his new pal Bomber Bill. The difference is that Bill can now go home but Huffer can’t.

Back at the aerospace plant, the Autobot eavesdropping device is functioning and Prowl overhears Shockwave bemoaning Prime’s failure to breathe life into Jetfire – if he no longer has the Matrix then there is no longer a logical reason to keep him alive. Suspense is building for the finale of this saga in four issues time.

In summary, it’s respectable enough debut for the Constructicons. We may not have a sense of them as individual personalities yet, but if the purpose was to showcase a new toy line and get kids excited enough to buy them then it will have achieved its purpose. Of course, sadly the toys will not be available in the UK. Devastator proved somewhat inept in battle due to his slowness – a case of brawn not brains.

Soundwave (coloured purple throughout) succeeds in sending a message to Cybertron which will have consequences in later issues. Re-establishing contact with Cybertron will also provide a means for Budiansky to introduce new characters without the need for gimmicks.

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The New Order

There’s nothing quite so nostalgic as revisiting your first Transformers issue – and in my case it was TFUK #23. It was August 1985 and I’d been getting into TF in a big way thanks to the Sunbow cartoon series which was airing as part of the school holiday kids programmes. Aged 11, my routine at the time was to accompany my mum food shopping on a Tuesday and spend the afternoon at my gran’s. On this occasion I wandered along to her local shop and spotted issue #23 on the shelf.

I was immediately struck by the cover – Buster surrounded by dead Autobots (and a couple of erroneously inserted Decepticons) and his immortal line “the Autobots strung up like slabs of beef… but where’s Optimus?”. Where indeed? On eagerly reading the story and discovering Prime’s fate (more on that shortly) I was both dumbstruck and blown away. The comic was darker and serious than the cartoon and had done something I totally didn’t expect, by having the Decepticons seemingly win the Transformers civil war! Chief Medical Officer Ratchet and 17-year-old Buster was the Autobots’ last hope against the powerful Decepticon army – a real David v Golliath contest! How could I not pick up the subsequent issues to see how this played out?

So, first a bit of context. Transformers was initially envisaged as a four issue, bi-monthly mini-series in the States. Marvel were obviously content with the sales as they gave a green light for the title to continue as a monthly ongoing concern, starting at #5. Bob Budiansky, the comic’s editor took over the writing cudgels for an incredible 50 more issues. So, in a sense, the story’s title, The New Order represented more than just the events in the comic strip. It was mirrored in real life too.

In the UK we’d been left on tenterhooks for seven months, waiting to find out what would happen next after Shockwave showed up and blasted the Autobots, decisively ending the war and leaving himself the last Transformer standing!

The UK comic has received an overhaul for issue #22 and now carries an introductory page called Transformation and a new letters page hosted by Soundwave. We’re also given some major hints about the impending debut (or should that be return) of The Dinobots!

The cover for TFUK#22 (which is reprint of TFUS#5) is utterly iconic. It features the victorious Shockwave, gun arm smouldering and the words The Transformers Are All Dead burned into the wall. Need I say more? It sets the scene nicely for the story, which begins with the coldly logical Shockwave studying human TV and media and concluding that Earth’s dominant species are “more primitive” than he thought. The UK version of the opening page has a scene from the sci-fi series V (where Mike Donavan learns that Earth’s visitors are really reptiles with sinister intentions!). One news item is about a state-of-the-art oil drilling platform owned by GB Blackrock. This piques Shockwave’s interest.

He strolls through a large room to where a number of Decepticons are undergoing repairs, passing through a chamber with the Autobots are hanging from the ceiling like meat. It’s another chillingly iconic image (courtesy of artist Alan Kupperberg) that illustrates how bad the situation is for the heroic forces. We then find Megatron manacled to a wall, healing from the terrible internal injuries he sustained from Sparkplug’s poisonous fuel.

Although Megatron thinks he can resume command of the Decepticons, Shockwave has other ideas. His logical mind reasons that Megatron’s leadership is faulty – it almost led to the total defeat of the Decpticons and worse still, he had been tricked by a lowly human! The logical conclusion is that new leadership is called for, and Shockwave will provide it! Poor Megatron, he’s furious but too weak to do anything about it. He will have to accept the humiliation for now. However, to prove his point Shockwave executes a deactivated Autobot with his gun arm (though the colouring is all wrong, it’s generally thought that this unlucky bot is Sunstreaker – who is too damaged to be fixed for a long time).

The story continues in TFUK#23. It’s time to head over to the hospital where Sparkplug Witwicky is recovering from a mild heart attack. Here, Ratchet is returning from being abducted by paramedics who thought he was a regular ambulance. At this point Ratchet is blissfully unaware of events at the Ark or that he is now the last Autobot standing!

Buster tells him about the corrosive fuel. Ratchet is delighted but finds it odd that he’s unable to raise anyone at HQ via internal radio. Buster’s offer to accompany Ratchet so as to avoid a driverless ambulance raising suspicion sounds sensible. Then again it would also look pretty suss having a teenager at the wheel of an ambulance.

In a display of the light and shade that alternates throughout the story, we get comical moments where Ratchet scares the bejesus out the hospital staff by revealing himself as a talking ambulance – and later when he’s reasoning with a traffic light. We also get Sparkplug issuing a heartfelt appeal to Buster to say his goodbyes and walk away from the Autobots and the Transformer war is too dangerous to be involved in.

Back at the Ark, Megatron tries unsuccessfully to tease details from Shockwave as to where he’s been for the past four million years. His defensiveness tells Megatron that there could be something here that he can use against Shockwave when the time comes. The new commander is happy to reveal his current plans, however. He thinks 11 Decepticons are insufficient to conquer Earth and its resources, so he will tap into the mysterious Creation Matrix that is housed in the mind of Optimus Prime, and use it to create a new generation of Decepticon warriors. The Autobots are to serve as a supply of spare parts!

Ratchet and Buster park up a distance from the Ark and find Rumble and Frenzy standing guard. Ratchet will not be able to sneak past undetected but Buster can. The youth discovers the shocking fate of the Autobots but Prime is not among them – surely he survived? Moments later Buster finds the Autobot leader’s dismembered head. It speaks and pleads for help… Buster is the Autobots’ last hope!

In summary, the story has been a long time coming but, wow, it’s certainly been worth the wait. I can think of no time before or after when things have been quite so bleak for the Autobots – their fate literally lies in the hands of a teenage boy and an Autobot who is not even a warrior. How can they succeed against impossible odds? It’s a great set up for a story and even though the Autobots are removed the picture (with the obvious exception of Ratchet) there’s no loss of tension that the simmering situation between Megatron and the usurper Shockwave.

A Robot War feature in TFUK#22 updates readers on the story so far and explains how the recent UK prequels fit into the current timeline.

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The Last Stand

The conclusion of the original four issue mini-series sees things looking bleak for the heroic forces. Their mortal enemies the Decepticons are refuelled and poised to deliver a fatal blow. It will fall to five champions to mount the “Autobots’ Last Stand”.

That iconic Last Stand cover

This story was published in November/December 1984 in the UK well ahead of its March release in the US (the latter being a bi-monthly title at this stage but relaunching as a monthly from issue #5). After a slow start the action really picked up with last issue’s Spider-Man guest appearance (surprisingly good fun) and things get series in this instalment as we head to one of Transformers’ most shocking endings.

Previously, Gears regained consciousness – having nearly died rescuing Sparkplug from the Decepticon base – only to shock the Autobots by revealing that Megatron had ‘got what he wanted from the human’. In other words, Sparkplug had betrayed them by assisting the enemy to convert Earth fuels for their consumption. The flagging and under-powered Autobots now face the prospect of annihilation at the hands of an enemy at full strength.

What’s fascinating is how emotionally the Autobots respond to the news, albeit they are tired, battle-weary and dejected at this point, but there’s no machine-like detachment or cool assessment. Huffer leads the charge, branding Sparkplug a traitor to the cause and hints at retribution. Bluestreak is ready to abandon the Earth to the Decepticons, and willing to publicly disagree with Optimus Prime. The idea that humans are innocent in this war and must be protected, with Autobot lives if necessary, is Prime’s mantra but it seems that some in his ranks have major reservations.

The sensible course of action at this point would be to park the ill-feeling and set Sparkplug to work replicating his fuel conversion process before the inevitable Decepticon attack comes. But as ever, fate is no friend of the Autobots, and Sparkplug collapses with a suspected heart attack while fleeing the ‘ugly’ mood in the Ark (not at all helped by the shock of being met with a wall of flame, erected by Jazz).

Ratchet reverts to ambulance mode and whisks Sparkplug away to a hospital, accompanied by Buster. Prime hopes the human ‘can be repaired’, which is a nice reminder that Transformers still find organic life very alien.

We see Buster’s pal ‘O’ for the penultimate time before the writers give up on him altogether. His bar-owning father has got hold of an Optimus Prime suit to drum-up trade (some manufacturer obviously sees the alien invasion as a business opportunity!) and the interlude is a reminder of the impact of the Transformers’ arrival on the wider population. People are worried and starting to leave town. A fully re-powered Megatron amps up the tension by stepping out for his HQ to absorb a barrage of firepower from the US army. He laughs it off and strolls back inside, undamaged. Whilst a devastating demonstration of his strength, it’s hard to imagine a more sensible or calculating leader like Shockwave or Soundwave acting this recklessly – i.e. risking damage ahead of an impending major battle with the Autobots.

If readers had been wondering how the Decepticons repair their injured, we get to see the answer. It turns out they have a team of robot medics attending to the task (Reflector?). They’ve never been seen before and will disappear again hereafter, but not before Starscream adds himself to their damage list by overstepping the line and criticising Megatron for allowing Sparkplug to escape. He feels the fury of Megatron’s fusion cannon, but as usual he had a point and Megatron dispatches the loyal Ravage to spy on the Autobot base and report back.

Seeds are laid here for the continuation of the Transformers US comic beyond the initial four issue run. Optimus is informed of an incident from the Ark’s memory banks. Shortly after the ship crash-landed on Earth, with all aboard rendered unconscious, the Decepticon Shockwave showed up in Antarctica searching for his missing comrades. He touched down in a pocket of preserved prehistoric jungle, known to Marvel readers as the Savage Land. The Ark’s used rebuilt five Autobots and invested them with dinosaur alt modes; they were of course the Dinobots: Snarl, Grimlock, Swoop, Sludge and Slag. The team confronted Shockwave in the Savage Land but what happened next is unknown. Ratchet had earlier dispatched probe to investigate. Even from this glimpse its apparent that the Dinobots are exciting characters and this bodes well for future stories.

Some may wonder why Prime had not set his best scientific minds, like Wheeljack, to the existential task of developing a fuel conversion. Instead they relied on a car mechanic, and with Sparkplug now in hospital fighting for life it’s time for a plan B; and what an exciting development it is. Every Autobot (with the exception of absent Ratchet) transfers their remaining fuel to champions and are rendered inoperative. It falls to Optimus Prime, Huffer, Bluestreak, Ironhide and Mirage to make a final stand against the combined might of the Decepticon army! What an exciting conclusion to the mini-series in prospect, and as we will see, the writers still have a couple of twists up their sleeves.

Mirage’s inclusion in the line-up is suspect. All the evidence to date is that he is weak in battle and with a questionable commitment to the Autobot cause. It may be for his ability to generate illusions and deceive the enemy, which he deploys to good effect against Laserbeak and Buzzsaw. Retreating into the Ark (surely unforgivable when others have given their fuel for you to fight) Mirage has another encounter with Ravage and his attempt to appeal to his opponent’s better nature results in the loss of an arm. Finally Mirage wises up, picks up his gun and blasts Ravage – better late than never!

Megatron and Prime face off. During their earlier battle in the Witwickly junk yard, Optimus was able to absorb a blast from Megatron’s fusion cannon at short range – this time a blast from the weapon is enough to sever or mangle the Autobot leader’s right arm.

Elsewhere Sparkplug is in a dream state, remembering the trauma of his time as a North Korean prisoner of war, of 30 years earlier. He survived thanks to his talent for repairing vehicles, which the enemy found useful. However Sparkplug had sabotaged their fuel and brakes, before being rescued, and it appears that history is about to repeat itself. Sure enough, as Megatron holds Prime aloft declares victory, the Decepticons fall in agony as their poisoned fuel takes affect at the most opportune moment.

Amazingly, against all odds the Autobots have prevailed… or have they. In The Complete Works Part 2 reprint, the story ended here, on a happy note. However, the official canon has is one more twist in store. The probe dispatched to the Savage Land inadvertently reactivated Shockwave, who now arrives in his giant space-gun mode and blasts the weakened Autobots into unconsciousness! Transforming to robot mode, he reflects that after four million years his mission is complete… the Autobots are no more!

The shocking ending of the first Transformers mini-series is sure to have produced a gasp!

In summary, what a fantastic issue. It’s a brave move by the team to conclude the series on such a cliff-hanger but it’s a great way to ensure the readers come back for the launch of the monthly comic, starting from April 1985. Of course in the UK readers would be waiting SEVEN months to find out what happened next! They would have to come up with 18 issues of original stories and somehow fit these into the established story.

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Prisoner of War

The Decepticons have made Sparkplug Witwicky their ‘Prisoner of War’ and put him to work converting earth fuels for their consumption. Rescue comes in the unlikely form of the lesser-seen character Gears… and the Amazing Spider-Man himself!

Generally, I’m not a fan of crossovers. They usually stretch the realms of credibility (even for comics) and feel super contrived. All too often they fail to match up to the hype, for example the 2007 Avengers vs Transformers, though GI Joe and the Transformers arguably had some success in marrying their two properties. While Prisoner of War and the Last Stand (which features the Savage Land) establishes The Transformers as part of the Marvel universe, the two will shortly diverge and remain separate for the rest of the comic’s seven year run.

On paper there’s no reason that Spider-Man and the Transformers should make comfortable bedfellows but incredibly it works! In fact, this is one of my favourite stories from the early years. It has humour, much improved art – Frank Springer is hitting his stride and now drawing the bots more like their cartoon forms rather than the toys – and the action is fast paced and exciting. Fans of Spider-man will not be disappointed and may also be encouraged to continue picking up The Transformers, which is of course the publisher’s intention. Marvel is pulling out the big guns in the form of their most prominent superhero to give the TF comic a big boost at this point.

The action picks up where the previous story left off, with Starscream having abducted Sparkplug in the midst of a battle with the Autobots in the Witwicky auto yard. The humour rolls from the start with Sparkplug protesting to be let out and Starscream pointing out that at the altitude they are travelling at this be most unwise! They arrive at the Fortress Sinister, which has been constructed in super quick time by the Decepticons from machinery they salvaged from the Harrison Nuclear Plant only the previous issue.

Sparkplug is informed by Megatron that he will make fuel for their cause or die. He realises that, for all of their advanced technology, the Decepticons are out of their element when it comes to adapting to a more primitive world such as Earth. Cue another laugh-out-loud moment where Sparkplug, having rattled off his rank like when he was previously a Korean prisoner of war, is hoist upside down by an impatient Megatron!

As before Starscream’s actions are shown to be highly political. He exploits his role in capturing the human as a showcase for his suitability to command. Megatron praises him but thought bubbles reveal he is biding his time to deal with this would-be assassin. In fact that reckoning will come, but only for UK audiences in Simon Furman’s debut story for
The Autobots are really on the backfoot at this point. After their exertions in battle they are dangerously low on fuel and can barely make the return journey to the Ark (sending a motorcycle traffic careering off the road with the ‘there’s no-one driving’ recurring gag). Prime orders that several Autobots including himself are refuelled, including Gears, who will feature prominently in the rest of the story.

Laserbeak’s shows off his precision eye beams to put the heat on Sparkplug, who agrees to cooperate. Obtaining a lab and a gasoline source is a small matter for the Decepticons, who demonstrate that they have the size, ability and power to take literally anything they want.
The US army massing outside the Fortress Sinister is the response you would expect if alien robots showed up on Earth, so it is a little strange how everyone is content to leave the building alone once its abandoned in subsequent issues. Naturally word of alien arrival is a major media story too and this provides an opportunity Spider-Man’s alter-ego, press photographer Peter Parker to be dispatched to the scene.

Unsurprisingly the military is no match for a Decepticon aerial onslaught and are soon driven back. Gears, now refuelled, arrives to observe and, after transforming to robot mode, is tackled by Spider-Man. He proves his good intentions by catching a tank that has been propelled in the direction of a group of humans by Skywarp. Again, we’re treated to a fun skirmish between the Autobots and Decepticon troops, with Sunstreaker taking out Skywarp with a missile, and Brawn punching out Rumble before succumbing to Frenzy’s sonic power.

The eye-catching cover to Transformers US issue #3 featuring Spidey
The eye-catching cover to Transformers US issue #3 featuring Spidey

The cantankerous Gears and wise-cracking Spider-Man form an unlikely double act. They really rub off well as they maraud their way through the Decepticon HQ dispatching a series of foes with lively humour throughout. This issue is a great platform for Gears, though sadly he would be destined to fade into the background again under successive writers. The cover of the US edition features Megatron being webbed by Spider-Man. This actually happens (it’s always good when covers depict actual events in the story rather than an exaggeration) as Spidey and Gears infiltrate Megatron’s command centre. Of course, the webbing is insufficient to bind the mighty Decepticon leader. He promptly and blasts a hole in the floor to dispatch the intruders. Spider-Man catches Sparkplug with a line of webbing, but the heavier Gears falls seemingly to his doom!

Later, Gears recovers under Ratchet’s auspices just long enough to deliver the devastating news that Megatron ‘got what he wanted’ from Sparkplug. Awkward. It’s another great cliff hanger that ramps up the tension with Autobots now majorly disadvantaged in this war.

A couple of other things of note: Ratchet’s mention of a discovery in the Ark’s memory banks will prove majorly significant in the next issue, and Prime, interestingly, doesn’t feature much at all in this issue. Though early in the series the writers are already confident enough to put more minor characters like Gears forward, or perhaps it was easier with Spider-Man providing the big name draw. This story will be the first and only time a Marvel hero or villain appears in Transformers. From here on the super-powered guest stars will be home grown, in the form of Circuit Breaker, the Neo Knights and The Mechanic.

TF UK #6 has a Megatron fact file and a feature on Sieve Head, a robot from Saturday Superstore (a kids TV show of the era). A reader writes in to demand a Transformers annual and is told that one is in the pipeline for 1985 – a sign perhaps that even at this early stage Marvel UK had realised it had a long-term success on its hands.

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